7/31/12: Misfits S1, Something's Gonna Live, Scalene, Hatfields & McCoys, The Weight of the Nation

Misfits: Season One (NR, 2009, BBC)
Yes, the “regular people as superheroes” field has grown a bit crowded these last few years. But even with all those other shows and movies tagged and accounted for, there’s a whole lot to like about how weird and grounded “Misfits” is as it blazes an almost wholly original trail. The five main “heroes” in “Misfits” are, in fact, a quintet of juvenile petty criminals who, during their first community service assignment, are rocked by a storm that gives them powers. The “powers” they get (no spoilers) aren’t exactly your traditional superpowers, and with those strange powers comes a full-season story arc whose details also are best left unspoiled. Naturally, our five delinquents (who get along about as agreeably as you might expect from a quintet of teenage criminals) aren’t the only ones who picked something up from the storm. If anything, the gifts “Misfits” gives to secondary characters are even weirder than those given to the main cast, and with those weird gifts come even stranger storylines that take this show to places this genre has never even remotely been. The concept is loaded with potential, and the first season’s dark, deranged but slyly humorous scripts deliver on it beautifully. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Lauren Socha, Antonia Thomas, Robert Sheehan and Iwan Rheon star.
Contents: Six episodes, plus interviews, a behind-the-scenes feature and Simon’s films (which will make more sense after you see the show).

Something’s Gonna Live (NR, 2010, Docurama)
Viewed superficially, “Something’s Gonna Live” is an easy target — so much so that one of the documentary’s subjects expresses hope that people aren’t watching and thinking what he fears they might be thinking. Informally emceed by legendary film art director and production designer Robert F. Boyle, “Live” brings together Boyle and five lifelong friends — Henry Bumstead, Conrad L. Hall, Harold Michelson, Albert Nozaki, Haskell Wexler — with comparably impressive resumes to discuss getting old, living unconventionally, leaving a mark that outlives them, and being part of what they consider filmmaking’s greatest age. That last point is the film’s prime vulnerability, because a selective viewing of “Live” might reduce it to yet another case of the older generation thinking everything was better when they were young and in charge. A closer listen, though, makes it clear that “Live’s” laments — that commerce now drives art instead of vice versa, that the camaraderie fostered by the original studio system is impossible in an age where a film passes through a thousand-hand wringer between conception and compromised completion — are ageless. Boyle and co., to their credit, do not use “Live” as a platform to complain. To the contrary, their stories of the work they did and the wonderful bonds that work created speak for themselves. And the pleas they make in defense of art — that it’s a force of personal communication and a calling that deserves better than to kneel at the mercy of accountants and lawyers — is a rallying cry whose relevance has never been greater.
Extras: Short film “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose,” deleted scenes, Robert Boyle’s production design checklist, interviews, featured artists’ bios.

Scalene (NR, 2011, Breaking Glass Pictures)
Janice (Margo Martindale) is at Paige’s (Hanna Hall) door, she has a gun, and she wants in the house — presumably, it seems, to kill Paige but also to get “him” back. This is how “Scalene” begins, and as this opening scene culminates, it’s pretty much a promise that things won’t be ending well here. So how does this mess really begin, and who is the “him” to which Janice refers? For roughly half its runtime, “Scalene” ventures backward, one scene at a time, to bring us halfway up to speed at around the same point Janice meets Paige. By then, we’ve met Jakob (Adam Scarimbolo), the aforementioned “him,” and from there, “Scalene” shifts back into drive and ventures forward to connect everything we’ve seen so far. If this description sounds obnoxiously vague, no apologies offered: “Scalene’s” best asset is its revelation of who Jakob is and what really happened here, and spoiling even the rudimentary points of that revelation would be a disservice. It isn’t all payoff. Some characters and story turns feel developmentally stunted, if not outright abandoned, and one of the biggest twists arrives a little too quickly and out of left field. (Be prepared to replay that scene, but don’t necessarily expect a second viewing to completely mitigate the head-scratching.) More than not, though, “Scalene” toes the line intelligently, peeling back its secrets at a pace that keeps viewers engaged and slightly at bay all at once. For those just getting to know Martindale following her work on “Justified,” here’s a spoiler worth mentioning: She doesn’t disappoint.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features, photo gallery.

Hatfields & McCoys (NR, 2012, Sony Pictures)
There is a whole lot of wondering going on in the third and final chapter of “Hatfields & McCoys.” Thank goodness, too, because if these warring families didn’t have the good sense to ask why and how a clash of ideals between two men (Kevin Costner as Anse Hatfield, Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy) and a rash of subsequent misunderstandings swelled into a feud that shed incalcuable amounts of blood on both sides, we’d be left to ask that question ourselves and wait in vain for a satisfactory answer. The latter still sort of happens, but even if you account for what we can assume are numerous creative liberties taken with the actual history, it’s hard to blame the production for a feud that was senseless and excessive regardless of rationale. “H&M” mostly leaves the historical means and connotations on the floor, focusing instead on giving faces and a dramatic edge to both sides of the fight. At that, it succeeds — thanks equally to a stellar cast and a script that knows how to slow down and let that cast chew scenery without stalling and overstaying its welcome. Considering it has nearly five hours to effectively contextualize a feud that was 99 percent pointless, it isn’t an easy task. Prioritizing entertainment over history won’t sit well with everyone, but for those who don’t mind walking with “H&M” down that road, it’s a fun watch. Powers Boothe, Tom Berenger, Jena Malone, Matt Barr and Lindsay Pulsipher, among numerous others, round out a large ensemble cast.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, music video.

