By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Ghost Protocol, Shame, Last Rites of Joe May… More
Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol: Blu-ray
Say what you will about Tom Cruise, his religion, marriage, recent bombs and publicity stunts, but there’s no questioning his willingness to go to extreme lengths to give audiences their money’s worth of entertainment. Despite a story that defies credulity as much as any James Bond flick, “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol” is both an exceedingly entertaining addition to the series and one of the most hair-raising thrillers in memory. Cruise has always taken pride in his ability to perform many of the same stunts as the pros who have been hired by the producers to stand in for him. No one would expect Cruise, one of Hollywood’s most valuable commodities, to risk his own life, especially when CGI technology could put his head on the body of any stuntman and motion-capture gear can simulate any dangerous gag. But, there he was anyway, swinging from floor to floor atop Dubai’s Burj Khalifa Tower – the tallest building in the world – in both the movie and chilling making-of featurette included in the Blu-ray package. It’s as scary as anything in “Ghost Protocol” and an ironic salute to the stunt-actor’s art. It’s not the only gag Cruise performs in the fourth installment of the “M:I” series, but it’s by far the most spectacular and essential set piece in Brad Bird’s debut live-action feature.
As usual, what’s at stake in “Ghost Protocol” is merely the fate of mankind itself. The first time we see Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, he’s cooling his heels in a decrepit prison somewhere in Eastern Europe. Naturally, members of the IMF team (Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg) are outside its walls, orchestrating a riot intended to distract guards from his intricately planned escape. Because Ethan elects to bring another prisoner along for the ride, things don’t play out precisely as planned. It isn’t clear exactly why the guy deserves the get-out-of-jail-free card, but he does show up later in the movie for a few minutes. The next thing you know, Ethan and computer whiz, Benji Dunn (Pegg), are wandering around the Kremlin in Russian military uniforms barking out orders and in pursuit of a computer doo-dad that contains nuclear codes. Whatever it is they grab from the computer bank apparently was booby-trapped to trigger a series of explosions inside the Kremlin and in the plaza outside of it. Once again, Ethan and Benji manage to escape by the hair on their chinny chin chins. This time, though, the Russkies know exactly who is to blame and it isn’t Chechen rebels. Fearing nuclear war and not inclined to believe that IMF wasn’t involved, our President imposes “ghost protocol,” thereby freezing any and all activities of the team. Also, naturally, the IMF team decides to go after the bad guys, anyway, on the off chance someone might be nuts enough to blow up the world and everyone on it. The search for clues leads them to Dubai, where the high-wire act is followed by a cool chase through a sandstorm, and on to Mumbai and San Francisco. If the first half of “Ghost Protocol” is all “Mission: Impossible,” the rest of it is ripped from the 007 playbook. Because of all the great stunts and Bird’s direction of them, there’s no need to call the Movie Police for borrowing from the best.
Among other noteworthy things, “Ghost Protocol” has the distinction of being the first “M:I” movie shot in IMAX, which, won’t affect home-video viewers one way or the other. The Blu-ray/DVD/Ultra Violet package presents the film in its 2.39:1 original aspect ratio with 7.1 Dolby TrueHD sound and it’s superlative. Buyers should be aware that not all of the bonus features are available in sets not purchased at Best Buy, the chain that recently announced it was closing 50 stores, so read the cover notes carefully. All will contain deleted scenes and featurettes “Heating Up in Dubai,” “Vancouver Fisticuffs,” “The Sandstorm” and “Props.” The Best Buy edition adds “Suiting Up in Prague” and several more informative behind-the-scenes pieces that really should be made available to consumers everywhere. – Gary Dretzka
Although the protagonist of “Shame,” Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), masturbates as often as any three characters in “American Pie,” there’s no truth to the rumor viewers could go blind, grow hair on their palms or diminish their ability to perform sports at maximum efficiency by watching it in the privacy of their own homes. It is possible, however, that some viewers may want to take a shower after watching it. It’s that raw an experience. Steve McQueen’s audacious character study profiles a New York yuppie so consumed with sex that nothing else matters as much to him. If he were an actor or politician, Brandon would be the perfect candidate for a month-long stay in a rehabilitation center for men caught cheating on their wives and blaming it on being addicted to sex (who isn’t?). As it is, though, concerns over his obsessive behavior have led to his office computer being confiscated a cleansed of downloaded porn. His choice of his playmates also is getting increasingly risker. Fact is, though, he doesn’t seem all that unusual a fellow before his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), drifts into town to stay with him for a few days, while singing at a cocktail lounge. She’s every bit as needy a person as her brother, but he resists all of her attempts to clear the air between them. Memories of something that happened in their past or, perhaps, some sin committed by their parents, appears to have twisted them in different ways. Brendan is incapable of connecting emotionally with anyone, especially his temporary lovers, and Sissy wants to share her angst with anyone who’ll listen to her. Even if “Shame” doesn’t offer many answers and fewer resolutions, it can’t be said that we don’t know these people after 101 minutes in their presence. In this way, it feels like a fully realized short story or novella. The acting is terrific and McQueen’s direction delivers a real punch. It’s not an easy movie to watch, though, so viewers not looking for a challenge may want to think twice before renting it. The Blu-ray adds several short bonus featurettes, but nothing terribly illuminating. – Gary Dretzka
