6/26/12: The Artist, 21 Jump Street, Bullhead, Damages S4, The Sarah Silverman Program, The Perfect Family, A Thousand Words

The Artist (PG-13, 2011, Sony Pictures)
A silent film about the death of silent films, and it vaults past the technologically massive likes of “Hugo” and “War Horse” to take home 2011’s Best Picture Oscar? If, studio executives forbid, “The Artist” ever got a sequel, it has a Hollywood ending already laid out for it. With that said, let’s hope it doesn’t happen, because the story of silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) — whose career spirals downward after talking pictures introduce a new wave of stars, including a woman (Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller) he helped discover — is perfectly fulfilled as is. Inevitably, some measure of thanks is owed to simple novelty: Watching a new silent film with all the visual and musical trimmings is a treat, and watching the familiar, contemporary likes of John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell and James Cromwell get fully into the act is a bizarre double treat. But what elevates the “The Artist” from merely amusing to great is its ability to actually understand the medium instead of simply mine its novelty. George’s downfall takes him to some very dark corners, and it’d make for an absolutely dreary story if presented along the lines of a contemporary production. But there’s little room for dry misery in a film where a soundtrack and the non-verbal mannerisms of the cast — including those of George’s dog (Uggie), who is as much a star of this story as any human being — carry all the weight. “The Artist” keeps it honest, but it just as consciously keeps it lively. It transcends form and novelty to give its own voice to the modern trimmings it supposedly lacks, and its status as a 2011 filmmaking hallmark is very genuinely deserved.
Extras: Cast/crew Q&A, three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

21 Jump Street (R, 2012, Sony Pictures)
There is nothing cute about a shameless remake that makes jokes about being a shameless remake while it tramples all over the memory of the thing it’s remaking. Fortunately, by the time “21 Jump Street” gets around to making this joke — and doing a funny job of it, it bears mentioning — it has pretty clearly established that it isn’t really trying to remake or desecrate anything. Instead, “Street,” reinvented as a buddy comedy and set briefly in 2005 before flashing forward to present day, is effectively a sequel that stands mostly on its own. Similarly, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) — who are part of a resurrected program that infiltrates high schools with cops posing as students — are their own characters and not sorry reboots of Hanson and Penhall. With that established, “Street” becomes a legitimately funny movie about Schmidt and Jenko first and a reverent nod to the past only when a callback is appropriate. And without the baggage of trying and inevitably failing to overwrite the work Johnny Depp and co. already put in, the new “Street” just has a blast being itself. Some loyal fans will still seethe, perhaps more so because of how loosely related the movie is to the show. But considering how miserably the alternate strategy usually turns out, a funny movie that goes its own way is endlessly preferable to a needless retread that goes nowhere. Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle and Nick Offerman also star, and Ice Cube steals nearly every scene he enters as the magnificently straight-shooting captain of the program.
Extras: Tatum/Hill/directors commentary, deleted scenes, five behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, Ice Cube outtakes.

Bullhead (R, 2011, Drafthouse Films)
Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) has been ingesting an insane cocktail of steroids and testosterone supplements since a childhood incident made some degree of medication necessary. If you’re wondering exactly what that incident was, worry not: “Bullhead” will show you, and like most milestones in Jacky’s life (and despite “Bullhead’s” tasteful presentation), it isn’t pretty. Most of Jacky’s story as we see it takes place in present day, and his role in a messy new endeavor — involving murder, illegal deals, a meat mafioso (no joke) and a role player (Jeroen Perceval) who was Jacky’s childhood friend and who witnessed the earlier incident — ranges from ancillary to accidental. “Bullhead’s” choice to revolve around Jacky creates an arguable disservice for that storyline, which has enough characters, problems and intrigue to carry the film by itself but instead must split time with the other matters of Jacky’s present and past. But the time spent away from that story rarely feels wasted on the twitching, fidgeting and perennially socially overwhelmed Jacky, who toes the line between stoicism and wildfire anger with a level of fragility that’s completely engrossing. “Bullhead” doesn’t fully fill in the gaps of either story, but it paints quite a picture with what it does provide. Considering how good it is at showing things where words wouldn’t do justice, those gaps it leaves — and, subsequently, trust you to decipher and fill in on your own — feel like a product of purpose instead of oversight. Jeanne Dandoy and Robin Valvekens (as younger Jacky), among others, comprise an impressive ensemble cast. In Dutch and French with English subtitles.
Extras: Short film “The One Thing to Do” (also starring Schoenaerts), director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, interviews, liner notes booklet with Michael Mann introduction.

Damages: The Complete Fourth Season (NR, 2011, Sony Pictures)
Not even a few minutes old, the fourth season of “Damages” makes it clear a key character is in some serious — potentially fatal — trouble. Want to find out what happens next? You will … in roughly nine episodes or so. First, though, “Damages” has to whisk us three months backward to meticulously piece together who’s in trouble, how he or she got there and (eventually) where things go from there. For “Damages” fans, none of this is new, because this marks the fourth time in four seasons the show has effectively spoiled part of its season finale during the season’s very first scene. Fortunately, and once again, it teases in exactly the right way — enough details to sketch out the situation, but not nearly enough to telegraph the often brilliant revelations that ink those lines solid. The serial format and masterful execution of a potentially disastrous gimmick is all thats needed to elevate “Damages” beyond being just another show about lawyers and clients way in over their heads. But it’s the mine-laden relationship between ruthless attorney Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) and former protege, former adversary and current wild card Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) — now entering its fourth rodeo, set three years after the third — that keeps the gimmick from showing any age whatsoever. Season four takes on another thorny topic in private militaries and the contracts that love them, and as usual, the supporting cast it ropes in (John Goodman, Chris Messina, Judd Hirsch, Derek Webster and an absolutely terrifying Dylan Baker) is first-rate all around.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus deleted scenes, outtakes and two behind-the-scenes features.

