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.