Science-fiction is often so terribly difficult to get right on screen because its makers get bogged down in minutiae, trying to craft expansive, futuristic and/or alien worlds, or over-explain the processes that differentiate and separate their plane of reality from that of the present day. “Source Code “, thankfully, is not one of those movies. It grooves, it pulses, it entertains — deftly balancing smarts with a streamlined aim to please.

source code

The sophomore effort of director Duncan Jones ( “Moon “), the high-concept techno-thriller is kind of amusingly impatient with some of the nitty-gritty specifics of its own conceit (“Every second explaining things puts more lives at risk!” one character barks). Sent into the body of commuter (think “Quantum Leap “) and tasked via a secret governmental program with repeatedly living out the same eight minutes leading up to a terrorist-triggered train explosion on the outskirts of Chicago, military helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) must balance his mission training with a growing sympathy for fellow traveler Christina (Michelle Monaghan). With the possibility of a second-wave attack looming on the horizon, a wildly disoriented Colter gathers clues to attempt to identify the culprit, while also trying to pry important details out of his remote handlers (Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) as to his own “real” physical condition.

Casting matters hugely in an endeavor like this, and “Source Code” has a handful of ace players who emotionally invest in the material. Jones, for his part, also orchestrates the balance between the movie’s considerable special effects work and human stakes with assurance and skill. “Source Code” arrives on DVD in a plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a complementary cardboard slipcover, and in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, which preserves the aspect ratio of its theatrical exhibition. Jones, Gyllenhaal and writer Ben Ripley sit for a feature-length audio commentary track, and at times their conversational rapport and rhythm is a bit herky-jerky. Overall, though, their different backgrounds and areas of intellectual/tactical approach on the project make for nice triangulation of both of its themes and its actual nuts-and-bolts production. There’s also a trivia track, and anecdotal cast and crew reminiscences share time alongside some intriguing insights about time travel and other speculative scientific phenomena from theoretical physicist Sergei Gukov.

Another sort of science-fiction arrives in the form of Limitless, a great, propulsive little what-if of a thriller anchored by the charismatic smarm of its lead. No offense, really, but Bradley Cooper just makes a great jerk. In his best films, like “Wedding Crashers ” and the “Hangover ” movies, he plays guys defined by a rakish self-centeredness and/or insecurity. And so with his pin-up looks and breezy disposition (that tan! that hair! that ever-present smirk!), Cooper is a performer who elicits from a wide swath of guys almost equally divided feelings of jealous dislike and idealized affinity. You’d want to punch him in the nuts… if only you didn’t really kind of secretly want to be more like him.

limitless

“Limitless ” uses these qualities to great effect. Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a would-be novelist and full-time loser who gets slipped a black-market, designer pharmaceutical by his ex-brother-in-law. When it unlocks all the unused portions of his brain, Eddie effortlessly transforms into a finger-snapping, ring-a-ding winner, picking up foreign languages and musical instruments in a day, polishing off his book and ringing up a cool $2.3 million in day-trading on the stock market in just under two weeks. This brings him to the attention of an energy baron, Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), looking to seal the deal on a potentially huge merger. When both some thugs find out about the drug’s existence and Eddie’s supply starts to dwindle, however, paranoia, blackmail and worse naturally ensue.

“Limitless ” comes to Blu-ray in an unrated cut, with a foil-enhanced slipcover, and presented in 1080p in an AVC-encoded 2.40:1 widescreen transfer. Its colors are consistent, its picture is clean and free of artifacts or edge enhancement, and the DTS-HD master audio 5.1 track allows for a nice range of cityscape aural effects, most especially during Eddie’s outdoors hallucinations. The movie’s “extended cut” is longer by about 50 seconds or so, and contains a bit more breathing room/material in Eddie’s sex scenes, as well as a bit more cursing and blood in Eddie’s penthouse escape. Bonus features are anchored by an audio commentary track from director Neil Burger, in which he ladles praise on his cast and kind of narrates the on-screen proceedings, but also finally gets around to talking about his first experience with Alan Glynn’s “The Dark Field “, the source material on which the film is based. There’s also a four-minute character featurette, and an 11-minute behind-the-scenes look at the movie’s production, inclusive of some nice on-set interview snippets. Wrapping things up is a five-minute alternate ending, whose relative merits may divide a household.

