Romantics Anonymous (NR, 2010, Tribeca Film)
Angélique (Isabelle Carré) may be the most talented chocolatier in the entire galaxy. But her gift of shyness is even more remarkable — so much so that she hides behind a covert alter ego (known only as “The Hermit”) while selling her creations through a distributor who protects her identity. But with her protector’s passing, Angélique must start over with a new chocolate distributor, and her shyness frazzles her so horribly that she unwittingly accepts a job as their door-to-door salesperson instead of in the kitchen. Whoops. Fortunately, the man who hires her (Benoît Poelvoorde as Jean-René) is every bit the nervous wreck she is, which means she immidately understands him better than anyone ever has. With both Angélique and Jean-René being single — and, frankly, with the cover art picturing them standing together while a heart-shaped chocolate swirl watches over them — you probably can guess the play “Romantics Anonymous” eventually makes before you even press play. Perhaps realizing it, “Anonymous” spares pretense and gets right to it in a fashion only two socially crippled people could pull off this charmingly. From beginning to end, “Anonymous” very explicitly tells a story about neuroses and the awful ways people trap themselves in prisons that exist entirely in their own heads. But it takes that bit of ugliness and wraps it inside one of the most fiercely pleasant little stories you might see all year. The embrace is genuine: “Anonymous” neither makes fun of nor tucks its characters’ complexes away. And with that embrace leading the way, everything else — silly, funny or wholly life-affirming — feels perfectly right as well. In French with English subtitles.
Extra: Director interview.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (PG-13, 2011, Warner Bros.)
It means well. Or at least, we have to presume everyone responsible for “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” — first as a novel, but more famously in this form — meant well. But mercy, is this ever nauseating. “Close” tells the story of nine-year-old Oskar (Thomas Horn), whose father (Tom Hanks as Thomas) died in the World Trade Center on September 11 and left behind a key of mysterious origin. Oskar is determined to find the key’s lock — so much so that he travels across all five of New York’s burroughs and meets countless people whose stories of “the worst day” (as he calls it) become part of his own. Told with restrained deference, such a story could serve a wonderful purpose even with the understanding that it dramatizes a searingly painful tragedy still fresh in our minds. But “Close” gracelessly lives up to its name for all the wrong reasons. It pummels its audience with exploitative (and repeated) recordings of Thomas calling home moments before death. It screams from within Oskar and his mother (Sandra Bullock) that Thomas is dead, never to return, and maybe even part of the ashen air New Yorkers breathed in the days that followed. Too often and with too much crass, “Close” uses fictional characters to bludgeon an audience that mourned for real, cloyingly talking down to us as if we somehow can’t understand the gravity of the day like they do. If it means well, so be it, but if it does, its failure to convey that is superlative. Horn turns in a monster performance, and it isn’t his fault Oskar — between some ear-piercingly bratty monologues and the aforementioned bludgeoning of the audience — is completely loathsome despite his age and loss. But he is, and there may be no genuinely sadder realization in “Close” than that.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, 10 years later feature.
A Dangerous Method (R, 2011, Sony Pictures)
With respect to the movie-titling powers that be, calling what lies within a dangerous method amounts to being rather dangerously polite. But when burgeoning (and married) psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) crosses a stark ethical line with a beautiful new patient (Keira Knightley as Sabina), his motivations for doing so surpass simple sexual conquest or even love. Those desires certainly come into play, but the true spark at the heart of “A Dangerous Method” lies in Jung’s belief that psychiatry is about telling people what they can become instead of simply assessing what they are. It’s a methodology with which his hero and friend Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) sharply disagrees, and it’s that battle of wills — more than Jung’s harsh affair with Sabina or the music he must face with regard to ethics and fidelity — that drives this story. “Method” is dry and distant during even the most heated moments of Jung and Sabina’s relationship, but it springs to wide-eyed life when Jung and Freud dissect that relationship and fret over how it relates to the betterment of their profession and humankind itself. Their ideas form a script that’s wordy, intellectually dense and occasionally (possibly by design) completely full of it. But the glimmer they share during these volleys is infectious enough to ensnare anyone who finds kinship in their curiosity.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, AFI’s Harold Lloyd Master Seminar with director David Cronenberg.
