Tuesday, October 23, 2007

New DVD releases October 23

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but I certainly think there’s room for a Best Years of our Lives type movie for the Iraq War. Unfortunately, Irwin Winkler’s Home of the Brave doesn’t quite cut it. As with all of the movies Winkler has directed (with the exception of the mostly entertaining The Net), his intentions are good, but the execution is always heavy-handed.
As with the original Best Years of our Lives (which is one of the all-time greats, btw), Winkler’s movie, which he co-wrote with Mark Friedman, focuses on three soldiers who belong to a National Guard unit: Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson), an Army doctor, Vanessa Price (Jessica Biel), a driver, and Tommy Yates (Brian Presley), another soldier. They’re set to go home, until they’re assigned for one last humanitarian mission in the town of Al Hay. Of course, they get ambushed, and in the ensuing battle, Price loses her right forearm, and Yates loses his best friend Jordan (Chad Michael Murray, of TV’s One Tree Hill). These scenes are actually the strongest of the movie; though Winkler isn’t really an action director, he does stage these scenes well and with restraint, and captures the camaraderie of the soldiers. Unfortunately, his restraint deserts him once the movie returns stateside and the soldiers have to struggle with being home.
Of course, there’s all kinds of legitimate issues raised here – soldiers feeling no one understands what they went through except other soldiers, the inadequate medical care they get stateside (Price goes to Walter Reed for her arm and passes a line of other wounded soldiers waiting for care, which is actually a pretty good shot), the struggle to have a “normal” life of family and a career, and so on. Unfortunately, except for moments here and there (as when Marsh defends his son’s right to wear a “Buck Fush” T-Shirt to school, then berates him for wearing it), Winkler and Friedman pick the most clichéd ways to deal with these issues. One flashback to that battle scene would be overkill (pardon the expression), but every character flashes back to it, as if we couldn’t figure out they were still dealing with those issues. And Curtis Jackson (a.k.a. rapper 50 Cent) plays a completely clichéd character, the Vet Who Goes Crazy From The War, and only plays it at one pitch. To be fair, he’s not the only one. Samuel L. Jackson at least tries to add some nuance to his character, but Biel and Presley are pretty much blank slates. Frankly, the best performance in the movie comes from Christina Ricci in a small role as Jordan’s girlfriend. It’s also a clichéd role, but she brings some anger and realism to it. That realism, unfortunately, is sorely lacking in Home of the Brave.
This week sees the release of, among other things, one of the funniest movies of the year. I’m speaking, of course, of Bruce A. Evans’ Mr. Brooks. Evans and co-writer Raynold Gideon can be credited for not taking the usual route of fetishizing serial killers, but what they do with it is completely bonkers. Mr. Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner), a straight-arrow businessman (he accepts a Man of the Year prize at the beginning of the film), also kills because, no matter how hard he tries, he’s addicted to it (William Hurt is Marshall, the voice inside his head urging him to kill). He even goes to AA meetings about it. Brooks is known as the Thumbprint Killer, and is finally caught – sort of – when Mr. Smith (Dane Cook), a photographer, gets a picture of Mr. Brooks in the act. Except Mr. Smith just thinks Mr. Brooks is cool, and blackmails him into committing another murder. Meanwhile, Brooks is being pursued by Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore), a detective with troubles of her own – her current ex-husband is suing her for divorce, and another serial killer she helped catch has recently escaped prison. But wait, there’s more – Brooks’ daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker) has dropped out of school, and Brooks begins to suspect it’s maybe because his daughter is following in his footsteps.
By rights, all of this should be tiresome and offensive, especially since Evans shoots this in the style of most thrillers – as if a machine made it (except for a gun battle Moore has near the end of the film, though, he does avoid overly stylish camerawork). However, it’s so ludicrously done it’s hard to take offense. It reminded me of Gossip, the 2000 movie about date rape that, despite its subject matter, ended up being entertainingly ridiculous. From the beginning, when Brooks goes from reciting the serenity prayer (which is the standard prayer at AA meetings) to staking out his future victims, it’s clear this movie isn’t to be taken seriously (especially when we see one of Brooks’ disguises later in the film). It helps, of course, that both Costner and Hurt seem in on the joke – they’re obviously having a lot of fun. Cook neither entranced nor repulsed me, but then again, while he was obviously meant to stand in for those who are fascinated by what they should be repulsed by, his character is pretty one-note. Moore is believable as a cop, but she’s also her pretty one-note self as well. But Panabaker, whom I last saw in the HBO miniseries Empire Falls, also acts like she knows the movie’s a joke, and is willing to work with it nonetheless. The now-defunct magazine Movieline used to have a monthly column called “Bad Movies we Love”; I’d like to think if they were still in business, Mr. Brooks would be the subject of one of those columns.
Three new movies come out on Criterion this week – two of them classics, one an interesting failure. The classics, of course, are Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, while the interesting failure is John Huston’s Under the Volcano. Godard’s film may not have technically been the first film of the so-called “French New Wave,” but it definitely made the most noise worldwide. And long before Quentin Tarantino, Godard, in this film, was paying homage to low-budget genre films – in this case, gangster films (the film is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, which made many B-gangster movies). Perhaps it’s because of the so-called “post-modern” era of movies we’re in right now that Godard’s film looks as fresh today as it was then. Of course, it also helps Godard hadn’t discovered his didactic side yet. This version, which runs two discs, includes vintage interviews with Godard and the cast, new interviews with the surviving crew members, documentaries, and a documentary about the making of the film.
