4/2/13: John Dies at the End, Knuckleball!, The Kick, Stitches, Bob's New Suit, 13 Eerie

John Dies at the End (R, 2012, Magnet)
Some movies have that blink-and-it’s-gone moment you wish you immediately could see again just to reconcile what was seen with what actually happened, to say nothing of what it means. “John Dies at the End” is what happens when those moments arrive in force and encircle the entirety of the movie they create. Told mostly through the recollections of John’s friend Dave (Chase Williamson) as told to a journalist (Paul Giamatti), “End” is the story of a drug, called soy sauce (no relation to the condiment), that, for lack of a better concise description, is effectively sentient. It’s a wonder drug that takes rather than is taken, and those it doesn’t kill are given heightened senses that, again, defy concise description. “End’s” universe is so defiantly unique that the movie’s unfolding of it initially looks like nothing more than random insanity for the sake of it. Some of it certainly is that and nothing more. But there’s a thread running through the torrent of weirdness, and when that thread reveals itself in detail, it’s enough to make one wish “End” was just beginning instead of three-quarters over. Whether all that early insanity is the perfect buildup or a bunch of wasted time is the tip of “End’s” polarizing iceberg, which extends all the way down to whether the movie itself is genius, a disaster or just a wild ride that’s as fallible as it is fun. Just keep the remote handy: Theatergoers couldn’t stop time and review, but that luxury — along with the opportunity to just watch the whole thing a second time with completely new eyes — is now available, and there’s no shame in taking complete advantage. Rob Mayes stars as John. Does he die at the end? Figure that out yourself.
Extras: Williamson/Mayes/filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, Giamatti interview, two behind-the-scenes features, casting sessions.

Knuckleball! (NR, 2012, FilmBuff)
Decades into its existence, the knuckleball remains baseball’s most misunderstood pitch. It’s a wonder tool that extends careers half-decades past their usual expectancy and gives athletically deficient pitchers the means to dominate the world’s best hitters with a pitch that wouldn’t exceed the speed limit on most expressways. But it’s also a dangerously fallible weapon, wherein the slightest delivery misstep produces a wild pitch, a batting practice lob destined for the bleachers or — baseball gods forbid — a broken fingernail that ruins an otherwise healthy knuckleballer’s delivery and knocks him out of the game. So rare is the pitcher who can master the temperamental pitch that when one appears, the fraternity of active and retired knuckleballers springs forth with a welcome wagon and support system like no other in professional sports. Set primarily across the 2011 season, “Knuckleball!” is a lively story about two pitchers — one, Tim Wakefield, a limp infielder-turned-Red Sox icon who is chasing his 200th win in his 20th season, and the other, R.A. Dickey, a quintessential journeyman who has finally secured steady Major League work years after others would have given up. It’s also a story about the history and art of the knuckler and the pitchers who made it famous before Wakefield and Dickey made it their last resort. But more enjoyable than anything is when “Knuckleball” shows the knuckleball cavalry coming together — Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro and even Wakefield, who technically is the opposition — to support Dickey as he struggles to keep the knuckleball’s flame burning while Wakefield contemplates his baseball mortality. Baseball is about nothing if not teamwork and tradition, but the torch-passing that happens here is something special nonetheless. (Worth noting: “Knuckleball” doesn’t extend into the 2012 season. If you somehow have an interest in this but don’t know what happened during that season, resist the urge to look it up beforehand.)
Extras: Two hours’ worth of additional/extended interviews and footage.

The Kick (PG-13, 2011, Lions Gate)
If ever there was a tae kwon do demonstration equivalent of the Partridge family, Moon (Cho Jae Hyun) and his family might be it. Unfortunately, with Moon still harboring disappointment over an Olympic defeat 20 years prior and taking it out on a son (Taejoo) who would rather be a dancer than the martial artist his father so badly wants him to be, things aren’t quite as cheerful here as they are with the Partridges. The familial angst purportedly is secondary to why we’re here: “The Kick’s” main storyline concerns a $30 million artifact, the high-flying thieves who attempt to steal it before the family thwarts them practically out of happenstance, and the act of retribution that sets up the family and thieves for a rematch. But that wrinkle itself serves better as an excuse for why we’re here than as the actual reason, because who cares about artifacts when we have a complete family unit of fighters that includes an adorable kid and a zoo’s worth of troublemaking animals? “The Kick’s” story is decent enough to set up some great action scenes, but it’s the family dynamic that makes the movie so much fun — and occasionally melodramatic because of that father/son subplot, but mostly just fun — and gives those action scenes the flavor they need to stand apart from the martial arts movie pack. In Korean with English subtitles, but a tolerable English dub is available as an option. No extras.

Stitches (R, 2012, Dark Sky Films)
According to clown lore as dreamt up by “Stiches,” no clown can rest in peace if he or she dies during a show that goes unfinished. Such is the fate of Stitches (Ross Noble), a rather scummy clown who meets his match at a birthday party crawling with extremely rotten kids whose bad behavior inadvertently and violently gets him killed. Six years later, that party’s now-teenaged birthday boy (Tommy Knight as Tom), despite being restlessly haunted by visions of killer clowns that exist only in his head, is throwing another, larger party. In attendance: every single participant from that birthday party — including Stitches, who has returned from the dead just in time to stumble into a stray invitation and do some party crashing. “Stitches” sets quite a precedent by showing its hand — gruesomely killing its namesake almost immediately, shedding buckets of blood in Tom’s visions just because — before the bad guy even gets a turn. That hand, turns out, is a combination of incredibly disgusting and slapstick that’s juvenile and borderline cheeky. And when Stitches finally gets his chance to play it, the movie bearing his name is cult horror of the finest kind — the kind where the line between laughing at what happened and recoiling in total squeamish horror may so thin as to not even exist. The special effects are laughably low-rent, but not so much that those lacking iron stomachs aren’t warned three times over to think twice about watching this one. (That goes double for those who already fear clowns. “Stitches” has a good time with violence, but it isn’t messing around when it comes to clown mythology.)
Extras: Noble/writer/director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers.

