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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: The Art of Self Defense

“Crawl” and “3 from Hell” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

I’m not sure what planet “The Art of Self Defense” takes place on, but it’s not Earth. Or if it is Earth, then it’s an alternate reality Earth that is very offbeat to human behavior as we know it. Sure, everything looks and sounds like reality in present day USA, but there is something not quite right about it—in a fun, quirky way.

It took me a good portion of the movie to put my finger on it, but it has to do with the way emotions are expressed. While the characters definitely feel emotions, they express their emotions through words rather than behavior. Everyone is very even-keeled and fairly well-tempered, even when one character is saying they are going to kill the other one, or occasionally, actually killing another one. It’s all done in a charmingly matter of fact way.

The story of “The Art of Self Defense” centers around Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a weak and unassertive man who has a thankless job reconciling expense reports in an office. Since the story is told from his point of view, he’s seemingly surrounded by a swarm of belligerent jerks who don’t hold him in any regard. One night Casey is mugged by a gang of motorcycle thugs, severely beaten, and hospitalized. Vowing to never let this happen again, he looks to buy a gun. But after the gun shop clerk tells him he needs to wait to purchase a fire arm and rattles off some statistics regarding gun safety, Casey goes to the next best thing: Karate.

It’s at the local dojo that he meets Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), one of the oddest and most fascinating characters I’ve seen on screen in a while. First off is the name, Sensei. This word simply means “Teacher” in Japanese, but this is the name that he tells Casey to use and never gives another name, even when they’re not in class. Sensei spouts off a lot of pseudo-philosophical nonsense, some of which Casey takes to heart. The results of this have to be seen to be believed and are hilarious. Every once in a while, if you really listen, there is a nugget or two of real, actual wisdom that comes from Sensei. Then he’ll say something like, “The fact that she’s a woman will keep her from ever being a man,” and we know sanity has left the building once again. It’s not just what he says, but how he says it. The deadpan delivery and sincerity behind it all turn a good portion of what he says into an absolute riot.

The woman he’s referring to is Anna (Imogen Poots). We first see her as Casey sees her, teaching a children’s karate class. Much like Sensei, she dispenses some uproariously dubious advice to the children. Also like Sensei, her deadpan sincerity puts her already crazy teaching over the top. She struggles to prove herself as the only woman in the hyper masculine setting of the night class, where things get brutal. One of my great appreciations in the script by Riley Stearns, who also directed, is that Anna isn’t just the love interest of Casey. A standard Hollywood movie would not have resisted the temptation to make her just that, and I love the fact that “The Art of Self Defense” subverts that cliché expectation and does something far more interesting with her.

“The Art of Self Defense” is a comedy, but be warned that it is a dark one. Once we get to the night classes, the violence and savagery gets turned up several notches. There are moments that are fairly horrific in their inhumanity, but these moments are not dwelled on for long and are over quickly. This is a movie that seeks mostly to entertain and occasionally to shock, but never to repulse. It’s been said that movies are a lot like dreams. I think that’s true, and “The Art of Self Defense” is a quirky yet twisted and disturbing yet funny one. It’s one of the rare movies that truly provides a unique experience to watch. Buy it.

Also New This Week

Crawl

Floridians are a brave bunch. They have to be—if the hurricanes don’t get them, the alligators will. Now let’s combine the two and have an alligator attack during a severe hurricane that causes massive flooding. For folks in Florida I’m sure this is a standard Wednesday afternoon, but for everyone else it’s a pretty scary proposition.

This is the premise of the movie “Crawl,” a surprisingly entertaining, suspenseful, and well-paced movie about university swim champion (or, runner up) Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and her father Dave (Barry Pepper) fighting off alligators in a crawlspace under the family home as flood waters rise. I have to give a lot of credit to director Alexandre Aja for taking such a thin plot and creating a worthwhile 90 minute nail-biter of a survival movie. Rent it.

3 from Hell

I don’t mind movies that are trash. I agree with Roger Ebert’s notion that there is such a thing as good trash and bad trash. Unfortunately for me, I spent an hour and 50 minutes of my precious time watching “3 from Hell,” a movie that isn’t just bad trash, it’s self-indulgent trash padded out so that what should be an 85 minute movie is 110 minutes long. It starts out with possibly something to say about admiring killers as heroes, but isn’t sure what, and even if it did the uninspired dialogue would have the characters drop F-bombs in every sentence explaining it. Then any notion of this movie having a point is quickly abandoned as the action moves to Mexico and turns into a boring, drawn out, exploitative waste of time. Not that anything that came before was more worthwhile.

As much as I appreciate a good auteur director (see my praise for Riley Stearns above), bad auteur films are some of the most painful to watch. Rob Zombie is one of those directors who could actually benefit from a studio “interfering” with his vision and preventing him from giving into his baser instincts. He needs someone around to tell him no. I think that’s what happened with the two previous entries to this story, “House of 1,000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” both of which I liked. I didn’t like this one at all. Skip it.

More New Releases: “Stuber,” in which a detective recruits his Uber driver into an unexpected night of adventure, starring Dave Bautista, Kumail Nanjiani, and Mira Sorvino; and “Devil’s Revenge,” about an archaeologist who must destroy an ancient relic and stop Hell from coming to Earth, starring Jeri Ryan, William Shatner, and Jason Brooks.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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