305 (PG-13, 2008, Allumination Filmworks)
Yes, the “300” joke well dried up quite some time ago, and the pure awfulness that was “Meet the Spartans” pretty much laid that well to irreparable ruin. But before you completely dismiss “305,” a feature film borne out of a popular Youtube short of the same name, know this: It’s funny, and not for reasons you might assume. “305” tells the untold story of the five Spartans (Tim Larson, Brandon Tyra, David Schultz, Sunny Peabody, Ed Portillo) who were relegated to grunt work while the rest of the army hit the front lines, and it doesn’t so much spoof on “300” as it does the likes of “The Office.” In other words, all those dried-up jokes can stay dried up, because this film doesn’t need them. Perhaps most importantly, “305” knows how to keep itself interesting for the full 85 minutes. It has fun with archetypes just long enough to create some surprisingly loveable characters, who in turn hand the reigns over to a surprisingly good story in a similarly timely fashion. That’s no small feat for any comedy, and it’s positively miraculous for one that not only exists primarily as a parody of a film that’s been parodied to death, but also began life as a five-minute skit.
Extras: The original “305” short, two commentary tracks, deleted scenes, outtakes, three behind-the-scenes features.
Stop-Loss (R, 2008, Paramount)
To be stop-lossed by the military means to have your service extended with or without your blessing. Your choice, should that happen, is either to accept the extension or face criminal prosecution. Either way, that’s hardly an ideal homecoming present for soldiers Brandon (Ryan Phillippe), Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Steve (Channing Tatum), all of whom just returned from what was supposed to be their final tour of duty in Iraq. Only one of our three heroes in “Stop-Loss” faces the titular problem, but that doesn’t mean the other two aren’t embroiled in private hells of their own. From post-traumatic stress to questions only someone with hindsight vision could ask, “Stop-Loss” takes on a lot, and with only so much time to cover so much ground, subtlety falls by the wayside almost immediately. That’s a little frustrating, because the film’s themes don’t exactly need this level of in-your-face handholding. But it’s also forgivable, because the themes “Stop-Loss” beats into you apply directly to its characters and not some grand filmmaker statement about the Iraq war. That, ironically, makes “Stop-Loss” more a statement film — and more worthy of some attention — than the vast majority of passively-aggressively preachy works that have cropped up since the war began. Abbie Cornish also stars.
Extras: Director/writer commentary, deleted scenes (with commentary), two behind-the-scenes features.
Chop Shop (NR, 2007, Koch Lorber)
A shallow glance at “Chop Shop” might lead one to believe that the story of Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), a street orphan who survives by hauling stolen parts to a local junkyard, is something straight out of the third world. Surprise: “Shop” not only is an American film, but it takes place in America — mere miles, in fact, from Shea Stadium in Queens. Really, why not? Alejandro’s methods may be suspect (OK, illegal), but he’s a self-starter who rose up from nothing to (presumably) make it on his own. That is, however unclean in this case, the American dream, and while “Shop’s” appetite for atmosphere over traditional story arcs makes it susceptible to alienating just as many viewers as it engages, it’s a masterfully intimate illustration of just how complicated simply getting by really can be. Ultimately, whether it inspires or demoralizes comes down to you: “Shop’s” narrative approach keeps the door open to either prospect (and possibly, should you watch twice under different moods, both). But if long scenes of no dialogue and films that prioritize character over plot aren’t your thing, this likely won’t be, either.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, rehearsal footage.
Superhero Movie: Extended Edition (NR, 2008, Dimension)
So you saw “Date Movie.” And you saw “Epic Movie.” And since then, you’ve vowed never again to be tricked into seeing any film with a two-word title that ends in “Movie.” Should you have zero desire to even entertain the notion of checking out “Superhero Movie,” which takes the plot of the first two “Spider-Man” films and violates it by any means necessary, no one would blame you. But here’s the crazy, confusing thing: It actually isn’t half-bad. In fact, outside of a few wholly unnecessary bodily function gags, “Movie” is surprisingly funny and (brace yourself!) pretty consistently clever. Big thanks obviously go to writer Craig Mazin — who, it should be noted and double-underlined, had nothing to do with those other films. The presence of genre golden boy Leslie Nielsen certainly doesn’t hurt, either. But if we’re passing out credit, perhaps the largest cut goes to Drake Bell, who stars as “Movie’s” answer to Peter Parker. He has the slacked-jawed unlikely hero bit down hilariously cold, he can make a face with the best of them, and his character dares you to dislike him even during “Movie’s” more insipid spots. When a parody film inspires viewers to genuinely root for its lead character, it must be doing something right. Christopher McDonald, Kevin Hart and Sara Paxton also star.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, alternate ending, two behind-the-scenes features.
