As I continue tearing through the '09 releases in an effort to put the year to bed once and for all, here are reviews of four titles I recently caught up with on DVD. Two comedies, two dramas and one film that sticks out like a sore thumb as not belonging in this group.
Director: Mike Judge
Starring: Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, J.K. Simmons, Ben Affleck, Kristen Wiig
Running Time: 92 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
If 2009 has taught us anything it's that ANY movie can be improved with the presence of Jason Bateman, who's been all over the place this year. Whether he's an arrogant boss in Up in the Air, a controlling husband in Couples Retreat, or giving a scene-stealing, award-worthy supporting turn as a sleazy PR exec in the overlooked political thriller State of Play, he's getting enough work that you don't hear anyone talking about that Arrested Development movie anymore. He's moved on in a big way.
In writer/director Mike Judge's (Office Space, Idiocracy) latest, and probably safest comedy yet, Bateman once again displays his effortless comic timing as Joel Reynolds, the owner of a flavor-extract company facing a crisis when his employee Step (Clifton Collins, Jr.) is involved in a catastrophic workplace accident. This brings out Cindy (Mila Kunis) a pretty con-woman looking to covertly exploit the mishap for financial gain. Kunis' performance here is far more interesting and funnier than her overpraised work in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where she was essentially just asked to play a one-dimensional saint.
Much of the film's humor is anchored in Bateman's reaction to these crazy people, like his sexually repressed wife (Kristen Wiig) their neighbor (David Koechner) who just won't shut up, his stoned-out, homeless-looking best friend (Ben Affleck) or his clueless partner (J.K. Simmons) at the plant. But most memorable of all is the hysterical appearance of KISS frontman Gene Simmons as an ambulance-chasing attorney. He fits the the role so perfectly it's actually kind of scary and a scene where he explains his one demand for settling the lawsuit had me rolling. Extract isn't as risky or edgy as I'd hoped, but it's one of those comedies that gets funnier for me the more I think back on it.
Director: Peter Billingsley
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis, Malin Akerman, Jean Reno
Running Time: 113 min.
★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
Couples Retreat is a comedy that's actually inconsiderate of the viewers' time. It takes a decent enough premise that provides scattered laughs and stretches it to just shy of the two-hour mark, which is long for this type of film, even one that's a non-stop laugh riot with interesting characters we care about. This isn't, so it feels even longer. The slightly lesser offense is the casting, where random name actors were just thrown together with little regard to whether they fit the roles or it makes sense for the context of the story (four couples travel to an exotic island resort for counseling to save their relationships). While everyone is serviceable in their roles the fact the certain actors are either too young or too old for their parts, or worse, just not believable in them, caused a distraction for me.
I can't buy Vince Vaughn and Malin Akerman being married parents of two children in any corner of the universe (but Vaughn's just there to be Vaughn and he does it well so that's okay) and the coupling of Jon Favreau and Kristen Davis is almost equally as bizarre. Not surprisingly, the two most credible performances come from Bateman and Bell, but even that pairing seems slightly off because Bell seems too young to be playing a mopey, depressed housewife. None of these actors will be listing this effort as highlights of their filmographies, but to be fair, the movie's goal is to provide laughs and it supplied more than I expected.
The opening credits are clever, I laughed consistently at the dry humor of resort host Sctanley (a hilarious Peter Serafinowicz), the insane methodology of its owner, Marcel (Jean Reno), a child's unusual public bathroom habits and an epic Guitar Hero face off. But damn is this movie long. A good half-hour could have been shaved off and everything would have flowed so much better because there was potential here. What's so strange is how everything seems so dragged out in the third act, yet it's somehow resolved way too quickly and unbelievably by Favreau and Vaughn's screenplay. It's the directorial debut of producer Peter Billingsley, who's better known as little Ralphie in 1983's A Christmas Story. I wouldn't necessarily say he doesn't have a filmmaking future based on this but I hope the residuals from that movie are still pouring in just in case. This isn't the abomination I heard it was, but it still should have resulted in much more with the talent on hand.
Director: Nelson McCormick
Starring: Dylan Walsh, Penn Badgley, Amber Heard, Sela Ward
Running Time: 101 min.
