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Reviews: September 10

10 Sep, 2006 By: Home Media Reviews

Bottoms Up

Bottoms Up
Street 9/12
Sony Pictures, Comedy, $24.96 DVD, ‘R' for sexual content, nudity, language and drug use.
Stars Paris Hilton, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith.

Paris Hilton is a perfectly normal rich girl. She will inherit millions from daddy's hotel empire, she never has to work a day in her life unless it's for TV cameras (“The Simple Life”) and she aspires to become an actress. There's nothing strange about any of that. But she lacks so much the talents of a thespian that as I watched her on camera posing as someone else, she began to transform from a perfectly normal rich girl into an alien creature.

In certain shots, the extra-wide bone structure of her face at the edges of her eyes began to seem odd, like fringes of a half-lizard star traveler. Her “look at me I'm sexy” gait became even more pronounced than in real life, infusing her every movement on camera with the sort of unnatural steps that aliens took in M. Night Shyamalan's Signs – the same ones that made Joaquin Phoenix's character in the film gasp with terror as he caught glimpses on a closet TV screen.

Oh, yeah — Jason Mewes is in this, too. He normally plays the perpetual on-screen partner Jay to Kevin Smith's Silent Bob character in most of Smith's films. Here, he has to lose the funny-guy pothead guise for his take on a dull, everyman hero who's trying to save his dad's bar. He achieves this transformation to the audience's detriment.

For people actually looking for laughs, character actor David Keith is fantastic as an F-bomb-dropping, gravel-voiced homosexual uncle. He gets a lot of screen time, and he should be up for Best Performance in a Bad Movie.

Selling Points: People should see this for xeno-anthropological reasons, observing the behavior of a lead role in the hands of an alien. Joking aside, of course, TV's “The Simple Life” lives on, Hilton just released a slickly produced music CD, and she's a top celebrity with ‘tween girls. Parents beware: This movie's all jokes about sex and drugs with bad words. — Brendan Howard

Scrubs: The Complete Fourth Season
Street 10/10
BV/Touchstone, Comedy, $39.99 three-DVD set, NR.
Stars Zach Braff, Donald Faison, Sarah Chalke.

Rising from the sitcom ashes in the heyday of reality TV, “Scrubs” has established itself as one of the best comedies on network TV. A mix of “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “ER” sensibilities, “Scrubs” embodies the best of what TV has to offer. Any to whom its success is still a mystery should look no further than the fourth-season DVD set.

Carrying the same warm heart that first enticed its early audience, the series is in full stride throughout the fourth season; the writers further hone characters and jokes, the cast interaction becomes effortless, and the pacing is near perfect.

The special features reinforce the show's success; even the deleted scenes sizzle with pitch-perfect delivery and memorable lines. Also evident in the multiple behind-the-scenes vignettes on the third disc are the care, thought and humor behind the series. Executive producer Bill Lawrence and his staff are well aware of the true pieces that make the series tick: the JD/Cox mentor-student relationship, the wacky supporting cast and the complex (and not-so-complex) romantic and platonic relationships.

This is enhanced by the episode commentaries, which add a new set of jokes and mythology to the already worthwhile DVD set. — J.R. Wick

Taps: 25th Anniversary Edition
Street 9/12
Fox, Drama, $19.98 DVD, ‘PG.'
Stars George C. Scott, Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, Tom Cruise.

Even if it were not a great film, Taps would get attention for introducing, in their very first featured film roles, two young actors named Sean Penn and Tom Cruise. That it is a great film, and what's more one in which these two future Hollywood heavyweights give outstanding performances, makes it even more significant and certainly worthy of a new 25th-anniversary special edition.

The plot, likely familiar to most, revolves around an elite military academy where young cadets try to stave off the school's closure with an armed rebellion. Under the leadership of their well-meaning but misguided commandant (Hutton), they barricade themselves within the school walls under the pretext of defending both their own and their school's code of honor. Of course, their putatively “honorable” intentions have tragic consequences, but the film's conclusion — to say nothing of its moral center — is by no means pat or clich?d.

The film has aged remarkably well. The anniversary package, although not extraordinary, is sure to please fans. Director Harold Becker provides a running commentary filled with the kind of reminiscences and anecdotal stories that make for good trivia. There are also two featurettes. The first, “Sounding the Call to Arms,” is an informative making-of documentary featuring interviews with Hutton, Becker and producer Stanley Jaffe. The second is basically filler: “The Bugler's Cry,” a short history of the bugle call “Taps.”

