1/8/13: Frankenweenie, Game Change, Samsara, Smash S1, Enlightened S1, Compliance, The Inbetweeners Movie, Dredd, The Goode Family

Frankenweenie (PG, 2012, Disney)
Beneath all the crazy that engulfs it, “Frankenweenie” is just a movie about a boy, Victor, and his dog Sparky. The only wrinkle, as the title certainly implies, is that Sparky is dead for a small portion of the movie. Victor, buoyed by his creepy science teacher, jolts Sparky back to life as the titular Frankenweenie — bolts in his neck, body in literal stitches, but the same adorable personality fully intact without a scratch. With that development behind it, “Frankenweenie” sort of sprays to all fields — a light screed about humanity’s love/hate relationship with science here, a clever “Frankenstein” spoof there, and a loud and boisterous tribute to any number of monster movies as everything that happens next comes to a head. “Frankenweenie” previously existed as a live-action short Tim Burton made back in 1984, and had that style been applied to this incarnation, it might’ve been too much. But the animated “Frankenweenie’s” visual style — monochrome, with wonderful character designs that would be right at home in Burton’s other animated worlds — is a magnificent fit and as much a love letter to old monster movies as the script itself is. For every sequence of insanity, there’s a handful of charming animated nuances that arguably steal the show for those paying close attention. And no one does nuance better than Sparky himself. No matter where “Frankenweenie” goes, it begins as and steadfastly remains a tale of a boy and his dog — a grounded story about total bedlam if ever there was one.
Extras: Animated short “Captain Sparky vs The Flying Saucers,” the original live-action “Frankenweenie” short, two behind-the-scenes features, music video.

Game Change (NR, 2012, HBO)
Search for an angle in “Game Change,” and that angle almost certainly will avail itself. “Change,” based on a portion of the book of the same name, is the dramatization of John McCain’s (Ed Harris) scuffling 2008 campaign and the shot in the dark his staff (Woody Harrelson, Sarah Paulson, Peter MacNicol) took by bringing Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) on board despite only vetting her for days instead of weeks. Was it a stroke of genius? Sure. Was it a disaster? Sure. Was she staggeringly clueless, a victim of a vengeful media, childish when challenged, a gifted politician or a sympathetic figure who was let down by a staff that recklessly threw her to the dogs? All of the above, none of the above. “Change” mostly recites history as it’s been exhaustively documented by those who either witnessed or shaped the campaign, so its artistry comes via zooming in close and painstakingly humanizing Palin, McCain, their advisers and even the campaign itself. Regardless of whatever slant one wants to level at it, it fulfills that primary objective exceedingly well. Evidence runs wild for those whose primary concern is tagging it as biased for the campaign or biased against it. But it’s a waste of angst. “Change’s” intimate humanization of politics has nothing to do with parties and policies and everything to do with the treachery of self-betrayal, the pitfalls of drive-by electioneering and the awful things one must do to win (or lose) an election in this climate.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, feature on politics itself.

Samsara (PG-13, 2012, MPI/Oscilloscope)
As New Year’s resolvers the world over wax hopeful about shunning distractions and renewing their relationship with mindfulness, the arrival of “Samsara” — a sequel of sorts to 1992’s “Baraka” — could scarcely be more timely. Like its predecessor, “Samsara” is an entirely wordless documentary, a collection of scenes wondrous (stoic mountaintops, massively kinetic assembly lines of people), terrible (a natural disaster’s aftermath), whimsical (an office worker going wild with some face paint) or something in between set either to music or whatever natural soundtrack accompanies them. Almost unarguably, every one of these 102 minutes is exquisitely shot — a credit both to the 70mm film used to capture them and the gift of composition on behalf of the crew that shot and arranged them. But everything else about “Samsara,” up to and including its very being, is considerably more debatable. If there’s an overlying message, it’s abstract enough to mean anything to anybody on any terms they want. That, of course, includes the dueling messages that “Samsara” is (a) a gorgeous visual meditation about the world’s vast beauty or (b) a mindless, pretentious collage of pretty footage that says nothing whatsoever. “Samsara” exists at the mercy of its viewers, subject not only to home theaters that can’t do the original theatrical presentation complete justice, but also personal notions of what a film should be, say or do. Put another way, it isn’t for everyone and has no aspirations to be. But for those with whom it connects, the capacity for “Samsara” to strike a nerve, and do so to wholly unpredictable effect, is enormous.
Extras: Six behind-the-scenes features.

