Justin Ellis (Portland Press Herald) & I on the new releases for 2/9/10

Have the Coen brothers driven a wedge between Justin and Videoport Jones? Whither Vince Vaugn and John Favreau after “Couples Retreat?” Would “The Time Traveler’s Wife” be better with Rachael McAdams chain whipping lizard zombie men? In this week’s rundown of new DVDs, all will be revealed.

A Serious Man

Videoport Jones: “When you work at Videoport, you watch a lot of movies. (‘Duh,’ I hear you saying – fair enough.) And you watch a lot of movies on your lunch hour at work. Usually, I’ll pick a nice goofy comedy, you know, something light and fun while I’m munching away and recharging the batteries before I hit the sales floor again, all chipper and smiley. Well, sometimes there’s no ‘Anchorman’ coming out next week, and I’ll be foreced to preview something a little more challenging, a little darker. That’s usually a mistake. Coworkers probably remember how I finished ‘Synecdoche, NY’ on a break one day, and spent the next half hour in a useless daze, mind clouded by a debilitating melange of depression, confusion, and awe. Well, I just made the same mistake. ‘A Serious Man’ is the new Coen Brothers movie, and I just couldn’t help myself; I love the Coen Brothers. I love their singular oddness, their visual virtuosity, their underlying sneaky depth, and their obvious intelligence. Plus The Dude, of course. Well, I liked this movie a lot, but… I wasn’t the most productive guy in the store when I finished watching it. ‘A Serious Man’ is the story of Larry Gopnik (an excellent performance by Broadway vet Michael Stuhlbarg), a decent, largely-harmless Jewish Math professor in late 1960s Minnesota who, in the course of a few weeks, watches in bewildered helplessness as his marriage, his family, his career, and his faith all collapse around him, while he races around desperately trying to understand why he is being subjected to Job-level adversity. Obviously a very personal movie for the Coens, this movie is almost assured to alienate all but their staunchest supporters. Hell, I’m one of them, and I walked around unable to complete a sentence for a while. It’s like the Coen boys decided to take all of the difficult, mysterious elements of their work and leave behind all of the crowd-pleasing ones, in order to go deeper inside their usual personal obsessions; none of their usual, audience-friendly stable of regulars appears (no Buscemi, no Goodman, no Turturro, not even Jon Polito), and while there are some trademark Coen Brothers virtuoso sequences – a stoned bar mitzvah, a couple of oddball dream sequences [which take shocking turns], a crazy fable about ‘the goy’s teeth,’ the stunning, spooky flashback opening scene – they are more disorienting and unsettling than outright funny. And, for those (completely incorrect and unimaginative) people who thought the ending to ‘No Country for Old Men’ was inconclusive and unsatsfying, well, they’ve got a present for you here. ‘A Serious Man’ is a weird, sad, unsettling, mysteriously-moving film that’s sure to bum you out and make you queasy. Enjoy!”

Justin: “I should, in theory, like this film. For some perverse reason I have always enjoyed a retelling of the story of Job (or, in the case of Arrested Development, the character of the same name. That’s similar, right?). Biblical resonance and spiritual meaning aside, there is something about a person getting continually crapped on by the universe and trying to endure that, to me at least,  seems supremely watchable. Maybe it’s morose, but maybe not. It takes a good screenwriter to come up with a sympathetic character and then tear them apart in a believable way. The other reason I should dig this movie? It’s all Minnesota baby. The film takes place in my hometown and was shot around the suburbs of Minneapolis, which would make for a fantastic guessing game of scenery and locations. But here’s why I won’t watch this, or at least, not right away: I HATED ‘No Country for Old Men.’ I hated it like no other movie I have ever seen. Jonesy, buddy, it wasn’t the end I thought that was inconclusive and unsatisfying…it was the whole enterprise. Look, I liked Anton Chigurh. I liked the idea of this unstoppable, unreasonable, murderous force that just keeps coming. I also dug Tommy Lee Jones as the sheriff who has seen it all. But as a whole the movie just seemed kind of erratic and not in a good way. I may be prejudiced against the Coens now, but that probably won’t be the case forever. After all, they did give us The Dude as well as two of my favorites, ‘Miller’s Crossing’ and ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ They can’t be all that bad.”

