10/15/13: Pacific Rim, Herman's House, The Heat, Ghost Team One, League of Super Evil

Pacific Rim (PG-13, 2013, Warner Bros.)
“Pacific Rim” has Godzilla-sized monsters and Megalon-sized mechs, and perhaps monsters and mechs are all it needed to reign supreme over this year’s weak field of summertime movies. But the monsters aren’t simply monsters: They’re Kaiju, and they’re complicated biological creatures with their own logic and lore. Nor are the mechs just mechs, but Jaegers operated by two human pilots whose thoughts and memories meld in the service of wielding their massive vessel’s single mind. On both sides and in between, in terms of the big species picture, the individuals who comprise it and the wild future Earth on which they do battle, the mythos runs exponentially deeper than a monster-versus-mech movie is obligated to go. Pretty much every facet of “Rim” follows in kind, too. That mythology produces some terrifically entertaining characters in place of the generic archetypes who could have steered this thing, and the versatility of those characters provides “Rim” with occasion to be funny and sweet in addition to action-packed. Lest there be any confusion, “Rim” IS action-packed, and that action looks as awesome as a big-budget 2013 movie about monsters and mechs fighting on land and at sea should look. That, of course, remains the top priority. But the kudos cup runneth over for that rare action movie that does so much so well that action feels like an ingredient instead of the whole recipe, and kudos to “Rim” for showing its mostly moody, bloated summer 2013 contemporaries how it’s done. Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day and Ron Perlman, among others, comprise a stellar ensemble cast.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, 14 behind-the-scenes features, director’s notebook, bloopers.

Herman’s House (NR, 2012, First Run Features)
In the land of messy documentaries that kneel at the mercy of forces beyond their control, “Herman’s House” is, if not king, somewhere nearby in the throne room. “House” unofficially begins in 1972, when prisoner Herman Wallace, convicted on questionable grounds of murdering a correctional officer he says he did not kill, is moved to solitary confinement. That’s where Wallace remained, 31 years later, when artist Jackie Sumell discovered his story, befriended him and conceived an art installation that incorporated both the design of his dream house and a facsimile of the tiny, windowless room in which he’d spent nearly every hour of his life since being convicted. The success of the installation, along with mounting pressure to reopen Wallace’s case, led to a wild plan to turn concept into reality and build the dream house for real in the event Wallace is exonerated, and it’s in the eye of that endeavor where “House” largely takes place. And what a storm it finds itself in, too. “House’s” setup has everything it needs to check every box on the “triumph of the human spirit” checklist, and in an alternate universe, a glossier movie may have run down that list and left it at that. Here, by contrast, is a reminder that stuff like this takes work, that work isn’t glamorous, nothing’s as easy as it should be, setbacks are inevitable, success is not no matter how pure the intention, intentions aren’t always pure anyway, and even if you do everything the right way and don’t have people pulling the rope in different directions every step of the way, there remain things that lie completely and thoroughly beyond your control, and those things almost certainly aren’t all going to go your way. How’s that for a checklist? “House” does a nice job of getting us personally acquainted with both prisoner and artist on their terms and through their words, but it’s the illustration of a pursuit that has a mind of its own — and the reminder that wanting to do good is the first step in the endurance run required to actually do good — that makes it a standout.
Extras: Deleted scenes, director interview.

The Heat (R/NR, 2013, Fox)
She’s (Sandra Bullock) a stuffy, roundly disliked FBI agent sent to Boston to bring down a drug kingpin. She’s (Melissa McCarthy) a foul-mouthed, roundly disliked street cop who will wreck anybody, FBI included, who gets in the way of her interrogation of a small-time dealer who just so happens to report to that kingpin. Together, they’re a tandem as predictably disparate as they are predictably destined to become best friends, because isn’t that how these things always go? It is, “The Heat” is no different, it couldn’t care less about being different, and it’s by the grace and brute force of Bullock (as Ashburn), McCarthy (Mullins) and a supporting cast hungry to keep up that it does not matter one single little bit. In terms of comedy-by-numbers storytelling, “The Heat” stays inside the lines, with the usual turns — odd couple-isms, fish-out-of-water-isms, that awkward bucket dump of sappy character growth that precedes the inevitable act where it all works out — all very overtly present. Even some of the gags and lines feel stale on the surface. But if McCarthy wasn’t already the best in the game at taking a mundane line, dropping in mundane swears and somehow turning it into comedy gold, her work here puts her in the running and probably the lead. Put Mullins in another actor’s hands, or give Ashburn to someone who can’t shift from prude to crazy cat lady and back on a dime like Bullock can, and the same script might make one wonder why “The Heat” even exists. But this is why casting directors exist, and if casting was an Oscar category, “The Heat” might be winning that race as well. But it isn’t, so the honor of being one of 2013’s funniest movies will have to do.
Extras: Commentary tracks (from cast, crew and the “MST3K” guys), unrated cut, deleted/alternate/extended scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features.

Ghost Team One (R, 2013, Paramount)
Like seemingly every other movie character still hauling a camcorder around, Sergio (Carlos Santos) is convinced — albeit via a discovery he made while extremely drunk at his own house party — that there’s a ghost in his house. Sergio’s best friend and roommate Brad (J.R. Villarreal) is in no way convinced, but when a partygoer (Fernanda Romero as Fernanda) is revealed as both interested in ghosts and extremely attractive, he finds a way to convince himself he’s convinced. Their other roommate Chuck (Tony Cavalero) hates both of them, Brad’s might-be girlfriend Becky (Meghan Falcone) is just kind of there with her dog (who also hates Sergio and Brad), and there’s your sort-of starting five for Ghost Team One. Not exactly the ’96 Chicago Bulls, but for purposes of making fun of both found footage movies and ghost stories — “Paranormal Activity,” in other words — it more than suffices. It should be noted that “Ghost Team One,” to its great credit, isn’t simply a parody of those movies, nor is making fun of those stale gimmicks even its best asset. Had “Activity” and its terrible sequels never even existed, Sergio would be no less a terrifically likable lead, Brad no less an endearing scumbag, and Chuck no less a meathead so hilariously detestable that he maybe steals the show. “GTO’s” sense of humor about its subject material is an asset, but its characters are the reason to watch, and its script — rich equally in overtly perverse insanity and brilliantly-delivered throwaway lines — recognizes this to divinely juvenile effect. No extras.

League of Super Evil (NR, 2009, Flatiron Film Company)
By the metrics of painting with broad strokes, “League of Super Evil” dishes out its color on a brush big enough to clean a five-lane highway. But that’s only a problem if that isn’t the intention, and the frantically animated “Evil” — led by a pint-sized not-so-super villain, Voltar, whose cries of “eeeevillllll!” are frequent enough to qualify as ambient noise — is nothing if not one with its intentions. “Evil” follows the escapades of a band of wannabe villains, and as perhaps you could guess from one look at the cute visual style, their ability to dish out evil is about as successful and malicious as a puppy nibbling his littermate’s ear while she attacks him back with a clumsy swat of her paw. Most of them aren’t even evil so much as just along for the adventure, which works out fine given how often these acts of evil, even when executed to perfection, harm pretty much nobody. First, foremost and beyond all else, “Evil’s” mission is unapologetic silliness, and it fulfills that mission with a dizzying blast of energy that starts caffeinated, ends caffeinated and never crashes in between. That will, of course, appeal to kids. But “Evil’s” brand of crazy is a smart and funny kind of crazy, making it one of a resurgent breed of cartoons that knows how to keep both sides amused on separate terms.
Contents: 52 episodes, no extras.

10/8/13: Resolution, Curse of Chucky, Ingenious, After Earth, The Hangover Part III

Resolution (NR, 2013, Cinedigm)
There probably are better ways to pull your friend from the clutches of methamphetamine addiction than to dodge his gunfire, tase him and tie him up in a squatted cabin smack atop a Native American reservation. But this is the road taken by Mike (Peter Cilella) to save Chris (Vinny Curran), who is, paranoia about birds stealing his things and propensities to fire his rifle just because notwithstanding, a man who may possibly listen to reason. Remarkably, amid a fast start that establishes Chris as potentially insane before it establishes any single other thing, “Resolution” still conveys this possibility of reason. The grace with which it skates around this and other tricky edges is all it needs to command total confidence in its endeavor to tell a no-frills but engrossing story about two friends, one crummy cabin and the acute hell standing between Chris’s present condition and his ability to see the light Mike sees for him. So some measure of bonus points is in order for “Resolution’s” ability to keep riding that edge while a mysterious audio recording leads it down a wholly separate, genre-hopping path that should change everything but somehow — amazingly or exasperatingly, take your pick — does not. It’s best not to give away what “Resolution” becomes, because in addition to turning a buddy drama into something else entirely, it also doesn’t necessarily change anything at all. We are, for the most part, kept in the same boat in which Mike and Chris find themselves, and their mission doesn’t necessarily change even when everything else kind of does. Fair warning right now for the neat-and-tidy-ending-that-explains-everything crowd: “Resolution” doesn’t have one. But the sheer volume of stuff it leaves behind and leaves audiences to ponder and argue about is as integral to the experience as the 93 excellent minutes that take us there.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, filmmakers interview, outtakes/deleted footage, introductions to the film, parody videos.

Curse of Chucky (R/NR, 2013, Universal)
“It’s a doll. What’s the worst that can happen?” The line is so overtly daft and wink-laden, one almost expects this to be the point where the “Child’s Play” saga finally goes all the way and just drops in a laugh track. Chucky’s gotten married, become a father and bullrushed beyond horror, past self-aware and into full-blown dark comedy territory, so what else can he really pull nine years after his last stunt? Turns out, it’s an upset, because amid all the flat reboots, remakes and comebacks that produced countless 21st century shadows of 20th century horror classics, it’s this one that finds a way to rise to the occasion by not only reasserting its place in the annals of actual horror, but by somehow also folding all that preceding craziness into a timeline that’s stunningly attentive to the tenets of fan service and storyline continuity. “Curse of Chucky’s” first half plays it unsettlingly straight, almost as if to mimic a reboot that’s severed all ties to its past. But as the fresh-faced Chucky literally peels away the grafts hiding his trophy case of scars from past films, “Curse” does the same with a wild weaving of its present mess into the scary and funny messes that piled up over five preceding movies. Plot holes are inevitable, as are the leaps of faith “Curse” occasionally asks fans to take in the service of what it’s trying to do here. But the effort is so commendable, and the payoff so outrageously devoted to its mission, that going along with it is no favor to ask.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, storyboards, bloopers.

