The Great Debaters: 2-Disc Collector’s Edition (PG-13, 2007, Weinstein Co.)
Denzel Washington may lord over the rest of the cast on the DVD cover art and his name may be at the top of the marquee, but that alone doesn’t make him the star of “The Great Debaters,” which chronicles the story of a black college debate team’s unlikely quest in 1935 to take on the reigning collegiate national champions at Harvard University. That honor, instead, goes to our debaters (Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker), whose personal tribulations and command of the stage provide more than adequate levels of life and dimension to what easily could have been a by-the-numbers injection of contrite nostalgia. “Debaters” unnecessarily takes liberty with certain facets of the true story — the University of Southern California, not Harvard, was the big fish in the college debate world that year, for instance — and one must assume that the speeches heard within are more the product of gifted scriptwriters rather than the real words of the Wiley College debate squad. That said, the film makes its point, and it does so without any cloying tugs at heartstrings or other cheap emotional devices. These aren’t merely great speeches, but great characters delivering them, and that alone makes “Debaters” genuinely inspiring and very easy to recommend. Forest Whitaker, Kimberly Elise and John Heard also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, eight behind-the-scenes features, historical retrospective, two music videos, companion booklet.
Numb (R, 2007, Image Entertainment)
He’s tried pills and he’s tried therapy, but Hudson (Matthew Perry) can’t seem to come to grips with his condition. Doctors call it Depersonlization Disorder; he calls it insanity. “Numb,” on the other hand, mostly calls it like it is, exploring a rather dark corner of contemporary life without taking the easy way out and leaning excessively in any one direction. Sometimes it’s funny — occasionally in cute ways, but far more often darkly and dryly so. And sometimes, as in life, it’s not so funny. Perry’s ability to shift from dry humor to goofball humor while making a few philosophical pit stops is not a gift to be taken for granted, and “Numb,” which itself seems delicately aware of its own condition at any given minute, demonstrates why by blurring the seams between the sad and funny state of Hudson’s affairs. It’s merely a shame this one never enjoy a run in the theaters. The under-the-radar publicity and straight-to-video stigma will damage perceptions, but the box office isn’t exactly loaded with comedies that try to, and actually succeed at, engaging one’s intelligence the way this one does. Lynn Collins, Kevin Pollak and Mary Steenburgen also star.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.
Botched (NR, 2007, Warner Bros.)
Continuing this week’s theme of one-word-titled movies that probably deserved a theatrical run is “Botched,” which follows a professional thief (Stephen Dorff) sent to Moscow to make amends for a diamond heist gone fatally wrong. The visual details of this blown job make for a memorable opening, but what happens on the Moscow job truly takes the cake. Here, “Botched” transforms from heist flick to horror film. Then, over the next hour or so, it gradually and deliberately loses its mind, liberally mixing themes from both genres with a cast of truly ridiculous characters (and one rat) and the kind of random insanity that horror has sorely lacked during its seemingly never-ending honeymoon with torture and superfluous gore. “Botched” dumps its share of blood on the floor, but it leaves little doubt that it has nothing less than a complete lack of any need to be feared or taken seriously. The writing is all over the map, and the lines between horror, heist, comedy and action are messier than the most mutilated corpse the film has to offer. One might even watch “Botched” to completion and have no idea if what they just saw was even good or not. But if any movie demonstrates that “good movie” and “good time” don’t always need to work in tandem, it’s this one. For those with a dark sense of humor and a wide-open mind, this is a must for group viewing. Jaime Murray, Jamie Foreman, Russell Smith, Bronagh Gallagher and Edward Baker-Duly also star. No extras.
National Lampoon’s Cattle Call (R, 2006, Lions Gate)
The National Lampoon brand in recent years has consistently been synonymous with films so bad as to be embarrassing to watch. So it’s with great surprise that, at least very early on, “Cattle Call” — in which three lonely guys (Thomas Ian Nicholas, Diedrich Bader and Andrew Katos) start a fake casting agency in order to meet women — shows promise of being something you might not mind being caught watching. Then, the film begins its descent into awfulness … only, shockingly, to recover its bearings and evolve into something that appears to be made by people who actually know what a decent movie is. This isn’t to say “Cattle Call” is a classic or even great film. Formula sinks whatever ships the typical National Lampoon awfulness can’t hit, and “Call” too often telegraphs its plot and relies on cliché to keep things light and likeable. Still, the mere fact that our three male leads remain at least somewhat likeable all the way through is a monstrous step forward for the brand. “Call” is stupid, but it’s stupid on an endearing rather than embarrassing level, going so far as to be genuinely funny during what easily could have been a terribly rote courtroom scene. It’s as if the producers set out to make a likeably dumb “National Lampoon” movie and actually, for the first time in far too long, succeeded in their mission. No extras.
