Slight, shaggy and sentimental, the crime comedy Stand Up Guys has exactly three virtues to recommend it.
Those would be the film's trio of lead actors: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin. Nobody's gunning for glory with the performances here, but nobody phones it in, either. Anyway, these three could make a 90-minute film talking about the U.S. Tax Code and still be interesting.
Pacino headlines as Val, a career criminal just getting out of the joint after a 28-year stint. Val took the fall for his crew after a botched robbery and ended up doing the heavy time by refusing to rat on his friends. He is, as they say, a stand up guy.
Walken plays one of those old pals, a now-retired thief who goes by the name of Doc. When Val gets out of prison, it's Doc that comes to pick him up and take him out on the town. Understandably, Val is ready to party. So Doc dutifully escorts him to a bar, then a brothel, then a hospital. The 70-something Val, it seems, can't quite party like he used to.
There's another complication: Doc has been ordered by the local mafia don to kill his old friend Val. Doc doesn't want to, but he's on the hook — either Val goes into a shallow grave, or Doc does.
The latest and maybe final film from director Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects isn't the movie that it first appears to be. About halfway through, the story pivots and another film emerges. Then a most curious thing happens: It isn't that movie, either.
Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) stars as Emily Taylor, a formerly upper-crusty sort whose life is upended when her financier husband Martin (Channing Tatum) goes to prison for insider trading.
When Martin gets out of jail, Emily does her best to pick up the pieces, but she's paralyzed with severe depression and panic attacks. After a half-hearted suicide attempt, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) prescribes a series of antidepressant drugs.
Some work, some don't, and some cause Emily to experience truly worrisome sleepwalking episodes. We also learn that the good doctor is participating in clinical trials for an experimental drug called Ablixa. Meanwhile, Emily's former shrink Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) gets involved and the plot thickens.
It's around this point that Side Effects makes its first lateral leap. What appeared to be an issue movie about the evils of Big Pharma becomes a twisty thriller in the key of Hitchcock. Dark details emerge concerning Emily's past, and Dr. Banks' as well. A crime is committed and a murder mystery is hatched.
Filmmaker Shane Carruth made his bones in the indie film world with the 2004 science fiction puzzle Primer. The ultra-low budget film, concerning a group of engineers who accidentally invent time travel, collected the Grand Jury Prize at that year's Sundance Film Festival.
It's become something of a legend in filmmaking circles: Primer was made for a little over $7,000 with Carruth acting as director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, co-star and musical composer. For fans of thinky, conceptual sci-fi, it's a real gem. After seeing it on DVD, I spent hours online trying to figure out all the time travel paradoxes.
Carruth's long-anticipated second film, Upstream Color, premiered just last month in theaters and has already been ported to DVD, thanks to Carruth's typically unorthodox method of self-distribution. The film is still popping up in art houses around the country and, in fact, it may still wind up playing here in town.
Upstream Color is a fantastic film, one of the year's best so far, and a giant leap forward for Carruth as a storyteller and filmmaker. If Primer was startling, Upstream Color is stunning. It's like watching a pencil sketch artist discover oil paints.
Once again, Carruth writes, directs, acts and composes the music. Clearly, he's a hand-on sort of fellow. Like Primer, Upstream Color pleasurably confounds by refusing to play by the rules of traditional movie narrative.
The story, so far as it can be told:
Amy Seimetz (The Killing) plays Kris, a young urban professional who is assaulted in nightclub by a nameless thief. She's forced to ingest a rare larva, which we learn has been taken from the root system of a particularly exotic orchid. The larva drains her free will and the thief spends the next few days in Kris' home, walking her through the motions as she liquidates all her assets and hands them over. He also forces her, for some reason, to transcribe Thoreau's Walden.
Kris awakens several days later with no memory of what happened. But her life as she knew it is gone, as is a portion of her mind and personality. She is subsequently summoned by another mysterious stranger, who surgically removes the larva and seems to be somehow harvesting her psychic misery. Kris returns to the city a shell of her former self.
One day she meets a kindred spirit on the train. Disgraced financier Jeff (Carruth) appears to have suffered the same trauma as Kris. Together they try to assemble their fractured memories. The two seem to be developing a gestalt-mind bond, where identity and memory blend and merge. Details elsewhere in the film suggest that Kris and Jeff have become part of the life cycle of another organism entirely. They sense, too, that there are more people out there in the same desperate situation.
If you only pay attention to what cycles around to Redbox, Netflix or your old-school video rental place, you might get the sense that only a handful of new home video titles get released each week.
Not so. While the high-profile Hollywood titles get the most attention, new DVDs, Blu-rays and digital releases in any given week number in the dozens — new movies, old reissues, TV series collections, independent films, documentaries, foreign films and a disturbing number of Hallmark Channel original movies.
If you're willing to spend an entirely disproportionate amount of time in front of the TV — and I am — you can find some odd gems. To wit: The archivists at Paramount have started rolling out Blu-ray season set editions of the enduring syndicated classic Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series' third season is being released this week, with all 26 episodes plus some nice bonus materials, including a writers' reunion hosted by Seth MacFarlane. (Several ST: TNG writers went on to create shows like Battlestar Galactica, CSI and 24.)
