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Reviews: November 5

5 Nov, 2006 By: Home Media Reviews

The Groomsmen
Street 11/14
Vivendi Visual, Comedy, B.O. $0.1 million, $26.99 DVD, ‘R' for pervasive language and brief nudity.
Stars Edward Burns, Brittany Murphy, Jay Mohr, Matthew Lillard, John Leguizamo, Donal Logue.

Should an artist revisit and re-examine the same themes time and time again? Likely, the answer lies somewhere in the subject matter: Does the topic merit yet another painting, book or film?

Writer-director-actor Burns tests these limits on his own material with his latest, another tale of average guys and girls trying to sort things out. However, while he finds few new insights in the subject, he finally comes close to getting it right.

Where Burns' other efforts bury themselves in over-analysis and one-sided conversations, The Groomsmen tosses its characters onto the screen and lets them play out their concerns appropriately. The remainder of the film, mercifully, simply gives the boys room to play.

Sure, there are moments that will make anyone cringe; for all the sports analogies, the poorly executed softball/brother-brother confrontation scene seems like a railroad tie used in place of a thumbtack; and someone clearly needed to collar the cameraman who went in for a slow closeup as Lillard's character waxes poetic about the joys of fatherhood.

But the otherwise well-orchestrated, natural interaction between the members of this group of thirtysomethings makes such scenes forgivable — perhaps even necessary.

At heart, Burns seems to be — or wants to be — an average Joe, and this means he must occasionally act like one behind the camera. That said, The Groomsmen is his slickest production to date, and he seems to finally have a handle on pacing and plotting.

His actors — Leguizamo and Logue in particular — also seem to respond to this, and brim with the juvenile, mischievous and glorious energy that occurs when high-school friends are reunited. — J.R. Wick

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
Street 11/14
Zeitgeist, Drama, B.O. $0.7 million, $29.99 DVD, NR. In German with English subtitles.
Stars Julia Jentsch, Alexander Held, Fabian Hinrichs.

During a six-day period in February 1943, Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and a friend named Christoph Probst were arrested, tried, convicted and executed for their role in distributing a series of six leaflets criticizing Adolf Hitler's ability to win World War II.

Nazi Germany had just suffered a bitter defeat in its invasion of Russia, and a student movement calling itself The White Rose formed in Munich to advocate peace and resistance, ideals the Nazis could not tolerate.

The centerpiece of Sophie Scholl, an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film of 2005, consists of the riveting interrogation of Sophie by Inspector Mohr, who encourages her to claim a lesser role in the sedition so as to avoid the harshest of penalties, but Sophie is adamant she be treated the same as her brother.

Sophie takes Mohr to task for rumors of Nazi exterminations. Mohr seems surprised by these accusations, and sympathizes with Sophie, but remains committed to the letter of the law.

The subsequent trial of Sophie, Hans and Probst is a farce, presided over by Judge Freisler, who acts more like an interrogator, spouting propaganda in open court as a means of presenting evidence.

The film is filled with moments of great sadness, knowing the Allied advances will be too late to help these people. Seeing the methodical terror displayed by the Nazis in adhering to their justice code, even against their own citizenry, is chilling.

Jentsch is terrific as Sophie, displaying fear while maintaining a brave front. Her devotion to God and loyalty to her ideals are presented as her biggest strengths, in sharp contrast to her Nazi captors. Sophie and Hans exhibit great courage for sticking to their beliefs. Men like Mohr and Freisler are the real cowards, unwilling to stand up against Nazi atrocities or tolerate those who might disagree with them.

In the most powerful scene of the film, Sophie boldly predicts the Nazis soon will find themselves on trial. It's a strong indictment — a regime that cannot stand against contrary opinion does not deserve to remain in power in the first place. John Latchem

Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)
Street 11/14
Sony Pictures, Drama, B.O. $1.1 million, $26.96 DVD, ‘PG-13' for some war violence and a brief scene of sexuality/nudity.
Stars Diane Kruger, Benno Furmann, Daniel Bruhl, Guillaume Canet.

A standard war-film message is that individual soldiers from enemy nations have more in common than their governments would like them to believe. Propaganda campaigns are carefully designed to harden the resolve of citizens and soldiers by making them believe those on the other side are somehow less than human, making it that much easier to kill a faceless enemy.

In December 1914, during the first year of World War I, these messages of war were somehow overcome by the spirit of Christmas, resulting in a series of cease-fires along the Western front known as the Christmas Truce.

Joyeux Noel, which was nominated this past year for the foreign film Oscar, does a good job presenting an amalgam of these incidents. The cast is largely unknown to Americans, save for Kruger, who starred in Troy and National Treasure.

Writer-director Christian Carion, in his commentary and an included interview, dissects the film with an analysis of the real-life stories from the battlefield that influenced him. Since most military leaders didn't know what to make of the fraternization phenomenon, they tried to cover it up. It was only through letters home, mostly from the British, that the Christmas Truce was even known to outsiders.

