DVD 3/3/09: Dead in 3 Days, Australia, Weapons, Lake City, The Axe in the Attic, In the Electric Mist

Dead in 3 Days (R, 2006, Dimension Extreme)
Say, have you ever heard the one about the group of not-entirely-likable teens (Sabrina Reiter, Michael Steinocher, Laurence Rupp, Julia Rosa Stöckl, Nadja Vogel) who live in a quiet town that suddenly falls prey to an unknown killer bent on picking them off? Yes, you have, and if you check out “Dead in 3 Days,” you will again. The film’s title is explained in short order, but beyond that little gimmick (which won’t be spoiled here), “Days” appears headed down the same tired path entirely too many other horror films have taken. But as soon as that sobering revelation appears to accrue merit, a little twist gives “Days” just enough promise and wiggle room to keep it interesting and add some dimension to a cast of victims who become more interesting (and even a little likable) as time passes. Little wrinkles like this aren’t enough to make “Days” a game-changer, but they do give the film enough personal flavor to make the outcome worth one’s engagement. What the story can’t do, the characters can, and that’s almost more of an accomplishment given how many horror films utterly fail in that department. In German with English subtitles and an optional English dub. No extras.

Australia (PG-13, 2008, Fox)
Was Fox really surprised that a 165-minute Baz Luhrmann period piece — about a cattle driver (Hugh Jackman) and a socialite (Nicole Kidman), no less — couldn’t pack theaters? No matter: It’s moot now, and if you developed a passing interest in “Australia” but lack the attention span required to experience it in theaters, you’re now cleared to enjoy it in pieces on DVD. But even with the comfort of a DVD remote close at hand, it’s hard to imagine why — beyond the complete self-indulgence of an already self-indulgent filmmaker paying tribute to both his homeland and cinema’s golden age — this film runs so long. “Australia” is, in the tradition of that era’s most momentous films, bulging with romance, drama, action, suspense and most every other adjective one can cram into a trailer. But it’s equally rigged with downtime and detours that serve only to elongate slow marches to predictable conclusions. Like any Luhrmann labor of love, “Australia” has some moments of true cinematic wonder, and feel-good scenes you see coming a mile away can still make one feel good if painted with the stylish, loving strokes Luhrmann so expertly dishes out. Just be prepared to take the good with the banal — and perhaps take a break altogether — if you want to bear witness to those moments. Brandon Walters, Bryan Brown and David Wenham, among others, also star.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Weapons (NR, 2008, Lions Gate)
Hungry for a dichotomy? How about a character film with no truly likable characters? That’s the dilemma “Weapons” — which uses multiple characters’ (Nick Cannon, Paul Dano, Mark Webber, Regine Nehy) perspectives to explain the run-up to a revenge killing we witness fairly early on — faces. Centering the story around a group of teens who range from listless to objectionable to repulsive presents something of an uphill battle, and the predictable arrival of certain misunderstandings merely compounds whatever outrage one might feel in the first place. But that, as you might have guessed, is the idea. “Weapons'” characters aren’t pretty, but they are thoroughly sketched, and the film uses all that detailed ugliness to piece together a picture of hopeless entanglement that’s bigger than any single one of them. That, in turn, translates into a relentlessly tense story that expertly feeds on the same nastiness that makes you want to turn it off. Good luck doing that, by the way, once you see what happens in the very first scene. Riley Smith, Jade Yorker, Amy Ferguson and Brandon Smith also star. No extras.

Lake City (R, 2008, Screen Media)
One bum character is all it takes sometimes to undermine a scene, regardless of who else is sharing that scene and what else is going on. Unfortunately for “Lake City,” its downer character also happens to be its main character — a mopey recovering alcoholic named Billy (Troy Garity) who, for reasons unknown as the movie begins, is fleeing a whole mess of bad news while watching after a child (Colin Ford) who purportedly isn’t his. “City” has a lot going for it. The aforementioned mess becomes more interesting as details reveal themselves, in no small part due to Dave Matthews’ (yes, that Dave Matthews) excellent turn as the lynchpin of the whole thing. A second set of unraveling mysteries involving Billy and his mother (Sissy Spacek) is similarly interesting. But “City” can’t make the leap from interesting to engrossing because it’s saddled with a central character whose mile-long face sucks the air out of every room it enters and keeps us at bay whenever the film creates an opening for our sympathies. The sum total is a pretty good movie, but also one that suffers from the effect of unfinished business — be it because too many plotlines get jammed together or because a crucial ingredient of each of them completely misses the empathetic mark. Rebecca Romijn and Drea de Matteo also star. No extras.

The Axe in the Attic (NR, 2007, Indiepix)
Sometimes, all that separates a documentary from greatness is interference from the very people making it. “The Axe in the Attic,” which examines multiple facets of the local and national fallout after Hurricane Katrina, suffers from this complex more explicitly than most. The initial concept — traveling from the Northeast on down and letting survivors tell their story — is very obviously sound, and when “Attic” just lets that happen, the results are a mix of intimate, sad, stirring and even uplifting. Unfortunately, filmmakers Ed Pincus and Lucia Small absolutely cannot resist getting in the picture. They talk down to some subjects, have conversations with each other that belong on the cutting room floor, too often make the movie about them, and intrude on the images they film by preaching at viewers who don’t need to be told what the film has the capacity to just shut up and show. It’s as if Pincus and Small can’t see what’s in front of them and are trying to add sizzle to a story that would be better served by the humanity that sneaks through. “Attic’s” best scenes make it ostensibly easy to recommend, but the infuriating intrusions, which only grow as the film soldiers on, inspire the complete opposite reaction. In other words, this call is up to you.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary and update, deleted scenes, two short films, film festival Q&A footage, interactive journey map.

In the Electric Mist (R, 2008, Image Entertainment)
This, on paper, should work. Actually, it already does: “In the Electric Mist” is based on one of James Lee Burke’s many Dave Robicheaux (Tommy Lee Jones) novels, and the sum total of all those pages is a heavily fleshed-out main character in the capable hands of an actor fit to communicate his every nuance. But while Robicheaux’s character is a topic of consistent scrutiny, “Mist” is more interested in the murders — some recent, one in particular dating back some 40 years — that are buried beneath a tangle of secrets, corruption and even mob influence. That’s a playground of dependable movie themes. But “Mist” navigates through it with the dry, deliberate pace of a police procedural, spending a considerable amount of time building up the flavor of the New Orleans setting and, at least during the early going, doing a whole lot more telling than showing. That probably makes for a good read, but be it through dry writing or dry acting from a loaded cast (John Goodman, Peter Sarsgaard, Kelly Macdonald, Mary Steenburgen), it falls completely flat in this incarnation. Robicheaux’s delusional conversations with dead Confederate soldiers, meanwhile, come off as completely laughable, and by the time everything clicks and “Mist” heats up, it’s hard to care about the consequences at hand. No extras.