By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup
Having watched all of the James Bond movies and read all 14 of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels, I can say with no small degree of conviction that “Skyfall” is the smartest entry in the series to date. That it’s also the most entertaining chapter in the series—since the 1960s, at least—is doubly remarkable, considering that production was delayed for more than a year until MGM could exit bankruptcy proceedings and a distribution deal with Sony could be finalized. Newly-imposed budget constraints, such as they were, forced “Skyfall” producers to cancel location shoots in India and South Africa and stage them in Turkey. Bond movies have never been absolutely free of product placement (a.k.a., brand integration), but “Skyfall” raised the bar to a daunting new level. Of the $150-200-million budget allotted “Skyfall,” it’s estimated that a third was recouped from Heineken plugs, alone, and it was only one of a dozen companies on the list. By comparison, the inclusion of a trademark 007Aston-Martin DB5 practically feels organic. The 50-year-old movie franchise may never have needed to pander to the corporate world, but, by now, the total savings are inestimably huge. On its own merits, “Skyfall” would go on to become an instant international sensation, grossing nearly $1.1 billion before entering the ancillary markets.
Seemingly, though, no expense was spared on the creative team. It includes Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes; writers Robert Wade, John Logan and Neal Purvis; cinematographer Roger Deakins; title-sequence designer Daniel Kleinman; composer Thomas Newman; and singer Adele, one of the hottest properties on the market. In his third appearance as Her Majesty’s favorite secret agent, Daniel Craig seems as confident of his interpretation of the character as if he had personally been handed the baton from Sean Connery, with the instructions, “Don’t cock it up.” What’s great about “Skyfall,” especially in lieu of the anniversary, is that it pays as much attention to the character’s past and future, as it does the fictional present. As the movie opens, a mercenary employed by an unknown enemy of Britain manages not only to steal a flash drive containing the names and locations of MI6 personnel around the world, but also elude capture in a thrilling chase in cars and on motorbikes and a train. It ends when M (Judi Dench) orders Field Agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to take an ill-considered sniper shot at the two men as they wrestled on the top of a passenger train going 50 mph and about to enter a tunnel. Bond is hit by the bullet, which knocks him off the train and into a swiftly flowing river, at which point he disappears and is believed dead. The new chairman of Intelligence and Security Committee, Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), holds M directly responsible for the loss of the flash drive and, only incidentally, Bond. When the secret agent does re-surface at a bar in the company of beautiful woman, natch, Mallory uses the occasion to test his ability to still play in the big leagues.
Mallory favors computer-savvy agents over the old pros in the 00-series of spies. The techies may able to find a needle in a cyber-haystack, but they’re hardly a psychological match for such supervillains as the grudge-carrying Silva (Javier Bardem). Like most of Bond’s targets through the last half-century, Silva lives in the shadows and is several times more sinister and intelligent than anyone without field experience could possibly understand. Bond does, but the fitness tests ordered by Mallory tell us that the bullet wound has taken its toll on him and he’s playing the spook game at 80 percent of his potential strength. Giving a criminal mastermind a 20 percent advantage normally would be more than enough of an edge for Bond to succeed, but Silva’s really, really smart and his motivations have nothing to do with money or power. Ultimately, Bond levels the playing field by luring Silva to his boyhood home in Scotland, where even more exciting surprises await everyone.
