DVD 1/13/09: Swing Vote, Mirrors, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Brideshead Revisited, Humboldt County

Swing Vote (PG-13, 2008, Touchstone)
You might be surprised to discover that “Swing Vote” — that seemingly dumb comedy about a do-nothing, always-drunk single dad (Kevin Costner) who, due to a voting machine glitch, gets to cast the deciding vote in the Presidential election — runs a few ticks shy of two full hours. But the marketing only told half the story. For one thing, “Vote” isn’t just a comedy. The setup is completely improbable, what happens next almost cartoonishly absurd, but “Vote” finds some impossible way to actually rebuild itself mid-step as a pretty sly (and somewhat prophetic, given similarities to real stories that developed after the film’s completion) allegory for the real-life absurdity that is our electoral process. That’s no easy feat considering the film’s simultaneous desire to please both sides of a bitterly-divided populace without skirting the rhetoric that created that divide. “Vote” pulls it off, rather ingeniously, by squaring its focus on our drunk antihero’s daughter (Madeline Carroll). Anytime “State” threatens to inspire cynicism, disbelief or accusations of oversimplification, there she is, stealing scene after scene from a cast of heavyweights (Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, Stanley Tucci, Paula Patton, George Lopez) and reminding all concerned why all this silly stuff matters in the first place. Not bad for a dumb comedy.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Mirrors (NR, 2008, Fox)
Think Kiefer Sutherland is happy to be back in Jack Bauer’s shoes this week? It certainly beats being disgraced cop Ben Carson, who is biding his time as a night watchman at a burnt-down department store while waiting for a chance to return to the force. Problem is, the mirrors in the store are haunted, vindictive and considerably more hazardous to Ben’s health than his job woes, marital difficulties and prescription drug habit. The absolutely ridiculous premise — and the goofy predicament it leaves Ben in early on — are acceptable on the basis that “Mirrors” is a horror film. But they’re also hard to swallow, because with exception to a successfully creepy opening scene, most of the insanity comes after a chunk of scenes that puts the film on the path of attempted credibility. Ben’s character is credibly sketched, and his circumstances are compelling despite their familiarity. The stabilizing presence of Sutherland and some equally good cast mates (Paula Patton, Amy Smart) only helps. But once “Mirrors” starts letting the bizarre in, that need to take itself seriously doesn’t fade, and the film drags and stumbles by taking on the impossible task of credibly reconciling a bunch of haunted mirrors that can travel through their own dimension and kill at will. There are enough good moments to maintain interest, and the final twist at the end is a worthy payoff. But “Mirrors” would have helped itself by going full crazy and trimming some fat off a runtime that, at nearly two hours, is too much for the premise to sustain.
Extras: Deleted/alternate scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life (NR, 2008, Palm Pictures)
If you looked at the title of this DVD and your first question was in the “Wait, who is Patti Smith?” vein, you are cleared to skip the rest of this review. “Patti Smith: Dream of Life” is, indeed, a look into the life and mind of the legendary musician, but it in no way is designed as a starting point or even any kind of biopic. Smith ruminates on her life’s and career’s beginnings, touches on some significant stops along the way, and gifts fans with some candid footage surrounding her return to the stage she’d left years prior. All that, along with a truly endearing series of scenes in which Smith discusses and visits with her family, serve as a gift for fans who may not be used to seeing her in these lights. For everyone else, though, “Life” is a significantly more difficult picture to enjoy. Scenes crash into one another without setup or context, the film freely meanders between poetry recitations and biographical narrations without warning, and anyone searching for some actual music will be dismayed by the sparse amount on display here. “Life” isn’t a proper concert film any more than it is a proper biopic, and there isn’t anything wrong with that, either. Not every movie is made with everybody in mind, and this one just so happens to target its audience more sharply than most.
Extras: Deleted scenes, interview with Smith’s son, raw footage montage.

Brideshead Revisited (PG-13, 2008, Miramax)
You can watch “Brideshead Revisited,” but if you do, you should realize you are settling. “Revisited” attempts to present the 1945 book (and 11-hour 1981 miniseries) of the same name in movie form, and it makes an admirable effort to balance time management and effect in doing so. But like any film that attempts to cram so much content into so little time, “Revisited” has to cut corners. And when your source material is a dense, 21-year exploration of desire, faith, social mores and the need to shatter or obey them, going the Cliff’s Notes route is a dangerous endeavor. All that necessary clipping leaves “Revisited” with the less-than-enviable task of trying to create a sizzling love story without the context needed to give it weight, and if the dry exchanges and mostly muted performances are any indication, the film never felt it had any chance of rising to meet that challenge. The end result is a solid two hours of storytelling, but very little more than that. If you want the full treatment, your options lie elsewhere. Emma Thompson, Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell and Michael Gambon star.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Humboldt County (R, 2008, Magnolia)
Mere hours after his own father (Peter Bogdanovich) had to flunk him out of medical school, Peter Hadley (Jeremy Strong) finds himself, one chance encounter with a girl named Bogart (Fairuza Balk) later, on her friends’ pot farm with a handful of farmers (Brad Dourif, Chris Messina and Frances Conroy, among others) who don’t appear to want him there. Unfortunately for all involved, Bogart bailed without a word, and the uptight former med student and a farm full of weary hippies are stuck with each other until she sees fit to return. Given the comedic beginnings, it’s natural to assume “Humboldt County” is just another movie about a square who learns to loosen up. But “County” dares to be different, forgoing laughs and even smiles by using a collection of mostly hostile and unlikable characters to preach the virtues of their way of living. The film lays it on so thick, in fact, that if Peter had been even remotely interesting in his own right, we might be compelled to root against “County’s” transparent message. But he’s an unlikable bore as well, so it’s a draw. The only truly selfless act that happens in “County” is vilified, the only truly interesting character disappears after one act, and if “County” is attempting to teach a lesson about the values of humanity, the joyless and insulting final scene proves just how laughably unqualified it is to handle such matters.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.