In “Beautiful Boy,” Bill and Kate (Michael Sheen and Maria Bello) are a married couple already on the verge of separation when their college-age son, Sam (Kyle Gallner), goes on a shooting rampage at his school and then takes his own life. In the pained weeks that follow, as they avoid an inquisitive media by first staying with family and then holing up in a dingy hotel room, the pair finds that the tragedy both brings them together a bit while also exposing a variety of old wounds and grudges.
The rawness and unprecious nature of the lead performances help neophyte director Shawn Ku’s film achieve a certain hold, enough so that fans of Bello and Sheen — or at least merely engaging, quality family-based drama — will certainly find some reward in this low-fi offering. Still, “Beautiful Boy” cries out for if not a stronger parental investment into delving into Sam’s anguished past (a strand Ku obviously wants to keep muddy, and ambiguous), then at the very least a more crisply observed final unraveling, or more direct and sustained outside pressure upon these characters. A fair bit of the plotting here is a dawdling waste of time; a burgling of the couple’s home by a souvenir-curious teen seems utterly contrived, for instance. While other bits work a bit better, for the most part the audience is still a step ahead of the film when it comes to other conflicts (like the stress involved in Bill’s return to work), and thus is left only to bob along in an ocean of nondescript grief. The inciting incident at the core of its story is shocking and different, but almost everything that unfolds, paradoxically, has been seen before.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a complementary cardboard slipcover, “Beautiful Boy” comes to DVD presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track, an alternate Spanish language mono track, and optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Bonus features consist of a small clutch of deleted scenes and a feature-length audio commentary track with Ku, editor Chad Galster and cinematographer Michael Fimognari, whose lingering handheld camerawork largely eschews calculation and pointed drama in pursuit of something more melancholic and ephemeral. A gallery of trailers for other Anchor Bay releases rounds things out.
A kid that, if plopped into a tonally different telling of the same story, seemingly could end up shooting up a school, meanwhile, is the title character at the center of “Terri,” a precious little film festival dramedy that can never quite cash in on the engaging and pleasant qualities of its performances, and find a convincing narrative pulse. Rotund and affectless high schooler Terri Thompson (Jacob Wysocki) lives with his uncle James (Creed Bratton, of “The Office”), who’s suffering from a seemingly terminal illness that also degrades his everyday working memory. So Terri fixes most of the duo’s meals (beans on toast) and wears pajamas to school (“Because they’re comfortable,” he says by way of simple explanation at the 18-minute mark, the film’s first acknowledgement of them), and doesn’t really have many friends. Assistant principal Darryl Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) kind of awkwardly takes him under his wing, and becomes his mentor. Then other stuff happens — the girl on whom Terri nurses a quiet crush, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), suffers a mortifying embarrassment when she allows a guy to finger her in home economics class, and Terri makes friends with string-bean-thin Chad (Bridger Zadina).
The rest of the movie’s little plot twists and turns, almost all of the loose coming-of-age variety, contain a few moments that are unexpectedly touching and moving, but “Terri” is also wildly false about the lurking teenage wallflower’s desire to not be seen (and, ergo, not shruggingly do stuff like wear pajamas to school). The performances here are pleasant and naturalistic, and Reilly is especially charming. When the movie pivots away from his mentor/mentee relationship with Terri, though, and into a kind of warped, third-act love triangle with Terri, Heather and Chad, it just becomes lame, and much less interesting. Writer Patrick DeWitt and director Azazel Jacobs have an obvious affinity for their characters, whom they craft with humanistic strokes. The story proper, however, doesn’t pass the smell test.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, “Terri” comes to DVD on a dual layer disc, presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a 5.1 Dolby digital surround sound audio track and optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Bonus features consist of four deleted scenes, running a total of seven minutes and showcasing more gym class dodgeball shenanigans. There’s also a 10-minute making-of featurette, which intercuts on-set footage and some film clips with black-and-white interview material from Jacobs, DeWitt and others.
A most unusual documentary offering, “Dust” explores the phenomenological, philosophical and even artistic aspects of, well, that titular, ever-present conglomeration of the smallest particles of matter, which coat everything from desktops and computer screens to outdoor surfaces and automobile nooks and crannies. So, does that sound kind of esoteric? Well, it is.
