Video Verdict: New DVDs for May 13

Diane Lane stars in the thriller "Untraceable."

Diane Lane stars in the thriller "Untraceable."

This week’s major video releases include an ill-advised thriller and an unfunny comedy, so it’s a good thing Denzel Washington saved the day with his latest directorial effort.

 

The Great Debaters
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for depictions of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality
The Weinstein Company
Available on: DVD
Denzel Washington’s second film as a director is nearly as good as his first, “Antwone Fisher.” And that’s saying something because “Fisher” was one of the best offerings of 2002.

With “The Great Debaters,” Washington tells the story of all-black Wiley College’s award-winning, 1935 debate team. Segregation was the rule in the Jim Crowe South, and the movie looks at both the debate team’s struggle to find white schools willing to compete against it and at the living conditions of black Americans in the 1930s.

Along with directing, Washington stars as the team leader, poet and professor Melvin B. Tolson. He’s a charismatic man who is able to get the most out of his students, but he’s also a rebel who spends his nights working to help sharecroppers unionize. This puts him on the wrong side of the law and also places his students in danger.

“The Great Debaters” works well as an underdog sports movie – if debating can be considered a sport – but because it also looks at racial issues, it’s deeper than most films of that genre. Plus, the movie is extremely well-acted. Washington is joined by Forest Whitaker and lesser-knowns Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Forest), Nate Parker and Jurnee Smollett.

The movie is available as a single-disc release and as a two-disc special collector’s edition. As would be expected, the extras vary drastically depending on the version, but both releases include a making-of feature and two music videos.

 
Untraceable
2 stars (out of four)
Rated R for some prolonged sequences of strong gruesome violence, and language
Sony Pictures
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray
Presumably, “Untraceable” was designed to make Americans address the increasingly blurred line between entertainment and violence, as it focuses on a serial killer who broadcasts his murders on the internet, allowing traffic to his Web site to determine how fast the victims die. In one situation, for instance, he places a man beneath a host of sun lamps in front of a Web cam. The more people who log on to watch the man die, the hotter the lamps get.

Sadly, director Gregory Hoblit spends so much time with each gruesome scenario that rather than calling attention to a cultural sickness, he actually sells the idea that violence is entertaining.

That’s too bad because the picture is relatively well-acted, with Diane Lane playing Jennifer Marsh, the head of an FBI cyber crime unit that is trying to find the tech-savvy killer before he claims more victims. Also turning in nice performances are Joseph Cross, as the killer, and Colin Hanks, as one of Jennifer’s FBI associates.

Aside from a melodramatic ending, the movie’s plotting is smart, and Hoblit paces things relatively well. Had he spent less time on the graphic depiction of murders, the film might have been worthwhile. But, as presented, it feels like a snuff show.

DVD extras include a commentary with several of the filmmakers and four features on the making of the picture.

 
Mad Money
1 star (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for sexual material and language, and brief drug references
Anchor Bay
Available on: DVD
Diane Keaton is a great actress, but she doesn’t always deliver great movies. Think back to a couple of her biggest failures, “The First Wives Club” and “Hanging Up,” and you’ve got an idea how disappointing “Mad Money” is.

Keaton plays Bridget Cardigan, an upper-class lady who faces losing her home and plush lifestyle when her husband (Ted Danson) gets downsized. To help pay the bills, she goes to work as a janitor at the Federal Reserve Bank and quickly hatches a plan to rob it.

It’s surprisingly easy for her to recruit accomplices, one a hard-working single mother whose job is shredding “worn out” cash (Queen Latifah), and the other a young wife (Katie Holmes) who moves carts of old money from place to place.

The heist portion of the film is inventive and well-executed, but just about everything else is dull. Keaton’s and Holmes’ characters don’t even resemble real people, yet the film isn’t a particularly broad comedy. What’s more, director Callie Khouri (“Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”) doesn’t spend a moment building camaraderie between the three leads.

Don’t waste your money, mad or otherwise.

DVD extras include a commentary by Khouri and a behind-the-scenes feature.

 
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

Indiana Jones – The Adventure Collection:  To cash in on the May 22 release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” Paramount has rolled out new DVD versions of the three previous Indy movies, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Temple of Doom” and “Last Crusade.” They can be purchased in a boxed set or individually.

“Youth Without Youth”: Unusual, new drama by director Francis Ford Coppola. The film tells the story of an elderly man (Tim Roth) who is struck by lighting and begins to age in reverse.

“Two and a Half Men” – The Complete Third Season: More sitcom hijinks from Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer, who play Charlie and Alan, brothers of drastically different personalities living together and raising Alan’s young son.

“Mission Impossible” – The Fourth TV Season: If Tom Cruise’s “Mission Impossible” movies have fogged your memories of the 1960s-’70s television show that inspired them, this set could bring everything back into focus.

“Saturday Night Live” – The Complete Third Season: Hours of sketches from classic “SNL” personalities, including John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray.

“The Lovers”: Director Louis Malle’s 1958, French drama starring Jeanne Moreau as a housewife who leaves her husband and lover for a younger man. It is being released in French with English subtitles by the Criterion Collection.

“The Fire Within”: Also released by the Criterion Collection and also directed by Louis Malle this dark, French drama tells the story of a despondent writer (Maurice Ronet) who decides to reconnect with old friends before ending it all.

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