What’s superlative about the Blu-ray edition of “Skyfall” is Deakins’ cinematography, which is never short of brilliant and adds yet another layer of excitement to the proceedings. Because he used digital equipment to shoot and edit the movie, the high-def transfer was accomplished without once resorting to film. The images are as pure as they could possibly be and it shows. The nighttime neon on display in the Shanghai exterior shots literally sparkles. Even though the interiors of the city’s hi-rises were re-created at Pinewood Studios, the strategically lit sets allowed even more magic. The lantern-lit entrance to Macau’s floating Golden Dragon Casino, its fiery gates and scarlet gaming floor practically constitute a work of art. By contrast, the gloomy cloud-covered skies over the moors surrounding Bond’s Skyfall estate have been manipulated to foreshadow the carnage to come there. I have a feeling that a deluxe edition of “Skyfall” will find its way into the marketplace soon enough, adding a ton more deleted scenes and featurettes. The nearly hourlong making-of featurette contained here is more of a promotional vehicle, but it adds some interesting making-of background, along with the fluff. There also are separate commentary tracks, one with Mendes and the other with producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson and production designer Dennis Gassner. – Gary Dretzka
The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Blu-ray
Most people would agree that the inability and/or unwillingness of teachers, school boards and parents to come to grips with the epidemic of bullying, peer pressure and harassment in our nation’s schools and on computer networks is reprehensible. In many schools, such behavior makes learning and teaching next to impossible, and smart kids are forced to act dumb to avoid being separated from the pack and devoured. Most of the teachers we meet in Lee Hirsch’s truly heart-breaking documentary, “Bully,” keep their heads in the sand, hoping the plague simply will go away; administrators fear lawsuits and reprisals so much that they refuse to acknowledge problems even exist; parents of bullies dismiss their child’s behavior as a kids-will-be-kids rite of passage; and the worst of the kids are written off before they can find a true purpose in life. Too often, they’re simply miniature version of their parents. There are no hard-and-fast explanations for what motivates manly-men athletes to push around kids half their size, simply because they’re gay, smart or unfashionable. Teachers and administrators have historically given the “popular” crowd a break when it comes to elevating the status of one group of students over another when it comes to social events and status. It’s easier than fighting the ever-rising tide of conformity or encouraging lower caste kids to find other ways than violence to fight back. By now it’s a cliché to suggest that the so-called nerds and geeks will have the last laugh, by making piles more money than their antagonists and buying all the toys they want. Maybe so, but they still have to survive the hellish rituals of middle and high school first. Not even the Columbine massacre, during which heavily armed misfits targeted the jocks who abused them, provided sufficient cause for a national debate on the ramifications of bullying. It took the recent rash of suicides committed by kids harassed in Internet chat rooms and on Facebook to bring higher-than-usual attention to the issue.
The Weinstein Company is to be applauded for vigorously promoting “Bully,” even when the bean brains at the MPAA branded it with an “R” rating – based solely on strong, if not uncommon language — that would have prevented it from being shown in classrooms and to kids in their ’tweens and early teens. Its public campaign to reverse the decision raised awareness of the documentary, but only after a middle ground was reached on some of the language. The debate needn’t have gotten that far. The director, Hirsch, wasn’t attempting to shock anyone with anything except the cold reality of what happens every day in the hallways, classrooms, lunch rooms and buses of the schools he surveyed. He did this by spending an entire school year following five families that have been impacted by bullying and/or homophobia. The interwoven stories include those of two families that have lost children to suicide and a mother whose 14-year-old daughter was incarcerated after she felt it necessary to carry a gun on her school bus to dissuade further attacks. For the most part, the parents don’t have the wherewithal to find schools where the kids are more tolerant or there’s a zero-tolerance approach to discipline. That option wouldn’t be necessary at all if some of the adults we meet weren’t so obtuse and, yes, downright stupid. (One teacher chastised a long-tormented boy for not shaking hands with his nemesis, as if the blame for the abuse was shared 50/50 and the promise of a bully had true value.) In one town, administrators effectively admitted their culpability by boycotting a meeting called by parents to discuss a tormented student’s suicide. “Bully” is a documentary that demands of viewers that they never forget the faces of the children to whom they’re introduced. It freely elicits our anger, empathy and tears, while also providing avenues to address our concerns. The Blu-ray comes with several worthwhile bonus features, including a version edited especially for younger audiences; deleted scenes; a piece on how an entire school reacted to a screening; another in which Meryl Streep describes her reaction; a look at how one of the subjects has fared since the film was made; and other featurettes with teachable moments.