Tuesday, January 29, 2008

New DVD releases January 29

By now, everybody knows the story of The Invasion. By that, I don’t just mean the plot of the movie, which is familiar to anyone who has seen Don Siegel’s cult classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Phil Kaufman’s hit remake of the 1970’s, or Abel Ferrara’s underrated 1993 shocker Body Snatchers, or Robert Rodriguez’s mediocre knock-off The Faculty (though whether it’s his fault or writer Kevin Williamson’s remains somewhat unclear). I mean how Warner Brothers was unhappy with Oliver Hirschbiegel’s version of the movie, and brought in the Wachowski brothers and director James McTeigue to make it more to their liking. The end result pleased neither critics nor audiences, but it really isn’t that bad. While the formula is tweaked with somewhat (instead of a alien clone of the person, the change comes from within), the basic hook of the story remains the same – something from space (this time caused by a space shuttle crash) lands on earth, and the result is people start saying things like “My husband is not my husband,” and before you know it, everyone except a few hardy souls are emotionless pod people. The hardy souls in this one include Carol (Nicole Kidman), a psychiatrist whose patient (Veronica Cartwright, who was in the Kaufman version as one of the hardy souls) is the first to wonder about her husband, Ben (Daniel Craig), a scientist who has a crush on her, and his colleague Dr. Galeano (Jeffrey Wright), who, of course, is the one to discover the correlation between sleep and the aliens taking over.
Both Siegel and Kaufman’s films relied not just on scares, but a sociological element (depending on your point of view, Siegel was skewing either Eisenhower conformity or feeding into Communist paranoia, while Kaufman took on the whole 70’s self-help movement) which made their films deeper and more frightening, while Ferrara and Rodriguez went for straightforward shocks (Ferrara did it successfully – Meg Tilly as a pod person is as creepy today as it was back in 1994 – Rodriguez less so). Hirschbiegel is going in the former direction – on the film’s most successful level, it suggests what the world would be life with a truly epidemic viral infection (the alien is passed along either by contact – Carol’s ex-husband Tucker (Jeremy Northam), a specialist with the CDC, touches a piece of the shuttle wreckage and becomes infected – or orally – he ends up spitting on Carol). There’s also a nifty, somewhat underdeveloped stab at having the pod people influence real events going on now (peace in the Middle East!), which is contrary to the thesis of the film, set down by Russian diplomat Yorish (Roger Rees), who seems to think we’re at our most human when we’re at our most destructive. And there are some creepy scenes, as when Carol manages to escape onto a subway train, and is warned by a passenger not to show emotion to fool everyone else.
The problem is the film seems to have been itself taken over by the pod people. I didn’t mind the brief flash forward scenes; to me, they added to the creepiness. And the happy ending isn’t entirely unexpected; after all, the only version to date that is able to go all the way with an unhappy ending is Kaufman’s version (even Siegel’s version had a tacked-on ending with the army ready to fight the aliens). But all of the previous versions, even the Rodriguez version, had a core of people we were meant to identify with, and were sad to see turn into clones. Kidman, Craig, and Wright are gifted actors, but they have nothing to work with, though Kidman gets to do the controlled panic she’s done before. It’s as if the studio sucked all the life out of them, and replaced it with the story of Carol wanting to protect her son Oliver (Jackson Bond), and while it makes sense plot-wise (because of a childhood disease, Oliver is immune from the alien), it seems like a very conventional resolution.
Joe Menendez’s Ladrón que Roba a Ladrón may be a knock-off of con/heist movies like Ocean’s 11 (the new version) and The Sting, but at least it’s a fairly entertaining knockoff. As usual, the con men here are merely trying to bilk a bad guy rather than an innocent, although in this case, the bad guy has been bilking the innocent. Mocte Valdez (Saul Lisazo) is a former thief who now bilks innocent Latinos, mostly illegals (the film is set in L.A.), with infomercials selling fake cure-all products. His former colleague Emilio (Miguel Varoni) wants revenge for that, although, of course, his rage is more personal. The twist here is, as his partner Alejandro (Fernando Colunga) explains, their normal crew won’t do it (they don’t accept Emilio wanting 50% of the cut on this deal), so they use illegals that aren’t thieves but are skilled at the positions they need. They include a mechanic (Ruben Garfias) and his daughter (Ivonne Montero), a construction worker (Gabriel Soto), and an actor (Oscar Torres) who can pretend to be a union official to organize the workers at Valdez’s complex (when he confesses he’s from SAG, the workers excitedly wonder if Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts will picket with them). Movies like this, of course, depend on how smoothly the plot runs, and surprising us at the end. On the latter front, Menendez disappoints somewhat – I guessed two of the major twists – but he does fine on the former. This isn’t as deep as, say, Nine Queens (another Spanish con movie, which had a more Mamet edge to it), but it’s fun.
