There are all sorts of good reasons to recommend Tim Burton’s animated re-launch of his 1984 live-action short, “Frankenweenie.” Besides looking and sounding terrific in Blu-ray 2D and 3D, it could provide an excellent introduction to the classic-horror genre for pre-teens. It’s a short step from Disney’s “Frankenweenie,” to the recently released into Blu-ray, “Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection,” which includes nicely rendered editions of “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein.” The story is essentially the same, except that it takes place in a typical American suburb and the re-animated creature is young Victor Frankenstein’s pit bull. Before being run over by an automobile while chasing a ball, Sparky played monsters in Victor’s homemade flicks. Inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel and his school’s new science teacher – Martin Landau’s voice, but Vincent Price’s face and body – he decides to dig up Sparky and get ready for the next life-generating lightning storm. The experiment is successful, of course, but the dog’s newfound friskiness freaks out the neighbors. Worse, Victor lets slip the specs to his science-fair partner Edgar “E” Gore, who promptly begins an even more ambitious reanimation project. Soon, the entire town is infested with undead pets. Unlike Sparky and Edgar’s goldfish, the newly arrived monsters are genuinely frightening mutations caused by inexact lightning strikes. The enduring lesson, “When men play God, no one wins,” proves as relevant today as when it was first introduced in Shelley’s novel. Even a 10-year-old can take that much away from “Frankenweenie.”
How much older viewers will appreciate the “Frankenweenie” revamp depends on several Burton-specific questions, all of which might have impacted the movie’s lackluster box-office performance. (I suspect that it will do just fine in DVD and Blu-ray.) As has been his wont lately, Burton adds several layers of conceits on what began as an unpretentious and highly inventive 29-minute short. The list is topped by Burton’s risky decision to maintain the black-and-white presentation, which paid homage to the Universal originals in short-form, but gets old after the 45-minute mark here. Adding an hour’s worth of new material, however clever, also tests the patience of viewers. Although hipsters and Burton loyalists will dig the many references, nods and winks to his previous movies and vintage horror flicks, some viewers may be disappointed by the absence of footnotes in the DVD package or explanations in a commentary track. Burton’s a pioneer in stop-action animation and the characters are well rendered throughout the movie. It remains uncertain, however, if “Frankenweenie” suffered commercially from overfamiliarity with his previous efforts or it was too similar to “ParaNorman,” which it resembles thematically and was released near the end of summer. Who’s to say, though, how much of a bang Disney got for its cross-platform and ancillary-products bucks? Even with a budget nut of an estimated $39 million, stop-action movies built on the scale of “Frankenweenie” might still prove to be sound investments in the worldwide marketplace. Fortunately, that’s not a cross audiences are required to bear.
Apart from the lack of a commentary track, fans of the movie should enjoy a bonus package that includes the original live-action short, which starred Barret Oliver, Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern, Sofia Coppola and Paul Bartel; the new stop-action short, “Captain Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers,” with Victor and Sparky; the informative making-of featurette, “Miniatures in Motion”; a music video; and a piece on the “Frankenweenie” traveling exhibit. Did I forget to mention that the voicing cast for “Frankenweenie” includes Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Atticus Shaffer, Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, Conchata Ferrell, James Hiroyuki Liao and Frank Welker. As usual, the music is supplied by Danny Elfman. – Gary Dretzka
House at the End of the Street: Unrated: Blu-ray
Anyone who doubts the marquee value of 2012’s Female Flavor of the Year, Jennifer Lawrence, ought to consider her ability to wring a substantial profit from the otherwise undistinguished slasher thriller, “House at the End of the Street.” Her star-turn in “The Hunger Games” and well-earned kudos for “Silver Linings Playbook” might even prompt someone to take a chance on the unreleased “The Devil You Know” or spark some renewed interest in “The Beaver.” That one, though, would likely require the help of a miracle worker. While “House at the End of the Street” could hardly be considered a blockbuster, it returned some $31.6 million on an estimated investment of $7 million. Even taking marketing costs into account that represents a tidy chunk of change for a movie that had straight-to-DVD written all over it. Here, Lawrence plays an independent-minded teenager, Elissa, who, along with her recently divorced mom, Sarah (Elisabeth Shue), moves into a house within spitting distance of a horrifying crime scene. Years earlier, a young girl slaughtered her mother and father for no apparent reason and she’s either still on the lam or dead. Her older brother, Ryan (Max Thieriot), has since moved back into the house and is maintaining a low profile around town. Upon learning of the house’s sordid history, Elissa naturally is anxious to learn everything there is to know about Ryan. Clearly, she hasn’t watched enough horror movies to know that no good can come from nosing around the house at the end of the street or someone who would live in such a place. Ryan’s a nice guy, but one who doesn’t give up his secrets lightly. It wouldn’t take a genius-level IQ or graduate degree in horror studies to guess what happens during the rest of “House.” Once Ryan’s secret is revealed, the movie pretty much unspools with the same bolts out of the blue and jarring musical cues as nearly every post- “Psycho” thriller. Its modest budget does allow for some extremely effective sound effects, which are milked for every decibel they can muster. In this way and others, director Mark Tonderai adds some drama to a story that was predictable and thread-worn from the get-go. Lawrence’s younger fans should find something here to enjoy, even if hardened horror and slasher buffs won’t. The Blu-ray adds a run-of-the-mill making-of featurette and trailers. – Gary Dretzka
I don’t pretend to know what makes one comic-book character a bankable protagonist in a big-budget, action-filled thriller and another superhero a bust. In hindsight, Batman, Superman and Spider-Man may look as if they were no-brainers, but it’s likely that one or two studio executives, at least, sweated out their opening weekends. On paper, “Howard the Duck” probably looked like a no-brainer to its investors, too. Without doing the math, I’d guess that only about half of the comic-book epics make enough money in their initial run to warrant immediate plans for a sequel. Despite its British roots and longevity, the Judge Dredd seemed to be a perfectly reasonable candidate for success among the teen- and fan-boy crowd. The “2000 AD” comic book series from which “Dredd” emerged is smart, witty and full of creatively rendered fantasy violence. Perhaps, the lack of commercial appeal for the 1995 and 2012 screen adaptations can be laid on the moral ambiguity of the protagonist, which plays better on paper than on the screen. As cop, judge and executioner, it must have been difficult for popcorn-chomping viewers to discern whether Dredd is an honorable character in a chaotic world or merely a tool in the maintenance of that chaos. For example, the iconic symbols on Dredd’s uniform and motorcycle betray both fascist and pro-democracy sentiments. It was the clear intention of the authors to portray him as a good guy and a bad ass simultaneously. The fact that we can’t see Dredd’s eyes through his helmet and face guard suggests he has something to hide that the Lone Ranger didn’t. Of course, moral ambiguity hasn’t hurt the ratings of “Sons of Anarchy.”
