BBC: House of Cards: Trilogy: Blu-ray
Netflix: House of Cards
I’ve only had time to watch two episodes of Netflix’s first original mini-series, “House of Cards,” an Americanization of the novels by the Michael Dobbs and subsequent BBC mini-series. It’s newly available to subscribers via its website and other streaming systems. As such, the series is accessible to nearly everyone with a sophisticated DVR, laptop, tablet or telephone, and, unlike broadcast and premium-cable networks, the technology encourages binge viewing. The audio/video quality seems excellent and the price is right. If Netflix deems its costly “HofC” experiment successful, the streaming of original programming could be the next big thing in television. If not, it will remain an honorable misstep on the road to the inevitable future. That’s because its inaugural series is a class act all the way. Not only were the first two episodes directed by executive producer David Fincher — James Foley, Joel Schumacher, Charles McDougall and Carl Franklin pick up the baton from there – but the cast includes Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Corey Stoll, Michael Kelly, Sakina Jaffrey and Constance Zimmer. And, yes, changes have been made to reflect the differences in political culture between London and Washington, as well as 23 years of change in the world. From what I’ve seen, though, the story remains essentially the same.
Because segments of the BBC trilogy aired in 1990, 1993 and 1995, Dobbs and co-writer Andrew Davies were able to take advantage of the political doldrums between the prime ministries of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. These stories of cold-blooded political chicanery — compiled in Blu-ray as “House of Cards: Trilogy” – appear to have been inspired as much by Shakespeare as any headline writer at a Fleet Street tabloid. At the trilogy’s center is the intriguingly wicked Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), chief whip of the Conservative Party in Parliament and PM in waiting. (Spacey plays his American counterpart.) After being passed over for a promised position in the incumbent prime minister’s Cabinet, Urquhart immediately sets out to topple the pompous twit. We know exactly what he’s thinking because he confides in us via the camera following his every move. In doing so, viewers can see how the house of cards is going to fall before the kings, queens and aces hit the table. As usual, the media is shown to be incredibly easy to manipulate, even before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and blogosphere.
The second installment in the trilogy, “To Play the King,” finds Urquhart occupying the office of prime minister and doing quite well at it. The thorn in his side here is a new King of England (Michael Kitchen) – it’s not a documentary series, remember – who has ideas of his own about the country’s future. “The Final Cut” completes the series. In it, Urquhart is still in office, but the same storm clouds that drenched his predecessor have begun to appear on the horizon of his administration. How will he possibly worm himself out of this predicament? Stay tuned. “HofC” is a consistently compelling entertainment and full of surprises. Another nice thing about the trilogy is the prominent role played by women, some of whom could have given Lady Macbeth a run for her money. (The same appears to be the case in the Netflix series.) The Blu-ray adds commentaries, an interesting give-and-take between Davies and an audience angry about his portrayal of royalty and the informative doc, “Westminster: Behind Closed Doors.” – Gary Dretzka
I don’t know what inspired John Gatin’s screenplay for “Flight.” It’s possible that it was the heroics of Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, who piloted the jetliner that made a successful landing on the Hudson River after it was disabled by a flock of Canada geese on takeoff. For this, Sullenberger not only was awarded the keys to every city in the country, but he also became a talk-show staple and instant expert on all things aeronautic. “Flight” takes Sully’s excellent adventure a step further by considering what might have happened if the media had learned that “Sully” was something of a party monster and had gotten bombed the night before the doomed flight. What if they also learned that he had quelled his hangover with a couple lines of cocaine and a wee bit of the hair of the dog? Basically, that’s the premise of “Flight.” In it, Denzel Washington does something every bit as amazing as landing a plane on a river and, if he had been driving a car, he would have been cited for DUI. In order to prevent his jetliner from crashing nose-first into the dirt outside Atlanta, Captain “Whip” Whitaker flips the plane on its back. The maneuver somehow allows him the time to find a meadow flat enough to attempt a non-catastrophic landing. Apart from a wing connecting with a church steeple upon landing, that’s pretty much what happened. A half-dozen people died, but the toll could easily have been a great deal higher.
Director Robert Zemeckis masterfully orchestrates the events leading to the crash landing. It leaves us on the edge of our seat, at the same time as it forces us to question the pilot’s decision not call in sick. Still, if the same thing had happened to another pilot, it’s likely there would have been no survivors that day. Whitaker’s unprecedented actions were heroic, even if he shouldn’t have been in the pilot’s seat in the first place. To his credit, Zemeckis allows viewers to serve as jurors, not advocates, throughout most of the film. As usual, Washington delivers an impeccable performance as the troubled pilot. He makes us believe that Whip is capable of landing the plane, straight or stoned, while also being an arrogant fool. The ending is satisfying, without also being predictable and overly melodramatic. Some viewers won’t relish the idea of watching another movie in which an AA meeting is staged. There’s nothing cliché about Whitaker’s efforts to take control of his own life, though. A supporting cast consisting of Nadine Velazquez, Tamara Tunie, John Goodman, Brian Geraghty, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle adds sizzle to “Flight,” but it’s definitely Washington’s show. The Blu-ray edition adds three making-of featurettes that cry out for more information and a Q&A with cast and crew members. – Gary Dretzka
Peter Pan: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray
As is often the case with Walt Disney’s animated features, the backstory for “Peter Pan” is almost as interesting as what happens on screen … for grown-ups, anyway. Ever since watching a roadshow production of J.M. Barrie’s play as a kid and playing a part in it for a school production, Disney’s reserved a special place in his heart for the story. He intended it to be the studio’s second animated feature, after “Bambi,” but those plans were delayed by rights issues, the war and having to wait for the technology to catch up with his vision. No doubt, the postponement enhanced the entertainment value of his “Peter Pan.” (Disney rarely had a problem acquiring rights, as most of the fairy tales already were in the public domain.) Even so, Disney decided that Barrie’s version might prove a tad dark for younger viewers and softened the narrative. It’s too bad he didn’t reconsider the lame-brained characterizations of the Indians on Neverland Island, as well. As it is, however, 60 years’ worth of children can attest to the chills they felt upon the arrival of the crocodile and sadistic presence of Captain Hook.
