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The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

12 Years a Slave: Blu-ray
Remember the brief controversy that arose in late December over an Italian distributor’s decision to market “12 Years a Slave” with one-sheet posters featuring the image of Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, instead of its black star, Chewitel Ejiofor? A fleeting image of his character appears in the foreground, but almost as an afterthought. The Italian distributors apologized for the faux pas and recalled the posters. How, though, could such a slight occur? For many years, common wisdom has held that European audiences, at least, don’t respond well to movies with casts that are predominantly African-American and distributors have found ways to sidestep the issue whenever possible. For instance, although Michael Mann’s “Ali” ended up doing well at the foreign box office, Sony gave it the slowest possible rollout, relying on any free publicity that derived from awards-season coverage. Because “12 Years a Slave” deals with the issue of slavery in the American South, it was almost predictable that a foreign distributor would attempt an end-run around a studio-based promotion strategy. Anecdotal evidence suggests they were only attempting to avoid a disaster and could point to the fact that “The Best Man Holiday,” which did very well at the domestic box office, pulled in just north of $1 million overseas. Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married Too?” did even worse, perhaps resulting in “A Madea Christmas” not being given a chance to prove itself. Outside of the art-house crowd, Americans don’t respond to foreign pictures, either.

Here’s the kicker, though, “12 Years a Slave” did far better in the foreign marketplace than it did domestically, as did “Django Unchained,” which also dealt with slavery. Of the $140.1 million “12 Years a Slave” has collected, as of March 2, only $50.3 million, or 38.9 percent, of it has come from U.S. sales. Virtually the same split was accorded “Django Unchained.” On total sales of $425.4 million, more than $262.5 million came from overseas theaters.  I suspect that those numbers came as a surprise to the bean-counters in Hollywood. It will be interesting to see if the Oscar for Best Picture gives “12 Years a Slave” a jolt at the box office this week, as well as a jumpstart on DVD/Blu-ray and VOD revenues. It would be a mistake to think that “12 Years a Slave” lost money, based on that deceivingly small $50.3 million return. With a production budget of $20 million, the journey to profitability was much shorter. If you wondered why Brad Pitt was so visible at the Oscar ceremony, it’s because his Plan B Entertainment came to the picture’s rescue by finding the money needed to shoot the picture. Likewise, this year’s winner of the Best Actor prize, Matthew McConaughey, was required to save “Dallas Buyers Club” when the studios balked. (“Gravity” had to be rescued from turnaround at WB, too.)

As brilliantly conceived and rendered as “12 Years a Slave” is, I suspect that mainstream American audiences took critics at their word on the how difficult it was for them to stomach the brutality on display. I know that I was in no hurry to watch defenseless slaves being whipped and beaten by sadistic rednecks and bible-thumping plantation owners. Nor was I anxious to hear the word, “nigger,” repeated as if it was just another bullet in a machine-gun. I’m not unhappy that I waited to watch Steve McQueen’s film, however “important,” on the small screen. It’s difficult to imagine many young adults planning a date night around watching Solomon Northrup — a free negro kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841 – having his skin shredded, among other atrocities. Even diehard liberals must have wondered if “Gravity” or “American Hustle” would be a safer choice for a Saturday night out. After watching such emotionally tortuous movies as “Schindler List,” “Django Unchained,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Amistad,” “Beloved,” “Glory,” the ugly debates in “Lincoln,” the beach landing in “Saving Private Ryan” and the hunger strikers in McQueen’s calling-card drama, “Hunger,”  it’s fair to wonder how much bigotry and racism we can absorb without becoming numb to it. Horror fans have a name for it, “torture porn,” and it sells like hotcakes on DVD.

In the hands of such substantial actors as Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti and Sarah Paulson, the hatred behind the lashings and beatings is exponentially more realistic than it would have been if McQueen had been required to hire the cast of, say, “Saw III,” in their place. Even if viewers aren’t able to put themselves directly in the shoes of the slaves, the acting skills possessed by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o demand we share some of their pain, at least. In his acceptance speech Sunday night, McQueen supplied the best reason I’ve heard for us to engage in debate over something that has been outlawed in this country for 150 years. The London-born filmmaker pointed out that there are 21 million men, women and children currently enslaved in various parts of the world and their only hope for freedom might lie with the people who see his movie. In more practical terms, the fact that “12 Years a Slave” has become an unqualified international sensation should reflect in the budgets he gets for his next projects. After all, the success of “Inglourious Basterds” afforded Tarantino the luxury of a $100 budget for “Django Unchained.” The Blu-ray presentation is first-class all the way, although I suspect that the next edition will arrive with a more complete bonus package. The featurette, “12 Years a Slave: A Historical Portrait,” includes Ejiofor reading from Northup’s book, as well as interviews with various cast and crew members. Making-of pieces, “The Team” and “The Score,” are nothing special and probably won’t make the cut next time around. – Gary Dretzka

The Grandmaster: Blu-ray
Although the great martial-arts teacher Ip Man is justly celebrated throughout China and among Kung Fu practitioners everywhere, he remains most famous for teaching Bruce Lee the Wing Chun discipline. There were others, of course, but Lee is the only student who would be widely known outside the PRC and Hong Kong. Imagine if gunslingers Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickcock had decided to hang up their holsters at some point and mentor a new generation of sharp-shooters and quick-draw artists. Instead of having to prove themselves in every railhead community from Wichita to Yuma, gangs of their disciples would meet occasionally to decide whose master was best teacher. That’s the closest I can come to describing what made Ip Man an object of reverence and a key character of at least eight exciting films in the last dozen years, including Wong Kar Wai’s widely acclaimed, “The Grandmaster.” Because Ip’s story is contained to the period of China’s history between the fall of its last dynasty and martyrdom of Bruce Lee, much is known about the man from Foshan. Conveniently, for screenwriters, anyway, the truth has been manipulated to the point where it’s become impossible to parse the difference between fact and fantasy. Hollywood has spent more than 100 years trying to sell Billy the Kid as, among other things, a misunderstood youth, vicious sociopath or a tragic figure of Shakespearian dimensions. “The Grandmaster” differs from recent biopics starring Donnie Yen, Dennis To and Anthony Wong in that less time is devoted to the technique, itself, than artistically conveying the balance of beauty and power, grace under pressure and technique.

Here, Ip is played by Tony Chiu Wai Leung, an extremely popular actor in China and frequent presence in the films of Wong Kar Wai. If neither Wong nor Leung is known primarily for action flicks, both benefitted from having Yuen Woo-ping on the set coordinating fights and stunts. His techniques have informed the films of Quentin Tarantino, the Wachowskis and countless Hong Kong action specialists. In addition to being exciting, the fight scenes in “The Grandmaster” are every bit as elegant as the dances in “The Turning Point,” which were performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leslie Browne. (A fight scene involving the radiant Zhang Ziyi, as the daughter of the northern grandmaster, defines the term, “poetry in motion.” Ip’s story is condensed into 108 minutes in the American (a.k.a., Weinstein) cut, with flashbacks employed to fill in most of the deep background material. Otherwise, “Grandmaster” opens in the post-dynastic period, just before the occupation of China by Japanese forces. As the northern masters migrate to safety in the south, it’s inevitable they would test the masters of the south, whose techniques and philosophies were different from their own. Ip is required to prove that Wing Chung is the more effective style. Under Japanese dominance, Ip loses his wife and daughter to starvation. The business of teaching Kung Fu goes belly up and stays that way through the civil war that follows the occupation. With nothing binding him to China, he moves Hong Kong. He’s given a second lease on life when former students help him build a school from scratch. With the infusion of Chinese refugees, Ip is able to teach Wing Chung to a new generation of students, including Bruce Lee. He also reunites with Gong Er, the daughter of the northern grandmaster, who’s matured both as a woman and fighter. Challenged to uphold the honor of the northern tradition, Gong engages in one of the most entertaining fights I’ve seen in a long time. Just how star-crossed the relationship between Ip and Gong turns out to be becomes apparent soon thereafter.

The generous Blu-ray bonus package is a must-watch for those who love Wong’s movie as much as Martin Scorsese, who agreed to “present” the movie to American audiences. It includes the informative featurettes, “The Grandmaster: From Ip Man to Bruce Lee,” in which a diverse group of observers commenting on the production and Lee’s impact on the fighting genre; “A Conversation With Shannon Lee,” with the late star’s daughter sharing her father’s history with Ip; “‘The Grandmaster’: Behind the Scenes,” a seven-part piece that spans the film’s agonizing 10-year gestation period; and  “‘The Grandmaster’ According to RZA,” in which the rapper/producer shares his thoughts on the film. That the movie was passed over for a Foreign Language nomination speaks volumes about the incompetence of AMPAS and the committee’s continuing resistance to anything that smacks of genre filmmaking. Feel free to ignore any perceived prejudice toward Wong, as well. – Gary Dretzka

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Blu-ray
True movie trilogies face challenges that other franchises don’t encounter on the way to the megaplex. The first, of course, is recognizing the literary properties that warrant such an optimistic approach; second, selling the first episode to a large enough audience to justify an investment in the second and third chapters; third, making the second installment sufficiently entertaining to maintain the momentum created by the first chapter; and fourth, avoiding the problems that come from changing directors in midstream and keeping actors from jumping ship or demanding exponentially more money for the sequels. It isn’t enough to simply hit a home run in the first inning. “The Godfather” wasn’t intended to be a trilogy, but, when Francis Ford Coppola finally acquiesced to popular demand and studio expectations, 16 years had passed and things in Hollywood weren’t quite as wild and woolly as they were in 1974. He lost consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in a contract dispute and actor Winona Ryder, to a change of heart just before production began.  (The attention paid to their replacements, George Hamilton and Sophia Coppola, proved unpopular with the media and viewers.) The second installment of “The Matrix” trilogy so turned off fans and critics that it not only could have killed interest in the third, but also made fans re-assess their opinion of the first. (Instead, the much better “Matrix Reloaded” did well at the worldwide box office and with the pundits.) Fortunately, the ever-changing roster of directors for the “Twilight” quartet – Bill Condin’s two-part “Breaking Dawn” counts as a single entry – proved only to be a distraction. Peter Jackson deserved the props he got for going the distance with the “Ring” and “Hobbit” franchises.

The worst case scenario was realized by the producers of “Atlas Shrugged,” one of the hottest literary properties of the 20th Century. No matter how popular Ayn Rand’s novel has proven to be over the last nearly 60 years, the first installment in the trilogy tanked so badly that no one expected a sequel would be attempted. It lacked major stars and the polish necessary to hold its own on the big screen. “Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike” misfired on all cylinders, disappearing altogether in five weeks. Undeterred, the backers launched a Kickstarter campaign – Rand would have been so proud – to finance “Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt?” The real question is, “Who cares?”

By contrast, the first adaptation of a title in Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy for young adults was practically assured blockbuster status a month ahead of its release, with advanced ticket sales setting a record. After opening huge, “Hunger Games” went on to amass total revenues of $691 million. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” followed the same trajectory, only, this times, foreign grosses topped domestic sales by 1.8 percent. Not that the opinions of critics matter much to young viewers, but both installments scored impressive numbers at the aggregator sites, Metacritic.com and Rotten Tomatoes. That certainly bodes well for the bifurcated triquel, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay,” whose first part opens in time for Thanksgiving. There are teasers to “Mockingjay” throughout “Catching Fire,” as well as a dandy cliffhanger ending, but Francis Lawrence’s sequel stands on its own pretty convincingly.

After winning the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have returned to District 12 for a much-needed rest and reunion with family and friends. Unfortunately, their presence is required by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who senses all may not be well in the kingdom and a celebrity-led victory tour might soothe the masses. Even though Katniss and Peeta are shielded from signs of rebellion, it’s impossible for them to avoid seeing signs of unhappiness over Snow’s repressive regime. When they begin to question why the citizens are so discontented, Snow and gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) prepare a new life-or-death contest, the Quarter Quell. It pits previous winners of the Hunger Games, including Finnick (Sam Claflin), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Johanna (Jena Malone), Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and Mags (Lynn Cohen), against each other. All bring different strengths and weaknesses to the competition, but Snow’s primary goals are to distract the public and eliminate its heroine. Other returnees include characters played by Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Willow Shields, Toby Jones and Paula Malcomson. Quarter Quell takes place in a tropical setting, with imaginative, if deadly booby-traps scattered throughout the Blu-ray friendly jungle. (A scene on the beach reminded me of “The Planet of the Apes.”) Other informative bonus material includes the nine-part featurette, “Surviving the Game: Making Catching Fire”; commentary with Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson; deleted scenes;and an extensive sneak peek of Neil Burger’s “Divergent,” an action fantasy with Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet and Theo James. – Gary Dretzka

New World (Shinsekai Story)
I may be the only one on the planet, who, while watching Lim Kah-wai’s “New World: Shinsekai Story,” was reminded of Susan Seidelman and Madonna’s “Desperately Seeking Susan,” but that doesn’t mean I’m overestimating its fresh indie flavor and brash take on disaffected young adults in China and Japan. Coco is a modern Beijing girl, born may years after the deaths of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and at about the same time as the protests in Tiananmen Square. She takes her fashion cues from MTV and Miley Cyrus, just like so many other girls her age around the world. One day, after being told that he was too busy to go out, she discovers her wealthy boyfriend hanging out in a nightclub with several hotties. Remembering something his limo driver mentioned earlier, Coco decides to go to Osaka to visit friends and see “the world’s largest Christmas tree.” (The kids we meet here celebrate the birthday of Christ in a social way and to promote business with Americans.) She’s picked up at the airport by her friend Ivy’s boyfriend, Masanobu, an innkeeper with a very different concept of luxury accommodations than what Coco is accustomed. Instead of agreeing to stay in what would qualify as a closet back home, she drifts into the Osaka night looking for the bar in which Ivy works as a B-girl. Coco ends up in the city’s rough-and-tumble Shinsekai district, where she is introduced to several unsavory hoodlums who hang out at the bad. Inadvertently, she also comes into contact with the so-called Chinese Mafia, which, among other things, protects Chinese people performing menial labor in the district. There’s quite a few surprises along the way to a Christmas Eve party, where gifts are exchanged. Besides being entertaining, “New World” offers a glimpse into the world of independent filmmaking in Asia. And, even with subtitles, it’s quite accessible to western viewers. The DVD adds deleted scenes and an interview with the director. – Gary Dretzka

Wicked Blood: Blu-ray
Although the cover of “Wicked Blood” has exploitation written all over it, the Southern drug thriller takes a fresh approach to such overfamiliar subjects as meth dealing, biker gangs, trailer trash and gun worship. It accomplishes this by allowing Abigail Breslin to work her considerable charms as a teenager attempting to break the cycle of violence in her family. The visual gag here is that Breslin’s smart and cocky Hannah Lee spends much of her free time playing chess with Uncle Donny (Lew Temple), a meth-cooker with an unhealthy appetite for his own product. Her other “uncle,” Frank, deals the meth that Donny makes and sells it to bikers. When Hannah Lee tells Frank that she needs a job that pays more than the minimum, he uses her as a bicycle-riding conduit for exchanges of cash and product. Meanwhile, Hannah Lee’s sister Amber (Alexa Vega) works for tips at a local diner by day, while spending her nights with Frank’s biker foe, “Wild Bill” (James Purefoy). When one of the players here decides to step on the meth with vitamins, everybody with a gun – including Wild Bill’s demented brother, Bobby (Jake Busey) – prepares to go to war, with Hannah Lee and Donny ending up as pawns in a deadly game of chess. Usually, these sorts of action pictures are defeated by gratuitous sex and violence, lack of finances and underwritten scripts. Here, though, writer/director Mark Young (“The Killing Jar”) has found a way to balance all of the ingredients, without diluting the tough-guy stuff with unlikely romance. Instead, he accentuates the idea that families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, even on the slimy underbelly of Plaquemine, La. The DVD adds short interviews with some of the cast members. – Gary Dretzka

Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme
Dragon City: Punk Rock in China!
Hairspray: Blu-ray
It’s been almost a half-century since the word, “rap,” became part of the vernacular, but the art of rhyming spontaneously can be traced all the way back to the griots of West Africa. Any gospel preacher working without script is a rapper in the same way that Muhammad Ali famously “rapped” his challenges to Sonny Liston and other opponents. The roots of hip-hop, however, extend to American blues, gospel, jazz and R&B – “Minnie the Moocher,” for a prime example – in that the lyrics are transcribed and repeated in performance. Being improvisational, no two “freestyle” raps are the same. The MC battles showcased in “Freestyle: the Art of Rhyme,” and like those showcased in Eminem’s “Eight Mile,” take place in front of a boisterous audience and are judged according to the verbal damage done to each of the participants. In this way, freestyle resembles the street game, “the dozens,” except minus the accompaniment of “scratchers” and the occasional break-dancer. Not only does Kevin Fitzgerald’s 2000 documentary fully explain the phenomenon to curious rubes, but it also introduces us to 30 years’ worth of rap’s leading practitioners on the street and on stage. Among them are Mos Def, Freestyle Fellowship, Ghostface Killah, KRS-One, Supernatural and the Last Poets. (Biggie, Tupac, Eminem, Kool Moe Dee and, even, John Coltrane are represented in archival footage.) For those so inclined “Freestyle: the Art of Rhyme” is quite a treat. It includes extended interviews and deleted scenes.

The endearing thing about punk rock is that it never really gets old. It began 20 years before the Sex Pistols began making headlines and continues today, not just in the U.S. and U.K., but also in places where young people feel the need to rebel against authoritarian regimes and mean parents. Neither does it go in and out of fashion. Black leather coats, nose rings and combat boots are eternal. Even so, a spikey hairdo, purple dye job and clothes held together by safety pins will draw stares from squares in every small town on the planet. When Miley Cyrus does the same thing, fashionistas around the world pay attention. A good place to look for movies about punk rock – in an out of concert – is MVD Visuals, from whence “Dragon City: Punk Rock in China!” and “Punk in Africa” emerge this month. The former is billed as a “post-apocalyptic punk-rock musical adventure” and the first punk-rock movie ever produced in the PRC. It features the mainland band No Name, as its members wander through the wastelands looking for meaning. It arrives in the form of a hippie dinosaur who closely resembles Dennis Hopper in “Easy Rider.” He’s in possession of an assemblage of instruments waiting to be played. Voila! Instant meaning. The DVD includes commentaries; music videos from No Name and other Chinese bands; live performances by No Name; short films by director Darryl Pestilence; and trailers from the Dragon City label. Arriving later this month is “Punk in Africa,” concerning multi-racial punk movements in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Among other non-MVD titles are “Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community,” No One Knows About Persian Cats” and “Afro-Punk,” which explores racial identity within the punk scene across America and abroad.

Something else that doesn’t get old is the original 1988 version of “Hairspray.” While I can easily do without the Broadway-musical version of “Hairspray” and the movie adapted from it – ditto, “The Producers” – the original remains a true gem. The musical soundtrack, comprised of actual ’50s-era songs, is more memorable than the Broadway version, the hairdos are nastier, the dancing is better and the socio-political context is more pronounced. It’s also much, much funnier. Somehow, Waters was able to pull it off in 92 minutes and with a “PG” attached to it. If all you know about “Hairspray” derives from the Broadway edition, prepare to be happily surprised by the real thing. The vintage bonus features, including reminiscences about Divine and making-of material, retain their interest. I would have loved to have seen a deleted scene mentioned by Ricki Lake in her interview. It was based on a popular urban legend about a girl whose brain is devoured by cockroaches living in her beehive hairdo. There are several references to roaches – even a dance – but, because the scene might have cost the picture its PG rating, it was pulled. – Gary Dretzka

Free Fall
Of all the movies I’ve seen compared to “Brokeback Mountain,” the German export “Free Fall” comes the closest to fulfilling any expectations that follow such praise. Co-writer/director Stephan Lacant’s debut feature introduces us to police cadets, played by Hanno Koffler and Max Riemelt, who engage in a short bromance, which includes rough-housing, jogging, sneaking joints in the woods and an awkward semi-sexual encounter. Marc, who goes home to his pregnant wife each night, is freaked out as much by his response to Kay’s brazen advance as the advance, itself. Shortly thereafter, Marc is dismayed to discover that Kay has been assigned to his permanent unit and is hell-bent to drag him out of the closet. By the time Marc graduates to having sex inside the stalls of gay nightclubs, his inability to hide his newfound joy is misinterpreted by his wife as resulting from the intercession of another woman. If only things were that simple. Marc doesn’t want to lose his family and Kay is unhappy that another obstacle – the baby – has come between him and true love. Things get even crazier when Kay is arrested at a drug bust in a gay bar and their fellow cops, including Marc’s father-in-law, follow the clues to the young men’s affair. A couple of cops ignore their supervisor’s warning about acting on their homophobia and provoke fights. With his life now officially in free fall, Marc can’t decide if he’s gay, bi or straight-with-benefits. The only person who knows where Marc will land is Lacant. – Gary Dretzka

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Blu-ray
Nova: Great Cathedral Mystery
Samson & Delilah: Blu-ray
Last week, I was bemoaning the elimination of Jesus Christ from the many DVDs I’ve gotten recently in anticipation of Easter. The cartoon packages are aimed almost exclusively toward pre-schoolers, who already assume that religious holidays mean the exchange of gifts and sugary treats. Bunnies and eggs have been around for quite a while now, of course, but rarely has the symbolism been so routinely ignored. In the Pleistocene era, when I got too old for Easter baskets, I remember being dropped off at the local Bijou to watch such biblical epics as “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur.” There usually was enough action to keep us interested. I’m nowhere near old enough to remember the first theatrical run of “Samson & Delilah,” but I do recall some of the hubbub surrounding “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” 16 years later. (Or, maybe, I’m actually recalling the Mad magazine parodies of Charleston Heston in biblical roles.) Michelangelo isn’t mentioned in the New Testament, although he might as well have been. Any human being capable of conceiving the grandeur that is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has to have been imbued with certain divine qualities. Given what we’ve come to know of the early pontiffs, most lay Christians were better qualified to be popes than the incumbent Roman clergy. Based on Irving Stone’s best-seller of the same title, “TA&TE” describes the tug-of-war between Pope Julius ll (Rex Harrison) and the great sculptor Michelangelo (Heston) over everything from costs to the depiction of God as either a merciless or merciful deity. From the perspective of the artist, the balance between agony and ecstasy was weighted far more in the favor of the former. As depicted here, both were formidable men. Julius II was as interested in waging war as dispensing the sacraments. While Michelangelo is agonizing over his creation, Julius II is attempting to hold back the tide of French and German forces determined to loot the Vatican. Philip Dunne ignores several of the pope’s more disagreeable traits, as have most screenwriters assigned such duties. The Legion of Decency made sure of that. In fact, such recent diversions as “The Borgias” and “Borgia” are probably closer to the truth. In director Carol Reed’s hands, however, there’s no diminishment of Michelangelo’s achievement, which, of course, is magnificent. At 138 minutes, however, some viewers will be tempted to hit the pause button more than once.