Soda Springs (NR, 2012, Monarch Home Entertainment)
After an eight-year absence, Eden (Jay Pickett) is back in his hometown of Soda Springs. But this isn’t your typical homecoming, because Eden never left willfully. Rather, his time away was spent in prison following a spell of drunk driving that ended in a wreck that cost multiple people their lives. When Eden returns home, things have changed — in some ways significantly, and much to his surprise. But Soda Springs is still a small town, his now-former wife (Miranda Frigon as Pam) still lives here, and while a few folks are ready to welcome him back with a clean slate, most — including the cops and Pam’s new husband (Michael Bowen) — have no intention of forgiving him. Were this real life, Eden would be wise to just start over elsewhere. But where’s the entertainment in that? “Soda Springs” has no desire to make it so easy on Eden, but it returns the favor by taking a few tricky roads of its own. Eden’s story isn’t wildly out of step with what the first impressions of his character might imply, but “Springs” treats his development with a degree of care that eventually yields a surprise or two. That goes as well for the rest of the town, too. “Springs” toes an engaging line by emitting a comfortable vibe without wallowing in predictability, and its last act is an understated testament to the virtues of telling a story that satisfies without resorting to neat and tidy measures to do so. No extras.
The Broken Tower (NR, 2011, Focus World)
If you don’t know who Hart Crane is, fair warning: A trip through “The Broken Tower” isn’t bound — nor is it necessarily meant — to close the gap. Crane, for those unfamiliar, had emerged as one of the most influential poets of his age by the time he killed himself in 1932. Shot almost exclusively in monochrome, and not so much a biopic as a dramatized performance set amid biographical companion scenes, “Tower” makes Crane’s poetry the star, and James Franco (who wrote, directed and stars as Crane) holds an impressive dramatic note in his delivery of Crane’s work. In between, there are readings of Crane’s letters, some dramatizations of various moments of his life … and frankly, not a great deal else. “Tower” is beautifully shot, and it makes a case for the less-is-more approach with numerous scenes where not a word is spoken for minutes at a time. Buy into its storytelling vision, and you can interpret the state of Crane’s psyche in much the same way you can siphon your own ideas from his poetry. It certainly isn’t a conventional way to recite the events of a man’s life, if it really even recites them at all, but it’s a strangely fitting tribute for that very reason.
Extras: Franco/filmmakers commentary, interviews with Hart Crane scholars.
The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch (NR, 2008, Music Box Films)
Say, how important is the art of storytelling to your enjoyment of a movie? “The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch” takes an earnest stab at it with the story of Largo Winch (Tomer Sisley), whose covert adoption two decades earlier by billionaire financier Nerio Winch positions him as the surprise heir to Winch’s company. “Winch” adequately handles its declaration of these events, insofar that it’s clear Nerio died “accidentally” and the people responsible now have a younger and impossibly talented new target once Largo’s existence comes to light. But when matters of storytelling are at hand, “Winch” staggers wildly, bumbling through some comically juvenile attempts to talk big-business shop like an adult and clumsily accommodating awkward subplots, sloppy exposition, a frequently unconvincing lead playing a similarly unconvincing heir, and more location and timeline jumps than is reasonably necessary. All this dramatic flailing merely serves as excuse to continually throw Largo to the wolves, but “Winch” should’ve just skipped most of the pretense. For every clumsy piece of exposition, there’s a piece and a half of action that puts Largo’s true talents — wheelman, stuntman, knife fighter extraordinaire — to great use. Throw in all those exotic locales and the eventual payoff on an otherwise sloppy romance subplot, and “Winch” is a ton of fun for the eyes, if not often the ears. Kristin Scott Thomas and Mélanie Thierry also stars. In English and French with English subtitles.
