Log in

Reviews: May 13

13 May, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews


Street 5/22
BV/Touchstone, Drama, B.O. $50.9 million, $29.99 DVD, ‘R' for sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images.
Stars Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernández, Morris Birdyellowhead, Raoul Trujillo.

Whatever demons plague Mel Gibson, his skill behind the camera is undeniable. Perhaps his demons fuel this talent, which tends to lean toward the extreme. But even he is not completely immune to the intensity of his work, judging by a commentary in which finds himself grossed out by some of his visceral creations.

Apocalypto is brutal, violent, bloody and unrelenting, yet its story is readily accessible. It is about the foibles of mankind, and the fall of a civilization.

The focus is on Jaguar Paw, a young Mayan hunter whose tribe is decimated by a rival tribe. The women are sold into slavery, and the men are marked for sacrifice to the gods. Jaguar Paw will do anything to escape, having hidden his pregnant wife and son in a nearby cave before the attack.

The movie's power is in its authenticity. At least, it seems authentic, and Gibson knew the weight of the film rested on his ability to achieve such realism. As with The Passion of the Christ, the characters speak what would have been their native language. The subtitles provide translations to modern colloquial English, enhancing the universality of the themes.

It's also a beautiful film to look at, lush in rich green forests, clear rivers, ornate costumes and monuments of stone.

The historical accuracy of the film is debatable, but the message is what matters, and Gibson pulls it off. He presents an amalgam of Mayan history, a culture turning on itself just as a stronger European force arrives to claim their land. John Latchem

The Siege: Martial Law Edition
Street 5/15
Fox, Drama, $19.98 DVD, ‘R' for violence, language and brief nudity.
Stars Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Bruce Willis, Tony Shalhoub.

In distinguishing the roles of the military and the police, a wise military commander once said the military fights the enemies of the state, while the police serve and protect the people. When the military does both, the people begin to look like the enemy.

Edward Zwick's The Siege brings these distinctions to the forefront, dramatizing a decision to place New York City under martial law following a series of terror attacks by Islamic militants.

It's only a rather average thriller, and many critics considered it outlandish when it premiered in 1998. But it's bolstered by its subtext and themes, and subsequent changes in the global political landscape have made the film all the more relevant today. Frankly, I'm surprised The Siege didn't get more press attention in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but this new DVD version is timely and appropriate.

Zwick's intent in making this film, he explains in a new commentary and a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes, was to explore the notion of blowback — that America's foreign policy would foster resentment and inspire attacks on our own soil.

What the film did not imagine, Zwick points out, was the possibility of a single immense attack, as occurred at the World Trade Center. Because 9/11 was so big, but unsustained, we never reached the point of desperation as depicted in The Siege, in which Muslims are isolated in fenced camps as a response to the repeated attacks.

The Siege did, however, presage the kind of interagency rivalries between the FBI, CIA and local police that spurred the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Many of these plot points are regular fodder for shows like “24.”

In another retrospective, a retired Army officer refers to The Siege as a “constitutional thriller,” depicting a fictionalized debate over the need to balance civil rights and security, and the film should be seen if only to foster these kinds of discussions. John Latchem

American Pastime
Street 5/22
Warner, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Gary Cole, Aaron Yoo, Leonardo Nam, Masatoshi Nakamura, Sarah Drew, Jon Gries.

Essayist and culture critic Gerald Early notes that two enduring legacies of American tradition are baseball and jazz. Both play key roles in American Pastime, a compelling slice of a dark chapter in our history — the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

WWII may have ended the prospects of several Japanese players ready to join Major League Baseball, and only now are we starting to see significant numbers of Asian players in the big leagues.

Young Lyle (Yoo) must abandon his baseball scholarship when his family is sent to the Topaz camp in Utah, where his father (Nakamura) decides to form a baseball league to cope with the situation.

Lyle, feeling betrayed by the American Dream, rejects the league in favor of his saxophone, and turns his attentions toward the daughter (Drew) of the camp's head guard, Billy (Cole).

Billy plays in a local semi-pro league and has hopes that, with most professional baseball players off fighting the war, he will be called up to the Yankees as a replacement player. He also adamantly opposes the idea of his daughter dating a Japanese boy.

Billy's attitude is typical of the day, when our government was more than willing to send the Japanese to fight while insisting that upon their homecoming they return to the camps, regardless of the sacrifices made to prove their loyalty. Ironically, no soldiers of a particular ethnic group were honored during WWII more than Japanese-Americans.

While internment was ostensibly based on nationality, it also provided a convenient excuse to unleash a barrage of latent racism. Lyle's brother, Lane (Nam), for example, suffers a cruel rebuke upon his return from the war, when a local barber refuses to cut his hair.

The conflict inevitably leads to Lyle siding with the Topaz baseball team against Billy's team in a final game.

Meanwhile, former Major Leaguer John Kruk continues his quest to appear in every baseball movie this year, following up a cameo in The Sandlot: Heading Home with a hilarious turn as an ignorant baseball announcer whose offhand comments would make Don Imus blush.

