2/20/07 Edition

A "Prestige" Trick or Treat?
Andy Reviews Christopher Nolan's Latest
Plus:THE LAST UNICORN Special Edition, Gilliam's TIDELAND and More!

Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to his “Batman Begins” triumph, THE PRESTIGE, was one of two “period” films produced last year involving sleight-of-hand and lead characters consumed by their talents.

But while Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist” offered a protagonist who at least was utilizing his abilities for the purposes of love, the two dueling magicians in “The Prestige” only care about one-upping one another in a humorless film that looks great, is reasonably well-performed, but ultimately comes undone due to relentlessly unsympathetic characters and a silly climax that feels in part like a Shaggy Dog joke.

Hugh Jackman stars as Robert Angier, a magician who stands by and watches his wife (Piper Perabo) die in an accident that he holds competing showman Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) responsible for. Nolan and his brother Jonathan penned the script (from a novel by Christopher Priest), which then follows the attempts by Angier to uncover Borden’s secrets, particularly as the latter sees his career skyrocket thanks to a teleportation trick that constantly sells out the house. Angier’s attempts to understand Borden’s showstopper lead him to a snowy Colorado town that has running electricity, and an eccentric scientist (David Bowie) who lives in the hills and may just have a contraption that would make David Cronenberg proud.

“The Prestige” is atmospherically shot in light and shadow by Wally Pfister and benefits from the same visual gloss Nolan brought to “Batman Begins.” This is a grade-A production across the board, but the one-note script grows to be a problem as neither character is remotely sympathetic -- Nolan drops whatever compassionate elements are left in Jackman and Bale’s characters as the duo outrageously try and climb to the top, with only Michael Caine’s fine supporting turn as Jackman’s manager offering any viewer identification. Scarlett Johansson’s character, meanwhile, proves to be a total bust, and the weird, Shyamalan-like finale doesn’t pack nearly the wallop it should since some of its aspects (without giving it all away) feel as if they’ve come out of left field.

After the smoke has cleared and “The Prestige” has played its hand, you’re left with a handsome but cold, detached movie that you have no emotional investment in seeing play out. Still, Nolan’s direction is so assured and the production so well-mounted that it’s hard to completely dismiss “The Prestige.” Just don’t expect the director to pull a rabbit out of the hat this time.

Buena Vista’s DVD offers a 20-minute interview with Nolan and an “Art of the Prestige” still gallery. The 2.35 (16:9) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both excellent, but Blu-Ray owners are obviously encouraged to check out the new HD version of the film, which boasts a sharper 1080p transfer with uncompressed 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Since the film is shot in mostly dark interiors, the “three-dimensional,” high-definition attributes of the transfer aren’t always eye-popping, yet it’s still an appreciable upgrade and a definite recommend for Blu-Ray buffs. (**½, 2006, PG-13, 130 mins.)

Also New On DVD

CRANK (**½, 87 mins., 2006, R; Lions Gate): Jason Statham gives an appropriately cranky performance as a hitman poisoned with a Chinese toxin that forces him to keep his adrenaline going -- or else perish as a consequence -- in the manic “Crank.” Writer-director duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor have fashioned a non-stop 87 minutes of raunchy action, sex, violence, and cartoonish pratfalls, following Statham’s Chev Chelios as he attempts to set things right with his girlfriend (Amy Smart), get some payback from the adversary responsible for his predicament (Jose Pablo Cantillo), and possibly get a cure...if he can find one. “Crank” is wild, unbridled entertainment that works for about 2/3 of its duration, before the feeling that what you’re watching is little more than a video-game settles in. It’s ultimately a one-dimensional ride in terms of dramatics and narrative, but I give the movie credit for being amusing, empty cinematic calories that Statham fans will undoubtedly gobble up. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a good amount of supplements (commentary, interviews, promotional footage) in the movie’s “Crank’d Out Mode,” while a bizarre “family friendly” audio track deletes the movie’s copious profanity from the soundtrack. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both top-notch.

