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The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Frances Ha: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
If ever a movie were conceived with a specific person in mind to play the protagonist, it would be “Frances Ha.” Co-written and starring Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach’s slice-of-life dramedy tells us all we need to know about a 27-year-old dancer without a company and a career path that resembles that of the characters in HBO’s “Girls.” In the absence of a better way to describe her not-unfamiliar situation, Frances exists on the border that separates slackers, hipsters, yuppies and aspiring artists. This wouldn’t make her unique in New York or most other large cities and college towns. It’s Frances’ spacy, bordering-on-ditzy personality—combined with her blond hair and freshly scrubbed good looks—that make her stand out in most crowds. As if to encourage comparisons between “Frances Ha” and “Girls,” Baumbach cast Adam Driver as a friend and onetime roommate, cut her off from her parents’ payroll, gave her a Brooklyn address and frequently makes her feel awkward and inferior when meeting people her age who have substantial, if not always satisfying jobs. Ostensibly hetero, the Vassar graduate has enjoyed sharing a Brooklyn apartment with her best friend and soul-mate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Not only do they finish each other’s sentences and communicate in facial and hand gestures, they could have been the models for Disney’s comedy team of Chip ’n’ Dale.

The closest thing to a plot device here is a disagreement between the two women when Sophie tells Frances that she’s moving to Manhattan and pursuing a relationship with a Goldman Sachs banker from Central Casting. Left to her own devices, Frances isn’t very adept at getting on with her life. Almost completely rudderless, she attempts to form alliances with other people her age, but none of them share her peculiar sense of humor or disorganized outlook on life. She’s given opportunities to sort things out back home, in Sacramento, with her (real) parents; in an impromptu weekend trip to Paris; and a return to her alma mater, where she suffers indignities and triumph.

Baumbach (“Greenberg”) specifically designed “Frances Ha” to emulate such free-spirited French New Wave films as “Jules and Jim,” right down to the black-and-white cinematography. He makes no judgment on Frances and doesn’t demand of us that we read anything into her behavior, other than what appears on the screen. He does, however, allow to see the humor and good-natured camaraderie that informs the lives of these new bohemians, almost all of whom have yet to be caught in the same nets of conformity and routine that eventually trap most of us. “Frances Ha” is in the rare position of being released first in a snazzy Criterion Collection edition The supplemental features on the disc include conversations between Peter Bogdanovich and Baumbach, and Sarah Polley and Gerwig; a techy discussion with Baumbach, director of photography Sam Levy and colorist Pascal Dangin; and an illustrated booklet, featuring Annie Baker’s essay “The Green Girl.” The carefully considered soundtrack includes music from Georges Delerue (“Shoot the Piano Player”), Jean Constantin (“The 400 Blows”) and Antoine Duhamel (“Pierrot le fou”), as well as such pop tunes such as Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1′s a Winner,” David Bowie’s “Modern Love” and the Rolling Stones’ “Rocks Off.”

We’re the Millers: Extended Cut: Blu-ray
Unlike too many other comedies featuring former stars of “Saturday Night Live,” “We’re the Millers” isn’t merely an extension of a five-minute sketch and it isn’t produced by Lorne Michaels. It doesn’t overstay its welcome when the central gag runs out of gas, as do such “SNL” spinoffs as “MacGruber,” “The Ladies Man” and “Superstar.” Jason Sudeikis is front and center as a career pot dealer, David, whose quick wit suggests that he doesn’t waste much time sampling his own product. He lives in an older Denver apartment building in a neighborhood that is populated by homeless people and hoodlums. David is as successful as any street dealer could hope to be, considering that the job might be rendered redundant by the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. He has a steady clientele and reliable supply of high-quality herb. One night, he makes the mistake of getting between a bunch of punks; a scruffy young woman who has something they want; and a teenage boy who rushes to her defense, oblivious to the danger. In wielding his briefcase as a weapon, David accidentally reveals the stash he’s carrying, causing the punks to divert their attention to the treasure he must be hiding in his apartment. Suddenly broke and in debt to his supplier, Brad (Ed Helms)—rich enough to have built an orca tank onto his house—David agrees to drive a supply of marijuana across the border from Mexico. To look as innocent as possible at the customs station, he enlists the endangered blond (Emma Roberts), the teenage boy (Will Poulter) and stripper-next-door (Jennifer Aniston) in the mission, for which he’s been given a motor home capable of holding a small mountain of pot.

The real key to the success of the operation is the stripper, Rose, who is promised $10,000 if things pan out. Just as David is the kind of movie drug dealer who doesn’t consume his own products, Rose is a stripper who’s never required to remove her top, at least to the camera. Aniston must have spent a lot of time in gentlemen’s clubs, mastering the strippers’ craft, because she’s a natural. As Mother Miller, she’s also delightfully maternal. Obviously, things don’t go precisely as planned after they pick up the marijuana at a heavily armed compound in Mexico. In fact, the load belongs to another customer and he has no sense of humor about being ripped off—if inadvertently—by characters out of a gringo sitcom. The rest of the story shall remain unspoiled. Instead, of casting other “SNL” troupers, director Rawson Marshall Thurber (“Dodgeball”) was free to find familiar faces from other shows: Nick Offerman, Kathryn Hahn and Molly C. Quinn play another family visiting Mexico in an RV; Luis Guzman is a twisted Mexican cop; the always welcome Thomas Lennon; and Ken Marino, as the strip-club owner. Together, they supply exactly the right amount of glue to the narrative to keep it from collapsing or forcing viewers to rely too heavily on Sudeikis, Helms and Aniston for laughs. In fact, 20-year-old Poulter and 22-year-old Roberts steal most of the scenes in which they’re included. The Blu-ray takes full advantage of the New Mexico and North Carolina locations. It also contains an extended cut of the film, which doesn’t seem any raunchier than the theatrical version; outtakes, deleted scenes and cut gags; and several background and making-of featurettes.

Paranoia: Blu-ray
The days are long past since Harrison Ford could open a movie based on his presence, alone. That “42” did very well at the box office had far more to do with the remarkable story of Jackie Robinson than Ford’s excellent, age-appropriate performance as baseball executive Branch Ricky. Conversely, it wouldn’t be fair to lay any of the blame for the failure of “Ender’s Game” on his shoulders. Author/producer Oscar Scott Card is responsible for that. Certainly, Ford’s many appearances on talk and infotainment shows in support of these and previous films had little impact of the results, one way of the other. (At 71, he should try to remember to take off the “POTC” earring before sitting down to talk.) In “Paranoia,” Ford and Gary Oldman play Jock Goddard and Nicolas Wyatt, rival CEOs at major telecom companies anxious to produce the next iPhone. The stakes are extremely high, of course, because coming in second in such a high-stakes race is as lucrative as coming in last. As the movie opens, a team of hot-shot techies led by Adam Cassidy (Liam Hemsworth) stumbles out of the blocks in a pitch meeting before Wyatt’s unimpressed executive team. After Adam’s team is unceremoniously fired, they decide to use a still-active company credit card to boogey away their blues. Once the prank is discovered, Adam is summoned back to Wyatt’s office, where he’s ordered to repay the debt or prove his worthiness as a problem-solver. His assignment is to infiltrate Goddard’s company, which, once again, requires him to pass a test, and collect data on its new breakthrough product. Of course, Adam impresses the shit out of Goddard, on whose team is the mysterious beauty with whom he slept on the night he was fired. If nothing else, Adam can try to use his access to Emma (Amber Heard) to break through the company’s security systems. Because “Paranoia” is only 20 minutes old by this point, we can easily assume their inevitable ride into the sunset, together, will be interrupted by reality at some point in the next 90 minutes.

Robert Luketic (“The Ugly Truth,” “Killers”) adapted “Paranoia” from a novel by thriller specialist Joseph Finder, whose book, “High Crimes,” also was turned into a movie. Having not read either novel, I couldn’t say if they contain as many obvious clues and flimsy narrative tricks as those found in the movie version of “Paranoia.” Never has industrial espionage seemed so simple. Another problem arises when Adam suddenly is struck with pangs of conscience about breaking every ethical, moral and corporate guideline he was taught at Harvard, Wharton, MIT or whatever school it was from which he matriculated. Neither does he want to disappoint his father, a former security guard who sits at home watching TV while his son is busy playing Gordon Gekko. Getting out of his deal with the devil could cost Adam far more than the $500,000 advance he received from Wyatt. By now, however, the filmmakers have cut so many corners and taken enough shortcuts for viewers to easily predict what will happen as the plot gets even thicker. The mere presence of expensive supporting-cast members Embeth Davidtz and Julian McMahon, as aide-de-camps to Goddard and Wyatt, respectively, dulls the suspense at crucial times. Those viewers who aren’t conversant with time-honored thriller tropes should find something to like in “Paranoia,” though. The characters are attractive, the sets are appropriately sleek and not all of the surprises are so broadly telegraphed. What should be troubling to studio execs is how much better television has become producing thrillers—“Damages,” “The Good Wife,” “Homeland,” “The Newsroom” etc. etc.—than the big-money boys in Hollywood. The Blu-ray combo pack adds deleted scenes and the featurettes “Privacy Is Dead,” “The Paranoia Begins” and “The Players.”

Thérèse
The late French director Claude Miller adapted his final film from a novel by the Nobel Prize-winner François Mauriac, who, in turn, was inspired by the real-life 1906 murder trial of Madame Henriette-Blance Canaby. In “Thérèse,” the daughter of a wealthy landowner and Socialist politician, reluctantly accepts the inevitable, by marrying her next-door neighbor, Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche), who enjoys to hunt and pretend he’s important. Their marriage was as much for convenience as it was for love, as bride and groom control much adjoining property and their pairing would make both families more formidable in the region. Well before melding of families, Therese Larroque (Audrey Tautou) probably was more enamored with her future sister-in-law than momma’s-boy Bernard. Anna (Anaïs Demoustier) is a carefree girl, anxious to experience sexual ecstasy before committing to her own marriage. The summer of the wedding, Anna falls in love with an athletic and widely read neighbor, Jean (Stanley Weber), who sails by their houses every day. In the best of all possible worlds, Anne’s romance with a handsome, well-educated and wealthy Portuguese Jew wouldn’t cause a ripple of excitement. In the mind of Anne’s imperious and devoutly Catholic mother, however, it borders on the scandalous. Instead of letting the infatuation run its course, Bernard effectively puts his sister under house arrest. When even this punishment fails to keep them apart, Bernard asks Therese to return home from their extended honeymoon in Switzerland to convince the young man to end the romance with Anna. Although she agrees to intercede, it’s probably because she’s interested in meeting the young man and seeing what makes him tick.

At this point in the drama, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Therese had jumped in the boat with Jean and pulled the sails over their naked bodies. Bernard had already proven himself inadequate in the sack and it’s likely she was already pregnant. If so, this would mean there was no hope of escaping Bernard’s grasp in the near future. Instead, Therese had to settle for listening to Jean wax rhapsodic about his own dreams for the future, which, not too surprisingly, didn’t include marriage to Anne. Even as she grew more obviously present, Bernard’s mother made greater demands on Therese’s time and loyalty. This was especially true when her husband began suffering symptoms of angina and she sat by his bedside taking care of his every whim. For some reason even Therese can’t fully articulate—perhaps, post-partum depression—she begins to administer unsafe levels of arsenic-enhanced medication to Bernard. She even forges prescriptions to secure more of the toxic mixture. With the patient on the verge of death, Bernard’s doctor and pharmacist figure out Therese’s scheme and demand she stay away from him. To avoid scandal, Bernard refuses to press charges or testify against Therese in any trial. Now well, he devices his own form of punishment, which includes only leaving the house for mass and not seeing their daughter. When, finally, Therese and Bernard device an arrangement that wouldn’t make him look bad, she splits for Paris and the kind of life Jean might have imagined for her. As good as the other cast members are, “Therese” is Tatou’s picture. She wears the character’s every mood and malady on her face, aging prematurely through what actually is only an eight-year span. Such aristocratic interpretations of the marriage contract would begin to end after World War II, but on a slower pace outside Paris. Besides making Desqueyroux coupling resemble an elegantly appointed hell, Miller nicely captures the great natural beauty of the Bordeaux, Hourtin, Bonzac and Belin-Beliet in Gironde and Aquitane. The Blu-ray adds a short making-of featurette.

Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus: Blu-ray
Peyote
Watching Sebastian Silva’s strangely nostalgic, if completely out-of-left-field road movie is like entering a time warp in modern-day Chile and exiting in the Haight-Ashbury, circa 1967. In “Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus,” an extremely annoying American expatriate, Jamie (Michael Cera), becomes obsessed with discovering the truth behind the legends surrounding the San Pedro cactus, which, for many centuries, has provided the native Andean population with good vibrations. Today, the popular garden plant is cultivated in South America for its medicinal, spiritual and ornamental properties. When Spanish priests and colonialists swept through the region, its use was suppressed, but far from eliminated. Instead, new converts to Christianity gave the cactus its current name, based on a belief that, just as St. Peter holds the keys to heaven, the mescaline allow users “to reach heaven while still on earth.” True or false, it’s just cause for Jamie to organize an excursion to a village where such vegetation is known to be common. Even though Jamie is no one’s idea of an amiable traveling companion, a trio of Chilean brothers agree to join him on his excellent adventure.

No road trip would be complete without attending a party the night before, of course, and this one is a doozy. At one point, Jamie invites a hippie-dippy American chick, Crystal Fairy—who dances as if she were channeling an entire audience of Deadheads—to join them. In the bright light of day, Jamie would prefer that Crystal had spaced on the trip, but, when she shows up at their designated meeting place, the brothers insist he honor his invitation. Crystal’s so hard-core, she could have served as the model for several of the more trippy characters in “Hair,” right down to shedding her clothes and parading around naked whenever possible. (The boys nickname her Hairy Fairy, for some rather obvious reasons.) Finding the valuable cactus is no problem, as plants can be found in many of the town’s gardens. Strangely, though, the residents refuse their offers to sell a cutting to the visitors. While one elderly woman is distracted, Jamie simply amputates an arm with a kitchen knife.

The rest of “CF&TMC” depicts both the ritual preparation for a psychedelic journey and the outward manifestations of being stewed to the gills. As trite and clichéd as that might sound in 2013, Silva pulls it off with room to spare. In his hands, it’s more rite-of-passage than post-hippie conceit. With “The Maid” and “Magic Magic,” Silva has already demonstrated what he can do with an offbeat notion. (The frightening students-in-distress thriller, “Magic Magic,” also starred Cera.) He never allows the night-long trip to become boring or a parody of a time when thousands of Crystal Fairies roamed the Earth. Neither is it likely any modern-day easy riders will drop everything and travel to Chile on the off-chance they’ll find a specimen to sample and a paradisiacal beach suited for quasi-religious enlightenment. The otherworldly desert scenery, quaint villages and pristine beaches provide a much better reason to buy a one-way ticket to Santiago. Silva also coaxes terrific performances from Cera and Gaby Hoffmann (Maizy, in “Uncle Buck”). The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette.

In Omar Flores Sarabia’s chemically related, “Peyote,” the pilgrims are in pursuit of a considerably smaller, if similarly psychoactive cactus. Unlike the characters in “Crystal Fairy,” Pablo and Marco have traveled to the starkly picturesque Mexican desert mostly on a lark. Having just met and made love for the first time, the timid teenager, Pablo (Joe Diazzi), has more questions than answers about love and sexuality than the older Marco (Carlos Luque). Fortunately, they’ve remembered to bring a video camera along on the trip. It allows Pablo to have a visual record of the changes he’s experiencing while they happen. The question then becomes one of gauging how much Pablo has grown during his psychic journey and how much, if it all, it alters his relationship with Marco. While about 10-15 minutes too short, “Peyote” has much to recommend it. The Breaking Glass DVD adds a behind-the-scenes featurette and a photo gallery.

Hannah Arendt: Blu-ray
Although Hannah Arendt’s treatise on the “banality of evil” is widely recognized, it’s entirely possible that, by now, the context for her observation has long since been forgotten and the universality of its truth ignored. At a time when unmanned drones do the killing and the deaths of innocent bystanders are dismissed as collateral damage, the face of evil has, if anything, gotten even more unrecognizable. In what surely is one of the finest performances this year, Barbara Sukowa breathes new life into the legacy of one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of the last 100 years. And, more than anything else, the primary intention of Margarethe von Trotta’s challenging drama, “Hannah Arendt,” is to make viewers think about and discuss what they’ve just learned about the German-born philosopher, theorist and teacher. In 1961, after Adolf Eichmann was captured by Mossad operatives in Argentina, Arendt was assigned by the New Yorker to cover the trial. He had been the target of an intense 15-year manhunt and stood accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people and membership in a criminal organization. Instead of finding the “man in the glass booth” to be a monster who exuded evil with every breath and gesture, Arendt decided that, while his “deeds were monstrous, the doer … was quite ordinary, commonplace and neither demonic nor monstrous.” In facilitating the deportation of millions of Jews to almost certain death in concentration camps, Eichmann exhibited “an incapacity for independent critical thought.” Thus, he came to represent the banality of simply doing one’s job, as assigned and absent debate, no matter the evil consequences. At a time when people around the world were still trying to get their heads around the ability of Hitler and his minions to order the deaths of untold millions of Jews, Romani, homosexuals, Slavs, Poles, Soviet POWs, Slovenes Marxists, intellectuals, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and physically and mentally handicapped individuals, it was expected that Arendt and other correspondents would paint a portrait of thinly sublimated depravity and outwardly rabid behavior. That she came back, instead, with what essentially was a portrait of an unthinking bureaucrat—someone expecting to be rewarded for excelling at his job—shocked and angered many of the magazine’s readers, Arendt’s friends, family and fellow faculty members. Administrators who previously treated her as if she was a celebrity turned their backs on her.

Arendt wasn’t attempting to be contrarian, controversial or a provocateur, however. As Sukowa so clearly articulates in her performance, Arendt believed that she had discovered a greater, far more disturbing truth about mankind: that one needn’t be evil to do evil things. Indeed, she agreed that Eichmann deserved to be found guilty and executed. Von Trotta and Pam Katz’ screenplay forces viewers to contemplate such observations and apply them to events in their own lives. Although the movie takes place mostly in the early 1960s, with flashbacks to her romantic relationship to philosopher and Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger, the questions it asks could just as well refer to subsequent wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eastern Europe. It has been argued that Henry Kissinger no more deserved the Nobel Peace Prize than Eichmann would have if Germany had won WWII. After all, his advice to President Nixon on the “secret war” in Cambodia led directly to the deaths of thousands of non-combatants and opened the door for Pol Pot to eliminate a quarter of the country’s population. He also engineered the military coup that toppled the duly elected Socialist government in Chile and allowed fascist leaders there and in Argentina to torture and “disappear” tens of thousands of leftists and potential problems for their governments. Kissinger didn’t carry a weapon to his job in the State Department and couldn’t order Americans be sent into battle without convincing Nixon first, but the blood of millions of anonymous people remains on his hands, nonetheless. But, I digress. Von Trotta interweaves footage of the actual trial with flashbacks and dramatizations of Arendt’s personal life in New York and Israel. Many of her most cogent opinions are presented in classroom lectures. “Hannah Arendt” co-stars Alex Milberg as her husband, Heinrich Blucher; Klaus Pohl as Heidegger; Ulrich Noethen as Jewish-German philosopher Hans Jonas; Nicolas Woodeson as New Yorker editor William Shawn; and two-time Oscar nominee Janet McTeer as novelist Mary McCarthy. Deep thinkers all, you can almost see heat waves emanating from their foreheads. And, yes, Arendt’s theories on Eichmann, if not the banality of evil, have been contested by several learned historians.

Bridegroom
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s heartfelt documentary about an ill-fated, monogamous relationship between two men feels strangely anachronistic in the closing weeks of 2013. The Supreme Court’s nullification of the portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that narrowed the definition of marriage, along with effectively overturning California’s Proposition 8, forever leveled the playing field on the divisive issue. Since then, several more states have recognized the legality of same-sex marriages. The battle is far from over, of course, but the tragedy described in “Bridegroom” might have been averted if the Supreme Court had acted just a little bit sooner. Mostly, “Bridegroom” chronicles the love affair and virtual marriage of Shane Bitney Crone and Thomas Bridegroom. It does so with the assistance of home movies, photographs, interviews with friends and the occasional text message. Crone and Bridegroom weren’t a matched set of gay men in love, but the differences in age and backgrounds rarely came between them. One afternoon, Tom accidentally stepped off the roof of an apartment building while taking photographs of a friend. The fall killed him. Because the two men weren’t married or protected by a will, Tom’s family was allowed to ban Shane from the funeral and access to the burial site. He was even threatened with great bodily harm if he dared to crash the event. If backers of Proposition 8 hadn’t insisted on delaying the inevitable—they were married before the measure passed—Tom and Shane might have been long married and beyond the bigoted demands of Tom’s parents. On May 7th, 2012, Shane posted a video on YouTube, entitled “It Could Happen to You,” describing their relationship and warning others of such legal roadblocks. The posting received more than 3.2 million hits and inspired over 50,000 e-mails and comments on YouTube and Facebook. Last April, Bloodworth-Thomason’s affecting film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it was introduced by her close friend, former President Bill Clinton. Not lost on audience members was the fact that Clinton had signed the DOMA legislation in 1996 and didn’t feel it necessary to renounce his politically motivated decision until earlier this year.

Women Without Men
Samson & Delilah
It’s no secret that some of the most important films of the last 20-30 years have been made Iranians, almost all of whom have been censored or banished for expressing their opinions about the current regime or exposing injustices, especially toward woman. There’s no question that these filmmakers love their country, while hoping against hope that things will change in their lifetime. “Women Without Men” is set against the backdrop of the 1953 coup, engineered by the CIA and MI6, which deposed the freely elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and eventually would install Mohammad-Rezā Shāh Pahlavi as the ultimate leader of the country. The shah may not play a large role in “Women Without Men,” but it’s clear how things that happened in 1953 would inevitably lead to his overthrow in 1979 and the takeover of the American Embassy by Islamic militants. More specifically, Shirin Neshat’s film is informed by the different ways Iranian women have been treated throughout the 20th Century, not only by Islamic fundamentalists, but also secularists, family members and advocates of various political movements. Employing strategically placed elements of magical realism, Neshat focuses on four very different women whose destinies converge in the orchard of a secluded mansion, where they’re free to interact as if men weren’t in control of their lives. It’s as if the women died and went to heaven or, if not paradise, the Garden of Eden. Adapted from Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel of the same title, “Women Without Men” was awarded the Silver Lion Award at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, and it’s not difficult to see why. Neshat’s eye for color, texture and photographic precision are on full display whether the women are wandering the orchard, cleansing themselves in a public bath, participating in a pro-Mosaddegh protest, hosting a bourgeois dinner party or being chastised by a brother for not being married and not wearing a head scarf. It also reflects the rich and diverse society and culture, which would be reined in by the shah and stifled by the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini. For its efforts, the U.S. received a quarter-century’s worth of cheap oil and a place to sell expensive military equipment. That honeymoon’s come to an end, however. The DVD includes interviews and much background material.

Samson & Delilah” is the harrowing story of two Aboriginal 14-year-old kids, living on a garbage strewn patch of land in the middle of the central Australian desert. Their idea of a good time is sniffing gasoline fumes and wheeling around the hard-packed dirt roads on wheelchairs, while a makeshift band strums a blues number in the background. If their situation seems hopeless, that’s because it probably is. The nearly dialogue-free drama accentuates the kinds of things that have been holding back the indigenous population for many decades—substance abuse, alcoholism, poverty, lack of education and jobs—without also presenting such diversions as beautiful desert sunsets and cuddly marsupials. After the teens do something stupid in the village, they retreat to Alice Springs. Once there, things get even worse with the greater variety of intoxicants available to Samson. Their only friend is a completely burned out alcoholic who treats them to booze and the occasional can of spaghetti, in exchange for listening to his rambling discourses. “Samson & Delilah” may be every bit as bleak as it sounds, but it feels extremely real and vital. Director Warwick Thornton based the story on personal experiences of growing up in an Aboriginal community. He even hired his alcoholic brother, Scott, to participate in the project as an actor and adviser, but only after he cleaned up … temporarily, as it turns out. One of the reasons “Samson & Delilah” is largely devoid of dialogue is because so many of the actors speak or read English, and the many Aboriginal dialects defied easy encapsulation. The DVD contains an interview with the director and stars that fills in many of the blanks left behind from the movie.

Momo: The Sam Giancana Story 
As the days and minutes tick down to our country’s least celebratory anniversary of them all—the unofficial commemoration of President Kennedy’s assassination—the conspiracy theories have begun to pile up like so many logs on a raging campfire. Most have been debunked several times over, but it’s impossible to keep a good one down for long. Dimitri Logothetis’ feature-length bio-doc “Momo: The Sam Giancana Story” takes its good-natured time getting to point where the promised revelation about the Chicago Outfit’s role in the assassination is revealed. It won’t surprise anyone who knows that Giancana, Kennedy and Frank Sinatra slept with the same women—not simultaneously—twice, at least. The stuff about the mob wanting Kennedy eliminated as punishment for not delivering on promises made in the run-up to the 1960 presidential election is so old it has whiskers. Nonetheless, there’s plenty of juicy material here for mafia buffs to digest, even without smoking-gun evidence in the Dallas affair. “Momo” was written by Logothetis and actor/producer Nicholas Celozzi, grandson of Sam Giancana’s sister. Daughters Bonnie and Francine Giancana provide lots of anecdotes of how great it was growing up in the Giancana home, where Momo rarely displayed the traits for which he was widely feared and envied. They’re also featured in home movies, alongside their father and mother, who, we are led to believe, was a saint. (Aren’t they all?) Evidence of Giancana’s ruthlessness and cunning is provided by historian and archivist John Binder, FBI agent Royden Rice, a couple of professors and some guys whose faces can’t be readily identified. Buffs should find the archival material especially worthwhile. Left unanswered is whether Giancana watched “The Untouchables” and recognized himself in it. He was renowned as a top wheel man, but the only comparable character in the show goes by “Driver” in the four episodes in which he appears.

Blue Collar Boys
You don’t come across many movies like “Blue Collar Boys,” anymore. Overflowing with righteous indignation and vitriol, Mark Nistico’s debut feature describes what happens when a working-class family decides that it’s angry as hell and it’s not going to take it anymore. For years, “Senior” Redkin (Bruce Kirkpatrick) has run a construction company capable of providing for his family, with money left over for a few frills. His adult boys have been groomed to take over the company, but that isn’t likely to happen now that Senior’s been driven to the brink of bankruptcy and a stroke by local sharpies who recognized a fish when they saw one. While continuing to build houses for a local contractor, Senior hopes to develop a small subdivision of his own. Until things unexpectedly went south, brothers Nazo (Kevin Interdonato) and Red (Gabe Fazio) were free to spend their evenings hanging with the homeboys and getting into fights with people who got in their way. Now, however, they’re taking their fight to the contractors and politicians who want to put Senior out of business. The more desperate their father becomes, the closer the brothers and their pals get to engaging in all-out class war. As improbable as such a scenario would be in real life, Nistico allows it to play out as any good low-budget revenge thriller should. It helps mightily that he was able to find actors who look the part of guys who wake up every morning—rain or shine, hot or cold—knowing that their day isn’t going to get much better than it already is. When their dad’s livelihood is threatened, along with their own future, they don’t hesitate to take action. How high the chips are stacked against them, though, doesn’t seem to matter. Made on a reported budget of $75,000, it looks at least $500,000 more expensive.

Dreaming Alaska
If an Italian geologist were to dream of going anywhere in his lifetime, it might be Alaska. Italy has plenty of fine mountains to climb and unequaled scenic vistas, but the ancient country is far too civilized and trod-upon to be considered wilderness and that’s Alan needs right now. Unfortunately, his department head isn’t willing to come up with the money to finance the trip. Thomas is the director of a TV show heading nowhere but down in the ratings. Even so, he’s not quite ready to commit to a reality format just yet. “Dreaming Alaska,” then, is about dreams deferred and those not yet doomed by the facts of twenty-first century life. The movie, itself, is a dream finally realized by Emanuele Valla, who performed every task on it, except, perhaps, catering. Sometimes it feels as if Valla threw in every trick he knows, on the odd chance he’d never be asked to make another movie. As such, it easily qualifies as a kooky pleasure. The songs on the soundtrack are there to comment on what’s happening on the screen, including the various trysts and romantic ambitions with which Alan and Thomas are confronted. Finally, after being classroom- and studio-bound, “Dreaming Alaska” delivers on its promise of spectacular scenery and found love. Italian rom-coms take some time getting used to, but there are rewards to be found here.

Loveholic
There’s something to be said about a steamy romance that gets the old pulse racing with only the barest hint of nudity and deferred acts of sexuality. Wong Kar Wai’s incendiary “In the Mood for Love” carries a PG rating, even though it oozes sex from almost every frame. There’s a bit more overt sensuality in Kwon Chil-in’s “Loveholic,” but it could probably pass for PG-13 in a pinch. Even though it isn’t a rom-com, “Loveholic” also is very funny. When Ji Eun (Chu Ja-Hyeon) suddenly loses her job and apartment, her friend and former supervisor Kyung-rin (Han Su-yeon) offers to let her stay with her and her husband. As reserved and tidy as the doctor is, Ji Eun is that much more messy and frayed around the edges. Kyung-rin is very much like her husband, until she’s required to undress—ever so primly—in front of a young radiologist attempting to discover why she can’t get pregnant. It awakens something in her that she doesn’t quite understand, but seems ready to accept. Meanwhile, the doctor strikes a more common chord with his lodger, whose demeanor he’s mostly found annoying. It takes a while for things to proceed in the direction of love and adultery, but the pacing is so gentle and unforced that we’re left hoping the director doesn’t throw a hyper-dramatic monkey wrench into the works. If the blurbs on the jacket suggest something more blatantly erotic going on in “Loveholic,” the failure to deliver on it works in the viewers’ favor.

Running Mates
Co-writer/director/star Thomas Michaels’ paint-by-numbers comedy imagines a situation in which an ambitious young man, Archie Fenton, returns to his hometown with his similarly ambitious wife, targeting the office of mayor for his next job. If the nickname of Michaels’ character, “Skidmarks” suggests anything, it’s that none of his old acquaintances are likely to make life easy for him. That one of his old pals—played by gangly D.J. Qualls—is nicknamed “One Ball” speaks volumes on the level of humor on display here. The complication comes when former best friend, Reg (Paolo Mancini), decides it might be fun to run against Skidmarks, so he throws his mullet in the mayoral ring, too. They aren’t the only ones vying for the job, either. Henry Winkler, who hasn’t turned down many gigs lately, also makes an appearance as an election official. Slapstick ensures. “Running Mates” probably will be of most interest to Canadian completists.

Informant
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t spying on you. We’ve learned that much, at least, from the current NSA debacle playing out in newspaper headlines from here to Edward Snowden’s apartment in Moscow. Jamie Meltzer’s “Informant” tells a rather different story about trust and paranoia. In the very broad wake of Hurricane Katrina, a self-described anarchist named Brandon Darby made a name for himself in activist quarters by braving fetid water to save the life of stranded friends. He would then co-found Common Ground, a successful grassroots relief organization. If anyone in the movement could be trusted with secrets, seemingly it was Darby. A view years later, however, he revealed himself to be an informant and, likely, someone who convinced fellow anarchists to purchase bomb-making material. As anyone who lived through the FBI’s COINTELPRO program in the 1960-70s can attest, the agency has never been particularly choosy about the people it enlists as snitches, infiltrators and provocateurs. The crimes they cause to happen frequently are more shocking than those that might have occurred if the radicals were left to their own devices. Darby relates here that he only switched sides—from far left to far right—when he learned what his comrades in the movement were planning for the 2008 Republican National Convention. The information he provided led to indictments against several people, who, even having served prison terms, deny any intention to use Molotov cocktails or hurt people. The evidence against Darby is quite a bit more convincing. In any case, Darby was acutely aware of the direction from which the wind was blowing after Katrina and he’s managed to cash in ever since, first as an activist, then as an informer, Tea Party hero and contributor to the notoriously insane Breitbart.com. Darby isn’t the first such turncoat for hire and he certainly won’t be the last. If the government expects Americans to treat Snowdon as a traitor and threat to democracy, it would be wise to clean up its own house first.

Here’s Edie: The Edie Adams Television Collection
It’s amazing what we remember first when a celebrity dies. In the case of the extremely talented entertainer Edie Adams, who passed in 2008, it was a series of commercials she did for Muriel cigars. Her husband, Ernie Kovacs, was so associated with cigars that it almost seemed natural Adams would add a sparkle of playful sexuality to the spots. Even after Kovacs’ untimely death, in 1962, she continued to tease smokers with the come-ons, “Hey, big spender, spend a little dime with me” and “Why don’t you pick one up and smoke it sometime?” And, yet, as the new DVD collection, “Here’s Edie: The Edie Adams Television Collection,” demonstrates, Adams’ legacy is far more than the sum of her cigar commercials. The four-disc set includes 12 hours of newly transferred material from her variety shows, “Here’s Edie” and “The Edie Adams Show.” Besides the mock-sexy Muriel commercials, the shows showcased such co-stars as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Getz, Andre Previn, Sammy Davis Jr., Bobby Darin, Johnny Mathis, Nancy Wilson, Buddy Hackett, Bob Hope, Dick Shawn, Rowan & Martin, Peter Falk, Spike Jones, Sir Michael Redgrave and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Several of the shows were shot on location in London, Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles. Adams had a wonderful classically trained voice, which could handle everything from opera to novelty songs, either in costume or a rhinestone-studded cocktail gown. The shows also allowed time for dance routines and comedy bits.

This material includes rarely seen musical numbers from numerous Ernie Kovacs’ shows of the 1950s, with introductions from Kovacs himself; a set of commercial promos by Adams and Sid Caesar; a Muriel Cigars promotional film; and a 16-page booklet packed with rare photos from the family archive, an essay from Edie’s son, Joshua Mills, and a show-by-show rundown from curator and DVD co-producer Ben Model. The era of the variety show is long past, whether it was hosted by a major star or newspaper columnist, as was Ed Sullivan. The format has largely disappeared from late-night talk shows, which prefer to showcase music acts and the occasional comedian. Today, the only place to find the kinds of acts that appeared on the same shows as celebrated singers and comics are Las Vegas and on cruise ships. More than anything else, DVD collections of vintage variety shows remind us we’re missing.

Vivien Leigh Anniversary Collection: Blu-ray
When considering the career of any certified movie star, especially one whose career spanned three decades, it would seem safe to assume that the actor had a list of credits a mile long. In the case of two-time Best Lead Actress-winner Vivien Leigh, that assumption would be wrong. Despite turning in unforgettable performances in “Gone With the Wind” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Leigh appeared in exactly 19 credited roles and one that wasn’t. Neither was she always the lead actress. As such, the titles included in Cohen Media’s “Vivien Leigh Anniversary Collection”—“Dark Journey,” “Fire Over England,” “Sidewalks of London,” “Storm in a Tea Cup”—represent fully 20 percent of her cinematic output. She had several good excuses, though, including a preference for the stage and a manifestations of bipolar disorder. None of the British-made movies will be terribly familiar to American audience, I suspect, but the presence of such co-stars as future husband Laurence Olivier, Flora Robson, Raymond Massey, Conrad Veidt, Rex Harrison (twice), Charles Laughton, Larry Adler, Tyrone Guthrie makes the collection noteworthy, as do the fine high-definition restorations.

Leigh may have a limited role in “Fire Over England,” but it’s of great interest to trivia buffs for being the picture on which Olivier and Leigh officially were recognized as adulterous lovers. Her performance, as lady-in-waiting to Robson’s Queen Elizabeth I, prompted agent Myron Selznick to recommend Leigh to his producer brother, David, as the best bet to play Scarlett O’Hara. They were introduced on the backlot where the burning of the Atlanta Depot scene was being filmed. “Dark Journey” is a romantic espionage thriller, in which Leigh and Veidt are playing for different teams. In the silly romantic comedy, “Storm in a Teacup,” an ambitious reporter (Harrison) falls in love with the daughter of a windbag Scottish politician. The reporter has written a derogatory article about the provost’s absurd stand on the execution of a working-class woman’s dog for her inability to pay license fees. “Sidewalks of London” is what “My Fair Lady” might have looked like if Busby Berkeley had directed it. Laughton shines as a busker who works the streets outside the theater district, while Leigh plays a diamond-in-the-roof dancer. The only supplement added to the package is “Before She Was Scarlett O’Hara: An Interview with Anne Edwards,” one of Leigh’s biographers.

And While We Were Here: Blu-ray
Sigmund Freud couldn’t possibly have been thinking of a character in a 2013 rom-dram when he observed, “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’” It applies here, however, to the emotionally divided Jane, as played by Kate Bosworth, in Kat Coiro’s “And While We Were Here.” Jane is married to a classical musician in Naples to perform in concert. She’s traveled with him by train and, at first, they seem to be happy and in love. Fissures begin to form, however, almost immediately after her purse is stolen at the rail station. We learn that Jane’s recently suffered some kind of traumatic event, possibly a miscarriage, and she’s attempting to fill the void in her life by writing a book about her British grandmother, who experienced the pain of two world wars … one as a child and the other as an adult. Naturally, on a side trip to an island off the scenic Amalfi coast, she runs into a young man (or old boy). Caleb (Jamie Blackley) is an American vagabond, temporarily hanging out on the island of Ischia, where he pretends to be Italian for the benefit of pretty blond tourists. A free-wheeling and funny extrovert, Caleb is set up to be the temperamental opposite of her husband, Leonard (Iddo Goldberg). Leonard may be a bit withdrawn, but the only reason he’s in Naples is to play the viola and that means rehearsing with the orchestra. He isn’t ignoring Jane’s needs, but she seems to be in desperate need of being engaged at an emotional and intellectual level. Caleb more than makes up for the emptiness she’s feels when she’s in the same room as Leonard. Coiro does a nice job disguising what will happen when it’s time for the couple to return to England and she’s given the choice of being with Leonard or following her new-found passion for something else. The writer/director plays things right down the middle, refusing to tip the scales in favor of Leonard, Caleb or something else. “And When We Were Here” offers little that we haven’t seen in previous such rom-drams, except for the beauty of the Amalfi coast, which provides sufficient cause for sticking with it. It’s interesting that Blu-ray contains both the color version of the film, as well as the black-and-white “director’s version,” which adds a more Italianate flavor to the drama. The music is pretty good, too.

Linda Ronstadt: Love Has No Pride
Gourds: All the Labor: The Story Of The Gourds
Europe: 30th Anniversary Live: Blu-ray
Left unable to sing by Parkinson’s disease, Arizona songbird Linda Ronstadt announced her retirement last August. In a career that already had spanned nearly 50 years and genres ranging from roots rock to opera, Ronstadt released 30 studio albums, 15 compilations or greatest-hits collections; performed on Broadway and at the World Series; graced the covers of Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone (six times), Us and People; interpreted the music of dozens of up-and-coming artists, as well as established artists; won a dozen Grammy Awards, an Emmy and Tony; wrote her autobiography; thrilled the paparazzi by dating the once and future California governor, Jerry Brown; and becoming engaged to George Lucas. Amazingly, the nitwits at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame forced Ronstadt to wait in limbo for two decades before announcing her first nomination. Maybe, they felt sorry for her. The concert DVD, “Linda Ronstadt: Love Has No Pride,” reminds us of what made her so popular at the height of her rock period, in 1976, during a concert tour in Germany. If the visuals aren’t up to current standards, the songs still ring true. Among the 16 selections are the title song, “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Several Threads and Golden Needles,” “Crazy,” “Willin’,” “Love Is a Rose,” “Tracks of My Tears” and “Lo Siento Mi Vida.” The backup band is led by guitar ace and frequent collaborator Waddy Wachtel.

Also new from MVD Visual are concert DVDs, featuring the Austin roots band Gourds and Europe. The Gourds are an amalgam of Texas rock bands that decided to merge in 1994 and focus their energies on the bustling Austin scene. They’ve been chasing fame—or, at least, sustainability—ever since then. From the evidence presented in “All the Labor,” the Gourds may very well be too hip for its own good. As eclectic blend of styles is supplemented by lyrics that have to be heard to be properly appreciated, which is no easy trick, considering the boisterous nature of their fans and acoustics of the venues into which they’re booked. Live performances of fan favorites—including a cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”—are interwoven with interviews, reflections and observations from the band. Friends and family. The music is all that counts here, though.

If the hype is to be believed, Europe is Scandinavia’s biggest rock sensation, not counting Abba. I’m not especially well-versed in where the band stands in the Pantheon of Heavy Metal, but it looks and sounds the part of a genuine head-banger’s wet dream. If nothing else, Europe filled the stadium at which “Europe: 30th Anniversary Live” was recorded for exhibition in Blu-ray. The event took place at the Sweden Rock Festival last June. Like most rock bands not named the Rolling Stones, the “30th Anniversary” part of the title doesn’t take into account the many years it was on hiatus, but who’s counting? The playlist is generous, as these thing go, and behind-the-scenes material is included in the package.

The Looking Glass
Psychological thrillers don’t get much more psycho than the Irish export, “The Looking Glass.” By drilling deeply and painfully into the psyche of a seemingly normal, but extremely fragile young man, the effect is that of living through someone else’s root canal. When we meet Paul (Patrick O’Donnell), he’s living in a rural house with his pregnant girlfriend, Claire (Natalia Kostrzewa). After his mother-in-law arrives for a long stay, everything in Paul’s small world gets turned inside out. Mommy Dearest begins planting seeds of doubt in both of their heads about his ability to withstand the rigors of parenthood. At the same time, Paul reverts to childhood fears about boogeymen and other things that go bump in the night. Essentially, writer/director Colin Downey has put us into Paul’s head, exposing us to his fears and forcing us to come to grips with his enemies. “The Looking Glass” is one mother-in-law joke that stops being funny very quickly.

Caesar and Otto’s Deadly Xmas
Aeon: The Last Vampyre on Earth
Dead Walkers: Rise of the 4th Reich
All the Devil’s Aliens
Was it Albert Einstein who observed, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” or the Einstein popularly known as “Super Dave” Osborn? Just as Bob Einstein’s hapless stuntman continues to bang his head against walls, simply for the privilege of being in show business, I keep watching do-it-yourself and micro-budget horror movies for the sole purpose of finding good things to say about them. Except for the likelihood of experiencing serious brain damage, it’s a mostly harmless exercise and, yes, it’s possible to find small gems in the piles of gore and excrement. “Caesar and Otto’s Deadly Xmas” is the fifth in a series of horror films featuring goofball half-brothers, played by Dave Campfield and Paul Chomicki. Co-writer/director/star/producer/editor Campfield is the ambitious half of the comedy team, forever hoping that someone from Hollywood will recognize his acting talent—mostly standing in the background or doing the work of an extra—and offer him a one-way paid ticket to Tinseltown. Otto, as played by Chomicki, is as close to worthless as any human being could be, sponging off Caesar and rarely feeling the need to find a job. Campfield has a gift for satirizing genre classics, such as “Silent Night, Deadly Night” and “Sleepaway Camp.” The lads find seasonal employment with Xmas Industries, a company created to destroy the holiday for believers in Santa Claus. It promises to finance Caesar’s next homemade movie in return for performing some odious chores. Meanwhile, someone else wearing a Santa suit is killing people with an ax and setting up Caesar and Otto to take the fall. Meanwhile, too, Otto discovers his childhood sweetheart living in a Yugo, with her two not-very-bright sons. (There’s always a lot of “meanwhiles” in these sorts of movies.) Campfield must have something going for him, because, in addition to Chomicki and co-writer Joe Randazzo, he’s managed to lure such cult-movie icons as Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, Lloyd Kaufman, Joe Estevez, Felissa Rose, Debbie Rochon and Robert Z’dar back to the fold.

Likewise, one never is quite sure what to expect when the most recent package of screeners arrives from Chemical Burn Entertainment, except something completely insane. The primary tip-off comes in the titles, which practically define the term “high concept.” This month’s batch included, “Aeon: The Last Vampyre on Earth,” “Dead Walkers: Rise of the 4th Reich” and “All the Devil’s Aliens.” The funny thing is that amid the blood and guts, there’s something resembling artistry at work here. For example, “The Last Vampyre” looks at humanity on the edge of distinction, by setting up a dialogue between a starving vampire and a woman who’s locked herself inside a tomb, while escaping a “human predator.” If it weren’t a movie, Daniel Falicki could have served it up live on the stage of an experimental theater company.

Assault on Precinct 13: Collector’s Edition: Bluray
Body Bags: Collector’s Edition: BluRay
Knightriders: Blu-ray 
The Night of the Comet: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray 
Tank Girl: Collector’s Edition: Bluray
Eve of Destruction: Blu-ray
Danguard Ace
So many titles from Shout!Factory/Scream Factory, so little time. Somebody must be buying the Blu-ray editions of vintage horror, action and sci-fi movies from the companies’ inventory, because they’re being released at a fast-and-furious pace. As usual, John Carpenter is represented with fondly remembered titles: a pair of segments in the “Body Bags” triptych, alongside one by Tobe Hooper, and the quasi-Western “Assault on Precinct 13.” Inspired by Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo,” “Assault” imagines an urban nightmare in which outmanned and outgunned cops and convicts, in a nearly abandoned police station, are surrounded by the Street Thunder gang. George Romero gave himself a break from zombies, vampires and witches with the slightly more grounded, “Knightriders,” in which members of a traveling Renaissance Faire stage jousting contests and other activities on motorcycles, instead of horses. Naturally, things get out of hand when the national media learns about it. Ed Harris leads the cast.

In “Night of the Comet,” two shopaholic Valley Girls are among the very few humans who survive the effects of a comet colliding with Earth. The good news is that they’re still alive, the bad news is that everyone else is a zombie. It stars Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney and Robert Beltran, and was written and directed by Thom Eberhardt. And, speaking of comets, another one turns Earth into a giant water-starved desert in “Tank Girl.” Based on a comic book by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett, it may have been the first movie inspired as much by the “riot grrrl” movement as the source material. Lori Petty plays tank-driving warrior out to wrest control of the water supply from stingy Malcolm McDowell.

In another entirely plausible scenario, “Eve of Destruction,” a heavily armed military robot, Eve VIII—a dead ringer for the beautiful Dutch actor, Renee Soutendijk –runs amok in a large city during its testing phase. The only person standing between Eve VIII and nuclear destruction is the late dancer-turned-actor, Gregory Hines. All of the new Blu-ray collections arrive with newly created bonus material, including commentary, interviews and background pieces.

Created by artist Leiji Matsumoto, with Dan Kobayashi, “Danguard Ace” is a classic of animated Japanese mecha from the late-1970s and originally featured as part of the “Force Five” series broadcast on U.S. television. A new planet, Promete, is on the verge of entering our solar system, but, before it does, the World Space Institute unsuccessfully and disastrously tries to tap its resources. Years later, the next generation of pilots, including Takuma, the son of an astronaut who disappeared during the first mission, begins to train for a new voyage to the mysterious planet. This time, however, they’ll be backed by a transforming robot that Takuma is destined to pilot.

PBS to DVD
Nature: Saving Otter 501
Harvesting the High Plains
How Sherlock Changed the World 
Frontline: Egypt in Crisis
NOVA: Ground Zero Skycraper 
Craft in America: Forge
Sometimes, it simply isn’t enough to tell someone that a species is endangered or threatened. It’s always better to provide first-hand testimony and images that confirm our greatest fears. Some politicized detractors won’t accept global warming until Manhattan resembles Venice and Venice has disappeared. Almost on a weekly basis, PBS’ “Nature” series provides more than enough evidence of the threats facing the world’s non-human population. It also records the victories. “Saving Otter 501” chronicles the bad-news/good-news/bad-news struggle waged by the Monterey Bay Aquarium to keep sea otters from extinction for the second time in the last 100 years. It does so by following marine biologist Karl Mayer and his staff on their rescue missions along the shores of Monterey Bay and efforts to reintroduce orphans into their natural habitat. The otter we meet here represents the 501st such mission undertaken by the team, which literally has to teach the critter how to dive, hunt, eat and fend for herself in the wild, where survival is a long shot at best.

Portrayals of the Dust Bowl years are produced with some regularity by PBS affiliates in the greater Midwest, sometimes under the auspices of industry and trade interests. Typically, this doesn’t make the reports any less interesting or valuable … just a tad suspect, especially when the sponsors’ identities are revealed only at the end of the show. There’s a bit of FDR bashing in Harvesting the High Plains,” for example, but not enough to dilute the message in the letters read over images of barren fields, windblown resources, locust hordes and frightening dust storms. If another great drought cripples America’s ability to feed itself, let’s hope our politicians and agricultural interests recall the lessons learned in documentaries like Harvesting the High Plains.”

How Sherlock Changed the World” details the advancements in forensics science that followed their introduction in the books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. At a time when police couldn’t even fall back on fingerprint evidence and botched as many investigations as they advanced, Holmes had already turned to advanced forensic techniques to break cases. Forensic scientists, crime historians and Holmes buffs reveal the astonishing impact the fictional detective had on the development of real-life criminal investigation and forensic techniques.

As the murders, protests and show trials continue in Egypt, reporters for “Frontline” recall the rise and rapid fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. With unique access to Brotherhood leadership, “Egypt in Crisis” follows the Islamist movement at a turning point in its existence. Meanwhile, in “Ground Zero Skyscraper,” reporters for PBS’ “Nova” return to the hallowed ground of the destroyed World Trade Center to record the final chapter in a 12-year-old story. The drama comes when construction on the 104-story One World Trade Center is threatened by Hurricane Sandy, as it bore down on New York.

Season Five of “Craft in America” focuses on the men and women who craft metal into practical art. Through their own words, craft artists reveal what makes their work—and the lives they lead—unique. The concerns of preservationists are also addressed.

 

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

JFK 50 Year Commemorative Ultimate Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
American Experience: JFK: Like No Other
Secrets of the Dead: JFK, One PM Central Standard Time
JFK: A New World Order
All the President’s Men: Blu-ray
I doubt if anything new about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy will be revealed in the run-up to the 50th anniversary next week, but, if any co-conspirators do come forward, it’s likely that Oprah will try to elicit a tear or two from them or, perhaps, convince Marina Oswald to come out of solitude for the occasion. Or, maybe, a long-held secret will be revealed during half-time of the Thanksgiving football games. That would be perfect, I think. True JFK obsessives don’t have to wait until the Macy’s parade is over to get their fill of the anniversary minutiae, though. Warners’ “JFK 50 Year Commemorative Ultimate Collector’s Edition” may have an unwieldy title, but the box set contains as wide a variety on the subject as anyone is likely to find on television or anywhere else. Those of us who continue to doubt the single-gunman theory can turn here to the director’s cut of “JFK,” with or without commentary by Oliver Stone, who also produced “Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy,” as well as deleted/extended scenes and an alternate ending. Those who would prefer to recall the late president’s heroism in World War II will find here, for the first time on DVD, “PT 109.” With Cliff Robertson at the helm of the vessel, it recounts the future president’s now-legendary wartime exploits in the South Pacific. Kennedy’s political triumphs and challenges are chronicled in a pair of documentaries, the all-new “JFK Remembered: 50 Years Later” and re-mastered 1964 “John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums,” with excerpts from many of his speeches, as well as footage of his swearing in and inaugural address.

Given the reluctance of America’s best and brightest to run for public office, we’ve been stuck with politicians lacking in most of the attributes once associated with leadership. For all of his well-known faults, Kennedy was a leader. His administration may have stumbled out of the gate, but, in the year before his death, he had regained his stride. Instead of leadership, we now are stuck with a Congress less interested in governing and compromise than staging moronic filibusters, cutting economic relief for poor people and appearing on Fox News. Americans born after the wave of assassinations in the 1960s must wonder what it was about John F. Kennedy that made different from the many bozos and hacks who’ve followed him in the offices he once held. The special 240-minute “American Experience” presentation, “JFK: Like No Other,” sweeps the leaves off of his familial and political roots, while also taking viewers on a journey from his schoolboy days to the White House. Along the way, the producers attempt to separate myth from reality, and clear the air on everything from his father’s role in molding a president, to his true political legacy. The episodes are fascinating, especially in their revelations about JFK’s poor health and early days in Washington as a wet-behind-the-ears congressman. Kennedy was no saint and he wasn’t immune from the evils of selling himself as a product or brand. Watching “JFK,” though, one can’t help but wonder why this country no longer aspires to greatness. If nothing else, the archival newsreel footage and home movies — as well as interviews with a wide range of observers – once again leaves us wondering how the world might have changed, if only Kennedy had somehow survived the shooting in Dallas.

The special two-hour episode of PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” series, “JFK: One PM Central Standard Time,” takes a tight-focus look on the assassination, by studying the activity in the CBS newsroom from the moment the President was shot until Walter Cronkite’s emotional pronouncement of his death. It was at 1 p.m. CST, on November 22, 1963, that President Kennedy was declared dead at Parkland Hospital. Nothing about what happened on that day was neat and tidy. The chaos of the first 108 minutes after the shooting is reflected from several points of view. It is narrated by George Clooney.

Anyone looking for widespread conspiracy theories in Mill Creek’s “JFK: A New World Order,” is likely to be sorely disappointed. Although the single-shooter debate continues apace, “A New World Order” isn’t linked to the paranoid wet dreams of the New World Order crowd. Essentially, it provides a made-to-order eight-part mini-series look at all things Kennedy for consumption by a broad audience spectrum. While it lacks much of the sophistication of “JFK: Like No Other,” “A New World Order” uses the same methodology in creating a full portrait of Kennedy’s life and times.

Three tragedies play out in the new Blu-ray edition of “All the President’s Men.” One unfolds during the course of the movie, itself, and the others in the new documentary, “All the President’s Men Revisited.” If ever there were an American politician who could have been invented by William Shakespeare, it was President Richard M. Nixon. We know all too well the tragedy — as defined in literature, anyway — behind the downfall of a man who defined the term, “hubris.” Alan J. Pakula’s exciting political thriller is just as interested in how a a young pair of polar-opposite journalists kept digging until they hit pay dirt, turning a good story into something monumental. For his part, Nixon was a man who clawed his way to the presidency and doesn’t now seem nearly as evil as he once was portrayed to be. The question remains: with a second term firmly in his grasp, why did he risk everything by approving plans for an end run around the political process. In “All the President’s Men Revisited,” too, we are reminded of the power of the printed word and the necessity for preserving a vital and free press. The tragedy that continues to unfold in newsrooms across the U.S. has, with rare exceptions, left newspapers unable to meet their First Amendment obligations. If a story of the same magnitude were to happen today, it’s entirely likely that newspapers wouldn’t have the manpower or inclination to cover it as well as the Washington Post did Watergate. It’s also likely that the issue would be so clouded in Internet fog as to be indecipherable. In the third tragedy, we witness how Democrats and Republicans worked together for the common good of the country and how a Supreme Court comprised of Republican and Democratic appointees spoke with a single voice on extremely important questions. Today, of course, Congress is too divided along partisan lines to accomplish anything of substance and Supreme Court justices base their decisions on ideological beliefs outside the law. Those are the lessons to be learned from repeat viewings of “All the President’s Men.” The documentary includes interviews with many of the living participants in Watergate coverage and the congressional hearings, as well as younger voices to add generational perspective. – Gary Dretzka

Man of Steel: Blu-ray
Ever since Superman first arrived on the scene in 1938, he’s proven to be a man for his times. His powers would evolve with the popularity of his comics, as did his backstory. His appeal wasn’t limited to DC comics, of course. It, too, fed off of every new technological leap forward in his lifetime. A newspaper strip followed close on the heels of the comic book, with a radio show and ancillary products preceding the introduction of cartoons, a live-action movie serial and, in 1951, the beloved TV show, starring George Reeves. Because none of the great supervillains appeared on the television series, Superman was able to focus on crime, espionage and playing mind games with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. Special effects were mostly limited to leaping out of windows in tall buildings and “flying” into winds created by giant fans. Superman’s costume was laughable, but, given the limits of early television, not completely absurd. The modern “Superman” era began with the first Richard Donner/Christopher Reeves collaboration, which would cost more to make than “Jaws” and “Star Wars” combined. As the franchise marched forward, so, too, did the race to create ever more amazing special effects and set designs. Tin toys, polyester capes and spinoff comics would give way, as well, to video games, new TV series and a separate lines of direct-to-VHS movies.

The $215-million price tag on Zach Snyder’s “Man of Steel” was on a par with Bryan Singer’s 2006 “Superman Returns.” Snyder and co-writer David Goyer’s story revisits the character’s origin story, so wondrously depicted in Donner’s films. The destruction of the planet Krypton plays bigger than ever before, while young Clark’s growing pains are given added emotional depth. (Here, he’s played by Henry Cavill, Dylan Strawberry and Cooper Timberline. It’s heartening to watch Clark come to grips with his sometimes frightful superpowers, under the guidance of Martha and Jonathan Kent (Diane Lane, Kevin Costner). When Clark inadvertently triggers a device given him by his birth father (Russell Crowe), it draws the attention of the Kryptonian fascist General Zog and his warrior companion, Faora-Ul (Michael Shannon, Antje Traue). Zog had led a coup against the ruling council, but was banished to the Phantom Zone after killing Superman’s father. After the depleted planet explodes, Zog is released from captivity, He vows to track down Kal-El, the son of his nemesis, and extract the genetic codex implanted in his cells. The rouge Kryptonians are very powerful and credibly frightening, especially in their body armor and breathing apparatus.

After the death of Clark’s adoptive father, he wanders the countryside doing odd jobs and perfecting his ability to slip away unnoticed when someone needs saving. When a Kryptonian scout ship is discovered embedded in a glacier, Clark is given the opportunity to communicate with the dead Jor-El and learn about his hopes for his son’s destiny. It’s here that reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) discovers that Clark isn’t like other boys raised in Smallville, USA, and she threatens to blow his cover. Fortunately, her editor, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), decides that it’s too far-fetched for publication. Undaunted, Lois decides to trace Clark’s roots back to Smallville. From here on in, Snyder ratchets up the action sequences to the point where they’re just as noisy and preposterous – albeit, well-performed before acres of green-screen backgrounds and miles of wire — as any found in competing superhero franchises. Fans and young newcomers, alike, should find “Man of Steel” to be sufficiently entertaining to take another look at it in Blu-ray 2D or 3D, while awaiting the already announced “Batman vs. Superman,” with Cavill and Ben Affleck in the lead roles. The Blu-ray package adds the 26-minute featurettes, “Strong Characters, Legendary Roles” and “All Out Action”; “Krypton Decoded,” with Sprayberry commenting on the visual-effects sequence of the destruction of Krypton; an animated short commemorating Superman’s 75th anniversary; “New Zealand: Home to Middle Earth,” a teaser for the “Hobbit” trilogy; and a second disc that contains “Journey of Discovery: Creating Man of Steel,” a feature-length commentary in the feature film is presented again, with interstitial interviews and background featurettes, and quasi-documentary, “Planet Krypton.” – Gary Dretzka

Turbo: Blu-ray 2D/3D
From DreamWorks Animation comes this modern-day take on the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare. Standing in for the tortoise in “Turbo” is a need-for-speed garden snail, Theo (a.k.a., Turbo), whose ambition in life is to compete against his hero, Guy Gagné, five-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. It takes a freak accident to provide Turbo with the wherewithal to realize his dream. It also takes money, for which he turns to Tito, co-owner of a taco truck who senses an opportunity to attract customers by staging snail races. At this point, even if the resemblance between “Turbo” and “Cars” is entirely coincidental, it’s impossible to ignore. Kids probably won’t mind the similarities between the two animated features, no many how many times they’ve watched their “Cars” DVD. For its part, “Turbo” is funny, fast, loud, bright and shiny enough to hold viewers’ attention for a couple of hours. The Blu-ray 2D/3D offers a deleted scene in hand-drawn form; “Smoove Move’s Music Maker,” with music videos featuring songs from the film; “Team Turbo: Tricked Out,” on the creation of the snail’s shell attachments; “The Race,” in which director David Soren provides an introduction for a storyboard sequence that eventually did make it into the film; the interactive, ”Shell Creator” and “Be an Artist!,” which allow kids to design their own shells and racers; and “Champions Corner,” where host Paul Page interviews Turbo one-on-one; and a digital copy. The lively soundtrack features songs by Snoop Dogg, Run-D.M.C., Tom Jones. Pit Bull, House of Pain, the Jackson 5, Survivor and Ozomatli. The voicing cast includes Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Peña, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Michelle Rodriguez and Samuel L. Jackson. – Gary Dretzka

Ambushed: Blu-ray
Dark Angel: Blu-ray
If anyone ever decides to make a biopic about Dolph Lundgren, who would be better choice to play him than Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews III? Both men look as if they were carved out of the same chunk of granite and are just as hard to crack. Just wondering, that’s all. I also wonder if anyone’s had more fun making movies than the 6-foot-5 Swede, whose first two films were “A View to a Kill” and “Rocky IV.” In “Ambushed,” the latest in a long line of made-for-DVD pictures, he plays an honorable law-enforcer, trapped in a world of corruption and sinister crooks. Lundgren’s DEA agent Maxwell doesn’t always feel the need to play by the rules established by his ass-covering bosses and has the reprimands in his file to prove it. When a lucrative cocaine-smuggling operation run by Vincent Camastra (Vinnie Jones) moves into Los Angeles, a pair of ambitious punks (Gianni Capaldi, Daniel Bonjour) decides to move up the ladder by killing two of Camastra’s men. Maxwell and his comically cautious partner (Michael Rivera). There’s also a dirty cop, played by rough-tough Randy Couture. So far, the bad guys outnumber the good guys 4 to 2, which, as any Lundgren fan knows, are pretty safe odds for the DEA team. Director Giorgio Serafini has work with Lundgren and other action stars previously, so he knows not to waste too much with extraneous baloney.

Much more interesting is the 1991 “Dark Angel” (a.k.a., “I Come in Peace”), which combines a silly sci-fi through-line with action-Jackson police work. Here, Lundgren plays detective Jack Caine, who’s reluctantly assigned a case dealing with narcotics, murder and really long surgical needles. His partner has just been killed in a sting gone bad and he’s looking for revenge against the most likely culprit, Victor Manning (Sherman Howard). After consulting with some of his low-life snitches and dealers, Caine begins to think that something otherworldly is going on in Houston. A weapon left behind at the scene of one of the murders appears to have a life of its own, while the murder victims appear to have been perforated and sucked dry of sucked dry of endorphins. One of the snitches (Michael J. Pollard) describes the killer as a giant Martian, which, of course, sounds to Caine like the ravings of a dope-deprived junkie. In fact, it turns out to be an accurate description. An alien creature injects the victims with a lethal dose of heroin, before using a long needle to extract endorphins out of the bodies. The endorphins are then turned into drugs that are desperately needed on his home planet. If successful, humans could be harvested like so many deer and killed for their bodily fluids. Caine is required to accept a straight-arrow FBI agent (Brian Benben) as his partner and former girlfriend, while city coroner Betsy Brantley also is called upon for advice. It’s a truly goofy movie, but not without its charms. Lundren was 33 when he made “Dark Angel” and his career as a leading man was only just beginning. – Gary Dretzka

Ip Man: The Final Fight: Blu-ray
Ip Man, best known for training Bruce Lee and introducing Wing Chun to China, is one of the great action characters in the movies. His story only began to leak out nearly 40 years after his death, in Hong Kong, but it’s practically become a cottage industry since 2008, with two concurrent trilogies, a TV series and Wong Kar-wai’s extremely well-received 2014 Oscar hopeful, “The Grandmaster.” In the third installment of Well Go USA Entertainment’s “Ip Man” trilogy, “The Final Fight,” the Wing Chun legend has moved to post-war, post-revolution Hong Kong, where he hopes to spend the rest of his days in comfort, surrounded by family and former students. Comfort is in short supply on the island, where the British are attempting to hold on to their colonial outpost; the communists have taken hold in mainland China; and the local triads are gathering strength in numbers. While still important to the Brits as a center for trade, Hong Kong has a long way to go before becoming one of the world’s premier destinations for business and tourism. Among the island’s martial-arts elite, competition between rival schools is becoming a real problem, as well. Once recognized in his new home, Ip Man is talked into once again opening a school of his own. Once wealthy, now poor, Ip Man relies on the kindness of others. He sets up shop on the roof of a social club, so as to keep Wing Chun a viable alternative to the less subtle forms of kung fu and street fighting. In nimble hands/feet/elbows/knees of such actors as Donnie Yen, To Yu-hang, Tony Leung Chiu Wai and, here, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, it is a surprisingly graceful and subtly effective martial art. The confrontations between schools and gangs are staged almost to the point of comparison to Baz Luhrman’s set pieces, but they’re extremely fun to watch. The Lion Dance face-off is brilliantly executed. Director Herman Yau even throws in an entertaining character cameo of Bruce Lee, before and after stardom. Even if “Grandmaster” does take the Foreign Language prize, I doubt we’ve seen the last of Ip Man. – Gary Dretzka

Pablo
The Great Hip Hop Hoax
By all rights, Pablo Ferro should have been awarded several Oscars by now. His brilliant title and montage sequences have appeared in 12 features that have gone on to win Academy Awards, but no one at the Wilshire Boulevard headquarters has yet seen fit to honor the creators of such essential pieces of the cinematic puzzle. The best of them are the equal, at least, of the animated and live-action shorts that are nominated, and many are better than the movies to which they’re attached. Ferro’s early work can be found on such landmark films as “Dr. Strangelove,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Harold and Maude,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Being There.” His most recent title sequences were for “Larry Crowne” and “Men in Black 3.” Richard Goldgewicht’s enchanting bio-doc chronicles Ferro’s journey from pre-revolution Cuba to Madison Avenue and, beyond that, to Tinsel Town, where he was presented with a myriad of opportunities and temptations. The film employs several of the same graphic devices and animation techniques popularized by Ferro, in addition to interviews with Jonathan Demme, Angelica Huston, Norman Jewison, Leonard Maltin, Haskell Wexler, Andy Garcia and Richard Benjamin. Praise from the late Stanley Kubrick and Hal Ashby also is duly noted. It is narrated by Jeff Bridges. Many documentarians would find the task of competing with the genius of their subject daunting. In “Pablo,” Goldgewicht not only honors Ferro’s body of work, but he also gives movie lovers a reason to revisit several of the most significant films openings of the last 50 years. The DVD adds deleted scenes, an animated trailer, “Who is Pablo Ferro?” promo, “A Brief Lesson in the History of Trailers” and “A Brief Lesson in the History of René Magritte.”

The music industry has perpetrated so many hoaxes on the American record-buying public – not to mention, bilking consumers out of their hard-earned money – it’s sometimes fun to watch the weasels get trapped by someone more cunning than they are. Jeanie Finlay’s “The Great Hip Hop Hoax” describes how a pair of white Scottish rappers, known as the Proclaimers, reimagined themselves as the California hip-hop duo Silibil n’ Brains. In doing so, they became a sensation in the London club scene and attracted the attention of Sony UK executives, searching high and low for the next Eminem and Beastie Boys. Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain would be handed a check for 250,000 pounds, which, of course, they eventually pissed away on the accoutrements of rock-’n’-roll fame. “The Great Hip Hop Hoax” is less a cautionary tale than a miniature portrait of a desperate industry in decline. In fact, if it weren’t for a downward blip in business at Sony, during which the boys were dropped from the label, the hoax might have gone on for another three years. After breaking up for a while, Silibil n’ Brains has recently released a pair of EPs and made its tres-cool T-shirts available on its website. – Gary Dretzka

Black Devil Doll From Hell /Tales From The Quadead Zone: Boxset
As Night Falls
The do-it-yourself movement in independent filmmaking is distinguished, if you will, by bargain-basement production values, questionable scripts and amateur-level acting. No matter how much money the filmmakers are able to scrape up from friends, family and credit-card companies, their movies mostly look as if they were made to qualify for a merit badge. What they lack in polish, however, they more than make up for in ambition and the enthusiasm invested in them by the cast and crew. Ten years ago, most DIY products wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of finding exposure outside of a close circle of friends. Although he probably didn’t know the difference between DIY and AFI, part-time Chicago contractor Chester Novell Turner made two pictures in the mid-1980s – “Black Devil Doll From Hell” and “Tales From the Quadead Zone” – that would demonstrate just how much could be accomplished with a camcorder and a couple of crazy ideas. More than a quarter-century later, both of the movies have attained something resembling cult status among fans of horror curiosities. After attempting to sell VHS cassettes of the films to video-store owners in Chicago and Alabama, Turner practically disappeared from view and, in some circles, was presumed dead. The legend survived the greatly exaggerated pronouncement of his passing.

A couple of years before “Child’s Play” turned the evil redhead Chucky into a box-office hero, the far more crudely made “Black Devil Doll From Hell” issued the same warning about malevolent dolls. In it, a bible-banging Christian woman, Helen Black (Shirley L. Jones), brings home a large brown-skinned doll – modeled after Rick James — that might once have served as a ventriloquist’s dummy. It doesn’t take long before Helen recognizes her mistake. After overhearing a conversation between Helen and a friend, regarding her well-guarded virginity, the doll takes it upon himself not only to de-flower the church lady, but introduce her to the wonders of orgasmic ecstasy. That’s as good as it gets, however. Things take a nastier turn and it isn’t pretty. Twenty years later, amidst rumors of Turner’s death, another African-American filmmaker remade “Black Devil Doll From Hell” as “Black Devil Doll.” That same year, the movie was referenced in “The Cinema Snob,” a review show that found worldwide distribution via YouTube.

The title, “Tales From the Quadead Zone,” refers to the book Shirley L. Jones’ reads to the ghost of her dead son, who’s little more than an overexposed yellow smudge on a chair in the family home. There are two other stories in the anthology, one more disgusting – in a good way – than the other. The Massacre Video set offers some very amusing commentary with Turner and Jones; a making-of featurette, “Return to the Quadead Zone”; a heavily edited Hollywood Home Theater version of “Black Devil Doll From Hell”; a stills gallery; and some crazy trailers for other Massacre titles. There wasn’t much the company could do in the way of cleaning up the films, as they were cut from Turner’s VHS “masters,” but it’s still watchable. I shudder to think what Turner could have done if someone had given him a grant to make more pictures or a scholarship to the Sundance Institute.

As Night Falls,” from aspiring horror auteur Joe Davison, wouldn’t qualify as DIY if only because someone at the controls could afford to hire genre goddesses Debbie Rochon (“Screech of the Decapitated”) and Raine Brown (“Kung Fu and Titties”). Otherwise, it contains nothing fans haven’t seen a dozen times. As the movie opens, 10-year-old Amelia is murdered by her demented parents and left in a shallow grave. Flash forward several decades and a redheaded hottie (Deneen Melody) and her much young sister are minding the same haunted house, while mom is away on a job. A onetime boyfriend decides to throw a party there, with his fellow musicians and groupies. Oh, yeah, party crashers would include the zombie incarnations of the evil child killers, along with the ghost of their 10-year-old victim. As nasty as she looks, the girl manifests herself to warn the partygoers of the mayhem to come. And, yes, it’s bloody. Blessedly, “As Night Falls” is short, as well. – Gary Dretzka

4 Action Packed Movie Marathon
4 All Night Horror Marathon
The folks at Shout!Factory appear to have an endless inventory of movies that most Baby Boomer audiences haven’t seen since their last visit to the local drive-in theater, decades ago. Too tame to qualify as grindhouse, but nowhere near good enough to stand on their own at the box office, the titles sent out monthly in “Marathon” packages recall the warm nights of summer, when triple- and quadruple-features weren’t at all unusual. This month’s mail brought packages that include such imminently forgettable pictures as “Bamboo Gods & Iron Men,” “Bulletproof,” “Trackdown” and “Scorchy,” in one four-pack, and, in the other, ”What’s the Matter With Helen?,” “The Godsend,” “The Vagrant” and “The Outing” (a.k.a., “The Lamp”). While hardly memorable on their own merits, almost all of the films feature stars who have either seen or have yet to see better days. They include Gary Busey, Henry Silva, Darlanne Fluegel, Erik Estrada, Cathy Lee Crosby, Connie Stevens, William Smith, Bill Paxton, Michael Ironside and, in “What’s the Matter With Helen?,” Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters and Dennis Weaver. At $9.99, they’re cheaper than a night at the multiplex and, perhaps, more entertaining. – Gary Dretzka

The Message: The Story of Islam/Lion of the Desert: Blu-ray
The Attack: Blu-ray
The Citizen
Several convincing books and essays have been written about the negative stereotyping of Arabs in Hollywood. Given the scarcity of films with accurate portrayals of Middle Eastern history and the significant roles played by Muslim men and women around the world, it’s probably just as well that more features aren’t made on the subject. “Lawrence of Arabia” is as close as most of us have come to an understanding of the dynamics that shaped Saudi Arabia and its neighbor states. Even then, however, of all the primary characters, only Omar Sharif had ties to the region and he wasn’t the first, second or third choice for the composite role of Sharif Ali. In the period following 9/11, there were plenty of roles for terrorists, militants and extremists, but the actors themselves remained largely anonymous. Recently, though, movies made by independent and foreign filmmakers have found traction in DVD and Blu-ray marketplace. If most of them appear to be painted in shades of gray, well, it’s better than putting false colors on such a bleak situation. Finding four representative movies in this month’s stack of DVDs borders on the miraculous.

If, in 1977 and 1981, Moustapha Akkad’s excellent historical epics, “The Message: The Story of Islam” and “Lion of the Desert,” had found any kind of an audience here, the studios might not have become so reluctant to showcase action-adventures with Arab themes. While endorsed by the University of Al-Azhar, in Cairo, and Lebanon’s High Islamic Congress of the Shiat, “The Message,” was banned by other Muslim sects. When an African-American offshoot of the Hanafi sect took over three buildings in Washington, D.C., in 1977, one of the group’s demands was to destroy all copies of “The Message.” They believed that Anthony Quinn was cast as Mohammad, but, in fact, it was as his uncle and most the story was told through him. The prophet was neither seen nor heard in the movie, although his presence was implied through narrative devices. It did OK outside the U.S., but media coverage of the bloody siege doused any possibility of the movie finding distribution here. Akkad actually made two versions of “The Message.” One was shot in English, with a cast familiar to western audiences, while the other was in Arabic and featured Middle Eastern favorites. The producer/director pulled out all the stops on the production, staging elaborate fight scenes and hiring composer Maurice Jarre and costume designer Phyllis Dalton, both of whom worked previously on “Lawrence of Arabia.” When Akkad ran out of money, Muammar Gaddafi agreed to finance the film and provide locations for the shoot.

Equally ambitious but nowhere near as controversial, “Lion of the Desert” describes the last year of the resistance against Italian colonists by military leader Omar Mukhtar and his overmatched Bedouin fighters. Mukhtar had been a thorn in Italy’s side for most of the last 20 years and, finally, Mussolini ordered General Rodolfo Graziani to crush the rebellion. Throughout much of the movie, the Bedouins are able to neutralize Graziani’s armor with guerrilla attacks on horseback. Backed by planes, as well as tanks, the Italians would prove dominant, even managing to capture Mukhtar. Quinn returns here as the aging Bedouin leader. “Lion of the Desert” is the kind of wartime adventure that should have found an audience here, but tanked around the world. Because the Italian army was shown in such a bad light, it was banned for broadcast on television until on June 11, 2009, during the official visit to Italy by Gaddafi, who pinned a photo of Mukhtar on his uniform.

Set in Tel Aviv and the West Bank, Ziad Doueiri’s heart-breaking drama, “The Attack,” goes a long way toward helping us understand what it must be like for Israelis and Palestinians who value peace, but feel stalemated by the sad realities of life. Based on a novel by Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra, it opens as an Israeli Palestinian surgeon, Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), is about to receive a prestigious humanitarian award in Tel Aviv. His Palestinian Christian wife, Sihem (Evgenia Dodena), has opted out of attending the ceremony, citing important family business in Nablus. Amin and Sihem are fully assimilated into Tel Aviv society, with many Jewish friends and easy access to the finer things in life. The next day, an attack by a suicide bomber leaves 19 dead. Amin is directly involved in his hospital’s effort to save as many lives as possible, even as one victim demands that he not be treated by a Palestinian surgeon, no matter how skillful. When Amin is called back to the hospital after an exhaustive day in the surgical theater, he’s asked to identify the mutilated body of the bomber. The Israeli security police know full well that the woman lying on a slab in the morgue is Sihem, but they want to study Amin’s immediate reaction to the disclosure. No matter how much the surgeon denies knowing anything about the bombing or why his wife would be involved – and it’s easy to assume he’s telling the truth – he’s grilled by the police and thrown into a dungeon-like cell, where’s he’s psychologically abused for six months. Just as suddenly, Amin is released. In the meantime, his home has been ransacked and he’s lost the trust of some, if not all of his friends and fellow doctors.

In case anyone is wondering if that summary qualifies as a spoiler, it doesn’t. It’s only the beginning of a complicated thriller, which combines crushed beliefs with political intrigue. Once Amin accepts the reality of his wife’s deed, based on a letter he finds after he returns home, he can’t rest until he understands why she carried out the bombing; when and how she might have been persuaded to even consider such an evil deed; and who facilitated the act. Absent the release of the kind of video tape that usually follows such suicide attacks, the Israeli police are determined to find answers to the same questions. Finally, Amin decides to go to Nablus to learn more about his wife of 15 years and how he could have missed any changes in her personality. At first, he’s greeted with a wall of silence as thick as the walls of the prison cell he only recently left and militants as keen for him to leave the embattled city as some Israelis were for him to leave Tel Aviv. In 2002, the city had suffered heavy damage and casualties at the hands IDF forces looking to punish residents for harboring and providing potential suicide bombers. They also rushed to kill as many of the Fatah and Hamas insurgents as possible before a ceasefire could be called. Even when Amir does get most of question answered, however, he still must decide what to do with the rest of his life. The bonus features include an interview with Doueiri, who’s worked on several Tarantino projects; a photo Gallery; and English subtitles for the Arabic and Hebrew dialogue. Despite’s Doueiri’s even-handed adaptation, “The Attack” was banned from exhibition by most Arab countries for being shot in Israel … or some other dumb-ass reason.

Sam Kadi’s first feature, “The Citizen,” takes place in New York on the eve of the 9/11 attacks. The popular Egyptian actor Khaled El Nabawy plays Ibrahim Jarra, a Syrian native who’s found work throughout the Middle East as an automobile mechanic. By winning the Green Card “lottery,” he was invited to live, work and potentially apply for citizenship in the country of his dreams. His timing couldn’t possibly have been worse, of course. Within hours, Ibrahim would effectively become persona non grata in the U.S. Worse, the cousin with whom he expected to stay has taken a powder and become a suspect in the planning of the hijacking. Even when he manages to befriend an Indian shopkeeper and land a minimum-wage job, Ibrahim feels the wrath of Americans who associate any olive-skinned person with the tragic events of 9/11. Because of his cousin’s disappearance, he’s seized by American security forces and held for months without being charged or allowed to seek counsel. Determined to persevere, Ibrahim once again must begin the Sisyphean task of becoming a citizen. Kadi has strewn the path with enough potholes, IEDs and detours to discourage anyone to emigrate, led alone seek membership in one of the world’s least exclusive clubs. Just when the sun begins to peek through the clouds, a veritable Hurricane Sandy of bigotry, intolerance and government resistance sends him reeling backwards. Kadi also provides his protagonist with just enough hope to keep his dream alive. It reminds of us of what makes this country so desirable for foreigners and precious to citizens. A composite on fact-based anecdotes and newspaper headlines, “The Citizen” almost qualifies as an urban legend. Neither does Kadi yet possess the skills and agility to prevent the narrative from avoiding the hazards in the road. That said, however, “The Citizen” is a movie that easily could be shown as part of any high school civics course to remind students of what this country means to people around the world, or used to before we decided to be the protectors of corporations, tinhorn despots and corrupt politicians who crush the dreams of their citizenry for personal gain. – Gary Dretzka

TV to DVD
The Fall: Series 1
Farscape: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
NFL Rush Zone: Season of the Guardians: Volume 1
Ben 10: Omniverse, Vol. 3: Aliens at War
Fans of Helen Mirren’s Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison, in the “Prime Suspect” series, should do themselves a favor by picking up the fine BBC crime thriller, “The Fall.” In the five-part mini-series, Gillian Anderson (“The X-Files”) plays a British police detective summoned to Belfast to solve a high-profile murder. Although Tennison and Stella Gibson share certain physical and personality traits, as well as an unwavering devotion to duty, Anderson’s character is very much her own woman. Among other things, she’s been intentionally drawn as a woman not afraid to entice men with her smoldering sexuality, which is barely contained in more or less conventional work attire. If her self-confidence occasionally borders on arrogance, her first instinct is to be a team player. There’s no whining among the boyos when the outsider was introduced to the squad and, for that, she can thank Tennison, as well. Here, she’s called to Northern Ireland as a forensics expert in a murder case she quickly deduces is the work of serial killer. Belfast being Belfast, though, random murders can look as if they were part of a greater crime. The narrative conceit allows viewers to follow the movements of the killer and investigators simultaneously, with other story threads woven into that texture. Almost from Minute One, we know that the killer’s daytime job is counseling people attempting to cope with grief and he leads a relatively normal home life, except for the fact that his daughter appears to have nightmares related to her dad’s killings. I suppose that it’s worth mentioning the killer is played by Jamie Dornan, who was recently cast as Christian, in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and Archie Punjabi (“The Good Wife”) plays a medical examiner. The good news is that the show’s second season already is on the drawing boards.

I completely missed “Farscape” during its initial 1999-2003 run on the Sci-Fi Channel. I didn’t know that it was created by Jim Henson Productions for Australian television or that it was rescued from cancellation by the protests of rabidly loyal fans. Fortuitously, for those of us who missed the spacecraft Moya on its first voyage, the series has been revived by the 3-month-old Pivot channel – targeted at “millennials” – and Cinedigm has just released “Farscape: The Complete Series” in a lavish “15th Anniversary Edition.” (Bingers should reserve 4,136 minutes of free time to get through the entire package.) The series opened with contemporary American astronaut and test pilot John Crichton (Ben Browder) flying too close to the entrance of a wormhole and getting sucked to the far reaches of the universe. Once there, he encounters a diverse ensemble of characters attempting to escape the clutches of the evil Peacekeepers. They live inside a giant space-roaming creature, Moya, and pick up the occasional escapee and hitchhiker. It would be difficult to identify the characters as anything but the creations of the Henson Creature Shop. While the show references a half-dozen classic sci-fi films and TV shows, the story arcs are unique to the series. The bonus package is comprised material previously offered in a set from A&E. The new stuff is pretty much limited to custom art inserts for each of the multi-disc cases and an exclusive “graphic novel,” by Ramon Perez. Ported over are 20 commentaries with several different cast members, director Rockne S. O’Bannon and Brian Henson; dozens of deleted scenes, making-of and background featurettes, interviews and retrospectives. The Blu-ray does what it can with the degraded visuals, but the sound has been enhanced in the transition. The set still doesn’t include “The Peacekeeper Wars,” a mini-series made by Henson to tie up loose ends from the abrupt cancellation, which caused the series to end on a cliffhanger. The graphic novel stands in its place.

With such sensitive issues as concussions, bullying, expansion and off-field misconduct with which to deal on a daily basis, it must have been difficult for the geniuses at the NFL to find the time to create a hybrid series for Nickelodeon – “NFL Rush Zone: Season of the Guardians” — using animation and live-action sequences. The better question might be, Is the National Football League so desperate for fresh eyes and jersey sales that it needs kids to think that their favorite players fight aliens in their spare time? They do this to prevent the aliens from hijacking the power and energy created by something called the Megacore, shards of which of can be found inside each of the league’s 32 stadiums. The Guardians is a group of kid superheroes, six of whom will suit up for their favorite teams to fight evil.

Cartoon Network’s “Ben 10 Omniverse” series defies easy summarization. Between the vast number of characters, time-shifting and different locations, I lost track after the first episode. Nonetheless, kids have kept the show and a line of merchandise going for several years, now, so it must make sense to them, anyway. The double-disc “Ben 10: Omniverse, Vol. 3: Aliens at War” contains 10 episodes from the series’ first season, plus “Alien Reveal” and “Alien Database” bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Oui, Girls
Schoolgirl Report Vol. 11: Trying Beats Studying
The latest additions to Impulse Pictures’ collection of vintage soft- and hard-corn porn are Fred J. Lincoln’s “Oui, Girls” and the 11th entry in the “Schoolgirl Report” series, “Trying Beats Studying.” As far as I can tell, the closest any of the men and women here come to anything French is the French toast they had for breakfast or French fries that came with the burgers at McDonald’s. So, the “Oui” probably stands for the “girls” willingness to have sex with men who aren’t their equal in the looks department. It is representative though, of a period in the genre – roughly between “Deep Throat” and “gonzo” videos of the 1990s – when some filmmakers told stories that led to sex scenes and the actors tried to make it look as if they might have tried out for a play in high school, at least. Here, Barbara and Nick (Anna Ventura, Paul Thomas) go undercover at a swinger’s retreat to investigate a murder. After having sex with each other, the PI’s sleep with everyone else at the Circle S singles ranch to uncover clues. Horror buffs might remember Lincoln as Weasel in Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” and he acts as well as directs here. The most noteworthy things about “Oui, Girls” might be the youthful beauty of actresses Ventura, Sharon Kane and Tiffany Clark, and some dramatic shots of the northern California coastlines.

In the latest DVD installment of the German faux-documentary series, “Schoolgirl Reports,” the phony social scientists offer their wisdom on what can be done to protect vulnerable young people in 1970s. The problem in “Trying Beats Studying” is the disparity between the stories told by the victims and perpetrators. The mood shifts from comic to cautionary with the snap of a finger. Unlike “Oui, Girls,” though, the sex in “Schoolgirls Reports” is pretty tame and limited to non-gynecological nudity. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Lovelace: Blu-ray
If, in 1972, any young actresses not named Linda Lovelace had starred in “Deep Throat,” it’s conceivable that the landmark XXX movie would have been made in exactly the same way and rung up approximately the same astounding amount of money at the box office. Lovelace’s gift, so to speak, was hardly exclusive to her, even then, and, as a thespian, she wasn’t likely to make anyone forget Marilyn Chambers, Seka or, even, the comparatively chaste Bettie Page. What made the story so irresistible to sexually curious audiences wasn’t Lovelace, per se, but how her specific talent complemented the narrative, which, at the time, wasn’t an ingredient in porn movies. Before “Deep Throat,” porn was basically limited to “loops,” during which a repairman/mailman/gardener satisfied the itch of a horny housewife, with or without taking off his socks. Loops weren’t limited to hetero sex, of course, and precious little time was wasted on plots. Extreme fellatio can still be found on the menu of the brothels at Pompeii and Herculaneum, so Lovelace wouldn’t have qualified for a patent or copyright, in any case. Still, she performed with such enthusiasm, it would be easy for media nitwits to assume she invented it.

Lovelace (a.k.a., Linda Susan Boreman) plays a woman frustrated by her inability to achieve an orgasm. A friend invites her to attend an orgy, but it proves to be of no avail. Their next stop is at the offices of the doctor who discovers that Linda’s clitoris is located in a part of her body that only a man with a very large penis could reach. He gallantly volunteers to teach her how to control her gag reflex and enjoy the experience as much as any partner. Although Linda (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with Dr. Young, he’s only willing to hire her as a therapist until she finds the right man and gets married.  All of this activity plays out in 61 minutes and, as befits a low-brow comedy, against a backdrop of crazy sounds and wacky visual effects. No one expected “Deep Throat” to become a media sensation or clear a path for the mainstreaming of pornography. Lovelace’s pimp/boyfriend/manager Chuck Traynor (Peter Saarsgaard) stole her $1,250 fee, while an estimated $600 million in undeclared revenue poured into mafia coffers. Years later, Lovelace would argue persuasively that Traynor forced her at gunpoint to turn tricks and perform in “Deep Throat.” As it caught fire, however, she partied with celebrities, made a couple more movies and starred in a Las Vegas stage act. All of this has been documented previously in Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary “Inside Deep Throat” and Legs McNeil’s “The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry.” Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s “Lovelace” follows the dramatic trajectory of Lovelace’s life with Traynor and, before that, the role played by her intensely religious parents in driving her into his conniving grasp.

There’s plenty of nudity in “Lovelace,” but the sex wasn’t graphic enough to threaten its “R” rating. What’s truly pornographic here is the degree of on-screen violence inflicted on Lovelace by Traynor and it only gets more repugnant as the movie goes on. Given what we now know about Lovelace and Traynor’s sick relationship, before and after “Deep Throat,” it could have been even worse. Left unanswered by the filmmakers is why didn’t she ask her new pals Hugh Hefner and Sammy Davis Jr. to rescue her from the constant beatings? It’s almost as if Lovelace wanted to become the poster girl for the Stockholm syndrome, as well as a media star. It’s also fair to ask what what 2013 audiences are expected to take away from the movie. “Lovelace” doesn’t work particularly well as a cautionary tale, because the adult industry has evolved to the point where some women, at least, have more control on their careers than any husband or boyfriend. We learned more about the adult industry and its pitfalls from “Boogie Nights,” which stopped being fun to watch at approximately the same time as Dirk Diggler became addicted to the one common denominator in all of these films, cocaine. None of this diminishes the fine performances of Seyfried, Saarsgaard, Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick, Juno Temple, Chris Noth, Bobby Cannavale, Hank Azaria, Hugh Hefner, James Franco and Debi Mazar, all of which are pretty much spot-on. The Blu-ray includes the making-of featurette, “Behind Lovelace.” – Gary Dretzka

Passion: Blu-ray
Although Brian De Palma has been AWOL for quite some time, he’s lost none of his ability to wow audiences with his adventurous cinematography and attention to Hitchcockian detail. “Passion” is a remake of the 2010 French film, “Love Crime,” directed by the late Alain Corneau. The greatest difference between the two versions, which share a co-writer in Natalie Carter, is the 20-year gap in age between Ludivine Sagnier and Kristin Scott Thomas and the absence of an age gap in Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace. In Corneau’s story, the older woman takes credit for ideas given her by her assistant as a way of preserving her corporate status and to teach her a harsh lesson in business ethics. In De Palma’s version, the women are close friends, vying for essentially the same position. The shift in interpersonal dynamics are likely to bother fans of “Love Crime” far more than those who haven’t seen it … which I recommend. If the women in “Passion” are evenly matched in their pursuit of stardom, De Palma throws them a curve in the form of a pervy boyfriend and the introduction of another attractive, if slightly less fashionable woman in the office, with ambitions of her own. If this synopsis sounds overly vague, it’s only because telegraphing any of early the twists in “Passion” would spoil several others down the road. Would it have been fair of a critic to reveal the MacGuffin in a Hitchcock movie or the red herring in others? Fans of DePalma, who don’t mind his homages to Hitchcock, shouldn’t find it too difficult to see what’s coming around the corner here. But, why spoil the fun for everyone else. The Blu-ray presentation really enhances DePalma’s imaginative deployment of colors and angles, which telegraph the twists as much as any detail in the primary characters’ face or wardrobe. It adds interviews with Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace. – Gary Dretzka

White House Down
The premise behind Roland Emmerich’s latest action epic, “White House Down,” is so ridiculous that it almost borders on the distasteful. It’s one thing to watch space invaders demolish the White House, as they did in “Independence Day,” or dramatize its burning in the War of 1812, but quite another to see the same thing being done by a gang of mercenaries and politicians pissed off because they consider the incumbent President (Jamie Foxx) to a wimp … and an African-American wimp, to boot. Channing Tatum plays a Secret Service wannabe, Cale, who just happens to be in the White House on a job interview with Maggie Gyllenhaal when a bomb explodes at the Capitol and heavily armed thugs break into the residence, killing everything that moves. Caught in the chaos is Cale’s daughter, a precocious lass with a photographic memory of all things presidential. Armed only with a cellphone camera, she provides the only link to the outside world from the besieged White House. When the invaders finally capture the girl, they use her as a negotiating tool with Cale and the President. It will take quite some time before we learn what it is they want and, by then, it hardly matters. Boiled down to its essence, “White House Down” is simply an excuse to blow stuff up and demonstrate state-of-the-art weaponry. Considering the amount of damage done to the White House and its grounds, nothing else really matters. They could tear down the ruins and replace them with a parking spot for food trucks, for the amount of time it would take to replace the building. As such, anyone who doesn’t mind checking their brain at the door should enjoy the 130 minutes of concussively loud and consistently mindless action in “White House Down.” Not having seen the very similar “Olympus Has Fallen,” I couldn’t argue with any certainty which one is better, except to point out that “WHD” scored slightly higher with the critics at Metacritic.com. Financially, though, “OHF” made more money on half the estimated $150-million budget of “WHD.” The DVD adds a six-minute gag reel and a dozen shorter making-of and backgrounder featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Intolerance: Blu-ray
It isn’t often that the difference between VHS, DVD and Blu-ray leaps off of the small screen and slaps you in the face with it. The hi-def edition of D.W. Griffith’s historical 1916 epic, “Intolerance” does just that. Anyone who enrolled in a film-history class before the introduction of the Laserdisc should easily recall how difficult it was to appreciate the grandeur of any movie projected onto to rarely washed screen in 16mm. The greater the scope of the movie, the more damage was inflicted on it by scratches, artifacts and splicing.  The Cohen Film Collection’s immaculate restoration of “Intolerance” quickly erases all of those bad memories, sharpening images that seemed to blur into the elaborate backgrounds of previous editions. Carl Davis’ spectacular score also adds a dynamic new dimension to the proceedings. For the uninitiated, “Intolerance” traces the negative effects of bigotry and intolerance in four interwoven stories, covering thousands of years. The device only served to confuse early audiences, even though Griffith tinted the sequences according to theme and period. Also benefiting from the facelift are the magnificent sets – Babylon, Judea, medieval Paris, a modern factory town – which, today, probably would have cost $200 million to re-create, even using green screens and other CGI tricks. (The standing elephants now reside at the Hollywood/Highland complex, just outside the theater in which the Oscars are awarded.) Perhaps, the most pertinent observation made in Kevin Brownlow’s video essay, which accompanies the movie, is his belief that “Intolerance” wasn’t made in reaction to the protests that followed the opening of the KKK-friendly “Birth of a Nation.” He argues that Griffith had planted the movie’s seeds even as “Birth of a Nation” was being filmed. Among the bonus material are two full features, “The Fall of Babylon” and “Mother and the Law,” accompanied by new scores by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and new essays by Cineaste editor Richard Porton and historian William M. Drew. – Gary Dretzka

The Three Faces of Eve: Blu-ray
Notwithstanding Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” the first time most Americans came face to face with multiple personality disorder – a.k.a., dissociative identity disorder, split personality and, incorrectly, schizophrenia – was in the best-selling book and popular movie,  “The Three Faces of Eve.”  Joanne Woodward was awarded an Oscar for playing three of the two dozen distinctly different personalities claimed by Chris Costner Sizemore.  Two decades later, Woodward would be assigned the task of portraying a psychiatrist treating Sally Field’s Sybill Dorset, who developed 16 different personalities, although that number has been challenged. Field won an Emmy for her work in the 1976 mini-series, “Sybill.” In 2009, Toni Collette won an Emmy for playing a suburban wife and mother with multiple personality disorder in “The United States of Tara.” Nunnally Johnson’s black-and-white adaptation of “Three Faces” has just been released on Blu-ray by Fox. Although much of the drama seems dated, both by lack of current medical knowledge and Production Code restrictions, there’s no denying the quality of Woodward’s performance or that of Lee J. Cobb, the shrink who brings out Eve’s second, devil-may-care personality in a hypnotherapy session. Another will reveal herself when mousy Eve White and horny Eve Black come to loggerheads. The hi-def presentation is terrific and includes commentary by Aubrey Solomon, a Fox Movietone News clip from the Academy Awards and an original theatrical trailer. – Gary Dretzka

Oil City Confidential
The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story
Hava Nagila: The Movie
London-born Julien Temple is a terrifically inventive documentarian and creator of rock videos that matter. It’s possible that Temple’s greatest contribution to the cinema ultimately will prove to be his daughter, Juno, but, right now, his films are well worth the effort to find. Unlike “The Filth & the Fury” and “The Future Is Unwritten,” about the Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer respectively, his completely engaging rockumentary, “Oil City Confidential,” found almost no traction in the U.S. That’s almost certainly because the ’70s pub-rock band on which his camera focuses, Feelgood, had no impact here in terms of record sales, concert tours or T-shirt revenues. In England, though, Feelgood is a band remembered fondly by Baby Boomer audiences who still consider it to be the missing link between the Pistols and Clash. Highly theatrical, extremely loud and angry as hell, Feelgood emerged from tiny Canvey Island, a weekend retreat for Londoners and their “caravans,” and home to much of the country’s petrochemical industry. It was nearly washed out to sea in the great North Sea Flood of 1953, but proved too tough to die. In telling the band’s story, Temple mixes imaginative montages and other graphic devices, with the testimony of band members, fans and journalists. There’s also plenty of footage shot at concerts. The person who comes off the best in the film is the same one whose drunken revelry and drugged antics nearly killed the band in 1975, just as it was about to attempt an American tour. Even today, guitarist Wilko Johnson looks and sounds as if he’s got a million things on his mind and only 10 minutes to spit them all out. His candid reminiscences of band life are hilarious, as are his recollections about growing on Canvey Island, which sits at sea level and looks as if it could sink if one too many tourists cross the bridge over the Thames estuary. Released on DVD only a couple of weeks apart from Richard England’s similarly rousing “East End Babylon,” Temple’s documentary goes a long way toward explaining what real bands look like before they’re seduced, signed and scrubbed to within an inch of their being by record-company weasels.

