Thursday, February 20, 2014

Ten Spot: 10 Mini (and not so mini) DVD Reviews

DVDs continue to spin their way through my player from time to time, so the moment again has arrived for mini-reviews: this time an even ten, all of them deserving a thumbs up. Bad reviews we’ll leave to another day.

Ender's Game (2013)
I read Orson Scott Card’s well-regarded scifi novel Ender’s Game about 20 years ago. It was no surprise that movie studios would bid for it despite the fx budget it necessarily entailed. It is Harry Potter in space (though Card’s novel preceded Rowling’s) with a large helping of Starship Troopers. The war against the formics (hive creatures like giant ants) is directed much a like a video game, though the casualties on both sides are real enough. Since kids are better intuitive game-players than adults, kids are recruited and schooled to command the action. Ender Wiggins (that’s a name) is the youngest of three gifted siblings. His brother washed out of the program because he is sociopathic while his sister washed out because she is too empathetic. Ender needs to balance the two: to temper ruthlessness with the empathy needed to understand the enemy. 

The movie portrays the orbiting military school very well, including the elaborate free-fall battle training area. Ender, though still a kid, is older than in the book, partly (I presume) to broaden the audience appeal, but also to sharpen the unexpressed but present sexual tension between Ender and fellow cadet Petra. The moral crisis he faces at the end when the war is carried to the formics’ home world is also properly chilling. A viewer is better off having read the book first, but this isn’t essential. Ender’s Game may not be a new classic, but it is solid SF. The novel Ender’s Game is the first book of a tetralogy to which a fifth book may be added later this year, fodder for movie sequels to come.

Short Term 12 (2013)
In this Sundance Award winner, a young (20s) staff of a halfway house for troubled teens – an interim residential facility pending permanent placement – try to keep order while counseling the residents. Two of the adults poorly conceal their romantic liaison. Staff-member Grace relates all too well to one of the girls, whose self-cutting over issues with her father evokes Grace’s own past. This is a much better film than you might expect, and Brie Larson is excellent as Grace.

Afternoon Delight (2013)
I had mentioned this film after its brief theatrical run last summer, but I rewatched it on a newly released DVD a few days ago, which is enough of an excuse to mention it again, this time in a bit more depth.

The trailers represent this as a kind of light-hearted romantic comedy, but it isn’t. As so often in Juno Temple movies, the script doesn’t fit a neat category. Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is a well-to-do suburban mother with a committed upright husband (by no means perfect, but who is?), a healthy normal pre-school son, and a beautiful house in a nice neighborhood. She is aware intellectually that her problems are First World ones. She feels guilty enough about her privilege, in fact, that she involves herself in countless do-gooder events and fundraisers with her neighbors. (None of these are of a sort that possibly could raise significant amounts of money, so they have more than a little social pretense to them – a way of showing off one’s “giving back.”) This intellectual awareness of her advantages doesn’t prevent her from being unhappy anyway. “Is that all there is?” (to steal a line from Peggy Lee) is the gist of it. Despite the trailer’s insinuation that Rachel’s husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) is the one who is disinterested, it is Rachel who has deflected sex for the past six months; she would like to feel amorous, she tells her therapist (Jane Lynch), but she doesn’t have any enthusiasm for it.

On the advice of her girlfriends, Rachel takes her husband to a strip club, where he buys her a private lap dance from a free-spirited dancer/hooker named McKenna (Juno Temple). Later, Rachel encounters McKenna outside the club at a coffee vendor. Unlike Rachel, McKenna seems quite happy with her life. When McKenna needs a new place to stay, Rachel, for complex reasons, invites her into her home as a nanny despite the reservations of Jeff. McKenna still services her favorite tricks on the side, however; Rachel accompanies McKenna on one occasion as the observer for an older (perhaps not outright ugly, but certainly unhandsome) client who likes it when someone watches – creepy as this sounds, he is surprisingly gentlemanly about the whole thing. Rachel is very disturbed by the experience. McKenna is an unexceptionable nanny until a neighbor (unaware of McKenna’s side job) asks to borrow her as a babysitter one night, and Rachel nixes the idea as inappropriate. McKenna, quietly offended, retaliates by behaving as precisely the untrustworthy tramp Rachel has just treated her as being. A marital crisis ensues, but at the end of it Rachel feels (as well as knows) just how fortunate she is in life, and for that matter so does Jeff. She even likes sex again.

This movie gets very mixed user-reviews (Quentin Tarantino praised it), but I think much of the problem was the way it was marketed. It’s not the movie most viewers expected – or wanted. Nonetheless, I give it a thumbs up.

Bound (1993)
Mobster girlfriend Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and visiting plumber Corky (Gina Gershon) find affection in each other’s arms. They plot to betray Violet’s boyfriend Caesar by stealing millions of mob money while scapegoating Caesar for the theft. Is there a male-bashing subtext here? A sense that the mobsters are despicable as much for being guys as for being crooks? Yeah, some. But it doesn’t matter. The film is well plotted, the villains truly villainous, and the actors on their marks. I surely was rooting for Violet and Corky to give the criminals their comeuppance (even though the two ladies aren’t exactly honest themselves), to get away with the cash, and to live happily ever after. Definitely worth a look.

Red (2008)
This is not the Bruce Willis movie of the same name.

When I was young the country was full of older men with stern values but a willingness to give second chances – the sort who, if you played a prank, would make you work as punishment but then would pay you for what you did. My father fit the description. My dad was a builder, and one time when I was a kid some neighborhood teens slashed tires on construction equipment on one of his sites. Even then the damage was $800, which would be thousands of dollars today. They were spotted by an adult and their names reported to my dad. Today, teens vandalizing a job site this way almost certainly would be reported to the police and charged with a crime – “zero tolerance” and all that. Back then, my dad called their fathers. He didn’t want their parents to pay for the tires; he wanted the boys to pay for them themselves from summer jobs. They did, too, and their parents backed my dad up. No police ever were involved and he shook the hand of each of the boys when he had finished paying off his share of the damage.