The Sarah Silverman Program. The Complete Series (NR, 2007, Comedy Central/Shout Factory)
Sarah Silverman isn’t exactly an obscure name in comedy, nor is she really the quiet, shy type on stage. But if you’ve never heard of “The Sarah Silverman Program,” you might be surprised to learn not only that it exists in the first place, but that it ran for three seasons and 32 episodes. Also surprising: It isn’t a crude sketch or standup show, but a silly sitcom starring an alternate-universe Silverman, an alternate-universe version of her sister (Laura Silverman), a mustached cop (Jay Johnston) and two token gay neighbors with red hair (Brian Posehn and Steve Agee). Though Silverman’s fingerprints are visible here and there, “Program” — a quirky mix between “Strangers With Candy’s” absurd melodrama, “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” experiments in poor social behavior and musical numbers for the heck of it — is appealing enough to enjoy even if you typically loathe her comedy. It isn’t as brilliant as either of those two aforementioned shows, but it’s never dull and — especially when Posehn and Agee are on screen — often very funny.
Contents: 32 episodes, plus the original pilot commentary, writers/producers interview, behind-the-scenes shorts, audition footage, 2007 Comic-Con panel footage, musical performances, karaoke and animatics.

The Perfect Family (PG-13, 2011, Virgil Films)
If you’ve seen your share of movies, you need not be a pessimist to already know any movie called “The Perfect Family” has no such thing waiting in store. On the surface, the conflict is all but gift-wrapped: Eileen (Kathleen Turner) is a finalist for a Catholic Woman of the Year award, but her chances of winning ride partly on her presentation of a recovering alcoholic husband (Michael McGrady), a son (Jason Ritter) who wants out of his marriage and a pregnant daughter (Emily Deschanel) who wishes to marry and raise her child with another woman (Angelique Cabral). All the things the church loves, in other words. Initially, and almost shockingly, “Family” resists letting the obvious themes run the show. It’s a story about the family and particularly Eileen, who lets her own flaws fly in pretty amusing and honest fashion. Perfect or not, Eileen’s family is plenty easy to like, and “Family” looks primed to be a refreshing, reasonable and funny take on the tired dysfunctional family bit. But an unfunny thing happens en route to that happening: Those themes mount a comeback. Eventually, they take a commanding lead and strip “Family” of its sense of humor while reducing it to the very simple and preachy thing it seemed to be working so hard to avoid being. Eileen never becomes unlikable, and Turner stems the damage with her delivery. But without any help from the script, all she can do is salvage the scraps of what should have been a considerably more interesting (and funnier) finish to a promising beginning.
Extras: Turner commentary, photo gallery.

A Thousand Words (PG-13, 2012, Paramount)
Whether it’s at home, at work or in the back of the line at a coffee shop, Jack (Eddie Murphy) will say absolutely anything to manipulate a situation for his personal gain. But one con too many prompts a mystical tree to spring in his yard. For every word Jack says or even writes, the tree loses a leaf, and with each leaf lost, Jack’s health worsens. So Jack goes silent in order to stay alive, and that’s the good news about “A Thousand Words.” The bad news? The rest of the cast doesn’t have a tree of its own. “Words'” opens with a terrific first-scene tease of things to come, and there’s no shortage of clever places to take this idea. But while he has his voice, Jack is obnoxious even with the understanding that anyone the universe wants to shut up or die must be annoying. And once Jack goes quiet, his verbal obnoxiousness transfers over to just about everybody else. (Murphy, meanwhile, has nothing to do but mug furiously for the sake of doing so, further wasting his talent.) “Words” looks at all the funny, clever places it could take its premise and shrugs, opting instead for cheap and easy jokes that could slot into just about any mailed-in comedy with a little tinkering. “Words” caps off its sorry, cynical attempt at comedy with a wildly self-congratulatory round of spiritual about-facing for Jack that’s unintentionally funnier than any joke it tells on purpose. When a significant portion of your spiritual awakening entails bonding with your barista and valet, you have no business imparting wisdom on anyone.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

6/19/12: 65_RedRoses, Wilfred S1, Louie S2, Franklin & Bash S1, Big Miracle, Web Therapy S1, A Bag of Hammers, The FP, Jeff Who Lives at Home

