Brave (PG, 2012, Disney)
Merida is a princess, but unlike her fellow Disney princesses, she isn’t happy about it. When a trio of suitors arrive to compete for her hand in marriage, it’s the last straw — and not simply because she’s better with a bow than all three of them. Merida’s mother, beholden to tradition, won’t let her bail on the ritual, so she plots to excuse herself at any cost — even if it means using a spell that inadvertently turns her mother into a bear, sends her bear-hunting father into a very misguided chase, and ignites bedlam as the courters and their families cry shenanigans. Whoops? The convoluted consequences of “Brave’s” premise somewhat underscore how much it, too, is beholden to traditions long in the tooth. If “Cars 2” was Pixar’s most pointless movie, “Brave” is its safest — a familiar reluctant princess story that takes safe roads from start to finish. But while “Cars 2” frequently lost sight of what makes Pixar movies so special, “Brave” siezes it between the lines. It’s consistently beautiful, but it looks most stunning when doting on the little details and unspoken expressions so many other animated movies completely overlook. The soft touch, and the ability to let nuance be nuanced, translates into a bounty of characters who are way more likable than their archetypical roles suggest. None of this hides how overtly calculated “Brave” is right down to its preachily heart-on-sleeve conclusion, but the formula is easy to buy into when handled with this much care.
Extras: Animated shorts “La Luna” and “The Legend of Mor’du,” director commentary, deleted/extended scenes, 13 behind-the-scenes features, alternate opening, bloopers, art/promo galleries.
The Queen of Versailles (PG, 2012, Magnolia)
As “The Queen of Versailles” opens, we meet David Siegel, a billionaire who made his cash on a timeshare empire and, among other accomplishments, takes personal responsibility for what happened in Florida during the 2000 election. (He refuses to share how on account that it’s probably illegal.) Meanwhile, he and trophy wife Jackie are building a 90,000 sq. ft. replica of France’s Palace of Versailles that will reign as the largest home in America. Why? Because she wants it, and because he can. Do you hate this movie yet? Imagine how you’d feel if “Versailles” hadn’t been well into filming when the 2008 financial collapse rolled in and ran wild all over Siegel’s fortune and his wife’s dream house, which stood less than half-built when the well dried. (Feel better now?) Because we’ll never definitively know what “Versailles” aspired to be before reality rewrote the script, it should come as no surprise that its tone isn’t one of comeuppance-fueled smugness. But “Versailles” doesn’t lay on the sympathy, either. More than anything, it just lets the family — David, Jackie and even their kids — indict themselves. (A short scene at a car rental service may be the most accidentally funny scene in any documentary this whole century.) If any one feeling rules over “Versailles,” it may be fatigue — with one another, with too many pets and things that go appallingly unappreciated, and with the absurd notion that getting all that money back will make all this suddenly naked resentment magically put its robe back on. Financial insecurity isn’t fun, but it might be preferable to being rich if this is what wealth truly looks like.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.
2 Days in New York (R, 2012, Magnolia)
Albeit by the skin of his mental teeth, Jack survived his brush with Marion’s (Julie Delpy) family in 2007’s “2 Days in Paris.” Unfortunately, the years that followed apparently claimed him. In “2 Days in New York,” Jack’s gone and it’s new boyfriend Mingus’ (Chris Rock) turn to meet the family (Albert Delpy, Alexia Landeau) — and, as apparently is customary, Marion’s ex (Alexandre Nahon) — as they make their maiden visit to America. Mingus ostensibly should enjoy a home-field advantage Jack didn’t have, but when your new family takes over the apartment and carries on speaking a language you don’t understand, that advantage slips away quickly. For those who saw and enjoyed “Paris,” this rather unlikely sequel delivers a distinctively wobbly comfort by bringing back the foils — Marion included — while leaving the first film’s main character and steadying presence behind. That strange not-quite-comfort falls nicely in line with the rest of “NY,” which takes the broad comedic implications of a “Meet the Parents” and uses it instead as a platform for the kind of movie Woody Allen would spin. That happened in “Paris” as well, and it isn’t as novel here, nor is the family’s (and particularly Marion’s) eccentricities quite so cute a second victim around. But “NY’s” gift of neurotic comedy still handily outstrips minor and fleeting hang-ups like these. And taken as a whole, it’s a testament to how far a dirt-old premise can go — and for a second time in five years — when a smart script supplies a fresh voice.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.