Bob’s New Suit (NR, 2011, Breaking Glass Pictures)
Bob’s (Hunter Bodine) new suit isn’t just any suit. It’s his first suit, it’s the suit he plans to marry Jenny (Hayley DuMond) in, and it’s also — sometimes — the narrator of “Bob’s New Suit.” But lots of time passes between the moment Bob meets his suit and the moment he presumably would wear it, and during that time, our narrating suit just kind of disappears. “Suit” is a story about Bob and Jenny’s engagement, but it arguably is more a story about Bob’s sister Stephanie (Shay Astar), who announces her plans to change to Steve via gender reassignment therapy. It’s also a story about Bob’s dad (John Bennett Perry), who is hiding a secret that apparently is hot enough to trigger a miniature explanation of the Patriot Act, and Jenny’s mother (Robyn Peterson), who has a drinking problem and whom Jenny resents to a toxic degree. Exponentially more peripheral is the pointless story of cousin George (Charlie Babcock), who is selling plants he acquired under dubious circumstances. All this before “Suit” is even halfway wrapped, and yes, there’s more — and no, “Suit” doesn’t satisfactorily chew every bite it takes. Because most of the characters are likable and the movie clearly means well, the temptation’s there to go easy on the shortcomings — some awkward acting, the occasional stab at humor that falls flat, jarring detours into on-the-nose preaching — that regularly arise. But even then, it’s hard to ignore when storylines get stuck in first gear and those shortcomings pile up and get in their own way. What begins as a charming comedy — narrated by a suit, no less — gradually erodes into melodrama atop melodrama with no comic relief to balance it out, and good intentions alone can’t bail “Suit” out of its descent.
Extras: Interviews.

13 Eerie (NR, 2013, Entertainment One)
Six forensic students are trucked out to an island for a scientific expedition that will land one of them a trainee position with the FBI, and the scariest thing about “13 Eerie” is the notion that these are the six best candidates the bureau could round up. The island was once employed as a means to illegally use dangerous criminals as biological testing subjects, and when one of the cadavers provided by the program takes a breath and sits up, things go awry. Actually, they kind of don’t, because there’s nothing on “Eerie’s” island of terror that isn’t on loan from countless other horror movies that precede it. The students are chased one at a time. Everybody is unbelievably careless — doubly so given their implied intelligence — and nearly everyone is about as likable as the corpses that chase them. “Eerie” marches to the same old beat, and while it’s credibly gross and initially buoyed by the added grossness that accompanies forensic science even on a good day, it never remotely shakes its also-ran status (and, for that matter, doesn’t necessarily seem interested in doing so).
Extras: Director/producer commentary, four behind-the-scenes features, photo gallery.

3/26/13: Lincoln, Veep S1, GLOW: The Story of The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, Dead in France, Killing them Softly, The Comedy, Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, Lego Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out

Lincoln (PG-13, 2012, Dreamworks)
Passively, aggressively but mostly indirectly, “Lincoln” is a biography of Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis). More directly and fervently, it is a biography of the 13th Amendment, the battle over its inevitable passage, the mindsets of those who fought over it (Abraham Lincoln’s most prominently, perhaps, but not by much) and the politics as usual that — room layouts, gender imbalance and more daring tastes for fashion and unkempt hair aside — looks a lot like today’s politics as usual. It is no-nosense on paper and sometimes dry in practice, but also gamely capable of lurching on a dime into some wondrous fits of bad behavior, tantrums and furious speeches about how what happens or does not happen next will send the country into a moral tailspin. At its most furious, “Lincoln” is a thrilling drama that nonetheless is as capable of engineering sharply funny nastiness as any comedy that’s trying twice as hard to do so. Its ability to halt and resume that momentum while turning inward to better understand the final months of its namesake’s life is perhaps its best gift. But with that said, it merits mentioning that those final months are all “Lincoln” is, and that its democratic look at the constitutional amendment that crystallized his legacy makes this as much a movie about the likes of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, who arguably steals the movie) and Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) as it is Lincoln. (Insert a joke here about how “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” which takes on Lincoln’s entire life, out-biopics “Lincoln,” but there’s more truth to that joke than you might expect.) Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader and Walton Goggins, among others, also star.
Extras: Six behind-the-scenes features.

Veep: The Complete First Season (NR, 2012, HBO)
Set amid the run-up to the Iraq War, the unbelievably funny “In The Loop” was perhaps the best parallel-universe movie ever made about a real war, because it brilliantly and horrifyingly reduced its superstar team of politicians, generals and other high-ranking world leaders to the playpen of petulant children many of us suspect they are when the cameras and pretense fall away. “Veep,” from some of the same folks who created “Loop” and its television semi-prequel “The Thick of It,” uses its longer runtime leash to zoom in a little closer, with the first season focusing primarily on Vice President Selina Meyer’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) attempt to keep her foot away from her mouth while assembling a clean jobs commission that somehow caters simultaneously to those who want clean jobs and those who don’t seem like they would but want a seat at the table anyway. (Lobbyists, like children, just like to be included.) If that sounds like a drag, good news: Selina and her equally foot-mouthed staff (Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Matt Walsh and Sufe Bradshaw, among others) completely agree, and they have some sharply funny ways of letting everybody know. “Veep” is a show set around politics, but it’s a show about politics for people who hate what typically constitutes a show about politics. It doesn’t take sides or focus on one ideology over the other, because why bother when it’s way more fun to set the entire system on fire with a big, profane, brilliantly nasty torch that takes zero prisoners and delivers some of the funniest lines available on television right now?
Contents: Eight episodes, plus 12 commentary tracks (not a typo; some episodes have multiple tracks), deleted scenes/outtakes, a behind-the-scenes feature, a PSA from Meyer about obesity and a clarification from Meyer about one of her foot-in-mouth episodes.