The vibes emanating from the set of “Judge Dredd” – Sylvester Stallone clashed continually with the director – were so negative as to put a curse on its box-office potential. It’s a good thing that “Dredd” is far less star-driven than the original. Kiwi pretty boy Karl Urban may be a household name in Auckland, but, on screen here, as in the comic book, it’s the character that matters most. It can be argued that the set designer deserves equal billing with Urban. The high-rise Mega City One setting is full of eye-catching elements and contours drawn to take full advantage of the 3D option. Mega City One is a sprawling metropolis, spanning Boston and Washington, with residential towers sprouting up like corn in Iowa (which no longer is fertile or habitable). Each building exists as a self-contained neighborhood, with shops, utilities, manufacturers and apartments stacked on top of one another. Therein reside people who want to live in harmony with their neighbors and gang-bangers who treat Mega City One as a target-rich environment. Apparently, American lawmakers are still committed to fighting the great unwinnable drug war, as Dredd’s primary target here is a prostitute-turned-pusher, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who sells a powerful new substance called Slo-Mo. On this particular day in the life of Dredd, the enforcer is paired with a pretty, young and un-helmeted rookie with psychic powers. Since there’s no real way to stop the drug trade, they must settle for taking a stab at quelling a gang war in the self-contained slum. That’s about it, except for the fun of watching Ma-Ma’s enemies falling to their deaths from the roof of the 200-story-high building and landing in a splash of 3D gore. The 2D and 3D Blu-ray packages come with a half-dozen making-of featurettes explaining the character, his comic roots and the production challenges. – Gary Dretzka
What does it say about western culture that movies about slackers and underachievers have translated so easily from English into languages ranging from Spanish to Sami, the native tongue of Laplanders? The characters who populate director Dome Karukoski and writer Pekko Personen’s often very funny “Lapland Odyssey” may not be as fundamentally inert as those in such American entertainments as “My Name Is Earl,” “Get a Life,” “Slacker,” “Mallrats” and “The Big Lebowski,” but they’re cut from the same mold. Enduring the seemingly eternal darkness of winter north of the Arctic Circle is a difficult enough task for ambitious and motivated Finns. For those not similarly inclined, life is complicated by a scarcity of jobs and the tendency of marriage-age women, especially, to head for larger cities directly after graduating high school. Without a wife, who will subsidize the slackers’ addiction to alcohol and cigarettes? (“Lapland Odyssey” is decidedly not a stoner flick, although similarities abound.) Here, the movie’s central dilemma concerns Janne, who’s been on the dole since losing his job five years earlier. Janne’s married to Inari, a stunning blond in a country that apparently is flush with such beauties. One day, Inari stirs her husband from his midday sleep, in order for him to pick up a “digibox” cable converter before the local electronics store closes and “Titanic” begins. Naturally, he stops first at a tavern, where he imbibes a few eye-openers with two of his closest buddies. Although the store is next door to the bar, he arrives too late to convince the owner to cut him a break. Because Janne’s already blown most of the money on beer, the merchant isn’t motivated to unlock the door.
It is at this point that Janne’s excellent adventure begins and the film’s trio of slackers kicks into action in support of their buddy. Before locating a store that stays open into the wee hours, the lads must come up with the money to afford the device. When Janne informs Inari that he won’t be able to make the “Titanic” deadline, she gives him an ultimatum: either return home with the digibox by morning or forever lose the best thing he’s ever likely to have … her. There’s no reason to ruin the fun, except to say that “Lapland Odyssey” takes advantage of the region’s unique natural beauty and the wintertime customs of its residents. Indeed, the characters spend more time in hot tubs than John Cusack, Rob Corddry and Craig Robinson did in the entirety of “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Beyond the nearly 24 hours of darkness, the film is informed by the same aura of gloom and doom that marked Ingmar Bergman’s films. The specter of suicide looms large over “Lapland Odyssey,” but not in a particularly humorous way. Somehow, Karukoski makes this element work, without putting a damper on the proceedings. We’re told that “Lapland Odyssey” was a huge success in Finland, breaking all sorts of box-records. American viewers probably wouldn’t find the humor to be as uproarious as the average Finn or Lap, if only because we’re more familiar with the sub-genre. Fans of offbeat international fare should find a lot to enjoy, however. The DVD comes with an eight-page booklet with an introduction by and interview with the director, as well as an interesting short film, “Burungo,” shot in Africa. – Gary Dretzka
SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden: Blu-ray
Mitt Romney’s campaign advisers were none too pleased to learn that the Weinstein Company’s made-for-cable depiction of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s headquarters would air two days before Election Day. Knowing that ardent Obama supporter Harvey Weinstein was the driving force behind the project, Republican propagandists acted as if the President would be portrayed as being a member of the assault force, not simply an interested observer. By complaining far too vehemently, they gave all sorts of free publicity to a movie that, after all, was debuting on the National Geographic Channel and not in theaters. Of course, TV critics felt it necessary to mention the controversy in their reviews and some probably shaded their responses with the usual cynicism that accompanies such tempests in a tea pot. Fact is, though, anyone whose mind wasn’t already made up by the time “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden” was shown almost certainly wouldn’t be swayed by the President’s presence solely in news clips. It would have been ludicrous for a filmmaker to leave Obama out of the narrative. If anything, I think that Republicans caught something of a break when the screenwriter didn’t directly link the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team to the debacle at Tora-Bora. If Bin Laden and Mullah Omar had been killed or captured there, instead of being given the time and space to escape, the war might have ended in 2001. Quibbles over “SEAL Team Six” and “Zero Dark Thirty” would be moot.
