12/31/2013: Don Jon, Linsanity, Dear Mr. Watterson, Last Love

Don Jon (R, 2013, Fox)
Jon’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) intense addiction to porn is, to hear him describe it, a matter of practicality — a way to enjoy the highs of sex without dealing with the lows, even though he goes out his way every weekend to chase those as well. He looks and sounds like a cartoon character, he’s the son of an even more pronounced cartoon character (Tony Danza), his pursuit of one woman (Scarlett Johansson) above all others makes almost no sense to us or her, and believe it or not, all this and more plays into one of the most fun romantic comedies (to use the term about as loosely as usage allows) of 2013. “Don Jon” and the character bearing its name make immediate and potently grimy first impressions, and there is no point where it betrays that griminess to change course and undermine everything that makes this so oddly engrossing. Things do change as “Jon” goes from A to Z, and without spoiling the whats and hows, they aren’t insignificant things. But “Jon’s” unflinching devotion to unapologetic honesty — bound to turn many off, likely to scare others away, but by a mile its best, funniest, and most special trait — never wavers. Julianne Moore also stars.
Extras: Five behind-the-scenes features, shorts from Gordon-Levitt’s HitRECord studio.

Linsanity (PG, 2013, Arc Entertainment)
In the two years since Linsanity took a planet of sports fans by storm, Jeremy Lin has returned to Earth as good but wholly mortal sixth-man point guard for the Houston Rockets. Consequently, Linsanity doesn’t feel like forever ago so much as something we all must have imagined, and the presence of a documentary bearing the phenomenon’s name feels premature for a player whose NBA career likely projects to end up somewhere hovering just above pretty good. But the most wonderful thing about the mostly wonderful “Linsanity” is how potently the feeling returns when the moment arrives where Lin transformed, over a couple hours and then a couple weeks, from an inevitably jobless NBA never-was to the biggest sensation on the planet. Partial credit naturally goes to the moment itself, which stands alone as one of those rare times where real-life sports looks crazier than a Disney film. But Lin himself participates heavily in “Linsanity’s” recollection not only of his breakout moment, but the lean and sometimes ugly years that preceded and nearly prevented it. His complete candor — sometimes to funny effect, sometimes at his own expense, but almost always honest in a way few athletes are on the record — takes what would have been a fun but needless documentary and elevates it into a can’t-miss for anyone who appreciates the game.

Dear Mr. Watterson (NR, 2013, Gravitas Ventures)
There’s an elephant in “Dear Mr. Watterson’s” room, and if you have any familiarity with the philosophies of the extraordinarily reclusive cartoonist who created “Calvin and Hobbes” and refused to allow it within 10 miles of any merchandising of any kind, your first and only guess — that Watterson had no participation whatsoever in the making of this documentary — is the only guess you need. Perhaps a little more surprising, at least given the implications of that title, is filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder’s seeming refusal to even attempt to garner any kind of participation on Watterson’s part. As a fan film, “Watterson” makes the most of being in an odd spot, sprinkling some glimpses into Watterson’s cartooning roots atop the recollections of fans, curators and fellow cartoonists. For would-be cartoonists, that last part, which spills out into an interesting discussion about where the medium has gone and is going in the current media climate, represents “Watterson” at its most interesting. It’s too bad, really, that Watterson himself isn’t present, beyond a few older quotes, to chime in on a discussion he inadvertently started. Though Schroeder arguably isn’t at fault, the near-complete absence of Watterson in a movie bearing his name creates a huge void that fans and Schroeder’s own loving appreciation can’t fill all by themselves. And while Watterson’s lack of participation almost certainly was a given no matter the effort, Schroeder’s post-credits admission that he never even attempted contact with his subject is hard to understand and fruitless to defend.

Last Love (NR, 2013, Image Entertainment)
The first leg of “Last Love” isn’t perfect, nor is it necessarily even believable with any amount of cynicism applied. But when English-speaking American widower Matthew (Michael Caine) meets the youthful, bilingual and wonderfully sweet Pauline (Clémence Poésy) on what otherwise would have been just another bus ride during just another lost day of missing his late wife and wandering alone through his adopted not-quite-home of Paris, it at least feels kind of perfect. Pauline and Matthew each lament the loss of family in different ways, and the friendship they build almost from nothing is quirky, fun and the kind of phenomenon that makes relationships look easy and makes us wonder why it isn’t can’t just be that easy. And then, abruptly, “Love” finds the biggest bucket of ice water in Paris, lifts it high in the air and rains cold water down over everything. A sudden and unwelcome story turn leads to the appearance of two comparably unwelcome characters, and from here, “Love” makes a gradual but rapidly dispiriting descent into the muck — of family politics, baggage and the grey clouds of frayed relationships — that it so delightfully and believably escaped early on. Misery never consumes it, and occasionally the film’s early light shines through late. But “Love” never finds its old form after letting it slip away, and the dubious events that send the movie home are hard to reconcile for all the wrong reasons.
Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes.

12/17/13: Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Elysium, The Family, Night Train to Lisbon, Kick-Ass 2

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (R, 2013, IFC Films)
When a local sheriff (Ben Foster) talks his way into the home of Ruth (Rooney Mara) — wife of freshly-escaped outlaw Bob (Casey Affleck), mother of their child and a heavier participant in Bob’s crimes than is commonly known — the unspoken implication of what’s to come is another case of a cop abusing his power and verbally throwing his weight around to no good end. What follows instead is a conversation so honest that it makes one feel bad for harboring such cynicism, even if it’s the movies themselves that trained us to be so cynical. In the scheme of things, it’s a minor point, and given what we’ve already seen by then, it may even be an obligatory one. But it’s one of several instances where “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” plays with expectations while also occasionally playing deliberately into their hands. There’s nothing complicated about the premise: Bob wants to return to Ruth, Ruth wants him back, and everybody in town, up to and including the cops, knows it. But only Bob, Ruth and the audience know the full details of what happened the day Bob went down, and “Saints” plays along by keeping the outlaws on the customary path while everyone on the right side of the law grows increasingly trickier to read. No attempts are made to deceive or play tricks on us, and “Saints” is, in numerous respects, as simple as it initially looks. But that small, occasional but effective element of surprise, mixed into a bounty of skillfully-realized characters playing beyond their archetype, makes “Saints” more engrossing than its premise and tempo would suggest at a glance.

Elysium (R, 2013, Sony Pictures)
Apparently, if the recent crop of movies about Earth’s demise is to be believed, the rarest mineral on our rotted planet will be a middle ground. There certainly isn’t one to be found in 2154, where billions of sick and poor labor on a ravaged, toxic Earth while their bosses and the rest of the wealthy elite live like royalty on a utopian space station, Elysium, that’s brimming with blue skies, delicious food and med bays that can heal the sick with the snap of a finger. Which begs the question: If it’s that easy to fix the sick, then what, besides an impossibly callous mob mentality, compels Elysium’s high society to deny Earthlings such an easy fix? “Elysium” can’t say — or rather, it’d rather not, because that would kneecap the extremely broad parable about healthcare and immigration that constantly, via equal parts extremely fallible logic and nakedly ham-handed lecturing, undercuts its own science fiction. Visually, “Elysium” — whether on Earth, in paradise or even the vast space in between — looks terrific. It looks so good, in fact, that during the stretches where it focuses on shutting up, looking good and moving quickly, it’s great entertainment. But when “Elysium” stops and talks for too long, the caricatures, lectures, heavy strokes and implausibilities it creates strike back with a vengeance. Optimistically, that affords us multiple ways to enjoy “Elysium” — through saintly patience as pretty sci-fi, ironically as accidental self-parody, or as a detective picking apart the bounty of ways these opposing worlds just don’t believably add up. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice if just one of these movies could either find some shades of gray or, if unable to do so, check the lecture at the door and just entertain us for a couple hours? There are ways to spin parables about our present condition in ways that won’t alienate those who feel differently, but “Elysium” is so broad that even those who do agree may sense a tinge of alienation seeping in. Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley star.
Extras: Extended scene, six behind-the-scenes features.

