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DVD Review: John Carter, The River, Seeking Justice and Spellbinder

Posted by bsimon On June - 28 - 2012 0 Comment

After a long and bloated Hollywood development, sci-fi Western adaptation “John Carter” made its way to theaters in ballyhooed fashion – the first of a string of lauded Edgar Rice Burroughs novels that in turn inspired Ray Bradbury to pen his “Martian Chronicles,” and the live-action directorial debut of “Wall-E” helmer Andrew Stanton. Stateside, though, the mega-budgeted film fizzled at the box office, where it grossed a little over $70 million. It was a bigger hit overseas (even setting records in Russia), but this is the rare case of an audience getting it right straight out of the gate with respect to an overwhelming P&A onslaught: “John Carter” just isn’t very good.

The story centers around the title character (Not Sam Worthington… err, I mean, Taylor Kitsch), a Confederate Civil War Army captain who finds himself transported from Monument Valley to Barsoom, or Mars, where there are a bunch of green, four-armed Tharks, including Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), and two clans that have been warring for a thousand years. Because of his great pecs, jumping ability (low gravity helps) and a special medallion, John Carter becomes a special commodity in this conflict, and he eventually casts his lot with a fiery warrior princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Action shenanigans ensue.

john carter review DVD Review: John Carter, The River, Seeking Justice and Spellbinder

The movie’s special effects are nice and its action sequences are generally well marshaled, but there’s a bloated sense of cash-thrown-at-screen spectacle that informs all of them — the same disease that’s plagued Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels, which share many of this movie’s shortcomings. “Because we can” seems to be the motivating factor behind narrative choices, as much as anything else. A much tighter, better structured plot would have greatly benefited the material. As is, the mythology of “John Carter” doesn’t really move one, and so the movie’s plodding pace (it’s 132 minutes) gives viewers plenty of opportunity to ponder unaddressed questions of social setting, and how Stanton and company play fast and loose with scale.

The film’s home video presentation, though, is superb. “John Carter” arrives in several formats, the most robust being a four-disc Blu-ray/DVD/3-D Blu-ray combo pack, which gives spectacular 1080p high definition, 2.40:1 widescreen presentation to the state-of-the-art work of the below-the-line artisans whose efforts rank amongst the movie’s strongest selling points. The DTS-HD 7.1 master audio track nicely captures Michael Giacchino’s sweeping score as well as the significant din of action and battle. For those with 3-D-enabled televisions, it’s easily the best choice for viewing, lending additional life and pop to the rich vistas and vertical spaces of Stanton and cinematographer Daniel Mindel’s compositions.

An audio commentary track with Stanton, Collins and producer Jim Morris cycles through production anecdotes and includes a lot of (perhaps now wishful) sequel talk, but 20 curated minutes of deleted scenes — including an alternate opening — are where Stanton’s deep grasp of the material are really on display. There’s a brief look at source material author Burroughs, a two-minute gag reel, the requisite collection of preview trailers, and a solid, half-hour-plus making-of featurette that gives a nice overview on all aspects of production. With Disney’s “Second Screen” technology, meanwhile, watchers can seed their multiple viewings with text trivia, concept art and all sorts of other goodies. Even more on the literary roots and a lot more on the various production incarnations of its previous, would-be big screen adaptations would certainly be welcome, but there’s a Hollywood ceiling to forthrightness, and Disney perhaps thought they might be tempting fate a bit too much if they stressed “John Carter”‘s past. As is, the character’s future looks up in the air.

demoted movie DVD Review: John Carter, The River, Seeking Justice and Spellbinder

“Demoted,” a workplace comedy in which two assholes make good only by triumphing over a slightly bigger asshole, stars Michael Vartan and a disinterested Sean Astin as Rodney McAdams and Mike Murphy, a pair of tire salesmen who, upon the death of their boss, get downgraded to secretaries by their nemesis, Ken Castro (David Cross). As Rodney works to cover up his lies about a promotion to his fiancee Jennifer (Sara Foster), the roguish pair, you know, learn life lessons in bawdy fashion, finally winning over Jane (Celia Weston), the leader of the secretaries.