65_RedRoses (NR, 2009, Virgil Films)
If you knew nothing about “65_RedRoses” except that it’s a documentary about a girl meeting people on the Internet, how emboldened would you be to bet your life savings on it being yet another story about the perils of online relationships? Filmmakers and news crews love telling that story, don’t they? This time, though, the girl in question is Eva Markvoort, a 23-year-old suffering from cystic fibrosis and whose survival hinges on finding a match for a double lung transplant. By her own poignant acknowledgment, Eva has an exemplary support staff in her family, friends and doctors. But it’s online where she finds an audience of thousands receptive to her story and a network of fellow sufferers, two of whom become deeply close friends. Though it focuses primarily on the tribulations of Eva and her two friends as they await transplants and/or deal with a new set of post-transplant challenges, “65_RedRoses” (named after Eva’s screen name, which itself was born out of a younger Eva’s amusing mispronunciation of her condition) pays considerable mind to the effect those friendships and outpourings of support from strangers have on the will to keep fighting a disease with no known cure. Weaving the two themes so tightly together gives the film a rousing voice without ignoring the grim reality of the situation. And in the face of the relentless effort to scare people away from meeting others online, “65_RedRoses” also stands as an unarguable testament to the value of greeting the concept with an open mind.
Extras: Interviews, behind-the-scenes features.

Wilfred: The Complete First Season (NR, 2011, Fox)
“Wilfred” is the story of a man (Elijah Wood as Ryan) and his dog friend, who comes over to visit when his owner and Ryan’s next-door neighbor Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann) is away at work. The only teeny little twist is that while everyone else in the world sees Wilfred as a dog, Ryan sees him as a man (Jason Gann) in a dog suit. And not just any man, but a foul-mouthed, perverted, smoking, swearing man who takes great joy in being the little devil on Ryan’s shoulder. As an aside, it’s worth noting that the night before he met Wilfred and Jenna, Ryan tried four times to kill himself and failed all four times. But other than that stuff, “Wilfred” is totally a show about a man and a dog. If you’re hoping “Wilfred” will explain why Ryan sees (and hears) a man where others see a dog, don’t. It doesn’t care why, it doesn’t explain why, and if that bothers you, that’s your problem. And how cool is that? If “Wilfred” changed nothing about itself except to make Wilfred an imaginary friend or even just a regular human being, it’d likely still be a hilariously dark show about a guy stuck in a rut and the new best friend who can’t stay out of trouble long enough to know what a rut is. Throw in the dog bit and milk that gimmick while deadpanning like its completely normal, and “Wilfred” becomes wondrous — that rare show that’s grounded, relatable and completely bananas all at once and all the time.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus deleted scenes, 16 behind-the-scenes features and Comic-con 2011 footage.
— Semi-related: “Louie: Season 2” (NR, 2011, Fox): “Wilfred’s” FX Network time slot buddy isn’t quite as fantastical with its concept, but the brilliantly funny balance Louis C.K. flashes while walking a tightrope between art and real life very arguably is not of this world. 13 episodes. Extras include commentary, but additional details weren’t available at press time.

Franklin & Bash: The Complete First Season (NR, 2011, Sony Pictures)
Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer) and Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) are fun-loving guys. And when two fun-loving guys get their names in the title of their television show, the natural outcome would seem to be a show that likes to have a good time too. Refreshingly, and despite being yet another case-of-the-week show about lawyers, “Franklin & Bash” does exactly that. Structurally, it’s the same old story: Clients bring cases to the firm, the cases carry seemingly long odds of success, and Franklin and Bash put down their Playstation 3 controllers and get to work without breaking a sweat or uncurling their smiles. “F&B,” being a comedy, plays it even safer than most legal procedurals by giving its heroes a win/loss record that would make the ’72 Miami Dolphins nervous. But that’s the thing: It’s a comedy, and a comedy first. “F&B” doesn’t slack on matters of justice delivery, but it designs cases in the service of getting laughs as much as telling good stories, and it’s genuinely funny and clever enough to get those laughs. Even the murder trials are light and amusing. Dana Davis, Kumail Nanjiani, Garcelle Beauvais and Reed Diamond also star, and a scene-stealing Malcolm McDowell may be having more fun than anybody as the firm’s incredibly likable top dog.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus seven behind-the-scenes features and bloopers.

Big Miracle (PG, 2012, Universal)
Operation Breakthrough — that bizarre moment in 1988 when oil drillers, whalers, environmentalists, Americans and Soviets joined forces to free a family of California gray whales trapped in Alaskan ice while the world intently watched — is a stunning story because of who participated as much as what happened. “Big Miracle” distills that story into an easy-to-swallow family drama, and you’re warmly invited to debate whether that’s a good thing or not. The movie doesn’t exactly help itself with its struggles to arrange its priorities clearly. “Miracle” never masks the phenomenon of all those groups reluctantly working together, but it emphatically nerfs the complexities of the people and principles needed to make it happen. The sugar-coating would make more sense if it was wholly in the service of letting this be the whales’ story. But when there’s a drawn-out and wholly unnecessary subplot about reporters (John Krasinski, Kristen Bell) and newsroom politics competing with the whales for “Miracle’s” minutes, it’s harder to completely understand what the movie wants to say. Fortunately, the whales ultimately win out, even if the score is closer than it should have been. What happens here doesn’t totally jibe with what happened in 1988, but it’s an inspiring approximation of the event that forever changed the way the world looks at whales. And if it shows kids the power (and possibility) of putting aside differences for a greater good, that’s hardly a bad thing. Drew Barrymore, Ted Danson and John Pingayak also star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Web Therapy: The Complete First Season (NR, 2008, Entertainment One)
Because 50 minutes of listening to the same patient drone on is incredibly boring to her, narcissistic therapist Fiona (Lisa Kudrow) has a new plan: three-minute sessions, conducted strictly via webcam from the convenience and protective walls of her own home. Whether it’s good for her clients is questionable — 47 fewer minutes a week of Fiona may be as healthy for them as anything therapy could accomplish — but it mostly works just fine for the show. Presented entirely through two-way video chats, “Web Therapy” breaks each half-hour episode into smaller pieces wherein Kudrow and a large roster of characters (Jane Lynch, Rashida Jones, Bob Balaban and Courteney Cox, among several familiar faces) semi-extemporaneously play off each other. What results isn’t always very funny — the bloopers in the credits are the unintentional highlights of some of the weaker episodes — but “Therapy” hits more than it misses. Better still, it isn’t leaning on gimmick alone: Clients and other characters (including arguable cast MVP Lily Tomlin as Fiona’s mom) make recurring appearances, and for a show about improvised three-minute snark-offs, there’s a surprising amount of story continuity coursing through the season.
Contents: 10 episodes (all with commentary), plus a behind-the-scenes feature, outtakes and a season two preview.