In 1949, Heston was too young and unknown to play Samson in Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic, so the task went to Victor Mature. An actor of similar stature, Mature would be featured in several other historical epics that required brawn and good looks, above other attributes. Those who resisted the temptation to pick up the DVD edition released this time last year will be rewarded with a Blu-ray scanned in 4K and restored to its original Technicolor glory. “Samson & Delilah” did far better at the box office than “The Agony and the Ecstacy,” even though it was the lesser cinematic achievement. I imagine, however, that the costumes worn by Hedy Lamarr, Angela Lansbury and Olive Deering, trumped those provided Diane Cilento in Reed’s film. Or, maybe it was Samson’s barehanded battle with a real, if timid lion.

The construction of the dome of the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower, in Florence, is as amazing an achievement in its way as was Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Even today, the architectural effort defies easy explanation. Filippo Brunelleschi engineered the structure based on observation of ancient Roman ruins and how the bricklayer’s art was applied there. From it, Brunelleschi would engineer the largest masonry dome in the world, using 4 million bricks and mortar weighting over 40,000 tons. Trained as a goldsmith, he would invent the compressive techniques that allowed the dome to be free-standing. There was no assurance it would resist storms or earthquakes, or even that the 16-year project wouldn’t claim the lives hundreds of workers.  It’s stood 600 years and, as “Great Cathedral Mystery” explains, practically the only thing we can agree on is that it inarguably a work of genius. The producers followed a group of architecture students as they built a smaller, to-scale model of the dome. Even if you haven’t been to Florence, prepare to be left dumbstruck by what’s revealed. – Gary Dretzka

Margin for Error
City of Bad Men
The Pride of St. Louis
The Glory Brigade
Danger: Love at Work
Wild on the Beach
Every so often, Fox opens the doors to its library wide enough to allow several of its largely forgotten “classics” to escape into the DVD marketplace. Although it might be stretching the truth to list all of the selections among the all-time greats, each of the titles offers something special to recommend them. They also demonstrate some of the pluses of working within the old studio system, whereby recognizable actors found themselves in kilts or cowboy boots one week and business suits and evening gowns the next. The projects assigned to great writers and directors were no less unpredictable. My choices from the Fox Cinema Archives arrived in tip-top shape, but absent any of the usual frills. They are available on demand through various Internet sites.

Danger: Love at Work” (1937), Otto Preminger’s second Hollywood feature, provides a wonderful example of screwball comedy from the 1930s. Jack Haley plays a lawyer assigned to purchase a large patch of property in South Carolina that’s owned by a family of delightfully eccentric characters. On his way south, he meets the pretty blond daughter (Ann Sothern) of one of the owners and her hilariously annoying younger brother. Sothern agrees to help the lawyer in his quest, but is too close to her relatives to understand just how crazy they are. Also in the cast are Edward Everett Horton, John Carradine, Bennie Bartlett and Elisha Cook Jr.

Margin for Error” (1943) was adapted from a pre-war play by Clair Booth Luce. While its anti-fascist, pro-intervention message was appropriate in 1939, the script was hopelessly dated by the time it hit the screen. Milton Berle (that’s right) plays a New York cop, Moe Finkelstein, assigned to guard the German consul (Preminger), who wears his anti-Semitism on his sleeves. (The consul purposefully mispronounces Finkelstein’s name, until he needs his help.) Another annoyance is a fat spokesman for Nazism in American bunds. Luce’s play added a murder mystery to intrigue involving consulate workers with Jewish relatives still in the Old Country. In the movie, the mystery is terribly mishandled. Throw in the misappropriation of Nazi funds, references to concentration camps and Moe’s attempts to seduce an Aryan maid and you’ve got a 74-minute picture that’s overstuffed with through-lines and can’t decide if it’s a comedy or drama. (It was marketed as both.)

The Glory Brigade” (1953) is one of the most unusual war stories I’ve ever seen. In it, a Greek-American lieutenant (Victor Mature) is ordered to keep a floating bridge intact until allied trucks can move supplies over it. The constant mortar attacks suggest that the North Koreans have something big to hide on the other side of the river. The lieutenant is assigned to assist a platoon of Greek soldiers, fighting under the UN flag, but not take charge of the operation. “The Glory Brigade” is informed by the fact that many Americans troops were reluctant to take orders from foreign officers and this lack of trust could work in the favor of the enemy. The portrayal of the Greek soldiers is only occasionally marred by ugly ethnic taunting, even as they perform traditional dances common to guerrilla fighters back home. In fact, “The Glory Brigade” gently questions the notion of American infallibility in war. It stars Victor Mature, Alexander Scourby, Richard Egan and a young Lee Marvin.

City of Bad Men” (1953) is a late-period western that describes what happens when outlaws converge separately on Carson City, intent on looting the strongbox holding the proceeds of a 1897 boxing match, featuring Gentleman Jim Corbett. Just as is the case when there’s a big fight in Las Vegas, this one attracts crooks, hookers, gamblers and gunslingers, in addition to fans. The best thing about Harmon Jones’ movie is a cast that includes Dale Robertson, Jeanne Crain, Lloyd Bridges, Richard Boone, Carl Betz (“The Donna Reed Show”) and several of the great “heavies” in the business, John Doucette, I. Stanford Jolley, James Best and Leo Gordon.

Pride of St. Louis” (1952) is a better-than-average sports biopic, distinguished by the writing of Herman J. Mankiewicz, Harmon Jones’ direction and a funny portrayal of Hall of Fame pitcher and unforgettable announcer “Dizzy” Dean. For you youngsters, Dean was the Bob Uecker of his day, widely known and briefly condemned for his cornpone vocabulary. Every cliché of the genre can be found here, including an unnecessary romance and narrative enhanced by a parade of newspaper headlines. Richard Crenna plays the brother, Paul “Daffy” Dean.

Of all the beach-party movies made in the 1960s, “Wild on the Beach,” is probably the least representative of the sub-genre. None of the primary characters actually is shown surfing – or pretending to do so, as did Frankie Avalon — and balding men in suits attempt to seduce the beach bunnies over martinis. The conflict here involves a Malibu crash pad that the local university wants to turn into a dorm. Another one of the balding lechers is an old-school record producer who learns to like surf music. Looking completely out of place here are Sonny & Cher, the Astronauts, Sandy Nelson, Frankie Randall, Sandy Nelson and Cindy Malone. “Wild on the Beach” may be best remembered, however, as an infomercial for Frederick’s of Hollywood’s line of torpedo bras. – Gary Dretzka

Boiler Room: Blu-ray
Looking back from a distance of 14 years, one major depression, a couple of recessions and billions of dollars that Americans will never recover, “Boiler Room” reeks of the odor from the decayed carcass of free-market economy and ignored prophesy. Everyone in control of the economy pretended not to notice the first signs of impending disaster, but it was there all along. In 2000, the stock market was booming and no one wanted to be the first person to rock the boat or miss out on the gold rush. To facilitate those who couldn’t detect the odor, “boiler rooms” were set up to reel in the suckers. Guys who couldn’t wait to pay their dues on Wall Street, or had yet to pass the required tests, joined firms that lacked even the ethical fiber of carnival barkers. The idea was to keep the rubes on the phone long enough to whet their interest in investing and refuse to let them off the hook until they said, “Yes.” Boiler-room operations, such as the one in freshman writer/director Ben Younger’s film, weren’t interested in selling blue-chip stocks to long-term investors. Rather, they worked the nether zone between legitimate and corrupt sales practices. They promised to return large profits on companies whose foundations were built of sand. By the time the economy collapsed, the better ones had churned and burned homeowners and developers to the point where no money was left for anyone. Some were fortunate enough to work for companies that received government bailouts, while others were lucky to jobs as greeters at Walmart.

“Boiler Room” tells the story of one such stud, Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi), a kid who dropped out of college to run an underground casino for bored students. One night, a sharply dressed guy dropped by the casino and offered him a job that might be compatible with his energy level. In the boss’ introduction address, which sounds as if it were an outtake from “Glengarry Glen Ross,” fortunes were promised to those who could stand the intense pressure. His trajectory resembles that Bud Fox in “Wall Street.” In fact, “Boiler Room” is “Wall Street,” writ small. That doesn’t make it a rip-off, only familiar. The thing I noticed first was the large number male actors – under 30, at the time – whose careers would explode in the next few years: Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck, Jamie Kennedy, Nicky Katt, Scott Caan, Taylor Nichols, Tom Everett Scott and Anson Mount, among others. Nia Long plays an assistant at the firm and she is the only woman – only African-American, for that matter — who gets much face time. The Blu-ray add commentaries, deleted scenes and a pretty good alternate ending. – Gary Dretzka

The Great Chicken Wing Hunt
In this big hungry country in which we live, there are gourmets, gourmands, foodies, food fascists and fat guys at the end of the bar who will eat anything, as long as they don’t have to waste a fork on it. Buffalo chicken wings easily qualify as high-end bar food and the people who swear by them, generally speaking, limit their consumption to places where they can be washed down by copious amounts of beer. Napkins are optional, but only if they’re wearing clean T-shirts.  In 1980, the esteemed essayist and food writer Calvin Trillin used three pages of valuable space in the New Yorker explaining to his effete readers the brief history of the spicy appetizer and why it’s treated with the same reverence in northwestern New York as pizza in Chicago and oysters in New Orleans. By now, there are as many variations to the hallowed Anchor Bar recipe as there are bars and roadhouses serving the darn things. “The Great Chicken Wing Hunt” follows a group of wing-nuts around the country in pursuit of the perfect Buffalo chicken wing, even if it’s found hundreds of miles from New York. At a time when so many Americans are out of work, I can’t think of a less healthy, if entirely delightful way to kill an unemployment check. Itinerant journalist Matt Reynolds was living in Eastern Europe, with his girlfriend, when he decided to embark on the mission and, from what I can tell, scored a grant or two or do it. He imported his Czech girlfriend and a Slovak film crew to accompany the wandering troupe of domestic wing chompers he’d found on the Internet … where else? Thanks to the amount of beer consumed along the way and folk songs by Al Caster, it’s a blast. The bad news is that it’s currently only available on VOD outlets, including Amazon. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
BBC: Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor: Blu-ray
PBS: Reportero
BBC: The Best of Men
Nature: The Funkiest Monkeys
Nova: Alien Planets RevealedCartoon Network: Teen Titans Go: Mission to Misbehave: Season 1, Part 1
Adult Swim: The Venture Bros: The Fantastic Fifth Season
2013 was an epochal year in the history of “Doctor Who” and for its international audience of rabid fans. In addition to marking the 50th anniversary of its birth, the show’s writers, directors and producers were required to create a special episode for the occasion, another one for the 800th individual episode and ease the transition from the 11th to the 12th Doctor. Oh, yeah, the issue of the annual Christmas special would have to be addressed, as well. The first hurdle to clear, of course, was the challenge of finding someone to replace Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor. The transition would be as closely watched as the transfer of power from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon, except for the fact that more people in more countries would actually give a crap about the decision. To my mind, at least, Peter Capaldi (“In the Loop”) was an inspired choice. “The Time of the Doctor” is the third installment in a loose trilogy of episodes, following “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Day of the Doctor.” It ties together storylines unresolved during Smith’s tenure, including the prophecy of the Silence and the Doctor’s fate on the planet Trenzalore. It also deals with the regeneration limit established in “The Deadly Assassin.” The episode also features Jenna Coleman as the Doctor’s companion, Clara Oswald, and such enemies as the Cybermen, Silence, Daleks and Weeping Angels. Makes you wonder how the BBC would have handled the final episode of “Dallas” or “M*A*S*H.” The Blu-ray package add the featurettes, “Behind the Lens: It’s Christmas!,” when the Doctor comes face to face with the enigmatic Tasha Lem; “Farewell to Matt Smith,” narrated by Alex Kingston; and the golden-anniversary retrospective, “Tales from the TARDIS,” Smith and past Doctors David Tennant, Sylvester McCoy, Colin Baker, Peter Davison and Tom Baker, and companions Jenna Coleman, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill.

Generally speaking, American journalists have little to fear from their pursuit of the news. I’ve only known one reporter who felt it necessary to carry a gun to work and that was in Gary, Indiana, where reporters often arrived at crime scenes ahead of the police. The same can’t be said for those assigned to war zones or places where armed men wouldn’t recognize the First Amendment if it was stapled to their ass. Perhaps, the most dangerous place in the world to practice journalism, though, is within a hundred miles south of the U.S. border with Mexico, where more than 50 journalists have been slain or have vanished since December 2006. That was when President Felipe Calderón came to power and launched a government offensive against the country’s powerful drug cartels and organized crime. Violent crime plagues the U.S., as well, but the situation in Mexico is different, if only because the stakes are so high for the criminals and everyone in the cartels’ food chain. That includes almost everyone in a position of power and influence, including the police, politicians, border guards and judiciary. If they aren’t being paid off, they’re targets. (It explains why the president has only trusted the Mexican Navy and U.S. DEA to make the busts.) Mainstream media outlets are controlled by publishers beholden to the government or a political party, so there’re invested in maintaining the status quo. The PBS documentary “Reportero” describes a Tijuana-based independent newsweekly, Zeta, which isn’t in the pockets of the power brokers or drug cartels. It’s been targeted so many times that much of the production is done on the U.S. side of the border. The filmmakers follow the magazine’s Jesús Blancornelas, who, in 1980, co-founded Zeta with the murdered Héctor Félix Miranda, as he covers scene in Tijuana and works with fellow staff members. In 1997, Blancornelas was ambushed by 10 gunmen working for a cartel that had moved from Sinaloa to Tijuana to traffic shipments of cocaine into the United States. Only a freak accident prevented him from being killed. “Reportero” is as fascinating as it is harrowing.

As far as I can tell, the BBC presentation, “The Best of Men,” didn’t make the make the leap across the pond in the warm afterglow of the Summer Games, held two years ago in London. It’s a pretty good story, with no small amount of relevance today. It describes the efforts of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann (Eddie Marsan), to rescue soldiers seriously injured in the war to escape medieval medical practices in British hospitals. On a second front, Guttmann was required to win over hospital staff and patients wary of his thick accent and German background. Once that was accomplished, he was able to convince the men that a terrible spinal injury wasn’t a reason to give up hope. Basically, instead of confining the soldiers to bed and feeding them pills, Guttmann encouraged them to exercise the neglected muscles in their bodies and intellect. He organized sports activities and field trips, including visits to the local pubs, and encouraged staff members to engage the men on a more personal basis. After the war, Ludwig organized athletic competitions for wheelchair-bound vets. They, in turn, would lead to the establishment of the Stokes Mandeville Games and, later, the Paralympics. In 1966, Guttmann was knighted by the Queen of England. “The Best of Men,” which benefits from some melodramatic touches, was shown on the BBC in conjunction with the 2012 Paralympics, which took place two weeks after the Summer Olympics.

For as much joy as PBS’ “Nature” brings to its viewers, all too often the fun is neutralized by reports of man’s cruelty to animals and the steady encroachment on natural habitats. While the title, “The Funkiest Monkeys,” suggests an hourlong romp through the pristine jungles of Indonesia, we know to expect the bad news, as well. Here, Colin Stafford-Johnson (“Broken Tail: A Tiger’s Last Journey”) returns to Sulawesi, where he first fell in love with crested black macaques. The title refers to their “funky” punk hairstyle and expressive faces. They only exist on this island and their numbers have diminished since Stafford-Johnson’s last visit. Among the usual things impacting habitat, he is made aware of the illegal trade in macaques at the local market. Local residents have developed a taste for the meat and poachers cater to it. The scenes shot at the outdoor market are tough to watch – the other delicacies are pretty nasty, as well – and far too rough for the kiddies. Stafford-Johnson has dedicated himself to showing his footage of macaques in the wild at local schools and community centers as a way to discourage more carnage.

For millennia, residents of Planet Earth have wondered if life as we know it exists somewhere else in the universe. Such curiosity has divided scientists and theologians for all of that time, with a lack of evidence giving religious leaders and skeptics the edge in the debate. Today, of course, technology has allowed us to peer deeper into space than ever before, revealing countless more solar systems than we could even imagine 50 years ago. The “Nova” episode “Alien Planets Revealed” introduces us to the research gathered by scientists working with NASA’s Kepler space observatory. If counting the number of stars in the heavens is considered to be an impossible task, imagine taking a closer look to determine if planets the size of Earth are orbiting them and, if any, the possibility they could be habitable. The remarkable images served to make me feel very small and insignificant. If there are living beings on other planets, let’s hope they’ve evolved beyond engaging in war to settle political and tribal disputes.

If Cartoon Network’s “Teen Titans Go!” sounds familiar to fans of DC Comics and DC Entertainment, it’s because its short roots go back to the cartoon series, “Teen Titans” and “New Teen Titans,” which found an enthusiastic audience about a dozen years back. The new spinoff has taken liberties with the basic premise, by adding more comedy and following the superhero team to places where they aren’t required to save the world. Unimpeded by adult supervision, the Teen Titans must deal with situations involving pranks, recreational activities and retaking a driver’s test after wrecking the Batmobile. Judging by the lively debate on Internet fan sites, not everyone is pleased with the new direction of the series. But, then, old fans are never satisfied with changes to their favorite shows.

If there’s a more recognizable voice on television than that of Patrick Warburton, I haven’t heard it. Ever since he busted out of obscurity as Puddy, in the “Fusilli Jerry” episode of “Seinfeld,” he’s been the go-to actor for animated characters with gruff voices and deadpan personalities. Naturally, the New Jersey native plays a key role in Adult Swim’s action-comedy “The Venture Bros.,” which resembles a fractured version of “Johnny Quest.” As is the case with most Post-Modern cartoon series, it isn’t easy to jump into the middle of a show and expect to understand what’s going on. It’s better to start at the beginning and become acclimated to the rhythm, rhymes and senses of humor of the creative team. As is the case with “Adventure Time,” the seasons have passed by rather slowly, making it easy to catch up with the 20-minute episodes and short seasons. The sharp Blu-ray package adds uncensored commentaries by creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer for all eight episodes and the “Very Venture Halloween” special; a collection of incomplete deleted scenes; and “Fax My Grandson,” also known as “The Further Audio Adventures of Diamond Backdraft!” – Gary Dretzka

Super Bowl XXLVIII Champions: Seattle Seahawks: Blu-ray
If the National Football League knows how to do anything extremely well, it’s how to milk every penny of potential revenues from the annual Super Bowl circus. By comparison, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a piker. Likewise, NFL Films doesn’t miss a step from Draft Day to the awarding of the Lombardi Trophy. Fortunately, it’s the best at what it does and their products don’t shortchange fans. Still, one caveat always applies to the first DVD/Blu-ray that arrives in the wake of the Super Bowl. “Super Bowl XXLVIII Champions: Seattle Seahawks” may sound as if it includes the championship game, but it doesn’t … not the whole one, anyway. That comes in June, with full coverage of the other playoff games. This title covers every aspect of the game, except the complete game and accompanying play-by-play. It also includes highlights, miked players and coaches, Super Bowl Media Day, post-game ceremonies and player profiles. At 180 minutes, however, it’s a pretty generous package. I’d be surprised, however, if more than a dozen copies are sold in the entire state of Colorado. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Gravity: Blu-ray
For those few who haven’t already seen “Gravity” in a theater – 3D, large-format or traditional – the primary thing to know about the DVD/Blu-ray experience is that, unless your screen is larger than the door of your garage, it won’t be nearly as immersive. Can’t be. You’d also have to invest in the whole Blu-ray 3D/HDTV package. 3DTwo, the extremely generous bonus features, alone, are worth the price of a purchase or rental. That’s why, one way or another, Alfonso Cuaron’s 91-minute masterpiece ought to be seen under optimal conditions Oscars are handed out. That said, however, the Blu-ray visual presentation is as good as it gets right now and even the sounds of silence are deeply profound. Ultimately, though, it’s the generous bonus package that sells the Blu-ray, and it can be appreciated as much by repeat viewers and first-timers. Because “Gravity” contains several crucial surprises, there’s no way to go into any depth on the storyline without ruining the fun for potential viewers. Suffice it to say that a pair of astronauts, extremely well played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, are working outside the shuttle when they’re suddenly forced to go into survival mode. After the Russians use a missile to destroy a spy satellite – presumably – the debris flies through space like shrapnel from a hand grenade. When the shards cross the orbital path of the shuttle, they not only destroy the spacecraft, but they also sever Stone and Kowalski’s lifelines to Houston. They’re afforded one thin chance for survival, but we’re given no reason to think they can pull it off. The passengers on James Cameron’s “Titanic” had a better chance of making it to New York than Stone or Kowalski have making it back to Earth. And, yet, there it is directly below them, with nothing in between to spoil their view of it. Large, luminous and inviting, the safety of home appears to be within arm’s length of the crippled shuttle.

