DVD Traffic Report: April 22, 2008

480_greenlight.gif480_charlie-wilson-dvd.jpgCharlie Wilson’s War (Universal)

Charlie Wilson’s War is a rare thing—a funny political film, a sexy

history lesson. Director Mike Nichols brings a light comic touch to the

story of the Democratic Texas Congressman (Tom Hanks) with a thing for

the ladies and a soft spot for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Julia

Roberts plays the wealthy conservative socialite who convinces Wilson

to orchestrate the covert diversion of hundreds of millions of dollars

to the Afghan rebels in the years following the Soviet invasion in

1979. Neither Hanks nor Roberts is particularly convincing as a Texas

politico, but that’s OK. The film crackles whenever Philip Seymour

Hoffman, playing CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, comes on screen, ripping

mischievously through his sardonic dialogue and bringing everyone

else’s game up a notch. Adapted from a book by the late George Crile,

Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay strongly suggests that

the Congressional failure to help rebuild Afghanistan’s decimated

post-war infrastructure helped make that country an eventual hotbed of

terrorist activity. But what sticks is the criticism of U.S. politics

as essentially a popularity contest, driven by friendships, favors, and

fickle public opinion—a system prone to leave jobs unfinished as they

become unfashionable. Originally published in the White Plains Times.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Charlie Wilson’s War (Widescreen)

480_easy-living-dvd.jpgEasy Living (Universal)

Preston

Sturges began his career at Paramount in 1937 by writing this

Depression-era-New-York comedy about a wealthy industrialist (Edward

Arnold) known as The Bull of Broad Street, his unhappy son (Ray

Milland) who leaves home to work as a busboy at an automat, and working

girl Mary Smith (Jean Arthur), whose life changes after a

crazy-expensive fur coat chucked off the roof of a Manhattan apartment

building lands on her head. (She turns around, angrily, and demands,

“What’s the big deal anyway?” The turbaned dude behind her

responds, deadpan, “Kismet.” It’s that kind of screenplay.) Turns out

the coat is a powerful status symbol, and Mary soon learns that nothing

attracts wealth as powerfully as, well, more wealth. The no-frills slapstick of director Mitchell

Leisen (an accomplished art director and costume designer) is no substitute for the elegance that Sturges

would later develop helming his own material, but it’s fairly well-tuned for this sophisticated, breezily entertaining farce of

misunderstood identities. And Jean Arthur is terrific. I’m not sure how

good the DVD looks, but it’s got to be better than my VHS copy, which

was recorded from Showtime almost 20 years ago.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Easy Living (Universal Cinema Classics)


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The Orphanage (Picturehouse)

After the surprise success of Pan’s Labyrinth last year, Picturehouse took a chance by floating this creepy Spanish ghost story to mainstream U.S. audiences. It’s worth a

look. The first section is paced so slowly that it’s almost

sleep-inducing, with a cute kid mugging for the camera in every other

scene. After the young boy abruptly disappears—kidnapped, perhaps, by

the invisible friends he has found in the former orphanage owned by his

adoptive parents?—the film slowly comes to life. Director Juan Antonio

Bayona takes a mostly restrained approach, opting to create atmosphere

instead of manufacturing thrills. He does stage a single scene of

grisly violence at about the halfway mark that’s startling enough to

keep audiences on edge for the duration, as mother Laura (Belén Rueda

in a tense, wiry performance), becomes more and more consumed with the

search for her vanished son. Haunted-house tropes and other genre

clichés abound, but The Orphanage is actually refreshing, in part

because it avoids the kind of self-conscious twist endings popularized

by recent horror movies. In some ways it’s a very old-fashioned piece

of entertainment—it’s not particularly gory, but it’s spooky, scary and

satisfying. A version of this review was originally published in the White Plains Times.

Buy it from Amazon.com: The Orphanage or The Orphanage [Blu-ray]

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The Savages (Fox)

I missed this year-end prestige picture, a critical darling in 2007. Time to catch up.

Buy it from Amazon.com: The Savages

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Cloverfield (Paramount)

Presented as a first-person narrative captured Blair Witch-style

through the lens of some young New Yorker’s Handycam, Cloverfield

depicts a rampage through Manhattan by a humongous creature that

shambles out of New York Harbor, overturning an oil tanker and

decapitating the Statue of Liberty on its way to wreaking havoc

downtown. In its best passages, the film’s documentary-style depiction

of serious monster-movie carnage is absolutely arresting, and

occasionally frightening. But the movie is weighed down by its human

baggage

—a group of uninteresting characters whose behavior is

driven by a tedious backstory about who’s sleeping with who. What’s

worse, we can never get away from these kids because one of them’s

carrying the camera. The video-camera gimmick gets old quick, partly

because by limiting the scope of the story it reveals the shallowness

of the film’s concept. Great horror movies tend to have rich

subtexts—think of Japan’s post-nuclear Godzilla, or George Romero’s

satirical zombies—but if Cloverfield has anything much on its mind beyond

exploiting New Yorkers’ fears of skyscraper-toppling terror attacks, I missed it. Cloverfield may be the most

“realistic” big-budget monster movie ever. But as movies go, realism is

an overrated virtue. (This review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: Cloverfield or Cloverfield [Blu-ray] (Coming soon. Presumably.)

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