DVD REVIEWS – NOV 29, 2007



Drunken Angel (Criterion)


Drunken Angel (Criterion) is one of Akira Kurosawa’s least-referenced films – historically, his noir pictures get sidelined by his samurai epics – but this new Criterion edition of the film puts the film front and center in a fashion that will leave cinephiles drooling with appreciation. Often referred to as Kurosawa’s ‘first’ film (the master often stated that the few films he directed before Angel weren’t made exactly the way he would have wanted), this post-war gangster film is an astonishing piece of work, a scathing yet somehow endlessly empathetic look at people doing what they can to survive in tough times.

And while Criterion commentary tracks can often err on the bookish side of things (shall I say ‘enjoyably bookish’?), Donald Richie’s discussion of the film on this disc is one of the better tracks I’ve ever heard. Both excellently informational about the film itself and lovingly earnest in his anecdotal remembrances of going to Japan for the first time and meeting Kurosawa on the set of this film, Richie ends up illuminating Drunken Angel in both an intellectual and emotional capacity. It’s a stunning commentary on a stunning film.

One of the best DVDs of the year.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (Universal)


The idea that the writers behind Sideways contributed to the new Adam Sandler film almost makes I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (Universal) worth watching, but any kind of witty culture-play Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor may have initially offered is exchanged for redundant dumb-ass reverie in the final film. Yes, the idea of Sandler and King of Queens alum Kevin James posing as a domestic partnership in order to secure benefits for James’ character’s children is the kind of wide-angle big-concept idea that is so stupid it just might work, but the movie never gels (and at a nearly two-hour running time, it has more than enough time to try). To add insult to injury, the HD DVD/standard DVD combo release of the film showcases only a so-so video transfer – yeah, colors are definitely amplified and detail is improved, but I found only marginal difference between the DVD and HD DVD transfers. And the bonus features – a total bust.


Hot Rod (Paramount)


And if Chuck & Larry wasn’t enough to besmirch the dwindling sheen of the SNL paradigm, give Hot Rod (Paramount) a test-drive. This stillborn-from-frame-one idiot-fest starring Dick in a Box co-creator Andy Samberg is far more Superstar than Tommy Boy in its SNL-esque comedy results. Slapshot and piecemeal (no scene in the film here feels connected to the ones before or after), Hot Rod attempts to concoct a underdog-makes-good story arc, but it never quite happens. There are a bunch of bonus features on this DVD, however – though I’d definitely steer clear of the commentary track (one of the duller ones I’ve ever heard).


Bad Santa (The Unrated Version & Director’s Cut) (Buena Vista)


The latest comedy offerings from Disney’s high-def machine also fail to impress. This writer would pay to watch Lauren Graham read from the phone book (seriously – I’ll write a check right now), but even with a stellar video transfer and a surprisingly strong audio mix (especially for a catalog title), Bad Santa (The Unrated Version & Director’s Cut) (Buena Vista) offers nothing exciting nor astute for the actress to chew on. Yeah, watching Billy Bob Thornton lash out as a drunken and sassy St. Nick offers a handful of moments of hilarity, but it remains shocking that the director of such excellent works as Crumb and Ghost World would allow his movie about a nasty Kris Kringle to be so one-note.

Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (Buena Vista)


At the bottom of the bottle, though, is the nearly-unwatchable Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (Buena Vista). Perhaps this writer isn’t exactly the prime demographic for the film (understatement of the year), but the shtick of Tim Allen as a jovial yet down-to-earth Santa gets old before the opening credits stop rolling here, and the usually-dependable Martin Short gets all but obliterated in this film by a robotic, impenetrable screenplay that goes from not making sense to jibberish and all the way back again. But hey – if you’re a parent of a fan of the film and have a Blu-ray player, you’re in for a treat: For such a sub-standard film, The Santa Clause 3 gets a downright spectacular video transfer, as well as a top-notch sound mix and a large slate of bonus features. Go figure…


This Is England (IFC)


This Is England (IFC) is the kind of gritty street drama that doesn’t get made very often, and that’s a shame. This foul-mouthed miasma of anti-Thatcher sentiments, blatant cultural racism and political upheaval in 1980s Britain is by no means just English History X – the Skinheads here are far more threatening and insane than Edward Norton could ever be. And director Shane Meadows pulls out all the stops in telling his story without any kind of sugarcoating or childhood’s-end nostalgia: This Is England is earnest, point-blank and devastating. Perhaps for not everyone’s taste, but a strident vision, nonetheless.

