The Dark Knight Rises (PG-13, 2012, Warner Bros.)
Yes, the grumblings are true. Like many third chapters in many trilogies before it, “The Dark Knight Rises” has a tendency — at least early on, while it transitions from its predecessor’s bittersweet conclusion — to babble. Here’s hoping you like Occupy Wall Street allegories, because “Rises” sure serves one up during an opening hour that colors in the last eight years of Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) life, introduces us to Gotham City’s latest problem (Tom Hardy as Bane), and engages in an alarming level of brooding, board meetings and way too much telling over showing. But all the stalling stops cold with a scene smack in the middle of the movie that is as engrossing as any this trilogy has produced. (It isn’t the one the trailer spoiled, either.) From that moment forward, “Rises” absolutely cooks — paying off magnificently on all that talking, thoroughly validating the Wall Street parallels, wickedly blurring the lines between good and evil, and putting on yet another clinic in the art of villain design (even if Hardy occasionally sounds like Darrell Hammond doing Sean Connery on a “Celebrity Jeopardy!” sketch). Throw in a few smart callbacks to “Batman Begins” and a couple expertly-placed fan service twists that are great even if you see them coming an hour away, and “Rises” closes the trilogy on a sky-high note. Movie studios love easy money, so Batman’s return to theaters in the next few years is a gimme, but to the cast and crew who endeavor to follow in this trilogy’s footsteps, “good luck” doesn’t begin to cover it.
Extras: Documentaries “The Batmobile” and “Ending the Knight,” art gallery.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (R, 2012, Sundance Selects)
If you’ve seen the famous photo of a middle finger pointed at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, it’s worth noting that the finger in the frame belongs to artist and activist Ai Weiwei. That photo accented Ai’s harsh — and, on record from a Chinese citizen, unprecedented — comments about China’s treatment of its citizens leading up to the Beijing Olympics. Those two statements are remarkable on their own, and they’re doubly impressive given how recognizable — and, for officials with a history of imprisoning dissenting voices, easily spotted — Ai is. But when you discover it was Ai who also conceptualized the Bird’s Nest that adorned and defined the Olympic stadium that since had become a symbol of his ire, the act of defiance rockets from incredible to borderline insane. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is a meandering story of sorts about its namesake. But that meandering merely reflects the efforts of a man who has used wildly disparate muses — video, sculpture, Twitter, the contributions of those bold enough to believe in him, and even an episode of police brutality — to blur the lines between art installation and activism in ways that vibe equally with the current state of social technology and a restless population that’s found and embraced that technology on a level the state no longer can easily control. The process is exhilarating to watch, and “Sorry” is all the more inspiring when the full picture of Ai — fearful, humble, caregiver to dozens of animals, unafraid to laugh at himself, sweet to a mother who describes his oppressors as bullies much the same way another mother would speak of mean kids on a playground — emerges. Though never sorry, Ai is relentlessly humble, and if someone with this much humility can cause this much trouble, who among us can’t?
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes, interviews.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (PG-13, 2012, Fox)
Almost immediately, the question arises: Is six-year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) worse off for having spent her entire existence sheltered inside a bayou community that itself is sheltered by levees from the rest of Louisiana, or is she better off for forming an imaginative picture of global order that’s potentially enlightened in ways America’s jaded developed communities no longer can grasp? If there’s merit in putting on a show that encourages bandying questions like these after the show ends, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” offers a harvest bountiful enough to feed an army — and that’s before it speaks word one of Katrina. Though the storm’s appearance spans only a few scenes, “Wild” likely wouldn’t exist without it, because Katrina provides the philosophical coatrack on which everyone — whether watching the movie or inside it — can hang an opinion about the merits of sovereignty, community and roots versus those of comfort, safety and responsible parenting. Hushpuppy’s father (Dwight Henry as Wink) is all she has, and “Wild’s” loaded but hands-off portrayal of their flammable relationship freely gives way to any number of arguments about how loving and/or abusive and/or reckless and/or invaluable and/or [insert adjective here] it is. That extends out to the community and even, with surprising credibility, little Hushpuppy’s naive but inspired ideas about the way the world works. Call it unflinching, call it cloying, call it brave or even embarrassingly preachy. Whatever form “Wild” assumes to each who sees it, it assumes without compromise and, in some respects, without peer.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.