Disney fanatics already know that Disney deployed all nine of his Old Men, assigning a different character to each one. There’s plenty more trivia to ponder. Kids new to the Disney canon, though, might be interested to follow the evolution of Tinker Bell from just another delightful character to mascot of the Disney brand and, eventually, possessor of an animated franchise to call her own.
There are several new hi-def features included in the three-disc “Diamond Edition” package, as well as some previously seen. Diane Disney-Miller has recorded a new introduction to the package; Roy Disney’s commentary has been picked up, along with five behind-the-scenes featurettes; two new deleted scenes and songs, presented with original art; the interactive “Disney Intermission” option; a separate sing-along track; and DisneyView sidebar art to fill up the screen space left by the television-aspect presentation. Disney loyalists should enjoy “Growing Up With Nine Old Men,” a 41-minute documentary describing what it was like to be raised in a household headed by one of the true stars of the Disney universe. – Gary Dretzka
There isn’t much, besides Nazis, that Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” shares in common with Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret.” Both found success on Broadway and on the big screen, but that’s about it. At one point, though, the backers of both projects must have heard, “A Nazi musical? I don’t think so.” Brooks, of course, found hilarity in the possibility that the only thing that could prevent an outrageously bad musical from bombing was the positive word-of-mouth of undiscerning audiences. “Cabaret” was inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories,” as well as the play and movie “I Am a Camera.” It’s 1931 and the singers, dancers and habitués of Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub are wallowing in the “divine decadence” that prevailed during the latter days of the Weimar Republic. Meanwhile, Adolph Hitler’s minions are slowly, but surely making inroads with Germans who have yet to prosper from the country’s economic rebound. They’re convinced that decadence – divine or otherwise – is something promulgated by communists and Jews, a notion Adolph Hitler exploited on his way to power. Other Germans were having far too much fun to notice the rising tide of fascism.
Forty years after “Cabaret” was released on film, the Blu-ray edition demonstrates just how timeless its message continues to be. Moreover, the bonus material offers a complete discussion about what made the movie different than the 1966 Broadway musical and where Fosse’s genius came into play. Those of us who haven’t seen the stage production or listened to the original Broadway cast album, for example, wouldn’t know that seven songs were replaced and entire characters eliminated. All of the songs, except one, now emerge organically from Kit Kat Klub environment. Fosse decided to move the group singing of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” by the Nazi Youth group, to the beer garden of a rural inn, so that Sally, Brian and Maximilian couldn’t deny what was happening outside Berlin. It’s also worth remembering that Hollywood wasn’t sold on Fosse taking the reins of the production. After all, his adaptation of “Sweet Charity” was so catastrophic it nearly took Universal Pictures down with it. The rest, including eight Academy Awards, is history. The Blu-ray arrives in a DigiBook package, adding a new half-hour background featurette and previously shown making-of material, interviews and commentary. – Gary Dretzka
Hello I Must Be Going
Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet began their careers in feature films starring in the same widely acclaimed drama, “Beautiful Creatures,” which, in 1994, described how the fantasies of two New Zealand teenagers led to murder. It would also mark Peter Jackson’s first giant step away from the horror genre and onto the radar screens of Hollywood studios. In the next three years, Winslet would play key roles in “Sense and Sensibility,” “Jude,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” and something called “Titanic.” Choosing not to strike while her iron was hot, 16-year-old Lynskey decided to take a three-year break from movies, in order to complete high school and pursue an arts education at university. In 1998, she scored a role in the likable Drew Barrymore romance, “Ever After: A Cinderella Story,” and continued to find work in supporting roles that weren’t designed to showcase her considerable talent. It would be Lynskey’s recurring portrayal of Rose, Charlie’s stalker in “Three and a Half Men,” that endeared her to American audiences. In Todd Louiso and Sarah Koskoff’s quirky romantic drama, “Hello I Must Be Going,” she was given another opportunity to show what she could do in a lead role. The verdict: very well, indeed.