Quick, besides Beatles’ George Martin, name two or three other producers of popular music who’ve made a difference in your life. I didn’t think so. Given the anonymity usually associated with the people who work the controls in music studios, it’s truly amazing how many producers and executives of Atlantic Records have had feature-length documentaries made about their contributions to the company and its artists. There are executives Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, producers Tom Dowd, Jerry Wexler and, now, Arif Mardin. Also remarkable is that three-fifths of those men – all responsible for laying down some of the greatest jazz, R&B, rock and pop music of the 20th Century – were born in Turkey, but made names for themselves in the musical melting pot of America. Doug Biro and Joe Mardin’s highly entertaining bio-doc, “The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story,” is both a portrait of and testimonial to the longtime Atlantic producer, who also wrote beautiful music. Among those testifying in Mardin’s behalf are Martin, Bette Midler, The Bee Gees, Hall & Oates, Phil Collins, Norah Jones, Barbra Streisand and family members. It’s a loving tribute, made even more poignant by the realization that Mardin wouldn’t live to see the final product.

If you live long enough, you discover amazing things hidden in plain view. In 1993, Dave Marsh found enough to say about the goofy rock icon, “Louie Louie,” to fill 245 hagiographic pages in “Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World’s Most Famous Rock ‘N’ Roll Song.” Among other things, Marsh points out that the FBI once kept at least one agent busy deciphering the song’s muddy lyrics; that Jamaican singer Richard Berry sold all rights to the calypso-inspired song for $750 to finance his wedding; and it was a cult fixture among Pacific Northwest bar bands, before the Kingsmen’s decidedly non-calypso version caught fire nationally. Two decades later, director Roberta Grossman and writer Sophie Sartain have delivered unto us a delightful tale of how the Jewish folk-dance song “Hava Nagila,” became the “Louie Louie” of wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs. First recorded commercially in 1922, “Hava Nagila” was adapted from Psalm 118 (verse 24) of the Hebrew Bible by ethnologist/composer Abraham Zvidelsohn to celebrate the 1918 British victory in Palestine. “Hava Nagila (The Movie)” follows the path the song took from Bukovina, which straddles Romania and the Ukraine, to Palestine, Carnegie Hall, Hollywood and beyond. It features entertaining interviews with Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Glen Campbell, Leonard Nimoy, Regina Spektor, Irving Fields, historians, scholars and rabbis. And, in case you’re wondering, there’s already a book chronicling the popularity of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Check out the original lyrics sometime. – Gary Dretzka

Out in the Dark
Longing Nights
Throughout most of the first half of “Out in the Dark,” I thought I was watching a gay version of “Romeo and Juliet” set in and around contemporary Tel Aviv. It would have been easy enough to pull off, but is the world really crying out for yet another “R&J”? I know that I wasn’t. Blessedly, co-writer/director Michael Mayer zigged when he could have zagged, adding yet another dimension to the story of star-crossed lovers caught in a trap not of their design. Nimer is a Palestinian student, allowed to attend a prestigious university there, as long as the crossings are kept open by Israeli security. For several good reasons, Nimer has chosen not to come out to his family about being gay. Only after school, in Tel Aviv, is he more or less free to be gay and enjoy the nightclub scene and generally liberal attitudes of the city’s citizens. One night, he meets a young Israeli lawyer at a dance club and something clicks as soon as their eyes meet. Roy’s parents seem to be OK with his choices, as long as he doesn’t “flaunt” them in front of them. Nimer is far more limited, both for cultural and political reasons. If his thuggish brother were to learn of Nimer being gay, he very well could kill him or stand by while someone else does the dirty work. His mother and sister would be ostracized by their family and neighbors and the local militants would become suspicious of his ability to live in two different worlds. This is exactly what happens to one of Nimer’s best friends, who’s put on “trial” based solely on the possibility that he might think of spying for the enemy. Despite Roy’s intercession, Nimer is hassled as well by Israeli police, who want to blackmail him for information about his brother and his “terrorist” friends.

Sure enough, when Nimer’s sister inadvertently learns about Roy, she can’t help herself from blabbing about their romance, thus practically signing his death certificate. He buys just enough time for himself to cross the border, where Tel Aviv are waiting to check the shit out of him and send him back home. Mayer even finds a reason for Roy to turn on his lover. Nimer’s struggle to escape to a promised land, where being gay and Palestinian isn’t forbidden, is executed at an extremely high level of intrigue and emotional intensity. The Tel Aviv setting, especially at night, is exceptionally well rendered by Mayer and cinematographer Ran Avid, using Red MX digital cameras. The DVD adds interviews and making-of material. The sex scenes are tastefully rendered and within the context of the story.

The sex in Tiago Leão’s “Longing Nights” is quite a bit rougher than in “Out in the Dark,” but, again, integral to the nature of the story. To conquer loneliness in one of Europe’s biggest and most vibrant cities, twentysomethings Aitana, Pierrick, Jorge and Rita take to the streets of Madrid each night in a desperate search for companionship, if not true, last friendships. Leão sets their individual stories against a background of drugs, sex, multiple partners and almost constant potential for violence and they pretty much cover the LGBT gamut. There’s even a straight couple thrown in for variety. All of the characters, however, are exceedingly sad and in need of emotional rescue. They also seem exceptionally real. There’s really no plot to follow in “Longing Nights,” although it’s possible that some paths crossed during its 70-minute length. – Gary Dretzka

Renoir
The title of Gilles Bourdos’ sumptuous portrait of the artist as a very old man, “Renoir,” could just as easily been “Renoirs” or “Artists and Models,” perhaps as a homage to that other French favorite, Jerry Lewis. Both would be accurate and adequately convey Bourdos’ intentions in this compelling, if slightly unusual family drama. It is 1915 and we are introduced to Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir only after we meet a voluptuous young woman, Andree (Christa Theret), walking on a forested road. She had been recommended to the artist by his wife and former model, or so she claims. (It’s more likely Matisse offered the recommendation, thinking Andree’s body was more suited to his friend’s predilections.) If Renoir finds this introduction curious, there’s no question that Andree is exactly the kind of model/muse he sought in the latter stage of his career. He would even compare her to the women painted by the 16th Century Italian artist, Titian. Andree is completely comfortable in her nudity and a quick study in posing. When Renoir’s son, Jean, returns from the war to nurse a wound suffered at the front, it’s easy for us to foresee a moment when she’ll have to pick between father and son as the most worthy candidate for her affections. At 76, however, Pierre-Auguste (Michel Bouqet) isn’t nearly as spry as he once was and Jean (Vincent Rottiers) seems more interested in the comrades he left behind in the war. Never mind, Andree never lacked for boyfriends.

Some critics have disapproved of the lack of dramatic tension in “Renoir,” which is little bit like complaining that the artist didn’t feature enough cats in his paintings. The love between Andree and Jean, which blossomed at its own speed and no faster, finally would bear fruit in their early forays into the cinema as collaborators. What most viewers will take away from “Renoir” is the great natural beauty of Parc botanique à Rayol-Canadel-sur-Mer – standing in for Les Collettes, his farm at Cagnes-sur-Mer – and the magnificent light that informed so much of his work. He moved to the Cote d’Azur to help ease the pain of rheumatoid arthritis, which made his art no less significant, but required some assistance for the house staff and a gadget that slid the canvas to where his heavily taped hand was, thus eliminating painful movement. Art lovers will recognize, as well, the similarity between poses struck by the actress and paintings they’ve seen in museums or studied at school. Other Renoirs represented here are son, Claude “Coco” Renoir, Pierre and Aline. The DVD adds interviews with the filmmaker and cast members. – Gary Dretzka

Kenny Rogers as the Gambler: Blu-ray
If all a beginner understands about the holy game of poker is, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run. You never count your money, when you’re sitting at the table, there will be time enough for counting when the dealings done,” they might not get slaughtered when they sit down at a “no limit” table for the first time. It might be the best piece of advice ever delivered by a made-for-TV movie, as well. In fact, though, Kenny Rogers turned Don Schlitz’ narrative song into a film some two years after it topped the charts, in 1978. Even if Rogers’ interpretation garnered a flock of awards, they weren’t enough to land Schlitz on the movie’s list of writing credits. Hollywood strikes, again. “Kenny Rogers as the Gambler,” newly released into Blu-ray in a bare-bones edition, extends the story to include a younger version of Brady Hawkes – ostensibly, the gambler who offers the advice on “a train bound for nowhere” – as he embarks on a mission to help the son he’s never met. Not surprisingly, the climax of the movie occurs at a green-felt table. Among the other participants are Bruce Boxleitner, Clu Gulager, Christine Belford and Lee Purcell. Inexplicably, the movie spawned four sequels. Such was the popularity of Rogers in his prime. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Nazi Mega Weapons
No matter how much you think you know about World War II – or care to recall – someone at PBS or History Channel is, at this very minute, coming up with something new about the subject designed to surprise, shock or mystify you. And, considering the disparity in shows about Japan and Italy, it seems as if the Nazis were light years ahead of the other Axis powers in technology, strategy and capacity for flat-out evil. The recent PBS documentary series, “Nazi Mega Weapons,” demonstrates conclusively just how grandiose Hitler’s plans for the disposition of the war were. And, yes, the buck stopped right on the desk of Der Fuhrer. Among other things I learned was Hitler’s obsession with concrete. He ordered the construction of a highway of concrete bunkers stretching from Norway to Portugal. It was nearly – emphasize, nearly — finished by D-Day. A massive submarine hangar, constructed of unimaginable amounts of concrete, was finished but couldn’t protect the subs in open water as they approached the pens. Other segments deal with the V2 rocket, Super Tanks, the jet fighter Me262 and “Fortress Berlin.” “Nazi Mega Weapons” follows a group of experts on a scavenger hunt through Europe’s mountains, forests and beaches to uncover engineering secrets that have lain hidden for decades and the stories of the men who designed them. The scary thing is learning how Hitler’s lack of patience and unchecked ambition – more than anything else — might have cost him the war. – Gary Dretzka

Jack Irish: Set 1
PBS: Inspector Lewis Pilot Through Series 6
Starz: Magic City: Blu-ray
Several of the best crime movies and mini-series in recent memory have been imported from Australia on DVD. “Jack Irish” follows in the wake of “Underbelly,” a series as gritty, violent and demanding as “The Wire” and “Homicide: Life on the Streets.” “Jack Irish” is distinguished by a terrific performance in the lead role by Guy Pearce, a world-class actor (“L.A. Confidential,” “Memento”) who routinely returns to Australia to support its film and television industry. The “Jack Irish” movies are based on Australian writer Peter Temple’s award-winning novels. Irish was a lawyer specializing in sketchy cases when one of his certifiably insane clients murdered his wife in the parking lot of his offices, then blew his own head off his shoulders. After a period of time spent drowning his sorrows in an ocean of booze, Irish returned to work as a private investigator. The cases take him to all sorts of dangerous places, as well as such usual gangster haunts as the racetrack and strip joints. The two feature-length mysteries here are “Bad Debts” and “Black Tide.” Like “Underbelly,” “Jack Irish” contains strong language, violence, graphic images, nudity and sexual situations. Oh, boy.

The popular Granada Television/WGBH co-production, “Inspector Lewis,” was spun off “Inspector Morse,” in 2006, and shown here under the “Masterpiece Mystery” banner. Both mini-series were inspired by the novels written by Colin Dexter. The latter picked up after Lewis’ return to Oxford from the British Virgin Islands, training police, following the death of his wife in a hit-and-run accident. To be effective, Lewis (Kevin Whately) must step out of the shadow of his mentor, Morse, who’s long dead. He’s fortunate to be joined by the intuitive, but withdrawn Detective Sergeant James Hathaway (Laurence Fox). The good news is that the new set contains all 27 mysteries through Series 6, as well as the pilot episode. The better news is that they’re cut from the British originals, which didn’t trim 10 minutes from each episode.

Starz’ sleek and sexy mob drama, “Magic City,” failed primarily because its story relied on viewers’ ability to suspend disbelief about known facts. These include the refusal of historically corrupt Florida lawmakers to approve the legalization of Vegas-style casinos in Miami – even after the fall of Havana — and the failure of Chicago- and New York-based mobsters to convince Fidel Castro to share casino revenues with them. Fat chance, on that one. What else, then, could sell audiences on a premium-cable series? That’s right, impossibly beautiful, if morally conflicted women. And, some weeks, it worked. Despite the flaky history lessons, “Magic City” was best at selling the tension between hotel owner Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and gangster Ben “The Butcher” Diamond (Danny Huston), both of whom ultimately were beholden to Chicago money man, Sy Berman (James Caan). The hot hookers and handsome cabana boys almost were enough to keep things rolling toward a third season, but the wheels came off when Ike – in cahoots with a Cuban official whose khaki uniform barely hid a smokin’ body — scammed the Miami numbers rackets out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even if something like that did happen, I refuse to believe it. As binging material goes, however, viewers could do a lot worse than “Magic City.” Fred F. Sears’ 1954 pot-boiler, “The Miami Story” – recently shown on TMC — told essentially the same story, but without the nudity. The second-season set adds several not-very-informative making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

WWE: Straight to the Top: The Money in the Bank Ladder Match Anthology: Blu-ray
For all of its cartoon drama and choreographed mayhem, the one aspect of modern professional wrestling that’s indisputable is the ability of the athletes – and that’s what they are or, at one time, were – to stage incredibly dangerous stunts. Never has thos been so apparent, as it is in “WWE: Straight to the Top: The Money in the Bank Ladder Match Anthology.” As near as I can figure several top contenders battle it out for the right to pull a suitcase, containing a large sum of money, from hook hanging about 15 feet over the mat. The only way to accomplish this task is by climbing one of the tall ladders scattered around the ring and come down with it in one piece. This is not an easy task. Even more difficult is climbing the ladder while being punched, pulled and pushed by their foes. It sounds as stupid as it looks, but the amount of punishment these guys take is extraordinary. Being pushed off the top of a ladder, only to land on another piece of metal, would be dangerous even if the guys wore football uniforms. This is in addition to all of the other grappling moves they must withstand before even being able to pick up a ladder. As to where it all fits within the WWE universe, such future superstars as John Cena, Kane, Edge, CM Punk and Rob Van Dam have used the match as a springboard to winning a championship. The new compilation includes all of the PPV events, which start to look the same after the third or fourth Ladder Match.  Fans won’t mind, however. – Gary Dretzka

The Lords of Salem: Blu-ray
Somehow, I missed this one when it was released in September. So, better late than never. “The Lords of Salem” is the latest assault on the senses from horror specialist Rob Zombie, and it may be as close to the genre mainstream as any of his pictures have been. As the title suggests, we’re dealing with witches here and, in true Zombie style, they’re pretty hard-core.  Meg Foster, especially, looks as if she might have crawled through a bog to get to the set each morning. The story, though, focuses on Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a radio station deejay living in Salem, Massachusetts. One day, she receives a mysterious wooden box containing a record by “The Lords.” The “gift” only produces bizarre sounds that trigger horrifying flashbacks of the town’s past disregard for witches. Heidi thinks she might be going mad, but we know different. Zombie delivers his thrills without the use of CGI technology and it enhances the old-school vibe throughout the movie. The actors also are adept at selling their characters. The Blu-ray adds Zombie’s commentary. – Gary Dretzka

Happy Tree Friends: Complete Disaster
The flash-animation series, “Happy Tree Friends,” is what happens when kindergarteners are given LSD with their milk and cookies. If the “Sesame Street” and the “Jackass” gangs ever collaborated on an Internet cartoon series, it probably would feature the same cute forest animals being maimed in ways the Roadrunner never imagined. Accidental events that lead to bloodshed, pain, dismemberment and, sometimes, death for the critters. The webisodes have recorded tens of millions of hits, with a TV show on G4 adding even more fans. It’s strangely compelling viewing, but, after a hour or so, you may feel like climbing a tree and assaulting a squirrel. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Byzantium: Blu-ray
In the movies, as on Halloween, some undead creatures are more welcome than others. That’s especially the case when they’re resuscitated by the brilliant Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan, who knows a thing or two about supernatural phenomena. After introducing himself to international audiences with the seductive werewolf fable, “The Company of Wolves,” Jordan made his mark among the arthouse crowd with such gems as “Mona Lisa” and “The Crying Game.” In 1994, he was handed a small fortune to collaborate with Anne Rice on “Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles.” And it, too, did very well, thank you. The closest he’s come to such otherworldly stuff between then and the below-the-radar release of “Byzantium” – unless one counts Sinead O’Conner as the Virgin Mary in “The Butcher Boy” – was the charming Celtic fairytale, “Ondine,” in which a fisherman (Colin Farrell) nets a selkie. (Beings that live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land.) In the dark and moody “Byzantium,” Jordan puts a decidedly Irish spin on the various vampire legends, allowing his protagonists to break several of the rules commonly associated with them. Clara and the much younger Eleanor (Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan) are on the run from Dublin, where the older woman worked as a stripper until she was recognized by vampire hunters carrying a 200-year-old grudge. While Clara isn’t particular in the men she drains of blood – using a razor-sharp thumbnail, instead of fangs – Eleanor only feeds on elderly people who see in her a gentle vehicle for euthanasia. While on the lam, they take up residence in a seaside residence hotel, the Byzantinium, run by a man still shaken by the death of his domineering mother. Before he knows what’s happening, Clara’s moved in with him and turned part of their living quarters into a brothel. Eleanor chooses to use her time more constructively, taking writing classes at a local college. It doesn’t take long before she meets a boy her age, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), who becomes her confidante. Things go well between them, until Frank disregards her wishes by showing one of Eleanor’s highly personal stories to their teacher, who shares it with the school psychologist. Because the autobiographical story contains information they consider too far-fetched to have come from anyone except a profoundly damaged teenager, they confront Clara with their concerns. This turns out to be a very bad decision. Clara’s fuse is incredibly short and her protective mechanism extremely powerful. Meanwhile, too, the fearless vampire hunters have also caught up with their prey at the Byzantium. Jordan demonstrates his gift here by maintaining an aura of constant dread, while injecting enough humor and sensuality into the story to keep it from turning into just another genre bloodbath. A parallel story thread recalls Clara and Eleanor’s initiation into the kindred and some of the things that have happened to them in the last 200 years. Fans of classy horror movies should find plenty to enjoy here. The Blu-ray adds several EPK-style interviews and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: American Experience: War of the Worlds
If Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater cohorts had decided to dramatize “War of the Worlds” on April 1, 1938, instead of October 30th of the same year, I wonder if anyone would remember the event as a touchstone moment in 20th Century history. That the broadcast did occur on Halloween, a holiday given over to ghosts and goblins, not science fiction, at least partially explains why so many listeners were willing to believe something as preposterous as an alien invasion. The producers of the “American Experience” report, “War of the Worlds,” suggest that “panic” may be too strong a word to use when recalling the reaction of frightened listeners to the show. Once they were pulled off their ceilings and shown that the Martians spared their hamlets, most took it with the grain of salt intended by the show’s producers. The true outcry was generated by people unhappy over being conned by Welles’ authoritative oration and, perhaps, teased by friends who hadn’t been sucked into the deception. Also exiting the woodwork were the usual number of opportunists and scare-mongers who treated the broadcast as the work of Satan or Joseph Stalin. The show argues that newspaper publishers and politicians actually had the most to gain from milking the controversy for all it was worth. Publishers considered any assault on their revenues to be the work of the devil and, in 1938, radio was seen as the greatest threat to profits. Conservative politicians called for the government to begin censoring radio entertainment, just as it had convinced Hollywood of the necessity for creating the Production Code.

The “American Experience” team re-examines the creation of the show, as well the progression of the “hysteria,” from the first “bulletin” through the media circus that followed. The first thing to know about the broadcast, itself, is that the Mercury Theater’s frequent dramatizations weren’t chart-busters in the ratings department. In fact, the show’s producers timed the start of “War of the Worlds” to coincide with a break in the comedy routines on their leading competitors. They hoped listeners would use the musical interlude as an excuse to channel surf, which apparently was as popular then as it is now. The report also adds journalistic context to the discussion of why people reacted the way they did. In 1938, radio was the place to go to hear breaking news stories – the Hindenburg disaster, reports from Nazi Germany – and, since the beginning of the Depression, the public had been served a steady diet of bad news. One more disaster wouldn’t surprise anyone.

None of this is to say, a similar situation couldn’t happen today. How many innocent Sikhs, Arabs and people of color continue to be the target of prejudice, vigilantism and outride ignorance, even 12 years after the terrorist attacks on 9/11? The professional bigots employed by Fox News scare the crap out of gullible Americans every day of the week and the only people who hold their toes to the fire are Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. If Rush Limbaugh were to announce the imminent arrival of heavily armed Martians, how many of his listeners would pull out their NRA-approved assault rifles and point them at the sky? The DVD includes a couple of making-of featurettes, as well as outtakes from the staged readings that were made to look like archival interviews. – Gary Dretzka

As Cool As I Am: Blu-ray
I don’t have a single clue as to how a teenager might react to Max Mayer’s coming-of-age drama, “As Cool As I Am,” which was adapted from Pete Fromm’s YA novel by screenwriter Virginia Korus Spragg (“An Unfinished Life”). I know that most of the adults who reviewed the movie didn’t like it very much, lumping it into the same category as TV critics put Lifetime movies, as if that were such a horrible fate. Like or them or not, Lifetime movies do address issues of specific interest to women and teenage girls and the cable network is doing a lot better than most newspapers these days. That said, however, I would agree that there’s nothing in “As Cool As I Am” – positive or negative — that wouldn’t fit better on the small screen. Since this is a column about movies intended to be watched on TVs or video monitors, there’s no point in assessing any of its larger-than-life aspects. Sixteen-year-old Lucy Diamond (Sarah Bolger) is a small-town girl just emerging from the comfortable tomboy stage in her development. She may not hang out with the “popular” kids at school, but she doesn’t lack for friends or self-confidence, either. Lucy’s parents were high-school sweethearts, who, when pregnancy reared its head, convinced themselves that they were ready for parenthood and marriage. Although it probably seemed like the right thing to do at the time, their life together couldn’t survive their own self-centered desires. Lainee (Claire Danes) wasn’t inclined to be a homebound wife and mother, while her husband, Chuck (James Marsden), had rage issues complicated by jealousy issues. Because her dad’s job frequently required him to spend long periods of time away from home, Lucy was free to believe that the marriage was sound. As she neared her mid-teens, however, Lucy began to notice how little her mother seemed to care that her husband was rarely home and how flirtatious she’d become. On his brief visits, Chuck seemed fixated on Lainee’s job and other outside activities, as well as Lucy’s emerging interest in boys. Not surprisingly, perhaps, when the girl does figure out the truth about her parents, she partially blames herself for their unhappiness. In doing so, she seeks the solace of her male friends, some of whom are only too willing to exploit her weakness. By allowing them to take advantage of her, Lucy inadvertently starts down the same path as her mother did, 16 years earlier. “As Cool As I Am” chronicles Lucy’s premature journey to early adulthood, without falling into any of the traps associated with such family dramas. The parents’ shortcomings aren’t sugar-coated and Lucy’s path toward self-discovery and self-reliance isn’t lined with tulips. The filmmakers do allow her one conceit, however, and, I think, it’s one that teens would embrace more than adults. In a parallel storyline, the Lucy’s love of cooking – she worships Mario Batali, via the Food Channel – serves as a survival mechanism, both for the girl and the movie. And, just when you think that the thread has run its course, Batali “reappears” for one more culinary miracle. That device didn’t bother as much as Danes’ almost impeccable appearance in a role that demands a bit more working-class grit and grunge. This is her first appearance in a feature film in five years and it’s possible that Mayer didn’t want to make her look too tarnished. Among the other cast members are Thomas Mann (“Beautiful Creatures”), Jeremy Sisto (“Waitress”), Jon Tenney (“The Closer”), Anika Noni Rose (“Dreamgirls”) and, in a cameo, Peter Fonda. The DVD adds some interviews. – Gary Dretzka

2013 Gift Guide No. 1
Before you ask, rhetorically or otherwise: yes, I am aware of the fact that the holiday gift-giving season doesn’t officially begin for another month, or so, depending on how one feels about risking death in Black Friday stampedes. Given the commercial urgency that precedes most holidays these day – and in the spirit of the post-Halloween, pre-Thanksgiving season — it’s never too early to get an early start on Christmas.

Books
Guillermo del Toro: Cabinet of Curiosities (Harper Design)
The films of only a very few directors are greeted with as much widespread anticipation as those of Guillermo del Toro. Before tackling such crowd-pleasing superhero flicks as “Blade II” and “Hellboy,” the Guadalajara-born fantasist specialized in horror films for the arthouse crowd: “Cronos,” “Mimic,” “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Before the July release of the sci-fi action epic, “Pacific Rim,” it had been five years since Del Toro had written and directed a feature film, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” and another two years since his dark and scary fantasy, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” was greeted with universal acclaim. In the meantime, he’s co-written the first two installments of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy and putted around as executive producer, creative consultant or voice actor on several different projects. “Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions,” written by Del Toro and Marc Scott Zicree (“The Twilight Zone Chronicles”), should be an especially welcome gift for fans of the filmmaker’s early gems, in that it practically overflows with notes, drawings and photographs of the kinds of things that keep such an imaginative man awake at night. It also contains reproductions of his journal pages, which are filled with his handwriting, illustrations, notes in Spanish and English, as well as new annotations that add context and clarity on films from 1993’s “Chronos” to “Pacific Rim.” Contributing forwards, afterwords and other pieces are James Cameron, Tom Cruise, Neil Gaiman and John Landis.

Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece (Voyageur)
Not many movies have been referenced as often in the works of other filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 game-changer, “Pulp Fiction.” It’s practically inescapable in crime and gangster movies. Tarantino didn’t rewrite the book on crime fiction or ask anyone to forget the works of Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol or Akira Kurosawa as much as he synthesized the contributions of dozens of other, largely unsung genre masters from around the world, creating something that may not have made sense at any other period in film history. For the first time, movies once only available on scratchy 16mm prints – if at all – were flooding into boutique video stores in big cities and university towns, allowing buffs to sample movies they may only have read about in magazines. With the introduction of DVDs and Internet streaming, the world’s gotten even smaller. What’s sometimes forgotten about “Pulp Fiction,” besides the contribution of Roger Avery, is how much its success influenced the future of the independent-film movement, Miramax Films, the exhibition business and the careers of several of the movie’s stars. The word “Tarantino” became synonymous with movies — good and bad — that emphasized edgy, non-linear plotting and dialogue; turned profanity into poetry; and thumbed its nose at political correctness. And, best of all, audiences didn’t need a film-school degree or Video Archives membership to dig it. Likewise, Jason Bailey’s profusely illustrated and graphically playful scrapbook can be enjoyed in exactly the same spirit as the movie was conceived. “Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece” may not prove to be a valuable source when it comes to writing a master’s thesis or dissertation, but anyone who wants to join in the speculation as to what was in John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s briefcase would find it to be a good place to start. There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes and background material, as well as pull-out factoids, trivia answers and fan fodder. Bailey also looks into the movies, books and actors that have influenced Tarantino. It’s exactly the kind of book one leaves on a coffeetable or in the bathroom for casual perusal. – Gary Dretzka

DVD/Blu-ray packages
The Dark Knight Trilogy: Ultimate Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Few iconic characters, and I don’t use the term loosely, have undergone such radical personality makeovers as Batman/Bruce Wayne and retained their ability to enchant audiences. Certainly, any similarity between Adam West’s delightfully cartoonish Batman and Christian Bale’s emotionally vulnerable Dark Knight is largely coincidental. When “Batman Begins” rolled into megaplexes around the world in 2005, it became exceedingly clear that co-writer/director Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the character would be a light year or two away from those turned in by Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney, as well. It was greeted with wide critical acclaim and just enough box-office bounce ($374 million) to allow for the sequels, “The Dark Knight” (2005) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), both of which returned $1 billion in worldwide revenues to Warner Bros. coffers. The oversized boxed-set “The Dark Knight Trilogy: Ultimate Collector’s Edition” should be of primary interest to lovers of superhero movies who don’t already own previously released Blu-ray editions of the Batman films. That’s because most tech-savvy fans probably would not relish dishing out another large sum of money for discs that have not been given a higher-def makeover. (Not that they don’t look great, already.) There are several fresh bonus features, but none that would whet diehard fans’ appetites. Newcomers, though, should welcome the many vintage features, as well as “The Fire Rises: The Creation and Impact of ‘The Dark Knight Trilogy,’” “Christopher Nolan and Richard Donner: A Conversation” and “The Complete IMAX Sequences,” for “Dark Knight” and “Dark Knight Rises.” Among the collectible items in the numbered limited-edition package are a letter from director Nolan, a 48-page softcover book with production stills, a six-disc hardcover Blu-ray case, five newly commissioned “Mondo Art Cards: Trilogy Villains,” premium Mattel Hot Wheels vehicles and a “Dark Knight Trilogy” UltraViolet digital copy.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Extended Edition: Blu-ray 3D/2D
When all of the smoke from Middle Earth finally cleared, last April, Peter Jackson’s first installment of his “Hobbit” trilogy had crossed the coveted billion-dollar barrier in worldwide revenues … a respectable $303 million tallied in the U.S., alone. If the numbers at Rotten Tomatoes are to be believed, audience approval topped that of “top critics” – whatever that means – by a score of 82 percent to 46 percent. When the opinions of “all critics” were counted – presumably representing the voices of the legions of Roger Ebert wannabes on Internet blogs – the approval rating jumped to 65 percent. On March 19, a mere three months after its theatrical release, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” entered the DVD/Blu-ray marketplace. Savvy collectors knew not to invest their hard-earned dough in the initial release of a blockbuster title, especially when most of the bonus material had already been made available on Internet fan sites. With only six weeks to go before the theatrical release of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” their patience has been rewarded. If you know anyone with a HD3D set and playback unit, the latest addition to the catalogue could be just the right ticket, gift-wise. Included in the nearly nine hours of supplementary material in the “extended cut” version are 13 minutes of extra film footage, extending several individual scenes; commentary with director/co-writer/producer Jackson and co-writer/co-producer Philippa Boyens; the previously shown “New Zealand: Home of Middle-Earth”; “The Appendices Part 7: A Long-Expected Journey,” a 14-part chronological history of the filming of “An Unexpected Journey,” covering pre-production in the various departments; “The Appendices Part 8: Return to Middle-Earth,” further detailing the film’s development, design and production; “The Company of Thorin,” which explores the characters and backgrounds of the five families of dwarves and the company of actors chosen to play Thorin’s team on the Quest of the Lonely Mountain; “Mr. Baggins: The 14th Member,” a profile of lead actor, Martin Freeman; the self-explanatory, “Durin’s Folk: Creating the Dwarves”; “The Peoples and Denizens of Middle-Earth,” with a tight focus on the realization of new characters and creatures encountered in the first film; “Realms of the Third Age: From Bag End to Goblin Town,” on the creation of the Middle-Earth locations from conceptual design to set and prop building to fully digital realities; and “The Songs of ‘The Hobbit,’” on the realization of Tolkien’s songs in “An Unexpected Journey.”

The Right Stuff: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Adapted from Tom Wolfe’s exhaustively researched and thoroughly enjoyable best-seller, “The Right Stuff” – a 20th Century “Moby Dick,” half documentary, half dramedy – Philip Kaufman’s film ranks right up there with Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” as the most sensually pleasing, intellectually satisfying and flat-out entertaining movies ever made about man’s sometimes uneasy relationship with technology. It certainly is the most important film ever to include a homage to the art of fan dancing. At a time when the American space program is pretty much limited to robotic surface-rovers, giant orbiting telescopes and no-deposit, no-return satellites, “The Right Stuff,” reminds us of a time when we were able to afford exploration for its own sake and have money left over to conduct a unwinnable war against a nearly invisible opponent. Roughly divided in half, Kaufman focuses first on the daredevil pilots who went from risking their lives shooting down enemy fliers in World War II, to risking their lives in the skies above California’s high desert, testing the limits of supersonic jets. The second half is given over to the U.S. and USSR’s highly politicized and frequently absurd race to put monkeys and men into orbit. If test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) was the cowboy hero of Part One, it was photogenic and highly marketable astronauts of the Mercury space program – and their beleaguered wives — who dominate Part Two. Before doing things in space no one thought possible, only a decade earlier, the Mercury team members would be poked, prodded and probed by sadistic nurses and ex-Nazi engineers to within an inch of their sanity. The idea was to clear a path for the next generation of astronauts, who would fulfill President Kennedy’s lofty promise of putting Americans on the moon ahead of the Soviets, who had ex-Nazi engineers of their own.

Unlike their commie counterparts, our astronauts were required to play nice with the media, Madison Avenue and White House flunkies, all of whom wanted a piece of the action to exploit for votes, readers, ratings or profits. Kaufman depicts them with the same disdain most of us reserve for turkey vultures and the paparazzi camped outside the homes of the various Kardashians. Senator and, later, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson is made to look like a buffoon, even if he was mostly carrying JFK’s water as overseer of the space program, and almost every other bureaucrat is there to offer comic relief or be a target of derision. Kaufman allowed the heroic pilots and astronauts to have individual personalities, senses of humor and moments of righteous indignation. Their wives, too, are accorded the respect due pre-feminist women stuck in proscribed roles that didn’t allow for contrary opinions or non-conformist behavior. Boys could be boys, but women could only be ladies. One of things one is left with after watching “The Right Stuff” is how little bullshit the astronauts ultimately were willing to swallow as they prepared for the riskiest adventure of their lifetimes. As he was in Tom Wolfe’s book of the same the same title, Chuck Yeager comes off as being something of a tragic hero. Too much of a cowboy to fit the mold created for the astronauts, he continued to break records and test fighter planes in relative anonymity in one of the few places in California where rattlesnakes outnumbered accountants and real-estate agents. The most poignant moments are reserved for the pilots who gave their lives testing jets and were forgotten by everyone except their families and the folks who gathered at Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club, before it was destroyed in a fire along with photos of the martyrs. “The Right Stuff” is being released for the first time in Blu-ray, with 40-page DigiBook packaging, with Dolby TrueHD audio with advanced 96k “upsampling,” designed to deliver to consumers a full-range high-definition surround sound experience ensuring optimum performance from today’s advanced A/V receivers and Blu-ray Disc players. A second disc, containing mostly vintage bonus features, is presented in standard definition.

Bruce Lee Legacy Collection: BluRay
We reviewed “Bruce Lee Legacy Collection” in the summer, before it was put on hold by Shout!Factory for technical problems. The company wants its customers to know that the upgraded version contains the correct pairing of label art and media for discs 10 and 11, which had been swapped, and new Blu-rays for “The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury” and “Way of the Dragon.” (“Games of Death” was OK, apparently.) After several negative reviews appeared on the Internet, Shout!Factory techies discovered its source for the hi-def masters were not the recently restored transfers used for the Blu-rays in Hong Kong and Japan, but, rather, the original masters done a few years ago in Canada. This appears to have solved the problem. The boxed set includes four of the films – “Enter the Dragon” was re-issued recently by Warner Home Video — that would make Bruce Lee an international phenomenon; two documentaries “Bruce Lee: The Legend” and “I Am Bruce Lee”; and a bonus disc with more than two hours of bonus content. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD packages
McQueen: Wanted Dead or Alive: The Complete Series
Several years before Steve McQueen was unofficially anointed the coolest man in the world, based on performances in such movies as “The Great Escape,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Papillon” and “Bullitt,” he was stuck playing bit parts in TV Westerns and anthology series. In September, 1958, his luck would change dramatically with the release of the kooky sci-fi thriller, “The Blob,” and the launch of CBS’ “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” In the latter, McQueen was able to demonstrate his ability to blend action and low-key humor in the service of a character whose career choice was looked upon as being disreputable. Up until the arrival of McQueen’s Josh Randall, bounty hunters were recognizable by their two-day growth of whiskers, sweat-stained hats, amoral points-of-view and lusty willingness to kill for pay. Randall was a decidedly different breed of mercenary. Undeniably handsome, reasonably clean-cut, self-effacing and possessed of a dust-dry wit, Randall never killed anyone without listening to the wanted man’s side of the argument first. If he liked what he heard, Randall might be inclined to forgo his reward or pass it along to his prisoner’s favorite charity. If the show’s dialogue wasn’t as sharp and witty as that given Richard Boone in “Have Gun — Will Travel,” and the assignments as interesting, Randall and Paladin were cut from the same cloth. (“HG — WT“ also benefitted from writers that included Gene Roddenberry and Irving Wallace.) Otherwise, both gunslingers supplemented their distinctive sidearm with a derringer. The Mill Creek package includes all 94 original episodes; the featurettes, “The Art of the Replica,” “The Mare’s Leg,” “Reckless,” “The Women of ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’” and “Winchester: A Weapon of Legend”; select colorized episodes; a photo gallery of the original “Wanted: Dead or Alive” comic book; and the feature-length “The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery,” starring McQueen, Crahan Denton and David Clarke. Among the many noteworthy guest stars are Michael Landon, Warren Oates, James Coburn, Ralph Meeker, Steve Brodie, DeForest Kelly, Kenneth Tobey, Clu Gulager, Lee Van Cleef, Martin Landau, Lon Chaney Jr., Dylan Cannon, Brad Dexter, Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Donner.

The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Collector’s Edition
The roots of today’s “Comedy Central Roast” extend back more than 60 years, to the Friars Club of New York, which raised money by toasting and roasting its favored members on a dais loaded with a who’s who of the entertainment and sports industries. The events, which were private, were notoriously risqué. Even comedians who made their living working “clean” would go “blue” for the events. When the broadcast networks experimented with broadcasting the roast, some of the mystique was lost in the translation from R to PG. In 1973, as “The Dean Martin Show” was plagued with declining numbers, the producers decided to liven things up by re-creating the Friars’ experience on the show, with a guaranteed roster of A-list talent taking and shoveling the abuse. They proved to be so popular and easy to pull off – for Deano, anyway – that show’s base was moved to Las Vegas’ then-MGM Grand Hotel and repeated ad nausea. It ran on NBC for a total of 11 years. Comedy Central would pick up the baton two decades later, using the same format, but hiring entertainers who young adults would enjoy seeing … even if they frequently had nothing in common with the roasted star. The six-disc “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Collector’s Edition” contains all 54 celebrity roasts, 15 hours of bonus material, a collector’s box, Dean Martin figurine, fresh interviews with Betty White, Jackie Mason, Ruth Buzzi, Tim Conway, Rich Little and Don Rickles, and featurettes, “Legends of the Roasts,” “The Art of the Roast” and “The King of Cool: Always in Fashion.” How funny the “zingers” still are depends primarily on the age of the viewer. Boomers and their parents will have fond memories of the stars, while their Gen X and Millennial offspring may be unable to recognize even half of the people sitting on the dais. One other thing the Martin roast has in common with those on Comedy Central is the uneven reading of jokes and insults, which almost certainly were written by someone else, and the occasional guest who’s there to plug a show on NBC. Among the many participants are Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Don Rickles, Flip Wilson, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Ginger Rogers, Foster Brooks, Jimmy Stewart, Milton Berle, Billy Graham, Rich Little, Howard Cosell, Jack Benny, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Nipsey Russell, General Omar Bradley, Phyllis Diller, Neil Armstrong, Redd Foxx, Henry Kissinger, Jonathan Winters, Sugar Ray Robinson, Mark Spitz, Dolores Hope, June Allyson, Greer Garson, Red Buttons, Barry Goldwater, Henry Fonda, Eddie Albert, George Burns, Tony Randall, Janet Leigh, Jesse White, Orson Welles, Mickey Rooney, LaWanda Page and Ruth Buzzi.

Mama’s Family: The Complete Collection
The Carol Burnett Show: Christmas with Carol
Because of disagreements over rights and internecine squabbling, it’s taken far too long for “Mama’s Family” to find a permanent home on DVD. For many years, only the first-season compilation was available to fans not only of the sitcom, but also the “Family” sketches from whence it sprang on “The Carol Burnett Show.” Viewers were quick to notice that the episodes included in the compilation had been butchered in the editing process, eliminating several minutes of introductions, songs and gags. Now, just as it had done previously with “The Carol Burnett Show,” “China Beach,” “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts,” “Get Smart” and “The Six Million Dollar Man,” StarVista has collected, cleaned up and re-packaged six seasons’ worth of “Mama’s Family” episodes and sent them out for purchase on the timelife.com retail site. For those too young to remember the show, think first of Tyler Perry’s Madea and her wacky family, then imagine a version in which the lead characters are white and the star, Vicki Lawrence, was born a woman. Yup, it could easily be argued that Mr. Perry got the idea for his cranky, outspoken and physically imposing matriarch, Madea (a.k.a., Mabel Simmons), from the similarly ill-tempered, yet lovable Mama (a.k.a.Thelma Harper). All 130 episodes included here was cut from the original broadcast master and include the Seasons One and Two introductions from Harvey Korman, as the witty Alistair Quince. This collection also features more than 13 hours of bonus features, such as the “Mama’s Family” cast reunion; an interview with Vicki Lawrence and Carol Burnett; Vicki Lawrence interviewing Mama; a chat with Betty White, who played the eldest of Thelma’s three children; “Eunice,” the made-for-TV movie about Burnett’s character in the sketches; and a collector’s book, “Mama’s Family Album,” with a family tree, funny quotes and character bios.

And, speaking of which, Time Life’s “The Carol Burnett Show: Christmas with Carol” features classic holiday episodes, with all the key cast members on hand for the festivities. The special edition includes such treats as the show’s dysfunctional family exchanging gifts, Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins enjoying a champagne-laden moment, the Charlady performing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Burnett finding herself in a Christmas fight with Sid Caesar; and guest stars Jonathan Winters, Alan Alda, Helen Reddy and Ken Berry.

Power Rangers: Seasons 8-12
League of the Super Evil: Megaset
It’s funny how some of the grandest packages come with the shortest titles. Could anything be more succinct than “Power Rangers: Season 8-12”? Shout!Factory in conjunction with Saban Brands is marking the 20th anniversary of one of the most successful entertainment franchises in history by releasing the gargantuan 26-disc set, comprised of 196 “Power Rangers” episodes from five seasons of “Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue,” “Power Rangers Time Force,” “Power Rangers Wild Force,” “Power Rangers Ninja Storm” and “Power Rangers Dino Thunder.” As befits the occasion, there are no shortage of bonus features, either. They include “The Voice of a Ranger,” with voice director Scott Page-Pagter and members of the “Power Rangers” cast; “Ranger Tales,” in which cast members reflect on their seasons with the show; “Pure Titanium,” in which Rhett Fisher looks back on the first purely American-created Power Ranger; “A Web of Fans,” an in-depth look at the thriving world of Internet fandom, including fan web sites and Saban Brands’ own Power Force; and the original “Return Of The Ranger” featurette. Lest we forget, Saban’s “Power Rangers” franchise was launched in 1993 by Haim Saban, creator and producer of the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers hit series. The live-action show became the most-watched children’s television program in the United States and is still being produced today. It follows the adventures of a group of ordinary young people who “morph” into superheroes and save the world from evil. It is seen in more than 150 markets around the world, translated into numerous languages and considered to be a mainstay in the most prominent international children’s programming blocks. In fact, the series takes much of its footage from the Japanese tokusatsu “Super Sentai.” The term, tokusatsu, refers to any TV or movie that combines live-action with special effects, in the service of science fiction, fantasy and horror hybrids. The material is then merged with fresh material from non-Japanese markets, allowing it to appeal to a broad cross-section of viewers. Needless to say, the process works.

League of Super Evil” is an animated series from Canada that turns the usual superhero formula on its head by following the exploits of a group of would-be supervillains, who only show their faces when the superheroes are out of town. Led by self-proclaimed mastermind Voltar, L.O.S.E. includes muscle-bound nice-guy Red Menace, mad scientist Doktor Frogg and inter-dimensional hell-hound, Doomageddon. Not surprisingly, their bark is worse than their bite. Their terror is limited to pulling pranks, such as
gluing coins to the sidewalk to see who falls for the trick. Moreover, they have no skills, money or powers. They’re simply annoying. L.O.S.E.’s primary mission is to avoid getting in the way of actual supervillains and superheroes, or being nabbed by Metrotown’s police force. The “Megaset” contains all three seasons of the show, which ran here on Cartoon Network. The eight-disc package contains 1,140 minutes of material.

Mickey’s Christmas Carol: 30th Anniversary Special Edition: Blu-ray
Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year: Blu-ray
Guess How Much I Love You: The Adventures of the Little Nutbrown Hare
Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Ice Skating Spectacular
Enchanted Tales: the Night Before Christmas/The Christmas Elves
The Secret World of Santa: A Present for Santa/Elves in Toyland
While “Mama’s Family” and “Christmas With Carol” easily qualify as multi-generational family entertainments, the titles in this section of our Gift Guide are pretty much for the kiddies. The primary exceptions would be the 30th anniversary edition of “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” and “A Very Pooh New Year,” both on Blu-ray and digital. It’s amazing that Charles Dickens’ venerable “A Christmas Carol” holds up as well as it does after 170 years and several million variations on the novella’s themes of redemption, forgiveness and charity. One of the most enduring adaptations comes from the Walt Disney animation factory, with its stock company of beloved characters. Joining Mickey, Donald and Goofy on the roster are Scrooge McDuck, Jiminy Cricket, Moley and Minnie. “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” isn’t nearly as scary as the 1951 version, with Alistair Sim as Scrooge, but younger viewers might find it a bit too tense for comfort at times. It also offers one new and four fully-restored holiday cartoons, “Yodelberg” (2013), “The Hockey Champ” (1939), “Pluto’s Christmas Tree” (1952), “The Art of Skiing” (1941) and “Corn Chips” (1951), as well as “Disney Intermission” sing-alongs: “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Deck the Halls” and “Jingle Bells.”

The feature-length “A Very Merry Pooh Year,” newly available on Blu-ray, is a hybrid of the 1991 Christmas TV special “Winnie the Pooh & Christmas Too” and 2002 “Happy Pooh Year.” The Hundred Acre Wood is where Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Roo and their pals traditionally spend the holidays, before, one supposes, heading out to Aspen or Maui with the rest of the Disney executive team. After celebrating Christmas and/or Chanukah and/or Kwanza and/or Festivus with the gang, it becomes incumbent on them make resolutions, most of which will be broken before breakfast. The package includes “Disney Intermission,” with sing-alongs and other activities. Both Blu-rays come with digital copies.

Guess How Much I Love You: The Adventures of the Little Nutbrown Hare” and “Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Ice Skating Spectacular” share an interest in ice skating and other winter activities. Like “Winnie the Pooh,” “Guess How Much I Love You” was inspired by a series of best-selling children’s books, this time written by Sam McBratney and illustrated Anita Jeram. It follows the adventures of Little Nutbrown Hare and Big Nutbrown Hare, who share a friendship as well as a traditional father-son relationship. The title refers to a question Little NH asks Big NH, as they tackle increasingly larger issues in life. The episodes are compiled from an animated TV show, which aired on Canada’s CCI Entertainment and Playhouse Disney. Nickelodeon’s “Dora the Explorer” always finds new ways to celebrate the seasons. In “Dora’s Ice Skating Spectacular,” Dora and Boots are required to skate to the rescue of the Snow Princess, Snow Fairy and their other forest friends, after an Ice Witch steals everyone’s skates. The bonus episodes are “Catch That Shape Train” and “Dora and Perrito to the Rescue,” in which Boots is in need of help.

The holiday offerings from New Video Group’s “Enchanted Tales” series are “The Night Before Christmas” and “The Christmas Elves.” In the former, a boy and his cat must wait patiently for the joy of Christmas to reach them, as it appears that Santa has left them off his list. The latter is a based on the Brothers Grimm story “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” in which a poor shoemaker named Hans is down to his last piece of shoe leather. Other new entries in the series are “Snow White,” “Princess Castle,”
A Tale of Egypt” and “Noah’s Ark.”

The New Video Group is also sending out two entries in its “Secret World of Santa” series, “A Present for Santa” and “Elves in Toyland.” The animated series chronicle what Santa and the elves do when he isn’t delivering toys to kids. Who knew, however, that they had enemies on the North Pole, as well as loyal boys and girls around the world? In both series, the evil Gruzzlebeard finds ways to put flies in Santa’s ointment. 

The Guild: Complete Megaset
Now that the long-running Internet action-comedy series, “The Guild,” has called it a day, what better time for newbies to binge than with the release of the “Complete Megaset.” The episodes ran from between 3 and 12 minutes, anyway, so the entire six-season run wraps up in a breezy 506 minutes. Self-proclaimed World of Warcraft addict Felicia Day created “The Guild” as a reflection of her own attraction to the MMORPG (Massively Multi-Player Role Playing Game) genre. Her character, Codex, is a member of an on-line guild, Knights of Good. The craziness begins when her fellow guild members begin to show up on her doorstep and they’re required to interact in the “real world.” In Season Six, Codex even manages to get a job working at the headquarters of the “The Game,” which is less fun than one would suspect. Included in this set are of all the show’s kooky music videos, behind-the-scenes material for every season and full scripts. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

The Conjuring: Blu-ray
Director James Wan proves that he’s no one-franchise wonder with “The Conjuring,” an old-fashioned spinetingler that’s already succeeded artistically, critically and commercially in its theatrical run. Conceivably, it could do even better in DVD/Blu-ray.  Hitting such a trifecta, especially in the overcrowded and highly competitive horror genre, is a rare feat. With the super-profitable “Saw,” Wan has already cashed one trifecta ticket. Ranked No. 1 in WatchMojo.com’s list of best “torture-porn” movies, “Saw” helped distinguish the subgenre from the long-established splatter and slasher categories. Made for only $1.2 million and only modestly marketed, the first installment grossed $55 million domestically and another $48 million overseas. “Saw II,” which Wan exec-produced, took in a total of $148 million, against a budget of $4 million. It probably did every bit as well in the after-market. In all, there would be seven “Saw” episodes. Based simply on a couple of underperformers, however, some observers wondered if Wan had lost his mojo and “The Conjuring” would have trouble making back its $20-million-plus nut. Ultimately, it returned $137 million domestically and $172 overseas. In doing so, Wan demonstrated just how durable time-honored tropes and gags could be in the creation of a modern supernatural thriller.

There’s no mistaking the similarities between “The Conjuring” and “The Exorcist” and “The Amityville Horror.” Almost everyone working in the genre owes those frightening, fact-based thrillers a huge debt of gratitude. The real trick comes in creating something fresh and interesting from ingredients sitting on a shelf in the horror pantry. Not everyone puts a great deal of faith in eyewitness accounts of hauntings and exorcisms, but all horror fans welcome a challenge. “The Conjuring” benefits mightily from verified accounts of possession at a Rhode Island home and an actual exorcism performed on the mother. It was conducted by the only lay paranormal investigator cleared by the Catholic Church to perform the rite. As was the case in Amityville, N.Y., an unsuspecting family moves into a too-inexpensive-to-be-true house, not expecting several generations of boogeymen to come out of the woodwork. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are well-matched as a pair of respected investigators, whose jobs have begun to get to them. Patrick Wilson and Lili Taylor are also good as the parents of three young daughters, who, of course, see the ghosts and demons before the older folks do. If that sounds too much like a couple of dozen other haunted-house movies we’ve all seen in the last 20 years, you’ll appreciate the difference within the movie’s first 15 minutes. Wan puts on a clinic here of turning tropes into terror. The Blu-ray contains the featurettes “A Life in Demonology,” in which Wan and other participants provide an overview of the lives, faith, research and investigative career of the investigators; “The Conjuring: Face-to-Face With Terror,” with surviving families members; and “Scaring the ‘@$*%’ Out of You ,” on the art of scaring audiences, the inspiration for “The Conjuring” and Wan’s command of the tone, atmosphere, suspense, sounds and rhythm of horror. – Gary Dretzka

The Internship: Blu-ray
If they were working together 60-70 years ago, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson might have competed for the affection of moviegoers with such teams as Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello, Hope & Crosby and Laurel & Hardy. There abundant chemistry, likable personalities and willingness to play the fool would have convinced some studio czar to milk their charisma for all that it was worth. Today, of course, the stakes are considerably higher for everyone involved. Hardly anyone anymore laughs out loud at the mere presence of a stuntman in a gorilla suit or would mistake the Paramount backlot for Morocco, Singapore or Bali. Dorothy Lamour probably would be required to forgo the sarong, in favor of a string bikini, as well. The budgets for “Wedding Crashers” and “The Internship” ranged from $40-58 million, not counting prints and marketing, putting the break-even point somewhere in the box-office stratosphere. Here’s the rub: while “Wedding Crashers’ returned $285 million in worldwide revenues on a budget of $40 million, “Internship” struggled to return $92 million on its $58 million investment. As much fun as it is to watch Wilson and Vaughn riff off of each other, they’re nothing without an inventive screenplay. (“Hangover III” proved that point, as well.)

In “The Internship,” Vaughn and Wilson play Everyman characters caught in the same maelstrom as too many other Americans, whose jobs have been made “redundant” by the Bush/Obama economic meltdown.  Up until recently, Wilson’s Nick Campbell and Vaughn’s Billy McMahon were the kind of salesmen who could peddle air conditioners to Eskimos. Between QVC and eBay, however, no one with access to a phone or computer pays full-retail prices for everyday items, anymore. There latest dodge was selling wristwatches, an accessory as endangered as the manual typewriter. Their boss (John Goodman) leaves them high and dry, preferring to split for Florida than offer a decent severance package. Nick agrees to take a job selling mattresses for his sister’s smooth-talking boyfriend (Will Ferrell, uncredited), until Billy convinces him to shoot for the stars. In this case, it’s an internship at Google, a career path for which they are no more suited than Jerry Lewis’ characters were for their jobs.

Miraculously, though, they pass the first test for internship consideration. They’re invited to Google headquarters for a summer of face-to-face competition with tech geeks too young to recognize a dial telephone, but capable of inventing the next iPhone or Xbox. Naturally, their team is comprised of kids who lack the confidence or personality it takes to stand up to their cockier and more outgoing peers. Only one group can make the cut for full-blown internships and Nick and Billy represent the two strikes their teammates already have against them. What they lack in knowledge, though, Our Heroes make up for in unvarnished chutzpah. It’s a foregone conclusion that “The Internship” the geeks will triumph in the end, so the only thing that matters is how they get there, which is also predictable. Even so, fans of the stars should be able to find several amusing detours along the way. Rose Byrne (“Damages”) and Jessica Szohr (“Gossip Girl”) aren’t required to stretch all that much as the love interest and Ferrell’s Ferrell. For once, the difference between the PG-13 and unrated versions of a DVD is obvious. One storyline makes a side trip to a strip club, where the number of bare breasts expands from zero to a couple of dozen. It’s gratuitous, of course, but not entirely unwelcome. If anything, I’d give “Internship” a NC-17 for the incessant glamorizing of all things Google. Blu-ray extras include commentary on both versions and a featurette on the nerdy broom-and-ball game that serves as one of the tests. – Gary Dretzka

Monsters University: Blu-ray
If some of the Disney Pixar luster has been lost on mainstream critics over the last couple of years, it’s primarily because so much was expected from the corporate marriage. With the success of “Toy Story 2,” Pixar executives had to eat their pledge not to focus on sequels and prequels, and now they’re a staple. The need to push out scores of DVD-original titles, video games and other ancillary products seems to have had a negative effect on basic storytelling, at least from a grown-up’s point of view. Technically, though, the films still look and sound great. Audiences greeted “Monsters University” with the same enthusiasm reserved for “Monsters, Inc.” and other stand-alone movies. Instead of fretting over than lower-than-normal scores on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes for “MU,” Disney bean-counters found a silver lining in the additional $200 million derived from overseas revenues. For those of you keeping score at home, the $737.8 million take for “M.U.” bested the original’s grand total of $562.8 million, of which $279 million came from outside the U.S.  “Inc.” even edged the returns for 2012’s “Brave” and 2011’s “Car 2,” both of which had to be rescued by foreign audiences.  There’s no question, then, the monsters are here to stay. In something of a Pixar first, “MU” actually is a sequel to “Inc.” It describes how the mismatched monsters, Mike Wazowski and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (Billy Crystal and John Goodman, in top vocal form), met in their freshman year at Monsters University. They would be thrown together as outcasts after their competitive natures and unwillingness to cooperate conspired against them.

After being dropped from a prestigious training program, Mike and Sulley came to the realization that they will have to work together as teammates if they’re going to realize their dreams of being Scarers. It also means making friends with dorks in the school’s least popular fraternity, Oozma Kappa. Blessedly, the moralizing doesn’t get in the way of the fun or ensure they’ll become Big Monsters of Campus before the final credits roll. Steve Buscemi and John Ratzenberger are back from “Inc.,” while Helen Mirren hits a home run as the winged Dean Hardscrabble. The delightful animated short film, “The Blue Umbrella,” accompanies the feature, along with commentary with director/co-writer Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae and story supervisor Kelsey Mann. A single hi-def disc has been dedicated to other bonus features, including “Campus Life,” a video journal detailing the creative team’s daily routines; “Story School,” featuring concept art, pre-visualizations, storyboards and other steps in the development of key scenes; “Scare Games,” emphasizing collaboration, unity and teamwork; “Monthropology,” on the designing, diversifying, puppeteering, animating and breathing life into the Monsters University students and faculty; “Welcome to MU,” Scanlon provides an overview of the prequel and its production, focusing on the university campus itself, from its front gate to its statues, architecture, grounds and history; “Music Appreciation,” with music editor Bruno Coon and longtime Pixar collaborator and composer Randy Newman; “Scare Tactics,” on the art of the perfect MU scare, as learned, performed and utilized by the various animators tackling each expressive shot and scene; interviews with cast and crew members; deleted scenes; art galleries; and “Furry Monsters: A Technical Retrospective,” comparing the animation of 2001′s “Monsters Inc.” – which used early computer-based hair simulation — and 2013′s furrier, hairier, scalier prequel. – Gary Dretzka

 
The Wall
The work of Munich-born actress Martina Gedeck is far too infrequently seen in this country. She starred in the Academy Award-winning “The Lives of Others” and demonstrated her range in Uli Edel’s chilling “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” and Sandra Nettelback’s culinary comedy, “Mostly Martha.” In the existentialist drama, “The Wall,” she plays an unnamed middle-age widow, Frau, who’s vacationing in an isolated hunting lodge in a spectacular Austrian forest with two traveling companions and her dog, Lynx. One day, as she’s out for a walk with Lynx, Frau literally bounces off of an invisible wall. It isn’t made of glass, but it might as well be. After much Marcel Marceau-like fumbling around the barrier, she accepts the fact that she’s cut off from the rest of the world – permanently, perhaps – and will be required to fend for herself for as long as necessary. She’s also dismayed that her friends have yet to return to the cabin and her closest neighbors appear to be frozen in time. Frau can only speculate that something terrible has happened outside the walls, but, if so, why has she been spared? Or, if this is heaven, where’s St. Peter?

As weeks, months and years slip by without answers to her questions, Frau teaches herself how to survive and keep her mind active by keeping a diary. It describes her day-to-day activities, thoughts and progress with the pregnant cow she inherited. The rifle serves as the 800-pound gorilla in the room, facilitating her ability keep from starving, but remaindering her of the impermanence of life. If the same thing had happened to Frau while visiting friends in North Dakota, she might have picked up her gun and killed herself after two weeks. Instead, the pristine Alpine setting is one of a handful of places on Earth that God would consider going for a break from work. Besides the lodge, Frau is able to hike to a less comfortable shack far above it, in a meadow where the panoramas are even more heavenly. There are deer and smaller critters in abundance and her garden supplies her with fruit, roots and vegetables that can be harvested and stored according to the season. As if to make certain we’re aware of how alone Frau is, writer/director Julian Polsler layers the solitude with Gedeck’s voiceover recitation of her diary entries. He leaves viewers free to make up their own minds about what “The Wall” represents – serious depression, dystopian reality, a woman’s ability to transcend extreme duress, punishment for a since-forgotten crime — but any similarity between the movie and NBC’s “Under the Dome” clearly is coincidental. It’s based on Marlen Haushofer’s 1963 novel, “The Wall,” which very well might have influenced the TV show’s producers or Stephen King, who wrote the source material. The DVD adds a collector’s booklet with photos, essays and an afterword by Polsler. Because there’s no actual spoken dialogue, the accented English-language track is an improvement over dubbing and subtitles. – Gary Dretzka

Shepard & Dark
At a time when the U.S. Postal Service is on the brink of insolvency and most human correspondence is limited to 140 characters, “Shepard & Dark” arrives from out of left field as a revelatory surprise. At some point the late 1900s, correspondence between friends and associates was unofficially declared a lost art. It wouldn’t be fair to entirely blame the Internet and AOL for our terrible loss. Plummeting rates for unlimited phone calling took their toll, as well. Anyone who’s ever corresponded with another human being – via ink on paper and stamped envelopes – can easily recall how it feels to await the daily arrival of the mail and either rejoice at the sight of a letter or the sadness that comes when it doesn’t.  By comparison, Skype is merely another way to ask someone how they’re feeling on any given day. Longtime friends Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark met in Greenwich Village, after the latter watched one the former’s plays and recognized the writer on the street. A conversation between men who had very little in common would lead inevitably to four decades of correspondence and shared experiences. Before Shepard deserted his family to live with actress Jessica Lange, he had married the daughter (O-Lan Jones) of Dark’s wife (Scarlett Johnson) and they all lived together for the next decade. It would fall to Dark to be a surrogate father for Shepard’s teenage son, Jesse. Almost 30 years later, they would collaborate on a book of shared correspondence. It reveals a friendship that once seemed perfect, but turned imperfect – for lack of a better word – over time and events. After the unexpected death of his wife, Dark found solace in being alone and picking his spots for sharing his unforced good will. As Shepard’s Hollywood and off-Broadway stars rose to their zenith, so, too, were the number of things expected of him by business, creative and personal interests, while also maintaining his cowboy/outsider persona.  Although Treva Wurmfeld’s “Shepard & Dark” is beautifully staged and frequently quite engaging, it raises almost as many questions as it answers. Moreover, when turbulence does rock the men’s relationship, it hits us like brick … as it probably did her. Ironically, it comes when they share the same space in Shepard’s Santa Fe home, putting the letters in order for publication. The DVD adds extended interviews, deleted scenes, the featurette “7 Things I Learned From You” and photo and poster galleries. – Gary Dretzka

Just Like a Woman: Blu-ray
There’s no mistaking the parallels we’re supposed to draw between “Just Like a Woman” and “Thelma & Louise,” which extend from the photos and blurb (“two friends … one journey … no limits”) on the Blu-ray’s jacket throughout the entire length of Rachid Bouchareb’s movie, itself. It isn’t a strict remake of remake of Ridley Scott and Callie Khouri’s feminist buddy adventure, from the point of view of an Algerian outsider, but the similarities could hardly be more apparent … or distracting. Sienna Miller and Iranian-born Golshifteh Farahani play Marilyn and Mona, Chicagoans who share a love for belly dancing and fragile marriages. Marilyn lives with an unemployed lout who takes advantage of her meager income and absence from their home during work hours. Mona was brought to America as part of an arranged marriage to an Algerian storekeeper and pathetic momma’s boy. Mona blames herself for the accidental death of her mother-and-law and splits for points unknown, while Marilyn leaves home after she discovers Harvey in bed with some bimbo, a hour after being fired without cause by her useless boss and his girlfriend. It gives her the impetus to up into her convertible and take off for Santa Fe, where she’s been invited to compete for a spot in a belly-dancing troupe. Along the way, she almost miraculously chances on Mona, whose bus has stopped for an unlikely pit stop just outside Chicago. They finance their trip by performing their craft in redneck bars and supper clubs, not always with the desired consequences. By the time they get to Santa, both of the women have had one adventure too many and are in desperate need of emotional rescue.  Bouchareb, whose “Days of Glory,” “Dust of Life” and “Outside the Law” were nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscars, intends for “Just Like a Woman” to be the first installment in a trilogy about change relations between the western and Arab worlds. Belly dancing would seem to be a fragile hook for such a large conceit, but adding some Native American culture into the mix dilutes the resemblance to “Thelma & Louise.” The Blu-ray presentation is quite nice and it adds a picture gallery. – Gary Dretzka

Oka!
Every so often, a movie from Africa captures the fancy of western audiences, simply by creating a story in which the tribal characters are portrayed as being exactly as they are in real life and the great white bwana isn’t there to save them from themselves. Given a chance to reach viewers, I think “Oka!” could have a similar impact as the hugely popular 1981 comic allegory, “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” And, although there is tall and gangly white guy at the movie’s center, he’s there to introduce us to the wonderful community of Bayaka Pygmies, with whom he lived as an equal for 25 years. The real-life ethno-musicologist Larry Sarno (Kris Marshall) has one mission in life and that’s to capture on tape the music and instruments of the Bayaka, all within the environmental context of the untamed wilderness in which they live. Upon his return to his New Jersey home to raise funds and find takers for his recordings, he’s told by his doctor (Peter Riegert) that he’s living on borrowed time. Given the choice between going back to the Central African Republic one last time or waiting for a liver transplant, which may not cure him, anyway, he chooses to be with his adopted tribe. In part, Larry does this to cap his collection with the rarest of sounds, produced by a possibly mythic beast deep in the bush. The possibility of its existence is one of the few things that can scare the crap out of the Bantu, who treat the Bayaka as if they were their slaves. The Pygmies are lorded over by “the mayor” (Isaach De Bankole), a pompous Bantu law-enforcement official who makes up new rules whenever he feels the need to keep the Bayaka from straying too far from their government-authorized community on the edge of the bush. Larry’s return coincides with the arrival of a Chinese businessman intent on ravaging the largest trees in the rain forest and going home with some poached ivory. The mayor sees it as an opportunity to trick a Bayaka hunter to kill an elephant – they value the meat and challenge over the ivory – which would give the government another reason to diminish tribal lands and open them to exploitation. Larry, a victim of the mayor’s capricious ways, understands this tactic intuitively and hopes to convince the hunters not to proceed with the hunt, which involves spears, not rifles. Being a de facto member of the tribe, he also appreciates the Bayaka point of view and how it might involves his personal quest.

Because “Oka!” was filmed with the cooperation of the notoriously corrupt CAR government, co-writer/director Lavinia Currier (“Passion in the Desert”) treads carefully in her portrayal of the oppression of the Bayaka by the Bantu and growing Chinese role in the country’s economy. Although small by African standards, it is rich with natural resources ripe for the picking by countries that need such things as diamonds, uranium, crude oil, gold and lumber. The 2011 Danish documentary “The Ambassador” described in great detail the ability of outsiders to bribe CAR officials and the exploitation of the Bayaka as tourist attractions.  Currier does a masterful job of capturing Pygmy life in their assigned village, as well as the beauty and dangers of their natural forest environment. The wildlife is amazing, as are the sounds collected by Sarno. It’s impossible to tell with any certainty how much of the interaction between the Bayaka and Larry is scripted and how much is completely natural. Either way, it’s wonderful. Sadly, “Oka!” isn’t in Blu-ray and it doesn’t contain any extras. Apart from considerable National Geographic-like semi-nudity, there’s no reason the film can’t be enjoyed by teens and other family members. – Gary Dretzka

The Waiting Room
One sure way to avoid the kind of government shutdowns caused this month by heartless Tea Party jerks would require them to give up their rights to the health-care benefits they receive simply for showing up at the office, clogging the legislative process and sucking on the teats of lobbyists. I would also recommend tying them to their chairs and forcing them to watch Peter Nicks’ “The Waiting Room,” which chronicles a 24-hour period at a public hospital, in Oakland, whose patients are largely uninsured. The reasons for being uninsured range from losing a job or being too impoverished to even imagine they could get help. As is made perfectly clear in Nicks’ “story approach” to the documentary – meaning the patients are heard in voiceovers and interviews – is that people who delay treatment invariably will get worse before they get can afford to get better. Here, a young man diagnosed two years earlier for testicular cancer at Kaiser – two years! – shows up in the hospital’s waiting room for what may be hopeless surgery. There was nowhere else for him to go and the cancer wouldn’t disappear on its own. Someone’s going to pay for his treatment and it won’t be him. Another horrifying fact of life at the hospital is a policy that limits admittances to the number of beds available. Patients on those beds can’t be released unless they have somewhere to go. This means that some of the patients on those beds would have been released from any other facility. Although the Affordable Healthcare Act isn’t mentioned in the documentary, viewers can readily see how it might positively affect everyone we meets, from the patients to the caregivers, and eventually taxpayers. Nicks’ film doesn’t advocate change, as is the case in Michael Moore’s “Sicko.” He trusts that the evidence will speak for itself and it does. The DVD includes commentary, deleted scenes and extended stories. – Gary Dretzka

Pawn Shop Chronicles: Blu-ray
“I just found out Jerry Springer is a Jew,” says the tweeker with the spider web tattooed on his neck to the tweeker with the swastika tattooed on his neck. “Why are we supposed to hate the Jews? If I saw him on the street, I’d kiss his ass and ask him for an autograph.” That’s only one of the dilemmas faced by the white-trash characters in Wayne Kramer and Adam Minarovich’s testosterone-fueled grindhouse dramedy, “Pawn Shop Chronicles.” Minarovich (“Chop”), who grew up in South Carolina and resembles a junkyard dog, supplied the stories of backwoods glory, while Kramer (“The Cooler”) added the cinematic flare. If the movie went almost completely unnoticed upon its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release this summer, the blame can’t be laid at the feet of the stars on display on the poster and DVD cover. The names above the title include such indie stalwarts as Brendan Fraser, Elijah Wood, Vincent D’Onofrio, Matt Dillon, Norman Reedus, Thomas Jane, Lukas Haas and Paul Walker. Listed in smaller type are Chi McBride, D.J. Qualls, Michael Cudlitz, Sam Hemmings, Pell James and Ashlee Simpson. That’s a lot of talent to squeeze into a movie, even one that runs 112 minutes and only was given $5 million to make. “Pawn Shop Chronicles” tells three stories, all connected by items bought and sold at a Southern pawn shop/gas station run by D’Onofrio. One is a shotgun, the others are an expensive ring and an Elvis medallion. The first segment is every bit as chaotic as the manic behavior of the meth heads on their way to rip off a cooker. The Faustian finale finds Fraser performing nightly at a fleabag carnival, sporting a thunderbird jumpsuit and a pre-death Elvis hairdo.  It’s the second story that should come with a warning label, in that it involves Matt Dillon’s long search for his kidnapped wife and the torture he inflicts on the sick bastard (Wood) who’s been holding her prisoner with a dozen or so other caged women.  It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. The comedy takes some getting used to, as well, but it’s nothing any fan of Quentin Tarantino can’t handle. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the filmmakers. – Gary Dretzka

Dead in Tombstone: Blu-ray
I’ve recently groused about how little time Danny Trejo is visible in straight-to-DVD movies on which his extraordinary visage is prominently displayed. It borders on bait-and-switch advertising. “Dead in Tombstone,” though, demonstrates just how much difference there is between movies that merely promise Trejo and the ones that deliver Trejo in all of his outlaw glory. In a word, it’s “huge.” It helps mightily that “Dead in Tombstone” was written with the story in mind, instead of the violence, and it looks great in Blu-ray. Not having seen the new sequel to “Machete,” but there’s nothing here that would dissuade me from checking it out. Hell, even the presence of Mickey Rourke serves the picture, instead of just the Oscar-nominee’s bank account. Here, Trejo and an almost unrecognizable Anthony Michael Hall play gun-slinging stepbrothers, who, while they agree on targets, disagree on the amount of brutality a criminal needs to administer to pull off a job. After Trejo’s Guerrero Hernandez (Trejo) rescues Hall’s Red Cavanaugh from a date with the hangman, they agree to rob a bank rumored to be overflowing with gold. When Guerrero insists on grabbing the gold and hightailing it out of Tombstone, Red organizes a mutiny that result in his brother’s murder. Not surprisingly, Guerrero’s immortal soul descends straight to hell, where Satan (Rourke) is licking his lips in anticipation. The strike a devil’s bargain, in which Guerrero promises to deliver the six souls of his former gang and he will escape damnation.  Satan gives him precisely 24 hours to accomplish this feat, or else the outlaw remains his property. How likely is the devil to make good on his promise, even if Guerrero pulls it off? You be the judge. There’s enough good Western action here to satisfy most genre addicts – think Clint Eastwood crossed with Robert Rodriguez – and the supernatural stuff isn’t allowed to get in its way. The Blu-ray contains 16 minutes of deleted scenes; an optional deleted-scenes montage; a decent making-of featurette, with interviews; pieces on the stunt work, production design and special effects; and a self-serving profile of director, “Roel Reine: Leader of the Gang.” – Gary Dretzka

Beauty of the Devil: Cohen Media: Blu-ray
The Faustian legend has been trotted out so times over the past 500 years, you’d think it would have lost its power to keep audiences from falling asleep after Mephistopheles strikes his bargain with the overly ambitious shmuck he’s lured into his trap. In fact, it’s still as ripe for picking as it’s always been. God knows, it’s also the only thing linking “Dead in Tombstone” to Rene Clair’s exquisite tragicomedy, “Beauty of the Devil,” which was released 63 years ago and still possesses to power to cast a spell on viewers. Because it is set in almost 200 years earlier and half a world away – Paris, 1700 –Clair was allowed the luxury of fabulous palace settings, grand costumes and the then-current pursuit of the alchemist’s art. Michel Simon and Gérard Philipe switch personae after the elderly professor agrees to give the devil’s bargain a test drive, at least. Suddenly, Mephistopheles is the alchemist and Faust is the wealthy playboy with aspirations of glory. Even as the devil allows Faust the ability to woo a married princess away from her much-decorated military officer, he also forces the capricious young man to witness the end-product of such ambition. The horrifying future prophesized in Mephisto’s mirror not only reminded French viewers of the German occupation, which ended only five years earlier, but it also gave them pause to consider the expanding nuclear-arms race, open-air testing of terrible bombs and increasingly visible Ban the Bomb movement. Indeed, in Faust’s vision of the future, man is less interested in turning handfuls of sand destroy into gold than in creating weapons of mass destruction. Clair’s whimsical representations of the devil’s tricks, alongside Faust’s willingness to exploit his new-found youth, are very much a part of the filmmaker’s repertoire and still have the ability to amuse us. The Cohen Media Group release has been impeccably restored in sparkling black-and-white and with an upgraded audio mix. The bonus features add a scholarly discussion of the film’s creation, recorded in 2010, along with an original French trailer. – Gary Dretzka

I Married a Witch: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
With Halloween right around the corner, it would only be natural to assume that a movie titled “I Married a Witch” might fit right in with the many other horror pictures released each October into DVD and Blu-ray. Instead, Rene Clair’s romantic fantasy represents a subset of the genre, which allows certain supernatural spirits to be as disarming and welcome as Marilyn Monroe at a pool party. The ghosts in “Topper” were tricksters, as were the witches and warlocks in “Bell, Book and Candle.” Indeed, the creator of TV’s “Bewitched” cited both “I Married a Witch” and “Bell, Book and Candle” as direct influences for the popular series, in which Elizabeth Montgomery played a wonderfully charming witch married to a constantly perplexed mortal and Agnes Moorehead played the more traditional witch mother-in-law. Clair made his “Witch” during his wartime sojourn in Hollywood, but you’d think he had been in residence for years before his arrival in 1940. There’s even a funny baseball reference in the opening scene, during which popcorn and candy venders pass through a crowd of Salem Puritans awaiting the burning at the stake of witch Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and warlock Daniel (Cecil Kellaway). Flash-forward a couple of hundred years and a bolt of lightning hits the tree under which father and daughter are buried, resurrecting them from eternal damnation. Once she gets her bearings and finds her broomstick, Jennifer decides to avenge her execution by ruining the life of one of the Puritan preachers’ descendants. She finds the perfect match in Wallace Wooley (Fredric March), a gubernatorial candidate about to marry the spoiled daughter (Susan Hayward) of one of his rich backers. Things go haywire when Jennifer and Wallace begin to fall for each other. Just as Moorehead is the constant meddler in “Bewitched,” a constantly soused Daniel uses black and white magic to break up the forbidden match between immortal woman and mortal man. The humor holds up extremely well in the 1941 farce, as do the old-fashioned special effects. Moreover, whenever Lake is on the screen, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of her. The Criterion Collection upgrade is top-drawer, and the Blu-ray adds an archival audio interview with Clair, conducted by film historian Gideon Bachmann for his radio program. There’s also a 28-page illustrated booklet, featuring Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin’s essay “It’s Such an Ancient Pitch,” and “Rene Clair in Hollywood,” an interview conducted by film scholar R.C. Dale. – Gary Dretzka

La Notte: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Having just finished re-watching two-thirds of Michelangelo Antonioni’s epochal “trilogy on modernity and its discontents” – or, take your pick, “trilogy of alienation,” “trilogy of barrenness and alienation,” “incommunicability trilogy” – I wonder how the maestro would have interpreted a society addicted to social media and cellphone worship. Antonioni’s cinematic journey from neo-realism to scathing portrayals of bored bourgeoisie mirrored Italy’s advance from wartime devastation to its “economic miracle” of the late 1950s and early 1960s. No longer was Italy a country in which people born in villages tended to stay there forever, performing the same labors as their parents and grandparents and observing the same customs. The action was in the cities, as were the jobs. In effect, “L’avventura,” “La Notte” and “L’eclisse” brought Italian cinema into the second half of the 20th Century. In “La Notte,” especially, modern urban architecture turns newly minted middle-class Italians into tiny cogs in a greater machine. The noise of helicopters, jet fighters, traffic and ambulances drowns out all conversation and continuity of thought.  Antonioni continually uses Milan’s glass-and-steel skyline to reflect on the adopted behavior of his protagonists. When the setting shifts to more public spaces — some still showing the wounds of war — the director gives his protagonists time to consider the wages of progress. In this world, society’s pursuit of the expensive toys, alluring fashion, fitful love and cocktails was a substitute for communication.

In “La Notte,” Marcello Mastroianni plays an author whose success has opened the doors to the joys and vacuity of high society. His wife, played by Jeanne Moreau, has come to the point in her married life, where she can’t help but ask, “Is this all there is?” We meet them at the hospital bed of a close friend, within hours of his death. The encounter serves as a catalyst for the wife to re-evaluate her marriage and station in life, even if the options for women her age and social strata were few. The writer’s primary concern is the patient’s well-being at the time, even participating in the champagne ritual at bedside, toasting old times and soothing the pain of cancer. During the course of the next 18 hours, the wife makes several vain attempts to connect with her husband: as she reclines in her bathtub, at a reception for his new book, in a fancy nightclub (watching an African dancer balance a cocktail glass, while her partner takes off her clothes) and finally at a party hosted by a Milanese industrialist who wants to hire the writer to sing his praises in prose. It’s here that both of them are tempted by strangers, one of whom is the host’s bored dark-haired daughter (Monica Vitti) and the other a playboy in a Ferrari. Their sensual allure offers the otherwise faithful Lidia and Giovanni something different, at least. The garden party’s ebb and flow might very well have inspired the Election Night gathering in “Shampoo,” where everything he loves comes crashing down on Warren Beatty’s head. In “La Notte,” the only communication between the couple all day takes place at dawn on an empty, fog-shrouded and eerily silent golf course. By then, though, Antonioni has lost interest in them, himself.

If, at the time of their release, the movies in the trilogy defied the expectations of audiences and critics and left wondering what in the hell they’d just witnessed, it probably was because very few people had stopped to consider what was happening around them. They were too close to the problem to realize that they were being sucked into a maelstrom of materialism and an economic system that rewarded proponents of unfettered growth. As yet, there was no such thing as nostalgia for the pleasures of village or farm life and living in close proximity to people who actually mattered to you. That would come much later. Was Antonioni arguing that his characters were empty, frivolous people and beyond help? If so, why bother subjecting one’s self to someone else’s alienation for two-plus hours, when we’re either envious of their good-fortune or unwilling to stop the clock on progress? American intellectuals flocked to see the films, if only to say they’d experienced the European New Wave and didn’t quite get it. Satirists and pundits disparaged Antonioni’s movies as being exercises in boredom. A new generation of film buffs, themselves alienated from Hollywood’s vision of the status quo, knew exactly what he was attempting to say and it would be incorporated into what became the American independent movement.

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray benefits from a thorough upgrade. The clarity of the angles, textures and reflections Antonioni deploys to comment on the changes in Italian life are clearly visible and there’s no mistaking his intentions. A new interview with Giuliana Bruno, a professor at Harvard University’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, amplifies on the visual style of “La Notte” and the essential role architecture plays in the film. In a separate featurette, film critic Adriano Apra and historian Carlo di Carlo discuss the unique structure of “La Notte,” specifically the film’s abstract qualities: the relationship between Mastroianni and Moreau’s characters, the “disease of emotions” that has affected their lives and importance of sound in Antonioni’s films. The package also contains an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Richard Brody and a 1961 article by director Michelangelo Antonioni. – Gary Dretzka

The Vincent Price Collection: Blu-ray
Look up “Vincent Price” on the IMDB.com website and it takes you to a list of names that includes six exact matches. Appropriately listed first, the true horror comes when his brilliant career is summed up as “(Self, The Hollywood Squares, 1965).”  As far as the fact-checkers at IMDB.com are concerned, the truly iconic St. Louis-born actor is best remembered as the guy who sat kitty-corner to center-square Paul Lynde on a long-running TV game show.  How soon they forget. The folks at Scream Factory weren’t about to ignore the 20th anniversary of Price’s death, at 82, in Los Angeles. Neither did Warner Home Video, which released a terrific Blu-ray edition of “House of Wax 3D” earlier this month. “The Vincent Price Collection” ups the ante by adding six more beloved horror titles to the hi-def library. All six were made and distributed by American International Pictures, with MGM/UA picking up VHS and DVD rights around 2000.  Four were directed by Roger Corman, who applied his frugal filmmaking techniques to the series, even to the point of recycling sets and footage. The titles, largely adapted from works by Edgar Allen Poe, include: “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961), “The Masque of the Red Death” (1964), “The Haunted Palace” (1963), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1960), “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971) and “Witchfinder General” (1968). Besides the 1080p transfer and DTS Audio Mono upgrade, the collection includes new and vintage bonus features, concerning both the films themselves and Price’s 55-year-long film and television career. Among them are introductions by Price; commentaries with Corman and other participants; vintage marketing material; the feature, “The Vincent Price Gothic Horrors”; and an interview with his daughter, Victoria. There’s no question that the movies still have the power to bring chills to younger viewers, especially as the seconds tick by in “Pit and the Pendulum.” They’re valentines compared to most of the stuff ‘tweens are exposed to these days. – Gary Dretzka

Chilling Visions: 5 Senses of Fear: Blu-ray
Sean Weathers Presents Vault of Terror
In the immediate wake of “V/H/S/2” and “Horror Stories” arrives yet another anthology film, “Chilling Visions: 5 Senses of Fear,” and, with it, another gas-masked fiend in a Hazmat suit. While far from great, I have to give this one extra credit for being made for airing on cable’s Chiller channel and not sucking. Being a corporate cousin of Syfy, that’s saying something. Each of the chapters is written and directed by an up-and-coming filmmaker with aspirations of horror-genre stardom. Here each has been assigned a human sense, around which to build a short film. (Just wondering, do short films included in an anthology qualify for Oscar consideration in that category?) Degree-of-difficulty points are added, as well, for working in extreme circumstances. Each segment reportedly was filmed in four days, back-to-back, with only 3 days between shoots. Applying the special makeup effects, alone, probably ate up the largest percentage of the allotted time. Extra bonus points go to Nick Everhart (“2012”, whose segment, “Smell,” was shot in a Connecticut hotel room during Hurricane Sandy, while most of the state was experiencing power outages. The films hinge on gags that wilt under too much exposure, so I’ll skip the spoilers altogether. “Sight” is written and directed by veteran actor Miko Hughes (“Remains”), who’s set it in the office of a crazy optometrist. “Touch,” about a blind boy who stumbles upon the lair of a serial killer, was written and directed by former teen wunderkind Emily Hagins (“Pathogen,” “My Sucky Teen Romance”).  “Taste,” about a job interview that goes horribly wrong, was made by Eric England (“Madison County”). Directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton (“Yellowbrickroad”), “Listen” uses modern digital equipment to investigate an urban legend.

I don’t know if Brooklyn-based filmmaker Sean Weathers has reached the stage in his young career where he’s actually developed a cult following or if he’s simply making post-grindhouse horror flicks for the perceived amusement of his friends. In addition to such epic sleaze-fests as “Hookers in Revolt,” “They All Must Die!” and the recently reviewed “The Trade Off,” Weathers and collaborator Aswad Issa host a podcast, “Full Circle Movie Talk,” in which they show movies and share their feelings on classic slasher films, among other things. “Sean Weathers Presents Vault of Terror” appears to be a re-creation of one or more of those podcasts, for which Weathers and Issa provide introductions and summaries. Included in this “Vault of Terror” are the exponentially better “Night of the Living Dead” and Abel Ferrara’s “The Driller Killer.” Both pictures are in the public domain, so the podcasters aren’t required to pay anyone anything to show them or add credits to the DVD box. Doesn’t seem fair, somehow. Bookending those films are Weathers’ “Maniac Too!” and Issa’s “A Good Samaritan in New York.” Believe it or not, the former is comprised exclusively of a series of brutal rape/murders in a deserted warehouse district of the city and the killer’s apartment. Everything, apart from a few minutes spent walking from one rape to another, is gratuitous. Contrary to the promise of psychological enlightenment on the jacket blurb, the only thing we learn about the fiend is that he’s black and either can’t or won’t seek help. That’s it. Issa’s contribution describes a mugging on a subway car and what happens to the poor sap who attempts to break it up. The only revelation in 250 minutes of DVD time is how watchable Ferrara’s debut feature still is and how many images are repeated in “Bad Lieutenant.” It’s also pretty clear that Weathers’ style was influenced by Ferrara. The interesting thing to know about Weathers is that he was born in Jonestown, Guyana, sometime before the mass suicide/murder occurred. He claims to have become interested in filmmaking after stealing a camera in junior high and using it to document his gang’s exploits. If he ever decides to make a movie about his own life – or license it to someone else — it could really be something. – Gary Dretzka

Acadia/Death Valley: National Parks Exploration Series
If all anyone watches when they purchase a Blu-ray player are TV sitcoms and movies shot on film and transferred to HD, they might wonder what all the fuss is about. To achieve the best effect, programs and movies ought to be shot on HD, edited digitally and transformed directly to Blu-ray. Any well-made DVD can approximate the HD experience if it’s played on a higher-resolution monitor, but there’s always room for improvement. When HDTV was introduced at CES, the images shown weren’t taken from cable or broadcast feeds, because the transmission technology wasn’t yet ready for prime time. Instead, the pretty pictures were of sports events, nature, travelogues and, yes, even aquariums, shot in HD specifically for promotional purposes. Even today, you can tell the difference between a TV show shot on film and an NFL game shot direct to digital. I was reminded of the early days of HD and digital while enjoying the latest installments in Mill Creek’s “National Parks Exploration Series.”

In Maine’s Acadia and Death Valley, you have two national parks as diametrically opposed in all of the qualities that matter to anyone, except scientists, as they could possibly be. Acadia, the first national park east of the Mississippi, is comprised of more than 47,000 acres of islands, mountains, woodlands, lakes, ponds and craggy ocean shorelines off the rugged coast of Maine. It provides a haven for a wide variety of plant and animal life and you can tell what season it is simply by looking at the native foliage. By comparison to the 3.2-million-acre Death Valley, which straddles the line separating California and Nevada, Acadia is a postage stamp, albeit it a pretty one. It isn’t easy to find anything green and wet in Death Valley, hence its name. You can find patches of life here and there – especially if there’s been a lot of rain and long dormant wildflowers bloom – but mostly its color palette consists of shades of brown, gray and white.  You’d be surprised how many there are. As for seasonal change, it would be difficult to discern the difference between 25 degrees Fahrenheit and 125 from an air-conditioned sedan. And, yet, winter or summer, there are plenty things to see and do in Death Valley, besides stare at distant mountains and die of thirst. Its ecosystem is as fascinating as any on Earth. These Blu-ray discs nicely capture the exquisite details of both parks, while leaving it to geologists and rangers to explain how both places came to be and remain the treasures they are. Films in the series are created for general consumption and are narrated by men whose voices more often are used to sell products on radio. It’s only a minor distraction, however. – Gary Dretzka

Free Samples
Here are three words guaranteed not to build sympathy for a protagonist: “Stanford Law dropout.” Anyone accepted into such a prestigious program could be expected to be exceedingly intelligent and sufficiently dedicated to the law that he or she would stop at nothing to graduate, at least. Passing the bar exam is another thing altogether. In Jay Gammill and Jim Beggarly’s low-key feature debut, “Free Samples,” the ever-appealing Jess Weixler (“Teeth”) plays just such a rare bird. Aimless, even as she approached her final year, Jillian decided to take some time off to weigh her options, one of which apparently is partying ’til the cows come home and staying in bed until her one-night stands leave. In other words, she’s become one of thousands of other overeducated slackers laying low in SoCal. Apparently, Jillian has also entered into a pact with her fiancé to postpone their marriage until she gets her head together. On this particular morning, Jillian has agreed to man her roommate’s ice-cream truck until she can finish some family business. Only in L.A., right? Hindered by a wicked hangover and unable to make a pit stop for a super-grande cup of coffee, Jillian is at the mercy of the unforgiving sun and the characters who stop by for the advertised free sample of chocolate or vanilla. Because her friend’s business takes longer than expected to complete, she’s given even more time to meet customers evern more out of sorts than she is. Among them is the young man with whom she spent the previous night (Jesse Eisenberg), her roomie’s alcoholic boyfriend (Jason Ritter), a neighbor who is being driven nuts by the truck’s music, the vacant lot’s resident homeless person, her fiancé and, most enchantingly, a lonely former star (Tippi Headren) too vain to move into a retirement home. Jillian doesn’t make it easy for anyone – viewers or customers – to like her, but, in Weixler’s hands, we refuse to give up on her. At a brisk 79 minutes, there are very few wasted moments here by anyone. – Gary Dretzka

Primeval: New World: The Complete Series
Cook’s Country: Season Six
Steven Spielberg, Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle notwithstanding, no evidence exists that would lead anyone to believe that non-avian dinosaurs still roam the Earth or any lost world can be found above its magna core. And, yet, they can be found all over cable television and the shelves of video stores. In “Jurassic Park,” clones were created by extracting dinosaur DNA from mosquitos that, long ago, were trapped in amber. It seemed reasonable at the time, but suspension of disbelief doth not a dinosaur make. It would be nice to think that an ancient world exists far below the surface of the Earth and it can be reached by falling through a chasm inside a non-active volcano. So far, though, not even one non-cinematic pterodactyl has managed to escape. Who knows what could result from unlimited fracking, however? The British sci-fi adventure series “Primeval” found a loyal audience during its five-season run on ITV and BBC America. Dinosaurs found their way to present-day Earth by being sucked into the same sort of anomalies (“earthquakes in time”) as allow Doctor Who to travel through time, although fitting into his phone-booth TARDIS would require a certain amount of shrinkage. Scientists are able to take advantage of the same anomalies to go back in time for research purposes. The special effects necessary to animate the creatures were expensive and ITV was having money problems, so, after Season Three, it became a victim of austerity measures. An outcry by fans caused ITV to reconsider its decision and “Primeval” was renewed for another two years, along with a short series of fresh webisodes.  It ended production in November, 2010. Two years later, the Vancouver-based “Primeval: New World” would be spun off for airing on Canada’s Space channel. It could be seen here on Syfy and Hulu.  “New World” is basically an extension of the British series, except with taller trees and characters who put mayonnaise on their French fries. As with “Primeval,” the premise of “New World” involves scientific investigators who deal with animals from the past and future that travel through anomalies. In an attempt to attract younger viewers, all of the scientists look as if they’re still waiting to graduate from high school. This “Complete Series” package represents the first and only season of “New World.” Bonus features add “Meet the Cast,” “Inside the Tank” and 13 episodic behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Now in its sixth season on PBS, “Cook’s Country” takes a scientific approach to the culinary arts. The show’s laboratory is located in a renovated 1806 farmhouse in Rupert, Vermont, a place where fresh produce and meats can be found in abundance. For my taste, the show’s research-oriented approach could use a bit more of a “Watch Mr. Wizard” vibe, than one that approximates Scientific America magazine. That’s appropriate, considering that the show’s target demographic is comprised of people who can afford the wide variety of expensive utensils and state-of-the-art appliances as Christopher Kimball and the chefs from America’s Test Kitchen. There’s no arguing with salivating taste buds, however. The classic American dishes and tasty regional fare smell great, even when bounced off the Dish satellite. This season’s treats include Bourbon Street desserts, Atlanta-style brisket, Chinese-style glazed pork tenderloin, green-chile cheeseburgers, Guinness beef stew, tres leches cake and crown roast of pork. Each show adds equipment reviews or product tastings, recipes and tutorials. – Gary Dretzka

While New York Sleeps
You never know who’s going to turn up in a vintage B-movie from Alpha Home Entertainment or what you’re going to learn about a director or writer. “While New York Sleeps” isn’t much different from dozens of other low-budget cops-and-killers stories from the 1930-40s being offered, but it has charms of its own. Here’s the description from the DVD jacket, “A series of bond couriers have been brutally murdered, and while the police are totally baffled, fearless reporter Barney Callahan is tirelessly digging for clues. The investigation leads him to the Marine Cafe, where he has been romancing gorgeous chorus girl Judy King.” Intrigue and musical interludes ensue. Bond couriers, though? That’s one you don’t hear anymore. In any case, when his girlfriend is framed for murder, it’s up to the reporter to save her from the electric chair.