Crummy featurette aside, the Taps anniversary DVD is still a worthy buy and a fitting tribute to a picture that jump-started two remarkable careers. — Eddie Mullins

Warren Miller's Higher Ground
Prebook 9/20; Street 10/10
Shout Factory, Sports, $19.98 DVD, NR.

Higher Ground is the latest production from legendary skiing filmmaker Miller. He's been building a reputation since the 1940s, when he taught skiing at Sun Valley and began cranking out films of his beloved sport. He supposedly has made more than 700 films.

Like some of Miller's recent works, Higher Ground offers much of the same high-intensity winter adventures and stunts performed by skiers and snowboarders. The film also takes viewers on a tour of some of the most heavenly resorts and skiing venues in the world. (Yes, there's a visit to the California resort Heavenly.) Among them are such hot spots as Lake Tahoe, Calif.; Park City, Utah; Aspen, Colo.; Alaska; France; British Columbia; and Switzerland.

In addition to globetrotting to top-notch resorts, the film features a colorful cast of characters who exhibit an array of acrobatic stunts. And when they aren't performing on the slopes, they mix in a little humor. Among the personalities are 85-year-old skier Klaus Obermeyer, snowboarder Chelone Miller and World Cup mogul champ and Olympian Jeremy Bloom.

Selling Points: Fans of Miller's work will definitely enjoy this one. The cinematography is wonderful and full of scenic shots. — Benny Lopez

Go for Zucker
Street 9/19
First Run, Comedy, B.O. $0.1 million, $29.95 DVD, NR. In German with English Subtitles.
Stars Henry H?bchen, Udo Samel.

Jaeckie Zucker just can't catch a break. He's eyeballs deep in debt and facing divorce, the loss of his nightclub and possible incarceration at the hands of his only son. He imagines, however optimistically, that all of his problems will be solved if he can just win an upcoming high-stakes pool tournament. But no sooner does he enter than he finds out his mother has died. Her dying wish is that Jaeckie sit in mourning for seven days with his estranged, Orthodox Jewish brother. If he doesn't, he won't receive his undisclosed inheritance.

So begins Jaeckie's outrageous scheming to win both the tournament prize and the inheritance. A practiced reprobate, he stages a series of illnesses to sneak off and compete, while ostensibly still observing the strict rules and injunctions of Orthodox Jewish practice. Determined to the point of lunacy, he even goes so far as to fake a heart attack at his mother's burial.

What makes Go for Zucker utterly enjoyable is that its hero is, for all his unregenerate ways, uncommonly likable, thanks in no small part to actor H?bchen. He brings to the role — for which he won the German equivalent of an Oscar — a brilliant mixture of charm, comic cynicism and an air of beleaguered tenacity that is at once both winning and infectious.

It's altogether rare to find this breed of anti-hero — the loveable old curmudgeon — in mainstream contemporary cinema. It's even more rare to find a filmmaker (in this case, director Dani Levy) audacious enough to make a comedy about the plight of German Jews in post-WWII Germany. Yet somehow, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, it all hangs together marvelously. Go for Zucker is comedy of the first order.

Selling Points: This hilarious film won five “German Oscars,” including best picture and best actor. — Eddie Mullins

Kill Zone
Street 9/12
Genius/The Weinstein Company, Action, $24.95 two-DVD set, NR. In English or Cantonese with English and Spanish subtitles.
Stars Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Sammo Hung.

Best classified as Kung Fu noir, Kill Zone has been heralded as one of the best Hong Kong martial arts films in years. At moments, too, it lives up to the hype, delivering breathtakingly fast and brutal action scenes that integrate a tremendous range of fighting styles without losing their urgency.

As with most martial arts extravaganzas, however, Kill Zone suffers from an opacity that may confuse Western audiences. Plot holes abound, and plot points never find full explanation. One can guess the likely relationships between characters, but one can never be sure what's going on — much of the downtime between action scenes is spent unveiling long, sprawling shots rather than pursuing dramatic exposition.

As is often the case, the main battle is between good and bad, although due to the film's noir underpinnings, the lines between them are dulled. On one side is the Untouchables-style elite police team led by Chan, a detective whose terminal brain tumor propels him to new heights of recklessness and ruthlessness; on the other is crime boss Wong Po (Hung) and his gang of thugs. Needless to say, fighting ensues.

