DVD reviews
September 2008



All reviews by Loey Lockerby

What Happens in Vegas

Las Vegas is notorious for quickie weddings, so it was inevitable that the concept would form the basis for a silly romantic comedy. In this one, Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher play total strangers who have come to Sin City to drown their sorrows after unpleasant life events (he just got fired; she just got dumped). They bond over drinks, and wake up the next morning extremely hung over…and married.

When he uses her quarter on a winning slot machine, the prospect of a no-frills annulment goes out the window. A frustrated judge (Dennis Miller) demands that they live together as a serious married couple, with the first one to give up losing his/her half of the loot.

What follows is a funny War of the Roses sequence, in which the leads do every nasty thing they can think of to drive the other “spouse” away. Kutcher and Diaz are good at this kind of aggressive, biting humor, and the first half of the film is at least amusing. At some point, though, director Tom Vaughan realizes he’s making a romance, and he rushes to make the characters likable enough to root for.

It doesn’t really work — they’re never the kind of people you’d want to hang out with — and the attempt to soften them up just feels like last minute pandering. Which it probably is.

Extras: Commentary by Vaughan and editor Matt Friedman; a feature in which Diaz and Kutcher interview each other about their characters, and another in which co-star Zach Galifianakis interviews Vaughan; an in-character short with Rob Corddry’s character; gag reel. (PG-13). Rating: 2.5.

Smart People

The “Smart People” of the title are clever, educated intellectuals who happen to be complete emotional morons. Lawrence Weatherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a widowed college professor who avoids his students, neglects his teenaged kids (Ellen Page and Ashton Holmes) and basically acts like a pompous jerk to everyone around him. This miserable existence is shaken up by the arrival of his slacker adopted brother (Thomas Haden Church) and a chance encounter with a former student (Sarah Jessica Parker) who is now a doctor. While Lawrence fumbles through a tentative romance with this woman he once ignored, his daughter becomes both annoyed and fascinated by her crazy uncle.

Every actor in this movie is brilliant, giving writer Mark Jude Poirier’s dialogue the snap it deserves. There are hilarious, insightful exchanges throughout the script, and director Noam Murro deftly captures the e self-absorbed insularity of the academic world.

No one changes much in Smart People, and there is never a sense that these people are headed toward more enlightened lives. They all improve a little, but not enough to justify watching them for two hours. Only the sharp writing and performances make this film reasonably amusing, instead of horribly depressing.

Extras: Commentary by Murro and Poirier; cast and crew interviews; deleted scenes; gag reel. (R).Rating: 3.

The Band’s Visit

For most Americans, life in Israel is seen through the lens of that country’s conflicts with its neighbors. We get very little sense of what it’s like to simply be there, day by day, or of how regular citizens interact with outsiders.

This charming film from Israeli director Eran Kolirin uses music and wry humor to bring disparate groups of people together without making any overt political statements. A police orchestra from Egypt arrives in Israel to play at the opening of an Arab cultural center. Through a series of small mishaps, these stoic, befuddled men end up in a remote town, far from their proper destination.

The movie unfolds over the course of about 24 hours, as the band members discover their plight and accept the hospitality of Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a local restaurant owner, and her family. A boring night in a boring town turns into an opportunity for cross-cultural understanding, and possibly even romance.

Obviously, not much happens in The Band’s Visit, at least in purely narrative terms. It’s a movie of sweet moments, subtle performances and quiet laughs. Despite its lack of action, it goes by very quickly, leaving you wanting more time with these characters and their unique — but universally familiar — lives.

Extras: One short making-of feature and a photo gallery. In Hebrew, Arabic and English with subtitles. (PG-13). Rating: 4.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Based on a 1938 novel, this madcap comedy tries very hard to imitate the movies of that era. So hard, in fact, that it's a miracle director Bharat Nalluri didn't hurt himself from the exertion.

Everything about Miss Pettigrew is zany and old-fashioned, from the costumes to the plot twists. Frances McDormand plays the title character, a failed governess who insinuates her way into a job as social secretary to a flighty actress (Amy Adams). McDormand is a calm, wise presence, and Miss Pettigrew changes the lives of everyone around her, not to mention her own.

Adams, who has shown the sparkle of a '30s comedienne in other roles, overplays this one badly. It's hard not to love her, but she gives a mannered performance that looks like a poor impersonation of Carole Lombard.

This is probably Nalluri's fault, since most of the other actors are similarly cartoonish. Their antics certainly make McDormand look better, but she doesn't need the help. Like a true "golden age" actress, she remains classy and self-possessed throughout. If only she weren't alone.

Extras: Commentary by Nalluri; deleted scenes; a standard making-of feature, plus another on the book's long journey to the screen. PG-13). Rating: 3.

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


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