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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 in Las Vegas. Every couple of years, the production – once the most expensive in the world – changed marquee stars. In 2001, Rick Springfield was called upon to follow Michael Crawford, David Cassidy and Tommy Tune, all of whom had brought his own unique personality, musical chops and fans to the show. I expected my daughter to give me one of those, “Sure, dad” looks and politely reject the invitation. Instead, she responded with a semi-ecstatic, “Really?” and rushed to the phone to call her friend. The full extent of my knowledge of Springfield’s career was that he had a big hit in the 1980s, “Jessie’s Girl,” and once served as the good-guy hunk on “General Hospital.” The thing I didn’t know, at the time, was that “Jessie’s Girl” had emerged as one of those crazy pop songs that exist on a completely different plane than most other pop songs. For a while, it was the kind of ditty that cool kids hate to admit they love and others have had on their playlists for all of the last 22 years. I know that it took me by surprise when the drug dealer played by Alfred Molina in “Boogie Nights” sang along to it on his stereo, just as all hell was about to break loose. That was good enough for me. “An Affair of the Heart” is a documentary about what Rick Springfield has meant to his fans over the years, since they first heard “Jessie’s Girl” or saw him on “General Hospital,” and vice versa.

What’s clear is that, although he disappeared for while in the 1990s, Springfield never stopped rocking. The doc doesn’t dwell on the potholes he stumbled into along the way, including serious bouts with depression, but it doesn’t ignore them, either. One of the most entertaining sections of the movie comes before an appearance the musician gave in Sweden recently, opening for Aerosmith and Guns ’n’ Roses. Springfield could easily have been dragged back to his trailer by Nordic metal heads, but, to the delight of the crowd, he ended up stage diving and climbing amplifier towers, instead. Later, on a fan cruise to the Bahamas, the filmmakers interview passengers who had no idea what they were getting into when they booked passage. The film also devotes time to his son, Dustin, who as a toddler, Springfield carried onto the stage on his shoulders. Now, the aspiring rock star is given time to wield his own ax. The only thing missing for me were the 10 minutes Springfield spent with my daughter and her friend after the “EFX” show, mostly just shooting the breeze. It is a moment the now-adult girls have in common with the many fans we meet in “An Affair of the Heart.” A separate disc adds extended scenes, bonus interviews and “premiere” footage.

Downloaded
In 1999, an amazing little company named Napster opened a veritable Pandora’s Jukebox, releasing into the digital world a host of evils all determined to destroy the infrastructure of the music industry. When teenagers Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker launched the Internet file-sharing service, they had no idea of how dangerous their entrepreneurial vision would become to executives commonly referred to as “weasels.” No one did. The common belief governing Napster and the tens of thousands of young people using it at the time was, “The Internet wants to be free,” while music-industry brass considered Napster users to be “pirates.” In the end, the U.S. court system agreed with the industry and, although Napster was effectively neutered, the music establishment was dealt a serious blow, as well. “Downloaded” chronicles Napster’s rise and fall, primarily through archived interviews and news coverage. The fresh material has been collected by director Alex Winter – yes, that Alex Winter – reminds us how alternately clueless and venal Napster’s opponents were, even in victory. If it smacks of 20/20 hindsight, it’s only because mainstream news media – then and now – has always been behind the 8-ball when it comes to digital technology, second only to the music industry. Instead of collaborating with the Napster brain trust, industry lawyers began suing the people who downloaded music files to their MP3 players. The media ate it up every new batch of indictments, but the public-relations damage was done. Soon, music lovers would flock to iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, Facebook, Pandora and other innovative distribution networks for affordable ways to complete their “record” collections. Even as the industry was gloating over its victory, the paradigm had shifted below them.  At 106 minutes, “Downloaded” is a long, if frequently fascinating slog. It could have benefited from chopping 15-20 minutes of legal stuff and taking a deeper look at what’s followed in the wake of Napster. That, or finding another 5-10 minutes to introduce some of the pre-Napster pioneers, including those in the deejay, rave and electronic-dance-music communities.

AMC: Hell on Wheels: The Complete Second Season
DirecTV: Damages: The Complete Fifth Season
BBC: Who: The Doctors Revisited 1-4
PBS: America’s Test Kitchen: Season 13
PBS: Secrets of Chatsworth
My first encounter with the dandy AMC Western series, “Hell on Wheels,” was through a binge-viewing session after the debut-season compilation arrived on DVD. In some ways, it reminded me of a PG-13 version of HBO’s salty “Deadwood.” Being on a basic-plus tier, the cable series couldn’t compete with “Deadwood” in its presentation of the expletives favored by railroad workers or the general state of undress among the brothel employees. Even so, it did very well for the network in the ratings department and was great fun to watch. Somehow, I completely missed Season Two. I think it was caught in the tug-of-war between Dish, AMC and other networks that took quite a few weeks to settle. Now, with the arrival of the Season Two package, I’m killing seven hours of time binging on it, again. The predominantly Irish laborers hired by the Union Pacific line are slowly working their way toward connecting with the mostly Chinese workers of the Central Pacific. Meanwhile, former Confederate officer Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is still haunted by the death of his wife at the hands of Union soldiers. Plenty of other roadblocks have been put in the way of the UP crew in the race toward the untold riches that go the bosses of the laborers. The third season opens on August 3, but in a new Saturday night timeslot. The DVD set adds “Where Season One Left Off,” cast interviews, “On Set With Anson Mount” and a making-of featurette.

A programming situation similar to the one that caused confusion for Dish subscribers arose when “Damages,” migrated from FX to the satellite delivery service, DirecTV, which requires a much greater financial commitment than simply waiting to pick up a seasonal compilation. The move was necessitated by declining ratings on FX, arguing, once again, not to underestimate the willingness of Americans to settle for crappy network shows when plenty of better ones are available elsewhere. Fortuitously, the show’s producers convinced DirecTV to share expenses, giving its Audience Network a marquee series, not unlike Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Season Five would prove to be the final go-round, though. In it, big-shot lawyer Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) is once again pitted against her former protégé and perennial daughter figure, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne). As if the writers had known the Edward Snowden scandal would break in time for the DVD release, the season-long case involves a WikiLeaks-inspired cyber-hacker (Ryan Phillippe) and documents exposing a corporate scandal. The character who dies early is a frightened business executive (Jenna Elfman). The other storyline involves an ugly custody battle pitting Patty against her own son. Special guest stars also include Michael Gaston, Janet McTeer, John Hannah, Judd Hirsch and Chris Messina. The package adds deleted scenes and outtakes. The entire five seasons have also been collected for release this week.

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of “Doctor Who,” the BBC’s home-video division continues to parcel out upgraded editions of select episodes of the venerable series. While there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason behind the DVD release pattern, the representation of the show’s 11 “Doctors” – with a new one to arrive this fall—seems important to someone at the company. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the 50-year mark is a tad misleading, in that the show was put on hiatus throughout most of the 1990s. Even so, 798 episodes, encompassing 239 “stories” and a TV movie, is nothing at which to sneeze. Next season, a second 3D episode, with David Tennant and Billy Piper making a brief return, will air along with a Christmas special at which time the identity of the 12th Doctor will have been revealed. In “Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited,” stories featuring the first four protagonists—William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, and Tom Baker— will be represented. They are “The Aztecs” (1964), “Tomb of the Cyberman” (1967), “Spearhead From Space” (1970) and “Pyramids of Mars” (1975). The package includes a set of refrigerator magnets.

Nowhere is the connection between food preparation and science emphasized so much as on the weekly PBS series, “America’s Test Kitchen,” which has just exited its 13th season. Besides the more than 30 full-time chefs and tasters who participate in the show on a recurring basis, it is shot at a fully operational, 2,500-square-foot kitchen facility in Brookline, Massachusetts. It’s said that a recipe may be require as many 50 tests before they feel as if it’s ready for prime-time. During a typical week’s show, as many as three dishes joined by a common theme are prepared, alongside the airing of such occasional features as “Equipment Corner,” “Gadget Guru,” “Tasting Lab,” “Science Desk” and “Quick Tips.” Among the recipes prepared last season are such standards as pot roast, chicken potpie, slow-roast pork shoulder, stuffed turkey and chicken, cherry pie and buttermilk waffles. Among the international cuisines visited are those of Greece, Argentina, Italy and Mexico.

People who live and die with every new episode of “Downton Abbey” and other period soaps on PBS will want to continue their tour of grand old British country manors with “Secrets of Chatsworth.” Truly one of the most awe-inspiring estates open to the public, Chatsworth has been passed down through 16 generations of the Cavendish family and presently serves as the Derbyshire residence of the current 12th Duke of Devonshire and his family. In addition to the tour of the magnificent rooms, gardens and art collection, the documentary shares with viewers intrigues that have surrounded its residents. Among them, the far too short romance between Kathleen Kennedy and heir Billy Cavendish. Kathleen was represented at her wedding by only one of the Kennedy clan’s siblings, simply because Cavendish wasn’t Catholic. When she was killed in a plane crash soon thereafter, at 28, only her father attended the funeral. Her grave is nearby at the Cavendish family plot at St. Peter’s Church in Edensor. Consider that the next time you hear Camelot and Kennedy in the same sentence.

PBS Kids: Big Kid Caillou
PBS Kids: Dinosaur Train: Nature’s Trackers
PBS Kids: Arthur Stands Up to Bullying
PBS Kids: Hansel and Gretel: A Healthy Adventure
The “PBS Kids” collection is well represented this week with collections of episodes from four popular shows. “Caillou” is based on the popular series of books by Christine L’Heureux, whose titular character is a 4-year-old boy with a vivid imagination about the world around him. With his strangely bald head, Caillou bears a passing resemblance to Nancy’s boyfriend, Sluggo. His ability to transform everyday objects and ordinary places to sources of wonder and education goes a long way toward helping viewers, 2 to 6, fit into their own universe. Besides “Big Kit Caillou,” the episodes include “Caillou’s Glasses,” “Calliou’s Dance Party,”  “Helping Mrs. Howard,” “Caillou’s Fun Run” and “The New Girl.” The bonus material adds coloring pages and activities.

The series, “Dinosaur Train,” combines two subjects that PBS’ youngest viewers find endlessly fascinating. Although the pairing of dinosaurs and trains borders on the surreal, it affords the Nature Tracks a quick and easy way to reach places to best study the life sciences, natural history and paleontology. The episodes here include “Stargazing on the Night Train,” “Get Into Nature!”, “Shiny and Snakes,” “Tiny Loves Flowers,” “Buddy Explores the Tyrannosaurs,” “Rainy Day Fight,” “That’s Not a Dinosaur” and “Tiny’s Garden.” The bonus material adds a Nature Trackers Club coloring and guidebook; an interactive “How Big?” game; and additional PDF coloring pages and activities.

Sadly, kids never are too young anymore to learn about the cruelty of bullying and perils of being bullied. “Arthur” is based on the best-selling children’s books by Marc Brown, which follow the world’s most famous anthropomorphic aardvark, 8-year-old Arthur Read and his family and friends as address common social issues and health problems. Bullying and teasing could hardly be more topical.

No one in children’s literature had a sweeter tooth than the Wicked Witch who captured Hansel and Gretel and held them prisoner in her gingerbread house. “Hansel and Gretel: A Healthy Adventure” uses the example of the fairy-tale characters to teach a lesson about proper nutrition. It does this by demonstrating to Red and her friends that good food doesn’t have to taste bad. “King Eddie Who Loved Spaghetti” extends the lesson to dinnertime, when Whyatt’s favorite meal is put under the microscope. The DVD adds interactive educational games, music videos, coloring pages and resources for parents.

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

Spring Breakers: Blu-ray
At the ripe old age of 40, Harmony Korine no longer is the enfant terrible of indie cinema. He does, however, continue to defy the expectations of critics and test the limits of his fan base. Upon learning that the creator of such provocations as “Gummo,” “Julien Donkey-Boy” and “Trash Humpers” would target America’s annual spring-break ritual as his next project, they knew to expect everything from a hipster “Girls Gone Wild” to a twisted “Beach Blanket Bingo.” Whatever “Spring Breakers” was going to become, it was going to be extreme. While stylistically aggressive, “Spring Breakers” could easily pass for a traditional crime story, in that it begins and ends with a felony, introduces us to identifiable characters and places them at the intersection of right and wrong.      Here, four young women from a northern college desperately want to check out spring break in Florida, but are short the money to get there. Although their closest brush with the law probably had involved fake IDs, the girls reluctantly agree to rob a local bar/restaurant at gunpoint. Once that obstacle is cleared, it’s a short step to indulging in the sacraments of drinking, drugging, forsaking their tops and puking to make room for more poison. It doesn’t take long before they’re busted for any number of minor and major offenses and arraigned in the only clothes – bikinis and flip-flops – they thought they’d need for the vacation. Smelling an opportunity, “whigger” hoodlum Alien (James Franco) agrees to go their bail. Once they’re free, Alien impresses the hell out of the pretty little gangstas with his gold orthodontia, tattoos, convertible, drugs, money, guns and hip-hopper buddies.

The rest of “Spring Breakers” bounces between the beach scene and lairs of predators who feed on such naïve snowbirds as Faith, Candy, Brit and Cotty (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine). Alien coddles the girls to the point where they can barely distinguish the distance between misdemeanors and felonies. Only one of them is so disturbed by her behavior that she grabs the next Greyhound heading north. That Alien allows her to escape only serves to endear him to his new gang. Korine perfectly captures the hedonistic atmosphere surrounding spring break not only in Florida, but also Padre Island, Cancun and other warm-weather destinations. He does so by combining bombastic hip-hop, trance and heavy-metal music with frenetically edited visuals that pulsate with bright colors, points-of-view and framing devices. And, while it’s easy to see what draws to young people to such debauched destinations, Korine also makes palpable the sinister appeal of life lived in the fast lane. Needless to say, younger viewers will be able to follow the action easier than folks who once sang along with Connie Francis on “Where the Boys Are.” Parents of teenagers may want to take a sedative before sampling “Spring Breakers.” Franco’s impressively realized Alien is every dad’s worst nightmare of his daughter’s new boyfriend and/or father figure. The Blu-ray bonus material adds several lengthy making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, Korine’s commentary and, from “VICE,” a truly bizarre interview with the “ATL Twins” and an informative pro-and-con look at spring break in Panama Beach. – Gary Dretzka

Dead Man Down: Blu-ray
Guido
Cohen & Tate: Blu-ray
The two best reasons to sample the murky, New York-based crime thriller “Dead Man Down”are Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace, whose slow-to-boil romance is almost as suspenseful as any of the film’s gangland elements. Farrell plays Victor, a Hungarian immigrant to the U.S. who’s forced into the revenge game after his wife and daughter are murdered by a stylish mobster, Alphonse (Terrence Howard). A couple of years later, Victor has somehow managed to infiltrate Alphonse’s gang – don’t ask – as a trusted courier. Victor’s next-apartment neighbor, Beatrice, is played with equal degrees of compassion and menace by Rapace (“Girl With the Golden Tattoo”). She witnesses a crime that takes place in Victor’s apartment and blackmails him into helping her punish the alcoholic who left her disfigured in a car accident. Because another gang, led by Armond Assante (see below), has plans of its own for Alphonse, and Victor’s former father-in-law (F. Murray Abraham) is in a hurry to avenge his daughter’s death, it nearly becomes impossible to identify the players without a scorecard. (Victor’s able to operate freely among the gangsters because they assume incorrectly that he was killed along with his family and, apparently, no one remembers what he looked like.)

As if the international cast wasn’t already attractive enough to inspire ticket sales overseas, Danish director Niels Arden Oplev decided to throw the great French actress Isabelle Huppert into the mix as Beatrice’s hard-of-hearing, cookie-baking mother. The weird chemistry between Victor and Beatrice, then, is the only thing likely to keep casual fans of the genre around for the fiery ending, in which a bomb-laden pickup truck crashes into Alphonse’s mansion, setting off one on the wildest shootouts I’ve seen in a while. Oplev directed the original, Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which many critics and readers preferred to the American adaptation. He claims that his version “Dead Man Down” became a victim of budget restraints and poor editing decisions by the producers. Maybe, so, but enough good things are left in the thriller to recommend it to patient viewers and fans of the actors.

If nothing else, Colin Campbell’s deceptively dark comedy/thriller, “Guido,” gives us a great excuse to do “The Time Warp,” again. Check out this motley crew of actors: Gary Busey, Armond Assante, Billy Zane, Ron Jeremy (credited as Ron Jeremy Hyatt), Lupe Ontiveros and journeyman hard guys Dwayne Adway and Jack Conley (named Detective Malakas, for the amusement of those fluent in Greek). For spice, the cast also includes porn star Sunny Lane and glamour models Victoria Bond, Shelby Stingley and Heather Smith. Writer/protagonist Alki David, once voted “sexiest man alive” by a Greek gossip rag, plays an Iraqi Kurd refugee in the employ of a New Jersey mobster, played by Busey. He turned to killing after watching Saddam Hussen’s soldiers massacre Kurds with guns and poison gas. Once Guido’s dispatched with a gang of misfits, including a guy he was hired to protect, Busey orders Guido to drive the corpse cross-country, to Beverly Hills. The vehicle has a GPS system, so it’s easily traceable for several vicious Albanian white-slavers, a mob assassin (Zane) and an FBI agent (Assante). Moreover, his terminally ill landlady (Ontiveros) has blackmailed him into taking her along with him in his limousine to L.A. and, then, to her home town in Mexico to die. Now, I know what you’re thinking: train wreck, right?  Not really. “Guido” is the rare straight-to-DVD action picture that works either because everyone’s in on the gag and the comedy and crime are brilliantly balanced or there is no gag and everyone involved somehow manages to stumble their way in the right direction for 90 minutes. In addition to offering plenty of action and funny dialogue, “Guido” succeeds as a road movie and buddy film, with Guido and his landlady as the buddies.

At 45, David may be a bit too long in the tooth to emerge as bona-fide action hero, even in the DVD-original arena. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, to a Greek trading and shipping family, he worked in several interesting professions before turning to film in 1997 with something called “Farticus.” Laugh as much as you want – I did – but the micro-budgeted cast included Nick Cassavetes, Tony Burton, Richard Moll and Abe Vigoda, as Zeus. His most noteworthy acting credit has come in “The Bodyguard,” alongside Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows. OK, neither David nor “Guido” is perfect or close to it, but the movie is several hundred times more entertaining than it has any right to be. (BTW: Ontiveros died last July. As usual, she would have had no reason to be embarrassed by her performance here.)

I can’t recall seeing “Cohen and Tate” upon its release in 1988 or in its VHS incarnation. That’s probably because Roy Scheider (“Jaws”) and Adam Baldwin (“My Bodyguard”) were just emerging from career doldrums and the marketing campaign was practically non-existent. In fact, Scheider had just turned in a terrific performance in John Frankenheimer’s vastly underrated and largely unseen “52 Pick-Up” and Baldwin had impressed everyone with his interpretation of Animal Mother, in “Full Metal Jacket.” No one else of any consequence was in the directorial debut of writer Eric Red (“The Hitcher,” “Near Dark”). “Cohen and Tate” is a white-knuckle thriller about a pair of mob assassins, who have been hired to kill a man and woman in the protective custody of federal marshals and bring their son to Houston, to be debriefed about things he witnessed in a major crime. We’re led to believe that the kid (Harley Cross) will then be bumped off, as well. When one of the adults survives the attack, it puts added pressure on C&T to get Travis to their destination. Scheider’s character is built from the mold of a Japanese samurai – loyal, focused and deadly – while Baldwin’s hitman could very well be the person Animal Mother turned out to be after Vietnam. Harley is straight out of O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief.” Even at 10, the boy is smart enough to realize that the only way to prevent getting killed is to pit the assassins against each other, while taking every opportunity to make their trip miserable. And, of course, his strategy works. Even after 25 years, “Cohen and Tate” is an extremely effective thriller, with very little wasted movements and plenty of claustrophobia-inducing scenes shot at night in the moving car. It’s violent, but, by today’s standards, not excessively so. In fact, the deleted scenes reveal the potential for a movie that could easily warrant a R-rating even in 2013. There’s also a making-of featurette included in the Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka

The Host: Blu-ray
What the “Twilight” franchise did for vampires and werewolves, “The Host” was expected to do for sci-fi and alien-invasion flicks. That’s because Stephenie Meyer wrote the books upon which all of these movies were adapted and the target audience of teenage fans of romantic genre fare is the same. That “The Host” didn’t measure up to the box-office success of any of the “Twilight” installments says more about the complexities of sci-fi stories than the ability of Kiwi writer/director Andrew Niccol (“In Time,” “Gattaca”) to mount an appealing adaptation of Meyer’s work. You’d think that locating the humanity in an alien would require of viewers the same degree of compassion as finding it in a teenage vampire or werewolf. In horror films, however romantic they might be, survival is the only thing that matters at the end of the day. In sci-fi, there could be dozens of reasons for the sudden appearance of look-alike aliens on Earth and what they might resemble when their metamorphosis is finished. If nothing else, vampire lineages can be traced to places where one can journey by commercial airliner, not flying saucers.

In “Host,” Saoirse Ronan plays Melanie, the rare Earthling who’s been able to retain, however subconsciously, of her former self after her body is inhabited by an alien, Wanderer. After escaping the clutches of her captors, Melanie/Wanderer is drawn to a mountain in the vicinity of Monument Valley, the interior of which is inhabited by human survivors, including her brother, Jamie (Chandler Canterbury), and Louisiana boyfriend, Jared (Max Irons). Most of the humans mistrust the newcomer, but their leader, Jeb (William Hurt) senses that her intentions are pure and argues to spare her life. In dogged pursuit of Melanie/Wanderer is the alien Seeker (Diane Kruger), who gets to zip around the desert in cool, streamlined cars and helicopters. Most of the well-choreographed action takes place when the humans drive into town to steal supplies and are chased into the scenic wilds of New Mexico. The less familiar viewers are with sci-fi tropes and conventions, the more appealing “Host” will be. Otherwise, its primary appeal is to Meyer’s fans. The good-looking Blu-ray includes commentary with Meyer, Niccol and producer Nick Wechsler; deleted scenes; “Seeker” PSA; and making-of EPK. – Gary Dretzka

Would You Rather: Blu-ray
Every now and then, a horror/slasher flick rolls into town, in which a group of men and women are invited to sit around a large table and partake in a deadly parlor game. While they all start out with the promise of juicy secrets being revealed and attractive people being humiliated, their real purpose is to dramatize the morbid death dreams of the filmmaker. The marketing blurbs for David Guy Levy and Steffen Schlachtenhaufen’s “Would You Rather” promise quite a few more shocks than they actually deliver. A group of cash-starved individuals is invited to attend an event during which they’ll be asked to make a series of choices that, when accomplished, will be rewarded with a large sum of money. What the rich sadist, Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs), fails to mention is that there will only be one winner and no other survivors. To ensure that the participants won’t flake out during the competition, Lambrick has imported an assassin from some foreign police agency to shoot any potential defectors. While grisly, only one of the tortuous challenges borders on the unwatchable and it’s telegraphed on the DVD jacket. Among the players are Brittany Snow, Sasha Grey, John Heard, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Eddie Steeples and Charlie Hofheimer. And, no, Grey’s presence doesn’t mean that anyone takes off their clothes in the movie. – Gary Dretzka

The Vixens of Kung Fu/Oriental Blue
Punk Vacation: Blu-ray
Sex Stories 3: Sexual Freedom
As recently as last week, in a Forbes article, industry observers have voiced concern over the future of DVD and Blu-ray sales in a market being increasing splintered by VOD, streaming and digital downloads. I’d argue, however, that things have never been rosier for collectors of vintage, foreign and niche-market titles. Working in the favor of disc sales and rentals, versus other delivery systems, are bonus features that add greatly to the enjoyment of movies that otherwise would have disappeared in the mists of time. Last year, Vinegar Syndrome added its name to the growing  list of companies – Grindhouse, Synapse, Impulse, Troma, Severin, MVD, Image, Artsploitation, MPI, Uncork’d, Icarus –  that believe exploitation, erotica and other genre films deserve the same kind of respect as those typically sent out by Criterion Collection, Facets, Milestone and Shout! Factory. Add to these companies such purveyors of arthouse and indie fare as IFC, Sony Classics, Entertainment One and Virgil and serious admirers of non-mainstream entertainment need never complain about having nothing to watch.

The latest double-feature from Vinegar Syndrome’s racy “Drive-In Collection” includes a pair of pictures from the dawn of the post-“Deep Throat” porn revolution.  I doubt very much that “The Vixens of Kung Fu and “Oriental Blue” fit into the category generally reserved for drive-in flicks. If nothing else, the hard-core sex would have prohibited them from being shown in view of a highway or residential areas. Nonetheless, the 1975 releases are exactly the kind of movies that were shown in Times Square mini-theaters and urban grindhouses before VHS cassettes changed the way XXX films were distributed. “Vixens” served as a three-fer, as it exploited cheesy martial-arts entertainment, woman-entitlement tracts and hard-core sex. After being gang-raped by hillbilly thugs, a young prostitute finds refuge among a “secret sect of beautiful female kung-fu masters, who teach her about the erotic side of martial arts.” Unlike movies starring Bruce Lee, the training sessions and fights tended to inspire unbridled sex, which, I suppose, is a good thing. “Oriental Blue” could easily have been shot on the same weekend, as it stars many of the same actors and a producer. Here, Madam Blue runs an underground white-slave-trade operation in an apartment hidden beneath a Chinese restaurant in Times Square. Before turning the women out, their kidnappers subject them to “the most unspeakable acts of pleasure.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but these were exactly the kind of scum Travis Bickle would target a year later in “Taxi Driver.” Exterior shots in both films traced some of the same mean streets. If the “Oriental Blue” plot is incomprehensible, the sex remains pretty hot. Both titles were scanned in 2K and sourced from the original 35mm camera negative or, in the case of “OB,” the 35mm answer print. The transfers aren’t perfect but definitely steps up from VHS.  Hard-core buffs will recognize such future stars as Jamie Gillis, Bree Anthony, C.J. Laing and Bobby Astyr, as well as several actors, including Peonies Jong, whose careers would be far more short-lived.

Released somewhere in the United States in 1990, “Punk Vacation” is the kind of exploitation flick that would have been booked to open a triple-feature at the local drive-in, if any were left by then. There isn’t much, if any nudity in the one-and-gone movie for the director, screenwriters and most of the actors … and, yes, I use those terms advisedly here. In a plot at least as old as “The Wild One,” a group of “punks” attempts to terrorize a rural California town after one of them loses 40 cents to a vending machine. Rather than cough up the coins or give the young man a cold bottle of pop, the owner of the truck stop decides to threaten the paint-by-number punks with a shotgun. At a time when international communism was disappearing from the map, the redneck community decides that the invaders were threats to their freedom. As if to prove their point, the punks return to kill the old man and rape his daughters. The girl’s sister and her cop boyfriend vow revenge, along with the local militia. None of this is remotely credible, of course. The amazing thing is that the rookie filmmakers were able to recruit Second City alumna Sandra Bogan and Andy Warhol veteran Louis Waldon. The bonus material includes a commentary track, interviews and a bonus film, “Nomad Riders.”

Breaking Glass Pictures has also proved its importance as a distributor of cutting-edge straight-and-gay erotica, horror, arthouse and foreign pictures. The popular French television trilogy “Sex Stories,” directed by feminist porn star Ovidie, concludes its run with “Sexual Freedom.” The first two entries explored issues relating to middle-class singles and married couples, looking for something to jump-start their relationships. The actors were extremely attractive and expensively dressed, as well as sexually curious. If the solutions were as familiar as last month’s Cosmopolitan magazine, the acting and technical credits were several notches higher than the average made-for-cable sex flick in the U.S. “Sex Stories 3” is a departure in that the story is bookended by the personal dilemma of a director of sleazy reality-TV shows, a la HBO’s “Real Sex.” Her boyfriend has come to the end of his rope with her pathetic portrayals of desperate lovers and encourages her to find a different way to express herself. After defending her films to him, Léonie-Marie (Ovidie) takes off on an assignment to document the lives of a group of post-hippie libertines, living on a farm outside Paris. The residents all have partners, but the alliances don’t preclude frequent sexual encounters with everyone else in the commune. Somehow, the arrangement disturbs the director’s sense of romantic equilibrium and she finds herself longing for her monogamous home life, if her lover hasn’t already flown the coop. As usual, the sex is graphically documented and artfully photographed. The actors are attractive, as well, but only to the extent that one can handle knowing that sheets in the dormitory-style bedrooms are changed only once a week, if then, and the potential for the transfer of cooties is pretty high. The DVD adds “Eye of Liza,” a 90-minute behind-the-scenes documentary featuring star Liza Del Sierra. – Gary Dretzka

The Life of Oharu: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
A few months before he died, Roger Ebert revisited Kenji Mizoguchi 1952 masterpiece “The Life of Oharu,” calling it “the saddest film I have ever seen about the life of a woman.” It is one of three Mizoguchi titles – alongside “Ugetsu” and “Shasho the Bailiff” – on his list of more than 300 “great movies.” It is being released on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion Collection in a new high-definition restoration that should leave no doubt at why it was included on Ebert’s list. Not only is “Oharu” an exquisitely made period drama, but the message it delivers is as meaningful today as it was in the post-WWII recovery period and in all of the 400 years since the events it describes. Mizoguchi has enjoyed the reputation of being a director acutely attuned to the plight of women in Japan’s historically patriarchal societies. The acclaimed Japanese actress Kinuyo Tanaka (“The Ballad of Narayama”), a fixture in Mizoguchi’s pictures, plays a woman who in her lifetime experienced both the pleasures associated with being an imperial lady-in-waiting and the disgrace of being an over-the-hill streetwalker. Through no fault of her own, Oharu suffered some of the worst possible luck in dealing with the men in her life, both good and bad. Her first mistake came as a promising young woman, who, while serving the imperial court of Kyoto, decided to fall in love with a page (Toshiro Mifune) well below her station. After being caught in flagrante delicto, the man was beheaded and Oharu and her parents were banished from the city. Outraged and running out of money, her father sells her into prostitution. Fate intervenes when a representative of the Madsudaira shogunate picks her out from dozens of other women as the perfect candidate to bear his master’s child and heir. Once accomplished, Oharu is unceremoniously shipped back to her parents and admonished against attempting to make contact with her child. Once again, Daddy Dearest attempts to profit from her misery by selling her for work as a courtesan and, then, in the service of a woman who is in desperate need of a permanent hair stylist. Sadly, her reputation catches up to her everywhere she lands.

Even when Oharu is able to leave the brothels behind and marry a simple designer of fans, fate intervenes. The cycle continues until she’s nearly 50 and only of interest to the most desperate of johns. Knowing that her misery could have ended before it began, if it weren’t for laws that were antiquated even in the 17th Century, only makes the heartbreak that much more intense when Oharu is dealt a hand that looks like a sure winner, but turns out to be anything but that. If none of this sounds particularly entertaining, you should know that Mizoguchi keeps us guessing throughout the film’s 133-minute length and Tanaka’s performance is nothing short of mesmerizing. The images are composed with great artistry and attention to specific period detail. Among the bonus features are an introductory commentary by scholar Dudley Andrew; the illustrated audio essay, “Mizoguchi’s Art and the Demimonde”; a recently reconstructed film about Kinuyo Tanaka’s post-war journey to Hawaii and the U.S. mainland as a cultural representative for Japan; and a booklet with an essay by film scholar Gilberto Perez. One of the interesting things to be learned in the interview sessions is the process of getting a movie cleared by American censors during the Occupation. “Oharu” cleared the first hurdle because it fit the U.S. agenda of advancing women’s rights in post-imperial Japan. It would have trouble clearing the second one for other reasons, but, by that time, the Americans were more interested in getting out of Dodge than being movie critics. – Gary Dretzka

Combat Girls
The rise of neo-Nazi movements in Europe and some parts of the United States has been widely chronicled and chillingly portrayed in the media. The visibility of such groups is greatest when western economies are at their weakest and corporations begin to turn to the hiring of immigrants to save expenses or moving their entire operations abroad. During the post-WWII German and British recoveries, there were plenty of well-paying jobs available to native-born citizens and immigrants, alike. Although prejudices against southern Europeans were no secret, even the most ardent racists tended to keep their opinions to themselves. When jobs started to become scarce again, however, the displaced worked needed someone to blame and it fell to an even more recent group of economic refugees, from the Mideast, Africa and the Caribbean. In the United States, of course, undocumented workers from Mexico and Central American continue to be ostracized for taking jobs too menial for Americans to accept. Meanwhile, no one seems to mind the influx of medical professionals from Pakistan and India, for example, and the many Asians with money who arrive with no apparent obstructions. “Combat Girls” describes the appeal of neo-Nazism to a group of Germans, ranging in age from 14 to 40-something. David Wnendt’s harrowing drama is immediately remindful of such skinhead-related titles as “American History X,” “Made in Britain,” “This Is England,” “The Believer,” “Steel Toes” and “Romper Stomper.” Because it’s set in Germany and populated with male characters who look as if they just stepped out of a recruiting poster for the Waffen- SS, the violence and venom seems that much more exaggerated.

At the heart of the story are 20-year-old Marisa, a hardcore neo-Nazi believer, who walks the walk, talks the talk and has the tattoos to show for it, and 14-year-old Svenja, who’s looking for love in all the wrong places. After an ugly attack on tourists in a train, Marisa’s boyfriend is sent to prison for a remedial course in fascist doctrine. Not to be undone, she commits a hate crime of her own against two Afghani boys who dare share the same beach as a drunken bunch of Aryan youth. During the rest of the movie, Marisa is required to test her allegiance to the wolfpack against the faint hint of a conscience that suddenly comes to the surface of her being. Knowing the brutish nature of romantic entanglements among neo-Nazis, Marissa attempts to take Svenja under her wing to prevent permanent damage being done to her. The return of her boyfriend, newly determined to incite a race war, puts the kettle on the front burner for everyone involved. Clearly, “Combat Girls” isn’t for the faint of heart. Indeed, most of the verbal and physical violence is intentionally designed to raise the hackles of audience members. Beyond that, however, Wnendt presents us with several intriguing questions about the roots of hatred and the possibility for redemption in even the most poisoned of young minds. Alina Levshin is nothing short of brilliant as the conflicted Marissa, while Jella Haase is similarly compelling as the good-girl-gone-bad, Svenja. The set arrives with a 12-page collector’s booklet, reversible cover and interview with Levshin. – Gary Dretzka

The Gatekeepers: Blu-ray
Frontline: Never Forget to Lie
PBS: Defiant Requiem
PBS: After Newton: Guns in America
Among the candidates for the 2013 Best Documentary Oscar were two very different films about Israel and the Palestinian resistance. “5 Broken Cameras” told the heart-wrenching story of a non-violent Palestinian farmer and amateur photographer, who, in chronicling the treatment of his neighbors by Israeli soldiers and illegal settlers, became a target for their bullets. The other title, “The Gatekeepers,” describes how Israel’s ongoing war against “terrorists” – a widely accepted euphemism for armed Palestinian insurgents – has devolved into a conflict in which the country’s security agency, Shin Bet, can barely keep track of the threats to peace. What’s remarkable about Dror Moreh’s documentary is that, for the first time, it includes on-camera recollections and opinions of six former leaders of Shin Bet, perhaps the most influential and highly regarded agency in Israel. Collectively, they carry within their brains nearly 50 years’ worth of secrets and intelligence. As successful as the agency has been since the country’s 1967 defeat of the Arab invasion, its leaders have come to the conclusion that Israel currently is at its most precarious point in its history. Not only is the agency required to deal with increasingly more desperate Islamic insurgents, but also ramifications of its own government’s unwillingness to block the spread of settlements and creation of a wall to maintain the separation between Israelis and Palestinians. In a Q&A included in the DVD/Blu-ray, Moreh says, “Both sides have missed every opportunity to miss an opportunity. … Now, extremists on both sides are in control.”

Apropos of revelations of NSA spying operations, exposed by Edward Snowden, “The Gatekeepers” demonstrates how insidious such programs can become. Aerial maps of the occupied territories, created after the 1967 war, allowed Shin Bet to attach faces and names on photographs of all of the houses, adding links to other persons of interest in the neighborhood and PLO. This occurred during the days before Americans and Israelis began “targeted assassinations” and drone attacks against terrorists. President Obama and other politicians may argue that the spying apparatus wouldn’t be used against Americans of all political and cultural backgrounds, but, once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be difficult to keep police agencies from rubbing it. If “The Gatekeepers” isn’t at all reluctant to push a pro-peace agenda, it balances the benefits of direct action and intelligence-gathering with the potential for abuse. One of the most compelling segments of the documentary involves the aftermath of a bus hijacking in Lebanon, when one of the Shin Bet leaders was held accountable for the beating deaths of two surviving terrorists by soldiers. Even as the backlash to the seemingly authorized murders caused a huge scandal in Israel, the greater crime was deemed to be allowing a reporter access to event. As the Shin Bet official relates his role in the incident and his reaction to being scapegoated for it – likely, for the first time publically – the weight of the job on his former job was palpable.

Certain questions always precede the airing of new documentaries by and/or about Holocaust survivors. “How can the filmmaker bear to relive the pain of such a horrific event?” “Is it still possible to add a fresh perspective on the Holocaust, which may be one of the most closely analyzed tragedies in modern history?” “Is there a point where viewers can overdose from empathy and the stories begin to lose their ability to impress us?” Marian Marzynski admits to asking himself similar questions to these before embarking on his “Frontline” presentation, “Never Forget to Lie,” in which he revisits the Warsaw Ghetto he escaped as a child. Marzynski’s mother, who also survived the war, helped him find refuge in the Christian neighborhoods, among friends, priests, nuns and other good Samaritans. At a Catholic orphanage outside the city, he was able to blend in among the other children so well that he began to enjoy serving as an altar boy. It was the perfect disguise, even though he would harbor youthful dreams of becoming a priest. Marzynski was able to find other survivors among friends and relatives and relive their stories. One woman visits the home in which she was born and her parents were identified by the Nazis. Another man recalls being passed over by the Germans because his father had a premonition of disaster and decided against circumcising the boy. The end of the war didn’t mean that Marzynski could avoid bigotry, however. In the 1960s, after becoming a television personality of some repute, the country’s Communist Party decided that he wasn’t sufficiently Polish to represent his network. He would find work in Denmark and the United States, frequently returning to stories of the Holocaust and European Jewry.

One of the lessons to be learned from “Defiant Requiem” is the power of art to transcend horror and serve as an instrument of resistance against demagoguery. Doug Schultz’s amazing documentary recalls how Rafael Schachter, a passionate Czech opera-choral conductor, convinced Nazi officials at the Terezin concentration camp to allow him to perform Verdi’s Requiem for their pleasure. To accomplish this, Schachter was required to recruit 150 prisoners and conduct rehearsals, even after they had perform a full day’s worth of forced labor. Up against a tight deadline and fearing shipments of Jews to other death camps would resume before the first concert, Schachter push his musicians and chorus mercilessly. In doing so, he was able to take his artists out of their day-to-day existence and give them hope for something much greater. Even so, the day after their first performance, he would lose half of his orchestra and chorus to Auschwitz. Somehow, Schachter was able to stage 15 more performances, including one on June 23, 1944, in front of high-ranking SS officers from Berlin and the International Red Cross. Terezin prisoners were ordered to spruce up the camp and make it look as if it were a model German city for Jews. A Jewish actor would be ordered to make a propaganda film based on what was presented to the outsiders. Schachter had specifically chosen to perform the Requiem in Latin to get across the work’s promise of redemption for the innocent and damnation for the oppressors. The Nazi officers probably had dozed through their Latin lessons, because they didn’t catch on to the music’s message. Sadly, the Red Cross bought the Nazis’ ruse, as well. Conductor Murry Sidlin re-created the rehearsals and performance in the same spaces in which they occurred 60 years earlier. Instead of Nazis, however, this audience would include some of the very few survivors of both Terezin and Auschwitz.

As understood by several generations of Supreme Court justices, the Constitutional is blind to any legal difference between the muskets and flintlock pistols carried by Revolutionary War militias and the assault rifles and Uzis wielded today by urban street gangs and white supremacists. I know a lot of liberal Democrats and, despite accusations to the contrary, have never heard any of them argue against the ownership of firearms by hunters, skeet shooters or antique collectors. The same applies to archers, who could kill a man from a distance and not leave an echo from the attack. Maybe, that’s because I’m from Wisconsin, where gun ownership is taken for granted and the vast majority of owners would have no need for an automatic or semi-automatic weapon. And, yet, the argument over gun ethics and the necessity for controls continues. So far, the rhetorical war is being won by those against any restrictions. Gun manufacturers have the money it takes for their lobbyists to buy legislators, while advocates only can point to the use of guns by spree killers and gang-bangers as a sound reason to ban anything more than a single-shot rifle or shotgun. PBS appears to have committed itself to providing a forum for debate over questions surrounding gun violence and ownership. In “After Newton: Guns in America,” arguments on both sides of the issue are forwarded with the perspective provided by American history. It’s interesting that the current debate has its roots directly in the legal case presented by the Black Panther Party, which, in the late 1960s, argued that its members’ right to own and carry weapons was protected by the Second Amendment. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan and the California legislature interpreted the amendment differently and passed laws that would have no chance of clearing the U.S. House and Senate in 2013. The NRA was in no hurry to back the Panthers’ right to bear arms. That would come a few years later when white gun owners began to decry federal raids on their property. Now, it’s become impossible to debate the issue without being shouted down by advocates of one side or the other, and to be ignored by politicians whose wallets dictate how they’ll vote. “After Newton: Guns in America” is as up to date as the 3D- and plastic-gun controversy and as balanced as anything we’re likely to see any time soon. – Gary Dretzka

How the West Was Won: The Complete First Season
Orphan Black: Season One: Blu-ray
Portlandia: Season Three
Nature: Big Cats
In Hollywood, it’s a crime to waste a good title. The best, including “How the West Was Won,” serve several masters in their lifetime. The most famous deployment of “How the West Was Won” is still the Cinerama epic, which featured an A-list cast and the direction of such Westerns specialists as John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall. It would be followed by a made-for-TV movie, a series and several such non-related variations as “How the West Was Lost” and “How the West Was Fun,” with the Olsen twins. The 1962 blockbuster was both the first non-documentary Cinerama film to be made and the last of the super-widescreen format’s projects to carry the distinctive vertical lines, designating where the middle camera’s frame runs out and those of the other two begin. It worked best when demonstrating the thrills of roller-coasters and sailing ships and exhibiting such nature wonders as Niagara Falls and Monument Valley. Fifteen years later, at the height of television’s mini-series mania, the title was resurrected for the ABC mini-series “How the West Was Won,” starring James Arness, Eva Marie Saint and Bruce Boxleitner, and subsequent series. Narrower in geographic scope than the original movie, the television project chronicles the trials, travails and tragedies of the Macahan family as they make their way west, from Virginia to Oregon, in the 1860s. Each episode also featured interlocking stories about Native Americans, mountain men, bounty hunters, desperadoes and refugees from the Civil War. Although the writers couldn’t avoid all Western clichés and stereotypes, there was a conscious effort to frame the Indian wars/genocide in the proper historical context and add storylines that tackled racism, religious freedom and intolerance, and the limits of pacifism. (In this regard, the NRA would have put its stamp of approval of the series.) Arness’ interpretation of Zebulon Macahan is about as different from his Matt Dillon as would be possible and still be in the same American west. The western locations – Coronado and Deschutes National Forests, Old Tucson, Disney’s Golden Oak Ranch – are splendid. The set includes the made-for-TV movie, “The Macahans,” which introduced the new characters and served as the pilot.

Even without the usual fanfare that attends a BBC America series, the Canadian sci-fi export “Orphan Black” scored a direct hit for the cable network on March 30, when it debuted as part of its Supernatural Saturday bloc. It did so by borrowing a familiar theme in mysteries and upgrading the story with high-tech twists and an attractive young cast. Tatiana Maslany stars as street hustler Sarah Manning, who witnesses a suicide-by-subway and steals the purse and clothes of the victim. As it turns out, the woman looked exactly like Manning before her body made contact with the train. Things get complicated when Manning discovers that she’s a dead-ringer for several other women in the vicinity and they all are being chased by someone who wants them dead. The fact that all of the women appear to have been born in 1984 only confuses things that much more for Manning. If you’ve already guessed that they’re all clones, born through in vitro fertilization, you can pick up your prize in the lobby. Among the women are a cop, soccer mom, a graduate student in biology and a European assassin. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Manning has a daughter, who’s being raised by her mother, and a stoner half-brother who will need her help if they’re going to survive to see Season Two.  The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, character profiles and a set tour.

The city of Portland has seen a lot of change since its incorporation in 1851 by survivors of the trek west along the Oregon Trail and the businessmen, who, with the help of the Oregon Donation Land Act, displaced the entire native population from its homes and hunting grounds. It’s always been a swell place to live, especially for lumberjacks, ducks and horticulturists, so the population has rarely stopped rising. For the last 50 years, Portland has developed a reputation as being a hospitable destination for hippies and assorted other flower children, outdoors enthusiasts, environmental extremists, bongo thumpers, militant vegans, hipsters, cyclists and green snobs. All relish the same freedoms and positive energy that once attracted the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla and other nations to the shores of the Columbia and Willamette rivers. The new tribes have become so aggressive in their pursuit of personal freedom, however, it borders on the absurd. In the IFC sketch comedy, “Portlandia,” Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein appear to be having way too much fun tweaking the city’s many archetypal residents and their passions. In Season Three, Fred and Carrie not only find fresh meat to skewer, but they also extend gags that began in previous seasons. Kyle MacLachlan, who returns as the city’s increasingly conflicted mayor, is joined by guest stars Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Aimee Man, Jason Sudeikis, Martina Navratilova, Jeff Goldblum, Roseanne and musicians I couldn’t possibly have recognized. The Blu-ray adds a 25-minute “Portland Tours,” conducted by Kumail Najiani, and a pair of deleted scenes. One needn’t have ever visited Portland to enjoy “Portlandia” immensely, but it’s more entertaining if you have.

Big Cats,” the latest collection of “Nature” episodes, should prove to be a real crowd pleaser, as it explores the “hidden lives” of three of the most dangerous, beautiful and endangered predators on the planet: lions, leopards and tigers. The episodes include “Elsa’s Legacy: The ‘Born Free’ Story,” which updates us on the legacy of George and Joy Adamson’s pride; “Revealing the Leopard,” about the beast described as “the ultimate cat”; “Siberian Tiger Quest,” documenting one man’s dream of finding and filming a Siberian tiger living wild and free in the forest; and “The White Lions,” which describes the blessings and curse of growing up white on the savannas of South Africa. “Big Cats” cries out to be viewed in Blu-ray, but, as one of the selections is only available in DVD, so, too, is this compilation. – Gary Dretzka

Marvel Knights: Wolverine Origins: Blu-ray
The Legend of Korra: Book One: Air: Blu-ray
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Enter Shredder
Ben 10 Omniverse: Heroes Rise 2

With the new live-action “Wolverine” epic set to launch later this month, fans of the “X-Men” character can relive his early days in the motion comic, “Wolverine: Origins.” Because of the “Marvel Knights” series’ comic-book beginnings, many readers have come to enjoy the motion-comic adaptations more than the cartoons and studio products, which frequently dull the character’s darker edges and panel-by-panel pace of graphic storytelling. “Wolverine: Origins” was written by Eisner Award-winner Paul Jenkins, from a story by Joe Quesada, Paul Jenkins and Bill Jemas, with artwork by Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove. The Blu-ray tale follows Wolverine from his Canadian-wilderness roots, as James Howlett (a.k.a., Logan), through his years trying to figure out what to do with his mutant powers, and on to Japan and his alliance with Captain America, Team X and X-Men. The disc adds a retrospective with the film’s creative team.

From Nickelodeon, “The Legend of Korra” is the successor series to “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which ran on the network from 2005 to 2008. “Book One: Air” follows Korra, the reincarnated successor of Avatar Ang from the original series, which ended 70 years earlier in comic-book time. The 17-year-old protagonist is from the Southern Water Tribe, but her decision to finally master air-bending serves to anchor the new series in the metropolis of Republic City. As it turns out, an anti-bending revolt by the Chi-blockers is about to break out in her new home. Led by the masked Amon, the Equalists want to even the playing field against the “impurity” of bending.

While short of a full-season collection, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Enter Shredder” extends the material from the 2012 CGI iteration already collected in “Rise of the Turtles.” Here, it’s by seven more episodes from the Nickelodeon series. “Enter Shredder” makes the gang look far more contemporary than in previous “TMNT” incarnations, while the story looks as far back as the original 1987 series. It focuses more on continuing storylines than the villain-of-the-week approach favored earlier. The bonus material is limited to a storyboard comparison for the “New Girl in Town” episode and two-part digital comic book.

Cartoon Network’s “Ben 10 Omniverse: Heroes Rise 2” includes 10 new episodes from the series’ first season on two discs, along with the “Alien Reveals” and “Alien Database.” In addition to a new Omnitrix, with a new set of aliens, Ben must contend with another partner – Gwen and Kevin are off to college — and an underground world filled with intergalactic life. He’s also being targeted by an intergalactic bounty hunter. – Gary Dretzka

Stevie Nicks: In Your Dreams
Mindless Behavior: All Around the World: Blu-Ray

One day, I found myself in the Las Vegas airport surrounded by dozens, maybe hundreds of young to middle-age women, all wearing souvenir T-shirts from the previous weekend’s Stevie Nicks concert and/or one of her trademark capes, frilly shawls, top hats, moon jewelry and other fantasy attire. Quite a few of them had their hair done in the fashion of their favorite singer, but few could pull off the kind of impeccably fresh, aggressively curly and seriously blond look that must cost her a fortune in maintenance. Because of her battles with cocaine abuse, tranqs and weight gain, in combination with a vague love life, her fans cling to her in the same way as Judy Garland obsessives clung to that iconic performer. I like Nicks, too, but a little bit goes a long way in the fully authorized rockumentary, “In Your Dreams.” Indeed, she co-directed the semi-autobiographical film with former Eurythmic Dave Stewart, who, in 2010, co-produced the “In Your Dreams” album with Glen Ballard. Also important to the creation of the album were Lindsey Buckingham, Mike Campbell (T.P. and the Heartbreakers), Mick Fleetwood and Waddy Wachtel. Also appearing are Reese Witherspoon and various relatives and friends playing “vampires” in a video. (Not surprisingly, perhaps, Nicks identifies closely with the “Twilight” saga.) Lest one think that Nicks’ fan base is limited to women, the documentary disavows us of that notion with footage of the singer providing support and music to wounded veterans of both genders at Walter Reed Hospital and in Europe. The best reason for casual fans to catch “In Your Dreams” is to observe the process of developing songs from fragments of ideas and making a high-profile album when time and money aren’t much of an impediment. Diehard fans, of course, won’t need a good reason to watch the movie. Her face, voice and fingerprints are all over it. As far as I can tell, it’s currently only available on VOD and streaming services.

In 2013, of course, pop stars need little more than a hit single to command a rockumentary of their own. The pre-fabricated R&B/hip-hop boy band ”Mindless Behavior” has joined Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Britney Spears as a teeny-bopper attraction with a concert film of its own. A bunch of important people in the hip-hop industry invested lots of time and effort to create an act that can fill arenas and boost music sales. Their story is as crucial to the band’s success as that of Mindless Behavior. If they last half as long as Nicks, Mindless Behavior will be fortunate, indeed. The Blu-ray adds commentary and bonus footage. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: The Complete Series
It isn’t a name that means much, anymore, but, for teenage boys coming of age at the dawn of the 1960s, Thalia Menninger was the girl against whom all others were measured. Although Tuesday Weld’s gold-digging blond only appeared in 16 of the 148 episodes of “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” Thalia haunts the memories of graying Baby Boomers. This is especially true of those men who, after their bodies went to seed, “settled” for the plain, brainy and exceedingly persistent Zelda Gilroys of the world. Indeed, Thalia might very well have served as the model for George Lucas’ elusive “Blonde in T-Bird,” in “American Graffiti.” I doubt that many women of a certain age still crush over the eternally love-struck Dobie, who was immortalized by Dwayne Hickman. Those who do, however, will be pleased to learn of Shout!Factory’s brilliant complete-run DVD compilation and vintage features. (Warren Beatty played one of Dobie’s nemeses, if that’s any consolation.) Max Shulman’s short-story compilation, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” enjoys the distinction of having been adapted for the both the large and small screen in the 1950s, with the author (“The Tender Trap,” “Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!”) doing the honors as scriptwriter. The 1953 musical comedy, “The Affairs of Dobie Gillis,” starred Bobby Van, Debbie Reynolds and Bob Fosse, among other familiar faces. The CBS series would be much more a product of its times, however, in that Shulman understood how anxious America’s teenagers had become to break out of the molds created for them by society and Hollywood.

Even if the characters in “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” weren’t rebels without a cause or juvenile delinquents, they much preferred the company of kids their own age and putting fun above achievement. Moreover, as Hickman argues, “it was the first character-driven sitcom that looked on life from the teenager’s point-of-view.” The same couldn’t be said of “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet,” “Father Knows Best” and “The Donna Reed Show.” (Such shows as “Glee” and “Gossip Girl” are as concerned with the problems of being an adult in the contemporary world as those relating to being a modern teenager.) Besides popularizing the filler word, “like,” Maynard G. Krebs represented a new breed of American teenager. As so wonderfully played by Bob Denver, Maynard was a free-thinker with a passion for jazz and the writings of the Beats, who, by definition, weren’t beatniks at all. If we remember him for playing the fool, it was in the Shakespearean sense of the word. As devoted to Dobie as he was, there was a bit of the Sancho Panza in Maynard, as well. As annoying as Zelda (Sheila James Kuehl) could be in her pursuit of her impossible dream, Dobie, she was portrayed with affection and never completely ruled out as his inevitable partner in life. Maynard and Zelda pulled Dobie’s butt out of the fire more often than he scored with the ladies.

As far as I can tell, this is the first time the entire series has been collected and Shout!Factory has spared no expense to make it as attractive as possible to those who’ve been waiting decades for it to arrive. Among the goodies are a fresh13-minute interview with Hickman; the restored 30-minute pilot version of “Caper at the Bijou,” featuring Dwayne Hickman’s pitch to the network executives at the end; a five-minute clip of the “Coke Time” special” from 1960, with Denver, Pat Boone and Edd “Kookie” Byrnes; a six-minute color skit from “The Dinah Shore Chevy show”; three episodes of “Love that Bob,” featuring Hickman; an episode of “The Stu Irwin Show,” from 1954, with Kuehl and Hickman. The final disc also has a DVD-Rom feature containing PDF files of three “Dobie” scripts and the shooting script of the “Zelda” spinoff attempt. (Despite the character’s popularity, the spinoff series was blackballed by studios and/or advertisers over rumors of the actor’s lesbianism. In 1994, Kuehl would become the first openly gay person elected to the California Legislature.) – Gary Dretzka

The Girl
Although most of the undocumented workers attempting to cross the Rio Grande into Texas would give their left arm to trade lives with Ashley (Abbie Cornish), many of them would find themselves just as bad off as they were before leaving home. The protagonist of “The Girl” does have a job at a supermarket in southern Texas, but hasn’t had a raise or promotion in years. If she’s making more than minimum-wage, Ashley would be among the fortunate few. Even after losing her child to Social Services, Ashley is subject to surprise visits from case workers looking for booze or drugs. She lives in a modified trailer, where she dreams of someday adding some swings or a jungle gym, if only for appearances sake. Having met the child’s foster family, we aren’t particularly sympathetic to her quest. To get wealthier, faster, Ashley decides to follow her father’s lead by transporting immigrants from Mexico to Austin and San Antonio. The truck traffic over the bridge at Nuevo Laredo is so heavy that only one in a hundred vehicles is checked, or so says Daddy Dearest (Will Patton), never thinking that she might attempt such a dangerous crime. Decreasing the odds in her favor are her inexperience, naiveté and lack of a semi. Naturally, on her first venture, Ashley screws things up so badly that lives are put in jeopardy almost immediately. Not owning an 18-wheeler in which to hide the refugees on the trip over the bridge, she must convince a group of especially desperate men and women into meeting her on the American side of the river, sans coyote or inner-tubes.

This makes them sitting ducks for the Border Patrol’s helicopter and capriciousness of the currents. When Ashley is made aware of the enormity of her carelessness, her empathy with the poor refugees prevents her from shaking off the tragedy as the cost of doing business, as her father advises her to do. It’s at this point in “The Girl” that something quite remarkable happens. In an interview included in the bonus material, writer/director David Riker (“The City”) says that he wanted to “turn the myth of the border upside-down.” To find redemption for her sin, Ashley is determined to reunite a young Mexican girl with her mother or return her to the Oaxacan village she hadn’t wanted to leave in the first place. Unlike the lucky few immigrants who find their hopes realized in the Promised Land, Ashley discovers the route to salvation by going the other direction. It’s a wondrous journey. No one should be surprised by the terrific performances turned in by Cornish and Patton. What’s more remarkable are the ones Riker coaxes from everyone around them, especially the Mexican cast members and newcomer Maritza Santiago Hernandez. (If she were American, Maritza would have her own Disney Channel show, by now.) He’s also able to capture the hope, despair and ambivalence of the immigrants and coyotes who gather at the border towns each night in advance of the next rush to freedom. Among the bonus features is a film that describes the casting and location process. (The scenes shot in Oaxaca capture a lot more than just the spectacular landscape.) – Gary Dretzka

Inescapable: Blu-ray
Ruba Nadda’s grueling political thriller, “Inescapable,” reminds me of two other Canadian exports set roughly in the same region: Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies” and Atom Egoyan’s “Ararat.” All three of the filmmakers describe what happens when an outsider travels to the Mideast to ask questions whose answers were locked in a box years earlier. Egoyan revists the Armenian genocide in “Ararat,” while “Incendies” is set on both sides of Lebanon’s political divide. Of the three highly personal films, only “Inescapable” had a fighting chance of commercial success. In it, a Syrian ex-pat living secretly in Canada is forced to return to his homeland when his daughter is kidnapped for reasons that are kept intentionally murky. The movie is set in pre-war Damascus, where 17 different police agencies collect information about Syrians, some of whom may actually be harboring something subversive. By returning to the country he once served in some official capacity, Adib (Alexander Siddig) not only is risking his own life, but also the lives of the old friends he asks for support and assistance. Among them is his former lover, Fatima (Marisa Tomei), who Adib left behind in Damascus without so much as a fare-thee-well, and a former comrade, Sayid (Oded Fehr), now a top officer in the one of the many police agencies. By asking them for help, Adib isn’t simply calling in IOUs that don’t exist. No one in Syria owes him a nickel and, simply by making contact, he puts their lives in danger. This time, however, Adib can’t pretend he’s doing them a favor by keeping them in the dark.

