Lockout - Guy Pearce - Featured

This Week in DVD: 7/17/12

Get the Gringo (2012, Adrian Grunberg)  – Get the Gringo was co-written, co-produced by, and stars Mel Gibson, which probably spells out its direct to DVD and VOD status in North America. Now that that’s out of the way, the movie itself on its own merits is probably right at home on home video with a slight, but not disinteresting plot involving an American thief trying to work his way out of a Mexican prison to make his way back to the bounty he stole before his incarceration.

Gibson stars as the film’s nameless narrator, a career criminal who following a botched heist crashes through the Mexican border and is tossed into the prison community of El Pablito so the crooked Mexican authorities can keep his $1.7 million take all for themselves. When he finds out the money is in the possession of the prison town’s warden (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), he aligns himself with a budding young hooligan (Kevin Hernandez) who also seeks revenge for the death of his father.

While the first two thirds of the film are an interesting look into what a real life Mexican prison might look and feel like, the script feels content to make it seem more complex than the story actually is adding a sort of inertness to the core conflict. There’s an overabundance of characters that don’t really need to be there when only a small few would suffice. It’s all very well acted and directed by former Apocalypto A.D. Grunberg, making the film feels sufficiently sleazy and appropriately misanthropic without ever really crossing any lines. That’s why it’s both a shame and a blessing that the film finally roars to life in the action heavy final act, since the film shows off some actual inventiveness with everything from making Clint Eastwood impersonations plot points and ending with a standoff in the middle of an organ transplant. The ending does wonders for the overall product, but it still betrays all of the dangling story threads the film worked so hard to set up in the first place.

The Blu-ray boasts some great sound design and a sharp image, along with several featurettes including a making-of documentary and a few scene specific looks at set design, stunts, and set-ups. If you think you can still stomach Gibson, or are looking for a heavily stylized and overly narrated bit of nastiness that’s better than Savages, Get the Gringo is more than worth a shot. Otherwise, refer back to the first sentence of this review. (Andrew Parker)

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 Friends with Kids

Friends With Kids (2012, Jennifer Westfedlt) – In her first directorial effort and her third screenplay, actress Jennifer Westfeldt has crafted a film that has the look and feel of a modern, feminist Woody Allen film. Friends With Kids balances observational laughs and pathos quite deftly amongst a band of well-to-do New Yorkers with the help of a stellar cast. It shows the growing pains of a talent trying something new, but the strengths greatly outweigh the minuses brought on as a result of a misguided ending.

Feeling left behind by their friends who have grown up and apart through marriage and children, a pair of serial bachelors and best friends (Westfeldt and Adam Scott) decide to have a child together without the contempt and acrimonious feelings that marriage brings on. Naturally, things get complicated once the child is old enough for the parents to go out on dates again, leading them to wonder if they really are meant for each other after all.

While the script might provide a stumbling point for those not willing to listen to rich people sometimes complaining about rich people problems, it contains enough wit and wisdom about love and parenting to make the jokes universal and the emotions feel real. Much like the New Yorkers that inhabit one of Woody’s films, Westfeldt’s characters all come with their own baggage and neuroses that humanize the opulence around them. As a lead, Westfeldt is stellar as a woman unsure of what she wants even after she has a kid, and Scott pulls off the delicate act of being her missing piece and her eternal foil. The supporting cast is stacked, as well, with Megan Fox and Edward Burns as potential suitors for the leads, and Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd as a sarcastic, antagonistic, and undoubtedly loving couple. The standouts here, however, are the always great Jon Hamm and a never better Kristen Wiig as a formerly loving couple in slow, painful decline.

The Blu-ray looks and sounds great and comes with a decent amount of special features including a 10 minute making of EPK, a 5 minute script-to-screen comparison, 10 minutes each of bloopers and deleted scenes, the latter with optional commentary, and a priceless outtake reel of Fox and Scott riffing while playing video games. The real treat here, however, is the commentary from Westfelt, her husband/co-star/co-producer Hamm, and cinematographer William Rexer where they talk about how small the budget of the film was, shooting in the dead of winter, and working around their famous friends crazy schedules. It’s a funny, silly, and humble look at how even the most simple of productions can be fraught with difficulty. (Andrew Parker)

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Silent House - Elizabeth Olsen

