Tower Heist (PG-13, 2011, Universal)
Condominium building manager Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) has been a deeply loyal employee to the building’s obscenely rich owner (Alan Alda as Arthur), and the price for that loyalty is a Bernie Madoff-style swindle that wipes out his and his fellow employees’ pensions. That loss rates pretty low on the list of people Arthur wronged, which effectively wipes out any legal chance of recouping it. But then word leaks that Arthur is hiding a $20 million safety net in his tower penthouse, and you can see where this is going, right? Right. Think of “Tower Heist” as what “Ocean’s Eleven” would look like if Danny Ocean’s crew was a ragtag band of low-level employees and criminal amateurs instead of calm and collected old pros, because that’s essentially what it is. It’s louder, not as gifted in the clever writing department, and it prefers wacky set pieces (using the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as a prop, for instance) over cunning twists. But “Heist” also is a silly good time with a loaded cast and enough charisma to make a lot of so-so situations funnier than they would be in lesser hands. Also helpful: Just about everybody in the group is likable on some level, while Alda’s gift of smug means Arthur most assuredly is not. Even if “Heist” doesn’t make you laugh much, it provides plenty of occasions to root for the little guys. Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Gabourey Sidibe, Matthew Broderick, Téa Leoni and Michael Peña, among others, also star.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, two alternate endings, deleted/alternate scenes, video diary, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers, second screen content for tablets (Blu-ray only).
The Space Between (NR, 2010, Inception Media Group)
To call grizzled flight attendant Montine (Melissa Leo) caustic would be what we call an understatement. To wit: When a scared child flying alone (Anthony Keyvan as Omar) holes up in the lavatory so long that he falls asleep and reemerges well after his plane has landed and emptied, Montine’s first instinct is to chew him out before promptly taking a bite out of the sobbing fellow flight attendant responsible for the oversight. On a normal day, that would be the end of the episode. But Sept. 11, 2001 was, of course, no normal day, and with Omar’s flight grounded halfway to Los Angeles and his father out of reach in New York, the two are stuck with each other while bedlam ensues. You can guess one of “The Space Between’s” overriding themes the instant Omar — a Pakistani-American and devout Muslim — comes into focus. But “Between” eschews predictability by focusing overwhelmingly on Montine and Omar, both as individuals and extremely reluctant partners, while relegating the themes to background duty. Neither character is as simple as the outer shells imply — an amusing conversation about Elvis Presley, of all things, ensures that — and neither changes too much to comfort the other. If you’re waiting for Montine to devolve into a weepy bleeding heart, you’ll wait forever. And that’s fine, because the attention to detail “Between” pays to its two leads would only undermine itself by taking such easy ways out. No extras.
On the Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Vol. 1 (NR, 1956, Milestone Film & Video)
Lionel Rogosin assembled “On the Bowery” by co-writing a semi-biographical screenplay, hiring his drinking buddies to act it out as themselves, and punctuating those scenes with documentary-style shots of New York’s skid row (known not-so-affectionately as The Bowery) in its unfiltered element. The story — three days in the recreational life of railroad worker Ray Salyer (playing himself) — offers no pretense whatsoever, and if “Bowery” released in 2012, we might call this an engaging low-concept indie film that takes the “Clerks” formula and gives it a bit of an uncomfortably truthful edge. But “Bowery” beat “Clerks” to the theater by 38 years, and that alone makes it considerably more special. More than just a story about some friends who really are friends, “Bowery” is a snapshot of a time and place few of us have ever seen in this light, and it’s just as much a snapshot of a filmmaker who put ideas in motion decades before they came into fashion. You can tell the cast isn’t professionally trained (to put it diplomatically), but the mere knowledge of “Bowery’s” back story makes their performances — and the subtly earnest tone of the script on the whole — a genuine treat to watch. Whether you prize film history, American history, or simply the chance to see something truly original unfold in front of you, this is not to be missed.
Extras: Two additional Rogosin films (“Good Times, Wonderful Times,” “Out”), an introduction to “Bowery” by Martin Scorsese, two retrospectives produced by Rogosin’s son Michael, the 1933 newsreel short “Street of Forgotten Men,” the 1972 documentary short “Bowery Men’s Shelter.”
I Ain’t Scared of You: A Tribute to Bernie Mac (NR, 2011, Image Entertainment)
For those fixing to see “I Ain’t Scared of You,” a little tip: If you don’t know what the title is referencing, do yourself a favor and don’t find out (or look at the back of the box) beforehand. “Scared” packs a dizzying amount of storytelling inside its slim 61-minute runtime, and while the account of that phrase’s origins has considerable company, it’s an easy contender for best story of the show. Even if you already know the details, “Scared” has such a blast with the recap that it may as well be new to you as well. That little thing about this being a tribute instead of a mere documentary cannot be overstated: A ton of familiar faces — from Chris Rock to Don Cheadle to Angela Bassett to Cameron Diaz to Bernie’s high school sweetheart wife and daughter — chime in, and their contagiously jubilant stories about Bernie’s talent, work ethic, authenticity, and relentless devotion to all whom he loved are wonderful testaments to a man who took the 50 short years he was given and made absolutely sure they counted and endured.
