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Reviews: October 8

8 Oct, 2006 By: Home Media Reviews

A Prairie Home Companion
Street 10/10
New Line, Comedy, B.O. $20.3 million, $27.95 DVD, ‘PG-13' for risqu? humor.
Stars Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep.

What a fascinating world film can create, especially when blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.

A Prairie Home Companion spotlight's Keillor's comedy variety radio show of the same name, which he broadcasts out of Minnesota. It's a quirky little show, filled with colorful characters and old-fashioned songs. The film version is being performed for the last time, canceled by a corporate axeman who has no appreciation for the classics.

Yet, the real “A Prairie Home Companion,” a satirical throwback to those old radio shows, is still going strong. And most of the old songs, commercials and characters in the film are Keillor's own inventions.

What an unassuming talent is Keillor. He talks. He sings. He seems to have a gift for obfuscation, but his delivery is so droll and highbrow it's hard not to take him at his word.

Director Robert Altman, from Keillor's script, has turned this wacky old-timey show into a metaphor for a bygone era long since discarded by a society on the move. It's a story of family, transition and change.

Told in near real time, the camera drifts from the performances onstage to the preparations backstage, and conversations about days past and an uncertain future.

Guy Noir, presented as a series of sketches on the real show, comes to life as the show's head of security in the movie. And Kline, as Noir, nearly steals the movie with a wry comedic performance.

Noir is a parody of old movie detectives who sit in their office providing voiceovers while waiting for some classy dame to walk in. So it figures a classy dame (Virginia Madsen) does walk in. She's called the “Dangerous Woman,” and may be the Angel of Death, appropriate for this final broadcast.

The DVD has some extended musical sequences and longer versions of Keillor's droll, fictionalized sponsor promos, which are simply hilarious in the way they parody and celebrate the radio tradition all at the same time.

In the film's commentary, Kline basically interviews Altman, who seems restless and bored (Keillor is surprisingly absent). They steer clear for the most part of discussing story elements, which will serve as a disappointment for anyone hoping Altman would talk more about the “Dangerous Woman” storyline. John Latchem

Save the Last Dance 2
Street 10/10
Paramount/MTV, Drama, $29.99 DVD, ‘PG-13' for some sexuality and drug content.
Stars Izabella Miko, Columbus Short, Jacqueline Bisset, Ne-Yo.

Save the Last Dance blended hip-hop culture, ballet and an interracial romance into a heady and lucrative melodrama. The 2001 film starred Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas as the fiery pair of star-crossed lovers.

The creators of Save the Last Dance 2 clearly hope that lightning will strike in almost the same place twice.

Miko and Short, new incarnations of the lovers whom events conspire to keep apart, clearly have been chosen, at least in part, because they look like Stiles and Thomas.

This time around, Sara, the gifted young ballerina, has fulfilled her lifelong dream and landed at Julliard to study dance. There, she is confronted by Bisset as an imperious and imposing dance instructor who is harder on Sara than her classmates because she believes that despite Sara's great talent, the young dancer has not committed herself, body and soul, to the dance.

Sara's life is further complicated by her attraction and developing relationship to Miles, who himself was once a Julliard student.

The entire cast of Save the Last Dance 2 is, remarkably, almost unbelievably attractive. Miko and Short work hard to make their difficult romance interesting and compelling. And Bissett, even in what amounts to a fairly two-dimensional role, is wonderful to watch and steals every scene in which she appears.

Extras are sparse: a 20-minute documentary on the making of the film that is long on interviews with Miko and Short. Apparently Miko considered becoming a ballerina before taking a left turn at the drama department. — Anne Sherber

The Virgin of Juarez
Street 10/17
First Look, Drama, $24.99 DVD, Rating Pending.
Stars Minnie Driver, Ana Claudia Talanc?n, Esai Morales.

Karina Danes (Driver), a Los Angeles-based journalist, arrives in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to research a story on the hundreds of women there — workers in American-owned factories just across the border from El Paso — who have been abducted, sexually brutalized and murdered.

Shortly, Mariela (Talanc?n), a young woman newly arrived from the Mexican interior, turns up beaten and without her memory in a local hospital. Almost immediately she shows stigmata and claims to have seen the Virgin Mary.

To the locals, this is a miracle. To Father Herrera (Morales), a slightly cynical priest originally from East L.A. who is seeking justice for the factory women, this is an opportunity to advance the cause.

