Men in Black 3 (PG-13, 2012, Sony Pictures)
They may be agency partners who go home to separate lives after saving the public from the paranormal, but Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) are as entertaining a married couple as any actual married couple is. That unsung element of the first two “Men in Black” movies is back in force in chapter three after J discovers his security clearance doesn’t entail access to his partner’s most sensitive secrets. Turns out, those secrets include the existence of viable time travel, and to make a long story short, J has to travel to 1969 to save his partner’s younger self (Josh Brolin) from getting killed in the past and dooming Earth in the present. Yep, time travel again. But as “MIB3” once again proves, time travel never gets old in the right storytelling hands. Here, it’s predictably used to comic effect, with gags taking sharply funny shots at old technology and, in the case of J, antiquated notions about race relations in America. But time travel and time itself also find themselves subject to startlingly poignant levels of reverence, with “MIB3” going so far as to construct the magic and miracle of good fortune through a gorgeous scene involving, of all things, the 1969 New York Mets. Reverence and comedy ultimately form into one when “MIB3” applies the wonders of time travel to the wondrously loving and antagonistic relationship between J and K. Yes, there are aliens, explosions and freaks both good (Michael Stuhlbarg) and evil (Jemaine Clement). But the job “MIB3” does on its two agents easily is its highlight — not simply because it reinvigorates a seemingly dormant franchise, but also because it produces what arguably is the trilogy’s best entry.
Extras: Five behind-the-scenes features, “Spot the Alien” game, music video.
ParaNorman (PG, 2012, Universal)
Of all the nightly rituals in young Norman’s life, watching and deciphering what’s on television to his grandma ranks among his favorites. The catch? Norman’s grandma is dead, and he’s the only one who can even see her spirit, much less casually chat with it. Grandma isn’t the only spirit Norman sees, either: He sees them all, up to and including the ghost of his sort-of friend Neil’s dog, and his refusal to keep this a secret has earned him a reputation at home and school alike. Fortunately for him — and rather unfortunately for everyone else — a reignited town curse is about to unearth an undead army that everyone very plainly can see. Pretty creepy for an animated kids movie, no? Perhaps, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s the studio responsible for “Coraline.” And quite like “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” threads the influence needle to draw its own line, with stop-motion visuals that feel Tim Burton-esque and a cheerfully focused sense of adventure that’s more akin to “The Goonies” than what typically steers animated movies. Yet perhaps the most striking part of “ParaNorman” is Norman himself: Despite a gift that should make him weird and a genre that rarely allows for anything but weird, he’s a improbably normal kid, and a supremely likable one as result. “ParaNorman” isn’t afraid to go pretty crazy, and it does crazy just fine too. But there’s some surprisingly funny comfort in the notion that the arguable source of the insanity is as thoroughly bemused by the whole thing — moaning undead and shrieking adults alike — as we are.
Extras: Fiommakers commentary, 16 behind-the-scenes features, animatics.
Luck: The Complete First Season (NR, 2012, HBO)
No television show is better off for being canceled before its time, and the events contributing to “Luck’s” cancelation — three horses dying of injuries sustained at separate times during filming — are orders of magnitude more awful than the usual woes that doom a good show. But there’s no honest way to watch “Luck” now and pretend the story of its cancelation doesn’t dramatically affect the tenor of the show’s images, and there’s no shame in admitting that it’s a fascinating shift. Had nothing ever gone wrong, “Luck’s” first season would be a toss-up — a show headed up by an accessibly loaded cast but one with a propensity for taking thick, glacially slow-burning roads through the world of horses, trainers, jockeys, financiers, gamblers, felons and everything else that goes into just another harrowing day at the track. As a storyteller, “Luck” is measured and borderline inaccessible, but it invariably rewards those who stick around with stories that gradually but definitively pay off to the beat of their own unique rhythm. When the talking subsides and the picture is simply that of a horse and rider, though, the energy changes dramatically. On the track, where the horses play parts but are never acting, “Luck” zooms in and fill the frame with action that’s as reverent and immaculate as it is brutal — a perfect, if tragically half-accidental, tribute to an incredible animal and the messy process of appreciating the sport they make possible and the suffering and sacrifice that too often goes into doing so. Dustin Hoffman, Jill Hennessy, Dennis Farina, Richard Kind, Nick Nolte, Kevin Dunn and John Ortiz, among others, star.