Hope Springs (PG-13, 2012, Sony Pictures)
Despite seeming to know each other quite well, roommates Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) share a pretty awkward existence — particularly when they retire to their separate bedrooms at night. And when “Hope Springs” reveals that they aren’t roommates, but instead have been married for 31 years, one quickly gleans why it feels so weird. From there — and particularly after Kay finally reaches her wit’s end and enlists them both for a retreat with a marriage counselor (Steve Carell) — it’s also pretty easy to guess where this story is headed next. Structurally, “Springs” isn’t in the business of surprise or genre reinvention, and a cynic who pegs it as yet another formulaic romantic comedy with a tepid two-word title can sleep soundly in a blanket of their own smug validation. “Springs” doesn’t much care, because the things it does well — a terrific back and forth between its two leads, a script that’s funny and thoughtful with regard to what makes these stories so tried and true, Jones’ ability to play the foil to Carell’s straight man instead of the other way around — leave it without much need for wheel reinvention. There’s a price to pay for that, and it means “Springs” might be one of those movies you really enjoy but still, someday soon, forget having even seen. But there’s only so much umbrage to take with feel-good entertainment that consistently feels good while it’s on.
Extras: Director commentary, five behind-the-scenes features, alternate takes, bloopers.
V/H/S (R, 2012, Magnet)
In little more than a decade, the trick of assembling a scary movie from mock “found” footage has morphed from subversive to genre-changing to pervasive to self-parody to pathetically, deathly tired — an indictment of a technique hinging entirely on a gimmick that no longer could take anybody by surprise. “V/H/S” arrives as four separate stories that share ties via the dubious notion that they all originate from the same stack of videotapes, and had any one of these four stories carried the two-hour load alone, it’d be just another reason for this subgenre to disappear. But as half-hour stories with little wiggle room to drag things out and play the same tricks ad nauseam to pass time, the stories fare significantly better. Many of the same old found footage tricks are present and accounted for, two of the stories rely on twists that are a little too similar to each other, just about every character across every story is completely unlikable, and those who struggle to suspend disbelief will see stars at the third story’s assertion that a series of high-resolution video chats on visibly modern laptops has somehow found its way onto an old videotape. But even when “V/H/S” does something stupid, absurd or completely irritating, it never has time to do much that’s just plain boring — which is all it needs to stand out in a genre that desperately needs a standout.
Extras: Deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.
Butter (R, 2012, Anchor Bay/The Weinstein Company)
Just as millions grew tired of politics and even jokes at politics’ expense, here comes “Butter,” which scrambled to theaters weeks before Election Day, arrives in this format almost exactly a month afterward, and feels every bit as disheveled and late to the party as its release dates suggest. “Butter’s” political allegory revolves around the annual Johnson County, Iowa butter-carving contest — and particularly Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell), whose blue ribbon dynasty has been cut short on petty grounds. His ambitious and vengeful stuffed-shirt wife (Jennifer Garner) steps in to keep the dynasty alive, and her competition includes a sweet 10-year-old foster child (Yara Shahidi as Destiny) and a hooker (Olivia Wilde) who slept with Bob and wants rent money in exchange for … actually, it isn’t completely clear. It doesn’t really even matter, because Bob’s just a bystander who isn’t particularly vulnerable to scandal. So much for that subplot, right? “Butter” wants to use a butter-carving competition as a political metaphor because it’s an amusing idea, but it doesn’t actually know how to do it. Ideas pile up without reason and characters either flail away with nowhere to go or settle into roles that are too archetypical to work on an ironic level. Only little Destiny gives us anything to care about, and if the goal was to get us to root for her without irony — as if “Butter” was a documentary instead of fiction, never mind satire — mission accomplished. Anything else is a complete miss.
Extras: Deleted/extended scenes, bloopers.
— “The Carol Burnett Show: The Ultimate Collection” (NR, 1967, Time Life): Every holiday season brings forth some seriously good-looking gift sets, but few in 2012 cut a profile as visually impressive as this 22-disc monster. “The Carol Burnett Show: The Ultimate Collection” isn’t a complete-series collection, and as a 50-episode representative of a series that ran for 11 seasons and averaged roughly 25 episodes per season, it isn’t even close to one. What it is, however, is well-curated, with Burnett herself hand-picking her 16 favorite shows for one of the set’s three themed volumes. Bonus content includes 13 behind-the-scenes features, additional sketches, a virtual trip through season 10, two episodes of “The Garry Moore Show” from when Burnett was in the cast, and a ton of interviews with those from the show and comedians since inspired by it. Rounding out the package, which comes in a box whose cover lifts like the stage curtain from the show, is a 20-page book with photos, liner notes and anecdotes. The set is available on carolondvd.com instead of at retail, and if you are willing to pay $400 instead of $200 and are quick enough, you can secure one of the 300 sets that comes with a certificate of authenticity and bears Burnett’s, Vicki Lawrence’s and Tim Conway’s signatures.