As viewers have learned from a half-century of space exploration, passing through the planet’s atmospheric shield isn’t as easy as it looks from Earth or space. Hit it at the wrong angle and you’re toast. The astronauts in “Apollo 13” may have faced the same problem, but the ending was foretold decades earlier. Somehow, Ron Howard keep us on the edge of our seats, anyway. “Gravity” is the reason “spoiler alerts” were invented. Knowing too much about the story going into theater defeats the purpose of buying a ticket. On the other hand, there are all sorts of unwritten rules in Hollywood that suggest stars of the stature of Bullock and Clooney survive most such disasters and the excitement comes in watching them navigate the escape routes. They don’t look much like any astronauts we’re ever seen, but, then, neither did most of the actors in “The Right Stuff.” It will be interesting to see if, in 10-20 years, people hold “Gravity” in the same esteem as “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff,” whether or not it wins an Oscar. If nothing else, I think “Gravity” deserves a second or third viewing, if only to more clearly identify and contemplate Cuaron’s metaphorical through-line, which, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” involves physical and spiritual re-birth. The Blu-ray’s 107-minute making-of featurette, “Mission Control,” is absolutely fascinating, especially because the option of making the movie in space and zero-gravity wasn’t available to Cuaron. How did he make it look as if he had convinced NASA to build an orbiting soundstage? Among the other bonus features are breakdowns of five different scenes (37 minutes). To appreciate co-writer/son Jonas Cuaron’s land-based short, “Aningaaq,” one needs to have seen the entire movie, as it amplifies on a seemingly incidental sequence in space. In the informative documentary short, “Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space,” Ed Harris describes how the film’s centerpiece disaster isn’t as unrealistic as some might think, given the number of “retired” satellites in Earth’s orbit. (Harris, who was in “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13,” provides the disembodied voice of Mission Control, in “Gravity.”) – Gary Dretzka

Thor: The Dark World: Blu-ray 2D/3D
At a time when marketing costs for potential blockbusters are hovering around the $100 million mark, it’s become impossible to parse the difference between a hit and a near miss, based solely on box-office grosses. In 2011, “Thor” brought in a nifty total of $449.3 million, worldwide, with production costs of some $150 million. Two years later, “Thor: The Dark World” – for my money, a more entertaining picture – did almost the same amount of business, if one counts the inevitable rise in ticket prices that comes with building fancy new theaters in previously underserved markets. Whether any of the film’s investors or exhibitors made a dime is always open to conjecture and lawsuits. Based on the sequel’s explosive opening — $147 million over the first two weeks domestically – I’d say that Disney’s marketing team deserved to find some kind of bonus in their Christmas stockings. Actually, I thought “The Dark World” would get a better bounce than it did from the astounding success of “The Avengers,” in which Thor and his power-hungry brother, Loki, play prominent roles. That one collected total revenues of $1.5 billion worldwide, with American audiences contributing roughly $638 million. One is left to wonder why so many viewers skipped “The Dark World,” even though it picks up roughly where “Avengers” left off and early reviews were positive. The mind boggles …

My problem with the original “Thor” was that it felt overly Earth-bound and unnecessarily expository. The special effects were terrific, of course, but too much room was reserved for history lessons. In “The Dark World,” the balance is restored. With Loki in the hoosegow for crimes committed in Midgard (the Earthly realm) in “Avengers,” calm has been restored to the Nine Realms. In his time on Earth, Thor not only found his hammer but also became familiar with the concept of humility, which pleases Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Frigga (Rene Russo). Back in Midgard, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is possessed by a sinister energy weapon, just as the Dark Elf, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), decides that Asgard is ripe for picking. Determined to save Jane from harm and keep the lights burning in the heavens, Thor enlists Sif, the Warriors Three and Heimdall. Against his better judgment, he even solicits help from the imprisoned trickster, Loki.  Meanwhile, on Earth, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) is running around London in his skivvies, hoping to draw attention to the potential for disaster when the once-in-a-millennia alignment of the Nine Realms (a.k.a., the Convergence) occurs. Fans of the series will be happy to learn that most of the action in the sequel takes place on the fantasy battlegrounds of outer space, instead of Midgard.  Malekith, who’d previously had collaborated with Thor’s half-brother, unleashes other dark elves on Asgard without knowing exactly what Loki had up his sleeve.

Alan Taylor, who replaced Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair, made his bones helming such TV series as “Games of Thrones,” “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos.” If he ever felt uncomfortable working in the realm of comic-book heroes, it doesn’t show. Some of the credit for that probably belongs to writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who specialize in them.  Moreover, the Thor legend is voluminous enough to borrow material from one story and integrate it into something new. An “Avengers” sequel is on the boards – apparently without Loki — and a third installment of the Thor franchise already has been announced. I’d certainly consider giving Thor’s scheming half-brother more time the triquel. As for the Blu-ray, there’s certainly nothing wrong with the hi-def AV presentation. The Blu-ray extras add “Marvel One Shot: All Hail the King,” with Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery returning in a  short film from “Iron Man 3” co-writer Drew Pearce; commentary with Taylor, Hiddleston, cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, producer and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige; the 32-minute “Brother’s Journey: Thor & Loki,” which puts a tight focus of the Asgardian brothers; deleted and extended scenes; “Scoring Thor: The Dark World,” in which composer Brian Tyler briefly discusses the sequel’s score and creation of new musical themes for Thor, Odin, Loki, the Dark Elves and the Nine Realms; a peek at “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which launches on April 4; and a gag reel. Not all of them will be available in the VOD editions. “The Dark World” also arrives in a 3D version, which better minds than mine evaluate elsewhere on the web. – Gary Dretzka

You Will Be My Son
If there is any more fruitless way to kill two hours of precious than in the company of a pompous old fool, as he berates his son for not being enough like him, it’s allowing the jerk to get under your skin, as well. In “You Will Be My Son,” co-writer/director Gillles Legrand has created just such an odious character. Even worse, Paul de Marseul is unmistakably French and a renowned vintner who can’t go two minutes without bragging about his wine or minimizing someone else’s efforts. Afraid that the egomaniacal character’s toxic personality might limit their career options, few actors would agree to play such a monster. In the capable hands of Niels Arestrup (“A Prophet”), however, the old prick demands that we hate him every bit as much as he despises the presence of his son, Martin (Lorànt Deutsch), in his life. For most of the movie, we don’t even know why De Marseul feels that way about his sole heir. If Freud has a word for such a condition, I couldn’t find it on Google. Despite his father’s behavior. Martin very much wants to follow in his footsteps and those of his grandfather, before him. He pays attention to Daddy Dearest at home and studied the oenophilac arts at college, but, even so, De Marseul won’t cut him an inch of slack. By the time we meet him, Martin is completely intimidated by his father and appears to blame himself for being the runt of the De Marseul litter. The only one who dares stand up to De Marseul is Martin’s spunky wife.

For many years, the agricultural side of the business has been managed by Francois (François Amelot), whose nose and taste buds are impeccable. Francois is dying of cancer, though, and, therein, lies the rub. De Marseul is so committed to handing down the estate to someone other than Martin that he schemes to bring Francois’ son (Nicolas Bridet) back from Napa to comfort his father and talk him into becoming his partner. It takes a while for Martin and Francois to figure out why De Marseul is so interested keeping the young man from returning to California. By the time they do, however, the vintner has been so seduced by the promise of money and fame that he turns his back on his own parents.  There’s only a couple of directions “You Will Be My Son” can go without viewers wanting to kill both men and put a curse on both of their hearts. None of this would work if the actors weren’t so damned convincing, which they are, and we weren’t so anxious to watch Martin find justice, which he may or may not achieve. The Blu-ray takes full advantage of the lovely French scenery, which includes rolling hills, deep-green meadows and many acres of vines loaded with grapes. Be sure to watch the bonus features, which include interviews with Deutsch and Legrand and the rare selection of deleted scenes that amplify what we’ve already seen. – Gary Dretzka

Come Back, Africa: The Films of Lionel Rogosin: Volume II: Blu-ray
There likely will come a time in the not-so-distant future when the enforcement of apartheid in South Africa will seem as distant a memory as legally enforced segregation in the American South. Indeed, considering the recent rise in Republican-sanctioned actions designed to keep African-Americans from voting in some states, South Africans could teach us a thing or two about tolerance and the encouragement of diversity. When “Come Back, Africa” was shown at the 1959 Venice Film Festival, American-style segregation was finally being challenged by activists, students, the clergy and celebrities. Politicians joined Klansmen in being late to the party. In South Africa, the 11-year-old policy of Apartheid had already become entrenched, with no reforms in sight. To their great shame, American politicians remained just as silent about Apartheid as they did about lynching and Jim Crow laws in the South. Perhaps, they didn’t want to be accused of being hypocrites. The Carter administration imposed some sanctions that his successor, Ronald Reagan, ignored and refused to strengthen. Congress had to override his veto to get any such measures passed. He cited South Africa’s anti-communist stance in an unstable Africa as a key reason for not demanding more affirmative action. Despite winning a major prize at Venice and finding a receptive audience throughout Europe, director Lionel Rogosin was required to open the Bleecker Street Cinema, in New York, for “Come Back, Africa” to be shown here. It  debuted one week before the Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 black protestors were killed.

As was the case with Rogosin’s first film, “On the Bowery,” “Come Back, Africa” is a neo-realist documentary, directly influenced by the work of Robert Flaherty and Vittorio De Sica. The amateur cast follow a screenplay, but it represented the facts on the ground as the South African writers saw them. The guerrilla production would have been forbidden by government authorities, if Rogosin hadn’t lied to them about his intent. Because censors believed the movie would be about music and the happiness it brings to the people, he was allowed to shoot more or less freely. The time spend in pre-production brought him in contact with black and white actors, musicians and activists, including several from the banned ANC. It give him a feel for the pace and rhythms of everyday life in Johannesburg, as well as the clandestine meetings and fears of reprisal. The amateur actors participated in the belief that people around the world weren’t being told the truth about Apartheid. (Television wasn’t allowed in South Africa until 1976. Programming was dominated by American shows, because the Brits and Aussies refused to supply the country with entertainment.) The film’s point of view is provided by a poor Zulu farmer forced to move to the big city to find work in the gold mines. It isn’t a job Zacharia Mgabi is particularly suited to perform, but, then, neither are the alternatives. Mining is brutal work and the wages, of course, are lousy. When Zacharia is hired for other work, we’re introduced to the indignities attendant to working in close proximity to Afrikaners. Through him, we also are allowed to eavesdrop on debates among black political activists. At one, we meet a young Mariam Makeba, whose participation in the movie would make her persona non grata in South Africa for decades to come.

Rogosin stops well short of turning “Come Back, Africa” into a polemic or diatribe. Except for one extremely nasty housewife, the whites are accorded some dignity, as well. Neither are we led to believe that Zacharia is a saint or any more of a victim than any other black man in such a hostile environment. Much of the movie is set in Sophiatown, a black district within Johannesburg that in the 1940-50s was a center for politics, arts, entertainment and intellectuals. At the same time as Rogosin was shooting the picture, Sophiatown was being torn down for no good reason on the orders of the government, with the residents re-located to dumpy new accommodations away from the city. The new Milestone Blu-ray reflects the significant restoration work invested in the movie for its 2012 theatrical release. It’s the second installment in the company’s Rogosin retrospective and also includes several fresh interviews with actors and others who still recall the shoot; vintage interviews with the director; the documentary, “Have You Seen the Drum Recently?,” about the influential magazine, Drum; “An American in Sophiatown,” by son Michael Rogosin; and the remarkable musical documentary “Dark Root,” in which Reverend Gary Davis, Jim Collier, Wende Smith and Larry Johnson are joined by Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick and attorney Florynce Kennedy, in sharing reflections on oppression and struggle in America. – Gary Dretzka

Mother of George: Blu-ray
It isn’t often that one encounters an independent film as brilliantly shot as “Mother of George,” a film that continually contrasts the gritty urban environment of working-class Brooklyn, with the vibrantly colored attire favored by Nigerian immigrants. The African textiles, worn for ritual celebrations and at work, remind us of the culture gap that separates immigrants from the conformity that informs most American lives. Last year, director of photography Bradford Young took home the top cinematography prize at Sundance for his work in “Mother of George” and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” “Mother of George” looks especially dynamic on Blu-ray because all of the steps along the way were digitally rendered. Especially impressive is Young’s ability to capture the shades of brown and black in the faces of the African-American and native African actors, outdoors and indoors. This is no small trick when lighting conditions aren’t optimum.

Director Andrew Dosumnu’s intense drama describes the ordeal faced by Nigerian immigrants Adenike (Danai Gurira) and Ayodele (Isaach De Bankolé), when, after a joyous traditional wedding, hope turns to despair for everyone involved. No sooner have the vows been exchanged than the family begins to exert pressure on Adenike to bear children. One pushy grandmother insists that her not-yet-conceived grandchild – a boy, of course — will bear the name, George. It isn’t until 18 months later that it becomes obvious that something is wrong and, because males hold the high ground in old-country marriages, it must be his wife’s fault. Ayodele’s mother comes up with an idea that will sound odious to most Americans, but isn’t particularly unusual in non-western cultures (see, the recently reviewed “Wadjda”). Once that door is opened, however, the heart-wrenching story becomes one of trust, conscience and honor. Sadly, “Mother of George” never played on more than seven screens simultaneously here. I assume that distributors, even those of arthouse pictures, considered it to be too African to play to African-American audiences, yet too difficult to market to buffs outside New York, Los Angeles and a few college towns. It shouldn’t be missed in Blu-ray, where there the bonus material includes commentary with Dosunmu, editor Oriana Soddu and costume designer Mobolaji Dawodu; the making-of featurette, “A Human Story,” with Gurira and screenwriter/producer Darci Picoult; and several deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Twice Born
If the carnage that engulfed Sarajevo didn’t make any sense to you 20 years ago, it won’t seem any more logical after watching “Twice Born.” Adapted from a novel by Margaret Mazzantini, Sergio Castellitto’s epic melodrama wrings as many tears as it possibly can from parallel love stories that span pre-war Yugoslavia and present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina. Penelope Cruz is very good as an Italian professor whose bad sense of timing puts her in the Bosnian capital on the eve of war. At the time, Sarajevo was a city noted for tolerance and diversity. It was full of writers, musicians and artists who believed they couldn’t be touched by the conflagration already raging between Serbia and Croatia. They’d convinced themselves that art somehow would triumph over nationalism and the ancient religious differences that separated Yugoslavia’s Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims. Boy, were they mistaken. Before the shelling began, Cruz’ Gemma broke the heart of a Bosnian poet, Gojko (Adnan Haskovic) by falling in love with his friend, an exuberant American photographer, Diego (Emile Hirsch). By the time it was determined that Gemma couldn’t bear children, the war was at its most fierce and Diego had conceived of a plan that would keep a part of him, at least, alive within her.

In time, Gemma would return to Rome with an infant and Diego would become a psychological victim of the hatred that enveloped Sarajevo. Flash forward nearly 20 years and Gemma is lured back to Sarajevo with her son, on the pretext of a retrospective of Diego’s photographs from the period. In her mind, the possibility that she could be reunited with the long-believed-dead Diego is tantalizing. It’s less enticing for the teenager, who, despite his genetic ties to Diego, has no recollection of the period and isn’t thrilled to be missing summer vacation with his friends in Sardinia. Naturally, the story ends differently for both of them.  I might have enjoyed “Twice Born” more if it were 15-20 minutes shorter and Castellitto hadn’t interpreted Diego and Gojko as if they were characters in a Hemingway novel. In one post-coital scene, Diego even is posed to resemble Che Guevara on his death cot. To his credit, though, there’s nothing about the siege that is romanticized and there are few, if any heroes. It’s an emotionally draining love story, set against one of the most insane backdrops possible. If that sort of thing turns you on – or if you’re a fan of the novel — “Twice Born” will be worth the effort of finding it. The DVD includes several press-kit interviews with the stars and director. – Gary Dretzka

Lost in Thailand: Blu-ray
When I learned that the extremely broad road comedy “Lost in Thailand” is the highest-grossing film in Chinese history, I tried to envision billions of communists rolling in the aisles of thousands of multiplexes from Shanghai to the Mongolian border. Failing that, however, I was left pondering what made director/co-star Xu Zheng’s debut at the helm so popular. “Lost in Thailand” is quite different from other movies made in Mainland China and even Hong Kong, which is more tolerant of crime, action and romantic content. Technically, it’s as polished as any western import and actors Zheng, Huang Bo and Wang Baoqiang (with an assist from superstar Fan Bingbing) are known quantities in China. A loosely connected sequel to “Lost on Journey,” it also bears comparison to such old-school favorites as Martin & Lewis, Hope & Crosby and, if you will, DeNIro & Grodin in “Midnight Run.” With wealth comes tourism and Thailand has become a popular destination with newly affluent Chinese tourists, who must have missed the dreadful, “Hangover: Part II.” So, the climate was ripe for a blockbuster.

In “Lost in Thailand,” the scientist Xu Lang (Zheng) is working for a Chinese energy conglomerate hoping to secure a patent for a revolutionary fuel additive, but needs the boss to sign off on it. Inconveniently, the boss is chilling at a remote Buddhist temple in Thailand, whose name and location escape Lang. He’s followed to Thailand by a rival within the same company who’s put a tracer in his phone. The fun begins when a wildly flamboyant passenger latches onto the scientist and refuses to let go until they reach the temple or fulfill his wish list, whichever comes first. Meanwhile, the business rival is treated to the same kinds of punishment usually reserved for Wile E. Coyote in the “Roadrunner” cartoons. As the three men stumble their way through the Thai countryside, we’re introduced to many locations, ceremonies and activities with which we’re unfamiliar. “Lost in Thailand” isn’t a comedy that will drive all American viewers to fits of laughter, but there’s nothing in it that parents couldn’t watch with their pre-teen and early-teen kids – except, perhaps, the “lady-boy” gags — and share a few unexpected chuckles. The scenery looks pretty swell in Blu-ray, as well. It includes a silly making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Ice Soldiers: Blu-ray
If you dug the 1951 sci-fi/horror thriller, “The Thing From Another Planet,” and its 1982 sequel, “The Thing,” there’s a very good chance you’ll get a kick out of “Ice Soldiers.” The Canadian import borrows from all sorts of other sources to tell a story of (very) Cold War intrigue, reheated for modern audiences. Born in Iceland and raised in British Columbia, director Sturla Gunnarsson knows a thing or two about life in the Great White North. “Ice Soldiers” opens at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when all American eyes were directed 90 miles south of Key West. Apparently, Nikita Khrushchev decided that this would be the perfect time to test his theory that three genetically engineered Russians could destroy New York ahead of all-out war with the U.S. If they look like pin-up boys for Hitler’s Aryan wet dreams, the soldiers are good communists, unaware that communism is no longer cool in a U.S.S.R. that no longer exists.

Instead of putting them on a jetliner or submarine and dropping them off at Idlewild Airport or the coast of New Jersey, Khrushchev decided they should take the scenic route over the North Pole through Canada. Their crappy little prop plane crashed on the tundra, burying them in any icy grave, not unlike the one inhabited by Captain America and Gamera. When a research mission locates the plane and one shows a sign of life, a group of naïve scientists decides to bring the fighting freaks back to the station to poke and probe. Once thawed, of course, they wreak havoc. Th0eir stroll south to Toronto is interrupted by a ferocious cold snap, leaving them frozen, once again. Flash forward 50 years and another team of scientists – this one from an oil conglomerate – history repeats itself. This time, however, the Dolph Lundgren clones have the advantage of snowmobiles and ATVs to speed them towards 21st Century New York. They’re also able to get their juices flowing at a sub-Arctic strip club. Only two men stand between them and victory: a super-soldier played by Dominic Purcell and Saulteaux Indian Adam Beach, who plays a trapper. Though preposterous, the action is pretty satisfying. – Gary Dretzka

The 300 Spartans: Blu-ray
With only a week left to wait for the arrival of “300: Rise of an Empire” – Zach Snyder’s sequel to the surprise blockbuster “300” – it might be fun for fans to revisit the live-action sword-and-sandal epic that inspired comic artist Frank Miller to create the graphic novel from which “300” was adapted. He saw “The 300 Spartans” as a boy and was impressed by its depiction of what it means to be a hero. Unlike many historical epics upgraded years later through the use of modern technology, Rudolph Maté’s 1962 original holds up very well. The historical background remains credible, as do the fighting scenes. While it’s still difficult to believe that Leonidas’ force was able to hold off the far larger Persian army for as long as it did, both movies capably describe how it might have been accomplished. (Snyder and Miller admit to toying with many known facts about the Battle of Thermopylae, so as to amplify the excitement of their film.) “The 300 Spartans” benefits, as well, from being shot in Greece, a country that can’t be accurately replicated in Monument Valley, Durango or British Columbia. Fifty years later, the dialogue may sound a bit rusty, but not egregiously so. Among the still recognizable cast members are Richard Egan, as Leonidas; Ralph Richardson, as Themistocles of Athens; Diane Baker, as Ellas; and David Farrar, as Xerxes. Much off the rest of the cast is comprised of Greek actors. The Blu-ray upgrade retains much of the CinemaScope flavor and texture, while adding vintage marketing material. – Gary Dretzka

Bad Dreams/Visiting Hours: Double Feature: Blu-ray
Psychophony: An Experiment in Evil
The brutal murders of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Foster notwithstanding, Charles Manson represented something of a godsend for filmmakers. Jim Jones and the massacre at Jonestown gave genre specialists an opportunity to add ritual murder/suicides to their list of topics for exploitation. By the time the slasher subgenre came of age in the early 1980s, the messianic hippie and post-hippie sociopath had already become a familiar villain. Movies and made-for-cable documentaries continue to be made about Jones’ and Manson’s crimes, even four-plus decades later. Released in 1988, “Bad Dreams” combines elements of both atrocities in the service of a story that adds an evil shrink, tortuous hallucinations and garden-variety gore. First-time co-writer/director Andrew Fleming opens his picture in a crumbling house that might have been conceived of by the same people who designed Anthony Perkins’ home in “Psycho.” A charismatic cult leader (Richard Lynch) is pouring gasoline on the heads of his followers ahead of a mass suicide. Only one girl, Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin) survives the inferno and she’s left in a 13-year-long coma.  When she awakens, Cynthia is put in the care of a psychiatrist (Harris Yulin) who treats his patients with psycho-tropic drugs that return them to scene of their worst trauma. Not surprisingly, then, the hospital has an unusually high rate of suicides. If Cynthia is to avoid the same fate, she’ll need the help of the observant Dr. Alex Karman (Bruce Abbott). “Bad Dreams” benefits from an enthusiastic cast of veteran supporting actors and others on their way to roles in better movies and TV series: Rubin (“Screamers”), Abbott (“Re-Animator”), Dean Cameron (“Spencer,” “Fast Times”), Susan Ruttan (“LA Law”), voice actor Elizabeth Daily (“Duckman”) and nutty Charles Fleischer (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit”). What Fox and producer Gale Anne Hurd (“The Terminator”) were able to save on salaries and sets seemingly went into a soundtrack that includes psycho-delic music by the Chambers Brothers (“Time Has Come Today”), Electric Prunes (“Too Much to Dream Last Night”), Guns N’ Roses (“Sweet Child o’ Mine”) and something called Mamby Pamby & the Smooth Putters (“My Way”). The Blu-ray adds Fleming’s commentary, fresh interviews, making-of featurettes and an interesting alternate ending.

