Pick of the Week

The Next Three Days

Crime thriller; PG-13 for violence, drug material, language, some sexuality and thematic elements.; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: When his wife is imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit (maybe), college professor John Brennan (Russel Crowe) plans and executes a daring prison breakout.

The Lowdown: About halfway through “The Next Three Days,” a superior thriller from stalwart leading man Russell Crowe and director Paul Haggis (“Crash”), I realized why the movie seemed so familiarly effective. Or effectively familiar.

In terms of tone, pacing and plotting, “Three Days” is essentially “The Fugitive” with the story elements slightly shuffled. Instead of a wrongly convicted man trying to avenge his wife’s death and avoid going into prison, it’s the story of a desperate husband trying to overturn an unjust verdict and bust his wrongly convicted wife out of prison.

Instead of Chicago, it’s Pittsburgh. Instead of Dr. Richard Kimble, it’s Professor John Brennan. Instead of a mysterious one-armed man, it’s a mysterious mugger that’s (maybe) the real culprit. There are even several scenes that directly parallel the 1993 Harrison Ford thriller, including a sequence in which our hero escapes the cops by blending into a passing street parade.

In any case, it all works just fine. You’re in capable hands with director Haggis, who knows how to ratchet up the tension and unspool the drama. As Brennan’s wife, Elizabeth Banks shows she has the dramatic chops to match her ace comedic work in other film and TV projects.

The Extras: Deleted and extended scenes; three production featurettes, and a short gag reel.

The Bottom Line: A surprisingly good thriller that kind of flew under the radar upon theatrical release.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: For one of the best journalistic exposes of the year, Google up The New Yorker’s recent chronicle of director Paul Haggis’s battle with the Church of Scientology.

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Pick of the Week

127 Hours

Thriller-drama; rated R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: Trapped by a falling boulder, rock climber Aron Ralston (James Franco) survives for five days – recording his ordeal on a handheld camera and eventually using a dull knife to amputate his own arm.

The Lowdown: The film for which the term “harrowing” was apparently invented, “127 Hours” is hard on the stomach, for obvious reasons. But director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) works some weird miracles here in terms of filmmaking creativity.

As Aron’s mental and physical condition deteriorates, Boyle departs from the straight narrative with sequences of Aron’s hallucinations and dreams of family and friends. The movie then enters a kind of timeless space, and Franco delivers a performance that seems to tap into some universal life force. “There is no force more powerful than the will to live,” the film’s tagline informs us. Franco – robbed of the Best Actor Oscar last week, IMHO – will make you believe.

The Extras: A must-listen commentary track with director Boyle; deleted scenes; Blu-ray adds two mini-docs on Franco and Boyle’s collaboration and the real-life details of Ralston’s ordeal

The Bottom Line: Most assuredly one of last year’s best films, “127 Hours” is a marvel of storytelling verve.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Careful with that amputation scene – several audience members feinted straight away during the film’s theatrical release.

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Pick of the Week

Megamind

Animated comedy; rated PG for action and some language; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: Yet another animated send-up of comic book heroes and villains, “Megamind” brings the funny for both kids and adults.

The Lowdown: For my kids’ entertainment dollar – and I spend quite a lot of them – “Megamind” was the best animated comedy of last year, just ahead of “How To Train Your Dragon.” Similar in premise to the second runner-up, “Despicable Me,” “Megamind” concerns the fate of a cartoon supervillain turned hero.

Evil genius Megamind, voiced by Will Ferrell, is the archnemesis of Metro Man (Brad Pitt) and the designated bad guy of Metro City. But when Megamind finally vanquishes his foe, he discovers that being a supervillain is no fun unless you have a superhero to plot against.

Ferrell and Tina Fey, as TV reporter and perpetual kidnapping victim Roxanne Ritchie, provide a running comedic banter that keeps the movie genuinely funny for adults. As the extras reveal, Fey and Ferrell recorded and improvised their scenes together, which almost never happens in voiceover work. Meanwhile, the ace animation team provides lively action scenes and elaborate head bonks for the shorter set.

Extras: The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack features filmmaker’s commentary track; about a dozen interactive mini-docs, picture-in-picture elements and interviews; a trivia track; deleted scenes and the all-new animated short “The Button of Doom.”

The Bottom Line: To some degree, all animated comedies aim to appeal to kids and parents both; “Megamind” manages to play to each crowd surprisingly well.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Freeze-framing reveals that Megamind’s Dehydration gun has several other settings, including Demoralize, Deregulate and Decoupage.

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Pick of the Week

Waiting for “Superman”

Documentary; rated PG for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: A powerful documentary that examines the failures of American public education by following several students through a frighteningly broken system.

The Lowdown: The year’s first must-see DVD, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is a tremendously effective and deeply compelling documentary from director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) regarding the sorry state of the U.S. public school system.

