New On DVD: The Last Exorcism, Machete, Case 39, Catfish, Dinner for Schmucks, Howl

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(Capsule reviews by J. Hoberman, Dan Kois, Karina Longworth, Nick Pinkerton and Chuck Wilson.)

The Last Exorcism With a small, well-chosen cast, sly script, and slippery, ambivalent characters, The Last Exorcism gives a welcome twist to the demonic possession movie. A fourth-generation minister, Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) has grown out of the trembling faith of his forebears. As The Last Exorcism begins, we follow Cotton through a day-in-the-life, shot from a documentary film crew's handheld p.o.v. The filmmakers have come to track Cotton on an expose mission. The end of a line of exorcists, Cotton has decided to give away the game on the practice.

Cotton and crew follow a request for divine intervention to the Sweetzer farm in Ivanwood, Louisiana. When Cotton calls the backcountry "a perfect breeding ground for demons and evil," you can hear the scare quotes around the "demons" and "evil," antique words synonymous with ignorance. But the past isn't past with Sweetzer patriarch Louis (Louis Herthum), concerned about daughter Nell (Ashley Bell), who's been having mysterious blackouts, after which livestock are found slaughtered. Cotton delivers his casting-out-of-demons spiel, then collects his payment. But this doesn't quick-fix Nell, now going through violent sleepwalk seizures and gymnastic contortions. A well-paced tease, the script is a succession of slow approaches to understanding what's happening, with each new understanding revealing a false bottom. The suspense is ideological--is this a world of documentary pragmatism or horror irrationality? Either everything has a textbook explanation in shame and repression--or we must heed the immortal words of the Louvin Brothers and believe that Satan is Real. (N.P.)

100 minutes Rated PG-13

Machete Things you should know going in: Mexicans like hydraulics in their cars, and white people assume all Mexicans are janitors or gardeners. Created by Robert Rodriguez for Danny Trejo, Machete--a leather-faced, ex-Federale turned down-and-dirty hitman turned violent crusader on behalf of his fellow illegal immigrants, a would-be superhero envisioned as a "Mexican Jean-Claude Van Damme or Charles Bronson"--first appeared in Grindhouse's trailer for a Machete film that didn't exist--yet. In the trailer, Machete is hired by slick operative Jeff Fahey to kill an anti-immigration senator, only to be "set up, double-crossed, and left for dead." Machete the movie stretches the narrative to 105 minutes, filling the extra space with PG-13 suggestions of sex, social satire, and star power and is made with a laziness that's so overt it seems to be part of the joke, to the point where certain shots are straight recycled from the fake trailer, including an orgy scene in a pool featuring an uncredited blonde playing the character played by Lindsay Lohan in other scenes. When Machete isn't laugh-out-loud funny, it's deadly boring. The best that can be said is that its makers are self-aware about its superficiality, and even nod to it in an exchange between Jessica Alba and Trejo in the final scene. "You can be a real person," she says. His response: "Why would I want to be a real person, when I'm already a myth?" (K.L.)

105 minutes Rated R

Case 39 Ten-year-old Lilith's parents (Callum Keith Rennie and Kerry O'Malley, both terrific) want to "send her to Hell," which must be why they're digging that deep hole in the cellar. Called out to investigate a report of abuse, Portland social worker Emily Jenkins (Renee Zellweger) takes a shine to pretty and sweet but demonic Lilith (Jodelle Ferland), who comes to live with Emily after the folks fail in their attempt to burn their daughter alive in the kitchen oven (which is conveniently large). Director Christian Alvart (Pandorum) stages the kid-in-the-oven scene with gusto, and also has fun with a death-by-swarming-hornets sequence a bit later, but one wishes he'd brought a similar vigor to trimming down Ray Wright's (The Crazies) dull-witted screenplay. Case 39, which was reportedly filmed in 2006 and then shelved by unenthused studio execs, has some genuinely creepy moments, but it's way too long, and often slows to a crawl as Emily and her colleagues, played by Bradley Cooper and Ian McShane, talk, talk, talk about whether it could possibly be Lilith who's prompting those around her to commit murder and suicide. Has there ever been a more inept trio of big-city caseworkers? Go ahead, Lilith. Unleash the hounds. (C.W.)