The daughter, Muna (Jay Anstey), claims only to have traveled to Syria to discover her father’s roots. The script allows for other possibilities, as well: after having an affair with a diplomat, she became an Israeli spy; joined a revolutionary group that, in league with her father, wants to topple the government; is a hapless tourist, who snapped a photograph at exactly the wrong time; is blackmailing a high-ranking government official, with whom she had an affair; or simply is an overly inquisitive and naively trusting daughter, attempting to fill in the blanks left from her father’s lies. In Syria, the police don’t require an excuse before arresting someone of interest to them. In any case, Mona’s being held by someone who’s willing to kill to get the information he thinks she’s holding. Although everything we’ve learned about the Syria in the last few months would seem to justify the high level of paranoia at play in “Inescapable,” it would be a mistake to read too much about the insurgency into the movie. The people we meet here have mostly benefitted from the regime’s tight grip.

Don’t take this as a knock against “Inescapable,” but Nadda’s film has more in common with “Taken” and “Taken 2” than “Incendies” or “Ararat.” After family members are kidnapped, the protagonists are required to deploy skills mastered as part of a quasi-military organization and approach former allies, whose personal safety is then put at great risk. Unrelenting action drives all three stories and, while Siddig isn’t as much a physical force as Liam Neeson, he holds his own pretty well. What’s far-fetched in the “Taken” series, though, is less far-fetched in “Inescapable.” Indeed, some critics seemed anxious to judge it as if it were a documentary. It could have been set in any one of a dozen Middle East countries and probably been just as convincing. As it is, I wouldn’t have guessed that the movie was shot in South Africa and not Tangiers, the Toronto of Africa. It looked every bit that realistic. The actors seemed to be fully invested in their characters and enthusiastic about the story. It arrives with commentary, a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes and a festival Q&A. – Gary Dretzka

Into the White: Blu-ray
The events described in Petter Naess’ humanistic World War II drama, “Into the White,” actually occurred, in April 1940, about two weeks after the German army invaded Norway. Primarily, Hitler wanted to secure Norway for its access to ice-free harbors and to control the availability of iron ore and other Scandinavian mineral deposits. British and French troops had pretty much the same idea, even if they were at a strategic disadvantage to the Germans. “In the White” opens with the downing of two enemy fighter planes over the snow-covered mountains of Norway. After enduring their first bout with the elements, the survivors find refuge in an abandoned cabin, which has an operable stove and a few beds and skis, but not much else. Even though this truly is a life-and-death situation for both parties and the unarmed Brits seem relatively harmless, the three German airmen push their advantage by declaring them to be POWs. They draw borders over which the “captured” Brits are forbidden to cross and delegate duties that include dishwashing, wood-gathering and tearing up newspapers for toilet papers. All five of the airman get along pretty well, considering how early it is in the war effort and how thick the smell of macho patriotism is in their air. After a while, the Brits get control of the gun and the roles are reversed. Eventually, equilibrium was established and the men’s primary mission would be survival. “Into the White” contains enough humor to keep things from getting more artificially tense than they could have become. An injury suffered in the crash landing of the German plane dials up the intensity for a while, but, by then, we know that a Norwegian rescue unit is racing to see what is going on in their beloved mountains. Now, the question becomes, to which side the survivors will be delivered. Even if “Into the White” doesn’t break much new ice, it has the advantage of being based on an actual event and pilots with real names. It also looks pretty good in Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka

Tai Chi Hero: Blu-ray
Some of you may already have caught “Tai Chi Zero,” originally intended to be the first half of Stephen Fung’s outrageous martial-arts epic, with “Tai Chi Hero.” (A third entry, “Tai Chi Summit,” reportedly is in the works, but in the early stages of pre-production.) It tells the story of Yang Luchan (Yuan Xiaochao), one of the disciplines’ greatest teachers, from childhood to his later triumphs against British imperialists and the warlords hiding behind their terrifying death-dealing machines. As a boy, Yang (a.k.a., the Freak) was sent to Chen Village to learn a powerful form of Tai Chai known only to its residents. No outsider has been allowed to study with the master – thus, preserving its mystery – and much of “Tai Chi Hero” focuses on Yang’s willingness to protect the village, even in the face of the elders’ reluctance to share the wisdom. Suffice it to say, teacher and student find a way to get around the protocol. In the sequel, the British railroad builders led by Duke Fleming (Peter Stormare) are still intent on cutting through the gorge in which Chen Village is situated. The so-called “steampunk” element is advanced by even more 19th Century weaponry than was seen in the original and an airplane created by the master’s black-sheep son. “Tai Chi Hero” is every bit as nuts as “Tai Chi Zero” and the fighting scenes are just as remarkable. The less one worries about such things as consistency, logic and character development, the more likely it is that fans will enjoy themselves and want to see the triquel. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Tower Block: Blu-ray
In the movies, as in real life, there’s almost nothing scarier than a sniper whose deadly accuracy is established from the first shot. Images of Sarajevo residents attempting to go from Point A to Point B, often unsuccessfully, brought people around the world into the horror and hatred that made the Bosnian War different from other 20th Century conflicts. The terrible passions that prompted such carnage were dramatized in HBO’s “Shot Through the Heart.” It told the story of two lifelong friends, who became sharpshooters on opposite sides of the front lines. The sniper scene in “Full Metal Jacket” remains as frightening today as it did upon the movie’s release in 1987. The first chillingly effective sniper movie I can recall seeing is Jules Feiffer and Alan Arkin’s inky black comedy, “Little Murders,” which was set primarily in a living room filled with neurotic New Yorkers during a crime wave. The latest, of course, is the Tom Cruise vehicle, “Jack Reacher.” Deer in northern Wisconsin are more aware of the potential for danger than the characters in movies whose antagonists are left largely anonymous through the first couple of reels. Maybe, that’s scariest thing.

In the extremely effective, if economically made UK thriller, “Tower Block,” viewers are as blindsided by the violence as the residents of a soon-to-be-demolished apartment building in East London. As the movie opens, we follow a young man as he feverishly attempts to find refuge in the upper floors of the building. He’s being chased by some thugs, who may be working for the managers of the property. When he gets to the upper floors of the building, where the last holdouts are living, only a single resident comes to the aid of the soon-to-be-dead youth. Months later, a sniper from another building begins picking off the stragglers with unbelievable accuracy. Whoever’s doing the shooting – remember that the sniper in Kubrick’s film is a woman – is patient enough to wait for a curtain to open or a mirror to reflect the face and location of a resident. It’s easy to assume that building management has grown tired of waiting and is ready for the final solution. The resident find shelter in a hallway, but it would open them up to attack by the thugs. The tension builds as escape routes are exhausted and the arrival of police is delayed. If the answer to the mystery comes pretty much out of nowhere, it does have a certain strange logic to it. Apart from faces I recognized from some BBCAmerica imports, no one in the cast and crew stood out to me. That probably means that the budget for “Tower Block” was miniscule, as well. If so, the producers got a lot bang for their bucks. – Gary Dretzka

6 Souls: Blu-ray
It isn’t often that a thriller or any other movie starring Julianne Moore, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Frances Conroy arrives on DVD/Blu-ray more than three years after its initial theatrical release — in Japan and Ireland – and five years after production began. My guess is that the producers and distributors knew they had a $22-million turkey on their hands and wanted to cut their losses by making as few prints as possible and sending them around the world, one by one. After a very limited release here, it’s finally found a home on VOD and DVD. Normally, such circumstances would indicate that a movie is so bad, no one wanted to pay the freight necessary to promote brand-name talent properly. Frankly, though, “6 Souls” isn’t any worse than dozens of others undercooked supernatural thrillers that have come my way in the last few years. It’s certainly far from unwatchable. Moore plays the recently widowed Dr. Cara Harding, a forensics psychiatrist who believes that science can explain all the mysteries in life. Her mental-health-practitioner father (Jeffrey DeMunn) isn’t so sure. When she dismisses the theory of multiple-personality disorder, dad suggests that she interview one of his patients, who has a half-dozen of them. Not all share the same physical disabilities and some even appear to have been victims of murder. David (Rhys Meyers) is a pretty scary dude in his own right, and each new personality is crazier than the previous one. Moreover, her investigation takes her deep into the hills, where some in-bred creeps somehow managed to imbed themselves in David’s memory bank. For all its faults, Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein’s movie looks pretty good. Moore’s loyal fans might even feel an obligation toward sampling it. – Gary Dretzka

Blood for Irina
In his first venture into feature films, Fangoria editor Chris Alexander puts his money where his mouth usually is. It isn’t every day, after all, that a film critic and genre buff answers the challenge posed by all recipients of negative reviews, “If you’re so smart, how come you haven’t made your own movie?” Well, here it is. Admittedly influenced by such extreme artists as Werner Herzog, Jean Rollin and Jesus Franco, the existential and occasionally Impressionistic “Blood for Irina” describes what it might be like for a female vampire, who, after a century in the game, is ready to curl into a fetal position and die. Not only is the thrill of bloodlust gone, but, so, too, is her ability to be satisfied by the main course, alone. In this way, Irina (Shauna Henry) isn’t all that different than the broken-down, pink-haired whore she passes by on her nightly hunts. There’s certainly nothing sensually pleasing in the kills or the life she lives in a ramshackle motel on the shores of Lake Ontario. Alexander’s film doesn’t give us much of an opportunity to see below the surface of Irina’s current angst. She’s old, tired and ready to die … that’s it. As director, writer, editor, producer, cinematographer and composer, Alexander probably was so in love with his own vision that he forgot to add background and a reason for us to care about a predatory beast, no matter how pretty she is. That said, though, “Blood for Irina” looks and feels as chilly as a late fall day in Toronto and the ambient music nearly makes up for the absence of dialogue. As first features go, Alexander’s picture passes the test of convincing viewers to sit through the whole movie, without falling asleep or bemoaning the gods who allowed such a picture to exist. The Blu-ray adds some making-of material, including bits in which Irina was given words to say. – Gary Dretzka

The House I Live In
Constitution USA With Peter Sagal
Considering that our last three presidents have all admitted “experimenting,” at least, with marijuana and, perhaps, harder drugs, it borders on the insane that people who’ve imbibed or dealt the same substances are rotting in America’s overcrowded prisons. Indeed, the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana in some states almost demands that government official re-assess the sentences handed those men and women, boys and girls convicted of non-violent, drug-related crimes. If nothing else, such a campaign would serve to help deflate the problem of overcrowded prisons and the criminal-college aspect of incarceration. Instead, our current attorney general wastes money and manpower on the persecution of marijuana growers and suppliers, even in states where it’s been legalized. Eugene Jarecki’s powerful documentary, “The House I Live In,” argues several logical points about the failure of this country’s vastly expensive and remarkably unsuccessful 45-year-old War on Drugs. Without denying the necessity for the jailing of traffickers of hard drugs and punishing their predatory ways, Jarecki argues that the War on Drugs has actually turned into a war on young people of color without other means of financial support or access to savvy legal representation. Moreover, Jarecki points out that three-strike laws and mandatory sentencing provisions, while politically attractive, have kept prisons clogged for decades. Moreover, unions representing prison guards, alongside lobbyists for privately built facilities, have successfully argued against policies that would reduce the prison population.

If that sounds too much like liberal boilerplate, consider that Jarecki goes out of his way here to find advocates within the law-enforcement, political and judicial communities, as well as interviewing prisoners whose Original Sin was being born into a family in which the father would be incarcerated or simply split, before the hard work of parenting began. The filmmaker further argues that, because felons aren’t allowed to vote, the sentencing laws have basically disenfranchised an entire generation of young, mostly black men (a.k.a., Democrats). “The House I Live In” won the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at the 2012 Sundance festival. People who go into the film with an open mind should find the points made here to be reasonable and more thoroughly researched than half the crap that slides through Congress. Taxpayers, especially, are likely to find something in the presentation to get their blood boiling.

The PBS documentary mini-series, “Constitution USA With Peter Sagal,” could hardly be more relevant, as it goes into depth on issues that not only have split the nation, but also our judicial system. Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia may think he knows exactly what the founding fathers had in mind when creating the Constitution, but he’s only guessing when it comes to such explosive issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, private possession of assault rifles and mandatory sentences. The visionaries who framed our Constitution weren’t put on the same pedestal of the Pope, whose dictates come directly from God and, therefore, are infallible, even if the absolutists put them there. The Bill of Rights offers proof that the men who dictated the document didn’t think they were beyond reproach. Host and narrator Peter Sagal (“Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me”) takes us on a somewhat disorderly tour of the United States on the back of his Harley-Davidson motorcycle to places where the decisions made by the federal judiciary aren’t at all abstract or theoretical. There are real consequences to those decisions and Sagal wonders if the Constitution still works and, if not, what can be done to fix it. Arguments are made on both sides of every issue and the experts interviewed aren’t limited to academics, politicians and other windbags. The mini-series is broken up into four separate parts: “States vs. Uncle Sam,” “We the People,” “Think You Know Your Rights?” and “A New Constitution.” Sagal’s inquisitive nature and open-minded approach contribute mightily to the show’s appeal. – Gary Dretzka

Burn: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit
Blowing Fuses Left & Right: The Legendary Detroit Rock Interviews
Not all horror movies are set in haunted houses, castles, cemeteries and shopping malls being assaulted by zombies. Some arrive in the form of documentaries shot in the streets of our greatest cities. Such is the case of “Burn: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit.” It follows the crew of Engine Company 50, one of the busiest firehouses in the country, as it simultaneously battles Detroit’s epidemic of fires and a budget that would be considered stingy, if the city weren’t already on the brink of bankruptcy. That the Motor City is in such terrible economic shape is hardly news. Neither are scenes of the post-apocalyptic urban landscape and desperation of residents seeking jobs. What comes as a bit of a surprise here is learning how little money actually trickled down to Detroit after the automotive industry was bailed out by the geniuses on Wall Street and in Washington. Of all the departments to be squeezed in a money crisis, it only seems logical that a city’s fire department would be among the last to be savaged. In Detroit, however, the dangers already faced by firefighters have been compounded by an inability to repair or purchase new equipment, keep water flowing to hydrants and replacing firefighters who retire or go on disability. Even if the city could replace lost personnel, salaries of $30,000 and non-existent raises are considered sufficiently low to allow some firefighters to collect food stamps.

Still, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that the men (no women) we meet at EC50 continue to perform their tasks with diligence and no small amount of enthusiasm. When the incoming commissioner makes the logical decision to refrain from battling fires in abandoned and derelict buildings, the firefighters immediately come up with a half-dozen reasons why this might not work in Detroit, including the fact that these buildings often are the only refuge homeless people can find. Besides the commissioner, the filmmakers put a tight focus on an about-to-retire veteran, a young firefighter paralyzed from the waist down after the collapse of a wall and a newly promoted chief. The cameras frequently bounce between raging infernos, the firehouse, funerals, civic activities and off-duty life at home. Denis Leary, who played a firefighter in “Rescue Me,” is listed among the executive producers of “Burn.” It has been shown at festivals, VOD outlets and now on DVD/Blu-ray. A portion of the proceeds goes to the Leary Firefighters Foundation. And, BTW, since the documentary debuted at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, the financial situation in Detroit has devolved even further, from dire to impossible.

Among the things Detroit has in abundance, apparently, are musical memories. Hardly a month goes by without a documentary being released about the Glory Years, when Motown ruled, punk rock was being conceived, blue-eyed soul prospered and musicians could supplement their incomes on the assembly lines. “Blowing Fuses Left & Right: The Legendary Detroit Rock Interviews” is a compilation of interviews conducted by Gil Margulis in 1988 with the Stooges’ guitarist Ron Asheton, and the MC5’s Rob Tyner and Dennis Thompson. At the time, Margulis was a New Jersey high-school student obsessed with the explosive pre-punk sounds of Detroit rock in the 1960s. The complete interview sessions, which Margulis believed to be lost, are available here for the first time. They’re interesting both for their historical value and rare, far-reaching discussions with Asheton and Tyner, both of whom have died in the interim. A companion edition of the documentary adds interviews with such Detroit luminaries as MC5 manager John Sinclair, the Rationals’ Scott Morgan and Grande Ballroom owner Russ Gibb. – Gary Dretzka

From the Head
Some movies cry out for the addition of Smell-O-Vision or AromaRama to their high-tech menus. Others don’t. Writer/director/star George Griffith’s semi-autobiographical “From the Head” definitely is in the latter category. Indeed, the 2D experience often borders on the unwatchable. That’s not because the film is without artistic merit or is poorly made, just that a men’s room in a Times Square “gentlemen’s club” is the last place anyone would care to spend more than five minutes … on- or off-screen. It is, however, a location extremely familiar to Griffith, who worked in several different such places before turning to other creative pursuits. It explains the nearly prehistoric look of the patrons, some of whom could remember buying their wardrobes at Robert Hall, which went out of business in 1977. Because of his predilection for spectator shoes, the attendant has been accorded the nickname, “Shoes,” by patrons and the strippers who drop in when the toilet in their bathroom is clogged or a client is spending too much time on the pot. Shoes doesn’t play the role of father-confessor very often, if only because no one sticks around long enough for more than a couple of minutes of therapy. He’s better at administering tips to gentleman about how to avoid detection by jealous wives, for which he’s compensated in tips. He also does favors for the strippers, who wish that all of their customers washed their hands after visiting the facilities. If the idea of finding an attendant in a washroom sounds foreign — let alone tipping for soap, towel and cologne — you’re not alone. There’s nothing more awkward than using the facilities and only having some small change to offer the pleasant fellow who turns on the water, hands you a towel and offers some cologne or candy. “From the Head” takes place on the three-year anniversary of his stint at the club, so it’s logical that something auspicious would happen to Shoes during the course of the night. The movie is surprisingly interesting, if not exactly entertaining. The conceit probably would play better on stage, though, and the smaller the better. For a first movie, though, it ain’t bad. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Black Pond
Imagine opening up your door and finding Zach Galifianakis, or his doppelganger, staring at you with a slightly demented smile and a professed desire to make your life more meaningful. That’s kind of what happens to Tom Thompson (Chris Langham), in “Black Pond,” when he meets a disheveled stranger on his nightly constitutional with his dog named Boy. If this were London, Tom might not have bothered to acknowledge the presence of the probably homeless man, Blake (Colin Hurley), as they crossed paths on a bridge. After a few pleasantries, the two very different men stroll into the nearby forest exchanging poetic observations on life and nature. They stop for a rest at a serene pond, where, as Tom matter-of-factly recalls, a woman either had drowned, committed suicide or was murdered. Blake responds to everything his thoroughly deadpan companion says with personal musings of his own. Tom invites Blake to his pleasant country home for tea, then dinner and lots of drinks, and finally a comfortable night’s sleep. Sophie Thompson (Amanda Hadingue) is a bit skeptical of her husband’s new friend, but she proves to be a gracious hostess, anyway.

What happens in the next several hours and days is best left undisclosed, except to point out that it involves Boy’s unexpected death and funeral, for which the Thompsons’ daughters and their shared boyfriend drive up from London. As you might already have guessed, Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley’s first feature is a very strange – if thoroughly compelling – black comedy, very much in the dust-dry British tradition. The story is partially told in flashback, with recollections about Blake’s portentous stay at the Thompsons related in a fashion inspired by Christopher Guest’s faux-documentaries. Merely labeling “Dark Pond” a dramedy does it no justice whatsoever. Like the Coen Brothers’ genre-bending stories about crime and killing, it’s something completely different and well deserving of our attention. As if to prove that “Dark Pond” isn’t a fluke, Sharpe’s hugely imaginative short film “Cockroach” is included in the bonus package with making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone: Blu-ray
After surveying the publicity material for “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” I fully expected it to be a parody of Siegfried & Roy and other over-the-top Las Vegas attractions. The presence of Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi and Jim Carey boded well for a comedy about a city that has no shame in its game, even if it probably would take a turn for the melodramatic towards the climax Instead, Don Cardino’s first venture outside the world of television (“30 Rock,” “Cosby”) is far less concerned with satirizing S&R’s spectacular career and Las Vegas’ place in it, than it is in creating yet another cautionary tale about the negative effects of hubris on friendships. Tired of being bullied in grade school, Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and his best friend Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) work tirelessly to perfect routines included in a magic kit endorsed by popular old-school magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). Their rehearsals and amateur performances not only provide the boys a safe haven from the bullies, but also a way to channel their ambitions into a show-biz career. In this regard, at least, “Burt Wonderstone” isn’t much different than “Showgirls,” “A Chorus Line,” “Strike Up the Band” and “A Jazz Singer.” Thirty years of hard work later, Burt and Anton are the toast of Las Vegas with their own hot-ticket showroom. Another decade goes by and Burt’s reluctance to upgrade the act gives upstart magicians Steve Gray (Carrey) and Rick the Implausible (Jay Mohr) an opportunity to fill seats with the butts of a younger generation of Vegas tourists. Indeed, Gray’s laughably daredevil gags are directly inspired by “street magician” Criss Angel, whose collaboration with Cirque du Soleil is doing very well on the Strip.

In a fit of pique, Wonderstone blames his partner for the act’s increasing irrelevancy. After an Angel-inspired stunt goes disastrously bad, Marvelton has no choice but to go his separate way. Without him, Burt’s career spirals down the drain, as well. This sort of thing is par for the course in show-biz movies and what happens next is no less predictable. Fortunately, a chance meeting with Arkin’s long-forgotten Rance Holloway provides a much-needed safety net for Cardino and screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. As usual, Arkin’s terrific in the key supporting role. Even so, “Burt Wonderstone” simply is too pre-fabricated to sustain its fitful momentum. There’s a story to be told about magic in Las Vegas and the risky pursuit of larger and more difficult illusions. Cardino’s hesitant direction isn’t up to the task. Olivia Wilde plays Jane, the klutzy magician’s assistant who has dreams of her own, while the late James Gandolfini is wasted as the resort owner forced to decide between the hot commodity and old pro, when he opens his own casino. The Blu-ray adds 26 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes; a gag reel; a too-short featurette, “Making Movie Magic With David Copperfield,” who consulted on the film; and “Steve Gray Uncut,” in which an in-character Jim Carrey performs for tourists as “The Brain Rapist.”

Anyone who wants to see the post-“Sopranos” James Gandolfini in a better cinematic light ought to check out “Not Fade Away,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Down the Shore,” “In the Loop” and HBO’s “Cinema Verite.” In a couple of these titles, his characters aren’t much of a leap from Tony Soprano, but Gandolfini always found a way to make them interesting. – Gary Dretzka

As Luck Would Have It
This Spanish import immediately reminded me of two things: Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole,” which, in 1951, introduced the “media circus” concept to viewers; and CNN’s brand-establishing coverage of the so-called Baby Jessica rescue, in 1987. In both cases, it was difficult to distinguish between the concerned spectators and money-blinded hustlers who came to the incidents in anticipation of a dramatic rescue or great tragedy. In Alex de la Iglesia’s “As Luck Would Have It,” spectators are drawn to an event of similar magnitude, at least in the small world of Roberto (José Mota), a man facing imminent death and loss of his family in an unforeseeable accident. Conveniently, it occurs on what already was shaping up as one of the worst days of his life. Like countless other talented professionals who’ve lost their jobs in the economic downturn, he finally has come to the end of his ropes.

On his way home from an unproductive interview with an old friend, Roberto stops at a hotel in the ancient city of Cartagena, where he and his wife Luisa (Salma Hayek) enjoyed their honeymoon. Instead, he is diverted into a press event being held next-door, to celebrate the renovation of a Roman theater built 2,000 years ago. After wandering away from the dignitaries and journalists, he finds himself on the top of the construction site surrounded by sculptures and other large artifacts. As his bad luck would have it, a freak accident then causes Roberto to become the subject of a media circus, not unlike the one in “Ace in the Hole” and on CNN. Ironically, it also opens the door to a fortune in potential marketing deals and exclusive media opportunities. The arrival of Luisa causes a feeding frenzy that threatens the couple’s dignity and, possibly, his life. At some point, Roberto’s own marketing savvy kicks in and he attempts to control the situation from his own precarious vantage point. There’s nothing at all wrong with Hayek and Mota’s performances. The story is far too contrived, however, to make us forget Kirk Douglas or Baby Jessica. – Gary Dretzka

The Rambler: Blu-ray
I’m certainly not the first person to notice the similarities between “The Rambler” and the early works of David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Werner Herzog. Like DNA and fingerprints, they’re unimpeachable. That isn’t to imply, however, that “The Rambler” is so derivative as to be a total washout. It certainly holds one’s attention. Dermot Mulroney plays an ex-con newly released from a New Mexico prison. Upon his return home to his unfaithful wife and ramshackle trailer, the Rambler discovers that he wants nothing to do with his old crowd and decides to hitchhike to eastern Oregon to work on his brother’s ranch. On the way, he’ll discover the heart of darkness that beats within every shithole town from Roswell to Bend. Each one is crazier and fraught with more disaster than the one he just left. Or, are they? Among the things that keep viewers guessing in “The Rambler” are the hallucinations and dreams that merge with real life whenever the protagonist comes across something he doesn’t quite understand. The one constant is a cute and dangerous blond, the Girl (Lindsay Pulsipher), whose presence (or spirit) haunts him throughout his journey. If we never know what’s going on inside Rambler’s head, it’s because his face is constantly shaded by sunglasses and a cowboy hat. Neither does his deadpan expression change much during Calvin Lee Reeder’s mad psychodrama. Mulroney is one of the indie world’s most consistently interesting character actors and he’s fine in the lead role here. Considering the stark high-desert locations, “The Rambler” probably wasn’t much fun to shoot. Most people won’t find it all that much fun to watch, either. This one is only for viewers who don’t mind testing their capacity for pain every now and then, as well as those who are interested in seeing how a young writer/director interprets his elders’ conceits. – Gary Dretzka

Supporting  Characters
Although it wouldn’t be fair to characterize “Supporting Characters” as a male-oriented companion piece to HBO’s hit series, “Girls,” the comparison would be apt. The central character is played by Alex Karpovsky, who fans of the show will remember as the coffee-shop owner dumped by Shoshanna. Lena Dunham, the series creator, makes a cameo appearance in “Supporting Characters,” as well, somehow resisting the temptation to disrobe every five minutes. As far as I can tell, co-writer/director Daniel Schechter and co-writer/co-star Tarik Lowe have no connection to “Girls,” but they do have the aesthetic down pat. Karpovsky and Lowe play Nick and Darryl, best friends and editing partners who are simultaneously experiencing problems at work and at home. In a sense, that single sentence sums up what happens in “Supporting Characters,” dramatically and otherwise. Nick’s living with his fiancée Amy (Sophia Takal), who, out of the blue, causes a rift by insisting on a pre-nuptial agreement, based on the recommendation of her father. Darryl has lady problems, as well, and thinks that the best solution is to propose to her during her dance class.

Meanwhile, at the same time as a possibly demented director (Kevin Corrigan) is making bizarre demands on them at the editing and dubbing table, Darryl is concerned that Nick is about to abandon their partnership. He’s been asked to accept a job on a movie with a budget that can only sustain one editor and reluctantly says, “Yes.” Add to this scenario a beautiful blond actress (Arielle Kebbel), who tempts Nick at the most vulnerable point in his relationship with Amy. As is the case in “Girls,” the characters are trapped on the borderline separating hipsters and yuppies. Like so many young New Yorkers, they’re obsessed with their still largely unformed careers, but can’t stomach the idea of not getting laid every night. Even if they don’t make enough money to satisfy their appetite for material pleasures, these people know exactly what they’d buy when their ship comes in. Schechter’s directorial style combines Edward Burns’ loosey-goosey approach to family dynamics with the talky naturalism of the Mumblecore crowd. “Significant Others” won’t appeal to most audiences, but, for those holding their breaths for the next season of “Girls,” it ain’t bad. The DVD adds an interview with Karpovsky, Schechter and Lowe. – Gary Dretzka

Phantom: Blu-ray
Submarine-based thrillers have an inherent advantage over most other wartime movies in that the claustrophobic environment becomes a character in and of itself and the tight confines dictate the terms of how they can be shot. Anyone who’s ever toured a WWII-era sub can attest for the potential for intense drama in such a setting. Even though the subgenre has been a Hollywood staple for nearly 100 years, only a handful of screenwriters have managed to get past the clichés and given us something new. The tense German story, “Das Boot,” may be the best of the lot, but “Run Silent, Run Deep,” “U-571,” “Crimson Tide,” “The Hunt for Red October,” “The Enemy Below,” “K-19: The Widowmaker,” “Ice Station Zebra” and, of course, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” also come immediately to mind. All share a palpable sense of imminent danger; courageous, if trapped characters; and no small degree of tension between officers and crew. Todd Robinson’s “Phantom” is the latest entry into the category. Supposedly based on an actual Cold War event, it takes place almost entirely on board an old-school diesel-powered Soviet submarine, which guarantees that the sailors live on a shoulder-to-shoulder basis for long periods of time.

Ed Harris plays the veteran captain, who, before he can retire, is ordered to take the vessel out to sea one more time. An air of mystery of surrounds the assignment, which comes out of nowhere and requires him to take orders from temperamental KGB agents (David Duchovny, among them) also added to the crew at the last minute. When the mission begins to go sideways a bit, the KGB agents assert themselves as the true commanders of the sub. They refuse to explain what’s going on, but are willing to pull their pistols whenever the captain balks at their orders. The explanation is far too complicated and crucial to the plot’s resolution to reveal here. Suffice it to say that it’s a doozy.

The thing that kills “Phantom” almost before it begins isn’t the massive hole at the heart of the mystery, however. It’s the decision to have all of the characters speak perfect English and look as if they’ve stepped out of the pages of Boy’s Life magazine. It’s especially bizarre when the sailors are describing the evil things Americans are capable of doing, while sounding and looking precisely like the enemy. In “Red October,” at least, the Soviet commander played by Sean Connery had a Scottish brogue to differentiate himself from his American counterpart. (Austrian Klaus Maria Brandauer was originally cast in the role, but broke his leg before filming.) Even so, there’s no faulting Harris’ performance in “Phantom.” Also appearing are William Fichtner, Lance Henrikson, Johnathon Schaech and Jason Beghe. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes, “Facing the Apocalypse,” “The Real Phantom,” “Jeff Rona: Scoring the Phantom,” the “An Ocean Away” music video and commentary. – Gary Dretzka

The Lesser Blessed
PBS: Kind Hearted Woman
I’d hate to think that distributers routinely discriminate against movies from by Canadian artists about Canadian issues, especially those involving First Nation characters, but there’s too much evidence in favor of that argument to dismiss out of hand. While Hollywood producers are happy to take advantage of the tax breaks offered by Telefilm Canada, the industry is loath to open the doors to competition from the Great White North. Based on a novel by Richard Van Camp and directed by the promising Ukrainian-born Anita Doron, “The Lesser Blessed” combines coming-of-age conventions with those associated with films about severely alienated youths. What distinguishes it from dozens of other such movies is its setting and the ethnic background of its characters. Larry (Joel Evans) is a withdrawn 16-year-old Ticho Indian living in sparsely populated Fort Simmer, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The severe scarring on his chest and back attest to some terrible event he endured as a child. He’s frequently bullied at school, but is able to befriend the new kid in school, a brash and extremely self-confident Métis Indian. Both boys share a crush on the sexually precocious Juliet (Chloe Rose), who’s seeing the bully, but enjoys playing one boy against the other. Although Fort Simmer is a world away from the big cities in the provinces, kids have no problem finding drugs, booze and rave parties. Along with alcoholism, parental and spousal abuse are major problems in the town and almost impossible to avoid. Larry’s problems come to a head after Juliet begins to show him some interest and he begins to feel his masculine oats. Fortunately, he has a stepfather (Benjamin Bratt) who takes the time to remind him of their spiritual roots and what it means to be a man. Many of the other kids in the mostly Indian school aren’t as fortunate. Doron handles all of the issues presented in “Lesser Blessed” with uncommon sensitivity and respect for the even harsher source material. The DVD includes interviews with the actors, writer/director and author.

The problems of Native American communities in the U.S. have provided much fodder for documentarians, especially those whose work finds its way to PBS stations. “Kind Hearted Woman” deals with issues pertaining to alcoholism, drug abuse and poverty, while also detailing the less-known scourge of childhood sexual abuse. The “Frontline” presentation does so with an extremely tight focus on an individual whose life has nearly been destroy by such problems. Robin Charboneau is a 32-year-old Oglala Sioux living on North Dakota’s Spirit Lake Reservation, where sexual abuse has reached epidemic proportions. In fact, the problem has been ignored and mishandled there for so long that the federal government recently took over the social-services bureaucracy. Sutherland followed Robin for more than three years, as she struggled to raise her two children, further her education and deal with the wounds of sexual abuse and alcoholism. “Kind Hearted Woman” is an agonizing documentary. Not only does it paint a penetrating portrait of a woman in a great deal of trouble, but it also opens our eyes to the vicious cycle of rural poverty. The entire second half of the five-hour doc resolves around Robin’s attempts to use her personal history to score a degree and build a career out of what she’s learned. It also describes her on-again/off-again relationship with a Canadian, whose jealousy threatens to reveal deeper problems. Finally, “Kind Hearted Woman” is an uplifting story about a woman who triumphs over adversity. There are times, however, when viewers will feel as if they’re sharing her ordeal far too intimately. Too often, these days, people believe that the Native American casino industry can afford to provide cures for the ills that plague residents of the reservations and take on the challenge alone. That simply isn’t the case, however. All casinos aren’t created equal and tribal boards can be as corrupt and ineffectual as any other group of politicians. The DVD adds an interview with Sutherland. – Gary Dretzka

Storming Juno
If there’s anything the United States isn’t particularly known for, it’s full disclosure in victory … not that we’ve seen much of that lately. Besides being taught that God’s on our side in all military conflicts, kids growing up in the second half of the 20th Century were left with the distinct impression that we singlehandedly won both world wars. The Brits were important in Africa and for providing a staging point for D-Day, of course, but, otherwise, served as a thorn in Ike’s side. Any teacher or screenwriter who emphasized the Soviet Union’s crucial role in defeating the Nazis ran the risk of being branded unpatriotic, at best, or, worse, a fellow traveler. Canada may have been listed among our Allies, but its participation never was accorded the full praise it deserved. As “Storming Juno” documents, Canadian forces played as strategic a role — on D-Day, especially — as any other Allied nation. Specifically, their assignment on June 6, 1944, was taking heavily fortified Juno beach, as acknowledged in “The Longest Day.” By the end of the day, however, the Canadians had penetrated deeper into France than either the British or the American troops. If Tim Wolochatiuk and Christopher Gagosz’ stirring docudrama isn’t nearly as polished and technically advanced as, say, the first half-hour of “Saving Private Ryan,” it goes a long way toward setting the record straight and at a fraction of the budget. It’s possible that “Storming Juno” was released in the U.S. after being shown on Canadian television, in 2010, but IMDB.com has no record of it.

“Storming Juno” is divided into three interconnected sections. One focuses on the heroics of the 450 paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines, while the other two follow the 14,000 Canadian soldiers and Hussars who rushed the beach on foot or in tanks. Until now, I wasn’t aware of the existence of the DD Sherman Tank built with an inflatable canvas screen and rear propellers that, when activated, allowed it to “swim” to shore from as far away as two miles. Once the amphibious vehicle reached firm ground, its standard-transmission drive would kick in. The high waves played havoc with the DDs and only one of Canada’s six tanks made it to Juno. As we see in “Storming Juno,” the tank that did complete its swim played a key role in the victory. It then pushed on to meet the Canadian paratroopers and confront several of the Germans’ most potent tank units. The dramatizations are supported with archival newsreel footage and interviews with veterans. Several of the key characters are based on actual participants, including a 15-year-old volunteer affectionately known as “Apple.” The DVD also offers a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

A Place at the Table: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing we don’t need in the war against poverty, hunger, poor nutrition and obesity, it’s another all-encompassing euphemism for poverty, hunger, poor nutrition and obesity. In the frequently heart-breaking and statistics-choked documentary, “A Place at the Table,” we’re introduced to the term, “food insecurity,” which basically is a less-frightful way of saying that too many Americans don’t know if, where and when their next meal will be placed before them. Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush’s documentary also argues persuasively that Americans suffering from food insecurity are more likely to purchase exactly the wrong kinds of food for their family — causing obesity in people who literally are starving from poor nutrition – and that the government allocates funds to the same agri-business interests that profit from making food less nutritious. In other words, as long as poor people can’t afford to hire the kind of lobbyists who can buy our congressional representatives like so many potato chips, nothing is going to change.

We already know that much about hunger and poverty, however. In 1968, the CBS News special report, “Hunger in America,” startled viewers with reports on how desperate the situation had become in the richest country in the world. Presidents from LBJ to Obama, liberal and conservative, all have speechified about the need to eliminate hunger in the United States. At the same time, they all accepted money from agri-business interests and appointed Secretaries of Agriculture whose priorities didn’t include ending hunger. If it weren’t for volunteerism and charities, even more people would starve. Indeed, Tea Party Republicans are rallying support to kill the current farm bill and eliminate food stamps, and they’re not reluctant to inject their racism into the debate.

Among the arguments made in “A Place at the Table” is that a little education about nutrition goes a long way toward lowering the cost to taxpayers, whose dollars go to taking care of people with such food-related diseases as diabetes, asthma, heart disease and cancer. Jacobson and Silverbush have done a fine job gathering the evidence necessary to plead a persuasive case for upending the status quo. Actor/activist Jeff Bridges and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio appear alongside nutritionists, doctors, volunteers, food-bank workers, parents and children. In 1968 or the 1970s, such a documentary might have motivated politicians and citizens to address the issue and try to solve it. Now that we’re well into the Century of Greed and Stupidity, it will take more than evidence and logic to sell the notion that something must change. Maybe, organizers of the Arab Spring movement and recent protests in Brazil and Turkey could provide insight to Americans who are just as bad off as people there, but less likely to protest unfair conditions. An easy first step, though, would be voting against representatives who are more interested in protecting the sales of assault rifles than feeding children. Adding the term “food insecurity” to the debate doesn’t come close to solving the problem. The Blu-ray adds commentary, deleted scenes, expanded interviews and other featurettes promoting ideas put forward in this important documentary. – Gary Dretzka

Saving Lincoln
Within the last year, Abraham Lincoln’s already mighty legacy has grown to include a proficiency in hunting vampires and zombies. Steven Spielberg chronicled one of the president’s greatest legislative victories in “Lincoln,” while Tom Hanks narrated a made-for-TV movie, “Killing Lincoln,” about the conspiracy that took the great man’s life. “Saving Lincoln” is a curious brew in that it tells the president’s story through the eyes of his friend and protector, Ward Hill Lamon. I don’t know if it’s fair to refer to Lamon as a mere footnote in American history, because he remained close enough to Lincoln to deter several threats to his life and be a trusted adviser. Still, I’ve never before heard or read his name. As the president’s personal body guard, Lamon (Lea Coco) might have been able to save him from assassination, if he hadn’t been sent to Richmond that day as a Lincoln’s representative. In his recollections of his friend, Lamon said that he warned him about going out at night and, specifically, attending the theater in his absence. Tom Amandes (“Parenthood”), an Illinois native and inarguably handsome actor, portrays Lincoln in a way that makes him a far less brooding and introspective figure than we’ve become used to seeing. According to Lamon, he was a man who was known to laugh, sing, dance and smile more than once every four years, and not as a wry gesture, either. Likewise, as interpreted by Penelope Ann Miller, Mary Todd Lincoln is far more pretty, open and welcoming – until her tragedies became too much of a burden – than as previously pictured. Co-writer/director Salvador Litvak’s taken it on the chin from critics for the conceit of using historical photos, many from the Library of Congress, as the backdrops for almost all of the scenes. The “CineCollage” treatment is less often “interesting” than peculiar. I think school children would gain more from the process than adults, whose eyes are conditioned to another way of seeing movies. Lincoln completests should also find something in the Lamon angle to admire. The DVD adds commentary with Litvak and co-writer Nina Davidovich; an interactive Civil War photo gallery; a pair of making-of featurettes; and a piece on the traditional music used on the soundtrack. – Gary Dretzka

North Face: Blu-ray
The historic race to conquer Switzerland’s treacherous Eiger summit, in 1936, fuels the drama in this exciting movie about athletes whose primary motivation for doing such a crazy thing is “because it’s there.” The climber who made that point, George Mallory, would be killed in his 1924 pursuit of the then-unconquered Everest. His frozen body would be discovered 46 years later, 2,000 feet below the summit. Since 1935, the near-vertical north face (a.k.a., “death wall”) of the Eiger has claimed the lives of 64 climbs. It wasn’t recently that the sport improved on its dangerously high rate of attrition. The once-unconquerable Everest, especially, now suffers from gridlock during prime climbing season. In “North Face,” German director Philipp Stolzl (“Young Goethe in Love”) frequently pulls away from the intense competition on the mountain to focus on the safety of a posh lodge, where less-adventurous sorts monitor the climb by telescope or hop on the train that takes them inside the mountain to viewing windows. Among the spectators are the film’s fictional love interest, a climber groupie played by Johanna Wokalek, and the editor of a Nazi-controlled newspaper that sees the propaganda value in the German team beating the Austrians to the summit. Neither of these two subplots is as interesting as anything happening on the Eiger, but such embellishments can be expected in commercial endeavors. Even so, Stolzl knows what audiences want to see in “North Face” and delivers it in a taut and visually exciting manner. The Blu-ray easily captures the majesty of the mountain and difficulty of the assault. It adds deleted scenes, a short piece on the visual effects and a 17-minute featurette on the technical challenges faced by the filmmakers. – Gary Dretzka

Alien Crash at Roswell: The UFO Truth Lost in Time
All American Horror: Gateways to Hell
When it comes to the great conspiracy theories of our time – the JFK, RFK, MLK assassinations, Marilyn Monroe’s OD, Jimmy Hoffa’s gravesite, Pearl Harbor, the Roswell UFO crash — common wisdom insists that the maintenance of such secrets for so long a time would have required the complicity of far too many blabber-mouth government officials. Moreover, the truth about such headline-making incidents has become a commodity so valuable that, by now, someone would have spilled the beans, if only for cash reward. I tend to go along with that belief. On the other hand, so much effort has gone into the discrediting of whistle-blowers and conspiracy theorists that the possibility of massive cover-ups can’t be dismissed out of hand. One need only consider the full-blown assault on the credibility of former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden to understand how far the White House, Congress, Pentagon, mainstream media and Wall Street will go to protect their hold on information detrimental to their interests. So many officials, pundits and politicians have attempted to assure us of the sanctity of the intelligence-gathering operation that it’s become impossible not to believe something really fishy is going on in Washington. In “A Few Good Men,” Colonel Nathan R. Jessup might as well have been speaking for the entire government when he said, “You want answers? You can’t handle the truth.”

The mystery surrounding the so-called Roswell Incident is the granddaddy of all American conspiracy theories, possibly because of the military’s swift dismissal of seemingly legitimate reports of the UFO crash and retrieval of alien bodies. “Alien Crash at Roswell: The UFO Truth Lost in Time” is a DIY documentary, in which a guy with a thick foreign accent interviews the grandson of Major Jesse Marcel Sr., the man who allegedly was among the first people to survey of the wreckage and collect material from the debris field. Before returning to his base, Marcel stopped at home and showed pieces of the wreckage to his family. He also snatched a memento shaped like an I-beam and carrying symbols. That artifact, along with other family lore, provided Philip Coppens’ with the basis for his film. We already know that Marcel was the target of a disinformation campaign after he supposedly delivered debris to his superiors and it was officially determined that what witnesses of the crash saw was a giant weather balloon. Jesse Marcel Jr. wrote a book on his father’s recollections, so Jesse III is following family tradition here. Far from being quacks, Jesse Jr. and Jesse III’s disclosure efforts led this spring to panel discussions and a mock congressional hearing in which theorists and former U.S. senators demanded answers, which have been hidden in plain sight since 1947. If I were elected President in 2016, the first thing I’d want to do is visit the hangar at Area 51 where theorists believe the alien bodies and wreckage are hidden. As for the 70-minute documentary, it probably could have been boiled down to 15 minutes and delivered the same information.

If the existence of alien bodies were to be revealed, it probably wouldn’t be the public that panics, as predicted. The loudest roars would be heard in the hallways of the Vatican, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, where religious leaders would be forced to rethink everything they’d learned, taught and preached about God’s intentions. The same could be said, I suppose, about any confirmation of supernatural phenomenon and the existence of ghosts and demonic visitations. William Burke’s “All American Horror: Gateways to Hell,” also distributed by Reality Entertainment, plays like a longer, commercial-free episode of “Ghost Hunters International” or a pilot for a paranormal-based show on another cable network. Through on-site tours and dramatizations, Burke describes hauntings at an office complex built on Gallows Hill and at the Devil’s Stairs, both in North Carolina; Louisville’s famously chilling Waverly Hills Sanitarium; a railroad tunnel inhabited by a woman murdered on a passenger train; and at the home of a woman, who, after refurbishing the antique gates of a cemetery, discovers they are portals to hell. The bonus feature is Philip Gardiner’s 2010 feature, “The Stone: No Soul Unturned,” a hippy-dippy movie about modern-day “soul seekers” that was filmed on the grounds of Annesley Hall, believed to be haunted by Lord Byron’s ghost. The writer/director has churned out some 40 exploitation titles over the course of the last seven years. – Gary Dretzka

Chiller: Dead Souls: Blu-ray
Todd & the Book of Pure Evil: The Complete Second Season
Nova: Australia’s First 4 Billion Years
Nature: Australia: Animals Down Under
In the Chiller network movie, “Dead Souls,” an 18-year-old adoptee must decide if he’s going to sell the family farm, where a terrible massacre occurred just short of 18 years ago, or he’s going to do something else with his inheritance. Considering that he didn’t even know the property existed until a few days earlier, let alone his role in the tragedy, it’s a lot for him to digest. Not having seen enough haunted-house and ghost stories in his short lifetime, Johnny (Jesse James) decides that it might instructive for him to spend the night in the farmhouse. Making his decision easier is Emma, who says she’s been squatting in the house for a while, but could just as easily be a ghost. She’s played by Magda Apanowicz, who could be Jenna Fischer’s younger sister. Needless to say, the restless spirits of his parents and siblings also reside in the immediate vicinity of the farmhouse and have unsettled business with Johnny. As far as made-for-cable movies go, “Dead Souls” isn’t bad. Before going haywire toward the end of it, Colin Theys’ movie offers more than a few cheap thrills and surprises. The interaction between Johnny and Emma is as natural as it could be, given the possibility that she doesn’t exist. The Blu-ray offers bloopers, a set tour and commentary with Theys, screenwriter John Doolan and producer Andrew Gernhard.

From Canada, “Todd & the Book of Pure Evil” tapped into the mania for shows about teenagers who battle supernatural forces and come in contact into daily contact with various undead elements. Todd, Curtis, Jenny, and Hannah are students at Crowley High, the only high school in a small town secretly founded by Satanists. Each week, they are required to deal with repercussions from access to the Book of Pure Evil, which bestows upon its temporary holders the fulfillment of their wishes, if only in its own bizarre ways. As you might imagine, an inordinate number of wishes granted to the post-pubescent students involve dreams of the “wet” variety. One of the show’s distinguishing characteristics is openness toward realistic approaches to profanity, sexuality and violence. The Gang of Four faces temptations of its own, as well, while fighting to keep the book out of the hands of the evil-minded Atticus. If this description makes the show seem very silly, know that it’s sharply written, well-acted and a lot of fun. That’s largely because the show doesn’t treat its viewers as if they just stepped out of the confessional and are free from sin and desire, as is demanded of most teens in American shows. The Canadian cable channel Space elected to cancel the “Todd” after its second season, but a chip-in campaign raised enough money to create an animated movie that will tie up the storylines. It is expected to be shown in 2014. The second-season DVD package adds a blooper reel, deleted and extended scenes, extended musical numbers, special FX bonus material, a behind-the-scenes featurette, commentaries and “In Memoriam,” a tribute to the fallen students of Crowley High.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s been to Australia and not come back gushing about how much fun they had and how nice the people are Down Under. Typically, tourists stay on the fringes of the continent, within eyesight of water, pristine beaches and the modernity of its big cities. More adventurous travelers might brave a trip to Uluru (Ayres Rock), which the Native Australians consider to be sacred and almost everyone else treats as if it’s their own personal playground. Media images of the Outback make it out to be as forbidding a land mass as there is on Earth, and its stark nature is rarely exaggerated. Watch enough Australian movies, though, and you’ll see how diverse the Aussie landscape can be, with mountain ranges, great canyons, forests, rivers and the occasional snow-covered peak. The four-part “Nova” presentation, “Australia’s First 4 Billion Years,” demonstrates just how diverse and spectacular the land is, from both a scientific and cultural point of view. With the help of CGI visualizations and animatronics, genial host Richard Smith takes us on a journey that began 4.4 billion years and whose geologic growth can begin to be charted at ground level. And, it’s still evolving.

The “Nature” collection “Australia: Animals Down Under” is a perfect companion piece to the four-episode miniseries, “Australia’s First 4,000 Years.” It is comprised of four previously released hour-long shows, “Cracking the Koala Code,” “Outback Pelicans,” “Survivors of the Firestorm” and “Kangaroo Mob.” They deal as much with the dangers facing the wildlife in their constantly shrinking habitat as the wonderful place in Australia life and legend. – Gary Dretzka

The Emperor’s New Groove/Kronk’s New Groove: Blu-ray
Lilo & Stitch/Lilo & Stitch: Stitch Has a Glitch: Blu-ray
I wonder if kids sit around comparing and criticizing new entries in Disney’s Blu-ray catalogue, as do their adult counterparts whenever new screeners arrive in the mail. Surely, they’ve seen their share of kiddie critics on various cable channels and mastering the relevant criteria isn’t an insurmountable problem. Disney’s animated features are scrutinized with the same attention to detail as a microbiologist examining a new virus species. The tenures of each new animation czar are studied as if they were geologic ages. Disney seems to play along with the game by favoring its classic movies with Diamond and Platinum designations, while others are merely “special.” The addition of so many made-for-DVD/Blu-ray sequels adds a fresh set of criteria. For sheer entertainment value, though, it’s tough to beat double-feature packages of lesser-blessed material. This month, Disney’s sent out Blu-ray packages containing “The Emperor’s New Groove” and its non-theatrical companion, “Kronk’s New Groove”; “Lilo & Stitch” and “Lilo & Stitch: Stitch Has a Glitch”; and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and “Atlantis: Milo’s Return.” Each of the theatrical releases has its champions and detractors, whose opinions have been duly recorded. From purely a consumer’s point-of-view, however, a couple of things should be mentioned. The three-disc “special editions” contain a Blu-ray disc containing both titles and two DVDs with one movie each. The commentary track can only be accessed on the DVD version, along with featurettes, deleted scenes, interactive activities and music videos, all in standard definition. Again, this shouldn’t be a deterrent for any viewer under, say, 10. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer: Blu-ray
Hansel & Gretel Get Baked
Much has already been made of the hugely disappointing box-office returns for “Jack the Giant Slayer” – not to be confused with the straight-to-video turkey, “Jack the Giant Killer” – and what they portend for other fairytale movies, already in production. I’ve reviewed so many of them in the last year that gingerbread houses and magic mirrors have begun to appear in my dreams. I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to sample any of them in theaters, but, since they’re delivered to my doorstep, anyway, why not? The one thing all of them have in common, besides a reliance on CGI effects, is a desire on the part of their investors to attract audiences in all four demographic quadrants. If memory serves, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” is the only one with the chutzpah to accept an “R” rating and cater to the quadrant that contains males who dig watching awful things happen to fantasy characters and don’t need a parent or guardian to hold their hands. “Jack the Giant Slayer” fits awkwardly within the PG-13 mold, with enough wild action to keep teens happy, but not enough gore to please hard-core buffs. Given the familiarity of the story, though, I’m not sure what the appeal would be to adults with or without children sufficiently mature to handle some scary images. That said, however, I will admit to enjoying most of the movie’s 114 minutes, including the scenes in which normal-sized human characters interacted other normal-sized human characters. The giants were entertaining, as well.

Bryan Singer’s version of the ancient story combines the British tales “Jack the Giant Killer” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” with northern European and Persian myths in which a “world tree,” garden stalk or vine connects Earth and heaven. Long before the arrival of mere mortals, the cord was cut to prevent demonic species from escaping their middle kingdom in the clouds and conquering the planet. Only a handful of seeds capable of re-growing such mighty beanstalks remain and they were entombed with the body of King Erik, the original giant slayer, along with his magic crown. Somehow, those are the very seeds that are traded for Jack the Farm Boy’s horse. At the same time as Jack’s getting his ass kicked by his dad for being hosed on the deal, flighty Princess Isabelle has an argument with the king and traipses out of Cloister Castle. Long story short, after being rescued from thugs by Jack (Nicholas Hoult), Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) is kidnapped and taken into the cloud kingdom. When the beanstalk blooms, Jack and the king’s guard, Elmont (Ewan McGregor), embark on a mission that SEAL Team 6 wouldn’t attempt without three months of training. Singer throws in enough variables to keep viewers already familiar with the tale guessing for the next 90 minutes, as well as some tremendously imaginative stuff in the giants’ kingdom.

Coincidental to my watching “Jack the Giant Slayer” on sparkling Blu-ray, TMC was showing Abbott & Costello’s 1952 comedy, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which, besides being funny, demonstrates that elasticity of the tale. The giant looked more like Andre the Giant than Bill Nighy and John Kassir’s double-headed General Fallon in “Giant Slayer.” I was also constantly reminded of the giants created by Ray Harryhausen for his many fantasies. From what I can tell, the CGI effects ought to please owners of HD3D sets. The Blu-ray package adds an interactive game, a deleted scene, gag reel, DVD and UltraViolet copy, and an extensive making-of featurette.

I didn’t receive a screener of “Hansel & Gretel Get Baked” in time to couple it with last week’s review of “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” but fairytale completests should be made aware of its existence. “Hansel & Gretel Get Baked,” as you might have already guessed, combines horror, gore and stoner humor in the service of a contemporary folk tale. Anyone who can remember the Grimm Brothers’ version should have no trouble imagining it updated to fit 21st Century standards. Here, Hansel and Gretel (Molly C. Quinn, Michael Welch) come across a little old lady in Pasadena (Lara Boyle) selling killer pot, which she grows in her basement. The witch uses her trademark Black Forest strain to lure young vipers to her Craftsman-style living room. After serving them herbal tea, it’s easy to enslave and eat them. The more human tissue the witch eats, the younger she looks. No need to reveal what happens next, except to say that, yes, a furnace is involved. You can find it on VOD or, next week, on DVD. For serious potheads, I recommend hosting an uproarious double feature with Abbott & Costello’s “Jack and the Beanstalk.” – Gary Dretzka

It’s a Disaster: Blu-ray
What begins as a “couples’ brunch” in “It’s a Disaster” slowly evolves into a pre-apocalypse Last Supper, as the toxins from a “dirty bomb” begin to spread through a quiet neighborhood in Los Angeles. Because no one listens to the radio, anymore, and no one’s getting wireless reception on their laptops and cellphone – their carrier is AT&T, of course — none of the yuppies gathered in a nicely restored bungalow has a single clue about what’s just happened, 15 miles away. (It must have had a silencer.) This allows the couples, singularly and in tandem, to take passive-aggressive cheap shots at each other, while waiting for the veggies to be served. When a neighbor arrives at the doorstep in a hazmat suit, however, the brunch turns into a last supper. The way writer/director Todd Berger has set things up, there’s no escaping the nerve gas and, if anyone attempts to escape, it’s curtains. Nonetheless, the diners have time to engage in conversations ranging from silly to almost profound. Some attempt to have one last crack at each other sexually, while others get drunk and dance. Apart from the lack of noticeable racial diversity – America Ferrera, notwithstanding – the characters seem reasonably representative of yuppies who have given up the dating game, preferring the convenience and security of coupledom, which, as we see, also has its drawbacks.

Anyone familiar with David Cross (“Arrested Development”) will know to expect the kind of sneaky-smart comedy he’s delivered on such TV shows as “Arrested Development,” “The Incredibly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret” and “Mr. Show” and with the Vacationeers and Second City improv troupes. Indeed, much of “It’s a Disaster” appears to have been improvised. The Blu-ray adds a funny commentary track; “Tour With Todd”; a discussion at ComicCon 2012; and three Vacationeers online shorts, “Google Maps,” “Julia Stiles Styles” and “Excuse Me.” – Gary Dretzka

The Brass Teapot: Blu-ray
If the WGA was truly interested in acknowledging “the art and craft of storytelling,” as its public-relations campaign argues, it would demand that all wordsmiths be given credit for their efforts, no matter how dead they may be. Too often, adaptations of works in the public domain credit screenwriters who already have been given a headstart. I appreciate the laws protecting copyrights and the rationale behind allowing important works to be given away like so much swag at an awards ceremony. I do. Walt Disney was pretty good about giving credit where credit was due, when lifting and reinventing something popularized a hundred years earlier by the Brothers Grimm. Of the five movies that carry “Hansel & Gretel” in their titles, only one acknowledges the source material. The bible and Koran have inspired even more movies than the Grimms, and with even less acknowledgement. With the sad shape America’s libraries are in these days, especially in large budget-strapped cities, it would be a nice touch if WGA members found a way to rescue one or two of them a year, at least. (To be fair, maybe they already are doing such a service to society.)

