Project Nim (PG-13, 2011, Lions Gate)
It shouldn’t have been like this, and you literally can say that again … and again, and maybe two or three more times after that. “Project Nim” begins gently as the story of Nim, a young chimpanzee who received a wholly human upbringing in an attempt to understand chimps’ ability to grasp language and human thought processes. Unfortunately, such grasps often eluded the humans charged with caring for him. Their adventures in pettiness, lust, bullheadedness, emotional stagnation, red tape and general ineptitude result in one mishandling after another of Nim’s upbringing. “Gorillas in the Mist” this absolutely is not, and the presentationally polished “Nim’s” willingness to let Nim’s handlers verbally hang themselves years later is as admirable as the whole odyssey is infuriating to anyone who sees animals as more than canvases for science and medicine. Fortunately, for every imbecile who gets a chapter in Nim’s story, there is someone with common sense and a will to use it for Nim’s good. The battle that ensues as Nim matures from cute baby chimp into a force of nature with a long memory is a dizzying, life-consuming and occasionally bloody look at people — and primates — at their best as well as at their worst.
Extras: Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.
The Sunset Limited (NR, 2011, HBO)
“The Sunset Limited’s” miserable professor (Tommy Lee Jones) certainly didn’t expect to spend his evening in the kitchen of an ex-con (Samuel L. Jackson). But who can blame him? He figured he’d be dead before the sun even set. (Un)fortunately for the professor, an attempt to jump in front of a train was thwarted by the ex-con (neither character gets a name, in case you’re wondering), so life — liberating, harrowing, meaningless, wondrous, miraculous, terrible life — goes on. “Limited” spends the entirety of its 90 minutes at the ex-con’s kitchen table, and it expends the full might of its energy on a debate about the soul that packs more earnest verbal impact into a random tangent than most politicians can wedge into a thousand empty campaign speeches. Never excessively anything — from preachy to glum to even serious, thanks to some perfectly-timed patches of genuinely funny levity — “Limited” also never sleeps on its two-man cast, nor does it take either actor’s talents for granted. The script is too fearlessly thought-provoking to grow dull, the characters far too animated to remind you they haven’t even changed rooms, and one wonders if even a second-rate cast could fail something so sharply written. After watching Jackson and Jones close the conversation with even more fire in their heart than they had when it began, though, let’s be glad we don’t have to find out.
Extras: Commentary with Jackson, Jones (who also directs) and writer Cormac McCarthy, making-of feature.
A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas: Extra Dope Edition (R/NR, 2011, New Line)
Really, did we need a third “Harold & Kumar” movie? Of course not. But we didn’t need the first and second ones either, and no one understood that as vividly as the people responsible for making them. “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” takes place a couple years after Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) have gone their separate ways — the former married and working on Wall Street, the latter more stoned and out of shape than ever, and both having found new sidekicks (Thomas Lennon and Amir Blumenfeld) to fill their respective voids. A long story follows about Harold needing to replace a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve to keep his wife’s family from killing him, but as “H&K” connoisseurs need not be told, it’s little more than an elaborate means to reunite Harold, Kumar and Neil Patrick Harris for another absurd adventure. (Nitpickers, you can relax: Even though Harris was killed in the second movie, “Christmas” has a perfectly plausible explanation for his return.) Impressively, the title is good for more than a gag: “Christmas,” displays a crudely lovable fondness for Christmas movies and the holidays in general, and the 3D is both deliberately, gratuitously stupid and kind of great (even if you lack a 3D display and have to just imagine its effect). Most crucially, it upholds the “Harold & Kumar” tradition of taking stupid, tasteless ideas and mining them for genuinely, cleverly funny gags. That’s a feat precious few comedies pull off at all, much less consistently, so maybe these movies are pretty necessary after all.
Extra: Extended version of the film.
