DVD Reviews For 3/10: "Humans Are Such Easy Prey"
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/11/13 11:58:35
From several of the best films of 2012 to special editions of some cult favorites to the majesty of "Fun Size"--if you can't something to watch in this round-up of new releases, you just aren't trying hard enough. . .
NEW AND NOTABLEANNA KARENINA (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Keira Knightley reteamed with Joe Wright, her director on "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement," for this unusual adaptation of the old Leo Tolstoy warhorse that presents much of the action in a highly stylized and overly theatrical manner. This approach will no doubt alienate many viewers expecting a typically staid literary adaptation but those who are able to wrap their heads around the conceit should find it to be an intriguing take on familiar material with another strong central performance from Knightley in the title role.
ARGO (Warner Home Video. $28.98): After the critical and commercial success of his previous turns behind the camera, "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," the notion of Ben Affleck carving out a second career for himself as a filmmaker of note should no longer come as a surprise to anyone. That said, even the supporters of those films may be surprised with just how good his latest stint in the director's chair really is. (Clearly the Academy Award voters were seeing as how they neglected to even nominate him for Best Director.) The film tells the little-known story (one only officially declassified in 1997) about the rescue of six Americans in Iran who managed to escape from the U.S. Embassy as it was being seized by protestors and holed up in secret in the home of the Canadian ambassador who would be celebrated as the man who spirited them to freedom. In fact, their escape was engineered by a CIA agent (Affleck) who teamed up with a Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin) and legendary makeup designer John Chambers (John Goodman) to create a fake film production that would serve as a cover to get the Americans out under the guise of being a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a cheesy sci-fi epic. Eschewing flash for a more low-key, Seventies-style approach, Affleck gives us a film filled with great performances (with Arkin stealing every single moment in which he is on-screen) and manages to generate plenty of genuine tension despite the outcome being a forgone conclusion.
ATLAS SHRUGGED PART II (Fox Home Entertainment. $22.98): Despite in the face of the very economic theories that it espouses, this adaptation of the middle third of Ayn Rand's controversial and deeply idiotic novel championing the joys of greed and self-interest was still made despite complete critical and commercial indifference to the previous installment. If anything, this one is even worse because it is even cheaper and chintzier in scale than the first film and the narrative consists of maybe 20 minutes of actual story surrounded by 90 minutes of endless speechifying leading up to one of the least exciting cliffhangers in recent memory. And for those of you who still harbor a fascination for Samantha Mathis, who takes over the role of railroad baroness Dagny Taggart from Taylor Schilling, due to her iconic appearance in the cult favorite "Pump Up the Volume," do yourself a favor and steer clear of this one entirely and continue to cherish your memories. On the other hand, the Blu-Ray does offer an extended version of Sean Hannity's cameo appearance as part of its bonus features, so it has that going for it.
BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: BLOOD & CHROME (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98)[: In yet another prequel to the "Galactica" franchise (and apparently originally conceived as the pilot to its own series), young Ensign Adama gets his first assignment aboard the Galactica during the first Cylon War and becomes embroiled in an adventure that could change the entire course of the conflict. As someone who still thinks of Lorne Greene and "Space Mutiny" when he hears the words "Battlestar Galactica," it all makes little sense to me but my sister-in-law, who is a fan of all thing "Galactica"-related, seemed to dig it a lot, so take that into consideration. Other TV-related titles now available include "The Client List: The Complete First Season" (Sony Home Entertainment. $45.99), "Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season" (HBO Home Entertainment. $59.99) and "Law & Order: The Twelfth Year" (Universal Home Entertainment. $36.98).
THE BAY (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.98): As odd as it may sound, that is indeed the Barry Levinson at the helm of this low-budget eco-horror film that uses the found footage gimmick to chronicle the horror that devastated a small Maryland coastal town when waterborne parasites mutated as the result of a wide variety of pollutants begin decimating the populace over the course of one very long and very icky Fourth of July. Seen through the viewpoints of a rookie reporter, swamped medical and police personnel, CDC scientists trying to figure out a way to contain the outbreak and, of course, the videos of the victims as they go to their gruesome fates, the film tries to strike a balance between being a gross-out horror exercise and a plea for mankind to mend its ecological ways before it is too late. As a horror film, it contains a few nifty ideas and some memorably gruesome barf-bag moments but isn't necessarily "scary" per se for the most par. As a warning about the perils of fooling with Mother Nature, it is sincere enough, I suppose, but it grows a little too heavy-handed at times for its own good. Still, it is a better deployment of the found-footage conceit than most films of its ilk--aided immeasurably by the fact that it is being presented as a finished film instead of as a mysteriously assembled conglomeration of material--and the shift in scale and approach seems to have inspired something in Levinson because it is certainly more lively than most of his recent work.
