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DVD Report

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April 6, 2008

New Releases | Tom Russo

Brazilian kidnapping, behind the headlines

You don't have to be a news junkie to have caught word of the class warfare-driven kidnappings in Latin America in recent years. Even sports-page-only readers got the report of Venezuelan and former Red Sox pitcher Ugueth Urbina receiving a $6 million ransom demand for his mother. Denzel Washington's Mexico-set flick "Man on Fire" used such kidnappings as its backdrop. Rookie documentarian and one-time Errol Morris trainee Jason Kohn provides a somewhat fuller picture with 2007's "Manda Bala" ("Send a Bullet"), his free-ranging look at how the situation has hit the Brazilian metropolis of São Paulo. Some of the material is what you'd expect: interviews with a leery businessman who's bulletproofed his Porsche, and a cop assigned to an absurdly outmanned anti-kidnapping division. Both feel like reality TV. Strangely, a masked criminal who's interviewed somehow seems more natural on camera. Kohn also does solid work spotlighting a plastic surgeon specializing in repairing the mutilated ears of kidnap victims, and frog farms at the center of a bizarre government corruption scandal. (Metaphor-laden shots of the amphibian multitudes getting sluiced along to dubious fates work as intended.) Kohn even manages, surprisingly, to talk to the politician allegedly behind the scandal, although there's so much pussyfooting around, the sit-down doesn't amount to much. But when one kidnap victim is asked if she forgives her abductors, the moment is so compelling, you'll hang on her every word.

Extras: Check out Brandeis alum Kohn's commentary with his producers/college buds to learn how and why their masked man didn't live to see the film's opening. Kohn also explains the family history that led him to the project. (City Lights, $26.98)

"THERE WILL BE BLOOD" (2007)

Daniel Day-Lewis's Oscar-winning work as a madly driven turn-of-the-century oilman helps make this the first film by director Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights") to fully merit its formidable critical buzz. But who'd expect that this gritty modern epic's DVD treatment would have so much in common with Anderson's strikingly wordless extended opening? The two-disc package actually has disappointingly little to say beyond what viewers take away from watching the feature.

Extras: We get a 1920s industrial film that inspired Anderson, and deleted material such as an outtake of Day-Lewis's restaurant confrontation with Big Oil rivals. Day-Lewis has a quick, post-cut laugh for young Dillon Freasier, who does fine work playing his son. (Paramount, $39.99; single-disc version, $29.99)

"LIONS FOR LAMBS" (2007)

Not since Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" has Tom Cruise been cast as shrewdly as he is here, playing an ascendant Republican senator coolly selling further Iraq involvement in director Robert Redford's dialogue-heavy issues drama. As in that earlier film, Cruise trades on his real-life interview persona (pre-Oprah, anyway), all perma-smiles and unnerving charm, even when the ground turns rocky in his extended interview with journalist Meryl Streep. Pity that's the most that this laborious exercise has to offer. One of two cutaway story lines is a discussion between Redford's politically minded college prof and a brash, cynical student (Andrew Garfield), debate that's meant to be heated, but just feels contrived.

Extras: Redford supplies commentary. (MGM, $29.98)

"WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY" (2007)

The big surprise of John C. Reilly's goof on Johnny Cash (and Dylan and '70s variety-show sellouts and so on) is that he can actually carry a Will Ferrell-ish comedy, never mind just playing second banana to Ferrell's Ricky Bobby. Even with the unrated footage incorporated into a wryly billed "unbearably long, self-indulgent director's cut," helmer Jake Kasdan and co-writer Judd Apatow keep their lowbrow laughs smart enough to make the running time fly by.

Extras: A two-disc set offers more with Reilly in character, but don't skip his commentary with the filmmakers, particularly on the subject of test audiences and male nudity. (Sony, $29.96; single-disc version, $28.95)

Documentary DVD | Mark Feeney

The dark allure of cultural outlaws

Sam Wagstaff was a Vanity Fair cover waiting to happen. He was handsome and wealthy, cultivated and well-connected, not to mention the lover and mentor of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Both men died of AIDS in the late '80s. "My shy pornographer," Wagstaff liked to call Mapplethorpe, who was 25 years his junior. Each man was a sexual outlaw, and a sense of outlawry marked their cultural lives no less than their private ones. "They were an interesting duet, I've got to tell you," the novelist and (yes) VF writer Dominick Dunne says in James Crump's absorbing 2007 documentary, "Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe." Wagstaff was also a lover and, in a very real sense, mentor of photography itself. A zealous and exacting collector, he may have done more than any one person to bring up the price of vintage art photography in the 1970s. A strong argument can be made that the single figure who had the most impact on photography in the last 40 years wasn't a photographer, let alone a curator or critic, but Sam Wagstaff. The extent of his collecting drove photography's rise as both aesthetic equal of easel painting and significant profit center in the art market.

In archival footage we hear from Wagstaff (rather stiff and aloof) and Mapplethorpe (looser, but comparably withholding). In many ways the real star of the documentary is Patti Smith, who spoke extensively with Crump about her role as Jeanne Moreau to Wagstaff's and Mapplethorpe's Jules and Jim. It's good to see how much the singer has mellowed, relatively speaking, especially as her presence balances the frequently offputting aspects of both men's characters. "Dark" and "darkness" frequently recur in the narration, which is delivered in rather hard-bitten tones by the writer Joan Juliet Buck. Both men's physical allure is unmistakable in the many still photographs we see of them, as well as occasional period footage. No less evident is how little that allure seemed to extend beyond the merely physical.

For all that it can feel slightly smitten at times with Wagstaff (the documentary is far more about him than Mapplethorpe), "Black White + Gray" demonstrates a rare degree of intelligence, sophistication, and frankness. It reminds us just how pedestrian, even gee-whiz, what passes for cultural documentary on something like PBS's "American Masters" is.

Extras: 1978 Corcoran Gallery talk by Wagstaff (Arts Alliance America, $29.95, already available)

Documentary DVD | Janice Page

War, pease, and a homeless artist

In all the years Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani was homeless and handing out his drawings on the streets of New York, it's hard to believe no one managed to dislodge him from his personal crack in the system. Even if the Japanese-American artist was determined to stay angry and lost, it's clear that he could have been helped. Which is why you have to applaud Linda Hattendorf's humanitarianism in "The Cats of Mirikitani." And yes, she's a pretty good filmmaker as well.

Mirikitani was a promising 25-year-old when he was swept up in America's post-Pearl Harbor campaign to corral potential enemy sympathizers. Despite dual citizenship, he spent several years in an internment camp that claimed hundreds of lives, including a friend who shared his love of cats. Mirikitani emerged from the camp with a chip on his shoulder and without his US citizenship; he eventually made his way to New York, where he survived by selling his artworks.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

As Lower Manhattan choked on the toxic dust of the World Trade Center, Hattendorf took the extraordinary step of inviting her subject to share her cramped apartment. "The Cats of Mirikitani" is a simply told tale of salvation that avoids oversentimentalizing.

One can argue with some of Hattendorf's moviemaking choices: There's little originality in her straightforward documentary approach and little balance in her presentations of history or its parallels to modern-day events. But it takes a special first-time director to stick her neck out, personally as well as professionally.

ALSO THIS WEEK

"RESERVATION ROAD" (2007)

Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo are the embodiment of turmoil as two fathers linked by tragedy when Ruffalo kills Phoenix's son in a hit-and-run accident. Writer-director Terry George ("Hotel Rwanda") powerfully adapts the novel by John Burnham Schwartz.

Extras: Production featurette; deleted scenes. (Universal, $29.98)

"MUSIC WITHIN" (2007)

Ron Livingston hits familiar but worthwhile dramatic notes in a biopic of Richard Pimentel, early champion of the Americans With Disabilities Act. With Michael Sheen ("The Queen").

Extras: Filmmaker commentary; Pimentel featurette. (MGM, $27.98)

"RESURRECTING THE CHAMP" (2007)

Josh Hartnett is a struggling sportswriter recklessly jumping on a story that homeless Samuel L. Jackson was once a contender, and then some. It could just be our job-specific pet peeve talking, but as a credible journalism tale, this is one for the recycling bin.

Extras: Production featurettes. (Fox, $27.98)

"DAY OF THE DEAD" (2008)

Part of the sick thrill of 2004's "Dawn of the Dead" remake was the discovery that the old George Romero zombie franchise could still work. With this direct-to-DVD redo of another Romero tale, the thrill is gone. Mena Suvari and Nick Cannon star.

Extras: Alternate ending. (First Look, $28.98)

REISSUES

"THE ADVENTURES OF BARON

MUNCHAUSEN" (1989)

Terry Gilliam has predictably unpredictable free-form fun with an icon of tall-tale infamy. Essentially a doodle, but worth revisiting for the inspired effects, John Neville's game turn as the baron, and Uma Thurman striking a pose as Botticelli's Venus.

Extras: New retrospective documentary; commentary by Gilliam; storyboard sequences with Gilliam vocal performances. (Sony, $19.94)

"CLASSIC MUSICALS FROM THE DREAM FACTORY VOL. 3" (2008)

Eleanor Powell breaks out the taps in "Broadway Melody of 1936," one of the anchors of this latest sampler from the Warner Bros. vaults.

Extras: Deleted/alternate musical numbers. (Warner, $69.92)

"HOUDINI: THE MOVIE STAR" (1919-23)

The great escape artist tries to leverage his stage fame into screen stardom in a collection of silent curiosities.

Extras: Archival footage of Houdini escape tricks. (Kino, $39.95)

TELEVISION

"PERRY MASON 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION" (1957-66)

Raymond Burr gets defensive in a collection of 12 of the sleuthing attorney's most memorable cases.

Extras: Cast interviews; Burr screen tests. (Paramount, $39.99)

"FORTYSOMETHING" (2003)

Hugh Laurie is a beleaguered British family man and doctor who's clueless about his mocking wife and kids - except for the part where he can hear what they're thinking. Smart comedy that reminds us why we really like Laurie, but cringe at "House." (Acorn Media, $39.99)

Capsules are written by Tom Russo and titles are in stores Tuesday unless otherwise specified.

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