A Serious Man (R, 2009, Universal/Focus)
Great movies express powerful emotions — heartbreak, joy, love, anger — in ways that resonate strongly with viewers. But it takes something truly special to convey the dull ache of fading dreams and encroaching irrelevance as masterfully as poor physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) does while his employers debate his value, his wife (Sari Lennick) kicks him out of his own house, his next-door neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) greets him with unsolicited death stares, and his friend of 15 years (Fred Melamed) so politely moves in on his wife. “A Serious Man” flies the dark and dry comedy flag with unbridled pride, but it also leapfrogs past those simple classifications by investing more care into a blank stare or idle twitch of the mouth than most dark comedies invest in their dialogue. Years of watching sympathetic heroes like Larry have trained us to wait patiently for the moment in which the hero angrily decides to reclaim his pride, but while the truth won’t be spoiled here, “Man” makes it clear early on that such conventions are in no way promised. Given how enjoyable each and every moment of “Man” is on its own level, anything less than complete, unnerving (but morbidly funny) uncertainty would do anyway.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features.
The House of the Devil (R, 2009, Dark Sky/MPI)
There’s a fine line between tribute, parody and something resembling a possible resurgence of an art form, and while it isn’t totally clear where “The House of the Devil’s” original intentions lied, it doesn’t really matter when the result so clearly belongs in column C. “Devil’s” spartan premise arrives straight out of the 1980s: A struggling college student (Jocelin Donahue as Samantha) takes a babysitting job deep in the country despite the fact that the man who interviewed her (Tom Noonan) was both a little rude and a lot creepy. Working in concert with the premise is “Devil’s” overall style, which — from Samantha’s feathered hair to the technology on hand (pay phones in, cell phones out) to the visual presentation — removes all doubt that this is a callback to olden times. But along the way and without changing its tone, “Devil” migrates from arguable sendup to real-deal minimalist horror. Minutes pass in which little happens, but everything about those minutes makes it entirely clear something awful could happen any second now. “Devil” giftedly veers from tease to jolt and right back to tease, and it thrives on creeping viewers out with what it doesn’t say instead of dumping buckets of gore all over the floor. It works beautifully, and it begs the question: Why did this style ever disappear in the first place?
Extras: Director/Donahue commentary, crew commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.
More Than a Game (PG, 2008, Lions Gate)
“More Than a Game” tells the story of five basketball players (one of them LeBron James) whose bond — the roots of which began at the grade school level — molded them into one of the most dominant forces ever to blow through high school basketball. If that sounds like an ordinary story with a completely predestined ending, it’s only because cheesy, mostly fictional sports movies have trained us to think it is. But while we all know what has happened to James since his high school days, none of it was written in stone when a film crew followed him and his teammates around over a period of several years. And even if “Game” wasn’t special in any other regard, its document of a professional superstar’s developmental years is unprecedented in terms of detail and intimacy. But James isn’t the only fascinating subject on hand here: His teammates, coaches and mother have some pretty extraordinary stories of their own to tell, and “Game” is democratic in exploring their respective highs and (because this is a documentary and not scripted entertainment) lows. The sum total is considerably more exhilarating than anything a screenwriter can conjure, and while James’ story always will be the exception to the rule, “Game” does the dream proud nonetheless.
Extras: Three making-of features.
The Life and Times of Tim: The Complete First Season (NR, 2008, HBO)
Do you miss “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist?” Or rather, did you sort of admire that cartoon’s conversational tone and ultra-crude animation but wish Dr. Katz could drop an F-bomb and let his too-hot-for-basic-cable flag fly every now and again? Here’s your show. “The Life and Times of Tim” does not come from the same brain trusts responsible for “Katz” or the similarly great “Home Movies,” but the stylistic similarities — bone-dry dialogue and delivery, grade school-level artwork and animation that a five-page flip book could outdo — are too unmistakable not to mention. “Tim” veers down its own road by virtue of being on HBO, which means episodes like “Angry Unpaid Hooker,” “Bashko’s Hairy Daughter,” and “Tim vs. the Baby” are possible. Fortunately, while “Tim” certainly benefits from the lack of boundaries, it values dry wit over shock for shock’s sake, so while some episodes collapse beneath their premises, most wind up on the pretty amusing side. And because each half-hour show comes divided into two episodes, the bad ones at least don’t stick around for too long.
Contents: 20 episodes over 10 shows, plus a collection of 10 animated shorts.
