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Reviews: Sept. 16

16 Sep, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book: Platinum Edition
Street 10/2
Disney, Animated, $29.99 two-DVD set, ‘G'.
Voices of Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima, George Sanders, Sterling Holloway, J. Pat O'Malley, Bruce Reitherman.

With its “Platinum Edition” DVDs, Disney has become adept at presenting extensive behind-the-scenes documentaries that really drive home why the studio's animated masterpieces are so entertaining. The Jungle Book is another winner.

The DVD mixes just the right balance of retrospective commentary and archival footage to give viewers a nearly complete picture of how the 1967 film came to be. It's especially fascinating to see the current crop of animators offering not only historical context, but anecdotes from the day, like some oral tradition passed down through the ages among the members of an exclusive brotherhood.

Many of the current animators talk about how influential The Jungle Book was on them. The character designs inspired the look of the animals in The Lion King nearly 30 years later.

The Jungle Book marked an important transition for the Disney animation studio, as it was the last film personally overseen by Walt before he died. The Sword and the Stone faltered when Walt's attentions were turned elsewhere, and he wasn't willing to let The Jungle Book suffer the same fate. Walt's death kicked off a 20-year decline for the animation studio, until The Little Mermaid in 1989 (with all due respect to The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound).

The genius of Walt's storytelling ability is on full display in the bonus features, which relate how Walt whittled down Rudyard Kipling's original stories into a simple, audience-friendly narrative.

The structure is deceptively simple. After years raised by wolves in the jungles of India, the man-cub Mowgli must return to human society. Along the way to the village, he encounters a series of animal characters, each with a different song to sing (including the classic “Bare Necessities”).

The final film barely resembles Kipling's tales, yet Disney's versions of Baloo, Louie and Shere Khan became iconic and were later revamped into their own TV show, the fondly remembered “Tailspin.”

This DVD doesn't discuss “Tailspin,” the 2003 animated sequel Jungle Book 2, or any of the studio's other projects based on Kipling's original works.

Other featurettes focus on the tremendous voice cast, the deleted character Rocky the Rhino, and the life of Reitherman, the voice of Mowgli, who embarked on a successful career as a nature photographer. John Latchem

Street 9/18
New Line, Drama, B.O. $3 million, $27.95 DVD, ‘PG-13' for brief sexual content.
Stars Carly Schroeder, Elisabeth Shue, Andrew Shue, Dermot Mulroney, Jesse Lee Soffer.

In Gracie, a teenage girl (Schroeder) must overcome adversity and sexism in 1978 to earn a spot on her high-school boys' soccer team.

The movie follows the sports-movie playbook to the letter, but formula movies aren't about originality, they're about presentation. And if we find ourselves smiling when Gracie takes the field in the final game, then the movie has done its job.

The title character is inspired by Elisabeth Shue, who in real life gave up soccer and went into acting. She plays Gracie's mother here. The movie was made by her and her brother Andrew (who plays a teacher) as a tribute to their older brother William, a soccer star who died in an accident in 1988.

William serves as the basis for the character of Johnny (Soffer), who's protective of his siblings while he excels at everything he does. When he's tragically killed in a car wreck, his family goes into a brief tailspin. Gracie's decision to carry on his legacy through soccer is met with skepticism. The coach suggests she play field hockey instead.

Undeterred, Gracie challenges the system and herself. The movie only briefly dabbles with Title IX. Injecting a political note into this film would only have detracted from what the Shues were hoping to accomplish. This is probably a wise move, considering the previous film from director Davis Guggenheim (Elisabeth Shue's husband, incidentally), was An Inconvenient Truth, one of the most political films of recent times.

The DVD includes a decent featurette detailing the motivation behind the film and the training involved for the soccer sequences. These points are further touched upon in the two commentaries, most notably one from Elisabeth and Andrew that serves as a nice remembrance of their brother. Guggenheim provides the other commentary. John Latchem

Death Proof
Street 9/18
Genius/Weinstein, Action, B.O. $25 million, $29.95 two-DVD set, Unrated.
Stars Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Rose McGowan, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Jordan Ladd, Vanessa Ferlito, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Zoe Bell.

Quentin Tarantino's love of 1970s kitsch is on full display in Death Proof. The director seems content with emulating the ‘B' movies he adored in his formative years rather than making movies that are really about anything.

Here he has Kurt Russell as a crazed stuntman who terrorizes young actresses with his stunt car, specially modified for the driver to survive any crash. His luck runs out, however, when he runs afoul of a group of girls who fight back, leading to an extended and thrilling car chase that closes out the film.

