DVD 5/25/10: Mystery Team, Owl and the Sparrow, Royal Pains S1, Hoarders S1, Tell-Tale, All My Friends are Funeral Singers

Mystery Team (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
Like a lot of kids with active imaginations, Jason (Donald Glover), Duncan (D.C. Pierson) and Charlie (Dominic Dierkes) like to run around their neighborhood and solve not-quite crimes as the Mystery Team. And the whole exercise — disguises, tech from a 1985 Toys ‘R’ Us catalog, an “office” that looks suspiciously like a lemonade stand — would be awfully cute if they weren’t 18-year-olds on the cusp of going to college. But they are, and when a real crime lands in their lap, they’re as predictably overmatched in solving a double murder as they are in every other facet of their young-but-not-that-young lives. Fortunately, the story of their plight doesn’t have nearly the same issue. “Mystery Team’s” immaculate sense of self-awareness makes its cute bits exponentially funnier than they would be in the hands of most comedies, and its amazing control over that tone makes it that much funnier when it decides, for whatever reason, to drop a blue humor bomb right in the middle of everything. But while “Team” achieves parody nirvana in its successful evisceration of the after-school-special-esque coming-of-age story, it allows just a small piece of itself to play it straight, making our awkward heroes considerably more fun to root for than if they simply were pawns in the joke. The resolution of the mystery isn’t really the point, but if “Team” wants to make it fun to see how it wraps up, who is anyone to argue?
Extras: Cast commentary, “Who is Wally Cummings?” comedy short, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers, test footage, Sword Club Hall of Fame (makes sense after you see the movie).

Owl and the Sparrow (PG, 2007, Image Entertainment)
Moving to a bustling new city is a scary endeavor for anyone of any age to undergo alone, so it must take some serious determination for 10-year-old Thuy (Pham Thi Han) to run away to Saigon with no family, no plan and barely any money in her pocket. Can you relate? Two people — a woman tired of meaningless relationships and a man still reconciling the sting of a failed engagement (Cat Ly and Le The Lu, respectively) can, and when their paths each cross with Thuy’s, you probably can figure out what she has designs to do next. But the great thing about “Owl and the Sparrow,” beyond its skillful development of all three characters, is the way it takes a potentially lethally contrived storyline and, by way of such great character designs, nearly completely strips it of any such hollowness. As much as it is about what happens next (and Thuy’s fantastically blunt delivery makes those developments more unpredictable than they would be in the hands of your typical saccharine kid), “Sparrow” really is a story about what brought everyone here in the first place. Be it though its photography or its characters’ words, the movie’s observations about what a joy and what a pain it can be to need other people are thoughtful, dead honest and never prone to ham-handed preachiness. When everything comes together, what ultimately happens is far more captivating than “Sparrow’s” seemingly predictable setup would imply. In Vietnamese with English subtitles.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery.

Royal Pains: Season One (NR, 2009, USA/Universal)
Whether intentionally or not, the USA Network has cornered the market for shows that borrow formats and formulas traditionally reserved for dramas and inject them with enough comedy to completely blur the genre lines. So if you’ve seen and enjoyed the likes of “Monk,” “Psych” and “Burn Notice,” your capacity to enjoy “Royal Pains” is practically predestined. In outline form, “Pains” shares a lot of common ground with any number of other medical dramas, introducing self-contained medical mysteries in each episode while also telling a bigger picture about its characters’ lives. But instead of a hospital, “Pains” takes place in the Hamptons. And while the personal lives of Dr. Hank Lawson (Mark Feuerstein) and his slacker brother Evan (Paulo Costanzo) provide a significant portion of the show’s comedic content, “Pains'” real trick is its ability to laugh at the expense of Hank’s excessively wealthy, often street-stupid clientele while simultaneously making just enough of them just human and likable enough for Hank’s work to matter. Like most of the shows with which it shares a network, “Pain” is neither viciously hysterical nor edge-of-seat suspenseful, but a perfectly entertaining hybrid of both extremes. It feels like formula in light of USA’s other offerings, but in the larger pool of me-too medical dramas, it’s a pleasant novelty that’s engaging enough to merit a long look.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, video blogs, one behind-the-scenes feature and bloopers.