In it, Lynskey plays a recently divorced woman in her mid-30s, who moves back into the home of her wealthy parents in Connecticut. No sooner does she get there, though, than she reverts to behaving like a recalcitrant 16-year-old. Depressed to the point of being comatose, Amy Minsky only comes alive when she meets the 17-year-old son of one of her dad’s business associates. For his part, Jeremy (Christopher Abbott) already is a moderately successful TV actor, who hates acting and pretends to be gay to keep his doting mother from bugging him about girls his age. Jeremy and Amy recognize something in each other that makes them kindred spirits. While seriously conflicted over the possibility of having sex with a boy half her age, Amy allows him to seduce her. If this scenario sounds familiar, then the folksy songs that accompany the narrative certainly will ring a bell with fans of “The Graduate,” maybe even “Harold and Maude.” Amy Minsky only resembles Mrs. Robinson circumstantially and Maude not at all. She’s no cougar and Jeremy is more self-assured than Benjamin Braddock. For Amy to come to grips with her demons, she’ll have to confront her ex-husband and find out why he ditched her for a young tootsie. It’s what is happening concurrently with her parents – well played by Blythe Danner and John Rubinstein – that differentiates “Hello I Must Be Going” from other indie rom-com-drams. Just as their retirement ship is about to pull into port, it’s sideswiped by unmapped shoals. Lynskey’s performance is sufficient reason to recommend “Hello I Must Be Going” – Amy uses Marx Brothers’ movies as therapy – but it has plenty else going for it. The DVD includes interviews and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka
The Ballad of Narayama: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Shichiro Fukazawa’s novel “The Ballad of Narayama” has been adapted into film twice, both differently and to wonderful effect. Shohei Imamura’s 1983 remake was awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival and the 1958 version nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and submitted by Japan as its official entry for Best Foreign Language category at the Academy Awards. Imamura’s version opened up the story, which, in 1958, was shot entirely on a soundstage in the style of kabuki and other traditional Japanese theater. A single stringed instrument provides the only musical background. Set in a small northern village in in the 19th century, “Narayama” describes the rite of ubasute, which dictates that anyone who reaches the ripe old age of 70 is required to make the trek to the heights of Narayama and never look back to the village. If they don’t immediately die of hypothermia, they’ll soon starve to death. The ubasute ritual was imposed to relieve the shortage of food available for other family members, especially in the lean years when every seed of rice was measured. Orin is the next woman in the village to turn 70 and she’s accepted the fact that her son soon will be required to carry her to the place where the bones of friends and relatives lie bleaching in the sun. She has prepared by finding her widowed son a good wife and teaching her how to make do in her absence. Even if Orin accepts her fate, it does seem unfair that a woman of sound mind and body could be forced to die, when less deserving villagers – including her useless grandchildren – are free to commit crimes and drain precious resources. “Ballad of Narayama” reportedly was the first movie shot on Fuji color negative and it looks as if Kinoshita wanted to test its limits right out of the gate. The set design and painted backdrops are nothing short of haunting, as befits the kabuki conceit. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 4K digital master, struck from the 2011 restoration, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The only bonus feature is a booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Kemp. – Gary Dretzka
In Our Nature
Brian Savelson’s drama about the dysfunctional relationship between a middle-age father and his adult son looks terrific and features much excellent acting. The men are so immediately unlikable, however, that it sometimes appears as if the writer/director, in his feature debut, is daring us to stay with “In Our Nature” until the pre-ordained ending. If it weren’t for their girlfriends, we probably wouldn’t care about their estrangement. Brooklyn yuppies Seth and Andie (Zach Gilford, Jena Malone) decide they’ll take a long-postponed weekend off at his family’s cabin on a beautiful parcel of land in Upstate New York. No sooner have they stripped off their clothes than they’re interrupted by the tires-on-gravel sound of Daddy Dearest’s SUV. Surprise, surprise. Neither of the men is remotely happy to learn of the other’s presence in the cabin that has provided both of them with so many memories, pleasant and otherwise. As played by the wonderful character actor John Slattery (“Mad Men”), father Gil is an anal retentive who isn’t in the cabin two minutes before he’s kvetching about Seth’s careless habits. Seth doesn’t seem to need a reason for resenting his father’s presence and Savelson complies by not giving us one.
Before the two men are allowed to drown each other in toxic testosterone, Gil’s girlfriend, Vicky (Gabrielle Union), suggests they let bygones be bygones long enough to have dinner together and spend one night under the same roof. After Seth and Andie compliment Vicky on her cooking – veggie, as requested — she makes the mistake of mentioning in passing that lots of butter makes everything taste better. By the shocked reactions of the children, you’d think Vicky had consciously spiced their dishes with arsenic. Whatever good will had developed up until this point dissipates faster than a vegan can accuse a hamburger lover of first-degree murder. For every step forward, the men slide two more back, until their bad behavior spreads to their partners. Once all of the scabs are picked, of course, the healing can begin anew. Some viewers, at least, will find their patience rewarded. – Gary Dretzka
Paranormal Activity 4: Unrated Director’s Cut Edition: Blu-ray
Night of the Tentacles
To argue that “Paranormal Activity 4” is more of the same old, same old shouldn’t detract any of the series’ many fans from rushing out and picking up a copy, if only to survey the 28 minutes of material added to the director’s-cut edition. Followers already know what they’re going to get, even as they pray that every next sequel would be as rewarding as the original. The only thing “PA4” adds is a slam-bang ending, guaranteed to keep fans begging for more, even if it is the same old, same old. At the end of the third installment, Katie and her infant nephew Hunter disappeared from their Carlsbad home, leaving behind a scene of carnage and a whopping mystery. It’s now five years later and Katie has just moved into a suburban neighborhood outside Las Vegas with a creepy little boy, Robby. It doesn’t take long before strange things begin to happen to the next-door neighbors, who take in Robby when his mother is hospitalized for a few of days. He’s already become friendly with their 6-year-old son, Wyatt, and the kids pretty much keep to themselves.
Teenage Alex is the first one to notice peculiar noises and other disturbances around the house, and she convinces her boyfriend to mount surveillance cameras and activate video monitors on her computer. Among other things, the Skype connection captures Robby walking into Alex’s room while she’s asleep and climbing in bed with her. The parents are too pre-occupied to pay much attention to their daughter’s ravings or Wyatt’s growing dependency on Robby. After a while, that will change, as well. None of it is particularly scary, unless one is easily frightened by loud sounds. The visual effects have been jazzed up a bit, as well, to account for the passage of time. I wish that directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman had given us a bit more for our bucks, before they unloaded the cliffhanger ending. To paraphrase Shakespeare, it is what it is. Apart from the deleted scenes added to the director’s cut, there aren’t any bonus features.
