Frozen Planet (NR, 2012, BBC Earth)
If you’re a casual observer of the nature special racket, you wouldn’t be foolish to wonder if maybe — between “Planet Earth,” “Life” and so many other gems — all the sweeping specials that could exist already do. But as was and will again be the case with countless other series that have been and will someday be made, a close look at “Frozen Planet” perishes the thought — and not simply because it’s set in one of the few places on Earth that still feels somewhat uncharted. Have you ever witnessed a hapless, two-terrain battle for survival between a penguin and a sea lion? Or watched a pack of frolicking wolf cubs who would look right at home in the Puppy Bowl were they not battling over the remains of a hare? Have you met the Woolly Bear caterpillar, who spends 14 winters frozen solid before living out his furious final days as a moth? “Planet” sets its stories within the larger context of the Arctic, and its contemporary exploration of the region and the fresh dangers it faces give it all the educational edge it needs. But even without that context’s assistance, “Planet” staggers the eyes with an incredible collection of stories about animals, birds and marine life living magnificently in their element. That well is nowhere near dry, and the six hours we get here fly by in the blink of an eye. David Attenborough (who else?) narrates.
Contents: Seven episodes ( each with a behind-the-scenes “Freeze Frame” feature following the episode), plus a standalone behind-the-scenes feature, 47 video diaries, a greatest moments compilation and an option to view the episodes with the music track only.
Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (PG-13, 2011, Paramount)
Though it’s full of pleasant surprises, “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol” delivers the biggest one almost straight away: It’s funny. In fact, the prison break that springs Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) back into action after a five-year hiatus is as cleverly amusing as action movie hero comebacks get without completely breaking character. Lest we get carried away, “Protocol” is not a comedy. But after “Mission: Impossible III” turned Hunt’s brain into a time bomb and left his wife seemingly for dead, a little levity — even with nuclear launch codes dangerously in play and the Kremlin’s collapse creating a beastly international incident — goes a long way. Whether the time off helped or not, “Protocol” gives off an air of invigoration as it maintains the series’ perfect entertainment record. The big set piece stunts — including Cruise’s much- (and deservedly) discussed glass building scaling — are awesomely, unapologetically over the top, but for every one of those, there’s a close-quarters fight that’s equally entertaining on its own terms. Twists run rampant without devolving into incomprehension, villains skate the edge between cartoonish and cunning, and Hunt’s ragtag crew (Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner) makes the good guys more fun to root for than in any previous entrant in this series.
Extras: Alternate opening, deleted scenes, 14 behind-the-scenes features.
Treme: The Complete Second Season (NR, 2011, HBO)
It set itself two months after Katrina, but the first season of “Treme” squared so intimately on its characters that they became the story while the hurricane and its ugly aftermath merely formed the backdrop for their collective comeback. But things aren’t quite so pure with another 12 months in the rear view, and the criminal, political and self-promotional aspects of that badly stalling comeback have settled in to take their toll. “Treme’s” first season took a cue from David Simon’s previous show, “The Wire,” with its miraculous ability to take sweeping, incendiary themes and turn them into deeply personal stories that hit uplifting and even funny notes without betraying their honesty. Season two does that all over again (with another helping of television’s best running soundtrack on board to do its part), but it takes another “Wire” cue by stepping back and panning across a big-picture story that suddenly and unwillingly is stuck in neutral. The new tricks pretty deliberately clash with the old tricks, and while season one wasn’t exactly sunshine and roses, the mood is darker with so many vultures closing in from above. Khandi Alexander, Wendell Pierce, Melissa Leo, Clarke Peters, Steve Zahn, Rob Brown and Kim Dickens, among several others, comprise an outstanding ensemble cast.
Contents: 11 episodes, plus commentary, select music performance commentaries and four behind-the-scenes features.
Shame (NC-17, 2011, Fox)
There’s no way to describe Brandon (Michael Fassbender), “Shame’s” primary person of interest, without resorting to some measure of cliche. You can blame Brandon himself for that, because he is, in fact, a walking cliche — a well-dressed, successful Manhattanite who can drag a woman into bed almost reflexively but cannot remotely connect with another person if his whole vapid life depended on it. Were this a romantic comedy or a lukewarm drama, this is the part where Brandon would meet a beguiling woman who shoots him down until he magically changes his ways. And Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who invites herself to move into his apartment after she runs out of places to go? She’d be the wise-cracking sibling who eventually puts him in his place with a killer third-act monologue. But “Shame” isn’t conventional, and Brandon is such a raging disaster of unsorted, indiscriminate disgust that his story barely qualifies as a story. The crazily unstable energy with which “Shame” rambles forward (and backward, sideways and in circles) is bound to polarize. Is the scene wherein Sissy slowly croons Sinatra a striking example of storytelling without telling, or is it simply an insufferably pretentious waste of five long minutes? Are the scenes that elevated “Shame” to a very questionable NC-17 rating necessary (sidebar: how does torture porn routinely get an R while this somehow goes too far?), or could the same story come through without doting on imagery? Probably not, but “Shame’s” vivid picture of Brandon’s smoldering psyche certainly leaves itself open to debate. Whether you love how bold it is or despise the airs it puts on, you’ll be hard-pressed to call it ordinary. No extras.