Warner is staging a huge promotional push for this terrific little film through Asian-American organizations and film festivals, but it really should be seen by a wider audience. John Latchem

Red Mercury
Street 6/5
MTI, Thriller, $24.95 DVD, ‘R.'
Stars Stockard Channing, Ron Silver, Peter Postlethwaite, Juliet Stevenson, David Bradley.

When three Islamic terrorists planning an attack in London have their cover blown, they flee to the streets and end up in a Greek restaurant and a Dog Day Afternoon scenario. Government officials hope to keep a lid on the situation, but the terrorists are armed with more than the “mojo” — the red mercury of the title — they plan to use for a dirty bomb, and they have 10 hostages.

It's clear the assailants are not prepared for a hostage situation or killing face to face. Their mission is to deliver a bomb that would spare them interaction with their victims.

The tension and drama of the story play out more through the relationships built between the hostages and kidnappers over several days than the looming threat of the bomb itself. Empathy for the hostages and investigations into the terrorists' backgrounds reveal their humanity and how their political convictions twist them to violence.

As an audience we become more sympathetic to the kidnappers, in over their heads but not as bloodthirsty as their affiliation suggests. They are everymen who feel powerless until the jihad gives them a cause. Hope for a peaceful resolution turns on connecting with them.

The outcome is unlikely for a hostage situation, but it's apparent that's not really the point.

This isn't an action movie. It's a cerebral suspense film that uses the domestic consequences of Middle East conflict to illustrate what we all have in common and suggest that anyone could be driven to madness in similar circumstances. It's also a treatise against the politics and business of violence.

BBC America has made Americans more familiar with British programming and has a following. Fans of shows like “MI-5” will be pleased with this thriller, and American audiences will appreciate the familiar and solid talent of Channing, Postlethwaite and Silver. — Holly J. Wagner

Big Nothing
Prebook 5/15; Street 6/19First Look, Comedy, $24.98 DVD, NR.Stars David Schwimmer, Simon Pegg, Mimi Rogers, Natascha McElhone, Alice Eve.

The dark comedy Big Nothing is a textbook example of how to assemble a number of disparate elements to create an effective, amusing and sometimes disturbing film, while keeping extraneous distractions to a minimum.

Part Clue, part The Usual Suspects, the film begins with the booksmart Charlie Wood (Schwimmer), struggling to find work after losing his teaching job. He is slowly losing his long-term memory, and to stave off his condition he has taken to spouting factoids like a reject from Rain Man.

He takes a job at a tech-support hotline, where he meets Gus (Pegg), who brings him in on a plan to blackmail a preacher who peruses kiddie-porn Web sites. They are joined by a barfly named Josie (Eve), who overhears them plotting.

That the plan will be botched is a given. The trio find themselves butting against a rival plot by the preacher's wife and her lover, and things degenerate from there.

Charlie, Gus and Josie's slow descent after botching the plan is a masterstroke of pacing by writer-director Jean-Baptiste Andrea, who peels back layers of intrigue to let us in on a much bigger picture than Charlie is able to fathom.

Schwimmer doesn't stray too far from his “Friends” persona, embodying Charlie with a balance of neurosis and apathy and is perfect for the character's arc.

Big Nothing may seem hokey or over-the-top in spots, but once we sort out the cons and the players, the movie delivers a satisfying ending with a neat little bow — nothing more, nothing less. John Latchem

Jesus: The Great Debate
Street 5/22
Questar, Documentary, $19.99 DVD, NR.
Hosted by Dr. Grant R. Jeffrey.

As a documentary, Jesus: The Great Debate plays like a two-hour special you might find Sunday morning on TV. It begins with the premise that Jesus was the messiah of Old Testament prophecy, and sets off to show how science cannot fully knock down that belief.

The film should play well to a strong Christian base, almost like a response to the secular and controversial Lost Tomb of Jesus.

Interspersed with dry interviews from scholars on both sides of the debate are dramatic re-creations of passages from scripture, used to illustrate how events may have transpired 2,000 years ago.

The special pays lip service to skeptics who doubt the traditional notion of the divine Jesus, mostly as a means to frame its own arguments in favor of the issue.

Much of the final third of the documentary is devoted to analyzing the famed Shroud of Turin, the burial cloth that purportedly bears the image of Jesus. The bulk of the speakers conclude the shroud is authentic, and the image may have been burned into the fabric by the radiation energy associated with Christ's resurrection. Even assuming the image to be burned and not painted, there are other theories for the creation of the image not discussed, but which are readily available online.

It still boils down to the fact that the only real accounts of Jesus' life and death exist in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the veracity of which remains a matter of faith.

Hokiness aside, Jesus: The Great Debate does offer some interesting insights into the historical context of the conception of Jesus we have today. The DVD also has a 25-minute featurette about the history and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls. John Latchem

Quick Take: ‘Tomb' Raider

The James Cameron-produced Discovery Channel special The Lost Tomb of Jesus certainly raised its fair share of eyebrows over its scholarly claims (or lack thereof, according to some).

