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Reviews: May 6

6 May, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews


Deadwood: The Complete Third Season


Deadwood: The Complete Third Season
Prebook 5/8; Street 6/12
HBO Video, Western, $99.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Molly Parker, Jim Beaver, Kim Dickens, Brad Dourif, Jeffrey Jones, Paula Malcomson, Leon Rippy, William Sanderson, Robin Weigert, Powers Boothe, Brian Cox, Gerald McRaney.

This third chapter of creator David Milch's gritty Western drama may be even darker than the first two seasons, if such a thing is possible with this show.

“Deadwood” always has been about more than just a mining camp in the Dakota Territory in the 1870s. Beyond its fascinating character dynamics and exquisitely poetic use of obscenity, the show serves as a perfect metaphor for the rise of a civilization from chaos. In the first season, the camp was lawless and raw — a state of nature in which every man was out for himself. The second season brought traces of legitimacy to the camp as its denizens moved to protect their property and stave off outside authority.

Having formed a town council, the residents are preparing for elections. In these final 12 episodes, they also must deal with an outside threat, the mogul George Hearst (McRaney), who will stop at nothing to obtain the rights to the lucrative gold fields controlled by the camp's most prominent members.

The result is a vile test of wills, the unintended consequences of the “benefits” of civilized life. The free-for-all of the first season almost seems pure by comparison.

It's a shame HBO decided not to continue “Deadwood” in its 12-episode-arc format. There are reports that TV movies will wrap up the storylines, but time will tell if such a format will mesh well with the kind of patient day-to-day depictions for which the series is known.

The DVD includes the insightful featurettes “Deadwood Matures,” which examines the historical basis for the third-season storyline, and “The Education of Swearengen and Bullock,” which focuses on the unlikely alliance between saloon owner Al Swearengen (the brilliant McShane) and Sheriff Seth Bullock (Olyphant). John Latchem


The Hawk is Dying
Prebook 5/10; Street 5/29
Strand, Drama, B.O. $0.002 million, $24.99 DVD, Unrated.
Stars Paul Giamatti, Michelle Williams, Michael Pitt, Robert Wisdom, Rusty Schwimmer, Ann Wedgeworth.

As the term “indie film” gets cagier and less indicative of films that take chances, it's nice to see big talent sign on for a film as small and as difficult as The Hawk Is Dying.

Based on a book by Harry Crews, the film focuses on auto-upholsterer George Gattling (Giamatti), a frustrated man who helps his divorced sister (Schwimmer) take care of her autistic son, Fred (Pitt). George blows off steam by taking Fred to try to catch and tame a red-tailed hawk, a notoriously beautiful and willful bird.

Tragedy befalls the makeshift family — not the kind that is easily explained or for which it is easy to assign blame. The scene that follows, full of confusion and frustration, rather than immediate grief, is one of the film's best.

George then becomes obsessed with taming a hawk he caught earlier, forgoing sleep and food, and infuriating those around him. Only the psychologically damaged psychology student (Williams) with whom George is involved seems to understand his need to reach the end of his rope and come out on top, dominating the animal to make up for what he couldn't control in his own life.

It's a beautifully simple premise, one that allows for complexity to take place naturally, and for the actors to illuminate their roles with nuance. All the acting is terrific — Giamatti and Williams are known for two of the most-celebrated performances of the past few years, in Sideways and Brokeback Mountain, respectively, and these may be even better.

The film itself, though, gets plenty slow, even running long at 106 minutes. More could have been made of George and Fred's relationship at the beginning of the film to make George's erratic actions seem more plausible. The point may have been to take viewers on George's arduous journey, but most will probably be more interested by the way these dynamic characters interact. Billy Gil


The Empire in Africa
Street 5/8
Cinema Libre, Documentary, B.O. $0.001 million, $24.95 DVD, NR.

Named best documentary at the 2006 Hollywood Film Festival, The Empire in Africa relates the graphic details of the civil war that devastated Sierra Leone during the 1990s.

