Pitch Perfect (PG-13, 2012, Universal)
It’s called “Pitch Perfect.” It’s a movie about a wayward, socially frosty college freshman (Anna Kendrick as Beca) finding herself after joining a competitive all-girls a capella group practically against her will. And if that’s all you knew, wouldn’t you bet the farm that “Perfect” is a powerfully mediocre me-too contribution to a tired story trope that was middling even when it was fresh? Bets rarely come this safe. But then, during an opening scene that introduces us to the group during the season before Beca’s arrival, “Perfect” drops its first shock by way of some hysterically funny commentary from Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins. Following immediately behind: a spectacular twist that brings that scene, and the season, to a crashing end. “Perfect” hits the ground rolling, and while it doesn’t completely shun the trope from which it springs, it rides an edge that lets it do a little bit of serious storytelling and make fun of the whole thing at the exact same time. That the story culminates at the same competition the following season — which itself coincides with Beca’s own coming of age — is predictable to the point of preordained. But who cares when everyone’s having this much fun? “Perfect’s” soundtrack is stellar, and its energetic onscreen assembly of that soundtrack is a riot to watch. Couple that with a brilliant sense of humor that’s relentlessly on point, and the number of pleasant surprises is such that a little narrative predictability doesn’t even matter.
Extras: Director/Banks commentary, producer commentary, deleted/extended scenes, line-o-rama, behind-the-scenes feature, music video.
Sleepwalk with Me (PG-13, 2012, IFC Films)
“Sleepwalk with Me’s” first scene, wherein its protagonist (Mike Birbiglia as Matt) directly addresses the fourth wall from the discomfort of his lousy car, is an effortlessly hilarious lesson on how to endear a character to his audience. So, in a different sense, is its very last scene and several others in between. “Me” never remotely loses its sense of humor, which is what makes the considerable poignance of this story of Matt — a wannabe comedian with no confidence, 11 mediocre minutes of material to his name, a really dangerous sleepwalking problem and an eight-year relationship to Abby (Lauren Ambrose) that’s as hot and heavy as a dusting of snow — such a startling and wonderful surprise. That summation of Matt’s life is about all that needs be revealed here — partially because of what happens next, but equally because of what doesn’t happen. “Me” is as much a shared moment between us and Matt as it is a conventional movie, and its story arc cuts so starkly that the arrival of the credits will completely surprise more than a few viewers who figured it was another 15 minutes away. But “Me’s” choice to end where and how it ends is a rare case of a movie going out on its highest note instead of after a bunch of anticlimactic loose end rectification. A lesser movie with a comparably simple story might need that extra time. But “Me” feels like a moment in time with your newest best friend more than just another work of fiction, and the places it goes between its hilarious opening monologue and its lovably funny parting words leave no need for anything that could potentially dilute that moment.
Extras: Birbiglia/Ira Glass commentary, Q&A with Birbiglia and Glass (narrated by Joss Whedon), behind-the-scenes feature/shorts, outtakes.
Hermano (NR, 2010, Music Box Films)
At no point is it not clear that some formation of black clouds looms in the distance as Julio (Eliú Armas) and his adopted brother Daniel (Fernando Moreno) dominate on the soccer pitch and catch the attention of Caracas’ professional team. Sure enough, “Hermano” — which opens with a baby Daniel lying on the ground, abandoned, when his future mother (Marcela Girón) and brother discover him — has an appetite for heaviness. In some cases, it bites off more than it should, particularly with regard to a side story involving a girl that stalls and feels disconnected from everything else. An occasional tendency to overdose on verbal melodrama doesn’t always look good either. But “Hermano” trains most of its focus on its two brothers, and its shortcomings tend to fall away when its eyes are on them. Without spoiling the details, the black clouds do give way to rainfall, and the mix of sadness and rage that crashes down assumes a special kind of intensity with sports providing the backdrop. And yes, as a sports movie, “Hermano” has a few surprises up its sleeve. The early setup seems to position it as yet another movie that follows the Disney sports movie template. But life and sports intertwine too tightly to allow things to stay that simple, and some truly striking surprises lie in store during a second half that rarely stops for air. In Spanish with English subtitles.
Extras: Director commentary, director interview.
10 Years (PG-13, 2012, Anchor Bay)
If it takes more than one guess to decipher what “10 Years’s” title alludes to, congratulations — you’re giving it more credit than it’s giving you. “Years” very literally is the story of a 10-year high school reunion, and if you also need more than one guess to visualize what that entails, condolences — you’ve been fooled twice. On a surprising many levels, “Years” is a thoroughly likable movie. It’s heartfelt on a wavelength that isn’t melodramatically schmaltzy, it bats around .500 in its attempts to be funny, and it paints a rich picture of its characters’ lives despite relying on nearly every safe-for-consumption theme one expects to find at a fictional high school reunion. It’s a perfectly pleasant use of 101 minutes, and when the script is at its sharpest, it breaches pleasantness and rides the edge of fulfilling. But even if “Years” didn’t limit its reach by clinging to such a vanilla picture of 10-year reunions, it still suffers by being a story that alludes to a time we’ve never seen and can’t ever visit. The fun of these reunions is seeing what happened to people you knew for a short but significant time in your life. With “Years” unable to replicate that and similarly unable to go somewhere new with what it can offer, we’re no better off than the spouse characters — amused and entertained, but too much an outsider to ever feel like a part of it. Channing Tatum, Justin Long, Rosario Dawson and Jenna Dewan-Tatum, among numerous others, star.
Extra: Deleted scenes.
