2/26/13: How to Survive a Plague, The Master, Africa, Madrid 1987, For Ellen, Girls Against Boys, Freaky Deaky, Jedi Junkies

How to Survive a Plague (NR, 2012, Sundance Selects)
The onslaught of AIDS through the 1980s and into the 1990s was often referred to as a crisis or an epidemic, but the numbers bear it out: With millions dying and no treatment (never mind cure) in sight, it very much was a plague. Arguably, with the prohibitive costs of treatment still leaving millions to suffer and die, it remains one. But between then and now, a group of activists launched a rude, relentless and wonderfully improbable campaign to force the public and the government to pay attention to, understand and eventually root alongside them for a treatment that since has saved 6 million lives and counting. Constructed equally from present-day interviews and a ton of footage from when it happened, “How to Survive a Plague” is a stunning picture of an impossibly difficult movement in every light — at its strongest, weakest, proudest and most pitiful. Though it offers no editorial input of its own beyond some statistics and timeline context, “Plague” is, on the strength of those who made this story possible, unapologetic in its impatience, anger and even abject lack of manners. But a little bad behavior goes a long way when people are dying and the industries and governing bodies with the power to potentially change that seem indifferent toward doing so. Make no mistake: “Plague” is a portrait of a saga that climaxed 17 years ago, but its gripe about the oppressive price of healthcare may be even more relevant and transcendent right now than it was back then. If you care even the least little bit about the battles to come in the fight for affordable healthcare, “Plague” is not to be missed.
Extras: Director/activists commentary, deleted scenes.

The Master (R, 2012, Anchor Bay/The Weinstein Company)
“He’s making all this up as he goes along. You don’t see that? I can sleep and wake up and not have missed one thing.” With those words, which pierce the film almost exactly at its midpoint and come courtesy of the titular character’s own son (Jesse Plemons as Val), “The Master” offers a rare moment of unarguable clarity and tacitly invites everyone watching to argue that the whole thing is a complete farce. You are equally free, of course, to pass on doing so, because “The Master” is as accessible and/or hopelessly opaque as you will it to be. It’s a simple story about a hotheaded wayward ex-soldier (Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie) who stumbles into the eccentric, inspiring arms of a leader of thinkers (Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd). Or perhaps, as many posit, it’s an allegory for Scientology, with Lancaster a transparent tribute to/teardown of/mockup/sendup of L. Ron Hubbard. Maybe it’s a well-meaning ode to mankind’s desire to will itself to a higher plane of evolution, or perhaps a condemnation of the folly of brainwashing people into believing in the impossible and attacking those who don’t. Maybe it’s just the story of a bunch of people making it up as they go — as Val suggest with amused disbelief between naps on the porch — like we all sometimes do. For as much hay as has been made about “The Master’s” inaccessibility and pretense, the sly little shots it fires at itself — not merely its characters, but the film as a whole — are about as inclusive as they come. Is it a thick movie? Sure. But that density serves more as an invitation to watch it a second time, with completely different eyes and expectations, than as a barrier to entry. Amy Adams also stars.
Extras: Short film “Unguided Message,” hourlong 1958 documentary “Let There Be Light,” additional scenes/outtakes.

Africa (NR, 2013, BBC Earth)
In “Africa’s” opening segment, a large family of meerkats falls victim to a single drongo perching bird. But the damage those meerkats incur isn’t bloodshed. Instead, it’s humiliation. The drongo gains the meerkats’ confidence with a legitimate warning of an eagle overhead, and then tricks them with a second, false alarm that sends them scurrying while he steals their food. The ploy works once but, as the meerkats’ scowls and growls make clear, not twice. So for his third attempt, the drongo mimics the meerkats’ own warning call instead. They scurry again, the drongo feasts again, and this brilliant bout of psychological warfare kicks off this magnificent series in awesome fashion without leaving even a scratch on its surface. “Africa” isn’t shy about diving right into the physical and mental ruthlessness of what may be the most competitive wilderness battleground on the planet, and with respect to the gorgeous vistas and shots of creatures great and small in their element, it’s the numerous episodes of scheming and underhanded foul play — sometimes between species, sometimes within a single family — that are truly extraordinary. BBC Earth once again delivers on its usual hallmarks, with unbelievably intimate camerawork, diversity with regard to locales and species and Sir David Frederick Attenborough in the narrator’s chair. But it’s the studio’s eye for compelling stories and its gift to deliver them with equal parts prolificacy and care that make this series such a joy to watch.
Contents: Six episodes (totaling 300 minutes), plus deleted scenes, interviews, behind-the-scenes features for each episode and outtakes.

