8/20/13: Amour, Highland Park, Killing Season, Epic, Drinking Games, Hitting the Cycle

Amour (PG-13, 2012, Sony Pictures)
“I know it can only get worse. Why should I inflict this on us, on you and me?” If you’ve had any passing exposure to “Amour,” you already know it’s a downer about a man (Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges) watching his wife (Emmanuelle Riva as Anne) face her encroaching mortality after a stroke leaves her partially paralyzed and bed-bound. Or rather, that’s the widely-dispersed assumption as concluded by the fleeting exposure the film received after receiving a Best Picture Oscar nomination. “Amour” is, to be certain, a harshly honest movie about Anne’s declining health and Georges’s internal struggle over what to do when things get worse and Anne’s loss of independence turns her sour. But a dreary art house downer? Not quite. “Amour” is reverent, kind and legitimately very funny in parts, and it’s salty, unfiltered and even a little mean in other parts. More than a picture of death, it’s a picture of life — one that shows us, without ever looking backward or verbalizing it, exactly what compelled Georges and Anne to find each other, keep each other and occasionally drive each other crazy. That doesn’t make the circumstances any easier to swallow, but understanding and appreciation come easily and in droves. In French with English subtitles.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, director Q&A.

Highland Park (NR, 2013, Tribeca Film)
Like several other cities in Detroit’s shadow, Highland Park is in a state of financial disrepair, and the staff (in several cases, former staff) at the local high school is now feeling the effects of that decay up close. For a group of friends (Billy Burke, Danny Glover, Kimberly Elise, John Carroll Lynch, Rockmond Dunbar, Eric Ladin) from that school, the seemingly only easy way out (term used loosely) are the six lucky numbers they pick every week for the lottery ticket they pool money together to buy. An unrealistic road to salvation in our world with the odds being what they are, but this is the movies, so you know where this is going, right? Yep. Fortunately, the rest of “Highland Park” isn’t quite so telegraphed, and the actual act of winning the lottery is the beginning of this story and not anything close to a culmination. There are divergent schools of thought that hypothesize winning the Lotto jackpot is either the blessing or curse of a lifetime, and “Park” covers that spectrum nicely and mixes in some city politics and current events to murk things further. In a few heavy-handed spots, when the ideologies become the story, that recipe proves to be more than the movie can handle. But these moments are mercifully brief, and “Park” spends most of its energy straddling a smart comedy/drama line and training its focus on a diverse but uniformly likable group who are friends first and lottery winners second. Parker Posey also stars as the city’s mayor (who, perhaps predictably, isn’t quite as likable.) No extras.

Killing Season (R, 2013, Millennium Entertainment)
Benjamin (Robert De Niro) has never forgotten, Emil (John Travolta) has never forgiven, and when the two former soldiers from opposing factions in the Bosnian War happen upon each other and forge the beginnings of a friendship near Benjamin’s isolated home in the woods, “Killing Season” has already made it clear this is no accident. “Season” brushes aside the early pleasantries with similar efficiency, setting the stage for a showdown that’s one part hunt and 10 parts Festivus airing of grievances. Were the source of those grievances not so interesting, “Season” might have delved into accidental comedy territory with the unbelievable number of times Benjamin or Emil gains the upper hand before embarking on a Bond villain monologue while the other guy finds a way to turn the tables and do a little recitation of his own. Arguably, it still does. But ridiculously counterproductive through they tend to be, those speeches give “Season” the character and color they need to complement a chase that, despite being grimy and enjoyably rustic in its violence, might nonetheless feel empty without the backstory. More importantly, they give the film everything it needs to give an arc to a story that otherwise would plateau and go nowhere. “Season” could have ended a handful of ways, but few would be as satisfying and fitting as the one it ultimately chooses.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Epic (PG, 2013, Fox)
Halfway through its run, as a shrunk-down Mary Katherine hitches a ride aboard the antler of a curious deer who probably would run away from her full-sized former self, “Epic” shows the awe-inspiring potential it has to tell a truly magical story about a microscopic society living amid ours. Whenever Mary Katherine’s full-sized, three-legged pug is joyously stealing scenes for no reason beyond a desire to spread his joy, “Epic” shows its potential to be hilarious for no reason. But any time “Epic” ventures in one of these directions, obligation to fulfill its destiny as a ready-to-please animated adventure movie for kids pulls it back and stretches it thin. Though Mary Katherine’s crossover status makes her the main character by default, most of the story takes place in the microscopic society of tiny human good guys, tiny goblin-esque bad guys, a handful of wisecracking talking slugs and toads, and a would-be hero, Nod, who follows the slacker-to-failure-to-savior blueprint to the letter. “Epic,” accordingly, follows the good-versus-evil game plan, and most of its time is devoted to a battle for the forest that’s gorgeous to behold but completely ordinary in terms of storytelling. Moments where the two worlds intersect are criminally rare given the plethora of opportunities to create them and mine the possibilities they offer, and “Epic,” for better or worse, feels precisely like the pretty, fast-paced, enjoyable but forgettable animated also-ran it seems obligated to be.
Extras: Seven behind-the-scenes features, four features about the environments that inspired the film, Epic Coloring & Storybook Builder app (iOS/Android).

Drinking Games (NR, 2012, Believe Limited)
On the eve of holiday break and in the eye of a blizzard, Richard (Blake Merriman) and Shawn’s (Nick Vergara) dorm is nearly a ghost town, with their room one of the few remaining with the lights still on. One studious resident adviser’s (Joshua Sterling Bragg) intervention notwithstanding, they and a few other students have run of the place — which would be great if (a) Richard didn’t want to stay in and study and (b) a third student, Noopie (Rob Bradford) wasn’t passed out already on their floor. How did he get there? Heck, who is he? “Drinking Games” has plenty of questions to answer as it opens. Among them: What is “Drinking Games,” exactly? It plays like a slacker comedy at first, but not with purpose, and when it shoots instead for some epiphanic revelatory character drama, it does so without conviction. Eventually, “Games” takes on a psychological thriller bent. But here it lacks the know-how, awkwardly waffling between dark comedy and dark drama with a jerkiness that makes the closing verses come on more abruptly than they should. “Games” is weirdly watchable due to being so constantly uncomfortable in its own skin. But that lack of comfort is neither the hook the movie had in mind nor the one it needs to merit a recommendation.
Extras: Commentary, drinking games sports vignettes, photo gallery.

Hitting the Cycle (NR, 2012, Monarch Home Entertainment)
It happens to every athlete: Their body betrays them, their skills erode, and they’re forced to retire from the thing they love most while still in the prime of their lives. That’s the private hell facing former baseball phenomenon-turned-scuffling minor leaguer Jimmy Ripley (J. Richey Nash), and for a time it seems “Hitting the Cycle” is primed to take this on in heavy-handed but credibly painful detail. But it’s around that time that Jimmy gets a call about his ill father back home. And it’s shortly after that when Jimmy returns home and, following a frosty reunion with estranged brother Patrick (Travis Schuldt), ventures down a path that transforms “Cycle” from a movie about baseball into a laundry list of back-to-the-ol’-hometown cliches. There’s angst with the pretty girl (Courtney Henggeler) from high school who has the lame boyfriend, there’s angst with Patrick, there’s angst with the former high school, there’s angst with childhood memories, there’s angst with Dad (Bruce Dern), and by the time “Cycle” heads into its third act, it’s saddled with more baggage than a flight around the world. “Cycle” is certainly earnest, and the limbo of Jimmy’s career gives it some intrigue even at its most agonized. But all that baggage adds up, and as “Cycle” keeps piling on with argument after argument about a past we merely hear about rather than truly feel, it flirts dangerously with self-parody. It never quite makes it all the way there, but the distance Jimmy’s story travels from its original would-be premise is exhaustingly long all the same. No extras.