DVD 1/27/09: The Lucky Ones, The Rocker, The Secret of the Magic Gourd, Holly, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Mercury Man

The Lucky Ones (R, 2008, Lions Gate)
They served at the same time in Iraq, they’re on simultaneous leave, and they happen to be on the same flight back to the United States, but until a region-sized blackout forces them to band together for an overcomplicated road trip to their respective destinations, that’s about all Fred Cheaver (Tim Robbins), Colee Dunn (Rachel McAdams) and T.K. Poole (Michael Peña) know about each other. Fortunately, a small car and miles of empty highway provide the perfect means for rectifying that. The road trip and the pit stops it entails cover nearly the entirety of “The Lucky Ones'” 115-minute lifespan, and the merger of two seemingly disparate storytelling devices — road trip film, meet Iraq War movie — proves to be something of a brilliant fit. “Ones” uses the war backdrop to paint a completely fresh perspective of soldiers returning to their old lives, but outside of one fleeting exchange, it doesn’t dwell on the positives and negatives of the conflict. Frankly, it doesn’t have time: Fred, Colee and T.K. have a lot of personal ground to cover, and getting to know them while they get to know each other is exponentially more interesting than yet another commentary about current events. Surprises, pleasant and otherwise, abound, and waiting to see what story-within-a-story takes place next is an engaging endeavor for character and viewer alike.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

The Rocker (PG-13, 2008, Fox)
Robert “Fish” Fishman (Rainn Wilson) stood on the precipice of having it all as the drummer for up-and-coming hair metal sensation Vesuvius. But then the band kicked him out, he succumbed to a life of cubicle work, 20 years passed, Vesuvius made a mint or two, and as you might imagine, the whole thing is a bit of a touchy subject. The good news? Fish’s nephew (Josh Gad) has a band (Teddy Geiger, Emma Stone), and they need a drummer now. How convenient is that? It’s only the tip of the iceberg. As perhaps the best Will Ferrell movie that neither stars nor features Will Ferrell, “The Rocker” follows a path so familiar, it’s almost more a parody of the formulaic redemption film than an actual film about redemption. But even with the basics laid bare and the obvious waiting a mile ahead for your arrival, “The Rocker” only intermittently drags, and only toward the end when scrambling to tie up some telegraphed loose end. Far more often, the film entertains, either by filling out those tired old story trees with some distinctive surprises or simply by powering through familiarity with all kinds of comic gold, which it has in abundance. “The Rocker” makes fine work out of the Fish’s comeback attempt, but like other great comedies of the current age, it’s just as gifted at creating a bounty of supporting characters (Christina Applegate, Jane Lynch, Jeff Garlin,
Will Arnett, Howard Hesseman and especially Jason Sudeikis) who aren’t afraid to steal scenes when the opportunity arises.
Extras: Director/Wilson commentary, supporting cast commentary, digital copy.

The Secret of the Magic Gourd (G, 2007, Disney)
Who knew? Turns out the Magic Gourd that 11-year-old Wang Bao’s (Qilong Zhu) family told him about in fairy tales is real. And because Wang Bao discovered him, he is now the wisecracking gourd’s master, able to wish for food, athletic prowess, good grades and anything else that will allow our young underachiever to keep on coasting by. This being a film for kids, you probably can see where “Gourd” is headed and what lesson it ultimately has in store. Between the discovery and the lesson, though, “Gourd” is a visual treat, mixing live-action film with computer animation that gives gorgeous life to the gourd and the wishes (and mischief) it grants. Here’s hoping the kids you share it with like to read, though. “Gourd” comes with a complete English dub, but the Americanized dialogue and tone clashes weirdly with the actual film, which retains far more of its charm through the original Chinese language track. The film is a treat either way, but if you and yours can be bothered to do a little subtitle-gazing, the effort needed to watch the film in its original form will not go unrewarded.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, DVD Game, music video, bloopers.

Holly (R, 2007, City Lights)
As the world gets smaller, uncomfortable international subjects we’d sometimes rather pretend don’t exist — such as the selling of children into slavery, which “Holly” explores — become a little harder to imagine away. “Holly,” to its immense credit, accomplishes what few like-minded projects have by believably humanizing the problem (Thuy Nguyen as the film’s namesake, Ron Livingston as the dodgy burnout who befriends and then tries to save her) without exploiting it through cheap devices when it’s time to face some topical demons. Thanks to the film’s desire to stay honest — even Holly herself isn’t painted in shades of saint, to say nothing of the characters with whom she shares the screen — it doesn’t need to. “Holly” never jumps from hot to cold, nor does it ever insult viewer intelligence by preaching or beating us over the head with the obvious. Instead, it continually simmers, from opening to closing credits, telling a sweetly believable story of friendship amid a backdrop of endless discomfort that, true to the problem it represents, never fully goes away. Chris Penn, Udo Kier and Virginie Ledoyen also star. In a mix of English, Khmer and Vietnamese with English subtitles when needed.
Extras: K11 Project feature, anti-trafficking heroes feature, excerpt from the “Children for Sale” documentary.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (PG-13, 2008, Weinstein Company)
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) have developed wildly contrasting definitions of love and what it entails, with the former engaged to a mildly interesting husband-to-be (Chris Messina) while the latter hunts for something more dangerous. Now, with the two embarking together (and sans fiancé) on an extended, loosely-defined vacation to Barcelona, the table is set for those separate philosophies to endure some simultaneous, real-world testing. Like the premise that sets it up, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a bit predictable by design: Unless you’re new to watching movies, you’ve likely seen shades of this conflict and these situations before, and you probably can take a pretty educated guess as to where “Barcelona” plans to take them. Don’t worry; that’s fine. “Barcelona’s” investment in familiarity leaves it with two (and counting) superbly developed characters whose distinctions rise above convention and whose fates easily are worth the 97 minutes of engagement they request. A few twists pop up as the credits draw near, but if “Barcelona” sports a real shocker, it’s that a simple film about familiar material actually ends sooner than you might like it to. Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Patricia Clarkson also star. No extras.

Mercury Man (R, 2006, Magnet)
Why should Hollywood have all the superhero fun? And so what if Mercury Man (Vasan Kantha-u) sort of looks a little like Spider-Man in his Symbiote form? Certainly not the film in question, even if it is too preoccupied for its own good about our hero’s origins and the minutiae of an amulet and the powers it has over a once-ordinary firefighter. “Man,” for good measure, also uses modern-day terrorism as the basis for introducing our villains (including a character named, no joke, Osama bin Ali), and its attempt to re-center itself as a screed about the American war on terror is adorably, insanely hilarious. It isn’t apparent whether “Man” is winking through all this or taking it entirely seriously, but it’s also unimportant. If letting the film go through the storytelling motions is our end of the bargain, rest assured that “Man” — which tosses out all manner of spinning newspaper montages, rampaging elephants and action sequences that are a blast in spite of (or is it because of?) some low-budget special effects — makes good in meeting us halfway. Happily, “Man’s” crazy side outweighs its storytelling side, so if you can tolerate the dry patches, a campy good time (and some unintended hilarity) lurk in between. In Thai with English subtitles, but an appropriately lousy English dub also is available.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.