1/22/13: Beauty is Embarrassing, Birders: The Central Park Effect, Searching for Sugar Man, The Paperboy, Keep the Lights on, True Nature, End of Watch, Nobody Walks

Beauty is Embarrassing (NR, 2012, Docurama)
If you’re a creator who ever raged against the notions of holding down a “normal” job, distilling your life down to doing one thing well, or looking down on art that dares to be funny instead of profoundly serious, Wayne White may be your new savior, and the story of his life and work (so far) may be something you can’t miss. “Beauty is Embarrassing” ultimately is an autobiographical film about White, and after a blazing start it settles comfortably into that role, complete with a wrapper assembled from scenes of White’s very funny one-man show. It should be noted, however, that White isn’t known for his live monologues or his occasional musical performance. His work creating many of the puppets (and some of their voices) on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” is probably his most ubiquitous, but his actual name is more commonly connected to a series of “Word Paintings” that began as a gag but has since become a career within several other careers. And that’s the point. Being good at just one thing? White has a few words for that idea, and they can’t be printed here. And before “Embarrassing” digs into its autobiographical side, it roars out the gate as a hilarious and cathartic manifesto against everything that’s wrong with the conventional non-wisdom he ignored. Even as an autobiography, “Embarrassing” — which itself is partially narrated using White’s gifts as an animator — never loses that edge, and it frequently sharpens it. More than any job, title or endeavor, it’s White’s philosophy about creativity’s beauty that threads “Embarrassing” together, and in a world full of doubters and cynics, it’s exactly the message some of us need to hear.
Extras: White/director commentary, deleted scenes, White art slideshow, the uncut one-man show, two musical performances.

Birders: The Central Park Effect (NR, 2012, Music Box Films)
Amid the endless sea of grey that is Manhattan’s skyline and surrounding architecture, there’s an enticing patch of green that’s minuscule by comparison but large enough to spot from high above. And if you think Central Park looks inviting to human eyes, imagine the appeal for the 200-plus species of birds who pass through — and the couple dozen species who settle in and nest — during migration season. “Birders: The Central Park Effect” politely describes itself as “a film about birds and people,” and there is no better description through which to convey just what a wonderfully pleasant experience it is. But that tagline also underscores the unique draw for birders who flock to Central Park, which is crawling with birds who are accustomed enough to their surroundings to approach people as much as people approach them. That kind of intimacy isn’t necessarily possible in the real wilderness. Chances are good the story of Pale Male — a Red-tailed Hawk (and local celebrity) who turned the side of a Manhattan apartment building into a makeshift cliffside nest where he has held court for roughly two decades while admirers stop and watch — could have carried a movie all by himself. But with so many colorful birds and colorful people holding court alongside him, it’s for the best that “Birders” covers as much ground as it does.
Extras: Extended/additional interviews, birdwatching field guide booklet, Birds of Central Park video guide.

Searching for Sugar Man (PG-13, 2012, Sony Pictures Classics)
In November 1971, a Detroit folk singer by the name of Rodriguez released a beautiful album called “Coming from Reality,” and pretty much no one in America heard it. Eerily mimicking a line from one of “Reality’s” songs, Rodriguez was dropped from his label two weeks before Christmas, and, according to local legend, killed himself on stage during a live performance. But if the story ends there, how did a bootleg of Rodriguez’s earlier album, “Cold Fact,” find its way to a record store in South Africa during the height of the Apartheid? More than simply appear, “Fact” was copied, shared and sold hundreds of thousands of times — such a revered album, in fact, that one of “Searching for Sugar Man’s” interviewees lists it alongside “Abbey Road” and “Bridge over Troubled Water” as an essential piece of any respectable South African record collection. The only catch: No one in South Africa knows anything about Rodriguez beyond what’s on that record, making his existence even more mythical than it is in Detroit. So what gives? “SFSM” is what happens when a few passionate fans stop guessing and venture to find out. And without spoiling the details of their endeavor, the truth is better than the legends. “SFSM” is a sobering reminder that talent doesn’t always translate to recognition in the music industry. But it’s just as much a reminder of the power of reaching a few people — regardless of where — with your gift. And what a gift it is. Rodriguez’s music adorns the entirety of “SFSM,” and it’s hard not to wonder how much more of it there would be had sharing been as easy and global as it is today.
Extras: Director commentary, director Q&A, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Paperboy (R, 2012, Millennium)
It is admirable that “The Paperboy” sets its story up so earnestly. The case of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) — a scumball who nonetheless may have been framed for the murder of an even scummier sheriff — is compelling. The company determined to set the record straight — a reporter with secrets of his own (Matthew McConaughey), his little brother (Zac Efron), a death row groupie (Nicole Kidman) engaged to marry Hillary and a black reporter (David Oyelowo) who carries himself with seemingly impossible confidence amid the backdrop of a racially divided 1960s South Florida — make it ever more compelling. But if ever there was a case against too much character design, it is evident here, where whatever semblance of a central storyline there was drifts out to sea and eventually just disappears without a trace. Yet here, also, is the case against the case, because “The Paperboy” is a wholly, infectiously enjoyable mess anyway. From the top of the marquee on down, everyone — even Efron, despite playing what comparatively is the straight character — is acting just a little bit out of their minds. Because no one goes obnoxiously overboard, and because “The Paperboy” sneakily applies lots of care to each of its main characters’ makeups, the hamming is easy to enjoy. Stacked against a coherent storyline that may have just wrapped up like so many other similar premises, going off the rails may even be the asset that saves the show. But for fans of stories that finish what they started, viewer beware nonetheless. Macy Gray also stars (and, to a point, narrates).
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, interviews.

