DVD 12/16/08: Generation Kill, Peter & the Wolf, Mamma Mia!, Takva/A Man's Fear of God, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Generation Kill (NR, 2008, HBO)
We’ve tried this once before, with “Over There,” and the problem that show had was the same problem most movies about the current Iraq war have: baggage. If they don’t bring it with them, they expect you to, and in either scenario, the covert preaching that ensues leaves everyone more alienated than enlightened. “Generation Kill,” on the other hand, kindly asks you to check your baggage at the door. The opening bell of the war provides the backdrop for this seven-part miniseries, but “Kill” overwhelmingly is about its characters, who in turn are the product of identity and personality rather than a collection of speeches and parables cobbled into human form. The Marines that comprise the bulk of “Kill’s” cast aren’t an instantly loveable bunch, but the longer you watch them work, the easier it is to like, understand or at least appreciate them. That isn’t the same thing, mind you, as liking, understanding or appreciating the situation they’re in, and “Kill” manages to accomplish some amazing storytelling without ever forcing the viewer to fall in line with anyone’s positive or negative view of the conflict as a whole. That, more than every exciting sequence and every whip-smart dialogue exchange, is what makes this one so much better than its contemporaries. Not convinced? Maybe the fact that “Kill” comes from some of the same forces behind “The Wire” will pique your interest. If you’ve seen the respect that show paid toward the two sides of the drug war, no more really need be said about the respect “Kill” pays to conflicts that lie underneath this conflict.
Contents: Seven episodes, plus commentary, video diaries, deleted dialogues, two behind-the-scenes features and a color terminology booklet.

Peter & the Wolf (NR, 2007, Magnolia)
With respect to the personal computer, 3D modeling software and all they can do to entertain us, there remains something hypnotic about stop-motion animation that, when done with care, achieves unique artistic heights that remain the exclusive domain of the medium. That much and more is evident in “Peter & the Wolf,” which brings to life the Sergei Prokofiev story about a boy who attempts to protect his newfound animal friends from a stray (and very likely hungry) wolf. Much in the same way “Wall-E’s” first half managed to captivate without so much as a complete sentence of dialogue, “Wolf” goes the whole way without reliance on voice acting, instead using a terrific orchestral score to set the audial tone. (Without spoiling anything, fans of a certain classic holiday film will particularly delight at the inclusion of one choice piece of music.) “Wolf’s” most glaring shortcoming is that, at 32 minutes long, the main program is pretty short. But like any great work of animation, this one merits multiple viewings, each of which undoubtedly will uncover a surprise or momentary visual gem that you might not have spotted the first or second time around.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, making-of documentary, three behind-the-scenes features, educational workshop.

Mamma Mia! The Movie: 2-Disc Special Edition (PG-13, 2008, Universal)
As often happens when a musical makes that awkward crossover to film country, “Mamma Mia!” comes to us both encumbered and liberated by its roots. No one would be talking about this movie — even if it somehow managed to corral the same cast (Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski and Amanda Seyfried, among others) — were “Mia” not a smash hit on stage first. As such, there’s an obligation to remain as true as possible to the source material, and that loyalty occasionally holds the film back. Certain scenes that would command more weight in traditional form succumb to an awkward song instead, and more than once, “Mia” finds itself following a handful of straight-faced scenes with two or three completely distinct numbers that nonetheless feel bunched together. On the other hand? It sure does sound good. The best prevention for song fatigue is a great soundtrack, and “Mia’s” set — based on the songs of ABBA, in case you didn’t already know — is good enough to endear us to the characters, who in turn are affable enough to turn a rather absurd story with precarious beginnings into a mindless but legitimate feel-good comedy that really can make one feel good.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted musical number, six behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes, outtakes, music video, digital copy.

Takva/A Man’s Fear of God (NR, 2006, Koch Lorber)
Hollywood has done a lot more telling than showing when it comes to its insistence that most practicing Muslims are peaceful Muslims. So forget Hollywood — such matters are best handled by those who understand them from up close, anyway. Take, for one example, “Takva,” which tells the story of a humble, technologically primitive, mostly solitary and supremely devoted man (Erkan Can as Muharrem) who finds his entire world upended when a religious leader employs him as a rent collector and outfits him with such Western amenities as a cell phone, a flashy wardrobe and even a personal driver. At no point is “Takva” a statement on (a) a society, (b) a religion or (c) the West’s misgivings with either. Rather, it’s a story about Muharrem, but one that’s absolutely dauntless with its imagery — be they images of a prayer ceremony at its climax or a woman Muharrem steamily dreams about with great regret. Inadvertently, all images point to an internal struggle that is one change of scenery and context away from being just about anybody’s internal struggle. Common ground, as usual, accomplishes what preaching never can. That “Takva” is entertaining on its own merit certainly doesn’t hurt, either. In Turkish with English subtitles.
Extra: Director interview.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor: 2-Disc Deluxe Edition (PG-13, 2008, Universal)
We’ve all heard someone defend a particularly stupid action film as mindless good fun. And who can argue with that? Like other instances of mindless filmmaking, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is nothing if not harmless. And if you don’t mind the fact that just about nothing — from the stock storyline (long-dormant tyrant returns to life and threatens modern civilization as we know it) to the cute dialogue to the excessively long, special effects-laden climax — about “Emperor” is particularly special in its own way, you might indeed find this to be a couple hours of mindless, harmless fun. Of course, there’s something to be said for aiming higher. This is the third “Mummy”-branded film (not counting the “Scorpion King” spin-offs, which bring the total to five), and it arrives at least one (or three, or arguably four) films after the franchise wore out its welcome and started spinning its wheels. There are bolder films — in this and just about any other genre — hitting DVD almost every single week. But if all you want is a film that appears to be having fun and harming no one, this most definitely qualifies. Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford and Isabella Leong star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted/extended scenes, six behind-the-scenes features, digital copy.