The first week of the new year is bringing several noteworthy films to home video, including two horror flicks, a mainstream comedy and a Robert Rodriguez action-thriller.
3 stars (out of four)
Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, language, some sexual content and nudity
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
Robert Rodriguez has never been a subtle director, but he has oodles of style, and all of it is on display in “Machete.” The film, which Rodriguez co-directed with Ethan Maniquis, is an expansion of a trailer that ran with the 2007 Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino team-up, “Grindhouse,” and it has plenty of visual flair.
To truly appreciate what Rodriguez has done, familiarity with low-budget action films helps. That’s true because “Machete” is as much a tribute to B movies as a stand-alone project.
The film stars Danny Trejo as Machete Cortez, a veteran Mexican Federale who is betrayed by his boss, then forced to watch as drug lord Rogelio Torrez (Steven Seagal) murders his wife. Although Torrez leaves him for dead, Machete survives, and audiences catch up with him three years later when he’s working as a day laborer in Texas.
Machete again finds himself in a tight spot when gangster Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) forces him to take part in an assassination attempt on a U.S. senator (Robert De Niro) known for his strict stance against illegal immigration. Although Machete doesn’t want any part of the deal, he winds up on the run both from Booth’s henchmen and American authorities.
“Machete” is just as campy and bloody as the low-budget films it mimics, but that’s the point. Rodriguez and Maniquis have delivered a modern exploitation flick, littered with gratuitous nudity and violence, yet more polished and artsy than the films it recalls.
Because of its grindhouse roots, “Machete” isn’t for everyone, but film buffs should appreciate it as an example of the good that can happen when a big-idea filmmaker sets his sites on low-budget material.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes and the ability to play the film with an audience-reaction soundtrack, better duplicating the grindhouse experience.
Dinner for Schmucks
Rated PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
When Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd) receives an invitation to his boss’ much-loved “dinner for winners,” it’s the career break he’s been looking for. Sadly, he learns that the dinner is actually a mean-spirited affair in which employees are expected to invite idiotic guests, so the boss man (Bruce Greenwood) can laugh at them.
Tim is reluctant to take part, but when he runs across a goofy IRS employee named Barry Speck (Steve Carell), he can’t help offering an invite. Although sweet-natured, Barry is remarkably naïve, and his favorite hobby is turning stuffed mice into works of art. Call it karma because Barry finds a way to throw Tim’s fragile relationship with his girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) into turmoil even before the dinner takes place.
“Dinner for Schmucks” is a broad, wide-open comedy that never feigns realism, and that works well with Carell’s style. Rudd plays the straight man throughout the film, and he instills Tim with enough soul to convince viewers to root for him … even when he’s doing the wrong thing.
The film’s gags are inconsistent, and that slows the pacing, but director Jay Roach (“Meet the Parents,” the “Austin Powers” films) had enough fun with the material – and his talented cast – to produce an enjoyable, lighthearted farce.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes, a gag reel and a making-of feature.
Rated R for violence and terror, including disturbing images
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
Although shot back in 2006, director Christian Alvart’s horror thriller “Case 39” didn’t make its way into American theaters until October 2010. Releasing the film close to Halloween made sense, as it’s a straightforward horror effort with the potential to attract viewers looking for holiday scares. In early January, it’s a less attractive proposition, especially since it fails to cash in on a promising start.
Renee Zellweger stars as Emily Jenkins, an overburdened social worker assigned to the case of Lilith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland), a young girl with seemingly abusive parents. As Emily investigates the case, she forms a tight bond with Lilith, but soon discovers that the girl has a terrible secret.
Zellweger is a winning actress, and she and Alvart set the stage for what appears to be an inventive and frightening thriller. Sadly, the picture takes a major turn in the second act, and the originality gives way to a contrived plot twist that horror fans have seen too many times.
It’s sad to watch “Case 39” unravel, as the talented Bradley Cooper is good in a supporting part, and a better script would have allowed insightful commentary on the role that social workers and parents play in society. Instead we get a trite supernatural thriller, minus the thrills.
DVD extras include deleted scenes and several short making-of features.
The Last Exorcism
Rated PG-13 for disturbing violent content and terror, some sexual references and thematic material
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand
With a title like “The Last Exorcism,” director Daniel Stamm’s faux documentary about a fallen Christian minister is sure to illicit thoughts of one of the greatest religious horror films ever: director William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.” After all, the images in that still-frightening, 1973 horror picture define many people’s visions of demonic possession.
It’s unfair, but such comparisons make it tough on new films. That Stamm’s movie is original enough to withstand that burden is saying a lot.
Shot entirely in documentary style, the film follows Christian minister Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) on what is to be his last exorcism. Cotton admits to the camera that his previous exorcisms have been frauds and that he thinks some practitioners have made the work dangerous. Because of that, he wants the film crew to expose him and, hopefully, prevent at least some future exorcism attempts.
The journey brings him to a Louisiana farmhouse owned by Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), a man convinced that his daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), is possessed by a demon. Cotton goes through the usual motions, educating Louis about demons and assuring the man that he can remove the one that’s plaguing his daughter. Meanwhile, he tells the film crew that possessions are always mental rather than spiritual.
When Cotton begins to minister to Nell, however, he finds himself in unusual territory, and the events he faces leave him and the film crew unnerved. Stamm does a terrific job maintaining the movie’s documentary feel, and his cast – Fabian in particular – sells the material with verve.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include a making-of feature, a bit about real exorcism stories and two audio commentaries (one featuring Stamm and several cast members and another with producers Eli Roth, Eric Newman and Tom Bliss).
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“Catfish”: Documentary in which filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost follow events in the life of Ariel’s brother, Nev. The film seems a perfect companion to the much-lauded drama “The Social Network” because it focuses on Nev’s budding online relationship with a woman he meets on Facebook. To reveal more would risk spoiling the film, but it’s safe to say “Catfish” asks viewers to rethink intimacy and relationships as they relate to our online world.
“Howl”: Drama exploring key moments in the life of American poet Allen Ginsberg. James Franco stars alongside an impressive supporting cast that includes David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker and Jon Hamm. Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.
“The Ricky Gervais Show” – The Complete First Season: First 13 episodes of the animated series spawned by English comedian Ricky Gervais’ podcasts with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington. Although the show was born in the world of audio, it has garnered attention for its visuals, most notably with a 2010 Emmy Award for outstanding achievement in animation (character design).
“Big Love” – The Complete Fourth Season: The ongoing saga of Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), head of a modern polygamist family living in Utah. This set includes all nine episodes leading up to season five, which is slated to begin Jan. 16 on HBO. Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin and Harry Dean Stanton also star.
“Bitter Feast”: Horror film about a chef who takes revenge on a food blogger that he believes ruined his career. James LeGros, Joshua Leonard, Amy Seimetz and Mario Batali star. Directed by Joe Maggio.
“El Mariachi” trilogy on Blu-ray: In case “Machete” gets you in the mood for more films by director Robert Rodriguez, all three movies from his “El Mariachi” franchise are rolling onto Blu-ray. The first two films, “El Mariachi” and “Desperado” are being released as part of a Blu-ray two-pack. The final picture, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” gets a separate release. All follow the adventures of a gun-toting, revenge-seeking guitar player (portrayed by Antonio Banderas in the final two movies).
Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at email@example.com.