DVD 5/25/10: Mystery Team, Owl and the Sparrow, Royal Pains S1, Hoarders S1, Tell-Tale, All My Friends are Funeral Singers

Mystery Team (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
Like a lot of kids with active imaginations, Jason (Donald Glover), Duncan (D.C. Pierson) and Charlie (Dominic Dierkes) like to run around their neighborhood and solve not-quite crimes as the Mystery Team. And the whole exercise — disguises, tech from a 1985 Toys ‘R’ Us catalog, an “office” that looks suspiciously like a lemonade stand — would be awfully cute if they weren’t 18-year-olds on the cusp of going to college. But they are, and when a real crime lands in their lap, they’re as predictably overmatched in solving a double murder as they are in every other facet of their young-but-not-that-young lives. Fortunately, the story of their plight doesn’t have nearly the same issue. “Mystery Team’s” immaculate sense of self-awareness makes its cute bits exponentially funnier than they would be in the hands of most comedies, and its amazing control over that tone makes it that much funnier when it decides, for whatever reason, to drop a blue humor bomb right in the middle of everything. But while “Team” achieves parody nirvana in its successful evisceration of the after-school-special-esque coming-of-age story, it allows just a small piece of itself to play it straight, making our awkward heroes considerably more fun to root for than if they simply were pawns in the joke. The resolution of the mystery isn’t really the point, but if “Team” wants to make it fun to see how it wraps up, who is anyone to argue?
Extras: Cast commentary, “Who is Wally Cummings?” comedy short, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers, test footage, Sword Club Hall of Fame (makes sense after you see the movie).

Owl and the Sparrow (PG, 2007, Image Entertainment)
Moving to a bustling new city is a scary endeavor for anyone of any age to undergo alone, so it must take some serious determination for 10-year-old Thuy (Pham Thi Han) to run away to Saigon with no family, no plan and barely any money in her pocket. Can you relate? Two people — a woman tired of meaningless relationships and a man still reconciling the sting of a failed engagement (Cat Ly and Le The Lu, respectively) can, and when their paths each cross with Thuy’s, you probably can figure out what she has designs to do next. But the great thing about “Owl and the Sparrow,” beyond its skillful development of all three characters, is the way it takes a potentially lethally contrived storyline and, by way of such great character designs, nearly completely strips it of any such hollowness. As much as it is about what happens next (and Thuy’s fantastically blunt delivery makes those developments more unpredictable than they would be in the hands of your typical saccharine kid), “Sparrow” really is a story about what brought everyone here in the first place. Be it though its photography or its characters’ words, the movie’s observations about what a joy and what a pain it can be to need other people are thoughtful, dead honest and never prone to ham-handed preachiness. When everything comes together, what ultimately happens is far more captivating than “Sparrow’s” seemingly predictable setup would imply. In Vietnamese with English subtitles.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery.

Royal Pains: Season One (NR, 2009, USA/Universal)
Whether intentionally or not, the USA Network has cornered the market for shows that borrow formats and formulas traditionally reserved for dramas and inject them with enough comedy to completely blur the genre lines. So if you’ve seen and enjoyed the likes of “Monk,” “Psych” and “Burn Notice,” your capacity to enjoy “Royal Pains” is practically predestined. In outline form, “Pains” shares a lot of common ground with any number of other medical dramas, introducing self-contained medical mysteries in each episode while also telling a bigger picture about its characters’ lives. But instead of a hospital, “Pains” takes place in the Hamptons. And while the personal lives of Dr. Hank Lawson (Mark Feuerstein) and his slacker brother Evan (Paulo Costanzo) provide a significant portion of the show’s comedic content, “Pains'” real trick is its ability to laugh at the expense of Hank’s excessively wealthy, often street-stupid clientele while simultaneously making just enough of them just human and likable enough for Hank’s work to matter. Like most of the shows with which it shares a network, “Pain” is neither viciously hysterical nor edge-of-seat suspenseful, but a perfectly entertaining hybrid of both extremes. It feels like formula in light of USA’s other offerings, but in the larger pool of me-too medical dramas, it’s a pleasant novelty that’s engaging enough to merit a long look.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, video blogs, one behind-the-scenes feature and bloopers.

Hoarders: Season One (NR, 2009, A&E)
If a messy house or even the prospect of too many icons cluttering your computer’s desktop makes you uncomfortable, consider this a warning: “Hoarders,” a reality television show that observes compulsive hoarders trying to clean their way out of abysmally cluttered and potentially unsafe living conditions, might be the scariest thing you’ve ever seen. The mountains of clutter these folks scale just to get from room to room — old newspapers, empty fishtanks, toiletries, boxes that long since have served any purpose — is one thing. But even someone comfortable with clutter might have trouble stomaching some of “Hoarders'” nastier episodes, which find people living in oceans of expired foods, bacteria, mold, bugs and worse. (Warning: Way worse.) The show provides a service insofar that the objective of each episode is to dispatch experts who can help turn these lives around and clean house before landlords and government employees have to get involved, but there’s no sense denying it: This is exploitative theatre that, for most of us, has zero educational value and zero value of any kind beyond that of witnessing a train derailment. There’s also no denying this: Like any good horror show that touches certain uncomfortable nerves, it’s as hard to look away from — if your conscience can handle it — as it is to look at in the first place.
Contents: Seven episodes, plus unaired footage.

