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DVD Reviews For 5/21: "Nobody's Looking For A Puppeteer In Today's Wintry Economic Climate."
by Peter Sobczynski

If you are a reader who is sensitive towards movies featuring anything remotely resembling violence towards animals, you should probably give this column a pass. If, on the other hand, you are one who yearns to see the pre-doughy versions of Gerard Depardieu and Robert DeNiro in all their full-frontal glory, you should definitely dive right in. Of course, if you fall into both categories, I guess it may be time for a little bit of soul-searching on your part.


ALBERT NOBBS (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $27.98): Reprising a role that she played on stage nearly 30 years earlier, Glenn Close stars in this bit of failed Oscar bait about a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to take a job as a butler and eke out a depressing but largely unnoticed life on the basis that it would be an improvement over the alternative--complications occur when she befriends both another woman pulling the same trick (Janet McTeer) and a young chambermaid (Mia Wiaskowska) who might make for an ideal fake wife to complete his fake existence. I can see how this might work on the stage, where the seams aren't quite as visible, but in the harsh light of the camera, all we are left with is an intellectually dishonest and emotionally constipated drama in which Close spends so much time trying to depict her character's repression that essentially melds into the wallpaper while the other actors (especially the quite good McTeer) wind up dominating the proceedings.

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Just as much of a wildly entertaining and surprisingly thoughtful mindfuck as it was when it was originally unleashed upon an unsuspecting public in 1999, Spike Jonze's staging of Charlie Kaufman's groundbreaking screenplay, about a frustrated puppeteer (John Cusack) who discovers a portal that allows him to live inside the mind of the guy who played the villain in "Johnny English" for 15 minutes before being dumped out alongside the New Jersey Turnpike, is still unlike anything you have ever seen in your life and while both Jonze and Kaufman have gone on to do great work over the years, both together and separately (such as "Adaptation," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Synecdoche, New York"), this one remains a genuine treasure. Finally making its Blu-Ray debut under the auspices of the Criterion Collection (please let them get "Synecdoche". . .), this edition features a new HD transfer, a snarky commentary track from filmmaker (and Kaufman collaborator) Michel Gondry, new interviews with Malkovich and Jonze, the full versions of the two short films excerpted in the film proper dealing with John Malkovich's puppetry skills and the orientation for workers inhabiting the 7 1/2 floor and a new behind-the-scenes documentary on the film by Lance Bangs--enough stuff to make most film fans scream the most joyous "Malkovich" imaginable.

CHRONICLE (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): In one of the better deployments of the found-footage conceit to come along in recent times, this surprise hit from last spring follows three ordinary high-school kids who magically develop superpowers that allow them to do everything from play football games in the sky and play pranks on classmates to level half of Seattle when the nerdiest of them decides to utilize his newfound abilities to get revenge on those who have wronged him. While the first half is pretty impressive (especially in the way that it actually finds a reasonably convincing justification for the found-footage approach), the second half begins to drag a bit as the special effects, as impressive as they are, wind up totally dominating the proceedings. Nevertheless, between this and "The Avengers," it appears that 2012 may finally be the year in which the superhero genre finally grows up at last and it is about time.

THE DEVIL INSIDE (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): Yes, the ending to this low-budget, found-footage craptacular about a young woman trying to get to the bottom of her mother's alleged demonic possession is just as eye-poppingly awful as you have heard and no, the astonishing levels of incompetence and sheer chutzpah on display in those final moments are still not enough to make it worth sitting through the rest of it. Instead, go to YouTube and try to find one of the videos shot in the theater that also include actual audience outrage when they reveal just how profoundly they have been ripped off.

FLAREUP (Warner Archives. $19.95): Among the latest titles hitting DVD for the the first time as part of the ongoing Warner Archives program is this 1969 thriller featuring Raquel Welch as a Vegas showgirl who suggests that a friend stand up to her abusive husband (Luke Askew) and leave him--needless to say, he doesn't take this news very well and after killing his wife, he starts going after our heroine as well. Obviously, the film is kind of trashy and silly but for those of you with a desire to see both Vegas and Welch at their respective primes, this is the title for you.

THE GENESIS CODE (E1 Entertainment. $19.98): Sorry Trekkies--this film is not a spin-off of the majesty that is "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan." Instead, it is an overlong bit of direct-to-video nonsense aimed at Christian audiences that puts the debate between science vs. faith in the hands of a scientifically-inclined college hockey player and the devout school newspaper reporter doing a story on him. To its credit, the film does try to find a balance between the two viewpoints but the results drag on in such an unmerciful manner that most viewers will find their interest waning long before it gets to its ho-hum finale.

