"LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD"


        MOVIE: **** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    Bruce Willis as JOHN MCCLANE
    Timothy Olyphant as THOMAS GABRIEL
    Justin Long as MATT FARRELL
    Maggie Q as MAI LIHN
    Mary Elizabeth Winstead as LUCY MCCLANE
    Kevin Smith as WARLOCK

    Rated PG-13 and Unrated
    Studio: 20th Century Fox

    Directed by: Len Wiseman

While I was quite cynical when I heard they were making another “Die Hard” film, I found myself pleasantly surprised by “Live Free or Die Hard.” Unlike many people in the media, I wasn’t jumping on any bandwagon of lament because they went for the PG-13 rating (and hence had to edit around the infamous “Yippe-Ki-Yay” line). Rather, I enjoyed it for what it was – a film that embodied good old American summer blockbuster fun.

Now, “Live Free or Die Hard” is out on DVD, and it’s just as good as it was in the theaters. Based on a real article exposing the digital vulnerabilities of our nation, this latest installment in the franchise follows John McClane (Bruce Willis) as he tries to protect a hacker with special knowledge. It’s an over-the-top spectacle of action violence, and I loved it.

Timothy Olyphant plays the villain in this one. Alan Rickman he is not, but unlike “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” it didn’t seem that they were trying to trump the original. Rather, Olyphant gives us a James Bond villain performance that is partly forgettable but no less as fun.

As in the third installment, which brought Samuel L. Jackson in as a foil to Willis, this movie casts Justin Long (aka the Mac Guy) to play off Willis. Both actors have good dramatic chops but keen senses of comedic timing. This makes the pairing not just bearable but actually somewhat fun. The rest of the cast fits well, including Maggie Q as the sexy but deadly henchwoman and Kevin Smith as the paranoid uber-hacker.

If you’re going to check this out on DVD, it’s worth buying as the 2-disc set. Both the PG-13 theatrical release and the f-bomb-approved unrated versions are playable from the first disc. On the second disc is an excellent in-depth, feature-length documentary of how the film came to be, covering all aspects from pre-production to post-production. Additional features include a conversation between Bruce Willis and Kevin Smith, as well as music videos and a somewhat lame Fox Movie Channel retrospective on the “Die Hard” series.

"GARFIELD GETS REAL"


        MOVIE: *** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING:
    Frank Welker as GARFIELD
    Gregg Berger as ODIE
    Jason Marsden as NERMAL
    Audrey Wasilewski as ARLENE
    Wally Wingert as JON

    Not Rated
    Studio: FOX

    Directed by: Mark A.Z. Dippe

I will be the first to admit that I didn’t like the theatrical Garfield films that much. The first one was downright dreadful, and the sequel was only a mild improvement. So to say that this new computer animated DVD feature is better than the theatrical tripe isn’t saying much.

However, I will defend “Garfield Gets Real” quite a bit. Rather than changing things for no pragmatic reason, as was done in the theatrical releases, this direct-to-DVD movie actually retains much of the spirit of the Garfield comic.

In this film, we see Garfield and his buddies as working stiffs in a cartoon factory. Rather than just existing as they do in the comic strip, they go to work every day, in a Hollywood studio setting, to make the strip like they’re making a feature film. However, when Garfield sees a way to portal into the real world, he throws his whole world out of whack.

This film isn’t flawless, but it’s the closest you’re going to get to the true Garfield spirit since Paws, Inc. started making animated television specials in the early 1980s. At the very least, unlike the theatrical films, “Garfield Gets Real” retains the actual characters from the comics. Garfield is Garfield. Odie is Odie. And Nermal is Nermal. They’re just in a slightly different hyper-comic-reality setting.

The animation is what you would expect from a direct-to-DVD studio release. It’s not nearly as crude as some of the preschool programming on television, but it is by no means comparable to Pixar’s films. However, now the CGI has become a standard in animation, general audiences aren’t watching them for the wow value any more.

