50/50 (R, 2011, Summit)
If what happens to 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) ever happens to you, drop to your knees and pray you have a friend as good as Kyle (Seth Rogen). Some back pain and a doctor’s appointment turns into a cancer diagnosis for Adam, whose rudimentary Internet research gives him a 50/50 chance at beating it. From here, “50/50” has three conventional choices — be a dreary slow burn, go for dark comedy in the face of death, or strive for uncomfortable authenticity and see where it takes you. But why choose if you can do all three? When “50/50” wants to be funny, it is — often hilariously, frequently childishly or crudely. And when the mood subsides and the dark side of Adam’s diagnosis encroaches, the movie responds with furious, howling anger as much as it does resigned sadness. Ultimately, while running the gamut before backing over it and running it again, “50/50” strikes hardest at the notion of support and undying loyalty — from strangers and unlikely places as well as family, but especially from an overgrown manchild who hooks himself to Adam’s side when he easily could have drifted away. Gordon-Levitt’s fiery performance gives “50/50” all the energy it needs to burn through its 100 minutes way too quickly, but it’s the presence of Kyle — loud, lovable but obscenely heartfelt and ready to bare teeth like a bulldog at anyone who lets his best friend down — that makes this one of 2011’s most inspired movies. Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard and Anjelica Huston also star.
Extras: Writer/director/Rogen commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features (including a four-parter that compares scenes from the movie to the true story that inspired it).
Hell and Back Again (NR, 2011, Docurama)
When Sergeant Nathan Harris’ Marine unit launched an assault from behind the lines of a Taliban stronghold in 2009, the ensuing fight left Harris with a debilitating injury that knocked him out of the war. “Hell and Back Again” rolls camera on both sides of the world — with Harris’ unit in Afghanistan as it withstands a Taliban ambush and presses forward in hopes of bringing peace to a village of people who do not trust them, and with Harris himself as he struggles mightily to walk, heal and otherwise live a normal life in North Carolina. Yes, you’ve probably heard this narrative before and (cold as it is to say) can probably guess the general particulars of what happens next. But if you’ve taken the time to pay attention to these stories before, you likely know — as “Again” confirms — that generalizations have nothing on details. “Again” eschews narration and, outside of some place-setting text, doesn’t frame its footage in any way the footage itself doesn’t. Even if you think you’ve seen it all already, the scenes where soldiers and villagers try to figure each other out are completely fascinating, and all the discourse about homecoming soldiers feeling like aliens in their own country has nothing on watching the mundane processes of that private hell play out. In between, a memorial for those lost provides “Again’s” centerpiece, and if ever a single scene from any of these documentaries can stick more than all the others, the speech Marine Chaplain Terry Roberts delivers to his fellow soldiers may be it.
Extras: Director/editor commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, slide show.
Real Steel (PG-13, 2011, Disney)
With all due respect to Hugh Jackman’s presence, “Real Steel’s” commercials made it look like an absolutely ridiculous techno jock rock B-movie about Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots come nightmarishly alive. But it’s funny what a little good writing can accomplish, isn’t it? In line with those ads, “Steel” most definitely is nuts — packed tight with people who behave like cartoon characters while crowding arenas to cheer on household-name boxing robots who fight in a league with an alarming level of ambivalence about level playing fields. But “Steel” also is about a former human boxer and general deadbeat (Jackman as Charlie) connecting with his estranged 11-year-old son (Dakota Goyo as Max) over a shared passion for these boxing robots. And if you’re expecting it to do the bare, nauseating minimum with that drippy-on-paper subplot, what actually happens instead may just floor you. While by no means poetry, “Steel’s” maturation of this storyline — and most importantly, the subplot’s integration into the craziness surrounding it — is miles better than was probably expected of it. Charlie, in spite of and sometimes in direct response to being a deadbeat, makes a terrific story anchor. Max, meanwhile, avoids the annoying kid-with-baggage archetypes every bit as deftly as his dad sidesteps the regretful-parent-who-finally-gets-it routine. And even if you don’t care, the advent of Atom, the scrappy little robot that could, is completely enthralling. Logic holes abound, and at no point is it anything short of spectacularly apparent how silly the whole thing is, but good luck not rooting Atom on when “Steel” puts its “Rocky” shoes on and dances up a storm in them.
Extras: Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.
The Confession (NR, 2011, Flatiron Film Company)
A hit man (Kiefer Sutherland) has entered a priest’s (John Hurt) confessional on Christmas Eve, and he isn’t one for small talk: He killed a man, this is his confession, and if the priest doesn’t listen, he will kill again that night. How’s that for a holiday conversation starter? It gets better — considerably so, in fact. “The Confession” originally aired as a 10-part web series on Hulu, and this release sews the pieces together to form a seamless film. At 62 minutes, the entirety of the series is short even by feature film metrics. But good luck finding a movie that takes advantage of its time as magnificently as this one does. A few flashbacks aside, the vast majority of “The Confession” takes place between two people inside one confessional, and the degree to which their separate and shared stories develop and swerve is just awesome. Specifics of any kind beyond the aforementioned details would spoil too much, but that’s merely a testament to how far the story goes in such a short amount of time.