Madrid 1987 (NR, 2011, Breaking Glass Pictures)
During one of his many lamentations while locked, naked, in his out-of-town friend’s apartment bathroom with an attractive and equally unclothed student he met that day and somehow seduced just long enough to end up in this predicament, renowned writer Miguel (José Sacristán) remarks how no one will believe what he and Ángela (María Valverde) did while trapped in a situation he probably couldn’t have dreamt of a few hours prior. And as happens often during the amusing wall of talk that comprises “Madrid 1987,” he has a point. Whatever perceptions and mental images are brought forth by a movie that finds its two stars undressed 95 percent of the time, “Madrid” refuses to play along … except, perhaps, when it plays right into perception’s hands. Neither committed to middle-aged wish fulfillment nor the full-blown tongue-in-cheek flouting of that fulfillment, the story of Miguel and Ángela instead is a realization of what often happens when the unexpected happens — a little excitement, some terror, multiple levels of awkwardness, some comedy, and eventually, once the realization sets in that they’re going to be there for a while, a new sense of normalcy. “1987’s” meandering conversation touches on the philosophical, comical, fantastical and, occasionally, the totally strange situation in which Miguel and Ángela find themselves. The subject changes often, as does the mood. But only rarely does “1987” not ring honest, and almost never is it dull. In Spanish with English subtitles.
Extra: Photo gallery.

For Ellen (NR, 2012, Tribeca Film)
Presumably, there was a time when Joby (Paul Dano) — slightly successful musician, father of one, divorcee in the making — was happy and comfortable in his own skin. But by the time we meet him in “For Ellen,” that comfort is so long gone as to be incomprehensible. The fading musical dream seems primed to fizzle out. The wife (Margarita Levieva) Joby neglected in order to chase that dream won’t speak to him except through their lawyers even when they’re in the same room. And Joby has yet to even meet his daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo), which makes his palpable angst over the newfound prospect of never meeting her, much less sharing custody, a rare mix of harrowing and baffling. Add those two sentiments together, and discomfort — in Joby’s every last stammer, in the company he keeps and, by emotional contagion, in anyone watching him squirm though “Ellen” — is the result. That’s a credit to “Ellen,” which takes what on paper is a simple story centered around what should be an unquestionably contemptible character, offers numerous dares (right up to the last scene) to dismiss it at that face value, and somehow still comes together as something that largely evades such simple judgment. Joby isn’t a malicious mess: He’s just a regular screwup, and while “Ellen” doesn’t even try to let him off the hook, it’s layered enough to make him much harder to write off than general impressions would imply. Jon Heder and Jena Malone also star.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Girls Against Boys (R, 2012, Anchor Bay)
After a wild night out with people she barely knows, Shae (Danielle Panabaker) — already having been dumped the previous day by her married boyfriend (Andrew Howard as Terry) — is sexually assaulted in her own hallway by the man who gives her a ride home the following morning. Attempts to find consolation from both Terry and the police fail miserably. Fortunately, Lu (Nicole LaLiberte) counts among the people Shae met during her night out, and as we learn during the opening-scene flash forward that sends “Girls Against Boys” off to a blazing start, she has zero issues getting her hands dirty for a friend. You can kind of guess where a movie called “Girls Against Boys” goes next, and you might be right, but here’s the kicker: It reaches that destination halfway through before moving onto something bigger. That presumably sets us up for a lively and less predictable second half, but “Boys” reaches that destination ahead of time as well before setting the table for its seventh, eighth and ninth acts and making one wonder how many more lie in wait after that. As thrillers go, “Boys” is the best kind there is, willing both to play straight into and completely subvert expectations and wrap that duel around character development that’s totally implausible but so much fun to watch anyway. Where that implausibility leads is bound to polarize viewers, who’ll have as many reasons to praise its ridiculousness as others will to trash it. But given how oppressively predictable most thrillers are these days, isn’t that alone a good thing?
Extra: Writer/director/Panabaker commentary.