Seven years before appearing in the Canuxploitation “Visiting Hours,” Lee Grant had accepted the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her smashing performance as Warren Beatty’s MILF lover in “Shampoo.” You’ll have to listen to writer Brian Taggart’s interview in the bonus package to learn how such a classy lady ended up in a slasher film, but, in short, Grant liked the idea of playing the staunch feminist TV commentator, who defends her positions by not letting her foes get a word in edgewise. Ever since she was un-blacklisted in the early 1960s, Grant’s career has been something of a roller-coaster ride, bouncing between prestige pictures and made-for-TV movies. So, maybe she needed the bread. Here, the four-time Oscar nominee plays journalist Deborah Ballin, whose crusade against domestic violence enrages a twisted, switchblade-toting creep. Michael Ironside delivers a frightening performance as psycho-bully Colt Hawker, who, when he isn’t stalking women, drives a Zamboni at the local hockey rink. Even though Ballin survives the attack, she’s confined to swank suite in the hospital. The rest of the movie resembles a game of cat-and-mouse, in which Hawker is required to use costumes to get past security cops and locate his prey among the many closed brown doors in the hospital. While there’s no question he’s a big and dangerous fellow, Hawker isn’t impervious to pain… thank goodness. “Visiting Hours” is distinguished by an imaginative script by horror/sci-fi special Taggart and the no-frills direction of Jean-Claude Lord. Even stranger than Grant playing the victim in a genre flick is William Shatner’s appearance as her boss. His toupee has more charisma than anything Shatner is required to display in “Visiting Hours.” Apart from that, the movie is as good a slasher flick as any in the early 1980s. It even made the list of “video nasties” assembled by Britain’s Broadcasting Standards Council. Taggart and co-star Lenore Zann recall how the movie was condemned by then-prominent critics as being misogynistic. Back then, critics kicked that adjective around like a hacky-sack, especially in the context of exploitation films. In this case, anyway, they were wrong. The DVD also adds interviews with Zann and producer Pierre David.

From Spain, one of the leading exporters of horror, “Psychophony: An Experiment in Evil” is a found-footage flick that focuses on Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP).  The footage was recovered from unauthorized psychological experiments conducted by Dr. Helen Jara (Merce Montala), who hoped to prove that hallucinations experienced by schizophrenics could be traced to paranormal phenomenon. To do so, Jara gathered a small group of patients and boarded them in the vicinity of a terrible crime years earlier. Although Jara wouldn’t live to see her findings published, investigators recover videotapes and recordings containing EVPs not listed in the research documents. To re-enact the events leading to her death, investigators turned to original subjects of the tests, as well as re-creations of séances and other hocus-pocus. Xavier Berraondo’s film won’t come as a revelation to genre fans or re-spark much interest in the found-footage sector. It is, however, well-made and non-generic. If Berraondo’s name is familiar, it’s probably because his name was listed among the collaborators on “Beyond Re-Animator” (2003), which was filmed in Barcelona. – Gary Dretzka

The Wait
Among the things that mainstream audiences find most off-putting about arthouse films is a tendency to tell a story in a way so personal that the only people who can fairly interpret it are the director and his analyst. Viewers are encouraged to buy tickets to see it, but, really, the filmmakers don’t care if it makes any sense to anyone outside a small circle of friends and one or two critics. This isn’t to say there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the picture, just that very few people are likely to have the patience to decipher the hieroglyphics. You either get it or you don’t. Either way, the filmmaker already is on course for his or her next project. Or, so it seems. M. Blash’s thoroughly enigmatic “The Wait” sets his family drama against the backdrop of a forest fire within eyeshot of a posh Oregon hideaway for the nouveau riche. The blaze is as tangible as the characters are remote. As the movie opens, two sisters have begun the mourning process for their newly deceased mother. Out of the blue, Emma (Chloë Sevigny) receives a call from someone purporting to be a psychic, advising her to hold off on burying the deceased woman, which she does. She convinces Angela (Jena Malone) to go along with the summons from beyond, leaving grannie on the floor of her bedroom wrapped in a sheet, all the while denying that she’s kicked the bucket.

It isn’t nearly that easy to explain to Emma’s children why keeping such a thing secret is worth the cost of lying about it to close friends and other people in town. That’s only the start of the weirdness, however. Soon enough, Emma begins doing such crazy things as asking her pre-teen daughter to watch a tape of her – the mother’s — birth; her sexually ambiguous teenage son discovers a horrifying video on the Internet and can’t wait to share it repeatedly with other people; and Angela gets her freak on with a guy who may not be able to handle it. Meanwhile, the forest continues to burn and Forest Service planes continue to drop orange retardant on it. Blash seems to know a lot more about composing interesting shots than writing dialogue that invites viewers to buy into his story. Fans of Sevigny and Malone, who appeared together previously in Blash’s “Lying,” probably already know not to expect anything resembling conventional behavior from the characters they play, so I have no qualms about recommending a rental of “The Wait” to them. Others, though, might consider it to be a massive waste time. – Gary Dretzka

Down and Dangerous
If it’s true that “Down and Dangerous” was financed by the nearly $40,000 raised in a Kickstarter campaign, writer/director Zak Forsman and producer Kevin Shaw deserve kudos for making a movie that looks several times better than that meager amount usually allows. If “Down and Dangerous” had been made in 1980s, the synth score, muted cinematography and pistol-packing druggies might have struck a chord among the readers of “Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade.” In it, journalist Robert Sabbag told the story of Zachary Swan, a guy who made a lot money smuggling blow from Colombia to New York, before the cartels figured out that they could make a greater fortune handling all aspects of the business. Forsman admits to being Swan’s son and that he based “Down and Dangerous” on things he learned from him. The rights to his father’s story have been  locked up for a long time, so the good stuff was unavailable to him. It explains, as well, why the movie’s “Miami Vice” vibe fails to resonate in a thriller involving a Mexican cartel and smuggling schemes that haven’t worked in 30 years.

John T. Mora (“Misdirected”) stars as the smuggler with a heart of gold and a penchant for getting other people to do the hard lifting for him. When John Boxer finds himself caught in a squeeze play between the DEA, LAPD and a Mexican drug kingpin who’s sleeping with his former girlfriend, Olivia (Paulie Rojas, with a neck a swan would envy), he can’t decide who to betray first. Boxer’s ethical decision not to carry a gun is severely tested when people around him become the target of a mysterious gunman. It’s at this point in the story that Boxer is summoned by the kingpin and ordered to come up with a plan to smuggle a suitcase full of cocaine out of Mexico. If I were guessing, I’d say that this was the precise point that the Kickstarter money began to run out. Almost nothing that follows makes sense, logically or otherwise, and it’s impossible to tell which of the cops are dirty or clean. The dialogue turns almost comically clichéd and no amount of Giorgio Moroder-inspired score can disguise the holes in the plot. It’s perfectly fitting that former Brat Packer Judd Nelson be allotted a pair of cameos, not unlike Willy Nelson’s turns in Michael Mann’s “Thief.” The primary audience for “Down and Dangerous,” I suggest, ought to be young filmmakers hoping to use Kickstarter to launch their career. If they can’t match Forsman’s accomplishment, another $20,000 or so in contributions probably won’t get them over the creative hump, either. “D&D” currently is playing the VOD circuit. – Gary Dretzka

Lesson Before Love
The differences between rom/dram/coms made for and marketed to Yuppies and Buppies have begun to narrow to the point where they’re only separated by budgets and clichés. Both subgenres feature characters who are college educated, attractive, fashionable, on the brink of financial success and frustrated in the pursuit of meaningful relationships. African-American characters tend to be better dressed and one of them, at least, is an athlete, musician or both. These movies deliver the kinds of messages about faith, persistence and pride that fly over the heads of Yuppie audiences more interested in T&A. They’re surprisingly chaste, even if the actors dress as if they’re going dancing after work. In “Lesson Before Love,” the hottest female character doesn’t consent to lose her virginity until well after half of the movie has passed. There isn’t a Madea, gangsta’ or preacher in sight, as is the norm for films targeted at other “urban” demographics. It isn’t unusual for those movies to make money, just like the occasional “About Last Night” and “The Best Man Holiday,” with high-profile casts. Emerging directors hoping to climb the ladder after the launch of their first direct-to-video movies are at a distinct disadvantage, in that there are significantly fewer screens available to them and there’s no way to afford marquee talent. Here, Eric, Alexis, Cullen and Janae are on-line chat buddies, whose lives begin to intertwine romantically, socially and professionally. They’re frustrated by the lack of forward momentum in their lives, but confident they possess the right stuff. That’s about it. The DVD arrives with commentary by director Dui Jarrod and producer/DP Tyler Dixon and a “Meet Dui Jarrod” featurette. – Gary Dretzka

TV-on-DVD
FX: Legit: The Complete First Season
LA Law: Season One
Cartoon Network: Adventure Time: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
Mama’s Family: Complete Third Season
It isn’t often that a comic offends an audience member to the point where that person will climb on stage and plant a punch on his mug. It happened to “Legit” star Jim Jefferies during a gig in Manchester, England. Apparently, the guy was reacting to a jab Jefferies had aimed at a heckler, not in his own party. He stalked out of the showroom, paced the bar for a while, punched a wall or two, and then took off for the stage. You simply can’t buy publicity like that, especially if the club owner had the foresight to capture the incident for a YouTube audience. Something similar happened to the equally offensive Andrew “Dice” Clay, when a member of the “SNL” cast and guest Sinead O’Connor refused to participate in the show, if the Diceman was allowed to host. Today, Jefferies doesn’t mind ruffling the feathers of religious people, modern women, the handicapped and other folks with whom he disagrees. In fact, like Clay before him, he’s been given a sitcom, “Legit,” of his own. Unlike Clay, who last year played a blue-collar husband in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” Jefferies remains in character when he’s acting in “Legit.” Jefferies plays a struggling professional comedian who moves from Australia to Los Angeles, where he stays busy auditioning for roles in TV shows, commercials and movies. His best friends are goofball brothers, Steve and Billy Nugent, the latter being restricted to a wheelchair by muscular dystrophy. Mom and Pop Nugent (Mindy Sterling, John Ratzenberger) are plenty goofy themselves and figure into the plots of most episodes. Jim is nearly as uncouth off stage as he is in performance. Like Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” whenever Jim opens his heart and attempts to do the right thing, he only manages to screw things up worse. “Legit” is legitimately funny, but definitely not to everyone’s taste. In the first episode, when Jim arrives in L.A., Billy (D.J. Qualls) is seemingly on death’s doorstep in a rehabilitation hospital. When Billy mentions that his bucket list is topped by a desire to get laid, Jim and Steve whisk him off to a legal brothel in Nevada. Billy may have appeared to need constant supervision and care, but, left to his own devices, he charms the ladies and is reborn as a proud, physically challenged stud. Jim and Steve, of course, have none of their wishes answered. It goes on like that throughout Season One. Billy’s fellow patients at therapy sessions are allowed great personal dignity and traits not unlike those accorded characters in any other sitcom. (No other show has regularly hired as many disabled actors as “Legit.”) And, while it isn’t unusual for a blustery protagonist to be knocked down a few pegs by other sitcom characters, “Legit” has more than the usual number of characters who are given an opportunity to do so. The DVD extras include deleted scenes, the pilot and background material.

Throughout the history of television, one of the constants in the battle between good and evil has been the presence of lawyers capable of exonerating the innocent and convicting the rightly guilty, all within the framework of an hour-long drama, commercials included. Little screen time is wasted poring through law books or pleading for continuances. Neither is much time allocated for discerning shades of gray. For most of the last 60 years, Perry Mason has topped the list of great TV lawyers while Hamilton Burger has been relegated to the bottom rung. (In a MSN Entertainment poll, Mason’s arch-rival is mentioned in the same breath with Algonquin J. Calhoun, of “Amos ‘n Andy.”) Truth be told, though, Burger was only as good as the cases presented him by his boss and the police. Jack McCoy, of “Law & Order,” would be laughed out of court if he was required to prosecute the same cases as Burger. By 1986, when “LA Law” debuted, few viewers bought into the idea that TV lawyers could be any more infallible than the ones we knew existed in real life. Juries, who’ve grown up watching law shows, have been conditioned to look for things, other than the facts, to determine the fates of defendants. Besides trying cases, the lawyers on “LA Law” had complicated personal lives, worried as much about bonuses as the outcomes of their cases and occasionally accepted clients who were clearly guilty of terrible crimes. Moreover, trials weren’t necessarily decided over the course of a single episode. Funny one week, “LA Law” could lead viewers to despair the next. Just as “Hill Street Blues” forever changed cop shows, Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher’s creation altered the way Americans looked at lawyers. Shout Factory’s long-awaited first-season collection has finally arrived on these shores and shouldn’t disappoint fans and newcomers, alike. It includes new Interviews with Bochco, Corbin Bernsen, Jill Eikenberry, Jimmy Smits, Michael Tucker, Larry Drake, Harry Hamlin and Susan Ruttan.

As the fifth season of Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time” comes to a close, it’s time for the third-season compilation to appear on DVD/Blu-ray. This pace is far too slow for rabid fans, who’ve seen other series roll out within weeks of their season finale. Perhaps, the inclusion of commentaries and a Season Three featurette will make them feel better. The series follows the adventures of Finn, a human boy, and his best friend and adoptive brother, Jake, a dog with magical powers to change shape and grow and shrink at will. Series creator Pendleton Ward describes Finn as a “fiery little kid with strong morals,” while Jake is based on Bill Murray’s character Tripper Harrison, from “Meatballs.” Finn and Jake live in the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo, which is recovering from the explosion of a “mushroom bomb” a millennium early. Other prominent characters include Princess Bubblegum, the Ice King, Marceline the Vampire Queen. The new collection contains “What Was Missing,” which caused a furor over the appearance of lesbianism in the gender-swapped realm of “Adventure Time.”

For those fans of “Mama’s Family” who couldn’t afford or find the “Complete Series” package released last fall, it’s nice to know that individual seasons are now being made available from Time-Life. Season Three marks the leaps from NBC to syndication and introduction of several old and new characters, including grandson Bubba and neighbor Iola. Betty White also makes a guest appearance in “Best Medicine.” Other guest stars include Dorothy Van (Aunt Effie), Earl Boen (Reverend Meechum), Anne Haney (Alberta Meechum), Yeardley Smith, Lewis Arquette, Brent Spiner, Dr. Joyce Brothers and Kathleen Freeman. Among the extras are the “Family History,” episode from “The Carol Burnett Show,” featuring Maggie Smith; “Mama’s Family Tree: The Sprouts”; “Mama Knows Best: A Mama’s Family Cast Reunion”; and interview with Allan Kayser. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Nature: Meet the Coywolf
PBS: Nova: At the Edge of Space
PBS: Nova: Asteroid: Doomsday or Payday
As if the nation’s backyard pets don’t have enough to worry them, along comes a hybrid of wolf and coyote that combines the natural predatory tendencies of both animals with the unique survival skills with which they were born. Coywolves, a.k.a., eastern coyotes, hunt in packs, like wolves, but, like coyotes, are unafraid of foraging solo in cities and towns. On rare occasions, they’ve also been known to attack humans. “Meet the Coywolf” takes a more sober, scientific approach to the phenomenon than Syfy channel might have in introducing the hybrid species. Instead of creating a new super-monster, “Nature” describes how the coywolf came into being, roughly 90 years ago, and how we can expect it to evolve. “Meet the Coywolf” takes us to the vast forests of Ontario, where the hybrid appears to be prospering, while also tracking a few of the bolder critters to the suburban fringes. The show reminded me of the “Nature” presentation, “Raccoon Nation,” which describes how the animal’s habitat has spread from South and Central American to Everywhere U.S.A., easily adapting to every new environment along the way. Indeed, in some urban areas, they easily qualify as nuisances. It is possible, of course, that coywolves will discover what hunters throughout the South already know and make the furry scavengers a part of their steady diet. That’s when the real fun begins.

The “Nova” presentation “At the Edge of Space” reminds us of how little we know about the layer of space that separates Earth’s atmosphere and the void, where the shuttles and satellites play. For most of the last 60 years, the superpowers have been so anxious to stake their claims to the heavens that the exploration of space between Earth’s cloud cover and the Karman line – approximately 60 miles above sea level – was left to researchers whose work wasn’t likely to be honored with ticker-tape parades and visits to the White House. Like tornado trackers at ground level and hurricane hunters in the air, specially designed planes carry scientists dedicated to the study of the aurora borealis, encroaching meteors, thunder storms and other stratospheric events to where the action is. Among the more interesting discussions here concern the search for photographic evidence of “sprites, elves and jets,” which flash above thick storm clouds as lightning shoots towards Earth. “Transient luminous events” are caused by gaseous discharges in the thin-air layers, sometimes reaching up to 90 kilometers above the clouds. Unlike lightning, the brilliant optical flashes resemble jellyfish, carrots, streamers and halos and have been photographed as being red, white and blue. Most of what we know about sprites has been gathered in only the last 25 years.

The subjects of “Asteroid: Doomsday or Payday” are far more familiar, if only because we can track them and see them when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Before a 65-foot-wide asteroid detonated in the skies over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk last February, most people could only look to Hollywood for depictions of what happens when a space rock threatens the planet. It was brilliantly captured by hand-held cameras, as was the extent of the damage caused. The explosion prior to touchdown was what differentiated fact from fiction in Chelyabinsk. Otherwise, much of what’s been depicted in movies – using nuclear bombs to divert, destroy or capture the asteroids – is a surprisingly viable option. And, while we can follow the larger asteroids through space, it’s the smaller objects that seem to appear out of nowhere that pose the greater immediate threat. The “payday” alluded to in the title represents conjecture on how asteroids could be mined for minerals before they destroy themselves. I’ll defer to Hollywood on that stuff, though. – Gary Dretzka

Transformers Prime: Ultimate Bumblebee
The latest collection of episodes from “Transformers Prime” and “Transformers Prime: Beast Hunters” features Optimus Prime’s stout-hearted, if undersized scout and messenger Bumblebee. From the 2011 season, “Masters & Students” describes what happens when Skyquake is released from his tomb and makes a bee-line for O.P. and Bumblebee, instead of immediately joining Decepticon leader Starscream.  The two-part “Operation Bumblebee” serves both as an action adventure and a primer for a new generation of fans. In it, Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Arcee, Ratchet and Bulkhead marshal their forces against Megatron’s latest scheme to conquer Earth. Viewers also will learn why and how BumbleBee lost his ability to talk like the other robots do. “Deadlock,” from Season Three (2013) of “Transformers Prime Beast Hunters,” our yellow-and-black-striped hero plays it straight, for once, and is given the opportunity to tip the scales in the ultimate battle. “Ultimate Bumblebee” is enhanced by the returning voices of Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, alongside Ernie Hudson (“Ghostbusters”), Jeffrey Combs (“Re-Animator”) and Will Friedle (“Boy Meets World”). – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Nebraska: Blu-ray
There are so many solid reasons to rush out and pick up a copy of Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” – or pay a service to stream it directly into your living room – the imminent arrival of the Academy Award hypefest should be the least of them. Any excuse to catch up with this terrific, quintessentially American dramedy is a good one, however. Even though “Nebraska” only was able to make up its production nut of a meager $13 million at the box office, it deserves a second shot in its digital afterlife. For those who’ve lost track of the nominees in the various categories, Payne’s film is in the running for Oscars as Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Writing and Best Cinematography. The Independent Spirits adds Best Supporting Actor, while taking away Best Cinematography, for its six nominations. I suspect that the Best Picture nod will go to “American Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave” or “Gravity,” just as it has in most other contests. I’d be surprised, if not shocked if Bruce Dern and June Squibb didn’t go home with a trophy for their performances. They were that good. Dern plays Woody, a disheveled alcoholic who defines the term, “cantankerous old coot.” When we meet him, Woody is walking toward the Interstate that extends from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska. After a patrolman notices that he’s far too addled to be hitchhiking anywhere, his exasperated adult son, David (Will Forte), is summoned to take him home. Once there, he’s greeted with no small degree of disdain by his long-suffering wife, Kate (Squibb), who’s put up with his antics for no other reason than it would be unseemly for her to throw him out in the cold.

Woody may not be as demented as he is delusional. It would hard to find anyone who hasn’t been fooled by the promise of riches to be won in a sweepstakes, if only for a few seconds. Being of solid western stock, however, he believes what he reads on a printed page and can’t imagine why any company with an address and letterhead stationary would bother to pull a scam on him. Rather than wait for the sweepstakes organizers to call him, he decides to hitchhike to Lincoln to collect the check in person. David, whose job it is to sell home-theater systems to people who’ve lost their jobs, reluctantly agrees to drive his father to Lincoln, with a pit stop in the small town in which he was raised. Rather than spoil anyone’s enjoyment of “Nebraska,” let’s just say that the father-son roadtrip begins as the opposite of a buddy film, thanks to the old man’s drinking and inattention to his well-being. Things change, however, when they reach Hawthorne, where David is introduced to a menagerie of sleepy old men, lumpen cousins and old cronies of his dad. The men and some women, most of whom likely met in kindergarten, now spend their idle time in the local taverns recalling long-ago triumphs, digging up barely forgotten grudges and singing karaoke. The arrival of any potential millionaire would be big news in Hawthorne and Woody unwisely milks the attention for all it’s worth.