Judged purely by the standards used to evaluate made-for-TV movies, “SEAL Team Six” stands up to criticism pretty well, I think. I’ve seen plenty of movies rushed into release after an important global event and most of them have looked forced and anemic, compared to the circumstances described. Director John Stockwell has directed several action features, including “Blue Crush,” “Into the Blue” and “Turistas,” and acted in a couple dozen others. He displays a good understanding of pace and tone and benefitted, as well, from Peter Holland’s above-average cinematography. Not surprisingly, very few risks are taken in the narrative, although it’s legitimate to wonder where first-time writer Kendall Lampkin got some of the stuff involving strained relations within the team. I have yet to see “Zero Dark Thirty,” but I would guess that the budget it was accorded was many times greater than the one allowed Stockwell. Much has been made of the torture sequence in “ZDT,” but, here, it’s the threat of torture that elicits the first solid lead. Cam Gigandet, Anson Mount, William Fichtner and Kathleen Robertson stand out in what essentially is an ensemble cast. The Blu-ray includes a making-of feature. – Gary Dretzka
Sleep Tight: Blu-ray
To the extent that Spanish filmmaker Jaume Balaguero is known in this country, it’s as the writer/director of the found-footage thrillers [Rec] and [Rec]2, which were remade here as “Quarantine” and “Quarantine 2: Terminal.” Fans of those movies should know that “Sleep Tight,” while supremely creepy, is a very different sort of horror film. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone in Hollywood decided to remake “Sleep Tight,” as well, but not limit the marketing to horror lovers. After all, Alberto Marini wrote the screenplay with the idea of staging the story in New York, using one or two Spanish actors in the lead roles. But, why wait? “Sleep Tight” is an exceedingly intelligent and genuinely surprising thriller, whose antagonist is as much a monster as Hannibal Lecter. The superb Spanish leading man, Luis Tosar, plays a concierge in a distinguished Barcelona apartment building. Although Cesar comes in contact with dozens of people every day, most of them couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. Those with whom he’s friendly have allowed him access to their apartments to fix various problems and he’s also been entrusted with the walking of their dogs. In return for their trust, this amiable sociopath resents everything about them, especially their happiness and complacency. In fact, Cesar has been unhappy and bitter since he was old enough to hold a grudge and his only satisfaction in life comes from making other people as miserable as he is. Tosar could hardly have been a better choice for the role. He reminds me very much of John Malkovich, whose characters frequently harbor dark and dangerous sentiments. The ability to conceal inner-most thoughts and secrets allows both actors to assume roles in genres not limited to horror and drama. Moreover, their mostly bald pates automatically distinguish them from 95 percent of leading men in the movies.
The first time we meet Cesar, he’s sleeping with a pretty resident, Clara (Marta Etura), who we’ll soon learn is his polar opposite in temperament and overall goodness. Within moments, Balaguero lets us in on the first deep secret in “Sleep Tight.” In fact, the reason Cesar is allowed on Clara’s mattress is that she’s had no choice in the matter. In his off hours, the concierge sneaks into her apartment and lays in wait for her underneath the bed. When he’s sure that Clara’s asleep, Cesar climbs out from his hidey-hole, doses her with chloroform and sets time-release traps that are designed to slowly, but surely drive her crazy. If there’s any time left over, Cesar will climb into her bed and spoon with his comatose victim. One early morning, a pre-teen neighbor girl catches the concierge sneaking out of Clara’s apartment and not for the first time. Apparently, she’s been blackmailing Cesar and tormenting him with strange demands. The odds against finding two sociopaths living under the same roof are pretty great, even in the horror genre, but it only adds to the, er, fun. If you think these revelations should have been prefaced with a spoiler alert, know that here are several more layers of intrigue protecting Balaguero’s narrative scheme from being ruined. In this way, “Sleep Tight” can legitimately be described as Hitchcockian. The Blu-ray arrives with a making-of featurette that’s almost as long as the feature, itself. – Gary Dretzka
About half-way through Rick Fricke’s New Age travelogue, “Samsara,” I was struck by the thought that this spectacularly beautiful movie could double as an advertisement targeted at intergalactic tourists thinking of visiting Earth for the very first time. Filmed over a four-year period in more than 25 countries, Fricke’s follow-up to his 1992 spiritual essay, “Baraka,” explores the birth, death and rebirth cycle experienced by people both in developed and undeveloped parts of the Earth. (“Samsara” is Sanskrit for “cyclic existence.”) That Fricke served as cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi” is something lovers of that amazing documentary might already have guessed. The scenes of great natural beauty flow by in much the same brilliant fashion, as do tightly focused images of death and ritualistic ceremonies. (In one scene, a prominent outlaw is laid to rest in a coffin built to resemble a sawed-off shotgun.) Instead of Philip Glass, the riveting soundtrack was created by Marcello De Francisci, Lisa Gerrard and Michael Stearns. The effect is the same, however.