The Weight of the Nation (NR, 2012, HBO)
At one point during the second of “The Weight of the Nation’s” four parts, a woman named Yolanda describes how, whenever people ask her how she lost so much weight, they instantly lose interest as soon as she reveals it came down to the same thing — diet and exercise — that has presided over weight loss conventional wisdom since losing weight became a human concern. It’s a fitting story, because a similar fizzling of interest doubtlessly awaits many who watch “Nation” and wait for it to say something that hasn’t been said already. That isn’t a knock against the documentary, which uses each 70-minute part to cover a segment of America’s obesity catastrophe in considerable and often personal detail. But those waiting for some weight-loss secret they haven’t already heard are facing a similar fate as those expecting a miracle from Yolanda. And when “Nation” devotes most of its third and fourth segments to obesity-promoting forces (the prohibitive costs of producing as well as consuming healthy food, monster corporations using bottomless wallets to dazzle kids and the shortsighted lawmakers who associate nutrition programs with police states) that completely overmatch the comparatively grassroots efforts to stem the tide, it’s enough to come away with less hope than you had going in. “Nation” uses its final half hour to close on a very high note, and its point about tobacco companies looking similarly invincible once upon a time is well put. But the road from here to there is a winding one, and “Nation” rather fittingly does not sugarcoat the roadmap for a turnaround.
Extras: 12 bonus shorts, 20-page companion booklet.

7/24/12: Boss S1, Brake, On the Inside, The Deep Blue Sea, The Monitor

Boss: Season One (NR, 2011, Lions Gate)
“How long?” are the first two words the premiere episode of “Boss” pries from Chicago Mayor Tom Kane’s (Kelsey Grammer) mouth, and it’s hard to imagine another thousand — never mind two — that could set Kane’s saga in motion any more dramatically. As alluded by its marketing, to say nothing of the equally loaded word that comprises its title, “Boss” is a bitterly unflattering look at a political machine running on a full tank of oil. Some of the themes are predictable, primarily with regard to a story arc centered around a gubernatorial primary between an incumbent (Francis Guinan) whose alliance with Kane is crumbling and an exciting upstart (Jeff Hephner) who is Kane’s new project but who is far from spotless when potential voters aren’t watching. Fortunately, “Boss” transcends its themes with relentless energy, exhaustive detail — both with regard to character design and the city in which these politicians, advisors, city employees and journalists do battle — and a complete disdain for preachiness and idealistic naiveté. (It couldn’t possibly get away with any, but major points anyway for dismissing the notion outright.) Lording over all of this is Kane himself — a seemingly popular control freak with a broken family, a nuclear temper and a degenerative neurological disorder diagnosis, revealed during that opening scene and before we hear him say a single word, that gives him a few years at most to live. Had everything else about “Boss'” anti-tribute to politics per usual fallen completely flat, Kane’s presence alone likely would still make this worth watching. Connie Nielsen, Troy Garity, Kathleen Robertson and Hannah Ware, among others, also star.
Contents: Eight episodes, plus commentary and a behind-the-scenes feature.

Brake (R, 2011, IFC Films)
Freshly-woken Jeremy (Stephen Dorff) has no idea where he is — only that he’s trapped inside a very cramped enclosure, the only faint source of light being a mysterious timer that’s quickly ticking down. His only comfort: a CB radio, tuned to a frequency that lets him communicate with another man stuck in an identical plight. If this setup is sparking any déjà vu, perhaps it’s because Ryan Reynolds found himself in semi-similar straits a couple years ago in “Buried.” As with that movie, espousing any further on what it all means or what happens next would spoil too much, so that’s all she wrote for the details. Fortunately, if you enjoy movies about people being trapped in tiny enclosures but also like a little variety, that effectively is where the similarities end. Whereas “Buried” is a harrowing slow burn that preys beautifully on claustrophobic nerves but keeps it simple with the story, “Brake” goes for thrills and (as hinted by our friend on the CB) positions Jeremy’s predicament as part of something that’s bigger than him alone. The road to the finish line is paved with some warts, particularly with regard to dialogue that occasionally ventures into SyFy Channel movie territory. And oof, that finish line. Let’s just call it polarizing and leave it vaguely at that. On the plus side, “Brake” certainly doesn’t take the dull way out. And, warts or not, it very rarely produces a dull moment en route to getting there.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, music video.