GLOW: The Story of The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (NR, 2012, Docurama)
By all accounts, the ascent of The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling was a 10-car pileup of mostly happy accidents. The wrestlers had no idea they were trying out for a wrestling show at all when they arrived for auditions, and only after trainer Mondo Guerrero put one of them in a painful submission hold did they understand the whole thing wasn’t a joke. The show runners allegedly designed GLOW mostly as a vehicle for selling other products during commercial breaks rather than as a show meant to flourish on its own. And if the numerous testimonies that comprise “GLOW” hold any weight — and they do, considering how many former stars show up —seemingly no one envisioned GLOW catching fire at all, much less attracting a national following and turning its wrestlers into superstars and role models. The story of what actually happened practically sells itself, and “GLOW” doesn’t argue, providing a ton of funny, endearing and sometimes harrowing footage while leaving the ladies to run a similar emotional gamut through their recollections of the strangest, hardest, most painful and most thrilling days of their lives as sports entertainment pioneers. Purely as a piece of history, it’s a ton of fun. But “GLOW’s” larger legacy, as a story about people taking risks and forming lifelong friendships over a groundbreaking idea they never would have imagined making happen until it was happening, is a thrill that transcends wrestling and makes an interest in the sport a completely optional pre-requisite.
Extras: Billy Corgan commentary, deleted scenes, extended interviews, GLOW skits/raps compilation, matches and behind-the-scenes footage, United Film Festival Q&A.

Dead in France (NR, 2012, Breaking Glass Pictures)
Charles (Brian A. Levine), like most fictitious middle-aged hit men who head up their own movie, is ready to hang it up, go legit and live out the rest of his days peacefully. But as always happens to people like Charles, pretty much everyone else — from a trio of unseasoned thieves to an old rival (Kate Loustau) to a conniving cleaning lady (Celia Muir) and her completely unhinged boyfriend (Darren Bransford) — seems bent on making this impossible. “Dead in France” is full of characters, with only Charles playing it straight as the mild-mannered, earnest retiree-in-training who finds the prospect of asking a girl out scarier than anything involved in the suddenly-violent pursuit of peace and quiet. But thank goodness for Charles, because this is a movie that absolutely needs him. “France” is a disciple of the Guy Ritchie school of filmmaking, wherein the soundtrack is as gratuitous as the violence and sociopaths of all kinds swerve between raging insanity and completely irreconcilable emotional detachment. The action occasionally plays out with what must be intentional shoddiness before applying extreme care to some brutal act of violence, and the whole thing is presented in black and white seemingly just because. Without Charles, “France” would be a division by zero error in which people act groundlessly crazy for 97 minutes to seemingly no end. It still mostly is, but by giving us just one extremely likable character with motives, brainpower and two feet on the ground, it gives us a rooting interest that makes the surrounding insanity much easier to (mostly) laugh off. (Shame about the final twist, though.)
Extras: Deleted scenes, bloopers, photo gallery.

Killing them Softly (R, 2012, Anchor Bay)
If you ever stumble into a book titled “Deep Movies for Dummies,” don’t be surprised if all that’s inside is a shooting script for “Killing Them Softly,” a movie that caters to a crowd for which it seemingly has zero respect. For what it’s worth, it is possible to separate “Softly” from its pretense. Moreover, doing so leaves behind an uncomfortably fun little story about an arrogant mobster (Ray Liotta) who scams his own people before owning up to it without penalty, the small-time crooks (Ben Mendelsohn, Scoot McNairy) who try to reenact the heist and pin it on him, and the mob enforcer (Brad Pitt) brought in to clean up the mess and “convict” those he deems responsible for the heist. Purely in terms of the chase, “Softly” is a harsh ride through the bowels of cynicism that excels on a penchant for taking an ugly story and making it surprisingly personal for nearly every character involved. But “Softly” also doesn’t trust its fiction alone to do the talking, nor does it seem to trust viewers to grasp the concept of national cynicism wearing even organized crime down to a tired, miserable slog. So at regular intervals, speeches — first from George W. Bush during the 2008 financial collapse, and eventually from Barack Obama on election night — play loudly and with distracting clarity on televisions and radios in the background. “Softly” very obviously wants to ensure no one misses the allegory it’s positing, and just in case the message isn’t beaten in by film’s end, it takes a mallet and wails away with a final-scene speech that’s so hammer-on-nail literal as to almost — were it not kind of insulting — be funny. James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Comedy (NR, 2012, Tribeca Film)
Swanson (Tim Heidecker) is a thoroughly worthless 35-year-old who is just killing time until he inherits his dad’s wealth, at which point he’ll just kill more time until he himself dies. In the meantime, he’s growing restless. And out of his boredom and lack of any adversity whatsoever comes a need to act out and push his restlessness on people until someone finally shoves him back. Unfortunately, with friends (Eric Wareheim, James Murphy) working alongside him to make others uncomfortable and generally act awful to people who don’t deserve it, Swanson isn’t really taking the hard road here, either. “The Comedy” increasingly is not a comedy, and that of course is the point, but it dulls the edge of whatever point it’s trying to make by insulating Swanson inside what basically amounts to a small gang of privileged hipster losers who eschew even trace attempts at sympathy. To its credit, “The Comedy” dangles Swanson out there without explaining him or even making it 100 percent clear that what it presumably is doing is what it intends to do. Protected though he is in his world, Swanson has no such luxury in ours, and his ability to make viewers squirm — both intentionally and completely otherwise — is effective fodder for a discussion about irony, snark, and the weird comfort people seem to find in their own constant disaffection. Maybe that’s the point. Or maybe “The Comedy” is just an abjectly lousy movie courtesy of people who, like Swanson, think there’s value in what effectively is self-indulgence and nothing more. Perhaps it begs as much to be misunderstood by the many as it does to be cherished by the few who herald it as ingenious. When the question is this vague, there are no wrong answers.
Extras: Heidecker/director commentary, deleted scenes.

— “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot: The Complete Series” (NR, 1967, Shout Factory): The beloved Japanese import, about a boy and the giant robot he controls in the fight against monsters bent on destroying Earth, finally gets a legitimate DVD release. Includes all 26 episodes, plus a 24-page booklet with liner notes and an episode guide.
— “Lego Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out” (NR, 2012, Fox): Between “Family Guy,” “Robot Chicken” and the entirety of the Internet, the cup of funny “Star Wars” parodies seems to have no bottom. With “The Padawan Menace” and now “The Empire Strikes Out,” the Lego brand fully belongs in the team photo — primarily because these send-ups are funny as well, but also because they’re the rare all-ages “Star Wars” parody that winks at kids and adults with equal success. Like its predecessor, “Empire” is short at 22 minutes long, but its high energy packs a ton of gags — too many to catch in a single viewing — in that small space. A special Darth Vader minifigure — adorned with his “Employee of the Month” medal, which is a reference to the feature — is bundled with the DVD.

