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View from the Couch

Definitely, Maybe, The Spiderwick Chronicles, more

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BE KIND REWIND (2008). The premise of Be Kind Rewind is pure Michel Gondry. The end result is anything but. Here's a guy who marches to his own quirky beat (The Science of Sleep, co-writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and this picture's plot can be pegged as unfiltered Gondry: After a mishap causes all the videocassettes in a rental store to be erased, a shop employee and his buddy must recreate the movies previously found on those tapes. It's an idea that's pure genius, and with Jack Black and the always welcome Mos Def cast as the hapless amateur filmmakers, all the elements were in place for a no-holds-barred comedy, a hilarious satire that would take no prisoners. So what happened? Instead of dizzying comic heights, the film on view is shockingly tame and lazy, and its most dispiriting aspect is that the movie spoofs take a back seat to a stale storyline about, of all things, the efforts of land developers to raze the video store and erect a shiny new building in its place. The low-budget "remakes" of Ghostbusters and Driving Miss Daisy are amusing, but many other movies are dismissed with merely one line of dialogue; among the casualties are Boogie Nights and Last Tango In Paris – and just think how funny those spoofs might have been had Gondry been true to his comical cajones. Instead, the movie eventually abandons its high-concept angle altogether and spends the laborious last half-hour centered on the attempts of neighborhood residents to save the video shop. Zzzzzz ... Wake me when it's over, and when Gondry again speaks from his warped mind rather than from an overprotective studio's finance department.

DVD extras include a 10-minute behind-the-scenes short and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: **

Extras: *

DEFINITELY, MAYBE (2008). When it comes to a worthy romantic comedy, Definitely, Maybe certainly isn't fool's gold (or Fool's Gold); on the contrary, it's the real deal, a diamond in the rough that could use some polishing but overall sparkles with warmth and wit. Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin – between this, Nim's Island and the upcoming Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, she's suddenly more overexposed than fellow moppet Dakota Fanning – plays Maya Hayes, a precocious child whose parents are getting divorced. While staying with her father Will (Ryan Reynolds), Maya begs to hear how he and her mother met, so he turns the bedtime story into a mystery, changing all the names and leaving Maya to guess which of the women from his past ended up becoming his wife. As he details his escapades during the early 1990s, as a fledgling political consultant for the Clinton campaign, he presents three possibilities: his college sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks), his campaign co-worker April (Isla Fisher), and his reporter friend Summer (Rachel Weisz). By casting three comparably drop-dead-gorgeous actresses in sympathetic and intelligent roles, writer-director Adam Brooks keeps the mystery going longer than might be expected; still, the focus isn't on the identity of Mom as much as it's on Will's romantic travails as he keeps sorting out his shifting feelings for these women as they repeatedly enter his life over the years. Affable Reynolds manages to keep pace with his gifted leading ladies, while an unbilled Kevin Kline appears as a literary boozehound with an eye for young college girls.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Reynolds and writer-director Adam Brooks, six minutes of deleted scenes, and a making-of featurette.

Movie: ***

Extras: **

THE FURIES (1950). Until I watched The Furies a couple of weeks ago, I had honestly forgotten all that chatter about how Daniel Day-Lewis' Oscar-winning performance in There Will Be Blood carried strong echoes of John Huston's work in various movies over the years (including Chinatown). Yet while watching this unorthodox Western, the memory came rushing back thanks to the larger-than-life turn by John's real-life pop, Walter Huston. Day-Lewis' performance seems based more on Walter's turn here than in anything John ever did, starting with the fact that, like Day-Lewis, Huston pere is playing a tyrannical, self-made millionaire (T.C. Jeffords) who rules over everyone around him with little room for charity or sympathy (one character cracks, "If you stop telling people lies about me, I'll stop telling them the truth about you"). It's a juicy turn and, sadly, Huston's last, as he died four months before the picture was released. But the grand finale for Huston marked the beginning of the Western phase of director Anthony Mann's career, as the director would primarily spend the 1950s helming a number of oaters that remain popular today (most notably his collaborations with James Stewart). The lead in this unjustly forgotten drama is typically excellent Barbara Stanwyck, cast as T.C.'s headstrong daughter Vance. She spends the film bucking up against her father on almost every count: sparring with him over the ranch and the surrounding land; romantically involved with the two men he most despises (gambler Wendell Corey and Mexican squatter Gilbert Roland); and taking an instant dislike to the older woman (Judith Anderson) she fears will steal the property away from her. Hardly a formulaic Western, The Furies (incidentally, the name of T.C.'s ranch, although firmly rooted in Greek and Roman mythology) takes several unpredictable turns, some not as successful as others. But minor missteps and a weak-willed performance by Corey (both Stanwyck and Huston devour him alive) fail to break the film's galloping stride, and cinematographer Victor Milner earned his ninth and final Oscar nomination (he won years earlier for Cecil B. DeMille's 1934 take on Cleopatra) for his stark black-and-white camerawork.

