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Reviews: September 3

3 Sep, 2006 By: Home Media Reviews

Bad Santa: Director's Cut

Bad Santa: Director's Cut
Street 10/10
BV/Dimension, Comedy, $19.99 DVD, ‘R' for pervasive language, strong sexual content and some violence.
Stars Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, John Ritter, Bernie Mac.

Director Terry Zwigoff says in his commentary to this director's cut of Bad Santa — the darkly comic tale of a safe-cracker and his midget partner who rob a department store each Christmas — that this version is “more truthful” than the theatrical version, and he's right.

In this version, interaction between Thornton's self-loathing, alcoholic Santa Claus and the tubby Thurman Merman, who clings to him like chewing gum, is cut to a minimum. Willie's redemption and eventual love for this innocent basketcase, such as it is, is held off until the very end, making it more subtle and, for such an outrageous movie, more believable.

In fact, so many of the sentimental scenes — the Advent calendar, the boxing lessons, the fried bologna — are gone from this version that it's nearly three minutes shorter than the theatrical release, and 10 minutes shorter than the uncensored Badder Santa DVD.

This will be bad news to those who couldn't take their Bad Santa without the artificial sweeteners, or those who laughed mostly at guys getting hit in the groin. On the other hand, some scenes crucial to characterization have been extended — the lunch court, the murder of mall cop Gin (Bernie Mac) — and some of Zwigoff's original music choices have been added, resulting in a more focused movie that is as cynical and raunchy as the original, yet funnier and more poignant.

Aside from his remark regarding truthfulness, Zwigoff in his commentary with editor Robert Hoffman doesn't explain why (or even which) theatrical version scenes were removed. Turn instead to the alternate scenes and outtakes, which include some hilarious improvisations between Thornton and a security guard, and between Ritter and Mac. — Mark Lowe

Art School Confidential
Prebook 9/7; Street 10/10
Sony Pictures, Comedy, B.O. $3.3 million, $26.96 DVD, ‘R' for language including sexual references, nudity and a scene of violence.
Stars Max Minghella, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent, Anjelica Huston, Sophia Myles, Ethan Suplee.

In 2001's Ghost World, the main character, Enid, attends an art class where the instructor introduces herself with a terrible video full of deadly obvious symbolism that culminates in her chanting “mirror, father.” Just like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch stretched uncomfortably into a full-length film, Ghost World's creators — graphic novelist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff — have stretched this scene into Art School Confidential.

Jerome (Minghella), an idealistic freshman, is obsessed with a drawing model (Myles). But when his hopes for love and art stardom are dashed all in his first semester, he begins to unravel. Simultaneously, a murder mystery unfolds. Though Minghella is a bit too blank, the supporting cast is stellar. Malkovich chews the scenery as a sleazy art professor. Myles is a gorgeous, throaty muse. Broadbent, Suplee and Huston round out the impressive cast.

But the film is too clever for its own good. Clowes and Zwigoff's satire doesn't work because the characters never evolve beyond caricature. There are some sublime moments of humor, but the story never forms a cohesive whole and the mystery is just splayed out on top like a dead fish.

Selling Points: Clowes and Zwigoff have serious comic-book cred that'll please the hip artsy crowd the film sends up. — Laura Tiffany

What's on DVD?

  • Deleted scenes
  • Blooper reel
  • Making-of featurette
  • Footage of Sundance premiere

  • My Brother's Keeper
    Street 9/26
    Anchor Bay, Drama, $19.98 DVD.
    Stars Aaron Ashmore, Alberta Watson.

    Although they are virtually indistinguishable from the outside, identical twin brothers Eric and Lou have very different personalities. One is studious and hardworking, the other impulsive and reckless.

    The one thing they share is a love for rowing. One of the twins has his eye on a rowing scholarship at a prestigious university. When the rowing coach offers the free ride to his brother, one twin sacrifices his future for the other.

    For a time, the boys fall into their seemingly preordained paths: One excels at college and on the rowing team, and one works in the same steel factory where their father once worked.

    My Brother's Keeper rests squarely on the shoulders of Ashmore who, although he is, in fact, a twin, plays both brothers. For the most part, he does a fine job of distinguishing the boys and making them separate and independent. Supporting performances vary, and the script seems to stack the cards against the college kid in favor of the hometown faithful. There are a couple of well-filmed scenes of rowing races.

    Selling Points: Ashmore is something of a teen heart-throb in Canada and a TV star in the making in the United States (“Veronica Mars,” an upcoming role as Jimmy Olsen on “Smallville”). He'll certainly appeal to American teens and tweens. Parents can feel comfortable with the film's relative lack of sex and drugs (apart from an abortive subplot involving steroids). — Anne Sherber

    What's on DVD?

  • Interview with director and producer
  • Music video
  • Original stage play footage
  • Footage at premiere
  • Storyboards of select scenes

  • The Green Mile: Special Edition
    Prebook 10/10; Street 11/14
    Warner, Drama, $20.97 two-DVD set, ‘R' for violence, language and some sex-related material.
    Stars Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, Gary Sinise, Bonnie Hunt, Sam Rockwell.

    Based on Stephen King's serial novels of the same name, The Green Mile is a mixture of the realism of Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption with the author's more supernatural yearnings. Rich, mysterious and imbued with King's strange pathos, the film nonetheless falters somewhere in the midst of this meeting. This misstep may be tied to the very nature of the supernatural because where King's best pieces are forced to find resolution through reality, The Green Mile takes an easier way out, using magic and moral, mystical forces to attempt to lay claim to us.

    While all that may somewhat dull the impact of the film, the special-edition DVD so thoroughly embraces Mile's finer aspects that it accomplishes exactly what a special edition should: It enhances the experience of watching the film. Forgetting the rather paltry deleted scenes, the two-disc set's special features complement the skill and communication of the actors. Their talent, especially Hanks, Morse and Rockwell, is only surpassed by their camaraderie — a fact extremely evident on the making-of documentary on disc two.

    Another appealing aspect of the special features is the care with which the project seems to have been conceived and carried out, most notably by director Darabont and newcomer Duncan; an included screen test for the extremely large actor shows just how badly he wanted the role. A wide range of linked short documentaries, such as “Stephen King: Storyteller” and “Acting on the Mile,” as well as director commentary, nicely round out the set. — J.R. Wick

    Prebook 9/5; Street 10/3
    Vivendi Visual, Thriller, B.O. $0.08 million, $26.99 DVD, ‘R' for violence, strong language, and sexual content including nudity and dialogue.
    Stars William H. Macy, Joe Mantegna, Mena Suvari, Julia Stiles, Denise Richards.

    Are the choices we make truly our own, or are they the byproduct of environment and circumstance?

    In this examination of the concept of free will, Edmond (Macy) finds his existence so empty that the vague words of a fortune-teller — “you are not where you belong” — inspire him to leave his wife and start over.

    He, in essence, becomes a tabula rasa — a blank slate — waiting for input. It is in this state that a seemingly innocuous encounter with a bar patron spirals into tragedy: a self-fulfilling prophecy of a tarot reading made reality.

    In his quest to find purpose, Edmond encounters cameos from a series of well-known actors, many of whom are frequent collaborators with writer David Mamet or director Stuart Gordon.

    Edmond wanders into the red-light district, and, still burdened by the vestiges of his old life, finds his new environment almost too much to overcome. It isn't until his wallet is stolen, robbing him of any proof of his identity, that he can free himself from these constraints. In his epiphany, however, he turns himself over to the darker elements of humanity.

    Is Edmond truly free, or has he simply exchanged one prison for another? There is one moment in the film when Edmond seems to be in control. Yet even that is illusory, and his attempt at salvation cannot overcome his transgressions, which he rationalizes with little remorse.

    The film is rich with the trademark Mamet inflection, but it doesn't devolve into an exercise of annunciation, as some of his other works are prone to do.

    Macy has made a career of playing quirky, sub-social characters, and as Edmond he hits all the right notes.

    The film is sometimes funny, occasionally shocking and mostly sad. It is engrossing to watch how far this poor man can sink, yet there should be no pity for him. He deserves what he gets.