The film is as much about the unifying power of music as it is the tragedy of war. Carion's tale is inspired mostly by the true story of a German opera singer who sang Christmas carols to his troops in the trenches. In the film, the singer is overheard by soldiers from French and Scottish encampments, who begin to cheer and sing along, and a temporary truce is born.

The soldiers meet in no man's land to exchange food and drink, then celebrate a Catholic mass, surrounded by the bodies of their dead comrades frozen in the snow. The next morning, the commanders agree to bury the dead, then the troops play soccer. The good feelings intensify, and when each army's artillery opens fire, the soldiers take turns hiding out in each other's safe camps.

There would be a price to pay, as their superiors doled out penalties for disobeying standing orders to kill the enemy and took steps to ensure spontaneous bouts of peace wouldn't break out again. John Latchem

Me & Michael
Street 11/7
Cinema Epoch, Documentary, $14.98 DVD, NR.

It's been said that Hollywood is a dog-eat-dog industry. Michael Moore's production company is even called Dog Eat Dog Films.

Comic Willard Morgan gives Moore the business in Me & Michael, a satire of Moore's “stalkumentary” film style in general and his Roger & Me in particular. Morgan skewers the film with his own quest for success in Hollywood. All the books suggest getting a mentor, so he sets out to get under Moore's wing. Someone in Moore's office tells his agent that Moore would look at his 10-minute film Festival Fever, and his yearlong quest for accountability begins.

The parody extends to the devices, narration and editing style of a Moore film, only with tongue firmly in cheek. We get snippets of Morgan's daily life as he tells his story to a handheld camera. The backgrounds — ranging from an upscale supermarket to a sex shop to Home Depot — are a sly wink to the “come-along” stalkumentary camerawork. Taking a cue from his comic hero, Ernie Kovacs, Morgan appears, costumed, as several different characters and in some scenes interviews his other selves.

The film's amateurish look, reminiscent of 20 Dates, is shrewdly calculated to proclaim its innocence. It's biggest problem is that it's hard for anyone but Hollywood insiders to appreciate. If you can get past the inside jokes at the beginning, the satire picks up steam and delivers a zinger finish. Moore's fans will be surprised and his critics will find the red herring worth the wait.

Bonus materials are few and self-indulgent, and all referenced in the main feature.

Morgan dons a few other characters for some of his short films. These include Misguided Tours, apparently a trailer for a travelogue hosted by Gino Gelati; Touch of Velvet, a film noir parody short; Festival Fever; and Confessions of a Filmaholic, another riff on the industry. For the aspiring Ali Gs and Father Guido Sarduccis out there, these bits are a beacon of hope. — Holly J. Wagner

The Hamburg Cell
Street 11/14
Acorn, Drama, $19.99 DVD, NR.

Chilling and eerily quiet, The Hamburg Cell offers a rarely seen perspective of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The British television production, broadcast on HBO, tells of the future hijackers and their colleagues who trained and worshiped in Germany as the details of their eventual assignment were formed.

The film goes inside the lives of the men whose names would later become familiar, including Ziad Jarrah (Karim Saleh of Munich and Kingdom of Heaven) and Mohamed Atta (Maral Kamel). They join other disparate men in what will eventually be known as the Hamburg Cell, a place where disenfranchised Muslim men talk of jihad and a true path to glory.

These wide-eyed students, some hardened and hateful, first engage in discussions in Hamburg, then later train in Afghanistan, where they prepare to carry out whatever duty is assigned them.

The film spends time on their personal lives, especially with Ziad, portrayed as coming from a middle-class family without any deep political convictions. Ziad falls in love with a young woman in the years before 2001.

Although she tries to dissuade him from a life of extremism, the pull, for whatever reason, is too much for him.

Antonia Bird directs with a subtle flow, taking these people from their early training to the point of no return, bringing the film to Sept. 11 and showing footage of the burning towers, but mostly pulling back once the men arrive at the various airports that morning. What happens next was covered more explicitly in the theatrical release United 93 earlier this year.

The Hamburg Cell is both strangely soft and also terrifying, especially in retrospect. The film offers no definitive explanation of why certain men did specific things that terrible day, but leaves it to the viewer to draw conclusions. Neither sympathetic nor outright hostile to the people it portrays, The Hamburg Cell leaves more of an impression by offering insight with no final answers. — Dan Bennett

Hunt For Justice
Street 11/7
Allumination, Drama, $29.98 DVD, ‘PG-13' for thematic elements and disturbing images.
Stars William Hurt, Wendy Crewson, John Corbett, Michael Murphy, Stipe Erceg.

