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Reviews: September 30

30 Sep, 2007 By: Home Media Reviews

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: The Complete Series

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: The Complete Series
Street 10/16
Warner, Drama, $59.98 six-DVD set, NR.
Stars Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, Steven Webber, Timothy Busfield, Sarah Paulson, Nate Corddry, D.L. Hughley.

As a fan of some of Aaron Sorkin's earlier projects, such as A Few Good Men and “The West Wing,” I was rooting for “Studio 60” when it first aired.

Sorkin's backstage tour of a sketch-comedy series not unlike “Saturday Night Live” got off to a great start. The pilot episode's brisk pace, snappy dialogue and references to the movie Network set up a series brimming with potential to become a meaningful examination of television's impact on, and role within, American society today.

Unfortunately, any network politics quickly took a backseat to myriad romantic subplots involving the main characters, most of whom weren't developed enough for the audience to care. Whatever corporate intrigue we did get was ultimately uninteresting.

The final nail was the show-within-a-show, to which the characters reacted as if it were funny and groundbreaking, when in reality it was neither. When so much of filmed entertainment relies on the audience's ability to relate to the characters, such a disconnect is never a good thing.

Needless to say, Sorkin might want to rethink his stance on humanizing Hollywood elitists.

“Studio 60” had its moments, a highlight being a reunion of Busfield with his “West Wing” sweetheart, Allison Janney. Fortunately, Sorkin had an opportunity to provide some closure for the series, and on disc the episodes play more like an extended miniseries than a show that week-to-week seemed to lack direction.

The commentary on the pilot between Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme is very technical, more about assembling the actors, building and sets, and choosing camera angles, and less about the ideas behind the show. Unfortunately they never get into why they think the series failed.

To hear more of Sorkin's creative philosophy, check out the DVD set's lone featurette, “The Evolution of Studio 60,” located on disc six. This 23-minute special was clearly filmed early in the show's run, and it's weird to hear Sorkin and the actors express such optimism for the future of a series that has been long since canceled. John Latchem

Home of the Brave
Street 10/23
Fox/MGM, Drama, B.O. $0.04 million, $27.98 DVD, ‘R' for war violence and language.
Stars Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel, Brian Presley, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Chad Michael Murray, Jeffrey Nordling, Victoria Rowell, Sam Jones III, Christina Ricci.

Home of the Brave as a whole is less than the sum of its parts. It refuses to take sides about the Iraq war, instead focusing on the war's effects on our soldiers after they return home.

It starts with a decent battle sequence, when several soldiers in a convoy are ambushed during their last mission before ending their tour of duty. The film follows four of the troopers to Spokane, Wash., where they face a series of predictable obstacles in their efforts to re-assimilate. Even with friends and family, they find themselves mostly alone in dealing with scars — both physical and emotional.

These stories of recovery really transcend any specific war, and the film ends up covering familiar territory. It is no great surprise to learn that war changes people.

Individual scenes work better in isolation, showcasing terrific acting by a talented cast. Samuel L. Jackson shines as a doctor who can't cope with the violence he witnessed. Biel more than holds her own as a young mother who struggles to return to normalcy after losing an arm in the ambush. 50 Cent plays a man whose experiences have filled him with rage, while Presley's character discovers he left his sense of purpose on the battlefield.

The screenplay is structured as a series of snapshots, designed more to evoke strong performances than deliver a cohesive message. One of the best scenes involves Biel and Presley encountering each other at a movie theater, where they banter about their medication. Their chemistry offers hope that the film has discovered a natural flow, but then the movie changes pace and sticks to the script.

A commentary with director Irwin Winkler, writer Mark Friedman and producer Rob Cowan fills in some behind-the-scenes details but doesn't add much to the viewing experience, especially when the trio begin comparing their film to better-known classics of the genre such as The Best Years of Our Lives, Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July. — John Latchem

The Wendell Baker Story
Prebook 10/4; Street 10/30
ThinkFilm, Comedy, B.O. $0.1 million, $27.98 DVD, ‘PG-13' for some crude and sexual humor and language.
Stars Luke Wilson, Eddie Griffin, Eva Mendes, Owen Wilson.

A Wilson family wonderland, The Wendell Baker Story stars Luke and Owen Wilson, was co-directed Luke and Andrew Wilson, and was written by Luke.

The film is clearly a labor of love and possibly an attempt to show that Luke, like older brother Owen (co-writer of modern classics The Royal Tennenbaums, Rushmore and Bottle Rocket), can not only write but direct a film.

Luke, whose undeniable talent, charm and presence is versatile enough to allow him a greater range of roles than Owen, is something of a modern-day Jimmy Stewart, an actor who can be effective both in goofy roles in films like Blades of Glory and straight parts like the thriller Vacancy.