Freaky Deaky (R, 2012, Entertainment One)
What kind of bomb squad cop finds a would-be victim effectively strapped to five sticks of dynamite, confirms the device is rigged, and just walks away while the bomb detonates? A suspended one, of course — which is what Det. Chris Mankowski (Billy Burke) is after he does exactly that while a crime lord launches skyward from his own living room. Nonchalance is the emotion of the day in “Freaky Deaky,” which finds Chris pulled back into duty when a pretty woman (Sabina Gadecki) entices him to protect her from an eccentric millionaire (Crispin Glover) whose own lackey (Michael Jai White) seems only semi-concerned with keeping him safe from two bomb-makers (Breanne Racano and Crispin Glover) who want his fortune. Even “Deaky” — which is set deep in the 1970s despite being based on an Elmore Leonard novel set in the 1980s — expresses no serious concern about anybody’s fate: It’s too busy smirking at its own setting and absurdity to muster any urgency about anything else. That isn’t an altogether bad thing, because this is the B-est of B movies and a want for anything more than 93 minutes of silliness would be a want for another movie entirely. It’s substantially hollow and oddly shy for a Leonard adaptation — sex and violence, though abundant, happen almost exclusively via off-screen implications — but it’s reasonably fun for what it is. Special credit goes to White, who, despite having the movie’s most awkwardly-placed character, also gives us the only thing remotely resembling a rooting interest.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Jedi Junkies (NR, 2010, Docurama)
“Star Wars” fandom is so intense that documentaries exploring it have practically formed their own sub-genre, and with more movies now on the way, more documentaries are sure to follow. In the meantime, amid the glut of existing attempts, “Jedi Junkies” has a bit of an identity problem. In terms of content, it hits to all fields, with bits about fan films, the “Chad Vader” YouTube series, artistic tributes, obsessive collectors, Slave Lea performance artists and more. The lack of a speciality keeps it humming along, but it also prevents it from achieving the fiery likes of “The People vs. George Lucas,” which honed in on a segment of the fanbase and went deliriously for broke. “Junkies” makes something of an attempt to look closer at the psyche of obsessive fans and collectors whose collections have overrun them, but its methods — namely, the regular input of two psychotherapists who eloquently state different versions of the obvious — is more of a drag than an asset. For the insatiable, there’s still lots to see and enjoy, but after all the wild frontiers “Star Wars” documentaries already have gone, “Junkies” isn’t likely to stand out.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, deleted/extended scenes, three additional short features.

2/12/13: Skyfall, The Sessions, Robot & Frank, 28 Hotel Rooms, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Side by Side, Undersea Edens

Skyfall (PG-13, 2012, MGM)
Think Daniel Craig’s version of 007 had a bitter pill lodged under his tongue before? Imagine what happens when M (Judi Dench) doubts his ability to close an assignment, hands finishing duties to a sharpshooter (Naomie Harris) without a clean shot, and gets Bond blasted by a bad shot while the target flees. This all happening in the opening moments, only the horrendously naive will be surprised to find Bond alive — and scruffy, drunk and rather furious — a few scenes later. What is a little surprising is how much his mood improves as things keep worsening. Perhaps in response to the polarizing reaction that greeted the admirably messy “Quantum of Solace,” “Skyfall” often plays like a pre-Craig throwback. Wry smiles overtake snarls, cutely clever dialogue has its way with the script, and — sometimes detrimentally — logic sees itself out. A mid-story Bond girl detour progresses cheaply and ends with baffling iciness, while “Skyfall’s” depictions of computer hacking would look funny even 15 years ago — a potential distraction when Bond’s new foil (Javier Bardem as Silva) is using a server bank as his superweapon. Those logical lapses might register as more than a distraction if everything that accompanied them wasn’t so much fun, but pretty much everything is. Silva’s backstory and disposition make him a sublime Bond villain, and his contribution to M’s arc makes “Skyfall” as much her movie as it is 007’s. But “Skyfall’s” craziest and best play is its running dialogue about whether MI6’s prized agent is washed up — and the resultant grudge match that ensues between Bond and, of all things, technology. Amid a backdrop of incredible set pieces and inspired action sequences, 007’s embrace of the old school — with a disposition that’s curmudgeonly, cutthroat and refined enough to charm your pants off — may be the coolest sight of all.
Extras: Director commentary, producer/production designer commentary, 14-part “Shooting Bond” feature, premiere footage.

