Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season (NR, 2010, HBO)
It’s all too easy to just figure “Boardwalk Empire” must be great, because all HBO ever does with television shows set around specific times and places is make them great. But to simply shrug at “Empire’s” greatness is to dismiss its ability to exhilarate in spite of the oppressively predictable overtones that accompany its premise. Anyone with any historical comprehension already knows how well the United States’ flirtation with Prohibition went, and anyone with any clue whatsoever could scarcely even feign surprise when the legislators responsible for pressing the big red Prohibition button are the same folks cutting secret deals to keep the booze flowing for themselves and their friends in business, leadership and organized crime. These and some of “Empire’s” other themes — women’s suffrage, post-war trauma, every -ism in the discrimination playbook — are so rigidly set in their thematic ways as to materialize without help, and the show’s attention to historical accuracy would appear only to stifle it further. But in mixing the dramatizations of real people with characters of the show’s own creation, “Empire” perfectly threads the needle, tipping its hat to history with a gorgeous recreation of the era but overwhelmingly keeping its focus on the detailed development of a massive roster of terrific characters from the largest and most acute corners of the era. With an eye for detail this good, “Empire” is free to let the themes play out like you know they will, because the real story lies between the lines. With an ensemble cast (Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon, Michael Kenneth Williams and so many more) like this, it’s also in supremely good hands.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, one feature each on Atlantic City and Prohibition speakeasies, and a (very helpful) character dossier.
Moneyball (PG-13, 2011, Sony Pictures)
As often happens as result of baseball’s wealth imbalance, the Oakland Athletics — fresh off a 2001 playoff run, but anchored by a shoestring budget that forces them to part ways with several marquee players in their prime — are in danger of crashing to Earth. But General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) has different ideas, and when an ordinary meeting introduces him to a low-level Cleveland Indians employee (Jonah Hill as Peter Brand) with even wilder ideas about how to win baseball games, he hires him away. Together, the two form a team around a system of formulas they call Moneyball, and with a ragtag band of players no one else wanted, they defy the odds and win the 2002 World Series. Actually, they don’t — and that’s no spoiler if you follow baseball religiously enough to enjoy “Moneyball” as it’s intended to be enjoyed. Though “Moneyball” takes some odd creative liberties (Peter Brand is a fictional composite based on Paul DePodesta and other Beane employees), its narrative keystones — the deals Beane struck, the near-career suicide he committed while striking them, and the on-field result of those risk — are the real thing. And that’s good, because if a screenwriter plotted the 2002 A’s the way Beane did, no long-suffering baseball fan would buy it. Beane’s ability to disrupt baseball economics is debatable, because once he threw a lifeline to small-market teams, big-market teams adopted it and promptly swallowed the advantage in one bite. But the system’s ability to rewrite the way fans and executives view a game more than a century old is no small feat, and “Moneyball” — with scenes in back rooms that are as exciting as those on the field — makes its advent an absolute thrill to witness. Philip Seymour Hoffman also stars.
Extras: Deleted scenes, Beane feature, three-behind-the-scenes features, blooper.
An Idiot Abroad (NR, 2011, BBC)
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have, through their numerous collaborations and creative endeavors, visited some extraordinary corners of the world. Karl Pilkington, on the other hand, has not, nor does he particularly wish to do so. Fortunately, Gervais and Merchant are as resourceful and persuasive as they are funny. And in an endeavor Gervais describes as the “funniest, most expensive practical joke” he’s ever pulled, they’re sending their good friend away to see the wonders of the world under the guise of enlightenment and educational television. In truth, it’s an elaborate form of torment from thousands of miles away: Pilkington gets to see the wonders — not that he cares for them most of the time — but he has to deal with any number of carefully-arranged travel nightmares and cultural shocks en route to doing so. The degree to which Gervais and Merchant amuse themselves is contagiously hilarious, as are the various shades of abject horror that pale Pilkington’s face when he’s faced with a situation from which there is no comfortable escape. With that said, “An Idiot Abroad’s” title is something of a misnomer. Pilkington doubtlessly isn’t the most refined world traveler around, but his constant verbal monologues — sometimes little throwaway lines, other times meandering impromptu speeches — are way too funny and sharply honest to dismiss simply as the musings of an idiot. Occasionally they’re even a little bit profound — if only for a fleeting second or two before his senses return to him.