Extras: Bonus interviews and live performance footage, backstage at the Chicago Theatre.
Retreat (R, 2011, Sony Pictures)
If it’s true that you can’t truly appreciate life’s peaks unless you spend some time in the valley, some deliriously good times lie ahead for Martin (Cillian Murphy) and Kate (Thandie Newton) if they get out of “Retreat” alive. Too bad we can’t even imagine what that would look like. Martin and Kate venture to an isolated island retreat in hopes of overcoming a recent setback, but their recovery is interrupted by a bloodied stranger (Jamie Bell as Jack) who claims a virus has ravaged the area and orders them, gun in hand, to board up the place and stay inside. Is he right? Is he crazy? Well given Kate and Martin’s gloomy dispositions, should anyone care? They’re disconnected from each other, prone to on-the-nose breakdowns and pretty vocal about how neither necessarily wants to be there — and that’s before Jack even crashes their party. By the time he arrives, the black cloud is so thick that “Retreat” is playing from behind. As act two carries on further with too much gloomy telling and not very much showing, the deficit becomes insurmountable. There’s merit to the less-is-more approach, and if you squint and tune out some of the babbling, “Retreat” stealthily puts a framework in place for a creepy, tense finish. But when the baggage spills over once again in act three, it’s a cold reminder that you have no one to root for in this story. By then, there’s only so much the twists at the end can do.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery.
— “Borgia: Faith and Fear: Season One” (NR, 2011, Lions Gate): Well this is awkward. In what amounted to television’s version of two women showing up to the same party wearing the same dress, 2011 gave us two entirely separate but equally excellent shows about the Borgia family. This, likely, is the one with which you’re less familiar. Though in English, it comes by way of France’s CANAL+ instead of Showtime. And while fans of “The Wire” will recognize John Doman in Rodrigo Borgia’s shoes, he lacks the universal cachet of Jeremy Irons, who plays his counterpart in the Showtime series. Fortunately, there’s no rule against watching two Borgia-themed shows in the same year. Additionally, while “Faith and Fear” covers the same thematic ground as “The Borgias,” it goes its own way in terms of presentation and dramatization. Specifically, if you thought “The Borgias” was a little tame in terms of sex and violence, “Fear” won’t disappoint you the same way. It’s thoughtfully constructed, but relentlessly fierce, and Mark Ryder’s snarling embodiment of Cesare Borgia gets the show off to a running start that rarely stops to catch its breath. Includes 12 episodes, plus a behind-the-scenes feature.
— “Underdog: Complete Collector’s Edition” (NR, 1964, Shout Factory): Never fear: Though labeled as complete, this nine-disc collection does not count the ill-devised 2007 live-action movie among its contents. Rather, this set is devoted entirely to the original cartoon, which spanned three seasons and 62 episodes, all of which are perfectly preserved here. In case you’re wondering: Yes, they’re the full episodes — including the bonus cartoons starring Underdog’s friends (Klondike Kat, Tooter Turtle, Go Go Gophers, Commander McBragg) as well as Underdog’s own adventures. Extras include commentary with (among others) co-creator W. Watts Biggers, a behind-the-scenes feature and a 20-page color booklet with liner notes, a brief history, concept art and more.
— “Weeds: Season Seven” (NR, 2011, Showtime/Lions Gate): Usually, when a show moves to a big city like New York, it’s a sign that it’s out of ideas. When a show about dealing drugs in the suburbs goes to New York, it would appear to be a sure thing. But “Weeds” is a different animal, because it started running out of ideas three seasons ago before reinventing itself for season five and doing it again for season six. Season seven jumps ahead three years following Nancy Botwin’s (Mary-Louise Parker) surrender to the FBI, and the big city is simply another stop for a show that’s been on the run half its life and has yet to lose its way. Includes 13 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features and multi-scene comparisons.
— “Nurse Jackie: Season Three” (NR, 2011, Showtime/Lions Gate): If you’ve ever wanted to see a seemingly smart and capable person (Edie Falco as Nurse Jackie) architect her professional and personal demise in slow, painful and (for us) wondrously entertaining fashion, there may be no show on Earth that makes it happen better than this one. Season one ended with the walls closing in, season two somehow made it even more claustrophobic, and there would seemingly be nowhere to go for a third round of escaping lies by telling more lies. And yet, season three provides proof: No matter how bad it looks, it can always get worse (and for us, better). Includes 12 episodes, plus commentary, two behind-the-scenes features and bloopers.