    Selling Points: Fans of Mamet and Macy (usually one-and-the-same) will want to check this out. John Latchem

    Looking for Kitty
    Prebook 9/28; Street 10/24
    ThinkFilm, Comedy, $29.99 DVD, ‘R' for language and some sexual references.
    Stars Edward Burns, David Krumholtz, Chris Parnell, Rachel Dratch.

    Krumholtz and Burns play the central characters in this delightful comedy, which is written, produced and directed by the versatile Burns.

    Krumholtz plays Abe, a lonely youth baseball coach from upstate New York whose life revolves around his team. However, his missing wife has suddenly become his obsession. She got sick of the games and left Abe for a new life — and a rock star — in the big city.

    Abe, of course, believes he can win her back. So he too ventures to New York City, where he hires a quirky private investigator (Burns) to find her. That's when this 90-minute comedy adventure takes off.

    Krumholtz and Burns are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the cast. Burns' effort is particularly impressive. In addition to his wonderful performance as Jack, his writing is tight, with a few laugh-out-loud lines.

    Selling Points: Looking for Kitty is another addition to a nice line of films produced by independent filmmaker Burns. His most notable work, in addition to co-starring in Saving Private Ryan, is the critical hit The Brothers McMullen, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1995 Sundance film festival. — Benny Lopez

    QUICK TAKE: Math Matters
    David Krumholtz is most famous these days for work as a mathematician-turned-crimefighter on TV's “Numb3rs.” The first-season set is available from Paramount Home Entertainment. — Brendan Howard

    The King
    Prebook 9/14; Street 10/10
    ThinkFilm, Thriller, B.O. $0.3 million, $27.98 DVD, ‘R' for strong sexual activity involving a teen, violence and language.
    Stars Gael Garcia Bernal, William Hurt, Pell James.

    Watching The King is like watching a fuse burn — you know damn well something's going to blow up, you're just not sure what or when.

    Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien) plays Elvis, a young Latino American just out of the Navy. With no plans for the future, he seeks out the father (Hurt) he's never known, but only heard about from his now-deceased mother. In a small, unnamed southern town, he finds Dad ministering to a thriving Baptist church and immediately tries to insinuate himself into the preacher's family.

    His father, not surprisingly, is reluctant to embrace the illegitimate child he's never seen before and rebuffs Elvis' advances. Rather than give up, Elvis turns his attention to his young and impressionable stepsister (James), whom he guiltlessly seduces. He moves into a local hotel, and the two carry on what, were it not for its incestuousness, appears to be a fairly sweet and tender romance.

    Of course, this cannot last, but The King's sometime-nuanced, sometime-infuriatingly slow pace gives one ample time to speculate just how this particular house of cards is going to fall. Elvis eventually kills his stepbrother, impregnates his stepsister, moves into his father's house and is accepted by the Baptist congregation. With each new audacious step forward, he draws closer and closer to ruining the very family he wishes to be a part of, and yet he somehow manages to avoid both blame and self-destruction. It's one of the longest narrative high-wire acts in recent memory.

    Garcia Bernal's performance here is an interesting one, opaque to the point of confusion, but not wrong for a character whose motives are meant to be unclear. The real standouts, though, are Hurt and James. Hurt's preacher is by turns angry and compassionate, insensitive and generous, believably stuck between the dictates of his conscience and his desire to protect his family and position. James is equally impressive, although in her case for the modesty of her performance. Any young girl can play the ing?nue, but James brings to the part a reserve and quiet conviction rare in actors her age. Hers should be an interesting career to watch.

    Selling Points: Name stars like Hurt and Garcia Bernal will bring in fans. The script was penned by the writer of Monster's Ball. — Eddie Mullins

    Changing Times
    Prebook 9/5; Street 10/3
    Koch Lorber, Drama, B.O. $0.2 million, $29.98 DVD, NR. In French with English subtitles.
    Stars Gerard Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve.

    Andr? T?chin?'s Changing Times is, for all its loose ends and diversions, basically a love story, though a muted one.