What struck me about Payne’s vision, as defined by Bob Nelson’s debut screenplay, is just how real everything and everybody seems, even in black-and-white. You can find these characters in every town between the coasts. At one time or another, they’ve bought into the American dream and decided to stay within shouting distance of their hometowns. Even if things didn’t work out as planned, they’ve retained some semblance of dignity and just enough hope to keep one or two dreams alive. They’ve only lately come to the conclusion that the government has no interest in making those dreams come true and neither does Mother Nature. They’ve also learned from experience or hearsay that kids don’t always grow up as expected. “Nebraska” encourages us not to give up on ourselves, no matter how small the reward might be or unattainable the goal. In this way, it’s as life-affirming as anything on the Hallmark Channel. Even so, I wouldn’t blame anyone if they simply rented the movie to witness a praiseworthy performances by an actor whose career is full of them. Another interesting thing about “Nebraska” is the hi-def presentation, which is so clear and precise that many viewers will forget it’s black-and-white. Also very good in prominent supporting roles are Bob Odenkirk as David’s older brother, a TV personality in a mid-sized Midwestern city; Stacy Keach, as Woody’s lifelong friend and frequent nemesis; and Rance Howard, as his brother. The only bonus feature is the 29-minute “The Making of ‘Nebraska,’” which is surprisingly complete, even if it’s fair to expect a more extensive package if it catches fire at the Oscars. – Gary Dretzka

 
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology
I’ll admit to never having heard of cultural-theorist “superstar” Slavoj Zizek before watching “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.” While the title of this follow-up to “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema” is predictive of coherent insight – the host reminds me most of Professor Irwin Corey, the self-styled “world’s foremost authority” — much of what he says is intriguing. Once again, in collaboration with director Sophie Fiennes, the Slovenian philosopher uses movies to comment on the insidious incursion of political, cultural and religious ideology into popular culture. Rather than place the disheveled Zizek in front of a camera and hope that his audience will wade through two hours of heavily accented English to find the gold among the gobbledygook, Fiennes re-creates scenes from the movies to be dissected and places her subject inside them. This might sound like a convenient gimmick, but, when select sequences from those movies are shown within the context of an intellectual discussion, it becomes more inclusive. From the vantage point of the movies themselves, Zizek psychoanalyzes the filmmakers’ intentions and their impact on the prevailing Zeitgeist. In “Ideology,” he expands on a notion presented in “Cinema”: “Our desires are artificial. We have to be taught to desire. Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire, it tells you how to desire.” Some movies also point us in the direction of the things we, then, desire. Naturally, Zizek demonstrates how 1930s propagandists not only manipulated images of Stalin and Hitler, but also set the stage. The movies helped humanize ideologies that, otherwise, were indefensible. Those are the easy ones, however.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone in Hollywood having an ideology worth pursuing, but there’s no denying the ability of screenwriters and directors to sneak ideologies of their own into pictures. It continues today, in the form of product placement and making crime and criminals look more sensually appealing than walking the straight-and-narrow path or, God forbid, expanding horizons in other directions. If the HUAC folks targeted leftists in the industry, it wasn’t because they didn’t enjoy their pictures. It was their belief that Americans could be manipulated subliminally by communist propaganda inserted into mainstream entertainment. A half-century later, no one in Congress appears to mind the same process being applied to everything from cigarettes to sugar-soaked breakfast cereals. Walt Disney and his studio descendants have been selling his vision of the American Dream in pictures for most of the last 70 years. It’s been accomplished by re-interpreting the themes of great literature and fairy tales, written by the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen. Neither did the studio have to pay for the source material, as the books were in the common domain. While showing seemingly innocuous scenes from “The Sound of Music,” Zizek demonstrates how they might have been shaped by Catholic doctrine. He goes out on a limb to connect such disparate titles as “Jaws,” “Taxi Driver,” “Zabriskie Point,” “The Searchers,” “The Dark Knight,” “They Live,” “Titanic,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “If” to fascism and anti-immigration fanatics. John Ford and John Wayne’s “The Searchers” has, for years, been a lightning rod for controversy. For true-blue Americans, it offers a justification for imperialism and fear of the outsider; to Native Americans and liberals, it provides evidence of this country’s willingness to fall back on racism and bloodshed when treaties need to be broken; and to cineastes, it’s a celluloid cathedral. While much of what Zizek believes feels forced, it’s probably because it is informed by growing up in an Eastern bloc country, in which everything is tainted by ideology, and disappointment in the capitalist system that’s mastered the art of disguising ideology. “Pervert’s Guide” won’t appeal to many mainstream viewers, primarily because Zizek is devoid of charisma and his message borders on irrelevance. Ideology aside, however, Zizek reminds me of a professor who’s loved by students for challenging them with eccentric ideas and exotic points of view. There were never enough them when I was going to school. The DVD adds a post-screening Q&A with Zizek and Fiennes. – Gary Dretzka

Darkman: Collectors’ Edition: Blu-ray
The Shadow: Collectors’ Edition: Blu-ray
Comic-book superheroes have provided fodder for Hollywood filmmakers since at least the 1940s, when they made the leap from the “funnies” to matinee and radio serials. The strongest among them would be revived for broadcast on television and mega-budget exploitation in theaters. The dam threatened to break in the 1980s, when more than a dozen lesser-known characters were given potential franchises of their own. Overexposure would put the goose that laid the golden egg into a coma, leaving studios the option of retiring from the game and leaving it to the indies, or dispensing budgets that reduced the risk to minimal. “Darkman” (1990) and “The Shadow” (1994) were released at a time when CGI filmmaking was in its infancy and, as yet, unaffordable by most genre specialists. That would change soon enough, of course, but, until then, it was left to such inventive directors as Sam Raimi and Russell Mulcahy to find ways to muddle through, somehow. Twenty-some years later, “Darkman” and “The Shadow” feel quaint beside the mega-mega-blockbusters of the new millennium, which benefit from the most advanced CGI technology and very need to shoot on location. Even with all of that working in the favor of the studios in 2014, only a few of the superhero movies can be considered a sure bet, even in 3D. Too often, the difference between red and black ink is determined by international audiences. After the success of his “Evil Dead” pictures, Raimi really, really wanted to adapt “The Shadow” and “Batman.” For better or worse, he was denied the rights to both properties.

Instead, Raimi simply created a superhero to call his own: “Darkman.” His inspirations included the Universal catalog of monsters and such seriously disfigured protagonists as Phantom of the Opera, Elephant Man and Hunchback of Notre Dame. Like them, his success depended entirely of overcoming handicaps not of his own making. Darkman began his life as Peyton Westlake, a scientist currently working on a new type of synthetic skin to help burn victims. His girlfriend, played by Raimi’s friend Frances McDormand, is an attorney who’s discovered a link between the ruthless crimelord (Larry Drake) and corrupt a corrupt developer (Colin Friels). In an effort to intimidate the lawyer, the gangster confronts Westlake in his warehouse lab. After denying any knowledge of what his girlfriend has up her sleeve, the gangster blows up the lab with Westlake still in it. Miraculously, he is blown clear of the inferno, but not before having most of the skin on his face melted off and hands destroyed. Assumed dead and prematurely buried, Westlake rebuilds his lab and begins experimenting on himself. He’s reborn as the vengeful Darkman – among other disguises — and his mission becomes taking out the people who did this to him. It’s fun and exciting. The re-mastered Blu-ray edition is enhanced by commentary with DP Bill Pope; fresh interviews with Neeson, Drake, McDormand, makeup designer Tony Gardner, production designer Randy Ser and several “henchmen”; vintage material, including an interview with Raimi; and a making-of featurette.

In Mulcahy’s version of “The Shadow,” Alec Baldwin plays the caped crime-fighter Lamont Cranston and, as usual, is well up to the task. Here, he’s required to engage his old nemesis, Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the last descendant of Genghis Khan, who’s desperately in need of the rarest of rare elements to complete preparations for a nuclear device. Both men are master illusionists, capable of changing their identities and using magic tricks and martial-arts weaponry to press their case. The story itself is a synthesis of “Room of Doom,” “The Masters of Death” and other ingredients from the radio show and pulp magazine versions. Like the Warren Beatty version of “Dick Tracy,” which it most resembles, Mulcahy makes brilliant use of primary colors and strategically arranged shadows. Its sense of humor combines comic-book dialogue with noir conceits, with Baldwin’s own bad-boy touches. The cast also includes such familiar actors as Penelope Ann Miller (Margo Lane); Peter Boyle; Ian McKellan; Tim Curry, Jonathan Winters, Andre Gregory and James Hong. If it didn’t do well enough in the marketplace for Universal to commit to a franchise, it might be because it bore too much comparison to “Dick Tracy” and the likelihood of ever-increasing expenses. “The Shadow” holds up pretty well today, if only because of the palpable chemistry between Baldwin and Miller and flexibility of the character. If someone ever decides to create a cable channel dedicated to comic-book superheroes, a “Shadow” series would be most welcome. The upgraded Blu-ray adds new interviews with Mulcahy, Baldwin, Miller, production designer Joseph Nemec III., director of photography Stephen H. Burum and writer David Koepp. – Gary Dretzka

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness: Blu-ray
Based on a true story, Fox’s sweeping historical epic from 1958, “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” reflects a period in Hollywood when taking liberties with the truth, including those found in biographies, not only was standard operating procedure but also extremely lucrative with audiences. In the 1950s, few women would have been upset by having Ingrid Bergman play them in a movie, even after the scandal caused by her extramarital affair with Robert Rossellini. Two years after Hollywood decided to test her appeal in “Indiscreet” and “Anastasia” – shot on location in Europe — she was cast as Gladys Aylward, whose heroic work with children in China during the Sino-Japanese War was chronicled in Alan Burgess’ “The Small Woman.” If there’s one thing the Swedish actress could never be accused of being, it was “short.” Aylward was a British evangelical missionary of modest means , who paid her own way to China from earnings derived from being a domestic worker. The least expensive route to her as-yet-undetermined destination was the trans-Siberian railroad, which, at the time, provided Spartan accommodations and the prospect of being caught between troops from three angry countries. Aylward felt that her courage on that journey was shortchanged in the movie, at the expense of a romantic subplot she felt was vastly overemphasized. Apparently, someone also decided to change the name of the mission from “8th Happiness” to “6th Happiness.” Aylward also would have preferred that Bergman speak with a Cockney accent and the key Chinese characters be played by Chinese actors. Picky, picky.

Fifty-five years later, almost none of this matters. If “Inn” isn’t historically accurate, it does reflect Aylward’s acts of selflessness and courage.  Warned by local officials that a westerner could never warm the hearts of Chinese people, Aylward refused to leave after the nun who ran the place died. Instead, in 1940, she had won the confidence of local official – Robert Donat plays the grumpy Mandarin, while Curt Jurgens is the Dutch/Chinese soldier who becomes her love interest – to sufficient degree that she was asked to travel the province to enunciate new laws banning foot binding. With the Japanese nearly on the doorstep of the inn, Aylward volunteered to gather 50 children from the village, with another 50 tagging along, and shepherd them over the mountains to safety. It’s one of several such heroic stories, the others being from Nanking, turned into films in the last few years. Mark Robson shot “6th Happiness” in extremely scenic parts of northern Wales, so that part rang true, anyway. After the revolution, Aylward founded a children’s home in Taiwan, where she was accorded the name, “Ai-weh-deh,”or “Virtuous One.” The Blu-ray edition does a nice job with the CinemaScope presentation, adding vintage marketing material and commentary with historians Nick Redman, Aubrey Solomon and Donald Spoto. – Gary Dretzka

419
Given the remarkable success of the documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man,” and fact-based “Mandela: Long March to Freedom,” I’m willing to believe almost any reasonably credible movie set in South Africa. Even though I knew going into “419” that it was a work of fiction, it didn’t require any great suspension of disbelief to buy into the possibility that it could be true. That’s because everyone with an e-mail address has received a notice from someone in Africa, asking to be sent money in return for an even greater fortune. A woman went on “Dr. Phil” last week, admitting to falling for a scheme in which she sent hundreds of thousands of dollars off to Nigeria, in the mistaken belief that an imaginary Brit she met on a dating site needed that kind of bread to join her in America. Even after Dr. Phil, the woman’s daughter and son-in-law, as well as the show’s private investigators, offered proof that the guy didn’t exist, the poor sap still was not convinced. That’s why I so easily surrendered 84 minutes of my time to Ned Thorne’s first theatrical feature. In it, a struggling New York actor loses everything in a South Africa-based scam, based solely on the endorsement of an acquaintance there. At the insistence of his two best friends in New York, the victim travels with them to Cape Town to locate the scammer and recover the money. As if such a thing were possible. Enlisted into the venture is a Cape Town local, who claims to know the perpetrator and can serve as his ticket into the all-black townships, from whence the e-mail emanated. Like so many other such thrillers, these days, “419” supposedly is based on video footage found after, well, the shit happened. We’ll leave it at that, except to mention that Cape Town is one of most interesting places to shoot a movie in the world. – Gary Dretzka

Devo: The Complete Truth About De-evolution
The Discovery of Eileen Twain
It always seemed to me that the alternative rock ensemble, Devo, was a one-trick pony and its fan base was comprised of geeks who worshiped their computers, affected the same eyeglasses and secretly wished they could wear flower-pot hats and yellow jumpsuits to work. Devo’s geometrically designed songs possessed a quirky charm, if only in the group’s willingness to tweak prevailing rock conventions and bite the hands of the same musical establishment that fed them. Indeed, it was a proponent of principles advanced the Church of the SubGenius – a religion that might have arrived on the same spaceship as Scientology — which was founded on a belief that everything corporate America holds true and holy is B.S., but not from an especially Marxian point of view. If any group could have been the house band of a talk show hosted by Pee-wee Herman, it was Devo. Their emergence from the wastelands of Ohio seemed perfectly timed to coincide with the launch of MTV and attention being paid not only to the Talking Heads and Cars, but also such quirky one-hit wonders as the Divinyls (“I Touch Myself”) and Vapors (“Turning Japanese”). Devo was so different from other groups of the period, it naturally drew the attention of more established musicians, who kept them busy after the gag wore thin. Group members would do well producing music videos, soundtracks, albums and occasionally working the reunion circuit. Made in 1993, “Devo: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution” includes 19 music videos, rare performance footage and other musical treats that can still hold their own artistically. I hadn’t seen most of the music videos included on the DVD, but found them to still be entertaining. Most of them were made before MTV became a force within the music industry and could refuse to add anything looking cheap or suspect to its playlists. If these look dated in 2014, it’s because the music-video game became a province of labels willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on established acts. Many less-endowed groups would form alliances with up-and-coming video artists, who weren’t reluctant to exercise their imagination on this emerging creative platform. With the sad news of the passing of Bob Casale, an original member of Devo with his brother, Gerald, and the Mothersbaugh brothers. He died on Monday, at 61.

At first, second and third glance, “The Discovery of Eileen Twain” resembles the CDs and DVDs sold in casino gift shops and tables set up outside the doors of concert venues. Buy one, the artist will allow you to stand in line for an autograph or photo grab. Here, it’s almost as if someone at the Deerhurst Resort, two hours north of Toronto in Ontario’s Muskoka region, put 2 and 2 together and came up with a with a way to exploit an obscure moment in its history. Some 25 years ago, a young but seasoned trouper named Eileen Twain joined the resort’s “Las Vegas” stage show. Blessed with an extraordinary voice, she quickly was pulled from the shadows and given some featured numbers. That was before Eilleen Twain changed her name to Shania Twain and began her collaboration with Jeff “Mutt” Lange, making both of them rich and famous. When she showed up at Deerhurst, Twain had already stamped a couple of demo discs for the perusal of Nashville executives. She needed the gig to support her younger siblings after her mother and stepfather were killed in a car accident. A quarter-century after being made part of the Las Vegas revue, in the woods of Ontario, the former Eileen Twain is in the midst of a two-year residency at Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the same big  room as Celine Dion, Elton John, Jerry Seinfeld and Rod Stewart. Alas, the DVD half of the package is little more than a rehash of homemade videos, shot from a distance in the Deerhurst showroom. She solos on the same medley — “Somewhere Out There”/ “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – three times and we’re given interviews with a bunch of promoters who inconveniently missed the boat on her later career. The better part of the package is an 18-song compilation – “The Limelight Sessions” – she sent out as a demo tape. Collectors and completests should find useful on both discs. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: American Experience: 1964
Honk, if you can remember the ’60s. Honk twice, if you’re sick of hearing about it. We’re not even half-way through that turbulent decade’s 50th anniversary commemoration and the children and grandchildren of Boomer parents must be wondering when it’s going to end. The joke’s on them, however, because the media has yet to exploit the golden anniversaries of the assassinations of Malcom X, Che Guevara, MLK and RFK; Woodstock and Altamont; the Tet offensive; Tate-LaBianca murders; and Bob Dylan’s motorcycle accident. Oy, vey. “American Experience: 1964” is largely based on the reporting of veteran reporter Jon Margolis for his book, “The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964.” If there was a toss-up for the title of the last innocent year in America, I’d say it was between 1964 and 1968. It can be argued that everything that happened in 1968 was set in motion in 1964, but who’s counting? Among the several epochal events that occurred that year were the arrival of the Beatles on these shores; the enactment of the Civil Rights Act and Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; Barry Goldwater’s campaign and emergence of the activist right; Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali; race riots; and aftershocks from the 1963 release of “The Feminine Mystique.” It was in 1964, Margolis argues, that ordinary Americans turned their frustrations, ambitions and anxieties into the first seismic waves of dissent. Or, as Ali responded when accused of being un-American for changing his name, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” The PBS show includes much archival material, as well as the observations of reporters, historians and other folks who are paid to have opinions on such things. Personally, I was struck by how little has fundamentally changed over the last 50 years. In some ways, the 1960s might as well not have happened. – Gary Dretzka

Nickelodeon: Essentially Spring Collection!
Guess How Much I Love You: Friendship Adventures
Chuggington: Brewster Leads the Way
I couldn’t tell you when Easter is scheduled to arrive this year, according to the Gregorian, Julian or lunar calendars. Who needs a calendar, though, when you have the media there to make consumers aware of the next big holiday? Easter-themed DVDs have begun rolling out like eggs from a water-soaked carton at the supermarket. The vast majority don’t even mention Jesus in passing, so as not to offend non-Christians and discourage them from buying candy. If children in 2050 have even a vague notion of what Jesus Christ has to do with Christmas and Easter, it won’t be because we’ll all be speaking Chinese or Arabic by then. In defense of the Easter-industrial complex, though, explaining Christmas to a child is a walk in the park compared with Easter and the Holy Week. What better than an egg-laying bunny rabbit to comfort kids traumatized by descriptions of the crucifixion and resurrection?

Still, why spoil the fun of pre-schoolers who might be left even more confused if they were the only kids on their block not to be invited to the Easter-egg hunt. If it’s good enough for the kids of White House employees and invited guests, the occasional foam-candy rabbit shouldn’t be discouraged. Nickelodeon/Paramount is a dependable source for DVDs that don’t dumb-down seasonal fare. This year’s spring-ahead showcase includes “Peter Rabbit: Spring Into Adventure!,” “Peter Rabbit,” “Max & Ruby: Every Bunny Loves Spring,” “Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Easter Adventure,” “Dora the Explorer: Egg Hunt” and “Max & Ruby: Easter with Max & Ruby.” The holiday-themed covers are awash in pastel colors and targeted at pre-schoolers. The gift sets cost about $14.99 each and run from 66 to 110 minutes.

Rabbits converse with each other and other denizens of the forest in the “Guess How Much I Love You: Friendship Adventures,” featuring the Little Nutbrown Hare and his dad, Big Nutbrown Hare. There are plenty of entertaining games for kids to play here, as well as lessons about playing and getting along with others. In another nice touch, Big and Little Nutbrown Hare discuss problems inherent in growing up in the woods. “Friendship Adventures” is inspired by the best-selling books of British origin. In these seven fun-filled episodes, Little Nutbrown Hare goes about exploring the meadow and playing with his friends, all the while learning valuable lessons of friendship such as the importance of being a good friend, sharing, embracing differences, keeping promises, taking responsibility and learning to forgive. Imagine that.

One of the great things about visiting Europe is the easy accessibility of train travel. Before the railroads here began to put freight ahead of passengers, the U.S. also had a pretty good rail system. The success of the Chuggington series of children’s cartoons is predicated on kids having a working appreciation of trains, even of the anthropomorphic variety. The CGI coaches and engines are inspired by actual trains in use in England. The Brewster in “Chuggington: Brewster Leads the Way” is a diesel-electric locomotive built for heavy loads. He is British Rail blue with a yellow face, and is well-known for being dependable, respectful and reliable under fire. The DVD contains six episodes from the television series; “Chugger Spotlights”; a bonus “Badge Quest” episode; and a new music video. The package also includes an actual miniature toy engine. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

The Returned: Season One: Blu-ray
The Americans: Season One: Blu-ray
You may already have read about the super-spooky 2012 French mini-series, “The Returned,” which will be adapted by ABC-TV in March as “The Resurrected.” The buzz surrounding the show has bordered on the ecstatic, with non-hyperbolic comparisons to “Twin Peaks,” any number of Stephen King mini-series, “The Walking Dead,” “American Horror Story,” “The 4400” and “The Sweet Hereafter.” It’s that good and that worthy of binging in its DVD/Blu-ray form … subtitles and all. Set in an idyllic French Alpine village, it opens with a bus careening for no obvious over a road barrier into a reservoir. A flash-forward to a support-group meeting tells us everything we need to know about the fate of the passengers and the impact of the tragedy on the community. Everyone appears to be living in a state of suspended animation. The goosebumps begin when a girl we recognize from the bus appears on the road leading into town, heading for her family’s home. Upon her return, she’s greeted with the wide-eyed disbelief and modulated horror that one would expect from such an unexpected event. The red-headed girl, probably in her early teens, looks exactly the same as when she died in the crash – no evidence of zombiefication – but she has no recollection of what occurred to her, let alone how the other passengers fared. At first, her divorced parents agree not to reveal the re-appearance. Soon enough, though, other long-dead youths begin to appear in various places around town, not always as benevolent spirits. The creepiest is a little boy, who’s in no hurry to talk about anything, but draws pictures that resonate with the horror he witnessed years earlier, when he was killed. An older teen returns to the home of his father, who killed and buried him years earlier; a bridegroom visits the woman he left standing at the altar, after committing suicide; and a serial killer re-haunts the pedestrian tunnels in which he attacked several women. You get the picture. Before long, the presence of such returnees can’t be hidden and they blend, more or less, into the scenery. At the same time, the town’s huge man-made lake has begun to leak, slowly revealing the ruins of a town destroyed by a flood. It’s at this point that story begins to stray into “Twin Peaks” territory and there are several more episodes yet to come. The feeling of imminent dread is maintained throughout, thanks to an eerie musical soundtrack, understated color palette and portentous flashbacks. As the lake continues to drain, with no apparent outlet, power blackouts put everyone in the dark, literally and figuratively. “The Returned” is based on the 2004 movie, “They Came Back” (“Les Revenants”). The forthcoming ABC series, which stars Omar Epps, Frances Fisher, Samaire Armstrong and Matt Craven, follows a similar pattern. The only bonus feature is a booklet with essays on the show.