Michael Whalen, who plays the newsman, is best remembered today for playing alongside Shirley Temple in “Poor Little Rich Girl” (1936) and “Wee Willie Winkie” (1937).  He embodied the same character in two other “Roving Reporters” movies. Prolific director H. Bruce Humberstone was a founding member of the Directors Guild of America and at the helm of several “Charlie Chan” and “Tarzan” movies. Among the other familiar faces that turn up are William Demarest (“My Three Sons”), Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Jean Rogers, who holds the dubious distinction of being told by Louis B. Mayer that she couldn’t go through with plans to be married. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

The Heat: Blu-ray
When Sandra Bullock isn’t required to carry a dopey Hollywood rom-com or unnecessary sequel on her shoulders, she’s as dominant a force as any actress in Hollywood. Anyone who could squeeze $33 million and $48 million worth of business from the barely watchable “All About Steve” and “Miss Congeniality 2” will always be expected to do wonders with material that’s actually good. The buddy-cop comedy, “The Heat,” returned almost four times its original $43 million budget at the domestic box office, alone. This isn’t to say that Melissa McCarthy, who played Mutt to Bullock’s Jeff, didn’t bring a goodly number of her fans along for the ride, of course. Their characters may be complete opposites when it comes to size and attitude, but they perfectly complement each other as a by-the-book FBI agent – by now, a role Bullock could play in her sleep – and a throw-the-book-away Boston cop, forced to work together on a delicate drug investigation. Neither of them are known for playing well with other children, so the men on their teams can’t wait to watch the fireworks from a safe distance. That’s probably all the information any regular moviegoer would need to commit two hours to the movie, without also noting the presence of Marlon Wayans (“G.I.Joe”), Demian Bichir (“Weeds”), Michael Rapaport and Jane Curtin. McCarthy had worked previously with director Paul Feig on “Bridesmaids,” for which she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, and he seems to bring out the best/beast in her. The theatrical version of “The Heat” was rated “R” for its raunchy language and many sexual references. I can’t imagine what the included unrated cut of the film could add to make it any more entertaining. Maybe, it bleeps out the bad language for family viewing. Among the many other supplemental features are bloopers, alternate scenes, an acting master class, a making-of piece and backgrounders and commentary with Feig and McCarthy. – Gary Dretzka

Pacific Rim: Blu-ray
In explaining why the gargantuan robots in “Pacific Rim” are called Jaegers, we’re told that it means “hunter” in German. (The giant lizards, Kaiju, certainly resemble the “strange beasts” that have populated Japanese sci-fi movies, manga, anime and TV shows, ever since the birth of Godzilla and Rodan.) Judging by the many over-the-top gags and insider references in Guillermo del Toro’s oversized comic book, it’s just as possible that the monstrous machines were so-named as homage to the crew’s favorite elixir, Jägermeister, or “hunter master” in German. Consuming mass quantities of the powerful digestif would have put them precisely in the right mood to channel 60 years’ worth of war, cowboy and sci-fi tropes into the dialogue, at least, in “Pacific Rim.” I haven’t heard as many movie clichés in one place since binging on the John Wayne movies contained in Mill Creek’s 25-title “John Wayne: The Ultimate Collection.” I can’t recall any of the characters here addressing another as “Pilgrim,” but I could have missed it in all of the turmoil and thunderous sound effects. Del Toro borrowed from a multitude of non-cinematic sources though, including Francisco Goya’s frightening painting, “The Colossus,” and Hokusai’s breath-taking woodcut, “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” You can’t miss them. His primary source, of course, was the graphic novel, “Pacific Rim: Tales From Year Zero,” by Travis Beacham. Besides offering the inspiration for the Kaiju, Japanese anime also provided a blueprint for the Jaegers. In the tradition of mecha anime series, Jaegers are controlled from within by two human pilots – up from only one in the previous invasion — distinguishing them from other depictions of robots as being automated, sentient or externally controlled. And, in a nutshell, that’s all the background one needs when considering a rental or purchase.

A dozen or so years before the events of “Pacific Rim” play out, a great war was fought between predatory Kaiju, which emerged from a breeding portal deep in the ocean, and Jaegers built and controlled by endangered humans. Much damage was done to coastal cities located along the Pacific Rim before the battles ended. Now, the reptilian beasts have re-emerged larger and more pissed-off than before they were driven back into the sea. Now, humans are forced to build Jaegers capable of standing up to the new, improved Kaiju. The amazing fight scenes are supplemented by human interaction that’s drawn from hundreds of movies in which men and women are required to gather their courage and put their heads together to come up with a defense against a formidable enemy. Unless you’re 12- or 13-years-old, it’s best simply to put your mind on neutral and give in to Del Toro’s imagination. If fans go into it hoping to see something along the lines of “Cronos” or “The Devil’s Backbone,” they’ll be disappointed. The pilots are played by Charlie Hunnam, Max Martini, Rob Kazinsky and Rinko Kikuchi, with the obligatory nerdy scientists portrayed by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman. Ron Perelman arrives towards the middle of the two-hour-plus movie, giving the human interaction a necessary jolt as a bootlegger in Kaiju parts. Action/fantasy nerds will enjoy the many bonus features, which fill a separate disc, as well as Del Toro’s enthusiastic commentary. I can’t vouch for the 3D version, but imagine that it offers plenty of thrills of its own. The Blu-ray 2D is a sensory treat. – Gary Dretzka

Jumper: Blu-ray 3D
Of all of the projects available to him, it seems odd that Doug Liman (“Bourne Identity”) would choose to add a reprise of his 2008 action/fantasy, “Jumper” to his bucket list. Though based on a critically acclaimed science-fiction novel by Steven Gould, “Jumper” opened to lukewarm returns at the box office and mostly hostile reviews. Liman probably will be keeping an eye on returns for the picture’s re-release this week on Blu-ray 2D/3D/DVD to determine whether “Jumper 2” will move forward from its “announced” status. It stars Hayden Christensen as a young man, David, who discovers to his amazement he has the power to teleport anywhere he can visualize. Not blessed with the innate virtue of, say, Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne, David isn’t a candidate for superhero status just yet. After saving himself from drowning, while recovering from a bully’s prank, he spends several years in the jumper wilderness adapting to his talent. Once he establishes for himself that he can teleport into bank vaults and, more importantly, exit with the spoils, David sets out to make a comfortable living for himself. He’ll also attempt to reconnect with the teen queen, Millie (Rachel Bilson), who was the only “cool” person that was nice to him in high school. In his prolonged absence, Millie has regressed from top of the heap to the prettiest bartender at a pub frequented by locals. As such, she’s easy pickings for David and his ability to transport her from the dregs of Ann Arbor to Luxor, Rome and Paris at her heart’s content. Before long, David realizes that the world’s jumper population is being threatened by bounty-hunting paladins. They include white-haired Samuel L. Jackson, wielding a lightsaber right out of “Stars Wars.” Among David’s allies is a more experienced jumper, Griffin (Jamie Bell), who steals every scene in which he’s involved. Other characters are played by Diane Lane and Kristen Stewart. “Jumper” wasn’t shot in 3D, so purists shouldn’t expect the maximum experience here. It looks fine in Blu-ray 2D, though. Alas. this edition doesn’t offer previous bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear
Native Georgian Tinatin Gurchiani’s emotionally charged documentary, “The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear,” describes life in the former Soviet state for men and women who were born after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Since gaining its independence in 1991, the mountainous Eurasian country has been involved in ethnic turmoil, political division, two devastating wars, economic crises and a migration of young adults from rural villages to larger cities. Gurchiani recruited participants by advertising for volunteers, 15 to 23, who would like to be in a movie. She didn’t specify what they would be expected to do, but, in auditions, it was made clear by her questions that she wanted to hear their stories told in their own voices and words. The interviews, which take place in front of a drably painted wall, would serve as entry points to segments shot in their homes, villages, workplaces or other points of interest. Some of the respondents are shy and their stories have to be dragged out of them, while others were only too anxious to open up for the camera. As reflects the nation’s diverse population, the accounts vary greatly in focus. The common denominator is an aura of melancholy that likely is the result of uncertainty about Georgia’s future and their roles in it. One of the young men we meet is the mayor of a remote village of less than 200 people, most of whom are three times his age. A teenage girl invites us to her wedding, taking place that afternoon. Several of them have seen their dreams blow up in their faces, because of unplanned pregnancies, criminal activity, the trauma of war and necessity of caring for elderly parents. The most heartbreaking vignette involves a girl who was abandoned by her mother as an infant, so she could run away from her husband with another man. Empowered by Gurchiani’s interest in her, the aspiring actress decides to find and confront the woman, but not before she begs the forbearance of the father, aunt and grandmother who raised her. Adding to the poignancy here is the knowledge that girls who have been abandoned by their mothers, especially, traditionally have a more difficult time finding husbands. Neither is acting a particularly valued profession by perspective suitors. The DVD includes a Q&A with the filmmaker. – Gary Dretzka

Drug War: Blu-ray
If A&E’s “Breaking Bad” had been set in China, the consequences of manufacturing, trafficking and selling crank would have to be ratcheted up to conform to the reality of the country’s no-nonsense drug laws. If arrested and found guilty, which is almost always the case, offenders face immediate execution. There are no appeals or opportunities to tell their stories to sympathetic journalists or screenwriters. If nothing else, the severity of the punishment adds an immediacy to movies in which the drug trade is featured. In Johnny To’s gripping procedural, “Drug War,” one lucky meth cooker is given the option of being put to death immediately or helping police bring down the cartel for whom he’s been working. Either way, the odds of Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) surviving long enough to celebrate his next birthday are pretty slim. To, who specializes in Hong Kong-style shoot-’em-ups, benefits from the new, more wide open scenery he finds on the mainland. Not many drug-related feature films are made in the PRC, but the problem must be sufficiently large that censors would acknowledge both the crime and punishment in a large-budget movie. It gave To the freedom to stage scenes in which drug mules – peasants desperate for money – are thwarted by a malfunctioning bus and are forced to make a run it, with police on their tale. The possibility that the balloons they swallowed might rupture adds much urgency to the chase and interrogation. To also is given an unusually large parcel of space to stage a final confrontation between the forces of good and evil. What isn’t unusual is the tension that To is able to build between the lead investigator, Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), and the surprisingly slick cartel leaders. As long as China keeps growing more western in its tastes and fashions, criminals will exploit poor people to deliver the commodities most desired by the new middle- and upper-classes. Whether the threat of summary execution is enough to keep its citizens from paying outrageous sums of money to gangsters with connections to greedy politicians, however steeped in Marxian theory they may be, is a question the increasingly more materialistic culture will face as it prospers. Another question: whatever happened to Mao jackets? – Gary Dretzka

East End Babylon: The Story of the Cockney Rejects
Although the well-made and surprisingly engaging rock-doc “East End Babylon: The Story of the Cockney Rejects” focuses on the roots and output of the titular post-punk rock group, it also serves as a primer on the East End culture celebrated in the films of Guy Ritchie. While it references Cockney rhyming slang and the rough-hewn dialect that separates the extended working-class neighborhood from the rest of the English-speaking world, it doesn’t dwell on it. The young East Enders interviewed here by Richard England argue that no one uses it, anyway. It’s more important to know that the band members and their rough-and-ready fans are the descendants of poor Londoners forced to live in overcrowded tenements and work in industries free to take advantage of their poverty and/or immigrant status. We are reminded that the region experienced the brunt of the damage during the World War II bombings and rocket attacks. Boom periods in the shipping industry would, for a time, give dockworkers a decent income and a sense of pride in their blue-collar ethos. By the mid-1970s, though, the warehouses and docks were left to rot by companies who had deserted the port. Without steady incomes, East End lads were left with “football, boxing or rock ‘n’ roll” as escape routes. In the film, it’s also noted that unemployment caused an already lively hoodlum culture to embrace drugs and other pursuits favored by organized criminals. Just as punk music was a reaction to the glam and progressive rock favored in the mid-’70s, the Cockney Rejects’ “Oi!” movement was strictly working class. The band attracted disaffected punks, skinheads, football hooligans, laborers and others drawn to the mosh pit. The band members, some of whom had been competitive boxers, could give as well as they got when confronted by their own fans. Their lyrics emphasized unemployment, workers’ rights, harassment by police and other authorities, and government oppression. The media attempted to lump the Cockney Rejects in with white-supremacist groups, but those assertions are denied in interviews. “East End Babylon” deserves to be seen by any anyone who considers himself to be an expert in rock history and how the music reflects society at large. – Gary Dretzka

Crashing Through Danger
In the late 1930s, hyper-prolific director Sam Newfield made two pictures that will be remembered as camp classics for as long as people watch movies, as well as several dozen that have already been forgotten by everyone except collectors and purveyors of obscure videos and DVDs. Any true buff should be able to describe in lurid detail the joys of “The Terror of Tiny Town” and “Harlem on the Prairie.” How many, though, know that “Crashing Through Danger” even exists? Among the many titles sent out this month by Alpha Video and MVD is the low-budget 1938 melodrama about a trio of electrical linemen who share the joys (window peeping on blond transvestites) and hazards (storms, downed lines) of keeping the grid humming. Torchy, Slim and Eddie are best buddies and roommates, until they begin to compete for the hand of the daughter of their late boss, Pop, who was killed in an underground explosion. The lovely lassie (Loretta Young’s sister, Sally Blane) strings all of her suitors along, causing the one she prefers to drop out of the competition and take an inside job with the utility company. His expertise will come in handy, however, when a huge storm threatens the coast and one of his estranged friends is stuck atop a damaged pole. “Crashing Through Danger” also stars B-movie regulars Ray Walker, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and James Bush. If you believe, like I did, that a blue-collar romance about electrical linemen is a dubious pursuit, at best, consider that Warner Bros. released one of its own, “Slim,” a few months earlier, starring Henry Fonda, Pat O’Brien, Stu Erwin and Margaret Lindsay. – Gary Dretzka

Maniac: Blu-ray
This old-fashioned serial-killer thriller shares several attributes with “American Psycho” and Alfred Hitchcock’s
“Psycho,” while also remaining true to the only slightly less bloody original “Maniac,” released in 1980. Elijah Wood plays Frank, a mild-minded mannequin freak who takes out his long-held aggression towards his mother by stalking, scalping and killing beautiful women. Thanks to Franck Khalfoun’s straight-forward direction, little time is wasted on such formalities as motivation before diving right into the muck. By shooting the entire film from the point of view of the protagonist – or his mirrored image – there’s little emphasis on his physical mannerisms and facial expressions. Because we’re looking through his eyes at the faces of the women he’s about to torture and kill, however, it’s impossible to ignore their terror and pain. You’ve probably already guessed what he does with the scalps when he brings them back to his shop … dollhouse, if you will. “Maniac” would be more shocking if we hadn’t already memorized “Psycho” and more horrifying if we hadn’t been exposed to Christian Bale as the psychopathic investment banker in “American Psycho.” It surely isn’t in the same league as those two films. Wood’s slight physique notwithstanding, however, the sheer ruthlessness of the attacks, when combined with modern makeup-effects work, is way beyond disquieting. The only indication we get that Frank might possess one or more human attributes is when a photographer with a mannequin fetish of her own befriends him. Being with someone who shares his interests serves to dilute his manic need to kill women who resemble his mother. It doesn’t last forever, of course, but just long enough to make us wonder when little Elijah is going to get his comeuppance. “Maniac” is good at what it sets out to do, but, not nearly as significant as the filmmakers make it out to be in the unusually long and windy making-of featurette. Still, someone in Cannes thought enough of the movie to invite it to premiere at the festival. How many movies have that on their resume? – Gary Dretzka

Horror Stories
Korean horror is second to none when it comes to scaring the hell out its target audience of teenagers. I’m generalizing, but only to make a larger point. International arthouse audiences, of course, have embraced the edgy films of such Korean filmmakers as Kim Ki-Duk (“3 Iron,” “The Bow”), Im Sang-Soo (“The Housemaid”), Bong Joon-ho (“Mother”) and Park Chan-wook (“The Vengeance Trilogy”), but youth must be served. Pop stars frequently cross over into mainstream movies and the most popular actresses look as if they stopped aging on their 17th birthday. Anthology films, such as “Horror Stories,” are staples of the modern Korean cinema, if for no other reason than they introduce up-and-coming directors and television actors looking for exposure beyond the small screen. Here, four short thrillers are sandwiched between a wraparound story in which a kidnaped girl is required to tell horror stories to a psychopath with a speech impediment. Among the tales weaved by the modern-day Scheherazade are “Don’t Answer the Door,” by Jung Bum-shik, in which young siblings are left alone at home one night and warned by their mother not to answer the door to anyone, except her; ”Endless Flight,” by Lim Dae-woong, about a doomed flight, during which a serial killer escapes his police escorts and terrorizes the crew and attendants; ”Secret Recipe,” by Hong Ji-young, about a good and evil stepsisters; and ”Ambulance on the Dead Zone” by Kim Gok and Kim Sun, set in an emergency vehicle fleeing a Zombie virus, possibly with infected patients in tow. Just as in most anthology packages, the perceived quality of the segments fluctuates with the tastes of individual viewers. All of the filmmakers show great promise, though. – Gary Dretzka

Jug Face
Abducted
To Jennif/Jennifer
Murder University
Paranormal Apparition: Revenge From Beyond the Grave
Blood Moon Rising
Indie Director
The hillbilly horror film “Jug Face” effectively retools a backwoods legend involving a haunted pit and clay jugs upon which the faces of doomed people are sculpted. The yokels we meet in Chad Crawford Kinkle’s freshman feature live so deep in the sticks that such bizarre fundamentalist rites as snake-handling and speaking in tongues have yet to reach them. Instead, they behead blasphemers and sinners over the pit, so as to appease the creature they fear will devastate their village if they don’t behave. Lauren Ashley Carter is quite engaging as a teenager who wants to break away from the crazy rules imposed on her by parents played by Sean Young (yes, that Sean Young) and Larry Fessenden. By faking a pregnancy to avoid an arranged marriage with a dunce, the teenager inadvertently signs her own death certificate … or does she? “Jug Face” isn’t particularly frightening, but Kinkle does capture the creepiness of living in an isolated community populated by inbred lunatics. Kinkle’s terrific horror short, “Organ Grinder,” is included in the DVD package, along with a making-of featurette.

For the second week in a row, a DVD featuring fiends wearing gas masks has come my way. In “Abducted,” a pair of young lovers — Dave (Trevor Morgan) and Jessica (Tessa Ferrer) – are snatched and sedated while necking on a hillside in Griffith Park. When they come to, David and Jessica find themselves in a dark, bunker-like cell somewhere in L.A. They have no idea why they’ve been kidnaped, unless their hooded and masked captors are Taliban terrorists and they’re aware of the military connections of Jessica’s father. Soon enough, though, the couple discovers that the compound holds other couples, who’ve been there so long they’ve lost track of time. To their horror, they realize that there’s something seriously physically wrong with their captors and they’re being held to supply body parts and fluids. The problem here is that there’s very little consistency in the treatment of the victims and the abductors’ ability to keep them from repeatedly sneaking out of their cells. If you don’t buy into the movie in the first 15 minutes, it isn’t likely to get any better for you in the next 75.

James Cullen Bressack’s new thriller, “To Jennif/Jennifer,” lays claim to being the feature film shot entirely on the iPhone 5. I don’t know if the qualification means movies actually were shot on previous iPhone models or that this is an iPhone first. Either way, “To Jennif/Jennifer” only proves that — given sufficient storage and unlimited data usage — it can be done for a mere pittance. But, thousands of amateur porn producers already are well of that unadvertised fact. In the film-within-a-film, an annoying young man suspects his girlfriend of two years, Jennifer, is cheating on him. He is so convinced of it that he enlists the help of his cousin, Steven, to create a video diary of his journey to catch her in the act, as well as to document his heartbreak. No, it doesn’t make sense to me, either, but the premise is exponentially more interesting than any of the male characters, who spend the entire film yelling at each other for no good reasons. The really point of this exercise in delayed horror isn’t delivered until its last 10 minutes and, by then it’s too late. Moral: just because you can do something doesn’t mean it will be worth investing time watching it.

If there’s one thing “Murder University” shares with the aforementioned “Maniac,” it’s a willingness to show people being scalped while still alive. Otherwise, Richard Griffin and Lenny Schwartz’ homage to 1980s slasher flicks is standard-issue horror, with a pair of insanely efficient ax-murderers terrorizing a small New England college. The slayings remind a local cop of several that occurred 20 years earlier and went unsolved. The cop enlists a student who survived an attack nearly unscathed to help him catch the killers, along with his daughter. The saving grace here is the sense of humor the filmmakers reveal, in addition to the carnage. Apparently, “Murder University” was made for $20,000. That sounds just about right.

Released in 2007 as “Cold Blood Canyon,” a title that alludes to Beverly Hills’ Coldwater Canyon, at least, “Paranormal Apparition: Revenge From Beyond the Grave” benefits not all from the subsequent change. (Isn’t “Paranormal Apparition” redundant, anyway?) When the Myers are searching for a house in the hills of Beverly, their agent shows them a dwelling whose price tag is, at once, too good to be true and too low to pass up. When pressed, the agent admits, as is required by California law, that a headline-making murder was committed there several years earlier. Perspective buyers haven’t exactly been lining up to survey the house, “even though the victim was a celebrity.” The ghosts don’t waste any time before making themselves known to teenage daughter, Danielle (Lulu Brud), who would prefer to live anywhere else in L.A. Because her parents can’t see or hear the ghosts, they’re in no hurry to reconsider their investment. Worse, yet, they decide to split for Palm Springs, leaving Danielle to fend for herself for the weekend. The ghost of a worm-faced woman does appear to her boyfriend, who, less than gallantly, splits before she can even take off her bra. Haunted-house movies have been produced using the same template for decades, even as audiences ask the same question, “Why don’t they just leave?” Alec Tuckman neatly dodges the issue by adding a reasonably credible backstory for the ghosts, while also giving Danielle the backbone to confront them on her own. Once that happens, “Paranormal Apparition” is able to stake new claims of its own.

Blood Moon Rising” is intended to be a spoof of grindhouse movies, but it’s impossible to distinguish between what’s being lampooned and what simply has been botched up. It involves a Goth chick who’s killed in one century and comes back to life in 1969, in the middle of a production of a zombie Western. It’s possible that the producers wanted to set a record for most fake blood spilt in the interest of a DIY movie, but that doesn’t make it entertaining. Ron Jeremy makes a cameo appearance, during which he renders everything else that follows superfluous.

Indie Director” is intended to be a spoof of the soft-core-porn industry, but the true horror comes in watching Master of the Micro Budget, Bill Zebub, attempt to wow us with his insider’s knowledge and hipper-than-thou impression of a generic porn director. The auteur, who resembles an over-the-hill heavy-metal roadie, makes the mistake of thinking he needs to be in every scene and everyone’s entitled to his homophobia and scatological sense of humor. None of it is as funny as the bloopers, deleted scenes and previews of such Zebub epics as “Jesus, the Total Douchbag” and “Antfarm Dickhole.” He’s not the worst filmmaker in the world — $5,000 stretches a long way here — even if he plays one in “Indie Director.” The soundtrack is a primer in contemporary death metal. – Gary Dretzka

Black Sabbath
ThanksKilling 3
Several years before anyone from outside Italy had heard the term, giallo, or listened to the music of the band named after Mario Bava’s “Black Sabbath,” the filmmaker was asked by the American distributor of his “Black Sunday” to re-create a similar experience in a horror anthology. In a case of repressed imagination, AIP changed the title of “Three Tales of Terror” to something it hoped would immediately remind U.S. audience of the 1960 hit. Unlike “Black Sunday” (a.k.a., “Mask of the Demon”), “Black Sabbath” allowed the celebrated cinematographer, Bava, to experiment with the color palette that would inform all future gialli. In its infinite wisdom, AIP also decided to rearrange the segments, add some introductions by Boris Karloff, expunge some lesbian-themed material and edit out some of the scary stuff. “Black Sabbath” still did OK, here. The new Cheezy DVD edition of the movie restores the picture to its original state and does what it can to restore some of its luster. It opens with “The Telephone,” in which a prostitute believes she’s being haunted by her dead husband, an escaped convict. In “The Wurdulak,”Karloff stars as a demonic Russian count who rides to the aid of a rural family attempting to eradicate a vicious strain of vampires. “The Drop of Water” is a chiller in which a 1900s nurse reaps the consequences of stealing the ring from the finger of a dead patient, a medium. An opening prelude and afterword from Karloff add light touches to the dark material. The latter two segments clearly illustrate Bava’s genius for enhancing mood with garishly colored sets. Even after 50 years, it’s a lot of fun.

Fans of the original “ThanksKilling” have waited four years for a sequel to the outrageous horror comedy, which featured crudely constructed puppet characters and was made for $3,500. It fits the description of “one of those movies that are so bad they’re fun to watch.” The protagonist was a cursed, fowl-mouthed turkey that was killing off college students during spring break. Anyone who sees “ThanksKilling 3”and wonders how they could have missed the first sequel should know going into it that there wasn’t any. Although it’s being marketed as “”The First Movie to Skip Its Own Sequel,”" the puppets spend most of the movie on a hunt for the last copy of “ThanksKilling 2.” Not surprisingly, “TK3” is full of material created specifically to ruffle the feathers of timid viewers and enchant more open-minded fans. This time out, Kevin Stewart and Jordan Downey benefitted from a successful Kickstarter campaign, during which $100,000 was raised. The DVD adds “behind-the-beak” featurettes, commentaries, a “Sprinkle of Wrinkle” video, PluckMaster infomercial and stills galleries. – Gary Dretzka

Showtime: Untold History of the United States: Blu-ray
History: The Vikings: Season One: Blu-ray
CW: Hart of Dixie: The Complete Second Season
Long after growing up in the shadow of Wall Street, Oliver Stone developed a reputation for questioning the United States’ role as policeman of the world and protector of capitalism. He’s devoted the latter part of his film career to expanding on long-denied rumors and political conspiracies, while championing entrenched dictators unsympathetic to our so-called interests abroad. If Stone didn’t possess such an aggressively abrasive personality, he might have been able to endear himself to a cross-section of liberals, leftists and libertarians drawn, as well, to the oversized personality of Michael Moore. We all have a constitutional right to be controversial – even when we’re wrong – but there’s a not-so-thin line between being a thorn in the side of the establishment and a dick. That said, however, his “Untold History of the United States” is, at once, stimulating, informative and strangely entertaining. Given how reluctant the media has traditionally been to challenge the official version of events that shape our democracy, it’s important that someone not afraid of the powers-that-be take them on at their own game. Stone may by an insufferable egoist, but he’s no kook. Another Stone, I.F., likewise made a career out of challenging widely accepted notions about such government shell games as the Gulf of Tonkin “incident,” 40 years of Cold War politics and this country’s unyielding willingness to be Israel’s patsy. For his efforts, I.F. Stone was blacklisted and, even after his death, branded as a communist agent. Maybe if he’d had an Academy Award to fall back on, he would have been welcome to argue his points on late-night talk shows and in the features sections of mainstream publications. I’m pretty sure that Oliver Stone would have found it more difficult to create “Untold History of the United States,” if it weren’t for the journalistic scud work done by I.F. Stone. And, that’s a good thing. Among the points made early on in the 10-part Showtime series are several questioning the need to drop atom bombs on Japan and the conspiracy by Democratic Party bosses to promote populist Henry Wallace as FDR’s successor over machine politician Harry Truman. The frequently enlightening, occasional maddening series – even to liberals and progressives – has been released simultaneously with a 750-page book. (Almost 120 are devoted to footnotes and an index.) The Blu-ray contains a bonus documentary, “A Conversation with History: Tariq Ali And Oliver Stone,” in which the filmmaker and political philosopher Tariq Ali discuss a wide range of topics, accompanied by archival footage not found in the series.

Unlike almost every other movie and TV series about the Vikings, History’s first scripted series – as opposed to its first scripted mini-series, “Hatfields and McCoys” – attempts to explain what the scruffy fellows and their families might have done when they weren’t off looting, pillaging, ax-murdering and raping their enemies’ womenfolk. The first nine-episode season of “Vikings” doesn’t dwell on such peacetime activities, but they’re aren’t ignored, either. Although there was some of the usual nit-picking that occurs when such historical projects emerge, it wasn’t severe or meant to detract from anyone’s enjoyment of it … unless, of course, one is a Scandinavian academic. It chronicles the journeys of the rebellious farmer and seasonal Viking marauder Ragnar Lothbrok, who defies his imperious master (Gabriel Byrne) by sailing west, instead of east, where lay the unarmed Christian monks to be slaughtered and crucifixes to steal. (The writers don’t disguise the brutality, ignorance and lack of civility among the Vikings, even the ones with whom we’re supposed to sympathize.) Apart from some bargain-basement special effects, “Vikings” carries itself with a classy air and the mist-shrouded Irish locations are quite spectacular. The primary thing that differentiates this mini-series from “Rome” or “Spartacus” is the absence of soft-core sex, gratuitous nudity and extremely graphic violence. While such things aren’t avoided in “Vikings,” they are limited to PG-13-level renditions. The bonus package includes extended, alternate and deleted scenes; commentaries on select episodes; featurettes “Warrior Society: Viking Culture & Law,” “Birth of the Vikings” and “Forging the Viking Army: Warfare and Tactics”; and the interactive “The Armory of Vikings” and “Conquest and Discover: The Journey of the Vikings.”

The first season of the CW’s young-adult dramedy, “Hart of Dixie,” ended with Zoe (Rachel Bilson) caught in storms of both the meteorological variety and of the romantic persuasion. The former New York medical student put the Southern town of Bluebell on the map, when, after five years of residency, she split for the land of cotton. She remains haunted by her inability to receive the fellowship required to follow in the footsteps of her father, a cardio-thoracic surgeon. For the eligible bachelors who are required to prove themselves as if they were matadors in the ring, Bluebell might as well be named Blueballs. Or, maybe, romance on CW shows is always meant to be overly complicated and wrought with anguish. Season Two opens with Zoe attempting to sort out her feelings for bad boy Wade Kinsella (Wilson Bethel) and good guy George Tucker (Scott Porter). The stanza ends with Zoe finding herself in almost exactly in the same fix as last season’s closer. To make sense of her feelings, she takes some time off in New York. Will she return to Bluebell? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, Lemon (Jaime King), Mayor Hayes (Cress Williams) and Dr. Breeland (Tim Matheson) have to deal with their own affairs of the heart. – Gary Dretzka

Treasures of New York
Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle
The March
Last Will & Testament
Brains on Trials With Alan Alda
Is School Enough?/Smarter Brains
Each week, a bounty of documentaries arrive in the mail from PBS. The subject matter ranges from investigative journalism to academic discussions of pop-cultural detritus. “Treasures of New York” isn’t much different from dozens of other non-fiction titles that can be found on a dozen different cable channels on any given night, in that it’s as much travelogue as civics lesson. If the institutions we visit in “Treasures of New York” weren’t so intrinsically interesting, the film’s palpable air of boosterism would spoil the fun of learning something new. The primary common denominator here is the likelihood that the buildings and facilities surveyed all would have been allowed to self-destruct if it weren’t for the persistence of preservationists, historians, curators, volunteers and heirs to great fortunes, whose names are attached to them. The series focuses on Roosevelt House, Park Avenue Armory, New York Historical Society, Pratt Institute, New York Botanical Garden and American Museum of Natural History. A few of the episodes probably could have been trimmed in half, with the extra 30 minutes devoted to another rescued treasures.

It would be nice if young people enchanted with superhero movies took the time to watch PBS’ wonderfully instructive “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle,” hosted by Liev Schreiber (a.k.a.., Sabertooth/Victor Creed). The bright and busy mini-series overflows with comic-book images and clips from movies and TV shows. What could the kids learn that they don’t already know? Among many other things, that the first superhero, Superman, was a creation of two Jewish immigrants, from Cleveland, who were bullied at school and saw in Clark Kent someone who would protect the underdog; how much of the racism and stereotyping that prevailed in comics and cartoons – especially during the war years — is regretted by surviving artists and writers; that blue-nosed censors, reacting to perceived homosexual and S&M themes, nearly killed the comic-book industry in the 1950s; why Stan Lee is lionized by legions of fans of old-school comics; what separated Marvel and DC comics; that Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein credited their love of comic books for the emergence of pop art; and how comic-book writers and illustrators have reflected the technology and political movements of their times. That’s a lot of stuff to absorb, but there’s hardly a dull moment here. One my favorite discussions involves Superman and his role in World War II and subsequent struggles. If this immigrant from Krypton was invincible and could even move planets, why didn’t he simply fly to Berlin and Tokyo to kick the crap out of the Axis leaders. The DVD includes interviews with pioneers such as Lee, Joe Simon and Jerry Robinson, as well as actors Adam West (Batman) and Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman). The bonus material adds extended interviews and performances of “Marvel Super Hero” themes by song writer Jack Urbond.

One of the things recalled in media coverage of the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington was the widespread fear of rioting, if not by average Americans, then by editorial writers and the political elite. After largely ignoring segregation, lynching and inequality in every major American institution, the white establishment felt it necessary to caution marchers and those African-Americans who didn’t make the trip against spoiling the moment with violence. Mind you, the only violence associated with the civil-rights movement at the time was perpetrated by police and other defenders of the status quo, and Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown had yet to push the notion of “black power.” Also lost in the excitement over Martin Luther King Jr.’s mesmerizing speech was almost everything that led up to the gathering of 250,000 people of all backgrounds at the Lincoln Memorial and how the address prompted J. Edgar Hoover to increase FBI efforts to pinpoint “agitators” and sabotage the movement. “The March” recounts all of the storylines that merged that day and how it impacted efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The hour-long doc, narrated by Denzel Washington, includes the recollections of Oprah Winfrey, Harry Belafonte, Roger Mudd, Joan Baez and Clarence B. Jones.

Among the many great mysteries that have gone unsolved in our lifetimes: who really killed the Lindbergh baby?; what caused Amelia Earhart’s plane to go down and where is it?; where is Judge Carter?; and who put the bomp/
in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp? In literary circles, some still question the authorship of plays and poetry historically ascribed to William Shakespeare. PBS’ “Last Will & Testament” doesn’t simply round up the usual suspects and beat old theories to death. It explores all available evidence, as well as clues in his works. Trouble is, there’s precious little information about Shakespeare’s accomplishments extant, on or off stage. That void is the primary reason the debate even continues. How could so little be known about a man who produced so many works of genius? English majors should find a lot of it to be fascinating, if not at all essential to an enjoyment of the plays and poems. Derek Jacobi leads an impressive cast of historians, academics and actors, including Vanessa Redgrave, Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi.

If all one knows about our judicial system is what can be gleaned from courtroom shows on daytime television, justice would seem to come down to a question of who’s a better liar. Because the cases are drawn from the files of small-claims courts and litigants are paid enough money to cover any losses, there’s very little keeping a defendant or appellant from shading their testimony to fit the framework of a 15-minute trial before a retired judge. Indeed, most of the fun derives from catching one or both of the combatants in a fabrication or stretching of the truth. You literally can see the judge kick into a higher gear whenever that happens. But, when felonies are in question, the stakes can be infinitely higher. Was O.J. Simpson lying when he said that he was not guilty of murdering his wife and her unfortunate companion? How about Amanda Knox, the American exchange student who was declared guilty in Italy of killing her former roommate, only to have that verdict reversed by a higher court and that reversal reversed, in kind? Alan Alda hosts “Brains on Trial,” a documentary that introduces us to the latest in truth-determining technology and asks us to consider the possibility of its use in actual trials. For that to happen, the readings of “practical” MRI machines would have to be proven and accepted by juries to be 100 percent accurate, something that has eluded proponents of lie detectors and even DNA analysis, as was the case in the Simpson trial. Still, as presented in “Brains on Trial,” the possibility of defendants being grilled while wired to a computer is so delicious as to make the documentary must-viewing by anyone interested in legal matters. (If not witnesses and defendants, it might be even more fun to wire lawyers.) The show follows a specific crime – a robbery/murder at a convenience store — from inception to judgment, using neuroscience as an instrument for a parallel trial. .

PBS has devoted much of its resources to the study of the brain and how young people learn. “Is School Enough?” presents “vivid” examples of where new modes of self-directed education are taking hold and flourishing in the Digital Age. In a very real sense, the film asks us to consider the possibility that Internet-savvy kids – some of whom represent a new “bright and bored” strata — have outgrown the limits of classrooms. Although the jury is still out on the benefits of charter schools vs. traditional education, “Is School Enough?” suggests that self-directed and hands-on options could prove even more meaningful to students and society. In “Smarter Brains,” guided by Dr. Michael Merzenich, the whole notion of intelligence and how it’s attained. It demonstrates how the latest research reveals the “shocking truth” of how actions in our daily lives impact just how smart we really are and what we can do about it. – Gary Dretzka

Super Stars Super Series: Volume. 1
There was time, not so long ago, when professional wrestlers looked as if they just stepped out of a Bowery tavern or jail cell, instead of a frame from the pages of a Marvel or DC comic book. You can tell that mid-century grapplers didn’t take steroids by the torsos that more closely resemble cases of beer than six-packs. Apart from the costumes and hairdos, however, the game hasn’t changed all that much, really. The evidence is provided in “Super Stars Super Series,” the first in a line of DVDs focusing on the heyday of such regional conferences as the Southwest, South Atlantic, WWA, Hawaii, Big Time, IWA, ICW and TWF. Old-timers will remember such stars as Terry Funk, Andre the Giant, Bruiser Brody, Junkyard Dog, Jerry Lawler, Ric Rude, Lanny Poffo, Ivan Koloff, the Shiek, Gino Hernandez, the Kangeroos, the Mongols, David Von Erich and the Sheepherders. Compared to today’s mega-events, the matches here are prehistoric. That’s part of the nostalgic fun, however. – Gary Dretzka

Winx Club: Secret of the Lost Kingdom Movie
It’s a Spongebob Squarepants Christmas
Bubble Guppies/Team Umizoomi: Into the Snow We Go
Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Christmas Carol
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Ultimate Showdown
Lost and Found
Anyone with young children, especially those of the female variety, already knows more about the fabulously successful Winx Club franchise than an adult probably should. “Secret of the Lost Kingdom Movie” represents the club’s first feature-length movie, from Nickelodeon. Now that she’s graduated from Alfea College for Fairies, Bloom has plenty of time to search for her birth parents. (She could try the set of “True Blood.”) Bloom and the Winx Club girls journey to the devastated land of Domino, where they must battle evil witches and their own greatest fears. The two-disc set features seven bonus “Winx Club” episodes from Believix, adding up to four hours of entertainment.

Introduced in time for Christmas 2012, Nickelodeon/Paramount would love for “It’s a Spongebob Squarepants Christmas” to become an animated holiday perennial on the order of “Frosty the Snowman,” “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Created entirely in stop- motion animation, the special double-length episode finds all of Bikini Bottom in a festive mood as they prepare for Santa’s arrival. Expecting the traditional lump of coal, Plankton decides to give himself a gift: the Krabby Patty secret formula. The set includes a behind-the-scenes featurette, an animatic, a SpongeBob Yule Log and two downloadable songs from the episode.

This week’s holiday package from Nickelodeon also includes a joint effort by kid favorites Bubble Guppies and Team Umizoomi. In “Into the Snow We Go,” the Guppies work together to share the joy of the season with their neighbor, Mr. Grumpfish. And, as a holiday bonus, they team up with Team Umizoomi in two special episodes. The company also brings back the evergreen “Dora’s Christmas Carol.” When Swiper tries to steal the Christmas Star from Dora’s Nochebuena party, he lands on Santa’s naughty list. To get back on the nice list, Dora must help Swiper travel to the past, the present, and the future to discover the true spirit of Christmas.

In “Ultimate Showdown,” the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles face off against new enemies and old, including the Rat King, Cockroach, Baxter Stockman and, of course, Kraang and the Shredder. The latest package includes 12 episodes on two discs –13 if you count the extended finale, “Showdown” — from Season One of the upgraded Nickelodeon series.

Adapted from an award-winning children’s book by Oliver Jeffers, “Lost and Found” has become a Christmas Eve staple in some countries. It is the first of his books to have been animated for the purpose of a movie. It tells the story of a little boy who one day finds a penguin on his doorstep. Although unsure what to do, the boy becomes determined to help the penguin find his way back home, even if that means rowing all the way to the South Pole. Jim Broadbent narrates this appealing tale about the power of friendship. It adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Laurence Anyways: Blu-ray
The frontrunner in this year’s race for Best Movie That No One’s Seen is “Laurence Anyways,” and it isn’t even close. In only his third feature, 23-year-old Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan dared to make the kind of epic romance – his description – that far more experienced filmmakers have tried and failed to do. That Dolan also had the chutzpah to make the protagonist of his nearly three-hour-long film a male-to-female transgender poet was a decision that either could have exploded in his face or made the judges at Cannes and other prestigious festivals stand up and take notice and that’s what happened. Although the French-language “Laurence Anyways” received virtually no distribution in the Lower 48, it made some money in Canada and France. If there’s any justice in the world, it should find an audience in DVD and Blu-ray, especially among viewers in the LGBT community. As for Cannes, Dolan had already proven that he belonged there with “I Killed My Mother” and “Heartbeats.” The former went three-for-three in Dolan’s first appearance, at 19, while the latter won the Regards Jeunes prize and was nominated in the Un Certain Regard category. At the 2012 fest, “Laurence Anyways” won the Queer Palm and, again, was nominated for an Un Certain Regard trophy. As it is, co-star Suzanne Clement was named Best Actress in Un Certain Regard competition.

The length of “Laurence Anyways” actually works in favor of Dolan’s conceit, in that it gives us lots of time to get past the poet’s sexual identity and for him to cut to the chase. We aren’t required to waste an hour or more as the poet and teacher, Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), agonizes over his decision to exit the closet and, unlike Danny Aiello’s character in “Pret-a-Porter,” Dolan allows him to be both handsome and beautiful. As we enter the film, Laurence and Frederique (Clement) appear to be enjoying a loving and sexually exuberant relationship. Unless I missed something, he seems to be strictly hetero, while Fred, as she prefers to be known, is a middle-age-sexy producer. For Laurence’s 35th birthday, Fred plans to surprise him with a getaway to New York. Instead, he picks the moment to inform her of his decision to live the rest of his life as a chick-with-a-dick. Laurence attempts to assure Fred of his continued passion for her and desire to keep having sex in the traditional way. Not being a lesbian or bisexual, however, Fred isn’t at all keen on the idea of sharing her bed with a person she still considers to be the man. After a 30-day vacation, Laurence returns to the classroom in heels, feminine slacks and blouse, and a long, dangling earring. At first, the students pretend to ignore his makeover, but, as his hair and narcissism grow, their numbers dwindle to the point where he/she (henceforth, for purposes of clarity, he) becomes a liability. As the narrative advances into the 1990s, Dolan alternates the individual stories of Laurence and Fred, as well as the reactions of their friends and family. Fred goes into an emotional tailspin that appears to end when she meets a nice, supportive guy. For his part, Laurence enters into a relationship with a pretty blond woman who accepts him as the woman he’s become. His economic status improves after he becomes a published author and is introduced to a faster, decidedly more eccentric crowd. Even if you’ve already guessed that the animal magnetism that first attracted Laurence to Fred hasn’t completely dissipated, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to predict what happens in the final 20 minutes.

Dolan invests a lot of visual flair and unexpected imagery into the narrative, surprising us with tableaux that are nothing short of poetic. He also has a gift for creating credible dialogue among characters who are at least 15 years older than he is. The women in Fred’s support group are alternately funny, catty, supportive and unnerved by her. The characters’ parents, including a mother played by Nathalie Baye, are given far more to do here than in most other such dramas. The filmmaker displays a keen eye for the telling detail, ranging from Laurence’s choice of accessories and the women’s household bric-a-brac, to the little things that differentiate Quebec from English-speaking Canada and Montreal from Paris. The musical soundtrack blends a wide selection of classical music with an eclectic mix of songs by Kim Carnes, the Cure, Headman, Depeche Mode and Celine Dion, among others. In another French touch, the characters smoke as many cigarettes during the course of the movie as the cast of “Mad Men” in an entire season. A separate disc adds a lengthy Q&A conducted after a MOMA screening, as well as almost an hour of deleted scenes and a photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka

The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Forty years after the release and stunning public response to “The Exorcist,” it would be impossible, even in Blu-ray, to re-create the same thrills and chills it inspired in audiences around the world. Apart from the natural dilution of the jump scares and horrifying language, there’s the elimination of the shared terror and sense of overwhelming dread that are integral benefits of the theatrical experience. Being able to watch “The Exorcist” with lights burning and a pause button at the ready dampens the intended effect, as well. Even so, every new viewing of William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty’s brilliant supernatural thriller – especially in hi-def, accompanied by a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 ES surround track – brings revelations well worth the investment of another 132 or 122 minutes of time. Every new wave of “Exorcist” audiences since 1973, of course, has discovered just how much it fun it can be to watch priests dodge green-pea soap, while trying to beat the devil at its own game. If, perchance, you fit that description, I recommend rounding up a group of similarly uninitiated friends and turning off the lights before pressing “play.” After watching it multiple times, there’s the additional pleasure of experiencing the scary parts on a super-slo-mo or frame-by-frame basis. Try doing that at the multiplex.

Really, the only pertinent question to be asked of “The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary Edition” is how it differs, if at all, from a dozen previous permutations, from Beta to Blu-ray. The set retains the “Extended Director’s Cut” and Friedkin’s 122-minute “Original Theatrical Cut,” as well as several bonus features. The first new featurette is “Beyond Comprehension: William Peter Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist,” in which the author returns to the Encino guesthouse where he wrote the novel, for the first time in 40 years. He then takes viewers to Georgetown University, where the film was shot, and the “Exorcist steps,” which has become a tourist attraction. The second is “Talk of the Devil,” a nearly 40-year-old discussion with Father Eugene Gallagher, the priest who revealed the case that inspired Blatty’s source novel. He talks at length about the exorcism process, the true story behind the case and his memories of Blatty’s college days. The vintage material includes a pair of commentaries and an introduction by Friedkin; a commentary by Blatty; the 1998 BBC documentary, “The Fear of God: 25 Years of ‘The Exorcist’”; “Raising Hell: Filming ‘The Exorcist’ Set,” produced and photographed by DP Owen Roizman; camera and makeup tests; interviews with Friedkin, Roizman and actress Linda Blair; a tour of the locations where the film was shot; “Faces of Evil: The Different Versions of ‘The Exorcist,’” with Friedkin and Blatty discussing the different versions of the film and featuring outtakes; the original ending and original cut; “Stairway to Heaven” and “The Final Reckoning”; sketches and storyboards; marketing material; and an excerpt from the memoir, “The Friedkin Connection.” – Gary Dretzka

The Hangover Part III: Blu-ray
A fitting subtitle for the third and least funny installment in Todd Phillips’ “Hangover” franchise would be, “When Bad Things Happen to Good Audiences.” “The Hangover III” demonstrates what can happen when a studio wants to capitalize immediately on a truly hilarious and extremely profitable property that probably took years to develop. By attempting to release two similarly lucrative sequels in the space of about three years, the producers and studio vastly over-estimated the ability of Phillips and various co-writers to produce something funny enough to validate the price of a ticket. Although “HII” was pretty much a re-make of “HI,” re-set in Thailand, it pulled in $581 million at the international box office, compared to a hardy $467 million for the original. Instead of receiving the same overwhelmingly positive reviews as “HI,” the sequel got mostly tepid notices. Not only were the critics openly hostile to “HIII,” but total grosses dropped more than $300 million, as well. No amount of negative punditry could drag revenues down to such a degree on their own. Negative word-of-mouth is what brought the series down to Earth. Perhaps, if the writers and viewers had been given a chance to catch their breath between installments, things might have turned out better. But that’s show business, circa 2013.

In the first two “Hangover” iterations, Phillips deployed Zach Galifianakis and Ken Jeong whenever it was necessary to lift the movie into another hilarious level of bad taste. In “HIII,” however, Phillips made the strategic mistake of forcing Alan and Mr. Chow to carry the undernourished narrative, instead of simply fortifying it with occasional outbursts of their outrageous behavior. We worry that the Wolfpack (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Justin Bartha) may have bitten off more than it can chew by agreeing to escort their borderline insane pal to rehab. (The early decapitation of a giraffe, already telegraphed in previews, establishes a far darker tone than usual.)  Instead, a mobster played by John Goodman and Melissa McCarthy’s love-struck pawn-shop owner are assigned the task of surprising viewers and, consummate pros that they are, they get some of the best laughs. Indeed, Galifianakis and Jeong both benefit when they’re in the same company as those veteran supporting actors. Moreover, the screenplay effectively turns “HIII” into a dramedy, as it forces to us to care too much about how the boys are going to get out of the fix they’ve created for themselves. But, what do I know? I only watch the damn things. Like fans of “HI,” every critic worth his or her salt was hoping against hope that each of the sequels would maintain the pace set by the original. When that didn’t happen, the disappointment was palpable across the board and the poison-pen reviews multiplied. Once again, the big-money boys succumbed to hubris by pushing their luck. There’s certainly nothing wrong sonically or visually with the Blu-ray presentation, though, and some of the making-of and background material – again, focusing on Galifianakis and Jeong — is as funny as anything in the movie. – Gary Dretzka

This Is the End
For those who might not immediately grasp what to expect from “This Is the End,” even considering previous comedies by members of the all-star cast, let me attempt to summarize it in four words: “National Lampoon’s Stoner Apocalypse.” Even if the same folks who invented the gross-out-comedy with “Animal House” had nothing to do with Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut, their fingerprints are all over it. Throw in the presence of such kindred actors as James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride and there should be no mistaking the trajectory of the not-holes-barred affair. Dozens of Hollywood’s elite young actors are invited to a party at the house of James Franco – all of them play themselves here – that promises to provide a prime example of show-business debauchery. With tongue very loosely in cheek, Rogan and Goldberg encourage such stars as Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Mindy Kaling, David Krumholtz, Rihanna, Paul Rudd, Channing Tatum, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari and Christopher Mintz-Plasse to dance, eat, drink, smoke doobies and drop pills to their heart’s content. And, for a while, it looks as if they’re having a blast. All hell breaks loose when Los Angeles is hit simultaneously by an earthquake that defies measurement by a Richter scale and what appears to be an alien invasion. Although, at first, the partiers are too stoned to appreciate the impact of the disaster, it soon becomes clear that the Lord’s fury won’t spare the industry’s new brat pack. Assuming that they’re doomed whatever happens, Rogan, Franco, Hill, Baruchel, Robinson, Robinson and McBride make the best of a bad situation by getting more stoned, drinking stronger booze and preparing a lavish last pig-out. Let’s leave it at that. Instead of being a huge mess and ego-trip, “This Is the End” measures its more intensely silly moments and integrate them strategically into a fast-moving stream of laughs. Also funny are the jabs the movie takes at “The Exorcist,” “2012,” “War of the Worlds,” the actors’ earlier films and every Syfy movie ever made. The Blu-ray adds commentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel, several making-of and background featurettes and a pair of relevant shorts. – Gary Dretzka

After Earth: Blu-ray
Fantastic Voyage: Blu-ray
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: Blu-ray
Watching Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan’s mega-budget, post-apocalyptic turkey, “After Earth,” I was reminded of what the Mayor Richard J. Daley once said about nepotism in city government, “What kind of society is this, where you’re afraid to appoint your nephew or your son or your relative, for fear of what might be said?” As was duly noted prior to the film’s release, the once-invincible Smith chose the project as a vehicle for his son, 13-years-old Jaden. The last time he appeared with Jaden, apart from the occasional home music, was seven years ago in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” which did pretty well here and abroad. This time around, however, the stakes were quite a bit higher and, if it weren’t for the foreign receipts, it would have tanked. As it is, ambitious plans for a line of ancillary products are all that didn’t take wing. I liked Jaden in “The Karate Kid” remake, where his role felt more appropriate to his age and physical stature than in “After Earth,” where he plays a cadet in an elite intergalactic ranger unit led by his largely absentee father, General Cypher Raige (Smith). He gives the role his best effort, even if he looks more suited to playing a long-distance runner on his high school’s track team than a highly trained monster-tracker on the new home planet for humans, Nova Prima. If Kitai Raige possesses the same “ghosting” gift as his father, though, he could be far more valuable as a ranger than a star athlete. In any case, we have to accept the character as given.

As the story goes, after the boy is held back a year in ranger school, Kitai’s mother convinces the General that he needs to spend more time bonding with his son and less obsessing on saving in the universe. He literally orders Kitai to join him on a trip to Nova Prima, but somehow the spacecraft is diverted to a crash landing on Earth, in which everyone except the Raiges dies. Having been uninhabited by humans for many centuries, the planet has reverted back to a wilderness in which animals have re-evolved into super-predators and volcanos spew ashes into the sky. With his father incapacitated, it becomes Kitai’s responsibility to trek through 100 kilometers of hostile territory to get to the sensor beacon left behind by a previous mission. Technology has advanced to the point where the General can follow Kitai’s every movement and alert him to danger. In the periods when he’s out of reach of his father, though, it becomes abundantly clear that Kitai isn’t nearly as tough as he once imagined himself to be. It’s during these moments of vulnerability that the young actor shines brightest, I think. Any athletic kid can be taught to fight a CGI monster, while being manipulated by wires in front of a green screen. Acting requires different skills altogether.

The variety of birds, animals and reptiles in the wilderness scenes — shot in northern California, Costa Rica, Utah and Switzerland – add a certain Edgar Rice Burroughs appeal to “After Earth.” I might have enjoyed the movie more if it had stuck to its original premise, which required the teenager to use survival techniques to find help for his father, after their car crashes in a non-alien, present-day forest. The sci-fi conceit frequently feels forced and overly complicated. Even so, the Blu-ray presentation nicely captures both the futuristic elements and Earth-bound adventure. The featurettes include, “A Father’s Legacy,” “1,000 Years in 300 Seconds,” “The Nature of the Future,” “Building a World,” “Pre-Visualizing the Future,” as well as an alternate opening sequence and introduction to the winner of a themed robotics competition.

I don’t know why exactly I decided to lump “Fantastic Voyage” and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” in the same capsule as “After Earth,” except to compare how sci-fi adventures have evolved in the last 50 years. Will the expensive special effects in “After Earth” still look as cool as they do a half-century down the turnpike? Just asking. If writer/director Irwin Allen were alive today, he’d probably be competing with Roger Corman for the rights to make cornball thrillers for the Syfy network. In his heyday, though, he was known far and wide as the “Master of Disaster” and several of his movies, including “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” were adapted for television. Although “Voyage” wasn’t a direct rip-off of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” actor Peter Lorre must have felt as if he was suffering from déjà vu. In the film version, the nuclear U.S.O.S. Seaview was designed and piloted by Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon), whose crew included Lorre, Barbara Eden and Joan Fontaine. On a test drive to the North Pole, they experience the first known effects of global warming when the Seaview is forced to navigate its way past sinking ice boulders (don’t ask) caused by heat from a fire on the Van Allen Belt (again, don’t ask). Nelson seeks permission to launch a missile to destroy the radiation belt, but faces resistance from his own team. Arguably, the worst thing about the movie is the submarine, itself. Its interiors more closely resemble those in a suburban office building than the cramped quarters of an actual submarine and crew members dress as if they’re going to work on casual Friday. If I recall Eden wears high heels and figure-enhancing dresses throughout. Kids today might get a kick out of watching a movie that was considered to be state-of-the-art in its day and now looks prehistoric. The bonus package adds a featurette tracking the history of similar sci-fi fare and an interview with Eden.

Five years later, a voyage of a different sort was dramatized on film and it was light years more advanced than the one to the bottom of the sea. In Richard Fleischer’s “Fantastic Voyage” a team of American scientists is assigned to a mission that requires them to navigate a nuclear-powered submersible that will be shrunk to the size of a corpuscle. Once miniaturized, the vessel will be injected into the blood stream of a Czech scientist, who, literally, is too valuable to be allowed to die of a clot. Once inside the man’s body, the sub-mariners are forced to defend the microscopic vessel from some of the same things – white blood cells, mucous, antibodies — that protect us from common diseases. It’s quite a trip, alright, and some of the science actually has become sci-fact. The sets also are a vast improvement from those used on “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and the TV series of the same title. This wasn’t the first miniature rodeo for Fleischer, either, as he directed Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” a dozen years earlier. For those who care about such things, “Fantastic Voyage” represented Racquel Welch’s first prominent role. When the submarine enters the ear canal, cotton-candy crystals form on her skin-suit, allowing team members to cop feels while rescuing her. The Blu-ray adds a commentary track with film and music historian Jeff Bond, an isolated score track with commentary by Bond, Jon Burlingame and Nick Redman, a discussion of the effects and storyboard-to-scene comparisons.  Welch notwithstanding, there’s nothing in this PG film a family couldn’t enjoy together.  – Gary Dretzka

The Eagle Has Landed: Blu-ray
Shout at the Devil: Blu-ray
Adapted in 1976 from a Jack Higgins’ best-seller, “The Eagle Has Landed” is a World War II adventure that feels a lot more old-fashioned than it actually is. One only has to compare John Sturges’ PG film with Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” to see just how far the genre has evolved – or, in the opinion of some fans, devolved – in depictions of violence, language and romance. In the wake of “Basterds” and Steven Spielberg’s WWII dramas, it’s impossible to imagine a war movie with so little carnage, cussing and unconsummated sex. It’s also difficult to imagine Michael Caine, Donald Pleasence and Robert Duvall being cast as accent-free Nazi plotters.  Christoph Waltz or Til Schweiger would have been awarded on of those roles, at least. Even if it’s far easier to accept Jean Marsh and Donald Sutherland as British and Irish collaborators, his wonderfully rakish IRA sympathizer would probably go to an actor from the old sod. On the other hand, Larry Hagman is absolutely dead-on as an American officer so full of himself that he almost manages to facilitate the 1943 kidnaping of Winston Churchill. The mission sprang from the twisted brain of Adolph Hitler, during a meeting of similarly delusional Nazi officials. When Der Fuhrer bounces the idea of capturing Churchill off them — as a way to deflate Allied ambitions in the months before D-Day — it’s passed down the chain of command as an order. At first, Duvall’s Colonel Radl thinks it rather ridiculous, but, being a professional soldier, figures out a way to make it work. It requires the freeing of Caine’s much-decorated commando leader Colonel Steiner from prison – he insulted a Gestapo officer for killing a Jewish woman attempting to escape a boxcar – and his loyal squad of crack paratroopers. Tipped by the spies to a trip planned by Churchill to his country retreat, Radl decides to insinuate Steiner’s unit into northern England in the guise of Polish paratroopers on a training mission. In Sturges’ hands, none of Radl’s plan seems far-fetched. Indeed, such a raid was considered, but not acted upon. Even if we know that Churchill survived the war unscathed, it’s easy to suspend disbelief long enough to imagine how such a plot might have played out. It’s terrifically entertaining as a vehicle for action and suspense. The Blu-ray makes the picture a bit more accessible than it has been in years and the new and old bonus features are well worth viewing.

The Germans take it on the chin, as well, in “Shout at the Devil.” This time, however, it’s in colonial East Africa and 30 years earlier than the period described in “Eagle Has Landed.” Also released in 1976, it stars Roger Moore and Lee Marvin as a pair of rascals who run afoul of a brutal German military official while poaching ivory in his territory. Marvin’s Colonel Flynn O’ Flynn has already conned Moore’s upper-crust adventurer, Sebastian Oldsmith, into joining him in the scheme by having his aide-de-camp (Ian Holm) steal the Australia-bound Brit’s money and passport. It would be nice if the pompous kraut had objected to the slaughter of elephants for moral or ethical reasons, but we hadn’t reached that point in our collective evolution yet. No, he just couldn’t bear watching valuable commodities being smuggled out from under his nose. Foiled, O’Flynn and Oldsmith find refuge in the Portuguese colony next-door, where the Irishman’s beautiful daughter (Barbara Parkins) is waiting patiently to become the movie’s love interest. It’s all fun and games until war is declared between the European powers. Then, Peter Hunt’s action-comedy takes a more dramatic turn, with British naval officials in Malta recruiting Moore and his partner to turn their desire for revenge into a courageous act of sabotage against a German warship. “Shout at the Devil” is a rip-roaring affair, which benefits from its South Africa and Malta locations. (It suffered in kind, however, because there was a boycott of all-things-South-African in place at the time and lots of folks refused to patronize the efforts of those who didn’t obey.) Marvin’s in top form here, as is the ever-dapper Moore, who was in the middle of his tenure as James Bond. It should be noted that, despite the Transkei setting, the native Africans were portrayed with dignity and as much authenticity as informed the rest of the movie. Fearing a backlash from  the poaching scenes, the producers added disclaimers in both the opening and closing credits to assure us that no animals were killed for entertainment value. The no-frills Blu-ray looks and sounds good. – Gary Dretzka

Zombie Hunter: Blu-ray
Despite Danny Trejo’s menacing presence on the cover of “Zombie Hunter,” he’s mostly there to add a bit of star quality to what otherwise must have been a low-budget affair. To his credit, Trejo spends considerably more time on screen here than in recent straight-to-DVD efforts that have promoted his brief presence. Fans won’t have to wait long before Trejo’s next starring appearance, which arrives next week in “Machete Kills,” Robert Rodriguez’ sequel to “Machete.” Here, the title character, Hunter, is played by tae -kwon-do specialist Martin Copping. After a new street drug favored by junkies enters the pharmaceutical food chain, its powerful side effects transform the majority of the world’s population into zombies. Among those who’ve fallen prey to the “eaters” are Hunter’s wife and daughter. With nothing to lose, he wanders through the Southwest killing every zombie he sees. Typically, this involves shooting them in the head, but Hunter also is adept at severing body parts with a blade, ax or the grill of his truck. After his truck is run off the road in the desert, Hunter is rescued by a group of like-minded survivors, ostensibly led by Trejo’s Jesus. Together, they hope to cut a swath through zombie-occupied territory that takes them to a hangar in which a plane stands ready to transport them to a zombie-free island. That, of course, is easier said than done. There’s a lot of fancy camera work in “Zombie Hunter,” as well as a larger-than-usual supply of gore. Co-writer/director K. King adds some humor and spice to the proceedings, but only a couple of the actors pull their share of the load. – Gary Dretzka

Corruption: Blu-ray
Grindhouse Releasing has done American fans of British cult flicks a great favor by cleaning up and sending out a crisp Blu-ray edition of the 1967 mad-doctor thriller, “Corruption.” Although it will never be confused with a classic, even within the genre, it’s still fun to watch. That’s primarily because of Peter Cushing’s interpretation of a distinguished older gentleman who goes to great lengths to please his much-younger lover. The other good reason is directors Robert Hartford-Davies’ depiction of young people enjoying the good life in Swinging London. The Carnaby Street fashions worn by the “birds” in the Jean Shrimpton hairdos, especially, are a treat to revisit. Cushing plays a knighted surgeon, whose model girlfriend’s face is disfigured by a hot lamp during an altercation in a photography studio.  He devises a treatment that requires the injection of hormones captured from a donor’s endocrine system. In this case, the donors are represented by prostitutes, hippie vagrants and a woman who makes the mistake of being in the same train car as the doctor. The treatment works, but not as a permanent solution. Trouble comes when the hippie chick’s criminal boyfriend confronts the doctor and his wife, demanding to know where she is. In fact, her head is only a few feet away from them, in the freezer. The Blu-ray/DVD package offers the censored and uncensored versions of “Corruption” (a.k.a., “Carnage”); interviews with stars Wendy Varnals, Billy Murray, Jan Waters and Cushing; commentary by UK horror journalist Jonathan Rigby and Peter Cushing biographer David Miller; isolated music and effects track; liner notes by Allan Bryce, editor of the British horror magazine, “The Dark Side”; still galleries, trailers, TV spots and radio spots; the original annotated director’s shooting script and production notes; and a reversible cover with original art by illustrator Rick Melton. – Gary Dretzka

Curse of Chucky: Unrated: Blu-ray
Adam Chaplin: Violent Avenger
Resolution: Blu-ray
Scream Factory All Night Horror Marathon
Static: Blu-ray 3D
Some medical researchers spend their entire career looking for a cure for cancer, even knowing that they’ll likely retire without making a dent in the scourge. Creator/writer/co-director Don Mancini has spent the last 25 years of his life attempting either to improve on his surprise 1988 hit, “Children’s Play,” or create the perfect “Chucky.” After writing nine sequels and directing three, including the new “Curse of Chucky,” he’s apparently come to the conclusion that less is more and he actually got it right the first time. After fiddling with the mythology in “Bride of Chucky” and “Seed of Chucky,” Mancini has returned from a decade-long hiatus with a direct-to-video edition – the franchise’s first – that once again accentuates the horror. Compared to most other sequels and prequels to popular franchises, “Curse of Chucky” is quite good. This time, a package containing Chucky mysteriously arrives at the house of Nica (Fiona Dourif), a paraplegic whose mother will soon feel the wrath of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif, Fiona’s father), the serial killer whose evil spirit controls the doll’s actions. When family members attempt to talk Nica into selling the house and sharing the money, Chucky is always in the background eavesdropping on their conversations and plotting his next move. The little redhead is a sadistic bastard, even after all these years. The publicity material makes no secret of the presence of the always welcome Jennifer Tilly, but you’ll have to watch almost the whole movie to see where she fits into the murderous fun. The Blu-ray package includes both R-rated and unrated cuts; commentary with Mancini, Fiona Dourif and puppeteer Tony Gardner; deleted scenes; a gag reel; and featurettes “Playing With Dolls: The Making of ‘Curse of Chucky’”; “Living Doll: Bringing Chucky to Life”; “Voodoo Doll: The Chucky Legacy”; and storyboard comparisons.

Made in 2011, the Italian export “Adam Chaplin: Violent Avenger” recalls both the heyday of giallo and Japanese genre fare in the 1980s. Overflowing with splashy colors and splotches of blood, first-timer Emanuele De Santi’s revenge follows a stringy-haired fiend, Adam (De Santi), as he traces the murder of his wife to a well-connected mafia boss. Adam enlists the help of a powerful demon, who infuses in him superhuman strength. The result is a gory battle royal. The distributor, Autonomy Pictures, has already delivered two of the strangest movies in memory, “The Bunny Game” and “Blood for Irina,” and seems extremely comfortable with extreme material.

In the atypical indie thriller “Resolution,” Michael (Peter Cilella) rides to the rescue of his longtime best friend Chris (Vinny Curran), who’s holed up in a cabin smoking meth and shooting at invisible birds. If he weren’t so strung out, Chris could be a poster boy for the NRA. Michael wants very much to drag Chris into town and lead him to the nearest rehab facility. Instead, he’s forced to Taser his recalcitrant buddy and chain him to a pipe until he dries out. In the meantime, Michael surveys the mountainous land that surrounds the cabin and borders an Indian reservation. As he learns more about the area’s history as a refuge for vagabonds, outlaws, conspiracy theorists, old hippies and armed meth heads, “Resolution” quietly and methodically gets more and more mysterious … not creepy, exactly, but definitely strange. Michael was initially lured to the cabin by streamed video material that Chris claims not to have sent. Messages continue to arrive from sources unknown and they’re increasingly more prophetic. If one doesn’t go into the movie expecting barrels of gore and loud scares, “Resolution” can be an extremely entertaining and memorable experience.  The Blu-ray adds interviews with co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead; outtakes and alternate scenes; and making-of material. I can’t wait to see what the filmmakers do next.

In its never-ending quest to induce nightmares in its customers, Shout!Factory’s Scream Factory division is sending out “Movie Marathon” packages containing four vintage genre thrillers each time. This month’s horror package includes “What’s The Matter With Helen?,” starring Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters; “The Godsend,” about a kind-hearted family that takes in a newborn orphan and lives to regret it; “The Vagrant,” a humorous psychological thriller with Bill Paxton, Michael Ironside and Marshall Bell, as the vagrant; and “The Outing” (a.k.a., “The Lamp”), about a malevolent genie awakened by clumsy burglars.

First-time co-writer/director Todd Levin borrows so many conceits from other scary movies that “Static” should come with footnotes. A novelist and his wife (Milo Ventimiglia, Sarah Shahi) are still mourning the recent death by drowning of their young son when, late one night, a mysterious girl (Sara Paxton) shows up at the door of their secluded rural home. No sooner does she relate a story about strange men in hoodies and gas masks, than the girl starts insinuating herself into their lives and, yes, the aforementioned guys in hoodies and gas mask begin to menace the couple. They put up a strong defense, but the husband loses his gun when he needs it most. During their attempt to escape, they find evidence that strangers have been stalking them all along. Stop, if you’ve heard this one already. In short, the execution here doesn’t measure up to the setup. Every time you expect the jump scares to arrive and loud noises to erupt from your speakers, things slow to a crawl. Maybe, it’s more frightening in 3D, but I wouldn’t go out and buy a HD3D set to find out. The actors, only three of whom have faces, do what they’re asked to do. It’s just that they lack support. – Gary Dretzka

Approaching Midnight
This is the kind of movie one watches in a theater and wonders if the projectionist either misplaced a reel or fell asleep halfway through it. There’s a trial in the final third of “Approaching Midnight,” for example, that includes a couple of ludicrously impassioned speeches by witnesses, but, as far as I can tell, no verdict. The setting simply changes to a field, where the protagonist is chopping wood and awaiting the arrival of a helicopter carrying a CIA type. After chatting a bit, the spook hops back into the helicopter and the end credits begin to roll. Giving the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt, I went back to the chapter lineup to see if my player skipped one. It hadn’t. It’s as if writer/director/actor Sam Logan Khaleghi hadn’t ever watched a movie from start to finish. He is, however, an actor with several decent credits to his name. He plays Army staff sergeant Wesley Kent, who returns from a tour of duty in Afghanistan with a serious wound and questions about why his trucks were attacked not by Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters, but “pirates.” Why? Don’t ask. When Wesley gets home, he inexplicably goes from hero to goat, simply because he begins to question a local arms manufacturer’s role as a backer of the pirates. Why? Don’t ask. Prior to enlisting, Wesley was dating the industrialist’s daughter, who died mysteriously in a car accident as she was about to blow the whistle on her dad’s operation. Why? Don’t ask. And, so it goes. There’s no doubting the sincerity of Khaleghi and his cast members, but sincerity only takes viewers so far. Filmmakers also must concern themselves with making sure the audience doesn’t leave the theater with more questions than when they arrived. – Gary Dretzka

Berlin Job: Blu-ray
To coin a phrase used by British critics, “Berlin Job” is a “guns and geezers” flick in the tradition of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Reservoir Dogs.” Some people might even recognize a thing or two from the “Oceans” series, as well. By now, it’s practically a subgenre of its own and you either buy into the Cockney-criminal bit or you don’t. Those who do should have a pretty good time with “Berlin Job,” if only because it features so many familiar faces. Frank Harper, Craig Fairbrass and Charles Dance play old-school London gangsters who’ve managed to stay alive, even though everybody in town knows what they do for a living and one of Scotland Yard’s finest has been on their tails since they were knee high to a English sheep dog. They aren’t reluctant to enlist soccer hooligans and Afghanistan veterans in their schemes, which always seem to be arranged in strip clubs. Here, one of gang leaders decides on his own to go into business with the Russian mob on a huge cocaine deal. Things begin to go sideways when the shipment goes missing and the body of one of the Russkies washes up on the shore of the Thames. To avoid being turned into borscht, the Brits agree to pay back their share of deal, with interest for the dead guy. The only thing the Brits can do that might return the kind of money they’ll need to avoid a war is a diamond heist in Berlin, which is where a major soccer match is about to take place. It just might work, but only if a dense enough smokescreen can be created to keep the police from figuring out what’s going down. If anything, the plan seems too pat. This isn’t to say, however, that it isn’t fun watching the geezers dodge the cops, weed out the informers (“grass”) and pull the wool over the eyes of the Russians. The Blu-ray adds an entertaining making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Best of an Evening at the Improv
Besides being a very funny collection of standup performances, the four-disc “Best of an Evening at the Improv” represents a time capsule from a period before there was a comedy or magic club on every corner and comics didn’t dare dream of becoming sitcom stars. Being funny in front of a live audience was enough, at least until Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser and Drew Carey hit it big. Soon, TV show-runners would begin scouting the clubs for new talent, just as representatives of late-night talk and variety shows had been doing for years. How far back do the bits included in the package take us? Well, Seinfeld was still working out the kinks in material involving missing socks and weather reports on Los Angeles television stations. Michael Keaton was touring the club circuit and impersonations of Ed Sullivan (John Byner) and Sammy Davis Jr. (Jim Carry) still killed. Howie Mandel’s act hasn’t changed appreciably, however. The special-edition package was culled from the first 52 original hours of the television series, which ran in syndication from 1983-96.  It contains 12 hours of comedy, supplied by performers old and young, soon-to-be-famous and splashes in the pan. Among the 60-plus other comics and hosts are Mort Sahl, Phil Foster, Billy Crystal, Leslie Nielsen, Phyllis Diller, Jackie Mason, Bob Townsend, James Coco, Elayne Boosler, Paul Reiser, Bill Maher, Paul Rodriguez, Milton Berle, Sandra Bernhard, Shecky Green, Pee-wee Herman, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Richard Belzer and Shelley Berman. Compared to clips you might find on YouTube, the production values here are quite good. – Gary Dretzka

Midnight’s Children
While not essential to enjoy Deepa Mehta’s absorbing multi-generational drama, “Midnight’s Children,” it wouldn’t hurt to at least take a peek at the Wikipedia page devoted to the Partition of India before investing 146 minutes watching it. Along with Mehta, Salmon Rushdie adapted the movie from his 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel that deals with India’s transition from British colonialism to independence, the partition and on to the administration of Indira Gandhi. At the stroke of midnight on August 15th, 1947, as India declares independence from Great Britain, two babies are switched at birth by a nurse in a Bombay hospital. Significantly, one’s birth parents are wealthy, while the other is the bastard child of a beggar. One would be raised in Pakistan and suffer all sorts of indignities, while the other would grow up to be an Indian war hero. As a work of magical realism, Rushdie invests in all children born between midnight and 1a.m. on independence day special powers, including telepathy. Protagonist Saleem Sinai uses his power to bring together children from around the country who were born on the same day. His adventures, especially, reflect the events that shaped the next 30 years of turmoil and growth. The lives of Saleem and Shiva, the boy with whom he was switched, intertwine throughout much of the same period. Mehta’s film is beautifully shot and packed with intensely emotional moments. It also is long and occasionally unwieldy, which is why it helps being invested in the history before tackling the movie. – Gary Dretzka

The Hot Nights of Linda: Blu-ray
How to Seduce a Virgin
In Hell
House on Straw Hill: Blu-ray
The Sack of Rome
4 Dead Girls: The Soul Taker
When writer/director/composer Jesus “Jess” Franco shuffled off this mortal coil last April, a month before his 83rd birthday, his cinematic legacy included some 200 features of wildly divergent quality, visibility and parentage, as he adopted dozens of known pseudonyms. The closest the Madrid-born filmmaker would come to the Pantheon, however, was in the sexually awakened 1970s, when the Roman Church declared him one of the most dangerous filmmakers for Catholics, along with fellow Spaniard-in-exile Luis Bunuel. Like President Nixon’s Enemies List, such a dubious distinction was more of a badge of honor than a curse. Although he began his career as a composer and assistant to some of Spain’s top directors, he, like Roger Corman, quickly came to understand where the most money and freedom could be found. Despite such early international hits as “Succubus,” “Vampyros Lesbos,” “Venus in Furs” and “Diary of a Nymphomaniac,” Franco would have difficulty finding financing and distribution for hard-core horror flicks that were in vogue in the 1970s. Eventually, he turned to the direct-to-video market for movies that sliced and diced material from previous Franco products. In the wake of his death, it’s likely that we’re in store for a resurgence of interest in his catalogue from video distributors and fans. If the re-releases are handled with the same care as Impulse Pictures’ Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection, his legacy will be honored.

How to Seduce a Virgin” and “The Hot Nights of Linda” (a.k.a., “But Who Raped Linda?”) represent an encouraging start. To help viewers understand what viewers can expect in the latter, the distributor’s blurb-meister offers this, “Severin is proud to present one of (Franco’s) most notorious slabs of uber-sleaze.” In some genres, that is considered to be high praise, I guess. In it, Alice Arno (“Justine de Sade”) accepts a position as secretary in the Greek island home of a depraved millionaire – is there any other kind? – with two beautiful daughters. The one played by Franco’s muse, Lina Romay,  is, to borrow a quaint term, a nymphomaniac, while her invalid sister (Catherine Lafferiere) spends her days pleasuring herself and avoiding men. Despite her employer’s warning, it isn’t long before the secretary is lured into the family’s deep, dark mystery. A handsome, if dimwitted houseboy is worked into this scenario, as well, partially for his stud services and someone the boss can brutalize. “Hot Nights” isn’t one of Franco’s brightest moments, but it represents the kind of work he was doing in his hard-core period, when he frequently threw incest, lesbianism, sadism, rape, humor and murder into a blender, just to see how it would taste. The Blu-ray presentation has its problems, but it’s miles ahead of the undubbed, hard-core “banana edition” of “Linda,” which contains hard-core inserts and was restored from a 35mm print discovered in a Barcelona brothel. The bonus material adds interviews with Franco and Romay; footage of Franco being honored with Fantasticfest’s Lifetime Achievement Award; author Stephen Thrower’s observations of “Hot Nights”; and outtakes.

Released in 1974, “How to Seduce a Virgin” (“Plaisir a trois”) employs soft-core sex to illustrate a story that originated with the Marquis de Sade (not a first for Franco). The movie opens as the beautiful Countess Martine de Bressac (Arno) is about to be released from an expensive asylum, but not before she’s warned not to revert to her old ways. In a flashback, we learn that she was incarcerated after castrating a lover, so any repeat of that cruel deed would require more extreme punishment. Still, it doesn’t take very long for the countess to backslide, several examples of which have been immortalized in a basement gallery. Her husband, Charles, goes along with her desire to seduce the virginal daughter of a rich neighbor. The girl isn’t nearly as innocent as she lets on, however, and therein lies De Sade’s rub. Nicely shot and designed, “Virgin” reminds me of such contemporary soft-core classics as Radley Metzger’s “Lickerish Quartet” and “Camille 2000.” The DVD adds an interview with writer Alain Petit, introduction by critic Stephen Thrower, newly created optional subtitles, extensive production notes and some wild Mondo Macabro previews.

In Hell” is a work of art that confirms the old adage, “You can’t tell a DVD by its cover.” The cover art suggests that what lies inside is a movie that contains much girl/girl S&M action, while the text blurb exclaims, “He dared to make the ultimate movie.” I’m a big fan of DVDs from One7Movies, but this is as bizarre a case of misleading advertising as I’ve come across in a long time. Released in 1975 as “Gloria Mundi” – not to be confused with either of the naked babes on the jacket – “In Hell” bears a greater resemblance to “Z” than “The Story of O.” In fact, the guy who dares to create the” ultimate movie” is an anti-fascist radical, Hamdias, attempting to make a statement about torture and how colonial powers use it to intimidate freedom fighters (or terrorists, depending on which side of the fence one stands). And, yes, there is lots of nudity. Olga Karlatos plays the actress who experiences the brunt of the torture by French inquisitors in Algeria. She’s beautiful, even though her body is scarred with ugly cigarette and cigar burns. When the French secret service gets wind of the movie, they plot to shut down the project and arrest Hamdias. Still underground, Hamdias orders the actress to cover his tracks, while also promoting the unfinished product and, while she’s at it, getting rid of an explosive device. In addition to being a true believer of anti-imperialist causes, the actress is in love with Hamdias, who appears to be holding her son hostage. By either title, “Gloria Mundi” is an excellent example of 1970s agitprop cinema, created by one of the most interesting personalities of the 20th Century, Nico Papatakis. Among many other things, Papatakis helped John Casavetes finance “Shadows” and he also produced Jean Genet’s only movie. Anyone expecting “In Hell” to be anything resembling a stroke film is going to be sorely disappointed. I’m glad One7Movies has seen fit to release it under any banner. It was withdrawn from release when the extreme right threatened to plant bombs in the cinemas where it was showing, and had to wait until 2005 to be screened again in Paris.

Besides being made in the UK, where it was banned for three decades, “The House on Straw Hill” fits into this bunch because of its delicious mix of sex, violence and genre icons. If the presence of a young Udo Kier weren’t enough cause for celebration, there are the pulp bombshells Linda Hayden (“Blood on Satan’s Claw,” “Taste the Blood of Dracula”) and Fiona Richmond (“Britain’s No.1 sex symbol”). The mystery isn’t all that difficult to figure out, but, at least, it makes sense. Kier plays a successful, if blocked novelist in desperate need of a quiet place to write and a typist to put his words down on paper. The writer thinks that he recognizes the typist, but can’t place her face.  If you can’t figure out what happens in the next 90 minutes, you can’t claim to be a genre buff. And, I won’t spoil the fun here, either. For the first time in many years, “House on Straw Hill” (“Trauma,” “Expose”) arrives intact and far easier on the eyes, thanks to Blu-ray. The bonus materials include commentary with director James Kenelm Clarke and producer Brian Smedley-Aston; new interviews with Clarke and and the delightful Ms. Hayden; and a separate disc describing how the film ended up on the same list of banned videos as “The Exorcist,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Toolbox Murders.”

Released in 1992, “The Sack of Rome” (a.k.a., “Zoloto”) is a Russian/Italian co-production that should appeal to fans of such American cable series as “The Borgias,” “Borgia,” “Rome” and “Game of Thrones.” In addition to loose, if imaginatively drawn readings of history, they all share a dependence on nudity, sex and violence to keep viewers coming back for more. We’re told that the year is 1527, which puts it after the sacking of the Eternal City by Vandals, but before the Ostrogoths accomplished the same thing. The mercenaries also are referred to as “Lutherans,” although they didn’t look very religious to me. Franco Nero plays painter Gabriele da Poppi (Franco Nero), a libertine who believes that his status as a respected artist should give him a free pass from the turmoil outside his doors. It doesn’t, though. Fabio Bonzi’s film has an appealingly gritty period feel to the settings, interiors and costumes that’s frequently missing in the television mini-series. It arrives with a photo gallery.

There are actually five dead girls in “4 Dead Girls: The Soul Taker,” but, after nodding off, who’s counting? Among the problems that present themselves when working on a micro-budget is not having enough money to make your picture sufficiently logical, scary or erotic. With a title like “4 Dead Girls,” being frightening and erotic should be a top priority. Being logical is a good thing for any movie to be, too, but it’s not essential when the other two qualities are there in abundance. Here, four young women move into a comfortable house not far from a university campus. (They aren’t aware of the fifth dead girl, who was dispatched before the opening credits rolled.) The landlord is an archetypal creep who can’t help but grin when thinking about what’s going to happen to his new tenants. In fact, he is a “soul eater” with a taste for bad girls. In his vapor form, the landlord can slip past closed doors, eavesdrop on conversations and watch three of the four women have sex. He’s tricked out the house so that he controls the locks on the doors and windows, which, of course, can’t be opened without permission or broken by thrown chairs. The only thing that frustrates him is a girl who refuses to be naughty. It’s difficult to imagine why a bible-reading coed would want to room alongside a lesbian couple and aspiring prostitute, but we all make sacrifices for art. Apart from the bargain-basement effects, “4 Dead Girls” suffers from insufficient plotting or any reason to care deeply about the tenants’ safety. – Gary Dretzka

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Call Me Kuchu
Chasing Ice
Some documentaries hit home harder than others. I’ve watched several films that not only have helped expose the many incidences of pedophilia among the priesthood, but also cover-ups that have reached the Vatican’s inner circle and cost the Church hundreds of millions of dollars. Alex Gibney’s “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” chronicles decades of abuse at Milwaukee’s St. John’s School for the Deaf – 200 documented cases – in the mid-1900s. The school sits less than three miles from where I was raised and we regularly participated in sporting events with the students. The boys, at least, were extremely competitive and scrappy. It’s entirely possible that some of the people we meet in “Mea Maxima Culpa” were victims of the predatory Father Lawrence Murphy and the priest might have coached some of teams we played against. At the time, in Milwaukee and elsewhere, priests were treated with a deference that approached deification. As schoolboys, we knew from first-hand evidence that priests were capable of being alcoholics, brutes and poor sports when things didn’t go their way. I knew of one who married a young woman down the block, but can’t remember being made aware of a single instance of sexual abuse or pedophilia. My naiveté would come crashing down around my head when documentaries and feature films began addressing the problem and Catholics of all ages came out of the shadows to describe the incidents, name names and admit to their shame and lingering feelings of misplaced guilt. Some of the boys who were abused at St. John’s decided to fight back, even back then, by outing Murphy to parishioners on the city’s South Side and, when that was ignored, taking their case to the offices of bishops, Church lawyers, journalists, lay officials and, almost 30 years later, directly to Vatican. On the long road to vindication, they would be met with a thick wall of silence, the disbelief of their parents, open hostility from nuns and Church faithful, excruciating delays and, ultimately, a bankrupt diocese. As Gibney argues, the Church has historically rejected excommunication and criminal prosecution for bad priests, preferring to move them from one diocese to another or treat them with prayer. The petitioners also would be bolstered by movements around the world to expose, punish and defrock priests just as heinous as Murphy. When Pope Benedict stepped down from the papacy last year, he took with him a personal memory bank containing the names and crimes of thousands of priests that he had investigated as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Although it’s possible to believe that Benedict was as horrified as any lay person by the testimony of abused Catholics, he defended the confidentiality of internal church investigations. “Mea Maxima Culpa” is a difficult documentary to watch, especially for Catholics who are grasping for reasons to believe in the Church in the face of such terrible evidence.

Anyone who believes the atrocities of World War II won’t be repeated in their lifetime hasn’t been paying attention to repeated incidents of genocide over the past nearly 70 years. Nor are they aware of the legality of executions of LGBT individuals in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Mauritania, Yemen and parts of Nigeria. This week, in Kuwait, the government we returned to power in the first Gulf War announced that it had developed a
“gay detector,” designed to keep LGBT expatriates from entering the country and other Gulf nations. Russian lawmakers have threatened to incarcerate Olympic athletes who they believe to be gay or lesbian. Uganda, the same country that’s given us Idi Amin and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, could very well be the next country to punish LGBT citizens with death. As we learn in “Call Me Kuchu (Queer),” the persecution is so blatant and alarming that it can only be compared to the rhetorical campaign against Jews in the lead-up to World War II. Newspapers, including one called Rolling Stone, have compiled “hit lists” against people who are openly gay and printed outrageous lies about lifestyle choices and political motivations. A bill awaiting debate in Parliament would forbid doctors from treating people suspected of having AIDS and imprison anyone who doesn’t report the sexual identity of friends, neighbors and relatives. Sane lawmakers have been able to postpone debate for two years, but, with the vast majority of Ugandans in favor of the legislation, it could only be a matter of time. As if there weren’t enough native bigots, however, white American evangelists are shown whipping crowds into a frenzy of hate, as well. The defense is led here by David Kato, Uganda s first openly gay man, and retired Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. During the course of filming, Kato would die from injuries sustained in a beating. Employing tactics possibly inspired by the Westboro Baptist Church, Bible-quoting religious extremists are shown disrupting his funeral. As world leaders and political activists in Europe and the United State demand justice for Kato’s death, we listen to people on the other side advocating the hanging of known LGBT Ugandans. “Call Me Kuchu” was directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall. Even if it’s nearly impossible to watch from beginning to end without becoming physically ill, a little bit of it goes a long way toward informing viewers of an atrocity waiting to happen.

The debate over global warming has gotten so politicized that it’s become a chore to watch every new documentary on the subject or listen to a Fox News nitwit denigrate the work of scientists and environmentalists, simply because liberals have embraced the issue. Statistics and data are meaningless when the undecided have stopped listening and partisans have nothing new to add to the discussion. National Geographic photographer James Balog understands that while pictures don’t lie, they don’t always tell the whole story. After an assignment in Iceland, Balog decided to document the effects of global warming on the polar icecap over the course of a three-year period, up-close and in color. The result is “Chasing Ice.” His team would deploy time-lapse cameras across the Arctic and above glaciers in Iceland and Montana. He also has been analyzing data from ice cores collected on glaciers and ice caps. Given the brutal conditions experienced in the Arctic winter, Balog knew that his project was anything but a no-brainer. No one could anticipate in advance how the frigid temperatures and intense storms would impact the circuitry of the camera and their precarious hold on the anchors. That he was also risking his life taking foolhardy chances is also made abundantly clear. If the images weren’t so darned beautiful, the doc might be too depressing to watch. – Gary Dretzka

FX: American Horror Story: Asylum: Blu-ray
BBC: The Secret of Crickley Hall/In the Flesh
CW: Nikita: The Complete Third Season
USA: White Collar: The Complete Fourth Season
Fox: Bones: The Complete Eighth Season: Blu-ray
Adult Swim: Robot Chicken: Season 6: Blu-ray
One of the things for newcomers to know before jumping headfirst into any new season of “American Horror Story” is that it isn’t just scary. It also can be unrelentingly cruel, evil, ugly, unnerving, profane, sacrilegious and depraved. Once you’re hooked on it, however, it’s impossible to get too much of it. What atrocity can they throw at us this week? In keeping with the producers’ desire to make “American Horror Story” an anthology mini-series, the second season of the show offers a completely different setting and timeframe than the first. The presence of two-time Academy Award-winner Jessica Lange is arguably the most essential thread connecting both seasons, although several other actors return in different roles. Last year, Lange won an Emmy as Best Supporting Actress in a Mini-Series or Movie for her portrayal of the evil neighbor, while, this year, she was nominated as Best Actress as the twisted nun, Sister Jude Martin. It was one of 17 nominations the show received. “AHS: Aysylum” is set in and around a former tuberculosis hospital, which the Catholic Church has transformed into a facility for the criminally insane, Briarcliff. It’s 1964, so the nurses and doctors still employ treatment techniques – lobotomies, electroconvulsive-shock treatments, exorcism — that wouldn’t have been out of place at a World War II concentration camp, where, if one believes the rumors, James Cromwell’s Dr. Arthur Arden might have interned. Arden’s the kind of doctor whose ethical code permits late-night trysts with patients and vulnerable staff members. Among the patients are a skin-wearing psychopath, known as Bloody Face; a pinhead, right out of Todd Browning’s “Freaks”; a woman who believes that she’s Anne Frank; and a guy who killed 18 people from 5 different families on Christmas. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes; “The Orderly,” a short in which an interview goes haywire when Bloody Face interrupts; a collection of interviews and clips from Season Two; and featurettes on the production design and special makeup effects.  The third season title, “AHS: Coven,” ought to whet most fans appetite for more thrills.

Not to be outdone by American purveyors of supernatural terror and paranormal kicks, the BBC has jumped into the genre with a pair of dandy mini-series. Typically, neither show is reliant on gore or loud noises to raise goosebumps in viewers. Horror nerds may miss such gratuitous crutches, but serious students of the genre won’t. After all, there’s no scarcity of good options for fans of extreme horror. “The Secret of Crickley Hall” combines ghosts with elements of traditional British whodunits in a story that unfolds over three chilling episodes.  A year after their little boy goes missing, the Caleighs move with their two daughters to creepy Crickley Hall, where they hope to clear their heads and Gabe has easy access to a new job. It doesn’t take long for Eve and the children to begin sensing they aren’t alone in the onetime orphanage. After some investigation, it’s revealed that several children drowned there in 1943 after falling into a river that runs below the building. When Eve hears her son’s voice in a spinning top, she opens up a wound that has been festering for 70 years.

The Beeb’s zombie drama, “In the Flesh,” appears to have taken a cue from “Warm Bodies,” a revisionist treatise on the undead mythos, in which victims can be cured in the name of love. Here, though, people killed in 2015 rise from the dead some time later and engage in battles with humans. Both sides experience heavy losses, but, in a twist, zombie POWs are detained in a holding center, where a cure for brain craving is discovered and tested on them. And, guess what, it works. In a decision that is extremely unpopular with the locals, patients cured of Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) are allowed to return to their homes and attempt to re-assimilate into polite society. Through the experiences of Keiren Walker, a young PDS sufferer, we witness armed resistance to the returnees, as well as uneasy reunions with friends and family. Both mini-series were designed to pull our emotional strings, as well as frighten us. The strategy works.

An aura of gold surrounds the Blu-ray release of “Nikita: The Complete Third Season,” the CW’s sexy action/adventure that will add a fourth stanza in November. Based on Luc Besson’s hugely influential 1990 thriller, “La Femme Nikita,” which, in 1993, spawned the Americanized remake, “Point of No Return,” and two fine television series, 1997-201 and 2010-present. The premise in all of its iterations is simplicity, itself. A hardened criminal is rescued from a life sentence in a top security prison by a secret government agency, looking for a woman who can be shaped into an assassin. Nikita’s background has been massaged through the years, but the constants include her sizzling hot beauty and figure, leather micro-miniskirts, sky-high pumps and the ability to take out our worst enemies. Anne Parillaud passed the torch to Bridget Fonda, who handed it off to Peta Wilson and Maggie Q. Without them, it’s likely that movies and TV wouldn’t be populated today with as many action heroines who could pass for fashion models. Is that progress or what? In Season Three, Nikita, Michael and CIA analyst Ryan Fletcher are heading Division, and have been tasked by the president to clean up after the previous regime. The team includes punk hacker, Seymour; Nikita’s protégé, Alex; ex-Navy SEAL, Sean; and Owen, who’s back from a Russian prison. They’re tasked with rounding up the Dirty Thirty, rogue assassins who remain at large around the globe. The Blu-ray adds a gag reel and unaired scenes.

Debonair con artist Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) is up to his old tricks again in the fourth and, perhaps, penultimate season of USA’s wonderful action dramedy, “White Collar.” As usual, the set opens with Neal facing some kind threat to his freedom. This time, he’s laying low in the Cape Verde Islands with Mozzie, with their FBI friends and enemies hot on their trail. When they turn to the richest man in the islands for help, the decision leads both to more revelations about Neal’s past and clever heists. Among the guest stars are Treat Williams, Mekhi Phifer, Gregg Henry, Mia Maestro, Perrey Reeves, Judith Ivey and Michael Weston, who’s not to be confused with Michael Westen of “Burn Notice.” The DVD adds deleted scenes, a gag reel, commentary on “In the Wind” and featurette on Tim Dekay’s turn in the director’s chair.

Any series that can boast of an eight-year tenure on broadcast television is doing something extremely right. It also means that the show and its actors don’t require too much care and feeding from network executives. Fox’s forensics series, “Bones,” has several very good things going for it, not the least of which are Zooey Deschanel’s older sister, Emily; her partner in solving crimes, Peter Boreanaz; and a writing team that includes crime novelist and forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs. Indeed, Deschanel’s Temperance Brennan is modeled after the protagonist of Reichs’ crime novels, just as the fictional Brennan writes mysteries under the pseudonym, Kathy Reichs. In Season Eight, Brennan is reunited with Booth (David Boreanaz) and the squints after spending the show’s summer hiatus on the run from the law, after she was framed by archenemy Christopher Pelant. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a gag reel, commentary on select episodes, a Q&A with Bones and a piece on the show’s loyal fan base.

