The Guard (R, 2011, Sony Pictures)
It isn’t every day FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) makes a new friend, and there would seemingly never be a day in which the opening line of that new friendship is, “I thought only black lads were drug dealers.” But such is the mindset of Irish police Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), whose follow-up proclamation that his Irish heritage makes him biologically racist by design comes off more sweetly naive than defiant. Everett and Boyle are unlikely teammates in an investigation of a string of murders and a monstrous, potentially-related drug deal set to unfold in sleepy Galway. The fish-out-of-water implications of a black American FBI agent working at the mercy of an insular Irish village and a cop who temporarily halts the investigation because it’s his scheduled day off are immense. Happily, “The Guard” takes wondrous advantage, crafting a bitterly funny reluctant buddy comedy that, rather shockingly, may also be the sweetest movie you ever see about racist cops and assault rifle-wielding federal agents. “The Guard” doesn’t trivialize the crime at the center of everything, but rather than make the case the story, it mines it and assembles an unbelievably fun cast of heroes, villains, innocent bystanders and bit players. More than merely the best buddy comedy of 2011, “The Guard” also is a clinic on the art of creating throwaway characters whose presence feels every bit as essential as that of the leads.
Extras: Director/Gleeson/Cheadle commentary, deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.
Contagion (PG-13, 2011, Warner Bros.)
We’ve all already seen a movie or five about a worldwide pandemic, so what makes yet another one so interesting? It isn’t the loaded cast. Nor is it the chance to tell a new strain of an old story in the era of Twitter, bloggers scooping old media and bird and swine flu scares that morphed from terror to punchline awfully quickly. Those things absolutely play a part, sure. But what ultimately makes “Contagion” special is the unbelievable level of calm that permeates throughout. It isn’t detached, nor is it dull, nor is “Contagion” a story about officials and scientists at work while an underrepresented public loses its mind far away from the picture. All sides are portrayed, and it’s an ordinary guy (Matt Damon) and his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) who emerge from a heavy field of candidates as the story’s strongest catalysts. There’s no way to vet “Contagion’s” authenticity unless something like this ever really happens, but it’s avoidance of easy sensationalism in favor of considerable substance — the microcosmic theme of loved ones looking out for one another, the macrocosmic conundrum of a few qualified minds struggling to placate an impatient global population as distributing a cure becomes a more daunting problem than even creating it — is pretty extraordinary. The character count is high, the crisis is massive and the setting covers the whole planet, but “Contagion” never stops minding the little details en route to becoming the class of its genre. Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet and Jude Law, among others, also star.
Extra: Three behind-the-scenes features.
Justified: The Complete Second Season (NR, 2011, Sony Pictures)
Thank goodness U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is a work of fiction. Were he a real U.S. marshal, he almost certainly would take his old post back in Miami when the powers that be offer it to him in the first episode of “Justified’s” second season. Fortunately, he declines, and so commence the further adventures of an old-fashioned federal agent trying to make sense of the absolutely (and wonderfully) sprawling crime scene that is his Kentucky hometown. “Justified” takes advantage of that small-town setting to give us a cop-versus-crook standoff that only a small town can provide, blurring the lines between friends, enemies, polite contempt and brazen (albeit strangely cordial) disrespect to an unbelievably fun degree. Season two improves on its predecessor by fully embracing the storytelling style that the first season eventually settled on after some light early struggles. And don’t mistake the downfall of the Crowder crime family as a sign that Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is following them out the door. Goggins, once slotted to be a guest star for a couple first season episodes, is now on board as a starring cast member, and the continued development of Boyd and his relationship with Raylan is one of the better storylines on any television show right now. Joelle Carter, Nick Searcy, Jacob Pitts, Erica Tazel and Natalie Zea round out a great ensemble cast, and Margo Martindale, Brad William Henke and Jeremy Davies magnificently fill the Crowder void as the big, bad Bennett clan.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus deleted scenes, outtakes, a roundtable discussion and two behind-the-scenes features.
Dispatch (NR, 2011, Monarch Home Entertainment)
Once a promising screenwriter with a big-studio deal, Nick (Michael Bershad) has since tumbled into obscurity as a Hollywood limousine company’s dispatch operator. And on the night of a big movie premiere that will tax his company’s resources all by itself, everything festering in the pit of Nick’s stomach — the last leg of a crumbling marriage he badly wants to save, the disappointment stemming from that tumble into obscurity, the need (and opportunity) to take a major gamble in hopes of escaping the doldrums and having better days in front of him — comes to a head. As can be deduced by anyone capable of putting two and two together, the symbolism of working a red carpet event as a dispatcher instead of walking down that carpet as a screenwriter is screaming to be noticed. But while “Dispatch” acknowledges that on-the-nose dichotomy, it does so with a nod rather than a needlessly long and weepy embrace. Then, admirably and successfully, it moves on to something more complicated than the easy story device. A brief moment or two aside, “Dispatch” takes place entirely inside the company walls and within the span of that single evening, and while it amounts to one heck of a day at the office for Nick, the illustration of his mounting discontent is a terrific testament to the less-is-more school of storytelling. If uncomfortably long and descriptive silences was an Oscar category, the one that pierces this movie’s last act would win without a fight. No extras.