The Family (R, 2013, Fox)
Millionaire mobster-turned-snitch Giovanni (Robert De Niro) and his family (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo) have, via witness protection, relocated — and not for the first time, and likely not for the last given their bad habits and Giovanni’s continued pursuit of the good life. This time, the destination is Normandy, France, and the family blends in about as well as a family from Brooklyn’s cartoon character district should expect to assimilate. “The Family,” meanwhile, does some peculiar blending of its own. Is it a comedy? A family drama? A farce? A straight-faced violent mobster movie? Mostly, sometimes, sort of and yes. To varying degrees, it’s even successful at all four, even if it’s only truly funny when Giovanni is genially giving his FBI contact (Tommy Lee Jones) headaches. The divided attention finds “The Family” wearing an identity crisis up and down its sleeve, and the lack of focus results in a weird movie that clearly wishes it had twice as much time to reconcile the gap between comedy and violence. On the other hand, the attempt to make that reconciliation makes this entertaining in its own strange way. We’ve had more than a few straight-faced mobster movies and more than enough attempts at mobster farce, and “The Family’s” desire to have it all — not unlike Giovanni’s own wishes — makes it fun to watch and root for even if its failure to actually get it all is a foregone conclusion.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.

Night Train to Lisbon (R, 2013, Lions Gate)
During a brisk, rainy walk across a bridge en route to work, professor Raimund Gregorius (Jeremy Irons) spots and saves a woman seconds before she was to jump to her death. Though she follows him to his classroom, she disappears not long after, prompting Raimund to abandon his class mid-lesson, chase after her and gather enough information to board a train she supposedly is riding to Lisbon. Sounds exciting, right? Certainly. But all of this happens within the span of “Night Train to Lisbon’s” opening scenes, and the thrill of a man spontaneously dropping everything over a chance encounter rapidly peters out from there. Raimund’s clue-gathering journey leads to a book, which leads to an author (Jack Huston) and an author’s history whom Raimund plunders in hopes of finding a connection to the woman he saved. Much of “Lisbon,” meanwhile, occurs in flashback form as Raimund seeks answers to those questions and finds himself heading down a whole different rabbit hole than originally intended. Had “Lisbon” purely been framed as a story about the past Raimund discovers, the extra focus and cohesion may have turned it into something arresting. But as a disjointed history lesson about characters who mostly do not even exist in the film’s present day, it’s a dry, steep fall from the excitement of that opening scene. By the time “Lisbon” once again becomes a story about Raimund, the thrill has long since gone, and the meek attempt to bring it back is more fruitless than a butcher shop.
Extras: Interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.

Kick-Ass 2 (R, 2013, Universal)
Dumb fun, sure, but amid a glut of sterile, indistinguishable superhero movies, “Kick-Ass” was a revelation that used regular people — and kids (Chloë Grace Moretz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson), no less — to more vividly convey the ugly side of superheroism than its glossier rivals ever got close to replicating. A few years and a few more regular-folks-as-superheroes movies later, it’s like nobody learned anything. Perhaps feeling pressure to outdo its predecessor, “Kick-Ass 2” spills out everywhere, with graphic violence just because, bad one-liners everywhere, a dozen-plus people in ridiculous hero and villain getups, and all the noise (from music montages to bodily functions gone bad) that movies with nothing to say make when the silence gets uncomfortable and there’s lots of time to kill. The great irony of it all is that in between the attempts to shock, there’s a storyline that bears all the dull markings of a second film in the kind of tired superhero trilogy the original “Kick-Ass” put to shame. It’s a mostly poor attempt, particularly with regard to how ridiculously, unreasonably absurd Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s character has become in his transformation from two-faced sidekick in the first film to stupidly-dressed supervillain here, but the stale scent holds court over this mess all the same.
Extras: Cast/writer/director commentary, alternate opening, extended scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features.

12/10/13: The Hunt, Despicable Me 2, Sightseers, Good ol' Freda, Touchy Feely

The Hunt (R, 2012, Magnolia)
When six-year-old Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) knocks on Lucas’s (Mads Mikkelsen) door and asks if she can take his dog for a walk as she probably has done numerous times before, it stands to reason that Lucas — a teacher at Klara’s school and her father’s (Thomas Bo Larsen) best friend until a series of innocent communication breakdowns led to her accusing him of extremely indecent behavior toward her — would deny her this time. In a clumsier movie, the mere existence of such a scenario, smack in the middle of the story, would be too preposterous to believe. In the masterfully handled “The Hunt,” it’s simply the gut-turning apex of a broken man gently putting up a wall between himself and a friend who doesn’t understand why his daughter would lie, a town that has its pitchforks sharpened and bared, and a sweet kid who got mad one day, told a fib, and simply doesn’t understand the gravity of that fib and the damage it’s wreaked. That it’s possible not only to not hate Klara, but practically hurt for her as she looks longingly at the dog and walks away is a considerable compliment to “The Hunt,” which takes on an extraordinarily difficult subject and, with extreme grace but without fear, explores a what-if scenario that’s so emotionally loaded as to resemble taboo in the wrong light. Toeing a line that thin and sharp without losing courage is a feat few movies have ever accomplished, and “The Hunt’s” ability to do so without a single flinch makes it one of the year’s best. In Danish with English subtitles.
Extras: Alternate ending, deleted/extended scenes, outtakes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Despicable Me 2 (PG, 2013, Universal)
Former supervillain Gru’s transformation to the light side already was unofficially complete when he became a father of three orphans and an incalculable number of giggling alien-like minions in the first “Despicable Me.” But with his recruitment by the Anti-Villain League to save the world from the clutches of a new evil mastermind, it’s now official — even if that recruitment comes reluctantly, forcefully and with a ton of slapstick applied. With respect to Gru’s conflicted feelings, it’s clear almost immediately, as formidable but undeniably pretty agent Lucy Wilde effectively kidnaps him en route to recruiting him, where “Despicable Me 2” probably is headed. A few minutes later, we have a good idea what the minions’ role in this unfolding calamity will be. “DM2” is, like its predecessor, adherent to formula — so much so that it amusingly acknowledges it at almost the same time it falls into formation. And it can do that, because for the second straight movie, it simply does not matter. On his own, Gru is a terrific character with a bottomless contradictory reserve of sharp wit and childish baggage to carry the movie all by himself. But then there are his kids, who are adorable, brutally honest (in that cute “kids says the darndest things” kind of way) and pretty funny themselves. Then, of course, there are the minions, whose loyalty to Gru runs second only to the relentless temptation to indulge their endless curiosity and react like gibbering, giggling maniacs to pretty much everything that results from that indulgence. In terms of genuinely funny slapstick, the Minions can stand tall next to anybody, real or animated, yet “DM2’s” sharply funny script never feels dependent on that slapstick bailing it out. The two work in perfect, brilliant tandem, and the results are so entertaining that it doesn’t matter if we all know well in advance how the story ends.
Extras: Three new Minion shorts (with a making-of feature), directors commentary, deleted scene, four additional behind-the-scenes features.

Sightseers (NR, 2013, MPI)
Tina’s (Alice Lowe) mother (Eileen Davies) has concerns about her daughter embarking on a caravan holiday with newish boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram), and while we don’t have the full details as to why, her shout of “Murderer!” followed by nothing resembling a denial in return would seem to validate her concerns. That, for folks with any interest in seeing “Sightseers,” is perhaps the best place to get off the spoiler train and go in blind the rest of the way. “Sightseers” doesn’t hold any poignant lessons in store, nor is it a revelation as a character study. It is, simply, a calmly insane dark comedy about a murderer, the girlfriend who may be crazier than he is, a mom whose concern and apathy wage war on the surface of her mind, and what must be one thoroughly baffled little dog. It’s a smartly-written mess, but a mess all the same — the kind of comedy that’s funny not for anything it does, but for the slippery way it lulls you buying into its love story while leaving you to shake your head the whole way. (The ending, without spoiling why, could scarcely be more perfect, either.)
Extra: Interviews.

Good ol’ Freda (PG, 2013, Magnolia)
You can’t say you aren’t warned — by the subject herself, in fact, and not merely once. Freda Kelly served as The Beatles’ secretary from the time they were local nobodies until after they broke up, witnessing the formation and rise of one of history’s biggest bands from deep inside the inner circle. Since then, she’s remained as loyal as ever to the band, keeping her story unusually quiet and shunning the temptation to turn her unique role as fan club gatekeeper into a riches and fame. This, regardless of what it looks like, doesn’t change that. “Good ol’ Freda” is made with Kelly’s blessing, she provides the film’s narration and most of its stories, and there’s a hot minute where her daughter understandably wonders aloud why her mom still has to pull 9-to-5 hours doing clerical work while the band she accompanied from beginning to end sits on an empire worth billions. But if Kelly herself wonders the same thing, she never lets on, and if “Freda” ever prodded her for insight, her answer must have been diplomatic enough to not make the film. Kelly doubtlessly has forgotten exponentially more dirt about The Beatles than most outsiders ever uncovered, but the fond recollections she shares with “Freda” — provided primarily as a means of sharing her story with her grandchild than as a grab for attention — are dirt-free and nothing less than completely sweet. Even casual Beatles fans aren’t bound to learn much they didn’t already know, but enjoyed simply as a trip down memory lane with someone who rode shotgun the whole way and loved every minute of it, “Freda” is a light but sweet treat.
Extras: Director/Kelly commentary, screening Q&A, deleted scenes, interview, behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery.

