DVD 5/18/10: 44-Inch Chest, The Messenger, Invictus, Gamera: The Giant Monster, The Disappeared, The Spy Next Door

44-Inch Chest (R, 2009, Image)
Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone) may not have the most loving wife (Joanne Whalley as Liz) in the world, but he would be hard-pressed to find better friends than the band of small-time gangsters (Ian McShane, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane) whose company he keeps. When he shares the news of Liz’s unfaithfulness with them, they stalk and kidnap the homewrecker and offer Colin a choice: He can kill the guy who in his mind killed him, or he can spare him so Liz doesn’t hate him forever and maybe, just maybe, takes him back. What follows is a clinic on how to do something with almost nothing. “44-Inch Chest” takes place almost entirely in a single dingy room, and the vast majority of the film is talk rather than action. But from that talk comes an absolutely supreme dissection not only of a guy who barely can comprehend where his mind is at in light of being cheated on, but also one of friends who dance between compassion and machismo in an attempt to comfort their friend while trying to slap some manhood back into him. The cast plays the parts to perfection, and the mood darts between dark drama and dark comedy without showing its seams. All the while, the mystery of Colin’s choice hangs above the proceedings, giving “Chest” a near-overload of sensory satisfaction despite almost never even changing locations. Tallied up, it puts like-minded movies with bigger budgets but bankrupt imaginations to complete shame.
Extras: Director commentary, director interview, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Messenger (R, 2009, Oscilloscope)
No one would blame you for having experienced a bit of Iraq War movie fatigue by now, but that’s more a testament to the multitude of movies harboring the same themes than any sign of a complete fulfillment of storytelling niches the war offers. In that respect, “The Messenger” feels fresh not only because it takes place entirely in America, but also because it zeroes in on a sacred assignment — the act of soldiers (Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster) informing families that their loved ones died in combat — we’ve seen dramatized ad nauseam but rarely utilized as anything more than dressing. Naturally, there’s more here than just a series of encounters with devastated families, and a large portion of “The Messenger” deals with the lives of our two soldiers — who fought, respectively, in the first and second Gulf Wars — and what effect their assignment has on some already messy personal lives. That’s all well and good, and Harrelson and Foster do stellar jobs of giving those messes a serious pulse. But “The Messenger’s” best trick is the way it continually returns the focus to the task at hand and shows, rather than simply uses the soldiers to discuss, the soul-crushingly rote exercise that wreaks personal havoc on the issuer of the news as well as the recipient. Repetition and spinning in circles rarely works in a film’s favor at all, but in this case, it’s the best of a great many good qualities. Samantha Morton also stars.
Extras: A documentary, “Notification,” about U.S. Army Casualty Notification Officers. Also: Director/producer/Harrelson/Foster commentary, cast/crew Q&A, shooting scrip, behind-the-scenes feature.

Invictus (PG-13, 2009, Warner Bros.)
The true stories that comprise “Invictus” — Nelson Mandela’s (Morgan Freeman) return to power, South Africa’s return to the international sports scene, the country’s hosting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup and its team’s unfathomable transformation from zeroes to cup contenders — pretty much are a Hollywood script without Hollywood having to lift a finger. And that’s kind of the problem we have here: Beyond dramatizing the story as only a big-budget Hollywood production can, “Invictus” really doesn’t do a thing. All the ingredients of a good polish are here: Freeman’s a dead ringer for Mandela, and his castmates (Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Matt Stern and Leleti Khumalo, among others) are generally terrific. Key points in the story’s history receive beautiful replication, and the rugby action provides a nice showcase for a sport that, at least in America, rarely gets one. But while most of “Invictus” shines with elegance, almost nothing benefits from of any kind of risk or unique narrative bent. The story flow is biopictography by the numbers, and while we don’t need to see these characters in unflattering light, the script rarely attempts to show them even as fallible beings who speak in anything other than pieces of grand speeches. That may not matter, and perhaps those who are completely uninitiated won’t mind the straightforward history lesson. But those who already know how “Invictus” ends and are hoping for a fresh perspective with some teeth won’t find much fulfillment here.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Gamera: The Giant Monster (NR, 1965, Shout Factory)
The great thing about a fan-minded DVD imprint like Shout Factory is that it doesn’t wait for the movie reboot, toy or video game tie-in to bring an old not-quite classic into the DVD age. Case in point: This 1965 Japanese monster movie, which is to the “Godzilla” films what GoBots were to Transformers. In true mid-20th century monster movie form, “Gamera: The Giant Monster” — which finds the giant monster wreaking havoc in the wake of a Cold War-fueled nuclear accident — isn’t a mark of pristine script detailing or high production budgets. It also lacks any qualms whatsoever about borrowing from the franchise that inspired its creation. But that’s the beautiful thing about cheesy black-and-white movies about gigantic monsters: No one watching really cares. “Gamera” is tremendous fun in its own stupid way, and if the mark of a great film is that it’s fun to watch, then this may as well be a classic after all.
Extras: “Gamera” retrospective, image gallery, liner notes and audio commentary from “Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters” author August Ragone.

The Disappeared (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
There are moody films, there are brooding films, there are downright dreary films, and then there are films that, like “The Disappeared,” can’t resist touching all three bases en route to a grand slam of bleakness. It’s not entirely unearned: When “Disappeared” begins, Matthew (Harry Treadaway) is heading home from a mental hospital weeks after a lazy attempt at babysitting resulted in his young brother’s apparent kidnapping and possible murder. Matthew hears his brother’s voice calling for his help at odd times, and when he isn’t seeing and communicating with what might be delusions by day, he’s embroiled in nightmares by night. Attempts to find his brother and reclaim his sanity are further clouded by cruel bullies, nosey locals, crumbling relations with his father (Greg Wise) and seemingly only friend (Tom Felton), and a girl (Ros Leeming) who may or may not a whole movie’s worth of trouble of her own. Were the mystery that dangles in front of “Disappeared’s” every minute not so unsettlingly enticing, the film’s oppressively dour mood would be a killer. For those whose buzz can take only so much killing in 97 minutes’ time, it still may be. But the mystery ultimately validates the mood. “Disappeared” teases just enough at just the right rate to prevent dreariness from eating it alive, and the payoff at the end, though a bit over the top, rewards viewers who stick with it.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features.

The Spy Next Door (PG, 2010, Lions Gate)
There’s a reason stars are called stars. There’s also a reason Jackie Chan’s name gets top billing all to itself on “The Spy Next Door,” which stars Chan as a soon-to-be-retired undercover government spy who masquerades as a dorky pen salesmen and is fighting a losing battle to win favor of his could-be wife’s (Amber Valletta) disapproving children. “Spy” is a kids movie, but it’s one of thos
e kids movies even kids can predict inside out, and between the mostly tired humor, downright exhausted character stereotypes and a couple of kids (Madeline Carroll, Will Shadley) who talk like obnoxious adults for two-thirds of the journey, there’s a lot not to like here. The only saving grace, naturally, is Chan, who is charming even when the script leaves him with nothing. He also makes the most of his infrequent chances to put on a great stunt show. That effort isn’t enough to make “Spy” anywhere near great, especially early on when those kids are committing acts of verbal violence against our intelligence, but for parents and siblings who might be stuck watching along, it at least provides something. George Lopez and Alina Foley (as the only likable kid) also star.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.