3/19: Zero Dark Thirty, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Les Misérables, Price Check, This is 40, Bachelorette

Zero Dark Thirty (R, 2012, Sony Pictures)
There was, upon its theatrical release, a whole lot of chatter about “Zero Dark Thirty’s” audacity — to release during the month before Election Day, to tacitly promote torture, to possibly gain access to off-limits intelligence in exchange for a two-hour commercial about the first (and, at the time, potentially only) Obama Administration’s shining bipartisan moment. But it’s all noise, because “Thirty’s” real audacity comes via its complete (and completely appropriate) refusal to walk on either side of any of these avenues while retelling a decade-long story that — in its own opening words, as real emergency dispatch audio from Sept. 11 plays underneath — came entirely from firsthand accounts. Tunnel-vision dedication to those accounts comes with a cost: With so much ground to cover and no sides to take, “Thirty” often plays dry and, yes, leaves itself susceptible to accusations of covert bias that are unfounded and unfair. Can you imagine a film that purports to be a document but stops to pander and editorialize? It would be deservedly eaten alive. “Thirty” takes its lumps, but its resilience in staying on point and shunning politics makes it inedible. (Politicians are notably left on the shelf, with even Obama referred to only in passing and only as “the President.”) “Thirty’s” sole focus is on the mission and the obsessive woman (Jessica Chastain as “Maya,” whose real identity remains classified) who wouldn’t surrender her pursuit of Osama bin Laden until she knew he was dead. For all the dramatic sacrifices it arguably makes, its final 45 minutes are edge-of-seat intense. Considering history spoiled the ending two years ago, that’s no easy feat. Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt and Kyle Chandler also star.
Extras: Four behind-the-scenes features.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (PG-13, 2012, New Line)
Were “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” a highway exit, there would be a sign two miles out proclaiming, “Non-Tolkien Fanatics, Merge Left.” Then, a half-mile away, another sign, in bright construction orange: “No, Seriously.” “Journey” is Peter Jackson’s dramatization of “The Hobbit” — except when isn’t, because the book is 320 pages long and this 169-minute movie is the first of a staggering three that will bring it to life. (The three books that comprised the three “The Lord of the Rings” movies, by contrast, combined for 1,216 pages.) To say there’s time to fill is an understatement that could win an Oscar if they awarded statues for understatements, and “Journey” fills that time with equal parts creative liberty, stalling and artistic self-indulgence that feels like stalling. In frequently regaling legends of Middle Earth gone by, it occasionally feels like a clip show for a series that never existed instead of the origins of the journey that made Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) a legend. Academically, “Journey” is a film in need of an editor. Cynically, it’s a cash grab by a studio that knows the money for three movies instead of one is there for the taking. But if you love Middle Earth to no end, does it even matter? Self-indulgent though it absolutely is, “Journey” also is a feast — for the eyes, of course, but also for the ears. Necessary or not, the languid pace allows for some fun short stories, lots of scene-chewing time for numerous beloved characters, and even a considerable (if not always resilient) sense of humor. With this trilogy, fans get a second chance at an extended stay in Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth. It may exist in this form for monetary more than artistic reasons, and it almost certainly won’t measure up to the first trilogy, but as long as the people it’s for are having fun, it doesn’t really matter.
Extras: “New Zealand: Home of Middle Earth” feature, 15-part behind-the-scenes video blogs compilation.

Les Misérables (PG-13, 2012, Universal)
Really, what insight isn’t already on the table regarding 2012’s most unreviewable movie? Debatably, at least on an aesthetic level, “Les Misérables” is different. It’s a product of the times, insofar that — at least during its hungrier first half — it isn’t afraid to let the camera shake and zoom in jarringly close while following a single character while he (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen) or she (Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway, Samantha Barks) sings in the second person as if singing exclusively to you. The up-close-and-personal approach is “Misérables'” stylistic calling card, and it’s a choice some will hate for frequently obscuring the lavish scenery as much as others will love it for conveying intimacy and subtlety in a way a movie can and a stage production cannot. (For the former, sit tight: As the scope of the story expands from personal to national, so does the film’s acceptance that wide shots have their place as well.) Ultimately, though, “Les Misérables” the movie is creatively attached at the waist to “Les Misérables” the musical, and devotedly so. The music remains powerful, the acting overdone to accommodate the grandiosity of the production on the whole, and even with 158 minutes to work with, “Misérables” has to scramble to contain the entire story inside its credit scrolls. It’s faithful to a fault, but it’s a lively, gorgeous and sonically loaded show as result — exactly the kind of movie that will change no one’s mind about the need for movies based on stage shows. If you love them, this one’s a can’t-miss. If you can’t stand them, it’s a non-starter.
Extras: Director commentary, seven behind-the-scenes features.

Price Check (NR, 2012, IFC Films)
We’ve all met someone like Susan (Parker Posey), who has swooped in from outside and replaced a popular outgoing executive near the top of the Wolski’s supermarket chain corporate ladder. Many of us have worked for or with someone like her. And as result, many of us instantly recognize that what makes Susan kind of scary to be around isn’t the fact that she’s a tyrant or a soulless cost-cutter, but rather because she’s monstrously insecure, dangerously unfiltered and can transition on a dime from overzealous rah rah-ing to a tantrum that would embarrass a first grader. That’s a problem for all of Susan’s new employees, but it’s especially concerning for Pete (Eric Mabius) — not because she’s out to get him, but because he’s instantly her favorite despite having no apparent enthusiasm for his own floundering career. “Price Check” is full of contradictions that aren’t actually contradictions at all, because they’re grounded in a reality that movies about corporate life rarely entertain. Sometimes it’s better to be paid and ignored than admired and overworked, and sometimes well-paid bosses can’t decide whether they love their job, hate their job, love their life or just hate themselves. “Check” is a dry comedy that sometimes feels like a farce, but that’s merely a credit to Posey absolutely nailing a character who is very much real. Most of us have dealt with a Susan and can confirm they exist. They’re charismatic, slightly terrifying and capable of taking people places no one wants to go even when they themselves have no idea where they’re going. When they all get there and that realization sinks in, the line between authenticity and darkly, farcically funny horror show just fades into nothing.
Extra: Commentary.

