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.