DVD Picks: Catfish, The Last Exorcism, Case 39, Dinner for Schmucks

January 27, 2011

DVD Picks – January 7, 2011
Raleigh News & Observer

Pick of the Week


Documentary; Rated PG-13 for some sexual references; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: A New York City photographer gets involved, via Facebook, with a family in rural Michigan. But when he shows up for a visit, nothing is as it seems.

The Lowdown: “Catfish” generated a ton of buzz and conjecture when it first hit theaters. It’s being sold as a legitimate documentary – filmmaker Ariel Schulman just happened to be documenting his brother’s online intrigues when everything went haywire. But some passages seem just too coincidental to be real, while others are too real to be fiction. Avoid all spoilers with this one.

As with recent projects like Joaquin Phoenix’s “I’m Still Here” and the Banksy doc “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” it’s possible that all the ambiguity is part of the intent. In any case, “Catfish” is the first film I’ve seen that truly engages with the emotional core of the social network phenomenon. It takes as a given that technology is changing fundamental notions of identity. Then it digs deeper, into the really creepy stuff.

The Extras: An exhaustive Q&A with the filmmakers, with questions submitted from curious fans.

The Bottom Line: “The Internet is this place where reality and deception meet,” says director Schulman. “And new things sprout out of that.”

Double Secret Bonus Tip: After viewing the bonus materials and researching online – rather obsessively, too – I’m convinced that “Catfish” is for real.


The Last Exorcism

Horror thriller; rated PG-13 for disturbing violent content and terror, some sexual references and thematic material; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: A reformed evangelical minister allows a film crew to document a supposed exorcism in the Louisiana bayou. His intent is to expose the ritual as fake, but as usual, the devil is in the details.

The Lowdown: Like “Catfish,” “The Last Exorcist” presents as a documentary, but in this case it’s clearly a gimmick, in the manner of “Blair Witch” or “Paranormal Activity.” The shaky-cam approach is simply there to provide that quality of truthiness that always seems to enhance scary stories.

“Exorcism” works pretty well as a horror movie, thanks to its clever premise, a few good plot twists, and some fine acting – most especially by newcomer Ashley Bell as the deeply troubled and remarkably flexible 16-year-old girl. The movie loses its footing pretty badly in the last few scenes, though, wandering off into Southern Gothic sight gags and heavy metal iconography.

The Extras: Actor, director and producer commentary tracks; a short making-of doc; audition reels and some disposable “Real Stories of Exorcism” hokum.

The Bottom Line: An inspired variation on the spooky little girl movie, with good scares and interesting characters.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Amazingly, actress Ashley Bell did all her own contortions in the exorcism scenes.

Case 39

Horror thriller; Rated R for violence and terror including disturbing images; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: Renee Zellweger stars as a social case worker who rescues adorable 10-year-old Lily (Jodelle Ferland) from her crazy parents. As events progress, the parents seem less crazy and Lily much less adorable.

The Lowdown: “Case 39” has a story template that can be traced back through recent fare like “The Orphan” all the way to “The Omen.” If you liked those, you might like this, as the filmmakers work hard to hit all the requisite genre buttons and deliver exactly what you expect. Hint: “Lily” is short for “Lilith.” My Babylonian demonology files are just a mess, but I didn’t even have to look that one up.

Unfortunately, the film also shows signs of terminal post-production meddling. Filmed in 2007, it’s apparently been re-cut several times as evidenced by the dozen or so deleted scenes and alternate ending included in the extras. In fact, several deleted scenes and many of the initial preview trailers suggest the story went a different way entirely at one point.

The Extras: Four short featurettes on aspects of the story and effects, plus those deleted scenes.

The Bottom Line: An uninspired variation on the spooky little girl movie, with cheap scares and cardboard characters.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: It’s all about technique – the PG-13 “Exorcism” is much scarier than the R-rated “Case.”

Dinner for Schmucks

Comedy; rated PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: Finance executive Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd) befriends recreational taxidermist Barry Speck (Steve Carell) and invites him to the monthly “Dinner for Winners,” in which rich snobs ridicule eccentric losers. As you might expect, tables are turned, sometimes literally.

The Lowdown: “Schmucks” seems to have all the necessary elements for a successful screwball comedy. Rudd and Carell are pros with established credentials, director Jay Roach has a sure hand with this stuff (“Meet the Parents,” “Austin Powers”) and the script is based on a hugely popular French movie.

But it just never gels. Screwball comedies are famously hard to pull off, and the players here never quite manage to nail the manic energy and intricate timing required. Still, Carell has some great moments, as always, and there are funny scenes with the supporting cast – including Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement and Kristen Schaal

The Extras: Some behind-the-scenes featurettes, deleted scenes and a gag reel that is by far the best part of the whole package.

The Bottom Line: A noble effort that never finds its comedic rhythm.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: It really is a funny gag reel.

Also New This Week: Director Robert Rodriguez’ “Machete,” starring cult favorite Danny Trejo; James Franco in “Howl,” the Allen Ginsberg biopic; Val Kilmer and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson in the crime drama “Gun.” TV-on-DVD collections from “Big Love,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the very excellent “Ricky Gervais Show” and the inexplicably charming kids’ franchise “iCarly.”

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