The Other F Word (NR, 2011, Oscilloscope)
Your images of punk culture likely exclude bottle feedings, playing ball in the yard and frequent applications of hair dye to hide the grey. But even these guys get old and have families, and guess what? At least according to the testaments of those who appear in “The Other F Word” — Pennywise’s Jim Lindberg, Rancid’s Lars Frederiksen, Tony Adolescent, Art Alexakis, Tony Hawk, Flea — they love it too. That isn’t to say it’s easy, especially when their version of providing for the family means long stretches on the road and a need to play songs they barely can stand to hear in order to give fans what they want. “Word” initially plays one note by emphasizing the comedy of tattooed, explicative-laden-shirt-wearing dads channeling their inner Ward Cleavers against all superficial odds. Before long, though, it’s covering the phenomenon from all angles — not just fatherhood, but their own childhoods, the rigors of making a living in a new musical landscape, and the sometimes-Herculean efforts needed to summon the desire to go on stage and channel an energy that no longer comes naturally. In terms of brutal, frank honesty, this one has it in spades. But don’t confuse hardship and heartache for self-pity or anything remotely in that ballpark. To the contrary, “Word” is a portrait of love labored — for son, daughter and wife as well as for fellow performers and the scene at large — and, even at its most mournful, a loving testament to the unspeakable power only a newborn baby wields.
Extras: Director/producer/Alexakis/Lindberg commentary, SXSW Festival post-screening Q&A, outtakes, two music videos, two acoustic performances.
The Rebound (R, 2011, Fox)
If you have a cynical disposition, even “The Rebound’s” title — what is it about romantic comedies with two-word titles beginning with “The?” — portends mediocrity. The premise — a newly-divorced, recently-cheated-on mother of two (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and a much younger, freshly-single, recently-used coffee shop employee (Justin Bartha) are each on the rebound and very predictably on a collision course with each other — doesn’t inspire any additional confidence. But then something shocking happens. Actually, just kidding, no it doesn’t. “The Rebound” is nowhere near a bad movie: To the contrary, it’s pretty consistently pleasant even when its jokes mostly fall flat and the story bounces from one well-worn romantic comedy cliche to another. But as should be pretty clear by now, it has little interest in being anything a ton of other also-rans haven’t already been. That’s unfortunate in any context, but when “The Rebound” shows just a glimmer of ingenuity in its final five or so minutes, it’s especially baffling. Without spoiling anything, there are more milestones passing through those final minutes than in the 90 that preceded it. But with time running out, a perplexing music montage and spoken-but-not-really-shown recap are all “The Rebound” has to show for them.
Extra: Cast/crew interviews.
Fireflies in the Garden (R, 2011, Sony Pictures)
There’s a snake in the grass in “Fireflies in the Garden.” Unfortunately — for the snake and, consequently, “Garden” and all who see it — it’s about as camouflaged as an anaconda on a fairway. In its opening scene, “Garden” introduces us to Charles (Willem Dafoe), whose irrational, out-of-context berating of his son Michael (Cayden Boyd) presumably intends to set the tone for a complicated and troubled father-son relationship. But all it does — with considerable help from the scenes that follow — is establish Charles as an insufferable monster whose bad behavior punishes his wife (Julia Roberts) and surrounding family as well. Years later, an older Michael (Ryan Reynolds) returns home for a celebration that turn tragic (of course), and “Garden” embarks on a second generation of family angst while occasionally jumping back in time to pile onto Michael’s tormented upbringing. If you’re wondering what the point of any of this is, rest assured you aren’t alone. “Garden’s” intentions — yet another story about a superficially perfect family that’s as dysfunctional as any other — is tiresome enough. But its failure to do even that in the face of its hideously unlikable patriarch is a miserable exercise in futility, and when it practically breaks its neck in an attempt to provide Charles some wholly unearned redemption, the family’s acquiescence feels like a betrayal of what little sympathy you might have invested in them. That’s obviously a spoiler, but when a movie this unpleasant achieves an ending that still feels like a letdown, a spoiler becomes a time-saving favor.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.