This is 40 (NR/R, 2012, Universal)
Judd Apatow wrote, directed and co-produced “This is 40.” So why does it feel like a comedy that was assembled by two filmmakers who never once spoke during the process of putting it together? “40’s” topic is no more nuanced than the title suggests it is, with husband Pete (Paul Rudd) and wife Debbie (Leslie Mann) — secondary characters in “Knocked Up,” now getting top billing — turning 40 and dealing with the joys of parenthood, fading dreams, debt and total romantic stagnation. To the movie’s credit, it sometimes mines that mundanity for some seriously funny bits, and occasionally with a frequency that makes you forget the dreary predictability of the premise’s early going. But then, as if “40” itself forgot them as well, it returns to them for some plot turns that are absolute drags. Pete’s and Debbie’s two kids (Maude Apatow as teenager Sadie, Iris Apatow as the younger Charlotte) are comedic gold mines and arguably the funniest and best-realized characters in the whole movie. But the brilliant writing that brings them alive exists within the same script that slowly takes the main storyline exactly where you know it’s going, with some weird stops at product placement (so overt as to be funny), stunt casting (not so much) and angst to spare along the way. “40” swims more than it sinks, if only because its funniest moments are much funnier than its boring drags are miserable. But the dry patches are still pronounced enough to make one wonder what might’ve happened if it felt less obligated to sleepwalk through the storytelling motions and decided to just be funny instead.
Extras: Unrated cut (adds three minutes), Apatow commentary, deleted/extended/alternate scenes and outtakes, behind-the-scenes feature, an episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” featuring Apatow, line-o-rama, bloopers.

Bachelorette (R, 2012, Anchor Bay)
Catharsis is the ultimate tease in “Bachelorette,” which begins with Becky (Rebel Wilson) telling old friend Regan (Kirsten Dunst) she’s engaged right as Regan dips her toe into a speech about why she may want to dump the guy she’s now set to marry. That never really goes anywhere, and soon after, Gena (Lizzy Caplan) and Katie (Isla Fisher) join Regan to help plan Becky’s bachelorette party, which inadvertently turns into a race to fix the wedding dress they secretly accidentally ruin on the eve of the wedding. Along the way, “Bachelorette” continually flirts with the idea of being something more than a screwy comedy about three girls with broken personal lives racing to fix a dress. There are painful revisits to the past, painful acceptances that what once was funny and cute isn’t working anymore, and painful failures to understand why doing everything the “right” way can still feel so unfulfilling. Deep, right? Problem is, every time “Bachelorette” seems primed to embrace its demons and weave darkness and comedy into a big, wild popping off of bottled angst, it hedges the bet and just turns back inward before carrying on as a somewhat funny but mostly unremarkable screwball comedy. That’ll certainly do as a light good time, but given how badly “Bachelorette” so obviously wants to break through into something way more dangerous than that, it’s a shame it didn’t close its eyes and just bolt for it.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers.

3/12/13: Life of Pi, Smashed, Rise of the Guardians, Curious George Swings Into Spring, Hitchcock, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away, Connected: An Autoblogography About Love, Death & Technology, Foyle's War: The Home Front Files: Sets 1-6

Life of Pi (PG, 2012, Fox)
“I’ve told you two stories about what happened out on the ocean. Neither explains what caused the sinking of the ship, and no one can prove which story is true and which is not.” Well, how about that? In sharing the story of his life with the floundering author (Rafe Spall) who wishes to write about it, a middle-aged Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) settles what, to that point, had been a borderline bizarre plot omission. So what did cause the cruise liner a teenaged Pi (Suraj Sharma) was aboard to sink, kill his family and scatter a zoo’s worth of wild animals into the ocean with him? And by the time Pi finally addresses this, does the answer even matter? Opinions will diverge, and the gulf will only widen as it extends to the rest of Pi’s story, his message (or lack thereof?), and whether he really shared a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger and whether it even matters if he did or not. Long before the ship sinks, “Life of Pi” establishes its titular character both as a seemingly contented adult and an insatiably curious child (Gautam Belur/Ayush Tandon) who wonders why he can’t observe every religion instead of just one. That, combined with the journey that comprises the bulk of the movie, makes “Pi” a playground for parable and interpretation, buoyed by a storyteller who himself admits he’s keeping certain truths in his pocket. If that’s enough to raise your anti-pretension red flags, it’s worth noting that, amid all this, opportunities abound to enjoy “Pi” on a completely literal level — a choice the film encourages as much as any other choice it presents. And why shouldn’t it? “Pi’s” visual depiction of its wildlife wonderland is very obviously computer-generated, but it’s dazzling all the same, and believing in it as it’s presented is arguably as fun as mining it for meaning between the lines.
Extras: Deleted scenes, five behind-the-scenes features, storyboards, art gallery.

Smashed (R, 2012, Sony Pictures Classics)
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) can’t quite hold her liquor, and yet she can’t quite put it down either. And when she throws up in front of a full classroom of young children she’s teaching while nursing a hangover, it’s time for her to get help … next time. This time, lying to the kids and telling them she’s pregnant while trying to skate through the whole thing seems like a better idea. Improvised or not, the coverup is so wrong that “Smashed” might have blossomed as a black comedy if it wasn’t so good at mining Kate’s private hell for total hydroplaning discomfort instead of laughs. In painstakingly forming Kate into a functional-by-a-hair mess whose only comfort other than booze is the underachieving husband (Aaron Paul) who enables this lack of function, “Smashed” tells a story of alcoholism — and, eventually, the attempt to escape it — that’s too credibly jittery to lean on schmaltz, preachiness, dreariness or some other trite sign that suggests it doesn’t actually understand what it’s trying to depict. Alcoholism isn’t some perennially miserable slog toward emotional oblivion: Sometimes it’s exciting, fun and capable of creating situations that toe the line between awful and hysterical. Usually, it’s complicated. And thanks equally to a lively script that doesn’t pander and an absolutely dynamite personification of it by Winstead, Kate is no more simpler than the problem that lay before her.
Extras: Winstead/director commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, Toronto Film Festival red carpet and Q&A.