On the Inside (R, 2011, Anchor Bay)
That “On the Inside” remains rather compelling despite being something of a mess is an unarguable achievement. With that said? Yep, “Inside” is something of a mess — primarily because it never convincingly establishes what, exactly, compelled someone to ensure it exists. “Inside” begins as the story of Allen (Nick Stahl), who received his sentence at a psychiatric hospital for killing a man he suspected had raped his girlfriend. He killed the wrong man, but Allen also was deemed mentally unfit to convict for murder despite appearing pretty clear-headed during the time we spend with him here. That seemingly gives “Inside” enough to chew on for its 90-minute runtime. But then we meet Ben (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who takes a curious interest in Allen for whatever reason. And then there’s Mia (Olivia Wilde), who’s at her wit’s end as her release nears, and Carl (Dash Mihok), who makes it instantly clear that if somebody dies in this movie, it’ll likely be because of him. “Inside” concentrates primarily on these four characters while giving additional time to a supporting cast (Shohreh Aghdashloo, Tariq Trotter) with potential of its own, but it never really threads everybody through one storyline. Stuff definitely happens, and again, there’s something about this group that makes “Inside” eminently intriguing the whole way through. But that engagement comes in spite of the eventual realization that a central storyline never develops and most of the side stories either chase their tail or feel half-told. “Inside” offers enough to keep the issue somewhat at bay, but there’s nothing it can do to keep it wholly out of mind. No extras.

The Deep Blue Sea (R, 2011, Music Box Films)
Passion, like everything else, is relative. This is something to keep in mind during every anguished exchange between Hester (Rachel Weisz) and the Royal Air Force pilot (Tom Hiddleston as Freddie) with whom she embarked on an affair behind her British judge husband’s (Simon Russell Beale as William) back. Set one day after Hester tried and failed to kill herself, “The Deep Blue Sea” reaches back to deconstruct the marriage (dependable but emotionally arid) and affair (tumultuous, emotionally ravaging but laced with a passion her marriage lacked) that brought her to her current state. What “Sea” does not do is thoroughly (some might say satisfyingly) cover the spectrum of either relationship. As deconstructions of an affair’s afterglow go, “Sea” is gently brutal as it slowly but painfully picks away at whatever initial happiness the affair brought Hester and Freddie. But that early ecstasy is almost completely absent from the film, which calls to it by speaking of it more than simply showing us what has been lost. What made Hester’s marriage to William initially work, besides the obvious allusions to comfort and stability? What did Hester and Freddie look like when their affair evoked possibility instead of stress? And what, besides beauty and garden-variety implications about desire and passion, makes Hester herself worth all this agony to these two men? “Sea” alludes to the answers, and we’re all smart enough to figure them out ourselves. But it’s a disservice to these characters and their story, which, despite the excellent efforts of its cast, feel pretty stock as result of all those gaps.
Extras: Director commentary, interviews, two behind-the-scenes features, companion booklet.

The Monitor (R, 2012, Lions Gate)
“The Monitor” doesn’t expound on what Anna’s (Noomi Rapace) husband did to her and her eight-year-old son Anders (Vetle Qvenild Werring). But if her frazzled disposition and decision to disappear and enforce a restraining order are any indication, it was pretty bad. Probably. Maybe? After painting a pretty straightforward picture of Anna as an overprotective mother still struggling to straighten out her nerves, “The Monitor” starts getting muddled. Are the screaming voices she hears on her son’s new baby monitor real or invented? Why does her memory completely fail her at times, and which of her memories are real or simply imagined? All good questions, but unfortunately, not many that are much fun to answer. Even when it’s clear as a bell, “The Monitor” exudes a murky, hopeless tone that makes Anna difficult to understand and her son strangely unlikable for a kid. As the clouds gather and the reality of everything comes into question, the air is one of mess more than mystery, and the longer we’re at the mercy of Anna’s scrambled mind and slack-jawed expressions, the more tiresome she becomes. A subplot, involving a comparably fragile electronics store employee (Kristoffer Joner) who sells her the aforementioned monitor, doesn’t help matters. His story pretty emphatically ties into hers — to rather obvious effect following a couple of second-act revelations that telegraph the ending — but having another brittle character to watch over does no favor to a movie that’s already on shaky ground. In Norwegian with English subtitles, but an optional (and awful) English dub is available too.
Extras: Deleted scenes.

7/17/12: Get the Gringo, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Extraterrestrial, Casa de mi Padre, Intruders, The Three Stooges, Friends With Kids