THE GREY (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.95): Because Liam Neeson has spent the last couple of years capitalizing on the surprise success of "Taken" with a string of increasingly ridiculous action films (culminating with the utterly insipid "Battleship"), there is a good chance that audiences might have given this particular item, in which he plays a marksman for a remote oil refinery who, following a plane crash in the frigid outskirts of Alaska, tries to lead a group of fellow survivors to safety while being pursued by a pack of hungry and implacable wolves, a wide berth assuming that it was just another load of nonsense. If that is the case for you, you owe it to yourself to give this one a chance because this is a surprisingly strong and sure example of genre filmmaking featuring gripping direction from Joe Carnahan (for the first time fully justifying the acclaim he has accumulated over the years for nonsense like "Narc" and "Smokin Aces") and one of Neeson's best performances to date. Granted, PETA members may not get much of a kick out of it but for everyone else, it comes highly recommended. (And if you do watch it, be sure to watch all of the end credits as it contains a more-important-than-usual final image that is definitely worth catching.)

HELL ON WHEELS--THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (E1 Entertainment. $39.95): Set in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War during the period of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, this TV series, originally appearing on AMC, follows former Confederate soldier Anson Mount and former slave Common as they go off in pursuit of the Union soldiers who killed the former's beloved wife. The show's backdrop is kind of interesting and it is adequately mounted but as cable-ready westerns go, let me just simply say that this is no "Deadwood" and leave it at that. Other TV-related titles now available include "The Big C: The Complete Second Season" (Sony Home Entertainment. $45.99), "Chuck: The Complete Fifth Season" (Warner Home Video. $39.98), "Fantasy Island: The Complete Second Season" (Shout! Factory. $39.99) and "Victorious: The Complete Second Season" (Nickelodeon. $19.99).

HOUSTON ASTROS 50th ANNIVERSARY COLLECTOR'S EDITION (A&E Home Video. $49.95): Celebrate a half-century of overblown architecture, questionable sartorial choices and, okay, some baseball with this 5-disc collection commemorating the Texas baseball franchise (just before they throw in the towel for good and join the American League) that includes complete broadcasts of four key games from their history--the no-hitters thrown by Nolan Ryan in 1981 and Mike Scott in 1986, the 2005 NLDS clincher that went a full 18 innings and Craig Biggio's 3000th hit in 2007 and a fifth disc of clips, interviews and various ephemera. However, in a shocking oversight, there is not a single clip of that legendary moment in which bold young prospect Carmen Ronzonni tore up the bases while the crowd behind him chanted "Let Them Play!" Sad, really
NEW YORK STORIES (Mill Creek. $9.98): In the wake of their commercial resurgence in the late 1980's, Disney started throwing a lot of films into production and this 1989 curiosity--a trio of short films made by the legendary likes of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen--was definitely one of the oddest of the bunch. Of the three, Scorsese's "Life Lessons"--in which Nick Nolte plays a painter driven to distraction by gorgeous-but-aloof protege Rosanna Arquette--is a masterpiece that is crammed full with spiky dialogue by Richard Price, Scorsese's visual pyrotechnics, strong performances by Nolte and Arquette and one of the most convincing cinematic depictions of the artistic process ever filmed. By comparison, Coppola's "Life with Zoe" (which he co-wrote with then-teenaged daughter Sofia)--a modern take/ripoff of the "Eloise" stories following the misadventures of a poor little rich girl--is pretty much a total wash and ranks down there with "Jack" as the nadir of Coppola's career. Allen's contribution, "Oedipus Wrecks"--in which he plays a henpecked lawyer whose nagging mother (Mae Questel, the original voice of Olive Oyl back in the day) disappears during a trick at a magic show (look for Larry David as the stage manager) and then. . .well, what happens next should come as a surprise--falls somewhere in the middle; it is a funny conceit in the vein of his classic "New Yorker" short stories but it eventually runs out of steam towards the end.

1900 (Olive Films. $39.95): The word "epic" gets tossed around all too easily when it comes to discussing movies but in the case of this 1977 masterwork from Bernardo Bertolucci, it almost seems like a wholly inadequate way to describe this 315-minute-long saga that chronicles the ups and downs of 20th-century Italy through the eyes of two men born on January 1, 1900--one (Robert De Niro) the son of a fascist landowner and the other (Gerard Depardieu) the child of a peasant farmer working for the landowner. Featuring a cast that also includes the likes of Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland (whose monstrous bit of business with an unfortunate cat continues to horrify to this day), Sterling Hayden and Dominique Sanda and a behind-the-scenes crew including cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and composer Ennio Morricone, this is swing-for-the-fences cinema at its most ambitious and while its staggering length does require more than the usual amount of commitment and concentration, your dedication will be more than amply rewarded. Also included in this set is "Bernardo Bertolucci," an hour-long documentary looking at the man and his career up through the "Stealing Beauty" days of 1996.

NORMAN MAILER: THE AMERICAN (CInema Libre. $19.95): One of the most provocative American writers of the 20th century and one of the few whose life and work is still able to provoke outrage and controversy even after his death, Norman Mailer had one of the most astonishing of public lives; he wrote numerous books (including such classics as "The Naked and the Dead" and "The Executioner's Song'), covered most of the key events of the era, ran political campaigns, stabbed one of his wives and directed several films (one of which ended with Rip Torn going after him with a hammer for real), to name just a few things. Covering such a life would seem to be an impossible task for an ordinary documentary but this effort by Joseph Mantegna does a pretty good job of covering the key point via archival footage and interviews with friends, family, exes (including the one who was stabbed) and the man himself. For anyone who would like to temporarily go back to a time when being an intellectual was not only not a crime but which gave a person a certain cultural cachet, this films is highly recommended.

