DVD 11/18/08: Wall-E, Tropic Thunder, Priceless, The Zombie Diaries, Mister Lonely, Garden Party

Wall-E (G, 2008, Disney/Pixar)
Really, does it matter? Will this paragraph really douse or ignite your present desire to see or skip what already is and probably will remain 2008’s most critically acclaimed film? Here’s hoping not, because nothing you’ll read here reads any different than the mountain of praise you’ve read elsewhere. Yes, Pixar’s latest is quaking with irony — a Disney film that, between the lines, warns of the dangers of commercial excess and mass market indifference. But you can let this message mostly slide off your back if you wish, because while “Wall-E” doesn’t cower behind ambiguity, it also never crams ideology down your throat. Said ideology never stood a chance anyway. Outside of a few fleeting bits of ambiance, the first 39 minutes of “Wall-E” — all of them devoted to our title character, his cockroach buddy and the invading robot that fascinates him into a trance — come completely free of fluent dialogue, and they’re 39 of the most perfect minutes any Disney movie has ever strung together. That creates an impossibly tall order for the second half, which can’t possibly sustain the same level of magic while also guiding the story to a proper landing. Fortunately, it falls short in pretty superb fashion, and no amount of story reconciliation, message moments or irony can prevent “Wall-E” from keeping that magic alive all the way to the end. Pixar gambled exponentially more than it typically does with this one, and it paid off brilliantly.
Extras: New short, “Burn-E,” featuring a side character from the film. Also: “Presto” animated short, director commentary, deleted scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features, Pixar feature, outtakes, interactive storybook.

Tropic Thunder: 2-Disc Director’s Cut (NR, 2008, Dreamworks)
The best defense of a good offense? Make us laugh, even if an eye roll, head shake or full-blown groan sometimes invariably tags along. It doesn’t hurt, either, to do something completely out there and just nail it. So that’s two big points for “Tropic Thunder,” a wildly offensive but relentlessly funny film about a cast of war movie actors (Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson and Jay Baruchel) who accidentally find themselves entrenched in a real war. Numerous opportunities abound for “Thunder” to take the joke too far or let it spin out of control. International incidents and lost-in-translation miscommunications are predictably rampant, and any Hollywood movie that plays around with Hollywood in-jokes as much as this one does is asking for trouble. But any time “Thunder” threatens to cave to cuteness or formula, it pops open a new can of worms and unloads a tasteless but acutely funny torrent of dialogue, social commentary and/or unapologetically ridiculous parody. Instinct might tell you to feel bad for being so amused, but “Thunder” always slips in a wink to remind you that yes, it knows what it’s doing, it knows it’s wrong, and it’s okay to laugh because we’re all in on the joke together. Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, Bill Hader and Tom Cruise (who steals several scenes and the closing credits) also star.
Extras: Filmmaker and cast commentaries, deleted/extended scenes, alternate ending, five behind-the-scenes features, MTV Movie Awards feature, rehearsal footage.

Priceless (R, 2006, First Look)
Don’t believe your bosses: It really does pay to sleep on the job. Just ask Jean (Gad Elmaleh), who fell asleep in the hotel bar he was tending, only to wake in the view of gold-digging Irene (Audrey Tautou), who assumed he was someone else and gave him a night to remember as result. Now, a year after that fleeting moment, Irene is back at the hotel, and there’s no way it can be this easy the second time around, can it? Hey, find out for yourself. Like most well-meaning but needlessly gabby DVD cases, the case housing “Priceless” gives away more than it should on the back, peeling the wraps off a twist that considerably alters the tenor of the movie and might genuinely and pleasantly surprise you if you don’t already know it’s coming. “Priceless,” in fact, is full of surprises large and small, in no small part because it’s a comedy about misunderstandings that doesn’t play host to the usual clichés you find in comedies about misunderstandings. It also isn’t afraid to make its characters look like scoundrels and sympathetic heroes at the same time — in no small part because it fully understands how to do so with conviction. Not necessarily last and not necessarily least, it’s pretty funny. Whether it all leads to a good love story, though, is something you’ll have to discover for yourself. In French with English subtitles. No extras.