Men with this perspective are far rarer today, but some are still out there. In Red, one such older man named Avery, played by Brian Cox, has an old dog named Red. While he is fishing, three teens come upon him in the woods. They try to rob him, but he has nothing of value, so, in annoyance, a teen named Danny shoots Red. Avery finds out who the shooter is (from the local gunshop owner) and goes to meet the boy’s father. All he wants is for Danny to acknowledge what he did and to express remorse. Instead, Danny smugly denies everything and his father – a completely amoral wheeler-dealer who surely believes Avery but doesn’t care so long as he can’t prove it – throws Avery out. Another of the teens is Danny’s brother, who is remorseful but too scared of Danny and dad to cross them. The working-class parents of the third teen are just as unhelpful. Meantime, we learn of some terrible things in Avery’s recent past that explain much of his current behavior.

Since this movie is based on a Jack Ketchum novel, we know things will escalate into bloodshed. Avery persists in pressing the point. He never initiates violence but when threatened with it he stands his ground. It all culminates in an ending that is disturbing and satisfying – and disturbing that it is satisfying.

Paper Man (2009)
In a gender-reversed parallel to Afternoon Delight, gifted but commercially unsuccessful author Richard (ahem), played by Jeff Daniels, has pretty much everything he needs in a material way. His wife Claire (Lisa Kudrow) is a successful surgeon who brings home more than enough cash. Yet, Richard is troubled. Also, he is facing a deadline, which a serious case of writer’s block makes him likely to miss. Oh yes, he still has (and frequently interacts with) his imaginary friend from childhood, Captain Excellent, played by Ryan Reynolds in superhero costume. If that were the least of his quirks, he would be almost normal.

Richard tries to break his writer’s block by staying by himself off season in Montauk while his wife spends weekdays in NYC. In Montauk he strikes up an unlikely May-December friendship with teenager Abby (Emma Stone) who has troubles and quirks of her own. A mutually beneficial friendship is really all it is, though naturally Claire has a hard time seeing it that way.

This is a talky film without a lot of action, but the talk is well-scripted. If you don’t mind a flick about oddball people getting past their personal demons, you might like this.

Small Apartments (2012)
With an ensemble cast including Billy Crystal, James Caan, Johnny Knoxville, Juno Temple, and Dolph Lundgren, among others, this odd but likable film follows the interactions of several residents of a seedy Los Angeles apartment building. The most central character is Franklin Franklin (Matt Lucas), a marginally functional misfit with a brother in a mental institution; Franklin Franklin has just killed his landlord and dreams of moving to Switzerland. Billy Crystal is the investigator who by the end has pieced together events, but nonetheless hopes Franklin gets away free. So do we.

Wishful Drinking (2010)
In 2009 Carrie Fisher’s one woman show opened at Studio 54 on Broadway. Based on Carrie’s autobiography of the same title, the show exposed growing up in Hollywood (as the child of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds), her life as a Star Wars princess, her various relationships (including with Paul Simon), and her struggles with mental illness. Carrie pulled it off with wit and humor. HBO recorded one of the shows, which it aired in 2010 and released on DVD the next year. This intelligent, funny, and informative look into one corner of celebrity culture is thoroughly enjoyable.

Rush (2013)
In the 1970s, there was a much ballyhooed rivalry between British driver James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda on the Formula One racing circuit. James was flamboyant, uneven, but occasionally brilliant on and off the track. Niki approached the sport and life with Germanic regularity and thoroughness. In 1976 they faced off as frontrunners for the championship. Hunt’s team faced disqualification issues over F1 rules, and Lauda, far more seriously, was severely injured in a crash. Yet both continued to drive. This film adaptation, directed by Ron Howard, is surprisingly engaging, even for those who care little about racing. It also proves that Chris Hemsworth can do far more on screen than swing around Thor’s hammer.

Dakota Skye (2008)
Dakota is a recent HS graduate who has a superpower: she not only knows when people lie to her but sees the truth as subtitles. This has its plusses and minuses. She meets a young man who never displays any subtitles. Is he some rare duck who really doesn’t lie, or is he her kryptonite: the one person on whom her powers don’t work? She suspects the latter when she catches him in an apparent lie. This throws her since she never had to deal with uncertainty before. She breaks up with him over it. Things complicate further when she later discovers that from his perspective he might have told the truth. I would have opted for another resolution to the plot, but nonetheless the movie isn’t bad.

Well, more than one of us has been tripped up by the often subjective nature of truth, as those who point thumbs a different direction on any of these flicks can attest.


  1. Thanks for the reviews. I've only heard of a few of these. I was curious about "Enders Game". I read the book a few years a ago and really enjoyed it. I figured a good movie could be made from it, but after I heard about the development hell it had gone through I was a little wary.

    "Rush" looked really good. Ron Howard usually makes very entertaining film. I'm not a fan of racing, but the trailers made this one look like a solid pick.

    "Bound" is a blast. I haven't seen it in years, but I remember really enjoying it. Watching it now, could you tell it was made by the same directors who tackled "The Matrix" trilogy and "Speed Racer"?

    1. "Ender's Game" easily could have been a disaster, but it came off quite well.

      I hadn't paid attention to the credits on "Bound" actually, and didn't notice the directors. Thanks for mentioning it. I wouldn't have guessed, but I can see some parallels in the villains.

      Several of these are of the modest budget indie type, but none is a waste of time.