The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret: Season One (NR, 2009, IFC)
Todd Margaret (David Cross) made an accidental detour into a gold mine when his clueless new boss (Will Arnett) badly misinterpreted a phone call and rewarded him with a ridiculous promotion and a chance to sit at the head of the company table in its new London office. But as “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret” demonstrates right there in the title, it’s a downhill slide from here — such a slide, if the flash-forward at the top of every episode is to be believed, that Todd has somehow committed every crime imaginable two weeks later. Subtlety has no place in “TIPDTM’s” storytelling, which takes the socially detestable stylings of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and wraps it around a lead who makes Larry David look almost pleasant by comparison. It may be the most aggressive campaign a sitcom has ever embarked on to make viewers completely despise its main character. Fortunately, a lack of subtlety need not be synonymous with a lack of wit. “TIPDTM’s” storylines are as brazenly dumb and crude as most of the imbeciles it tasks with carrying them out, but the writing that brings these stories to life is consistently legitimately amusing, with more sharply hilarious hits than detestable misses. The easily offended need not apply, but fans of the Cross-Arnett connection almost certainly should. Blake Harrison and Sharon Horgan also star.
Contents: Six episodes (one extended, all with commentary), plus deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features and bloopers. Also, in what may be an industry first, the special features have a special feature that contains outtakes from the special features.
The First Grader (PG-13, 2010, National Geographic)
While the Mau Mau’s efforts to overthrow Britain’s colonization of Kenya ultimately were successful, the cost of success was incalculably high. For Mau Mau veteran Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo), the cost included witnessing the horrors of war firsthand, but it also meant never having access to even a rudimentary education. Now 84, Maruge wants another chance to learn to read — even if it means learning in an overcrowded classroom stuffed with children who are entirely (and delightfully) amused to have him there. Though a dramatization, “The First Grader” is based on a true story, and you can debate whether its allegiance to telling Maruge’s whole story is to its benefit or detriment. Flashbacks to Maruge’s past illustrate the horrors he witnessed with considerably more resonance than simply describing them could, but the images of murder and torture make “Grader” a much tougher sell for teachers and parents who want to share the story with children. Elsewhere, simplistic supporting characters undermine the movie’s ability to connect with older audiences: Those in charge of either welcoming Maruge to the school or turning him away come off either as complete angels or soulless stonehearts, with little grey in between. But “Grader’s” failings are easily forgiven whenever it shines a light on Maruge, his fellow students, and the moments he and the kids share in between flashbacks, bureaucratic spats and other adult intrusions. There aren’t enough of them, but the ones we do get put Maruge’s pursuit — and the pursuit of education in general — in inspiring perspective.
Extras: Short documentary about the real Maruge, behind-the-scenes feature, interviews, Global Campaign for Education PSA.
Apollo 18 (PG-13, 2011, Anchor Bay)
Like the tag line says, there’s a reason we stopped going to the moon after Apollo 17, and it had nothing to do with the national budget. As it turns out, there was a top-secret 18th Apollo mission — so secret, the astronauts’ families were told it was a training mission and the astronauts themselves (Warren Christie, Ryan Robbins) had no idea what the Dept. of Defense knew was waiting for them on the moon. “Apollo 18” represents the faux-public unveiling of the faux-mission footage that mysteriously resurfaced decades later. And like the (too) many other recent movies that are assembled completely from mock found footage, it’s bound to a rhythm that makes it elementarily predictable for most of the way. Mockumentary-style introductions give way to mundanity designed as character development, which steps aside for a false alarm or two and some poorly-filmed teases before the bus finally hits the highway. Fortunately, “Apollo 18’s” premise is more novel than yet another zombie or ghost invasion, and the predictable cycle gets more mileage simoly by setting itself on the moon. Consequently, when things really get going, the cause of the bedlam (without spoiling with specifics) is pretty legit in its bedlam-causing prowess. That, and the ensuing concerns about returning home, give “18’s” second half a level of tension and creep factor that runs counter to the steam-seeping boredom most found-footage movies undertake at around the same period. Given the genre’s oversaturation and suffocating limitations, that’s good enough.
Extras: Director/editor commentary, alternate endings, deleted/alternate scenes.
