Monday, January 13, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases

Enough Said ****½ Julia Louis-Drefus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette, Ben Falcone. Directed by Nicole Holofcener. A divorced woman who decides to pursue the man she's interested in learns he's her new friend's ex-husband. Line for line, scene for scene, it is one of the best-written American film comedies in recent memory and an implicit rebuke to the raunchy, sloppy spectacles of immaturity that have dominated the genre in recent years. It shows us how rare love is — and how we need to grab it and not let it go. Gandolfini deserves an Oscar for Enough Said not because it's the culmination of everything that came before it but rather because it goes in a completely different direction. And his least characteristic achievement is also one of his best.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler ****½ Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, Clarence Williams III. Directed by Lee Daniels. As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect his life, family, and American society. An important film presented as mainstream entertainment. It’s a great American story. With this film, Daniels quietly pushes his talent for hashing out visceral, violent emotions into unexpected dramatic terrain.

The Spectacular Now **** Directed by James Ponsoldt. A hard-partying high school senior's philosophy on life changes when he meets the not-so-typical "nice girl." Anchored by a funny and especially credible performance by newcomer Miles Teller, Ponsoldt's follow up to his alcoholism portrait Smashed has all the hallmarks of a bittersweet teen drama with flashes of realistic comedy on par with Say Anything and The Breakfast Club.

Short Term 12 **** Directed by Destin Cretton. Grace (Brie Larson), a compassionate young supervisor at a foster care facility, works with her boyfriend and colleague, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), to help at-risk teens. But when a new charge dredges up memories of her own troubled past, Grace's tough exterior begins eroding. Cretton shows as much care and kindness with the minutiae of the daily routine as he does with the larger issues that plague these lives in flux. He also infuses his story with unexpected humor as the kids hassle each other — and their supervisors — on the road to healing.

Blue Caprice **** Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond, Tim Blake Nelson, Joey Lauren Adams. Directed by Alexandre Moors. An abandoned boy is lured to America and drawn into the shadow of a dangerous father figure. Inspired by the real life events that led to the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. What makes this film special is the fact that the filmmakers are more interested in questioning what brings people to commit senseless and merciless acts than they are preoccupied with the historical record.

Fruitvale Station ***½ Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer. Directed by Ryan Coogler. The purportedly true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008. Coogler, with a ground-level, hand-held shooting style that sometimes evokes the spiritually alert naturalism of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, has enough faith in his actors and in the intrinsic interest of the characters’ lives to keep overt sentimentality and message-mongering to a minimum.

20 Feet From Stardom ***½ Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler. Directed by Morgan Neville. A behind-the-scenes look at the world of backup vocalists in a documentary that weaves interviews with legendary singers like Springsteen and Midler with the comments of those whose voices support them. This generous, fascinating documentary about the careers of backup singers, most of them African-American women, seeks to rewrite the history of pop music by focusing attention on voices at once marginal and vital.

You’re Next ***½ Directed by Adam Wingard. When shy Erin (Sharni Vinson) joins her new boyfriend at a family reunion to commemorate his parents' anniversary, the tense gathering is horrifically interrupted by a gang of masked invaders who brutalize the celebrants ... until someone starts fighting back. Funny and tense, rather than hilarious and terrifying, You’re Next doesn’t rip up the rulebook but it’s definitely read it. If all horror comedies were this good we’d be laughing — and squirming.

Carrie *** Chloë Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore. Directed by Kimberly Peirce. A re-imagining of the classic horror tale about Carrie White, a shy girl outcast by her peers and sheltered by her deeply religious mother, who unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom. Peirce plays up the story’s religious themes and Carrie’s burgeoning power as she discovers her telekinetic gifts, even as the dread of the female body that deepens De Palma’s version somehow goes missing. If you're going to take another stab at this tale of a taunted, traumatized teen who exacts fiery revenge on, well, everyone, then Peirce is the director to do it.

A Single Shot **½ Sam Rockwell, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly, Jason Isaacs, Joe Anderson, Ophelia Levisond, Ted Levine, William H. Macy. Directed by David M. Rosenthal. The tragic death of a beautiful young girl starts a tense and atmospheric game of cat and mouse between hunter John Moon (Rockwell) and the hardened backwater criminals out for his blood. Rockwell’s performance is impressively flinty, as is the rest of the cast (including Macy delivering some twitchy character work), and the dialogue sparkles with brilliantly colorful mountain-man slang. Despite its byzantine narrative, the film remains never less than absorbing, as the walls slowly close in on this good-hearted but ultimately flawed protagonist.

Riddick **½ Vin Diesel. Directed by David Twohy. Left for dead on a sun-scorched planet, Riddick finds himself up against an alien race of predators. Activating an emergency beacon alerts two ships: one carrying a new breed of mercenary, the other captained by a man from Riddick's past. An alternately kick-ass and clumsy piece of sci-fi claptrap that puts its empty head down and gets the job done.

A.C.O.D. **½ Adam Scott, Richard Jenkins, Catherine O’Hara, Amy Poehler, Clark Duke, Jessica Alba, Jane Lynch. Directed by Stu Zicherman. After enduring decades of conflict between his divorced parents, Carter (Scott) tries to end the hostilities on the eve of his brother's marriage. Instead, he ends up making surprising discoveries about his past that only increase the tumult. It’s neither consistently funny nor poignant enough to make the most of its impressive cast, all of whom are capable of delivering better than what this film asks of them.

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