This week’s DVDs

Posted April 10, 2009, at 6:58 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:58 a.m.

“Universal Soldier: The Return”

Blu-ray: The innocence of incompetence is on full display in the new Blu-ray version of Mic Rodgers’ 1999 potboiler “Universal Soldier: The Return.” It features action star Jean-Claude Van Damme and his magical, self-laundering shirt, a tight-fitting, olive-green garment that has the remarkable ability of appearing badly soiled in one scene, surprisingly spotless in the next. The film is filled with just this sort of inconsistency, which is no great wonder since it is the directorial debut of Rodgers, a former stuntman who likely landed on his head after being shot out of one too many cannons. It’s easy to make fun of films such as “Return” — clearly, I’m not above it. But it is a fault of the genre that the glory and splendor of the special effects seem forever to supersede characters, situations and dialogue. Action films of this sort are for audiences not interested in people. They want pyrotechnics, gunfights, the occasional blown-off head. If done well, such as in the “Terminator” movies, the ride can be a blast. When done badly, such as in “Return,” the entire production is reduced to a pop-culture emptiness that asks its characters (and audiences) to respond to this kind of dialogue: “I don’t care if he’s dead! Next time he grabs me, I’ll kill him!” Or, worse, “Visible light we can see!” Couple those little diamonds with the film’s murky plot and what’s clear is this — the movie isn’t worth discussing any further. Rated R. Grade: F

“8 Mile”

Blu-ray: The title of Curtis Hanson’s “8 Mile,” now out on Blu-ray, comes from the stretch of highway that divides the racially mixed inner city of Detroit from its predominantly white, middle-class suburbs. On a map, it’s an area about the size of a postage stamp; economically, it might as well be a continent away. On the surface, “8 Mile” seems to promise a story that will transcend that gap, but it doesn’t, at least not completely. This is a rap movie designed to appeal to a specific demographic — the white, suburban audience on the privileged side of the tracks. As such, it’s generic and unthreatening without being boring, a slick, claustrophobic drama that pretends to be edgy but actually isn’t. It homogenizes the rap scene and offers zero insight into hip-hop culture. That it goes out of its way to push as few buttons as possible is the film’s biggest surprise and its greatest shortcoming, especially since it was billed as the semiautobiography of its once-controversial star, Eminem, the gifted yet polarizing rapper who made a fortune pushing the world’s buttons. Here, he’s a poor, scrappy 20-something nicknamed Bunny Rabbit who aspires to get away from his boozy mother (Kim Basinger) and become a rap star. As unlikely as that seems, and as angry as Bunny Rabbit is at his situation, the movie fails to mine the intensity of Eminem’s best songs. As an actor, Eminem has presence to spare, but the film doesn’t allow him to fully capture the rage that defines so much of his early work. It makes him almost approachable, which proves especially disappointing. Rated R. Grade: C

“Forbidden Hollywood: Vol. 3”:

Forbidden? There was a time when some wanted them to be, but those people likely now are dead and these hard-boiled movies live on, proving just as necessary as ever. The six films in the third volume of Warner’s blue collection all came before the Hays Code began its corrupt squeeze of censorship. These films, all directed by William A. Wellman, are more racy, free and entertaining than many that came after it. Included are Mary Astor and James Cagney in 1931’s “Other Men’s Women,” which involves love triangles and (yes!) threats by ketchup bottles; 1932’s “The Purchase Price,” with Barbara Stanwyck selling it to the back row as a mail-order bride; 1932’s “Frisco Jenny,” with Ruth Chatterton as the owner of a brothel who gives up her son for adoption, only to become prosecuted by him years later when he becomes a district attorney; 1933’s harrowing “Wild Boys of the Road,” which is just dark and satisfying enough to forgive its weirdly cheerful ending; and 1933’s terrific “Heroes for Sale,” in which Richard Barthelmess battles morphine addiction, overcomes it, then sinks into ruin due to his possible association with the Communist Party. Rounding out the set is 1933’s “Midnight Mary,” with Loretta Young playing a woman fresh from a brothel who falls for a wealthy man and is faced with the ugly complications that ensue because of her past. It’s a fine collection. Commentaries, shorts, trailers and cartoons abound. Grade: B+

“Lilo & Stitch: Big Wave Edition”

DVD: Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch,” just out in a new “2-Disc Big Wave Edition,” is something of an oddity, especially these days. It was drawn completely by hand, eschewing computer animation and putting the effort where it belongs — on its story and its characters. The effort paid off. “Lilo & Stitch” is a cute, well-done family film that trots all over such recent efforts as “Monsters vs. Aliens.” In it, a mischievous monster named Experiment 626 is sent into exile, but instead escapes to Earth, slams into Hawaii and starts to cause all sorts of trouble when he meets Lilo, a lonely Hawaiian girl seeking a new pet. This intergalactic Tasmanian devil transforms himself into a cute-looking koala-bear-thingamajig and turns on the charm. Unfortunately, not everyone is as enthusiastic as Lilo about him, especially the aliens soaring to Hawaii to recapture the creature, now called Stitch. What ensues is bright and colorful, a film that plays it smart and eventually hits a high note with the unexpected help of Elvis at film’s end. Bonus features include five deleted scenes, an interactive behind-the-scenes look at the film, audio commentary by directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, music videos and more. Rated PG. Grade: B+

“The Thirteenth Floor”

Blu-ray: A film about time travel and dueling Los Angeles universes loosely based on Daniel Galouye’s 1964 novel “Simulacron-3.” There’s no question that the noirish “Floor” has its moments, particularly in its computerized re-envisioning of Los Angeles in 1937 (the film’s best effect). But the story itself has had the computer chips sucked out of it with a been-there, seen-that feeling. It’s about altered realities controlled by computers, which David Cronenberg explored in “eXistenZ,” and which “The Matrix” trilogy tackled famously. Further crippling “Floor” is its script, which again follows “The Matrix” in that it’s too dense to fully enjoy. Performances by Gretchen Mol and Vincent D’Onofrio are good, but never quite enough to lift this predictable film above basement level. Rated R. Grade: C-

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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