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Reviews: Sept. 23

23 Sep, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Street 10/2
Fox, Action, B.O. $131.7 million, $29.98 DVD, $34.98 two-DVD set, $39.98 Blu-ray, ‘PG' for sequences of action violence, some mild language and innuendo.
Stars Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon, Kerry Washington, Andre Braugher, Beau Garrett, Doug Jones. Voice of Laurence Fishburne.

How could any comic book fan not get excited to see The Silver Surfer jump into the realm of live action? Sure, the concept of a metallic man floating through space on a surfboard is pure new-age 1960s. But in a movie that stars a rubber man and a guy made out of rocks, goofiness isn't a problem. This may not be the best superhero movie ever, but it certainly isn't the worst.

For those unfamiliar with the Marvel Comics canon, The Silver Surfer is the herald of a powerful being called Galactus, who sustains his energy by feasting on living worlds. The Surfer arrives to prepare Earth for destruction just as the members of the Fantastic Four are preparing for the wedding of Reed Richards (Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Alba).

The Army enlists the help of the Four, as well as Dr. Doom (McMahon), revived by the energies of the Surfer. Doom, of course, is biding his time until he can steal the powers of the Surfer's board for himself.

Fans hoping to see Galactus in his classic comic book form will no doubt be disappointed by the destroyer's appearance in the final act. Director Tim Story discusses in his commentary that he didn't want to hamper any future portrayals of Galactus in a Silver Surfer movie.

Switch to the other commentary to hear some of the other filmmakers discuss how bad the special effects were in the first cut before they were revamped. The light show is still pretty cartoonish, but fans of the comic should get a kick out of seeing their favorite characters on screen again.

The two-disc Power Cosmic edition includes a few behind-the-scenes featurettes, but more interesting are the programs that detail the history of the characters involved. In this case, we get a full tutorial on The Surfer, and more than enough writers comparing the character to Jesus.

The disc also has some nice deleted scenes, including the unused opening title sequence that takes viewers on the Silver Surfer's journey through space to Earth. Story talks about ditching it to jump into the plot faster, but he doesn't mention that it's basically the same concept as the opening for Superman Returns last year. John Latchem

Quick Take: Somebody Save Me

As a series, “Smallville” has always been a better viewing experience on DVD. The recently released sixth season isn't much different. The show stepped up creatively after a disappointing fifth season, bringing in classic DC Comics hero Green Arrow to form an early version of the Justice League. The DVD includes an outstanding featurette tracing the history of the character, with interviews from most of the creative talent who shaped him. Sure, he started as just another ripoff of Batman, but the documentary is as much about the social impact of comic books as it is about the character. Another interesting featurette explores various fan movements surrounding the show. One drawback to the set, however, is that the “Justice & Doom” shorts are grouped together rather than with the episodes with which they originally aired. John Latchem

Caligula: Imperial Edition
Street 10/2
Image, Drama, $39.99 three-DVD set; single-disc ‘R'-rated and unrated versions $19.99.Stars Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud.

As much as Caligula is a celebration of the decadence of ancient Roman culture, this new DVD set is a celebration of the decadence of Caligula. Helen Mirren might have the best quote in describing the film, saying, “It has an irresistible mix of art and genitals in it.”

The DVD has one of those classic vintage behind-the-scenes documentaries in which everyone interviewed speaks as if what they are saying is the most philosophically profound statement they can conceive of at the time. It's almost as amusing to see Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, the film's producer, try to justify the explicit sexual content (“This is not pornography, this is paganography”) as it is to hear the narrator compare the production to a Cecil B. DeMille epic.

In fact, Guccione oversaw the creation of several scenes of hardcore sex that were later edited into the movie over the objections of its director, Tinto Brass, who launched a series of lawsuits in an effort to gain the right to craft the film he intended. The final result left Brass so drained creatively that any cut he would be allowed to release would be like “re-heated soup.”

Ironically, Brass' problems with the producers came after his own well-publicized feud with screenwriter Gore Vidal over the cinematic style of the film. Vidal imagined a solemn film, while Brass wanted to focus more on visual flair. Guccione's additional scenes add little to the film other than to drive it beyond a point of excess it was perfectly capable of achieving on its own.

An alternate version that approximates Brass' vision, without the insert shots, is included on the second disc, and it is this version that includes the DVD's three audio commentaries.

Mirren headlines one commentary in which she and a couple of film critics discuss the beleaguered history of the production. McDowell uses another commentary to discuss his role, while the third commentary features a phone interview with Ernest Volkman, who was Penthouse's on-set reporter at the time.