His Wendell Baker character is a smooth, sleazy con-man who ultimately discovers his heart of gold, and doesn't try to sell it. When Baker's fake-ID business is busted, he is sent to jail and begins to see life in a new light. As a condition of his probation, he is sent to work at a retirement community/nursing home where evil nurse Neil King (Owen) is running a scam that cheats patients out of their prescriptions so that he can sell them on the black market.

Resolving the situation is Baker's shot at redemption and the crux of the film's moral center.

With Mendes as Baker's long-suffering girlfriend and Griffin as King's co-conspirator, plus an extended cameo from Will Ferrell, the cast is about as solid as a movie can have.

However, the real joy of this production comes from supporting actors in even smaller roles. Wilson has cast veteran character actors Harry Dean Stanton, Seymour Cassell and singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson as residents of the home, and the three of them have never been better. — David Greenberg

Street 10/2
Sony Pictures, Drama, B.O. $0.4 million, $24.96 DVD, ‘R' for disturbing images, language and some nudity.
Stars Laura Linney, Gabriel Byrne, Chris Haywood, Deborra-Lee Furness.

Three considerable talents join forces for Jindabyne, but it's perhaps the story itself that enjoys the most resonance in this morality tale.

Linney and Byrne star in the film, based on a short story by the late Raymond Carver. That story, “So Much Water So Close to Home,” covered themes familiar to Carver's fans — ideas concerning everyday choices, and the profound implications of behavior and impulse.

Carver's stories further linked choices made in life to love and relationships, and so it goes in Jindabyne. The story is transplanted to remote Australia, where Linney and Byrne play a long-married couple struggling to maintain their relationship.

When the husband goes on a fishing trip with his pals, and the group discovers the body of a dead woman, their decision to fish for another day and not report the discovery immediately sets in motion a flurry of disapproval in the town, and further divides the couple.

Linney's character must wrestle with her disappointment while also defending those closest to her. Her subsequent relationship with the family of the found woman furthers her emotional journey.

The pacing is sometimes slow in Jindabyne, but the surrounding countryside and its people become fascinating characters in the piece, and the actors are extraordinary. — Dan Bennett

Welcome to Paradise
Street 10/9
First Look, Drama, $19.98 DVD, ‘PG' for mild thematic elements, brief language and teen smoking.
Stars Crystal Bernard, Brian Dennehy, Brad Stine.

Old-fashioned values meet modern notions in Welcome to Paradise, a feel-good film with some drama.

Bernard plays Debbie Laramie, a preacher whose unusual ways at the pulpit and in the community cause her to get transferred to the forlorn town of Paradise, Texas, where folks are not too keen about getting along.

The divided, gossipy citizens of Paradise don't take kindly to a female preacher, especially a preacher with ideas of turning things around. Debbie's modern notions of community and forgiveness don't help endear her.

When a tragedy forces the town to at last realize that working together is the best solution, Debbie becomes the leader of a new era, bucking the statewide religious establishment and doing things her way, bringing together people who otherwise would have stayed separate and solemn.

Welcome to Paradise is a faith-based, feel-good film offering the notion that sometimes a little adversity brings better times in the long run. It's a family film that isn't afraid to touch on more serious issues.

The film benefits from a bevy of good character performances, especially from old pros such as Dennehy. — Dan Bennett

Dead Letter Office
Street 10/9
BFS, Drama, $24.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Miranda Otto, George DelHoyo, Nicholas Bell, Syd Brisbane.

Although the cover art for Dead Letter Office suggests a suspense-filled thriller, the film is actually a sad, funny and quirky little drama from Australia.

Alice's father deserted his young family when she was just a girl. In the intervening years, Alice continued to write letters to her missing dad, always signing them, “Your Bundle of Joy.”

Fast forward to twentysomething Alice, who is aimless and depressed, engaging in meaningless affairs and still obsessed with finding her father. She takes a job at the postal service's dead letter office in order to track him down. What she finds there is a haven for misfits, refugees and eccentrics.

Dead Letter Office is a quietly affecting film that gently probes the ways in which the walking wounded negotiate the world and try to heal their damaged lives. The smolderingly sexy DelHoyo, as Alice's tall, dark and mysterious boss, manages to project a terrible sadness that cuts through his chilly efficiency. Otto is also very good as the na?ve Alice, who wants so badly to repair all of the sadness around her.

Although the plot, on paper, resembles Gary Marshall's 1996 comedy Dear God, Dead Letter Office is much more raw and edgy. Swirling around the postal workers every day are the epistolary pleas of faceless correspondents who ask for God's help or wish for their relatives now long gone.