Some viewers might be disappointed to learn that “Night of the Tentacles” has almost nothing to do with the 200-year-old tradition of artistically depicting the rape of humans by octopi, squid and other tentacled creatures. Although the fetish is of Japanese origin, the Internet has allowed pornographers to share the practice with the world. (Even when the display of sexual intercourse among consenting adults was censored, penetration by foreign objects remained legal.) Considering that Dustin Mills spent only about $1,500 to make “NOTT,” I suppose one could cut him some slack. He’s already proven his do-it-yourself chops with such off-putting material as “Zombie A-Hole” and “The Puppet Monster Massacre,” after all, and how bad could his third feature be? In a word: awful. Here, Mills’ protagonist is a desperately ill young artist who sells his soul to the devil for a new heart. The catch is that the organ, when in need of fresh blood, causes pointed tentacles to be launched in the direction of his visitors, including women there merely to take a pee. Is nothing sacred? – Gary Dretzka
Every so often, a featherweight boxer manages to capture the imaginations of fans, journalists and historians, alike. The most recent boxer to have achieved such recognition is Manny Pacquiao, a likable fighter who literally carries the hopes and dreams of Filipino people around the world on his shoulders whenever he enters the ring. Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs wrote songs condemning the people they believed responsible for the 1963 death of Davey Moore. Willie Pep, widely acknowledged as the greatest featherweight boxer of them all, has only appeared in other people’s movies about boxing. Welsh fighter Howard Winstone, a champion rarely listed among the top 25, is the subject of the biopic, “Risen.” In it, Neil Jones introduces us to a man whose story is as compelling as any in the sport. That’s because, as a young man, Winstone lost three of fingers on one hand in an industrial accidental. Known for his punching ability, Winstone immediately lost the use of 50 percent of his arsenal. Unable to make a fist, he had to find a way to compensate. With the help of his father and trainer, Winstone made the transition from slugger to boxer. After wearing out his British opponents, 29-year-old Winstone captured the featherweight crown in 1968. He wouldn’t hold it for long, but he’d achieved something very few boxers ever do. At nearly two hours in length, “Rison” feels long by at least 15 minutes. The material dedicated to Winstone’s family life borders on the cliché, as does some of the behind-the-scenes stuff. The boxing scenes aren’t bad, even if they owe too much to “Raging Bull.” The most inspirational moments come before the bouts, when fans of the boxers sing in unison the songs identified with their city’s sports team. It is a practice unique to British sporting events and never fails to move me. – Gary Dretzka
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel
If there’s one thing the world doesn’t need, it’s another documentary about the fashion industry. For one thing, they’re too easy to make: pick an editor/designer/model/photographer, any editor/designer/model/photographer to profile; round up all the usual suspects to provide anecdotes, if not criticism; cull the archives for visual input; insert some pop songs; and roll camera. They’re also littered with clichés, unfounded opinions and hyperbole. The opulent lifestyles of the editors/designers/models/photographers are indefensible by most moral standards. The casualties are rarely mentioned, except in cautionary tales (“Gia,” “Girl Model,” “Chasing Beauty”) and parodies (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Zoolander”). Since the release of “Unzipped,” in 1995, we’ve seen “The September Issue,” “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” “Bill Cunningham New York,” “Lagerfeld Confidential,” “Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton,” “Yohji Yamamoto: This Is My Dream,” “Ozwald Boateng: A Man’s Story,” “Ultrasuede,” “L’amour fou,” “In Vogue: The Editors Eye,” “Fashion Victim: The Killing of Gianni Versace,” “Girl Model,” several docs on such photographers as David Bailey, Helmut Newton, Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon and Francesco Scavullo; and least two biopics about Coco Chanel and one about the House of Chanel. I’ve forgotten some and not mentioned several titles in production.
So, is “Diane Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” sufficiently different to recommend watching it? Yes, primarily because Vreeland was a one-off, nonpareil and ever-fascinating columnist, editor and curator. For most of her 83 years on Earth, she was one of the world’s most theatrical, opinionated and influential women. Although Vreeland was raised as a member of European aristocracy, she was one of the first editors to recognize how a woman’s lifestyle could influence fashion as much as any designer or socialite. She was one of the first in her position to take seriously the Hollywood mystique, the eccentrics who populated Warhol’s Factory and the flighty whims of the Haight-Ashbury crowd. The photographs that accompanied the magazine’s fashion spreads one day would be hung on the walls of museums and galleries. The anecdotes told here also reveal a woman who could be dictatorial and pompous one moment and, the next, prescient and dead-on correct. After her time with Vogue, she turned around the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, making it one of the most must-see attractions and must-be-seen-at charity events in New York. Lisa Immordina Vreeland, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frederic Tcheng’s documentary is as informative as it entertaining and a worthwhile addition to the DVD library of any fashionista. Its bonus package includes even more fascinating interviews. – Gary Dretzka
Yelling to the Sky: Blu-ray
Frontline: Poor Kids
Seventeen-year-old Sweetness O’Hara goes through so many changes in “Yelling to the Sky” that you practically need a scorecard to keep track of her moods. As played by Zoe Kravitz, the Sweetness we meet first is a slightly preppy teenager whose place in her largely African-American neighborhood is defined by her mixed-race looks and a meek persona waiting to be victimized. This is exactly what happens when she’s confronted by a group of teenagers and forced to jump through hoops to prevent them from stealing her bike. Not content merely to humiliate Sweetness, they also brutalize her. It’s at this point, however, that her tough-as-nails sister jumps into the fray, kicking the living shit out of the boy who’s causing her most the trouble. Where did she come from? As we soon will come to learn, Sweetness is only as a preppy as her cardigan sweaters allow her to look. Her father is an alcoholic who bullies all of the women in the household and her mom is powerless to stop him. Her sister is old enough to disappear for long periods of time, but Sweetness is trapped.
Now that she’s made an enemy of the school’s bully (Gabourey Sidibe) and her gang, Sweetness also lives in constant fear of retribution at school. To make money to escape Brooklyn, she convinces the local drug dealer to let her peddle his goodies on and around campus, a decision that immediately endears her to the stoner crowd. One bad decision leads to another, however, and Sweetness finally is overwhelmed by the quicksand sucking her into the earth. Too suddenly and without warning, Dad begins to mellow out and Sweetness is forced to decide whether it’s an omen of blue skies ahead or an apparition. As compelling as Sweetness’ story is, “Yelling to the Sky” is sabotaged by several narrative decisions that I think were intended to be funny, but come off as non-sequiturs. Freshman writer/director Victoria Mahoney might have re-considered some of these inventions – masked tots wielding squirt guns, ambushes by rock-slinging teens, a vice principal who parties with his students – and focused on explaining Sweetness’ various transitions. Money and time were short, however, and teenage viewers might very well find “Yelling to the Sky” more meaningful or coherent than I did. The contributions of Jason Clarke, Tim Blake Nelson, Antonique Smith and Yolanda Ross in difficult parts are well appreciated. The DVD adds an interview with Mahoney.
The kids we meet in the “Frontline” presentation, “Poor Kids,” live 900 miles west of Brooklyn and are of the non-fiction persuasion. Most are white, some are black. All are the victims of trickle-down poverty. The Quad Cities along the border of Iowa and Illinois once had enough jobs to employ everyone who wanted to work. When the current crisis hit, the jobs that weren’t already lost to Mexico and China largely fell victim to crimes of Wall Street power brokers and bankers who will never spend a night in jail. We know that these families have seen better days, because their homes are filled with the kinds of appliances and toys people buy when they’re flush. Even if they were able to sell the stuff, it wouldn’t cover a week’s grocery bill. “Poor Kids” doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know or introduce us to people we haven’t already met. Their stories are as familiar as yesterday’s news and anguished conversations we’ve had with friends and relatives who’ve lost their jobs, run out of unemployment benefits and maxed out their credit cards. There’s no question, they want to work and provide for themselves. The kids still try their best at school, bragging when they get an “A” and praying for the money it will take to go to college or a good trade school. I don’t know how many “Frontline” documentaries it would take to melt the hearts of the porcine politicians who line up at the trough every day in Washington to collect their bribes, unearned salaries and free lunches. Preaching to the choir certainly isn’t going to do the trick. – Gary Dretzka
Little White Lies: Blu-ray
My Worst Nightmare
I was such a fan of Guillaume Canet’s “Tell No One” that I could hardly wait to see what he’d do as a follow-up. A prolific French actor, as well as a director, Canet would perform in several movies between that thrilling crime story and “Little White Lies,” a movie that’s best described as a haute bourgeois version of “The Big Chill.” Instead reuniting for a funeral, as was the case in Lawrence Kasdan’s hit film, the longtime friends represented in “Little White Lies” would have come together anyway. Each August, they gather at the lovely and spacious beach home of Paris restaurateur Max (Francois Cluzet). This year, things are different because one member of their group, Ludo (Jean Dujardin), has been critically injured in traffic back in Paris. If he wasn’t in a coma, one or two of them might have stayed behind and tended to him. Augusts are reserved for vacations, though, and it would take more than a coma to keep them from boating, sipping wine and listening to American pop tunes on the radio. It does, however, serve as a catalyst for the friends to address issues, secrets and lies that have been percolating just below the surface for several years. The most compelling reason to seek out “Little White Lies” is the ensemble cast, which includes Marion Cotillard, Gilles Lellouche, Benoit Magime, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Marivin, Pascale Arbillot and Valérie Boneton. The characters may not be entirely recognizable to American audiences, but they’re close enough to strike more than a single chord. At 154 minutes, though, most viewers wouldn’t sit still for the problems of their own family members, let alone those of rich Frenchies. The Cap Ferrat scenery looks lovely in Blu-ray, though, and it adds a making-of featurette.
“My Worst Nightmare” may not be the best romantic comedy you’ll see all year, or even the best one from France. The big-shot critics in New York all seemed to agree on that much during its limited run last fall. What does make it recommendable, though, is that it can be enjoyed by a wide cross-section of Francophiles. The characters range in age from about 16 to 60 and they all have been given something substantial to do. The comedy is broad and the scenario unlikely, but, at least, it doesn’t insult the intelligence of most viewers, as do most Hollywood rom-coms. Isabelle Huppert plays the sophisticated, if uptight head of a foundation that promotes the work of contemporary artists. Agathe’s married to an easy-going gent, Francois (Andre Dussollier), who’s quite content to let her sweat the small stuff in their lives. The trouble starts when Francois hires the father of one of their son’s best friends to complete the renovation. As played by Benoit Poelvoorde, Patrick is a functioning alcoholic, whose buffoonery knows few limits. Essentially homeless, Patrick is about to lose custody of his son, unless he can find semi-permanent lodging soon. Agathe and Francois agree to allow the boy to crash in their son’s bedroom until such demands can be met. To his wife’s chagrin, however, Francois has encouraged the boorish handyman to stay in the maid’s quarters until the job is done.