The DVD set also includes new interviews with Brass, Penthouse Pet Lori Wagner (who appeared in one of the sex scenes), and actor John Steiner (now a real estate agent), who gives a very candid interview about how he hated the experience of making the movie (he describes one actress as having not much talent, but terrific legs).

Vidal's original script is offered via DVD-ROM. John Latchem

Prebook 9/26; Street 10/23
Lionsgate, Horror, B.O. $0.3 million, $28.98 DVD, ‘R' for sequences of zombie-related violence.
Stars Carrie-Anne Moss, Billy Connolly, Dylan Baker, K'Sun Ray, Henry Czerny, Tim Blake Nelson.

If ever a recent film was destined for cult-classic status, Fido is at the head of the pack. A wildly effective zombie comedy set in 1950s suburbia, the film is a marvel of dark humor, social commentary, great acting and killer production design. Like the recent Shaun of the Dead, this film represents the dawn of a new genre, the “zomedy.”

Imagine “Lassie” as directed by George Romero, and you get an accurate sense of the tone of this movie. In fact, the plot really is a variation on the classic boy-and-his-dog narrative. Set inventively in the past, the world of the film is recognizable until it is soon revealed that it depicts a society some years after a zombie invasion.

One of the charms of most zombie films is that filmmakers rarely provide a reason for the existence of the creatures; they just appear, perhaps as a symptom of a world out of whack.

Electronic behavior-modification collars have domesticated zombies and turned them into a new sub-species (an underclass of semi-humans kept as pets or slaves). As is the case in much of the sci-fi/horror genre, unnatural manipulations of nature — even when it is the nature of life after death — usually go wrong.

The uniformly excellent cast includes a career-best performance by Moss and another wild role from Scottish comic Connolly as the family pet.

That this film manages to combine social commentary, gore and humor so successfully is the ultimate delight in a piece that is overloaded with quality. — David Greenberg

Prebook 9/27; Street 10/23
ThinkFilm, Horror, $27.98 DVD, Unrated.
Stars Scott W. McKinlay, Vince Marinelli, Brian Kolodziej.

Just when you thought horror films had run out of ingenious ways to torture their victims on screen, along comes Gag. Best described as a low-budget version of Saw, Gag is the nightmarish story of two professional thieves who find themselves caught up in a serial killer's ruthless game when they pick the wrong house to rob.

Upon breaking into a seemingly vacant Hollywood Hills mansion that looks like it was decorated by John Wayne Gacy, Tony (Marinelli) and Detroit (McKinlay) are surprised when they discover an unconscious, badly beaten man bound and gagged instead of the cash-filled safe they were after. This sight isn't enough to send the greedy crooks running for their lives, which is the first of many bad decisions they'll make as they fall right into the sly psychopath's trap.

Now at the mercy of the killer, Tony and Detroit find themselves in a fight for their lives with the rest of his victims in the house, enduring endless games involving torture and other heinous acts (e.g., making a girl perform fellatio on her brother to keep them alive) for the madman's amusement. Their only chance for survival is to outfox the crafty killer, who seems to be always one step ahead of his victims.

Audiences have come to love extreme horror films such as this. Factor in its Halloween-week release date, and Gag shouldn't have trouble finding viewers to shock and awe.

The gory special effects are top-notch and the young, talented Kolodziej (The Girl Next Door) really steals the show as the sadistic killer.

This all adds up to one extremely unnerving, brutal film that proves to be a true gem for hardcore horror fans. — Matt Miller

Barbara Stanwyck: The Signature Collection
Prebook 9/25; Street 10/30
Warner, Drama, $49.92 five-DVD set, $19.97 individual titles, NR.
Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, William Holden, James Mason, June Allyson, Frederic March, Ava Gardner.

The Motion Picture Academy recently held a tribute in Beverly Hills, Calif., for one of Hollywood's most enduring stars, Barbara Stanwyck. Film historian Robert Osborne spoke about how the popular and powerful actress used her celebrity to stop then-novice actor William Holden from getting fired from their film The Golden Boy, which ended up launching his golden career.

Watching Executive Suite, the showcase of this six-film collection, Stanwyck was clearly rewarded, as she and Holden share one of the best scenes of their lengthy careers. All one has to do to see how talented Stanwyck was is to see the despondent mistress she plays in this business drama and contrast it with her performance as the legendary sharp-shooting title character in Annie Oakley.

In addition to Executive Suite and Annie Oakley, this excellent collection also includes the Stanwyck showcases My Reputation, Jeopardy, To Please a Lady and East Side, West Side.