Ever since seeing him as Michael Douglas’ obnoxious son in the deadly remake of The In-Laws, I’ve always dismissed Ryan Reynolds as the poor man’s Jason Lee. However, he has shown possibilities in talent lately; he was one of the few good parts of Smokin’ Aces, and he’s not bad in the lead role of John August’s The Nines. As he proved in his script for Go, August does like to play around with the story, and like that one, this movie actually has three stories in one: in the first Reynolds is Gary, an actor who is under house arrest after being drunk and disorderly, the second has him as Gavin, the creator of a TV show vying for a spot on the air, and in the last one, he’s Gabriel, a video game designer who may be controlling all of them. Hope Davis (a flirty neighbor in the first, a network exec in the second, and a jogger in the third) and Melissa McCarthy (Gary’s publicist in the first, the star of Gavin’s show in the second, and Gabriel’s wife in the third) appear in all three sections as well – in fact, all three stories revolve around Reynolds being torn between the two of them. After the intriguing set-up of the first segment, and the dead-on satire in the second (it’s shot as if it was a Project Greenlight-like documentary about the pilot), the film does falter in the third segment, and also becomes somewhat pretentious (what with language about “the creator”). However, it’s at least an entertaining mindbender, and well performed. I always thought McCarthy laid it on a bit thick as Sookie, the chef who was best friends with Lorelai Gilmore in TV’s Gilmore Girls, but she gets to combine her sweet nature with an edge here, and it gives her role some bite. And Davis, as usual, effortlessly shines – she’s rarely been as sexy as she is the first segment, and her performance in the second is on a par with Sigourney Weaver in the earlier film The TV Set. As for Reynolds, this is the first time I’ve had a sense of him paying attention to the other actors, instead of grandstanding. He develops actual chemistry with Davis and McCarthy, and has a presence without them as well.
This week’s major re-release is Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day. While it was a modest hit upon its initial release in 1993 (making about $70 million), it has since become a cult classic, and many consider this Bill Murray’s best performance until his turn in Rushmore five years later (Murray himself considers it and Rushmore as two of the best scripts he ever read). Somewhat surprisingly, and sadly, it’s also the last time frequent collaborators Murray and Ramis (Ramis wrote or co-wrote five films of Murray’s, and appeared in three of them) worked together on a film; they stopped speaking to each other after the film was wrapped. The film itself is a good example of the yin/yang working relationship the two had; Murray gave Ramis’ comedy an edge, while Ramis brought out Murray’s charm and sweetness (Wes Anderson, Murray’s latest collaborator, has drawn out his melancholy side, and filmmakers such as Sofia Coppola and Jim Jarmusch have followed suit). As Phil, the weatherman who reluctantly covers the Groundhog Day celebration and finds himself living the same day over and over, Murray uses his usual deadpan comic style to a deeper effect than in his previous movies with Ramis. Whereas his characters in, say, Stripes and the two Ghostbusters movies (to say nothing of Caddyshack) were overgrown boys, Phil is undoubtedly an adult, and is charming to no one who knows him very well (his “performance” as the weatherman is the only charm he has. As with Scrooged, this makes his redemption all the more touching, because Murray really works at it, rather than coasting on any sentimental feelings. And he has genuine chemistry with Andie MacDowell as the producer he falls in love with (it helps she tones down her mannerisms). When I first saw the movie in theaters, I thought the film became too pat and sentimental at the end (an admitted weakness of Ramis throughout his career), but as the quality of mainstream comedies has dimmed in recent years, that sweetness seems more earned all the time. This 15th anniversary edition features some new documentaries and deleted scenes.

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