Silent House (Chris Kentis and Laura Lau) – You gotta give Alfred Hitchcock credit for pioneering techniques that are still presented by filmmakers today as being new, groundbreaking achievements. After all, the guy shot Dial M For Murder in 3D in the 50s; long before the post-Avatar claim that glasses-bound movies are the future in cinema. He famously shot his 1948 thriller Rope to appear like it was executed in a single take, which acts as the binding gimmick that defines the new haunted house flick Silent House. Husband and wife directing team Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (who previously made the shark thriller Open Water) have dusted off one of the master of suspense’s oldest tricks for their latest movie and while it certainly stands as an impressive technical achievement, unfortunately it isn’t much of a movie.

The undeniably talented Elizabeth Olsen stars as a troubled young woman (which is becoming something of a trademark for her) who goes out to the boonies with her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer) to bid farewell to the family’s old vacation home. They’re cleaning out some old memories from the derelict house when the power goes out and Olsen starts hearing mysterious noises. She sends her father to investigate and he doesn’t come back, but fortunately Olsen has some new friends to play with: a creepy little girl and old man who stalks her in the shadows. For the next 70 minutes or so Olsen stumbles around the house in real time shrieking at things that go bump in the dark and working herself up into a tizzy.

Silent House is a pretty straight-forward haunted house movie with only the real time single take shooting style to distinguish it from the pack. Admittedly, it’s a decent gimmick for movie geeks, and it’s at least an impressive technical achievement. Obviously the film isn’t actually done in one take, but there are undoubtedly well hidden cuts along the way to help make the experiment technically feasible. There’s a certain amount of fun to be had in marveling and how Kentis and Lau pulled off their nifty little parlor trick, there were obviously people hidden throughout the set to splash blood and appropriate moments. Still, you can’t help but be wowed by the complex choreography pulled off by the cast and crew. It’s just a shame that all that hard work and cinematic slight of hand was wasted on such a crappy screenplay.

Without giving too much away, this is one of those haunted house stories that features a third act twist that turns the ghosts into psychological manifestations of the protagonist. It’s a tired trick that rarely works simply because the spooky shenanigans of the first half rarely make sense when reconsidered through the psychological twist. That’s a problem that’s even worse in Silent House because the audience sees that first chunk play out in real time and huge passages don’t make any sense once you’ve realized what was actually supposed to have happened. It’s a problem that Kentis and Lau kept the from original Uruguayan film La Casa Muda, and it’s a shame that Kentis and Lau never fixed the issue when they got their own crack at the story.

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Aside from the technical daring-dos, the other bright spot is Elizabeth Olsen. She’s onscreen the entire time, playing out long sequences and emotional journeys in single takes and delivers the goods. She’s not as good here as in Martha Marcy May Marlene, but it’s a less demanding a role and she’s at least good enough to prove her performance in that wasn’t a fluke.

A soft recommendation is in order for those hopelessly in love with Elizabeth Olson or desperate to see if they can spot how the one-take tricks were done, but even if you fall into either of those categories you wouldn’t miss much by giving this movie a pass. Still, it should find a nice home on DVD where its flaws are more forgivable. (Phil Brown)

 Being Flynn - Paul Dano

Being Flynn (2012, Paul Weitz) – Based on Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Being Flynn is a great example of a film that works better in theory than in straight adaptation. What works on the page thanks to gritty prose, a real sense of place, and an interesting story structure sometimes can only get certain elements right in the transition. There’s a lot to like in the film’s leading performances and in some strong direction of individual sequences from Paul Weitz, but overall it’s just too slight to be striking and too scattered to feel cohesive.

An out of work writer (Paul Dano) takes a job at a Brooklyn homeless shelter a few nights a week and suddenly finds himself face to face with the deadbeat father (Robert DeNiro) he hasn’t seen in fifteen years that fancies himself a misunderstood genius, but he’s really just a spinner of tall tales and lies with a hair trigger temper. The story bounces around between the father and son narrating different elements of their lives.

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The changes between the narrators show how well spoken the characters are but are clunky as a narrative device, and the introduction of flashbacks involving Julianne Moore as Nick’s mother clutter things up a bit further despite being very well done on their own. Dano and DeNiro put in some excellent work here, but there feels like there are three good movies going on at the same time that are getting short changed to fit a singularly unified structure. It’s something that works splendidly in Flynn’s book, but never quite takes off on screen despite a late second act illustration of how everyone has a story potentially worth telling.