Touchy Feely (R, 2013, Magnolia)
As alarmingly meek dentist Paul (Josh Pais) stammers about a broken toilet over dinner with his potentially equally fragile daughter Jenny (Ellen Page), “Touchy Feely” enters with a whimper. Some 85 minutes later, following a story about Paul’s practice that runs both parallel and contrary to a story about his sister Abby’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) massage therapy practice, the film exits roughly the same way. In between, “Feely” is a contradiction — a human drama about the literal and figurative human touch, but one whose own touch is so exasperatingly dulled by its own raging timidity that the sheepish beginning marks the peak of a long plateau instead of a step toward something resonant, funny, revelatory or simply lifted by its own pulse. “Feely’s” cast doesn’t sleepwalk through its lines or let down the script by keeping their distance from it. Rather, they simply look stuck inside storylines and characters that give them little breathing room before everything kind of resolves itself as quickly as it unraveled in the first place. Even when technically fulfilled, “Feely” never leaves us feeling the same way — just another completely adequate but fully unremarkable movie that practically begs you to look away while watching and forget you ever saw anything once it’s over.
Extras: Director/DeWitt/Pais commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.

12/3/13 : Lost and Found, The Wolverine, Jobs, Drinking Buddies, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, The Canyons

Lost and Found (NR, 2008, Entertainment One)
The computer-animated “Lost and Found” is the story of a boy and the penguin who unexpectedly shows up at his door one day, and the total number of words uttered by both during the course of the story is zero. Credit certainly is in order to Jim Broadbent, who very gracefully takes the speaking reins as narrator and leaves the boy to quietly ponder his surprise houseguest. But if even Broadbent had decided to go silent, “Found’s” wonderful gift of expression — a less-is-more master class that is at once subtle and unmistakably demonstrative — would leave one hard-pressed to wonder if something was missing. “Found’s” animation style, though clearly the work of computers, also serves as proof that not every movie assembled from rendered polygons need look like it obeyed the Pixar manual of style. By adopting a classic look — nearly but not completely like wooden toys come to expressive life — “Found” stands refreshingly apart amid a pretty but visually staid genre in need of some new energy. The sweet and funny story that pulls it all together could scarcely do better justice to that style, either.
Extra: Lengthy making-of feature.

The Wolverine (NR/PG-13, 2013, Fox)
With the oddly-titled “The Wolverine,” Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) gets his Ang Lee “Hulk” movie moment — delicate pace, pensive mood, audience-polarizing capabilities, the works. Compared to 2009’s more understandably-named “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” which bit off more exposition than it could chew and coughed up a completely ordinary origins movie as result, the new “Wolverine” has a more singular focus and fewer heroes and villains getting in the way of that focus. Set almost exclusively in Japan — both in present day and, briefly, during World War II — it enjoys the benefits of a fish-out-of-water story and takes advantage to comic, unsettling and curious effect. Due to mortality-related circumstances that won’t be spoiled here but likely can be seen coming, it’s also darker (for a Marvel movie, anyway), and there’s something appealing about the prospect of Wolverine taking on the Yakuza instead of more comic book villains (though there are, of course, a couple of those as well). Regardless, where “Origins” felt obligated to check off the usual array of origin-story boxes, “The Wolverine” feels like a sequel with only passing interest in obligation. There’s action, but it’s the punctuation for a run-on sentence of a story that takes its sweet time feasting on the psyche of a superhero who frequently looks out of his element. The approach is destined for polarization — canonically unfaithful to some, plain dull to others, and, for the subset of fans who have grown bored with comic book movies that almost all march to the same bored rhythm, Jackman’s best turn by far as Wolverine in four-and-change (and counting) attempts.
Extras: Extended cut of the film, director commentary, alternate ending, three behind-the-scenes features, second screen app.

Jobs (PG-13, 2013, Universal)
Perhaps the most admirable thing about “Jobs” is that it’s audacious enough to exist — and exist audaciously, in fact — even though it never really had a chance to matter. Steve Jobs’ life (portrayed here by Ashton Kutcher) has been exhaustively documented both in the moment and in retrospect, and the 656-page Walter Isaacson biography plundered the depths of detail in ways that are completely prohibitive to a feature-length movie (to say nothing of “Jobs,” which plays like a biopic borne out of secondhand research instead of firsthand accounts). Inevitably, “Jobs” finds itself in a position to please no one. Those unfamiliar with the story will be left to assume nothing of note happened during Jobs’ wilderness years between stints at Apple (“Jobs” barely acknowledges them), while those who do know the story will lament the omission of some of the most fascinating years of his career. The cut is understandable considering how much scrambling “Jobs” has to do — music montages, dubiously authentic melodramatic speeches and all — to take a lengthy story about obsessive devotion to nuance and compress it into something that hits the usual dramatic high notes. That’s the bad news. The good news? Taken for what it amounts to — a rah rah movie about doing the impossible, doing it well and living a life that changes a world previously shaped by people “that were no smarter than you” — it actually hits those notes more respectably than not. “Jobs” holds no candle to the book, it never feels remotely as personal or engrossing as the abundantly accessible mountain of Jobs’ own written and recorded words, it occasionally overdoses on schmaltz and embarrasses itself, and it ultimately wouldn’t matter if it never even existed. But “Jobs” genuinely conveys the excitement of meticulous hard work and a job magnificently done, and that understanding goes a long way for the viewer who holds those beliefs in the same high regard.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.

Drinking Buddies (R, 2013, Magnolia)
When humans in the future compile a list of history’s most stirring film speeches, the bombardment of “totally, um, yeahs” that Jill (Anna Kendrick) unleashes on Luke (Jake Johnson) when discussing their future probably won’t make the cut. That’s only a half-knock, because “Drinking Buddies” — the story of fun-loving microbrewery employee Kate (Olivia Wilde), her kinda serious boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston), her fun-loving co-worker (Johnson) and his kinda serious girlfriend (Kendrick) — isn’t in a stirring mood, and its extremely conversational style suits it more comfortably. Either way, we all know where this is headed almost as soon as the table is set, “Buddies” seems smart enough to realize we know, and the film does its damnedest not to be the same old movie a less imaginative screenwriter with a Hollywood ending mentality would lazily allow it be. The effort pays off, because “Buddies,” like real life, is emotionally messier and more grounded than your typical movie about the same stuff. But the cost of that temperament — a borderline comedy that’s never really funny, a drama that’s too busy maintaining its grounding to really unload all the emotion it bottles up — will price “Buddies” past a lot of viewers’ patience levels. There’s a reason Hollywood mentalities remain popular in Hollywood, and “Buddies'” divisive lack of emotional spectacle is as bound to be its biggest drawback for some as it is its saving grace for others.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, interviews, three behind-the-scenes features.

Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus (NR, 2013, Sundance Selects)
For a guy whose to-do list consists of “find a San Pedro cactus, go to the desert, drink its contents and hallucinate with friends,” American expatriate Jamie (Michael Cera) is seriously uptight. But maybe that’s the whole reason he needs a sip of San Pedro in the first place. Or maybe this elaborate cactus hunt-slash-acid trip is more trouble than it’s actually worth, and maybe that’s the inconvenient lesson hiding deep within Jamie’s road trip across Chile with friends and a free spirit (Gaby Hoffmann as Crystal Fairy) whom Jamie, much to his sober regret the next day, invited to ride along while high on coke at a party the night before. There are no wrong answers, because “Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus” itself is a nebulous trip where what you see — fables, revelations, maybe nothing at all past boredom — may differ completely from what someone else sees. The rhythm is so erratic, in fact, that one might just walk away thinking it’s simply a lousy movie and have no shortage of ammo with which to support that argument. “Fairy,” to its credit — whether by design or by accident — doesn’t protect itself from this very possible outcome. By putting the relentlessly unlikable Jamie out in the open with a bullseye on his face, it practically invites it. But it’s that approach that allows “Fairy” to be something different to everyone based on the angle at which they approach it. It’s a tradeoff that arguably backfires, but amid a thousand drug movies and a thousand road trip movies that all travel in the same direction, it’s a valiant bet to make.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

The Canyons (NR, 2013, IFC Films)
“The Canyons” is baggage in motion, a film that was unfairly savaged before it even surfaced but one that also lives up to the savage adjectives lobbed its way. It’s a desperate comeback project for an actress (Lindsay Lohan) who either no longer can act or no longer has enough clout to command dialogue that doesn’t make her look incapable. It’s a would-be breakout role for a porn star (James Deen) who instead validates the old adage about porn stars and actors being mutually exclusive professions. And it’s a movie about betrayal and the dregs of adult filmmaking that manages to be so boring that even its cast can’t resist looking down at their phones from time to time. “The Canyons'” existence is a net win, because the non-snarky recollections of its tumultuous creation provided reams of genuinely excellent reading. But purely on its own, it’s the worst kind of movie — so ill-conceived as to never engage its audience, yet so powerfully lifeless and bland that even enjoying it on an ironic level is next to impossible. If all that savage commentary was counting on anything, it was for “The Canyons” to at least be so bad as to be good. But even that low bar sits beyond reach here.
Extras: Six behind-the-scenes features.

11/26/13: Gift set roundup

The encroaching rise of streaming services and digital media almost certainly spells doom for the monolithic, dozens-plus-disc DVD/Blu-ray gift set. But finding a new revenue stream is another holiday season’s problem. In the meantime, if you’re still willing to fork over hundreds of dollars for a lavishly-produced physical set, someone somewhere is more than happy to accommodate your wish.

(Note: All prices listed are the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, but prices in the real world will vary — and probably skew much lower, but no guarantees.)

“Breaking Bad: The Complete Series” (NR, Sony Pictures): The likely king of this year’s gift set crop is, fittingly, the show that ruled the water cooler in 2013 as well. It’s also one of the more creatively-presented sets, packaged inside a money barrel replica that makes for great fan service but a potentially awkward fit for most bookshelves. That, along with the asking price, makes this a set solely for the truly dedicated. All extras from the individual season sets are bundled in, and new extras include a two-hour documentary about the final eight episodes, a 16-page liner notes booklet, a challenge coin designed by show creator Vince Gilligan and a Los Pollos Hermanos apron. (If you do not understand the significance of that apron, this set may not be for you.) MSRP: $300

(Note: For those who already own the first four-and-a-half seasons of “Breaking Bad,” the second half of the fifth season is newly available on its own as well. Along with eight of the best episodes of television ever made, the set includes commentary on all eight episodes, an alternate ending, deleted/extended scenes, bloopers and a nearly two-dozen-strong collection of behind-the-scenes features and “Inside Breaking Bad” episodes.)

“The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Complete Collection” (NR, StarVista): The especially special thing about this set? Much of it — 54 roasts of the likes of Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, Muhammad Ali and Ronald Reagan from “The Dean Martin Show” and “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” — is new to DVD instead of repackaged content. Also bundled in: A trove of sketches from “The Dean Martin Show,” seven episodes from “The Dean Martin Variety Show,” four Dean Martin television specials, 11 new behind-the-scenes features, roaster/roastee interviews, Martin home movie footage and a 44-page book of photos, anecdotes, liner notes and memorabilia. MSRP: $250

“Doctor Who: Series 1-7 Limited Edition Blu-ray Giftset” (NR, BBC): It’s a little odd to release a gift set this ornate for a show that’s still on the air, and that little voice in your head that suggests a newer and more complete set will probably trump this one in the not-so-distant future probably has a point. Nevertheless, here we are. Includes every episode (so far) of the rebooted series, as well as all the specials and all the extras that originally appeared in all those season sets and specials. New bonuses include a sonic screwdriver replica universal remote control, three art cards, an exclusive comic book, and a few new behind-the-scenes features. MSRP: $350

“Dexter: The Complete Series Collection” and “Dexter: The Complete Series Collection Exclusive Gift Set” (NR, Paramount): Then again, given how poorly “Dexter’s” final season went over with much of its fanbase, maybe an incomplete set with only seven seasons isn’t such a bad idea after all. Both collections include every episode, all previously-released extras, two new making-of documentaries and some new shorter behind-the-scenes features. The regular (so to speak) edition comes packaged inside a box that resembles Dexter’s box of slides, while the more exclusive edition comes bundled inside a large, faceless mannequin head that will likely haunt you for the rest of your days if you welcome it into your home. The latter set also comes with a hardcover art book. MSRP: $460 for the box, $545 and possibly your soul for the head.

“The History of WWE: 50 Years of Sports Entertainment” and “WWE: Raw 20th Anniversary Collection” (NR, WWE): World Wrestling Entertainment never has been one not to do commemoration right, so celebrating two birthdays at once is no problem (even if the lesser anniversary gets the arguable better party). “The History of WWE’s” centerpiece is the retrospective documentary of the same name, but the set’s extras — two handfuls of uncut matches, an assortment of landmark segments and a handful of stories and segments that did not appear in the documentary — may be the bigger draw for fans who already know the history. “Raw 20th Anniversary Collection,” on the other hand, is a genuine treasury, with 20 episodes (including the premiere) presented in their uncut glory. That’s hardly comprehensive for a show with more than 1,000 episodes in the can, but until WWE creates its own streaming service with every episode available on demand, this makes for a nice slice of history. A bonus disc with a feature about the history of “Raw” rounds out the set. MSRP: $40 for the 50th anniversary set, $90 for the 20th anniversary set.

“Weeds: The Complete Collection” (NR, Lions Gate): Every year seems to produce at least one set with packaging that backfires, and the otherwise pretty “Weeds” set gets a nod with an acrylic outer casing that’s pretty prone to cracking. If you pick this one up, perhaps do so in person instead of online. Provided it’s crack-free, the package is otherwise attractively designed, presented like a hardcover book with lots of photos (though little else) lining the page-like sleeves that hold the discs. Extras include a cast roundtable, three cast retrospectives and everything that previously appeared in the individual season sets. MSRP: $120

“Mama’s Family: The Complete Series” (NR, StarVista): Just in case you haven’t warmed up to shows about weed-dealing suburbanites, meth-dealing science teachers and serial-killing detectives, there’s always a classic ready to save the day. Includes all 130 episodes, including new broadcast masters of the first two seasons. New extras include a cast reunion roundtable, new cast/crew interviews, a one-on-one with series star Vicki Lawrence, the “Eunice” TV movie, “Mama’s Family” sketches from “The Carol Burnett Show” and an introductory note from Lawrence.

11/19/13: The World's End, Bridegroom, All is Bright, Prince Avalanche, We're the Millers, Violet & Daisy,

The World’s End (R, 2013, Universal)
For all the jokes we endured a year ago about Mayan calendars — remember that? — it was 2013 that became the year of the surprisingly good end-of-the-world comedy, and it couldn’t ask for a better closing act than the one it gets. “The World’s End” borrows its name from the final pub in small-town Newton Haven’s famed Golden Mile — a route dotted by 12 pubs and, occasionally, a group of fools determined to drink a pint at every one of them in a single evening. The night Gary (Simon Pegg) tried and failed remains the best of his life, and 20 years later, with only his age having matured, he’s determined to finish the mile with the four friends (Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan) who accompanied him. Small problem: They’ve grown up, one is sober, and none remember Gary terribly fondly. Worse news: Gary’s attempted reclamation of past glory commences around the same time it becomes apparent most of Newton Haven’s citizens have been body-snatched by what appear to be robots in human form. Why? “End” has reasons, and like everything else it has, those reasons are a grandiose brew of spectacular and stupid. “End” takes one legitimately funny and sweet movie about getting old and growing up, adds a completely crazy movie about the possible end of humanity, douses both sides in beer and mashes them together with as much joy and abandon as a child crashing cymbals for the first time. The result is, of course, bedlam. But never during the course of that bedlam does either design lose itself. Why should great action, great comedy and great friends be mutually exclusive entities? They shouldn’t. And in the hands of those rare individuals who get it and know how to express it, they aren’t.
Extras: Three commentary tracks, deleted scene, outtakes/alternate takes, six behind-the-scenes features, two features about in-film Easter Eggs, storyboards, trivia track, stunt/rehearsal footage, storyboards/animatics.