With its typical Tarantino dialogue, Death Proof is an entertaining-enough diversion for an hour-and-a-half. The throwbacks to '70s style are especially amusing, from the amateurish jump cuts to a fake title card for “Quentin Tarantino's Thunderbolt” that is quickly replaced by the film's actual title. And there's more than a few scenes you'll want to rewind and watch again.

The DVD includes several featurettes that break the production down into its various core elements. One focuses on the girls in the movie, another on the guys. A third featurette examines Russell's role in the film, and a fourth details Tarantino's relationship with editor Sally Menke.

Lastly, we get “Introducing Zoe Bell,” about the stuntwoman who plays herself in the film, and how Tarantino decided to write her in after she doubled for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.

Curiously, the disc has no deleted scenes, but one of the featurettes includes a brief sequence that takes place in an airport that isn't in the final film.

An edited form of Death Proof was paired with Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror to create the recent theatrical release Grindhouse. Some of the sequences included here, such as the lap dance scene, were replaced in Grindhouse with a “missing reel” title card.

Instead of releasing Grindhouse as a standalone DVD set, the studio has decided to put the director's cuts of each film on separate DVDs (Planet Terror hits Oct. 16). Conspicuously absent in these releases are the parody trailers that played in theaters, which may indicate a future Grindhouse DVD is forthcoming. John Latchem

Femme-fueled powerhouse or gratuitous, misogynistic misfire? The jury's still out on Death Proof. This DVD release, expanded with scenes cut to accommodate the double theatrical bill, should fuel both sides of the argument.

Death Proof follows sociopath Stuntman Mike (Russell), who preys upon pretty young things with a souped-up stunt car capable of dealing death unto others while protecting its driver. Mike is addicted to the thrill of the chase-and-kill, and who better to follow than helpless young women?

Of course, that simplistic set-up could describe any horror flick, most of which unequivocally subjugate women. Not so with Tarantino's film.

As in Kill Bill, Tarantino's girls are smart, feisty and full of surprises. A previously cut scene shows vulnerable “Butterfly” (Ferlito) give Mike a different kind of thrill ride with a seductive (though chaste) lap dance that feels like a revelation rather than superfluous, adding depth to her character.

Death Proof still hits some potholes. The dialogue, especially in the film's second half, lacks the ferocious realism that made a film like Reservoir Dogs such a hoot. You can only hear Rosario Dawson and company talk about making out with boys while name-dropping the film Vanishing Point so many times before you wonder if Tarantino has lost his touch.

But despite issues, the film keeps your head spinning for days. Take the central murder scene. It's shocking, given a quick plot turn, and to top it off, nauseatingly grisly. So why do you immediately want to watch it again?

The second disc of this release allows Tarantino to talk up his collaborators, many of whom are strong women he keenly admires. The best feature shows the actors saying hello to editor Sally Menke in different scenes of the film, as she first sits down to edit Tarantino's glorious mess. Billy Gil

Christmas Miracle At Sage Creek
Street 10/2
Universal/Screen Media, Western, $14.98 DVD, ‘PG' for for violence and some mild language.
Stars David Carradine, Wes Studi, Irene Bedard.

Christmas Miracle at Sage Creek is perhaps one of the most original of the many cinematic takes on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Set in the wild west of Wyoming in 1888, two families struggle against prejudice and oppression in the face of the unforgiving landscape and an angry, overbearing rancher.

Carradine is the rancher, almost unbearably bitter over the death of his wife at the hands of the Sioux. To avenge her death, he devises a way to evict his neighbors, a family that includes both Native-Americans and settlers, from their homestead.

But when his grandson is stricken with yellow fever and it doesn't seem as if there is any hope that the little boy will live, the bitter old man has an epiphany, finally understanding what is important and what is not.

Several very good performances enhance this made-for-TV movie. So Scrooge-like is Carradine that when one of his ranch hands asks if the men can take Christmas off to spend with their families, he hisses that Christmas is just another working day.

Studi exudes quiet dignity as the Native-American grandfather. And Bedard is luminous as his daughter, married to a white man but still cleaving to the traditions of her father in her heart.

Although Christmas Miracle at Sage Creek has its share of gun fights, wild animal attacks and suspense, it is a slowly-paced, almost meandering film and, because of that, may disappoint fans of traditional westerns. But those interested in quiet stories of faith and reconciliation will find much to like here. — Anne Sherber

Street 9/25
Sony Pictures, Anime, $26.96 DVD $38.96 Blu-ray, $26.96 UMD, ‘R' for some violent and disturbing images, and brief sexuality.

Tekkonkinkreet is a beautiful, sometimes jarringly violent, love letter to a city, as well as a screed against gentrification.