Ramaa Mosley and Tim Macy’s “The Brass Teapot” is sufficiently original to not require an “inspired by” credit for Scheherazade. It’s impossible, though, not to conjure visions of “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp.” The cautionary dramedy tells the story of a similarly magical kitchen vessel, which, instead of wishes, spits out currency whenever the person who possesses it feels pain. The teapot’s origins can be traced to the Old Testament and, since then, it has passed through the hands of common folk and monsters, alike. Michael Angarano and the ever-wonderful Juno Temple portray a down-on-their-luck couple, John and Alice, about to be buried in an avalanche of debt. Seventy years earlier it had belonged to Adolph Hitler. — Gary Dretzka

Movie 43: Blu-ray
21 & Over: Blu-ray
Even hard-core fans of gross-out flicks have their limits and, in the outrageous sketch comedy “Movie 43,” most of them will be severely tested. I’d be willing to wager that some buffs wouldn’t be able to get past the first chapter, in which Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet share what might go down as the worst blind date in the history of blind dates. Don’t take my word for it, though, check out Peter Farrelly’s “The Catch” and try to trump it. Amazingly, it’s not even the most tasteless short film in the bunch. This isn’t to suggest the films aren’t funny, though. It’s as if a studio executive challenged Farrelly, Bob Odenkirk, Elizabeth Banks, Steven Brill, Rusty Cundieff, Griffin Dunne, Brett Ratner and several other directors and writers to create the movie equivalent of “The Aristocrats.” As a device to link them together, Dennis Quaid was brought on board to impersonate a desperate screenwriter pitching ideas no one in their right might mind would green-light in a million years. Greg Kinnear and Common play the studio suits who are forced, at gunpoint, to listen to the pitches, which are then dramatized for us. And, of course, to describe them in words is to destroy the gags.  The most interesting thing here, however, is to discover how many A-listers agreed to participate in such an edgy project: Seth MacFarlane, Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Anna Faris, Richard Gere, Kate Bosworth, Jack McBrayer, Kristen Bell, Chloe Grace Moretz, Patrick Warburton, Gerard Butler, Halle Berry, Josh Duhamel and Tony Shalhoub and Julianne Moore in a sketch that was trimmed from the theatrical release but is included in the bonus package. One viewer’s thumb’s-up being another’s thumb’s-down, it’s impossible to recommend “Movie 43” to anyone whose boundaries were crossed by “There’s Something About Mary” or “American Pie.” If not, “Movie 43” might prove to be a godsend.

Incredibly, the nearly impossible to watch, “21 & Over,” was written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, also responsible for the screenplays for “The Hangover,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” and “Four Christmases.” It’s possible that they found the script for this completely derivative gross-out flick in a long-forgotten box, which also included their high-school yearbooks, blue-book essays and unused condom wrappers. In addition to borrowing nearly every lame cliché from the scores of frat-boy comedies made in the wake of “Animal House,” “21 & Over” features a cast of actors who may be familiar to sitcom trivia buffs, but no one else has ever seen. It also freely cannibalizes bits from “The Hangover.” As the title suggests, one of the characters is about to turn 21 and his good buddies can’t resist the temptation to ignore his protestations and take him out for a night of debauchery. Of course, the birthday boy (Justin Chon) has an important interview scheduled for the next morning and his father might actually kill him if he blows it. Let the games begin. The rest of the movie carries as many funny bits as the number of prizes found in a Cracker Jack box – one — and it doesn’t arrive in time to save anything that’s happened previously. “21 & Over” is strictly for viewers who’ve yet to reach that age and think beer pong should be an Olympics sport. The Blu-ray adds a few making-of pieces and a gag reel. – Gary Dretzka

Let My People Go!
Not being gay or Jewish, I didn’t know how much offense I should take, if any, at the archetypal characters in Mikael Buch’s silly French sex farce, “Let My People Go!” The portrayals of the straight gentiles didn’t bother me all that much, but, then, they weren’t given much to do except get out of the way when the doors begin to slam. The protagonist of the story (co-written by Christophe Honore), which opens in rural Finnish town, is French/Jewish/gay Ruben (Nicolas Maury), who serves the picturesque community by delivering the mail. He lives with his non-Jewish/Finn husband, Teemu (Jarkko Niemi), in a quaint lakeside cabin. One day, Ruben delivers a package full of money to a homeowner, who mysteriously refuses to accept it. When the man tries in vain to the give the package back to the mailman, he suffers a heart attack and collapses on the ground. Believing the man to be dead, Ruben scoops up the package and takes it home. Ever the drama queen, Ruben convinces Teemu that his actions led to the man’s death and is afraid he’ll be arrested for murder, although even a manslaughter charge would be a stretch. Ruben becomes so hysterical that Teemu orders him to call the cops or split. When he chooses the latter, “Let My People Go!” picks up its stakes and leaves for Paris, too.

With Passover right around the corner, things are no less mashugana in the posh apartment of Ruben’s bourgeois father and mother. In fact, his dilemma isn’t nearly as pressing as the problems of his parents, siblings and lawyer, who seduces Ruben when he seeks the counsel of the much older man. Before you can say, “Oy, vey,” the comedy of manners turns into a full-blown farce. Blessedly, the veteran cast – including the wonderful Aurore Clement and Carmen Maura – are able to keep up with the madness and save the story from getting any more out of control than it already is. While “Let My People Go!” didn’t win over many reviewers in its limited run here, it copped the Critics Prize at the delightfully named Mons International Festival of Love Films … so, take that, Metacritic. The DVD includes a featurette on the whimsical set design. – Gary Dretzka

Come Out and Play: Blu-ray
23:59: Blu-ray
The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse: Blu-ray
The Last Exorcism: Part II: Blu-ray
Mara
Everyone Must Die!
Imagine a rookie ballplayer stepping up to the plate for the first time and hitting a walk-off homerun. That’s pretty much what freshman filmmaker Makinov does in “Come Out and Play,” a remake of the little-seen Spanish thriller, “Who Can Kill a Child?” In it, an American couple that’s expecting their third child decides to have an adventure while on vacation in Quintana Roo, Mexico. To escape the noisy crowds in the resort town they’re visiting, they decide to rent a motorboat to get them to a remote island. Upon their arrival, they’re greeted by a couple of dozen children frolicking on the pier. After entering the tiny village, Francis (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and his heavily pregnant wife Beth (Vinessa Shaw) notice immediately that all of the adults appear to be gone or are lying in the dirt streets dead or dying. Meanwhile, the kids they met at the pier have begun to surround them. Others are beating a wounded man to death, without concern for witnesses. Something clearly has gone terribly wrong on this idyllic island. Moreover, apart from a static-filled short-wave radio, all communications with the mainland have been lost and their boat has been put out of commission. There’s a Jeep handy, but no escape routes. Multi-hyphenate Makinov is no hurry to explain what caused the kids to go feral. With Francis and Beth’s lives in jeopardy, however, it’s pretty much beside the point. “Come Out and Play” compares favorably with such spoiled-vacation and killer-kids movies as “Lord of the Flies,” “Village of the Damned,” “Open Water,” “Dead Calm” and “Dawn of the Dead.” Francis’ fear for his helpless wife and unborn child is palpable, as is the sociopathic menace on the faces of the children. At a screening at last year’s Austin Fantastic Festival, Makinov arrived wearing a red mask and pushing a manifesto not unlike Dogma 95. He needn’t have bothered, because “Come Out and Play” speaks for itself.

If the Singaporean soldiers we meet in the “23:59” don’t remind us much of those in “Full Metal Jacket” and “Platoon,” it might be because they’re probably more suited to serving the affluent city-state as bankers and corporate executives. Apparently, Singapore has an advanced, Israeli-trained Air Force, but there isn’t much room on the island for hand-to-hand combat. Nonetheless, all males and an increasing number of women must endure several weeks of training on a remote tropical island, with none of the amenities they soon come to expect. What concerns the recruits most in Gilbert Chan’s ghost story is the vindictive spirit of an elderly woman who haunts the tropical island upon which all National Service recruits train. As the folk tale goes, the woman had the misfortune of dying at precisely 11:59 p.m. (a.k.a., 23:59), which means that she will never be allowed to rest. Or, she could simply be a troubled old lady whose madness causes her to lay in wait for the occasional soldier to cross her path. “23:59” isn’t terribly well made or even very scary. There are a few spooky surprises along the way, however, including one or two good ones toward the end. The soldiers mostly speak Mandarin, but occasionally lapse into English for no apparent reason.

Anyone who hasn’t already gotten his or her fill of revisionist zombies – “Warm Bodies,” “World War Z” etc. — might want to check out the animated feature, “The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse.” Adapted from stories in Buz Hasson and Ken Haeser’s “The Living Corpse” comic books, it introduces non-readers to the title character (a.k.a., John R. Romero), who breaks nearly all of the rules of zombiedom. Guilt-ridden after killing and eating the brains of his wife and daughter, and nearly murdering his son, the Living Corpse invests all of the energy he has left from scooping protein out of craniums into protecting the innocent against less-benevolent undead and other criminals. If that sounds far-fetched, well, it is. The animation isn’t bad, though, especially in Blu-ray.

If it weren’t for the estimable presence of petite contortionist Ashley Bell, who’s reprising her role of the possessed Nell in “The Last Exorcism,” even fans of the original would have no reason to return for “The Last Exorcism: Part II.” Bell was nominated for Independent Spirit, Fangoria Chainsaw and MTV awards for her “scared as shit performance” in the surprise 2010 hit, which gave no indication that it was “Part I.” All title-parsing aside, that $2-million movie reportedly made $70 million at the international box office, so the only mystery here is why it’s taken three years to capitalize on that success. By comparison, the sequel only managed to scare up $15 million, although it should do fine in DVD. The problem here is that co-writer/director Ed Gass-Donnelly – whose terrific gothic thriller, “Small Town Murder Songs,” is well worth a rental – takes a restrained approach to the genre, offering only a handful of genuinely scary moments and far too many flashbacks. The plot can be summed up by pointing out that little Nell is back in New Orleans, desperately in need of a new exorcism. The package adds commentary by Gass-Donelly and brand-name producer Eli Roth; two short interview packages; and a hidden camera prank in which Bell, in full costume and makeup, appears to women in a hair salon from behind a mirror. It’s the best thing on the whole DVD.

The occasionally scary Swedish import, “Mara,” tells the story of a voluptuous blond, Jenny, who, as a girl, witnessed a terrible tragedy take place at home and has been scarred by its memory. Jenny is encouraged by her shrink to return to the residence, which is surrounded by forest, to confront her fears and anxiety. That might be good advice for guests on “Dr. Phil,” but not for characters in horror movies. If it were made in America, “Mara” wouldn’t be much different than a couple thousand other slow-build genre flicks released since “Psycho.” It stands out from the crowd in Scandinavia, however, because filmmakers there have yet to begin churning out slasher and other gorefests by the dozens. Made for a miniscule $10,000, “Mara” looks as if it cost much more money. Credit for this goes to Pidde Andersson, a native-born Swede whose resume includes technical work on six different “Bikini Something-or-Other” flicks. In fact, Andersson is the only person on the cast or crew who has more than one IMDB.com credit to his name. The film’s biggest draw, however, is the debut of model Angelica Jansson, who may be as well-known in Europe as Cindy Crawford was when she made “Fair Game.” She’s a bona-fide babe with a fresh Nordic looks, expressive eyes and a body that looks great even in blood drenched panties and soiled cotton tank top. The bonus features are Jansson-centric, as well.

Even by the low standards to which micro-budget DIY horror flicks are held, “Everybody Must Die!” smacks of “Amateur Night in Dixie.” Made for an estimated $3,500 by Pennsylvania gore auteur Paul Rudzinski (“Scream Park”), “EMD” documents the slaughter of young adults in several small towns, in which people lounge around, drinking beer, while a slasher or slashers are on the loose. The villain is a seemingly immortal swordsman, who dresses in a black ninja outfit and appears out of nowhere when potential victims find their way onto his radar screen. After his sister is killed by the indiscriminate villain, the handsome and brave Kyle (Nick Lamantia) joins hands with local law-enforcement officials to end the bloodshed. Although the best thing about “EMD” is the willingness of the Rubenesque actresses to go topless whenever the story begins to run out of steam, aspiring DIY filmmakers might pick up some tricks and cheap laughs from its attempts to satirize genre conventions. Making a film for peanuts and finding distribution, after all, is frequently more difficult than shooting one backed by millions of dollars of other people’s money. The bonus package adds interviews, a music video, bloopers and alternate takes. – Gary Dretzka

Lifeforce: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Howling: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Once again, Shout!Factory demonstrates its importance not only as a distributor of niche entertainment, but also as a force in the preservationist movement. This is especially true of movies only a genre buff might consider to be a classic worthy of restoration and fresh bonus material. Working from the Cannon Films catalog, Shout!Factory has shed new light on titles that ranged from pure exploitation to arthouse in the wild and wooly 1980s. In addition to being great fun to watch, “Lifeforce” and “The Howling” are significant both for the names found on the list of credits and the effectiveness of non-CGI effects. “Lifeforce” was adapted from Colin Wilson’s self-explanatory “The Space Vampires.” It opens during a mission to investigate Halley’s Comet, led by Steve Railsback (“The Stunt Man”), discovers a gigantic alien spacecraft that looks as if it has an umbrella on its tip. Inside, the vessel is essentially a vampire mausoleum, with three humanoids encased in Plexiglas coffins. One re-animated, the aliens have no intention of being poked and prodded in a scientific autopsy. The exceedingly vivacious Mathilda May plays the seductress alien, who’s able to suck the souls from humans distracted by her nude outer shell. At some point, and I’m not sure where it is, “Lifeforce” turns into a zombie flick with the undead taking over and destroying London. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? “Lifeforce” was directed by Tobe Hooper (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”), co-written by Dan O’Bannon (“Alien”), scored by Henry Mancini, effects coordinated by John Dykstra and it co-starred Colin Firth, Patrick Stewart and Frank Finlay. The film was cut and tinkered with savagely for the American release (both versions are available here) and has been relegated to footnotes since then.  The Blu-ray package adds look-back interviews with May, Railsback and Hopper; Hopper and his makeup-effects designer’s commentary; a vintage making-of featurette; and a stills gallery.

With the nearly simultaneous release of Joe Dante’s “The Howling” and John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London,” 1981 turned out to be huge year for lycanthropes. The common denominator was the effects wizardry of Rick Baker, who was required to hand over the reins “Howling” to protégé Rob Bottin when production of “American Werewolf” finally launched. The dramatic transformation of man to wolf — seemingly in real time – in both movies was deemed sufficiently amazing for the Motion Picture Association to inaugurate a new special-effects award category, which went to Baker for “American Werewolf.” The new visual opportunities allowed for a reinterpretation of werewolves in horror movies, from troubled canines to full-blown monsters. In “Howling,” Dee Wallace plays a TV reporter involved in a sting operation to capture the violent pervert who’s been harassing her. After being shot and killed by police, suspicions of something far more sinister arise when the fiend’s corpse disappears from the morgue. Traumatized by her part in the sting, the reporter takes her shrink up on his offer to recuperate at his seaside retreat in Mendocino. Not surprisingly, the type of therapy offered at the Colony isn’t quite what the doctor ordered. Dante and co-writers John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless – loosely interpreting Gary Brandner’s novel – have fun not only with the werewolf mythos, but also certain then-current trends in psychotherapy. “The Howling” turned out to be simultaneously dark, sexy, funny and violent, as well as widely imitated. The Blu-ray transfer looks and sounds excellent and the supplemental package is generous. The extras include two commentary tracks; interviews with Wallace, Winkless, stop-action animator David Allen, editor Mark Goldblatt and executive producer, Steven A. Lane, who used the success of “The Howling” to create a seven-title franchise; an amusing visit to locations; deleted scenes and outtakes; and a vintage making-of featurette. (Those already familiar with werewolf mythology and the Hidden Mickeys game at Disneyland might enjoy counting the film’s large number of obvious and subtle lupine references.) – Gary Dretzka

Gibsonburg
In the true heart of America’s heartland, the underdog movie against which all other such films are measured is “Hoosiers.” What happened to the Milan Indians in the 1954 Indiana State Basketball Championships is roughly what happened to the Gibsonburg Golden Bears in the 2005 Ohio baseball championships. The difference: Milan was less an underdog than Gibsonburg and baseball doesn’t offer the same religious experience in Ohio that basketball does in Indiana. While “Gibsonburg” contains certain melodramatic off-the-field conceits, the essential fact is the same. The town’s Division IV team was a lackluster 6-17 going into the playoffs, where they went 8-0. To say that the Bears didn’t believe in themselves would be an understatement. Until the playoffs, the highlight of the season was a trip to McDonald’s, compliments of the coach. Otherwise, most of the usual time-honored clichés apply, including the announcers’ role in driving the narrative during the crucial games. The sidebar story about how “Gibsonburg” got made is inspiring, as well. Writer/co-director/producer Bob Mahaffey had always dreamed of making a movie and, in Gibsonburg’s champs, he saw an opening. The movie wouldn’t cost much by Hollywood standards, but, even so, it took the help of 20 college interns to ultimately get the job done. For almost everyone in the cast and crew, “Gibsonburg” represented their first movie credit and the lack of experience shows on the screen. The exception is Cleveland native Lili Reinhart, whose Hollywood career has already begun. Among the first-timers is cinematographer Casey Smith. His images of rural Ohio in spring and several brilliant Midwest sunsets border on the breathtaking. – Gary Dretzka

Death by China
Peter Navarro’s intentionally alarmist documentary concerns this country’s startling imbalance of trade with the People’s Republic of China, a pseudo-communist country that mocks everything Marx and Engels put forward. While the country’s economy is booming and new millionaires are minted every day, factory workers labor under plantation conditions and peasants in the countryside starve. If anyone’s sharing the wealth, it isn’t the proletariat. “Death by China” describes how a free-trade agreement, approved in 2001 with bipartisan support in Congress, has allowed the PRC to siphon tens of millions of jobs from western countries by offering corporations a haven for cheap labor and tax avoidance. While this agreement has helped strengthen the bottom lines of countless American companies, it has also opened our doors to all manner of junk products, including drugs and toys made from toxic compounds. Not all of the products are inferior, of course, but most could have been produced here just as easily, if not nearly as cheaply. Navarro is more impassioned about the long-term damage being done to western economies, whose debts to a totalitarian government already are astronomical. His arguments are backed by the testimony of noted experts and other interested parties, while the other side’s points are noticeably absent. The biggest drawback to the documentary is the overall tone, which sometimes borders on the hysterical. The DVD includes a director’s statement and commentary, a music video of the theme song and the short, “Death by Chinese Junk.” Even if the film is short on solutions, viewers forced to learn how to speak Chinese in 10 years can’t say they weren’t warned. – Gary Dretzka

Dino King: Blu-ray 3D/2D
Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness: Good Croc, Bad Croc
While watching the 3D adventure from Korea, “Dino King” (a.k.a., “Tarbosaurus”), I was reminded of the hoopla that surrounded the 1998 release of “T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous” on IMAX 3D. At the time, the format was still in its infancy as a vehicle for commercial exploitation. Its use was pretty much limited to theaters attached to museums and other educational facilities. At 45 minutes, “T-Rex” fit what was then believed to be the limitations of viewers’ ability to comfortably endure 3D in theaters. For IMAX, too, it signaled an attempt to convince museum officials to book 3D movies that weren’t strictly about fish, rocket ships or roller-coasters. Even though “T-Rex” told a story that combined entertainment, high-tech thrills and education – it was set at a site for paleontological research — some facilities still deemed it insufficiently scholastic. Their loss became Hollywood’s gain, of course. Instead of having to put on ridiculously oversized glasses, on cue, “Dino King” can be enjoyed using normal-sized spectacles for its entire 88-minute length. It tells the Disney-esque story of a Tyrannosaur, from its emergence from an egg to adulthood, without skipping over the cold realities of life among a large and varied population of predators. What would have been considered mind-blowing in 1998 is routine in 2013, both in technical terms and story-telling. Nonetheless, even in Blu-ray 2D, there’s no reason to think dino-nut kids wouldn’t fully enjoy “Dino King.”

“Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness: Good Croc, Bad Croc” is a co-production of DreamWorks Animation and Nickelodeon, where these half-dozen episodes first appeared. Po and the Furious Five — Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Crane and Viper – continue to battle for peace, justice and the Chinese/American way. The titles from the 2011-12 season include the title short, “The Princess and the Po,” “Chain Reaction,” “Bad Po,” “Jailhouse Panda,” “Father Crime” and “Po Fans Out.” FYI: the third DreamWorks feature is scheduled for 2015. – Gary Dretzka

Sundance Channel: Rectify
HBO: Web Therapy: The Complete Second Season
FX: Wilfred: The Complete Season 2
Drop Dead Diva: The Complete Fourth Season

There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when every new television season was greeted with anxious anticipation. That was when the broadcast networks presented new shows worth the wait, of course. Today, cable subscribers look forward to each new series as possibly being something very special, especially when they’re associated with a producer or star of a big hit. “Rectify,” the first original series on Sundance, shares producers and writers with such quality shows as “Breaking Bad,” “Justified,” “CSI,” “Nurse Jackie” and “Luck.” Like other cable series, “Rectify” started slow, allowing viewers to find it and figure out what was happening and what characters to follow. The protagonist of “Rectify” is Daniel Holden, a young man who’s spent the last 19 years on Death Row in the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend. Whether he’s innocent or not, Holden’s conviction was vacated due to new DNA evidence. After all that time, Holden’s naturally a bit confused about life in 2013, even in a small Southern town where getting a new restaurant franchise is considered to be progress. Needless to say, in such places, being freed on a technicality is tantamount to being having an asterisk attached to your name on every public document you’ve signed. Holden’s most compelling characteristic is his intellectual curiosity, which he acquired in prison and isn’t ashamed to show off. His distant personality does take some getting used to, however. The series has been renewed for another go-round, this time for 10 episodes. The DVD includes several backgrounders and interviews with cast and crew.

Of all the former “Friends,” I think it can be safely argued that Lisa Kudrow has had the most interesting post-show career. After playing the stereotypically ditzy blond on “Friends,” she has tackled several movie and TV roles that not only have tested her acting chops, but also toyed with our memories of Phoebe Buffay. Her collaborations with Don Roos — “Happy Endings” and “The Opposite of Sex” –have demonstrated her range as an actor in quirky independents. “Web Therapy” offers her another opportunity to showcase her intelligence. The clever idea behind the series has her Dr. Fiona Wallice changing the way psychiatrists interface with their patients in the digital age. Instead of conducting 50-minute sessions cluttered with “psycho-babble,” she limits her Internet meetings to three minutes, with much of the time spent discussing her own problems. The Showtime series began its life on the Internet, as webisodes often featuring A-list stars in improvised conversations. In Season Two, Wallice was called upon to show her support for her inattentive husband’s political campaign, while also being made aware of his indiscretions. Kudrow co-created the series with Roos and Dan Bucatinsky (“Scandal”). Among the guest stars are Victor Garber, Rosie O’Donnell, Alan Cumming, Conan O’Brien, Minnie Driver, Meryl Streep, Courtney Cox and Lily Tomlin.

Of all the offbeat characters on television, Jason Gann’s thoroughly unlikable shaggy dog, Wilfred, may be the most delightfully obnoxious. Dressed in a moth-eaten costume, Wilfred fulfills everyone’s worst fear of a bad neighbor or the dog belonging to a bad neighbor. The FX show’s titular protagonist, Last season, Ryan (Elijah Wood), was asked by his pretty blond neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), to dogsit Wilfred whenever she’s away from home. Ryan’s a seriously depressed fellow, who not only treats the dog as if he were human, but also his therapist. In return, Wilfred enjoys manipulating Ryan and picking at his neuroses like they were scabs. The problem, of course, is that Ryan is the only person on Earth who sees Wilfred as a costumed dog. To everyone else, he’s merely a large and occasionally bothersome pet. That we also accept Wilfred as something other than a large pet requires surprisingly little suspension of disbelief. In the second season, Ryan makes a fresh start with a real job and a new girlfriend. It gives Wilfred more ammunition than he needs to torment Ryan. Look for Robin Williams, Steven Weber, Mary Steenburgen, Chris Klein and Dwight Yoakam in guest-starring roles.

Reports of the death of Lifetime’s legal dramedy, “Drop Dead Diva,” were rampant last January. Much to the chagrin of fans who tuned in for the cliffhanger season finale, the speculation turned out to be true. Their prayers were answered a few weeks later when the cable channel and Sony Pictures Television announced that they’d agreed on a cost-cutting strategy that would save the still-popular show for one more season, at least. Brooke Elliott stars as Jane, a plump lawyer who dies saving the life of her boss. She’s rewarded by having to accept the soul of a fashion model killed before her time in a car accident. During the course of the show’s four-year run, the model has gradually learned what it takes to be a solid citizen with a gracious heart, while still being able to take advantage of being pretty. Series creator Josh Berman rightly describes the show as a “cross between ‘Freaky Friday’ and ‘Heaven Can Wait.’” Guest stars include Joan Rivers, Kelly Osbourne, Serena Williams, Star Jones and Valerie Harper. The DVD adds outtakes and 14 deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Justin Bieber: Always Believing
Apart from becoming a world-class media brat and road menace, Justin Bieber continues to be one of the most valuable entertainment properties in the world. As a publicist remarks in “Justin Bieber: Always Believing,” he’s become a one-man brand. I don’t get the Canadian singer’s appeal, but, then, I don’t have to understand it. Millions of 12-year-old girls can’t all be wrong. “Always Believing” doesn’t contain any original music or direct interviews with the superstar. Instead, it’s comprised of material in the public domain gathered on red carpets, at press conferences and interviews with such kindred spirits as boy band Mindless Behavior and rapper Lil Twist. Testimony from Usher, Drake, Sean Kingston and Nicki Minaj is included, as is romantic gossip. If nothing else, “Always Believing” might help parents understand what’s going on in the minds of their Beliebers. – Gary Dretzka

British Royal Children of the 20th Century
Unlike every news anchor, talk-show host and gossip columnist on the planet, I don’t have the vaguest clue as to when the Edward and Kate’s royal bundle of joy is supposed to arrive. If it’s a baby of the male persuasion, it won’t take long before someone brings up the possibility of marriage between the newly minted prince and Kim Kardashian’s daughter. That would raise eyebrows, would it? “British Royal Children of the 20th Century” celebrates the arrivals of England’s new princes and princesses throughout the last century via newsreels and other archival material. The narrators suggest that, throughout the 20th Century, the arrival of a new royal child in Britain unified the nation and strengthened the affinity of the British people with the monarchy … not to mention, sell commemorative plates and other souvenirs. Among the royals surveyed are Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, Edward Duke Of Kent, Princess Alexandra of Kent, Prince Michael of Kent, Prince Richard: Duke of Gloucester, Prince William: Duke of Gloucester, Prince Charles, Viscount Linley, Lady Sarah, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, Prince Edward, Prince William, Prince Henry (Harry), Princess Beatrice, Princess Eugenie, Peter Phillips and Zara Phillips. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful: Blu-ray
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters: Unrated Cut: Blu-ray
In a Texas Death Match pitting witches and zombies, my money would be on Wiccan Nation every day of the week. With the exception of the amped-up undead in “World War Z,” it takes most zombies an eternity to get from one side of the ring to the other. And, forget about asking one to climb to the top of a turnbuckle or attempt a flying suplex. Witches, by comparison, are able to turn their opponents into a toad or fly circles around them on their broomsticks. Witches are everywhere in “Oz the Great and Powerful” and “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” … good ones, evil ones … pretty ones and grotesque ones. Unless one considers Lazarus to be the first zombie, witches have been casting spells and avoiding persecution from religious fanatics many centuries before novelist William Seabrook introduced zombies to American readers in 1929 and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston began reporting on vodoupractices in Haiti in the 1930s. Disney’s hugely expensive and often quite spectacular “Oz the Great and Powerful” serves both as a prequel to MGM’s beloved “The Wizard of Oz” and a pastiche of characters and themes from all 12 of the books in L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” series. Sam Raimi’s film takes place 20 years before the events in “The Wizard of Oz,” but the framework is essentially the same. James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a fast-talking magician, con artist and chronic womanizer in a circus that travels through the Midwest. After seducing the wife of the troupe’s strongman, Diggs hitches a ride on a hot-air balloon to make his escape. Being Kansas, there’s always a tornado looming on the horizon. This one spins the magician to the Land of Oz, which, coincidentally, has been awaiting the arrival of a powerful wizard, as prophesized, in order to vanquish the Wicked Witches of the East and West, Evanora (Rachael Weisz), and Theodora (Mila Kunis).

Here, Diggs is accompanied in his mission by Glinda, the Good Witch of the South (Michelle Williams); aide-de-camp Finley (Zach Braff), a winged monkey; and China Girl (Joey King), a living, if slightly damaged porcelain doll. Not only are all of the primary characters doppelgangers of people we met earlier in sepia-toned Kansas, but, in their Technicolor incarnation, they also are related to characters we fell in love with in “Wizard of Oz.” It’s a neat symmetry that continues through the walk down the Yellow Brick Road and final showdown in Emerald City. What’s really terrific about “Oz the Great and Powerful” is the set design, which hardly could be any more brilliantly colorful and imaginative. In Blu-ray, the oversized flowers, imaginative backgrounds and amazing color palette promise to give anyone’s brand new HD3D a run for their money. The mainstream critics’ biggest complaints about the movie involved the casting of Franco, who didn’t live up to their expectations, and the same abundance of “heart” Judy Garland invested in the original. They may be right, but younger viewers won’t complain about casting decisions once the Wizard begins working his magic. Despite the knocks, the prequel did very well at the domestic and international box-office.

There are several must-see bonus features, including the immersive “Magic of ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ Second Screen Experience” and an app; “The Enchanting Characters and Creatures of Oz,” which describes the creation of the fanciful characters, from Munchkins and Tinkers to the flying baboons; “The Sounds of Magical Oz,” about the many amazing special sound effects; “Sleight of Hand: Zach Braff Puppet Theater,” in which the actor and voice of Finley explains his transformation; a Mariah Carey music video; bloopers; “My Journey in Oz,” a personal story produced and directed by Franco; “Mr. Elfman’s Musical Concoctions,”  an interview with composer Danny Elfman; “China Girl and the Suspension of Disbelief,” chronicles the evolution from the initial artwork and character design, to the on-set puppetry and, finally, through each stage of the visual-effects process, and an interview with voice-over actress King; “Before Your Very Eyes: From Kansas to Oz,” with production designer Robert Stromberg; “Mila’s Metamorphosis,” with lead makeup artist Howard Berger; and “Walt Disney and the Road to Oz,” in which Uncle Walt describes his fascination with the Land of Oz. I would also recommend that fans of the original and the prequel also check out Disney and Walter Murch’s 1985 live-action sequel, “Return to Oz,” which was based on the second and third entries in Baum’s series. While credited with being more faithful to the author’s vision than the MGM classic, its special effects were deemed too frightening for younger viewers. In hindsight, “Return to Oz” is a film that any Tim Burton fan could appreciate.

“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” shouldn’t be confused with previous interpretations of the Grimm Brothers’ frightening cautionary tale for children. There’s an element of horror to all of the versions, of course, but the gingerbread flavor ultimately overwhelms the cold reality of death, however justified and welcome. Like most of the Grimms’ stories, “Hansel & Gretel” began as a moralistic folktale and, after publication, would be watered down to protect the vivid imaginations of each new generation of children. Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola, whose best-known credit is the Nazi-zombie epic, “Dead Snow,” decided to dial up the horror and accept an “R” rating to filter out inquisitive youngsters. In fact, “H&G:WH” is a continuation of the original story, with Hansel and Gretel (Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton) now 15 years older and self-employed as heavily armed mercenaries. After a quick reminder of how the original folk tale ends, Wirkola locates the siblings in the scenic Bavarian town of Augsburg, where the sheriff (Peter Stormare) is intent on executing a beautiful young redhead, Mina (Pihla Viitala), for witchcraft. Children are being abducted from their homes and, while the sheriff is correct about witches’ involvement in the crimes, he’s about to hang an innocent person. The town’s helpless mayor hires Hansel and Gretel to determine if Mina is a wicked witch and, if not, find the true culprits and bring the missing children back alive. It doesn’t take long before H&G come face to face with the grand witch, Muriel (Famke Janssen), and discover what her coven has in mind for the kids.

For the next hour or so, “H&G:WH” is nothing but action … non-stop, CGI -enhanced, wildly gratuitous violence, and lots of it. The extended version of the movie adds even more of it. Wisely, Wirkola leavens the death and destruction with some inky black comedy. Hansel may be brave and virtuous, but, without insulin, he is no match for the diabetes he developed after being forced to eat the first witch’s candy. (Gretel was supposed to be saddled with an eating disorder, but that gag didn’t make the final cut.) In addition to the witches, who are alternately beautiful and grotesque, the siblings must contend with a hulking troll, who resembles a giant green ogre on DreamWorks’ payroll. Critics weren’t particularly kind to “H&G:WH,” but they were treating it as something it isn’t. Wirkola was using the fairytale as a springboard for horror and violence, not attempting to go all Freudian on the audience. Catherine Hardwicke tried that in the PG-13 “Red Riding Hood,” to no great reward, while Rupert Sanders’ revisionist “Snow White and the Huntsman” barely made back its very large nut. Today’s audiences are sufficiently savvy about the machinations of studio economics to understand what’s lost when movies shot to be enjoyed by people 17 and over are cut for PG-13. The firm “R” accorded “H&G:WH” left little room for confusion on the part of genre buffs as to what to expect. The word, “unrated,” sounds even better to them. One thing not in doubt is the excellent quality of the Blu-ray presentation in 2D and 3D. The supplements add “Reinventing Hansel & Gretel,” a 16-minute backgrounder; “The Witching Hours,” on the expansion of the witches’ roles; and “Meet Edward the Troll.” – Gary Dretzka

The Taste of Money
Anyone who’s seen Im Sang-soo’s erotic psychodrama, “The Housemaid,” will want to pick up a copy of “The Taste of Money,” his kinky melodrama about a Korean family choking on its own wealth. (The movies are subtlely linked by a character who’s grown from traumatized little girl to damaged adult.) The story unfolds largely within the confines of an impeccably designed mansion outside Seoul, where no secret is safe from the prying cameras of the controlling matriarch, Baek Geum-ok. One night she catches her husband, Yoon, having sex with the demure Filipina maid, who’s benefitted greatly from the older woman’s generosity. Geum-ok knows that her husband has been cheating on her for years, but not at home with someone she trusts. She acts out her anger and frustration by forcing Yoon’s private secretary Joo Young-jak to have sex with her immediately and on the spot. The nearly 40-year difference in their ages makes the young man more than a little bit queasy, but he succumbs out of obligation and his desire to keep a well-paying job. Also playing key roles are her daughter Nami, recently divorced because her spouse didn’t want anything to do with her sexually, and her ethically deficient son Chul. The family has been hiding Chul from authorities hoping to prosecute him for an illegal slush fund, at least until his parents can bribe the official in charge of the investigation. Once cleared of the charge, Chul enters into an even more devious scheme with a slick American investor. We hope that Young-jak can escape this nest of vipers alive, but the odds grow longer with every new outrage. The implication, of course, is that Korea’s most prominent families have gotten so rich so fast that they consider themselves to be beyond the laws of God and man. Men and women invited to join the elite crowd through marriage frequently are required to relinquish all pretenses of integrity and dignity. In a very real sense, “Taste of Money” is a cross between Shakespearean tragedy and Cronenbergian kink. It’s not without humor, either, but it’s as black as coal. The DVD comes with a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Vivan Las Antipodas
If there’s one question shared by all of the world’s children, it’s, “If I keep digging, where will I end up?” The simple answer for parents in North America, at least, was China. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t true, because it sounded within the realm of possibility. If it actually were possible to burrow through the Earth’s core to a point diametrically opposed to, say, Los Angeles or New York, chances are that you’d hit water before finding land. In fact, only 4 percent of the planet’s land is directly opposite, or antipodal, to other patches of land. Sorry, kids, but nothing on our side of the Earth is antipodal to China or anywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere. You’d be better off looking for kangaroos, seals or penguins than pagodas or pandas. Documentarian Victor Kossakovsky has probably been pondering the same nutty concepts since he was a boy growing up in Leningrad. Unlike most other adults, he was able to do something about his curiosity. Beyond learning where he would end up if he actually did own a magical shovel, Kossakovsky wondered if the very few antipodal locations on Earth shared anything beyond the shared curiosity of their residents.

The short answer to his question is “practically nothing.” Knowing this, however, doesn’t make his wholly delightful and extremely beautiful documentary, “Vivan las Antipodas” any less poetic. Kossakovsky (“Russia From My Window”) carries us – occasionally upside-down and inside-out – to such antipodes as Patagonia, Chile, and Russia’s Lake Baikal; an active lava field on the Big Island of Hawaii and Botswana’s Nxai Pan National Park; Miraflores, Spain, and Castle Point, New Zealand, which share watery borders, at least; the remote Argentine village of Entre Rios and pollution-choked Shanghai. Imagine a less frenetic “Koyaanisqatsi” and you’ll have an idea of the hypnotic appeal of “Vivan las Antipodas.” If they showed it in high school geography classes, teachers wouldn’t have to spend so much of their time convincing students to stay awake. My only gripe is that it’s not yet available in Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka

The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg
Reviled and ridiculed for much of his public life by conservatives, gay bashers and intolerant social observers, Allen Ginsberg was a man whose entire existence was informed by a passion for peace, religious and personal freedoms, and outward manifestations of love for people of backgrounds. An inarguably great poet, Ginsberg allowed himself to be used as a lightning rod for controversy and a handy go-to guy for journalists, who, like Dylan’s Mister Jones, could see something was happening, but didn’t know what it was. Actually, it may have been his great bushy beard that scared his detractors as much as his anti-war activism and promotion of eastern religions. At a time when poetry was being de-emphasized and anti-intellectualized in schools and in the media, his works continued to sell and he abashedly recited long passages on talk shows as different in tone as “The Dick Cavett Show” and “Firing Line,” with William F. Buckley Jr. He became the Poet Laureate of Everyone Else and, as such, was responsible for holding the fort until rap music could reignite the flame of verse in the minds of young Americans.

Watch or re-watch Jerry Aronson’s sunny bio-doc, “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg,” and you’ll come away with an even greater appreciation of Ginsberg, not only for his writings, but also as a humanitarian, pop-cultural icon and holy clown. Accused of being a communist by his detractors, his magnetism was feared, as well, by totalitarianism of all stripes. Days after being crowned King of May, in Prague, 1965, he was secreted out of Czechoslovakia and sent to London for, among other things, his “sexual theories.” The new edition of Aronson’s documentary is timed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Howl,” an immensely influential poem that captured the fears and anxieties of a generation about to break out in rebellion. First released in 1993, the documentary includes six hours of still-relevant bonus features, including footage of his memorial and 35 interviews with artists inspired by him. The documentary is broken down by decades and contains candid observations about his tortured family life, acceptance of being gay, role in the Beat and hippie movements, and mellower years spent as an educator and representative of international peace and freedom. It’s a terrific film about a man many of us think we know everything about, but don’t. Besides interviews with such artists as Joan Baez, Beck, William Burroughs, Philip Glass, Abbie Hoffman, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Ed Sanders, Patti Smith, Hunter S. Thompson and Andy Warhol, there’s a making-of feature; scenes with Bob Dylan and Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac’s grave, Burroughs and Ginsberg at Naropa University and Neal Cassady and Ginsberg at City Lights Bookstore; the making of the music video, “A Ballad of the Skeletons”; a guided tour of an exhibition of his photographs; and excerpts from “Scenes from Allen’s Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit,”  by Jonas Mekas. – Gary Dretzka

Absolute Deception
Academy Award-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. didn’t need to travel all the way to Australia for his role in “Absolute Deception.” He could have phoned in his performance from Los Angeles and no one except the cinematographer would have noticed. But, then, given the material, a hologram could have done just as well as any in-the-flesh actor. Less exciting than most episodes of “Hawaii Five-0,” Brian Trenchard-Smith’s non-thriller follows a dogged FBI agent’s pursuit Down Under of a filthy-rich international criminal, who’s under house arrest, but largely untouchable in his Gold Coast digs. A pinkie finger left behind in a shootout provides the agent with the first big break in his pursuit. It presumably was blown off the hand of an American criminal, declared dead two years earlier, who was swimming with the bigger fish. The person with the missing finger was married to an Australian investigative reporter, who’s stunned to discover not only that he’s alive, but also quite openly married to another woman. The FBI agent (Gooding) gets almost no support from the Aussie cops, so he joins forces with the reporter (Emmanuelle Vaugier), who, of course, could be mistaken for a fashion model. Even though the good guys always seem to be one step behind the criminals — until there’s 10 minutes left in the movie, anyway – it isn’t difficult to figure out why they can’t make any headway in their investigation. Everything from the sound effects to the chase scenes are amateurishly executed, though, so why not the script? Gooding’s become a brand name in straight-to-DVD crime pictures, but a few more stinkers like this could threaten his status with viewers willing to lower their standards for some quick-and-dirty action. – Gary Dretzka

Fred Won’t Move Out
There are few more perplexing decisions for an adult son or daughter to make than determining when, or even if a parent would do better in a facility for assisted living than in their longtime home. It is especially taxing if the parent isn’t already completely helpless or in need of constant care. Richard Ledes’ heart-wrenching family drama, “Fred Won’t Move Out,” tackles a predicament just that difficult. Because the movie was shot in the house in which his own family resided for many years, it’s fair to assume that Ledes drew from memory on a similar decision. Even so, “Fred Won’t Move Out” fails to offer viewers any answers, solutions or insights into how they might benefit from watching the movie. Elliott Gould is fine as the title character, whose intentions are known going into the movie. Fred may not always be “present,” but he is in better shape than his wife, Susan (Judith Roberts), who’s clearly in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s. She, at least, would be better off in the kind of nursing home their middle-age children can easily afford. Carol and Bob (Fred Melamed, Stephanie Roth Haberle) are already footing the bill for a full-time guardian and frequent music therapy, but the son, especially, is anxious to put both parents in a facility nearer to him, in Manhattan, on separate floors. Accompanying them Upstate for a brass-tacks meeting with Mom and Dad is the woman’s sweetly precocious pre-teen daughter, cloyingly referred to “Captain” or “The Captain” throughout the movie. The nurse, Victoria (Mfoniso Udofia), seems to have a firm grasp on the situation, but has her hands full caring for two sick people. When Carol and Bob arrive, however, Victoria is treated like a go-fer or maid.

Ledes lays all of the details out in a manner that almost demands that we don’t take sides. It’s easy to appreciate the points being made by all of the characters, including Bob, whose dispassionate manner does nothing for his likability quotient. If he were bullying his sister simply to sell the house and use the proceeds to help his stagnant company, we’d have a villain. That doesn’t seem to be the case, however. The rural house is peaceful and beautiful, and Fred probably could remain there, waiting for “when Susan comes home,” until he, too, descends into dementia. Neither does the film’s climax demand that we take a firm stand. At best, “Fred Won’t Move Out” could serve as an introduction to the kind of dilemma too many of us will face in the near future. Apart from savoring the acting, though, don’t expect to be handed any helpful answers. A far superior movie on roughly the same subject is Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her,” with superb performances by Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie. – Gary Dretzka

Knife Fight
Rob Lowe has played political strategists and candidates so often in the dozen years since he left “West Wing” that it’s almost impossible not to know what’s going on in his character’s head throughout “Knife Fight.” His familiarity in the role does, however, make Bill Guttentag’s indictment of the system a lot easier to take than it might have in the hands of a different actor. Neither as dead-on satiric as any given 15 minutes on “Real Time With Bill Maher,” nor as sharply written as Starz’ “Boss” or George Clooney’s “The Ides of March,” “Knife Fight” has made-for-cable written all over it. That doesn’t make it unwatchable, merely undernourished. Here, Lowe plays an experienced strategist in demand for his ability to scrub the dirt off of candidates when they fall into the muck. Fortunately, for his Paul Turner, it’s difficult for opposition candidates to assume the moral high ground, while they’re wallowing in the mud alongside his flawed clients. In real life, a really good scandal typically leads to a resignation and another four years is required for the public to forget what all the fuss was about, especially if the successor is a less gifted public servant. Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford are on the comeback trail already. Gary Hart could have been president – and a good one — if he hadn’t dared the press to uncover an affair he was having, but disavowed. The Colorado senator so wanted to be seen as a Kennedy surrogate that he failed to recall how deeply buried were the secrets of JFK and RFK in their lifetimes. His crime was hubris, not a roving eye.

In “Knife Fight,” a different question is asked: all things being roughly equal, should a strategist allow a sinner to sink of his own weight or choose, instead, to spin those defects in a way that the lesser of two evils gets the most votes? That’s what Paul asks his young team of aspiring strategists when they begin to voice their doubts about their personal role in the political charade. The rewards for overcoming bad press and other adversity can be immense, after all. As we see here, the price the media pays for scaring off decent politicians, with the publication of minor indiscretions, is a pool of opportunists too stupid to come in from the rain. Among the well-known names adding their various assets to the project are Jamie Chung, Julie Bowen, Richard Schiff, Eric McCormack, Carrie-Anne Moss, Saffron Burrows and David Harbour. – Gary Dretzka

The Manson Family: Blu-ray
They are the crimes that prevent some Americans from sleeping easily, even four decades after they were committed. It’s been just that difficult to erase the memory of what the followers of Charles Manson did in his name in 1969. If you think coverage of the recent death of Richard Ramirez, responsible for the “Night Stalker” murders, was overblown, wait until the 78-year-old Manson meets his maker. Perhaps, if Charles Manson had died in the gas chamber in the 1970s, as intended, his face wouldn’t still appear on shirts, record jackets, walls and posters seen around the world. His only rival in this regard is Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary whose martyrdom was assured when the CIA helped the Bolivian army capture and murder him. If you don’t believe me, count the number of hitchhikers you see on your next long car trip. In 1968, you would have seen hundreds of young men and women looking for a free ride. Two years later, even on University Avenue in Berkeley, there were virtually none. In neighborhoods where doors had always been left unlocked and windows left unhinged, even at night, dead-bolts were installed by the dozens. Then, just when middle-class homeowners began to feel safe again, the Night Stalker convinced them otherwise.

Jim VanBebber’s hugely transgressive 2003 horror film, “The Manson Family,” has been released into Blu-ray as a reminder of just how ferociously expansive Manson’s anarchic vision actually was. In doing so, the filmmaker recalls him as a vicious state-raised punk who appeared at precisely right time and in exactly the right city to make a mark he wouldn’t otherwise have enjoyed. Without the drugs and large number of runaways attracted to California’s Promised Lands, he might not have found a ready audience for his quasi-religious ramblings and music. Manson may be the central character in the movie, but it’s his acolytes that drive the action. Even as there’s no doubt of his ability to serve as a father figure to the waifs – alternately compassionate and authoritarian — he displays little of the hypnotic charisma widely attributed to him. The family members are portrayed as hyperactive zombies who only come alive in the presence of their master. Add strong doses of LSD and crystal meth to the mix and they were putty in Manson’s hands. The actors playing the Manson women are so convincing, it’s possible they were cast from auditions held at a hospital for the criminally insane. Indeed, for most of the key players, “The Manson Family” would be their only credit.

It can be argued that 44 years later, some of Manson’s family members, at least, have done their time, been satisfactorily rehabilitated and no longer are threats to society. Frightened of repercussions in the media, however, the California parole board has routinely rejected their appeals. Even when Susan Atkins was so wracked with cancer that she couldn’t have harmed a mosquito, the board held course. Tex Watson and Bobby Beausoleil, depicted here as the out-of-control monsters they probably were, have repeatedly been refused parole, as well. Manson has stopped trying, preferring to stay at “home,” in prison, and relish the attention still lavish on him. The Blu-ray edition includes an interview with Manson, deleted scenes, commentary and a making-of featurette that relives the butchery we’ve just watched in the feature. The package also includes the exclusive first release of the director’s similarly transgressive short, “Gator Green”; an interview with Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo, who supplies the voice of Satan in “Manson Family”; and “In the Belly of the Beast,” a documentary on the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival, where the rough cut was first shown. – Gary Dretzka

Clip
Even after the U.S. stopped raining rockets on Belgrade and forced the turnover of Kosovo to Albanian nationalists, President Clinton made sure Serbia would be under our yoke by imposing crushing economic sanctions on the country. They would be lifted years later, in 2005, but, in many ways, Serbia has yet to recover. Teenagers raised in the city, especially, have despaired over the possibility of finding meaningful work and careers. Their parents are too busy dealing with their own issues to pay close attention their kids. As we see in Maja Milos’ disturbing debut feature, “Clip,” teens with too much time on their hands and too few prospects will always find ways to make it through the night. In movies from England that looked back on social turmoil caused, in large part, the imposition of Margaret Thatcher’s anti-labor policies, we saw how disaffected youths turned not only to drugs, alcohol and abrasive music, but also political extremism, racism and violent crime. In “Clip,” Milos introduces us to a 14-year-old girl who lives in a crowded apartment with her brother and mother, who’s too preoccupied with the declining health of her husband to notice that her daughter is headed for serious trouble. Besides succumbing to the pleasures of drugs and alcohol, Jasna (Isidora Simijonovic) is well on her way to becoming a sexual anarchist and she’s not alone. Instead of paying attention in school, she and her friends kill time texting notes on their romantic encounters and showing off porn-inspired poses on their cellphones. There is no shortage of boys willing to sneak off to the lavatory for a quickie, either. Mostly apolitical, the teens react to adverse news about Serbia’s standing in the world by throwing desks and books out of the windows and waving the Serbian flag. Why not?

“Clip” reminded me immediately of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s “Kids,” a frequently startling movie in which disaffected New York teens hang out in a park, act out their sexual exploits, recklessly ride skateboards and wait for the next party to begin. The AIDS epidemic is still a concern outside their circle, but these kids act as if they’re immune. One HIV-positive boy, whose stated mission is to deflower virgins, can’t be bothered with observing safe-sex practices. “Clip” is as scary and cautionary, as “Kids” was in 1995 and continues to be today. If anything, economic prospects for teens everywhere are less bright today than they were then. Milos said that she would like “Clip” to serve as a wakeup call for parents whose own despair has blinded them to the problems confronting their children. It’s grim, but not entirely lacking in humanity and humor. Tellingly, when Jasna introduces her mother and aunt to her predatory boyfriend, they surprise him with their knowledge of his family and, even, how he behaved as a little boy. It’s possible that everyone lived in the same village at one time or, at least, the same neighborhood. It must have been a time when the future didn’t look quite so bleak, despite the war in Bosnia, and parents could believe their children would enjoy a better future than their present has turned out to be. Milos never romanticizes Jasna’s nihilistic behavior, but there are times when it looks like she’s having too much fun for someone so young. Dues will have to be paid, however. “Clip” is a remarkable film – perhaps, even, an important one — but it’s clearly not for everyone. The DVD adds an interesting interview with the writer/director. – Gary Dretzka

A Labor of Love
Way back in 1976, before home-video recorders changed the way people watched pornography, a clever little documentary was shot, describing exactly the wrong way to introduce hard-core sex into a low-budget independently made movie. “Deep Throat” had already proven that mainstream audiences would sample, at least, a XXX movie if it contained a linear plot, an identifiable hook and male characters who didn’t wear their socks or a Lone Ranger mask to bed. The in-theater experience would soon lose its luster, but, a few years later, VHS would provide a delivery system for the masses. (Beta refused to license its technology for use by pornographers, thereby adding several nails to its coffin.) In chronicling the creation of “The Last Affair,” a movie artificially larded with gratuitous sex scenes, Robert Flaxman and Daniel Goldman’s “A Labor of Love” can be seen today as a missing link between “Deep Throat” and the events described in “Boogie Nights.” As written, “The Last Affair” was intended to be a saucy tale of a brothel that specializes in servicing the desires and fetishes of women, exclusively. Before things got rolling, however, investors demanded of writer/director Henri Charr that he include as many sex scenes in the movie as possible. The cast for “The Last Affair” was already in place when the order came down. (It included mostly theater- or Second City-trained Chicagoans, including Jack Wallace, Ron Dean, Del Close, Betty Thomas and William J. Norris.) With extraordinary access to the set and actors, the documentary makes it exceedingly clear how the insistence on hard-core sex threw the cast off its game, practically traumatizing the women for whom “The Last Affair” would be their first and last credit. (Thomas and Close were not among this group, alas.) Neither had Charr, an Assyrian who was born in Iran, any experience making porn. He professed a fascination with prostitutes and brothels, but was a novice when it came to committing sex acts to film.

So unaccustomed to performing in flagrante delicto, as it were, at least one of the male leads remained unable to perform sexually for hours and had to be replaced by a stunt-double. To save money, the son of the man in whose mansion the movie was being shot was recruited for the arduous task. One of the women actors had fallen in love shortly before the movie was about to begin shooting and begged off her sex scenes. Another woman couldn’t stomach making love – however fictional – with her acting partner that she pitched a fit on camera. (The actor wasn’t fond of her, either.) Meanwhile, Charr continued to perform his duties as if he was still making an arthouse attraction. It’s all pretty hilarious and, at 67 minutes, “A Labor of Love” never outstays its welcome. It contains much nudity and simulated sex, neither of which is particularly stimulating, and the filmmakers play it straight, as well. The documentary drew positive reviews before disappearing. The DVD adds a recent Q&A with Flaxman.

As for “The Last Affair,” it would receive a momentary release – sans the sex scenes and with a “R” rating — in a theater purchased by the producers for that purpose. In a review that would far outlive any memory of the movie itself, Roger Ebert called it “an appallingly bad movie – so completely bankrupt in ideas, in characterization, in simple common sense that it’s little wonder its makers bought a theater to get it shown. The movie is barely 90 minutes long, and yet so many of those minutes creep past with such excruciating stupidity that the film seems almost epic in length – an epic of boredom.” Too bad it wasn’t included in the DVD package. Anyone looking for a different take on porn history ought to pick up a DVD copy of John Byrum’s 1974 period dramedy, “Inserts.” In it, Richard Dreyfuss plays a washed-up director of silent films in desperate need of a paycheck in the ear of “talkies.” He finds an opportunity making cheap and dirty sex flicks. “Inserts” also stars Jessica Harper, Bob Hoskins and Veronica Cartwright. It was rated “X,” when the distinction meant something.  – Gary Dretzka

The Monk
Ever since the Internet turned movie criticism into a spectator sport, the value of blurbs on advertising material has decreased to the point where they’re meaningless. Imagine, though, if you were to pick up a DVD copy of “The Monk” and saw quotes from Lord Byron and the Marquis de Sade praising the movie’s source material? While doing some homework on Matthew Lewis’ notorious gothic novel of the same title, those names certainly caught my eye. Published in 1796, it created a stir in its depiction of a pious Capuchin friar’s losing battle with Satan and several of the Church’s top-10 mortal sins. The great French actor Vincent Cassell (“Black Swan”) plays Ambrosio, who, as an infant, was left at the doorstep of a Madrid monastery, to be raised under the strictest of conditions. As an adult, he became known far and wide for his stern and masterfully delivered sermons. One day, while hearing confessions, Ambrosio is confronted by a man whose terrible sins lead one to wonder if he’s possessed by the devil. In their discussion, the man is told that Satan can’t conquer anyone who refuses to listen to him. Apparently, the demon was eavesdropping, because he/she/it planted an orchard as ripe with forbidden fruit as the one in the Garden of Eden and dared the monk to take a bite … figuratively speaking, anyway. As in any good gothic novel, “The Monk” also includes ghosts and other cool supernatural stuff. Co-writer/director Dominik Moll (“With a Friend Like Harry …”) does a nice job re-creating the look of the religious institutions and atmosphere of dread found during the Spanish Inquisition. The novel contained far too many important characters and too much intrigue to contain in a 101-minute movie, so something had to give. “The Monk” probably could have been scarier if a few more spooky gothic touches were added to the story. As it is, though, it isn’t bad. The DVD adds an informative making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Dead Man’s Burden
It is 1870 in the arid high desert of the New Mexico Territory and wounds from the Civil War have yet to heal among the settlers, an inordinate number of whom served the Confederacy at the bloody Battle of Chickamauga. Copper has been discovered in the region and mining interests are attempting to chisel landowners on the value of their property. Into the tinderbox that is “Dead Man’s Burden,” rides a man who folks there believe was a deserter from the army of the South and, therefore, eminently killable. (“I served,” he replies, when asked.) Wade (Barlow Jacobs) has heard rumors of his father being killed under suspicious circumstances and wants to make sure his sister, Martha (Clare Bowen), is safe. Wade fits the stereotype of the slow talking cowboy hero, who sits straight in the saddle and only shoots when provoked. When he does, though, he rarely misses. After being provoked and threatened by a couple of low-life veterans of Chickamauga, Wade dispatches them with swift precision. He finds his sister married to a slimeball opportunist, who brags about killing his father-in-law and other people who got in his way. Martha doesn’t particularly trust Wade, but really is more interested in talking the copper money and running to San Francisco than retying the familial knot. In Jared Moshe’s first stab at writing and directing, he’s created a slightly non-traditional Western in the mold of “Meek’s Turnoff” and “The Ballad of Little Jo.” It’s long on dialogue, as these things go, and takes full advantage of New Mexico locations in the shadow of Georgia O’Keeffe’s beloved Cerro Pedernal. Far from being a Western in which a long, tall stranger rides in to save the damsel in distress, “Dead Man’s Burden” is full of secrets and Moshe is judicious in revealing what they are. The revelation here is the 24-year-old Aussie, Clare Bowen (“Nashville”), who looks a lot like Carmen Diaz and is nearly as self-assured. – Gary Dretzka

Enter the Dragon: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray 
PBS: The Black Kungfu Experience
Ninja III: The Domination: Blu-ray
Although it might be an exaggeration to call “Enter the Dragon” the “Citizen Kane” of martial-arts movies, its place on National Film Registry assures that it will be accorded no small degree of respect for generations to come. At a time when nearly every other such Hong Kong export was dismissed as “chop-socky,” mainstream critics hailed the Warners co-production as both a breakthrough for the action sub-genre and a sad reminder of the lost promise of Bruce Lee, who died before the movie was released. Even before the arrival of home video, “Enter the Dragon” earned a stunning $90 million at the international box-office. Its production budget was an estimated $850,000, a good chunk of which went to Lee and a diverse supporting cast that included John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Bob Wall and Ahna Capri. It was directed by American Robert Clouse and written by Michael Allin. If one knows where and when to look for them, there are fleeting glimpses of future martial-arts superstars Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, alongside Wah Yuen and Fat Chung. After his death, films containing archived images and homages would allow Lee’s legend to grow as large as those of any deceased rock stars. “Enter the Dragon: 40th Anniversary Edition” may be one of many editions of the kung-fu classic, but, to date, it’s technically the best, even better than the 2007 Blu-ray. The story, of course, remains the same. Lee plays a British agent sent to infiltrate the criminal empire of the evil lord Han (Shih Kien) through his annual international martial arts tournament. Like James Bond, Lee pretends to be doing one thing while accomplishing something else. In today’s parlance, the fight scenes are nothing short of “epic.” Lee takes on the best of the best, individually and by the dozens. In addition to previously released featurettes, the anniversary package contains a new documentary, “Bruce Lee in His Own Words”; an all-new introduction and interview with his wife, Linda Lee Cadwell; and featurettes “The Return to Han’s Island” and “Wing Chun: The Art that Introduced Kung Fu to Bruce Lee.”