The Time Traveler’s Wife

VPJ: “Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams play a pair of tragic lovers. See, he’s got some sort of malady which causes him to get all Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, and she, well, doesn’t. I, um, didn’t see this. I’m one of those…um…boys I think they’re called. My lovely wife, when asked for her female cred insight on the subject said that she thought there had been some sort of controversy in that the film used the American rather than the British spelling of the word ‘Traveler’ on the poster. Which was interesting, if not particularly helpful to me. Um, Eric Bana is more fun generally than the garden-variety hunky-hunk (see ‘Funny People’), maybe because he’s Australian, and therefore at least half bananas. And McAdams is adorably-sane, pretty, and talented (see the Canadian series ‘Slings and Arrows,’ Season 1), although here, as in ‘The Notebook,’ she is in danger of being ossified into ‘longing look, teary-eyed girl’ mode. Let’s see…according to the IMDb, Bana had already shaved his head for ‘Star Trek’ when he was needed for reshoots (never a good sign). Instead of trying to wig him up, the filmmakers waited for his lettuce to grow back in, causing the film’s release date to be pushed back by almost a year. Again, interesting but not helpful. What can I say, I’m not watching this…”

JE: “And THAT sir, is why we are friends and a power duo, because I admire your commitment to your principles. Unless Eric Bana drives a motorcycle through something or Rachel McAdams chain whips a horde of zombies into submission, then I am not buying the ticket. If you were to pitch this just on the title to most guys, I feel like the response would be, ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot.’ I’m imagining a combination of ‘Time Cop’ and ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ where McAdams races through time and space to save Bana from a race of lizard zombie men hellbent on wiping humanity out of history. ‘Their love spanned centuries, but now their out of time! McAdams! Bana! THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE!!’ Something like that and I’d probably crack a few beers and watch it. As is, I gots no need for this sci fi chick flick. And, as I have been told by those who have read Audrey Niffenegger’s book (such as the NXT Gal), the film has to cut a few corners from the book in order to come in under 2 hours. In the meantime I’ll get working on the screenplay. I think James Cameron is going to want to hear about this.”

Bronson

VPJ: “At the risk of being used as a pull quote for the blu-ray release, ‘Bronson’ is like a cinematic head butt. The story of a real-life, lifelong British prisoner (who renamed himself after movie tough guy Charles Bronson), this is a biopic unlike any other. Oh wait, I lied – it’s very much like the Australian film ‘Chopper’ (starring an unrecognizably-gross Eric Bana), which also presents a brutal, controversial portrait of a real, living career criminal whose hairtrigger violence is matched only by his undeniable charisma. And like ‘Chopper,’ ‘Bronson’ can boast a career-making performance from its lead, in this case Brit journeyman Tom Hardy who is absolutely mesmerizing and terrifying. Weirdly enough, he, like Bana also played a villain in a ‘Star Trek’ movie, which may mean he’ll be starring in a drippy romantic chick flick I’ll never see in the near future…”

JE: “I admire his passion for the movie greats. Personally I would have changed my name to Lee Marvin, who, the record shows, was also a undeniable wrecking machine in his films. You’ve got to be in the right mindset to sit down with this one, a mindset that lies somewhere between watching an early Darren Arnofsky film and major dental surgery. Which is all to say, not very pleasant company. Movies like this and ‘Chopper’ aren’t about a lesson or some telling fact about humanity’s true nature. No. They are, as you so aptly put it, ‘a cinematic head butt.’ Brutal, unexpected and never easy to recover from. My best to Tom Hardy, but maybe we should do him a favor and not mention his turn as a Star Trek villain in a movie that put the franchise on ice. And, for his sake, no romantic films. We’ve seen what it’s done to Bana and Gerald Butler. Keep head buttin’ kid.”