This fighting — short bursts of serious and bloodthirsty combat — is the film's centerpiece. The rest of the footage, while well shot and acted, is simply a frame around it. Fight choreographer-actor Donnie Yen, who sits atop the martial arts pantheon with Jet Li, called Kill Zone's action scenes the finest in his career, and it's easy to see why. The alleyway battle between him and Wu Jing practically sparkles with ultra-chic bloodlust, and his final showdown with the legendary Sammo is steeped in vintage brutality.

Selling Points: For diehard martial arts fans, this is a must. It features a wide assortment of genre favorites as well as a host of well-known Hong Kong actors and high production values.— J.R. Wick

What's on DVD?

  • Commentary with a Hong Kong cinema expert
  • Eight featurettes on the stars playing the heroes and the villain, as well as the director, the anatomy of a scene and making of the film.

  • Live Feed
    Prebook 9/12; Street 10/3
    MTI, Horror, $24.95 DVD, ‘R' or Unrated.
    Stars Kevan Ohtsji, Taayla Markell.

    Adventure travel is a billion-dollar industry these days. The kind of travel done by the unsuspecting tourists in Live Feed isn't so much a canoe paddle as a death trip. That's what you call it when somebody sticks a live snake down your throat into your stomach. And he's just getting started.

    Live Feed is an extravaganza of torture and gore, willingly and maniacally so. The story is of a group of young adults on holiday in an Asian city looking for a good time. They assume they've found it when they enter a porn theater and match up for some extracurricular activity. These friends soon find themselves locked in rooms, where they are videotaped having sex, then experience gruesome torture, all for the benefit of a voyeur, a local madman-crime boss.

    Over-the-top acting and woeful dialogue join with over-the-moon gore and terror, but Live Feed makes no apologies for its ‘B'-movie leanings. Instead, the film wallows in its core intent — shock value — featuring no-name actors and no hope for widespread approval, but a zeal for doing things without blinking.

    Selling Points: This film reminds one of the recent Quentin Tarantino-produced Hostel, but don't blame copycatting — Live Feed was filmed first. — Dan Bennett

    Dark Fields
    Street 9/12
    Lionsgate, Horror, $26.98 DVD, ‘R' for violence and profanity.
    Stars Jenna Scott, Lindsay Dell, Eric Phillion.

    The digital revolution continues to democratize the art of cinema. Now almost anyone can pick up a camcorder, turn it on, turn it off and say that they have made a feature film. The results of such amateur endeavors are quite frequently … amateurish, with emphasis weighted strongly toward gore, thrills and chills rather than plot, character development and technical quality.

    Such is the case with Dark Fields, a Canadian film with many production flaws and artistic weaknesses that still winds up being pretty effective.

    Taking the classic, surprisingly still-vital horror storyline about a group of kids on a road trip getting sidetracked, seeking help and finding mayhem, Dark Fields offers few surprises but a passable level of entertainment.

    Directors Allan Randall and Mark McNabb have, perhaps unintentionally, crafted an almost neo-realist film, leading a cast of unknown, presumably non-professional actors through their paces using available locations and materials.

    Still, fluorescent lights buzz on the soundtrack, interiors of cars are unnaturally well lit at night, time of day seems to shift within the same scene, depending on whether the shot is inside the car (where the night sky is black) or outside the car (where the sky is still blue just past sundown), and unsightly zits mark the faces of some of the actors.

    There is a lot of set-up in this film, but none of the typical shocking teasers to jumpstart the narrative and give a sense of the scares to come.

    So, it is nearly 45 minutes into this 80-minute production before anything really happens, and after that the pace only gradually intensifies. Once the bodies start to pile up and only two of the original five characters are left, things pick up and the filmmakers demonstrate some talent for building tension and editing suspenseful sequences — but by then it might be a case of too little, too late for some viewers.

    Selling Points: Few things sell better than teens-on-the-road-get-chopped-up-after-taking-a-wrong-turn films, and this one should benefit from that built-in audience. No, the production is not going to attract anyone with its completely no-name cast, but passion for the genre is so strong that the film is bound to find an audience. — David Greenberg

    La Tragedia de Macario
    Street 9/19
    Laguna, Horror, $24.95 DVD, Rating pending.
    In Spanish with English subtitles.
    Stars Rogelio Ramos, Victor Agustin, Milicent Figueroa.

    Unimaginative but heartfelt, La Tragedia de Macario is a film about the plight of poor Mexicans dreaming of better opportunities in the United States.