Brighton Rock (R, 2010, IFC Films)
Pinkie (Sam Riley) wants to expedite his ascent through the organized crime power rankings, and if that means getting his hands red with a revenge killing right beneath a busy boardwalk pier, so be it. It might have worked, too, had a waitress (Andrea Riseborough as Rose) not unwittingly stumbled into possession of evidence linking his cohorts to the murder. Luckily for Pinkie, she’s cute, so seducing her won’t be a total nightmare even though he furiously resents her role in forking his seemingly smooth road up the ladder. “Brighton Rock” has some ambitions of its own, and they, too, might have been achieved if attempts at film noir in the 21st century didn’t always carry at least some unflattering scent of second-grade contrivance. There’s nothing outright offensive about that scent, mind you: As mood pieces go, “Rock” is enjoyably cold and, through Rose’s fragile eyes, consistently uncomfortable. Riley carries the movie beautifully, and his supporting cast (Helen Mirren, Jon Hurt, Andy Serkis) isn’t exactly lightweight. It is, in every respect, a good, serviceable story. But when the mood loses its rhythm and descends into melodrama, and when different strains of the same melodrama resurface regularly in a fashion that feels more like an homage to the voices of other movies than a declaration of its own, it’s enough to keep greatness at bay. These instances aren’t pervasive enough to sink “Rock,” but they appear too often to ignore outright.
Extras: Interviews, two behind-the-scenes features.
Final Destination 5 (R, 2011, Warner Bros.)
It’s hard not to smirk when a detective asks Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto) how his premonition of an extremely deadly bridge collapse provided him a chance to pull his friends off the bridge and save their lives mere moments before it collapsed for real. All Sam had to do was show him any of the preceding “Final Destination” movies, all four of which kicked off with variations of the same exact sequence of events. So here we go again: They cheated death, and you can’t cheat death, so death catches up to them, one by one, in the most ridiculously grisly fashion it can conjure. “FD5” adds a few wrinkles about how to dodge fate a second time, but mostly, it goes through the same motions again as yet another doomed cast runs scared all the way into the closing credit roll. This declaration of creative bankruptcy aside, though, it must be acknowledged that the formula still works as intended — perhaps more so when you already know every absurd sequence of events will end miserably for some poor sitting duck. Few movies can thrive on predictability like that, so give credit to “FD5” — which steps up its game after its leaden predecessor phoned it in — for recognizing that and having some disgusting fun toying with its audience’s sense of dread. (If you’re considering Lasik surgery anytime soon, you should first reconsider any plans you have to watch this beforehand.)
Extras: Alternate death scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.
Pete Smalls is Dead (NR, 2010, Image Entertainment)
Film director Pete Smalls is indeed dead, but K.C. (Peter Dinklage) has bigger problems — most prominently, a $10,000 debt he must repay to get his dog back — than the passing of an estranged friend. If you’re wondering how a kidnapped dog plays into the repayment of a debt that large, and if you’re also wondering how the dead guy in the title factors in despite being dead and on the other side of the country, you aren’t asking unreasonable questions. Unfortunately, “Pete Smalls is Dead” doesn’t have very many reasonable answers. It starts a little weird, gets progressively weirder with just about every scene that materializes, and by the time we get back to the matter of K.C. tracking down his dog, the story has gotten so thickly, unintelligibly tangled that it’s more fun to just forget the story and just let “Dead” fire off its remaining weirdness before stumbling into the credits. That kind of fun might suffice if you like your movies unpredictable at any cost: “Dead” most certainly is that, and within all those weeds are some funny scenes and a very likable central character in K.C.. But the zaniness carries a cost regardless of your tolerance for it, and if you find yourself waiting for “Dead” to draw you in, the arm’s length at which it keeps viewers while it commences entertaining itself goes from cute to confusing to off-putting to headache-inducing in a hurry. Mark Boone Junior, Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi, among others, also star. No extras.
— Archer: Season 2 (NR, 2011, Fox): It’s a new verse, but one similar to the first. The International Secret Intelligence Service continues to suffer from the effects of the recession, but mostly, it ails from being run by a team of agents whose ability to outwit terrorists is nearly miraculous in light of their complete inability to function like adults. Also unchanged: “Archer’s” penchant for packing an hour’s worth of comedy into every 22-minute episode, tossing out brilliant throwaway lines by the dozen and barreling though clever storylines with breathlessly funny speed. Season two improves on its predecessor by digging deeper into Sterling Archer’s psyche while also delegating more of the storytelling to his cohorts. At no point whatsoever, though, does the depth come at the expense of comedy. Includes 13 episodes, plus a Comic-con panel, an interview with Archer (not the actor who voices him, but Archer himself) and two other similarly random mini-features.
— “The Life & Times of Tim: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 2010, HBO): On the other end of the animation-for-adults spectrum, there’s “The Life & Times of Tim.” Where “Archer” looks slick, talks fast and hides sharply funny adult themes inside cutely juvenile behavior, “Tim” looks crude, opts for humor so dry it itches, and uses the freedom afforded by being on HBO to hide its adult themes behind no guise whatsoever. The result of that approach doesn’t isn’t as relentlessly funny, but it is consistently amusing, and the complete lack of scruples is novel even by the fearless standards of the modern cartoon. Includes 20 half-episodes over 10 shows, plus a behind-the-scenes feature.