Ingenious (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
A cynic might deduce that Lions Gate pulled the four-year-old “Ingenious” — the dramatized story of the invention of the novelty talking beer opener and the two friends (Renner as Sam, Dallas Roberts as Matt) who endured a trail of bad ideas, bad luck and broken relationships to bring it to market — out of movie purgatory because one of its stars, Jeremy Renner, is now an actual star. And a cynic would probably be right about that. As for why “Ingenious” was stashed away for so long before marketing saved it, theories abound. It could be the delving into Matt’s gambling problem (or rather, the film’s odd ability to alternate between applying melodramatic pressure to the problem and kind of brushing it off), or it could be the so-large-it-arguably-IS-the-plot subplot of Matt and wife Gina’s (Ayelet Zurer) marriage and the toll his dreams and failings take on it. It could be “Ingenious’s” trouble with balancing moods, managing time or finding a way to reconcile its loving ode to trailblazers and inventors with the creation of a beer opener that says a goofy phrase when it pulls the cap off a bottle. Not exactly the polio vaccine. All balled up, “Ingenious” is an altogether likable movie with two likable leads, one reasonably likable spouse and a supporting cast (Marguerite Moreau, Richard Kind, Judith Scott) ranging from pleasant to rotten in a way that nearly registers as polite. But it’s a likable movie that feels continually stuck in some stage of misalignment, and it’s a story that plays like a true story with all the sharp edges and fine details sanded away and simplified. In other words, it’s the prototypical forgettable movie, which likely is why its studio forgot about it until money on the table jogged its memory.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, interviews.

After Earth (PG-13, 2013, Sony Pictures)
Imagine signing Peyton Manning to do anything with a football but throw it, or commissioning Salvador Dalí to do anything with a sheet of canvas but paint on it. Now imagine hiring Will Smith to appear in your movie and supply anything but his charisma, or just check out “After Earth” and see exactly what it looks like. As “Earth” begins, humanity is a millennium past abandoning Earth, which has, despite looking rather lush here, became too toxic for humans to endure. (Animals, it seems, got along just fine and even evolved to kill humans on sight despite there being none to see.) There’s obviously more to it than that, including a new planet and a combative alien race with a tricky but gaping weakness. But it’s best to leave something for “Earth” to introduce, because once Cypher (Smith) and Kitai’s (Jaden Smith) ship crash-lands on Earth and leaves Cypher incapacitated and the terrified Kitai to find the rescue beacon that can save them, there’s precious little else for it to do. As implied earlier, “Earth” is visually striking. But it’s also strikingly calculated, with the younger Smith alternating between fearfully mugging and belting tearjerker speeches into his radio while Dad returns fire with all the heat of a wet match. If the goal was for Will Smith to set a nepotistic stage for his son’s Oscar reel, it backfired magnificently. Cypher’s dreadfully boring, Kitai’s obnoxious, and a computer-animated bird outshines both by an embarrassing margin in terms of conveying humanity in the face of adversity. Had “Earth” followed that bird instead of the straight line connecting two sides of this mostly non-story about two mostly non-characters, it may have gone somewhere worth going. Sadly, like the rest of us, she had better things to do than stick around to see this one ends.
Extras: Alternate opening, six behind-the-scenes features.

The Hangover Part III (R, 2013, Warner Bros.)
Following the first in a surprisingly large series of scenes in which animals die awful deaths, “The Hangover Part III” concocts yet another excuse for our four non-heroes (Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper, Justin Bartha) to go on yet another ill-advised trip. When things quickly go awry, it’s due to a callback to events from the original “Hangover.” This both follows and precedes scenes in which the characters talk about moments from “The Hangover,” it eventually leads to a return to the “The Hangover’s” host city of Las Vegas, and gosh you guys, remember how great “The Hangover” was and how much you loved it? This needless sequel to the needless sequel that preceded it sure does, and it effectively operates on the notion that if you remember enough times how much you enjoyed that original movie all those many (four) years ago, you’ll forgive this (hopefully!) final chapter for having next to nothing to offer beyond a striking level of nostalgia for a film from 2009. “The Hangover” is the crutch on which “Part III” leans for dear life, but it’s also its worst enemy, pressuring it to outshock its predecessors and accidentally turn its pack of likable imbeciles into scumbags whose stupidity and bad behavior have grown too exaggerated and tiresome to entertain like they once so easily did. John Goodman, Melissa McCarthy and — of course — Ken Jeong also star.
Extras: Five behind-the-scenes features (some real, some fake), extended scenes, outtakes, action mash-up.

10/1/13: 100 Bloody Acres, In the House, This is the End, Disconnect, The East

100 Bloody Acres (NR, 2013, Doppelgänger releasing)
Sure, there’s a dead body in the back of Reg Morgan’s (Damon Herriman) truck. But don’t worry! As “100 Bloody Acres” makes evident straight away, it isn’t as terrible as it seems. Now, Reg’s decision to pick up three tourists (Anna McGahan, Oliver Ackland, Jamie Kristian) and give them a ride to a festival despite the contents of his truck? That idea absolutely is as terrible as it appears, because good luck convincing three strangers that the dead body is there for what, all things considered and for grave lack of a much better term, are pretty wholesome reasons. “Acres” has no appetite for deceiving viewers and keeping those reasons hidden or twisted. But it’s best to let the movie unveil them itself anyway, because the unassuming way in which it does so is so much more impossibly charming when you go in blind. Bad behavior runs temperately rampant, but it’s the darkly funny misunderstandings that truly wreak havoc, and no one — from Reg to his brother-slash-business partner (Angus Sampson) to his passengers and the little dog who may be the film’s only unconflicted character — is immune from dishing and taking mixed messages in equal volume. Presiding over it all is Reg, who at once is the master of ceremonies, the biggest dupe in the room and the kind of character who is nearly impossible not to love despite having so few reasonable reasons to actually do so.
Extras: Short film “Celestial Avenue,” Morgan Brothers television commercials, cast/crew interviews, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, storyboard gallery.

In the House (R, 2012, Cohen Media Group)
Behind a closed door but hardly in a manner that suggests fear of being overheard, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner) remarks to her husband (Denis Ménochet) that even though it’s nice their son Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) finally has a friend to bring around the house, the kid’s too weird and shouldn’t be allowed back. Had we met Claude (Ernst Umhauer) when she had, it’d be easy to believe it’s that simple. And even with what we do know by the time Esther delivers her verdict, there’s still an air of merit to her conclusion. By this point, though, Claude is neither wholly responsible for, nor wholly honest about, his odd behavior. Rather, he’s using his gift as a budding writer to study what he perceives to be a banal middle class family and report his findings, in story form, to a disillusioned high school teacher (Fabrice Luchini) who has seized this could-be talent like a loose pearl in a relentless tide of students who cannot write, cannot think and do not care. Sixteen-year-old kids are trouble all by themselves. Brilliant 16-year-olds prodded to abuse their talent by a frustrated adult whose dissipated dreams are now reforming for reasons not totally clear? That’s just dangerous, and though “In the House” resists the urge to illustrate that danger in all the cheaply overt ways available to it, the broken glass on the road cuts just as sharply. Why play the cheap hand, anyway, when there are enough covert themes in play — multiple comings of age, reality-distortion fields, the potential cruelty of ambition and the tendency for ambition to turn on those who wield it carelessly, to name a sample — to make your head spin? “House” doesn’t appear to know, and the multi-layered parallel realities it weaves together so smartly, while keeping both feet on the ground, suggest it doesn’t really care. In French with English subtitles.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, premiere footage, poster gallery.

This is the End (R, 2013, Sony Pictures)
Watching a group of friends put on a show like “This is the End” is akin to watching a dog and a baby play together onscreen: They may be taking direction, but only so far as it serves their pleasure, and they aren’t necessarily acting at all while doing so. Sometimes that kind of fun is so joyous as to become contagious. Sometimes it’s so insular as to alienate anyone who is reduced to witnessing a party in which they cannot participate. In “End” — a grand imagining of how James Franco, Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride, all playing what we can only pray are alternate-dimension versions of themselves, would compose themselves the day the apocalypse comes to Hollywood — both outcomes so fiercely battle and wear each other down that the laziest form of criticism is all that’s left standing in the end. So here’s the deal. At this point, you likely know how your body reacts to the combining of Rogens, Francos and Robinsons. If it’s laughter, “End” — which includes extremely literal callbacks to the group’s past collaborations among its unapologetically A-to-B references — will likely produce more. If not, this parody of and ode to previous movies you already do not like is the ultimate non-starter (even if Michael Cera’s brief but spectacular interpretation of Michael Cera is something everyone, love or hate him, should eventually see).
Extras: Rogen/director commentary, deleted scenes, eight behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, alternate takes.

