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.