Aug 31 2009

DVDs for 9/1/09 – State of Play, Sugar, Billy Jack and Teenage Lion Tamers

The American State of Play is a savvy remake/reworking of a sharp 2003 award-winning British mini-series which played its story of journalism, politics, scandal, smears and murder across six hours of shifting ground and investigative mystery. Russell Crowe plays the happily unkempt old school reporter for  a Washington D.C. newspaper who starts putting the pieces together on seemingly random deaths and finds that it revolves around young, ambitious Senator (Ben Affleck), who just happens to be an old friend who is now making waves with investigations into war profiteering.

State of Play: American rules

State of Play: American rules

The plot is the same but the culture of old style newspaper reporting butting up against the new culture of internet journalism and the bottom line of shrinking profits and corporate demands makes for a lively and very current backdrop. Crowe is the 20th century reporter in a 21st century newsroom decrying the loss of old journalistic values (like reporting, fact checking and running down leads to get at the whole story) and Rachel McAdams is the young political blogger whose instant commentary is the enemy, as far as  he’s concerned, even though she wants nothing more than to be taken seriously as a reporter. You can’t miss the All the President’s Men vibe but this has its own personality and purpose. It didn’t do well at the box-office but it’s exactly the kind of grown-up story and smart filmmaking that used to be what American filmmaking aspired to. Jason Bateman stands out in a terrific cast (which also includes Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn and Jeff Daniels) as a sleazy customer who does dirty work for the lobbyists and corporations under scrutiny and Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) directs. (See my review of the original British miniseries here.)

With Sugar (Sony), writer/director team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck leaves the gritty, nervous realism of their acclaimed debut Half Nelson for a handsomely produced drama about a Dominican baseball player following his sports dreams to the American minor leagues hoping for his big break in the majors. Sugar – Azucar – is the nickname of pitcher Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), whose knuckle curve takes him from an impoverished village to training camp in Phoenix and a spot on an Iowa farm team, where he gets by on a smattering of English (the language lessons at baseball camp don’t get much beyond “Ground ball” and “I got it!”) and a few fellow Spanish speaking hopefuls from the south of the border feeder farm system. Real life ballplayer Soto brings an authenticity to the sports scenes but he also offers insight to the attitude and the psychology of players who bank their futures on every game, every play, every pitch, and watch those futures slip away when an injury or a slump takes hold. And he has the personality, determination and sweetness of nature (he’s not called Sugar for nothing) that makes you care. The film is predominantly in Spanish with English subtitles. The disc also includes “Play Béisbol! The Dominican Dream” with interviews with Domincan-born major league players David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez and Sammy Sosa, a making-of featurette, a brief video interview with actor Algenis Perez Soto and deleted scenes.

Roselyne and the Lions (Cinema Libre) is the American debut of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s unabashedly romantic odyssey of teenage lion tamers who run away to join the circus. The photogenic young lovers – a high school underachiever (Gérard Sandoz) who drops out to focus on his lessons in the cage and lovely girl (Isabelle Pasco) who believes the big cats would never hurt her – get tangled up in larger than life characters and a murky (and ultimately unresolved) conspiracy at a German circus on the way to their big public debut. It’s too slight to sustain the 175 minutes of this complete director’s cut and the climax is a complete fantasy with eighties fashions and cheesy synthesizer music, but Beineix’s lush imagery and convincing scenes of the young performers actually in the  cages with the lions, cracking whips and barking orders, sells the dream. The images are a little soft and the color registration is slightly off, but it’s quite watchable. Also features the 78-minute behind-the-scenes documentary “The Grand Circus,” which features no narration or interviews but is fill with footage that shows that the actors are indeed in the cages with the lions.

Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack, a cultural icon of the seventies, is back on DVD in the four-disc box set The Complete Billy Jack (Image). Half-Indian and half-white, he’s ex-Green Beret Vietnam veteran with martial arts training and a desire to turn his back on violence and become one with the natural world of his reservation, which he defends against incursions from the outside. The character first appeared in Born Losers (1967), an AIP biker film that Laughlin also wrote, produced and directed under various pseudonyms, but Billy Jack (1971), the story of an alternative “Freedom School” on an Indian reservation under attack from the greedy and the powerful of the local town, is the film that Laughlin and his co-star/co-writer/wife Delores Taylor really wanted to make. Billy Jack explores the plight of American Indians, celebrates the counter-culture and promotes peace through communication and comedy (Howard Hesseman and Alan Myerson, of the San Francisco improve troupe The Committee, perform satirical sketches as part of the community drama program). And when peaceful protest is met with guns and brutality, Billy kicks ass as a one-man-army of poetic justice. The film became a smash hit and Laughlin and Taylor made two more films: the epic, self-serious The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), an almost three-hour epic that pits Billy against the National Guard, and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977), which turns Billy into a butt-kicking Mr. Smith. These are not particularly sophisticated or subtle and the performances are often appalling, but they are cinematic artifacts of a generation and a good bargain. All four films in the cult quartet are collected in a box set of four discs in four thinpak cases. Laughlin and Taylor are featured on two separate commentary tracks for each film: one recorded in 2000, the other recorded in 2005 and moderated by their son, Frank Taylor, which covers much of the same territory.

For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. And for the rest of the highlights (including Sin Nombre and the Blu-ray debut of the animated Fire and Ice, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.

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