Couples Retreat

VPJ: “Vince Vaughn and John Favreau co-star again in this would-be wacky comedy about a collection of couples heading for a …retreat, in order to save their relationships. Sadly, unlike the two previous major Favreau/Vaughn collaborations (the sublime ‘Swingers’ and the not-bad-at-all ‘Made’) this one’s a real letdown. It’s pretty broad and ordinary and, while there are some funny fellas like Jason Bateman, Faizon Love, and Jean Reno (sorry, but the ladies don’t make much of an impression) along for the sunshine and weiner jokes, this one really didn’t do a lot for me. It’s actually a little shocking how smartly-funny guys like Favreau and Vaughn (who co-wrote this one) run right to the obvious here (their few scenes of seemingly-improvised joshing together have some of that ‘Swingers’ snap, but they’re the exception). And, it’s even more shocking how the finale hinges on a video game competition that’s as transparent a piece of product placement as I’ve seen since, well, last week’s snack cake-centric abomination in ‘Zombieland.’ Seriously, studios, at least try to disguise your evil…”

JE: “Jonesy you seem to assume that the studios care what we, or really, the public thinks. Since they’ve already got you in the seats they may as well throw some snack cakes and Miller Light at your face to make you hungry! I’d really hate to think we’re getting diminishing returns from Favs and Vaughn, but the record does not help them. Vaughn – ‘Four Christmases,’ ‘Fred Claus’ and ‘Wedding Crashers.’ Favs fares better with a decent show in ‘I Love You Man’ and you know, directing freakin’ ‘Iron Man’ (though he did co-star with Vaugh in ‘Four Christmases’). Still, is it wrong to expect more out of them after they gave us ‘Swingers’ and ‘Made?’ Is it wrong to expect more out of them when they got Bateman in the cast? This sounds like the plot to a hilariously bad 80s movie starring Michael Keaton, Lea Thompson, Adrian Zemed and Rosanna Arquette. If ‘Retreat’ was played for cheese, a spoof on romantic comedies, then I’d be all in. As it is this seems like a middling half attempt. Are we supposed to feel anything for these couples? Are the dick jokes supposed to be sustained laughs? Who knows? Vince and John are quickly running out of favors. By the way, I could sure go for a delicious Miller High Life and an Awesome Blossom from Chili’s, couldn’t you old friend?”

The Stepfather

VPJ: “In lieu of reviewing this tepid, unnecessary, and willfully-stupid horror remake, I would like to present a never-before-published review of the vastly-superior 1987 original which I’ll pretend that I have just unearthed: ‘Man, this Terry O’Quinn fella is somethin’ else! As the seemingly-boring titular serial killer, O’Quinn brings a menacing charisma to his portrait of a guy driven to quest for the perfect surrogate family, only to find that each collection of kids and (dim) new wife don’t measure up to his Reagan-era standards of conduct and therefore require ‘correction.’ Seriously, the guy’s terrific; I envision him, say twenty years from now, being the fan-favorite standout of an overrated but wildly-popular sci fi TV show, maybe one about some sort of island. I’m just guessin’. Anyway, thank goodness Hollywood is finally showing signs that its habit of remaking already perfectly-acceptable movies with bland, audience-friendly, dumbed-down simulacra is over. Man, I’d hate to have to try and find interesting things to say about something like that. Oh, and by then, I bet we’ll finally have a black president and the Red Sox will have won two World Series.’ Wow…uncanny.”

JE: “That was chilling. You have a real gift my friend. You were spot on, like that Dead Zone guy, minus the crazy hair cut. And the desire to kill Martin Sheen. In fact, you have a reasonable liking for Ma Sheen. ANYWAY, let us reiterate a point we make far too often around these parts: Skip the remake, head for the original. Sure this one is new to you and may seem like a good idea. If, for instance, you were BORN in 1987, then you’ve got no idea the original exists. But please, do yourself a favor and stick with the first generation. Just because the remake has the same elements, creepy stepdad, ideal suburban home, suspicious kid and a pile of bodies does not make it a good movie. Do you really want something that copies an original work, or would you rather have the real deal? Plus, studies show you can’t beat Terry O’Quinn. Seriously, you just can’t.”

Lightening Round! And the rest: The Sarah Silverman Program – Season 2 (The potty-mouthed cutie-pie comedian Silverman is back, charming and offending in equal measure), Hurricane Season (Forrest Whittaker stars in this true story of a high school basketball coach in post-Katrina New Orleans who tries to take a rag-tag team of students displaced by the disaster to the state championship), XIII: The Conspiracy (Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer try to rejuvenate their careers in this thriller miniseries about the assassination of the first female US president; sadly for them, I hadn’t heard of this one before today…), Serious Moonlight (This dark comedy was the last script by the late Adrienne Shelley [“Waitress”] about a wife [Meg Ryan] who duct tapes her adulterous husband [Timothy Hutton] to a toilet when she finds out he’s leaving her).

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Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 12:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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