Precious (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
The difference between an unintentionally funny after-school special and a Best Picture Oscar nominee isn’t necessarily easily described on paper, but it’s pretty easy to recognize when you brace yourself for the former and come away, 109 minutes later, having experienced something else entirely. “Precious” has more than enough ammo to set itself up for mockery: Between Claireece “Precious” Jones’ (Gabourey Sidibe) abusive mother (Mo’Nique), the father who sexually abused (and impregnated) her, her imminent dismissal from one school and the fact that she’s morbidly overweight, barely literate and carrying a second child she cannot afford to raise, there’s enough here for a Lifetime miniseries and possibly an entire spinoff network. But perhaps consequently, “Precious” does all it can not to fall into the same traps that ensnarl the accidental comedies that came before it. Sidibe’s and Mo’Nique’s performances are unapologetically strong but rarely ever sympathetic, and the film works without fear in completely tearing both to pieces in tough-loving fashion. The story takes the path that best suits it, regardless of whatever compassionate or feel-good properties that brings, and everything else, from the supporting cast (Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz) to the shot selection, adopts the same bent. It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but in the end, that collective desire to cut to the heart of everything and leave remorse on the floor makes all the difference in the world. “Precious'” ability to toe that line the whole way through is skillful to an enviable degree.
Extras: Conversation between Director Lee Daniels and Sapphire, who wrote the novel, “Push,” on which “Precious” is based. Also: director commentary, deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features, Sidibe audition footage.
Up in the Air (R, 2009, Paramount)
It’s never pleasant to tell someone his or her job has been eliminated … so some bosses just don’t. Instead, they hire guys like Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) to fly in, drop the hammer for them, and do a little post-firing counseling so as to ensure a non-violent exit from the premises. Ryan relishes the job, if only because constantly being in transit is his idea of living, and when a young, up-and-coming know-it-all (Anna Kendrick) suggests replacing face-to-face firings with video teleconferencing, the gates burst open. “Air’s” overriding premise is timely for extremely obvious reasons, and the film uses it well. But more than anything, that premise is here to serve as an allegoric means (at best) and a paper-thin excuse (at worst) for unleashing a maelstrom of smart, funny and unpleasantly honest observations about what success and living really mean when life unexpectedly and inconveniently gets complicated. Some of the routes “Air” takes are completely foreseeable, but enough of them aren’t, and either way, the resolution isn’t necessarily even the point. Ryan’s story carries the weight it’s meant to carry, but it’s when “Air” touches a nerve with its observations — and if you’ve given this stuff any thought whatsoever, it will touch a nerve — that it transforms from something good to something special. Vera Farmiga and Jason Bateman also star.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes.
The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (R, 2009, Sony Pictures)
Delusions of grandeur and excessive self-importance can convincingly sink a long-in-the-making sequel, and for a good five or so minutes, “The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day” looks like it might be in danger of basking a little too much in its own glow. Fortunately, the self-seriousness doesn’t last, and before long, it’s almost as if no time has passed at all. Like its predecessor, “Day’s” overlying story — in this case, a priest’s murder designed to frame the Saints (Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus and Billy Connolly) and force them out of exile — has nothing if not violent ambitions. But also like its predecessor, “Saints” carries out those ambitions with a wild mix of pageantry, self-depreciating comedy and a willingness to paint every character and scenario with all the outrageous strokes that will fit without sending the production into full-blown farce country. “Day” occasionally gets a bit too crazy or cute for its own good. But it hits far more than it misses, and the occasional missteps of a movie that’s willing to do anything in the name of entertainment are very easily forgiven. Just be sure to see the first film first: “Day” explains itself more than sufficiently for newcomers to understand, but a number of scenes — particularly later on — will mean considerably more to those who know the full back story. Clifton Collins Jr., Julie Benz and Peter Fonda also star.
Extras: Director/Saints commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.
Planet 51 (PG, 2009, Sony Pictures)
There exists a bounty of scathingly ironic possibilities when it comes to telling a story about human beings invading another planet and swapping roles with the little green men who have invaded Earth in countless books, films, TV series and radio serials. Should you be planning on utilizing some of that cutting social commentary to your creative advantage one day, you’ll be happy to know the computer-animated “Planet 51,” in its quest to entertain kids first and their parents second, has left the bounty as ripe for picking as it found it. That, by the way, is perfectly fine, because “51,” which finds a solitary human astronaut touching down on an alien planet that looks strikingly like 1950s America, does what it wants to do perfectly well. The aliens are completely genial hosts, and while lazier storytellers would have turned the human invader into a full-blown meathead idiot, “51” elects instead to construct him as a likable guy who is understandably confused by his new surroundings. The storyline is conventional and the observations about the planet are more cute than anything else, but the sheer likability of the whole thing — to say nothing of how nice it looks or how awesome dogs, among other things, are in the alien world — more than compensates. Dwayne Johnson, Gary Oldman and Jessica Biel, among others, lend their voices.