They've also released the frankly awesome one-off Blu-ray special The Best of Both Worlds, a feature-length presentation of the series' high-water moment: The two-part cliffhanger in which Captain Picard is kidnapped by the nefarious cybernetic villains known as the Borg. I geeked out on this Blu-ray before the plastic wrap hit the floor.
For the uninitiated, the Borg are one of science fiction’s all-time great villains, a collective hivemind of cyborgs who fly around the universe in a giant cube, “assimilating” any culture they come across. In the two-episode story arc presented here, the Borg abduct Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and subsume his consciousness into the collective.
The period L.A. crime drama Gangster Squad — starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn and Emma Stone — is best known for its poor timing. Following the movie theater mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado in July 2012, the release date for Gangster Squad was bumped. The film's centerpiece action sequence depicted, yes, a mass shooting in a movie theater.
The cast reassembled in August for additional shooting and the scene was replaced for the film's rescheduled opening in January, 2013. But critics didn't like it, audiences didn't notice it, the marketing was halfhearted and picture quickly sank from view.
New to DVD, Blu-ray and digital this week. Gangster Squad is hoping for a second chance on home video. It's not a great film, but it's not bad and it has a nice feel for the genre delights of tough guys and Tommy guns.
The premise — kinda-sorta based on a true story — is made-for-Hollywood material: After World War II, vicious gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn) is king of the Los Angeles criminal underworld. Cohen has so terrified the citizenry that one will inform or testify against him. And he's bought off all the important cops and judges, so no one will prosecute him in the first place.
L.A. police chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) decides there's only one way to beat Cohen. He assembles an off-the-books team of hardcase cops — the Gangster Squad — to wage guerrilla war against Cohen's syndicate. Their mission, should they choose to accept it: Smash Cohen's rackets, burn down his operations and dispose of his goons by any means necessary. The team accepts, with enthusiasm.
The indie romantic dramedy Save the Date — new to DVD, Blu-ray and digital this week — starts in awfully familiar territory.
Twenty-something Sarah (Lizzy Caplan) is a bookstore clerk and aspiring artist who's about to have her sketches premiere in a small gallery. Her boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend, Body of Proof) is the lead singer of an appropriately hip indie band. They've just moved in together.
Meanwhile, Sarah's older sister Beth (Alison Brie, Mad Men) is planning her own wedding to fiance Andrew (Martin Starr, Adventureland), drummer for said indie band. Both couples are on the verge of making major life commitments. They process their feelings by way of late-night conversations in studio lofts with hardwood floors and stacks of vinyl in plastic crates. There's a lot of hand-wringing about The Future and several variations on the phrase: "I'm about to spend the rest of my life with this person!"
I've developed a low pain threshold, over the years, for indie films about attractive big city creative types and their romantic problems. I understand that you're supposed to write about what you know, but c'mon emerging Los Angeles screenwriters. Can't you stretch just a little?
All that said, Save the Date does what it does about as well as it can be done. The film's greatest strength is the lead performance from Lizzy Caplan, the future movie star whose past credits include Cloverfield, Hot Tub Time Machine and the late, lamented Freaks and Geeks.
And now for something completely different.
A loopy Buddhist fable in the shape of a blockbuster action pic, The Sorcerer and the White Snake features several big-name Hong Kong stars battling snakes, demons and one another in ancient China. The movie was a big hit overseas in 2011 and has finally rolled around to home video release in the U.S.
Based on a famous Chinese folk tale, the story concerns Abbot Fahai (Jet Li) — a battle-tested monk who leads his disciples in a perpetual war against the demons of the land. Fahai doesn't kill the demons he defeats. Instead, he traps them in the mystical Lei Feng Pagoda, to reflect upon their sins. The demons are an interesting lot — bat creatures, ice harpies, white foxes and the occasional door mouse.
Meanwhile, a curious snake demon named Susu (the celestially beautiful Eva Huang) assumes human form and rescues a young man from drowning in a mountain lake. The two fall in love and the stage is set for a showdown between the good-hearted demon and the literal-minded demon hunter. Fahai, it seems, does not approve of human/demon mixed marriage.
Sorcerer has some of the most gonzo visual effects you'll see all year, big screen or small. Between the martial arts action and the film's wild assortment of otherworldy beings, you get a real eyeful.
Gonzo does not necessary mean good, however, as evidenced by the second half of Hunter Thompson's career. The film's over-the-top fighting scenes feature the usual impossible swordplay, but also 400-foot snake demons and flying bat warriors that look like cutscenes out of a 2003 PlayStation 2 game.
Behold the mysterious knuckleball.
