BATTLE FOR TERRA (2009). Battle for Terra is an animated effort in which alien forces invade a planet, and it turns out that the invaders are, in fact, us – that is to say, astronauts from the planet Earth. It sounds rather novel until one recalls that The Twilight Zone tackled this notion in one third the amount of time as this ambitious but ultimately disappointing feature. James Garner, Dennis Quaid, Danny Glover, Mark Hamill and many others lend their vocal chords to this sci-fi saga in which the peaceful Terrians find their planet under attack from a spaceship that harbors the only survivors of our long-destroyed Earth. Young Terrian Mala (Evan Rachel Wood) saves a human soldier named Jim (Luke Wilson), and he in turn tries to help this alien creature while simultaneously remaining loyal to his commanding officer (Brian Cox), a typical U.S. warhawk who seeks to kill every last Terrian man, woman and child. Upon its theatrical release this past May, Battle for Terra was shown in some theaters in 3-D. Unfortunately, this isn't an option on DVD, where the film is only being released in its two-dimensional format – meaning there's nothing to help compensate for undistinguished voice work and a pro-environment script that feels old-hat on the heels of the far more imaginative WALL-E. Yet most damaging of all are the Terrians themselves, who are rather flatly designed. Truth be told, they look like sperm, meaning that, as the Earthlings set about exterminating these extraterrestrial beings, I repeatedly kept thinking that the producers would have done well to borrow the name of an '80s adult classic. Then again, I don't think The Sperminator would exactly bring in the family audiences the studio is presumably targeting.
DVD extras include audio commentary by director Aristomenis Tsirbas, scripter Evan Spiliotopoulos and editor Jim May; four deleted scenes; a five-minute making-of featurette; and a 1-1/2-minute interview with an animated (literally) Tsirbas.
PAUL NEWMAN: THE TRIBUTE COLLECTION (1958-1982). Newman fans shouldn't approach this lavish, 17-disc set expecting to find new remasters of the 13 movies presented inside the attractive, oversized box. These are basically the same platters that have already been on the market, boasting nothing different except the packaging. But this is an invaluable collection nonetheless. For one thing, it comes with a 136-page book that may be softcover but still looks like a deluxe coffee table edition; packed with photos, it takes a quick glance at Newman's overall career but mainly focuses on the movies included here. And then there are the films themselves, a wide range that covers most of the bases: commercial blockbusters, Oscar contenders, quirky projects, and even a misfire or two. Among the titles are two movies that rank not only among the actor's finest but also feature his two greatest performances (1961's The Hustler and 1982's The Verdict); two smash hits that I've always found a tad overrated (1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and 1974's The Towering Inferno); three pictures co-starring his wife Joanne Woodward (1958's The Long, Hot Summer, the same year's Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! and 1960's From the Terrace); two offbeat collaborations with director Robert Altman (1976's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson and 1979's Quintet); and two releases with Newman in supporting roles (1962's Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man and 1964's charming Shirley MacLaine vehicle What a Way to Go!). Rounding out the set are 1960's 3-1/2-hour opus Exodus and the 1967 Western Hombre.
DVD extras range per title, with some films offering nothing while others include audio commentaries, making-of featurettes and still galleries. Four of the movies are packaged as two-disc Collector's Editions: The Hustler, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Towering Inferno and The Verdict. One word of warning when purchasing the set: Rock it gently to listen for unsecured DVDs. Each one is only held in a shallow paper slit, and when I opened my edition, 10 of the 17 discs were sliding around loose.
Movies: Quality ranges from ** (Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!) to **** (The Hustler), with the majority worthy of recommendation
20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1933) / THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE (1941) / ...ALL THE MARBLES (1981). Warner Bros. continues to release a handful of made-to-order titles each month through its Warner Archive label and available to purchase almost exclusively at the Web site (www.warnerarchive.com). Among the recent crop of contenders:
Too short at 80 minutes, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing marks the only screen pairing of two-time Oscar winners Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis. Yet Davis is only here for support; Tracy takes control of the screen as cocksure criminal Tommy Connors, who arrives at the famous prison certain that his outside connections have insured him a comfortable time behind bars. But the honest warden (Arthur Byron, playing a character based on real-life Sing Sing warden Lewis E. Lawes) won't tolerate any tampering with the law, and he treats Connor no differently than he does any other prisoner. Connor soon learns some measure of humility, enough that when his girlfriend (Davis) is gravely injured, the warden trusts him enough to offer him a one-day pass to visit her. Tracy's fun to watch in an atypical role as a tough guy, even if he's no threat to James Cagney (the first choice for the part).
Speaking of Cagney, it's a shame that the actor's delightful picture The Strawberry Blonde has been relegated to the on-demand archive section rather than released as part of one of the studio's lavish box sets comprised of classic oldies. This is simply irresistible, with Cagney terrific (so what else is new?) as Biff Grimes, an aspiring dentist who lusts after the seductive title beauty (Rita Hayworth) but instead ends up with her best friend (Olivia de Havilland), a nurse who at first unnerves Biff with her progressive views. Initially unfolding like a straight-up comedy, the picture takes some somber turns late in the game but remains a warm and winsome movie. Composer Heinz Roemheld's music score earned an Oscar nomination, although it takes a back seat to both "And the Band Played On" (with its lyrics involving a strawberry blonde) and "Meet Me in St. Louis" (three years before Judy Garland immortalized it in the classic film of the same name).
A fine director who has never received his proper due, Robert Aldrich was responsible for a number of Tinseltown classics, including The Longest Yard, The Dirty Dozen, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Kiss Me Deadly. ...All the Marbles turned out to be his final picture – he passed away in 1983, at the age of 65 – and while it's clearly a step down from much of his earlier work, it succeeds on its own lowbrow terms. Peter Falk headlines as Harry Sears, the bedraggled manager of a pair of female wrestlers known as the California Dolls (Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon). Harry works – make that, hustles – overtime trying to land the ladies better gigs, slowly moving up the ladder away from low-paying squabbles in seedy Ohio arenas to the nationally televised championship at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The weak performances by Frederick and Landon detract, but Falk never fails to amuse, and the film wears its sports-flick clichés quite well.
The only extra included with each film is the theatrical trailer.
20,000 Years in Sing Sing: ***
The Strawberry Blonde: ***1/2
...All the Marbles: ***