The Zombie Diaries (R, 2007, Dimension Extreme)
Genius Entertainment isn’t exactly living up to its name with its careless branding of “The Zombie Diaries,” which it filed under the same Dimension Extreme imprint it typically reserves for mindless, straight-to-DVD gore-a-thons. “Diaries” isn’t exactly breaking the horror movie mold: It’s a document of a zombie apocalypse, which we’ve all seen countless times, and its camcorder-style presentation isn’t exactly groundbreaking with “The Blair Witch Project” doing it first and “Cloverfield” doing it again just this year. But “Diaries” nonetheless gets it done, taking what little creative wiggle room it’s reserved for itself and utilizing it to the breaking point. It helps that the cast of would-be victims is neither hopelessly weepy (as was the case in “Project”) or obnoxious enough to make you root for the monster (hello, “Cloverfield”). They’re somewhat unpleasant, but credibly and reasonably so given the circumstances. What makes “Diaries” great, though, is its final 20 or so minutes. No spoilers here, but know this: It adds considerable and unexpected depth to the film’s back story, and it changes the landscape so effectively that you’ll probably want to give the film a second, more studious viewing. That alone makes this a smarter beast than the combined entirety of Dimension Extreme’s library up to this point.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, cast commentary, four-part making-of feature, deleted scenes.

Mister Lonely (NR, 2007, IFC/Genius)
Honestly? If the existence of “Mister Lonely” is news to you and you haven’t been following its development since at least the script approval phase, you probably should just keep walking. If that’s not enough to deter you, here’s the gist: A struggling Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) crosses paths with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton), who invites him to join her on a sheep farm-slash-commune inhabited by other impersonators. On the other side of the world, a priest (Werner Herzog) and his ragtag band of flying nuns do a little soul-searching of their own as they ponder how perfectly human nuns can jump out of an airplane, hit the ground with a thud and walk away unscathed. Still in? Fine, but you’re on your own from here. As bizarre as “Lonely’s” story is, its methods of execution are even further out there, with madcap bouts of beaming energy dancing around and crashing into moments of character-on-character cruelty that seem unremittingly determined to turn you off. “Lonely” isn’t a difficult film to understand, but it’s chock full of barriers seemingly built to keep accessibility far at bay and undo the promise teased early on. Hang on tight to Herzog’s brilliant introductory scene: No moment before or after comes close to matching it, and the letdown that realization creates is a slow, disappointing burn.
Extras: Making-of feature, deleted scenes.

Garden Party (NR, 2008, Lions Gate)
“Garden Party” is yet another one of those films that follows five loosely-connected characters as they make sense of their separate existences. This time, the setting is Hollywood, so you can at least half-guess what kind of problems our new friends (Willa Holland, Vinessa Shaw, Alexander Cendese, Richard Gunn and Erik Smith) face. Don’t worry about feeling left out, though: If you watch “Party” to its conclusion, you’ll experience a few problems of your own. There’s the matter of which, if any, of these characters deserve some kind of emotional investment on your behalf. Between their archetypical nature, their oft-derivative stories and the disconnect between id and reality that crops up a bizarre number of times, it’s hard to sink your interest in any of them. Overwhelmingly, “Party’s” characters appear to be doing whatever they do on the will of others, whether it’s a clingy not-quite girlfriend, a thankless boss, a complete stranger or even one another. As such, the strange range of performances — ranging from near-lifeless awkwardness to cartoon-character levels of manic speech — is a bit easier to predict, if no easier to enjoy. “Party” manages to be moderately interesting throughout, but it’s mostly due to the fact that no character stays in our view too long before another one takes over. When a film’s best quality is its ability to hide its pieces from view, something definitely is missing. No extras.