Video Verdict: ‘Invention of Lying,’ ‘Gamer,’ ‘Whiteout,’ ‘Pandorum’

Gerard Butler doesn’t like the fact that he’s being controlled by a teenage video game nerd in the science-fiction action movie “Gamer.”

Sadly, this week’s major home video releases are all second-tier, but the best of the batch is an offbeat comedy that has comedian Ricky Gervais’ fingerprints all over it.

 

The Invention of Lying
2½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for language, including some sexual material and a drug reference
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Ricky Gervais is a talented and insightful entertainer, and he puts the depths of his abilities on display in “The Invention of Lying,” a film he not only stars in but that he co-wrote and co-directed with Matthew Robinson. In many ways, Gervais’ triple-threat performance is impressive, but the overall project suffers from a script that doesn’t hit the mark.

Gervais and Robinson introduce viewers to a world where nobody has ever told a lie, a concept that has promise. Because nobody lies – ever – the entire planet is set on its ear when an average man named Mark Bellison (Gervais) discovers the ability to fib. At first, he starts with simple things, like telling a bank employee that he has more money in his account than he actually does. The bank’s computer system catches the falsehood, but the employee believes Mark because nobody would ever make anything up.

Although Mark starts his lying spree by stealing, he’s not a bad guy, and he begins to use his newfound power for good, like helping the homeless and a suicidal co-worker. Things really get crazy, however, when he tells his mother – on her deathbed – that he knows the afterlife is a wonderful place where everyone lives in mansions and is eternally happy. Not long after, Mark is an international celebrity.

“The Invention of Lying” is at its best when exploring complex ideas, including the notion that untruths can actually make the world a better place. Where the movie struggles is in its early depictions of Mark’s world. Gervais and Robinson seem to think that the inability to lie would cause everyone to bleat out their ongoing inner dialogues, no matter how inappropriate they might seem. For instance, when Mark picks up a beautiful woman named Anna (Jennifer Garner) for a date, she starts by telling him that she just finished pleasuring herself. While this isn’t a lie, one can’t help but wonder why she would introduce herself in such an oddball fashion. This is just one example of many awkward moments where characters volunteer information that is played for laughs but undermines the believability of the characters and the way they live.

In fairness to Gervais and Robinson, it is possible that a world without lies might result in people spouting their innermost secrets without provocation. Somehow I doubt it, but it’s impossible to say because we’ve lived with lies for an eternity.

DVD extras include additional scenes, a making-of featurette and video podcasts with Gervais and co-writer and co-director Matthew Robinson.

 

 

Gamer
2 stars
Rated R for frenetic sequences of strong brutal violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and language
Lionsgate
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

In “Gamer,” writers-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor imagine a future where elite video game players are given the ability to remotely control actual human beings in a war game known as “Slayers.” Although people actually live and die in the contest, it’s legal because the human puppets are death row inmates lured to the competition with the promise of freedom … if they survive 30 matches. Each battle is aired live on TV, making “Slayers” both a high-stakes video game and popular reality show.

Only one puppet, a rugged fellow named Kable (Gerard Butler), has gotten close to surviving 30 matches, and when the movie begins he is just a few games from freedom. Trouble is, Kable knows the contest is rigged, so he devises a plan to break free from his gamer and control of his own body with the help of underground activists who distrust the motives of game’s creator, businessman Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall).

The concept of “Gamer” is interesting and there might have been a good film here if the execution had been better. As is, the filmmakers place too much emphasis on action and too little on storytelling. One of the biggest problems is that Neveldine and Taylor never fully explain how much control gamers have over their puppets. Clearly, viewers are supposed to believe Kable is nearly superhuman and that his long-time survival in the game is partially dependent on his own skill, but this seems contrary to the setup.

Despite its problems, “Gamer” works on a primal level, meaning folks who love explosive action sequences will find things to enjoy. Viewers who demand more from their science fiction will do well to seek out better recent efforts such as “District 9” and “Moon.”

DVD extras include a making-of documentary and an audio commentary with writers-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor and some of the cast.

 

 

Whiteout
2½ stars
Rated R for violence, grisly images, brief strong language and some nudity
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

The first sequence in director Dominic Sena’s “Whiteout” is an intense bit that depicts a running gun battle aboard a Russian prop plane flying over Antarctica. It is fast paced, well staged and leaves viewers wanting more. Then, the project stalls.

Although the plane plays a key role in the plot, the scenes that follow never reach the same level of intensity. Instead, we get a staid procedural focused on U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale), a smart peace officer who requested her post in frigid Antarctica after a harrowing experience on the mainland U.S. Although Carrie was looking to minimize the intrigue in her job, she finds herself back in action when a dead body is discovered in a remote area. A quick inspection makes it clear that the man was murdered, leaving Carrie with the unfortunate realization that someone residing at the research station she calls home is likely a murderer.

