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.