Homeland: The Complete First Season (NR, 2011, Showtime/Fox)
Eight years later, and long after he’d been presumed dead by his family and country, prisoner of war and Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) has been found, rescued and returned home from Iraq. Think his wife (Morena Baccarin) and the mother of his two children is thrilled to see him? She is — in that “I’ve been sleeping with your best friend and fellow Marine” kind of way, but happy nonetheless. CIA Counterterrorism Center officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), meanwhile, isn’t quite so ecstatic. Why resurface now? And what’s with that strange thing Nick does with his hand whenever a television camera is trained on him? Is he still loyal to the United States, or did his captors want him to be found? If Carrie can get out of her own way, she might be able to make a case for looking into America’s newest national hero. And if “Homeland’s” opening vignette is any indication, that’s a monumentally big if. Were Nick a total poker face and Carrie just another straight-laced government employee, “Homeland” — which gradually but arrestingly claws away at this mystery with each passing episode — likely still would be a great watch. But the line between behavioral insanity and relentless, fire-breathing pursuits of personal redemption is dangerously thin here, and the way both characters skate the edge — while occasionally crisscrossing in ways that are crazy in their own right — elevates “Homeland” beyond great and into the realm of can’t-miss. David Harewood, David Marciano and Diego Klattenhoff also star, while Mandy Patinkin makes a case for cast MVP as both Carrie’s most valuable ally and most ruthless foil.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes feature and “The Visit,” a prologue to season two.
Monsieur Lazhar (PG-13, 2011, Music Box Films)
Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) isn’t necessarily qualified to inherit a classroom of Montreal schoolchildren halfway through their school term. But there’s no time to dawdle, and no one else will touch the job opening, which formed after the children’s former teacher hanged herself in the classroom while her kids played outside. So the job — of teaching the kids and respecting an imperfect curriculum, but also of helping a classroom’s worth of young children try and understand what happened inside that very classroom — is Bachir’s to lose. “Monsieur Lazhar” supplies itself with an emotionally loaded premise, and a more careless movie could mine it a hundred different ways for tearjerking breakdowns and overwrought monologues that tell more than show. That isn’t even everything, as an examination of Bachir’s own past (among other topics) will soon show. Not once, though, does “Lazhar” bite and take the easy way out. Bachir establishes a temperament that’s graceful but nowhere near fragile, and his students and the movie itself follow his example. Sometimes it’s dark, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant and sometimes paralyzed by its own confusion. “Lazhar” lets its characters take the lead instead of the story, and the result is a striking and entirely believable picture of people — student, teacher and administrator alike — who don’t necessarily know what to do but must do something all the same. In French with English subtitles.
Extras: Four behind-the-scenes features, audition footage.
Nate & Margaret (NR, 2012, Breaking Glass Pictures)
There’s nothing unusual happening between college-aged wannabe filmmaker Nate (Tyler Ross) and cynical middle-aged wannabe comedian Margaret (Natalie West) — which, it seems, is why so many find their close friendship so unusual. They don’t quite agree, but when people constantly ask you if the friend you brought to the party is your mom, there’s no completely ignoring it. To that end, while “Nate & Margaret’s” most important trick is separately developing two strong characters and giving that friendship genuine value, its best trick may be the way it very subtly juxtaposes a perfectly healthy friendship with a nagging, continuous discomfort that suggests there’s something wrong with it even if there shouldn’t be. Neither too flip nor needlessly self-serious, “N&M” also never sticks a heavy hand in it and dictates whether we should think one way or another. Nor, even, does it necessarily express that the rare gift of true friendship is valuable enough to withstand factors that should seem trivial by comparison. Everyone up to and including the movie’s namesakes has an opinion on the matter, but “N&M” leaves plenty of room for audience participation as well.
Extras: Short film “Untied Strangers,” West/Ross/director video commentary, three audio commentary tracks, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, outtakes, audition footage.
The Five-Year Engagement (R/NR, 2012, Universal)
One year after they met and one awkward proposal aside, Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are engaged to be married. But the title kinda gives away what happens next, doesn’t it? Life gets in the way, some surprises pop up, and long story short, the wedding is taking a whole lot longer to assemble than it should. Arguably, as it sails north of two hours, “The Five-Year Engagement” takes longer than it should as well. But while “Engagement” takes its time, it doesn’t necessarily waste it as well. It’s easy to envision a scenario where the movie loafs along as nothing more than a middlingly funny collection of wedding-planning mishaps and gags. But “Engagement” tells the story of an engagement rather than a wedding, and the rhythm along which it paces itself makes it more interesting than (if not totally unrecognizable from) your typical happy/sad/happy romantic comedy. It could certainly be shorter, and while its funniest scenes and bit characters (hello, Brian Posehn) are very funny, an extra helping of comedy and a little less drama wouldn’t have hurt. But the sum total of “Engagement” is a satisfying trip that, for better far more than for worse, really feels like a five-year journey. If you’re patient enough to come along for that journey, the clever payoff at the end is worth the wait as well. Alison Brie and Chris Pratt also star.
Extras: Unrated (132 minutes) and theatrical (125 minutes) versions of the movie, deleted/extended/alternate scenes, cast/filmmakers commentary, bloopers, line-o-rama.