Herrera first places Mariela in a shrine in a local church, then spirits her to Los Angeles under the protection of his gang-member brother. The girl's apparent God-given survival inspires the victims' families, but darkly. They begin killing the men wanted for the abductions.

Police, factory owners and workers' rights advocates realize the vigilantism has to stop. An ethical Juarez detective convinces Danes to set up a meeting between Mariela and Patrick Nunzio (Angus Macfadyen), a workers' advocate who once was allied with Herrera.

Unknown to Danes, the meeting is a sting to capture Mariela. It turns out Mariela and Nunzio have met before under other circumstances, and the resulting chaos starts a gun battle and fire that appears to claim Mariela.

,I>The Virgin of Juarez is compelling because almost no one has pure motives. Mariela is being used; the hope she seems to offer was scripted for her. The good-hearted see events turn against them. Empowerment is indistinguishable from manipulation by larger forces. Yet, the people of Juarez are portrayed sympathetically, with the possibility of a better future left open. — Mark Lowe

The Who 20th Anniversary Reunion Concert
Prebook 10/10; Street 11/7
Passport Video, Music, $24.99 DVD, NR.

This Who concert is short but oh-so-sweet. The core three — Roger Daltry, Pete Townsend and John Entwistle —along with drummer Zak Starkey and keyboardist John Bundrick bang out just about every Who song you could possibly want to hear, including “I Can't Explain,” “Substitute,” “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere,” “Pinball Wizard,” “See Me, Feel Me,” “Baba O'Riley,” “My Wife,” “5:15,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Who Are You,” “Magic Bus,” “Won't Get Fooled Again,” “The Kids Are Alright” and “My Generation.”

That's it, but that's all you need. It's a hard-driving performance, filmed at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 1999, marking the first time in 20 years the band performed solely as a five-piece rock group, the way it started.

It's poignant and nostalgic to watch these icons together, and especially to hear bassist John “The Ox” Entwistle perform and be included in interviews. He died just four years later on tour with the band with which he spent the majority of his adult life performing.

Another great tidbit on the disc is the inclusion of several short interviews with fans who were at the very intimate concert, talking about what The Who means to them. It really makes you realize what quality music is and how it can last and transcend generations.

The production quality and sound are surprisingly good and should translate well to any Who lover's home theater system.

The group just kicked off its most recent tour, and a new studio album arrives Oct. 28. Jessica Wolf

The Very Best of Sabrina: The Animated Series
Street 10/17
Shout Factory, Animated, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Voices of Melissa Joan Hart, Emily Hart, Cree Summer, Nick Bakay.

Sabrina the Teenage Witch is the OG Harry Potter. The young half-witch, who's raised by aunts who school her in the not-so-dark arts, originally appeared in an Archie comic in the early 1960s and had her own Filmation cartoon show in the early '70s.

Since then, the character's popularity hasn't waned. After starring in a long-running 1990s live-action series, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” Melissa Joan Hart produced “Sabrina: The Animated Series,” sending the teenage witch back in time to the tween years. She gave her sister Emily the starring role, while Melissa took over the aunts' voices.

This re-release of 14 episodes from the series' 1999-2000 run is as bare bones as you can get. No extras, just a grating menu hosted by the inhabitant of “Spooky Jar,” a sort of mischievous genie in a bottle who tends to get Sabrina into trouble.

Without any extras, this two-disc set must be judged solely on the show's merits, of which it has a surprising amount. Though reportedly the show strays far away from the original characters and comics — the aunts are much younger and a new character, Uncle Quigley, is introduced — it is really very cute. The animation is crisp and colorful. The pun-filled jokes and junior-high slang are very close to hokey, but the writers manage to pull it off.

Sabrina is a smart, spirited, independent kid who holds her own against the resident rich kid in school, and she's a nice role model for the 8- to 10-year-old girls the show is aimed at. And the Hart sisters do a fine job voicing the characters without being too silly or cloying.

Teens and magic are a popular combination, and this DVD set is a fun way to introduce younger tweens to the vast “Sabrina” universe. — Laura Tiffany

Prebook 10/10; Street 11/21
HBO, Documentary, $24.98 DVD, NR.

With all the recent attention that's been focused on the American obesity “epidemic,” it's hard to remember the casualties on the other end of the spectrum: those who barely tip the scales and still think they're fat.

