DVD 1/4/11: Catfish, Bitter Feast, Howl, Machete, And Soon the Darkness, Dinner for Schmucks

Catfish (PG-13, 2010, Rogue/Universal)
The ability to create and compose a film is no small gift, but sometimes the best documentaries are the ones that happen because someone was fortunate enough to be in the right place and time with a camera rolling. “Catfish” began life with filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost documenting the rising fortunes of Ariel’s photographer brother Nev, who had a photo published in The New York Sun and, a few months later, received a painting of that photo from an admiring stranger. That mailing led to a relationship with the sender over Facebook, which eventually moved to the phone and quickly spread to include multiple members of the sender’s family. Saying any more would constitute spoiling what happens next, and spoiling what happens next would be a crime against what might be the most arresting documentary you see all year. “Catfish’s” theatrical release was accompanied shortly after by news reports expounding on the film’s developments, but if you haven’t seen those reports and don’t know what happens, know this: What you assume about the authenticity of this relationship is probably somewhat on target, but the ensuing details behind that revelation almost certainly are not. The fun of watching “Catfish” is seeing just how strange Nev’s story gets, but the real genius of the film is its effortless ability to separate effect from intent. You’ll have to watch to see exactly what that means, but given how thoroughly entertaining that task is, it isn’t so much a task as an urging. If you like human drama at all, don’t skip this one.
Extra: Lengthy (25 min.) Q&A with the Schulmans and Joost.

Bitter Feast (NR, 2009, Dark Sky Films)
It’s nothing new for a horror movie to give us protagonists who are every bit as unlikable as the villains, but generally it’s due to lazy writing, stereotyping or some other unfortunate reason. But while “Bitter Feast” doesn’t do everything brilliantly, it absolutely reigns supreme at giving us a predator (James LeGros as disgraced restauranteur and television host Peter Gray) and prey (Joshua Leonard as vitriolic food critic and blogger JT Franks, who kicked the first domino of Peter’s eventual downfall) who are completely detestable for all the right reasons. The predicaments and motivations remove all mystery as to why Peter attempts to abduct JT, and on its most superficial level, “Feast” is the culmination of a revenge fantasy — the artist getting even with the critic — that needs no explanation. But what really makes this one special is the diabolically loving care with which “Feast” form both Peter and JT into complete egomaniacal messes. The movie paints two uniquely elaborate pictures of self-loathing and contempt for others, and it makes for some deliriously entertaining scenes before the two even share a scene. The ugliness grows exponentially when the two finally butt heads, and eventually, the concentration of mental instability clouding the air is thick enough to make even those no-brainer motivations completely crumble. “Feast” drags a slight bit when trying to parlay all this darkness into a satisfying conclusion, but it eventually gets there, and while the payoff isn’t quite as fun as the buildup, it’s plenty satisfying enough.
Extras: Crew commentary, alternate ending, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, interview with chef Mario Batali (who pulls cameo duty in the film), portraits of the cast and crew set to music (more entertaining than it sounds).

Howl (NR, 2010, Oscilloscope)
“Howl,” which for good reason takes its title from the Allen Ginsberg poem of the same name, is an example of how to combine the acts of taking and leaving creative liberty into something that’s both fresh and respectful without being contradictory. The entirety of “Howl’s” dialogue comes from published interviews with Ginsberg (played here by James Franco), courtroom transcripts from the trial to determine if the poem is obscene, and the poem itself. Each source provides a different piece of the film’s identity: The interviews take on a documentary-style effect (complete with inspired mock supplementary footage featuring Franco in Ginsberg’s shoes), while the trial feels like an elongated scene from a more traditional film. But it’s the poem itself that fittingly steals the show. “Howl” continually switches from testimony to interview to maintain the relevance of each side’s contribution, and it regularly transitions between the two by reciting a portion of the poem while some terrific and stylistically diverse animated shorts bring Ginsberg’s words to life. “Howl’s” shifting styles provide only limited insight into what drove Ginsberg to write what he wrote, and those with no connection whatsoever to the poem will likely feel no closer to it coming out than they were going in. But as a fresh looks at classics go, “Howl’s” treatment is unique and loving, and those who already embrace the poem shouldn’t miss a chance to see it in a brand-new light. Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels and Mary-Louise Parker also star.
Extras: Franco/directors commentary, research tape audio, Ginsberg (from 1995) and Franco readings of “Howl,” behind-the-scenes feature, directors Q&A, Ginsberg readings of “Sunflower Sutra” and “Pull My Daisy.”

