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Baby Mama, The Life Before Her Eyes among DVD reviews

BABY MAMA (2008). With Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and other man-children routinely hoarding the screens in our nation's multiplexes and living rooms, here come Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to remind audiences that girls just want to have fun. Indeed, the Cyndi Lauper hit of that name is granted its own karaoke-set scene, and its inclusion is fitting in a movie that's similarly pointed, joyous, and light on its feet. This stars Fey as Kate Holbrook, a successful businesswoman who, upon finding out that she only has a one-in-a-million chance of getting pregnant, turns to an agency to provide her with a surrogate mom; she ends up getting Angie Ostrowiski (Poehler), who clearly resides several rungs down the social ladder. The plot complications arrive with clockwork precision, and it's this rigid formula (along with a ludicrous happy ending) that prevents a fine movie from being even better. Yet judging it strictly on its comic merit, Baby Mama delivers (pun not intended, I assure you). Scripter Michael McCullers (who also directed) serves up several killer quips guaranteed to remain among the year's freshest, and the two perfectly cast leading ladies are backed by an engaging mix of emerging talents. Yet it's the old pros who really shine: Sigourney Weaver is suitably smug as the head of the surrogate center, gamely being shellacked by some of the script's best zingers, while Steven Martin is perfect as the owner of an organic health food chain. Martin's ponytailed character is a real piece of P.C. work, and with this portrayal, Martin emerges as Baby Mama's mack daddy.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Fey, Poehler, McCullers and producer Lorne Michaels; six minutes of deleted scenes; and a 10-minute making-of piece.

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

FOX HORROR CLASSICS, VOL. 2 (1932-1946). Horror? Not so much. Classics? Most definitely no. Fox's second compilation of terror tales is a major disappointment, not only in the quality of the films selected but also because they only qualify as horror films in the loosest sense.

Chandu the Magician (1932) casts dull Edmund Lowe as the title character, who uses his hypnotic abilities to prevent the evil Roxor (Bela Lugosi) from ruling the world with the help of a powerful death ray. An adaptation of a popular radio serial, this benefits from solid production values – it was shot by the legendary James Wong Howe and co-directed by renowned art director William Cameron Menzies – but the story and acting are strictly amateurish. Incidentally, Lugosi took over the role of the heroic hypnotist for the 1934 serial The Return of Chandu.

The best movie in the set – and the closest to being a full-fledged horror flick – is Dr. Renault's Secret (1942), an uncredited adaptation of the novel Balaoo by Gaston Leroux (The Phantom of the Opera). George Zucco plays the requisite mad scientist, tampering in God's domain by turning an ape into a human being. But is the resultant creature, who's passed off as the doctor's brutish assistant Noel (J. Carrol Naish), the one responsible for the murder of a tourist, or is the culprit Renault's ex-con gardener (Mike Mazurki)? Clocking in at just under an hour, this effective yarn showcases Naish's fine performance as the tortured "manimal."

Joseph L. Mankiewicz had already established himself as a screenwriter and producer when he was assigned to make his directorial debut with his adaptation of Dragonwyck (1946). The book had been written in 1944 by Anya Seton, who in turn had seemed inspired – to diminishing returns – by Daphne du Maurier's 1938 literary classic Rebecca (with a touch of Rachel Field's 1938 novel All This, and Heaven Too thrown in for good measure). The film version is a slog through familiar Gothic dramatics, with Gene Tierney as the naive farm girl whose life changes dramatically after she's invited to stay at the mysterious estate owned by her brooding cousin (Vincent Price, in a role originally considered for Gregory Peck). As expected, Price fares best, while Mankiewicz would eventually go on to make Oscar history by winning back-to-back Academy Awards for both writing and directing 1949's A Letter to Three Wives and 1950's Best Picture winner All About Eve.

DVD extras in the collection include audio commentaries by film historians; making-of featurettes; and still galleries.

Chandu the Magician: **

Dr. Renault's Secret: **1/2

Dragonwyck: **

Extras: **1/2

THE LIFE BEFORE HER EYES (2008). The Life Before Her Eyes was erroneously dismissed in many quarters as a crass and tasteless attempt to make an exploitative movie out of the rash of Columbine-style massacres, and the fact that it contains a cinematic sleight-of-hand more likely to be found in a glossy Hollywood thriller only added further fuel to the fire. But in adapting Laura Kasischke's novel, director Vadim Perelman (House of Sand and Fog) and scripter Emil Stern refuse to be cowed by the material, and the result is a haunting drama of enormous power. Raleigh native Evan Rachel Wood (in the best performance of her still-burgeoning career) stars as Diana, a rebellious teenager who, along with her saintly best friend Maureen (Susan Sarandon's daughter Eva Amurri, equally excellent), gets trapped in the girls' bathroom by a disgruntled teenager who's systematically blowing away students and teachers alike. Cut to 15 years later, and the adult Diana (Uma Thurman) is still trying to cope with the events of that tragic day. As the movie moves back and forth through time, audiences are asked to keep pace with the narrative threads that point toward how all of this will end. And while doing so, they're also subjected to an affecting tale of wayward youth, as well as a somber meditation on how the choices we make will shape our perceptions, our actions and, ultimately, ourselves. That's a lot to ask moviegoers to absorb, but discerning viewers will find the experience worthwhile. Sadly, the film presently holds a dismal 26 percent approval rating on the Rotten Tomatoes critical community Web site. Just ignore the critics – in this case, we don't know what we're talking about.

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