Get the Gringo (R, 2012, Fox)
Crime doesn’t pay: Just ask the guy who dies in “Get the Gringo’s” opening scene. Or ask Driver (Mel Gibson), who volunteers a fable about the karmic price of a life led dishonesty. On the other hand? For a guy who’s locked up in a Mexican prison for who knows how long, Driver sure looks like he’s having fun. “Gringo” re-imagines prison as a full-scale village — a village from which prisoners cannot escape, but one bustling with shops, entertainment and prisoners’ families, who are free to come, go and even live on the premises. Among that crowd is a 10-year-old, Kid (Kevin Hernandez), who has a smoking habit, familial ties to some dangerous people, and possession of something that makes him valuable to yet more dangerous people. Without delving into specifics and secrets, that’s where Driver enthusiastically blazes in. As is appropriate for a movie that kills somebody during its opening minute, “Gringo” has no reservations about going off the reservation, and the logic that holds it together is less than threadbare by the time Driver’s odyssey comes in for a landing. But that thread never fully gives way despite numerous opportunities to do so. And who might even care if it did? “Gringo” is too spry and has way too much fun for implausibility alone to undermine it, and Driver, Kid and their surprisingly large supporting cast develop into terrific characters despite almost never having a chance to sit still. With respect to bloated and expensive special effects, this — sophisticated, smart, grimy but unapologetically silly — is how an action movie should roll in 2012.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, music video.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (PG-13, 2011, Sony Pictures)
The notion of salmon fishing in the Yemen is such a seeming impossibility, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” turns it into a metaphor for its characters’ yearning for things that seemingly cannot be. But that’s a story for later on. First, there’s the matter of an uptight British fisheries expert (Ewan McGregor as Alfred), a persistent consultant (Emily Blunt as Harriet), a sheik (Amr Waked), a poster child for bumbling bureaucracy (Conleth Hill) and one wonderfully cynical press officer (Kristin Scott Thomas) joining hands to very literally bring the pastime of salmon fishing to a political and physical climate that seems wholly unfit to accommodate it. Upon meeting this dream team and getting a sampling of their separate backgrounds and shared circumstances, the storylines that lie ahead are so predictable as to be inevitable. But as is evidenced by how casually these inevitabilities arrive, “Yemen” doesn’t pretend otherwise. Better still, by the time these turns appear, “Yemen” has poured so much detail into its characters, their objective and their new surroundings that the whole thing feels pretty fresh anyway. The mood matches the moment, too: When “Yemen” wants to be funny, it is, and when it wants to challenge perceptions about the feasibility of a comedy-drama built on the back of global politics, it just goes right ahead and does. The prospect of literally fishing for salmon in the Yemen is indeed about as likely as going salmon fishing in the Yemen, but watching “Yemen’s” characters pursue it anyway is — as impossible pursuits often are — a real treat.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.

Extraterrestrial (NR, 2011, Focus World)
The first thing worth noting about “Extraterrestrial?” It isn’t really about the aliens, whose ships suddenly and inexplicably hover above cities worldwide one day. Rather, it’s about Julia (Michelle Jenner), who somehow slept through the entire invasion, and her one-night stand Julio (Julián Villagrán), who slept over, also slept through the invasion, and thinks her name is Luisa until they reintroduce themselves after spotting a ship. It’s also about Julia’s strange neighbor Ángel (Carlos Areces) and (oops) boyfriend Carlos (Raúl Cimas), who arrives home just as things seemingly couldn’t be more awkward. The ships — and the unknown motives of whomever is piloting them — are predictably concerning. But the amusing thing about “Extraterrestrial” is that while everyone acknowledges this, they also realize there’s nothing they can do about them. They’re gigantic, they’re high in the air, and they’re apparently in no rush to move. So in place of an apocalyptic thriller about four survivalists fending off an alien invasion, “Extraterrestrial” is a dryly funny comedy about four ill-fit people demonstrating the majesty and nonsense of human behavior while their easygoing invaders look on in presumably the same fashion as a puppy experiencing television for the first time. Is there more to it than that? Without spoiling, yes. So long as you’ve made peace with the understanding that this really, really isn’t about the aliens, the enjoyably layered last act ties in the extraterrestrial portion of “Extraterrestrial” in a pretty satisfying (and, for this story, fitting) manner. It isn’t “Independence Day,” but that’s by design, and it’s a choice that pays off. In Spanish with English subtitles.
Extras: Four short films by director Nacho Vigalondo, behind-the-scenes feature, poster gallery.

Casa de mi Padre (R, 2012, Lions Gate)
“If it sounds Spanish, man, that’s what it is. It’s a Spanish movie.” With that little speech by Will Ferrell (delivered via his George W. Bush voice), so begins “Casa de mi Padre,” the story of a humble Mexican rancher named Armando (Ferrell) who discovers his brother Raul (Diego Luna) is deeply embroiled in a drug trade that could destroy his family. As quickly becomes apparent with that intro and the knowledge that Armando’s friends and family accept his clumsy Spanish and total lack of familial resemblance with completely straight faces, “Padre” isn’t bent on taking itself seriously. But Ferrell has a straight face of his own, and between his impassioned delivery of that broken Spanish and the enthusiasm the cast exudes as the body count piles up and Armando ascends from humble rancher to defender of his family, “Padre” blurs the line between parody and loving homage more than you might expect. As joke characters go, Armando is so eminently easy to root for that it almost doesn’t matter when “Padre’s” jokes miss nearly as often as they hit. On the other hand, “Padre” is home to the worst love scene this side of “Team America” and a jab at corner-cutting filmmaking that’s so brazenly unimaginative as to be pretty funny. It’s far from Ferrell’s best work, but whether you watch his movies to root for him or laugh at him, there’s a satisfactory level of something for everyone waiting in store. Gael García Bernal, Genesis Rodriguez and the late Pedro Armendáriz Jr. also star. In Spanish with English subtitles.
Extras: Ferrell/filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, music video.