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” shares several things with “Bully,” including receiving a rating that would have prevented it from being seen by its target audience. Despite its sensitivity to the issues teenagers deal with on a daily basis, the MPAA gave it an “R” for “teen drug and alcohol use, and some sexual references.” Fortuitously, the board came to its senses after an appeal by the distributor. It received a PG-13, but with a proviso that cautioned of “mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight — all involving teens.” I’d be willing to bet that the original rating had more to do with the positive portrayal of a gay character than anything else in the movie. Writer/director Stephen Chbosky does a nice job adapting his 1999 coming-of-age novel, which found a cult following among teens. Set in the early 1990s, hence the hit-driven soundtrack, “Perks” tells the story of a high school freshman, Charlie (Logan Lerman), who feels desperately alienated from his classmates, both for his withdrawn personality and the negative reaction of his peers to his superior intelligence. The only way we know what’s turned Charlie into such an emotional basket case is the through letters he writes to possibly non-existent friends. It isn’t until Charlie endears himself to a clique of seniors, who also live outside the orbit of the popular crowd, that he feels comfortable with fellow students. Chbosky makes it easy for us to believe that facsimiles of these kids exist in real high schools and share the same experiences as Charlie and his friends. (I’m not sure how many high schools would approve of a student production of “Rocky Horror Show,” however) The stellar cast includes Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Nina Dobrey, Julia Garner, Mae Whitman and, as adult characters, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Paul Rudd, Melanie Lynskey and Joan Cusack. The Blu-ray adds a pair of featurettes and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka
The Thieves: Blu-ray
When it comes to staging elaborate stunts and action sequences in hi-rises and other urban settings, Hollywood and Hong Kong traditionally have set the standard for others to follow. Not only are such scenes dangerous, but they’re also labor-intensive and frequently prohibitively expensive. Only God and a bean-counter at Paramount know exactly how much money it took for Tom Cruise to hang precipitously from the summit of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower in “Mission:Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” The cost of the insurance premium that allowed Cruise to forgo the stunt-double ruse would scare most filmmakers off. Jackie Chan has also proven that elaborate stunts can be performed on limited budgets and in tight spaces most filmmakers would avoid. Borrowing a page or two from the “Oceans’ 11” and “M:I” playbooks, director Choi Dong-hoon and co-writer Lee Gi-cheol have crafted an elaborate heist thriller that western audiences should find almost as entertaining as those in Asia, where “The Thieves” was a huge hit. It did so by assembling an all-star cast of actors from Korea and China and using locations in Seoul, Macau and Hong Kong. The scenario is relatively simple. Rival crews from China and Korea meet in Hong Kong at the invitation of criminal mastermind Macau Park (Kim Yun-seok), who lays out a scheme involving the “Tear of the Sun” diamond, previously owned by the mistress of a Chinese racketeer. The gem is stashed behind several layers of state-of-the-art security inside one of Macau’s plush new casinos. (It looks nothing at all like the helter-skelter gambling den in “The Man With the Golden Gun.”) We’ve already been shown how adept the thieves have proven to be in previous capers, so the one in Macau doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. Choi also lays the foundation for the many double-crosses and romantic subplots that will come into play during the movie’s 135-minute length. That’s about all one needs to know – in terms of plot, anyway — before deciding to rent “The Thieves.” The other positive thing here is that, in addition to being beautiful and sexy, the women characters exist on the same criminal and physical plane as the men. They aren’t merely deployed as decoys, diversions or femme fatales. Everyone has skills specifically suited to the caper and screen time is shared more or less equally. The ensemble approach is what allows “The Thieves” to be mentioned in the same breath as “Ocean’s 11.” The action and stunts are what distinguish it from those franchises. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and backgrounder. – Gary Dretzka
Dangerous Liaisons: Blu-ray
