Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit: Blu-ray
Although I didn’t think much of “The Sum of All Fears,” the fourth film adapted from a Tom Clancy novel, my feelings couldn’t prevent me from anticipating the new “reboot” of the franchise, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” Unlike the others, it was merely “inspired by characters” in a story created by the author before his untimely death last year. Clancy’s readers already were conditioned to expect occasional reboots in the series, just as movie audiences had to adjust to three, now four different actors in the lead role. What I couldn’t predict, however, was how viewers would react to a Jack Ryan who was born at approximately the same instant as the same Jack Ryan was saving the world in “The Hunt for Red October.” Neither prequel nor sequel, “Shadow Recruit” appears to exist outside of the Jack Ryan universe, altogether. It probably would have been easier to adapt the books in Clancy’s “Jack Ryan Jr.,” with Chris Pine at the helm, but that might have required paying steeper options fees or jumping through a different kind of hoop. Instead, viewers were left jumping through hoops. The fourth Ryan, Pine, understood the dynamics of making such a midcourse correction. After all, he had already assumed the role of Kirk the Younger in the “Star Trek” movie franchise. He’s passed that test easy enough, but the jury remains out on Pine as Ryan. While Kenneth Branagh’s “Shadow Recruit” underperformed at the U.S. box office, it did OK overseas … and that’s where the action is for Hollywood studios, these days.
The story follows the basic Ryan blueprint previously laid out by Clancy. As in previous iterations, he is shot down and seriously injured in the crash of a marine helicopter. He uses the recuperation process to acquire the skills necessary to become a successful Wall Street trader and analyst. One of the things he discovers is a Kremlin-generated plot to crush the economies of the U.S. economies, triggered under the cover of a terrorist attack by a domestic sleeper cell. To prevent such a scenario from playing out, Ryan travels to Moscow as a representative for his brokerage firm and a covert CIA operative. What happens next could have been borrowed from the “Mission:Impossible” playbook. Inexplicably, Ryan is greeted at the airport by a very large thug posing as his security guard. He discovers the ruse after reaching his modern hotel suite, where the guy attempts to kill him. It results in an exciting, if messy fight to the finish. Sensing that the guy was on assignment for his company’s man in Moscow, Viktor Cherevin (Branagh), Ryan nonetheless goes through the motions of feigning ignorance. Curiously, too, the plotter invites Jack and his jealous girlfriend, Cathy Muller (Kiera Knightley) – thought to still be in New York — to dinner at Moscow’s trendiest restaurant. As predicted in his CIA dossier, Viktor becomes pre-occupied with romancing Cathy. It leaves time for Ryan to sneak out and perform a “M:I”-style miracle. Just in case the young analyst screws up, though, the lad’s CIA handler (Kevin Costner) is in Moscow, as well, riding around town in a van full of computers.
As unlikely as all of this nonsense may be, “Shadow Recruit” isn’t without its guilty pleasures. Branagh maintains a lively pace throughout and it is extremely well-shot by Haris Zambarloukos. The exterior shots of central Moscow, alongside some fab nighttime landmarks, make the movie look delicious in Blu-ray. Instead of seeming cold and foreboding, Zambarloukos makes it look like a little like Disneyland. The feature package offers plenty to do for fans of the movie and series. Informative audio commentary is provided by director Branagh and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura; self-explanatory featurettes “Jack Ryan: The Smartest Guy in the Room,” “Sir Kenneth Branagh: The Tsar of Shadow Recruit,” “Jack Ryan: A Thinking Man of Action” and “Old Enemies Return,” a 20-minute-plus look at the use of Russians as enduring villains in the cinema; and deleted and extended scenes, with optional commentary. If there’s a sequel, it will be interesting to see which direction in time and place the producers choose to take. At the moment, at least, Clancy’s legacy still appears to be most formidable in sales of video games and books. – Gary Dretzka
I stopped attempting to guess the identity of the murderous blackmailers in “Non-Stop,” – Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra’s mid-air thriller — after being slapped in the face with numerous red herrings. It’s pretty difficult to remain involved in a movie’s story flow when nearly everyone we meet could be the antagonist and even suspects who have been cleared are allowed to re-emerge as possible culprits, only to be cleared once again. An ability to suspend disbelief and ignore narrative blunders shouldn’t be made part of the movie-going experience, but, here, it’s imperative. Anyone who hasn’t flown since 9/11 certainly will have an advantage over those of us who experienced the changes initiated by the TSA. So, sit back and watch as 63-year-old Liam Neeson turns impossible plot devices into action gold. Here, he’s been allowed to maintain a noticeable trace of his native Irish accent, in his portrayal of alcoholic U.S. Air Marshal Bill Marks. A litany of personal crises have turned the onetime New York cop into an emotional wreck and potential liability in the skies between New York and Europe. When sober, Marks probably is as good at his job as anyone else in law enforcement could be. Drunk, he’s only as competent as his tolerance to alcohol allows him to be. Fortunately, on this trip, Marks is only working on a good buzz. Still, Neeson does a good job convincing us that his flaws are exploitable by anyone who knows where they are.
