Mary and Max (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
There probably is no way to talk about “Mary & Max” without immediately mentioning the thoroughly awesome display of claymation animation it puts on from start to finish. If ever there was doubt the medium had legs in a world overrun by computer animation, then “Max,” which dotes on the kind of unflattering details and muted color palettes most computer-animated films wouldn’t even flirt with, settles it. But for all the amazing things “Max’s” visual exterior does, it’s merely following the lead taken by the script, which tells the story of what happens when a friendless girl in Australia becomes pen pals with a socially disastrous old man in New York. “Max” is a sweet look at what makes friendships like these just as potentially valuable as the more traditional varieties, but it’s just as much a darkly funny (and sometimes just plain dark) look at misfortune, the harshness of strangers and how people living amongst so many other people still can find themselves hopelessly alone. “Max’s” story regularly meanders as both characters narrate their letters and a narrator provides the go-between moments. But while Mary’s and Max’s situations remain in flux, 92 minutes of meticulously-chosen words ensure their shared story stays on point, and it’s kind of staggering how far that story goes in that time. For all it would appear to lack by way of contemporary effects and bombast, “Max” is as much an epic as any other film that’s chased that title this year. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette, Barry Humphries and Eric Bana lend their voices.
Extras: Director commentary, short film “Harvie Krumpet,” two behind-the-scenes features, alternate scenes, casting call footage.
The Book of Eli (R, 2010, Warner Bros.)
The setting of “The Book of Eli” follows the post-apocalyptic wasteland template so faithfully that it doesn’t even merit explanation. But the item at the center of all that copying and pasting — a King James Bible, tucked under the arm of a traveling loner (Denzel Washington as Eli) and believed to possess enough spiritual power that another man (Gary Oldman) has sent an army of raiders to find it by any means necessary — gives “Eli” just enough intrigue to elevate its first half beyond the realm of complete also-ran banality. “Eli” pads itself in hopes of providing the manhunt with the substance and gravity it needs to engage early and pay off later, and the overwhelming result is a mix of good scenes that undermine themselves with all that borrowed imagery and not-so-good scenes that simply feel like remixed reincarnations of stuff we already saw. So it’s no small feat when “Eli” caps that uninspired run-up with an inspired ending that both invalidates so much of what preceded it and makes large chunks of it worth re-watching — and much more enjoyable — under closer study the second time around. It’s hard to recommend a movie that really only gets great at the very end, especially when truly enjoying it might entail revisiting the stuff that wasn’t so hot the first time around. But given how ordinary “Eli” initially appears, a comeback like that is a pretty commendable achievement. Mila Kunis also stars.
Extras: Animated short “A Lost Tale,” deleted scenes.
Collapse (NR, 2009, FilmBuff/MPI)
Alarmist documentaries about the pending downfall of our civilization are common enough to largely achieve the exact opposite of their intended impact, so it’s a shame that the one that’s actually worth seeing is bound to go ignored because it has the most alarmist name of all. “Collapse” isn’t even really about societal collapse so much as a period of harsh transition, and the film — which is little more than a feature-length interview with former cop and reporter Michael Rupport — isn’t so much a discussion of pending disaster as a look at the mess that’s already in progress. Rupport predicted the 2008 economic collapse years before it happened, he has the paper and video trail to back it up, and he does an enviable job here of breaking that and so much more down into plain-spoken English and the kind of mathematical cause and effect we all learned in elementary school. The sum of his words, which bounce between empirical and personal and interweave powerfully by film’s end, feels more like a mental toolkit for this shift, already in progress, than some proclamation to run for the hills. Rupport has some unsettling observations about what happens when populations, supplies and certain currencies peak out, but “Collapse” ultimately feels more empowering — maybe even personally liberating — than scary when he lays it all out. How’s that for different, and how unfortunate does that name look now?
Extras: Post-film update, deleted scenes.
Adopted (R, 2009, Phase 4 Films)
Genuine human discomfort caught on camera can be funny, and if you haven’t known that forever, you might have learned it by watching “Borat.” Pauley Shore appears to be in pursuit of the same comedic end in “Adopted,” a mockumentary in which he ventures to Africa and auditions a few kids to be his adopted child and, more importantly, give him a status symbol normally reserved for the likes of Madonna and Angelina. But a strange and arguably fortuitous thing happens en route to Shore making everyone around him uncomfortable: He appears to rattle himself as well. Nothing about Shore’s premise is factual, and it isn’t always clear who is playing along and who the marks are. There also are a few instances where Shore goes for shock and — particularly during a painful bout of attempted standup comedy — misses on every level. But in spite of everything and regardless of how much coaching the kids got, they’re pretty clearly having a ball. Their enthusiasm gives them license to steal the movie, but it also seems to give Shore an onscreen complex about the message he might wish to send through this experience. Even when “Adopted” doesn’t elicit laughs, it exceeds expectations on other levels, and a disclaimer near the credits makes it pretty clear that, whether it began there or creeped up there during filming, the subject matter is closer to Shore’s heart than the premise first implied.
Extras: Deleted scenes.
Alphonso Bow (NR, 2010, Nut Bucket Films)
“Alphonso Bow” is almost entirely a movie about two friends (Jeffrey Pierce as Alphonso, Michael Dempsey as Frank) talking over lunch in a diner. If that sounds like pretentious art film country, here’s the good news: It isn’t. “Bow” has a sense of humor, both in general and about itself, and while the references the two friends make to “Waiting for Godot” and “My Dinner With Andre” aren’t exactly subtle, they at least make it clear where this one’s head is at. More debatable is whether the conclusion of the conversation also is a wink through the fourth wall. “Bow’s” winding conversation, which dances with everything from women to religion to aliens to Franks’ playwright dreams, is more than lively enough to carry a film. But part of its energy comes from the Pierce’s delivery, which plays like a cross between a George W. Bush impersonator and a used-car salesman, and by film’s end, it has become a bit much. When Frank finally applies the brakes to the conversation, it’s hard not to wonder if it isn’t a means to “Bow’s” end so much as a tacit acknowledgement of that worn-out welcome. Content of extras unavailable at press time.
Control Alt Delete (R, 2008, E1 Entertainment)
“Control Alt Delete” literally takes place in a time gone by — specifically, during the run-up to Y2K, where harried programmers like Lewis (Tyler Labine) are scrambling to prevent the pending techpocalypse while also dealing with timeless office politics as usual. But “Delete” also figuratively takes place in another era — a time when scriptwriters all waltzed down the same tired road
to make the same tired observations about computers, programmers, the Internet and all that culture entailed before it ensnared the mainstream. The good news is that cheap computer jokes aren’t really the point of “Delete,” which is more about Lewis’ disastrous dating acumen and a literal lust for computers that sends any hope of reversing his fortune hurtling toward the abyss. (Use your imagination.) The bad news is that “Delete” trips over itself in this realm as well. Lewis is too strange to be likeable, his co-workers mostly are half-sketched cartoon characters, and when the script doesn’t look and sound older than the technology on display, it’s repeatedly damaged by awkward interactions, scribbled-on-a-napkin dialogue and a central repeating bit that’s humorously wince-worthy the first time but just gets creepy — and not in any good way at all — each time thereafter.