Black and White, orphans with superhero-like powers of movement, rule Treasure Town in unwilling concert alongside old-school Yakuza gangsters and gumshoe cops. This begrudging harmony — tied together by a love of the town — is upset when an evil developer with superhuman henchmen comes to clean up Treasure Town and build an amusement park, even if he must kill some children to succeed.

Violent, powerful Black protects innocent White, a not-quite-there 11-year-old who falls suddenly into vivid daydreams, feels bad omens inside his chest and must remind himself in the face of these psychic premonitions to “be happy.” But White also protects Black from his own inner darkness. When the two are separated, hell breaks loose for both the boys and the film itself.

This gorgeous fairy tale falls apart in its last act as director Michael Arias scrambles to tie up the many loose ends of the story, forgetting that the boys and the town are the heart of Tekkonkinkreet, rather than those numerous mobsters.

The film has a wispy look, as if the characters are watercolor cutouts floating on top of the kinetic town that resembles Richard Scarry's fictional Busytown gone Japanese noir.

Arias, the first American director of an anime film, has studied the art form's masters well. Like Miyazaki, he understands and can show the depth of both a child's searing pain and rapturous, innocent joy. And despite the perhaps-obvious metaphor of Black's and White's names, the film goes deeper and hits harder than you might expect.

Like the first time you saw The Triplets of Belleville or discovered a Miyazaki film, Tekkonkinkreet is a discovery you want to share with your friends. — Laura Tiffany

Dreams to Remember: The Legacy of Otis Redding
Street 9/18
Stax, Music, $14.98 DVD, NR.

“Give me them church chords.” What a moment it must have been — sitting there at the piano hearing unknown Otis Redding sing “These Arms of Mine” in a studio for the first time after uttering those words. Guitarist and co-songwriter Steve Cropper, then at the piano, describes Redding's soul-laden voice as making his hairs stand up six inches off his arms.

Cut down in the very prime of his recording career at 26 in a tragic plane crash that claimed most of his backing band, Redding's brief but thrilling story is one of the greatest in rock ‘n' roll or soul — wherever you place him. Dreams to Remember: The Legacy of Otis Redding, a poignant documentary on Otis' life, effectively and often beautifully reveals this story, rightly focusing on interviews with key figures in his life and surviving performance reels.

Because his wife, fellow musicians and friends are allowed to speak so freely, and because Redding emanated such charismatic, positive energy — in his songs and in life — the documentary is a refreshing change from the typical “drugs, sex and ruin” story to which “Behind the Music” has inured us.

Whether unveiling rare concert footage, such as a Cleveland performance filmed less than 24 hours before his death, or offering impassioned retellings of the singer's incredibly influential life, Dreams to Remember is a must for any fan of soul, rock n' roll or R&B. — J.R. Wick

Prebook 9/18; Street 10/23
First Run, Documentary, $29.95 DVD, NR.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The vision of a utopian society is always among us. In some eras it belongs to dreamers alone; in others the experimenters strike out.

And so it was with Black Bear Ranch, a Northern California commune in the late 1960s and early '70s.

It's the same mixture of disgust and optimism that drove the westward movement. But there was no West left; pioneers were an anachronism and the world was about important business.

Commune is a beautifully edited love letter to the Black Bear community. The story of Communeis told in grainy contemporary footage interspersed with present-day accounts by those who lived at Black Bear. Former residents describe begging celebrities for money, how they lived at Black Bear and what they hoped to accomplish. The modern footage is nicely shot; the old footage is degraded, unsteady and probably shot by someone who was high. Then again, as one former resident says, drugs were consumed so quickly that most times, there weren't any.

It's hard to capture urgency in hindsight, but over and over participants tell of their fear that the old order was destroying the world. Going back to simpler things seemed like the way to save it. Some talk about their disaffection and need for a family that the commune provided; many say it felt like coming home.

One concern seems correct even now: In a world of dwindling fossil fuel resources and terrifying hurricanes, it doesn't hurt to know how to do a few things the old-fashioned way.

Many former commune denizens have since joined the mainstream. Actor Peter Coyote is among them. Others are teachers, lawyers, acupuncturists and apartment managers. Most are grandparents.

So was the social experiment a success? That depends on who you ask. But it's clear there is still a core community based on the common memory. — Holly J. Wagner

Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea
Street 10/2
Docurama, Documentary, $26.95 DVD, NR.

Few Californians would describe the Salton Sea as California's French Riviera, but at least one does.

Plagues & Pleasures of the Salton Sea is immediately, unexpectedly engaging. The filmmakers were smart to open with residents alternately praising and dissing the area. You can't help but wonder how people could see exactly the same thing so differently, so you have to stick around to find out.

John Waters, pun possibly intended, narrates how the oddity of the Salton Sea was formed. Old newsreels featuring swimsuit-clad beautiful people waterskiing beckon us to come boating or fishing. Residents tell us about what happened afterward, how the Salton City retirement community laid out 50 miles south of Palm Springs marketed with day trips, trams and golf carts.

