Pariah (R, 2011, Universal)
One day in the future, a story like Alike’s (Adepero Oduye) will be just another story about a smart high school girl with awkward adventures in dating, a pest of a little sister, and friends who aren’t well-liked by the parents (Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell) who fight seemingly every night. “Pariah” isn’t allowed to simply be that just yet because Alike is both black and gay, which remains an almost mythical combination in Hollywood, to say nothing of Alike’s neighborhood and conservative household. But the beautiful thing about “Pariah” — even if its name teases otherwise — is that if you’re ready to live in that future right now, it’s equipped to take you there. There are no boisterous declarations of the obvious, nor are there sweeping sermons launched at us under the hollow pretense of being directed at Alike’s supporting characters. “Pariah” treats Alike as the living, breathing jewel of its story instead of a means to an ideological end. That allows her to just be a girl with problems, and it lets her story shine as an intelligent, upbeat and wonderfully grounded story about problems we all can understand on some level. What a crazy concept that is.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features.
The Innkeepers (R, 2011, Dark Sky Films)
By their own graveyard-shift admissions, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) didn’t exactly aspire to work the front desk at The Yankee Pedlar Inn. Fortunately, with the inn set to permanently close down in a few days, they’re both free to resume pursuing their as-yet-unknown callings. First, though, there’s the matter of making one final push to see if the Pedlar really is haunted by spirits as they both suspect it is. With no other employers left to dissuade them and with a whole three guests left roaming the halls, this is as good a chance as any. Naturally, because this is the movies, their suspicions have some validity to them. And if you’re worried that “The Innkeepers” follows the same ghost story outline as numerous others already have, there is some validity to your suspicions as well. But before that validation rides in, “The Innkeepers” does something smart: It sets a tone that’s both playful and darkly funny, and it establishes Claire and Luke as supremely likable goofballs instead of disposable pawns for the poltergeist gods. That vibe endures even when things take a turn for the dark and mysterious, and while a whole lot of “The Innkeepers'” third act feels like a nod to its influences, Claire and Luke have taken so much ownership of the story that it still archives a tense edge against all odds. All that personality doesn’t make isn’t a genre game-changer, but it goes a surprisingly long way.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, director/Paxton/Healy commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.
Some Days Are Better Than Others (NR, 2010, Palisades Tartan)
There’s plenty of heartbreak to go around in “Some Days Are Better Than Others,” whose title most definitely alludes to days other than these. Some of it is reserved quite acutely for Katrina (Carrie Brownstein), whose curious quest to be on reality TV goes off the rails when a bout of e-mail snooping reveals that the love of her life no longer loves her back. Eli (James Mercer), meanwhile, is coping with the duller, more chronic ache of being in love with his lesbian roommate (Erin McGarry) and completely losing his way en route to finding his calling. Finally, there’s Camille (Renee Roman Nose), whose reaction to finding a discarded urn full of ashes in her goodwill store’s donation pile makes her the wild card. “Days” keeps these three stories mostly separate, and the regularity with which it cycles between them gives it that not-always-welcome air of segregation that makes it feel like three small movies instead of one larger story. But there’s a means to “Days'” methods, and as the stories gradually mesh together, they form a surprisingly poignant parable about heartbreak, how to deal with it and why it might even be good for you. Contrary to the theme, “Days” is stealthily upbeat — perhaps a sign that those better days to which the title alludes lie ahead instead of behind.
Extras: Short film “Light Tiger Eye,” deleted scenes.
Secret War: The Secret Agents who set Europe Ablaze (NR, 2011, Athena)
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw the folly in waiting for Adolf Hitler to come to him as Hitler’s army steamrolled through mainland Europe during World War II’s early going. So a year into the war, Churchill’s cabinet deployed the Special Operations Executive, a covert but sprawling resistance movement whose directive — “set Europe ablaze,” as Churchill himself phrased it — is considerably more grassroots in spirit than images of World War II typically conjure. If the operation’s formation, methods, degree of success, legacy and surrounding controversy are of interest to you, some good news: “Secret War,” at 13 episodes and 656 minutes long, almost certainly has answers to questions you had and answers to other questions you didn’t even know to ask. “War” is nothing if not voluminous, with episodes centered around everything from German-speaking Jewish interrogators and New York City mobsters to the phony spy who tricked Hitler and the traitorous French agent who played for as many as three sides. Opportunities for nitpicking abound, particularly with a presentation that occasionally veers erratically between overly dry and needlessly overdramatic, but minor stylistic grievances are a small price to pay for such a metric ton of fascinating stories you may not even know took place. Considering how exhaustively World War II has been documented, that’s the only selling point it needs.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus a 20-page viewer’s guide.