Soul Surfer

The obvious arm-loss double feature joke recommendation regarding “Soul Surfer” would be to pair it with Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours “, but this conventional slice of heartland uplift (that just happens to unfold in an exotic setting) would actually pair well with any given Disney-released underdog sports drama, like “Invincible ” or “The Rookie “. The latter of those movies stars Dennis Quaid, who serves as Dad here, to Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb), a Hawaiian teenage surfing prodigy who loses her arm in a shark attack. Based on an incredible true story, “Soul Surfer ” unfolds with a lot of rah-rah moralizing and Christianist parallelism, not all of which connects. (An incredible seven screenwriters share story credit, from the adaptation of a book penned by three others.) There’s something of a dearth of dramatic conflict here, since the film basically just amounts to a gorgeous, sun-toned and by all accounts extraordinarily well-adjusted family coping with an admittedly terrible tragedy and then coming (further) together. But the performances are solid and the John Leonetti’s you-are-there cinematography is striking and engaging, making for a warm and involving albeit rather predictable emotional ride.

“Soul Surfer ” arrives to DVD in a regular plastic Amaray case, in a 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves the aspect ratio of its original theatrical exhibition. The Dolby digital 5.1 audio track provides some nice background noise in the beach and surfing scenes, and optional English, French, Spanish and English SDH subtitles are also included. Bonus features consist of eight very short, inessential deleted scenes; three different behind-the-scenes featurettes which focus on character work, production in general, and the film’s surfing sequences; a separate five-minute featurette on the real-life Hamilton, inclusive of interview material and some nicely integrated home video surfing footage; and the half-hour documentary “Heart of a Soul Surfer “, which culls sit-down material from all of the incident’s real-life players.

the perfect game

Another slice of family-friendly underdog pluck arrives by way of “The Perfect Game “, a baseball story that expands its appeal outside of only those familiar with the game. Clifton Collins, Jr. stars as Cesar, a minor league ball player who returns to his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico after his professional career is cut short by injury. Bringing together a rag-tag bunch of impoverished kids, Cesar coaches ’em up, all the way to the 1957 Little League World Series. Heartfelt and evincing slightly fewer seams of artificial inspiration and uplift than “Soul Surfer “, “The Perfect Game ” is sort of like “The Mighty Ducks ” by way of “The Sandlot “, with a hearty pinch of social consciousness thrown in for good measure. With previous baseball experience from the considerably more saccharine “Angels in the Outfield “, director William Dear strikes a nice balance between on-field and off-field drama. The movie comes to DVD in a 2.40:1 transfer free of any edge enhancement or grain issues, with optional English and Spanish subtitles. Bonus features consist of an audio commentary track from Dear, the movie’s trailer, and a behind-the-scenes featurette heavy on chats with its kiddie costars.

The Michael Palin Collection

Best known as a member of the iconic British comedy troupe Monty Python, Michael Palin must be thrilled to reclaim his surname from Sarah Palin in whatever fashion he can. Abetting him in this effort is the release of “The Michael Palin Collection”, a three-DVD collection, from Handmade Films, that gathers into one release a trio of the actor’s strikingly original comedies, and serves as a compelling showcase for his talents. The best known of these is undoubtedly 1981’s “Time Bandits “, which trips the light fantastic, through weird and wonderful moments in history. Also included, though, are the underrated comedy of manners “A Private Function “, and “The Missionary “, about a well-meaning Victorian reverend who finds himself tending to more than merely the spiritual needs of his new flock. Each of the movies, housed on its own disc, is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, and while it’s highly disappointing that there isn’t some sort of supplemental material featuring Palin himself (the only bonus feature is an interview with director Terry Gilliam on the “Time Bandits ” disc, along with the movie’s trailer), this release is a handy value-worthy addition to one’s back catalogue, if one is able to find it at the right price.

Finally, two more manufactured-on-demand titles from MGM and 20th Century Fox are likely to trip the interest wires of classic film hounds. Jules Dassin’s production of “Phaedra”, from 1962, stars Anthony Perkins, Melina Mercouri (Dassin’s wife) and Raf Vallone, and is a heaving, strangely impressionistic take on the source material. Transported to modern times, the tale centers around the wife of a Greek shipping tycoon, who has an affair with her artistically-minded stepson while her husband tries to mold him into his heir. Fine performances and some superb, striking cinematography by Jacques Natteau help mitigate a plot that — whether because of the familiarity of the material or the unsurprising actions that its timeless qualities elicit — sputters a bit as it draws to its conclusion. Claude Lelouch’s “Another Man, Another Chance “, meanwhile, from 1977, is a Western set in the late 1800s, starring James Caan, Genevieve Bujold and Francis Huster. A weird, somewhat brooding and overlong mash-up of emigre tale and second-chance adult love, the movie has some mannered turns, but no real fire or chemistry. Both films are presented in widescreen on DVD-Rs, and neither comes with any special features.

Written by: Brent Simon

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By Brent Simon

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.

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