FROM BEYOND/PHANTASM II (Shout! Factory. $29.95 each): For their latest special editions of Eighties-era cult favorites, Shout! Factory offers up the lavish Blu-Ray debuts of Stuart Gordon's hallucinatory 1986 adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft short story in which the invention of a machine that can control the hitherto unknown sixth sense yields alternately grisly and kinky results and Don Coscarelli's 1988 follow-up to his 1979 horror hit about a pair of brothers trying to bring down a menacing alien undertaker and his array of deadly flying spheres. Of the two, "From Beyond" is the clear winner--although Gordon doesn't quite hit the manic heights of his 1985 debut "Re-Animator," it gets by on the strength of its pure energy and wild flights of visual fancy. "Phantasm II," on the other hand, is a slicker enterprise than its predecessor but there is nothing on display that wasn't done in a far more entertaining manner in the original. Still, fans of both films will love these packages--both contain audio commentaries with their creators as well as interviews, behind-the-scenes featurettes and much much more.
FUN SIZE (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): On the surface, "Fun Size" may look like just another screechy kiddie extravaganza--after all, it is a production from the kid-friendly Nickelodeon network and it features one of their bigger stars, Victoria Justice, making her first big leap from television to the multiplexes--and even the plot (teen girl is forced to take her brother trick-or-treating instead of going to the big party, only to spend the night tracking him down after he wanders off) seems to lean towards innocent silliness. That said, parents may be surprised, and not necessarily in a good way, to discover that it is actually an older kid-skewing romp that fully lives up to its PG-13 rating. There is all the expected stuff in which heroine Wren tries to find her brother while realizing that her nerdy friend just might be a better romantic match for her than the hunk, much to the chagrin of her social-climbing best pal (Jane Levy, whose crimson locks and a killer pout will remind older viewers of the glory days of Molly Ringwald and makes her arguably the best thing on display here) but at the same time, there are weird subplots, grown-up jokes that will sail over the heads of most kids (including references to "Fifty Shades of Grey" and Aaron Burr, a rap song extolling the virtues of E.O. Wilson and the sight of a giant mechanical chicken violating a Volvo) and a borderline creepy running gag involving the little kid running off with a series of strangers as they go off on their own strange adventures. In other words, it is less "Hannah Montana" and more like "Adventures in Babysitting" with the casual racism replaced by a mildly pedoish vibe at certain points. It definitely isn't for the wee ones and truth be told, there isn't much here for older viewers here either for the most part. That said, the sheer strangeness of the whole enterprise did keep me interested, if not exactly entertained, for the most part and while I wouldn't dream of going out on a limb to suggest that it might one day develop a cult following of some sort, I wouldn't be entirely surprised if that were to eventually happen.
GIRLS AGAINST BOYS (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.98): Combing aspects of "I Spit on Your Grave" and "Thelma & Louise," this bit of nastiness follows a couple of young women (Danielle Panabaker and Nicole LaLibertie) who join forces on a plan of bloody revenge that is initially directed against the men who violently attacked them but which quickly expands to virtually any make unlucky enough to cross their paths. Although it never quite hits the sordid depths of "I Spit on Your Grave" (whether that is a good or bad thing depends on your point of view, I suppose), it still makes for fairly unpleasant viewing that isn't helped by its lack of originality or of anything resembling a point.
HOLY MOTORS (Vivendi Entertainment. $19.97): Perennial enfant terrible Leos Carax doesn't work very often--this marks only his fifth feature film to date since making his debut in 1984--so when he does get around to putting out a new project, you can pretty much guarantee that it is something that comes directly from his heart and not just something he slapped together for a quick paycheck and that is certainly the case here. The film stars longtime Carax stand-in Denis Levant as a mysterious man named Mr. Oscar who, one fine morning, enters his limousine--a behemoth that makes the car in "Cosmopolis" seem like a hatchback and which has French film icon Edith Scob behind the wheel--and sets off to complete nine assignments for his mysterious employer that find him adopting a number of elaborate disguises and enacting different bizarre scenarios. In one, he embodies an ogre-like creature who busts up a fashion shoot at the famed Pere Lachaise cemetery and drags the ever-silent model (Eva Mendes) back underground with him for surprising reasons. In another, he unexpectedly meets up with another performer and old flame (Kylie Minogue) and their reunion takes on an unexpected musical form that generates more real emotion in just a few minutes of screen time than the whole of "Les Miserables" could manage. Alternately stylish and surreal and featuring an astonishing performance by Levant at its center, this may likely prove to be far too much for those looking for a simple night of entertainment at the movies but for those in the mood for something way off the beaten path, this is the kind of cinematic experience that you will never forget.
HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE (MPI Home Video. $24.98): One of this year's nominees for the Best Documentary Oscar (and one that was far more interesting than the eventual winner, "Searching for Sugar Man"), this film by David France offers up an eye-opening look at the activists who helped to bring awareness of AIDS from out of the shadows and into the public eye and whose efforts also ensured that contracting the disease did not have to lead to an automatic death sentence. This is powerful stuff and it is told in an ingenious and exciting manner that will rivet viewers of all ages and persuasions.