★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
A schlocky, familiar story told well enough and decently acted with enough plot holes to drive a truck through. Not nearly as bad as I expected given my low expectations going in, but it's worth mentioning that I've never seen the 1987 cult horror film on which this remake is based. That it stars Lost's Terry O' Quinn (AKA John Locke) as the title character makes it more than worth a look, and knowing his abilities as an actor, there's little doubt Dylan Walsh had tough shoes to fill. That said, Walsh is the best part of this and the opening sequence where he shaves and casually makes breakfast while his step-family lies dead on the floor is effectively chilling in setting the stage.
Going under his latest alias of "David Harris" he not so subtly starts to show cracks in his perfect everyman persona, insinuating himself into the lives of Susan (a wooden Sela Ward) and her rebellious son Michael (Gossip Girl's Penn Badgley) and managing to knock off anyone closing in on his violent secret. It's strange that anyone would suspect anything given he has no photo identification or documents that he exists, chokes children, has a killing tools collection, stores bodies under lock and key in the basement and leers creepily at his soon-to-be stepson's bikini clad girlfriend (Amber Heard).
The characters may be stupid but a lot of the screenplay surprisingly isn't and director Nelson McCormick milks suspense (especially during the tense finale) instead of piling on the gore. This is a case where the PG-13 rating actually helps and it doesn't feel like it just was pulled off the teen slasher assembly line, even though it is. Badgely holds the screen well (if a little blankly) in his first major big screen role and has chemistry with Heard, who gives us the tamer, censored version of her fully revealing turn in The Informers from earlier in the year. Unfortunately, the "step dad" (who isn't yet married to the mother, entirely discrediting film's title) seems too psychotic right from the get-go whereas it would have been more effective to present him as a normal guy slowly unraveling at the frustration of not being able to build the perfect life for himself. In this scenario we'd be more able to share in the shock with the family since we already have information the characters don't. Not really recommendable but for a cheesy late night rental you could do a lot worse.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Tom Hardy, Matt King, James Lance, Amanda Burton
Running Time: 92 min.
★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
Tom Hardy plays Michael Peterson, who after being sentenced to seven years in prison for armed robbery, uses vicious means to extend that to 35 years, 30 of them spent in solitary confinement. Under the guise of "Charlie Bronson" (yes, named after THAT Charles Bronson) he went on to become England's most famous convict. And after watching Bronson, the rare torturous viewing experience I'd actually want to repeat, it's clear he missed his true calling: Professional wrestling. With his trademark strongman mustache, imposing physique and charismatic oratory skills you could actually picture him taking on Mickey Rourke's Randy "The Ram" in The Wrestler...and killing right him in the middle of the ring. What he really is though is small-time crook and bare-knuckle fighter who considers himself first and foremost a performance artist. All his life he only wanted to be famous. We know this because he tells us his story with a sinister smile from behind bars and also onstage in full clown makeup. It's nuts.
This is one of those movies where you watch it the first time just to say you survived and made it through but realize almost immediately that subsequent viewings are required in order to even have a shot at making heads or tails of any of it. Some movies borrow certain elements from other more well-known pictures and I'm always hesitant name-dropping the films because you're never sure that was even the intention. This time there's no doubt about it. The one influence that looms largely over the entire film that's plainly obvious to anyone who watches is A Clockwork Orange. It's impossible not to think of it, especially in the moments where director Refn uses classical and pop music as a backdrop for the many scenes of mayhem and ultraviolence committed by the crazed protagonist.
It's also impossible to in any way separate Hardy's performance from the film. His portrayal is the film and its an electrifying tour de force in which the actor shies away from nothing, completely submerging himself in the role. Seeing an interview with Hardy out of character on the disc was freaky because it's so hard to believe this is even the same person. He's physically unrecognizable. Too bad he wasn't nominated for an Oscar because I'd pay for a front row seat to see him accept it IN CHARACTER as this lunatic he somehow makes funny and likable. I'm still not sure what the movie's trying to say but I'm not sure I even care because it was just so different. Maybe something about giving up personal freedom for fame but I could be stretching for meaning where there isn't any.
Those who find it self-conciously artsy are probably right and by this description you already have a good idea whether it's your thing or not. It definitely isn't a biopic on this man in any real sense and it isn't exactly a dark comedy either. Nothing I say in so little space can do justice to how insane it is. Bronson is proof that film snobs complaining the more interesting movies are made outside the mainstream are right sometimes.