Dust Up (NR, 2012, Breaking Glass Pictures)
Jack (Aaron Gaffey) has escaped what, as a vague flashback hints, was a violent past. Nowadays, he lives peacefully as a handyman in the desert with Mo (Devin Barry), who — in the first of “Dust Up’s” numerous inexplicable quirks — dresses like a Native American stereotype in his own attempt to attain inner balance. It’d all work out were it not for the likes of Buzz (Jeremiah Birkett) and his posse, a bizarre mix of savages and pencil pushers who endeavor to conquer the desert in hopes of eventually conquering a post-apocalyptic America. (No such apocalypse has happened, but you never know.) The two sides clash during a plumbing job that crisscrosses with a woman (Amber Benson), her baby and a husband (Travis Betz) whose blood the gang wants, and sure enough, we have a dustup on our hands. As a bonus, we also have one of the few movies of the post-“Grindhouse” era that shoots for the B-movie moon and doesn’t miss wildly. Nothing about “Dust Up” is reserved — the scene-stealing Birkett wouldn’t allow it — and a wild battle of one-upmanship breaks out between violence and insanity. But “Dust Up” very quickly establishes a style and voice, and it never strays from either or descends into incoherence even when the level of crazy reaches 11. Weird though “Dust Up” gets, it makes quite a point of grounding Jack and forming him into the likable rock on which all this lunacy comfortably leans. Considering how many A-movies can’t get that part right, seeing it done so well here is no trivial thing.
Extras: Director/cast commentary, interviews, behind-the-scenes feature and footage, not-necessarily-serious public service announcements, video diaries, photo gallery.
Vamps (PG-13, 2012, Anchor Bay)
These are turbulent times in entertainment for vampires, whose sudden proliferation has been greeted with equally extreme cases of seriousness and mockery. Thus, something like “Vamps,” which wants to have it both ways, represents a rare case where yet another vampire movie is actually somewhat welcome. “Vamps” spins its story of vampire best friends Goody (Alicia Silverstone) and Stacy (Krysten Ritter) as a two-way fish-out-of-water tale: Neither girl wants to drink human blood or otherwise torment people the way their maker (Sigourney Weaver) does, and their support group means they aren’t alone. At the same time, they don’t exactly understand the younger generation despite looking like them on the outside, and they’re tired of keeping pace with the fast-changing ways of mortal humanity. (There’s even a forward-thinking iPad Mini gag that ends with Goody in tears as she laments how quickly technology goes obsolete. Sounds like she understands humanity just fine after all.) This, for the most part, is how “Vamps” works as it ambles along like a lighthearted sitcom that’s amusing for 93 minutes but almost certainly would get old after a few more episodes. It isn’t groundbreaking or sharply observant, but it is amusing. And thanks especially to a third-act sequence that takes a surprising tonal shift and does so rather beautifully, it’s able to have fun without simply making fun. No extras.
Dark Horse (NR, 2011, Virgil Films)
Here’s a question: Is a character’s story worth witnessing if that character is bitterly unlikable regardless of justification and allowance? Here’s another: What if the entire movie is unlikable as well? If you have a hypothesis, “Dark Horse” invites you to test it right here. From a distance, “Horse” — the story of Abe (Jordan Gelber), a late-thirtysomething adolescent who is friendless, lives with his parents (Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow), works for his dad and is unhealthily devoted to a bedroom’s worth of unopened toys — sounds like a boilerplate silly comedy. But like writer/director Todd Solondz’s other movies, “Horse” only looks silly from far away, where bright colors reign, funny haircuts make funny first impressions and a bizarre first date proposal from Abe to Miranda (Selma Blair) somehow works against all reason. Up close, Abe himself is a caustically miserable human being, and what initially seemed quirky about his toys and strange behavior quickly becomes either disturbing or tiresome or perhaps both. Miranda fares no better, and possibly worse, as she mopes through a scenario that has no business existing even as irony or allegory. And outside of a co-worker (Donna Murphy) whose place in Abe’s world is best left unspoiled and left alone for personal interpretation, the rest of “Horse” offers little relief — which, perhaps, is the best Abe deserves. All theories are welcome, and the conditions “Horse” creates for testing and assessing them makes it very possibly engrossing in spite of itself. You might hate every minute, but good luck turning it off before it’s over. No extras.