THE LONELIEST PLANET (IFC Films. $24.98): In director Julia Loktev's follow-up to her acclaimed debut "Day Night Day Night," a newly engaged couple (Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) go on a backpacking trip through the republic of Georgia with the aid of a local mountaineer (Bidzina Gujabidze) when their peaceful trek is undone by a brief incident that threatens to change all their lives forever. As with "Day Night Day Night," Loktev demonstrates that she is a filmmaker far more interested in character and nuance than with ordinary narrative mechanics but unlike that earlier film, the tension is non-existent and the characters are underdeveloped instead of enigmatic and as a result, most viewers will find this to be an exceptionally hard slog indeed.
THE MASTER (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $29.98): Although initial reports suggested that the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson was going to be centered around a look at the development of a Scientology-like cult in post-war America, its true focus turned out to be the odd and unlikely relationship that develops between an emotionally volatile veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) at loose ends after the end of WW II and the charismatic leader of a new spiritual movement (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who takes him under his wing out of equal parts pity and fascination. Beautifully crafted and brilliantly acted by Phoenix, Hoffman and Amy Adams as the unexpected power behind the latter's throne, this is the kind of wildly ambitious, go-for-broke filmmaking that has become increasingly rare over the years and while I know that I cannot exactly sum up what it all means in a pat sentence or two, I also know that this is the kind of film in which the mysteries will only deepen and become more complex with each subsequent viewing.
PLAYING FOR KEEPS (Sony Home Entertainment. $30.99): In a vague effort to get closer to his ex (Jessica Biel) and their son, former soccer star and current bounder Gerard Butler agrees to coach the kid's soccer team. Will Butler reestablish ties with his ex before she remarries or will he succumb to the allure of soccer moms played by the likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Judy Greer and Uma Thurman? Will Butler learn to be a better father or will he skip out at the earliest opportunity upon discovering that ESPN is looking to expand their soccer coverage to an entire minute per week? Will Butler ever make a movie where he plays someone who isn't an unlikable jag who should be fed to the wolverines? I wouldn't dream of spoiling the film by revealing the answers but if you do make the ill-advised decision to to watch it in order to discover them for yourself, try not to get distracted by Dennis Quaid delivering what may be the worst performance of his entire career.
RED DAWN (MGM Home Entertainment. $29.95): Speaking of Wolverines, they are back defending the Pacific Northwest from a land invasion by the mighty forces of North Korea (subbing in for the Chinese, who were digitally removed from the proceedings after the producers realized that China is still a viable market for American film distribution) in this long-delayed and utterly worthless remake of John Milius' 1984 Cold War classic. While the original maintain a certain power to this day by taking a potentially ludicrous premise and treating it in a reasonably serious-minded manner, this one is a cartoonish craptacular right from the start. Outside of confirming many of my suspicions about the evilness of the Subway sandwich empire, this is a complete mess that probably should have stayed on the shelf where it sat for nearly three years after it was filmed to due to a string of snafus far more interesting than the film itself.
SCHINDLER'S LIST (Universal Home Entertainment. $34.98): Steven Spielberg's award-winning Holocaust drama makes its Blu-Ray debut in a package that also includes "Voice From the List," a feature-length documentary about some of the real-life people whose lives were saved by the heroic machinations of industrialist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson). Among Spielberg's more overtly dramatic historical films go, this one is better than most despite a few awkward moments here and there. That said, among his numerous World War II-related projects, I still prefer both the vastly underrated "1941" and the stunning first hour of "Empire of the Sun" but that is just me talking.
THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (Cohen Media Group. $24.98): Still a knockout after almost 90 years, this 1924 film brought together an astounding number of current and future talents, including star/producer Douglas Fairbanks, director Raould Walsh, art director William Cameron Menzies and costume designer (and future filmmaker (Mitchell Leisen) in the service of an Arabian Nights fantasy epic that continues to put most contemporary blockbusters to shame. This Blu-Ray gives viewers a newly restoration of the film, complete with the original color tintings included in some scenes, and includes a featurette on its history and a commentary track by film historian and Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance.
BEST IN SHOW (Warner Home Video. $19.98)
CHASING MAVERICKS (Fox Home Entertainment. $22.98)
CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER (The Criterion Collection. $39.95)
COLLEGE: ULTIMATE EDITION (Kino Video. $29.95)
EASTER PARADE (Warner Home Video. $14.99)
THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (Warner Home Video. $21.95)
THE INSIDER (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $20.00)
JULIUS CAESAR (Olive Films. $29.95)
ON THE WATERFRONT (The Criterion Collection. $49.95)
THE RUNNING MAN (Olive Films. $24.95)
THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK (Olive Films. $24.95)
THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN PART II (Summit Entertainment. $30.98)
WRECK-IT-RALPH (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $29.95 )