A Bag of Hammers (NR, 2011, MPI Home Video)
There’s a moment roughly halfway through “A Bag of Hammers” where Ben (Jason Ritter) has to tell his neighbor’s young son (Chandler Canterbury as Kelsey) that life as they know it is about to get considerably more complicated. It’s from this talk where “Hammers” gets its name, and it’s this talk — all five or so minutes of it — that grants arguable immunity to the likable but messy 80 minutes that surround it. “Hammers” begins as a silly comedy about two slacker friends (Ritter, and Jake Sandvig as Alan) who do everything in their underhanded power to make a living any way but legitimately. The kid and his mom (Carrie Preston) enter the picture as tenants renting the house next door, and it’s during the aforementioned complication where their meandering story enters full intertwine mode with Ben and Alan’s meandering story. Though the details are better left unspoiled, the union of those stories forces a change of mood in “Hammers,” which finds a middle ground between quirky comedy and heartfelt drama but doesn’t necessarily find its footing along the way. To the contrary, it’s distractingly wobbly, biting off more storytelling than it can chew and practically breaking the sound barrier while cruising through some very complicated barriers en route to an ending that feels frantically pulled together. “Hammers” scrambles with heart, and the goodwill borne from that mid-movie conversation may be enough to carry it through. But it’ll be tough for even the most forgiving viewer to abstain from some head scratching when that race to the ending reaches peak speed. Rebecca Hall also stars.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature.

The FP (R, 2011, Drafthouse Films)
Take your standard movie about gang warfare. But imagine that instead of guns and fists, the crews settle their differences with “DanceDanceRevolution” showdowns that are intense enough to kill those who compete. Then take that concept and imagine if a fan of “Rocky IV” designed a story where one combatant dies and his best friend (Jason Trost as JTRO), who has left the sport, embarks on a furious comeback that includes a training montage. Once you’ve done all that, ask yourself one question: Why are you imagining all this when, somehow, it already exists? If the gray area of movies that are simultaneously terrible and wonderful was a city, “The FP” might be its mayor. The joke — replace traditional combat with video game dance-offs using an unapologetically transparent “DDR” knockoff — is exactly what it sounds like, and “The FP’s” parodies of iconic and far more straight-faced movies hits squarely on the nose as well. As happens with movies that live and die by a gag, it wears thin in spots and feels long even at 83 minutes. But the completely crazy energy “The FP” brings to the gag is too insane to let the joke fully stagnate even at its most tired. The setting — part dystopian future, part 1980s music video — is amusing, and while the script is inane, there’s a surprisingly high amount of so-stupid-they’re-funny lines lying in wait. Calling “The FP” good may be a bit much, but calling it dull would just be dishonest. And it’s always better to be fun than simply be good.
Extras: Directors commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, 16-page liner notes booklet.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (R, 2012, Paramount)
Jeff (Jason Segel) most definitely lives at home, and one must assume “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” finds this hugely significant or funny if it’s willing to name itself after that fact. No other explanation makes as much sense, even if that one doesn’t totally check out either. “Home,” the entirety of which takes place in a single day, isn’t simply about Jeff: It also covers the present conditions of his brother Pat (Ed Helms), who doesn’t live at home but may be headed back there if his marriage continues failing, and his mom (Susan Sarandon), who considers herself washed up until an anonymous admirer at work gives her hope. In contrast to his more cynical mom and brother, Jeff believes things happen for a reason, and he believes this strongly enough to follow a would-be premonition across town and see where it takes him. (Despite the title, Jeff spends very little time at home in “Home.”) The journey eventually culminates in a moment of truth of sorts. But “Home” makes some puzzling stops along the way, juxtaposing thoughtful and funny scenes with clumsy and rambling moments that don’t contribute much of anything. That culmination, and the emotional right turn down which it sends at least one character, isn’t necessarily the good kind of exclamation point, either. Though good-hearted and engaging here and there, “Home’s” course of events leaves it open to accusations of contrivance. And if you find yourself on the side of the prosecution in that argument, those closing scenes aren’t likely to dissuade you one bit. No extras.

