Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Mississippi Grind’ – an American original, plus ‘American Ultra’ and ‘Goodnight Mommy’

MissGrind
Lionsgate

Mississippi Grind (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD) plays like a seventies character drama, a meandering road movie through the byways of American characters who populate the card rooms and dice tables and racetracks, and an oddball buddy movie built on a chance encounter and an instant kinship between two losers gambling their lives away. Ryan Reynolds is Curtis, a good looking guy who has all the outward suggestions of a charming hustler, and Ben Mendelsohn is the self-destructive Gerry, killing his nights and his income at cards and sports bookies, betting everything on the fantasy of instant success on a single good night.

These guys are buddies by chance—they meet over a hand of cards and bond over top-shelf whiskey—and travelling companions by impulse when Gerry decides to follow Curtis to a big tournament in New Orleans. Curtis is generous and trusting to a fault, or maybe to a need, and a storyteller whose tales may or may not be in the orbit of reality. He runs in gambling circles for the charge of the action, not just the cards but the byplay, the people, that cardroom culture of oddball personalities. Gerry is a gambling addict and a pathological liar whose past is a wrecking yard of ruined relationships and failed promises and impulsive long shots and whose future is already in hawk to a loan shark (Alfre Woodard in a single scene-stealing appearance).

It could be the darker, bleaker answer to Robert Altman’s California Split, or a card-playing variation on The Color of Money without the calculation or mentorship of a veteran gambler running the show. Filmmaking team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have a knack for finding the patter of dialogue, rhythms of body language, and the expressiveness of silences between the words that communicate what the words can’t, and they offer a great tour of the back hand of the American dream, folks spending their time and money making bets in hopes of making their fortune, but really just hooked on the games and playing until the money is gone.

Blu-ray and DVD with the featurette “Two of a Kind: On the Road with Mississippi Grind” plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (Digital SD for the DVD).

AmericaUltra
Lionsgate

American Ultra (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) reworks The Bourne Identity as a stoner comedy with killer punchline. Jesse Eisenberg is Mike Howell, a sweet, underachieving stoner prone to panic attacks. He’s getting by as a convenience store clerk in a dead-end West Virginia town with a supportive girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who is almost impossibly understanding when it comes to his crippling psychological handicaps, and trying to find the right moment to propose—he can’t believe that she’s still sticking with him and doesn’t want to lose the best thing in his life. And then he’s attacked by two thugs in a parking lot and kills one of them with a plastic spoon.

Clearly we’re in the realm of bloody black comedy, where extreme violence is played for tongue-in-cheek humor (except when it isn’t) and our resourceful sleeper assassin has an inventive ingenuity when it comes to turning random objects into deadly weapons. Mike is the sole survivor of a modern super soldier experiment and some snotty CIA middle-management guy (Topher Grace) with a little too much power decides that Mike, whose memories (but not his killer instincts) have been wiped, is a liability and a threat to his own clockwork killer program, which he puts into the field after another agent (Connie Britton) activates him in hopes of saving his life. The collateral damage is comparable to that of a category 3 hurricane.

Smart-mouthed one-liners and creative killing aside, there’s nothing particularly clever in this take on the spy movie trope, but it does have momentum, a modicum of flair, and some flashy effects that, if not particularly effective, at least energize the project. Still, it’s the terrific, lived-in chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart (who also starred together in the superb Adventureland) that sustains the enterprise and they are up for anything the film throws at them. The cascade of cruelly creative carnage gets a little numbing after a while and the filmmakers—director Nima Nourizadeh and screenwriter Max Landis—aren’t committed enough to believe their own cynicism, but Eisenberg and Stewart make this one true romance I believe in.

Blu-ray and DVD with filmmaker commentary, two featurettes, and a gag reel, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (Digital SD for the DVD). Also on Cable-On-Demand and Video-On-Demand.

GoodnightMom
Anchor Bay

Goodnight Mommy (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is an unsettling horror film built on scars (physical and psychological) that upset the connection between a mother (Susanne Wuest) and her sons, adolescent twins named Lukas and Elias played by real-life twin brothers Lukas Schwarz and Elias Schwarz. That fraternal connection is apparent in every scene, not just affection but the easy physical and emotional relationship between them, a sharp contrast to the void between them and their mother, who returns home from the hospital with her head covered in bandages from unspecified surgery.

Mom returns a changed woman, or so we gather from the brothers, who find her cold, aloof, demanding in a way she never was before. She locks them in their room like a fairytale wicked stepmother and even refuses to make dinner for Lukas, the quiet one who drives the suspicion that this woman is an imposter. Yet every time the suspicion tips to conspiracy or possession, filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz tilt the scales in the other direction, offering a glimpse into mom’s troubles. She’s recently separated from her husband and this hospitalization (what is it? Cosmetic surgery, or something more serious?) only adds to her trauma, while the boys get lost deeper into their own private world.