I didn’t think I’d ever see a documentary as terrifying as “An Inconvenient Truth,” but “Superman” comes pretty close. Simply put, the American public school system is in deep crisis, threatening the future of an entire generation of students – minority and inner city kids in particular.

Guggenheim, a ridiculously gifted filmmaker, uses all the tools of the documentary form to make his persuasive case. Interviews with pioneering educators are juxtaposed with startling statistics. In America right now, a kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. These drop-outs are eight times more likely to go to prison, 50% less likely to vote, ineligible for 90% of jobs, and are being paid 40 cents to the dollar of earned by a college graduate.

The film also follows several families as they try to navigate the public school system, or more accurately, to avoid it. We see parents from both the inner city and the wealthy suburbs entering their kids into lotteries to attend charter and magnet schools. The film’s final scenes are quietly devastating as these students watch their future being determined by a random drawing.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, “Superman” contends, but the film lays much of it at the feet of powerful teachers’ unions and a bureaucratic culture that stymies any effort toward progressive reform. It’s a lot more complicated that that, of course, and the film is mostly even-handed with its finger-pointing.

This might all sound rather wonkish and dry, but Guggenheim populates the film with real people and their specific stories, and also employs inventive animation sequences to bring the statistics to life.

I really can’t say enough nice things about this film. It’s been an incredible couple of years for documentary films, and I’m consistently amazed at how filmmakers are using the form to explore complex issues with such efficiency and artfulness.

The Extras: Deleted scenes, director’s commentary track and five mini-features expanding on various aspects of the film.

The Bottom Line: A fascinating, moving and provocative documentary that’s equal parts penetrating critique and passionate call-to-action.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Every copy of the retail DVD and Blu-ray package comes with a $25 online credit voucher, which viewers can donate to an educational charity of their choice.

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Pick of the Week

Paranormal Activity 2

Supernatural horror; rated R for some language and brief violent material; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: Surveillance cameras capture eerie goings-on in the home of the unfortunate Rey family, California suburbanites prone to poor decisions regarding hauntings and child care.

The Lowdown: Sequel to the successful 2008 film, “Paranormal Activity 2” is technically a prequel in terms of story line. The film chronicles the fate of new parents Daniel (Brian Boland) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden), who have just brought home young baby Hunter from the hospital.

After their home is mysteriously trashed by an invisible force, Daniel installs 24-hour security cameras in and around the house. As with the first film, the story is told entirely via the “found footage” of these cameras, and the occasional handheld video recorder.

The movie pretty much delivers what it promises –about two dozen good scares as the surveillance footage captures things going bump in the night. The video camera gimmick isn’t as fresh as in the first film, but it remains an effective method of generating suspense. And because the mysterious entity is going after baby Hunter this time around, the emotional stakes are raised quite a bit. For parents, anyway.

The Extras: An extended and unrated version of the movie, and a reel of additional found footage that essentially amounts to deleted scenes.

The Bottom Line: A hokey ghost story made interesting via creative visual storytelling. It may occur to you that Steven Spielberg already made this movie in 1982. It was called “Poltergeist,” and it was a lot better.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Kristi, the mom in this prequel story, is sisters with Katie, victim of the haunting in the first film. The film’s last few scenes tie the two stories together, and pose some disturbing questions about sibling rivalry.

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Pick of the Week

Monsters

Science fiction drama; rated R for language; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: Six years after a space probe crash, giant tentacled aliens have infested northern Mexico. During a particularly bad “outbreak,” cynical photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) must escort pretty rich girl Sam Wynden (Whitney Able) through the infected zone.

The Lowdown: One of the best science fiction films of the last few years, “Monsters” is a marvel of inventive, sophisticated, low-budget film making. Director Gareth Edwards’ background is in computer-generated visual effects, and he works wonders here with – according to the press materials – two PCs and some Adobe software.

Maybe more impressive is how skillful Edwards proves to be as writer and director. “Monsters” is truly unlike any alien invasion movie you’ve ever seen. The love story between Able and McNairy – both impressive in their feature film debuts – stands on its own as compelling romantic drama. By the time the critters arrive, we care very much about these two, and that heightens the emotional impact of the creature feature sequences.

Overall, Edwards displays impressive restraint with the effects. The creatures are usually only seen in glimpses, or in the distance – until the final scenes, where we get a real eyeful of the titanic, terrifying and oddly beautiful monsters. Ten-story bioluminescent squids, basically, but no description can really do them justice. Edwards’ creations go into the pantheon of great movie monsters.

The Extras: The single-disc edition has some deleted and extended scenes, a short production doc and a commentary track with the director and actors.

The Bottom Line: Inventive, scary and fun, “Monsters” is an impressive debut from a very promising new director.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Fans of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft will recognize the literary inspiration for these beasties. Cthulhu lives!

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