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June 2010 Blu-Ray/DVD Reviews (online only)
July 2010
By Mark Glass

It’s a hot early summer, so let’s start off with the lighter fare among this month’s DVD releases. Vintage cartoon fans will be delighted by Warner’s two-disc set Tom & Jerry: Deluxe Anniversary Collection, featuring seven Oscar winners among 30 shorts culled from decades of their antics, plus two sequences from live-action movies in which they appeared with the stars. Their undersea adventure with a dreaming Esther Williams in 1953\'s Dangerous When Wet was quite remarkable for its time. But Jerry’s 1945 song & dance fantasy number with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh belongs on anyone’s idea of a Hollywood Highlight Reel. The set opens with a warning that several racial images and characterizations must be considered in their historical context. Beyond that, this set is a pure treat for all ages.

Another nostalgia trip can be found in the sitcom Family Matters: The First Complete Season, which aired throughout most of the 1990s. This likable Black middle-class family would have been easy to overlook had it not been for their children’s pesky friend Steve Urkel (Jaleel White), whose earnest, clueless, yearnings for popularity embodied all definitions for nerd, twerp, geek so completely that it will endure beyond all else. The Urkel character must not have been an integral part of the show’s original plans, since he didn’t even appear in the early episodes, and isn’t featured until the 12th of that season’s 22 programs. From then on, it was all gold - especially the inner Urkel compared to the endearingly annoying package he inhabited. In summary, Urkel was to Family Matters as Fonzie was to Happy Days. Both were hilarious to a generation of fans...and beyond

Among current fare, Youth in Revolt features Michael Cera in yet another of his shy, amiably awkward characters that worked so well as secondary or co-staring roles in Arrested Development, Juno and Superbad. But as the narrator and star of his own teen romantic misadventures, the load is too heavy for his one-note persona. He falls for an adventurous lass while on vacation, and is amazed that she actually likes him, too. That leads to his devising a series of escalating disasters to prolong their time together over obstacles from geography to a much cooler rival; her oppressively religious parents, and his own dysfunctional family. All his machinations are enabled by a sophisticated, vaguely French alter-ego he imagines would better fit the aspirations of his Maiden Fair. Some of the proceedings are funny - mostly sticking with lowbrow humor. The DVD extras include some deleted and alternate scenes that are worth a look, too.

Those who have watched all the High School Musical films and extensions, but still crave a new fix, will be variably satisfied with Starstruck: Extended Edition. A wholesomely hot young rock star (Sterling Knight, an apparent clone from the DNA of Zac Efron, Justin Bieber and one or more Jonas brothers by Disney’s Imagineers) meets a smart, attractive girl from Michigan who could hardly find his fame and glamor less interesting, even though her sister is the obsessed president of the guy’s local fan club. The rest of what happens is pure formula, though handled reasonably well by an engaging cast, and a script that does what it can with such a familiar premise. The target audience will enjoy the performance sequences, as well as the bonus music videos and the CD soundtrack that comes with the DVD.

Turning to the steamy and sordid side of romance, Wild Things: Foursome extends that film franchise with a new cast of hunks and babes in another complicated crime plot, filled with twists and double-crosses. The formula still works well enough for direct-to-DVD, with the Unrated Blu-ray version providing extra value in appreciating the eye-candy factor - especially a certain soft-core scene, reminiscent of the smoldering moment three-way in the 1998 original that fueled its successors. Be sure to keep watching through the credits for additional scenes of interest, albeit less prurient.

Jackie Chan, nearing the age when his body will no longer sustain his energetic mixes of martial arts and comedy, tries to prove he has enough underlying acting skills for the next phase of his career. His role model for that maturation arc is stuntman, turned action hero, turned director, Clint Eastwood. In Shin-Juku Incident, Jackie plays a poor Chinese guy who sneaks into Japan with a batch of illegal immigrants to find his missing sister. He winds up in the middle of raging gang wars. That premise has served him before. But this time he tries to overcome without the fighting skills of his usual characters. The script gives Chan the chance to show broader and deeper emotions without the heroics. The idea might have worked better as a stepping stone if the story and action weren’t so chaotic. The structure and pace are suitable within Hong Kong cinema traditions, but not coherent enough for the Western audiences he hopes to convince. As our political rhetoric over immigration policies runs amok, the analogy to this story probably adds another marketing hurdle for the film’s appeal. Unfortunate timing for such a brilliant, charismatic performer.

Small Island is a BBC teleplay that aired here on PBS. Set before and during WW II, it follows a few Jamaicans and Brits in their journeys through cultures that clash more than expected within an empire that was then ruled by one king, heightened by the hardships of war. Some bright, ambitious Jamaicans yearn to find better lives through education and broader opportunities in the Mother Land they learn about in elementary school. Those who get there find a reality that’s much worse. Meanwhile, a British woman with romantic and social aspirations beyond the reach her lowly birth established tries to make the best of a loveless marriage to a devoted dullard. When war breaks out, all those lives intertwine in a script that almost sneaks up on the viewer with its emotional power and sociological import. Aired as a two-part, three-hour program, a little patience with prolonged intros and backstories yields rich dividends in the unfolding of the subplots, and the reminder of how vastly attitudes about minorities and women have changed within the life span of our current seniors. Fine acting from an ensemble cast is another asset of this excellent production.


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