No sooner does the flight to Paris take off than Marks begins to receive text messages warning that someone will be killed in 20 minutes if a ransom of $150 million isn’t delivered to an offshore account. Because the messages become increasingly taunting in nature, it’s safe to assume that the sender knows that Marks’ is an air marshal and vulnerable. When the pilot describes the threat to the authorities back home, the disembodied voice at the other end of the phone treats it as if the veteran lawman might be experiencing the first stages of the DTs, which, we know, he isn’t. Even so, writers John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach insist on planting a seed of doubt in captain, crew and passengers. Theoretically, all the pilot would need to do to confound the blackmailers would be to turn off the wireless-broadband service available to passengers and identify those who purchased it. Flights originating in the U.S. don’t offer the option of in-flight phone calls or text messages and, in any case, a passenger would be required to purchase access. The first red herring thrown at us comes in the form of a fellow air marshal and former friend of Marks, who appears to be monitoring his performance. Why, then, is he sweating profusely and carrying a bag full of cocaine? Thinking he’s solved the mystery. Marks is dismayed when he receives another test message and reports of his dismissal from the NYPD begin popping up on the TV monitors in the cabin. That’s pretty fast work for an eight-hour flight, even by CNN’s standards. As the implausibilities add up, the filmmakers attempt to divert our attention from them by spicing the script with dark humor. Very few actors could sell such nonsense to audiences – Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson come to mind — but audiences will forgive Neeson of almost anything today. Of the nearly $200 million that “Non-Stop” has collected worldwide (46.2 percent domestically) it’s likely that Neeson’s presence is responsible for 90 percent of it. There’s nothing wrong with the rest of the cast members, though. Adding to the movie’s credibility are co-stars Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”), Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) and several actors familiar primarily to TV audiences. If the Blu-ray looks and sounds fine, the extras are pretty generic. – Gary Dretzka
There was a time when the Greek-born filmmaker Costa-Gavras could do no wrong. Today, at 81, he’s easy pickings for critics who long for the days of “Z” and other films that took on the powers that be in countries where labor unions, intellectuals and students have been targeted for persecution. His first great success, “Z,” remains a tense political thriller about the rape of Greece’s democracy by a murderous military junta propped up by the U.S. government and outside corporate interests. Just as relevant, but less relatable to American audiences were “The Confession,” “State of Siege” and “Special Section.” His first Hollywood-backed movie was “Missing,” an indictment of this country’s role in the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected government and murder of Salvador Allende. Even after being condemned by White House official Alexander Haig, one of the architects of the coup, the presence of Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek helped “Missing” find an audience here. Among the actors who would appear in his next few movies were Jill Clayburgh (“Hannah K”), Debra Winger (“Betrayed”) and Jessica Lange (“Music Box”). Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta starred in “Mad City,” a critical and commercial disaster that combined elements “Ace in the Hole” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” without delivering anything close to a knockout punch. Money would get tight after that failure.
