Witness: A World in Conflict Through a Lens (NR, 2012, HBO)
One of the great ironies of the Information Age is that the better and faster the dissemination of information, the more we take its appearance for granted. But someone still has to witness, process and present that information, and for photographers covering wars, uprisings and other deadly conflicts half a world away, the risk (and price too often paid) for that information is their lives. “Witness” spends each of its four parts in regions — Juarez, Libya, South Sudan and Rio de Janeiro — that are burning under the pressure of rebellion, drug trafficking, gang warfare and other catalysts for regional instability. But rather than break down the nature of these conflicts from a distance, “Witness” tails different photojournalists as they document these events — often from within the heart of them, and always from an uncomfortably close range — as seen and heard through their eyes and ears. The product of that method isn’t as factually comprehensive as a detached view might be, but its effectiveness is another matter entirely. “Witness” takes massive conflicts and makes them considerably more personal by getting up close both with the people living through them and the outsiders working without a net to share these stories with the rest of the globe. That these journalists do their job so effectively as to be taken for granted is a backhanded testament to their skill and bravery, but that doesn’t make it right, so kudos to “Witness” for reopening eyes in thrilling fashion. No extras.
Jack Reacher (PG-13, 2012, Paramount)
Have you met Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise)? No, you almost certainly haven’t, because only Jack Reacher — West Point grad, Army vet and an all-world mastermind-slash-vigilante who more than once has slipped into and out of the United States like a ghost — decides who can meet Jack Reacher and when. When a sniper kills five people in the heart of Pittsburgh and the prime suspect drags Reacher’s name into it, that’s enough to perk his ears, because out of nowhere, here he is, ready to take names while also clearing his own. There’s a lot about “Jack Reacher” that, if examined at all for plausibility, could compel someone to scratch their head until a scar forms. As the story develops and Reacher transforms from an impressively good sleuth-slash-ghost to a superhero who brings fistfights to gunfights, the itch to scrutinize grows. But at that point, why bother? Yes, “Reacher” is silly, often spectacularly so, and we haven’t even discussed the particulars of the suspect, his lawyer (Rosamund Pike) or the fact that his lawyer is the prosecuting district attorney’s (Richard Jenkins) daughter. There’s lots to chew on in “Reacher’s” 130 minutes, and chew it does — loudly, ridiculously, shamelessly and to greatly entertaining effect. It isn’t always clear, when mystery gives way to thriller and thriller gives way to cartoony action movie before the mystery tags back in, what kind of movie this wants to be. But “Reacher” sure seems to be enjoying its identity crisis, and those willing to just ride along will probably have a similarly good time. David Oyelowo, Werner Herzog, Jai Courtney and Robert Duvall also star.
Extras: Cruise/director commentary, three behind-the-scenes features.
Starlet (NR, 2012, Music Box Films)
Whatever Jane (Dree Hemingway) aspires to be — presumably, it’s an actor, but vocation hardly tells the whole story — she isn’t exactly fast-tracking it. Between sleeping in, dabbling in drugs, playing Xbox and tending to a fledgling not-quite career that’s already gone sideways, just about the only thing she’s putting any serious effort into is the spoiling of her little dog. That all changes when she attends an elderly woman’s yard sale and comes away with a thermos, of all things, that’s (a) worth way more than a thermos should be worth and (b) valuable for reasons that may not be on the level. Jane tries to return the thermos, the woman (Besedka Johnson as Sadie) grouchily shoos her away, and be it out of guilt or duty or most likely some deep-seated need of her own, Jane embarks on a quest to befriend Sadie that no one — not even Jane, and certainly not the amusingly resistant Sadie — can understand. That Jane and Sadie’s dance is amusing isn’t to suggest there isn’t some sadness simmering beneath it, but to acknowledge the presence of emotional longing isn’t to dismiss “Starlet” as sad in place of funny, cheerful, dark and any number of other things as well. Subplots aplenty swarm about, and some of them either stall or sink almost as soon as they leave the dock. None of them ultimately make the movie. But all contribute in some small way to the odd, clumsy but entirely inspiring relationship that comprises “Starlet’s” core. Jane and Sadie are a mismatch on every basic level, but sometimes all that crisscrossing lets in an unlikely source of understanding that wouldn’t otherwise shine through. “Starlet” seems to get that, and its stars carry that understanding to bitter, silly and sweet fruition.
Extras: Commentary, interviews, behind-the-scenes features, audition footage.
Mama (PG-13, 2013, Universal)
On the day their parents died in separate incidents, young sisters Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) disappeared. Five years later, following a tireless and expensive search conducted by their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), they’ve been found — living alone in a woodland cabin, acting slightly feral, and traumatized to say the least. Lucas’s musician girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) wasn’t exactly counting on two adopted daughters, much less two girls who spent half their lives in the woods, but she can only wish that was all there is to it — or that the kids were simply a little traumatized instead of full-on haunted by a presence that dials back to the day their parents left them. “Mama” is an odd case, insofar that it reveals all of this almost immediately while still behaving in a manner that can be credibly described, depending on personal taste, as deliberate or plodding. An array of jump scare false starts, mixed in with a few real ones, doesn’t help “Mama” sell its slow creep toward a resolution. But given how many haunted house stories go absolutely nowhere fast, it’s hard to take umbrage with one that goes somewhere and simply takes its time getting there. Without delving into spoilers, neither scariness nor even creepiness prove to be “Mama’s” best assets. That honor instead goes to the kids, who radiate humanity even at their least human and carry that humanity through the story’s dry table-setting and into a finale that pays all that emotion off. “Mama” ends on such an emotional high note that you might wish more time was spent here instead of on those needless jump scares. But given the near-impossibility of ending a story like this on a high note, that’s more nitpick than damning disappointment.