6/12/12: Too Big to Fail, Miss Minoes, Episodes S1, Thin Ice, A Little Bit of Heaven, Accident, Demoted, Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp, Entourage S8, Curb Your Enthusiasm S8

Too Big to Fail (NR, 2011, HBO)
It is exhaustively known that in the summer and fall of 2008, Wall Street melted down and dragged the U.S. economy to the brink with it. But nothing cuts through the cloudy, politicized memory of those weeks like the moment in “Too Big to Fail” during which an official in Beijing details to Henry Paulson (William Hurt) how easily a single handshake between Russia and China could have triggered an implosion powerful enough to knock the country into an instant depression. Set following the collapse of the housing market and wedged into the weeks where bad rapidly graduated to worse while Wall Street and Washington scrambled to stem the bleeding, “Fail” just barrels ahead, efficiently introducing a massive cast of players while breaking down the unbelievable severity of a bad bet gone spectacularly and globally wrong. Purely as human drama and a picture of panicked damage management (in an election year, no less), it’s effortlessly enthralling. But as dissections of cut-and-dry disasters that nevertheless fall prey to the irrational, facts-are-optional political wringer, “Fail” is just brilliant. It fully recognizes the dirty feeling of bailing out the most loathsome catalysts of a downfall that nearly destroyed the economy. But it also empirically recognizes why the alternative would almost certainly have been so much worse. And it ominously recognizes, with 2008 now in our rear view, that the conditions remain in place for history to one day repeat itself. James Woods, Tony Shalhoub, Cynthia Nixon, Topher Grace and Paul Giamatti, among numerous others, comprise a monster ensemble cast.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, cast/crew/experts feature on the crisis itself, comprehensive timeline of the crisis.

Miss Minoes (NR, 2001, Music Box Films)
Though dogs are more shameless about eating or drinking something without knowing what it even is, cats aren’t too proud to partake as well. For one cat, a mouthful of a mysterious liquid doesn’t simply taste awful: It turns her into a walking, talking human being (Carice van Houten as Minoes) who can still communicate with other cats (and, sometimes embarrassingly, fall back on old cat instincts). It’s during one of these relapses that Minoes meets Tibbe (Theo Maassen), a kind but socially clumsy newspaper reporter whose shyness keeps him from unearthing the kind of stories his editors want. Tibbe befriends Minoes, whose special gifts and ability to command other cats does wonders for his job, and when word leaks that the popular chairman of a pet lovers’ association (Pierre Bokma) isn’t who he seems, the whole weird string of events just feels like kismet. Unsurprisingly with a premise like that, “Miss Minoes” isn’t one to take itself too seriously. But it absolutely bears mentioning that “Minoes” doesn’t use the silly premise to just mail it in and give kids yet another thoughtless movie about dumb people being obnoxious. Goofiness runs rampant, but the story stealthily keeping “Minoes” on track is smart, inventive and considerably more focused than a superficial glance would suggest it has any right to be. That results in a movie that not only doesn’t talk down to kids, but effortlessly engages the adults watching alongside them as well. In Dutch with English subtitles, but optional English and Spanish dubs also are available.
Extra: Kitty bloopers.

Episodes: The First Season (NR, 2011, Showtime)
If the decades of evidence, anecdotes and broken dreams are any indication, making any kind of television for any kind of audience must be some kind of nightmare. And if that’s the case, taking a highbrow British comedy and distilling it into something American network television executives would swallow must be some ninth circle of Hell-level agony. Considering how fond Hollywood is of navel-gazing, it’s almost inconceivable that it took this long for someone to mine that awful process for laughs. Fortunately, “Episodes” — which joins Beverly (Tamsin Greig) and Sean’s (Stephen Mangan) story in mid-meltdown before jumping back seven weeks to the beginning — doesn’t punt the opportunity. Thematically, it plays it safe. Beverly and Sean are fish out of water after a clueless but influential network head (John Pankow as Merc) woos them to Los Angeles to recreate their show for American audiences. Merc’s staff talks out both sides of its collective mouth, and the show’s would-be star (Matt LeBlanc, playing a contemptible version of himself) is a deadly combination of wrong for the part and influential enough to change the part to suit him. Beyond the setup, though, “Episodes” paints with a much finer brush, wielding a wonderful brand of comedy that somehow is bone dry and overtly exuberant within the span of the same exchange. And while Sean and Beverly’s situation is a played-up worst case scenario for entertainment’s sake, the writing packs way too many surgically brilliant strikes to not have some ring of truth seething beneath it. We can only speculate just how loud that ring is, but that’s part of the immense fun of watching.
Contents: Seven episodes, plus character bios and two freebie episodes each (via Showtime’s E-Bridge system) of “The Borgias,” “Dexter” and “House of Lies.”