Intruders (R, 2011, Millennium Entertainment)
Is John (Clive Owen) delusional, and did he imagine the mysterious stranger who broke into his home and terrorized his daughter (Ella Purnell)? A scene in “Intruders” would suggest he is, but if that’s the case, what did his daughter see? And what about the kid (Izán Corchero) half a world a way who saw the same faceless man (known henceforth as Hollowface) before his own mother (Pilar López de Ayala) intervened similarly? “Intruders” has answers, and it’s anyone’s guess whether they’ll satisfy once the movie lays them out. The discrepancy may even begin with that layout. You could argue “Intruders” is purposefully open to multiple interpretations in terms of what’s real and what may simply exist in nightmares. But another term for that is vague, and another is muddled. Arguably, “Intruders” is so careless with its herrings and allusions that they interfere with and even collapse on each other — a case of a movie that isn’t designed for multiple interpretations but instead has simply confused itself to the point of making no sense. All takeaways are possible, and for its part, “Intruders” throws in some creepy atmosphere and a twist that — provided you don’t see it coming — may be good for an “ah ha” moment. But that atmospheric aptitude, to say nothing of the talent in front of and behind the camera, also validates any assertion one might have about “Intruders” being in capable enough hands to get a more compelling story treatment than it got.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.

The Three Stooges (PG, 2012, Fox)
Because outrage is customary — and usually warranted — every time Hollywood goes and does something like this, the news of a contemporary “Three Stooges” movie was very customarily met with outrage. Occasionally — such as during an absolutely murderous recurring bit involving the cast of “Jersey Shore” — the disgust is as warranted as ever. For the most part, though, who are we kidding? As comedies go, the new “Stooges” is a pandering cannonball of silly faces, stupid noises, inane antics and the kind of physical comedy that would kill its victims if they weren’t live-action cartoon characters. It is, to put it another way, extremely stupid. But if that upsets you, where have you been these last 80 years? The feature-length format does no favor to something that works far better as a 10-minute short, and that alone (to say nothing of Shemp’s absence, which is the arguable real outrage) makes this a watered-down imitation of the original “Stooges.” But beside that point, most of what these Three Stooges do is the same stupid stuff their forebears did, and Chris Diamantopoulos (as Moe), Will Sasso (Curly) and Sean Hayes (Larry) have the imitations down cold. It isn’t a great movie, and it certainly isn’t necessary to anyone not getting paid to make it, but the outrage is best reserved for another day (which, let’s face it, will arrive sooner than later.)
Extras: Deleted/extended scenes, mashup compilation.

Friends With Kids (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
Over the last four years, Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) have watched their best friends become parents, move to the suburbs, and become friends with kids. As you might guess, that term has a derisive connotation in the movie that bears its name, and it alludes to a lifestyle Jason and Julie don’t completely want. A kid, though? Sure, they’ll take one of those. So Jason and Julie have a kid together but remain platonic and actively, aggressively single in Manhattan. And for an unsettlingly long time, “Kids” just rolls along on a weird genre-neutral cruise control. It isn’t very funny, but stranger than that (and despite a pretty light disposition), it doesn’t even seem interested in being very funny. Yet “Kids” also doesn’t have much insight beyond the bare, cliched minimum that much harder-working comedies also touch on en route to making a farce or dark comedy out of them. Despite flashing a pronounced contempt for the dreary fall into oblivion it associates with marriage and parenthood, “Kids” never musters the courage to really take it on during its first two acts. It finds its edge during a great scene in act three, and it finds its voice a few scenes later, but too much has been squandered by then. And when “Kids” makes a hairpin turn into crushingly predictable formula in hopes of bringing itself back around as an upbeat comedy, the ambivalence is too strong for such an uninspired move to really disappoint. Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Chris O’Dowd, Maya Rudolph, Megan Fox and Edward Burns also star.
Extras: Westfeldt/Hamm/cinematographer commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers/ad-libs.

7/10/12: Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog, The Flowers of War, American Reunion, Being Flynn, Black Limousine, Margaret

Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog (NR, 2012, Music Box Films)
Highly trained and working on cue though they may be, there’s only so much dogs can do for the camera that isn’t 100 percent honest. That wonderful truth is relentlessly apparent in pretty much every scene in “Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog,” which dramatizes the true story of a golden labrador retriever named Quill (played at different ages by four different dogs) and the stubborn blind man (Kaoru Kobayashi as Mitsuru Watanabe) who eventually entrusts him as his guide dog. As a look inside the life of a guide dog, “Quill” is fascinating — as much, unfortunately, for its depiction of the hardships involved in that life as for its look at the process of weeding out and training the dogs deemed fit for the job. Similarly engaging is the story of Watanabe, who endures some rigorous training of his own to understand, communicate with and gradually trust Quill’s methods. But these story points alone don’t account for the hundreds of times Quill’s tail wags a mile a minute whenever someone gives his head a friendly rub. Nor can there possibly be a cue to manufacture the “are you kidding me?” face he makes when Watanabe’s son puts a bald cap on his head. And the scene where roughly two dozen caffeinated labradors mob their trainer with face licks while gleefully pouncing one another? Good luck choreographing that. Presumably, whether in the script or not, some of the faces Quill’s handlers, family and acquaintances make are unscripted reactions in return. “Quill” may be a magnificent illustration of what’s possible when humans and dogs talk to and understand each other, but it’s the continuous stream of those little things you can’t manufacture that make it magical. In Japanese with English subtitles. No extras.

