Beginners (R, 2010, Universal)
“Meandering” isn’t typically a word that flatters a movie. Neither are “jumpy” or “distracted.” But we’ve been making a lot of movies for a long time now, and if there is any constant to the art of doing so, it’s that the rules of common sense apply only to those incapable of breaking them. “Beginners” tells a tale of three Olivers — as a young boy (Keegan Boos) struggling to understand his loose cannon of a mom (Mary Page Keller), as an older son (Ewan McGregor) coming to grips with his father’s (Christopher Plummer) coming out following his mother’s passing, and as a guy falling awkwardly in love with a comparably awkward girl (Mélanie Laurent) after his father passes away. It jumps liberally between timelines, works in multiple narrative styles without reservation, and devotes a wonderfully disproportionate amount of time to a small dog named Arthur who understands 150 words but speaks none himself. And yes, “Beginners” distracts itself and meanders enough to work up a sweat. But in painting a picture of Oliver and the many relatable influences that make him who he is, it assembles a funny, clumsy, sad, sweet and everything-in-between ode to living life that could scarcely be more on point. We all know people like these, if we aren’t them ourselves, and it stands perfectly to reason that this — neat and rule-abiding it is not — is how best to tell their story.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, one behind-the-scenes feature (presented as a short film), a promotional spot that’s a lot more endearing than your typical promotional spot.
Larry Crowne (PG-13, 2011, Universal)
Big-box supermarket grunt worker Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) walked into his boss’ office expecting an employee of the month award, and he walked out unemployed. Without a college degree, he’d reached his personal ceiling in the company’s fast track, and with nowhere to go but nowhere, he had to go. So Larry — single, unemployed, a bit out of step with life, and watching his home barrel toward a date with foreclosure — is going back to community college. And as goes Larry to college, so returns Hanks to what feels like indie filmmaking. Good thing? Bad thing? Could be either. “Larry Crowne” is an extremely pleasant movie that completely belies its star power, rolling out a level playing field that has as much room for its many supporting characters as it does for Larry and Mercedes (Julia Roberts), the bitterly unfulfilled woman who becomes his public speaking teacher. On the other hand, Larry’s other teacher (George Takei) and some of his classmates occasionally just feel like they’re there, getting lots of screen time that doesn’t necessarily feed into what very obviously is Larry and Mercedes’ mid-life coming-of-age story. That’s a trick indie movies regularly play, and it’s one they get away with by fortifying it with strong, funny writing and characters whose intrusions are welcome. “Crowne” does the same, and if you can enjoy Larry’s new friends on the account that you won’t necessarily take anything away from meeting them, it’s pretty easy to enjoy Larry’s story as well.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, on-set hijinks.
Superheroes (NR, 2011, Docurama)
Between “Super,” “Kick-Ass” and others, the whole notion of regular people moonlighting as superheroes clearly strikes a nerve. If it strikes yours, how would you like to meet Master Legend, Dark Guardian, Mr. Xtreme and a few more of the more than 300(!) registered(!!) superheroes who do this in real life? The men and women profiled in “Superheroes” are indeed the real thing, taking on criminals with little (if any) training, weapons ranging from homemade to rudimentary and costumes running the gamut from pathetic to spectacular. They elaborate on their means and motivations, and in the other corner, psychologists and law enforcement officials dance around the legality of vigilantism and rifle through the reasons anyone would put themselves at risk for ridicule as well as violence. If that sounds dry, fret not: “Superheroes” also shows our heroes in action — on the street fighting crime, at the bar kicking back, and in the community performing some indisputable good in service of the needy. The real-life superhero movement is a much bigger deal than you might ever have guessed, and it’s a shame “Superheroes” isn’t a series that could devote entire episodes to one or two heroes at a time. There’s a lot of ground covered here, but there’s also far more to this movement than a single movie has time to explore.
Extra: Deleted scenes.
What Women Want (NR, 2011, China Lion)
Does the name ring any bells? If you faintly recall a movie in which a then-beloved Mel Gibson could suddenly hear women’s thoughts after electrocuting himself in his own bathroom, you’re remembering correctly. Little has changed in this Chinese adaptation: Sun Zi (Andy Lau) is a womanizing ad exec who, on top of having his promotion go to a woman (Gong Li) he hit on only moments prior, discovers the hard way that women don’t think as highly of him as he once thought. In fact, the most remarkable thing about the new “What Women Want” may be that more drastic changes come from the cultural impact of smartphones and the economy than the cultural shift from America to China. “Want” marginally goes its own way with regard to its characters and their mannerisms. But on a fundamental level, it retains everything that made the American original so easy to enjoy despite how helplessly predictable it was. We’re normally treated to Americanizations of other countries’ films instead of the other way around, so this is a treat to witness. In Mandarin with English subtitles. No extras.
When Strangers Click: Five Stories From the Internet (NR, 2011, Disinformation Company)
People meet online every day in real life, and it seems safe at this point to assume the vast majority of them aren’t murdered or kidnapped like their fictional counterparts almost always are. So credit is due to “When Strangers Click,” which tells five different but consistently grounded stories about people who turned to the Internet in search of a human connection. “Click” mixes it up with regard to how people met, how those meetings took shape, and the origins and motivations of those making the connections. But it’s the differences in how those stories end that ultimately carry the movie. No one ends up kidnapped or jailed (or anything close to it), but even as “Click” picks away at preconceived notions about meeting people online, it doesn’t necessarily arrive at storybook endings. Meeting people is complicated and disruptive regardless of medium, and that’s especially so when one person lives in New Jersey and the other lives in Prague (to touch on one story). “Click” runs short at only 56 minutes long, and there’s certainly room to go further in depth with any one of these stories, but the movie makes compelling use of the time it has.
Extras: Director interview (set in the “Second Life” video game), filmmakers Q&A, deleted scene.
Rio Sex Comedy (NR, 2010, FilmBuff)
Plumb the depths all you like, but you would be hard-pressed to find a plainer name for a movie that isn’t a parody of other movies. For better or worse, though, “Rio Sex Comedy’s” title fits pretty comfortably. It’s a comedy, it dabbles in (more through telling than showing) sex. Most prominently, it’s set in Rio de Janeiro, which more than any character is the star attraction. “Comedy’s” storytelling, comprised of multiple storylines that accommodate a huge, international roster of characters whose paths don’t necessary cross, is well-written and easy enough to enjoy. But the movie’s early going suggests it has a desire to say something at least a little bit profound, and between all the characters and storylines pulling it in every direction, that never comes close to happening. Call it an enjoyably light movie about escaping to paradise, or call it a vapid commercial for an idealized version of Rio that isn’t quite in step with the real thing. Depending on your personal slant, “Comedy” provides copious ammo for either argument. In a multitude of languages with English subtitles where necessary. Bill Pullman, Charlotte Rampling, Irène Jacob and Fisher Stevens, among others, star.
Extra: Deleted scenes.