What is it about chickens that make people laugh? Thousands of them are sacrificed each day to keep us well fed, while their unhatched chicks are abducted before they’ve even had a chance to meet their parents. Incredibly dumb, they can be hypnotized by drawing a line in front of their beaks. And, yet, what’s funnier than a grown man dressed in a chicken costume? How about “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead,” “Chicken Little,” the Funky Chicken and “Chickenman.” Add a chicken to a sitcom and it instantly produces laughs. So, is it any surprise that the completely wacked out Adult Swim comedy, “Robot Chicken,” has survived six hilarious seasons? Created by Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, “Robot Chicken” is based on the photo-comic “Twisted ToyFare Theater.” It resembles “Team America: World Police” in its use of stop-motion animation and Claymation to make action figures, toys and other pop-cultural icons come alive, just so they can parodied to within an inch of their imaginary lives. As is the case with other such comedies, the creative team doesn’t leave much room for dud jokes. It just keeps throwing gags against the wall to see who will laugh. I did, a lot. And, no, not every sketch requires the presence of chickens. In fact, the title was inspired by a dish on the menu at a West Hollywood Chinese restaurant. The Blu-ray adds two hours of special features. – Gary Dretzka

The Guild: Season Six
Transformers Prime: Predacons Rising: Blu-ray
Totally Spies! Collection: Seasons 1-3
After a successful, ground-breaking run of the Internet series “The Guild,” its creator Felicia Day decided that “The Game” had gone on long enough and called the show a day with Season Six. It opens with Codex (Day) accepting a job at the headquarters of the Game and becoming disillusioned with the petty corporate culture and backstabbing. Much intrigue surrounds the release of the “underwater expansion pack,” which some think holds the key to the future of the Game. Resolutions to the storylines involving other members of the Knights of Good also reached before the season’s end. If none of this makes sense to non-gamers and YouTube junkies, the easiest way to explain it is by saying that Day, an actor and avid participant in the World of Warcraft realm, was able to parlay her addiction into a successful Internet commodity. Once established, “The Guild” attracted the interest of such companies as Microsoft. A “Megaset” compilation is being released simultaneously, just in time for the gifting season. The single-season DVD includes all 12 episodes; bonus material never before seen on the Internet; “I’m the One That’s Cool” music video; and an exclusive audio commentary from the cast and the director.

The Blu-ray edition of “Transformers Prime Beast Hunters: Predacons Rising” marks the completion of “Transformers Prime.” It was shown last week on the Hub Network, but the package adds a making-of featurette. Series mythology is so byzantine that it defies easy summarization. Fans will already know that theresurrected Unicron has taken over the now-lifeless body of Megatron to seek vengeance on the Autobots and ultimately, the destruction of Cybertron. This formidable enemy forces an unlikely alliance between the Autobots, Decepticons, Predaking and two new Predacons to preserve their newly restored planet.

The ABC Family and Fox Kids networks’ show “Totally Spies!” existed at the juncture of “Clueless,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “Lara Croft.” Sam, Alex and Clover are three typical, fashion-obsessed high school girls, who inadvertently stopped an international crime in the local mall and were transformed into undercover agents for WOOHP. A girl can dream, can’t she? The new collection covers the show’s first three seasons. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

The Croods: Blu-ray
Ahead of the release of DreamWorks’ prehistoric comedy “The Croods,” executives at the animation division were said to be staring into the void of possible bankruptcy. Production costs had reached the stratosphere and the domestic market for 2D and 3D features was being sliced far too thin to ensure profits for one-off projects. It would be easy to blame the doldrums on the glut of new family-oriented features, sequels and DVD originals. But, it’s also true that consumer resistance to advances in display platforms has limited, for the time being, at least, the financial upside of Blu-ray 2D/3D. DVD presented such a clear and affordable alternative to VHS that it literally exploded onto the marketplace. As long as top-end flat-screen and HDTV hardware remains prohibitively expensive for the mass audience that embraced CDs and DVD – technologies that don’t suffer from prolonged use – even more costly 3D-ready sets and software are going to lag behind the curve. It’s caused something resembling gridlock in both the consumer-electronics industry and the business of projecting revenues for feature films, however worthy, into their post-theatrical afterlife. The estimated production budget for “The Croods” was $135 million, meaning it would cost anywhere between $20-50 million to market. That’s a lot of weight to put on the back of a franchise waiting to happen. Conveniently, as has been demonstrated repeatedly in the action/fantasy/superhero marketplace, audiences around the world would ride to rescue of DreamWorks, pushing the total box-office take from $187 million in domestic revenues to a far more attractive $585 million overseas. By comparison, DreamWorks’ even more expensive “Rise of the Guardians” could only muster $103.4 million at the domestic box office and another $200 million overseas. The seemingly rock-solid “Panda 2” brought in only $15 million more than its estimated $150 million production cost here, while adding a whopping $500 million worldwide. Given the diminishing clout of mainstream critics, it’s impossible to ascertain with any degree of accuracy how much the middling reviews for “Guardians” worked against it and how the excellent notices for “Croods” and “Panda 2” might have impacted their revenues. None of this would matter to rank-and-file ticket-buyers, if it weren’t also true that international sales now can determine the fate of a franchise. “Croods 2” and a possible TV series already are in the works, as are “Panda 3,” two “How to Train Your Dragon” sequels and a “Madagascar” spinoff, in addition to the usual array of video games and DVD-original to follow in their wake. Don’t expect any sequels to “Guardians” and its literary cousin, “Epic,” in the near- to mid-future.

What counts here, however, is what makes it to the screen and, in that regard, “Croods” deserves to prosper in the after-market. If a genealogist were to trace the Flintstone family’s DNA, it probably would lead him back to the Croods. When we meet them, their existence as the last cave-dwelling clan is being threatened by natural disasters, giant critters and Dad’s isolationism. While Grug (Nicolas Cage) would prefer to wait out the various storms, daughter Eep (Emma Stone) is anxious to discover a land more suitable to their growth as a family. To do so, she intends to follow a light shining in the far distance. Eep runs into a like-minded and extremely clever caveboy, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), but her father, Grug, drags her pack home. A devastating earthquake forces the family to seek greener pastures and Grug admits that Guy is the right guy to help them get there. Along the way, the Croods find other endangered clans and creatures of both the predatory and helpful persuasion. The landscapes reflect the trajectory of the Croods’ progress – the backdrops in the early scenes were inspired by Utah’s Zion National Park — while the slapstick comedy and humorous dialogue carry the rest of the load. Other voice actors include Cloris Leachman, as Gran; Catherine Keener, as mom Ugga; and Clark Duke, as son Thunk. The Blu-ray 2D/3D packages add “The Croodaceous Creatures of Croods!”; “Be an Artist!”; “The Croods” coloring and storybook-builder app; “Belt’s Cave Journal,” in which Guy and his pet sloth rescue a Jackrobat; and music videos from other DreamWorks Animation feature films. – Gary Dretzka

The Little Mermaid: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray 2D/Blu-ray 3D/ DVD
The Wizard of Oz: 75th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray 2D/Blu-ray 3D/UltraViolet
No matter how many times “The Little Mermaid” and “The Wizard of Oz” are re-released into new formats, with more freshly discovered memorabilia, the fact remains that they continue define the mangled term, “family entertainment.” As long as parents, grandparents and kids sit down together to watch a movie, that will never change. What’s curious, though, is the inclination of some fans, at least, to purchase a title of which they already own several copies. (My weaknesses include “The Godfather,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Chinatown”). I think it’s because we’re desperately attempting to re-create the ultimate theatrical experience in our own home. Alas, unless one’s home theater is the size of Rockefeller Center or Mann’s Chinese, or you have access to a studio screening room, that simply isn’t going to happen. Even lousy pictures look better on the large screen and on projected 35mm film, after all, and “The Little Mermaid” and “The Wizard of Oz” will never be mistaken for anything less than brilliant. It’s interesting that so many major titles are being sent out now in HD3D editions, instead of waiting for a critical mass to be achieved. As long as the expense associated with such a purchase – special glasses, playback equipment and cables – remains prohibitive, too many Blu-ray 3D discs will go unplayed. Consumers are likely to be even more resistant to the “Ultra HD” television format – forwarded at January’s Consumer Electronics Show – which promises resolution four times greater than is currently available in HD sets. Talk about sticker shock, LG just announced that it would introduce two “less-expensive” versions of its Ultra TVs in time for holiday sales: a 55-inch set for $3,499 and a 65-inch TV for $4,999 (additional 3D equipment not included).

By all of the usual consumer standards, “The Little Mermaid” and “The Wizard of Oz” have benefitted from every new tech upgrade, especially Blu-ray up. Because neither movie was made with 3D in mind, not even the Blu-ray 3D can attain perfection … close, but no cigar. There’s other, less obvious evidence of the format’s potential, though. In its infinite wisdom, the MPAA ratings board recently decided to revise the “G” given “The Wizard of Oz,” in one of its theatrical re-releases, to PG13 for last month’s special IMAX/3D showings. This begs such questions as: are the flying monkeys and wicked witches that much scarier in 3D, or did they find something offensive that’s only visible in the large-screen, high-resolution presentation? The most likely explanation is that a previous MPAA panel simply gave MGM the same pass it’s given to Disney, with potentially traumatic “Bambi” and other cherished children’s movies with terrifying moments.

If you already own a HDTV capable of showing 3D, there’s really no good reason not to purchase the 3D versions of these and other pictures. It adds something different to the experience and, if you’re still not impressed, the Blu-ray 2D copy is included in the same package. In addition to the basic double-disc set, a five-disc “75th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” also is newly available. It offers both Blu-ray formats, DVD and UltraViolet versions of “The Wizard of Oz,”; “The Making of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,’” with contributions from historians John Fricke and Sam Wasson, composers Stephen Schwartz and Marc Shaiman, critics Leonard Maltin, Michael Sragow and Bert Lahr’s son, John; revealing interview clips with Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Buddy Ebsen, Margaret Hamilton and Mervyn LeRoy; such memorabilia as a 75th-anniversary journal, a Ruby Slippers water globe, a 3-piece Noble Collection enamel pin set, a map of Oz, and a 48-page hardcover book; and all previously released bonus content.

The impact of “The Little Mermaid” on all-things-Disney already has been well chronicled. Under the supervision of Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio’s moribund animation department got a huge lift from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” which, in 1988, combined live action and animation to create a movie that arguably was enjoyed more by adults than children. A year later, the studio re-embraced the tradition of adapting classic fairy tales for kiddie audiences, without completely diluting their scarier and more cautionary moments. The idea of animating Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” wasn’t new. Disney illustrators had begun work on “Silly Symphony” take on the tale in the late 1930s, before it was shelved for another Andersen story “The Ugly Duckling.” A half-century later, sketches made by Kay Nielsen inspired animators on Katzenberg’s project. Among other things, “The Littlest Mermaid” would represent the last Disney animated feature to use hand-painted cels and an analog camera and film. Although it doesn’t distract viewers, I think that the traditional technique is easy to discern in Blu-ray. In addition to seven previously shown bonus features, the Blu-ray adds “@DisneyAnimation,” with directors John Musker and Ron Clements, as well as old- and new-school animators who discuss their inspirations, motivations and early forays into animation; “Under the Scene,” explains how animators benefit from observing real-world elements, actors and reference footage; “Howard’s Lecture,” a profile of the late Howard Ashman, a writer and lyricist who died in 1991 of complications from AIDS; an introduction to deleted character, Harold the Merman; “Part of Her World,” during which Ariel’s voice actor, Jodi Benson, takes her children to Walt Disney World and Ariel’s Grotto in New Fantasyland; a “Crab-E-Oke Sing Along”; a music video in which Carly Rae Jepsen performs “Part of Your World.” – Gary Dretzka

Gift Guide preview: Any of the aforementioned packages easily qualify as being “giftable,” if such a word exists. I’ll be wrapping up the season’s best boxed-set titles in separate columns, between now and whichever holiday it is your family celebrates. Warner Home Video has already unleashed “The Dark Knight Trilogy: Ultimate Collector’s Edition” and, next week, releases the 40th anniversary of “The Exorcist,” both in Blu-ray. From Star Vista/Time Life comes, for the first in DVD, “Mama’s Family: The Complete Collection.”

The Big Parade: Blu-ray
In the movies, declarations of war have generally been greeted with palpable waves of patriotism, to be promptly followed by sad farewells to concerned family members and girlfriends who promise to remain faithful for as long the fighting continues. Like the recruits we’ve been encouraged to ignore the fact that some, if not most of these rifle-toting volunteers might come home in a box. Shit happens, we know that much, at least. After we watch the soldiers march off the screen, we’re usually taken to a barracks, where the bonding process begins, and rigorous training camps. It was until Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” that we were introduced to process through which boys are turned into men and men are turned into “killers.” Privates Will Stockdale and Gomer Pyle were nowhere to be found in “Full Metal Jacket” and wounds were limited by the primitive special makeup effects of the 1950s. Combatants on both sides died in war movies past, but far less graphically than in Steve Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Studio executives, newspaper editors and Pentagon censors simply wouldn’t allow the Americans who cheered their boys off to war see the results of their flag-waving, even if those conflagrations sometimes were justifiable. The popular success of “Saving Private Ryan” hasn’t lessened the Pentagon’s desire to keep the less glamorous aspects of combat from American eyes. It wasn’t until February, 2009, after all, that the government’s ban on taking pictures of flag-draped coffins in a hangar at the Dover Air Force base was lifted. Many photographs taken in 20th- and 21st-Century war zones can only be found in the National Archives and Library of Congress, if at all. The impact of Mathew Brady’s horrific photographs of soldiers killed at the Battle of Antietam wasn’t lost on image-conscious military leaders.

Way back in 1925, King Vidor made a movie that left no doubt as to the terrible things men do to each other in war, especially the unprecedented butchery experienced by soldiers on both sides of the trenches during World War I. Just as Brady’s photojournalism drew crowds, when it was exhibited in New York, Vidor’s “The Big Parade” would become the most profitable silent movie ever made. Gross receipts are estimated to be $22 million, against a production budget of $382,000. In New York, it ran for more than a year in one theater. Its success would allow Lewis Milestone the luxury of a $1.25-million budget for “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) and possibly inspire Kubrick to make “Paths of Glory” (1957), which addresses the futility of war and complicity of misguided officers and strategists in the deaths of anonymous soldiers.

“The Big Parade” opens with the announcement of the U.S.’s long-delayed entrance into the European war and displays of patriotism that followed it. John Gilbert plays a wealthy lay-about who uncharacteristically volunteers to join New York’s Rainbow Division. Among Jim Apperson’s fellow doughboys are a gangly iron worker, Slim Jenkins (Karl Dane), and a stout bartender, “Bull” O’Hara (Tom O’Brien). Once in Europe, they spend a lot of time performing such mundane tasks a digging holes, shoveling manure and doing their own laundry in a creek. Even though Jim had a girl waiting for him back home, he becomes enchanted with a French commoner, Melisande (Renee Adoree). She lives in a village that will change hands four times during the course of the war. The doughboys’ introduction to combat arrives when a German biplane sneaks up on a long column of Americans, almost blithely marching along a French road to the front. As the bullets rained down on the soldiers from above, German machine-gunners targeted them from their flank. It was a cruel awakening, but things would get much worse in the trenches. The absurdity of war would play out before Jim, Slim and Bull’s eyes, claiming one of the men’s lives and leaving another with an empty pants leg. (The combat scenes were directed by George W. Hill). Although a bona-fide hero, Jim would be stunned upon his return home by the reaction of his family and wife-to-be. Vidor gave audiences a positive ending, but the scenes of carnage were far more difficult to erase. The excellently restored Blu-ray edition adds learned commentary by historian Jeffrey Vance, with excerpts from an archived interview with Vidor; the promotional “1925 Studio Tour”; the documentary, “The Men Who Made the Movies: King Vidor” and 64-page “digibook,” containing notes by historian Kevin Brownlow, original art, photos and advertising materials. – Gary Dretzka

Going Underground: Paul McCartney, the Beatles and the UK Counterculture
Put the name of a Beatle on the cover of a DVD and you’re sure to capture someone’s attention. In this case, it’s “the cute one” whose name provides the operative words in the title, “Going Underground: Paul McCartney, the Beatles and the UK Counterculture.” Here, anyway, the devise is legitimate, as even dyed-in-the-wool Beatlemaniacs will discover interesting new things about their fave. I won’t pretend that most people under the age of, say, 40, are as interested in the 1960s as their Boomer parents, a handful of musicians and the few journalists whose memories stretch back that far. McCartney, though, is still alive and kicking out the jams.The MVD release explores a period of pop-cultural history that’s been eclipsed by equivalent movements in the U.S. and the sheer volume of music, movies, hair styles and other trendy stuff that’s found its way to these shores in the various British invasions. At approximately the same time as the Beatles and Rolling Stones were solidifying their hold on international audiences, less identifiable Brits were laying the foundation for a youthquake that could be measured on a Richter scale. This documentary argues that it can be traced to an underground publication, the International Times. The bi-weekly paper was produced in the basement of the Indica Bookshop, which had become a landmark destination for the “Swingin’ London” crowd, along with the UFO Club. Similar things were beginning to happen in the United States, so coverage of the underground scene in London was not a priority for American journalists. It’s possible, if not entirely probably that Jan Wenner was influenced by the IT while preparing the launch of Rolling Stone magazine. Most of the people interviewed in “Going Underground” are associated with the IT, Indica or UFO, in one way or another, and can still recall how things looked from a more radical point of view than could be found at a recording studio.

McCartney became an early backer of the Indica Bookshop and Indica Gallery. They were introduced to him by Peter Asher, the brother of his “bird,” Jane Asher, who hadn’t grown up in Liverpool and was more tuned in to the London cultural scene. Through other people there, Paul was invited to sample the library of audio effects and sonic experimentation at the BBC. McCartney and producer George Martin would incorporate things they heard there into the albums most fans interpreted as being solely inspired by LSD trips and Moroccan hashish. Meanwhile, at the UFO Club such then-underground groups as Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, AMM, Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Procol Harum and the Move were sharing ideas and performing. In addition to the many first-person sources, “Going Underground” is informed by more than the usual number of music videos, movie clips and other archival material. Anyone who aspires to being a musicologist or is a diehard Beatles fans owes it to themselves to check out this DVD. – Gary Dretzka

100 Bloody Acres
Fright Night 2: New Blood: Blu-ray
House of Wax 3D: Blu-ray
The Amityville Horror Trilogy: Blu-ray 2D/3D
The Corrupted
Eyes of the Woods
Strange things happen in rural Australia, day and night, from the Outback to Bondi Beach. That much, at least, is obvious from the growing number of no-holds-barred genre titles from Down Under. Like the Ozploitation flicks of yore, today’s horror and slasher titles take advantage of the great distances that separate civilization from the Wild West. People get killed in ways that practically defy description and the perpetrators may be gun-crazier than their criminal brethren in the U.S. The Cairnes brothers’ alternately stomach-churning and hilarious “100 Bloody Acres” probably could have been set in Appalachia or Bayou Country, but somehow it wouldn’t have the same hair-raising effect. Siblings Reg and Lindsay Morgan run an organic fertilizer business on the edge of the wilderness. It’s doing very well, even though the brothers’ radio commercials sound as if they’re audio outtakes from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” There’s a secret ingredient that makes the Morgan Brothers’ Blood and Bone fertilizer so much better than anyone else’s product and, if you haven’t already guessed what that ingredient is, you need to watch more horror movies. As such, “100 Bloody Acres” is not the right place to begin an exploration of contemporary fright films. Younger brother, Reg (Damon Herriman, of “Justified”), scours the Adelaide countryside for roadkill, including kangaroos and deceased motorists. Before the bodies get really ripe, Reg hands them over to his brother, Lindsay (Angus Sampson), who resembles a sociopathic Mennonite. The corpses are hung from a pulley, drained of blood, lowered into a grinder and mixed with manure or whatever else goes into fertilizer these days. With roadkill at a premium lately, Reg decides to add a fresh-killed flavor to the product by picking up three young adults, stranded along his route. Let’s just say that his plan goes wildly haywire and the Morgans are required to take extreme – extremer? – measures to keep their formula secret. You can tell from the interviews with cast, crew and the Cairnes that everyone had a jolly good time making “100 Bloody Acres.” Of course, they were in on the gags from the get-go. Amateurs may want to watch the revealing making-of featurette before leaping headfirst into the gore.

To synopsize: if you’ve already seen the 1985 and 1988 editions of “Fright Night” and “Fright Night 2,” you pretty much know what’s going to transpire in both the 2011 remake and its 2013 straight-to-video sequel. The 1985 version and its 2011 reiteration received excellent reviews, where the sequels were completely trashed. Only the original made enough money to justify its existence. Among the actors who didn’t make the trip from “Fright Night” to “Fright Night 2: New Blood” are Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, Toni Collette, David Collette, Imogen Poots, David Tennant, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sandra Vergara and Chris Sarandon, who wisely decided to skip both sequels. Another red flag was raised when DreamWorks and Disney, like Columbia in the mid-’80s, took a pass on producing and distributing “New Blood,” as did director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and writer Marti Noxon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). The sequel’s director Eduardo Rodriguez (“Stash House”) and writer Matt Venne (“White Night: The Light”) someday may be ready for prime time, but not yet. In their sequel, a group of high school students travel to Romania for immersive studies. One of their teachers, Gerri Dandridge, is possessed of a sexual aura that is downright supernatural. She cuts Charlie, Amy and “Evil Ed” — recurring characters from the original “Fright Night” — from the herd of American students. Gerri, as played by super-hot Jamie Murray (“Dexter”), is modeled after the real-life Elizabeth Bathory, a 17th Century Hungarian countess who drained the blood of virgins and bathed in it. Unlike the Cairnes’ deployment of body fluids, the ritual gives here eternal youth and beauty. It’s up to Charlie and Ed to save Amy from such a depressing demise. The process is the one aspect of the movie that Rodriguez, Venne and production designer Serban Porupca gets right. The Blu-ray adds some interviews, webisodes and commentary.

Those fans of horror movies born after Vincent Price’s death, in 1993, should know that the edition of “House of Wax” now popping up on video-store shelves shouldn’t be mistaken for the 2005 remake, starring Paris Hilton. For one thing, the 1953 version was shown in 3D of the cardboard-glasses variety. Because of this, Price’s presence wasn’t the primary reason horror fans might have had for standing in line to see the movie. That association would come later in his career. Hilton’s appearance, alone, might have pushed the 2005 remake past the $50 million barrier in worldwide revenues. In fact, the 1953 “House of Wax” was itself a remake of Michael Curtiz’ similarly creepy 2D version of “Mystery of the Wax Museum,” released in 1933. Here, Price plays a sculptor, Professor Henry Jarrod, whose passion is creating tableaux of famous historical figures and events out of mannequins and wax. Just as he’s about to become famous for his work, the sculptor learns of his partner’s scheme to burn down the exhibit to collect insurance money. When, sometime later, Jarrod partially recovers from his burns and rebuilds the exhibit, his new characters look even more eerily real than before the blaze. There’s a very good explanation for the verisimilitude of the wax figures, but why spoil the fun? The “60th Anniversary Edition” contains 3D and 2D presentations minted from a 4K scan and restoration; a fascinating discussion of the movie’s place in horror history, led by Martin Scorsese; and the original 1933 film, “Mystery of the Wax Museum.” It might have been fun if a third disc was included in the package, with an anamorphic presentation of “House of Wax,” complete with cheapo stereoscopic glasses. As it is, viewers looking to enjoy the full 3D experience are required to own all of the expensive gizmos necessary to do it right. Perhaps it’s worth noting here that director Andre De Toth was blind in one eye and unable to see in three dimensions.

The same caveat applies to “Amityville 3D,” which is included in Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray collection, “The Amityville Horror Trilogy,” with “The Amityville Horror” and “Amityville II: The Possession.” There are seven other “Amityville” titles extant, but these three are the only ones that count. The documentary, “My Amityville Horror,” with family member Daniel Lutz, adds yet another perspective to the story about a family that moves into a haunted house on Long Island, but is too stupid to abandon until it’s too late. The first installment of the trilogy includes commentary by parapsychologist Hans Holzer; retrospective interviews with James Brolin, Margot Kidder and Oscar-nominated composer Lalo Schifrin. “The Possession” adds interviews with director Damiano Damiani, Tommy Lee Wallace, Rutanya Alda, Diane Franklin, Andrew Prine and Dr. Holzer’s daughter, Alexandra. The 3D installment adds an interview with star Candy Clark.

Made in Alberta and comprised of cast and crew members who failed to make the cut on “Amateur Night in Dixie,” “The Corrupted” feels very much like a film-school exercise in approximating terror while avoiding accidental comedy. At 76 minutes, it seems likely that co-writer/directors John Klappstein and Knighten Richman either ran out of money or ideas before something fresh and interesting came to mind. As it is, “The Corrupted” spends a weekend with a yet another group of college-age students, who apparently haven’t spent their leisure hours watching danger-in-the-woods flicks. All of the clichés show up sooner or later, including a buffoonish ranger who urges them to look out for a bear with botulism. I imagine that the filmmakers will do a better job in their sophomore effort.

And, speaking of teenagers trapped in the forest, there’s the not completely irredeemable, “Eyes of the Woods” (no relation to “The Woods Have Eyes”). The movie opens in bygone days, when pilgrims and other religious fanatics imagined Satan lurking behind every outhouse. One of the possessed pilgrims cuts a deal with the devil, allowing him time to avenge the death of his daughter. The bad news is that he’s required to live in the woods, by himself, for hundreds of years, scaring the crap out of kids with his grotesque new costume. God forbid, if a pair of young lovers does the nasty within the monster’s vicinity, because they’re going to pay the ultimate price for their lust. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen in dozens of other genre specimens. In a real rarity, none of the people credited with directing, writing and starring in “Eyes of the Woods” has more than one credit on IMDB.com. – Gary Dretzka

Morning
This excruciating indie drama, starring writer/director Leland Orser and his wife, Jeanne Tripplehorn, deals with the worst thing that can happen to parents and its immediate aftermath. The first time we meet Alice and Mark in “Morning,” they’re engaged in something approximating an act of love. In a few seconds, it will more closely resemble an act of war. In fact, neither of them is capable of doing anything more than grieve the recent loss of someone extremely close to them. When Mark attempts to go to work, Alice demands that he stick around and wallow in the muck of her despair. Mark doesn’t get much further than a block away from their house before he freezes up behind the wheel and begins to stare into the void. Alice pulls up alongside of him, but continues on to the school where she normally would drop off her 5-year-old son. Another mother attempts to comfort the delusional woman, but all she wants to do is check into a hotel and act as if everyone within 20 feet of her deserves to share her pain. Back at home, Mark begins tearing up the house and slowly regressing into a child-like state. Without bothering to explain why his protagonists are acting so insane, Orser seems to think we’ll commiserate with them and wait patiently as they attempt to come to grips with the situation. That, I think, is too much to ask of an audience, without also giving it something tangible to keep us interested. If Laura Linney and Elliott Gould hadn’t shown up in the second half of the movie, there wouldn’t be a single reason to recommend “Morning.” They provide Alice with a distraction that could either provide her with an escape hatch or send her to a loony bin. Mark will prove to be a tougher nut to crack. Orser’s film has been sitting on a shelf for three years, awaiting a distribution deal. There isn’t anything wrong with his or Tripplehorn’s acting, but, until the very end of “Morning,” this a movie only a masochist could love. – Gary Dretzka

My Boo
The Trade Off: The Uncut Version
You know that you’re getting old when you have to refer to the Urban Slang dictionary to understand what a movie’s title might mean. Unbeknownst to me, there is a 2004 song by Usher and Alicia Keys titled “My Boo,” as well as a 1996 pop hit by Ghost Town DJ’s, in which the term is used as a term of endearment. At Urban Slang, there’s an entirely different meaning and it describes a specific region of a woman’s body. No matter, “my boo” has almost nothing to do with anything in the movie and, anyway, the movie can’t be found on IMDB.com, so it may not actually exist. Ashlee McLemore and Revon Yousif star in the urban thriller about a stalker, Fred, and his longtime heartthrob, Lisa. In a cruel twist of fate, Fred moves into an apartment across the hall from Lisa, thus rekindling feelings held dormant since high school. At first, he finds ways to be in the same place as Lisa and, then, he plants hidden cameras and listening devices in her pad. Once Fred’s ingratiated himself into her circle, he feels as if he’s only one short step away from a lasting relationship. Trouble is, there are other guys in her circle who more closely fit the description of a boyfriend. Fred’s more of a companion and confidante type guy. Being overprotective of his wannabe girlfriend, the young man pulls on his hoodie and attacks the competition. Her friends’ pain opens the door for Fred, who feigns sympathy for everyone in the circle. Her awakening process leads to scary showdown.

Writer/director Sean Weathers reportedly left $200,000 on the table, just so he could star in a picture he also intended to write and direct. The potential backers wanted an actor with a higher profile than the creator of such micro-budgeted films as “Hookers in Revolt” and “House of the Damned.” Based on what I’ve seen in the uncut version of “The Trade Off,” I don’t think Weathers made the right decision. Orson Wells, he’s not. It’s likely the backers would have asked him to tone down the soft-core sex that Weathers’ character, Arthur, engages in whenever possible with women other than his wife. As long as he’s working, Arthur can act the player. Once he loses his job and source of personal entitlement, however, the sex addict finds ways to drag his friends into the hole in which he’d thrown himself. It isn’t a pretty picture, but ego trips really are. – Gary Dretzka

Treasure Guards
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec: Director’s Cut: BluRay
These two pictures share one thing, at least, and it isn’t the quality of the productions. In “Treasure Guards,” Anna Friel plays a fearless archaeologist on the trail of the legendary and, perhaps mythical, Seal of Solomon. During an excavation in the remote Jordanian desert, Victoria Carter discovers a degrading parchment, buried in the ruins of an ancient temple. She doesn’t dare assume the writing holds the key to the ring’s hiding place, but gets an idea of how valuable the parchment is when it’s stolen by a friend, who’s in league with her famous archaeologist father. She finds an allies in a Vatican guard (Raoul Bova) and his reckless brother (Volker Bruch). Pretty soon, all sorts of bad guys come out of the woodwork to kill Victoria, with bullets, wasps and snakes. None of this stands up to close scrutiny, but folks freakishly attracted to female archeologists might get a kick out of it. If it weren’t for a gratuitous topless scene early on, “Treasure Guards” probably could pass for PG-13.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the PG version of Luc Besson’s “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec,” a highly entertaining adventure in which another intrepid woman (Louise Bourgoin) ventures into an ancient tomb to find something valuable. At the time, I wondered what happened to approximately two minutes of footage that could be found at Mr. Skin but not in the Shout!Factory edition. I was assured by a publicist that the excised material would soon see the light of day in a director’s-cut edition. As is revealed in the newly released Blu-ray, the hubbub involves a scene in which Adele Blanc-Sec disrobes in front of the mummy she’s smuggled out of Egypt. A minute later, she enjoys a smoke in a bathtub, whose water and suds don’t quite cover her nipples. Frankly, I can’t imagine what her breasts have to do with the story of a giant pterodactyl flying loose over Paris, but they’re a welcome sight anyway. The fun comes when Adele re-animates a mummy of a physician, who, she believes, could cure her sister’s paralysis. It’s a lot of fun and easy on the eyes in Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka

Bob and the Monster: Blu-ray
Tupac Double Feature: Conspiracy/Aftermath
It’s often said about addiction that junkies can’t be cured until they’ve run out of money and friends, and they’ve finally grown tired of bouncing their sore asses along rock bottom. Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule, but “Bob and the Monster” isn’t about those people. When he was the frontman for the L.A.-based post-punk band, Thelonious Monster, Bob Forrest was the first pick in every rock-’n’-roll death pool. Blessed with a natural feel for interesting lyrics, as well as solid vocal pipes, Forrest was an unrepentant junkie and self-destructive artist. Until he began his inevitable slide to rock bottom, Forrest was an active participant in and much admired member of Hollywood’s bustling recording and club scene. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, heroin was the drug of choice for scene makers and musicians, and he partied hardier than most of them. In Keirda Bahruth’s compelling documentary, it’s possible to witness Forrest’s determined rise, dramatic collapse and inspirational resurrection as a widely respected addiction counselor, especially in the SoCal creative community. His rise and fall are chronicled in “Bob and the Monster” through archival concert footage, personal accounts and home videos. Bahruth was able to document his return to sobriety as it happened. To this end, she found willing witnesses in Courtney Love, Flea and Anthony Kedis from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, as well as members of Fishbone, Jane’s Addiction and Thelonious Monster. To keep things fresh, Bahruth alternated clips and interviews, with strategically placed collages, quote blocks, voiceovers and stop-motion animation. The Blu-ray adds a pair of commentary tracks and a featurette on the Claymation process.

Among the notorious crimes that may never be solved is the murder of hip-hop star Tupac Shakur, 17 months ago last month, in Las Vegas. There are plenty of theories as to the events that led up to the assassination, identities of the people who pulled the triggers and name of someone sufficiently powerful to have ordered the death of such a valuable commodity. “Tupac: Conspiracy” adds even more speculation to the mystery. Much of the testimony is delivered by former bodyguards Frank Alexander and Michael Moore, both of whom are dead. Above anything else, the film asks why the investigation of the murder has stalled and has all but been abandoned. The Las Vegas police have yet to interview several key witnesses shown here. One reason, of course, is because so many people have a vested interest in the truth not coming out, from label boss Suge Knight and the many police officers who were hired as bodyguards that night. The code of silence also impacts on the lack of progress. A second disc, “Tupac: Aftermath” repeats much of the information in the first DVD, while also digging a bit deeper in the man’s legend. – Gary Dretzka

200 Pounds Beauty
Ashamed
South Korea has become a world leader in producing superlative crime dramas and supernatural thrillers. Comedies, though, not so much. We’re told that “200 Pounds Beauty” not only is the country’s top-grossing comedy, but it also captured Best Film, Director, and Actress honors at Korea’s prestigious Grand Bell Awards. While I can see its populist appeal, “200 Pounds Beauty” reminds of something Tyler Perry, Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence might have produced for the cheap-laughs crowd. That’s primarily because of the fat suit star Kim Ah-jung is required to wear throughout most of the first half of the movie. In this variation of the “Ugly Duckling” fairy tale, a grossly overweight young woman is paid to remain backstage and provide the singing voice for the main attraction, who lip-synchs to the screams of her adoring public. In an awkward plot device, Kang also moonlights as a phone-sex performer. It is in this line of work that she blackmails a noted plastic surgeon to perform a head-to-toe makeover, primarily so she can impress the pop star’s manager. Once her body’s been sculpted to within an inch of perfection, Kang is free to take her rightful place on the stage. Or, is there still some work to do? Beauty being only skin deep, Kang has a lot to learn about self-confidence and acting as if you belong in the limelight. “200 Pound Beauty” has some very funny moments and the Hello Kitty crowd should enjoy the music. Anyone expecting it to be the “Oldboy” of Korean comedy is likely to be underwhelmed, however.

Ashamed” (a.k.a., “Life Is Peachy”) is reputed to be the first Korean mainstream feature to accentuate lesbian erotica. There have been a few mainstream movies in which gay men figure prominently, but there’s a different set of standards for women and nudity. While “Ashamed” is definitely steamy, by most western standards it isn’t especially graphic and far from gratuitous. An art professor/filmmaker in need of a nude model travels to the coast with two of her students. Along the way, she relates a story about one of her affairs. This introduction to the joys of girl-girl action finds a ready audience with the younger women, who decide to take their friendship to a new level. Director Kim Soo-hyun mixes things up a bit by giving several of the characters the same name and interweaving storylines. – Gary Dretzka

Turtle Hill, Brooklyn
Equal parts “Boys in the Band” and “The Anniversary Party,” Ryan Gielen’s “Turtle Hill, Brooklyn” is the kind of movie one doesn’t expect to see in 2013. The protagonists deal with issues that wouldn’t seem to be pertinent, anymore, except in a sitcom or soap opera. The movie opens auspiciously on the morning of Will’s 30th birthday, when his homophobic sister drops in unexpectedly. Will had convinced his lover, Mateo, that he’d clued family members as to his being gay. Thus, he’s surprised to see her face drop to the floor when he steps out of the bathroom dressed only in a kilt. The sister, who must not have been paying attention for the last couple of decades, offers to help “cure” Will, but, of course, he isn’t buying into her prejudices. By the time guests begin arriving, things are on an even keel between the two men. Things get rocky again when former lovers show up and feelings are hurt. Worse, one of the guests is a Log Cabin Republican, who attempts to defend his political beliefs and gets an off-screen punch in the nose for his efforts. It’s a pretty mixed group of men and women and, in true indie fashion, none of them looks as if they just stepped out of a fashion magazine. Small secrets are revealed, but the larger question is whether Matt and Will can survive the angst and live to love again. And, that’s about the size of it. – Gary Dretzka

TV to DVD
New Girl: The Complete Second Season
Glee: The Complete Fourth Season Blu-ray
How I Met Your Mother: The Complete Season 8
Teen Mom: The Complete First Season
The China Beach: Season 1
On TV, as in life, it pays dividends to be cute and Zooey Deschanel has cutes to spare. Her intensely perky and bubbliciously bubbly Jess isn’t the only reason viewers turn to “New Girl,” Tuesdays on Fox, but it’s easily the best one. An easy description of the show would be: a chick who travels to the beat of a different drum moves into a loft apartment with three guys she’s met only on the Internet … laughter ensures. A more complex synopsis might read: the kids from “Freaks and Geeks” have somehow survived college and, after a decade in the wilderness, are still most comfortable with freaks and geeks just like them … laughter ensues.” In fact, the characters are only freaky when compared to their peers on other sitcoms. They experience more than anyone’s fair share of nerdy moments, but, in fact, are noticeably less geeky than the lads on “The Big Bang Theory.” On most days in L.A., you’d be hard pressed to differentiate the freaks and geeks from the hipsters. It is possible, however, to be too cute and, being 30ish, Jess comes dangerously close to that invisible barrier. Suffice it to say, however, most viewers in the same age group would prefer to enjoy these roommates on TV than be set up on a blind date with any of them. As the show’s second season evolves, Jess has been laid off from her teaching job and takes a gig setting up shots at the bar. She engages in a booty-call relationship with a customer, Sam (David Walton). The second half of the season is dominated by the lead-up to Cece’s wedding and, of course, “the kiss.” The DVD comes with deleted scenes, a gag reel, commentary and an extended, uncensored version of the episode, “Virgins.” Among the guest stars are Jamie Lee Curtis, Rob Reiner and the late Dennis Farina.

To borrow a baseball term, Season 4 of “Glee” was a “rebuilding” year for the show. The previous three seasons’ seniors have gone on to bigger, if not necessarily better things, and the New Directions was forced to rely on a core group of seven students. Rachel and Kurt are in New York; the club decides to stage “Grease,” with the help of some of the grads; the Warblers steal ND’s trophy from the Nationals; Kurt gets lots of visitors; Finn becomes the target of Sue’s wrath; Emma’s getting married; ND unplugs; Kurt gets bad news, followed by good news; and Regionals beckon. Such guests as Sarah Jessica Parker, Kate Hudson and Whoopi Goldberg also make appearances. The Blu-ray adds “Glee Music Jukebox,” “Glee Premiere Party,” deleted scenes, “Movin’ On Up: Glee in NYC,” “Girls (and Boys) On Film,” “Glee on Film” and “The Road to 500.”

In Season Eight of “How I Met Your Mother,” the arrival of baby Marvin causes Marshall and Lily to experience all of the usual things that happen when sitcom parents have kids. It’s also bookended with weddings involving Barney and Robin, only one of which plays out in fast-forward fashion. In between, the characters wring every drop of humor from the same kind of emotional turmoil they’ve experienced over the eight-year course of the show. Does it ever get old? Apparently, not. Look for such guests as Paul Shaffer, Ralph Macchio and Kyle MacLachlan. The DVD adds deleted scenes, a tight focus on the “P.S., I Love You” episode, two episode commentaries, a gag reel and set tour with Josh Radnor.

In the realm of previously released DVDs, “Teen Mom: The Complete First Season” moves from DVD-R arena to DVD, but only at Walmart, where they know a thing or two about teen moms. Follow Farrah, Maci, Amber, and Catelynn as they face the challenges of their first year of motherhood.

Also, Season One of “China Beach” arrives for the first time unattached to the epic Time Life complete-series package. The three-disc set includes the two-hour pilot and all original episodes of the show that gave us a woman’s ground-level perspective on the Vietnam War; classic songs, as they were played in the original broadcast; highlights from the 25th-anniversary cast reunion; pilot episode commentary by series co-creator & executive producer John Sacret Young and director/producer Rod Holcomb; exclusive interviews with Dana Delany and Chloe Webb and the featurette “China Beach: How It All Began.” – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Latino Americans
Frontline: Life and Death in Assisted Living

Based solely on the evidence assembled for PBS’ exhaustive six-hour series “Latino Americans,” it’s a wonder any Mexican would risk incarceration, deportation and death by sneaking into such hostile territory as the U.S. has proven to be for most of the last 500 years. As long as jobs in Mexico pay less than the worst jobs in the U.S., however, they’ll keep on crossing the border illegally. It’s one of those games that never end. That Native Americans were treated even more shabbily by Spanish soldiers, Catholic missionaries and wealthy Mexicans awarded land grants after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo doesn’t go unnoted in the series. Although much of “Latino Americans” presents an overwhelming indictment of racism and the disenfranchisement of Americans of Spanish heritage, it chronicles the victories and advances made in government, education, electoral politics and workers’ rights, as well. Also chronicled are the contributions to our military forces by Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and other groups that fall under the Latino or Hispanic umbrellas. Again, it is duly noted that, while African-Americans weren’t allowed to fight alongside Anglo soldiers and marines in World War II, Latino volunteers could struggle and die next to their white comrades. Once back home, of course, they’d face the same barriers as blacks in segregated America.

One of the interesting sidebars to the chronological unfolding of “Latino Americans” is the crucial role played by President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As was the case with African-Americans engaged in the battle for civil rights, President John F. Kennedy was quick to ask for their votes, but exceedingly slow in delivering on promises made to them. Johnson, a Texan, bore the brunt of his party’s hostility toward the bill’s passage and too much as the weight of the Vietnam War left over from JFK’s best and brightest. It crushed his hopes of becoming a two-term president. Kennedy loyalists continue to downplay LBJ’s role in forwarding the act, while blaming him for the escalation of the war. Johnson’s Tejas roots and familiarity with the state’s engrained hostility toward Hispanics contributed to the act’s passage. Among the many witnesses assembled for the documentary series are entertainers Rita Moreno and Gloria Estefan, labor leader and 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Dolores Huerta, author and commentator Linda Chávez and dozens of educators, war veterans, historians and descendants of noteworthy Latinos.

In the PBS presentation, “Life and Death in Assisted Living,” reporters and producers of “Frontline” and ProPublica consider the implications of the corporatization of facilities created to allow senior citizens to face their undefined futures with dignity, comfort and the best medical care afforded them. It’s a natural extension of the reporting that followed, if belatedly, on the expansion of HMO’s and cost-obsessed insurers. Here, the primary target is Emeritus Senior Living, which operates more than 400 assisted-living facilities across the country. It also explains why the loosely regulated, multibillion-dollar industry is slow to act on complaints on questions about fatal lapses in care, understaffing and the ultimate quest for profits. – Gary Dretzka

Wild Style: 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
Anyone who lived or worked in New York City in the early 1980s can remember when every subway car, bus, bridge and billboard was considered to be fair game for graffiti “artists,” writers and taggers. Likewise, no stroll through a park was complete without being hustled for spare change by rappers and break-dancers. It was so prevalent that everyone from critics to subway strap-holders was encouraged to hold a firm position on the question of whether graffiti was art or vandalism. City officials came down firmly on the side of preventing taggers from spray-painting their pseudonyms and post-psychedelic drawings on the sides of trains parked in the maintenance yards. At the same time, gallery owners were attempting to monetize such stylized art, without also having to cut the aluminum canvases off the cars. Collectors and music producers would, of course, find a way to co-op the largely organic outburst of creativity that sprang from Bronx tenements and eventually found its way to the galleries in the East Village and nightclubs around the world. Shot in documentary style, Charles Ahearn’s digitally re-mastered film captures the excitement of the artistic movement, as well as the intelligence of several of its leading practitioners. “Wild Style” also demonstrates how graffiti artists complemented the street-level work of dancers, rappers and MCs. It does so by appearing to follow maverick taggers Zoro and Lady Rose (graffiti legends Lee Quinones and Sandra Fabara) as they make their way around the boroughs, looking for likely targets. An East Village art fancier (Patti Astor) commissions Zoro to paint the stage for a rapper’s convention. He disappears for long periods of time to make room for performances by such rap pioneers as Grandmaster Flash, Busy Bee, Fab Five Freddy, Rock Steady Crew and Cold Crush Brothers, It’s pretty wild. The DVD comes with a 48-page booklet, commentary by Ahearn and Fab 5 Freddy, featurettes and interviews. The only thing in “Wild Style” that might require some parental guidance is the use of the n-word, but, in context, it’s justified. – Gary Dretzka

Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey/Pursuit of the Dragon
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Ultimate Showdown

Following directly in the wake of Shout!Factory’s Bruce Lee Blu-ray collection comes MVD’s double feature presentation of “A Warrior’s Journey” and “Pursuit of the Dragon,” a pair of documentaries released several decades after his death by Lee specialist John Little. The highlight of the 97-minute “A Warrior’s Journey” is 33 minutes of continuous action footage that was shot for “The Game of Death” but had been “lost.” It also includes interviews (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and behind-the-scenes footage. Made in 2009, “In Pursuit of the Dragon” revisits locations used in Lee’s four films — “The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury,” “The Way of the Dragon” and “Enter the Dragon” – in Thailand, Hong Kong, Macau and Rome. As such, it’s as much a travelogue as a documentary about Lee.

Is it possible that the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” phenomenon might not have happened if it weren’t for Lee’s introduction of Asian-style martial arts to American audiences? We’ll never know, but it might have taken a decidedly different form. The episodes collected in “TMNT: Ultimate Showdown” are from the recent Nickelodeon iteration, the third animated television series. The turtles face off against new and old enemies, including the Rat King, Cockroach, Baxter Stockman and, ultimately, Kraang and the Shredder. The special features include four shorts, “The Mutation of a Scene” and animated comic books, “Tales From the Lair, Parts 3-6.” — Gary Dretzka

Nick Jr.: Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!: Best Of Collection
Although Nick Jr. stopped airing fresh episodes of Bob Boyle’s animated children’s series, “Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!,” four years ago, new collections continue to be released on DVD. Since the show is best enjoyed by pre-schoolers, there’s always a fresh audience for the 45 episodes that were created. Any TV series that refuses to grow old deserves some kind of respect. “Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!” describes the wacky adventures of an oddly shaped character, Wubbzy, and his friends Widget, a builder and fix-it whiz; Walden, who specializes in science and art; and Daizy, the sweet girly-girl next door. This collection contains 28 episodes – 280 minutes – of singing, dancing, coloring and activity sheets. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Friday, September 27th, 2013

The East: Blu-ray
Based solely on her drop-dead good looks, shiny blonde hair and ability to dominate the screen whenever the camera is pointed in her direction, 31-year-old Brit Marling probably could have her pick of television sitcoms and Hollywood rom-coms. Like Greta Gerwig, who emerged from the ranks of the mumblecore movement, though, she exudes a palpable aura of intelligence that prevents casting directors from steering her toward playing “dumb blond” characters or women whose only goal in life is to avoid being stood up at the altar. (There are enough of those wandering the streets of Hollywood, anyway.) Apart from a semi-glam role in “Arbitrage,” as Richard Gere’s daughter, Marling has chosen to write her way onto the screen. Surely, Alfred Hitchcock would have been able to harness her inherited Nordic beauty, striking physique and icy sensuality for a couple of hours, but, these days, even Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Ingrid Bergman, Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint and Tippi Hedren would be hard-pressed to find suitable work. With only a half-dozen prominent roles on her resume, the onetime Goldman Sachs intern already exudes the intelligence and maturity of Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon at mid-career. If you haven’t yet heard of Marling, it isn’t because the reporters at “ET” and “TMZ” have been shirking their responsibility as pop-culture-vultures. Marling has chosen to maintain a low profile as a collaborator and muse for indie writer/directors Zal Batmanglij (“Sound of My Voice”) and Mike Cahill (“Another Earth”), whose films are too issue-oriented and challenging for mainstream appeal. She’s the real deal, folks.

Marling co-wrote and stars in the strangely compelling anti-terrorist thriller, “The East,” which was co-produced by Ridley and Tony Scott and directed by Batmanglij. She plays Sarah Moss, an idealistic new recruit at an elite private intelligence firm. In our post-9/11 world, it’s exactly the kind of place that’s profited from corporate paranoia and the government’s willingness to entrust freelancers with duties once handled by the CIA, FBI and NSA … and we all know how that’s turned out. Instead of protecting industrial secrets and sussing out corruption, the company is attempting to infiltrate and subvert a band of eco-terrorists modeled after the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front. Although, in reality, the movement has become largely irrelevant, the company’s director (Patricia Clarkson) is anxious to convince her clients of the continued threat to officially sanctioned corporate shenanigans. Sarah is a true believer in the fight being waged by the government and multinational corporations against “anarchists” who would balance the scales of justice with eye-for-an-eye attacks. Here, the targets include conglomerates whose oil leaks kill defenseless animals, birds and fish, as well as pharmaceutical firms that knowingly sell harmful products to civilian and military interests. Sarah is able to infiltrate “The East” by dressing down to the point where she’s only average-pretty, hopping boxcars for transportation and eating discarded food, as is advocated by members of the “freeganism” movement. The radicals are prominently white, highly educated, extremely clever and totally focused on their missions.

Unlike the left-wing and anti-war agitators previously depicted in Hollywood films, these folks aren’t also obsessed with “free love,” drugs or random violence. This isn’t to say that they don’t practice goofy rituals of their own, just that Batmanglig and Marling’s screenplay takes them seriously as activists and individuals. Among other things, Sarah is allowed to maintain her basic convictions, even as she grows fond of the participants and begins to sympathize with their beliefs, if not their tactics. Besides the ever-formidable Clarkson, the cast includes Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Julia Ormond, Jamey Sheridan and Jason Ritter. They’re all very good here. Batmanglij maintains an even pace throughout most of “The East,” hitting the accelerator only towards the two-thirds mark. By splitting the narrative’s setting between the thickets of rural America and slick office buildings of corporate America, he also draws a line in the sand for his well-bred characters. The filmmakers also pose a question for viewers: is it morally acceptable for dedicated individuals to punish corporate executives, when our judicial system gives them a free pass? Similarly testing questions are asked of us by Marling in “Another World” and “Sound of My Voice.” The Blu-ray package adds a few deleted scenes; six short making-of featurettes and discussion points; and a Q&A moderated by journalist Malcolm Gladwell, at the film’s New York premiere. – Gary Dretzka

Gimme the Loot
The We and the I
These modestly budgeted and vastly under-screened indie dramedies — both of which overflow with fresh faces and natural talent — accomplish something that has eluded even the most experienced and celebrated chroniclers of growing up black, poor and untarnished by despair in New York City. While the teenagers in “Gimme the Loot” and “The We and the I” are absent parental control and guardianship, the plot doesn’t revolve around how they handle such freedom or dilemmas that can be traced to easy access to drugs, booze or clandestine sex. Neither do all of their daytime activities lead inevitably to the nighttime anarchy of “House Party” or “Project X.” This isn’t to say, however, that the filmmakers weren’t influenced by Spike Lee, Reginald Hudlin or, perhaps, John Hughes, because it would be difficult to find anyone under 40 who hasn’t enjoyed their movies. Unlike those artists’ products, these films reflect more of a slice-of-life approach.

In Adam Leon’s “Gimme the Loot,” we are asked to join a pair of graffiti artists – or, more precisely, taggers – in their quest to leave an indelible mark on New York, without firing a shot in anger or buying a building upon which they could be immortalized in neon. Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson play best pals and fellow graffiti “writers” Sofia and Malcolm. When the movie opens, Sofia and Malcolm already are friends with a common goal: to “bomb the apple.” As the legend goes, no tagger has been able to spray-paint his or her personal logo on the enormous apple that rises up from the center-field stands at Shea Stadium, whenever a Mets player hits a home run. The old stadium is about to be razed, so precious little time is left to accomplish the feat. Apparently, Shea is a tougher nut to crack than the city’s railroad yards, bridges and billboards, because the only way to access the ballpark is by bribing a security guard. The toll is $500, but it might as well be $50,000 for the degree of difficulty involved in raising the money. Only someone supremely confident in their street savvy would even attempt such a thing, and Ty is already working with several strikes against him. An encounter with a wealthy young white woman, desperate to score some marijuana, offers Ty some reason for optimism, but that door shuts pretty quickly on him. Leon assembled a large cast of inexperienced actors for his $165,000 debut project and it would be difficult to find anything that more money would improve. The musical soundtrack is good, but never threatens to dominate the narrative, and, even at 81 minutes, “Gimme the Loot” never feels rushed or incomplete. It’s simply a portrait of city life most of us would never see, otherwise.

The second half of our Big Apple double-feature, “The We and the I,” has several things in common with “Gimme the Loot.” They include a cast of unknown actors – here, of the amateur variety – an urban backdrop undiluted by set designers and a super low budget. “The We and the I” takes place on a school bus that’s ferrying South Bronx teenagers home from their last day at school before summer vacation. The kids are all black or of a mixed-race background and, even if they’ve shared the same bus route all year long, they are by no means homogenized. Facing a break of nearly three months, they’re more spirited than usual and this occasionally results in temperamental outbursts. That’s not what the movie is about, either. Viewers aware of Gondry’s reputation as an experimental filmmaker are at a distinct disadvantage going into the picture because we keep waiting for something out of the ordinary to happen. His fingerprints are only occasionally visible and they show up outside the context of the ride home. Gondry was inspired to create “The We and the I” after listening to the stories told by Bronx teenagers enrolled in “The Point,” a program designed to provide them exposure to arts and activism. Gondry’s trademark playfulness shines through only when he allows a passenger’s imagination to take flight and in the winnowing process as the number of students hits two. (The bus driver plays a key role, as well, but primarily as a parental stand-in and tool to accelerate the narrative.) “The We and the I” clearly wasn’t made in anticipation of wide commercial appeal, but I can’t imagine any teenager, educator or observer of big-city mores not finding something entertaining in it. – Gary Dretzka

Iron Man III 3: Blu-ray
The third installment in the “Iron Man” series made more than $1.2 billion at the international box office, roughly $400 million of that total courtesy of U.S. audiences. If Disney elected to open it in foreign markets almost two weeks ahead of its release to avoid possibly negative reviews from grumpy American critics, it needn’t have worried. They were in the sequel’s corner as much as any geeked-out fan of the Marvel collection. (And, yes, there were a few detractors among the faithful, as well.) That’s a backwards way of saying, “Iron Man III” is going to kill in DVD, Blu-ray 2D and Blu-ray 3D no matter what anyone with access to an Internet review site has to add to the discussion. Despite having gotten my fill of comic-book superheroes with “The Avengers” – of which “IMIII” is merely an extension — I was completely won over by Robert Downey Jr.’s delightful screen presence here, the evolution of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts from damsel-in-distress to hard-ass defender of liberty and the introduction of budding star Ty Simpkins. Watching Ben Kingsley devour the scenery as the media-savvy terrorist, Mandarin, also is a blast to watch. After saving the world in “IMII,” Tony Stark attempts to enjoy a well-earned hiatus in his Malibu pad. All hell breaks loose when it comes under attack by helicopters wielding Sidewinder missiles. Like a turtle removed from its shell, Stark is forced to go into battle without the benefit of body armor. He’s also required to deal with a new rival, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), whose bitterness over rebuffs by Stark and Potts fuels the acceleration of a plot involving his Extremis virus. Frankly, I lost track of the storyline when the different iron suits began to blur my eyes and I had to refer to marvel.wikia.com to get on the right path.

I was pulled back into the action during a terrific set piece involving an attack on Air Force One and Tony’s encounter with the inventive youngster from Tennessee, Harley Keener. At first, Tony appears to brush the kid off with some rude wisecracks, but his contributions clearly will be put to better use later in the story. For celebrated screenwriter and second-time director Shane Blake, “IMIII” represents a successful return to the big screen after an eight-year absence. He co-authored the script with freshman scribe Drew Pearce. Hollywood can never get enough action specialists, one supposes. I haven’t seen the Blu-ray 3D edition, but, because “IMIII” wasn’t shot with the format in mind, viewers shouldn’t to expect the same impressive audio/video presentation as the Blu-ray 2D. The bonus package includes Black and Pearce’s commentary; deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel; a preview of “Thor: The Dark World”; a behind-the-scenes featurette; a “deconstruction” of the Air Force One sequence and a labor-intensive second-screen experience. Best of all is the Marvel One-Shot short film, “Agent Carter,” in which Hayley Atwell plays Steve Rogers/Captain America’s wartime flame and gung-ho novice, Peggy Carter. – Gary Dretzka

Room 237
V/H/S 2: Blu-ray
When done right, a DVD’s commentary track should answer most of the questions a viewer has about the movie they’ve just watched or re-watched. Too often, though, the commentators skip the details and stick to amusing anecdotes and information we could glean from a press release on the movie’s website. “Room 237” is a documentary that unspools very much like any unauthorized commentary track might. In addition to being more than a little bit nutty, Rodney Ascher’s thought-provoking conceit is conversational, inviting and loaded with Kubrick trivia. The title not only refers to the mysterious hotel room in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, “The Shining,” but tangentially with Kubrick and King’s preoccupation with numerical permutations. It’s well known that King wasn’t a fan of the movie. In his opinion, Kubrick strayed too far from the story and its mythology, while ignoring King’s attempts to restrain his him. (Could the author have expected the leopard to change his spots?) Along with more than a few readers, King was much happier with the 1997 mini-series of the same title.

Well after “The Shining” found traction among audiences and critics, Kubrick obsessives found the time to wonder why he tinkered with so many key elements of the novel and inserted as many seemingly unrelated angles as he did. These included an anti-Semitic version of “The Three Little Pigs” cartoon, Nazi typewriters, the genocide of Native Americans and things that normally would be dismissed as mistakes in continuity. Ascher also revisits a theory that forwards the idea Kubrick staged the moon landing for NASA. More ambitious theorists are encouraged to somehow project a backwards rendition of “The Shining” over a screen playing the movie as it is supposed to be seen. You won’t believe who Jack Nicholson morphs into at one point in the movie. If the director hadn’t been such a mysterious fellow and “The Shining” hadn’t scored at the box-office, “Room 237” would be given the same weight as 40-year-old rumors about Paul McCartney dying before the release of the “Abbey Road” album. At 102 minutes, however, the documentary begs comparison to unofficial investigations into the JFK assassination. If “Room 237” is weighted in favor of the existence of a grand, overreaching ego trip, Ascher had the decency to add a panel discussion in which all sides of the issue are represented, defended or lampooned. None of this should deter newcomers from sampling “The Shining” or, for that matter, the novel and mini-series. The movie is perfectly fine the way it is. There’s also commentary, the “Secrets of ‘The Shining’” panel discussion from the First Annual Stanley Film Festival, 11 deleted interviews, a featurette on the music and a discussion on the poster design with Artist Aled Lewis.

Snowbound hotels and abandoned houses are scary enough, without the added intrigue of video-cassettes left behind in the wake of one heinous crime or another. “V/H/S/2” extends what is essentially an emerging straight-to-DVD franchise. Both opened in a handful of theaters, but anthology series have traditionally worked better on the smaller screen. Here, private investigators break into an empty house and, instead of finding a missing student, discover a cache of VHS tapes. Each contains found footage of a horrible event, typically involving paranormal circumstances. Could they be linked to the young man’s disappearance? Except for the excessive deployment of jump-scares and eardrum-shattering noise, “Phase 1 Clinical Trials,” might very well have been inspired by the ghosts in “The Shining.” It was directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, collaborators on “You’re Next” and the “Q” segment of “The ABCs of Death.” Among the other contributors are Jason Eisener (“Hobo With a Shotgun”), Gareth Evans (“The Raid”), Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez (“Blair Witch”) and Jamie Nash (“Lovely Molly”). – Gary Dretzka

Unfinished Song
There are three very good reasons to pick up a copy of “Unfinished Song” and their faces all appear prominently on the cover of the DVD: Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave and Gemma Arterton. Otherwise, your enjoyment of Paul Andrew Williams’ two-hankie musical dramedy will depend on how willing one is to be manipulated by old Brits refusing to go gentle into that good night. Stamp plays Arthur Harris, a grumpy pensioner whose wife, Marion, is only able to endure the final stages of a terminal illness in the company of the men and women in her choral group. The senior ensemble is directed by Arterton’s character, Elizabeth, whose upbeat personality is contagious. When Marion does pass over, Harris is left with a void in his heart that he won’t let his estranged son and granddaughter to fill. If you’re guessing that Elizabeth will attempt to chip away at Arthur’s thick crust and convince him to find a reason to go on living, give yourself an “A” in Film Tropes 101. If you’re also willing to bet that his recovery will somehow include finding his singing voice, add a “plus” to that mark. No matter how obvious that scenario is, “Unfinished Song” (a.k.a., “Song for Marion”) has a couple of other neat tricks up its sleeve. I don’t want to ghettoize such movies, but, clearly, Williams is targeting the same disenfranchised viewers who embraced “Quartet,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “How About You?,” “All Together,” “My Afternoons With Margueritte” and “Is Anybody There?” Despite the presence of highly recognizable actors, none of these films was made specifically for American audiences … unless they still read books and newspapers, and their favorite cable channel is TMC. – Gary Dretzka

Augustine: Blu-ray
This weekend, the Showtime network debuts its much anticipated mini-series, “Masters of Sex.” It describes how research conducted by Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the 1950s-60s led to an understanding of human sexual response and sexual dysfunction. Anyone who wants to know how far we’ve come in the last 140 years need only pick up a copy of the French rom-dram “Augustine,” or, for that matter, “Hysteria,” “A Dangerous Method” and “The Road to Wellville.” (And, even after all that time, how many men still couldn’t find a woman’s clitoris with a road map?) Alice Winocour’s film is based on the work of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, known in Belle Epoque Paris as the “Napoleon of neuroses.” Among Charcot’s many areas of interest was the condition then popularly known as hysteria and if it might be recognized and treated through hypnotherapy. In some cultures, such seizures were linked to demonic possession and the only permanent cure was exorcism or execution. This was because the victims often clutched their breasts and genitalia during their convulsions. Charcot’s stated reason for pursuing a cure was to put an end to such prejudice and persecution. One way to do so was to convince the medical community that hysteria had been misdiagnosed all along. This is what Charcot told his patient, Augustine, when she balked at being put on display, naked, before galleries of curious doctors.

French singing sensation, Soko, plays the 19-year-old kitchen maid, who comes to Charcot’s attention after suffering a seizure while serving dinner to her employer’s guests. It leaves her partially paralyzed and with one eyelid permanently shut. Charcot pokes and prods Augustine in an attempt to localize the problem, but, it isn’t until he hypnotizes her and induces an attack that he is able to formulate a theory. Reading the pain on her face tells us a different story. Part of Winocour’s premise here is that the “peep-show” atmosphere was nearly as hurtful to the doctor’s patients as the seizures and paralysis, not that it will come as any relief to them now. It was, however, considered to be an evil necessary for the advance of his science, facilities and financial well-being. By the time Augustine begins to feel relief from the paralysis, she’s fallen in love with the married Charcot. For his part, the doctor is attracted to something primal in Augustie. Soko and Vincent Lindon turn in masterful performances in the sometimes agonizing roles of doctor and patient.

The only thing that bothered me about “Augustine” was the distinct lack of orgasmic pleasure on display during the girl’s seizures, which leave her twisted like a pretzel. Other patients bear witness to the curative powers of sexual release, but Augustine only looks miserable. It wouldn’t be the first or last time a woman would be disappointed by a man who’s in a position to manipulate her genitalia. The Blu-ray includes archival photographs of the real-life Augustine and other patients at Charcot’s hospital; Q&A interviews with Soko and Winocour; two of Soko’s music videos; and, best of all, two wonderful shorts by the writer/director. – Gary Dretzka

John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Halloween: 35th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Psycho II/Psycho III: Collector’s Editions: Blu-ray
Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of ‘Friday the 13th’
A lot of interesting ideas are explored in John Carpenter’s underappreciated 1987 genre thriller, “Prince of Darkness.” Not the least of them involves the biblically prophesized showdown between the forces of good and evil and whether modern science might play a role in its outcome. That the question is posed within the fuzzy parameters of a quintessential B-movie format only makes it that much more accessible to the rank-and-file audience. Here, the Dark Lord has been laying low for hundreds of years in a large cylinder — full to the brim with green goop — in the basement of an inner-city church. How it got there is pretty much beside the point. We learn of its existence after an elderly priest is found dead, clutching an ornate silver box that contains a key. Apparently, the priest was about to reveal to Church officials the existence of the cylinder and it contained. Donald Pleasence plays a priest who’s summoned to the abandoned church and school to determine what, if anything, the late cleric’s undelivered proclamation might have revealed. Unwilling to entrust the future of the world to the power of the Eucharist, alone, Pleasance’s “Priest” invites Professor Birack (Victor Wong) and his team of theoretical-physics students to join him in the investigation. As they move their computers and sensors into the school’s empty classrooms, Satan’s minions gather across from the church in the guise of disheveled vagrants. Among them is a street prophet played by Alice Cooper. No shit. As ludicrous as the events depicted in “Prince of Darkness” are, at times, it’s as unpretentiously entertaining as anything currently gathering dust video stores. The Blu-ray presentation also works to the benefit of Carpenter’s 25-year-old special effects. The package includes “Sympathy for the Devil: An Interview with John Carpenter”; “Alice at the Apocalypse,” an amusing interview with the outrageous singer; “The Messenger,” an all-new interview with actor and special-visual-effects supervisor Robert Grasmere; and “Hell on Earth,” a look at the film’s score with co-composer (with Carpenter) Alan Howarth; an alternate opening from TV version; “Horror’s Hallowed Ground,” a locations tour with Shout’s resident guide, Sean Clark; a Q&A “Easter egg” from 2012′s Screamfest; and commentary with Carpenter and actor Peter Jason.

If ever a film needed no introduction, it’s Carpenter’s landmark slasher film, “Halloween,” which is newly available in a snazzy “35th Anniversary Edition.” Coincidentally, Pleasance also plays a key role here, as the doctor who wants to bring demented sister-killer Michael Myers back to the institution from which he’s just escaped. It is, of course, better known as the picture that made a star, if not yet an object of lustful desire of Jamie Lee Curtis. The Blu-ray arrives in a special “digibook” package, with an embossed cover, foil accents and an attached booklet, featuring 20 pages of photos and an essay about the film. More to the point of such re-releases, it benefits greatly from a much-needed HD upgrade, overseen by the techies at Anchor Bay. Other newly created bonus features include commentary with writer/director Carpenter and Curtis and “The Night She Came Home,” a documentary-style piece showing what happens when geek-goddess Curtis attends a fan convention. The “vintage” add-ons are “On Location: 25 Years Later,” marketing material and footage from the sanitized TV version.

Among the many unwritten rules of filmmaking in Hollywood is, “Always mess with success.” It encourages studios and producers to milk every dollar they can from brand-new series. It applies as much to such gold-plated characters as James Bond, Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto, as to such floundering genre series, “Final Destination,” “Resident Evil” and “Saw”; lazy sequels to “The Hangover” and “Meet the Parents”; the increasingly tired “Die Hard” and “Underworld” titles; and even “Indiana Jones,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Men in Black,” whose most-recent performances were inflated by overseas receipts and DVD/Blu-ray revenues. Although the pursuit of franchise success is as old as “The Thin Man,” “Andy Hardy,” Inspector Clouseau and Sergio Leone’s “Dollar Trilogy,” it didn’t become institutionalized until the mid-1970s, with Francis Ford Coppola’s prequel/sequel to “The Godfather” and John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to William Friedkin’s “French Connection.” It wasn’t enough for Coppola to be canonized for the critical and commercial success of “The Godfather Part II.” He reinvented how business would be done in Hollywood by the chronological reassembling of “Part I” and “Part II” for television, using deleted footage and editing out the naughty bits. The ratings success of NBC’s “Godfather Saga” inspired Paramount to order a re-edit of the re-edit, “The Godfather Epic,” for the less-censorial video-cassette and LaserDisc market. After the 1992 release of “The Godfather Part III,” the process would begin again, inspiring even more collections in DVD and Blu-ray. Ditto, for the afterlife of “Apocalypse Now.”

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Universal decided to risk tarnishing the reputation of one its most cherished titles – and theme park attractions – by green-lighting a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Studio executives considered releasing “Psycho II” direct-to-video, but took a chance on a theatrical run, anyway. Fortuitously, Anthony Perkins was game for a remake and, after 23 years, it was probably time for Norman Bates to be released from the hospital for the criminally insane. Naturally, he returns to the Bates Motel, where he’ll face the vengeful wrath of Vera Miles, once again playing the sister of Janet Leigh’s unfortunate Marion Crane. The picture was greeted by surprisingly positive reviews and box-office returns sufficiently large to inspire a “Psycho III” and, a few years later, the prequel, “Psycho IV: The Beginning,” again with Perkins on board. “PIII” picks up a month after the events described in “PII,” which starred Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia and Dennis Franz. In “PIII,” made with Perkins at the helm, Norman is allowed a girlfriend (Diana Swarwid). Jeff Fahey plays a mysterious drifter and Roberta Maxwell is a nosy reporter investigating how such fiends as Bates win parole. (Hint: blame Ronald Reagan for cutting funds to mental-health facilities.) When someone dressed like Mommy Dearest goes on a killing spree, guess who the cops make the primary suspect. The movie didn’t make nearly as much money as its predecessors — in 2013-equivalent dollars, anyway — but it probably didn’t cost a lot to produce, either. If anything, though, it received better notices than “PII.” Shout!Factory’s “Collector’s Edition” packages come loaded with interviews, both vintage and fresh; new commentary with screenwriters Tom Holland and Charles Edward Pogue; and the reflections of body-double Brinke Stevens and effects creator Michael Westmore. “PIV” didn’t go anywhere, unless one considers A&E’s “Bates Motel” to be the prequel series Universal intended to produce in the early 1990s. It’s a good thing, the studio waited 20 years. The show has been renewed for a second season, beginning in 2014.

In Warner/Paramount’s recently released “Friday the 13th: The Complete Collection,” an excerpt from the print edition of the definitive “Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of ‘Friday the 13th,’” was included in the package. Fans who haven’t gotten their fill of Jason Voorhees – or have just finished binging – can now pick up the 400-minute-long documentary version. Narrated by Corey Feldman, it traces the franchise from its humble beginnings in 1980 at a New Jersey summer camp to the blockbuster release of its 2009 “reboot.” The four-disc set includes hundreds of rare and never-before-seen photographs, film clips, outtakes, archival documents, conceptual art and behind-the-scenes footage. There also are interviews with more than 150 cast and crew members, spanning all twelve films and the television series. – Gary Dretzka

A Letter to Three Wives: Blu-ray
Joseph L. Mankiewicz walked away from the 1950 Academy Awards ceremony with Best Director and Best Writing/Screenplay honors for “A Letter to Three Wives,” losing a Best Picture statuette to “All the King’s Men.” A witty rom-com, with a whodunit thrown in for good measure, it stars Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell and Jeanne Crain as small-town wives, who waste much of their free time gossiping at the local country club. It isn’t until they receive a letter from an absent fourth friend that they begin doubting the strength of their marriages. Addy claims she’s having an affair with one of the ladies’ husbands, but doesn’t identify the cheater. Instead of hiring a private detective to investigate, Deborah, Lora Mae and Rita burn calories fretting about the rumor. Meanwhile, Addy adds fuel to the fire by sending gifts and letters to the men, making sure the women see them, as well. Unaware of the first letter, the men dismiss the gifts as mere signs of friendship. The wives, of course, know better. Mankiewicz encourages viewers to participate in the guessing game, but only leaves us with the barest of clues. We aren’t even shown a portrait of Addy. The sharp and leading dialogue is what keeps “A Letter to Three Wives” from looking like an antique … that, and the fine digital transfer. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Kenneth Geist, Cheryl Lower and Christopher Mankiewicz, a 45-minute “Biography” segment on Darnell and a short clip from Fox Movietone News on the 22nd Academy Awards ceremony. Thirty-four years later, porn purveyor VCA would release “Alexandra,” an unusually well-conceived homage – not to be confused with the now-popular XXX parodies of hit titles — to “A Letter to Three Wives.” While I’m not suggesting that many readers could benefit from comparing the two pictures in the privacy of their own home, anyone looking for a novel reason to sample vintage porn might want to give it a look. – Gary Dretzka

Fill the Void
One of the basic tenets of life in the United States is that all Americans have the right to practice their faith without interference from the government or people who would prefer not to see certain religious beliefs flourish. Even so, in 1878, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that plural marriage, as practiced by many members of the Mormon Church, was not protected by the Constitution. In 1994, American Indian Religious Freedom Act overrode efforts by states – approved by the Supreme Court – to deny the Native American Church the freedom to use peyote in rituals that pre-date the Constitution. The borders grow fuzzier when discussing the imposition of religious or cultural rites on children by their parents or religious leaders. What does it say about our country that, by re-classifying female circumcision as “female genital mutilation” or “female genital cutting,” parental discretion can be criminalized, while the male- circumcision rite is protected by law? The court will have to cross that bridge someday soon. Starting with the re-emergence of Christian fundamentalism as a political force during the Reagan presidency and compounded by increased media scrutiny of male-dominated, faith-based communities — from Williamsburg to Kabul, Waco to the Vatican — the whole notion of freedom of choice for children and women has been thrown open to question. After watching Israeli director Rama Burshtein’s exquisitely crafted and heart-wrenching family drama, “Fill the Void,” I was left with more of those sorts of questions than answers.

The film is set in a tight ultra-Orthodox community in Tel Aviv, where one Hasidic family’s way of life is about to be shaken to the core. The oldest daughter, Esther, is nine months into her first pregnancy, when, with warning, disaster strikes. After collapsing in her bedroom, Esther is rushed to the hospital, where, after delivering a son, she dies. The entire community is devastated by the tragedy, even if it can be attributed to God’s will. In the cruelest of all possible coincidences and over the course of single afternoon, her husband, Yochay, will be required to participate in the burial of Esther and celebrate the circumcision of his newborn child. Tradition dictates that mourning will soon take a backseat to finding a second wife for the handsome and virile Yochay. The most likely suitor is a woman Yochay’s known for most of his life, but hasn’t seen in many years. The problem is that she lives in Belgium and even the possibility of losing her grandson, so soon after her daughter’s death, drives Esther’s mother into a frenzy of grief. Yochay may sympathize with his mother-in-law’s dilemma, but he also understands what’s expected of him as a father and man of faith. In desperation, his mother-in-law comes up a compromise that would sound as if it were inspired by King Solomon, if only it didn’t threaten to ruin the life of Esther’s18-year-old sister, Shira. Without seeking anyone’s guidance, except the boss rabbi, the woman offers her daughter’s hand in marriage to Yochay. For all sorts of reasons, the only person who considers this to be a win-win proposal is the Shira’s mother.

Although Shira (Hadas Yaron) hasn’t spent her formative years watching MTV Israel or reading fashion magazine and planning where she’ll go to college, like her peers in the secular world, she’s nowhere ready to become a mother and wife. She wants to have some say, at least, in choosing a husband and would appreciate having a nine-month headstart on preparing for parenthood. The role of a wife in a Hasidic household is limited to what is expected of her by her husband and religious tradition. Shira isn’t averse to entering such a life, but not if it means sharing the bed of her sister’s husband. She would prefer her husband to be every bit as awkwardly virginal as she is on her wedding night. The prospect of breaking her mother’s heart also feels her with dread.

Burshtein’s parallel conceit in “Fill the Void” is maintaining the integrity of the decision-making process, without putting the weight of her own fingers on the scale. The American-born writer/director doesn’t factor into the debate any of the considerations she knows would be relevant to women and teenage girls outside the Hasidic community. While she doesn’t excoriate the second-class status of the women we meet here, neither does she ignore it. Burshtein lays out the facts as she sees them and allows us to eavesdrop on the process of coming up with a solution, good or bad. These aren’t people we would have met anywhere else and she would prefer us not to prejudge them based on ignorance and unfamiliarity with the environment. As Burshtein explains in a Q&A interview included in the bonus package, it’s a small miracle she was able to tell this story in any sort of authoritative way. The Hasidim are notoriously camera-shy and suspicious of media coverage. (Anyone who saw Boaz Yakin’s ridiculous “A Price Above Rubies” would immediately sympathize with their stance.) The celebrations and rituals shown in the movie feel entirely authentic and non-rehearsed. One is left to wonder, though, if the women we meet in “Fill the Void” might be assaulted if they attempted to pray at the Western Wall or if they would even dare try. – Gary Dretzka

In the House: Blu-ray
Nothing excites a teacher more than finding a student who truly wants to excel and, with tutelage, could become the one in a million who goes on to achieve something great. In Francois Ozon’s smart and only slightly creepy “In the House,” a dyspeptic literature teacher with the unlikely name of Germain Germain discovers a cocky16-year-old who appears to possess just such a gift. In his nightly perusal of essays assigned to a class of typically bored teenagers, Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is struck by the precise description of a sexy MILF (Emmanuelle Seigner) the boy, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), encounters at the home of one of his friends. Germain is so impressed that he reads the passage to his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), to see if she agrees with his assessment of the boy’s talent. She’s likewise surprised by the fact that the boy ends each chapter with, “To Be Continued.” Germain critiques Claude’s essay, while also encouraging him to live up to his promise of continuing the story. Claude decides that the best way to spy on the gorgeous housewife is to volunteer to help his somewhat nerdy friend with their math assignment. When the boy comes home with an “A,” Claude practically is invited to become one of the family. In fact, from the little Ozon gives us about Claude’s background, it’s clear that his outgoing persona masks wounds from a troubled childhood. For Germain and Jeanne, the nightly recitation of every new chapter adds a bit of a lift to their sagging marriage.

There comes a point, however, when Germain begins to notice something slightly disturbing in the narrative, perhaps patently false, as well. Still, Claude’s writing continues to improve and it wouldn’t benefit either of them to end the experiment. It’s when we begin to have trouble discerning fact from fiction that Ozon shifts “In the House” – based on a play by Juan Mayorga – into a higher gear. We sense that things will end badly for someone, but the director doesn’t telegraph from which direction the storm will come. If none of this sounds very amusing, you should know that Claude evolves into someone closely resembling a French Eddie Haskell. His games don’t fool anyone, but he continues to play them, anyway. Everyone in the cast is very good, with Luchini, as usual, standing out in a role that requires a great deal of emotional range. The bonus material includes a making-of featurette, footage of the premier at Le Grand Rex, bloopers, costume fittings, a poster gallery and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Aleksandr’s Price
Interview a hundred prostitutes and it’s possible that you’ll receive a hundred different reasons for their decision – forced or otherwise – to get into that line of work. In the movies, though, the choices can be narrowed down to the dozen or so with some sort of visual appeal. As the so-called Queer Cinema inches ever more closely to embracing mainstream and indie standards, the backstories of some male and female prostitutes have begun to sound remarkably similar. Pau Masó wrote, directed and stars in “Aleksandr’s Price,” a well-made, if a bit too familiar drama about an illegal immigrant, living alone in New York, who probably wishes that he never left Mother Russia. In short order, the recently arrived Aleksandr loses his father, sister and mother. Broke and distraught, a woman friend tips him to an opening at a gay nightclub. Instead of serving cocktails to customers, he’s asked to dance and climb poles for dollars. One night, he agrees to accompany one of the customers to his apartment for a little of the old in-out. When it’s over, Aleksandr is shocked and angered by the gentleman’s gift of $500. He hadn’t considered prostitution to be an option, but it grows on him. Inevitably, though, he makes the same mistake as Sera in “Leaving Las Vegas,” suffering the same brutal and painful fate. Instead of learning the same valuable lesson as she did, Aleksandr is driven to accept riskier invitations and acts of self-humiliation. We learn about his fall from grace through on-going psychiatric sessions and flashbacks. Apparently, Masó trimmed an hour’s worth of explicit sexual content and graphic violence from the movie, choosing, instead, to focus on the emotional through-line. It explains why there’s very little full frontal nudity and other harder stuff here. – Gary Dretzka

3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
La Cage aux Folles: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In the annals of Hollywood history, the headline-making love affair between Ingrid Bergman and Robert Rossellini was every bit as scandalous as Liz & Eddie, Liz & Dick, Marilyn & JFK, Woody & Soon-Yi and Brad & Angelina. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Edwin C. Johnson condemned her as a “free-love cultist” and “a horrible example of womanhood and a powerful influence for evil.” Unlike the characters Bergman played in “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and “Joan of Arc,” the Swedish-born actress was neither a nun nor a saint. Their affair cost her temporary custody of her daughter, Pia, and the ability to travel freely in the U.S. Rossellini’s greatest crime — in the eyes of Hollywood’s elite, anyway — was kidnapping and soiling one of America’s sweethearts and box-office stars. She would return triumphant seven years later, winning an Academy Award for Best Actress, in “Anastasia.” The new Criterion Collection package, “3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman,” reminds us that her marriage to the great Italian director bore cinematic fruit, in addition to three children.

Their pairing on “Stromboli,” set on the small volcanic island off the north coast of Sicily, was the result of a fan letter Bergman mailed to Rossellini. She plays a Lithuanian refugee, who, after escaping from Nazi agents throughout Eastern Europe, finds temporary shelter and a permanent husband in an Italian internment camp. He takes his bride to his home town, a fishing village on Stromboli, where she stands out like Lady GaGa at a prayer breakfast. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that she’s simply traded one internment camp for another. After nearly being run out of the village on a rail by the townswomen, she finds God on the summit of a lava-belching volcano. Rossellini’s eye for neo-realism captured several precious images, including the frenzy surrounding an extraordinary haul of tuna in the town’s communal nets. The scandal didn’t do much for business at the international box office, but, as it faded from memory, the film’s stature continued to grow.

The title of Rossellini and Bergman’s second collaboration, “Europe ’51,” is vague to the point of being misleading. As the director explains in his introduction to the 1952 movie, it is a contemporary parable that asks the question, “If St. Francis of Assisi were to come back to life, how what he be received?” Standing in for the good friar here is Bergman, a snooty Italian socialite who finds Jesus after the death of her young son. Nearly comatose from grief, the woman agrees to participate in an act of charity that would require her to purchase the drugs necessary for a poor boy to survive a serious illness. The satisfaction she gets from performing this simple act imbues her with the true spirit of Christianity. Even though she doesn’t act one bit crazy, that’s exactly what her wealthy family thinks she is. “Europe ’51” was considered to be a giant step away from “Rome, Open City,” “Paisan” and “Germany Year Zero,” and like “Stromboli,” it failed at the box office. It should be viewed today through a prism of today’s disgraceful treatment of people struggling with debt, unemployment and the effects of corporate greed and political indifference. The same was true for poor people living in the shadow of Italy’s post-war “economic miracle.”

Released in 1954, “Voyage to Italy” follows a pair of British sophisticates on a journey to Italy to settle the affairs of a recently deceased ex-pat relative. Their’s is a marriage of convenience, based primarily on business interests. This works OK, but only as long as the couple remains consumed with their responsibilities in London. Once on “vacation,” however, they realize that they have almost nothing else in common and might be better off divorced. The couple was portrayed by Bergman and George Sanders, a British actor, who, besides marrying two of the Gabor sisters, was famous for playing heels and villains. In “Voyage to Italy,” Sanders merely was required to act supremely bored with his marriage and playing the tourist. (It would be the same reason he gave for later committing suicide.) Although our natural assumption is that their characters will separate and, perhaps, one of them would might in Italy, something resembling divine inspiration alters the narrative’s trajectory. Again, the picture probably plays better on this exquisitely restored Criterion edition than it did in theaters, before audiences more attuned to Westerns, frothy melodramas and war pictures.

Criterion has also filled the boxed set with enough bonus features to warrant a separate disc, offering an array of period documentaries, commentaries, new interviews with family members and associates, short films, visual essays, home movies and separate Italian and English dialogue tracks. The enclosed booklet features print essays by critics Richard Brody, Fred Camper, Dina Iordanova and Paul Thomas; letters exchanged by Rossellini and Bergman; “Why I Directed Stromboli,” a 1950 article by Rossellini; a 1954 interview with Rossellini conducted by Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut for Cahiers du cinéma; and excerpts from a 1965 interview with Rossellini conducted by Aprà and Maurizio Ponzi for Filmcritica.

I don’t know where “La Cage aux Folles” fits into the official history of the gay-rights movement, but it certainly has earned a footnote, at least. Released nine years after the Stonewall riots, the outrageous comedy proved that mainstream audiences would embrace a stage play, Broadway musical and studio-backed movie in which LGBT characters aren’t wallowing in self-pity (“The Boys in the Band”), are suicidal or murderous (“Ode to Billy Joe,” “The Eyes of Laura Mars”), freaks of nature (“Myra Breckinridge”) or deeply closeted (“Reflections in a Golden Eye”). Its success also showed that Americans would read subtitles, if duly rewarded. The foundation was so solid, in fact, that, with few changes, “The Birdcage” (1996) would gross $124 million at the domestic box-office. Today, the premieres of both pictures probably would be picketed by church groups and the Republican congressional delegation.

Fans of Mike Nichols’ adaptation of “La Cage aux Folles,” which starred Robin Williams, Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria – and, for that matter, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” – are especially encouraged to pick up the Criterion Blu-ray edition. The movie looks and sounds better than it has in years, thanks to its 2K digital restoration, and also includes a new interview with director Edouard Molinaro; archival footage featuring actor Michel Serrault and Jean Poiret, writer and star of the original stage production of La Cage aux Folles; a new interview with Laurence Senelick, author of “The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre”; French and U.S. trailers; a new English subtitle translation; and a booklet, with an essay by critic David Ehrenstein. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Foyle’s War: Set 7
Doctor Who: The Complete Seventh Series
Some television shows refuse to die. In one of the great bone-headed decisions in modern television history, a short-term executive at Britain’s ITV network decided to cancel “Foyle’s War,” its enormously popular World War II detective series, after its fifth season. It caused creator/writer Anthony Horowitz to discard scripts set during most of 1943 and 1944. Less than two years later, a new executive reversed the decision and ordered at least three more two-hour episodes. Two more seasons have been or will be shot for broadcast in the UK and on PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery.” The interruption meant that the seventh and eighth seasons – according to the British calendar, anyway — would be set after the end of the war. The new package of episodes from Acorn Media finds former cop and current intelligence officer, DCS Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen), back in England after a sojourn in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the A-bomb was developed. The mysteries include “The Eternity Ring,” in which Foyle is drawn into an MI5 investigation of a Russian spy ring, possibly involving his former driver, Sam; “The Cage,” in which Foyle investigates the mysterious deaths of several Russian defectors and unexplained disappearance of a British housewife; and “Sunflower,” in which Foyle is charged with looking into assassination attempts against an ex-Nazi, working with MI5 to sift out Soviet spies. In case anyone’s keeping score, Season Eight in Britain is the same as “Set 7” on DVD.

Trying to make sense of the order in which “Dr. Who” seasons and specials are dispensed on DVD would require a mind far more nimble and orderly than mine. The new 700-minute, 5-disc package from BBC Home Entertainment, “Doctor Who: The Complete Seventh Series,” represents Matt Smith’s last stanza as the Doctor and includes 13 episodes and a pair of specials, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” and “The Snowmen.” The episodes open with “Asylum of the Daleks” (September 1, 2011) and close with “The Name of the Doctor” (May 18, 2013). It also contains interviews with Smith and Jenna-Louse Coleman from BBC America’s “The Nerdist”; new featurettes “INFORARIUM,” “Clara and the TARDIS” and “Rain Gods”; vintage featurettes “The Making of the Gunslinger,” “Creating Clara,” “Last Days of the Ponds” and “Pond Life”; specials, “The Science of Doctor Who,” “Doctor Who in the U.S.,” “The Companions” and “Doctor Who at ComicCon”; prequels to the episodes, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe,” “Asylum of the Daleks,” “The Snowmen,” “The Bells of Saint John” and “The Name of the Doctor”; and commentary for “The Snowmen,” “Cold War,” “Hide” and “The Crimson Horror.” By the time you’re done with all this, you’ll be ready to welcome Peter Capaldi and the 3D 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor” – Gary Dretzka

TV to DVD
Hannibal: Season One: Blu-ray
2 Broke Girls: The Complete Second Season
Modern Family: The Complete Fourth Season
Two and a Half Men: The Complete Tenth Season
Family Guy: Volume 11
Of all the characters NBC could have chosen as the titular antagonist for a prime-time series, odds were against it being Hannibal Lecter, the world’s most brilliant and notorious cannibal. Americans are a forgiving lot, however, so it makes sense that the same country that embraced vigilante killer Dexter Morgan would find something positive in the young Doctor Lecter. Even so, creator Bryan Fuller had his work cut out for him. Like “Dexter” and other offbeat cable hits, the first season of “Hannibal” would be limited to 13 episodes and, if renewed, subsequent seasons would equal the same number. And, yes, a second season is on tap for 2014. The formula prevents writers and producers from spreading good ideas so thin that they wear out on the long haul to the 22nd episode of each season. Such gimmicks as stunt casting and adding near-death experiences for the primary characters are substituted for solid plot development and there’s rarely a dull moment on every new show. Fuller is so confident of his show’s chances for surviving seven seasons, at least, that he plans for the first three to consist of original material; the fourth, fifth and sixth dedicated to the periods covered in “Red Dragon,” “Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal”; and the seventh given to an original storyline detailing Hannibal’s demise. In the first season, we were introduced to FBI Agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), whose specialty is hunting the most notorious serial killers. His hook, if you will, is the ability to think, see and feel like a monster. Special Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) introduces Graham to the noted psychiatrist and undercover fiend, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), who enjoys playing both ends against the middle. The Blu-ray package adds commentary on the episodes, “Aperitif” and “Savoreux,” with Fuller, Dancy and producer David Slade; storyboards for the pilot episode; “Hannibal Reborn,” a featurette on the development of the series; “A Taste for Killing,: a humorous piece on the cannibalistic subtext of the character; a gag reel; deleted scenes; “A Symphony for the Slaughter,” with composer Brian Reitzell; “The FX of Murder,” on the series’ design elements and special effects; an unaired episode; and “producers’ cut” versions of several episodes.

When it launched two years ago, “2 Broke Girls” was in the envious position of following in the wake of the season debut of “Two and a Half Men,” which was the first without Charlie Sheen. It would be difficult to mess up that kind of a lead-in on Week One, but, after that boost, the show would have to succeed on its own merits. Like the show that preceded it, “2 Broke Girls” was replete with raunchy situations, double entendres and what some critics considered to be racial stereotypes. If anything, though, it was an equal-opportunity offender. In Season Two, the show took over the timeslot previously occupied by “Two and a Half Men.” It did well enough to reclaim the space going into the 2013-14 season. When the season opened, Max and Caroline finally got the break they needed to open their cupcake shop. Things got better with an endorsement from Martha Stewart. By Episode 18, they were back scratching for money. Unlike the Season One package, the second year isn’t available on Blu-ray.

Meanwhile, “Two and a Half Men” just keeps rolling along, no matter who’s in charge of the Malibu beach house and what night of the week it appears. Following “Big Band Theory” on Thursdays, all the characters had to do was show up. This year, it opens in the hammock position between Robin Williams’ new program and “Elementary.” Ashton Kutcher stuck around for another round as the billionaire playboy, while Holland Taylor and Marin Hinkle all but disappeared from the show. Half-man Angus T. Jones caused a stir when he publically criticized “Two and a Half Men,” calling it “filth” and asking young people not to watch it. Otherwise, there was quite a bit of discussion about love and marriage.

On Sunday, “Modern Family” was awarded its fourth straight Emmy as Best Comedy, tying “The Dick Van Dyke Show” as the top dog in the category. It’s interesting, because, if all anyone knew about the question of same-sex marriage was what they saw on “Modern Family,” they’d assume it had long since ceased being a bone of contention. As presented in the context of a being a “modern American family,” however, the sitcom rings truer than any hidebound politician or bonehead preacher would dare admit. Season Four was full of landmark transitions, including Haley’s freshman year in college, Jay and Gloria’s anticipation of a new addition to the family, new homes and a funeral. Guest stars include Matthew Broderick, Shelley Long and Elizabeth Banks.

Animated shows on Fox enjoy life spans that equal those of whales and tortoises. “Family Guy,” for example, is entering its 12th season. For this reason, alone, it can be argued that the Griffin family is every bit as representative of American families as the Pritchetts and Dunphys, over on ABC. The 11th-season package is comprised of 23 uncensored episodes and such bonus features as scene animatics and side-by-side commentaries with “Seahorse Seashell Party” and “Viewer Mail #2”; a full-episode animatic from “Back to the Pilot”; “Fishin’ Around With Ricky Gervais,” and audio outtakes; Ron MacFarlane Reads Viewer Mail; and deleted scenes. As usual, non-animated stars lined up around the block for voice cameos. – Gary Dretzka

Blood of Redemption: Blu-ray
If someone ever were to inaugurate a Hall of Fame honoring actors who’ve specialized in movies that bypass theaters and make their money in the straight-to-video business, at least four of the actors in “Blood of Redemption” would be inducted on the first ballot. This shouldn’t be confused with saying Giorgio Serafini and Shawn Sourgose’s shoot-’em-up has an all-star cast, however, only that Billy Zane, Dolph Lundgren, Vinnie Jones and Robert Davi understand the limits of the genre, as well as their fans’ love of simulated violence and strippers. They also know that it’s better work at your craft, than wait by the phone for Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese to call. Not that it matters, but, for the record, “Blood of Redemption” weaves a tangled web of deception, betrayal, revenge, weapons that go boom, bodies that go splat, blood spray, fists of fury, titties, cocaine and counterfeit money. You could say the same thing about 90 percent of the action pictures that are made for the DVD/Blu-ray marketplace. It includes a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven
When really bad, big-budget movies transcend their lowly status and become cult favorites, there can be no good reason to compound the disaster by adding a sequel or feature-length parody. The original 1995 “Showgirls” fairly earned all 13 of its Razzie nominations and, if it weren’t for an astonishingly successful VHS and midnight-movie campaign, might have lived on simply as an oft-repeated embarrassment on cable television. Even Elizabeth Berkley has been able to shake off the onus of delivering some of the most hideous dialogue ever committed to paper. She doesn’t appear in “Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven,” but Nomi Malone’s footprints are all over Rena Riffel’s epic-length sequel, which can’t seem to decide if it’s an outrageous parody or soft-core drama. At an almost interminable 145 minutes, “Penny’s From Heaven” has the time to be anything it wants to be. In her 25-year acting career, Riffel has shed her skivvies in more movies than Sally Rand had ostrich feathers. Apart from the many Skin-emax movies in she’s appeared, her more prominent credits include roles in “Striptease,” “Married … With Children,” “Breast Men,” “Mulholland Drive” and, of course, Joe Eszterhas and Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls.” In “Penny’s From Heaven,” the 5-foot-8 actor/dancer/model not only reprises her Penny Slot character from “Showgirls,” but she also wrote, directed, produced and edited the sequel, if a 145-minute movie can be said to have been edited. She also directed and wrote “Trasharella” and “Trasharella Ultra Vixen.”