Once again, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” proves to be as elastic today as it’s been since first being published in 1782, even in non-epistolary form. The wicked machinations of the idle rich, when sufficiently bored, provide one-size-fits-all entertainment. It doesn’t matter much whether an adaptation is set in France, at any point during the last 230 years of the country’s history (“Valmont”); among jaded Manhattan teens in the 1990s (“Cruel Intentions”); in 18th Century Korea (“Untold Scandal”); or, here, the early 1930s in Shanghai. It’s also served artists who labor in print, on stage, radio, opera, ballet and television. It would take a pretty miserable writer or director to screw up “Dangerous Liaisons” and Hur Jin-ho certainly holds up his end of the bargain on film. While half a world and 150 years away from pre-revolution France, the Chinese setting couldn’t be more apropos. In 1931, Shanghai was as important a commercial center as there was in the world. The winds of war were carrying wealthy exiles from the north of China, visa-less Jews and formerly wealthy Russian aristocrats to “The Paris of the East,” where the Jazz Age had yet to come to an end and the good times continued to roll. The Japanese would put an end to the fun soon enough, but, in 1931, there was still time for the bored socialite, Mo (Cecilia Cheung), to conspire with her playboy friend, Xie (Jang Dong-kun), over the virginity of a chaste young woman already promised to a wealthy and powerful man, who Mo despises. Mo and Xie still harbor a jones for each other, but refuse to act on their secret desires. If Xie wins the bet by corrupting the precious flower, Beibei (Candy Wang), though, she’ll finally be his. Naturally, things don’t work out as planned. That “Dangerous Liaisons” ends in tragedy hardly qualifies as a spoiler. What’s wonderful about the movie is Hur’s lavish re-creation of the lifestyles of Shanghai’s upper-crust and their haunts. The attention to detail and period accuracy will resonate with admirers of Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution,” James Ivory’s “The White Countess,” Zhang Yimou’s “Shanghai Triad” and John Curran’s “The Painted Veil.” Among the cast of popular Chinese and Korean actors are Zhang Ziyi, Lisa Lu and Shawn Dou. The movie looks excellent in Blu-ray and includes making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes. – Gary Dretzka
Mimesis: Night of the Living Dead: Blu-ray
Given that most zombie movies now are released straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray, it’s nice to see that “Warm Bodies” — a nifty revisionist take on the subgenre – has been able to make a pile of money in theatrical release. Knee-jerk comparisons to the “Twilight” saga probably didn’t hurt its ability to attract opening-weekend audiences. A look was all it took to spark word-of-mouth. Through no fault of its own, “Mimesis” wasn’t quite so fortunate. Any title that demands a perusal of a good dictionary – “imitation in the form of art” — already has one strike against it. The newly added subtitle, “Night of the Living Dead,” is a bit more inviting. Fact is, it’s a pretty entertaining movie, which pays homage to the George Romero classic without ripping it off in the process. After the zombie attack that opens “Mimesis,” director Douglas Schulze and writer Joshua Wagner take viewers to a horror convention in the Midwest. Naturally, many of the participants are dressed in zombie drag, while others are drawn to the seminars, including one conducted by a belligerent expert played by the great Sid Haig. To cap the confab, several fans have been invited to a party at a lonely rural location. At some point during the proceedings, they’re slipped a drug that causes them to pass out. When they awaken, the fans are dressed in different clothing and situated in places that are unfamiliar to them. Unlike devotees of “NOTLD” in the audience, the partiers are slow to grasp the fact that they’ve been dressed to resemble characters in the movie. Moreover, when the flesh-eaters emerge from the shadows, they appear to be following Romero’s script, as well. Is it a case of deja-vu all over again or has some fiend transported them to the site that inspired the 1968 ground-breaker? I’ll never tell. Suffice it to say that a $500,000 budget couldn’t prevent Schulze from pulling out all of the the stops on his creation. Horror devotees looking for a change of pace could do a lot worse than investing a brisk 95 minutes on “Mimesis.” – Gary Dretzka
Same Time Every Year
Serena: An Adult Fairy Tale
When Ron Jeremy checked himself into a hospital last month, suffering from what turned out to be a potentially lethal heart aneurysm, the celebrity media treated the news as if the man known as Hedgehog were a star of “Downton Abbey” or a member of the Dodgers or Angels. The announcers didn’t go into much detail on what made Jeremy a star in the first place, but those in the know already were aware of his status as, perhaps, the world’s most prolific porn actor. I bring this up because he is one of a small handful of actors, most of them male, whose careers have spanned the Golden Age and the expanding universe of cybersex. A jovial fellow, as well as a living legend, Jeremy has also appeared in several mainstream movies and celebrity-based reality shows. He’s been the subject of at least one serious documentary and hawks penis-enhancing pills on late-night cable shows. A far younger and noticeably more handsome version of Ron Jeremy appears in “Same Time Every Year,” one of a pair of vintage XXX movies being re-released this week by Impulse Pictures. The other is “Serena: An Adult Fairy Tale,” sent out in 1980. The movies where made back-to-back by Fred J. Lincoln, whose career spanned even longer than Jeremy. Known as well for portraying “Weasel” in “The Last House on the Left,” Lincoln died last month at the age of 75. Lincoln’s trajectory resembled that of Burt Reynolds’ character in “Boogie Nights.”