According to the press material, “Samsara” is the first feature-length film since Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” (1996) to be shot entirely on 70mm film. The high-resolution camera work seems several steps ahead of that production, though. It precisely captures the breathtaking beauty and spiritual significance of such locations as Petra, Jordan; Giza, Egypt; the Himalayas of Nepal and Tibet; Epupa Falls, Angola; Yosemite and Zion national parks; Mecca and the Wailing Wall; Versailles; and Sossusvlei, Nambia. Shots of modern Dubai aren’t terribly beautiful, but they are breathtaking. The depictions of animals being led to the slaughter or too fat to do anything but eat and breed are nothing less than sobering. The images that likely will stay with viewers the longest, however, are the ones that bookend “Samara.” In them, we join a dozen young monks-in-training as they watch a Buddhist holy man painstakingly create an incredibly intricate sand mandala. When the students unexpectedly engage in the ritual destruction of the mandala, in advance of the closing credits, it hits us like a sucker punch. Needless to say, Blu-ray is the preferred format by which to savor “Samsara” from both a video and sonic perspective. It arrives with a 50-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka
The Wise Kids
Stephen Cone’s warmly received coming-of-age drama, “The Wise Kids,” demands to be taken seriously by viewers who’ve almost written off the early fruits of the faith-based genre for being half-baked, off-target and completely dependent on easy answers to difficult questions. (“Let’s pray on it” and “It’s just part of God’s plan” are the all-purpose solutions to problems.) Unlike most other producers of so-called Christian entertainments, Cone assumes that the potential audience for his film is sufficiently mature to handle characters that are openly gay, losing their religion, unabashedly hypocritical, skeptical of fundamentalists and knowledgeable in subjects unrelated to scripture. Most of them desperately want to leave room for God in their daily activities and beliefs, even when they feel abandoned by him. Neither are they embarrassed to admit that they believe in the power of prayer and willingly participate in even the corniest of church activities. They’re probably just as appalled by the ravings of such right-wing tele-evangelists as Pat Robertson as any non-believer. Cone was raised in just such a community and his intention in making “The Wise Kids” was to remind viewers that Christianity and bigotry don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.
“The Wise Kids” is set in and around a South Carolina Baptist church, where several of the teenage parishioners are preparing for their next great adventure, college. The three key teen characters are preacher’s daughter, Brea who has begun to question why religious branding is passed from parents to children, as if it were coded in our DNA; the intensely devout Laura, who is afraid of losing her best friends — physically and spiritually — to the temptations of big-city life; and Tim, whose homosexuality is the worst-kept secret in town. Among the adults, Cone is fine as director of the church’s Easter and Christmas pageants and someone who’s grappling with his own sexuality. His wife, meanwhile, hopes to fill the growing gap between them with the affections of a married youth counselor. The pastor, too, seems open to ideas that don’t begin and end with an affirmation of Creationist principles. Everyone’s tolerant of the others’ beliefs and practices, even if they don’t particularly agree with them. The church and its members remind me of those embraced by Hollywood for decades as representative of democratic ideals and liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. That image has been shattered by scandals in the Catholic Church and the ravings of fundamentalists of all stripes who’ve declared war on same-sex marriage, reproductive rights and Darwinism, as taught in godless public schools. If “The Wise Kids” suffers from an anemic budget and production values, the young actors, especially, seem anxious to prove that they’re ready to take their careers to the next level, just like their characters. The bonus package includes a look at the bare-bones production, which took place in Charleston, and the featurette, “Religion and Sexuality in ‘The Wise Kids.’” It also demonstrates that a faith-based movie need not be branded “family friendly” to represent basic Christian values. There are issues discussed here about which younger children need not concern themselves.
Until the recent scandals involving pedophilia and coverage of the Church’s hardline stance against same-sex marriage, screenwriters found it much easier to sell stories in which Catholic priests are key players and evangelicals are fringe characters or antagonists. (Hollywood’s never been comfortable with atheism, Islam and Judaism, except in biblical epics.) I think that’s because the pageantry of the Mass and ornate vestments lends itself to interesting visuals, as do the many traditional rites, rituals and festivals. The confessional is a great place to stage dramatic readings and demonstrate how easy it is for even the most hardened criminals to cleanse themselves of sin, in return for a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers. If only it were that easy for non-Catholics. It can also be argued that most priests are hams and nuns are somewhat tragic figures. There are plenty of Jewish characters in the movies, but what happens in synagogues tends to stay in synagogues. Protestants aren’t interesting unless they’re killing Catholics in Ireland, snake-handling or stealing money from rubes. The liabilities that come with portraying Mohammad on screen aren’t worth the benefits.