Battleship (PG-13, 2012, Universal)
It could’ve been worse. No, really. It’s a given that “Battleship” — which turns a board game built around the honor system into a special effects-soaked standoff between humans and aliens — is a loud, stupid spectacle. But “Battleship” also seems reasonably aware of its place in the world. And during its amusing introduction of Lt. Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), it demonstrates that awareness with a sense of humor that’s silly but not grating. Things take a turn downward once the aliens arrive and humor gives way to a relentless barrage of special effects and loud noises, but “Battleship” never detours into self-seriousness or even stays away from silliness for very long. Alex and his crew are pretty stock as characters go, but they’re likable by stock action movie character standards. And when “Battleship” gets down to the business of justifying its bananas use of the board game’s name, it actually pulls it off and sets the stage for the movie’s most fun scenes. None of this makes “Battleship” anything more than exactly what it looks like, and a meek attempt to give motive to the aliens doesn’t go far enough to pay any kind of dividend. But it does serve as reminder that even in the realm of the loud and stupid, not all movies are created equal. Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgård, Brooklyn Decker and Rihanna also star.
Extras: Alternate ending previsualization, seven behind-the-scenes features.
Darling Companion (PG-13, 2012, Sony Pictures Classics)
For a movie centered around a dog — and not just any dog, but an abandoned dog whom Beth (Diane Keaton) and her daughter Grace (Elisabeth Moss) rescue near the highway and take into their home — “Darling Companion” sure dares you to dislike it. Following the rescue, “Companion” skips ahead a year, with Grace getting married and the entire family (including the dog, appropriately named Freeway) vacationing in a cottage in the mountains to celebrate. Beth’s husband Joseph (Kevin Kline), who is considerably less enamored with Freeway, carelessly loses him during a late-night walk, and with only a few days to find him before vacation ends, the entire family is on the case. That search becomes a catalyst for the airing of any family grievances that previously were bottled up, and lest there be any doubt, this family knows how to let those grievances fly. “Companion” minds the edge and explores the (mostly) lighter side of familial anguish run amok, and too much thought goes into the script to let it miserably descend into grating, self-absorbed territory. But during the height of its pettiness — before the ah-ha moment that makes all this grief make sense, and when we’re left to wonder if we should root for Freeway to just find a new and less annoying family — “Companion” pushes patience to the edge. The push doesn’t last, but it also can’t be forgotten, and perhaps that — intended or not — is the most honest metaphor about family any movie can drum up.
Extras: Writer/director/Kline commentary, three behind-the-scenes features, red carpet premiere footage (and yes, the dog — named Casey — was invited).
I Heart Shakey (PG, 2012, Phase 4 Films)
The title doesn’t lie: Widowed father J.T. (Steve Lemme) and his daughter Chandler (Rylie Behr) love their dog Shakey, and unless you can’t stand dogs, chances are good you’ll like the deeply likable mutt as well. Unfortunately, seemingly every person Shakey meets after his family moves from small-town Ohio to downtown Chicago seems to either despise dogs or quiver in fear of them. Shakey’s problems start with his apartment building’s manager (Janet Ulrich Brooks), who forbids animals living in the building, and while J.T. and Chandler scheme a way to keep him around and hidden from view, the problems continue with (among others) a lunatic ex-soldier (Steve Guttenberg) and a kennel owner (Beverly D’Angelo) who inexplicably hates dogs as much as everyone else does in this frightening parallel-dimension Chicago. “Shakey” starts off sweet, and when it focuses on dad, daughter and dog, it’s completely adorable. Problem is, most of “Shakey’s” time goes to the rest of the cast, who range from needlessly cartoonish at best to impossibly rotten at worst. Tally up all the bad behavior and throw in some baffling violence once Guttenberg’s character arrives, and it’s hard to figure out whom the filmmakers were aiming at when they wrote this. And that’s too bad, because when “Shakey” is showing its good side, it very easily resembles a movie any dog lover could reasonably enjoy.
Extras: Six behind-the-scenes features, outtakes, downloadable activity kits, Petfinder PSAs, epilepsy information package, music videos.
Also (in noteworthy television releases)
— “Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 2011, HBO): “Boardwalk Empire’s” incredible first season was an embarrassment of character riches and a clinic on how to put a loaded cast to work. But there’s always room for improvement, and season two patches its predecessor’s most glaring hole by expanding the enigmatic Chalky White’s role and giving Michael Kenneth Williams the screentime he very richly deserves. And if you prefer Steve Buscemi or Kelly Macdonald … or Michael Shannon, Michael Pitt, Shea Whigham, or any number of others? Don’t fret: Everybody gets his or her due, and one of TV’s best ensemble dramas remains as democratic and flexible as ever. 12 episodes, plus commentary, six behind-the-scenes features and a character dossier.
— “Sons of Anarchy: Season 4” (NR, 2011, Fox): Good news: SAMCRO is out of prison after 14 months and back in the clubhouse where it belongs. Bad news: There’s a new order of law enforcement already breathing down its neck and new and old rivals already showing their respective teeth. Isn’t being in a motorcycle club supposed to just be fun? Includes 14 episodes (some extended), plus commentary, deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features and bloopers.
— “The Walking Dead: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 2011, Anchor Bay): Growing pains abound for “The Walking Dead,” which lost its creator and struggled somewhat with pacing issues during its expansion from a six-episode first season to 13 episodes in season two. Even with that observed and acknowledged, though, this remains the class of a stale zombie apocalypse genre that badly needed something like this to raise its game. 13 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes and 11 behind-the-scenes features.