The Returned: Season One: Blu-ray
The Americans: Season One: Blu-ray
You may already have read about the super-spooky 2012 French mini-series, “The Returned,” which will be adapted by ABC-TV in March as “The Resurrected.” The buzz surrounding the show has bordered on the ecstatic, with non-hyperbolic comparisons to “Twin Peaks,” any number of Stephen King mini-series, “The Walking Dead,” “American Horror Story,” “The 4400” and “The Sweet Hereafter.” It’s that good and that worthy of binging in its DVD/Blu-ray form … subtitles and all. Set in an idyllic French Alpine village, it opens with a bus careening for no obvious over a road barrier into a reservoir. A flash-forward to a support-group meeting tells us everything we need to know about the fate of the passengers and the impact of the tragedy on the community. Everyone appears to be living in a state of suspended animation. The goosebumps begin when a girl we recognize from the bus appears on the road leading into town, heading for her family’s home. Upon her return, she’s greeted with the wide-eyed disbelief and modulated horror that one would expect from such an unexpected event. The red-headed girl, probably in her early teens, looks exactly the same as when she died in the crash – no evidence of zombiefication – but she has no recollection of what occurred to her, let alone how the other passengers fared. At first, her divorced parents agree not to reveal the re-appearance. Soon enough, though, other long-dead youths begin to appear in various places around town, not always as benevolent spirits. The creepiest is a little boy, who’s in no hurry to talk about anything, but draws pictures that resonate with the horror he witnessed years earlier, when he was killed. An older teen returns to the home of his father, who killed and buried him years earlier; a bridegroom visits the woman he left standing at the altar, after committing suicide; and a serial killer re-haunts the pedestrian tunnels in which he attacked several women. You get the picture. Before long, the presence of such returnees can’t be hidden and they blend, more or less, into the scenery. At the same time, the town’s huge man-made lake has begun to leak, slowly revealing the ruins of a town destroyed by a flood. It’s at this point that story begins to stray into “Twin Peaks” territory and there are several more episodes yet to come. The feeling of imminent dread is maintained throughout, thanks to an eerie musical soundtrack, understated color palette and portentous flashbacks. As the lake continues to drain, with no apparent outlet, power blackouts put everyone in the dark, literally and figuratively. “The Returned” is based on the 2004 movie, “They Came Back” (“Les Revenants”). The forthcoming ABC series, which stars Omar Epps, Frances Fisher, Samaire Armstrong and Matt Craven, follows a similar pattern. The only bonus feature is a booklet with essays on the show.
I missed the entire first season of “The Americans” when it aired on the FX Network last year. After sampling two episodes from the Blu-ray package, however, I was hooked. I binged through the entire series and, now, can’t wait for the second-season debut at the end of February. As I recall, I previously had a difficult time getting past the premise of a matched pair of undercover Soviet spies living together, with their children, during the Reagan years in Washington. Although they were born, trained and paired in the U.S.S.R., Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) are by all appearances typical American suburbanites and small-business owners. Complicating their lives is the arrival, across the street, of a high-ranking FBI counterintelligence agent (Noah Emmerich) and his family. Is this coincidental or planned? In either case, the men soon will become friends and confidantes. The spy-vs.-spy setup would suspenseful enough to propel most mini-series, but “The Americans” adds overlapping relationship and workplace storylines. Actual news events from the period, including the assassination attempt on President Reagan and announcement of his “Star Wars” missile-defense strategy, also inform the drama. Unlike too many other Cold War-based movies and series, this one sustains the suspense throughout with cliffhangers, elaborate fake-outs and strategically deployed sexuality. Much of the verisimilitude can be traced to the arrests, a few years ago, of an actual cell of Russian “sleeper agents,” who had been “hiding in plain sight” in the U.S. for decades. Then, too, show creator Joseph Weisberg worked in the CIA’s directorate of operations from 1990 to 1994. As such, anything involving the agency had to have been cleared by the CIA Publications Review Board. The Blu-ray extras only add some deleted scenes of no real consequence. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka
Ender’s Game: Blu-ray
Through no fault of his own, the resemblance of the protagonist to Frankie Muniz (“Malcolm in the Middle”) and the animated hero of Steven Spielberg’s “Tintin” frequently distracted me from a complete appreciation of “Ender’s Game.” Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) looks a couple of years short of his actual age of 16 and nothing like any notion I’ve ever had of an intergalactic war hero. Not being familiar with the mythology in Orson Scott Card’s series of “Ender” stories and novels, I found myself focusing on Butterfield, instead of Ender Wiggin. His youth being one of primary conceits of the story, however, I suspended my curiosity and accepted the character on its own terms. Born into a military family in the 2120s and desperate to follow in his dad’s footsteps, Ender already is familiar with the threat posed to Earth by hostile aliens, known as the Formics or Buggers. Once in advanced flight school, technical knowledge and shooting skills put him at the top of the class. When attacked by bullies, however, his ferocious response demonstrates a distinct lack of self-control. Nonetheless, it impresses his tough-as-nails superior, Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), who decides to test his leadership credentials in a series of “games.” It comes as no surprise that Ender masters those skills, while also organizing the younger students in a competition with upperclassmen. As the games get more sophisticated and closer to reality, something resembling a conscience begins to emerge from deep inside Ender’s psyche. At one time during his training, he even returns home to weigh his options in a war-torn universe. After Ender returns to the base, he is assigned to a remote outpost to train for an attack by the Formics. In what appears to be a simulation of the battles to come, Ender is required to make life or death decisions no 16-year-old should have to ponder, let alone execute.