Rise of the Guardians (PG, 2012, DreamWorks)
It’s not even that the computer-animated “Rise of the Guardians” could be a mess; it’s that it almost certainly should be. The children of “Guardians'” world are protected by a society of guardians that counts Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman among its ranks. When the Boogeyman appears and demonstrates a newfound power to turn children’s dreams into terrifying nightmares, the Man in the Moon (don’t ask) declares that a new guardian — specifically, Jack Frost, whose behavior better resembles that of a mischievous teenager than a hero — must join the ranks to help stop him. Got all that? Great, because there’s plenty more, including the logistics of the guardianship, the messy origins of Jack Frost and the Boogeyman, and the story of a child who wants to believe these guardians are real despite their being invisible to the children they protect. All that to chew on, plus action and comedy too, should add up to a loud, rushed and potentially incomprehensible 97 minutes. Sure enough, “Guardians” is occasionally loud and occasionally rushed — once or twice to the point where storylines don’t get as satisfactorily resolved as one might hope. What “Guardians” never is, though, is a mess. What effortlessly could have been a gimmicky and artless pileup of holiday icons flourishes instead as an ambitious reimagination that has been assembled with surprising care. That care trickles down everywhere, gelling all those separate storylines into one and redesigning classic characters so inventively that everything else — wildly unique visual design, some genuinely funny moments and a script that gives kids’ intelligence more credit than most animated movies would ever dare — falls into place with astonishing ease.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, three behind-the-scenes features, games.

Curious George Swings Into Spring (NR, 2013, Universal)
On so many levels, time has not passed at all in “Curious George Swings Into Spring.” After experiencing summer, fall and winter for the first time, the coming spring will be George’s first. And as he does with every first in life, the curious monkey is ready to pounce on spring with abandon, cause untold amounts of accidental mischief, and smile the whole way while the Man with the Yellow Hat and Hundley the wary dachshund give chase. It’s a formula in its 73rd year, but like George himself, it’s a formula that seemingly has no age. There’s a lesson here for kids about getting out and embracing the outdoors — something Hundley, as a city dog, does accidentally as result of George plowing ahead — but “Spring” never makes it feel like a lesson. Instead, it tucks it inside a completely silly story that, thanks equally to George and Hundley’s unspoken mannerisms and the Man with the Yellow Hat’s deadpan reaction to yet more good-intentioned mayhem, is surprisingly funny. The hand-drawn animation is as easy on the eyes as ever (and perhaps more refreshing than ever amid the sea of computer-animated alternatives), and the contrast between the inanity of what’s happening and the sweet demeanor of everyone causing it gives “Spring” a wonderful personality that’s as timeless and welcome as it’s ever been.
Extra: Sticker sheet.

Hitchcock (PG-13, 2012, Fox)
There are numerous points on the Alfred Hitchcock timeline where a biopic could plant a flag and start dramatizing. “Hitchcock” smartly picks 1959, when everyone but the man himself was priming Hitchcock — somewhat fresh off the critical and commercial drubbing the now-classic “Vertigo” took — for the sunset of his career. With one last picture on his deal with Paramount, the director stepped out of his comfort zone, took on a wild card named “Psycho” and answered the critics, the public and a roomful of scared studio executives with a groundbreaking success that changed film forever. For its final 15 or so minutes, “Hitchcock” plays like a film rising up to tell the story of the washed-up legend (Anthony Hopkins) who, along with the only person capable of properly putting him in his place (Helen Mirren as wife Alma), shoved doubt back in everyone’s face and literally danced during the moment his medium forever changed. But up to that point, “Hitchcock” is — an occasional emotional flash here and there aside — not nearly so thrilling. There are scenes of Hitchcock battling inner demons, squabbling with Alma, stonewalling studio heads and imposing his will on a movie he’s certain can be great, and “Hitchcock” skillfully reenacts them both through a strong cast and from within. But only fleetingly, until that home stretch, does skillful break through into extraordinary or exhilarating. It’s never a bad thing to exit on a high note, but the uptick in mood is so stark that it makes the rest of “Hitchcock” feel like a polished but timid missed opportunity. Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, Danny Huston and Toni Collette also star.
Extras: Director/author Stephen Rebello (who wrote the book on which “Hitchcock” is based) commentary, deleted scene, eight behind-the-scenes features, Hitchcock cell phone PSA.

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (PG, 2012, Paramount)
Rarely does the phrase “You had to be there” apply as literally to a movie as it does “Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away,” and rarely has a movie been so powerless to address its most glaring problem. On its fringes, “Away” is the story of Mia (Erica Linz), whose enchantment with a circus aerialist (Igor Zaripov) compels her to chase him into a bizarre fantasy land. But that story primarily serves as an elaborate excuse around which to showcase selections from a handful of Cirque du Soleil productions, including “O” and the Beatles-powered “Love.” If you’ve seen any of these acrobatic showcases live, you already know how incredible the experience is. You may also assume there’s no way for a film to match that experience, and you would be correct. “Away” is a visual (and, particularly for Beatles fans, musical) treat, and many of the shows’ hallmarks —from costume/set design to choreography to an abstract but heartfelt storytelling tone that has no equal — make a strong transition to film. But, fair or not, “Away’s” inability to convey the thrill of watching a show like this unfold in front of you is an inability to convey what, more than anything else, makes Cirque du Soleil so awesome. (The curious decision to use lots of slow motion, and thus rob some performances of the sheer speed that makes them ever more incredible, certainly doesn’t help.) “Away” is a beautiful take-home love letter to fans, but if this is the only Cirque du Soleil show you ever see, you’re settling more than you know.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.