ONE FOR THE MONEY (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.95): In this attempt to transform Janet Evanovich's series of books about tough-talking bounty hunter Stephanie Plum to the big screen, Katherine Heigl fills Plum's shoes (among other things) to track down an ex-boyfriend who is being chased by both the cops and the mob. Compared to Heigl's recent string of misbegotten romantic comedies, this effort is a bit of a step up but not that much of a step--she is never convincing as Plum and the rest of the film plays like a busted pilot for one of those USA Network shows where everything is just a little too quirky for its own good. (Actually, there was an attempt to do a Stephanie Plum TV show a few years ago and it did about as well as this film eventually managed to muster at the box-office.

PLAYBACK (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): In this barely-released nonsense, a group of high-school twerps band together to film a re-enactment of a gruesome and unsolved multiple murder that rocked their small town years earlier. Perhaps inevitably, doing so unleashes some kind of evil spirit that begin to wipe them out as well. Perhaps not quite as inevitably, Christian Slater turns up as a local cop--possibly one with secrets, believe it or not--who is assigned to investigate the case. If you thought that just reading the above description was a chore of mind-bogglingly boring proportions, try actually sitting through this nonsense for yourself.

RAMPART (Millennium Entertainment. $28.99): Reuniting with Oren Moverrman, who directed him to an Oscar nomination in "The Messenger," Woody Harrelson turns in one of the most electrifying performances of his career as a LAPD cop on the edge--he is already infamous professionally for killing a suspect in a series of date rapes and whose personal life includes having two children with two sisters who all live in the same house--whose entire life threatens to implode when he is caught on videotape beating up a motorist who inadvertently hit his car. Both the D.A.'s office and Internal Affairs want to use the incident to finally bring him down for good but as they quickly find out, if he is to go down, he will be bringing many others along with him. Although there is plenty of notable names involved with this project, inspired by real events, including co-writer James Ellroy and supporting cast featuring the likes of Robin Wright Penn, Steve Buscemi, Ice Cube, Anne Heche and Sigourney Weaver, Harrelson is pretty much the entire show here and his work galvanizes the project and helps it along even when the melodrama threatens to go over the top. Alas, this one got lost in the shuffle during last year's Oscar derby and it disappeared virtually without a trace but hopefully home video will give it the second chance that it deserves.

UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING (Sony Home Entertainment. $30.99): Having sat out the previous installment--no doubt in the belief that she was now too big for such things--Kate Beckinsale slips back into her skin-tight catsuit for another go-around as vampiric "death-dealer" Seline, this time escaping from 12 years of imprisonment and doing battle with both werewolves and the humans who have finally discovered the existence of the clandestine vampire-lycan war (gee, could it have been the city blocks leveled in the battles seen in the previous entries) while trying to track down a mysterious child who could tip the balance of power forever. Considering that I saw this film when it came out and have already written about it at length, the fact that I had to more or less crib the plot description from the Blu-Ray cover because I couldn't remember anything about it probably says more about how good it is than anything that I could possibly muster.

THE VOW (Sony Home Entertainment. $30.99): In a premise so ridiculously melodramatic that even Nicholas Sparks himself might cry foul (if only because some viewers might mistakenly believe that it was one of his creations), Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams play a happily married couple whose bliss is shattered when an accident leaves her with no memory of their time together--can he figure out a way to make her fall for him again before she decides to return to a life filled with wealth, privilege, a sleazy dad (Sam Neill, lacking the quiet subtlety that he brought to "Possession" and "The Final Conflict") and an extra-douchey former fiancee? McAdams and Tatum make for an attractive enough couple but even though it is supposedly inspired by a true story, the plot convolutions are too contrived to be believed and it all concludes in a manner that exasperate even those people who normally enjoy this sort of soap opera silliness.


BEFORE AND AFTER (Mill Creek. $9.99)

BORN YESTERDAY (Mill Creek. $9.99)

DIRTY DANCING 2-FILM COLLECTION (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.95)

D.O.A. (Mill Creek. $9.98)

DUETS (Mill Creek. $9.98)

GONE FISHIN' (Mill Creek. $9.98)

GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (Warner Home Entertainment. $19.98)

LA HAINE (The Criterion Collection. $39.95)

THE ODESSA FILE (Image Entertainment. $17.97)

THE ORDER (Image Entertainment. $17.97)

TERMINAL VELOCITY (Mill Creek. $9.98)

WALKING TALL TRILOGY (Shout! Factory. $34.93)

WHITE SQUALL (Mill Creek. $9.98)

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originally posted: 05/23/12 00:49:04
last updated: 06/25/12 23:52:35
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