WALKING TALL: THE PAYBACK (** ,94 mins., 2007, R; Sony): So this is what it’s come to for old “Hercules” himself, Kevin Sorbo? The one-time action star is now direct-to-video material as he toplines this routine but at least competent small-screen follow-up to “Walking Tall.” In actuality, this is an in-name-only sequel with Sorbo returning to his small town roots after his father perishes in an accident that (naturally) doesn’t turn out to be an accident. Soon Sorbo is the new Sheriff in town and, with the help of an FBI agent (Yvette Nipar), roots out the nefarious gang responsible for his pop’s death. Sony’s DVD of “Walking Tall: The Payback” includes a fine 16:9 (1.78) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and six deleted scenes. The score by David and Eric Wurst isn’t bad and the movie isn’t all that terrible either (it’s probably worth a look for undemanding action aficionados), but I’m not sure this is what Sorbo had in mind when “Hercules” signed off years ago.

THE QUIET (**, 96 mins., 2005, R; Sony): Elisa Cuthbert looks great but that’s about the only compliment one can give to Jamie Babbit’s at-times hilariously overwrought “The Quiet,” which follows the domestic disturbances churned up by the arrival of (seemingly) deaf mute Camilla Belle when she joins cheerleader Cuthbert’s family. Cuthbert actually co-produced this unrelentingly depressing drama co-starring Edie Falco and Martin Donovan as the former “24" star’s not-so-fun parental units; despite sordid themes like incest, lesbianism, and high school learning disabilities, it’s hard to stay quiet during “The Quiet,” with the movie’s unintentionally funny dialogue and dramatic situations making for a hoot of a view if you approach it from the proper angle. Sony’s DVD includes a 16:9 (2.35) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, several featurettes and Cuthbert in revealing outfits pretty much throughout the duration of the feature.

ZOOM (**, 2006, 88 mins., PG; Sony): Kiddie fantasy tanked after Disney’s spoof “Sky High” scored at the box-office, a result of bad timing and the sheer fact this forgettable farce -- starring Tim Allen as a hero who’s lost his powers and is placed in charge of teaching a group of super-kids-in-training -- simply isn’t very good. “Zoom” co-stars Courtney Cox as Allen’s love interest and Kate Mara as one of Allen’s older charges, but despite an intriguing premise (based on an apparently successful children’s book) most of the action in “Zoom” is been-there, done-that, and even kids might recognize its shortcomings. Sony’s DVD includes a colorful 1.85 (16:9) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and a pair of fluffy featurettes.

STRANGER THAN FICTION (***, 113 mins., 2006, PG-13; Sony): Will Ferrell stretches his acting chops...well, at least a little...in this sometimes overly-cute but always entertaining concoction from writer Zach Helm and director Marc Forster. Ferrell plays an everyday guy who finds out he’s the lead character in a novel written by disgruntled author Emma Thompson -- who’s about to kill him off since she’s suffering from writer’s block! The kitchen-sink supporting cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Hulce and Linda Hunt, and despite the uneven aspects of the film, “Stranger Than Fiction” is a pleasant, well-performed fantasy that Sony has brought home in a fine DVD edition: featurettes and deleted scenes are included on the supplemental side, while the movie looks pristine in its 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Flawed but entertaining and ultimately satisfying.