Tell-Tale (R, 2009, Vivendi)
After receiving what appears to be a successful heart transplant, Terry Bernard (Josh Lucas) is all set to resume tending to his ill daughter (Beatrice Miller) and courting her doctor (Lena Headey) when an incident outside the hospital triggers a memory he’s sure isn’t his. The flashback leads to questions, those questions open a floodgate, and the subsequent visions have Terry wondering if his heart is trying to tell him that its journey into his body wasn’t exactly routine. If the title and premise call a certain Edgar Allan Poe poem to mind, it’s no accident. “Tell-Tale” represents itself as a re-imagination of the poem, but it really only borrows the gist, letting modern conventions and plenty of creative license take it the rest of the way. The result isn’t narratively impeccable: Some deep plot holes open up, and some characters do some things that seem, politely put, to be a stretch. But provided you can suspend some intermediate levels of disbelief, it’s a pretty creepy good time anyway. Those leaps in logic allow “Tell-Tale” to go kind of crazy with a classic premise (which, let’s face it, isn’t exactly ground in authenticity in the first place), and while what happens doesn’t always make total sense, it still entertains on its own unsettling level. The final turn, while not entirely unforeseeable, is pretty great as well. No extras.

All My Friends are Funeral Singers (NR, 2010, IndiePix)
It’s pretty uncommon for a movie to save itself in its first scene. But one could argue that’s what “All My Friends Are Funeral Singer
s” — which opens with a dryly, very funny exchange between a dead male ghost and the dead female ghost he’s trying to seduce — does. These and several other ghosts inhabit the home of Zel (Angela Bettis) — who makes a living as a psychic and medium and who counts the ghosts as the only real friends and family she has — and “Singers” isn’t really a movie about the ghosts so much as it is one about what a lonely girl must do when it’s time for everyone else to move on. Just don’t expect the film to lay that out for you. In between the occasional scene that matches the deadpan perfection of that first scene, there are stacks of scenes that often do their storytelling through musical interludes and body language instead of spoken words. “Singers” does a pretty good job of conveying its storytelling purposes through both means, but it would be a lie to say that the more opaque stuff, which also outnumbers the funny parts by a wide margin, won’t come off to many as a wastefully inaccessible intrusion of what might otherwise have been a very original and very funny comedy. If unapologetically artsy films rub you the wrong way, there’s a strong chance this will sand your sides right off.
Extras: Ghost interviews, three behind-the-scenes features, music video, live music performance.


DVD 5/18/10: 44-Inch Chest, The Messenger, Invictus, Gamera: The Giant Monster, The Disappeared, The Spy Next Door

44-Inch Chest (R, 2009, Image)
Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone) may not have the most loving wife (Joanne Whalley as Liz) in the world, but he would be hard-pressed to find better friends than the band of small-time gangsters (Ian McShane, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane) whose company he keeps. When he shares the news of Liz’s unfaithfulness with them, they stalk and kidnap the homewrecker and offer Colin a choice: He can kill the guy who in his mind killed him, or he can spare him so Liz doesn’t hate him forever and maybe, just maybe, takes him back. What follows is a clinic on how to do something with almost nothing. “44-Inch Chest” takes place almost entirely in a single dingy room, and the vast majority of the film is talk rather than action. But from that talk comes an absolutely supreme dissection not only of a guy who barely can comprehend where his mind is at in light of being cheated on, but also one of friends who dance between compassion and machismo in an attempt to comfort their friend while trying to slap some manhood back into him. The cast plays the parts to perfection, and the mood darts between dark drama and dark comedy without showing its seams. All the while, the mystery of Colin’s choice hangs above the proceedings, giving “Chest” a near-overload of sensory satisfaction despite almost never even changing locations. Tallied up, it puts like-minded movies with bigger budgets but bankrupt imaginations to complete shame.
Extras: Director commentary, director interview, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Messenger (R, 2009, Oscilloscope)
No one would blame you for having experienced a bit of Iraq War movie fatigue by now, but that’s more a testament to the multitude of movies harboring the same themes than any sign of a complete fulfillment of storytelling niches the war offers. In that respect, “The Messenger” feels fresh not only because it takes place entirely in America, but also because it zeroes in on a sacred assignment — the act of soldiers (Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster) informing families that their loved ones died in combat — we’ve seen dramatized ad nauseam but rarely utilized as anything more than dressing. Naturally, there’s more here than just a series of encounters with devastated families, and a large portion of “The Messenger” deals with the lives of our two soldiers — who fought, respectively, in the first and second Gulf Wars — and what effect their assignment has on some already messy personal lives. That’s all well and good, and Harrelson and Foster do stellar jobs of giving those messes a serious pulse. But “The Messenger’s” best trick is the way it continually returns the focus to the task at hand and shows, rather than simply uses the soldiers to discuss, the soul-crushingly rote exercise that wreaks personal havoc on the issuer of the news as well as the recipient. Repetition and spinning in circles rarely works in a film’s favor at all, but in this case, it’s the best of a great many good qualities. Samantha Morton also stars.
Extras: A documentary, “Notification,” about U.S. Army Casualty Notification Officers. Also: Director/producer/Harrelson/Foster commentary, cast/crew Q&A, shooting scrip, behind-the-scenes feature.