Contents: Eight episodes, plus the original preview show, deleted scenes and a photo gallery.
What’s Your Number? (R, 2011, Fox)
Ally (Anna Faris) has slept with 19, or perhaps 20, guys, and the gravity of that number never bothered her until a friend mentioned a study that declares women unmarriable if they exceed that completely arbitrary number. In an effort to avoid bumping that number to 21, Ally hatches a plan to reunite with (and ideally marry) an ex-boyfriend, and she enlists the people-finding skills of neighbor Colin (Chris Evans) in exchange for letting him hide in her apartment until his one-night stands go home. A cute, if contrived, idea for a harmless romantic comedy? Sure. But if you don’t know exactly how “What’s Your Number?” will end the minute Colin makes the first impression he makes, you’ve probably never seen a movie before. “Number” has plenty going for it, and not simply because Faris straps a mediocre script to her unbelievably charismatic back and makes it several orders of magnitude more entertaining than it otherwise had any right to be. Some of Faris’ castmates are likable in their own way, some scenes are genuinely funny, and “Number” at its very worst still has a enjoyably sweet disposition. It’s merely a shame all that’s good about it couldn’t apply to a story that isn’t laughably predictable at every turn. Faris fans will enjoy it simply for her presence alone, but the boldest thing “Number” does is further validate all who believe she deserves better roles than she gets.
Extras: Extended cut, deleted scenes.
Answer This! (PG-13, 2012, Lions Gate)
It’s hard not to wonder what happened to “Answer This!,” which must have had different plans than being shelved, shuttled straight to video and branded by some marketer with a horrendously lazy title and cover art that evokes comparisons to those awful straight-to-video National Lampoon movies. If anything, “This” — which centers around Paul (Christopher Gorham), a professional student who has procrastinated for years on his dissertation, and James (Nelson Franklin), the best friend who enters them in a pub trivia tournament to escape the doldrums of their fruitless academic pursuits — swings too forcefully in the other direction. It’s juvenile, but in a depressing, starving-academic way instead of anything as wacky as the beer can pile on the cover implies. The trivia competition provides some excitement, but its participants deride it as meaningless so often that you start believing them. In between, there’s Paul’s story, which feels too insular and semi-autobiographical to resonate like it should. Who feels sorry for somebody riding his professor father’s (Ralph Williams) coattails while receiving endless funding to write a dissertation no one could possibly want to read? Don’t all raise your hands at once. In fairness to “This,” it’s thoughtfully written and occasionally oddly inspiring between (and sometimes during) moments of self-loathing. Every now and then, it’s also funny, and at no point is it nearly as crummy as its horrid first impression would imply. Too much goes awry for it to garner more acclaim than that, but it’s worth noting all the same.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, two behind-the-scenes features.
Killer Elite (R, 2011, Universal)
Though it flirts along the edge, “Killer Elite” isn’t quite as generic as a superficial glance at its storyline — a retired contract killer (Jason Statham) getting back into the game to save his mentor (Robert De Niro) and help him bring down a shadowy private military’s mastermind (Clive Owen) — initially suggests. But what’s that about this being based on a true story? “Elite” declares as much in its opening title card, and the 1991 novel on which it’s based — Ranulph Fiennes’ “The Feather Men” — made the same proclamation. Problem is, “Men’s” credibility as a true story has come under more fire than the sum of its characters, and Fiennes hasn’t exactly inspired confidence with his return fire. So “Elite’s” insistence on the claim — followed by a closing-credits acknowledgment of the controversy that plays the government conspiracy card — is sort of baffling and arguably reckless. Then again, without that claim to lean on, “Elite’s” course of events make an unflattering lateral demotion from pretty unbelievable to merely illogical and kind of bland. It looks good, has some mildly interesting characters and develops at a reasonably satisfying pace, and as action movies that don’t degenerate into complete idiocy go, it suffices. But “Elite” never really aspires to do more than suffice, and that reasonably satisfying pace is too heavy on predictable, stock turns of events to make its stakes very compelling.
Extra: Deleted scenes.