1/15/13: Wake in Fright, Life's Too Short S1, I am Bruce Lee, To Rome With Love, Detropia, Taken 2, The Amazing World of Gumball: The Mystery

Wake in Fright (R, 1971, Drafthouse Films)
Made in 1971, “Wake in Fright” isn’t exactly a new film. But if you weren’t in Australia to see it in theaters back then, this presentation — the first surfacing of the film, long considered lost, in four decades — is new to you. Fortunately, due to being at least 20 years ahead of its time, it’s also aged quite well. “Fright” is the story of John (Gary Bond), a city boy stuck with a debt to the government that’s tethered to a teaching job in the middle of nowhere. En route to a holiday trip to Sydney to see his girlfriend, John makes a pit stop in Bundanyabba — The Yabba, as the locals call it. A gambling misadventure poses an opportunity to pay off the debt and escape the job, but it goes all sorts of awry, and now a penniless John sits at the mercy of a town full of people all too willing to enable his heightened sense of self-loathing. What happens next isn’t a case of plots turning or shoes dropping. Rather, it’s a total descent into debauchery and madness that’s nearly wholly devoid of rhyme or reason, set in a town where refusing a drink is a cardinal sin. Had character design not been its top priority, “Fright” might be pointless at best and gradually unwatchable. But John’s completely unfeasible descent is an engrossing car crash when dragged through this cast of maniacs, whose line between friendly, hospitable and rather terrifying is thin and graphically unsettling beyond comprehension. Little actually tangibly happens, as the almost comical post-climax comedown subtly acknowledges, but “Fright’s” picture of nothing nonetheless beats the evocative pants off most movies’ portrayals of something.
Extras: Director/editor commentary, director Q&A from the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, two behind-the-scenes features, news segment on the film’s rediscovery and restoration, 28-page companion booklet.

Life’s Too Short: The Complete First Season (NR, 2011, HBO)
You might be familiar with Warwick Davis’s work if you’ve seen “Return of the Jedi,” “Willow” or various ” Harry Potter” films. If not, though, no worries: You’d fit in just fine on an episode of “Life’s Too Short.” “Short” is the story of Davis’s attempt to get out of debt and achieve the household name status he sort of likes to believe he already has. And it would be one seriously sad story were it not — as the presence of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant on both sides of the cameras makes clear — completely made up. In the grand tradition of Gervais’s and Merchant’s television work, “Short” is a mockumentary, albeit with all three playing socially disastrous versions of themselves instead of fictional characters. (As a bonus, most episodes feature a guest star — Liam Neeson, Johnny Depp and Steve Carell, among others — portraying themselves with equally and sometimes exceedingly unflattering abandon.) “Short” follows the Gervais/Merchant blueprint closely, and it leans on the same gags — Davis’s dwarf stature and the fact that no one recognizes him, to name two — with enough frequency to suggest one seven-episode season is all the premise really needs. But those gags go down some hilariously dark avenues, the guest appearances are wonderfully ridiculous, and the upside to Gervais and Merchant having a blueprint for this long is that they know how to polish it to perfection. It helps also that the newcomer keeps up and arguably steals the show. Davis is a good sport about making complete fun of himself, and despite some stiff competition, he reigns supreme as the sharpest, funniest and best reason to watch.
Contents: Seven episodes, plus deleted scenes, outtakes, a making-of feature and 10 behind-the-scenes clips.

I am Bruce Lee (NR, 2012, Shout Factory)
This July will mark 40 years since Bruce Lee died suddenly in his prime at 32, and as “I am Bruce Lee’s” closing moments attest, both those who knew him intimately and admired him from afar are still coming to grips with how someone so gifted could die so young. Lest “IABL” sound like a solemn remembrance, though, rest assured it’s anything but. To the contrary, “IABL” overwhelmingly is a stylish, eyes-wide-open celebration of the man who disrupted not just martial arts, but everything — from the art of the fight scene to interracial marriage to philosophy to the sex appeal of Asian men in America — that breached his orbit. The line of people willing to speak about Lee’s influence stretches around the block: Lee’s widow and surviving family offer perspectives only they have, while a unique collection of martial artists, actors and athletes (Gina Carano, Mickey Rourke and black belt Ed “Al Bundy” O’Neill, to name three) breathlessly discuss Lee’s influence on multiple facets of their own callings. But perhaps “IABL’s” most valuable assets are the moments where, during his own 1965 Hollywood screen test and a 1971 appearance on “The Pierre Berton Show,” Lee gets to speak for himself. For those who know Lee only for his physical gifts and not his eloquence as a speaker, these segments — and “IABL” is generous with sharing them throughout the film — may drop some jaws.
Extras: Training footage from Lee’s backyard school, the uncut screen test, action scene montage, short feature on Lee’s global impact.

