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James and the Giant Peach, Piranha among DVD reviews

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JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1996). The gang behind 1993's wildly inventive The Nightmare Before Christmas — director Henry Selick and producers Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi — reunited three years later for another offbeat animated excursion, this one based on the book by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl. After the death of his parents by a mysterious rampaging rhinoceros, young James (played in the live-action bookend scenes by Paul Terry), is sent to live with two heartless aunts (Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley) who treat him abysmally. His encounter with a kindhearted stranger (Pete Postlethwaite) leads to a bizarre series of events which eventually find him burrowing into an enormous peach, at which point he's magically transported into a fantastic adventure involving human-sized insects, a mechanical shark and a voyage to that fabled land known as New York City. The forgettable tunes by Randy Newman slow the picture down, but otherwise, this is a visually stimulating treat that's witty enough to even include a surprise cameo sure to please Nightmare Before Christmas aficionados. The voice cast includes Richard Dreyfuss as a Brooklyn-bred centipede and Simon Callow as an erudite grasshopper, yet Susan Sarandon fares best as a sultry spider who seems to be channeling Greta Garbo in Ninotchka.

DVD extras include a 5-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; Newman's music video for the song "Good News"; and the original theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

KICK-ASS (2010). Based on Mark Millar's popular comic series, Kick-Ass refers to Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a geeky teenager who loves comic books and wonders why no one has ever mimicked the caped crusaders seen battling evildoers in print. Even though he concedes that his only superpower is being "invisible to girls," Dave decides to don a slick scuba suit and mask and take to the streets to fight crime under the moniker of Kick-Ass. As long as the picture remains focused on Dave and his exploits in and out of costume, it remains a clever modern riff on the classic Marvel tale, like watching Peter Parker's travails reimagined for Napoleon Dynamite. But this is only half the movie. The rest involves the efforts of two far more accomplished superheroes, Big Daddy (a woefully miscast Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), to take down a ruthless criminal (Mark Strong). Big Daddy and Hit-Girl are the secret identities of ex-cop Damon Macready and his 11-year-old daughter Mindy, and they're both bent on revenge. Make that bloody revenge. A glaring streak of sadism proves to be Kick-Ass's undoing, as the can-do pluck and spirit exhibited in, say, Spider-Man is ignored in favor of unrelenting violence at every turn. Equally troubling is the handling of Hit-Girl, who, taught by her father, proceeds to kill scores of people by any means necessary. One character chastises Damon Macready for turning Mindy into a pint-size killer, correctly asserting that this little girl deserves a normal childhood. Yet Kick-Ass then completely ignores this line of thought, allowing Macready to steadfastly remain a good guy and never once questioning the fact that he's turned his daughter into a soulless killing machine. And those who celebrated Hit-Girl as the new face of female empowerment were completely missing the point that she's been brainwashed by her father (i.e. the patriarchy) into carrying out his desires.

DVD extras include audio commentary by director Matthew Vaughn; a 20-minute look at the film's comic book origins; and a poster gallery.

Movie: **

Extras: **1/2

PIRANHA (1978) / HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980) / DEATHSPORT (1978) / BATTLE TRUCK (1982). The latest pictures bearing the "Roger Corman's Cult Classics" banner run the gamut from good to godawful.

The years following the gargantuan success of Jaws found studios releasing an endless stream of copycat flicks of the "When Nature Strikes!" variety — including Grizzly (dubbed Claws by industry wags) and the X-rated spoof Gums — but it's generally agreed that Piranha remains the best of the bunch; even Jaws director Steven Spielberg counts himself among the film's fans. The first screenwriting credit for future Oscar nominee John Sayles as well as an early assignment for director Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins), Piranha sports a sense of humor to go along with the grisly critter attacks, as a boozy woodsman (Bradford Dillman) and a private investigator (Heather Menzies) stumble across a crazed scientist (Kevin McCarthy) who's experimenting on a pool full of mutated piranha and accidentally release the ferocious fish into a nearby river. Trivia note: The in-name-only sequel, 1981's poorly received Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, marked the directorial debut of no less than James Cameron.

Humanoids from the Deep combines the social conscience occasionally found in Corman's pictures with the expected nudity and gore, although in this case, more of the latter was added after the initial shooting in order to provide it with extra exploitation oomph. Issues of environmentalism and racism (in this case, against Native Americans) figure in director Barbara Peeters' yarn about a fishing village in which locals divided over the prospect of a new cannery must put their differences aside to ward off lurking salmon-monsters intent on mating with human females. Peeters was fired after she refused to include the additional material, resulting in another crew member taking over to pump up the volumes of flesh and blood. The resulting mishmash isn't bad, and the version included on the DVD is the uncut international one, which made the non-U.S. rounds under the unhelpful title Monster.

The final two titles are presented on one disc as a double feature, yet even combined, they aren't worth the purchase (or rental) price. Deathsport is the unwatchable sorta-sequel to 1975's enjoyable Death Race 2000; David Carradine returns, albeit playing a different character, and the vehicle of choice this time isn't the race car but the motorcycle. In comparison, it'd be tempting to go easy on Battle Truck (aka Warlords of the 21st Century), but it's little more than a bland Mad Max takeoff featuring an early appearance by future Cheers and Pixar star John Ratzenberger.

DVD extras on Piranha include audio commentary by Dante and producer Jon Davison; a 20-minute making-of retrospective; 13 minutes of additional scenes from the network television version; seven minutes of bloopers and outtakes; and trailers. Extras on Humanoids from the Deep include a 23-minute making-of retrospective; seven minutes of deleted scenes; Leonard Maltin's interview with Corman; and a photo gallery. Extras on Deathsport include audio commentary by co-director Allan Arkush and editor Larry Bock, and trailers. Extras on Battle Truck include audio commentary by director Harley Cokliss and a still gallery.

Piranha: ***

Extras: ***

Humanoids from the Deep: **1/2

Extras: **1/2

Deathsport: *

Extras: *1/2

Battle Truck: *1/2

Extras: *1/2

A PROPHET (2009). An Academy Award nominee this year for Best Foreign Language Film, the French import A Prophet brings some necessary new life to that favored offshoot of the crime genre, the prison flick. Tahar Rahim delivers a quietly compelling performance as Malik El Djebena, a young French Arab who's sentenced to six years in prison for a run-in with cops. The opposite of an amoral opportunist like Scarface's Tony Montana, Malik is a quiet kid who only wants to serve his six years with his head down and his hands kept clean. Good luck with that. Instead, he's immediately approached by Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) and his Corsican gang; they inform him that either he murders a fellow inmate who's about to squeal in court, or they murder him. Even taking into account his advanced age and short stature, Cesar is a towering figure, and Arestrup plays him with a scary steeliness that makes it easy to believe he could rule a prison yard. And as long as the film centers on the power plays between the various jailhouse factions, or the manner in which Malik struggles with his own morality before realizing what needs to happen for him to survive the entire six-year stretch, A Prophet is a gripping drama that neither condemns nor coronates its leading character. It's only when the action moves outside the prison walls (during Malik's furloughs) that the movie loses much of its propulsive power, with the various criminal activities (drug wars, double-crosses and the like) appearing all too rote and routine. Fortunately, director Jacques Audiard and his co-writers always have one more surprise up their sleeves. This audience courtesy extends through the end credits, as this gritty, violent picture wraps up with perhaps the dreamiest, most peaceful rendition of "Mack the Knife" (Jimmie Dale Gilmore's version) ever recorded.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Rahim, Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain; four deleted scenes; nine minutes of rehearsal footage; and Rahim's screen tests.

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

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