Tuesday, December 4, 2007

New DVD releases December 4

Greg Mottola’s Superbad is about a subject we’ve seen thousands of times before – two teens trying to lose their virginity. What’s more, while Mottola and writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Rogen also appears with Bill Hader as a pair of boorish cops) do capture the friendship between main characters Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), they just don’t make it funny enough. Or maybe I’m turning into a crank about humor as I get older (always possible). Still, I really didn’t laugh that often, not even at newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Fogell, whose fake ID is “McLovin” (gettit?). I’ve never seen Mottola’s The Daytrippers, and I hope that was less obvious than this.
After I saw John Turturro’s directorial debut, Mac, I came across a quote from a critic who said it was “obviously a labor of love, but often a labor to sit through.” That’s a very smartass review, of course, but unfortunately, it rang true. I thought of that line when I watched Ethan Hawke’s The Hottest State, which he adapted from his own novel, directed, and also appears in. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale about William (Mark Webber), an aspiring actor who comes to New York City, and his relationship with Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno), an aspiring singer/guitarist. I’ve liked the two in other movies (Moreno especially in her Oscar-nominated turn in Maria Full of Grace). Hawke has also lined up some good performers in supporting roles, like Laura Linney as William’s mother, Sonia Braga as Sarah’s mother (the scene with William, Sarah and her mom is especially good), and Michelle Williams as an older woman William gets involved with. There’s just one problem – Hawke can’t write dialogue to save his life (except in scenes like the one mentioned above). Therefore, the two main characters, who ideally should be appealing, come off as whiny and self-absorbed. Plus, Moreno must join the list of foreign actors who are uncomfortable with English – or, at least, expressing any emotions in English that have to do with anger (even when she’s upset, she comes off as perky). And Webber is directed to do little but be insufferable – you wonder how two women, let alone one, could throw themselves at him. Hawke can be a talented actor (and he’s also sharp here as William’s father, seen in flashbacks), but as a writer and director, he makes this mostly a labor to sit through.
Two box set tributes to great directors arrive this week. One of them is merely a repackaged deal – four of Ingmar Bergman’s best-known films have been re-released in a Criterion set (The Seventh Seal, Smiles on a Summer Night, The Virgin Spring, and Wild Strawberries), and while I’m not a big fan of Smiles, the other three are essential viewing for anyone who wants to know what Bergman was all about. The other box set is part repackaged, part discovery. One of John Ford’s most frequent studio collaborators – aside from Republic Pictures, where he made masterpieces like Stagecoach and The Quiet Man – was 20th Century Fox. It’s where he made some of his best-known and acclaimed movies like The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln (which no less than Eisenstein called his favorite John Ford film), and How Green was my Valley), as well as The Iron Horse, the silent film about the building of the Union Pacific Railroad that put Ford on the Map, and even a Shirley Temple movie, Wee Willie Winkie, considered by most to be one of Temple’s best. All of those and more are included in the giant box set Ford at Fox, along with a new documentary on Ford. For those who can’t shell out the $300 bucks for the set, Fox is also releasing some of the movies individually (like The Iron Horse, which includes both the U.S. and European versions of the film), and in smaller, six film sets divided up into the classics, silent films, comedies (including films he made with popular comedian Will Rogers), and the rarities. One of those rarities is Up the River, a 1930 prison comedy featuring the film debut of Spencer Tracy, and the one-time only teaming of Tracy and his lifelong friend Humphrey Bogart, in only his second film (having not developed his gangster persona yet, Bogart was playing a nice-guy role). I haven’t seen most of these, and I’m not a fan of some of the ones I have seen (like Valley or Drums Along the Mohawk, his Revolutionary War film), but it’s nice to see a studio committing itself like this to arguably the best American director of all time.
Finally, while the release of the sixth season of 24 is, of course, big news to TV aficionados, even those who thought the season was lacking somewhat, I’d like to promote the release of the fourth season of The Wire. HBO’s cop drama doesn’t get the viewer or awards attention that other shows like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under received, but critics and a loyal fan based (myself included) consider it the best show on television right now. Creators David Simon (a former reporter) and Ed Burns (not the actor, but a cop turned teacher) are after nothing less but a portrayal of how America’s cities are being laid waste to by drugs, corrupt systems and indifference on every level of bureaucracy, and how a small group of people try to fight that system and indifference even though they may know the outcome. Season 4, which I haven’t seen yet, focuses on the school system, as four eighth graders struggle to make through a school system that doesn’t care about them (except for a few dedicated teachers like Prez (Jim True-Frost), formerly a detective) and a drug trade that beckons. Meanwhile, Marlo (Jamie Hector) continues to solidify his position as the leading drug dealer of the area, and Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) runs for mayor. Personally, after watching the first three seasons, I can’t wait to watch this one, and I'll be very sorry when it finally goes off the air next year.

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