Many recent sci-fi adventures have been compared to first-person-shooter video games, in which players are rewarded for their speed, accuracy and anticipatory skills in simulated attacks. Writer/director Gavin Hood probably could have saved tens of millions of dollars by sticking with proven technology, instead of blowing up the screen with newly invented software. Co-producer Digital Doman probably stood to benefit from sales of related video-game products. Considering the markup on software, it’s possible the strategy worked. Or, not. With a production budget estimated to be $110 million, Lionsgate/Summit anticipated total revenues of substantially more than $112 million. Lately, overseas box-office has served to make up for disappointing revenues in the U.S. Not this time, however. After opening in the No. 1 spot last November 3, on more than 3,400 screens, with a $27-million haul, box-office tallies plummeted to $10.3 million in Week 2. That must hurt and confused its backers. It should be noted, however, that the distributor was blindsided by calls for a boycott, based on homophobic remarks Card has made several times in the past 20 years. They were judged to be so off-putting as to eliminate Card from the movie’s marketing campaign and a gig as guest author for DC Comics’ new “Adventures of Superman” series. Although there’s no anti-gay subtext to the movie, the timing was miserable. The Supreme Court was about to act on the legality of gay marriages and the entertainment press held the author’s toes to the fire. The super Blu-ray visual presentation is complemented by commentary with Hood, in which he discusses changing the protagonist’s character; commentary with producers Gigi Pritzker and Roberto Orci; the eight-part featurette, “The Making of ‘Ender’s Game’”; deleted/extended scenes, with optional commentary by Hood; and “Inside the Mind Games,” which examines some of the motion-capture techniques utilizes to forge the games that Ender plays on his tablet. – Gary Dretzka
The Jungle Book: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray
Free Birds: Blu-ray
Best known for being the last movie personally supervised by Walt Disney, “The Jungle Book” can hold its own as a crowd-pleaser, even now, almost 50 years later. After perusing the interviews in the bonus package, it’s impossible to ignore Uncle Walt’s fingerprints on the studio’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “Mowgli” stories. All of the Disney magic is readily discernable and none of Kipling’s darker elements. That’s because Disney instructed his creative team to ignore the book’ moralistic tone and “lighten up” material already created by the musicians, writers and illustrators. Whatever hurt feelings this decision might have endangered were compensated for by the movie’s popularity, which effectively saved the animation department from possible extinction in the wake of Disney’s imminent death. The film follows a young boy, Mowgli, around the Indian jungle after he was rescued as a baby from a boat by the panther Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot). Until he turned 10, he was protected by a family of wolves that lived deep in the jungle. When Bagheera learns that the greatly feared tiger, Shere Khan (George Sanders), has been lurking nearby, he decides to get Mowgli to the “man village.”
Instead, he turns to a big bear, Baloo (Phil Harris), for security. Bagheera will join them on their adventure, which also includes confrontations with a hypnotic python, Kaa (Sterling Holloway); the king-of-the-apes orangutan, Louie (Louis Prima); a herd of elephants; and “rock-n-roll” Vultures. Mowgli also becomes enchanted with the native jungle girl he spies on while she performs her chores at the river. Everything holds up pretty well after 50 years, especially the great Sherman Brothers’ songs, “The Bare Necessities,” “I Wanna Be Like You” and Holloway’s “Trust in Me.” One interesting piece of trivia, of which I wasn’t aware, involves an unsuccessful overture to the Beatles to voice the Vultures. Fans of Ron Howard’s brother, Clint, might recognize his 7-year-old voice as belonging to one of the elephants. The “Diamond Edition” Blu-ray package adds introductions by Diane Disney Miller and Richard M. Sherman; an alternate ending, “Mowgli and the Hunter,”; “DisneyAnimation: Sparking Creativity”; “Music, Memories & Mowgli,” a conversation with Sherman, Miller and artist Floyd Norman; “Disney Intermission, Bear-E-Oke” sing-along, hosted by Baloo; “I Wanna Be Like You: Hangin’ Out at Disney’s Animal Kingdom”; and featurettes included in the original DVD release.
Watching the animated feature, “Free Birds,” I couldn’t help but wonder what the creators of such holiday perennials as “It’s a Charlie Brown Christmas,” “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” might have done with the same $55 million invested in the Thanksgiving-themed comedy. Considering the amount of money Bill Melendez and Charles Schultz actually did realize from the many “specials” they created, probably nothing noticeable. I doubt they would have considered investing it in a large-format 3D re-creation of those hits, either. That’s how much was spent on “Free Birds,” not counting P&A, which brought in slightly more than $55 million at the domestic box office, with another $38 million deriving from overseas revenue. Such numbers would suggest that Jimmy Hayward’s movie about time-traveling birds is a different breed of turkey … the kind that find their way into the headlines of Variety. It’s not, really, just a movie whose appeal should be limited to the kids who sit down in front of the TV on Thanksgiving morning to watch the Macy’s Parade. When more consumers own HD3D televisions, it might still enjoy an afterlife. I can’t imagine it ever becoming a perennial on the order of the Charlie Brown presentations, but a product that can be pushed on VOD and other streaming outlets near the holidays. In “Free Birds,” Owen Wilson is the voice of Reggie, a blue-faced bird who’s figured out the true meaning of Thanksgiving for critters like him.
When he attempts to warn the flock what’s awaiting them in the days before the holiday, he’s considered to be an alarmist. Reggie avoids the ax after being pardoned by the president, who also makes him the pet of his ADD daughter. His peace is disturbed by a rebel turkey (Woody Harrelson), who wants to go back in time with Reggie to the first Thanksgiving, in order to change the traditional menu. Once back in the 1600s, they meet an Indian princess voiced by Amy Poehler, who’s become the go-to voice for these sorts of things. In short, “Free Birds” is clever without being terribly original and as good a holiday babysitter as anything else. In Blu-ray, it looks and sounds terrific. It adds several short featurettes, as well as a mouth-watering trailer for “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.” – Gary Dretzka
Romeo & Juliet: Blu-ray
It seems incredible that a movie about a woman whose face has graced the cover of People magazine 54 times couldn’t produce more than a ripple of excitement at the box office, at least in the United States. Despite the formidable presence of two-time Oscar finalist, Naomi Watts, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Diana” failed to scare up more than $194,000 in business in its aborted run in a small number of U.S. theaters. It did significantly better overseas, but not nearly enough to pull “Diana” into the black. So, what went so wrong so fast? If early reviews were far from welcoming, most critics found one or two nice things to say about “Diana,” anyway. Certainly, no expense was spared on locations – London, Italy, India (for Pakistan), Mozambique, Croatia – all of which were nicely captured by cinematographer Rainer Klausmann. If you didn’t already know that Watts is several years older than Diana when she died, you might guess that she’s the same age or younger. Her interpretation of Diana makes the princess funny, flirty, generous, brave and likeable, even when she’s desperately lonely, needy, spoiled and duplicitous. If their roles were reversed and Charles had cheated on Camilla with Diana, there wouldn’t have been more than one or two magazine covers and she’d be labelled a gold-digger. “Diana” is not that movie, however. My guess is, potential viewers were turned off by what they considered to be a bait-and-switch marketing campaign. Instead of being a gossipy, glittery free-for-all, this “Diana” focuses on a two-year period in her life when she was exiled to Limbo, apart from her children and still guided by the dictates of Her Royal Majesty the Queen. Instead, Stephen Jeffrey’s screenplay focuses on an affair that, today, is little more than a short chapter in her life story.
After the royal couple split up, Diana effectively was turned into a bird in a gilded cage. She resided alone in their former apartment at Kensington Palace, left to communicate with her children by telephone. Diana was given a modicum of freedom, but not enough to enjoy it. Moreover, Diana’s version of Prince Charming II didn’t resemble the one conjured up by the readers of People and the British tabloid press. That one more closely resembled the subject of her first affair, Major James Hewitt. While on a visit to a nearby hospital, she was transfixed by the prominent, if resolutely private British Pakistani surgeon, Dr. Hasnat Khan (Naveen Khan). As drawn here, Khan was smart, funny, reasonably handsome, a jazz lover and, like Diana, a humanitarian. Their relationship resembles one of those forbidden romances between a poor boy and rich girl in high school. Guarded around the clock, the Princess of Wales is forced to tell fibs and wear wigs, so as not to attract the attention of the paparazzi and Queen’s inquisition. Her love for him is demonstrated when, after Khan cautions her about how his Muslim family might react to their relationship, she secretly travels to Lahore to win them over. Sadly, when the paparazzi discovers it and begins to swarm his every move, Khan breaks Diana’s heart by reluctantly calling it quits. (The official story alleges the opposite.) According to the movie, the reason she allowed herself to become so publically involved with Dodi Fayed was to make Khan jealous enough to return to her. (Dodi, of course, was fabulously wealthy, as well.) Diana used the paparazzi as much as they used her, by alerting one editor, at least, of her whereabouts with Fayed, including on the deck of his yacht. Unfortunately, “Diana” is only slightly less leisurely paced than the average Lifetime movie and Khan, while clearly a remarkable chap, lacks even the charisma of Prince Charles. The Blu-ray adds interviews with cast and crew, as well as a “Diana Fashion Photo Booklet.”
I have to believe that, before she became Princess Diana, the Honorable Diana Frances Spencer was as addicted to the romantic novels of Jane Austen as a million other girls her age. In her case, however, the line dividing fact and fiction was very thin, indeed. The future Princess of Wales may well have been distantly related to some of the young women who dreamed of being swept away by Mr. Darcy. “Austenland” describes a theme park of the same name where female obsessives can live out their fantasies at a period-perfect estate in Buckinghamshire. Once the carriages carrying the guests pass through the gates of Austenland, they’re immersed in all-things Austen. There are balls, teas, outdoors activities and dinners in which to participate – in costume – and, for those so inclined, period-perfect escorts for the ladies. It sounds like a blast. (It makes you wonder how a Downton Abbey Fantasy Camp might fare.) Anyway, the perpetually youthful Keri Russell plays Jane Hayes, the most level-headed of the week’s group, which also includes the perpetually ditzy Jennifer Coolidge. The perpetually regal Jane Seymour plays the organizer of this elaborate charade and personally writes the individual storylines for the guests. Naturally, things don’t happen as scripted, especially in the romance department, and co-writer/director Jerusha Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite”) has to scramble towards the end of “Austenland” to come up with a satisfying ending. As light entertainments go, the movie is reliably funny and not at all condescending to Austen fans. (Any guy who lasts more than a half-hour without falling asleep or running out of your house is a keeper, ladies.) The Blu-ray includes commentary with Hess and producer Stephenie Meyer (“Twilight”) and a Q&A with cast members Russell, Coolidge, Seymour, McKenzie, King, J.J. Feild, Ricky Whittle and James Callis.
The producers of Carlo Carlei and Julian Fellowes’ “Romeo and Juliet” want us to believe – and, why not – that every new generation of viewers is entitled to its own tragic love story. William Shakespeare’s immortal “R&J” has been bent, folded, mutilated, Tromatized and J-tooned in so many different ways – from Hollywood to Bollywood, Tromatized and animed — over the course of the last 400-plus years that it’s difficult to imagine a truly innovative adaptation. The latest edition won’t surprise anyone, either, except those who’ve read, studied and love the text as written. As great as the settings and costumes may be in the 2013 edition of “R&J,” Fellowes’ decision to rewrite and re-imagine as much of the play as he has here speaks to the same hubris that drives the characters in all of the Bard’s tragedies. Or, maybe the success of “Downton Abbey” — which he created — has gone to his head. Like I said, though, newcomers probably won’t notice anything has been altered. What’s truly enjoyable in “R&J” are the locations, which include some of the finest palazzos in Italy, as well as the streets of Verona. Our star-crossed lovers are played by Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld, who, while they look young enough for the role, aren’t likely to elicit many tears at the strategic moment. There’s a lot to like in the new adaptation, even if it is targeted at a more television-oriented audience. Among them are scene-stealer Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Stellan Skarsgard, Natascha McElhone, Laura Morante and Tomas Arana. The Blu-ray presentation looks and sounds excellent. The extras include four short making-of pieces. — Gary Dretzka
The Counselor: Blu-ray
There were times while watching director Ridley Scott and first-time screenwriter Cormac McCarthy’s “The Counselor” that I felt as if I had picked up a novel at the library and read it all the way through without noticing that every third or fourth chapter was missing. The words and language gave me sufficient reason to keep reading, even though I wondered how some the characters had gotten from Point A to Point B without me noticing it. The choppy narrative also made me to wonder if some unhappy studio executive had decided to re-edit the movie with a machete. Like “No Country for Old Men,” which was based on a McCarthy novel, “The Counselor” surveys the criminal landscape of the borderland that separates the drug cartels and illegal immigrants from the big piggy bank el norte. Michael Fassbender is a slick El Paso attorney, known to all as Counselor, who, for some unknown reason, decides that it might be amusing to dabble in drug trafficking along the border. He’s just paid a fortune for a diamond ring he’ll give to his world-class girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), and it’s possible he’s developed a serious case of the shorts. His conduit to the cartels is a bona-fide lunatic – he has the haircut to prove it – played with gusto by Javier Bardem. Reiner’s girlfriend is the female scorpion, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who gets her kicks watching their pet cheetahs run down rabbits in the desert. Brad Pitt also portrays another species of criminal, who flies around the world, doing something or other involving cocaine or money-laundering. No sooner is the million-dollar deal between Counselor and the cartel put into gear than it implodes, and subsequent loss of a septic truck carrying enough cocaine to freeze the gums of everyone in Chicago. He’s blamed for the death of a motorcyclist, whose function only is revealed after he’s decapitated. Because Counselor had unsuccessfully defended his mother in court and got her son off a speeding beef, she blames him for the boy’s death. Somehow, this makes him a target for every armed vaquero between Nuevo Laredo and Yuma. Even after repeated viewing of the extended version, these sequences don’t make much sense. They do, however, provide McCarthy with a stage for his muscular dialogue. Also worth the price of admission is a scene in which Malkina and Laura are lounging around the pool, naked except for towels, discussing the value of the ring she’s just accepted from Counselor. It’s as good a performance by Diaz as those in “Bad Teacher” and “Being John Malkovich,” maybe better. “The Counselor” may overflow with violence, but it’s of the graphic–comics variety. The Blu-ray visual presentation shimmers like a mirage in the Sonoran Desert. It contains an unrated extended cut at 138 minutes and the theatrical release at 117 minutes; virals; and a featurette, “Truth of the Situation.” – Gary Dretzka
I have absolutely no idea what an Islamic cleric might have against a woman riding a bicycle, or the passage in the Koran that forbids such a thing, but anyone who can navigate a bike in an abaya deserves far more acclaim than condemnation. I suspect the prohibition has less to do with the possible glimpse of stocking than a belief that riding a bicycle could take her maidenhead. (This still wouldn’t explain the ban on driving, though.) “Wadjda” is far more that an indictment of a system that would forbid a little girl from enjoying herself on a day off from school. Not only is it Saudi Arabia’s first feature film, but it also was made by the kingdom’s first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour. If the movie exposes to the public what many viewers would consider to be unfair treatment of girls and women, it also demonstrates that someone in the Saudi bureaucracy was finally willing to take the risk of allowing Al Mansour to create a story that begs those questions. Wadjda is a free-spirited child whose mostly absentee father is being pushed by his mother to take a second wife. Her mom is a lovely woman, whose only crime is an inability to bear any more children, let alone a male heir. Wadjda drives her mother nuts with her desire for a brand-new bicycle, with which she can race a neighbor boy (also forbidden).