Thin Ice (R, 2011, Fox)
Floundering insurance salesman Mickey Prohaska (Greg Kinnear) is a deeply unlikable person. In fact, during “Thin Ice’s” first half — wherein Mickey basically lies to just about everybody while scheming a plan to bilk an old man (Alan Arkin) out of some significant money — he’s that rare air of despicable whose sliminess may be potent enough to make the entire movie unlikable by association. “Ice,” during that span, plays like a dry and borderline unpleasant comedy that revolves around a rotten lead character and threatens to go nowhere with him. Thank goodness, then, that Randy (Billy Crudup) pops in with a plan to take it places. Upon Randy’s arrival, “Ice” makes its first transformation into a much more purposefully dark film that straddles the line between black comedy and dark-hearted mystery with considerably more skillful effect. The details sparking that transformation are, naturally, best left unspoiled. That goes double for the finer points of “Ice’s” second transformation closer to its conclusion. Though that first half doesn’t always make for appealing entertainment, pay attention to it anyway, because it comes back around in satisfying faction when “Ice” starts settling its bets. David Harbour, Bob Balaban, Lea Thompson and Michelle Arthur also star.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, Sundance premiere footage.

A Little Bit of Heaven (PG-13, 2011, Millennium Entertainment)
On paper, “A Little Bit of Heaven” sounds like one of those stop-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-before movies that must have been harder to pitch successfully than actually write. Marley (Kate Hudson) is a career-minded woman who happily shuns relationships and the prospect of settling down in favor of one-night stands. Or at least that’s the priority depth chart until a doctor (Gael García Bernal as Julian) diagnoses her with what appears to be terminal cancer, at which point Marley flips the list and embarks on a familiar parable about not waiting until its too late to do things you may lose the chance to do. Yes, you’ve heard this one before, and no, “Heaven” doesn’t pull a rabbit out of its hat to turn the formula on its head. But for all it lacks in original storytelling ventures, “Heaven” at least fares better between the lines. Marley is an archetype, but she’s a likable one — funny and kind but refreshingly dark and dry as well — whose priority transformation gets a more reasonable treatment than the premise suggests. Julian, meanwhile, is the story’s unsung hero — a socially awkward guy whose own transformation, reflected through Marley’s darkly affable personality, almost makes this as much his story as hers. None of propels “Heaven” far beyond its tired premise, but it’s enough to make it pleasant to watch in spite of that familiarity. Considering how many also-rans can’t even do that, that’s an accomplishment in its own right. Lucy Punch, Kathy Bates, Romany Malco and Peter Dinklage also star.
Extra: Cast/crew interviews.

Accident (NR, 2009, Shout Factory)
There is nothing accidental about the methods Brain (Louis Koo) and his crew use to assassinate their targets. To the contrary, the meticulous and creative touches they apply to the elaborate assassinations they pull off merely make them look like accidents. And the most impressive thing about the near-perfect production that opens “Accident” is that it may be their sloppiest work to date. But that sloppiness is a harbinger rather than a fluke, and when the next job goes fully haywire, it’s enough to convince Brain — already haunted by the death of his wife and the guilt of doing a job he seems to hate — that somebody is trying to use his own tricks against him. Cool premise, right? Sure, and combined with Brain’s indiscriminate paranoia and brooding self-disgust, there’s enough here to really take “Accident” places. Instead, beyond some acute emotional meltdowns and flashes of ingenuity, things mostly just flounder. Distractingly large logic holes abound, both with regard to the story and those aforementioned meticulous methods, which don’t look very spotless at all upon more sustained inspection. Meanwhile, Brain’s brooding — initially a intriguing plus — gradually turns into a drag that makes him roundly unlikable and his search for answers uninteresting by association. “Accident” looks slick and engages in spurts, but style trounces substance so thoroughly as to make the story’s conclusion feel more like obligation than exhilaration. In Cantonese with English subtitles.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Demoted (R, 2011, Anchor Bay)
Once the golden boys at the Treadline Tire Co., salesmen Mike (Sean Astin) and Rodney (Michael Vartan) treated their office like a school playground, shunning lowly secretaries and making life miserable for fellow salesman Ken (David Cross). But when the boss dies suddenly and the company reins inexplicably end up in Ken’s hands, his first act is to demote the two to secretaries and ignite a company-wide backlash against the former coolest kids in school. What it doesn’t do, unfortunately, is set off a funnier comedy than the one you’ve received up to that point. “Demoted” isn’t offensively bad, but it’s so superlatively plain that you almost wish it was, because that at least would make it memorable. From the workplace humor to the bathroom humor to the characters and the magical about-faces they perform once the story takes its awkward dive toward a safe and happy ending, “Demoted” leaves no vanilla stone unturned. Seemingly on purpose, it emerges unscathed as a safe comedy for fans of comedies that are easier to swallow than a jello cube. Accidentally, though, it’s a reminder that the only thing worse than being terrible is being dull. No extras.