One of the many reasons the sexy and smart Stanwyck was a unique actress was her ability to draw attention to her character without overwhelming her co-stars or dominating the screen, which she was clearly capable of doing. Still, it's near impossible not to take your eyes off of her, and that's quite a compliment when she shares the frame with the likes of Holden, Frederic March, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon and Shelley Winters in director Robert Wise's classic Executive Suite.

The special features are superb, including several mini-movie shorts and radio broadcasts such as “My Reputation.”

The most enjoyable special feature is the candid and entertaining commentary provided by filmmaker Oliver Stone on Executive Suite, which includes how the movie influenced his business-oriented film Wall Street and the delight he has every time he watches another Wise-directed classic, The Sound of Music. — Craig Modderno

Nearing Grace
Prebook 9/25; Street 10/23
Vivendi Visual, Drama, $26.99 DVD, ‘R' for drug use, language and sexual content.
Stars Gregory Smith, Jordana Brewster, Ashley Johnson, David Morse, David Moscow.

From the opening shot of a funeral to the final, predictable ending, Nearing Grace has great performances, a fine soundtrack and a wistful nostalgia fitting for its 1979 setting, but nary a moment of originality.

Whether it's aping Some Kind of Wonderful with its boy-bewilderingly-ignoring-hot-best-friend love story, Say Anything with the too-smart-for-his-own-good-loser-ish hero, or even Pretty in Pink with the drunk-and-depressed father-figure, Nearing Grace is 105 minutes of been there, seen that.

This is a shame because the dullness of familiarity drives down what could have been a good film. Smith (“Everwood”) has a Jason Bateman-like quality — sly, smart, ironic, but ultimately full of heart — as Henry Nearing, a senior in high school who has lost the plot after his mother dies. Morse (Disturbia) is his father, drowning his heartbreak in liquor and a motorcycle.

Henry is torn between two girls — the rich, dangerous Grace (Brewster, who seems too old for this role, but pulls it off nonetheless) and girl-next-door Merna (Johnson from “Growing Pains,” who grew up radiant and adorable).

Henry and Merna have a Dawson-Joey relationship, down to the ladder Henry climbs to sneak into Merna's room. Yet, he's too blinded by Grace's sexual advances to notice — or care about — Merna's overtures toward him.

Henry, lost and adrift, spirals down, but he's always saved when he's just about to hit the brink, leaving the film with little sense of drama or danger. Screenwriter Jacob Aaron Estes also wrote the well-received Mean Creek, so one wonders if the source material, a book by Scott Sommer, is to blame. Director Rick Rosenthal has a steady hand, and there is no fault to be found with the cast — all are good in their roles. Perhaps that makes it worse — these actors make you want to care about these characters, but you're never given a good reason.

Those who like the thinky, talky teen shows of the WB and the CW will find enough familiar ground that they'll probably enjoy this movie, and understandably so, for it's not a bad movie; it's just not nearly as good as it should have been. — Laura Tiffany

Attenborough in Paradise and Other Personal Voyages
Street 10/2
BBC Video, Documentary, $29.98 two-DVD set, NR.

British naturalist David Attenborough has been a fixture on television for almost the entire history of the medium. Originally working behind the scenes at the BBC, Attenborough has been making nature documentaries for more than 50 years.

Someday a comprehensive collection of his films will be available, but for now audiences will have to make do with bits and pieces in smaller compilations. Of course, “make do” is a relative term because his films are so good that even a small dose of an hour-long program is endlessly satisfying.

The 1996 collection Attenborough in Paradise compiles seven episodes, some of which have common themes about living creatures. For example, one show is about the almost mythical and spectacularly beautiful birds of paradise species found in New Guinea, and another is about the mating rituals of bowerbirds. Other episodes deal with anthropological topics such as the origins of music in nature.

Among the more fascinating programs is an examination of the lost culture of Easter Island. Long recognized for its ancient massive statues, Attenborough briefly delves into their history, but he focuses more on the origin of a wooden figure found there, approaching it with the forensic tenacity that would impress any fan of “CSI.”

The name Attenborough is practically synonymous with quality filmmaking — Attenborough's older brother is famed filmmaker Richard (Gandhi, Chaplin) — and this collection does nothing to diminish the reputation.

David Attenborough is not only a dedicated naturalist; he is considered a pioneer in the field of nature documentaries. These films (one of which is a documentary about him) clearly demonstrate how he attained this stature.

