DVD 5/11/10: Tidal Wave, Pulling John, North Face, Tokyo Sonata, California Dreamin', Play the Game

Tidal Wave (R, 2009, Magnet/Magnolia)
You know what makes Asian disaster movies so, so, so much better than their flashier, budget-endowed American counterparts? The first hour or so of “Tidal Wave,” that’s what. As hinted by the title, “Wave” ultimately is about a tidal wave that inevitably wreaks havoc while head-in-sand politicians and other non-leaders fidget about and ignore the warning signs. But “Wave” precedes this eventual massacre with a full half-film’s worth of what might as well be a handful of completely different genres — a little character drama here, some full-blown comic insanity (made even better by a delightfully absurd English dub) there, and liberal mixing of the two moods in between. Occasionally, the storytelling provides a preclude to the disaster. Mostly, though, it’s a bunch of extremely high-energy stories about people doing stuff before some bad stuff crashes through and changes everybody’s plans. That makes “Wave” as fun to watch during its march toward the inevitable as it is when hell breaks loose, and because we have characters with personality and history instead of an assembly line of boring archetypes — take notes, Hollywood — the normally anticlimactic aftermath isn’t so anticlimactic after all. (The actual disaster itself, which leans on raw action movie ingenuity instead of just slathering computer animation indiscriminately, is pretty awesome too, by the way.) In Korean with English subtitles, but the aforementioned dub also is available.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Pulling John (NR, 2009, IdiePix)
It took a while, 22 years if we’re counting, but we finally have another great movie about the celebrated sport of arm wrestling. And if the terms “Over the Top” and “greatness” have no business coexisting in your world, this documentary might be the film that finally allows you to understand the fuss. The John in “Pulling John” is John Brzenk, who for 25 years has been to arm wrestling what Jordan and Gretzky are to basketball and hockey. Age naturally has begun taking its predictable toll, and during the course of the four years in which “John” was filmed, challengers from America and elsewhere have come primed to finally dethrone him. You say you never heard of Brzenk? Well join the club, but it doesn’t matter: “John” is as much a story about fighting mortality and coming to grips with losing that fight as it is about arm wrestling, and Brzenk’s predicament — facing the inevitability of failure despite a quarter-century of perfection — completely transcends his profession. “John” gives viewers access to the competition in similarly personal light, and when everyone meets in the same place and the whole thing comes to a head, the intrigue — over arm wrestling, yes, but that’s how good a job this one does at building it up — is miles better than anything Sly Stallone could have ever imagined.
Extras: Brzenk/director commentary, nearly an hour of additional footage, eight-page liner notes that doubles as a miniature comic book.

North Face (NR, 2008, Music Box Films)
Imagine a thriller set on the side of a mountain few could live to ascend and descend, and mental images surface of intense isolation and showdowns between man and unpredictable elements. But “North Face,” which dramatizes the highly politicized 1937 race between multiple teams of climbers to ascend the Eiger in Switzerland’s Bernice Alps, succeeds by going in a whole different direction. The elements are naturally in place, but most of the isolation is eschewed not only in favor of multiple teams of climbers getting in each other’s way, but also a horde of journalists and other onlookers who treat the challenge like they might any other sporting event. The swapping of settings — between fancy dining rooms, spartan ground-level encampments and, eventually, the grueling Eiger mountainside, provides “Face” ample opportunity to flash the full might of its characters’ (climbers and otherwise) personalities. Consequently, when things get dangerous and adversaries have to become allies, the fate of everyone involved — and not just the two climbers (Florian Lukas and Benno Fürmann) positioned as our main characters — actually matters for something. “Face” deftly captures both the thrill and absurd danger that everyone merely hypothesizes about in the early going, and because it’s based on a true story, a neat and tidy ending is by no means promised. Johanna Wokalek and Ulrich Tukur, among others, also star. In German with English subtitles.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Tokyo Sonata (PG-13, 2008, E1 Entertainment)
For all we can guess, the life of businessman and family man Ryûhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) has been an enchanted one. But within roughly a minute of “Tokyo Sonata’s” existence, a round of layoffs at Ryûhei’s company strips the businessman part away, and his attempts to find work while shakily hiding his lack of employment from his wife (Megumi Sasaki) and two sons (Takashi Sasaki, Inowaki Kai) means his head of house status is teetering as well. “Sonata” focuses equally on all four characters, and some strange story turns take it down some really odd — and sometimes seemingly random and other times excessively melancholy — avenues. But if Ryûhei’s backbone status is on the brink, his story — and the awesome look it provides at the Japanese unemployment scene (and yes, it really qualifies as a scene) — makes “Sonata” worth sticking with when some weird twists might otherwise undermine it. Kagawa never plays for laughs, and the toll Ryûhei’s tumble takes doesn’t always leave him in a likable light. But there’s a slightly humorous and unmistakably relatable sympathy surrounding his plight, and that glue keeps the film together long enough to make “Sonata’s” final sendoff a satisfying one. In Japanese with English subtitles.
Extras: Cast/director Q&A, behind-the-scenes feature, premiere footage.

California Dreamin’ (NR, 2007, IFC Films)
It feels unfair to criticize a movie that, due to director Cristian Nemescu’s untimely passing after filming had wrapped but ostensibly before production had finished, may not actually be the final draft he had in mind. But this is the version of “California Dreamin'” that we have — a disclaimer describes the cut as “the way it looked at the time” — and so this is the version we must judge. “Dreamin’s” based-on-true-incidents story — a trainload of American soldiers and some valuable military cargo is en route to Kosovo in 1999, only to get mired in red tape by a small Romanian village determined to cash in on the once-in-a-lifetime encounter — sets it up for umpteen sharply funny observations about war, greed, culture clashes and disparate views of hospitality. During its best moments, the film makes good on that potential. Mostly, though, “Dreamin” finds itself neck-deep in details — occasionally about the soldiers, but mostly about the locals — and often, these scenes are good for developing characters and side stories at a painstaking pace while the main story, like the train, sits idle. The attention to detail is skillful, and the cast flourishes in such a way that some might prefer this outcome over a fulfillment of those comedic implications. It’s hard not to wonder how many of those 154 minutes would miss the final cut had Nemescu been able to see “Dreamin'” to completion, but it’s infinitely preferable to have too much of his final effort than nothing at all. In English and (mostly) Romanian with English subtitles. No extras.

Play the Game (PG-13, 2008, Phase 4 Films)
The trajectory of a cute romantic comedy is like that of a bullet train rounding a corner: A little too much gas, and we’re off the track with no hope of getting back on. “Playing the Game,” which
follows the separate-but-connected romantic misadventures of car salesman David Mitchell (Paul Campbell) and his grandfather (Andy Griffith as Joe), would seem to be begging for derailment — if not with its sometimes childish summarizations of dating logic, then certainly with grandpa’s wacky return to the singles scene after decades of marriage and a few years of grieving. Occasionally, “Game” scrapes the edge of reason, and there really isn’t a point where it just nails its subject matter or changes the genre in any meaningful way. The twist at the end, while clever, also takes that oversimplification of dating psychology entirely beyond the cusp of believability. But even with all that said, “Game” never completely succumbs to its shortcomings, and Griffith in particular avoids some early cutesy turbulence en route to a funny and thoughtful (if never necessarily fresh) look at retirement home dating. It isn’t enough to make “Game” the best or even 15th best romantic comedy you can see this year, but it’s more than enough to push it past the pack of also-rans that initially look like its peers. Doris Roberts and Marla Sokoloff also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes.