House of Cards: The Complete First Season (NR, 2013, Sony Pictures)
Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is the House Majority Whip, and there’s obviously zero shame in that. But when you’re openly banking on a promotion to serve as the incoming President’s Secretary of State — and the first episode of “House of Cards” makes it clear this is Francis’s plan A, B and C — getting passed over and settling for anything less is nothing less than a slap in the face. Fortunately, Francis has a plan D, and it involves sticking his hand in any open pocket, stockpiling a reserve of secrets, favors and alliances, and speeding down the shoulder of the Underhanded Expressway until the new administration becomes putty in his hands. Those with Netflix accounts have had three months to get acquainted with Francis and his large and comparably conniving supporting cast, but for those on the outside, the physical disc release provides an enticing look at the future model of must-see television. And “Cards,” for its part, absolutely is worth seeing — not so much because it’s yet another show that cynically reduces the pretense of public service to nothing more than exchanges of favors and threats among the entitled, but because it filters that cynicism through a man who is genuinely giddy about the liberating personal power trip on which he has decided to embark. Francis’s journey isn’t his alone to enjoy, either: By regularly turning to the camera and delivering a confession or secret to the broken fourth wall, he’s inviting us, as his new best friend, to scorch the earth with him. It all feels so wrong, but when you see who Francis is up against, turning the volume down on your conscience feels more right — and more fun — with each passing episode. Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Michael Kelly, Kristen Connolly and Corey Stoll, among others, comprise a stellar ensemble cast.
Contents: 13 episodes, no extras.
Wedding Band: The Complete First Season (NR, 2012, Fox)
In terms of introductions, the very literally-titled “Wedding Band” is in no mood to mess around. It is, in fact, a show about a wedding cover band, and the gig that encompasses the first episode just so happens to be the wedding of our lead singer’s (Brian Austin Green) most pain-inducing ex-girlfriend. “Band” does right by getting the climactic episode out of the way, because if the mostly silly good time that ensues is this show’s idea of a melodramatic special episode, imagine what it does to unwind. Or just watch the second episode and see for yourself. “Band” takes a pretty simple idea and takes something of a chance by opting for 42-minute episodes instead of the usual 22 minutes, which would seem to strain the gimmick past its welcome. But the mood is way too upbeat to drag, and the stories and themed weddings are too ridiculous to run out of angles before time is up. Also important: “Band” is actually funny — not necessarily in that razor-sharp-and-working-on-multiple-layers way, but certainly on a level that’s likable, silly and smart enough to thoroughly enjoy. Throw in some genuinely great covers of songs you probably haven’t heard in years but will instantly recognize, and “Band” may be the most potent feel-good television show in commission today. Melora Hardin, Harold Perrineau, Jenny Wade and Peter Cambor also star.
Extras: 10 episodes, plus two behind-the-scenes features.
Wrong (NR, 2013, Drafthouse Films)
Dolph (Jack Plotnick) has lost his most cherished friend, his dog Paul. Turns out, Paul was kidnapped, and the people who kidnapped him are part of an organization devoted to kidnapping pets in hopes of making their owners care more about them upon their safe return. Dolph doesn’t need that lesson, but the kidnappings are random, so off Paul goes. This, by miles, is the most literal and normal thing that happens in “Wrong.” It may be the only literal thing that happens. Everything happening around it — Dolph going to work at a job (a) that fired him months ago and (b) where it rains indoors, a machine that creates video images out of memories somehow culled from a dog’s waste, and do you need more examples? — is either allegorical or just weird for weird’s sake, and “Wrong” makes no attempt to campaign for it being the former. Frankly, it’s probably the latter anyway. But if it is, “Wrong” is (arguable) proof that something can be weird just because and still be accessible enough not to completely wear out its welcome halfway though. The fun of watching “Wrong” is heightened for those who possess the dogged determination to decipher what it all means, even if it means arriving at a conclusion that’s completely at odds with the movie’s own design. But Dolph, by virtue of being a guy who just loves his dog, is too likable to let the weirdness stamp him out, and his looks of disbelief are a darkly funny source of comfort for all who wander into “Wrong” and find themselves totally confused but strangely entertained. If even he doesn’t totally get it, there’s no shame in us feeling the exact same way.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features, 20-page liner notes booklet with introduction by Eric Wareheim (of “Tim and Eric” fame).
The Newsroom: The Complete First Season (NR, 2012, HBO)
With its very first scene — wherein beloved but bland news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) fires a prescription medicine-induced rant about America at a terrified college student during a packed Q&A session — “The Newsroom” hits the ground with feet on fire. The rest of that first episode is never that good again, but considering how much table-setting it does while a Gulf Coast oil rig explodes in the background, the continuous attempts to shoot for those heights are commendable. Then episode two comes and goes, “commendable” turns to “wearisome,” and a few episodes later, even that word starts feeling generous. When personal problems aren’t running considerable interference, the cast of “The Newsroom” takes considerable pains to express its heartfelt concerns about restoring television journalism to a higher plane of relevance and credibility, and rarely does a moment pass where hearts aren’t running laps around sleeves. That’s fine, and the unapologetic slants “The Newsroom” expresses regarding not just journalism, but politics, American idealism, Sarah Palin’s intelligence and everything else that makes ideological pulses race, are certainly its right. But it’s that ideology that slowly but ultimately engulfs “The Newsroom,” reducing characters to vessels for an exhausting onslaught of self-righteous ranting, preaching and one grandiose speech after another instead of valuable pieces of a character-focused ensemble. The cast is sharp enough to mollify the damage, and Daniels in particular nearly makes the show fun to watch in spite of itself. Mostly, though, these talents are simply a tease — of a more exciting show about people making the news instead of an elaborate means for scriptwriters to moonlight as speechwriters and prioritize their message at the expense of their audience’s entertainment. Emily Mortimer, Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr. and Dev Patel, among others, also star.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, “Inside the Episodes” features and two additional behind-the-scenes features.
Oz the Great and Powerful (PG, 2013, Disney)
There’s no harm in having some fun with “The Wizard of Oz’s” backstory, and as “Wicked” already proved, doing so can be a ton of fun if done well. For a while, albeit with shaky footing, “Oz the Great and Powerful” does it well, framing the younger, pre-Oz Oscar Diggs (James Franco) as nothing more than a carny con man whose only magic trick is his incredible charisma. One scam-induced escape and hot air balloon collision with a tornado later, “Oz” whisks us into the Land of Oz with similar wobbly care: The threat of special effects overwhelming storytelling starts feeling like a reality, but that first look at the Land of Oz is incredible, and the characters Oscar meets initially are enchanting enough to make one believe that storytelling can engineer an upset. But it’s not to be, and it really isn’t even close. “Oz” begins well and sort of recaptures some of its imagination and humor in time for the finale, but the long road in the middle is paved with a loud, sense-dulling bombardment of violence, explosions and special effects that arranges a Wonka Factory’s worth of eye candy into something that says absolutely nothing. For too much of “Oz’s” two-plus hours, as armies charge each other and generals channel their inner Braveheart, the Land of Oz may as well be Middle Earth, and this may as well be a video game. Little touches and some heartfelt scenes aside, it’s a glorious, colorful, expensive but ultimately soulless waste of what could have been a truly wondrous origin story. Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz also star.
Extras: 10 behind-the-scenes features, second screen content, music video, bloopers.
Fred Won’t Move Out (NR, 2012, Virgil Films)
Fred (Elliott Gould) doesn’t want to move out. And who could blame him? His country home is extremely comfortable, and outside of some mild difficulty walking around, Fred is pretty able-bodied. Unfortunately, his wife Susan (Judith Roberts), suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, is not, and their son (Fred Melamed) and daughter-in-law (Stephanie Roth Haberle) have — without consulting Fred — begun the process of moving her to a nursing home in “the city.” They’ve made similar plans for Fred to live in the same building, but as the title implies, Fred isn’t having it. Around this premise, “Fred Won’t Move Out” aspires to build a dry, sentimental comedy, ostensibly with an eye on cherishing time gone by while also making the difficult admission that passing time cannot be stopped. Fleetingly, it is that. Mostly, though, “Fred” feels as strained as its namesake. It strains to lighten the mood with non-sequiturs that often come across as petty instead of funny. It strains to give Fred, as the catalyst of this whole story, much to do besides react. And because no one, not even “Fred,” seems to truly listen to those reactions, those watching may strain to see what the point of this whole thing even is. “Fred” run only 74 minutes long, and one must imagine there are numerous ways to easily fill that time with a truly affecting and funny story about a man clinging to the last strands of life on his terms. “Fred” fills that time with filler and still limps to the finish, as resigned to settle for irrelevancy as Fred’s unlikable son seems to think his father suddenly is. No extras.
— “Richard Pryor: No Pryor Restraint: Life in Concert” (NR, Shout Factory): The contents — three complete concert films and seven CDs spanning 27 years’ worth of material, some of it previously unreleased — make this compilation hard to resist even if it came as nine loose discs in a plastic bag. Fortunately, “No Pryor Restraint’s” hardcover-book presentation — which includes 60 glossy color pages’ worth of stories, essays, photos, history and liner notes before getting to the discs — is considerably nicer than that.