Max Manus: Man of War (NR, 2008, Music Box Films)
If Max Manus (Aksel Hennie) and his cohorts (Nicolai Cleve Broch, Christian Rubeck, Knut Joner, Mats Eldøen, Eirik Evjen) were a stone-faced pack of slobs with cardboard personalities, the true story of how they came together as a band of saboteurs and successfully undermined the Nazis in the name of their Norwegian homeland would be awesome anyway. Though history obviously gets credit for a huge assist, “Max Manus: Man of War” is supremely gifted as a thriller, mixing large- and small-scale action and consistently stacking the tension deck at exactly the right speed. Even if you know the outcome, watching these jobless, uneducated and broke nobodies play so skillfully on such a ridiculously unbalanced playing field makes for one truly exciting movie. But what elevates “Manus” from merely awesome to one of the era’s best war films is the face it puts on these characters over the five years it covers. Our resistance fighters are anything but bores: They’re funny, loving, sophomoric and ready to breathe fire at the crack of a Nazi’s grin. “Manus” extends a similar courtesy to the enemy without awarding any sympathy points, and the honesty and versatility with which it paints Max’s picture is absolutely magnificent. Never does a dull moment pass when the battle is raging, but it’s plenty telling when some of “Manus'” most engrossing screens are those that run in the war’s aftermath. In Norwegian with English subtitles. Siegfried Fehmer and Agnes Kittelsen also star.
Extra: “Max Manus: Film and Reality” documentary.
Erasing David (NR, 2009, FilmBuff)
The whole dustup regarding 21st century privacy needs no introduction. So let’s skip that and go straight to David Bond’s experiment, in which he sets out to discover just how little privacy he has left. For 30 days, David ventures off England’s grid — which contains, among other things, his home, pregnant wife, daughter and numerous modern conveniences — and attempts to live invisibly on the run. In the opposing corner: two private detectives, whom David has hired to use every resource they have to find him before the calendar strikes 30. The experiment gives way to a lively chase that not only shines light on the fallacy of privacy in the digital age, but produces a few unexpected side effects as well. “Erasing David” unquestionably feels like an extreme test case, and Bond’s preconceived suspicions certainly lend an exaggerated angst to the tone of the chase. But “David,” to its credit, never resorts to preachy fear mongering, nor does it ever lose its way and cease being objective and entertaining. No one would blame you for being spooked by some of the film’s results, but if you treat this one as educational entertainment, it might be the most fun you’ve had being unnerved in a while.
Extras: Five “David” short film offshoots, interviews, premiere Q&A.
The Warrior’s Way (R, 2010, Fox)
“Sukiyaki Western Django” and “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” didn’t simply prove that westerns and martial arts movies could co-exist: It confirmed the long-held suspicion that they belonged together. Now, with “The Warrior’s Way,” we have exhibit C. “Way” begins with assassin Yang (Dong-gun Jang) on the run after his conscience prevents him from killing the newborn child of the family he was ordered to completely annihilate. Yang takes the baby and heads to the American west, where he meets cowboys, drunks, circus performers and a knife-tossing woman (Kate Bosworth as Lynne) whose past gives her more in common with the baby than anybody else. “Way” makes no small deal about establishing Yang and Lynne’s characters, but rarely does too much time pass before the cowboys, clowns, assassins, not-so-innocent bystanders and (eventually) Yang’s pursuers are turning some chunk of the Old West into a playground of violence. Toss in Lynne’s past catching up to her at the same time, and it’s anything goes out here. “Way” makes spectacular use of its setting and combatants, mining both for humor, bloodshed, whimsy and honest-to-goodness heart without breaking a sweat. The fights are consistently excellent, too — vicious but never artless, and buoyed by special effects without letting them take over. Geoffrey Rush and Danny Huston also star, while Analin Rudd makes a terrific debut as Baby April.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.
Blast! (NR, 2008, Docurama)
When you look at the Sun, which resides eight light-minutes away from Earth, what you see is actually what the Sun was doing eight minutes earlier. Mark Devlin and his crew are operating under a super-sized version of that premise: By observing galaxies that reside thousands of light years away — and, as such, give us snapshots right now of their distant pasts — the crew hopes to gain insight into the formation of our own galaxy. It isn’t exactly time travel, but it’s in the ballpark, and to hear Devlin and his crew describe the concept, the possibilities are pretty awesome. Now if only they could launch the stupid telescope, everything would be just fine. “Blast!” explains the science behind and ambitions of Devlin’s endeavor, but more than that, the documentary is about the crew itself — in particular, its struggles with logistical setbacks, launch delays, losing expensive equipment and spending more time than anticipated away from loved ones while hopping from continent to continent. The actual results of the experiment will have to wait for another movie, but as a picture of grassroots ingenuity, “Blast!” is terrific fun. Putting any face at all on such an ambitious scientific experiment is feat enough, but giving us this level of access — and revealing just how small and normal this group of explorers really is — is a real treat.
Extras: Additional scenes (with a visit from Werner Herzog).
Barney’s Version (R, 2010, Sony Pictures Classics)
To look at and listen to fictitious wealthy producer Barney Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) is to see an obnoxious, disloyal, unattractive schmuck who should be lucky to have any romance, much less multiple wives, much less a movie that encapsulates three decades of his life.