In the early 1980s, adult films were shot on film, often followed recognizable storylines and the sex scenes typically were far less formulaic than those being released in the post-gonzo era. Today, distributers rely on parodies and fetish sex to sell product. There are fetish scenes in “Serena” and “Same Time Every Year,” but they’re tailored to attract couples and crossover audiences. The latter borrows the title and conceit of Bernard Slade’s Broadway play, “Same Time, Next Year,” which, in 1978, was adapted for a movie starring Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda. Instead heading off for an annual convention, a group of male friends are chauffeured by Jeremy to a sex resort, where they spend the weekend committing adultery and being nagged by their lovers. Meanwhile, at home, their wives play the old what’s-good-for-the-goose game, by having their way with partners of both genders and job descriptions. Their husbands, of course, are none the wiser. Then and now, that’s about as ironic as porn movies got.
Also shot on film, “Serena” is less a parody or spoof than a remake of “Cinderella,” with hard-core sex and seriously horny characters. Poor Cinderella, as portrayed by blond hall-of-famer Serena, was sold into sexual slavery by her stepfather. In the brothel, she not only is required to perform chores, but also help her three “sisters” service their clients. Her fairy godmother gives Cinderella an opportunity to attend a party at which Prince Charles will be looking for a concubine. At midnight, in mid-tryst, Serena is required to beat a swift retreat to her quarters, minus one glass slipper. The rest is fairy-tale history. Among the male performers in these movies are Paul Thomas and Herschel Savage, whose careers preceded Jeremy’s by a few years and are still active in the industry, seemingly no worse for the wear. Jamie Gillis began in the early 1970s, but pretty much left the business by the turn of the new century. The careers of female leads Serena, Loni Sanders, Dorothy LeMay, Tiffany Clark and China Leigh, as well as those of the other Golden Age women, were effectively over by the mid- to late-1980s, when video forever changed the game. While hardly fresh looking, the DVDs are a noticeable step up from VHS and crusty Internet lifts. There are no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka
Now that it’s been officially announced there will, indeed, be a “Star Wars: Episode VII” and it will be piloted by “Star Trek” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” director J.J. Abrams, it’s fair to wonder when some of the fans we meet in “Jedi Junkies” will begin their ritual campout on Hollywood Boulevard. Unlike Trekkies, some of whom have proven to be both self-destructive and insufferably nerdy, the “Star Wars” devotees in Mark Edlitz’ documentary are no more creepy than people obsessed with counting “Hidden Mickeys” at Disneyland. At conventions, like the one seen in the doc, they dress in the costumes worn by their favorite characters, stage lightsaber competitions, ogle “slave Leia” belly dancers, check out the new model kits and incessantly rap about all things “Stars Wars.” More than anything else, though, these New Yorkers spend an enormous amount of money each year contributing to George Lucas’ retirement fund and coffers of dozens of his “Star Wars” partners. They include Hasbro, LEGO, eFX Collectibles, Hallmark Cards, Pottery Barn, ThinkGeek and, yes, even Williams-Sonoma (pancake molds, cookie cutters, cupcake decorating kits and a Stormtrooper flexible spatula). If there’s one thing pitiable about the collectors interviewed here it’s their inability to fight the urge to buy every new toy, game, model or DVD released into the marketplace, frequently in volume. Their devotion explains why toy and memorabilia companies send out products identical in every way, except for packaging or, perhaps, a single new weapon attached to a previously released action figure. The same rationale applies to desperate publishers of magazines – including Entertainment Weekly – who sell the same “collectible” edition with cover photos that vary by market, subscription status and demographic. They do this knowing that collectors will feel compelled to purchase multiple copies at inflated newsstand or mail-order prices. (Any time the word “collectible,” “limited edition” or “collector’s edition” is stamped on a package, it’s safe to assume what’s inside will never be worth anything more than it already costs.)
