The Men Who Stare at Goats (R, 2009, Overture/Anchor Bay)
A disclaimer at the top of “The Men Who Stare at Goats” claims that “more of this is true than you would believe,” and even if that’s there for comic purposes (it might be, it might not be), that disclaimer has a point. Maybe it has nothing to do with the story of the New Earth Army, a fantastically wild wing of the United States Military that specializes in mental harmony, psychic warfare and dancing. And maybe it has nothing to do with how the near-dilapidated remains of the NEA, the origins of which “Goats” explores in thoroughly amusing detail through a series of flashbacks, inspired two defeated men (George Clooney as former NEA soldier and current underground “Warrior Monk” Lyn Cassady, Ewan McGregor as newly-single small-time journalist Bob Wilton) to try and make it matter again. But “Goats” most certainly is rooted in truth, because the only thing more potent than all the psychic powers and fancy technology on display is the extreme need for these and other poor souls (Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick) to be somebody special and do something amazing before their time is up. “Goats” never lets its characters’ personal angst undermine its cheerfully funny script, but it’s the film’s ability to so thoroughly and pointedly wear its heart on its sleeve that makes it something far more treasurable than its funny exterior might initially suggest.
Extras: Director commentary, book author commentary, deleted scenes, a feature on the real men of the First Earth Battalion, one behind-the-scenes feature.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (PG, 2009, Fox)
2009 was an uncommonly special year for uncommonly thoughtful treatments of children’s books — first “Where the Wild Things Are,” and now this — that in greedier hands would have no business whatsoever being feature-length movies. Like “Things,” “Fox” looks superficially like a movie for children, and thus may as well be one: The stop-motion animation style is so classic and refined as to feel fresh all over again, and the characters (human and animal alike) are charming in their disposition as well as their animation. Visually and aurally, there’s plenty here for even preschoolers to enjoy, and “Fox’s” overlying story isn’t so complex as to completely stymie anyone. With that said, though, parents and older siblings can expect to enter a different world entirely — one full of themes about commitment, getting older and the meaning of life, and one as stitched together by its whip-smart script and sharply funny voice acting as it is its visual style. These completely divergent levels of entertainment for wholly disparate audiences work simultaneously and in tandem, making “Fox” that rare jewel of a family film — and, outside of Pixar’s reach, even rarer animated movie — that really is for everybody watching. George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Michael Gambon, among others, lend their voices.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features and a filmstrip-style introduction to the sport of Whack-Bat.
talhotblond (NR, 2009, Paramount)
What “talhotblond” has to say — that there’s potential danger lurking behind chance Internet encounters that ensnare real-world emotions and drive people to do shocking things — isn’t novel anymore. But a documentary about human behavior, when done well, doesn’t lose its ability to drop a jaw just because we all know the capacity for that behavior exists. Faux-narrated by Brian Barrett — a 22-year-old whose life ended because of the events that transpired within — “talhotblond” initially is a pretty predictable realization of what might happen when an unhappy, middle-aged man randomly exchanges pleasantries with a pretty 18-year-old girl online. 48-year-old Tom Montgomery turns into an 18-year-old Marine, 18-year-old Jessi takes notice, Tom charms Jessi, Jessi sends pictures, and a relationship unfolds. But what happens next, which the film explores in unsettling detail through chat logs and interviews with Montgomery and others, is entirely too tangled to fall prone to simple predictability. (Let’s not forget that in this story of a middle-aged man and a teenage girl, it’s Barrett who died.) “tallhotblond” weaves through the mess with a master storyteller’s touch, and the uncomfortable truth is that, for anyone savvy enough to seek this out, this operates more as morbid entertainment than cautionary cold water for the naive. So enjoy the darkness and pass it on to someone who needs it — the nearest high school classroom, preferably — to cleanse your conscience. No extras. In fact, no menu: The movie just starts playing.
