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Epics Coming to DVD: ‘Benjamin Button’, ‘We the Living’

Paramount releases last year’s best picture, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, on a special, two-disc DVD tomorrow. Though I have not reviewed the DVD (I reviewed the 2008 movie here), the product, which includes printed material, looks promising and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in this beautifully evocative movie again.

The slip-cased Criterion Collection package is presented in widescreen with the following features: a documentary called The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button; director David Fincher’s introduction; scoring, special effects and visual effects bonus bits and an audio commentary by Fincher. It’s also being released on a single disc DVD and on Blu-Ray. I plan to add DVD notes to my original review.

Another three-hour epic, We the Living, which was recut from an Italian pirate film released in fascist Italy and Europe as two separate pictures in 1942, is finally coming to DVD sometime this summer, according to reliable sources. This memorable movie version of Ayn Rand’s first novel (1936) premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 1986 and was released theatrically in 1988. I’ll have more to report about this exciting news—watch for my exclusive articles about We the Living—for this outstanding motion picture. If you haven’t read the exceptionally haunting novel, a new paperback edition is due out soon (first reported here).

Screen Shots: Wolverine, Ghosts of Girlfriends, Disney Shorts

The thoroughly confusing, cheesy and contradictory tentpole picture, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, has some entertaining moments and its less-than-spectacular execution is the fault of neither of its leading men, Academy Awards host Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber (The Painted Veil). Blending story aspects of The Incredible Hulk, The Bourne Identity, Rambo—even Shooter—the contradictions mount as Jackman’s superwolf comics character is explained from 1845 to present day: his blades spring to attention without the requisite trigger of his anger and he ages despite being immortal—then he inexplicably stops aging sometime around the U.S. Civil War. Wolverine, battling evil, doesn’t have much of a personality, let alone a sense of purpose, despite having over a hundred years to acquire one. The origins of his wolf-like powers are not exactly demystified, either. Since we already know where his story leads, this poorly scripted, fraternally themed soap opera—complete with a bout of amnesia—lacks tension and excitement.

On the other hand, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a nicely rendered romantic comedy with a clever, if decidedly inadequate, screenplay. With a semi-serious plot based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Matthew McConaughey is cast as the cad with a lesson to learn, with aid from scene-stealing Michael Douglas as his dearly departed uncle. The well-paced story moves to an impending wedding, where the fashion photographer player must face the consequences of his callous, one-night stands. Of course, it isn’t pretty—and, thankfully, it isn’t toilet-joked to death—and some of it’s funny and thoughtful. Unfortunately, they forgot to develop the female lead character (Jennifer Garner). Because she has no life—she comes off as a spinster with nothing better to do than rescue weddings—their relationship has zero emotional impact and there is no convincing evidence that the playboy chooses to change. Still, it beats watching Wolverine.

I dropped in on the 10th annual Newport Beach Film Festival, where event chief Gregg Schwenk introduced a showcase of rare Walt Disney Studios shorts. The evening was hosted by Disney’s Don Hahn and David Bossert, who provided brief (and, sometimes, cutting) remarks before each animated short. The films were screened at the coastal city’s beautiful Art Deco Lido Theater.

I strongly prefer early Disney shorts, such as the 1942 war propaganda film, “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Firing Line,” featuring Pluto and Minnie Mouse, a delightfully entertaining depiction of how to store fat to fight the Nazis (lard contains glycerin, which was used for explosives) which extols then-President Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called Four Freedoms. The Burbank studio’s influential 1932 film, “Flowers and Trees,” the first color animated picture ever produced, is also excellent. Fast forward 50 years to Tim Burton’s nihilistic 1982 picture, “Vincent,” more than a bit dark for a family event, and the brilliantly computer animated 2008 short, “Glago’s Guest,” which portrays a Communist soldier as a kind, friendly fellow.

Depicting a brute for history’s bloodiest dictatorship as a harmless chap is offensive, but the worst film was a frantic 1982 nightmare called “Fun with Mr. Future,” a snide slice of environmentalism that deliberately desecrates the Sherman brothers’ classic tune for Disneyland’s defunct Carousel of Progress—”There’s a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow,” a wonderful song composed for that General Electric-sponsored Tomorrowland attraction, which celebrated Thomas Edison’s invention, electricity. The joyless “Fun with Mr. Future” attacks electricity, and watching that travesty is enough to make you want to turn on all the lights. The program ended on an ‘up’ note, with a sneak preview of Disney/Pixar’s soon-to-be-released Up, a colorful, adventure-themed movie that reminds everyone that Walt’s creative successor in animation is, except for the post-apocalyptic WALL-E, more Pixar than Disney. Up looks like a cinematic refreshment for family and friends—perfect for America’s first summer of Obama … and economic discontent.

The Soloist

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This week offers a choice of opening movies starring two top actors: Iron Man co-stars Terrence Howard and Robert Downey, Jr., both of whom are among Hollywood’s best actors. Howard stars with Channing Tatum (Coach Carter, Stop-Loss) in Fighting, a fighter-themed picture which I was supposed to see (unfortunately, I was unable to attend the screening). Mr. Downey stars with Jamie Foxx (Ray) in the true life-based The Soloist, a heart-wrenching drama which has been advertised for some time. I still want to see Fighting, but, unless you’re a diehard Downey fan, I do not recommend seeing The Soloist. Here’s my review.

Screen Shots

Fast & FuriousBuckle up for an exciting, action-packed joyride in the refreshingly linear Fast and Furious. Having never seen any of the original trio in the series, I thought this car chase picture would be another mindless assault and, I must say, it works well for what it is: a straightforward, politically incorrect B-movie-a Western with cars instead of horses. Though the Demolition Derby formula is still gears, guns, and thugs-with girl-on-girl action tossed in-Fast and Furious is fueled by the brains and brawn male leads, unshaven Paul Walker (Eight Below) and Vin Diesel, two rivals that team to defeat Mexican druglords.

Hannah MontanaHannah Montana: The Movie is my introduction to the Disney Channel’s popular character, a high school student who doubles as a pop superstar (Miley Cyrus). The movie plays out the identity crisis of wanting to be a tomboy and play dress-up. A country/city contrast kicks in with a climax that borrows from Mrs. Doubtfire, but it gets off to a rough start, is too long and is packed with folksy bromides. A country/hip-hop number tries too hard, though the music is accessible and enjoyable, and Miley in her skin-tight cutoffs is definitely growing up. There’s a hardworking farm-boy, real and screen dad Billy Ray Cyrus, who drags things to a crawl whenever he’s on screen and cannot act, and an anti-capitalist subplot that feels like it was approved by the Sierra Club-a developer proposes to build the best-looking mall in Miley’s economically troubled Tennessee town and Miley’s anti-progress grandmother runs him out of town (but she loves to go shopping). Hannah Montana is at its best when Hannah’s singing about keeping it real.

17 AgainAnother Disney star, Zac Efron (High School Musical), stars in this weekend’s 17 Again, which is part Back to the Future, part Big-and all mixed up. This movie isn’t awful; it just doesn’t have anything interesting to say. When 40ish dad Mike (Matthew Perry) is magically sent back to live in his 17-year-old body (Efron), there’s no point beyond controlling his kids-pressuring his son to play sports like he did, using an obnoxious horn-and speechifying that the purpose of sex is procreation. Of course, with Hollywood all but kneeling before the religionists, when a high school girl’s in trouble, abortion is never an option (it features the underhandedly anti-abortion picture Knocked Up‘s Leslie Mann). The funniest thing about 17 Again is his best friend’s (Tyler Steelman) nerdy courtship of the high school principal (Melora Hardin), which is predictable but entertaining. Efron safely carries the diversionary picture, and, while he doesn’t hurt his career in his first leading feature role, he doesn’t break out of High School Musical mode, either.