The Flowers of War (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
Father John Miller (Christian Bale) isn’t a priest, and the besieged cathedral wherein he seeks shelter during the height of the 1937 Nanking Massacre certainly isn’t his church. But the robes fit, the wine tastes delicious, and when the Japanese Army storms the church and attacks the bizarre assemblage of schoolgirls and prostitutes who have taken shelter inside its walls, playing pretend as a priest is the only play Miller has. The show he puts on might be comedic if the circumstances encircling it weren’t so horrifying. There is no sheepish way to take on a piece of history as heated as the Rape of Nanking, and merely casting Chinese and Japanese actors to coexist and graphically dramatize an event some refuse to forgive and others refuse to acknowledge is no feat for the meek. Never mind the issues some inevitably will have with an American taking the reins as the star and arguable hero. Past the historical baggage, though, there’s something wondrous about “The Flowers of War.” The shared fascination with Miller’s incidental, accidental leadership gives life to an clumsy but loving bond with the girls, a fleeting seepage of humanity shared with soldiers, a glint of humor, and wonderful acts of heroism from sources even less likely than the drunk guy wearing somebody else’s robes. “War” doesn’t run from the horrors of the massacre — it is, while beautifully shot, spotted with some unflinchingly vicious scenes — nor is it equipped to challenge the stances and perceptions that existed prior to its arrival. Arguably, it isn’t designed to. And if the notion that some strain of humanity persevered in Nanking during its darkest hour is worth something, perhaps that’s contribution enough.
Extras: Five behind-the-scenes features.

American Reunion (R/NR, 2012, Universal)
“American Pie” was a crass movie, but it was a crass movie with heart. The sequels increasingly lost sight of that, and when most of the cast bailed and the sequels gave way to a rash of straight-to-video spinoffs, it was enough to fully crater whatever fond memories one might have of that first movie. “American Reunion’s” title, as such, may be the first double entendre the series has reached without realizing it was heading there. It’s a movie about the original gang’s 12-year (don’t ask) high school reunion, and it’s a reunion everybody — the main cast, the supporting cast, bit players and those who previously existed only as legends — attends. But the most important returning guest is that rare sweetness (now combined with nostalgia) that finds a way to coexist peacefully with a new round of dependably crass humor. As a bonus, the new running gag — about how this group is way too old to be in this kind of movie — not only doesn’t wear out its welcome, but is actually responsible for many of “Reunion’s” funniest moments. Swap out the familiar faces with a bunch of new characters and maybe it exposes the formula and falls flat. But packaged as two hours of fan service featuring a likable group and numerous reminders of why we like them, “Reunion” is a treat — and, given the awful road down which the “American” name has gone, a wholly surprising one at that. Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Seann William Scott, Eugene Levy, Chris Klein and Jennifer Coolidge, among many others, star.
Extras: Unrated cut (adds a whole extra minute!), interactive series yearbook, writers/directors commentary, “out of control” video track with cast, deleted/extended scenes, alternate takes, blooper reels/compilations, seven behind-the-scenes features.

Being Flynn (R, 2012, Focus/Universal)
Being Flynn is a tough racket, which is why “Being Flynn” is two autobiographical stories instead of simply one. Half the story belongs to the elder Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro), who describes himself as the third great American writer and allegedly has the manuscript to prove it. Then there’s his son Nick (Paul Dano), whose relationship with his deadbeat, bigoted, formerly imprisoned father is nonexistent despite having a shared gift for writing and a similar desire to eventually share that gift with an adoring public. As has to happen for this movie to go somewhere, a turn of events — Nick taking a job at a homeless shelter, Jonathan stumbling into a residency there between living situations — brings the Flynns face to face. And as tends to happen when two writers with two separate lifetimes’ worth of angst collide, the results don’t necessarily jibe with the situation. And thank goodness. “Flynn” has all the pieces it needs to be the mopiest, most angst-ridden 102 minutes of emptied baggage ever dumped on a poor viewing audience, but it doesn’t bite. Instead, it does what writers do: It gets clever, it gets mean, and it turns pain into humor or excuses to behave terribly. “Flynn” still explores the dark side of being a Flynn, and its penchant for dark humor in no way positions it as a comedy. But the angst goes down a whole lot easier — and immeasurably more enjoyably — when it’s filtered through a script that lets it’s two stars utilize rather than dampen their talents. Julianne Moore and Olivia Thirlby also star.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Black Limousine (R, 2010, Anchor Bay)
It may or may not even be any good. But for those who like a movie that gives them something to talk about afterward, the story of fallen composer-turned-Hollywood limo driver Jack (David Arquette) is probably a must-see anyway. In terms of the basics, that pretty much covers it: Jack is somewhat known by name for his contribution to a movie soundtrack or two, but a cocktail of professional setbacks, divorce, alcoholism and tragedy have relegated him to driving celebrities around to make ends meet. So what’s that tragedy? And what’s with the limo’s own backstory? “Black Limousine” peels back on both, but it does so via a maelstrom of incidental happenings that absolutely, may and/or may not exist entirely in Jack’s mind. “Limousine” never quite sorts out what’s what, with even its closing scene leaving just enough askew to make one wonder what just happened. Is that kind of aggravating? Yeah, maybe. Does it ruin what otherwise is a pretty beautiful film with some strong characters and writing? Possibly. Is “Limousine’s” writing even that strong after all, if it’s possibly just a bunch of pretentious babble about some Hollywood washout? Sure, that too. “Limousine” is positively mobbed with potential takeaways, and that’s true of its quality as well as what happens within. You may love it, watch it three times and arrive at three conclusions, or you may hate it too much to even finish it once. Either way, though, there’s plenty to discuss once “Limousine’s” work is finished (or, you might argue, unfinished). Bijou Phillips, Vivica A. Fox and Nicholas Bishop also star. No extras.