Her only hope, as unlikely as it might seem, is to win a Koran-memorization contest at her school. It’s not something for which the girl has previously demonstrated any proficiency, but it shows how badly she wants the bike. In effect, she’s using the Koran to acquire an object the mullahs insist is banned by the Koran. While Wadjda appears to be turning over a new leaf in pursuit of her goal, other girls her age are being claimed as second or third wives to geezers who can provide for them. Others are succumbing to western notions of womanhood. Certainly, too, not all of the women and girls we meet feel as if they’re imprisoned by the abaya and other restrictions. If they go along to get along, so be it. There’s no reason to spoil any more of the movie’s surprises, of which there are several. “Wadjda” reminded me of a segment in the Iranian movie, “The Day I Became a Woman.” In it, a group of women are shown racing their bicycles, in robes, on a road alongside the sea. Out of nowhere comes the lead cyclist’s husband, followed by other men on horses, all intent on preventing her from riding “the devil’s throne.” Another segment in the film takes place on the day a female character, 9, officially is considered to be a woman and is required not only to wear a chador, but also discontinue her friendship a male playmate. The Blu-ray package adds an interesting making-of featurette, which describes the difficulties of making a film in Saudi Arabia and the unique access she had to her subjects because men wouldn’t have been allowed to make the same connections. – Gary Dretzka
The Artist and the Model: Blu-ray
One of the excellent fringe benefits of being an artist or sculptor is being able to legitimately call on the services of models — female or male, professionals and amateurs – to provide inspiration or simply to brighten up their lives. Or, at least, so it seems in such movies as “La belle noiseuse,” “Van Gogh,” “Vincent & Theo,” “Goya’s Ghosts,” “Renoir,” “Pretty Baby,” “Artemisia,” “Surviving Picasso,” “Sirens,” “Caravaggio,” “Klimt,” “Art School Confidential” and, now, “The Artist and the Model.” All are highly erotic, yet non-exploitative, and created for arthouse audiences by serious directors and actors. Nudity goes with the territory. The locations in which such movies are shot frequently are as visually appealing as the work, itself. Sadly (and stupidly), the MPAA ratings board has continued to treat nudity, no matter how artistic, as being more dangerous than serial killers and more insidious than the zombie apocalypse. “The Artist and the Model” is a beautiful movie, with a heart-warming message that could hardly be more universal. The model’s nudity is handled with great sensitivity and all of it is relevant to the story. I don’t know if its “R” rating limited the film’s exposure to a mere nine screens, but, if it did, somebody should have been thrown in jail. “TA&TM” bears a striking resemblance to Gilles Bourdos’ “Renoir,” released last spring, in that they chronicle the final years of two great artists and the impact of much younger models/muses on them. “Renoir” made $2.3 million at the U.S. box office in limited release, so, clearly, someone wants to see movies like this.
Set in occupied France, circa 1943, sculptor Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort) is looking ahead to his imminent death with no small degree of relief. He splits his time between his studio in the Pyrenees and the nearby town, where his wife, Lea (Claudia Cardinale), lives with their elderly housekeeper. One day, Lea notices a teenage girl washing her feet in the fountain of the village. Something about her posture leads Lea to believe that the undernourished girl would make a perfect model for her husband. Turns out, Merce (Aida Folch) has recently escaped from a refugee camp on the Spanish border and is in desperate need of food, money and a place to hide. In another movie, such a scenario might lead viewers to think Lea is offering Merce up to her husband as a sexual favor for treating her so well for so long a time. Instead, being Marc’s former muse, she not only recognizes how Merce might reinvigorate his creativity, but also that she’s safe in his hands from lecherous neighbors and Nazis, not all of whom are philistines when it comes to art. As a portrait of an elderly artist, Fernando Trueba’s film borders on the exquisite. It takes its time getting to where Trueba wants it to go and doesn’t waste any adding extraneous drama or gratuitous sex. And, yes, it looks terrific in Blu-ray. The Cohen Media package adds an interview with Trueba (“Belle Epoque”) and a photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka
Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon: Blu-ray
BBC: Sherlock: Season Three
Apart from Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto, both of whom were played by western actors, and James Hong in “Black Widow,” American audiences have rarely been exposed to Asian private detectives. As the Chinese film industry continues to expand beyond Hong Kong, the drought of contemporary crime thrillers from the mainland already appears to be easing. Even so, most of the cops-and-robbers stuff continues to derive from HK. “Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame” and its “prequel,” “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon,” may take place in the early years of the Tang Dynasty, but they’re good enough to almost make us forget the racial stereotyping of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto. (To be fair, those series retain their storytelling spark in DVD, but only in the same way that “Amos & Andy” can still induce belly laughs.) Detective Dee employs many of the same abductive and deductive reasoning skills as Sherlock Holmes would, centuries later in London. Tsui Hark’s pictures merge Basil Rathbone’s take on Sherlock Holmes with the fair more action-oriented iteration popularized recently by Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. “Rise of the Sea Dragon” takes place some 20 years before the events recorded in “Mystery of the Phantom Flame.” Detective Dee’s methodology goes against the dictates of the empress’ Justice Department, which prefers the reading of tea leaves to logic and beating confessions out of suspects. The prequel opens with a wonderfully staged sea battle between the warships of the Imperial Navy and vessels from a nearby island. No sooner do the opposing forces begin to confront each other, than a giant sea monster overwhelms both fleets with body slams and tsunami-like waves. As a young cop assigned to the investigation, Dee almost immediately begins to ruffle feathers with his theories and predictions, which extend to a royal consort and conjurers, as well as a tea grown exclusively for pleasure of the Empress. There’s a lot going on in “Young Detective Dee” and it takes a while to fill in the blanks left in the story’s subtitles. Hark’s mastery of action sequences is on full display, along with the talents of fashion, production and set designers, whose work always sparkles brightest in Blu-ray. (The 3D version isn’t available yet.)