The Sessions (R, 2012, Fox Searchlight)
Thirty eight-year-old Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) has achieved considerable professional success despite being paralyzed and bound to an iron lung since childhood, but the joy of feeling the affections of a woman who doesn’t love him as a friend or patient has eluded him. An opportunity to artificially change that avails itself through Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate. Their agreement: Meet for six sessions, and no more, with each session delving further into intimacy than the last. A simulated intimate relationship, in other words — and, because it’s a simulation with an expiration date that will leave Mark alone again, a monstrous gut punch in waiting. Were “The Sessions” not anchored to a true story, it could venture down numerous avenues, most (tearjerker, pity party, contrived Hollywood ending wherein Cheryl falls for Mark and leaves her husband) regrettable. Happily, and in the spirit of a man mindful of the hand he was dealt and repeatedly willing to bet on it anyway, Mark entertains none of them. Rather than follow one road, “The Sessions” walks down several. Thanks to Mark’s own candor, it, too, is candid and often spectacularly blunt. Thanks especially to Hunt’s fearless performance, it’s a celebration of the pain people sometimes willfully endure when even pain starts looking better than chronic tedium. And thanks to some wonderful scenes between Mark and a priest (William H. Macy) who accidentally becomes the kind of friend many spend their entire lives looking for, it’s often startlingly funny for the same reasons it’s exciting, sweet and sometimes sad — but , thanks to the person whose grit made this story possible, only sometimes.
Extras: Deleted scenes, five behind-the-scenes features.

Robot & Frank (PG-13, 2012, Sony Pictures)
Frank (Frank Langella) lives alone in the middle of nowhere, is waging a losing battle against his failing memory, and has two children who live too far away to see him more than maybe once a week (James Marsden as Hunter) and every now and then outside of video phone calls (Liv Tyler as Madison). This being the very near future, and Frank being too stubborn to change his ways, Hunter buys his dad a helper robot to take care of him and provide some companionship beyond the occasional visit he pays a woman (Susan Sarandon) who works at the nearby library. Though resistant at first, Frank slowly warms up to the robot. And in another universe, one in which Frank isn’t an unreformed, sailor-mouthed former jewelry thief who befriends his robot only after it helps him shoplift, “Robot & Frank” might be sweetest and saddest piece of science fiction made all year. In some ways, it still is, but mostly, “Frank” is a weird and wonderful trip though a near-future where people argue for robot rights, robots socialize with each other like two sixth graders at their first dance, and the elderly manipulate technology to spark an old flame called crime. Neither a farce nor the depressing movie you may initially fear it’ll become, “Frank” is simply the most exciting and alarming kind of sci-fi there is: the extremely feasible kind that almost certainly is coming sooner than you think to a real world near you.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, robot poster campaign gallery.

28 Hotel Rooms (NR, 2012, Oscilloscope)
When an unnamed man (Chris Messina) spots an unnamed woman (Marin Ireland) across the room at a hotel restaurant, “28 Hotel Rooms” acknowledges that they know each other. Old friends? Exes? Classmates? “Rooms” never comes out and says it, but all signs point to a former one-night stand that, due solely to their coincidental second encounter, adds a second engagement. The second encounter leads to a less-than-coincidental meeting another day in another hotel, and as is now perhaps obvious with the title, “Rooms” is the story of the 26 encounters that follow those two. As can also be gleaned from this scenario, complications arise: She is engaged and eventually married to someone else, while he has a girlfriend of his own. As stories about affairs go, it couldn’t be more customary, but that’s kind of the point. “Rooms” never leaves the hotel, which means it never fritters time away on either character’s other life or all the implied home comforts that keep this affair in the affair stage. Instead, the affair is all we see, in its full magical, agonizing, messy and even banal splendor. “Rooms” neither advocates nor condemns the notion of infidelity, but its extreme focus on the heart of the matter allows it to very thoroughly make it all make some sense. The affair may be a world of hurt in the making, and our adulterers may be rotten people for going there, but it’s a credit to “Rooms'” dedication to less-is-more storytelling that deducing that is murkier than it probably should be.
Extras: Deleted scenes, director interview.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (PG-13, 2012, Summit Entertainment)
Not that anyone’s counting, but there are 1,385 days standing between an introverted, friendless freshman named Charlie (Logan Lerman) and the end of the high school line. And while there are indeed perks to being a wallflower, Charlie — whose history has more to it than initially meets the eye — is determined to turn himself around and make those days count. Fortunately, a group of senior misfits (Ezra Miller, Emma Watson, Mae Whitman and Erin Wilhelmi) and a little initiative on Charlie’s part go a long way toward giving something special a chance of happening. And uneven though it sometimes is, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is something special — a rare teenage coming-of-age story that not only keeps the genuine surprises coming, but speaks with a voice that transcends age without absurdly leaving the realm of senior pranks, cafeteria class warfare and a naive kid (named Charlie) eating brownies that, unbeknownst to him, aren’t made solely from cake mix. Pared down from the novel of the same name, “Wallflower” is a little bit of a lot of things — sometimes silly, sometimes dark, occasionally in a rush to cram a lot in despite not having the time to do it all justice. Primarily, though, “Wallflower” is young in the best way possible — believably heartfelt, unapologetically optimistic about people, and contagious enough for anyone of any age to wonder if a little less cynicism and a little more initiative might turn some things around in their own world.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, cast/director commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, dailies.

Side by Side (NR, 2012, Tribeca Film)
Remember what it was like to shoot a roll of photos and have to wait hours or days to see the results? Imagine spending 16-hour days and millions of dollars shooting a major feature film and having the same problem. For directors, that was the reality of shooting with film, which needed to be printed and delivered overnight before the results revealed whether the shot was successful or a waste of time and money. Naturally, with the advent of digital and the ability to see and adjust those results instantly, every director alive has abandoned film completely, right? Of course not, and “Side by Side’s” lively debate — featuring the likes of Cameron, Nolan, Soderbergh, Scorsese, Fincher and more — encompasses every reason why. The talking points are predictable: Those in film’s camp argue against digital’s ability to capture the film aesthetic like only a tangible transfer can, while proponents of digital remark about its flexibility and accessibility to cash-strapped filmmakers as well as its rising ceiling as a malleable technology. But it’s the details of those pleas — with respect to each filmmaker’s processes, instincts and tastes — that give these old arguments some new vitality. “Side” spills out into numerous related topics, including the endangerment of certain industry jobs, a consequential endangerment of quality cinematography, the authenticity of a movie filmed exclusively with green screens and the sanctity of watching a film in theaters with others versus alone on a phone. Ultimately, it’s a referendum on the experience of seeing a movie as well as making one, and once “Side” finishes saying its piece, there’s a harvest of points left behind for a post-credits conversation.
Extras: Additional interviews, deleted scenes.

Undersea Edens (NR, 2008, Smithsonian Chanel)
“Undersea Edens” won’t win any awards for presentational innovation, because it follows the nature special blueprint about as faithfully as the smallest fish in the biggest school. Guess what? Doesn’t matter. The ocean is, it seems, absolutely infinite with regard to species waiting for their moment in front of a camera, and the six half-hour episodes that comprise “Edens” are absolutely jammed with stunning closeups of marine life — from gargantuan creatures swimming alone to impossibly massive schools moving in incomprehensible harmony — in their element. Even something seemingly mundane as a coral spawn is an amazing sight when captured by high-definition cameras in the dark of night. Per genre custom, each episode features a handful of segments grouped under a theme (predators, the rainforest and frozen waters of South Georgia Island, to name a few examples), and narrator Kristen Krohn maintains an even keel regardless of whether the footage is majestic, funny, intimate or (as always happens in nature) horrifying. No doubt, you’ve seen some form of it all before. But if you haven’t yet met the fingernail-sized pygmy seahorse or the salp — a chain of plankton that looks like it has 20-40 eyes, but in fact has 20-40 stomachs instead — here’s your chance. In terms of the number of first encounters “Edens” has in store, those two barely scratch the surface.
Contents: Six episodes, no extras.