    The film's eponymous hero is an indigent day laborer who suffers constant shame and embarrassment at not being able to provide for his long-suffering wife. Night after night, they eat only beans, while Macario wryly jokes about his workday dealing with CEOs and captains of industry. But when a chance incident suddenly finds Macario in possession of $1,000, he hatches a plan that he thinks will be his salvation.

    Along with best friend Phillipe, Macario seeks out a “coyote” who they believe will safely deliver them to San Antonio. There, with the assistance of his brother, the two expect to make substantial amounts of money and return to their families as conquering heroes. They blow the sum total of Macario's windfall and are packed into a freight train bound for the United States.

    Unfortunately, the title ruins what might otherwise be at least a smidgen of audience expectation as to how they will wind up. That Macario will come to a bad end is determined before frame one rolls, so watching the picture is more of a waiting game than anything else. Even more frustrating are the numerous musical interludes, including ad hoc songs that reiterate endlessly the substance of the plot. These are lengthy and unnecessary, taking up an unusual amount of screen time in a film that doesn't even hit the 90-minute mark.

    All that said, La Tragedia de Macario does have a strong social conscience, and its message is relevant.

    Selling Points: Immigrants are in the news these days, and Spanish-language films are on the rise, but this one can only be recommended to forgiving viewers. — Eddie Mullins

    The Sandman
    Street 9/19
    Tempe Video, Horror, $24.99 DVD, NR.
    Stars A.J. Richards, Rita Gutowski.

    Gary (Richards), a struggling romance novelist living in a trailer park, is having trouble sleeping. So is his neighbor and girlfriend, Maris (Gutowski). Another neighbor of Gary's is found dead one morning, part of a national epidemic of people dying in their sleep.

    When Gary lets himself into Maris' trailer one night to apologize for a fight that day, he thinks he's found the answer. He sees a seven-foot-tall hooded skeletal figure with glowing red eyes apparently sucking the life out of Maris as she sleeps. The creature flees. Maris remembers nothing when she awakens, nor does she believe Gary's story.

    Another neighbor, a spaced-out Vietnam vet, tells Gary the creature is The Sandman, who gives people good dreams to put them out long enough to steal their souls. Gary decides he has to stop The Sandman before it kills Maris and everyone else, even if it means everyone thinks he's crazy.

    Selling Points: The Sandman's target audience is hardcore Nightmare on Elm Street and Fangoria fans. It's populated, early on, with goofy humor, goofy characters and snappy dialogue, and it's charming when it doesn't take itself seriously (which it does at the confusing end). The Sandman creature is also impressive for a movie made for just $20,000 in 1996. — Mark Lowe

    What's on DVD?

  • Commentary with director and line producer
  • Making-of featurette
  • Deleted scenes
  • Reversible box art with introduction by director
  • Still gallery

  • The Latin Legends of Comedy
    Prebook 9/13; Street 10/10
    Fox, Comedy, $19.98 DVD, NR.
    Stars Joey Vega, J.J. Ramirez, Angel Salazar.

    The Latin Legends of Comedy doesn't have the star power of The Original Latin Kings of Comedy, which has George Lopez, Paul Rodriguez and Cheech Marin. But it isn't short on laughs. Part stand-up show, part documentary, the film also has the added dimension of real-life drama.

    The film features live stand-up routines from J.J. Ramirez, Joe Vega and Angel Salazar at New York City's Comic Strip Live. Interspersed between the routines are interviews with each of the New York comics.

    The three amigos broke into the scene together at the famous Comic Strip Club Live during the 1980s. These funnymen came up at a time when there were few Latino comics. They each tell their personal stories about the beginnings of their careers and some of the stories behind their jokes.

    The Cuban-accented Salazar talks about immigrating to the United States from Cuba and the origins of his catch phrase “sheck it out!”

    Ramirez talks about his mom's recent passing and having contemplated changing his surname from Ramirez to Ram at the beginning of his career — he didn't because it sounded too much like a porn star's name.

    Vega, who at times seems like a Latino Joe Pesci, makes jokes about what he knows: sex.While a lot of the jokes are centered around cultures — different cultures not just Latino cultures — the humor of all three comedians is universal, fresh and laugh-out-loud funny. The interviews add depth to each of these guys, showing how they paid their dues to earn the moniker “Latin Legend of Comedy.”

    Selling Points: Latino comedy is hot. Anyone who likes stand-up, documentaries and Latino films should “sheck it out.” Angelique Flores

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