This week, we’ve got a wide variety of choices, mostly fresh from the theaters. First up, we’ve got the winner of the AU Golden Tomato award, a slick little crime thriller that should please most. Then we’ve also got a highly rated thriller starring Ryan Reynolds, a heist flick with a big cast, a prison showdown between Edward Norton and Robert De Niro, another “is it real or fake” mockumentary about a teen losing his virginity, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s directorial debut, and a documentary omnibus film based on a popular nonfiction book. Then, to top it all off, we’ve got brand spanking new Criterion Collection editions for a couple of classics by Samuel Fuller. So dig in and see if anything tickles your fancy.
If you’re a regular visitor to RT, then you’re possibly already aware of this small Australian film that captured the attention of critics all over the world. One of the ten best-reviewed limited release films of 2010, as well as the top film from Australia, Animal Kingdom is a crime drama that paints a portrait of Melbourne’s seedy underbelly. The story focuses on Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville), young nephew in the Cody crime family, and his initiation into the “family business.” J becomes the subject of investigation by a police officer named Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), who attempts to lure J against his family. Critics felt that the cast all performed superbly, and with a well-written script and a steady, kinetic pace, the Certified Fresh Animal Kingdom (96% on the Tomatometer) proves that Australia’s cinema is not to be ignored. If you’re into gritty crime dramas, this is definitely worth checking out.
2010 saw the release of a handful of one-location thrillers, like Devil (an elevator) and Frozen (a stalled ski lift), but possibly the best-reviewed one of them all was a little-seen indie thriller that took place primarily inside a coffin. Ryan Reynolds stars as a man who wakes up to find himself buried alive with nothing to help his situation but a lighter and a cell phone. With air dwindling, he must quickly figure out why he’s been buried and who did it. Films like this depend heavily on the acting chops of their stars, and critics say that Reynolds holds the movie together terrifically, helping to create a gripping drama from a premise that could easily have lost its novelty quickly. At 85% on the Tomatometer, Buried is Certified Fresh, so don’t let its minimalist setting fool you; this is a thriller worth checking out.
It’s difficult these days to make a heist movie stand out from its predecessors, being that so many plot twists and turns have been explored in the genre. Unfortunately, despite featuring a cast that includes everyone from Matt Dillon, Zoe Saldana, and Idris Elba to recording artists Chris Brown and T.I., Takers ultimately falls prey to conventional heist movie clichés and poor characterization, leaving little for the viewer to indulge in aside from a few explosive set pieces. Dillon and Jay Hernandez play detectives Jack Welles and Eddie Hatcher, who are hot on the trail of a gang of organized bank robbers led by Gordon Crozier (Elba). When an old crewmate (T.I.) thought to be in prison is released, he talks the gang into one more heist, and plenty of double crosses ensue. Takers only rang true to the critics to the tune of a 29% Tomatometer, but the other constant with heist movies is that, even if they are derivative, they’re usually still a bit fun to watch, so you might save this one for a rainy night.
The prospect of seeing Edward Norton and Robert De Niro square off with each other just doesn’t have the appeal that it did a decade ago. Back then, De Niro was coming off of performances in Casino, Heat, and Ronin, and Norton was hitting his stride in films like Rounders, American History X, Fight Club. So it wasn’t a surprise when 2001’s The Score, featuring both actors, was a hit. Fast forward to 2010, when Stone saw De Niro as a retiring correctional officer named Jack Mabry who takes one last case, namely that of Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Norton). In an effort to secure an early parole, Stone manipulates Mabry with mind games and instructs his own wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), to seduce Mabry as part of the deal. Critics are largely split on Stone, but most agree that its premise is a tad farfetched and, despite a solid cast, veers wildly into strange territory. Not exactly a crowdpleaser, but if you’re a fan of either actor, you may still enjoy it.
In 2005, a non-fiction book took the country by storm, examining several sociological phenomena from the perspective of economics, or, as pointed out by authors Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the study of incentives. Four years and four million copies later, a number of critically acclaimed documentary filmmakers, from Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) to Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me) to Seth Gordon (King of Kong), were brought together to illustrate on film the principles featured in the book. While the results were both thought provoking and often humorous, critics felt that viewers might be better served by reading the book, which offered the same sorts of stories, but with greater insight and more detail. Nevertheless, the film still earned a decent 66% Tomatometer, so for those who just want the crash course, this should do just fine.
Directors Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland succeeded in writing one documentary-style film last year, The Last Exorcism, and that one did pretty well for itself, both critically and commercially. This wasn’t the case, unfortunately, for the film the duo directed, namely The Virginity Hit, the chronicle of one teenager’s quest to lose his virginity, as told via handheld home video cameras and cell phones. Though it’s unclear how much of the story was staged for the production, and how much of it was genuine (much like another similar film, Catfish), Matt (the teen in question) and his buddies occupy the screen like real life versions of characters from a Judd Apatow movie. Unfortunately, critics were not impressed by what they saw, calling the film shallow, uninteresting, and crass, despite a few funny moments. Maybe worth a look for the supremely curious, but probably not something that’s got widespread appeal.
Philip Seymour Hoffman has had his share of success in front of the camera, and he’s also an accomplished theater director, so the next natural step for him was to direct a film, and that brings us to Jack Goes Boating, Hoffman’s directorial debut and a film adaptation of a play of the same name. Hoffman plays the titular Jack, a limo driver with a penchant for Reggae music, who’s introduced to Connie (Amy Ryan) through Jack’s friend Clyde (John Ortiz) and his wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega). As Jack and Connie grow closer, Clyde and Lucy simultaneously begin falling apart, and both couples must learn how to come to terms with these new developments. Hoffman played Jack in the original stage production, and the script for Jack Goes Boating was adapted by the writer of the original play, so there is some authenticity to the picture, and critics appreciated the honest characterization, giving the film a respectable 67% Tomatometer score. There is a little bit lost in translation from stage to screen, but it’s a well-acted romantic dramedy that should be perfect for some.
Samuel Fuller has never been a stranger to controversy, the most well-known case of which probably revolves around the production of his anti-racism themed 1981 film White Dog, which, ironically, was suppressed by Paramount Pictures for fear that the film would mistakenly be considered racist. But even as far back as the 1960s, Fuller was making excellent films about unpopular subjects, and two of them get the refreshed Criterion Collection treatment this week: 1963’s Shock Corridor and 1964’s The Naked Kiss. The former centers on a journalist who checks himself into a mental hospital in order to investigate a murder, but ends up slowly going insane himself; the latter is a satire of suburbia that sees a prostitute moving to a prim new town to start her life over, only to discover that it harbors its own dirty little secrets. Both films are offered in DVD and Blu-Ray formats, with Criterion’s typically outstanding special features, including archived TV interviews, a documentary on Fuller himself, and illustrations and essays.