#079

Something’s Gotta Give
Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment DVD

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Jack Nicholson takes an old cliché a step further with his performance in Something’s Gotta Give. For many years, the actor has lived off his satyr-like, self-satisfied persona, smugly smiling at the camera like the cat that swallowed the canary.

With this film, Nicholson has swallowed the cat. His voice, a honeyed growl in youth, has become a rumbling purr, the sound of an enormous, triumphant tom cat toying with everyone around him like mice.

Surrounded by lesser actors, Nicholson usually sprawls all over his films, but with this story of a successful older man with a reputation for dating much younger women – by no definition a stretch for the man – he has a worthy partner at last.

Diane Keaton plays “the most successful female American playwright since Lillian Hellman”, an uptight divorcee whose nubile daughter (Amanda Peet) takes Nicholson to her mother’s Hamptons beach house for a naughty weekend. They arrive to find her mother and aunt (Frances McDormand) already in residence, and manage to co-exist uneasily until Jack has a coronary in mid-seduction with Marvin Gaye’s "Let’s Get It On" on the stereo.

On the advice of a young doctor (Keanu Reeves), Nicholson is forced to recuperate at Keaton’s home, and the three of them end up in a triangle, the two men competing for Keaton’s affection. Nicholson beautifully sells his character’s surprise – he’s never been interested in women his age. Keaton also does something remarkable, unveiling a sexiness that co-exists with her skittish, neurotic persona. It’s not hard to imagine either man falling for her.

It’s a bit harder to imagine Reeves as a doctor, however – he keeps repeating the line “I’m a doctor” as if he’s trying to convince himself. Without either of the leads, it’s likely that Nancy Meyers’ film would have succumbed to a fatal case of “Nora Ephronitis”, a wasting disease where conspicuously accomplished, successful people squander audience sympathy by obsessing over commonplace unhappiness.

Includes separate commentary tracks with the director and her two stars, a deleted scene, and a “set tour” with Peet.

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Brother Bear
Disney DVD

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Disney’s Brother Bear is one of the studio’s “boy films”, a slight re-casting of The Lion King with African pseudo-myths and beasts replaced by a native American setting.

A young hunter named Kenai is transformed into his spirit totem, a bear, to teach him a lesson in compassion, and finds himself acting as foster brother to a lost bear cub. It’s also very nearly the last two-dimensional cel animation the studio will produce, having made a belated conversion to digital animation for their upcoming projects.

Technically, Brother Bear is up to the studio’s impeccable standard, full of marvelous vistas and wildly kinetic sequences of magic and transformation. Alas, it’s also of a piece with Disney’s treacly storylines. The only real nod to the adult-friendly humour finessed into an art by former Disney partner – now rival – Pixar is a pair of hoser moose voiced by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis in Bob and Doug McKenzie mode.

The real gem on the two-disc package, hidden among the games and music videos and “outtakes”, is a full-length commentary track by Thomas and Moranis in character, riffing hilariously on the film, peppering their chat with a few sly digs at Disney. It’s an “after bedtime” bonus for parents too tired to change the disc in the player.

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House Of Sand And Fog
Dreamworks DVD

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House Of Sand And Fog, a film about two people fighting for a home, comes front-loaded with significance. Vadim Perelman’s adaptation of a novel by Andre Dubus III is built to be a tragedy, where the flaws of otherwise decent people end up destroying everything around them.

Jennifer Connelly plays a recovering addict, crippled by depression after her husband leaves her, who ends up losing the home her father left her because of a simple bureaucratic error. Ben Kingsley plays a former Iranian air force colonel who buys the home at an auction, intending to sell it at a massive profit, but finds himself and his family being seduced by the oceanside bungalow, so much like a home they left behind in Iran.

The major flaw of the film is that both Kingsley and especially Connelly are passive figures compared to the anxious, desperate cop played by Ron Eldard, who takes Connelly’s side against the colonel, setting the drama in motion. In the commentary track with Perelman, Kingsley and Dubus, the three men keep noting moments in the story where the tragedy could have been avoided, often banal moments where a bad choice was made.

It’s often as simple as just opening your mail, and it’s a fragile hook to hang a tragedy on – the awful outcome of those decisions feels a lot less like fate and a lot more like stupidity. Also comes with behind-the-scenes featurette.

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The Singing Detective
Paramount DVD

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It would be easy to blame this entirely unnecessary re-make of Dennis Potter’s landmark TV miniseries on director Keith Gordon, except that Potter himself wrote the movie version of the story of a dying mystery writer caught up in a fantasy world of gumshoes, treacherous women, and romantic, exuberant old songs.

In the original, Michael Gambon’s painful decay – afflicted with a gruesome skin condition that Potter also had – was carefully explored over six hours, a well-modulated drift from confinement in a hospital bed to vivid fantasy. In the movie version, Robert Downey tries manfully to carry the same weight, but so much has been cut away that his effort is wasted in what seems like inexplicable nonsense.

Gordon fails worst of all at the lip-synched musical sequences, very much the heart of Potter’s work, and it’s especially depressing to hear him try to explain it all on a bonus commentary track.

©2004 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.