Some of the collectors to whom we’re introduced in “Jedi Junkies” freely admit to being beyond help and the toll they pay for their addiction can be estimated by the amount of memorabilia on their walls and shelves, often in duplicate and triplicate packaging. For some reason, Edlitz neglects to mention how much Lucas and his partners have exploited the franchise’s insatiable fans. Indeed, even as one prominent collector describes how much fans hated a licensed collection of grotesquely bulked-up action figures — the characters, including Princess Leia, look as if they’d been injecting themselves with steroids since “Episode I” – he holds up a package, proving that he also got sucked into the scheme. He simply can’t help himself. “Jedi Junkies” was completed before Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion, demonstrating just how valuable the overall “Star Wars” brand actually is. Other than that, the documentary is harmless enough, occasionally even enlightening. Among the people interviewed are Olivia Munn, who would be a popular choice among fanboys for the next iteration of Princess Leia; a choreographer of amateur lightsaber fights; a filmmaker who built the world’s only life-size Millennium Falcon; actors Ray Park (Darth Maul) and Peter Meyhew (Chewbacca); and “Blair Witch Project” director Ed Sanchez. The bonus material includes commentary and several extended interviews. – Gary Dretzka
Instead of allowing a bunch of clueless ex-jocks to speculate on what was causing the electrical blackout at the Super Bowl, CBS could have done us all a favor by pulling over Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs and giving him an opportunity to save the day. As one of the driving forces behind the production company Team Sizzle, Suggs could have gone to his locker, picked up a DVD copy of “The Coalition”and handed it to network boss Les Moonves. Problem solved. As a first feature for almost everyone involved in the production, “The Coalition” describes what happens when the girlfriends of a star athlete and his posse discover that they have been cheated on, duped, lied to and abandoned by them. Instead of continuing to cry their mascara off in nightclub bathrooms, the ladies join forces to humiliate the cads at work, play and in the eyes of their new girlfriends, fiancés and wives. It’s not the freshest concept on Earth, but it still works. The movie was born at party when the wife of a friend overheard the ribald stories exchanged by a group of Suggs’ fellow athletes. She didn’t believe them until another playa came in, telling the same sorts of tales. Suggs knew there was a dramedy buried in the braggadocio. Along with director/producer/writer Monica Mingo, Suggs carved out a script and collaborated on almost everything that needed to be accomplished on the project. (He even got a credit as costume designer.) Because much of “The Coalition” is set in a swank nightclub or swank restaurants, there’s plenty of sizzle to go around. The actors are attractive, the wardrobe is club-ready and everybody has spending cash. This compensates for dialogue that often is far less than sizzling and acting that isn’t quite ready for prime time. Nevertheless, I’m anxious to see if Suggs and Mingo can improve on their first feature. The DVD adds plenty of interviews and bonus features. – Gary Dretzka
BBC: Attenborough’s Life Stories: Blu-ray
PBS: John Portman: A Life of Building
Nova: What Are Animals Thinking?