Jumping onto the Da Vinci Code bandwagon, director Simcha Jacobovici's extended director's cut, now on DVD from Koch Vision, is certainly a deliberative investigation. Like a modern Indiana Jones, Jacobovici tours Israel in search of clues that could connect an ancient tomb to the messiah of the Christian faith. It's mostly just talk, with lengthy passages of statistical analysis and language experts testifying the tomb's occupants do indeed have the same names as certain Biblical figures.

It's a nice diversion for the curious, but is more likely to turn heads than change minds. John Latchem

Dinosaur Jr. — Live In the Middle East
Street 5/29
Image, Music, $19.99 DVD, NR.

Despite overexposed footage and sonic sloppiness, tight camera angles and an intense musical performance lend Live in the Middle East an intimate indie appeal.

On many levels, this is precisely what fans of seminal indie rock band Dinosaur Jr. expect from a live performance, and in capturing it, the DVD manages to preserve something of the band's essential character.

Still, the production is a rather uninspired affair, at least from a cinematic and sound-engineering perspective. The levels are extremely muddy, with the bass and the vocals buried to virtual anonymity beneath the screaming guitar and cacophonous drums.

Frontman guitarist J Mascis' playing — the focal point of the band — nonetheless comes through clear and bright, showing characteristic flashes of virtuosity and brilliance. Even the frequent interruptions of poor editing and blurry focus seem meaningless beneath his biting tones and surging riffs.

Fans will likely overlook these flaws, singing along regardless of whether they can make out the vocals.

The disc provides a rather meager selection of special features, but they are at least well chosen. Short interviews with the band and other well-known indie rockers add a touch of legend and history to the performance, giving newcomers some insight into the band's widespread influence and popularity — however briefly the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. lasted. — J.R. Wick

Escape to Canada
Street 5/22Disinformation, Documentary, $19.98 DVD, NR.

If your image of Canada involves a “South Park” parody of Mounties, mooses and funny accents, you might find Escape to Canada illuminating. Apparently, it's the land of free love and cheap pot.

Albert Nerenberg's documentary focuses on 2003, a year when the Supreme Court of Canada voted on the decriminalization of cultivation and possession of marijuana, and on the legalization of gay marriage. Decriminalization of marijuana didn't pass, but legalization of gay marriage did.

Interviews with Canadian citizens show most aren't sure if pot is legal or not. Police tolerate both smoking on the streets, and, for the most part, establishments that either sell pot or encourage patrons to bring their own (so-called “bring your own bud” caf?s).

But the film also shows drug busts by Canadian officials, as well as what appears to be a largely negative reception of such action by those who prefer the caf?s to dangerous drug dealers on the streets.

The film isn't entirely clear on Canada's position on pot. It's more concerned with the stories of users and those who flee from the United States for asylum from drug charges. The included extended interviews with such advocates as Tommy Chong, surprisingly, more concisely make the film's pro-legalization stance than does the film.The film's discussion on gay marriage compares footage of Canadian gay marriage ceremonies, which come off as sincere and affecting, with the rhetoric of U.S. evangelists, who sound as if they are in favor of hate crimes against gays and lesbians. Obviously, such comparisons are stacked on one side, but the arguments by gay-rights activists are well stated.

I would like to have seen more on Canada's refusal to join in the Iraq War, and a better discussion of the issues at hand could have cut some of the redundancy on the issues of gay marriage and marijuana. The stories of U.S. army refugees in Canada are some of the most fascinating in the film.

What emerges is a series of entertaining case studies, rather than a particularly well-rounded documentary. Better narration and background music that doesn't sound like porn could have helped the film's legitimacy. Billy Gil

Go Potty Go!
Street 5/15
Big Kids, Childrens, $14.95 DVD, NR.

They sure can pack a lot into a 16-minute video these days. Or maybe it just seems longer. Mazzarella Media's new Go Potty Go! DVD is designed to familiarize tiny toddlers with the essentials of understanding what it means to use a toilet.

Potty training is really a process of potty learning, as young boys and girls teach themselves to recognize the signals that tell them it's time to use the bathroom. This DVD should help in creating a comfortable atmosphere for parents trying to help their children learn these basics.

The program stars two animated baby pandas who sing songs about what kids should do when they use the toilet, and how different animals go to the bathroom. Half of the message seems aimed at embarrassing little kids into not acting like babies. There are a lot of pictures of toddlers excited about ridding themselves of those burdensome diapers (unlike some former NASA astronauts).

There are lessons about wearing big-kid underpants, using a potty chair and washing up afterwards. The idea is for the songs to be catchy enough so when kids watch the DVD again and again they learn the fundamentals of using the potty. The music videos are also presented as isolated bonus features.

The DVD is probably an effective tool, but don't blame me when your kids start singing “Go Potty Go!” during that long car trip. — Casey LoDuca

Add Comment