Disconnect (R, 2013, Lions Gate)
It was inevitable that movies like “Disconnect” would start popping up before long, and it probably was inevitable that before one comes along and gets it right, this would happen first. “Disconnect” presents a trio of separate but slightly crisscrossing stories that collectively concern themselves with our new rules of engagement in chat rooms, social networks and online communities. None of these stories completely falls flat, and each has more going on than some insulting fable about the scary dangers of trusting people who turn out to be crazed monsters in person. But even with an intelligent touch, “Disconnect’s” themes — bullying, identity theft and assuming too much (good or bad) sight unseen — comprise a what’s what of what someone expects from a movie tasked with too much timely ground to cover and only 115 minutes during which to cover it. Time is by far “Disconnect’s” biggest enemy, forcing it to tell stories that are good for some drama but have a tendency to flinch and let another story tag in just when things appear to get really interesting. The bullying story is particularly frustrating as it navigates through some seriously tricky terrain before parlaying it into the drama you expected all along. Had that story, or perhaps any of them, received “Disconnect’s” undivided attention and courage, we might be talking about one of 2013’s most provocative dramas. Instead, it’s a polished, thoughtful, entertaining but mostly toothless also-ran in a race that has not yet ended, much less been won. Jason Bateman, Andrea Riseborough, Paula Patton and Alexander Skarsgård, among others, comprise a strong ensemble cast.
Extras: Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

The East (PG-13, 2013, Fox Searchlight)
Fittingly caught between the manifesto that ignites it and the unsettlingly pat conclusion that sends it home is “The East,” which spends most of its time similarly wedged between accessibility and conviction in a manner that’s bound to dissatisfy more than not. In “The East,” a group of (circle one!) activists/eco-terrorists, also named The East, are bent on punishing three separate corporations by turning their toxic product back on them. New to their ranks is Sarah (Brit Marling), and though her introduction makes it clear something isn’t normal about her affiliation with the group, details beyond that remain fuzzy. And that’s fine, because “The East’s” early going is so drenched in message (the aforementioned manifesto, set atop some truly stomach-turning images from the Gulf Coast oil spill, sets the stage), the vague prospect of conflict is a crucial coup in the film’s desire to entertain first and proselytize to the converted second. Then, as if emboldened, that desire to entertain takes partially though not completely over, leaving in its wake a conflicted movie that seems to want to take a stand but doesn’t quite know how to express its convictions with actual conviction. Whether one agrees with the messaging or not, “The East’s” roaring start teased the beginnings of a story where punishment is carried out without concern for how it looks or how uncomfortable it gets for the audience watching along. There’s still some of that, there’s considerable thought invested into the characters we get close to, and there’s one scene wherein “The East” beautifully threads a potentially disastrous needle in illustrating (and possibly justifying) the wavering of conviction. But along with all that is way too much time spent on Sarah, the flatly stock upshot of her affiliation, and the toxic effect her muddied mindset has on a film that should, results be damned, have no such mud in its veins. Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, six behind-the-scenes features.

9/24/13: The Kings of Summer, Iron Man 3, Simon Killer, Room 237, Aleksandr's Price

The Kings of Summer (R, 2013, Sony Pictures)
Joe (Nick Robinson), all of 15 years old, has had enough of the oppressed high school freshman lifestyle. His best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is driven so crazy by his overbearing parents that he’s literally developed hives. As for Biaggio (Moises Arias)? He’s just that strange kid whose personality makes it hard to discern whether he’s a product of creepiness or worldliness. Either way, he’s the strangely perfect complement for his two new sorta-like friends when they decide to just bail on their comfortable but socially smothered lives and live, if only for the summer, off the land in the nearby woods. Nothing about that makes much sense, and the cocktail of weirdness, wisecracks and comically fake-looking teenage beards that comprises “The Kings of Summer’s” sights and sounds is just deliberately out there enough to suggest all the senselessness is by design or at least welcome. But there’s an electric thread of angst coursing underneath all that silliness that, naive 15-year-old vessel or not, is too resonant and too dangerously appealing to just brush aside. Have you not dreamt, possibly today, of just quitting everything and cutting all of life’s silly obligatory fat until all that remains is some food, some people you care about, some stars in the sky and perhaps a roof for when it rains? “Summer” is the oversimplification of that fantasy, but as it juggles a dry comedy, an adventure and a drama with an occasional penchant to seethe, it’s an infectious manifestation of it. And with respect to the naive kids living out the dream, perhaps “Summer’s” sneakiest asset is the way all three boys carry out dialogue clearly written by (and for) daydreaming adults without breaking character, acting older than their age or alienating the teenage crowd who probably thinks this movie is for them. (It isn’t, but let them believe otherwise if they want.)
Extras: Deleted/extended scenes.

Iron Man 3 (PG-13, 2013, Disney)
You know what makes even the worst “Iron Man” movie leaps and bounds better than most other superhero films? Numerous reasons, actually, but the opening 15 seconds — wherein we watch a gallery of Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) suits mysteriously blow to pieces while he narrates a speech that goes from profound to comically pointless to kinda sorta thoughtful again in three blinks of an eye — offer some clues. “IM3’s” biggest problem is that it’s late to a party that includes a first movie that surprised everybody, a worthy sequel with a great villain and a supergroup side project, “The Avengers,” that rates among the best superhero movies ever made. Here, the threat arrives in the form of a terrorist group, and a dubiously large amount of motive is borne out of what the film demonstrates as a rather petty grudge. Stark’s witticisms are familiar bordering on stale, the halo of fame that trails him is fully stale, and after a thousand movies about terrorists launching missiles at our country, do we need a 1,001st? But just when “IM3” seems resigned to being a decent but tired final chapter in yet another epic trilogy that’s one movie too many, something — something funny, something clever, something sweet, something sardonic, something technologically awesome or something that blows up and looks good doing so — happens. The third (and a half) chapter in Iron Man’s ascent to the cream of the superhero power rankings isn’t big on big surprises, but it’s loaded with some ingenious small ones that give surprising life to a nearly comatose outline. Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall and Ben Kingsley also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted/extended scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Simon Killer (NR, 2013, IFC Films)
Though this unquestionably is his story and though we ride shotgun with him the whole way, there’s something about Simon (Brady Corbet) — a New Yorker and recent college grad doing some post-painful breakup head-clearing with a stay in Paris — that vaguely but immediately feels just a bit off. And where Simon goes, so too does “Simon Killer,” which doesn’t venture along a story arc so much as it skates some messy figure eights through the psyche of a wayward heart in search of affection wherever it may avail itself. That, perhaps, is the closest one can get to branding “Killer” with a pitch-sized premise. But that search for something takes Simon down some morally nebulous avenues, and as those lines blur, “Killer’s” genre lines do the same. Is Simon the guy he says he is, the guy those early impressions suspect he may be, or just a messy in-betweener too ravaged by a bad breakup to figure himself out, much less let us know either way? “Killer” doesn’t have the luxury of time to fully drill to the core of the answer, though the clouds that form above are thick enough to make one wonder if the world itself has that kind of time. Even if it did, would the answer be a comfort or would it undermine what turns out to be a uncomfortably engrossing character study? Theories likely abound, and “Killer” makes it fun to pass them around after the show’s over.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes features, stills gallery.

Room 237 (NR, 2012, IFC Films)
“Tiresome!” isn’t exactly a word anyone feels good about seeing in the space of a movie poster where the questionably-edited raving critical quote goes. But there may be no more concise compliment and/or condemnation for “Room 237,” which collects a handful of opinions — from fans and scholars or lunatics and conspiracy nuts, pick your side — about the meaning behind seemingly every last frame that comprised the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film “The Shining.” In a fashion that’s neither completely free-flowing nor meticulously structured — divided by speaker, despite none being formally introduced or shown on camera, instead of approaching the film chronologically — “237” picks apart “The Shining” any which way it can. A theory about the appearance of Dopey the dwarf on the wall? Sure. A connection between text on a room key and Kubrick covertly confessing his role in faking the moon landing footage? Yup! The significance of a window that, according to one theorist’s map of the hotel, couldn’t actually exist? For everything from poster designs to curious perspective shifts and paper tray placements, “237’s” relentlessly verbose panelists have one elaborate explanation after another about what Kubrick was communicating under the table to his audience. And with zero desire to take a breath between hypotheses about the film and its director’s restless mind, “237” is primed to wear its audience out — whether mind-blown, overloaded, amused, exasperated, side-split or outright angry at the sheer volume of conspiracies spilling over the side — no matter who the audience is. The uninitiated, in particular, should think twice (or pop an aspirin) before engaging. There’s a temptation initially to recommend “237” to fans of film theory regardless of their familiarity with “The Shining,” but the film quickly enters a whirlwind of disorganized insularity that’s completely impenetrable if you don’t know the source material well (to say nothing of not having seen it at all).
Extras: Commentary, deleted scenes, panel discussion, two behind-the-scenes features.

Aleksandr’s Price (NR, 2013, Breaking Glass Pictures)
There are sympathetic characters. There are sad sacks. And then, to the complete bafflement of both, there’s a guy like Aleksandr (Pau Masó), whose ability to somehow still be alive stands in remarkable contrast to how unable he is to maintain control over his own free will. Framed inside sessions with a therapist (Anatoli Grek) whose aptitude is questionable — early pearls of wisdom include “You’re a good person. I can tell by the look in your eyes” — Aleksandr’s story begins at the end as he remarks that his desperate situation as an illegal Russian immigrant, left broke and alone in New York City after his mother commits suicide, has led him down a road of bad choices. But there isn’t really a word (“bad” certainly doesn’t suffice) to describe just how poor Aleksandr is at making choices — or, more precisely, how unable he is to make any choice at all as he just kinda shrugs, stumbles and tumbles into one horrendous idea after another while simultaneously offering nothing but hurt and headaches to the few people in his life who aren’t bent on treating him like a doll. Dire straits is one thing. But to watch “Aleksandr’s Price” is to watch a video game where the main character strives to redeem himself in the cutscenes while the player controlling him drives his car off a cliff and sets him on fire when the action resumes. “Price” doesn’t seem bent on humiliating Aleksandr for its own enjoyment — the almost comically cruel ending really makes you wonder, but Masó also wrote, directed and dedicated the film to his parents — but the lengths it goes to crush sympathy into paste make it a wonder what “Price” actually is after. Aleksandr’s therapist’s insistence that only Aleksandr controls his life is as vanilla as advice gets, but in the context of everything that happens here, it sounds only slightly less ridiculous than that bit about his trustworthy eyes.
Extra: Masó interview.