I missed the entire first season of “The Americans” when it aired on the FX Network last year. After sampling two episodes from the Blu-ray package, however, I was hooked. I binged through the entire series and, now, can’t wait for the second-season debut at the end of February. As I recall, I previously had a difficult time getting past the premise of a matched pair of undercover Soviet spies living together, with their children, during the Reagan years in Washington. Although they were born, trained and paired in the U.S.S.R., Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) are by all appearances typical American suburbanites and small-business owners. Complicating their lives is the arrival, across the street, of a high-ranking FBI counterintelligence agent (Noah Emmerich) and his family. Is this coincidental or planned? In either case, the men soon will become friends and confidantes. The spy-vs.-spy setup would suspenseful enough to propel most mini-series, but “The Americans” adds overlapping relationship and workplace storylines. Actual news events from the period, including the assassination attempt on President Reagan and announcement of his “Star Wars” missile-defense strategy, also inform the drama. Unlike too many other Cold War-based movies and series, this one sustains the suspense throughout with cliffhangers, elaborate fake-outs and strategically deployed sexuality. Much of the verisimilitude can be traced to the arrests, a few years ago, of an actual cell of Russian “sleeper agents,” who had been “hiding in plain sight” in the U.S. for decades. Then, too, show creator Joseph Weisberg worked in the CIA’s directorate of operations from 1990 to 1994. As such, anything involving the agency had to have been cleared by the CIA Publications Review Board. The Blu-ray extras only add some deleted scenes of no real consequence. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

 
Ender’s Game: Blu-ray
Through no fault of his own, the resemblance of the protagonist to Frankie Muniz (“Malcolm in the Middle”) and the animated hero of Steven Spielberg’s “Tintin” frequently distracted me from a complete appreciation of “Ender’s Game.” Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) looks a couple of years short of his actual age of 16 and nothing like any notion I’ve ever had of an intergalactic war hero. Not being familiar with the mythology in Orson Scott Card’s series of “Ender” stories and novels, I found myself focusing on Butterfield, instead of Ender Wiggin. His youth being one of primary conceits of the story, however, I suspended my curiosity and accepted the character on its own terms. Born into a military family in the 2120s and desperate to follow in his dad’s footsteps, Ender already is familiar with the threat posed to Earth by hostile aliens, known as the Formics or Buggers. Once in advanced flight school, technical knowledge and shooting skills put him at the top of the class. When attacked by bullies, however, his ferocious response demonstrates a distinct lack of self-control. Nonetheless, it impresses his tough-as-nails superior, Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), who decides to test his leadership credentials in a series of “games.” It comes as no surprise that Ender masters those skills, while also organizing the younger students in a competition with upperclassmen. As the games get more sophisticated and closer to reality, something resembling a conscience begins to emerge from deep inside Ender’s psyche. At one time during his training, he even returns home to weigh his options in a war-torn universe. After Ender returns to the base, he is assigned to a remote outpost to train for an attack by the Formics. In what appears to be a simulation of the battles to come, Ender is required to make life or death decisions no 16-year-old should have to ponder, let alone execute.

Many recent sci-fi adventures have been compared to first-person-shooter video games, in which players are rewarded for their speed, accuracy and anticipatory skills in simulated attacks. Writer/director Gavin Hood probably could have saved tens of millions of dollars by sticking with proven technology, instead of blowing up the screen with newly invented software. Co-producer Digital Doman probably stood to benefit from sales of related video-game products. Considering the markup on software, it’s possible the strategy worked. Or, not. With a production budget estimated to be $110 million, Lionsgate/Summit anticipated total revenues of substantially more than $112 million. Lately, overseas box-office has served to make up for disappointing revenues in the U.S. Not this time, however. After opening in the No. 1 spot last November 3, on more than 3,400 screens, with a $27-million haul, box-office tallies plummeted to $10.3 million in Week 2. That must hurt and confused its backers. It should be noted, however, that the distributor was blindsided by calls for a boycott, based on homophobic remarks Card has made several times in the past 20 years. They were judged to be so off-putting as to eliminate Card from the movie’s marketing campaign and a gig as guest author for DC Comics’ new “Adventures of Superman” series. Although there’s no anti-gay subtext to the movie, the timing was miserable. The Supreme Court was about to act on the legality of gay marriages and the entertainment press held the author’s toes to the fire. The super Blu-ray visual presentation is complemented by commentary with Hood, in which he discusses changing the protagonist’s character; commentary with producers Gigi Pritzker and Roberto Orci; the eight-part featurette, “The Making of ‘Ender’s Game’”; deleted/extended scenes, with optional commentary by Hood; and “Inside the Mind Games,” which examines some of the motion-capture techniques utilizes to forge the games that Ender plays on his tablet. – Gary Dretzka

The Jungle Book: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray
Free Birds: Blu-ray
Best known for being the last movie personally supervised by Walt Disney, “The Jungle Book” can hold its own as a crowd-pleaser, even now, almost 50 years later. After perusing the interviews in the bonus package, it’s impossible to ignore Uncle Walt’s fingerprints on the studio’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “Mowgli” stories. All of the Disney magic is readily discernable and none of Kipling’s darker elements. That’s because Disney instructed his creative team to ignore the book’ moralistic tone and “lighten up” material already created by the musicians, writers and illustrators. Whatever hurt feelings this decision might have endangered were compensated for by the movie’s popularity, which effectively saved the animation department from possible extinction in the wake of Disney’s imminent death. The film follows a young boy, Mowgli, around the Indian jungle after he was rescued as a baby from a boat by the panther Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot). Until he turned 10, he was protected by a family of wolves that lived deep in the jungle. When Bagheera learns that the greatly feared tiger, Shere Khan (George Sanders), has been lurking nearby, he decides to get Mowgli to the “man village.”

Instead, he turns to a big bear, Baloo (Phil Harris), for security. Bagheera will join them on their adventure, which also includes confrontations with a hypnotic python, Kaa (Sterling Holloway); the king-of-the-apes orangutan, Louie (Louis Prima); a herd of elephants; and “rock-n-roll” Vultures. Mowgli also becomes enchanted with the native jungle girl he spies on while she performs her chores at the river. Everything holds up pretty well after 50 years, especially the great Sherman Brothers’ songs, “The Bare Necessities,” “I Wanna Be Like You” and Holloway’s “Trust in Me.” One interesting piece of trivia, of which I wasn’t aware, involves an unsuccessful overture to the Beatles to voice the Vultures. Fans of Ron Howard’s brother, Clint, might recognize his 7-year-old voice as belonging to one of the elephants. The “Diamond Edition” Blu-ray package adds introductions by Diane Disney Miller and Richard M. Sherman; an alternate ending, “Mowgli and the Hunter,”; “DisneyAnimation: Sparking Creativity”; “Music, Memories & Mowgli,” a conversation with Sherman, Miller and artist Floyd Norman; “Disney Intermission, Bear-E-Oke” sing-along, hosted by Baloo; “I Wanna Be Like You: Hangin’ Out at Disney’s Animal Kingdom”; and featurettes included in the original DVD release.

Watching the animated feature, “Free Birds,” I couldn’t help but wonder what the creators of such holiday perennials as “It’s a Charlie Brown Christmas,” “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” might have done with the same $55 million invested in the Thanksgiving-themed comedy. Considering the amount of money Bill Melendez and Charles Schultz actually did realize from the many “specials” they created, probably nothing noticeable. I doubt they would have considered investing it in a large-format 3D re-creation of those hits, either. That’s how much was spent on “Free Birds,” not counting P&A, which brought in slightly more than $55 million at the domestic box office, with another $38 million deriving from overseas revenue. Such numbers would suggest that Jimmy Hayward’s movie about time-traveling birds is a different breed of turkey … the kind that find their way into the headlines of Variety. It’s not, really, just a movie whose appeal should be limited to the kids who sit down in front of the TV on Thanksgiving morning to watch the Macy’s Parade. When more consumers own HD3D televisions, it might still enjoy an afterlife. I can’t imagine it ever becoming a perennial on the order of the Charlie Brown presentations, but a product that can be pushed on VOD and other streaming outlets near the holidays. In “Free Birds,” Owen Wilson is the voice of Reggie, a blue-faced bird who’s figured out the true meaning of Thanksgiving for critters like him.

When he attempts to warn the flock what’s awaiting them in the days before the holiday, he’s considered to be an alarmist. Reggie avoids the ax after being pardoned by the president, who also makes him the pet of his ADD daughter. His peace is disturbed by a rebel turkey (Woody Harrelson), who wants to go back in time with Reggie to the first Thanksgiving, in order to change the traditional menu. Once back in the 1600s, they meet an Indian princess voiced by Amy Poehler, who’s become the go-to voice for these sorts of things.  In short, “Free Birds” is clever without being terribly original and as good a holiday babysitter as anything else. In Blu-ray, it looks and sounds terrific. It adds several short featurettes, as well as a mouth-watering trailer for “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.” – Gary Dretzka

Diana: Blu-ray
Austenland: Blu-ray
Romeo & Juliet: Blu-ray
It seems incredible that a movie about a woman whose face has graced the cover of People magazine 54 times couldn’t produce more than a ripple of excitement at the box office, at least in the United States. Despite the formidable presence of two-time Oscar finalist, Naomi Watts, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Diana” failed to scare up more than $194,000 in business in its aborted run in a small number of U.S. theaters. It did significantly better overseas, but not nearly enough to pull “Diana” into the black. So, what went so wrong so fast? If early reviews were far from welcoming, most critics found one or two nice things to say about “Diana,” anyway. Certainly, no expense was spared on locations – London, Italy, India (for Pakistan), Mozambique, Croatia – all of which were nicely captured by cinematographer Rainer Klausmann. If you didn’t already know that Watts is several years older than Diana when she died, you might guess that she’s the same age or younger. Her interpretation of Diana makes the princess funny, flirty, generous, brave and likeable, even when she’s desperately lonely, needy, spoiled and duplicitous. If their roles were reversed and Charles had cheated on Camilla with Diana, there wouldn’t have been more than one or two magazine covers and she’d be labelled a gold-digger. “Diana” is not that movie, however. My guess is, potential viewers were turned off by what they considered to be a bait-and-switch marketing campaign. Instead of being a gossipy, glittery free-for-all, this “Diana” focuses on a two-year period in her life when she was exiled to Limbo, apart from her children and still guided by the dictates of Her Royal Majesty the Queen. Instead, Stephen Jeffrey’s screenplay focuses on an affair that, today, is little more than a short chapter in her life story.

After the royal couple split up, Diana effectively was turned into a bird in a gilded cage. She resided alone in their former apartment at Kensington Palace, left to communicate with her children by telephone. Diana was given a modicum of freedom, but not enough to enjoy it. Moreover, Diana’s version of Prince Charming II didn’t resemble the one conjured up by the readers of People and the British tabloid press. That one more closely resembled the subject of her first affair, Major James Hewitt. While on a visit to a nearby hospital, she was transfixed by the prominent, if resolutely private British Pakistani surgeon, Dr. Hasnat Khan (Naveen Khan). As drawn here, Khan was smart, funny, reasonably handsome, a jazz lover and, like Diana, a humanitarian. Their relationship resembles one of those forbidden romances between a poor boy and rich girl in high school. Guarded around the clock, the Princess of Wales is forced to tell fibs and wear wigs, so as not to attract the attention of the paparazzi and Queen’s inquisition. Her love for him is demonstrated when, after Khan cautions her about how his Muslim family might react to their relationship, she secretly travels to Lahore to win them over. Sadly, when the paparazzi discovers it and begins to swarm his every move, Khan breaks Diana’s heart by reluctantly calling it quits. (The official story alleges the opposite.) According to the movie, the reason she allowed herself to become so publically involved with Dodi Fayed was to make Khan jealous enough to return to her. (Dodi, of course, was fabulously wealthy, as well.) Diana used the paparazzi as much as they used her, by alerting one editor, at least, of her whereabouts with Fayed, including on the deck of his yacht. Unfortunately, “Diana” is only slightly less leisurely paced than the average Lifetime movie and Khan, while clearly a remarkable chap, lacks even the charisma of Prince Charles. The Blu-ray adds interviews with cast and crew, as well as a “Diana Fashion Photo Booklet.”

I have to believe that, before she became Princess Diana, the Honorable Diana Frances Spencer was as addicted to the romantic novels of Jane Austen as a million other girls her age. In her case, however, the line dividing fact and fiction was very thin, indeed. The future Princess of Wales may well have been distantly related to some of the young women who dreamed of being swept away by Mr. Darcy. “Austenland” describes a theme park of the same name where female obsessives can live out their fantasies at a period-perfect estate in Buckinghamshire. Once the carriages carrying the guests pass through the gates of Austenland, they’re immersed in all-things Austen. There are balls, teas, outdoors activities and dinners in which to participate – in costume – and, for those so inclined, period-perfect escorts for the ladies. It sounds like a blast. (It makes you wonder how a Downton Abbey Fantasy Camp might fare.) Anyway, the perpetually youthful Keri Russell plays Jane Hayes, the most level-headed of the week’s group, which also includes the perpetually ditzy Jennifer Coolidge. The perpetually regal Jane Seymour plays the organizer of this elaborate charade and personally writes the individual storylines for the guests. Naturally, things don’t happen as scripted, especially in the romance department, and co-writer/director Jerusha Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite”) has to scramble towards the end of “Austenland” to come up with a satisfying ending. As light entertainments go, the movie is reliably funny and not at all condescending to Austen fans. (Any guy who lasts more than a half-hour without falling asleep or running out of your house is a keeper, ladies.) The Blu-ray includes commentary with Hess and producer Stephenie Meyer (“Twilight”) and a Q&A with cast members Russell, Coolidge, Seymour, McKenzie, King, J.J. Feild, Ricky Whittle and James Callis.

The producers of Carlo Carlei and Julian Fellowes’ “Romeo and Juliet” want us to believe – and, why not – that every new generation of viewers is entitled to its own tragic love story. William Shakespeare’s immortal “R&J” has been bent, folded, mutilated, Tromatized and J-tooned in so many different ways – from Hollywood to Bollywood, Tromatized and animed — over the course of the last 400-plus years that it’s difficult to imagine a truly innovative adaptation. The latest edition won’t surprise anyone, either, except those who’ve read, studied and love the text as written. As great as the settings and costumes may be in the 2013 edition of “R&J,” Fellowes’ decision to rewrite and re-imagine as much of the play as he has here speaks to the same hubris that drives the characters in all of the Bard’s tragedies. Or, maybe the success of “Downton Abbey” — which he created — has gone to his head. Like I said, though, newcomers probably won’t notice anything has been altered. What’s truly enjoyable in “R&J” are the locations, which include some of the finest palazzos in Italy, as well as the streets of Verona. Our star-crossed lovers are played by Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld, who, while they look young enough for the role, aren’t likely to elicit many tears at the strategic moment. There’s a lot to like in the new adaptation, even if it is targeted at a more television-oriented audience. Among them are scene-stealer Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Stellan Skarsgard, Natascha McElhone, Laura Morante and Tomas Arana. The Blu-ray presentation looks and sounds excellent. The extras include four short making-of pieces. — Gary Dretzka

The Counselor: Blu-ray
There were times while watching director Ridley Scott and first-time screenwriter Cormac McCarthy’s “The Counselor” that I felt as if I had picked up a novel at the library and read it all the way through without noticing that every third or fourth chapter was missing. The words and language gave me sufficient reason to keep reading, even though I wondered how some the characters had gotten from Point A to Point B without me noticing it. The choppy narrative also made me to wonder if some unhappy studio executive had decided to re-edit the movie with a machete. Like “No Country for Old Men,” which was based on a McCarthy novel, “The Counselor” surveys the criminal landscape of the borderland that separates the drug cartels and illegal immigrants from the big piggy bank el norte. Michael Fassbender is a slick El Paso attorney, known to all as Counselor, who, for some unknown reason, decides that it might be amusing to dabble in drug trafficking along the border. He’s just paid a fortune for a diamond ring he’ll give to his world-class girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), and it’s possible he’s developed a serious case of the shorts. His conduit to the cartels is a bona-fide lunatic – he has the haircut to prove it – played with gusto by Javier Bardem. Reiner’s girlfriend is the female scorpion, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who gets her kicks watching their pet cheetahs run down rabbits in the desert. Brad Pitt also portrays another species of criminal, who flies around the world, doing something or other involving cocaine or money-laundering. No sooner is the million-dollar deal between Counselor and the cartel put into gear than it implodes, and subsequent loss of a septic truck carrying enough cocaine to freeze the gums of everyone in Chicago. He’s blamed for the death of a motorcyclist, whose function only is revealed after he’s decapitated. Because Counselor had unsuccessfully defended his mother in court and got her son off a speeding beef, she blames him for the boy’s death. Somehow, this makes him a target for every armed vaquero between Nuevo Laredo and Yuma. Even after repeated viewing of the extended version, these sequences don’t make much sense. They do, however, provide McCarthy with a stage for his muscular dialogue. Also worth the price of admission is a scene in which Malkina and Laura are lounging around the pool, naked except for towels, discussing the value of the ring she’s just accepted from Counselor. It’s as good a performance by Diaz as those in “Bad Teacher” and “Being John Malkovich,” maybe better. “The Counselor” may overflow with violence, but it’s of the graphic–comics variety. The Blu-ray visual presentation shimmers like a mirage in the Sonoran Desert. It contains an unrated extended cut at 138 minutes and the theatrical release at 117 minutes; virals; and a featurette, “Truth of the Situation.” – Gary Dretzka

Wadjda: Blu-ray
I have absolutely no idea what an Islamic cleric might have against a woman riding a bicycle, or the passage in the Koran that forbids such a thing, but anyone who can navigate a bike in an abaya deserves far more acclaim than condemnation. I suspect the prohibition has less to do with the possible glimpse of stocking than a belief that riding a bicycle could take her maidenhead. (This still wouldn’t explain the ban on driving, though.) “Wadjda” is far more that an indictment of a system that would forbid a little girl from enjoying herself on a day off from school. Not only is it Saudi Arabia’s first feature film, but it also was made by the kingdom’s first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour. If the movie exposes to the public what many viewers would consider to be unfair treatment of girls and women, it also demonstrates that someone in the Saudi bureaucracy was finally willing to take the risk of allowing Al Mansour to create a story that begs those questions. Wadjda is a free-spirited child whose mostly absentee father is being pushed by his mother to take a second wife. Her mom is a lovely woman, whose only crime is an inability to bear any more children, let alone a male heir. Wadjda drives her mother nuts with her desire for a brand-new bicycle, with which she can race a neighbor boy (also forbidden).

Her only hope, as unlikely as it might seem, is to win a Koran-memorization contest at her school. It’s not something for which the girl has previously demonstrated any proficiency, but it shows how badly she wants the bike. In effect, she’s using the Koran to acquire an object the mullahs insist is banned by the Koran. While Wadjda appears to be turning over a new leaf in pursuit of her goal, other girls her age are being claimed as second or third wives to geezers who can provide for them. Others are succumbing to western notions of womanhood. Certainly, too, not all of the women and girls we meet feel as if they’re imprisoned by the abaya and other restrictions. If they go along to get along, so be it. There’s no reason to spoil any more of the movie’s surprises, of which there are several. “Wadjda” reminded me of a segment in the Iranian movie, “The Day I Became a Woman.” In it, a group of women are shown racing their bicycles, in robes, on a road alongside the sea. Out of nowhere comes the lead cyclist’s husband, followed by other men on horses, all intent on preventing her from riding “the devil’s throne.” Another segment in the film takes place on the day a female character, 9, officially is considered to be a woman and is required not only to wear a chador, but also discontinue her friendship a male playmate. The Blu-ray package adds an interesting making-of featurette, which describes the difficulties of making a film in Saudi Arabia and the unique access she had to her subjects because men wouldn’t have been allowed to make the same connections. – Gary Dretzka

The Artist and the Model: Blu-ray
One of the excellent fringe benefits of being an artist or sculptor is being able to legitimately call on the services of models — female or male, professionals and amateurs – to provide inspiration or simply to brighten up their lives. Or, at least, so it seems in such movies as “La belle noiseuse,” “Van Gogh,” “Vincent & Theo,” “Goya’s Ghosts,” “Renoir,” “Pretty Baby,” “Artemisia,” “Surviving Picasso,” “Sirens,” “Caravaggio,” “Klimt,” “Art School Confidential” and, now, “The Artist and the Model.” All are highly erotic, yet non-exploitative, and created for arthouse audiences by serious directors and actors. Nudity goes with the territory. The locations in which such movies are shot frequently are as visually appealing as the work, itself. Sadly (and stupidly), the MPAA ratings board has continued to treat nudity, no matter how artistic, as being more dangerous than serial killers and more insidious than the zombie apocalypse. “The Artist and the Model” is a beautiful movie, with a heart-warming message that could hardly be more universal. The model’s nudity is handled with great sensitivity and all of it is relevant to the story. I don’t know if its “R” rating limited the film’s exposure to a mere nine screens, but, if it did, somebody should have been thrown in jail. “TA&TM” bears a striking resemblance to Gilles Bourdos’ “Renoir,” released last spring, in that they chronicle the final years of two great artists and the impact of much younger models/muses on them. “Renoir” made $2.3 million at the U.S. box office in limited release, so, clearly, someone wants to see movies like this.