Director Philipe Diaz's film is a powerful documentary of violence and brutality, capturing scenes of unimaginable horror. The lasting images include the large number of amputees who survive the conflict, brutal killings and the frequent sight of decomposing and burned bodies lying in the streets.

Located on the western coast of Africa, south of Guinea and north of Liberia, Sierra Leone is one of the largest producers of diamonds and mineral resources. Gold is another one of the country's most-valued commodities.

But, common people aren't considered one of its assets. The majority of Sierra Leone's residents suffer in extreme poverty and less-than-humane conditions. There also is the toll of a civil war that raged from 1991 to 2002, a war that may have claimed up to 70,000 lives.

How precious is life in Sierra Leone? The average life expectancy is 38 years for men and 43 years for women.

For viewers who can stomach it, The Empire in Africa is highly recommended. The efforts of Diaz are to be applauded. His attempt to cover the broad issues of the country is noble. But, considering the complexities of the political situation, particularly the lack of timely international intervention, and the country's history, it's practically impossible to wrap it up in the approximately 90 minutes dedicated to the film. — Benny Lopez


The War Tapes
Street 5/15
Docurama, Documentary, B.O. $0.3 million, $26.95 DVD, NR.

As it drags further and bloodily further on, the military operations in Iraq might soon prove to be the biggest, costliest and most controversial war in U.S. history.

It also provides ample subject matter for both fictional and documentary films. Already, Jarhead and Three Kings have depicted U.S. military operations in the Gulf (albeit the earlier war effort) with searing insight and terrific star power.

Likewise, Vietnam, the last prolonged military conflict, has been the subject of high-quality narrative and non-narrative films.

Both conflicts are notable for the level of their documentation, but the big difference is that in Iraq, much of the actual footage is coming directly from the average soldier in the field. Modern technology means almost anyone can document the world around them and share it with the public on sites like YouTube.

The War Tapes is probably just one of many Iraq-conflict documentaries that will take advantage of smaller, better cameras and video-savvy average Joes.

Documentary is a subjective form; 10 people can film the same event and produce 10 completely different perspectives on it. The Iraq conflict is complicated and the points of view here are appropriately complex.

Reportedly the first war film to be shot by soldiers in the field, The War Tapes shows a view of the conflict that has rarely been seen — the good stuff, the bad stuff, the humor, the camaraderie, the big-business element in the whole affair, and the ugly (a haunting sequence in which a civilian is accidentally killed).

The three soldiers/cameramen are just regular guys from different backgrounds, National Guardsmen who all join up for various reasons — political, personal and other — and differ in levels of experience, but all of them go into the conflict united, all leave loved ones behind and all emerge from the experience profoundly changed. — David Greenberg


Voltron: Defender of the Universe Vol. 3
Street 5/8
Media Blasters, Animation, $39.95 DVD, NR.

Ah, the 1980s — a golden age for cartoons based on cool toys. Between “He-Man,” “G.I. Joe,” “The Transformers” and “Thundercats,” what 10-year-old wasn't in heaven?

The Generation-Xers who grew up in these simpler times are driving the market now, so it's no surprise to see these classic cartoons emerge as elaborate DVD sets. The packaging for “Voltron” takes it up a notch with an attractive collector's tin themed to one of the five robot lions featured on the show.

We always remember what we loved as kids a lot better than how good they really were. Some age better than others, but the concepts that ignite our imaginations stick with us.

In this case, we have five robot lions stationed on planet Arus, flown by five pilots called to action when the evil King Zarkon threatens the galaxy. When his giant robeasts attack, the lions unite to form Voltron.

While the core audience has moved on and developed more-sophisticated tastes, there is always the nostalgia factor. Plus, these older cartoons are better than most of today's overly sanitized schmaltzy kiddie shows with an overly educational subtext.

Judging by the special features and packaging, these DVD sets are aimed squarely at the fans.

The third volume is highlighted by an interview with composer John Peterson, who wrote the “Voltron” theme music. After he gives away a Hollywood trade secret about using the syllables in the title to construct the theme, the DVD has an eight-minute music montage featuring clips from the show.

