10/30/12: The Campaign, Safety Not Guaranteed, Ruby Sparks, Americano, Coma, All In The Family Complete Series

The Campaign (R, 2012, Warner Bros.)
At this point, we’re all so sick of the election that we’re probably all sick of the bottomless well of media that make fun it as well. “The Campaign” — the story of a North Carolina congressional race pitting a slick, shameless incumbent (Will Ferrell) against a surprise newcomer (Zach Galifianakis) whom even Ned Flanders might urge to loosen up — is part of that noise, which is why you may have forgotten it was even a movie that released fewer than three months ago. To all who wish they could sleep until November 6, just go ahead and forget about it again. But for those who have some energy left or some steam to release, here’s the good news: Whether brilliantly on purpose or simply because it’s the best it can do, “The Campaign” fully lacks the ambition to make a single point that hasn’t already been made ad nauseam. Instead, it swings wildly for the broadest side of the barn in hopes of getting the biggest, grossest, most childish and epically stupid laughs it can get. Everything every decent person hates about politics — from lies to money to political action committees and lobbyists — is bandied about, but it’s all ultimately buried beneath a cartoon starring two caricatures who are completely losing their minds. Biting commentary, insight, poignant wisdom that puts it all in perspective? No thanks — maybe in a year or so, after we’re liberated from the daily assault of this endlessly long race. “The Campaign” would rather just set everything on fire, and for some of us, there’s no greater campaign contribution than that.
Extras: Extended (96 minutes) and theatrical (85 minutes) versions, deleted scenes, line-o-rama, bloopers.

Safety Not Guaranteed (R, 2012, Sony Pictures)
Per a classified ad, Kenneth (Mark Duplass) is very seriously seeking an equally serious partner with whom to travel back in time. His destination: 2001, before his then-girlfriend died in a senseless accident. (Sidebar: Can you believe we’re making movies about time-traveling back to 2001 instead of forward? How time flies.) Kenneth’s ad attracts the attention of a journalist (Jake Johnson) who wants to tell his story, though mostly because a old flame lives in the area and he’s in a rekindling state of mind. He ropes in two interns (Aubrey Plaza as Darius, whose happiest days reside in her past as well, and Karan Soni as Arnau, a shy egghead with little grasp of what happiness is), and with that, we have a pretty weird road trip movie. “Safety Not Guaranteed’s” odd premise begets a quirky movie that isn’t always flatteringly quirky. Is Kenneth’s pursuit insanity or romanticism? And what of his pursuers — both the journalists and those he’s convinced are following him for sinister reasons? “Guaranteed” isn’t in a rush to show its hand, which leads to both theories battling on a tonally uneven battlefield. But “Guaranteed’s” common thread about living for today in order to recapture the past provides a surprisingly steadying hand without preaching or sacrificing humor. The natural upside of the unevenness is that it frees “Guaranteed” to stay unpredictable and shirk plot obligations movies usually endure once they show their cards. The deeper into this story we get, the more “Guarantted” blurs the line between absurd and heartfelt. And when all finally is revealed, what awaits is wholeheartedly worth the occasional turbulence it took to get there.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, time capsule Easter egg.

Ruby Sparks (R, 2012, Fox)
Calvin (Paul Dano) is a frustrated, lonely, socially damaged writer whose recent extended career downturn is leaving him looking very prematurely washed up. So when Ruby (Zoe Kazan) unexpectedly walks into his life, she brings with her the creative and personal reawakening he’s quietly but desperately needed. So who cares if the only place Ruby exists is in Paul’s dreams, right? A spark is a spark. Imagined or not, Ruby becomes Calvin’s muse and, eventually, the subject of his next story. Then, one random morning, she apparently becomes hungry, because when Calvin walks into his kitchen, he finds her standing there. So is this a case of a writer’s imagination gone wild, or has Calvin finally fully cracked up? Without spoiling, lets just say “Ruby Sparks” has fun answering our questions and following up with more answers to the inevitable follow-up questions. It has a lot of fun, in fact — in the service of both a lively comedy and some first-rate curiosity fulfillment. But “Sparks” doesn’t only have fun. Be it insanity or muses taking on lives of their own, “Sparks” has zero qualms about getting its hands dirty and rifling through the chronically dark side of the same themes it explores for laughs. Sometimes it does both at once to darkly funny effect. But when “Sparks” feels like plumbing the depths of loneliness, despair and the desperate breakdown of a bright and creative mind, it very memorably goes the whole uncomfortable way. (And yes, “uncomfortable” is a compliment in this case.)
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features.