109 minutes Rated R

Catfish Catfish comes in at 89 minutes--just long enough to sustain the suspense in a setup that starts to play out like pure vérité horror (or "reality thriller," as it's being billed), just short enough to retreat from the squirmy destination it arrives at without going further than an ogle and the meaningless non-explanation of the title metaphor. Nev Schulman, a New York City photographer, begins a Facebook relationship with a precocious eight-year old painter living in Michigan--then her mother, and her flirtatious 19-year-old sister. The entire process, including a developing Inbox courtship with sis Megan, is documented by Schulman's brother, Ariel, and friend, Henry Joost. Why keep a camera trained on those chat boxes? And why is every fresh revelation toward Nev and Megan's eventual meeting so well-staged? There is much here that is hard to swallow--if the viewer is being fished in, and how honest the filmmakers' surprise at the surprise twists of Catfish is, are things known only to them and God. Whatever the case, the result is a briskly paced and callow film, with its perhaps-unintended subject the yearning for fame and appreciation--the quiet self-pitying desperation of the Michigan Sunday painter, and the loud self-congratulatory desperation of the Schulmans in Manhattan. (N.P.)

89 minutes Rated PG-13

Dinner for Schmucks In Steve Carell's first few episodes of the American version of The Office, the series hewed closely to the template created by the series' British mastermind, Ricky Gervais. But in the United States, audiences didn't take to so bleak a comic vision, and soon, the tone of the series evolved from harsh satire to affectionate, gentle comedy. Ratings success ensued. That's a lesson well learned by the filmmakers behind Carell's new movie, Dinner for Schmucks, an American reworking of the 1998 French comedy Le Dîner de Cons. Francis Veber's original was fundamentally on the side of the idiots. Not so Dinner for Schmucks, directed by Jay Roach, which takes the snobbish, cruel editor of the original and turns him into Paul Rudd, the nicest young man you're ever likely to meet. Meanwhile, bowl-cut, windbreaker-wearing Barry (Carell) is not just an unctuous bumbler, but is, in fact, borderline mentally disabled. That is the only conclusion I can reach after watching credulous Barry gleefully smash bottles of wine against the walls of Tim's apartment. Dinner for Schmucks is funny, sure. How can it not be, with good comic actors like Carell and Rudd -- plus Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement, Kristen Schaal, and Ron Livingston? And rest assured, no American comedy is going to call itself Dinner for Schmucks without showing us the actual dinner for schmucks, which is, naturally, this movie's comic apogee. There's a blind fencer, and a ventriloquist who's married to a slutty dummy, and a guy who French-kisses his vulture. They're all idiots, or possibly mentally ill. Paramount Pictures and director Jay Roach would like to invite you to a dinner they're hosting, at which you are welcome to laugh at them. (D.K.)

114 minutes Rated PG-13

Howl As suggested by its title, Allen Ginsberg's game-changing poem "Howl," is essentially performative--and so is Howl, the Sundance-opening quasi-biographical movie by Oscar-winning documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Howl the movie--which, in addition to touching on Ginsberg's early life (and successful coming out), dramatizes the poem's obscenity trial, the talk of San Francisco in late 1957--is broadly played by a number of name actors: David Strathairn (baffled prosecuting attorney), Jon Hamm (cool defense attorney), Bob Balaban (solomonic judge), Jeff Daniels (laughable expert witness for the prosecution), Mary-Louise Parker (ditto), and Treat Williams (professorial defense witness Mark Schorer). Most compelling by far is James Franco as Ginsberg, successfully nailing the poet's incantatory style, even while providing that voice with a movie star's glamorous vessel. Splendid as Franco's literal characterization and overheated line readings can be, art director Eric Drooker's literal-minded animated interpretation of "Howl" (haunted vortex of lonely crowd alienation, "what now little man?" monochromatic fascist madness) are as sodden as a cold latke--as well as a distraction. (I kept wondering how a neo-beatnik like R. Crumb would have illustrated Ginsberg's epochal spritz.) Basically, Epstein and Friedman are feel-good filmmakers--their Ginsberg has one of the shortest, most successful bouts of psychotherapy in history. But is it really necessary to affirm the poem's ecstatic footnote ("Holy! Holy! Holy!") with a montage of smiling reaction shots? (J.H.)

86 minutes Rated R

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