Of course, the real judge of a movie like “Garfield Gets Real” isn’t some tubby middle-aged reviewer. It’s kids, and my kids love this film. That speaks volumes to its impact.

The DVD comes with several behind-the-scenes featurettes showing the actual production of the Garfield strip, the voices behind the characters and the CGI animation process. There are also a few games, one for the DVD set-top and two for DVD-ROM.

"RESCUE DAWN"


        MOVIE: *** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING:
    Christian Bale as LT. DIETER DENGLER
    Steve Zahn as DUANE
    Jeremy Davies as GENE

    Rated PG-13
    Studio: FOX

    Directed by: Werner Herzog

A film like “Rescue Dawn” is an unfortunate casualty of the Hollywood marketing process. Sadly, it fell through the cracks this year – not big enough to become a bona fide hit, and not released late enough for full award consideration. However, just because it has been largely forgotten by critics and audiences this year doesn’t mean it should be forgotten.

“Rescue Dawn” tells the true story of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a pilot during Vietnam who was shot down behind enemy lines. He spent a significant amount of time in a prison camp and eventually makes an escape to freedom.

Directed by Werner Herzog, who brings plenty of credibility to the project, the biggest flaw in this film is its adherence to the original story. Unlike a traditional Hollywood movie, “Rescue Dawn” follows the pacing and irony of real life. It is far from predictable and far from formulaic. Rather, Herzog presents the film almost as a filmed documentary, which adds to the realism.

Still, this is commendable, especially in the overdone Hollywood playing field. “Rescue Dawn” is quite possibly one of the most honest movies you’ll see this year, and judging from the passion I saw from the director and actors in the special features, they don’t give a damn whether this movie makes bank or wins awards. Dieter’s story is told in a rare, honest fashion.

The DVD comes with several featurettes that chronicle the making of the film. Through the interviews, we see the commitment of the stars and its director, which gave me a newfound respect for the movie.

"AMAZING GRACE"


        MOVIE: ** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING:
    Ioan Gruffudd as WILLIAM WILBERFORCE
    Romola Garai as BARBARA WILBERFORCE
    Benedict Cumberbatch as PITT THE YOUNGER
    Albert Finney as JOHN NEWTON
    Michael Gambon as LORD CHARLES FOX
    Rufus Sewell as THOMAS CLARKSON

    Rated PG
    Studio: FOX

    Directed by: Michael Apted

I don’t think there’s anyone out there that will take issue with the messages found in “Amazing Grace.” With the exception of a few nut-jobs in this country (and the numerous folks around the world that still practice some form of slavery), I think we can all agree that slavery is an abhorrent concept.

However, that doesn’t make “Amazing Grace” a great film. Sure, it chronicles the crusade of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) as he tries to abolish the slave trade in jolly ol’ England. But like a lawyer friend of mine has said, watching laws being made is like watching sausage being made.

There’s a lot of good intentions behind “Amazing Grace,” but the movie’s a bore, swirling into the minutia of antiquated British law. For historians and PBS buffs, this film will be a thrill, but for the rest of the viewing audience, its nothing more than a sequence of political tricks that – while accurate, no doubt – hold about as much thrill as a soggy tuna fish sandwich.

The acting is excellent, precisely what you’d expect from a British costume drama. Ioan Gruffudd isn’t the lynchpin, although he does a fine job. The real fine work is done by Albert Finney and Ciaran Hinds as the antagonist Lord trying to retain the slave trade to continue economic prosperity.

With only fleeting flashes to the reality of slavery, this film commits the cardinal sin of movies by talking rather than showing. Imagine 100 years from now there being a film about the great abortion debate, and instead of actual real-life drama, all we see is our stuffy politicians flopping around the House and Senate floor. That’s pretty much the same here.

The DVD comes with some extended featurettes about the history behind the film, as well as study options for teachers and families that wish to discuss the issue. Ultimately, the special features offer more excitement than the film itself.

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