Bobby Fischer Against the World (NR, 2011, Docurama)
Anyone with any interest in the amazing rise and completely crazy fall of chess legend Bobby Fischer may very well know all of “Bobby Fischer Against the World’s” secrets before it reveals them. Through books, dramatizations and other documentaries, the story already has been told and retold. But there’s a difference between bearing witness to accounts and recreations of Fischer’s madness and bearing witness to the madness itself. “World” culls footage from Fischer’s teenage and professional years to tell a dense account of his initial ascent and descent, and its retelling of Fischer’s 1972 World Chess Championship showdown against Boris Spassky — complete with footage of the match, its near-collapse between games and a worldwide audience watching every move — is so wild as to look like fiction. “World” isn’t spotless: Its examination of chess as a game and a trigger for mental illness, in particular, feels half-baked. But the final stretch of Fischer’s life — his comments on 9/11, the 2004 detainment in Japan, a return to the public eye in Iceland a year later — is less familiar ground to casual observers, and “World” saves some of its most striking moments for that last leg. Here, more than anywhere else in the film, we see Fischer completely unfiltered, a bit unburdened and — in perhaps “World’s” most purely revelatory moment — a bit recognizant of all the potential he let wither and die.
Extras: A Feature on the history of chess, a feature on the fight for Fischer’s estate.
Mildred Pierce (NR, 2011, HBO)
Every year, great books become cramped movies when they probably should have fleshed themselves out as miniseries instead. Every once in a while, the opposite happens. “Mildred Pierce” comes based on the 1941 novel of the same name and tells the story of the titular character (Kate Winslet), whose collapsing marriage amid the Great Depression forces her to fend for herself in a world that isn’t exactly friendly to single mothers fending for themselves. Unlike the Oscar-winning 1945 movie, this five-part version has all the time in the world to bring the book’s every last detail to life, and it rises high to the occasion. Provided you’re willing to just coast leisurely through those details during parts of those five hours, such devotion to the source material isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Pierce” surrounds outbreaks of storyline growth with consecutive scenes’ worth of downtime and idle character development, and given the polished presentation, attention to period detail and considerable skill of Winslet and her castmates (Melissa Leo, Guy Pearce, James LeGros), idle time need not mean wasted time. Sometimes, though, “Pierce” slows and stalls to the point where even polish can’t cover for it. If, for instance, you aren’t particularly fond of Mildred’s semi-bratty oldest daughter Veda (Morgan Turner/Evan Rachel Wood) — whose role here is considerably more pronounced than it was in the movie — her domination of part four may challenge your will to get to part five. “Pierce” redeems itself in time for the finale, and it hits more than it misses. But its failings stand as proof that ample time alone can’t ensure that a book’s finer points will translate to screen without losing something along the way.
Extras: Commentary on parts three and five.
I Don’t Know How She Does It (PG-13, 2011, Anchor Bay)
There’s nothing wrong with a little genre blending … unless, of course, the blend becomes so muddled as to undermine a movie’s intentions in the first place. “I Don’t Know How She Does It” uabashedly has intentions, and its means of expressing them range from the occasional screed about the perils of being a mom in the corporate workforce to the similarly familiar story of a working woman (Sarah Jessica Parker as Kate, the “She” in the needlessly literal title) finding her soul just as her neglected family is about to tell the search party to go home. Problem is, this is supposed to be funny. “IDKHSDI” gets off to a reasonably funny start, using multiple-character narration and some “Fight Club”-esque mental illustrations to suggest this will be a new twist on an old tale. But the longer the movie carries on, the less concerned it becomes with being funny, and as the need to amuse fades, a distressingly high volume of naked whining and preaching takes its place. “IDKHSDI” never totally goes off the rails, and even when the grousing and evangelizing reaches its shamelessly literal zenith, it’s never so soulless or stupid as to become intolerable. But tolerable is a long way from great, and “IDKHSDI’s” awkward leap from comedy to drama need not be disastrous to still be disappointing. Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Munn, Greg Kinnear, Seth Meyers, Christina Hendricks and Kelsey Grammer also star.
Extra: Interview with author Allison Pearson, who wrote the semi-autobiographical novel (of the same name) on which the movie is based.
— “Greatest Super Bowl Moments (NR, 2012, NFL/Vivendi): Between the title on the front and the NFL Films pedigree on the back, the whole thing kind of sells itself, doesn’t it? With that said, it is worth noting that in addition to upholding its brand’s high standards of storytelling, “Moments” also doesn’t just settle for the usual suspects. The 156-minute runtime provides ample room for every Super Bowl up to now, and “Moments” mines even the most lopsided games for what little gold they had. Extras include three expanded features — on the semantics of winning, the onside kick from Super Bowl XLIV, and the agony of head coach Sam Wyche, whose Bengals let their lead slip away with only 34 seconds left to play in Super Bowl XXIII.
— “Transformers: The Japanese Collection” (NR, 1987, Shout Factory): 2011 was a pretty productive year for “Transformers” fans: They finally got a movie that wasn’t completely terrible, and the first volume of the revered Japanese cartoon — which directly followed the events of the American cartoon but never made it to America in any polished, official capacity — finally arrived on DVD. Provided you don’t mind buying that volume again, 2012 won’t be half-bad, either. “Transformers: The Japanese Collection” includes all 114 episodes (in their original Japanese with new English subtitles) from all three volumes (the previously-released “Headmasters,” plus “Super-God Masterforce” and “Victory”), and each volume has at least one art gallery as an extra. It’s available only at shoutfactorystore.com, which, unfortunately, doesn’t offer the second and third volumes for sale by themselves if you already own “Headmasters.”