If it all sounds like a diamond in the rough and nice home video double feature complement to “Office Space,” it’s not. When it’s not cycling through stock exclamations (“You know what time it is? Payback time!”), the movie is dipping and bending in directions that make very little sense within the story. (After all, would a barista really taunt a frequent customer by calling him a “coffee bitch”?) Cross throws a bunch of improvisations at the wall, but doesn’t have colleagues or a solidly sketched characterization on par with “Arrested Development,” so his efforts just become wearying. Vartan, meanwhile, doesn’t quite fit as the naughty party guy who learns to grow up (though he does show his butt). Director J.B. Rogers, the Farrelly brothers’ longtime second unit guy, and helmer of “American Pie 2,” points and shoots in graceless fashion. Eventually, mercifully, events wrap up. “Demoted” comes to DVD presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a Dolby digital soundtrack and optional English and Spanish subtitles. Perhaps aptly, there are no bonus features whereby cast members attempt to explain their participation.

seeking justice DVD Review: John Carter, The River, Seeking Justice and Spellbinder

Calling “Seeking Justice” an idiotic slice of mouth-breathing cable TV programming masquerading as a feature film might be an insult to, I don’t know, idiots. Originally titled “Hungry Rabbit Jumps,” for the mysterious code word everyone keeps repeating in the movie, this puffed-up tale of vengeance continues Hollywood’s post-Katrina work-program social outreach to New Orleans. Set in the Big Easy, the film centers around Will Gerard (Nicolas Cage), a happily married guy whose life is turned upside down when his wife Laura (January Jones) is raped and beaten while leaving work. Approached in secret at the hospital by Simon (Guy Pearce), a stranger offering to find and punish her attacker in exchange only for an innocuous future favor, Will yields to a moment of weakness and soon finds himself sucked into a clandestine vigilante organization connected to seemingly every power broker in the city.

Theatrical and nutty in all the wrong ways, “Seeking Justice” is a turd pie in which director Roger Donaldson invests much dizzy energy, all for naught. Its main conspiracy, of a criminal syndicate bent on “urban reclamation,” is both ridiculous and not very interesting to boot. It doesn’t help, of course, that its dialogue is so hammy (“Do you see what he’s doing here? He’s using words to create emotion!”), but Cage and Pearce can’t save or even elevate the narrative’s patchwork logic, which bends to ’80s, direct-to-video idiotic blitheness when it has its subjects meet up at a monster truck rally (production value!) and then re-convene to square off at the “abandoned mall” next door.

Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a cardboard slipcover, “Seeking Justice” comes to DVD split into a dozen chapters, and presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track. Its sole bonus feature is a seven-minute making-of featurette in which Donaldson tries to explain and justify his stagings and Cage, joking about doing 18 takes, explains that he “signed up for the ride.” Cage also describes the appeal of costar Jones thusly: “She has an inner tension about her that’s somewhat unpredictable and slightly dangerous, combined with the charm of a child.” So there’s that.

Documentary “Windfall,” from director Laura Israel, takes as its focus a seemingly uncontroversial melding of subject and eco-friendly small community, and aims to delve into the unlikely arguments ripping apart long-time friends and family. Set in Delaware County’s Meredith, a tiny, hilly town in one of the poorer sections of upstate New York, the movie documents how a proposed farm of industrial wind turbines is dividing neighbors over the direction of the burgh’s tenuous growth.

Once ruled by a “bovine aristocracy,” Meredith has largely dried up with the shrinkage of family dairy farms; to many, the financial incentives of being at the forefront of a Northeastern wind energy boom outweigh any risk or inconvenience of noise, oil leaks and sediment run-off that comes with the 40-story objects. Of course there exist contrarians, and they are loud and more than ready to wade into the breach of town board meetings and impact studies. This is where “Windfall” most readily connects — as an intimate, genuine portrait of jockeying debate and local governance. Unfortunately, Israel’s film is jumbled and repetitive (even at 83 minutes), and for some reason treats as shocking revelation the idea that large corporations see undertakings incentivized by governmental tax breaks and outside investors. Lacking crucial context and getting mired in a sticky quicksand of self-righteous pomposity, the movie wears out its welcome long before one tires of the issues it’s actually aiming to raise. “Windfall” arrives on DVD in a regular plastic Amaray case, with bonus features consisting of a filmmaker biography, a special resource guide, and a slate of supplemental interviews and footage.

