DVD reviews
July 2007


All reviews by Loey Lockerby


Spy movies are usually action-packed, at least when they’re fictional. You’d think the more mundane aspects of the real thing would be a bit dull, but Breach is as smart and intense as anything a screenwriter could invent.

Kansas City native Chris Cooper plays FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who confessed in 2001 to over two decades of treasonous activity, spying first for the Soviet Union, then for post-Communist Russia. As Hanssen maintained the façade of a religious, patriotic family man, his actions cost several lives and endangered countless others.

Breach begins when agent-in-training Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is assigned to smoke Hanssen out by posing as his new assistant. O’Neill doesn’t immediately know the real reason for his position, and he starts to develop a bond with his demanding, secretive boss. When he discovers the truth, O’Neill must hide his disappointment and revulsion well enough to maintain Hanssen’s trust until the Bureau can make an arrest.

Director and co-writer Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) has made a tightly wound homage to ‘70s dramas like All the President’s Men, something Ray himself admits freely on the commentary track he shares with the real-life O’Neill. Unlike many filmmakers, Ray actually has the skill to pull this off, never allowing the style to overwhelm the substance.

Of course, he couldn’t succeed without great actors, and he has one of the greatest in Cooper. It’s no small feat to make a traitorous hypocrite sympathetic, but Cooper does just that. He is matched exceptionally well by Phillippe, in a role that should easily put to rest any doubts about his talent.

Extras: Besides the informative commentary, there are two making-of docs and an episode of Dateline about the actual case, all of which highlight the filmmakers’ devotion to authenticity. There are also a handful of very good deleted and alternate scenes, with commentaries to explain why they didn’t make the final cut. (PG-13) Rating: 5.

Reno 911!: Miami Unrated Edition

Fans of the loony improvised Comedy Central show Reno 911! will appreciate most of this big-screen adventure, which follows the inept Reno Sheriff’s Department to a law enforcement conference in Miami. Relegated to a seedy motel when their registrations can’t be found, the officers become the only cops in town when the convention site is quarantined after a bio-terror attack. Naturally, they’re in over their heads from the minute they take over, yet they bumble through as always, keeping a lid on local crime while searching for the source of the attack.

The Reno 911! style is best appreciated in quick bursts, and the film generally follows the show’s rapid-fire sketch format. At less than 90 minutes, it’s short for a feature, but way too long for a deliberately disjointed half-hour TV series. Several scenes drag badly, and the cast and filmmakers clearly don’t know what to do with a plot, even one this flimsy. Thank goodness they didn’t include some of the deleted scenes, which are interminable. Improv is great, but only if you know when to quit.

There is still plenty to love about Reno 911!: Miami, especially for those familiar with the series. The cast — Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant, Kerri Kenney-Silver (who collectively wrote and directed), Carlos Alazraqui, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Niecy Nash and Cedric Yarbrough — have had five years to fine-tune these characters, and they know exactly what to do in every crazy situation they end up in.

Extras: The unrated disc contains two funny in-character commentary tracks, and one hilarious out-of-character track with Lennon, Garant and Kenney-Silver. The deleted scenes take up almost an hour — skip to the premiere footage and movie-related fake PSAs instead. (NR). Rating: 3.

Bridge to Terabithia

The ads for this adaptation of Katherine Paterson's novel made it look like a Narnia-style fantasy, so viewers unfamiliar with the book may have been disappointed at first. Hopefully, though, they were able to see beyond the hype, because the effort is worth it.

Jess (Josh Hutcherson) is a lonely, outcast kid in his small town, bullied at school and worried about his family's money troubles. His dreary life gets a blast of sunshine when Lesley (AnnaSophia Robb) moves in next door. A cheerful, free-spirited girl, Lesley accepts and inspires Jess. In the woods near their homes, they create Terabithia, a magical land in which they are heroes who can handle anything.

Director Gabor Csupo and his team of screenwriters refuse to dumb down the challenging subject matter, and the resulting film treats its preteen audience with sensitivity and respect. Compared to the glossy phoniness that is usually marketed to this age group, Bridge to Terabithia is practically a documentary, CGI monsters and all.

The only major problem is that Lesley is a fantasy figure herself, too brilliant and wonderful to be real. This tends to undercut the emotion of the story, as does Robb's affected child-actor performance. She's cute, but she's trying too hard, and it's difficult to connect with a character that never quite seems to touch the ground. What Lesley represents — joy, wonder, individuality — is always more important than who she is. The movie is too well made to be diminished much by this, but it does keep things at the level of "very good" instead of "great."

Extras: Two commentaries and a short feature discuss the nuts and bolts of adapting such a popular book, while another feature has teachers and librarians dutifully explaining the book's themes (which will already be obvious to anyone who has watched the DVD). There is also a music video for the film's inevitable pop theme song. (PG). Rating: 3.5.

Black Snake Moan

Writer-director Craig Brewer made audiences care about a pimp with dreams of rap stardom in his 2005 hit Hustle & Flow. Instead of choosing an easier sell for his next film, Brewer has gone even further, giving us a self-destructive nymphomaniac and the aging bluesman who chains her up to save her soul.

It sounds like the plot of a porn movie or a '70s drive-in flick (or some combination thereof), but Brewer's skill at finding his characters' humanity turns Black Snake Moan into a heartfelt tale of redemption. Plus, it has a great soundtrack.

Rae (Christina Ricci) and Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) live in the same dirt-poor Tennessee town, where the residents who aren't living in squalor are looking for a way out. Rae's boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), thinks his way out is through the Army, and he leaves with the hope of making both their lives better.

Just a few days later, Rae is lucky to be alive, after a drug-and-alcohol-fueled descent into violence and random sexual encounters. Lazarus finds her on the side of the road, badly injured and incoherent, and takes her to his home. Once her physical ailments are tended to, he decides to keep Rae chained to the radiator in a desperate bid to prevent her from hurting herself even more.

In the hands of a lesser director, this would be exploitative and misogynistic, and Brewer does teeter on the brink a couple of times. He always comes back to the very simple idea behind this bizarre tale — that suffering people need to connect and give each other strength. With the help of Jackson and an Oscar-worthy Ricci, Brewer turns an overheated delta blues fable into something almost beautiful.

Extras: Brewer provides a commentary track, on the film and over some deleted scenes. There's also a terrific making-of documentary, as well as two features on the film's use of blues music. (R). Rating: 4.

Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.


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