9/17/13: Behind the Candelabra, Somebody Up There Likes Me, World War Z, The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow, Greetings From Tim Buckley, The Bling Ring

Behind the Candelabra (NR, 2013, HBO)
“Behind the Candelabra’s” biggest problem is perhaps the biggest problem a production like “Behind the Candelabra” can have: We don’t know how much, if any of it, is really true. Is that a problem for you? Is the prospect of Matt Damon initially portraying a 17-year-old — Scott Thorson, whose book of the same name, and its disputed honesty, provides the narrative on which “Candelabra” is tightly based — a problem for you? These are the issues that nag at the enjoyment of “Candelabra,” which purports to document a strange, exciting and ultimately volcanic period in which famed musician Liberace (Michael Douglas) courted Thorson as a friend, assistant, lover and/or son. What? Yeah. As a document of history, “Candelabra” is the word of one man against another man who cannot respond, and thus — unfair or not, we’ll never likely know — it’s dubious. How much that matters, in the face of how sophisticatedly uncaged “Candelabra” is as theater, is up to you. But purely as drama, “Candelabra” is a wild good time, embarking with shaky wheels and careening into an affair that finds its two participants emotionally ravaged going in and sends them through a whole different wringer on the way out the other side. Regardless of the veracity of the story told, the fire of those reenacting it here — most visibly Douglas as he basks in and owns Liberace’s opulence, but more significantly Damon as he gradually roars to life as the only person capable of reducing the whole spectacle to ash — is hard to deny.
Extra: Making-of feature.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (NR, 2013, Tribeca Film)
At two points in “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” Sal (Nick Offerman) — dishwasher, ice cream magnate, nosy neighbor and the closest Max (Keith Poulson) can seemingly get to both a constant and a best friend — remarks how “it’s funny that we all sorta think we’re not gonna die.” And when you hear it the second time, it’s akin to turning a crossword puzzle upside down and reading the answers that were in front of you the whole time. “SUTLM” is a comedy about Max, who isn’t any one thing so much as he isn’t much of everything. He’s a lackadaisical waiter, a limp ex-husband, a middling friend and a pretty damp character in general around which to build a comedy. When “SUTLM” pushes forward with its story without prodding Max the same way, it’s enough to make one wonder if something’s up or if this is all there is to yet another slacker comedy about a whole lot of not much. Turns out, rather cleverly, that it’s both. Mileage will vary as to when (and possibly if) the message lurking inside fully avails itself, but “SUTLM” has a point, and that point is biding its time in plain sight nearly the whole time. That alone may not redeem Max’s story in the eyes of those who came here to laugh — “SUTLM” is amusing, but dryly more than hysterically so — nor is it the kind of epiphanic “ah ha!” moment that will inspire legions of viewers to re-plot the trajectories of their lives. But the clever way “SUTLM” sneaks up on its audience may inspire just a little bit of amused introspection, and that, in the face so, so many coming-of-age stories that expend so much more effort and come away completely empty, is no trivial trick. Jess Weixler and Stephanie Hunt also star.
Extras: Writer/director/Offerman commentary, writer/director/Offerman Q&A, Offerman interview.

World War Z (PG-13/NR, 2013, Paramount)
Fifteen, 10 or maybe even five years ago, “World War Z” would have dropped jaws and blown minds. But the zombie revival happened, followed by the zombie oversaturation, various parodies of zombie fever and a chronic case of zombie fatigue. That’s where we sit as “WWZ” arrives, and when yet another opening clip montage blames the outbreak on our environmental neglect before the outbreak even breaks out, our dread is reserved for the potential onslaught of tired grandstanding instead of hungry undead. Those fears, thankfully, never materialize. But that doesn’t mean “WWZ” doesn’t have problems — or more specifically, a dearth of solutions — on its plate. Those scenes from “WWZ’s” trailers, of insane masses of zombies taking over a jetliner and coagulating into Voltron-esque masses of inhumanity the size of city blocks, are as visually awesome in their extended form here as the brief glimpses suggested. When the fight scales down to tunnels and abandoned hospital wings, it does so smartly. In flashes, the film even flirts with levels of crazy (David Morse) and humane (Daniella Kertesz) that could have taken it somewhere special with more time. Mostly, though, “WWZ” feels like the polished but unremarkable final draft of the countless grimier but more exciting first drafts that preceded it. Remember the first time you saw a lumbering zombie break into a terrifying full sprint, or the first time you saw a mass of zombies that filled the screen for miles? Remember the first time a movie basically blamed you for the hell you’re watching? “WWZ” arrives way too late to capture firsts like that. And when it rides a dubious wing and prayer to a half-measured conclusion that feels like a setup for an even tardier sequel, it’s hard to discern what, if anything, people will say about it a few years and several hundred more zombie movies from now. Brad Pitt stars.
Extras: Unrated cut with seven extra minutes, two behind-the-scenes features.

The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow (G, 2013, Sony Pictures)
It’s easy to forget, based on the reputation-tarnishing personality of the two semi-live action movies, just how effortlessly delightful “The Smurfs” is when it’s allowed to just be a cartoon. Here, albeit with some curious qualities of its own, is a reminder. As the pun makes clear, “The Legend of Smurfy Hollow” is a Smurf-ified retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Whether it’s timed to capitalize on Halloween, the new “Sleepy Hollow” television show or both isn’t clear, and one can only speculate (perhaps cynically as well) why nearly all the packaging makes “Hollow” look like a computer-animated special when the CG stuff is a wrapper for the traditional cartoon that comprises the heart of the story. No matter. Borrowed lore and calculated marketing theories aside, “Hollow” is a simple treat and, despite being a new production with expensive voices (Fred Armisen, Alan Cumming, Hank Azaria), an immensely welcome throwback to everything that made “The Smurfs” so pleasant before New York City and live humans barged into the frame. Hollywood loves a good reboot, so can someone in Hollywood please scrap whatever plans there may be for a third live-action “Smurfs” movie and replace them with something that looks like this instead? No extras — a bummer considering the main feature is only 22 minutes long, but not a deal-breaker given the $5 price tag.

Greetings From Tim Buckley (NR, 2013, Tribeca Film)
By brute force alone, Penn Badgley comes alive as late singer Jeff Buckley and nearly (maybe successfully) saves a movie that, namesake aside, is really about him when it’s about anything at all. “Greetings From Tim Buckley” sets itself in 1991, before Jeff had ever performed before a live audience, to say nothing of matching and eclipsing his late father’s fame. When a group in Brooklyn endeavors to stage a Tim Buckley tribute show, they reel in Jeff for a live debut that’s poetic in all ways except one: Jeff barely knew the man, much less understood or connected to him on a level even his fans achieved. So how to reconcile those feelings with the excitement of not only stepping into Tim’s shoes and on stage, but also meeting the woman (Imogen Poots) who immediately becomes his new muse? Clumsily and often languidly, it seems. The blame for what happens in “Buckley’s” second act and beyond falls neither on Poots nor especially Badgley, who flings himself into the role and, when the opportunity arises, puts an thrilling charge into what could have been the same old scenes in record stores and on trains. But “Buckley” spends too much time fumbling around looking for its emotional center (and emerging with the obvious) to provide many of those opportunities. The joy of watching “Buckley” should come in watching the younger Buckley find the voice that made him so revered (and, now, so missed) as an artist. There’s some of that here, but it’s no match for the volume of father issues that feel disconnected enough to have originated from any old movie about any old musician.
Extra: Cast/director Interview.

The Bling Ring (R, 2013, Lions Gate)
If the aliens invade and declare the human race unfit for saving, it very well could be because the UFO they rode in on had “Spring Breakers” and “The Bling Ring” as its in-flight entertainment. Of the two, the shockingly listless “Ring” reigns easily as the bigger offender, because its source material — the true story of seven floundering high schoolers (Emma Watson, Israel Broussard and Katie Chang, among others) who, between 2008 and 2009, burgled Hollywood A-listers’ homes to the collective tune of more than $3 million — should at least be an ironically comic layup if not an engrossing straightforward one. But more troubling than any dramatized teenage crime ring is how drearily empty “Ring” feels as it spins a purposeless wheel of music montages, faux-edgy drug binges, Facebook selfie flipbooks and pretty much every other telltale ingredient of adolescent fiction that purports to chew on the cutting edge but forgot to pack its teeth. At no point does any real storytelling emerge — perhaps because, beyond the novelty of a bunch of self-absorbed kids knocking over their self-absorbed idols’ homes, there’s nothing worth talking about here. Only during the home stretch, when “Ring” frames comeuppance as a life lesson in much the same way a teenager might lecture her grandparents about the meaning of life and hard work, does it elicit a reaction. Sadly, it’s merely gratitude — first at the chance to laugh at such a sorry attempt at spinning the morality bottle, and secondly because the closing credits closely follow to quickly put this sorry show out of its perceived misery.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes features.

9/3/13: From up on Poppy Hill, I Do, Now You See Me, Empire State, Cockneys vs. Zombies

From up on Poppy Hill (PG, 2011/2013, GKIDS/Cinedigm)
With the 1964 Olympics a year away from their arrival in Tokyo, Japan is ready to embrace its role as host and take perhaps its largest step yet in the post-war healing process. Unfortunately for Umi and Shun, the logistical price of hosting the event includes the destruction of their Yokohama school and the use of that land for other purposes. A grassroots movement to save the school brings the two students together, and separate circumstances from their respective pasts grab the baton to complicate things from there. And that’s it — no magical creatures, no magical worlds, no fantastical developments. Sight unseen, it doesn’t sound like a Studio Ghibli production at all, does it? Nope, and “From up on Poppy Hill’s” almost unapologetic devotion to simple storytelling is practically destined to turn off those who watch it continually waiting for something beyond a straight story and a couple twists to unfurl. That’s unfortunate, too, because the hallmarks of the Miyazaki family’s fingerprints — from the visual style to the soundtrack to the delicate but never frail formation of the characters and their circumstances — is fully present and accounted for, and those hallmarks soar even without the prospect of undiscovered worlds to entice things along. “Hill” is set in a place well-known and a past well-worn, but Studio Ghibli’s best hallmark of all — a passion for doting on the minute details that get to the heart of who someone is and what brings them alive — turns Yokohama into a world as rife for discovery as any other.
Extras: Original Japanese cast recording, Goro Miyazaki interview, two behind-the-scenes features, feature-length storyboards, Hayao Miyazaki speech and press conference, music video, 16-page companion booklet with liner notes from Goro and Hayao Miyazaki.