Today there are macabre accounts of the death rate, whether by natural causes or suicide. We get a street-level tour of the community from those who know it best, a ragtag band of economic refugees from Los Angeles, retirees, die-hard optimist investors and free spirits, not the least being a septuagenarian nudist. We visit the local landmarks and hear from denizens new and old.

The Salton Sea has seen quite a share of ups and downs — literally, economically and environmentally. The eternally optimistic residents believe that cleanup money the late Rep. Sonny Bono championed can help them turn back the tide of botulism that afflict the fish and waterfowl and any other risks in the area, creating still another boom for Salton City.

But with most of the water consisting of agricultural runoff and any water a scarce resource in Imperial County, the sea may again be drained for other purposes, and the area returned to the desert.

The movie is a fun walk of time that leaves room for wondering what happens next, and the Salton City eccentrics make Plagues & Pleasures a surprising charmer. The film is the first in the 10-film “Docurama Film Festival IV” series. — Holly J. Wagner

Spike Jones: The Legend
Prebook 9/18; Street 10/30
Infinity, Comedy, $49.98 four-DVD set, NR.

Spike Jones was a true entertainer — a musician, comedian and all-around talent who moved easily from zany to sometimes semi-serious.

During his handful of stints hosting “The Colgate Comedy Hour” on NBC, Jones wowed early television audiences with his capacity for way-out comedy and bizarre musical stunts.

This multidisc collection of episodes featuring Jones hosting the show is a real hoot. The first disc features his initial 1951 appearance on the show, including the usual array of physical comedy and standards.

Old pals Doodles Weaver and Gale Robbins help Jones through a series of sight gags and acrobatics, along with songs such as “Laura,” “Glow Worm,” “Chloe,” “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” and “Cocktails for Two.”

The first disc also has Weird Al Yankovic ruminating on what made Jones so entertaining, and how his own career was influenced by the musical madman.

Joining Jones in episodes on the other discs in the collection are Jim Backus and Liberace, while an audio CD contains a presentation of two radio show pilots.

Special features include interviews with Jones and footage from an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

This is old-school comedy that entertains by letting loose, a nostalgic reminder of not only how TV did things way back when, but what an admirable talent Jones was in so many ways. — Dan Bennett

High-Def Spotlight: 300
Warner, Action, B.O. $210.6 million, $34.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 HD DVD/DVD combo, ‘R' for for graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity.
Stars Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Rodrigo Santoro, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender, Andrew Tiernan, Andrew Pleavin.

Both the HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc incarnations of the surprise blockbuster 300 feature breathtaking visuals in high-def, but there's a huge gap in the all-important extras between the competing platforms. While most films that come out on both platforms are identical twins, the HD DVD version of 300is the better buy, thanks to its robust offering of extras.

Warner has given the HD DVD version the full next-gen treatment with a number of features that are sure to become standards as more studios embrace the options of high-definition. The picture-in-picture feature shows how director Zack Snyder turned the bluescreen action into cinematic glory. The commentary from Snyder keeps this option entertaining throughout, even after the actual before-and-after shots become stale. The ability to watch and learn about an entire movie is something that is sure to help film students learn about CGI.

The HD DVD disc also has some innovative Web-enabled extras for gamers who watch the film on their Xbox 360s or cinephiles who connect their standalone HD DVD players to the Internet. One feature allows you to pick your favorite scenes, organize the clips and save them on your player's hard drive or post them online.

There's also a rudimentary Vengeance and Valor video game, which marries film elements with board games like Risk and Checkers. Players can face off against other opponents online. As the marriage between games and Hollywood continues to grow, this type of test is likely the beginning of new and more complex interactive offerings on HD DVD. It's great to see a studio take a new step in this convergence direction, especially since gamers only had a PSP 300 game for the film's launch.

The final element on the HD DVD is something most studios will likely embrace — online commerce. While movie fans have long been downloading ringtones and wallpapers via computers and cell phones, this disc has a “Take 300 Wherever You Go” link that allows these purchases to be made through the connected HD DVD player.

The Blu-ray version features a brilliant 1080i high-def transfer, but only includes the extras from the standard DVD (the HD DVD has these same extras). Included on this disc are 1080i/MPEG 2 video elements: a behind-the-scenes documentary, the featurette “Preparing for Battle: The Test Footage,” and four minutes of deleted scenes with commentary by Snyder. There also are 12 webisodes on the making of the film, and audio commentary with Snyder, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad and cinematographer Larry Fong (which is different than the picture-in-picture HD DVD version). — John Gaudiosi

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