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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DVD 9/27/11: Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Ledge, Going Postal, The Stool Pigeon, How to Make it in America S1

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (PG-13, 2011, Paramount)
The first “Transformers” movie was a mess, the second an abomination. So to say “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” is a cut above its predecessors isn’t really saying anything at all. “Moon” isn’t the triumph “Transformers” fans have been waiting for, and once Jerry Wang (Ken Jeong) crashes into the picture like a deranged Roger Rabbit impersonator, it’s painfully clear we’re in for another round of treacherous human characters saying ear-murderingly awful things. Fortunately, “Moon” precedes this waking nightmare with some backstory that amusingly ties together the Moon landing and the War for Cybertron. And while that ultimately goes nowhere — as attempts at storytelling tend to do in this series — it engenders some hope that “Moon” can cover its blemishes with a coat of shamelessly epic scope. Eventually, after a long first hour and some of people blathering in Washington, that’s what we get when everyone shuts up and takes the fight to downtown Chicago. “Moon’s” second half is a loud, messy culmination of 2 1/2 loud and messy movies, but it’s a visually awesome mess that lays absolute waste to its setting. It’s still a long climb up a flat storytelling hill, but it’s also a badly overdue opportunity to let these robots do battle on a scale that should have been present from the beginning. It isn’t poetry, or anything close to it, but in light of all we endured to get to this point, it’ll do. No extras.

The Ledge (R, 2011, IFC Films)
At the outset, the appropriately-named “The Ledge” is a moment in time about a man set to jump off a ledge (Charlie Hunnam as Gavin) and a self-professed “decent” detective (Terrence Howard as Hollis) tasked with talking him down. Naturally, it isn’t quite that simple, what with Hollis receiving life-shattering news an hour prior and Gavin preparing to jump because he has to rather than wants to. “The Ledge” teases us with those revelations very early in its run, and it keeps the carrot dangling thereafter by flashing back and very delicately unfurling the separate messes that brought Hollis and Gavin together on what should have been just another morning. It leaves some things to be desired, most particularly with the way it so furiously establishes Hollis in a terrific opening scene but then drops the brunt of the storytelling into Gavin’s lap. That’s probably fair, because there are more stops between where Gavin was and where he’s ended up, but Howard makes such valuable use of his time — especially when the movie is in the present moment — that it’s hard not to want more. Fortunately, we aren’t left hurting for drama. It takes a special kind of fallout to get to a place in life where killing yourself against your will is the better choice, and “The Ledge” uses the best tools for the job — character development, classically-crafted suspense, sensible but effective surprises and people following their hearts’ orders even when their heads know better — brings us from there to here with few dull moments in between. Patrick Wilson and Liv Tyler also star.
Extra: Interviews.

Going Postal (NR, 2010, Acorn Media)
Conning the people of Ankh-Morpork is a crime punishable by death — and that’s bad news for Moist Von Lipwig (Richard Coyle), who has been outed as one seriously accomplished conman. Fortunately, the merciful powers that be have spared Moist’s life on the condition he inherits and rehabilitates the city’s dilapidated post office. If you’re wondering how that’s a fair trade, consider this: There are thousands upon thousands (and years upons years’ worth) of undelivered letters to mail. Also? Ankh-Morpork is crazytown — a bustling city in which golems and demons make their acquaintance and a maniacal businessman (David Suchet as Reacher Gilt) openly and freely commits crimes far worse than small-time cons to put upstarts like Moist out of business and good health. If “Going Postal” sounds slightly nuts, here’s the good news: It is, and cheerfully so. Ankh-Morpork is constantly alive, and even the slowest, most expository scene does its job with at least a little flair. Moist himself is a double threat as both the star and the foil — a good-hearted scumbag whose conniving ways and delightful disposition make him the perfect answer for his surroundings and newfound enemies. “Postal” does its share of telegraphing — you can spot the love interest angle almost before the love interest even appears — but it has such a charmingly fresh good time that it doesn’t much matter.
Extras: Introduction by Terry Pratchett (who wrote the original “Postal” novel), director commentary, deleted scenes, cast/crew/fan interviews, bloopers, storyboard/prop/concept art galleries.

The Stool Pigeon (NR, 2010, Well Go USA)
Between his broken marriage and a string of confidential informants who have paid dearly under his watch, detective Don Lee (Nick Cheung) cannot stomach much more. Sadly for him, he needs another informant whether he wants one or not. Ghost Jr. (Nicholas Tse), meanwhile, is fresh out of prison and considerably uninterested in getting mixed up with more cops and crooks. But he also wants to rescue his sister and pay his father’s $1 million debt to the men holding her, so he needs the payday even if he doesn’t want it. Along with a couple other characters in similar predicaments, “The Stool Pigeon” is practically a convention for people who need precisely the last thing they want simply to get back to zero again. “Pigeon” isn’t hurting for action, be it a terrific Christmastime car chase or some brutal consequences from the inevitable moment when messy arrangements like these start veering off the road. But it’s the subtler side of this mess that might represent its best work. “Pigeon’s” character development plays a little too hard for sympathy and baggage acknowledgment, but a step too far is better than settling for the same old story about the same old cops and informants. In Cantonese with English subtitles, but an English dub is available as an option.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

How to Make it in America: The Complete First Season (NR, 2010, HBO)
If you’ve ever gone to a party where nobody knows anybody and everybody’s wrapped up in promoting themselves instead of getting to know each other, you now can attend another one any time you want with this home game version of the very same thing. The grandiosely-named “How to Make it in America” is a half-comedic, half-dramatic story of a handful of friends, acquaintances and exes trying to get by in New York City. Sounds like the blueprint for a timely, relatable, recession-era show — and maybe it would be, were it not for the fact that practically everyone on the show is either working on a hustle or has already made it. “America” is embroiled in a fantastically vapid crossfire of art, fashion, energy drinks and hedge funds, which themselves are scattered amongst an array of nightclubs, galleries and other aquariums full of nothing but impossibly pretty people. The show comes courtesy of some of the “Entourage” braintrust, which may not surprise you given its vapidity. But what “Entourage” often lacked in depth, it redeemed with a dryly funny look at Hollywood that intentionally and often brilliantly flirted with parody. “America” plays with a much straighter face, but backs that up with substantially bankrupt characters who are as memorable as all the people you didn’t meet at that party. Later episodes dig slightly deeper, which may bode well for season two, but it’s still a dishearteningly shallow pool.
Contents: 8 episodes (commentary on all), plus deleted scenes, interviews and two features about skateboarders in New York City.