Smash: Season One (NR, 2012, NBC Universal)
The best thing about “Smash” isn’t that it avoids all the trappings one might fear from a serial drama about issue-ravaged people conceiving and shaping a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Rather, the best thing about “Smash” is the way it steps right in those trappings and comes out looking pretty good anyway. The laws of relative cynicism suggest “Smash” wouldn’t exist if “Glee” didn’t make it safe for musical television, and the lavish musical numbers — which begin as workshopped rehearsals performed by people in sweats before morphing into spectacular stage showpieces — borrow some style cues from that show. But where “Glee” is a soapy high school drama that can’t get out of its own preachy way, “Smash” checks itself — never getting too high, low, flip or serious despite embracing all the themes one expects from the battle of egos that erupts as “Marilyn” comes into being. Without the capacity to harangue and thoroughly annoy, “Smash” instead just ventures to entertain, and the season-long odyssey is far more exciting than it seemingly should have any right to be. Debra Messing, Jack Davenport, Katharine McPhee, Megan Hilty and Anjelica Huston, among others, star.
Contents: 15 episodes, plus deleted scenes, extended musical numbers, two behind-the-scenes features and bloopers.

Enlightened: The Complete First Season (NR, 2011, HBO)
It might be possible to kick “Enlightened” off with a scene more memorable than a tear/mascara-streaked Amy (Laura Dern) rampaging through an office hallway and clawing open a closed elevator door before promising death to her boss. But you know what? Probably not. With the wrap of that scene, and following a brief montage wherein Amy takes a sabbatical to seek peace and rehabilitation, “Enlightened” resumes with Amy back in her old life and attempting to reconcile her spiritual awakening with everything that drove her crazy in the first place. With that step begins the enormously challenging task of building a show around a character who wore out her friends, coworkers, exes and even mother for reasons that are immediately and abundantly clear. Though sometimes funny, “Enlightened” isn’t a comedy, which means it doesn’t expect us to just laugh off what a mess Amy is. But “Enlightened” also isn’t fully serious, because asking viewers to solemnly sympathize with Amy at her most tiresome is effectively asking people to turn off the TV. “Enlightened” even eludes the half-and-half comedy/drama classification. The lines are too blurry, and the shifts from funny to dark to saccharine without irony (or occasionally with it in spades) are way too erratic. Where “Enlightened” actually is consistent is with its rather remarkable ability to give us all this tiring, semi-disorganized material without wearing us out as well. Scrambled though it is, Amy’s dual search for enlightenment and a steady paycheck has resonance, and “Enlightened” toes a smart line to draw that out.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus commentary and a behind-the-scenes feature for each episode.

Compliance (R, 2012, Magnolia)
Perhaps “Compliance’s” only justification for existence is that it’s based on a true story. But when your true story is as unbelievable as this one, that may be the only justification necessary. “Compliance” dramatizes the case of fast food restaurant employee Louise Ogborn (renamed Becky here and played by Dreama Walker), who matched the vague description of a woman accused of stealing money from a customer’s purse. That accusation came via a phone call from a man who describes himself as police officer. The voice on the line struggles to explain why he can’t appear at the restaurant in person to handle what apparently is a gravely serious matter, but that doesn’t stop him from tricking the restaurant’s manager (Ann Dowd) and other employees into conducting a grossly unethical investigation. Nor, amazingly, does it stop Becky from cooperating with an investigation whose particulars violate common sense on a mind-melting level. As drama goes, “Compliance” takes the tasteful high road and plays it straight — almost to the point where one feasibly could accuse it of playing it safe. That argument barks loudest during the final few scenes, which frame the aftermath — and Dowd’s character — in a way that will make some wish more time was devoted to that period. With this being a true story, though, the story of the actual fallout is readily available for perusal. And once you see the depths to which presumably decent people plunged despite the blare of conventional wisdom alarm bells firing off, a desire to know the rest of the story is practically compulsory.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, director interview.

