Video Verdict: ‘Take Shelter,’ ‘The Rum Diary’

Michael Shannon struggles with a feeling of impending doom in the psychological thriller “Take Shelter.”

It’s a slow week for home video, with no wide-release theatrical films making their way to the small screen. That’s not such a bad thing, however, because it allows me to spotlight two noteworthy independent projects.

Take Shelter

3½ stars (out of four)
Rated R for some language
Sony Pictures Classics
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Although writer-director Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” was shut out when Oscar nominations were announced, it received a fair amount of critical acclaim thanks to awards from the Cannes and Hollywood film festivals and a spot on the National Board of Review’s list of the top 10 independent films of 2011. Of course, none of those accolades matter unless the movie holds up under scrutiny. Fortunately, it does.

The focus is on a middle-aged, blue-collar man named Curtis (Michael Shannon) who finds himself plagued by strange dreams and hallucinations. Most involve a violent storm that drops oily rain from the sky, but other dreams are even more troubling, as he finds himself and his young daughter (Tova Stewart) attacked by normally peaceful townsfolk.

Because mental illness runs in his family, Curtis begins to read up on schizophrenia and visits a therapist. Yet, he’s convinced the visions have meaning, so he begins to reinforce his family’s tornado shelter, spending money that he and his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), don’t have.

This leads to protestations and concern, not just from Samantha, but from Curtis’ brother and long-time co-worker (Shea Whigam). One of the most fascinating things about “Take Shelter” is that Nichols tells the film from Curtis’ perspective, meaning viewers don’t know any more than he does. We see his frightening visions and understand his desire to strengthen the shelter, yet the specter of mental illness is always in the background.

Movies featuring a protagonist of questionable reliability are tricky to pull off, and “Take Shelter” does a better job than most. The movie was made on a small budget (IMDB.com reports $1 million), so Nichols doesn’t do anything flashy or grand, but that works to the picture’s advantage. This is a movie about a man under stress and about the way his loved ones react.

Shannon drives the project, and his performance is gripping and subtle. He also gets outstanding supporting work from Chastain, who was in a number of excellent films last year. Perhaps even more important is Nichols’ steady hand. He presents his story with simplicity, never allowing the subject matter to get kitschy or melodramatic … and that makes it all the more eerie.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a question-and-answer session with Shannon and Whigham, deleted scenes and an audio commentary with Shannon and Nichols.

The Rum Diary

2½ stars
Rated R for language, brief drug use and sexuality
Sony
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Writer Hunter S. Thompson died in 2005, but actor Johnny Depp is working to keep his deceased friend in the spotlight. Depp’s latest homage to the founder of “gonzo journalism” is a film adaptation of “The Rum Diary,” an early Thompson novel.

Written in the 1960s, but unpublished until 1988, the work tells of Paul Kemp, a young journalist who moves to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for a job at the local paper. Depp was a producer on the film, and he also stars as Kemp, portraying the man as a Thompson-like journalist with a penchant for booze and raising hell.

The film, directed by Bruce Robinson (“Jennifer Eight”), starts by introducing viewers to a host of bizarre-but-engaging characters, not the least of which is Paul’s conservative boss, Edward Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). A practical newsman, Lotterman steers clear of real stories in favor of feel-good features that won’t offend advertisers. Paul isn’t keen on this approach, but he isn’t a role model for journalistic behavior either. Shortly after Paul arrives in Puerto Rico, a local businessman named Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) begins wooing him, offering money in exchange for stories favoring a planned property development. Paul isn’t sure he wants to climb in bed with Sanderson, but he is smitten with the man’s beautiful wife (Amber Heard), so he stays in contact.

The film starts strong, with Depp building Paul into a charismatic presence who’s fun to watch. Alas, as the film moves forward, Depp fails to imbue his character with the sort of depth required for the changes he undergoes. This makes the ending of the movie – already clumsily plotted – feel forced.

Nevertheless, it’s always fun to watch Depp on screen, and he’s surrounded by a bunch of talented folks. Jenkins and Eckhart are almost always good, and this film is no exception. Add in Michael Rispoli, as a grizzled newspaper photographer, and Giovanni Ribisi, as a drug-addicted reporter, and you have a nice ensemble.

DVD and Blu-ray extras are limited to two making-of shorts.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Tiny Furniture”: Independent comedy about a recent college grad who moves back in with her parents and sister while trying to find herself. The movie won Best Narrative Feature at the South by Southwest film festival and was released into theaters in 2010. It’s noteworthy as the breakthrough picture for Lena Dunham who wrote, directed and stars.

“The Dead”: Zombie movie about a U.S. Air Force lieutenant (Rob Freeman) who survives a plane crash only to discover that he has landed in an area of Africa where the dead are returning to life and killing the living. Prince David Oseia also stars. Written and directed by Howard J. Ford and Jonathan Ford.

“The Outlaw Samurai”: Criterion Collection release of Japanese director Hideo Gosha’s 1964 tale about a master-less samurai warrior who falls in with two other samurai working for a corrupt political leader. The movie tells the backstory of characters originated in a Japanese TV series by the same name. Tetsuro Tamba, Isamu Nagato and Mikijiro Hira star.

“The Debt”: This 2007 Israeli drama inspired the like-titled 2010 English-language movie starring Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain. The plotting of both pictures focuses on three Mossad agents who travel to Germany with orders to capture a war criminal. Alas, their mission goes bad and they make a decision that will haunt them for decades to come. Presented in German and Hebrew with English subtitles.

“The Human Centipede 2 – Full Sequence”: In 2010, Dutch director Tom Six released a controversial horror film about a maniacal doctor determined to create a “new” creature by conjoining three human beings. In this sequel, a copycat lunatic decides to follow in the doctor’s footsteps, only creating a much longer “human centipede.”

“Killer By Nature”: Crime thriller about a teen (Zachary Ray Sherman) whose disturbing and violent dreams begin to take place in reality. Ron Perlman and Armand Assante also star. Written and directed by Douglas S. Younglove.

“Storage Wars” – Volume 2: Fourteen episodes of the A&E Network reality series about people who bid on the contents of abandoned storage units in hopes of reselling them for profit. The key personalities include auctioneers Dan and Laura Dotson, antique collector Barry Weiss, entrepreneur Dave Hester and merchants Jarrod and Brandi Schultz.

“Family Matters” – The Complete Second Season: It’s been nearly 14 years since this mainstream sitcom went off the air, but fans can relive the classic episodes on DVD. The show, of course, focuses on a middle-class Chicago family and their nerdy next-door neighbor, Steve Urkel (Jaleel White).

“The Lorax” – Dr. Seuss’s Deluxe Edition: With a feature-length movie adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax” coming to theaters March 2, Warner Brothers decided to roll the 1972 animated TV special onto Blu-ray. The title is hitting stores as a combo pack, meaning both Blu-ray and DVD versions of the story are in the package. Also included are two Seuss animated shorts: “Butter Battle Book” and “Pontoffel Pock & His Magic Piano.”

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work visit http://www.ForrestHartman.com. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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