Five years went by before the release of his next, relatively low-profile film, “Amen.” Based on “The Deputy,” a controversial 1963 play by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, it tells the true story of chemist Kurt Gerstein, who, while employed at the Hygiene Institute of the Waffen SS, discovered to his dismay that the pesticide, Zyklon B, which he was testing as a potential cure for typhus, was being used, instead, for killing Jews and Poles. Until witnessing the deaths, himself, Gerstein and most other German citizens chose to believe the lie about where uprooted Jews were being taken in train cars and for what purpose. He attempted to use his position in the army to convince leaders of the Roman Catholic Church to take a public stand on the persecution of Jews, just as they had against the Nazis’ Euthanasia Program. A young Jesuit priest, Riccardo Fontana, whose father was influential within the highest circle of the Vatican hierarchy, was the only clergyman to agree to push the matter up the ladder. After finally reporting to Pope Pius XII, to no avail, Fontana boarded a freight car carrying dozens of Jews to the death camps. He was recognized at a transfer point and detained, but none of the other passengers was spared. The play caused a huge uproar in Germany, as well as public debate elsewhere about the Church’s role in the Holocaust. In the play, the pontiff appears content to support the Jews and German resistance in his own way, without a public denunciation of Hitler or openly providing sanctuary. Other clerics felt as if the Nazis provided a barrier against communism and atheism, and they shouldn’t be denounced publically. At the time, Pius’ role was defended by Catholic and Jewish authorities, alike, who claimed his actions saved hundreds of thousands of lives. I found “Amen” to be extremely well-produced, thought-provoking and often quite exciting. It’s no less provocative today than in 1963 and its arguments remain open to debate. Gurstein’s motives for cooperating with the Allies in the closing days of the war are still questioned, as well. Although, at 132 minutes, “Amen” overextends its welcome, there’s no question that Costa-Gavras hadn’t lost much of his ability to tell a story during his hiatus.
Also newly released into Blu-ray by Cohen Media Group is his most recent production, “Capital.” Ever since the international economic collapse, Costa-Gavras had wanted to say something about the absolute corruptibility of money and how our relationship to it has changed so hideously since the 1980s, at least. “Capital” straddles a very thin line separating drama and farce – he calls it a parable – although I doubt that comedy was what he had in mind. Popular French monologist Gad Elmaleh plays the brilliant assistant to the CEO of the large and profitable Phenix Bank. When the old man collapses on the golf course – from the pain of testicular cancer, of all things – he decides to hand over the reins to the Machiavellian Marc Tourneuil. The board of directors believe that this was done to ensure the boss’ ideas would be funneled through the younger executive. The most aggressive member of the cabal, hedge-fund manager Dittmar Rigule (Gabriel Byrne), has other plans for the company’s and expects Tourneuil to do the dirty work for him. Tourneuil agrees to fire hundreds of the bank’s employees, if not as many as Rigule demands. Along with other reforms, the layoffs serve to boost the stock price and keep the cabal’s wolves from his door. Even so, Rigule continue to demand initiatives that would make the bank ripe for a takeover. It makes no sense to Tourneuil, until a sharp and idealistic British analyst (Céline Sallette) explains it to him. It’s at this point in the story that Tourneuil, who’s already been tempted to stray by a sizzling hot, if poorly drawn supermodel, that he finds himself at the proverbial fork in the road and Costa-Gavras asks us to guess which path he’ll take. Unfortunately, the verdict is based on facts not in evidence. Like “Amen,” “Capital” is technically proficient and well-acted. Released in 2012, four years after most Earthlings determined that bankers serve no useful purpose, except to propagate the ruling class, it seems a very minor and obvious effort. Both movies arrive with interesting interviews with the director. – Gary Dretzka
You wouldn’t know it from the tactically misleading jacket photo, but “Adult World” is a surprisingly sweet and genuinely entertaining coming-of-age story, which deserves a better reception in DVD than it received in its too-limited theatrical run. I don’t blame the distributors for trying to attract customers with a titillating title and lurid neon highlights that suggest something naughty might be contained therein. The presence of John Cusack, who’s played some decidedly wicked characters lately, only seems to add to the potential for menace. Instead, everyone keeps their clothes on and the sexuality is implied. Bubbly Emma Roberts plays a recent college graduate who’s convinced herself that she’s on the brink of becoming the first poet since Rod McKuen to make money from her poetry. She successfully avoids finding paying work, until she’s forced to leave home by her parents. Needless to say, a degree in poetry doesn’t cut much ice with potential employers in a Rust Belt city devastated by factory closings and chronic unemployment. Finally, she finds a job at a local porn emporium, which looks as ragged as any other business in the struggling Upstate New York town. Although thankful for the pay check, Amy spends most of her time brushing up on her poetry and explaining to customers why porn is insulting to women. Neither is she much good at preventing shoplifting. Fortunately, the store’s young manager (Chris Riggi) takes a shine to Amy, as does the town’s resident transvestite (Armando Riesco), who provides her with a place to crash.
When Amy discovers that her all-time favorite poet, Rat Billings (Cusack), is in residence at the college, she decides to honor him by becoming his personal stalker. Billings is far too burned out to find the adoration flattering or reciprocate with helpful advice. The closest Amy comes to connecting with him is volunteering to serve as his much needed cleaning woman, in exchange for him critiquing her writing. Instead of giving her false hope, Billings is brutally honest about her poetry, which he finds shrill and hyperbolic. His being cruel to be kind only endears him to Amy, at least until he takes the one step too far that causes her to come to grips with her situation. Director Scott Coffey acted in several David Lynch pictures before taking the helm of the interesting indie character study, “Ellie Parker,” with Naomi Watts. Here, he capably massaged the script by freshman screenwriter Andy Cochran and coaxed a terrifically obsessive performance from 22-year-old Emma Roberts – son of Eric and niece of Julia, with whom she is extremely close – an actor who appears to be standing on the brink of stardom for her ability to move from drama to comedy with seemingly little effort. As geeky as Amy is, Roberts also is able to find the raw sexuality hidden deep within the aspiring poet. I wouldn’t be too concerned about the R-rating, even if it seems to mirror the context suggested on the cover art. The camera never lingers on the material being sold and Amy’s yearnings are strictly PG. I don’t see any reason why viewers in their middle- to late-teens, along with young adults, shouldn’t take a shot at “Adult World,” instead of the latest boys-will-be-boys or comic-book flick. – Gary Dretzka
One of the teenagers we follow in Nicole Teeny’s low-key and frequently surprising “Bible Quiz,” asks the most obvious question even before we get an opportunity to do so ourselves. Why, asks 17-year-old Mikayla Irle, is she involved so deeply in an activity that all of her friends at school consider to be hopelessly geeky and boring? Mikayla may not get around to answering her own question, but anyone who’s watched one of the many documentaries about young people striving for excellence through games or artistic pursuits already knows what it is. She is a member of an award-winning team of Tacoma bible students on their way to the national championships in Green Bay, Wisconsin, commonly referred to as Title Town. Having grown up in a bible-quizzing family, Teeny understands what’s at stake for the competitors she’s chosen to follow. Teeny also knows a thing or two about being a teenage girl at the cusp of womanhood. By all outward appearances, Mikalya is one of, perhaps, millions of young people who’ve devoted their lives to God and spreading the Good News about Jesus Christ to anyone who will listen and some who won’t. While many of the nation’s generic Jesus freaks are robotic and single-minded, when they aren’t being thoroughly annoying, at least, others are in it for the same reasons that teenagers join athletic teams, glee clubs and student councils. Besides enjoying the companionship and buzz that comes with being really good at something – she knows Scripture inside-out — Mikalya has an innocent crush on the team’s star, J.P. O’Connor. It also relieves some of the pressure of having an alcoholic, largely absentee mother.
Teeny’s camera follows the team from qualifying rounds in Washington to Wisconsin, without condescending to the teens or making the quiz sound more important than it is. She also understands that memorizing and reciting Scripture – in competition with other sharp teens and a 30-second clock – is a significantly different thing than comprehending their meaning. Some will get to that point at a later date, others might find different ways to incorporate Christ into their lives or stray from the flock. Most of the kids we meet here have yet to come to grips with the stirrings inside their bodies they’ve been taught to fear, ignore or put on the back burner until their wedding night. Indeed, Mikalya is steal wrestling with the idea that Jesus might not approve of her submitting to a kiss or, at one significant point in “Bible Quiz,” initiating a congratulatory hug. The thought of putting on makeup and a shoulder-revealing dress for the awards ceremony almost makes her apoplectic. In a pre-coming-of-age documentary that very easily could have turned ugly with condescension and disapproval, these are moments for viewers to savor. Being a cheesehead, I found it amusing that anyone would see Green Bay in the same light as Sodom and Gomorrah. The parents and pastors we do meet are kept mostly in the background, unless they’re running the contest or there to support the team. One dad doesn’t pretend to understand what his kid is doing and why, but doesn’t want to spoil the fun. “Bible Quiz” grows on you to the point where it matters who wins the contest, even if the answers are delivered at 78 r.p.m.– Gary Dretzka
The Spike Lee Joint Collection, Volumes 1 & 2: Blu-ray
Far less than the career-encompassing collection Spike Lee deserves and his fans desire, the three “Spike Lee Joint” packages extant – one from Universal, two now from Touchstone – represent bargains for collectors and handy introductions to those new to his work. Perhaps, this week’s release of “Volume 1” and “Volume 2” will prompt Universal to re-release its five-title box on Blu-ray. Although Touchstone’s compilations basically amount to double-features, at least the films are now available in hi-def and with new commentary tracks. The first volume includes “25th Hour” and “He Got Game,” while the second adds “Summer of Sam” and “Miracle at St. Anna.” Edward Norton” gives a bravura performance in “25th Hour,” which chronicles the last 24 hours of freedom for convicted drug dealer Monty Brogan. The most significant thing one learns listening to the commentary is how much Lee wanted to pay homage to pre-9/11 New York and salute those who gave their lives attempting to rescue others trapped in the Twin Towers. One scene primarily dominated by dialogue is shot with cleanup operations at Ground Zero visible in the background.