“Enter the Dragon” represented Jim Kelly’s second appearance in a feature film. African-American martial-arts practitioners weren’t invisible in kung-fu movies and Blaxploitation flicks often featured fights scenes in which hands, elbows, knees and feet were the primary weapons against guns and knives. Although few in numbers, these actors didn’t emerge from a vacuum and weren’t apparitions within their own communities. “The Black Kungfu Experience” documents how important kung fu had become among urban audiences in the 1970s and how it’s maintained its appeal. The movie locates the junction of African-American and Asian cultures through the testimony of Ron Van Clief, Dennis Brown, Tayari Casel and Don Hamby, and serves as an interesting sidebar to Shout!Factory’s new “Enter the Dragon” package.

When exploitation junkies talk about movies that are so bad that they’re actually kind of fun, they’re referring to such absurdly inept productions as “Ninja III: The Domination.” So devoid of logic is this Golan/Globus production that the number in its title refers to a pair of movies it doesn’t resemble in the least: “Enter the Ninja” and “Revenge of the Ninja.” In it, a ninja warrior practiced in the art of ninjutsu (invisibility) for no apparent reason goes nuts on an American golf course, killing guards armed with 9-irons and a couple of business executives. When a pretty aerobics teacher, who moonlights as a telephone lineman, attempts to rescue him from an attack by trigger-happy police, she becomes possessed with his vengeful spirit. It manifests itself whenever Christie (Lucinda Dickey) comes into contact with one of the cops who pumped volumes of lead into his body. Apart from the scenes featuring Sho Kosugi, the fights are almost as credible as the aerobics scenes, which are mostly shot from behind a phalanx of women’s asses. (Dickey had starred in the “Flashdance” ripoff, “Breakin’.”) At best, it offers a fleeting sense of nostalgia for a time when headbands, tights and ankle warmers could stimulate the male population. Beyond that, “Ninja III” exists solely for its camp value. The Shout!Factory upgrade works pretty well, technically, and adds commentary with director Sam Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert. –Gary Dretzka

National Geographic: Killing Lincoln: Blu-ray
Picking up roughly where Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” ended, while also answering some lingering questions along the way, the National Geographic movie, “Killing Lincoln,” takes the “You Are There” approach to dramatizing history. Here, Tom Hanks assumes the role of narrator previously filled by Walter Cronkite. The research was supplied, in large part, by the best-selling 2011 book written by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Among the producers are Ridley Scott and his brother, Tony, who committed suicide last year while the movie was being developed. It doesn’t look anything like a typical Scott Free Production, however. According to Ridley Scott, what “Killing Lincoln” brings to the table is attention to historical detail, based on extensive research and cross-checking of theories presented as facts. Otherwise, most of what we see here is familiar from previous examinations of the great American tragedy. If not in the same league as Daniel Day-Lewis, Billy Campbell does a credible job as Lincoln. As the rakish fiend, John Wilkes Booth, Jesse Johnson naturally is allowed to monopolize the spotlight, though. Oddly, the only weak spot in his performance occurs while impersonating Booth in “Richard III,” one of the great roles in the theater. O’Reilly appears in one of the featurettes, explaining his rationale for writing the book. The Fox blabbermouth says that he wanted to showcase a time in American history when greatness could come to the fore and politicians came together in furtherance of an important cause. The irony, of course, is that O’Reilly’s angry, confrontational style is one of the primary reasons our political system has ceased to work. — Gary Dretzka

Syfy: The Philadelphia Experiment: Blu-ray
If the title of the latest Syfy epic of destruction sounds familiar, it’s because “The Philadelphia Experiment” was first used in 1979, for a book by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore, and a pair of films in 1984 and 1993. It refers to a secret government project, which, in 1943, attempted to create a cloaking device that would make warships invisible. The Navy denied the existence of any such experiment and, as yet, no one has found evidence to substantiate the rumors. Nonetheless, the Pentagon has a pretty poor record on the dissemination of the truth, even a half-century after the fact, and we now have a fleet of stealth aircraft at our disposal. All of the movies add a time-travel wrinkle that allows for a sailor to escape the USS Eldridge and disturb the time-space continuum by making contact with descendants. The question here is why the ship has reappeared, coincidental to independent of research being conducted by contemporary scientists, including the requisite spike-heeled hottie (Gina Holden). “Philadelphia Experiment” is every bit as credible as dozens of other Syfy originals, which is to say, not at all. Kids just becoming interested in sci-fi will notice the holes far less than adults, who might remember that Michael Pare starred in the 1984 version, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Netflix: House of Cards: Blu-ray
TBS: Wedding Band: The Complete First Season
USA: Burn Notice: Season Six
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Caveman Cold Case/Death on the Railroad
PBS: Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge: Blu-ray
Fox Kids: Digimon Tamers
With the announcement of Emmy nominations right around the corner, it will be interesting to see how many are awarded “House of Cards,” Netflix’s first original series. “House of Cards” is a logically Americanized adaptation of the sporadic British mini-series of the same title. That “House of Cards” served as commentary on the transfer of power from Margaret Thatcher’s conservatives to the Labor party. Here, Kevin Spacey is wonderfully wicked as Majority Whip Francis Underwood. In his position the congressman can be Santa Claus one day and Ebenezer Scrooge the next. He’s prideful, holds grudges and doesn’t mind breaking his rules. This doesn’t mean Underwood isn’t challenged from time to time, only that he possesses the wherewithal to make things difficult for those who stand up to him. He personifies the adage, “Payback is a bitch.” Also in line for nominations are Robin Wright, as the politician’s fed-up wife; Kate Mara, as the reporter Underwood plays like a fiddle; any one of eight top-notch writers; and such directors as David Fincher, Carl Franklin, James Foley and Joel Schumacher. As things unfold in Washington, it’s never clear how or if Underwood is going to survive and, if he fails, how many people he’ll take with him. If you’re going to binge-watch any show this summer, “House of Cards” is it. While you’re at, plan to watch the British original non-stop, as well. You can thank me, later.

TBS’s “Wedding Band” combines elements of “The Wedding Singer,” “Wedding Crashers,” IFC’s “Z Rock” and FX’s “The League” into a pleasing, if lightweight bromance musical. Where “Z Rock” was about a New York band that plays a steady diet of kids parties, while dreaming of heavy-metal stardom, the Seattle musicians in “Wedding Band” are content to play a variety events arranged by a gorgeous party planner (Melora Hardin). Because the parties are attended by drunk and horny adults, it’s a target-rich zone for ill-advised hookups, pissed-off spouses and vulnerable bride’s maids. The musical selections range from not-bad originals to horrifying covers. After an hour of two-fisted drinking, no one except viewers is paying attention, anyway. The musicians are played by Brian Austin Green, Harold Perrineau, Derek Miller and Peter Cambor, with Jenny Wade and Kathryn Fiore added for eye candy. The 10 episodes collected here are the only ones you’ll ever see, because the show didn’t make the cut for a Season Two. Part of the blame belongs to the knucklehead who came up with the band’s name, Mother of the Bride.

The latest season compilation of 18 “Burn Notice” episodes represents what is expected to be the show’s penultimate season. That’s too bad, because it’s one of better shows on or off cable. (It could easily have gotten past broadcast network censors, if the producers had given it a shot.) As Season Six opens, Fiona is in jail and Michael still can’t distinguish between his friends and enemies in the CIA. It kind of ends that way, too. As usual, hard drugs and advanced military weaponry are involved. If much of what happens in “Burn Notice” seems impossible, or simply preposterous, the chemistry between the well-sketched characters saves the day. Look for double-crosses around every corner. The new season on USA has already begun.

Another batch of cold-case mysteries arrived this week from PBS’ fascinating “Secrets of the Dead” series, which is like “CSI” with archeologists and paleontologists. One of the new selections, “Caveman Cold Case,” finds Spanish investigators scrubbing and scraping the mud off 49,000-year-old Neanderthal bones that have been discovered in a cave system in the mountains of El Sidron. Markings on the bones suggest that cannibalism could have led to them being left in a chamber in the cave. Typically, new questions pop up as soon as old ones are solved. Neanderthals found a haven in the Iberian Peninsula, from the Basque region to Gibraltar. The researchers want to know if Neanderthals typically engaged in cannibalism and if it might have led somehow to their extinction. “Death on the Railroad” takes on a far more recent mystery. It involves a mass grave site holding the remains of young Irish immigrants who worked on a railroad connecting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The deaths took place in 1832, so several explanations are possible: 1) an outbreak of cholera, 2) extreme working conditions, or 3) murder, resulting in an official cover-up. There was great prejudice against Irish Catholic newcomers, who were treated as harshly as the Chinese laborers in the west. The results of the investigation, which spans Pennsylvania and Ireland, could bring some solace, at least, to the men’s descendants.

Even as 20th Century doctors were able to eradicate or prevent the spread of such serious diseases as polio, malaria, rinderpest and smallpox, new ones were waiting in the shadows to claim their unfair share of victims. Today, just as one strain of influenza is controlled, another begins its spread from chickens, ducks and pigs to humans. “Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge” investigates how people in underdeveloped portions of the world can share the benefits of countless millions of dollars in research and medical discoveries. Brad Pitt narrates the six-part documentary series, which was filmed in more than 20 countries. The series titles are: “Disease Warriors,” “Rise of the Superbugs,” “Delivering the Goods,” “Deadly Messengers,” “Back to the Basics” and “How Safe Are We?”

Outside of Japan, “Digimon Tamers” was presented as the third season of Toei Animation’s popular, if exceedingly complex anime, “Digimon: Digital Monsters.” The large number of characters roughly corresponds to the amount of collectible cards it markets to viewers. The more, the better, for the bean-counters. The Fox Kids series takes a different tack than it had in the first two go-rounds. Takato, Henry and Rika are three normal kids whose obsession with the Digimon game is heightened when the drawings on their cards come to life. The new “tamers” volunteer to save a Digital World plagued by evil Digimon Gods. The eight-disc collectors’ set, which encompasses all 51 episodes, adds a 36-page Character Guide Booklet and a gallery featuring more than 40 Villain Digimon sketches. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

El Sicario, Room 164
If the headlines emanating from Mexico’s bloody drug wars weren’t so startling, it might be difficult to believe the story told by a cartel assassin in Gianfranco Rosi’s chilling documentary, “El Sicario, Room 164.” It arrives on DVD just as Ariel Vromen’s well-received “The Iceman” is about to extend its theatrical run beyond a limited arthouse opening. Both movies are based on the matter-of-fact recollections of men who, when they weren’t killing people, led seemingly normal lives in their communities. Unlike Michael Shannon, who plays serial murderer Richard “Iceman” Kuklinski with his usual degree of sociopathic detachment, the assassin in “El Sicario” tells his own story in such a way as to think he might have graduated from the Actor’s Studio. (Kuklinski did the same thing, starting 20 years ago, in a series of HBO specials.) Because there is still a $250,000 bounty on his head, the hitman wears a black shawl over his face. This only adds to the aura of religiosity that is sometimes attached to the narco-terrorists, through an association with the La Santa Muerte cult. Rosi doesn’t mention whether the Mexican or American governments have placed a bounty on his head, as well, but it isn’t as if he didn’t deserve such a distinction. El Sicario traces his cartel roots to high school, when he was recruited to drive loads of drugs across the Rio Grande to the United States. His graduation present came in the form of admission to the Chihuahua police academy, which required cartel leaders to pull strings with law-enforcement officials on their payroll. He wasn’t alone. There were several dozen other cartel employees and wannabes in his class. The police uniform would give El Sicario easy access to the men and women targeted for kidnapping, torture and assassination, all of which he goes on to describe in graphic detail in the same Room 164 he once performed his chores. There’s no need to go into much more of it here, really, except to say that “El Sicario” will leave you with the feeling that everything being reported from Mexico is, if anything, understated. That’s because, for every headless body found on the side of a road in Veracruz, Juarez or Monterey, there are dozens more buried where no one is likely to find them.-Neither has the extent to which the victims, including DEA agents and informants, are tortured been fully reported in the U.S. In fact, the only time it’s possible to sense any hesitation or hint of remorse on El Sicario’s part is when he describes what was done to the women who displeased his “patron.” The most disturbing thing, however, is being told how pervasive and deeply entrenched the cancer of corruption actually is in Mexico. Americans who pay attention to such things may suspect as much, but El Sicario makes the reality sound even worse than we could have imagined. Guys like El Sicario and Richard Kuklinski make Luca Brazi look like Wee Willie Winkie, and that reality only adds to the urgency and intensity of these films. If you are still intrigued by the subject, sample Gerardo Naranjo’s chilling, fact-based “Miss Bala,” in which a rigged beauty contest leads to a frightening showdown between cartel bosses and drug agents. – Gary Dretzka

Warm Bodies: Blu-ray
In two weeks, Brad Pitt and Marc Foster’s vision of the inevitable zombie apocalypse, “World War Z,” will open in theaters around the world. Having seen more than a couple minutes of the movie, it’s safe to say that it takes liberties with zombie mythology that Boris Karloff, Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur and George Romero couldn’t possibly have envisioned. For one thing, the modern belief that the undead are as slow and plodding as crippled tortoises is laid to rest by the sight of swarming herds of zombies traveling at speeds that would impress Jaco Pretorius. Summit Entertainment’s surprise hit, “Warm Bodies,” also revised the formula, this time by suggesting that love is so powerful a force it’s able to reignite the fire in an undead heart. I don’t know how much money was spent on marketing — viral or otherwise — but it was enough to spark a $20.4-million haul in its first weekend at the box office. It certainly took box-office observers by surprise. In it, Kristen Stewart look-alike Teresa Palmer is part of a youthful assault team sent into a dystopian “dead zone” by her dad (John Malkovich) to help turn the tide of the zombie apocalypse. It isn’t long before the teenagers are overwhelmed by the zombies, but Julie is rescued by a zombie named “R” (Nicholas Hoult), who resembles Robert Pattison on his worst bad-hair day.

Neither of them is quite sure what causes R to recognize the place inside of him that once was reserved for emotional attachment. Maybe, in his past life, he had a thing for blonds. Apparently, though, the place in R’s heart that demanded he rescue Julie is shared by other zombies, who live in the abandoned airport outside town. Before long, other stirrings of life begin to be felt among the plague victims, who, unlike the more militant “Boneys,” aren’t beyond salvation, after all. Although it takes some jabs at “Twilight” and borrows an idea or two from “Tromeo & Juliet” and “Shaun of the Dead,” Jonathan Levine’s twisted little rom-com leans far more toward romance than parody. In this regard, “Warm Bodies” works very well. The gore-factor is pretty low, as these things go, and, because there’s no skin, the PG-13 rating is fair. The Blu-ray package adds a dozen bonus features, including commentary with Levine, Hoult and Palmer; deleted scenes and a gag reel; background and making-of material; Palmer’s home movie; and interviews with cast and crew. Admirers of “Warm Bodies” are encouraged to check out Levine’s previous features, “The Wackness” and “50/50,” which, while not horror, deal with similar themes. – Gary Dretzka

Identity Thief: Unrated: Blu-ray
If the movie that “Identity Thief” most closely resembles is “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” then it’s fair to view its marquee attraction, Melissa McCarthy, as the new John Candy. Ever since breaking through to the A-list as co-protagonist on CBS’ “Mike & Molly,” the onetime Illinois farmer’s daughter has been enjoying the spotlight in roles that call for boisterous, bawdy and slightly out of control women of a certain size. She plays essentially the same character in “Bridesmaids” and the upcoming “The Heat,” in which she plays a rogue cop to Sandra Bullock’s by-the-book FBI agent. Like Candy in “PT&A,” McCarthy’s character in “Identity Thief” spends the first half of the road comedy acting as if he’s the world’s worst traveling companion and is without other redeeming qualities. Her Diana spends the rest of the movie worming herself into the hearts of co-star Jason Bateman and everyone in the audience. Diana is exactly the kind of person who would steal another person’s identity, destroy their credit rating and drain their life savings, without displaying a single hint of regret or remorse. She steals the identity of Denver business executive Sandy Patterson (Bateman) by pretending to be a bank representative attempting to protect his account from fraud. Foolishly, Patterson gives her all the information she needs to print up fake credit cards and other ID. Her actions in Florida cause police in Denver to pick Patterson up and ruin his standing with partners in the firm he’s just joined.

In a move that only makes in the movies, the cops give Patterson a week to clear his name, by locating and bringing Diana to the city for trial. After several tussles with the belligerent felon, he manages to make the slippery con-woman his prisoner, at least temporarily. A lot of time would have been saved if he had only been able to buy her a one-way ticket for a non-stop flight to Denver. As Diana is quick to note, however, TSA agents probably wouldn’t allow two people with exactly the same name, address and Social Security number to board the same plane, even it were possible to purchase a ticket on a maxed-out card. This requires Patterson to hit the road with someone he can’t trust and who is insistent on remaining out of jail. Making his task even more difficult are skip tracers intent on bringing Diana back to Florida to stand trial on unrelated charges. Their presence raises the ante on mayhem, of course, which, for the audience, is a very good thing. This hybrid of road/buddy films is hardly an original premise – “Midnight Run,” “Due Date,” “The Guilt Trip,” come immediately to mind – and “Identity Thief” isn’t nearly as funny as “PT&A” or “Midnight Run.” It does, however, provide enough funny moments to recommend it as a rental or, for McCarthy’s fans, a purchase. For the sin of unloading a couple of f-bombs and suggestive sexual talk, “Identity Thief” was punished with an undeserved and completely avoidable “R” rating. What the unrated version adds to that is beyond me. If there were such a thing as a PG-16 rating, it would have passed without incident. The Blu-ray extras include a few making-of featurettes, gag reel and alternate takes. – Gary Dretzka

A Good Day to Die Hard: Blu-ray
If nothing else, the fourth hell-bent-for-leather extension of Warners’ “Die Hard” franchise proves one thing conclusively: audiences outside the United States will put up with leftovers long after American viewers have tired of them. This is especially true when it comes to movies starring such once –prominent action stars as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Nicolas Cage, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, John Travolta and, of course, Bruce Willis. It isn’t as if these gentlemen aren’t capable of good work, because, given the right ingredients, they can still produce a tasty dish. Even though almost no one turned up to watch him in Jee-woon Kim’s kick-ass “The Last Stand,” Arnold demonstrated how well he can still play his prototypical self. Travolta did a nice job in Pierre Morel’s “From Paris With Love,” and 2008’s “JCVD” may have been Van Damme’s best movie to date. Too often, though, the right ingredients are replaced with generic staples. Willis doesn’t seem to have worked up much of a sweat in the action-only “A Good Day to Die Hard.” Last year, though, he did outstanding work in “Looper” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” an offbeat indie comedy that did far better in the United States than overseas. If the major studios still insist on turning out warmed-over sequels to sequels – “Die Hardest,” “Expendables 3” and “National Treasure 3” have been announced – take your complaints to the United Nations. In the meantime, enjoy newly minted action star Liam Nesson for as long as his 61-year-old body still can absorb the pain.

Even though the storyline to “A Good Day to Die Hard” borders on incomprehensible – even ex-cop John McClane’s son, Jack (Jai Courtney), can’t figure out why his dad’s in Moscow – the non-stop action renders the narrative irrelevant. Apparently, the old man is in Russia to help his son, who’s in prison for murdering a mobster … or something like that. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Jack actually is working deep-cover for the CIA and John’s unexpected presence is doing him no favors. In fact, Jack is about to snatch a fellow prisoner, with important information about something that isn’t revealed until much later in the movie. The CIA isn’t the only party anxious to get its hands on the mysterious Russian plutocrat, Komarov (Sebastian Koch), and an intricately choreographed chase through Moscow (a.k.a., Budapest) sets up all of the carnage and mayhem to come. Curiously, since we know that Chernobyl is still radioactive as hell, much of the action takes place within the bowls of the crippled nuclear plant. Any fan of the series knows going into the movie that the weaponry will be state-of-the-art, dozens of cars and military vehicles will be sacrificed, an airplane or helicopter will crash, and the dialogue will be peppered with wisecracks and catch phrases. In this regard, anyway, this one doesn’t disappoint. The good news for more critical viewers comes in knowing that, at 98 minutes, it’s the shortest entry in the five-part series. The scenes actually shot in Moscow are fun to watch, as well. The Blu-ray includes the theatrical edition of “AGDTDH” and an extended version; seven deleted scenes; an hourlong, 15-part making-of featurettes; a 26-minute “Anatomy of a Car Chase,” which is as interesting as the movie, itself; several backgrounders; and preliminary artwork. – Gary Dretzka

In Old Arizona: Blu-ray
Perfect Understanding: Blu-ray
Compared to other Hollywood Westerns, before and since, “In Old Arizona” is far more significant for its place in cinematic history than any entertainment value it might still possess. Nominated for five Oscars, in the event’s second observance, the 1928 “oater” not only was promoted as the first “100% all-talking Fox Movietone Feature,” but also as the first “talkie” to be shot and recorded outdoors, on locations that included Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, the Mojave  Desert and the San Fernando Mission. It didn’t mark the first appearance of O. Henry’s “Gay Caballero,” the Cisco Kid, but it was the first movie in which he could be heard talking. The cowpoke-chorus interludes may have launched the era of singing cowboy, as well. The popularity of “In Old Arizona” at the box-office would inspire several big-screen sequels and serials; series on radio and television; a comic book; and countless references in books and comedy routines. As appealing as the character has always been, the Kid was, at best, an antihero. In Warner Baxter’s Oscar-winning portrayal he did things that would be considered beyond the pale for future cowboy heroes. It was, however, true to the author’s conception of the character.

After robbing a Wells Fargo stagecoach of its strongbox and returning a valuable trinket to a friendly barber, the Kid plays a game of cat-and-mouse with cavalry officer Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe), a Brooklyn native who’s infatuated with Cisco’s duplicitous Mexican girlfriend, Tonia Maria (Dorothy Burgess). “In Old Arizona” is being released simultaneously in Blu-ray and DVD, without features, and it looks and sounds better than it has in 85 years. The credits list Raoul Walsh as the director of record, but, because of a car accident that seriously damaged an eye, it is likely Irving Cummings (“Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl”) carried the bulk of the load.

After watching Cohen Media’s handsome digital upgrade of “Perfect Understanding,” a ruling-class melodrama starring Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier, I wondered how Depression-era Brits reacted to a movie that flew directly in the face of their economic woes. Sure, Hollywood produced plenty of movies in which the characters wore tuxedos and evening gowns as if they were uniforms and poverty could be overcome by breaking out in song and dance. It also made movies in which the sons of immigrants could work their way to the top of the ladder as gangsters, entertainers or athletes. It was also possible that their fresh-faced daughters could capture the fancy of a prince or mogul simply by appearing in a chorus line or selling cosmetics at a department store. In England, though, the likelihood of any child not of the manor born attending Cambridge or investing in a top hat and tails was close to zero. In “Perfect Understanding,” Swanson and Olivier play globe-trotting swells, so confident in their social position that they enter into something resembling an “open marriage.” They race boats and imbibe champagne in Cannes and Cote d’Azur, then pose for photographs in France and other world capitals as if to gloat that they can still afford such luxuries. Not surprisingly, Swanson’s pretty little heiress isn’t nearly as liberated as she pretends to be. Her reaction to the roving eyes of Sir Larry’s aristocratic sportsman causes him to fret over losing his one true love over a misunderstanding. With divorce and the birth of a baby looming on the horizon, they must come to grips with feelings that they would have resisted, otherwise. Even in a worst-case scenario, though, both knew they would land on their feet, anyway.

What recommends “Perfect Understanding” is the chance to watch Swanson and Olivier working at different stages of their careers and seemingly, at least, having fun doing it. For the devilishly handsome Olivier, Cyril Garner’s film would mark only his seventh appearance in a movie. Just 26, he had yet to become a box-office attraction in the United States. By contrast, the 34-year-old Swanson had long been a bona fide star and was close to curtailing her movie work entirely. (Her production company financed the film.) It also marked an early, if un-credited contribution by Michael Powell, who would go on to write and direct such celebrated films as “The Red Shoes,” “Black Narcissus” and “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” The Blu-ray includes two 20-minute shorts from the Mack Sennett catalog. – Gary Dretzka

Mosquita Y Mari
The love story at the core of Aurora Guerrero’s deeply affecting debut feature, “Mosquita Y Mari,” vividly describes how it feels to fall in love for the first time, at 15, and have one’s heart shattered before the euphoria has a chance to turn simply to happiness. Set in East Los Angeles, but absent all of the usual clichés of barrio life, the low-budget indie feature taps into the hopes, fears, aspirations and disappointments of teenagers, no matter their ethnic background. The young chicanas to whom we’re introduced in “MYM” are cognizant of the fact that their parents have struggled all of their lives to put them in a position where they can grab the golden ring and control their own destinies. When love comes to call, however, it shoves all other priorities aside, leaving little room for moderation or reason. Fenessa Pineda plays straight-A student Yolanda (a.k.a., Mosquita), who, if she stays on the straight and narrow path, could easily score a scholarship to a college of her choice. Far from being a nerd, Yolanda has plenty of friends and is able to balance her time in and out of school. Out of the blue, she’s asked by a teacher to help the new girl, Mari (Venecia Troncoso), adjust to the surroundings and get up to date with her classwork.

Mari acts tough and, at first, resists Yolanda’s attempts to help her with the lessons. Even if she clearly has experienced more of la vida loca in her first 15 years on Earth than most of their classmates, Mari’s shell isn’t as thick as she thinks it is. It doesn’t take long before the girls develop a sisterly relationship, with Mari also enjoying the role of mentor to her more naive friend. Inevitably, Yolanda develops a crush on Mari that is both thrilling and injurious to her GPA. Her parents fear that a boy is turning her head away from her studies and their only concern about Mari is that Yolanda is focusing too intently on improving someone else’s grades. Fate intercedes on their budding romance, causing a broken heart that, while painful, blessedly doesn’t last much longer than a few sad ballads on the radio. Guerrero stops just short of imposing a sexual agenda on the narrative, saving it from having to carry too heavy a load into the final scene or force an ugly confrontation with parents or peers. Guerrero and producer Chad Burris were rewarded for their efforts with a pair of nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards and another from the GLAAD Media Awards. The DVD adds a making-of featurette that focuses on their decision to add more than a dozen high school interns, from East L.A., to the crew and encouraging them to contribute their opinions to the project. – Gary Dretzka

A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951
So much has already been written, said and theorized about James Dean, it’s difficult to think of anything more to add to the legend of an actor “too fast to live, too young die.” For many years after his death, however, Dean’s sexuality was a subject broached only in non-mainstream publications and the underground gossip mill. Today, it’s widely accepted as fact that the onetime Indiana farmboy was bisexual, if not strictly gay, and may have used sex as a stepping stone to a career. While he wouldn’t have been the first actor to play the gay card, it wasn’t something that would be easily forgiven by readers of Photoplay and other fan magazines in the early 1950s. Matthew Mishory’s profile of the almost impossibly handsome 20-year-old – “A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951” – is informed by the recollections of close friends and associates, who, years later, would reveal their versions of the truth. While frank and forthcoming about this aspect of the Dean mythos, Mishory’s picture avoids anything that smacks of sensationalism or exploitation. Neither, does it ignore his liaisons with women.

Set in 1951, Dean (James Preston) is shown taking acting classes and partying with friends he made during his brief tenure at UCLA. Although he would be characterized later as a loner and a veritable spokesman for alienated youth, he didn’t mind hanging out in Sunset Strip watering holes or lying around the pool at homes in the Hollywood Hills and Palm Springs. He is portrayed as always having a serious work of literature in his hands and being able discuss the material therein without seeming pompous or misinformed. He loved the solitude provided by the desert and a beach on a cloudy day. By shooting color for black-and-white, cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah is able to contrast the storms inside Dean’s head with prevailing climatic conditions. The overall effect is heavy on noir, as filtered through an arthouse prism. It’s really quite beautiful. Dean was killed before he could leave us with a record of his most intimate thoughts and observations, but the liberties taken by Mishory as director and writer all seem within the realm of possibility. The DVD adds the short film, “Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman.” – Gary Dretzka

The Last Ride: Blu-ray
There’s no question of Hank Williams’ place in the pantheon of American singer-songwriters. No one did more to bridge the huge gap that separated “hillbilly” and top-40 radio stations in the post-war years and his songs continue to be recorded by artists with no other connection to Nashville than Williams’ legacy. He lived the life of an old-school country-music hero, but died miserably in the back seat of his Cadillac from heart failure brought on by abusing alcohol, pills and narcotics. And, as David Allen Coe once argued, “If that ain’t country, I’ll kiss your ass.” That, in itself, is the essence of “The Last Ride.” Having worked his way up from “a thousand different honky-tonks,” he could chew the fat with moonshiners and bluegrass pickers one minute and deliver country gold to hot-shot labels the next. (Tony Bennett’s cover of “Cold, Cold Heart” stayed on the pop charts for 27 weeks.) He became a star attraction at the Grand Ol’ Opry in 1949, but, three years later, was deemed persona non grata by the same august body.

Not much is really known about Williams’ final hours, except that he missed an important New Year’s Eve concert in Charleston, West Virginia, mostly due to poor logistics and worse weather. He expected to make a gig the next day in Ohio, but died on the road to Canton. On the ride from Alabama to those destinations, he was chauffeured by a teenager who had been enlisted at the last moment and was cautioned against missing the performances. Terrible weather conditions caused a chartered plane carrying Williams to Charleston return to Knoxville, where they checked into a hotel that catered to musicians. The singer was in terrible pain, caused by the spinal bifida that had been exasperated by being crunched up in the back seat of his car, and a doctor was called to treat the condition. The B-12 shots he was given contained morphine, but the official cause of death was a heart attack. Because so little is known about Williams’ last hours and what he might have said to people in Knoxville, the circumstances surrounding his death remain as intriguing as that of magician Harry Houdini.

The mystery and inaccuracies allowed director Harry Thomason and writers Howard Klausner and Dub Cornett to invent an admittedly fictional scenario, based on the known facts. There was no intent on the filmmakers’ part to create a biopic or for-the-record account based on new information. Henry Thomas does a nice job as Williams, whose pain is made palpable throughout the movie, as is his ability to charm women and children. Because Thomas isn’t required to sing, he can focus on his portrayal. Jesse James plays the teenage chauffeur, who’s recruited without his ever knowing how valuable his cargo actually was. The driver’s actions and background may be almost completely fictional, but the interaction between to the two men drives the narrative. The rural Arkansas locations and carefully chosen extras add much to credibility of “The Last Ride.” The musical soundtrack isn’t bad, even if budgetary considerations precluded getting the real thing. Without the songs, or prior knowledge of Williams’ accomplishments, the story told here could easily be dismissed as just another sad tale of wasted talent put to music. One can only hope that people attracted to great songwriting will continue to find his recordings – or check out the memorabilia on You Tube — and appreciate from whence it came.  The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

A Tribute to Ron Asheton
If the name, Ron Asheton, doesn’t ring a bell, it means that your knowledge of Iggy and the Stooges is either non-existent or limited to the snippet from “Lust for Life” in commercials for Royal Caribbean cruise lines. That’s OK … rock trivia may not be your game. Asheton, who died in 2009, at 60, was a founding member of the Stooges. He played guitar and bass, off and on, for the next 40 years, in groups of his own or at Stooges reunions. Not that lists matter for much in the rock ’n’ roll universe, but, for the record, Asheton was ranked 60th among the 100 greatest guitar players of all time. “A Tribute to Ron Asheton” was shot and recorded in April, 2011, at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater. It’s a terrific performance, typical of the Stooges’ contributions to the rock dodge, ever since they and the MC-5 practically invented Punk. Although he’s 106 years old now, Iggy doesn’t look, sound or act a day over 26 – split the difference for the correct number – as he prances and crawls around the stage, shirtless, or dives into the audience. Before the concert kicks off, Henry Rollins offers a long, rambling tribute to Asheton, which, while heartfelt, reminds us that talking about rock ’n’ roll robs the music of its soul. The band performs several of its biggest hits, as well as some lesser-known ditties. A string section, no less, even accompanies the Stooges for a few songs. All profits from the sale of the DVD go to the Ron Asheton Foundation, which supports animal welfare and music. – Gary Dretzka

The Mad Max Trilogy: Blu-ray
Almost 30 years before Mel Gibson began making headlines as a world-class jerk, instead of an A-list talent, he starred in a trilogy of action films that turned the exploitation industry upside-down and introduced Ozploitation to American audiences. Car-chase and hot-rod movies had been a staple of drive-in triple features for more than 20 years, already, but “Mad Max” dialed up the volume to a roar. Essentially a punk Western on wheels, George Miller’s first feature told the story of out-of-control bikers in a lawless section of Australia. Gibson plays a good cop, whose department is practically helpless against the mad-dog criminals. The countryside is practically barren and the two-lane roads are straight and long. The bikers make the Hell’s Angels look like solid citizens, outmanning and outgunning the police force. After they murder Max’s best friend, Goose, he is ordered to avoid another confrontation by taking a forced vacation. Instead of finding peace and relaxation, Max and his family find themselves in a hornet’s nest of trouble. When tragedy strikes, Max is forced to go rogue to avenge his loss. To level the playing field against the bikers, he borrows a supercharged Pursuit Special – the “last of the V-8 Interceptors” – from a gearhead in the motor pool. The stunt work and willingness to put women and children in danger made “Mad Max” stand out even against American action movies being churned out by Roger Corman and AIP. Made for $650,000, “Mad Max” would return $100 million at the international box office. It succeeded, despite the bonehead decision to dub the Aussie English into “proper” English. It died a quick death in its first go-round in American theaters. By the time anyone here was able to enjoy the unedited version of “Mad Max,” “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” already was released here. So as not to confuse potential viewers who hadn’t heard of “Mad Max,” it was simply titled “The Road Warrior.” If the post-apocalyptic setting was only hinted at in the first installment, there was no mistaking what had happened in the interim. Australia had nearly run out of oil and it was as valuable as gold to the outlaw marauders that ruled the Outback. It meant that the few refineries left were under constant siege and motorcycles had given way to souped-up dune buggies. When the good guys most needed a hero, Max practically appeared out of nowhere … not unlike the Lone Ranger. His interest was purely mercenary, however. Miller’s depiction of Max was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” and Joseph Campbell’s book, “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” It would be a huge international success, as well.

Released in 1985, “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” would benefit from Mel Gibson’s significantly raised profile and an influx of Hollywood money. It translated into grander sets, a significantly larger cast, an amped-up soundtrack and an unforgettable performance by Tina Turner. This time, Miller shared the directing duties with George Ogilvie, with Miller allowed to concentrate on the stunts and action scenes. Max is older and far less able to weather the ravages of the desert. He’s forced to prove himself once again, this time in the self-contained community of misfits ruled by Turner’s Aunt Entity. The machinery that keeps Bartertown alive is powered by methane produced by the feces of hundreds of pigs, but there are no replacement parts to maintain the infrastructure. For the amusement of the peasants, Max is forced to fight a giant gladiator inside the Thunderdome. When he refuses to kill the loser, he’s banished to the desert. Without supplies, he nearly dies. Instead, he’s rescued and nursed back to health by a community of feral children who live in a deep canyon, with a river running through it. Once again, Max rejects assuming the hero role, when the children decide to risk their lives against the forces of Aunt Entity. They want to travel to the big coastal cities to see what was lost to them in the apocalypse and decide for themselves if there’s hope for a renewal of civilization. It can be argued, I suppose, that the “Mad Max Trilogy” opened the floodgates for the dozens of dystopian epics that followed in its wake. (Miller said that his vision was inspired, in part, by L.Q. Jones’ cult favorite, “A Boy and His Dog.”) Choosing not to push their luck, Miller and Gibson turned their attention to projects outside Australia. I suspect that Miller has had to resist almost constant pressure from Warner Bros. and other potential investors for a third sequel. Finally, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is scheduled for release in 2014, with Miller at the helm and a cast of big-name stars that doesn’t include Gibson, although a guest or cameo appearance isn’t out of the realm of possibility. “The Mad Max Trilogy” compilation includes all three films in Blu-ray. It comes in a limited-edition tin box, with making-of features and commentary. On Blu-ray, it looks and sounds great. – Gary Dretzka

Lifetime: Liz & Dick 
If it isn’t on the drawing boards already, there will come a time when the disintegration of the marriage of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt will be dramatized, with Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift playing the reigning America’s Sweetheart and Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens or Demi Lovato cast as the evil temptress, Angelina Jolie. It wouldn’t matter much who portrayed Pitt, although the temptation of adding Justin Bieber or one of the Jonas Brothers to the mix could proof too great to avoid. Maybe, John Waters, Gregg Araki or Todd Haynes could be talked into directing it. The Pitt/Aniston/Jolie love triangle may never carry the same weight as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but, by now, it’s probably created as many sordid headlines and gossip. Lindsay Lohan wouldn’t have been most people’s choice to play Taylor – Olivia Wilde and Megan Fox also were considered – in Lifetime’s Thanksgiving special, “Liz & Dick.” Her trials, while difficult, simply don’t measure up to those of Ms. Taylor. Taylor’s love affair with her fans never really ended, while Lohan’s reputation took a nosedive when she became a petulant adult. It hasn’t gotten any better in the meantime, either. The decision to cast an actress so careless with the opportunities handed her on a silver plate never boded well for the made-for-cable movie. The ratings were decent, if not in line with its expensive market campaign.

While not a turkey, exactly, the rom-dram provided critics with enough fodder to draw analogies to the holiday’s entrée of choice. Playing alongside such accomplished actors as Grant Bowler, Theresa Russell, David Hunt and Tanya Franks, Lohan couldn’t help but come up short. Taylor remains far too majestic a presence for a mere pop star, however scandal prone, to embody. Lohan gives it her best shot, however, and there’s no denying her ability to throw a world-class tantrum. In any case, it wouldn’t have been possible to capture Taylor and Burton’s volcanic on/off relationship in an 88-minute flick and on a cable-TV budget. What it did allow, however, was a glimpse into a period in Hollywood history when studio chiefs first lost control of the star-maker machinery, with the tabloid press and paparazzi beginning to call the shots.

Both of the mega-stars clearly were addicted to fame and couldn’t bear playing second fiddle in the eyes of the public and press. They rarely did anything that wasn’t intended to draw attention to themselves, including the exchange of expensive gifts. Lohan and Bowler do a nice job dramatizing Taylor’s addiction to diamonds and Burton’s struggle with alcoholism. Given the time constraints, director Lloyd Kramer (“The Five People You Meet in Heaven”) and writer Christopher Monger (“Temple Grandin”) wisely chose to use the stars’ amazing 1970 “60 Minutes” interview to frame their necessarily limited story. Based simply on that wonderfully entertaining Q&A, a stenographer could write a passable screenplay without changing a word. (Available on You Tube, it is best viewed only after screening “Liz & Dick.” Then, rent “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) The DVD includes several on-set interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Charlie Zone: Blu-ray
Diablo
12 Rounds 2: Reloaded: Blu-ray
WWE Studios came up with a killer concept in 2009, when it demanded of a character played by wrestling “superstar” John Cena that he successfully complete a dozen “challenges,” as laid out by an escaped criminal, or his girlfriend would be killed. It was directed by the once-dependable Renny Harlin and set in New Orleans. The action was designed to appeal to the pro-wrestling crowd and audiences who enjoy a dollop of retribution in their gratuitous violence. It was easy to watch and presumably made enough money to justify a paint-by-numbers sequel. This time around, 6-foot-4 grappler Randy Orton plays paramedic Nick Malloy, who gets exactly the same sort of call from a vengeful psychopath (Brian Markinson). If Malloy fails to complete all 12 tasks, his wife will be killed and/or tortured. For a paramedic, Malloy is one tough SOB. And, although he’s only peripherally connected to the caller, he takes his mission seriously enough to keep us interested. “12 Rounds 2: Reloaded” is headed for its natural destination on the direct-to-DVD shelves, so it isn’t surprising that shortcuts were taken in its production. Apart from Orton, the cast is comprised of question marks and the background is supplied by Vancouver. Undemanding action junkies shouldn’t mind the compromises.

Shot on the eastern coast of Canada, “Charlie Zone” appears to have borrowed ideas from movies as disparate as “Fight Club” and “Chinatown,” but it never abuses the privilege enough to be accused of being derivative or a rip-off. Like other halfway decent movies that can only manage to find a home in today’s increasingly competitive straight-to-video marketplace, Michael Melski’s twisty thriller features good performances from mostly unknown actors, adequate production values, some satisfying surprises and an underused setting. “Charlie Zone” takes place in Halifax, which might sound like just another quaint port city in the Great White North, but combines enough criminal touchstones to be referred to there as the “New Orleans of the East.” The crimes in “Charlie Zone” include, in no particular order, illegal street brawling, assault, kidnapping, torture, theft, drug trafficking, murder, child abuse and incest. That might sound about average for a movie staged in Baltimore, San Pedro or even Seattle, but, in Halifax, it registers as an epidemic. After becoming an Internet sensation as a street fighter, Avery Paul (Glen Gould) is hired to “rescue” a young woman from the clutches of the owner of a shooting gallery, where all manner of hard drugs are sold and a bouncer collects a cover charge at the door. After faking a morphine habit, the former boxer and ex-con grabs Jan (Amanda Crew) and stashes her in the trunk of his car, while he negotiates a higher ransom for her return. From this point on, nothing seems to go right for Paul. While Jan recognizes her addiction and wants to get clean, she isn’t in any hurry to separate completely from her boyfriend and partner, who run the drug operation. Neither are the people who hired Paul playing straight with him. Throw in several ruthless bikers from Montreal, backstabbers disguised as friends and some severe beat-downs and you’ve got a pretty violent movie. In between the fights, however, several rays of humanitarian sunshine do manage to shine through the bloodshed. One thing that distinguishes “Charlie Zone” from a similar movie, had it been made in the U.S., is the amount of verbal abuse heaped on Paul, simply because he’s of native Mi’kmaq ancestry. In some parts of North and South America, hostility between the first-world population and non-native ethnic groups has never really ended. It’s balanced here with portrayals of Indians in normal, non-combative environments.

From Argentina arrives “Diablo,” another super-violent movie in which onetime boxer finds himself in a dilemma not of his own making. Half-Jewish and half-Andean, Marcos Wainsberg (Juan Palomino), is recovering emotionally from the trauma of having killed an opponent in the ring. The other fighter shouldn’t have been allowed to compete and a combination punch by Wainsberg merely triggered a reaction that would have killed the man, anyway. Still, it’s the kind of thing that stays with a boxer as long as his name is recognized. One morning, after reconnecting with an old girlfriend, he makes the mistake of opening the door to his cousin, Huguito (Sergio Boris), a shiftless ne’er-do-well who has trouble written all over his face. Not long after he asks Huguito to go to the store to purchase beer and cleaning supplies, two thugs arrive at the house, pretending to be friends of the cousin. Instead, they’re looking for something in his possession that Wainsberg has no idea exists and will take a terrible beating for his ignorance. Not unlike Paul in “Charlie Zone,” Wainsberg miraculously breaks out of bondage and destroys the intruders. When Huguito returns, all Marcos wants to do is clean up the blood soaked walls of the bathroom, so his girlfriend won’t turn tail and run. Naturally, another visitor arrives at the door soon thereafter. This one is a cop responding to a call from a neighbor. The cop, who’s Jewish, immediately recognizes the “Inca of the Sinai,” and it leads to some friendly, if strange chatter between them. By the time the cop inspects the bathroom, the bodies are gone and everything is spic-and-span. In fact, Huguito is holding something of great value to the person who’s hired several waves of gangsters to confront the cousins. I won’t spoil the surprise that comes with learning what’s so valuable to some rich old mobster, but it’s a doozy. Co-writer/director Nicanor Loreti, at the helm of his first feature, does a really nice job blending all of the disparate elements here into an exciting and often inky black comedy, not unlike “Layer Cake,” “Machete” and “Kung Fu Hustle.” While not beating the gag to death, Loreti makes good use of the “Inca of the Sinai” angle, as well. Dare I say it: fans of Quentin Tarantino, Richard Rodriguez and Guy Ritchie’s early films should love “Diablo.” – Gary Dretzka

Sadako 3D: Blu-ray
Producers of genre entertainment assume, sometimes correctly, that fans of a particularly successful horror or sci-fi feature naturally will line up to see the sequel. It’s a nice position in which to find one’s self, to be sure. The problem comes, of course, in the inevitability of genre fans to gossip endlessly in anticipation of a sequel or prequel and immediately review each new installment as if it were “Citizen Kane: Part II.” No one takes a more proprietary interest in such things as fans of J-horror and therein lies the rub. The latest chapter in Koji Sozuki’s “Ringu” cycle has arrived on these shores a full year after opening in several overseas markets. “Sadaku 3D” is being made available on DVD and Blu-ray 2D/3D pack, without the benefit of a theatrical release. My guess is that distributors here read all the negative reviews and assumed that the same fans that made “Ringu” and its American cousin, “The Ring,” such huge international hits are, by now, too sophisticated to ignore warning signs on Internet sites devoted to the genre. Viral campaigns cut both ways, these days. I’ve seen both of the source movies and can understand why they’d be disappointed in “Sadako 3D.” It simply doesn’t take the franchise anywhere it hasn’t already been. The 3D format adds a few quick and dirty jolts, but the foreboding tone of previous titles has been diluted by overexposure. Keeping all of the negatives in mind, however, it’s also possible to say that newcomers to the franchise and kids whose parents are wealthy enough to afford HD3D monitors shouldn’t have any trouble buying into its basic conceits. Among the concessions to the passing of time since the originals were released are the implements through which Sadako makes her presence known. Instead of relying on such primitive technologies as VHS cassettes and one-dimensional TV sets, the spirit is borne through the Internet and smartphones. Otherwise, it’s the same deal. Teenagers who can’t wait to see if rumors of cursed Internet video are true need only perform a simple search and the ghosts do the rest. – Gary Dretzka

Escape From Planet Earth: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” Season 2, Volume 2
To fully enjoy the animated sci-fi adventure, “Escape From Planet Earth,” it helps to be flying on a sugar high. Conveniently, one of the product-placement partners here is 7-Eleven, which, as every life form in the universe knows, is the home of the Slurpee. Brightly colorful and quickly paced, the Anchor Bay title seems geared to pre-teens who are familiar with genre tropes, but not too jaded to dismiss the corny dialogue out of hand. The story follows the daring astronaut Scorch Supernova (voiced by Brendan Fraser), a hero to blue-skinned residents of the planet Baab, as he attempts to answer a rescue call from Earth. Apparently, illegal aliens from outer space are every bit as irritating to conservatives in the future, as Mexicans crossing the border were to their great-great-great-grandparents. BASA’s no-nonsense chief Lena (Jessica Alba) is aware of the dangers inherent in such a mission, but assumes Scorch can handle Area 51 as well as he has every other place he’s been in the universe. His cautious flight-commander brother, Gary (Rob Corday), isn’t so positive. Sure enough, when a trap set by the evil General Shanker (William Shatner) imperils Scorch, Gary must come to his rescue. It leads to an exciting chase through the Grand Canyon when USAF jets are dispatched and Gary and Shanker engage in a midair fist fight. Among the other voicing talents are Sarah Jessica Parker, Sofia Vergara, Ricky Gervais and Jonathan Morgan Heit. The Blu-ray package comes with separate 3D/2D editions, DVD, a digital copy and UltraViolet, as well commentary with director Cal Brunker; a 21-minute making-of and 4-minute “building-of” featurettes; alternate and deleted scenes; and music videos by Delta Rae, Owl City and Cody Simpson.

I wonder how much crossover there is between the audiences for “Escape From Planet Earth” andShout!Factory’s releases of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” episodes in half-season increments. To my untrained eye, the live-action show looks as if it belongs in a museum or time capsule. Still, there probably are thousands of moms and dads who watch the 20-year-old episodes with their kids and get the same nostalgic rush old-timers get when someone mentions “Captain Video” or Froggy the Gremlin. As the storyline enters “Season 2, Volume 2,” Lord Zedd is getting impatient with Rita Repulsa and her failure to dominate the Earth, as planned. The Power Rangers are accorded new powers and Zords modeled after mythological creatures. Also look for White Ranger, a hero armed with a talking sword and mighty White Tigerzord. – Gary Dretzka

Brooklyn Castle
The Loving Story
Charge: Zero Emissions/Maximum Speed
No one cheers harder for the underdog than a documentary filmmaker who’s invested uncounted time and money into telling that competitor’s story. It doesn’t matter if the participants are ballroom dancers, Scrabble and Monopoly players, spellers, bowlers, cricketeers or the 1969 New York Mets. The David-vs.-Goliath angle also comes into play when a team from an economically disadvantaged district takes on a perennial favorite in the championship contest. As a wise man once observed of Major League baseball, cheering for the New York Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel. At the same time, sports dynasties can have their off-years, too. If it was the documentarian’s intention to chronicle yet another winning season, he or she then must be prepared to punt. In “Brooklyn Castles,” Katie Dellamaggiore’s subject is a chess team from a financially strapped junior high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., which routinely turns out an astonishing number of championship chess players. Its team has served as an inspiration for fellow students, 65 percent of whom come from homes subsisting on below-poverty-level incomes. Although it’s rarely a surprise when a student from Intermediate School 318 wins an important match, the odds of most other students making their way through high school and college, and finding a good-paying job, aren’t nearly as good. No matter the glory of winning, scholarships based on a proficiency in chess are as rare as World Series games in Wrigley Field. “Brooklyn Castle” puts a tight focus on a half-dozen kids and a pair of dedicated teacher/coaches as they struggle to maintain both the excellence of the program and cope with a budget that takes a hit whenever a politician in Albany sneezes. Everyone we meet here is likeable and dedicated to the task at hand. Because applicants for a place in I.S. 318 must demonstrate their willingness to adhere to its rigorous educational demands, behavioral problems aren’t much of a problem, either. The points working in the players favor don’t make their accomplishments any less astonishing, though, or “Brooklyn Castle” less entertaining. The DVD includes deleted scenes.

It’s entirely fitting that the documentary “The Loving Story” should arrive at a time when millions of people are sitting on pins and needles, awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision – or non-decision, if the justices decide to duck the issue – on the legality of California’s Proposition 8, which prohibits same-sex marriage in the state. Forty-sex years ago, the Supreme Court took on a similar hot-button case, only, this time,  it involved the forbidden marriage of a white American, Richard Loving, and his part-black, part-Cherokee fiancée, Mildred Jeter. They had been arrested nine years earlier by Virginia police after travelling from Caroline County to Washington, D.C., to be married. They would be found guilty of breaking laws against “miscegenation” and be sentenced to a year in prison. While their case was making its way through the courts, the Lovings had to hide the fact that they had moved back to Virginia from Washington and were living on family-owned farmland. Amazingly, more than a century had passed since the beginning of the Civil War and interracial marriage remained illegal in 21 states. It was something they shared with Nazi Germany and Apartheid-era South Africa. “The Loving Story” recalls both the personal angst and legal wrangling that preceded the unanimous decision.  Today, of course, many of the same pinhead religious beliefs that kept men and women of different races and colors from getting married, or even engaging in sexual intercourse, are being parroted in arguments against same-sex marriage. Nancy Buirski’s film benefits from recently recovered archival material, including home movies, photographs and interviews.

The last time actor and motorcycle nut Ewan McGregor teamed up with filmmaker Mark Neale was on the documentary “Fastest,” which followed the fortunes of riders on Europe’s MotoGP circuit. It was a non-fiction sequel to 2003’s “Faster,” which introduced the motorsport and champion rider Valentino Rossi to tens of thousands of new fans worldwide. Both movies featured balls-out riding, exciting wipeouts and tales of personal glory. McGregor is back to narrate Neale’s “Charge,” which, besides showcasing some terrific racing, demonstrates how bikers can join the vanguard of green-power advocates. The movie takes us back to 2009, when fans of MotoGP practically laughed the zero-emissions gearheads off the grand prix course on the Isle of Man. No one was much interested in watching motorcycles struggle to reach speeds of 100 mph, when gas-powered bikes were going twice that speed. Neale’s cameras returned the next three years to follow the progress, of which there was plenty. The most amusing aspect of green-powered racing is the lack of noise, which is what fans expect to hear a lot of when they come to the races. The supplements include extended racing action, deleted scenes and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

The Horde
Several very good historical epics about Mongolia and the reign of the Golden Horde have been exported from Russia in recent years. They’ve been distinguished by tremendous horsemanship, fiery action and landscapes that are glorious one moment and barren the next. Set in 1357, as the dynasty’s vast reach was beginning to shrink, “The Horde” tells a couple of stories simultaneously. One describes challenges to the reigning Khan, Jani Beg, from within and without the walls of his capital, while the other tells the story of Metropolitan Aleksei, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, who was summoned by Jani Beg to cure the blindness of his mother, as if the future saint was nothing more than a wizard or the conjurer of the last resort. If Aleksai failed, Mongol soldiers would be sent to Moscow to destroy the city. Before that could happen, Aleksai is banished to the boonies, where he’s treated like a slave. “The Horde” was filmed in Astrakhan, a city in in the Volga Delta that once served as capital for the Golden Hoard. It will be of more interest to students of Russian, Mongolian and Orthodox history than anyone else, although Andrei Proshkin’s drama is well-made and looks different than previous western efforts to document the period. (Genghis Khan has been played by Omar Sharif, Richard Tyson, Phil Hartman, Michael Palin and John Wayne.) The DVD can be listened to in Russian or dubbed English. – Gary Dretzka

Hannah Has a Ho-Phase: VOD
Watching this reversal-of-fortune rom-com, I couldn’t help but be struck by its similarity in tone to “Kissing Jessica Stein” and quirky indie romances by Ed Burns, Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers, especially those with early appearances by Greta Gerwig. Newcomers Jamie Jensen and Nadia Munla promise quite a bit more than they deliver in the video-on-demand “Hannah Has a Ho-Phase.” They do, however, get nice performances from Genevieve Hudson-Price and Meredith Forlenza, in roles that Jennifer Westfeldt might have considered before tackling lesbian wannabe Jessica Stein. They play Hannah and Leslie, flat-mates on opposite ends of the dating spectrum. When we meet her, Leslie is teaching pole-dancing at her New York dance studio and enjoying orgasms whose decibel levels rival those emanating from a subway portal. Hannah has a steady boyfriend, but is in no hurry to share her body with him. Nonetheless, her sexual frustration and reluctance to give into it have begun to irritate Leslie. In an effort to kick-start the young woman’s libido, Leslie challenges Hannah to accept a wager that only exists in such movies as “40 Days and 40 Nights” and “The Proposal,” neither of which could be confused with documentaries. Hannah agrees to sleep with 10 guys before Leslie is allowed to have sex with another disposable stud. I can’t remember what the stakes are, but, given Hannah’s high standards, Leslie doesn’t expect to remain a born-again virgin for long. Both of the women will face severe tests along the way to the finish line, of course. What struck me here is the reluctance of the filmmakers to put the characters’ naughty bits on display, especially considering what’s readily available on other cable channels. The same was true, however, in “Kissing Jessica Stein.” Indeed, Hannah wears lingerie that would be more fitting in the Sears catalogue than Victoria’s Secret. Needless to say, “Hannah Has a Ho-Phase” isn’t for everyone. Maybe, I’m the one who’s out of touch, however. – Gary Dretzka

Journey of the Universe: The Complete Collection
Secrets of the Dead: Bugging Hitler’s Soldier’s
Nature: The Private Life of Deer
Nature: Legendary White Stallions
Frontline: The Economic Meltdown
In 1999, on the last day of the millennium – give or take a year or two — Stephen Hawking observed: “The world has changed far more in the past 100 years than in any other century in history. The reason is not political or economic but technological … technologies that flowed directly from advances in basic science.” Things mankind absolutely knows to be true about its place in the universe – physically and theologically – have been proven false so frequently as to be almost laughable. Each new generation of school children is taught to accept as fact beliefs and theories that will be disproven, even during their lifetimes. The success of the Hubble Space Telescope mission, alone, proves that Hawking’s point about technology and science is well-taken. The PBS documentary project, “Journey of the Universe,” recaps what we currently know to be true about how the universe was formed and continues to evolve. It speculates, as well, as to what in God’s name we’re doing here, in the first place. Oops, did I say God? It’s what we don’t know and never did know that some of the scientists interviewed here expect to discover if the pursuit of scientific knowledge continues apace. I wouldn’t count on it. After all, for every question that’s been answered about the Big Bang theory and expansion of the universe, there’s others that beg such questions as “Who or what triggered the Big Bang?” and “How far can the universe expand before it disappears into the void?” By comparison, the guiding principles behind Creationism almost make sense.