When Patrick introduces Francois to his kooky blond caseworker, and they hit it off, the affair provides the older man with an opportunity to ditch the cranky Agathe. Naturally, it also opens a door for Patrick to walk through. After convincing her to get drunk with him at a gallery opening, they hook up for a night of sex neither can remember. One thing leads to several other things and everyone’s dilemmas require resolution simultaneously. There’s certainly no need to go into detail here, but it’s fair to say the ending will come as a surprise to most viewers. “My Worst Nightmare” was directed by Anne Fontaine whose previous titles include “Nathalie,” “The Girl From Monaco” and “Coco Before Chanel.” “My Worst Nightmare” won’t make anyone forget any of those three movies, but I’d be hard-pressed to ignore any picture in which Huppert stars. – Gary Dretzka
So Undercover: Blu-ray
I don’t know who’s currently handling Miley Cyrus’ career – I hope it’s not still her grandstanding father – but whoever it is ought to consider handing off the duties to someone who knows what they’re doing. As long as she was identified with the Disney empire, Cyrus could hardly do any wrong. Kids loved her, parents considered her to be a role model and she didn’t seem to mind playing her age. When she turned 18, however, she let her freak flag fly. Still, “Hannah Montana: The Movie” and “The Last Song” turned tidy profits for the company and you’d think she would be smart enough to transition into adulthood with her dignity and fan base intact. Instead, her behavior and hooker-chic clothes – normal for any other teen – turned paparazzi into salivating dogs. Then, upon turning 20, something weird happened. Someone hoping to make a quick buck convinced her to accept roles in two movies – “LOL” and “So Undercover” – that were too weak even to find theatrical release in the U.S. Instead, they went straight to VOD, DVD and Blu-ray. That doesn’t bode well for her future in Hollywood. As long as Cyrus continues to tease the press with glimpses of her boobs and underwear, while changing her hair style every few months, she’ll remain in the public eye. Otherwise, maybe someone at Disney could help her find an adult role that doesn’t suck. After all, before Lindsay Lohan’s train jumped the tracks, she was given an opportunity to be directed by Robert Altman, Garry Marshall and Richard Rodriguez. If memory serves, she wasn’t bad. The jury’s still out on Paul Schrader’s “The Canyons.”
In “So Undercover,” Cyrus plays a former cop’s crime-crazy kid, who’s enlisted by a FBI agent (Jeremy Piven) to infiltrate a college sorority. Molly accepts the top-secret mission — protect the daughter of a key witness in a mob case — to bail her father out of a large debt. Although she’s the same age as her “sisters,” Molly must become fluent in Valley-speak and lose the tomboy persona. If that makes “So Undercover” sound like a ripoff of Miss Congeniality, at least Cyrus is age-appropriate for the role, unlike Sandra Bullock. (At 28, Kelly Osbourne looks even more out of place here than Bullock did there.) Otherwise, everything about the movie is a shortcut bordering on cliché, especially the sorority and its airhead members. Can’t the women who choose to go Greek in college ever catch a break? I can’t think of a movie that’s been released in the wake of “Animal House” that reflects anything but the binge-drinking aspect of college life. I suspect that the people who write these things were too nerdy to be accepted and finally are getting their revenge. I’m no fan of the Greek system, but c’mon. Cliches are fine for television, where they’re expected, but feature films are a whole different ballgame. By now, Cyrus should be thinking seriously about playing against type or focusing on her musical career. There’s nothing to be gained by continuing to do make pictures destined to go straight-to-video. – Gary Dretzka
Side by Side: Blu-ray
I suspect that most moviegoers understand the basic differences between digital and analog technology, by now, even if they couldn’t tell you which theaters are projecting images using light-through-film techniques or are bouncing images off a chip. I’ve been watching side-by-side demonstrations of film vs. video, tape vs. DVD and DVD vs. Blu-ray for most of the last 15 years and I’m hard-pressed to see the difference. That’s not true when it comes to 3D, animation and most large-format movies, which conceived digitally and fare best when exhibited that way. Of course, the most important thing remains telling a compelling story in a format that is as close to state-of-the-art as possible. If the story told in “Avatar” had been boring, no amount of digital technology could have saved it. As many 3D films have disappointed at the box office as have succeeded, no matter how good they are. Christopher Kenneally’s “Side by Side,” as produced and reported by Keanu Reeves, is a documentary that breaks down the benefits, liabilities and potential of the different technologies, through the eyes of the people who make the movies. The overriding question, “Can film survive our digital future?,” is asked and answered by such directors, cinematographers, editors, studio executives and technicians as James Cameron, David Fincher, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Vittorio Storaro, Lars von Trier, the Wachowskis, Vilmos Zsigmond, George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh, Lena Dunham, Greta Gerwig, Anne V. Coates and Danny Boyle. I don’t that many casual moviegoers would get much of a kick out “Side by Side,” but anyone who’s ever dreamed about making a movie or is headed for film school should consider it essential viewing. – Gary Dretzka
All of the Chinese-born adoptees we meet in Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s heartwarming documentary are exceptional. Although born into poverty and a culture that values the birth of boys over girls, they have excelled here as students, citizens and role models. Their stories aren’t significantly different than the most of the other 80,000 girls who have been adopted from Chinese orphanages since 1989, 10 years after China implemented its One Child Policy. Many of the children we meet were abandoned on the streets of a city, in the hope that someone in authority would find them and place them in a safe facility. Others were placed there because of a perceived physical or mental deficiency and proper care at home would be impossible to guarantee. It sounds cruel and, for the most part, is indefensible. Still, none of the orphanages shown in “Somewhere Between” are nearly as horrifying as the ones we’ve seen in Romania or Russia, since the lifting of the Iron Curtain. That families around the world desire these girls and willingly wait a year or more to be united with them also says a lot about the process. Knowlton entered into the production of “Somewhere Between” as someone already in the process of legal adoption. She wanted to know beforehand, however, what both she and the child could expect in the next several years, anyway. To do so, she was put in touch with Haley, Jenna, Ann and Fang, all of whom have assimilated comfortably into American life and would be asked questions they hadn’t fully considered since moving here.