Bridegroom (R, 2013, Virgil Films)
When Tom Bridegroom fell off a roof during a photo shoot, doctors could not save him. Nor, sadly, could Shane Bitney Crone — his partner, best friend and the most important person in his life — see him at the hospital or even safely attend his funeral, much less plan it. No need to explain why, because by this point, we all know why: Without the rights granted to heterosexual couples who marry, Shane stands on the outside looking in as the person he waited his whole life to meet is laid to rest by a family that froze him out of the process. We all know this story because abstract, hypothetical versions of stories like Shane and Tom’s are bandied about in arguments between politicians and talking heads whose connection to gay marriage often ranges from peripheral to purely philosophical. But the reason those abstract stories exist is because the real ones do, too, and “Bridegroom” tells the story of Shane and Tom — where they separately came from, how they met, what they meant to each other, and what Shane’s life has been like since losing Tom — in incredibly personal detail. Without lecturing or going big picture, and simply by being what it is, the story conveys what a lifetime of lectures, hypotheticals and cable news nonsense could not remotely match. When Shane challenges every married couple to feel for each other as he and Tom felt for one another, no argument to the contrary stands a chance.
Extra: Public Service Announcements from DoSomething.org.

All is Bright (R, 2013, Anchor Bay)
The dreary Christmastime movie has become so prevalent at this point that genuinely happy Christmas movies have become the new novelty. But in the time it takes freshly paroled safe cracker Dennis (Paul Giamatti) to make the on-foot trek from a Quebec prison to his former wife’s (Amy Landecker) house, only to discover she told their young daughter he had died instead of gone to prison, there’s something about “All is Bright’s” bleakness that feels just a bit different. The pace is a little odd. The soundtrack, and even the rhythm of the soundtrack, is curious. And while the fake death announcement could be played for dark laughs, “Bright” plays it straight instead … while letting the slightest breeze of bone-dry dark comedy sneak in and make itself at home. While Dennis tries to go straight and his former and possibly future partner in crime Rene (Paul Rudd) tries to do right by him after effectively stealing his wife, “Bright” holds its note, going darker than most wannabe-dark Christmas movies, getting there without the help of irony or calculation, and occasionally finding the funny or incredibly sweet underside of the heavy, dull ache it carries from scene to scene. It’s almost empirically contradictory to say a movie this deeply embedded in bleakness isn’t a downer, but “Bright” lets just the right kind of light in to make this contradiction not merely possible, but harmoniously so. For all who both dread the holidays and hold out hope for them to deliver on their magical promise, there is at least one movie this year that completely understands. No extras.

Prince Avalanche (R, 2013, Magnolia)
Peace and quiet. The occasionally friendly passerby. No Internet (because it’s 1988). No boss to report to and no one to even answer to other than his girlfriend’s little brother (Emile Hirsch), who is along for the ride as a mostly willing assistant. Alvin (Paul Rudd) can talk all day long about taking a job repainting a lonely Texas highway in order to send money home to his girlfriend and her child, but one glance at “Prince Avalanche” says a thousand words about the wonders of a quiet life of fresh air and honest work. Being a movie, “Avalanche” inevitably cannot remain this simple. But the might with which it holds on to its initial conviction is as gratifying to those who love Alvin’s adoration of peace and quiet as it likely will be alienating to those who want some big storytelling gesture to rip it all away. (Don’t let Alvin’s funny mustache fool you: It’s a nod to the times and not a sign that this is the kind of comedy for which Rudd is better known.) Though a tangible, pitch-capable story commences, “Avalanche” is most potent as a movie set around big moments instead of inside them. And in a way Alvin cannot even grasp in 1988, it’s a strangely romantic nod to humanity at its most basic, with a couple riddles thrown in that are ripe for personal interpretation. It isn’t for everyone, in other words. But if that initial gratification catches you the right way, rest gratified knowing “Avalanche” never lets go of that feeling.
Extras: Director/crew commentary, deleted scene, interviews, behind-the-scenes features.

We’re the Millers (R/NR, 2013, New Line)
The good news about “We’re the Millers?” The second half is better than the first, and occasionally it’s funny. The not-so-good news? The bar it needs to clear to be the better half is ankle-high, the funniest character is a bit character who appears in four scenes and wears out the bit by the end of his third appearance, and for all the ridiculousness inherent in a story about a nobody drug dealer (Jason Sudeikis), a local stripper (Jennifer Aniston) and two loner teens (Emma Roberts and Will Poulter) posing as a family of squares in order to smuggle drugs into the United States, “Millers” is nothing if it isn’t obligated to hit all the same story checkpoints every middling comedy inevitably hits. The chirping about Aniston’s strip scene was the only reason “Millers” was merely quickly forgotten instead of never remembered at all, and the PG-13 result of that scene pretty much crystallizes the movie’s problem. Encircled by a whirlwind of drugs, kingpins, strippers and dirty cops, “Millers” still fails to find the edge it needs to be the dark comedy it wants to be. If the Millers are daredevils in milquetoast clothing, the movie bearing their name is the complete opposite.
Extras: Extended cut, deleted scenes/outtakes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Violet & Daisy (R, 2013, Cinedigm)
The word “pretentious” is one of the more poorly-used words in 21st century art criticism, slapped on entirely too many works simply because they try to be complex or dare not punctuate their storytelling with something exploding. So it’s time to go to school and watch what happens when actual, living pretense devours a movie from inside out. “Violet & Daisy” is the story of Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), whose vocation — contract killers — flies in the face of everything else about them. It isn’t simply a case of pretty faces killing indiscriminately, either. No, Violet and Daisy are practically preschool children in grown-up bodies, operating with a spacey, mousey, often disaffected and relentlessly exaggerated naïveté that is so violently disingenuous as to kill its purported novelty (to say nothing of cuteness) almost on sight. Once a job goes bad — in the most aw-shuckiest way possible, of course — our killers are forced to deal with a target (the late James Gandolfini as Michael) who has enough time and leverage to deal back. It is solely by the grace of Gandolfini and Michael — a man who has made mistakes and accepts his fate, strange as it’s become here — that “Daisy” has anything at all to offer. Even when surrounded by phony characters and phony circumstances and saddled with the kind of dialogue that forces him to play along, Gandolfini brings a level of grace to his character that’s both drop-of-a-pin gentle and larger than life. But Gandolfini’s work alone cannot save “Daisy” from itself, and it’s a testament to the film’s awfulness that he never even has a chance. If anything, a film that merely was lousy becomes almost offensively bad when it moves away from Gandolfini and shows us repeatedly just how steep the drop is from his work to the car crash that nullifies it. No extras.

11/12/13: Blackfish, Grabbers, Turbo, Dealin' With Idiots, Paradise

Blackfish (PG-13, 2013, Magnolia)
If you were forced to live in a confined space instead of free to roam the world, would you not act out, and would it not change you? All evidence and common sense says it would — especially if, like Tilikum, one of Sea World’s prized orcas, you had no way to actually understand why this has happened and no way, short of violent and potentially fatal aggression, to communicate your restlessness. But if common sense isn’t enough, the staggering gallery of former Sea World trainers “Blackfish” unleashes, and their accounts of a company that neglected the well-being of its human and whale performers alike while pretending the violent attacks that injured or killed multiple trainers were nothing more than trainer error, is plenty damning on its own. “Blackfish’s” point of entry revolves around Tilikum, who arrived at Sea World with a checkered history but whose value as a breeding whale keeps him in captivity despite a series of tragedies compounding that history. Pile on a lack of regular socialization with other whales and a performance schedule that is now nearly nonexistent, and to hear his former trainers describe it, Tilikum’s life effectively mirrors that of a prisoner in solitary confinement. Tilikum’s story is merely one of several heartbreakers “Blackfish” touches on about a creature that takes as well to captivity as we do. But for all the recounting former employees and (among others) expert witnesses from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration do, the refusal on Sea World management’s part to participate is as troubling as anything anyone says. (They’ve since responded in the wake of the film’s increased visibility, and the debate that has commenced since “Blackfish” originally premiered is very much worth seeking out.)
Extras: Director/producter commentary, director’s note, six additional short features.