With its executive producer pedigree of Steven Spielberg and “Paranormal Activity” creator Oren Peli, it’s a bit surprising that ABC didn’t give small screen offering “The River” a bit of a longer leash, dropping the hammer on it after only one brief go-round as a mid-season replacement. Still, after the failings of NBC’s at least tangentially similarly paranormal and fantasy-tinged “The Event,” perhaps the writing was on the wall; without the big zeitgeist spark of the sort “Lost” caught its debut season, these expensive shows weren’t going to be worth it from a purely cost-benefit perspective.

the river DVD Review: John Carter, The River, Seeking Justice and Spellbinder

Which is a shame, because “The River,” now out on DVD, shows significant signs of promise, and what could have been. The series centers around a famous explorer and nature show TV host, Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), who goes missing while traipsing around in the South American rainforest. When his emergency beacon goes off six months after his disappearance, his estranged son Lincoln (Joe Anderson), at the urging of his mother Tess (Leslie Hope), joins her on a search expedition. Showrunner Zack Estrin, from “Prison Break,” seems to chafe a bit under the “found footage” restrictions through which the story unfolds, and it’s a safe bet to assume that device would have been jettisoned in a second season. The acting here is hit-and-miss (Greenwood is great, other cast members less so), but the show’s evocation of eerie mood is impressive, and the narrative intriguingly hints at a much broader canvas than what we end up seeing.

Housed in a clear plastic Amaray case with a complementary cardboard slipcover, “The River: The Complete First Season” comes to DVD presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track and optional English, Spanish and French subtitles. A baker’s dozen of deleted scenes flesh out a couple characterizations and include a few more “boo-scare” moments, while a brief making-of featurette spotlights the work of the show’s visual effects team, and how the Amazon was recreated for each episode. Of a pair of audio commentary tracks featuring Estrin, director-producer Jaume Collet-Serra and others, the one on “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” with Greenwood and two writers rates highest, for its blend of the technical, anecdotal and offbeat. A battery of trailers rounds things out on the supplemental front.

Amongst new direct-to-DVD offerings are a pair of releases — “Sinful Davey” and “Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction” — that amply demonstrate the play-it-safe timidity of today’s movie titles. The former, a 1969 offering from director John Huston, unfolds in 1821 Scotland, where John Hurt’s title character decides to follow in the footsteps of his father, a notorious rogue and highway robber. Annie (Pamela Franklin), an old childhood playmate, however, is determined to save his soul. More merely incomplete than an outright failure, the movie has handfuls of ideas, but James Webb’s script never wrangles and prunes them into coherent shape. “Cocaine,” meanwhile, stars Dennis Weaver as an Average Joe who gets caught up in a downward-spiraling web of drug abuse. Coming out in 1983, at a time when the drug was beginning to take flight in popularity but long before the psychology of addiction was really understood and disseminated in mainstream culture, director Paul Wendkos’ movie comes across as hammy melodrama, and especially inaccurate by modern standards.

Also available as part of MGM and 20th Century Fox’s made-to-order DVD program is “Spellbinder,” from 1988. Before she withdrew into Scientology and a permanent slotting as John Travolta’s arm candy, Kelly Preston appeared (briefly topless, too) in this harebrained erotic thriller about a Satanic cult and a string of ritualistic murders in Los Angeles. Billed as “a nightmare of illusion and betrayal,” the movie thrusts battered and mysterious Miranda Reed (Preston) into the arms of white knight Jeff Mills (Tim Daly), only to have him uncover a ring of devil worshippers who get off on bloody sacrifices. Despite warnings, Jeff continues to keep Miranda around. Co-star Anthony Crivello’s hair momentarily threatens to turn this all into camp art, but the rest of the cast play this all as deadly serious. Unfortunately, after much meandering, the movie, which plays like an extended “Columbo” episode, leaps headlong into a self-satisfied “dark” ending that it doesn’t really earn.

Michie Gleason’s “Summer Heat,” meanwhile, is all sweaty, pantomimed regional angst and over-articulated drama. Set in the late 1930s, the movie — based on a novel actually titled “Here To Get My Baby Out of Jail” — tells the story of the young wife (Lori Singer) of a Southern tobacco farmer (Anthony Edwards) who falls in love with a handsome hired hand (Bruce Abbott), with disastrous consequences for all involved. Of the four aforementioned titles, the latter two are presented in a 1.85:1 letterboxed format; “Sinful Davey” is 2.35:1″ letterboxed, while “Cocaine” is 1.33:1 full frame. There are no supplemental extras on the respective discs, alas, save trailers. One will have to pour their own glass of lemonade with “Summer Heat,” it seems.

Written by: Brent Simon

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Categories: DVD NEWS, MOVIES, REVIEWS

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