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Homicide, Easy Virtue among new DVD reviews

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AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981). Writer-director John Landis' tongue-in-bloody-cheek horror yarn is considered in some circles to be one of the best werewolf films ever made, yet truth be told, it's not even the best werewolf film of 1981. That honor belongs to Joe Dante's The Howling, with American Werewolf battling Wolfen, the year's third lycanthrope flick, for runner-up honors. Still, until it derails at the end, Landis' piece does a nice job of mixing its horror with humor. Yankee tourists David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are backpacking across the English moors when they're attacked by a frightful man-beast; Jack is killed, but David is only injured and shipped off to London to recuperate. A lovely nurse (Jenny Agutter) takes him under her wing, but David begins to doubt his own sanity after he's confronted by a decomposing Jack, who informs his friend that he'll turn into a werewolf during the next full moon. Landis goes with the flow here, referencing classic wolfman flicks through the dialogue, cramming the soundtrack with appropriately titled oldies ("Blue Moon," "Bad Moon Rising"), and even taking some good-natured digs at English mores and manners. Unfortunately, he runs out of steam just before the finish line, as the film ends with the sort of chaos (crashing cars, falling bodies) that was appropriate in the director's previous hits (National Lampoon's Animal House and The Blues Brothers) but proves to be embarrassing and insufficient here. For his excellent work, Rick Baker won the Best Makeup Oscar in its first year as an annual (rather than occasional) award.

Extras in the two-disc DVD edition include audio commentary by Naughton and Dunne; a retrospective documentary that runs 98 minutes (the same length as the film itself); a vintage making-of featurette; an interview with Landis; two interviews with Baker; and three minutes of outtakes.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***1/2

EASY VIRTUE (2009). Alfred Hitchcock directed a silent version of the Noel Coward play Easy Virtue back in 1927, which is sort of amusing given that Coward's works are known for their verbal wit and audio elegance – factors that hardly benefit from the employment of title cards. Director Stephan Elliott's new version finds the characters speaking loud and clear, only what's being heard isn't always unfiltered Coward. Elliott has poked and prodded the original source material, resulting in a picture that suffers from a clear identity crisis. Set in the 1920s, the film stars Jessica Biel as Larita, an American race car driver who has just married dashing young Brit John Whitaker (Ben Barnes, Narnia's Prince Caspian). Larita travels to his English estate to meet his family, and that's when the familial fireworks begin. John's snooty mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) loathes Larita, and his two sisters (Kimberly Nixon and Katherine Parkinson) eventually follow suit; only John's dad (Colin Firth), a sarcastic layabout still shell-shocked from his experience during the Great War, has Larita's back. Easy Virtue is a charming period piece that benefits from several prickly scenes as well as fine acting by the British thespians – I especially enjoyed Kris Marshall as the all-seeing butler who takes everything in stride. But it's Elliott's attempts at modernizing the material that end up sabotaging the project. Biel is crucially miscast in the central role, and while the use of contemporary music in period pieces has worked in the past (Moulin Rouge, A Knight's Tale), Elliott's drafting of comparatively newer tunes ("Car Wash," "Sex Bomb") among vintage hits feels tentative and never gels with the rest of the soundtrack. In the end, the frothy Easy Virtue is easy to like but hard to wholly recommend.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Elliott and writer Sheridan Jobbins; four deleted scenes; a blooper reel; and footage from the film's New York premiere.