Invictus (PG-13, 2009, Warner Bros.)
The true stories that comprise “Invictus” — Nelson Mandela’s (Morgan Freeman) return to power, South Africa’s return to the international sports scene, the country’s hosting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup and its team’s unfathomable transformation from zeroes to cup contenders — pretty much are a Hollywood script without Hollywood having to lift a finger. And that’s kind of the problem we have here: Beyond dramatizing the story as only a big-budget Hollywood production can, “Invictus” really doesn’t do a thing. All the ingredients of a good polish are here: Freeman’s a dead ringer for Mandela, and his castmates (Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Matt Stern and Leleti Khumalo, among others) are generally terrific. Key points in the story’s history receive beautiful replication, and the rugby action provides a nice showcase for a sport that, at least in America, rarely gets one. But while most of “Invictus” shines with elegance, almost nothing benefits from of any kind of risk or unique narrative bent. The story flow is biopictography by the numbers, and while we don’t need to see these characters in unflattering light, the script rarely attempts to show them even as fallible beings who speak in anything other than pieces of grand speeches. That may not matter, and perhaps those who are completely uninitiated won’t mind the straightforward history lesson. But those who already know how “Invictus” ends and are hoping for a fresh perspective with some teeth won’t find much fulfillment here.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Gamera: The Giant Monster (NR, 1965, Shout Factory)
The great thing about a fan-minded DVD imprint like Shout Factory is that it doesn’t wait for the movie reboot, toy or video game tie-in to bring an old not-quite classic into the DVD age. Case in point: This 1965 Japanese monster movie, which is to the “Godzilla” films what GoBots were to Transformers. In true mid-20th century monster movie form, “Gamera: The Giant Monster” — which finds the giant monster wreaking havoc in the wake of a Cold War-fueled nuclear accident — isn’t a mark of pristine script detailing or high production budgets. It also lacks any qualms whatsoever about borrowing from the franchise that inspired its creation. But that’s the beautiful thing about cheesy black-and-white movies about gigantic monsters: No one watching really cares. “Gamera” is tremendous fun in its own stupid way, and if the mark of a great film is that it’s fun to watch, then this may as well be a classic after all.
Extras: “Gamera” retrospective, image gallery, liner notes and audio commentary from “Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters” author August Ragone.

The Disappeared (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
There are moody films, there are brooding films, there are downright dreary films, and then there are films that, like “The Disappeared,” can’t resist touching all three bases en route to a grand slam of bleakness. It’s not entirely unearned: When “Disappeared” begins, Matthew (Harry Treadaway) is heading home from a mental hospital weeks after a lazy attempt at babysitting resulted in his young brother’s apparent kidnapping and possible murder. Matthew hears his brother’s voice calling for his help at odd times, and when he isn’t seeing and communicating with what might be delusions by day, he’s embroiled in nightmares by night. Attempts to find his brother and reclaim his sanity are further clouded by cruel bullies, nosey locals, crumbling relations with his father (Greg Wise) and seemingly only friend (Tom Felton), and a girl (Ros Leeming) who may or may not a whole movie’s worth of trouble of her own. Were the mystery that dangles in front of “Disappeared’s” every minute not so unsettlingly enticing, the film’s oppressively dour mood would be a killer. For those whose buzz can take only so much killing in 97 minutes’ time, it still may be. But the mystery ultimately validates the mood. “Disappeared” teases just enough at just the right rate to prevent dreariness from eating it alive, and the payoff at the end, though a bit over the top, rewards viewers who stick with it.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features.

The Spy Next Door (PG, 2010, Lions Gate)
There’s a reason stars are called stars. There’s also a reason Jackie Chan’s name gets top billing all to itself on “The Spy Next Door,” which stars Chan as a soon-to-be-retired undercover government spy who masquerades as a dorky pen salesmen and is fighting a losing battle to win favor of his could-be wife’s (Amber Valletta) disapproving children. “Spy” is a kids movie, but it’s one of thos
e kids movies even kids can predict inside out, and between the mostly tired humor, downright exhausted character stereotypes and a couple of kids (Madeline Carroll, Will Shadley) who talk like obnoxious adults for two-thirds of the journey, there’s a lot not to like here. The only saving grace, naturally, is Chan, who is charming even when the script leaves him with nothing. He also makes the most of his infrequent chances to put on a great stunt show. That effort isn’t enough to make “Spy” anywhere near great, especially early on when those kids are committing acts of verbal violence against our intelligence, but for parents and siblings who might be stuck watching along, it at least provides something. George Lopez and Alina Foley (as the only likable kid) also star.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.