Just when Judge Clark Douglas thought he was out, they pulled him back in!
There's nothing more dangerous than an innocent man.
Whoever has the money has the power.
I'm a fan of double-features, themed movie nights, movie marathons, and so on. I've always taken joy in finding an intriguing batch or two or three films and watching them back-to-back: films scored by the same composer, films with similar thematic elements, films featuring David Strathairn in a supporting role, etc. However, there's generally little thought put into double-features released on DVD or Blu-ray. Generally, a couple of movies have simply been placed together on a disc because the distributor believes they'll appeal to roughly the same demographic or because of some really obvious connection between the films (maybe they're both horror movies, or maybe they both star Vin Diesel). However, Echo Bridge's pairing of James Gray's The Yards and Scott Frank's The Lookout (two films about young men getting sucked into dangerous criminal activity) delivers a surprisingly satisfying evening of cinema.
The Yards introduces us to Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg, Four Brothers), a quiet guy who's just been released from prison. Leo is hoping his Uncle Frank (James Caan, The Godfather) will give him a job working on rebuilding subway cars, but the position requires a couple years of training. Leo doesn't want to get in trouble again, but his need to make a living persuades him to accept a considerably shadier position working alongside his old friend Willie (Joaquin Phoenix, The Village). Alas, Leo's first night on the job takes an unexpectedly violent turn, leading to a chaotic maelstrom of betrayal and manipulation.
James Gray's The Yards is an immensely respectable film in a variety of ways: it boasts sturdy, occasionally artful direction, solid performances from an impressive mix of younger (Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron) and older actors (Faye Dunaway, James Caan, Ellen Burstyn), handsome cinematography from Harris Savides, an impressively nuanced Howard Shore score and a screenplay pitched squarely at thoughtful grown-ups. And yet, something about it leaves me a bit cold. Perhaps it's the film's overbearingly grim tone, which drapes the entire affair in an air of Greek tragedy (when certain characters meet their fate, it feels predestined rather than surprising). Despite the fact that Gray is dealing with intensely emotional material, The Yards somehow keeps the viewer at a distance. We feel as if we're watching a tense drama play out from an upper balcony; we're rarely placed directly in the midst of the turmoil. The Yards is a considerably better film than Gray's disappointing (and strikingly similar) follow-up We Own the Night, but it lacks the resonant power of his masterful Two Lovers.
The Lookout introduces us to Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Inception), a former high school hockey star whose life was irreparably changed by a car accident. Now Chris struggles with a variety of mental complications: he has trouble sequencing, he tends to blurt out inappropriate phrases and often forgets how to do simple tasks. Chris has a job mopping floors at a local bank and shares an apartment with a blind telephone operator (Jeff Daniels, Gettysburg). One day, Chris meets an old classmate named Gary (Matthew Goode, A Single Man), who introduces him to a charming young woman named Luvlee (Isla Fisher, The Wedding Crashers). Unfortunately, the new friend and new girlfriend are merely part of a larger plot to involve Chris in a high-risk bank heist.
It's fascinating to watch The Lookout directly after The Yards, as the former's seemingly effortless ability to accomplish its goals makes the latter look laborious in comparison. The Yards works so hard to make an emotional impact, but doesn't quite get there. Meanwhile, The Lookout tells a similar story with vastly more humor, a shorter running time and a generally lighter tone yet somehow also manages to pack the emotional wallop The Yards was striving for. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character may initially inspire memories of Guy Pearce's turn in Memento, but Gordon-Levitt's performance is so persuasive and three-dimensional that Chris quickly turns into a unique cinematic figure. The crime sequences are well-executed and the plot twists are surprising enough, but it's the character work that really impresses. Goode and Fisher turn in a pair of compelling essays in faux sincerity; we sense they are lying to Chris but we don't know to what extent they are doing so. Meanwhile, Jeff Daniels reminds us of what a fantastic actor he can be in the right role, delivering a performance which finds a sublime balance between affecting warmth and acidic humor. The Lookout did a belly-flop at the box office, but it remains one of the more satisfying crime movies of recent years.
The downside to this release is that both films have been packed onto a single disc, sans special features of any sort. I haven't seen either of the individual Blu-ray releases for these films, but The Yards received particularly poor marks for its weak transfer. Alas, what's on display in this release is pretty lackluster too, as The Yards looks a good 10 or 20 years older than it actually is. Black levels aren't what they should be, detail is lacking at times and there are even a few scratches and flecks. It's better than standard-def, but not by a whole lot. As with the initial release, the film has tragically been cropped from 2.39:1 to 1.78:1, which is inexcusable. The Lookout is considerably stronger, boasting a transfer with impressive depth and detail. The film has a naturally grainy, slightly desaturated look, so don't mistake the filmmaker's artistic intentions for a poor transfer (though I imagine the picture has lost something simply due to being stuffed on a disc with another feature film). Audio is less problematic on both releases, though The Lookout is again the stronger of the two. The Yards seems a tad muted on occasion, and there isn't enough balance between the incredibly loud club scenes and the quieter dialogue scenes. Meanwhile, The Lookout successfully finds a balance between the vigorous James Newton Howard score, sturdy sound design and crisp, clean dialogue. As I indicated, there are no supplements of any sort included on the disc.
Technically, the cropping issue with The Yards is enough for me to recommend giving this double-feature a pass. Still, if you can live with that problem (and it's a big one), the price is low enough to justify a purchase of this no-frills release.
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Scales of Justice, The Yards
Perp Profile, The Yards
Studio: Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Distinguishing Marks, The Yards
Scales of Justice, The Lookout
Perp Profile, The Lookout
Studio: Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Distinguishing Marks, The Lookout
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