Last Rites of Joe May
It’s been said that the only thing separating the cops and crooks in Chicago is a badge. After spending 18 years on the CPD, Dennis Farina has made a very decent living portraying both. and Farina and former partner Chuck Adamson first caught the movie bug, teaming on Michael Mann’s “Thief,” “Crime Story” and a few “Miami Vice” episodes. Now 68, the Chicago native has gone on to play dozens of hard-ass characters, working both sides of the law, on television and on the big screen. In Joe Maggio’s compelling crime drama, “Last Rites of Joe May,” Farina plays a veteran “short-money” con artist who’s trying to beat the odds simply by staying alive in a young man’s hustle. When we meet Joe May, he’s being released from a Chicago hospital, where he’s spent the last six months recovering from something or other. Not only have all of his cronies given him up for dead, but his landlord has re-leased his apartment and thrown his property into the trash. The woman now inhabiting the flat feels sorry for May and offers him a spare bed, in return for some rent money and babysitting chores. Things get complicated when the woman’s police-detective boyfriend shows up, pushing her around and threatening May. As time goes by, the cop adds a couple of black eyes to her bruises. You can probably already guess how that scenario plays out. What’s less predictable is what happens to May when he tries to get back into the only job he’s ever known. To accomplish this, he is required to kiss the ring of his former patron’s son, played with icy indifference by Gary Cole. Considering how well Farina plays the role of a criminal in the twilight of his career, it’s as if Maggio wrote the role of May with Farina specifically in mind. Besides bringing out the humanity in the character, the filmmaker effectively demonstrates how difficult it is to grow old and useless as a conman. Jamie Anne Allman and young Meredith Droeger are excellent as May’s roommates and Chicago looks every bit as cold and unwelcoming as it usually does when temperatures dip into minus territory, as they did during production. The DVD adds interviews and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka
Man on the Train
In Mary McGuckian’s faithful English-language remake of Patrice Leconte and Claude Klotz’ 2002 crime drama, “Man on the Train,” Donald Sutherland and Larry Mullen Jr. capably fill the shoes of Jean Rochefort (“The Hairdresser’s Husband”) and Johnny Hallyday. They play a semi-retired poetry teacher and a dispassionate crook, respectively, who cross paths in a small town about to have its only bank robbed. If the names Mullen and Hallyday ring a bell in the ears of music fans, it’s because Mullen drums for U2 and Hallyday once was known as the French Elvis Presley. The Professor, who could talk the ears off a deaf person, runs into the Thief in a drug store, which appears to be the only business open after 10 p.m. Without a place to sleep, the Thief accepts an offer to crash at the Professor’s books- and art-filled mansion for a couple of nights. Although the Professor spends most of the first night talking, with the Thief doing most of the listening, that changes radically over the next two or three days. Moreover, as time passes, the Thief reveals a distinctly intellectual bent, while the Professor shares his regret over not sowing some wild oats before committing to a life of the mind. Things get murkier as the deadline for the bank job approaches and both men anticipate the next step in their personal evolution. I don’t recall Sutherland being allowed to savor a dramatic role as meaty as the Professor in several years and was unaware that Mullen had previously not acting in anything except music videos. McGuckian’s iteration of “Man on the Train” may not add anything to the original French version, but it doesn’t embarrass itself, either. – Gary Dretzka
From the Other Side/South
A quote typically attributed to Mexican strongman Porfirio Diaz, observes, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” I don’t know if the much-revered Belgian documentarian Chantal Akerman was familiar with the dictator’s lament before embarking on her film, “From the Other Side,” but it fits the problems addressed in it like a glove. Employing long, lingering and often silent takes and pans to assay the territory along the porous Arizona/Sonora border and, then, punctuating them with interviews, Akerman can’t help but capture the not-so-porous divide between cultures and economies. She then visits nearby Douglas, Arizona, to address the other side of the illegal-immigration coin. Separating the two cities are several miles of punishing desert terrain, a fence along the border and a small army of border police. Still, they come. Given how long Americans have been debating the issue and how heated the arguments have become, there isn’t much Akerman could add about the issue that hasn’t already been beaten into the ground. So, she lets the images stand on their merits and allows the full-time and temporary residents of the region to tell their own stories. What is made abundantly clear in the interviews is the inability of the governments of two neighboring countries to deal with the problem, absent calls for vigilante justice and armed self-defense. American politicians promise the moon to citizens of border communities, while knowing full well that undocumented laborers are an essential link in the food chain and service industries. Meanwhile, Mexican officials refuse to interfere with a process that ultimately results in tens of millions of gringo dollars being sent home to families south of the line. Instead of reforming drug laws and putting a dent in gang warfare in Mexico, American politicians insist on extending a fence that only forces coyotes to lead their caravans into ever-more-dangerous desert wilderness, where the price of failure is death. At the same time, widespread corruption ensures that officials in Mexico City will remain unwilling to finance the reforms needed to ensure gainful employment to Mexican citizens. It’s in the faces of the desperate illegals and beleaguered residents of Douglas that the real truths can be read.
Ackerman was in Mississippi, working on a project involving William Faulkner and the American South, when she learned of the horrifying murder of James Byrd Jr. in rural Jasper, Texas. Byrd had been walking through town, as usual, when he was grabbed by a trio of white-supremacist pinheads in a pickup truck. Within hours, Byrd’s severely mutilated body would be found lying dead outside the town’s African-American graveyard. He had been chained to the rear bumper of the truck and dragged four miles along a country road. Last year, one of the perpetrators was executed; another remains on death row; and the third man was given a life sentence. Finished in 1999, “Sud” includes interviews with black and white citizens involved in the healing process and other residents. By far the most powerful statement Ackerman makes is the seemingly endless drive she makes – her camera pointing backwards – along the same stretch of highway where Byrd was lynched, simply for being African-American. It’s impossible to separate the memory of what happened to Byrd on that early summer night, in 1998, from the haunting rear-window point-of-view she provides. Also included in the DVD set is a portion of “East,” about the changing Eastern European landscape after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. – Gary Dretzka
Roger Corman’s Cult Classics: The Nurses Collection
In 1994, several years before Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made it safe for audiences to return to the grindhouse, the Showtime network and producer Lou Arkoff — son of exploitation pioneer Samuel Z. Arkoff – paired for a 10-week series of 1950s “drive-in classics” remade “with a ’90s edge.” The series was called “Rebel Highway,” not “Raging Hormones,” as originally planned, and it featured the work of up-and-coming directors, writers and actors. Each movie would share the title of a classic AIP movie and the filmmakers would be allowed a budget of $1.3 million, final-cut privileges and 12 days to shoot their movie. The series debuted with Rodriguez’ “Roadracers.” Considering the talent involved in the other movies in the collection, it would be great to see all of them re-released into DVD and Blu-ray. Here, David Arquette plays the bad-boy street racer to Salma Hayek’s good-girl who’s razed unmercifully for being of Mexican background. Arquette gets in trouble with a rival set of hot-rodders after he flicks a cigarette and it lands in the heavily sprayed hair of one of the gangs’ skanks, immediately catching fire. Clearly, a showdown between the two Alpha-male greasers is inevitable, but not before Arquette is given an opportunity to tour with a rockabilly ensemble imported from Austin by the director. Fresh off the indie hit, “El Mariachi,” Rodriguez was gung-ho to make another positive impression on Hollywood with “Roadracers” and he took the assignment to heart. Even on Blu-ray, “Roadracers” has the distinct texture of something allowed to escape into the drive-ins of America in the 1950s, when being a juvenile delinquent meant alienating one’s self from polite suburban society and thumbing your nose at Eisenhower-era complacency. In this regard, Rodriguez gets plenty of help from his design team, wardrobe and hair specialists, as well as actors who easily capture the gritty vibe. John Hawkes does a nice job as Arquette’s sidekick, while William Sadler turns in a seemingly effortless portrayal of a bully cop. It’s a lot of fun to watch, although some viewers might find that a little bit of 1950s camp goes a long way. The set includes the short doc, “The Robert Rodriguez 10-Minute Film School” and interviews.
In the annals of sexploitation and other drive-in fare, no one has come as close to perfection as Roger and Julie Corman in their series of films about horny and rebellious teachers, horny and rebellious women in prison, horny and rebellious female gangsters, horny and rebellious flight attendants and horny and rebellious nurses. The latest compilation of “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” includes “Candy Stripe Nurses,” “Private Duty Nurses,” “Night Call Nurses” and “Young Nurses,” all of which correspond to a set of guidelines laid out by Roger Corman when freshman director Jonathan Kaplan was experiencing a lack of faith in the production of “Night Call Nurses.” Among other things, the commandments dictated how characters with different colors of hair had to fit specific personality traits, how messages were to be delivered in each of the movies and the amount of nudity that was required. (Breasts and backsides are OK, but no pubic hair … although that prohibition would be eased, as well, in a couple of years.) Although the female characters’ physical assets clearly were being exploited, the guidelines required they be the masters of their own fates and heroic. It was the Cormans’ bow both to the feminist movement and the fact women made up a substantial percentage of the drive-in audience. As usual in early Corman pictures, now-familiar faces also could be found in the cast of characters. Here, they included Chuck Norris, Sally Kirkland, Alana Collins (now Stewart), Jean Manson (Playboy’s Miss August 1974), Dennis Dugan, Dick Miller, Bill Erwin, Paul Gleason, Alan Arbus, Dixie Peabody and Mantan Moreland. The set adds a pair of featurettes on what it was like working for Corman and “Calling Dr. Corman.” – Gary Dretzka
Paul Goodman Changed My Life
I don’t know if the works of Paul Goodman, especially the landmark book, “Growing Up Absurd,” are still being assigned as part of the liberal-arts curriculum in American colleges. Once judged unfashionable by violence- and rhetoric-prone radicals, they should be considered required reading in these days of Occupy Everywhere politics and the economic collapse of the middle class, which includes many of the same Baby Boomers who made “Growing Up Absurd” a best-seller in the 1960s. A brilliant radical thinker, self-proclaimed anarchist and reviled anti-capitalist, and outspoken critic of military-backed American imperialism, Goodman turned a book ostensibly about juvenile delinquency into an indictment of the “disgrace of the Organized System of semi-monopolies, government, advertisers, etc., and the disaffection of the growing generation.” Widely read on campuses across the country, it convinced a generation of young, mostly white, suburban students that there were more important ways to kill time than attending toga parties and preparing for a life of enforced consumerism, conformity and corporate servitude. The acceptance of that belief would manifest itself in a joining of forces in the civil-rights and anti-war movements and such countercultural touchstones as the folk-music revival, the alternative press and formulation of the Port Huron Statement of the SDS. Like too many other pacifists and academics of the post-war generation, Goodman ultimately would find himself shouted down by the increasingly petulant firebrands of the New Left and Black Power movements, and completely marginalized by the hippies, flower children and LSD voyagers.
And, yet, given the effects of predatory capitalism and endless war, Goodman’s teachings are only slightly less relevant today than they were in 1960. Director/producer Jonathan Lee and producer/editor Kimberly Reed have crafted a bio-doc that while largely worshipful, as the title “Paul Goodman Changed My Life” would suggest, is thought-provoking throughout. Goodman, who died in 1972, at 60, was a complex, enormously driven man, who excelled not only in political rhetoric, but also as poet, novelist, playwright, critic, lecturer and Gestalt psychotherapist. It’s also true that when he wasn’t sitting at his typewriter, he often could be found cruising the parks and bars of Manhattan for male companions. Although most of the people interviewed here clearly didn’t have any problem with his bisexuality, it’s clear that the pursuit of much younger men was a distraction they didn’t find terribly appealing. Neither did Goodman, a loving husband and doting father for most of his adult life, pay much attention to the women’s movement, even though it addressed many of the same issues as those raised in his books and essays. Even if this oversight may have been dictated by personal issues left over from his childhood, it solidified a belief that Goodman was out of touch with the time and, perhaps, an outright male chauvinist. The DVD contains interviews with many friends and contemporaries, as well as appearances on William F. Buckley’s interview show. (I’d love to see episodes of “Firing Line” show up on DVD.) It adds several worthwhile bonus features, including an interview with Lee, deleted scenes, additional poetry readings and entries from the diary of Living Theater founder and collaborator Judith Malina.
David Sington’s illuminating documentary, “The Flaw,” opens with free-market advocate Alan Greenspan’s pathetic admission — before a congressional committee investigating the economic collapse of 2008 – that there was a flaw in the banking system he didn’t see coming and might never reveal itself. In far simpler terms than those expressed in this otherwise worthwhile film, however, the flaw was easy to predict and, in fact, revealed itself in several ways. First, measures to deregulate commerce allowed for American jobs to fly overseas, like so many migrating birds; then, measures to deregulate the banking industry allowed for corrupt and predatory lending practices; the same measures allowed banks to push credit cards and sub-prime mortgages on people who normally would have found it difficult to pay off any loans; and, finally, until the Enron scandal broke, almost no corporate outlaws were made to pay for their crimes. To some extent, “The Flaw” is an indictment of the brainwashing of American consumers that began decades ago and resulted in a false sense of security, based on an abundance of jobs and general feeling that Americans are all in this thing together. Bankers made sound loans and consumers knew better than to buy things on credit they couldn’t afford. Once brainwashed into thinking our economy’s bubbles were too strong to burst, marketing specialists found it easy to feed the addiction of consumers for more stuff. Other, more arcane details factored into the creation of the current ongoing catastrophe, but mostly it was caused by the refusal of free-market disciples to recognize when their lust for obscene profits, salaries and bonuses had finally triumphed over the ignorance and greed of their customers and it was time to cut them some slack.