Still, fascinating nonfiction tales have been woven from equally arcane and seemingly minuscule topics — witness “Helvetica,” which told the story of the ubiquitous typeface font. German director Hartmut Bitomsky, though, never locates a throughline or lively enough tone to give his movie the sort of lift it needs. It doesn’t help, certainly, that his thickly accented narration is worthy of lampooning (“Paint is at first a dust — a dry, powdery dust that wants to be conspicuous by means of colored pigments”), coming across as it does as almost a send-up of Werner Herzog’s rhapsodic voiceover ruminations. There are plenty of interesting factoids and fascinating interviewees here, including a girl who collects dust balls, and pins them up like exotic butterflies. And it is legitimately interesting to ponder man’s unique relationship to dust; much of it is a creation of man, and our modern practices, and yet it needs our absence to thrive. Bitomsky, though, never imposes a sensible structure on his cinematic noodling, and there’s so much crazy esoterica that must be waded through that it eventually becomes tiring, at about the half-hour mark. The movie’s DVD presentation doesn’t do much more to seal the deal, either, alas. Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, “Dust” comes to DVD in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and split into 10 chapters via a static menu screen that mirrors the staid tone of the film itself. There are unfortunately no supplemental bonus materials. For more information, though, visit www.IcarusFilms.com.
A more fascinating documentary arrives by way of “WikiSecrets,” from PBS’ “Frontline.” An hour-long look at Australian Julian Assange, imprisoned Army intelligence officer Bradley Manning, and the biggest intelligence breach in U.S. history, the movie is a thoroughly fair-minded (perhaps too fair-minded, for the jingoistic string-’em-up crowd) examination of the events leading up to and following WikiLeaks’ oversight of the joint release and publishing (via the “New York Times,” the United Kingdom’s “Guardian” and Germany’s “Der Spiegel”) of classified military material and confidential State Department cables. Its Afghan and Iraq war logs — most notably headlined by a YouTube video, which would garner 11 million views, showing American troops in a helicopter in July, 2007, mowing down unarmed civilians, including journalists — were a massive data dump, and an undeniable embarrassment to the United States government.
“WikiSecrets,” though, avoids declamatory bloodlust. It’s engaging smart, and features an impressive array of figures who are able to provide valuable differing (though non-inflammatory) perspectives, including former Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, the “New York Times”‘ Eric Schmitt and Wired.com’s Spencer Ackerman and Kevin Paulsen, the latter of whom helped break the story of Manning’s fingering and May 26, 2010 arrest, at the hand of a former hacker he had befriended in an online chatroom. WikiLeaks’ Daniel Domscheit-Berg (who has since fallen out with Assange, and started his own whistleblower organization) also gives a fairly levelheaded perspective, making the case that increased governmental transparency need not always come at the expense of responsible behavior. What’s perhaps saddest and most interesting is the portrait of Manning that emerges — of an idealistic young soldier (he was 22 at the time) horrified and upset by some of the things he saw in war, yes, but also deeply depressed on a personal level, and wounded by an inability to reach out and confide in his Army-mandated therapist, due to the prohibitive constrictions of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. It’s interesting to think about, these questions of “what if?” that this line of rumination raises. If there’s a failing, it’s that this title — while admirably digging into the greyness of various ethical and moral concerns — doesn’t quite have enough time to fully devote to Manning’s home life (his father was a former military intelligence officer as well); a viewer gets a snapshot of his ample private pain, but it’s a fleeting one.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, “WikiSecrets” comes to DVD presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, with an English stereo audio track, optional English subtitles, a static menu screen and six chapter selections. There are unfortunately no supplemental bonus features, blunting the replay or deep-field instructive value of this title. Also, not to quibble, but shouldn’t a documentary on WikiLeaks really be presented on a region-free disc? I’m just saying… insert winking emoticon here.
Not all titles get a physical format home video release these days, of course. Case in point: the engaging, award-winning, half-hour documentary short “Save the Farm,” which tells the story of the largest urban farm in the United States, a 14-acre parcel of land in the middle of South Central Los Angeles where for more than a decade 350 low-income families grew a wide variety of organic crops and medicinal herbs, providing enough food for both themselves and to sell to thousands of others at local farmers’ markets. The word “grew,” of course, tips off the rather dispiriting ending on display here, in which developer Ralph Horowitz — a partner in the company which originally sold the land to the city in 1986 — sued unsuccessfully three times for a breach of contract clause in the original right-of-repurchase agreement, but eventually finagled a secret deal with the city of Los Angeles, far under even market value, to reacquire the land.