Savages (R/NR, 2012, Universal)
It’s unfair, but it’s true: Certain directors engender certain expectations, and when they deliver a movie that’s merely entertaining, it’s a letdown. Such is the case with Oliver Stone and “Savages,” wherein two best friends (Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Taylor-Johnson) share a lover (Blake Lively), a drug empire imported into California from Afghanistan, and an unsettlingly peaceful existence until a drug cartel (Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Demián Bichir) tries muscling its way into a business partnership. As always happens when drug operations align, a violent thriller breaks out. And yes, as thrilling entertainment, “Savages” checks out. But Stone is a agitator in filmmaker’s clothing, and the occasional way “Savages” sticks its finger in the troublemaking pot and immediately yanks it back is uncharacteristically meek. A federal agent (John Travolta) playing on both sides of the fence would presume to be the muse through which “Savages” rages against the notion of governments fighting public wars against an industry it privately cultivates. But while Travolta’s character is the film’s arguable highlight, his plight falls squarely in line with the same old perceptions numerous other movies and television shows have already pursued. Tallied up, it’s still good for two hours of engaging entertainment, and that very well might be good enough. But for those who see “Savages” as an opportunity to put a provocative charge in a tired storyline, it’s an opportunity missed.
Extras: Deleted scenes, five behind-the-scenes features.
The Watch (R, 2012, Fox)
Evan’s (Ben Stiller) 12-year ascent to the manager’s chair at Costco was going beautifully until an employee died violently and mysteriously during a graveyard security shift. “The Watch” informs us nearly straight away that the killer is paranormal in nature. But Evan has no idea, so he posses up with three other neighbors (Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade) and starts what at technically can sort of be classified as something of a neighborhood watch. Reasons for joining range from revenge issues to an excuse to get drunk, but the group has matching jackets, so there’s that. And that really is that. Like the watch itself, “The Watch” uses the situation as an excuse to rattle off a bunch of gags that may or may not contribute to the story or even deliver a laugh. The paranormal wrinkle has promise, but it goes squandered to the point where it feels almost superfluous instead of like the whole point of the story. The idea of a neighborhood watch being a vessel for various forms of male insecurity is amusing, but “The Watch” just kinda rambles its way through that concept with scenes that feel like deleted scenes from other, better buddy comedies. It’s never awful, but it hits that mediocre sweet spot so flush in the teeth that you almost wish it was, lest it become one of the most forgettable movies you’ve seen all year.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, alternate takes.
— “Friends: The Complete Series” (NR, Warner Bros.): The Blu-ray debut of “Friends” arrives all at once, and it skimps neither on content nor presentation. The entire series has been remastered, with all 236 episodes restored from their original negatives and reborn in widescreen 1080p. That makes this one of the rare instances of a Blu-ray television reboot commanding a look even if you (or the gift recipient of your choosing) already revisited the show on DVD. (The packaging — with the discs housed inside a hardcover board book which rests inside an equally sturdy lenticular box — looks comparably pretty.) Along with the show, the 21-disc set includes commentaries, behind-the-scenes documentaries and features, alternate/extended episode cuts, talk show appearances, bloopers, guest star video guestbooks, music videos and a photo/liner notes booklet.
— “The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy” (NR, Shout Factory): If the three-adjective title is any guide, this might be the year’s most confident DVD set. Looking at the contents of the 11-hour, six-disc (five DVDs, one CD) collection — packaged inside a 60-page hardcover book with photos, liner notes and essays by the likes of Leonard Maltin and Gene Wilder — perhaps it has a point. Among those contents: Mel’s 1951 television debut, pilot television episodes (including “Peeping Times,” “Inside Danny Baker” and “Get Smart”), a five-part “Mel and His Movies” retrospective, television appearances (“The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” “The Tracey Ullman Show,” “60 Minutes,” “The Electric Company”), short films, commercials, live appearances, sketches, speeches, songs, a rap video and more.