“Journey of the Universe” and it’s longer companion documentary, “Journey of the Universe/Conversations,” begin with the “flame” that ignited the Big Bang and end by bringing us up to date on what we’re discovering in deep space, deep oceans and within the human genome. Noted cosmo-geneticist Brian Swimme hosts the program from the Greek island of Samos, birthplace, circa 570 B.C., of the mathematician/philosopher Pythagoras. Largely undeveloped, the picturesque island is a place that, at various times, has served as a crossroads for world trade and the knowledge travelers carried with them. Besides tourism, its economic base is agriculture. In fact, through all its centuries of peace, war and political upheaval, not much has changed on the island since Pythagoras’ time. Swimme found it to be the perfect place to present his theories about the interconnectedness of humans and everything that’s changed in the universe over the course of the last 14 billion years. He doesn’t avoid theology, finding stars to be a common element in religious art and the chemical makeup of man. He provides a lot of fascinating information in a relatively short time and “Conversations” extends the discussion with Yale professor Mary Evelyn Tucker interviewing other scientists in a more formal setting. The DVD comes with a booklet that could be used in classroom situations. Co-director David Kennard, with Patsy Northcutt, cut his documentary teeth on “Cosmos,” the 13-episode that made Carl Sagan a household name.

The PBS series “Secrets of the Dead” uses modern investigative techniques, forensic science and historical examination to amplify on events whose truth could only be verified by people who lived through them and carried their secrets to the grave … or until the statutes of limitations expired. One of the things the show reveals on a weekly basis is how much information is deemed inappropriate for dissemination by ordinary folks, like you and me. The episode “Bugging Hitler’s Soldiers” contains information that, until recently, remained classified by British intelligence agencies. From the earliest days of Britain’s involvement in the war, MI-19 transferred German officers to a posh estate and treated them as if their ranks accorded them special favors. What the Germans didn’t know was that their every conversation was captured, using sophisticated microphones and recording devices. Much of the information was extremely valuable, both in the war effort and as a way to monitor the prisoners’ psychological state. Among them were the location of rocket-testing sites, verification of Nazi atrocities and the culpability of German soldiers in crimes previously ascribed only to Gestapo and SS troops. What’s discomfiting about the material as presented is the fact that the information gleaned through the bugging wasn’t used in war-crimes trials and some of the guilty officers escaped punishment. The secrecy behind the program precluded disclosure of such damning first-hand testimony.

One of the recurring themes in PBS’ “Nature” series is the interaction between different animal species and human beings, as one group’s habitat expands and the other’s contracts. “The Private Life of Deer” joins previous episodes, “Cracking the Koala Code,” “A Murder of Crows,” “Kangaroo Mob” and “Raccoon Nation.” In each case, at least part of the documentary is reserved for a discussion of how dangerous it is for animals to become so adjusted to suburban and city life that their familiarity sometimes results in them becoming pests. Instead of hunters and four-legged predators, the greatest threat to unnaturally complacent visitors becomes drivers of cars, trucks and buses. The latest installment describes how the booming deer population has begun to forage land outside the boundaries of forests, swamps and fields, and graze on manicured lawns, gardens, shrubs and tiered roadsides. More harmless than not, the deer become their own worst enemies in these situations. The “Nature” crew uses modern technology to follow and record the movements of white-tail deer, while also on the lookout tiny key deer and rarely seen white deer. I’m not sure why the threat of chronic-wasting disease to the deer population went un-discussed here, or how such close proximity to suburbanized deer could spread tick-borne diseases to their human neighbors.

The “Nature” episode “Legendary White Stallions” celebrates the interesting history and marvelous talents of the Lipizzaner stallions at Vienna’s Spanish Riding School. Through hundreds of years of breeding, the horses were first taught how to overcome natural fears and become important as extensions of fighting men. After the Moors captured Spain, they were re-taught to perform as acrobats and artists. Today, they still define poetry in motion. The program also describes the breeding program and time spent high in the Austrian Alps, basically learning how to use their genetically transferred skills. As wonderful as it is, “Legendary White Stallions” would have benefited from a discussion of the rescue of these magnificent animals in the closing days of World War II and the Napoleonic wars.

Here it is, almost seven years after the nearly total collapse of the U.S. and world economies and more energy has been expended turning out documentaries on how it happened than by the government in punishing the scumbags who caused it. The rich get richer, the middle-class gets poorer and the poor stay poor. Sadly, it’s become the American way. The problem can’t be laid on the doorstep of PBS or the producers at “Frontline,” who’ve given prosecutors more than enough evidence to hang ’em high. In case you missed the coverage, though, five key episodes have been compiled in “The Economic Meltdown.” They include “Cliffhanger,” which investigates the inside history of how Washington has failed to solve the country’s problems of debt and deficit; “The Warning,” which profiles the lone regulator who warned about the dangers of derivatives and, instead of being rewarded, paid the price; “Breaking the Bank,” about Ken Lewis and Bank of America’s troubled Merrill deal; “Ten Trillion and Counting,” updates the politics behind America’s mountain of debt; and “Inside the Meltdown,” an investigation into how the economy went so bad, so fast, and what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson didn’t see, couldn’t stop and weren’t able to fix. – Gary Dretzka

Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season
Falling Skies: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray 
Pretty Little Liars: The Complete Third Season
Adventure Time: The Completer First/Second Season
It’s difficult to say, exactly, how television executives and DVD distributors define what constitutes a season and what differentiates a “volume” of episodes from a full-season load. Take “Breaking Bad,” for example. For its first four seasons, the highly celebrated and entirely unconventional AMC drama rolled out on a week-to-week schedule. There were seven test-the-water episodes in Season One and three subsequent 13-episode seasons after that. After the fifth and final season was given a green light, it was announced that it would be divided into two eight-episode seasons, beginning 13 months apart from each other. Why the half that begins on August 11, 2013, isn’t being referred to as Season Six is anyone’s guess, but economics must have played a role in the decision somewhere. This won’t make much of a difference to fans accustomed to binge watching “Breaking Bad” on DVD/Blu-ray. It might even give them something to look forward to in 2014. If the bad news comes in learning that the new half-season box includes only eight segments, the good news is that it also contains a larger-than-normal bonus package across two discs. All of the episodes include commentaries and making-of featurettes; deleted and extended scenes on both discs; backgrounders; material from the writers’ room; “Chris Hardwick’s All-Star Celebrity Bowling”; “Gallery 1988 Art Show”; an extended examination of the train scene; “The Cleaner: Jonathan Banks as Mike”; a rehearsal of the “prison stunt”; and audition tapes.  The real keeper is an uncensored scene exclusive to the Blu-ray/DVD, “Chicks ’n’ Guns,” which is every bit as sexy as it might sound to some folks. It very well could serve as a preview of a spinoff show, featuring Bob Odenkirk’s character, Saul Goodman.

With Season Three of the TNT series “Falling Skies” beginning next week, this is the right time for latecomers to catch up with the second stanza. It begins with Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) and everyone else in the 2d Massachusetts a year older and still battling the skittles. Mason has returned from his mission of discovery with the aliens and the company plans to travel to South Carolina to find more human survivors. Sons Ben and Hal will have to stop squabbling if the resistance is going to be successful, though. Like “Breaking Bad,” fans will find a generous bonus package in the new Blu-ray. It includes a 20-minute examination into the making of the second season; a look at the evolution of the skitters; fan features; a 31-minute Q&A with Wil Wheaton; a preview of Season Three; an animate trailer, created by Dark Horse Comics; four commentary tracks; and UltraViolet.

With the teen mystery series “Pretty Little Liars” moving into its fourth year next week, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Season Three package is newly available. It opens with the beginning of a new school year and plenty of time for the ladies to reflect on the revelations at the end of Season Two. No sooner does a new semester start, however, than a new nightmare begins. Needless to say, the pretty little liars are far too hot, popular and fashion-conscious to be so troubled, naughty and neurotic. One nice thing about the ABC Family series is that a season is comprised of 24 episodes, instead of the usual 13 for cable series. The DVD’s supplements add “Pretty Little Liars and the ‘A’ Network: Who Is ‘A’?”; an alternate ending for the “The Lady Killer” episode; bonus webisodes; unaired scenes; and a gag reel.

If fans of “Adventure Time” have complained about anything to do with the award-winning Cartoon Network series it’s that the DVD compilations have been broken into incomplete volumes and they haven’t been available in Blu-ray. Their prayers have been answered, at least partially, with the release of complete Season One and Season Two compilations in hi-def and DVD. Each package contains 26 episodes of 11 minutes each, or a total running time of 286 minutes. For the uninitiated, “AT” is set in the faraway kingdom of Ooo, where Finn the Human and his bespectacled talking dog Jake regularly trip up the mostly evil Ice King, who has the hots for Princess Bubblegum. They’re joined by the bass-playing Vampire Queen, petulant extraterrestrial Lumpy Space Princess and Beemo, a sentient but playable video game console. The two-disc sets include commentary tracks on four episodes, background featurettes, a 10-minute talk with the show’s music editors; a nearly hour-long collection of animatics and a two-minute episode called “The Wand.”  There are 22 commentaries and an interview with the crew on in the Season Two set. This is one crazy show. – Gary Dretzka

NFL: Baltimore Ravens: Road to XLVII: Blu-ray
After teasing fans of the NFL champion Baltimore Ravens with DVDs filled with season highlights and key games leading up to the Super Bowl, “Baltimore Ravens: Road to XLVII” puts the finishing touch on the season. Besides original network broadcasts of the Super Bowl, the two-disc package includes the Ravens’ AFC Wildcard victory over the Colts; the AFC Divisional Game, against the Broncos; the AFC Championship triumph over the Patriots; and showdown with the 49ers in the big show. One unforgettable playoff moment was Ray Lewis’ final home game versus the Indianapolis Colts, which, of course, was the team that deserted Baltimore in 1984, breaking millions of hearts in the process. Lest we forget, the Ravens are the team that gave up the Browns name when it left Cleveland in 1996, breaking hearts there. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Beetlejuice: The Complete Series
I’ve watched a lot of cartoons in my life and continue to do so as they are revisited on DVD and new ones are introduced. I wouldn’t, however, consider myself to be a historian or expert on the subject. I suspect, however, that the offbeat animated TV adaptation of Tim Burton’s surprise 1988 feature hit, “Beetlejuice,” had the same impact on aspiring cartoonists as the original had on a generation of filmmakers hoping to stretch the boundaries of horror, comedy and fantasy on the big screen. Of course, Burton had already accomplished a similar thing as director of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” a 1985 movie that crossed generational boundaries. Along with co-executive producer David Geffen, Burton took the same wacky premise behind the theatrical “Beetlejuice” – the title character guides the spirits of recently deceased humans through the vagaries of the netherworld – but dilutes the horror and hipster humor for day-part demographics. What didn’t change, though, were the wildly imaginative humanoid ghosts, monsters, werewolves, zombies and vampires, whose bodies were even more malleable when animated. Here, Goth-girl Lydia Deetz is best friends with Beetlejuice. They bounce back and forth from the living world to Beetlejuice’s afterlife, now referred to simply as Neitherland, so as not to freak out death-phobic television censors. It might as well be called Burtonland, as it parodies the living world in ways that would become one of his trademarks.

Soon after the launch of “Beetlejuice” on ABC’s Saturday-morning lineup, it was picked up by Fox for its weekday children’s lineup. In an unusual scheduling twist, both shows ran simultaneously. How coincidental was it, then, that “The Simpsons” would expand from an interstitial short on Fox’s “The Tracey Ullman Show” to a 30-minute series of its own? In short order, Nickelodeon put such quirky cartoons as “Rugrats,” “Ren & Stimpy” and “Doug” into production; Turner Broadcasting bought Hanna-Barbera studios and green-lit Cartoon Network; “Beevis & Butt-head” began to attract slackers of all ages and get free publicity from social critics; and, for the first time since “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons,” animation became a growth industry on broadcast television, cable and in theaters. Today, of course, original animated programming can be found in all sorts of places, including premium cable, with the more edgy stuff reserved for such late-night outlets as “Adult Swim.” The new Shout!Factory box is comprised of all four seasons of “Beetlejuice,” three of those stanzas for the first time. Several of the show’s first-season episodes were released on VHS in 1993, but, it took another 15 years, for three popular episodes (“A-ha”, “Skeletons in the Closet” and “Spooky Boo-Tique”) to arrive on DVD, in the “20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” of “Beetlejuice.” The colors have been spruced up here and the audio dialed up, a bit. Alas, there are no supplemental features. – Gary Dretzka

Lore: Blu-ray
Cate Shortland’s devastating drama, “Lore,” demands that we consider the plight of the only Germans who had legitimate excuses for pleading ignorance of the atrocities committed in World War II to Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other clergy, homosexuals, communists and people born with physical or mental disabilities: children. If their parents and teachers were party members, they automatically became integral elements in Hitler’s propaganda machine and were taught to accept the supremacy of the so-called Aryan race and the degeneracy of most others. They grew up believing that Jews were enemies of the state and needed to be marginalized and moved to ghettos or work camps. Children whose families lived near enough away to the concentration camps to see the smoke from the ovens and endure the stench of death had no reason to doubt the explanations given them by people in positions of authority. Likewise, Japanese children were taught to accept their parents’ faith in the Emperor’s infallibility and not question the necessity for war. For many years after WWII ended, as well, the truth about what happened far removed from the fields of combat was hidden from students in Germany and Japan. The same sort of misinformation campaigns allowed segregation to become institutionalized in the American South for a century after the end of Civil War, just as children in Israel and Palestine are guided by 60-plus years of hatred, intolerance and outright lies. “Lore,” which is based on a novel by Rachel Siffert, examines one family’s struggle to survive the war intact as Germans and endure an occupation by people they’ve been conditioned to fear and mistrust.

Knowing the Third Reich is circling the drain, a high-ranking Nazi SS officer returns to his Bavarian home to inform his like-minded wife of their nation’s inevitable defeat and prepare for the worst. She can hardly believe the news, which differs so much from the upbeat reports in the media, but quickly rounds up the kids for a hasty retreat to the nearby mountains. While the father burns incriminating photos and texts in the fireplace and kills the pet German shepherd, the mother gathers enough clothing to fit one or two suitcases and valuables that won’t hinder their escape. By now, American and Soviet troops have begun liberating concentration camps and are in no mood to forgive anyone attempting to avoid being accountable for their actions. Once the five children are settled into a farmhouse in the Black Forest, news of the German surrender is announced and the father is spirited away by other men in the same position. As the mother’s ability to ensure the safety of the kids – paying off the locals and trading for staples with jewelry and her body – she, too, decides to abandon them. (Possibly to avoid being captured and having the children punished for past Nazi indoctrination, not an uncommon fear by German survivors.) Her oldest daughter, Lore, is left with jewelry and silverware to trade for food and instructions on how to get to Hamburg, where her grandmother lives and they expect to be reunited with mom and dad. Relying on the kindness of strangers only works for the children as long as they have something to trade. Then, it’s survival of the fittest. Instead of staying in place, as ordered by the American soldiers, the children set out on an odyssey that will expose them to the ugliness of war and terrible truths about their parents’ role in the war. At 14, Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) suddenly is required to be the sole provider and guardian for a family that includes a baby not yet able to walk. The further they go, the more people they meet who are in exactly the same dire physical straits and no longer can fall back on Nazi lies.

Along the way, Lore becomes fixated with a mysterious young man, Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina), who seems to be trailing them. She alternately fears his motives and appreciates his pretending to be their older brother when it looks as if they might be detained by the Americans, British or Soviet border guards. At one barricade, Thomas uses the yellow star in his passport to convince a soldier to let them continue their trek northward. Suddenly, he becomes a different person to Lore. As she was taught, she despises the young man’s very being as a Jew and is even more disturbed by how her raging hormones are reacting to the close proximity of the handsome male of the species. The other children aren’t nearly as disturbed by his presence. He says he was incarcerated at Buchenwald and can attest to the atrocities he witnessed there. Still, even when Lore examines the grisly photos that have been posted everywhere in her path, she wills herself to believe that they were staged, using actors. Amazingly, every other adult German she meets on their journey seems to accept the same theory. One elderly woman looks at the portrait of her beloved Fuhrer in her kitchen and opines that he wouldn’t have allowed such a thing to happen. Other incredible things occur during the family’s trek, some of which reinforce Lore’s negative feelings toward the Allied troops.

Finally, just when the children are assured a reasonably stable future with their strict and still patriotic grandmother, something snaps inside Lore, causing her to reassess everything she’s learned in her 14 years on Earth and weigh them against what was revealed on the journey. It’s as powerful a coming-of-age moment as I’ve seen in a long time. “Lore” shares several qualities with Shortland’s 2004 breakthrough feature, “Somersault,” including the protagonist being a strong-willed teenage girl (Abbie Cornish) forced to make adult decisions at too early an age. The director also is ability to capture the natural beauty of the locations and use it to counterbalance what’s happening to the girls. We’ve seen the Black Forest in many other movies, of course, but rarely in a way that so closely connects the natural beauty to the people who live there. Apart from the horrors and byproducts of war, “Lore” forwards a vision of Germany that is straight from the travel brochures. A patriot would go to great lengths to defend this blessed corner of the Fatherland. That, however, is not the story of World War II, and Shortland doesn’t use her camera to alter what we know to be true about our onetime enemy. Neither does she shower any more pity on the children than their physical ordeal might normally warrant. Who knows, after all, what might become of these people? The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, an alternate ending, an interview with a refugee not unlike Lore and a panel discussion following a screening. – Gary Dretzka

Shoot First, Die Later: Blu-ray
When it comes to hyper-violent, highly stylized Italian crime thrillers from the 1970s, Fernando di Leo is one of the brands that still carries sway four decades later. If the name isn’t as well-known as, say, Sergio Leone or Dario Argento, it’s only because poliziotteschi never enjoyed the cross-over appeal that lifted giallo to Spaghetti Westerns to prominence here. Neither did it feature the same ratio of recognizable American actors to European stats as such movies as “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “A Fistful of Dollars” or “A Cat o’ Nine Tails.” Neither was there a shortage of excellent crime dramas being made in Hollywood at the time, as could be said of Westerns and horror flicks. By comparison, poliziotteschi looked corny to the point of being slapstick. Italian action flicks were as subtle as a Panzer tank, which is probably why Di Leo’s movies appealed so much to Quentin Tarantino. Partially based on William McGivern’s novel, “Rogue Cop,” “Shoot First, Die Later” never was accorded a worldwide theatrical release and compatible VHS cassettes were difficult to find. Lately, RaroVideo has come to the rescue of such long-ignored Italian genre fare, sending out DVD and Blu-ray editions that are free of the blemishes that made watching cassettes such a chore. Based strictly on their merits as vehicles for entertainment, Di Leo’s films look pretty good right now.

Luc Merenda (“Hostel: Part II”) plays a police detective held in such high regard that it’s difficult to imagine he would be in cahoots with the syndicate. In return for providing information or quashing a case, the gangsters would tip him off to potential targets for arrest. Finally, one of the quid pro quos requires of the cop that he involve his upstanding father – also a police officer – to break the law or risk the possibility the mobsters would harm someone near and dear to him. Corruption is a subject that has served filmmakers well over 100 years and will continue to do so, as long as cops and politicians can be bought by crooks and corporations. Released in 1974, “Shoot First, Die Later” was a departure, in that Di Leo’s audience was asked to simultaneously sympathize with the detective and abhor his amoral stance, which would result in some terrible consequences. It’s the same theme that, 30 years later, would inform the popular FX drama, “The Shield.” The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of excellent background documentaries on Di Leo and genre filmmaking in Italy. They contain interviews with the late filmmaker, as well as those with associates. Also included is an illustrated 20-page booklet on the genesis of the film. Richard Conte, who just played Barzinni in “The Godfather,” is the closest thing to an international star here. If you dig “SF,DL,” it’s a dead certainty that you’ll love RaroVideo’s “Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection,” with “Caliber 9,” “The Italian Connection,” “The Boss,” and “Rulers of the City.” – Gary Dretzka

Dark Skies: Blu-ray
Whenever the blurbs on the cover of a DVD extoll the credits of its producer, over those of the director, writer or stars, there’s either something desperately wrong with the enclosed movie or everyone else involved is of no consequence. For the supernatural thriller “Dark Skies,” producer Jason Blum (“Insidious,” “Paranormal Activity”) is given precedence over Keri Russell (“The Americans”), Josh Hamilton (“The Letter”) and writer/director Scott Stewart (“Priest”). Russell may not be as hot a commodity as she was when “Felicity” was a hit series, but she’s a fine actress and makes 37 look as if it’s a good age to be. Hamilton has enough decent credits to think someone might be interested in seeing him in another movie and Stewart’s “Legion” appears to have made money for someone. In “Dark Skies,” Russell and Hamilton are the financially strapped suburban parents of two boys, who apparently have tuned into the wavelength of extraterrestrials in our midst. Hours of time go by unaccounted for by the family members and unrecorded by security cameras. Terrible things, including the mass suicide of birds, are happening in and around their home and no one knows why. Finally, they’re directed to a local conspiracy theorist (J.K. Simmons), who tells them things no mom and dad want to hear about their kids and their ability to control their actions. Even if the information does nothing to prevent the inevitable tug-of-war between the boys and the aliens, at least everyone knows what’s going on and who’s to blame. All the parents can do is sit back and watch the shit the fan. “Dark Skies” is a middling thriller that, I’m sure, plays better on the small screen than it did in theaters. Genre nuts won’t find anything new here, but casual fans shouldn’t be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds a bunch of deleted scenes, with optional commentary. – Gary Dretzka

Dorfman in Love
Fairytales still come true in the movies, especially rom-coms in which young women twist themselves into knots to experience the dramatic personal growth needed to snag the right guy to live with forever and ever, amen. If she’s lucky, he won’t turn out to be the heel everyone in the audience knows him to be from Minute One. The damsel in emotional distress in Brad Leong’s mostly weightless “Dorfman in Love” is convincingly played by the veteran TV actor, Sara Rue (“Rules of Engagement,” “Malibu Country”). Because it merges elements of “The Ugly Duckling” and “Cinderella” with overfamiliar rom-com conventions, her Deb Dorfman is required to jump through a few more hoops than are usually required of such inexplicably underappreciated female characters. Despite being the boss’ sister, Deb is relegated to go-fer status at an upscale Los Angeles business. She picks up coffee and dry-cleaning for everyone, while also making sure that her brother keeps his head in the ballgame long enough for the company to make a profit. Apparently, all of this hard work qualifies Deb to take care of the apartment and cat of the man over whom she’s been obsessing for several years. A reporter, he’s off to Kabul for a week or two to cover something of great urgency. The flat’s an unholy mess, of course, so Deb takes it upon herself to renovate the place, thereby demonstrating how great a partner she could make for the right guy. On his last night in town, the reporter introduces her to a pair of vapid fashion models with whom he’s been spending time. Instead of lording their beauty and trendy fashion sense over Deb, they volunteer to give the Valley Girl a downtown makeover. It transforms her into a truly babelicious commodity.

Just when Deb thinks she’s in like Flynn, however, she is required to babysit her whining widower father (Elliott Gould); beard for her brother, who’s fallen for the models and abandoned his clingy, boring wife; and, for good measure, assume the role of best buddy with the handsome gay artist who lives in the loft upstairs. It’s fair to wonder, though, if any of these men are what they seem to be at first glance. Naturally, we see the solution to Deb’s quandary before she does. It doesn’t really matter, though. Rue’s natural likeability is sufficient reason to wish her well and forgive Leung the weaknesses in his story (written by Wendy Kout, creator of “Anything But Love” and nothing else in the last 20 years). At 75, Gould continues to find work in supporting roles that benefit from his hang-dog face and star quality, but don’t tax his professionalism all that much. Also along for the ride are familiar faces Catherine Hicks and Scott Wilson; Johann Urb and Haaz Sleiman, as the boyfriends; and Sophie Monk, Hayley Marie Norman, Keri Lynn Pratt and Kelen Coleman as the usual female suspects. Somehow, the MPAA found something sufficiently disturbing in “Dorfman in Love” to bestow on it a “R” rating. After an appeal, it was reduced to PG-13. There’s no nudity, pervasive bad language or violence, so it must have had something to do with mini-skirts or non-derogatory portrayals of gay characters. – Gary Dretzka

As Goes Janesville
As a boy growing up in a working-class Wisconsin community and, later, as a student at UW-Madison, I knew that politics in America’s Dairyland could hardly be more schizophrenic. It’s a state whose two most prominent politicians — progressive firebrand Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette and Republican bully Joseph McCarthy – were on such opposite sides of the spectrum that they might as well have been from different countries. Once dominated by agricultural interests, the influence of Wisconsin’s factory workers and unions made it a Democratic stronghold for most of the second half of the 20th Century. Many considered Madison to be the Moscow of the Midwest, even though it was completely surrounded by farms and Republican voters. And, yet, Wisconsin somehow managed to live up to its motto, “Forward.” Later, when industry began fleeing the state for more business-friendly climes, it became increasingly dependent on jobs in the service industry and tourism. As we learn in Kartemquin Films’ new documentary, “As Goes Janesville,” Wisconsin is now mired in the same dismal swamp waters as those that have drowned the forces of reason and compromise in Washington, D.C. At the same time as the film was being shot, Governor Scott Walker declared war on unions and the benefit plans accorded teachers and state workers. He survived a recall election, but the state voted in favor of the Obama-Biden ticket, 53-46 percent. It might have been more lopsided if Republican candidate Mitt Romney hadn’t chosen Janesville’s Paul Ryan as his running mate.

As Goes Janesville” describes a city in crisis. For almost all of the 20th Century, it was a showcase Midwestern community blessed with job-creating industry and commerce, as well as a rich agricultural base. When, in 2008, General Motors closed its assembly plant, the company left thousands of people unemployed or uprooted to a plant in Texas. This followed the closing of the Parker Pen factory and move to Milwaukee of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance. If there was a job to be had in Janesville, it probably paid no more than minimum wage. What Brad Lichtenstein and Leslie Simmer found in Janesville were politicians and community leaders struggling valiantly to bring new industry to the city and three families that fairly represented the plight of thousands of other GM workers. When a medical-equipment company shows interest in opening a facility in Janesville, the city is required to offer millions of dollars’ worth of tax breaks and other subsidies, with no promise that the firms’ employees would be hired from the existing job pool. Neither would the company be required to guarantee that salaries and benefits would meet the needs of its workers or that it could raise new money to fund the proposal. Kartemquin Films, which historically has focused on the workers’ side of most of the issues it covers, plays it as close to the middle here as I’ve ever seen it do. Naturally, “As Goes Janesville” gives full exposure to the trials of the unemployed and transplanted workers. But it also goes to the same length demonstrating the determination of Republican civic leaders to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. It also follows a Democratic state representative who returns to Madison after a 20-year absence and briefly considers a run for governor. In the heat of anti-Walker protests, he becomes disillusioned by both parties’ intransigence on key issues. A shorter version of the documentary was shown as part of PBS’ “Independent Lens” series. It adds deleted scenes, educational and background videos, and commentary. – Gary Dretzka

Robert Mitchum Is Dead
Charlie Casanova
Despite the inference in the title, “Robert Mitchum Is Dead” is neither a documentary, nor a dark homage to the noir classics in which he appeared. The hard-boiled leading man is present in Olivier Babinet and Fred Kihn’s beyond-quirky first feature only in spirit and the occasional visual or spoken reference. Chief among them is the famously self-deprecating line about his acting skills, “One of the greatest movie stars was Rin Tin Tin. It can’t be too much of a trick.” Beyond that, the festival-favorite has more in common with the early “road” pictures of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki’s “Leningrad Cowboys Go America,” in which Jarmusch has a cameo as a used-car salesman. If you were struck by anything in the previous sentence, there’s at least a fighting chance you’ll enjoy “Robert Mitchum Is Dead.” It chronicles a journey taken by a cheeseball talent agent, Arsene (Olivier Gourmet), and an insomniac actor with a gift for mimicry, Franky (Pablo Nicomedes), from a film shoot at a Polish university to a festival held in a tent somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, in Norway. It’s there that the American director, Mr. Sarrineff, who once directed Mitchum in a movie, is scheduled to appear as the guest of honor. Lacking in resources, the pair relies on stolen cars and the gullibility of easily impressed strangers to reach their destination. Also along for the ride is an African musician (Bakary Sangare) whose eerie synth music might be a better fit for a Martian noir than the rockabilly band in which he currently labors. The film’s episodic form may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but any longtime admirer of Jarmusch won’t have any problem with it. It arrives with making-of featurette.

Movies in which the protagonist and antagonist are one and the same character demand a great deal of patience and fortitude from an audience. If that character also happens to be an unrepentant sociopath, the filmmaker’s task is that much more difficult. Only the best actors can pull it off with any credibility. Anytime a vile character, real or imagined, is portrayed by an actor of substance — Billy the Kid, as played by Paul Newman and Kris Kristofferson, for example – the screenwriter and director are going the fudge the truth to preserve the actor’s public image. Charlize Theron won an Oscar as Best Lead Actress for her frightening portrayal of a murderous prostitute in “Monster,” as much for her courage as a professional as her excellent performance. (By contrast, the film’s writer/director, Patty Jenkins, has only found work and not much of it in television.) In Nicolas Winding Refn’s powerful portrait of a criminal beyond redemption, “Bronson,” Tom Hardy delivered a performance that was the equal of any of the fine lead actors nominated that year. Aside from the fact that “Bronson” made no money, it was exactly the kind of drama most academy members would turn off after the first 20 minutes. As terrific as Nicolas Cage’s portrayal of a suicidal, alcoholic screenwriter was in “Leaving Las Vegas,” it’s fair to wonder if he would have won the Best Actor prize if he weren’t of noble Hollywood blood. In the year in which “Braveheart” won Best Picture, “Leaving Las Vegas” wasn’t even nominated.

All of that is a long way of saying that Emmett Scalan’s tour-de-force portrayal of a total scumbag in “Charlie Casanova” is worth the effort to rent, but no one should expect to come away from the experience unscarred. The title character of Terry McMahon’s unforgiving Irish drama is a wealthy ego-maniac who feels the world owes him a living and if anything he’s done has harmed another human, well, it isn’t his fault. In Charlie’s mind, his detractors are merely envious of his privileged status and ability to avoid punishment. They’d do the same thing if they were in his shoes, he reckons. We know this because in the aftermath of an accident in which he kills a pedestrian, he determines how he will deal with it by drawing from a deck of cards while among friends. When brought in for interrogation by police, Charlie insults their working-class roots and educations he deems inferior to his own. If his friends fear his mood swings, they are too easily won over by his glib, rapid-fire braggadocio. As an “alpha male,” he refuses to be guided by the morals of lesser beings, which is to say, everyone else in his orbit.

And yet, Scalan’s portrayal of this unrepentant elitist could hardly be any more forceful or penetrating. The soliloquies he performs at a comedy club’s amateur night reveal a man who understands exactly the nature of his disease, where to find the root cause of his evil deeds and why he won’t change his ways. If no one outside a handful of festivals, including SXSW, was able to see Scalan’s bravura turn on the big screen, the blame can be traced to the fact that “Charlie Casanova” was deemed to be far too unappetizing for human consumption by distributors. It deeply divided critics and audiences without providing a safe middle ground for lively debate or compromise. McMahon was roasted and toasted in equal measure, with the toxicity of the negative reviews reaching levels previously reserved for “Showgirls,” “Heaven’s Gate” and “Battlefield Earth.” Finding positive traction in muck that deep is pretty difficult, though. The one thing “Charlie Casanova” shares with “Robert Mitchum Is Dead” is the niche distributor BrinkVision, a company that “strives for an audience that, while demanding innovative and original entertainment, knows the struggles associated with that endeavor, and is willing to support the cause.” Someone’s got to do it. – Gary Dretzka

My Neighbor Tortoro/Howl’s Moving Castle: Blu-ray
As a shorthand way of introducing the work of animator Hayao Miyazaki to American audiences in the mid-1990s, critics frequently referred to him as “the Walt Disney of Japan.” While not precise, the description was close enough to sell a few tickets, at least. A couple of Miyazaki’s earlier films had found their way to the U.S., but the dubbing and editing were so poorly handled the maestro refused to ever again give carte blanch to overseas companies. That was OK with Walt Disney Company, which formed an alliance with Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki’s Studio Ghibli, which produces a variety of anime, manga and feature-length films, including “Princess Mononoke” and “Castle in the Sky.” Miyazaki was especially impressed by the amount of time, money and talent Disney invested in the dubbing process. To find an audience beyond the arthouse and anime crowd, it was decided that the best strategy was to draw parallels between visionary showman Disney and Miyazaki, whose movies, while fanciful, often were informed by such hot-button issues as environmentalism, pacifism and feminism. Although they approached the subject matter from different directions, both men were interested in showing how their youngest characters made the transition from childhood to adulthood. Miyazaki, however, consciously avoided confrontations between traditionally conceived heroes and villains. Released in 2001, the Ghibli masterpiece “Spirited Away” grossed $275 million at the international box-office, shared the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival with “Bloody Sunday” and won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Two years ago, Disney began a slow rollout of Blu-ray editions of Ghibli titles, with “My Neighbor Tortoro” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” arguably the most significant releases to date. Made 17 years apart, the films reflect Miyazaki’s obsession with supernatural phenomena in nature, wizardry and flight. In “Totoro,” two young girls move to a home in the country to be near their mother, who’s been hospitalized with a serious ailment. In their yard is a large camphor tree that contains three gods of the forest (a.k.a., tortoros). When one of the girls goes missing while attempting to visit her mother, her sister enlists the tortoros to find her. It leads to an adventure, during which they must overcome obstacles and spirits found in the woods. It may take a bit of time for viewers to adjust to the Blu-ray presentation, as Miyazaki refused to permit Disney to update the watercolor drawings and other filmic contrasts. The adjustment comes easily, though.

Also undergoing a new HD digital transfer and audio upgrade is the fanciful “Howl’s Moving Castle,” based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones. In it, a self-conscious 19-year-old hat-maker is transformed by the Witch of the Waste into a 90-year-old version of herself. To reverse the curse, Sophie hops a ride on a ramshackle ambulatory castle owned by the good wizard, Howl. Together, they must tackle several difficult tasks on the way to a cure for Sophie and save innocent people from an absurd war. Among their allies are a scarecrow, a fire demon, an asthmatic dog and the king’s adviser, Madame Suliman. Both of the Blu-ray/DVD packages contain original Japanese storyboards, several informative making-of featurettes, interviews and marketing materials. Among them are “Miyazaki Visits Pixar,” with the director, Suzuki and studio chief John Lasseter, and “The Locations of Tosoro,” which fixes scenes in the movie to real-life places. – Gary Dretzka

Showtime: Sommer: Chandelier Status
The title of Sommore’s latest performance DVD, “Sommer: Chandelier Status,” refers to her desire to be known as a “constant fixture that keeps on shining,” instead of simply, the “Undisputed Queen of Comedy.” It’s been five years since her “Queen Stands Alone” tour and an even dozen since the “Queens of Comedy” documentary and tour. Apparently, in the meantime, Sommore hasn’t lost any of her chops. The performance, taped in Miami for a Showtime special, is definitely funny. What newcomers should know before diving too deeply into the DVD, however, is that Sommore’s as raunchy as Lisa Lampanelli and Amy Schumer and she throws the N-word around like Kat Williams. That doesn’t make her any less entertaining, but tender ears might be singed by most, if not all of the material. The DVD includes a Q&A session with the comedian. – Gary Dretzka

Longmire: The Complete First Season
Nova: Mind of a Rampage Killer
PBS: 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School
Animal Planet: Weird Creatures With Nick Baker: Series 1
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: Sunny Days!
The closest most folks get to a good TV Western these days are replays of classic movies and television series on TMC, AMC and Encore Westerns channel and occasional made-for- cable movie starring Tom Selleck (“Jesse Stone”) and Luke Perry (“Goodnight”). Since the finale of HBO’s “Deadwood,” the only original series has been the contemporary Western, “Justified.” Its protagonist, Raylan Givens, is a quick-on-the-trigger U.S. Marshall, whose style is closer to Wyatt Earp than Matt Dillon. Add to that meager number A&E’s “Longmire,” which enters its second season this week. The series is based on the mystery series by Craig Johnson, which is set in the fictional Wyoming county of Absaroka. The protagonist, Sheriff Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor), is more Matt Dillon than Wyatt Earp or Raylan Givens. He dresses like the Marlboro Man, looks like a cross between Harrison Ford and George W. Bush, has a desert-dry sense of humor and continues to mourn his wife’s death a year after her passing. Almost all of the critics who reviewed the show’s debut episode referred to Longmire as “laconic.” While accurate, it’s a word almost no one in the Old West could spell, let alone define. Simply put, the sheriff is depressed and occasionally needs a cattle prod to get going. The nice thing is that he’s allowed to evolve during the course of the series — just as personal questions are left unresolved from one week to the next — and maintain an unconventional spiritual side. Not being on premium cable, the good-guy characters on “Longmire” only occasionally cuss, never frequent whores or spit tobacco on the sidewalk. In fact, one of Longmire’s trademark quirks is that he picks up litter as he walks around town. That doesn’t mean the show’s writers ignore such modern distractions as strip clubs, meth labs, drug cartels, hippie cults, Indian casinos, conspiracy theories, RV brothels and “CSI”-style forensics, or the lingering hostilities between the native tribes and government agencies. Unlike “Gunsmoke,” which basically was a Western procedural, the key women characters aren’t relegated to playing barroom bimbos, schoolmarms or wearing calico bonnets to church. They can be as nurturing or cruel as anyone else on the show. Native Americans are fairly represented on both sides of the law and the gorgeous New Mexico locations keep the show from looking as if it were shot on the backlot at Warner Bros. or the Spahn Movie Ranch. The boxed set adds the featurettes, “The Camera’s Eye: Realizing the World of Longmire” and “Longmire Justice: Exploring the Cowboy Detective.”

It’s come to the point where such terms as “sociopath,” “psychopath,” “serial killer,” “spree killer” and “mass murderer” aren’t sufficiently precise to characterize the type of person who, in increasing numbers, is able to walk into a theater, church or classroom and open fire on everyone he sees. These fiends now are known as “rampage killers” and the “Nova” presentation “Mind of a Rampage Killer” uses the testimony of a wide variety of experts to get inside their heads. In 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the observation deck of the landmark tower at the University of Texas and began picking off students walking past it. He knew going into the massacre that there was something desperately wrong with his emotional state and ability to control his actions, but it didn’t deter him. Before Whitman finally was killed, he wrote a letter asking that an autopsy be conducted to see if something physical and ostensibly controllable could have been wrong with him. A tumor the size of a pecan was found in his brain and, for a while, at least, a convenient excuse for such abhorrent behavior was available to scientists, police and concerned citizens. If only prevention could be achieved with a well-timed brain scan, our problems with rampage killers might have ended there and then. Alas, even if the effects of the tumor were linked to Whitman’s crime, they were in evidence in other murderers. It’s now clear that other factors are at work, including depression, suicidal desires, revenge for bullying, negative reactions to drugs and other medications, and lingering effects of childhood trauma. Correspondent Miles O’Brien interviewed scientists, psychiatrists and other academic, of course. He also spoke with the father of a rampage killer, the perpetrator of such a crime and a mother who wrote an op-ed piece on her constant fear her son might be the next headline-making miscreant. We also visit a high-security facility in Wisconsin, where the most fearsome teens are incarcerated and treated.

The two-part PBS presentation, “180 Days: Year Inside an American High School,” provides an in-depth look inside Washington Metropolitan High School, in the nation’s capital. Among the many things that don’t work in Washington, D.C. – Congress, law-enforcement agencies, drug-prevention programs – the city’s public-school system may be the most troubling to observe. Despite a per-student allotment that might be considered satisfactory in other districts, it’s hardly made a dent in the drop-out and literacy rates. In 2007, Mayor Adrian Fenty committed his administration’s assets to reversing the negative trajectory of the school district. It mandated the closing of schools, replacing teachers, firing principals and using private education firms to aid curriculum development. Charter schools have also grown in popularity since the initiative was launched. The controversies and turmoil surrounding the city’s school-reform program have also affected day-to-day activities at DC Met, where the interaction between teachers and at-risk students must be balanced by preparation for mandated, standardized tests. “180 Days” is an impressive presentation, even if what it says about America’s priorities isn’t pretty.

Like Frank Buck, Jacques Cousteau, Marlin Perkins and Steve Irwin before him, British naturalist and adventurer Nick Baker travels to the most exotic locations on Earth in search of the world’s most bizarre critters. Baker has been fascinated with animals his entire life, preferring to spend his free time wandering the halls of British Natural History Museum than do almost anything else. Indeed, the show was produced in collaboration with that august facility. The first season of “Weird Creatures With Nick Baker” has been released on DVD by PBS, which currently is airing repeat episodes from 2007-08. The creatures may not actually be weird, by the usual zoological standards, but they rarely seen and endangered in one way of another. Among Baker’s season-one finds are a blood-squirting lizard, in the Arizona desert; the Amazonian vampire fish; saggy-skinned frogs of Lake Titicaca; a pink fairy armadillo, in South America; the world’s “most unusual crocodile,” in India; basking sharks; and the star-nosed mole, of Manitoba. The locations are as fascinating as the creatures.

Rather than send out season-long compilations of its top kiddie shows, Nickelodeon tends to parcel them out on a PPV basis or in themed packages. As far as I can tell, “Bubble Guppies: Sunny Days!” is the third six-pack of episodes, representing less than half of the two-season run. The latest installment is themed to coincide with the arrival of summer and family-vacation time. As such, the entries include “The Beach Ball!,” “The Legend of Pinkfoot,” “Bring on the Bugs,” “The Sizzling Scampinis!,” “Bubble Duckies!” and “Gup, Gup, and Away!” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Beautiful Creatures: Blu-ray
True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season: Blu-ray
Not having the vaguest clue as to what makes teenagers tick these days, I assumed incorrectly that “Beautiful Creatures” would give “Twilight” a run for its money at the multiplex. From my decidedly adult point of view, I thought that Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of the best-selling young-adult series was more handsomely mounted, better acted and more interesting than the “Twilight” entries. Teenage protagonists Lena and Ethan (Alice Englert, Alden Ehrenreich) were at a disadvantage from the get-go, of course, given the amazing acceptance of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart as lovers, but they look good together and aren’t lacking in chemistry. The relative lack of importance assigned other teenagers by LaGravenese – and noticeable absence of buff, shirtless wolf-boys – probably didn’t help build word-of-mouth. No matter how good Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Eileen Atkins and Jeremy Irons are in the adult roles, they aren’t on the radar of most teenagers. Or, perhaps, teens are as sick of romantic horror movies as everyone else and only there’s only room in their hearts for one such franchise … two, if TV’s “True Blood” is counted. If it weren’t for worldwide box-office returns, “Beautiful Creatures” would have missed it production nut by $40 million, instead of breaking even. It deserves to do better in its DVD/Blu-ray/VOD afterlife.

Lena (Englert), the new girl in town, lives with her Uncle Macon Ravenwood (Irons) and Gramma (Atkins) in a spooky Gothic estate that’s been vacant and presumed haunted for many years. The God-fearing Protestants in the small Southern town aren’t keen to learn that the Ravenwood clan is back in residence and, after Lena unleashes her “caster” powers on the “popular” bioches at school, they demand she be expelled. Like Barnabas Collins in “Dark Shadows,” though, Macon is quick to remind the bible-bangers that everything in town, including their church, exists at the behest of his ancestors’ generosity. Ethan digs Lena because she’s the only girl within miles that’s heard of Holden Caulfield and, like him, enjoys reading banned books. After he rescues her from a bad scene at school, Lena turns Ethan on to Charles Bukowski’s poetry. That would qualify as a stretch in most movies. The rest of the Ravenwood family is coming to town to participate in Lena’s coming-of-age ritual, at which time she will have to break Ethan’s heart forever or face the same terrible fate as her mother, who exists primarily as a dark specter and shape-shifter. The curse on all women sharing Lena’s bloodline was generated after a distant relative brought her human lover back to life during a Civil War battle. (For the record: casters are to witches, what the X-Men are to the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and those who live “in the dark” are the most evil of them all.) As luck would have it, Ethan’s African-American guardian (Davis) has a history with Uncle Macon and neither is interested in putting the kids in harm’s way. As Lena’s 16th birthday nears, “Beautiful Creatures” shifts into paranormal overdrive.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie, perhaps because I could listen to Irons and Thompson read the London phonebook and be entertained. Rossum, too, is allowed plenty of room to vamp up her demonic character. The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes and a 24-minute compilation of “Focus Point” featurettes, including interviews with the authors.

After five seasons of life on HBO, it’s easy to forget that “True Blood” faced a sobering amount of indifference upon its launch on the premium-cable network. The network spent a ton of money trying to find an audience for the sexy vampire drama, covering every base from viral marketing and giving stuff away at ComiCon, to creating a True Blood beverage and handing out tapes of the first episode to Blockbuster customers. Regardless, it would open to disappointing ratings – compared to “Big Love” and, even, “John From Cincinnati” – and generally lukewarm reviews. By mid-season, the tide had turned. Newcomers were able to catch up via frequent repeats and creator Alan Ball was able to focus on the evolution of the story, rather than having to explain the motivations of the characters ad nauseam as the season went on. The second-season premiere was greeted with numbers second only to the recent finale of “The Sopranos.” Fans will continue to argue the merits of one season over previous years’ storylines and characters. Some feel the show “jumped the shark” after Season 1, while others can’t wait for the oft-promised Vampire Apocalypse to begin. Technically, “True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season” is a treat to watch on Blu-ray. Among the goodies are five commentaries with cast and crew; Enhanced Viewing Mode options are available on each episode, as are “Inside the Episodes” breakouts; the sixth episode, “Hopeless,” is given an hourlong “Autopsy”; an updated family tree; character “confessionals”; and DVD and digital copies. – Gary Dretzka

Cloud Atlas: Blu-ray
The first time I can remember being totally fooled and manipulated by special makeup effects – delightfully so, I should add – was as a wee lad, at the tail end of John Huston’s tricky 1963 mystery, “The List of Adrian Messenger.” In fact, I was twice confused by the use of disguised faces in the unraveling of the story. Once, when the faces of several of the heavily made-up characters were revealed to be those of A-list stars; second, when I learned that the cameo appearances, themselves, were ruses. In fact, most of the characters were played by stand-in actors, with the stars only adding their glitter as a favor to Huston. It was a cool gimmick and the first that required me to maintain a no-spoiler policy with friends. I was carried back in time to “Adrian Messenger” by the primary conceit of “Cloud Atlas.” As far as I can tell, more than 90 characters in “Cloud Atlas” are portrayed by a couple dozen actors, some un-credited or hardly known, with each of the stars taking on as many as six different parts and alternating genders. You’ll recognize most, but certainly not all of them in the guises. As adapted and directed by Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) and Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”), “Cloud Atlas” does a good job capturing the magic, mayhem and mechanics of David Mitchell’s much-celebrated 2004 novel. In doing so, however, the creative team requires of viewers that they not only suspend disbelief for most of its 172-minute length, but also keep track of its six “nested” stories. They take place in wildly diverse settings, from 1849 in the South Pacific, to a post-apocalyptic Earth and beyond. Vastly different iterations of the same characters appear in each of the interwoven stories – some bearing similar markings or humming the same tune – giving us reason to believe that the Butterfly Effect isn’t limited to a single plane of being in the physical world. In effect, the trajectories of our lives and incarnations are determined by astronomical configurations so dense with stars and interstellar debris that an atlas is necessary to chart the echoes of time. Feelings of déjà vu hint at where we’ve been, if not where we’re going … or something like that.

If all that metaphysical mumbo-jumbo sounds intimidating, imagine how the principal actors — Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whislaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Susan Sarandon — felt when they were handed their scripts. Or, when they were told that the Wachowskis would direct the 1849, 2144 and 2321 segments, while Tykwer would handle 1936, 1973 and 2012. The theatrical version of “Cloud Atlas” inspired spirited debate among mainstream critics, dividing them roughly in half on its merits as an investment in time and effort. In Blu-ray, it’s a no-brainer. Movies this divisive – even the negative reviews offered degrees of praise – more often than not deserve to be seen, anyway, even if one sacrifices the big-screen environment. Here, the set designs, special effects and costumes are worth the price of a rental, alone, and, beyond that, the acting is flawless. And, yes, “Cloud Atlas” can be as maddening and bewildering as any synopsis might seem to people already averse to the traits admired by sci-fi and fantasy nerds. Certainly, it’s no more challenging than the Wachowskis’ “Matrix” trilogy. The Blu-ray package adds seven informative making-of featurettes, several of which even include the observations of the infrequently heard and rarely seen, Lana Wachowski. They tend to repeat themselves, but are better than no explanations at all. It’s likely that a more grandiose package will arrive eventually, possibly with commentary and deleted scenes. That’s pretty much the norm these days with high-profile projects. Among them are discussions of Mitchell’s novel and how one goes about translating an “un-filmable” book and how three writer/directors can co-exist on the same project. The audio-visual presentation is excellent, as well. Wal-mart shoppers will find a special edition that contains a VUDU digital copy. – Gary Dretzka

Nightfall: Blu-ray
In “Eastern Promises,” David Cronenberg staged a fight in a London bathhouse so savage that it raised the bar on all gangster punch-outs to come. For my money, the shower-room skirmish that opens Roy Chow Hin-Yeung’s thriller, “Nightfall,” runs a pretty close second. The setting is a Hong Kong prison, where a scrawny young convict — convicted in a rape/murder he claims he didn’t commit — is required to do battle with three gangsters who probably would kill people even if they didn’t get paid to do it. Using every corner, edge, drain plate and blunt object available to him, Wong (Nick Cheung) destroys the brutes at their own game. The fight is as painful to watch in some places as it is thrilling. After barely surviving the beat-down, Wong takes it upon himself to buff up for the test of survival he knows will come every time he leaves his cell over the next 15-20 years. By the time he’s released on parole, Wong is fully prepared to avenge the wrong that landed him in prison in the first place. He secures a job as a piano tuner, a skill he retained from civilian life, and it puts him suspiciously close to two people who soon will figure into his master plan. One is a celebrated classical musician, while the other is a talented young pianist who we soon learn is his daughter. Without revealing too much of the story to come, suffice it to say that Wong has a history with both of them. What we don’t know is if Wong will punish the father by attacking the daughter or whether his attention to the daughter is simply one of several red herrings Chow and writer To Chi-long are throwing at us.

When the musician is found dead, floating in the ocean, the detective assigned to the case, Lam (Simon Yam), simply puts 2 and 2 together and comes up with Wong’s number. Absent evidence pinning him to the crime, however, the simple equation turns into a cat-and-mouse chase covering much of Hong Kong. The jaded cop, Lam, is carrying a heavy load of baggage of his own and it becomes an issue with his partner and squad. The investigation and pursuit reminded me of “Old Boy” and “Law & Order.” It also has contains a fight scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond movie. Some viewers will see the climax coming a mile away, but it’s more fun simply to sit back and let the action come to you. The Blu-ray arrives with a 47-minute making-of featurette that, while interesting, will please Hong Kong audiences and longtime fans of the actors more than newcomers. – Gary Dretzka

A Common Man: Blu-ray
If it weren’t for the presence of Ben Kingsley in the lead role, “A Common Man” would be just another under-realized movie that didn’t warrant a theatrical run or DVD distribution outside the market of origin, Sri Lanka. In fact, there are times when the topical, tropical terrorist thriller – a remake of the 2008 Indian film, “A Wednesday” – feels more like a vanity project than a movie that cried out to be made. That co-writer/director Chandran Rutnam was able to convince Kingsley to headline the project automatically makes “Common Man” of interest to international audiences, however. Sri Lanka has only recently begun to recover from a long and painful civil war, so, like everything else in the island nation, the evolution of a national cinema had to be put on hold for more than two decades. Because of the terribly brutal nature of that struggle, Kingsley’s portrayal of a terrorist bomb maker (a.k.a., the Man) didn’t require any suspension of disbelief among local viewers. As we know all too well, by now, a terrorist can look like an Academy Award-winning actor, the religious fanatic down the street or someone who could easily blend into a crowd at a major sporting event. Here, the movie opens with Kingsley methodically planting bombs in five different locations in the capital city of Colombo and then moving to a perch on a tall building overlooking the ocean. It allows him to monitor police radio transmissions and detonate the bombs without structural interference, if his demands aren’t met.

It only takes about 20 minutes to get to this point in the drama and Kingsley’s coldly efficient approach to his unstated mission is frightening to watch. The rest of the movie is consumed both with the unusual decision to meet his demands – the release of four convicted terrorists – and the police hunt for the Man’s whereabouts. We know that the wife of one of the cops involved in the investigation is sitting in a train car in which the Man has planted a bomb, but, otherwise, the emotional connection between the disparate key characters is pretty shaky. Neither is the depiction of the police work all that convincing. The resolution does come as something of a surprise, however. “A Wednesday” received solid reviews and was nominated for several awards, so it’s a bit of a mystery as to why Rutnam decided to re-boot the movie after only four years, moving the location from Mumbai to Colombo. Nevertheless, the setting could just as well have been Boston on Patriots’ Day and the story would still work. All the better if Kingsley agreed to reprise the role. – Gary Dretzka

Love Sick Love
Look up “crazy-girlfriend movies” on the Internet and you’ll find barely enough titles to constitute a sub-genre. Psycho-boyfriends of the Mr. Goodbar persuasion are far more prevalent, as are psycho-roommates and psycho-wives. “Fatal Attraction” gave pause to married men considering a tryst on the side, while “Misery” argued against taking all acts of charity for granted. Otherwise, the odds against a guy being done in by a woman he picks up at a bar or nightclub – in the movies, at least – are pretty much in the man’s favor. “Love Sick Love” is a smallish black comedy that merges elements of “Misery,” “Fatal Attraction” and, for good measure, a pinch of the Addams Family. What it doesn’t provide is a reason to care about what happens to the unsuspecting boyfriend. In fact, it’s just as easy to embrace the crazies. Katia Winter is very convincing as Dori, a pretty serial dater who is as sweet as cherry pie one day and bat-shit crazy the next morning. After hooking up with the handsome cad, Norman (Matthew Settle), Dori invites him to spend the weekend with her at the family’s summer house in Upstate New York. The first night is a slice of heaven, but, when he awakes the next morning, Norman is confronted with a pair of children he wasn’t aware existed and Dori’s exceedingly wacky grandparents (old pros M. Emmet Walsh and Charlotte Rae). The first sign of real trouble comes when Dori and the kids pretend to be celebrating a holiday that’s well past and they insist that Norman join in the “fun.” This inexplicably goes on all weekend, with the holiday changing every couple of hours. When the boyfriend refuses to play along any longer, Dori and the grandparents makes him a prisoner, using everything from duct tape to chains and a makeshift suit of armor to keep him from escaping. Being an amoral real-estate developer in Manhattan, it’s difficult to find much sympathy for Norman, even when the picture of a lady caller pops up on his cellphone and Dori treats it as a betrayal of their “love.” Director Christian Charles has worked on some of Jerry Seinfeld’s side projects, but doesn’t have the movie thing down yet. If “Love Sick Love” isn’t quite ready for the big leagues, it still has enough going for it to give male viewers a few shivers and their girlfriends a few laughs at their expense. – Gary Dretzka

This Girl Is Bad-Ass!!: Blu-ray
The latest comedic assault from popular Thai actor/director/writer Petchtai Wongkamlao originally was titled “Jukkalan,” after its lead female character, JeeJa Yanin. On DVD and Blu-ray, it’s being sent out as “This Girl Is Bad-Ass!!,” which should ring a bell in the heads of fans of Matthew Vaughn’s wildly entertaining, “Kick-Ass,” if not the Danny Trejo straight-to-DVD actioner, “Bad Ass.”  Both films feature a girl protagonist who can beat the crap out of her male enemies, while performing acrobatic stunts that remind us of Jackie Chan. If “This Girl Is Bad-Ass!!” were only half as coherent and competently made as “Kick-Ass,” it would stand a chance as an appealing oddity among martial-arts cultists. As it is, there are several scenes – one in which the girl uses a bicycle as a shield and weapon – that qualify it as a guilty pleasure. Jukkalan serves as a messenger for a rogues’ gallery of underworld types, who seemingly can’t find anyone older to deliver their money and drugs. When a shipment is hijacked, Jukkalan finds herself caught in the crossfire of threats and recriminations. Undaunted, the girl is every bit as bad-ass as the title suggests. Most nutty, though, are the gangsters and their henchmen she battles in the streets of Bangkok. They look funny, dress funny and say things that, in Thailand, probably are funny. There’s even a collection of bad-ass “little people” who train for and compete in Muy Thai competitions. As in Wongkamlao’s series of “Bodyguard” and “Ong-bak” flicks – along with Yanin’s breakthrough, “Chocolate” — the action is fast and furious. – Gary Dretzka

Last Kind Words
An Irish Vampire in Hollywood
The ABC’s of Death: Blu-ray
Mold
The Dark Dealer
The presence of veteran character actor Brad Dourif in a movie or television series is enough to recommend a second look, at least, to lovers of twisted genre entertainment. Although his best work came early in his career in such classy entertainments as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Wise Blood” and “Ragtime,” he was terrific in the HBO series “Deadwood” and remains a brand-name asset in any thriller or horror flick. In Kevin Barker’s very decent ghost story, “Last Kind Words,” he plays a Kentucky farmer whose property is also home to spirits that can be traced to the Civil War. The landowner has brought in a family to help him complete the tobacco harvest and is letting them live in a trailer there. Seventeen-year-old Eli (Spencer Daniels) avoids the drunken outbursts of his father by spending the night walking around the farm, occasionally spotting apparitions hanging from trees or finding himself being seduced by a mysterious redhead (Alexia Fast). Eventually, the farmer reveals secrets of his own to Eli and, of course, they’re linked inexplicably to the spook show in the cordoned-off back-40 acres. The biggest problem with “Last Kind Words” is Barker’s insistence on adding a separate romantic through-line to the story and an overly heavy-handed, if convenient threat to the farmer from local gangsters. Otherwise, it marks a nice start to Barker’s feature career.

An Irish Vampire in Hollywood” (a.k.a., “An Irish Vampire Goes West”) is a rough-around-the-edges indie that’s been sitting around on someone’s shelf for the last six years and is only now getting a release on DVD. Although the movie has DIY written all over it, “Irish Vampire” has one thing going for it that the vast majority of all such supernatural films don’t and that’s Ireland. Along with Mexico, the Emerald Isle is one of the most magically realistic countries on the planet. Even without the twin vampires and mad scientists we meet here, Ireland already is populated with leprechauns, faeries and enough religious mysticism to fill a hundred movies. Add to that the many ruined castles, weathered cemeteries and sacred pubs and you have backdrops for horror Hollywood set-dressers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-create. The movie opens not in Hollywood, but in Venice, where an actress is kidnapped by one of the twin vampires and taken back to Ireland to be laid in the Old Sod. The woman’s sister gets wind of the abduction and finds herself in the middle of a sticky situation that somehow also involves their father and his land. I lost track of the plot about a third of the way through “Irish Vampire,” but the atmosphere was intriguing enough to keep me watching. The standard-issue vampire lore is amplified by cinematography that seems influenced by “Nosferatu” and other ancient horror classics.

Too ambitious by at least half, “The ABCs of Death” is an anthology that is simultaneously too much of one thing and not enough of the other. The conceit demands that 26 directors create 26 films no longer than five minutes each, describing 26 ways people can die, according to the 26 letters in the alphabet. The titles range from “A Is for Apocalypse” and “B Is for Bigfoot,” to “Y Is for Youngbuck” and “Z Is for Zetsumetsu,” with stops in between for “F Is for Fart,” “K Is for Klutz” and “T Is for Toilet.” And, yes, quite a few of the shorts wallow in scatological humor. Some are fun, while others require a cast-iron stomach to sit through. Among the better-know directors are Adam Wingard (“V/H/S”), Ben Wheatley (“Kill List”), Srdjan Spasojevic (“A Serbian Film”), Yoshihiro Nishimura (“Tokyo Gore Police”) and Angela Bettis (“Roman”). Fans of extreme new-school horror will enjoy the entries more than longtime genre followers.

It a storyline that might have been inspired by the Nixon administration’s unsuccessful attempt to eradicate the  world’s marijuana crop with paraquat, “Mold” describes what happens scientists working at the behest of President Reagan’s DEA create a fungus to wipe out the coca fields of South America. Without leaving the confines of a laboratory that looks as if it were constructed of cardboard, the chemical reveals itself to be as lethal to humans as it is to the banned substances. The damage caused by the genetically engineered herbicide put the talent of the project’s makeup-effects to the fill test. “Mold” is wildly gory and the fungus resembles a steroid-enhanced corruption of the monster in “The Blob.” Not at all pretentious, however, Neil Meschino’s debut feature is the kind of movie aspiring effects wizards should watch to see what it takes to get their showcase reel noticed. The DVD adds plenty of making-of material.

Made in 1995 and just surfacing now, “The Dark Dealer” is a thorough mess in which Satan gives several miscreants an opportunity to save their souls by taking him on in a game of poker or blackjack. The cobbled-together feel derives from the decision to take two short films and wrap connecting tissue to them to create a feature-length picture. Unfortunately, the sum of its parts is of far less value than the original shorts. One of them expands on the myth of a bluesman whose devilishly good material is stolen 30 years after his uncelebrated death by a white lawyer and sold as if he’d written it. That sin tarnishes everyone records the songs. The other segments aren’t nearly as coherent as “Blues in the Night,” but, given the budget, it’s fortunate that “Dark Dealer” was completed, at all. – Gary Dretzka

The Town That Dreaded Sundown: Blu-ray
The Burning: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Captain America: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In 1976, slasher films had yet to be accorded even sub-genre status in the horror/exploitation arena. The outrage of mainstream critics toward “women in jeopardy” and “dead-teenager movies” had yet to be registered and trick-or-treaters had yet to don masks of their favorite serial killers to solicit goodies on Halloween. Set-designer Charles B. Pierce was one of the pioneers of the form, creating such low-budget actioners as “Bootleggers,” “Grayeagle,” “The Norsemen,” “The Evictors” and “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” mostly for consumption in Southern drive-ins. “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” represented a slight departure from the stereotype in that it was a docudrama that chronicled an actual series of brutal attacks that became known as the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders.” Although gory as all get-out, Pierce’s movie was built from a template used in decades’ worth of police procedurals, including the unseen narrator and small doses of comic relief. All that was known about the fiend, whose crimes began in 1946, was he covered his face with a flour sack and struck every 21 days in secluded places where young couples parked to neck and pet. The great mid-century Western star Ben Johnson stars as a celebrated Texas Ranger, J.D. Morales, who was called in to apprehend the killer. That Texas’ top investigator failed only added to the likelihood that he might still be on the loose and targeting teens elsewhere. The marketing campaign emphasized that possibility, of course. In fact, a sequel is being made, in which the killer strikes during one of the annual outdoor screenings of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” in Texarkana. Typically, the Shout! Factory Blu-ray release is full of updated featurettes and interviews and is distinguished by a superb digital facelift.

Made in 1981, “The Burning” is credited with several noteworthy inventions. It wasn’t the first slasher picture to be set at a summer camp for teenagers – “Friday the 13th” is accorded that honor – but one legend argues that “The Burning” was written before Sean S. Cunningham began filming his camp-counselor-in-danger thriller. What is most interesting about “The Burning,” however, is its pedigree. Among other things, it is considered to be the first feature produced by Miramax Films. It was created and produced by Harvey Weinstein, from an original story he wrote with future mogul Brad Grey and director Tony Maylam. The screenplay was co-written by Bob Weinstein, and various other Weinsteins and Greys lent their support to the project, as well. Rick Wakeman, the former keyboard wizard of Yes, produced the soundtrack. But, wait, there’s more. Among the campers who become the prey of revenge killer, Cropsy, are then-newcomers Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter, Leah Ayres, Ned Eisenberg and Brian Backer. It also was one of the first noteworthy credits for special effects and makeup wizard Tom Savini. Once again, the Shout! Factory upgrade looks better than it has any right to be and the fresh interviews add much to our enjoyment.

The much-maligned 1990 version of “Captain America” was reissued as part of MGM’s on-demand series almost simultaneously with the release of Paramount’s mega-budget “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Made at a small fraction of the re-boot’s $160-million budget, Albert Pyun’s version is remarkably similar to its successor. The primary differences derive from the exponentially more sophisticated CGI effects and enlistment of an all-star cast. And, while “Captain America” launched straight-to-video, “CA:TFA” is ramping up for a 2014 sequel. More than two decades later, the special effects remain as cheesy as ever and the women supervillains still looks sexy while hoisting automatic weapons. Matt Salinger plays the American soldier who’s been given the superpowers – and shield – necessary to defend democracy against a superhuman Nazi, Red Skull (Scott Paulin). The endangered President of the United States is played by Ronny Cox. The chases and fights in Pyun’s version of the story may harken back to those in the first generation of James Bond rip-offs, but the Croatian and Slovenian locations help make us forget how low-rent the production really was. The Shout! Factory Blu-ray is sharper than it has any right to look and it adds a looking-back featurette with reminiscences by Pyun and Salinger. – Gary Dretzka

Rolling Thunder: Blu-ray
In 1968, when “The Green Berets” was released, Hollywood was more than happy to jump on the Pentagon bandwagon. The antiwar movement was still finding its legs and the divisive Democratic Convention was still a month away from the July 4 premiere. Moreover, John Wayne’s Batjac Productions would be assuming most of the expenses. Despite some ultra-negative reviews, it ended making money. It would take Hollywood almost a decade to figure out a way to exploit the war and not look like a tool of the Republican Party. A year before the 1978 release of such well-considered pictures as “Go Tell the Spartans,” “Who Will Stop the Rain,” “The Boys in Company C,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home.” The crazy-vet subgenre didn’t disappear overnight and neither did such vet-as-vigilante movies as “Rolling Thunder.” Neither did the fall of Saigon to the NVA and Viet Cong help the studios figure out how to respond to a decade’s worth of carnage.

Co-written by Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver”) and Heywood Gould (“The Boys From Brazil”), “Rolling Thunder” was scheduled by Fox to be one of its highlighted titles of 1977. When the brass saw the finished product, however, executives were so put off by the violence and a horribly negative test screening that they handed it off to the exploitation mavens at AIP. According to Schrader, they also reshaped the movie from an indictment of our Vietnam misadventure and fascism to revenge picture with characters the drive-in crowd was more able to digest. As the movie opens, former longtime POW Major Charles Rane (William Devane) returns to a hero’s welcome in San Antonio. He’s accompanied by a fellow Texan and prisoner-of-war, Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones). Neither is much interested in sharing much information about their ordeal with the local press and family members. Mirrored sunglasses hide their emotions from the public and the pain that comes to Rane when his wife informs him of her intentions to marry an old friend. Not even the red Cadillac convertible and $2,500 in silver dollars he received from community leaders can cut through the disappointment of losing his wife and, possibly, the son who hardly knows him. He maintains his stoicism even after some bad hombres break into his home to steal his silver dollars, cut off a hand and murder his family.

When his arm and heart begin to heal, Rane decides to grab his new soldier-groupie girlfriend and head for the border, where he suspects the bad guys are laying low. It takes a while before he can exact his revenge, but, with Vohden’s ready assistance, he finds justice in Old Mexico. The original script had “allegory” written all over it, but the finished product was cut to resemble genre fare. As it is, “Rolling Thunder” isn’t a bad movie and it looks pretty good in Studio Canal’s Blu-ray edition. (It was released on DVD two years ago, but in a manufactured-on-demand basis.) The package includes the film’s original theatrical trailer and TV spot; an interview with actress Linda Haynes; and audio commentary with Gould. – Gary Dretzka

Irvine Welsh’s Ecstacy
When Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel, “Trainspotting,” was released in 1996, it was greeted by critics and arthouse habitués as something new and completely different from the usual portrayal of white punks on dope. It zigged and zagged along at a frantic pace, depicting the high highs and low lows of addiction in ways that mostly spared audiences the quivering and quaking clichés of euphoria and withdrawal. A few years later, Darren Aronofsky’s manic retelling of Hubert Selby’s “Requiem for a Dream” would trump its intensity and drama, while such gritty films as “Down to the Bone,” “Spun,” “The Salton Sea” and “Blow” followed suit. Had it been made a dozen years ago, “Irvine Welsh’s Ecstacy” would have fit alongside these titles and “24 Hour Party People” as a cautionary tale about irresistible temptations. Like “Trainspotting,” Rob Heydon borrows from the Irvine Welsh catalog of stories about life among Edinburgh’s youthful drug abusers. Ecstacy, whose scientific name is MDMA, taken in its purest form induces a sense of euphoria in its partakers, as well as an urge for intimacy and lessening of anxiety. Research into the effects of the drug has yet to reveal any long-term damage, but, like aspirin, it can be misused and cause adverse reactions.

The biggest drawback to Ecstacy in the movies, at least, is the illegality of procuring, transporting, selling and carrying it. In this way, Heydon’s first feature resembles “Layer Cake.” By banning it, governments have ensured that some awfully bad people will go to great lengths to fulfill the insatiable appetite of party animals and nightclub denizens. Here, a small-time trafficker falls prey to the same greed that upends most criminals. When he’s late in a payment to his underworld boss, the weight of the world begins to fall on his shoulders. In addition to having to scramble for cash, he loses the girlfriend who thinks his way with words comes naturally, instead of as a byproduct of MDMA and cocaine. It’s an ancient story, but Heydon’s retelling of it suffers from familiarity. The dancing and sex scenes could have been filmed any time within the last 20 years and the frenetic editing also borders on the cliché. Other than that, I have no real problems with “Ecstacy.” It’s well acted and entertaining, as far as it goes, but too often plays like a broken record. – Gary Dretzka

Struck by Lightning: Blu-ray
Chris Colfer, who turns 23 this week, probably will be asked to play high school seniors for another five years or until his high-pitched voice finally breaks. In “Struck by Lightning,” which he stars in and wrote, Colfer plays a character not very unlike the one he personifies in “Glee.” Here, though, his Carson Philips doesn’t have to battle homophobia or defend himself against bullies. Instead of spending his free time with the glee club, in “Struck by Lightning” is in charge of his school’s literary magazine. It isn’t a very popular extracurricular activity, so he has to come up with sneaky ways to fill its pages. And, no, he isn’t averse to resorting to blackmail. Carson has other problems, including being a longshot candidate for placement at Northwest University; a mother (Allison Janney), whose bitterness manifests itself in alcoholism and cruel personal attacks on her son; an estranged father (Dermot Mulroney), who’s more interested in building birdcages than sharing time with him; the baby soon to be delivered by his father’s much-younger girlfriend (Christina Hendricks); and teachers who openly side with the cool kids and jocks over the geeks and nerds. The kicker is revealed in the opening moments of Brian Dannelly’s movie, when Carson is struck by lightning in the school parking lot, so no spoiler alert is necessary. The boy narrates his own story, strictly from his semi-sarcastic point of view. The tried-and-true premise will resonate more with teenagers than adult fans of “Glee,” although Colfer’s charisma should be enough to draw some of them into it. He gets excellent support from Rebel Wilson, whose character enjoys editing the literary journal as much as Carson. The Blu-ray adds a “Story Behind the Scene” featurette; interviews with Colfer and Dannelly; bloopers; and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Saving Hope: The Complete First Season
Nature: The Mysteries of Eels
BBC: The Royal Collection
Made in Canada for a summer 2012 airing on NBC, “Saving Hope” is a hospital drama with a supernatural twist. While the body of Chief of Surgery Charlie Harris (Michael Shanks) lies in a coma in one corner of Toronto’s Hope Zion Hospital, his spirit wanders its hallways looking for ways to ease the transition from life to death for terminal patients. Conveniently, Harris is also able to monitor the comings and goings of his fiancée and fellow surgeon, Alex Reid (Erica Durance), and other former associates. The series was greeted by good ratings in its opening stanza, but the gimmick and resemblance to “Grey’s Anatomy” stymied its growth. The last two episodes in its run were pulled from the air and shown only on the network’s online service. They’re included here. “Saving Hope” has been picked up in Canada, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that it might return here someday. The DVD package includes interviews with Durance, Shanks and Daniel Gillies, as well as behind-the-scenes footage.

The “Nature” presentation, “The Mysteries of Eels,” doesn’t attempt to make a case for eels being as cute as clownfish or as majestic as a sperm whale. It accepts as given that most people are disgusted by its snakelike appearance, slimy flesh and fearsome teeth and that they breed in such numbers they might rival cockroaches in their ability to survive the apocalypse. If an increasing number of diners didn’t consider some fresh- and saltwater species so tasty, it’s possible they wouldn’t have any human allies. The eels considered by naturalist/artist/writer James Prosek are the most prosaic of a lot that also includes exotic morays, evil morays and the amazing electric species, although, technically, it’s a lethal variety of knifefish. The PBS show focuses on eels common to rivers in the American Northeast and in New Zealand, where the giant strains are treated as mystical creatures by the Maori. Prosek explores the long-unanswered question of where the breeding grounds are located and how they know when to move from rivers to the sea. Neither does he ignore the fact that while some upstart anglers in New England are getting rich trapping tiny eels for transport to China and Japan, the ones native to Japan and other places are in danger of extinction.

As if to test the ability of commoners to consume unending tidbits of information about the British royals, this summer will bring the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and the expected safe delivery of her heir apparent: Prince William and Catherine Middleton’s baby. To celebrate and/or exploit the occasions, BBC Home Entertainment is releasing a boxed set of its most interesting royal titles. “BBC: The Royal Collection” is comprised of “The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II,” which explores the backstory to the Queen’s 1953 coronation; “King George and Queen Mary: The Royals Who Rescued the Monarchy,” about the couple that saved the Royal Family from near obsolescence and created the House of Windsor; “Queen Victoria’s Children,” a look into the tumultuous relationship between Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children”; and “How to Be a Prince,” which shows what it was like for Prince William to grow up royal and how his upbringing by Princess Diana stood in stark contrast to his many predecessors. The BBC always is the right source for such historic overviews. – Gary Dretzka

LEGO Batman: The Movie: DC Super Heroes Unite: Blu-ray
Adventures of Bailey: Welcome to Cowtown
The idea of familiar superheroes being re-created in the likeness of LEGO blockheads remains more than a little bit curious to me. Such mergers of iconic entertainment brands always takes some getting used to, no matter how inevitable they’ve become. It’s nice to see that the companies have spared no expenses to ensure their products’ integrity. Despite the the unwieldy title, “LEGO Batman: The Movie: DC Super Heroes Unite,” the story should be familiar enough, even to newcomers to the comic legends. Based on a new video game, it describes what happens when a man-of-the-year ceremony forBruce Wayne is interrupted by the Joker, Riddler, Catwoman and Two-Face. Upset that Wayne is getting all the attention from the community, Lex Luthor recruits Joker to join him in his pursuit of the public office and deployment of the Black LEGO Destructor Ray on Gotham. The call for help goes out to Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Justice League. The feature-length movie adds several cinematic touches not available to the video-game developers. The special Blu-ray package includes the featurette, “Building Batman”; three bonus cartoons; a LEGO Batman stop-motion short; and winning shorts from the LEGO DC Universe Super Heroes video contest. The UltraViolet feature allows fans to stream and download the material to their computers, as well as compatible Android, iPhone, iPod and iPad devices. It also offers a Clark Kent/Superman LEGO mini-figure.

Just when Bailey the Labrador settles into one new home, his owners pick up their stakes and move to a completely different environment. In the new feature-length “Adventures of Bailey: Welcome to Cowtown,” The heroic canine and his brother, Duke, find themselves in reasonable facsimile of the Old West. Bailey flips for a Pomeranian sweetie, Trixie, whose brother has been kidnaped and is being held for ransom in historic Cowtown. It should prove to be great fun for the youngest viewers, who don’t mind that the dogs’ jaws don’t move when communicating with each other. How old-fashioned is that?  – Gary Dretzka

4 Movie Collection: Hollywood Hits
The latest batch of compilations from Mill Creek Entertainment offers a lot of entertainment for under $10 a set. This time around there’s a little bit of something for everyone. The selections include campy bombs, little seen treasures and genre oddities. Horror fans will enjoy “The Return of the Vampire,” with Bela Lugosi; Hammer Film’s “Revenge of Frankenstein”; William Castle’s “Mr. Sardonicus”; and “Brotherhood of Satan,” with Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones. All are from the Columbia catalog. For something lighter, there’s the caper flick “Cops and Robbersons”; Bill Cosby’s disastrous “Leonard Part 6”; Mike Nichols’ sci-fi turkey, “What Planet Are You From?,” with Garry Shandling, John Goodman, Greg Kinnear and Annette Bening; and “Vibes,” with Cyndi Lauper, Jeff Goldblum and Peter Falk. Erotic thrillers are represented by “In the Cut,” with Meg Ryan; “Shadow of a Doubt”; “The Quiet” and “Trapped.”

The other boxed sets include Stefan Ruzowitzky’ medical thrillers “Anatomy” and “Anatomy 2,” Chen Kuo-fu’s fungus-among-us mystery “Double Vision” and slasher tome “April Fool’s Day”; underexposed thrillers, “The Nines,” with Ryan Reynolds; Melissa McCarthy and Hope Davis; actor/director/writer Anthony Hopkins’ “Slipstream”; John Sayles’ Alaska-based “Limbo”; and “Already Dead,” with Christopher Plummer. There’s also teen and family comedies “Bingo,” “Race the Sun,” “My Stepmother Is an Alien” and “Little Secrets.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Escape: Blu-ray
Don’t let the familiarity of the illustration on the cover of “Escape” discourage you from taking a chance on this surprisingly exciting period adventure from Norway. If it consciously echoes the marketing material for “The Hunger Games,” you should know that almost nothing else resembles that blockbuster, except the courage and spunk of the lead character, Signe, and the occasional bow and arrow. “Escape” is set in the 14th Century, shortly after the Black Death raged through Norway, killing half its population, and superstition ruled the land. Signe has been captured by outlaws determined to avenge the death of their leader’s young daughter and slaughter anyone who gets in their way. There’s no prize awaiting Signe if she survives her ordeal and no Norwegian equivalent for such silly names as Katniss, Primrose, Seneca, Effie and Peeta. What it does share with “Hunger Games,” however, is wall-to-wall action, primitive weaponry and a couple of alpha females. Signe is captured by the renegades after watching her father, mother and brother are viciously slain on their way to a new life in the big city. She’s spared temporarily by the exceedingly Nordic-looking warlord, Dagmar, who either wants Signe to serve as a friend to her pre-teen “daughter,” Frigg, or be offered up as sacrifice for the daughter killed by villagers who suspect they’re responsible for spreading the plague. The men in the gang aren’t nearly as complicated. They simply want to rape and kill Signe, and, if she doesn’t behave, Dagmar might grant them the opportunity. Frigg feels an immediate kinship to the captive, leading us to believe that Dagmar may have kidnaped her, as well. Sensing danger, Frigg helps her new friend escape, then joins her when her own safety is threatened. Their flight plays out against a backdrop of some spectacular Norwegian high-country scenery and there’s no certainty either one of them will succeed.

Director Roar Uthaug and writer Thomas Moldestad previously collaborated on “Cold Prey,” a neat little horror/thriller that reminded me favorably of “The Shining,” minus the ghosts and an ax-wielding Jack Nicholson. It was followed by “Cold Prey 2,” also written by Moldestad, which is set immediately after the events of the first movie in a nearly snowbound rural hospital. Anyone looking for the Next Big Thing from Scandinavia – post-Nicolas Winding Refn, of “Drive” and “Pusher” – need look no further than Uthaug and Moldestad. Their pictures honor genre conventions, while avoiding clichés and easy exploitation. “Escape” is being released unrated, but, if I had a vote, it would be a tossup between PG-13 and R. There’s plenty of violence throughout the picture – of the medieval persuasion — but very little real gore or bloodshed. The Blu-ray looks good and includes some deleted scenes that easily could have extended the movie’s length past 79 minutes and not damaged its pace; bloopers; and a making-of featurette that focuses on the visual effects. – Gary Dretzka

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III: Blu-ray
If you can suspend your disbelief long enough to buy Charlie Sheen as a stand-in for Marcello Mastroianni in Roman Coppola’s re-imagining of “8½,” there’s a fighting chance you’ll enjoy “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III.” Agreed, that’s a big “if,” but the son of Francis Ford Coppola, brother of Sofia, grandson of Carmine, nephew of Talia Shire and cousin of Jonathan Schwartzman and Nicolas Cage has already proven himself capable of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. As the writer of “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Darjeeling Limited” and “CQ,” which he also directed, he’s revealed an imagination uniquely suited to offbeat storytelling. Even so, filtering Sheen through a prism borrowed from Federico Fellini is a conceit that would test the limits of his more famous relatives. Set in the commercial afterglow of the psychedelic ’60s, in a highly stylized Los Angeles, “Charles Swan” reminded me of the fantasy Las Vegas conjured by Francis Ford Coppola in “One From the Heart.” The protagonist is an accomplished graphic designer, inspired by airbrush artist Charles White III, who’s been blocked creatively since the departure of his girlfriend, Ivana (Katheryn Winnick). Her primary gripe is that Swan isn’t terribly interested in living in the present, refusing to surrender souvenirs from previous conquests and abandon habits likely to kill him.

Like Joe Gideon in “All That Jazz,” Swann is self-absorbed, self-destructive, extremely talented and incapable of moderation in his choice of toxins and women whose beauty flatters him. If we weren’t already overly familiar and thoroughly exhausted with this side of Sheen, Coppola might have been able to find a reason for us to empathize with Swan. Sheen gives it his all here, but it’s impossible to separate the actor and character from their press clippings. All that said, there are some wonderful things in “Charles Swan” and it’s always nice to see Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette and Aubrey Plaza in key supporting roles. The set and art design, cinematography, bright soundtrack, period art and tchotchkes all add tantalizing eye candy to the striking visual presentation and are vividly replicated in hi-def here. Coppola seems to have fallen in love with his ideas and couldn’t bear to part with any of them. If only he could have given us a better reason to care about Charles Swan III, other than that he’s an endangered artist worth protecting, the movie would be easier to endorse. The Blu-ray arrives with featurettes “A Glimpse Behind the Glimpse: Making the Mind of Charles Swan III” and “A Glimpse Into the Mind of Charles White III” and Coppola’s commentary. – Gary Dretzka

Back to 1942: Blu-ray
Throughout much of the 20th Century, and through no fault of its own, China’s Henan province was one of the worst places on Earth to live. In 1942, it was right up there with Stalingrad, which was being pounded without mercy by German troops commanded by Hitler to take the city. In that battle, at least, the defenders of Stalingrad knew precisely who they were fighting and why and felt confident that Mother Russia wasn’t going to abandon or betray them. As we learn in Feng Xiaogang’s epic “Back to 1942” — adapted by Liu Zhenyun from his 1990 novel — the 3 million people who died in great famine of 1942 were used as pawns by the Kuomintang government, even as the province was surrounded by Japanese troops. Refugees fleeing their barren homelands were bombed by Japanese planes targeting the soldiers among them and then machine-gunned by Chinese troops to keep them from advancing on other cities. Only the American journalist Theodore White and British photographer Harrison Forman cared enough about the peasants to alert the Allies of this terrible disaster through their dispatches. Chiang Kai-shek censored the reports in China and, until 1990, the events depicted in “Back to 1942,” including cannibalism, child and wife selling and murder, went largely forgotten or ignored. (Famine is nothing new in Chinese history and an even greater human tragedy would occur during Mao Zedong’s reign, less than two decades later.) As damning as the movie is, however, one of the root causes of the famine and subsequent locust invasion goes unmentioned: three years earlier, in an attempt to slow the Japanese advance, the nationalist government decided to breach a large dam and flood the region. A drought would ensure that the devastation continued through the war years, finally displacing 10 million people. The Japanese would take advantage of the situation by refusing to invade the ravaged province and pretending to show more humanitarian concern for the peasants than their own leaders.

“Back to 1942” is a tremendously sad and occasionally difficult movie to watch. It’s significant that the current Chinese government approved its production and studios made an estimated $34 million available to make it. The Communist government probably wouldn’t have been so willing to advance the project if the Japanese and Kuomintang weren’t so obviously to blame for the disaster. Certainly, it will be a long time before the Great Famine of Mao, which may have claimed as many as 30 million Chinese, is dramatized on film. Coincidentally, Feng’s last movie was “Aftershock,” a searing drama based on events that followed the devastating 1976 Tangshan earthquake. His ability to re-create the indescribable pain and epic scope of such disasters borders on the uncanny. He gets great support from an A-list cast of Chinese actors – including Zhang Guoli, Xu Fan, Zhang Hanyu, Le Xuejiang, Zhang Mo and Chen Daoming — in addition to fine work from Adrien Brody as White and Tim Robbins as an Irish priest modeled after Thomas Megan, bishop of the Loyang Catholic Mission. If “Back to 1942” had a hero of the stature of Oskar Schindler, it might have left a larger footprint in its limited theatrical run here, as well. Historically minded audiences should find much in the film to admire. (It’s worth noting that, back home, Time correspondent White would be rewarded for his principled stance by being blacklisted and partially blamed for the “loss of China” to the communists.) – Gary Dretzka

Frankie Go Boom: Blu-ray
Typically, in such anarchic ensemble comedies as “Frankie Go Boom,” a completely sane, if troubled character is surrounded by people whose quirks range from endearing to intolerable. The movies tend to play well before festival audiences, but sail above the heads of less adventuresome audiences in the real world. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Metacritic reviews for “Frankie Go Boom” ranged from a perfect-100 – awarded by the New York Times’ Jeannette Catsoulis — to three in the 30s, from the New York Post, NPR and Hollywood Reporter. (Some critics, I think, routinely give lower grades to any movie in which a pot-belly pig plays a prominent role.) Let’s see if I can synopsize what happens here. Frank (Charlie Hunnam) is the more-or-less normal brother of Bruce (Chris O’Dowd), a ne’er-do-well, who, when we meet him, is participating in a final AA meeting before being released from prison. For years, Bruce has gone out of his way to make his younger brother miserable. He is an aspiring filmmaker and not at all reluctant to share embarrassing home movies with strangers. No sooner is Bruce set free than he decides it might be fun to surreptitiously film Frankie making love to a woman, Lassie (Lizzy Caplan), who nearly ran him over on her bicycle and sent it out on the Internet. Lassie wears a bra made of candy, red bloomers, a garter belt and black stockings. In spite of Bruce’s inability to sustain an erection, the movie goes viral, humiliating both parties.

The rest of “Frankie Goes Boom” is consumed with Frankie’s efforts to remove the movie from the Internet and convince Lassie he isn’t a total jerk. Attempting to eliminate anything from circulation is a fool’s errand, though, as it already has been linked to and copied tens of thousands of times. It does provide writer/director Jordan Roberts an opportunity to introduce us to Phyllis, a transsexual computer hacker, played hilariously by Ron Perelman, and nudge the narrative from farce to romance. Conspiring against that urge are other kooky supporting characters, including Chris Noth, as Lassie’s dad and Bruce’s wildly paranoid, gun-toting prison buddy; Whitney Cumming, as Bruce’s horny girlfriend; Nora Dunn as the boys’ overly permissive mother; and Sam Anderson as their passive-aggressive father. After establishing their relationship, Frankie and Lassie barely get a word in edgewise. If any of that mishigas sounds appealing, “Frankie Go Boom” could prove to be the right ticket for you. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes piece and dissection of the pig’s big scene. – Gary Dretzka

Leonie
By sheer coincidence, I watched Hisako Matsui and David Wiener’s elegantly mounted biopic of educator, editor, journalist and supermom Leonie Gilmour on Mother’s Day. “Leonie” not only lays out the particulars of her own remarkable life story, but it also describes her singular influence on her highly talented children, Japanese-American artist and architect Isamu Noguchi and dancer Ailes Gilmour. The native New Yorker would be an ideal subject for a movie, even if her children had enjoyed only moderately successful careers. As depicted by Emily Mortimer, Gilmour’s story is nothing short of inspirational. After leaving Bryn Mawr College without a degree, in 1896, Gilmour supported herself by teaching and editing. Five years later, she would answer a newspaper ad for an editor, placed by Japanese writer Yone Noguchi. He had been living in the U.S. for several years, publishing two books of poetry, but still needed help with his English prose. With Gilmour’s help, Nogushi was able to finish “The American Diary of a Japanese Girl” and publish it to some acclaim. A year later, they would enter into a short-lived romantic relationship and faux marriage, whose end-product would be their son, Isamu. In 1907, Gilmour joined Nogushi in Japan, unaware that he had married a Japanese woman in the interim.

Complicating matters further, Nogushi reverted to cultural traditions that would have required Gilmour to play a subservient, even invisible role as his companion. She stayed on in Japan, even after their relationship ended and she gave birth to Ailes, whose father remained anonymous. Isamu traveled to the United States to attend school and re-discover the American half of his identity. Gilmour would return home in 1920, as well. She steered Isamu away from his pursuit of a degree in medicine, to a career in sculpture and architecture. She died in 1933, at 60. Co-writer/director Matsui focuses here on Gilmour’s experiences in Japan, where, apart from Noguchi, she initially knew no one and spoke very little Japanese. She would adapt to the foreign culture relatively quickly, however, and find work teaching in Yokohama. Mortimer does a wonderful job portraying Gilmour, especially as someone who became as one with the beauty of the cherry blossoms and lush gardens, and prospered as a modern woman in an ancient, hidebound culture. Matsui does a nice job re-creating the period setting and finding interesting places to stage the story. The DVD comes with making-of and background material, as well as an interview with the director. – Gary Dretzka

Crimewave: Blu-ray
In 1981, after unexpectedly hitting the bulls-eye with “The Evil Dead,” longtime friends Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert thought Hollywood executives would recognize their limitless potential and beat a path to their door in the wilds of suburban Detroit. Instead, they pushed their luck by making an extremely goofy and far-too-dark comedy that nearly ended their careers before they began. Campbell recalls the experience in a funny interview conducted for the Blu-ray and DVD release from Shout!Factory. If all three of the men hadn’t rebounded quickly with “Evil Dead II” and a long string of hits, his story wouldn’t be nearly amusing as it is, in hindsight. Long story short, after investors got their hands on the script and rushes for “Crimewave,” they flipped completely out and not in a good way. The film went virtually unseen in the U.S., until several years after its VHS release, when Raimi’s name also was associated with “Darkman” and “Army of Darkness.” Today, while not exactly a cult hit, “Crimewave” can be viewed without prejudice as the live-action cartoon it is. It gets points, as well, for being the second film co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Being a big fan of the Three Stooges, Raimi invested years’ worth of nyuk-nyuk-nyuk humor into the portrayals of a pair of moronic pest exterminators, who drive around Detroit in a van with a rat attached to its roof and moonlight as hitmen. They’ve taken it upon themselves to kill the head of a security-systems company who stiffed them, and, while they’re at it, take out his annoying wife (Louise Lasser). In doing so, they successfully frame a nebbishy security guard, Vic (Reed Birney), who fancies himself a super-hero in the Peter Parker tradition. Vic fools himself into believing that a gorgeous blond moll (Sheree J. Wilson) might be within his romantic grasp, simply because he saved her from being run over by a car. He endeavors to rescue her from her cad boyfriend (Campbell) and the exterminators, one of whom apparently took his acting cues from Bluto. (The other resembles Ron Jeremy on a bad-hair day.) The wild chase that ensues could be seen as a parody of every Hollywood car chase since the days of the Keystone Kops. That’s a lot of weight for a very slight comedy to carry, and it stumbles more often than succeeds. Still, the scenes in which Raimi is able to show off his wild imagination and cinematic instincts – a segment set inside a 1940s nightclub is extremely well done – easily qualify “Crimewave” as a guilty pleasure. – Gary Dretzka

Face 2 Face
Katherine Brooks has lived the kind of life – most of it, anyway — that could inspire filmmakers from places other than L.A. and New York to buck the odds and pursue their dream. As her story goes, the Louisiana native ran away from home at 16, with $150 in her pocket, and headed for Hollywood. Once there, Brooks was reduced to sleeping in her car, until she discovered the ladder to fulfillment and began to climb it rung by rung, in front of and behind the camera. Her greatest success has come in the reality-TV arena, with credits that include “Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica,” “The Real World,” “The Osbournes” and “The Spin Crowd.” Her short films led to features, “Surrender,” “Loving Annabelle” and “Waking Madison.” The documentary, “Face 2 Face,” describes a personal journey Brooks took at a time in her life when depression was leading her down a dead-end road. After undergoing surgery and becoming dependent on drugs, she came to the realization that having 5,000 Facebook “friends” didn’t make her feel any less lonely, isolated and un-hugged than if she had never purchased a PC. As a way of reaching for help and companionship, the filmmaker asked her Facebook pals if they might consider welcoming her into their homes, in person. It took her nine minutes to score 50 legitimate invitations and begin planning her 11,000-mile cross-country journey, which would be funded by 846 backers on Kickstarter. Several of the people Brooks met were in even worse straits than she was and it allowed her to open up to them. Others were able to inspire the filmmaker and force her to reassess her priorities. Among them is the former lover, now much older, who inspired the short film, “Dear Emily,” and caused no small amount of heartbreak in her after being jilted. “Face 2 Face” is a powerful document, made even more dramatic by the very real possibility that Brooks could relapse at any moment and finally succumb to the demons encouraging her to commit suicide. I got the feeling that the film might originally have been intended as a reality series, but her producers lost patience along the way. Had it gotten the green light, the title “Real People” would have been every bit as appropriate as “Face 2 Face.” The DVD includes a slideshow and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Last Stand: Blu-ray
Tomorrow You’re Gone
Directed by the estimable Jee-woon Kim, in his first foray outside of Korea, “The Land Stand” marks Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first starring role since “T3,” in 2003. Surprisingly, the years he spent in Sacramento, as the Governator, didn’t dull his edge as an action hero as much as some of us thought they would. Instead of giving him an opportunity to prove his continued value as a marquee talent, though, a large percentage of his former fan base simply decided to give his comeback picture a base. The disappointing box-office notwithstanding, “Last Stand” does a nice job reminding us of what made Arnold an A-list star in the first place. It helps, of course, that writer Arnold Knauer (“Ghost Team One”) knew all of the right action-genre buttons to push, while also throwing in enough off-the-cuff humor to keep things from getting too serious. Here, Arnold plays Ray Owens, a small-town sheriff who is content to do virtually nothing, as long as the natives are safe and quiet. He’s about to be tested by a gang of mercenary thugs attempting to smuggle a convicted Mexican drug kingpin back, across the border, on a bridge designed to transport military vehicles across canyons and rivers. The escapee (Eduardo Noriega) is driving a souped-up Corvette and he knows how to make it do tricks. FBI agents led by Forest Whitaker are trailing the guy, as well, but he’s burdened by the institutional arrogance of the agency and no natural feel for the ruthlessness of Mexican criminals. Having already made his reputation as a take-no-prisoners lawman in L.A., Owens relishes the opportunity to prove that frontier justice is still the best defense against tyranny and really bad hombres. His motley crew of deputies includes Luis Guzman, Johnny Knoxville, Harry Dean Stanton, Zach Gilford, Rodrigo Santoro and Jaime Alexander, and the bad guys are commanded by the comically sinister Peter Stormare. There’s lots of violence in “The Last Stand” and enough blood spray to satisfy Arnold’s old fans. Blessedly, his character isn’t given a love interest 40 years his junior, as well, which an American director might have been tempted to do. The Blu-ray adds several decent making-of featurettes, as well as extended and deleted scenes. Anyone who digs the movie really ought to check out Kim’s “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” “I Saw the Devil,” “A Bittersweet Life” and “A Tale of Two Sisters.” You won’t be disappointed.

David Jacobson’s existential crime thriller, “Tomorrow You’re Gone,” follows by eight years the director’s creepy urban-cowboy psycho-drama, “Down in the Valley,” and the surprisingly well-received docu-drama, “Dahmer.” He has a penchant for movies that don’t follow the usual blueprints for the genre and, here, even ventures into David Lynch territory. If it doesn’t always work, at least he’s trying different things. Stephen Dorff plays the emotionally damaged ex-con Charlie Rankin, whose life was saved in prison by an older jailbird (Willem Dafoe) known as Buddha. As soon as Charlie is released on parole he knows that he’ll have to repay the debt owed Buddha by taking out a rival. For his trouble, he’s given a pile of money and a barely functional handgun. Before Charlie can pull the trigger, however, he is introduced to the closest thing to an angel any crook is likely to meet in his lifetime. While riding on a city bus, he’s taken under the wing of a warm and generous beauty, Florence (Michelle Monaghan), who invites him home to watch a porno in which she plays a naughty nun. After his four-year bit, Charles seems more than a little gun-shy around such an aggressive woman and he greets her persistence with a mixture of fear and disdain. We’re left to wonder if she might either be a supernatural trickster or spy for Buddha. When the hit doesn’t go down as planned, Charlie is forced to rethink his concept of honor and obligation to Buddha. Dorf’s trademark angst gets tiresome after a while and it’s difficult to buy Monaghan as an X-rated sister of mercy – in gold sandals, no less – even with her crazy wigs. “Tomorrow You’re Gone” plays far better on DVD than in theaters, so fans of moody crime stories might find something here to like. – Gary Dretzka

 
History of the Eagles
Mumford & Sons: The Story
Any 40-year-old rock band that thinks it’s OK to sell tickets to its concerts at prices topping out at $895 a piece – covering front-row seating, a parking pass and a pre-concert party – is either the Rolling Stones or comprised of musicians who have sold their souls to Satan’s accountants. As the History of the Eagles tour approaches Chicago, scalpers are hoping to get $2,249 for front-row seats. You can still find seats for between $85 and $200, but most are singles and you’ll be sitting closer to the top of the Sears (a.k.a., Willis) Tower than the stage. Tickets for the Stones’ “50 and Counting” tour are roughly in the same range, but, in some cities, the promoters have had to lower prices to avoid empty seats. I only mention this because the nearly four-hour-long “History of the Eagles: The Story of an American Band” spends as much time chronicling the band’s contract disputes, bitter internecine feuds and battles with record-label executives, including David Geffen, as the music. No matter the compromises made in the 1970s, it can’t be said that the most financially prosperous artists didn’t also produce much unforgettable music. When the classic-rock format began to dominate FM radio stations in the early 1980s, programmers naturally turned to the Eagles, Stones and other bands that could still fill stadiums during reunion tours. The good news here is that, besides giving far too much exposure to the band’s longtime manager, Irving Azoff, Alison Ellwood’s warts-and-all documentary contains much terrific music, a solid recounting of the history of the songs, a sounding board for former members Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner and Don Felder and praise for the contributions of latecomers Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit.

Along with Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Brown, John David Souther, Dan Fogelberg, Rick Nelson and Poco, the Eagles were among the founders of the so-called California sound, which combined elements of country, folk and guitar-heavy rock, with introspective lyrics and a cosmic-cowboy point-of-view on life. The Eagles would emerge from the pack, joining Fleetwood Mac at the top of the pop charts with songs that told stories and captured the quirkiness of love in three- to four-minute bursts. The Eagles, in turn, would influence an entire generation of country-music artists, beginning with Travis Tritt, Clint Black, John Anderson, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, Diamond Rio and Suzy Bogguss, all of whom participated in the hugely popular 1993 tribute album, “Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles.” Ellwood also chronicles the solo careers of Don Henley and Glenn Frey and various reunion tours and never-ending squabbles and ego trips. It’s as complete a document as any fan of the group could hope to find, informed by many fresh interviews and archival footage. A separate third disc captures the 1977 Capital Center concert, when the original band members were still talking to each other and the group had yet to hit its creative peak. A special limited-edition package adds a 40-page case-bound book, 10 photographs of the band at various stages of its existence, a lithograph of the band’s desert-bleached-skull logo, a Native American blanket-inspired liner and leather tie fastened with a bone button. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it lists for $299, while the three-disc DVD/Blu-ray can be had for $40, full retail.

By marked contrast, “Mumford & Sons: The Story” is an unauthorized biography that runs all of 42 minutes, contains about 20 seconds of music and is comprised of interviews that are widely available on the Internet. Fans who aren’t already aware of the information dispensed in the material here really have no right to consider themselves to be fans. This being the year that the folky London quartet broke through, some folks may leap at anything with the lads’ names on it. I can’t imagine anyone being satisfied with “The Story.” – Gary Dretzka

Of Two Minds
Frontline: Raising Adam Lanza
PBS: 10 Buildings That Changed America
When, in the 1990s, “bipolar disorder” became the widely accepted alternative to “manic-depression,” I assumed that the change was a function of scientifically correct linguistics. If anything, the difference essentially was a matter of degree, the highs being higher and the lows lower. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the eccentricities of unruly students were blamed on “ants in their pants” and the frequent drifting off of other classmates was a function of daydreaming. Today, of course, those same inattentive kids have been diagnosed as having ADD – and, later, ADHD – and, for chronically spaced-out children, a form of dissociation. In some less-enlightened cultures, I suppose, extreme examples of these same maladies still are blamed on demonic possession and cures are sought in church-sanctioned exorcisms. Too often, though, people with bipolar disorder and other new-fangled psychiatric ailments see the ultimate cure in suicide. Indeed, social networks on the Internet now serve as early-warning systems for teenagers who have been bullied, tormented or marginalized to the point where they think going out in a blaze of infamy might give voice to their pain. “Of Two Minds” introduces us to a few of the estimated 5 million Americans living with bipolar disorder and the surviving relatives of those who decided that the condition was too great obstacle to overcome. Co-director Douglas Blush has edited many of the most decorated documentaries of the last decade, including “Wordplay,” “These Amazing Shadows,” “The Invisible War,” “Freakonomics” and “Outrage.” If, like ADHD, bipolarity seems to have evolved from little-known malady to epidemic, it’s because the media now pays greater attention to any illness that affects people in their key readership base or viewer demographic. And, of course, awareness breeds contagion. Moreover, people being treated for mental-health issues no longer accept second-class citizenry or stigmatization and have formed affinity groups to break down the walls of ignorance, indifference and silence. It’s only been within the lifetimes of most Baby Boomers that the idea of seeking psychiatric guidance — if only to attain such perceived curatives as Ritalin, Zoloft, Xanax, Prozac, Wellbutrin and lithium – has evolved from being a social stigma or sign of weakness, to something that’s as common as going to any other medical specialist. “Of Two Minds” takes a straight-forward approach to the subject, allowing the patients to speak for themselves about their own experiences and decisions concerning medication, and for therapists to offer their perspectives. The DVD adds the short film, “The Mad Parade”; more interviews with experts and advocates; and extended interviews with people we meet in the film.

In the wake of the mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I was prompted to consider how horrifying crimes and their perpetrators distinguish and sometimes define great cities for decades to come. Chicago is known far and wide as the site of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, while Dallas and Memphis will forever be stigmatized by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Until Hurricane Sandy, Tony Soprano was as representative of New Jersey as Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. Our urban centers have other worthwhile attractions and dignitaries, however. Recently, the names of certain American suburbs have become as notorious as the Texas School Book Depository, Los Angeles’ now-demolished Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy was killed, and Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Such previously anonymous locales as Littleton, Aurora, Newtown, Clackamas, Oak Creek, Brookfield, Binghampton, Virginia Tech, Lancaster and even Fort Hood have become synonymous with mass slayings that occurred there. In some cases, the names have become red-flag warnings for proponents of stronger gun-control statutes and, for others, proof that all teachers, students and janitors should be armed and considered deputized. While the “Frontline” documentary “Raising Adam Lanza” leaves more questions unanswered than most such films, it also offers a balanced portrait of a town whose citizens were forced to deal with issues no suburbanite anticipated confronting when escaping the clamor and crime of big cities. The give-and-take that followed the shootings at Sandy Hook wasn’t nearly as rancorous as some debates over gun control, but it revealed a chasm that isn’t likely to be bridged as long as politicians can be bought by lobbyists and the words, “well-regulated militia,” are twisted to fit opposing points of view. The documentary was produced in collaboration with the Hartford Courant newspaper, in whose circulation area the shootings occurred. That Adam Lanza was a walking time bomb is treated as a given. What made him so dangerous and how his gun-toting mother’s malfeasance may have contributed to the massacre remain questions that may remain unanswered forever.

That the entirety of America’s architectural history can be boiled down to 10 building seems laughable, at first glance, anyway. By eliminating the influence of gas stations, theme parks and fast-food restaurants, however, a case can be made that the evolution of office and government buildings, churches, factories and shopping centers all begin with certain seminal concepts. They can still be seen and experienced first-hand, although a couple of them have greatly outlived their usefulness, as intended. The PBS presentation,”10 Buildings That Changed America,” takes us on cross-country tour of America and introduces to such visionaries thinkers as Thomas Jefferson, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry and Robert Venturi. It also explains how the ideas developed from Old World traditions, shifting cultural currents and decisions based strictly on increasing profits. Among the places visited are the Virginia State Capitol, Boston’s Trinity Church, Chicago’s Loop and suburbs, Henry Ford’s first Model T assembly line and the Disney Concert Hall, in downtown Los Angeles. At an hour, such a program could only serve as a sampler, but it makes for a painless lesson on American architecture. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: The Bletchley Circle: Cracking a Killer’s Code: Blu-ray
TeenNick: Dance Academy: Season 1
Just as the key role played by Navajo code talkers in World War II remained classified until well into the Vietnam War, the details of the unlocking of Germany’s Enigma machines and their ciphers were kept secret by British authorities for several decades. It wasn’t until the 1979 release of the Polish film, “Sekret Enigmy,” that anyone was made aware of the Polish Cipher Bureau’s cracking of the Enigma code in 1933 and the transference of two machines to France and Britain before the country was invaded by the Nazis. The mansion at Bletchley Park became the nerve center of code-breaking activity during the war, providing intelligence that would prove useful in the North African campaign and other war zones. British filmmakers have since used Bletchley Park as a setting for intrigue, romance and melodrama. “The Bletchley Circle: Cracking a Killer’s Code” uses the wartime experiences of four women code breakers as a stepping-off point for their investigation, eight years later, into a series of murders involving young women in southern England. Like many other women who served their countries in WWII and gave up their jobs to returning soldiers, these four have found civilian life to be a tad dreary. By happenstance, information gleaned from newspaper reports on the killings makes one of the women believe that they could only have been perpetrated by someone from the intelligence community. She convinces her three friends to join her in an investigation that is dismissed by police and frowned upon by their spouses. Because amateur sleuths are nearly as common in the mystery genre as thick-skulled cops, there’s a distinct air of familiarity to the three-part mini-series. Even so, the clichés don’t interfere with the realistic period feel and patient unfolding of clues and evidence. The Blu-ray arrives with cast and crew interviews.

Imported to Nickelodeon from Australia, “Dance Academy” is an ensemble drama targeted at American teens who don’t necessary fit the mold of the glitzy socialites on “Gossip Girl” or football-crazy kids of “Friday Night Lights.” It’s been positioned alongside the network’s long-running “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” which is produced in Canada. The show is set at Sydney’s National Academy of Dance, where survival as an artist supersedes maintaining one’s social status. The diverse cast of characters frequently finds time for other teen pursuits, but the first-year students, especially, are required to condition themselves to being away from home for the first time and/or accepting the supervision of adults. Among the key players is Tara Webster (Xenia Goodwin), who was raised on a sheep farm and fears she may be hopelessly outclassed by the boys and girls from more pedigreed backgrounds. The first-season packages arrive in separate volumes, each representing 13 episodes. They also contain photo galleries. – Gary Dretzka

Bink & Gollie and More Stories About Friendship
The latest compilation of read-along stories from Scholastic Storybook Treasures is headlined by the Mutt & Jeff of kid-lit, “Bink and Gollie.” The precocious girls — one tiny, the other tall – find it difficult to agree on almost anything, but, unlike our elected representatives, understand the value of compromise. The Geisel-winning series is written by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile and narrated by Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome. Other stories included here are “A Sick Day for Amos McGee,” by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead and narrated by David de Vries; “The Other Side,” by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, narrated by Toshi Widoff-Woodson; and “Cat and Canary,” written and illustrated by Michael Foreman. The special features add interviews with illustrator Fucile, the Steads and Woodson. And, yes, the stories promote friendship, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Jack Reacher: Blu-ray
Not having read the novel upon which “Jack Reacher” was adapted, I couldn’t tell you with any certainty how the movie compares with the 2005 Lee Child thriller “One Shot.” I do know that Tom Cruise bears no physical resemblance to the literary creation and such discrepancies can alienate loyal fans of a popular series. On the other hand, Cruise’s ability to play action heroes can’t be questioned and his willingness to go the extra mile, by performing many of the stunts himself, only adds to more credibility to his performances. I suspect that newcomers to the Child canon might even be drawn to the source material, based solely on Cruise’s willingness to take part in the adaptation and, surely, that’s a good thing. If nothing else, his presence in “Jack Reacher” diverts attention to the fact that next to nothing in writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay could actually happen in real life and it’s neither a fantasy nor science-fiction. When it comes to suspending disbelief, after all, the action fantasies of the “Mission:Impossible” franchise wouldn’t be half as much fun without Cruise. “Jack Reacher” didn’t bring home as much bacon as “M:I,” but, without its star, the movie wouldn’t have come close to surpassing its estimated budget, which it did. So, props to him.

As written, the 6-foot-5, sandy-haired Reacher grew up in a combat-hardened family, graduated from West Point and served his country as an officer/investigator in the Army Military Police Corps. Well decorated, he attained the rank of a major, before being demoted and re-promoted. In the movie, we’re told that Reacher mustered out under circumstances that could come back to haunt him and, for the past dozen years, has been flying under the radar. Amazingly, like Paladin, Superman and the Lone Ranger, he tends to show up in the nick of time to rescue some poor soul, and then disappears after his mission is accomplished. Reacher is free to travel light because his brain is the equivalent of a portable CSI lab and his martial-arts skills allow him to forgo the kind of weaponry that he could pick up from any NRA member, gang-banger or sociopath, without first having to undergo an evaluation of his psychological fitness.

Here, he arrives in Pittsburgh in the immediate wake of a multiple murder that could only have been accomplished by a military-trained long-distance sniper. The suspect was easily captured and beaten to within an inch of his death in a van transporting him to jail. Once he awakens from a coma, the first thing he asks for is an audience with Reacher. When Reacher does arrive to investigate the crime, however, he’s confident that the Iraq War veteran simply snapped and, in his mind, was killing terrorists, instead of random Americans out for a stroll along one of the city’s three rivers. It doesn’t take long Reacher to reach a different conclusion, that the marksman couldn’t have shot those people, at least not in the way demonstrated in the opening scene. Now, determined to clear the obvious suspect, he finds an ally in the suspect’s lawyer (Rosamund Pike), who, besides being beautiful (of course), is the daughter of the city’s possibly corrupt DA (Richard Jenkins). This doesn’t sit well with the guys who set him up. Conveniently, again, they make themselves all too visible to the brilliant investigator and the rest of the movie becomes one long chase, frequently interrupted by fists of fury.

The chase scenes are extremely well choreographed and the final shootout, while totally ridiculous, is exciting, anyway. The movie also benefits from the presence of Werner Herzog and Robert Duvall in supporting roles that have to be seen to be believed. The Paramount Blu-ray shouldn’t disappoint fans of the stars and genre, either, as the audio-visual presentation is excellent. There are two commentary tracks, one with Cruise and McQuarrie; and the other with composer Joe Kramer, accompanied by an isolated score presentation. The set adds the featurettes “When the Man Comes Around,” “You Do Not Mess With Jack Reacher: Combat & Weapons” and “The Reacher Phenomenon,” as well as a UV digital copy.

Upstream Color: Blu-ray
If Terence Malick ever attempted a bio-horror thriller, it might look something like “Upstream Color,” a brain-teaser that took home a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance festival. Sonically and visually, Shane Carruth’s second feature delivers a hypnotic charge not unlike the vial substance consumed by the characters before they lose the ability to control their actions. As fascinating as it is, however, “Upstream Color” might as well have been dubbed into Sanskrit, for all the sense I could make of Carruth’s intentions. In this way, it resembles the writer/director’s previous non-linear head-scratcher, “Primer,” which involved time travel and mysterious machines manufactured in a garage. Nearly a decade later, the writer/director seems no more interested in making things easy for his audience. As the movie opens, we watch a couple of boys collect leaves for a young man who will scrape a powdery substance off them. The scrapings somehow lead to the creation of a maggot-borne hallucinogen that literally gets beneath the skin of its unsuspecting victims and causes them to engage in such irrational behavior as signing over the title to their homes and giving kidnapers access to ATM codes. Two of the people who have ingested the drug meet serendipitously on a bus, allowing them to compare notes and comfort each other after the trauma of having the maggots removed from their bodies. The creepy-crawly things are fed to the amateur surgeon’s pigs, which then form an emotional attachment to the donors. I’m not at all sure what the pigs have to do with anything, but we know that they aren’t reluctant to eat things, including humans, no other carnivore would touch. Once digested, the maggot and toxins would be passed along to anyone with a hankering for bacon or ribs. That possibility isn’t fully explained, either. The crazy, wonderful thing about “Upstream Color” is how the pulsating musical score, when combined with the inventive digital cinematography, serves to mesmerize viewers willing to turn their imaginations over to Carruth. Amy Seimetz (“The Killing”) is terrific as the woman who takes the brunt of the punishment here and, even without revealing much skin, seduces us into caring deeply about her fate.

Starlet: Blu-ray
The MPAA braintrust wants us to believe that movies that are rated NC-17 or go out unrated are playing on the same level playing field as movies branded R and PG-13. They also continue to insist, against much evidence to the contrary, that the ratings are intended specifically for use by parents as a tool for determining what movies they’ll allow their children to see. The board, we’re told, doesn’t censor films and it can’t force members to do things that would destroy their integrity or dilute the director’s vision. Maybe so, but that’s exactly what happens when a distributor is faced with the dilemma of requiring an artist to make cuts that would to fit the board’s notion of what a R or PG-13 ought to be, or face the economic consequences. (It explains those annoying CGI cock-blockers in the R-rated version in “Eyes Wide Shut.”) More often than not, making love in movies – however tastefully rendered – upsets the ratings board far more than making war or what passes for it in our urban jungles and trailer parks. Too often, NC-17 and unrated movies can’t find a welcoming screen outside of an arthouse and at festivals. What the MPAA refuses to acknowledge is that exhibitors can’t possibly weigh all films equally when clauses in their leases forbid the showing of NC-17 and unrated pictures and some newspaper won’t accept ads for them. As such, it’s the kiss of death for movies as brave and challenging as “Starlet,” which arrives in DVD and Blu-ray with a NR stamp. In fact, “Starlet” is an excellent movie, with more than the usual number of surprises and plenty of insight about life on the fringes of society. It’s graced by fine acting and sharp dialogue.