Keep the Lights on (NR, 2012, Music Box Films)
If nothing else, “Keep the Lights on” feels, for better or worse, pretty authentic. “Lights” begins in 1998 with Erik (Thure Lindhardt), an aspiring documentarian who has carried the “aspiring” tag through his twenties and into his thirties, looking for companionship and using quick fixes to find it. Eventually, he meets Paul (Zachary Booth), and “Light” takes us all the way to 2006 with stops at 2000 and 2003 in between. As perhaps can be guessed by the stop-and-start pattern in the chronology, Erik and Paul’s relationship has some tumultuous stops and starts itself, and the film’s handling of them ultimately comes down to each viewer’s own filter and personal experience. What some see as poignant, others will find needlessly delicate, and one perception of enduring is another idea of completely tiresome. Different perceptions seep into the characters themselves, too: With respect to Paul, “Lights” overwhelmingly is Erik’s movie instead of theirs together, and that imbalance makes it easy to view Paul as a device who keeps popping back up instead of an equal half of a whole. Erik himself is either affectingly sensitive or exhaustingly fragile, and both hypotheses have a point. The torrent of polarization is a credit to “Lights” as a movie, if not as entertainment for all. Some won’t like the sound of its voice, but its devotion to that voice is steadfast nonetheless.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, cast audition footage.

True Nature (NR, 2013, Monarch Home Entertainment)
One night while out for a jog, collage-aged teenager Marianne (Marianne Porter) saw a pair of headlights, screamed, and — at least as far as we’re allowed to know — disappeared without a trace. That’s the bad news. The good news: A year after she disappeared, Reg (Reg Land) and Becky (Carolyn McCormick) Pascal’s daughter just as mysteriously has returned home. Story complete, right? Perhaps — except that Marianne, whose personality is a shell of its former self, can remember neither the details of her disappearance nor anything that’s happened in the year since. “True Nature” doesn’t feel overly obligated to fill us in on those details, nor is it in any hurry to explain Reg’s own troubles with a group of gentlemen who commit the film’s first killing before we even meet the Pascal family. Lest you watch “Nature” hoping for an attitude adjustment down the road, it’s worth noting no such thing is on the way. Revelations do lie in store, and the ones offered up are pretty cut and dry. But “Nature’s” creepy crawl toward answers is dotted with several questions, some of them major, that seem deliberately left open to interpretation. For those who like all letters definitively dotted and crossed, the angle at which Marianne’s story fades out may frustrate. But the haziness never gives way to full-blown opacity, and if “Nature” simply wanted to keep people talking and speculating after the credits rolled, it strikes a pretty good balance to that effect.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

End of Watch (R, 2012, Universal)
We’ve apparently reached the summit of the gritty shaky-cam cop drama mountain — perhaps with “The Shield,” perhaps with “Training Day” — and now we’re just rolling downslope in a barrel full of also-rans. “End of Watch” rides along with LAPD officers Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña), and most of its footage conceivably comes from cameras they themselves either hold or have pinned to their uniforms. That trick allows “Watch” to frame chases from their perspective, up to and including a few shots that mimic a first-person video game. If the top concern is to look thrilling, mission completely accomplished. But putting all this flash to genuinely thrilling use is another story. Actually, it’s a whole bushel of stories as “Watch” bounces from job to job — a quick house fire here, a momentary shootout here, some grisly discoveries in between — like it’s trying to cram a season of television into the space of a movie. Through it all, a story is told, and insights into Taylor and Zavala are made. But every time “Watch’s” temperature rises, it almost instantly falls before jumping to the next episode. For a story so dominated by two characters, and even with “Watch” delving into both officers’ personal lives, there’s surprisingly little room for viewer investment. And when “Watch” shoots for the big finish — which feels obligatory following so many spikes that flame out so quickly — the impact isn’t nearly what it should be. Rather, it’s merely the loudest in a series of flashy but empty scenes that never form a powerful cohesive whole.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scenes, five behind-the-scenes features.

Nobody Walks (R, 2012, Magnolia)
The first problem that afflicts “Nobody Walks” may not be its biggest problem. But the issue at hand — what, exactly, is everybody doing here? — never really goes away, and if it isn’t the biggest problem, it certainly holds the door for the one that is. In one corner of “Walks” is Peter (John Krasinski), a sound technician who agrees seemingly as a favor to assist in constructing sound for Martine’s (Olivia Thirlby) thesis installation. With Peter not having even met Martine in person before she arrives to live at his home, it isn’t totally clear why any of this is happening. Meanwhile, Peter’s wife Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), a psychiatrist, suspects Peter has a crush while also fending off a patient (Justin Kirk) who has a crush on her. This comprises pretty much the entirety of the patient’s storyline, who — like Peter and Julie’s daughter Kolt (India Ennenga), Kolt’s Italian tutor (Emanuele Secci), Peter’s assistant (Rhys Wakefield) and Julie’s ex-husband (Dylan McDermott), who appears for a single scene and is never seen again — are just kind of around. “Walks” would be less frustrating were it a roundly lousy movie with no merit, but it’s reasonably well written and has better character construction than its baffling sorta-premise implies. Unfortunately, that nag about nearly everybody feeling out of place never subsides, and with “Walks” unable to provide any weight to its characters’ motives, most of them just come off as contemptible by default, which is much worse than if they came off that way by design.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.