Margaret (R, 2011, Fox)
There’s a scene wedged deep into “Margaret” during which a high school English teacher and a classmate of our main protagonist (Anna Paquin as Lisa) discuss how Shakespeare’s characters may speak for themselves and not necessarily on behalf of him. Superficially, and like most of “Margaret,” it’s needless. Ostensibly, it’s part of a larger point about how one’s notion of importance is dwarfed by the larger world view. Perhaps, though, it’s simply our screenwriter’s way of stating that the increasingly grating words Lisa uses are hers and not his. “Margaret” centers around a bus accident that kills a woman and is partially the fault of Lisa, whose interference caused the driver to run a red light. Both Lisa and the driver insist the light was green, and what follows in the two-plus hours that remain is the most rambling movie about trauma, guilt and artistic self-indulgence you may ever see. Shot in 2005, “Margaret” has since plumbed the depths of post-production limbo, and when every scene that feeds the story is followed by two that step out on dead-end tangents or engage in shameless smartest-person-in-the-room monologues for the sake of doing so, it’s easy to understand why. Deciphering all that subtext might be fun if “Margaret” gave us someone likable to do it with, but with every hypocritical and self-important rant she makes, Lisa becomes harder to bear. Her supporting cast is rarely better and frequently — especially when everyone screams over everyone else — worse. Somewhere inside this mess lies a respectable movie. But “Margaret’s” most lasting statement may be that while all movies need editors, some need them more than others. Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo also star. No extras.

7/3/12: My Afternoons with Margueritte, The Hedgehog, Planeat, A Necessary Death, God Bless America

My Afternoons with Margueritte (NR, 2010, Cohen Media Group)
Every occasional afternoon or so, Illiterate fiftysomething Germain (Gérard Depardieu) goes to the park to visit a pigeon named Margueritte and the 18 other pigeons who flock to his bench and have since received names as well. But it’s during a random afternoon when he meets a Margueritte of a different sort — human, 95 years old, in love with life and literature, and happy to immediately flatter Germain by calling him a young man. The two become fast friends, and in the afternoons that follow, their bench becomes a meeting ground where Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus) reads to Germain while he shares the details of his rocky past and present. And gosh, doesn’t that just sound ever so quaint?Surprise: It really isn’t. Because while Germain is something of a sympathetic figure, he’s also a mischief-making manchild and the king goofball amongst a magnificent kingdom of idiots who flock to the local pub. He has no time for self-pity. Behind Margueritte’s sweet old lady exterior, meanwhile, lies a woman with a penchant for dark fiction and the capacity to laugh at the misfortune of others if the story is funny enough. “My Afternoons with Margueritte” follows its characters’ leads: It’s unapologetically heartfelt, but too slyly good at slipping in and out of other dispositions — bitter, hilarious, silly, crazy, underhanded — to allow someone to trap and pigeonhole it as some schmaltzy fable with a manufactured soul. Don’t let the “Tuesdays with Morrie”-esque name fool you into dismissing it outright. But absolutely do let it lure you into a false sense of quaintness, because it might result in one of the more delightful rude awakenings you’ve experienced while watching a movie. In French with English subtitles. No extras.