For British Baby Boomers and their parenst, Sir David Attenborough served the same purpose as Marlin Perkins had for American TV viewers. Attenborough’s “Zoo Quest” followed Perkins’ “Zoo Parade” to the air by only a couple of years on opposite sides of the big pond. Both described how and where zoos found the animals and birds that filled their cages and displays (“habitats” would come later). From 1963-85, while Sir David was promoted to higher offices at the BBC, Perkins’ “Wild Kingdom” adopted a less acquisitive approach to zoology. After tiring of life in the executive suites, he returned to the natural world to produce such groundbreaking series as “Life on Earth,” “The Living Planet,” “The Trials of Life” and, more recently, such triumphs as “The Blue Planet,” “Planet Earth,” “The Natural World,” “Life” and “Frozen Planet.” For their American runs, some xenophobic executives thought it wise to substitute Attenborough’s authoritative voice for that of Oprah Winfrey, Sigourney Weaver and Alec Baldwin. He speaks proper English, not Cockney, but programmers somehow assumed that Americans give a crap who’s reading from a script. There’s nothing like the real thing on Blu-ray, though. “Attenborough’s Life Stories” is the equivalent of a greatest hits album, with black-and-white footage from memorable first journeys and discoveries, in addition to parallel material from the color and hi-def era. The stories, which span his 60 years with the BBC, are well-told and endlessly fascinating. His enthusiasm and dedication to preserving the Earth’s resources is infectious. The only bonus feature is “The Ark,” during which the 86-year-old Attenborough chooses 10 of the most important, and lesser known, animals he would most like to save from extinction.
Although most Americans wouldn’t be able to describe the achievements of John Calvin Portman Jr., there aren’t many who haven’t marveled at his architectural creations or strayed into a hotel he has designed, if only to check out the lobby. At a time when many Americans were abandoning the country’s great urban centers, the Georgia Tech-trained architect almost single-handedly re-vitalized Atlanta by developing the multi-block Peachtree Center, whose then-unique atriums attracted as many sight-seers as guests. His striking designs for Detroit’s Renaissance Center, the New York Marriott Marqui, Los Angeles’ Westin Bonaventure Hotel and San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center served a similar purpose. In “John Portman: A Life of Building,” his life and career are chronicled in great detail, as are the many innovations he brought to the fore. The tours of his homes, alone, are worth the investment in time. Portman’s journey hasn’t been a single smooth sail from start to finish. He and his firm were caught in one major economic downturn, at least, nearly losing all the fruits of their labors. Fortuitously, just as Portman’s prospects neared rock bottom, an invitation to design the multi-use Shanghai Center arrived from China. Its success opened doors for Portman that had been closed to western architects for decades. During the next 20 years, commissions would roll in from then-booming China and other Asian countries. Largely unknown here, he’s regarded as something of a hero there.
The new “Nova ScienceNow” presentation, “What Are Animals Thinking?,” addresses an issue nearly every pet owner has attempted to fathom since the first cow or dog was domesticated. Although it isn’t likely that anyone will figure out what really makes a cat tick, there are plenty of animals whose secrets lie closer to the surface. The package is broken into four segments: “Do Animals Know Right From Wrong?,” in which scientists studying animal cognition are “revealing the machinery of animals’ moral compasses”; “Pigeon GPS,” which attempts explain how homing pigeons make it home on time for dinner, sometimes after traveling hundreds of miles over unfamiliar terrain; “Hive Genius,” an investigation into the intricate communication patterns within a giant bee colony; and “Profile: Laurie Santos,” which introduces us to Yale scientist Laurie Santos, who’s studying a community of more than 900 monkeys to possibly reveal the evolutionary roots of human foibles. – Gary Dretzka
Gossip Girl: The Complete Sixth and Final Season