— “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp” (NR, 1970, Film Chest): The first thing to note about “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp” is that if everything about it was the same except for the species of the cast, it still would be almost miraculously campy. “Link” is a show about secret agents and high-stakes espionage, but it’s silly in a way that makes “Get Smart” look like “Mission: Impossible” by comparison. Shamelessly corny jokes run rampant, an extremely 1970s-esque band cuts loose during an intermission, and every character speaks in a voice that screams self-parody at the top of its lungs. Got all that? Great. Now replace the cast completely with live-action chimpanzees — chimpanzee secret agents, chimpanzee evil barons, chimpanzee cowboys, chimpanzee skiers and tennis pros, an all-chimpanzee rock band, even a chimpanzee Ed Sullivan impersonator. Amazingly, of all the things “Link” clearly doesn’t take seriously, it plays the all-chimp gimmick with a marvelously straight face, making a cosmically bizarre spectacle that much more wonderfully weird. Includes 17 episodes, plus the documentary “I Created Lancelot Link,” interviews, new footage (from 2011) of Link at his Wildlife Waystation retirement home (proceeds from the DVD sales benefit Wildlife Waystation), a compilation of vignettes and “Chimpies” that accompanied the show, a LIFE Magazine photo gallery and a postcard.
— “Entourage: The Complete Eighth Season” (NR, 2011, HBO): It probably should have wrapped three seasons ago, and it’s a rare case of HBO letting a show vastly overstay its welcome. But if you lost track of “Entourage” and want to see how it ends, here’s your final season advisory. At least the theme of the season — time to grow up, boys — is apt. Includes eight episodes, plus a farewell retrospective.
— “Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Complete Eighth Season” (NR, 2011, HBO): And if you’d rather see an HBO show that’s eight seasons old but hasn’t worn out its welcome even one single bit? Look no further, ironically, than the show about the guy (Larry David, playing himself and now relocated back to New York City) who has been wearing out his welcome on an episodic basis since the first episode. Ricky Gervais and Michael J. Fox (in an episode very fittingly entitled “Larry vs. Michael J. Fox”) turn in guest performances. Includes 10 episodes, plus Leon’s Guide to NYC and a cast roundtable discussion.

6/5/12: Breaking Bad S4, Tomboy, How to Live Forever, Machine Gun Preacher, Falling Skies S1, Bad Ass, Safe House

Breaking Bad: The Complete Fourth Season (NR, 2011, Sony Pictures)
You are forgiven if, early in “Breaking Bad’s” fourth season, you sense something resembling a plateau coming on. Without even vaguely spoiling any specifics for newcomers, season three’s finale provided a monster exclamation point for a show that had absolutely blown out its original season’s wild but comparatively earnest scope. Season four serves up a bit of an aftermath aftertaste early on, and for a fleeting instance, it’s anticlimactic enough to make you wonder if we’ve reached the summit and have nowhere to go but straight ahead and eventually down. Fortunately, it’s roughly around that time that “Bad” blows the cap off the mountain and raises its game for the fourth time in four attempts. Without even alluding to even a whiff of a spoiler, season four’s second half pays off not just on its first half, but on the preceding three seasons’ worth of character relationship developments. Then, as if to make the preceding season’s exclamation point completely obsolete, it culminates with one of the most visually unforgettable season finales television has ever produced. (In other words, give it time. It’ll get there.)
Contents: 13 episodes (including an extended cut of the season finale), plus commentary on every episode, deleted/extended/alternate scenes, 21 episodes of “Inside Breaking Bad,” eight other behind-the-scenes features, “Better Call Saul” commercials, Gale’s karaoke video and bloopers.

Tomboy (NR, 2011, Wolfe Video)
Having moved for what seems like the umpteenth time in as many years, the tomboyish Laure (Zoé Héran) tries something new by going all the way and pretending to be a boy named Michaël on the playground. The ploy works a little too well: The boys take Michaël in as one of their own, and a girl (Jeanne Disson) who tags along takes a special liking to him. With school starting soon, Laure finds herself deceiving her family one way, deceiving her new friends the other way, and reluctantly hurtling toward the inevitable moment where something has to give. This, kids, is why you don’t tell lies. If “Tomboy” sounds like it should be a comedy, it’s because the same premise wrapped inside some melodramatic overwrought drama would be unbearable. Fortunately, Hollywood and its broad strokes aren’t at the helm here. “Tomboy” is no comedy, but it fully understands the bed Laure made for herself. It’s bad, and kids can be rotten when they’re faced with deceit and things they don’t understand. But what Laure did is, in the grand scheme of things, just one of those stupid things kids do. Neither flip nor anywhere near too serious or ham handed, “Tomboy” instead settles into an extremely likable middle ground. For anyone mature enough to understand why people do dumb things and why other people understand even while outwardly recognizing how dumb those things may be, there’s a lot to like about the people “Tomboy” gives us and the story down which it takes them. In French with English subtitles.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