Knowlton found the four girls in communities that were predominantly white, Christian, middle class and distinctly American. They were nurtured and raised as if they were born that way. Even so, they couldn’t help but ask such questions as “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit?” Lurking beneath the surface are other unanswered questions, most involving abandonment issue, China’s institutionalized sexism, the lack of a discernible genetic history and being torn between two cultures. Nothing is revealed in “Somewhere Between” that would make potential adoptive parents re-consider their plans. The adoptees and their classmates might learn a great deal about each other, though. Fang and Haley’s journeys are the most remarkable of them all. One traveled to the orphanage from which she was plucked and, eyeing a cutie with early signs of cerebral palsy, organized an international campaign to fund her care and possible placement in the west. Using only the barest of clues, the other was able to find her birth parents that lived in an impoverished corner of China. Moreover, she met her siblings, all of which were accomplished in their own ways. It’s wonderful.
What Knowlton avoids is anything in depth about China’s human-rights record and the possibility that other facilities aren’t nearly as nurturing. Nor does she address the horrors that accompanied the adoption of some orphans in Eastern Europe, the financial aspects of adoption or the difficulties faced by disadvantaged orphans and foster children here. That’s OK, though, because Knowlton had a different agenda. Neither is her film necessarily an infomercial for Chinese adoption. She doesn’t mention any bureaucratic snags or censorship issues, but isn’t likely Chinese authorities gave her free rein, either. Its appeal probably is limited to parents and potential parents of Chinese orphans, and, when they’re older, the kids themselves. The two-disc set adds deleted scenes and interviews with adoption professionals. – Gary Dretzka
Paul Williams: Still Alive
Pink: Still on Fire
Them: Mystic Eyes/Live 1965
The diminutive singer/songwriter Paul Williams was such a ubiquitous presence in the 1970-80s, his absence over the past 20 years or so has caused many people to believe he’s dead and they simply missed his obituary in the newspapers. Most people under 35, even those who know “Rainbow Connection,” “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Evergreen” by heart, couldn’t tell Williams from Frodo Baggins. In addition to writing hit songs for artists as disparate as the Carpenters, Helen Reddy, Barbra Streisand, David Bowie, Three Dog Night and Kermit the Frog, the 72-year-old musician also has written stage musicals and movie soundtracks, appeared in dozens of movies and TV series, been a frequent guest on talk shows and winner of several Grammys and an Oscar. He’s a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Most telling, perhaps, Williams was funny enough to be invited back 50 times to perform and sit alongside Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” Then, about 20 years ago, he simply disappeared from view. It explains why diehard fan Stephen Kessler titled his bio-doc, “Paul Williams: Still Alive.” It took an Internet search for the writer/director (“Vegas Vacation”) to learn that the man was, indeed, very much alive and kicking. The truth is that Williams has been clean and sober for 20 years and has spent much of that period helping other people recover. For those of us who enjoy his music and wit, “Still Alive” will come as a welcome reminder of those qualities. It does take some patience to watch, however. Kessler and Williams never seem to have agreed completely on what the documentary would accomplish and their bickering is frequently off-putting. Williams is adamant that he doesn’t come off as a has-been or pathetic survivor of the show-biz wars. Kessler wants to know how it felt when the star’s phone stopped ringing and the invitations to appear on talk shows stopped coming. Neither is he able to get Williams to open up on pivotal moments in his private life. To my mind, the best stuff is the concert footage. No matter if his last hit came 30 years ago, we are introduced to people around the country and the world who still identify with his songs about confronting loneliness and the sadness that comes from feeling that the odds are stacked against them. His popularity in the Philippines seems to equal that of Elvis. So, even if Kessler’s film doesn’t answer all of our questions, or his, “Still Alive” reveals an artist who gave something tangible to the world and isn’t looking for our pity. The DVD adds a half-dozen outtakes from concert footage.
The double-DVD set, “Pink: Still on Fire,” tells us everything we’ve ever wanted to know about the pop phenom named after the color of her hair … perhaps, TMI. It does so by regurgitating interviews conducted by disc jockeys, TV hosts, entertainment reporters and assorted other hacks. Most are painfully inane, but that’s how records, concert tickets and T-shirts are sold these days. On the plus side, Pink is friendlier than most other celebrities would be in similar circumstances. The second disc adds more biographical material about Her Pinkness, only this time in documentary format with testimonials from friends and associates. There’s also some performance footage, although not enough.