Set in occupied France, circa 1943, sculptor Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort) is looking ahead to his imminent death with no small degree of relief. He splits his time between his studio in the Pyrenees and the nearby town, where his wife, Lea (Claudia Cardinale), lives with their elderly housekeeper. One day, Lea notices a teenage girl washing her feet in the fountain of the village. Something about her posture leads Lea to believe that the undernourished girl would make a perfect model for her husband. Turns out, Merce (Aida Folch) has recently escaped from a refugee camp on the Spanish border and is in desperate need of food, money and a place to hide. In another movie, such a scenario might lead viewers to think Lea is offering Merce up to her husband as a sexual favor for treating her so well for so long a time. Instead, being Marc’s former muse, she not only recognizes how Merce might reinvigorate his creativity, but also that she’s safe in his hands from lecherous neighbors and Nazis, not all of whom are philistines when it comes to art. As a portrait of an elderly artist, Fernando Trueba’s film borders on the exquisite. It takes its time getting to where Trueba wants it to go and doesn’t waste any adding extraneous drama or gratuitous sex. And, yes, it looks terrific in Blu-ray. The Cohen Media package adds an interview with Trueba (“Belle Epoque”) and a photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon: Blu-ray
BBC: Sherlock: Season Three
Apart from Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto, both of whom were played by western actors, and James Hong in “Black Widow,” American audiences have rarely been exposed to Asian private detectives. As the Chinese film industry continues to expand beyond Hong Kong, the drought of contemporary crime thrillers from the mainland already appears to be easing. Even so, most of the cops-and-robbers stuff continues to derive from HK. “Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame” and its “prequel,” “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon,” may take place in the early years of the Tang Dynasty, but they’re good enough to almost make us forget the racial stereotyping of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto. (To be fair, those series retain their storytelling spark in DVD, but only in the same way that “Amos & Andy” can still induce belly laughs.) Detective Dee employs many of the same abductive and deductive reasoning skills as Sherlock Holmes would, centuries later in London. Tsui Hark’s pictures merge Basil Rathbone’s take on Sherlock Holmes with the fair more action-oriented iteration popularized recently by Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. “Rise of the Sea Dragon” takes place some 20 years before the events recorded in “Mystery of the Phantom Flame.” Detective Dee’s methodology goes against the dictates of the empress’ Justice Department, which prefers the reading of tea leaves to logic and beating confessions out of suspects. The prequel opens with a wonderfully staged sea battle between the warships of the Imperial Navy and vessels from a nearby island. No sooner do the opposing forces begin to confront each other, than a giant sea monster overwhelms both fleets with body slams and tsunami-like waves. As a young cop assigned to the investigation, Dee almost immediately begins to ruffle feathers with his theories and predictions, which extend to a royal consort and conjurers, as well as a tea grown exclusively for pleasure of the Empress. There’s a lot going on in “Young Detective Dee” and it takes a while to fill in the blanks left in the story’s subtitles. Hark’s mastery of action sequences is on full display, along with the talents of fashion, production and set designers, whose work always sparkles brightest in Blu-ray. (The 3D version isn’t available yet.)

And, speaking of Holmes, is it possible that Moriarty didn’t die in the Season Two finale of “Sherlock”? What a waste that would be. As the three episodes in the BBC’s Season Three progressed, it became clear that one of the greatest villains in literary history either survived “The Reichenbach Fall” or a like-minded fiend is doing an excellent job impersonating him. What we do know is that Holmes is back in London after a two-year trip absence, and, in the meantime, Dr. John Watson has gotten engaged to the duplicitous Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington). The stories in Season Three were inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Empty House,” “The Sign of the Four” and “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” Naturally, the series’ writers take certain liberties with the texts, largely to enhance the visual presentation, which gets pretty freaky at times. To no one’s surprise, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are, once again, in fine form. Typically, the BBC/Warners’ releases are favored over PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery” airings, which tend to be edited for American consumption. Special features include the behind-the-scenes, “The Fall”; making-of “Shooting Sherlock”; and “Fans, Villains & Speculation: The Legacy of Sherlock Holmes.” – Gary Dretzka

2 Jacks
Danny Huston, who stars in “2 Jacks” with his nephew, Jack, has appeared in six movies directed by Bernard Rose. He has starred or co-starred in all four of the films Rose has adapted from the stories and novels of Leo Tolstoy. I mention this because of the ease with which Huston handles his over-the-top character in “2 Jacks,” which is based on Tolstoy’s “Two Hussars.” The comfort level between Huston and Rose is as palpable as that displayed in John Nicholson’s work with Bob Rafelson and Leo DeCaprio with Martin Scorsese, among other actor/director alliances. Here, he plays a notorious director, Jack Hussar, who’s run out of bridges to burn in Hollywood and is fishing for a sucker to finance his next film. Although Jack is broke, he hasn’t lost any of his bodacious charm and uncanny wiles. He’s the kind of oversized character who can walk into a room of any size and suck the air from all of the inflated egos in attendance … or, at least, the ones who have yet to figure out his game. In the first of two interrelated sections, Jack gloms onto a wannabe producer who’s been obsessed with his films since he was knee-high to a box office. From him, he manages to secure a place to sleep, park his destructive dog, get invited to a star-studded party in the hills, find a poker game and a woman (Sienna Miller) or two who haven’t previously fallen for his bluster. It doesn’t end well for him.

A half-generation later, a dissipated Jack Hussar Jr. (Jack Huston) blows into Hollywood for the same reason as his dad, before him. In a coincidence only available to novelists and screenwriters, young Jack finds himself in the company of a very nice gal, whose mother once gave his father a place to crash and temporary use of her sports car. Magically, Sienna Miller has grown into Jacqueline Bisset and Jack Jr. is given every opportunity to blow a sure thing. I think that we’re supposed to assume that Danny’s performance is informed by things he saw in the shadow of his similarly large-than-life father, director John Huston and heard about his grandfather, Walter Huston. Jack Huston’s performance owes more to the new Hollywood, whose stars are of a completely different social makeup than those of yesteryear. Thing is, though, the only things that change in Hollywood are hemlines and haircuts … the inebriants are the same as they were in Fatty Arbuckle’s day. Movie buffs and geeks should find plenty to enjoy in “2 Jacks.” If so, I suggest they sample Rose’s other Tolstoy adaptations, “Ivansxtc,” “The Kreutzer Sonata” and “Anna Kerenina.” – Gary Dretzka

Haunter
This dandy thriller from horror specialist Vincenzo Natali (“Splice,” “Cube”) takes the haunted-house sub-genre and turns it inside-out, all to very good effect. Unless viewers play close attention to what’s happening in “Haunter”  early on, however, they might miss the gag entirely. For instance, in a virtual homage to “Groundhog Day,” a suburban mom serves exactly the same meals to her family day after day, as she has since the day in 1986 when they were killed under mysterious circumstances. Abigail Breslin is plenty creepy in the role of the deceased teenager who’s is required to reach out from the Other Side to save her human counterpart and her kin from the same fate. In fact, though, there are other spirits inhabiting the premises and none is as benevolent as Lisa. They manifest themselves at various times during the movie and in different ways. The most chilling is the Pale Man, played by Stephen McHattie (“Pontypool”), an actor who could scare the bejeezus out of Lance Henricksen. Oh, yeah, an invisible dome prevents the residents from leaving the house and yard. The Blu-ray package contains commentaries with Natali and writer Brian King (“Night Train”); a teaser poster; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and streaming storyboards. – Gary Dretzka

Battle of the Damned: Blu-ray
Reel Zombies
Chastity Bites
As silly as it is, Christopher Hatton’s direct-to-DVD “Battle of the Damned” is one of the most entertaining zombie-apocalypse flicks I’ve seen in a while, regardless of budget. It combines all of the action expected from a Dolph Lundgren slaughter-porn epic with revisionist theories about how zombies act, borrowed from “World War Z.”  Sometime in the near future, the international bio-chemical industry will have moved from its base of operations to the under-regulated boonies of Southeast Asia. In one of these factory towns, the leak of a deadly pathogen has decimated much of the population, turned the survivors into monsters and caused the government to impose a tightly enforced military blockade on it. This singular event has global implications, of course, not the least of them being America’s role in backing the industry. In yet another example of how the military-industrial complex continues to maintain its grip on the world, a wealthy industrialist enlists commando-for-hire Max Gatling (Lundgren) to rescue his estranged daughter from the chaotic situation. Now, this is where things get really nutty. Once in place, Gatling is confronted by hundreds of hungry zombies, almost all whom he dispatches with reckless abandon. At some point, Gatling is joined by battle-bot killing machines. It takes a surprisingly short amount of time for him to find the young woman, whose dripping mascara makes her look like a raccoon and is part of a group of militant eco-guerrillas. (Only westerners appear to have been spared the virus.) After some uneasy moments, this unlikely alliance of commandos is forced to shoot its way out of Dodge. A short featurette, “Battling the Damned,” features several minutes of raw on-location footage.

In something of a fresh twist to the old game of creating fresh sequels out of stale matzo, indie filmmakers Mike Masters and David J. Francis have attempted to snatch shot-on-video victory from the jaws of DVD defeat. As the two men explain in the introduction to their self-aware mockumentary “Reel Zombies,” their new film was inspired by the failure of the first two chapters in their “Zombie Night” trilogy. This time, however, the shooting schedule coincides with an “actual” outbreak of the flu that causes zombie-mania. It allows them to film undead non-actors as they cavort through “actual” scenes of mass destruction. If the actors and destruction are real, however, there’s really no way to control them. The only option for Masters and Francis, apparently, was to give up on No. 3 and turn it into a mockumentary, lampooning the process in the loose form of a making-of featurette. While explaining the economic benefits of using non-actors in roles that don’t require acting, it becomes clear that Masters and Francis are also bemoaning the facts of life in the world of low-budget, indie filmmaking. It’s a fresh approach, to be sure, and it produces more than a few laughs. The DVD contains more than 40 minutes of deleted scenes and commentary.

Chastity Bites” is a high school comedy that borrows from “The Stepford Wives” and “Clueless” and combines the elements with more than 400 years of undead legend. Naturally, the girls in the local high school are divided into the geeks and popular kids, who are dead-ringers for their conservative parents. Two of the geeky girls smell a rat when the new hyper-sexy teacher, Liz Batho (Louise Griffiths), organizes a female-empowerment club, based on pussy power and the right of virgins to stay that way. If the teacher’s name rings a bell in the heads of vampire buffs, it’s because Liz Batho is recognizably short for Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed (a.k.a., “The Blood Countess”), who, born into a royal Hungarian family, is considered to be the most prolific female serial killer in history. To keep herself looking youthful, the countess killed and drained the blood of young virgins who had the misfortune of living near her castle. Bathing in their blood did the trick. She would be convicted of killing only 80 of the 650 victims believed to have been tortured before their deaths. She died while under house arrest, but, this would only be in the human sense of the word, death. In “Chastity Bites,” Batho barely has to work up a sweat. – Gary Dretzka

Reaching for the Moon
Pit Stop
Of all the unusual tastes one might acquire at the local library or arthouse, romantic dramas about Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, celebrated architects and expatriate Vassar graduates might be the most atypical of the genre. Toss in a lesbian love triangle, depression, alcoholism and jealousy and you have Bruno Barreto’s “Reaching for the Moon.” As un-commercial as it could possibly be, “Reaching for the Moon” chronicles the unlikely mid-century romance that blossomed like a hot-house flower between the deeply private American poet Elizabeth Bishop and assertive Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Based on Carmen L. Oliveira’s account of their relationship, “Rare and Commonplace Flowers,” the movie’s exotic Samambaia setting adds a fairytale aspect to the frequently intense drama. Stuck in creative doldrums, Bishop is advised by the poet Robert Lowell to put down her pen and see the world outside Manhattan. The suggestion takes her to Brazil, where she’s greeted by her collegiate friend, Mary Morse, and her lover, Soares. Although, at first, the poet and the architect could hardly be less compatible, Soares quickly pushes Morse aside to focus on Bishop. She builds a cliff-side house for Bishop to use as a workplace, then adopts a baby from a poor farming family to keep Morse happy and occupied. In Barreto’s depiction of social life at Samambaia, the conversation frequently drifts into politics, thanks to the anti-democratic friends Soares has courted. Eventually, bickering between the three women attracts storm clouds to their little slice of heaven. Bishops turns to the bottle, Soares disappears into a deeply depressive state and Morse tries to build a wall around her daughter. Miranda Otto and Glória Pires are terrific as the tempestuous duo, while Tracy Middendorf holds her own as the third leg of the love triangle. Mauro Pinheiro Jr.’s sumptuous cinematography keeps us interested when the arguing gets too loud. The making-of featurette is worthwhile, as well.

Without putting too fine a point on it, “Pit Stop” tells a story about being gay in small-town America. It will remind many viewers of “Brokeback Mountain,” minus the sheep and tears. Within the small, working-class Texas community are several men whose paths will cross, if they haven’t already, as lovers, friends and companions. Some are out, others will soon be required to draw their own line in the sand. Besides being nominated for the Independent Spirits Awards’ John Cassavetes prize, “Pit Stop” has done extremely well in competition at other gay and straight festivals. The naturalistic tone adopted by director Yen Tan and stars Bill Heck and Marcus DeAnda is a nice alternative to more overtly melodramatic fare. What happens happens, but without much in the way of sturm und drang. We simply like the characters and empathize with their situations. Here, that’s enough. The extras consist of two commentary tracks, one with director Yen Tan, Heck and DeAnda, and the other with Tan, producer Kelly Williams, cinematographer Hutch (one word) and editor Don Swaynos. – Gary Dretzka

On the Job: Blu-ray
I haven’t seen many movies from the Philippines, but the ones I have are humdingers. The movies that have crossed the Pacific – even after the Roger Corman era — tend to involve poverty-driven urban crime and ruthless violence. The police are as corrupt as government officials, and civilians seem to take it for granted. It starts at the top, then trickles down through the ranks. It isn’t as if Americans are unfamiliar with such conditions, because they exist in every shithole barrio, ghetto and backwater community on the planet. Filipinos appear to have made it a science, however. “On the Job” opens with the assassination of a political candidate in a crowded marketplace in Manila. All we know about the killers is that they’ve arrived by boat from points unknown and have something of a father-son relationship. The murder is pulled off without much muss or fuss, leaving them a few hours to visit family and go on a shopping spree. Once that’s done, the killers (Joel Torre and Gerald Anderson) are sent back to the kind of fetid, overcrowded prison from which the crazy YouTube videos (“Thriller” and “Gangnam Style,” performed by hundreds of inmates) emanate. Apparently, they’ve been assassinating people at the behest of the warden, who’s paid off by police officials, who take their instructions from incumbent politicians who are insecure in their jobs. Between each layer of corrupt officials are middlemen and middlewomen who are paid by the big shots who have the politicians in their pockets. Hey, it worked for Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, didn’t it? In a parallel story, an as-yet-untarnished federal investigator (Piolo Pascual), is making inroads on the first murder, which, he senses, is related to his uncle and future father-in-law. “On the Job” moves at a rapid, if fairly easy to follow pace, and the film’s two hours go past quickly. The subtitles may not be precise, but there’s no mistaking what’s happening on screen. – Gary Dretzka

Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection: Nurse Girl Dorm: Sticky Fingers/Sex Hunter: 1980
Typically, releases from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection are an odd lot of kinky soft-core porn, with most of the naughty bits blurred and storylines that could hardly be more illogical. Sadism and rape are two popular themes, even if they sometimes lead to a twisted form of romance. And, yes, the re-mastered DVDs as previously described in this space are every bit that crazy. “Nurse Girl Dorm: Sticky Fingers” (a.k.a., “Nurse Girl Dorm: Assy Fingers) and “Sex Hunter: 1980” show a variance from form, in that they have recognizable storylines, are reasonably humorous and don’t treat rape as an aphrodisiac. Indeed, “Nurse Girl Dorm” could be characterized as a sequel to the bawdy British comedy, “Carry On Nurse.” Pretty young trainees live in a dormitory close to their hospital. A mysterious newcomer, Yuki, is older than most of the residents and far wiser in the ways of the world and dormitory. When the girls are finding it difficult to sneak their boyfriends past the resident Nurse Ratchet, Yuki volunteers to teach them her tricks. Pretty soon, doctors, boyfriends and stalkers are scaling the walls as if the nurses lived in the Alamo. The headmistress harbors some kinky secrets of her own.

Sex Hunter: 1980,” the sequel to “Sex Hunter: Wet Target,” looks to have been very much influenced by the Dario Argento giallo thriller, “Suspira.” Maekawa Miki is a young and talented ballet dancer, fresh from a performance, when she’s picked up off the street by a onetime star dancer and her henchman. Out of the blue, they invite her to join their school, situated in a villa overlooking the sea. Instead of being treated like a prima ballerina, however, Miki becomes a sexual plaything for the academy’s demented master and mistress, who lurk behind a two-way mirror. The other students have already become accustomed to being managed and manipulated, but Miki still retains a remote hope of advancing in her discipline. She might, but, first, she’ll have to endure sessions involving bondage, lesbian group gropes and some S&M. A blurb on the jacket, “Draped in the smell of semen … a solitary house of pleasure,” pretty much sums up what happens here, minus the blurbed naughty bits. As usual, the DVDs come with informative essays by Jasapar Sharp. — Gary Dretzka

Lou Reed Tribute
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Fifty by Four
If you’re one of those people, who were born when there were still four ex-Beatles, the news of Lou Reed’s passing may not have been greeted with the same urgency as their parents or reporters who still recall the first time they listened to “Heroin.” Even in his heyday, the co-founder of the Velvet Underground was something of an acquired taste among mainstream radio programmers and listeners still in the grip of the British invaders. The Velvets represented the New York branch of the countercultural revolution and Reed was its Alan-a-Dale. They painted portraits in song of people who lived on the fringes of society, but acted as if they were superstars and immune to the deadly substances they were ingesting. Once the so-called “banana album” found an audience beyond those in the rock cognoscenti, however, the Velvets were already three or four steps beyond it, creating raw, unsparing and deliberately discordant music that presaged punk and death-metal. Producer Brian Eno summed up the Velvets’ importance by observing, while the band’s debut album was less than a financial juggernaut, “Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” Reed would take out on his own in the 1970s, writing songs that varied wildly in their degree of accessibility, and continue doing so until his replacement liver gave up the ghost last October 27. If most people still know less about Reed’s life and career than how Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber spent their last vacation, it’s because he never was keen on articulating his inclinations, motivations and inspirations to the press. His interviews were the journalistic equivalent of pulling teeth and he never pandered to the gods of fame. For those who are interested in Reed, the Velvets and life on the edge in the 1960-70s, I recommend MVD’s three-disc boxed-set, “Lou Reed Tribute.” It is comprised of the previously released, but still relevant, “The Velvet Underground: Under Review”; “Punk Revolution NYC: the Velvet Underground, the NY Dolls & the CBGB’s Set”; and “The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Lou: 1971-1973.” All are thoroughly researched and informed by copious interviews with critics, historians, musicians, producers and accomplices.

Debuting a couple years later, “super-group” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were the polar opposite of Reed and Velvet Underground. Comprised of star musicians from the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Hollies, CS&N and CSN&Y emerged from the Southern California folk-rock scene, which was then concentrated in and around Laurel Canyon. Their voices blended like honey and butter on a warm muffin and, at first, the darkest their music ever got was in heartfelt outcries against the war and the killings of students at Kent State. On the hand, there wasn’t an off-stage minute when the musicians, their managers and business reps weren’t as interested in making money as making music. “Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Fifty by Four,” also from MVD, looks back at a half-century’s worth of beautiful harmonizing, endearing lyrics, splendid musicianship, petty squabbles that turned into destructive battles, famous girlfriends, anonymous groupies, rancorous ego trips, copious alcohol and drug abuse, occasional reunions and spinoff projects, all supported by inflated ticket prices and unnecessary “live” and greatest-hits albums. Nothing in “50X4” would make anyone want to throw away their albums, but, even at 165 minutes, you get the feeling that not everything is on view here. It is possible, though, to feel incredibly sorry for Graham Nash, who comes off as the only reliably sane band member. The music-filled DVD features archival and exclusive interviews; seldom-seen footage; concert performances; and contributions from such key supporting players as Dallas Taylor, Greg Reeves, Danny Kortchmar, George Chocolate Perry, Joe Lala, Chad Cromwell, Calvin Fuzzy Samuels, Joe Vitale, the Albert Brothers, Bill Halverson and civilian observers. – Gary Dretzka

Rocky Heavyweight Collection: Blu-ray
A sports fan knows he’s getting old – ancient? – if he can remember watching the Muhammad Ali/Chuck Wepner fight that inspired Sylvester Stallone to write “Rocky.” It was that remarkably strange an event. Although Stallone didn’t acknowledge the financial debt he owed the “Bayonne Bleeder” until a lawsuit was settled in 2006, there’s no mistaking how much the movie mirrored the boxing match, right down to the audience (live and broadcast to theaters by cable) switching its allegiance from the aging Ali to the upset-minded bartender. If MGM had wanted to do the millions of fans of the movie franchise a real favor, it would have included a tape of the 15-rounder, in which Wepner managed to knock the former champ down once, before losing by TKO in the match’s final seconds. Or, it might have added the 2012 ESPN documentary, “The Real Rocky.” (Not only did Wepner inspire the first “Rocky,” but some people also believe that the wrestling match in “R3” aped Wepner’s ill-fated wrestling match against Andre the Giant, in 1976.) As it is, “Rocky Heavyweight Collection” differs from the 2009 “Ultimate Collection” only with a much-needed re-mastering of the first “Rocky” and a new featurette, “8mm Home Movies of Rocky,” narrated by director John Avildsen. In addition to Blu-ray editions of all six titles, “Heavyweight Collection” includes three hours of previously released bonus material. I hadn’t seen “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth entry, before receiving the collection and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. For my money, the best lines in the movie refer to the silly contretemps between the city of Philadelphia and art museum where the Rocky statue had served as a major photo op for tourists, until it was moved to the Spectrum (twice) and returned to a different site near the museum. After Rocky informs Paulie of his plans to come out of retirement for the exhibition match in Las Vegas, his pal asks, “You mad because they took down your statue?” – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
NeoGeo: Killing Kennedy: Blu-ray
Lifetime: Anna Nicole: The Price of Fame
TNT: Dallas: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
BBC: Doctor Who: The Moonbase: Story 33
CBS: Newhart: The Complete Second Season
Cartoon: Regular Show: Mordecai & Margaret Pack
Wouldn’t it have been nice if, on the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, someone stepped forward to offer solid evidence of a purported conspiracy or something conclusive about Lee Harvey Oswald’s ability to squeeze off three rounds from a crummy rifle in six seconds? Instead, the anniversary came and went without any more useful wisdom proffered than in the 49 years since the release of the much-disputed Warren Report. Not bound by the rules of non-fiction, novelists have been allowed to speculate wildly about what “really” happened on the days leading up to November 22, 1963, and are relatively credible. I’m currently reading Stephen Hunter’s “The Third Bullet,” a novel in which the protagonist is a sharpshooter who recognizes a pattern in a recently discovered “shred” of evidence. It’s pretty interesting, especially in the portrait it paints of history’s ultimate dupe, LHO. As opposed to the “single gunman theory,” Hunter advances one involving a “single conspirator.” The one thing “Third Bullet” shares with the National Geographic movie, “Killing Kennedy,” is its depiction of Lee Harvey Oswald being a pathetic loser with an inflated opinion of himself. Will Rothhaar’s portrayal of LHO is the best and potentially most revealing reason to watch Nelson McCormick’s film, which is based on the research of Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Otherwise, zilch. Among the cast members are Michelle Trachtenberg, as Marino O; Ginnifer Goodwin, as the future Jackie O; Casey Siemaszko, as Jack Ruby; and Rob Lowe, as, who else?, JFK. None of the actors embarrass themselves, but a 92-minute movie can’t possibly do justice to such a world-shattering event.

