DVD 4/29/09: JCVD, Hotel for Dogs, What Doesn't Kill You, Pulling S1, While She Was Out, Nothing But the Truth, Johnny Got His Gun, Spin City S2, American Dad V4

JCVD (R, 2008, Peace Arch)
Really, this should be a disaster, or at least a mess. “JCVD” stands for Jean-Claude Van Damme, who stars as a brutally honest interpretation of himself — washed up as an action star, ladies man and father — and the unlucky bystander in a Belgian bank heist. The robbers, hostages, police and crowd of wildly enthusiastic onlookers all know who he is, and that allows “JCVD” to alternate between dark comedy, dry comedy, drama and a tense heist film that continually teases a turn into action hero territory. The film operates in four pieces, each of which operates on a unique chronological track, and two of those parts are separated, without warning, by a six-minute, single-take soliloquy in which Van Damme waxes, with biting honesty, about the lifelong mess in which he finds himself. All that and more in 90 minutes’ time should spell certain doom, but “JCVD” doesn’t just make it work — it dances through the whole thing, gracefully and intelligently balancing all these elements and moods with a magnificent mix of spirit and restraint. Peering so deeply inward while also dismantling the fourth wall (and managing to actually entertain audiences all the while) is a crazy proposition, but Van Damme and the film that bears his name completely knock it out of the park.
Extras: Deleted scenes, digital copy.

Hotel for Dogs (PG, 2009, Dreamworks)
Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what adults think of “Hotel for Dogs,” which tells the story of two perennial foster children (Emma Roberts as Andi and Jake T. Austin as Bruce) who turn a condemned building with stray dogs into the canine wonderland referenced in the title. It is, after all, not a movie for adults. But here’s a review anyway: It’s kind a mess, albeit a well-meaning one with some very redeeming pieces. Like too many other movies aimed at kids, “Dogs” views the human adult like the Road Runner views Wile E. Coyote: They look stupid, say stupid things, act with one-track minds and spend their days scowling at children while those same children repeatedly dupe them. Fortunately, “Dogs” makes one exception — for the completely miscast but incredibly welcome Don Cheadle, who stars as the kids’ case worker — and it’s just sufficient enough to make things tolerable on the human side. That’s good enough. The dogs are the real main attraction here, and they absolutely deliver in all sorts of adorable, emotive, unbelievably well-trained ways. So adults get that, kids get that and a silly movie that ostensibly speaks to their mistrust of adults, and everybody wins with the contrived but entirely well-meaning message that rounds the whole thing out. Johnny Simmons, Kyla Pratt, Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon also star.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features.

What Doesn’t Kill You (R, 2008, Sony Pictures)
The easiest, perhaps only way to describe “What Doesn’t Kill You” is as a movie about two lifelong friends — Brian (Mark Ruffalo) and Paulie (Ethan Hawke) — who delved into petty criminal activity as kids and never quite grew out of it. Any other approach, and things get a little wobbly. “WDKY” starts out about as promisingly as possible, with Brian and Paulie in the throes of an armored truck robbery gone horribly wrong, before flashing back and returning us there roughly 75 percent of the way through. But it takes a shaky road back to that moment, erratically hopping past years and events in both lives in rushed, sometimes careless fashion. Though “WDKY” always makes sense, there are times when it feels like a scene, or at least a buffer between two completely different scenes of equal importance, has gone missing. But the film wants to cover a lot of ground in 100 minutes’ time, so that’s the price it decides to pay for doing so. Fortunately, if you can accept the jerky pacing, there’s still plenty to like. “WDKY” succeeds in its attempt to create two interesting characters, and employing Ruffalo and Hawke to bring those characters to full life certainly doesn’t hurt matters. Amanda Peet,
Will Lyman, Brian Goodman and Donnie Wahlberg (who co-writes) also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted/alternate scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Pulling: The Complete First Season (NR, 2006, MPI Home Video)
“Pulling’s” themes could fit comfortably in any number of American sitcoms. It’s a half-hour comedy about three women (Sharon Horgan, Tanya Franks, Rebekah Staton) in different stages of their late 20s and early 30s, and it touches on the usual topics — love, singlehood, fears of commitment and the consequences of growing old and losing those good looks. Whether “Pulling” could ever play on these shores, however, is another matter entirely. Never mind the fact that half of any given episode’s material would have to be cut or altered to pass muster with network censors. “Pulling’s” comedic tone poses a whole separate concern: It’s sharply and cleverly funny, but also prone to bouts of unabashed darkness that might prove too dry for bashful programming managers. Thank goodness for the DVD format, then, which not only doesn’t concern itself with these problems, but allows us to experience a level of sitcom greatness we otherwise would likely never experience. Here, “Pulling’s” biggest problem is a familiar one: Like many British shows, it produces only six episodes per season, and like most good shows that wrap a season after what amounts to fewer than three hours’ worth of content, it leaves you wanting much more than it actually gives you. The DVD set obviously isn’t at fault for the failings of convention, but an annoyance by any cause is an annoyance all the same.
Contents: Six episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature and separate interviews for people who did and did not like the show.

