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.