Video Verdict: ‘Runner Runner,’ ‘The Act of Killing,’ ‘The Following: Season 1’

Justin Timberlake, right, and Ben Affleck star in the thriller “Runner Runner.”

Justin Timberlake, right, and Ben Affleck star in the thriller “Runner Runner.”

This week’s home video releases include an award-winning documentary, the first season of a fantastic TV series, and a crime thriller featuring Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck.

Runner Runner

3 stars (out of four)
Rated R for language and some sexual content
20th Century Fox
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and digital download

Director Brad Furman’s “Runner Runner” never pretends to be more than lightweight entertainment, and the lack of pretense makes it better. The story centers on Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake), a graduate student promoting a gambling website in order to pay his way through Princeton. Viewers are supposed to see him as a genius because he has a knack for numbers. That doesn’t, however, prevent him from losing his entire bankroll to the very site that he promotes.

Frustrated, Richie pokes around and discovers that he was cheated. So, he flies to Costa Rica intent on telling the site’s owner, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), that the reputation of his business is in danger. Richie isn’t afraid because he is convinced that Ivan wants to run a clean operation. Initially, Richie’s hunch seems correct. After a brief meeting, Ivan refunds his losses and offers him a glamorous and high-paying casino job.

Wooed by money, beautiful girls and Costa Rican scenery, Richie becomes one of Ivan’s most trusted associates. It’s a lifestyle he has only dreamed about, but things unravel when a hard-charging FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) reveals that Ivan is under investigation. As the plot thickens, Richie finds himself at the center of a high stakes game that he can’t afford to lose.

The plotting and characters are simplistic, but Timberlake and Affleck give them just enough depth to make viewers care. The pacing is just as important. Furman keeps the 91-minute film moving at a brisk clip, and that adds to the breezy, laid-back tone. Although it’s Affleck and Timberlake who rule the day, they get solid supporting turns from Mackie and Gemma Arterton, the latter playing a love interest for both Richie and Ivan.

“Runner Runner” punches most of the right buttons with a likable protagonist and a glimpse into a high-dollar, exotic lifestyle that few can afford. It also asks viewers to consider what they would do in Richie’s position. This gives the film some heft, but Furman avoids a heavy-handed morality tale. That’s appropriate because the primary goal of “Runner Runner” is entertainment, and it serves up plenty of that.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include deleted scenes.

 

The Act of Killing

3 stars
Not rated
Drafthouse Films
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and on demand

Directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn have become critical darlings this movie awards season. Their documentary, “The Act of Killing,” is one of 15 features shortlisted for an Oscar nomination, and the movie’s chances of securing a nod look good. It has already been named best documentary by numerous groups, including the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Florida Film Critics Circle. It is also up for an Independent Spirit Award and a Critics’ Choice Movie Award.

None of this means “The Act of Killing” is easy to watch. In fact, it’s one of the toughest viewing experiences most movie lovers are likely to encounter all year. Tough viewing does not, however, negate quality, and “The Act of Killing” is valuable as a historical document and a powerful meditation on man’s capacity for evil.

Oppenheimer and Cynn, along with an anonymous co-director, invited former leaders of Indonesian death squads to reenact some of the atrocities they committed during the nation’s 1965-66 communist purge. Astonishingly, the mass murderers gleefully accepted the opportunity, often boasting about their horrendous crimes.

The primary player is Anwar Congo, a one-time gangster who was essentially sanctioned to kill Indonesians suspected of communist behavior. He is credited with personally murdering approximately 1,000 people, and he discusses his methods on screen. The film also features interviews with other Indonesian killers, including Herman Koto and Adi Zulkadry.

“The Act of Killing” underscores the argument that history is written by the victors. Congo and his sadistic peers admit to mass murder, yet they are often hailed as heroic soldiers in the war against communism. In fact, in one particularly disturbing sequence, Congo is a celebrated guest on an Indonesian TV show.

“The Act of Killing” also offers a disturbing look inside the mind of the killers. Congo is a grandfather and, by appearance alone, a kindly and charismatic man. That makes it all the more disturbing when he chats about the men he murdered, even demonstrating his preferred method.

At times, the 115-minute film bogs, particularly since it is so difficult to digest the atrocities. Still, “The Act of Killing” sheds light on an underreported-yet-important moment in international history.

DVD and Blu-ray releases of the feature contain both the 122-minute theatrical cut and a 166-minute director’s cut. Other extras include a 45-minute interview with Oppenheimer, deleted scenes and a bit with two of the film’s executive producers, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. “The Act of Killing” is presented in Indonesian and English with subtitles.