In 1996, Canadian attorney, judge and professor Louise Arbour was appointed the chief prosecutor to the United Nations' international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Her role was to lead the investigation of war crimes in the many conflicts in that region in the 1990s. Her appointment was controversial — she had little prosecutorial experience and her no-nonsense, screw-the-politics manner didn't win her friends in high places.

This is the backdrop for the TV dramatization of Arbour's role in bringing those war criminals to justice, following her from the initial appointment to her final coup of indicting the then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic —the first-ever such indictment for a current head of state. Arbour (Crewson of “24” and Air Force One) is surrounded by a cast of helpers, most notably her interpreter Pasko (Erceg), who lost his wife in the war, and Captain John Tanner (Corbett of “Northern Exposure” and “Sex and the City”), who ignored politics to help with the war-crime indictments.

Arbour is a workhorse in the film, rarely letting politics, emotions, fear or her personal life distract her from the cause. This leaves Pasko as the heart of Hunt for Justice. He is the face of the war. He's surrounded by well-meaning foreigners who weren't personally traumatized by the war, but for him, finding the truth about what happened to his wife is a question of emotional survival. Without him, the film might have just been a dry retelling of events, but Erceg's soulful, tragic performance raises it to a different level.

Overall, the film is an interesting presentation of a topic that many people may have only skimmed the headlines about back in the 1990s. With the current war on everyone's mind, Hunt for Justice has the opportunity to find an audience beyond the History Channel crowd. — Laura Tiffany

The Pixies: loudQUIETloud
Street 11/7
MVD, Music, $19.95 DVD, NR.

Alt-rockers The Pixies had their heyday in the early 1990s. Bassist-singer Kim Deal remained a symbol of chick rock with her new group The Breeders, and lead singer Charles “Black Francis” Thompson focused on solo work.

Otherwise, things were rather quiet on the Pixies front for more than a decade.

Their most memorable music came during the band's short tenure as a group from 1986 to 1993, during which The Pixies generated few mainstream chart-toppers, but still garnered a voracious fan following, including one Kurt Cobain, who famously attributed his inspiration for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to the group.

The Pixies split rather harshly, so it's not surprising it took 11 years for the group to come together, in 2004, for a reunion tour, which is documented in loudQUIETloud, so named in homage to the group's penchant for songs that followed that particular volume pattern.

The performances here are superb — its got everything a Pixies fan could want. The documentary portions, following the group's interactions with one another and personal tragedies that unfold as they rehearse and tour, mostly reiterates the point that the band members made the right decision to go their separate ways so many years ago. There's little friendship or communication to be found behind the scenes, but nearly as little fighting or backbiting too, which would have added some high drama at least.

There is a momentary meltdown on the part of drummer David Lovering, which piques some confrontation, but the whole thing doesn't have the flair of even some of the less memorable VH1 “Behind the Music” episodes, and it may not draw in a ton of new Pixies groupies.

However, the music alone will make this disc a valued gem to anyone who loved the band back in the day. Jessica Wolf

Thou Shalt Laugh
Street 11/7
Warner, Comedy, $19.97 DVD, NR.
Stars Thor Ramsey, Michael Jr., Jeff Allen, Teresa Roberts Logan, Joby Saad, Gilbert Esquivel, Taylor Mason. Hosted by Patricia Heaton.

You'll only know the stand-up comedians in Thou Shalt Laugh are Christian from a few passing remarks and the fact that hostess Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) tells us. Otherwise, the show's F-bomb-free, mostly family-friendly humor could appeal to anybody looking for Tim Allen or “Cosby Show”-era Bill Cosby, not drug-addled era Richard Pryor or the Original Kings of Comedy.

The crankiest of the seven are Ramsey and Allen, with sets on barking dogs, wives who are always right and annoying teenagers. Esquivel plays up his welfare-kid background and explains, like a Latino Jeff Foxworthy, how the trashiest of the poor are “Mez'can,” not Mexican. The only woman on the bill, Logan, gets the shortest set and makes mostly weight-loss jokes for the ladies.

Better are Saad, Michael Jr. and puppeteer Mason. Saad plays a village-idiot persona with a cartoon-dog voice and great body-language. By the end, his head's twisted back, his butt's in the air and he's pushing on an imaginary door calling for others to help him “Push” a “Pull” door. The laid-back Michael Jr. has jokes that drop so smooth you might miss them, which he references in one of his jokes.

The crowd-pleaser is, of course, Mason, who starts with a little stand-up, then introduces puppets Romeo, Juliet and a pig with a Mexican accent. He gets volunteers to work his puppets to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as a cutesy finale that thrills the audience.

Some may find these straight-laced performers too tame, but fans will complain only that their favorites had such short sets. For those who are looking for something a little more church-focused, there's always formerly foul-mouthed Steve Harvey's set in Steve Harvey: Don't Trip … He Ain't Through With Me Yet. — Brendan Howard

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