The Inbetweeners Movie (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
Before “The Inbetweeners” became yet another regrettable Americanized MTV show, it was an enviably funny British show about four likable teenagers (Simon Bird, James Buckley, Blake Harrison, Joe Thomas) navigating the waters of adolescence like a boat with a hole in it. With “The Inbetweeners Movie,” the boys have graduated and embarked on a two-week holiday in Greece that ideally will do more for their social standing with women than the preceding 18 years did. Fortunately — at least for us — the hole in the boat hasn’t been patched just yet. To state the obvious, “Movie” is particularly a treat for fans of the show, because nothing that was great about the show’s mix of crass humor and adorable naïveté has been lost by stretching it into a feature film. But for those completely unfamiliar with this foursome up to now, “Movie” remains a perfectly good time — partially because it doesn’t lean on inside jokes and quickly brings everyone up to speed about who these goofs are, but primarily because it’s just plain funny and lovable no matter how familiar one is with their antics.
Extras: Cast commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Dredd (R, 2012, Lions Gate)
If “Dredd” was a student in school, it would be the most aggravating kind of student — the one who is demonstrably smart, has bright ideas and understands the scope of the assignments, but who never can quite put it all together. “Dredd’s” story is pretty familiar: America is a post-nuclear war zone, reduced to a megacity whose rule is torn between gang lords and law enforcement “judges” who use gunfire instead of due process to dispense justice. In “Dredd,” that boils down to the titular Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) on one side and criminal kingpin Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) on the other. As foils, they’re perfect for each other: Dredd’s a dull character with cool toys, while Ma-Ma rules with nothing more than bloodthirsty charisma and the army she assembled with it. Problem is, this one’s called “Dredd” and not “Ma-Ma,” so the bulk of the character development — such that it is — goes to a character with no personality and no real intrigue beyond the insane violence his weapon can unleash. The nag of dissatisfaction permeates much of “Dredd,” which on one hand manages the impossible (validating multiple instances of stylistic self-indulgence) but on the other can’t completely make an interesting case for yet another movie about post-apocalyptic America. Flashes of ingenuity pop up throughout the film, and those and Ma-Ma’s character add up to a movie that has more highlights than lowlights. But there’s something wrong when a comic book movie runs only 96 minutes long and still feels like it’s regularly stalling for time.
Extras: Six behind-the-scenes features, motion comic prequel.

The Goode Family: The Complete Series (NR, 2009, Shout Factory)
To say Mike Judge’s most recent animated series soared under the radar would be an understatement and overstatement at once. On one hand, how many people even heard about “The Goode Family” while it was on the air — and on ABC, no less? If the network buzzed about it, it was at a hum low enough for even Judge’s fans not to hear. But perhaps the network was onto something. Like Judge’s “Idiocracy” did, “Family” makes a caricature out of humanity — in this case, a family obsessed with social responsibility, carbon footprints and bleeding-edge political correctness — and pummels it relentlessly on the nose. But while that works for a movie, the gimmick is way too thin to carry a series. “Family’s” characters never feel like characters so much as vessels for different flavors of the same joke, and the show never really soars beyond its premise into something that’s engaging, much less enduringly funny. Perhaps that growth would’ve come had “Family” not been buried by its own network. But with 13 episodes on record, there’s no evidence that any such thing would’ve happened.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes and unaired scripts.