Brothers (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
There might come a day when entertainment has run every theme ragged and viewers become so keenly trained to see it all before they even see it. Should that happen, it’ll be a shame for a film like “Brothers,” which does what it does supremely well but struggles mightily not to continually tip its narrative hand. As the name implies, “Brothers” (a remake of the 2004 Swedish film “Brødre”) is the story of two brothers — Sam (Tobey Maguire), a decorated Marine set to leave his wife (Natalie Portman) and two young daughters (Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare) for another tour in Afghanistan, and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), who faces another tour of directionless freedom after completing a stint in prison. What happens next is best left unspoiled as a common reviewer courtesy, but it also remains best unspoiled because once the first big storyline milestone happens, “Brothers” almost has no choice but to allude to what’s happening next well before it happens. A number of powerful moments and story turns define “Brothers” going forward, and some outstanding performances — from the two girls as well as the three dependable leads — work in tandem with some truly great moment-to-moment instances to leave an impact. But “Brothers” cannot control its tendency to telegraph what happens before it happens, lest it resort to deception or insulting contrivance. A little predictability beats dishonesty any day, but it’s a slightly losing proposition either way.
Extras: Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.
Séraphine (NR, 2008, Music Box Films)
Some movies aren’t necessarily for people who love movies so much as those who love what the movie is about. Witness “Séraphine,” which tells the story of Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), a superfluously humble servant and closet artist whose life takes a significant turn during a brief period of servitude for renowned art collector and critic Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur). On a purely quick-pitch level, “Séraphine” has it all — a rags-to-riches true story of the chance encounter that ultimately exposed Séraphine’s gift to the world around her, and the resonant ache that sets in once emotions, outsiders and other uncontrollable factors (the Great War being one) get in the way of a perfectly good Cinderella story. What “Séraphine” does not necessarily have, however, is universal accessibility. The film tells Séraphine’s story without narrative embellishment of any kind, and that translates into many, many scenes in which we’re watching her in her element while little to nothing is said. As an illustration of its subject’s methods, “Séraphine” feels masterfully authentic, and as a piece of inspiration to unconventional closet artists everywhere, it’s a must-see. But as entertainment fodder for people who simply want to be entertained, “Séraphine” is too deliberate and entrenched too deeply in its own world to merit universal recommendation. That isn’t a knock on the film — just a little bit of fair warning. In French with English subtitles. Content of extras not available at press time.
The Prisoner (NR, 2009, Warner Bros.)
What the recent “Battlestar Galactica” reboot did for its 1978 inspiration and namesake, “The Prisoner” attempts to do for the 1967 series of the same name. The difference, in this case, is that while the original “Galactica” was more beloved than actually great, the original “Prisoner” was and remains both. The sharpness of the original series’ writing, characters and even ideas holds up remarkably well in the face of four decades’ time, and an attempt to refine the original series in the span of a miniseries would have to at least take chances with the original template if not blow it away completely. But after a really strong first episode that makes anything seem possible, things go awry, and the new “Prisoner” finds itself somehow needing to fill time with visually pretentious stretches of mostly empty storytelling that do nothing to eclipse nor enhance the original series’ memory. As the wasted minutes tick by, the intrigue behind the premise finds itself neutered to the point where none of the characters’ fates, Number Six (Jim Caviezel) included, matter a great deal. And once that reality sets in, the surrounding ideology just feels like empty blather. Beyond curiosity fulfillment and some admittedly nice eye candy nourishment, nothing here merits visits, much less treasuring. Ian McKellen, Ruth Wilson, Hayley Atwell, Lennie James and Jamie Campbell Bower also star.
Contents: Six episodes, plus commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, McKellen interview and a Comic-Con panel.
Worth a Mention
— “After Dark Horrorfest: 8 Films to Die For” Wave Four (R, 2008-10, Lions Gate): Between these sets and the “Ghost House Underground” sets, Lions Gates pretty much has the indie horror compilation game all to itself. Wave four of the “After Dark Horrorfest” collection includes “Dread,” “The Final,” “The Graves,” “Hidden,” “Kill Theory,” “Lake Mungo,” “The Reeds” and the beautifully-named “Zombies of Mass Destruction.” All films are sold separately for those who want a sample, but as always, those who pick up the box set and go digging for gems — and every set has diamond-in-the-rough potential for fans of different horror bents — will have the most fun.