In Bruges (R, 2008, Universal)
By the time we catch up with hit men Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), their work in Bruges — a picturesque city in Belgium, in case you didn’t know — is done. But until their boss (Ralph Fiennes) gives them the green light to skip town, they have to stick around, put on a happy face and blend in with the scores of tourists who haven’t just killed somebody. That’s a funny premise, and “In Bruges” doesn’t disappoint in the comedy department. But the funniest thing of all about “Bruges” is how, in stark contract to most heist and caper films, it so transparently wears its heart on its sleeve. Yes, there’s a twist, and yes, it’s a monster, and yes, it forces the film to change moods on a dime. But “Bruges” handles the whiplash without betraying its snarky beginnings, choosing instead to let its characters carry out their mood swings without pretense or a filter. Given what that twist is, anything else would have been a letdown. The strong devotion to character design carries “Bruges” with ease through its first hour, and a fantastic second twist carries it the most of the rest of the way, where a final act brilliantly bottles both extremes and carries the whole thing home. Clémence Poésy also stars.
Extras: Deleted/extended scenes, Bruges boat tour, bloopers, swear reel, two behind-the-scenes features.
Definitely, Maybe (PG-13, 2008, Universal)
Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) is getting a divorce. And if you think he doesn’t understand that whole ordeal, imagine how his 11-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) feels. Yes, that’s a pretty tired plot outline, and “Definitely, Maybe’s” bland title and stock box art won’t do the naked eye any favors in differentiating it from the flood of clichéd romantic comedy also-rans that infect store shelves weekly. That’s too bad, too, because “Maybe” — which frames its plot around a story Will tells his daughter about how he met the woman he’s about to divorce — deserves better than that. It’s funny, well-written and is home to enough surprises to ward off any accusations of being overly formulaic. Most importantly, though, it isn’t neat. The relationship between temptation, ambition and love is hardly a marriage of clean lines, and while “Maybe” never makes you forget it’s only a movie, it nonetheless does a fine job of illustrating just how trying the whole ordeal can be. That it does so without losing its sense of optimism and humor is merely a nice bonus. Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz and Elizabeth Banks also star.
Extras: Director/Reynolds commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.
The Hammer (R, 2007, Weinstein Company)
Employing washed-up never-was of a boxer Jerry “The Hammer” Ferro (Adam Carolla) as a sparring partner for Olympic hopeful Robert Brown (Harold House Moore) is a cheaper proposition than actually paying someone with talent to do the job. Or rather, it would have been had Ferro not shown Brown up and landed himself a date alongside him at the U.S. Olympic trials. A 40-year-old who hasn’t boxed in years finally realizing the dream he couldn’t achieve 21 years prior … happens every day, right? Sure, if you live in Hollywood. As the outline implies, “The Hammer’s” script has more cliché than a pizza buffet has crust, and it absolutely will test your ability to turn off that part of your brain that doesn’t tolerate suspending disbelief to the degree this one demands. But while the film leans hard on narrative formula, it leans even harder on Carolla, who leaves “The Hammer” no more an actor than he was when he entered. Believe it or not, that’s what makes the whole thing work. Ferro plays out as a cross between the straight man and some kind of stealthy one-liner factory, and that suits both Carolla’s talents and the film’s needs rather well. Predictable and occasionally wince-worthy though “The Hammer” may be, it’s also genuinely, intelligently and consistently funny, which is something precious few starchy sports films can remotely attest to being. Heather Juergensen also stars, and Oswaldo Castillo steals scenes as Ferro’s extremely loyal sidekick.
Extras: Carolla commentary, deleted scenes, a conversation with Adam and Ozzie, behind-the-scenes footage, stills gallery.
Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs (NR, 2008, Fox)
While the first “Futurama” movie was mostly Bender’s show, “The Beast With a Billion Backs” is more of an ensemble piece ? and why not? There’s a massive rift developing in the universe, and that’s pretty much everyone’s business. A lot of characters get into the act, and like “Bender’s Big Score” before it, “Backs” plays like a cross between an extended episode of the show (a good thing, because the spirit of “Futurama” remains intact) and a barrage of gags meant to fill the extended runtime (an OK thing, though mostly because the character-centric gags somewhat compensate for the story’s general lack of focus). If nothing else, “Backs'” excessive meandering provides excuse for the inclusion of all manner of supporting and bit players from the show. And once all that narrative flotsam comes together to form some sort of cohesive story — which, admittedly, takes more than half the movie to happen — the result has serious storytelling potential. It’s a shame, then, that all that aimless frittering leaves so little time for “Backs” to really dig in once we end up at this point. If the sole goal is to elicit laughs, then mission somewhat accomplished, but a little more attention to narrative might have done wonders.
Extras: Cast/Matt Groening commentary, a 30-minute “lost episode” originally produced for the “Futurama” video game (with commentary), deleted scenes, animatics, three behind- the-scenes features.
The Spiderwick Chronicles: 2-Disc Field Guide Edition (PG, 2008, Paramount)
Sure, the old house the Grace family just inhabited needs some serious work. And sure, it’s located in the middle of nowhere, which has young Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore) acting out at his mom (Mary-Louise Parker) before his foot even crosses the threshold. But how many houses come with secret worlds chock full of fantastical creatures? Not many, and that’s enough to sweeten the deal for Jared once he, his twin brother (Highmore again) and sister (Sarah Bolger) make the discovery. If “The Spiderwick Chronicles'” ingredients sound like those of any number of CG-laden children’s adventure films, it’s because they are. But while “Chronicles” initially displays flashes of excess reliance on those special effects, it eventually lets up and finds a happy balance between its human and non-human characters. (It has a heart, in other words.) Prioritizing substance over style allows “Chronicles” to build a mythology — and eventually, a payoff — that doesn’t lean on some overlong massacre of computer graphics and long, slow marches toward predictable inevitabilities. That alone makes the film, in spite of no shortage of problem spots (some predictability, a few dry patches, a lead character who’s not exactly the easiest kid in the world to like), fairly easy to recommend to its target audience. For the same reasons, adults won’t hate it, either.
Extras: In-film field guide, deleted scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features.
Charlie Bartlett (R, 2007, MGM)
Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) has delusions of grandeur. Or perhaps he simply has delusions, because who else dresses for school the way others dress for church? Fortunately, Charlie has one other thing: a cute admirer (Kat Dennings), who also happens to be the principal’s (Robert Downey Jr.) daughter. And then, upon getting his hands on something we won’t spoil here, he finds himself a nice little niche as well. That little discovery makes “Charlie Bartlett” more unique than your standard coming-of-age film. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news? “Bartlett” doesn’t seem to know what it wishes to be instead, aimlessly bouncing between excessive cuteness and wannabe melodrama while touching on big themes (teen suicide, to name one) before backing off and sweeping them under a rug of neat resolutions. There’s a cohesive narrative running through the film, and it’s clever enough to keep you tuned in, but following that story to its conclusion means wading through a mess of unsorted emotions and some seriously polarizing characters. Some will love how odd “Bartlett’s” cast is. More, most likely, will view them as obnoxious poster children for the entitlement generation. If you fall into the latter camp, witnessing the fruits of Charlie’s wild labor might feel more like an obligation to finish what you started than genuine entertainment.
Extras: Three commentary tracks, behind-the-scenes feature, music video.