Filmmaker Michael Kuehnert’s movie basically picks up in 2006, two years after an injunction in favor of the South Central Farmers stayed an eviction notice. Joined by veteran environmental activists and the publicity-abetting efforts of actors like Daryl Hannah, Alicia Silverstone, Amy Smart, Martin Sheen and Laura Dern, the farmers employ nonviolent protest and squatting to try to save their land, while also working to secure a $10 million pledge from the Annenberg Foundation (out of an eventual $16.3 million bid) toward the re-acquisition of the farm through the non-profit organization Trust For Public Land. Available across a variety of platforms (Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, Amazon, et al), this movie is at once uplifting and heartbreaking — the latter because of the feeling that only properly moneyed interests ultimately get a fair shake from governmental bureaucracies, but the former because of the view it provides of especially young people working so hard to make life better for those on the fringes of society, who are simply trying to provide for their families and bust their humps for a little piece of the American dream. “Save the Farm” is also part of Cinema Libre’s “earthNow!” series, so it can be accessed via www.CinemaLibreStore.com, where the promo code “CinemaLibre2011” is good for 25 percent off of any title. For even more information, visit www.SaveTheFarmMovie.com.
Almost as indefatigable as zombies themselves is the zombie genre. In fact, one kind of feels that if the world were to actually be overrun by zombies, it wouldn’t be long before zombie filmmakers emerged, to chronicle stories of their flesh-eating malaise. “The Devil’s Playground” is a hybrid horror title, part “28 Days Later,” part big, bad, sci-fi pharmaceutical thriller. Set in London, the story centers on a drug company CEO, Peter White (Colin Salmon), who’s somehow seemingly rammed through some mandatory over-the-counter performance enhancer, RAK-295, after only two months of testing. Of course, those tests have gone terribly wrong, too. In fact, the only volunteer test subject who hasn’t transformed into a raving lunatic is Angela Mills (MyAnna Buring). Though he’s come to regret his involvement, a reluctant mercenary, Cole (Craig Fairbrass), tries to safeguard Angela and a small group of others, including Joe (Danny Dyer), while hell unfolds around them.
It goes without saying that “The Devil’s Playground” isn’t necessarily a painstakingly original film, aimed at artistic sensibilities. But its disregard for basic storytelling fixes and resolutions is pretty breathtaking, given that it wants to unfold in something approximating the real world. It’s admirable that the movie doesn’t tilt entirely toward yawning gore, but that half-credit is repeatedly diminished by the stupid things that the script requires its characters to say and do. The result is an all-around shrug. Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, “The Devil’s Playground” comes to DVD presented in 2.40:1 widescreen, with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track and optional subtitles. A behind-the-scenes featurette runs just under 15 minutes, and finds the film’s director confessing to outside pressure to pump up the movie’s freerunning elements (!). There is also a collection of deleted scenes that runs another four minutes.
Finally, in case further proof that Samuel L. Jackson will do anything for a paycheck was needed, additional evidence arrives in the form of “Arena,” an action film with “Twilight” furrowed-brow master Kellan Lutz. After his pregnant wife (Nina Dobrev) is quickly killed off to establish an audience’s sympathetic identification, Denver firefighter David Lord (Lutz) is drugged and kidnapped by Milla (Katia Winter), who works as a fight recruiter for Jackson’s slickly dressed villain, Logan. Yes, “Arena” is another movie in the long string of concept thrillers — from “The 10th Victim” and “The Running Man” to “Series 7” and “Gamer,” among many more — that posit there’s nothing folks like watching more than random strangers go all warrior on one another, in fights to the death.
So David is told (repeatedly) that his new name is in fact “Death Dealer.” He balks at first, but is eventually forced to engage in bloody duels while groups of discrete Internet watchers (a Korean businessman, a group of American college kids) ooh and ahh over his physique and increasing prowess, and argue over whether all this gory snuff stuff is in fact real. In spite of herself, Milla eventually kind of develops a crush on David, given the amount of time she spends picking shards of glass from his skin, and stapling (yes, stapling) up his wounds. Her crisis of conscience (maybe it’s bad to kidnap people and force them to engage in mortal combat?) puts her increasingly at odds with Logan, who makes “Cool Hand Luke” references and has a pair of Asian twins who handle his IT issues and do his bidding.
“Arena” is fundamentally retarded, but still actually kind of fun in a throwback way. It lacks pretense, and some of its dialogue (a throwaway reference to TPS reports, for “Office Space” fans!) is funny. The action more or less delivers on its set-ups, and Winter, with her cool remove, provides an interesting contrast to Jackson’s hammy theatrics. A shame, then, that “Arena” doesn’t have a better leading man. Lutz has the body (and actually perfects an unintentionally amusing spastic drop for the many times that he gets “tased”), but doesn’t bring a mad, raving lunatic charm to his character, who’s supposed to (understandably) become increasingly divorced from reality. He’s distressingly one-note, in a movie that needs maybe one-and-a-half. On DVD, alas, the movie has no bonus features, just a static menu screen with optional chapter stops. Where’s the EPK interview with Jackson, in which he fails to recollect which movie he’s actually shooting? Forget the fights to the death. Me, I’d like to see that.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.