In September, 2007, tens of thousands of middle-class Americans were awakening to the reality that many of their retirement plans, homes and careers might be gone by the time a new president would take office in January. Meanwhile, a new prime-time soap opera debuted on the CW network that basically spit in the eye of the financial crisis by introducing us to teenagers who spent more on clothes and cocktails (no ID was ever required of them) in one weekend than the average American taxpayer made in a year. Its primary conceit involved a gossip monger whose observations spread through the teens’ social network faster than shoes at a Manolo Blahnik trunk show. And, throughout the next six seasons, there never was a scarcity of dirt to dish. “Gossip Girl” ended its run last December with a Prado bag full of surprises and a finale that predicted what would happen five years down the road. It’s difficult enough to wrap up the intrigue contained in a single episode of “Gossip Girl,” let alone an entire season, but the show’s many surprises, unlikely coincidences and narrative contrivances made “The O.C.” and “90210” look simplistic by comparison. Season Six wraps up all of the loose ends, resuscitates abandoned characters and, most importantly, reveals the identity of Gossip Girl. Even those fair-weather fans who drifted off when things got weird should find something of interest in “Gossip Girl: The Complete Sixth and Final Season.” The set includes “A Big Farewell to Our Upper East Siders,” in which cast and crew members bid adieu to the show; a series retrospective; a gag reel; unaired scenes; and “Gossip Girl Prequel: It Had to Be You” audio download. – Gary Dretzka
Slugterra: Return of the Shane Gang
Babar: The Movie
The Red Hen … and Other Cooking Stories
Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Butterfly Ball
When I read the promo material on the cover of “Slugterra: Return of the Shane Gang,” I found it difficult to imagine anyone producing an animated series in which “powerful magical slugs” are used as weapons in an “epic sci-fi comedy adventure.” Now that I’ve watched it, I still don’t believe it. Have animators finally run out of cartoon animals to immortalize in kiddie show? Slugs, a.k.a. terrestrial gastropod mollusks, are the critters that slither along the surface of plants and sidewalks, usually after a rain, leaving trails of mucous behind them. As far as I know, they can’t talk, fly and fit inside most bullet casings, as is the case here. Nevertheless, any show that might discourage little boys from stomping or, worse, eating the slimy boogers is OK in my book. Apparently, 100 miles below the surface of the earth, there’s a land called Slugterra, which very much resembles the Wild West of yesteryear. Gunslingers armed with slug-shooting pistols compete for bragging rights and an evil Dr. Blakk runs the criminal underworld. After his father disappears from view in Slugterra, 15-year-old humanoid Eli Shane makes it his duty to cleanse Slugterra of this mastermind of mayhem. The Shane Gang includes the golden-bullet slug Burpy and fellow “slug-slingers” Trixie, Kord and Pronto. As ludicrous as this scenario might sound, the hyperkinetic “Slugterra” is well-drawn and imaginative. The same can’t be said of many other cartoon series aimed at kids today. The Canadian-American co-production was shown here on Disney XD. The DVD adds an interview with the series’ creator and story editor, along with bonus “slugisodes.”
Released into theaters in 1989, after its first year on HBO, “Babar: The Movie” recalls in musical form the Elephant King’s first great triumph over Lord Rataxes and his rhino army. It came despite the efforts of Elephantland bureaucrats to thwart the boy king. Unlike the series, the movie is informed less by comedy as it is an allegory for the crimes against poachers and other abusers of endangered animals. As such, younger viewers might need a bit of parental guidance, a task that adults shouldn’t find too painful. Or, they could be prepped ahead of time with readings from the delightful books by Jean de Brunhoff. The DVD includes the “Babar” episode, “Monkey Business.”
The latest compilation of episodes from Nickelodeon’s “Dora the Explorer” is typical of previous DVD releases from the network. It contains only three selections – “The Butterfly Ball,” “Vamos a Pintar!” and “Feliz Dia de los Padres!” – that, while charming, may be overly familiar to loyal fans. There aren’t any true bonus features, either. But, it’s also possible that “The Butterfly Ball” contains your child’s favorite episode, so there’s no such thing as “overly familiar.”
Because they haven’t been overexposed on television, Scholastic’s “Storybook Treasures” are the kinds of made-for-DVD collections that actually have some shelf life. The read-along feature also allows kids to get an early grip on connecting words with images. “The Red Hen … and Other Cooking Stories” helps young viewers understand how cooking and baking can sometimes be as much fun as eating. Besides “The Red Hen,” the selections are “Bread Comes to Life,” narrated by Lily Tomlin; the mischievous “How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?” provides funny examples of how not to eat; and “Arnie the Doughnut,” narrated by Michael McKean, about an overachieving treat. The set adds an easy-to-follow recipe for “Simply Splendid Cake.” – Gary Dretzka