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Two movies with limited commercial release are worth watching on DVD

Bruce Dancis
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

THE CHILDREN OF HUANG SHI

3 stars

Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun Fat

and Michelle Yeoh

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Writers: James MacManus and Jane Hawksley

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Rated R

THE DEAL

2 ½ stars

Cast: William H. Macy, Meg Ryan, LL Cool J, Elliot Gould

and Jason Ritter

Director: Steven Schachter

Writers: Macy and Schachter

Peace Arch Home Entertainment

Rated R

Despite having an often clever inside-Hollywood comedic plot and a cast led by William H. Macy and Meg Ryan, "The Deal" was never released theatrically following its debut last January at the Sundance Film Festival. And despite its sprawling Chinese vistas and a cast featuring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Radha Mitchell and Chow Yun Fat, "The Children of Huang Shi" only came out in a limited number of cities before dying at the box office.

But neither movie is without merit. Or to put this more positively, the DVD releases this week of both films provides viewers with a chance to see movies that are at times funny, suspenseful and engrossing.

"The Deal" (Peace Arch Home Entertainment, $29.99, rated R) continues the long-time Hollywood tradition, as practiced in such films as Billy Wilder's "Sunset Blvd." and Robert Altman's "The Player," of biting the hand that feeds. Based on novelist Peter Lefcourt's satirical farce about deal-making and movie production in modern Hollywood, the film was brought into being by Macy, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Steven Schachter and stars as has-been Hollywood producer Charlie Berns.

Despondent and suicidal, Charlie is about to end his life when his nephew Lionel (Jason Ritter) shows up unexpectedly at his falling-apart L.A. bungalow with a screenplay. Although Lionel's story appears to be on a rather unlikely subject for a feature film - 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and the tariff laws of 1876 - Charlie gets a brainstorm. Reading in the trades that rapper-turned-movie-action-hero Bobby Mason (LL Cool J) has converted to Judaism and wants to make movies with Jewish themes, Charlie meets with Bobby's rabbi (Elliot Gould) and convinces him that he's got a great project for Bobby.

And before you can say "I'll take a percentage of the gross instead of a salary," the screenplay has become a modern-day action-thriller entitled "Ben Disraeli - Freedom Fighter," a big Hollywood studio has committed to it and a studio development director (played by Ryan) has been assigned to work with Charlie on the project. Although Ryan's Deidre Hearn quickly figures out that Charlie is scamming the studio and essentially making everything up as he goes along, she's intrigued by Charlie's chutzpah and finds herself being drawn to a man she had originally viewed as a loser.

"The Deal" isn't the most original Hollywood satire. Its riffs on agents, studio execs, the entertainment media and the egos and extravagances of movie stars are hardly new. And the romance between Charlie and Deidre is hard to accept, even within this farcical setting. But I must admit to having laughed, or at least smiled, my way through the movie.

In contrast to "The Deal," "The Children of Huang Shi" (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $28.96, rated R) is a big-budget (an estimated $40 million, according to the Internet Movie Database) Australian-Chinese co-production. Veteran director Roger Spottiswoode ("Under Fire," "Tomorrow Never Dies") leads a mostly Chinese film crew that includes the cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao, an Oscar nominee for "House of Flying Daggers."

Based on actual events and set in China during the brutal Japanese occupation of the 1930s and '40s, it stars Rhys Meyers as British journalist George Hogg. Captured by Japanese troops after photographing their massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanking, he's saved from execution by an American-educated Communist guerrilla fighter, played by Chow Yun Fat. Together with an American nurse (Radha Mitchell), they arrange to have George recuperate from his wounds at a rundown, virtually abandoned orphanage where 60 boys are living "wild child" existences.

It's up to George to somehow provide food and medicine for these boys, and to gain their trust, before oncoming Japanese troops force him to lead his charges on a harrowing journey across hundreds of miles of mountains and desert to safety.

Admittedly, the plot sounds like one of those "based on a true story" epics that strain credulity. In addition, characters such as Chow's partisan fighter and Mitchell's mysterious nurse remain hard to accept, and Rhys Meyers remains, for this critic, a remarkably unsubtle actor. But the wounded, damaged boys in the orphanage are individually and collectively compelling.

"The Children of Huang Shi" packs considerable emotional punch in its depiction of an against-the-odds struggle for survival. And it is striking to look at, from harrowing scenes in war-ravaged Nanking to mountain vistas with awesome beauty.


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