Grabbers (NR, 2012, IFC Films)
There’s something lurking in the sea that’s causing bloodied and sometimes headless people to wash ashore on a small Irish island. Also? It’s pregnant. So what better idea than to lure it to land for further study? Considering the best classification this team of a single scientist (Russell Tovey), an alcoholic cop (Richard Coyle), his rookie partner (Ruth Bradley) and the town drunk (Lalor Roddy) can come up with for the creature is “Grabber” — because it grabs stuff, see — the process for studying and containing the creature(s) should be elaborately devised and airtight, right? This is the movies, so of course not. But it may not matter, because once again this is the movies, every movie monster has a weakness, and the Grabber’s perceived weakness represents the break of a lifetime for this ragtag group. “Grabbers” spills the details of that weakness in much of its marketing, but it’s best left unspoiled for the uninitiated — primarily because it’s funny, but also because it embodies everything that makes “Grabbers” so much fun despite fundamentally looking so familiar. If you’ve seen a monster movie before, you likely can see the outline of this one forming before it happens, and even that surprise about the weakness may be just telegraphed enough to give itself away early. But a great delivery can make all the difference, and while “Grabbers” does just fine in the monster (and terrifying offspring) design department, its ability to constantly get the little things right is the real star. Customary subplots take funny and not-so-customary turns, characters (including a bounty of townsfolk beyond the core quartet) both honor and shatter their archetypes at the same time, and even when the things you see coming arrive on schedule, a little sliver of invention (or a sharply funny line) derails the plan in just the right way.

Turbo (PG, 2013, Dreamworks)
It’s kind of ridiculous to quantify logical degradation in a movie that begins with a talking snail watching old tapes of the Indianapolis 500 while his brother Chet urges him to get some sleep because they have work in the morning. Even when Turbo’s dreams of becoming a speed demon somehow come true via a freak accident only Peter Parker could understand, no alarms are raised, because it’s the whole reason this animated movie about talking snails exists. But when Turbo encounters another group of snails with similar appetites for speed and extreme sports? And a taco shop employee — a human one — sponsors his campaign to race in the Indy 500 while a rival driver — again, human — turns completely murderous in an attempt to stop him? Well that’s kinda weird even here, and the only reason “Turbo” doesn’t simply get away with it is because all of this coincides with an encroaching suspicion that the movie doesn’t completely know what to do with itself. Snails make cracks at each other that don’t make sense for snails to make, a soundtrack that’s both a weird fit for kids and a weird fit for 2013 gives rise to music montages that sometimes run right up against other music montages, and “Turbo” just kind of manically fails away with boundless energy and little concept of how to spend that energy wisely before we inevitably get to race day. Here, of course, is the part where we remember this is a kids movie. Outside of the weird song choices, “Turbo” suffices as a colorful, caffeinated movie that bends over backward to entertain. Turbo’s likable, some of his snail friends are likable, Chet is lovable, and that’s enough to make “Turbo” likable — and sloppy and narratively ordinary and kind of incomprehensible at times, but likable nonetheless.
Extras: Shell creator game, interview with Turbo, four behind-the-scenes features, music videos, preview of the upcoming “Turbo” television show.

Dealin’ With Idiots (NR, 2013, IFC Films)
Amid the war zone that is the local copy shop, as Coach Jimbo (Bob Odenkirk) spins a tale about brotherly betrayal, unfinished repairs and what must have been one seriously distressing copy order, there’s a glint of a chance that Max’s (Jeff Garlin) plan to mine material for his next movie by interviewing neighbors connected to his son’s little league baseball team was an inspired one. We know it isn’t, because look at that title, but it’s nice to have hope, isn’t it? Like HBO’s recently-released “Clear History,” which found Larry David playing a bizarro-world version of his bizarro-world self from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Dealin’ With Idiots” feels like a lost episode of “Curb” with Garlin in a role that’s different but not very spiritually far removed from his work on “Curb.” (Sure enough, just as in “History” and “Curb” before that, J.B. Smoove is on hand to steal nearly every scene in which he appears.) “Idiots” is at its best in that copy shop, and that’s a direct correlation to Max’s ability to find a story worth mining. Mostly, he just validates his assertion that few of his neighbors are people he wants to be around any longer than necessary, and mostly, the results are amusing more than insightful, much less revelatory. That doesn’t add up to the screed about little league parents that Garlin may have had in mind when he dreamt this up, but thanks to a large cast (Fred Willard, Jami Gertz, Kerri Kenney, Steve Agee, Richard Kind and Timothy Olyphant, among others, also star) that’s capable of making the best with what it gets, it at least isn’t boring.

Paradise (PG-13, 2013, Image Entertainment)
There’s no rule that says a movie has to have something to say. But as a narrating Lamb (Julianne Hough) introduces us to her previous and present selves — the former a sweet churchgoing Montana girl who’d never sipped alcohol or seen an R-Rated movie, the latter a plane crash victim with burn scars running down her body and a newfound contempt for faith and her previous self — during “Paradise’s” opening scene, it reads like a declaration that a message lies ahead with teeth bared and sharpened. And that’s before Lamb torches her former congregation during a blistering second-scene testimonial that is so pointedly bitter as to antagonize and challenge those who feel differently to just turn the movie off. But then Lamb boards a plane to Vegas to capitalize on her newfound desire to commit sin, only to find herself drowning in a sea of people who largely are so completely terrible that the first two who aren’t (Octavia Spencer and Russell Brand) become her best friends despite making shaky introductions themselves, and the fury that opened “Paradise” makes a strange, sharp turn into a frazzled thrashing for acceptance. Outside of some pointed but tired jabs about race and religion, “Paradise” never really pulls its punches the same way. Nor does it credibly jive as a coming-of-age story for Lamb when the experience is this disjointed and “Paradise’s” portrayal of Vegas makes being locked in a tower look sort of appealing by comparison. Even by the standards of a movie whose only desire is to entertain, Lamb’s story is too stumble-laden to do so coherently, and in light of “Paradise’s” opening salvo and what it at least seemed to represent, the most shocking thing about what follows is how quickly all those teeth fall out.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

11/5/13: Informant, Clear History, Girl Most Likely, Under the Dome

Informant (NR, 2013, Music Box Films)
There may be no person on the planet as uniquely qualified to honestly dissect the entire activist spectrum as Brandon Darby, and it’s for that very reason that so many people have no interest in hearing what he has to say. Spurred by his own experiences and the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort, Darby mobilized not simply as a far-left activist, but as a self-styled movement leader whose personality and ambition created wedges that reached chasmic levels as philosophies clashed. When one of those clashes involved the prospect of using extreme violence in a way that could potentially harm innocent people, Darby diverged and began a journey that morphed him into a tipster, an FBI informant and eventually an alleged traitor, target and reluctant (and not-so-reluctant) Tea Party poster child. And that mostly is just the story from Darby’s mouth. His detractors have a, let’s say, slightly different take on these events, and “Informant” does the only reasonable thing it can do by keeping quiet and letting both sides speak for themselves (and, to a point, respond to one another) without editorial intervention. Balance is “Informant’s” strongest asset, and its inclusion of subjects who were there but not necessarily entrenched in either camp goes a long way toward elevating it beyond a simple “he said, they said” piece. Of course, at its core, that’s still what it is, and the truth, which likely rests somewhere in the middle like it usually does, has no comment. But “Informant’s” inability to do the impossible and dig that truth up has no bearing on the entertainment value — and the interesting, mortifying and even funny insights into activism culture — it provides throughout the effort.
Extras: Additional interviews, footage of Darby at the Occupy Wall Street rally.

Clear History (NR, 2013, HBO)
Would you buy a car named Howard? Marketing guru Nathan Flomm (Larry David) doesn’t think so, and he’s convinced enough to sell his stake in a car company whose star and stock appear almost destined to rise. That’s conviction. But Nathan also thinks it’s a good idea to install a flap drivers can use to urinate while driving, so maybe he’s just insane. Or maybe he’s just Larry David with a new name. “Clear History” quickly flashes ahead 10 years, where Nathan has assumed a new name, haircut and home to escape the infamy of being the guy who quit what became a multibillion dollar company, and there’s a story about getting payback when his former boss (Jon Hamm) moves to the same resort town and doesn’t recognize him. But if the scene with J.B. Smoove doesn’t raise any alarms, the bits about restaurant silverware etiquette and a driver’s right of way make it clear that a Larry David by any other name may still be Larry David. That, of course, isn’t necessarily bad news. It may even be perfectly great news, because “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is a very funny show and an extended, alternate-universe episode is a treat in its own special way. Just understand what you’re getting if, somehow, you don’t like the show but still have some interest in seeing this. It’s funny, clever and actually goes somewhere with its story, but it’d be hard to dream up a worse demo reel for showcasing David’s versatility as an actor. Michael Keaton, Danny McBride, Eva Mendes, Kate Hudson and Philip Baker Hall also star. No extras.