Frontier(s) (NR, 2007, Lions Gate)
As a race war rages in Paris, three thieves and an ex-girlfriend seek safety at a hostel near the French border. But you know what happens when people seek safety at small inns in the middle of nowhere, don’t you? That’s right — irony happens. So “Frontier(s)” is a horror film that takes place in a hostel run by depraved people. Oh my, does this sound familiar at all? Indeed it does, and it isn’t long at all before “Frontier(s)” almost completely ditches its interesting beginnings in favor of holding its cup under the torture film cliché faucet and splashing whatever it catches all over the place. “Frontier(s)” definitely outdoes many of the films that inspired it: It’s more fearless with its imagery, and while the characters we presumably are supposed to root for aren’t exactly likeable, they aren’t the obnoxiously unwatchable archetypes most stock horror films trot out. But declaring “Frontier(s)” a better film than, say, “Hostel” is like telling your mother her cooking is better than what you get at the prison cafeteria. It raises the gore bar, but lacks any kind of redeeming or even interesting quality beyond that. Have a ball if all you care about is watching people get ripped to pieces for the millionth time, but don’t expect this to be anything a dozen films released immediately before it weren’t already. In French with English subtitles. No extras.
Graduation (NR, 2008, Magnolia)
Four soon-to-be-high school graduates (Shannon Lucio, Riley Smith, Chris Marquette and Chris Lowell) have decided, on the eve of graduation, to rob a bank. Why, you ask? Well, one of the kids’ moms is sick and needs the money for treatment, and another is mad at her cheating dad, who also happens to be the bank’s manager. Apparently, common sense and thinking with your head instead of your self-entitled heart weren’t requisites for graduation. A story about four amateurs knocking over a bank on graduation day could go a number of ways, and “Graduation” tries to tackle several of them at once. It’s a drama. No wait, it’s a comedy. No wait, it’s a dramedy, or perhaps it’s just a smug heist film. Frankly, in the end, it’s as confused about its place in life as our cast is about theirs. Worse, whatever designs of greatness “Graduation” had come undone by a persistent undercurrent of blandness that infects all four principal characters, whose personalities range from slightly to completely forgettable. The only character with any potential (Aimee Garcia as a teller at the bank) is, unfortunately, mere prop material for our boring foursome. Throw in one absurd climax and implausibly neat ending, and the reasons to seek this one out add up to zero.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted/extended scenes, storyboards, image gallery, bloopers, alternate opening.
Worth a Mention
— “Indiana Jones: The Adventure Collection” (PG/PG-13, various years, Paramount): You can buy the new special editions of the first three “Indiana Jones” films separately or together in this box set, which almost certainly will be obsolete shortly after the fourth film is available on DVD. Extras include introductions by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, storyboards and numerous behind-the-scenes features.
— “A Collection of 2007 Academy Award Nominated Short Films” (NR, 2007, Magnolia): The title says it all. The newest edition of Magnolia’s awesome annual roundup of Oscar-nominated short films includes five live-action shorts and three animated shorts, including the winners in each category.
— “Marvel Heroes” (PG-13, various years, Fox): Fox’s who’s who of recent in-house superhero films includes all three “X-Men” films, both “Fantastic Four” films, volume one of the animated “Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes” cartoon, “Elektra,” the “Daredevil” director’s cut, and a brand-new “Marvel Collectables” DVD. Also includes a digital “Silver Surfer” comic, two X-Men comic books and a custom-designed lobby card.
— “Die Hard: Ultimate Collection” (PG-13/R, various years, Fox): You see that warning above about the “Indiana Jones” box set being obsolete next year? Everyone who bought the “Die Hard Collection” box set last June knows exactly how it feels right now. This new box set includes the previously-released special editions of all four films.