HEART OF THE GAME (***, 98 mind., 2006, PG-13; Miramax/Buena Vista): Solid documentary traces six seasons of a girls’ basketball team at a Seattle-area high school. Writer-director Ward Serrill’s movie transcends most sports documentaries by examining the teacher/coach responsible for the program’s turnaround and the arrival of Darnellia Russell, the inner-city, African-American girl who plays a major role in the team’s eventual championship. While there isn’t a whole lot of development of these themes (and some of the basketball footage, sans the final game, is pretty bad), “Heart of the Game” still provides compelling story lines and comes recommended for sports fans looking for something a little different. Miramax’s DVD includes deleted scenes, director commentary, interviews, a Making Of segment, a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

TIDELAND (*½, 2005, 122 mins., R; ThinkFilm): Terry Gilliam’s latest sat on the shelf for nearly two years before being tossed into extremely limited distribution courtesy of ThinkFilm. Given Gilliam’s career and history of run-ins with major studios, it’s probably not surprising that “Tideland” couldn’t land a big domestic distributor, but this is one instance where the filmmaker dabbled too far into self-indulgent “auteurism,” resulting in a movie that’s unquestionably one of his worst. “Tideland” does boast a chilling turn in Jodelle Ferland’s performance as a young girl, sent to the country after her mother (Jennifer Tilly) dies,  who retreats into a bizarre, nightmarish world where she mainly communicates with her headless dolls. Unrelentingly one-note and hampered by a low budget that cut down on Gilliam’s extravagant visual designs, “Tideland” is an endless, wholly unappealing film (billed as a “horror/fantasy” on ThinkFilm’s packaging, no less) that will only appeal to the most hard-core Gilliam fans. ThinkFilm’s DVD edition, out next week, is a terrific two-disc set offering commentary by Gilliam (plus a weird introduction by the director), deleted scenes, Making Of materials and more. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer isn’t overly impressive, boasting a good amount of digital artifacting here and there, though the imperfections may be a result of the picture’s modest budget. The 5.1 sound is okay, offering an unremarkable score credited to Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna.

F@#K (2006, 90 mins., Unrated; ThinkFilm): The folks who brought you “The Aristocrats” are back with another wacky cultural examination, this time centering around everyone’s favorite (?) four-letter word (maybe it’s me but I actually think it’s funnier to hear said expletive being bleeped out instead of actually spoken!). Celebrity pundits are interviewed across the political spectrum, ranging from Pat Boone to Michael Medved, Drew Carey and Bill Maher to Kevin Smith and Alanis Morisette. Maybe not worth 90 minutes but highly amusing in spurts, complimented by animation from Bill Plympton. ThinkFilm’s DVD includes commentaries, additional interviews, a 16:9 transfer and 2.0 Dolby Digital sound.

THE INVINCIBLE IRON MAN (2007, 83 mins., PG-13; Lionsgate): Watchable Marvel direct-to-video production is at least a cut above the prior Marvel/Lionsgate efforts (namely, the “Ultimate Avengers” flicks), bringing Tony Stark and his armored alter-ego into the present day with fairly good animation and a sometimes overly-cluttered script (here’s hoping director Jon Favreau fares better in that regard with his upcoming, live-action “Iron Man” starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyenth Paltrow). Lionsgate’s DVD includes a 1.78 (16:9) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, an alternate opening, various featurettes, and a look at the next Marvel small-screen production, “Dr. Strange.”

Catalog Titles & Other Capsules

THE LAST UNICORN: Special Edition (***, 1982, 93 mins., G; Lionsgate): Fans who have waited patiently for a decent DVD edition of “The Last Unicorn” can finally rejoice now that Lionsgate has packaged a highly satisfying new release to coincide with its 25th Anniversary. This 1982 Rankin/Bass adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s book (scripted by the author for the screen) was a troubled production that received scant distribution before becoming widely available on video in the heydey of VHS. Over the years the movie has developed a strong cult following in spite of its turbulent origins, and Lionsgate’s new DVD rewards its fans with a top-notch 16:9 (1.85) transfer that’s a huge upgrade on the previous pan-and-scan DVD edition. The 5.1 sound does justice to Jimmy Webb’s tuneful, mellow score (with America performing the memorable title song), and extras include an eight-minute talk with Beagle, the original trailer (narrated by Ernie Anderson), and a couple of interactive extras aimed at kids. The film is a poetic, surprisingly mature fantasy with a superb cast providing the vocal articulation for Beagle’s characters (Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Alan Arkin, Christopher Lee, Angela Lansbury and Rene Auberjonis among them), and remains one of the more satisfying non-Disney animated films of the 1980s.