Connected: An Autoblogography About Love, Death & Technology (NR, 2011, Docurama)
When filmmaker and Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain stands before a stark backdrop and opens her movie with a burgeoning screed about everyone ignoring everyone else while cocooned in their own smartphone-aided solitude, “Connected” elicits the promise of a movie with an axe to grind. And so you wait for “Connected” to start grinding … and you wait, and you wait some more. And despite having lots to say and the best of intentions through which to say it, that moment where “Connected” just nails it never comes. Shlain’s film is as autobiographical as it is philosophical: It was the diagnosis of her father’s brain cancer, among other things, that sparked her reexamination of whether technology is wearing us down and driving wedges instead of making life easier and more connected, and her race to document her father’s thoughts about this phenomenon — while he himself races to finish the book he’s writing about, of all things, the human brain — comprises a large share of “Connected.” In between, the film races just as frantically to discuss such phenomena as language, biological dependency, the brain, and the need to evolve beyond a present social infrastructure that seems unsustainable. That’s a lot to chew on, and unfortunately, “Connected” only has time to nibble on each dish before moving on. Facts and thoughts abound, and Shlain weaves them together with heart on sleeve. But “Connected” never achieves a new level of insight that justifies the overt preaching about connecting with people and smelling the roses that closes the film. There’s lots of messaging without any significant contribution toward carrying that message out, and even with good intentions so apparent, “Connected” feels disingenuous.
Extras: Short films “A Declaration of Interdependence” and “Yelp: Apologies to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.”

— “Foyle’s War: The Home Front Files: Sets 1-6” (NR, 2002-10, Acorn Media): After a 2007 cancellation scare and a three-year hiatus following the 2010 comeback season, Det. Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) is primed for yet another television return later this year. The 22 episodes that comprise this set have previously released as individual season sets, but if you aren’t yet familiar with one of Britain’s most unsung imports — set amid World War II, wherein the show’s man-of-few-words namesake takes on criminals who attempt to benefit from the chaos of wartime — this is the most ideal proposition. (Worth noting: Though “War” has seven seasons under its belt in Britain, seasons four and five were combined into one set in the United States, so the entire series run thus far is accounted for here.) Along with the show, the 22-disc set includes three making-of documentaries, cast/crew interviews, historical/production notes and photo galleries.

3/5/13: Wreck-it Ralph, Gun Hill Road, Collaborator, The Bay, Satan's Angel: Queen of the Fire Tassels, The Loneliest Planet, Red Dawn

Wreck-it Ralph (PG, 2012, Disney)
There are worse livings than being a successful main villain in an arcade game that’s still popular after 30 years, and “Wreck-it Ralph’s” wonderfully clever layout of the social order of arcade game characters during closing hours — represented most vividly by a central station where off-duty characters from different games mingle and share sobering tales of what happens to characters whose games get unplugged — has its share of examples. But while Ralph is grateful for his success, he also longs to be a hero and shake his status as a pariah in his game’s world, where hero Fix-It Felix, Jr., enjoys all the adulation. Armed with equal parts ambition and oafish naïveté, Ralph enters another game in hopes of winning a medal and becoming a hero to his own game’s subjects. And as often happens when those two traits do battle, it sets in motion a whole new slew of brilliant rules and truths about the life of a video game character. Had all these ideas collapsed on themselves and fallen apart at the end, “Ralph” would still be a gem simply on account of how thoughtful, funny and lovingly reverent its tribute is to the arcade. Cameos are numerous, from Bowser to Tapper to Ken and Ryu and more, but it’s the care put into the society that binds them that makes this a love letter to the medium and its fans. Regardless, “Ralph” never collapses, because the characters it creates for the movie are often as instantly classic as the ones to which the movie pays respect. Pixar’s name isn’t in the credits, but its pedigree absolutely is, and their fingerprints — perfect voice casting, gorgeous and clever visual design, a script that veers between hilarious, thrilling and the perfect kind of sweet without breaking a sweat — are here in abundance.
Extras: Oscar-winning animated short “Paperman,” deleted/alternate scenes, making-of feature, Disney Intermission behind-the-scenes features (which play automatically when the Blu-ray edition is paused), “commercials” for the fictional video games featured in the film.

Gun Hill Road (R, 2011, Virgil Films)
Though still a male by every anatomical measure, Enrique’s teenage son Michael (Harmony Santana) identifies most comfortably as a transgender woman, going so far as to recite poetry on stage as one while saving up for gender reassignment surgery. For any teenager in Michael’s shoes, the road ahead is harrowing beyond conventional comprehension. But “Gun Hill Road’s” opening scene finds an imprisoned Enrique (Esai Morales) firing a homophobic slur at a fellow inmate before shanking him in cold blood. Jumping immediately ahead, the hotheaded Enrique is free and on his way home, and “Road” need not say the obvious about the heightened precariousness of his son’s situation. Impressively, it doesn’t, and what easily could have been a hamfisted after-school special regarding these plights and others — Michael’s mother Angela (Judy Reyes), in addition to tacitly protecting her son, has some secrets of her own to stash with her husband’s return — never takes the simple way out. It takes a special kind of balance to explore a topic as sticky as this with courage while still keeping the kind of distance that lets characters tell the story instead of a screenwriter’s heavy hand. “Road” strikes it, holds it and, in doing so, builds a profile of Michael’s life that’s rightfully unnerving but never contrived. How Santana’s effort went unnoticed during last year’s awards season is a mystery, but the wringer she walks through here all but ensures her name won’t stay hidden forever.
Extra: Director interview.