2/5/13: Flight, Paul Williams Still Alive, Deadfall, A Late Quartet, Here Comes the Boom, Little White Lies, Out in the Open, Alex Cross

Flight (R, 2012, Paramount)
When commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) lost control of a broken jet loaded with terrified passengers, he did everything possible — including literally fly upside down — to pull out of a nosedive and make a landing rough enough to knock himself unconscious. Nearly every life was saved, and had this scene kicked off “Flight” instead of immediately followed an opening montage wherein Whip snorts a line of cocaine in his hotel room and downs a couple small bottles of booze right before takeoff, his act of heroism might command a much simpler reaction. It also might have completed “Flight” rather than started it off, and it almost certainly would have staked its logical claim as the most exciting scene. Very arguably, if you come to “Flight” for action and action only, the nearly two hours of talking that follow Whip’s near-miss should sit as well as a long stomachache following a drive-through dinner. But if there’s a thrill to be found in the complete disembowelment of a human soul, know this: “Flight’s” extensive aftermath — wherein Whip veers like a dog on skates between hero, villain, victim, monster and every mess in between — finds it, mines it and turns it loose. Is it possible to make a dark comedy about alcoholism, death, demons and negligent airlines? Probably not, and “Flight” certainly isn’t one, but its ability to occasionally dig deep and find a cathartically dark laugh amid Whip’s private hell is enough to make one wonder. Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Melissa Leo and more round out a terrific ensemble cast, but this is — as it often is — Washington’s show.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features, Q&A highlights.

Paul Williams Still Alive (PG-13, 2012, Virgil Films)
In lieu of actually finding out, filmmaker Stephen Kessler had just assumed Paul Williams — a songwriter with legendary credentials, a fixture of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and one of a younger Stephen’s cherished idols — had died instead of fizzled into obscurity. And as you watch “Paul Williams Still Alive” so gloriously, uncomfortably unfold, it’s natural to wonder if Kessler briefly wishes he could go back in time and never find out Williams not only is alive, but well. “Alive” tries taking shape as a standard “Where are they now?” documentary wherein Kessler pursues, meets and eventually gets Williams to sit down for a really insipid interview. But Williams’ initial response — agreeable enough to sit down, but exasperated enough to shred Kessler’s questions and order him around before he even finishes asking — means “Alive’s” uninspired alternate-universe incarnation can’t even escape phase one alive. As if liberated by Williams’s irritation with even having Kessler follow him around, “Alive” comes alive as a wholly different beast — a highly personal story about Stephen as well as Paul, and a document, spanning years instead of hours, of what happens when someone meets his hero and that hero has no interest in dwelling on what made him heroic. Williams left the limelight for a reason, and the story of his disappearance seeps into “Alive” without turning it into some sad story of fame gone by. And that works, because there likely isn’t a document of Williams’s past that’s anywhere near as fun to watch as what’s happening in the moment here. There’s a lesson somewhere in that — perhaps about living for today instead of yesterday, perhaps about second chances in unlikely friendships as well as life in general. Whatever it is, watching these two teach each other is incredibly fun.
Extras: Musical live performance outtakes featuring Williams.

