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DVD/Blu Ray New Release Round Up 16th July 2012

14/07/2012

First out of the gate this week is CONTRABAND, a fairly sturdy action/thriller starring Mark Wahlberg as Chris Farraday, a master smuggler forced out of retirement when his brother in law falls foul of Giovanni Ribisi’s demented drug trafficker after dumping a shipment of narcotics to avoid arrest. Assuming you can suspend your disbelief for long enough it’s not a bad effort. Ribisi is suitably menacing as the borderline psychotic drug pusher threatening Farraday’s family in order to ensure his cooperation and the action is well paced, particularly a somewhat barmy interlude when Farraday and his crew of smugglers pitches up in Panama to collect their illicit cargo. It’s hard to judge how much of a genuine insight into the life of smugglers the film offers, but whatever seeds of truth are in it don’t bode well for homeland security, revealing as it does a culture of officials on the take, happy to give in to the whims of criminal gangs who are willing to spend some money on greasing the right palms.

Homeland security is barely in doubt in ACT OF VALOUR, a fictional account of a US Navy Seal team deployed to rescue a kidnapped CIA agent who find themselves caught up in a terrorist plot to bring carnage and economic disaster to the mainland united states. Its point of difference to other action movies? It stars real life, active duty SEALS rather than actors. This strategy pays dividends in the action sequences which boast “real weapons and tactics as used by the Navy SEALS” and make for some quite exciting set pieces that drip with authenticity. Unfortunately, they fare less well during the non-combat moments, professional soldiering offering no substitute for professional acting. When it comes to performance there’s a strong argument that realism is much less interesting than drama. The plot is something straight out of Call Of Duty and there are occasional flashes of the long running game series showing through in its execution (some of the POV cam work is particularly redolent of the console classic). It’s not sophisticated and has no moral complexity at all – the SEALS are portrayed exclusively as defenders of the free world with no questions asked and the black and white good versus evil plot facilitates this nicely. The net result is a high octane actioner that is actually pretty good although at times feels like a propaganda film for the US military.

The machinations of the US government are laid bare in a different way in CASINO JACK which stars Kevin Spacey in the true story of Jack Abramoff, a highly influential lobbyist in Washington who spends his time accepting large amounts of cash from special interest groups to exercise his influence over his stable of senators and governors in their favour. His lust for power and money becomes his undoing though as along with his protege Michael Scanlon (the excellent Barry Pepper) he finds himself embroiled up to his neck in corruption and organised crime. Spacey’s performance is superb but he plays second fiddle to the expose of the rotten heart of Western democracy which is this film’s strength – that despite the wry humour and occasionally absurd moments it still manages to hold those who manipulate the democratic process in contempt. Great stuff from the ever watchable Spacey who is backed up by a great supporting cast.

Eddie Murphy’s latest movie is a bit of an odd duck. In A THOUSAND WORDS he plays Jack McCall, literary agent extroardinaire who will stop at nothing to sign people to his agency. Not averse to stretching the truth he tells a few porkies to sign a renowned spiritual guru who is about to publish his book after which he finds himself spiritually linked to a magical tree that sheds a leaf for every word he speaks. When the thousand leaves on the tree are gone, so’s Jack’s life. You know when you are relying on a single FOX TV critic to provide all the sleeve quotes you are probably in trouble and it is a troubled film. There can be no doubt Murphy’s glory days are well behind him. He looked on the verge of a comeback with BOWFINGER but he never really consolidated a return to the dizzy heights he reached in the 80s and his output since has been patchy at best. This film’s downfall is its garbled approach. It doesn’t really commit tonally, being part spiritual-feel good film, part screwball comedy and part family drama which leaves it feeling a little disjointed (much like Cliff Curtis’ terrible attempt at an Indian accent). It’s in the last act that it feels like it’s actually getting somewhere, once Murphy’s dropped the antics and the gurning and what fragments of story actually start to work. It does have its moments – mostly thanks to Clark Duke who outfunnies Murphy whenever he’s on screen – but it’s too fractured and flimsy to really make an impact.

