Smart People (R, 2008, Miramax)
“Smart People” is, put succinctly, a coming-of-age film about a handful of people who, one exception (Ellen Page as Vanessa Wetherhold) aside, probably should have come of age quite a while ago. The plot isn’t so much a plot as it is a chunk of days in lives (Dennis Quaid as college professor Lawrence Wetherhold, Thomas Haden Church as his brother, Sarah Jessica Parker as one of his many, mostly unsatisfied former students) already in progress. Translation: It isn’t a story for everyone, and perhaps not worthy to some as being called a story at all. Similar words could be said about “People’s” sense of humor, which takes the word “dry” to new frontiers. That, of course, is only when the film actually has a sense of humor, which isn’t always and becomes increasingly occasional as the characters push ahead. So here’s the bad news: If you came here looking for another “Sideways” from the people who brought you “Sideways,” you might be disappointed by what you get instead. The good news is that when “People” wants to be funny, it often genuinely is, and when it tries to be sincere, it succeeds similarly and never at cost to a script that is, unlike the characters acting it out, very smart indeed. Ashton Holmes, Christine Lahti and Camille Mana also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, bloopers.
Wide Awake (NR, 2007, Genius Entertainment)
In the last six months, two films have attempted to commercialize anesthesia awareness, a horrifying (and real) scenario in which a patient remains awake and cognizant of pain but unable to move or speak during surgery. The Hollywood version, “Awake,” was a decently entertaining but mostly blundering mess, and a shallow glance at the cover of the similarly-named “Wide Awake” might lead one to assume this is the Asian equivalent or inspiration. Thankfully, that assumption dies a quick death during “Wide Awake’s” very first scene, which is followed by an equally vicious second scene and a good handful more thereafter. Even with that said, “Wide Awake” is measurably less exploitative than “Awake,” eschewing that film’s dopey twists in favor of a smart, lean and genuinely tense mystery that spans 25 year but never feels excessively unwieldy. “Wide Awake’s” storytelling prowess is such, in fact, that it almost makes you forget about the horror of its opening scene. Rest assured (or not), though: Such relief not only is temporary, but prone to disappearing without warning. Unless you just received a clean bill of health from your doctor and won’t need to be near any hospitals anytime soon, proceed with caution. In Korean with English subtitles.
Extras: Deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, interviews.
Jane Goodall’s When Animals Talk (NR, 2008, Animal Planet)
The notion that animals know more than we give them credit for isn’t exactly cult science anymore, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to stand amazed at just how much they really do understand. And amaze animals do in “Jane Goodall’s When Animals Talk,” which argues the merits of listening to animals and backs it up with some extremely convincing examples. “Talk” has an occasional tendency to preach its overlying message more than it needs to, and the way it seems to repeat itself between segments is a bit odd, but these are nitpicks. Once it settles into a story — be it about dogs who can sense cancer, parrots with psychic abilities or rats uncovering landmines without putting themselves in any kind of danger — it can’t help but drop jaws simply by illustrating the stories it’s telling. And for every story that amazes or amuses, there’s one that inspires, be it about pets who help kids learn to read or the rescue dogs who changed the face of the post-Sept. 11 recovery effort. “Talk’s” job couldn’t be easier, because these stories practically tell themselves, but that doesn’t make it any less exceptional of a viewing experience. No extras.
Bra Boys (R, 2007, Berkela Films)
Ever have one of those friends who, upon recounting some tale of mischief or wrongdoing, seems to omit just a few details that might taint their side of the story? Imagine if that friend instead told the story as a documentary, and you have some idea of what to expect from “Bra Boys,” which recounts the rise and spread of the Australian surf gang (yes, a gang of surfers) of the same name. As entertainment goes, “Boys” is pretty filling: The surf gang war culture is, especially if you had no idea it even existed, a fascinating phenomenon, and “Boys” decorates its story with some engaging firsthand accounts and some amazing (and sometimes graphic) footage. Problem is, the film is primarily the work of Sunny Abberton, who co-writes and co-directs… and also was instrumental in the formation of the gang that inspired this documentary, which more than anything else is about the tribulations of Koby and Jai Abberton. See a problem there? “Boys” doesn’t, and the bias is syrupy thick in favor of the gangs’ purported positive influence on its environment. Fun to watch though “Boys” certainly is, its truths should be taken with a grain of sand. Russell Crowe narrates. No extras.
Watching the Detectives (NR, 2007, Peace Arch)
As the owner of an independent video store, movie buff Neil (Cillian Murphy) sees plenty of excitement. Unfortunately, all of that excitement comes in video form, and any attempts to create some real-life thrills fall embarrassingly short. Enter Violet (Lucy Liu), who seems to have the exact opposite situation and plenty of excitement to pass around. Can Neil handle all that stimulation? More importantly, can you? Even more importantly, should you? Likeable though “Watching the Detectives” initially and semi-consistently is, it lacks a cuteness filter. One weird thing begets another, and once the zaniness starts to pile up, it becomes a bit much to bear. Considering all this weirdness is the movie’s main point of distinction, as well as a device to take the story down a rather predictable romantic comedy road, that’s no small problem to have. Though never wholly grating nor so weird that it cannot be understood, “Detectives” still feels like a lot of excessive wackiness just for the sake of it. By the end, exhaustion — and very possibly irritation depending on your threshold for cute overload — has settled in where gratification should be. No extras.
Kenny vs. Spenny: Volume One Uncensored (NR, 2007, Comedy Central)
Clarification-slash-trivia time: “Kenny vs. Spenny: Volume One Uncensored” is, in fact, the fourth season of a show that began life as a cult Canadian hit before Matt Stone, Trey Parker and Comedy Central got their collective hands on it. The premise from those first three seasons remains the same: Best friends Kenny Hotz and Spencer Rice challenge each other to ridiculous tests of endurance (who can eat the most meat, who can stay tied to a goat the longest, first guy to stop singing loses), with the loser suffering a humiliation as choreographed by the winner. Kenny cheats, Spenny complains and usually loses, and viewers are treated to the lowest form of television ever to grace Comedy Central. That’s not so much an insult as a statement of near-fact, because there’s no harm in enjoying such unbelievably crass stupidity if you take it for the monumentally guilty pleasure this is. Still, should you fancy such fare, you might wish instead to hunt down the past seasons’ DVDs, all of which were sold in Canada but never in the United States. Season four’s antics push the show to new levels of ridiculousness, but the new episodes also feel considerably more staged than the old ones.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus commentary, bonus footage, an unaired bonus competition and deleted scenes.
Worth a Mention
— “The Wire: The Complete Fifth Season” (NR, 2008, HBO): The worst thing about the final season of “The Wire?” Given how each season of HBO’s best show somehow managed to outshine the one that came before it, we can only speculate how incredible season six would have been. Season five presents the show one final new target, and it’s a big one. Mass media, your table is ready. Contents: 10 episodes, plus commentary, a documentary exploring the issues behind the season and a retrospective of the first four seasons.
— “South Park: The Complete Eleventh Season” (NR, 2007, Comedy Central): Meanwhile, the gang from “South Park” takes on such pressing issues as the Easter Bunny and head lice. This set contains the “Imaginationland” episodes, so if you wanted to own those but didn’t want to buy the self-standing “Imaginationland” DVD because you saw it for the double-dipping it was, your wait is over. Contents: 14 episodes, plus mini-commentaries.