Unlike baseball's other pitches — the fastball, the curve, the slider — the knuckleball does not rely on spin and velocity to defeat hitters at the plate. Instead, the knuckleball floats in at a slacker's pace (60-70 mph, usually, as opposed to the fastball's 90 mph range) and ideally doesn't spin at all. That lack of spin causes interesting things to happen to the air currents around the ball as it travels to the plate. It swerves and dips, flutters and dives.
The new documentary Knuckleball, new to DVD and digital this week, is a fascinating film for even casual fans of America's pastime. Veteran documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work) explore the history of baseball's weirdest pitch by profiling MLB knuckleballers Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey during the 2011 baseball season. They also dig into baseball's past with former knuckleball masters Charlie Hough, Wilbur Wood, Jim Bouton, Tom Candiotti and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro.
Throwing an effective knuckleball in the big leagues is such a hard thing to do that, in the entire history of the game, only a few dozen players have ever made a living at it. With the retirement of Boston's Tim Wakefield after the 2011 season, the lone knuckleballer in baseball is R.A. Dickey, who won last year's Cy Young award with the Mets. Dickey is the first knuckleballer ever to earn that prestigious honor. His reward? Getting traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in the offseason. The guys will tell you, knuckleballers get no respect.
Dickey is the film's strongest and most charismatic presence — an articulate, unassuming guy who has evident respect for history and culture of baseball. His story is especially compelling, as he transforms himself from a washed-up traditional pitcher into the game's last remaining Jedi master of the knuckleball. He's like Yoda now, out there in the Dagobah swamps of Toronto.
The DVD edition of Knuckleball comes with two hours of bonus materials, including additional and extended interviews, plus featurettes on famous knuckleball moments in baseball history. You also get more details on the weird science behind the pitch. If you're interested in mining this extra material, be aware that you may not get all of it, or even any of it, via the usual digital download and video-on-demand systems. Read the fine print.
Also New This Week:
Paul Giamatti headlines the surreal horror-comedy John Dies at the End, from the director of Phantasm, The Beastmaster and the enduring cult classic Bubba Ho-Tep.
Based on the 1970s British TV series, the UK action film The Sweeney stars Ray Winstone and Ben Drew as hardcase London cops squaring of against the usual lot of nefarious Eastern European gangsters.
Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman star in Hemingway & Gellhorn, the HBO original movie about the famous literary couple.
Johan "JW" Westlund, ace student at the Stockholm School of Economics, likes to take risks. A poor kid from the Swedish equivalent of Iowa, JW hobnobs with the capital city rich kids, pretending to a wealth he doesn't have and lying to everyone he knows. He's the Talented Mr. Ripley of the Stockholm jet set, and he's looking for a fast track to the big money.
Jorge is young Chilean drug-runner on the run from the cops and the Serbian mob. Recently escaped from prison, Jorge has aligned himself with an Arab crime syndicate and hopes to make that One Big Score by facilitating a huge cocaine delivery.
Mrado is an aging enforcer for the Serbian gang, tasked with bringing Jorge back to his ruthless employer. A weary but entirely competent veteran of Stockholm's criminal underworld, Mrado senses it's probably time to retire and is looking for a payout himself.
The fabulous Swedish import Easy Money (Snabba Cash) tells the story of these three men as their fates twist and collide in the brutal underbelly of Stockholm. It's a great movie — one of the best pure crime thrillers in recent years — and features a tense lead performance from Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, from the AMC crime drama The Killing. That show, in turn, is based on the Danish TV series Forbrydelsen ("The Crime"). Toss in all the Stieg Larrson madness and this Scandanavian-American crime drama exchange is really paying dividends.
One of the more auspicious debuts in film history, the 1973 drama Badlands was director Terrence Malick's first project after film school. Loosely based on the real-life killing spree of Charles Starkweather in 1958, it stars Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as Kit and Holly, two young lovers on the lam in the badlands of the American West.
The Criterion Collection's reissue of Badlands, new to DVD and Blu-ray this week, packages the digitally restored film with several director-approved extras, including interviews with the editor and producer, and a lengthy new behind-the-scenes documentary with Sheen and Spacek. The infamously private Malick is conspicuously but typically absent.
Badlands is such a scary and beautiful film. There's a kind of deep focus running throughout, both visually and narratively. Malick composes grand images of vast prairies and burning sunsets, the camera absorbing all that physical space with a thousand-mile stare. And the storytelling is deep-focus in a meditative sense. There are but two main characters in this movie, and neither talks much. The young lovers are so disconnected from the waking world, so desensitized, that even Kit's regular spikes of sudden violence barely rouse them. Their heads are somewhere else.
The included documentary provides some interesting insights into Malick's vision. Art director Jack Fisk tells the best stories. For instance, Malick had originally planned to have the runaways hide in the wilderness in a rickety lean-to. But Fisk convinced the director to let him build a three-story treehouse out of branches — which Fisk managed in a single day. This change in production plans turns Kit and Holly's wilderness hideout into a spartan, idyllic retreat. The film's most lyrical passages take place here, with Kit and Holly dancing in the dust to a ghostly AM radio broadcast. Then the bounty hunters show up.