And, speaking of Holmes, is it possible that Moriarty didn’t die in the Season Two finale of “Sherlock”? What a waste that would be. As the three episodes in the BBC’s Season Three progressed, it became clear that one of the greatest villains in literary history either survived “The Reichenbach Fall” or a like-minded fiend is doing an excellent job impersonating him. What we do know is that Holmes is back in London after a two-year trip absence, and, in the meantime, Dr. John Watson has gotten engaged to the duplicitous Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington). The stories in Season Three were inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Empty House,” “The Sign of the Four” and “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” Naturally, the series’ writers take certain liberties with the texts, largely to enhance the visual presentation, which gets pretty freaky at times. To no one’s surprise, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are, once again, in fine form. Typically, the BBC/Warners’ releases are favored over PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery” airings, which tend to be edited for American consumption. Special features include the behind-the-scenes, “The Fall”; making-of “Shooting Sherlock”; and “Fans, Villains & Speculation: The Legacy of Sherlock Holmes.” – Gary Dretzka
Danny Huston, who stars in “2 Jacks” with his nephew, Jack, has appeared in six movies directed by Bernard Rose. He has starred or co-starred in all four of the films Rose has adapted from the stories and novels of Leo Tolstoy. I mention this because of the ease with which Huston handles his over-the-top character in “2 Jacks,” which is based on Tolstoy’s “Two Hussars.” The comfort level between Huston and Rose is as palpable as that displayed in John Nicholson’s work with Bob Rafelson and Leo DeCaprio with Martin Scorsese, among other actor/director alliances. Here, he plays a notorious director, Jack Hussar, who’s run out of bridges to burn in Hollywood and is fishing for a sucker to finance his next film. Although Jack is broke, he hasn’t lost any of his bodacious charm and uncanny wiles. He’s the kind of oversized character who can walk into a room of any size and suck the air from all of the inflated egos in attendance … or, at least, the ones who have yet to figure out his game. In the first of two interrelated sections, Jack gloms onto a wannabe producer who’s been obsessed with his films since he was knee-high to a box office. From him, he manages to secure a place to sleep, park his destructive dog, get invited to a star-studded party in the hills, find a poker game and a woman (Sienna Miller) or two who haven’t previously fallen for his bluster. It doesn’t end well for him.
A half-generation later, a dissipated Jack Hussar Jr. (Jack Huston) blows into Hollywood for the same reason as his dad, before him. In a coincidence only available to novelists and screenwriters, young Jack finds himself in the company of a very nice gal, whose mother once gave his father a place to crash and temporary use of her sports car. Magically, Sienna Miller has grown into Jacqueline Bisset and Jack Jr. is given every opportunity to blow a sure thing. I think that we’re supposed to assume that Danny’s performance is informed by things he saw in the shadow of his similarly large-than-life father, director John Huston and heard about his grandfather, Walter Huston. Jack Huston’s performance owes more to the new Hollywood, whose stars are of a completely different social makeup than those of yesteryear. Thing is, though, the only things that change in Hollywood are hemlines and haircuts … the inebriants are the same as they were in Fatty Arbuckle’s day. Movie buffs and geeks should find plenty to enjoy in “2 Jacks.” If so, I suggest they sample Rose’s other Tolstoy adaptations, “Ivansxtc,” “The Kreutzer Sonata” and “Anna Kerenina.” – Gary Dretzka
This dandy thriller from horror specialist Vincenzo Natali (“Splice,” “Cube”) takes the haunted-house sub-genre and turns it inside-out, all to very good effect. Unless viewers play close attention to what’s happening in “Haunter” early on, however, they might miss the gag entirely. For instance, in a virtual homage to “Groundhog Day,” a suburban mom serves exactly the same meals to her family day after day, as she has since the day in 1986 when they were killed under mysterious circumstances. Abigail Breslin is plenty creepy in the role of the deceased teenager who’s is required to reach out from the Other Side to save her human counterpart and her kin from the same fate. In fact, though, there are other spirits inhabiting the premises and none is as benevolent as Lisa. They manifest themselves at various times during the movie and in different ways. The most chilling is the Pale Man, played by Stephen McHattie (“Pontypool”), an actor who could scare the bejeezus out of Lance Henricksen. Oh, yeah, an invisible dome prevents the residents from leaving the house and yard. The Blu-ray package contains commentaries with Natali and writer Brian King (“Night Train”); a teaser poster; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and streaming storyboards. – Gary Dretzka
Battle of the Damned: Blu-ray
As silly as it is, Christopher Hatton’s direct-to-DVD “Battle of the Damned” is one of the most entertaining zombie-apocalypse flicks I’ve seen in a while, regardless of budget. It combines all of the action expected from a Dolph Lundgren slaughter-porn epic with revisionist theories about how zombies act, borrowed from “World War Z.” Sometime in the near future, the international bio-chemical industry will have moved from its base of operations to the under-regulated boonies of Southeast Asia. In one of these factory towns, the leak of a deadly pathogen has decimated much of the population, turned the survivors into monsters and caused the government to impose a tightly enforced military blockade on it. This singular event has global implications, of course, not the least of them being America’s role in backing the industry. In yet another example of how the military-industrial complex continues to maintain its grip on the world, a wealthy industrialist enlists commando-for-hire Max Gatling (Lundgren) to rescue his estranged daughter from the chaotic situation. Now, this is where things get really nutty. Once in place, Gatling is confronted by hundreds of hungry zombies, almost all whom he dispatches with reckless abandon. At some point, Gatling is joined by battle-bot killing machines. It takes a surprisingly short amount of time for him to find the young woman, whose dripping mascara makes her look like a raccoon and is part of a group of militant eco-guerrillas. (Only westerners appear to have been spared the virus.) After some uneasy moments, this unlikely alliance of commandos is forced to shoot its way out of Dodge. A short featurette, “Battling the Damned,” features several minutes of raw on-location footage.
