The Great Buck Howard (PG, 2009, Magnolia)
Like so many others studying law, Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) doesn’t actually want to become a lawyer so much as he feels pressured to by his dad (Tom Hanks). But that pressure works only for so long, some stuff happens, and a few movie minutes later, Troy instead finds himself chasing his as-yet-unknown dream while working as the road manager for temperamental mentalist Buck “The Great Buck Howard” Howard (John Malkovich). This relationship, and basically this relationship alone, is what saves “The Great Buck Howard” from being just another slightly funny movie about some slightly tired showbiz themes. “Howard” goes through numerous cute motions when it becomes a movie about Howard, who once was a big deal on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” but now can’t even pack a tiny theater in the middle of nowhere. Malkovich takes the character — one part cheesy, two parts bitter, three parts desperate for the affections of all — and does all one could hope with it, even if the script doesn’t give him any real breakout material. But it’s Troy, and his interplay with Buck and the people (Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn, Debra Monk and a handful of familiar faces making cameos) Buck tramples during any given stop on his career, that ultimately makes “Howard” work watching.. If Malkovich’s caricature gives the film energy and laughs, Hanks’ foil gives it a soul, which pays off immensely during a third act that cashes in on that early goodwill.
Extras: Writer/director/Colin Hanks commentary, deleted/extended scenes, outtakes, two behind-the-scenes features, The Amazing Kreskin feature.
Race to Witch Mountain (PG, 2009, Disney)
Former wheelman and current cab driver Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson) doesn’t have a clue how a couple of kids (AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig) with a huge wad of money ended up in the back of his cab. Nor does he understand why they want him to drive them to a destination they can identify only by its latitudinal and longitudinal parameters. That, of course, marks only the first stop on a long road of surprises for Jack, even if it essentially marks the end of the line for us. After an entertaining and reasonably clever segment explains exactly who these kids are, “Race to Witch Mountain” settles in as a completely stock adventure movie about kids, their charismatic and accidental accomplice, and the three-pronged legion of bad guys who seemingly will stop at nothing to stop everything. But it’s not as bad as it sounds, thanks in particular (and once again) to Johnson, whose impossibly strong charisma lends an improbable amount of soul to a script that otherwise seems to lack any. (Lesser but similar credit goes to Carla Gugino, who eventually joins the ride as a scientist whose work makes her a key component in the mess that ensues.) Johnson’s likeability is enough to make “Mountain” tolerable for adults while the kids enjoy the rest of the spectacle, which at least is as action-packed as it is unoriginal. This movie was slapped together with that purpose in mind, and it definitely succeeds, if never really shines, in that regard.
Extras: Deleted scenes, bloopers, digital copy.
The Soloist (PG-13, 2009, Paramount)
Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) is, as columnists often are wont to do, looking for a story. Because of a chance encounter with a homeless street musician (Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers) who casually mentions his past life as a student at The Julliard School, he thinks he’s found one. And as often happens in movies based on true stories about heart-on-sleeve writers who stumble into tragic figures (see “Resurrecting the Champ” from just two years ago), the relationship evolves into something far more personal and involved than was originally foreseen. The lack of surprise in that regard is in no way a bad thing, because the cold alternative wouldn’t make for much of a film. “The Soloist” also doesn’t do any one thing particularly poorly: Lopez and Ayers are far better developed characters than their stock roles would suggest, and Downey and Foxx only help that cause with their performances. But at some point in the transition from true story to film, a sense of authenticity either goes missing or just got in the way. Too much of the “The Soloist” coasts by on verbally dense but substantially disposable scenes that trade on simple emotions and entirely repetitive use of the same devices. That adds up to a lot of words that ultimately feel kind of empty, giving “The Soloist” a preachy vibe that says nothing countless other works of art haven’t said considerably better. Catherine Keener and Nelsan Ellis also star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, animated PSA.
The Chaos Experiment (R, 2009, Genius Entertainment)
If you’re dreading an upcoming dentist appointment or employee performance review, you’ll find no better way to slow down time than through a viewing of “The Chaos Experiment.” The premise — a discredited and potentially crazy scientist (Val Kilmer as Jimmy) has trapped six people in a steam bath to demonstrate the mental effects the planet will suffer once global warming starts flexing its might — is ingeniously crazy. The film likely would be as well if it had taken the idea to any sort of ironic, darkly comic or campy extreme. But right from the distressingly slow music montage that constructs the very first scene, “Experiment” demonstrates a complete incapability to get the joke. What ensues instead is abysmally warmed-over horror: Our six completely disposable victims indeed descend into madness, but they’re so toxically antisocial from the get-go that it’s hard to tell when the excessive heat hits the crazy switch. A dreadfully dull parallel plotline involving Jimmy’s interrogation unfolds, an even more painfully slow music montage plays where the film’s climax should be, the whole original point of the film gets lost in the cliche storm, and a completely textbook final non-twist finally caps what might be the longest 90-minute movie ever made. Armand Assante, Eric Roberts, Megan Brown and Patrick Muldoon also star. No extras.
Worth a Mention
— “Hippos & Rhinos” (NR, 2009, Animal Planet): Animal Planet takes a break from its recent run of DVDs about wildlife’s scariest animals to bring us some mercifully lighter fare. “Hippos & Rhinos” includes four shows — “Jessica the Hippo,” “That’s My Baby,” “Saba and the Rhino’s Secret” and “There’s a Rhino in My House!” — that adds up to roughly three hours of hippos and rhinos playfully running wild.
— “Project Runway: The Complete Fifth Season” (NR, 2008, The Weinstein Company): It isn’t completely clear whether network and production company shenanigans will kill this show before it sees a sixth season, but if “Project Runway” does indeed meet its demise, this fifth season makes it clear it wasn’t because of any dip in quality. Includes 14 episodes (many of them extended beyond their original broadcast length), plus a catchup feature on the season’s winning contestant.
— “The Tigger Movie: 2-Disc 10th Anniversary Edition” (G, 2000, Disney): It’s not exactly on the same level of Disney’s 40th and 50th anniversary celebrations — nor is it technically 10 years for a few more months — but “The Tigger Movie” gets a pretty nice party nonetheless. Extras include the DVD debuts of two new Tigger adventures (“King of the Beasties” and “Tigger’s Houseguest”), plus two DVD games, a DVD storybook, a family tree how-to, a music video and a sing-along song.