DVD reviews
January 2010



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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger

Public Enemies

There are two potentially great movies fighting for dominance of Public Enemies. One is the story of John Dillinger, whose bank-robbing exploits kept Depression-era Americans on edge.  The other chronicles the resulting rise of the FBI, as such famed lawmen as J. Edgar Hoover and Melvin Purvis struggled to professionalize their field.

Bryan Burrough’s well-regarded 2004 book tackled both subjects. Director Michael Mann tries the same approach in his film adaptation, but even a 140-minute running time can’t accommodate everything that needs to be here.

Mann’s smooth visual style helps make Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) look like the gentleman gangster of popular mythology. Depp has fun sinking his teeth into the role, in stark contrast to Christian Bale, who plays Purvis as the kind of dull boy-scout hero who makes villains so much more likable. As these two men play cat-and-mouse, we’re also treated to Dillinger’s romance with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and the inside story of how Purvis helped develop modern law enforcement techniques.

If Mann had narrowed his focus a little, Public Enemies could have been either a thrilling gangster flick or an interesting look at how federal jurisdiction became a functional entity. Mann stages some powerful, beautiful action scenes (the Little Bohemia Lodge shoot-out is a masterpiece), but they punctuate long stretches of muddled boredom. There is potential in this film, but it’s continually squandered by Mann’s overreaching. He should have just made a killer movie, and left the complicated study of 1930’s crime and law to a 600-page book.

Extras: Commentary by Mann; a making-of feature; several historical features; the Blu-Ray also has a digital copy, a trivia game and onscreen interactive timelines and behind-the-scenes footage. (R) Rating: 3 —LL

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino’s detractors, with some justification, accuse him of telling stories that could only exist in a world created by a hopeless film geek for other hopeless film geeks. Inglourious Basterds may be the only movie in recent memory where one of the heroes is a film critic (Michael Fassbender, Hunger), and the other is a cinema owner (Mélanie Laurent).

Nonetheless, his latest entry is one of his most entertaining because he acknowledges a tricky fact that most previous movies about World War II conveniently gloss over: Language and cultural barriers can be very real and difficult to overcome. Brad Pitt’s hilariously over-the-top turn as an American commander of a group of Jewish commandos terrorizing the Third Reich in occupied France becomes even funnier when he tries to speak Italian.

Because Pitt and sure Oscar-nominee Christoph Waltz (who plays a suavely lethal Nazi colonel) are so delightfully assured that it takes repeated viewings to appreciate the film’s other virtues. The supporting cast members, particularly the remarkably subtle Laurent, are worth watching closely even if their work isn’t as showy as the leads. Oscar-winner Robert Richardson’s (The Aviator) creative cinematography results in dozens of freeze-framable moments. That’s not bad for a movie that features more delightfully profane banter than gunplay.

Tarantino takes horrible liberties with history, but he understands just enough about the real war to know how much he can get away with.

Extras: The one-disc edition includes outtakes and extended scenes and “Nation’s Pride,” a spot-on parody of Nazi propaganda movies directed by cast member Eli Roth. Diehard Tarantino fans should splurge on the two-disc edition because it includes lively round table discussion with Tarantino, Pitt and former New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell. It also includes an interview with veteran Australian actor Rod Taylor (The Time Machine), who plays Winston Churchill in this one and a touching salute to Sally Menke, who has edited all of Tarantino’s movies. (R) Rating: 4.5 —DL

Paranormal Activity

It’s become a cliché to compare low-budget horror films to The Blair Witch Project, but in the case of Oren Peli’s creepy homemade “ghost” story, it’s more than apt. Using unknown actors, cheap recording equipment and loads of creativity, Peli has crafted a worthy successor to those kids running around in the woods.

Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston play a live-in couple that begin to have strange experiences in their San Diego home. Micah thinks having a ghost is kind of cool, and starts setting up a camera in their bedroom every night. He also carries it around during the day, recording Katie as she becomes increasingly, seriously frightened. Turns out, this isn’t her first experience with the supernatural. And it might not be a ghost.

The performances aren’t great, but they’re convincing enough to make the story work. Peli makes it clear that something terrifying is indeed happening, but he lets off-screen noises and half-glimpsed shadows — plus the actors’ reactions to them — accomplish what a special effects budget can’t.

Peli builds the tension slowly, which is frustrating for some viewers, but he has a sense of pacing that much more experienced directors still haven’t mastered. A little more backstory might have been nice, but there’s a single-minded purity of purpose here that can shred your nerves. You don’t need elaborate explanations to make that work, any more than you need expensive gore or CG monsters. All it takes is talent, and the makers of Paranormal Activity have plenty of that.

Extras: The original ending (not as good as the one in theatres); the Blu-Ray also contains a digital copy. (R) Rating: 4 —LL

The Drummer

Hong Kong actor Jaycee Chan has a difficult legacy to live up to. He’s the son of martial arts legend Jackie Chan and even looks like a taller, thinner version of his dad. Fortunately, he’s making a name of his own by starring in movies that are different from his father’s.

In Kenneth Bi’s handsomely photographed The Drummer, Chan stars as Sid, the self-destructive son of a Hong Kong mob boss (Tony Leung Ka Fai, The Lover). Sid’s affair with another gangster’s moll forces his family to send the young would-be thug to Taiwan in order avoid a gang war.

While on the island, he discovers a troupe of Zen drummers (played by a group of real-life musicians) and tries to join them.

It takes no imagination to figure out that Sid will lose the chip on his shoulder as he experiences the Spartan lifestyle and discipline that are the norms in these people’s lives. What makes the film worth renting or owning is seeing the drummers perform. These men and women do more than simply pound. They leap all over the stage and demonstrate an intimidating focus that’s fascinating to watch.

Another plus is Leung’s nuanced performance as a violent don. From watching him shoot his opponents and punching his own relatives, it’s easy to see how Sid got off on the wrong foot. But Leung finds ways to make the old thug seem almost sympathetic.

Extras: Cast and crew bios and a thorough “making of” featurette. This movie is available through the monthly art film company www.filmmovement.com so it also comes with an accompanying short film. The Swedish-made Love and War is the tale of a nurse who falls in love with a dashing aviator. Their romance is interrupted by war, but what makes this short charmingly unique is that all of the characters are animal puppets, and all the dialogue is sung like an Italian opera. (N/R) Rating: 4 —DL

Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.