Couples Retreat (PG-13, 2009, Universal)
If the thud with which “Couples Retreat’s” theatrical run landed was deserved, it wasn’t due to it being an awful movie, because “Retreat” isn’t awful so much as it is just so-so. There’s even a point, when we’re getting to know everybody, where “Retreat” — which finds four couples (Vince Vaughn, Kristin Davis, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Jason Bateman, Jon Favreau, Faizon Love, Kali Hawk) unwittingly at a luxurious resort that’s a front for intensive, mandatory new-age couples therapy — is quite good and quite funny. But “Retreat” expends the bulk of its funny energy during its early going, and once we get to the resort, it’s already in the process of awkwardly coasting on the character quirks it set up in act one. The thinning laughs aren’t helped by the fact that “Retreat” basically runs through all the predictable scenarios one expects from a stock vacation-in-not-quite-paradise film. All that clinging to convention never makes for a terrible film, and there are moments where “Retreat” looks poised to break out as a cutting dialogue about commitment rather than an elongated sitcom with a soppy ending. But it never fully takes that gamble, and what remains feels like a so-so film that, given the talent within, should be miles better than so-so. Jean Reno and Peter Serafinowicz also star.
Extras: Director/Vaughn commentary, alternate ending and deleted/extended scenes (with commentary), three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.
The Pleasure of Being Robbed (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
So here’s a question: How important is it to you that, during the course of a movie, stuff happens? If the question sounds like a joke to you, it’s probably best to deny yourself the likely displeasure of watching “The Pleasure of Being Robbed,” which follows the plain but disarming Eléonore (Eleonore Hendricks) as she grifts her way through an otherwise directionless New York City existence. That aforementioned ability to disarm — and the live-for-the-moment disposition that accompanies it — makes Eléonore a frustratingly difficult character to dislike, and there’s something weirdly serene about watching her stumble from instance to instance without fear of plot developments, twists, and grand finales getting in the way. On the downside? “Robbed” doesn’t have any plot developments, twists or finales that change things in any lasting, remotely meaningful way from the beginning of the film to its conclusion. “Robbed” is a unique, pretty film that, at 70 minutes long, also is easy to digest. But for a lot of movie watchers, it’s missing too many parts to even rate as a movie at all. If the premise on paper gives you fits, the genuine article likely will leave you with a brief complex.
Extras: Musical commentary track, short films “We’re Going to the Zoo” and “There’s Nothing You Can Do,” three super-short films (shorter than a minute each) made during the making of “Robbed.”
Planet Hulk: 2-Disc Special Edition (NR, 2010, Lions Gate)
Marvel is attempting to turn a corner in its redoubled efforts to produce high-quality animated action movies, and there are numerous points in “Planet Hulk” — the level of animation detail, the overriding presentation, an appetite for blood not allowed on Saturday morning cartoons, a nice quotient of DVD extras — where this effort is evident. But it’s hard to make a ton of lemonade with a lemon like “Hulk,” which shortchanges its main character and relies on a script so formulaic as to undermine all that pretty action taking place when it climaxes. It’s not really the movie’s fault: “Hulk” is based on the multi-issue comic book of the same name, and the comics had considerably more room to develop Hulk and his supporting cast and provide the kind of details that more than offset the generic skeletal plot. An 81-minute movie can’t feasibly do the same, and in this context, “Hulk” just feels like a “Gladiator” knockoff that revolves around a character without dimension. The good looks don’t go unnoticed, but stacked up against the flat setting, characters and dialogue, they’re still overmatched.
Extras: Two crew commentary tracks, two behind-the-scenes features, “Wolverine and the X-Men” episode, “Thor: Tales of Asgard” opening sequence, two motion comics, two music videos, digital copy.
Worth a Mention
— “Doctor Who: The Complete Specials” (NR, 2008-10, BBC): These are tumultuous times for “Doctor Who” fans, who must bid farewell to David Tennant — arguably as popular an actor to inhabit the Doctor’s shoes as any who preceded him — and say hello to Doctor No. 11 Matt Smith, who has some serious shoe-filling to do. Regardless of how that turns out, this set — which contains Tennant-fronted specials “The Next Doctor,” “Planet of the Dead,” “The Waters of Mars,” and the two-part “The End of Time” that sees Tennant passing the torch to Smith — certainly makes for a comprehensive celebration. Extras include deleted scenes (with introduction by Russell T. Davies, who also signs off as lead writer and executive producer), video diaries, commentary, behind-the-scenes features and Comic-Con footage.
— New Archive of American Television DVDs (NR, E1 Entertainment): E1 and the Archive of American Television’s excellent restoration of classic programs hits a new peak with separate releases of the 1954 production of “Twelve Angry Men” with Norman Fell and Robert Cummings, Orson Welles’ 1953 production of “King Lear,” a two-parter featuring the Rod Sterling dramas “The Arena” (1956) and “The Strike” (1954), and a four-disc set chronicling Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus productions. Each package comes with a companion booklet, while “Lear” also includes backstage footage and a handful of bonus performances.