BICYCLE THIEVES (1948, 89 mins., Criterion): Vittorio DeSica’s landmark film has been remastered by Criterion for this new, double-disc Special Edition. Not only has the film been newly translated (resulting in its proper title being used), but the fresh high-definition transfer is said to be a sizable upgrade on prior versions, while extensive extras include “Working With DeSica,” an assortment of new interviews with screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, actor Enzo Staiola, and scholar Callisto Cosulich; a new program on “Italian neorealism”’ and a 2003 documentary on writer and DeSica associate Cesare Zavattini. Copious booklet notes round out another exemplary Criterion release.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition (1928-31, Lionsgate:) Hats off to Lionsgate for diving into the catalog of classic, early Hitch for this three-disc assembly. Included here are newly remastered transfers of “The Ring” (1928), “The Manxman” (1930), “Murder” (1930), “The Skin Game” (1931), and “Rich and Strange” (1931). These restored versions reportedly surfaced overseas in French Studio Canal DVDs, and it’s satisfying to see them issued on this side of the pond at last. A bonus featurette and interviews with Peter Bogdonavich, Patricia Hitchcock and others rounds out a top-notch set for all Hitchcock fans.

Blu-Ray Capsules

REIGN OF FIRE (*½, 102 mins., 2002, PG-13; Buena Vista): Fire-breathing flop from 2002 is a  formulaic bore made watchable only by Matthew McConaughey's hysterical performance as an American dragonslayer on a future Earth where fire-breathing beasts have enslaved the planet.

How and why this happened is explained in a couple of throwaway lines of dialogue -- the rest is dull filler, chronicling the exploits of rag-tag Brits (lead by the film's real star, Christian Bale) attempting to remain in their ragged "Waterworld"/"Mad Max"-like society while dodging the prehistoric monsters. One day a group of Americans arrive -- lead by the bombastic McConaughey -- who have a more direct approach to dealing with the dragons: they kill them. Using an air force chopper and plenty of firepower at their disposal (how they're able to recharge their weapons or find fuel is never discussed), the Yanks take down one beast, but then -- in the film's funniest scene - - McConaughey chews out the Brits for throwing a "soiree" over it.

"X-Files" vet Rob Bowman directed this hugely disappointing genre film, which offers no surprises or any suspense whatsoever (even Ed Shearmur's score is often a direct rip-off of "Aliens"). This certainly isn't on the level of “Dragonslayer” or even “Dragonheart” -- what “Reign of Fire” is, unfortunately, is a tired old, post-apocalyptic film whose creators should have spent energy on cultivating a good script, not a glitzy marketing campaign.

Buena Vista’s Blu Ray edition of “Fire” does contain a solid new 1080p transfer that’s an appreciable upgrade on the standard DVD edition, though, like that release, offers nothing extraordinary in the way of extras (an interview with Bowman and standard-issue Making Of featurettes). For hard-core McConaughey fans with a Blu-Ray player only!

LADDER 49 (**½, 105 mins., 2004, PG-13): John Travolta is the seasoned pro, Joaquin Phoenix is the new guy on the job, in director Jay Russell's mild 2004 box-office hit. Though "Ladder 49" isn't "Backdraft," this is still an entertaining enough salute to firefighters, particularly in the wake of 9/11, offering well-mounted action sequences and good performances from the cast. The script, however, doesn't fare nearly as well: it's too pat and predictable, despite good intentions across the board. Buena Vista's Blu-Ray DVD, available this week, includes commentary from director Russell and editor Bud Smith, Making Of materials, and deleted scenes. The 1080p, 1.78 widescreen transfer is often fantastic, as is the nicely-textured, uncompressed  5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

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