DVD 3/24/09: Bolt, Quantum of Solace, Gardens of the Night, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, The Cake Eaters, New York City Serenade

Bolt (PG, 2008, Disney)
If you’ve ever watched a dog on film and wondered what’s going through his or her head while everyone else plays pretend, the premise of “Bolt” — about a Hollywood dog who has no idea his fictional powers aren’t real — is immediately engaging. You probably can venture a guess as to which twists will set the film in motion and sustain it for 96 minutes, but that hardly matters. “Bolt” counters every threat of predictability with some truly magnificent, Pixar-esque character design. Bolt himself is a magnetically adorable dog, and the anthropomorphic supporting players who cross his path — be they other dogs, cats, pigeons or a scene-stealing hamster named Rhino — are gifts to the world of animated animal design. Every last expression is inspired, and many of them make “Bolt” as genuinely funny when no one’s saying anything as it is when the script’s best lines are being read. As expected, “Bolt” cashes in all that hilarity and adorability for one giant pull at the heartstrings toward the film’s conclusion. But given how high the deck is stacked by that point, such a predictable turn is not only unstoppable, but entirely allowable. John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton, Malcolm McDowell and James Lipton, among others, lend their voices.
Extras: New short starring Rhino, deleted scenes (with director intros), four behind-the-scenes features, DVD game, art gallery, music video, digital copy.

Quantum of Solace (R, 2008, MGM)
The Jack Bauerification of James Bond that began with a bang in “Casino Royale” is now complete in “Quantum of Solace,” which carries “Royale’s” baggage into a brand-new international conspiracy. The details of that escapade provide a basis and a means, and Bond responds in kind by pulling off a new array of amazingly timely stunts in some beautiful new environments. But more than any of that, “Solace’s” true currency is the continued vivisection of a character that previously knew no defect. Craig’s Bond is crafty, quick-witted and as good with a woman as he is a drink, but he’s also bloody, reckless and prone to sloppy, impulsive behavior that gets other people killed. In “Solace,” that puts him simultaneously at odds with adversaries, employers and numerous in-betweens, and with respect to some top-shelf boat chases and shootouts, its the uncomfortable stare-downs with the people he wants to trust — and who want so badly to return the favor — that really lights this film’s fire. Judi Dench, Mathieu Amalric, Jeffrey Wright, Olga Kurylenko, Gemma Arterton and Giancarlo Giannini also star.
Extras: Eight behind-the-scenes video crew files, six behind-the-scenes features, music video.

Gardens of the Night (R, 2008, City Lights)
During its first scene, “Gardens of the Night” introduces us to Leslie (Gillian Jacobs), a teenager who, by her own account, has two dead parents, a brother and an uncle who cared for both of them. Shortly after, we’re back in time, and eight-year-old Leslie (Ryan Simpkins) is walking to school when a neighbor (Tom Arnold) asks her if she’s seen his lost dog. “Night” sets this table so effectively that even with the knowledge that Leslie is alive and well years later, a torrent of dread rushes in almost the moment this encounter begins. It doesn’t necessary let up anytime afterward, either. “Night” travels back and forth in time to answer all the questions laid out by that first scene, and at no point, on either side, does it take the easy way out or give in to needless exploitation. By tastefully but gustily toeing a smart, fragile line all the way to the end, it paints an absolutely believable (and, therefore, unsettling without help) scenario of how a perfectly picturesque childhood can go off the rails — and, hopefully, back on track before it’s too late. “Night” lays bare the lines of Leslie’s story in its first act, but it’s what lies between them that provides the film’s many revelations.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, alternate ending, statistics, making-of documentary, photo gallery.

Andy Richter Controls the Universe (NR, 2002, CBS/Paramount)
Television can be a cruel racket, with months of casting, writing and filming flushed down the toilet if a show makes a rocky first impression and isn’t given time to settle in. Such is the sad plight of “Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” which needed just about all of its rocky first episode to lay the ground rules of is concept: Andy (Richter) writes technical manuals, counts two co-workers (Paget Brewster, James Patrick Stuart) among his best friends, has a crush on the new receptionist (Irene Molloy), talks to the company’s dead founder (John Bliss), and now has to share an office with the neurotic new guy (Jonathan Slavin). Also, Andy has a wild imagination, which leads to the same kind of hallucinations Zach Braff experiences on “Scrubs.” If you like that show’s dry but whimsically awkward sense of humor, you’ll almost certainly like “Universe,” which marches to the same beat, right down to the missing laugh track. Additionally, once you get past the uneven first episode — which, unfortunately, few viewers did back in 2002 — the show’s genius starts to shine through. Just be prepared to do a double take on disc one: What appears to be the second episode (even labeled as such) inexplicably appears fourth on the DVD, and it introduces two characters you already met two episodes prior.
Contents: 19 episodes (five previously unaired), plus commentary and two behind-the-scenes features.

The Cake Eaters (R, 2008, Screen Media)
“The Cake Eaters” is the story of two people — or rather, multiples of two people. There’s Georgia (Kristen Stewart), a high school who suffers from a degenerative muscular disorder, and Beagle (Aaron Stanford), a socially awkward twentysomething who works in her high school’s cafeteria. There’s Beagle’s brother Guy (Jayce Bartok), who fled town three years ago without warning, and there’s Stephanie (Miriam Shor), the woman he left behind. That’s the tip of the iceberg, and predictably, these and other twosomes increasingly mesh as “Eaters” progresses. All of it amounts to basically a single contained fire burning between two families and a few peripheral characters, and little of it says anything about the world at large or even the world one block over. In that sense, “Eaters” feels like the beginnings of a good television drama — a lot of well-designed characters living in their own worlds while slowly being pulled across each other’s paths. But it also stands on its own as a film — one without grand ambitions, perhaps, but with satisfying results all the same. Bruce Dern, Elizabeth Ashley, Talia Balsam, Jesse L. Martin and Melissa Leo also star.
Extras: Director commentary, cast interviews, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

New York City Serenade (R, 2007, Anchor Bay)
Sneakily — or more likely, accidentally — “New York City Serenade” asks a good question: When you have a good script about mostly rotten people, what is the net result on the entertainment scale? In one corner, we have Owen (Freddie Prinze Jr.), a very small-time filmmaker with the charisma of a butter knife. On the other side: His inexplicable best friend Ray (Chris Klein), who continually lands Owen into all levels of trouble and whose charms could work only in the land of fiction. Together, the two are insufferably ill-equipped to garner anybody’s sympathies, and the characters charged with propping them up (Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Ben Schwartz, Heather Bucha, Alexander Chaplin and Wallace Shawn) either fall into the same boat or aren’t given enough screen time to make us gravitate to them. The only character who garners any real compassion is a four-year-old girl (Sophie Nyweide) who makes the most of the few minutes she gets to basically validate our feelings about everybody else. Yet, despite all this, “Serenade” really is a pretty good film. It achieves the level of aggravation it achieves by designing compelling situations around characters that, obnoxious though they may be, are sketched awfully well. Whether that sounds like entertaining or punishing, though, is your call to make.
Extra: Writer/director/supporting cast commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.