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Broken Embraces, latest MST3K set among new DVD reviews 

BROKEN EMBRACES (2009). The muse is upon Pedro Almodovar – specifically, favorite leading lady Penelope Cruz, who inspired the Oscar-winning auteur to cast her for the fourth time. Here, she's seen in the flashbacks of blind screenwriter Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), who reflects on his affair with the mistress of a powerful businessman (Jose Luis Gomez) and the series of events that first brought them together and then kept them apart. A near-miss for Almodovar, Broken Embraces includes just about everything we have come to expect (take for granted?) from the accomplished writer-director: a gallery of memorable characters, snappy dialogue that's a treat to hear (or, for most American audiences, a treat to read via subtitles), slick visual compositions with special attention to lighting and color, and familiar themes involving dual identities and the shifting roles people are forced to play as they navigate their messy lives. But the end result is less than the sum of its parts, a smoke 'n' mirrors melodrama that peters out just when it should be revving into high gear. Ultimately, this noirish throwback feels like a murder-mystery without the murder, a whodunit without the who (let alone the why). Its surface pleasures are plentiful, but those hoping to dig deep will be left wanting.

DVD extras include a 7-minute Q&A session with Cruz; three deleted scenes; a look at the working relationship between Almodovar and his star; footage from the film's screening at the 2009 New York Film Festival; and Almodovar's 8-minute short, The Cannibalistic Councillor.

Movie: **1/2

Extras: **1/2

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS (2009). Loopy enough to stand out from the homogenized pack but not bold enough to truly go the distance, this eccentric satire (inspired by Jon Ronson's nonfiction book of the same name) proves to be a modestly pleasing piffle in which journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor, sincere but straightjacketed by an undemanding role) searches for a great story on the outskirts of the Iraq War and finds one in Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). Cassady claims to be a former super-soldier, a military man who had been trained in the ways of the paranormal in order to use psychic abilities to combat the enemy. Cassady and his fellow recruits flourished under the tutelage of Vietnam War vet Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), but once a devious soldier named Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) entered the picture, everything went to hell. Now many years later, Cassady insists to Wilton that he's on a covert mission, and he drags the inquisitive yet uncomprehending reporter along with him. Clooney and Bridges are both adept at giving off-kilter performances (let's not forget that they've both headlined quirky Coen comedies), and they achieve the proper buzz in a picture that, until a protracted finale, gets high off the fumes of its own freewheeling inclinations.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Ronson; separate audio commentary by director Grant Heslov; two behind-the-scenes featurettes totaling 20 minutes; and four minutes of deleted scenes.

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: VOLUME XVII (1989-1994). The latest MST3K box set may be the weakest one in a while – there are no episodes on the level of Santa Claus (Volume XVI), Racket Girls (XV) or Final Justice (XIV) – but that hardly means it's a turkey, as there's still plenty on tap to satisfy hardcore devotees.

The Crawling Eye (movie made in 1958; featured on MST3K in 1989) is the frailest film in the set, for a pair of reasons. For one thing, it was the first episode aired nationally (the premiere season had only played locally in Minnesota), so while it's historically significant, this also means it's part of that early stretch before creator-host Joel Hodgson and company knew how quickly the quips needed to come flying (Hodgson admits as much in an accompanying interview). For another, the movie itself isn't awful – it's merely another mediocre sci-fi yarn from the 1950s, this one about a Swiss mountain community terrorized by alien creatures.

"Carousel had more beatniks than this!" wails Crow during the screening of The Beatniks (movie made in 1960; featured on MST3K in 1992), a feeble tale about a street tough who becomes an overnight singing sensation, much to the resentment of the craziest member of his gang. The movie would be tough going were a viewer forced to handle it straight up; luckily, Joel and the 'bots are on hand to offer running commentary on the order of, "There are a million stupid stories in the naked city, and this is the stupidest."

The Final Sacrifice (movie made in 1990; featured on MST3K in 1998) is, according to the box write-up, "one of the most requested episodes in the history of Mystery Science Theater 3000." Certainly, this Canadian student film must be seen to be disbelieved – utterly wretched, its story of a teenage boy and a truck driver teaming up to battle a murderous cult provides Mike Nelson and his sidekicks ample opportunities to stick it to our cousins in the north.

Originally making the (minimal) theatrical rounds under the title Zaat, Blood Waters of Dr. Z (movie made in 1975; featured on MST3K in 1999) is every bit as awful – maybe even more so – as The Final Sacrifice. This one finds a mad scientist turning himself into a giant catfish in order to take over (in his words) "the universe." Really. As with The Final Sacrifice, the movie riffing is topnotch, but the wraparound segments, featuring Pearl Forrester, Bobo and Brain Guy (poor substitutes for the departed Dr. Clayton Forrester and TV's Frank) leave a lot to be desired.

Extras in the set include a new introduction by Hodgson; an interview with The Final Sacrifice co-star Bruce J. Mitchell; and theatrical trailers.

Collection: ***

Extras: **1/2

OLD DOGS (2009). John Travolta and Robin Williams, two actors who appear in bombs about as frequently as the rest of us shower, star as Charlie and Dan, business partners who suddenly find themselves looking after Dan's newly discovered kids (twins conceived during one drunken night seven years ago) for a couple of weeks. Masters of their trade (sports marketing), the pair prove to be completely incompetent in the presence of the children (Conner Rayburn and Ella Bleu Travolta, neither exactly a find), leading to a series of excruciating sequences in which the adults are repeatedly ridiculed, humiliated and made to suffer great physical pain. The movie is never remotely funny, but it excels at being creepy: Travolta sports a Joker-esque grimace caused by medicine, Rita Wilson is on hand to deliver a skin-crawling performance as a hyperactive hand model, and a gorilla nuzzles annoying Seth Green. There are countless moments of creative desperation – reaction shots from a dog, golf balls to the groin, etc. – but none of creative innovation, explaining why this ended up in the #4 slot on my 10 Worst of 2009 list.

DVD extras include audio commentary by director Walt Becker, producer Andrew Panay and writers David Diamond and David Weissman; three deleted scenes; and three minutes of bloopers.

Movie: *

Extras: *1/2

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2009). In this age of computer-animated fare, it's a pleasure to have an old-fashioned animated effort that actually stirs memories of past glories. Adding a decidedly jazzy spin to the venerable fairy tale, The Princess and the Frog centers on Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a young woman living in early-20th-century New Orleans. Toiling as a waitress but longing to save enough money to open her own restaurant, Tiana finds her fate intertwined with that of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a visiting royal who's been duped by the nefarious Dr. Facilier (Keith David) and turned into a frog. Tiana reluctantly kisses the now-green Naveen in an attempt to help him turn human again (as per the fairy tale), but the plan backfires and she instead finds herself joining him in an amphibian state. Randy Newman's song score runs hot and cold, but the animation is lovely, the story offers the requisite Disney mix of mirth and message, and the supporting characters (including a jazz-lovin' crocodile and a laid-back firefly) prove to be an engaging bunch. Yet what's most noteworthy about the film isn't what's in it but what's missing – specifically, the faddish pop culture references and scatological humor that dates most of today's animated efforts. The Princess and the Frog refuses to be pegged as a product of a specific period, and in that regard, it's a welcome throwback to the timeless toon tales of yesteryear.

DVD extras include audio commentary by writer-directors Ron Clements and John Musker and producer Peter Del Vecho; four deleted scenes; an interactive "Princess Portraits" game; and the music video for Ne-Yo's "Never Knew I Needed."

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

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