In something of a fresh twist to the old game of creating fresh sequels out of stale matzo, indie filmmakers Mike Masters and David J. Francis have attempted to snatch shot-on-video victory from the jaws of DVD defeat. As the two men explain in the introduction to their self-aware mockumentary “Reel Zombies,” their new film was inspired by the failure of the first two chapters in their “Zombie Night” trilogy. This time, however, the shooting schedule coincides with an “actual” outbreak of the flu that causes zombie-mania. It allows them to film undead non-actors as they cavort through “actual” scenes of mass destruction. If the actors and destruction are real, however, there’s really no way to control them. The only option for Masters and Francis, apparently, was to give up on No. 3 and turn it into a mockumentary, lampooning the process in the loose form of a making-of featurette. While explaining the economic benefits of using non-actors in roles that don’t require acting, it becomes clear that Masters and Francis are also bemoaning the facts of life in the world of low-budget, indie filmmaking. It’s a fresh approach, to be sure, and it produces more than a few laughs. The DVD contains more than 40 minutes of deleted scenes and commentary.
“Chastity Bites” is a high school comedy that borrows from “The Stepford Wives” and “Clueless” and combines the elements with more than 400 years of undead legend. Naturally, the girls in the local high school are divided into the geeks and popular kids, who are dead-ringers for their conservative parents. Two of the geeky girls smell a rat when the new hyper-sexy teacher, Liz Batho (Louise Griffiths), organizes a female-empowerment club, based on pussy power and the right of virgins to stay that way. If the teacher’s name rings a bell in the heads of vampire buffs, it’s because Liz Batho is recognizably short for Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed (a.k.a., “The Blood Countess”), who, born into a royal Hungarian family, is considered to be the most prolific female serial killer in history. To keep herself looking youthful, the countess killed and drained the blood of young virgins who had the misfortune of living near her castle. Bathing in their blood did the trick. She would be convicted of killing only 80 of the 650 victims believed to have been tortured before their deaths. She died while under house arrest, but, this would only be in the human sense of the word, death. In “Chastity Bites,” Batho barely has to work up a sweat. – Gary Dretzka
Reaching for the Moon
Of all the unusual tastes one might acquire at the local library or arthouse, romantic dramas about Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, celebrated architects and expatriate Vassar graduates might be the most atypical of the genre. Toss in a lesbian love triangle, depression, alcoholism and jealousy and you have Bruno Barreto’s “Reaching for the Moon.” As un-commercial as it could possibly be, “Reaching for the Moon” chronicles the unlikely mid-century romance that blossomed like a hot-house flower between the deeply private American poet Elizabeth Bishop and assertive Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Based on Carmen L. Oliveira’s account of their relationship, “Rare and Commonplace Flowers,” the movie’s exotic Samambaia setting adds a fairytale aspect to the frequently intense drama. Stuck in creative doldrums, Bishop is advised by the poet Robert Lowell to put down her pen and see the world outside Manhattan. The suggestion takes her to Brazil, where she’s greeted by her collegiate friend, Mary Morse, and her lover, Soares. Although, at first, the poet and the architect could hardly be less compatible, Soares quickly pushes Morse aside to focus on Bishop. She builds a cliff-side house for Bishop to use as a workplace, then adopts a baby from a poor farming family to keep Morse happy and occupied. In Barreto’s depiction of social life at Samambaia, the conversation frequently drifts into politics, thanks to the anti-democratic friends Soares has courted. Eventually, bickering between the three women attracts storm clouds to their little slice of heaven. Bishops turns to the bottle, Soares disappears into a deeply depressive state and Morse tries to build a wall around her daughter. Miranda Otto and Glória Pires are terrific as the tempestuous duo, while Tracy Middendorf holds her own as the third leg of the love triangle. Mauro Pinheiro Jr.’s sumptuous cinematography keeps us interested when the arguing gets too loud. The making-of featurette is worthwhile, as well.
Without putting too fine a point on it, “Pit Stop” tells a story about being gay in small-town America. It will remind many viewers of “Brokeback Mountain,” minus the sheep and tears. Within the small, working-class Texas community are several men whose paths will cross, if they haven’t already, as lovers, friends and companions. Some are out, others will soon be required to draw their own line in the sand. Besides being nominated for the Independent Spirits Awards’ John Cassavetes prize, “Pit Stop” has done extremely well in competition at other gay and straight festivals. The naturalistic tone adopted by director Yen Tan and stars Bill Heck and Marcus DeAnda is a nice alternative to more overtly melodramatic fare. What happens happens, but without much in the way of sturm und drang. We simply like the characters and empathize with their situations. Here, that’s enough. The extras consist of two commentary tracks, one with director Yen Tan, Heck and DeAnda, and the other with Tan, producer Kelly Williams, cinematographer Hutch (one word) and editor Don Swaynos. – Gary Dretzka
On the Job: Blu-ray
I haven’t seen many movies from the Philippines, but the ones I have are humdingers. The movies that have crossed the Pacific – even after the Roger Corman era — tend to involve poverty-driven urban crime and ruthless violence. The police are as corrupt as government officials, and civilians seem to take it for granted. It starts at the top, then trickles down through the ranks. It isn’t as if Americans are unfamiliar with such conditions, because they exist in every shithole barrio, ghetto and backwater community on the planet. Filipinos appear to have made it a science, however. “On the Job” opens with the assassination of a political candidate in a crowded marketplace in Manila. All we know about the killers is that they’ve arrived by boat from points unknown and have something of a father-son relationship. The murder is pulled off without much muss or fuss, leaving them a few hours to visit family and go on a shopping spree. Once that’s done, the killers (Joel Torre and Gerald Anderson) are sent back to the kind of fetid, overcrowded prison from which the crazy YouTube videos (“Thriller” and “Gangnam Style,” performed by hundreds of inmates) emanate. Apparently, they’ve been assassinating people at the behest of the warden, who’s paid off by police officials, who take their instructions from incumbent politicians who are insecure in their jobs. Between each layer of corrupt officials are middlemen and middlewomen who are paid by the big shots who have the politicians in their pockets. Hey, it worked for Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, didn’t it? In a parallel story, an as-yet-untarnished federal investigator (Piolo Pascual), is making inroads on the first murder, which, he senses, is related to his uncle and future father-in-law. “On the Job” moves at a rapid, if fairly easy to follow pace, and the film’s two hours go past quickly. The subtitles may not be precise, but there’s no mistaking what’s happening on screen. – Gary Dretzka
Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection: Nurse Girl Dorm: Sticky Fingers/Sex Hunter: 1980
Typically, releases from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection are an odd lot of kinky soft-core porn, with most of the naughty bits blurred and storylines that could hardly be more illogical. Sadism and rape are two popular themes, even if they sometimes lead to a twisted form of romance. And, yes, the re-mastered DVDs as previously described in this space are every bit that crazy. “Nurse Girl Dorm: Sticky Fingers” (a.k.a., “Nurse Girl Dorm: Assy Fingers) and “Sex Hunter: 1980” show a variance from form, in that they have recognizable storylines, are reasonably humorous and don’t treat rape as an aphrodisiac. Indeed, “Nurse Girl Dorm” could be characterized as a sequel to the bawdy British comedy, “Carry On Nurse.” Pretty young trainees live in a dormitory close to their hospital. A mysterious newcomer, Yuki, is older than most of the residents and far wiser in the ways of the world and dormitory. When the girls are finding it difficult to sneak their boyfriends past the resident Nurse Ratchet, Yuki volunteers to teach them her tricks. Pretty soon, doctors, boyfriends and stalkers are scaling the walls as if the nurses lived in the Alamo. The headmistress harbors some kinky secrets of her own.