Extras: Four (very short) backstory episodes about supporting characters, 14 behind-the-scenes features.
Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (NR, 2011, Tribeca Film)
In 1987, friends Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitch Deprey moved into an embarrassingly shoddy San Francisco apartment building, and very shortly after that, they got to know their neighbors — Peter and Raymond — by way of a nasty shouting match that transmitted quite clearly through their thin walls. A few arguments and a frightening confrontation later, the guys decided to record the shouting matches, and once they realized how hilariously sardonic they were, they shared them with friends as parts of mix tapes. Those friends did the same, and long before the Internet made “going viral” an obnoxious thing obnoxious marketers say, Pete and Raymond were going viral all over San Francisco. Had “Shut Up Little Man!” been nothing more than the sum of its bookends — Eddie and Mitch’s early fascination with their terrifying neighbors on one side, the complicated relationship between Pete and Raymond on the other — it very likely would have been a funny, crazy and fascinating documentary. But when you take the middle and cram it with an absolutely bananas story about people clamoring to share, dramatize and eventually blur ethical lines and stab each other in the back to (of course) monetize it, it’s suddenly enough to wish “Man” were twice as long as its 90 minutes. There’s simply too much gold to be uncovered in this saga — though that may be as much a testament to “Man’s” versatile delivery as the story itself.
Extras: Extended interview, uncut reenactments, two behind-the-scenes features.
Memphis (NR, 2011, Shout Factory)
Something invariably is lost when you have to watch a Broadway musical play out on a screen instead of right in front of you. On the other hand? It sure is cheaper, and if done right, it need not be a total compromise. Based loosely on the life of Dewey Phillips, “Memphis” tells the story of Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball), a goofy, illiterate and white radio DJ who strives to bring the music of Beale Street to Memphis’ white population at a time when severe racial divides made the notion of sharing music — never mind friendship or romance — completely taboo. And that’s what it is — a story about Huey, the black singer (Montego Glover as Felicia Farrell) who ensnares his heart, and the families and employers who nervously gnash their teeth while Huey’s heart fearlessly barrels forward. What “Memphis” is not is a cutting dissection of the era and the complicated effects of Huey’s taboo violation. That isn’t a criticism, mind you — just a clarification that while “Memphis” hones in on some uncomfortable subject matter, it doesn’t so much wrestle it to the ground as dance around it. Fortunately, it’s really good at dancing. What “Memphis” lacks in storytelling grit, it redeems with a roundly likable cast and a relentless wall of musical numbers that does the era’s sound and energy very proud. The DVD provides a nice visual capture of the Broadway show, but more importantly, it sounds great. Run it through a good sound system, and it’s easy to live with not actually being in the crowd.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, video greetings from the cast, DVD-ROM content.
Happy Happy (R, 2010, Magnolia)
It’s funny what a mess four fully-grown adults can make, isn’t it? In one house, we have the chipper Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen), whose husband Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen) routinely feeds her subtle hints regarding how uninteresting and unattractive she is. Moving into the guest house next door are Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), the latter (for reasons not totally clear) having agreed to move to the country as penance for cheating on Sigve. When one messy couple joins forces with the other and both find the grass greener on the other side, things will naturally just work out all around, right? Right. Of course. Contrary to the puzzling implications on the box, “Happy, Happy” pretty decisively is not the fall-down-funny comedy it implies it is. Fortunately, it just as decisively isn’t a downer either — just a kind-hearted, mean-spirited, hopeful, rueful, sweet, disturbed, confused and bullheaded story about four people who probably will remind you of a few people you know. (To its credit, when it goes for comedy, it usually hits the mark pretty pointedly. It doesn’t happen frequently, but it happens often enough.) In Norwegian with English subtitles. No extras.
Paranormal Activity 3: Unrated Director’s Cut (NR, 2011, Paramount)
“Paranormal Activity” — which told a ghost story exclusively though cameras set up by the film’s own characters — was more novel curiosity than genuinely scary horror movie, but it at least had a creep factor that was legitimate. Its sequel, unfortunately, shamelessly rode its coattails en route to building a jump scare-laden imitation product around the exact same gimmick. For the third act, “Paranormal Activity 3” goes back to before the beginning, giving us a prequel in which we see the sisters from the first two movies as children (Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown). Guess what? Everything that happens later in their lives happened already — down, unfortunately, to the letter. Pretense about origins and mythology aside, “PA3” is more of the same — more surveillance cameras cycling ad nauseam, more doors slamming themselves, more cases of the characters fake-scaring each other for fun before getting spooked for real by invisible forces later. The story arcs the same way, and it’s once again ruled by the kind of cheap scares the original movie pointedly avoided. It isn’t fresh anymore, it isn’t scary, and when you take novelty and tension away from what otherwise is a collection of some other family’s home movies, it most definitely isn’t entertaining.
Extras: Theatrical and extended versions of the film, lost tapes.