Crazy Heart (R, 2009, Fox)
The Oscar season is the perfect time to bust out stories of washed-up fallen stars taking unkind tumbles down the mountain of life, and while 2008 kicked the bleak bar into the stratosphere with “The Wrestler,” 2009 might be home to the better story. “Crazy Heart” has all the ingredients one could want in a story about a country music star whose career beelined south: Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a perennial drunk, he’s broke, he plays gigs in bowling alleys instead of amphitheaters, every relationship he has lies in ruin, and all anyone wants to talk to him about is the former understudy (Colin Farrell) whose stardom soared while Blake’s cratered. But while “The Wrestler” was a magnificently executed supernova of despair, “Heart” is a much more versatile cross-section of faded stardom. The sadness of the situation is unmistakable, and when Blake is battling a dirty physical and emotional hangover, the film conveys its ugliness with enough force to give viewers a vicarious headache. But between these lows, “Heart” is rich with highs — some funny, some insightful, some sweet, some coasting on the infectious mood-boosting effect a terrific musical soundtrack often has. Neither the highs nor the lows feel out of place amongst each other, and as such, “Heart” emerges as an illuminating portrait of what Blake lives for as well as what he lives with. Call it the feel-good sad sack story of the year. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jack Nation and Robert Duvall also star.
Extra: Deleted Scenes, alternate music cuts (Blu-ray only), Bridges/Gyllenhaal/Duvall commentary (Blu-Ray only). Someone wants you to buy the Blu-ray version, hint hint.
Uncertainty (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
On an otherwise ordinary 4th of July, Bobby (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Kate (Lynn Collins) have a choice to make: head to Brooklyn and visit with Kate’s family, or spend a day in Manhattan? The two leave the decision to a coin flip, and “Uncertainty” shows us the consequences of both outcomes. The objective, ostensibly, is to show us how dramatically life can change based on any single seemingly benign decision, but the respective outcomes are so disparate and too often due to factors beyond the coin toss that the gimmick doesn’t really hold much water. The good news? By the time the air’s out of the gimmickry balloon, the balloon no longer is needed. “Uncertainty” plays out both scenarios concurrently, cleverly distinguishing between the two via a subtle color palette swap, and both stories are engrossing for entirely different reasons. What develops are essentially two movies — a thriller and a drama — in one, but because both have the same two characters in the lead, they’re able to use character development from one scenario to aid events taking place in the other scenario. The shared runtime also allows both stories to operate in efficient fashion, and each achieves the same satisfaction of a two-hour film in less than half the time each. It’s too bad the message behind the original intention doesn’t really play out, but for all the cool things “Uncertainty” does anyway, that shortfall barely even rates as a shortcoming.
Extras: Audition footage, script/scene comparison, photo gallery.
I’m No Dummy (NR, 2009, Salient Media/Vivendi)
It’s not so much that the art of ventriloquism isn’t appreciated today the way it once was. Rather, it’s mocked outright and often dismissed in popular culture as an artistic domain for dorks, creeps and social outcasts. And that, as “I’m No Dummy” demonstrates with almost exhilarating spirit, is a shame. “Dummy” is an A-to-Z look at the history of ventriloquism, exploring the careers of the best original and contemporary performers in reverent detail and with the help of some convincingly funny interviews and performance footage. But more than a history lesson, “Dummy” is a celebration of the rare combination of versatility and off-centeredness that has to mesh in order to make a great act happen. Mastering the illusion of speaking without moving jaw or throat muscles is an art form in its own, but parlaying that skill into a fall-down-funny routine — something most aspiring stand-up comedians can’t do with their own voice, much less two or more voices and a puppet’s expressions to manage — adds a whole other tier of demand to the challenge. “Dummy’s” subjects — Jimmy Nelson, Jeff Dunham, Jay Johnson, Lynn Trefzger, among other performers — discuss their craft with humility and accessibility, and their candor with regard to what they do and how it’s perceived is amusingly frank. All that likability, and a little insight too, gives “Dummy” more than enough ammo to swiftly and definitively transform derision of ventriloquism into appreciation.
Extras: Additional interviews, behind-the-scenes footage.
Mammoth (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
Though “Mammoth’s” title has nothing to do with the adjective, it fits anyway, because explaining the film in brief doesn’t really work. It’s a story about a wife, mother and surgeon (Michelle Williams). It’s also a story about a husband, father and ultra-successful Internet games developer (Gael García Bernal), as well as the Filipino nanny (Marife Necesito) who helps care for their daughter (Sophie Nyweide) in hopes of saving money to take care of her own two children living on the other side of the world. Describing “Mammoth” as a simple slice of life isn’t really fair, because what takes place during its 126 minutes isn’t exactly banal. But conveying what does happen also doesn’t work, because on paper, “Mammoth’s” plot turns won’t sound like much to anyone who doesn’t really get to know the characters first. There’s no good way to discuss what that means without spoiling the trajectory the storyline takes, so even that doesn’t work here. So here’s the deal: The four aforementioned main characters are more interesting than their brief descriptions would suggest, and the things that happen to them are, by extension, more interesting as well. The script is thoughtful but qualm-free about dressing its characters down, and all of that makes “Mammoth” much more interesting than the sum of its parts. It takes something special to keep an explosion-free movie interesting past the two-hour mark, and even if that something is hard to describe, “Mammoth” makes it easy to find. No extras.
Broken Lizard Presents: The Slammin’ Salmon (R, 2009, Anchor Bay)
Sometimes, a good delivery fixes everything. This is one of those times. “The Slammin’ Salmon’s” plot — a Miami eatery’s nearsighted owner (Michael Clarke Duncan as heavywight boxer-slash-entrepreneur Cleon Salmon) bribes his staff (Kevin Heffernan, April Bowlby, Jay Chandrasekhar, Paul Soter, Cobie Smulders, Steve Lemme, Erik Stolhanske) with a prize in hopes they’ll fatten the cash register and help him settle a debt with some crime bosses — is straight out of cookie cutter sitcom country. Additionally, most of the film’s gags fall in the realms of cute, trite, overly familiar, repeated ad nauseam or subtle like a frying pan to the face. But what “Salmon” lacks in almost every facet of its game plan, it inexplicably redeems in execution to an almost unfathomable degree. Groaner-worthy jokes and dopey plays on words become funny by way of pitch-perfectly dry delivery, and the cast’s gift of continually mixing cute and crass into something legitimately, sharply funny is some kind of special trick. Part of this likely is due to chemistry: The Broken Lizard guys have been together for ages, and their ability to play off each other the way less familial casts cannot certainly gives “Salmon” an intangible benefit. But chemistry alone doesn’t Duncan, who goes completely to town in a wild sendup of the meatheaded athlete-turned-clueless restauranteur. On paper, his lines are as hokey as anyone’s. In practice, though, it might be his best display of grand theft scenery since
“The Green Mile.”
Extras: Two Broken Lizard commentary tracks, behind-the-scenes feature.
Avatar (PG-13, 2009, Fox)
Nostalgia likes to play a dirty trick by making us remember things fondly and blindsiding us with disappointment when we face those memories again. But is it possible to do that with a movie that still plays in theaters today? If you saw “Avatar” in 3D and remember it more fondly for its introduction to new viewing technology than its story or characters, then yeah, possibly. Provided you can stomach an overdose of CGI, “Avatar” remains visually impressive in this format, and the creature, horizon and foliage designs that comprise the world of Pandora are pretty to look at. But the novelty of Pandora’s beauty lasts only for so long, and “Avatar” wants 162 minutes of your time. And while the conflict between the cartoonishly greedy humans and tritely constructed indigenous Na’vi tribe might have fostered some innovative ideas when director James Cameron first envisioned “Avatar” in the mid-1990s, an endless cavalcade of entertainment media has long since beaten it to conception. Precious few exceptions aside, “Avatar” paints its picture of good and evil with broad, childish strokes, and the entirely telegraphed road every character and story point take are further beaten by dialogue that would make George Lucas proud and self-indulgent scenes that appear designed more to pop in 3D than aid the film in any special way. On top of that, the level of pro-environmental preaching is so blatant as to potentially annoy people who agree with the message, to say nothing of the poor souls who simply want to be entertained. Without the novel tech to provide distraction, “Avatar’s” ability to provide said entertainment is weakened arguably beyond salvation. Available April 22.
Extras: No extras. Fox already has announced additional versions of “Avatar” that will include features and support for 3D-capable televisions, so if you’re dead set on owning this one, budget accordingly.