Movie: **1/2

Extras: **1/2

GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST (2009). Ghosts of Girlfriends Past has more to offer than Matthew McConaughey's previous rom-com dalliances – it's still formulaic, disposable nonsense, but at least it benefits from a stellar supporting cast to prop up its leading player and a reliable source (Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol) to steer it in the right direction. McConaughey plays Connor Mead, a fashion photographer who goes through women the way viewers of Titanic went through tissues. His boorish behavior threatens to ruin the wedding of his younger brother (Breckin Meyer), but his womanizing Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas) returns from the grave to show him there's more to life than just wooing the ladies. A more versatile actor would have sold this material more efficiently than McConaughey; as it stands, his tanned, aging-frat-boy routine allows his character to remain such an unrepentant, misogynistic creep for such a good chunk of the running time that almost all sympathy has been lost for this character by the time he finally begins to see the light. Luckily, Jennifer Garner, as the woman he lost and hopes to regain, is a step (or 10) up from such vapid past co-stars as Kate Hudson and Jennifer Lopez, and she works hard to coax out his rakish charm. She succeeds more often than not, meaning a small measure of genuine warmth enters the frame during the latter portion of the film. While she (and Meyer) provide the emotion, others pick up McConaughey's slack by providing the laughs – especially indispensable are Robert Forster (as the father of the bride) and Douglas, both amusing as dissimilar examples of aging, curdled machismo.

There are no extras on the DVD.

Movie: **1/2

Extras: *

HOMICIDE (1991). Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet has written his fair share of terrific scripts for the big screen (The Untouchables and The Verdict among them), but more often than not, these screenplays are placed under the auspices of other directors. In the smaller pool of films on which he has served as both writer and director, the criminally underrated Homicide is arguably the best, with Joe Mantegna offering up his finest screen performance in the service of a police procedural-cum-character study that really gets under the skin. Mantegna stars as Bobby Gold, a hardworking cop respected by his colleagues and known for his special skills as a negotiator. Gold's Jewish, but to say that he's a nonpracticing Jew would be putting it mildly: His only religion is his job, and when he's pulled off a high-profile case – the search for a vicious drug dealer (Ving Rhames) – to investigate the murder of an elderly Jewish shopkeeper in an African-American community, he becomes quite irritated, more so when he finds out that the victim's wealthy, upper-crust relatives pulled some strings to further involve him. The relatives claim that the woman was not merely a victim of a neighborhood holdup but rather the focus of anti-Semitic activities; they insist that they're the next targets, and while Gold initially dismisses this as paranoia, he soon starts to wonder if a conspiracy might really exist. And as he delves further into the mystery, he's forced to confront his own feelings concerning his heritage and even his place in a society that's all too often prejudiced against his kind. Mamet's patented brand of rapid-fire dialogue is in full bloom here – and Mantegna and William H. Macy (as Gold's dedicated partner) especially make the most of it – but the issues being addressed are far more weighty and thought-provoking than those found in his other films in the director's chair. Yet even here, he doesn't completely abandon his elaborate smoke'n'mirrors plotting: It isn't until after Homicide is over that you realize just how far he led you in the wrong direction.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Mamet and Macy; new interviews with five recurring Mamet actors, including Mantegna and Ricky Jay (who has a small role in Homicide); and a gag reel.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: **1/2

OBSERVE AND REPORT (2009). In his sophomore effort (following The Foot Fist Way), N.C. writer-director Jody Hill valiantly tries to combine the twisted trappings of a black comedy with the more accepted slapstick shenanigans of a mainstream outing. Terry Zwigoff largely pulled off this difficult synchronization with Bad Santa, but Hill never locates the proper balance that would make this more than just a hit-and-miss curio. Seth Rogen plays Paul Blart – excuse me, Ronnie Barnhardt, a schlub who takes great pride in his work as the head of mall security. Ronnie is a disturbed individual, but he's largely oblivious to his own inner demons – he's too busy lusting after a makeup counter tart (Anna Faris), attempting to apprehend a flasher who's been terrorizing the mall, and engaging in a war of words with a real detective (Ray Liotta). Much of Observe and Report is aimless and lackadaisical – a whole burglary subplot could easily have been dropped without affecting the overall product – yet the script's biggest problem rests with its decidedly non-PC content. There's nothing wrong with ruffling a few feathers here and there – a little vulgarity is good for the soul, as Mel Brooks used to prove on a regular basis – but the material needs to be funny as well as potentially shocking, and almost none of the film's targets are skewered in a fashion guaranteed to elicit laughs. The exception is the rampant male nudity seen during the bloody climax; I won't ruin it here, but let's just say this might mark the only time that a movie manages to go limp and out with a bang at the same time.

There are no extras on the DVD.

Movie: **

Extras: *

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