The other masterpiece here is “Summer of Sam,” another portrait of New York, only this one sweats and shouts back at the viewer. At the same time as dweeb killer David Berkowitz is raising the temperature of the already sweltering melting pot, the Yankees’ are uniting the citizenry with another pennant run. Lee is a master at getting audience members to feel as if they’re as integral a part of the story as any of the characters and, here, there’s almost no line separating those hunting the killer and those whose appearance and idiosyncracies make them suspects. As such, “Summer of Sam” is one of the most visceral movies of all time.
Apart from being an indictment of the corruption in the college-recruiting game, “He Got Game” cuts to the heart of a father-son relationship poisoned by distance, bitterness and jealousy. Denzel Washington plays Jake, the father of a high coveted prep basketball star, Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen). Jake was convicted of murdering his wife and is serving time in Attica. The governor allows him to leave prison for a week, during which he’s expected to convince the teenager to commit to the state university. If he does, Jake could be released on parole. Trouble is, he hates his father and blames him for his mother’s death, however accidental it was. Jake also plays a key role in a subplot, involving a prostitute played by Milla Jovovich. The epic World War II drama, “Miracle at St. Anna,” describes how four members of the U.S. Army’s all-black 92nd Infantry Division — Buffalo Soldiers — are trapped behind enemy lines after one of them risks his life to save a traumatized Italian boy. Although it attempts to do too many big things at once, “Miracle” does most of them right.
The Blu-ray bonus package adds, on “25th Hour,” commentaries by Lee and Norton, Lee alone, and screenwriter David Benioff ; deleted scenes; “The Evolution of an American Filmmaker; and “Ground Zero: A Tribute.” “He Got Game” includes commentary by Lee and actor/NBA star Ray Allen; “Summer of Sam” has commentary by Lee and actor John Leguizamo; and “Miracle at St. Anna,” adds commentary by Lee and screenwriter James McBride, deleted scenes and featurettes “Deeds Not Words” and “The Buffalo Soldier Experience.” The commentaries may be a tad chatty and unfocused for some tastes. – Gary Dretzka
Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles: Blu-ray
Any resemblance between “Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles” and the Seven Labors of Hercules may be purely coincidental, but what better inspiration could there be for martial-arts movie? Instead of having to battle dangerous beasts and mythic creatures as penance for his sins, the martial-arts master Toramaru is required to prove himself to his sensei, Gensai, by traveling throughout Japan and Okinawa and defeating the masters of seven separate disciplines. After a year on the road, Toramaru returns to his dojo with seven scrolls containing secrets and techniques of kung-fu, stick fighting, sword fighting, nunchaku, yakuza, gun-slinging and samurai skills. When integrated with traditional Bushido values, the combined disciple is mugen-ga-ryu. Gensai’s advice to Toramaru is to pay attention to regional cuisines and duplicate his opponent’s diet as a way to get to inside his head. “Bushido Man,” then, is little more than a series of exciting fights and quiet discussions between sensei and student. There’s no reason to ruin the surprise ending, but hardly anyone is likely to go away disappointed by Takanori Tsujimoto’s follow-up to “Monster Killer.” For western viewers, “Bushido Man” can be enjoyed almost as much as a travelogue as an action picture, with no small amount of humor. The Blu-ray extras consist of Q&A’s conducted at festival screenings. – Gary Dretzka
Kill Zombie!: Blu-ray
Fans of “Shaun of the Dead” and other zombie comedies should find a lot to like in the Dutch zombie-apocalypse farce, “Kill Zombie!” Martijn Smits and Erwin van den Eshof may not be emphatically satirical or as genre-bending as some recent efforts, but its cartoonish approach to the eradication of humans and zombies is surprisingly effective. “Kill Zombie!” also is informed by the diverse cultures of Amsterdam, which somehow has managed to balance a welcoming persona to outsiders with the country’s distinctly conservative core. Here, a motley crew of stoners, straights, immigrants from two or three different continents, femme fatales, a gun-toting blond cop and Russian mercenary all come together to battle zombies contaminated by an oozy green substance released when a space vehicle crash lands into a skyscraper in Amsterdam-West. The undead act in ways familiar to all of us, but the weaponry collected by our merry band of survivors ranges from the completely ineffectual to devastating. The less logic one applies to the story, the easier it is to maintain the suspension of disbelief necessary to follow who’s still among the living. It’s a lot of fun.