The Tracey Fragments (R, 2007, Image Entertainment)
Tracey Berkowitz (Ellen Page) is, as she puts it, just a normal girl who hates herself. That does not mean, however, that the film through which she pleads her normalcy is anywhere near as conventional as she claims to be. Quite the contrary, as it happens. “The Tracey Fragments” is presented almost perennially in split-screen, often portraying multiple perspectives of the same scene within a single frame but sometimes throwing up seemingly random images for seemingly random reasons. Compounding the visual insanity is the story itself, which alternates with blurred lines between Tracey’s imagination, memories and present existence, which finds her frantically searching for the little brother (Zie Souwand) her parents have charged her with losing. Broken down to words on paper, none of this is terribly complicated. As it’s presented, however, “Fragments” leaves itself hopelessly prone to cries of opacity and pretentiousness, and the polarizing approach — some will love how unique “Fragments'” presentation is, others will loathe it and accuse it of being different for the sake of being different — makes the film impossible to definitively recommend or deny. If the description provoked a strong reaction in one direction or another, the full production likely will just magnify that same reaction.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, winning and other entries from the “Tracey: Re-Fragmented” remix contest, image gallery.
‘Til Death Do Us Part: The Complete First Season (NR, 2007, BCI Eclipse)
Picture “The Outer Limits” or “Tales From the Crypt,” but replace those tales of horror and science fiction gone wrong with something truly scary: an unhappy marriage. That’s the gist of “‘Til Death Do Us Part,” which takes real court cases of marriages that ended in murder and gives them the cheesy dramatization treatment. That “cheesy” adjective is not to be taken lightly, by the way: “Death” is bubbling over the edge with hokey writing, terrible acting and cinematography that would embarrass a first-year film student. Fortunately, it at least appears to be by design. Being so consistently low-rent allows “Death” to achieve a strange sense of balance, and this seeming commitment to non-quality hits the guilty pleasure sweet spot flush on the cheek. “Death” is so bad that it’s good, and while the recurring theme lends a sense of repetition to marathon viewings, there’s some real sport in seeing the show outdo itself on the triteness scale. John Waters plays the part of emcee and narrator, and whether he’s happy to collect such an easy paycheck or genuinely having a great time, his spirit is infectious and invaluable.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus new introductions by Waters and a Waters interview.
Worth a Mention
— “The Mummy: 2-Disc Deluxe Edition” (PG-13, 1999, Universal) and “The Mummy Returns: 2-Disc Deluxe Edition” (PG-13, 2001, Universal): Universal has caught a case of “Mummy” fever in advance of the fourth modern-day “Mummy” film’s August release, and you know what that means: We’re going back to the well, and those collector’s editions, ultimate editions and gift boxes aren’t quite so collectible and ultimate anymore. Extras on each DVD, sold separately, include a ticket to the new film, commentary (three tracks on “The Mummy,” one on “The Mummy Returns”), deleted scenes and new behind-the-scenes features.
— “The Mummy: Special Edition” (NR, 1932, Universal): Good news: The “Mummy” film actually worth watching hasn’t been forgotten. In addition to receiving the classy Universal Legacy Series packaging treatment, this two-disc set features a remastered cut, a making-of documentary, two commentary tracks, a second documentary about Universal horror films as narrated by Kenneth Branagh, a tribute to makeup artist Jack Pierce, a retrospective, and a ticket to see the new “Mummy” film.
— “Jet Li’s Fearless: Director’s Cut” (NR/PG-13, 2006, Universal): For whatever reason, “Fearless” includes a ticket to the new “Mummy” film as well. A more sensible reason to take interest in this release is the inclusion of three separate (theatrical, unrated international and director-approved) cuts of the film, as well as an interview with Jet Li and one deleted scene.
— “The X-Files: Revelations” (NR, 1993-99, Fox): In case you’re extremely late to the “X-Files” party but wish to enjoy the upcoming film, this collection of eight episodes presumably is the most efficient way to bring yourself up to speed. Extras include introductions to each episode by series creator Chris Carter and Executive Producer Frank Spotnitz, a cast/crew panel discussion from WonderCon and a trailer for the upcoming film. No “Mummy” ticket, sadly.