Like Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, Martin Sheen was born to play the kind of priest no one would be afraid to invite to a wedding or First Holy Communion party. In life and on screen, he personifies what it means to be a Catholic who honors Christ in his words and deeds, not just for an hour on Sunday mornings. To find him playing a priest in the clumsily titled Irish import, “Stella Days,” then, isn’t surprising or off-putting. His character, Father Berry, has been assigned to guide parishioners in a wee Irish town in the mid-1950s, which he considers to be punishment for disputing a Vatican posting that went to another priest. (Much like Robert DeNiro at the end of “True Confessions.”) Even so, Berry tends his flock as lovingly and conscientiously as possible. Instead of receiving a one-way ticket back to Rome when his three-year tour-of-duty ends, the bishop demands he stay put to raise money for a new church. The parish isn’t wealthy enough to afford such a project, but when Berry suggests building a movie theater to support it, the idea is met with trepidation and scorn from his superiors and a local politician (Stephen Rea) who’s so conservative he could have made the short list of possible running mates for Mitt Romney. He despises the fact that Berry is an intellectual, worldly and prepared to lead parishioners out of the dark ages of de facto Catholic rule in Ireland. One way for this to happen would be to show movies that go beyond, if not that far, the Church-approved lives-of-the-saints catalog. A showdown ensues between the forces of lightness and darkness that wouldn’t be out of place in the period described, but seems overly quaint in 2012. Besides providing some harmless entertainment, the rural Irish scenery in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s “Stella Days” is pretty swell. – Gary Dretzka
Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best
Screenplays about the struggles facing aspiring musicians can be purchased on the open market for a dime a dozen these days. It’s far easier to sell a mockumentary about the clichés of life on the road and Sisyphean pursuit of a career doing what musicians love to do most. Occasionally, something very special slips through the cracks, giving everyone else hope for their own project. Writer/director/star Ryan O’Nan describes “Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best” as a cross between “Once” and “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” in that it chronicles the trials and tribulations of a pair of oddball musicians who hope to make a living on a jerry-rigged tour of dumpy taverns, frat houses and park benches. He could have just as well have described “Brooklyn Brothers” as a hipster version of “Blues Brothers.” O’Nan plays singer-songwriter, Alex, whose morose lyrics reflect his generally bleak outlook on life and love. To make ends meet, he tries to sell real estate and occasionally gets a job dressing up in a costume and singing at senior centers and schools for special-needs kids. After losing his partner and girlfriend in one fell swoop, Alex appears ready to hang up his guitar for good. Out of the blue, he’s confronted by a truly eccentric and quite possibly insane musician, Jim (Michael Weston), who’s seen his act and wants to hook up with him for a tour he’s already booked. Jim literally drags Alex kicking and screaming into his car, where he demonstrates what he has in mind. His idea is to accompany Alex on several different instruments originally intended for use by children. The happy sound of the battery-operated keyboards and horns complements Alex’s bummer-in-the-summer lyrics in a way that could hardly be anticipated. Audiences are receptive to Brooklyn Brothers’ unique sound, but, just when it appears as if they might find a niche, the young woman who’s travelling with them as a roadie screws everything up for them. O’Nan finds an interesting way to get everyone back on the right track and “Brooklyn Brothers” ends on an unexpectedly high note. It would have benefitted immensely from a budget larger than $50,000 and, maybe, another rewrite or two. The music isn’t as memorable as that in “Once,” but it begins to grow on you after a while. Also helpful are cameos delivered by Melissa Leo, Wilmer Valderrama and Jason Ritter, as well as a meatier performance by Andrew McCarthy. The package arrives with a making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, a festival Q&A and a pair of funny shorts. – Gary Dretzka
The Assassins: Blu-ray
For western audiences, the best reason to pick up a copy of “The Assassins” probably is the appearance of Chow Yun Fat, one of the greatest action stars of the Hong Kong cinema. Others might be drawn instead to his character, Cao Cao, a highly influential and greatly feared Han Dynasty warlord and power broker, who also dabbled in poetry and the martial arts. Freshman director Zhao Linshan catches up with Cao Cao in 198 BC, after he has defeated the primary military threat to the Han emperor and is anointed the vassal King of Wei. In 210 BC, he built the magnificent Bronze Sparrow Terrace in the ancient city of Ye as a show of power and his desire to steal the beauteous Qiao sisters from their husbands. At this point in his life, Cao has made so many enemies among the relatives of his victims, as well as rulers afraid of his ambition, that he’s become an almost constant target of assassins. Among them are war orphans and young lovers Mu Shun (Tamaki Hiroshi) and Ling Ju (Crystal Liu Yi Fei), who, as children, are recruited by one of Cao’s chief rivals to spend five arduous years training for a mission to kill a single unnamed man. Eventually, they find themselves in Cao’s well-guarded circle, one as a courtesan and the other a palace eunuch. (Ouch!) Compared to the elaborate depictions of Chinese political and military history we’ve seen lately, the events described in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” are child’s play. Viewers here would benefit mightily from a Playbill, explaining the background of what they’ll see in “The Assassins.” (A Google search would be just as helpful, though.) What doesn’t require much explanation are marvelous set designs, costumes and action scenes that are typical of the historical-epic genre, which plays so well in Blu-ray. Also included are a lengthy making-of featurette and an English dub track. – Gary Dretzka
Music From the Big House
Louisiana’s infamous Angola Prison is considered to be a unique place to do time for a lot of reasons, most of them pretty ugly. Occasionally something beautiful emerges from its walls, usually in the form of music. Huddy Ledbetter, known to the world simply as Lead Belly, was famously “discovered” at Angola by folklorists John and Alan Lomax. Other esteemed graduates included country crooner Freddy Fender and bluesmen Robert “Pete” Williams, Matthew “Hogman” Maxey and Robert “Guitar” Welch, who were discovered by musicologist Harry Oster. Many other inmates returned to their musical roots, especially gospel, so as to make their time on “the Farm” pass easier. (There have been several documentaries made about Angola’s prison rodeo and football program.) “Music From the Big House” follows Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli during her visit to Angola, where she accompanied inmate musicians in a concert for fellow prisoners and visitors. In addition to the music performed, which is excellent, Chiarelli introduces us to the prisoners, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. (“In Louisiana, life means life,” we’re reminded several times.) Almost all of them have adjusted to prison life as well as they possibly could, largely through an acceptance of their guilt and Jesus as their Lord and savior. Their victims aren’t forgotten by director Bruce McDonald and writers Erin Faith Young and Tony Burgess, but “Music From the Big House” is about just that, music, not redemption. The DVD adds additional interviews and music. – Gary Dretzka