Nearing 40, Penny wants to end her career as a lap dancer and find work in Hollywood on a show like “Dancing With the Stars.” As longtime boyfriend and fellow “Showgirls” veteran James “Jimmy” Smith (Glenn Plummer) cautions, however, the only dance Penny performs well isn’t one featured on “DWTS” or any other such show. She decides to give ballet and show dancing a whirl, but, frankly, stinks at it. Even so, Penny is convinced to move to Hollywood by a trick who says he knows someone in the business. She makes it to L.A., alright, but not before having her luggage stolen, getting in the middle of a shootout, being treated shabbily by a Bad Samaritan and conned by an even worse dancer in a Marilyn Monroe costume. In other words, Penny is treated pretty much like every other wannabe actor/dancer/model that comes to Hollywood to find fame, but leaves town with scabs on her knees. Despite it all, she keeps a stiff upper lip. If Riffel’s script sounds as horrifying as the original, it should be noted that Eszterhas and Verhoeven’s aborted idea for a sequel to “Showgirls” had Nomi taking the same route from Las Vegas to L.A. Accidentally or on purpose, a fair amount of “Penny’s From Heaven” can be enjoyed as parody. Unlike the original, its sex scenes are tame enough to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating. Besides Riffel and Plummer, Greg Travis and Dewey Weber play the same characters in both movies. – Gary Dretzka

21st Century Serial Killer
While we’ve seen several good comedies about contract killers who can’t shoot straight and husband and wives who are hired to put a hit on each other, there’s not much humor to be found in the personal odysseys of serial killers. It helps explain why Henry Weintraub’s surprisingly funny “21st Century Serial Killer” didn’t have much luck finding a distributor. The original poster carried the face of the movie’s protagonist with a cartoon balloon, inside of which were the sketched images of Charles Manson, the Unabomber, David Berkowitz and other serial killers. The DVD jacket is even more freakish, in that the protagonist is made up to resemble John Wayne Gacy in his clown outfit. The tag line reads, “Dare to dream big,” and there’s no indication that what’s inside is a comedy. The character whose face is on the poster and cover of “21st Century Serial Killer” is Aaron Schwartz, whose uneventful life bores the young man to tears. He dreams of making a name for himself in the one activity guaranteed to make him famous. Once Aaron commits himself to the task, however, he realizes that he’s not predisposed to kill … not even close. When a real serial killer does show up in town, Aaron asks him to be his mentor. Once again, it’s a thing that’s easier asked than done. To his credit, Weintraub doesn’t oversell the premise of the movie. Neither does he appear to overestimate his own ability to make viewers laugh at things that aren’t inherently funny. That, in itself, is a pretty tough trick to pull off on shoestring budget. – Gary Dretzka

SlugTerra: Slug Power!
In boning up on the action/fantasy series “SlugTerra,” I learned that the folks at Disney/ABC/ESPN/etc. also own a digital cable and satellite channel that’s specifically niched to accommodate the entertainment needs of tweener boys and the little girls who love them. Disney XD looks like fun, even if the difference between ages 6 and 13 is getting larger every day. When puberty hits, a boy’s attention will turn toward the next generation of Disney Channel hotties to replace Debbie Lovato, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, Ashley Tisdale and Raven Symone. “SlugTerra” is a Canadian export that has more characters than “War and Peace” and nearly as many pertinent storylines. At its core, “SlugTerra” is an animated Western, set in an underground kingdom in which human gunslingers battle for control of SlugTerra, using good and bad slugs as ammunition. Our Hero is Eli Shane, son of the legendary leader of the Shane Gang . The antagonist is Dr. Thaddeus Blakk, an evil entrepreneur who collects slugs for his “ghoul arsenal.” He’s never satisfied with what he already has. “Slug Power!” is the third collection of “SlugTerra.” It contains 110 minutes’s worth of entertainment, adding YouTube “slugisodes” and a background featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Bling Ring, Someday Up There Likes Me, Tim Buckley, Two Men in Manhattan, World War Z, Hidden in Woods, Shanghai Calling, Simon Killer, Arrow … More

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

The Bling Ring: Blu-ray
Although Sofia Coppola’s profile of a gang of juvenile delinquents from the right side of the tracks is entirely watchable, often funny and sometimes alarming, its existence is as difficult to justify as most reality shows in which human oddities are put on parade for our amusement. For 15 minutes, anyway, these incorrigible Hollywood club kids became nearly as celebrated as Honey Boo Boo and Snooki Polizzi. “The Bling Ring” effectively added another 15 minutes to their fame. But, then, who wouldn’t enjoy breaking into Paris Hilton’s home and using it as a clubhouse for a couple of days … or Oprah’s for that matter? The most noteworthy thing about the movie — to me, anyway — was learning just how little time these criminals were required to spend in jail for stealing some $3 million worth of overpriced jewelry, clothes and shoes. If it had been a reality show, it might have been titled “Celebrity Scavenger Hunt” and be hosted by Hilton, herself. As it is, “Bling Ring” dramatizes the kind of headline-generating spree that could only have taken place in one city on Earth and among teenagers who could only exist within its storied zip codes. If copy-cat break-ins had occurred in Milwaukee or Chattanooga, there would have been no movie. If the perpetrators had been Hispanic, African-American or poor white, one or more of the robbers might still be in jail. Like the actors playing the trendy hoodlums here, as well as those in the 2011 Lifetime movie of the same title, the mini-skirted and manicured sinners still have their looks and the rest of their lives for people to forget their crimes. Sadly, for Coppola, by the time the movie debuted at Cannes, the public had already disappeared from the public’s radar. Even with a minimal $15-million budget, “The Bling Ring” tanked.

Adapted from Nancy Jo Sales’ wonderfully titled and exhaustively researched Vanity Fair article, “The Suspect Wore Louboutins,” Coppola’s breezy screenplay benefits mightily from the teens’ well-documented arrogance and ability to make the Internet complicit in the crimes. By scanning the entertainment websites, the kids were able to locate the residences, learn when the celebrities would be out of town and discern likely entry points. Once inside, they acted as if they belonged there. If their parents ever wondered about their children’s nocturnal pursuits and lack of homework, it goes unmentioned in “Bling Ring.” I suppose, the same could be said about the parents of murderous gang-bangers in Chicago.  Cast members Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Claire Julien, Gavin Rossdale, Carlos Miranda, Georgia Rock, Taissa Farmiga, Leslie Mann and Emma Watson do nice jobs impersonating the perpetrators. Fortuitously, the arrests and court hearings were so aggressively covered in the media that they had plenty of video footage to study. Conveniently, too, some of the gang members partied at the same clubs as the actors did.

I’d be very surprised if Farmiga, Watson and Mann hadn’t perused episodes of the horrifying reality show “Pretty Wild,” during which the very real Tess Taylor, Alexis and Andrea Neiers were followed by cameras in the course of their daily activities and modeling sessions. The timing couldn’t be more opportune, as Alexis would be arrested and arraigned during the same period. The producers famously captured Alexis’ insane phone call to Sales, in which the teenager demanded that the reporter retract the assertion she wore Louboutins with six-inch heels to a hearing. Because the reporter wasn’t home at the time and the girl’s space-cadet mother infuriated her by repeatedly interrupting the call, Alexis repeated the harangue several times, if only for the benefit of the answering machine. It became an instant Internet classic. Alexis’ demented behavior suggests how much crazier Coppola’s movie could have been, if she had portrayed the bling-ringers as the self-absorbed freaks they are. (In another delicious twist, Alexis was held alongside Lindsay Lohan in the same jail.)

Ironically, Paris Hilton comes off as the most human of all of the participants. Even though the professional celebrity was the primary target of the Bling Ring, she graciously allowed Coppola to pick her brain about the thefts of family heirlooms and use her bizarrely appointed home as a shooting location. Along with Kirsten Dunst, Hilton makes a cameo appearance in a nightclub scene and she was the focus of a making-of featurette, as well. The fact that she opened up her home to Coppola either demonstrates an admirable sense of humor about her well-managed reputation or that she is completely oblivious to how ridiculous her cavernous shoe closet, jewelry horde and vanity pillows must look to people outside the Hollywood Hills. The Blu-ray’s audio-visual presentation is quite good and a couple of the featurettes fill in the blanks left over from the case. – Gary Dretzka

Somebody Up There Likes Me
Some people’s lives consist merely of a series of unfortunate accidents and unrealized dreams, all in anticipation of the inevitable release into the void. Or, so it seems in the world of independent movies. In Bob Byington’s resolutely quirky “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” there’s nothing particularly unique, special or even interesting about his protagonist or any of the other primary characters. They exist on the fringes of everyone’s periphery, except their own. Byington positions Max Youngblood (Keith Poulson) at the center of this sly comedy, but there would be no reason for him to exist if it weren’t for his sole friend, sidekick and co-worker, Sal. He’s played by Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”), the new go-to actor for world-weary cynics who stick pins in balloons just to see them deflate. Together, Max and Sal add up to one reasonably compelling character. Their lives, work, marriages and infidelities pass in five-year increments, divided neatly by the animated vignettes of Bob Sabiston (“A Scanner Darkly”) and an original score by Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio. It’s as if the two men are stand-ins for every anonymous waiter who’s ever placed a dish on our table and disappeared immediately from our memories … and vice versa. When we need to be reminded of Max’s anointed place at the center of “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” Byington brings out the magic powder-blue suitcase he inherited from his father. Although we aren’t made privy to its contents, its glow reminds us of similar plot devices in “Pulp Fiction,” “Repo Man” and “Kiss Me Deadly.” At a mere 76 minutes, “Somebody” feels very much like a short story or novella. Admirers of early Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater are the target audience here, but Offerman’s presence should attract interest, as well, from his expanding fan base. The DVD adds an interview with Nick Offerman and other cast and crew members; a music video; a faux EPK and commentary with Offerman and Byington. – Gary Dretzka

Greetings From Tim Buckley
With his soaring vocals, deeply personal lyrics and an intensity that could hardly be contained by the unresponsive amps and speakers of their day, Tim Buckley took the New York and Los Angeles folk scene by storm in the mid-1960s. Unlike every other male singer who was being compared to Bob Dylan at the time, the former high school quarterback from Orange County didn’t sound much like any other singer making the rounds of college campuses and clubs. The jingle-jangle poetics were there, alright, but his voice was sufficiently nimble to handle the same modern-jazz conceits as Van Morrison in “Astral Weeks.” By the time writers, deejays and fans were ready to pin a label on his music, Buckley, like Dylan, had moved on to something else. By the time he’d embraced free jazz, funk and improvisation, in the early 1970s, the singer-songwriter had left his original base so far behind him that it never caught back up to him. By the end of June, 1975, Buckley would be dead of a drug overdose. He had outrun everything that made him a star and was recalled mostly, if at all, by the heart-breaking inclusion of “Once I Was” in Hal Ashby’s powerful anti-war drama, “Coming Home.” Then, 16 years later, someone sounding very much like Tim Buckley began getting airtime on progressive radio stations. Turns out, it was Jeff Buckley, the son only a few of Tim’s friends and followers knew existed. Even if the newcomer played down his inheritance, the physical and vocal resemblance was uncanny.

Daniel Algrant’s slow-to-evolve “Greetings From Tim Buckley” doesn’t dig too deeply into Jeff’s grinding, mostly anonymous journey from his Anaheim home to the New York tribute concert recalled in the movie. It’s enough to know that the 25-year-old musician — played well by Penn Badgley — had yet to stretch the limits of his own voice or come to grips with the personal legacy of the man he’d only “met” twice. He finally would do so in the company of musicians who knew or played with Tim Buckley and would accept his son as one of their own. I’m not sure if the women we meet here are real or composite characters, but, in Imogen Poots’ Allie, he finds a muse for a musical coming-of-age, as well as a convenient scapegoat for his many anxieties. If the expository material borders on the melodramatic, it serves two purposes. The first is to introduce flashbacks to father Tim’s battles with his angels and devils and, two, prepare viewers for the dynamic performances in the concert. It works, too. The soundtrack is a blend of songs written or co-written by Tim Buckley and sung either by Buckley, the actor playing him in flashbacks or Badgley. It doesn’t include the two albums worth of material that would make Jeff a premiere attraction two years later. Moreover, we’re spared the sight of Badgley drowning in Memphis’ Wolf River almost six years later. The concert is sufficiently inspirational to carry the final third of the movie. The DVD extras add making-of material and interviews. I recommend that admirers check out albums by father and son, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Two Men in Manhattan: Blu-ray
Lovers of American noir who think they might be running out of great movies to discover ought to consider taking a flier on this obscure French export from Jean-Pierre Melville. Although “Two Men in Manhattan” falls short of being a classic, the shadowy 1959 crime story offers several fine things to recommend it. It reveals the greatly underappreciated director at a point in his career, where he’d convinced his French New Wave peers they could reclaim the term “noir.” American studios were turning to color, even for stripped-down genre pieces, but, in post-war Europe, there still were plenty of stories more suited to black-and-white. Neither his vastly under-seen “Bob le Flambeur” nor Jean Luc Godard’s “Breathless” would have had the same impact in Technicolor, and there was nothing sunny and bright in Britain’s kitchen-sink movement, either. More to the point at hand, however, “Two Men” paints a fascinating outsider’s-view portrait of New York City at night. And, because Melville wasn’t handcuffed by the Hollywood Production Code, he wasn’t required to sugarcoat reality: men and women were free to sleep on the same mattress, together and naked; strippers remove their clothes, both on and off stage; lesbian love isn’t forbidden; and an ethically ambiguous solution to a sticky situation was allowed to stand.

Here, a French diplomat to the United Nations disappears on the eve of important vote. Moreau, a reporter for Agence France-Presse (played by Melville), is anxious to know the reason for his absence and if it involves a potential pre-Christmas scandal. Before making any dangerous Cold War assumptions, the editor gives his reporter a night to discover what may have happened to the war hero. Moreau isn’t as familiar with the city’s soft underbelly as the ex-pat freelance photographer Pierre (Pierre Grasset), who, when summoned, is enjoying the company of a woman not his wife. Indeed, the photographer is familiar with the rumors surrounding the married diplomat and his weakness for women who work at night. His reasons for pursuing the mystery are far more mercenary than those of the reporter, however. Among their stops are a smoky jazz joint, whose sultry torch singer is known to have been a companion of the diplomat; a burlesque house, where one of the dancers is interviewed in various stages of undress; and the apartment of the diplomat’s secretary, whose Sapphic preferences are duly noted by the cinematographer. When the diplomat finally does show up – as we knew he would – the journalists are faced with an ethical dilemma that rings as true today as it did in the scandal-starved 1950s. All of this happens during the course of a daily news cycle in the city that never sleeps. The Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray holds up pretty well for its age and adds the informative featurette, “Keeping Up Appearances: A Conversation Between Critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.” – Gary Dretzka

World War Z: Unrated: Blu-ray
Day of the Dead: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Not to diminish Marc Forster’s achievement in creating an exciting tick-tock thriller about a subject that couldn’t possibly be more over-exploited, but there’s something obscene about spending more than $200 million to make and market a zombie movie. The combined budget for all six of George Romero’s “Dead” movies was, after all, less than $30 million and they’ve returned roughly $170 million at the international box-office. At a time when the cost of the average Beverly Hills Sweet 16 and bar mitzvah is nearing six figures, it’s possible that no one at Paramount blinked at spending a fortune on a movie starring Brad Pitt. Even so, some studio executives couldn’t resist the temptation to spend more money tinkering with “World War Z,” by bringing in a fourth writer to “fix” what the previous three couldn’t in their adaptation of zombie-specialist Max Brooks’ novel. In anticipation of a sequel, perhaps, they were asked to add lots of action and a family-in-danger angle, while devising a more upbeat ending than the one forwarded in the book. Instead, of being a reflective “Oral History of the Zombie War,” the movie was set in the not-too-distant future and the author’s political commentary was tossed overboard, as well. So, what happened? “World War Z” barely broke even – if at all – at the domestic box-office, before adding $336 million worldwide. So, maybe all the monkeying around with “World War Z” was worth it. There’s certainly no reason to believe that the VOD, DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D versions won’t do very well, possibly even boosting the likelihood of a franchise play.

“World War Z” may feature zombies galore, but, thematically, it more resembles hundreds of earlier plague pictures – “12 Monkeys,” “28 Days,” “Outbreak” and “The Andromeda Strain,” among them — which borrowed elements of sci-fi and horror to create cautionary tales about dubious scientific choices. We don’t exactly know what caused the zombie apocalypse here, but it’s spreading faster and with far more urgency than in any previous zombie flick. These zombies move at speeds generally reserved for track meets in Jamaica and are able to leap, climb and attack with the dexterity of meth-heads desperate for a fix. Pitt plays a former United Nations troubleshooter, Gerry Lane, who experiences the ferocity of the zombies in a nifty scene, set in a traffic jam. Lane manages to have his family extracted to a Navy vessel on the high seas, but their continued security is used to blackmail him into agreeing to come up with a solution to the global pandemic. He interviews a disgraced CIA agent and gun-runner (David Morse), who extolls the genius of North Korean leaders for their decision to pull the teeth from the mouths of all of its citizens. He also points to Israel, where a giant wall was built in anticipation of the crisis. Lane learns early on that sophisticated weapons can’t stop the attacks. It’s only through studying the tendencies of the infected hordes that he finally comes up with a way to neutralize the zombies.

Even if I wanted to spoil the ending for you, I don’t think I could explain with any degree of accuracy how Lane’s solution might work. Suffice it to say that, when all hope appears to be lost, Brad Pitt lays his life on the line for humanity, which is as it should be. As exciting as “World War Z” is, though, I didn’t find it to be particularly scary, at least in the way that “Night of the Living Dead” raised goosebumps on the arms of viewers. The Blu-ray bonus package includes some interesting making-of material, but it’s spoiled by the pompous baloney dished out by producers, writers, actors and Forster about the significance of their picture. Most of Brooks’ observations about how such a plague could spread in a world made smaller by digital technology didn’t even make the first cut. And, as usual, I couldn’t tell the difference between the new “unrated” and PG-13 version.

Watch “Day of the Dead” alongside “World War Z” and it immediately becomes apparent of how far the sub-genre has grown from its horror roots. Forster’s zombies are as different from George Romero’s as Romero’s are from those in Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 classic, “I Walk With a Zombie.” Released in 1985, “Day of the Dead” is the third chapter in Romero’s undead trilogy, which began in 1968 with “Night of the Living Dead,” and was followed a decade later with “Dawn of the Dead.” By now, the ratio of zombies to unaffected humans is 400,000 to 1. The survivors live in a mammoth underground bunker, where scientists and military personnel attempt to determine if there’s any real hope for the future of mankind. It’s when the scientists begin to experiment on soldiers, as well as zombies, that the military decides to banish them to caves already infiltrated by the monsters. It’s here that the fight to the finish begins in earnest. The triquel didn’t do nearly as well as the first two movies in the series. The barrage of then-new slasher and splatter thrillers was about to put zombies in the deep freeze for another 20 years and aesthetics were the last thing fans wanted to consider. Today, however, the setting is as worthy of comment as the wonderfully grotesque make-up effects of Tom Savini. It was shot in an abandoned Nike missile silo and the former Wampum limestone mine, near Pittsburgh, where the cavernous maze provided a splendid backdrop for terror. As we learn in a featurette, the 2.5-million-square-foot mine now is being operated as the Gateway Commerce Center, a huge “subsurface storage facility.” Another interesting thing about “Day of the Dead” is the highly unusual decision to make a strong woman character (Lori Cardille) the protagonist. The new hi-def transfer is accompanied by “World’s End: The Legacy of ‘Day of the Dead’”; a new interview with Romero; commentary with Romero, Savini, Cardille and production designer Cletus Anderson; commentary with filmmaker Roger Avary; footage from Savini’s archives; and photo galleries. – Gary Dretzka

Java Heat: Blu-ray
The most compelling reason for spending time with the terrorist thriller, “Java Heat,” is hidden in plain sight on the Blu-ray’s cover and it isn’t the presence of Mickey Rourke or the studly Kellan Lutz. Far and away, it’s the rarely filmed Indonesian island of Java. Lutz plays an American traveler, who could never be mistaken for someone other than a CIA agent in post-graduate drag. Soon after his arrival, American Jake Travers appears at a party thrown for a beautiful sultana. Not long after complimenting her on her necklace –he’s pretending to be a gemologist – an explosion occurs, presumably killing the woman. Jake is hauled into jail as a suspect and witness to the bombing. After convincing Muslim police detective Hashim (Ario Bayu) of his innocence, they team up to find an elusive terrorist-cell leader. While Hashim is interested primarily in the terrorist, Jake is targeting the criminal mastermind, Malik (Rourke), who’s pulling the bomber’s strings. Conveniently, Hashim and Jake find both criminals operating under the same roof. Predictably, Rourke’s portrayal of Malik is so bizarrely conceived as to render everything he says unintelligible and his character’s background indeterminable. Turns out, the weapons trafficker has Al Qaeda in his hip pocket. Effectively amoral, he greases the skids for terrorists, so they can take out his enemies along with their own. He profits by stealing things the terrorists aren’t interested in claiming. Action fans won’t be disappointed by the many gratuitous chases and shootouts and neither should Rourke completests. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the scenery and street scenes, which are simultaneously fascinating and terrible. – Gary Dretzka

Hidden in the Woods
The Lackey
Bank Roll
Unsolved
Exploitation films don’t get much more exploitative than Chilean filmmaker Patricio Valladares’ truly nasty rape-and-revenge thriller, “Hidden in the Woods.” OK, maybe, “I Spit on Your Grave 2,” but this one won’t make you want to take a shower immediately after watching it. As difficult as it is to handle at times, however, “Hidden in the Woods” really delivers the goods. Based on a true story, “Hidden in the Woods” follows three siblings – sheltered to the point of captivity by their abusive father — as they not only attempt to escape the clutches of Daddy Dearest, but also his demented drug-lord boss, Uncle Costello. They get their chance at freedom after a confrontation between the chainsaw-wielding ogre and a pair of underprepared narcotics police. The cops die horrible deaths, while the father is left seriously wounded with a knife wound. The siblings find shelter in a cabin located deep in a forest, somewhere outside Santiago. The older sister turns to prostitution to afford food for her pathetically naïve sister and brother, who is seriously retarded and physically deformed. Uncle Costello, who believes the kids know where their father’s drugs are stashed, sics his thugs on them. What happens next is best left to the imaginations of viewers with strong stomachs. Valladares clearly understands the difference between making quick-and-dirty horror flicks and turning exploitation into something approaching art. He challenges viewers to grasp the same distinction. Valladares already is working on an Americanized version of “Hidden in the Woods,” starring Michael Biehnm, William Forsythe and Electra Avellan. I’d pay to be in the screening room when the MPAA ratings board evaluates this one. It arrives with a decent making-of featurette, explaining the special makeup effects.

So many action flicks have been compared to the works of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino in the last 20 years, it’s kind of refreshing for one of the filmmakers to admit their debts. Co-director/co-writer/co-star/editor/stunt-director of “The Lackey,” Shaun Paul Piccinino admires “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” andSnatch” and doesn’t care who knows that he’s modeled much of his action-packed, if sometimes difficult to understand picture after them. He also is a fan of Don Siegel (“Dirty Harry”), Michael Winner (“Death Wish”) and Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”). Piccinino plays a disheveled henchman for some Maori gangsters – in California! – who pay him to kick the crap out their enemies. This, he accomplishes no matter how drunk he is. The turning point for his character comes when he accidentally learns that he’s fathered the young daughter of his ex-girlfriend, a junkie. That they’re practically starving makes him feel like a heel, so he takes another job specifically to raise money for their welfare. Nothing works out quite as planned in this low-budget thriller, but watching the little guy destroy several monstrous gangsters is worth the price of a rental.

It’s been said that Southern California is the bank-robbery capital of the United States, so why wouldn’t a slacker with nothing to lose rule out pulling a heist at his local savings instituition, if only for shits and giggles? Keep your gun at home at home and the most you’re risking is a couple of months in an overcrowded jail. In Doug Maguire’s super-low-budget “Bank Roll,” which failed to raise more than $400 in a Kickstarter campaign, a young businessman learns he has only a few months to life. To go out on a high note, Benny Big Time decides to stage a bank robbery, employing the entertainment-industry talents of several of his buddies. It takes surprisingly little effort for Benny to convince them to go along with the ridiculous scheme. Once in, however, the wannabes go about their tasks as if they’re making a movie about a bank robbery, which, of course, they are. “Bank Roll” won’t make anyone forget “Dog Day Afternoon,” but, on a reported budget south of $800, it’s a miracle there are any laughs at all. Maguire deserves that much credit, at least.

You also have to give low-budget props to “Unsolved,” a school project about a school project. Co-writer/director Lance McDaniel and co-writer Sean Lynch met on the campus of Oklahoma City University, back in 2008, and decided to put their minds together on “Unsolved,” as a Masters project. That the entire movie would be produced by OCU students and faculty, in Oklahoma, helped entice backers to cough up the funds necessary to complete it. It couldn’t have been all that expensive to make and would be exec-produced Hollywood veteran Fritz Kiersch (“Children of the Corn”), who oversees the OCU program. In a nutshell, “Unsolved” describes what happens when a professor asks his class to make up a story about an unsolved crime and create a logical ending. The protagonists here decide to dig into an actual on-campus murder, which has remained open for the past 15 years. Once they do start nosing around, however, things start getting ugly very quickly. – Gary Dretzka

Shanghai Calling
The Last Tycoon: Blu-ray
Bruce Lee Legacy Collection: Blu-ray
Judging solely from the evidence presented in these two films, it would be easy for anyone suffering from Rumpelstiltskin syndrome to assume that the last 100 years of Chinese history didn’t include a communist revolution. “Shanghai Calling” is a light contemporary rom-com, set in one of the world’s most aggressively capitalist cities. Up-and-coming Chinese-American attorney Sam Chao (Daniel Henney) is sent to Shanghai by his New York City law firm to close a deal, even though he understands very little Chinese. Within a couple of hours of his arrival, Sam meets an American businessman (Bill Paxton) and two young women – one Chinese (Zhu Zhu), the other a single American mom (Eliza Coupe) – who will test his reputation as a problem-solver. He’s put up in a luxurious high-rise apartment and expected to solidify a lucrative cellphone deal with his company. Naturally, the toughest problem he finds is sorting out the two women’s feelings toward him. Writer/director Daniel Hsia keeps the romance bubbling at a PG pace – despite its PG-13 rating – and party politics pretty much out of sight. There’s nothing particularly wrong with “Shanghai Calling,” except its extremely western outlook on love among the wealthy class. And, the city once again provides an exciting backdrop for corporate intrigue.

Wong Jing’s “The Last Tycoon” straddles very different periods in modern Chinese history: the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, the rise of underworld crime and occupation of Shanghai by Japanese forces. Chow Yun-Fat and Huang Xiaoming play real-life gangster Cheng Daqi, during 30 tumultuous years of his life in the village and Shanghai. Circumstances conspire both to separate Cheng from the love of his life and put him in cahoots with big-city “tycoon” and crimelord (Sammo Hung) and a corrupt soldier (Francis Ng). If you’ve ever wondered how a merged adaptation of “The Godfather II” and “Casablanca” might look, this is it. As usual, the Chinese production looks and sounds terrific in Blu-ray. There’s plenty of action, in addition to the more reflective romantic scenes. The Blu-ray adds a gushy making-of featurette.

From Shout! Factory arrives “Bruce Lee: The Legacy Collection,” which includes Blu-ray versions of “The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury,” “Way of the Dragon and “Game of Death.” (“Enter the Dragon” is from a different distributor.) Also included in the 11-disc set are three documentaries, “Bruce Lee: The Legend,” the original version “Bruce Lee: The Man, The Legend,” as well as “I Am Bruce Lee,” plus a bonus disc with over two hours of exclusive bonus material on a single disc. It’s collected in a book-style package, with 68 pages of rare and unseen photos, memorabilia, timeline and a new essay on lee’s amazing career. – Gary Dretzka

Simon Killer
Based on his edgy 2008 debut feature, “Afterschool,” Antonio Campos made a small name for himself as a young filmmaker willing to take chances and demand of his audience that it pays attention to what’s happening on screen. In it, a teenage videographer captures the deaths – by strychnine-laced cocaine – of popular twin sisters at a posh New England boarding school. Instead of creating a furor or cause celebre among fellow students, the images are treated almost as if they’re something you can find everyday on YouTube. I don’t know what it means that Campos is listed among several producers of the disturbing drama, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” but it is of a piece with “Afterschool” and “Simon Killer.” In the latter, Brady Corbet plays a college-age American, who’s laying low in Paris after experiencing some kind of troubling incident with his girlfriend back home. We aren’t told precisely what Simon did, but it only stands to reason that it was disturbing in a sexual way. After unsuccessfully hitting on a trio of pretty Parisians, Simon is lured into a nightclub populated with prostitutes. One of them, Victoria (Mati Diop), breaks tradition by befriending Simon and letting him stay at her modest pad. Always scheming, he hatches a plan to blackmail one or two of Victoria’s wealthy clients with video footage of their tryst. At the same time, he reconnects with the far more innocent blond girl whose number he kept from the earlier encounter outside the sex club. Neither strategy works exactly as planned. They do allow viewers to see how delicate Simon’s mental state is, however, as well as witness the potentially devastating ramifications of betrayal. Less story than character study, “Simon Killer” makes excellent use of the Paris setting and characters we recognize from noir-tinged French-language thrillers. The DVD adds a fawning interview with the clearly quite talented, if strangely self-absorbed Campos, who is an avowed admirer of Stanley Kubrick and whose work has been compared to that of Gus Van Sant. – Gary Dretzka

And Now a Word From Our Sponsor
Several entertaining indie dramedies have been built on foundations far flimsier than the one propping up Zack Bernbaum and Michael Hamilton-Wright’s “And Now a Word From Our Sponsor.” Few, however, have demanded so much patience from viewers. In a story that bares some thematic resemblance to “Being There,” Bruce Greenwood plays the CEO of a major advertising agency, who, one day, is found unconscious in front of a wall of TVs. When Adan comes out of his comatose state, the only way he’s able to communicate is through advertising slogans, most of which have, at one time or another, wormed their way into the vernacular. While some of his responses are perfectly apropos to a conversation, others couldn’t be less out-of-synch and mysterious. His condition leaves Adan in a fragile position with his company, of course, but not one absent comedic possibilities. Providing the poor guy with shelter from the corporate storm is Karen (Parker Posey), the hospital’s Head of Charity Foundation. She recognizes Adan from an inspiration seminar at which he spoke and offers him a place to hide, while waiting for a placement from a care facility. At first, Aden’s presence in Karen’s life irritates the woman’s teenage daughter (Allie MacDonald), who, typically, is at war with her mother. Just as Greenwood’s imitation of Chance Gardener begins to grow on viewers, his presence also has a calming effect on the daughter. And, yes, it’s just as possible that audiences could find Adan’s affliction every bit as irritating as spending 90 minutes in the company of someone with a virulent strain of Tourette’s syndrome. Fans of Posey and Greenwood are the most likely viewers to stick with “Sponsor” after the first 20 minutes. – Gary Dretzka

Arrow: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Homeland: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
The Mentalist: The Complete Fifth Season
Leverage: The Final Season
PBS: Frontline: Two American Families
It seems unlikely that the CW would green-light an entire series based on the archery craze that followed in the wake of the books and movies in the “Hunger Games” series, but anything’s possible. It certainly didn’t hurt the show’s chances for survival that “Arrow” is based on DC Comics’ Green Arrow superhero and the actor playing him is young, handsome and looks buff with only a quiver on his back. The character has been around since 1941, albeit undergoing occasional facelifts, costume upgrades and philosophical twists. For the TV series, his cover allows him to be both a playboy and vigilante. After being marooned for five years on a remote island, billionaire Oliver Queen returns home with a mysterious agenda and a lethal set of new skills. More than anything else, though, Queen is committed to righting the wrongs of his father and his corrupt cronies. The Blu-ray arrives with the backgrounder, “Arrow Comes Alive!”; “Arrow: Fight School/Stunt School,” which breaks down the stunt work; a Q&A with cast and producers from the 2013 Paley Festival; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.

“Homeland” walked away from last year’s Emmy ceremony with wins in six key categories, including Outstanding Lead Actress (Claire Danes), Outstanding Lead Actor (Damian Lewis) and Outstanding Drama Series. Last season, Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody went from terror suspect to U.S. congressman, and former CIA agent Carrie Mathison has returned to civilian life. It theoretically could capture 11 more on Sunday. When another terror threat emerges, Brody and Carrie’s “delicate dance of suspicion, deceit and desire” is resumed. The three-disc Blu-ray set adds deleted scenes and a four making-of featurettes, including one on shooting in Israel.

With Season Six of “The Mentalist” about to arrive on CBS, it’s time to catch up with the search for serial killer Red John and other cases requiring the attention of former psychic Patrick Jane, Teresa Lisbon and the California Bureau of Investigation. The season begins with the interrogation of the killer’s captured associate, Lorelei, and ends with the slaying of another person close to the detective. In the hands of debonair Simon Baker is smart, easy on the eyes and entertaining. Robin Tunney and Emmanuelle Chriqui aren’t too shabby, themselves.

Last Christmas, fans of TNT’s terrific “Leverage” were handed a lump of coal, in the form of a cancellation notice for the long-running series. An entertaining hybrid of “Robin Hood” and “Mission:Impossible,” the show’s final season was highlighted by the changing personal dynamics of Parker and Hardison and Nate’s continuing struggle with his inner demons. Among their big-shots who get the comeuppance are characters played by Cary Elwes, Treat Williams and Matthew Lillard. Mark Sheppard returns as nemesis Interpol-agent, Jim Sterling.

The frequently heartbreaking “Frontline” presentation, “Two American Families” recaps all of the economic calamities that have befallen the Neumanns and the Stanleys of Milwaukee in the last 20 years, while also giving us an idea of what the future holds for the subjects and their children. It isn’t pretty. They continue to struggle mightily to hold onto their homes, their jobs, their health insurance, marriages and sanity in the worst economy in 80 years. In a very real sense, the families’ plight reflects the disintegration of the American middle-class and the death of dreams fueled by the promises of five of our presidents. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Nguyen’s hugely affecting story about young love in a time of endless war was one of the best films of 2012 and you almost certainly never knew of it. “War Witch” screened at a handful of festivals and short qualifying runs in one or two big-city theaters, but only those who pay close attention to such things are aware that the French-language film represented Canada in AMPAS and IFP’s Best Foreign Language races. The overwhelming popularity of and positive buzz surrounding “Amour” effectively ensured that all other contenders would be left in its dust and likely bypass theaters for an afterlife on DVD. Subtract Michael Haneke’s heart-wrenching drama from the mix and “War Witch” might have been the front-runner. As it is, “War Witch” and its lead actress, Rachel Mwanza, grabbed prestigious prizes at the Tribeca, Berlin, Cambridge, Catalonian and Vancouver festivals and took year-end honors at Camerimage, Canada’s Genie and Jutra awards, the National Board of Review, Satellite and other critics’ groups. And, yes, it’s every bit that good. While we’ve all read and seen documentaries about the abduction of children by brutal warlords, nothing I’ve seen has dramatized the indoctrination process this well, while also telling an amazing story of a generation of African children’s resilience and courage. It does so without also pinpointing one specific rebel group or country in which such a hideous practice takes place. Take your pick. It’s enough to believe that children shouldn’t be forced to fight and kill for the political beliefs of an egomaniacal guerrilla leader.

Komona (Mwanza) is only 12 years old when she is kidnapped by rebel soldiers, who sweep into her quiet village one afternoon in motorized dugout canoes. After killing the adults, the rebels grab children deemed old enough to fight. Some of the guerrillas are only slightly older than their captives. To convince the children of their ability to perform cruel acts of violence, while also defending themselves against government troops, rebel commanders employ drugs, fear of punishment and manipulation of their religious beliefs. When the warlord learns of Komona’s ability to foretell the enemy’s movements in the dense jungle and visualize the ghosts of those killed—her parents included—he bestows on her an AK-47 blessed by his personal wizard. As she comes to accept her role, Komona falls in love in love with a white-haired fighter, Magicien (Serge Kanyinda), nearly her age. He took her under his wing during boot camp and honored whatever dignity she still possessed. Their mutual journey from “the shadows to the light” begins on a humorous note with Magicien’s search for the white rooster she requires before marriage. What begins as a veritable snipe hunt, ends in triumph for Magicien. That time passes and Komona grows into a woman before our eyes is the closest to a spoiler I’ll come here. “War Witch” was filmed entirely on location in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, largely in the bush and employing many first-time actors. The DVD adds an interview with Nguyen and a making-of short.

Star Trek: Into Darkness: Blu-ray
The more expensive the sequels and prequels in major movie franchises have become, the more dependent their producing studios have grown on overseas ticket sales. For a film that cost well north of $200 million to make and market to turn a profit, “Star Trek: Into Darkness” would have required more than a domestic gross of $228.5 million, even accounting for DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and other ancillary sales. That it took another $234 million overseas bodes well for Paramount and those “Star Trek” loyalists who can’t wait to see every new installment. Still, the studio would have been even happier and more secure with, say, a $300-million-plus domestic haul or, at least, a greater radio of in-come to out-go. By contrast, J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the franchise cost some $140 million to make, before bringing in $257.7 at home and another $131 million overseas. The next most expensive installment, the 2002 “Nemesis” cost about $60 million, for a return of $43.1 million and $67.3 million respectively. Those numbers nearly killed the seemingly unstoppable series. By awarding Abrams such large budget after “Nemesis” tanked—albeit against brutal competition—and no new “Trek”-based TV series were in production represented a huge leap of faith for Paramount. For what it’s worth, both of Abrams’ installments were extremely well received by mainstream critics.

“Into Darkness” returns all of the key actors from the 2009 “Star Trek” prequel. They represent slightly younger versions of the characters introduced in the original 1966 television series on NBC. Conceivably, this served both as a bridge for longtime fans and an entry point for newcomers. The second installment of the “origin story” opens with an exciting escape-and-rescue sequence on the planet Nibiru, where the natives are caked with white mud and ornamented with dark war paint. That the Star Fleet explorers are chased off a cliff by pissed-off Nibiru warriors has been tipped in all of the commercials, as has Spock’s rescue from an active volcano. So, the only surprise addition in the first 20 minutes or so is the negative response Kirk and Spock receive from their superiors, when they’re summoned back to headquarters on Earth. Both are demoted to lesser positions and commands, which doesn’t sit well with the headstrong Kirk but only seems logical to Spock, who advised against the dangerous rescue mission. All is forgiven, though, after the bombing of Star Fleet’s archives by a renegade operative, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), and subsequent sneak attack on HQ.

When it becomes clear that Harrison is planning an expanded conflict, which might spill over onto Klingon turf, Kirk and Spock hop on the Enterprise to warn the Klingons of a potential ambush. If misinterpreted, such an incident could put a hard-won non-aggression pact and, perhaps, even, the Prime Directive to the test. The CGI-enhanced action really kicks in about two-thirds of the way through, when Harrison’s true identity is revealed and everything goes up for grabs. One thing newer fans of the franchise should appreciate is that Abrams hasn’t felt it necessary to treat “Star Trek” mythology as if it were sacred. He honors it, of course, but doesn’t hone precisely to chapter and verse. Even if purists debate some of his choices in “Into Darkness,” the revisions should help give viewers raised on the original TV series reason to cheer.

I haven’t watched the entire movie in 3D, but was able to catch the Nibiru sequence at this year’s CinemaCon. It looks pretty good, but I wouldn’t invest in an HDTV set to see it. The Blu-ray 2D and 3D packages add seven making-of pieces, ranging from two to nine minutes. Although they’re short, therein lay spoilers.

Friday the 13th: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray
As tradition demands, Warner Bros. and Paramount are co-releasing their 10-disc, 12-movie “Friday the 13th: The Complete Collection” on, surprise, this Friday the 13th. And, while it’s inconceivable that fans of the franchise don’t already own most of the titles here, there are several things that recommend it. Seven of the saga’s chapters—“The Final Chapter” through “Jason X”—are being released for the first time in Blu-ray. Eleven hours of previously unseen extras have been added, as have a bonus DVD disc, with making-of featurettes; a 40-page booklet, with excerpts from “Crystal Lake Memories”; tin packaging; an embroidered Camp Crystal Lake counselor patch; cardboard 3D glasses; and plenty of extras from previous editions. The audio-visual upgrade also is welcome. The collection doesn’t arrive without some controversy, though. Purists and diehard fans have already noted that much of the material excised to meet MPAA standards hasn’t been reassembled as “director’s cut” or unrated options. Some, but not all of those cuts appear separately in the bonus package. Other detractors swear that the studios are holding back on potential bonus features. What I like is the ability to chart the course of the franchise, especially the alternations in Jason’s character made to reflect trends, genre diversions and modern technology. As such, the collection is perfect for binge viewing now or on Halloween, which is a different series altogether.

Love Is All You Need: Blu-ray: Blu-ray
Moviegoers under the impression that true romance only exists between vampires and in adaptations of Nicholas Sparks movies ought to rent a copy of Susanne Biers and Anders Thomas Jensen’s “Love Is All You Need.” Unlike most Hollywood rom-coms and rom-drams, its appeal isn’t tilted toward any one target demographic. “Love Is All You Need” wouldn’t be the first choice of guys 18-34, looking for a DVD with which to pass the time on a stay-at-home weekend, but neither would it be all that painful for them to endure. Yes, there’s a wedding of twentysomethings on tap in the movie formerly known as “The Bald Hairdresser,” and its gorgeous Sorrento location is hyper-romantic. At a crucial point in the proceedings, though, Oscar-winning co-writer-director Biers (“After the Wedding”) places the movie’s heartstrings in the hands of the mother of the bride and the father of the groom, who are equally easy on the eye. Even if the perfectly matched grownups somehow manage to elude Cupid’s arrows for most of the movie’s 116 minutes, it’s nice to see them pick up the reins.

Highly regarded Danish actress Trine Dyrholm plays Ida, a Copenhagen hairdresser who’s recovering from breast-cancer surgery when she walks in on her husband schtupping his assistant, a world-class ditz. On the same day Ida is scheduled to fly to Italy for the wedding, alone, she backs her VW into the car belonging to a wealthy produce trader, who is also headed for the airport. Would it surprise anyone to learn that the Mercedes belongs to the groom’s father, Philip (Pierce Brosnan), at whose estate the lovebirds will tie the knot? In any language, that’s called “meeting cute.” It takes him a while to get over his anger over the large dent in his car, but Ida’s pretty irresistible, even when she isn’t trying. The natural expectation on our part is for the handsome widower and vulnerable blond to fall immediately in love and spend most of the movie fighting off the reservations of the kids and apologetic ex-husband. If not something that obvious, Ida and Philip could find a million dumb ways to avoid the obvious. Instead, Biers and Jensen’s screenplay scrambles the eggs a bit more, re-focusing on the kids’ problems, which are more obvious to us than the betrothed couple. Complicating things for Philip is the one-sided crush his sister-in-law has on him and her expectations of a tryst in Sorrento.

If any or all of that craziness still sounds as if it were tailor-made for a Hollywood melodrama or farce, rest assured that Bier keeps finding new ways to keep the boat afloat. Most of the credit for this belongs to the 41-year-old Dirham, whose character is required to cope with the side effects of a mastectomy, her own worst fears about a recurrence of the cancer, the antics of her jerk husband, a traumatized daughter, pissed-off son and emotions she abandoned as a young bride. Brosnan only has to play his own debonair self to be credible and he does it well. “Love Is All You Need” did well in its limited release here, but deserves to find a wider audience on DVD. It adds interviews conducted at the Venice Film Festival.

Wish You Were Here
The Stranger Within
In the quintessentially Australian thriller, “Wish You Were Here,” four friends go to Cambodia for a holiday in the sun, but only three make the return flight home. Nobody seems to know what happened to Jeremy, least of all viewers and the police, but director Kieran Darcy-Smith gives us reason to believe that it has something to with drugs. No surprise, there. Slowly, the events of the quartet’s last night together in Cambodia are revealed through the perspective of the individual participants. “Wish You Were Here” doesn’t borrow much from “Rashomon,” if that’s what you’re thinking, but the truth doesn’t become clear until late in the proceedings. Darcy-Smith’s primary accomplishment is maintaining our interest for 90 minutes, even though we kinda-sorta know what happened. He does so by dialing up the paranoia of Jeremy’s buddy, Dave (Joel Edgerton, of “The Great Gatsby”); ratcheting up the jealousy of his wife, Alice (Felicity Price); and making us believe that Alice’s sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) is a slutty siren capable of seducing Jeremy (Antony Starr) and Dave. Darcy-Smith also makes us question the strange behavior of Jeremy’s parents. Anyone who’s enjoyed such tough Aussie thrillers as “Animal Kingdom,” “Wolf Creek,” “Gone” and “Snowtown” will find something to like in “Wish You Were Here.”

The best thing about Adam Neutzsky-Wulff’s debut feature “The Stranger Within” is the scenery on the Spanish island of Mallorca. The worst is its almost stunning predictability. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t throw a few scary moments at us, just that you could almost set your watch to them. Estella Warren plays celebrated New York actress, who, at the height of her career, gets pregnant, kidnapped and raped by a masked stalker. Already fragile, she loses the baby and the part of her mind that prevents one from seeing ghosts and bogeymen behind every tree. Emily’s psychiatrist husband, Robert (William Baldwin), suggests they take some time off in a spectacular villa overlooking the sea. Almost immediately after unpacking their bags, they’re awakened by the screams of a young woman, Jennifer (Sarah Butler), who claims that she’s just watched her boyfriend die in a fall from a cliff. Like every other disturbing scene in “Stranger Within,” this one takes place during a rainstorm. The blasts of thunder and lighting facilitate the many jump-scares Neutzsky-Wulff has in store for viewers. Robert volunteers space in their villa to Jennifer, along with free psychiatric sessions. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is one sure-fire way for movie husbands to test the boundaries of a spouse’s sanity. If you can’t guess what happens during the rest of the movie, however, there’s a very good chance you’ll find some of value in “Stranger Within,” beyond the Mallorca setting.

Sisters & Brothers: Blu-ray
If it weren’t for the untimely death of “Glee” star Cory Monteith, it’s possible that Carl Bessai’s 2011 ensemble dramedy, “Sisters & Brothers,” would have suffered a fate similar to the Canadian writer-director’s companion pieces, “Mother & Daughters” and “Fathers & Sons.” After each of the movies was shown, apparently twice, at film festivals, they completely disappeared from view. “S&B” plays out in an interwoven series of conversations/confrontations between young people, who, one way or another, are siblings. None is particularly likable, but Bessai clearly expects us to identify with one or more of the characters, at least. Monteith plays a Hollywood heartthrob, whose brother (Dustin Milligan, of ”90210”) once had a similar shot at the posh life, but gave it up to do charity work in Africa. Feuding half-sisters played by Amanda Crew and Camille Sullivan are thrown together on a road trip with a lecherous freeloader, who has convinced the younger woman of his ability to make her an action star.

Gabrielle Miller plays the concerned sister of a schizophrenic (Benjamin Ratner), who’s gone off his meds and will do great harm to himself if she doesn’t intervene. Finally, Kacey Rohl (”The Killing”) portrays a teenager at war with her mother–aren’t they all? –who is about to meet the half-sister she didn’t know existed. Turns out, the woman had been impregnated by a guru while in India, well before the second daughter’s birth. The guru’s followers demanded she abandon the baby to the care and feeding of the ashram. In the meantime, she had given up hope of ever seeing her again. Among the conceits on display here are scene-breakers in the form of comic-book pages, with snarky commentary in cartoon balloons, and also what appears to be improvised dialogue and much groupthink. The conclusions to the story threads are satisfying, but everything that precedes them is far too loosey-goosey. For what it’s worth, Monteith does just fine playing a character very much like himself, but at least a decade older than Finn, in “Glee.” All financial considerations aside, it must have been tough for him to be stuck for so long in a role completely unsuited to a 31-year-old man.

Strong Language
After watching hundreds of reality-show participants speak to the camera about their deepest feelings and things that happen during the course of a show, the last thing I thought I wanted to do was listen to 16 young-adult Brits doing the same thing. Instead, the talking heads offer their opinions on subjects ranging from sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll to debt, AIDS and racism. The people we meet in Simon Rumley’s hugely original “Strong Language” are interesting for reasons other than being spoiled housewives or strangers living together in the same house. For one thing, they’re actors reciting the words of a very sharp and observant writer. It’s as much fun watching the mannerisms of the characters—all of whom represent a thin slice of swingin’ London, circa 1996—as they deliver their lines as it is listening to what they have to say. They’re terrifically articulate, even as they share anecdotes, experiences and opinions that seem to come directly out of left field. I can’t recall any of them punctuating their thoughts with, “like, you know” or “whatever.” And, while none of the characters are acquainted, they finally cross paths with each other at a pivotal point in the movie. Their random reactions to a common event go a long way toward demonstrating what it must have been like to be young, capable and aware in London, before the collapse of the world economy and the war against terrorism. The DVD adds interviews with Rumley and the actors, as themselves.

Code Name: Ruby
In countries dominated by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, a sure sign that filmmakers were doing something right was being banned from making and exhibiting movies. Some important directors were able to sneak out from under the Iron Curtain before it dropped on pro-democracy movements, while others found different ways to express themselves or agreed to subject their work to state censorship. Jan Nemec was one of the bright lights of the Czechoslovak New Wave, which also produced Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, Jan Kadar, Vera Chytilova and Jiri Menzel. “A Report on the Party and the Guests,” his 1966 satire of Communist leadership and blind adherence to mindless conformity, put Nemec on the government shit list for decades to come. Documentary footage Nemec took during the Soviet-led invasion of Prague was banned, of course, but it would be seen by millions of people outside the Eastern bloc in newsreels and as part of Philip Kaufman’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” After leaving Prague for the west, Nemec attempted to make feature films in Germany and the U.S. His experimental instincts, though, were more suited to the emerging video revolution. Incredibly, he found work taking movies of weddings. In doing so, he practically invented an industry.

Code Name: Ruby” is one of the first movies Nemec made after his return to his newly liberated homeland. Although not the easiest of stories to grasp emotionally, “Ruby” exudes a distinct intellectual playfulness and much inventive videography. It does require some knowledge—an easy Wiki search should suffice—of the history of alchemy, the pursuit of the Philosopher Stone and the legend of the Sword of Destiny. Made for Czech television, “Ruby” follows two young lovers as they attempt to trace different paths that could lead them to answers about the existence and location of the stone that turns lead to gold and silver. If clues are to be found, they assume that one or two of them might be found in Prague, a city historically popular with scientists. Their search even leads to the Smithsonian Institute, which, Nemec speculates, is more important to America than the White House, if only because of the secrets protected behind the building’s sandstone walls. The film combines documentary, archival footage and fiction into an elliptical narrative, which blends the past, present and future in montage sequences. The couple also speculates on the importance of the Spear of Destiny to Adolph Hitler and Gen. George S. Patton. The disc is available through Facets Multimedia, via made-to-order DVD-R, and other Internet retailers.

Ping Pong
Here’s a tip for aspiring documentarians in search of a sure-fire subject for a film. Find an event in which elderly men and women compete in sports most other people their age gave up decades earlier. There’s nothing quite so inspiring as watching spry seniors prepare for the contests, sometimes as they’re racing the clock against cancer or some other serious problem. As the title “Ping Pong” implies, Hugh Hartford’s film documents both the run-up to and competition at the World Over-80 Table Tennis Championships in Inner Mongolia. Hartford puts a tight focus on eight senior players, all in their 80s and 90s, except for one Australian woman who’s 100. Although most of them are veteran players, a German finalist took up the sport in her 80s after a stroke. One 81-year-old man had been given a week to live by his doctor at about the same time he began training for the tournament. An 89-year-woman had herself committed to a dementia ward before picking up the paddles again. The United States is represented by an 85-year-old Texan. The great things to observe here are the moxie, perseverance and sense of joy each of the competitors bring to the game. The DVD adds press appearances and a backgrounder.

Tyler Perry Presents Peeples: Blu-ray
Tyler Perry’s name on the marquee might have helped sell tickets to “Peeples,” but full credit for what happens on the screen belongs to writer-director Tina Gordon Chism. This is her first directorial credit, in addition to screenplays for “ATL” and “Drumline.” The farcical nature of the comedy should be familiar to Perry’s legion of fans and admirers, though. In it, Wade Walker (Craig Robinson) decides to learn more about his girlfriend, Grace (Kerry Washington), by crashing the Peeples’ annual reunion at the family’s palatial Sag Harbor home. Grace has avoided explaining Wade’s role in her life to her mother (S. Epatha Merkerson) and father (David Alan Greer), who probably wouldn’t approve of him as a son-in-law. That’s probably because Dad is a federal magistrate in a part of Long Island where you’re judged by your wealth and connections. The thing about “Peeples” is that everyone in the movie is harboring secrets that make Wade’s working-class roots look as if they’re made of gold. In fact, there probably are three or four more secrets revealed here than the story can keep afloat for more than a few minutes. Everything comes to a head on the town’s annual Moby Dick festival, during which the judge delivers a reading from “Moby Dick.” The prevailing mood is upbeat throughout “Peeples” and it moves by at a lively pace. Also welcome are Diahann Carroll and Melvin Van Peebles as Grace’s grandparents. It arrives with gag reel, commentary and a three-part making-of featurette.

Hammer of the Gods: Blu-ray
At one point or another during “Hammer of the Gods,” I began to suspect “Hammer of the Gods” was intended as a mini-series, but budgetary concerns prompted the producers to cut their losses after 95 minutes. Did I say losses? TV specialist Farren Blackburn’s first feature has the dubious distinction of grossing exactly $164 (no zeroes) on two screens during its opening weekend here, then tacking on another $247 before making the inevitable transfer to the Internet and small screen. No movie that looks as good as “Hammer of the Gods” deserves such a fate. On the other hand, there’s very little else to recommend it. The setting is central Britain in 871 AD, when the Viking hordes were being seriously challenged by the Saxon hordes. A Viking king lies on his deathbed, pondering which of his three sons could replace him upon his death. In a direct homage to “Apocalypse Now,” the favored son has created his own band of ruffians who live somewhere among the Saxons. Steinar (Charlie Bewley) volunteers to find older brother, Hakan the Ferocious (Elliot Cowan), and convince him to become the new king. Steinar is a fine soldier, but his father doesn’t think he’s sufficiently murderous to take on the Saxons. The search for Hakan bears a striking resemblance both to the Legend of Zelda and Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Valhalla Rising.” Given that “Hammer” screenwriter Matthew Read supplied “additional writing” for Refn’s gorefest, the resemblance isn’t at all surprising. On the plus side, the locations could hardly be more gorgeous. I couldn’t find out where “Hammer” was shot, but it looked a lot like Wales, northern Scotland or New Zealand. The DVD includes interviews and background material.

Scare Zone
Silent Cry
Neighborhood haunted houses tend to have a shelf life of about three nights, depending on the day of the week Halloween falls. The for-profit attractions created at theme parks may last an extra weekend or two, but rarely longer. In “Scare Zone,” writer-director Jon Binkowski demonstrates how theme parks could maximize their investment. He was able to film much of his debut feature on the set of Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights attraction, using props and backdrops already proven to raise goosebumps in paying customers. Considering how many first-timers get a headstart on their careers in the low-budget horror arena, a more permanent set could work to the advantage of everyone. Some adjustments would be required, if only to make one film look different than another, but digital technology now allows for more efficient use of tight spaces and limited lighting. While no one would confuse “Scare Zone” for “Psycho,” its boy-who-cried-wolf premise holds some water, at least. When a group of part-time workers begin training for their macabre assignments, they have fun dressing up in their blood-soaked costumes and teasing each other with harmless prop weapons. By the time the attraction’s doors are set to open, however, staff members are being killed in ways that approximate the scenarios in the haunted house. The crazy thing is that customers have become so attuned to cheap horror thrills and fake blood, it’s impossible for them to tell the real thing from the stunts. Some are frightening, while are quickly ignored. It also gives the operators an opportunity to dismiss any questions from inquisitive staffers as their mates begin to disappear, one by one. It’s for us to decide if the operators are in on the killings or it’s a fellow part-timer or freelance psycho. Only patient and tolerant viewers are likely to care. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a photo gallery.

While Welsh director Julian Richards has enjoyed some success as a creator of urban psychodramas—“Darkness,” “Summer Scars,” “Shiver”—his 2002 baby-snatcher thriller “Silent Cry” basically disappeared after several festival screenings and TV airings in the UK and Germany. Its lack of success finding an audience must have perplexing for Richards and his team, as it’s quite well made and the acting is very good. It’s entirely possible, though, that any fictional story about kidnaping babies has been trumped by news reports of fiends performing C-sections on unwitting women and delusional women sneaking out of hospitals with babies that couldn’t possibly belong to them. Even in 2002, big-city hospitals would have installed security systems capable of figuring out who the perpetrators are here in less than 24 hours. Otherwise, it’s well made and there’s nothing wrong with the acting. Emily Woof plays Rachel Stewart, a single mother who’s told that her newborn baby died while she was sleeping in her hospital room. She had just paid a visit to the maternity ward, where she was told by a doctor that her son was “perfect,” and she could rest easy. So, what happened and why wasn’t Rachel been given an opportunity to see her dead child. She refuses to accept the official story, but can’t disprove the doctor’s claim. When Rachel senses she’s being stalked by a stocky, well-dressed gentleman, however, she returns to the hospital to ask questions. The guy re-appears while she’s there, but we have no idea why. To escape, she hides in the car of a hospital employee and drives off with him. He reluctantly offers to help her, even knowing it’s probably a lose-lose situation for both of them. You can probably guess most of what happens next, but Richards leaves enough room for doubt to keep viewers interested.

The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue
Frankenstein’s Army: Blu-ray
The Black Waters of Echo’s Point: Blu-ray
Scanners II: The New Order/ Scanners III: The Takeover: Blu-ray
It isn’t often one runs across a movie that tells us something new about a street upon which we used to live. In my case, it was Belmont Avenue on Chicago’s North Side and the movie is “The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue.” I don’t recall warnings of a pet-eating creature living in the bowels of three-flats and apartment buildings in my neighborhood. Before gentrification took hold, the greatest threat to our short stretch of the busy, east-west thoroughfare were the transvestite hookers who made it their nightly stroll and bags of hypodermic needles left behind for kids to find. The mole people must have moved in after we left. I did recognize the architecture, a church and some of the actors, however. Writer-directors Mike Bradecich and John LaFlamboy play slacker landlords Marion and Jarmon Mugg, who, after inheriting a ramshackle apartment building from their mother, do almost nothing to keep it from deteriorating further. When residents begin to complain about missing pets, the Muggs attempt to catch the creature in the act of snatching one. It gives us an opportunity to meet the motley collection of residents and gauge for ourselves just how nutty they are. There’s even a “Cheers”-like bar on the ground floor, where you wouldn’t want to know anyone’s name. “Mole Man of Belmont Avenue” takes horror-comedy in a new direction here on a budget that must have equaled the annual expenditure on jock straps for the Cubs and White Sox. The most familiar faces here belong to Robert Englund, Tim Kazurinsky, Dana DeLorenzo, David Pasquesi and Brad Morris.

That Hitler and other top Nazis were fascinated with the occult by now qualifies as old news. Using the found-footage format, director Richard Raaphorst imagines in “Frankenstein’s Army” what might have happened if Hitler had uncovered Victor Frankenstein’s notebooks and ordered his scientists to create super-soldiers from unattached body parts, sharp-edged tools and other junk. Before he could deploy the unit, however, Red Army troops overran the laboratory and discovered on their own the monsters. In the annals of WWII history, such an ill-timed failure would have been recorded alongside Hitler’s inability to put jet fighters in the air before the Allied invasion, unleash an atomic bomb on Britain, accurately predict the beaches picked for the D-Day landing and capture the Soviet oil fields before his tanks ran out of fuel. It would be difficult to imagine more disturbing scenario than the one forwarded in “Frankenstein’s Army.” The gore-factor is off the charts, as are the chills that come from watching the mad surgeon cut into captured soldiers’ skulls. The mechanical zombies resemble a cross between the sketches of Jules Verne and Leonardo Da Vince and the indestructible competitors on “BattleBots” and “Robot Wars.” The bonus package goes a long toward explaining the method behind the madness and the strenuous special-effects work behind the creatures.

The Black Waters of Echo’s Pond” puts a slightly different spin on the old spam-in-a-cabin subgenre, which has been in need of a few new twists for a while now. In opens with black-and-white newsreel footage taken of a Turkish archeological dig, where an ancient board game is discovered. Somehow, and I emphasize the word “somehow,” the game is rediscovered a century later in a cabin occupied temporarily by a group friends with axes to grind on each other. Ouija boards are a dime a dozen in teen horror flicks, of course, but this one is different. It looks very much like a medieval game of Chutes & Ladders, during which hidden layers are mechanically exposed according to the throw of metal dice. Visions presage horrible things to come, while goat-men appear at windows and other clawed creatures lurk beneath the surface of the pond. The real slaughter begins after the individual players are overtaken by a sudden urge to get even for perceived injustices perpetrated by their friends. Director Gabriel Bolonga squeezes as many scary moments as he can from the script he co-wrote with Michael Berenson and Sean Clark.

The latest release from Shout! Factory’s growing collection of Scream Factory titles is a double-feature package of “Scanners II: The New Order” and “Scanners III: The Takeover,” which followed David Cronenberg’s 1981 original by 9 and 10 years respectively. It is the series in which certain humans are born with telepathic powers and they can use them for good or evil. If they so desire, scanners can literally blow the minds of their antagonists. Both directed by Christian Duguay, “Scanners II” is pretty much a remake of Cronenberg’s hit thriller, while “Scanners III” advances the conceit by adding some nudity and a sibling rivalry. In the former, scanners are being recruited by a corrupt police commander as part of his plan to use mind-control techniques to take over city politics. In the latter, Liliana Komorowska plays a young woman with telepathic powers, who, as part of her father’s experiment, takes a drug that turns her into a sociopath with telepathic powers. She knows that she’s really onto something when she discovers her ability to control what happens to people on TV talk shows. “III” is far more interesting than “II.” The set doesn’t offer any bonus material.

An American Hippie in Israel: Blu-ray
Horny Diver: Tight Shellfish
Story of White Coat: Indecent Acts
Porn Shoot Massacre
The Sex Side of Low Budget Movies
Scour the lists of the 10 worst movies of all time and you’d be hard-pressed to find mention of “An American Hippie in Israel.” Neither does Amos Sefer’s ode to international flower power appear on any so-bad-it’s-good lists I’ve seen. That’s surely because so few people have witnessed this cinematic calamity since 1972, when it could be found only in a handful of theaters and film societies around the world. If “An American Hippie in Israel” were any good, which it’s not, it might draw thematic comparisons to “Zabriskie Point” and “Easy Rider.” As it is, the best that can be said for it is that the comprehensive Grindhouse Blu-ray release elevates the soft-core road picture to its rightful place as one of the guiltiest pleasures of all time. In it, a disillusioned veteran of the Vietnam War arrives in Israel, searching for young people with whom he can share his pursuit of love, peace and good vibes. In his sheepskin vest, torn jeans and sandals, Mike (Asher Tzarfati) certainly looks the part of a vagabond hippie. Unsure of his destination, Mike allows himself to be picked up by a wealthy Israeli actress (Lily Avidan), who risks catching a case of the crabs by almost immediately engaging in a session of good ol’ fashioned monkey love with the hitchhiker. Together, they set out in her convertible to find the nearest gathering place for bohemian youth. Mike easily persuades them to get hip to the hippie philosophy and join him at a nearby warehouse for some folk singing, pot smoking and a group grope. Sadly, and this is the exact point where things start going haywire, two Men in Black bust into the warehouse and begin machine-gunning the nascent flower children. Apparently, the malevolent mimes have been following Mike since Vietnam.

The four survivors decide to split for a tiny island near the resort city of Eliat, on the northern tip of the Red Sea. At a Bedouin market along the way, Mike decides it might be cool to acquire a lamb to accompany the survivors on the trip south. I suppose that the lamb is intended to symbolize the search for peace or some such thing, but, before the movie ends, it will come to symbolize something else entirely. After exactly one night of bliss on the island, the idealistic couples discover that someone or something has stolen their dingy and a gam of giant, blood-thirsty sharks—about as threatening as the one in the “Jaws” exhibit on Universal’s backlot tour—lurks between the island and land. How long can the hippies hold out, before thirst and hunger overtake their ideals? Stay tuned. Sefer avoids any mention of the Six-Day War and any concerns the Israeli hippies might harbor about self-defense and survival in a hostile environment. It is mentioned, however, by the actors interviewed in the Blu-ray’s bonus package, with Mike’s pro-peace sloganeering supposedly representing an alternative to war. Indeed, the people interviewed recall Sefer’s allegory as being something quite daring and provocative in 1972. Israeli censors limited its release and the only actors who found further work in the movies were the ones who portrayed the two male protagonists. Avidan and Tzila Karney chose not to share their lithe bodies with any more movie audiences, while Sefer apparently decided not to press his luck behind the camera. On the plus side, the Negev Desert provides some spectacular scenery for the travelers on their way south. The Blu-ray also contains “Asher Tzarfati: An American Actor in Israel,” “A Cult Is Born,” a TV interview with Tzarfati and Shmuel Wolf, Sefer’s 16mm short “Be Careful Children, the Ball Is Not Just Yours,” backgrounders on how the movie got financed and the folk singers, deleted material, screen tests, liner notes and a photo gallery.

When it comes to movies that are so bad they’re good, Japanese genre filmmakers captured the crown two decades ago. No national cinema even comes close. The same goes for titles, of course. Take, for example, “Horny Diver: Tight Shellfish.” Please. It belongs to one of the movies included in this month’s package from Impulse Pictures and is as strange as it is descriptive. “Horny Diver” refers to the sub-genre of soft-core films put out by Nikkatsu, in which pretty young Japanese divers are bent, spindled and mutilated by corrupt businessmen, out to exploit serene ocean-front property for their own nefarious purposes. Although the ladies tend to wear T-shirts and shorts while hunting for abalone, shellfish and bi-valves, they don’t waste much time shedding them once on shore. Here, a ruthless developer hires a handsome young stud to seduce the diving girls and get them to sign deals for their land. It takes a while before the women figure out what’s happening and turn the tables on the developer. Other water sports, including blurred tentacle eroticism, are demonstrated at a local nightclub.

By contrast, “Story of White Coat: Indecent Acts” is prosaic. It, too, describes a sub-genre of Nikkatsu erotica, but this time the damsels in the distress—and various stages of undress—are nurses so fresh from school that they are unfamiliar with many of the bizarre tendencies of horny male patients. When the son of a major shareholder of the hospital is admitted for alcohol poisoning, the innocent newcomer, Shinobu, becomes his private nurse. Because Junior resorts to violence whenever he can’t perform sexually, this assignment doesn’t sit well with Shinobu. Another nurse volunteers to cure his addiction and dysfunction, but he has other plans for her. Junior’s lifelong bodyguard takes a more traditionally romantic shine to Shinobu, who would love to return the favor, if she could only pry the jerk’s hands from her breasts. Another option is for her to turn into a nymphomaniac before Junior gets his comeuppance. By Nikkatsu standards, “Indecent Acts” can boast of having a recognizable storyline and logical plot twists. The DVD adds liner notes from Jasper Sharp.

As far as I can tell, three different distributors have released “Porn Shoot Massacre” on DVD three different times in the last few years. Four, if one counts Warner Bros., which is the studio listed on Amazon’s POV site. I can’t imagine that such a thing would be possible, but, maybe, it was a result of the studio’s annual Bring Your Demented Kids to Work Day. Gordon Timbrook’s laughably bad gorefest describes what happens when seven porn stars—for lack of a better noun—are hired to perform in a down-and-dirty sexploitation flick, only to discover that it’s a snuff flick and the real star of the picture is an actual sociopath, wearing what looks like a jock strap on his head. It’s every bit that dumb and poorly made. Most of the women have experience in hard- and-or soft-core porn or as pro-wrestling babes. None is a threat to compete with Sasha Grey for mainstream roles, but, to their credit, they make disrobing look like an Olympic sport.

Even worse, if such a thing were even possible, is “The Sex Side of Low Budget Movies.” Anyone who’s ever worked as an extra on a movie whose budget can afford such a luxury already knows how stultifyingly boring and occasionally demeaning such work can be. Mostly, you stand around waiting to be called to the set and, once that happens, you stand around some more as the director discusses his “vision” with cast and crew. Unless one is employed in Los Angeles or New York, the pay for such a job is ridiculously low, as well. You’re also required to park in a different lot as the cast and crew and eat your meals well out of view of the “talent.” “The Sex Side of Low Budget Films” purports to take viewers behind the scenes of the types of movies that can barely afford Kleenex tissues for the actors who perform sex scenes. It’s as if a crewmember had brought a hidden camera to work on the day of a softcore porn shoot and shot everything, except the money shots. The depressingly out-of-shape actresses spend a lot of time looking at themselves in mirrors, in various stage of undress, and several minutes’ worth of film are wasted as they wipe fake blood off their boobs during rehearsals. The sound is illegible and the images are frequently interrupted by someone standing in front of the camera. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…

TV to DVD
Tales of the City: 20th Anniversary Edition
Sinbad: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Sixth Season
If the new 20th anniversary edition of Armistead Maupin’s novel, “Tales of the City,” looks particularly dated in 2013, it’s not only because of the VHS-level picture quality, but also because of the many monumental events that rocked San Francisco in the years between the serialization of the stories in the Chronicle and the airing of the mini-series on Britain’s Channel 4 and PBS. Even in 1993, it must have seemed odd for any story set in San Francisco not to mention the assassination of Harvey Milk, the mystery surrounding what then was known as the gay plague, the identification of the retrovirus that led to AIDS, the disastrous Loma Prieta earthquake and the destabilizing of effect of Silicon Valley riches on the city’s housing market. Instead, the miniseries necessarily described a city that offered the pretense, at least, of freedom from the racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism and intolerance that continued to imprison disaffected people around the world. It had yet to become an impossibly expensive place for middle- and working-class people to live or a haven for dangerously aggressive panhandlers. In the first installment of the “Tales” series, wide-eyed Mary Ann Singleton serves as our guide to San Francisco, circa 1976. After the Cleveland native decided not to return home from her vacation in the city, she moved into that beehive of eccentricity run by Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) at 28 Barbary Lane. In the mini-series, Laura Linney imbues in Mary Ann the naïve exuberance of Mary Richards in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and unvarnished curiosity of Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

Nearly a decade after the Summer of Love, Mary Ann is shocked by her neighbors’ casual familiarity with drug use and promiscuity. It takes her a bit of time to get used to the prevalence of gays and lesbians in and around her neighborhood, but she’s never openly disturbed by the emerging counterculture in the Castro. One of the gay tenants, Michael Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico), becomes her best friend and guide to pre-AIDS San Francisco. By the fourth of mini-series’ six episodes, it seems as if everyone in the Bay Area is within six degrees of separation from Mary Anne. (For the record: Linney’s within only two degrees of Kevin Bacon.) Anyone who hasn’t seen “Tales of the City” or its two sequel series would do well to check out the new edition. Others may want to want to keep their hopes up for a re-mastered Blu-ray compilation set. This one adds audio commentaries on episodes 1, 3 and 6 with Maupin, Dukakis, Linney, Barbara Garrick and director Alastair Reid; behind-the-scenes location and rehearsal footage; and an eight-page insert with an introduction by Maupin, notes by producer Alan Poul and filming sites and landmarks.

When I think of Sinbad the Sailor, I can’t help but recall the classic 1936 Fleischer Studios cartoon, “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor,” with Bluto standing in for the legendry hero of the Middle Eastern story-cycle. Also memorable are three “Sinbad” adventures for which the great Hollywood animator Ray Harryhausen created the stop-action monsters and animals. In 2012, a different sort of “Sinbad” fantasy emerged on England’s Sky1 and, later, the Syfy channel. This version was targeted at fans of family-friendly action-adventures, featuring affordably dazzling special effects. Here, Sinbad accidentally kills the son of a powerful Arab caliph in a fight. To avenge the death, Sinbad’s brother is brutally murdered. Their grandmother helps Sinbad escape Bashrah, but not before she punishes him by putting a magic talisman around his neck. It requires him to stay at sea for as long as he wears the collar, except for the occasional port stop of less than 24 hours. Besides the many mythical creatures Sinbad encounters, he also has the caliph on his tail. Handsome Elliot Knight plays the athletic sailor. The series only lasted one season, so get this one while you can.

Sinbad may have sailed the seven seas, but one of the key characters on “The Big Bang Theory” actually made it to the International Space Station in the show’s sixth season. To his dismay, Howard discovers that being in orbit is no obstacle to his mother, who reaches him by phone to register her displeasure over his plans to move in with Bernadette after the mission. He also has to deal with bullying at the hands of fellow astronauts Mike and Dimitri. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the resident geniuses are discovering how chaotic love and courtship can be when one’s brain is attuned to other pursuits. Among the season’s guest stars are Stephen Hawking, astronaut Mike Massimino, Buzz Aldrin, Howard Mandel, Wil Wheaton, Lavar Burton, kooky Kate Micucci and Bob Newhart. The bonus features adds a gag reel, a panel discussion from the Paley Festival, a piece in which the actors discuss their characters’ romances, a Skype visit to space and behind-the-scenes look at Howard’s ISS mission.

Marvel Knights: Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk
Digimon: Volume 4
Rooster Teeth: Best Fails of the Weak: Halo Edition
The latest entry in Marvel Knights and Shout! Factory’s growing collection of motion comics combines the story-telling powers of Damon Lindelof (“Lost”), with artist Leinil Francis Yu (“Secret Invasion”) and colorist Dave McCaig (“American Vampire”). The brilliantly executed DVD, “Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk,” picks up the series at the point where Dr. Bruce Banner has been sentenced to execution for his rampage through Manhattan as the Hulk. The possibility Banner may have escaped—eyewitnesses have speculated as much—haunts Nick Fury, whose safety depends on the madman’s death. Banner seeks help from Wolverine, who never backs down from a good fight. Bonus content includes a retrospective interview with Lindelof andYu and a look into the making of “Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk” with Marvel Knights Animation’s supervising producer Kalia Cheng.

I can’t even begin to understand how the “Digimon: Digital Monsters” series of DVDs is being divided into volumes and seasons. It’s enough for me to know that the newest three-disc set contains 21 episodes from the second season of “Digimon Adventure” and takes place four years after the original DigiDestined group brought peace to the DigiWorld. For those keeping score at home, Davis, Yolei, Cody, Ken, T.K and Kari comprise a new DigiDestined team, entrusted with defeating the Digimon Emperor—a villain threatening DigiWorld—and freeing all the Digital Monsters from his control. It’s formidable task, to be sure, but not one the team is likely to avoid.

If, unlike me, you already know what the term “machinima” means—my spellcheck doesn’t even recognize it as a word—you’re probably already aware of the existence of “Rooster Teeth: Best Fails of the Weak: Halo Edition.” For me, the experience of watching “Best Fails” couldn’t have been more bewildering. Even after binging on the collected episodes of “The Big Bang Theory,” I couldn’t imagine how gaming nerds could enjoy something as pointless as this seemed to me. To each his own, I guess. One man’s Lenny Bruce is another man’s Carrot Top. Each week, on YouTube, Jack and Geoff of the Rooster Teeth comedy collective provide commentary on clips send in from “Halo” gamers, many of whom make Trekkies seem normal. The clips contain “fails”—epic and otherwise—that are committed by participants or are built into the game. By “fail,” I suppose they mean mistakes that would greatly embarrass those who made them. “America’s Funniest Home Videos” probably was the first mainstream “fail” show, with “Tosh 2.0” currently presenting the craziest moments of old-fashioned human failures circulating on the Internet. I find much of what Rooster Teeth does to be funny, but this collection made me feel as if I was a Martian at his first baseball game. I had no idea what made the narrators laugh. That said, many Halo followers anxiously await new entries in the series, which appear every Friday, and have a jolly good time. Maybe, you will too.

Flair Bartending: Working Flair Series
How to Be the Life of the Party
There was a time, not so long ago, when the only thing a bartender had to do to earn a tip was mix a good cocktail, keep the beer mugs frosty and let customers bend his or her ear when things get slow. That remains the case today, except in joints where the mixologists also are expected to mix drinks on the fly, as they fling and juggle bottles of booze. Historians trace the craze back to 1988, when Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown played flair bartenders in the yuppie rom-dram, “Cocktail.” Besides winning a pair of Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay, the movie convinced hundreds of aspiring bartenders of the sexual advantages of being able to juggle bottles and shakers. The trend would catch fire in the mid-1990s in dance clubs, resorts and places where $15 cocktails are the norm. For all I know, it’s still popular in such places. If so, the informative DVD “Flair Bartending: The Working Flair Series” offers 450 minutes of step-by-step and slow motion instruction. Apparently, there are 240 flair-bartending moves and members of the video’s Extreme Team talk viewers through every technique.

A companion DVD from Shelter Island reminds amateurs that they don’t have to miss out on the fun, simply because they don’t have a degree from a bartender school. “How to Be the Life of the Party” is an old-fashioned title for a video produced by any company with “extreme” in its name (www.extremebartending com). Besides putting a lampshade on one’s head, host Scott Young advances dozens of “ultra fun” ways to be the guy everyone talks about the day after your party. The instructors on the cover are being showered with confetti, so you know they’re having a blast. In the 150 minutes allotted them, you can learn how to take control of every event from birthday bashes to BBQs with tricks, challenges and brainteasers.

For the kiddies
The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow
Nickelodeon: Dora’s Great Roller-Skate Adventure
Nick Jr.: Tickety Tock: Chime Time Adventures
Boomerang: Puppy in My Pocket: Friendship Ceremony
The Smurf crew gets a head start on Halloween with “The Legend of Smurfy Hollow.” In it, rivals Brainy Smurf and Gutsy Smurf agree to put aside their differences before the evil Gargamel can spoil the annual berry hunt or they come face-to-face with the Headless Horseman of Smurfy Hollow. The voicing cast includes Hank Azaria, Alan Cumming, Fred Armisen and Anton Yelchin.

In “Dora’s Great Roller-Skate Adventure,” Dora and Boots strap on their wheels and take off for Skate Park, only to find it closed by the big, bad bully, Big Wheeler. Can Dora stand up to the brute, so that all of the other kids and critters can enjoy the experience together? Need you ask? The two bonus adventures are also included: “Check-Up Day,” in which Dora and her friends go to the doctor; and “School Science Fair,” in which she has to overcome several obstacles to get to the Green Power Science Fair and her volcano experiment.

The “Tickety Tock” crew from Nick Jr. makes its first appearance on DVD in “Tickety Tock: Chime Time Adventures.” The CGI-animation series follows comedic heroes Tommy and Tallulah, who live in a world behind the face of the clock and make sure its chimes go off on the hour. Nothing goes as planned in these sorts of shows, so the twins and their friends are kept busy making sure the mechanism doesn’t go kablooey. In the six episodes included here the residents of Tickety Town are even required to participate in circus acts and magic tricks. The show is targeted at preschoolers just learning the importance of teamwork, community and social responsibility.

Puppy in My Pocket: Friendship Ceremony” is an Italian export that’s found homes on cable services around the world. The series is based on a line of popular kids’ toys and features puppies and kittens from parallel universes, connected by 10-year-old Katie. Princess Ava is able to transform Katie’s Friendship Heart and the Magic Fountain so that she can visit Pocket Kingdom anytime she wants. Did I mention that “Puppy in My Pocket” is for pre-schoolers? The DVD package includes six episodes of the show.

 

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

The Iceman: Blu-ray
I don’t know how the competition is shaping up for Best Actor in a Lead Role in the current Oscar race. My record as a prognosticator is about as reliable as that of a Chicago barfly who always picks the Cubs to win the World Series. Still, I hope academy voters will take the opportunity they’ll surely be accorded to watch Michael Shannon’s absolutely chilling performance in “The Iceman.” Based solely on the picture’ meager box-office returns, however, I would suspect that the one-time Oscar nominee would be considered a longshot, at best. In Ariel Vroman’s critically lauded, if sometimes horrifying biopic of a mob assassin, Shannon plays the real-life contract killer hitman and all-around dirt-bag Richard Kuklinski. If the name is familiar, it’s because the one-man crime wave appeared in two HBO documentaries, while incarcerated in Trenton State Prison, in which he confessed to every major crime since the killing of the Bobby Kennedy. Kuklinski was also the subject of two print biographies. He would die in a prison hospital in 2006, at age 70.

In addition to Shannon’s hulking physical resemblance to Kuklinski, the actor looks as if he might be capable of taking out his displeasure with a critic by sticking an icepick in his ear. In troubling dramas like “Boardwalk Empire,” “Return,” “Take Shelter” and “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” Shannon’s characters could have been written with him in mind. (He was nominated for his disturbing supporting role in Sam Mendes’ 2006 drama “Revolutionary Road.) Vroman’s interpretation of Kuklinski’s life and misdeeds in no way whitewashes the crimes or makes him out to be some kind of avenging angel. It does, however, advance the notion forwarded by his wife Barbara—portrayed well by Winona Ryder—that by all outward appearances theirs was “the all-American family.” If anything, “The Iceman” allows for the possibility that childhood abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father may have played a significant role in turning his two sons into killers. (A brother, Joseph, was incarcerated at the Trenton facility, as well, for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl.) Mostly, though, he killed for kicks and money.

Ray Liotta plays the New Jersey mobster who introduced Kuklinski to the murder-for-hire game and not so lovingly referred to him as “the Polack.” Chris Evans is excellent as Mr. Freezy, a onetime rival assassin who operated out of an ice-cream truck and introduced Kuklinski to cyanide mist, explosives and freezing bodies as way to mess with medical examiners. I didn’t recognize David Schwimmer in the role of one of Liotta’s other henchmen or Stephen Dorff as brother Joseph. In what amounts to his continuing game of “Where’s Waldo,” James Franco also makes a de rigueur appearance. The Blu-ray adds lengthy making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The English Teacher: Blu-ray
After laboring for 20 years in the fertile vineyards of television—“Weeds,” “Nip/Tuck,” “United States of Tara,” among other excellent series—director Craig Zisk probably thought 2013 would be as good a time as any to make the leap to the big screen. And, with Julianne Moore, Greg Kinnear and Nathan Lane on board “The English Teacher,” who could blame him? Always terrific, Moore plays a teacher at a suburban high school where the students are motivated only when recommendation letters are required for acceptance at the best colleges. Nevertheless, Linda is devoted to her work and the kids who show a spark of interest, at least, in literature. A borderline spinster, she has decided to test the market for men capable of meeting her standards, which appear as cartoon balloons during their dates. The perfect candidate arrives in the unexpected presence of a former student, who’s about to give up his dream of becoming a playwright in New York. Before Jason (Michael Angarano) acquiesces to his dad’s dream of him entering a field significantly more secure than the theater, Linda convinces him to let her read the only script he’s completed. Predictably, she falls in love with it. She also convinces the school’s pompous drama teacher, Carl (Lane), to consider it as an option for the annual school play, instead of the umpteenth rendition of “Our Town.”

The thoroughly uptight principal and vice principle reluctantly give their approval, but only if Linda and Carl can convince Jason to come up with an alternate ending, which doesn’t involve a gun. They agree, knowing full well that Jason would rather chew off his fingers than revise it. Anyone who hasn’t already guessed what happens next probably deserves to have the moment spoiled, because it’s pretty much telegraphed from Minute One. Still overwhelmed by the script and its sad, seemingly autobiographical tone, Linda allows herself to be ravaged by Jason in her classroom. Is it a crime? No. Both are well past the age of consent, after all. Is it a wildly inappropriate use of school furniture? Of course. Still, Linda almost immediately regrets her decision and tells Jason that his cougar fantasy should be considered a one-night stand.

The fact that Jason doesn’t handle the news well doesn’t require a spoiler alert, either. What’s really important is the way he handles his disappointment and how, when the news leaks out, Linda pays the price for her lapse in judgment. Moreover, it’s the student actors who drive the action in second half of “The English Teacher.” Their evolution, as well as that of Jason’s father (Kinnear), is logical and satisfactorily handled. Dan and Stacy Chariton’s screenplay doesn’t leave too much room for nuance, so there are times when the movie appears to be heading toward a Cinemax version of “Glee.” Zisk manages to reel it back in before too much damage is done, however. Still, the Blu-ray version of “The English Teacher” fits the small screen pretty well and, of course, finding Lane and Moore in the same movie is a rare treat. Older teens and their parents might have some fun putting their heads around the issues addressed in the play—beyond the more obvious implications of sleeping with a teacher or boss—and finding some common ground. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy making-of piece with cast and crew.

Now You See Me: Blu-ray
The producers of this fascinating brain-teaser of a movie must have had a kitten when “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” tanked two months ahead of the release of their movie. Even though the Steve Carell comedy was backed by an expensive marketing campaign and featured a cast loaded with recognizable talent, it simply laid a giant egg at the box office. Had hellishly negative word-of-mouth killed “Burt Wonderstone” or was magic a subject audiences simply had no interest in seeing dramatized in a movie? The live-magic boom had crested in 1990s, after all, and the publicity that preceded “Now You See Me” made it look very much like just another movie about, yup, magic. With mainstream critics divided roughly in half, the burden of carrying the opening weekend was on the shoulders of Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Mark Ruffalo, Dave Franco and Woody Harrelson. Somehow, “Now You See Me” went on to become one of those rare pictures that doubled its box-office revenues in its second week of release and triple it by the fourth go-round. In a summer overflowing with high-profile busts, it did very well by its investors.

“Now You See Me” tells the story of four hardscrabble magicians who finally realize success by putting their rivalries aside and combining their specialties as the Four Horsemen. In only a few years, they go from obscurity to the kind of popularity David Copperfield enjoys. Somewhere along the way the Four Horsemen also discover their collective conscience. It would come to the fore in Las Vegas, where they pull off an illusion that appears to loot the vault of a bank in Paris. The money is undeniably real, however, and it is inarguably absent from the bank. Not only does the trick make headlines, but it also puts the Four Horsemen in the crosshairs of the FBI and Interpol, as represented by Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”). At first, the agents display the same skepticism to the heist as anyone who believes magic is for suckers. It isn’t until the Horsemen take their act to New Orleans and make their filthy-rich manager (Michael Caine) their stooge—relieving him of millions of dollars—which the agents begin to take them seriously as crooks. When they do, the cops inadvertently become part of the act.

Frustrated, the agents reluctantly agree to listen to Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who’s made a fortune debunking the work of illusionists. Bradley, too, has more than a few cards up his sleeve for the cops. They need all the help they can get when the Horsemen arrange a showdown performance in New York, daring the FBI, Interpol and Bradley to stop them from stealing an even greater fortune. They also challenge us to figure out how they’re going to escape being caught in wonderfully choreographed chases through the streets of New Orleans and New York. The best thing about “Now You See Me” is the level to which director Louis Leterrier (“Clash of the Titans”) and screenwriters Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt make viewers complicit in the elaborate heists, even if we can only guess as to how the illusions are created. (And, no, not all of them are reliant on CGI.) The professional and romantic tension between Ruffalo and Laurent also adds to the fun. The Blu-ray package offers both the theatrical and extended versions of the movie, with deleted scenes and an alternative ending that predicts the recently announced plan for a sequel; commentary with Letterier and producer Bobby Cohen; a 15-minute interview package; the featurette, “A Brief History of Magic”; and marketing material. If you enjoy “Now You See It” rent a copy of “The Game,” a similarly thrilling mind-twister from David Fincher.

Blancanieves: Blu-ray
Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger made his mark in the international cinema in 2003 with the raunchy sex comedy “Torremolinos 73.” He’s returned, after a 10-year absence, with the silent, black-and-white fairytale “Blancanieves,” an enchanting rethinking of the Brothers Grimm story, “Snow White.” It is to the Disney version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” what Carlo Collodi’s “The Adventures of Pinocchio” is to Disney’s decidedly more kid-friendly adaptation of the 1893 book. They’re all good, but the Disney interpretations don’t leave children quivering in mortal fear of making a youthful faux pas or being an orphan. Berger has adapted the classic story to fit its Catalonian and Andalucían setting and Spain’s traditional tolerance of bloodsport. The most eyebrow-raising thing about “Blancanieves” is something that was completely out of the Berger’s control. Arriving, as it did, in the colossal wake of “The Artist,” some observers wondered if he hadn’t borrowed the silent movie conceit to capitalize on its commercial and critical popularity. By the time Berger learned of Michel Hazanavicius’ triumph at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, he already was in the early stages of production on “Blancanieves.” No matter, because the two films are sufficiently different from each other to discourage easy comparisons. For one thing, “Blancanieves” is as distinctly Spanish as Valencian paella.

Carmen is a pretty young woman, whose flamenco-dancer mother died after giving birth and whose father is confined to a wheelchair after almost simultaneously being gored by a bull named Diablo. The precocious little girl would be raised by her grandmother, who encouraged her to pursue an early interest in traditional Spanish culture. When her abuela dies, 7-year-old Carmen (Sofia Oria) is sent to live with her sadistic stepmother and invalid father in his Andalusian mansion. As played by the wonderful Spanish actress, Maribel Verdu (“Y Tu Mama Tambien”), Encarna is cruel both to Carmen (Macarena Garcia) and her husband (Antonio Villata). She forbids the girl from having any contact with her father, who is locked away on the second floor and, she believes, remains emotionally detached from his daughter. Meanwhile she cheats on him with her masochistic chauffeur, Genaro. Carmen uses a keyhole to spy on Encarna, as she puts a saddle on Genaro and strikes him with a riding crop, as they prance around the estate’s ballroom. Carmen discovers her father’s veritable prison and commits herself to bringing him out of his comatose state. She accomplishes this by secretly entertaining him with her singing and flamenco skills. He, in turn, encourages her knack for bullfighting. His physical condition is hopeless, however. Even before his coffin is lowered into a grave, Encarna has conspired with the chauffeur to eliminate Carmen—now, a beautiful young woman—as a threat to their continued financial well-being.

Long story short: Carmen survives the attempt on her life, with only the temporary loss of her memory. She’s rescued by wandering troupe of dwarves, who fight miniature bulls and bring some laughs to fans of the corrida de toros. One day, out of the blue, Carmen is able to return the favor by saving the pint-sized torero from suffering the same fate as her father. In doing so, her sublimated skill as a bullfighter reveals itself to the dwarves, the crowd and a clever promoter. Carmen’s rising profile doesn’t escape Encarna, who devises a way—via a poison apple, of course—to get to her out of her hair for good. Seemingly, all that’s left is for viewers to anticipate a prince’s life-giving kiss. That’s assuming such a savior even exists in this adaption of the Grimms’ tale. Berger doesn’t use many dialogue cards to explain what’s happening, but, like Hazanavicius, the acting speaks for itself. He does, however, rely a great deal on Alfonso de Vilallonga’s distinctly Spanish score, which combines string-heavy orchestral music and zarzuela-like vocals. The effect is quite wonderful. The Blu-ray includes an interesting 30-minute making-of featurette, a short audience presentation by Berger, a “Director’s Diary” and a five-minute sample of the live orchestral presentation at a public screening. “Blancanieves” should appeal primarily to anyone drawn to inventive filmmaking and Spanish themes, but mature viewers may want to see an adaptation of “Snow White” that hones closer to the folk tales that inspired the Brothers Grimm original.

Petunia
I Do
As Queer Cinema has evolved with the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian culture, it’s no longer unusual to find ensemble dramedies targeted to general audiences and populated with characters whose situations aren’t limited by sexual identification. While major studios and distributors have yet to hop aboard the normalcy bandwagon, indie labels now are taking the opportunity to welcome viewers unafraid to veer from the straight and narrow path. Actors, writers and directors once primarily familiar to GLBT audiences now find themselves working alongside stars easily recognizable from television and Hollywood movies. Both “Petunia” and “I Do” benefit from the broadened horizon. From Wolfe Releasing, “Petunia” tells the exceedingly familiar tale of a family that is coming apart at the seams because everyone is either talking past each other or not conversing at all. Individual through-lines spread the misery evenly among various family members, no matter if they’re gay, straight, bisexual or no longer functioning. None of the characters are required to live half of their lives in a closet or battle AIDS. The sex is scenes aren’t terribly explicit and they aren’t limited to same-sex relationship.

Christine Lahti plays the matriarch of the Petunia family. That she’s a psychotherapist does nothing to further her relationship with her asexual husband, Percy (David Rasche), who has completely tuned out the craziness swirling around him. Brothers Michael (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Adrian (Jimmy Heck) are hiding infidelity and sex addiction, respectively. Another brother, Charlie (Tobias Segal), has broken his vow of abstinence by sleeping with his downstairs neighbor (Michael Urie), whose wife (Brittany Snow) is game for a polyamorous adventure. Adrian’s new bride (Thora Birch) is pregnant and the fetus’ father is more likely to be Michael than her husband. Adrian doesn’t seem to be perturbed by the possibility, as he’s discovering things about himself he probably should have guessed before tying the knot. Considering what the budget must have been for “I Do,” co-writer/director Ash Christian squeezes a lot of laughs out of the premise, including several during a scene in which Lahti drops Ecstasy during a girl’s night out. The DVD adds the director’s commentary; cast interviews, deleted scene, music videos and film-festival features.

From Breaking Glass, “I Do” offers another familiar dilemma with a gay twist. A young British man living in New York has just been informed that his visa has expired and he must return home. Not only does he enjoy American life, but he’s also committed himself to watching over the wife and daughter of his recently deceased brother. His only solution, albeit temporary and technically illegal, is to find someone who will agree to marry him and protect him from the INS. To this end, Jack (David Ross) convinces his best lesbian friend, Ali (Jamie- Lynn Sigler), to escort him to the altar. Ali is a “gold-star lesbian” and proud of the distinction. Strictly clitly, she can’t even answer their question as to whether or not Jack is circumcised. (“He’s English,” she answers.) What’s more, Ali has grown sick of bearding for him while he’s out shagging stray men and asks for a divorce. Normally, this would allow Jack more time with his new boyfriend, Mano (Maurice Compte), his sister-in-law (Alicia Witt) and niece. Instead, Ali’s decision requires him to spend it thinking of ways to avoid deportation. If the producers of “I Do” had the foresight to hire a soothsayer, they might have known that the Supreme Court decision would soon strike down DOMA laws, effectively clearing the way for gay couples to sue for immigration rights and green cards. No law, no problem … unless, of course, one of them crossed the Rio Grande on an innertube. As it is, the characters in “I Do” are required to experience the same agonies as any other couple in similar straits. The presence of the Witt and Siglar makes up for some of the holes in Ross’ script and Glenn Gaylord’s direction.

Slightly Single in L.A.: Blu-ray
If someone held a gun to my head and forced me to synopsize “Slightly Single in L.A.” in a single sentence, I’d say: “‘Sex and the City,’ without the sex or laughs, in L.A.” Oh, there’s a bit of simulated fornication, but it’s the kind in which the actors keep on their underwear and never seem to enjoy. Its center is occupied by newcomer Dale Squire (Lacey Chabert), a dead ringer for Jennifer Love Hewitt, who keeps looking for love in all the wrong places. Although she was warned about the vapidity of the people she’d meet in Los Angeles, Dale manages to surround herself with exactly the kinds of people she was advised to avoid, male and female. Even so, she fits right in and, for the time being, anyway, they’re the only ones she’s likely to find. The ladies snipe and gossip behind each other’s back, while the men can’t take their eyes off every woman within a 50-yard radius. At one point, the blond friend demonstrates her displeasure with a casting agent’s assessment of her butt by standing up in the middle of a restaurant and demanding a second opinion. One of the brunettes can’t stop boring her friends—and us—with her insipid wedding plans.

Just when Dale reconnects with a John Mayer wannabe and things begin to look up for her, the other brunette finds a way to distract him—for five minutes, anyway—by affixing her lips to his penis. But, hey, what’s a hummer between friends? Dale gives up her claim to the musician, even though he doesn’t want to change partners. Naturally, the movie then becomes a game in which the characters attempt to get Dale back with her rightful boyfriend. In an interview included in the bonus package, writer/director Christie Will allows that much of the material is based on her own experiences as a single woman in L.A. Like Dale, she made friends and realize her dream of becoming a filmmaker. I have no idea how “Slightly Single in L.A” might play among teens and young adults in similar straits as Dale. It wasn’t given much of release, if any. Co-stars Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Simon Rex, Haley Duff, Jonathan Bennett, Mircea Monroe, Kip Pardue, Mercedes Masohn and Chris Kattan would seem to possess oodles of name recognition, however. If it’s any consolation to Chabert and Will, the 40-year-old Kattan has appeared in at least a half-dozen movies and countless “SNL” sketches that are worse than “Suddenly Single in L.A.”