I Do (NR, 2012, Breaking Glass Pictures)
“I Do” wastes almost no time dropping a two-ton burden of guilt on Jack’s (David W. Ross) shoulders after his dropped wallet leads to a freak accident that kills his brother and leaves his pregnant sister-in-law Mya (Alicia Witt) a widow. Surprisingly and perhaps fortunately, this rather major event is background material and not the main story road for the film, which fast-forwards a few years and finds Jack helping raise his niece Tara (Jessica Tyler Brown) while staring down the expiration of a visa that could deport him back to his native England for years. What should happen next is probably obvious — except it isn’t, because Jack is gay and the prospect of using Mya for a green card is morally unfathomable given the circumstances responsible for her being unmarried in the first place. “I Do” is full of little caveats that are just big enough to derail the whole train, and its handling of those caveats pays considerable dividends. The film easily could have coasted into an endless cycle of insufferable bleakness thanks to those early developments, and it could just as easily have devolved into a hamfisted lecture in disguise when the discrepancies over straight versus gay rights come into play with Jack’s citizenship hanging in the balance. But “I Do” does neither, touching those issues sharply but doing so in a way that’s subtle, heartfelt, occasionally funny and silly, and in a manner that treats characters like characters instead of vessels for a message. Jamie-Lynn Sigler also stars.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted/extended scenes, crew kitchen confessionals, original Kickstarter pitch video, behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery.

Now You See Me (PG-13, 2013, Summit Entertainment)
The magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) taking the stage in “Now You See Me” aren’t simply magicians: They’re also thieves who rob banks as part of their act and reward their audience with the spoils. Naturally, neither the FBI (Mark Ruffalo) nor Interpol (Mélanie Laurent) is as on board with this trick as the public is, and so the race is on to catch a band of brilliant and dangerously confident thieves who remain seven steps ahead of their pursuers but also a step behind the mysterious mastermind who has devised this act for them. “NYSM” has a race of its own going on, with a good movie and a bad movie furiously swapping leads up to and beyond the obligatory final twist. The clever premise makes for an engrossing open, and “NYSM” buoys itself with some amusing and clever plays on the agents-versus-illusionists gimmick. A presentation style that gorges on theatrics and never takes itself seriously is a nice touch too. But amid all “NYSM” does well, there’s an indulgence of dialogue that occasionally turns good actors into hams who are funny for the wrong reasons. The twists and chases grow increasingly ludicrous and reckless the more they pile up, and amusing or not, the presentation’s voracious appetite for self-indulgence can get wearisome when “NYSM’s” logic struggles to hold itself together. Then, of course, there’s the final twist, which wedges itself into a final chain of events that was precarious enough as is. “NYSM” is, altogether, pretty awful — except, of course, when it’s great fun, which, albeit sometimes in spite of itself, it often is. Such is the fate of a movie that, like the occasional magician, doesn’t necessarily believe in its audience’s intelligence but bends over backward in hopes of pleasing the crowd anyway. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine also star.
Extras: Director/producer commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Empire State (R, 2013, Lions Gate)
The true story on which “Empire State” is based — of a retired cop’s son (Liam Hemsworth as Chris), the best friend (Michael Angarano as Eddie) who sandbagged his chance to join the police academy, the job he took at an armored truck depository, and the historically expensive inside job robbery they planned of the place when Chris crossed the disgruntled employee threshold — sounds intriguing. Once multiple organized crime rings enter the picture, it becomes fascinating, and when the fate of the millions in play is revealed, it’s deflating that we didn’t just get a documentary instead of a dramatization. That’s the awkward position “State” finds itself in, and it’s powerless to fight the increasingly emboldened notion that this is secondhand entertainment instead of the real thing (especially when we get a taste of that real thing right at the end). Oh well. With all that said, what we do get certainly isn’t bad. “State” is pretty superficial with regard to the makeup of its characters, offering mannerisms and motivations but little beyond the shallow and obvious. But as a story about two guys who have no business being on this playground, much less dictating its rules, it’s rarely dull and has energy to spare. The portrait of 1980s New York and the people who roamed its streets veers on the side of cartoony at times, but given how well-worn these themes and settings are, going overboard beats limping in any day. Dwayne Johnson and Emma Roberts also star, though neither quite so prominently as the cover art suggests.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Cockneys vs. Zombies (NR, 2012, Scream Factory)
It’s a crisis half-straight out of “The Goonies.” Ray (Alan Ford) faces eviction from his retirement home via property developers bent on demolishing it and repurposing the land, so his two grandsons (Harry Treadaway, Rasmus Hardiker) engage in a desperate treasure hunt in hopes of saving it. The differences here are (a) the boys are a good deal older than your typical Goonie, and (b) their idea of treasure hunting is attempting, for the first time ever and quite poorly even for a first attempt, to rob a bank. Then, of course, there’s the zombie outbreak that sends the whole thing even more sideways than it already was. The title really does say it all: There are amateur criminals with cockney accents on one side, zombies on the other, and more than enough ineptitude to cover the entire battle that commences. With any imagination and experience seeing zombie movies, you probably can spell “Cockneys vs. Zombies'” storyline and comic tone without even seeing it, and you’d probably be pretty accurate. That isn’t what you’d call glowing praise, but there’s no good reason to condemn a movie that simply wants to have extremely literal fun in a really familiar way so long as it succeeds in doing so. And “Zombies” certainly does that, thanks to an overt willingness to be silly, kinetic, gross, amusing (and occasionally funny) and even lovable enough to keep things entertaining in spite of how familiar so much of its surroundings look.
Extras: Two commentary tracks, behind-the-scenes feature.

8/27/13: The Painting, The Great Gatsby, At Any Price, Pawn Shop Chronicles, Rapture-Palooza, Pain & Gain

The Painting (NR, 2011, GKIDS/Cinedigm)
Explaining “The Painting” in words is like describing an actual painting the same way: It can be done with some effort, but there’s no way to do it justly, and it’s probably best just to see it for yourself and take from it what you will. “The Painting’s” world is a living, in-progress painting come alive. Visually, it looks utopian, but the reality — a classist system where fully-painted people separate themselves from the partially painted and treat incomplete sketches as if they aren’t human at all — is another story. That’s the simple explanation, and it’s a premise “The Painting” handles simply, perhaps heavy-handedly so. But it’s hard to worry too much about hamfisted literalism in a world like this, where paintings come alive inside paintings, lines blur between worlds and painters are spoken of as if to be gods. On-the-nose though it may be with regard to class discrimination, “The Painting” is incredibly inventive with regard to pretty much everything else that constitutes the reality of its world. And the visual design keeps pace, twisting around itself and bending all rules with regard to color, texture, scale, medium and dimension. That “The Painting’s” animation and writing feel this in tune with one another shouldn’t be a surprise given the nature of the story, but that doesn’t make it any less extraordinary an accomplishment.
Extras: Making-of feature, concept art, original French audio track.

The Great Gatsby (PG-13, 2013, Warner Bros.)
Isn’t it weird how someone can love a story enough to make a movie in its honor, yet fully miss what makes that story so revered in the first place? Apparently it isn’t, because it happens constantly, and it happens again in Baz Luhrmann’s gorgeous, glitzy and stunningly insecure and fatigued tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic. Purely on its own merits, as 143 minutes of sensory entertainment, “Gatsby” offers plenty to like. Bright lights, bright colors, ornate costumes and magnificent set pieces run rampant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s attempted embodiment of Jay Gatsby is fun to watch, and the hip-hop soundtrack is strangely in step with the atmosphere despite being so pointedly at odds with the time period. But try though the kinetic presentation does, it cannot mask the repeated fumbles “Gatsby” commits as it attempts to do even reasonable justice to the book’s heart and soul. Too much that’s implied and left to debate in the book is hammered down with literal strokes here. All that hammering starkly alters the story’s perspective — so much, in fact, that Nick (Tobey Maguire), who is the novel’s narrator and arguable true main character, nearly submerges into irrelevancy here before coming back up for air toward the end. Luhrmann’s vision, meanwhile, seems wedged in an undesirable middle — bold enough to believe in the soundtrack gimmick that easily could alienate those who cherish the book, but too scared to parlay that boldness into a completely new time period and setting that would reinvent this “Gatsby” as a fearless beast of its own creation. For all its audial and visual noise, the most apparent thing about the entire film is that it has no real idea whom its audience even is.
Extras: Alternate ending, deleted scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features, trailer for the 1926 “Gatsby” silent film.

At Any Price (R, 2012, Sony Pictures)
If “At Any Price” wanted to present family man and independent farming magnate Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) as something other than a snake, its opening impression — wherein Henry and son Dean (Zac Efron) crash a funeral in hopes of buying land from the son inheriting it from the father he just buried — does it no favor. But at least the wobbly tone established by that opening scene is an honest, albeit potentially polarizing, harbinger of what lies ahead. “Price” juggles a handful of storylines, including but not limited to Dean’s desire to race cars instead of inherit the family business, the prospect of Henry facing investigation for illegal farming practices, issues of varying ugliness between rival farming families, and relationship subplots for father and son alike. Some of the stories go somewhere but seem to just kind of disappear without resolution, while others (particularly the investigation) may be too inside baseball for many to fully understand without looking elsewhere for background information about the terms and politics. Almost none of them draw any kind of line in the sand in terms of which characters we should actually like and care about, which seems like a colossal oversight for a movie focused around one family and its patriarch. But it’s that refusal (or inability) to draw lines that makes “Price” an engaging movie in spite of its missteps. From the minute Dad commits a gross faux pas at a funeral, the stage is set for a movie where nobody really comes away looking all that clean, and for all its warts, “Price” never takes the easy way out to undo the mess its characters make.
Extras: Director/Quaid commentary, rehearsal footage, Toronto International Film Festival Q&A.