Grand Hotel: Blu-ray
Mrs. Miniver: Blu-ray
Driving Miss Daisy: Blu-ray
The Jazz Singer: Blu-ray
Warner Bros. is rolling out a quartet of its classics on Blu-ray this week, including three Best Picture winners. This news may not thrill a generation of viewers that can’t wait for the next comic-book extravaganza or Miley Cyrus vehicle, but lovers of Hollywood history should applaud the releases. Apart from being wonderfully entertaining, even 80 years after its debut, “Grand Hotel” remains one of the most copied movies of all time. Back in the days when sound was new, it wasn’t deemed practical for a studio to cast more than a couple of its biggest stars in the same picture. It was difficult enough to maximize profits by holding down production costs, without also taking into account the headaches related to unleashing the egos of stars not used to sharing to sharing the spotlight with actors of the same age and gender. Nonetheless, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg thought it might be fun to team Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and Lionel Barrymore and see what happens. Predictably, some of these divas acted like children asked to share their favorite toys. Despite all of the off-set pouting and unruly behavior, however, the electricity sparked some memorable performances and at least two unforgettable lines: Garbo’s lament, “I want to be alone. I think I have never been so tired in my life,” and Lewis Stone’s twice-offered observation, “Grand Hotel … always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” Adapted from a German play by Vicki Baum, which also became a Broadway hit, “Grand Hotel” is set in a bustling Berlin hotel that is a home away from home for aristocrats, business executives, con artists, consorts and entertainers. Even if there were no scenes in which all of all of the five stars appeared together simultaneously – a decision that averted ego eruptions – director Edmund Goulding used their interlocking stories to make it seem as if they had. For younger viewers who’ve yet to watch Garbo, Crawford, Beery and the Barrymores in their prime, “Grand Hotel” might even prove revelatory.
Upon its release in 1942, it wasn’t known how far the impact of William Wyler’s “Mrs. Miniver” would be felt beyond the glass windows of box-office stalls in the U.S. and Britain. It describes what happens to a family of average “middle-class” Brits – by Beverly Hills standards, anyway – before and immediately after the Battle for Britain, in 1940. Overnight, the “care-free” nature of life in the country was turned into a living hell by the German Luftwaffe. The battle would be contested in the night skies over several key cities, ports and military and industrial facilities, but to go on to win the as-yet-undesignated world war, British citizens would be required to unite as a people and show their stiff-upper-lips to the world. Their reserve would be tested first at the evacuation of Dunkirk – for which Mr. Miniver (Walter Pigeon) volunteered — and every time the air-raid siren beckoned people to the shelters. As if this weren’t a sufficiently dramatic background for a movie, the screenwriters added a romance between the eldest Miniver boy (Richard Ney), an aspiring socialist, and the granddaughter (Teresa Wright) of the doyenne (Dame May Whitty) of the family after whom the town is named. Then, too, Lady Beldon’s title as the rose-growing queen is being threatened for the first time by the local station manager, who’s named his variety after Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson). Finally, German bombers emphasize the unstated point that the ravages of war don’t honor class bounaries. The sermon delivered by the local vicar in the wake of the deaths of several residents has gone down as one of the most inspirational speeches in cinema history.
Because of the constantly changing news from Europe, in 1940-41, Wyler and his writing team were required to update the narrative several times before the release of “Mrs. Miniver.” Having being appraised of the storyline, President Roosevelt asked MGM executives to put the movie on the fast track and Wyler was only too happy to see this done. That’s because most of the production was executed before the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor and many Americans were committed to avoiding another war between European nations. Wyler felt as if their resistance would diminish if they understood how much that British citizens had already sacrificed for their freedom. Indeed, FDR ordered the sermon be broadcast on Voice of America radio and copies dropped over occupied Europe. Winston Churchill said that the propaganda value of “Mrs. Miniver” was worth a flotilla of destroyers. Far from the front lines, the movie was honored with 6 Oscars out of 12 nominations – a record five cast members were finalists — and the distinction of being the year’s top box-office draw. For Garson and Pigeon, it represented the second of their eight collaborations. The Blu-ray contains background featurettes and an MGM cartoon in which Hitler is portrayed as a wolf.
In addition to being a huge box-office success, “Driving Miss Daisy” was nominated in nine Academy Award categories, winning four. Certainly, it came as no surprise when 81-year-old Jessica Tandy’s name was read. Curiously, though, the 1990 ceremony marked one of the very few times in Academy Award history that the director of the Best Picture prize wasn’t nominated as Best Director. (Oliver Stone would win for “Born on the Fourth of July” that year.) Winner Alfred Uhry adapted the movie from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which described the uncommon 25-year working relationship and eventual friendship between an elderly Atlanta widow (Tandy) and her African-American chauffeur (Morgan Freeman Jr.). The proudly self-sufficient Daisy doesn’t appreciate her son’s determination to keep her out of the driver’s seat of her car and hires a man whose loyalty is stronger than her irascibility. Race wasn’t the central issue in “Driving Miss Daisy,” but, like the 800-pound gorilla, it could hardly be ignored. Set roughly between 1948 and 1973, the story spanned the entirety of the civil-right movement and the emergence of Atlanta as the capital of the New South. Not everything changed in the transition, however. Longtime Southerners cherished certain traditions, protocols and etiquette – segregation and anti-Semitism (Daisy is Jewish), among them – and were in no hurry to see them disappear with the general homogenization of America. Mostly, it’s the performances of Tandy, Freeman and Dan Aykroyd, as Daisy’s supportive son, that sold “Driving Miss Daisy.” If Uhry’s writing isn’t precisely timeless, it’s the closest thing to it. The Blu-ray contains a new supplement on race relations, “Things Are Changing: The Worlds of Hoke & Miss Daisy”; three vintage featurettes; and commentary.