From Up on Poppy Hill: Blu-ray
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Since 1966, when Disney took over distribution of Studio Ghibli films outside Japan, American fans of the animation arts have embraced Hayao Miyazaki as one of the genre’s true giants. Sadly, the master announced his retirement after his latest feature, “The Wind Rises,” was screened at this week’s Venice Film Festival. “From Up on Poppy Hill” is directed by Goro Miyazaki from a script written by his father and Keiko Niwa and based on a popular 1980 manga. It is being distributed here by GKIDS, a relatively new company that is associated with the New York International Film Festival. In addition to sending out such truly wonderful animated features as “Chico & Rita,” “A Cat in Paris,” “The Rabbi’s Cat” and “The Painting,” GKIDS has inherited North American distribution rights to Studio Ghibli titles previously held by Disney. If GKIDS isn’t already on your radar screen, “From Up on Poppy Hill” should make its mark very soon.

Like other GKIDS releases, any assumption that “From Up on Poppy Hill” is strictly for kids should be dispelled early in the narrative. It describes a pivotal period in post-war Japanese history through the eyes of teenage students who rally to preserve a campus landmark from the armies of enforced modernity. It’s set in Yokahama ahead of the 1964 Summer Olympics, during which Japan would re-introduce itself to the world as an up-to-date nation more interested in the future than its bloody past. In opposition to the administrators’ acquiescence to government plans, students have decided that the nation’s march to progress should bypass the ramshackle “Latin Quarter” building that is home to the school’s clubs. Shun Matsuzaki, the editor of the school’s paper, is championing the movement. Politically realistic and handsome, to boot, Shun finds in fellow student Umi Matsuzaki an ally and potential love interest. Umi is known locally for raising signal flags, visible to ships entering and exiting the busy port, from her family’s Poppy Hill boarding house. She does so in memory of her father, who was lost at sea during the Korean War. As if the business at the Latin Quarter hadn’t raised enough of an uproar in their lives, Umi and Shun are further distracted by a disclosure that could rock the foundations of their personal lives. Although the parallel narratives play out logically and in emotionally satisfying ways, they may fly a bit too far over the heads of younger viewers. The hand-drawn images in “From Up on Poppy Hill” skew far more in the favor of viewers in their mid-teens and above. The bonus package in the attractive Blu-ray presentation includes a feature-length progression of storyboards; a documentary history of Yokohama; the music video, “Summer of Farewells”; a piece on the English-language voicing cast; a lengthy press conference on the choice of a theme song and accommodations required after the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami; and Hayao Miyazaki’s remarks to studio employees after a screening.

Obviously, no such cautionary notes are necessary in advance of a family viewing of Disney’s modern-classic “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.” It remains what it’s always been, an easy and effective way to spark a child’s imagination and love of reading. I’d also wager that anyone who enjoyed the feature-length movie and books of A.A. Milne wouldn’t have to be told twice about how animals and humans serve each other’s needs in the natural world. It does so in a manner so soothing it could have been delivered by the postmaster general of “Mr. Roberts Neighborhood.” At a time when animators are creating kookier and increasingly more frenetic products, ostensibly to retain the attention of kids raised on video games, 74 minutes with Winnie and his friends is as refreshing as a cold glass of lemonade.

The 1977 movie might have looked considerably different if Walt Disney had been able to create a fresh stand-alone story set in the Hundred-Acre Wood. As it was, Uncle Walt would only live long enough to see the completion of a 26-minute featurette, attached to the long-forgotten live-action comedy, “The Ugly Dachshund.” “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree” would see further duty 11 years later when it was stitched into a package that also included the featurettes “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too” and “Winnie the Pooh and the Blistery Day.” To smooth the edges, Sebastian Cabot was hired to narrate introductions to the individual stories, all positioned within the framework of a storybook. The “franchise” would grow to include additional featurettes, a live-action series, an 83-episode animated series, four more feature films and two series for pre-school children. Baby Boomer parents and grandparents will immediately recognize the voices of Cabot, Sterling Holloway, as Pooh, and Paul Winchell, as Tigger, as well as the delightful Sherman Brothers’ songs on the soundtrack. The Blu-ray adds “Disney Intermission,” with Hundred Acre Wood activities; “Pooh Play-Along”; the animated short, “A Day for Eeyore”; the making-of featurette, “The Story Behind the Masterpiece”; the theme song, performed by Carly Simon; and five “Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” shorts.

Cockneys vs. Zombies: Blu-ray
The surprising cult success of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” left the door wide open for dozens of other bright young filmmakers to turn high-concept ideas into movies that bridge comedy and horror. “Cockneys vs. Zombies” is about as high-concept as these things get. Steve Lawson’s more ambiguously titled “Dead Cert” pitted East End gangsters against Romanian zombie thugs, mostly in the basement of a nightclub both groups coveted. No such confusion is possible with “Cockneys vs. Zombies.” Early on, at a London construction site, a backhoe operator breaks through the door of ancient crypt, loosing a plague of zombies on the city. At the same time, a gang of inept bank robbers is attempting to raise the money necessary to keep a retirement home from evicting their relatives. Among the old-timers are such venerable British actors as Alan Ford (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”), Honor Blackman (“Goldfinger”), Georgina Hale (“The Devils”) and Richard Briers (“Watership Down”). They have great fun mangling the Cockney rhyming dialect and taking on creatures even slower than they are. Otherwise, “Cockneys vs. Zombies” doesn’t break much new ground. The Blu-ray arrives with separate commentary tracks with director Matthias Hoene and writer James Moran; deleted scenes and a half-hour backgrounder.

The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD
In April, 1943, while most of the world was preoccupied with the ongoing war, a Swiss chemist by the name of Albert Hofmann absorbed a small quantity of lysergic acid diethylamide through his fingertips and effectively embarked on the first acid trip. Further studies would take him to Mexico where he identified the hallucinogenic properties of plants used by indigenous people in religious ceremonies. It allowed him to synthesize psilocybin, the active ingredient in what would become known as “magic mushrooms.” Before his discoveries found their way to the hippie ghettos of San Francisco, New York and London, the U.S. Army conducted experiments at its Edgewood Arsenal to see if the substance could be used as a “truth serum” or for non-lethal chemical warfare. Meanwhile, civilian researchers were hoping to find more clinical and psychotherapeutic uses for LSD. The CIA’s top-secret MKUltra program was launched in 1953 and continued for another 20 years, until congressmen were alerted to its existence and director Richard Helms ordered all relevant papers to be destroyed. In 1977, it was revealed that the CIA frequently tested LSD and other substances not only on volunteers, but unsuspecting civilians here and abroad. A few of the guinea pigs and researchers were so impressed by the effects of the drug that they began spreading the word among friends and underground chemists. Hence, the Summer of Love.

Martin Witz’s mostly scholarly documentary “The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD” describes the discovery, experimentation process, popularization, misuse and potential for the substance. He uses as his primary source taped interviews with Hofmann, who died in 2008, at 102. To add a little spark to the proceedings, he interweaves the more sober scientific material with trippy archival footage from the drug’s heyday. If the Army and CIA are criticized for twisting their research to fit their particular needs, Hofmann also suggests that unsupervised usage in the 1960s caused the governments of the world to go into hysterics over the emerging counterculture and block further studies. At first, Timothy Leary and other promoters of LSD as a tool for psychotherapy cautioned against uncontrolled experimentation, but eventually allowed themselves to be used by the media as freak-show attractions. Ken Kesey, who participated in MKUltra studies at Stanford, would join Leary as the leading proselytizer for psychotropic drugs, but for the purposes of recreation, mind-expansion and enjoying the Grateful Dead. LSD never went out of favor in some quarters, even as the kindred drug Ecstasy exploded in popularity. Only now are researchers returning to the roots of Hofmann’s experimentation, specifically with terminally ill patients seeking relief from fear and anxiety. If viewers go into “The Substance” with an open mind, they’ll benefit from a sober discussion of a substance whose potential for good was upended by those who found it easier to promote it as a miracle drug or condemn it as a bogeyman. The DVD adds a more material from the interview with Hofmann.

Song of the South: Duane Allman & the Rise of the Allman Brothers Band
I’ve watched and reviewed a couple dozen rock-docs from such distributors as MVD Visual, Chrome Dreams and Sexy Intellectual. The biographies of musicians and band histories almost always have been made without the active participation and authorization of the artists, themselves, while the “Under Review” titles are limited, as well, by the restrictions imposed by copyright laws and licensing fees. Finding two hours’ worth of worthwhile material to fill a DVD—mostly from music videos, news clips and public-domain sources—isn’t easy. It’s the testimony of associates, critics, producers, historians and friends that makes one disc better than another. “Song of the South: Duane Allman & the Rise of the Allman Brothers Band” is among those few documentaries that stand alone at the top of my list of favorites. Apart from being a bona-fide Rock God, Duane Allman was one of the most widely recorded and available musicians of the 1960-70s. His blues roots are easily identifiable and it isn’t difficult to find people who worked alongside him or reviewed his records as they were released. His impact on contemporary musicians, especially those from the South, is inarguable. Sadly, for his many admirers, Allman would ride his motorcycle to an early grave. As difficult as it might have been at the time, the band that carried his surname and that of his brother, Greg, someone managed to recoup and retain its fan base. Their stories are interesting, as well. “Song of the South” follows Allman’s journey from his early days a garage and party band in Florida, through the launch of more sophisticated ensembles, and collaborative sessions at Muscle Shoals and with Derek & The Dominos. The rise of the Allman Brothers Band from virtual obscurity to superstardom also is fully chronicled. Among the contributors are engineers and producers, the Albert Brothers; Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section founding members, David Hood and Jimmy Johnson; former co-members of Duane and Greg’s late 1960s group, the Hour Glass, Paul Hornsby & Pete Carr; Allman Brothers road manager Willie Perkins; biographers, Randy Poe and Scott Freeman; band archivist E.J. Devokaitis; and Rolling Stone critics.

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie: Blu-ray
A decade before Fox News introduced its lineup of provocateurs and loudmouths, Morton Downey Jr. successfully turned the word, “liberal,” into a synonym for unpatriotic. Well before Jerry Springer whipped his studio audience into a frenzied state on a nightly basis with freaks and strippers, Downey performed before crowds of rabid fans he accurately referred to as “the beast.” Long before Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Pat Buchanan, Karl Rove, Larry Elder and Herman Cain made it OK to ridicule and misconstrue the beliefs of people with whom they didn’t agree, Downey blew cigarette smoke in the faces of his guests and allowed audience members to insult them during Q&As. Without Morton Downey Jr., Howard Stern might not have risen to the top of the radio heap as quickly as he did and Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera and Springer might not have so freely baited Klansmen and neo-Nazis for sweeps-month ratings. It’s also fair to say, however, that Downey may never have seen the light of day if it weren’t for right-wing rabble-rousers Joe Pyne and Wally George. Without the liberality of Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael and Oprah, he wouldn’t have been able to re-rouse Spiro Agnew’s dormant “silent majority.” He was as representative of 1980s lowbrow culture as the WWF and Andrew “Dice” Clay. Today, though, the mouth that roared is little more than a footnote in the history of television. Like other tinhorn demagogues, Downey discovered the downside of hubris at the height of his career. That said, it’s likely that liberals and progressives probably wish they had someone a bit more rabid than Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann to sic on their opponents.

For those who care about such things, Seth Kramer, Daniel Miller and Jerry Newberger’s provocative documentary, “Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie” attempts to answer the three questions people ask every time such a phenomenon corners the media spotlight: 1) Does he really believe the things he says on the show?, 2) Does he act like a jerk when the cameras aren’t rolling?, and 3) Why would any guest in his or her right mind agree to be browbeaten by someone who can’t be outshouted and doesn’t listen to anything they have to say? The same questions continue to be asked of Limbaugh, Beck, Springer, Bubba the Love Sponge, Sean Hannity, Al Sharpton and any number of shock jocks and trash talkers. In addition to chronicling Downey’s rise and fall, as well as his influence on the next generation of talkers, the filmmakers spend a lot of time discussing his very public personal life and lost battle with lung cancer. Indeed, the only time Downey comes off as anything but a precisely calculated madman is when he renounces himself for defending the cigarette industry and polluting the minds of young viewers as an unrepentant chain-smoker. Such self-flagellation may have come too late in the game to save his life and those of other adults addicted to tobacco, but, for once, he wasn’t looking around to see which camera he was on.

Among those recalling the man and his times here are the show’s producers; activist attorney and frequent guest, Gloria Allred; fiery commentator Pat Buchanan; novelist and critic Stanley Crouch; lawyer and columnist Alan Dershowitz; comedian and Downey impersonator Chris Elliott; media executive Robert Pittman; and talk-show rival Sally Jessy Raphael. The highlights include watching Downey shout down future presidential candidate Ron Paul and CORE chairman Roy Innes shove Sharpton out of his chair during a debate over the Tawana Brawley hoax. The film benefits from some interesting animation, which is used to depict certain incidents in Downey’s career.

TV to DVD/Blu-ray

Starz: DaVinci’s Demons: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Starz: Spartacus: War of the Damned: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
BBC: Blandings: Series 1
NBC: Revolution: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Syfy: Haven: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
The CW: The Vampire Diaries: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
The CW: Supernatural: The Complete Eighth Season: Blu-ray
With September comes the season of binge viewing. Networks are swamping video outlets with full-season compilations, primarily of renewed series and hit shows that were given an honorable burial in the past few months. If you slept through the 2012-13 season, now’s the time to get up to date. I’ve never understood the logic of a network selling full-season compilations of shows it may someday want to sell into syndication—or already is being rerun on other channels—but they certainly wouldn’t do it if the practice weren’t profitable. Cable and satellite outlets have an altogether different economic model, but, likewise, have sold sanitized versions of “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos” in the after-market.

Unlike Showtime and HBO, the premium-network Starz has only recently gotten into original-programming game with such series as “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” “Boss,” “Spartacus” and “Da Vinci’s Demons.” All are worth the effort for non-subscribers to find. Starz and BBC Worldwide co-produced the wonderfully inventive mini-series “Da Vinci’s Demons,” which seems to be equal parts “Sherlock” and “The Borgias.” Tom Riley plays Leonardo Da Vinci as a handsome and as-yet-beardless 25-year-old in Renaissance Florence. He’s gone beyond the budding-genius stage of his life and is creating wondrous flying machines and terrible weapons at an almost alarming pace. His allegiance in all things military is to the Medicis, but their rival, Pope Sixtus IV, attempts to woo Da Vinci with promises of access to the treasures of the Vatican archives. Brilliant beyond any rational explanation, he not only possesses a photographic memory—allowing him to slow down the beatings of a bird’s wings and study the movements in flight—but he’s also able to conceptualize the architectural skeletons of buildings and other objects when necessary. In Season One, this talent helps Leonardo escape the Carpathian castle of Vlad the Impaler. As fanciful as that might seem, most of things that happen in “Da Vinci’s Demons” are well-researched and historically feasible. Parents should know that there’s no scarcity of battlefield gore and boudoir nudity in the series. The Blu-ray adds commentaries, deleted scenes and short making-of featurettes.

In a very real sense, Starz’ sword-and-sandals mini-epic, “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” never really recovered from the untimely death of Andy Whitfield, the first season’s protagonist. To buy time while the actor battled non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Starz offered fans a six-episode prequel, “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.” Liam McIntyre would step in to fill Whitfield’s shoes after he finally succumbed to cancer. The official second-season mini-series, “Spartacus: Vengeance,” picked up where the first stanza left off and “Spartacus: War of the Damned” extends the legend. The series is set during the Third Servile War against Rome, whose army is led by Marcus Licinius Crassus, between 73-71 B.C. The rebel forces have grown dramatically, but their battlefield successes have quietly, maybe inevitably led to dissension even among Spartacus’ trusted generals. His decision to spare non-military Roman prisoners from slaughter is especially unpopular among the freed slaves. Adding to the fun is the introduction of Julius Caesar to the cast of characters. He’s a seasoned fighter and restless for power. After infiltrating the rebel ranks, he plays a significant role in setting one general against the other. “Spartacus” succeeded, in large part, because of the hyper-realistic portrayal of violence on the battlefield and in the arena. The blood and gore pops out even further in hi-def. In its nearly four seasons, the series also raised the bar on depictions of sex and nudity, as well. Who knew that breast implants, shaved pubic hair and fashionable hairdos were so prevalent two millennia ago? In “Spartacus” and “Da Vinci’s Demons,” alike, homosexuality wasn’t frowned upon or uncommon among macho men, either. (Da Vinci is put on trial on a pederasty beef, but it’s politically motivated.) The Blu-ray presentation is nothing short of brilliant, visually and audibly. It comes with several making-of featurettes, audio commentaries and extended scenes.

Adapted from the “Blandings Castle” stories of P.G. Wodehouse, the BBC comedy series, “Blandings,” is the perfect antidote for overexposure to “Downtown Abbey,” “Upstairs, Downstairs” and other shows about the care and feeding of Britain’s upper-crust twits. The always-delightful Timothy Spall plays absent-minded Lord Clarence Emsworth, who would rather commune with his prize pig, the Empress, than have anything to do with the relatives, acquaintances and accountants who show up on a weekly basis at the Shropshire estate. Jennifer Saunders (“Absolutely Fabulous”) is his imperious sister and his comically loyal butler is portrayed by Mark Williams. Also adding a touch more nuttiness to the mix is Jack Farthing as Clarence’s halfwit son, Freddie, who someday might find a home among the other bewigged doofuses in the House of Lords. Americans might find “Blandings” to be a bit too leisurely in the exposition of its sitcom-style plots, but, given time, the show grows on you. In Episode One, for example, a crisis arises after the Empress goes off her feed two weeks before the Shropshire fair. Knowing that the Empress won’t respond to anyone but his regular groomer, the local magistrate and fellow swine enthusiast arrests the man for alcoholism and sentences him to a week in jail. Sure enough, the pig stops eating entirely. Even though Clarence pulls out all of the stops to get the Empress back on track, it takes one of Freddie’s brainstorm ideas to prevent the magistrate’s pig from winning the blue ribbon. I guarantee that you’ve never seen another pig quite like the Empress.

If there’s one thing that the networks don’t lack these days, it hour-long dramas in which attractive young women and handsome young men save civilization from destruction by alien beings, undead creatures and other supernatural oddities. If you see a character older than, say, 45, it’s a sure bet that person will be toast by the second commercial break. Pandering to the key 18-34 bracket may sell commercial time, but it results in shows that appear to be set on another planet. It also accounts for storylines that no one over, say, 35, would consider credible. But, what do I know? I haven’t been part of a key demographic group in years.

NBC’s “Revolution,” is based on a premise so far-fetched that it could hardly stand up to the close scrutiny of longtime sci-fi fans. Still, success speaks for itself and the show’s been renewed for another season. One day, not so different than today, something mysterious causes a complete electrical blackout on Earth. Fifteen years later, the lights and power are still out. (This doesn’t explain why automobile engines and battery-powered vehicles can’t be operated, but that probably will be explained down the road.) Resourceful Americans have reverted to their pioneer roots, as nature has reclaimed nearly all of the land previously covered with concrete and steel, including Chicago’s Wrigley Field and O’Hare airport. Meanwhile, fascist militias and rebel cadres have organized to save their own precious asses. Almost from Minute One, we’re reminded of the “X-Files” mantra, “Trust no one.” All of this is viewed through a prism supplied by a single extended family, the Mathesons, one of whose members may hold the key to overall survival. The Blu-ray adds more than an hour of bonus features, including commentaries on select episodes, a panel discussion from the 2013 Paley Festival, deleted scenes, a gag reel, NBC.com webisodes and several making-of and background pieces.

Syfy has garnered far more than its fair share of attention for its silly, made-for-cable movie, “Sharknado.” Its instant cult status attracted the media, of course, overshadowing the rest of the channel’s original programming, which has done pretty well in the cable environment. Entering its fourth stanza, “Haven” is loosely based on a Stephen King novel, “The Colorado Kid.” King left plenty of room in the story for readers to come to their own conclusions about the mystery of the Colorado Kid, a luxury producers of series didn’t have. Instead, they added new characters, an overriding supernatural atmosphere and a possible second life for the Kid. In the third season, too, the writers filled in some of the blanks in the life of FBI Agent Audrey. The Blu-ray contains a half-dozen commentary tracks, interviews with the cast, a panel discussion from New York ComicCon, webisodes, deleted and alternate scenes, backgrounders and a Season Four preview.

You know a series has done well for a network when a spinoff show is ordered and scheduled. That’s the case with “The Vampire Diaries,” which is entering its fifth season on the CW and has inspired a new series, “The Originals.” At first glance, “TVD” resembles a cross between the “Twilight” series, “True Blood” and “Dawson’s Creek,” which shares Kevin Williamson’s DNA as a co-creator. It is, instead, an adaptation of a series of young-adults novels by L.J. Smith. Going into the fourth year, viewers were left hanging on the status of Elena. In addition to entering her senior year, she’s struggling with the transformation from human to vampire. Guiding her is bad boy, Damon. She’ll also have to contend with the town’s vigilante Founders’ Council. Among the Blu-ray extras are “The Evolution of Elena Gilbert,” cast and creators’ favorite moments from Elena’s human-to-vampire transition; “Blood, Boys, and Bad Behavior: Becoming a Vampire,” about the new dynamics caused by Elena’s transformation; “The Vampire Diaries: The Ultimate Prop Master”; “Inking the Brotherhood: The Hunter’s Mark,” about superhuman muscles and supernatural tattoos; “Creating Silas’s Island”; a fan video, “The Impact of a Single Show: The Vampire Diaries”; a gallery of fan-created artwork; and a gag reel.

Eight seasons is a long time for any series to stay around, these days, and now the CW’s supernatural drama, “Supernatural,” is steaming toward another fall debut. Like “TVD,” fans will get a mid-season sneak peek of a spinoff series. It’s next to impossible to summarize a season of the show in a paragraph—the storylines are that far out—but, here goes. Season Eight opens with Dean escaping Purgatory—yes, that one—where he’s been put on ice for a year. He does so with the help of a vampire, Benny, whose soul he carries in his belly. Brother Sam had given up hope of finding his brother and took up with the veterinarian, Amelia, who’s no longer in the picture. Eventually, Benny will cause problems in the Winchester family, but they regroup to keep Crowley and his search for the magic tablets … or something like that. The Blu-ray includes producer commentaries on three episodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and featurettes “Finding Supernatural: Creating the Found Footage Episode,” “For the Defense of Man: The Tablets Revealed” and “Angel Warrior: The Story of Castiel.”

PBS: Frontline: Rape in the Fields
PBS: Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild
Last year, Kirby Dick’s startling documentary, “The Invisible War,” launched a national discussion on the “epidemic” of rape and sexual harassment that’s tarnished the honor of our armed forces. Far from acknowledging the extent of the problem, Pentagon officials and Congress have wasted time debating semantics and the logic of allowing commanding officers to determine what does and doesn’t constitute sexual harassment in what until recently was strictly an ol’ boys club. At least, it’s a start. Earlier this summer, “Frontline” and “Univision” combined resources to produce “Rape in the Fields,” a similarly horrifying plague. As jointly reported by “Frontline” correspondent Lowell Bergman, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, women who work the fields of California and other agricultural states are frequent targets of predatory supervisors. Among the other problems facing undocumented migrant workers, especially, is a justice system weighted against their interests and safety. The documentary focuses on the attempt by one woman, Maricruz Ladino, to expose the shocking problem and punish the perpetrators. Ladino was an 18-year veteran of the fields of Monterey County when, one day, her supervisor took her to a remote location and sexually assaulted her. Like fellow workers, documented and otherwise, there was nothing secure about her job and she feared being fired. She wouldn’t be the first whistler-blower to be blackballed, so, for a few months, anyway, kept her mouth shut. Her legal battle with Anthony Smith Co. began in 2006 and ended with an undisclosed settlement in 2010. Once she made a formal complaint against her supervisor, the 40-year-old grandmother was indeed fired. Despite the settlement, her attacker continues to walk, just like every other supervisor accused of such crimes.

For many motorists, the vast flatlands that stretch from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains are a little more than a test of one’s ability to stay awake while driving. The PBS presentation “Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild” suggests that we slow down and savor what’s left of an ecosystem still teeming with life, but threatened by pollution, careless farming practices, fracking and reduced habitats. Native Nebraskan Michael Forsberg has been photographing the wonders of the prairie for several decades and he continues to be amazed by what he finds. Indeed, after practically giving up hope of ever capturing images of bobcats, he discovered some living 10 minutes from his home. If the shrinkage continues, there might not be any room left for already-endangered species and Dust Bowl conditions could return to haunt farmers and ranchers. Although diminished in numbers, there’s still time to see bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, deer, prairie dogs, prairie wolves, prairie chickens and the occasional bear and mountain lion. Forsberg’s camera has also recorded dozens of species of brilliantly colored birds and fish for us to admire. At 120 minutes, “America’s Lingering Wild” more than scratches the surface of a subject we dare not ignore.

PBS Kids: Wild Kratt’s Wildest Animal Adventures
It’s never too early for kids to learn about the dangers facing the greater and lesser creatures on Earth, as well as the things that make them so important to the eco-system. One easy way to accomplish this is to introduce them to the “PBS Kids” series “Wild Kratt’s Wildest Animal Adventures.” Naturalists Martin and Chris Kratt host the series as both live-action and animated characters. They travel all over the world to teach young viewers about the dangers facing animals and their habitats, no matter how ugly and scary they may be. To accomplish this, the brothers don Creature Power Suits, which are charged by discs encoded with a creature’s DNA. It allows them to blend in where larger human beings would stand out like a sore thumb. The newest compilation includes 20 episodes from the first four of five seasonal collections.

 

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

The Great Gatsby: Blu-ray
Opening, as it did, at the beginning of the summer movie season and against tough competition, everybody’s eyes were on “The Great Gatsby.” Apart from the curiosity that naturally follows any production with Baz Luhrman’s name attached to it, studio executives were curious to gauge how much clout he still packed, considering that it’s been 12 years since his last big hit, “Moulin Rouge!” Teenagers who stunned prognosticators by flocking to “Romeo + Juliet,” 17 years earlier, were approaching middle age, after all, and fretting over the going rate for babysitters. If any book possessed built-in brand identity, though, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age romance, “The Great Gatsby.” For many students, being required to read the short and easily relatable novel might have been the best assignment any English teacher ever gave them. Leonardo DiCaprio would bring his own legion of fans to theaters, as would soundtrack attractions Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Fergie. Even so, Warner Bros. took nothing for granted, launching a marketing campaign that made all-things-Gatsby nearly inescapable for weeks ahead of its debut. WB made the strategic decision to open the movie in the U.S. and Canada—Vietnam and Dominican Republic, too, for some reason—five days ahead of its gala screening at Cannes. In this way, “Gatsby” could enjoy an opening weekend without the expected carping from festival audiences and mindless analysis by industry wiseguys. American mainstream critics would already have spoken and their words mostly forgotten by the time the movie’s star hit the festival’s red carpet. As was easily predictable, their opinions were mixed. The pundits who focused on the translation from book to movie, alone, were trumped by the opinions of those who accentuated the over-the-top party scenes and chemistry between the on-screen lovers. In this way, readers who still value the opinions of learned scribes knew that, whatever its literary shortcomings, “Gatsby” was going to be fun to watch.

All of the hoopla translated into excellent box-office numbers for the opening weekend and word-of-mouth carried through the rest of the month. Tack on the international totals and I’m pretty sure that WB was happy with the $344-million haul. In Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and DVD, it should find an even more enthusiastic audience. Some movies look better in hi-def than others and “Gatsby” is impressive in all three formats. It’s one of those movies that encourage at-home audiences to use the freeze-frame and slo-mo functions, simply to absorb everything that’s going on in a particular scene. The parties at Gatsby’s mansion are especially sumptuous, with interesting things happening everywhere on the screen all the time. Moreover, the reproductions of life in the mansions of Long Island and in the teeming streets of New York will drive viewers to the bonus features to see how they were accomplished. The supplemental material adds several such making-of featurettes, with observations by all of the stars and key behind-the-camera talent. It also contains Tobey Maguire’s behind-the-scenes tour; “The Swinging Sounds of ‘Gatsby,’” with Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Fergie, will.i.am, Lana del Rey, Bryan Ferry, Florence + the Machine, Andre 3000, The XX, Sia, Gotye and other contributors to the film’s jazzy soundtrack; take-outs on historical aspects of the production; 14 minutes worth of deleted scenes and an alternate ending, all with Luhrmann’s introductions; and the 1926 trailer for “Gatsby.”

Pain & Gain: Blu-ray
Most of director Michael Bay’s movies already look as if they’ve been pumped up with performance-enhancing drugs, so the hyper-frenetic pace and balls-to-the-wall action in “Pain & Gain” should come as no surprise to viewers. The primary difference between it and, say, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”—Bay’s last lollapalooza of movie—is the $170 million Paramount didn’t incur in production costs. Even taking into account the fact that Bay, Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson took pay cuts to keep the budget to below $25 million, “P&G” looks like a much more expensive movie. Based on an actual Miami crime spree, “P&G” describes what can happen when body builders mix steroids and cocaine in the service of a ridiculously ill-conceived kidnapping. Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie play personal trainers who want to achieve the American Dream—as promised by get-rich-quick hucksters on TV—without actually investing the minimum amount of sweat equity in its pursuit. Tony Shalhoub plays a thoroughly obnoxious gym member who constantly brags about how easy it is for him to make money … that is, when he isn’t showing off his wife’s 52 DDD boobs. Even though he’s blindfolded most of the time, it isn’t difficult for the pornographer to identify his abductors and attempt to turn one against the other. No matter how much punishment he endures, however, there’s no way he’s going to give up to numbers to his safe. Neither does he die easily. The more frustrated the kidnappers become, the more cocaine and PEDs they ingest and, in turn, they’re much less likely to distinguish between reality and fantasy.

And, yet, the muscle-heads do manage to extract a sizable chunk of money from their victim. The windfall was intended for investment in a state-of-the-art gym, but, given the characters involved, things didn’t work out as planned. They remain free for as long as they do, thanks to the inept crime-solving techniques used by the local gendarmes. It isn’t until an ex-cop played by Ed Harris enters the fray—and he’s no relation to the Armani-clad Crockett and Tubbs of “Miami Vice”—that anyone in authority takes the investigation seriously. The P.I.’s obsession with the case is partially based on the premise that no criminal enterprise this sloppily run should be allowed to flourish, while smarter crooks are busted every day. “P&G” works best as farce, with chases and violence that wouldn’t be out of place in a “Keystone Kops” comedy. Bay normally limits his works to PG-13, so it’s possible that the R-rated movie was considered risky in some circles. Because the budget and break-even point were so low, however, he knew that there was little to lose, even if the picture tanked. One or two good weekends at the box office would be all the time Paramount needed to break even and the studio had Wahlberg and Johnson in its corner in this regard. The “R” was fairly earned due to its profuse violence, profanity-laced dialogue, drug abuse and some mild T&A, mostly of the gratuitous variety. Viewers looking for jaunty repartee and logical plot twists in a picture about over-amped body builders should rent Bob Rafelson’s exponentially better “Stay Hungry” (1976), which starred Jeff Bridges, Sally Field and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The “P&G” Blu-ray really sparkles, but any thought of a bonus package apparently was sacrificed in the effort to keep costs down.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Blu-ray
Things happen quickly in Mira Nair’s impassioned adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s much-honored novel of the same title. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” opens with the kidnapping of an American educator at an Anglo-Pakistani university in Lahore, at which the film’s protagonist, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), also teaches. The book and the movie follow Changez’ journey from growing up in a posh Lahore suburb, to his blossoming as a financial whiz kid both at Princeton and on Wall Street, and back to a deeply divided Pakistan, where he uses his teaching position to denounce the United States and radicalize his students. In the meantime, he also falls in love with an emotionally unstable American artist (Kate Hudson) and earns money by eliminating jobs in companies around the world. It is during one such trip, to the Philippines, that he watches the attacks of 9/11 play out on CNN. He returns to a New York that is greatly changed from the city he left only a week or so earlier. Suddenly, Changez finds himself on the hot seat in airports, on the streets of Manhattan and, after growing a beard, at work. It doesn’t matter how much his job-slashing proposals helped stockholders, he was made to feel unwanted and unloved in his adopted homeland. His American dream shattered not by terrorists, but misinformed American goons, Changez moves back home to Lahore with a chip on his shoulder. By the time the American professor is kidnapped, Changez is well known to local police, CIA operatives and Al Qaeda recruiters, who admire his ability to motivate students.

The movie’s central conceit is the conversation that takes place between Changez and an American journalist, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), as time is running out for the safety of the teacher. Where Hamid envisioned the conversation as more of a soul-searching “inner dialogue” on Changez’ part, Nair’s screenwriters use it to exaggerate the tension and action in the final reel. I found it difficult to believe that Changez would agree to a self-serving interview—he demands that Bobby listen to his life story first—with a sketchy American journalist suddenly interested in the radicalization of Pakistani educators. In the novel, Changez pours out his story to a nervous American stranger in a café and the moment of truth between them plays out very differently. It’s also relevant to note, I think, that the book was published in 2007, before the capture of Osama Bin Laden and subsequent imprisonment of the Pakistani informant; American drone attacks in the mountains of western Pakistan; the Taliban shooting of 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai; and vicious terrorist attacks on Mumbai by pro-Kashmir separatists. By now, Americans are leery of all things Pakistani and might find it difficult to be overly sympathetic to an American educator naïve enough to believe he could avoid being kidnapped. Changez’ rapid transformation from rah-rah capitalist to fire-breathing fundamentalist makes his ethical and moral foundation that much shakier, as well. In the wake of the continuing American presence in Afghanistan and the border regions, he wouldn’t be the first highly educated Muslim to undergo such a dramatic conversion, though.

There’s no questioning Nair’s ability to make a movie that commands our respect and admiration. The settings all have a distinct air of authenticity about them and, although Hudson takes some getting used to, the actors are mostly spot-on. Her strategic integration of traditional and pop music into the storyline hints at the turmoil experienced by Changez. He was, after all, raised by a distinguished poet (Om Puri) who opened the gates of his home to Sufi musicians, literature other than the Koran and other cultural interests not in line with narrow-minded teachings of fundamentalists. The splendidly conceived soundtrack includes traditional Pakistani songs, Urdu poetry set to music, Pakistani pop and funk, folksy vocals by Amy Ray of Indigo Girls and a new song by Peter Gabriel, as well as Michael Andrews’ orchestration. The Blu-ray looks and sounds excellent, and there’s a pretty good making-of featurette included in the package.

Shadow Dancer: Blu-ray
The events described in James Marsh’s chilling IRA drama, “Shadow Dancer,” unfold about five years before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that effectively put an end to more than 20 years of “troubles.” In the early 1990s, it was still possible for an innocent child to be caught in the crossfire between British troops and IRA or UDA militants, if for no other reason than that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is what happens to the wee brother of Collette McVeigh (Andre Riseborough) and hardens her heart against the deaths of innocents of other backgrounds. Twenty years later, McVeigh is still kicking herself for sending the boy out of the house to perform a chore she could easily have done herself. These lingering feelings of guilt cause her to participate in an aborted IRA scheme to bomb the London subway. She’s arrested and browbeaten by a MI5 officer, Mac (Clive Owen), who gives her one choice: snitch or rot in prison. McVeigh, a single mother, is torn between protecting her brothers, who are IRA militants, and remaining free to raise her son in a way that might prevent him from becoming a martyr to the cause.

Unlike other MI5 agents, Mac appreciates the risks McVeigh is taking for a country she regards as an enemy. He knows that one slip-up would inevitably result in her execution, possibly at the hands of family members. Still, he remains steadfast in his determination to squeeze answers from his charge. It isn’t until Mac figures out that she is being played indirectly, as well, by his superior, Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson). Kate hopes to protect her own informer within the IRA by hanging McVeigh out to dry. This, Mac won’t tolerate. The tension builds as the hour of another terror attack approaches, this time closer to home. Despite her character’s willingness to plant a bomb in a subway, Riseborough is able to bring out McVeigh’s fragility and inner turmoil. It isn’t easy to build sympathy for a terrorist these days. Our feelings for Owen’s MI5 agent evolve and change as he begins to experience the same degree of treachery as is inflicted on IRA suspects. Also very good is Belfast native Brid Brennan as the McVeigh family matriarch. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews with cast and crew.

The Painting: Blu-ray
This delightful French import once again demonstrates how far French filmmakers have come in the highly competitive genre of animated features. Such diverse titles as “The Illusionist,” “Persepolis,” “The Triplets of Belleville,” “The Secret of Kells,” “A Cat in Paris,” “The Rabbi’s Cat” and “Tales of the Night” attest to the industry’s willingness to embrace sophisticated storytelling and not capitulate to the same family-film mandate that so often collars animators here. As it is, finding a French title among the nominees for a Best Animated Feature Oscar isn’t unusual, anymore, despite the discrepancy in budgets. Although the characters that come alive in “The Painting” aren’t all that dissimilar to those in “Toy Story” or “The Nutcracker,” the emphasis isn’t on enchanting children and, incidentally, their parents. Instead, it assumes that viewers have been to an art museum or two and have taken the time to study things that may not be obvious from a distance. It’s also necessary to empathize with the victims of racism, caste and religious discrimination. In Jean-Francois Laguionie’s inventive parable, a large unfinished painting of a fantasy kingdom hangs on the wall of a studio that belongs to an absentee artist. On closer inspection, the figures created by the artist’s imagination come alive on the canvas. It’s a three-dimensional world, in which the inhabitants are divided into the three groups: the fully realized Alldunns reside in a majestic palace; the Halfies, represent figures left incomplete; and the Sketchies are little more than charcoal lines.

A strictly enforced caste system keeps an Alldunn figure, Ramo, from entering into a loving relationship with a Halfie, Claire. The Alldunns assume that the Painter—or, if you wish, God—intended for the figures to be ranked by their colors and the painting in which they reside is complete, as it is. This didn’t sound logical to Ramo and Claire, so, along with a Sketchie friend, they decide to take off through the dense forest to find the Painter. Once they reach the forbidden Death Flowers, which represent the borders of their civilization, the characters come to the edge of the canvas. It is here that they discover an escape route to the greater world of the studio, which is filled with paintings, both finished and incomplete. Each contains an animated world of its own. The explorers have faith that someone will lead them to their creator and answer the mystery of the castes. Their journey is beautifully illustrated and the characters they meet will remind viewers of images that can be found hanging in the Louvre. The Blu-ray picks up the entire color palette and makes the works in “The Painting” come alive for its audience, as well. A 30-minute making-of featurette describes both the creation process and philosophy of the film, with Laguionie and screenwriter Anik Le Ray. There’s also a concept-art slideshow.

A Company Man: Blu-ray
The Gangster: Blu-ray
Through some crazy twist of fate, Hyeong-do found his calling in life at as an assassin working for a Seoul company, whose public face is that of a metal-trading company. The high-rise office is populated by the kind of fiercely dedicated white-collar employees known in the east as “salarymen” and “career women.” They’re all in the same business and it has nothing to do with metal. For Hyeong-do, the company in “A Company Man” represents the only family he’s known and he owes his entire sense of self-worth to it. In return, he’s a hitman of the first water and someone who can be entrusted with the most challenging assignments. Basically humorless, it’s difficult to tell whether Hyeong-do enjoys his work or could take it or leave at the office before leaving for home every night. In the normal course of doing business, he is assigned a job that requires him to kill a hapless apprentice after disposing of the prime target. Before taking out the younger man, Hyeong-do is asked to visit the victim’s mother and pass along the money he’s saved for his family. The gesture triggers something deep in the deeply sublimated conscience of the assassin and prompts him to do the unthinkable, by allowing him to escape. He does, however, deliver on his promise to visit the mother’s house and give her the money. Hyeong-do is surprised to learn that the woman, Mi-yeon, is the same pop star he fell in love with from afar as a teenager. After an unlikely relationship blossoms, the assassin begins to harbor thoughts of retirement from the company. Not only is such an idea out of the question, but when his bosses also discover that he purposely blew his assignment, Hyeong-do becomes the prey. It isn’t difficult to figure out what freshman writer/director Lim Sang-yoon is trying to say about the life of a salaryman in a cutthroat capitalist society. What makes “A Company Man” special are the exquisitely choreographed clashes between Hyeong-do and his former co-workers, assigned to eliminate him. There is a making-of featurette attached to the Blu-ray explain how some of the killing is accomplished.

The Gangster” is set during a particularly lawless period in Thai history, the 1950s-60s, when gangs seemingly modeled after the Sharks and the Jets terrified poor Bangkok neighborhoods. Stylistically, the hoodlums may have taken their cues from James Dean and Elvis Presley, but the street-fighting techniques are homegrown. I’ll admit to being confused by who was fighting who, and why, for long stretches of time during “The Gangster.” After a while, though, certain key players emerge and none of them is particularly virtuous. Writer/director Kongkiat Khomsiri (“Muay Thai Fighter”) intersperses interviews with now-elderly men and women, who witnessed the criminal activity and add a dose of realism and context to the story, however forced. For me, the movie’s chief selling points are the rockabilly hairdos, fashions and attitudes adopted by the gang-bangers. It’s as if the design teams for “Walk the Line” traveled to Bangkok to consult on “The Gangster.”

Kiss of the Damned: Blu-ray
Prior to this lush and stylishly sexy vampire thriller, Xan Cassavetes’ only directorial credits were the short film, “Dust,” and the excellent documentary, “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession,” about a pioneering cable-TV experiment in L.A. I don’t know if the huge commercial success of the “Twilight” series even remotely influenced the decisions she made during production of “Kiss of the Damned,” but the same young-adult viewers who endorsed that series could benefit from watching Cassavetes’ decidedly non-“90210” approach to the subgenre. It’s easier to trace the film’s lineage to Tony Scott’s steamy “The Hunger,” various titles in the Hammer Film and Jean Rollin catalog and Italian Giallo. It betrays a Euro-trash gloss, with exceedingly attractive characters and posh settings. Despite some holes in the story, I liked “Kiss of the Damned” very much. Smashing French newcomer Joséphine de La Baume plays Djuna, the less treacherous of two vampire siblings. The other sister, Mimi, is played with great lustful menace by Roxane Mesquida, who some might remember from Catherine Breillat’s “Fat Girl” and “Sex Is Comedy,” and a short story-arc in “Gossip Girl.” As the movie opens, Djuna is failing miserably in her efforts to resist the advances of a successful screenwriter, who’s in rural Connecticut suffering from writer’s block. Paolo is played by Milo Ventimiglia, a deceptively youthful actor seen in such TV series as “Heroes,” “The Bedford Diaries” and “Gilmore Girls.” Once in Djuna’s embrace, though, Paolo happily offers himself up to her as a victim of love.

Just as the couple begins to adjust to their eternal blood pact, Mimi arrives at Djuna’s country estate, seeking refuge from some misdeed or another. Her youthful beauty belies a mean streak that’s taken many generations to hone. Moreover, Mimi simply is incapable of keeping her fangs out of the necks of fragile young things that spark her libido. During a party of artsy-fartsy vampires and their non-Kindred friends, Mimi’s misbehavior also tests the host’s tolerance for divine decadence. Xenia is a breathy Marlene Dietrich-type performer whose addiction is aggravated by the younger vampire’s presence. She’s played by Anna Mouglalis, who Francophiles will have seen in “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinky” and “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life.” The contrast between the love playing out in Djuna’s country retreat and the lust on display at Djuna’s party speaks volumes about the differences that separate the sisters and, by extension, other vampires. Just for shits-and-giggles, Michael Rapaport and Elvis and Pricilla’s granddaughter, the quite capable Riley Keogh, also turn up on the menu. Throughout “Kiss of the Damned,” Cassavetes displays no reluctance to spare us the gore or temper Mimi’s bloodlust. Love hurts, after all. The sex scenes are torrid, without also revealing much skin. As is the case in most European horror flicks, style frequently comes at the expense of story here. After a while, though, you don’t miss it. The DVD adds a decent making-of featurette. It will be interesting to see what Xan, daughter of John and Gena, does for an encore.

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s
PBS: The Shaw Festival: Behind the Curtain
Anyone who enjoyed the curiously compelling BBC mini-series “Mr. Selfridge,” in which Jeremy Piven plays the American-born department-store magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge, will find a great deal to like in “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s.” New York’s Bergdorf Goodman and London’s Selfridge & Co. were founded 10 years apart, near the turn of the last century. Their owners understood that the experience of shopping was more important to their customers than simply the exchange of money for products. Clerks were expected to be knowledgeable, friendly and helpful to all patrons, even those who couldn’t yet afford their dreams. Wealthier customers would, of course, be accorded privileges according to their rung on the social ladder. Not so coincidentally, perhaps, both stores remain in business today, representing the same values and clientele. The fewer surprises viewers anticipate in Matthew Miele’s film about the Manhattan institution, the easier it will be for them to savor “Scatter My Ashes.” Equal parts oral history and infomercial, it accentuates the glamour and prestige of shopping at Bergdorf’s, without also addressing such controversial issues as the sale of furs and exotic skins; the exploitation of teen models forced to lose weight to meet unnatural expectations; designers subcontracting work to sweatshops; and feeding the addictions of customers who simply can’t stop buying things. “Scatter My Ashes” isn’t alone in this regard, of course. Most documentaries that showcase editors, designers or supermodels avoid the tough questions. The 2011 documentary, “Girl Model,” caused a stir in the fashion industry simply by revealing the process whereby Siberian girls as young as 13 are recruited by scouts at regional beauty contests and literally are thrown into the deep end of the pool to sink or swim in Japan and Paris. As a one-dimensional portrait of a store with a unique history, profile and culture, however, “Scatter My Ashes” works pretty well. Among the many celebrity witnesses are the Olsen twins, Susan Lucci, Joan Rivers, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Rachel Zoe, Michael Kors, Isaac Mizrahi and Vera Wang.

Likewise, PBS’ “The Shaw Festival: Behind the Curtain” takes a reverential stance on a venerable institution. This time, it’s the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. It began in 1962 with a mandate for promoting works by George Bernard Shaw, but has since expanded its repertoire to include plays by the playwright’s contemporaries and those who embody his radical spirit. Each spring and summer, the company performs around 10 plays on 4 stages. The documentary chronicles a single season, over the course of eight months, from rehearsals and readings, through set design, construction and fund-raising. Apparently, that year, everything ran smooth as silk, because there aren’t any blemishes visible in the film. “Behind the Curtain” should appeal most to students and theater enthusiasts interested more in the nuts and bolts of putting on plays than what happens on stage on any particular night. And, that’s OK.

No Place on Earth
Stories of survival from World War II still have the power to surprise and enlighten, even 70 years after the events took place. Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness” dramatized the amazing story of Leopold Socha and the risks he took to hide Jews in the sewers of Nazi-occupied Lvov for 14 months. Coincidentally, a couple hundred miles to the east, two families of Jews also found refuge underground. That’s the story told in “No Place on Earth.” To avoid being transferred to a ghetto and almost certain death, 30 members of the Stermer and Wexler families escaped into the gypsum caves of western Ukraine. Despite some setbacks, they lasted 511 days on the barest of subsistence rations. Fifty years later, a New Yorker of Ukrainian descent would pursue his caving hobby in the same long and intricate system. Because Christopher Nicola thought he was exploring virgin territory, the artifacts he found left behind in the caves from the Stermer and Wexler families’ ordeal put him on the trail of a more meaningful discovery. The memories of local residents conveniently overlooked the episode in their own history, possibly for reasons related to the anti-Semitism that flourished in the region before, during and after the war. One elderly woman recalls that a few Jews lived in the caves, but that was it. Further investigation revealed Esther Stermer’s 1975 memoir, “We Fought to Survive,” of which only 500 were printed and distributed among Jewish and Holocaust-specific institutions. It allowed Nicola to find survivors, a few of whom lived close to him, in the Bronx, to interview. Janet Tobias’ documentary describes Nicola’s obsession with the story and follows him on a 2010 trip back to the site, with four survivors and two of their grandchildren. (Actors were used in the dramatization, as were stunt caves located in Hungary.) It’s a fascinating tale, even if Janet Tobias’ documentary does allow for some needlessly sappy moments. The DVD adds extended interviews with the survivors.

Koch
If ever a politician and his city were attached at the hip, it was Ed Koch’s New York from 1978 to 1989. Arrogant, self-aggrandizing and abrasive in equal measure, Koch probably couldn’t have been elected dogcatcher anywhere else than the Big Apple. Somehow, though, he served three tours of duty as New York’s mayor. In “Koch,” former Wall Street Journal reporter Neil Barsky takes an up-close look at Koch’s frequently tenuous hold on New York, while also explaining how he changed as much as the city during his tenure as mayor. It opens at a time when New York was being given up for dead by everyone who understood what a shambles the city had become. In fact, the now-famous Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” might have provided the spark for the then-congressman to run for mayor. Even after Koch led the city’s march to economic recovery and resurgence, the film makes New York looks as if it’s unmanageable. There are almost as many special-interest groups as there are voters and every one of them believes that we’re entitled to their opinions.

Koch had the gumption to stay the course, but was undone by several issues that were festering below the surface of the city’s thick hide and exploded as he sought a fourth term in office. He was partially undone by the greed and corruption of people he trusted enough to put into positions of power. Impossible-to-keep promises he made to the African-American community in his first campaign would come back to haunt him years later when it came time to pay the inevitable bill for maintaining a hospital no longer sustainable. Bitterness over his perceived lack of action on the AIDS epidemic was compounded by persistent speculation on his own sexual preferences, if any. On the plus side, though, it would have been difficult to find a politician so unabashedly in love with his city and the vibrancy of its people. He would win back hearts as a judge on TV’s “The People’s Court’ and the odd stint as movie reviewer. Barsky interweaves vintage newsreel footage, with recent interviews with Koch, who died earlier this year, along with the observations of friends, political allies and foes. Almost as telling is a shorter documentary, included the bonus package, in which a variety of people recall how they survived the 1970-80s. There’s also a Q&A with Koch and other material.

BBC: Smiley’s People: Blu-ray
By now, at least three generations of readers and viewers have been introduced to the espionage game by Ian Fleming’s seemingly immortal creation, James Bond. No less a fan of 007 than President John F. Kennedy endorsed the series by telling a reporter that “From Russia With Love” was one of his 10 favorite books and that he had read “Casino Royale” in 1955, while recuperating from back problems. The Bond novels were exciting and easy to understand, despite their British pedigree. They also allowed Cold War-weary Americans to pretend to understand, at least, what was happening in the “secret world.” John le Carré, who presumably worked for some of the same people as Fleming, created a very different spook in George Smiley. Far less prone to action and not at all interested in the spoils of the job enjoyed by Bond, Alec Guinness’ Smiley could have been mistaken on the street for an executive of an insurance company or lifelong bureaucrat. He didn’t doubt the necessity for espionage, but wasn’t convinced that Britain and the United States were always on the side of the angels. His targets didn’t own private islands or submarine fleets and they didn’t require freakish bodyguards to take care of their business. Smiley’s personal nemesis, the Soviet agent Karla, was far more camera shy and infinitely less flamboyant than the supervillains that Bond engaged.

Although Karla’s physical presence represents little more than a cameo in the 1982 BBC mini-series, “Smiley’s People,” his absence throughout all six episodes is deafening. Smiley brings himself out of retirement to investigate the murder, in England, of one of his most valuable moles in the Soviet military. General Vladimir, a former Soviet military hero and Estonian nationalist, lives for the day when his homeland is liberated from Soviet rule. Because of this, the General and his émigré cohorts remain a thorn in the side of the Kremlin. One day, out of the blue, Vladimir dials a largely unused number at “the Circus,” hoping to contact Smiley. Even though a young operative doesn’t quite know what to make of the spy lingo, he tracks down Smiley, who does. Before they can connect, however, the General is assassinated. It takes almost the entirety of the mini-series for Smiley to connect the dots in his investigation, which is complicated by Cold War politics, the fading memories of elderly agents, the necessity for quasi-legal shortcuts, several murders and Karla’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering. The release of the Blu-ray edition would be welcome for any number of reasons. That it follows on the heels of the big-screen version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” also a BBC mini-series, could signal theatrical versions of “Smiley’s People” and “A Perfect Spy.” The Blu-ray edition revisits the interview with Le Carre that took place in 2002 and was included in the “Tinker Tailor” package. There also are several deleted scenes, a Le Carre biography and bibliography, production notes and a booklet with a glossary of characters and terms.

The Walking Dead: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
Sons of Anarchy: Season Five: Blu-ray
Twenty years ago, if a maverick network executive had pitched series that revolve around the zombie apocalypse and an anti-heroic motorcycle gang, he would have been carted off to the woodshed and forced to watch reruns of “My Mother the Car” and “The McLean Stevenson Show.” Today, that same broadcast executive would be given the courtesy of a polite refusal before being laughed out of the office. In the world of cable television, though, crazy ideas are bounced off the wall every day. Some of them even stick. “The Walking Dead” and “Sons of Anarchy” are two such unusual concepts. Neither series has been given its due by Emmy voters, except in technical categories, even though critics, fans and other guilds and industry groups have been effusive in their praise.

The third season of “The Walking Dead” opens with the group that escaped the farm eyeing an occupied prison as their new home and a safe place for Lori to deliver her baby. Naturally, the walkers have other plans for the survivors. Meanwhile, a different group of survivors discovers a safe haven in Woodbury, which is ruled by a new character, the Governor (David Morrisey), who isn’t enthusiastic about the prospects of newcomers dividing up his pie. Hostilities between the Governor and Rick’s prison survivors lead to a battle royal. Many critics consider Season Three to be the best one, yet. The new season will begin October 13 on AMC, with a new show-runner and a few additional characters to replace those who really do die. The Blu-ray adds commentaries, deleted scenes, a French-language track, Spanish subtitles and an hour’s worth of making-of featurettes.

The big news in Season Five of “Sons of Anarchy” comes in the form of Jimmy Smits, who plays the owner of a Central Valley brothel whose girls look as if they would be a better fit in a Manhattan or Las Vegas escort service. Clearly, Hollywood has no use for hookers who they couldn’t take home to mom. Smits’ Nero Padilla doesn’t know what kind of fire he’s playing with when he begins socializing (a.k.a., screwing) with Clay’s estranged wife, Gemma. Although she seems all too willing to play the unattached skank, Gemma isn’t at all reluctant to watch Clay put his life on the line for her honor. She’s also is desperate to drive a wedge between Tara and Jax, using Wendy as the tool. Meanwhile, various members of SAMCRO are thrown into prison, brutalized by guards and cops, instigate trouble between rival gangs and commit crimes. More happens in one episode of “Sons of Anarchy” than entire seasons of other hour-long dramas. The more episodes you’ve watched, the more sense all of it makes. Miss a season and catching up will cost you more than a couple hours of your time perusing these compilations. The Blu-ray edition adds commentaries, deleted scenes, gag reels, fan-appreciation pieces and character “good-byes.”

Me and My Gal
American Guerrilla in the Philippines
A Walk With Love and Death
A Flea in Her Ear
The Fiend Who Walked the West
Contemporary screenwriters and directors would do well to study the films in Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment’s “Fox Cinema Archives.” Although the word “classic” is thrown around like a Frisbee at picnic these days, there’s usually something in these golden oldies that’s worth absorbing and, more to the point, enjoying. Fox launched the Archives” collection in 2012, offering titles manufactured on demand, using DVD-R recordable media. They are available through such catalog and retail sites as Amazon, Movies Unlimited, JustClassicMovies, LovingTheClassics and other Internet outlets. Considering the age of most of the films, they don’t look much the worse for the wear. Still, buffs should know that not all of the transfers are of the highest order and original aspects sometimes have been ignored. Because bonus features are practically non-existent, apart from trailers, the prices are kept affordable. The movies in the 200-plus-title collection speak for themselves.

I can’t remember when I’ve laughed as much I did while watching an American rom-com, as I did during director Raoul Walsh and writer Arthur Kober’s “Me and My Gal.” The snappy repartee between Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, along with the animated delivery of their lines, is something rarely seen today. It saves the 1932 picture from being drowned in the perfunctory melodrama of a prison escape and bank heist. Tracy plays a hilariously self-assured cop, whose beat includes waterfront dives teeming with drunken stevedores and other unsavory types. After some antagonistic verbal foreplay between the cop and Bennett’s platinum-haired waitress, they discover how well suited they are for each other … which, blessedly, doesn’t end the bickering. Although newly married, the waitress’ sister (Marion Burns) carries a torch for a meaty gangster about to escape from stir. Conveniently, she works at the bank his gang plans to rob. Forget all that, however, and focus on the dialogue and witty pre-Code sexual innuendo.

If “An American Guerrilla in the Philippines” looks different than most other post-World War II movies, credit direct Fritz Lang and Fox’s decision to shoot it in Technicolor, on location in the Philippines, using extras who lived through the Japanese occupation. It is based on the experiences of Iliff Richardson, who had the distinction of being both a U.S. Navy ensign and U.S. Army major while fighting with the islands’ resistance. Tyrone Power plays him here, with Tom Ewell, Micheline Presle and Jack Elam in supporting roles. Despite the fact that Lang practically disowned the movie, buffs will recognize his hand on the rudder and enjoy “American Guerilla” for the patriotic rouser that it is. Indeed, Daryl F. Zanuck insisted in rushing post-production to release the picture ahead of the Korean War. No favors were done viewers by collapsing the aspect to fit TV’s full-frame format, as the Technicolors frequently blur in the translation.

Even loyal fans of John Huston’s movies should be forgiven if they’ve missed “A Walk With Life and Death,” a costume rom-dram set during the Hundred Years War. Based on a novel by Hans Koningsberger, the lushly shot movie is best when Huston was able to take advantage of the Italian and Austrian locations. Angelica Huston (John’s daughter) and Assi Dayan (Moshe’s son) play a pair of free-spirited lovers trapped in a repressive culture more attuned to war than peace. Hello, the movie was released in 1969. After peasants ravage Lady Claudia’s castle, she takes up with a wandering student who believes that he’s been “called” to the sea. Along the way, they witness scenes of carnage and intolerance. It’s easy to see why Huston was drawn to this story of star-crossed lovers, which plays out against a realistically medieval backdrop, especially since it served as his daughter’s first lead role. Alas, as was the case with Sofia Coppola in “Godfather III,” Angelica proved not to be ready for prime time. But, then, neither did Dayan. Both would go on to do bigger things in better roles, however.

The New York Times took apart Jacques Charon’s adaptation of the classic Georges Feydeau farce, “A Flea in Her Ear,” when it opened in 1968. Vincent Canby described Charon’s pacing as “elephantine,” compared to his recent staging of John Mortimer’s English translation for Britain’s National Theater Company. It’s the movie’s superb cast that makes “A Flea in Her Ear” worth revisiting today. Rosemary Harris plays a woman who suspects that her husband (Rex Harrison) is having an affair, so she sets a trap for him. Being a farce, nothing is likely to turn out as planned. Louis Jourdan and Rachel Roberts round out the list of key players.

The Fiend Who Walked the West” is Gordon Douglas’ remake of the classic 1947 noir, “Kiss of Death,” with Hugh O’Brian as the crook seeking redemption and Robert Evans as the “kooky killer.” In 1958, O’Brian was midway through his tenure as TV’s Wyatt Earp, while Evans had just completed “The Sun Also Rises” and “Man of a Thousand Faces.” This was a good 10 years before Evans would become the wunderkind producer at Paramount. Here, his sociopathic character, Felix, benefits from sharing a cell with O’Brian’s blabbermouth bank robber. Once on the outside, Felix heads straight for the loot missing from the heist, but not without killing some solid citizens along the way. The robber is released from jail in an effort to re-capture or kill the greater threat to society and protect his family. Evans never considered himself to be a good actor, but he’s fun to watch here.

Legend of the Goatman
Anyone aspiring to stardom in the horror game would do well to pay attention to the alarmist docu-dramas dished out on a regular basis by Reality Entertainment. By appearing to take reports of paranormal and supernatural phenomenology and mythic creatures seriously—financially speaking, at least—the company provides templates for aspiring filmmakers looking for ideas for genre flicks. It’s up to them, however, to create something new and different from the legends dramatized and “expert” testimony proffered. “Legend of the Goatman: Horrifying Monsters, Cryptids and Ghosts” introduces us to some new creatures, while re-introducing such golden oldies as the Goatman and Sasquatch (a.k.a., cryptids). I’ll leave it to viewers to judge the veracity of the expert testimony and first-person sightings, but the witnesses don’t wear aluminum-foil hats to work or demand that we believe their reports … or else. Besides the Goatman and Sasquatch legends, this anthology also offers some hocus-pocus about famous regional ghosts.

 

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Amour: Blu-ray
No movie released in 2012 scored higher marks among critics and festival judges than Michael Haneke’s emotionally draining “Amour.” It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Oscar and BAFTA awards in the academies’ foreign-language ghettoes. If “Amour” faced a commercial roadblock outside France and, perhaps, Haneke’s native Austria, it’s only because the film deals with a subject few people find to be particularly entertaining: how we deal with the debilitating illness of a loved one. Even if couldn’t have been handled any more honestly than it is in “Amour,” there are only a very few cities in which it would qualify as an appropriate date movie or enjoyable night out on the town. On the other hand, you won’t find another movie that so clearly demonstrates what it means for two people to be in love, no matter their age. Sarah Polley’s similarly touching “Away From Her,” with Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent, tread much the same territory in 2006 and came away with equally brilliant Metacritic ratings. Anyone who could handle the drama in “Away From Her” should have no trouble handling “Amour.” It does pay dividends, though, to prepare for the experience ahead of time.

French acting legends Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant deliver tour-de-force performances as retired music professors Anne and Georges. The morning after spending an enjoyable evening at the recital of a former student, Anne experiences what likely was a small stroke. No fan of hospitals, she resists seeing their doctor. Not long thereafter, Anne suffers a far more devastating stroke, which leaves her paralyzed on the right side of her body. The furthest Georges will go toward finding full-time care for her is hiring nurses to see to her daily needs. This isn’t out of any disregard for her condition, however. He truly believes that he can do a better job of taking care of his wife than anyone else. When he senses that Anne isn’t being treated in the most caring way possible, he insults and fires a nurse with otherwise impeccable references. The fact is, however, that Georges can’t handle the demands of the task and it’s his love for Anne that has blinded him to the truth. He also begins to recall things from their life together in ways that confuse reality with fantasy. In one especially poignant scene, he appears to wistfully watch Anne play the piano. It isn’t until he surprises us by clicking off the amplifier behind his head, however, do we understand how far his own condition has declined due to fatigue and sadness. Isabelle Huppert, still amazing at 60, plays their all-business daughter, Eva, who is at first unhappy with her father’s stoicism, then becomes unnerved by his efforts to isolate Anne.

Because Haneke is, by now, confident of his audiences’ ability to appreciate what he’s attempting to do on film, he takes chances that few directors would dare. To dramatize Georges’ slide into grief-induced madness, he asked Trintignant to orchestrate the movements of a pigeon that finds its way into the anteroom of their apartment. It’s a bit strange, but Trintignant makes the conceit work wonderfully. Neither is Haneke reluctant to slow down the clock on his characters. It allows them to spend more time with each other, even as the inevitable looms around every corner. It almost goes without saying how brilliant the acting is in “Amour.” The 82-year-old Trintignant came out of virtual retirement to take the role, which was written with him in mind by Haneke, and, at 85, Riva became the oldest Best Actress nominee in Academy Award history. The Blu-ray adds an entertaining making-of featurette and funny post-screening Q&A with Haneke. –

Floating City: Blu-ray
Most Americans will remember the anxiety that preceded the handover of Hong Kong by the British to China, in 1997, and the relief that followed when the Special Administrative Region of the PRC grew even richer and more welcoming. Co-writer-director Yim Ho, a key figure in the Hong Kong New Wave Movement of the 1970s-80s, uses “Floating City” to comment on the variables at play in the transition and how they impacted one family of resident “boat people.” We meet Bo Wah Chuen (Aaron Kwok) as a young boy, having been sold by his mother for $500 after being raped by a British sailor. As a mixed-race member of the minority Tanka community, Bo already had two strikes against him. The British colonists and the native Chinese treat him as if he belongs on a boat, selling fish to make ends meet. A rough encounter with his stepfather convinces Bo to take a chance on a future on dry land. Although illiterate, he lands a position on the bottom rung of the ladder at the Imperial East India Company. As a company that had been integrally involved in the island’s commercial development since the early 1800s, its future remains a question throughout most of “Floating City.” Through dogged perseverance and a commitment to support his family, Bo dedicates himself not only to find a “home” with the company, but also ignore the racism and elitism that continually conspire to keep him down.

Long story short, the closer the story gets to the actual turnover, the more responsibility Bo is given in the company. It’s possible, of course, that part of his rise can be attributed to the Brits’ need to smooth the transition to new economic realities. We know that he deserves everything given him. Bo also delivers on the promise he made to his stepfather that he would take care of the family through thick and thin. This includes making a home for his stepmother, siblings and wife away from the boats, a reality as foreign to them as it could possibly be. His children will grow up in the lap of relative luxury. Not surprisingly, “Floating City” pulls all sorts of emotional strings on its audience. If it finds any traction in the U.S., it likely would be among viewers in the Asian-American community. (And, no, martial arts and wirework don’t figure in the story.) Although the prejudices Bo is forced to overcome shouldn’t surprise viewers, Yim does a nice job showing off corners of Hong Kong most visitors don’t see on screen or in person. There’s also some interesting interplay between the sophisticated UCLA-educated temptress, Fion (Annie Lau), who takes it upon herself to prepare Bo for a new life among the island’s “elite.” The time Bo shares on-screen with the three adult women in his life also is the most rewarding for viewers. –

This Is Martin Bonner

Heart of the Country

Even if hardly anything exciting happens in this unexpectedly contemplative and emotionally tempered second feature from Chad Hartigan, the weight of the world seems to rest on the shoulders of its protagonists. The only thing Martin Bonner and Travis Holloway have in common is their pursuit of a second chance in a world that passes by them with the speed of a semi hauling ass through Reno on its way to somewhere else. In the hands of veteran Australian actor Paul Eenhoorn, Martin is a former preacher who left the church when he discovered that he had nothing more to say about Jesus or anything else. After divorcing his wife and saying goodbye to his two grown children, he struggled to find a job that would satisfy his intellect and put some money in his bank account. Nothing happened. He finally found work as a volunteer with a Christian-based agency that supports released prisoners as they attempt to adjust to freedom. I hope the word “Christian-based” doesn’t make you hit the delete button, because there’s very little bible-banging in “This Is Martin Bonner” and what there is of it fits naturally within the context of the story.

Martin meets Travis (Richmond Arquette, the least familiar of the Arquette brood) outside the gates of the prison in which he’s been spending the last 12 years for vehicular manslaughter. His counselor couldn’t make the trip and Martin was happy to take his place. The program provides Travis with a room and a reference while he’s looking for what almost certainly will be a minimum-wage job. Based on what we’ve seen in other dramas in which men seek redemption for misdeeds, we continually wait for the messy flashbacks, backsliding and angry outbursts to arrive here, as well. They don’t. When Travis asks Martin to become his counselor, in lieu of his current Jesus-praising adviser, he does so politely and without malice. Martin not only sees in Travis a potential friend, companion and project, but also a way to practice the form of Christianity that drew him to a vocation in the first place. The closest thing to action comes when Travis’ college-age daughter arrives in Reno and their reunion nearly ends before it begins. “This Is Martin Bonner” is both a mood piece and portrait of people we hardly ever meet in the movies, anymore. It’s easy to see how it might have won an Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance, yet still not be deemed sufficiently commercial to warrant a wide release. In DVD, the financial risk is minimal. It comes with commentary and background pieces.

Heart of the Country,” on the other hand, is faith-based in the way we’ve come to except such films in the sub-genre. Typically, a bible parable is appropriated as a plot device, around which is built a contemporary story that teaches the same lesson. It is done in way that won’t offend those Christian viewers who don’t believe Satan is the chief financier of the industry. Once again, the parable adapted in North Carolina-based filmmaker John Ward’s weepy melodrama is the evergreen story of the Prodigal Son. In this case, however, the absentee child is a young woman, Faith, played by singer and star of “One Tree Hill,” Jana Kramer. Years earlier, Faith married an ethically challenged Wall Street wheel-dealer, Luke (Randy Wayne), who faces prison time for his non-active part in a Ponzi scheme. No longer the toast of Manhattan, Faith decides to return to her father’s comfortable rural home, the harsh judgments of her condescending sister and holier-than-thou neighbors who aren’t reluctant to chastise her for seeking a divorce.

Her dad (Gerald McRaney) has no trouble accepting Faith back into the fold, but he would prefer it if she and her husband devoted themselves to healing the marriage than starting anew. As far as I can tell, Luke’s greatest sin was not telling Faith what was happening at work and why he wouldn’t rat out his superiors. How many men would? All too conveniently, Dad is diagnosed with brain cancer and the best surgeon her estranged husband’s money can afford is in New York. Luke doesn’t hesitate to help her, even if his social and professional cachet doesn’t cut much ice, anymore. Dad doesn’t especially want to undergo an operation that probably wouldn’t help his condition much, anyway, but the trip to New York with Faith could provide him an excuse for meeting the son-in-law he never met. The only other complicating factor is the presence of a handsome country doctor (Shaun Sipos), who would seem to be a perfect fit for Faith, but could end up the odd-man-out in her father’s meddling. “Heart of the Country” is only as good as it has to be, but, for the target audience, that might be enough to make them happy. The DVD adds a music video from Kramer. –

Redline

Who said people in Los Angeles don’t use public transportation? In the claustrophobic tick-tock thriller, “Redline,” several passengers of the Metro Red Line, which runs from Union Station to Universal City, are stuck in a subway train that is derailed and demolished by a terrorist bomb. Among the survivors, one is non-fatally impaled by seat fragment and others are trapped in various odd positions in their cars. One guy is surprised to discover the body of his wife, who supposedly has claustrophobia and probably would be reluctant to ride a train in any circumstance. When one of the survivors comes across a ticking IED in a first-aid kit, speculation arises that a terrorist is still alive and the first bomb went off prematurely. Naturally, suspicion rests on the guy who most looks like a terrorist. That he’s both Portuguese and a train buff – which explains the documents in his knapsack – are the only excuses needed to qualify for a beating by a fellow passenger. If he’s not the terrorist, a possibility we’ve already dismissed as too obvious, it could only be one of a half-dozen other riders. They have 16 minutes of movie time to figure it out or the second device could explode. Or, there could be a third, fourth or fifth bomb.

Although director Robby Kirbyson and co-writer Tara Stone’s screenplay reads as if it were written according to the not-terribly-rigid specifications of the average Syfy or Lifetime movie, Kirbyson’s production values are well above average for this sort of thing. Frankly, it wasn’t until watching the making-featurette did I learn that the crew members and other behind-the-camera talent represented students and faculty of John Paul the Great Catholic University, including teacher Kirbyson and student Stone. (I hadn’t heard of the San Diego school, either, but it offers a MBA degree with a tight focus on film production.) The lack of experience helps explain such silly dialogue as, “They’re probably going to make a movie about this someday and I’ve always wanted to play a hero.” Neither did the writers see fit to include more than one African-American and Hispanic character, each. Hello, this is L.A. and the public transit system is largely supported by minority and blue-collar riders. Then, too, as earthquake-prone as the city is, its early responders take a criminally long time to establish contact. Despite these improbabilities, “Redline” hangs together surprisingly well, with a decent air of tension sustained throughout. –

Highland Park

With a cast of indie all-stars topped by Danny Glover, Parker Posey and Billy Burke, “Highland Park” is the kind of movie in which multiple, interwoven storylines come together in the final reel, rewarding the viewers’ patience and willingness to play along with the director’s conceit … or not. It is set in the small Detroit enclave of the same name, which is in nearly the same horrible financial shape as the rest of the city. Like almost everyone else whose paychecks are guaranteed by taxpayers, a group of high school faculty members face the loss of their workplace and incomes. For the last 10 years, they’ve played the same Powerball numbers and, in the unlikely event that they hit, intend to use the money to save their school and finance other civic programs. Well, guess what, the numbers do hit, but, and I’m not giving much away here, Glover’s character decided to play the ones suggested to him by a fortune cookie, instead. Trouble is, in the time it takes for Glover to return home from a fishing trip and deliver the bad news, the teachers and the town’s corrupt mayor have begun announcing plans for their windfall. What can they do next, besides contemplate suicide? Stay tuned. Given the built-in limitations of the scenario, “Highland Park” is a reasonably entertaining picture. Ironically, the movie’s greatest asset is the backdrop of urban decay provided by the city of Detroit and the arsonists who’ve left their fingerprints on every gutted building on view. –

Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey

Welcome to the Machine

Level 42: Live

When lightning strikes, it’s a good idea to have a bottle around to catch it. If the remaining members of the hugely popular 1980s rock band, Journey, had been paying attention in the weeks leading up to June 10, 2007, they might have been able to capitalize on a decision that was the TV equivalent of a lightning bolt out of the blue. Who could have known that David Chase would choose the band’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” as the last song Tony Soprano heard before the screen went black and the series ended. While Chase didn’t make any friends by ending one of the greatest series of all time with giant question mark, sales and downloads of “Don’t Stop Believin’” went through the roof. Unfortunately, Journey was between lead singers at the time and couldn’t capitalize on their great good luck by arranging a quick tour. Former lead singer Steve Perry had left the group in 1998 and the voice of his replacement, Steve Augeri, finally gave out in 2006. In the next 18 months, Journey went through two more lead singers. Ramona Diaz’ heart-warming, “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey,” tells the story of how the still highly popular band discovered the singer who’s been with them since December 2007. It’s a doozy.

As had happened with the recently departed Johnny Hunsicker, guitarist and co-founder Neil Schon turned to the Internet, where he found covers of the band’s songs being sung by one Arnel Pineda in Manila. Pineda was a journeyman (no pun intended) singer-songwriter with the Filipino club band, Zoo, and his gift for mimicking Perry and other rock gods impressed Schon enough for him to send an e-mail. After being convinced that the message was genuine, Pineda agreed to fly to Marin County for a nerve-wracking two-day audition. By joining Journey, Pineda automatically became the second most-recognized Filipino in the world, behind boxer Manny Pacquiao. Both men share similar rags-to-riches stories. And, yes, Pineda’s voice and long black hair make him a dead-ringer for Perry, at least from the cheap seats. Diaz followed Pineda most of the way from Manila to Marin to stardom on the arena-rock circuit. Fans will enjoy the close-up look at their favorite band on stage, in the studio, on the bus and at home, as well as the generous helping of music. Non-believers are free to wonder why Diaz decided to leave out the blemishes, if any, that usually accompany all such supergroups. Fact is, though, after 30 or 40 years on the road – Pineda’s career began, at 15, in 1981—some rockers do grow up and act their age. The bonus package includes backstage footage and an interview with Diaz.

The frenetically edited “Welcome to the Machine” opens with an oft-repeated quote from Hunter S. Thompson, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” In fact, Thompson was commenting on the television industry at the time, but his toxic observation applies just as well to the recording industry. In compiling a “12 Commandments” of the music business, director Andreas Steinkogler has provided aspiring rockers and pop artists with a primer on what to expect on the road to stardom, failure or compromise. He accomplishes it by collecting quotes from dozens of artists he’s interviewed as they toured Europe and made themselves available to him for purposes other than to plug their new albums. They literally represent a United Nations of rock, pop, dance and R&B. Among them are Kim Wilde, Fatboy Slim, Cypress Hill, Bloodhound Gang, Kool and the Gang, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Lydia Lunch, Megadeth, Melissa auf der Maur, Poppa Roach, Uriah Heep and Nada Surf. Also represented are video directors, journalists, educators and label executives. Even if “WTTM” doesn’t pull any punches, I can’t imagine that any wannabe stars would be dissuaded by anything they see and hear in the music- and video-filled documentary, and that’s a good thing.

I don’t know how much attention was paid the British pop/funk/jazz ensemble, Level 42, at the height of its popularity in 1980-90s, but I’m told that it didn’t have any trouble selling albums and attracting fans to concerts. By the time “Level 42: Live” was committed to videotape in 1992, only Mark King and Mike Lindup were left from the original 1980 lineup. This didn’t prevent the group from performing a dozen of their Top 40 hits and some new material. The film was shot at London’s sold-out Town and Country Club at the end of their “Guaranteed” tour. –

Tortoise in Love

Much of what happens in this lighter-the-air rom-com could easily be mistaken for a “Monty Python” skit about the peculiar pastimes of rural Brits. This would include the re-enactment of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by the women of the Barley Townswomen’s Guild sketch. “Tortoise in Love” takes place in and around a stately mansion in Kingston Bagpuize, Oxfordshire. (A Pythonian name if I ever heard one.) Apparently, the men of the village are notorious for their inability to court the local lovelies in ways generally accepted to be effective elsewhere. Tom, the mansion’s gardener, is considered to be quite a catch. Because he takes the advice of his friends and male co-workers, though, he nearly fails to connect with the Polish au pair, Anya, who takes care of the mansion owner’s frightfully neglected son and takes an immediate shine to him. Anya is to Tom, then, what a rabbit is to a tortoise. Fortunately for the slowpoke, Aesop’s Fables have been translated into Polish, so she knows what to expect of her intended and waits for him to catch up to her. The nice thing about Guy Browning’s debut feature, besides the swell scenery, is the fact that financing was crowd-sourced by local companies and residents, many of whom are extras in it. Anyone who enjoyed “Calendar Girls” and “Saving Grace” should find something to like in this unpretentious rom-com. –

Drinking Games

The most obvious difference between going on a blind date and being assigned a roommate in college is the likelihood that a bad date will end soon and you’ll never see that person again. Getting university housing officials to approve a divorce between roommates is exponentially more difficult. Even worse, the friends of an incompatible roommate tend to be more bothersome than the roommate himself … or herself, as the case may be. They, too, are part of the nightmare. “Drinking Games” is set in a college dorm as a major storm has begun to form and almost all of the residents have left town for Christmas break. Unlike everyone else stuck in the dorm this night, Richard (Blake Merriman) needs to finish a term paper before his vacation can begin. Without asking for Richard’s permission, his roommate, Shawn (Nick Vergara), has volunteered the use of their living space for an annual party for stragglers. Shawn is the kind of guy who brags about his sexual prowess, but has remained a virgin for the entirety of the first semester. The 800-pound gorilla in the dorm room isn’t easy to see, at first, because it’s represented by the comatose body of Shawn’s obnoxious friend, Noopie (Rob Bradford).

Noopie is the kind of world-class party animal, who, while not unattractive, would have a hard time getting laid if it weren’t for his willingness to share his cocaine. He also is known campus-wide for his boozy concoctions, whose secret ingredient is the date-rape drug, Rohypnol. Before Richard can talk Shawn into moving the party to another room, Shawn wakes up and gathers a group of his friends to begin the festivities. By this time in the narrative, I’m expecting “Drinking Games” to turn into a quickie “National Lampoon Goes Back to College” comedy. Instead, Noopie’s menacing behavior, especially towards the few women in attendance, shifts the tone dramatically in the direction of a horror/thriller. It’s entirely possible that Noopie already has flunked out of school and has nothing to lose by being a bully, so, the more he ingests, the scarier he allows himself to become. Ryan Gielen adapted “Drinking Games” from Merriman’s off-Broadway play, “DORM.” It’s available as a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R through Amazon and other retail outlets. –

Hitting the Cycle

It’s almost too easy to make a movie about a professional ballplayer that can’t face the fact that he’s lost a couple of inches on his fastball or begun to find rust on his swing. Lately, the formula demands that such a character turns to the bottle to sharpen his edge, which never happens, or return to his hometown to find something missing in his life, which often does. The trouble comes in the character’s belief that a baseball player away from the diamond is just another fish out of water. You could write an opera about an over-the-hill soccer player in any language, besides English, and the same message would come through loud and clear. In “Hitting the Cycle,” Rip has just been released from his team – probably in the same league as the Durham Bulls – in part because he’s injured his knee and refuses to undergo an operation. Conveniently, a day after he’s dropped, he receives a call from his sister-in-law informing him of the hospitalization of his father (Bruce Dern). The crusty old man is a local legend, but he did something to his son that caused them to be estranged to the point that he skipped his brother’s wedding, rather than return home. Writer/co-director/star J. Richey Nash looks every bit the part of a professional athlete, even as he’s pouring booze down his throat and bedding teenage she-fans. Despite the movie’s familiarity and Rip’s moody personality, “Hitting the Cycle” is easy to watch and delivers a positive message about the power of redemption and forgiveness. It’s one that wouldn’t be lost on the Major Leagues players who recently were suspended for taking performance-enhancing drugs. –

Wither

An American Ghost Story

Scary MoVie: Unrated: Blu-ray

The Cloth

Unlike dozens of other horror flicks that followed in bloody wake of Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead (1982), “Wither” is a down-and-dirty gorefest from Sweden that doesn’t waste any time getting to the business at hand. Where most of the wannabes spend at least 15 minutes setting up the first act of violence perpetrated against a group of young people hoping to spend a quiet weekend in the woods, “Wither” opens with the twin-killing of a demon-possessed ghoul and the girl who once loved him. As we suspect, the guy who blows off their heads is her father. Not long thereafter, the rifle-toting woodsman uses the incident as a cautionary tale for the city-slickers who have taken up quarters in an abandoned cabin with a secret in the basement. Naturally, they think the geezer is nuts. That is, until one of their own begins exhibiting the symptoms of becoming a demon-possessed ghoul with a hunger for her friends’ flesh. As soon as the woman stricken with the curse takes a nip out of another vacationer, that person becomes infected with the same lust for blood. In this way, all but one member will have to be sacrificed for the good of the group and appetite of the monster. They don’t die easily, either. If the formula is familiar, co-directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund’s execution is what sets “Wither” apart from similar pictures, which delay the bloodletting with shower scenes, drunken revelry or fake jump scares. The Swedes simply cut to the chase. Amateur horror buffs should know that Laguna and Wiklund don’t pull any punches when it comes to gore. This one isn’t for those with weak stomachs. The DVD arrives with a half-hour making-of featurette and deleted scene.

The concept behind “An American Ghost Story” can be summed up pretty neatly by a good-news/bad-news joke. Boyfriend says, “The good news is that I love you and want you move into the house I’ve just rented” When she says “OK,” but wants to hear the bad news before committing, he replies, “The address is 112 Ocean Avenue, in Amityville, New York.” Except for the location, that pretty much sums up what to expect in director Derek Cole and writer-star Stephen Twardokus’ tasty little thriller from Breaking Glass Pictures. Paul is a writer looking for a break when he decides to rent a house in which a terrible multiple murder occurred several years earlier. Even if it is haunted, he thinks he can deal with the ghosts of owners past. It doesn’t take long for Paul’s girlfriend to bail on the experiment, though. After hearing loud noises and witnessing some unexplainable phenomena, she was on the next bus home. Paul decides not to wimp out on the project, choosing, instead, to reason with the demons. We’re not talking about Casper, here, so it’s a decision he soon begins to regret. The result is an extremely satisfying genre flick, with plenty of thrills, chills and surprises. Besides the lack of proper lighting in the house – or Paul simply forgetting to turn on the lights – “American Ghost Story” benefits from a soundtrack full of creepy cello music and loud noises designed specifically to make viewers jump. And, we do.

The parodies in the intermittent “Scary Movie” series make just enough money to ensure another one will be released in the next three to seven years. The problem, I suppose, is that there aren’t all that many horror movies worth satirizing these days and, with only a few exceptions, the A- and B-list actors anxious to be in the parodies is dwindling. By far the most entertaining moment in “Scary MoVie” (a.k.a., “Scary Movie 5”) comes in the sexual pas-de-deux between Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan before the opening credits roll. Neither of the actors appears to be taking themselves or their degraded reputations over-seriously here and it works in their favor. As for what happens after their prelude, one need only peruse of list of targets to guess how “Scary Movie” might play out: “Paranormal Activity,” “Mama,” “Sinister,” “The Evil Dead,” “Inception,” “Black Swan” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Any horror fan probably could write a reasonably similar script simply with those titles in mind. That the one used was penned by Pat Proft and Jerry Zucker (“Naked Gun”) didn’t save “Scary MoVie” from being roasted by the critics. Viewers with less stringent standards to uphold likely will be more forgiving. Besides Sheen and Lohan, the cast includes Ashley Tisdale, Snoop Dogg, Katt Williams, Katrina Bowden, Kate Walsh, Heather Locklear, Molly Shannon, Terry Crews, Simon Rex, Jerry O’Connell, Shad Moss, Kate Walsh, Sarah Hyland and Mike Tyson. The Blu-ray adds deleted and extended scenes.

Chronically cool Danny Trejo and 1986 Oscar nominee Eric Roberts get top-billing on the cover of “The Cloth,” a horror-comedy about exorcisms in the 21st Century. If you put a stopwatch against the actors’ combined screen time, however, it would be less than the average “Roadrunner” cartoon. Both play priests in the war against Satan, but, get this, Trejo’s character is Irish. “The Cloth” opens with a not-bad exorcism, right out of the 1973 classic, in which Trejo is killed by the demon. The rest of the story involved discovering new ways to counter an epidemic of possessions. Enlisted in the war are two young men and a woman who operate in cavern underneath a church. The woman (Perla Rodriguez) speaks in a voice so low it doesn’t register on the decibel meter. One of the men (Kyler Willett) is an atheist, whose father was a longtime crusader against the devil, while the other (Cameron White) is an expert in making transformer-like weapons with crosses on them and grenades full of holy water. It’s entirely possible that what happens in “The Cloth” is intentionally funny and writer/director Justin Price is using it as an audition for a gig with the “Scary Movie” franchise.

In an interesting coincidence, Trejo began his movie career as drug counselor, boxing coach and convict extra on “Runaway Train,” the movie for which Roberts was nominated. Director Andrey Konshalovskiy offered him a better assignment, opposite Roberts in a fight sequence, after watching him coach the picture’s star. While serving time in San Quentin, he won the prison’s lightweight and welterweight boxing titles. The DVD’s bonus package adds a making-of featurette, another one on the weaponry, deleted and alternate scenes, and the “Hell and Back” music video.

American Sasquatch Hunters: Bigfoot in America

Fear the Forest

For people who dedicate most of their non-working hours to the pursuit of something most others consider insane, a very thick skin may be the only defense they’ll ever have against ridicule. In “American Sasquatch Hunters: Bigfoot in America,” J. Michael Long introduces us to several men, primarily, who absolutely believe in the existence of the humanoid creature, “Bigfoot” or “Sasquatch.” They do this even in the absence of irrefutable prove of its existence. Some say they’ve been in the presence of the legendary beast, while others accept other people’s accounts as fact. They point to large plaster casts of footprints found in the Pacific Northwest and, increasingly, other areas with thick forests. There’s also the famous Patterson-Gimlin film, which, in 1967, seemed to show an apelike creature in its native habitat. It has since been examined with the same close scrutiny accorded the Shroud of Turin and 486 frames of an 8mm home movie taken of the soon-to-be-late President Kennedy by Abraham Zapruder. Sasquatch hunters believe that modern digital and forensics technology will allow them to follow-up on reports of sightings and scientifically sift through evidence left behind it. If precious little of that has been collected, either, it hasn’t stopped these outwardly normal and seemingly credible researchers from seeking it. “Bigfoot in America” is from the same Reality Entertainment that, for the last seven years, has been churning out low-budget documentaries and docudramas on supernatural and other unexplained phenomena. It is hosted by a believer who looks suspiciously like John Goodman in “The Big Lebowski.”

And, speaking of Bigfoot, there are several good reasons why the pros make the big bucks … in sports, on the stage and in movies. None are on view in the DIY monstrosity, “Fear the Forest.” This Sasquatch non-thriller might have gotten a B- as a high-school AV project, but, as for being ready for prime time, it’s not. The only good reason for mentioning “Fear the Forest” is that Bigfoot buffs might be directed to it in a Google or IMDB.com search and be so angered by what they see that they threaten to take legal action on the behalf of their beloved monster. For the record, though, a Sasquatch-looking beast has long been terrifying campers in the forests of northern New Jersey. After a lull of 10 years, it appears to have returned from its vacation in the Pacific Northwest and is killing young adults looking for a good time in the woods, one of whom (the other Anna Kendrick) is the governor’s daughter. Or, has it? Dozens of in-bred locals and bounty hunters also are roaming the forest, so anything is possible. The best part of the package is a making-of featurette, part of which actually would be helpful to aspiring makeup-effects artists.

Q: The Winged Serpent: Blu-ray

X-Ray/Schizoid: Blu-ray

Re-watching “Q” from a distance of nearly 30 years begs the question as to whether – all other things being equal—a 2013 remake would benefit from a much higher budget, extensive CGI effects and a more high-profile cast? For the answer, one only needs to look to Peter Jackson’s remake of “King Kong,” Devlin/Emmerich’s “Godzilla,” Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes,” Frank Oz’ “Stepford Wives” and Joe Johnston’s “The Wolfman” … or don’t. From nearly any angle you choose, they don’t measure up to the original and neither would “The Return of Q.” The more money a studio spends on a remake, the fewer chances are taken and less spontaneous are the performances. Or, to put it a different way, if a low-budget indie makes a modest $20 million at the box office, it’s considered hit in the eyes of the producers, who may never have expected a return ranging from 10 to 20 times their original investment. For a mega-budget adaptation to make the same claim, it probably would have to clear $2 billion in the international marketplace. Moreover, critics and genre buffs would expect nothing less than a movie that looks as if it cost $200 million to make and market, not merely a “guilty pleasure.”

Although, the newly retitled “Q: The Winged Serpent” easily qualifies as a guilty pleasure, it can stand on its own merits as a creature feature. Unlike “Rodan,” “Godzilla” and other movies in which the monsters are a byproduct of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the appearance of a giant killer lizard in the skies above New York has something to do with a museum exhibit of native Mexican artifacts, many of which were inspired by the Aztec plumed-serpent deity, Quetzalcoatl. The creature, whose lair is far atop the Art-Deco Chrysler Building, has only recently begun to feast on humans it finds working or tanning (topless, of course) on Manhattan high-rises. Indeed, as writer/director Larry Cohen explain in his commentary, the production had direct access to the highest reaches of the magnificent tower, where its giant metal bird heads may have lured Q. After a diamond heist blows up in his face, Michael Moriarty’s sad-sack crook, Jimmy, takes refuge in the same perch. It will come in handy when he needs to shake the hoodlums who set him up for botched job, and when he needs to cut a deal with the cops who can’t seem to discover where the killer Q is hiding and why. That’s a pretty good setup for a movie that might have languished forever in grindhouses, drive-ins and VHS purgatory. Instead, it benefited from some decent reviews and marketing material that pushed all the right buttons. And, it’s still fun to watch, with or without the entertaining commentary track engaged. Moriarty is joined here by David Carradine, Richard Roundtree, Candy Clark, Malachy McCourt, a dozen or so off-duty New York cops and Dodger infielder Ron “Penguin” Cey, of all people.

One of things that makes “X-Ray” unique among 1980s slasher/stalker flicks is its dubious distinction of having two other titles, “Hospital Massacre” and “Be My Valentine … Or Else.” It is paired with “Schizoid” in a new Scream Factory double-feature package on Blu-ray. Unlike many slasher movies that fail to live up to sub-genre expectations, both feature a high and gory death toll. In “X-ray,” the primary attraction is the appearance of Hugh Hefner’s former girlfriend Barbi Benton, until she grew too old for his tastes, and her boobs. She plays a recent divorcee, who is dropped off a hospital to pick up the results of a physical she needs for a new job. When someone purposefully switches her x-rays, however, Susan is checked in further study. Unless one forgets that everything here, including the opening flashback, takes place on Valentine’s Day, it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s behind the series of gruesome murders. If Susan weren’t constantly screaming, she’d be able to spot the killer a mile away by his extremely loud heavy breathing. But, it’s that kind off a misbegotten thriller. The amazing thing is that the screenplay is credited to Marc Behm, who also came up with stories for “Help!” and “Charade.” It includes an interview with director/schlockmeister Boaz Davidson (“The Last American Virgin”).

Anyone too young to have witnessed a killing spree committed a character played by Klaus Kinski might consider “Schizoid” (1980), the second half of the double feature. It may not be his best turn, but he’s creepy enough for any 10 actors. Here, a newspaper advice columnist (Marianna Hill) starts receiving threats in the form of letters composed of words cut from magazines. Could the mail be from the same guy using scissors to slay members of Kinski’s therapy group? Sure, why not? Among the other cast members are Donna Wilkes (“Angel”), Joe Regalbuto (“Murphy Brown”), Craig Wasson (“Body Double”), Flo Gerrish (“Don’t Answer the Phone”) and a very young Christopher Lloyd (“Back to the Future”). The interview here is with Donna Wilkes. –

Race War: The Remake

Not having seen the original “Race War,” if such a movie even exists, I couldn’t possibly comment on the similarities and disparities between the original and “Race War: The Remake.” It wouldn’t matter, anyway. No DIY, no-budget, exploitation flick I’ve seen since I figured out what DIY means comes close to Tom Martino’s debut effort. That includes the thoroughly beyond-the-pale Troma/Astron-6 collaboration, “Father’s Day.” As the story goes, crack dealers Baking Soda and G.E.D. are shocked to learn that a rival gang of white hoodlums has begun selling drugs on their turf and they intend to eliminate them. Soda, G.E.D. and their buddy Kreech – half Creature From the Black Lagoon” and half blaxploition-era superhero—are at a distinct disadvantage because the drugs the honkies sell have the power to turn dope fiends into zombie slaves. Even if the Grand Wizard of the KKK had been hired as a consultant on the screenplay, “Race War” couldn’t possibly have turned out more gratuitously racist, violent and stupid. I don’t know if “nigga” qualifies as an n-word, but it and “bitch” represent every other word out of the mouths of Soda and G.E.D. Because the Creature speaks in a language only Soda understands, subtitles are necessary. If the subtitles added to a conversation between the dealers and an Arab tavern owner – played by a Lamp Chop sock puppet—weren’t written in Arabic script, we might have been able to understand him, too.

Other outrages include hyper-offensive wall-to-wall gore, flatulence, ethnic stereotypes and weak parodies of conventional movie tropes. In fact, though, Martino knows exactly what he’s doing in “Race War” and invites the audience get on board, even as the opening credits roll. How much one enjoys “Race War” depends entirely on how much sophomoric humor he – no woman would waste more than 10 minutes watching it – can absorb and not want to take a shower. If the answer is, “a lot,” the movie should prove to be a true hoot. If not, it will resemble something swept off Rob Zombie’s floor. The DVD adds a gag reel, a demented commentary, a behind-the-scenes “gore reel” and similarly scandalous trailers from DWN Productions and Wild Eye Releasing. –

PBS: The Life of Muhammad: Blu-ray

Nova: Manhunt: Boston Bombers

For many non-Muslim people, terrorism and intolerance in their myriad physical manifestations are the public face of Islam and all they know about a culture and civilization that’s grown from nothing in 570 AD to what it is today. The BBC mini-series “The Life of Muhammad,” now airing on PBS outlets here, represents an exhaustive attempt to explain Islam to western audiences and what seem to be contradictory interpretations of the Koran. It’s a fascinating story, no matter what anyone thinks about the religion Muhammad spawned. In a journey that is both literal and historical, host Rageh Omaar retraces the footsteps of the Messenger of Allah from his humble beginnings in Mecca to his death in 632 and legacy. The three-part series describes the struggles Muhammad faced in his lifetime, including persecution, assassination attempts, strategic retreats, mythology and the creation of a physical and philosophical foundation for Islam. There are important lessons to be learned in the mini-series. One of them is an understanding of the split between militant fundamentalists and the vast majority of other Muslims. Most significant, perhaps, is an exploration of the Constitution of Medina and such practices as sharia law and jihad. Just as Christian fundamentalists and Zionists have twisted basic biblical teachings to fit their own purposes, Muslim militants use the Koran to justify terrorism, holy war and a refutation of the Prophet’s struggle for peace. Omarr chronicles the events that led to the continuing hostilities between Muslims and Jews—Muslims and other Muslims, as well—and explains how they have been misinterpreted ever since by fundamentalists of both religions.

