8/7/12: The Tested, Strike Back S1, 18.104.22.168, The Lorax, ATM
The Tested (NR, 2011, Virgil Films)
With respect to the name, at the heart of “The Tested” sit three people who — through circumstance or notoriety — are well beyond tested. In one corner, there’s Julian (Armando Riesco), a demoted plainclothes police officer returning to work following a shootout that inflicted nearly 50 bullet wounds in one kid, slapped the wrists of the cops who shot him, and poured a mountain of salt on the city’s already-wounded trust between black civilians and white cops. On the other side is Dre (Michael Morris Jr.), the brother of the kid Julian killed and a bully target enticed by the potential protection a gang affiliation would bring. In between, there’s Darraylynn (Aunjanue Ellis), Dre’s mother, who remains emotionally crippled by the shootout and unable to cope either with Julian’s flimsy punishment or Dre’s increasingly inevitable trip down the same road that at least partially got his brother killed. How’s that for a three-pack of extremely touchy issues? And how about a rare movie that doesn’t flinch while taking it on? “The Tested” hits the ground blazing with an ugly flash-forward that seemingly telegraphs the fate of one character before we’ve even learned his (or her, no spoilers) name, and while the tempo dials back as we flash backward, the movie itself only grows bolder. It really has no other choice, because any kind of retreat that sugarcoats a story like this or reduces it to a conduit for preaching would be an insulting waste of time. But knowing what should be done and actually doing it are two different things, and “The Tested” knocks the latter objective out with honesty, with skill and completely without fear.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes sizzle reel.
Strike Back: Season One (NR, 2011, Cinemax)
The cancellation of “24″ has left a void, because there really isn’t another television show that attempts a similar premise and has the capacity to enhance it with all the insane, un-television-like things “24″ would do whenever the spirit moved it. Lest we get carried away, “Strike Back” — wherein a dishonorably discharged former United States Delta Force agent (Sullivan Stapleton), a straighter-laced British sergeant (Philip Winchester) and a British counterterrorist unit engage in a global chase of a terrorist group in possession of WMDs — still doesn’t go quite as bananas as “24″ did. It doesn’t emulate the real-time format, for one thing, which means it isn’t trying to present the pursuit as the most impossibly ridiculous day any human being not named Jack Bauer has ever experienced. But in many of the ways that matter, “Strike Back” fills the void. What initally looks like an A-to-B chase becomes (surprise!) increasingly complicated, and the show strikes an excellent balance between dropping intelligence-related bombshells and setting off a few in the literal sense. It takes care to develop some strong characters without curbing the action, but it isn’t afraid to kill some of them off during any given episode. “Strike Back” even enjoys an advantage by way of being a premium cable show, which lets it illustrate the methodologies of its characters — whether unimaginably brutal or completely, imaginably human — in ways network television cannot. But its the construction of the 10-episode arc, and not its unapologetic presentation, that makes this one worth seeking out.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus commentary.
22.214.171.124 (NR, 2010, Universal)
It’s a bit of a wonder — and not one “126.96.36.199″ explains — how four girls (Emma Roberts, Ophelia Lovibond, Tamsin Egerton, Shanika Warren-Markland) with such dramatically different personalities became such close friends. But if that curiosity irks you, you’re watching the wrong movie and probably should cut your losses right here. Set over three days and (technically) across two continents, “188.8.131.52″ is the story of a diamond heist, a group of amateur thieves, and four friends who find themselves in the eye of the storm completely (and absurdly) by accident. Each girl’s story plays out semi-separately while “184.108.40.206″ gradually stitches everything together, and it’s hard to say whether those stories or their presentation are more inane. In its haste to cram a shoe store’s worth of storytelling into a shoebox, “220.127.116.11″ turns the energy to 10, plays like a music video a few times too many, and drives its cast to overact just to keep up. Logically, it’s absurd, and when it ventures into a completely optional (albeit, to its credit, connected) side story just because, it gets even more ridiculous. Watched casually, it’s a total mess. But if you keep a close eye on “18.104.22.168,” there’s a startlingly high level of cohesion on display. Our four friends’ accidental adventure is beyond unbelievable, but “22.214.171.124″ certainly realizes it, and it has a blast letting us know it knows. And what’s wrong with a movie that just wants to have silly fun, especially when — in perhaps the craziest development of all — the whole thing somehow makes complete sense?
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.
The Lorax (PG, 2012, Universal)
Hey kids, are you ready for your Communism indoctrination? If you believe the conspiracy theorists, that’s secretly what lies in store in “The Lorax,” which ostensibly is based on the Dr. Seuss book of the same name. Ostensibly, “The Lorax” also is a story about a place where real trees have been wiped out by a corporation with designs of monetizing oxygen and selling fake trees to a complacent population of consumers who prefer the convenience and cleanliness of the fake trees. One kid and his grandmother feel differently, and their attempts to find the Lorax — a grouchy creature who speaks for the trees — irks a corporate kingpin who’d rather keep his customers imprisoned in their complacency. Ok, so maybe the conspiracy theorists have a point about packaging a sermon inside a brightly-colored computer-animated wrapper. But if there was a message, “The Lorax” fails simply by way of being a lousy messenger. When the story isn’t overtly preachy, it’s noisy and incomprehensible, and the incomprehensible parts are long, frequent and trite enough to make you pine for the unintentionally comical moments where the movie fumbles whatever point it’s trying to make about nature’s majesty. “The Lorax” is the anti-”Wall-E” — a film with obvious concerns about its setting, but one too charmless and confused to express it with even remote poignance or humor. The good news for the fringe is that “The Lorax” cannot possibly reprogram children to turn America into the new Soviet Union. The bad news, for the rest of us, is that it’s similarly unable to fill its 86 minutes with something resembling entertainment.
Extras: Three animated shorts, directors commentary, deleted scene, two behind-the-scenes features, games, sing-along.
ATM (R/NR, 2012, IFC Midnight)
The simple title would appear to say it all. But if there’s an even better name for “ATM,” “WHY?” might be it. In “ATM,” three co-workers (Brian Geraghty, Alice Eve, Josh Peck) leave their office Christmas party and make a stop at an ATM inside a booth that itself sits, illuminated, in the middle of the vast, barren and dark parking lot. For whatever reason, they park the car far away from the booth and walk to it. And for whatever reason, when they move to exit the booth, they’re greeted by a shady person, concealed inside a hooded winter coat, who watches them motionlessly from outside the booth. For reasons we’ll never know, another man wanders into the lot and the guy in the coat immediately and brutally kills him. Our three heroes then inexplicably decide neither to break for the car or take on the seemingly unarmed man as a trio, but instead venture out of the booth one at a time. Look, we all know horror movies rely on some measure of baffling idiocy on behalf of the would-be victims. But “ATM” piles on the inanities like they’re condiments at a sandwich shop, and there’s no time to be scared when you’re fatigued instead from scratching your head so much. The troubles extend to “ATM’s” twists and endings, which aren’t so much twists and endings as things that happen instead of twists and endings. You’ll see the former coming from two towns over, and the latter lands with a thud that even a thud’s mother couldn’t love.
Extras: Optional director’s cut (which, in perhaps the movie’s only real twist, is actually five minutes shorter than the theatrical cut), behind-the-scenes feature.