Sington addresses the marketing of American capitalism by juxtaposing the expert testimony of his stable of experts – not a commie or anarchist among them – with the thinly disguised rhetoric found in cartoons, movies and TV clips funded by various chambers of commerce and industry groups, then dispensed to classrooms and civic organizations as mildly entertaining propaganda. The not-so-subliminal messages delivered in the films fit the world view of Greenspan and other followers of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. Anyone who’s already absorbed “Capitalism: A Love Story” and “Inside Job” likely will find much in “The Flaw” to be redundant. Newcomers, though, will come away from it far more informed and frightened about the likelihood of the same thing happening again in their lifetimes. As the movie points out, salaries and bonuses along Wall Street have recovered to the point that they’re as glutinous as they were before 2008; the stock market has recovered, largely based on the elimination of millions of American jobs and benefit programs; and no one in the banking industry has been indicted, let alone arrested for their role in stealing the hopes and dreams of so many Americans. – Gary Dretzka
The Divide: Blu-ray
Xavier Gens’ entry into the crowded field of post-apocalyptic thrillers is noteworthy primarily for its willingness to inflict great reserves of savagery on characters trapped in a makeshift fallout shelter in the basement of a Manhattan apartment building. The sense of imminent doom that pervades among the six men and four women and a girl in “The Divide” is not dissimilar to the pressure-cooker atmosphere that might have permeated the rooms in “Ten Little Indians” and “12 Angry Men,” if the characters in those films had been sociopaths. No sooner does the iron door clamp shut on the shelter than the inhabitants begin to be bullied by the maintenance supervisor, Michael Biehn (“Tombstone”), who laid in the provisions and divided the space into places where people could sleep, east and relieve themselves. Knowing that supplies won’t last nearly as long as the nuclear rain, the inmates jockey for positions of strength, finally deposing the ax-wielding potentate. Power shifts continually throughout the movie as weapons are found or fashioned and new alliances are shaped. The only time when the characters are united, to some degree, is when men in Hazmat suits invade the sanctuary, apparently in search of children to kidnap and participate in hideous experiments and adults to eliminate entirely. Not expecting to meet such fierce resistance, the invaders are overcome and forced to give up their weapons. One of the trapped men volunteers to search for the lost child, but what he finds in the newly built network of plastic tunnels and laboratories is just as horrifying as anything above ground. After he returns to the basement, soldiers weld its door shut, ensuring no one else will leave the concrete coffin. It is at this point that the real slaughter begins. One survivor does discover an escape route, but it’s too gruesome to recall here. Fans of such gorefests will find plenty to like in “The Divide.” Others probably won’t make it past the welding of the door. The actors trapped in the shelter include Lauren German (“Hostel: Part II”), Milo Ventimiglia (”Heroes”), Courtney B. Vance (”Law & Order: Criminal Intent”), Ivan Gonzalez, Michael Eklund (“Hunt to Kill”), Ashton Holmes (”Revenge”) and Rosanna Arquette (“Pulp Fiction”). – Gary Dretzka
The only way Patric Chiha’s psycho-sexual drama, “Domain,” could be more French is if the DVD package came with berets and coupons for baguettes. That isn’t a bad thing, per se, only a warning to Americans averse to the idea of spending 110 minutes in the company of smug, bourgeois Parisians who prefer preening, smoking and gossiping in nightclubs – at times, to the accompaniment of a gay chanteuse named Joan Crawford — to working or paying attention to the concerns of normal people. Oddly enough, most of the key adult characters we meet in “Domain” are mathematicians, not of the tweedy academic variety but fashionable sophisticates able to translate the performance of daily chores into numbers based on complex numerical theorems. Fortunately, Chiha’s story isn’t nearly as shackled to the pursuits of stereotypical twits as the characters are committed to their unrelenting pursuit of being French. Above anything else in “Domain” stands the iconic presence of Béatrice Dalle (“Betty Blue,” “Trouble Every Day”), who plays the sexy and seriously dissipated Aunt Nadia to 17-year-old Pierre, an attractive young man unable to balance his passion for her with his sexual attraction to his gay friends. Pierre clearly is transfixed with his beautiful and bodaciously built relative, mostly, though, for her intellectual brilliance, sharp wit and circle of accomplished friends. His mother warns him not to get too close to her sister, but to no avail. She’s provides a gateway to manhood no mother could hope to close. As time passes, though, Pierre realizes that Nadia is an alcoholic whose charm and self-esteem is dictated by the percentage of alcohol in her blood. After dragging his aunt’s drunken ass home one too many times, Pierre decides to commit himself to gay romance and boys his own age. This really sends Nadia over the edge. Besides being concerned about her sanity, we learn that she is suffering from an extremely serious disease, even before she does. Her doctor finally tells Nadia that her recovery is conditioned on her not taking another sip of a cocktail or glass of wine. In her mind, this is like asking her to agree to a lobotomy. Nonetheless, she agrees to attempt rehabilitation in a facility with a billion-dollar view of the Austrian Alps. When Pierre comes to visit, all bets are off as to the likelihood of success. After steering dangerously close to disaster early on, Chiha does a nice job steadying the ship and putting “Domain” on course to a satisfying conclusion. As for Dalle … ooh-la-la. – Gary Dretzka
Reuniting the Rubins
