DVD reviews
October 2009

 

 

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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger


State of Play

State of Play is a remake of a British miniseries, but it makes a seamless transition to Washington, D.C. Political intrigue, murder and corruption are just that universal.

“Washington Globe” reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is struggling to remain relevant in a world where print journalism is being overtaken by cable TV and the Internet. When the assistant (and lover) of an up-and-coming congressman dies mysteriously, Cal reluctantly teams up with scrappy blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) to investigate. Complicating matters is the fact that the congressman (Ben Affleck) is Cal’s college roommate, who wants his old friend to help him, not expose his dirty secrets.

Like most films in this genre, State of Play is convoluted to the point of absurdity, but director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) has a terrific sense of pacing. He also has a team of screenwriters (including Michael Clayton scribe Tony Gilroy) whose collective eye for detail makes every character worth watching closely. The interplay between Cal and Della perfectly distills the conflict between old and new media, while humanizing and sympathizing with both, and the whole film has an urgent, lived-in quality. It may not make much sense, but it’s smart enough to know when that doesn’t matter.

Extras: A making-of doc and deleted scenes; Blu-Ray version also contains U-Control features with stills, footage, interviews and location maps. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 — LL


Katyn

Oscar-winning Polish writer/director Andrzej Wajda is now 83 years old. But he thankfully hasn’t lost his ability to outrage viewers for all the right reasons. His most recent film, the Oscar-nominated Katyn, recalls a horrific 1940 massacre that took place in the Katyn forest. If you’re not familiar with this incident, it’s understandable. It’s been a subject that has been a thorn in the side for Russian-Polish relations for decades.

The Soviets, who controlled the east of Poland at the time (Hitler hadn’t double crossed them yet), individually shot thousands of unarmed captive Polish military officers and buried them in mass graves. If the unwarranted slaughter weren’t appalling enough, the Soviets pretended the killings were done by the Nazis, who had left behind a good deal of carnage on their own.

Wajda is able to make viewers feel the horror of the incident without sensationalizing it. He does present a few nuances that prevent the Soviets from being monolithic goons. There’s a sympathetic Russian soldier who helps the wife and daughter of a Polish officer escape from the clutches of his fellow Soviets. He also waits until the very end to present the actual killings, which maximizes the anger viewers feel after watching the film. Wajda also focuses the story from the point of view of the women in the Polish soldiers’ lives. All are hoping against hope that their loved ones are spared and believe there’s something wrong with the official version.

It’s easy to get a sense that Katyn is more than a routine film for Wajda. One of the casualties of the real massacre was the director’s own father.

Extras: A making of featurette and a 40-minute interview with Wajda. The latter is essential. While it’s tough to sit through a long, subtitled conversation, Wajda provides some important information that American viewers might not be able to pick up simply from watching the film. (N/R) Rating: 4 — DL


X-Men Origins: Wolverine

The X-Men movies started out great with Bryan Singer delivering two intelligent and exciting adventures with perfect casts. Most perfect was Hugh Jackman as the tormented Wolverine, an anti-hero with a bad attitude and neat adamantium claws.

Naturally, Jackman/Wolverine is the first X-Man to get his own movie, and it continues the downward spiral begun by Brett Ratner with the series’ last entry. Following its main character from his youth in the 1800s to just before the events of the first film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a jumble of disconnected action set pieces and nonsensical characterization. Wolverine’s “brother” (Liev Schreiber), who also has mysterious powers, becomes his mortal enemy, although the reasons for their mutual hatred are never clear.

Neither is anything else, including the machinations of the scary military guys who experiment on our hero. Director Gavin Hood (great at small dramas like Tsotsi, not so good at this) fills the movie with largely pointless cameos and references that seem like cheap attempts to impress fans. Making a better movie would be much more effective.

Extras: Commentary tracks by Hood and producers Ralph Winter and Lauren Shuler Donner; a making-of doc; deleted scenes; an interview with comics creators Stan Lee and Len Wein; Blu-Ray also has four picture-in-picture making-of tracks and live IMDB look-up options, plus additional production featurettes. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 — LL


Angel of Death

As she demonstrated during her breakout role in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, New Zealand-born stuntwoman Zoë Bell has as much on-screen charisma as the leading ladies she’s doubled. Having taken punches and falls for Uma Thurman and Sharon Stone, that’s saying something.

Bell’s charm and finesse with a right hook help elevate Angel of Death from being a mundane straight-to-DVD offering. In fact, the film was original broadcast in 10-minute segments online.

Bell plays Eve, a cold, professional hit woman who can’t escape her last job. Wherever she goes, she encounters the ghost of a teenage target. This may have something to do with the fact that one of Eve’s victims stabbed her in the head with a four-inch knife before she killed him. Under supernatural influence, Eve goes after the mob family that hired her.

Eisner award-winning comic book writer Ed Brubaker comes up with some interesting plot twists, but his storyline is a little convoluted for its own good. Because most of Angel of Death was intended to be seen on small computer screens before it was completed, it looks cheap and claustrophobic. Fortunately, director Paul Etheredge knows how to stage hand-to-hand combat and show off Bell’s ability to pummel bad guys.

The cast is surprisingly good for such a modest effort. Doug Jones, who usually plays monsters in Guillermo del Toro’s movies, is a riot as coke-snorting doctor, and Lucy Lawless, whom Bell doubled on Xena: Warrior Princess, has a great cameo as Eve’s neighbor.

Extras: A commentary track that includes Bell, Etheredge and Brubaker, making of featurettes, Bell’s screen test and Eve’s tips on how to perform hits. Here’s hoping you never run into anyone who follows her advice. (R) Rating: 3 — DL


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