The DVD boasts a nice visual transfer, but the audio could stand a polish. The lone special feature is a 6 minute EPK styled documentary, which is quite heavy on the real life Nick Flynn talking about the admittedly great minutiae of working in a homeless shelter, but it’s really just a taste wishing for more. Thankfully, the book is well worth recommending. (Andrew Parker)

American Reunion

American Reunion (2012, Jon Hurwtiz and Hayden Schlossberg) – Hey everybody, remember the late 90s? Remember when Jason Biggs fucked that pie so that he and a collection of young actors got to pretend to be movie stars for a while? Not really? Well, apparently enough people did for the teenage sex comedy to be extended from a trilogy into four film epic. That’s a whole lotta hours of Biggs getting embarrassed and Sean William Scott saying swears at inappropriate times. On a certain level, it’s appropriate. Sure the cast is all sliding into their 30s, which is an awkward age for a sex comedy. But thanks to the “Seth Rogen school of manchild slacker comedies”, that’s not so strange anymore. So a high school reunion was planned, the Harold and Kumar writing/directing team of Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg was hired to supervise, and the whole gang came back. There’s certainly nostalgic fun to be had for 90s kids, but there is one major drawback. Even back in the first film only half of this cast was ever funny and now that everyone is all grown up and trying to turn this flick into a career comeback, the talent gap is more noticeable than ever. It is at least better than those direct to DVD Pie knock off/sequels though, so that’s something.

The concept is as simple as it gets: the gang returns for their high school reunion. Biggs and his band camp life partner (Alyson Hannigan) now have a child to catch them in embarrassing sexual situations. Eugene Levy is now a widower looking for lovin’ in the arms of the original MILF, Stifler’s Mom (and with Levy and Jennifer Coolidge having worked together in Christopher Guest movies, they’re quite a team). Finch (Eddie Thomas) is now a world-weary traveler and Seann William Scott’s iconic dink Stifler is an underachiever pining for high school. Those folks are all still funny performers and deliver a few big laughs. Sadly, Chris Klein, Tara Reid, and Thomas Nicholas are also back. They were decent exposition deliverers as cute teens but comedy killers as adults, there only for romantic entanglements impossible to care about.  Thankfully Hurwtiz and Schlossberg at least know those characters are useless and rush through their material. As long as Biggs is getting caught in compromising sexual situations with a teen he used to babysit or Stifler is getting Levy trashed to try and hook him up with some “vag” (Levy’s response: “in my day we called it beaver and let me tell you, I got quite a few pelts”) there are enough laughs to make the movie bearable. The directors even toss their Harold And Kumar buddy John Cho a bone by giving his MILF-loving side character a bigger role as a sleazeball running the high school reunion and he’s possibly the funniest thing in the movie.

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American Reunion is little more than an insubstantial sex comedy that thrives on nostalgia for a franchise that was always overrated to begin with. Taken with lowered expectations, it at least a pleasant diversion for former fans. Nothing memorable, just something that clicks enough of the right boxes to avoid total embarrassment. That’s faint praise, but what do you expect? It’s American Pie 4, the fact that it’s even moderately watchable is an unexpected surprise. Universal’s Blu-ray is perfectly fine. Nothing to write home about, but whatcha gonna do? It’s a mid-budget comedy set in a small town. How much detail in Eugene Levy’s face or his character’s wallpaper do you really need to see? The disc does come stacked with appropriately raunchy special features including deleted scenes, outtakes, documentaries about all the main actors, a doc honoring the way the cast punched each other in the balls throughout production, and an “Out Of Control” Track (which means the cast pop up in the bottom of the screen for awkward video commentary throughout the movie. It’s technically ambitious but kind of useless). It’s hard to imagine that any lingering questions you have about the fourth American Pie movie won’t be answered in the exhaustive set. If you still somehow have questions, I’d recommend finding a hobby. (Phil Brown)

 Lockout - Maggie Grace and Guy Pearce

Lockout (2012, Saint and Mather) – While it never quite lives up to its hype as being an exact clone of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York but in space or to producer, co-writer, or “original idea” drafter Luc Besson’s assertion that it’s really Taken in space, Lockout manages some moments of cheesy fun and some decent action sequences. What makes it almost perplexing in a way is how directors and co-writers James Mather and Stephen St. Leger never decide if they want to make a silly and brainless sci-fi blockbuster or a more high minded action film. It’s familiar enough to be watchable, but never all that memorable.