Collaborator (NR, 2011, Entertainment One)
Once celebrated as the potential voice of his generation, Robert (Martin Donovan) has just watched his latest play endure a critical shredding and close down after two weeks while his personal life circles a drain of its own. Nevertheless, he’s doing better than his childhood neighbor Gus (David Morse), who still lives with his mom in the house he grew up in — but only when he isn’t making himself at home in jail. Robert flees New York for a hometown visit, he and Gus cross paths and make a plan to have a beer together, and what happens when they make good on that plan is better left unspoiled — not because the whole movie hinges on it, but because it’s the first modest but pleasant surprise in a series of pleasant surprises to come. It’s a stretch to call “Collaborator” a comedy, particularly during an opening act that’s anchored by a guy who is a poster child for the soul erosion of middle age downfall. But a funny thing happens when things somehow get worse: They also — kinda, sorta, from another angle — get better, sometimes amusingly so. The result of Gus and Robert’s outing is the thread that carries “Collaborator’s” second and third act, and as a bonus, seeing how that thread ends is fun. But it’s fun primarily because of the versions of Robert and Gus we meet when they get reacquainted with each other. During this time, “Collaborator” effortlessly bends moods — funny here, dark and stark there, all flavors of angry, cathartic and amused and bemused in between. The story driving all this certainly matters, but it’s the story driving that story that is “Collaborator’s” most pleasant surprise of all. Olivia Williams also stars.
Extras: Cast interviews.

The Bay (R, 2012, Lions Gate)
Claridge, Md., is just another small town hosting its annual Fourth of July festivities — until, after a bloodied woman cuts through a crowd moments after being in the dunk tank while parents and children shriek at similar sights at a nearby swimming pool, it suddenly isn’t. There’s something in the water by Claridge’s beloved bay, and years of chemicals, waste and general government neglect have allowed it to infect the rest of the town’s water supply. The scramble to discover what happened comes compiled through camera footage that has been cobbled together a few years after hell broke loose, making “The Bay” the latest horror film to embrace the dog-tired found footage gimmick. Yawn, right? On the surface, certainly. But “The Bay” does itself a massive favor by not, as seemingly every preceding movie has, presenting itself as a film about a bunch of now-dead people that was assembled by some mysterious force of video-editing nature. Its main character — Donna (Kether Donohue), a laughably green local television reporter who was waist-deep in a fluff piece when things went haywire — not only remains alive years later, but also takes credit for putting this footage together. It’s a seemingly small thing, but with her narrating what we’re seeing from both the bird’s eye view and through the recollections of someone who was there, “The Bay” upgrades itself from cheap scarefest with bad camera angles and flimsy storytelling to a legitimately absorbing mystery that just so happens to be extremely creepy as well. If your faucet doesn’t have a filter on it, this may be the movie that changes that.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Satan’s Angel: Queen of the Fire Tassels (NR, 2012, Breaking Glass Pictures)
Every transcendent form of entertainment has the Shakespeare, Lennon or Babe Ruth who took it there, and if we’re talking about burlesque dancing, that crown is Angel Walker’s to forfeit. Five decades after she reached out to seize it, she has yet to relent — though, as “Satan’s Angel” accidentally suggests, there’s still a question of whether burlesque actually has or will reach a point of real transcendence. “Angel” itself is great fun, with no small thanks to Walker herself, whose first moment on screen finds her ranting about how little she cares that she’s supposedly too old to still be on stage. Though joined by fellow legends and the new generation of dancers who both idolize and inspire her to keep going, this is Walker’s show, and her recounting of her career is a case of a stock showbiz story made engrossing by an immensely likable and unfiltered storyteller. With that said, it’s too bad “Angel” either does not or simply, in this form, cannot truly convey all that goes into the show and the thrill of putting it on and making it great. Those who dismiss burlesque as a PG-13 striptease going in will, despite some surface-level insight on behalf of Walker and her fellow performers, probably come out feeling the same thing. No art form is that simple, or else dozens of other dancers would have buried Walker’s memory by now. But “Angel,” fun though it overwhelmingly is, doesn’t drive that point home with very much conviction.
Extras: Extended interviews, two behind-the-scenes features, photo gallery.

The Loneliest Planet (NR, 2011, Sundance Selects)
As a summertime prelude to their upcoming marriage, Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) hire a guide (Bidzina Gujabidze, who actually is a guide in real life, as Dato) to take them backpacking through Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains. Save for one hairy incident, what follows is a picturesque and persuasive case for fostering a stronger connection with the wilderness. What it is not, unfortunately, is a case for fostering a connection with Alex and Nica. “The Loneliest Planet” — 99 percent of which takes place during the hike, and 100 percent of which does its most pronounced storytelling via allusions and body language instead of literal dialogue — doesn’t necessarily lose points for its less-is-more storytelling. Occasionally, such as during an impromptu game of volleyball with a complete stranger we never see on the other side of a wall, it’s charming as can be. But even with an understanding of “Planet’s” approach, it’s hard not to notice just how little we get to know Alex and Nica despite traveling almost exclusively with them for two hours. Dato even sneaks ahead as the trio’s most compelling character, and while “Planet” puts in the effort to make that possible, it still feels more by accident than by design. Subtlety has its merits, but “Planet” feels more like a case of a movie keeping its audience at arm’s length than the nuanced revelation it aspires to be.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes documentary, Gujabidze photo gallery.

Red Dawn (PG-13, 2012, Fox)
Never mind the implausibility of a meticulously organized North Korean military parachuting into 2012 America like it’s 1944 Normandy Beach. (An explanation for how this could happen springs forth later, and kudos for the effort, but come on.) Never mind also that seemingly everyone in the Pacific Northwest obeys their new leaders except for a plucky group of teenagers (Josh Peck, Adrianne Palicki, Josh Hutcherson, Edwin Hodge, Isabel Lucas) led by an active duty soldier (Chris Hemsworth) on leave between tours. Never mind everything that happens next, either. Any attempt to suspend disbelief isn’t worth the strain while watching “Red Dawn,” which, beyond the visualization of every fearmongerer’s nightmare (or, let’s be real, dream armchair hero scenario), has even less to offer than shallow glances and the shadow of the 1984 movie it’s reimagining would suggest. Wild and logically precarious though the image is of an occupied United States, “Dawn’s” picture of it is, past the very first glance at the invasion, pretty much bereft of risk or imagination. Ditto for everything that happens next — be it on the insurgency side, the love interest side or the squabbling-brothers-cast-aside-differences side, the last two of which waste an awful lot of time. Why are we supposed to care? “Dawn” has an implausible canvas on which to paint, but history is littered with resonant and wildly enjoyable movies that have started with sillier ideas than this. What results here isn’t awful, but you almost wish it was bold enough to stink if the only other option is to be this plain. No extras.