Between the glut of year-end theatrical releases and seasonal vacation time, it's been a while since any couch-(re)viewing has taken place. Here, then, is the Catch-Up Edition, a look at several titles that have been released over the course of the past month.
BRIDESHEAD REVISITED (2008). Think of this film version as instant coffee: If you don't have time to savor the 300-plus pages of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel or all 11 hours of the 1981 British miniseries, then a quick gulp of this 135-minute adaptation might suffice. Roughly set between the two world wars, the story finds middle-class Brit Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) getting involved with the members of the aristocratic Flyte family. At college, he's befriended by the rowdy dandy Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), who takes him to his family's palatial estate, Brideshead. There, Charles meets Sebastian's sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), and soon he realizes that he's more comfortable with hetero- rather than homosexual love. Sebastian is heartbroken, while the siblings' control-freak mother, the devoutly Catholic Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), doesn't consider Charles a proper suitor for her daughter, given the fact that he's an atheist. Although the film is choppy, the meat-and-potatoes portion of Waugh's work – the role of religion in a person's life – remains intact, leading to weighty conflicts seldom seen in modern movies.
DVD extras include audio commentary by director Julian Jarrold, producer Kevin Loader and scripter Jeremy Brock; seven deleted scenes; and a 20-minute making-of piece.
BURN AFTER READING (2008). In the latest effort from Joel and Ethan Coen – a pitch-black comedy eccentric enough to divide viewers – the memoirs of a recently fired CIA wonk (John Malkovich) accidentally fall into the hands of a pair of idiotic gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand); their awkward attempts at blackmail produce a vortex of misunderstandings that also ensnares the ex-CIA suit's aloof wife (Tilda Swinton) and her lover (George Clooney), a bundle of energy who enjoys jogging, womanizing and building stuff in his basement. The three guys are more fun to watch than the two gals, although the film is stolen by J.K. Simmons (Juno's dad) as a thoroughly confused CIA bigwig. Still, while the picture offers strikingly off-kilter characterizations and a number of huge guffaws, it won't remain in the memory like most of the siblings' output. See Burn After Reading, but then expect to Forget After Seeing.
DVD extras include two making-of shorts totaling 18 minutes and a brief piece on Clooney.
DEATH RACE (2008). Look, there's nothing wrong with producing cinematic trash as long as it delivers, but Death Race, like most of director Paul W.S. Anderson's pictures, is about as much fun as having two flat tires during rush hour traffic. Yet it's not like Anderson didn't start with a reasonably sturdy foundation: The original film, 1975's Death Race 2000, is trashy fun, a campy Roger Corman satire with David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone as rival drivers in a nationally broadcast sport where the purpose is to run over as many people as possible. In typical Corman fashion, this cult item even made some sociopolitical statements amid all the carnage; this Race, on the other hand, is merely junky and obnoxious. Jason Statham plays Jensen Ames, a working joe who's falsely accused of murdering his wife and sent to a maximum-security prison, where the best drivers compete for their freedom in a three-day demolition derby that's televised to over 50 million Americans. On the track, Jensen's arch-nemesis is Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson); off the track, it's the sadistic Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen, WTF?).
The unrated DVD edition also includes the theatrical cut of the film. Other features include audio commentary by Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt; a 20-minute making-of piece; and a featurette on the stunts.
THE EXPRESS (2008). Most sports biopics adhere so much to rigid formula that they rarely allow their subjects to breathe. There's a sameness to these films, as their characters' triumphs and travails can be predicted at every turn. Like most real-life sports stories co-opted by major studios (The Rookie, Miracle, Remember the Titans), The Express strips the achievements of any individuality or historical worth and renders them all part of the same gumbo of sticky clichés. Here, the sanitized story is that of Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), who became the first African-American player to win college football's Heisman Trophy, only to helplessly stand by as personal tragedy derailed his plans to become an NFL superstar opposite his idol, Cleveland Browns legend Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson). It's a heartrending tale worthy of the Greek gods, yet here it's been robbed of its vibrancy, and as blandly and beatifically played by Brown, the character never registers as anything more than a walking sliver of American history.
DVD extras include audio commentary by director Gary Fleder; three deleted scenes; a 14-minute making-of piece; and two shorts on Ernie Davis.
HENRY POOLE IS HERE (2008). Faith-based movies are a rarity, so it's nice to see sincere religious overtones in a film that flies in the face of typical mainstream fare which generally paints all Christians as close-minded, intolerant rubes. Of course, considering there were enough of these hypocritical dimwits populating the country to put the "born-again" Bush into office twice, you can't really blame Hollywood for its own myopia, but still, the gesture is appreciated. Luke Wilson plays Henry, a dying man who moves into a shabby suburban house with the intention of spending his final days there. But a nosy neighbor (Adriana Barraza) changes all that after she insists that the water stain on his house is actually the face of Christ; soon, unexplained "miracles" begin occurring to those who touch the wall. Henry Poole Is Here is initially interesting in its ambiguity, but once the mystery surrounding the water mark dissipates, the film begins to bark at viewers like a tent-revival evangelist, and sober discussions give way to a clumsily handled finale that doesn't stand a prayer of satisfying most discerning viewers.
DVD extras include audio commentary by director Mark Pellington and writer Albert Torres; a 16-minute making-of piece; and two music videos.
SWING VOTE (2008). There's a terrific segment in the middle of Swing Vote in which the two men running for U.S. president, Republican incumbent Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), are persuaded by their campaign managers (Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane, respectively) to do anything to win the favor of Texico, N.M., resident Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner), whose single vote will decide the outcome of the election. The resultant bits are funny, biting and provocative, and they demonstrate that this had an opportunity to emerge as a scathing political satire rather than a timid political comedy. But the central thrust isn't the election as much as it's the bonding between Bud and his mature-beyond-her-years daughter (Madeline Carroll), and we see this type of sentimental film just about every month. We're here to watch the electoral process receive a sharp kick in the pants, but Swing Vote isn't inspirational as much as it's simply afraid to take a stand on anything. Given this narrative trajectory, the film ends just as we suspect it would, not with a bang but with a wimp-out.
DVD extras include audio commentary by writer-director Joshua Michael Stern and co-writer Jason Richman; 10 minutes of deleted and extended scenes; a 13-minute making-of piece; and a musical performance by Costner's band Modern West (the group also appears in the movie).
TRAITOR (2008). Don Cheadle (who also co-produced) stars as Samir Horn, a Muslim-American arms dealer who becomes mixed up with a fanatical Middle Eastern outfit plotting the usual death and destruction against American civilians. With his quick-tempered partner (Neal McDonough) in tow, FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) chases Samir across the globe with all the zeal of Inspector Javert hoofing it after Jean Valjean, not realizing there's more to his quarry than meets the eye. Operating from a story he co-wrote with Steve Martin, director Jeffrey Nachmanoff works hard to present Samir as what most Americans will consider that most outrageous of characters: a sympathetic terrorist. It's a risky approach aided by Cheadle's understated performance, but it's rendered null and void by a twist that largely turns this into a standard thriller. Still, the film is overall more thoughtful than jingoistic, even if it does little to advance audience understanding of the War on Terror and its multi-tentacled morality plays.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Cheadle and Nachmanoff, and featurettes on the stunts, special effects and locations.