Americano (NR, 2011, MPI Home Video)
We barely know Martin (Mathieu Demy) when a phone call during “Americano’s” opening moments informs him that his mother has died. His cryptic reaction to the news doesn’t help, nor does the presence of a woman (Chiara Mastroianni) with whom he has a comparably vague relationship. And with the assertion that Martin barely remembers his childhood years in California — which were the last he spent with his mother before moving to Paris to live with his father — we’re staring at an emotional brick wall until Martin gets the call to sort out his mother’s apartment and affairs in California. So now we’re getting somewhere … until Martin discovers his mother left the apartment to a woman, Lola (Salma Hayek), he doesn’t know beyond a photograph they appeared in together when both were children. Her location? Tijuana. Her opacity? Right up there with his. If this just sounds eight ways of aggravatingly obtuse right now, it’s worth noting “Americano” doesn’t build all these walls simply to be difficult. Nor, if you believe in the power of showing over telling, does nothing progress even while nothing tangibly progresses. The story of “Americano” is the story of Martin, and while the story of Martin isn’t for the nuance-averse, “Americano” has a way of turning tiny steps into profound leaps without coming out and preaching how profound they are. All that nuance adds up, and for a story in which tangible progress ranges from minor to invisible, “Americano” delivers quite a payoff — for Martin, Lola and even a surprise character or two in between — as it rides into the credits. In French and English with English subtitles.
Extra: Demy interview.

Coma (NR, 2012, Sony Pictures)
When patients die on the operating table, “Coma” opines, people accept it as a plausible outcome even when the surgery otherwise went according to plan. But when otherwise healthy patients slip into a coma during otherwise routine surgeries, that’s a red flag. And when a third-year medical student (Lauren Ambrose as Susan) discovers a spike in coma incidents and makes a hypothetical connection between the hospital where she works and an experimental research center that may be benefiting from the phenomenon, “red flag” is a polite understatement. “Coma’s” story isn’t new — nor is “Coma” itself, which existed previously as a 1977 book and 1978 Michael Douglas movie. This time, it’s a 160-minute miniseries, and the telltale signs of an arguably needless remake apply. The new “Coma” certainly is pretty to look at, particularly once we peek inside that research center, and Ambrose’s supporting cast (James Woods, Geena Davis, Steven Pasquale, Richard Dreyfuss, Ellen Burstyn) is impressive. But any hope for the extended runtime expounding on the intrigue — regarding either “Coma’s” characters or its whys and hows — is misplaced, because “Coma” would rather funnel its first-half buildup into a second half that’s almost purely a chase-laden horror movie. That isn’t necessarily a knock, because the concept (and “Coma’s” visualization of it) easily justifiies such a turn. But the genre shift makes for a second half that’s both stylistically and narratively more predictable — even accounting for obligatory twists and intentionally vague endgame imagery — than a more measured but more curious movie would have been (and, in 1978, already was). No extras.

Also
— “All In The Family: The Complete Series” (NR, 1968, Shout Factory): It’s one of the funniest, most raucous and most influential sitcoms ever made, and if it re-aired verbatim in prime time right now, it’d still shame nearly all of its competition in terms of relevance and fortitude. So bravo to Shout Factory for managing to contain it inside a single box and live to tell the tale. “All In The Family’s” nine seasons and 208 episodes have appeared on DVD already as individual season sets, but this space-saving set — 28 discs inside a box that’s five DVD cases wide — is an easy gift for anybody who loves the show but previously didn’t bite. Extras include the three-part 1979 retrospective, a new interview with executive producer Norman Lear, the original pilot episode, two behind-the-scenes documentaries, the spin-off pilot episodes for “Gloria,” “704 Hauser” and “Archie Bunker’s Place” and a 40-page photo booklet with liner notes and essays.