In only five years, IFC Midnight has established itself as a destination for browsers seeking innovative horror flicks, most of which are made on a limited budget and using unknown actors or cult favorites. Among its successes are Tom Six’s “The Human Centipede,” Johnnie To’s “Vengeance” and Brandon Cronenberg’s “Antiviral.” Even if mainstream critics don’t pay much attention to such movies – until they become cult sensations, anyway – the genre-centric websites tend to give them a fair shake. Its catalogue is also a good place to find young talents and trending ideas.
Working off of a script by fellow-freshman Andrew Barrer, Mac Carter deftly integrates a compelling teen romance into the haunted-house thriller, “Haunt,” saving it from being just another horror wannabe. When a spooky pediatrician, Dr. Janet Morello (two-time Oscar nominee, Jacki Weaver), finally decides to sell her rural home to the Ashers, she reluctantly leaves behind a family of distinctly grotesque ghosts. Teenage son, Evan (Harrison Gilbertson), may sense there’s something fishy about the place, but his parents are in no mood to buy into what they see as his fantasies. While walking through the woods one night, he meets Samantha (Liana Liberato), the sadly abused daughter of the Ashers’ alcoholic neighbor. They hit it off to the point where Mrs. Asher (Ione Skye) allows her to move into the house and tastefully enjoy the first fruits of young love with Evan. It’s convenient, because both share a fascination with the supernatural and can’t wait to test a transmitter box left behind by the doctor. Not surprisingly, they bite off more than they can chew with their investigation into the ghosts’ origins. Besides the romantic subplot, “Haunt” benefits from the enthusiastic performances of the young actors and some nifty special-makeup effects.
For his feature debut, “Almost Human,” writer/director Joe Begos borrows liberally from John Carpenter and other masters of sci-fi/horror genre, circa the 1980s. What begins as an alien-abduction mystery turns quickly into a grisly splatter film, when a Maine redneck returns after two years from a sojourn in space. Mark (Josh Ethier) makes loud screechy noises when he really wants to scare people or suck things from their bodies through the long Pocket Hose Penis protruding from his mouth. It appears as if Mark has returned to reclaim his girlfriend (Vanessa Leigh) from another suitor. Meanwhile, their best friend Seth (Graham Skipper) is inexplicably experiencing nosebleeds and other premonitions of doom. Depending on one’s ability to withstand numerous images of gore and an ear-splitting soundtrack, the reasonably novel ending either will make up for the incomprehensible middle third or be just another thing that life was too short to waste time waiting to see. “Almost Human” may be far too excruciating an experience for most viewers to watch, but it’s short and the best gags may be indicative of a bright future for Begos. Don’t forget to fast-forward through the eight-minute credits crawl to find a brief closing scene. The DVD adds a couple of featurettes, interviews and the short film, “Toxin.” – Gary Dretzka
Fox: Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey: Blu-ray
The Chisholms: Complete TV Series
The Adventures of Batman
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: The Lost Gardens of Babylon
The Wheels on the Bus: A Day at the Farm
Thirty-four years ago, when Carl Sagan’s landmark series, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” first aired on PBS, Pluto was still a planet, the Hubble Space Telescope had yet to wow us with remarkable images from deep space, high-definition television monitors weren’t close to being affordable and the colony of unreformed Nazis living on the dark side of the moon had yet to reveal itself. That last one wasn’t known until the Finnish film “Iron Sky” was released in 2012. If “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey” didn’t make quite the same splash when it was simulcast earlier this year across all 10 Fox broadcast and cable outlets, it’s only because Sagan had already become a genuine media celebrity. He had already made several appearances on the “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” where the host, an amateur astronomer, had made him feel as welcome as any movie star. The similarly ambitious “A SpaceTime Odyssey” follows the blueprint laid out in 1980. This time, though, digital technology, computer-generated