Those attracted to small hybrid dramas will be very interested in Dead Letter Office. — Anne Sherber

Father of Lies
Prebook 10/2; Street 10/30
Vivendi Visual/CodeBlack, Drama, $19.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Clifton Powell, Vivica A. Fox, DMX, Veronica Berry, Clyde Jones.

The church giveth and the church taketh away. There is plenty of give and take in this scandalous drama, which centers on greed and corruption in a black church.

The underrated Powell (Woman Thou Art Loosed, Ray) heads a superb cast and is outstanding as Bishop Calvin Jacobs, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who has a drinking problem and a few skeletons in the closet. With a little help from his friends and parishioners, Jacobs tries to steer the church clear of a $30 million debt.

Berry plays his wife, Diona, while the talented Fox plays her friend and confidant Barbara Robinson. DMX, who has built a notable film career in addition to his musical one with roles in Exit Wounds and Never Die Alone, among others, has a curious role — his character is an ex-con, turned wise man, who preaches the gospel with lessons learned from above, the joint and the streets.

Jones, cast as the shady Deacon Rawls, delivers another excellent performance — arguably the movie's best. Jones, who has earned much praise with stage performances such as A Fool for Love, plays his deceitful character to a hilt.

Father of Lies is a decent and sometimes lively story with enough twists and turns to cover the plot holes that occasionally pop up. The significant performances also are strong enough to overcome any shortcomings.

The film definitely will appeal to black audiences, though a broader following should experience its charm. It also will play well with families since there is no profanity or nudity. — Benny Lopez

7 Kilos
Street 10/16
Laguna, Action, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Brenda Estrella Rojas, Manuel Garcia, Cliff Weeks, Brent Bratton, Brandon Brenhard.

This film starts out with a few bangs and shows some promise. 7 Kilos opens in action mode with shootings, drug dealing and gangsters on the streets of Houston.

But like an AM station fading and yielding to a more powerful frequency, this film goes from a gritty urban story to a tame flick about an isolated cowboy, a corrupt sheriff, a nitwit deputy and a run from the law to the Mexico border.

In less than 20 minutes, viewers are whisked from the violence and nightlife of Houston to the backwoods of Texas, where this story loses much of its luster.

The cast of 7 Kilos is relatively unknown. Rojas stars as Camilla, whose brush with death after her drug-dealing boyfriend is gunned down leads her out of Houston on a road of no return. After she escapes the hit, she jumps into her boyfriend's Corvette, which happens to be loaded with drugs and $2.5 million in cash, and roars toward rural Texas, where she encounters more trouble.

Bratton is the main antagonist, cast as an unscrupulous county sheriff. Brenhard plays his deputy, who makes Barney Fife seem like a Rhodes Scholar.

Weeks, portrayed as a savior for Camilla, plays good-guy and home-on-the-range character Cain, who, despite his humble nature, can't resist the charms of a troubled, pretty woman on the run.

The film is the work of Texas filmmaker Pablo Veliz, who scored well with his debut feature film, La Tragedia de Macario, which earned a 2006 Sundance selection and a 2007 Latino DVD Award. — Benny Lopez

Blu-ray Spotlight: Surf's Up
Street 10/2
Sony Pictures, Animated, B.O. $58.9 million, $38.95 Blu-ray, $28.95 DVD, UMD, ‘PG' for mild language and some rude humor. Voices of Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, Jon Heder, Mario Cantone.
HDTV: Philips 1080p 47-inch
Player: PlayStation 3

There's a reason consumer electronics chains use digital animation to demonstrate HDTVs. The imperfections in the picture are calculated — not an unintentional flub revealed by high-definition resolution — and the scenes that are supposed to look perfectly beautiful do.

Thus, Surf's Up — which employs faux grainy scenes to impart the idea of vintage film, as well as realistic, gorgeous wave sequences — is an ideal title to show off the beauty of high-definition. The surfing scenes look like photographs.

As for extras, the Blu-ray version includes most of the features of the DVD, with the major exception being the games. The DVD has three relatively rudimentary games: “Make Your Own Surfboard,” “Whale Hopping” and “Lava Surf.” They are pretty good and entertaining for kids, and it would have been nice to see them on the Blu-ray Disc as well. The Blu-ray has a pinball game that is more dynamic. Unfortunately, there's a bit of a delay in the timing between the remote and execution on the disc, but it is kind of fun when you get the hang of it.

Another extra exclusive to the Blu-ray Disc is, appropriately, a visual-effects commentary. The camerawork is an omnipresent digital effect that merits a continuing description in the movie, as do the wave re-creations. Stephanie Prange

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