The Grey (R, 2012, Universal)
As a hunter tasked with protecting Alaskan oil drillers from the wolves that patrol their workspace, Ottway (Liam Neeson) knows as much about how a wolf lives as how one dies. And when a plane carrying Ottway and dozens of oil drillers crashes deep in the Alaskan wilderness — leaving seven survivors potentially dead to rights in the midst of a wolves’ den — his knowledge could scarcely ask for a better test. That’s the conceit of “The Grey,” and from high above, it’s every bit the lean, brutal survival movie you probably expect it to be. But before Ottway even boards the plane, “The Grey” offers him up as more than some grizzled wolf hunter who does what he does just because. To the contrary, he’s a badly tormented romantic who craves his old life and dreams relentlessly of resting in his former wife’s arms, and his place on this plane represents far more than simple circumstance. There’s more where that came from, too, and not simply from Ottway. Rather than use its survivors as nothing more than sounding boards and soulless pawns in the wolf den food chain, “The Grey” treats them as honest-to-goodness characters who ended up drilling for oil in no man’s land for honest-to-goodness reasons of their own. Brutality and contemplation make surprisingly good bedfellows — and, really, of course they do. Why root for survivalists if we don’t know why they want so badly to live? Most movies never say. This one does, and often brilliantly. Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts and Nonso Anozie, among others, also star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes.
Chronicle (PG-13, 2012, Fox)
High school nobody Andrew (Dane DeHaan) has a difficult home life and is unpopular enough that only his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) qualifies as something of a friend. Yet none of this discourages him from lugging around an old camcorder and filming his daily life. And when he finally stumbles onto something worth filming — an odd artifact buried beneath a random suburban Seattle yard that grants superhero-esque powers to Andrew, Matt and the popular guy (Michael B. Jordan as Steve) who egged them into filming the weird hole he found outside a house party — it’s a good thing he kept the camera rolling. “Chronicle” takes two suddenly oversaturated sub-genres — mock found footage and the everyman superhero — and merges them into one. If you listen to conventional wisdom, that should add up to a movie that’s tired, uninspired and/or a complete me-too mess. But what happens instead is a best-case scenario for both gimmicks and a mess of a whole different sort. Without spoiling too many specifics, “Chronicle” designs a pretty credible account of what might happen when three high schoolers with three different levels of popularity stumble into a pandora’s box of awesome abilities. There’s wonder and the wide-eyed imagining of untold possibilities and adventures. But there’s also mischief to make and pretty girls to impress. And when all these powerful factors add up so quickly, angst inevitably creeps in. The occasional hiccup aside, “Chronicle” makes terrific use of its time, going from zero to crazy without looking rushed getting there. Instead of using two trendy concepts to wear out its welcome, it takes them places they should have been going all along.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.
Albert Nobbs (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
For years, Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) has quietly served court as a waiter at a Dublin hotel while slowly piecing enough money together to open his own tobacco shop. And for far longer than that, he’s hidden a secret — that he’s a she in disguise, and thus unfit in the eyes of her 19th century peers to hold her job, much less own a business — from everyone. When new fellow employee Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) stumbles into her secret, he promises to keep it quiet, but as often happens when one domino falls, it hits another on the way down. “Albert Nobbs” owes a debt of its ensuing bedlam to a supporting cast (Aaron Johnson, Mia Wasikowska, Pauline Collins) whose stories have more of a circumstantial than direct effect on Albert’s story, and one could certainly argue this is a product of the movie not completely knowing what to do with its namesake once the big secret is out. Those who develop that suspicion early likely won’t ever shake it, and those fears might even worsen once Albert’s fate comes into view. But even as those clouds form, “Nobbs” spends just enough magic on Hubert’s and Albert’s unlikely friendship to allow these scenes to carry everything else. The movie would have done itself a favor by focusing harder on the relationship between the cripplingly awkward Nobbs and the person who accidentally becomes the most important person in his/her life, but some is better than none.
Extras: Close/director commentary, deleted scenes.
Hell on Wheels: The Complete First Season (NR, 2011, Entertainment One)
His army may have been on the losing end of the Civil War, but Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) isn’t finished fighting just yet. Specifically, he’s bent on smoking out and serving a plate of payback to the Union soldiers who murdered his wife, and if he has to insert himself in the traveling city of Northerners who are racing to complete construction of a transcontinental railroad, so be it. Naturally, “Hell on Wheels” being a television series whose second season is en route, Cullen’s revenge is going to take some time. And if you want to be around to witness its presumably eventual payoff, you’d best pack some patience for the ride. More than a story about Cullen’s pending revenge, “Hell on Wheels” is a story about Cullen. But more than a story about Cullen, “Wheels” is a story about his new roving neighborhood — a hotbed of soldiers, wanderers, criminals, prostitutes, former slaves, greedy tycoons and Native Americans where, in the shadow of the war, tensions very obviously run high. “Wheels” milks the scene for all it’s worth in the service of character studying, and it takes its painstakingly sweet time doing so. There’s no shame in that approach, and “Wheels” has some rocky growing pains early on, the first season’s second half finds a better balance between jawing that serves the big picture and jawing that only functions as in-the-moment posturing and pretense. Colm Meaney, Dominique McElligott, Common, Tom Noonan and Eddie Spears, among others, also star.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus 10 Inside the Episode features, seven character features and nine other behind-the-scenes features.
Stony Island (PG, 1978, Cinema Libre)
As much as it was a movie in 1978, “Stony Island” is a time capsule today — of the era’s music, of the city of Chicago in the wake of the first Mayor Daley’s death, and of independent filmmaking when making independent films was far more financially intimidating than it is today. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying it on these terms, either. “Island” — the first film from Andrew Davis, who later would direct “The Fugitive” and “The Guardian,” among others — is a meandering story about a handful of musicians (Richie Davis, Edward Stoney Robinson, Gene Daddy G Barge) who defy conventional wisdom and form a most unlikely funk supergroup. The acting isn’t always top flight, the story rambles considerably from start to finish, and the film is rife with “you probably had to be there” references to the city, sound and era. That’s one way to describe it. Here’s another: “Island” paints a vibrantly grimy picture of grassroots musicianship and filmmaking (from behind the camera as well as in front of it), and the story plays a willing second fiddle to the sound and scene that provide its pulse. As much time is spent with the musicians simply making music as it is on storytelling and other things movies typically do. That’s most likely unacceptable 99 percent of the time, but this movie, rediscovered this year in this way, makes a fine exception. Dennis Franz also stars.
Extras: Alternate ending, behind-the-scenes feature.