Thursday, December 23, 2010

New on DVD/Blu-ray: "The American," "Barry Munday," "Salt," and "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"



The American (2010) 
105 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Those expecting another Bourne or Bond action-thriller out of "The American" with George Clooney's star value will be disappointed. Very much the opposite, and to its favor, "The American" is a quiet, broody slow-burn with an artful, European style that makes it very un-American. A taciturn Clooney plays Jack (or is it Edward?), a hitman and arms specialist who just wants to live a normal life but keeps putting himself and his friends at risk. His stone-faced boss in Rome sends him to a small hilltop village in Abruzzo, Italy, instructing Jack to lay low, but he's an American. 

Though Jack is pretty much a cipher, Clooney dials down his cool Danny Ocean swagger into something dead calm and internal. The camera plays on Clooney's face, which emotes a lot of small, subtle feeling. Dutch director Anton Corbijn, whose filmography consists of music videos for U2 and Depeche Mode, makes beautiful use of the Italian countryside and the prologue's snowy Sweden landscape, and the women are sexy. Violante Placido is an alluring presence with mystery and sympathy as Clara, a prostitute Jack favors but questions whether or not she can be trusted. But Irina Bjorklund and Thekla Reuten, one as his former lover and the other a female assassin, are interchangeable in looks. Sparse on dialogue and action, "The American" boldly does what most hitman movies usually don't, let alone ones directed by music-video makers. Sometimes breaking the silence on occasion is a chase scene or the sudden sounds of a gun silencer, waiting for something to happen, but the film excels more in mood, atmosphere, and tension. 

Based on Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman, "The American" doesn't gain much interest with plot, and it's just as well, since it's another story about a hit man that can never retire no matter how hard he tries. A butterfly motif is on-the-nose and a tad silly but never knocks you over the head either. If you take "The American" for what it is, not a slam-bang actioner but a carefully assembled film with a powerful and satisfying ending that most Hollywood one-last-job assassin thrillers can't even conceive.



Barry Munday (2010)
93 min., rated R.
Grade: C 


Patrick Wilson, uncharacteristically cast, plays the title character Barry Munday, a nine-to-five office schmuck who drools over women like a horndog. After he loses his testicles in an assault by trumpet in a movie theater (don't ask), Barry gets dropped in by mousy but bitter Ginger Farley (Judy Greer), who claims she's pregnant with his baby. He has no recollection of this sexual conquest, but Ginger's only had intercourse once in her life. "Barry Munday" had potential to be an amusing, quirky romp, not because its premise is fresh—a whoopsy pregnancy with a loser—but the cast couldn't be full of more talented people with comedy chops. Jean Smart is warmly funny as Barry's earthy mother, but Cybill Shepherd, Malcolm McDowell, Chloe Sevigny, and Colin Hanks are stranded by this dumb material from first-time writer-director Chris D'Arienza (based on Frank Turner Hollon's novel “Life Is a Strange Place”). And wasn't one overplayed water-birth scene enough this year (Jennifer Lopez's J.Lo point in "The Back-up Plan")? 

That's why it's a shame no one can really work any miracles with these buffoonish characters and meaningless gags and side trips. The funniest moments in the film involve Barry at a testicular loss support group, featuring a cameo by Kyle Gass, and then Greer's facial punchline at the end of a sex scene. There are attempts at the lead bumbling idiot making a life change to be a cuddly dad and to make us feel sorry for Ginger. But by then it's too late: "Barry Munday" hasn't the cajones.


Salt (2010)
93 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B


“Who is Salt?” the tagline on the poster and all the billboards asks. Why, she's like a Bourne or a Bond with breasts. Going in, you know you'll have to suspend disbelief and that it's going to be unabashedly ridiculous, but "Salt" is an exciting and entertaining action yarn that goes good with popcorn, like the sodium-heavy condiment. Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, originally written for a male lead, a top CIA agent in Washington, D.C. who's accused of being a Russian spy by an interrogation subject. From there, it's run, Eve, run. 

"Salt" is a solid showcase for Jolie who, though playing a cipher, throws herself into any over-the-top chase stunt and brings a primal athleticism; it was reported she performed most of her own stunts. The straight-faced, pillow-lipped Lara Croft anti-heroine owns the screen, whether she's leaping off a bridge onto a moving semi, or ingeniously getting a cop to drive with the help of a stun gun. Director Phillip Noyce finesses the action well, without much apparent CGI, and makes sure it moves like a speeding bullet. Kurt Wimmer's script has some twists and surprises, one of which isn't all that surprising when you have a good actor cast in a thankless role. Sure, it could've been less self-serious and you can call balderdash!, but do it and miss most of the fun. 



Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
130 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

The iconic Gordon Gekko is on his way out of prison and he's back, babe, in Oliver Stone's watchable, albeit uneven and overstuffed, sequel "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" to his timelessly seductive 1987 portrait of greed and money on the Street. He's finished a 8-year sentence in pre-9/11 2001 for insider trading and financial corruption, and jail, he says, is the best thing that ever happened to him even if he still gets that gleam in his eye when it comes to getting rich. 

Douglas owns this role with the same slickness, and not coincidentally, the character calls up the actor's real life of cancer and his son involved in drugs. Shia LaBeouf holds his own, though lightweight against Douglas, as Jake, a green but ambitious market trader promoting green energy, idolizing his Wall St. boss and father figure (Frank Langella), who commits suicide. After attending a lecture of Gekko peddling his new book, Jake finds a new mentor in his sociopathic future father-in-law that thinks “greed is good.” Jake's engaged to Gekko's estranged daughter, Winnie (dewy-eyed Carey Mulligan), a “lefty Web site” muckraker who hates Wall Street (and you know why). Mulligan is lovely, honest, and nuanced as Winnie, Josh Brolin gets a juicy turn as a billionaire partner at a rival investment bank (the new baddie), veteran Eli Wallach is great as a whistling insider, and Charlie Sheen makes an amusing cameo as Bud Fox from the original. Susan Sarandson isn't put to sufficient use as Jake's real-estate mom but gets in some scenery-chewing, and Langella's presence haunts the film even after he signs out. 

Despite goosing it with propulsive energy, Stone has to work with a convoluted script that dabbles in a little bit of everything, and some oddly overdone editing choices like split-screens play against his direction. There are heavy-handed touches (bubble symbolism, Langella superimposed next to LaBeouf in a mirror), but cell phones get some good laughs here, from the opening sight of Gekko's so-'80s cell it might as well be an artifact, to Jake's "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" ring tone. Also, the happy ending is too easy and compromising for this story and too gutless for Gekko himself. Best of all, this movie looks great with a glossy sheen. The world didn't need a "Wall Street" sequel, though there are worse sequels out there, like the much-belated "Basic Instinct 2" (with Douglas's former co-star Sharon Stone), and though it pales against its predecessor, "Money Never Sleeps" is still entertaining and relevant: out with the old and in with the new.


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