State of PlayAnother weekend opener, State of Play, starring Russell Crowe (Cinderella Man), Ben Affleck (Hollywoodland) and Rachel McAdams (The Notebook), is also mixed. Like most of today’s so-called thrillers, it’s slow-moving, convoluted and equipped with a random twist. With Mr. Crowe as a crusty print journalist-as good as ever-McAdams as an ambitious blogger, and Affleck as a congressman, State of Play chugs along like a late-night cable movie (it’s based on a British television program). Affleck is terrible, huffing and puffing and clenching his jaw like the whole world is at stake in every scene. Mr. Crowe does what he does, though he’s downsized to an Obama campaign slogan. McAdams is fine as the innocent. The picture’s anti-business theme that profit is immoral is expressed in lines like one Affleck spews that they’re “trying to privatize the Department of Homeland Security!!!” (a real patriot knows that there shouldn’t be such a department in the first place). The best line comes from an unabashed profit-seeker in the form of Helen Mirren as a biting newspaperwoman. Responding to pleading reporters on deadline, she deadpans what former newspaper readers figured out a long time ago: “I do not give a s— about the rest of the story.” Halfway through this static mystery, which includes Jason Bateman as the conspiracy’s weakest link, neither will you.

Movie Review: The Dark Knight

Buy the DVD

Like the title, The Dark Knight, featuring Bob Kane’s DC Comics character, Batman, reflects man’s capacity for malevolence. As it is stated in the picture, one must either “die a hero—or live long enough to … become the villain.” In other words, man is doomed. Director Chris Nolan, who co-wrote the script, displays the seriousness with which he delivered the superior 2005 adaptation, Batman Begins.

The plot is less purposeful this time. Opening with a tense, violent bank robbery by men wearing masks—The Dark Knight’s leitmotif—leading into Batman’s secret world (including that of his true identity, playboy Bruce Wayne) and closing with multiple climaxes that exhaust more than they excite, the sequel succumbs to its own theme. Nihilism dramatized—and it certainly is here—is vacant.

The cast fills in the blanks. As a paranoid schizophrenic known as the Joker, the late Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain) is strong and understated, playing the arch-villain as a greasy-haired slug and tapping the nihilist to a tee. As legal eagle Rachel—Batman’s true love—Maggie Gyllenhaal is better than mousy Katie Holmes was in the original and almost everyone else—Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman—is fine.

Christian Bale as Wayne/Batman is also good, though his role is reduced to a series of extended appearances. The Dark Knight cycles through three story arcs; anarchist Joker’s menace to Gotham City, Batman’s vengeful response, and the emergence of a new voice for law and order in the metropolis, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a man of honor who’s in love with Rachel. Each of them is deeply flawed.

When Gotham’s criminals—a mix of mafia, gangs, and communist Chinese—mingle with the Joker, the city is in chaos. Restoring civilization falls to Batman, cop Gordon (Mr. Oldman) and lawyer Dent (Mr. Eckhart). Amid looming shadows and toe-tingling overhead photography set to a low drone—and a singular silence like something out of an awful nightmare—Mr. Nolan submits a suspenseful, cinematic battle among streets and skyscrapers.

But this incarnation is lacking in the Batman. Bale’s protagonist is decidedly darker from the start, with a deeper voice that sounds like an inaudible growl, and his hard-fought heroism in the first picture dissipates in the first few frames. He is essentially an afterthought to the Joker and Harvey Dent, whose trajectory takes a tragic turn. The gloom extends to a pair of innocent-looking children, who erupt with glee at the sight of deadly destruction.

Life is hell, itself a Hollywood cliché, and this notion undermines The Dark Knight’s later stabs at redemption, when two ferries filled with citizens and convicts are forced to choose whether to sink or swim. None of this makes much sense, even taken on its own terms—not Batman’s butler, Alfred, suddenly turning computer literate, not manic Joker creating elaborate plans, not the widespread police corruption coupled with Batman’s carte blanche use of police databases. A supersonic software application is downright dubious.

There is a degree of logistical plausibility, as one act of anarchy swerves into another—given the circumstances of Mr. Ledger’s death, what one sees on screen is definitely disturbing—and The Dark Knight delivers on the promise to reduce the larger-than-life hero to a puny anti-hero. But watching freaks go ballistic for two and a half hours is a numbing experience—one that is barely worth the cost.

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