Pawn Shop Chronicles (R, 2013, Anchor Bay)
As reality television show producers have already discovered, every item on a pawn shop shelf has at least one story attached to it. Perhaps fortunately, the vast majority of them aren’t as bloody and deranged as the saga of the wedding ring Richard (Matt Dillon) spots behind the counter and recognizes as the ring he gave to his first wife, who had since vanished from his life. As the title indicates, the shop in which Alton (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Johnson (Chi McBride) hold fort is the gatekeeper of all the traffic that passes through “Chronicles,” which takes a trio and change of disconnected stories — of two-bit criminals, a wounded ex-husband, an Elvis impersonator (Brendan Fraser) and more — and ties them all together into a strange and occasionally wondrous story about crime, violence, revenge, love, happiness and complete and total life fulfillment. “Chronicles” crams its stories together in a fashion no one should ever describe as subtle or seamless, and the line between endearingly stupid and just plain cut-rate filmmaking is awfully thin as it tries to reconcile the violence in its heart with the purity of its intentions. But there’s something contagious about a movie that’s having as much fun as “Chronicles” seems to be having even during its downtime (or closest facsimile of downtime, anyway). For all it does awkwardly, strangely or even poorly, “Chronicles” never stoops so low as to be dull or predictable, and when the goal is to have as much fun as possible whether it makes sense of not, there is no higher priority than that.
Extra: Commentary.

Rapture-Palooza (R, 2013, Lions Gate)
At long last, the Rapture has arrived, and as perhaps was predicted, Lindsey (Anna Kendrick) and Ben (John Francis Daley) were left behind to fend for themselves. Depleted population and the occasional locust, wraith, blood downpour and falling rock aside, Earth after the Rapture isn’t terribly different from its pre-Rapture self. And had the Antichrist (Craig Robinson) not finally revealed himself as the man formerly known as a politician named Earl, and had he not decided to steal Lindsey from Ben, life might have just marched on. It’s a premise so banal as to be sort of clever with this backdrop, and that turns out to be “Rapture-Palooza’s” schtick in a nutshell. Once this becomes Robinson’s movie to own, he only occasionally owns it, because “Rapture-Palooza” doesn’t give him much to work with as an Antichrist whose only ambition is to woo a girl. The more the movie hones in on this, the worse it gets. But from the undead guy (Thomas Lennon) who just wants to mow the lawn to the Antichrist lieutenant (Rob Huebel) who simply wants to be held, “Rapture-Palooza” has a lot of silly characters and ideas that keep the end times gag going surprisingly strong. And as it zooms back out and lets the Antichrist do what he does best while all hell sort of literally breaks loose, it finds a funny second wind to carry it through to the end.
Extras: Robinson/Huebel/Rob Corddry commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers.

Pain & Gain (R, 2013, Paramount)
You know that guy who, when stapling two pieces of paper together, needlessly slams on the stapler as loudly and fiercely as he can when a simple press will do? That’s Michael Bay making movies, and were “Pain & Gain” not based on a true story, that approach, for better and worse, would be what separates this from every other movie about three frustrated nobodies (Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie) who turn to crime to jump a few rungs on life’s ladder. From literally the opening minute, “Gain” offers a vision of crime, violence and American dream pursuits that’s rife with as much screaming, yelling, sweating, exploding and bumbling as the frame can safely contain. Nearly every character has a narrator track at some point, and almost nobody gets through this saga without a significant quotient of ineptitude, slapstick and dialogue that’s as purposefully stupid as it is loud. In a vacuum, “Gain” is wondrous and terrible all at once — an Olympic-level demonstration of stupidity and activity that bends over backward to please those with an appetite for dumb but self-aware entertainment. Problem is, “Gain” doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s based on a true story from the mid-1990s, it uses the real names from that story, and it turns an incredibly gruesome and very unfunny crime spree into a slapstick comedy that dares to position its three main characters — two still alive on death row, one now a free man — as endearingly silly folk heroes. For those accusing Hollywood of being morally decrepit, Merry Christmas and please accept this gift-wrapped validation on behalf of the one director with enough tone deafness to box it up and hand it over. No extras.

8/20/13: Amour, Highland Park, Killing Season, Epic, Drinking Games, Hitting the Cycle

Amour (PG-13, 2012, Sony Pictures)
“I know it can only get worse. Why should I inflict this on us, on you and me?” If you’ve had any passing exposure to “Amour,” you already know it’s a downer about a man (Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges) watching his wife (Emmanuelle Riva as Anne) face her encroaching mortality after a stroke leaves her partially paralyzed and bed-bound. Or rather, that’s the widely-dispersed assumption as concluded by the fleeting exposure the film received after receiving a Best Picture Oscar nomination. “Amour” is, to be certain, a harshly honest movie about Anne’s declining health and Georges’s internal struggle over what to do when things get worse and Anne’s loss of independence turns her sour. But a dreary art house downer? Not quite. “Amour” is reverent, kind and legitimately very funny in parts, and it’s salty, unfiltered and even a little mean in other parts. More than a picture of death, it’s a picture of life — one that shows us, without ever looking backward or verbalizing it, exactly what compelled Georges and Anne to find each other, keep each other and occasionally drive each other crazy. That doesn’t make the circumstances any easier to swallow, but understanding and appreciation come easily and in droves. In French with English subtitles.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, director Q&A.

Highland Park (NR, 2013, Tribeca Film)
Like several other cities in Detroit’s shadow, Highland Park is in a state of financial disrepair, and the staff (in several cases, former staff) at the local high school is now feeling the effects of that decay up close. For a group of friends (Billy Burke, Danny Glover, Kimberly Elise, John Carroll Lynch, Rockmond Dunbar, Eric Ladin) from that school, the seemingly only easy way out (term used loosely) are the six lucky numbers they pick every week for the lottery ticket they pool money together to buy. An unrealistic road to salvation in our world with the odds being what they are, but this is the movies, so you know where this is going, right? Yep. Fortunately, the rest of “Highland Park” isn’t quite so telegraphed, and the actual act of winning the lottery is the beginning of this story and not anything close to a culmination. There are divergent schools of thought that hypothesize winning the Lotto jackpot is either the blessing or curse of a lifetime, and “Park” covers that spectrum nicely and mixes in some city politics and current events to murk things further. In a few heavy-handed spots, when the ideologies become the story, that recipe proves to be more than the movie can handle. But these moments are mercifully brief, and “Park” spends most of its energy straddling a smart comedy/drama line and training its focus on a diverse but uniformly likable group who are friends first and lottery winners second. Parker Posey also stars as the city’s mayor (who, perhaps predictably, isn’t quite as likable.) No extras.

Killing Season (R, 2013, Millennium Entertainment)
Benjamin (Robert De Niro) has never forgotten, Emil (John Travolta) has never forgiven, and when the two former soldiers from opposing factions in the Bosnian War happen upon each other and forge the beginnings of a friendship near Benjamin’s isolated home in the woods, “Killing Season” has already made it clear this is no accident. “Season” brushes aside the early pleasantries with similar efficiency, setting the stage for a showdown that’s one part hunt and 10 parts Festivus airing of grievances. Were the source of those grievances not so interesting, “Season” might have delved into accidental comedy territory with the unbelievable number of times Benjamin or Emil gains the upper hand before embarking on a Bond villain monologue while the other guy finds a way to turn the tables and do a little recitation of his own. Arguably, it still does. But ridiculously counterproductive through they tend to be, those speeches give “Season” the character and color they need to complement a chase that, despite being grimy and enjoyably rustic in its violence, might nonetheless feel empty without the backstory. More importantly, they give the film everything it needs to give an arc to a story that otherwise would plateau and go nowhere. “Season” could have ended a handful of ways, but few would be as satisfying and fitting as the one it ultimately chooses.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Epic (PG, 2013, Fox)
Halfway through its run, as a shrunk-down Mary Katherine hitches a ride aboard the antler of a curious deer who probably would run away from her full-sized former self, “Epic” shows the awe-inspiring potential it has to tell a truly magical story about a microscopic society living amid ours. Whenever Mary Katherine’s full-sized, three-legged pug is joyously stealing scenes for no reason beyond a desire to spread his joy, “Epic” shows its potential to be hilarious for no reason. But any time “Epic” ventures in one of these directions, obligation to fulfill its destiny as a ready-to-please animated adventure movie for kids pulls it back and stretches it thin. Though Mary Katherine’s crossover status makes her the main character by default, most of the story takes place in the microscopic society of tiny human good guys, tiny goblin-esque bad guys, a handful of wisecracking talking slugs and toads, and a would-be hero, Nod, who follows the slacker-to-failure-to-savior blueprint to the letter. “Epic,” accordingly, follows the good-versus-evil game plan, and most of its time is devoted to a battle for the forest that’s gorgeous to behold but completely ordinary in terms of storytelling. Moments where the two worlds intersect are criminally rare given the plethora of opportunities to create them and mine the possibilities they offer, and “Epic,” for better or worse, feels precisely like the pretty, fast-paced, enjoyable but forgettable animated also-ran it seems obligated to be.
Extras: Seven behind-the-scenes features, four features about the environments that inspired the film, Epic Coloring & Storybook Builder app (iOS/Android).

Drinking Games (NR, 2012, Believe Limited)
On the eve of holiday break and in the eye of a blizzard, Richard (Blake Merriman) and Shawn’s (Nick Vergara) dorm is nearly a ghost town, with their room one of the few remaining with the lights still on. One studious resident adviser’s (Joshua Sterling Bragg) intervention notwithstanding, they and a few other students have run of the place — which would be great if (a) Richard didn’t want to stay in and study and (b) a third student, Noopie (Rob Bradford) wasn’t passed out already on their floor. How did he get there? Heck, who is he? “Drinking Games” has plenty of questions to answer as it opens. Among them: What is “Drinking Games,” exactly? It plays like a slacker comedy at first, but not with purpose, and when it shoots instead for some epiphanic revelatory character drama, it does so without conviction. Eventually, “Games” takes on a psychological thriller bent. But here it lacks the know-how, awkwardly waffling between dark comedy and dark drama with a jerkiness that makes the closing verses come on more abruptly than they should. “Games” is weirdly watchable due to being so constantly uncomfortable in its own skin. But that lack of comfort is neither the hook the movie had in mind nor the one it needs to merit a recommendation.
Extras: Commentary, drinking games sports vignettes, photo gallery.

