It’s another slow week on the video circuit, as new releases are limited primarily to direct-to-DVD movies, television series and a handful of limited-run features. Fortunately, the one DVD title that received a wide theatrical release is a very good one.
3 1/2 stars
Rated R for language, brief teen drug and alcohol use, and for some sexuality
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray
Noam Murro’s directorial debut ranks among the best films released theatrically in early 2008 and it is also among the most under-appreciated.
Dennis Quaid stars as professor Lawrence Wetherhold, a stiff, widowed college professor coasting through life with arrogance and anger. It doesn’t help that his overachieving daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), is his virtual double and that his son, James (Ashton Holmes), doesn’t want anything to do with him.
Lawrence’s life takes a turn, however, when he suffers a minor head injury and his ne’er do well brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) moves in to help the family out. Before too long, Vanessa is loosening up, Lawrence is dating a beautiful doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Chuck has decided he’s in over his head.
Although there’s a lot going on plot-wise, Murro’s film is more a character study than anything else, and the fantastic cast creates people that we can believe in. “Smart People” is sometimes serious, often funny, always engaging and … of course … extremely intelligent.
DVD extras include deleted scenes, outtakes, interviews with the filmmakers, and a commentary by Murro and writer Mark Jude Poirier.
Brand Upon the Brain!
The Criterion Collection
Available on: DVD
Canadian writer-director Guy Maddin has never been a mainstream filmmaker, and this fascinating 2006 feature won’t propel him into the collective mind. It is, however, a treat for film junkies who place more value on artistry and cinema history than star power.
A modern silent film, “Brand Upon the Brain!” was originally toured as a live concert work, with foley artists, musicians and a narrator performing alongside the running film. Eventually, a soundtrack — with narration from Isabella Rossellini — was recorded, allowing the film to have limited distribution in theaters. Although seeing the project live would be the best possible experience, the Criterion Collection’s fine DVD treatment allows viewers to at least grasp Maddin’s bizarre work.
The film tells the story of a fictional Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) who returns to the childhood home where his repressive mother and scientist father ran an orphanage within a lighthouse. As soon as he arrives, he is drawn into memories where the young Guy (Sullivan Brown) and his sister (Maya Lawson) form a friendship with a teen detective (Katherine E. Scharhon) who has come to investigate strange doings at the orphanage. The film then becomes an oddball adventure that is a mix of science-fiction, horror and erotic fantasy.
The most appealing thing about the picture is Maddin’s recreation of classic film conventions. Using mostly grainy, black-and white footage, he has given the film a vintage look, but his editing and visual skills are decidedly modern. That makes “Brand Upon the Brain!” a wonderful hybrid of past and present.
The DVD also includes a deleted scene, a documentary featuring interviews with Maddin and his collaborators, alternate narration tracks, and two new Maddin short films.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
Felon: Stephen Dorff stars as a family man who must adapt to life in prison after he accidentally kills an intruder. Also stars Val Kilmer.
The Killing Gene: Direct-to-DVD thriller starring Stellan Skarsgard as a New York City cop investigating a series of horrific murders with his partner (Melissa George). Also stars Selma Blair.
The Secret: Remake of the Japanese thriller “Himitsu,” about a woman who dies but inhabits the body of her daughter. David Duchovny, Lili Taylor and Olivia Thirlby star. Directed by Vincent Perez.
Watching the Detectives: Romantic comedy starring Cillian Murphy as a video store owner and film buff who spends more time immersed in movies than living his own life. Then he meets a real-life femme fatale (Lucy Liu) who changes everything. Written and directed by Paul Soter.
The Wire — The Complete Fifth Season: Final season of the much-admired HBO television series about urban life in Baltimore. Each season focuses on a different aspect of the city and the sociological impact it has on citizens. Season five examines the print news media.
The Love Boat — Season One, Volume Two: Vintage comical adventures from Captain Stubing (Gavin MacLeod) and his offbeat crew of cruise ship employees. Bernie Kopell, Fred Grandy, Ted Lange and Lauren Tewes also star.
Caroline in the City — The First Season: Lea Thompson stars as a New York cartoonist trying to sort out her love life and all sorts of other things in this 1990s comedy series.
Prison Break — Season Three: Latest season of the television drama about a man (Dominic Purcell) wrongly accused of murder and the brother (Wentworth Miller) who must work against the legal system and a covert agency to ensure that they both win their freedom and survive.
South Park — The Complete Eleventh Season: Need we say more? Another season of raucous humor and off-color jokes from the kings of adult animation.
The Art of War II — Betrayal: Direct-to-video sequel to the 2000 film “The Art of War.” Wesley Snipes stars as a former secret agent who attempts to avenge the death of a friend, only to find that he’s been lured into a trap.
Tru Calling — The Complete Series: Fans of this short-lived, science-fiction drama can take solace in watching the 26 episodes that were filmed for the Fox Network. Eliza Dushku stars as a morgue employee who has the power to communicate with the dead, then travel back in time to save their lives.
Dave’s World — The First Season: First season of the CBS Television sitcom based on the comedy writings of newspaper columnist and author Dave Barry. The writer plays Harry Anderson, a fictionalized version of himself, and he’s joined by DeLane Matthews, Zane Carney, Andrew Ducote, Shadoe Stevens and Mesach Taylor.
Wide Awake: Korean horror film about a young boy who remains awake — but unable to move or communicate — during heart surgery. After a series of murders occur, a physician wonders if the patient is responsible.
Jane Goodall’s When Animals Talk: Animal Planet video featuring stories of human-animal relationships and a look at the way people can better communicate with members of the animal kingdom.