Keeping with the musical motif, St. Lunatics rapper Murphy Lee explains his love of Voltron and references to the show in the groups' lyrics (they “connect like Voltron”). Another musician, Jason Bass, who calls himself Voltron, shows off a music video for a death-metal song called “The End of Planet Arus.”

Also included are vintage clips of a Voltron mall tour from 1984, video from a Voltron fan festival, and some funny fan films, such as “The Adventures of V-Man.” John Latchem


Romeo & Juliet: Sealed With a Kiss
Prebook 5/11; Street 6/12
Indican, Animated, B.O. $0.3 million, $21.99 DVD, ‘G.'

An obvious labor of love for director, writer and sole animator Phil Nibbelink, Romeo & Juliet: Sealed With a Kiss recasts Shakespeare's doomed romance with seals for the kiddie set. It's an odd proposition, for sure, but one that Nibbelink brings to life by pitting white seals against brown seals as the Montagues and Capulets, and as a commentary on racism.

Romeo is a wide-eyed emo pup just waiting for love to bop him on the head. When troublemaker Mercutio convinces him to crash their rivals' party, he spies fair Juliet — whose father just betrothed her to a disgusting bully prince. What follows is a lot of kissing, hiding, chasing and scheming, and while the ending isn't what Shakespeare intended, Nibbelink handles it with panache.

Arriving at Disney straight from Cal Arts, Nibbelink has an impressive resume, having worked on The Great Mouse Detective and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and directed An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. In this near-one-man production, he puts his talents to use in hand-drawn animation of appealing characters and sweeping backgrounds.

The film suffers some from ill-conceived songs, the too-obnoxious Mercutio and the odd Kissy, a precious little fish (voiced by Nibbelink's daughter) whose baby talk serves as a Greek chorus.

What perhaps might be the film's greatest shortcoming is its split effort in the romance and adventure departments.

A seal battle in the beginning is surprisingly rough, yet the film is so lovey-dovey, when Mercutio tells the couple to “get a cave,” you heartily agree.

Romeo and his boy pals are more fully developed characters than the wafer-thin Juliet, who cowers at every turn. I hate to draw gender lines, but who is the audience here? Boys will “ewwww” at the kissing, and girls should flinch at Juliet's spinelessness.

Romeo & Juliet: Sealed With a Kiss has its merits as a fun introduction to Shakespeare's timeless tales, but let's hope both boys and girls find enough in the film to hold their interest. — Laura Tiffany


Learn Magic With Lyn
Street 5/15
Starlight, Special Interest, $14.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Lyn Dillies.

Illusionist Lyn Dillies performs dazzling feats of prestidigitation in this instructional program aimed primarily at the 10-and-younger crowd.

Dillies demonstrates and then deconstructs 11 magic tricks that children can easily learn, including “wonder wand,” “the magic ribbon” and “cups and balls.” Her instructions are clear and complete, and each trick is stripped down to the basics so viewers can see exactly how the illusion is accomplished.

After she demonstrates each trick, Dillies presents a very complete list of items that children will need to perform it. Interspersed between trick segments are six tips on how to become a great magician; these are pretty basic and run the gamut from “remember to practice” to “remember to smile.”

Dillies has the demeanor of a cheerful grade-school teacher, and many of her tricks involve do-it-yourself props — the construction of which she also demonstrates. She is encouraging, methodical and precise in her narrative.

It's hard to imagine a program better suited to a child interested in learning basic magic tricks than this one. Dillies completely demystifies the tricks that she demonstrates while, at the same time, teaches children how to infuse their magic tricks with an air of mystery. This is a perfect gift for a child interested in magic. — Anne Sherber


Quick Take: The Joy of Film Music

Lovers of classic Hollywood and film scores will want to see Music for the Movies: The Hollywood Sound, recently released from Kultur. The $24.99 DVD is hosted by composer John Mauceri, who guides his orchestra through new recordings of classic musical pieces from such films as Gone With the Wind, Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

The 1995 documentary examines the process of the early years of film scoring, which evolved from classical tradition and Broadway to create a unique style of melodic storytelling. As a special treat, David Raksin (who died in 2004) discusses his music from the 1944 classic Laura. — John Latchem


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