One of the manifestations of ignorance and bloodlust occurred at 2:50 p.m. on April 15, 2013, when two bomb blasts turned the Boston Marathon into a nightmare. The IEDs left three dead and hundreds injured. Even as the casualties were being transported to area hospitals, the investigation into identifying and capturing those responsible for the crime had begun. Before it was over, the media would misidentify suspects and a form of martial law would effectively shut down one the country’s largest metropolitan areas. Crucial to the identification of Chechen immigrants Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were surveillance cameras installed by merchants and hundreds of photos and videos taken by amateurs using cellphone cameras. As we learn in the “Nova” presentation “Manhunt: Boston Bombers,” amateur Internet sleuths helped as much as they hindered the identification of the brothers and one of the mistakes found its way to the cover of the New York Post. Professional investigators began using facial-recognition tools not only to identify suspects, but also collect evidence valuable to their capture and prosecution. The documentary goes on to describe how experts in forensics, explosives and infrared photography contributed, as well. In a sense, the episode is the fact-based equivalent of a police-procedural mystery and that’s not at all a bad thing. Even if we know the outcome of the five-day search, “Manhunt” adds greatly to our understanding of what happened during that terrible week in American history. –

Walk the Dark Street

Lovers of vintage movies and TV could spend hours perusing the catalogues published on the websites belonging to Facets Video, Netflix, Movies Unlimited, Oldies.com and MVD Entertainment. The posters, alone, are worth the effort to find them. I found the Alpha Entertainment release “Walk the Dark Street” at MVD, which handles dozens of the company’s public-domain titles. Wyott Ordung’s 1956 noir thriller tweaks the story advanced in “The Most Dangerous Game,” in which a skilled hunter, played by Joel Crea, finds himself stranded on an uncharted island owned by a mad Russian count. Bored with hunting animals, the count gives McCrea a knife and a head start, but he also saddles him with another stranded traveler, Fay Wray. Normally, this would have been more of a blessing than a curse. Here, though, she’s more like a fifth wheel. By contrast, “Walk the Dark Street” takes place in and around Los Angeles and both hunters are similarly armed.

A big-game hunter played by Chuck “Rifleman” Connors is given an opportunity to avenge the death of his brother, in Korea, for which he blames a senior officer. When Lt. Dan Lawton comes to Frank’s lair to describe the battle during which the brother was killed, the hunter convinces the bored ex-soldier to join him in a dangerous game. Incredibly, Dan believes Frank when he tells him that the rifles are equipped with cameras, not firing mechanisms, and the first one to take the other’s picture wins a sizable prize. It’s crazy to watch two men walk through the streets and harbor of Los Angeles toting cases that could only accommodate a rifle, golf clubs or a trombone. What we know that Dan doesn’t is that Frank isn’t interested in photography, just revenge. In his effort to win the contest, the soldier remembers things about the hunter that he learned from his brother before he died. It leads him to a nightclub, where he picks up the man’s floozy ex-fiancé. Hey, it could happen. Although the print has seen better days, it isn’t hard to ignore the film’s condition and enjoy the story. Ordung doesn’t have a long list of credits, but he is credited with the directing the first film produced by Roger Corman, “Monster From the Ocean Floor.” –

Savages Crossing

After nearly 40 years in the game, Oz-ploitation veteran John Jarratt still makes for a convincing psychopath. His reputation is such that he was asked to make a cameo in “Django Unchained,” alongside Quentin Tarantino, as an employee of the Le Quint Dickie Mining Co. (Unlike Jarratt, Tarantino had to fake his Aussie accent.) In “Savages Crossing,” which he wrote with his son, Cody, Jarratt plays a man driven crazy by the thought that his estranged wife and son are trying to steal money from him. Phil catches up with them in rural pub, which has become a refuge for travelers stranded by flooding caused by a lingering storm. Being a bully, boor and alcoholic, he quickly alienates himself from everyone else in the pub. Phil’s rage extends to a cop who comes in late and, if anything, is louder and more profane than he is. Fortunately, an Outback cowboy takes it upon himself to quiet things down, even as the storm rages outside. Director Kevin James Dobson’s best asset in “Savages Crossing” is the weather, which is as threatening as any of the human characters. –

Spooks, Hoods & JFK: The Shocking Truth

I Shot JFK: The Shocking Truth

Confessions from the Grassy Knoll: The Shocking Truth

With the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy rapidly approaching, it’s as good a time as any to get caught up on all of the conspiracy theories that have arisen since the last big anniversary. It also may be the last best time for geriatric mafia assassins and self-serving spooks to lay claim to knowing the “truth” about who killed JFK and who paid them to participate. To that dubious end, MVD Visual has released three new documentaries that attempt either to clear the air on the unsolvable mystery or stir the pot. “Spooks, Hoods & JFK: The Shocking Truth” revisits accounts by the late Chauncey Holt of his participation in the assassination, as a hitman linked to both the mafia and America’s other, even more secret intelligence community. That both carried grudges against the liberal president has been assumed for decades, but, so far, only criminals have provided anything resembling first-hand evidence of such a lethal conspiracy. That’s not to imply, however, that such a diabolic plot is inconceivable.

To that end, as well, “I Shot JFK: The Shocking Truth” and “Confessions from the Grassy Knoll” also offer the testimony of one James Earl Files (a.k.a., James Sutton), who, in 1994, admitted to being the “grassy knoll shooter.” Unless he dies in the interim, Files will celebrate the anniversary in a cell at the Statesville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois. The latter title is a longer version of the former, created by Dutch filmmaker Wim Dankbaar, who expands on material compiled by P.I. Joe West, who died before a scheduled date to interview Files. By November, the hills will be alive with the sound of 80-year-old geezers confessing to their roles in the true crime of the century. –

Children Make Terrible Pets

Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late

The latest release of titles from Scholastic’s “Storybook Treasures” collection includes the prize-winning “Children Make Terrible Pets,” based on the book by writer/illustrator Peter Brown. It describes what happens when a bear cub, Lucy, encounters a little boy in the woods and asks her mother if she can adopt him. Her mother’s answer can be found in the title of the book and animated, read-along DVD. Other stories include “All the World,” by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Marla Frazee, narrated by Joanne Woodward; “Crow Call,” by Lois Lowry, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline and narrated by Julia Fein; and “Elizabeth’s Doll,” by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen, illustrated by Christy Hale and narrated by Lynn Whitfield. Interviews with the authors come with the package.

The other DVD is comprised of “Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late” and other wonderful children’s stories by Mo Willems. In the title entry, Willems asks viewers to prevent a stubborn pigeon from staying up late at night, no matter what it does to win their confidence. It features the voices of Willems and John Scieszka. The DVD adds “Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion,” featuring the voices of Trixie, Cher and Mo Willems; “Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct,” with Cher and Mo Willems; an interview with Willems; and a recipe for Edwina’s chocolate-chip cookies. –

 

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec: BluRay
When it comes to adapting comic books and graphic novels for the big screen – especially those targeted at younger audiences — there’s a lot to be said for cutting to the chase and letting what’s wonderful about the story speak for itself, as is the case with Luc Besson’s fanciful “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec.” CGI technology allows for directors to re-create with some exactitude the graphic-novel experience, with its odd-sized frames, explosive color palettes, noir textures and movements that don’t conform to the laws of gravity, but, unless one is familiar with the source material, the conceit is lost on most viewers. When genre nerds already attuned to an author’s quirky rhythms and personal vision approve of the adaptation – as is the case with Frank Miller’s “Sin City,” “300” and animated “Dark Knight” – rewards are there to be reaped. Likewise, “Persepolis” and “Road to Perdition” were embraced by niche audiences and Academy Award nominating committees. By contrast, Steven Spielberg’s stop-motion 3D adaptation of the Tintin stories and Besson’s “Adele Blanc-Sec,” based on comics popular in Europe, failed to ripple to the water in the U.S. “Tintin” failed attract adults and children in numbers typically associated with Spielbergian adventures, while the producers of “Adele Blanc-Sec” restricted their theatrical campaign to foreign markets. (“Tintin was released first in Europe, scoring big numbers there but tanking here. Along with solid home-video sales, the overseas response explains the commitment to a Peter Jackson-directed sequel, in 2015.)

Both movies are set during the early years of the 20th Century and feature reporters as their intrepid protagonists, although very little is committed to paper. As opposed to “Tintin,” Besson decided that “Adele Blanc-Sec” should play out in the live-action format, with a largely straight-forward narrative. There’s plenty of CGI in the fantasy sequences, but much of the film was shot on location, in Egypt, and at easily recognizable Parisian landmarks. As so delightfully played by the long and lean redhead, Louise Bourgoin (“The Girl From Monaco”), Our Heroine is a quick-witted and seemingly fearless “adventuress.” Adele was created before the first of Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones” installments, so, no matter how much she resembles that estimable character, no one can accuse author Jacques Tardi or Besson of plagiary. Instead, her bravado and well-heeled appearance likely were influenced to various degrees by fictional characters Arsene Lupin, Becassine, Amelia Peabody and Tardi’s own Adieu Brindavoine. Bourgoin describes her character as a combination of Lupin, Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes. If American audiences need other points of reference, the most obvious would be the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Night at the Museum” franchises. With directorial credits that include “La Femme Nikita,” “The Fifth Element,” “The Professional” and “Angel-A,” however, Besson is no stranger to fantasy, action and drama.

Here, Adele begins her extraordinary adventure at the Pyramids of Giza on the back of a reluctant camel. She is attempting to retrieve the mummy of a revered scientist, who died several millennia ago, and bring it back with her Europe. Tipped to the nature of her quest, the grotesque archaeologist Dieuleveult – played by a thoroughly unrecognizable Mathieu Amalric –follows his rival to the booby-trapped tomb, nearly ruining her unlikely mission. Adele has been led to believe that a Parisian necromancer, Professor Espérandieu (Jacky Nercessian), might be able to revive the mummy, so he can pull her sister, Agatha (Laure de Clermont), out of a concussion-induced coma. And, here’s where things go gonzo for her. Coincidental to Adele returning to Paris, the professor has been imprisoned for re-animating a pterodactyl and allowing it to escape his laboratory. For this, he faces a date with the guillotine. Even more coincidentally, an exhibit of mummified pharaohs is taking place at a Paris museum and the professor’s spell awakens them, as well. One of the more learned of the emancipated mummies actually proves to be the one who holds the key to Agatha’s recovery.

As confusing as this summary may sound, Adele’s adventure plays out in a way kids in their early teens and their parents can understand. Bourgoin is the real surprise here, even if she’s required to share the spotlight with the special-effects wizards, set designers and wardrobe mavens. Curiously, Besson decided it might be fun to add a short scene in which Adele disrobes in front of the mummy, before stepping into a bathtub. To ensure the widest possible exposure to the otherwise PG-worthy material, the folks at Shout! Factory excised several seconds from the scene, sparing Americans any embarrassment over watching Adele’s wash her perky breasts in the company of their children. (They can be witnessed in all their brief glory by subscribers to the Mr. Skin website.) The American distributor also elected to make the dubbed English track the first option for viewers. It’s reasonably well-done and, for purists, the arguably more interesting French-language track available is easily accessible. The disc is better for both decisions, I think. Besson is known for his visual acuity and the Blu-ray edition easily handles the shifts between the blinding sun of the Egyptian desert, dark shadows of the tomb, dimly lit Parisian interiors and vibrancy of life in the streets. Also added are a few short deleted scenes and an informative making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Reality: Blu-ray
Imagine a movie inspired in equal measure by “La Dolce Vita,” “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and Sara Goldfarb’s fever dreams in “Requiem for a Dream” and it might look pretty much like Matteo Garrone’s “Reality.” It’s that strange. Garrone previously mapped the dark side of Naples in the brutal gangland drama, “Gomorrah.” He returns to relate the fractured fairy tale of a Neopolitan fishmonger whose dream of joining the cast of “Big Brother” comes dangerously close to a reality. As a natural-born comedian, who supports his family by selling all things aquatic, Luciano (Aniello Arena) makes the salmon-tossers at Seattle’s Pike Place Market look like amateurs. At the urging of his daughter, Luciano auditions for the upcoming season of “Big Brother.” Despite the fact that he’s 20 years older and several times less attractive than the other candidates, he somehow makes it through the first round. He goes to Rome for the finals, where the competition is even tougher. Even so, Luciano convinces himself that he aced the exam and the only thing standing between him and fame is a phone call. When he fails to hear back from the show immediately, Luciano assumes the real final test is yet to come and it will take place in the plaza in which he sells fish.

As the hours and days pass him by, Luciano begins to imagine that scouts from the show are lurking behind every booth. Like Mrs. Goldfarb, though, the longer he anticipates fame, the crazier he gets. Garrone surrounds Luciano with a colorful cavalcade of freaks that wouldn’t have escaped the attention of Federico Fellini or producers of American reality shows. Among Luciano’s family members, only he and his wife weigh less than Honey Boo Boo’s corpulent Mama June. Garrone takes us to a wedding, during which a reality-show winner swoops down from the rafters, high-fiving the guests and inspiring more dreams of TV-born celebrity-hood. I don’t know where Garrone found Arena, because his IMDB.com resume lists only a single credit. He couldn’t have picked a better actor to play Luciano if Fellini, himself, came down from heaven and introduced them. In Arena’s hands, he’s the Ron Popeil of fishmongering and, as a victim of the pursuit of fame, as tragicomic a character as any since Burstyn was nominated for an Oscar in a similarly heart-churning role. The many amateurs hand-picked for the occasion are wonderful as themselves. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, interviews, making-of and background pieces and a profile of Arena, who, as it turns out, remains an inmate in an Italian prison. Twenty years ago, he was convicted of being a Camorra hitman, so, when his working day was over, Arena spent the night in jail. Amazing. – Gary Dretzka

The Odd Angry Shot: Blu-ray
Even though the Vietnam War played out on televisions across the United States, very Americans were made aware of the contributions and sacrifices of troops from South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia. Korea, alone, buried 5,099 of its soldiers and marines, while another 10,962 were wounded and 4 reported missing. My guess is that very few, if any of their names were mentioned in dispatches from American reporters gathered there. If more people are aware of the Aussie contingent, it’s probably because the fighters shared the same bars in Saigon and a common passion for beer. Released in 1979, “The Odd Angry Shot” preceded the 1986 release of Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” which it resembles. Based on William L. Nagle’s war novel, Tom Jeffrey’s film describes the activities of a special-forces unit from shortly before deployment to just after its return to “the world.” The title reflects the belief that the war most soldiers experienced involved long bouts of monotony punctuated by intense, frantic bursts of action. It was only the odd angry shot that could kill or get one killed in combat. The same ratio of boredom to chaos holds throughout the movie, whose most recognizable star is Bryan Brown. Because the Aussies are bereft anyone of color, including Aboriginals, director Tom Jeffrey could avoid any discussion of racial tension in the ranks. Unlike “Platoon,” the soldiers aren’t divided by one’s choice of inebriants or political points of views. It allows for more time spent drinking Foster’s, swapping barbs and reading Dear John letters. The only black soldiers in the picture are the American GI’s the Aussies meet on leave and at a barbecue, during which bets are taken on a fight to the death between the Yanks’ scorpion and their guests’ tarantula. The Vietnamese are represented by VC corpses and half-naked B-girls. The Aussies are represented as the congenial blokes they tend to be, whether found in war zones or on a Sydney beach. They see action, but mostly in sporadic bursts. It’s not that kind of movie.

Even if “The Odd Angry Shot” doesn’t wallow in politics, the soldiers fully understand that the war isn’t popular back home and they shouldn’t expect any welcome-home parades. Unlike the growing legion of disgruntled draftees in Vietnam, the guys in this elite unit consider themselves to be warriors, first, and are determined not let moralistic distractions get them killed. Even so, none of them signed on to an assignment for which none of their superiors were likely to accept any blame or give them credit for small victories. Worse, perhaps, many of them would be shunned by veterans groups and politicians back home, if only as way to distance themselves further from unpopular government policies. Americans who fought in Vietnam were spared that indignity, at least. The actors trained and the picture was shot at the rugged Canungra Army Land Warfare Center in south-east Queensland. (The Australian military reportedly denied the same privilege to the producers of “Apocalypse Now.”) In addition to the new high-def transfer, the Blu-ray benefits from commentary with Jeffrey, producer Sue Milliken and actor Graeme Blundell and the featurette, “Stunts Down Under,” with Buddy Joe Hooker. Fans of Ozploitation should know that this title won’t satisfy their gratuitous sex and graphic violence. – Gary Dretzka

Errors of the Human Body
There’s no disguising the filmmakers who influenced director Eron Sheean and writer Shane Danielson in the creation of their first feature, a nifty medical thriller invitingly titled, “Errors of the Human Body.” David Cronenberg and Michael Crichton’s creative DNA informs every frame of the German/American co-production. In it, brilliant Canadian geneticist Geoff Burton (Michael Eklund) moves to Dresden, home of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. It’s here that he hopes to continue research into a cure for the hideous disease that claimed the life of his infant son, who literally was suffocated by tumors. Haunted by his inability to help the boy while he was alive, Geoff is obsessed with preventing the deaths of other children. Also studying at the institute is his former intern, Rebekka (Karoline Herfurth), who is deeply involved with a project she hopes will result in the development of a human regenerative gene. Anyone familiar with the subgenre knows that messing with the building blocks of life frequently results in greater human suffering, and that’s what happens here. Her rival for Geoff’s attention and a possible Nobel Prize is an arrogant researcher, who resembles a clone of “Nosferatu” star Max Schreck.

While they’re battling each other for leverage, control and prestige, Geoff’s anxiety over finding a solution any time soon causes him to inject himself with one of their treatments. Self-experimentation is never a good idea in the movies and his reaction to the drug isn’t very pretty. “Errors of the Human Body” builds a palpable level of suspense, as institute bureaucrats and self-serving scientists push the research teams to come up with a product that could bring big money to the laboratory, as well as something that incidentally might serve mankind. Dresden, home to the Planck, is an apt, if unexpected place to set a movie financed by American interests. Germany’s “jewel box” city was unmercifully targeted by RAF and USAAF planes, carrying powerful bombs and incendiary devices. The city center had to be completely rebuilt, with some buildings assuming their previous historical stature and others drawn to accommodate the drab whims of Soviet architectural policy. Much of the movie was shot, as well, inside the institute. This ensures an added a level of authenticity and institutional claustrophobia that might have been lost on a soundstage. The background featurette includes an imaginative, if disturbing Q&A between a lab rat and a mouth and tongue detached from a make-believe skull. – Gary Dretzka

The Guillotines: Blu-ray
Western audiences may be more than a tiny bit confused by the title of this sprawling historical epic directed by Andrew Lau Wai-Keung (“Infernal Affairs”). The only resemblance between a French executioner’s tool and the emperor’s secret assassination squad, the Guillotines, is the razor-sharp blade used to put a swift and bloody end to enemies of the state. Here, it takes the form of a circular disc, which acts like a Frisbee and has prongs that attach themselves to a victim’s neck and swiftly decapitates him. In “The Guillotines,” Qing Dynasty Emperor Yong Zheng sics the death squad on a messianic bandit, Huang Xiaoming, and his white-robed followers, who take refuge among the hated Han Chinese. When a younger emperor ascends to the throne, he decides that modern weaponry supplied by the British will kill more of his enemies, faster, than the Guillotines’ blades. At some point, the emperor also decides to turn the cannons on his own warriors.

Lau further clouds the broth by adding flashbacks and other narrative gimmicks to the mix. And, that’s the primary knock against “The Guillotines.” Without a scorecard, it’s sometimes difficult to get a firm grip on who’s doing what to whom. What Lau has captured, though, is the frenzy of war, unvarnished brutality of combat and absurdity of standing up to artillery, rifles and bombs with swords, bows and arrows. It makes “The Guillotines” one of the more graphically violent Chinese movies I’ve seen. The Blu-ray looks good, but it’s the audio that will blow viewers out of their chairs if their speakers aren’t dialed down in anticipation of the cannon fire. The interviews and making-of material are, as usual, exhaustive and infrequently enlightening. – Gary Dretzka

Dog Pound
Kim Chapiron and Jeremie Delon’s horrific study of life at a Youth Correctional Center, supposedly in Montana, may be constructed from bits and pieces left over from dozens of other prison movies, but, they proved sufficiently sturdy to contain the madness that permeates “Dog Pound.” What differentiates it from previous films in the genre is the sense of hopelessness with which viewers will be left after the last cell door slams shut. It’s magnified by the knowledge that several of the actors, all of whom are completely credible in their roles, were serving time in actual correctional facilities during production and some have failed to maintain their freedom. I couldn’t tell the pros from the cons. “Dog Pound,” whose title should be self-explanatory, focuses on three or four inmate cliques, as well as a cabal of guards and administrators with a decided Us-vs.-Them mindset. If there’s an ounce of decency or compassion expended by any of the primary characters, it’s only in brief humorous interludes or out of pity for one outrage or another. These short displays of humanity are balanced almost immediately, however, by acts of revenge, rage, sadism and bullying.

As portrayed, the guards and administrators wouldn’t have had any trouble finding work in a camp or prison run by the SS. It could be argued, though, that any overt show of liberality on their part would soon be rewarded with the monkeys taking over the zoo. If there’s anyone who comes close to being a protagonist here, it’s 17-year-old Butch. He was assigned to a less rigid facility when he attacked a guard, whose frequent use of brutality ultimately would be uncovered and punished. It became a moot point, however, when Butch was transferred to the Enola Vale facility and immediately became the target of bullies. Rather than risk being ostracized for “snitching,” Butch decides to exact his own form of justice on the perpetrators. (Another boy bullied by the same thugs pleads to be left in “the hole,” so as to avoid another fearsome thrashing.) We’d like to cheer Butch on, but already foresee the cycle of violence into which he’s just condemned himself.

I’m no expert on prisons or youth correctional facilities, even if I’ve seen dozens of movies in which they provide the background for drama. Therefore, it’s impossible for me to attest one way or the other to the veracity of Chapiron’s presentation. It’s safe to assume, I suppose, that there’s more of an emphasis on rehabilitation in places like Enola Vale than at state or federal prisons, where that concept has been rendered ancient history. There’s precious little rehabilitation going on in “Dog Pound,” either, beyond that provided ineptly by a rage counselor and a gym coach who favors dodge-ball to therapy. The producers freely acknowledge their debt to Alan Clarke’s 1977 BBC teleplay and subsequent 1979 movie, “Scum.” Because “Scum” takes place in a notorious British borstal, it begs the question as to why the French-Canadian co-production was deliberately set in an American facility, instead of a neutral location. New Brunswick is a long way from Montana, literally and figuratively. (The 1983 drama “Bad Boys,” also based on “Scum,” was set and shot in Chicago.) No matter, because, despite winning a prominent prize at the 2010 Tribeca festival, it was destined to find a home on DVD, instead of theaters. That fact doesn’t make the movie any less noteworthy, merely more accessible to viewers who enjoy a good prison drama. Parents of children in danger of following a path that could lead to incarceration might consider renting a copy for a family night at the movies. It might have the effect of scaring the delinquency out of them. – Gary Dretzka

Seconds: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It wasn’t difficult for an adventurous American filmmaker to find himself standing alone, ahead of the curve, in the mid-1960s. John Cassavetes and other pioneers of independent and experimental cinema were operating in uncharted territory and audiences were limited pretty much to New York, Boston, San Francisco and the odd college campus. The same audiences that embraced the various New Waves and existential film movements abroad were slow to warm to directors attempting the same sorts of things here. Before accepting the challenge of adapting David Ely’s novel, “Seconds,” John Frankenheimer had long been associated with the live-television scene based in New York City. He hit Hollywood running with such edgy, issue-oriented pictures as “The Young Savages,” “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Seven Days in May,” as well as action dramas “Birdman of Alcatraz” and “The Train.” What set him apart from the pack, though, was his embrace of unexpected, European-inspired camera angles; noir-informed cinematography; existential themes; and intimately rendered personal encounters. “Seconds,” which showcased all of these elements, would prove to be one of the most controversial and divisive titles of the decade.

Equal parts horror, sci-fi, social commentary and Faustian drama, “Seconds” tells the story of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a successful New York banker who’s been in a comfortable rut for more years than he can recall. He belongs to an easily recognized species, found mostly in large cities east of the Mississippi River and loudly ridiculed by free-thinkers, satirists and liberal sociologists. Benjamin and his emotionally estranged wife live in a Scarsdale home that meets the requirements of his upper-middle-class lifestyle, but is far too large for their current needs. If they even come close to making love, it would simply be a failed exercise in going through the motions, hardly worth the time it takes to disrobe. Their conformist lifestyle and traditional beliefs would face a mighty challenge in the second half of the decade. Ironically, it would be their sons and daughters who led the charge by joining radical student groups or splitting for San Francisco on daddy’s credit card.

One night, out of the blue, Benjamin gets a call from a college buddy he’d nearly forgotten, demanding that he meet the next day with a representative from a top-secret organization. Once he arrives at its clandestine headquarters, he’s given a cup of tea that causes him to fall asleep and experience a series of frightening hallucinations. In one, he smothers a much younger woman in a hotel room. By the time he awakes, his fate has been sealed. Benjamin must agree to undergo a fountain-of-youth transformation or face the prospect of being charged in the death of a woman he’s never met. After he awakens from his operation and the bandages are removed, we see that he’s been given the body of an athlete, the face of Rock Hudson, a solid reputation as an artist and the unlikely name of Antiochus “Tony” Wilson. Benjamin’s new home is a beachfront cottage in Malibu, where grey-flannel suits and attitudes are prohibited by law. In short order, he also meets an attractive young woman (Salome Jens), who, among other things, invites him to join her and a group of nude pre-hippies in a giant barrel, stomping grapes. While Benjamin/Wilson relishes the opportunity to enjoy some free love with his sybarite girlfriend, his traditional moral code draws the line at orgies. The generational disconnect scrambles his brain to the point where he chooses to test the limits of his contract with the organization. For a banker, this was an uncharacteristically risky decision and it didn’t pay any dividends.

Once scorned, “Seconds” long ago transcended its cult-classic assignation. It is now is considered to be one of the most prescient and influential movies of the period. In 1966, however, the response was largely negative, even at Cannes. Many viewers were repulsed by a scene in which an actual rhinoplasty operation is performed, while the visualized effects of psychotropic drugs made others dizzy. Even if the intriguingly staged nude grape-grope was excised from the film for its American release, most of the other west-coast attitudes on display were considered fair game by New York-based pundits and talk-show hosts. Critics and viewers used to seeing Hudson in his fluffy rom-com persona also had a difficult time buying him as a character at his wits’ end from existential torment. By the time Johnny Carson abandoned New York and moved to Malibu, not far from Benjamin/Wilson’s pad, none of this would be considered even remotely foreign. The new video transfer for the Criterion Blu-ray really makes James Wong Howe’s innovative cinematography come alive. Also included in the package is a new interview with Alec Baldwin, who was friendly with the director; a documentary featuring interviews with Evans Frankenheimer and Salome Jens; a visual essay by film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance; archival interviews with Frankenheimer and Hudson; an audio commentary with the director, taped in 1997; and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic David Sterritt. – Gary Dretzka

The Damned: Classics of French Cinema: Blu-ray
A few weeks ago, while preparing to review “Phantom,” I spent some time on the Internet sampling lists of other writers’ favorite submarine movies. As far as I can recall, none contained Rene Clement’s brilliant World War II drama, “The Damned.” If I had drawn up a list at the time, mine wouldn’t have acknowledged the French film, either. For viewers on this side of the pond, even those who consider themselves to be Francophiles, “The Damned” seemed to be a movie that was destined to remain “lost.” In 1947, hardly anyone wanted to see a movie in which Nazis weren’t depicted as the despicable agents of evil many of them were. Filmmakers in France, Britain, the Soviet Union and U.S. had their own stories of heroism and patriotic ardor to tell, after all, and Allied censors weren’t about to clear a movie that seemed to argue that Nazis could be human, too, for exhibition before audiences that might sympathize with the characters. Far from being an apologia or magnet for sympathy, “The Damned” more closely resembles “Das Boot,” which did attract a wide, enthusiastic response.

Set during the closing days of the war, Clement’s film describes what might have happened aboard a U-boat carrying a high-ranking Nazi general, his mistress and her Italian industrialist husband; a sleazy Gestapo commandant and his hoodlum boy-toy; a French journalist, who collaborated with the Germans; a Scandinavian scientist and a teenager described as his daughter; and, of course, officers and sailors who have been led to believe the war is still winnable. It’s not, but they won’t learn how badly they’ve been deceived until much later in the movie. The vessel has disembarked from Occupied Norway, on its way to South America, where these true-believers actually believe they can build a Fourth Reich on the distant philosophical ashes of the third. This wasn’t as outlandish a dream as it seems today, considering the fascist tendencies of South American politicians and militarists, alongside the countries’ need for cash, military training and fresh ideas in the ongoing crusade to crush impoverished peasants and communist agitators.

It doesn’t take long before the submarine is spotted by British destroyers and attacked with depth charges. One of them causes the general’s mistress to suffer a concussion and, of course, he demands she be repaired. Not having a medical officer on the vessel, he orders the captain to make a stop at a French port, where they kidnap a doctor and, again, set sail for Argentina. The doctor, Guilbert, knows that he isn’t likely to be freed and shipped back to France, with a thank-you note from Hilda the Whore. So, he buys time by declaring that ship is in imminent danger of becoming a floating petri dish for killer germs and only he can save them from an epidemic. It instantly makes Guilbert the closest thing there is to a protagonist on “The Damned,” as he also is able to win the confidence of the sub’s radio operator, who knows where a dingy is hid. While the doctor’s fate may remain in doubt throughout the movie, we’re pretty certain plans for a new Reich aren’t going to fly.

To maintain suspense, Clement did something very unusual for a movie made almost immediately after the war. Instead of making the Nazis dumber and more inept as the story moves forward, while also creating a timetable for a heroic escape or rescue, he raises the ante by allowing the officers to demonstrate the same complexity and survival instinct that allowed them to make it this far in the war. Meanwhile, the rank-and-file sailors only want to go back home and salvage what’s left in their lives. They sense, they’re being lied to by everyone from their captain to the passengers. Interviews included in the bonus package describe how Clement maintained the claustrophobic aura throughout, while building a realistic mechanical environment. “The Damned” has been fully restored for its Blu-ray debut. Having been lost for so long a time, however, it isn’t surprising that some sequences fare more poorly than others. Only a perfectionist would find room to complain. The package also offers an excellent making-of documentary and a commentary/conversation between French and German film scholars. – Gary Dretzka

Shane: Blu-ray
There’s no question of the place George Stevens’ exquisitely made and still-relevant Western, “Shane,” holds in the Hollywood Pantheon. Not only is it considered to be one of the most beautiful and influential movies ever filmed, but it practically defined what it meant to be a mensch in the Old West, as the open range gave way to farms, ranches and homesteaders. In Alan Ladd, Shane was a gunslinger who dared to hang up his holster in anticipation of a day when only outlaws and lawmen carried six-shooters. When confronted by the forces of evil, however, his moral code was flexible enough to allow him to pick up his gun and cut the bullies down to size. It would have been far less problematical for him if a system was in place that caused killers and crooks to fear the law as much as they feared losing a split second on their draw. In “Shane,” it was difficult to determine with any certainty in whose name the local sheriff served and which laws he decided to enforce. The Marshall Dillons of the west wouldn’t make it to northern Wyoming for several more years, leaving it to honorable men to protect the sheep from the wolves. In this way, “Shane” was of a piece with “High Noon” (1952) and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” (1962). It would reverberate, as well, in such Clint Eastwood Westerns as “Pale Rider” and “High Plains Drifter.” If that was all there was to admire in “Shane,” it still would be a heck of movie. Instead, it would teach other lessons, as well.

Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to wonder how Stevens’ seemingly ageless standoff between good and evil, white and black, change and tradition might registers with viewers whose preferred vision of the Old West is the one advanced in “Rooster Cogburn,” “True Grit,” HBO”s “Dead Wood” and “Blazing Saddles,” a comedy that honors and satirizes “Shane” in equal measure. Do the moral questions raised by Stevens and screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr. still resonate with people raised on a steady diet of Tarantino and Scorsese? In a world colored by shades of gray is there a place where white and black hats can determine a man’s virtue? Would Brandon De Wilde’s portrayal of the wildly inquisitive Joey Starrett and his incessant, “Shane … come back,” win the hearts of today’s jaded audiences or be deemed a giant pain in the ass? If a few more guys wearing white hats were gunned down by sociopathic gunslingers in the final reel of several decades’ worth of Westerns, would the NRA be so quick to advocate that teachers, principals and janitors be armed to prevent violence in our schools?

Those are some of the questions that came to my mind while watching “Shane” in the splendid new Blu-ray edition from Paramount. I also was mesmerized by the majesty of the Tetons Range, which served as the background for the movie. (Today, the same land has been divided up by cocaine cowboys, Hollywood action stars with too much money, hedge-fund crooks and lawyers who eat barbed wire for breakfast. Forget the Rykers, the Starretts would need Ladd, Eastwood and John Wayne to stand up to these guys.) It’s interesting to learn from the commentary track that at least two key through-lines were abandoned in the production process. The most obvious one involves the sexual tension that slowly builds between Shane and Joe Starrett’s wife (Jean Arthur). Although an illicit attachment wasn’t allowed to develop, the sparks might have inspired the more dangerous liaison in “Jubal,” also set in Jackson Hole. The other would have expanded on Joey’s obsession with guns and Shane’s reputation as a quick-draw artist. As Joey grew fonder of the newcomer, he would have turned to him as a father figure, instead of the role model he became. Both scenarios, though, probably would have required one of the two men to be killed, one way or another, and the diminishment of Shane’s honorable stature. It’s difficult to imagine that happening. Throw in some truly gorgeous Technicolor cinematography by that year’s Oscar winner, Loyal Griggs, and you’ve got one humdinger of a Blu-ray title. No matter how you look at it, “Shane” translates into two hours well spent. The commentary track is provided by George Stevens Jr. and producer Ivan Moffat, both of whom were in Wyoming for the shoot. – Gary Dretzka

The World Before Her
My Amityville Horror
If there is a God and He/She/It isn’t too busy creating life in other solar systems, this would be a wonderful time to declare He/She/It’s feelings on such 21st Century conceits as killing for peace, murdering for country, flying airplanes into buildings to honor the Lord, reproduction rights, same-sex love, the power of prayer and what those stories in the Old Testament really mean. Earth appears to be on a collision course, not with an asteroid, but with religious extremists hell-bent on destroying the planet so they can get to heaven before their neighbors. Watching Nisha Pahuja’s remarkable documentary, “The World Before Her,” I got the distinct impression that the world’s problems won’t be solved with divine intervention, however. With a tight focus on the second most-populous country on Earth, Pahuja describes a cultural chasm so wide and deep that it’s impossible not to fear the worst for everyone within 10,000 miles of the subcontintent. In fact, India’s Hindu population is showing signs of following the lead of Shiite and Sunni fundamentalists who pray to the same God, but can’t wait to kill each other when Allah isn’t watching. Israel’s fundamentalist minority now effectively holds the reins on the country’s democracy, just as America’s Christian right has taken control of the Republican Party and stalemated our nation’s future.

According to “The World Before Her,” India’s undeclared war on women has reached the point where the millions of girls who weren’t aborted or killed at birth are being asked to express their desire for equal rights by choosing between fundamentalism and the lure of consumerism. Pahuja was given extraordinary access to both a “beauty boot camp,” during which a male instructor trains teenagers to compete in the Miss India pageant, and a militant Hindu fundamentalist camp for girls, at which they learn the basics of weaponry, bomb building and martial arts. They also are required to pray and study cultural beliefs, but indoctrination is what mostly happens. Pahuja is the first filmmaker given permission to film inside a Durga Vahini camp for women followers of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, which considers Muslims and Christians to be its enemy. The number of women we meet in each camp is about even and their motivations are remarkably similar. The women and girls desperately want to escape poverty and being dominated, abused and marginalized by societal norms, their fathers and brothers, and government restrictions. Pahuja doesn’t appear to take sides, allowing her subjects to speak openly and without challenge.

Watching the women prepare for the Miss India might not lead one to believe they’re enduring the abuse dished out by their coach simply in the name of equal rights, but, for most of them, it’s their only ticket out of dead-end futures. Winning not only provides a free ticket to Donald Trump’s Miss World Pageant, but it also opens doors to lucrative gigs as models, brand representatives and Bollywood stars. If the coach demands they seduce the judges with their poses, posture and smiles, it’s only because that what it takes to stand out from the crowd. Objectification is a small price to pay for an opportunity to hit the same jackpot as the kids in “Slumdog Millionaire.” For them, second place isn’t an option. Pahuja juxtaposes scenes from the bootcamp with news footage of fundamentalist Hindus attacking women they feel have strayed too far from the path to righteousness. It is almost impossible to watch these clips without being left sickened and infuriated by the power of religion to corrupt souls and destroy innocent lives. What women we meet at the Durga Vahini camp feel about such ugly behavior isn’t addressed directly. The arrival of “The World Before Her” is timely because of coverage of recent gang rapes of tourists and aid workers, as well as the mass protests that followed by women I assume weren’t fundamentalists, just angry as hell. Like Muslim victims of rape, the tendency among Hindu women is to forsake any hope of criminal prosecution. Sometimes, the greater threat is to report the rape and forever carry the brand of a “scarlet letter.” The DVD adds several extended interviews.

I will admit to not knowing a damn thing about the events that inspired Jay Anson’s book “The Amityville Horror,” which, in turn, generated an incredibly successful franchise of fright, horror, distorted facts, speculation, fraud and exploitation. I’m sure that anyone who bothers to read this summary of “My Amityville Horror” already is aware of the details of the DeFeo-family murders and subsequent hauntings reported by the Lutzes, who moved in 13 months later. What’s fascinating in Eric Walter’s documentary is the re-emergence, after 35 years, of eyewitness Daniel Lutz, who was 10 years old at the time his family moved into the house at 112 Ocean Avenue, in the Long Island burg. The family would inhabit the house for less a month before being driven out of it by what they describe as satanic forces. Clearly, Daniel has remained deeply scarred ever since then. Everything about his testimony feels credible from distance, but, then, so do reports of alien abductions, ghosts, angels and the living Elvis on reality-based shows on cable television. Daniel, who bears a passing resemblance to Ed Harris and Bulldog Briscoe on “Frasier,” has apparently been wandering in the American wilderness since being “possessed” by spirits and tortured by his ex-marine stepfather. He switches from credible witness one moment to paranoid lunatic the next.

Walter has gathered several of the reporters, clairvoyants, psychologists and law-enforcement personnel who were around in 1975-76 and have remained engaged in the debate. They have ideas of their own about what happened in the Amityville house and, while sympathetic to Daniel, don’t necessarily buy into his concept of the truth. It’s more likely, they agree, that any 10-year-old who endured the same amount punishment and indoctrination would naturally merge fact and fiction in later recollections. By all accounts, his parents were religious nuts whose brains might have been fried by psychedelics. They seemed to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame, however. It isn’t likely Daniel reaped any financial benefit from his long ordeal or ever be asked to participate in “Dancing With the Stars.” The same can’t be said for the many people who’ve profited from his family’s great misfortune. The DVD includes commentary, a making-of featurette and Q&A. – Gary Dretzka

Rock Jocks
The Captains Close Up
If any recent movie defines geek comedy, it’s Paul Seetachitt’s “Rock Jocks.” Please don’t take that as an insult, because cast and crew members spend a great deal of time in the bonus interviews discussing its geek cachet and appeal to the kinds of folks who would camp outside a Best Buy in anticipation of the release of a hot video-game title or Leonard Nimoy’s autograph. Here, a group of young men trained in the art of Shooter video games remains in position in a top-secret Defense Department facility to zap any asteroids that threaten earthlings. Employees of the Asteroid Management Initiative aren’t exactly overworked, so there’s plenty of time for them to exchange dick jokes and ogle the lone woman character, Alison, played by lust object Felicia Day. In addition to space debris, the rock jocks are threatened by the appearance of a DOD bean-counter looking to eliminate the budget-draining AMI. Fortunately for the misfit marksmen, an asteroid shower appears in their radar screen before the ax can fall. So dulled are they by the long wait for action, they require the finger-crossed promise of a blow job from Alison before they can fully adjust to the asteroids. Just because I didn’t get most of the jokes, doesn’t mean you won’t. Interviews from a panel discussion are included on the DVD.

And, while we’re on the subject of geek iconography, also newly available on DVD is Entertainment One’s “The Captains Close Up,” a mini-series spun off of William Shatner’s feature-length documentary, “The Captains.” I can’t say with any certainty how much of the movie was repurposed for the mini-series, if anything, but the conversations here are pretty entertaining. The interviews, first shown on premium cable’s Epix network, feature former captains Patrick Stewart (“The Next Generation”), Avery Brooks (“Deep Space Nine”), Kate Mulgrew (“Voyager”), Scott Bakula (“Enterprise”) and Chris Pine (“Star Trek Into Darkness”), who, as the reigning Kirk, interviews the originator of the character. The conversations go beyond what it meant for the actors to play captains, adding observations on acting and fan support. The 150-minute-long collection adds fresh interview material in the bonus package. – Gary Dretzka

Absence: Blu-ray
When reviewing movies by freshman filmmakers, especially those that go straight to video or are emerge in very limited release, it’s never a good idea to get one’s hopes up too high. There usually are good reasons why a distributor elects not to invest a lot of money into a title that isn’t likely to make back its marketing nut. So, the best thing for us to do is look for things that might pay off down the road or reveal undiscovered talents. No critic wants to be known as the one who was too busy to watch the next “Blair Witch” or miss the emergence of a rising star like Greta Gerwig. I don’t think I missed anything significant in Jimmy Loweree’s feature debut, “Absence,” except a missed opportunity. It opens promisingly enough, when a woman in the third trimester of her pregnancy wakes up one morning to discover the fetus is no longer in her womb and there’s no medical explanation for its disappearance. Naturally, the terrible news travels quickly to police investigators and friends who’ve kept track of Liz’ pregnancy. The immediate suspicion is that the woman and her husband, Rick, couldn’t deal with the baby’s birth and they got rid of it. Post-partum depression can make a mother do terrible things and some fathers lose any interest in parenthood if their child is likely to be deformed or otherwise challenged. The trouble with those theories is that doctors found no signs of a baby’s birth, miscarriage or abortion. Neither could police discover any evidence that the fetus was killed or disposed of in some hideous way. Moreover, the expectant parents’ grief and astonishment seem genuine. We’re advised ahead of time that in 20 percent of all violent infant kidnappings, the babies are removed directly from the mother’s body via caesarian section. That, too, however, would have left a scar for doctors to find. So far, so good.

After some time has passed, Rick and Liz decide to take the tragedy off their minds by renting a cabin in the mountains. And, this is precisely where the picture begins to go sideways. Instead of following through on the original premise, Loweree decided to go all found-footage on us. It may be a cheap, quick and easy means to an end, but, here, it insults our intelligence. Disaster strikes, in the form of Liz’ brother Evan, who hopes on-camera interviews will reveal some truth hidden deep in the subconscious mind of the married couple. But, Evan doesn’t stop there. He records practically every second of their time together and, worse, provides a running commentary complete with stupid jokes and moronic observations. Almost none of it is pertinent. As long as he keeps shooting, though, the easier it is for Loweree to introduce bizarre occurrences that will end up on the found-footage. Evan is so annoying, though, we stop caring where the baby went and who or what is responsible for its disappearance. There are a few good jump-scares along the way to a more-or-less predictable ending. By then, however, the thrill is long gone. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a making-of featurette. The good news for Loweree is that mistakes are only lessons waiting to be learned. – Gary Dretzka

The Muppet Movie: The Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Chihuahua Too!
Winx Club: Magical Adventure
Cartoon Network: Totally Spies!: Top-Secret Missions/Wild Style
It’s worth remembering, perhaps, that when “The Muppet Movie” was released in 1979, Jim Henson was very much alive, “The Muppet Show” was a mainstay of syndicated television and the company was still in family hands. Two years ago, under the Disney umbrella, “The Muppets” proved there still was some life left in the old franchise. It effectively reintroduced Kermit and the gang to an audience that hadn’t seen them in a feature-length film for 12 years by following the same basic formula as the nearly 35-year-old “The Muppet Movie.” The strategy impressed critics, delighted audiences and ensured a sequel would soon follow. Like its predecessor, “The Muppets” overflowed with original songs, wisecracking puppets, celebrity cameos and an anarchic approach to life in general. The folks at Disney must have been busting at the seams to release the Blu-ray edition of “The Muppet Movie,” if only to whet kids’ appetites for the 2014 release of “Muppets Most Wanted.” Can it be nearly 35 years ago that Kermit decided to leave his swampland home and head for the hills of Hollywood to launch an all-puppet comedy revue? Actually, he didn’t know what he’s find in California. Things just kind of materialized as he went further west, always trying to stay one or two hops ahead of fast-food magnate Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), who was in need of a spokesfrog for his restaurant franchise. Among the then-famous faces that appeared in cameos were James Coburn, Dom DeLuise, Madeleine Kahn, Steve Martin, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Carol Kane, Cloris Leachman, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Telly Savalas, Elliot Gould, Orson Welles, Big Bird and the beloved ventriloquist team of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Today, those names are virtually meaningless to kids in the target demographic who were born after Henson’s too-early death. Parents won’t have trouble remembering the actors, though, so, for them, Kermit’s ride will be a trip down Memory Lane. The Paul Williams score holds up very well and Kermit’s bicycle skills remain a magical mystery. The Blu-ray package for “The Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition” adds director Jim Frawley’s “Extended Camera,” with previously unseen footage; an interactive intermission, starring the Muppets; the featurette, “Kermit: A Frog’s Life”; an all-new interactive “Frog-E-Oke Sing-Along”; a commercial for Doc Hooper’s French-fried frog-legs restaurant; original trailers; and a digital copy of the film.

Years before Chihuahuas became the purse-dog of choice among spoiled Hollywood starlets and wannabes, they were best-known as the pets so tiny they could fit into tea cups. We knew this because that’s how the wee things appeared in advertisements found in the back of comic books. The breed actually has an interesting history and deserved better than being sold between ads for X-Ray Specs and “amazing” Ant Farms. The huge success of “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” prompted Disney to build a video-original franchise around them. Then came a pair of knockoffs from Engine 15 Media Group: “The Chihuahua Movie” and “Chihuahua Too!” Even though, according to IMDB.com, the latter title doesn’t exist, I have a screener copy on my DVD player right now. You can tell how much of a budget the production was accorded by how little the lips of the dogs move when they’re “talking.” No matter. Younger children who love dogs probably will find something in “Chihuahua Too” to enjoy, if only the silly ghost story in which they appear. Here, the Fastener family moves into an old family vacation home, which is haunted by a deceased relative’s movie-star dog, Sophie. Homer, their golden retriever, is the only one who can see and converse with Sophie, even though the pup makes his presence known to the family in the same way that a poltergeist does. The Fastener children are perfectly willing to go along with Homer’s instinct and enlist Sophie in their quest to save the house from being sold out from under them.

At first glance, it appears that the primary claim to fame for Iginio Straffi’s “The Winx Club” is that it’s the first animated series from Italy to be sold and shown in the American market. A closer look reveals a highly successful franchise that’s been shown here on Fox’s 4Kids bloc and Nickelodeon. On the show’s website, Straffi explains, “‘Winx Club’ is an action and fantasy show combined with comedic elements. In the mystical dimension of Magix, three special schools educate modern fairies, ambitious witches and supernatural warriors, and wizards from all over the magical universe.” Sounds to me like a hybrid of “Harry Potter” and Sookie’s fantasies on “True Blood.” “Winx Club: Magic Adventure” is the second feature-length movie in the franchise. It was originally shot in 3D, but that version hasn’t yet made it to the U.S. Apparently, the movie has been edited to correspond with questionable editing decisions in the TV series. Only true-blue fans are likely to know the difference. The DVD adds seven bonus episodes from Season Five, including “The Rise of Tritannus” and “The Power of Harmonix.”

If the pampered teens in “Clueless” weren’t the inspiration for Sam, Alex and Clover in Cartoon Network’s “Totally Spies!: ‘Top-Secret Missions’/‘Wild Style,’” I can’t imagine a more appropriate trio to copy. The press material refers to them as “three typical high school girls and best of friends.” Typical, perhaps, if that school is in the 90210 area code, because these ladies want for nothing and spend most of their free time at the mall. It is while shopping that they discover their calling as international secret agents for WOOHP: the World Organization of Human Protection. Besides playing 007, however, they must complete their studies and shop until they drop. The bonus material includes tips for making your own door hanger. – Gary Dretzka

The Good Life
In this urban morality tale, a cheating husband prays to God that his lover won’t spill the beans to his wife, who’s also having an affair. That’s relevant only because co-writer/director Christopher Nolen implies in a postscript that God is so benevolent, he’ll make time in his busy schedule to help a sinner maintain his secret and forgive him his trespasses. While it’s entirely possible that the deity would forgive someone who’s truly contrite about his transgression and opens up to his wife about it, I doubt the jerk would get off that easy. Since the wife is also feeling guilty about her affair, it’s also possible that the Lord called the whole thing a draw and went on to more pressing business. I wouldn’t bet much money that this is what happened to the couple in Nolen’s “The Good Life,” but the producers of some faith-based movies would like to think such sanctified endings are what the urban (a.k.a., African-American) audiences comes to see. If that were the case, however, God probably wouldn’t have consigned “The Good Life” to straight-to-DVD purgatory.

In it, Richard Gallion plays straying letch Jacques Vandeley – no relation to George Costanza’s alter ego, Art Vandelay — opposite the lovely TanGi Miller. Gallion recently wrote an article for Essence titled, “Why My Wife Forgave Me for Cheating.” In his case, before God would let him back in the fold, he was required to admit to the mother of his legitimate child that there was a second baby momma in his life. His character here only has to devise a way to keep his lover from spilling the beans to his wife. The actress’ name, get this, is Honey Lane (Maya Gilbert). Apparently, there’s a decent-sized market for this sort of thing, because I get review screeners from the same distributors on an average of once a month. Some are pretty sexy, while others aren’t ready for prime time. All carry a faith-based message for the universally attractive and mostly seasoned actors to endorse. These films may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the cast and crew members don’t cheat those who’ve invested in a purchase or rental to see them. – Gary Dretzka

Schoolgirl Report 10: Every Girl Starts Sometime
With the wildly hyped opening of “Lovelace” now behind us, it’s worth recalling that the mainstreaming of porn – launched by “Deep Throat” — was occurring, as well, in many other countries around the world. To avoid the appearance of fully endorsing explicit eroticism of the hard-core persuasion, some countries provided guidelines for filmmakers that bordered on the ridiculous. Japan, for example, famously required the blurring of naughty bits, while censors in several countries in northern Europe only allowed content that was deemed educational in nature. The sex-positive movies in the popular German “Schoolgirl Report” series skirted the “educational” onus by creating themes based on material lifted from scholarly studies. The actors gleefully dramatized – satirized, as well, in many storylines – these fully researched observations, which, of course, were intended to be taken seriously by sociologists and educators. “Schoolgirl Report 10: Every Girl Starts Sometime” opens with a classroom discussion, during which a teacher provides an example of how parents and law-enforcement officials sometimes are manipulated by teenagers trapped in the nether zone between adolescence and womanhood. The sexually precocious girl in question here holds a grudge against a teacher who spurned her advances. It manifests itself in the form of a more successful attempt to lose her virginity to a boy sadly untrained in the erotic arts. She takes out her disappointment by telling her mother that it was the teacher who stole her maidenhead and, in turn, her mom took the accusation to police. Much time is spent, thereafter, recreating the possible scenarios that led to the charges being filed. The moral of the story, of course, is that little girls who cry wolf make things worse for those little girls who actually are abused by men in positions of power. The payoff for fans of the series is plenty of skin. If the hypocrisy is too obvious to miss, well, it is a distinction that probably was lost on the audience fixated on the soft-core sex. The vignette is one of several others in the movie, all of which practically look Victorian, by now. Unlike some artifacts from era long past, “Schoolgirl Report” still retains its ability to entertain. It also has benefited greatly from a good scrubbing by the folks at Image Entertainment. — Gary Dretzka

Syfy: Super Storm: Blu-ray
NBC: Community: The Complete Fourth Season
USA: Political Animals: The Complete Series
TNT: Southland: The Complete Fifth and Final Season
Cartoon Network: The Amazing World of Gumball: The Party
Like cheese at a gourmet delicatessen, Syfy movies come in all shapes, sizes, colors and odors. What makes one a hit and another a miss is a mystery best left to the TV gods. Somehow, “Sharknado” caused a sensation denied other equally improbable titles and mutant-shark stories. It could simply be that Tara Reid, Ian Ziering and John Heard have more fans than even they know exist or some primal fear of flying sharks. If the latter is true, “Super Storm” might have fared better if the malfunction affecting Jupiter’s red spot was caused by a school of rocket-propelled hammerheads. The storm is pretty nasty, though, even without flying predators. In any case, the mysterious disappearance of the planet’s giant pimple coincides with a wave of calamitous electrical storms and powerful
mega-cyclones on Earth. As frequently happens in Syfy movies, only a coalition of brave teenagers and amateur scientists is able to discover ways to end the misery. Here, these include characters played by David Sutcliffe (“Private Practice”), Erica Cerra (“Eureka”), Brett Dier (“The L.A. Complex”), Leah Cairns (“Battlestar Galactica”), Luisa D’Oliveira (Seeds of Destruction”) and Mitch Pileggi (“The X-Files”). The producers and director, who shall remain nameless, also were responsible for “Ice Quake,” “Iron Invader,” “Stonehenge Apocalypse” and “Snowmageddon.”

Few television series experience the same internecine drama and network interference as “Community” has in its four years on NBC, then survive to satirize it. Created by the notoriously prickly Dan Harmon, “Community” has been teetering on the edge of cancellation for as long as it’s been on the air and Season Four was no exception. The craziness began when it was announced that Harmon was being replaced as showrunner by David Guarascio and Moses Port and other top-level staffers were leaving, as well. The season opener was delayed from October to February and, later, Chevy Chase threw a temper tantrum that caused him to exit the series. Critics were largely unimpressed by the changes, but, somehow, the consistently inventive “Community” attracted enough viewers in the right demographic to warrant a fifth season, albeit one limited to 13 episodes. In May, as well, NBC announced that Harmon would return as showrunner, along with former writer Chris McKenna. Sadly, Donald Glover’s character, Troy, is only expected to appear in five of the episodes. Perhaps the weirdest thing about the fourth stanza was the placement of the episodes. The show that would have run before Halloween debuted on Valentine’s Day, while the special Thanksgiving show aired on March 7 and the Sadie Hawkins Day dance took place in April, causing Britta to arrange a Sophie B. Hawkins soiree. (DVD buyers won’t notice the calendar confusion.) The highlight of the season for many fans was “Intro to Felt Surrogacy,” during which the characters were given puppet doppelgangers, as therapy, by the nutzo dean. The DVD extras include such “uncensored” special features as deleted and extended scenes, outtakes, commentary and the behind-the-scenes featurettes, “Inspector Spacetime Inspection” and “Adventures in Advanced Puppetry.”

I don’t know what’s worse: affairs of state conducted in the public eye or the affairs of statesmen carried on behind closed doors. Either way, someone is getting screwed and taxpayers end up paying for it. USA Network’s six-part mini-series, “Political Animals,” gave us a view of official Washington that used the antics of the Clinton and Reagan families as a jumping-off point for an edgy prime-time soap opera. Sigourney Weaver stars as Elaine Barrish Hammond, a former First Lady and current Secretary of State, who divorced her philandering husband (Cieran Hinds) after losing a primary election of her own. The former POTUS is a still-handsome man who affects a good-ol’-boy persona to attract much-younger women and keep himself in the loop. Hammond could easily be confused with a Hillary Clinton surrogate in that she’s frequently been embarrassed by her husband’s behavior. The difference is that this woman was courageous enough to divorce him before she could sustain yet another public humiliation. She also is required, as a mother, to tend to adult children who could overdose at any minute or spill family secrets to the reporter (Carla Gugino) assigned to do a hatchet job on her. (The antics of the Reagan brood would have filled the pages of the tabs, if they existed in the same multitude as today.) If that weren’t enough weirdness for one mini-series, Hammond’s mother acts as if she still was a showgirl in Las Vegas. And, those are just the soap-opera elements. The political stuff is much heavier. I assume, by the cliffhanger ending of the sixth episode, that USA intended for “Political Animals” to find the audience it needed to green-light a second season. It didn’t and the cliffhanger is still out there waiting to be concluded. I enjoyed the show, but can see how people allergic to the ugliness of politics might not. The DVD adds some unaired material.

After a near-death experience in its first season on NBC, the terrific police drama “Southland” (a.k.a., “SouthLAnd”) moved to TNT, where it found a loyal and enthusiastic audience. Created by Ann Biderman (“Ray Donovan”) and exec-produced by John Wells and Christopher Chulack (“ER”), the show takes a 24/7 cop’s-eye view of life in Los Angeles, including their private affairs. In that way, at least, it resembled the excellent 1970s anthology series, “Police Story,” created by Joseph Wambaugh. Forty years removed from that groundbreaking show, the writers of “Southland” were allowed the same degree of creative freedom accorded such shows as “The Shield,” “Rescue Me,” “The Wire” and, of course, “NYPD Blue.” The ensemble cast shared the spotlight directly and indirectly, as extended storylines would be timed to come to a head for individual cops in something of a sequential order. Anyone who missed the show after it left NBC owes it to themselves to pick up the complete-season packages now available on DVD. The set contains all 10 episodes of the fifth and final season, as well as unaired scenes, cast interviews and language deemed too rough for basic cable.

When television-watchdog groups complain about the lack of family programming, it’s never clear what kinds of families they’re discussing. “The Waltons” was a show that appealed to kids, their parents and grandparents, mostly because the producers included characters in those age groups in the various storylines. In a very different way, “The Flintstones” accomplished the same thing. For most of the last 30-40 years, family programming has consisted of sitcoms in which young persons accept life lessons previously rejected when brought up by their parents over the dinner table. I remember walking into a northern Indiana restaurant early one afternoon, many moons ago, and the bar was lined with sots watching “Bozo’s Circus,” which WGN then aired at noon to catch the kids at home for lunch. When the Chicago school system stopped allowing students to go home for lunch, “Bozo,” too, it ceased being entertainment the whole family could enjoy. Watching “The Amazing World of Gumball: The Party,” it struck me that it is one of many new-school cartoon shows whose kooky sense of humor and odd-looking characters might appeal to kids and adults, especially those who read underground comix and smoked grass in their youth. The new collection represents the last 12 episodes, of 36, from show’s first season. Frankly, I don’t know what would prevent Comedy Network from releasing Season Two in a complete-season package, but the discount price for this one-third-season disc is reasonable. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

To the Wonder: Blu-ray
There was a time in Bob Dylan’s career when he required of his fans that they wait years between his new live performances and albums. Since June 7, 1988, however, his Never Ending Tour has made him as familiar on the stages of the world as “Cats.” Likewise, the brilliant, if reclusive Terrence Malick gained a reputation for spacing his movies with nearly the same frequency as Democratic administrations in Washington. Since the 2011 release of “The Tree of Life,” though, he’s put four titles on his to-do list, including “To the Wonder” and the delayed IMAX documentary project, “Voyage of Time.” Judging by the critical and commercial response to “To the Wonder,” many longtime admirers wish he’d skipped it altogether and gone straight to his cycle-of-the-universe’s trilogy. Many Dylan obsessives wished that His Holiness had kept his romance with evangelical Christianity to himself, as well, but that would have required ignoring the excellent songs inspired by his conversion, however brief. The same reserve of final judgment, I believe, should apply to “To the Wonder.” Like “The Tree of Life,” it is informed by events in Malick’s personal life and their impact on him. Fair enough. He wouldn’t be the first artist to overestimate the intrigue of past romances. Clearly, they didn’t resonate with viewers who prefer to watch movies that tell a story, introduce us to compelling characters and offer something resembling action, drama, fright or humor. Instead, “To the Wonder” was replete with museum-quality abstractions.

“To the Wonder” recalls two oft-quoted observations about the kind of people we find around us every day, but don’t often meet in the movies: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them” (Henry David Thoreau) and “There are no second acts in American lives” (F. Scott Fitzgerald). Malick challenges us to find the song buried deep within Neil, Marina, Jane and Father Quintana (Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem) and imagine what the second acts in their lives might turn out to be, if any. Many viewers will find the investment of 112 minutes of their precious time to be rewarding … others, not so. As the movie opens, Oklahoma real-estate developer Neil and French single-mother Marina are enjoying a fairytale romance, scampering along the boulevards in Paris and kicking at the tide water lapping the barricades of Mont Saint-Michel. As Cupid’s arrow would dictate, the world-class beauty inexplicably agrees to follow him to his hometown, which is to Paris what a Kellogg’s Pop-Tart is to a delicate French soufflé. It’s the kind of Midwestern burg whose most prominent landmark is its water tower and high school sports rival revival meetings as magnets for thrill-seekers. There are no fairytales to be found in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, romantic or otherwise. When Marina’s visa expires and she returns to Europe to weigh her options, the increasingly stand-offish Neil reconnects temporarily with an old friend, Jane. She’s also a gem, but more of the prom-queen or head-cheerleader variety. Meanwhile, as eloquently portrayed by Bardem, the good padre is desperately attempting to summon the wisdom of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost in one last effort to find meaning in such everyday duties as counseling troubled couples, most of whom shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place; comforting elderly and critically ill parishioners; calming the occasional meth abuser; and listening to the echoes of unanswered prayers in the cavernous nave of his church. Father Quintana also seeks Christ in his regular visits to the nearby prison, where he chats with hardened criminals and passes Communion hosts through the slats of cell doors. A good man who exudes actual Christian values, he frequently looks like someone plagued by the possibility that bad karma played more of a roll than a direct calling from the Lord in his being posted in the middle of America’s Protestant ghetto.

Likewise, we can’t help but wonder how long a woman as graceful, free-spirited and cosmopolitan as Marina is going to last in Pawhuska – imagine Secretariat as a cavalry steed in a bad Western — in the company of a man whose job requires him to slosh around polluted streams and convince potential buyers their homes won’t be polluted by the byproducts of fracking. He’s not unlikeable, merely average. As for the potential of second acts in the lives of the people we meet, they likely would come to the fore if a tornado demolished the town and their acts of bravery, sacrifice and charity were revealed by reporters for 24-hour news networks. Theroux and Fitzgerald captured this trait in Americans, who, then and now, aren’t at all troubled by the fact that their songs aren’t routinely interrupted by war, genocide, fascist bullies, in-bred royalty and ancient blood feuds. It makes us who we are, after all, and, by not relying entirely on professional actors, Malick honors his characters. Oklahoma may not be the most scenic of locations, either, but his regular DP Emmanuel Lubezki captures the painterly beauty to be found in the clouds, sunsets, tortured landscapes and amber waves of grain of mid-America. An amber-tinged scene in which Neil and Jane stroll among a herd of bison in Oklahoma’s Tallgrass Prairie Reserve is worth the price of a rental, itself, as are magic-hour sequences that recall “Days of Heaven” and its references to Andrew Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World.” It was OK by me, as well, that Hanan Townshend’s elegant score completely ignores the likelihood that country music is the preferred soundtrack to the lives of the town’s residents. In another familiar Malick conceit, most of the characters’ thoughts are conveyed in whispers and inner dialogues, promoting the pre-credits suggestion that we turn up the volume on our system’s speakers. The Blu-ray edition, which is absolutely gorgeous, adds four decent, if not revelatory making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Oblivion: Blu-ray
Frequently, Joseph Kosinski’s bleak sci-fi romance, “Oblivion,” reads like a live-action version of “WALL-E,” with Tom Cruise in the role of the charismatic robot. That isn’t to imply that Cruise’s portrayal is robotic, only that both characters spend a great deal of time on a desecrated Earth, alone, except for their thoughts and encrypted sense of mission. In “WALL-E,” the scavenger robot inspects and collects objects of a civilization instantly recognizable to viewers, but a constant source of wonder and astonishment for him. Cruise’s intrepid astronaut and mechanic, Jack Harper, surveys a landscape that’s empty, except for occasional architectural reminders of what existed here. If “Oblivion” also seems to have been informed by “The Planet of the Apes” and a half-dozen other sci-fi classics, well, that’s probably no accident, either. As the story goes, sometime in the next 60-plus years, Scav aliens attack Earth in an effort to extract any resources deemed necessary to their survival. In the ensuing conflagration, the Scavs are largely repulsed, but what’s left of humanity has relocated to Titan, a moon of Saturn. Harper is part of team responsible for repairing damaged fighting and recon vehicles and, if necessary, eradicating any Scavs left behind to destroy remaining resources, including water, valuable to the displaced Earthlings. As such, he’s able to flit around the planet in a cool pod-like spacecraft, with drones protecting him from above. He takes orders from his girlfriend/dispatcher Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who remains behind in a wonderfully conceived module built mostly of glass. Victoria, in turn, takes her directives from a video overlord, Sally (Melissa Leo), who may or may not be what she/it appears to be. Anyway, the movie’s moment of existential truth arrives when Harper discovers the survivor of an accident involving a transporter, seemingly from years past. We recognize her as Julia, the woman of his dreams (Olga Kurylenko), which contain hints of a previous lifetime he’s told he couldn’t have experienced. Julia recognizes him, as well, but not the warrior living just below the surface of his skin. Flashbacks begin to haunt Jack, as he begins to understand how such artifacts as a baseball hat and Elvis statuette fit into his genetic code.

The revelations not only threaten the overlord, but also Jack’s fragile relationship with Victoria. We sympathize with her as we would any victim of an author’s fickle finger of fate. Then, when he comes across a community of surviving Earthlings — led by the coolly bespectacled Morgan Freeman — things really begin to get perplexing for Jack. He had, after all, managed to locate a small, green corner of the ravaged Earth and carved out what he imagines to be a retirement home. Comparisons to the Book of Genesis, here, probably wouldn’t be discouraged by Kosinski. How interesting viewers will find “Oblivion” to be, in total, depends entirely by one’s taste in sci-fi. Some genre fans may not find their appetite for video-game action satisfied, while those who favor more cerebral stories could find the plot twists to be less than revelatory. The producers of “Oblivion” appear to have preferred taking the middle-of-the-road approach, a strategy that failed to spark much of fire at the box office. As visually appealing as the movie is, it’s likely that Tom Cruise’s name on the marquee meant more than any familiarity with the material on which it’s based. His fans trust him to deliver the goods and he rarely, if ever disappoints them. Kosinski, best known for “TRON: Legacy,” adapted “Oblivion” from his own graphic novel, along with writers Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”) and Karl Gajdusek (“Last Resort”), so there was no confusion about the author’s intentions, at least. Neither should there be any question about the quality of the Blu-ray release, which is of such high audio/visual quality that the high-def presentation easily recommends itself for purchase or rental. Kosinski and Cruise’s presence enhance the commentary, as well as the disc’s extensive 48-minute making-of featurette. There are a few deleted scenes and the film’s isolated score, by M83, presented in 24-bit/96kHz Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround. – Gary Dretzka

Magic Magic: Blu-ray
For those of you keeping score at home, “Magic Magic” is the movie Michael Cera made with rising Chilean director Sebastian Silva (“The Maid”) while they were waiting for financing to come through on “Crystal Fairy.” Shot in completely different corners of Silva’s beautiful homeland, both not only debuted at the 2013 Sundance soiree, but they also feature characters who demonstrate what can happen when the wrong people take drugs. Here, Cera plays an annoying American nitwit/nerd, who decided to stay in Chile after his semester-abroad program expired. He’s made friends with several college-age locals, who treat him like a combination idiot savant and court jester, and enjoy mocking his Spanish. Into this congenial group of amigos and amigas arrives an emotionally fragile American girl, Alicia, played by Juno Temple. Alicia expects to be spending most of her time away from California in Santiago, with her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning), not on an adventure with people she’s never met. After Sarah is called back to the capital on some unfinished school business, Alicia is shanghaied into traveling with the group to an isolated island off the southern coast. Cera’s character, Brink, thinks it might be fun to play games with Alicia’s head by getting her drunk or stoned on substances that tend to put her into a comatose state.

Having seen dozens of movies in which young people stranded in out-of-the-way locations are threatened by serial killers or go psycho on each other, I couldn’t help but anticipate the moment when Brink or Alicia picks up a butcher knife and “Magic Magic” becomes just another slasher flick. Silva, working off his own screenplay, is too sharp a filmmaker to settle for just another anything. He finds terror in unexpected places, including inside Alicia’s head and in the pathetic reactions to her condition by the others. The only people who ultimately know what they’re doing, not surprisingly, are some native islanders whose experiences with bad-craziness reach back generations and generally can be cured with herbs and incantations. Cera and Temple are entirely credible as dweebs in distress, while Browning, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Agustin Silva are fine as bourgeois Chilean students. Christopher Doyle and Glenn Kaplan’s cinematography looks great on Blu-ray, as it emphasizes both the area’s natural beauty and the spooky all-encompassing darkness that prevails after the sun retreats. Also included is a short making-featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal: Blu-ray
If the title of this decidedly goofy Canadian/Danish co-production doesn’t tip viewers off to what’s in store for them in the next 90 minutes, writer/director Boris Rodriguez’ darkly comic screenplay wastes little time laying out the rest of its cards. A once prominent painter, Lars (Thure Lindhardt), has decided to work out his artist’s block by accepting a teaching position in the snowy wilds of Ontario (the actors speak English). The tiny school’s late benefactor has endowed it generously, but on the condition that her unbalanced nephew – the title character (Dylan Smith) – be treated with the same respect due any student. Being a handful to control, especially when he’s sleepwalking, Eddie’s care and artistic welfare is placed in the hands of the newcomer. It doesn’t take more than a matter of minutes before we understand precisely how one man’s obsession could benefit the other, as well as the school’s financial status. “Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal” is balanced precariously on the premise that, while art can sooth the savage breast, the business of art is rarely pretty. In fact, when large amounts of money are at stake, it can be downright ugly. And, while Lars doesn’t feel particularly good about exploiting Eddie’s cravings, an artist knows that any muse is better than none. For the most part, Rodriguez’ humor runs exceedingly dark and martini dry. It’s broad enough to include an SCTV-variety cop who can’t abide outsiders and vows to make Lars’ stay in the Great White North miserable. At its best, “Eddie” recalls such similarly offbeat horror flicks as “Shaun of the Dead,” “Dead Snow” and “Rare Exports.” The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette and an earlier Rodriguez short. – Gary Dretzka

Swamp Thing: Blu-ray
Zombie Massacre: Blu-ray
I’ve yet to watch “Sharknado,” but I’ve reviewed enough made-for-Syfy epics to know why it appealed to people who normally wouldn’t be found, dead or alive, on the network. Only H.G. Wells’ infamous creation, Doctor Moreau, has done more for dubious science of vivisection than the producers of original movies for the cable network and he didn’t enjoy the advantage of genetic engineering. Typically, a scientific accident or natural disaster somehow causes famously predatory animals to mutate hideously and attack B- and C-list actors, impersonating government-funded researchers, overmatched law-enforcement officials and unsuspecting tourists. Roger Corman advanced the formula for the amusement of drive-in audiences and, minus the occasional topless ingénue, gave Syfy its first audience-pleasing releases. A production company known as the Asylum is responsible for “Sharknado,” but it fits neatly alongside such campy Corman-esque titles as “Arachnoquake,” “Piranhaconda,” “Jersey Shore Shark Attack,” “Mega Python vs. Gatoroid” and “Sharktopus.” Instead of drive-in habitués, such movies are made to be enjoyed by adolescents whose parents refuse to accompany them to see R-rated fare at the local megaplex and hard-core stoners on the same wavelength as the screenwriters and directors. Thirty-one years ago, “Swamp Thing” received several decent reviews from important mainstream critics, who hailed it as a surprisingly entertaining and reasonably well made diversion. To justify their amusement, the pundits described it as a guilty pleasure. More importantly than any critic’s opinion of a grindhouse feature, Wes Craven’s first feature after 1977’s “The Hills Have Eyes” was also deemed buzz-worthy by the great unwashed. Remarkably, audiences fell in love with the 91-minute, PG-rated “American version” of “Swamp Thing,” which only hinted at the reason Adrienne Barbeau would henceforth be nicknamed, Adrienne Barboob, by sophomore humorists.

Footage of the actress emerging from the murky waters of a bayou, a la Botticelli’s Venus on the Half Shell, was restored for the international marketplace, where, presumably, audience members had seen breasts and weren’t likely to commit abhorrent acts after seeing those belonging to Carol, on “Maude.” Americans, of course, couldn’t be trusted with such a tantalizing vision. They reappeared on the still-PG-rated, 93-minute DVD edition, released in 2000, but were pulled from video-store shelves after a dimwitted Dallas housewife rented it at her local Blockbuster and, completely ignoring the parental-guidance admonishment, used it as a babysitter for her children. Much to the dismay of teenage boys everywhere, the American version was re-issued by MGM in 2005 video release. (A perusal of Mr. Skin’s website would have satisfied their curiosity.) Shout Factory’s new Blu-ray edition not only contains the missing two minutes, but also Barbeau’s amusing recollections of the controversy, which, in fact, caught her by surprise.

Barbeau plays a government agent, Alice Cable, sent to the swamps of Louisiana (Charleston, S.C., actually) to protect scientists working on project using recombinant DNA to create “a plant with an animal’s aggressive power for survival.” While attempting to keep a gang of guerrillas straight out of Woody Allen’s “Bananas” from stealing the substance, one of the researchers infects himself with the chemical cocktail. The rebels use Alice as bait to attract Swamp Thing, but, instead, he becomes Alice’s guardian angel, using his superpowers to overwhelm their every advance. It takes a while for her to recognize the creature from the brackish lagoon as the scientist she was assigned to protect, but, when she does, “Swamp Thing” becomes a cult-friendly version of “Beauty and the Beast.” The creature’s costume is laughable, even by 1980s’ standards, but the story, which was rooted in DC Comics mythology, had enough heart and action to keep viewers interested. Those qualities, when combined with the hypnotic topless scene, allow “Swamp Thing” to maintain its guilty-pleasure status. In the interviews newly attached to the Blu-ray release it is convincingly argued that Craven’s original concept was far less contrived and silly looking than the finished product. He was nickeled-and-dimed by Embassy Pictures, during and after production, to the point where, according to Barbeau, the movie barely resembled the script she read when she signed on to the project. Even so, its popularity prompted a 1989 sequel, a live-action and animated TV series, and the possibility of Swamp Thing being resurrected for a contemporary superhero movie. Apart from Barbeau’s boobs, the version of Craven’s movie now available would find itself right at home on Syfy. The Blu-ray includes three fresh making-of featurettes, which are well worth watching.

Any movie in which Uwe Boll plays the President of the United States, his German accent notwithstanding, is an entertainment that can’t be taken seriously as anything except a very cruel joke on audiences. Boll, who may be the most critically reviled filmmaker on the planet, appears only in a cameo, but it’s enough to put the whole project in question. While it’s likely that the writing/directing team of Luca Boni and Marco Ristori didn’t stray very far from Boll’s genre formula, “Zombie Massacre” (a.k.a., “Apocalypse Z”) demonstrates that the Italians can hold their own with the maestro in illogical plot twists and hyper-gratuitous violence. And, yes, I’m aware that we’re talking about a zombie movie here, not a romantic comedy. What distinguishes “Zombie Massacre” from other undead titles – if only marginally – are the special makeup effects, which are of state-of-the-genre quality. Here, the zombie apocalypse begins on a Romanian military base, where a chemical-weapons experiment goes terribly wrong. A special-forces team is organized to infiltrate the camp to plant a nuclear device, designed to wipe out the threat, but they make plenty of time for kicking the crap out of the ghouls. In the movies, as in real life, going mano-a-mano with decomposing bodies almost never works. The creatures here look, move and growl like most of other movie ghouls, except for the fact that they’re faster and, if anything, more hideous. Typically, too, there’s a point where audiences must decide whether to cheer for the humans or root on the undead. The Boll cameo also demands that we considerable the possibility that it’s an unrealized comedy. The Blu-ray edition adds enough interesting background material to make such questions easier to field. – Gary Dretzka

Amelia’s 25th
My Awkward Sexual Adventure
The curious premise of this amiable, if undernourished Hollywood fairytale is that any actress still struggling by the time she reaches her 25th birthday might as well be dead. Not dead dead, of course, but career dead, which, for citizens of Tinseltown may as be well be dead dead. It’s not true, of course, because every so often a part is written for a woman in her 30s or 40s. What works in the favor of actors of ambiguous age is the odd tendency of producers to cast men and women in their 20s in shows and movies targeted at high school audiences. In the slightly undernourished comedy, “Amelia’s 25th,” the exceedingly cute Electra Avellan – herself, 27 — plays the birthday girl. Amelia has the kind of girlish good looks and unfinished curves that could win her a job as a sophomore, junior or senior on “Glee,” or, with a few splashes of makeup, a woman who must soon decide between a pursuing her career and devoting herself to motherhood. Still, her agent practically declares her career to be dead in the same call as he wishes her a happy birthday. On this day, as well, she’ll have a serious fight with her boyfriend, get an ultimatum from her landlord, botch a couple of auditions and lose a job to a cross-dresser, all the while being forced to absorb all sorts of flaky advice from a photographer pal, an over-the-hill star, the proprietor of a sex shop for plus-size women and a hippy-dippy psychic. In fact, though, if it weren’t for the cameos by such established performers as Danny Trejo, Robert Rodriguez, Jennifer Tilly and Margaret Cho, “Amelia’s 25th” probably would have become just another more movie that couldn’t find financing. As it is, though, Martin Yernazian’s VOD original – from a screenplay by Mark Whittington and Nicholes Cole – does offer some charming moments, not the least of them is a visitation by an exterminator angel who comes to her rescue late in the day with a very special birthday present. The DVD adds some deleted scenes.

My Awkward Sexual Adventure” is an unpretentious romantic comedy from Winnipeg, of all places, that benefits from the strategic use of explicit, if not terribly graphic sexual imagery. The tendency in Hollywood movies is to talk around and about sex, without risking the loss of a PG rating. Network censors are even more protective of the sensitivities of the 1 percent of their audience that’s never considered anything more acrobatic than the missionary position. This is especially true when it comes to oral sex. It is an act of indescribable pleasure that almost everyone on prime-time sitcoms and rom-coms finds hilarious, but no one ever seems to perform. Things are so much more advanced in Winnipeg, wherever it is. Trouble suddenly erupts in the relationship between a nebbishy accountant, Jordan (writer/producer Jonas Chernick), and his girlfriend, Rachel (Sarah Manninen), who, one morning, realizes that he’s a piss-poor lover. In love for as long as either of them can remember, they’ve been in love and on a one-way street leading to marriage. Rachel’s abrupt decision to seek something more satisfying than Jordan’s sleep-inducing foreplay and tragically rapid ejaculations takes him completely by surprises. In fact, Jordan can’t bring himself to believe she isn’t imagining her discontent. Nonetheless, he decides to visit a more experienced friend in Toronto and allow him to work his magic on him. Instead, he finds a willing teacher in a pretty pole dancer, Julia (Emily Hampshire), who trades lessons in cunnilingus for desperately needed financial advice. Evan while acing Julia’s exams, Jordan hopes against hope that Rachel will come to her senses and welcome him back with open arms. After some “awkward” maneuvering, that’s exactly what happens. By the time she does, however, our allegiances have shifted in Julia’s direction. Director Sean Garrity does a nice job holding the audience’s interest, even though the conclusion is of the foregone persuasion. He also saves the nudity for the scenes in which it’s warranted, which is a smart move. As familiar as this outline sounds, “My Awkward Sexual Adventure” feels fresher than it has any right to be. The DVD adds interviews with cast and crew. – Gary Dretzka

King of the Streets: Blu-ray
What may be the most noteworthy thing about “King of the Streets” is the distinction, if true, of it being the first Chinese street-fighting movie not made in Hong Kong. Although the story isn’t all that unusual for the martial-arts genre, there’s plenty of action and it isn’t limited to one martial-arts discipline. It also takes place in a hard-scrabble section of Beijing not often featured in Chinese exports. Professional fighter Yue Song plays the protagonist, Fang, a young man who was sent to prison for avenging the death of his family. Eight year later, he’s released into a society still controlled by mercenary gangs and ruthless capitalists, one of whom, at least, is determined to evict an orphanage from property on which they want to build high-rise building. The more money the developer loses at a Macau casino, the more desperate he becomes to kick the orphans into the streets of the capital. After vowing to reject violence, Fang once again is forced to resort to extreme action to save people he considers to be part of his family. The actors enlisted to engage in mortal combat with Fang were recruited from the ranks of MMA, Jiu-jitsu, Jeet Kune Do, Sanda, and Muay Thai veterans. The diverse array of styles goes a long way to keeping the action from becoming repetitive and predictable, and Song is very good at all of them. He also served as writer, producer and director. – Gary Dretzka

BBC: The Thick of It: Seasons 1-4
History: Top Gear: USA: The Complete Season 3
Showtime: Women Who Kill
The thing that makes the release of all four seasons of the super-smart British political satire, “The Thick of It,” especially relevant is the news that one of its primary players, Peter Capaldi, will become the 12th Doctor Who, and its American cousin, “Veep,” is a candidate in six Emmy categories. As sharp, smart and funny the HBO adaptation is, “The Thick of It” trumps it with universally brilliant acting, spitfire-quick dialogue and a view of democratic politics that borders on the toxic. To ensure that the language stings with the same intensity as the cynicism of the bureaucrats and strategists, the show even has a profanity consultant, Ian Martin, on its staff. The withering insults and retorts are works of art in themselves. Not at all coincidentally, both series were created by Armando Iannucci, as was the brilliant “In the Loop,” which skewered politicians and political operatives on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In “The Thick of It,” most of the action takes place in the fictitious Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, an agency that’s nearly as irrelevant as it is ineptly managed. Capaldi plays the prime minister’s policy enforcer, whose mastery of scathing impromptu diatribes is truly impressive. The new BBC set includes all four seasons and the specials, “The Rise of the Nutters” and “Spinners and Losers”; commentary by Iannucci; deleted scenes and outtakes; behind-the-scenes featurettes; and photo galleries with commentary.

Shown here on the History Channel, “Top Gear: USA” follows closely the pattern laid out by the BBC for its extremely popular “Top Gear,” now entering its 356th season … or thereabouts. The hosts/participants are racing driver Tanner Foust, analyst Rutledge Wood and comic Adam Ferrara. It would be next to impossible to improve on the original series, with its crazy patchwork of celebrity events, daredevil driving and oddball contests. “Top Gear: USA” didn’t take hold immediately with American audiences, who’ve fallen out of love with performance vehicles, manual shifting, distinctive styling and races that involve something more than turning left. It’s nice to know that it’s been renewed for a fourth season, beginning in September. Among the episodes in the Season Three package are “Viking Trucks,” “Minnesota Ice Driving” “Mammoth Mountain,” “Doomsday Drive,” “Taxis,” “The 150 MPH Challenge,” “RVs,” “Police Cars” and “The Tractor Challenge.” The bonus material adds new scenes, background material, host interviews and commentaries.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the comedy racket that, when it comes to joking about sex and gender politics, women can be every bit as profane as male comics. Such ribald women as Rusty Warren and Moms Mabley cut a path for Joan Rivers, Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller to walk through in the 1960s, while widening it for Roseanne Barr, Lily Tomlin and other “liberated” comics of the 1970s and beyond. The only difference between the women represented in the Showtime special, “Women Who Kill” – Amy Schumer, Rachel Feinstein, Marina Franklin and Nikki Glaser — and such established blue comics as Lisa Lampanelli, Kathy Griffin, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman and Mo’Nique is that they all look as if they might have belonged to the same college sorority before joining the standup ranks. The hour-long special is hilarious, but definitely not for the timid. The set is enhanced by the bonus features “The Slumber Party,” “Photo Shoot,” “Gossip in the Makeup Room” and “The Jist of Rachel.” – Gary Dretzka

West of Memphis: Blu-ray
Secrets of the Dead: Bones of the Buddha
Frontline: Outlawed in Pakistan
PBS: The Path to Violence
Anyone interested in how Amy Berg’s startling documentary “West of Memphis” squares with the exhaustive “Paradise Lost” trilogy on the same subject shouldn’t feel alone or uninformed about one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in recent American history. All four films chronicle the original investigation, arrests, trial, convictions and post-verdict maneuverings surrounding the so-called West Memphis Three child murders, which, in the mid-1990s, rocked West Memphis, Arkansas. The HBO project, made by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, was released first in 1996, and, as new evidence warranted, added to in 2000 and 2011. At 147 minutes, “West of Memphis” is able to present a nearly seamless overview of the travesty, by streamlining the historical narrative and revisiting key events, witnesses and evidence. Beyond that, Berg was able to come to a different conclusion as to the person most likely to have committed the crime. “West of Memphis” doesn’t attempt to knock down any of the findings of “Paradise Lost.” In fact, the HBO films are referenced fairly in Berg’s documentary. Neither will viewers of all four films be any less disgusted by the rush to judgment by residents of West Memphis, its police, district attorney and local and national media obsessed with rumors of Satanism and the influence of heavy-metal music. The State of Arkansas still comes off as being far too interested in protecting a corrupt and lazy judiciary than accepting the truth and acting on it. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley may have been released in a plea deal after 17 years in prison – thanks, in large part, to the financial participation of celebrities in the defense campaign – but their names have never been officially cleared. Because of the lack of exoneration, it isn’t likely that anyone in a position of power will actively seek the more likely subject for prosecution. It should be noted that “West of Memphis” contains visual evidence that’s far more graphic than anything in the trilogy, as are some of the first-person recollections. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Berg, Echols and producer Lorri Davis; 88 minutes of deleted scenes; more than an hour’s worth of material from the Toronto Film Festival; and a few additional stories from Echols’ past. Among the celebrities who pushed the defense efforts and appear here are director Peter Jackson, Eddie Vetter, Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, Natalie Maine, Henry Rollins, Barry Scheck, New music is provided Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

Christians have questioned the authenticity of the shroud of Turin for as long as it’s been known to exist. Last week, archeologists on a dig in Turkey revealed that they’d found an urn containing wood they believed to be from the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. It, too, will be scrutinized with the same degree of exactitude reserved for the minerals found on the lunar surface and Mars. In the PBS program, “Secrets of the Dead: Bones of the Buddha,” archeologists were asked to determine if the gold, jewels and the charred bones found by a British landowner buried in a mound in rural India marked the final resting place of the Lord Buddha at the legendary lost city of Kapilavastu. The gold and jewels now belong to the planter’s grandson, who lives in a suburban bungalow in England. According to a leading expert on ancient Indian languages, the markings on some of the artifacts match those of other objects from the period he’s seen. The only problem is that there’s a difference of 150-200 years between the assumed burial date and the earliest known use of the alphabet identifying an urn as the one that carried Buddha’s ashes. The researchers are given that mystery to solve, as well. Like most other episodes of the “Secrets of the Dead” I’ve seen, “Bones of the Buddha” is absolutely fascinating and credible.

A new “Frontline” presentation, “Outlawed in Pakistan,” throws one huge curve at viewers during what we assume is yet another justified indictment of injustice for women in the Muslim world. It’s an inarguable fact that men literally are allowed to get away with murder and rape, under the protections granted them through Sharia Law. The U.S. deplores such abuses when they occur in Pakistan and Iran, but ignore them in Saudi Arabia. Here, filmmakers Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellmann spent several years following the case of 13-year-old Kainat Soomro, who claims to have been drugged and raped by several men on her way home from school. Because of the men’s ties to the local tribal leader, however, her complaint wouldn’t have reached a higher court if her family didn’t openly protest the injustice and national women’s groups didn’t support her challenge. Although the men claimed their innocence, the negative publicity prompted a judge to imprison them for two years in advance of a trial. (This, itself, might have been a miscarriage of justice.) The biggest stumbling block for Kainat all along was a lack of evidence against the men she accused of the crime. Local police assumed she was lying, so neglected to collect material from the crime scene. Advanced DNA technology wasn’t available, either. Because of this, it was a girl’s word against those of four men and a gaggle of Koran-thumping loudmouths. It’s interesting that the case attracted two of the top lawyers in Pakistan and their insight is crucial to understanding how things might play out, including the murder of Kainat’s brother and a possible attempt on her life and that of her mother. What I wasn’t prepared to see, however, was evidence presented by the defense, in mid-trial, that practically destroyed the girl’s case and our belief in what happened to her. In the western world, a prosecutor may have had the wherewithal to refute all of it. In Pakistan, however, it opened the door to an injustice potentially as great as the rape. If my view of justice for women in Pakistan and other Islamic Republics wasn’t shaken by the verdict or its aftermath, the documentary tested my assumptions about “Frontline” and its willingness to go out on an increasingly slim limb in support of an inarguably fascinating subject.

In PBS’s continuing effort to make sense of mass murders in our schools, “The Path to Violence” examines how educators, police and parents have combined their efforts to prevent future horrors. Because more than 120 school assaults have been thwarted in the past 10 years, there’s a ready body of evidence upon which to draw conclusions, even if the potential perpetrators don’t fit any firm stereotype. Among the remarkable discoveries is how often the troubled teens share their plans with others and the reasons classmates frequently honor some twisted code of silence. Communication between teenagers, parents, school psychologists and teachers has proven to be a more efficient deterrent than any boost in security systems or, as the NRA argues, adding dozens of armed guards to already stretched school budgets. “Path to Violence” promotes the Safe School Initiative, which, in the wake of Sandy Hook, has become an important tool in detecting problem behavior and putting systems in place to deter worst-case scenarios. – Gary Dretzka

Wheels on the Bus: Animal Adventure/All Around the Town
Forty years ago, it would have been as difficult to imagine Roger Daltry voicing a dragon named Argon on a popular children’s series as it would be to foresee a time when angry Who anthems would become the theme songs for several hit crime-detection shows. If Keith Moon were still alive, he might be hosting a late-night talk show. Argon the Dragon is among the animal characters featured in “Wheels on the Bus: Animal Adventure” and “All Around the Town,” the latest collections of episodes from the series of educational DVDs, TV shows, music CDs and downloadable videos created by One Happy Child Productions. They’re intended to teach such early skills as sharing, helping, cooperation and nutrition to young children. “Animal Adventure” and “All Around the Town” combine live-action and animation with old and new “Wheels on the Bus” verses and music. The episodes included here are: “The Reptile Show,” “The Aquarium,” “The Zoo” and “Dolphins and Bugs,” as well as “Life Lessons: Making Friends and Helping Out.” On “All Around the Town,” they’re “Mango Takes His Turn,” “Everyone Has a Job” and “Fairie s Golden Rule,” with more “Life Lessons.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

Cloudburst
Anyone who doubts that there is an institutionalized prejudice against films in which the protagonists are out-lesbians and well past a certain age ought to find a copy of “Cloudburst” and watch it without delay. A film festival favorite, Thomas Fitzgerald’s tremendously affecting road comedy co-stars Oscar-winners Brenda Fricker and Olympia Dukakis as Dot and Stella, partners for the last 31 years in a country that has long refused to recognize their love for each other. Blessedly, things have changed tremendously in Maine in the two years since “Cloudburst” was first shown at the Edmonton International Film Festival. Instead of having to travel all the way to Nova Scotia to get legally married, Dot and Stella could simply visit the local courthouse, apply for a license and exchange vows in front of friends and relatives. That wouldn’t make for much of a movie, though, would it? The drama in “Cloudburst” comes when Dot’s money-grubbing granddaughter decides to end her personal shame by putting the legally blind woman into an old-folks home. Stella’s only recourse is to break her longtime lover out of the facility and get married, thus quashing the granddaughter’s guardianship demands. The so-professed “old dykes” make a wonderfully comic team. At 80 years old, Stella dresses like a cowboy and can out-cuss any sailor on the eastern seaboard. By comparison, Dot’s a spring flower. On their road trip to scenic Nova Scotia, they pick up a handsome young hitchhiker on the way north to visit his seriously ill mother. A modern dancer with an ecumenical view of the world, Prentice (Ryan Doucette) fits neatly between Dot and Stella in the front seat of their truck. On a stop at a beach along the coast, Prentice performs a dance of ecstasy that Dot can actually make out through her seriously blurred vision.

There are potholes on the way to the wedding chapel, of course, but none has been added to the narrative in an artificial or mean-spirited manner. “Cloudburst” unspools at a spirited, if completely natural pace, just as any good road picture should. Neither does Thompson ask us to reference Thelma and Louise, Jack and Neal or even Oscar and Felix. And, when the road trip comes to its intended end, the romance that has informed the story all along comes to the fore. I don’t think it’s necessary to stress how terrific Fricker and Dukakis are in “Cloudburst,” but I will anyway. If the movie had been released in the U.S., both women would have been serious contenders for Oscar and Indie Spirit nominations. Working completely against type, Dukakis’ interpretation of the extremely loud and profane Stella is a thing to behold. Ironically, if either one of the women had been nominated, it would have come in the same year as Christopher Plummer took home an Academy Award for his role in “Beginners.” In it, he plays an elderly gentleman, who, to the consternation of his son, decides to exit the closet after the death of his wife of 44 years. All three of the performances by these veteran actors are cut from the same cloth and can be enjoyed on DVD by people who insist that movies for adults aren’t being made anymore. (For the kiddies, there’s also a fart joke.) “Cloudburst” arrives from Wolfe Video, an independent company that’s distributed films of specific interest to the LGBT community for years, long before “queer cinema” began crossing over to mainstream audiences. The DVD adds interviews and a making-of featurette.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation
I’m old enough to remember when Hasbro introduced G.I. Joe into the marketplace in the 1960s and common wisdom argued that little boys wouldn’t play with dolls, even those in soldier drag. Their sister’s Barbie was the closest thing most young lads came to soft-core porn and those caught playing with dolls risked being branded a sissy. Hasbro understood the distinction and decided to market its G.I. Joe line as “action figures,” instead. Even though the Vietnam War was raging thousands of miles away, Hasbro decided not to draw parallels between the characters and Green Berets already fetishized by John Wayne, singer Barry Sadler and writer Robin Moore. It might have necessitated the creation of enemy action figures in pajama-like uniforms and twigs in their helmets for camouflage. Instead, Hasbro pushed an “Adventure Team” angle, which is just as well, considering the outcome of the war. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the G.I. Joe action figures—with a full range of accessory items—really caught on in the marketplace. In this regard, it got plenty of help from the popularity of “Star Wars” figures. It’s possible that Ronald Reagan’s decision to invade tiny Grenada—an island nation that Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne and Gabby Hayes could have taken by themselves—spurred the resurgence in sales, because, otherwise, the decade was relatively peaceful. Despite reluctance on Hasbro’s part to introduce villainous characters, the G.I. Joe team desperately needed some asses to kick on a regular basis and, in 1982, Cobra Command was born. The first live-action feature film, 2009′s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” may not have returned the kind of money that “Batman” and “Iron Man” did at the box office, but it sold a lot of ancillary products and enough tickets to convince Hasbro and Paramount that a similarly expensive sequel, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” might do likewise. And, thanks to a huge overseas response, it did substantially better than the original.