At its core, “Starlet” is an updating of the age-old story of a young woman, who, in the course of assuaging her conscience, forms a bond that seals a permanent, if unlikely friendship. Twenty-one-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway) purchases a thermos at a yard sale from a cranky old dame who is quick to warn her of her no-return, no-exchange policy. After discovering several thousand dollars’ worth of rolled-up bills in the bottle, Jane attempts to return it to Sadie (Besedka Johnson), but she’s given the cold shoulder and a slammed door for her efforts. Still feeling a tad guilty, Jane conspires to befriend the older woman and do favors for her in lieu of the money she isn’t being allowed to return. If Jane and Sadie don’t have much in common, both are lonely as hell and in need of a friendship that doesn’t come with conditions. Co-writer/director Sean Baker’s challenge, then, was devising a way for these two women to discover each other and open their hearts to the possibility that they have more in common than an interest in yard sales. If some dreams are answered along the way, well, that’s OK, too.

Here’s comes the rub, though, and it isn’t revealed until about a half-hour into the movie: like hundreds of other young adults living and working in the San Fernando Valley, Jane and her ditzoid roommate, Melissa (Stella Maeve), are employed in the sex industry and to establish the credibility of the characters, there’s a scene containing graphic sexuality. The other nudity barely merits a “R.” Moreover, Jane and Melissa aren’t embarrassed by their work or were driven to it by an abusive relative. Their boss isn’t particularly sleazy and they make more money than most people living in the San Fernando Valley, even if they tend to blow it on recreational drugs and hot cars. If there were better jobs available for young women without college degrees, Jane, at least, probably would grab one. Until then, she’ll grin and bear it. It represents the kind of moral ambiguity that has offended industry watchdogs for most of the last 100 years and is punished with more severe ratings. As a result of the NR, “Starlet” never made it past a handful of bookings in select theaters and festival appearances. Baker could have saved himself some agony by editing the graphic scene to fit the borders of a “R” and send out a director’s-cut edition in Blu-ray, but it wouldn’t carry the same weight or tell us all we need to know about Jane. Baker doesn’t solicit pity or disgust in the time allotted him in the bonus package.

In fact, he’s far more anxious to laud the wee canine actor that bore the name, Starlet, and introduce us to 87-year-old Johnson, who died after realizing her own lifelong dream of becoming an actor. “Starlet” would be her first and only movie credit. If anyone had been able to see her performance, academy voters might have tossed a few votes her way as Best Supporting Actress. As it is, “Starlet” won the Robert Altman Award for ensemble acting at the 2013 Independent Spirit Awards and was nominated for the prize named for John Cassavetes. Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel, won the prize for Breakthrough Performer at the Hamptons International Film Festival and Baker was nominated for top prizes at the Locarno and Mar del Plata festivals and won the Fipresci Award at Reykjavik. If that isn’t validation for a micro-budget indie, I don’t know what is. The Blu-ray arrives with a bunch of interviews and background pieces, as well as a lengthy making-of featurette.

Last Summer Won’t Happen/Time of the Locust
Doctors of the Dark Side
The Exorcist in the 21st Century

For those who have seen, heard and read enough about the “turbulent 1960s” to last two lifetimes, please forgive me for suggesting two more documentaries, both short and directly related to the antiwar movement. Peter Gessner’s rarely seen “Last Summer Won’t Happen” was shot at a particularly auspicious period in modern American history, in 1968, a year after San Francisco’s Summer of Love and a few months between the “levitation of the Pentagon” protest and student takeover at Columbia University and the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The people we meet in the film had either watched or participated in the events and were trying to come up with a way to radicalize hippies and create a unified popular front against the Vietnam War. To mobilize the flower children of the Haight-Ashbury – Berkeley, across the Bay, having already been radicalized – it would take something more than the urging of a group of would-be urban guerrillas from New York’s Lower East Side. The idea was to fuse the disparate countercultures in Chicago, before the convention, by staging events that combined music, street theater, chanting, speechifying and lots of dope. Once the crowd was merged, the newly born Youth International Party (Yippie!) would add the thick dollop of New Left politics to the recipe. What happened instead, of course, would be a series of violent confrontations with Chicago police and four years of mostly destructive chaos.

What makes “Last Summer Won’t Happen” noteworthy is its proximity to several of the key players in the Movement at this crucial juncture. It also demonstrates how clueless everyone who would play a key role in the events to come still was, from the insipient Yippies and student radicals, to the Chicago cops and Democratic politicians. Their clearly was no endgame on the left side of the equation and pols happily allowed the police to take the heat for their divisive policies. Here, the angry young men, predominantly, based in crowded Lower East Side apartments sit around and debate the efficacy of violence and confronting police; the relevance of the hippie culture, if any; the role of anarchists in the emerging counterculture; and how to get by each day without any visible means of support. If Mayor Daley and the DNC had been able to watch early rushes of “Last Summer Won’t Happen,” they might have decided to welcome the protesters to Grant Park, sanction their concerts, authorize a few marches and stand by while the kids numbed themselves with pot and LSD. After dismissing the McCarthy challenge, the Dems could have nominated Hubert Humphrey and avoided sharing tear gas with the protesters. Instead, the world watched as cops beat the crap out of defenseless kids and refused them their right to free assembly. Humphrey’s campaign ran out of gas before it started and a radical SDS splinter group would return to Chicago to battle police, destroy property and steer media attention in its direction. Gessner’s film ends before any of that plays out, but you don’t need a Weatherman to know which way the wind would blow from there. The primary players shown in the documentary are professional rabble-rouser Abbie Hoffman; editor of the Realist, Paul Krassner; folksinger and activist Phil Ochs; anarchist Osha Tom Neumann; a young drug dealer and squatter; and a runaway hippie chick who seems distinctly out of place in Lower Manhattan.

If, in 1966, Gessner’s riveting 13-minute documentary, “Time of the Locust,” had been widely seen outside a few film festivals, Americans might have reassessed their support of our early involvement in Vietnam and forced their congressmen to get out while the getting was good. Legend has it that JFK had soured on the war before he was assassinated and would have avoided the quagmire it quickly became. The same evidence available to JFK was denied voters and the rest is history. “Time of the Locust” and other films uncolored by the major media’s get-along, go-along attitude might have provided a tipping point for withdrawal. It is a brutal film, full of images deemed too horrifying for consumption by American TV audiences. Instead of relying on footage compiled by cameramen allowed to tag along with the American troops, Gessner assembled material taken from other points of view. It came from non-network news agencies, Japanese journalists and Vietnamese National Liberation Front combat footage. At this point in the war, the Pentagon had convinced lawmakers that the South Vietnamese army would soon be able to stand its ground against the Vietcong, freeing the U.S. to shut down the North Vietnamese Army and split town. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here, we see Vietcong prisoners being beaten nearly to death and shot full of holes before any useful intelligence was gleaned. The South Vietnamese soldiers’ arrogance alienated and frightened the peasants, who were even more petrified by the American tanks that rambled through their rice paddies and demolished anything they saw as a potential VC hideout. “Locust” was free of narration, so the images spoke for themselves. The same Americans who, in 1965, had been shocked by images of our soldiers torching peasant huts with flamethrowers and Zippo lighters might have recoiled even further after watching a blindfolded prisoner being machine-gunned in front of their eyes.

Doctors of the Dark Side” asks other disturbing questions about the way Americans wage war. Whether or not one agrees with the use of torture to interrogate prisoners, this documentary demands that we ask ourselves where we draw the line between lawful techniques and inhuman behavior. If we treat the Geneva Conventions as if they don’t apply to us, how can we expect our enemies to do so when Americans are captured? It is possible to hold the moral high ground while also mucking around in the mud? Producer/director Martha Davis asks these questions and more, knowing that Americans already are aware of the excesses reported from Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and CIA black sites, as described in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The tight focus here is on the role of doctors and psychologists in the implementation and supervision of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. After four years of research, Davis felt confident enough in her finding to make “Doctors of the Dark Side,” a film that makes a persuasive case for condemning ongoing practices. According to established guidelines, doctors must be present when EIT techniques are employed and psychologists must be immediately available to assess the ability of prisoners to mentally withstand torture. Instead, they are routinely required to participate in the interrogations and ignore evidence that guidelines have been surpassed. In essence, doctors sworn to honor the Hippocratic Oath (“to abstain from doing harm”), even above the Geneva Conventions, have willingly or forcibly engaged in practices that make mockery of it. In one worst-case scenario, doctors who couldn’t prevent the beating death of a prisoner were called upon to falsify certificates and make it look as if the man died in his cell, instead of a torture chamber. The evidence is verified by military, legal and medical experts, as well as witnesses and former detainees. At the same time as news of hunger strikers being force-fed in Guantanamo are being reported – minus descriptions of how it’s done – Davis recounts the same thing happening years earlier, using methods widely condemned when ducks and geese are fattened for tastier foie gras. However grotesque, “Doctors of the Dark Side” makes a persuasive argument without resorting to polemics or partisan politics. President Obama, after all, has as much to answer for on the subject as his predecessor.

The Exorcist in the 21st Century” straddles the thin lines that divide exploitation, entertainment and enlightenment, as they pertain to the most controversial and intriguing rite in the Roman Catholic Church. That it originated in Norway is only the first of several surprises. There aren’t all that many native-born Catholics in Scandinavia, so, when one recently underwent a church-authorized exorcism, it caught the attention of Norwegian filmmakers Fredrik Horn Akselsen and Christian Falch. They introduce us to Father José Antonio Fortea, whose job it is to visit parishes where possessions are reported and, if the facts justify such an extreme treatment, do battle with the devil. He patiently and articulately describes the process, which is deemed necessary more times than one would imagine. I found it interesting, as well, that Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s official exorcist, considers “The Exorcist” to be a fair representation of the practice and that he keeps a copy of the movie in his library. The filmmakers traveled to a remote corner of the Andes to meet a woman who was about to undergo an exorcism and interview people close to her. Her freak-outs aren’t nearly as extreme as those experienced by Linda Blair, but they’re hellishly noisy and more than a little bit disturbing. Fortea follows them to Colombia to conduct the rite, which is staged in a way that recalls a revival meeting in the American South. Fortuitously, because he’s conversant in the language of tongues, he’s on somewhat equal footing with the demon. The DVD adds more interview material and a longer version of the exorcism ritual.

The Oranges: Blu-ray
In less capable hands, the suburban family drama “The Oranges” might have become a prime candidate for a Golden Raspberry. Instead, Julian Farino (“Entourage”) finds the humanity in a so-so script by first-timers Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss and gets out of the way of actors capable of making an infomercial for flameless candles entertaining. “The Oranges” is a tale of two families that live across the street from each other in the tranquil New Jersey town of Orange. Carol, Terry and Nina Ostroff are played by Allison Janney, Oliver Platt and Leighton Meester, respectively, while Paige, David, Toby and Vanessa Walling are portrayed by Catherine Keener, Hugh Laurie, Adam Brody and Alia Shawkat. The men are best buddies; the women are borderline miserable; the daughters, once BFFs, are estranged; and Brody’s handsome, young economist undergoes torture by match-making. Because “The Oranges” is set during the holiday season, it’s fair to expect evidence of dysfunction to emerge any minute. Sure enough, a scandal involving both families is revealed early in the proceedings, catching everyone off-guard. Even as it tears apart the fabric of their friendship, the possibility always exists that a happy ending can be pulled out of Farino’s hat. He does just that, but not in a fashion one might expect. The story includes several humorous moments, but they’re mostly born of misery and, again, the cast works overtime to deliver the laughs. The resolution ties things up pretty smoothly, without resorting to melodrama or flakey logic. While “The Oranges” isn’t on the same block as “American Beauty,” fans of the actors probably won’t mind squeezing out some time to see it.

Safe Haven: Blu-ray
I know it isn’t fair to dismiss “Safe Haven” by concluding, “If you’ve seen one adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, you’ve seen them all,” but there are far too many similarities in the seven movies not to come to that conclusion. Almost all of them have been set and shot in quaint, seaside communities in the South, where time comes to a standstill at irregular intervals. The young protagonists are always good-looking, a bit troubled, harboring dark secrets and are soon to be tested. There’s romance, but no couplings so steamy they would threaten its PG or PG-13 rating. They are modestly budgeted and make lots of money, even if boyfriends would rather eat worms than sit through one with their best girl. If there’s any such thing as a critic-proof movie, it would be one adapted from a Sparks’ novel. “Safe Haven” is set in the lovely town of Southport, North Carolina, where, one day, a young woman (Julianne Hough) decides to get off the Greyhound and put down roots. We already know that Katie is escaping from a bad scene back home, although we don’t know exactly what happened. Once in Southport, she plays really, really hard-to-get with a handsome widower and single father, Alex (Josh Duhamel), with whom she’s destined to come to some kind of romantic resolution. That’s not a spoiler, it’s a given.

Whatever it is Katie did in her former life, she’s turned into a model citizen of Southport, single-handedly rehabbing a dilapidated cabin and waiting tables at the best and, perhaps, only restaurant in town. When Katie and Alex inevitably hook up, one of the kids warms to her immediately, while the other takes some work. Katie can’t help but feel snake-bit when her past finally comes back to haunt her. Hough and Duhamel make a cute couple, just as Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling, Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried, Richard Gere and Diane Lane, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, Shane West and Mandy Moore and Kevin Costner and Robin Wright did before them. In his second visit to Sparks’ territory, Lasse Hallstrom (“Dear John”) lets the story speak for itself, while also milking the natural beauty of the scenic location and chemistry between the possibly star-crossed pair. The Blu-ray takes full advantage of both qualities, adding deleted and extended scenes, an alternate ending, a set tour and featurettes “Igniting the Romance in Safe Haven” and “Josh Duhamel’s Lessons in Crabbing.”

The Rabbi’s Cat: Blu-ray
Writer and director Joann Sfar (“Gainsbourg”) has grappled with issues pertaining to Jewish identity for at least as long as he’s known that one of his parents is Ashkenazi and the other Sephardic. For him, it’s like having bloodstreams that run in opposite directions in the same veins. The same tug-of-war is waged in his graphic novel and animated feature, “The Rabbi’s Cat,” in which a cat raised by the rabbi, Sfar, and his voluptuous daughter, Zlabya, develops the ability to communicate with people after it swallows a parrot. Not too timid to engage in serious conversation, the cat asks the rabbi if having a Jewish master and mistress makes him Jewish. If so, then, the cat would like to have a bar mitzvah. (Circumcision is whole other kettle of fish.) Confounding the identity issue even further is the fact that the rabbi has a cousin who’s Muslim.

The film opens in Algiers, where, between the wars, people of different faiths and ethnicities live next-door to each other in relative harmony. It isn’t until the rabbi, his daughter, the cat and a Russian Jew – he snuck into Algeria in a crate containing religious texts – embark on a journey to Ethiopia, in search of “the Jerusalem of Africa.” Here, they encounter people who are far less tolerant. Because “The Rabbi’s Cat” is adapted from different volumes of Sfar’s popular series of comic books – graphic novels, if you prefer – the narrative doesn’t always flow in a straight direction. The movie is beautifully rendered to take advantage of the Arabesque setting and artfully conceived Saharan skies, gardens, palms and sand dunes. The movie was released into 3D in its theatrical run. It’s not yet available here in that format, but anyone interested in the source material can find it at Amazon and other outlets. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes, “The Making of ‘The Rabbi’s Cat’” and “Joann Sfar Draws From Memory.” There’s nothing in the movie that parents would find objectionable for ’tweens and teens, but younger children probably would need a translator – or rabbi – for the theological discussions.

The Great Gatsby: Midnight in Manhattan
Barrymore: Blu-ray

When a movie has been adapted from a popular novel, it’s sometimes difficult for a reviewer to recommend in what order a potential viewer should experience both works, if at all. Too often, fans of the book are disappointed to the point of depression by a film’s take on the material, while there are times when the movie actually makes the book look better than it is. In the case of “The Great Gatsby,” it would difficult to do any real damage to the source material because the story is only as long as it needs to be and reads as if it were written for film. Anyone who’s a fan of classic cinema could cast it in a half-hour. I have yet to experience F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in 3D — the format preferred by Baz Luhrman for his adaptation – but the trailers and teasers whet my appetite for the May 10 release. (It also will be shown in standard 2D.) The BBC documentary “The Great Gatsby: Midnight in Manhattan” makes me want to go back and read the novel, as well, for the third or fourth time. It was filmed in advance of the novel’s 75th anniversary, in 2000, but the only thing that’s really changed is the status of several of the people interviewed, including Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton, William Styron, Christopher Hitchens, Budd Schulberg and Norman Mailer, who are no longer with us. Among the other witnesses are granddaughter Eleanor Lanahan, Garrison Keiller, Jay McInerney, several notable scholars and critics, and the secretary who was with Fitzgerald when he died, Francis Kroll Ring. All of them agree on “The Great Gatsby” being the novel that most closely captures the elusive American Dream and qualifies as the Great American Novel. If Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald can be credited for defining the Jazz Age, they argue, it’s also true that they invented their roles in it. What’s truly remarkable, though, is how prophetic the assembled experts turned out to be. Seven years before the second Great Depression, they predicted how the then-booming U.S. economy would, of necessity, go bust in much the same way as it had in Fitzgerald’s era. It’s uncanny.

To add value to the 43-minute documentary, BBC Home Entertainment has paired “Midnight in Manhattan” with the 1975 made-for-TV drama, “A Dream of Living.” The “Omnibus” presentation describes a day and a night in the life of the Fitzgeralds, while they were living large in a Long Island mansion. In it, Ernest Hemingway drops by one afternoon to discuss his decision to turn from reporting to fiction and offer praise for “The Great Gatsby.” The men are still close friends and heavy drinkers. Zelda has yet to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is rehearsing for her debut as a ballerina. The evening portion of the teleplay is set during a party that is only slightly less grand and debauched than the ones described in the novel. David Hemmings and Annie Lambert are terrific as the star-crossed couple.

Fitzgerald and the great American thespian John Barrymore both were working at the top of the game during the Roaring ’20s, even as both men’s livers were taking a beating and the early symptoms of alcoholism were beginning to reveal themselves. “Barrymore” re-creates the 1997 production of William Luce’s two-person play, during which Christopher Plummer delivered a tour-de-force performance as the actor in his decline. It is set on a props-filled stage, in 1942, when Barrymore supposedly was making one last stab at a comeback as Richard III, a role he had performed triumphantly on Broadway in 1920. The two characters are a memory-challenged Barrymore and his increasingly frustrated “reader.” Although the actor needs to be prodded on lines he had long memorized, there also are stretches of lucidity when Barrymore is as brilliant as he ever was. In between, he recalls life in the celebrated theater family and anecdotes about the good old days, when he was the undisputed champion of Hollywood and Broadway. He even recites a few bawdy limericks. Clearly, though, the alcoholism has already taken its toll. Plummer, an actor of similar stature, is nothing short of mesmerizing in a Tony Award-winning performance that demands frequent shifts in demeanor and dramatic soliloquies. The Blu-ray adds a very good backgrounder on the play, Barrymore and Plummer’s career.

Mama: Blu-ray
It has become something of a Hollywood truism that movies released in January, even those with prominent stars, have been dumped there as placeholders between the holiday pictures with those with more commercial potential to come. Once Valentine’s Day rolls around, thoughts of summer already are consuming the minds of Hollywood distributors. It’s possible that the handlers of “Mama” knew that they had something marketable, at least, with Jessica Chastain’s career still in its ascendency. It also carried the imprimatur of executive producer and master of horror Guillermo del Toro. Word-of-mouth worked wonders for January’s child, as Andres and Barbara Musshietti’s film grossed several times more than its estimated budget. That should give fans of stories about ghosts and bogeymen an idea of its rent-ability in DVD and Blu-ray. The movie opens auspiciously, when a wildly distraught man murders his wife and drags his two very young daughters to a cabin deep in the woods, where he intends to kill them. Before he can pull the trigger, though, a hairy something-or-other leaps from a cabinet and, well, we don’t know exactly what it does. Five years later, a couple of hillbilly hunters discover a pair of feral children lurking suspiciously in the darkness of the same cabin, which looks uninhabitable. They’re taken to a children’s psychiatric center for rehabilitation, before being handed off to their punk-rock uncle and aunt, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Annabelle (Chastain). It isn’t long before the girls display symptoms of not being ready for polite society. That’s the setup and any more information would spoil the suspense … and fun. Suffice it to say that whatever kept them alive for those five years still has a hold on them and its agenda has yet to be fully revealed. As the kids, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse bounce smoothly and frequently between sweet and creepy. The twice-nominated Oscar candidate, Chastain, is barely recognizable here from her characters in “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Help,” but she’s credible as a woman who evolves from aspiring musician to doting stepmom. Del Toro encouraged the Musshiettis to expand a three-minute short they had made into a feature film, with the help of British writer Neil Cross (“MI-5,” “Luther”), and have the characters speak English, instead of Spanish. Far from perfect, it’s exactly the kind of movie that makes movie lovers think differently about January. It arrives with the short, “Mamá,” and an introduction; commentary; deleted scenes; and a pair of background featurettes.

ID:A
Danish director Christian E. Christiansen enjoyed 15 minutes in the Hollywood sun, when his 2007 short film, “At Night,” was nominated for an Oscar. His 2011 feature “ID:A” bypassed the U.S. entirely, but not because it wasn’t any good. My guess is that there simply wasn’t any place to put it. In the wake of the success of such book-to-film franchises as “The Girl With the Golden Tattoo” and “Wallander,” one of the places fans of character-based thrillers look first for entertainment is Scandinavia. “ID:A” may not compare to those titles in terms of originality or heart-pounding drama, but it is frequently quite exciting and, for those not allergic to subtitles, an easy way to kill a couple of hours. The sneaky-sexy Swede actress Tuva Novotny plays a woman who wakes up one morning with no idea who she is, how she found her way to the bottom of a rocky riverbed in France, why her head is bleeding and she has a long scar on her tummy, and where she picked up the 2 million euros in a backpack she’s clutching. The setup puts us in Jason Bourne territory and that’s exactly where Christiansen and the film’s producers want us to believe we’re heading. Not quite, because recollections of her back pages eventually come back to her. Still, her journey of discovery is quite compelling.

After finding refuge in a nearby country inn, the woman is told that her accent betrays her as being Danish. It doesn’t take long for a pair of thugs, more interested in the money than the woman who possesses it, to track her to the inn. We know from news coverage on the television that a Danish politician was recently assassinated and, perhaps, that’s where the loot might have derived. Nevertheless, the innkeeper’s son takes a shine to the stranger and he helps her find people who can help her buy time to discover her identity. Once she gets to Copenhagen, though, her new hair style and color can’t disguise the probability that she’s the wife of a famous Danish opera singer and he’s been distraught she disappeared, only a few weeks ago. From this point forward, each new clue leads to a conspiracy that not only threatens her life, but those of everyone in her orbit. So, you’ll have to watch the movie to unscramble the mystery, right alongside the protagonist.

Mistress of the Apes
She Cat/Female Teacher Hunting
The Exhibitionists

It isn’t often that a DVD arrives in the mail that can compete with “Troll 2,” “Kingdom of the Spiders,” “Birdemic” and “Plan 9 From Outer Space” for the honor of being one of best bad movies of all time. That’s exactly how I felt after watching “Mistress of the Apes,” a picture that kept my jaw locked in the dropped position throughout the entirety of its 84-minute length. Made in 1979, but apparently never distributed here, “Mistress of the Apes” was written and directed by self-proclaimed “schlockmeister” Larry Buchanan, who also gave us the original “Mars Needs Women,” “Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell” and “Free, White and 21,” among other quick-and-dirty gems. “Mistress of the Apes” opens in a hospital, where the wife of a world-famous anthropologist is about to deliver a baby. At the same time, a group of dope fiends invade the facility looking for the drugs locked in a cabinet in the same room. In the ensuing fracas, Susan literally slides off the operating table, causing the baby to be stillborn. As if that news weren’t sufficiently bad, and ultimately irrelevant, the blond bombshell (Jenny Neumann) is told that her husband has disappeared while on a dig in Africa and is believed to be dead. Knowing that he had discovered something that could change everything we know about the evolution of human beings, she immediately volunteers to make the grueling trek to the jungle with a gun-crazy hunter and his sexy wife and one of her husband’s associates. Apparently, the only reason she’s been summoned to Africa is to raise the spirits of her husband’s betrayers by flashing her world-class breasts every so often and giving them an opportunity to rape a white woman. It’s a distinction she shares with the hunter’s wife (Barbara Leigh).

It doesn’t take long before Susan discovers what made her husband so excited: missing-link humanoids, “near” men and women, who closely resemble body-builders with faces swollen by the stings of dozens of killer bees. Cutting to the chase, Susan invents a language by which she can communicate with the near-men, who seem more entranced by those magnificent breasts and blond hair than her linguistic skills. To get even closer to the near-people, Susan seduces at least one and, perhaps, all of them in a nearby cave. Meanwhile, she is being pursued by the hunter and others who want to cash in on the discovery. This description doesn’t come close to doing justice to the idiocy of the screenplay, cheesy production values and Buchanan’s conspicuously bad taste. “Mistress of the Apes” is also graced with a couple of the worst songs in the history of the cinema, suggesting that the whole thing is a joke on the audience. If that was Buchanan’s intention, it worked.

The soft-core porn on display in the movies that comprise the “Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection” are so sexually perverse and tortuously plotted that they straddle the line between “so bad they’re good” and “so bad they’re really bad.” The latest installments in the continuing series of “roman porno” titles from Impulse Pictures are “She Cat” and “Female Teacher Hunting,” both from the early 1980s. The former is a female-revenge epic, in which an attractive hit-woman, who spends far too much time taking showers, blows an assassination and becomes a target of other killers. “Female Teacher Hunting” is a cautionary tale about how leveling a false accusation about rape can lead to real violence and heartbreak. In the “Female Teacher” sub-genre, the rapes are shown and exploited for their titillation value among teenage boys, who fantasize about doing the same thing to their teachers. Because of Japan’s curious restrictions on showing pubic hair and penetration, the brutality of an act that otherwise would be too graphic to stomach is diluted. The DVDs come with booklets that put the individual movies, stars and director into the context of the time.

The Exhibitionists” is low-budget indie in which a group of friends and a dominatrix ringer attend a New Year’s Eve party, during which they’re expected to reveal their deepest secrets and relationship hang-ups to the host, a documentary filmmaker. Being New York yuppies, the guests all have problems in the love department and the dominatrix is employed as a provocateur. The host seems most determined to tape the confession of his brother-in-law, a soft-spoken fellow who seems haunted by a deep, dark secret that he wants to exploit cinematically. Director Michael Melamedoff adds an appropriately dark and moody texture to the party scenes, but freshman scripter Michael Edison Hayden’s dialogue lacks the venom and surprises one would expect from this group of people. The shocker scene is easily predictable and there isn’t enough bare skin to be sexy.

The Assassin’s Blade: Blu-ray
Shanghai Noon/Shanghai Knights: Blu-ray

If you can imagine “Romeo and Juliet” crossed with “Mulan,” you’ll have a pretty good idea of what happens in “The Assassin’s Blade,” a martial-arts romance that began life with the far more accurate title of “Butterfly Lovers.” Released in 2008, Jingle Ma’s film paired attractive pop stars Charlene Choi and Wu Chun in a story that had been filmed previously by Tsui Hark and is based on the classic tale of Leung Shan-Pak and Cheuk Ying-Toi. Ma’s re-interpretation isn’t nearly as successful as Hark’s, but the target audience of Asian teenyboppers probably got a kick out of it. Here, Zhu (Choi) is the daughter of a wealthy merchant sent into the mountains to study martial arts under a master teacher. At the time, women were forbidden from joining such elite schools, so she’s required to assume a male disguise. Something of a loose cannon from the get-go, Zhu is ordered to accept the tutelage of a handsome trainer, Liang (Wu). It takes Liang an inordinately long time to realize Zhu is a woman, but, once he does, his heart begins to flutter like a butterfly. It is at this juncture that a childhood friend, Ma, informs Zhu that her parents are in danger and she needs to return to the village. Because Ma expects to be granted permission to marry Zhu, her rejection of the arrangement makes him dangerous to the family. And, this is where east meets west in a scenario that recalls the tragic ending of “Romeo and Juliet.” I can see where teens and young adults might be drawn to “The Assassin’s Blade,” but viewers not enamored with the stars wouldn’t be able to get around the fact that only a blind person could mistake Zhu for a man. Neither is Wu strong enough an actor to convince us that he could be fooled so easily. That said, however, the scenery is quite beautiful and the fighting scenes aren’t bad, either.

The packaging on Blu-ray of “Shanghai Noon” and “Shanghai Knights” reminds us once again how much fun it is to watch perfectly mismatched characters cut loose in an action comedy. Jackie Chan plays martial-arts expert Chon Wang (John Wayne, get it?), the imperial guardsman sent to America to rescue kidnapped Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) from bad hombres. Owen Wilson not only is Wang’s polar opposite as a lawman, but his surfer-dude good looks also make seem as out of place in the Wild West as Wang. Most comedy lovers could easily predict what happens next, if not the many insider gags and easy rapport the actors share. “Shanghai Noon” did well enough to inspire a sequel, “Shanghai Knights,” which extends the conceit to England. Chon’s father has been assassinated and the investigation points to conspirators based in Europe. Hong Kong stars Donnie Yen and Fann Wong join the boys there, but on opposite sides of the mystery. Both movies received glowing reviews, while also exposing eastern and western audiences to unfamiliar actors. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, commentary and making-of featurettes from both movies.

Last Caress
Joint Body
Federal Agents vs. Underworld Inc.
Silver Case

Fans of classic Italian giallo probably will be the only constituency to embrace Francois Gaillard and Christophe Robin’s low-budget slasher flick, “Last Caress.” It involves an attractive group of friends who gather at a rural manor, where their first mistake is to pull out a Ouija board and summon the spirits that reside there. No good can come from playing that game in a movie. Besides having to deal with a family curse, however, the young men and women become the target of a psychopath looking for a painting that carries a curse of its own. Billed as an exercise in “glamour gore,” “Last Caress” jumps from one grisly, giallo-inspired murder to another, with brief interludes for sex. While the men are non-descript nobodies, the women are modern replicas of Italian bombshells from the 1960-70s. Timing in at 72 minutes, there isn’t much space left for a distinct storyline to make sense of the killings. Given the target audience, though, the bloody tableaux are the only things that matter. The DVD arrives with some making-of material and the similarly violent, but more coherent short, “Die Die My Darling.”

The most common complaint about crime dramas made by aspiring filmmakers is that violence too often is used to advance a story, instead of incorporating the violence into a balanced narrative. The opposite is true of Brian Jun’s “Joint Body,” in which the potential for violence percolates under the surface of the story, but is only allowed to cut loose once. Everything else is there, including an attractive cast, a decent foundation for explosive action and borderline sleazy locations. The missing ingredient is the one most crucial to the story. Veteran hard guy Mark Pellegrino is in prison, about to be released on parole, when his wife tells him she wants nothing to do with him. That stings, but what’s more hurtful is the condition of his release that requires him to refrain from contacting his teenage daughter. Nick’s parole officer sternly warns him against breaking the terms of his release, and he seems intent on staying free. He moves into a cut-rate apartment building, where the first people he meets are a red-headed stripper (Alicia Witt) and an elderly woman being wheeled out of the residence on a gurney. Upon making contact with his estranged brother, Nick is surprised to learn that he’s married and a newly minted cop. In a decision that begs credulity, the cop gives his brother an untraceable handgun “for protection” – a direct violation of his parole – and suggests they maintain some distance between each other. The gun will come into play soon thereafter, bringing Nick and the stripper together as desperadoes. If that scenario portends anything, it’s that the second half of “Joint Body” should be explosive. Instead, none of threads lead anywhere, except to a tepid resolution. Witt and Pellegrino are quite good, given the limitations of the script, so it would have been nice if they were given more to do.

The release of “Federal Agents vs. Underworld Inc.” and other movie serials from the Cheezy Flicks catalogue serves as a reminder of how much fun it was to go to the movies in the days before multiplexes and cost-cutting by studios, distributors and exhibitors. In addition to a double feature, audiences were treated to a cartoon, trailers, a newsreel and a multipart serial with cliffhanger endings. During the Depression, women were specifically targeted with special “Dish Night” giveaways and contests, while kids were lured to cartoon marathons. Today, we get commercials and placards from local merchants and a nearly endless stream of over-amped previews of coming attractions, most of which leave little to the imagination. As primitive as the serials look in hindsight, such studios as Republic did invest some money in them. The 12-part “Federal Agents” cost $155,000 to make and it was the least expensive serial of 1949. My estimate would have been much lower. Here, an international crime ring steals a gold hand from an ancient temple, thinking it has the power to control minds. It causes federal agents to search near and far for the tomb raiders and, of course, save mankind from totalitarian rule. The fistfights and rescues border on the ludicrous, but it’s unlikely that audiences were any more fooled by this setup than they were by the weekly trials of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Cheezy has cleaned up the images to the point where it’s actually pleasant to watch the episodes.

It’s all too easy to criticize a movie for borrowing freely from Quentin Tarantino. Usually, it can be seen in a stylized approach to criminality, creative use of profanity and inventive casting. In “Silver Case,” co-writer/director Christian Filippella borrows the mystery of the glowing briefcase from “Pulp Fiction” and builds an entire movie around it. The missing element, of course, is Tarantino’s wild imagination. Eric Roberts plays a Hollywood mogul named Senator, who, in an effort to curry favor with another big shot, hires a courier to deliver a silver suitcase to the Master. The courier is warned not to tamper with the lock or lose track of it, which is the first thing he does. From there, the suitcase is passed from crook to crook, until it finally is retrieved by the Master’s thugs. By the time we learn what’s inside it, we’ve lost interest.

The Henry Fonda Collection
Viva Zapata: Blu-ray
The Great Escape: Blu-ray
Brubaker: Blu-ray
The Verdict: Blu-ray
Henry Jaglom Collection, Volume 2: The Comedies
One Hour Photo: Blu-ray

There are plenty of good reasons this week to check out the classics section of your local purveyor of DVDs and Blu-ray titles. Several of the medium’s most significant and popular titles have been collected in box sets, while others have been sent out in hi-def editions for the first time. The award in the Best Bang for Your Buck category goes to Fox for the “The Henry Fonda Film Collection,” which is comprised of “Jesse James,” “The Return of Frank James,” “Immortal Sergeant,” “Drums Along the Mohawk,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Daisy Kenyon,” “The Boston Strangler” and “The Longest Day.” Priced at just south of $50, I can’t think of a better Father’s Day gift for film buffs who might have might caught one or more of the movies at the local Bijou during their initial go-round. It is by no means a definitive collection of Fonda’s greatest performances, as he also contributed fine work to the inventory of other major studios. It does, however, demonstrate Fonda’s depth, genre range and immeasurable contributions to Twentieth Century Fox, during the golden years. Three of the titles here were directed by John Ford, while also represented are Fritz Lang, William Wellman and Otto Preminger. (I’m surprised that Ford and Fonda’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” isn’t included, as it was in the “Ford at Fox” box.) Collectors might consider waiting for the inevitable Blu-ray assemblage, but those who haven’t already added these titles to their collection can pick them here at a bargain price.

Also from the Fox library, this one in Blu-ray, arrives Elia Kazan and John Steinbeck’s exhilarating, if historically dubious portrait of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Among other good reasons for picking it up, it’s fun to watch heavyweights Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn go toe-to-toe, alongside Jean Peters and Joseph Wiseman. Both men had received glowing reviews for their interpretation of Stanley Kowalski and vied for the lead role in “Viva Zapata!” Kazan used their rivalry to add sizzle to an already scrumptious steak. Although I would caution students against using it as reference material, “Viva Zapata!” ranks high on the list of Hollywood biopics with tremendous performances and wonderful location cinematography. Scholars have argued that the Kazan’s “power corrupts” take on Zapata was colored by his own negative attitudes toward totalitarianism and he used the trajectory of the Mexican Revolution to comment on the failures of the Soviet system. The maestro’s use of Zapata as a stand-in for Stalin – however obliquely — disturbed many Mexican historians and left-wing scholars.

Released in 1963, “The Great Escape” not only is one of the greatest war movies of all time, but it is an entertainment that can be enjoyed as much today as it was 40 years ago. Based on an actual escape from the maximum-security POW camp Stalag Luft III, it remains one of the period’s few big-budget, high-profile projects that allowed the collaborative process to play out as intended, both on and off screen. Behind the camera sat director John Sturges (“The Magnificent Seven”), screenwriters James Clavell (“Shogun”) and W.R. Burnett (“Little Caesar”), and composer Elmer Bernstein. In front of it was an all-star cast that gelled as an ensemble, but left room for Steve McQueen to emerge as the hero among heroes. Also contributing wonderful performances were James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum and James Donald. Among the recycled bonus features are commentary with cast and crew and eight worthwhile mini-docs.

In “Brubaker” (1980), Robert Redford plays a reform-minded prison warden who finds himself caught between a totally corrupt penal system and hundreds of potentially convicts who have no good reason to trust him. It, too, was based on the experiences of an actual person and a scandal that rocked the state of Arkansas. Providing solid work in supporting roles are Yaphet Kotto, Jane Alexander and Morgan Freeman, for whom “Brubaker” represented a stepping stone to a great career. (Earlier that year, he also played a prisoner in “Attica.”) Watch it back-to-back with “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Paul Newman gives a stirring performance as an over-the-hill Boston lawyer given one last opportunity to prove he can do something besides blowing cases and getting soused. The 1982 courtroom drama “The Verdict” was written by David Mamet and directed by Sidney Lumet, with James Mason, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, Milo O’Shea and Lindsay Crouse in strong supporting roles. The Blu-ray bonuses include “Paul Newman: The Craft of Acting,” “Milestones in Cinema History: The Verdict,” “Sidney Lumet: The Craft of Directing” and commentary with Lumet and Newman.

Even though he practically defines the term, “acquired taste,” Henry Jaglom ought to be given far more credit than he receives as a pioneer in independent filmmaking. He’s been making movies his way for more than 40 years, no matter how the public and critics react to them. Aspiring filmmakers could learn a great from watching his pictures and emulating his ability to stretch a dollar as far as it will go. If nothing else, watch them to see how his actors respond to the specificity of his hyper-personal conceits. In this way, he could very well be considered the godfather of the mumblecore movement. Jaglom’s disturbingly neurotic ensemble artists deliver largely unrehearsed dialogue – lots of it – that causes viewers to feel as if they’re eavesdropping on conversations they have no right to be hearing. He encourages a style of acting that’s so naturalistic it can be mistaken for complete improvisation, which it’s not. Actors have been encouraged to re-interpret his words, but the frameworks remain true to his vision.

The new “Henry Jaglom Collection, Volume 2: The Comedies” contains “Sitting Ducks” (1980), a kooky heist/caper movie that actually made money; “Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?” (1983), in which an abandoned wife (Karen Black) enters into an unlikely romance with a man (Michael Emil, Jaglom’s brother) she meets at a New York City café; and “New Year’s Day: Time to Move On,” in which Jaglom arrives at a New York apartment he’s leased, 24 hours before three young women are prepared to move out of it. (Look for Maggie Wheeler, David Duchovny and Milos Forman.) The only bonus features appear with “Sitting Ducks,” and one of them borders on legendary. In an interview with an Israeli reporter, Emil spends almost a half-hour discussing his personal sex life, from obsessive masturbation to becoming a self-described and, perhaps, self-inflated orgasm donor to his lovers. His perceived prowess and analytic approach to sexual intercourse was incorporated into his character in “Cherry Pie.”

After 20 years of making people laugh, Robin Williams hit the kind of wall that allowed critics and detractors to reconsider his entire body of work and call for a priest to deliver last rites to his movie career. While it’s accurate to say that Williams became too enamored of his shtick, or, perhaps, too willing to play to the wet-tissue crowd, it wasn’t true that he didn’t have the chops to resuscitate his career. After bottoming out critically with “Patch Adams,” “Jakob the Liar” and “Bicentennial Man,” Williams reversed direction with terrific dramatic turns in “One Hour Photo,” “Insomnia” and the inky black comedy, “Death to Smoochy.” In “One Hour Photo,” he plays the creepy clerk of a photo booth in a large discount store. Things go sideways when he insinuates himself into the personal life of one of his most frequent customers, a woman who isn’t aware that her husband is cheating on her. In fact, the longtime employee is probably the only person, apart from the participants, who can prove what’s been happening behind her back. After piecing the parts of the puzzle together, he takes it upon himself to right the wrong. Fox has re-released “One Hour Photo” in Blu-ray, with several making-of featurettes and a backgrounder hosted by director Mark Romanek.

Superman Unbound: Blu-ray
A month ahead of the long-anticipated release of Zach Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” Superman geeks are encouraged to whet their appetite with the all-new made-for-video movie, “Superman Unbound.” In the animated feature, Superman and Supergirl take on Brainiac, the evil android supervillain who collects the intellectual DNA and miniaturizes the significant landmarks of intergalactic civilizations he plans to destroy. Brainiac’s mad goal is to collect the wisdom and invest it in his own devastated homeland. When our superheroes learn that Brainiac has gleaned everything worth knowing from the miniature Kandor and is ready to wipe out all memory of Krypton, they commit themselves to preventing the tragedy. The movie has been adapted from Geoff Johns’ 2008 comic book story arc, “Superman: Brainiac.” Among the voicing-cast members are Matt Bomer, John Noble, Stana Katic, Molly Quinn and Francis Conroy. The Blu-ray includes a month’s worth of bonus material, including commentary, background featurettes, four bonus cartoons, previews and a digital-comic excerpt from the graphic novel on which it’s based. One thing that struck me as being a tad twisted is the amount time the camera spends lingering on Lois and Supergirl’s gams and cleavage. I’m sure the teenage boys appreciate the extra effort.

Lifetime: Steel Magnolias
Nature: What Plants Talk About
Rookie Blue: The Complete Third Season
Fringe: The Complete Fifth and Final Season
Sesame Street: Elmo the Musical

The restaging of popular shows and movies, using actors and characters markedly different in ethnic or racial background than those featured in the original, often can be fairly described as a gimmick. The recent Lifetime Network updating of “Steel Magnolias” looks and sounds like Robert Harling’s 1987 play and Herbert Ross’ 1989 movie, except for the obvious fact that the primary cast members are African-American. The remake not only is true to the spirit of the all-white versions, but in some ways improves on previous presentations. And, it does so without resorting to the addition of cultural clichés or stereotypes. Six Louisiana women gather regularly at Truvy’s Beauty Spot to gossip, swap lies, cry, commiserate with each other’s problems, herald their personal triumphs and occasionally get their hair done. When the daughter of one of the regulars decides to have a baby, despite a potentially dangerous kidney condition, the ladies worry as one and exhale simultaneously when she survives the delivery. Ditto, when she undergoes a transplant to save her life. Those kinds of emotions aren’t limited to one ethnic or demographic group, but the scope of the small screen appears to intensify the experience. Director Kenny Leon and exec-producer/star Queen Latifah were able to round up a stellar group of women actors that includes Phylicia Rashad, Adepero Oduye, Condola Rashad, Jill Scott and Alfre Woodard. Their male counterparts, including Lance Gross, Tory Kittles, Michael Beasley and Afermo Omilami, get a fair shake, if not equal screen time.

Plants may not converse with each other, per se, but, as we learn in the “Nature” presentation, “What Plants Talk About,” they are able to share valuable information in ways that scientists of only recently begun to assess. It helps them survive in conditions not normally conducive to growth, as well as in rainforests where the weak could easily get overwhelmed by taller and heartier vegetation. Apparently, they also are able to summon the enemies of their enemies to prevent being eaten. Plant ecologist J.C. Cahill takes us from the Great Basin Desert to the western coast of Canada, where there never seems to be a shortage of water and nutrition, but other dangers exist. To reinforce their theories, the scientists also go underground to demonstrate how root systems work and how information is passed through them.

ABC’s police drama “Rookie Blue” is one of the rarest of all television flowers, a summer series that remains where it took root and is about to enter its fourth season. Normally, summer is the dumping ground for the broadcast networks as the fresh material tends to be limited to reality, game shows and episodes of already canceled series that have yet to air. Every so often, a network will attempt to create an avenue for summer entertainment, but the interest shown by sponsors, especially, is minimal. The same doesn’t hold true for cable, which eats the networks’ picnic lunches each summer by adding fresh series and bringing back series that have already proven themselves. Just as the teenagers on “Glee” and “Gossip Girl” can’t be seniors forever – or, can they? – the rookies of 15 Division quickly became seasoned, occasionally jaded cops. Their assignments and interpersonal relationships intensified, accordingly. The DVD set adds seven making-of featurettes, plus behind-the-scenes and on-set interviews.

There was no guarantee that the Fox sci-fi series “Fringe” would be granted a fifth-season run, if only to tie up loose ends from Season 4 and create a scenario for closure. In this case, the 13-episode renewal was justified by bringing “Fringe” to the magic No. 100, at which point syndication becomes a near certainty. Why anyone would wait for reruns and sit through commercials when full-season and full-run DVD compilations are available remains a mystery to me, though. Season 5 picks up from events depicted in last season’s flash-forward episodes, when the seemingly peaceful Observers seized control of our universe in 2015. Now, in 2036, they have become ruthless rulers who stand unopposed. Can the Fringe Team save humanity and turn back time? Stay tuned. The series finale is a real fan-pleaser.

Generally, the axiom that cautions against fixing things that aren’t broken applies as much to television as any other pursuit. Only bad things can happen when tinkerers are allowed to mess with success. The “Elmo’s World” segment of “Sesame Street” was by no means broken, but it was felt that the whole show could stand a bit of tweaking to appeal to a slightly older demographic. “Elmo the Musical” finds the beloved character stepping out in white tails and high hat, in search of educational adventures and entertaining musical interludes. The show’s mission of promoting math, science, engineering and technology didn’t change, but Elmo does. Turns out, he has feet and knows what to do with them, as “full-body Elmo.” The new five-episode set adds the full-length video, “Let’s Make Music!”

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

China Beach: The Complete Series
The news divisions of three major television networks may have come of age covering the Vietnam War, civil-rights movement and campus turmoil of the 1960s, but it took nearly 20 years for broadcast executives to come to grips with what happened in dramatic form. Unlike the inky black movie comedy that inspired it, TV’s “M*A*S*H” allowed its audience the freedom to draw its own conclusion about which war the sitcom actually was satirizing and why it was worthy of such treatment. Its huge popularity suggests that most viewers considered show’s comically anti-establishment message to be more universal than specific and, in the early 1970s, “M*A*S*H” fit well alongside “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “Laugh-In.” That Vietnam had become an absurdist nightmare, practically defining the term, “SNAFU,” had been established as early as 1968, when, after the 1968 bombing of Ben Tre, AP correspondent Peter Arnett quoted a ranking officer’s observation, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Even “M*A*S*H” co-creator Larry Gelbart would have had a tough time topping that whopper. Otherwise, allusions to the Vietnam War on television were pretty much limited to the occasional wild-eyed veteran as a suspect in a violent crime on police dramas. In 1980, “Magnum, P.I.” offered an alternative in the form of three male characters, who served in Vietnam, but weren’t traumatized beyond all recognition. Magnum, T.C. and Rick occasionally employed skills they learned in the service – extreme helicopter maneuvers and weaponry, for example – and seemed as normal as anyone attempting to jump-start their lives in Hawaii.

Finally, seven years later, CBS used the success of “Platoon” as a springboard for the series “Tour of Duty,” which was set in 1967 Vietnam and dealt with issues especially pertinent to infantrymen fighting a highly motivated, mostly invisible enemy. ABC would launch “China Beach” a season later, shifting the primary focus to nurses and medics stationed at the evacuation hospital at My Khe beach and the wounded servicemen who found refuge and relief there. The restful setting, in addition to presence of women and civilians, increased the number of avenues open to the show’s writers to explore dramatic, comedic and romantic themes. It allowed “China Beach” to tap into a demographic not likely to be attracted to “Tour of Duty” and war movies of the time. For once, women characters weren’t limited to supporting roles or playing second fiddle to male authority figures. As in the war, itself, the non-combatant nurses, volunteers, officers, privates and angels of mercy were portrayed as being a crucial cog in military machine, as well as healers of the body, mind and spirit. They were no less impervious to pain, fatigue, heartbreak or errant bullets than the men at China Beach and their stories had yet to be told in the media. As portrayed by Dana Delaney, First Lieutenant Colleen McMurphy was a composite of nurses who actually served in Vietnam and shared their stories with series creators William Broyles Jr. and John Sacret Young. (“ER” creator John Wells would take the helm in the second season.) Marg Helgenberger, Nan Woods, Concetta Tomei, Chloe Webb, Megan Gallagher, Nancy Giles and Ricki Lake filled roles ranging from prostitutes and singers, to motor-pool mechanics and reporters. They did this alongside such male actors as Michael Boatman, Robert Picardo, Tim Ryan, Jeff Kober and Brian Wimmer. As “China Beach” evolved during its four-season run, it occasionally would introduce stateside storylines and experiment with plot devices.

It’s hard to believe that “China Beach” is only now making its debut in any home-entertainment format. Instead of releasing it in dribs and drabs, StarVista Entertainment and Time Life have chosen to do it right the first time, with “China Beach: The Complete Series” and “China Beach: 25th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition,” both containing a pile of bonus features. The packages don’t come cheap ($199 and $275, respectively), however, and they’re only available at chinabeachondvd.com. The same thing that precluded any previous release of “China Beach” is responsible for the eye-popping price tag, I suspect. “China Beach” is one of the few television shows that used contemporary music, performed by the original artists, to inform what was happening on screen. Because of this, anyone who wanted to send the series out in VHS or DVD had to consider substituting the original songs with generic music or the same songs performed by other artists, neither of which would have had the same effect. The package includes 268 familiar songs, as they were played in the original broadcasts, and this required StarVista to re-license all of them for DVD. (Rights don’t automatically extend from one medium to the next, anymore.) Included in the 10 hours of new bonus material are interviews with cast members and creators, five audio commentaries, footage and featurettes from the 2012 reunion, three roundtable discussions with cast and crew, a gag reel, deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes footage. The “25th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition” adds three signed scripts and photographs from the reunion.

Broken City: Blu-ray
At this point in the history of our republic, it’s become nearly impossible for writers of movies about political corruption to top the antics of the venal swine who misuse their offices for personal gain. Not only are mere citizens unable to compete for access to their elected representatives, constantly being pushed aside by campaign contributors and lobbyists, but constant exposure to corruption also appears to have soured voters on the process as dramatized in movies. Showtime’s “Boss” and Netflix’s “House of Cards” succeeded, in large part, because mini-series are allotted the time necessary to explore the root causes of corruption and amplify the drama with frequent outbursts of gratuitous violence and sex. “Broken City” benefits primarily from the familiarity of the lead characters – Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg, Catherine Zeta-Jones – and the portentous direction of Allen Hughes. As the movie opens, troubled New York cop Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) is fighting for his career and freedom against charges that he used excessive force against a street punk with whom he had something of a history. Taggart dodges the big bullet, but, as a concession to the rabble protesting the verdict, the mayor (Crowe) talks him into taking a smaller bullet for the sake of political stability. Seven years later, it’s clear that things have gone easier for the mayor than Taggart, whose private detective business isn’t doing at all well. Almost out of nowhere, Taggart’s presence is required at City Hall, where Mayor Hostetler offers him the face-saving assignment he’d been promised years earlier.

Ostensibly, the task involves investigating the mayor’s beautiful, strong-willed wife (Zeta-Jones) and an affair she may or may not be having with person- or persons-unknown. That, of course, would be far too easy. Soon, Taggart finds himself in the middle of a potential scandal that could bring down Hostetler and anyone else hoping to fill his seat. Meanwhile, in a diversion at least as old as Frank Sinatra in “The Detective,” Taggart must compete for his wife’s attention with a gaggle of her artsy-fartsy friends. “Broken City” was written by a first-timer, Brian Tucker, so it’s possible that he fell in love with the complexity of his screenplay and convinced Hughes – directing apart from his brother, Albert, for the first time – to keep the kitchen sink in the picture. The Blu-ray, which holds the camera’s noir texture pretty well, adds deleted scenes, a making-of documentary, alternative ending and UltraViolet capacity.

Not Fade Away: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing upon which people in 49 of our 50 mostly united states can agree, it’s that the deadline on New Jersey’s 15 minutes in the spotlight has been pushed way too far. Even if it leads the nation in reality-based television shows and locations for HBO series, New Jersey is Nebraska with an accent and a lot more Italians. David Chase can be forgiven almost anything, if only because he gave us “The Sopranos,” but his highly personal feature debut, “Not Fade Away,” pushes the envelope to the breaking point. It is a coming-of-age drama that wants us to believe that the same bolt of lightning that struck Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, in 1960, would, five years later, strike three Jersey boys about to embark on a rock-’n’-roll odyssey. It did so at approximately the same moment as the Rolling Stones were performing on “The Hollywood Palace” and enduring the cheap shots dished out by host Dean Martin.  Seemingly overnight, Chase’s alter-ego here, Douglas (John Magaro), began growing his hair, effecting Cuban-heeled boots and giving up the drums for being lead singer in his band, mostly because it’s the first place the cool girls look when the music begins.

Naturally, his blue-collar old man (James Gandolfini) strongly disapproves, assuming that his son has been subverted by communists and is in need of a good beating. Normally, one could expect Mom to come to her boy’s defense, if only in private, but Chase has decided to paint her in the most unflattering light possible. In Molly Price’s hands, she becomes a shrill suburban gargoyle, rarely seen without her hair in curlers and wearing something other than a thread-worn housecoat. She constantly guilt-trips Douglas by saying that his long, curly hair and anti-war views are an insult to his father’s hard work and all the sacrifices they’ve made for him. Despite all this weeping and wailing, the band manages to attract the attention of big-time producer Jerry Ragovoy (Brad Garrett) and Douglas hooks up with the hottest babe in the tri-state area (Bella Heathcote). So, where’s the rub?

Watching “Not Fade Away,” whose killer soundtrack balances the parent’s nasty treatment of Douglas, I could only think of how outdated and cliché the story seemed from a distance of nearly 50 years. The same arguments and threats that accompanied Douglas’ metamorphosis were taking place in hundreds of thousands of American homes and still are, perhaps, when kids show off their spanking-new tattoos and piercings. Thousands of garage bands still struggle to be heard and marijuana continues to bring the silly out in teenagers. The most shocking thing about “Not Fade Away,” perhaps, is realizing how little has changed since the period described in the movie. Each succeeding generation must endure some degree of torture from its elders, if only to prepare teenagers for the cold facts of adulthood.

To be fair, however, it should be mentioned that “Not Fade Away” received mostly positive reviews and it’s not at all difficult to watch, even if one has seen variations of it already in such movies as “That Things You Do!,” “The Commitments,” “Almost Famous,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “The Runaways” and “Backbeat.” The young actors are all quite good and Chase takes full advantage of their enthusiasm. Even if Gandolfini will only seem to be reprising Tony Soprano, some viewers will find that sufficient cause to recommend “Not Fade Away.” (In that case, also rent “Down the Shore.) Steven Van Zandt, Silvio in “The Sopranos,” does a great job as music supervisor, mixing vintage songs with more obscure tunes and making sure the actors look good on stage. For my money, though, the best scene in the movie comes at the very end, when Douglas’ sister, I think, appears out of nowhere to perform a dance to the future on a deserted Hollywood street. It punctuates everything that’s gone before and anticipates everything that lies ahead for her generation. The Blu-ray nicely captures the rich sound and unpolished mono texture of the music – classic and original – adds a lengthy backgrounder with Chase, deleted scenes and a look at how the musician/actors were chosen.

Wasted on the Young
Revenge dramas set in high schools are nothing new and thanks, in part, to amoral NRA lobbyists, the massacres that inspire them aren’t going to disappear any time soon. So far, the only meaningful thing to emerge from the killings at Columbine was Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” and pro-gun legislators are trying to convince us that taking automatic weapons out of the hands of a sociopath couldn’t have prevented Sandy Hook. Even if bullies usually aren’t given the last word in movies and television shows, they still seek spotlight of the Internet whenever they perpetrate their crimes. Psychologically battered teens will continue to commit suicide after leaving heart-breaking messages on Facebook and perpetrators will be given a pass by prosecutors, parents and school administrators. Internet vigilantes, including Anonymous, have begun to fight back by putting the heat on law-enforcement officials, but victims of bullying know the deck is stacked against them. It’s against the backdrop of the recent Steubenville and Nova Scotia rape scandals that the Aussie teen drama “Wasted on the Young” arrives here on DVD. The night after I screened the movie, an eerily similar case was dramatized on “Law & Order: SVU,” and not for the first time, either.

In something of a Cain and Able scenario, cool-dude Zack (Alex Russell) and his computer-obsessed stepbrother Darren (Oliver Ackland) attend the same tony Perth prep school, which is divided socially by the “popular” crowd and everyone else. With their parents away on one of their many vacations, Zack and Darren are allowed free reign of their expensive home. Darren is so preoccupied with his computer projects and surveillance system that he might not even notice his parents’ absence. Zack uses the occasion to host a party that threatens to evolve into an orgy as the drugs and booze begin to flow. At one point, the ruling clique decides it might be fun to dose the blond newcomer, Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens), gang-rape her and dump her on a sand dune to die of exposure. Turns out, Xandrie is the only girl in school who’s paid much attention to Darren and shown any interest in his off-campus pursuits. Days later, when Xandrie returns to school and the perpetrators have been cleared by the administrators, Darren decides that it’s time for his stepbrother to get his comeuppance. Freshman writer/director Ben C. Lucas lays out this incendiary scenario with great patience and an eye for avoiding the clichés of revenge dramas. If the ending doesn’t quite deliver a knockout punch, it doesn’t seek the easy path, either. Dan Freene’s frequently ominous cinematography fits the story like a glove. Not surprisingly, the star attached to the career of Adelaide Clemens already is on the rise in Hollywood. Look for her in “The Great Gatsby.”