Deadfall (R, 2012, Magnolia)
There may be no ideal day to rob a casino, but Addison (Eric Bana) and his rookie criminal sister Liza (Olivia Wilde) could have picked a better scenario than the whiteout blizzard that sends their car off the road, kills their driver, and compels Addison to murder a helpful sheriff before he can see the pile of money in the back seat. Around the same time, Jay (Charlie Hunnam) gets out of jail early on good behavior, ventures to settle an old debt, and almost immediately takes an inadvertent dive right back into hot water. All three characters make separate runs for it as a band of sheriffs catch wind of trouble, and the bad fortune only worsens once all paths cross and collide. Kicking off almost immediately with the crash, “Deadfall” only occasionally feels even degrees more stable than that crashing car. The weather’s deadly, the sheriffs are as shifty as the criminals, and the town where everything happens is way too small and connected for anybody’s comfort. Even the random locals met along the way have a dark side “Deadfall” all too happily explores when time allows. But while the caravan never stops skidding on two wheels, it doesn’t tip over. Rather, the uneasiness is the asset that lets “Deadfall” stealthily develop a surprisingly large roster of large and small characters without ever feeling like a typical character drama. The payoff is most pronounced in the very first person we meet. Without ever making a point of doing so, “Deadfall” unleashes Addison as both a charmer and a monster, and the battle to see which side of his disposition ultimately wins out is as engaging as the fate of the movie itself.
Extras: Director interview, four behind-the-scenes features, cast soundbites.

A Late Quartet (R, 2012, Fox)
For all we’re led to believe, the Fugue string quartet — first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), violist Juliette (Catherine Keener) and cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) — have enjoyed a pretty sunny existence throughout its first 25 years. But a Parkinson’s diagnosis compels Peter to begin his retirement phase, and with that drop of rain comes the downpour. Robert, Daniel and Juliette squabble over Peter’s successor. Robert wants some time in the first violin chair; Daniel rebuffs the request. When Juliette, who is married to Robert, agrees with Daniel, cracks form in their marriage. And when their daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) asserts her place in the story, the dam breaks. All this and more is enough to put “A Late Quartet” in a pretty dark mood. But dark never turns to dreary, because a battle of egos on this scale simply wouldn’t allow it. All five of “Quartet’s” main characters are talented, smart, fiery and — when the moment calls for it — righteously angry. It’s hard to be sad when you’d rather be mad, and what commences isn’t petty infighting so much as a battle against things that change whether those changes are wanted or even voluntary. In addition to making for a much better movie, “Quartet’s” feistiness also justifies itself several times over. For every moment spent on anger, there’s an equal or greater moment devoted to an end — having a gift, pursuing it relentlessly, perfecting it and presenting it to the awe of who knows how many — that easily justifies the means. If you’ve ever cherished a talent enough to let it drive you a little crazy, you’ll find a quintet of kindred spirits here.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Here Comes the Boom (PG, 2012, Sony Pictures)
It’s a premise so straight out of 25 years ago, you’re more likely to find a parody of it than the real thing — which, perhaps, is why seeing someone make a heartfelt stab at it is far more enjoyable than it probably should be. Scott (Kevin James) — biology teacher by day, adult education teacher by night — puts more effort into showing off for the school nurse (Salma Hayek) than both jobs combined. But when the music teacher (Henry Winkler as Marty) discovers his program and tenure are getting axed just as his wife tells him she’s pregnant, Scott is determined to raise the $48,000 needed to save Marty’s job. How? Mixed martial arts, of course. He’s out of shape and has no experience whatsoever, but one of his night school students (Bas Rutten as Niko) teaches MMA technique at the local gym, so everything will work out fine, right? Of course — this effectively is a 105-minute lost sitcom from 1988, remember? “Here Comes the Boom” mostly ambles along like it’s the first story of its kind, which naturally leaves it open to relentless predictable criticism. But why waste the energy if it’s so likably, pleasantly, music montage-ly indifferent to such noise? Scott is easy to root for, Marty (who moonlights as his manager despite being woefully unqualified) triply so. The action’s good even if it’s totally contrived, attempts at comedy actually land with some regularity, and every now and then, “Boom” drops a hint that it isn’t completely oblivious to how corny its story is. It knows; it just doesn’t care. And if you somehow do despite the numerous good feelings it engenders, it has no sympathy for you.
