DVD 9/29/09: Fermat's Room, Away We Go, Monsters vs. Aliens, The Guild S1&2, Shrink, The Girlfriend Experience

Fermat’s Room (NR, 2007, IFC/MPI)
The real shame about all those “Saw” sequels is that the premise — a group of individuals, arranged for unknown but deliberate reasons, tasked with using their own wits to save their own lives — deserves so much more than to be used simply as an excuse to kill a few annoying people in various gory ways. “Fermat’s Room” exquisitely demonstrates why by taking the premise to its intellectual extreme: Four slightly egotistical mathematicians (Lluís Homar, Alejo Sauras, Elena Ballesteros, Santi Millán) are drawn into a trap disguised as the ultimate mathematical enigma, and they have to solve a series of riddles to keep the room from closing in on them. The skeletal premise reaps its own reward: “Room’s” single, all-inclusive consequence removes the pointless exercise of predictably killing off uninteresting characters in sequence, and it also provides ample opportunity for every characters’ story (and their connections to the trap) to play out. But “Room” tops that foundation with a handful of truly great twists that amplify the effect of all that discovery, and it isn’t long before the short-term fates of our four heroes isn’t even the top story of the hour. As an added bonus, the riddles are pretty great. “Room” doesn’t give you a ton of time to play along and figure them out yourself, but that’s what the pause button is for. In Spanish with English subtitles, but absolutely worth the read. No extras.

Away We Go (R, 2009, Universal)
When the story shakes out and all is said and done, “Away We Go” probably belongs in the comedy section of your favorite video store. But if fantastical stories about knife-wielding psychos can classify as horror films, then so, too, can the story of Burt Farlander (John Krasinski), who is well into his early thirties, loosely employed, and in love with a woman (Maya Rudolph as Verona De Tessant) who loves him back but still steadfastly refuses to marry him despite getting ready to deliver a baby who will be born one month after (not before) his parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels) bolt on them for another country. So forgive “Go” for its stark change in tone, which is impossible not to notice during its steady (but never total) migration from sharply funny comedy to something approaching drama territory. The good news is that the sacrifice of laughs isn’t in vain: Cute comedy though it initially purports to be, “Go” ultimately emerges as an illustration — and an strikingly thoughtful one at that — of the relentless struggle between freedom, structure, youth and wisdom. Carmen Ejogo, Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan and Maggie Gyllenhaal also star.
Extras: Director/writers commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

Monsters vs. Aliens (PG, 2009, Dreamworks)
The only thing worse than getting hit by a meteor that turns you into a 50 ft. tall giantess? Getting hit by said meteor on your wedding day. Such is Susan Murphy’s bad luck, which only gets worse when the U.S. Military locks her up with a band of monsters who, outside of their unusual appearances, are an arguable better fit for civilized society than their captors. As the title indicates, aliens also join the fray, and it isn’t exactly a shocker where the story goes once they do. Little, in fact, is surprising about “Monsters vs. Aliens,” which goes through one  predictable plot motion after another and sticks to the kind of humor one has come to expect from a Dreamworks Animation production. But is that a bad thing? Not really. Telegraphed though the whole thing is, “Aliens” also is reliably charming in its simplicity, and it certainly isn’t lacking for eye candy or (at least with regard to the monsters and aliens) some likeable, well-designed characters. Top-tier storytelling this is not, but it’s lot of fun, and that’s plenty good enough for almost anyone who would seek this one out.
Extras: If you get the double pack, you get a second DVD, “B.O.B.’s Big Break in Monster 3D,” which wasn’t available for review at press time. Extras on the main disc include filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, an animation video jukebox, a look at Shrek’s Broadway debut, a “Kung Fu Panda” virtual world, and a sneak peak at the next Dreamworks Animation project. A lot of cross-promotion, in other words.

The Guild: Seasons One & Two (NR, 2007, New Video NYC)
The story of “The Guild” — which began in earnest as a self-produced online sitcom before becoming a YouTube and iTunes sensation, emerging as a programming staple on Xbox Live and, among other things, spawning a hit music video and reportedly providing some of the inspiration for Joss Whedon’s similarly cherished “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” — is arguably more extraordinary than the actual show. But that isn’t a knock on the program, which looks in on the happenings of a group of anti-social online role-playing gamers (think “World of Warcraft”) who have it completely together in their virtual world but fall somewhat to pieces when forced to contend with the real thing (and each other). The humor adopts a similar improvisational bent as “The Office” and its ilk, and it’s hit-and-miss — sometimes brilliantly funny, sometimes just silly, sometimes repetitive in beating to death the same stereotypical traits of one of the characters. But the premise is novel and ripe for a send-up, and “The Guild’s” ability to strike a chord with the very audience it’s poking fun at says everything about its understanding of the material. It bears mentioning, though, that these episodes are as bite-sized as a typical YouTube video: Stack all 22 episodes together, and you’ll still be done in little more than two hours’ time. Felicia Day, Jeff Lewis, Sandeep Parikh, Amy Okuda, Robin Thorsen and Vincent Caso star.
Contents: 22 episodes (commentary available on all), plus interviews, audition/table read footage and liner notes.

Shrink (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
“Shrink” is a great example of a movie that could push roughly half (if not more) of its cast out of the picture entirely and probably emerge as a much better production than the good film it ultimately settles for being. Yes, the film is about a shrink (Kevin Spacey as Henry Carter), and “Shrink’s” principal storyline appropriately centers around both Henry, his demons, and the high school-aged client (Keke Palmer and Jemma) whose immediate past shares parallels with his. Henry and Jemma are “Shrink’s” best characters by numerous heads and shoulders, but that doesn’t prevent the film from dousing the plot with side stories featuring characters (Dallas Roberts, Mark Webber, Saffron Burrows, Jack Huston, Pell James) with peripheral and sometimes emotionally hollow ties to those two characters. Their stories are reasonably interesting, and the actors tasked with telling them certainly carry their weight when asked. But it all comes at the expense of a great central story that, with more time, could have taken “Shrink” to places far beyond where it’s allowed to go in this incarnation. Robert Loggia also stars.
Extras: Director/producer commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, music video.

The Girlfriend Experience (R, 2009, Magnolia)
Chelsea (Sasha Grey) is a high-priced call girl whose selling point, among other more obvious things, is her ability to emulate a relationship experience and consistently do so for months and sometimes years. So if the man on her arm looks like her boyfriend, then she’s simply doing her job — unless, of course, it’s her actual boyfriend (Chris Santos). Perhaps as expected with a complicated charade like this, one of the parties develops a yearning for more the present situation allows. But “The Girlfriend Experience” is in no hurry to reveal which piece — be it one of Chelsea’s clients, her actual real-deal boyfriend or Chelsea herself — seems intent on breaking the puzzle. “Experience,” in fact, isn’t necessarily interested in even getting to the heart of the story, which it presents as a train of opaque exchanges and narrations that barely lays anything out and often presents itself out of chronological order. The whole thing is frustratingly vague and a soulless waste of 78 longer-than-they should be minutes … or perhaps it’s a gifted, inventive method of storytelling that lets its characters tell their own stories in ways a more ordinary script couldn’t on its own. “Experience” is so unflinchingly dead-set in its approach that a polarized reaction is probably to be expected and encouraged, to say nothing of understood.
Extras: Unrated alternate cut, director/Grey commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.