Finishing the Game (R, 2007, Weinstein Co.)
Bruce Lee really did die only a fraction into the filming of “Game of Death,” and the story of how Columbia Pictures cobbled everything from a new director to multiple Lee stand-ins to footage from past Lee films to finish “Death” is a true one. That little piece of knowledge makes the altogether untrue story of “Finishing the Game” — a mockumentary that documents the first, entirely failed attempt to finish “Death” — that much more entertaining than it already is. Like just about any mockumentary, “Game” trots out no small list of strange characters, focusing the bulk of its energy on an assemblage of hopeful Lee stand-ins brought in to audition for the not-quite lead role. But as only a truly good film in this genre can do, “Game” also gives its characters dimension beyond humor, daring occasionally to be dramatic, philosophical and even poignant with its cast once we get to know them. That it even pulls it off is nothing short of some skillful miracle, because any poignancy the film has is forced to contend with a brilliantly unhinged sense of humor and style that wears the 1970s on its sleeve and isn’t afraid to occasionally venture off on a completely bizarre tangents that further illustrate its characters’ roots. Had the events that inspired its creation never actually happened, “Game” still would be an immensely entertaining trip. But no one is likely to enjoy this tongue-in-cheek rewriting of history more than those who know the real story and can appreciate just how cleverly “Game” takes a high-concept idea and absolutely runs with it.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), behind-the-scenes feature, music video.
George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (R, 2007, Dimension Extreme)
George A. Romero does a bit of hustling with “Diary of the Dead,” which somewhat does for zombies what “Cloverfield” and “The Blair Witch Project” did for monsters and witches, respectively. For a while, it seems like that’s all it is — a gimmicky zombie film with a dull cast of characters and a dull and not-so-subtle commentary on the culture of voyeurism in the Youtube age. Fortunately, after a stale opening act, “Diary” perks up a bit, mixing in some comedy, a few memorable side characters and an extra dimension or two for some of our heroes (Michelle Morgan in particular, and Joshua Close to a lesser degree). But even with a strong recovery to keep things interesting, little that happens during “Diary’s” 96 minutes elevates it to the same levels of greatness other “Dead” films achieved. What plays out often feels like a zombie flick that wants instead to be a message movie — perhaps an admission, in case it wasn’t plain to see, that the genre has limitations even in the hands of its master. “Diary” is full of good parts and is a reliably fun time when all is said and done, but it can’t help but succumb to high doses of deja vu while gluing all those pieces together.
Extras: Crew commentary, feature-length making-of documentary, three behind-the-scenes features, five Myspace contest-winning zombie shorts, character confessionals.
National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets: 2-Disc Collector’s Edition (PG, 2007, Disney)
If you saw the original “National Treasure” and somehow walked away wishing it could be just a little more convoluted and unbelievable, worry not: Your cries have been answered. This time, Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is out to clear his family’s name after a new discovery unfavorably links it to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And why not? Clearing the family name is something any good and capable person would do, and Gates once again demonstrates how ridiculously qualified he is to do pretty much anything he feels like. That allows him, mostly alone and with minimal planning, to pull off feats entire armies and societies couldn’t accomplish for ages. Right. “Secrets” isn’t bereft of likeability: Gates himself is your typically enjoyable Cage character, his cohorts (Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren) aren’t terribly hard to like, and any excuse to put Ed Harris in the shoes of a cretin is a good one. But even when “Secrets” has fun with past and current events, it too often succumbs to overlong, overproduced action scenes with predictably neat resolutions. At 125 minutes, it’s also runs far too long, drowning in bloat and adrenaline fatigue a good half-hour before the credits roll.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes (with director intro), bloopers, eight behind-the-scenes features.
Strange Wilderness (R, 2008, Paramount)
There are some very funny people in the world, and you can see a nice handful of them (Steve Zahn, Jonah Hill, Justin Long, Kevin Heffernan, even Ernest Borgnine) in “Strange Wilderness,” which follows a floundering host (Zahn) of a floundering wildlife show as he tracks down Bigfoot in a desperate grab to stay on the air. Unfortunately, even funny people can’t be funny simply by being, which “Wilderness” seems to assume is the case. A by-the-numbers story ensues about idiots who fall on hard times, embark on a crazy plan, encounter all manner of wacky happenings, hit rock bottom and eventually redeem themselves against all odds. “Wilderness” purports to compensate for such predictability by sprinkling laughs all over the place, but its dedication to original humor is about as pronounced as its commitment to original storytelling. In other words, our funny cast runs around like headless chickens, screams whenever a quiet moment looms, and mixes up its running and screaming in enough combinations to fill 84 very long and uninspired minutes. Outside of one or two fleeting moments, it’s never clever enough to be genuinely funny nor shocking enough to at least drop a few jaws. It’s just a lot of people getting paid to run around and scream, which probably is exponentially more fun for them than it is for us.
Extras: Deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, “Reel Comedy” episode.
The Flock (R, 2006, Weinstein Co.)
Erroll Babbage’s (Richard Gere) beat is crawling with registered sex offenders, and it’s his job to keep checks on them in hopes of preventing repeat offenses. Sadly, no matter how good Babbage is at containing sex offenders, he stands no chance of reeling in the barrage of clichés that sandbag “The Flock” from all directions. There’s the case that breaks right under his nose when a girl gets abducted. There’s an unknown predator who taunts Babbage with clues and phone calls that apparently cannot be traced using 21st century technology. There are a few hackneyed twists the film telegraphs from miles away. There’s the rookie (Claire Danes) who doesn’t understand Babbage’s crusty ways until, both slowly and suddenly, she does. And finally, there’s Babbage himself — the grisly cop who has seen it all and whose methods have all but forced him into early retirement. “The Flock” is indeed a flock — of tired ideas, cartoony heroes and villains, and the kind of cheap exploitation that films without any purpose use to incite some emotion. One wonders if Gere and Daines took a quick paycheck under the assumption a film this bland and soulless would never see the light of day. They dodged embarrassment in the theaters, but the straight-to-DVD racket is a cruel mistress.
Extras: No extras.
— “24: Season One: Special Edition” (NR, 2001, Fox): If the writer’s strike left you hungering for some new “24” material, this special edition re-release of the first season might be your best bet until 2009. New extras include a seventh disc with a new behind-the-scenes documentary, a collection of shorts from the Web spin-off “The Rookie,” and a tin case with working LED timer built inside. Not mentioned anywhere on the packaging but also included: A Pandora’s box of special edition TV-on-DVD re-releases, now cracked wide open for business.
— “Penn & Teller: Bull****! The Complete Fifth Season” (NR, 2007, Showtime): One of cable’s most unheralded shows returns for another season of explicative-laden but immensely entertaining mythbusting. Topics include obesity, Wal-Mart, detox, immigration, Mt. Rushmore and, both fittingly and ironically, anger management. 10 episodes, no extras.
— “George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead: 40th Anniversary Edition” (NR, 1968, Dimension): If you need a companion piece for “Diary of the Dead,” there’s nothing quite like the original. Extras include two commentary tracks, a new behind-the-scenes documentary, Romero Q&A, the last interview with star Duane Jones, an image gallery and the original trailer.