Teenagedom and early adolescence is many things, but it’s perhaps chiefly characterized by a crazy hormonal swirl and the feeling that everything matters so deeply and acutely, and hasn’t been experienced by anyone else before. That’s why there will always exist movies like “The Roommate”, which released earlier this year, and turned a tidy profit to the tune of a $37 million domestic gross. And that’s why the bulk of these movies will almost always be terrible, or at least extremely unimaginative — because their target demographic is captive to the embrace of merely goosed feelings as much as anything else, so why try harder. A notably terrible young adult variation on “Single White Female”, “The Roommate” is a poorly directed, yawning exercise in genre calisthenics that goes through all the motions of the psychological thriller playback, but never manages to raise an eyebrow, let alone a pulse.
College freshman Sara (Minka Kelly), an aspirant designer, finds new romance with Stephen (Cam Gigandet), but her potluck roomie Rebecca (Leighton Meester) turns out to be an unhinged nutjob. Bad things ensue. In his American debut, Danish director Christian E. Christiansen fails to imprint any sense of escalating doom or dark consequence to the story, and myriad story details ring comically untrue, like Rebecca’s use of a dormant social networking site. Even the movie’s lighting and visual scheme are patently false. While Kelly and Meester are babelicious, their attrativeness can carry this listless PG-13 offering only so far, and Gigandet displays a complete void of personality. The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen DVD presentation of “The Roommate”, with a nice complement of foreign language audio tracks and subtitles, comes with an upbeat audio commentary track from Christiansen and a six-minute clutch of deleted scenes, inclusive of an alternate opening.
On the opposite end of the cultural spectrum is “The Illusionist”, Sylvain Chomet’s Oscar-nominated animated adaptation of a script by the late French comic legend Jacques Tati. Poignant and richly drawn, the movie unfolds in 1959 Paris, and centers on the relationship between an aging magician, Tatischeff, who’s forced to cope with dwindling crowds and relevance, and a young cleaning girl named Alice whom he takes under his wing. “The Illusionist” is the sort of film that requires a special, forward-leaning, active attention, because much of its 80-minute running time unfolds dialogue-free, focusing instead on small comedic bits and melancholic character moments. The hand-drawn animation here doesn’t overpursue background detail, but instead opts for a pensive moodiness, including some nice bits with the interplay of light and shadow on passing vehicles and pedestrians. In fact, the visual palette is so exceedingly rich that Chomet leans a bit too heavily on it in the movie’s final act, opting sometimes for easy sentimentality instead of a deeper exploration of the characters. Still, it’s hard to find much fault with a tone poem this lovingly crafted, given the simple heartbreak it evokes with a late scene involving Tatischeff letting his rabbit go into the wild. “The Illusionist”‘s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack is absolutely superb in its audio and visual presentations, and includes the movie’s theatrical trailer, a four-minute making-of featurette and a collection of animation line tests and progession sequences which provide a nice overview of Chomet’s painstaking animation process. The only beef here is that this supplemental material, running around 15 minutes combined, doesn’t allow for a greater contextual mooring of the story, perhaps by way of some talking head exploration of Tati’s work, and/or Chomet’s connection to the source material, which came to him by way of Tati’s sole surviving daughter.
On the nonfiction front a couple interesting releases arrive this month. First up is “Smartest Machine on Earth”, an hour-long look at “Watson,” the IBM super-computer that recently took on Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, two of “Jeopardy!”‘s most successful and celebrated contestants, on the popular, long-running trivia game show. Of course, some of its struggles and its particularly goofy fail — replying to an answer with a question that had already been given — will always amuse me, but the fact remains that Watson destroyed his human competitors. This fascinating NOVA title provides a behind-the-scenes look at the computer, with its “brain” the size of roughly 2,400 home computers, and a database of 10 million documents at its disposal. Apart from chapter stops and subtitles, there are unfortunately no supplemental features included here.
Even more fascinating, meanwhile, is Duane Baughman’s “Bhutto”, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year and provides an ace overview of Pakistan through the lens of a phenomenal woman, slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The first woman in history elected to lead a Muslim nation, Bhutto served two turbulent terms trying to erode the fundamentalist status quo, peppered with significant time in exile, before being assassinated in 2007 under suspicious conditions, following her return to her homeland. A highly pedigreed and political family visited repeatedly by terrible tragedy, the Bhuttos are informally (and not without good reason) known as “the Kennedys of Pakistan,” but director Baughman, a one-time friend and confidant of his subject, transcends hagiography and uses Bhutto and his access to many who knew her — including her husband, Asif Zardari, surviving children, and many engaging friends, authors, regional experts and ex-pats — to craft a film that is both inclusive of honest dissent (chiefly via Bhutto’s 28-year-old niece, Fatima) and also a superlative look at the country’s entire modern political history. Given the geo-political importance of Pakistan (already the world’s sixth biggest country) and how — with its nuclear capabilities, hostile attitude toward neighboring India, and rich history of military coups and radicalism — it figures to be an important international hot spot for some time, I can think of no better educational primer on the region that this title. Supplemental material comes by way of a small collection of trailers for other First Run titles, a text biography of Baughman, a photo gallery, a small text tidbit on the movie’s music, and a brief, scrollable Q&A with Baughman, in which the filmmaker talks about sinking his own money into the project and reveals the reaction to a screening by the son of Pakistan’s controversial former president, General Pervez Musharraf.