The other feel good family film out this week is WE BOUGHT A ZOO, based on the true story of Benjamin Mee who, in the wake of his wife’s premature death, buys a zoo. The only problem being, he knows nothing about owning a zoo. As you might expect from Cameron Crowe (ALMOST FAMOUS, JERRY MAGUIRE) it’s a genteel comedy that’s interested in the emotional journey of its characters that wanders into mawkish over-sentimentality but his hallmark witty dialogue and ear for a soundtrack are present and correct and are just about enough to keep it on the straight and narrow. It earns bonus points for Temple Of The Dog appearing on the soundtrack but it’s a bit too soppy for my tastes, although if you like cute animals, “Hollywood” cute kids and romantic sentimentality you should love this.

Found footage mockumentary THE DEVIL INSIDE (the movie critics call “evil in its purest form” according to the sleeve) tries to use its POV camerawork and attempts at realism to inject something new into the exorcism genre but falls desperately short of the mark, largely thanks to its tedious trotting out of every cliche in the exorcism movie handbook whilst waving a camera about in a BLAIR WITCH style. Given that THE EXORCIST will be 40 years old next year, I think it’s probably time to get some new schtick. In this film, we are introduced to the “realities” of demonic possession by way of a documentary being made by the daughter of a woman who is imprisoned in an Italian mental hospital after killing two priests and a nun who were attempting to rid her of demonic possession with an exorcism. It takes an inventive filmmaker to get these found footage pieces to work (see REC or CHRONICLE for examples of how to do it right) and sadly there is very little innovation on show here. There’s some schlocky fun to be had from the exorcism scenes if you like that sort of thing but in terms of atmosphere and genuine scariness it’s pretty badly lacking.

Atmosphere is something the low on budget but big on ideas ABSENTIA has in spades. Tricia’s husband Daniel has been missing for seven years and so, having given up hope of him being found alive and with the support of her sister Callie, she has him declared dead in absentia. While Tricia tries to move on with her life she is plagued by horrible visions and meanwhile Callie stumbles upon a sinister secret in the tunnel under the freeway that lies just across the street from their house. Naturalistic acting from a relatively unknown cast augments a fantastic script from writer/director Mike Flanagan that ratchets up the tension notch by painful notch, tormenting you with dark forces that lurk in the shadows, just beyond the fringes of perception. It’s refreshing to see a modern horror movie that eschews dull shock tactics and has the confidence (and originality) to leave it up to audience imagination to provide the real scares and Flanagan nails it here, making ABSENTIA my definite pick of the week.

At first glance THE 25TH REICH may look like a B-movie classic in the making in the IRON SKY mould but looks can be deceiving. Apart from the opening and closing titles (which are a work of stylised animation genius) its a rickety proposition that sees a small squad of American soldiers deployed to the Australian outback under the guise of a mission to recover a pair of escaped regimental Pumas only to find themselves embroiled in a time travelling, dimension hopping Nazi plot to conquer the universe and go to war with God. Bargain basement CGI drags things down a lot further than the poor acting, ropey script and shonky camera work ever could. I suppose you have to offer up some credit for sheer originality but being original isn’t much use if you don’t have the technical chops to see it through, leaving the end credits announcement of a part 2 feeling more like a threat than a promise.

Finally, to get you into an Olympic mood, 20th Century Fox have reissued their classic CHARIOTS OF FIRE on blu ray. The tale of two elite British athletes, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell and their struggle for glory in the 1924 Paris Olympics is probably best known for the haunting theme by Vangelis that has become synonymous with slow-mo sporting triumph but the film is tremendous in its own right. A story about triumph in the face of adversity, determination and good old fashioned grit, it boasts a cast comprised of some of the cream of British acting talent. The blu ray transfer is pretty good, bringing a degree of vibrancy to a film that could so easily look washed out but really, regardless of the resolution, this is a film that will get you in the mood for cheering on Team GB at this year’s Olympics.

PICK OF THE WEEK – ABSENTIA

All reviewed DVDs provided courtesy of the Inverness branch of hmv and are released in the UK on Monday 16th July. You can keep up to date with what hmv are up to on Twitter here and Facebook here.

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