“Sex Hunter: 1980,” the sequel to “Sex Hunter: Wet Target,” looks to have been very much influenced by the Dario Argento giallo thriller, “Suspira.” Maekawa Miki is a young and talented ballet dancer, fresh from a performance, when she’s picked up off the street by a onetime star dancer and her henchman. Out of the blue, they invite her to join their school, situated in a villa overlooking the sea. Instead of being treated like a prima ballerina, however, Miki becomes a sexual plaything for the academy’s demented master and mistress, who lurk behind a two-way mirror. The other students have already become accustomed to being managed and manipulated, but Miki still retains a remote hope of advancing in her discipline. She might, but, first, she’ll have to endure sessions involving bondage, lesbian group gropes and some S&M. A blurb on the jacket, “Draped in the smell of semen … a solitary house of pleasure,” pretty much sums up what happens here, minus the blurbed naughty bits. As usual, the DVDs come with informative essays by Jasapar Sharp. — Gary Dretzka
Lou Reed Tribute
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Fifty by Four
If you’re one of those people, who were born when there were still four ex-Beatles, the news of Lou Reed’s passing may not have been greeted with the same urgency as their parents or reporters who still recall the first time they listened to “Heroin.” Even in his heyday, the co-founder of the Velvet Underground was something of an acquired taste among mainstream radio programmers and listeners still in the grip of the British invaders. The Velvets represented the New York branch of the countercultural revolution and Reed was its Alan-a-Dale. They painted portraits in song of people who lived on the fringes of society, but acted as if they were superstars and immune to the deadly substances they were ingesting. Once the so-called “banana album” found an audience beyond those in the rock cognoscenti, however, the Velvets were already three or four steps beyond it, creating raw, unsparing and deliberately discordant music that presaged punk and death-metal. Producer Brian Eno summed up the Velvets’ importance by observing, while the band’s debut album was less than a financial juggernaut, “Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” Reed would take out on his own in the 1970s, writing songs that varied wildly in their degree of accessibility, and continue doing so until his replacement liver gave up the ghost last October 27. If most people still know less about Reed’s life and career than how Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber spent their last vacation, it’s because he never was keen on articulating his inclinations, motivations and inspirations to the press. His interviews were the journalistic equivalent of pulling teeth and he never pandered to the gods of fame. For those who are interested in Reed, the Velvets and life on the edge in the 1960-70s, I recommend MVD’s three-disc boxed-set, “Lou Reed Tribute.” It is comprised of the previously released, but still relevant, “The Velvet Underground: Under Review”; “Punk Revolution NYC: the Velvet Underground, the NY Dolls & the CBGB’s Set”; and “The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Lou: 1971-1973.” All are thoroughly researched and informed by copious interviews with critics, historians, musicians, producers and accomplices.
Debuting a couple years later, “super-group” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were the polar opposite of Reed and Velvet Underground. Comprised of star musicians from the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Hollies, CS&N and CSN&Y emerged from the Southern California folk-rock scene, which was then concentrated in and around Laurel Canyon. Their voices blended like honey and butter on a warm muffin and, at first, the darkest their music ever got was in heartfelt outcries against the war and the killings of students at Kent State. On the hand, there wasn’t an off-stage minute when the musicians, their managers and business reps weren’t as interested in making money as making music. “Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Fifty by Four,” also from MVD, looks back at a half-century’s worth of beautiful harmonizing, endearing lyrics, splendid musicianship, petty squabbles that turned into destructive battles, famous girlfriends, anonymous groupies, rancorous ego trips, copious alcohol and drug abuse, occasional reunions and spinoff projects, all supported by inflated ticket prices and unnecessary “live” and greatest-hits albums. Nothing in “50X4” would make anyone want to throw away their albums, but, even at 165 minutes, you get the feeling that not everything is on view here. It is possible, though, to feel incredibly sorry for Graham Nash, who comes off as the only reliably sane band member. The music-filled DVD features archival and exclusive interviews; seldom-seen footage; concert performances; and contributions from such key supporting players as Dallas Taylor, Greg Reeves, Danny Kortchmar, George Chocolate Perry, Joe Lala, Chad Cromwell, Calvin Fuzzy Samuels, Joe Vitale, the Albert Brothers, Bill Halverson and civilian observers. – Gary Dretzka
Rocky Heavyweight Collection: Blu-ray
A sports fan knows he’s getting old – ancient? – if he can remember watching the Muhammad Ali/Chuck Wepner fight that inspired Sylvester Stallone to write “Rocky.” It was that remarkably strange an event. Although Stallone didn’t acknowledge the financial debt he owed the “Bayonne Bleeder” until a lawsuit was settled in 2006, there’s no mistaking how much the movie mirrored the boxing match, right down to the audience (live and broadcast to theaters by cable) switching its allegiance from the aging Ali to the upset-minded bartender. If MGM had wanted to do the millions of fans of the movie franchise a real favor, it would have included a tape of the 15-rounder, in which Wepner managed to knock the former champ down once, before losing by TKO in the match’s final seconds. Or, it might have added the 2012 ESPN documentary, “The Real Rocky.” (Not only did Wepner inspire the first “Rocky,” but some people also believe that the wrestling match in “R3” aped Wepner’s ill-fated wrestling match against Andre the Giant, in 1976.) As it is, “Rocky Heavyweight Collection” differs from the 2009 “Ultimate Collection” only with a much-needed re-mastering of the first “Rocky” and a new featurette, “8mm Home Movies of Rocky,” narrated by director John Avildsen. In addition to Blu-ray editions of all six titles, “Heavyweight Collection” includes three hours of previously released bonus material. I hadn’t seen “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth entry, before receiving the collection and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. For my money, the best lines in the movie refer to the silly contretemps between the city of Philadelphia and art museum where the Rocky statue had served as a major photo op for tourists, until it was moved to the Spectrum (twice) and returned to a different site near the museum. After Rocky informs Paulie of his plans to come out of retirement for the exhibition match in Las Vegas, his pal asks, “You mad because they took down your statue?” – Gary Dretzka
NeoGeo: Killing Kennedy: Blu-ray
Lifetime: Anna Nicole: The Price of Fame
TNT: Dallas: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
BBC: Doctor Who: The Moonbase: Story 33
CBS: Newhart: The Complete Second Season
Cartoon: Regular Show: Mordecai & Margaret Pack
Wouldn’t it have been nice if, on the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, someone stepped forward to offer solid evidence of a purported conspiracy or something conclusive about Lee Harvey Oswald’s ability to squeeze off three rounds from a crummy rifle in six seconds? Instead, the anniversary came and went without any more useful wisdom proffered than in the 49 years since the release of the much-disputed Warren Report. Not bound by the rules of non-fiction, novelists have been allowed to speculate wildly about what “really” happened on the days leading up to November 22, 1963, and are relatively credible. I’m currently reading Stephen Hunter’s “The Third Bullet,” a novel in which the protagonist is a sharpshooter who recognizes a pattern in a recently discovered “shred” of evidence. It’s pretty interesting, especially in the portrait it paints of history’s ultimate dupe, LHO. As opposed to the “single gunman theory,” Hunter advances one involving a “single conspirator.” The one thing “Third Bullet” shares with the National Geographic movie, “Killing Kennedy,” is its depiction of Lee Harvey Oswald being a pathetic loser with an inflated opinion of himself. Will Rothhaar’s portrayal of LHO is the best and potentially most revealing reason to watch Nelson McCormick’s film, which is based on the research of Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Otherwise, zilch. Among the cast members are Michelle Trachtenberg, as Marino O; Ginnifer Goodwin, as the future Jackie O; Casey Siemaszko, as Jack Ruby; and Rob Lowe, as, who else?, JFK. None of the actors embarrass themselves, but a 92-minute movie can’t possibly do justice to such a world-shattering event.