    Depardieu plays Antoine, a contractor recently arrived in Tangiers to oversee the construction of a new TV broadcast center. Only half-heartedly committed to the job, his real interest is in reconnecting with his first true love, Cecile (Deneuve), who works at a local radio station. Though he hasn't seen her in 30 years, and despite the fact that she now has a family, Antoine does not think it unreasonable that he should be able to win her back.

    Cecile, for her part, has problems enough without a former lover's unwanted advances. Her marriage has become joyless, and her scapegrace son has recently arrived on her doorstep with his own son and drug-addled wife in tow. Short on money and even shorter on patience, it's all Cecile can do to hold together the fragile house of cards that is her workaday life, and she is little interested in revisiting a past romance.

    But Antoine is persistent — showing up unannounced at her home, her workplace, etc. — almost to the point of lunacy. At length, Cecile's resolve begins to weaken. This weakening, however, does not happen overnight, but by almost imperceptible degrees. That's what gives the film its charm. Any savvy viewer knows Deneuve and Depardieu will come together, but the pace and structure of the film are designed to continuously frustrate this presumption, creating a tense, and sometimes frustrating, mood of sustained expectancy.

    It's a treat to watch Depardieu and Deneuve together again, both of them acting and showing their age. When Antoine produces a photograph of himself and Cecile as young lovers, it is impossible not be pulled out of the film and think of the long careers these two have had. Perfectly suited to the characters they portray, both have faces that age and experience have ingrained with a faint air of melancholy, and it is this sentiment that presides over the whole of Changing Times.

    Selling Points: Formerly two of the biggest stars of French cinema, Deneuve (Belle du Jour) and Depardieu (Cyrano, Green Card) are as enjoyable as ever. — Eddie Mullins

    Calvaire (The Ordeal)
    Prebook 9/5; Street 10/3
    Palm, Horror, $24.99 DVD, ‘R.' In French with English subtitles.
    Stars Laurent Lucas, Jackie Berroyer.

    The Belgian horror film Calvaire isn't a horror film in the usual sense. It's not about mutant beasts gone wild or a slasher terrorizing teenagers. Rather, it's about one man trying to survive a situation that grows increasingly and irredeemably insane. His ordeal is terrifying to him, but to us the circumstances evoke genuine horror – revulsion and a desire to escape.

    Marc Stevens (Lucas) is on his way from one Christmas singing gig to another when his van breaks down, and he is forced to take refuge in an old, isolated inn run by Bartel (Berroyer), a lonely ex-comedian whose wife, Gloria, left him years ago.

    Bartel is also crazy. Within 24 hours, he destroys Marc's van, dresses him in Gloria's old clothes, shaves half his head and imprisons him in the inn.

    Gloria was also the obsessive desire of villager Orton. Shortly after Bartel announces “Gloria's” return and issues a warning to be left alone, the villagers, led by Orton — all of whom are revealed, in a chilling scene involving a frenetic piano player and a lunatic group dance, to likely be inbred psychotics — attack the inn and abduct Marc.

    That the villagers also believe Marc is Gloria adds to a feeling of mass insanity that cannot be shot through by reason or evidence. Marc flees into a nearby wooded bog, hunted by Orton, who falls into quicksand, in a final scene that reveals how transformed by the terror Marc has become.

    Selling Points: American audiences will recognize in Calvaire two probably unintentional similarities to other films: Misery, from Bartel's obsession with and imprisonment of Marc, and Deliverance, in Marc's attempt to survive and escape a backwoods world gone mad. — Mark Lowe

    Smithsonian's Great Battles of the Civil War on Three DVDs: 1861-1865
    Street 9/19
    Mastervision, Documentary, $69.96 three-DVD set ($29.95 separately), NR.
    Narrated by Richard Dreyfuss.

