From up on Poppy Hill (PG, 2011/2013, GKIDS/Cinedigm)
With the 1964 Olympics a year away from their arrival in Tokyo, Japan is ready to embrace its role as host and take perhaps its largest step yet in the post-war healing process. Unfortunately for Umi and Shun, the logistical price of hosting the event includes the destruction of their Yokohama school and the use of that land for other purposes. A grassroots movement to save the school brings the two students together, and separate circumstances from their respective pasts grab the baton to complicate things from there. And that’s it — no magical creatures, no magical worlds, no fantastical developments. Sight unseen, it doesn’t sound like a Studio Ghibli production at all, does it? Nope, and “From up on Poppy Hill’s” almost unapologetic devotion to simple storytelling is practically destined to turn off those who watch it continually waiting for something beyond a straight story and a couple twists to unfurl. That’s unfortunate, too, because the hallmarks of the Miyazaki family’s fingerprints — from the visual style to the soundtrack to the delicate but never frail formation of the characters and their circumstances — is fully present and accounted for, and those hallmarks soar even without the prospect of undiscovered worlds to entice things along. “Hill” is set in a place well-known and a past well-worn, but Studio Ghibli’s best hallmark of all — a passion for doting on the minute details that get to the heart of who someone is and what brings them alive — turns Yokohama into a world as rife for discovery as any other.
Extras: Original Japanese cast recording, Goro Miyazaki interview, two behind-the-scenes features, feature-length storyboards, Hayao Miyazaki speech and press conference, music video, 16-page companion booklet with liner notes from Goro and Hayao Miyazaki.
I Do (NR, 2012, Breaking Glass Pictures)
“I Do” wastes almost no time dropping a two-ton burden of guilt on Jack’s (David W. Ross) shoulders after his dropped wallet leads to a freak accident that kills his brother and leaves his pregnant sister-in-law Mya (Alicia Witt) a widow. Surprisingly and perhaps fortunately, this rather major event is background material and not the main story road for the film, which fast-forwards a few years and finds Jack helping raise his niece Tara (Jessica Tyler Brown) while staring down the expiration of a visa that could deport him back to his native England for years. What should happen next is probably obvious — except it isn’t, because Jack is gay and the prospect of using Mya for a green card is morally unfathomable given the circumstances responsible for her being unmarried in the first place. “I Do” is full of little caveats that are just big enough to derail the whole train, and its handling of those caveats pays considerable dividends. The film easily could have coasted into an endless cycle of insufferable bleakness thanks to those early developments, and it could just as easily have devolved into a hamfisted lecture in disguise when the discrepancies over straight versus gay rights come into play with Jack’s citizenship hanging in the balance. But “I Do” does neither, touching those issues sharply but doing so in a way that’s subtle, heartfelt, occasionally funny and silly, and in a manner that treats characters like characters instead of vessels for a message. Jamie-Lynn Sigler also stars.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted/extended scenes, crew kitchen confessionals, original Kickstarter pitch video, behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery.
Now You See Me (PG-13, 2013, Summit Entertainment)
The magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) taking the stage in “Now You See Me” aren’t simply magicians: They’re also thieves who rob banks as part of their act and reward their audience with the spoils. Naturally, neither the FBI (Mark Ruffalo) nor Interpol (Mélanie Laurent) is as on board with this trick as the public is, and so the race is on to catch a band of brilliant and dangerously confident thieves who remain seven steps ahead of their pursuers but also a step behind the mysterious mastermind who has devised this act for them. “NYSM” has a race of its own going on, with a good movie and a bad movie furiously swapping leads up to and beyond the obligatory final twist. The clever premise makes for an engrossing open, and “NYSM” buoys itself with some amusing and clever plays on the agents-versus-illusionists gimmick. A presentation style that gorges on theatrics and never takes itself seriously is a nice touch too. But amid all “NYSM” does well, there’s an indulgence of dialogue that occasionally turns good actors into hams who are funny for the wrong reasons. The twists and chases grow increasingly ludicrous and reckless the more they pile up, and amusing or not, the presentation’s voracious appetite for self-indulgence can get wearisome when “NYSM’s” logic struggles to hold itself together. Then, of course, there’s the final twist, which wedges itself into a final chain of events that was precarious enough as is. “NYSM” is, altogether, pretty awful — except, of course, when it’s great fun, which, albeit sometimes in spite of itself, it often is. Such is the fate of a movie that, like the occasional magician, doesn’t necessarily believe in its audience’s intelligence but bends over backward in hopes of pleasing the crowd anyway. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine also star.
Extras: Director/producer commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.
Empire State (R, 2013, Lions Gate)
The true story on which “Empire State” is based — of a retired cop’s son (Liam Hemsworth as Chris), the best friend (Michael Angarano as Eddie) who sandbagged his chance to join the police academy, the job he took at an armored truck depository, and the historically expensive inside job robbery they planned of the place when Chris crossed the disgruntled employee threshold — sounds intriguing. Once multiple organized crime rings enter the picture, it becomes fascinating, and when the fate of the millions in play is revealed, it’s deflating that we didn’t just get a documentary instead of a dramatization. That’s the awkward position “State” finds itself in, and it’s powerless to fight the increasingly emboldened notion that this is secondhand entertainment instead of the real thing (especially when we get a taste of that real thing right at the end). Oh well. With all that said, what we do get certainly isn’t bad. “State” is pretty superficial with regard to the makeup of its characters, offering mannerisms and motivations but little beyond the shallow and obvious. But as a story about two guys who have no business being on this playground, much less dictating its rules, it’s rarely dull and has energy to spare. The portrait of 1980s New York and the people who roamed its streets veers on the side of cartoony at times, but given how well-worn these themes and settings are, going overboard beats limping in any day. Dwayne Johnson and Emma Roberts also star, though neither quite so prominently as the cover art suggests.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.
Cockneys vs. Zombies (NR, 2012, Scream Factory)
It’s a crisis half-straight out of “The Goonies.” Ray (Alan Ford) faces eviction from his retirement home via property developers bent on demolishing it and repurposing the land, so his two grandsons (Harry Treadaway, Rasmus Hardiker) engage in a desperate treasure hunt in hopes of saving it. The differences here are (a) the boys are a good deal older than your typical Goonie, and (b) their idea of treasure hunting is attempting, for the first time ever and quite poorly even for a first attempt, to rob a bank. Then, of course, there’s the zombie outbreak that sends the whole thing even more sideways than it already was. The title really does say it all: There are amateur criminals with cockney accents on one side, zombies on the other, and more than enough ineptitude to cover the entire battle that commences. With any imagination and experience seeing zombie movies, you probably can spell “Cockneys vs. Zombies'” storyline and comic tone without even seeing it, and you’d probably be pretty accurate. That isn’t what you’d call glowing praise, but there’s no good reason to condemn a movie that simply wants to have extremely literal fun in a really familiar way so long as it succeeds in doing so. And “Zombies” certainly does that, thanks to an overt willingness to be silly, kinetic, gross, amusing (and occasionally funny) and even lovable enough to keep things entertaining in spite of how familiar so much of its surroundings look.
Extras: Two commentary tracks, behind-the-scenes feature.