Return (NR, 2011, Focus World)
Well-meaning though it doubtlessly is, the story of the Iraq War soldier returning home and struggling to rediscover normalcy has practically become a genre unto itself over the last few years. One glance at “Return’s” premise — wherein Kelli (Linda Cardellini) returns from Iraq to her husband (Michael Shannon) and two girls, only to discover that resuming old routines is considerably easier said than done — is enough to dismiss it as another good-intentioned also-ran. But a funny thing happens en route to “Return’s” inevitable compilation of breakdowns, tantrums and tear jerks: It doesn’t oblige. To the contrary — and with a brief but invaluable assist from a fellow soldier (John Slattery) who immediately understands Kelli better than every well-meaning well-wisher put together — “Return” very literally rails against the kid gloves with which a lot of media treat this story. That isn’t the same thing as trivializing the story, mind you. Rather, it merely provides Kelli an opportunity to be a character of her own voice instead of an archetype shaped by the perspectives and assumptions of others. She takes advantage of the opportunity, and “Return” emerges as a much fuller picture of this issue as result.
Extras: Director/cinematographer commentary, deleted scenes.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (NR, 1979, Acorn Media Group)
That the movie adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” managed to journey through John le Carré’s novel with a runtime just short of two hours is impressive. That it did considerable justice to the mess plaguing the British Secret Intelligence Service — a Russian mole embedded in its upper echelon, a delicate operation in Hungary going consequently and violently haywire during the height of the Cold War — is almost miraculous. But providing that justice entailed a dexterous storyline that bandied between multiple timelines and numerous characters freely and frequently, and if you took your eyes off the road for even a scene, getting derailed was easy. Naturally, that’s a problem this six-part, 290-minute miniseries doesn’t have in nearly the same supply. The 1979 treatment of “Spy” remains unapologetically dense, and like the movie, it moves freely between timelines running before, during and after the operation in Hungary. But the miniseries also has room to breathe, and it takes advantage without being wasteful. George Smiley (Alec Guinness), the blackballed retired spy who has been reactivated and tasked with smoking out the mole, uses the extra time to let his true personality blossom. That, in turn, shines a brighter light on the reverence that still burns between George, his cohorts and their suspects — a nod to the good work done previously and the ideals that originally brought them together. The crisis itself naturally gets extra attention —episodes that comprised a scene or two in the movie get literal episodes in this format — but it’s that extra attention to stakes that remains this miniseries’ best asset.
Extras: Deleted scenes, le Carré interview, director interview, production notes, character/term glossary, le Carré bio and booklist.
Cinema Verite (NR, 2011, HBO)
No, MTV did not invent the sensation of reality television with “The Real World.” That honor goes to PBS and Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini), who put Pat Loud (Diane Lane), her husband Bill (Tim Robbins) and their children in front of the camera for all of America to gawk at in 1973’s “An American Family.” Though dismissed by Gilbert himself as fallacious, “Cinema Verite” nonetheless posits itself as a dramatization of the real story behind the show. And whether it’s telling the truth or not, it hits all those checkboxes a respectable period piece needs to hit with a strong cast, a brisk but attentive script and some careful attention paid to the good music and bad wardrobes of the era. But merits beyond that elude “Verite,” because even if it is 100 percent accurate, it’s still playing in the wrong ballpark. The behind-the-scenes story of television’s first reality show — to say nothing of the backlash its immense popularity inspired — must be a gold mine not only for its human drama, but also the ingenuity and processes that went into the formation of a polarizing new genre of entertainment. “Verite” has some of that, particularly during a closing sequence of scenes that shows us the real Louds and touches on the show’s post-air aftermath. Mostly, though, it’s the story you expect about a crumbling family dynamic and the personal odyssey of a producer whose own family life (presumably) collapsed before he conceived “Family.” “Verite’s” treatment of these stories is considerably competent, but it’s also pretty ordinary, and when you’re talking about the origins of a phenomenon that’s more influential than ever, competence isn’t enough.
Extras: Directors/Lane commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.
Contraband (R, 2012, Universal)
Even the most exciting Super Bowl is considerably less so if you don’t have a horse in the race. If the game’s a dud and you don’t care who wins, you might be hard-pressed to even finish it. By those metrics, watching “Contraband” is akin to being a Vikings fan and watching the Cowboys beat the Bills for the second straight year in Super Bowl XXVIII. As a spectacle, it has its moments, thanks to a couple good chases and a game of hide and seek on the docks. A few tense moments also play well as Chris (Mark Wahlberg), a celebrated but rehabilitated smuggler, returns to his old ways in a frantic bid to protect his family from scoundrels who force his hand. But even “Contraband’s” most spectacularly gripping moments play like a hodgepodge of scenes you might swear you’ve seen at least a few times in a few other thrillers. All these borrowed parts might suffice if the sum of them offered some kind of serious rooting interest, but it doesn’t. Chris pulls double duty as a dull hero and a scumbag who probably deserves the trouble he attracts, his allies (Lukas Haas, Ben Foster, Caleb Landry Jones) come unhinged entirely too easily considering their line of work, and his primary adversaries (Giovanni Ribisi, Diego Luna) are cartoon characters who’d play better as as villains of the week on some sorry CBS police procedural. Without much reason to care, seeing stuff you’ve seen before is, needless to say, not the most exciting use of 109 minutes.
Extras: Director/producers commentary, deleted scenes, picture-in-picture behind-the-scenes features (Blu-ray only), two behind-the-scenes features.