The term “faith-based” typically is reserved for movies with Christian themes favored within the evangelical movement. In “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson identified what the Hollywood studios felt to be an untapped market for movies in which prayer and faith in the Lord trump all manner of evil-doing and negative influences. Yoav Factor’s debut movie, “Reuniting the Rubins,” is recognizably faith-based, but the message being delivered can be found in the Torah and other rabbinical teachings. Frequently loud and rancorous, “RtR” isn’t all that dissimilar to other family-reunion flicks set during a holiday weekend, wedding or funeral. Here, though, the matriarch (Honor Blackman) of the Rubins’ clan fakes several serious medical maladies to inspire her only son (Timothy Spall) and disparate grandchildren to join her in what turns out to be a final Passover Seder. In doing so, she confounds her son’s plans for a long-awaited cruise vacation by demanding he assemble the mean-spirited businessman grandson (James Callis); the rabbi grandson (Hugh O’Connor), who’s lately devoted his every waking moment to ensuring that everything in his life is kosher; her Buddhist-monk grandson (Acier Newman), who has become a much gentler and well-reasoned man since switching teams; and her sole granddaughter (Rhona Mitra) a militant eco-freak. The capitalist and environmentalist are at odds over a project in Africa so important to him that he’s willing to finance a mercenary army to kill her friends and comrades. For his part, the rabbi refuses to compromise on his ultra-Orthodox demands for the Seder, causing everyone a major headache. If you’ve already guessed that the great-grandchildren are far more adult than their parents and prayers for a medical miracle are answered, reuniting the Rubins, give yourself a cigar. Timothy Spall is typically fine as the beleaguered son/dad/grandpa and it’s always nice to learn Honor Blackman is still alive and kicking, even if she could pass more easily for a WASP doyenne here. There’s a making-of featurette and alternate ending. – Gary Dretzka
Crew 2 Crew
Just when you think that the break-dance phenomenon has spun on its head for the last time, along comes another inspirational tale of hoofers against the world. In Mark Bacci’s “Crew 2 Crew” (a.k.a., “Five Hours South”), handsome Luca (Andres Londono) hopes to parley his love of hip-hop dance into a world tour in the company of like-minded male and female hotties. Because movies targeted at young audiences can’t exist without a moralistic conclusion, Luca is confronted with the possibility that dance is no substitute for the love of his family and girlfriend. (Try telling Madonna that.) The cast also includes Jordan Bridges (“Rizzoli & Isles”), Brooklyn Sudano (“Alone in the Dark II”) and Kate Nauta (“Transporter 2”). The DVD offers an alternate ending and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka
Baseball’s Greatest Games: 2011 World Series Game 6: Blu-ray
Anyone who stuck with the entire Game 6 of last year’s World Series isn’t likely to forget the St. Louis Cardinals’ tenacity and refusal to accept an early exit from one of baseball’s most exciting fall classics. Victory required five comebacks in 11 innings and a walk-off home run by post-season MVP David Freese. Even knowing the outcome of the game and series, the game is nearly as exciting as it was the night. (I gave up on the Cardinals far too early and missed all the fireworks.) The game is shown in high-definition and 5.1 surround sound. A special audio feature in the “Baseball’s Greatest Games” series allows fans to watch the television broadcast and listen to the radio play-by-play in English or Spanish. – Gary Dretzka
BBC Earth: Frozen Planet: The Complete Series
IMAX: Born to Be Wild
PBS: America Revealed
Given all the debate about global warming (a.k.a., climate change), it’s interesting that the BBC Earth documentary mini-series, “Frozen Planet,” feels so alive and upbeat throughout most of its 350-minute length. Really, though, if our polar icecaps are going to disappear in the foreseeable future, why not celebrate them while they’re here? Who knows, green technology might someday reverse the warming, rescuing all of the endangered polar bears and penguins and giving them a new lease on life. In the meantime, “Frozen Planet” must suffice for those of us not likely to visit the north or south poles in our lifetimes. Hosted, of course, by naturalist David Attenborough, the mini-series is nothing short of enthralling. It follows the seasonal cycle on both ends of the Earth, paying attention not only to the native species and vegetation, but also the effects of going from extreme cold to relative warmth – permanent midnight to 24 hours of sun for months at a time — on full-time and temporary residents, including whales, birds, fish, seals and krill. Fast-motion hi-def cameras capture both the annual buildup of ice and inevitable thaw, as well as the genetically dictated habits of the animals, plants and other carbon-based life forms. Fans of such BBC presentations as “Planet Earth,” “Galapagos,” “Wild China,” “Ganges,” “Life” and “Blue Planet” already know to expect scenarios so patiently recorded – and fortuitously captured – that they could be mistaken for simulations. How, for example, was it possible to get inside the snow-covered den/incubator of a snoozing polar bear and her pair of nursing cubs? Or, be positioned below the surface of the ice at the precise moment when female emperor penguins return from their long hunt for food? More than wee bit of good fortune allowed a team to join an isolated clan of Siberian Inuit as one brave man scaled the sheer cliffs of a remote island, collecting eggs, just as his ancestors had for centuries. Among the longer featurettes are “On Thin Ice,” an exploration of the effects of global warming; “Science at the Ends of the Earth,” in which we visit teams of researchers living and working under the most extreme meteorological conditions on the planet; “Freeze Frame,’ a series of six 10-minute making-of vignettes, one for each episode; a set of 47 video shorts, compiled by the production team; and “Frozen Planet: The Epic Journey,” an hour-long greatest-hits package.