Bob’s Burgers: The Complete First Season (NR, 2011, Fox)
There’s a modest but heartfelt pocket of people who love “Home Movies,” “Archer” and other dryly funny cartoons that don’t quite play by network television’s broad rules of comedy. “Bob’s Burgers” somehow finagled its way onto network TV, but if you’re a proud member of that pocket, your affinity for it will subconsciously activate before the first episode’s first minute has ticked by. “Burgers” very obviously comes courtesy of some of the brain trust responsible for “Movies” and “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,” and if the illustration and writing style don’t completely give that away, H. Jon “Coach McGuirk/Sterling Archer/Ben Katz” Benjamin providing the voice for Bob should end all doubt. Some concessions are made to accommodate “Burgers'” place in Fox’s Sunday night lineup: Bob, like Homer Simpson and Seth MacFarlane’s trio of family dads, is a bumbling husband and father of three strange kids (all of whom live in an apartment atop his struggling burger joint), and some episodes force the writing’s hand with wacky premises that play for easier laughs. But even when it stoops and panders, “Burgers'” maintains that dry quality that sets it apart from the norm. And when it does what it does best and engages in a sandpapery stream of dialogue that may not necessarily have anything to do with the wackiness encircling it, it embodies everything some of us love about a very unlikely sub-genre that keeps on thriving.
Contents: 13 episodes (commentary on all), plus the original pitch demo (with intro), audio improv outtakes, a short piece about the “burger of the day” gag and a music video.
The Last Rites of Joe May (NR, 2011, Tribeca Film)
Pneumonia — and the long hospital stay it entailed — was bad enough. But recovery and release may be even worse for Joe May (Dennis Farina), who returns to his neighborhood to discover his home occupied and pretty much everybody he knew having moved on from him as if he’d died. Perhaps that’s righteous penance for a guy who spent a lifetime hustling and scheming toward his present desolate existence, but still, that’s kinda rough, no? Besides, Joe at least means well. That goes as well for “The Last Rites of Joe May,” which can’t really claim points for conceptual ingenuity. Joe is a prototypical has-been hustler, and if you’re familiar with the particular qualities Farina imbues into his characters, you’ve got this character figured out before his story even starts. But part of “May’s” charm comes from the fact that everyone else — Joe reluctantly included — has him figured out as well. The story isn’t about the story so much as it is about Joe (and, specifically, what the world looks like through the eyes of a someone whose lack of direction is no longer exciting or liberating), and the aforementioned predictability allows “May” to leave a lot of things emphatically understood even when left unsaid. Jamie Anne Allman also stars.
Extras: Director interview, outtakes.
The Divide (R, 2011, Anchor Bay)
Roughly halfway through “The Divide,” it hits you: The movie’s very first scene — wherein Eva (Lauren German) watches nuclear warheads crush Manhattan from her apartment building’s window before getting pulled into the basement by a throng of neighbors running for cover — is by far its best. Then, following the second half, another revelation: That mostly weak first half was by far the better of the two. “The Divide” is, ostensibly, a story about surviving a disaster that catches everyone unaware and forces people to trust each other with what they have, lack, know and don’t know. Briefly, that seems like enough, especially when an outside force teases an intriguing turn of events. But this tease is the first of several that never really materialize during a first half in which our confused group of survivors turns into unlikable pack of scoundrels and idiots. It only gets worse the longer “The Divide” carries on, and the second half finds our group of scoundrels degenerating further into inhuman lunatics who derive enjoyment from gleefully and brutally abusing one another. If you’re intrigued by “The Divide’s” pretense about being a story of survival, here’s your warning: It is no such thing, but rather just another cheap excuse for aimless torture of one by another. That it tries to regain that first-scene promise during its closing moments is a pitiful stab at what might have been.
Extra: Cast/director commentary.