Bound by duty, Carrie plods forward with an investigation that grows increasingly complicated after she discovers another dead body and is nearly killed by a man wielding an ice axe. Due to the gravity of the situation, the U.N. sends an operative (Gabriel Macht) to the scene, and he helps Carrie try to unravel the mystery.

Much of “Whiteout” revolves around the harsh environment that the characters find themselves in, and while this is interesting, it grows tiresome. Had Sena captured the urgency of his initial action sequence in the body of the movie, “Whiteout” might have been a winner. As is, there aren’t enough solid moments to merit a recommendation.

DVD extras include additional scenes.

 

 

Pandorum
2 stars
Rated R for strong horror violence and language
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Almost every scene in “Pandorum” takes place in darkness, a filmmaking choice that creates a wonderful sense of foreboding but also makes action sequences difficult to follow, particularly since director Christian Alvart favors choppy, fast-moving edits.

The movie tells the story of two astronauts, Bower (Ben Foster) and Payton (Dennis Quaid), who wake up from an extended hyper-sleep to find the large transport they occupy overrun by mysterious and dangerous creatures. As if their situation isn’t already terrifying enough, each man is suffering from memory loss because of their extended sleep. So, as they do their best to figure out why their vessel is inhabited by bloodthirsty creatures, their minds slowly and steadily rebuild, and they don’t always like what they remember.

“Pandorum” moves relatively quickly and is creepy throughout, but it’s also heavy on foreshadowing. Because of this, the third-act twist isn’t nearly as shocking as it should be. Also, a couple characters that Foster and Quaid interact with don’t ring true. Particularly disturbing is a female crew member named Nadia (Antje Traue). When Bower first meets her, she is an animalistic wild woman, presumably because she has programmed herself to survive in the ship’s hostile environment. Within minutes of meeting Bower, however, her persona shifts to that of a highly intelligent and well-adjusted scientist. The inexplicable change in personality, can be described like much of the movie: forced.

DVD extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette, still galleries, deleted and alternate scenes and a commentary with director Christian Alvart and producer Jeremy Bolt.

 

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Smokin’ Aces 2 — Assassins’ Ball”: Direct-to-video sequel to the 2006 drama “Smokin’ Aces.” The action centers on a group of hired killers competing to win a bounty placed on an FBI agent. Tom Berenger, Ernie Hudson, Vinnie Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Autumn Reeser star.

“Che”: Steven Soderberg film based on the life of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. This Criterion Collection release is presented in two parts, the first exploring the dynamics of the Cuban Revolution and the second focused on Guevara’s unsuccessful campaign in Bolivia. Benicio Del Toro plays the title role and Julia Ormond, Benjamin Benitez, Armando Riesco, and Lou Diamond Phillips also star.

“Chevolution”: Although it wasn’t designed as a companion piece, this 2008 documentary could play well alongside “Che.” The premise came from photographer Alberto Korda’s famous 1960 image of Guevara, which became an international symbol of dissent. The documentary looks at Guevara’s status as an icon, and it features interviews with his followers and enemies.

“Across The Hall”: This thriller is one of recently deceased actress Brittany Murphy’s final projects. She plays an unfaithful woman whose fiancé, Terry (Danny Pino), follows her to a dive hotel where she meets up with a lover. Agitated, intoxicated and armed with a gun, Terry is staked out across the hall and ready to take action.

“Blood Creek”: Horror film about two brothers (Dominic Purcell and Henry Cavill) who seek revenge against people involved in an occult experiment that dates back to Hitler’s Third Reich. Directed by Joel Schumacher.

“Weeds” — Season Five: The continuing adventures of Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), a suburban single mom who starts a home-based pot-selling operation to support her family. During season five, business is good and she expands into countries south of the border. Craziness ensues as she develops a relationship with a high-powered politician-turned-drug-lord.

“thirtysomething” — The Complete Second Season: Five-disc set including all 17 episodes from the second season of this late-1980s suburban drama. The show focuses on seven characters and their struggles with relationships, illness and more. Timothy Busfield, Polly Draper, Mel Harris, Peter Horton, Melanie Mayron, Ken Olin, and Patricia Wettig star.

“Fraggle Rock” — The Complete Animated Series: This Saturday morning cartoon aired from 1987 to 1988, and all 13 episodes are presented on two discs.

“girlfriends” — The Final Season: The last 13 episodes of The CW series exploring the relationships of three sophisticated black women living in Los Angeles. Storylines tackle universal issues facing people of both sexes.

“Dallas” — The Complete Twelfth Season: Prime time soap opera centered on the Ewings, a wealthy Texas oil family. Scheming J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) is, of course, at the center of the drama. The cast also includes Linda Gray, Patrick Duffy, Charlene Tilton, Steve Kanaly and Barbara Bel Geddes.

 

 

Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at Forrest@ForrestHartman.com

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