Extras: Deleted scenes, six behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Little White Lies (NR, 2010, MPI)
During minute four of its 150-minute presentation, “Little White Lies” sends a truck barreling into Ludo (Jean Dujardin) as he rides his scooter through an intersection. Amazingly, this isn’t the worst it treats the guy, who stands alone amongst “Lies'” massive ensemble as its most mistreated character. Ludo is part of a large circle of friends, including former girlfriend Marie (Marion Cotillard), who annually take a monthlong summer holiday together. Upon hearing of Ludo’s crash, which leaves him in grave condition, his friends immediately change their plans … by reducing the trip to two weeks and leaving town anyway. What follows, for roughly two hours, is a confluence of storylines in which Ludo’s friends engage in comical misunderstandings, serious misunderstandings and aches and pains over loves lost and regrets found. Thoughtful writing abounds, and were Ludo not flirting with death in a hospital back in Paris, “Lies” might be a padded but engaging story about longtime friends weathering life’s storms together. But when your story hovers above a staggeringly callous undercurrent that makes one wonder if any of these people know what friendship truly means, that premise has no chance. Though it, too, mostly ignores Ludo for most of its runtime, “Lies” eventually delivers some cold-water comeuppance. But the emotional hairpin turn everyone takes following the mood shift is so absurd as to border on accidental parody. Tears gush, wistful music montages crash the gate in bulk, and “Lies” suddenly doubles over in pain over the state of poor Ludo’s broken body. Great, but where in the world was even a fraction of this sadness before? How are we supposed to find it the least bit genuine when it arrives so shallowly on cue? And what’s the point of investing in “Lies” at all when it feels like even the movie cannot be honest with itself? In French with English subtitles.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Out in the Open (NR, 2013, Breaking Glass Pictures)
In the realm of rationality, there is no mistaking what “Out in the Open” has to say. Whom it’s trying to reach, however, is a little vague. Primarily, “Open” is a dialogue about homosexuality, growing up gay, coming out and the quest to live normally, love normally and enjoy the same acceptance as their straight counterparts. Overwhelmingly, it’s a respectful dialogue, because it allows people — some famous, some not — simply to speak for themselves. At its best, it’s an intimate, stirring, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes amusing collection of perspectives that are considerably more personal than a bunch of people discussing it on some conceptual level. Occasionally, though infrequently, “Open” swings for conceptual and misses — most glaringly with an antiquated series of testimonials that demonize the media as a single oppressive voice despite today’s media being anything but. But “Open’s” biggest slip — an irritating narrator who mimics a propaganda filmstrip narrator and repeatedly remarks, with sarcastic wonder, how homosexuals are normal people after all — keeps coming back for more. The gimmick may have been cute as a one-off gag to open the movie, but “Open” repeatedly uses it to splash cold water on what previously was a pretty poignant case of someone pouring his or her heart out. At best, it gets old. At worst, it borders on insulting. If “Open’s” desire is to connect with people who may otherwise lack this intimate level of access, talking down to them like they’re imbeciles is, even as a joke, a recipe for alienation. The heartfelt good outweighs the smug bad by a large margin, so it ultimately may not matter, but that doesn’t make it any less a blunder.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, extended interviews, LifeWorks feature, bloopers.

Alex Cross (PG-13, 2012, Summit Entertainment)
By several lengths, the biggest winner in the “Alex Cross” sweepstakes is Tyler Perry, who steps out of his Madea dress and, in inheriting a character that previously was Morgan Freeman’s, looks perfectly grounded and capable as homicide detective-slash-psychologist Alex Cross. (He doesn’t top Freeman, of course, but that’s asking way too much.) The clear loser? Fans of understated Matthew Fox performances, who will come away begging for mercy after witnessing his comically ridiculous portrayal of Picasso, a lunatic serial killer who gets Cross’s attention with a grisly crime and makes things extremely personal shortly thereafter. Cornball performances from surprising places — what’s going on here, Jean Reno? — are the most memorable takeaway from “Cross,” and perhaps the worst thing about the movie is that it probably needs them. Without the crazy, everything that happens here is vanilla enough to suffice as a so-so episode of “Criminal Minds,” and as the creaky twists, melodramatic music and completely plateaued development of pretty much every character takes its toll, even that show might have passed on Picasso. Edward Burns and John C. McGinley also star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.