While She Was Out (R, 2008, Anchor Bay)
Somewhere, perhaps in the presence of a cocktail napkin (and a cocktail), somebody got an idea for a story in which an outmanned, outgunned woman (Kim Basinger) escapes her would-be attackers (Lukas Haas, Craig Sheffer, Jamie Starr, Leonard Wu) with nothing but her life and a toolbox of heretofore-mysterious contents. Around that coherent idea exists “While She Was Out,” an 86-minute reverse thriller that sacrifices everything from logic to reason to the art of the believable mood shift to give that gimmick every chance it needs to hammer the whole thing home. This, also, is to say nothing of the film’s weird beginnings, Christmastime setting and almost comically unbelievable ending, which brings one seriously incredible character arc to completion. But “WSWO’s” problems are real problems only if you make the mistake of taking it seriously. Whether it’s intended as legitimate horror or not simply doesn’t matter: It’s farcically bad, but so much so as to be kind of good, and the greater your gift of irony, the more fun you’ll have watching the whole thing repeatedly fall apart and reassemble itself.
Extras: Writer/director/producer commentary, making-of feature.

Nothing But the Truth (R, 2008, Sony Pictures)
Like the prominent warning at the beginning states, this is a work of fiction. But let’s be serious: Were it not for the Judith Miller/Valerie Plame/ Dick Cheney/Scooter Libbey saga, we almost certainly would not have “Nothing But the Truth,” which tells the story of a journalist (Kate Beckinsale as Rachel Armstrong) who outs a fellow soccer mom (Vera Farmiga) as an undercover CIA agent and faces jail time for protecting the source who originally spilled the beans. Some Hollywoodian creative liberty aside, “Truth” shares some pretty transparent ties to the story that inspired it, and it also struggles to stifle its opinion on the matter of national security versus press freedoms. But it also provides ample opportunity for viewers to disagree with and even vilify the characters the film positions as the protagonists, so cries of propaganda don’t carry much weight. Ultimately, “Truth” positions itself neither as a covert dissection of the real story or a top-shelf thriller that stands on its own, but as something in between — a smart, accessible exploration of important themes that, alas, sometimes can’t resist a twist you can see coming a good distance away. Unfortunately, the most obvious surprise is the one it saves for last. Matt Dillon, Angela Bassett, Alan Alda, Noah Wyle and David Schwimmer also star.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a Mention
— “Johnny Got His Gun” (PG, 1971, Shout Factory): The 1971 anti-war classic, starring Donald Sutherland and Timothy Bottoms, makes its North American DVD debut. Extras include an hour-long making-of documentary, the 1940 James Cagney radio adaption (of the 1939 novel that started it all), Metallica’s “One” video (which “Gun” very clearly inspired), a new Bottoms interview and behind-the-scenes footage (with commentary).
— “Spin City: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 1997, Shout Factory): Includes 24 episodes. No extras, but no Charlie Sheen, either.
— “American Dad! Volume 4” (NR, 2007, Fox): Includes 14 episodes (all with commentary), plus deleted scenes and two behind-the-scenes features.