Contents: Nine episodes.
Lawless (R, 2012, Anchor Bay)
Allegorically speaking, the Prohibition movie playbook is as rife with temptation and peril as the era that wrote it, and “Lawless” — probably unintentionally, but possibly not — watches its step a little too carefully as it tiptoes through those pages. The characters and storylines, per usual, practically write themselves, with small-time backwoods brewers (Jason Clarke, Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf as Jack) attracting and then clashing with ice-blooded mobsters and corrupt lawmen (Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman) who believe the industry and the unwritten law belong to them. Sometimes “Lawless” illustrates that conflict with considerable violence, and sometimes it meticulously colors it in with bone-dry, less-is-more character development. Always, it does so with skill. Rarely, though, does any of its methods yield a truly impactful result. “Lawless'” characters and storylines write themselves to a fault, and from the aforementioned conflict all the way down to Jack’s infatuation with the preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska), the movie does nothing with these themes that countless other movies and shows haven’t done or aren’t currently doing (“Boardwalk Empire”) to more distinctive effect. The sum of all these familiar parts is brutal, picturesque and locked down by a smart script and a cast more than capable of carrying it out. But the crushing familiarity brings a strange air of lifelessness that takes hold early and proves extremely difficult to shake later.
Extras: Director/Matt Bondurant (author of the “Lawless” novel on which the movie is based) commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, music video.
The Day (R, 2011, Anchor Bay)
At least at the outset, “The Day” rolls along like so many other post-apocalyptic survival movies that have very recently preceded it. Thanks to a nearly monochrome color palette that seems to be a post-apocalyptic movie requisite these days, it also looks like its contemporaries. But after a period in which our five survivors (Ashley Bell, Shawn Ashmore, Shannyn Sossamon, Dominic Monaghan, Cory Hardrict) provide a little character insight by way of brooding, reminiscing, expounding and carrying out the business of getting by in the apocalypse, “The Day” incurs a twist that, while all of five seconds long, pretty dramatically alters the course of the two-thirds of movie that remains. It’s best to leave it at that, because even spoiling the tone or genre that “The Day” assumes would constitute a party foul. It’s also best to have reasonable expectations: Though the twist is definitely invigorating, it isn’t a “Cabin in the Woods”-level turn that completely shreds the rule book and turns its genre upside down. What “The Day” does do, though, is take a strong character story that threatened to go nowhere and actually take it somewhere. Overly familiar though that first third mostly is, it’s a productive third that provides a good sense of who these survivors are and why they’re a little more interesting than the same old gruff survivors we always see. When the game changes, that investment carries over and pays off handsomely.
Extra: Filmmakers commentary.
— “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Complete Series” (NR, 1993, Shout Factory) and “Power Rangers: Seasons 4-7” (NR, 1996, Shout Factory): It’s 20th anniversary celebration time for the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and it’s also gift-giving season, so really, don’t look so surprised. The 19-disc “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” set includes all 145 episodes of the show, the 10-episode “Alien Rangers” miniseries, a bonus disc with roughly five-and-a-half hours’ worth of behind-the-scenes features and fan retrospectives, and a 39-page liner notes booklet tying it all together. The 21-disc “Power Rangers: Seasons 4-7” set cobbles together the confusingly-named first four seasons of the sequel series, which are good for 183 episodes, and includes a comparably-sized liner notes booklet and bonus disc of its own.
— “Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season: Collector’s Edition” (NR, 2011, HBO): The second season of “Game of Thrones” will be available to own in February, but in the meantime, HBO would like to sell you the first season one last time. Physically, it’s a standout, thanks to a lovely box and the dragon egg paperweight that’s bundled inside, and for first-time buyers, it provides a good return on investment by bundling Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Copy editions inside the same box. For those who already bit earlier this year, though, this mostly is the same stuff — 10 episodes, commentary, in-episode guides, five behind-the-scenes features, a guide to Westeros, character profiles — that debuted alongside the season’s original DVD/Blu-ray incarnation in March. The only exception is a bonus Blu-ray disc with the first episode of season two, which isn’t much incentive by itself with February fast approaching.