UltimateDisney.com Presents: Summer 2006 DVD Roundup

Summer has arrived and with it, a lighter than usual schedule for Buena Vista Home Entertainment. But not all is quiet on the DVD front. UltimateDisney.com is here to tell you what's apt for air-conditioned viewing and what would be better left on the shelf in favor of time at the beach. Covered in this roundup are three smaller movies which recently landed on disc. Touchstone's coldy-received release Annapolis reports plagued by convention but far from hopelessly so. Lasse Hallström's small town drama An Unfinished Life boasts a cast that's impressive to several different generations (Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer "J-Lo" Lopez, and Josh Lucas) but was relegated to an unceremonious theatrical run as part of the Weinstein Brothers' Miramax departure. Finally, the South African drama Tsotsi holds hope for the future of Disney's indie branch in the wake of the Weinstein's exit; it claimed the Oscar for Best Foreign at the Academy Awards in March.

Annapolis | An Unfinished Life | Tsotsi

Index of all UD's DVD Reviews

103 Minutes / Rating: PG-13 / Theatrical Release Date: January 27, 2006
Director: Justin Lin
Cast: James Franco (Jake Huard), Tyrese Gibson (Lt. Cole), Jordana Brewster (Ali), Donnie Wahlberg (Lt. Burton), Chi McBride (McNally), Vicellous Shannon (M.A. "Twins" Nance), McCaleb Burnett (Whitaker), Wilmer Calderon (Estrada), Roger Fan (Loo), Brian Goodman (Bill Huard), Charles Napier (Supt. Carter)
1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen (Reformatted fullscreen version sold separately); Dolby Digital 5.1 (English); Subtitles: English, French, Spanish; Closed Captioned
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99 / DVD Release Date: June 27, 2006 / Black Keepcase with Side Snaps / Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Sneak Peeks: Apocalypto, Goal! The Dream Begins, Stick It, anti-piracy ad, The Shaggy Dog (2006), "Grey's Anatomy": Season One, Glory Road

A surface analysis of Annapolis suggests that this Touchstone drama is definitely a dud: it was made by relative newcomers to film, released to theaters in January (long a dumping ground for movie studios' anticipated bombs), thoroughly trashed by critics, and fairly disregarded by moviegoers. So, I was quite surprised to find that not only is it not terrible, but it is actually a pretty decent movie. The film centers on Jake Huard (James Franco), a young battleship riveter who unexpectedly learns that he has been accepted into the United States Naval Academy (USNA) just hours before he must check in. While his enrollment at the Navy fulfills a dream held by his late mother and follows some personal persistence, neither Jake's blue-collared father (Brian Goodman) nor his underachieving friends think that he is cut out for the selective institution across the river. We soon learn why: the academy is as physically and intellectually demanding as anything anyone would willingly apply for.

The crux of Annapolis is observing how Jake responds to the trying environment: will he stick it out or fold under pressure? Complicating the matter is his reluctance to ask for (or accept) help. Along the way, Jake encounters three ethnically diverse roommates: one who gets expelled for lying about an untaken shower (Wilmer Calderon), another who emerges as a by-the-book nemesis (Roger Fan), and, most significantly, a stocky boy dubbed Twins (Vicellous Shannon) who becomes a friend and single-person support group. Also figuring prominently are a polar-opposite pair of commanding officers: the pretty Ali (Jordana Brewster) offers hitch-free romance while Marine Lt. Cole (Tyrese Gibson) assumes the stance of tough-talking foe. All paths lead to The Brigades, an institution-wide boxing tournament where Jake blazes a trail to Cole by training with Ali and Lt. Burton (Donnie Wahlberg, in an odd come-and-go role) and fueling up to qualify for the heavyweight division.

James Franco plays Jake Huard, the protagonist of "Annapolis." Jake engages in a staredown, with his commanding officer Cole (Tyrese Gibson), a hard-nosed Marine. Ultimately, it's about boxing.

Of course, the climax involves a big final fight, which somehow won't surprise no matter what the outcome is. Utterly predictable through each thread, Annapolis is, nevertheless, not unlikable. How you feel about the film hedges largely on what you think of James Franco, who carries the proceedings by appearing in every single scene. Ignoring the newfound work ethic and 25-year flash-forward, I linked the protagonist to Franco's not-entirely-different "Freaks and Geeks" persona Daniel Desario, and invested in the familiar proceedings.
That puts me in the minority, since most reviewers who have dealt with Annapolis have been either unaffected or ice cold. I can't disagree with or disregard their observations: yes, this is not new ground. Many called it a direct descendant of An Officer and a Gentleman with a bit of Top Gun and Rocky thrown in. Having not seen Officer myself, I prefer pointing out that it is not entirely unlike a tougher, boys' version of Ice Princess with Navy boxing filling in for figure skating. The truth is it's impossible to not recognize conventions, character types, and arcs from other films (some of them a bit better), so a few originality points need to be deducted while plugging in the unique context and variables. Others have cried foul because the movie is not very faithful to the real USNA, an effect of the filmmakers and the Academy each abandoning one another over the value of realism, leaving the former to shoot in Philadelphia. Still others have acknowledged as an excuse or an explanation for formulas that this was a Disney film, which seems wrong on many levels, not least of which are the facts that this was always on the Touchstone track and that no studio deserves a reputation for triteness.

With all those charges out in the open, I couldn't dislike Annapolis. It's not a masterpiece or really great in any way, but it succeeded at engaging me and only failed in its overlookable (and all-too-common) shortage of originality. I don't anticipate ever being a midshipman or ever thinking that boxing isn't really stupid. Whether that makes me more or less qualified to give the film a narrowly passing grade, you can decide. But I don't expect to think of this movie as any worse than benign and slightly old-fashioned in its borrowed ways. Furthermore, with no huge star salaries and no outside production companies involved here, the film's modest $17 million gross doesn't make it a flat-out failure, for its budget clearly wasn't high enough for that. A more accurate assessment would be that this flick will soon be forgotten by the studio and public, but that it's definitely not as bad as all warning signs indicate.

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen (a fullscreen version is sold separately) and Dolby Digital 5.1, Annapolis looks and sounds terrific: the picture boasts incredible detail and nary a drawback, the soundtrack repeatedly capitalizes on environmental effects in a tactful way. Most substantial of the supplements is a feature-length audio commentary with director Justin Lin, writer Dave Collard, and editor Fred Raskin. Their track, recorded just after the film was delivered to the studio, is an easy listen. Some of the more memorable things discussed: working in the old animation building at the Disney lot, Donnie Wahlberg's single-shot mustache, a neat history behind Roger Fan's Loo character, how the much-planned F-bomb had to be dropped because of a certain identifier ("mother") led the film to an R-rating, boxing movies that shaped the research, scenes that stayed in because of test panel findings, Franco's thorough transformation, and a moviemaker's thrill at finding a proper tunnel to shoot in. Thankfully not a name-dropping back-patting session, this lighthearted discussion acknowledges certain weaknesses in the movie and unease at meeting a studio's demands. As a result, it's very interesting for anyone who cares about moviemaking.

Director Justin Lin turns up in both featurettes and the commentary. "Annapolis" and "Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" appear to be a far cry from "Better Luck Tomorrow", the M.C. Hammer-rescued independent film which put Lin on the map at Sundance in 2002. Ali (Jordana Brewster) punishes Jake in this deleted scene. Jake looks out on the river and sees Naval Academy midshipmen in the animated main menu.

There are also two featurettes. "Plebe Year: The Story of Annapolis" (11:04) covers Lin's jump from the world of independent film to studio fare, the casting of the three leads (Franco, Gibson, Brewster), pre-filming boot camp, and military accuracy (which many in the know have taken to task). "The Brigades" (10:12) focuses on the boxing sequences, specifically the physical training and choreographing that went into them. Both pieces are enjoyable (the former much more so than the latter), but, boy, the blurred T-shirts have got to go. Finally, seven deleted scenes -- a mix of extensions and altogether additions -- run just short of twelve minutes and deliver a few interesting moments. Presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, these sequences provide a few more glimpses at eldest "Home Improvement" son Zachery Ty Bryan (whose character was nearly completely cut from the film) and are offered with more amusing audio commentary from the full track's three featured speakers. Unsurprisingly absent is the film's theatrical trailer, which took lengths to advertise military-type action that isn't remotely in the film.

While derivative and unexceptional, Annapolis is not a bad way to spend 100 minutes. I was able to overlook my lack of interest in boxing and the Navy as well as the widespread familiarity to enjoy a fine story told in a sufficient fashion. With 22 minutes of featurettes, a commentary, an interesting set of deleted scenes, and flawless picture/sound, the DVD hasn't at all fallen short of satisfaction. While you needn't go out of your way to see this one, a rental may find you pleasantly surprised.

UD Rating: out of 5

Annapolis (Widescreen Edition) DVD cover Buy Annapolis on DVD from... Amazon.com

Related Reviews: Good Morning, Vietnam: Special EditionCadet KellyHolesTexLt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.Valiant
Remember the Titans: Director's CutCon Air: Unrated Extended EditionThe PacifierEight BelowIce PrincessGlory Road
FlightplanThe Greatest Game Ever PlayedDead Poets Society: Special EditionMr. 3000Spider-Man: The Venom Saga

An Unfinished Life
108 Minutes / Rating: PG-13 / Theatrical Release Date: September 9, 2005
Director: Lasse Hallström
Cast: Robert Redford (Einar Gilkyson), Jennifer Lopez (Jean Gilkyson), Morgan Freeman (Mitch Bradley), Josh Lucas (Sheriff Crane Curtis), Camryn Manheim (Nina), Damian Lewis (Gary Winston), Becca Gardner (Griff Gilkyson), Lynda Boyd (Kitt), Rob Hayter (Deputy)
2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen; Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French); Subtitles: English, Spanish; Closed Captioned
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99 / DVD Release Date: April 11, 2006 / Black Keepcase with Side Snaps / Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Sneak Peeks: Glory Road, Annapolis, Deep Blue, anti-piracy promo

When the Walt Disney Company voided the contracts of the Weinstein Brothers in the spring of 2005, it effectively scheduled an end to a 12-year chapter -- one marked by both Oscars and controversy -- for its independent/foreign branch Miramax Films. While the division's name and library remain in the Mouse House, last August and September saw a systematic farewell to the way things were: a glut of shelved projects from the reign of the siblings/producers were lobbed into theaters with little promotion and low expectations. Unsurprisingly, none generated much in the way of attendance and all were basically forgotten once the awards season arrived. Despite a prominent cast and an Academy Award-nominated director, An Unfinished Life went this route. Like its kin, the film's domestic gross was no match for its budget. If others fared worse by dollars (like Terry Gilliam's costly flop Brothers Grimm), Unfinished's losses were tough to rival by percentage (compare its $8.5 million theatrical intake versus an estimated $30 M budget). Still, like all the rest, the movie eventually made its way to DVD, in the hope that some deficits could be recouped.

We can lay the show business context aside, but it's not merely padding, because movies that go a long time without being theatrically released tend to carry stigmas and Unfinished was shelved for over two years. The film finds thirtysomething widow/mother Jean (Jennifer Lopez, who feels out of place here) and her nine-year-old daughter Griff (rookie Becca Gardner) setting out on their own, after Jean gets her face bruised again at the hands of her abusive boyfriend (Damian Lewis). The two end up in Wyoming, at the house of Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford), Jean's former father-in-law who resentfully blames her for the death of his son. Upon quickly arriving at this setup, this rural drama assumes a snail's pace to match the slow setting - that of a town with just two restaurants in it. Needless to say, with some effort, modern-minded Jean and Griff adapt to the "relaxed" country life of rancher Einar and his close friend/housemate Mitch (Morgan Freeman), who requires shots and regular care due to a bear mauling. In the process, Einar gets to confront his demons and warm to the granddaughter he never knew he had. Throw in Josh Lucas as the town's simple sympathetic sheriff, the brown bear in question, and the bizarrely persistent woman-beater (whose reappearance enables Redford to go into "Walker, Texas Ranger" mode), and you have the movie.

J-Lo and daughter come to Wyoming in "An Unfinished Life." The stubbled Einar (Robert Redford) opens up to his late son. Simon Smith and his dancing bear? Close, but no. It's actually Douglas Seus and the amazing acting bear in "Training Bart the Bear."

In fact, once I mention the scene in which waitress Camryn Manheim gets lassoed by a pair of drunks (cue Norris-like antics from Redford), you have the whole movie. Director Lasse Hallström, who hails from Sweden and has a resumé ranging from ABBA music videos to Best Picture nominees The Cider House Rules and Chocolat, holds a distinct preference for human drama where small actions assume exaggerated weight. That may make him an apt fit for the screenplay by husband/wife Mark and Virginia Spragg (published as a book in 2004), but it doesn't inject much that's unexpected or especially easy to warm to in what's on-screen. Compelling in its depiction of backwards-type contemporary living and as an opportunity to guess which character will be the one to die and how, Unfinished is otherwise fairly unremarkable and far from groundbreaking. The character interactions are interesting enough, but they are usually methodical and, if not, ridiculous.

If the movie offers few surprises, then the DVD offers even fewer for anyone familiar with the medium in 2006. The 2.40:1 16x9-enhanced transfer does a fine job of depicting the pleasant rural scenery (Canada standing in for Wyoming), while the Dolby 5.1 track could almost be two-channel stereo but it too is acceptable. The standard slate of bonus features includes a feature commentary by Hallström alongside the separately-recorded wife/husband team of producer Leslie Holleran and editor Andrew Mondshein. Bound to please anyone taking an interest in the film's creation, the plenty informative track discusses members of the cast (including the bear, who required certain working conditions), dramatic intentions, and some technical matters. There is also "The Making of An Unfinished Life" (8:52), a generic featurette which discusses the film's fortes and offers compliments for one another; "Training Bart the Bear", a 10-minute piece on the giant grizzly who figures largely (with comments from cast, director, and trainers), and an uncommon still gallery which holds 94 behind-the-scenes pictures of the director and crew at work, scenic locations, and still, some more of Bart.

An Unfinished Life may be a decent rental for anyone fond of small town dramas, though it will feel quite familiar to such viewers. Beyond that demographic and those enthusiastic about members of the accomplished cast, anyone else can skip it without missing much.

UD Rating: ¾ out of 5

An Unfinished Life DVD cover Buy An Unfinished Life on DVD from...Amazon.com

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Deep BlueProofThe Brothers GrimmDaltry CalhounDark WaterCarolina

94 Minutes / Rating: R / US Theatrical Release Date: February 24, 2006
Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Presley Chweneyagae (Tsotsi), Terry Pheto (Miriam), Kenneth Nkosi (Aap), Mothusi Magano (Boston), Zenzo Ngqobe (Butcher), Zola (Fela)
2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen; Dolby Digital 5.1 (Tsotsi-taal); Subtitles: English, Spanish; Closed Captioned
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99 / DVD Release Date: July 18, 2006 / Black Keepcase with Side Snaps and Embossed Cardboard Slipcover / Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Sneak Peeks: Apocalypto, Stay Alive, The Warrior

By Aaron Wallace

Tsotsi is the latest entry in Miramax's impressive line of acclaimed foreign films and Oscar darlings. "Tsotsi" means "thug" and it's also the root word for the language spoken in the film (Tsotsitaal is an urban dialect from South Africa) as well as the name of its main character. Violent, troubled, and reticent, Tsotsi leads a small South African gang of youth who show little regard for others' property or lives. His crime spree inevitably catches up with him when one act of violence and a desperate getaway lead to an unexpected discovery that casts him into a role of unprecedented responsibility. As he attempts to reconcile his way of life with the ramifications of his actions, the audience learns the tragic truth of his past while Tsotsi learns the value of life and his own self-worth. Powerfully acted and skillfully made, Tsotsi is a moving film, though it doesn't quite pack an emotional wallop. The DVD is packed with bonuses. Two alternate endings (both of them interesting), 3 deleted scenes, a short film (The Storekeeper) by director Gavin Hood, and the feature itself are all presented with optional, insightful commentary from Hood, who also penned the screenplay. Additionally, there's a decent making-of featurette that includes plenty of good interviews but focuses on the film's content rather than its technical composition. The lack of material from its South African promotion aside, that's a pretty healthy platter for a relatively low-profile release. Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with the original Tsotsitaal language track in Dolby Digital 5.1 with a choice of English and Spanish subtitles, the audio/video treatment is equally pleasing. Fans of foreign cinema or a well-told drama in general will surely want to check out this 2006 Oscar winner.

A hotsy-totsy Tsotsi and his crew stare down a heckler. Tsotsi takes a stroll through a gangsta's paradise. Director Gavin Hood lends much insight into the film in both this, the making-of featurette, and his feature-length audio commentary.

UD Rating: out of 5

Tsotsi DVD cover Buy Tsotsi on DVD from...Amazon.com

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Roundup posted July 21, 2006.

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