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09.24.08

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Phaedra

DVD Reviews

Elia Kazan's 'Boomerang,' 'Never Love a Stranger' and 'Baby Mama' (out already?)


Boomerang
One disc; 20th Century Fox; $14.99

Based on a true story (from the 1920s but updated), Boomerang (1947), directed by Elia Kazan, claims to use some of the original locales and as many of the "actual characters" as possible, which may account for some of the stiffness in this quasi-documentary retelling of justice bent but not broken. The opening narration, set to low strains of "America the Beautiful," introduces us to a Connecticut small town that could be anywhere, U.S.A., and "underneath [the people] are the same as your next door neighbor." One of those people is kindly old Episcopalian priest Father Lambert, who is brutally murdered while taking his evening constitutional on Main Street. When the police can't turn up a perp, the local newspaper magnate accuses the ruling reform party of incompetence (including a funny political cartoon about blind politicians leading blind police in circles). Desperate to solve the case, the police finger a drifter named Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), one of those disaffected World War II vets who figured so prominently in film noir. Under dubious police interrogation tactics, Waldron confesses, but upright DA Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews) has doubts about the circumstantial evidence and surprises everyone by undermining his own case for the prosecution. A lot of familiar faces turn up: beefy Lee J. Cobb as the police chief, a young Karl Malden (young in years but looking the same as he does in Streets of San Francisco 30 years later), a sweat-dripping Ed Begley as a reform politician with a guilty conscience and, in a brief part, pert June Lockhart as Harvey's totally supportive, submissive wife. The clunky nature of the courtroom scenes is leavened by the wise-guy attitudes of the local newspaper publisher (Taylor Holmes) and reporter (Sam Levene), who massage public outrage in order to further their own political ends. The publisher crows that the reformers at city hall are "running around like chickens with their heads cut off." What would your boys be doing if they were in? asks an underling. "Running around like chickens with their heads cut off," the publisher ripostes with a cynical chuckle. Extras include commentary by noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini and stills and posters.

(Michael S. Gant)

Never Love a Stranger
One disc; Lionsgate/Republic Pictures; $14.98

This 1958 black-and-white adaptation of a Harold Robbins novel is a potboiler wrapped in an exposť of anti-Semitism. Sometime in the late 1920s, Frankie Kane (John Drew Barrymore, son of John and father of Drew) plays good Samaritan and rescues a Jewish kid named Martin (Steve McQueen in an early part) from the local Italian tough guys. But later, it turns out that Frankie, who has been raised in a Catholic orphanage, is actually Jewish himself. I'm very, very sorry, the kindly Catholic priest says, but you'll have to leave now. Frankie goes on the lam for a few years, then returns to New York to leapfrog his old mobster mentor (Robert Bray as "Silk"), start running the rackets himself and win back his girlfriend, Lita (Julie Cabell). This sets up an ironic conflict with his old pal Martin, who has grown up to be the DA. At long last, a fit of conscience drives Frankie to do the right thing. To say the film is heavy-handed is like calling the Bush doctrine (for those who know what that is) "ill conceived." R.G. Armstrong provides some muscle as a menacing tough guy, but the only real fun comes from the tendentious voice-overs (presumably taken straight from Mr. Robbins' purple-stained fingers): "Life is the life that spans the eternities. What has begun must have its end. What is ended must have its beginning. ...The first struggle is to be born." No extras.

(Michael S. Gant)

Baby Mama
One disc; Universal; $29.98

Tina Fey's resemblance to Sarah Palin got worked on SNL last weekend (I still say Palin is a job for Jennifer Coolidge). However, there's nothing in this comedy that Palin would find a threat, from the insipid Talking Heads hit over the titles to the babies-everywhere end. Fey plays Kate, the Wharton School-educated VP of development for Round Earth, a Whole Foodsish grocery chain. At 37, Kate suffers from an empty womb ("Every baby on the street was staring at me"). She hires a small-town, white-trashy surrogate, Angie (Amy Poehler), to birth the kid, but this turns out to be a fraud instigated by Angie and her lazy common-law husband (Dax Shepard). Writer/director Michael McCullers puts the film in The Odd Couple groove, and that keeps the plot going forward. Deleted scenes and an alternative ending show even more of an upper-class lean, and more moments of Romany Malco (an actor better than this role) working the archaic bit about the streetwise black man, eternally horny and ready to foal some illegitimate children. More refined is the wonderful Holland Taylor of Two and a Half Men reprising her role as a caustic mom. Sigourney Weaver, the Tina Fey of her day (given a choice of the two, I prefer the Sigourney Weaver of Sigourney Weaver's day), also has some barbed, funny bits. Since Fey plays a clueless straight woman, the best gags go to the feisty Poehler: wish there'd been more lines like Angie's suave announcement that she's been "practicing the ancient Japanese art of karaoke." Extras include a 10-minute making-of documentary and a commentary track by Lorne Michaels, Michael McCullers, Fey and Poehler. (Michael Myers is right: Lorne Michaels really does sound like Dr. Evil.)

(Richard von Busack)


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