DVD reviews
July 2009



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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger


Has Nicolas Cage’s acting gotten worse since he won his Oscar? When he’s coasting through some silly action film, he at least has the decency to look bored. When he decides to be a serious thespian, you get the horrific scenery chewing of movies like The Wicker Man and Knowing.

Directed by Dark City auteur Alex Proyas, Knowing starts with some promise as MIT professor John Koestler (Cage) discovers a page of mysterious numbers among the items unearthed in a time capsule at his son’s school. John immediately (and inexplicably) becomes obsessed with the paper’s meaning, and soon realizes that it contains predictions of major disasters — including a few that haven’t happened yet.

Proyas stages shocking, intense depictions of these tragedies, leaving viewers breathless and unnecessarily optimistic. Every time he builds this kind of suspense, Proyas undermines it by leaving in the terrible, written-by-committee dialogue and allowing Cage to bug his eyes out and scream.

All this might be tolerable if not for the ending. It’s supposed to be profound and moving, but it’s way too loony to be taken seriously. It’s the only thing in Knowing that’s funnier — and more irritating — than Cage’s acting.

Extras: A commentary by Proyas and DVD producer Mark Rance; a making-of doc; a “scholarly” feature on conceptions of the apocalypse. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 —LL

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

When Kennedy and Johnson-era Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara died July 6 at the age of 93, there was no shortage of people who were eager to dance on his grave. He’s credited with escalating the Vietnam War, leading American down the same path of folly that the French followed. Based on his decisions, thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese died.

It’s easy to vilify a man who lived so long despite sending countless others to early graves for what ultimately proved to be illusory goals. But documentarian Errol Morris (who corrected an appalling miscarriage of justice with The Thin Blue Line) presents a vision of McNamara that defies the caricature that his detractors believed him to be. It’s hardly surprising that Morris won a well-deserved Oscar in 2003 for this one.

After nearly 20 hours of interviews, The Fog of War reveals McNamara to be an intelligent, insightful and sensitive man who was catastrophically wrong about the nature of the conflict that came to define him. In the film, McNamara admits that he was wrong in understanding the reasons for the war and in how it was conducted. He also raises questions that we can’t afford to ignore: “Is there such a thing as morality during war?” and “Can we ever escape the shadow of nuclear annihilation?”

Morris started work on the film before 9/11, but The Fog of War has some chilling lessons that are relevant for the current conflicts and the ones to come. Morris was a passionate opponent of the Vietnam War, but he doesn’t aggressively question McNamara. As a result, we learn some things about McNamara that weren’t previously known before. He helped plan the fire bombing of Tokyo in World War II, which killed nearly 100,000 people in a single evening. Morris also cuts to images that either illustrate or mock what McNamara is saying. It’s a clever way of supporting McNamara when he’s telling the truth and reprimanding him when he’s fibbing.

The primary lesson that seems to emerge from The Fog of War is that intelligence and rationality won’t stop anyone from making McNamara’s tragic mistakes.

Extras: Dozens of fascinating comments from McNamara that didn’t make the final cut, McNamara provides his own list of lessons. Apparently, he didn’t like the ones that Morris chose from his comments. (PG-13) Rating: 4 —DL

Confessions of a Shopaholic

You know you’re watching a bad chick flick when the heroine starts conversing with department store mannequins. Or when she stuffs a closet so full, it bursts. Or gets a job she’s clearly unqualified for because she’s just so darn adorable. Or, frankly, any of the ridiculous things Isla Fisher does in this adaptation of Sophie Kinsella’s frothy book series.

As clothes-obsessed Rebecca Bloomwood, Fisher gives a sparkling, nuanced performance that actually makes the rest of the film look worse. Rebecca is newly unemployed, thousands of dollars in debt, and desperate to work at a trendy fashion magazine. Instead, she ends up inexplicably impressing the handsome editor (Hugh Dancy) of a financial magazine, who likes her skill at explaining money to average readers. It’s a mystery how she could possess such a gift given her own cash problems, but that’s just one of many baffling elements of Confessions of a Shopaholic.

Director P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend’s Wedding) knows his way around the genre’s clichés, and makes a point of including every single one. From forced romantic mishaps to Rebecca’s toddler-like motor skills, Hogan goes through the checklist with workmanlike precision.

The cast is comprised of good sports, including veterans like Joan Cusack and John Lithgow, who gamely make the best of the situation. The only actor who really shines, though, is Fisher, who deserves so much better.

Extras: Deleted scenes; a blooper reel; a music video by Shontelle and Akon; a digital copy for mobile devices. (PG) Rating: 2

Two Lovers

It’s too bad that Joaquin Phoenix is now best known for dominating YouTube with his barely there chat with David Letterman. While watching him mumbling in a stupor is perversely entertaining, it’s a lot more edifying to watch him give what he says is his final acting performance in director James Gray’s Two Lovers.

Phoenix and Gray previously teamed up for the crime dramas The Yards and We Own the Night, but the two are in much better form with this offering. While the script by Gray and Ric Menello covers familiar ground, Gray’s approach to the material is so stylish and sincere, that it makes a typical “other woman” film seem as if it’s a new genre.

Phoenix plays a troubled young man named Leonard Kraditor, who lives with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) because he’s suicidal after being jilted by his fiancée. Mom and dad try to hook him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the friendly, if somewhat insecure, daughter of his father’s business partner. While Leonard returns her affections, he’s also drawn to his neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). Like him, she has more baggage than La Guardia, including an affair with her married boss (Elias Koteas).

Even though Two Lovers is a movie about people talking and staring at each other longingly, Gray’s visual approach is consistently creative. He can make a simple telephone conversation seem as if it were shot in funhouse mirror. He also gives the characters enough complexity to prevent them from being stock. Phoenix’s Leonard, while clearly teetering on the edge of sanity, is just nice enough to make you hope he gets his act together. If this is as Phoenix claims his last performance, it’s also arguably his best. The supporting cast is equally adept, and Koteas shines as a philanderer who isn’t as heartless as he appears.

Extras: Two dull “making of” featurettes (apparently everything interesting these folks had to offer went into the movie), three wisely deleted scenes; a commentary track by Gray. (R) Rating: 4 —DL

Waltz With Bashir

Much of what makes Waltz with Bashir great is the fact that it doesn’t fit neatly into any sort of category. It’s an Israeli animated film that features the voices of real veterans of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, including the film’s writer-director Ari Folman.

Folman was in Beirut during the Sabra and Shatila massacre, where Christian militias attacked unarmed Palestinian and Lebanese refugees. Despite having been just a few hundred yards away from the scene of the atrocity, Folman had no memory of what happened.

Folman then interviewed fellow veterans to determine what happened. As details of the massacre started to return to his consciousness, he slowly learned that some of what he remembered about the conflict couldn’t have happened. His fellow veterans also recounted a series of nightmarish incidents that while true, were as appalling as they were senseless. In the film, one recounts marching through a beautiful garden only to have the splendor marred by a child attacking his squad with an RPG.

The unique computerized “cut-out” animation technique is just about ideal for the material involved. Some of the things that Folman and his fellow soldiers witnessed were so bizarre that they’d look ridiculous presented in live action format. At times, the soldiers stayed in abandoned luxury villas before they were called into battle, and there’s a dream-like quality to many of the men’s recollection that only animation can make possible. When Folman finally presents genuine footage of the massacre at the end of the movie, it makes the horror unforgettable.

While Waltz with Bashir captures the specifics of the Lebanon campaign, there’s something sadly universal about the tales that Folman and the other soldiers recount. If it weren’t for the Hebrew soundtrack, these guys could just as easily be describing a World War II battle or a current skirmish in Iraq. In the extras, Folman disparages all wars, and the film he’s made seems applicable to each one.

Extras: A “making of” featurette, an interview with Folman, fascinating demonstrations of how the animation was assembled, a soundtrack in both Hebrew and English, and a commentary track by Folman. (R) Rating: 5 —DL


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