animation and high-resolution video monitors have raised the ante on science programming. Among other things, the visual presentation is exponentially sharper, deeper and immersive. The 13-episode series is presented by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who learned more than a few lessons from his idol, Sagan. Among the executive producers are Seth MacFarlane and Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, a co-creator of the original series. Astronomer and writer Steven Soter returns to share scripting duties with Dryun. As family-oriented entertainment and explanatory science, “A SpaceTime Odyssey” isn’t likely to be topped, until home theaters become totally immersive and everyone can afford an IMAX screen in their living room. By then, too, we’ll probably be receiving YouTube videos from Mars. The 662-minute Blu-ray experience includes audio commentary; the Library of Congress dedication; deleted scenes; “‘Cosmos’: A Vision Reborn”; “‘Cosmos’ at Comic-Con”; and an interactive “cosmic calendar.”
“The Chisholms” began its life on CBS as a 1979 mini-series, before being spun-off as a short-lived series the next year. That was pretty late in the game for TV Westerns, but “Little House on the Prairie” still had some a few years life in it and a cast that included Robert Preston, Brian Keith, Rosemarie Harris, Ben Murphy, Brian Kerwin and Donald Moffat, in addition to interesting guest stars, still should have been able to find an audience. Moreover, it was executive produced by David Dortort, who had written, produced and exec-produced dozens of episodes of “Bonanza,” which “The Chilsholms” kind of, sort of resembled. Swindled out of their Virginia property, the Chisholm family, led by proud patriarch Hadley (Preston) and his wife, Minerva (Harris), make the trek westward in order to build a new life for themselves in the Oregon Territory. Along the trail, the Chisholm clan encounters challenges that threaten not only their safety, but the very fabric of their familial bonds. It helped, as well, that the shooting locations looked as if they’re nowhere near SoCal or British Columbia. If nothing else, it’s great to see the lead stars in action, again.
“Slugterra: Ghoul From Beyond” is a feature-length extension of the Nerd Corps’ sci-fi/fantasy series, “Slugterra,” which defies synopsis, easy or otherwise. The story takes place in a deep, underground realm in which magical garden slugs are treated like commodities to be collected, trained and shot from guns. Topsider Eli Shane is determined to be the greatest slug-slinger since his legendary father disappeared in one of the many caverns of the underworld. A villain known as Dr. Blakk is seeking to “ghoul” the slugs, transforming them into feral mindless weapons. As was the case with gunfighters in Old West, every time one goes down, someone bigger and badder comes along to take his place. The movie is only slightly less complicated than the series.
“The Adventures of Batman” is the companion package to “The New Adventures of Superman, Seasons 2 & 3,” released last week. Produced by Filmation, the show aired on CBS in 1968. It featured the voices of Olan Soule, as the original voice of Batman; Casey Kasem, as Robin, Jane Webb as Batgirl and Catwoman; Ted Knight, as Commissioner Gordon, Penguin, Riddler and Mr. Freeze; and Larry Storch, as The Joker. The two-disc set contains all 34 episodes.
It’s the rare episode of PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” that doesn’t hold one’s interest for its entire 60-minute length. Some reveal secrets buried in the recent past, while other episodes take viewers back to antiquity. One of the most interesting things about “The Lost Gardens of Babylon” is learning how much evidence is still available today, 3,000 years since the gardens are believed to have been built. Satellite photography and advanced imaging technology reveal things that have been hidden in plain sight all along. Dr. Stephanie Dalley, of Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, has been searching for the exact location of the gardens for most of her career. Now that the imagery has pointed her in a direction different than she was looking, the war in Iraq has made it impossible to complete her research. When guards prevent her from getting too close to ground zero, she equips Iraqis known to them to film the area with handheld cameras. Even we miss the “Eureka” moment, what Dalley is able to describe is pretty fascinating.
