Rango (PG, 2011, Nickelodeon/Paramount)
Conventional wisdom would have you believe that the best computer-animated movies are the ones that dance along that fine line between entertaining kids and adults. So what of “Rango,” which frequently ignores this line in favor of its own storytelling interests and stands poised to be the year’s best animated movie as result? “Rango” tells the story of the titular character, a pet chameleon who daydreams about being a hero before a turn of fate absolves him of his pet status and drops him into a town, Dirt, that’s crawling with rodents, reptiles and other odd creatures. Rango’s runaway imagination compels him to turn his daydreams into legends, the townspeople immediately appoint him as their sheriff, and now he must become a real hero by replenishing the town’s water supply. Nothing about that plot is terribly complicated, nor does “Rango” completely shun the notion of being cute and silly for silly’s sake. (Rango’s voice, courtesy of Johnny Depp, is particularly hilarious.) But when things inevitably go sideways, it isn’t a case of narrative obligation. Rather, “Rango” siezes the moment and barrels ahead, fearlessly deconstructing our chameleon’s psyche through metaphor, speech, mirage and other methods that, while visually awesome, almost certainly will fly way over kids’ heads. You can probably guess that redemption lies at the end of this road, because it always does in these kinds of movies. This time, though, getting there is far more than simply a matter of course.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, interactive tour of Dirt, picture-in-picture storyboards.
Damages: The Complete Third Season (NR, 2010, Sony Pictures)
Once was impressive, twice was amazing. Now, for the third time, “Damages” manages to spoil significant portions of its season finale while playing out its season premiere, and the skill with which it does it again — and tops itself — is just unfair to other shows at this point. Revealing pieces of the future is the trick that elevates “Damages” beyond the tag of being just another show about lawyers and people in over their heads, and season three once again toes the line between giving its twists away and driving you nut trying to figure out how A becomes Z. Season three takes place a year after the confrontation between Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) and Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) that lorded over season two, and it continues that storyline while introducing a new, season-long case that dramatizes the Bernie Madoff scandal. Yes, it’s ripped from the headlines. But the difference with “Damages” is that while it’s a show about law, it doesn’t take place in a courtroom. And while it’s a story based on true events, it’s a deeply, fatally personal dramatization that completely makes the story its own monster. Nearly everyone who remains alive is back in some capacity, while Campbell Scott, Lily Tomlin and a snarling, vengeful, cross-eyed Martin Short (yes, that Martin Short) join the cast.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, episode introductions, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers and a very quick recap of the first two seasons.
The Third Wave (NR, 2007, Virgil Films)
Ragtag groups that band together in the wake of disaster are rarely known for being up to any good, but every rule has its shining exception. “The Third Wave” is the story of a couple of people who, en route to traveling to a place they’d never been (Peraliya Village, Sri Lanka) to do something they had no experience doing (help rebuild following the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people), expanded into a foursome. The foursome quickly became a few, a few soon became a group, and suddenly, a classroom’s worth of volunteers were working without regulators, government guidelines and other provisions that inevitably would only get in the way. The lack of both experience and structure — to say nothing of the language gap and the enormous task inherently facing anyone who picks up a hammer — makes “Wave” a fascinating look into the wonders and perils of volunteering by the seat of your pants half a world away. But what makes “Wave” especially great is its refusal to handle the tsunami’s victims with kid gloves. For all the good we see, there are unfiltered depictions of bitterness, infighting and even entitlement, and even the cameraman isn’t immune from accusations and name-calling. The premise doubtlessly makes for an uplifting story, but it’s the candor from all sides that takes “Wave” where few similar films have the courage to go.
Extras: Updates on the volunteers, Football without Boundaries feature, photo galleries.
The Lincoln Lawyer (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
When flashy, ultrasuccessful Los Angeles defense attorney Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) meets would-be client Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) for the first time, what he sees is a terrified rich kid wrongly accused of badly assaulting a call girl. But this wouldn’t be much of a movie if that’s all there was to it, now would it? Without spoiling anything that happens next: Of course not. It’s hard to comprehensively write about what “The Lincoln Lawyer” does right without spoiling the reasons it’s worth seeing, so accept this painfully generic play-by-play that gives away nothing of real significance for what it’s worth. As thrillers go, “Lawyer” flirts with implausibility at times and ends on a somewhat abrupt, anti-climactic note after producing a pretty good turn of events in the courtroom. It also spends a little too much time on a subplot — Mick’s fallen marriage to Maggie (Marisa Tomei) — that gives too little for all the time it gets. But while Mick feels like a slightly upgraded archetype, he’s a fun character, and without revealing Louis’ ultimate role, he becomes much more interesting than first impressions imply. As go the characters, so does the case, and while “Lawyer” is a little derivative and more than a little imperfect, none of those imperfections get in the way of a good time. William H. Macy, Laurence Mason, Michael Peña and John Leguizamo also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.
Insidious (PG-13, 2010, Sony Pictures)
It’s hard these days to be a scary ghost story, because in this genre more than most, all the ghost stories have seemingly been told, retold and beaten into the ground. So good on “Insidious” for at least aiming for something different by plunging young Dalton (Ty Simpkins) into an overnight coma that sidesteps the tired side effects of the same old hauntings and possessions. Parents Renai and Josh (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) scramble for answers, and again, “Insidious” gets points for offering up a reveal that’s more elaborate than the usual ghost story. It even reaches for logic and provides a little comic relief via two quibbling ghost hunters (Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson). But even these strides can take “Insidious” only so far when the ultimate goal remains to scare people. And when the movie gets down to the business of doing that, it’s business as usual, with the same old jump scares and musical swells taking shifts en route to a finish that’s left in a precarious position by logic that doesn’t add up and scares that don’t really scare. The effort, along with a decent last-scene wrinkle, elevates “Insidious” beyond the pack of absolutely bland haunting movies that have saturated an already saturated genre over the last few years, but that’s about as good as it gets.
Extra: Three-behind-the-scenes features.
Brother’s Justice (NR, 2010, Well Go USA)
Dax Shepard (Dax Shepard, playing “himself”) has had it with the meager returns that come with being a second-tier comedic actor. So he’s formulated an idea, reeled in his go-to producer (Nate Tuck) and is embarking on a plan to make a mov
ie, “Brother’s Justice,” that will instantly transform him into an A-list martial arts superstar. As you might guess, it’s easier said than done, and as you might also have guessed, “Justice” is a mockumentary about the soul-draining favor trading, campaigning and friendship extinguishing that accompanies the creation of a movie that sounds better in Shepard’s mind than pretty much anywhere else. As perhaps you also predicted, “Justice” is almost certainly funnier if you’ve worked in that world than if you haven’t. Most Hollywood movies about Hollywood are. Still, even accounting for the glut of jokes that feel somewhat like inside jokes even when they’re not, “Justice” is pretty consistently amusing and tells a pretty entertaining story that doesn’t suffer from being too inside baseball. None of that praise should be confused with “hilarious” and “something we all can relate to,” but many have done much worse with the same scenario. Tom Arnold, Bradley Cooper and David Koechner also star.
Extras: Shepard/Tuck/Koechner commentary, deleted scenes, an uncut version of “Drillin’ Deep,” which will make sense after you see the movie.
Worth a Mention
— “Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode III” (NR, 2010, Adult Swim): If you like “Star Wars” in any remote capacity whatsoever and haven’t seen the “Robot Chicken” send-ups, you are missing out like a kid without money for the ice cream truck on a 100-degree day. Volume three wraps up the trilogy with an episode that, at 45 minutes, is as long as the first two episodes put together. It also reveals, among other things, how Boba Fett spent his time in the Sarlacc pit and the meanings behind orders one through 65. As always, animated “Star Wars” toys provide the visual presentation, while an outstanding voice cast (including numerous “Star Wars” cast members) lend their voices. Extras include seven behind-the-scenes features (including one with George Lucas, who has enthusiastically blessed the whole series), deleted scenes, four commentary tracks, panel/bus tour/premiere footage and bloopers.
— “ThunderCats: The Original Series: Season 1, Part 1” (NR, 1985, Warner Bros.): With the Cartoon Network reboot all booted up and ready to go, it only makes sense that the parent company reaches back and freshens up the original series for a new round of DVD releases that aren’t as absurdly overpriced as their original incarnations. Of course, if you already have those, nothing here is significantly new enough to engender another purchase. Includes 12 episodes, plus a retrospective.