To Rome With Love (R, 2012, Sony Pictures Classics)
Woody Allen has some kind of knack for making movies that are both thoughtful and light as a feather, and “To Rome With Love” may be light enough to use some of his other films as a paperweight. “Love” divides its time among a handful of stories connected by proximity but little else — including but not limited to the laws of reality themselves. Roberto Benigni (Leopoldo) becomes an overnight celebrity, but has no idea why. Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) develops not-quite feelings for his girlfriend’s (Greta Gerwig) visiting friend Monica (Ellen Page), and does so despite the objections of John (Alec Baldwin), whom he meets on the street but who then shadows him as a guardian angel he and Monica can speak to at separate times. By contrast, the case of the opera singer (Fabio Armiliato), who only can sing in a shower, and the newlyweds (Alessandra Mastronardi, Alessandro Tiberi), who briefly part and go on separate adventures with no seeming urgency to reunite, are pedestrian in their flouting of logic. To strain to make empirical sense of “Love” is to try harder than the movie itself does. It’s magic, and not magic anyone cares to explain, nor is it necessarily the kind that leads “Love” toward an emphatic conclusion. On those terms, much is left to be desired. But amid all the weirdness is yet another round of what Allen uniquely does best. “Love’s” observations about human behavior aren’t exactly profound, but they’re amusing and strangely invigorating in how random and silly they are. Sometimes, that’s all a consistently amusing two hours needs. In English and Italian with English subtitles where needed. Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Detropia (NR, 2012, Docurama)
For those whose heads remain above sand, the woes plaguing the city of Detroit — America’s fastest shrinking city, down half its manufacturing jobs and crawling with more than 100,000 empty homes and lots after being the fastest-growing city in the 1930s — need no introduction. And if the words of blues club owner Tommy Stevens — easily the most engaging and passionate of those interviewed for “Detropia” — ring true, ignoring Detroit’s woes will turn them into a national instead of local crisis. Then again, there’s also the likes of Steve and Dorota Coy, a pair of artists who purchased a pretty nice downtown loft for a measly $25,000. Is the future of Detroit seen in its empty lots and factories or its downtown, which is attracting young residents and could very well experience a rebirth if enough of them get in on the ground floor? And what of the old Detroit, which continues hemorrhaging middle-class residents and strangling working-class jobs? All this and more is discussed in “Detropia,” but not necessarily in the manner you might expect. Instead of experts and analysts who offer talking points but little else, “Detropia” fills its frame with Detroit’s very own — people like Stevens and the Coys who discuss their city as citizens with a considerable rooting interest instead of talking heads who detachedly view Detroit as a living case study. There’s obviously a place for the latter, and it’s out there. “Detropia” is a tough love letter to a place it holds pretty dear, and between the images it presents and the people it introduces us to, it’s an impactful one.
Extra: A second film’s worth of deleted and extended scenes.

Taken 2 (PG-13, 2012, Fox)
“Taken 2” is what happens when a movie develops a cult following, realizes it and decides to shamelessly bask in the sunshine of its good fortune. In “Taken 2,” retired secret agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) are vacationing in Istanbul, and despite Kim’s lingering trauma and Bryan’s lingering paranoia about Kim’s previous kidnapping, the family lets its carefree flag fly. Alas, despite Bryan killing a small army in “Taken,” remnants of those kidnappers remain, and Turkey marks their chance to seek vengeance by kidnapping Kim, Lenore or even Bryan or all three. It’s three times the “Taken” for the price of one! If the original “Taken” was a thoroughly ridiculous movie, it was one with seemingly earnest intentions. “Taken 2,” by contrast, strives for absurdity nirvana and just blasts away, turning nearly everyone into a video game character and shutting off its phone whenever implausibility calls to check in. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because if a second “Taken” film must exist, where else could it possibly go if it doesn’t go crazy? “Taken 2” is silly, self-aware and strangely formulaic in spite of being so silly, but it’s one of those movies that’s fun both because of and in spite of itself. And for those who want a little more time with secret agent Mills — and his showing in “Taken” makes that an entirely reasonable request — this will certainly do.
Extras: Unrated and theatrical cuts of the film, deleted/extended scenes, alternate ending, two behind-the-scenes features, Black Ops field manual, kill counter.

Also
— “The Amazing World of Gumball: The Mystery” (NR, 2011, Cartoon Network): With “Adventure Time,” “Regular Show” and now “The Amazing World of Gumball,” Cartoon Network has cornered the market on cartoons that bridge the gap between adult and kids cartoons in a way that somehow pleases both sides immensely. That’s the good trend. The bad trend is the network’s affinity for releasing DVD sets with fuzzy episode math before double dipping and producing the complete season sets later. Like the previously-released “The Amazing World of Gumball: The DVD,” “The Mystery” includes what it calls 12 episodes from season one — except each 11-minute episode here is actually one segment of an actual episode, which each had two segments. There were 18 actual episodes, good for 36 segments, meaning this set is actually one-third of season one despite containing 12 “episodes.” Not confusing at all, right? The hassle might be worth it for shows like “Gumball,” which find the sweet spot between harmless, dark and funny all over. But it might also be worth it to just wait for the season one set that inevitably will appear down the road (and probably this year). Along with the 12 “episodes,” “Mystery” includes a character gallery.