Machete (R, 2010, Fox)
Take a good look at “Machete,” because this might be the only time in history a movie this gruesome comes to us through what, by any other name, is focus testing. “Machete” debuted in 2007 as a mock trailer for the “Grindhouse” double feature, and the two-minute odyssey of former Federale Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo) caught enough fire to spawn its own film. So here we are, and here’s Machete — betrayed by his employer, emotionally gutted by the kingpin (Steven Seagal) who killed his family, and scorching the earth in a payback rampage that, depending on your perspective, is either wondrously insane or ridiculously incoherent. “Machete” attempts some timeliness by dropping the rampage smack in the middle of the illegal immigration conflict, and again, you can interpret the message as farce or a laughable reach for credibility. It’s probably the former, but who knows? And really, who cares? People ate up the trailer because it had guns, knives, Trejo and a shotgun-waving priest (Cheech Marin). The movie, which follows the trailer to the letter, has all that and more, along with a loaded cast (Jessica Alba, Robert De Niro, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan) and the most disgustingly clever demonstration of improvised rope climbing you’ll ever see. “Machete” doesn’t buy all the way into the “Grindhouse” gimmick like its forebears did, but the same sensibility is there, and as long as you don’t penalize it for being what it wants to be, it’s a legitimately good time.
Extras: Audience reaction audio track (brilliant), deleted scenes.

And Soon the Darkness (R, 2010, Anchor Bay)
Movies about abductions have so tackily tried to outgross and out-deprave one another that when something comes along that doesn’t play along, it’s a whole lot more interesting than it probably deserves to be. The flash-forward tease that opens “And Soon the Darkness” — pretty American girl (Odette Yustman as Ellie) in captivity after wondering carelessly around a desolate Argentinian village like it’s New York City — should ring familiar to anyone who has seen any of the many movies that have tread the same ground over the last few years. But after that tease, “Darkness” tries something a little different. Ellie’s friend Stephanie (Amber Heard) accompanies her on the trip, but rather than lump them both into the same predicament, “Darkness” gives Stephanie a chance to be the hero and hunt down her friend’s captors. As a consequence, the movie itself passes on the tired horror devices in favor of being a lean, legitimately tense mystery that allows viewers to hypothe
size about different characters’ intentions instead of wince at the same old acts of horror committed by the same old boring archetypes. “Darkness” can’t completely escape familiarity with regard to its twists and developments, but it builds things up and tears them down in a way that allows even the predictable stuff to make a modest, if unspectacular, splash. Karl Urban, César Vianco and Adriana Barraza also star.
Extras: Crew commentary, deleted scenes, director video diary.

Dinner for Schmucks (NR, 2010, Paramount)
There are two ways to approach “Dinner for Schmucks,” which finds Tim (Paul Rudd) watching dim-witted stranger Barry (Steve Carell) accidentally capsize his life mere hours after recruiting him for a cruel dinner contest in which everyone brings a guest to secretly mock. The first includes a viewing of “The Dinner Game,” the 1998 French film on which “Schmucks” is based. “Game” took place almost entirely in one apartment, merely alluded to the dinner and relied almost exclusively on sharp wit to communicate this destruction. “Schmucks,” by contrast, is a series of hijinks that devotes a fifth of its existence to the dinner, which features a cornucopia of cartoon characters and lunatics. “Game’s” subtlety is nearly excised in favor of spectacle, and for those who rail against the Americanization of perfectly great foreign films, “Schmucks” gets its own page in the pamphlet. But for those who can enjoy each film on its own terms, there’s still something to like here. Mostly, that’s because Carrell plays his part brilliantly, establishing Barry as an undeniable doofus but doing so with a continuous stream of very funny throwaway lines instead of broad comedy and gags. His construction makes him extremely likable, and his likability does wonders to offset the high concentration of contrivance permeating everything else. “Schmucks'” predictably schmaltzy ending asks audiences to do as it preaches rather than as it does, but the delivery of that message is cute enough to forgive (if not forget) its hypocrisy.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers.