DVD 4/27/2010: Five Minutes of Heaven, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, It's Complicated, Survivors (2008) S1/2, Survivors (1975), District 13: Ultimatum, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Five Minutes of Heaven (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
Sometimes, the aftermath is better than the actual event, and “Five Minutes of Heaven” is a pristine example of why. “Heaven’s” opening block of scenes depicts a 1975 encounter, propelled by the conflict in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, between teenager Alistair Little (Mark Davison) and a young Joe Griffin (Kevin O’Neill), and without spoiling what happens for those who don’t read the back of the box and find out that way, the miniature thriller that results is terrifically tense even if you can bet the farm on how it’s likely to end. But that encounter comprises only a fraction of “Heaven’s” runtime, the vast majority of which centers around a reunion, 30 years later, between a seemingly reformed Alistair (now played by Liam Neeson) and a cripplingly bitter Joe (James Nesbitt). “Heaven” becomes an entirely different kind of film in its modern light, and while the uncertain outcome of Joe’s and Alistair’s second confrontation provides an even better climax than that of their first meeting, it’s the stuff in the middle that really makes the film special. Neeson’s dissection of a changed man trying to reconcile (but also arguably benefit from) past misdeeds is a sight in its own right, but Nesbitt’s schizophrenic portrayal of a man trying to come to terms with his past, present and Alistair’s aforementioned arguable fortune is just mesmerizing. When “Heaven” finally comes to a head, the only thing it does wrong is end too soon.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (PG-13, 2009, Sony Pictures)
Some movies more than others leave their watchability at the mercy of personal subjectivity, and if there ever was a fork in the road of personal taste, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” would be as qualified as any film to be its gatekeeper. Described one way, “Imaginarium’s” storyline — a father (Christopher Plummer) sits days away from facing the fallout of a deal with the Devil (Tom Waits), and his daughter (Lily Cole as Valentina) sits unknowingly at the center of that deal — is easy to grasp. But that simple description doesn’t adequately explain the presence of the Imaginarium, an old-fashioned sideshow that allows participants to enter a ridiculous wonderland designed according to the constrictions of one’s own imagination. And while the presence of Tony (played alternately by Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law) also is easy to explain — he’s there to rescue Valentina from her fate, even if he doesn’t know it — it’s a bit more dense in practice. “Imaginarium” liberally mixes modern and ancient imagery to establish a disorienting sense of context, and while the Imaginarium plays pivotal roles in the story’s advancement, its presence occasionally feels like an excuse for Director Terry Gilliam to spray his own imagination at will. One could argue in depth that the whole thing makes perfect sense, but another pair of eyes could write an essay about what a mess “Imaginarium” is and have pages of arguments to back it up. This is artistic conviction on overdrive, and whether you come away loving it, hating it or having no idea what you just saw, you’ll almost certainly come away having seen something you’ve never seen before. Verne Troyer and Andrew Garfield also star.
Extras: Gilliam introduction and commentary, deleted scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features.

It’s Complicated (R, 2009, Universal)
Judge a movie by its first 10 minutes, and “It’s Complicated” doesn’t seem very complicated at all — just another cute but inordinately formulaic comedy that is bound to be remembered for its impressive cast (Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski) if it’s remembered at all. But all that onboard talent gives “Complicated” — which finds middle-aged Jane (Streep) facing an empty nest as her kids leave home and her ex-husband (Baldwin as Jake) steps out with his younger new wife (Lake Bell) — enough likability to overcome how stale the whole setup feels. From there, the characters who grow out of that talent and likability give the film enough ammo to make Jane’s and Jake’s clumsy but entirely predictable reunion (it’s on the front of the box, for crying out loud) more entertaining than it otherwise might be. Once “Complicated’s” story truly gets complicated, all bets are off, because where so many likeminded films lose comedic steam as the plot piles up and pushes them into corners, “Complicated” actually becomes considerably funnier. The inevitable dramatic dips arrive on schedule, and “Complicated” never blows one’s mind with its storytelling choices, but it never loses its sense of humor and never leans on the plot to provide the entertainment. The end result is so much better than initial appearances suggest that “Complicated” comes off as a much better film than it probably actually is. But given the old saying about perception, who cares about the truth?
Extras: Crew commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Survivors: Complete Seasons One and Two (NR, 2008, BBC)
Stories about flu scares that evolve past the scare stage pretty much write themselves … which is why so many of the movies and miniseries centered around them produce 10 scary minutes followed by countless minutes of tedious, dialogue-deficient reconciliation. But the original “Survivors,” which aired in 1975, played the virus-wipes-out-humanity card long before it was fashionable to do so, and the remake seems intent on following that series’ blueprint rather than hopping on the godawful fear-monger bandwagon that’s been rolling through town since “Outbreak” scared people silly. The new “Survivors” gets off to a slightly shaky start by taking itself a little too seriously too soon. But the scare materializes into reality and passes through humanity before the first episode is even two-thirds finished, and “Survivors” spends its remaining time exploring a world through the eyes of a precious few survivors who must cope with the loss of technology and modern conveniences as well as their loved ones. “Survivors'” characters initially fall into archetype country — there’s the playboy, the prisoner, the kid and so on — but all this free time allows them to evolve into something more unique while their new surroundings shape up similarly. The achilles heel of most disaster stories ends up being this one’s strength, and that’s a good a tribute to the original series as one could want.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus three behind-the-scenes features, an Easter egg and character profiles.
— Speaking of which, also available: “Survivors: The Complete Original Series” (NR, 1975, BBC): The series around which the present-day “Survivors” was remade. Includes 38 episodes, plus a behind-the-scenes feature and photo galleries.

District 13: Ultimatum (R, 2009, Magnet/Magnolia)
Here’s the thing about “District B13:” It was smarter than your average dumb action film, but not so much that it needed a sequel to address whatever questions it left unanswered. That, however, does not mean “District 13: Ultimatum’s” arrival isn’t welcome. Narratively, “Ultimatum” picks up where “B13” left off: Police Capt. Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) and vigilante-with-heart-of-gold Leïto (David Belle) restored order to the semi-lawless Paris sub-city known derisively as District 13, but (surprise!) two years later, the gang wars are spiraling back out of control and the government once again is contemplating nuking the area off the map. So here we go again. Fortunately, while “Ultimatum’s” storyline feels like a rewrite of “B13’s” script, it also gets right the things “B13” got right. Tomaso and Leïto are fun to root for, the rest of the characters (district- and government-dwellers alike) are more colorful than their archetypes would suggest, and the story hits the same smart-sla
sh-B-movie sweet spot. Most importantly, the action scenes deliver. “B13” found a deserving audience by mixing stunt displays and explosions to an almost artful degree, and “Ultimatum” earns its return visit by doing the same thing and maintaining the same pace despite a longer (by 17 minutes) runtime.
Extras: Deleted/extended scenes, production diary, two behind-the-scenes features, music video.

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (NR, 2009, Arthouse Films)
Documentaries about controversial subjects have the potential to go down some ugly avenues when, as with this biography of legendarily controversial attorney William Kunstler, they come courtesy of the subject’s children. Kunstler’s body of work — which includes representation for suspected violent criminals (the Attica Prison rioters, Assata Shakur, Gambino crime family associates) as well as civil rights icons (Martin Luther King Jr., the Chicago Seven, Leonard Peltier) — lays out the red carpet for scrutiny and criticism, and “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” doesn’t shy away from taking hard looks at what made Kunstler tick during different missions in different eras. Those hungry for nepotistic payback won’t get it here, because Kunstler’s daughters appear to have created “Universe” out of their own fascination than because of any bone they have to pick. But the daughters, who provide some narration but mostly let interviews and footage do the talking, also don’t hide their misgivings about certain cases Kunstler took or his motivations for taking him. The end result is surprisingly evenhanded without ever losing its point of view. That works just fine, too: Kunstler’s resume is all the fascination this one needs, and attempts to cloud it with personal baggage would only get in the way.
Extras: Additional Kunstler speeches, interviews and performances, home movies, courtroom audio and footage, filmmakers interview.