The Help (PG-13, 2011, Disney)
Aspiring author Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) has never been on a date, and while the housekeeping advice column she inherited at the local paper won’t light her career on fire, it certainly beats such distractions as marriage or children. Skeeter’s plight sounds like a familiar story about a woman trying to make it her own way in 2011 — except in this case, it’s the 1960s, it’s the deep South, and it’s practically a social faux pas to let anything come in the way of wifehood and motherhood. But “The Help” isn’t merely Skeeter’s story, because the worst of the era’s backward social customs aren’t reserved for her. That injustice instead belongs to Aibileen (Viola Davis), Minny (Octavia Spencer) and the other black women who comprise the dismissively-named “help” — underpaid maids and nannies by day, strangers by night, and 24/7 second-class social pariahs in the eyes of all but the children who see them as mothers and are too unpretentious to recognize such absurd social customs. Skeeter was one of those children, and when she sets out to write a book that tells the maids’ stories from their unfiltered point of view, her complete lack of pompousness is so nerve-rattlingly groundbreaking that no one on either side knows what to do with it. Fittingly, what happens next runs the gamut — dark, heartbreaking and infuriating, yes, but also life-affirming, exciting, inspiring and occasionally very funny. “The Help” never doles on one emotion so long as to abandon the others (as a stunning last scene puts into brilliant perspective), and it’s a terrific example of a large ensemble cast and numerous storylines working perfectly in the service of a story that feels considerably more epic than its 137-minute runtime would imply.
Extras: Deleted scenes (with introduction), music video.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins (PG, 2011, Fox)
If you’ve been on this planet for a couple decades and have a brain that fires on at least a few cylinders, you can pick “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” apart almost from the instant Mr. Popper (Jim Carrey) is introduced as an obsessive businessman and absentee parent. He’s forgotten what it means to truly be alive, his kids (Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton) have about as much faith in him as he deserves, and when a live penguin unexpectedly makes herself at home in his Manhattan apartment, we all know where this story is headed. With that said — and with the caveat that unmitigated predictability is never ideal even in movies made for kids — “Penguins” is proof that even complete predictability can be forgiven when nearly everything else comes together rather well. Carrey makes Popper extremely easy to like despite being a walking cliche, and his kids relay their disappointment in him in startlingly non-bratty fashion. The storyline is trite, yes, but it’s harmlessly amusing at its worst and funny and genuinely sweet more often than not. Most importantly, the penguins are, in spite of their limited range and wisdom, a riot. Beyond the occasional computer-generated moment of anthropomorphic lucidity, they do little more than waddle, swim, topple over and honk their approval or disapproval. But “Penguins” could have gone the train wreck route by letting them talk or act completely, annoyingly human, and the less-is-more approach that lets penguins just be penguins is so much more enjoyable.
Extras: Animated short “Nimrod and Stinky’s Antarctic Adventure,” filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, sampler of the children’s book on which the movie is based.
24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic (NR, 2011, HBO)
The NHL’s annual Winter Classic is no more valuable in the standings than any other regular season game. But when 1,229 regular season games take place indoors and this one plays in prime time, on New Year’s Day and at the mercy of the elements in a packed outdoor stadium — in this case, Heinz Field, home of football’s Pittsburgh Steelers — the hype and pageantry match that of a winner-take-all championship game. (It doesn’t hurt, either, when the combatants loathe each other as much as the host Penguins and rival Washington Capitals do.) HBO’s exquisite “24/7” documentaries should need no introduction to sports fans who love looking behind the scenes, and this four-hour, four-part documentary is yet another stellar reason why. “Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic” follows both teams for four weeks that culminate in the 2011 Classic, and the conditions in which it finds each team — one riding a potentially historic winning streak, the other facing a painful tumble from first place — give it a dramatic edge straight out the gate. “Classic” naturally bites right down on that angle, and the fearless omnipresence of HBO’s cameras — which follow players and personnel on the ice, into the locker room, and out of the arena into their personal lives — examines this microcosm of hockey history in incredibly personal detail. This goes as well for the story behind the Classic’s preparation. “Classic” covers this facet with similar enthusiasm, and when the prospect of rain adds a dramatic layer to those proceedings, the crew once again stands ready to take full advantage. No extras.
Our Idiot Brother (R, 2011, Anchor Bay)
As insinuated by the title, Ned (Paul Rudd) — whose accomplishments include selling pot to a uniformed police officer in broad, busy daylight — is something of an idiot. But while his brain doesn’t always function as it should, his ears are as sharp as any in the business. And when his dysfunctional family (Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer and Steve Coogan, among others) passes him around after his jail stint ends, Ned becomes a conduit through which their secret dysfunctions — from infidelity to hidden feelings to shady work practices to more infidelity — pass. Ned’s well-meaning mouth spills information before his kindly brain can realize the consequences, and as you probably can guess as soon as the first secret leaves its first pair of lips, Ned’s family is about to raise its dysfunctional game. As movies go, “Our Idiot Brother” is as visibly imperfect as the people telling its story — a bit meandering in its character design and more unsure than versatile with regard to its mood swings. Sometimes that adds up to characters who are underutilized or just unappealing. The good news? Ned — along with a scene-stealing canine best friend named Willie Nelson — isn’t one of them. He’s deeply likable and more funny than not, and when the movie sees itself through his eyes, it takes on the same traits.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.