The 1970s “art rock” ensemble 10cc had a nice run of radio-friendly hits with “Rubber Bullets,” “The Wall Street Shuffle,” “I’m Not in Love,” “Life Is a Minestrone,” “Art for Art’s Sake” and “Dreadlock Holiday.” Members have also written songs for such groups as the Yardbirds, the Hollies and Herman’s Hermits. Naturally, when it came time to savor the fruits of their labors, the band split in two, with pop-oriented Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart going in one direction under the 10cc banner and the more experimental Kevin Godley and Lol Crème taking off on their own. Separately, the two factions would continue to produce fine music, but nothing to compare to the still highly listenable “I’m Not in Love.” The material included in the new 10cc in-concert DVD, “10cc,” covers the gamut of their career, with Godley sitting in alongside Gouldman, Rick Fenn, Paul Burgess, Mike Stevens and Mick Wilson. In addition to 17 songs attributed to 10cc, they perform “For Your Love,” “Bus Stop” and “No Milk Today.” The sound and video quality is very good,
By contrast, “Them: Mystic Eyes/Live 1965” is little more than a repackaging of a half-dozen video clips taken from television and concert appearances by Van Morrison’s band in 1965. With such hits as “Gloria,” “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Mystic Eyes” and “Here Comes the Night,” the Northern Irish blues/rock group enjoyed success on both sides of the Atlantic before dissolving the same year. What’s truly amazing is the distance Morrison would travel in the next three years, during which time he would contribute “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Astral Weeks,” one the greatest albums in any genre in the last 50 years. The quality of the videos in “Them” is very sketchy. – Gary Dretzka
SouthLAnd: The Complete Second, Third and Fourth Seasons
Using logic to assess a television network’s decisions is a fool’s game. Too many deals are cut for reasons other than the promotion of quality programming to make much sense out of any of it. If there’s anything TV executives count on, it’s the short memory of its viewers. Take TNT’s terrific cops-and-crime series, “SouthLAnd,” for example. How many people recall how NBC decided to cancel the series, even before its pre-ordained second stanza was scheduled to begin … thus facilitating its move to TNT? For that matter, how many people remember NBC’s willingness to kowtow to the recently retired Jay Leno by giving him a prime-time talk show and, when that failed, handing him the reins to “The Tonight Show,” then held by Conan O’Brien? To make room for Jay’s prime-time experiment, it cleared the 10 p.m. timeslot, forcing adult-oriented series into timeslots generally reserved for comedies. For the network, it was catastrophic. As produced by John Wells, “SouthLAnd” was as raw and gritty a cop show as has ever existed in prime-time and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as “NYPD Blue,” “The Shield” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” The crimes are brutal and the uniformed police are shown to be as flawed as they are heroic. The intention of the series wasn’t to show how crimes are solved, but what happens before the detectives show up at a crime scene on their white steeds. Renewed for a fifth season, “SouthLAnd” can boast of one the best ensemble casts and writing staffs on television. It succeeds in the shadow of higher-profile networks, star-driven series and media hype. The new multidisc set contains all 26 episodes of Seasons Two, Three and Four. It also contains unaired scenes, commentaries and a “crime map” of locations used in the show. – Gary Dretzka
The Solomon Bunch
Cartoon Network: Ben 10 Omniverse: A New Beginning
Animaniacs, Volume 4
Sesame Street: Elmo’s World: All Day With Elmo
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: On the Job!
Once again, the story behind the movie is more interesting than the movie, itself … at least, for parents of kids in the target demographic. “The Solomon Bunch” is a tale of adventure and intrigue for ’tweeners who don’t mind being fed a moral lesson with the popcorn and pop. The movie was produced by the Creekside Christian Academy, in association with Pinecrest Baptist Church, both in Georgia’s Henry County. The name, Solomon, may ring a bell to viewers conversant with the bible. After overhearing the parents of one member discuss mistakes they’ve made, the kids form a club dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom. At about the same time, a mysterious stranger appears in the rural town causing consternation among club members. Learning not to jump to conclusions and spread gossip are lessons all kids could find valuable. The movie didn’t find a theatrical distributor, but the $100,000 invested in the project by church members could pay dividends in DVD. It includes outtakes and a family activity guide.
Launched in 2006, “Ben 10” has become the biggest franchise in Cartoon Network’s history. It chronicles the adventures of 10-year-old Ben Tennyson, who uses a watch-like Omnitrix device he finds in an alien pod to transform into various alien life forms. He’ll need all the help he can muster, vending off supervillains from outer space. “Ben 10: Omniverse: A New Beginning” is the fourth sequel series spun off from the original. The setup allows us to follow Ben at ages 11 and 16, when he loses old partners and gains a Plumber named Rook. Together, they discover an underground world populated by evil aliens. The DVD includes 10 episodes from 2012 and alien “reveals” and a database.
Watching these compilations of “Steven Spielberg Presents Animanics” cartoons is like taking a crash course in animation history. The episodes contain so many witty asides, references to kindred cartoons, parodies and insider gags that adding footnotes in the bonus features might have been a very valuable tool for simultaneous reference. For example, the cartoons pay direct homage to work of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, who labored on the same lot that serves as home for the Warner siblings, Yakko, Wakko and Dot. Apparently, the trio had been locked away in the lot’s landmark water tower from the 1930s, when they were stars, to the mid-1990s, when they escaped. Not only do the Animaniacs run roughshod over the lot, but they’re also able to travel through time and leap over genre boundaries. It’s likely that kids are attracted to the sheer anarchic pace of the stories, but adults are more drawn to the intelligence and wit on display. The series began its run in 1993 on the Fox Kids schedule, moving to the Kids’ WB block from 1995-99. “Volume 4” includes contains episodes from Season Three and all of Seasons Four and Five.
If any fantasy character could benefit from an image makeover, it’s Elmo. It’s not the fault of the “little red menace,” as he’s sometimes been known on the “Sesame Street” set, that puppeteer Kevin Clash found himself in a spot of bother last fall and had to leave the show. Still, controversy tends to stick like glue to everyone attached to such a widely reported scandal and puppets aren’t immune to bad press. “Elmo’s World: All Day with Elmo” should help convince doubting parents that he’s not part of a subversive plot and deserves to be cut some slack. The segments focus on such serious duties as waking up, learning about going to school and how healthy monsters and kids can get the best exercise. Then, too, before Elmo goes to bed, he must perform such bath-time obligations as brushing his teeth. These exercises are intended to promote counting skills, self-confidence and healthy habits. Long live Elmo!
I wonder if Bubbletucky is far from Bikini Bottom. The Bubble Guppies and SpongeBob SquarePants swim in the same salty water of Nickelodeon’s ocean, but their target audiences probably are one or two steps removed from each other. It isn’t likely stoners get off much on the Guppies, either. In their second DVD iteration, “Bubble Guppies: On the Job!,” the characters go on field trips to learn about different things open to them when they mature. Among other things, they learn about construction, explore different ball games and visit a restaurant, hospital, dentist’s office and fire station. – Gary Dretzka