But even if we cannot fathom a marriage to or even friendship with Panofsky, the poor judgment of others would still be worthwhile fodder if “Barney’s Version” saw its subject with the same objective eyes with which we see him. For a while, it does, and what takes shape is a darkly amusing faux-biopic of a man who, even in his version of his life’s story, is almost wholly contemptible. The comic contemptibility is such that when “Version” occasionally breaks and asks for a pinch of sympathy for Barney, it’s easy to oblige for just a moment. But 30 years is a lot of time for 134 minutes to cover, and “Version” makes some unfortunate turns of face in the interest of time. The movie’s homestretch smothers numerous loose ends, replaces the breezy energy with a syrupy straight face, and practically holds its hands out for Oscars, Golden Globes and whatever other awards a good emotional swell can garner. The maneuver paid off for Giamatti, who won a Globe for his trouble, but it makes for a movie that isn’t all it could have been. Rosamund Pike, Dustin Hoffman, Rachelle Lefevre and Minnie Driver, among others, also star.
Extras: Writer/director/producer commentary, interviews, behind-the-scenes feature, red carpet footage.
Beastly (PG-13, 2011, Sony Pictures)
Uberpopular high school student and narcissistic pretty boy Kyle (Alex Pettyfer) has never been shy about putting down others in the name of his own vanity. But when he wakes up under a curse that leaves him hairless, scarred and inked in all the wrong ways, crossing the school’s unpopular but supremely gifted witchcraft guru (Mary-Kate Olsen) sure seems like a step too far. The only w
ay to break the curse? Lose the attitude, develop some redeeming qualities beneath the skin level, and persuade a girl to love him for who he is on the inside. Easier said than done — or, you know, maybe not. As entertainment goes, “Beastly” is considerably more enjoyable than your average vapid teen movie, thanks largely to a clever script and a perfectly-cast Neil Patrick Harris as the Obi-Wan to Kyle’s Luke. Just don’t make the mistake of looking too hard behind that witty facade, because what you’ll find is a story that’s distressingly neat and more concerned with fulfilling its parable than really challenging its main character. “Beastly’s” second half just sort of falls into place, and it cuts a lot of difficult corners to reach its predictable destination. Even if you see the end coming, and even if you don’t mind that “Beastly” goes there, the speed and ease with which it arrives may still catch you by surprise. Vanessa Hudgens also stars.
Extras: Alternate ending, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, music video.
Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
How to explain “Tetsuo: The Bullet Man?” There really is no good way, and if you read even a blatheringly positive review that doesn’t cop to its general lack of cohesion, that reviewer is isn’t being totally honest. Skeletally speaking, “Tetsuo’s” plot is pretty simple: A man (Eric Bossick as Anthony) watches a car intentionally run down his young son, and the resulting anger is so acute that it alters his body chemistry. Specifically, it transforms him into a human gatling gun — part man, part metal, and capable of spraying bullets from his body at a ridiculous clip. “Tetsuo” lucidly explains how this is possible. But those moments of clarity are fleeting and essentially punctuate long stretches where “Tetsuo” absolutely loses its mind. The loud, violent, screeching and mostly dialogue-free insanity provides “Tetsuo” the means it needs to pad the threadbare story without giving it much color at all, and whatever word you have for it — pretentious, noisy, amateurish, self-indulgent — cannot possibly be dismissed as a wrong answer. You might even call it brilliant — a fiercely original, show-me-don’t-tell-me portrait of rage and grief run frightfully amok. Just be prepared to explain your answer if that’s the path you take, because “Tetsuo” sure doesn’t make appreciation come easy. No extras.
Worth a Mention
— “The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy: Extended Edition” Blu-ray (PG-13, New Line Cinema): If you’re keeping score, or attempting to, this would mark the umpteen hundred thousandth time New Line has released these “Lord of the Rings” movies in some kind of home video format. This time, though, the studio seems to really mean it. The picture quality gets the Blu-ray bump for the second time, but this time the extended editions are included instead of the theatrical versions, which inexplicably comprised last year’s Blu-ray trilogy. The 15-disc set includes just about every previously-released special feature of import, including the behind-the-scenes documentaries and commentaries from the 2004 DVD set and the Costa Botes documentaries from the 2006 set, as well as digital copies of all three films. If you’ve been holding out for the optimal “LOTR” home theater experience, your patience has been rewarded. (For now.)
— New Scholastic Storybook Treasures releases: Scholastic continues to churn out its terrific Storybook Treasures compilations with two new releases. “Good Night Gorilla … and more wacky animal adventures” includes 16 stories, including “Danny and the Dinosaur” and “Happy Birthday, Moon.” “I’m Dirty! & I Stink!,” meanwhile, compiles 12 stories and employs the voices of Andy Richter, Forest Whitaker and Steve Buscemi, among others. Though a couple of stories in the latter compilation do indeed deal with filthiness, the majority of the collection (“Arnie the Doughnut,” “Johnny Appleseed” and “The Remarkable Riderless Runaway Tricycle,” among others) keeps it from becoming too much of a theme. Both sets include read-along functionality and interviews with a few of the stories’ authors or illustrators.