The Hangover Part II (R, 2011, Warner Bros.)
A lot of people loved “The Hangover” — none, apparently, more so than the people who made it. The setting’s shifted to Thailand, and now it’s Stu (Ed Helms) getting married instead of Doug (Justin Bartha). Past that, though, the people who made “The Hangover” have kind of just made it again, and that’s kind of a problem when “The Hangover Part II” can’t lean on shock and novelty the way that first movie so repeatedly did. If anything, part two feels like its being leaned on, because the hoops it has to clear to mark off its checklist of obligations — a deformity for Stu, roles for Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) and Mike Tyson, an animal somehow winding up in the hotel room — leave it looking a little strained from having to explain itself too much. If you’re happy simply with a character reunion, “Part II” suffices well enough: It’s amusing, if not often legitimately funny, and it’s easy enough to enjoy in the moment even if you won’t remember much about it a week from now. Frankly, that’s probably the best we could hope for. “The Hangover” caught lightning in a bottle with its inventive premise, but there’s no possible way it could take people by surprise twice. Zach Galifianakis and Bradley Cooper also star.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.
Cowboys & Aliens (PG-13, 2011, Universal)
If you take a car with no engine and accessorize it with high-performance aftermarket parts and feed it the most magnificently pure blends of gasoline and motor oil available on Earth, guess what? It still won’t go anywhere until you drop an engine in there. “Cowboys & Aliens” looks really good, particularly when the aliens descend on the Old West and raise hell for the first time. It has an expensive cast (Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Abigail Spencer), and it lets that cast (Ford in particular) play up their typecast personalities. There’s some cool tech, some blood and some stuff blowing up. But only fleetingly — and mostly thanks to side characters who eventually fall into the background — does “Aliens” flash any kind of real heartbeat. Considering this is a story about cowboys firing six-shooters at aliens, the gaping hole where the movie’s sense of humor should have gone looms unflatteringly large, and the obligatory set pieces and story turns that compensate for the dour mood lack any real sense of bombast or surprise. “Aliens” didn’t need to go totally off the rails to deliver on this dream matchup, but the lack of any kind of fortitude to do anything beyond the absolute big-budget bare minimum feels like an opportunity totally squandered.
Extras: Director commentary, three behind-the-scenes features.
— “St. Louis Cardinals 2011 World Series Collector’s Edition” (NR, 2011, MLB/A&E) and “World Series 2011: Texas Rangers vs. St. Louis Cardinals” (NR, 2011, MLB/A&E): If you spent October under a rock and missed the most exciting World Series in years — and the first since 2002 to go seven games — here’s the bad news: “St. Louis Cardinals 2011 World Series Collector’s Edition’s” packaging spoils who won. If you’re Cardinals fan, though, the rest of the news is good. The eight-disc set includes uncut copies of all seven games between the Cardinals and Rangers. The eighth, bonus disc includes NLDS/NLCS highlights, clinching/trophy presentation/parade footage, a feature on walk-off winners and multiple audio tracks that include the national television play-by-play, both local radio play-by-play teams and the international Spanish play-by-play. If you’re more a fan of baseball history than the Cardinals specifically, the latest entrant in MLB’s terrific World Series film collection is an easy sell. “World Series 2011: Texas Rangers vs. St. Louis Cardinals” also bundles a bonus disc that includes the uncut fifth game of the NLDS, a “This Week in Baseball” feature on Lance Berkman, a feature on Tony LaRussa and clinching/highlights/parade footage.
— “Dragon Tattoo Trilogy: Extended Edition” (NR, 2009/11, Music Box Films): “Dragon Tattoo” fever continues to grip America, and in advance of the Americanized first film’s theatrical debut, this set presents the first (legal) way on these shores to see the extended, nine-hour cut of the original trilogy. All three films have optional English dubs if you don’t enjoy reading subtitles for three hours at a time, and the set’s bonus disc includes interviews and the behind-the-scenes documentary “Millennium: The Story.”
— “Big Love: The Complete Collection” (NR, 2006, HBO). Beyond the first stretch of the first season, “Big Love” never seemed to garner the same obsessive media attention many of its fellow HBO dramas get. But that’s the great thing about cable: You can fly under the radar and still get the five seasons you need to tell your story on your terms. This set includes all 63 episodes, plus all the extras from the individual season sets. In other words, if you bought the first four seasons’ sets, you’re not missing anything by just getting the fifth season set, which also releases this week.