How to Live Forever (NR, 2010, Docurama)
“How to Live Forever” begins, both curiously and fittingly, with an examination of death as both an industry and an uncomfortable inevitability. And if there’s a mood to describe where Mark Wexler’s documentary goes from there, “charmingly schizophrenic” might be the best way to phrase it. Wexler describes “Forever” as a personal, three-year endeavor that was born out of watching his mother suffer from dementia, pass away and spook him into a fresh understanding of his own mortality. The personal touch shines slightly through during “Forever’s” most comprehensive segment, wherein Wexler speaks not only with people researching ways to slow and even reverse the aging process, but also to those who have lived past 100 and didn’t deprive themselves of good times and bad habits along the way. The latter stories are inspiring and fun, while the former are either exciting or scary depending on if you want to live to, say, 200 or 1,000 or so. But “Forever’s” most unintentionally interesting storyline may be that of its creator. Wexler’s personal attachment to the subject compensates for his movie’s somewhat awkward rhythm, and an unspoiled development in the homestretch provides as apt a lesson about aging well as nearly anything else in the movie.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Machine Gun Preacher (R, 2011, Fox)
Roughly halfway through the story of his life, Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) — a reformed, born-again criminal whose experiences during a contract job in the Sudan inspired him to build an orphanage there and his own church back home — delivers a rousing sermon about the merits of delivering on good intentions versus simply having and expressing them. It’s a sermon “Machine Gun Preacher” would have done well to better take to heart. The most remarkable facet of Childers’ story is that, details notwithstanding, the general story is a true story. Unfortunately, it’s a point “Preacher” doesn’t convey very effectively — in part because it never comes out and definitely sets that stage until the film’s over, and additionally because its illustration of these events cuts corners to the point of looking anything but based in truth. Childers evolves from scumbag to do-gooder almost in the blink of an eye, and with startlingly little resistance from his family, friends and community. “Preacher” itself endures similar whiplash as it blasts through this transition, morphs occasionally into an action movie, and only finally slows down to truly appreciate Childers’ adversity and warts when that halfway mark enters the rear view. The second half fares better than the first, and if “Preacher” simply creates awareness for the accomplishments of its hero, its mission is inarguably successful on some level. If nothing else, it provides motivation to check out Childers’ autobiography, “Another Man’s War,” which might have time to walk through the story at a more reasonable and appreciative pace. Michelle Monaghan and Michael Shannon also star.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Falling Skies: The Complete First Season (NR, 2011, TNT/Warner Bros.)
“Falling Skies” is a bit of a misnomer, because by the time the first episode kicks off, the sky has long since fallen. Once again, the culprit is aliens. And once again — roughly six months after the invasion, which we witness only via children’s drawings and verbal recollections — America is divided into strange pockets of survivalists who cannot seem to get along despite having an obvious common enemy and a rapidly closing window through which to take them on. Fortunately, our squabbling Americans reluctantly grow on each other, which in turn allows their struggle to slowly grow on us. “Skies” starts slow and, at least in its debut season, never totally outgrows the cliched contemporary themes that surround a show about rustic survivalists facing end times. But the more “Skies” gets away from those themes and gravitates toward its characters — and, separately but similarly, the creepy ways and means of their invaders — the more enjoyable it becomes. Your patience is requested, but during the first season’s back half, the effort is somewhat rewarded — if not by the polarizing finale, then perhaps by the promise it teases in episodes to come. Noah Wyle, Moon Bloodgood, Sarah Carter and Drew Roy, among others, comprise the large ensemble cast.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus commentary, three behind-the-scenes features and 2011 San Diego Comic-Con roundtable footage.

Bad Ass (R, 2012, Fox)
“Bad Ass” is, by its own acknowledgment, inspired by true events. What it fails to acknowledge is that it’s inspired by true events in much the same way “Tom and Jerry” is based on a cat lazily pawing at a mouse before resuming its afternoon nap. “BA’s” central character, Frank Vega (Danny Trejo), is based on the exploits of Thomas “Epic Beard Man” Bruso, an old Vietnam veteran whose fight on a bus with a younger man made him a YouTube sensation. In “BA,” Vega singlehandedly clobbers two roided-up skinheads who are seconds away from assaulting another passenger. The actual fight, on the other hand? It sprung from an incoherent shouting match between Bruso and some sad sack who probably hadn’t touched a dumbbell in years. It only gets weirder from there: After a friend is murdered, Vega embarks on a rampage to take back his city, cartoonishly manhandling six-packs of thugs and would-be Bond villains like he’s a cyborg. “BA,” to its threadbare credit, makes no attempt to purport that any of this even slightly happened, but the notion that it’s even inspired by any kind of remotely true event is so amusing that one must assume the movie is in on the joke. Whether Bruso himself is in on it is anyone’s guess, but it’s officially beside the point. All that matters about “BA” is that Trejo gets yet another chance to go crazy in a completely crazy movie. So long as you’re content to witness his body of work in action instead of Bruso’s, “BA’s” full-service absurdity should satisfy plenty.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Safe House (R, 2012, Universal)
Low-level CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is impatiently waiting for a career-making assignment while idling in South Africa as the gatekeeper of an agency safe house. When a legendary fugitive (Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost) unexpectedly turns himself in to the safe house — and inadvertently brings a tail of rifle-wielding mercenaries who take the place under siege in order to get to him — Weston very suddenly gets his wish. But you probably saw that siege coming as soon as Frost walked through the door. And if you saw that coming, you’ll likely be able to telegraph much of the rest of “House,” which proves once again that in the movies, safe houses are never safe and intelligence agencies are always the last to realize a mole lurks in their ranks. “House” is thoroughly polished in every bullet-point regard, with a shiny cast (Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepard also star), glossy dialogue, temperamental cinematography and a nice mix of close-quarters fights and ambitious chases, shootouts and explosions. A few nods at relatively current events — a chase lost in a sea of vuvuzelas at the World Cup, a document leak of WikiLeaksian proportions — give it an extra contemporary edge. But from the vanilla name down to the prototypical squabbling intelligence heads and through and around every twist you’ve seen so many times before, “House” is, slick or not, as painfully stock as stock gets. You might enjoy it while it’s on, but be glad there isn’t an exam later, because you’ll be hard-pressed to remember even seeing it a few weeks from now.
Extras: Four behind-the-scenes features.