The combination of Attenborough's passion for the natural world and his ability as a filmmaker has resulted in beautiful films that are utterly compelling. — David Greenberg

Street 9/25
Dokument, Drama, B.O. $0.009 million, $19.98 DVD, NR.
In Polish with English subtitles.
Stars Katharina Thalbach, Andrzej Chyra, Dominique Horwitz, Andrzej Grabowski, Dariusz Kowalski, Ewa Telega, Wojciech Pszoniak.

Volker Schlondorff's late-career films, such as Legend of Rita and The Ninth Day, have been marked by the director's emphasis on both political engagement and heroic individualism, and his latest film, Strike, is no exception.

Billed as “a ballad based on historical events,” the film tells the origin story of the Polish Solidarity movement. The central figure here is Agnieska (Thalbach), an illiterate single-mother who, as the story begins, works as a welder in the Gdansk shipyards.

Diligent and highly industrious, Agnieska regularly exceeds her production quotas, and is even awarded prizes at the annual union banquet. When she is promoted to crane operator and marries a kind-hearted trumpet player, it looks, however briefly, as if her future is both rosy and secure.

But when the safety conditions at work deteriorate, Agnieska is the first to voice her complaints. Some of her co-workers admire her for her bravery, while others scorn her for rocking the boat, but she is not long in becoming a highly visible advocate for change. After years of agitation, Agnieska is fired, an event that triggers a massive workers strike, and what was arguably the first significant catalyst that helped bring down the Iron Curtain.

Despite some occasional clumsiness, and an episodic approach to plotting that some may find awkward, Strike is nonetheless an emotionally powerful work, thanks in no small part to Thalbach. Her performance here is passionate and lightning-charged throughout. — Eddie Mullins

HD DVD Spotlight: Next
Street 9/25
Paramount, Thriller, B.O. $18 million, $39.99 HD DVD, ‘PG-13' for intense sequences of violent action and some language. Stars Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, Jessica Biel.
HDTV: Panasonic 42-inch
Player: Toshiba HD-XA2

They say the camera adds 10 pounds; well, high-definition adds pores. Lots of them. And that's not necessarily a good thing, even if you are Academy Award-winner Nicolas Cage. The star of the underwhelming action-thriller Next, when shown up-close in 1080i, showcases a complicated mug that is far from that of a matinee idol.

Jessica Biel, on the other hand, doesn't disappoint in high-def, no matter the proximity or number of screen pixels.

Unlike a lot of high-def releases, the special features, including the theatrical trailer, were actually filmed in HD. “Two Minutes in the Future with Jessica Biel” features the actress musing on clairvoyance (“It doesn't make life much fun,” she said). Besides winning a few hands of blackjack and avoiding poor movie roles, Biel says she would not succumb to the temptation.

“Making the Best Next Thing” is a non-stop thank-you to Cage, whose theatrical mojo likely helped greenlight the film's $70 million budget.

Cage wanted to include scenes in the movie from the Havasupai Indian reservation, which he said he learned about in a remote area of the Grand Canyon while hiking with his wife. The magnificent waterfall, clear blue water and canyon lighting, especially in high-def, make this hideaway a visual treat. Erik Gruenwedel

Editor's Pick: Glengarry Glen Ross
1992, Lionsgate, ‘R' for Language including sexual references. Stars Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Jonathan Pryce, Jude Ciccolella, Bruce Altman.

For Closers Only

Some movies just have a way of getting in your head and wrapping themselves around your brain. Glengarry Glen Ross, based on David Mamet's stage play, is such a film. With a powerhouse cast (including four Academy Award winners) delivering juicy dialogue, how could it not be? Don't be surprised if you find yourself quoting the film with regularity after a viewing.

In the film, we meet four real-estate salesmen who will do anything to sell worthless property to customers who don't want it.

Mamet has found a way to cram so many worthwhile themes, from transition to desperation, into such a simple framework. Jack Lemmon is the elderly salesman who has fallen on hard times. Al Pacino plays the smooth-talker on a winning streak. Alec Baldwin plays a hotshot from downtown who shows up in a classic cameo. All are pitch perfect.

Baldwin puts the fear of God into the salesmen by telling them to close a deal or they're fired. The next day, the office has been ransacked. Sensitive documents have been stolen. The subsequent investigation quickly gives way to one of the classic verbal beatdowns in cinema history, when Pacino berates the inept office manager, played by Kevin Spacey, who costs him a big sale.

These are scenes you could watch again and again with continued fascination at the skill with which these performers give life to the words on the page.John Latchem

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