The Hedgehog (NR, 2009, NeoClassics Films)
On her 12th birthday, exactly 165 days from now, Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) plans to kill herself with the antidepressants she steals a pill at a time from her mother. Until then, Paloma is using an old camcorder and the time she has left to make a film about all the dreary measures adults take to convince themselves they’re happy rather than actually just be happy. The project goes depressingly swimmingly until she makes acquaintance with Renée (Josiane Balasko), her apartment building’s antisocial superintendent. Renée, too, is unhappy, but she makes no pretense about being so, and that — along with her self-assessment as a “short, ugly, overweight” woman with “monster breath” — is all our suicidal 11-year-old philosopher needs to be completely smitten. If you peg “The Hedgehog” as an odd movie based on that setup, guess what? Of course it is. Just don’t dismiss it as being depressing because nearly everyone in it has some strain of depression going on. “The Hedgehog” isn’t so much about the strain as the spark — that little glint that pushes a middle-aged shut-in to open her door to a weirdly inquisitive kid, and the crumb of hope that inspires the kid to create some art and give the world 165 days to change her mind about leaving it. Tallied up, it’s effectively compartmentalization-proof — too thoughtful to let the glum premise hijack the story, too darkly funny to let it get buried, and too loaded with tonal and philosophical curveballs to allow classification as anything other than a wholly refreshing direction for some themes we’ve seen numerous times before. In French with English subtitles.
Extras: Deleted scenes, photo gallery.

Planeat (NR, 2010, True Mind)
Most documentaries about food and the environment are in the problem business. They hypothesize why our diet is killing us and the Earth, they drop some sobering numbers and facts, and then they toss us a couple vague suggestions of solutions before throwing up the credits, turning tail and validating why most of us just avoid watching these things in the first place. So three cheers for “Planeat,” which emphatically sets up shop in the solution business instead. Yes, it discusses the problem, the difficulty of enacting large-scale changes and everything else you’ve heard before and don’t need to hear again. But “Planeat,” perhaps realizing it’s speaking to a crowd already familiar with the obvious, devotes the lion’s share of its time to a handful of people who either have researched and produced clear, simple connections between diet and quality of life or have applied the findings of others to their lives. The discoveries are interesting, the applications inspiring. But “Planeat’s” ace has nothing to do with nutrition and everything to do with presenting food that looks insanely delicious and fun to make regardless of its health quotient. For its first order of business, “Planeat” opens with a lasagna dish that would make Garfield go wild. And though its 71 minutes are full of potential takeaways, the amazing looking cupcakes that appear 15 minutes in — and the prospect of nutritious food looking like that — may resonate most of all. If healthy eating is this much fun, why are so many documentaries about it so reluctant to just come out and say so?
Extras: Condensed 35-minute version of film, deleted scenes, interview, filmmaker introduction, some starter recipes. (More recipes are available on the film’s website, planeat.tv.)

A Necessary Death (NR, 2008, FilmBuff)
Never mind getting funding from school: Film student Gilbert (G.J. Echternkamp) can’t even keep his documentary pitch from getting flagged and deleted from free classified ad websites. But no one said making a documentary about suicide — and centering it around a subject who plans to end his or her life and lay the process bare for the camera — would be easy. If anything, once Gilbert and his friends (Valerie Hurt, Michael Traynor) find their subject — Matt (Matthew Tilley), a reasonably well-adjusted man diagnosed with terminal cancer and uninterested in prolonging his suffering — it only gets harder. Shot mockumentary style, “A Necessary Death” plays like two documentaries in one, with Matt’s story carrying half the load while the process of making a film about suicide comprises the other half. As an exploration of a project that’s very obviously invasive (and pretty sneakily personal once the documentarians and their subject get comfortable with each other), “Death” is interesting but rarely surprising with its insights. If you made a list of potential issues with documenting a suicidal person for 90 days, chances are decent the conflicts “Death” encounters would be on your list as well. Smartly, though, “Death” pays as much mind to its characters as it does the scenario. Matt’s the guest of honor, but Gilbert is the star around which everything, inside and beyond the film, revolves. The longer “Death” goes, the more it becomes about its characters instead of its ideas, and the further that tilt goes, the more engrossing and surprising it becomes.
Extras: Director commentary, cast commentary,  alternate ending, deleted scenes.

God Bless America (R, 2011, Magnet)
Frank (Joel Murray) — divorced, fired, shackled by blood to a brat daughter, plagued by migraines and loud neighbors, and tortured by the culture of rude behavior and bad reality TV — is fed up. And in the first mission of a holy war against all he loathes, he kills a spoiled teenager in broad daylight after she berated her parents on television for buying her the wrong kind of car. A teenager who witnesses the killing (Tara Lynne Barr as Roxy) begs to join his crusade, and one conversation later, Frank and Roxy are waging war against the waves of stupid, vapid, rude people who drive them crazy. For those of us who share Frank’s contempt, the appeal of “God Bless America’s” premise is obvious. But that’s the movie’s problem: It acknowledges the obvious by doing the obvious in return. “America’s” first death, which takes place only in Frank’s mind, is unarguably devised to establish that any taboo goes — including, probably unintentionally, disliking the guy we’re supposed to root for. The subsequent string of on-the-nose rants and attacks don’t really change that, and if you stop and think about what’s happening —  that Frank and Roxy just impulsively kill people without concern for getting caught, or that their behavior sometimes contradicts their mission — the whole thing collapses. “America” likely would argue we’re not supposed to think that hard and should instead lighten up and enjoy the circus of violence and revenge. And you’re welcome to do that … until you realize all that does is make “America” the very same vapid thing against which it so angrily rages.
Extras: Murray/Barr/director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, interviews, deleted television spoofs, bloopers, music video.