Girl Most Likely (PG-13, 2013, Lions Gate)
Before it’s even established that Peter is Imogene’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend, it’s clear he’s planning a quick exit from their relationship. Before we know what Imogene does for a living, it’s clear we’re about to find out she’s about to lose her job. And while it’s less obvious what Imogene failed at (playwright) before settling on plan B in Manhattan, falling short again and finding no choice but to move back home with her content but strange family in New Jersey, “Girl Most Likely” need not come out and immediately say that she failed at anything, because it doesn’t really need to. We’ve all seen this movie before, and we all know how this goes. “Likely” has its moments, thanks to a few funny parts and an extensive effort of its cast’s part to be lively when being funny or inventive aren’t options. As a body of work, it’s perfectly, agreeably pleasant, if only thanks to that cast’s partial likability. But one might wonder if that title was a sly jab at Imogene’s thoroughly ordinary story if it didn’t entail giving “Likely” more self-awareness points than it earns. As vanilla as that early going is, it’s no match for a second half that replaces the amusing mood with an obligatory layer of drama that is equally plain. When a totally silly and narratively jarring end sequence arrives half out of nowhere to put this one to bed, it’s a welcome sight instead of a puzzling detour, if only because any surprise at all — even in the service of pure nonsense — will suffice at that point. Annette Bening, Matt Dillon, Darren Criss and Christopher Fitzgerald also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Under the Dome (NR, 2013, CBS/Paramount)
It isn’t easy to make a hit television show, which is why “Under the Dome” — based on the Stephen King book of the same name, wherein a small town finds itself suddenly enclosed by an invisible but impenetrable dome — made a quick transformation from summer miniseries event to multi-season-with-no-end-in-sight show almost as soon as millions of viewers made it a hit. Unfortunately, it is no easier to maintain a hit show than become one, and with each passing episode, “Dome’s” struggles to extend itself look increasingly like its eventual undoing. The intriguing questions are all nicely laid out. Where’d the dome come from? Who put it there? What’s happening on the other side, which is as visible as ever but impenetrable by sound, radio waves and everything else? And last but never least, why is this happening? Problem is, “Dome’s” questions are so point-blank obvious that the show’s objective quickly turns to doing anything but answering them and fully satiating people’s curiosity. Who’d stick around if it did? So instead, here are stories about jealous lovers, crooked politicians, rogue sheriffs, crazy doomsday criers and numerous other characters whose true colors — for better or worse, though considerably more often for worse — are brought out by being enclosed together and cut off from the outside world. Some of these stories hit, but most are kneecapped by cliche, amateur-hour character design and a hammy production that, from the evil-eyed frowns to the soundtrack, is so overbearing as to flirt with comedy. The longer “Dome” stalls without interesting stories to keep it afloat, the less worthwhile it becomes to see what the dome’s secrets are. And when season one ends with a torrent of drawn-out storylines that remain unresolved only so season two has something to do, it’s enough to just give up entirely. (If you want answers, there’s always the book.)
Contents: 13 episodes, plus five behind-the-scenes features.

10/29/13: Monsters University, Family Tree S1, R.I.P.D.

Monsters University (G, 2013, Disney)
Pixar fully ripped the spotless record bandaid off when it finally released a total misfire in “Cars 2.” And with “Monsters University,” a peripheral involvement in the straight-to-video “Planes” and a “Finding Nemo” sequel following behind, one might get the impression that the studio’s days of creating one groundbreaking new world after another have given way to a roadmap that may as well be cribbed from Dreamworks or Sony Pictures. But maybe we’re just overthinking this whole thing. “University” is exactly what its name might lead you to believe it is: a prequel that (a) shows us how Sulley and Mike first became friends and joined forces and (b) an amusing excuse to combine one of Pixar’s universes with the college movie and everything (frat parties, scary deans, campus mayhem) that entails. On that level, “University” coasts in a way “Monsters, Inc.” never really did, and while it builds on the ingenious concept of scaring as an industry that’s as glamorous to young monsters as professional sports are to young humans, it doesn’t apply any similarly brilliant twists to our heroes’ formative years. But beneath the pedestrian surface lies an attention to detail that easily and repeatedly justifies “University” as a worthy prequel. What it lacks in overarching vision, “University” redeems in extremely funny throwaway lines, immense amounts of unexpected little visual touches, and an entire university’s worth of clever monster designs and personalities — many of which won’t even be discovered until a second or third viewing. If and when Pixar gets back to the business of creating worlds none of us have ever visited before, few will object. But the sheer volume of ingenuity hiding beneath “University’s” plain premise is, beyond a confirmation that the studio remains a cut above, a perfectly wonderful way to bide some time until that happens.
Extras: Animated short “Blue Umbrella,” filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, 10 behind-the-scenes features, set flythrough, art/promo galleries.

Family Tree: The Complete First Season (NR, 2013, HBO)
Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd) is at a crossroads. Or that’s perhaps what he’d have you believe. Mostly, he cannot get over being dumped by both his girlfriend and employer, and apropos of nothing, he suddenly has a box of mysterious stuff a distant relative he never even met left as an inheritance. And because he’s at a crossroads (translation: no job, nothing to do, and that box has some cool stuff in it), he’s embarked on a journey — with the help of his socially-damaged ventriloquist sister (real-life not-so-normal ventriloquist Nina Conti), a dad (Michael McKean) who’d rather watch television, a mom (Lisa Palfrey) from another planet and a friend who is no help at all (Tom Bennett) — to discover just how deep the Chadwick lineage goes. As one might expect from Christopher Guest’s presence as series creator, or as one might just assume based on a pretty easy educated guess, the family Tom finds is mostly strange as well. Weirdness pretty much carries the day in “Family Tree,” which has the interesting dual problem of feeling too cramped by its half-hour runtime and stretched too thin by a premise that could get old in a hurry if it doesn’t evolve. The good news is that “Tree’s” first season eventually does evolve, albeit slightly, beyond simply being a weird-relative-of-the-week show. The better news is that “Tree” is frequently funny throughout the season and rarely rates below amusing even at its most cramped or strained. Guest’s productions have a way with deadpanned words that countless writers have imitated but few have really understood and properly utilized, and while the sitcom format tests that mastery in new ways, “Tree” passes with just enough flying colors to make it easy to recommend.
Contents: Eight episodes, plus deleted scenes, music from the show and clips from Keith Chadwick’s (McKean) favorite 1970s sitcoms.

R.I.P.D. (PG-13, 2013, Universal)
Detective Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds), much to his dismay, is dead — shot dead, in fact, by his own partner (Kevin Bacon as Hayes) on the force. But death is merely a recruitment tool for the R.I.P.D., an elaborate undead police force tasked with exposing and eliminating rotting souls who torment the living under the guise of normal, living people. That’s the cool part. But then Nick meets his new partner: Roy (Jeff Bridges), a lawman from the 1800s who apparently spent no part of his extremely lengthy tenure learning how not to be a caricature. And with each passing exchange between Nick and Roy, we’re treated to a little dismay of our own, because “R.I.P.D.” is similarly incapable of any kind of ability to just move on. Nick is the straight man with surprisingly few questions about his newfound afterlife, Roy is the tough-talkin’ ol’ cowboy with a spin-the-wheel assortment of spoutable cliches, and every conversation they have serves no other purpose than as a springboard for Bridges to ham it up hard. It’s funny at first, cute shortly after that, and increasingly more tiresome the more it repeats itself without going anywhere. Any hopes of a rescue from outside grow dimmer by the minute: Following an extremely promising introduction, “R.I.P.D.” loses its appetite for clever fiction and just kinda settles for being a loud mix of a buddy comedy on a treadmill, a predictable and binary good-versus-evil chase, and a monster movie that’s loaded with guns and special effects that amount to lots of empty noise and maybe a headache.
Extras: Alternate openings, five behind-the-scenes features.