The latest package from the “PBS Kids” block includes, “Dinosaur Train: Adventure Camp,” “Wild Kratts: Tiny Trouble” and “Word Girl: Monkey Business.” Lifelong Who fans who want their kids to follow in their footsteps can give them a headstart with the “The Wheels on the Bus: A Day at the Farm.” Roger Daltrey provides the voice of Argon the Dragon, one of several animal characters — Papaya, the fun-loving monkey, and his toucan friend, Mango – who are transported to adventures on a musical bus. The episodes included here are “Fill it Up!,” “A Trip to the Market,” “Guide Dogs” and “A Visit to the Circus.” – Gary Dretzka
It may come as a shock to anyone born after the nearly universal push for concise labelling of food products and easy availability of healthy meals that there was time when the names of chemicals weren’t listed on every package or can containing edibles. Generally speaking, it wasn’t until after World War II that giant agricultural interests began to use chemicals to rush seasons and create produce that lasts longer on shelves and doesn’t taste nearly as fresh as it did only a few years earlier. Americans took it for granted that those chemicals were safe, because, well, why would anyone want to poison us? Now, with genetically modified produce, the battle over labelling is being fought once again, with giant agri-business concerns once again arguing that the products are so safe that identification isn’t necessary, let alone warnings. Ed Brown’s “Unacceptable Levels” tells us that, on average, we all have more than 232 industrial chemicals floating around in our bodies, with more to come. The science behind the prevention of chemically spurred diseases has, until now, lagged behind the creation of new preservatives and growth hormones. Brown believes that there are ways to reverse the trend. The film is sponsored by the American Sustainable Business Council, whose stated mission it is to advance “public policies that foster a vibrant, just and sustainable economy.” – Gary Dretzka
Auf Wiedersehen: ’Til We Meet Again
Established in 1988, SISU Home Entertainment Inc. markets and distributes Israeli and Jewish videos, audio, books and multimedia properties. The company’s wide variety of products is primarily made available through the SISU/Kol Ami websites or at Judaica shops, major retail stores and websites. In addition to films concerning current events, religion, the Holocaust and other Jewish history, SISU also distributes such titles as “Shalom Sesame,” “Operation Grandma” and “Schmelvis.” Among the titles released this month are “Auf Wiedersehen: ’Til We Meet Again” and “The Hilltops.” The former was inspired by the attacks of 9/11, when the family of Linda G. Mills was threatened by the debris falling from one of the planes that struck the WTC. The experience caused her to plan a trip to Vienna, from which her mother and her parents were forced to leave in 1939. It wasn’t a journey her mother was looking forward to, especially, but Mills felt it was important to revisit events of the past and give her 10-year-old son an opportunity to connect to his roots. While she accomplished those things in the usual way, Mills also learned a great deal about the Anschluss and the relationship between Jewish officials and the Nazi government, none of which was common knowledge. They also met with historians who located records clarifying family history and its ability to escape to the United States, before Hitler ended the extortionist pay-to-flee visa program. Not surprisingly, the 10-year-old got antsy after a couple of days, but even he admitted that he’ll likely see the trip through different eyes as an adult. The extremely well made DVD adds deleted scenes and a seminar held in New York.
I found “The Hilltops” to be a bit more problematic, but only because I’m one of those people who think that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict won’t end until concessions are made by the settlers who’ve illegally taken over hilltops on the West Bank and have no intentions on leaving. The only attempt to balance the discussion is the inclusion of sound bites from a liberal Israeli legislator, who opposes the spread. The cause of her frustration can be easily seen in the hardline tactics of the settlers and rhetoric that practically compares President Obama to Yasser Arafat. I suspect that director Igal Hecht knew better than to play devil’s advocate to the adamantly Zionist settlers, who insist they have God on their side and don’t need anyone else’s permission. So, he didn’t try. The best part of the documentary is the physical perspective we gain by seeing how rugged and otherwise useless the land may be without expensive irrigation systems and an almost constant police presence. It is in direct contrast to other settlements we’ve seen in other parts of Israel, which, by comparison, look downright suburban. I doubt that “The Hilltops” will change anyone’s point of view, one way or the other. – Gary Dretzka