“Born to Be Wild,” originally shot for presentation on large-format screens, describes the efforts of two women to re-introduce orphaned animals – African elephants and orangutans in Borneo – into their native habitats. It is a family film in the same way as most other IMAX productions intended for viewing at museums and other such institutions. Really, though, it’s the younger demographic that will enjoy it most. Poachers have orphaned many baby elephants in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. If other adults in the herd shun the baby, it will starve to death. Daphne Sheldrick has committed her life to rescuing the helpless creatures and restoring their strength and will to live. In the South Pacific, Biruté Galdikas runs a similarly effective facility for baby orangutans, whose parents might have been victims of encroaching civilization, in the form of loggers and planters. The IMAX digital HD cameras neatly capture the dignity and mannerisms of the animals and the beauty of the terrain. Parents of kids enchanted by the new Disneynature feature, “Chimpanzee,” ought to consider a purchase or rental of “Born to Be Wild,” to elongate the experience. The supplemental package adds six short webisodes, in HD: “Borneo,” “Kenya,” “Camp Leakey,” “Coming Home to Tsavo,” “Wild Filmmaking” and “Caregivers.”
Currently running on some PBS stations, “America Revealed” offers an aerial view of the systems and networks that connect Americans and the facilities that sustain us. The series is hosted by “Survivor: Cook Islands” winner Yul Kwon, who’s never shy about sharing the camera with his subjects or attempting to offer humorous observations. He also helps interpret the satellite- and GPS-delivered data that reflects the movement of people, traffic, food, manufactured goods and energy through ribbons of light. If I have a complaint about “America Revealed” it’s that Kwon doesn’t challenge the pronouncements of industry spokesmen and farmers who think it’s great that genetically altered corn has become the pre-eminent source of nutrition in corporate ranching and other food production, while the benefits of chemical fertilizers aren’t balanced against the potential hazards. We’re told about the Oglala Aquifer, but not much information is provided about quickly it’s being drained by corporate farmers. While Kwon doesn’t ignore environmental issues and advocates of organic farming, methinks too much credit is given the robotization of American life. – Gary Dretzka
Bob’s Burgers: The Complete 1st Season
American Dad: Volume 7: Uncensored
Meet the Browns: Season 5
Yo Gabba Gabba: Super Spies
Succeeding in prime-time is never a certainty for new shows these days. A-list talent no longer even guarantees a ready audience for a series’ debut episode, let alone a pick-up for an additional 13 episodes or second season. Last winter, “Bob’s Burgers” was launched as part of Fox’s Sunday night “Animation Domination” block. It received the same hefty marketing push as the ill-fated “Allen Gregory,” “Sit Down, Shut Up” and “Napoleon Dynamite,” but still somehow managed to live to see a second season, which began on March 11. Never a lock to make it that far, the show has recently enjoyed a nice bump in the ratings numbers. For those who missed all or some of the first season, Fox has made it available in a “Complete 1st Season” package. Like almost every other prime-time animated show, “BB” is irreverent to the point of being rude and crude. Bob’s Burgers is a family-run restaurant that struggles to succeed against stiff competition from Jimmy Pesto’s Italian restaurant – across the street and next-door to a funeral parlor – and the perpetual animosity of a health inspector who was jilted by Bob’s wife, Linda. They are supported at the diner by two daughters and a son who sometimes is required to don a hamburger costume to attract customers. The show was created by Loren Bouchard, also responsible for “Lucy, Daughter of the Devil,” “Home Movies” and “Doctor Katz, Professional Therapist.” The voicing cast includes H. Jon Benjamin and Dan Mintz (“Jon Benjamin Has a Van”), Kristin Schaal (“Flight of the Conchords”), Andy Kindler (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) and, every so often, Kevin Kline, Sarah and Laura Silverman, and Megan Mullally. The compilation adds commentary tracks, audio outtakes, the demo episode, a music video and a bit on the behind-the-characters art gags.
The big news in Season 7 of “American Dad” came in its reaching the 100th-episode plateau, with, I think, “The Best Little Horror House in Langley Falls.” In it, Stan’s plan to out-do the neighbor’s fancy Halloween attraction backfires when Roger the Alien releases the serial killers he was borrowing from the CIA. Meanwhile, Steve faces Toshi’s revenge when he takes a liking to his sister, Akiko. By another accounting, the centennial mark was reached earlier in the season in the episode where Hayley elopes with Jeff. Fans will grasp the implications better than I ever could and, as usual, newcomers are advised to start at the beginning. In short, though, Stan Smith is a CIA agent in Langley Falls, Virginia, obsessed with national security. His family members, including a talking goldfish and a space alien who likes to play dress-up, keep Stan busy while he tries to prevent terrorist activity in the United States. It’s the product of Mike Barker, Matt Weitzman, and “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane. Guest voices for this season include Lisa Edelstein, Jason Alexander, Hayden Panettiere, Sandra Oh, Grace Park, Burt Reynolds, Anjelica Huston and Lou Diamond Phillips.
Like time, itself, Tyler Perry and his creations keep marching along. It seems like only yesterday when the last collection of “Meet the Browns” episodes was released. In fact, it was three months ago. For those keeping score at home, the compilation spans episodes 81-100, or roughly “Meet the Postponement” to “Meet the Phobia.”