10/22/13: The Way, Way Back, The Wall, The Waiting Room, Only God Forgives, As Cool As I Am, I Give it a Year

The Way, Way Back (PG-13, 2013, Fox)
Trent (Steve Carell) thinks his girlfriend’s 14-year-old son rates a three out of 10 on the interesting person scale, and while “The Way, Way Back” very quickly provides the means to deduce that Trent probably is a scumbag, it also raises the possibility that his assessment of the mumbling, stammering Duncan (Liam James) may actually be generous. “Back” begins with Duncan and his family, such as it is, en route to a vacation home for the summer, and like most movies set in temporary summer homes and set around teenage boys, its coming-of-age status is marked in stone. What isn’t quite so expected are the likes of lazy-eyed pre-teen ladies man Peter (River Alexander) and the manchild water park employee (Sam Rockwell as Owen) who takes Duncan under his wing while having some extremely funny good-natured laughs at his completely daft expense. Yes, “Back” is a supremely delightful coming-of-age movie by the metrics of coming-of-age movies. It’s happy, sad, clumsy, revelatory and occasionally angry and rebellious. But perhaps more than anything, it’s so consistently funny that it may actually be a better comedy than coming-of-age movie. Being a teenager is awful, wonderful, weird, exciting and, for those looking on who already underwent teenagedom and made it out the other side, wonderfully funny to watch. “Back” captures every facet pretty well, but it crushes that last one, making it a timeless movie teenagers can appreciate right now and continually cherish years from now. Toni Collette, Maya Rudolph and Allison Janney, among quite a few others, also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features.

The Wall (NR, 2012, Music Box Films)
The notion of being the last person left in the world is understandably terrifying and strangely romantic, and Frau (Martina Gedeck) embodies both extremes without ever even raising her voice. Though invisible to the eye, the wall in “The Wall” is real and impenetrable by foot, high-speed automobile or even sound. And though its perimeter is hard to ascertain due to its invisibility, Frau needs little time to deduce she’s the only person inside, with only her dog Lynx, some wildlife and a pencil and paper to keep her company and perhaps sane. Frau admits as much in her writings, the narration of which “The Wall” uses to illustrate the mindset of a woman who has attained both inexplicable imprisonment and a level of personal autonomy that’s enviably difficult to achieve in this age. Contradictions constantly work in unlikely harmony in “The Wall,” which utilizes showing and telling on separate levels to rather literally guide a story that’s comparably layered in spite of an extremely simple premise and precious little in the way of tangible activity to fit inside that premise. That, translated one way, is a nice way of whispering “nothing happens!” to the crowd that needs that wall to come crashing down or some other grand resolution to occur for these 108 minutes to have been worthwhile. Things definitely happen, but they aren’t things like that, nor is “The Wall” really even about the wall beyond the realization that it exists and dictates everything else that happens. The aforementioned notions and what they represent — to us, while watching, as well as Frau and even Lynx — are more interesting than the things and what they do, and complicated but careful way “The Wall” navigates them means it isn’t a movie for everyone or even most. But what it strives to do, it does beautifully.
Extras: Illustrated photo booklet with essays and a director’s afterword.

The Waiting Room (NR, 2012, Docurama)
In a parallel universe, where the discussion about affordable health care hasn’t been horrifically hijacked by politics, reckless misinformation and the drive to spite politicians instead of fix something that’s very broken, “The Waiting Room” — a document of 24 aggravating hours in the life of the emergency room at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif. — would be a must-see. It is, as one might expect from a compressed picture of an emergency room welcoming 241 patients through its doors in a single day, a mess. Outside of a couple stories that receive extended focus, most of what passes through “Room” is disorganized and extremely narratively unkempt, with many stories comprising a single scene and never seeing a resolution later. But that’s the nature of a day in the ER: Some patients’ problems remain unresolved, some patients will have to continue their treatment elsewhere another day, and some won’t even be seen because of traffic, insurance woes or some other circumstance. Everyone — patients, nurses, doctors — is frustrated and tired for different reasons, and that’s where the cameras come in. For all the ground it cannot cover because of its format, “Room” provides a pretty powerful sample of what’s ailing American health care. Everyone gets a chance to speak without a filter, no side is fully absolved — a scene about a drug addict taking up a bed, among other things, means even patients don’t get off easy — and an issue that’s been reduced to abstract mudslinging gets to show off its human side while the film itself stays quiet and just rolls camera.
Extras: Director commentary, outtakes/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes stories.

Only God Forgives (R, 2013, Radius TWC/Anchor Bay)
Though atmosphere, properly applied, can buy a movie acclaim it otherwise may not deserve, it is not a blank check. “Only God Forgives” brings us to the dregs of Bangkok, where an awful human being named Billy (Tom Burke) murders a 16-year-old prostitute and is himself murdered by that girl’s father, who then is violently punished by a police lieutenant (Vithaya Pansringarm) who has his hands in every pot and dishes out his idea of justice by maiming and killing those he wishes to set right. That brings us to Billy’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), who flies to Bangkok and orders her other son Julian (Ryan Gosling) — also living in Bangkok and managing a muay thai club that fronts a drug smuggling ring — to kill Billy’s killer. That, if we’re using textbook terms, is the plot. But the real story with “Forgives” is its tenor. Extreme violence — typically with cause, disproportionate punishment-versus-crime metrics notwithstanding — are its punctuation. Excessive doses of million-yard stares, slow neck turns, extremely economical dialogue and marathon periods of total emotional numbness where character, script and cinematography alike all brood to near catatonia are what escort us from one exclamation point to the next. The fascination surrounding “Forgives” becomes almost wholly about discovering how sick and cold and empty it gets; whether the near-lifeless husk we call Julian achieves vengeance for an awful excuse of a human being he reluctantly calls his brother is almost inconsequential. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a movie on those terms, because there’s no wrong way to enjoy a movie. But there is no assurance whatsoever that you’ll like the feeling that’s waiting at the bottom of this ocean, nor is “Forgive” the least bit concerned with being understood or even the least bit liked. Say hello to what might be 2013’s most polarizing movie, and dive in at your own risk.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, interviews, two behind-the-scenes features.

As Cool As I Am (R, 2013, IFC Films)
“As Cool as I Am’s” title comes from the film’s opening moments, when high school sophomore Lucy (Sarah Bolger) narrates about the symmetry between a family’s level of dysfunction and how interesting the people in that family are. Naturally, that’s a portent that dysfunction is headed to her home, where Dad (James Marsden as Chuck) is away most of the time because of work and Mom (Claire Danes as Lainee) is restless with regard to how she spends her days and nights. But that little speech also reads like a declaration that no matter how dysfunctional things get, sympathetic well-wishers need not fill out the guest book, because the silver lining is right there in plain sight. Sure enough, while “Cool” heads down some worn-out thematic roads, it walks with a different rhythm than most — never so bulletproof as to be mistaken for irony, but nothing close to soppy or self-pitying, either. “Cool” isn’t even terribly sad even when it is, and not necessarily because Lucy is even all that cool. Like all teens, she’s only as cool as the limits of awkwardness and inexperience allow. But while Lucy doesn’t come out and address those limitations quite so literally as she addresses impending dysfunction, there’s an unspoken acknowledgement that she knows she doesn’t know everything. Regardless of Danes’ star power, “Cool” is Lucy’s movie, it speaks with her voice, and as result, it’s a much more likable movie than yet another story about yet another dysfunctional family might otherwise be.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

I Give it a Year (R, 2013, Magnolia)
There is some payoff waiting at the end of “I Give it a Year,” most acutely with a single declaration Nat (Rose Byrne) lobs toward an in-law that will make her the envy of many who wish they could say the same thing to an in-law of their own. More generally speaking, there’s a lightly pleasing and amusing general payoff to the story as a whole — which, for those who care about the happiness of Nat and Josh (Rafe Spall), is probably the least “Year” could do. But for those who care about Nat and Josh, one question: Why? A funny quirk about misunderstanding song lyrics aside, Nat achieves little beyond mild likability, and she fares better than her husband, who is too bland to muster even that level of support. “Year” hits and misses as a dry comedy, but it has next to nothing to say as yet another story about marriage that begins too cynically to end anywhere else. Like most cynical comedies that cannot help themselves, “Year” gets confused and funnels some clumsy grabs at optimism and soul-searching through supporting characters and the usual last-grasp changes of heart. It isn’t all in vain — if only because it gives us someone (Anna Faris as Chloe) to genuinely like and root for — but it certainly doesn’t save “Year” from overcoming the mediocrity that swallows its two leads and spits out a marriage that shouldn’t matter to us if it barely matters to them. Stephen Merchant and Minnie Driver also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.