“The Jazz Singer” didn’t make the cut in either of the two Best Picture categories in the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony, but the brothers Warner took home an honorary award for “producing the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry.” They also walked away with a boxcar full of money. Like “Grand Hotel,” the story has provided a template for countless other movies, this time about a son who chooses to leave home, rather than stagnate in the family business. Before the son can return home, he must succeed on his own merits and dreams. Based on Al Jolson’s personal story – the protagonist was played on stage by his buddy, George Jessel – “The Jazz Singer” profiles Jakie Rabinowitz (a.k.a., Jack Robin), a brilliant singer his devout father assumes will become the next in a long line of cantors in the family. If Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland) hadn’t been such a hard-liner on the subject, Jakie might have found a way to perform popular songs in beer halls, while also honoring “the voice God gave him.” Instead of joining his father at Yom Kippur services, he takes a promised beating and runs away from home. Years later, he’s become a star on the vaudeville circuit performing in blackface, a conceit that seems to free him from his past and alienation from it. Almost as bad in his mother’s eyes, his girlfriend is a “shiksa.” Circumstances will allow him to “atone” for the sin of becoming a jazz singer and reunite with his family.
The scenario gave Warners the perfect opportunity to extend its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system into feature-length productions, with singing and dialogue synchronized to images on the screen. It wasn’t an ideal alternative to silent movies, but the success of “Jazz Singer” literally got the ball rolling. The Blu-ray package contains most of the same material previously made available on the DVD edition, including commentary by film historians Vince Giordano and Ron Hutchinson, founder of the Vitaphone Project; a collection of vintage cartoons and shorts (Jolson’s “A Plantation Act,”” An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Bros. Silver Jubilee,” “I Love to Singa,” “Hollywood Handicap” and “A Day at Santa Anita.”); the 1947 “Lux Radio Theater” broadcast, starring Jolson; the feature-length documentary, “The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk”; and an entire disc of rarely seen Vitaphone shorts, which, alone, are worth the price of admission. – Gary Dretzka
TNT: Dallas: The Complete First Season
American Masters: Inventing David Geffen
FX: Archer: The Complete Season Three
PBS: Mystery of Easter Island
PBS: Arts & the Mind
PBS: Animal Odd Couples
It remains to be seen how the recent death of Larry Hagman will impact the second season of TNT’s reformulation of “Dallas,” one of the most popular and oft-imitated shows in television history. J.R. Ewing is such an iconic character that his legacy might or might not be able to sustain his absence. Either way, it’s likely that J.R.’s funeral will be touted as one of the highlights of the spring television season, on or off cable. I don’t know how risky a project that network executives considered the series’ resurrection to be, after a 20-year hiatus. By combining several key members of the previous cast with some new hotties, though, it had a fighting chance, at least, of capturing demographics on opposite ends of the spectrum. Besides Hagman, the returnees included Linda Gray, Patrick Duffy and, in guest spots, Charlene Tilton, Steve Kanaly and Ken Kercheval. They must have welcomed the work. The feuding among the various branches of the family tree continues apace with sons John Ross (Josh Henderson) and Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe). John Ross wants to drill, drill, drill, while Christopher is more interested in investing the future of Southfork in alternative fuels. Naturally, there’s intrigue of the between-the-sheets variety, as well. Unlike the original series, which was shot almost exclusively in and around Los Angeles, the new show’s producers spent most of their time in Texas, with some location shoots taking place at the actual Southfork Ranch, north of Dallas. The DVD adds more than two hours of bonus material, including deleted scenes, commentary on the pilot episode and several making-of and background featurettes.
Two of the prerequisites for success in the non-creative end of show business are a lust for power and an insatiable appetite for money. It explains why the cost of attending movies, concerts and Broadway musicals has skyrocketed, along with the prices for albums, DVDs and souvenir T-shirts, without a corresponding increase in the value of most entertainment products. I’m not old enough to say if this was always the case, but it wasn’t until such visionary capitalists as Jann Wenner, Bill Graham and David Geffen discovered the gold to be mined in the 1960s counterculture that it became possible for rock musicians to become millionaires practically overnight. They were a pretty scruffy lot before the first British Invasion and Woodstock, and old-school managers, agents and concert promoters found it difficult to apply traditional practices to New Generation entertainers. That’s when the aforementioned Wenner, Graham and Geffen came into the picture. By making it comfortable for artists and labels to succeed beyond their wildest dreams, they profited in ways their forebears couldn’t have imagined. Once baby-boomers got over the whole poverty-is-cool/capitalism-sucks thing, the gold turned into platinum for everyone involved. PBS’ “Inventing David Geffen” chronicles the mogul’s rise to absolute power in the music industry, Hollywood and Broadway from humble beginnings in the mail room of the William Morris Agency – how cliché is that? – through the California-based folk-rock scene, label management, film production and Broadway. It ends with his success as a partner in DreamWorks SKG and as a major player in political king-making and philanthropy. It would be easy to dismiss his rise to being at the right place at the right time, while still at the right age, but that wouldn’t take into account his ability to spot and nurture talent; cut deals, by bullying lesser negotiators; and never being out of reach of a telephone, especially in the days before iPhones and Androids. If not a universally loved business executive, he is universally admired for reasons other than cutting deals. Geffen’s willingness to put his money where his mouth is, when it comes to medical research and liberal politics, also allows him to stand out in industries that only reward generosity with plaques and envy. And, yes, Geffen still has plenty of time left over to buy important art works and yachts. Writer/director Susan Lacy also spends time tracing his decision to out himself as a gay man, at a time when most celebrities felt it necessary to remain closeted. I might have suggested including something on Geffen’s stubbornness in forbidding average citizens to take advantage of their legal right to tread the sands in front of his Malibu home, as if he were a king and the rest of us peasants. Even if he were found guilty of such a crime by his Hollywood peers – and there aren’t many who would qualify — it would be considered more of a blemish than a scar, if that. Otherwise, Lacy’s story is alive with detail, personality and more stars than there are in the heavens, as they say. It includes deleted background and interview material.