The same can’t said about the Lifetime biopic, “Anna Nicole: The Price of Fame,” which, we’re told, is based on an article in Now York magazine. The model’s untimely death may have sent shockwaves through the tawdry world of tabloid media, but, outside of it, Anna Nicole Smith was just another voluptuous blond gold-digger with fake tits. The only thing about her that qualified as newsworthy was the lawsuits filed, in the wake of her ancient husband’s death, to determine if she was eligible to claim the bulk of his estate. It turns outs, she wasn’t. On her side, however, was the reality of having to “make love” to the addled old turd (Martin Landau) and the repugnant personality of his son. The only person entitled to our sympathy in the entire mess is ANS’ son and primary witness to her trailer-trash behavior. That he would die for his bimbo mom’s sins is the real tragedy here. Agnes Bruckner plays ANS with all of the subtlety of a lap dance in a biker bar. Nonetheless, she’s the best thing in the biopic. It’s also worth reporting that, being a made-for-Lifetime product, there’s no nudity in its entire 85 minutes. The least the producers could have done was offer a director’s-cut edition, with the naughty bits re-edited back into the story. Far worse, though, is learning that “Anna Nicole” was directed by Mary Harron, whose credits include “The Notorious Bettie Page,” “American Psycho,” “I Shot Andy Warhol” and single episodes of some of the best TV dramas in the last 20 years. A gig’s a gig, though, right? Just for the record, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s two-act opera, “Anna Nicole,” received some very decent reviews in its short runs. A DVD is available through Opus Arte.
If TNT’s “Dallas” weren’t a continuation of the original landmark series, and already well into production on its second season when Larry Hagman died, the loss of J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) could have been fatal. Ewing was one of the most compelling characters ever drawn for broadcast television and the 2012 revival did justice to both to J.R. and Hagman. It even brought back several other key characters from the series’ glory years, including Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray. Others returned for J.R.’s midseason funeral. I won’t get into the cause of death here, but it opens yet another dramatic storyline. None of the “Who Shot J.R.?” hysteria from the original series was repeated in 2013, but its new cast was rewarded with a third-season commitment by TNT.
“Doctor Who: The Moonbase” (a.k.a., “Story 33”), from BBC Home Entertainment, harkens all the way back to the Patrick Troughton era, of the mid- to late-1960s. The digitally re-mastered classic opens with the usual TARDIS misdirection play, leaving Jamie, Polly and the Second Doctor not on Mars, as desired, but on the Earth’s moon, circa 2070. (In 1966, before the lunar landing, 2070 must have seemed like an eternity away from current reality.) At the Moonbase, an international team controls the Earth’s weather with a gravity machine. TARDIS delivered the trio to Moonbase, instead of Mars, because there services were more needed there. Crew members have been stricken with serious illnesses, possibly caused by the return of Cybermen. The serial was first released on VHS, absent key video elements from episodes one and three. The new DVD release adds the lost material in the form of animated replacement sequences.
Four years after Bob Newhart signed off as Dr. Robert Hartley, in CBS’ hugely popular “The Bob Newhart Show,” he returned to prime-time as a New York author of do-it-yourself books, Dick Loudon, in “Newhart.” He and his wife, Joanna (Mary Frann), have decided to move to a scenic corner of Vermont, where they’ll manage the 200-year-old Stratford Inn. Obviously, this is a very different setting than the urban environment he shared with Suzanne Pleshette. For one thing, Chicago is conspicuously absent such quintessentially rural characters as Larry, Darryl and Darryl and Tom Poston’s George Utley. This was before Dick began hosting a talk-show on a local TV station. In Season Two, Julia Duffy replaced Jennifer Holmes as one of the wealthy Vanderkellen cousins. A yuppie TV producer, played by Peter Scolari, is brought in towards the end of the season to handle the show. In the early episodes of the second season, Dick must deal with the advances of a sexy celebrity (Stella Stevens), who wants him to ghost write her book, and Joanna challenges the town’s historical practice of the men and women eating separately during the town’s potluck dinners.
Cartoon Network`s latest compilation of “Regular Show” episodes focuses the relationship between lovebirds Mordecai and Margaret. It cherry-picked 16 select episodes from the series’ first four seasons and adds a never-before-seen special feature, “Steak me Amadeus.” At a running time of 176 minutes, “Mordecai & Margaret Pack” represents a darned good bargain. – Gary Dretzka
DCU Justice League: War: Blu-ray
Seven years and 17 films after DC and Warner Bros. began churning out direct-to-video animated features, they’ve reteamed for the origin story, “DCU Justice League: War.” It gives those fans of Superman, Batman, Cyborg, Wonder Woman, Shazam, the Flash, Green Lantern and, briefly, Aquaman a reason to live until 2017, when the live-action “Justice League” is scheduled to be released. Both follow the basic blueprint laid out in Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s 2011 “Justice League: Origin” storyline from DC’s “New 52.” In it, individual superheroes recognize the fists-beat-fingers principle, electing to combine their various powers for the good of a tight-knit fighting unit. The villains, looking to reshape our society, include Darkseid and Parademons. This is the first DC animated feature to use material from DC Comic’s New 52 “continuity.” – Gary Dretzka