Extras: Original “Mama” short film (with introduction by Guillermo del Toro, who executive produced “Mama”), director/producer/writers commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.
Doctors of the Dark Side (NR, 2011, Shelter Island)
The typical debate over the effectiveness and morality of torture and/or advanced interrogation techniques — go ahead and circle the term you prefer — isn’t so often a conversation as a factually-deficient shouting match that treats the issue as black or white. To that end, “Doctors of the Dark Side” likely loses its chance to engage proponents of the practice, who, thanks to that needlessly ominous name, may just dismiss the movie sight unseen. And that’s too bad, because despite that name and its unarguable anti-torture stance, “Doctors” makes a case for exploring that grey area. Assembled from declassified government documents and interviews with military, medical and legal experts, the case “Doctors” makes isn’t necessarily a blanket swipe at the practice of interrogation so much as the harm caused by inhumane methods that break a prisoner so fiercely that they barely function at all — much less become reliable wellsprings of valuable intelligence — while trained medical professionals either look the other way or compound the matter by using detainees’ mental collapses against them. Past the matter of the techniques’ humanity is the matter of whether certain methods even work, and the testimony and evidence here make a compelling argument that they don’t. It isn’t the last word, nor should it be, as there’s plenty of value in an equally compelling case for the other side of this argument. But “Doctors” fulfills its end of the bargain by presenting its case thoughtfully and more objectively than its outer presentation suggests.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, two additional short features “An insider’s view of Abu Ghraib” and “How to Help Doctors Prevent Torture.”
The Oranges (R, 2012, Fox)
“The Oranges” is the story of two close families, each with a wife (Catherine Keener, Allison Janney), husband (Hugh Laurie, Oliver Platt) and daughter (Alia Shawkat, Leighton Meester). One also has a son (Adam Brody), but that isn’t pertinent right now. What is pertinent is that one of those dads, despite being best friends with the other dad, decided one wise evening to kiss his best friend’s daughter despite his own daughter’s feelings about her. (Never mind, of course, that he’s married.) It’s from there that “The Oranges” shifts from an odd would-be comedy about general suburban resentment to a sorta-is comedy about … something. Despite touching on a lot of familiar themes and hinging everything on a plot turn whose messiness needs no explanation, “The Oranges” feels like a movie that created a bunch of characters, set the whole thing around Christmastime and doesn’t really know what to do next once its big can of worms has ripped itself open. Take Platt’s character, for instance: He has a fascination with silly gadgets that exist for the sake of existing, and he demonstrates his fondness during some amusing scenes early on. But once “The Oranges” runs out of things to do with the idea, the bit just disappears (and, to a point, so does he) until the very end. Ultimately, though it was good for a couple laughs, one wonders where “The Oranges” wanted that bit to go, if it wanted it to go anywhere. And while the movie itself is never an outright drag to watch, it often engenders the same aimless feeling.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.
Safe Haven (PG-13, 2013, Fox)
Roughly 25 minutes in, after Katie (Julianne Hough) has purchased yellow paint from the googly-eyed general store employee (Josh Duhamel) who may very well be the only eligible bachelor in this entire tiny seaside town, it’s easy to drift into a state of forgetfulness about “Safe Haven’s” opening moments, wherein Katie eludes a Boston police officer and boards a bus out of town. Whatever she did, it looks bad, and whatever hope she has of leaving that life behind is, naturally, unrealistic. Following a stark reminder about those opening minutes, “Haven” finds more of a balance as — ostensibly — a movie that’s half serviceable romantic drama and half serviceable thriller. Neither side really soars, but the former is likably pleasant enough and the latter has a few good surprises up its sleeve before it indulges a little excessively in over-the-top silliness later. And yet, absolutely none of this holds even the world’s smallest candle to “Haven’s” parting gift, which takes everything that just happened and tosses it into an Olympic-sized swimming pool of total craziness. For those who take to “Haven’s” serviceable and literal storytelling, what happens here is so jarring as to potentially sink the whole ship. But for those who tolerate rather than enjoy “Haven’s” decent but plain presentation and prepare never to think of it again once the credits arrive, guess what? Those plans are about to change. You’re welcome.
Extras: Alternate ending, deleted/extended scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.
— “Doc Martin Special Collection: Series 1-5 + The Movies” (NR, Acorn Media): In lieu of being a complete collection — filming currently is underway for “Doc Martin’s” sixth series — the “special” in the title will do. The 13-disc set includes the first five series’ 38 episodes, the two movies, and various extras (behind-the-scenes features, photo galleries, trivia, filmographies) from the individual series sets. If you aren’t yet familiar with the show, it’s funny, deeply likable and centered around an irritable surgeon (Martin Clunes as Dr. Martin Ellingham) who develops a crippling fear of blood and the small-town neighbors who love him anyway. What else need be said?
— “Henry Jaglom Collection vol. 2: The Comedies” (R, Breaking Glass Pictures): Browse a list or overhear a conversation about renowned directors whose names you don’t but should know, and there’s a reasonably good chance Henry Jaglom’s name will pop up at some point. Should you take that point to heart, this second low-priced collection — focusing on Jaglom’s funnier side and including 1980’s “Sitting Ducks,” 1983’s “Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?” and 1989’s “New Year’s Day,” starring a pre-“X-Files” David Duchovny — offers as good a starting point as any.
— “The Great Escape” (NR, 1963, Fox): The Steve McQueen classic turns 50 with its first-ever Blu-ray edition, featuring a 4K transfer. (Unfortunately, a 4K television wasn’t handy for testing purposes, so Fox’s word will have to do for now.) Extras include a director/cast/crew commentary, eight behind-the-scenes features and the original theatrical trailer.