Extras: Largo Winch digital comic, behind-the-scenes feature.
Hop (PG, 2011, Universal)
“Hop” purports to tell the tale of Fred (James Marsden), who became the first human Easter Bunny after taking the reigns from the talking rabbit who didn’t want the job. Eventually, it gets around to telling that story. First, though, let’s get to know Fred, a slacker with two overtly disappointed parents, zero job prospects and one baffling disinterest in befriending E.B., who is the first bunny anyone has ever known to talk, play drums and have access to untold riches of Easter candy. Then there’s the story of Fred’s job interview, two jam sessions (in person with the Blind Boys of Alabama, and in video game form to Hole’s Easter anthem “Celebrity Skin”) and a weird sendup of “America’s Got Talent” that feels designed solely to help David Hasselhoff fulfill some contract obligation with Universal Studios. And so on. “Hop” is, like the “Smurfs” and “Chipmunks” movies before it, a live-action movie in which people and computer-animated characters mingle freely. And like those other movies, it wastes too much time on the humans and not enough on the characters everyone paid to see. But perhaps it’s just as well if “Hop’s” vision of the Easter Bunny’s workshop involves conspiracies, hostile takeovers, infighting and E.B. nearly being cut into pieces by multiple circular saws. There’s a glimmer of magic when we first visit the workshop early on, but the rest of the movie works overtime to choke that magic completely out. Sadly, outside of animation, the choke job is the only thing “Hop” does consistently well.
Extras: New short, five behind-the-scenes features, games.
Die (NR, 2010, Entertainment One)
In an event henceforth referred to as “The Trials,” six people wake up trapped in glass holding cells deep inside some mysterious facility near who knows where. Why their captor (John Pyper-Ferguson) rounded them up is a mystery to them, but the clouds part when it’s revealed that all six have unsuccessfully attempted suicide and carried on reeling through life after receiving a second chance. Disappointed in their collective ingratitude, their captor decides to play a game where one captive’s die roll determines whether another can survive a predicament loosely related to their suicide attempts, and hey, do you think you’ve seen this movie before? “Die” has some loosely interesting ideas about leaving literal life-and-death decisions in the hands of fate, but it applies them to what otherwise is the umpteenth movie since “Saw” to kidnap a half-dozen people and play some ironic game with their lives. The formula was fresh when “Saw” did it and brilliant when “Fermat’s Room” perfected and classed it up, but it’s dead tired at the point. Though not terrible (save for perhaps the twist at the end), “Die” also isn’t fresh, and a few musings about fate’s liberating power aren’t enough for it to liven up a sub-genre in desperate need of some time off. No extras.
— “The BBC Natural History Collection” (NR, BBC Earth): Some come close, but nobody does nature as comprehensively and magnificently as BBC Earth, and this 18-disc set — which includes “The Life of Birds,” “The Life of Mammals,” “The Blue Planet: Seas of Life,” the special edition of “Planet Earth” and all the original extras from each series’ standalone release — stands as proof positive. A similar set released in 2008 with the regular edition of “Planet Earth,” and it’s kind of a bummer that BBC didn’t wait a few weeks to include “Frozen Planet,” which releases April 17 on its own. Other than that — and especially if you don’t have the 2008 version — there’s little with which to argue.
— “Casablanca: 70th Anniversary Limited Collector’s Edition” (NR, 1942, Warner Bros.): Along with a limited theatrical run in various cities, Warner Bros. is celebrating the 70th birthday of 1944’s Best Picture winner (not a typo; apparently the Academy took its time back then) with this DVD/Blu-ray gift set. In addition to the film, the set includes two new documentaries (“Casablanca: An Unlikely Classic” and “Michael Curtiz: The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of”), three previously-released documentaries (“The Brothers Warner,” “You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story” and “Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul”), and a handful of physical bonuses (60-page production art book, replica of the original film poster, four drink coasters).