THE BRANDON TEENA STORY (1998). In 1993, a young Midwestern woman named Teena Brandon harbored such a burning desire to be a boy that she cut her hair, taped down her breasts, crammed a sock in her pants, and passed herself off as a good-natured guy named Brandon Teena. The Brandon guise worked beautifully – no one had a clue that "he" was initially a "she" – but once the truth was finally unveiled, a couple of roughnecks went ballistic, raping Teena and cold-bloodedly murdering her. Teena's story was fictionalized in 1999's Boys Don't Cry (for which Hilary Swank won the Best Actress Oscar), and it took that picture's success for this earlier documentary to gain a wider release. This chilling nonfiction piece offers some additional facts that writer-director Kimberly Peirce wasn't able to work into Boys Don't Cry. Perhaps most shockingly, we learn that a third person was murdered alongside Brandon and his friend Lisa Lambert: Philip Devine, a 22-year-old black male who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite the generous amount of screen time devoted to talking-head interviews with those who knew Brandon best (including his mother), the film fails to provide much background info on this complex figure's younger years, leaving the picture with a sizable psychological hole. But as a look at what often resides on the other side of the tracks, this makes for fascinating viewing, as filmmakers Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir even managed to snag interviews with Brandon's two killers. Yet in terms of Twilight Zone bizarreness, the most memorable character is arguably Lisa Lambert's father, who, except for one line that would look great on bumper stickers ("Why put up with knotheads?," directed toward his daughter's murderers), engages in behavioral traits and verbal diatribes so peculiar that he might as well be from another planet.
DVD extras include 22 minutes of outtakes and a 15-minute interview with Muska and Olafsdottir.
CHARLIE BARTLETT (2008). Even in the canon of high school flicks, Charlie Bartlett seems slight, but like its wide-eyed protagonist, it ultimately wins you over on the strength of its puppy-dog appeal. Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is a rich boy who's just been kicked out of his latest private school, this time for running a fake-ID operation. Everything Charlie does is simply because he wants to be well-liked by his peers, a challenge that becomes even greater once his booze-and-pill-addled mom (Hope Davis), raising him on her own, is forced to send him to a public school. As expected, Charlie's dapper outfit and shiny attaché case rub the locals the wrong way, and he soon finds himself being dunked headfirst into a toilet. But with an entrepreneurial spirit being perhaps his finest trait, Charlie soon manages to gain control of the situation. Armed with the pills being supplied by his clueless family psychiatrist, he enters into a business partnership with school bully Bivens (Tyler Hilton), whereupon Charlie provides the students with free medical advice and Bivens forks over all the prescription drugs – all for a price, of course. In no time, Charlie becomes the most popular kid on campus, a development that doesn't go unnoticed by the burnt-out principal (Robert Downey, Jr.). Though Charlie Bartlett clearly positions itself as a fanciful comedy, it also takes time to comment on the usual stepping stones found in youth-oriented films; there's nothing particularly trailblazing about any of its revelations, unless you include the suggestion that a bully's bad haircut might be all that prevents a pugilist from being a poet.
DVD extras include audio commentary by director Jon Poll and writer Gustin Nash, a separate commentary by Poll, Yelchin and co-star Kat Dennings, and the music video for Spiral Beach's "Voodoo."
CITY OF MEN (2008). The cinematic chain of events that led to the creation of City of Men actually began in the literary world with the publication of Paulo Lins' book City of God, which focused on the lives of young boys growing up in the crime-infested streets of a Brazilian neighborhood. There's been a short film (Palace II), a feature film (the Oscar-nominated City of God), a television series (City of Men), and now a big-screen spin-off of the TV show. I haven't seen the TV program, but compared to City of God, this City feels underpopulated in terms of both acute characterizations and kinetic style. Fernando Meirelles, director of the stunning City of God, has since moved on, and here he functions only as one of the co-producers. His MIA status is clearly felt, as is that of God screenwriter Braulio Mantovani; their replacements, writer-director Paulo Morelli and co-scripter Elena Soarez, have crafted a movie that lacks the immediacy, danger and sheer suspense of its feature-film predecessor. Here, the focus is on Ace (Douglas Silva) and Wallace (Darlan Cunha), decent kids trying to stay alive in a Brazilian slum lorded over by rival street gangs. None of the characters in this film are nearly as magnetic as the teens in God, and whereas the first picture largely succeeded by continually depicting the area as a self-contained war zone with no room for sentimentality, Men takes too many side trips into more familiar territory. This is especially evident in its soggy look at Wallace's relationship with his ex-convict dad (Rodrigo dos Santos), a plotline that ends with a twist that doubtless feels more authentic in the halls of a film school than on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.
DVD extras include a 15-minute making-of featurette and theatrical trailers.
DRILLBIT TAYLOR (2008). Well, at least the kids try hard. As the trio of dweebs who find themselves the perpetual targets of high school bullies, lanky Nate Hartley, rotund Troy Gentile and spastic David Dorfman turn in natural performances that go a long way toward making this dopey comedy even remotely watchable. Even so, the three are basically carbon copies of Superbad's lanky Michael Cera, rotund Jonah Hill and spastic Christopher Mintz-Plasse – hardly a surprise, given that both films were produced by Judd Apatow and co-written by Seth Rogen. Both movies largely deal with three nerds trying to appear cool to their fellow students; the added attraction here is the character of Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), a homeless man who passes himself off as a bodyguard in order to earn some money protecting the undersized freshmen from the vicious seniors (Alex Frost and Josh Peck) who terrorize them at every turn. An assembly-line comedy in virtually every facet – you can set your watch by the moment when the formerly aloof Drillbit is visibly moved by a charitable act on the part of one of the kids – this dispiriting attempt at corralling laughs has little to offer anyone except die-hard Owen Wilson fans, and even those devotees might feel dejected after watching this charming if one-note actor spinning his wheels in such a tiresome character type. While we're thankfully not subjected to anything as atrocious as Wilson's 2006 You, Me and Dupree, rest assured that you, me and Drillbit Taylor isn't a recipe for enjoyment, either.
Extras in the unrated Extended Survival Edition include audio commentary by director Steven Brill, co-writer Kristofor Brown and the three kids, 13 deleted and extended scenes, an interview with scripters Rogen and Brown, five behind-the-scenes shorts, and a gag reel.