    Produced by the National Museum of American History, this three-DVD set offers an exhaustive and compelling look at America's only war against itself, which claimed the lives of more than 550,000 American soldiers between 1861 and 1865. Through a mixture of historical photos and sketches, re-enactments, excellent narration by Dreyfuss and present-day interviews with historians and other authorities, this nine-hour 1994 miniseries features an A-list of talent, including Charlton Heston as the voice of Abraham Lincoln, Burt Reynolds as T-Jackson and Dennis Weaver as Robert E. Lee. The series focuses on the key battles of what was once known as the War Between the States, including First Manassas, Shiloh, Fredericksburg, Bull Run and Vicksburg. And the production is so well-paced and lively that even after nine hours, even those with a casual interest in the Civil War might be hungry for more. Thomas K. Arnold

    QUICK TAKE: It's a Keeper
    A labor of love and a look back at a time when the world's greatest minds were Arab Muslims, The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam (DVD $24.95) streets this week. The English-language romantic drama follows an 11-year-old intent on preserving the heritage of his famous ancestor, the 11th-century philosopher-mathemetician-poet Khayyam. What he discovers is a rivalry between Khayyam and and his best friend for the love of a beautiful woman. Extras include two featurettes, an interview with a scholar and commentary with the writer-director. — Brendan Howard

    49 Up
    Prebook 10/10; Street 11/14
    First Run, Documentary, $29.95 DVD, NR.

    The BBC's long-running “Up” documentary series, directed by Michael Apted, grows more and more compelling every seven years. Its premise — to document the opinions, ambitions and expectations of a group of 7-year-olds, then check back with them every seven years ad infinitum — is as sure-fire as they come. One can't help but wonder, even in the case of the most banal of the subjects, what's become of them in the intervening years. Do they still think the same way? Have they married? Are they successful? Have they gone completely off the rails?

    The answers are different in each case. Now that all of the subjects are 49, the trajectories of their respective lives have by and large already peaked, making the juxtaposition with their 7-year-old selves all the more dramatic and fascinating.

    Tony, once an aspiring jockey, is a content family man with a house in Spain. Bruce, who studied at Oxford, teaches at a private school not unlike the one he attended. Jackie, a single mother with children from two previous relationships, is a pettish interview subject who resents the questions Apted asks, but continues to participate regardless. And Neil, who looked by all accounts like he would end up a homeless person, is actively involved in local politics.

    The pith of these people's lives is more rich, varied and engaging than any script could ever be, even when the film verges on dangerously dull material; for example, a husband and wife talking about what keeps their marriage together.

    Selling Points: The unique “Up” series makes for always compelling viewing. Lars von Trier has a similar narrative film project in the works. — Eddie Mullins

    Darfur Diaries
    Street 9/26
    Cinema Libre, Documentary, $19.95 DVD, NR.

    Sudan has been big in the news because of the reported genocide of Christian Sudanese in the southern province of Darfur by bombings and machine gun-packing, horse-riding militias supported by the Arab-friendly government. The war, however, has been going for years. Speaking to Darfur Diaries' trio of filmmakers in the south of Sudan and refugee camps in neighboring countries, survivors and Sudan Liberation Army soldiers remember both villages destroyed and people massacred months before and as far back as the early 1980s.

    One well-spoken refugee remembers that the conflict started over land and water use between farmers and herdsmen. In the beginning, tribal elders arranged truces and resolved conflicts, but that's all gone as years of war have gone by and the Sudanese government has fomented racial hatred.

    The men, women and children, some of whom are single survivors of entire villages, are in various stages of despair, fear and anger as they tell their stories of machete-wielding murderers on horseback or the infamous Russian-made Antonovs dropping bombs on villages full of civilians. Except for some on-screen explanations, their subtitled stories are allowed to unfold without comment.

    Unfortunately, toppling a single leader won't stop the fighting. The Sudan Liberation Army has been accused of indiscriminate civilian-killing and genocidal acts as well, and an SLA leader's statement that the children in their training camps never engage in battle is belied by the fact that the camera catches them in military marches more than once. One small child even says he's there to train to fight back.

    Selling Points: This is an excellent, emotional introduction to the plight of refugees and the wages of the decades-old Sudanese conflict. Those inspired to help can go to darfurdiaries.org to get started. — Brendan Howard

    QUICK TAKE: When Bad Things Happen
    While war is unlikely to break out here, we are in danger from natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Family Disaster Preparedness (www.etotalsource.com, $19.95) is a 35-minute film on family preparations for survival with a bonus CD-ROM with information and hundreds of printable checklists. — Brendan Howard

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