In the year 2079, the singularly monikered ex-CIA agent Snow (Guy Pearce) has been imprisoned and found guilty of treason for a crime he didn’t commit. While awaiting transport to the maximum security space prison MS-1, the president’s daughter Emilie (Maggie Grace) ends up getting kidnapped while on a humanitarian mission on board the floating penitentiary following a jail break of formerly frozen prisoners. And only one man can get her out alive. Snow agrees to the mission not only for a chance at a leaner sentence, but also because the one man who can clear his name is already on board MS-1.

I’m not quite sure if it’s the script or the terrible editing that really causes the film to be so tone deaf, but the directors never let anything once play out to any sort of logical or illogical conclusion. At the start of the movie, a lot of potential plot points and details about the prison are thrown at the audience in a rapid fire fashion, but not all of them will turn out to matter or make much a difference if they’re even brought up at all. At the outset Besson, Mather, and Leger expend a lot of energy trying to create a world that they will stop giving a crap about after the first 30 minutes or so.

It would’ve been more fun had they never given a crap in the first place, because when it comes time for Pearce to enter into badass mode the film ends up raising more questions than providing any sort of pay off for the set up. All the things we’re told to pay attention to are dropped or simply blown off, but now there’s no time left to explain the relationships or motives of anyone on board the ship, especially the boring and stereotypical Scotish villains (Vincent Regen and Joseph Gilgun), one of whom is crazy and the other cold and calculating.

It’s nice to see Pearce get his Snake Plissken on, but aside from some great one liners and some refined action hero chops, he doesn’t have much to work with even in the middle of Mather and Leger’s elaborate sets. Grace doesn’t have much to do, and the main villains are so vanilla that it’s hard to care who lives or dies. As for everyone else, they’re just deus ex machnias that show up to die or give people weapons simply because the story dictates they be there.

In the end, Lockout is too stupid to be taken seriously, but it starts off too elaborately to be thought of as being stupid. It’s never enough fun to shut your brain off and it’s so illogical that it nags at the viewer. Making a movie that’s essentially “insert movie here but in space” isn’t rocket science, but it should also be more fun than this. The final action sequence of the film ends with a deliriously illogical bit of science that’s almost howlingly bad. Had the rest of the film been that silly or oddly badass, maybe it would be more successful. The featureless, but good looking and sounding Blu-ray seems to speak to this. (Andrew Parker)

God Bless America (2011, Bobcat Goldthwait) – Putting his couch-fire setting comedian days behind him, Bobcat Goldthwait has rather quietly turned himself into a pretty darn interesting filmmaker over the last decade. His movies aren’t the broad comedies one might expect from his squealing 80s acting career. Nope, the guy fancies himself a dark satirist these days and he’s quite good at it, slowly settling in to a distinct (and deeply twisted) directorial point of view. Goldthwait’s no-budget 2006 effort Sleeping Dogs Lie was a heartfelt romantic comedy that kicks off with some beastiality, while his 2009 Robin Williams vehicle World’s Greatest Dad was an even darker film about a failed author who becomes a literary sensation by secretly writing a fake diary for his dead teenage son (autoerotic asphyxiation, just in case you were wondering). Yep, very odd movies indeed that didn’t exactly set box office records, but also smart, emotionally resonant, and viciously hilarious projects. Now he returns with God Bless America and those sick n’ satiric ideas keep on comin’.

The movie stars Joel Murray (one of Bill’s brothers) as a burned out middle-aged failure disgusted with the idiotic pop culture landscape. After a particularly crappy day spent getting fired and being diagnosed with a brain tumour, the guy decides to try out suicide. Then something changes. He’s so enraged by a particularly bratty spoiled teenager on My Super Sweet Sixteen that steals a car, drives across the country, and kills her instead of himself. One of the girl’s classmates (Tara Lynne Barr) witnesses the murder and is so impressed that she convinces Murray to take her on as a partner for a cross-country killing spree to become a Bonnie And Clyde of trash culture. Yep, that’s the concept and Goldthwait never wavers, mining every death for laughs and crafting some amusingly insightful monologues about the current pathetic state of American culture. His refusal to waver hurts the film at times, but at least it’s too much of a good thing.

