August 2011

Source Code  •  The Great Dictator  •  Soul Surfer  •  Skidoo

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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger


Source Code

After finding success with the low-budget sci-fi drama Moon, director Duncan Jones got a bigger cast and budget for Source Code. Some filmmakers would simply use that as an excuse to blow more stuff up, and Jones isn’t immune to the impulse (in fact, a train explosion is a primary plot motivator). The money really shows up in the expansion of the story and development of the characters. You know, where it’s supposed to go.
 
The aforementioned explosion is a terrorist attack on a Chicago commuter train, which former soldier Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is tasked with solving. He does so by having the final memories of a passenger replayed in his mind, so he can identify the perpetrator, who has threatened more mayhem. Colter becomes determined to actually stop the bombing, despite the assurances of his military handler (Vera Farmiga) that this is impossible — he is only reliving the event, not actually going back in time.
 
The first half of Source Code is a great, tense mystery, as Colter and the audience race to put the pieces together before his time is up. When he starts trying to alter history, the movie gets into “Inception”-style mind-bending, dealing with concepts like alternate realities and the power of the human mind. There’s also time for romance between Colter and a fellow passenger (Michelle Monaghan), which almost becomes cheesy before it melds with the larger themes.
 
With Source Code, Jones proves that he’s not a one-hit wonder, establishing himself as a confident director with plenty to offer fans of cerebral science fiction — and fantastic explosions.
 
Extras: Commentary by Jones, Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Ben Ripley; features on the cast and the science of the story; an onscreen features option that will run during the movie. (PG-13) Rating: 4 —LL

The Great Dictator

Silent comedy star Charlie Chaplin’s first full talkie is a good movie that becomes a great movie through sheer courage. Chaplin was probably destined to satirize Adolf Hitler because he and the Nazi tyrant were born only four days apart.

Nonetheless, as the extras in this new Criterion Collection illustrate, Chaplin took jaw-dropping risks. Germany was a rich market for American films, and the United States had not yet entered World War II. There was also rampant anti-Semitism within our own borders. The Great Dictator was also financed entirely from Chaplin’s pocket, which would have left him a pauper if it had failed at the box office. Apparently, viewers appreciated his guts because it wound up the biggest commercial success of his career.

While Chaplin was later horrified to discover that the Nazi’s genocidal actions were worse than even he imagined and he thought he should not have made the film, The Great Dictator is loaded with vintage Chaplin sequences, and it inspired later comics like Mel Brooks to face the evils of the world with their satire.

With a crisp new Blu-Ray transfer, we can see Chaplin’s hilariously accurate parody of the Fuhrer’s overblown oratory (delivered in heated mock-German). The story of a Jewish barber (also played by Chaplin) mistaken for the evil Adenoid Hynkel provides Chaplin with plenty of opportunities to show off his subtle pantomime and some physical humor that seems more remarkable considering that the then-50-year-old Chaplin did his own bone-breaking stunts.

Even though Chaplin was new to onscreen dialogue, some his wordplay is actually pretty clever. When an advisor informs Hynkel that workers are rebelling against the sawdust in their bread, the dictator is upset because it came from the country’s finest mills. That said, Chaplin ends the film as the barber delivering a speech that has mystified critics since the film’s 1940 release. Chaplin was decent with words, but he was better with his face and body. He also paces the film a little sluggishly toward the middle.

Nonetheless, The Great Dictator has what may be Chaplin’s strongest supporting cast, with Paulette Goddard, a star in her own right as his leading lady, and the side-splitting Jack Oakie doing a dead on parody of Benito Mussolini. Considering how miraculous it is that The Great Dictator exists at all, it seems foolish to lament its imperfections.

Extras: A commentary track by Chaplin scholars Dan Kamin and Hooman Hehran, a 2001 documentary The Dictator and the Tramp that reveals how difficult the film was to make, two featurettes concerning Chaplin’s abandoned Napoleon film that wound up morphing into The Great Dictator, color on set footage by Chaplin’s brother Sydney. There’s also a sequence from one of Sydney’s silent movies that Chaplin worked into The Great Dictator. Syd’s is good; Charlie’s reworking is magnificent. There’s also a good booklet that features Chaplin’s eloquent defense of his closing speech. (N/R) Rating: 5 —DL

Soul Surfer
 

Most people probably remember hearing about Bethany Hamilton, the teenaged surfer whose arm was bitten off by a shark while she swam in Hawaii. Her story comes to the big screen with Soul Surfer, a rare example of an inspirational film that actually inspires.
 
Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) starts out as a gifted, but otherwise pretty average kid, whose free time is spent with her equally surf-obsessed parents (Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt) and best friend (Lorraine Nicholson). Director Sean McNamara takes time to introduce us to these characters, so when the attack happens, there’s a real emotional investment in the outcome. As Bethany works to rebuild her life, the audience gets a crash course in the science of surfing with one arm, as well as a look at how a strong faith and family can get a resilient person through anything.
 
Soul Surfer is very much a Christian film, but unlike many similar efforts, it never feels like a Sunday school lesson. McNamara is telling a story first, and trusts his cast and his audience to figure out the rest. This actually has some appeal to secular viewers, who can appreciate Bethany’s courage without feeling preached at. Other Christian filmmakers should take note.
 
Some of the dialogue is tone-deaf, especially when the actors engage in surfer-speak (they sound like they’re reciting a foreign language phonetically). There is also one truly awful scene in which Bethany visits Thailand after the tsunami and magically cures the locals’ fear of going into the ocean. It’s the kind of goofy miracle-worker nonsense that lesser movies use to illustrate how awesome their characters are. With Miss Hamilton at its center, Soul Surfer does not need such tactics.
 
Extras: Deleted scenes; several making-of features, including one with Hamilton herself discussing professional surfing. (PG) Rating: 3 —LL

Skidoo

In 1968, Producer-director Otto Preminger, who is best known for helming classic noirs like Laura and Anatomy of a Murder, wanted to make a movie that tapped into the growing culture surrounding LSD.

After seeing Skidoo, audiences then and now wound up replying, “WTF.”

Only now is the film coming to home video, much less DVD.

Written by Doran William Cannon (Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud), Skidoo is an occasionally mesmerizing oddity. It paints hippies and their detractors with equally broad strokes and manages to portray neither accurately or well. It’s worth catching, not for its craftsmanship, but for seeing an all-star cast who appeared to have been selected after Preminger and the casting director dropped some acid.

That may explain why Frankie Avalon plays a high-tech lothario and Carol Channing winds up in her undies in one sequence.

Jackie Gleason stars as former mob enforcer Tony Banks, who has been asked by his don, named God (Groucho Marx), to break into a prison. An informer named “Blue Chips” Packard (Mikey Rooney) is squawking from his cell about God’s operation. While in the pokey, Tony discovers LSD and learns about himself.

What it is, you’ll probably never figure out, either.

Seeing a 77-year-old Marx offering a pale imitation of his previous shtick is disheartening (under heavy makeup, he looks like an embalmed version of his younger self), but seeing lots of hilariously cheesy optical effects (including one of Marx’s head on a screw) make for entertaining intoxication scenes. One hopes Preminger intended them to be funny.

The new Olive Films DVD presents the movie in its original widescreen format with all of its original gaudy color photography intact. Harry Nilsson’s soundtrack is also pretty fun and more assured than the film it accompanies.

Extras: None, which is a shame because the stories behind the making of the film, including this one by Roger Ebert, are fascinating in themselves. (Rated “M” in 1968, which is an “R” today) Rating: 2.5 —DL


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