 

The Following: The Complete First Season

4 stars
Not rated
Warner Brothers
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and digital download

Television series come and go, but only rarely do they reach the heights of “The Following,” a remarkable thriller starring Kevin Bacon as a former FBI agent lured back to action by the re-emergence of a serial killer named Joe Carroll (James Purefoy).

Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a man whose life was defined by his encounters with Carroll. Although Hardy brought the notorious killer to justice, he retired with a permanently damaged heart and enough fodder for a bestselling tell-all. When viewers meet him, he’s a borderline alcoholic unable to enjoy the success of his book. In part that’s because he fell in love with Carroll’s ex-wife, Claire Matthews (Natalie Zea), while working the case.

The characters in “The Following” are exceptionally well presented, and it’s not only acting that makes the series great. Creator Kevin Williamson, the man who wrote the “Scream” movie franchise, deserves credit for inventing one of the creepiest serial killers in the history of fiction. Like Hannibal Lecter, Carroll is remarkably intelligent and charismatic, and he uses these gifts to recruit followers. The result is a cult of serial killers who are nearly as dangerous as the man himself. In fact, as the first season begins, Carroll carefully orchestrates a series of murders while still in prison.

Viewers are allowed to watch both Hardy’s attempts to stop the bloodshed, and the inner workings of Carroll’s serial killer cult, a group with membership ranging from seasoned killers to naïve newcomers. Williamson’s structure is subtly subversive in that it asks viewers to identify – at least on some level – with Carroll’s followers. This makes the show even creepier.

Bacon always delivers fine performances, but the freedom of television allows him to make Hardy truly special. Unlike movies, where an actor has only minutes to establish a character, a TV series offers hours, and Bacon makes the most of that time. Purefoy is equally strong, emphasizing Carroll’s powers of persuasion and making him twice as frightening in the process.

“The Following,” which airs on Fox, is dark for a major-network drama. Although it avoids much of the language and sexual material that would land it an R rating in theaters, the mood and depictions of violence are just as disturbing as those in hard-R films like “Se7en” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” Because of this, the show leaves an impact long after the episodes have aired. That’s rare in these days of disposable entertainment, and it’s one reason the season two premiere (Jan. 19) is already being hyped.

The Blu-ray and DVD releases of “The Following: The Complete First Season” include 15 episodes of the show plus a collection of making-of features.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Closed Circuit”: Former lovers (Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall) are drawn into a web of intrigue after both are assigned to the defense team for a high-profile terrorism case. Directed by John Crowley.

“Thanks for Sharing”: Romantic comedy focused on the lives and loves of three men who meet at a support group for sex addicts. Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robins, Josh Gad, Gwyneth Paltrow, Joely Richardson and Alecia Moore (Pink) star. Co-written and directed by Stuart Blumberg.

“Duck Dynasty” – Season 4: “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson grabbed headlines after making disparaging remarks about gays in a GQ magazine interview, and that prompted the folks at A&E to suspend him. In hindsight, the whole ordeal seems like a publicity stunt, as Robertson’s suspension lasted just nine days, and the entire “Duck Dynasty” clan will be back for the show’s season-five premiere. If the uproar got you curious about the show, this release contains 11 recent episodes.

“Being Human” – The Complete Third Season: Syfy drama about four supernatural beings – a vampire, a ghost and two werewolves – doing their best to blend into the landscape of modern-day Boston. Sam Witwer, Meagan Rath, Sam Huntington and Kristen Hager star.

“Throne of Blood”: Criterion Collection re-release of director Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed, 1957 film adaptation of “Macbeth.” Kurosawa sets the story in feudal Japan with Toshiro Mifune playing a veteran general who embarks on a bloody quest for power. Presented in Japanese with English subtitles.

“House of Lies” – Season Two: Twelve episodes of the Showtime dramedy about management consultants working their way through the cutthroat business world. Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson star.

“Archer” – The Complete Season Four: Thirteen recent episodes of the FX network’s animated comedy about the life of a master spy.

The Eclipse Series 40 – Late Ray: The Criterion Collection presents three movies made by Indian writer-director Satyajit Ray during the last decade of his life. Included are “The Home and the World” (1984), “An Enemy of the People” (1989) and “The Stranger” (1991).

“Badges of Fury”: Martial arts comedy about two cops (Jet Li and Zhang Wen) investigating a series of creepy murders. Directed by Tsz Ming Wong. Presented in Mandarin with English subtitles.

“Star Trek Enterprise” – Season Three on Blu-ray: “Star Trek” remains one of the most popular science-fiction series of all time, and fans are surely delighted with the Blu-ray debut of the third season of “Enterprise.” This series is set before the original “Star Trek,” and it focuses on the crew of a deep-space exploration vehicle.

 

– 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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