Hoarders: Season One (NR, 2009, A&E)
If a messy house or even the prospect of too many icons cluttering your computer’s desktop makes you uncomfortable, consider this a warning: “Hoarders,” a reality television show that observes compulsive hoarders trying to clean their way out of abysmally cluttered and potentially unsafe living conditions, might be the scariest thing you’ve ever seen. The mountains of clutter these folks scale just to get from room to room — old newspapers, empty fishtanks, toiletries, boxes that long since have served any purpose — is one thing. But even someone comfortable with clutter might have trouble stomaching some of “Hoarders'” nastier episodes, which find people living in oceans of expired foods, bacteria, mold, bugs and worse. (Warning: Way worse.) The show provides a service insofar that the objective of each episode is to dispatch experts who can help turn these lives around and clean house before landlords and government employees have to get involved, but there’s no sense denying it: This is exploitative theatre that, for most of us, has zero educational value and zero value of any kind beyond that of witnessing a train derailment. There’s also no denying this: Like any good horror show that touches certain uncomfortable nerves, it’s as hard to look away from — if your conscience can handle it — as it is to look at in the first place.
Contents: Seven episodes, plus unaired footage.

Tell-Tale (R, 2009, Vivendi)
After receiving what appears to be a successful heart transplant, Terry Bernard (Josh Lucas) is all set to resume tending to his ill daughter (Beatrice Miller) and courting her doctor (Lena Headey) when an incident outside the hospital triggers a memory he’s sure isn’t his. The flashback leads to questions, those questions open a floodgate, and the subsequent visions have Terry wondering if his heart is trying to tell him that its journey into his body wasn’t exactly routine. If the title and premise call a certain Edgar Allan Poe poem to mind, it’s no accident. “Tell-Tale” represents itself as a re-imagination of the poem, but it really only borrows the gist, letting modern conventions and plenty of creative license take it the rest of the way. The result isn’t narratively impeccable: Some deep plot holes open up, and some characters do some things that seem, politely put, to be a stretch. But provided you can suspend some intermediate levels of disbelief, it’s a pretty creepy good time anyway. Those leaps in logic allow “Tell-Tale” to go kind of crazy with a classic premise (which, let’s face it, isn’t exactly ground in authenticity in the first place), and while what happens doesn’t always make total sense, it still entertains on its own unsettling level. The final turn, while not entirely unforeseeable, is pretty great as well. No extras.

All My Friends are Funeral Singers (NR, 2010, IndiePix)
It’s pretty uncommon for a movie to save itself in its first scene. But one could argue that’s what “All My Friends Are Funeral Singer
s” — which opens with a dryly, very funny exchange between a dead male ghost and the dead female ghost he’s trying to seduce — does. These and several other ghosts inhabit the home of Zel (Angela Bettis) — who makes a living as a psychic and medium and who counts the ghosts as the only real friends and family she has — and “Singers” isn’t really a movie about the ghosts so much as it is one about what a lonely girl must do when it’s time for everyone else to move on. Just don’t expect the film to lay that out for you. In between the occasional scene that matches the deadpan perfection of that first scene, there are stacks of scenes that often do their storytelling through musical interludes and body language instead of spoken words. “Singers” does a pretty good job of conveying its storytelling purposes through both means, but it would be a lie to say that the more opaque stuff, which also outnumbers the funny parts by a wide margin, won’t come off to many as a wastefully inaccessible intrusion of what might otherwise have been a very original and very funny comedy. If unapologetically artsy films rub you the wrong way, there’s a strong chance this will sand your sides right off.
Extras: Ghost interviews, three behind-the-scenes features, music video, live music performance.