February 5: DVD alternatives to this weekend’s multiplex offerings

We know how it is: You’d like to go to the movies this weekend, except you’re busy writing long, flowery letters to the love of your life, who’s on the other side of the planet somewhere where there’s no Internet access. But you can have a multiplex-like experience at home with a collection of the right DVDs. And when someone asks you on Monday, “Hey, did you see Dear John this weekend?” you can reply, “No, but do you have a stamp?”
INSTEAD OF: Dear John, a would-be weepie melodrama about a college student (Amanda Seyfried) and an Army ranger (Channing Tatum) whose romance is conducted mostly by letters after the Global War on Terror separates them…

WATCH: Message in a Bottle (1999), also based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, which is practically the same story: a man (Kevin Costner) and a woman (Robin Wright Penn) separated by distance and temperament whose relationship is all about love letters. It’s just as sappy as Dear John, to boot. There was a time when director Lasse Hallström made unsentimental dramas, such as My Life as a Dog (1985), a coming-of-age story about a young boy who feels abandoned by his family. Wartime romances abound, and lots of them are far superior to this one. Try A Very Long Engagement (2004), in which Audrey Tautou searches for year for the fiancé she believes may have escaped the horrors of World War I battlefields. Or just go straight to the masterpiece: Casablanca (1942), in which the troubles of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman don’t amount to a hill of beans amidst the chaos of World War II.

INSTEAD OF: From Paris with Love, in which American secret agents John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers mix it up with a variety of globo bad guys…

WATCH: La Femme Nikita (1990), written and directed by From Paris writer Luc Besson — it’s a thrilling tale about a teenage junkie (Anne Parillaud) who goes to work as an assassin for a French agency and leads a double life in Paris. In a more serious vein than the often comic From Paris is The Bourne Identity (2002), in which Matt Damon’s amnesiac professional killer tries to extricate himself from his life… or he will do, as soon as he can find out what that life is — some of the action takes place in Paris. For more of Jonathan Rhys Meyers doing intelligence work, see Mission: Impossible III (2006), in which he portrays part of Tom Cruise’s crack team of superspies. For more of John Travolta as a guy who’s as quick with his fists as he is with a wisecrack, there’s the excellent Get Shorty (1995) — though his From Paris secret agent is ostensibly on the other side of the law from his mobster in this one, there’s not much difference between them at all.

Another week of only two new wide releases. What is this, 1978? Sheesh. But there are a few films new to arthouses worth mentioning:

INSTEAD OF: District 13: Ultimatum, about a near-future Parisian policeman and his former-criminal sidekick who take on gang lords and corrupt politicians in the most dangerous neighborhood in the city…

WATCH: District 13 (2004), its predecessor (which is, coincidentally, like From Paris with Love, written by Luc Besson and directed by Pierre Morel); here is where French martial artist David Belle first showed off the discipline of parkour he’d invented, which involves a lot of leaping between buildings and running up walls without any CGI or wires. For more fun and unexpected uses of martial arts, see Jackie Chan in Drunken Master (1978), which utilizes the comedic “drunken fist” method of fighting; or Shaolin Soccer (2001), in which Stephen Chow puts his martial arts superpowers to work making funnies on the football pitch. If you prefer a bad buddy-martial arts-comedy set in Paris, you might try Rush Hour 3 (2007), again featuring Jackie Chan (with Chris Tucker). It’s godawful, but at least the scenery is pretty.

(Or, you could just watch D13:U on demand!)

INSTEAD OF: Frozen, the Sundance hit thriller about three young skiers who get stranded on a ski lift with no hope of rescue before they freeze to death, and so they must figure out a way down on their own…

WATCH: Movies about being stranded somewhere dangerous or inhospitable constitute practically their own subgenre, and there are lots of good ones to choose from. Open Water (2003) is a similarly low-budget flick about a couple forgotten in the middle of the ocean by their scuba expedition — it’s a chilling reminder of how scarily big our planet is, and how much of it is covered by water. Frigid weather is only one of the problems the survivors of an Andes plane crash must face in Alive (1993) — lack of food is another. Tom Hanks is at least warm on the South Pacific island he washes up on after another plane crash in Cast Away (2002), though food is tough to come by, too. It’s downright sweltering in Gerry (2002), about two friends — played by Casey Affleck and Matt Damon — who go for a hike in the desert and get hopelessly lost. Oh yeah, and they neglected to bring any water, too. Doh!

Where to buy:
Alive [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
The Bourne Identity [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
Casablanca [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
Cast Away [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
District 13 [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
Drunken Master [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
Gerry [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
Get Shorty [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
La Femme Nikita [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
Message in a Bottle [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
Mission: Impossible III [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
My Life as a Dog [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
Open Water [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
Rush Hour 3 [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
Shaolin Soccer [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]
A Very Long Engagement [Region 1/U.S.] [Region 1/Can.] [Region 2]

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