FX’s tongue-firmly-in-cheek espionage sitcom, “Archer,” enters its fourth season in a couple of days and, after an absence of nearly nine months, its fans couldn’t be happier. That’s how it goes in the cable world, where a full season could last anywhere from 6 to 13 episodes and there’s no such thing as premiere month or a clearly defined September-to-May cycle. “Archer” reminds me of what “Get Smart” might have looked like if there was such a thing as FX, Showtime or HBO in the 1960s. For one thing, we might have seen a bit more of Agent 99 than was allowed in 1965 and the dialogue between Don Adams and Barbara Feldon almost certainly would have been less dependent on double-entendres. Because “Archer” doesn’t leave any room for guesswork, the hero of the animated series has been compared to agents 007 and 0SS 117, Inspector Clouseau, Agent 86 and Matt Helm. Unlike those spooks, Sterling Archer’s sex-crazed mother is also his sex-crazed boss. Jessica Walter voices the sassy founder and head of ISIS, while H. Jon Benjamin does the same for the protagonist. The third-season package adds commentaries on “El Contador,” “Drift Problem,” and “Lo Scandalo “; an extended version of “Heart of Archness”; answering-machine messages; and “Cooking With Archer.” Among the guest voices are Burt Reynolds, Patrick Warburton, David Cross, Robb Wells, John Paul Tremblay, Mike Smith, Jack McBrayer and Michael Rooker.
The PBS series “Arts & the Mind” presents all sorts of good reasons for not eliminating arts programs in our schools, as the results of standardized tests have increasingly become the way schools, teachers and students are measured. It’s the currently favored shortcut used by professional educators, politicians and parent groups to evaluate how tax dollars are being spent, regardless of value to the students’ education. While these tests might provide clues as to our students’ ability to match up to kids in other countries in math and the sciences, there’s no way to measure how our kids would fare in the areas of imagination and creativity. Nor would the tess be able to spot a potential successor to Steven Spielberg, Miley Cyrus or Frank Gehry, all of whom produce much revenue, taxes and work for Americans. Narrated by Lisa Kudrow, but informed by the findings of many arts educators, “Arts & the Mind” argues that test scores, alone, can’t be used to determine how a child might succeed at life. Among other things, like sports, the arts encourage team work and a coordination of skills. Such processes stimulate the brain in ways other disciplines don’t, from cradle to the grave. Creative thinking inspires scientists, engineers and mathematicians to experiment, develop, exploit and, yes, monetize their research in surprising new ways. The two-part documentary focuses on how the “arts can improve children’s school performance, and keep our brains agile and sharp into old age; how teenagers find meaning and hope through poetry at a renowned Los Angeles program supported by actor Tim Robbins; how the arts help heal children in hospitals and older veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder; why one of America’s leading Alzheimer’s researchers advises that dance is the single most effective way to ward off dementia.” At a time when conservative politicians are re-writing text books to reflect the prejudices and religious beliefs of their benefactors, it’s encouraging to watch teachers in real-life situations stimulate children’s imaginations and encourage them to think for themselves.
Along with the creation of the Egyptian, Aztec and Mayan pyramids, Stonehenge and temples in the Andes, the mystery surrounding the placement of great stone statues on Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, has kept researchers busy since Europeans landed there in 1722. Let’s put aside for a moment the possibility that ancient aliens simply used their flying saucers to lift the statues from one part of the island and carry them to another, without leaving footprints or wagon treads. It’s an interesting theory, but impossible to prove. The “Nova” episode, “Mystery of Easter Island,” employs state-of-the-art tools – CGI, modeling, MRIs, drone aircraft – to test one of the more feasible possibilities. Polynesian settlers passed along to their descendants the memory of seeing the 86-ton statues “walk” to their resting place. Logs, ropes and levers weren’t mentioned in islander lore, even though it seems logical that Easter Island was deforested by people transporting the statues over rollers. “Mystery of Easter Island” attempts to show how the walking-upright theory could have worked. It also suggests that the island’s deforestation was caused, instead, by slash-and-burn farming, decimation of the sea-bird population and an infestation of palm eating rats. Anyone who’s attempted to move a wheel-locked refrigerator from one corner of the kitchen to the other might be able to grasp the “walking” theory easier than other people. The researchers created a 15-ton replica, but initially had trouble getting it to stand upright, let alone walk with the assistance of teams of volunteers pulling and wiggling it with ropes. In the end, however, it remains a plausible theory and nothing more.
One staple of television news shows is coverage of oddities in the animal kingdom. Especially valued by news directors are clips of unlikely cross-species relationships. In the “Nature” episode “Animal Odd Couples,” we are treated to such pairings as a chimp bottle-feeding a tiger cub; a giant tortoise snuggling a baby hippo; a black crow parenting a meerkat; and a dog nuzzling a leopard. Is there something more to these relationships than mere friendship or a desire to have their photos spread throughout the Internet on Facebook? Here, we scientists who think there might be some deeper scientific meaning to the odd couplings. – Gary Dretzka