Thin delves into the disrupted psyches of women living at a Florida treatment facility for eating disorders.

It's not a pretty picture, but it's not meant to be. Instead, it takes us inside the struggles for control that lead to, and hopefully out of, lives wracked with bulimia and anorexia.

While the film might serve as a sort of Scared Straight for anyone contemplating making a habit of hurling their meals, others can't help sharing the frustration of family members watching these women succumb to their addictions. Their desperation invokes sympathy, but also the feeling that their actions are bids for attention.

Even in a nation obsessed with looking like Hollywood stars, it's hard to get into the heads of people who count calories by the bite and feel compelled to purge the tiniest scrap of food. Their self-esteem is so low they've lost themselves.

One step removed, the program is much like treatment for any other addiction. It requires behavioral changes but also changes of attitude, and those are the struggles we watch. Part of it seems unreal: it's hard to imagine people whose lives are built around secrets letting the camera in on some of the antics we see in treatment, especially behavior they are trying to hide from counselors.

The subject may limit the appeal of this doc. It's depressing to watch people destroy themselves, so it's more of a consciousness-raiser for people who may be seeing but not recognizing the early warning signs in themselves or loved ones. It also says a lot about body image and explains the recent Milan runway ban on models who are too thin. — Holly J. Wagner

Ulli Lommel's Black Dahlia
Street 10/10
Lionsgate, Horror, $26.98 DVD, ‘R' for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and language.
Stars Elissa Dowling, Sutton Christopher, Christian Behm.

Anyone mistaking Ulli Lommel's shoestring-budget slasher film Black Dahlia for the $60 million Universal Pictures film starring Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett will be in for a shocking disappointment.

Lommel, who wrote and directed this straight-to-DVD release, uses the 1947 death of Hollywood starlet Betty Short as the inspiration for a trio of copycat serial killers in present-day Los Angeles.

Aside from some black-and-white photos and re-creations of the 1947 murder, which remains unsolved to this day, this Black Dahlia is all about torture.

While Hostel used gore and torture to create a tense, real-world environment, Lommel seems content to just brutally display pretty young actresses being mutilated with electric saws and cleavers. The blood runs extremely thick in the film's many torture scenes. This film is not for the faint of heart.

The film is disturbing, but the actors who do speak (two of the torturers never say a word) make this film feel like a low-budget student film in which all the money's been spent on fake blood.

The story is basically a series of torture scenes set in an abandoned L.A. factory, where the aforementioned trio of masochists cut up still-alive actresses who think they're auditioning for a film. The killers then place the body parts around L.A., where the cops eventually track them down. The whole production just seems like an excuse to see how much an ‘R'-rating can be pushed with graphic violence and blood.

The only extra on the DVD is audio commentary by Lommel and producer Jeff Frentzen.

Lommel has a following of horror fans from past films such as The Boogeyman (not the recent Sam Raimi-produced film), Zodiac Killer and Zombie Nation, which bodes well for this release. The aforementioned confusion over the name is important to point out, as this film has a very niche audience compared to the mainstream Brian De Palma film. — John Gaudiosi

Street 10/17
Image, Documentary, $19.99 DVD, NR.

Director Doug Pray, who has previously documented Seattle's grunge music scene and the Sundance Institute's Filmmaking Labs, turns his camera to the controversial sub-culture of graffiti artists.

The question of whether graffiti is a legitimate art form in the conventional sense, if it is a crime or a little bit of both, has been around for a long time. Rarely, however, has there been an examination into the lives of the people who paint graffiti.

Oddly fascinating without being especially compelling, Infamy should prove eye-opening to people unfamiliar with the world of graffiti, and the portraits of the artists should be enlightening for those who follow that world.

This is a film for graffiti fans, hardcore documentary buffs and serious cultural anthropologists.

The film itself is relatively formless and unstructured. There is no in-depth examination of the controversies surrounding graffiti's place in the art world, and the film really just unfolds as a series of interviews and shots of the artists in action.

Pray focuses on a number of subjects across the country, profiling “taggers” in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia. All the personalities profiled are rich, likable characters — in particular Earsnot from Philly, and Claw, a white, young Jewish woman from New York City. Also along for the ride and to provide balance is Joe “The Graffiti Guerrilla” Connolly, an anti-graffiti activist on a mission, who patrols the streets with high-powered cleaning supplies, erasing “tags” whenever he can. — David Greenberg

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