Hitting the Cycle (NR, 2012, Monarch Home Entertainment)
It happens to every athlete: Their body betrays them, their skills erode, and they’re forced to retire from the thing they love most while still in the prime of their lives. That’s the private hell facing former baseball phenomenon-turned-scuffling minor leaguer Jimmy Ripley (J. Richey Nash), and for a time it seems “Hitting the Cycle” is primed to take this on in heavy-handed but credibly painful detail. But it’s around that time that Jimmy gets a call about his ill father back home. And it’s shortly after that when Jimmy returns home and, following a frosty reunion with estranged brother Patrick (Travis Schuldt), ventures down a path that transforms “Cycle” from a movie about baseball into a laundry list of back-to-the-ol’-hometown cliches. There’s angst with the pretty girl (Courtney Henggeler) from high school who has the lame boyfriend, there’s angst with Patrick, there’s angst with the former high school, there’s angst with childhood memories, there’s angst with Dad (Bruce Dern), and by the time “Cycle” heads into its third act, it’s saddled with more baggage than a flight around the world. “Cycle” is certainly earnest, and the limbo of Jimmy’s career gives it some intrigue even at its most agonized. But all that baggage adds up, and as “Cycle” keeps piling on with argument after argument about a past we merely hear about rather than truly feel, it flirts dangerously with self-parody. It never quite makes it all the way there, but the distance Jimmy’s story travels from its original would-be premise is exhaustingly long all the same. No extras.

8/13/13: What Maisie Knew, The Mindy Project S1, Errors of the Human Body, Olympus Has Fallen, The Big Wedding

What Maisie Knew (R, 2013, Millennium)
One day, little Maisie (Onata Aprile) will be all grown up. And there’s a perfectly reasonable chance that when she is, a combination of jobs to do, bills to pay and relationships gone sour will turn her into a carbon copy of the bitterly divorced parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) who now fight for her custody while repeatedly demonstrating why neither has any business being a full-time parent. “Maisie” tells its story with smart strokes, building up both parents as hard-working, somewhat well-meaning people who nonetheless have started a fire they don’t know how to put out. This is not a hit piece on divorcing parents, which precisely is why its depiction of divorce, the splash damage it creates and the complications that arise when kids are involved is so surprisingly engrossing. “Maisie” is still entertainment first and foremost, and it dips its toes into some murky subplots that serve the story (effectively and entertainingly, it bears noting) more than any messages that story transmits. But the contrast between the believably precious and thoroughly uplifting Maisie and the seemingly obligatory ugliness of divorce that encircles and occasionally flies right over her head is always apparent, and because “Maisie” stays honest and completely eschews preachy, hammy melodrama during the process of illustrating this contrast, it remains potent the whole way through. Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham also star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes.

The Mindy Project: Season One (NR, 2012, Universal)
Taking a page from roughly half the sitcoms currently in rotation, “The Mindy Project” centers around a thirtysomething single woman — Mindy (Mindy Kaling), an OB/GYN as professionally successful as she is personally disastrous — who is determined to turn her life around and escape singledom for good. That’s the bad news. The good news is that “Project” realizes this could be bad news and comes equipped to laugh at its own tired predicament. “Project” isn’t simply the title of this show, but also the concept behind the romantically comedic sitcom taking place purely inside the mind of Mindy, who is convinced the road to happiness is paved with the same quirky characters and subplots that infiltrate the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movies she so deeply cherishes. “Project” doesn’t go overboard with the gimmick; to the contrary, it’s often so subtly used that many won’t even realize it’s a gimmick at all. But sly or not, it’s effective enough to give “Project” the angle it needs to not be more of the same old thing. It helps also, of course, that the scripts are funny and the ensemble cast (Ike Barinholtz, Zoe Jarman, Ed Weeks, and arguable cast MVP Chris Messina as the guy Mindy almost inevitably will end up marrying in the series finale) is plenty capable of doing those scripts sharply proper justice.
Contents: 24 episodes, plus deleted scenes.

Errors of the Human Body (NR, 2012, IFC Midnight)
When Canadian geneticist Geoffrey Burton (Michael Eklund) arrives at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, he’s greeted with a solemn strain of fanfare — excitement over his arrival and participation in a potentially groundbreaking project, but sadness over the very public death of his young son, due to a genetic disease he couldn’t treat, that predated his arrival. The two developments are, of course, intertwined, with the institute striving to create a gene capable regenerating tissue and warding off more than simply the disease that befell Geoffrey’s son. That makes this personal, and Geoffrey’s company — primarily, a former intern/potential love interest (Karoline Herfurth) and a fellow geneticist with cloudy motivations (Tómas Lemarquis) — makes pretty much all of “Errors of the Human Body” personal in some fashion. Naturally, all these strong feelings can only lead to derailment of some kind, and purely in terms of inevitability fulfillment, “Body” thoroughly delivers. As for what else it delivers or why it delivers it, the answers aren’t quite so clear. “Body” is uncomfortable, grimy and tense for hypothetical and tangential reasons alike. But it’s also such a ball of nerves that the ball of nerves often is all there is. For having such clear motives and explanations for his mannerisms, Geoffrey nonetheless offers little to rally around as the lead character, and his inability to give “Body” a sturdy center leaves everyone and everything else to flail even more by comparison. It speaks to “Body’s” atmosphere that it’s engaging even with these major flaws apparent, but it’s those flaws that send the film to the finish with a limp instead of in a blaze.
Extras: Director/co-writer Q&A, behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery.

Olympus Has Fallen (R, 2013, Sony Pictures)
No one comes out and says it, but it seems implied that, 18 months later, disgraced former Secret Serviceman Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) hasn’t moved on from his failure to save the First Lady’s life following a car crash. Honestly, no mind readers need apply to “Olympus Has Fallen,” which gives away the hook — the White House, and the President (Aaron Eckhart), falling into enemy hands — in the title and every single piece of promotional material related to the film. Stuff goes boom, and once D.C. is comfortably in the hands of the North Korean (who else these days?) invading force, only one person can save the day. Can you guess who? If not, congratulations on seeing an action movie for the first time ever. Enjoy! For the rest of us, “Olympus” is what it looks like — a stone-faced, extremely logically dubious excuse to commit computer-generated violence against a handful of landmarks and monuments while also engaging in some Jack Bauer-approved close-quarters combat in the halls of the White House. The final product is both technically accomplished and too narratively terrified to take a swing at greatness or do anything that allows it to be awful (one unintentionally funny episode of Melissa Leo hamming it up most definitely excepted). Amongst the alarmingly voluminous number of recent movies about America getting hammered by a surprise invasion, this one likely will reign as the one you most quickly forget existed. But as in-the-moment entertainment goes, “Olympus” suffices well enough and does exactly what it aspires to do, which counts for something even when aiming low. Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett and Radha Mitchell also star.
Extras: Five behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

The Big Wedding (R, 2013, Lions Gate)
With its opening lines, as narrated to us by Ellie (Diane Keaton) as she explains how she and Don (Robert De Niro) still love one another despite long since having divorced, “The Big Wedding” offers hope that it has a heart and isn’t afraid to let it beat. And then, almost immediately and with such a recoil as if to be repulsed by its own optimism, it forcefully snuffs that light out and spends most of the time left relentlessly ensuring it doesn’t return. “Wedding” is primarily a story about the wedding of Ellie and Don’s adopted son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) to Missy (Amanda Seyfried), with the wrinkle being that Don (who has remarried) and Ellie must pretend they’re still married to appease the groom’s staunchly traditional biological mother. That premise creates numerous opportunities for jokes about cultural disconnect, family squabbles and what to do with Don’s new wife (Susan Sarandon) when she isn’t supposed to even exist. Impressively, “Wedding” digs into these topics and several more until it finds the most joylessly irritable diamonds in the entire mine, and it painstakingly arranges those jewels into two families and change’s worth of almost staggeringly unbearable people. Sadly, little in the way of attempts at humor, much less successful conversions on those attempts, were recovered during the expedition. Whatever purpose “Wedding” had — as a comedy, as heartwarming entertainment, as any kind of entertainment at all — is so hopelessly absent that it’s a complete wonder so many talented people showed up to participate. Times must be tough in Hollywood. “Wedding” inevitably does that thing every predictable, cynical Hollywood comedy does where it finds its soul just in time for the happy ending, but the turnaround rings completely hollow following all that preceded it. Want to end “Wedding” on a truly happy note? Press the stop button. Topher Grace, Katherine Heigl and Robin Williams, among others, also star.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

8/6/13: Oblivion, Mud, Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal, The Silence, The Place Beyond the Pines, Antiviral, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, On the Road

Oblivion (PG-13, 2013, Universal)
When an alien force known as Scavs invaded Earth, humanity ultimately drove them away. But the cost — a planet completely ravaged by global nuclear strikes and the moon’s destruction — was incalculable. Sixty years later, Earth is nearly abandoned, with only scattered crews (Tom Cruise as Jack, Andrea Riseborough as Vic) hanging back to harvest resources for an off-planet colony of survivors. Jack in particular accepts (if not actually understands) his present condition, but dreams he cannot explain of a pre-war Earth haunt him with suspicious regularity. So what do they mean? You can probably lob a few guesses, and if you’ve digested enough post-apocalyptic science fiction lately, there’s a good chance some of those guesses will hit. But a confidently unique delivery makes all the difference for “Oblivion,” which takes some faintly familiar concepts, a few extremely familiar ones and a bevy of small but important details designed around its own world and arranges them into a story that’s more gratifying than the sum of its parts and far more full of surprises than its outline gives it any right to be. As “Oblivion” gives clarity to the shape of its world, little doubt remains that any marginally savvy viewer will see a few of its twists coming well before they arrive. Those wise enough to do that will likely also take some degree of issue with the feasibility of certain events up to and possibly including the events that bring it home. But for every wide turn you can spot miles ahead, “Oblivion” has a handful of zigs in the road — story quirks, character details, setting details, an emotion or reaction that’s as in character here as it might be out of character elsewhere in this genre — that make the journey a ton of fun regardless. Morgan Freeman and Olga Kurylenko also star.
Extras: Cruise/director commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.