Arbitrage (R, 2012, Lions Gate)
Everyone suddenly loves the “rich hedge fund manager tending a house of cards that’s ready to collapse” storyline, which is why it’s become a genre unto itself since Bernie Madoff made it famous. In “Arbitrage,” it’s Robert Miller’s (Richard Gere) turn to preside over a kingdom that’s headed to ruin if he can’t sweep it beneath a hastily-arranged merger and scamper away quickly enough. The discovery of some accounting discrepancies quietly triggers alarm bells while the merger writhes in limbo. But in case you’re impatient, here’s an affair as well. And also a car crash. And as a topper, here’s Robert’s daughter (Brit Marling), who works for him, stands ready to assume his role once the merger dust settles, but isn’t privy to any of Robert’s deceit. There’s more, but that’s enough to start. “Arbitrage” is late to the crooked financier party, so it compensates by throwing the bash of the year, and it often feels strangely stock as result — a case of numerous ordinary thriller parts forming a whole that’s very familiar. But the advantage of all those pieces is that something always remains up for grabs. And because “Arbitrage” isn’t necessarily keen to let those pieces settle the same way they usually do in movies like these, the torrent of activity remains entertaining in spite of how boilerplate it often feels. Where it all winds up is bound to alienate some — possibly so much that they wonder what the point of the whole thing was in the first place. But even a questionable aftertaste can’t completely wipe away the entertaining roads “Arbitrage” takes to acquire it.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.
The Trouble with the Curve (PG-13, 2012, Warner Bros.)
Though it deals with themes of workaholism, aging and father/daughter issues, “The Trouble with the Curve” is most visibly and audibly a movie about baseball. “Curve” centers around Gus (Clint Eastwood), an Atlanta Braves scout who is scouting their potential top draft pick (Joe Massingill) but whose fading vision is making the job near impossible. The vision problem accompanies a total refusal to use technology to scout players the way the rest of baseball does, which itself accompanies numerous rants in which Gus barks that scouts today don’t understand the game because they’re breaking it down in front of laptops instead of the game itself. The reality, of course, is that most scouts subscribe to a mix of both methods. And unfortunately for “Curve,” which reads like a script written in haste by a curmudgeon who just saw “Moneyball” and hated every minute of it, baseball fans know this. This is far from “Curve’s” only gross oversimplification of baseball, and unfortunately, the other stuff — Gus’s strained relationship with his daughter (Amy Adams), her messy relationship with her own job, and the emergence of a friendly rival scout from another team (Justin Timberlake) and a hostile scout from Gus’s own office (Matthew Lillard) — feels similarly unable to hit those emotional high notes it very earnestly wants to hit. “Curve” is a heartfelt film always, a sweet film sometimes and a funny and exciting one once in a rare while. But baseball is this film’s heart, and for baseball fans living in this lifetime, that heart lives in a world too embarrassingly detached from reality to beat with any resonance whatsoever.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.
The Legend of Neil (NR, 2008, Flatiron Film Company)
All-around unspectacular guy Neil (Tony Janning) was playing “The Legend of Zelda” one night when a series of events transported him into the game. “The Legend of Neil’s” title sequence lays out those events, but they can’t really be detailed here (think David Carradine — yes, that), and they emphatically set the tone for what’s to come in this web series. Jam-packed though it is with grownups in silly costumes using cheap props to wage battle on even cheaper sets, “Neil” has no designs on being a cute tribute to the video game that inspired it. To the contrary, it’s cynical, proudly vulgar, and continuously daring you to dislike Neil even though he’s the hero. But is it actually funny? Sometimes. Now and then, there’s a great line, and a spoof of “The Office” using “Zelda” enemies is funny. Mostly, it’s more amusing than funny, and when it tries extra hard to offend, it occasionally just trips and embarrasses itself. Not that this really matters, of course. “Neil” is aimed squarely (and really, solely) at people who love “Zelda” enough to instantly recognize and cheer low-rent versions of its characters. And if the novelty of seeing those characters get drunk and swear like sailors is too rich to ignore, this is impossible not to recommend. The entire three-season series (roughly two and a half hours all tallied up) is devoted exclusively to the original “Zelda” game, and its cup of obscure references definitely runneth over.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, minisodes, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, music video, photo gallery.
Total Recall: Extended Director’s Cut (NR/PG-13, 2012, Sony Pictures)
Gut reactions notwithstanding, it makes sense to remake sci-fi movies, and there are fleeting moments in the new “Total Recall” that demonstrate why. Its working ideas — about oppressive worker colonies, memory augmentation technology, the ability to have an alternate life constructed for you or taken away — are initially explored in more sophisticated detail than they were in the 1990 original. And thanks to the advent of our own technology, some of that exploration looks prettier. Some, but not all. In fact, not even most. If the new “Recall” is mostly anything, it’s mostly a sorry sign of the sci-fi remake times. The original’s dark sense of humor is — pale imitation of one famous joke aside — completely gone. In its place is a sterile, personality-deficient playground that’s crawling with drab colors and drab people who stand in stark contrast to the original’s wild depiction of future Mars. This “Recall” is set wholly on Earth instead, prioritizing politics and faux real-world grit over character and the magnificent final twist that capped the original. This one has a twist too, but following an hour of noisy chases set to the same soundtrack that every single wannabe sci-fi classic seems to use these days, it’s a meek reveal that quickly slinks away. That’s a shame, but it’s endemic of remakes that want to stand apart from their inspiration but are too creatively empty to know how. That “Recall” falls into this trap is almost customary. That it does so while also generally looking worse than a movie from 22 years ago? That may be it’s only genuine surprise.
Extras: Theatrical and extended versions of the film, director commentary, 10 behind-the-scenes features, pre-visualization sequences, bloopers.