In “Super Spies,” the latest collection of “Yo Gaba Gaba” episodes. The emphasis is on mysteries, espionage and kiddie-friendly intrigue. As usual, there’s plenty of music to go along with the fun and a new interactive game, to boot. – Gary Dretzka
History: Planet Egypt
History: The Presidents
History: Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy: Volume Two
History: Ice Road Truckers: Season 5
The latest collection of DVDs from the folks at History Channel is representative of its eclectic mix of programming. “Planet Egypt” and “The Presidents” deliver the goods in the form of lessons from the dawn of recorded history and in an eight-part survey of the American presidents. No civilization is more fascinating than that of ancient Egypt and the pharaohs we know primarily through the discovery of their mummified remains. Because the early Egyptians were so intellectually and technologically evolved, we’re able to trace the country’s history back more than 3,000 years. The four-part presentation examines the confluence of technology, culture, religion, architecture, military might and statesmanship that’s unified the country through wars, plagues, natural disaster, colonization and religious fanaticism. Moreover, it is a country that still matters greatly in the pursuit of world peace. The timeline begins with King Narmer, who united more than 40 regional tribes into the first Egyptian civilization, and answers mysteries raised by the pyramids and temples.
In the eight-part “The Presidents,” the men who’ve held sway in the Oval Office are profiled, with close attention paid to their accomplishments, failures, idiosyncrasies and personal lives. Originally shown in 2005, the collection now includes a “Biography” chapter on Barack Obama, as well as the 42 commanders-in-chief who preceded him. The series is based on “To the Best of My Ability,” edited by Pulitzer Prize-winner James McPherson. It includes much rarely seen photographs and footage, as well as observations of such luminaries as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Wesley Clark, Bob Dole and former President Jimmy Carter. It is narrated by Edward Herrmann and adds the feature-length “All the Presidents’ Wives” and a timeline of U.S. presidents.
Less traditional lessons are delivered in Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy: Volume Two” and “Ice Road Truckers: Season 5.” Comedian Larry the Cable Guy may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but fans will enjoy his hands-on approach to re-creating such historical events as the Continental Army’s crossing of the Delaware River and the California Gold Rush, as well as experiencing the pains and pleasures of logging, eating and preparing deep-friend food, training to be a Marine, maintaining San Francisco’s fleet of cable cars and hunting with a musket. There’s plenty more and Larry isn’t reluctant to get downright raunchy when the occasion calls for it.
I still don’t know what hazardous driving has to do with history, but “Ice Road Truckers” has become a staple of programming on the cable network. Season 5 is the first season to focus on two different roads simultaneously, Alaska’s Dalton Highway and one in Manitoba upon which freight is hauled to isolated communities that have no other way to bring in materials. Hugh, Rick and Alex return to Canada for the Manitoba run, while Lisa and veteran Tony Molesky transport loads on the Dalton Highway, along with newcomers Dave Redmon and Maya Sieber. I’d enjoy seeing a series based on how the truckers spend their hard-earned money when they aren’t confined to their trucks and if it involves driving the kids to Disneyworld every couple of years. – Gary Dretzka
Dark Crimes: 50 Movie Set
The Nifty Fifties: 50 Movie Set
Timeless Family Classics: 50 Movie Set
I can’t think of many better deals than the ones offered by Mill Creek Entertainment in their collections of 50 feature films, representing several different genres and time frames. Here, for less than $30 each, fans can own 150 films representing 10,000 minutes of entertainment. The catch comes in the fact that many of the public-domain titles have previously been included in other collections and some aren’t up to par with those given facelifts by other leading distributors. Collectors who don’t own high-end home-theater systems benefit the most because definition isn’t an issue and, in most cases, the DVDs are clean enough to look good on the cheapest of prehistoric black-and-white TVs. Since everything looks like film noir on such appliances, the films in the “Dark Crimes” collection are the least hurt by imperfections and visual artifacts. No matter the price, how bad could performances by such stars as Basil Rathbone, Yul Brynner, Boris Karloff, Ava Gardner, Angela Lansbury, Raymond Burr, Edward G. Robinson, Constance Towers, Hedy Lamarr, George Raft and Melvyn Douglas be? “The Nifty Fifties” compilation features movies with Sidney Poitier, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlton Heston, Debbie Reynolds, Robert Wagner, Kim Novak, Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby and Warren Beatty.
I’ve yet to be convinced that kids actually can tell the difference between the quality of a DVD and VHS presentation. (If they can, you might suggest a visit to the local public library.) This works in favor of the Westerns and silent comedies in “Timeless Family Classics.” There’s also such memorable fare as the 1933 “Oliver Twist,” 1932 “A Farewell to Arms,” 1937 “A Star Is Born,” Buster Keaton’s “The General,” Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” and 1934 “Jane Eyre.” Look for performances, as well, by Ginger Rogers, Kirk Douglas, Jack Benny, Douglas Fairbanks, Eddie Albert and James Cagney. – Gary Dretzka