This time around, “Retaliation” benefitted from the presence of Dwayne Johnson, as Roadblock, and more than enough action to make viewers ignore a plot that makes no logical sense whatsoever. Channing Tatum returns briefly as Duke, along with an international cast of hot-looking actors. Jon M. Chu, whose previous credits include “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” and “Step Up 3D,” took over the reins in the director’s chair, ensuring a “Retaliation” that would more closely resemble a video game or disco than your average action thriller. It helped that Chu, himself, was a collector of G.I. Joe figures and probably knew as much about the franchise as anyone at Paramount. No sooner does the movie open than Cobra wipes out all but three members of G.I. Joe in a dastardly sneak attack. Since Cobra operative Zartan kidnaped and stole the identity of the President of the United States, he’s been able to convince the military that G.I. Joe captured nuclear warheads from Pakistan and now was a threat to world peace. Only Roadblock, Flint and Lady Jaye were able to survive the attack. The distraction allows a Cobra team to free Cobra Commander from a maximum-security prison in Germany. It’s from this point on that it becomes impossible to tell with any certainty who’s in cahoots with Cobra and who might see through its deception and ally themselves with G.I. Joe. The only person in whom Roadblock has complete faith is the retired team commander, played with great enthusiasm by Bruce Willis, who supplies the team with weapons and intelligence. The action then moves to the Himalayas for some truly wild ninja action and Japan, where Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow and Jinx must decide for which team they’re playing.

Back in the U.S.A., Zartan has conned world leaders to gather for a summit meeting at Fort Sumter (Louisiana’s historic Fort Pike), during which he intends to coerce them into giving up their nuclear arsenals so Cobra can control the Earth. Logic demands that no world leaders would bother to attend such a conference, let alone give up their weapons, but, by this time, viewers have agreed to suspend disbelief to the point where anything is possible. So, why not? The ninja battle is right out of the James Bond playbook, down to the exotic women combatants, and is lots of fun to watch. I also enjoyed the killer-bee bombs that are wielded by Cobra fighters. Beyond that, however, “Retaliation” is pretty much a free-for-all staged for the enjoyment of teenage boys. That said, though, the Blu-ray presentation borders on state-of-the-art for action extravaganzas. I assume that 3D edition doesn’t disappoint, but couldn’t say for sure. The bonus package adds commentary, deleted scenes and eight pretty good making-of featurettes. At the beginning, a pre-menu screen allows users to choose either a Joe or Cobra theme. Also included are a DVD and UV digital copy.

The Bronte Sisters: Blu-ray
Last month, the Bank of England announced that novelist Jane Austen will replace naturalist Charles Darwin on the 10-pound note, beginning in 2017. The British and French have always had more ornate fun with their currency than our president-obsessed Treasury officials, although putting Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea on the “golden dollar” was a good first step. It’s not their fault that whoever designed the coin made it indistinguishable from a quarter when digging through one’s pocket. While it’s impossible to say whether any more women writers will be so honored, again, a case could be made for the Bronte sisters, I suppose. In 1979, director Andre Téchiné and writer Pascal Bonitzer collaborated on “The Bronte Sisters,” a masterful biopic that somehow got lost in the cracks between the advent of the video era and today. After being out-of-print and ignored for many years, Cohen Media Group has fully re-mastered the film and sent it out in a splendid Blu-ray edition. The film’s primary selling point, perhaps, is the presence of three of France’s greatest stars, Isabelle Adjani (Emily), Marie-France Pisier (Charlotte) and Isabelle Huppert (Anne), with Pascal Gregory filling the essential role of their brother, Branwell.

What sets Téchiné film apart from most other Victorian-era biographies are his precise attention to period detail and ability to discern the spectral auras of his characters and use them as filters for Bruno Nuytten’s camera. The prevailing color scheme, though, is as muted as the clouds that float ominously above the Yorkshire moors, so frequently traversed by Emily. The brooding skies are reflected, as well, in “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre.” “The Bronte Sisters” also captures the harsh environment created for them by their father, aunts and teachers. As children, the siblings disappeared into imaginary worlds that would inform their poems and novels, which were presented to their first publishers under the pseudonyms of three brothers. The failed romances of Branwell and Charlotte, along with the family’s generally poor health, cast long shadows over much of the film, as well. If this makes “The Bronte Sisters” sound about as a pleasant as a rained-out picnic, well, you may be comforted to know that Téchiné’s original cut timed in at 180 minutes, or an hour longer than the finished product. The Blu-ray does a nice job replicating the 34-year-old film’s sharp visual presentation, including the purposefully subdued land- and seascapes. It adds Dominique Maillet’s illuminating hour-long featurette, “The Ghosts of Haworth,” and, on the audio track, a new conversation between critic Wade Major and Bronte scholar Sue Lonoff de Cuevas.

The Jeffrey Dahmer Files
If Chris James Thompson’s Kickstarter-funded “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” doesn’t break any new ground on the serial killer who made Milwaukee famous, it deserves kudos for capturing something the majority of similar true-crime explorations ignore. Without ignoring the heinous nature of the crimes, the documentary expands on the people who knew Dahmer only as a neighbor or customer, but got caught in media circus, anyway. Thompson combines naturalistic re-creations of Dahmer’s everyday life with no-nonsense recollections from Milwaukee Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jentzen, police detective Patrick Kennedy and neighbor Pamela Bass. Even if none of the 17 killings, dismemberments and cannibalism is dramatized on screen, their descriptions of the crime scene could hardly be more off-putting. We’re also carried back to the morgue and interrogation rooms. Milwaukee is depicted as a city in which an average guy could still make purchases for such items as beer and oil drums with a check and not be asked for an ID. Even with the stench emanating from his apartment, courtesy dictated that he be accorded privacy and the benefit of a doubt. On the other hand, Thompson and Kennedy recognize Milwaukee as a city whose police made decisions—based on racism, homophobia and sheer laziness—that prevented an earlier arrest of Dahmer and, perhaps, the lives of one or more of his victims. The DVD adds an interesting post-screening Q&A, deleted scenes and some making-of material.

Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection: Volume 2: Blu-ray

Once again, Raro Video USA has delivered on its promise to provide American fans of vintage Italian genre flicks with DVDs and Blu-ray products that continue to reflect the qualities that made them as unique and exciting as they were in their heyday. The second volume of the “Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection” adds three films that show different sides of the master’s work than the more gangster-minded “Volume 1” titles: “Caliber 9,” “The Italian Connection,” “The Boss” (a.k.a., “Wipeout”) and “Rulers of the City” (a.k.a., “Mr. Scarface”). The much-in-demand policier “Shoot First, Die Later” (1974) was released into Blu-ray separately two months ago. Anyone who missed it, then, will be rewarded with its inclusion among a pair of other classics, “Naked Violence” (1969) and “Kidnap Syndicate” (1975). In “Shoot First, Die Later,” Luc Merenda plays a highly regarded police detective who is taking syndicate money in exchange for departmental favors. One of those favors requires the detective to hit up his by-the-book father, also a cop, for a file that holds the key to the conviction of a gangster. It’s the kind of story that could have been written about any ambitious cop, anywhere, who works both sides of the street. It’s Di Leo’s stylistic touches that set it apart, however. The Blu-ray arrives with the documentary featurettes ”The Master of the Game” and ”The Second Round of the Game.”

Naked Violence” is a straightforward procedural, in which dogged police detective Marco Lamberti (Pier Paolo Capponi) becomes obsessed with a case involving the rape and murder of a night-school teacher, ostensibly by students in her class. Lamberti has his work cut out for him, as the kids are hard cases who either were just released from reform schools or about to be sent to one. They’ve already rehearsed their stories, with a boy singled out to play the scapegoat. Lamberti, who has little patience with the punks, is constantly being admonished about his strong-arm interrogation tactics. When he’s finally able to catch a break from the weakest of the boys, Lamberti doesn’t really know if he’s getting real information or being steered in the wrong direction. The step-by-step investigation is fascinating to watch, as are the performances by the young actors. What’s truly interesting, though, is the restraint Di Leo shows at the beginning, when the attack on the teacher plays out in flash cuts, revealing very little nudity or graphic violence. You can feel the woman’s pain and powerlessness, but the mystery of who’s to blame for the rape is retained until later. When it’s replayed toward the end of the film, viewers already have a pretty good idea what happened that day and the nudity and violence doesn’t seem as gratuitous as it might have in the beginning. The Blu-ray adds the ”Goodfellas” documentary featurette and ”Fernando di Leo at the Cinémathèque Française.”

In 1975, kidnappers of both the political and criminal variety plagued Italy. Rather than romanticize the crime or make excuses for the perpetrators in “Kidnap Syndicate,” Di Leo shows them for what they are: vicious and frequently quite stupid thugs. Luc Merenda and James Mason play the fathers of boys kidnaped by a well-organized group of criminals. Merenda is a strictly blue-collar mechanic, who’s trying his best to raise Fabrizio as a single parent. Mason is an extremely wealthy businessman, who, at first, refuses to negotiate with the kidnapers. It results in a terrible tragedy. Fabrizio’s father senses that the police aren’t doing enough to break the case, so he hops on his motorcycle to follow the clues, which lead to a much greater conspiracy. Once again, Di Leo demonstrates that he’s far more interested in solving the crime than balancing crazy outbursts of violence with the presence of insanely beautiful actresses every 15 minutes. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The featurettes here are “Violent Cities” and ”The Other Fernando di Leo Trilogy.” The boxed set also comes with a fully illustrated booklet.

The Demented: Blu-ray
Stop me, if you’ve heard this one before: six college friends take a ride into the country, where they expect to enjoy a leisurely weekend of play, romance and relaxation, when, out of the blue, the Zombie Apocalypse breaks out. It arrives much in the same way as the Spanish Inquisition did—unexpectedly and with great portent—in numerous sketches on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” In Christopher Reynolds’ freshman feature, “The Demented,” the sight of a mushroom cloud in the distance ruins the friends’ vacation. We’re told that terrorists are responsible for the biological weapon being deployed at such an inopportune time, but like the Spanish Inquisition “Nobody expects the Zombie Apocalypse.” Almost the entire first third of “The Demented” is taken up with the interaction of the students, as they enjoy the comforts of a large Louisiana estate. The first sign of imminent danger is the sudden appearance of a rabid dog, but it represents only the tip of the iceberg. Naturally, the friends freak out and begin to plot ways to escape their posh prison. If they find no relief in the big city, at least the action sequences come alive with the usual displays of carnage and destruction. There’s really nothing new in “The Demented.” It’s reasonably well made and the actors try their best to look terrified. Unless I missed something, there’s nothing in the film that would warrant its “R” rating. Among its young, attractive stars is Sarah Butler, whose resume includes the 2010 remake of “I Spit on Your Grave” and working as Snow White at Disneyland. Any actor who can pull off that Daily Double is deserving of our attention.

The Fog: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Incredible Melting Man: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The latest releases from Shout! Factory run the gamut from the utterly ridiculous to the deliciously creepy. William Sachs’ “The Incredible Melting Man” probably wouldn’t have gotten the company’s red-carpet treatment if it weren’t for the contributions of makeup wizard Rick Baker, who merged the distinct look of the creature from the Black Lagoon with the imagery of Jimmy Webb’s widely ridiculed “MacArthur Park” (“someone left a cake out in the rain”). When the idea was presented to Sachs, its title was “The Ghoul From Outer Space” and he assumed it would be just another “glob” movie, which it pretty much turned out to be. Indeed, Sachs’ conceit reads something like David Bowie’s “Major Tom” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” in that the title character is an astronaut irradiated by a massive solar flare. Upon his return to Earth, Astronaut Steve not only begins to melt, but he also develops a craving for flesh. After he escapes from a top-secret medical facility, he wanders the countryside stalking easy targets. A doctor thinks he can find something redeeming in Astronaut Steve, but the government wants to wipe any memory of him from the face of the Earth. “Melting Man” is best watched for its camp value. The Blu-ray features offer several interesting takes on the makeup effects and mixing of sci-fi and horror.

John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s “The Fog,” on the other hand, is a bona-fide genre classic. The 2005 remake didn’t do anything for me, but the 1980 original still has the power to raise goose-bumps and jolts, especially as reconstituted on the Shout! Factory Blu-ray. Not only are the creatures that come out of the fog plenty scary, but there’s also a very compelling mystery at the movie’s core. The northern California fishing village that becomes enshrouded by an impenetrable fog has a history that the zombie-like fiends understand, but about which only one of the contemporary residents has a clue. It keeps everyone else, including viewers, guessing for most of the film’s 89 minutes. Carpenter’s genius was getting us to care about the wide array of potential victims, including the deejay in the lighthouse (Adrienne Barbeau), the happy hooker (Jamie Lee Curtis), the good padre (Hal Holbrook) and blond civic booster (Janet Leigh). The Blu-ray bonus material goes a long way to explaining why “The Fog” still works and the individual contributions of its creators and stars. There’s also an entertaining tour of places where the movie was staged, from Point Reyes to my hometown of Sierra Madre.

War on Whistleblowers
PBS: The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power
Months before anyone outside of his family, friends and co-workers had ever heard the name, Edward Joseph Snowden, the documentary “War on Whistleblowers” predicted exactly what would happen when his name became as well-known as the Nixon-era leaker, Daniel Ellsberg. For revealing details of several top-secret mass surveillance programs, Snowden has been painted as a traitor and spy by President Obama, members of Congress, Pentagon officials, newspaper pundits and key players in the secrecy industry. For his revelations, which have been widely reported, Snowden has become a man without a country and Public Enemy No. 1. Many other Americans consider Snowden to be a hero for blowing the whistle on a program that has the potential for spying on the conversations and business transactions of not just potential terrorists, but anyone with whom someone in government holds a grudge. If it had been up to President Nixon, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the media, Ellsberg, would still be in prison. Robert Greenwald, who’s known for his anti-establishment documentaries, didn’t need to wait for the next Ellsberg to make his point in “War on Whistleblowers. In it, he describes four cases in which whistleblowers noticed government wrongdoing and took to the media to expose the fraud and abuse. Among them was the revelation that the Pentagon was holding back on the manufacture and deployment of vehicles that could withstand an explosion by an improvised explosive device, then the leading cause of death for American fighters. After our forces were provided with MRAPs, the fatality rate plummeted. And, yet, the man who blew the whistle on Pentagon malfeasance was ostracized and threatened with all sorts of legal retribution, including costs attendant to defending one’s self. But, he’s not alone in the documentary. It includes interviews with whistleblowers Michael DeKort, Thomas Drake, Franz Gayland and Thomas Tamm, as well as such award-winning journalists as David Carr, Lucy Dalglish, Glenn Greenwald, Seymour Hersh, Michael Isikoff, Bill Keller, Eric Lipton and Jane Mayer. The information related in “War on Whistleblowers” goes against everything American students learned in high school civics classes about the protections afforded the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Patriot Act, passed during the Bush administration, opened the door to such widespread snooping and such abuses as those leaked by Snowden. Greenwald contends, however, that the Obama administration has only broadened such illegal programs and threatened potential whistleblowers and the reporters who report the leaks with a loss of freedom, income and destruction of their reputations. How can we expect people in gang-plagued neighborhoods to snitch, if the government punishes whistleblowers hoping to save lives and protect taxpayer interests? The bonus features add commentary and extended interviews.

Upton Sinclair was given a writing credit for writing the novel, “Oil!,” from which Paul Thomas Anderson based much of what happens in “There Will Be Blood.” He could just as easily have credited Daniel Yergin’s non-fiction book, “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power” and the subsequent multipart documentary, which even uses the drink-your-milkshake analogy that originated in the Teapot Dome scandal and was repeated in “There Will Be Blood.” The syndicated documentary was first shown in 1992, when oil was very much on the minds of the American people. Images of oil infernos turning the skies over Kuwait black, as Iraqi forces retreated from the embattled nation, were fresh in our minds. Indeed, one of the excuses given for the invasion was that Kuwaitis were sucking oil out of Iraq as if they were using a longer straw than Iraqi drillers. Like the book from which it sprung, “The Prize” offers a broad survey of the worldwide oil industry, beginning with the discovery of a practical use for the “rock oil” found in a stream in western Pennsylvania. A full hour is devoted to John D. Rockefeller’s role in creating a framework—albeit one based on his monopoly—for the greater industry to come. The documentary then goes on to explain how other industrialists spurred demand for the oil and what it meant for undeveloped countries looking to enter the 20th Century. It describes how Japan and Germany’s demands for oil shaped their war strategies, including the attack on Pearl Harbor. When occasional gluts threatened the profitability of the industry, oil barons asked the government to protect them from wildcatters and independents, while also inventing the cartel strategy. (Some Saudis are already voicing their concern over how natural gas and shale oil production here might impact their economy.) Narrated by Donald Sutherland, the eight-part series was shot on location in Azerbaijan, Egypt, England, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Mexico, Russia, Scotland, Turkey and various American boomtowns. It uses much archival footage and interviews with historians and people who helped shape the oil industry, attempted to corrupt it or are related to those who did.

Shameless: Seasons 1 & 2: Original UK Series
The Border: The Complete First Season
Gangster Empire: Rise of the Mob: The Complete Series
The Magic School Bus: In a Pickle/Revving Up
One of the true gems of American television currently is the outrageous Showtime comedy series, “Shameless.” It chronicles the affairs of what arguably is the world’s most dysfunctional family, the Gallaghers, as they attempt to fly under the radar of Chicago’s social-services agencies. Paterfamilias Frank Gallagher is as useless a human being as was ever put on Earth and his wife split when she realized that she didn’t want to share the spotlight with her large brood. There are several good reasons why the series is so wonderful: the acting of Emmy Rossum, William H. Macy, Joan Cusack and Justin Chatwin, among several others; a crack writing and producing team that includes creator Paul Abbott and John Wells (“ER,” “West Wing”); and no reluctance to show skin. I wonder how many of the show’s fans know that “Shameless” was adapted from Abbott’s similarly raucous series of the same title, which first appeared on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2004. The first two seasons of the British “Shameless” are newly available on DVD. Just as NBC’s “The Office” was built on a template created for the BBC’s hit series by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, it’s obvious that Abbott saw no reason to deviate much from the storylines of his original creation. It stars such accomplished Brit actors as David Threlfall, James McAvoy and Anne-Marie Duff, as well as several wonderful child actors. Threlfall plays the completely useless and profanely outspoken lush, Frank Gallagher; Duff is his beleaguered daughter, Fiona, who’s responsible for the care and feeding of the gang; and McAvoy, the rich and handsome car thief who steals Fiona’s heart. The primary difference between the two series is the location of the Gallagher abodes. In Chicago, they live in a decrepit house in the shadow of the El tracks, while, in the English version, it’s in a low-income housing estate so cramped that everyone knows everyone else’s business. It adds a slightly different dynamic to the storylines, even if there are never enough rooms to ensure everyone’s comfort and privacy. Otherwise, the generic “local” frequented by Frank is a carbon copy of his favorite tavern in Chicago. It isn’t necessary for Americans to be familiar with the Showtime series to enjoy the original, and vice-versa. (There is a bit less nudity in the Brit version.) Again, as was the case with “The Office,” fans of one version almost certainly will want to sample the other. They’re all exemplary entertainments.

While American politicians and border-state vigilantes bend over backwards condemning the influx of economic refugees from Mexico and Central America—all willing to work in roach-infested restaurants for less than the minimum wage—thousands of actors and comedians freely cross the world’s longest undefended border to take jobs from American entertainers. Some have even conned immigration officials into allowing them to become U.S. citizens, as if we didn’t have enough of those, already. I say, build a fence along the border and make them sweat a bit before they land their first standup gig or sitcom. “The Border” is a Canadian TV drama that lasted three seasons before being cancelled in 2010. It involves the fictional Immigration & Customs Security task force, whose mandate is to save the Great White North from terrorism, drug trafficking and the abduction of children. It looks like most other hour-long American dramas in that the people who work the computers are pretty geeky, the young agents are a mix of hot and hotter, and the supervisors are crusty guys who’ve seen it all, but retain an ounce of passion for their fellow North Americans. In “The Border,” however, ICS agents enjoy the luxury of blaming American security goons for big-footing their investigations and, then, screwing them up. Actually, it isn’t a bad show, if a bit simplistic, even by American standards. The Toronto-area settings are pretty fresh, though. I didn’t recognize any of the actors, probably because all of prominent stars have already crossed the border and are working on premium-cable shows.

If there’s anything that’s been beaten to death by makers of documentaries and true-crime reality shows, it’s the history of the Mafia and the role played by Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. “Gangster Empire: Rise of the Mob” was the latest such series and it lasted all of a season, which translates to “The Complete Series” in DVD shorthand. In a nod to the hit HBO show, a whole chapter is devoted to “Atlantic City and the Boardwalk Empire.” The stories of organized crime in America are told through dramatic re-enactments. It was created by Kevin Hershberger, also responsible for “Up From Slavery” and “The Ultimate Civil War Series.”

All of these value-priced collections have been released by Mill Creek Entertainment, a company that specializes in packaging and re-packaging films, television and documentary series, and popular kids’ titles. Its partners include several major Hollywood studios. Other prime July releases include “The Korean War: 60th Anniversary: Commemorative Documentary Collection,” which contains dozens of mini-docs and segments on every aspect of the war effort and the 1964 theatrical release, “Iron Angel”; the three-disc, 32-hour-long “The Vietnam Chronicles” boxed set, comprised of “Vietnam: America’s Conflict,” “Secrets of War: Vietnam: A War Unwanted” and “Vietnam War Stories”; and “Benji: 4 Movie Collection,” which combines the features, “Benji,” “Benji: Off The Leash!,” “For the Love of Benji” and “Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story.”

Likewise, Scholastic continues to pour out new compilations from its Emmy Award-winning PBS Kids series, “The Magic School Bus,” for a new generation of children. Lily Tomlin voices teacher Ms. Frizzle of Walkerville Elementary, which is the base for the students’ bus and educational field trips. The three-DVD “Revving Up” is comprised of 12 episodes from the 1990s, while “In a Pickle” adds “Meets Molly Cule,” “Makes a Stink” and “Meets the Rot Squad.” It is recommended for children, 4 to 10.

Between Us
A Night for Dying Tigers
At one time or another, we’ve all been invited to a dinner party during which all hell breaks loose when one or more of the couples decide to unload on their significant others. Ever since the release of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” filmmakers have attempted to replicate the horror, pathos and cruelty they’ve witnessed at such wingdings and make dramatic sense of the outbursts. It only occasionally works as intended, however. Francis Veber’s “The Dinner Game” and its American remake, “Dinner for Schmucks,” turned the subgenre on its head with dark comedy, while “Among Friends,” “The Dinner Party,” “Would You Rather” and other murderous titles have taken the “10 Little Indians” path to horror. Films set at wedding-rehearsal gatherings and anniversary events never fail to make single viewers happy they’re not married or are related to someone with substance-abuse issues. Generally speaking, however, watching such ugly rows break out at parties on film is only slightly more tolerable than being present for the real thing. On DVD, at least, you can hit the stop button and be happy you only wasted the cost of a rental, not a bottle of wine or box of chocolates for the hosts.

“Between Us” and “A Night for Dying Tigers” make the same mistake as too many other so-called relationship movies, in that the skirmishes begin before we’ve gotten an opportunity to care much for the characters. In “Between Us,” monogamous couples Grace and Carlo (Julia Stiles, Taye Diggs) and Sharyl and Joel (Melissa George, David Harbour) exchange home visits two years apart. Both men are photographers and old friends, and we have no reason to believe that any bad blood has passed between them or their spouses before the first one. When New Yorkers Grace and Carlo arrive at their hosts’ rural Midwestern mansion, they are taken aback by the opulence and vastness of the home. Sharyl’s inheritance allows them to live in such style, even if the unmarried couple doesn’t seem comfortable within the spacious digs. Before long, the hosts begin bickering about all sorts of trivial things, saving the important stuff for the drunken standoff later in the evening. The next time we see Sharyl and Joel they’re in New York, at the door of their friends, who had pledged never to see them again. They have a chauffeur and Town Car to do their bidding and want to make amends. As comfortable as these newlyweds seem to be, that’s how uncomfortable are Grace and Carlo in their presence. In the two years since the disastrous Midwestern trip, Carlo’s once-thriving career has hit the rocks and Grace is pissed off over having to live like a pauper with a baby in the crib. Once again, the conversation turns to marriage, fidelity, parenthood, wealth and copping out to commercial interests, instead of remaining committed to artistic values. If the Midwesterners were genuine in their apology for the hard feelings, they didn’t wait long before picking a fight with the equally pugnacious New Yorkers. Dan Mirvish adapted “Between Us” from a play by Joe Hortua, which explains why the movie feels so theatrical and the characters shout at each other as if they’re attempting to extend their misery to the cheap seats. There’s nothing wrong with the acting that a stage and live audience wouldn’t cure, though.

Terry Miles’ “A Night for Dying Tigers” is set during a family gathering called to bid farewell to a brother, Jack (Gil Bellows), who, the next day, will begin a five-year bit in prison for killing the man who raped his mistress. It coincides, as well, with the one-year anniversary of the death of their parents, who died in some kind of New Age suicide stunt. The men in the family are intellectuals who wear their IQs on their sleeves and clearly had been competing for their parents’ blessings for years. The adopted sister is an attractive blond beauty who simply couldn’t be more messed up and misused by her siblings. The brothers’ girlfriends, ex-wives and lovers reflect the neuroses of the men and probably would be likeable if their personalities weren’t made of cardboard. The interaction between the characters frequently devolves into hysterics, begging the question: if you’re so smart, handsome and wealthy, why are you so damn miserable? More to the point: why should we care? Miles doesn’t waste much time attempting to answer those questions. Jennifer Beals is particularly good as Jack’s vengeful ex-wife. She’s one of the only non-Canadians in a cast that also includes Lauren Lee Smith, Kathleen Robertson, Tygh Runyan and John Pyper-Ferguson. They almost make the material work.

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox: Blu-ray
The latest animated adventure in the ongoing series of DC Universe originals features the Flash, who, as we all know, runs so fast that he’s able to turn back time. As cool as that sounds, it can also result in misguided decisions. In “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox,” the Flash (a.k.a., Barry Allen) is lured into an ambush by the time-traveling Professor Zoom. With the help of other members of the Justice League, Flash avoids disaster. The next day, however, he wakes up to a world in which he doesn’t have superpowers, a Justice League doesn’t exist and his mother is still alive. In fact, his fellow superheroes are actively working against world peace and Batman has a completely different personality. Together, with the help of Cyborg, they race to restore the continuity of Flash’s original timeline, while this new world is being ravaged in a war between Wonder Woman’s Amazons and the Atlanteans, led by Aquaman. The voicing talent includes Justin Chambers, Kevin McKidd, Nathan Fillion, Ron Perlman, Dana Delany, Cary Elwes, Danny Huston, Kevin Conroy, Michael B. Jordan and C. Thomas Howell. The Blu-ray edition adds a DVD and UltraViolet digital copy, as well as “A Flash in Time,” which separates fact and fiction in discussions of super powers; “My Favorite Villains! The Flash Bad Guys,” in which DC writers Geoff Johns and others share their favorite Flash villains; audio commentary; a sneak peek at the next DC Universe animated movie; and vintage cartoon episodes.

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines: Blu-ray
Ryan Gosling has gained a reputation as being a thinking man’s action hero and fantasy role model. Handsome, buff and seemingly fearless, the Ontario native has proven himself adept at playing criminals, cocksmen and adrenaline junkies. He hit a pothole of sorts with the recent release of Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylishly violent “Only God Forgives,” a movie many mainstream critics loathed with a passion usually reserved for Uwe Boll. In “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Gosling plays a carnival stunt rider, whose daredevil motorcycle skills will allow him to rob a few banks and outfox cops in hot pursuit. On the carnival’s last visit to Schenectady, Luke had a hit-and-run affair with a blue-collar goddess, Romina (Eva Mendes). Unbeknownst to him, she bore him a son. When, a year later, he’s introduced to the boy, Luke decides to man-up and support him, using the only real talent God gave him. Rowina, who, in the interim, has moved in with another man, makes the considerable mistake of allowing the bad boy back in her life, if only on its periphery. As the fates would have it, Luke’s destiny leads him on a collision course with Avery, a cop with a law degree and no tolerance for bank robbers. He, too, has an infant son and dreams that go beyond his current status as an honest policeman laboring in a nest of corruption. The hero’s mantle weighs heavily on Avery, especially after being approached by fellow cops and coerced into accepting what he believes to be blood money. (Ray Liotta’s trademark cackle reverberates through this, the middle section of the 140-minute film.) In a script overflowing with portent, other profound coincidences await. None, however, requires unveiling here. Suffice to say that co-writer/director Derek Cianfrance has something interesting in store, 15 years hence, for the sons of the protagonists. Cianfrance worked previously with Gosling on the quirky rom-dram, “Blue Valentine,” and their sympatico relationship extends here to Cooper’s heart-wrenching performance. Also very good are Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne, as the significant others; rising stars Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, as their sons; and, in key supporting roles, Harris Yulin, Ben Mendelsohn and Mahershala Ali. The handsome Blu-ray adds commentary with Cianfrance, deleted and extended scenes, and an EPK-style featurette.

The Silence: Blu-ray
Early in Baran bo Odar’s excruciatingly sad and deeply affecting crime drama, “The Silence,” the audience learns everything it needs to know about the kidnapping and likely murder of two girls, exactly 23 years apart. This includes the faces, names and psychological makeup of the perpetrators of the first horrible murder, Timo and Peer (Wotan Wilke Mohring, Ulrich Thompson). The second disappearance immediately reminds police in the German agricultural district of the first, forcing them to reopen a case that’s baffled and frustrated them for all that time. Because there are even fewer clues left behind in the second abduction, detectives work backwards in an effort to solve the earlier crime first. They’re counting on the perpetrator not being a copycat killer. The still grieving mother of the first girl, Pia, makes a daily jog to the cross placed in the wheat field where she was grabbed and driven away by two men who look as if they might be twins. With nothing else to gain, the mother’s only wish is that she may someday look into the face of the person or persons who raped, kidnaped, killed and dumped the body of her only child in a lake. When news of the second abduction breaks, the now retired lead detective on Pia’s case returns to comfort her and share her pain. Krischan never forgave himself for being unable to bring anyone to justice for the crime. Together, they almost make a whole person.

The detective assigned to the second crime is as messed up as everyone else we meet in “The Silence.” David (Sebastian Blomberg) understands that he’s searching for a needle in a haystack, but, recently widowed, has nothing better to do than invest 100 percent of his time sifting through old clues. Fortunately his predecessor kept every notation he made and models of the crime scene. His boss is a career-minded jerk who seeks positive results from his team, but only if it means not making waves or putting in any hard work himself. Instead of leveling with the freaked-out parents of the second girl, Sinikka, he’d rather have them believe that she’ll show up on their doorstep one morning, apologizing for making them worry. David and Krischan both know better than to raise anyone’s hopes unnecessarily. When David firmly determines that two persons were almost certainly responsible for Pia’s murder – thus, upsetting the working theory of their only being a single kidnapper – it frosts his boss no end. Even if it’s a long shot, the realization gives the team its first breakthrough into what might have prompted Sinikka’s abduction.

If it were only about solving two almost certainly related crimes, “The Silence” would still be recommendable as a dandy police procedural. It’s when Swiss writer/director, working from a novel by Jan Costin Wagner, puts the long-term relationship between the two pedophiles under the microscope that the story’s momentum really picks up steam. There’s a reason why the kidnappings mirror each other so precisely, even after 23 years, and it has to do with a similar kind of separation anxiety and feeling of loss haunting the parents and lead detectives. This doesn’t make Peer and Timo look any more human in our eyes, or worthy of an ounce of our sympathy. It does, however, add a layer of credibility to the characters that’s missing in the standard-issue sociopaths we meet in Hollywood thrillers. And, while we’re on the subject of Hollywood, Odar wisely allows “The Silence” to unfold at its own deliberate pace, without car chases, explosions, brow-beaten suspects, voter-conscious politicians, wise-guy detectives, know-it-all reporters, gratuitous sex and extraneous gore. I can’t even remember if the cops carried guns. “The Silence” describes the human condition, as experienced by a handful of people with whom we can empathize, and terrific performances by actors whose names and faces don’t add celebrity baggage to the proceedings. The Blu-ray presentation nicely captures the contrasting colors of the wheat fields, forests and often threatening skies of Thuringia and Bavaria. It adds interviews with cast crew and two interesting short films by the director.

Vanishing Waves
It’s been said, “the study of mind and brain is the final frontier in science.” Thousands of years before Sigmund Freud called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious,” learned men and women interpreted dreams according to the customs, beliefs and superstitions of the time. In 1954, Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception” ushered in the psychedelic age with its exploration of his experiences while taking mescaline. In the 20 years after WWII, the CIA’s MKUltra and other top-secret programs did more for the advancement of LSD research and any subsequent abuse than the Grateful Dead, Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary combined. Recent advances in medical technology have allowed scientists not only to better understand how the brain functions, but also given them the tools to explore the subconscious mind. Until someone invents a nano-camera, however, no one really knows how close filmmakers have come to visualizing dreams, the impact of psychotropic drugs on the mind and the parameters of the subconscious mind. God knows, they’ve tried. While most depictions of drug use have bordered on the ridiculous, some titles have succeeded in going beyond stereotypes that derived from “Up in Smoke” and “Woodstock.” Kristina Buozyte’s intellectually demanding “Vanishing Waves” fits neatly alongside such cinematic explorations as “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Altered States,” “Dune,” “Enter the Void,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Naked Lunch,” “The Holy Mountain,” “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” “The Cell,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Upstream Color” and “Inception.”

The rare Lithuanian export combines science fiction, science-fact, digital artistry and dreamy erotica in the service of movie that challenges viewers to consider what’s at stake when it comes to messing with the mind. Here, a medical student named Lukas (Marius Jampolskis) volunteers to participate in an experiment intended to link the subconscious impulses of two unrelated people. Before being submerged in a sensory-deprivation tank, Lukas will don a headdress of sensors intended to link him psychically to Aurora (Jurga Jutaite), who’s wearing a similar apparatus. The young woman has been locked in a comatose state since nearly drowning in an accident. At the same time as scientists monitor what’s happening chemically and electronically in Lukas’ brain, he will describe what he’s visualizing through an intercom. At first, all he’s seeing are lines and blurred images that amount to nothing. Eventually, though, the lines and swirls begin to form precise geometric shapes that could be roadmaps to something far more exciting. Things get really interesting when Lukas actually does make visual contact with Aurora, who seems very much alive and active. Not surprisingly, Aurora’s subconscious world is as intoxicating for Lukas as any intensely romantic wet dream might be. They’re surrounded by water and their sexual attraction is palpable, even beyond Lukas’ tank. Aurora’s physical state always remains in doubt, however, and no one can predict what might happen to Lukas’ mind if she dies while they’re cavorting in the subconscious world.

Fearing the kind of disaster that could result in the loss of financial backing from the state, the scientists decide to pull back on Lukas’ participation in the experiment. When he feels Aurora pulling away from him, however, it only makes him more determined to rescue her from whatever it is that’s happening to them. In effect, he blackmails the scientists into maintaining his role in the study. His obsessive behavior really messes with his domestic life, but the sensual pleasures he experiences in his dream state are unlike he’s every felt. Buozyte does a nice job approximating the more hallucinogenic aspects of inner-space travel, from the trippy ambient music she employs to the imaginative visuals. These include a pulsating group-grope, in which the bodies look as if they’re covered in chocolate. “Vanishing Waves” is far too far out to grab a large audience in its DVD iteration and fans of conventional sci-fi probably will miss the presence of aliens and mad scientists. Viewers who’ve found a lot to like in the ambitious titles listed above should find “Vanishing Waves” to be quite a ride, though. A second disc of bonus features includes Buozyte’s intriguing first feature, “The Collectress,” about depressed speech therapist, who, after the death of her father and her sister’s marriage, can only relate to outsiders through the lens of a voyeuristic camera. There’s also a post-festival interview with her conducted in English; a making-of featurette; the 18-track musical score; a booklet; and reversible cover.

Trance: Blu-ray
Welcome to the Punch: Blu-ray
One of the nice things about movies whose plots are built around art thefts is that they tend to be smarter than the average heist flick, in which such non-sensual pleasures as cash, securities or data are stake. It isn’t enough for a screenwriter to assume audiences will share his vision of what makes one thing more valuable than a dozen others found in a bank vault or warehouse, or why a Faberge egg commands a greater price or ransom than any another Russian trinket. He has to convince them that it is, without question, valuable. The “Mona Lisa” may not be everyone’s idea of a compelling painting, but they lines of people waiting to see it are enough evidence most viewers need to buy into the notion. If, then, the value of the object to be stolen isn’t up for dispute, viewers can assume other things, as well. The security system installed to protect it will be next to impossible to crack and the theft might be less difficult to pull off than the escape. The use of copyrighted paintings can cost as much or more than the licensing fees paid for music, book excerpts, photographs, cartoon characters and other trademarked material. “Trance,” a very smart and exciting heist thriller, uses Goya’s “Witches in the Air” as the object of desire for a gang of art thieves. The dark and foreboding painting was completed in 1798 and, therefore, isn’t protected by copyright. Neither, though, was director Danny Boyle able to use the original in the movie, as it currently resides in Madrid’s Prado museum and curators there probably would have frowned on the thought of putting the painting under the bright lights of a movie shoot. Instead, he commissioned Brighton-based artist Charlie Cobb to paint three representative copies of the work, along with replicas of paintings by Van Gogh and Delacroix. In some circles, of course, there’s a thin line between copies and forgeries. Some very good movies have been made about this artistic discipline, as well.

To jack up the suspense, “Trance” opens with an auction-house employee, Simon (James McAvoy) describing for the camera some of the intricacies of the art-theft game and what, for example, the 1990 disappearance of Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” has meant to us all. To clear some serious gambling debts, he has made himself available to a stylish crook, Frank (Vincent Cassel), whose crew invades the auction house, distracting everyone except him. Simon easily steals away with the painting, stashing it where it can be picked up when the smoke clears. Sadly, for everyone involved, he does something that causes Frank to punch him in the face. The jolt erases Simon’s memory bank of all knowledge of the painting’s whereabouts. When a serious beating fails to jar his memory, Frank insists that Simon visit a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), who demands a full share of the action. From this point on, Boyle and co-writer John Hodge take us on a magical mystery tour through the subconscious of several key characters, some of whom may not have been aware they even had one. As in such early Boyle-Hodge collaborations as “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting,” it helps to understand how psychotropic drugs and hallucinogens can open doors that lead not only to perception, but also to misplaced painting. The trick becomes figuring out whose subconscious is being revealed at any given time and how their contrasting dream states differ from reality. In this way, “Trance” resembles “Memento,” “Inception” and such golden oldies as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and “The Magus.” As befits a movie about art, Anthony Dod Mantle’s camera captures colors that don’t necessarily appear in nature or on the palettes of painters before Van Gogh and Gaugin. Besides capturing the movie’s brilliant color scheme and fantastical visuals, the Blu-ray adds several worthwhile bonus features. They include several deleted scenes and interesting making-of pieces; a retrospective look at Boyle’s films, with commentary; Spencer Susser’s short film, “Eugene”; a primer on hypnotherapy; and a UV copy. If you dig “Trance,” try Neil Jordan’s “The Good Thief,” an excellent remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob le flambeur,” and Morten Tyldum’s terrific art-theft thriller, “Headhunters.”

James McAvoy also stars in “Welcome to the Punch,” a furiously stylish and hyper-violent crime thriller in which almost nothing makes logical sense, from its title to the antagonist’s act of mercy toward a cop immediately before the credits roll. There’s no need to make the usual comparisons here to the gritty Brit-flics turned out by Guy Ritchie, Matthew Vaughn and their many imitators. The London of writer-director Eran Creevy’s imagination could just as easily be Los Angeles, New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Rotterdam or Singapore. Any city with a port and high-rise buildings would have served just easily. McAvoy’s incorruptible police detective Max Lewinsky has had it out for Mark Strong’s Jacob Sternwood, ever since the criminal mastermind shot him in the leg during an elaborate heist and chase three years earlier. When Sternwood’s son is critically wounded in failed rip-off, Lewinsky sets a trap for his nemesis in the hospital. It’s one of several that occur during the course of the movie, even though it takes forever to learn what the young man was attempting to accomplish. Finally, the two mortal foes are forced to join forces against an even greater common enemy. Creevy has a talent for staging flashy shoot-’em-up set pieces – Ridley Scott is one of 19 producers listed — but the narrative tissue that connects them is far too flimsy. Moreover, I had to turn on the subtitles to understand what in the world the heavily accented actors were saying. If nothing else Creevy was able to recruit an all-star cast that also includes Andrea Riseborough, Peter Mullan, Johnny Harris, David Morrissey and Daniel Kaluuya. The Blu-ray adds interviews and a background featurette.

Starbuck
Although the offbeat French-Canadian dramedy “Starbuck” could hardly be considered a horror flick, it effectively describes a series of coincidences many infertile couples would consider to be their worst nightmare. After 42 years on Earth, Montrealer David Wozniak (a.k.a., Starbuck) remains a world-class slacker. He lives for soccer, can’t pay his bills, grows marijuana and can barely hold a job, however menial. Typically, though, he’s not without friends or misplaced ambition. The only time David has been able to support himself, without actually working was 20 years ago, when he made what for him was a small fortune donating sperm. Clearly, the clinic’s owners weren’t interested in turning out in-vitro geniuses, as was the intention of the Repository for Germinal Choice. Through a clerical error, the clinic managed to deploy the nectar of Starbuck’s 533 deposits to fertilize an entire year’s worth of wannabe parents. Two decades later, David not only is informed of his girlfriend’s pregnancy, but he’s also made aware of a class-action suit filed against the clinic by 142 men and women who want to know the identity of their biological father. Against the better judgment of everyone in his orbit, David sneaks a peek at the identities of several of the plaintiffs and surreptitiously attempts to meet them. The last thing clinic executives want to see happen is the revelation of their SNAFU, so the baby-daddy is offered a large amount of money to remain anonymous.

In effect, David is given the choice of paying off his debts to banks, credit card companies, friends and loan shark or giving some small amount of comfort to the 142 plaintiffs, who are as diverse a collection of people as could be imagined. They include a manicurist, a soccer player, a bartender, an actor, a drug addict and a busker. They’re male and female, gay and straight, and from several different ethnic backgrounds, besides Canadian. The most poignant case, perhaps, is the one made by a young man who’s been institutionalized due to cerebral palsy. If David is surprised by the ability of his seed to produce such a wide variety of offspring, imagine what the plaintiffs must think when the father of their dreams turns out to be a middle-age ne’er-do-well. Writer/director Ken Scott based his story on actual reports of men who fathered hundreds of children, if not anyone resembling Wozniak. He currently is putting the finishing touches on an English-language remake, starring Vince Vaughn, Britt Robertson and Chris Pratt. It will be interesting to see how much the DreamWorks version squares with the low-key and frequently quite tender “Starbuck.” Much of the credit for the movie’s likeability is the performance of Huard, a journeyman Canadian actor whose hangdog performance makes David credible as both a deadbeat slacker and someone who would make a swell buddy for his 143 biological children. Being a father, of course, requires skills he would be forced to acquire if expect to be positive force in his own baby’s life. The DVD adds interviews, bloopers, deleted scenes and a music video.

Twixt: Blu-ray
Since returning to the writer/director’s chair for first time in a decade, with 2007’s complex psychodrama “Youth Without Youth,” Francis Ford Coppola has committed himself to making “personal projects.” By that, he effectively means pictures with budgets considerably less than the pasta budget on the sets of the three “Godfather” episodes. It isn’t as if Coppola hasn’t made projects near and dear to his heart throughout his 50-year career. How else could one characterize such risky pleasures as “The Conversation,” “One From the Heart,” “Gardens of Stone” and “Tucker”? As with “Youth Without Youth,” the low budget “Tetro” and “Twixt” would be launched into a marketplace where all guarantees of distribution had disappeared. Even with the participation of A-list talent, projects that were once loudly touted in trades now frequently go straight-to-DVD or VOD. Artists who can continue to make personal projects, while accepting the consequences without whining, ought to be praised and not be dismissed as over-the-hill or lazy. I found a lot to like in “Twixt” that, in its momentary theatrical run, other critics didn’t to see. In a conversation with Elle Fanning, heard in the Blu-ray’s single making-of featurette, Coppola calls it a “Halloween story” and encourages her to have fun in her portrayal of the youthful ghost, V.

When a writer of best-selling witch tales holes up in a lonesome rural town, V appears to him in his dreams. She’s wearing a filmy white gown, a pentagram neck ornament and her red makeup stands in direct contrast to the whiteness of her face. Val Kilmer plays the blocked writer, Hall Baltimore, who’s up against a tough deadline from his publisher and a potentially costly ultimatum from his beleaguered wife. Not only does V’s story kick-start Hall’s imagination, but he also finds inspiration in the ravings a busybody sheriff (Bruce Dern). As hinted in the writer’s name, Baltimore, the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin) also makes a guest appearance. Poe once stayed in a local hotel, now in ruins, and wrote a short story there about a demon that inhabits the seven-sided clock that towers over the town. It is, of course, no mere coincidence that Hall picked this particular town to get back in writer’s shape. That’s a lot of stuff to pack into an 88-minute film, which already feels as if it were borrowed from a collection of Stephen King short stories.

Coppola claims the story came to him during a dream he had while visiting Istanbul. Clearly, there were other bats flying around in his personal belfry, because there are some things here that, while hardly gratuitous, come straight out of left field. What distinguishes “Twixt” from dozens of other low-budget horror films, however, is the cinematography of Mihai Malaimare Jr., who appears to have become the Maestro’s go-to guy for inventive camerawork. Coppola has never shown a reluctance to employ high-contrast black-and-white cinematography when going for a certain effect. In “Twixt,” the background textures feel particularly velvety. V stands out from everyone else, as if a bright white light is illuminating her from the inside. Scenes shot in the town retain their natural colors, but, at night, in the deep forest, the Goth look is accentuated. Film buffs never need to be encouraged to sample a Coppola film, even if critics have dismissed it. Genre buffs may want to give “Twixt” a go, as well, if only to see how he’s tweaked genre conventions, when money actually is an object. (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” cost an estimated $40 million, at a time, 1992, when that figure really meant something.) For those keeping track of Hollywood royalty, granddaughter Gia Coppola directed the making-of featurette. She is the daughter of the late Gian-Carlo Coppola who was killed in a boating accident before she was born.

Babette’s Feast: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Released 25 years ago, it’s entirely possible that one-time viewers may have forgotten everything else about “Babette’s Feast” except the arousal of their taste buds caused by the sumptuous presentation of the titular meal. Every time a list of the “10 Best Movies About Food” is published, Gabriel Axel’s Oscar-winning rom-dram — adapted from a story by Isak Dinesen – is either at the top or somewhere near it. Indeed, I’ve heard it argued that “Babette’s Feast” should be credited with launching the on-going foodie revolution. As they say, it was all that and a bag of chips. The pleasures didn’t end at the groaning board. They extended to the beauty of the musical soundtrack, the simple elegance of the set design and precision of the preparation of dishes before refrigeration and the Veg-O-Matic. The philosophical clash between fundamental Protestant practices and classic French opulence, as represented in Babette’s gastronomical celebration of her adopted town’s founder, also proved to be tremendously appealing. Rarely has the consumption of the Lord’s bounty been depicted with such sacramental reverence, with room left over for no small amount of sly humor.

The feast is celebrated 14 years after the then-young French woman, Babette, is accepted into the modest home of the Danish minister’s two daughters. Both women had been given opportunities to escape the village, but chose instead to stay near their father, whose generosity to those in need was legend. Babette came recommended by a singing teacher, who, years earlier, had attempted to lure one of the daughters to Paris. He said that her family had been killed in the revolution and conditions remained such that anyone who served the aristocracy was endangered, as well. In time, Babette would become a valuable addition to the household and win the respect of the congregation. She repays the sisters’ kindness by staging the centennial dinner, while the sisters honor Babette by devising a strategy that would allow the guests to enjoy the forbidden wine courses and acknowledge their pleasure in ways God, himself, would have approved. (The guest of honor is an aristocrat and onetime suitor with no such desire to abstain from earthly pleasures.) The film contains several more surprises, if little in the way of conflict or drama. Neither is missed. The supplemental features include a 2012 interview with Stephane Audran, the French actress who so wonderfully plays Babette; a new interview with the Danish director, Axel, conducted at the Karen Blixen Museum, in Rungsted; “Table Scraps,” a visual essay on the production; “Karen Blixen: Storyteller,” a fascinating feature-length profile of the writer, also known as Isak Dinesen to her readers; “An Artist of the Everyday,” sociology professor Pricill Parkhurst Ferguson discusses the importance of cuisine in French culture; and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu and Blixen’s story, written in 1950.

New World: Blu-ray
No country is producing better gangland thrillers these days than Korea. In the span of about 10 years, its genre specialists have found ways to turn out pictures that not only deliver action, but also can surprise audiences with their intelligence and fine acting. This won’t come as news to anyone who’s followed the advances Koreans have made in horror, psychological thrillers and dramas. As American studios continue to dig a hole for themselves, filmmakers in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and China have learned not to rely on gimmicks, trends and overseas revenue streams. Or, maybe, the success has more to do with the fact that there’s so much money being made in Asia right now that gangsters have assumed the same role as those who made a mockery of America’s Prohibition experiment. Organized criminals dress cooler than most people, have nicer cars and enjoy the allegiance of small armies of sunglass-wearing operatives. In some respects, they’re portrayed as being less greedy than politicians, who always hands their hands out for their cut of the action. In the movies, at least, the industry is no longer dominated by extortionists, drug kingpins and vice lords. Here, the name of the most powerful gang is prominently display on the side of their high-rise headquarters. In the United States, the Mafia is in a period of transition, if not outright decay, and ethnic gangs have begun calling the shots.

At its core, Park Hoon-jung’s captivating “New World” is about how the business of crime is being conducted among the highest echelon of Korean and Chinese gangsters, corrupt police officials and politicians. When the head of Korea’s dominant syndicate is killed in an accident, the succession process becomes a battle of wits between the two young lieutenants, one of whom has been a deep-cover mole for the last eight years. What we’re never quite sure about, however, is who’s pulling the strings from behind the curtain and what they expect to accomplish. When the loser comes to a frightful demise, there’s a funeral scene that could have been written by Francis Ford Coppola for an Asian remake of “The Godfather.” In fact, all of the last 20 minutes of “New World” seem to pay homage to that masterpiece. Park’s direction is deliberately paced, with an eye toward catching the audience completely off-guard at the end. Jeong-jae Lee and Hwang Jeong-min are terrific as the two men dueling for the top job, while Choi Min-sik is also good as the cop who recruited the mole and stands to gain as much as he could lose in a power play.

Love and Honor: Blu-ray
It’s fair to wonder what 28-year-old Danny Mooney was thinking when he decided to make a movie about the effects of the Vietnam War on soldiers and their civilian peers on college campuses at least 15 years back home. Even with warehouses full of news clips and documentaries about everything that happened in the 1960s, the vast majority of all movies and TV shows set in the decade look as if the producers of summer-stock renditions of “Hair” made them. The Vietcong and NVA soldiers remain the faceless enemy, while the famous 1,000-mile stare of American forces has only accurately replicated at the Do Long Bridge in “Apocalypse Now.” In “Love and Honor,” the “war at home” doesn’t connect with any memories I have of the way people looked, dressed, cut their hair, spoke, protested or acted when they were on R&R. Mooney gets the pot-smoking and clubbing of hippies down pretty well, though. After a surviving an intense firefight, ace platoon leader Dalton Joiner (Austin Stowell) receives a “Dear John” letter from his girlfriend, Jane (Aimee Teegarden), who now calls herself Juniper. Instead of spending a week in Hong Kong, drinking and getting laid with his pals, he decides to spend his R&R in Ann Arbor trying to win her back. His buddy, Mickey (Liam Hemsworth), tags along to ensure that Dalton doesn’t do something foolish, like desert or commit suicide. Jane is living in a house full of people dedicated to ending the war, so the sudden presence of two guys they consider to be “baby killers” is problematic. To smooth things with Jane’s friends, Mickey invents a wild story about deserting from the war in mid-conflict. The students eat it up. The story literally impresses the pants off Candace (Teresa Palmer), who bought the story hook, line and sinker. The story also makes an impression on local law-enforcement officials, who salivate over the possibility of collecting the scalps of two deserters. Will love conquer devotion to duty? Stay tuned. What “Love and Honor” does have going for it is a cast that includes fresh-faced young actors who should be familiar to potential viewers in the prime demographic target. Their upbeat approach to the material keeps the movie from sinking under its own weight. The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette.

Exorcist Chronicles
In the last few months, I’ve received several screeners from Reality Films, a British company that specials in movies about “ancient mysteries, UFO’s and aliens, secret societies and conspiracies, the paranormal and occult, quantum theory, prophecy, spirituality, religion, esoteric teachings, history and much more.” How much more could there be? Among the titles are documentaries, docudramas and features, some of which look like documentaries and docudramas, and vice versa. Technically, they recall genre movies from 1960-70s, when pioneers in zombie and slasher films tried got by with 16mm and Super 8 equipment, cheapo special effects and weirdly distorted dialogue tracks. In some ways, they’re almost quaint. “Exorcist Chronicles” imagines a scenario in which a plague of demonic possession is reported in various places around the globe, severely testing the Vatican’s ability to exorcise enough of them to prevent its spread. A priest and amateur Goth sleuth determine that all of the young women they’ve seen share the DNA of a snake, as does the stuff in the water in a pond somewhere in Ireland. Apparently, Saint Patrick wasn’t able to chase all of the serpents off the island and the ones that remained have been plotting their revenge for centuries. Somehow, the Knights Templar are part of the conspiracy of silence from the Vatican. As goofy and amateurish as “Exorcist Chronicles” sometimes is, Philip Gardiner’s freak-fest is strangely watchable. That’s more than I can say for a lot of the DIY and indie horror that passes my way.

Detention of the Dead
House Party: Tonight’s the Night
The thing most fledgling writer/directors forget when they attempt to pay homage to the great John Hughes is that it takes quite a bit more than fading memories to capture the same magic as he did in movies about the agony that was high school. Resumes that include such empathetic teen comedies as “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Weird Science,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Pretty in Pink” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” – not to mention the kindred “Home Alone” and “Vacation” franchises — are as uncommon in Hollywood as unemployed cosmetic surgeons. One or two, maybe; a half-dozen or more, never. It not only explains why Hughes was one of the industry’s most valuable commodities before his untimely death in 2009, at 59, but also why he made and set his movies in faraway Chicago. In the interview section of the “Detention of the Dead” Blu-ray package, freshman filmmaker Alex Craig Mann freely acknowledges the debt he owes to Hughes. He also admits to being inspired by “Shaun of the Dead” creators Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Throw in a bit of “Buffy” and “Dawn of the Dead” and most horror fans could guess exactly what happens in “Detention of the Dead” even before the end of the opening credits. Essentially, it describes what happens when the zombie apocalypse breaks out on the campus of a Midwestern high school and the only students who have a fighting chance of surviving it are cut-out replicants from “The Breakfast Club.” When it comes to zombie movies, however, it goes without saying that every new entry listed in IMDB.com should carry “uncredited” next to the names George Romero, Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton in the writer’s column. Ditto, when it comes to every movie about American teenagers in the wake of “The Breakfast Club” and Amy Heckerling’s adaptation of Cameron Crowe’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” So, it’s no crime that Mann borrowed so freely from Hughes and an idea or two from “Ridgemont.” They played an integral role in the collective memory of every American teenager in the 1980s, after all. All that said, “Detention of the Damned” isn’t a total wash. I didn’t see anything in the unrated movie that might have warranted consideration for anything except a PG-13 – a plus for parents, if a minus for anyone over 16 – and the wild application of special makeup effects could inspire some kids to get into that line of work. To that end, the making-of featurette could be considered essential viewing for those impressed by the fake gore. Mann also adds his commentary.

Ever wonder where Kid ’n Play ended up after their partnership came to its natural end? No, neither have I. For a while, I thought that one of them grew up to become the star of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” but what do I know? (What ever happened to Will Smith, anyway?) For the record, they show up near the end of the fifth installment in the “House Party” series, “Tonight’s the Night.” Any relationship between it and Reginald Hudlin’s original, in which the duo starred, is pretty much limited to the calamitous event arranged by a pair of young wannabe rappers, Chris and Dylan (Tequan Richmond, Zac Goodspeed). This time around, however, in the interest of Obama-era diversity, the rappers are a salt-n-pepper team and the party guests represent all colors in the rainbow coalition. If they impress the invited talent scouts (guess who?), they might be able to cruise for a while, anyway. Otherwise, the party pretty much lives up — or down — to its “R” rating. No fresh ground is broken here. The DVD offers a discussion of hip-hop, vis-à-vis the “House Party” flick and deleted scenes.

PBS: Rebel: Loretta Velasquez Secret Soldier of the American Civil War
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Ultimate Tut
Adult Swim: Superjail: Season 3
Nick Jr.: Dora the Explorer/Blue’s Clues Double Feature/Let’s Learn Colors
With all the attention being paid to Abraham Lincoln this year, it’s probably a good time to become acquainted with some of the unsung heroes of the Civil War, as well. Before watching the documentary “Saving Lincoln,” I hadn’t heard of Ward Hill Lamon, the president’s bodyguard and shadow, who, tragically, was assigned elsewhere on the night of the assassination. The PBS report, “Rebel: Loretta Velasquez Secret Soldier of the American Civil War,” introduces us to a Cuban-born woman from New Orleans with an amazing Civil War story of her own. It’s so delicious, I can easily imagine seeing it dramatized in a feature film someday. Velasquez became a controversial figure in the 1870s when her memoirs were published and stomped upon by old farts happy to promulgate mythic portrayals of the Southern fighting man and the nobility of their cause, while ignoring profiteers on both sides of the conflict. The political hacks in charge of deciding the veracity of books managed to convince enough powerful people in New York and Washington that Velasquez was perpetrating a hoax and therefore should be banished to the dustbins of history. Recently, women’s-studies scholars were able to reopen Velasquez’ case by discovering information long-buried in Washington archives that verified the existence of a Civil War hero – depending on which color uniform one favored — who literally disappeared after being discredited by men with a vested interest in glorifying war. As a teenager, Velasquez enlisted in the Confederate Army under the name Harry T. Buford and fought at the first Battle of Bull Run. After being wounded at Shiloh, she served as a Confederate spy. In 1863, Buford saw the error in many of her beliefs and began to serve the union in a similar capacity. It was treacherous work for men and women, but not as uncommon as we’ve been led to believe. In fact, research shows that more than 1,000 women served in the Civil War as soldiers. Women known for being “camp followers” – launderers, cooks, nurses, prostitutes – frequently passed along information about troop movements, weaponry and personnel. Considering the willingness of lonely men to confide in friendly women, no one was in a better position to do so. After being silenced for many years, Velasquez would make her presence known as an advocate of Cuban independence. The DVD adds interviews with the researchers who decided to reopen her case file.

In a mere nine years, the centennial of the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s nearly intact tomb will be celebrated around the world. While historians and archeologists argue that the boy king was to pharaohs what Millard Fillmore is to American presidents, he attained superstar status in the 20th Century. If anything, he’s hotter than ever. The deities weren’t shining brightly on Egypt during Tut’s brief reign and his health was almost always in question. And, yet, the quality and abundance of artifacts found in his tomb have made him among the most famous of all rulers. Given the overwhelmingly positive response to touring exhibitions of the collection, it’s safe to assume that someone, somewhere is planning a wang-dang-doodle to end all wang-dang-doodles. Unless Jimmy Hoffa’s dead body is found in the same grave as Judge Joseph Force Carter, 2022 will be the Year of the Pharaoh and Tutsploitation will rule popular culture. What’s remarkable about the two-hour PBS documentary, “Ultimate Tut,” and its “Secrets of the Dead” series, in general, is discovering the lengths contemporary researchers are able to go in the pursuit of the truth surrounding the deaths of noteworthy men and women. Many of the tremendous advances we’ve witnessed in digital-age medical technology now are readily available to scientists and forensics experts. “Ultimate Tut” could easily serve as a pilot for a TV series titled “CSI: Thebes” or “NCIS: Luxor.” In attempting to unravel the cause of the pharaoh’s death, several different theories are advanced, disputed, quashed and resubmitted based on new information. The absence of the mummified Tut’s heart in his sarcophagus raises several questions, as do injuries that suggest he was fatally injured in battle or from a fall from a chariot. Charred tissue presents another mystery. Then, too, how did Tut’s final resting place avoid being looted, as was almost every other tomb in the Valley of the Kings. CGI technology opens the door for visualizations of the events that might have led to Tut’s death at 18. After an hour-and-a-half of intense scientific debate, I half expected to see someone in a blue CSI jacket walk into the tomb and find evidence that Tut’s wife had spiked his mead with the venom of an asp.

While it’s all too easy to compare the animated series on Adult Swim to one kind of acid trip or another, every new episode of “Superjail” is crazier than the last one and it’s virtually impossible to know what’s going on without setting your VCR to super-slow-mo. Otherwise, only a meth head could possibly could keep track of the incessant narrative shifts and breakneck pacing. If you can still recall how it sounds when a piece of music recorded at 33 rpm is played back at 78 rpm, you’ll understand how difficult it is to retain the artistic conceits on display in “Superjail.” The 10-episode series of 11-minute shorts, now in its third season, is typical of the fare on Adult Swim, in that it is wildly inventive and geared toward the skewed senses of humor of hipsters, game geeks and dopers who prefer brain candy to the mush usually available on TV in the wee hours. The animators of “Superjail,” set in a maximum-security facility underneath a volcano, appear to be obsessed with characters with unusually shaped bodies and all manner of gratuitous violence, sex and gore. (It’s been labeled M-for-mature, but anyone who can’t distinguish between animated violence and the real thing probably shouldn’t be allowed to use a remote-control device, anyway.) If such underground cartoonists of the 1960s as S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton and Spain Rodriguez had access to their own television network, the results probably would have looked something like “Superjail.” Bonus features for the DVD include animatics, rough cuts and an Introstring featurette.

Pre-schoolers can double their fun in the new 116-minute package from Nickelodeon. In “Dora’s Musical School Days,” Dora and Boots accompany kid viewers through four musical adventures on their way to class and Grumpy Old Troll to his Happy Dance. The feature-length “Blue’s Big Musical Movie” represents a first for the popular “Blue’s Clues” series. Like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland before them, Blue, Steve, Periwinkle and other friends decide to put on a sing-along, dance-along musical.  The DVD package adds a sneak peek at “The Wonder Pets!,” music videos, an interactive guessing game, a backstage featurette and a pair of “Blue’s Clues” DVD-ROM games, “Instrument Sound Matching” and “Water Xylophone.” Also from Nickelodeon, “Let’s Learn Colors” encourages preschoolers to learn how to identify colors allowing them to mix their own hues with the help of Bubble Guppies and Blue. There are Dora and the Wonder Pets coloring books and a shape-search with Team Umizoomi. It’s a continuation of the “Let’s Learn” series that began with numbers and letters.

Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles/Love Live Alive: Blu-ray
Now that another Comic-Con has disappeared into the sunset, “Robotech” geeks should have plenty of time to catch their breath and check out the latest adventures of Lt. Lance “Lancer” Belmont, of the show’s “New Generation.” In addition to “The Shadow Chronicles,” which was awarded Best Animated Sci-Fi Film at the 2006 International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, the package includes a new feature-length sequel, “Long Live Alive.” Both are extensions of the wildly popular and commercially diverse anime series, which began its run in the 1980s. In “Shadow Chronicles,” exiled Earthlings attempt to take back their planet from the Invids, first, and, then, the backstabbing Haydonites. The film received positive notices from critics in both the genre press and more mainstream websites. “Love Live Alive” takes place during and after the events of the “New Generation” series. Once again, the enemy is the mechanized Haydonites. The package includes several featurettes, ranging in length from 20 seconds to 45 minutes; image galleries; deleted scenes and outtakes; animatics; and a music video.

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

42: Blu-ray
Letters From Jackie: The Private Thoughts of Jackie Robinson
Venus and Serena” Blu-ray
Home Run
Yes, Brian Helgeland’s biopic of the superlative athlete and humanitarian, Jackie Robinson, touches many of the same bases as other inspirational Hollywood movies about sports figures, including several of the clichés that drive in-the-know viewers crazy. More than anything else, though, the thing that makes us cringe most is the vehemence of the racism faced by the man wearing “42” on his back as he bridged what once was considered to be an insurmountable gap separating white ballplayers and those of color. In 128 minutes, the n-word is spat from the mouth of hard-core racists more frequently than most viewers will have heard it said in their entire lives. Unlike the word’s deployment in “Django Unchained,” however, each and every time it’s uttered in “42,” it stings a little bit more that the time before. Helgeland wants us to ask ourselves: how could Robinson have possibly continued to turn the other cheek as spectators and players, alike, heaped abuse on him? If, today, we’re capable of being stunned by the kind of overt displays of racism as we witnessed in the Paula Deen controversy and Trayvon Martin trial, it’s because the passage of time hasn’t their sting and such vestiges of Jim Crow are even avoided by diehard bigots. So, when the actor playing real-life Phillies manager Ben Chapman stands outside his team’s dugout and hurls the worst possible epithets at the rookie, don’t be surprised if you get the urge to kick a hole in your TV screen. I certainly did. If “42” had expanded its focus, by covering Robinson’s entire career, the toxicity of the poison might have been diluted. During the three seasons chronicled here, though, there was no shelter from the storm, either for Robinson or viewers of “42.” That would only come after Robinson established himself as a bona-fide star and other black and Spanish-speaking players were signed to competing teams.

Helgeland nails the sense of complete isolation Robinson must have felt after leaving the all-black Kansas City Monarchs and joining the white-as-snow Montreal Royals and Brooklyn Dodgers. Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey told him what to expect on and off the field of play, making it clear that their crusade wouldn’t be won easily or without pain. Aware of Robinson’s fiery temper and previous confrontations with bigotry, Rickey, in effect, dared him to accept the challenge of breaking the strictly enforced, if unofficial color line. Even if it can be argued that Rickey’s primary objective was to sell tickets to African-American fans, the crusty Methodist knew only too well that he would be severely tested by fellow executives who enforced the ban without questioning its morality, unfairness or business logic. As co-protagonists, Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford both stand out from the pack here. Among the rest of the generally excellent cast members, my heart went out most to the actor assigned to play Chapman, Alan Tudyk (“Suburgatory”). I can’t imagine how he might have reacted when he was handed the script and saw the words he was being paid to deliver in rapid-fire repetition. (He should be considered, at least, for a Supporting Actor nomination, come January.) Nicole Beharie is fine as wife Rachel Robinson, a Californian appalled by the Jim Crow restrictions imposed on blacks in the South, as are Andre Holland as sportswriter Wendell Smith, the man who recommended Robinson to Rickey, and Lucas Black (“Sling Blade”) as Pee Wee Reese, the Dodger who stood beside his teammate in the face of fan hostility. Of all the production values on display in “42,” the one I least admire is the musical soundtrack, which couldn’t be any more bombastic and manipulative. The Blu-ray package adds three standard-issue making-of featurettes.

The documentary “Letters From Jackie: The Private Thoughts of Jackie Robinson” picks ups where “24” leaves off. In addition to describing his rise to stardom after his rookie season, Robinson’s letters to family, friends, business associates and politicians expand on his role as a crusader for civil rights off the field. A prolific letter writer, Robinson wasn’t shy about sharing his feeling about important issues of the time, especially the hypocrisy shown by the Democratic Party over soliciting black voters, while also kissing the asses of Dixiecrats. Indeed, he openly supported Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy, believing that Republicans were less beholding to bigoted politicians than the Democrats, who consistently blocked aggressive civil-rights legislation. The courtship wouldn’t last, of course, but the Kennedys eventually took his words seriously. Another fascinating aspect of the documentary is Robinson’s longtime friendship with a 10-year-old Wisconsin pen pal, Ron Rabinovitz, whose love for the ballplayer was rewarded with family visits and a candid sharing of opinions.

Released to coincide with Wimbledon, my copy of “Venus and Serena” must have gotten lost in the mail. With the U.S. Open soon to begin, however, there’s still plenty of time to catch up with Maiken Baird and Michelle Major’s uneven bio-doc. Granted, the Williams sisters didn’t demolish the color barrier in tennis – Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Evonne Goolagong and Yannick Noah pretty much took care of that – but the allegiance of the sport’s predominantly white, middle-class fans can never be taken for granted. After winning a gold medal at the 2012 Games, Serena was chastised in the media for supposedly celebrating her triumph with a few steps from the “Crip walk,” instead of curtsy or sky punch. In an interview for the documentary, Chris Rock blames the fickleness of their popularity on one unmistakable thing: “Their braids are not country-club black. They are black-black.” The Williams’ straight-outta-Compton history has been repeated so many times that it now borders on the mythic. Frequently described as “warriors” or “gladiators” on the crowd, the sisters are scrutinized more closely in defeat than in victory. Fact is, however, even when tennis is played right, it exacts a heavy toll on the bodies of the players. When top-seeded contestants drop out of tournament or match over physical ailments, ticket-buyers are quick to ascribe other reasons for their withdrawal. No one is immune from booing, but the loudest has been reserved for the Williams when fans are denied an opportunity to see them compete against each other.

“Venus and Serena” follows the siblings through the 2011 campaign and much of 2012, when Venus was 31 and Serena was 29, ages at which most players begin to think about retirement. Although both were coming back after long layoffs caused by serious ailments, they were expected to win, win, win. In fairness, V&S held themselves up to similarly high expectations, sometimes blaming a loss on incompetence, instead of something more basic. The documentary isn’t nearly as “unfiltered” as the cover blurbs would have us believe. If the closeness of the sisters is wonderful to behold, it’s counterbalanced by the agony of watching their parent/coaches’ us-against-the-world stance and the inflicting of it on their daughters. That’s the kind of sport tennis is, however. Personal coaches and tennis-fathers, especially, are allowed to interject their personalities into what happens on the court more than in any other sport. The more persistent among them have even been banned from attending matches or getting too near the athletes, off and on the court. “Venus and Serena” is informed, as well, by the observations of Billie jean King, John McEnroe, Anna Wintour, Bill Clinton, Gay Talese and other siblings and half-siblings. It is, however, Rock’s candid comments that make the most sense. Conspicuously missing are fresh interviews with opposing players and coaches, as well as a wider perspective on the impact the sisters’ success has had on African-American girls from modest backgrounds.  The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and interviews with the filmmakers.

Back to baseball: “Home Run” tells the story of a big-leagues slugger whose Achilles heel is his addiction to alcohol. Until Cory (Scott Elrod) is busted on a DUI rap, he’s been able to avoid paying the price for substance abuse. This time, however, he’s suspended for two months, during which he’s expected to return to his Oklahoma hometown and go through the rehab wringer. His agent (Vivica A. Fox) has arranged for him to coach a Little League team, primarily as a PR stunt. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Cory doesn’t take recovery seriously. That doesn’t happen until he reconnects-cute with his high school sweetheart, who, all too conveniently, is a competing coach and single mom. Because “Home Run” is a decidedly faith-based drama, the road to recovery inevitably leads through the twin cities of transformation and redemption. Although well directed and shot by David Boyd (“The Walking Dead”), there are times when “Home Run” feels like an infomercial for Celebrate Recovery, an actual program founded at Saddleback Church by John Baker.

Bullet to the Head: Blu-ray
The most noteworthy thing about this adaptation of the French graphic novel, “Du plomb dans la tête,” isn’t the appearance of Sylvester Stallone as a mob enforcer double-crossed by a corrupt New Orleans businessman. Now 67 and as buff as ever, Sly has never been away long enough for anyone to miss him particularly or be surprised when his name is used to sell tickets. No, what’s interesting is finding Walter Hill on top of the list of credits as director. Away from directing feature films for more than 10 years, the creator of such action hits as “The Warriors,” “The Long Riders” and “48 Hrs.” prefers to make movies that he’s also written. “Bullet to the Head” was never going to be anything but an exercise in cartoon violence, so, when Hill took over for Wayne Kramer early on, something, besides a paycheck, must have caught his eye. Given that the movie clocks in at a brisk 92 minutes, I’m guessing Hill took more out of the screenplay than he added to it. Stallone’s mumble-mouthed Jimmy Bobo is a sharp-dressed guy who could do double-duty as a spokesman for steroid-abuse charities. His inclination is to shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. His hatred of police borders on the pathological, but it’s probably because the New Orleans Police Department is known to be nothing more than a street gang with uniforms.

After a knife-wielding thug kills his partner, Bobo reluctantly allows a Washington cop to tag along with him as attempts to avenge the murder. The by-the-book cop, Taylor (Sung Kang), has reasons of his own to find the guy who killed Bobo’s partner.  Being post-Katrina New Orleans, it’s tied into an elaborate scheme that requires its perpetrators (Christian Slater, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) to buy the support of countless politicians, from the French Quarter to Georgetown. The details are embedded in a USB flash drive, which leaves the decidedly analogue Bobo at a distinct disadvantage. It’s the promise of Bobo eventually having to fight the seemingly indestructible thug, Keegan (Jason Momoa), that towers over everything else in the nearly incomprehensible story and Hill doesn’t disappoint us. When they finally come face to face, Keegan demands they use conveniently placed fire axes to settle the score. (“Are we fuckin’ Vikings?,” Bobo quips.) No matter what Stallone’s detractors think, action junkies should find the showdown to be worth the price of the rental. In Hill’s hands, it’s as exciting as it is ludicrous. (Keegan twirls the ax as if it were a Wiffle bat.) For eye candy, “Bullet to the Head” offers Sarah Shahi, who, at 33, could play Stallone’s tattoo-artist granddaughter, instead of his daughter. The Blu-ray package adds a decent making-of featurette.

Wild Bill: Blu-ray
In his directorial debut, “Wild Bill,” British actor Dexter Fletcher shows off some of the things he learned while performing for Guy Ritchie, Matthew Vaughn, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh. Set in London’s East End in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, it combines the gritty look, twisted sense of humor and insular vernacular of contemporary British gangster flicks with a story about real-life family values. Bill Hayward (Charlie Creed-Miles) has been released on parole after eight years in prison for something related to dealing drugs. When he arrives at his housing project home, Bill learns that the mother of his 11- and 15-year-old sons, Jimmy and Dean, has taken a powder for Spain, leaving the boys to fend for themselves. Typically, this would mean following into the family business of low-level crime, but, with the Olympics approaching, Dean manages to find a job on a construction project near the stadium. If the job keeps the wolves from the door, it can’t prevent social services from threatening to break up the family. Although Bill would just as soon hightail it to Scotland, Dean asks him to stick around for appearances sake. At the same time, Bill’s former mates are none too happy that he’s discouraging Jimmy from peddling their stuff and screwing up their business. Meanwhile, kids in the housing project are also feeling the subversive effects of puberty. Fletcher does a nice job balancing both aspects of the story, while also eliciting excellent performances from the young, largely untested cast members. Unfortunately, kitchen-sink movies like “Wild Bill” don’t get much play in American theaters, anymore, and Fletcher’s face is far more familiar than his name on a poster. It should look just fine on your TV. The Blu-ray comes with deleted scenes and a couple of short featurettes.

White Frog
Considering how few of today’s movies feature predominantly Asian-American casts and behind-the-camera talent, it seems unfair to pick nits in reviewing Quentin Lee’s coming-of-age drama, “White Frog,” in which there’s plenty of both. So, I won’t do it. What’s interesting in “White Frog” is the absence of a singularly Asian-American theme, cast or neighborhood. The proverb that explains the title has its roots in Old Country soil, but that’s the extent of it. In that way, at least, “White Frog” is a movie that mirrors everyday life in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Honolulu, miles from the tourist traps and sweatshops in the local Chinatown and first-generation poverty. The issues are common to all American families, regardless of their ethnic and racial persuasion. The only reason “White Frog” stands out from other movies with multi-ethnic casts is the absence of conflicts precipitated by racial division. Written by the mother/daughter team of Ellie and Fabienne Wen, “White Frog” describes what happens to a well-off suburban family when their teenage son, Chazz (Harry Shum Jr.), is killed in an automobile accident, taking a rather large secret with him to the grave. Chazz means everything to his younger brother, Nick (Booboo Stewart), who has Asperger’s syndrome and has an extremely difficult time relating to other people, including his parents (BD Wong, Joan Chen). For Nick, coming of age in the usual ways that boys do would be difficult enough without the loss of his brother, but it now borders on the impossible. Fortunately, one of Chazz’ close friends invites him to join their weekly card game. The Indian-American and African-American boys have a more difficult time adjusting to Nick’s idiosyncratic ticks and behavior, but they come around once he begins kicking their ass in poker.

As if this weren’t enough weight for one low-budget indie to carry for 93 minutes, the parents are coming apart at the seams, even before the family-size secret is revealed by Chazz’s best friend. When it is, Nick and his parents react in a very un-cool way. It threatens to disrupt a theatrical production Chazz and his pals had spent many hours planning for and rehearsing. For it to be shut down over issues relating to intolerance and misguided honor would do nothing more than temporarily ease their own despair. It would neither bring him back nor pay tribute to a life well lived. I don’t know what it means that the parents have adopted Christianity and the father seeks the advice of a priest, while a therapist gets much of the credit for independently saving the brothers from going off the deep end emotionally. Fortunately, the youthful cast is sufficiently buoyant to keep things afloat long enough to forge an ending that avoids sentimentality and moralizing. Among the places you’ve seen the faces of the actors are “Twilight,” “Glee,” “Teen Wolf,” “Wizards of Waverly Place” and “The Vampire Diaries.” Wong and Chen do a nice job as the severely tested parents. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

45 Minutes From Broadway
If I recall, Henry Jaglom’s play, “45 Minutes From Broadway,” was well received critically and at the box-office in its Los Angeles run. Two years later, the mainstream critics who saw it in its far-too-limited release would uniformly pan his big-screen adaptation. The first thing Jaglom’s fans should know is that the film version of “45 Minutes From Broadway,” while typically talky and populated with accomplished middle-class neurotics, is exceedingly stage-bound and the frequently stilted dialogue is delivered as if a live audience were present. Basically, it lacks the smart organic vibrancy that usually attends Jaglom’s movies. That said, admirers of Jaglom’s work, who live outside Los Angeles and New York and wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see the play, should value the opportunity to catch up with it. The actors certainly will be familiar to Jaglom completists. Among them are, of course, Tanna Frederick and Michael Emil, David Proval, Jack Heller, Diane Salinger, Harriet Schock, Mary Crosby and siblings Sabrina and Simon Orson Jaglom. They’re part of a show-biz family that collectively thinks of itself as capital-A Actors, or “Us.” New to the writer/director’s repertory company are Julie Davis and Judd Nelson, who play an engaged couple representing the lower-case-A Audience, or “Them.” Despite sharing the same parents, Frederick and Davis’ sibling characters could hardly be more different. When Them (she’s Jewish, he’s a “goy”) arrive at the country retreat housing Us (much is made of roots extending to the Yiddish theater), a crisis arises between the sisters that you can see coming all of the 45 miles separating the cottage and the Great White Way. Fans won’t have a problem with that, however. The features add Jaglom & Co.’s commentary, deleted scenes and outtakes, and clips.

Heavy Traffic: Blu-ray
Knowing that Ralph Bakshi’s “Heavy Traffic” was heavily influenced by Hubert Selby Jr.’s unforgiving blue-collar tragedy, “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” makes it much easier to understand what the filmmaker had in mind, besides creating something demonstrably hip, experimental and Impressionistic. After starting out in the traditional cartoon racket, in the 1960s, Bakshi was sufficiently impressed by the anarchic energy on display in the Underground Comix explosion to test how the same thing would work in full-screen animation. The result was his hit 1972 adaptation of R. Crumb’s “Fritz the Cat,” which, in a decision that still begs credulity, the MPAA branded “X.” Crumb would disown the movie, but it captured most of the comic book’s irreverent flavor and counter-countercultural tone. A year later, “Heavy Traffic” would combine live-action and animation in the service of a story about a New York City far more recognizable to Selby than Woody Allen or Neil Simon. The central character is Michael Corleone, the artistic son of a constantly bickering Italian father and Jewish mother. After leaving home and moving to the Lower East Side – pre-gentrified, mind you – Michael re-imagines his life in the form of a comic book. The trigger separating live-action and animation is an old-fashioned pinball machine, which allows the artist to separate himself from reality and enter the demi-monde of junkies, winos, prostitutes, transvestites, bums and jazz musicians. Like Crumb, Bakshi drew his women with an exaggerated notion of what attracted men to blowsy libertines, prostitutes, waitresses and African-American goddesses. The hepcats and musicians could have been refugees from the zoot-suit riots of 1943. From a distance of 40 years, the images that don’t look deliberately racist and misogynistic have the aura of quaintness about them. It’s worth recalling, though, that political correctness was a notion embraced then by overly sanctimonious liberals and ridiculed by people with a more anarchic view of the world. Exaggerating certain unappealing stereotypes and embracing the bohemian lifestyle was one good way to keep everyone off-guard. If the cool kids were in on the gag, only the squares that didn’t get it could complain, right? It explains how images many would consider to be offensive co-exist, even today, so amicably alongside those that are sublime. Those were the days. For better or worse, “Heavy Traffic” can only be judged within the context of the tumultuous time. There are no special features on the Blu-ray, which looks as good as it ever will again, considering that state-of-the-art in 1973 often falls short of that 40 years later.

Street Trash: Special Meltdown Edition: Blu-ray
Hands of the Ripper: Blu-ray
Cannibal Possession: Heart of Ice
The Life After Death Project
Although “Street Trash” is too original to be listed among movies that are so bad they’re good, it may be the most overtly transgressive micro-budget indie ever committed to film. It’s also one of the funniest, in a scabrous sort of way. Although technically laughable by today’s standards, its outrageously imaginative deployment of special makeup effects still do the intended trick a quarter-century later. Believe me when I say that they defy description. Directed by J. Michael Muro and written by Roy Frumkes, “Street Trash” describes what happens when an insanely toxic and incredibly cheap brands of wine is introduced to bums living in New York’s Skid Row. (Remember that this was shot before winos, derelicts and various other nut cases were filed under the politically correct rubric, “homeless.”)  It defines the term “rotgut,” as it devours the digestives systems of its partakers, causing their vomit and entrails to resemble a Technicolor nightmare. The wine was introduced to Skid Row denizens, with the expectation that they’d steal a bottle and pass it around the old campfire. New Yorkers were getting tired of the guys who squeegeed car windows at red lights, using liquids that only compounded the problem. Eradicating a few of them wasn’t likely to raise a ripple of concern in a city ripe for rehabilitation. Meanwhile, a vigilante cop makes it his mission in life to clear a Brooklyn junkyard of the human vermin who’ve taken refuge there. It gets worse. There’s a rape scene so realistically violent that it induced flashbacks in the actress playing the victim of a similarly horrific attack years earlier. The most memorable image in “Street Trash,” though, is from the series of shots of a detached penis being tossed around in a mad game of keep-away. The final one approximates the bone heaved into the sky at the end of the “Dawn of Man” sequence in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That it was shot on location in some of New York City’s least desirable locales – then, anyway – only adds to the fun. The two-hour making-of featurette created for Synapse’s “Special Meltdown Edition” Blu-ray package is every bit as entertaining as the feature. It also contains the original 16mm short version of the film, commentaries and marketing material.

Made near the end of Hammer Studio’s creative period, “Hands of the Ripper” demonstrates what can happen when producers offer audiences something different than brand-identified characters and predictable storylines. As it opens, a very young child witnesses the death of her mother at the hands of her father, who, as the timeline suggests, could very well be Jack the Ripper. We encounter Anna (Angharad Rees) again as a teenager toiling for a fake psychic. Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter) attends one of the séances, after which someone is murdered. He suspects Anna is the murderer, but it isn’t until he rescues her from a jail cell full of prostitutes that he can do anything about it. Using Freudian techniques, he wants to prove that Anna is suffering from schizophrenia and can be cured of her murderous urges through analysis. He disputes the suggestion that she’s the infamous serial killer’s daughter and can’t help but repeat his offenses. The audience, though, is working from clues not available to Pritchard and other investigators. Even so, Hungarian director Peter Sasdy is able to maintain an aura of suspense that keeps us on the edge of our seats throughout “Hands of the Ripper.” It helps that Rees is such a fragile thing that her abrupt transitions always surprise us. The extreme violence caused American censors to demand certain cuts, which are restored here. The Synapse Blu-ray adds the informative backgrounder, “The Devil’s Bloody Plaything: Possessed by Hands of the Ripper,” the U.S. television introduction, a photo gallery and isolated music and effects audio track.

The cover art and title that accompany the “Cannibal Possession: Heart of Ice” DVD would fit easily alongside dozens of other horror flicks on the shelf of your local video store. In fact, though, it’s a surprisingly scholarly documentary on the Wendigo phenomenon described in the mythology of the Algonquin and other North American tribes. The Wendigo is a cannibalistic creature into which humans have the ability to transform and cause other mayhem, as well. In Canada, where the legend is endorsed most commonly, stories of Wendigo possession carry much the same currency as theories surrounding Jack the Ripper and the Donner Party. It most recently came to the fore after a passenger on a Greyhound bus leaving Edmonton was slaughtered by the man, Vincent Li, sitting next to him. Besides stabbing his victim dozens of times, Li cut off his head and other body parts, some of which he later was seen eating. The spooky part involves the timing of the incident, which occurred after a long article about the Wendigo phenomenon was published in the same newspaper Li delivered to make money. The same sort of thing happens in the United States and other countries, of course, but the cannibalism is attributed to other phenomena. The Jeffrey Dahmer case continues to inform horror and true-crime flicks – “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” DVD arrives later this month – and the international media went nuts, as well, when news of Miami’s “Causeway Cannibal” broke. Freshman documentarian Christian Tizya’s film neither sensationalizes the Wendigo legend, nor does it dismiss it as sheer boogeyman hocus-pocus. The people he’s interviewed represent a cross-section of thought about such horrifying cases. While a couple goes along with Aboriginal superstition, most lay the blame on other severe mental-health issues. None ridicules the notion or turns a cynical eye toward believers. Because the legend is most common in snowbound northern Canada, it would follow that trapped miners or natives may have ate the body parts of other human beings simply to survive, as did members of the Donner Party. Horror fans looking for something meaty on which to chew before the next course of zombie movies arrives could do worse than digesting this sober discussion of a hard-to-stomach subject. (All puns intended.)

Paul Davids’ made-for-Syfy documentary, “The Life After Death Project,” also balances the more far-out theories of its witnesses with the scientifically correct views of skeptics. As the title suggests, the two-disc DVD is chock-full of stories presented to convince us that death doesn’t necessarily mean our dearly departed friends are finished with us. The possibility that life exists after death—in one form or another—has been the central source of wonder and contemplation since humans abandoned their caves. And, give or take a burning bush or two, the question has never been answered definitively. And, yet, most people on Earth set their moral compass as if something exists on the “other side.” Sadly, too many of those people seem to believe that killing in the name of God is their ticket to heaven. “The Life After Death Project” is tipped heavily on the possibility that editor and writer Forrest J Ackerman, the godfather of Hollywood sci-fi and monster worship, continues to play tricks on former friends and associates, five years after his death. That Ackerman, himself, was an atheist and skeptic on all things pertaining to the afterlife is given much significance in Davids’ film. If the evidence isn’t entirely compelling, one way or another, it’s sometimes quite entertaining. A second disc is dedicated to the accounts of believers, only too happy to share their supernatural experiences.

London: The Modern Babylon 
The Fruit Hunters

Timed to coincide with last summer’s Olympic Games, “London: The Modern Babylon” uses a dizzying array of movie and video clips, archival newsreel footage, snippets from interviews and curbside conversations, and lots and lots of music, to tell the story of a city that always looks on the brink of disaster, but somehow manages to get by, anyway. Julien Temple’s decidedly non-linear 125-minute tour begins in the 1890s and ends with the run-up to the Olympics. (We meet a woman who lived through 107 of those years.) If the city looks dysfunctional by most American standards, its vibrant pulse and bustling streets make the U.S. look as if it could use a cocktail made of Geritol and methamphetamine. The movie firmly demonstrates how Londoners have dealt, sometimes poorly, with such immensely difficult issues as immigration, poverty, unemployment, terrorism and multi-cultural overload, but, in times of crisis, have come together to stand up against tyranny, economic displacement and war. They pulled off the same trick with an Olympics many people feared would be spoiled by gridlock, racial hostility or bombs. Temple argues that the proverbial “London mob,” which could break out in riots at the drop of bobby’s helmet, has been a good thing for the city because it forces people to deal openly with crucial issues that politicians ignore at their peril. His encyclopedic grasp of the British music and culture adds greatly to the notion that each new wave of immigrants and disaffected youth has created a sound that changes the common rhythm to which the metropolis pulsates. In its collage of striking images, “London: The Modern Babylon” almost dares us to recognize such faces in the crowd as a very young David Bowie and David Gilmour, representing the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Men With Long Hair; Margaret and Denis Thatcher planting roses in their garden; various crowned heads; Malcolm McLaren on the Thames; Twiggy in a mini; and Madness singer, Suggs. The DVD adds an interview with Temple conducted in what appears to be a Rolls-Royce.

The temptation here is to call “The Fruit Hunters” delicious and leave it at that. For anyone passionate about fruit and other things they put in their tummies, Yung Chang’s documentary easily qualifies as pornography. Adapted from journalist Adam Gollner’s book, whose full title is “The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession,” the documentary explores numerous aspects of the fruit trade, from where they got their names to the plagues that threaten their existence. Not so long ago, it would have been impossible to find affordable fruit in the dead of winter. In today’s global market, there’s a ready supply all year long. The downside of such universality, however, is flavors that have been engineered to satisfy only the most common of taste buds and for the least amount of money expended. Adventurous consumers might occasionally risk doing permanent damage to their checkbooks by seeking out specialty stores and farmers’ markets that offer a greater variety of produce than that at the local supermarket. The people we meet in “The Fruit Hunters” literally travel to the ends of the Earth to discover new tastes and bring them back home alive. Sometimes, that means climbing to the top of a tree in a rain forest canopy to collect a mango specimen, if only to preserve the seeds and genetic coding for future cultivation. If this movie doesn’t make your mouth water, chances are that you’re dead.

Nikkatsu Erotic Collection: Horny Working Girl: From 5 to 9/Nurse Diary: Wicked Finger
Cinemax: Femmes Fatales: The Complete Second Second

The latest releases from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection represent a shift toward lighter subject matter and romance in the workplace, where, in the 1980s, women assumed a far more visible role. Apart from a truly off-putting gang-rape scene, “Horny Working Girl: From 5 to 9” is the funniest entry in the series I’ve seen. It consciously combines key structural elements from Colin Higgins’ “9 to 5” and its American hard-core counterpart, “8 to 4.” In it, Chieko (Junko Asahina) is hired as an assistant manager for a large corporation specializing in sex toys. It doesn’t take long to see that Cheiko was hired, in part, to help her boss work out his kinks after hours. She’s bright, ambitious and insatiable, as is the boss’ far more traditional wife. Turns out, the boss also is forcing himself on a pretty young clerk, who isn’t in the same league sexually as the other two. When the three women finally quit blaming each other for their problems and begin plotting against the common enemy, “From 5 to 9” becomes atypically enjoyable. Although nothing sexually graphic is shown, the violent attack on the youngest woman is tough to sit through, even if it’s a staple of Japanese soft-core of the period. The consensual stuff is far more appetizing.

Nurse Diary: Wicked Finger” is built from a similar template, but, by comparison to most other Roman Porno titles, it’s practically a rom-com. This time, Ryoko (Etsuko Hara), a respected nurse in a large hospital, decides to trade her dorm-like residence for an apartment. Not only is she in search of a little peace and quiet, but Ryoko is also being quartered there for convenience of her boss, a powerful doctor. As much as it pleases the old coot, the arrangement disturbs Ryoko’s “little sister,” who’s now vulnerable to the advances of female predators in the dorm. As in “From 5 to 9,” it takes her a while to figure out that the doctor never is going to leave his wife, whose father is on the hospital board, or stop messing around with an aggressive seductress whose fantasies involve office visits. Also living in the apartment complex is a comically horny student, who spies on Ryoko from the apartment above her bed. Hopelessly shy, he finally is introduced to the nurse after he goes to the hospital to a have a vacuum-cleaner hose pried from his penis. She gets a big kick out of his predicament. Once again, the revenge-minded women will get have the final say in the matter. Any time there is more than one woman in a room in a Nikkatsu sex film, the odds for girl-girl action breaking out become astronomically high. In these two movies, it’s considered to be part and parcel of the women’s-empowerment movement. The DVDs come with informative booklets and newly translated subtitles.

Japanese pornos from the period are notorious for blocking genitalia and pubic hair with black strips, blurry boxes and pixelization so grotesquely applied that it is as obscene as the material being censored. On Cinemax and other premium-cable services, the same censoring takes place, but in a far more cleverly choreographed manner. The subterfuge includes well-placed arms and hands, bizarre camera angles and various bedroom accessories. The current trend of removing all or most follicles of hair between lovers of both genders has made the censor’s job that much easier. The noir-tinged “Femmes Fatales,” inspired by a pulp magazine comprised of racy stories written by actresses, may be the most provocative title in Skinemax’s late-night programming bloc. All of the actors are either abnormally handsome or ridiculously beautiful, although most of the femmes look as if they’ve spent a considerable amount of time enhancing their assets. More than anything else, though, it’s the quality of the stories that drive the narratives. Among the recognizable guest stars included in the episodes compiled in the Season Two package are Vivica A. Fox, Eric Roberts, Casper Van Dien, Jeff Fahey, Nikki Griffin, Robert Picardo, Ashley Hamilton and Steve Railsback. The bonus features add commentary for every episode, several background and making-of pieces, deleted scenes, a clip from a 2012 ComiCon panel and the international cut of “Libra,” with commentary.

Rooster Teeth: Best of RT Shorts and Animated Adventures
Anyone already familiar with the web series “Red vs. Blue” has a pretty good idea of what to expect in “Rooster Teeth: Best of RT Shorts and Animated Adventures,” a series of short films that go a long way toward defining geek humor. At a time when every major studio on the West Coast was attempting to find ways to exploit the Internet for their narrow financial demands, guerrilla production studios like Rooster Teeth were entertaining the wired masses with byte-sized series and bargain-basement comedy. Hollywood never could figure out what attracted Internet-savvy viewers to one show and not a dozen others. Dweebs tend to laugh uproariously at things most people would take a week to find funny and adding a laugh track would only alienate the stars. Even so, after imbibing massive quantities of beer and pot, almost anything on the Internet is more entertaining than a network sitcom. Austin-based Rooster Teeth understands its audience to be largely comprised of gamers, sci-fi obsessives, Beck fans and people who surf the Net specifically to find silly shows to share with their friends. Some of RT’s best stuff lampoons popular movies, podcasts and games and, for that to succeed, you have to be on the same wavelength as the audience. Check. It also helps if the shorts and cartoons feature characters that also could pass for extraterrestrials or the artists TA in applied physics. Check. Much of the material on Disc One is shot behind the scenes at Rooster Teeth headquarters, while Disc Two is comprised of “Animated Adventures” in which the RT crew describes things that happen to them and around them when they venture outside the shop. Before and after each short, the gang describes what we’ve just seen, laughing their heads off. Some of it is funny, but too many of the pieces are just plain stupid. The bonus features include “The Kinda True Story of Rooster Teeth,” bonus shorts, behind-the-scenes stories from the Animated Adventures, 3D Animated Adventures, outtakes, trailers and Animation Adventures production time lapses.

An Affair of the Heart: Blu-ray
Several years ago, I invited my 17-year-old daughter and her friend to join me at a performance of “EFX,” which, before “Ka,” was in residence at the MGM Grand