DVD extras include audio commentary by film historian Jim Kitses, a 1967 TV interview with Mann, a 1931 interview with Huston, and a new interview with Mann's daughter, Nina Mann. The set also includes a paperback of Niven Busch's original novel.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES (2008). Another movie year, another of numerous attempts to jump-start a film franchise aimed at family audiences. Yet The Spiderwick Chronicles, based on the books by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, is one of the better adaptations in this field, which has taken some severe body blows as of late with the dismal failures of the overreaching The Golden Compass and the dreadful The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. Smoothly directed by Mark Waters, the miracle worker responsible for Lindsay Lohan's two best performances (Freaky Friday and Mean Girls), Spiderwick displays a lighter touch than other fantasy films of this nature, meaning that its thrills are all the more unexpected – and effective. Freddie Highmore essays the roles of twin brothers Jared (troublemaker) and Simon (bookworm), who, along with mom Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) and older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), take up residence in an ancestral home that harbors some interesting inhabitants. And residing in the woods beyond the house are a murderous ogre (voiced by, of all people, Nick Nolte) and his goblin minions, all hell-bent on obtaining a book (presently in Jared's possession) that would wreak havoc both on our world and the one inhabited by fairies and other mystical creatures. The CGI characters are sure to delight the kids, but for older viewers, they represent the least memorable aspect of this movie; far more affecting are the sequences that center on the relationships between the Graces – all struggling to cope with Helen's impending divorce – and how the notion of family directly plays into their interactions with the fantasy world in their backyard.

Extras in the two-disc Field Guide Edition include discussions of the film's fantasy world and its inhabitants, a table of contents accessing facts about the various creatures, a featurette on the film's visual effects, and four deleted scenes.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

10,000 B.C. (2008). Approaching 10,000 B.C., it's reasonable to wonder if it will turn out to be one of those long-time-ago movies in which the characters will grunt and growl their way through the entire film. Instead, it proves to be one chatty affair, with the majority of the players communicating via perfectly enunciated English. There would be no harm, no foul in this approach if these folks had anything worth saying, but this turns out to be so crammed with dull and insipid dialogue that it's a shame auditoriums showing this didn't come equipped with "mute" buttons next to the seat cupholders (fortunately, home viewers have that option). Playing like a cross between Mel Gibson's Apocalypto and the fanboy fave 300, this empty-headed spectacle centers on a young man named D'Leh (Steven Strait), whose bland, pretty-boy countenance makes him a precursor to Malibu Ken (if surfboards had been around in 10,000 B.C., you can bet D'Leh would have been out searching for the perfect wave). D'Leh passes the time by flirting with Evolet (blank slate Camilla Belle), whose heavy eye mascara never gets smeared even after she's been shedding copious tears (who knew Maybelline existed this far back?). At any rate, Evolet gets snatched by marauders, and it's up to D'Leh to rescue her. During the course of the adventure, he befriends a tribal leader (Joel Virgel), bonds with a cuddly CGI saber-toothed tiger, and takes advice from a sagacious blind man who's brought up on a slab from beneath the earth, where he has spent countless years cooped up in cramped quarters with nothing to keep him entertained. After spending two hours in a darkened room watching 10,000 B.C., I could relate.

DVD extras include an alternate ending and 10 minutes of deleted scenes.

Movie: *1/2

Extras: *1/2

XANADU (1980). For about 50 years, the musical was one of Hollywood's most reliable genres, from Busby Berkeley and Astaire-Rogers in the 1930s through Saturday Night Fever and Grease in the 1970s. But it took only a handful of megabombs to kill off the genre, which has only recently showed signs of renewed life thanks to the likes of Chicago and Hairspray. Among the Hall of Fame turkeys were Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Can't Stop the Music, The Apple and this ghastly achievement that has nevertheless spawned a smash Broadway adaptation as well as legions of devoted groupies. The fans are welcome to this one: Managing to trumpet the worst excesses of both the '70s disco craze and the burgeoning '80s New Wave scene, this calamity stars Olivia Newton-John as Kira, a heavenly muse sent to inspire struggling artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) to realize his dream of becoming a success. It's strictly a hands-off assignment, meaning complications ensue when Kira falls in love with the guy. Pop star Newton-John received a unanimous drubbing for her one-note performance (thereby killing any chance of a successful film career), but truthfully, co-star Beck is even worse. The tragedy is that this curdled kitsch marked the final big-screen outing for the legendary Gene Kelly: The man who delighted us with Singin' In the Rain and On the Town (among others) certainly deserved better. Thankfully, director Robert Greenwald's career survived this, as he's now one of our preeminent helmers of honest and informative movies railing against the anti-American right-wing agenda (e.g. Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties).

DVD extras include a retrospective documentary and a photo gallery. The set also includes a CD containing 10 tunes from the film, all featuring Newton-John or the Electric Light Orchestra.

Movie: *

Extras: **1/2


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