Mud (PG-13, 2013, Lions Gate)
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Mud” is that its main character — its namesake, no less — could fully not even exist and this still could easily be a great movie. And that isn’t a slam against Mud (Matthew McConaughey), whom two boys (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as Ellis and Neckbone, respectively) discover plundering and hiding inside an abandoned boat they groundlessly believed was their boat alone to plunder. Mud isn’t hiding by accident. But there’s a reason he can’t just run away, and that reason’s name is Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). There’s more to it than that, but it’s a messy predicament overall, and perhaps it’s justifiably messy. But to a point, all we know about Mud is the story as he chooses to tell it, and “Mud” deftly blurs every moral line on the paper in such a way that it’s perfectly acceptable to take it on faith that he’s telling it straight (or at least straight enough). In part, that’s because this feels like a story about Neckbone and especially Ellis more than it is a story about Mud. Though “Mud” doesn’t play its audience for fools, it still is through Ellis’s eyes that the movie shapes its narrative. And while our titular might-be hero is the movie’a most charismatic force, it’s the kid who buys into that charisma — and all the stories about him that “Mud” weaves through this main thread — that ultimately make this one special.
Extras: Director commentary, four behind-the-scenes features.

Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal (NR, 2013, Doppelgänger Releasing)
Lars (Thure Lindhardt) was an artist on the rise before his career hit a wall 10 years ago, which is why he’s now starting over as an art teacher at a small school in the middle of nowhere. His most peculiar student? Eddie (Dylan Smith), a grown man amongst children who never speaks and whose gentle nature belies a pretty big secret. Yes, as the title indicates, Eddie has a sleepwalking problem. And unfortunately, as Lars discovers while watching him one night, he develops a ravenous appetite for living flesh when his sleepwalking tendencies kick in. Naturally, Lars discovers that carnage is the muse he’s needed to reignite his art career, and suddenly it isn’t quite so clear who the most damaged member of “Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal’s” cast actually is. If there’s any doubt about “Eddie’s” aspirations as an absolutely deranged dark comedy, that doubt immediately dissipates during an opening scene that sets a dually frightful and silly tone before Eddie even appears and kicks things into the stratosphere. It’s merely too bad “Cannibal” can’t close as strongly as it opens. Lars and Eddie’s story reaches an apex of crazy roughly two-thirds through, and “Cannibal” saves some more deranged gold for its closing moments, but in between, the film struggles to give its bizarre premise a satisfying place to ultimately go. It isn’t so damaging as to undo all the craziness that surrounds it, but the middling wastes a lot of time that could have transformed “Cannibal” from a great lark into a cult classic.
Extras: Director interview, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Silence (NR, 2010, Music Box Films)
Twenty three years is a long time to keep a secret, especially if the only other person keeping it has vanished. But if Timo (Wotan Wilke Möhring) thought simply disappearing was enough to break the unwanted bond he shares with former friend Peer (Ulrich Thomsen) after watching him fatally sexually assault a teenage girl while he stood by and did nothing to prevent it, the news of an abduction in nearly the same place and under eerily similar circumstances is enough to shake that delusion. So is it a coincidence, or is Peer sending a message only Timo can understand? And what compels Timo — now successful and married with children in Denmark — to return to Germany and face old demons he at least physically fled two decades prior? All will be answered in time, and “The Silence” gets points for providing messy answers and shaking up, right up to the end, what easily could have plateaued into a respectable but unremarkable police procedural. But it becomes apparent almost immediately, as a younger Timo stares frozenly ahead while his inner demons manifest as a gruesome crime, that the revelation of answers isn’t the main reason to seek this out. The pain in “The Silence” isn’t Timo’s alone to bear — it belongs as well to the missing girl’s parents, the silently-grieving mother of the original victim, the wife Timo leaves in the dark and even the detectives struggling to do police work amid crises of their own. “The Silence’s” graceful portrayals of all that anguish is the antithesis of overbearing, but it’s plenty haunting enough to sneak under your skin and take you by surprise when it gets there. In German with English subtitles.
Extras: Two additional films (short film “Quietsch” and the 60-minute “Under the Sun”) by writer/director Baran Bo Odar, cast/crew interviews.

The Place Beyond the Pines (R, 2013, Focus Features)
Upon discovering he has a newborn son from a short-lived fling, small-time motorcycle daredevil Luke (Ryan Gosling) decides he wants to be in his and his mother’s (Eva Mendes) lives. And after one thing leads to another and Luke’s old ways converge with his present condition, he turns to robbing banks as the solution to his problems. That, without spoiling too much, is where a rookie cop (Bradley Cooper) enters the intersection of all three lives and a few more — a wife (Rose Byrne), an infant son of his own and a superior (Ray Liotta) who isn’t completely on the level — he brings into it with him. This, by the way, is only the beginning. And that may or may not be a problem for “The Place Beyond the Pines,” which endeavors to tell an epic story that spans several years and 140 minutes of screen time, succeeds at doing so, but feels strangely stuck in a single gear nearly the entire time. Specifying exactly how that happens would constitute a foul, because the sensation of feeling stuck is most potent during a dubious third act that’s wholly a product of some surprise developments which themselves are reliant on yet more developments that are best left unspoiled. “Pines” is dense with storytelling about a relatively small circle of characters, and it’s a gifted enough storyteller to earn the courtesy of remaining largely unspoiled. But most of its gifts shine primarily at the surface level — an intriguing timeline full of whats, hows and what’s nexts, but with far less to offer in terms of why, what it means and even who these people truly are beneath what we see them do and say.
Extras: Director/co-writer commentary, deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Antiviral (NR, 2012, IFC Midnight)
In the near future, celebrity obsession has climbed yet another rung of crazy. Stars with any strain of deformity or disease can sell blood samples to companies that replicate and resell them to willing buyers who wish to forge a connection to their favorite celebrity by literally infecting themselves with their idol’s disease. And business is booming, with companies competing for exclusivity rights and creating copy protection algorithms to prevent piracy of the diseases. Naturally, a black market has sprung around the notion of cracking the copy protection and profiting under the table, and as both an employee of a major distributor and a black market profiteer, Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) has the best seat in the house when an A-list star (Sarah Gadon) acquires a disease that may be too dangerous to sell legitimately (term used loosely). There’s more to it than that, of course, and there’s more insane dystopian ingenuity where that came from, too. The sheer notion of commerce by way of disease is crazy enough to make “Antiviral” worth seeing, and the way it blends that science into a world not entirely foreign from ours makes it hard to stop watching. None of this, of course, means that what ultimately happens won’t let you down. Passing on a chance to mine its ideas for any kind of dark comedy whatsoever, “Antiviral” instead triples down on the creepiness of it all — antihero Syd included, and perhaps especially — and brute forces that atmosphere through a story chain that doesn’t always pay off on the ideas in play. It works insofar that things only gets weirder and more unsettling with each turn. But watching “Antiviral” struggle to apply a satisfying finish is enough to wonder if a little versatility would have gone a long way.
Extras: Director/cinematographer commentary, deleted scenes, making-of documentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (PG-13, 2013, Paramount)
Mr. President (Jonathan Pryce) isn’t quite acting like himself these days, and while the public so far approves of his newfound trigger happiness, the Joes (Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum and Adrianne Palicki, among others) suspect something is up. When a mission gone awry ends with the President vilifying the Joes and declaring them enemy combatants at around the same time Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) somehow sees himself out of a demoralizingly secure prison, it’s as much a confirmation as a public relations nightmare. All of this payback is, of course, customary for the second movie in what inevitably is a trilogy that likely precedes a reboot that starts this whole saga over in another trilogy some 10 years from now. It’s easy to get cynical about “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” when it effectively serves that cynicism on ice by so willingly falling into predictable story formation. But the nice thing about “Retaliation” is that, though occasionally self-serious in ways that betray the child’s toy on which it’s based, it also wields a pretty good sense of humor. Even during the darkest hour, that little bit of levity does wonders for turning beloved action figures into likable movie characters. The lightness extends to the action, too: Special effects abound, of course, but “Retaliation” depends more on the wits and acrobatics of its supersoldiers than a bunch of overweight computer graphics and bloated set pieces doing all the work for them. None of this makes for a terribly special movie, because “Retaliation” doesn’t excel at anything in a way that makes any one aspect truly memorable. But it’s fun while it lasts and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Those are modest bragging points, but they’re points few movies of this ilk can trumpet these days.
Extras: Director/producer commentary, deleted scenes, eight behind-the-scenes features.

On the Road (R, 2012, IFC Films)
The stench of cliche is powerful and never easily dissipated, and once it ensnares “On the Road” into its clutches, all the pretty and thoughtful details in the world aren’t enough to set it as free as it wants its audience to believe it is. Based on the 1957 Jack Kerouac novel of the same name, “Road” is the story of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), a writer whose life gets upended and turned into a cross-county journey of self-discovery with the help of some free-spirited new friends (Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Tom Sturridge, Danny Morgan) who just want to wring free every last drop of vitality and excitement the wet dish towel of life has to offer. “Road” makes no bones about this. Really, it cannot shut up about it as constantly hurtles its characters into speeches about how exciting the world is and how badly they want to experience it on their own terms and live life to the fullest. “Road’s” palpable, verbal yearning is so relentless early on that its characters often cease being characters and form instead into a Voltron-esque vessel for that yearning. The desire to be different and exciting is so overt that “Road” emerges as dull and derivative — yet another road trip/period piece/memoir that confuses tense and awkwardly positions its characters as nostalgic for a moment that hasn’t yet happened and may never happen. Emotions eventually level out and “Road” rallies with regard to character development and storytelling that better reconciles itself with the exciting world around it. But even then, “Road” wants to be profound in a way it simply hasn’t earned the wisdom and right to be. Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss, Alice Braga and Viggo Mortensen, among others, also star.
Extra: Deleted scenes.