This gut punch satire is backed up by two fantastic lead performances and is a clever romp for anyone who shares the writer/director’s cynical worldview. The first half involving Murray’s breakdown and the beginning of the killing spree works perfectly for us sick puppies watching, then Goldthwait unfortunately gets repetitive with endless speeches and increasingly tiring violence. Now, there’s a suggestion that the audience is supposed to tire of the killers petty motives, but that idea never satisfyingly comes together. Still, God Bless America is far more ambitious and ballsy than most movies claiming to be comedies and continues the director’s impressive evolution as a visual storyteller.

Magnet’s Blu-ray shows reverence for God Bless America that’s unexpected for such a small and odd release. The technical specs are as good as could be expected for such a low budget feature without much in the way of grand visuals. Goldthwait throws in one of his typically manic and entertaining commentaries along with Murray and Barr, while the disc is rounded out with the usual deleted scenes (focusing on the dead on trash TV parodies), a loving documentary made by Bobcat’s daughter, extended interviews, a music video, and an HDNet featurette. It’s an exhaustive and entertaining collection of special features, even if there is a little bit of repeated information throughout. If Goldthwait hadn’t lost his train of thought, this could have been the breakout movie that earned him the attention as a filmmaker that he deserves. Unfortunately that’s not the case, but at least it’s still a glorious darker than darker comedy to expand the Goldthwait-as-director cult. As hard as it is to believe, that guy from the Police Academy sequels is a filmmaker who you should really be watching right now. (Phil Brown)

 

A Bag of Hammers (2012, Brian Chano) – It takes its time getting there, but following an extremely shaky opening the indie comedy quirkfest A Bag of Hammers manages to right the ship from becoming insufferable thanks to some truly great performances and a mid-point twist that elevate the material above some very basic trappings.

Best friends Ben (Jason Ritter) and Alan (Jason Sandvic, who also co-wrote) make a good living off the criminal enterprise of boosting cars from funerals to sell them at local chop shops. They supplement their ill gotten income by owning a rental property next to their home that’s being rented to a neglectful mother and FEMA funded refugee (Carrie Preston). When Alan’s sister (Rebecca Hall) notices that the 12-year old boy next door (Chandler Canterbury) is living in squalor, she calls child services on the mother, setting up a course of events that lead to the two thieves eventually having to raise the boy as if he was part of their family.

Despite some illogical plotting and occasionally spotty dialogue (including an opening ten minutes that reeks of forced banter), Ritter, Sandvic, Canterbury and Hall are incredibly likable in their roles, making the film watchable. The leads also get nice assists from Todd Lousio as the wizened chop shop owner and a cameoing Amanda Seyfried as Ben’s ex-girlfriend who can only spout clichés and Barry Manilow lyrics. Chano also shows some good directing chops and when the film turns a bit more serious halfway through, everyone seems more engaged as a result. Maybe the should’ve just started serious in the first place since the first 20 minutes are pretty rough. (Andrew Parker)

 

Sanctuary Season Four (2011, Various) – Fans of the Canadian produced, SyFy network aired gothic horror series might not have gotten their wish for a fifth season to wrap the shows positively labyrinthine story arc into a nice little package, especially following a scattershot fourth season, but this DVD package should satisfy series fans quite nicely.

Adding a clumsy time travel element to the story of Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping) and Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne) and their work with the Sanctuary Network to help the lives of “abnormals” (monsters who need protection from their potentially more dangerous human counterparts) doesn’t do the shortened 13 episode season too many favours out of the gate, but as the season goes on and the show starts to get back to more stand alone stories, eventually coming back to the more logical arc, it works nicely leading to a strong conclusion.

The four disc DVD set comes with several commentary tracks that allude to potential difficulties with the network in terms of being able to get their true vision across, but no one really begrudges anything. There’s also plenty of featurettes on the fourth disc to keep fans of the show happy. Well, as happy as they can be without getting another season. (Andrew Parker)

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