More so than even Godard, Malick has had as many detractors as defenders. I fall in the latter category – normally, I’m impatient with movies that want to chew on the scenery at the expense of story, but no one comes close to Malick in making the natural world around him contribute to the mood of the story. To me, Days of Heaven is the best example of this. The plot may lift itself from Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove – a dying farmer (Sam Shepard) falls in love with a girl working on the farm (Brooke Adams), and her boyfriend (Richard Gere), who’s posing as her brother, allows it so that when the farmer dies, they can inherit his money – but the way Malick tells it makes it unfold like a dream. A lot, of course, can be made of the gorgeous cinematography (shot by Nestor Alemondros and Haskell Wexler), but credit should also go to the performers (this is one of the few movies I like Gere and Shepard in, Adams is radiant, and as Gere’s little sister and the narrator, Linda Manz is also terrific). This version includes a new transfer, commentary by crew members including Wexler, and an interview with Wexler.
John Huston was not only a maverick for most of his film career, but he could never resist a challenge. The challenge of filming Malcolm Lowry’s novel, long considered unfilmable, must have appealed to him enormously. Unfortunately, while Huston of course captures the atmosphere of Mexico (where the story is set), and Albert Finney does his usual fine work as the British Consul who drinks himself to death, the story doesn’t really go anywhere, and Jacqueline Bisset (as the Consul’s ex-wife) and Anthony Andrews (as Bisset’s new boyfriend) are rather flat. This version does include quite a few extras, including documentaries about the film and Lowry, new interviews with Bisset and Andrews, and an old interview with Huston by French critic Michel Clement.
Two TV shows that took their final bows last season also come out on DVD this week. Both of them were critically acclaimed, but only the former made a significant dent in the viewing public. That show, of course, was The Sopranos, which has, if nothing else, had more written about it than any other TV show. The final half of the sixth season saw Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) still trying to recover from his shooting at the hands of Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), while Christopher (Michael Imperioli) finally gets his movie made, Tony’s war with Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), who has taken over for the dying Johnny Sack, escalates, and Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler) continues to have problems finding direction in his life. All of this, as with the first part of the season, seems unwieldy at times, and it isn’t until the war between Tony and Phil really escalates that the series took off. Still, it’s still fascinating how creator David Chase dared to play on our identification with Tony and make him, if anything, darker and more volatile.
While The Sopranos ended on its own accord (though there may yet be a movie), Veronica Mars, the teen detective drama, was cancelled after three seasons because of low ratings, despite critical acclaim and a loyal fan base. The third season, admittedly, had its share of problems. For starters, it was yet another high school show that had a rough transition going to college. Also, supporting characters like Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Weevil (Francis Capra) had little or nothing to do, and the relationship between Veronica (Kristen Bell) and her on-again, off-again boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) seemed stagnant. Finally, there were individual episodes that were poor, due to either the network wanting the show to be more of a soap opera, or creator Rob Thomas losing his creative nerve, depending on who you talked to (and vocal debate about the show reached its peak during the third season). Still, the two mini mystery arcs – the first one had Veronica trying to find a serial rapist on campus, while the second had Veronica and her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) trying to solve the murder of the college dean – were both compelling and well written. And with Veronica and Keith, the show still had the best father/daughter relationship on TV.
Speaking of TV, arguably the biggest disappointment of the year was the TNT miniseries The Company, adapted from the best-selling novel by Robert Littell. As someone who liked the novel, who loves spy stories in general, and being one of the few, it seems, who loved The Good Shepherd, I was really looking forward to this, but it stiffed on so many levels. First of all, I understand adapting a 800+ page novel for a 6 hour miniseries means some stuff has to go (one major character was dropped), but there was no flow to the story. It seemed like director Mikael Salomon and writer Ken Nolan merely filmed the novel’s greatest hits (and also gave Jack McCauliffe (Chris O’Donnell) all the major plot points). Secondly, the story is supposed to span 50 years or so, yet the only one’s who act like that are Rory Cochrane (as Yevgeny, the Soviet spy living in America) and Michael Keaton (as James Angleton, the increasingly paranoid CIA Director of Intelligence). O’Donnell in particular merely acts like he’s just wearing a gray wig. Also, while the series does deserve credit for trying to deglamorize spying, it doesn’t go as far in that respect as The Good Shepherd and previous series like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy did. Finally, the performances are a mixed bag. Keaton and Cochrane are good, and Alfred Molina comes off well as Harvey, Jack’s mentor. But Alessandro Nivola has little to do as Jack’s friend and colleague Leo, and O’Donnell simply is too much of a cream puff to carry a so-called serious miniseries like this.

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