The Namesake (Fox)


On the other side of this is The Namesake (Fox), Mira Nair’s tale of love and obligation within an Indian family. A surprise hit earlier this year, the movie received a slate of stellar reviews, but this writer unfortunately shrugs and wonders why. Kal Penn’s performance as a disgruntled son of Indian immigrants to the United States proves that the guy is way more than just a White Castle-eating stoner, but while there’s a brilliant, colorful savvy to everything Nair does, I never felt the romance in The Namesake take hold.


East Side Story (Wolfe)


The romance never quite gets going in East Side Story (Wolfe), either, but for a by-the-books gay comedy, you could do worse. This tale of a young Hispanic boy trying to balance coming out of the closet with maintaining his family’s business and social status has all the clichés and predictable plot twists that one might expect, but its cast broadcasts enough charisma to keep it afloat. Again, it ain’t a great movie, but it wears its heart on its sleeve, and it’s hard to hold too much of a grudge against that.


Star Trek: The Original Series – Season One (Paramount)
24: Season Six (Fox)


There are mixed emotions swirling around Star Trek: The Original Series – Season One (Paramount) and its initial release on HD DVD. Point one is obviously the newly-concocted effects added to the show – in an attempt to maintain Star Trek’s science-fiction wherewithal, a team of CGI artists have replaced the cheesy-ass original effects with newly-generated ones, and while I respect the noble intentions behind such an activity, my sensibilities still aren’t used to it. It really does effect the show – it both maintains the tone of the series while simultaneously making it seem really bizarre. But Paramount has been good enough to include the original episodes as they first appeared, so purists can avoid the new stuff altogether.

Yet as one of Paramount’s grandest HD DVD offerings of calendar year 2007, does this first season set work? Well, the price tag is definitely an issue – charging $200 a season for an HD DVD edition of a show sure as Hell limits market saturation – but with cool packaging, a slate of intriguing extras, and high-def audio/video presence that makes the show looks positively sparkling, this set will no doubt find an audience. But even for mega-nerds, I’d recommend renting a disc or two before taking those hundred-dollar bills out of your pocket.

Far less vital than Star Trek (yet somehow twice as disappointing), 24: Season Six (Fox) finally proves that Jack Bauer is indeed a product of deep, deep shtick. This writer found the first few episodes of 24’s debut season to be taut, exciting and structurally new (and Hell – it was better than Mike Figgis’ terrible Time Code). However, before that first disc of episodes was finished, I was all but finished with the show – as adrenaline-punchy as it was, I couldn’t help but think that things went from coincidental to downright unbelievable.

And even those who’ve been able to steer clear of 24’s structural potholes for season after season will admit that season six of the show was downright underwhelming. Yes, this box set showcases the show with deliciously vibrant video and audio presence (and it also contains predictably voluminous bonus material), but ugh. Kiefer is still a strong, charismatic presence, but this latest season of the show proves that 24 may have a sell-by date after all.


Da Vinci’s Inquest: Season Two (Acorn Media)
Day One (Acorn Media)


More under-the-radar is Da Vinci’s Inquest: Season Two (Acorn Media), a showcase for one of Canada’s most accomplished television dramas. As the wrinkled, weathered cop at the center of this show, Nicholas Campbell turns in exceptional performances week after week – this world-weary crime fighter who turned from detective work to being a coroner can’t seem to shake police work (he’d love to leave it behind, but just can’t), and this push/pull gives his perspective on each of the show’s crime cases a sense of real dramatic punch. And if the ice-cold murders of Da Vinci’s Inquest don’t fill you with enough fear of the evils that men do, give Day One (Acorn Media) a spin. This tale of the history of The Manhattan Project is as suspenseful and terrifying as anything Jack Bauer ever went up against, and it features striking performances from David Strathairn and the always-dependable Brian Dennehy. Just don’t watch it before going to bed…

Diagnosis Murder: The Third Season (Paramount)
7th Heaven: Season Five (Paramount)
Gomer Pyle, USMC: The Third Season (Paramount)


Then come some more of your grandma’s favorite shows: Diagnosis Murder: The Third Season (Paramount) is the latest installment of Dick Van Dyke’s friendly-doctor/hard-nosed detective cop/hospital drama that is as engaging as it is derivative; 7th Heaven: Season Five (Paramount) is more unbearably cheesy and melodramatic than one could ever imagine (I made it through the whole season in a marathon weekend – it’s amazing); and Gomer Pyle, USMC: The Third Season (Paramount) remains the goofy, aw-shucks Andy Griffith Show spin-off that it ever was – for those who like watching country-fried farm boys getting the best of his duty sergeant, this one’s for you.

Obviously I tend toward the 7th Heaven side of things – as watchable as Diagnosis Murder may be, I find it doesn’t hold a candle to other modern crime dramas, and Gomer Pyle got old before its season opening episode was finished – but somewhere here lies something you can watch at Gram’s house during the holidays.