Extras: DVD game, three behind-the-scenes features, animation progression reels, extended scenes, music video montage.
Fix (R, 2008, E1 Entertainment)
Some people like to interpret a filmmaker’s intentions while watching a movie play out. Some couldn’t care less. But with “Fix” — which follows aspiring filmmaker Milo (Tao Ruspoli) and his reluctant girlfriend Bella (Olivia Wilde) as they migrate from a failed film project to a daylong quest to keep Milo’s parole-violating brother (Shawn Andrews as Leo) raise money for rehab and stay out of jail — it’s almost as if there isn’t a choice. “Fix’s” plot hinges on Milo’s decision to turn this change of plans into a makeshift documentary, and with the plot goes the overall approach, which subtly morphs from traditional fiction to mockumentary and takes on all that entails. Most of the time, that means “Fix” stays trained on its characters — sometimes, as with in documentaries, for long periods of time in which nothing terribly amazing is happening. Now and then, though, it means the film pays more attention to its surroundings than it otherwise would. And when those background characters are grousing about societal issues in fairly unsubtle ways but presumably according to a script, it’s impossible not to wonder if the characters are simply a means to getting these thoughts in front of an audience that otherwise wouldn’t pay attention. No matter: The approach is clever, and even if it leads to some dry moments that emulate textbook documentary downtime a little too well, “Fix’s” story ultimately is engaging as well. Megalyn Echikunwoke a
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, cast commentary, interviews, three behind-the-scenes features.
Capitalism: A Love Story (R, 2009, Overture/Anchor Bay)
A box quote claims “Capitalism: A Love Story” is Michael Moore’s “magnum opus,” and hey, maybe it is. It certainly feels like a Moore production: The filmmaker narrates the action while taking viewers down a labyrinthine path though all manner of situations — pilots working for pennies, people losing their homes, seemingly harmless teenagers getting locked up for profit, large corporations cashing in on the horribly-named Dead Peasant life insurance plan — while bouncing similarly between smugness, sadness, sarcasm and anger. Mostly, the fenced-off stories achieve their desired effect, and the few examples of the little guy beating the big guy certainly make an inspiring impression. But the problem with Moore is the same as it’s been for years now: He’s a partisan lightning rod — embraced by those who likely already had a bone to pick with his targets, ignored by those whose changing stance might actually effect real change. By extension, even sight unseen, his movies take on the same life, and they’re damaged goods as result. “Capitalism” is entertaining, occasionally insightful and unafraid to unload on pretty much anything in its sights. But it’s too scattered and too hopelessly tainted by outside forces to be even remotely transformative.
Extras: 10 outtakes, repackaged as self-standing short features.
Service (NR, 2008, Regent Releasing/E1 Entertainment)
Here’s a question: Is it possible to strip a film’s pretensions so thoroughly that what’s left sort of becomes pretentious all over again? “Service” (translated from its original title of “Serbis”) tells the day-in-a-life story of an extended family that not only runs a deeply dilapidated but still-functioning adult film theater in the Philippines, but takes residence inside it as well. That family includes Nanay (Gina Pareño), who struggles to manage both family and theater at once. But it also includes her mother (Jacklyn Jose), who is in the process of divorcing her bigamist husband, and little Jonas (Bobby Jerome Go), who playfully and carelessly careens through the theater’s sketchy clientele traffic on his tricycle. The disparate ends of the age spectrum, to say nothing of the setting and additional drama surrounding the rest of the characters (Julio Diaz, Coco Martin, Kristofer King, Dan Alvaro, Mercedes Cabral, Roxanne Jordan), allows “Service” to employ some pretty unique means to tell what otherwise might be pretty conventional stories. To that end, it delivers, capturing the degradation of the crumbling theater and the world in which it exists in extremely vivid detail — so much so that the story arguably suffers by comparison. “Service” isn’t designed to begin neatly or wrap cleanly before the credits roll, but even with this in mind, it’s a little surprising how little (if any) resolution there is from beginning to end. In Tagalog with English subtitles. No extras.