DVD reviews
September 2007

 

All reviews by Loey Lockerby

Disturbia

For a generation of kids who’ve never seen Rear Window, this adolescent version probably seems to have a brilliant concept. For the rest of us, it’s a pretty shameless attempt to update Hitchcock’s classic voyeuristic thriller.

Shia LaBeouf is the voyeur in question this time, a troubled-but-decent teenager named Kale who has been sentenced to house arrest after socking one of his teachers. Bored and cut off from the world (his mom has canceled his iTunes and taken away the video games), Kale starts spying on his neighbors. Naturally, one of them (David Morse) appears to be a murderer.

Disturbia goes in all the predictable directions, bringing in disbelieving authority figures, a cursory love interest (Sarah Roemer) and the stupid behavior that always seems to plague characters in these movies. With LaBeouf in the lead, most of this remains fairly plausible, if only because he is such a natural, likable actor. Director D.J. Caruso has a good sense of pacing and finds clever ways to incorporate modern technology without making his characters too dependent on it.

Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this film was motivated by money-grubbing laziness instead of any particular desire to entertain. It almost succeeds in spite of itself.

Extras: Commentary from Caruso, LaBeouf and Roemer; a solid making-of feature; deleted scenes and outtakes that don’t even add up to five minutes total (what was the point?); a pop up quiz; the usual music videos, photo galleries and trailers. (PG-13). Rating: 2.5.


Aqua Teen Hunger Force (Film and DVD version)

If you’ve seen Aqua Teen Hunger Force on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim line-up, you may have a vague idea of what you’re in for with this feature-length version. If not, you may wonder if you’ve wandered into someone else’s acid trip. Set in a decidedly low-rent neighborhood in South Jersey, ATHF (as fans call it) is a surreal, random parade of sick humor and out-of-nowhere cultural references. Oh, and the main characters are a floating container of French fries, a sociopath milkshake and a meatball who can change shape.

The bare semblance of plot concerns the origins of these “heroes” and how it relates (or doesn’t) to an exercise machine that goes out of control and starts destroying the city. That’s about all that would be understandable to anyone unfamiliar with the TV series. For the fan base, there are appearances by Carl (of course), the Mooninites, the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past, Emory and Oglethorpe and just about every other character known to appear regularly in the Aqua Teen universe. A few new ones are added, too, including singing concession items that provide the funniest opening sequence in recent movie history. Suffice to say, it should be played before every film ever screened from now on.

Extras: This thing is a veritable Hunger Force feast with a cheap making-of doc, trailers, sketches and a commentary track with Dana Snyder (the voice of Master Shake), producer Fred Armison, Onion editor Todd Hanson and rock legend Patti Smith, a fan of the series who even brings her 24-year-old son in on the act about halfway through. That’s just disc one — disc two contains another entire feature, made up of deleted scenes and half-finished animation, while most of that footage also ends up on the more concise (and much funnier) collection of cut scenes and fake endings. There are also music videos for the soundtrack’s many priceless songs, a collection of promos and even a page of legal information. Just in case anything wasn’t clear. (R). Rating: 4..


The Lives of Others

Many people were surprised when this low-key German drama beat Pan’s Labyrinth for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year. That’s probably because they didn’t see it. It may not be better than Guillermo Del Toro’s dark fantasy, but it is easily that film’s equal.

Set in East Berlin during the 1980s, The Lives of Others humanizes Gerd Wiesler, a member of the Stasi secret police, played brilliantly by Ulrich Muhe. A rigid, orthodox believer in the Communist cause, Wiesler shows no understanding of the people he spies on, no empathy for those he interrogates. That is, until he is assigned to the case of playwright Georg (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Marie, who are suspect simply because artists and intellectuals always are. Something about this couple and their friends awakens Wiesler’s conscience, especially when he learns that the surveillance is really due to a party official’s desire to get Christa-Marie for himself.

Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck did extensive research on life in Communist East Berlin, and everything about The Lives of Others feels authentic. It helps also that the primary actors are East German, and Muhe himself was under Stasi investigation during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Although he was a highly successful actor in Germany, Muhe never got the chance to enjoy the international acclaim he received from this film — he died of cancer in July 2007. If this is the last thing he’s remembered for, then he has left a great legacy.

Extras: A commentary by von Donnersmarck, as well as a lengthy interview with him and a very good making-of documentary. There are also a handful of interesting deleted scenes, with optional commentary. (R). Rating: 5.


Vacancy

The East German secret police look like Care Bears next to the villains of this potboiler where an unhappily married couple (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) check into an isolated roadside motel and almost end up in a snuff film.

Yes, it’s that simple, and Hungarian director Nimrod Antal (his real name) shows no interest in logic at any turn. He does, however, have an eye for creepy atmosphere, and he takes advantage of the grimy setting and the small, dark spaces to be found there. Vacancy is quick and to the point, which means the tension builds early and doesn’t ease up until the very end.

Wilson and Beckinsale are fine, despite the one-note script, and Frank Whaley is creepy as the motel’s proprietor. The whole idea that this establishment is a front for a snuff operation is ludicrous, but no more so than the premises of most horror films (doesn’t anyone ever notice all the mysterious disappearances around these places?).

Antal seems inclined to make a drive-in/grindhouse shocker, but there are too many Hollywood sensibilities at work here, and the result ends up being rather tepid. When its focus stays on the freaky and disturbing, Vacancy is a quite serviceable effort. Thanks to its short running time (only 75 minutes), it doesn’t have time to stray too far too often.

Extras: The making-of feature is the only really worthwhile segment, offering an interesting look at the story’s genesis and the creation of the setting (most of it was shot on the same soundstage as The Wizard of Oz, which has to be a sign of the apocalypse). There are also some deleted and alternate scenes, as well as the full versions of the snuff films we only get glimpses of in the movie, just in case you enjoy watching brutal, realistic simulated murders without being interrupted by a plot. (R). Rating: 2.5.

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


              
              
                 

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