There’s an element of unreality to the situation—why have the boys been left alone while mom was in the hospital, and if she needs such isolation and rest for recovery, why no nurse for her or nanny to watch over the kids, or at least a friend to drop over for comfort or a helping hand—but that isolation is also essential to the anxious atmosphere. Apart from a delivery man with a cache of frozen food and a couple of shuffling Red Cross volunteers seeking donations, they are cut off from the outside world and the filmmakers make the house increasingly alien and eerie. The psychological turns physical, all the more terrifying because it is so direct and intimate, a chamber drama of suspicion and desperation built on fear. Where is mama indeed.

On Blu-ray and DVD, in German with English subtitles, with the featurette “A Conversation with Filmmakers.” Also on Cable-On-Demand and Video-On Demand.

Videophiled: ‘Still Alice’

Sony

Still Alice (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Julianne Moore won her first Academy Award (after four nominations since Boogie Nights in 1998) playing a renowned linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and starts to experience her identity, her sense of self, slipping away. It’s the kind of performance that doesn’t just support a film, it gives the film its breath of life.

Dr. Alice Howland is in the prime of life: happily married to a fellow academic (Alec Baldwin), the mother of three grown children, an expert in her field, and a professor at a respected university where she enjoys teaching. It comes on slowly: losing a word while giving a lecture, misplacing items, forgetting appointments, and finally getting lost on a routine jog across the campus that’s a second home to her. When the worst is confirmed by a neurologist, the denial is replaced with coping mechanisms, though even those are a temporary measure as the decline speeds up and that sharp intellect softens and falters, along with her own body. As she loses her identity along with her memories and her attention span, her eyes start to fog over and her body seems to collapse into itself, deflating like fragile old woman aging before her time. She becomes something of a ghost of her former self and it is heartbreaking, thanks to the depth and nuance with which Moore inhabits the mental and physical deterioration.

Adapted from a novel by Lisa Genova with compassion and sensitivity, this was clearly a labor of love from Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, partners in filmmaking and in life (they married in 2013). Glatzer co-directed while his body was breaking down from complications of ALS and died a few months after the film was released. It’s hard to imagine that Moore’s commitment to the role wasn’t in some way touched by his ordeal.

Kristen Stewart stands out from a fine cast as Alice’s youngest daughter, a free spirit who cuts through the denial to sustain whatever is left of her mother for as long as she can while her siblings seem to distance themselves, as if it were a communicable disease (it’s actually genetic, which means one of them may have inherited the condition—another prime arena for denial). So long dismissed for the Twilight films, Stewart is a smarter and more engaged actress than she’s often given credit for and she suggests a history behind this quietly resilient mother-daughter bond.

The rest of the film is admirable but never as nuanced or as rich as Moore’s performance. The cocoons of success, supportive family, and an academic and medical community that provides the best care available in New York can’t stop or even slow the ravages of the disease but it does provide a support net greater than any of us will know. Maybe that makes her inevitable decline even more affecting, but it does give us reassurance that even as she loses herself, her family will not forget her.

Blu-ray and DVD with the featurettes “Directing Alice” and “Finding Alice” and an interview with the composer. Also available on Cable On Demand and digital VOD.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

DVDs for 07/20/10 – The Runaways and Panic in the Toybox

I shine a light on two ends of the artistic spectrum on DVD and Blu-ray in spotlight pieces on my blog this week—the cinematic glories of Powell and Pressberger’s The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus and the exploitation creativity of the Roger Corman-produced drive-in knock-offs Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World. Here’s what else has been released.

Meet the Runaways

The Runaways (Sony) – The Runaways may have been more phenomenon than phenomenal but the hard-rocking quintet of teenage girls made their mark on the music world with a blast of grrrl power and teen rebellion. They were tossed into the culture in 1976 as a gimmick—the original all-girl rock band (and I do mean “girl” – they were all under eighteen when they released their first single)—and they delivered a mix of punk attitude and sexual tease. More importantly, they were inspiration to aspiring female rockers all over. The promotion was largely exploitation but the music—their music—was their voice of frustration and empowerment in a male-dominated world.

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New review: Adventureland

Adventureland (dir/scr: Greg Mottola)

Adventureland is more than just a chintzy theme park outside of Pittsburg, where college grad James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) spends a summer trying to save money for graduate school. It’s the real world adventures of life in the space between college and independence, that place where you think that you’re an adult but have yet to live outside of the bubble.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart

Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical coming of age comedy is as smart and perceptive as they come. It could be Superbad four years later, where the smart kid has embraced college and left his high-school world and identity far behind. College grad James reads poetry for pleasure, has been accepted to post-grad journalism school at Columbia and plans a summer bopping around Europe with his college buddies. Until his parents break the bad news: Dad has been demoted (this is the pre-downsizing generation) and the once upper-middle-class lifestyle loses a prefix. The European summer romp becomes a working vacation and he’s pulled back into the working class environs that he thought he left behind. If he’d given it any thought at all, that is. James hasn’t been all that aware of class and it’s clear that he got through college without a part-time job or work study. He’s unqualified for any job but Adventureland, a rickety park just a few notches above a county fair midway, and he’s sized up immediately by the park manager (Bill Hader, behind a mustache that deserves its own screen credit) as a “games” man, working rigged games in the midway, where “nobody wins a big-ass panda.”

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