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
After watching four hours of Dmitry Vasyukov’s multipart documentary about fur traders living and working in one of the most isolated outposts on the planet, Werner Herzog contacted the director via Skype and made him an offer he probably could have refused, but wisely didn’t. Herzog volunteered to trim approximately 2½ hours from the film, put a more commercially viable spin on the remaining 90 minutes and add his mellifluous narrative to it. He also requested creative control over the process. Herzog had been fascinated by what he saw in Vasyukov’s source material, so it wasn’t likely that he would approach the task as an exercise in fat-cutting or a mercy-edit for a kindred documentarian. Instead, he proposed cutting and re-editing “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” to fit the attention spans and interests of western audiences, something the re-interpreter of “Grizzly Man” and author of “Encounters at the End of the World,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” and “Into the Abyss” would know how to do better than anyone. Like “Grizzly Man,” “Happy People” would be comprised of another team’s footage, but informed by the humanistic sensibility of the veteran filmmaker. It works, wonderfully. Vasyukov chronicled a year’s worth of seasonal change in a region of the Siberian Taiga so distant from the so-called civilization that its nearest medical clinic and police department are 150 kilometers distant. There are no cell towers or high-tension wires to be seen in the village of Bakhtia — population 300, not counting work dogs, moose and the occasional bear – which straddles the Yenisei River. You can get there by helicopter or boat, but snowmobiles aren’t practical modes of transportation until the river freezes. Moreover, the Taiga is a place where spring and summer can be measured in minutes and hours, rather than days and months.

The men we meet in “Happy People” sustain themselves and their families by fur trapping, a profession that isn’t nearly as lucrative as it used to be. One of the most cogent points made by Herzog is that residents of Bakhtia are constantly working, from the minute they get up to the moment their heads hit a pillow, very nearly 365 days a year. (We celebrated celebrate Christmas with a family here.) That’s because there’s always something that requires attention and no one else to do it. As soon as the snow melts, for example, there’s wood that needs to be gathered and chopped in anticipation of the next winter and countless repairs to be made on property damaged by ice and cold. Soon, fathers and sons will venture into the woods once again to prepare traps, blaze trails, restock provisions in their huts and train the puppies in the art of survival. While it’s impossible not to be impressed with the grit and fortitude of the men and women who live in Bakhtia – and, perhaps, envy their happiness in life – Herzog doesn’t seem interested in romanticizing them or finding heroism in necessity. What’s more compelling to him is documenting the constant pursuit of balance between the needs of man and demands of nature. The luxuries of modernity, available to hunters almost everywhere else in the world, can’t be afforded by families that rely, instead, on centuries-old traditions and practices. Everything from dugout canoes to mosquito repellant are created by hand, using tools passed down through the generations. Convenience and distance demand that some motorized vehicles be deployed, but there are times when motors and belts are no match for the obstacles presented by a raging river or giant snow drift.

“Happy People” is a documentary everyone in a family truly can enjoy and profit from viewing. Out of necessity, not choice, the folks we meet here are required to live the life Chris McCandless sought so desperately in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild.” They value the freedom provided by nearly complete isolation from society and are constantly on the lookout for outsiders who attempt to redraw boundaries and threaten their well-being by over-aggressive hunting and fishing. I would have loved to see “Happy People” in Blu-ray, but the DVD looks pretty terrific as it is. The package contains footage trimmed from Vasyukov’s documentary, a beautiful film that shows how nature awakes from a long Taiga winter and an interview with Herzog.

In Danger and Deep Distress, the Middleway Spells Certain Death
To get the most out of the films of Alexander Kluge, non-German viewers should possess at least a rudimentary understanding of the country’s post-war, pre-unification history. The West Germany to which he exposes us eway Spells Certain Deathis vaguely familiar, even if the characters aren’t. It’s the glimpses into life in East Germany – mostly through characters who managed to get past the wall – that add something new to our understanding of the Cold War and how people got through it. West Germany may have turned the corner on prosperity, but it largely was a country without an identity. In the east, clocks had stopped in 1946 and that’s the way the Communist Party wanted it. For a generation of filmmakers and artists who grew up after the war and wanted to distance themselves from the horrors perpetrated in the name of the Third Reich, change couldn’t come too soon. Kluge was one of the key players in the New German Cinema movement, which, in the early 1960s, argued for an open discussion of the war and its legacy, as well as the expanding capitalist juggernaut and disappearing social safety net. It took a while, but, by the mid-’70s, German directors were making waves around the world.

For the last several years, Facets Video has done lovers of quality cinema the favor of releasing refurbished editions of Kluge’s films on DVD. “In Danger and Deep Distress, the Middleway Spells Certain Death (1974) is set in Frankfurt during a period of great physical and social upheaval. Buildings are being torn down as soon as police can evict the squatters who inhabited them. This resulted in pitched battles between cops and protestors in the streets, which, here, also were cluttered with Carnival revelers. Kluge used the occasion to tell the stories of two women from different backgrounds, who are attempting to understand and exploit the unsettled situation. One is a prostitute who can’t resist the temptation to steal from her clients, while the other is a newly minted East German spy. The latter is constantly criticized by her handler for writing long-winded reports he considers to be overly poetic and irrelevant to working-class people behind the wall. The same handler defends his viewing of pornographic films as a means to explain the decadence of the west to his superiors. It’s a miracle the wall stood as long as it did, before crumbling from embarrassment.

The Vampire Lovers: Blur-ray
Newly released into Blu-ray, “The Vampire Lovers” is typical of the horror films turned out by Hammer before the studio went south in the mid-1970s. Equal parts campy, schlocky and thrilling, the movies borrowed characters and themes popularized by Universal years earlier, and freshened genre conventions by adding garish color, over-the-top acting and Victorian settings to the mix. “The Vampire Lovers” was noteworthy for two things mostly: the presence of Ingrid Pitt, one of the leading cult goddesses of her time; and for being the first entry in Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy –“Vampire Lovers,” “Lust for a Vampire,” “Twins of Evil” – all adapted from J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella “Carmilla.” Published in 1872, 25 years before the Bram Stoker classic, the erotic Gothic novella traced the link between vampires and lesbians for the first time. Universal avoided that particular angle in its adaptations of the legend, but Hammer suspected the time was ripe for a sexy take on horror. Pitt plays three different characters: Marcilla, Carmilla and Mircalla Karnstein. The lesbian vampiress Marcilla is invited to stay at the castle of General Von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), whose pretty daughter (Pippa Steele) is far too tempting to ignore. There are other women on the menu, of course, and each is left with bite marks on a breast. After murdering a couple of people who suspect the truth, Marcilla (now Carmilla) takes refuge in the family’s ancestral mansion, where she’s pretty much a sleeping duck. The Blu-ray edition of “Vampire Lovers” looks pretty good, especially considering its age and low-budget origins, and the bonus is excellent. It includes “Feminine Fantastique: Resurrecting “The Vampire Lovers”; Ingrid Pitt’s reading of “Carmilla”; an interview with Madeline Smith; and commentary with director Roy Ward Baker, screenwriter Tudor Gates and Pitt. 

The Heroin King of Baltimore: The Rise & Fall of Melvin Williams
No matter how awful the crime and brutal the punishment, it’s impossible for filmmakers to de-glamourize the rewards associated with organized crime and big-money drug dealing. After watching “American Gangster,” for example, how many viewers would have traded the relatively brief amount of time Frank Lucas spent in prison for two weeks living the life of a drug kingpin? Ditto, Tony Montana. Much the same can be said about “The Heroin King of Baltimore: The Rise & Fall of Melvin Williams,” a rudimentary documentary in which a man who amassed a fortune selling poison on street corners to kids is allowed the luxury to shape his life story the way he wants it to look. And, yes, it’s pretty fascinating stuff. Williams began his life in crime as a gambler and pool hustler in the streets of Baltimore. His uncanny skills attracted the attention of adults only too willing to take the young wizard of odds under their wing and teach him the ways of the world. According to Williams, his career as a heroin dealer began in earnest when a cop planted narcotics on him during a bust and he figured he would reap the benefits of being a dealer if everyone assumed he was a criminal, anyway. Full of moxie, Williams arranged for a steady supply of junk and cocaine and he was off to the races. At one point, Williams was such a force in Baltimore’s African-American community that city officials solicited his help in quelling the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. It gave him a sense of power no amount of money could buy. When he finally was caught and convicted, Williams took his medicine like an OG and got out in time to be immortalized on HBO’s “The Wire.” Indeed, series creator David Simon appears several times here to offer his insight into the man and his legacy. In addition to Williams’ near-soliloquies and the recollections of reporters and cops, there are some cheesy dramatizations of street life in Baltimore. 

Any Day Now
It’s been 40 years since the events described in “Any Day Now” are supposed to have occurred. At the time, any possibility of legalizing same-sex marriage was so far out of the question it was tantamount to believing we’d have a gay or lesbian president by now. Perhaps the most divisive issue — and it hasn’t gone away — was the legality of LGBT adoptions. “Any Day Now” is based on an actual case, in which two gay men sought to adopt a boy with Down syndrome. The boy’s mother is an alcoholic who often leaves Marco alone in their rundown apartment or kicks him out of it when she brings home a boyfriend or trick. On one of these occasions, a drag entertainer, Rudy (Alan Cumming), rescues Marco (Isaac Leyva) from possible danger by allowing him to stay in his apartment while mom is AWOL. They develop a strong personal bond, even as Rudy is attempting to shove his gay lover, Paul (Garret Dillahunt), out of the closet in which he’s been hiding for years. It isn’t until Marco’s mother finally shows up and demands custody of the boy that Paul, a lawyer, decides to emerge and acknowledge his feelings for both of them. Although they’re something of an odd couple, Rudy and Paul make a formidable team in court. In the 1970s, though, the rights of a parent – however unsuited to the task – easily trumped a gay couple’s willingness to save a child from further harm. Watching the legal case proceed is as frustrating for viewers as it might have been for Rudy and Garret. The acting is good and the story remains relevant. The only problem I had with “Any Day Now” is that the period setting makes it seem too much like ancient history, instead of a something that could play out the same way even today.

Stuck to Your Pillow
In yet another twist on the “Heaven Can Wait” theme, Spanish export “Stuck to Your Pillow” imagines a romantic affair between the spirits of a comatose man and unhappily married woman, who can only experience love and happiness in her dreams. Lovely newcomer Paola Verdu plays the woman who’s torn between her cheap, if materialistic husband, Miguel (Jesus Marin), and the outgoing and athletic Miguel of her dreams (Susu Marin). One can’t tear himself away from his job long enough to make sure his wife is happy, while the other Miguel is free to wine and dine Patricia, if only when she’s asleep. When she isn’t, he tags along unseen and unheard, like any other ghost in the paranormal world. The first indication of where Mari Navarro’s rom-com is heading comes when Miguel shows up in Patricia’s dreams, clothed only in scuba gear and flippers. They were the last thing he was wearing before he died in a diving accident and their presence doesn’t seem to bother the dreaming damsel in emotional distress. Miguel, the husband, begins to suspect something is awry when Patricia no longer is anxious to awaken and get on with her day, meanwhile wearing the kind of smile that generally signals romantic bliss. This Miguel’s too busy to follow his wife around all day and, of course, refuses to buy her explanation of having a dream lover, so he hires a pair of inept security guards to do the job for him. Beyond that, “Stuck to Your Pillow” doesn’t offer many surprises. It is, though, harmlessly silly and relatively diverting. Audiences already attuned to frothy European rom-coms could find something here to like.

The Wicked
Urban myths and legends couldn’t maintain their hold on us if there weren’t some factually basis to them. Big cities would be far less interesting places to live if residents couldn’t imagine that albino alligators thrived in ancient sewer systems, devouring rats and half-dead goldfish flushed down toilets by evil little boys. Growing up, kids in our neighborhood were cautioned about sneaking into at least two different abandoned houses, believed to be haunted by the ghosts of people murdered inside them. Every city and generation has or had such places to fear. “The Wicked” takes the haunted-house scenario and adds a bit of a twist to one local legend. In the small Michigan town of Summerset, children are warned never to throw rocks at a deserted house in the forest. As the story goes, severe punishment is exacted on anyone who breaks a window, on purpose or otherwise. Not surprisingly, throwing rocks at the windows of the house has become a rite of passage for teenagers hoping to prove their courage to their cronies or dates. As “The Wicked” opens 7-year-old Amanda Drake is swept from her bedroom window by an evil wind. The girl had been petrified of just such an occurrence after returning from a rock-heaving competition with older kids in the neighborhood. Her mom assured her that the persistent rumors were bogus, but Amanda disappeared anyway. Undaunted, two groups of teens decide to test the legend further. They’re frightened by the appearance of movements inside the house, but, after finding Amanda’s teddy bear in the woods, they decide to investigate … bad idea. In his feature debut, Peter Winther effectively uses the thick woods, darkness and overall creepiness of the old house to conjure an aura of dread. The teenage girls appear to be trying out for the title of Miss Michigan Scream Queen, while the boys are required to wipe cobwebs and witch drool off of their shoulders. Even when one of the girls decides to call the local police into action, they’re too full of themselves to take the kids seriously. “The Wicked” probably wouldn’t be of much interest to older horror buffs. Teenagers, though, should recognize something of themselves in the actions of the alternately dumb/courageous/horny kids who dare to tackle the legend head-on.

Nova: Earth From Space: Blu-ray
PBS: Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene
Independent Lens: The Power Broker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Right
Frontline: Cliffhanger
PBS: Shelter Me
Now that NASA’s Buck Rogers era has come to an end and planet-roving robots have cornered the spotlight, it’s probably a good time for everyone to assess what’s been accomplished in more the a half-century of space exploration. The highlights of headline-grabbing missions, from Mercury to the Curiosity rover, are well known and fondly remembered. The tragedies continue to haunt us, as well. The money needed to fund the Space Shuttle has largely dried up and blown away. Before watching the “Nova” presentation, “Earth From Space,” I was ambivalent about spending more money on a program that seemed more interested in maintaining its public image than practicing pure science. Neither was I sure how I felt about financing gridlock in space and raising the odds in favor of someday getting hit by obsolete space debris.

This two-hour special not only reveals what Earth looks like from space – something that hardly qualifies as news – but it also demonstrates the validity of the “butterfly effect,” which posits that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world might ultimately cause a hurricane in another part of the world. Physicists may have a less poetic definition of the phenomenon, but the effect is the same. The “Nova” team collaborated with NASA scientists to produce an episode that condenses more than 50 years’ worth of satellite data into a package that can be appreciated by anyone who knows how to read the Farmer’s Almanac. Among other things, it explains how dust blown west from the Sahara fertilizes the Amazon region; how a vast underwater “waterfall” off Antarctica helps drive ocean currents around the world; and how the sun’s heating up of the southern Atlantic gives birth to a colossally powerful hurricane. Moreover, with every new Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, we learn more about early detection of killer storms and how to sidestep mass destruction. Without satellites, that would be impossible.

When British novelist William Golding observed of Graham Greene that he was “the ultimate chronicler of 20th Century man’s consciousness and anxiety,” he effectively summarized what, years later, would be revealed in the PBS presentation, “Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene.” Few men experienced the turmoil, chaos and triumphs of that period so intimately and could write about it with such compassion and foresight. His insight into the inner-workings of governments and the human condition, along with a keen awareness of his own demons, contributed greatly to the popularity of his novels and clarity of his non-fiction. For nearly 80 years, his novels and stories have also provided fodder for the movies. Among the titles and screenplays that were adapted more faithfully than others: “Ministry of Fear,” the second “Quiet American,” “Brighton Rock,” “Travels With My Aunt,” “The Power and the Glory,” “The Third Man,” “The End of the Affair,” “Our Man in Havana,” “The Comedians” and “The Human Factor.” Among those testifying on behalf of Greene are novelists John Mortimer, John Le Carré and David Lodge; writer Paul Theroux; former CIA operative and author Frederick Hitz; and his daughter, Caroline Bourget.

The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights” argues that the civil-rights movement wouldn’t have accomplished nearly as much as it did, in as relatively short a time, if it weren’t for the aggressive behind-the-scenes maneuvering of such quiet leaders as Whitney Young. At a time when Martin Luther King Jr. was the public face of the movement, rallying the foot soldiers and pushing a progressive agenda, the head of the National Urban League lobbied the movers, shakers and big-money boys of corporate America for the funds and jobs necessary to move forward before and after King’s death. He also was a confidante ofpresidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. “The Powerbroker” examines the pivotal events of the civil rights era – Brown v Board of Education, the March on Washington, the Vietnam War — through the eyes of a man whose accomplishments remain largely unacknowledged, even today. This is as fitting a eulogy as any.

Judging from the comments found on the PBS website forCliffhanger,” it is the rare “Frontline” episode that inspires the wrath of Democrats as much as Republicans … well, almost. “Cliffhanger” attempts to make sense out of the hideous debate in Washington over the nation’s deficit and debt crises. It was broadcast on the same night as President Obama’s State of the Union message and almost nothing has changed in the stalemate since then. The American public continues to feel the pinch of austerity budgets and sequestering, while politicians refuse to make any reasonable compromises, except when the trims inconvenience them. If Shakespeare had written the script for “Cliffhanger,” it could be found under “tragedy” and “comedy.” The episode was informed by interviews with House Speaker John Boehner, White House economic adviser Gene Sperling and Obama’s former Chief of Staff William Daley. It also details the dissension within the Republican Party over how deep the cuts should go and why they should act like adults.

Shelter Metakes the position that people who want to add a pet to their family should consider adopting one of the many cats and dogs relegated to shelters, before succumbing to the temptation of purchasing an animal whose pedigree can be traced back to Noah’s Ark. Besides acquiring a pet that will be eternally grateful for your kindness and generosity, you will reap Brownie points for saving it from imminent extinction. That was the fate of more than 3 million perfectly good cats and dogs last year. Hosted by actress Katherine Heigl, “Shelter Me” promotes the many positive stories of rescue and redemption for the animals. It describes how shelter pets are helping returning war veterans cope with PTSD; how women prison inmates are training shelter dogs to become service animals for people with disabilities; and the journeys of two stray dogs, from the day they are picked up on the streets and brought to the shelter, until the day they’re adopted.

Friends: The Complete First/Second Season: Blu-ray
GMC: If You Really Love Me
Nickelodeon Favorites: Once Upon a Rhyme
Last fall, when Warner Home Video released its complete-series package of “Friends” in Blu-ray, it was priced anywhere between $192 and $274. The producers went back to the original 35mm negatives for the hi-def upgrade, adding a 1.78:1 video presentation and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track, while they were at it. While the restoration and bonus material didn’t please techier critics, it was better than previous efforts. The 21-disc set was timed for holiday giving, so those who only received coal in their stocking, instead, will be happy that the seasons are being dealt out a la carte, with most extras included. As logic dictates, the first two seasons are the first to arrive separately, which will come as good news to anyone who missed the pilot episode or came to the program later in its run. Executive producers Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane provide the commentary on the pilot, offering insight into how the show was developed and tweaked by the creators and network, alike. There’s also a quick-reference guide to cameos and guest stars.Several of the episodes are presented uncut and extended, with previously unseen dialogue and scenes (not as many as the DVD package, though). The second-season discs add the “smelly cat” video.

I have no idea how such things work, but I find it odd that the women in Gospel Music Channel movies get away with wearing the tightest and most provocative clothing on basic cable. Considering the faith-based messages typically delivered in the final scenes, there must be some correlation between temptation, redemption and forgiveness. “If You Really Love Me” is based on an original stage play written by Cas Sigers (“A Cross To Bear”) and is directed by Roger Melvin (“She’s Still Not Our Sister”). It helps explain the laugh track attached to the film. The story revolves around three sisters, all of whom are required to overcome obstacles in their personal, family and religious lives. “If You Really Love Me” stars Eva Marcille, Keith Robinson, Reagan Gomez-Preston, Mel Jackson and Caryn Ward.

Nickelodeon Favorites: Once Upon a Rhymecontains more the two hours of material from some of your pre-school child’s favorite shows. The newest collection from Nickelodeon is comprised ofWho’s Gonna Play the Big Bad Wolf” (“Bubble Guppies”), “Umi City Treasure Hunt” (“Team Umizoomi”), “Royal Wedding” (“The Fresh Beat Band”), “Dora Saves the Three Little Piggies” (“Dora the Explorer”), “Save the Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon” and “Save the Unicorn” (“The Wonder Pets!”) and “Little Red Riding Blue” (“Blue’s Clues”). They’re not Mother Goose, but most kids won’t know the difference.

Manborg
Hub: Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters: Dragonstrike
Bruce Lee Double Feature: The Big Boss/Fist of Fury
Anyone who’s seen that nasty little piece of slasher business called “Father’s Day” might be interested in the follow-up from the Canadian film collective Astron-6. “Manborg” is yet another takedown of 1980s culture, such as it was under President Reagan’s watch, starring a warrior who’s half-man, half-machine and 100 percent cheeseball. Manborg is a soldier who was killed in the first war against the forces of hell, then resurrected as humanity’s last hope against the villainous Count Draculon. While Manborg resembles a cross between Robocop and Snake Plissken, his sidekicks take after demented Ninja Turtles. It’s the primitive special sci-fi effects that really take the cake, though. “Manborg” is the kind of movie that can be enjoyed by genre buffs and those who think they could have created better monsters in high school shop courses. It’s nice to have filmmakers like Astron-6 around to remind us that the difference between a DIY gem and $100-million turkey is the amount of imagination invested in the project.

Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters: Dragonstrike” extends the “Kaijudu” franchise further into the DVD marketplace, after debuting on the Hub network. It’s yet another animated action series in which Earth kids interact with monsters from outer space and other dimensions. Here, 14-year-old Raiden ”Ray” Pierce-Okamoto is battling racist bullies in own backyard, when he accidentally summons a creature from the dark side. After that happens, it’s a royal rumble to decide who’s in charge of the planet. The DVD adds a pair of commentaries, deleted and alternate scenes, bloopers, backgrounders, interviews and a Q&A from the premiere.

There’s never been a shortage of Bruce Lee movies in circulation in any video format and now Shout!Factory has begun to roll them out in double-feature packages. In DVD, they look as good as they ever have, perhaps better, considering how beat up they were on the screen. Some have even made the leap to Blu-ray. In “The Big Boss” (1971), Lee moves in with cousins to work at an ice factory, but only after promising not to be involved with fighting. When members of his family begin disappearing after meeting with the management, he breaks his vow and takes on the Big Boss. In “Fist of Fury” (1972), Lee is a martial arts student who returns to his former school to find that his teacher has been murdered. Set in Shanghai in the 1930s, the Japanese are in control and students of one of their Bushido schools are responsible.

The Way of the Dragon” (1972) finds Lee in Rome, where family members own a restaurant that mobsters are attempting to control. In the thrilling climax, set in Colosseum, Lee is required to fight Chuck Norris. “Game of Death” (1973) Lee plays a martial-arts movie star who takes on a syndicate of drug dealers. This is the movie in which Lee battles Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Gangster Squad: Blu-ray
More “Mulholland Falls” than “L.A. Confidential” or “Bugsy,” Ruben Fleischer’s machine-gun opera “Gangster Squad” is stylish enough to appeal to fans of the all-star cast members, but takes far too many liberties with the facts to satisfy genre purists. Adding to the familiarity of the story is the presence of Nick Nolte as the LAPD’s unorthodox Chief William H. Parker, who began his tenure as a reformist, but died, 16 years later, defending his department against institutionalized racism and brutality. In “Mulholland Falls,” Nolte played a member of the police department’s notorious Hat Squad, a select unit of hard-ass detectives not unlike Fleischer’s Gangster Squad. Although gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) doesn’t appear in “Mulholland Falls” by name, his greasy fingerprints are all over both movies. Chief Parker and Cohen became mortal enemies in the same post-war period, with the ruthless crime boss not taking kindly to the notion that cops could throw out the rule book in their dogged pursuit of his own illegal activities. That’s exactly how Parker went after Cohen’s rackets and allies in various Los Angeles County courthouses, newsrooms and cop shops, however.

In reality and the movies, the elite squads were populated by battle-tested World War II veterans, whose patriotism extended to the honesty and diligence required of the job. In Cohen, the cops saw an enemy only slightly less sinister than Hitler or Tojo, or so the story goes. The coppers here are likeably portrayed by Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi and Robert Patrick, while Emma Stone plays the dame who shares Cohen and Gosling’s attentions. For all of its noir touches, tough talk and witty banter, “Gangster Squad” frequently looks more like a series of outtakes from “The Untouchables” than a story about how the LAPD neutered Cohen and kept the East Coast and Midwest gangs from gaining a foothold in Southern California. To get a more factual take on Cohen, viewers will want to check out the various background featurettes included in the Blu-ray package. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the most recommendable qualities of “Gangster Squad” lie with the cinematography (Dion Beebe), production design (Maher Ahmad) and costume design (Mary Zophres), all of which contribute mightily to period authenticity. If “Gangster Squad” didn’t make quite the splash the combined talents of its cast might have warranted, it’s because the Aurora multiplex massacre occurred while a trailer for the film showed gangsters shooting tommy guns through a projection screen. It was immediately pulled and a scene had to be reshot, necessitating a new release date.

Django Unchained: Blu-ray
One needn’t have been familiar with the 1966 Spaghetti Western classic “Django” to have thoroughly enjoyed – or, at least, admired – Quentin Tarantino’s violent crowd-pleaser, “Django Unchained,” in its theatrical release. Franco Nero’s portrayal of a coffin-dragging gunman caught between rival gangs on the U.S.-Mexican border would be unforgettable, even if Sergio Corbucci’s film wasn’t also so terrifically entertaining. In Italy, the Django character was deemed so iconic – yes, that overused, if entirely appropriate adjective, again – that similarly named desperadoes appeared in a couple dozen other Westerns, with and without the coffin. It’s entirely appropriate, then, that one of the sub-genre’s most ardent proponents would borrow the character’s name when he got around to making his own Spaghetti Western. Given 165 minutes of screen time, a 130-day shooting schedule and $100 million of someone else’s money, Tarantino was able to create the movie he’s been dreaming of making for a quarter-century. It would have taken him almost the same amount of time to come up with the many references, homages, sight and audio gags that appear throughout the movie. By setting most of “Django” in the pre-war American South – he calls it a “Southern” – Tarantino was able to tackle two much-cherished sub-genres with one monumental leap of faith. In Jamie Foxx, he not only had a protagonist who wouldn’t have been out of place alongside Woody Strode in Spaghetti Land, but in any of the Blaxploitation revenge epics of the 1970s. (If Fred Williamson’s “Nigger Charley” trilogy bears the closest resemblance to “Django” in tone, it’s worth recalling that such prominent African-American actor/athletes as Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Rafer Johnson, Yaphet Kotto, D’Urville Martin, Don Pedro Colley, Max Julien, Robert DoQui, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Denise Nicholas and Lola Falana found paydays as black cowboys and cowgirls.)

Here, of course, escaped slave Django is joined in his mission to be reunited with his wife, Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington), by the cold-blooded German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Always a threat to run away from whoever owns her, Broomhilda has most recently been purchased by the diabolical plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz drives around the Wild West on a wagon with a giant bobbling tooth attached to its top. He isn’t a dentist, but the ruse tends to confuse the local yokels, who may or may not be aware that men with bounties on their heads live among them. Under the doctor’s tutelage, Django becomes a crack shot and impressive figure on a horse. It’s a sight that unsettles racist whites almost as much as the six-shooters on his belt. With the money they make shooting desperadoes – if they’re wanted “dead or alive, why sweat the travelling expenses? – Django and Schultz intend to make Candie a deal he can’t refuse on Broomhilda. They pretend to be interested primarily in buying “Mandingo fighters” for exhibition in Europe, a pursuit that appeals to Candie’s perverse world view. (He considers himself to be a Francophile, but is too lazy to learn French.) There’s no point in revealing much else beyond that setup, except to remind those who haven’t seen “Unchained” that it’s extremely violent and almost unbelievably profane, while also being wildly funny in the darkest sort of way possible.

Naturally, quite a fuss has been made over Tarantino’s frequent use of the n-word here – 120, at last count – and, after a while, it becomes more tiresome than shocking. For my money, though, I found it a bit more disturbing that Candie’s trusted black servant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), is as loathsome as any of the grotesquely drawn rednecks. If a poll were taken among viewers as to the characters they’d most like to see suffer a violent death, it would be a tossup between the Uncle Ben look-alike and Candie. “Django Unchained” is a superbly crafted movie that looks and sounds smashing in Blu-ray. The landscapes and sunsets are uniformly lovely, whether they were captured in Wyoming, Lone Pine or Louisiana. Among the extras are backgrounders on the late production designer, J. Michael Riva; the horses and stunts; and costume designer Sharen Davis. (I suspect a more expansive edition will arrive by Christmas.) Fans of “Unchained” are encouraged to seek out the recently released Blu-ray edition of “Django” and “Skin Game,” a 1971 comedy starring James Garner and Lou Gossett, in roles not dissimilar to Django and Dr. Schultz.

Pawn: Blu-ray
The story arc on “The Shield,” featuring Michael Chiklis and Forest Whitaker, provided some of the FX series’ most tempestuous moments. Both actors can be scary good when the right material is presented them and they went toe-to-toe throughout Season 5. While nothing in “Pawn” compares with what happened weekly in “The Shield,” their presence, alone, gives viewers a reason to pop for a rental of the ensemble thriller. The movie opens with a cop (Whitaker) strolling into an all-night diner in Hartford, Connecticut, for his nightly fix of coffee and a game of chess with the man behind the counter. It takes a few minutes for him to notice that no one in the joint is acting normally and it’s likely that he’s interrupted a robbery. One thing leads to another and a Cockney creep (Chiklis) steps out from the shadows brandishing a gun, precipitating another series of events, not all of which are recalled in the same way. The remaining 80-some minutes of “Pawn” are taken up with 1) explaining what the crooks are after in the diner’s secret safe and 2) understanding why one witness’ point-of-view is so different than another’s version of the story. So far, so “Rashomon.” Before turning completely Japanese, however, director David Armstrong (DP on the “Saw” franchise) and writer Jay Anthony White (“Project 313”) toss several more ingredients into the mix, advancing the narrative beyond mere remake status. In fact, once the camera finds its way outside the confines of the diner, all bets are off as to what’s really happening.

If “Pawn” lacks the narrative heft it would have taken to find theatrical distribution, it can stand on its own in the straight-to-video and VOD marketplaces. In addition to Chiklis and Whitaker, the cast includes Stephen Lang, Common, Nikki Reed, Jessica Szohr and Ray Liotta, all of whom are game for what certainly was a dubious commercial proposition. The generic urban diner provides a solid stage for the suspense that surrounds the whys and wherefores of the crime in progress and, at 88 minutes, “Pawn” doesn’t outstay its welcome. The Blu-ray arrives with a making-of featurette.

It’s in the Blood
Nearly 73, Lance Henriksen still commands the attention of fans of horror, sci-fi and supernatural thrillers. Too often, lately, all this one-off actor has been required to do is show up on the set and reprise one of his many characters. “It’s in the Blood” is a movie that plays to his strong points as a character actor, while also giving him an opportunity to show off a bit in a lead role. As bloggers on the horror circuit have pointed out, “It’s in the Blood” doesn’t easily fit most genre boundaries and that probably is OK with Henriksen. For lack of a better adjective, though, Scooter Downey’s debut easily qualifies as “creepy.” Henriksen plays Russell, a hard-scrabble outdoorsman whose relationship with his teenage son, October (co-writer Sean Elliot), has been strained ever since a traumatic event somewhere in the near past. Before Russell and October have an opportunity to work out their differences, though, they head out for the sticks on a hunting trip. The mere presence of guns and knives in such an already foreboding environment ratchets-up the psychological tension without adding any fat to the mix. As their trek continues, though, it becomes clear there’s something frightening lurking in the forest and ground fog enveloping them. October’s ultimate test of manhood comes when Russell seriously fractures his leg and he’s required not only to save his father’s life, but also protect him from the boogeymen in the mist. Fans of horror and suspense should enjoy “It’s in the Blood,” as much for its willingness to both blur genre boundaries as for its performances and scenery.

Cold Prey II
The Norwegian horror franchise, “Cold Prey,” combines slasher conceits of the “Halloween” variety with the frigid mountain setting of “The Shining.” In the original, snowboarders take shelter inside an abandoned mountain lodge, which is cold but protective. One of them is nursing a broken leg and without proper communications equipment, the young people become an easy target for the ax-wielding lunatic already in residence. “Cold Prey II” picks up where “Cold Prey” left off, with a dazed survivor wandering along an icy highway, toting a bloody pick in her grasp. Once the young woman is able to come to grips with her situation, she points police in the direction of the lodge and the board-stiff corpses she left behind her. They’re taken to the morgue in a rural hospital, which is operating with a skeleton crew before it is to be closed for lack of revenues. It takes a while for the bodies to defrost and, in that time, it becomes clear there’s an extra body on the slabs, in addition to the snowboarders. The surviving victim tries to inform her doctors and police of the blunder – she believes, after all, she had eliminated the undead fiend in the first movie – but they simply assume she’s insane. Surely, you can guess the rest of the story. If “Cold Prey II” sounds overly familiar, it benefits greatly from the taut, claustrophobic direction of Mats Stenberg, who took the helm from Roar Uthaug. Then, there’s the magnificent natural beauty of Jotunheimen National Park and frigid temperatures capable of making viewers shiver in absentia. “Cold Prey 3,” which follows the same formula, has already been released in Europe.

Electric Button: Moon & Cherry
When the brightest practitioners of emerging cinemas begin to rest on their laurels and resist courting controversy, you can count on upstart Japanese filmmakers to ratchet up the craziness and set new standards for gratuitous sex and violence. I say that with all due respect for artists whose only concession to good taste – and the peculiarities of Japanese censors — is avoiding pubic hair and genitalia. Released in 2004, but ignored in markets where sex is treated with the same sanctity as brain surgery and prayer vigils, Yuki Tanada’s debut feature “Electric Button: Moon & Cherry” is an extension of two time-honored Japanese sub-genres, pinku eiga and roman porno. That Tanada is a filmmaker of the female persuasion only added to the potential for a fresh take on conventions dictated by the male-dominated profession. In “Electric Button,” the protagonist and first-person narrator is a timid university freshman, Tadokoro, who’s been encouraged to join a literary club dedicated to erotic writing. With the exception of one brash and hyperactive young woman, the members of Electric Button are an odd lot of pervs and misfits, some of whom already are on to Mayama’s game. The fun begins when Mayama discovers the new kid in class and calls his bluff on some mild sexual braggadocio. Their sexual encounters, which are dictated on her terms, help her overcome a persistent writer’s block. Mayama is the rare woman in Japanese genre flicks allowed to have more fun in the sack than a man, and, at first, Takokoro doesn’t mind being manipulated and exploited by his classmate. It’s when she starts hiring hookers and S&M specialists for him, as research, that the poor sap begins to feel exploited. “Electric Button” is a lot of fun, but no one should confuse it for a Rock Hudson/Doris Day rom-com.

God’s Country
In contemporary faith-based movies, it’s safe to assume that a religious miracle will happen when all other means to a solution have been exhausted. Otherwise, why bother? Like the U.S. Cavalry and Lone Ranger, God arrives in the nick of time to save poor wretches like us with his amazing grace. If Satan doesn’t always make an appearance in such “family friendly” fare, it’s only because his very presence defines what it means to be a buzz kill. In less-observant fare, the devil is given his due for being a hail-and-hearty party animal, if nothing else. “God’s Country” is interesting because it equates predatory capitalism with being on the wrong side of the deity, a notion that flies in the face of everything we know about televangelists and mega-congregations with budgets that exceed the GNP of most developing nations. As portrayed by Jenn Gotzon, Meghan Doherty is an ambitious and hyper-aggressive young business executive at an amoral Los Angeles land-development firm. We know she’s in need of divine intervention because she drives a red Ferrari and favors revealing clothing. Meghan’s firm is trying to bulldoze a deal that would turn a Christian youth mission in the Mojave Desert, God’s Country, into a multi-use resort financed by Japanese interests. God’s Country doesn’t have the money to continue its mission and she drives her sports car over miles of rocks and potholes to make the pastor a deal he can’t refuse. Instead, pastor Eden Graham (Michael Toland) makes her a proposition: spend a week at God’s Country, absorbing the mission’s Gospel, and he’ll sign on the dotted line. What Eden understands and Meghan doesn’t is that God knows what’s best for her and it isn’t another Ferrari. It allows Eden the time to get her right with Jesus, without also resorting to the hard sell. “God’s Country” is well made, considering its budget, and the scenery is pretty swell. It comes with a teaching guide.

K-11: Blu-ray
It’s important to know going into Jules Stewart and Jared Kurt’s prison nightmare, “K-11,” that the title derives from an actual segregated unit at the Los Angeles County Jail, where gay, bisexual or transgender inmates can choose to live outside of the general population. Many of them already have been diagnosed with HIV, while others only became aware of their condition upon arrival and testing at the jail. It should not, however, be seen as an AIDS ghetto, as residence there is voluntary. If the K-11 facility at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility is anything like the one depicted in the movie, it would be as infamous as Attica, Alcatraz and the Black Hole of Calcutta in their heydays. Not only are the inmates in control of the institution, but also, when they’re not sodomizing the weaker prisoners or ignoring beatings and rapes, the guards are dealing and doing as much dope as those awaiting trial. Moreover, the prisoners run the gamut from cross-dressers, sissy boys and transsexuals, to violent child molesters and killers. I doubt that such a mélange of characters would be allowed the freedom to intermingle without guards assuring the safety of the meek and unprotected inmates.

Inexplicably, straight music producer Raymond Saxx Jr. (Goran Visnjic) is shipped directly to K-11 after being picked up in the murder of a rival. On the outside, he gets his kicks by mixing cocaine, heroin and vodka, then blacking out on street corners. Inside, he’s woefully overmatched by the vicious tranny that runs the unit (Kate Del Castillo, who’s every inch a woman). Saxx must find a way to survive in this jungle or become part of the prison food chain. “K-11” is ridiculous, of course, even if it’s doubtful Stewart (mother of Kristen) would see it that way. At best, there’s some cult value in the presence of Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Jason Mewes, Portia Doubleday and D.B. Sweeney, as the vile guard. Del Castillo is fine as the bossy tramp, Mousey, but, by all rights, the role probably should have gone to a male actor (think, William Hurt in “Kiss of the Spider Woman”). The Blu-ray package includes cast interviews, behind-the-scenes featurettes, commentary with Stewart and producer Tom Wright, and a music video.

The Central Park Five: Blu-ray
Who Killed Lindbergh’s Baby?: Blu-ray

What both of these fine documentaries share with last week’s coverage of the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers is undeniable evidence of how politicians and the media exploit tragedy for their own interests and profits, while also arguing that they’re serving the public. In the rush to be the first outlet to announce the names of the terrorists to the world and report their capture, much demonstrably untrue information was spread and later recanted. In their own rush to condemn the bombers, politicians made statements designed to enflame the public and push their own bigoted agendas. Although it appears likely that the Chechen brothers were the perpetrators of the horror, probably acting alone, it’s also likely that the rabble-rousing will continue until a verdict is reached and the maximum penalty is administered. “The Central Park Five” and “Who Killed Lindbergh’s Baby?” describe similarly hysteric reactions to crimes that outraged America and brought out the worst in the media and politicians.

When, in 1989, a white woman jogger was brutally raped and beaten in Central Park, there was so much pressure on the police to put someone behind bars that they felt it necessary to cut corners simply to save face, not that they needed any further incentive. Conveniently, on the same night as the attack, a large pack of black and Hispanic teens had swept through the northern section of the park, terrorizing pedestrians and vandalizing property. Among those arrested were five teenagers, who, as black and Latino, would have fit the description of any criminal in upper Manhattan. As the interviews included in “The Central Park Five” attest, the boys were denied basic rights and lied to about their status as suspects. Exhausted and frightened, they signed false confessions and immediately were trotted out before the media as the worst people on earth. They believed that the city’s case would be sunk by lack of evidence – of which there wasn’t any – and the ability of a jury to see through the sham. Those men and women, however, believed the confessions and ignored everything else, including unmatched DNA. The fact of their innocence wouldn’t be acknowledged until all five had served their full terms and the true perpetrator, who should have been on top of the NYPD’s list of suspects on Day One, admitted the atrocity. Even 10 years after the five men were fully exonerated, police and city officials continue to drag their heels on making reparations to the Central Park Five. They’ve even tried to subpoena every single piece of footage taken by documentarians Ken Burns, Susan Burns and David McMahon, hoping to find a loophole through which they can jump. The filmmakers recount the entire process, from the “wilding” that preceded the attack on the jogger, who’s successfully weathered her own storm, to the release of the men from prison. Interviews with those men and others with distinct memories of the prosecution inform the film, as do the police tapes taken of the shell-shocked youths. The Blu-ray adds several making-of and background featurettes.

Who Killed Lindbergh’s Baby?” chronicles the investigation into the 1932 kidnaping and death of Charles Lindbergh’s toddler son from his bedroom in the family estate in New Jersey. It was the Crime of the Century that led ineffably to the Trial of the Century, a title it held until the Manson Family and O.J. Simpson came along to make claims of their own to the titles. Negotiations with the kidnappers stretched out for weeks, but, when the baby’s dead body was found in the woods near the estate, the pressure to find the killer became even more intense. Solid circumstantial evidence would lead investigators to the German immigrant, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, but not explain other key elements of the crime, including how a single person would have dared pull off such a complicated piece of business. Four years later, without an apology or confession, Hauptmann would be executed for the crime. The problem was, of course, that Hauptmann almost certainly couldn’t have acted alone and, by killing him, the truth never was revealed. It did, however, spark a cottage industry in books and films about the case. The researchers interviewed here argue several possibilities, ranging from feasible to the unthinkable.

G-Dog
Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope

Given that most documentaries involving Catholic priests necessarily focus on abuses of their power and efforts by Church hierarchy to keep the lid on the scandals, it’s refreshing to find a film about one who understands what Jesus might have done in the same circumstances as his. Father Greg Boyle, a white Jesuit, has spent the last quarter-century providing hope and opening doors for former gang-bangers who truly want to straighten out their lives. Through Boyle’s tireless efforts, Homeboy Industries has become a visible thread in the fabric of Los Angeles, first providing baked goods, salsa and tortilla chips to stores and, then, opening stores and restaurants in high-volume locations. Behind the scenes, however, Homeboy Industries offers training in anger management, domestic violence, yoga, spiritual development, parenting, substance abuse, budgeting, art and other areas of self-development for vulnerable youths. Also offered are mental health counseling, tattoo removal, legal services, job development and case management. While the most attention grabbing of these resources, the tattoo-removal program may be the most practical, as well. It’s tough to make a positive first impression on employers who can’t get past highly visible prison and gang tattoos that mark a young man or woman as undesirable. “G-Dog” was directed by Freida Lee Mock, whose documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” took home an Oscar as the Best Documentary of 1993. Boyle is a wonderfully charismatic subject, but it’s the enthusiasm and dedication he instills in others that sells the picture. Anyone who believes that gang members are beyond rehabilitation really out to pick up a copy of “G-Dog” and see the difference one good man can make to the lives of people much of society has forsaken.

It’s been 27 years since the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated above the Atlantic Ocean, 73 seconds after lifting off from Cape Canaveral, leaving all seven of the crew members dead. Images of the explosion are as haunting today as they were on the day they were shown live on national TV. Seventeen years later, seven more astronauts perished after the Space Shuttle Columbia came apart over Texas on its final descent home. No similarly indelible images of the tragedy were broadcast because it happened over a sparsely populated part of the country, during the radio-silence period. An exhaustive search was conducted to collect pieces of the vehicle for re-assembly and find bodies of the astronauts for burial. While many Americans had already begun to question the efficacy of the space program, countries that were contributing to the joint missions remained enthusiastic about it. I’m sure that most Americans remain unaware that one of the victims in the Columbia disaster was Israeli fighter pilot Ilan Ramon, the son of Holocaust survivors and someone whose mission included reminding people of the resilience of the Jewish people. “Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope” tells his story. Ramon is portrayed as a well-liked ambassador of Israel and a believer in the ability of people to cross cultural borders in the pursuit of scientific discovery. His personal “mission within the mission” was to carry into space a miniature Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust and once belonged to Israel’s lead aerospace scientist, Joachim Joseph. Quite a bit of time in the film is devoted, as well, to chronicling the scroll’s path from the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen to the flight deck of Columbia.

Last Shop Standing: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Independent Record Shop
Brick and Mortar and Love

I wonder if the promoters of last Saturday’s Record Store Day were cognizant of the fact that April 20 also is the day designated by stoners worldwide to honor all things related to marijuana consumption. If any two things went together like a horse and carriage, it’s music and pot smoking. I’m sure that the distributers of “Last Shop Standing: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Independent Record Shop” and “Brick and Mortar and Love” consciously timed their video releases to Record Store Day. The national smoke-out, probably not so much. Both chronicle the history of indie stores, which, along with FM radio, brought unprogramed rock ’n’ roll to masses in the 1960-70s, only to overlooked and dismissed in the digital era. The so-called “vinyl revolution” has regenerated one segment of the music business, even as technology conspires to crush everything else. Indeed, that’s exactly what happened to the Louisville store profiled in “Brick and Mortar and Love,” which was an integral part of the city’s scene … until it’s wasn’t. “Last Shop Standing” takes a more anglophilic approach to the subject, adding testimony by Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Johnny Marr. Anyone who frequents indie stores, or is a fan of “High Fidelity,” already knows that the success of such businesses depends on knowledgeable personnel, vast selection, listening stations, in-store concerts and an invitation to linger for hours. The deserve our support and attention.

PBS: Mr. Selfridge
Maverick: The Complete Second Season
A Haunting: The 2012 Season

The current attraction on PBS’ “Masterpiece Classic” is a mini-series set roughly in the same time period as “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs/Downstairs,” but with a decidedly more middle-class inclination. It tells the story of American retailer Harry Selfridge’s dream of building a department store on the wrong end of London’s Oxford Street and modeling it after similar establishments in Chicago and Paris. Instead of hiding the merchandise in shelves and dictating what m’lord and m’lady should wear, it was Selfridge’s idea – not at all original, perhaps – to showcase the goods and let fashion dictate what will be worn. Around such a straightforward notion, Andrew Davies has imagined an extended mini-series that is less about business than shenanigans, which is OK with me. As such, “Mr. Selfridge” is the sherbet between the courses at “Masterpiece Classic.” Jeremy Piven wouldn’t have been most people’s first choice to play the cocky Yank, who sensed that women everywhere were chomping at the bit to be taken seriously as consumers. While there’s something a bit too contemporary about Piven’s approach to the role, it’s possible that British fans of “Entourage” consider him to be the quintessential American businessman. A second season has already be ordered. When Piven’s performance falters, the slack is picked up by such estimable actors as Frances O’Connor (“Madame Bovary”), Aisling Loftus (“Page Eight”), Zoe Tapper (“Zen”), Amanda Abbington (“Case Histories”) and Samuel West (“Any Human Heart”). As a background for melodrama, ambition and scandal, Selfridge’s provides as appropriate a setting as any Grand Hotel, ocean liner, resort or airport. It was based on the book “Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge,” by Lindy Woodhead. The Blu-ray contains the original British version of the mini-series.

It’s been 11 months since Warner Home Video made the first season of “Maverick” available on DVD, so, by now, even the most distracted of viewers should have gotten through the 1,350-minute package. Bingers surely would have inhaled the episodes over the long Memorial Day weekend. I can’t think of many better alternatives to going on a picnic or climbing a mountain than “Maverick.” Although the show does occasionally show its age, there aren’t many characters today who can match Bret and Bart for their roguish humor, natural charisma and ability to talk their way out of serious trouble. Neither did it matter much to the writers that the Mavericks could be found in a desert West saloon one episode and a Mississippi riverboat the next, always in the company of a great-looking woman. Being the sharpest-dressed guy within three states certainly didn’t hurt Bret’s chances with the ladies, either. The DVDs look pretty good, too.

The Discovery Channel’s supernatural anthology series, “A Haunting,” desperately wants us to believe that the stories being re-enacted each week have a basis in fact and eyewitness accounts aren’t simply the product of some loon’s twisted imagination. By now, fans of reality-based entertainment know when to go along with something that smells kind of funny and when nothing less than a complete suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy a show. What’s crazy about the people we meet in “A Haunting” is their willingness to remain in a basement or bedroom, when all evidence to the contrary is telling them to split immediately and set their house on fire behind them. In one episode, it becomes obvious to family members that they’ve moved into the wrong house when ghosts, demons and angels visit them at night, sometimes making a racket or breaking things. When they approach a priest to inquire about an exorcism, he advices them to go home and not listen to the noises, because, after a hundred years, the floorboards and foundation probably are still settling. It’s the religious equivalent of a doctor saying, “Take a couple aspirin and call me after you’ve turned blue.” The alternative, of course, would be to not have any more series about paranormal activity and how much fun would that be?

Marvel Knights: InHumans
It’s gotten to the point where you can’t tell the difference between the myriad Marvel mutants without a scorecard. There simply are too many to keep track of by simple memorization. Just when I had become familiar with the mutants in the “X-Men” franchise, “Marvel Knights: InHumans” arrives with a whole new collection of genetic freaks with powers that are even more earth-shattering and uncontrollable. The InHumans of the Terrigan Mists aren’t new to the Marvel universe, but they’re finally getting their time in the video sun. Here, they’re called upon to protect the kingdom of Attilan and its royal family from foreign invaders and turncoats within their own ranks. The motion comic has a dark and foreboding look that’s consistent with the BDSM tone of the stories.

A Car’s Life 3: The Royal Heist
I don’t know how the makers of the animated straight-to-video series, “A Car’s Life,” have avoided a full-scale assault by the notoriously litigious legal department at Disney/Pixar, but I’m guessing that no one at the Mouse House wants to call attention to a franchise that offers so little competition for their superior products. The four-tired characters bear more than a passing resemblance to those who star in the “Cars” franchise, but the similarities end there. As any viewer older than 5 could see without prompting or prodding, the “Car’s Life” cars are to the “Cars” cars what the Aflac duck is to Donald Duck. Still, Disney’s sicced its lawyers on copy cats far less threatening than these guys. Fact is, it’s almost impossible to find anyone on the Internet who’s paid much attention to the three “Car’s Life” installments, except to lambast them for being inferior to “Cars.” Clearly, too, it’s a safe bet that no kid is going to be so impressed by “A Car’s Life 3: The Royal Heist” that he or she would pass up the opportunity to see a third big-screen installment of “Cars,” purchase a branded toy or video game, or visit the new Cars Land attraction at Disney’s California Adventure. For the record, “The Royal Heist” describes what occurs when a limousine belonging to a queen arrives in Greasy Springs to attend a charity drag race. Sure enough, the protagonist of the series, the red sports car Sparky, manages to take his eyes off the limo long enough for the crown jewels to be stolen. The Dove-approved film doesn’t have a voicing cast that would be recognizable to anyone outside Spark Plug Entertainment.

In “Oconomowoc,” living in the shadow of the ‘Wizard’ isn’t such a bad place to be

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Seventy-four years ago, come this August 12, MGM executives beat a path to the Strand Theater in the tranquil lakeside town of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, to stage the first publicized showing of the final, edited version of “The Wizard of Oz.” Although no one is quite sure why it was chosen for the honor – perhaps, because composer Herbert Stothart and Munchkin coroner Meinhardt Raabe were local lads — it’s still recognized as one of the most exciting events in Oconomowoc history.

Next week, when the movie “Oconomowoc” debuts in Wisconsin, it will be at Milwaukee’s venerable Downer Theater. The Strand was torn down a while back and the city no longer has any commercial screens on which to exhibit Hollywood movies. To mark the 70th anniversary of its Oconomowoc debut, back in 1939, an outdoor presentation of “The Wizard of Oz,” had to be accommodated on giant inflatable screen. The closest “Oconomowoc” will come to Oconomowoc will be theaters in nearby Delafield and Brookfield, which, while nice towns, aren’t Oconomowoc.

If you grew up in Wisconsin, as I did, repeating the word “Oconomowoc” several times in the same sentence inspires as much delight as reading the names Gitchee Gumee, Nokomis, Hiawatha and Minnehaha, in the epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Cool names for their cities are yet one more thing white settlers stole from native tribes.

Not knowing what to expect from a movie named “Oconomowoc,” I mistakenly guessed it might be an attempt to capture the same lightning in a bottle as the Coen Brothers had in “Fargo,” especially the characters’ wonderful accents.  Anyone who’s ever spent any time in the Upper Midwest could watch “Fargo” and enjoy it simply for Marge, Norm, Wade and Jerry’s “Minnesota nice” mannerisms and singsong dialect, a blend of Nordic, Swedish, Germanic and other northern European speech patterns.

Ironically, in “Oconomowoc,” the characters – the vast majority of whom are played by actors native Midwesterners — sound as if they just stepped off a train from southern California. Longtime residents of the state might find the proper use of English somewhat disconcerting.

“We didn’t ask anyone to lose their accents or add one,” reports Andy Gillies, whose name appears alongside that of co-producer/editor/cinematographer Joe Haas on nearly all of the film’s credit lists. “I grew up in Florida, but moved to Appleton to attend Lawrence University. Almost all of the people involved in the movie attended Lawrence or grew up in Wisconsin or Upper Peninsula.

“After college, I decided to stay in the state. The people are truly nice and so much more community-oriented than other places I’ve been. Everyone says hello to you or offers to buy you a beer.”

Gillies wrote the much-longer first draft of “Oconomowoc” in Oconomowoc and shot the film in and around the city, which once served as a summer destination for swells from Milwaukee, Chicago and St. Louis. In winter, of course, ice-fishing and cross-country skiing compete with the downing aber gut (a shot of brandy with schnapps, often set ablaze, on top) as the local pastime. There’s nothing more fun than sitting in a bar and betting tipsy visitors that they can’t spell “O-C-O-N-O-M-O-W-O-C,” even if they’re spotted three of the O’s.

For the record, the city’s name derives from the Potawatomi word, “coo-no-mo-wauk,” which means “waterfall” or “where the waters meet,” depending on whom one asks.

Anyone who goes to see “Oconomowoc,” expecting to hear jokes about guys who wear cheese-head hats to church, tip cows when bored or use deer-hunting season as an excuse to spend more time with their drinking buddies, is going to be disappointed. The movie barely registers on the Richter scale that measures such things as condescension and irony. Like the accents, it speaks to the universality of life in small-town America.

In his first feature role, Brendan Marshall-Rashid plays a young man who moves back to Wisconsin after rejecting every job that would require him to show up for it. The home in which Lonnie grew up is now populated by his voluntarily bed-ridden father, who’s “on sabbatical” from life; his bitter, alcoholic mom; and a friend his age, Todd, who is his mother’s “in-home boyfriend.”

Ostensibly, Todd designs lingerie for a living, but he mostly hangs out at home in his underwear and a polka-dotted robe, occasionally sporting green-felt antlers. Despite the similarity in their ages, Todd desperately wants Lonnie to accept him as a father figure who occasionally dispenses the kind of advice a dad normally would be expected to provide his son.

“He’s the elephant in the room wherever he goes,” Gillies quips.

Lonnie hopes to help his other buddy, Travis (Gillies), resuscitate his struggling t-shirt business. Travis’ primary competition comes from a middle-school student who steals his designs and undercuts him on prices. The possibility for love is on Lonnie’s horizon, as well, but it’s even money that he’ll blow that opportunity, too.

“These kinds of characters could and probably do exist in small towns around America, not exclusively in Oconomowoc,” Gillies suggests. “There always are some goofballs – goofballs with potential – who always manage to shoot themselves in the foot while pursuing their dreams. I thought that the unpronounceability of the title would convey the ambiguity of the characters’ absurd ideas. ”

The first draft was significantly longer than the finished product, Gillies says, but the usual impediments to creating an indie film whittled down the original vision to 78 minutes. As it is, the eight-day location shoot was financed using personal credit cards and the kindness of the residents of Oconomowoc. Its success, of course, will depend on positive reviews, social networking and word-of-mouth.

Fortuitously, too, Gillies was able to conduct staged readings in his acting class in Los Angeles. From there, he decided to cast promising newcomer Cindy Pinzon, the only non-Midwesterner on the team. In a movie largely populated by slackers and oddballs, her gainfully employed receptionist, Mallory, truly is a ray of sunshine.

The early consensus opinion, as recorded on the movie’s tongue-in-cheek website, is that “Oconomowoc” is “it’s pretty good.” By Wisconsin standards, “pretty good” is high praise, indeed.

Besides finding the money to make the movie, one of the largest roadblocks faced Gillies and Haas was getting the movie seen … anywhere. These days, too many indie pictures go straight from the festival circuit to DVD, where the demands of marketing are so much less harsh.

Gillies admits to being ecstatic when he heard that “Oconomowoc” was be picked up by more than 20 On Demand cable outlets, beginning on May 1. It opens in theaters New York and Los Angeles on Friday and will roll out throughout America’s Dairyland a week later and, possibly, from there, into bigger cities and college towns through the summer.

If it does really well, maybe someone will rent the inflatable screen and show “Oconomowoc” in the park as half of a double-feature with “Wizard of Oz.”