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.