The same can’t said about the Lifetime biopic, “Anna Nicole: The Price of Fame,” which, we’re told, is based on an article in Now York magazine. The model’s untimely death may have sent shockwaves through the tawdry world of tabloid media, but, outside of it, Anna Nicole Smith was just another voluptuous blond gold-digger with fake tits. The only thing about her that qualified as newsworthy was the lawsuits filed, in the wake of her ancient husband’s death, to determine if she was eligible to claim the bulk of his estate. It turns outs, she wasn’t. On her side, however, was the reality of having to “make love” to the addled old turd (Martin Landau) and the repugnant personality of his son. The only person entitled to our sympathy in the entire mess is ANS’ son and primary witness to her trailer-trash behavior. That he would die for his bimbo mom’s sins is the real tragedy here. Agnes Bruckner plays ANS with all of the subtlety of a lap dance in a biker bar. Nonetheless, she’s the best thing in the biopic. It’s also worth reporting that, being a made-for-Lifetime product, there’s no nudity in its entire 85 minutes. The least the producers could have done was offer a director’s-cut edition, with the naughty bits re-edited back into the story. Far worse, though, is learning that “Anna Nicole” was directed by Mary Harron, whose credits include “The Notorious Bettie Page,” “American Psycho,” “I Shot Andy Warhol” and single episodes of some of the best TV dramas in the last 20 years. A gig’s a gig, though, right? Just for the record, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s two-act opera, “Anna Nicole,” received some very decent reviews in its short runs. A DVD is available through Opus Arte.

If TNT’s “Dallas” weren’t a continuation of the original landmark series, and already well into production on its second season when Larry Hagman died, the loss of J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) could have been fatal. Ewing was one of the most compelling characters ever drawn for broadcast television and the 2012 revival did justice to both to J.R. and Hagman. It even brought back several other key characters from the series’ glory years, including Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray. Others returned for J.R.’s midseason funeral. I won’t get into the cause of death here, but it opens yet another dramatic storyline. None of the “Who Shot J.R.?” hysteria from the original series was repeated in 2013, but its new cast was rewarded with a third-season commitment by TNT.

Doctor Who: The Moonbase” (a.k.a., “Story 33”), from BBC Home Entertainment, harkens all the way back to the Patrick Troughton era, of the mid- to late-1960s. The digitally re-mastered classic opens with the usual TARDIS misdirection play, leaving Jamie, Polly and the Second Doctor not on Mars, as desired, but on the Earth’s moon, circa 2070. (In 1966, before the lunar landing, 2070 must have seemed like an eternity away from current reality.) At the Moonbase, an international team controls the Earth’s weather with a gravity machine. TARDIS delivered the trio to Moonbase, instead of Mars, because there services were more needed there. Crew members have been stricken with serious illnesses, possibly caused by the return of Cybermen. The serial was first released on VHS, absent key video elements from episodes one and three. The new DVD release adds the lost material in the form of animated replacement sequences.

Four years after Bob Newhart signed off as Dr. Robert Hartley, in CBS’ hugely popular “The Bob Newhart Show,” he returned to prime-time as a New York author of do-it-yourself books, Dick Loudon, in “Newhart.” He and his wife, Joanna (Mary Frann), have decided to move to a scenic corner of Vermont, where they’ll manage the 200-year-old Stratford Inn. Obviously, this is a very different setting than the urban environment he shared with Suzanne Pleshette. For one thing, Chicago is conspicuously absent such quintessentially rural characters as Larry, Darryl and Darryl and Tom Poston’s George Utley. This was before Dick began hosting a talk-show on a local TV station. In Season Two, Julia Duffy replaced Jennifer Holmes as one of the wealthy Vanderkellen cousins. A yuppie TV producer, played by Peter Scolari, is brought in towards the end of the season to handle the show. In the early episodes of the second season, Dick must deal with the advances of a sexy celebrity (Stella Stevens), who wants him to ghost write her book, and Joanna challenges the town’s historical practice of the men and women eating separately during the town’s potluck dinners.

Cartoon Network`s latest compilation of “Regular Show” episodes focuses the relationship between lovebirds Mordecai and Margaret. It cherry-picked 16 select episodes from the series’ first four seasons and adds a never-before-seen special feature, “Steak me Amadeus.” At a running time of 176 minutes, “Mordecai & Margaret Pack” represents a darned good bargain. – Gary Dretzka

DCU Justice League: War: Blu-ray
Seven years and 17 films after DC and Warner Bros. began churning out direct-to-video animated features, they’ve reteamed for the origin story, “DCU Justice League: War.” It gives those fans of Superman, Batman, Cyborg, Wonder Woman, Shazam, the Flash, Green Lantern and, briefly, Aquaman a reason to live until 2017, when the live-action “Justice League” is scheduled to be released. Both follow the basic blueprint laid out in Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s 2011 “Justice League: Origin” storyline from DC’s “New 52.”  In it, individual superheroes recognize the fists-beat-fingers principle, electing to combine their various powers for the good of a tight-knit fighting unit. The villains, looking to reshape our society, include Darkseid and Parademons. This is the first DC animated feature to use material from DC Comic’s New 52 “continuity.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club: Blu-ray
There have been several very good movies and miniseries made about the AIDS crisis and people who’ve made a difference in the ongoing struggle for a cure. Among the storylines that have been consistent throughout the 30-year fight is the one that describes the U.S. government’s steadfast reluctance to acknowledge the immediacy of the problem. Because the FDA was hesitant to treat AIDS as an epidemic from the get-go, scientists and researchers weren’t able to devote the time, money and resources to understand how it spread, let alone test possible cures. When other countries began to make experimental drugs available to patient volunteers, the FDA left the research to the big pharmaceutical companies that stood to benefit financially from any successful treatment programs. Field trials were conducted as if there was no greater urgency than is usual in combating a virus. Instead, they followed traditional guidelines, including the issuance of placebos to people whose lives literally hung in the balance. This was very much the case in 1985, when AIDS/HIV was still considered to be a disease limited to gay men and a Texas electrician and part-time rodeo rider, Ron Woodroof, discovered that he was infected with the HIV/AIDS virus. Because Woodroof was a committed heterosexual and virulent homophobe, the diagnosis was as much a mystery as a shock. When he was given 30 days to live by his doctors, he was faced with the choice of accepting the diagnosis and getting his “affairs in order” or putting up a fight against the disease and the stigma that came with it. Instead of dying according to schedule, Woodroof would defy the odds by living another six years. Moreover, as a source for experimental drugs, he would provide a ray of hope for other Dallas AIDS patients and a pain in the ass of the FDA. It’s this six-year period that director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Café de Flore”) chose to chronicle in “Dallas Buyers Club,” a finalist in six Academy Award categories, including Best Picture, Best Lead Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto give the performances of their careers as Woodroof and the cross-dressing patient, Rayon, with whom he enters into a business arrangement. If Woodroof could provide the drugs, Rayon would lead him to desperate customers. The rough-tough rodeo rider was still homophobic, but business was business. His first trip was to Mexico, where an outlaw doctor (Griffin) was puttering around with various substances, some of which were as dangerous as the virus. In those days, the components weren’t yet banned from importation, as they soon would be. The search for more effective treatments would lead Woodroof to Japan and Europe, where researchers were in high gear. And, yes, he made a lot of money. It couldn’t make up for the loss of his hetero friends and government intransigence, but it served as a means to an end. How much of Woodroof’s race against time is depicted accurately in “Dallas Buyers Club” is open to conjecture. What else is new? What’s indisputable is the impact Woodroof’s mission had on the search for the cure and the ferocity of McConaughey and Leto’s performances. The actors lost 47 and 30 pounds, respectively, to add another layer of credibility to their performances. Given the subject matter, it’s a small miracle the “Dallas Buyers Club” was able to find financial backing, let alone distribution. Because Hollywood treated the concept as if it carried the virus, McConaughey was required to find financing and backers. By most standards, the movie wasn’t much of success at the box office, returning just north of $20 million. With an estimated budget of $5.5 million, however, it could very well end up in the black, which is something most of the Oscar favorites can’t say for themselves. Among the other actors who turn in nice performances are Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O’Hare, Dallas Roberts and Kevin Rankin. The only Blu-ray extra is “A Look Inside ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’” – Gary Dretzka

McConkey
The Armstrong Lie: Blu-ray
In a somewhat perverse twist, daredevil skiing, boarding and other “extreme” pursuits have joined figure skating as must-watch events in Winter Olympics coverage. Up until the mid-1990s, boarders were banned from commercial ski runs as being too wild and uncontrollable. It was characterized as a sport best suited for stoners and misfits. That image changed dramatically as soon as operators discovered the commercial potential of snowboarding and other freeform activities and purveyors of ski fashions saw an opportunity to exploit the outlaw look. With NBC in need of another showcase event – one not likely to be dominated by Swedes and Russians – extreme skiing was put on the fast track to legitimacy. Fans of such extreme activities ought to do themselves a favor by picking up a copy of the documentary, “McConkey.” Blessed with the kind of looks normally associated with pro surfers and downhill skiers, Shane McConkey was the perfect cover boy for extreme sports. Thanks in large part to DNA passed along by his sporting parents, Shane was a natural on his way to becoming a golden boy. On and off the slopes, he was a daredevil’s daredevil and a magnet for the growing number of extremists. Too cool to limit himself to the pursuit of Olympic gold, he was like the rare athlete who’s able to make the transition from high school to the NBA over the course of a summer. Even as a junior skier, he’d pushed the limits on everything from slalom and downhill to freestyle and moguls. When the snow melted, he got his kicks from bungee and BASE jumping, neither of which provided a safety net or a soft cushion of fresh powder. Helicopter delivery would provide extreme skiers access to the steepest, most remote and dangerous slopes, as well as a living from starring in documentaries. When those stopped floating his boat, McConkey and his pals introduced ski-BASE jumping –as seen in the opening of the James Bond movie, “The Spy Who Loved Me” – and wingsuit flying on skis, activities that border on the suicidal. In 2009, during the production of a movie for Red Bull Media House and Matchstick Productions, Shane failed to execute a BASE landing and died on impact, leaving behind his wife, toddler daughter and cult following. “McConkey” is equal parts bio-doc and demonstration of Shane’s many skills. By combining captivating home-movie footage with the spectacular on-location material and a tick-tock narrative, “McConkey” could be a next-generation sequel to “Downhill Racer.” It does beg the question – frequently asked, but never fully answered – of why any sane adult would risk losing a loving wife and beautiful child people to a “sport” that almost no one follows and has hubris written all over it. Putting one’s live on the line for no good reason can be every bit as addictive as heroin, alcohol and gambling, for which 12-step programs have been organized in every city in the nation. If only they had one for extreme athletes with families, too. The DVD adds more video footage and interviews. Needless to say, the scenery is uniformly spectacular.

Americans are as fond of bicycles as anyone in the world. Until the arrival of Lance Armstrong on the international racing scene, however, we got excited only when an American was a contender at the Olympics. That changed somewhat when the movie “Breaking Away” introduced European-style road racing to America in 1979. The popular dramedy captured the danger, excitement and beauty of the sport, while also proving that colorful, skin-tight outfits and an aerodynamic helmets could be sexy. It wasn’t off-road BMX racing — short for Bicycle Motocross – was embraced by kids in Southern California in the late-1970s that things really took off. BMX combines road, track, and mountain-biking events in a way that’s relatively safe and attractive to kids who find racing in circles to be a tad boring. In fewer than 40 years, BMX racing went from dirt tracks in southern California to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. It would take Lance Armstrong to create the same amount of excitement for long-distance road racing to be embraced by Americans. In addition to be a true champion and conqueror of European dominance in the sport, McConkey courageous battle against cancer made him a true hero and inspiration for people everywhere. Just below the surface of his media-enhanced profile, however, Armstrong was a rambunctious, frequently pugnacious warrior, totally unwilling to give an inch of leeway toward his peers or lose face in public. In other words, he could be a real prick. The same thing that drove McConkey to keep on jumping off cliffs, even after losing a step physically, pressured Armstrong to come back to racing four years after he’d conquered cancer. Throughout his recovery, his critics were willing to forgive and forget their claims against him of using banned substances. After all, the sport was widely considered to be a proving ground for the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs and he’d be in the minority if he didn’t follow suit. In the space of those four years, though, the spotlight had finally begun to shine on doping and, as tests became more accurate, several top racers faced bans. Suddenly, the target was on Armstrong’s back again and he resented the accusations. He was willing not only to tarnish his reputation, but also disappoint his many fans and put his fortune at risk. Hubris being what it is, however, Armstrong could resist the challenge. Hollywood didn’t want to believe the accusations, either, and documentarian Alex Gibney was hired to create a film about his nearly miraculous comeback. A year later, another victory in the Tour de France to his credit, Armstrong’s story was tainted by overwhelming scientific and circumstantial evidence of cheating. Even as he continued to deny what others, including former teammates, considered to be overwhelmingly obvious, Gibney’s financial backers decided to shut down the project. Finally, three years later, Armstrong unexpectedly surrendered. Like other celebrities, he bared his guilty soul on “Oprah” and, a few hours later, before the camera of a devastated Gibney. To his credit, he recognized a tragedy as it was happening, allowing him to re-selling the idea to Hollywood. He changed the title from “The Road Back” to “The Armstrong Lie” and changed the focus from the comeback to his ability to hide the facts about doping for more than a decade. The result is a fascinating, if overlong film that has a lot to say about the nature of sport in the 21st Century, when, it’s said, “If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t winning” … or rich. Sadly, even after admitting his shame, Armstrong’s admission fell short of anything resembling contriteness and humility. What we’re left with is his arrogance in the face of the facts, perhaps, because lawsuits are pending against his foundation and other interests. “The Armstrong Lie” combines the footage taken during his comeback period and Tour de France, with newly collected interviews concerning the cover-up and lies. The hi-def cinematography brilliantly captures the splendor, glory and danger of racing against a couple hundred world-class cyclists in the narrow roads through crowded towns and steep mountains. It certainly explains why Europeans are so absorbed with such events. The film adds commentary from Gibney; a festival Q&A with Gibney and cycling figures Frank Marshall, Bill Strickland, Jonathan Vaughters and whistle-blowers Betsy Andreu; and 40 minutes of deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

A Case of You: Blu-ray
There are certain touchstones found in rom-coms made for and by Millennials that differ from those made for consumption by Gen X, Gen Y, slacker, baby boomer and other pre- and post-war audiences. These movies are set in neighborhoods populated with the same people one meets in “Girls” and “New Girl.” The characters are obsessed with their instant-communication devices, boutique coffee, offbeat fashions and finding jobs that pay well and allow them to exercise their creative muscles. They smoke pot and take ecstasy, but are weaning themselves off cocaine. Millennials are perfectly willing to pay $15 dollar for cocktail, but not a dollar for a newspaper. That doesn’t mean they’re stupid or vapid – far from it – merely, that they can get almost everything worth knowing on their Avatar or iPad. Like members of all three or four generational groupings since World War II, Millennials ask themselves the age-old question when they turn 30: Is this all there is? Hollywood’s finally recognized the commercial value of seducing the post-slacker, post-hipster crowd, even if it has almost no clue as who or what they’re all about. Along with those filmmakers in the Sundance crowd, television’s done a far better job at that. In such films as “Life Happens,” “And While We Were Here” and “A Case of You,” director/actress/writer Kat Coiro has demonstrated that she has a pretty firm grasp on how Millennials think and act. One thing to understand, of course, is how short their memories are. Blame it on the temporal efficiency of YouTube, TiVo and satellite-delivered music, as well as the transportability of handheld devices. The competition for eyes and ears has become ferocious.

In “A Case of You,” a title borrowed from the Joni Mitchell song, a young writer meets a frequently tardy barista in a Brooklyn coffee shop. Evan Rachel Wood is the almost ridiculously adorable Birdie, who disappears from the shop within a few days of making a connection with customer Sam (Justin “The Mac Guy” Long). Her bitchy supervisor (Peter Dinklage) only knows enough about his former employee to provide him with her first name and the neighborhood she’s most likely to live. Forty years ago, solving this kind of dilemma would take up the entirety of a rom-com, with a half-dozen missed connections and blown opportunities providing the humor. Today, of course, it’s as easy as typing “Birdie” and “Brooklyn” into a search engine and waiting 40 seconds for the life history of the person being investigated to pop onto the screen, which is pretty much what happens here. In a device more appropriate to an early Woody Allen movie, the chronically pessimistic Sam picks the longest way to go from Point A to Point B. Instead of simply sending Robin a confidential e-mail, he studies her Facebook profile in hopes of setting up a meet-cute moment, which also happens. Before he can seal the deal, however, Sam is required to take guitar lessons from a hippie burnout (Sam Rockwell) and ballroom-dancing classes with a bunch of amorous geezers; learn how to fake an appreciation for Birdie’s favorite singers and authors; and take several other uncomfortable-looking shortcuts. Once they do meet, everything falls into place, anyway. Normally, this would be a good thing. Instead, Sam now is required to prove that he can play guitar (he can’t) and listen to Joni Mitchell albums without gagging. His happiness – relatively speaking, of course – effects his writing to the point where his generally downbeat literary persona turns upbeat, something his agent (Vince Vaughn) decides is unsaleable to publishers. Their bliss can’t last … or can it? The bigger question is: Can Coiro prevent her film from drowning in a sea of schmaltz before the end credits role? The Blu-ray adds brief interviews with Long, Wood and co-writer Kier O’Donnell, intercut with scenes from the trailer. – Gary Dretzka

Scorned: Blu-ray
Veteran genre writer/director Mark Jones (“Leprechaun”) and freshman writer/actor Sadie Katz (“Nipples & Palm Trees”) combine their skills on “Scorned,” a straight-to-DVD hybrid of revenge-porn and torture-porn. That brief description might constitute a distinction without a difference, but, within the realm of horror sub-genres, it might help potential viewers decide if their particular fetish is being served. Here, AnnaLynne McCord plays Sadie, the sexy girlfriend of an unctuous playboy, Kevin (Billy Zane), who, while rich, is too stupid to erase the salty text messages he exchanges with his lover’s best friend, Jennifer (Viva Blanca). When Sadie does discover their deceit, she awakens Kevin with a blow to the head. Realizing, now, that Kevin hoped to stage a three-way during their visit to his country home, Sadie ties him to a chair and plans her ambush of Jennifer. Instead of merely staging a burglary-gone-bad, she decides to have some fun torturing them, before bumping them off. It’s as if Sadie wanted to prove the adage, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” In fact, the word “scorned” is repeated several times during the movie. Fortunately, Jones/Katz decided to stretch the boundaries of the sub-genres, by taking “Scorned” out of the house for a while and adding a heavily tattooed prison escapee to the mix. Considering that Jones only had a budget of $1.7 million with which to work, “Scorned” is more interesting than it has any right to be. (I’m not sure, however, that it would benefit from another $10 of financing.) Zane plays smug and despicable as well as any actor, but it’s McCord and Bianca (a.k.a., Viva Skubiszewski) who make us forget that he’s even in the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Million Dollar Baby: 10th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Two Weeks Notice: Blu-ray
City of Angels: Blu-ray
I don’t know what effect the release of “Million Dollar Baby” had on women’s boxing, if any, on the sport, but it really cleaned up at the Oscars. My guess is that the popularity of women’s boxing, such as it was, peaked in the late 1990s, several years before the release of Clint Eastwood’s comparatively intimate drama. (His 25th directorial effort and 57th movie role.) Even if women’s boxing was included in the 2012 Olympics, in London, with 36 women competing in three weight classes, I doubt that many viewers want to watch women beat the crap out of each other, even in three-minute intervals. It can be argued, of course, that “Million Dollar Baby” isn’t about boxing in the same way that “Raging Bull” isn’t about boxing. The sport merely serves as a backdrop for something far more human and personal. Tens years later, “Million-Dollar Baby” hasn’t lost of any of its appeal. Boxing is, by no means, incidental to the drama, however. In describing one woman’s determination to beat the odds on her terms, Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-winner has things in common with most great movies in which an outsider is required to fight to attain a lifelong dream. Hilary Swank is terrific as Maggie, a young woman from the sticks, who sees in boxing a road out of poverty and irrelevance; Eastwood and Morgan Freeman are also terrific as the almost over-the-hill trainer and corner man who once fought for Eastwood, but now must push him to accept Maggie as he was, years earlier. “Million Dollar Baby” broke the mold of previous sports stories, not only because the ending isn’t a pre-ordained cliché, but also because it forces viewers think about things beyond winning and losing. Indeed, audiences and critics respected it to the point where they managed to keep the ending a secret for a very long time. I’m not sure that could happen at a time when everybody with a laptop and an opinion considers themselves to be a critic. Simply adding “spoiler alert” to a review doesn’t quite cut it. The tenth-anniversary edition of “Million Dollar Baby” contains a new “loseless” soundtrack, if not a re-mastering of original Blu-ray visual look. It adds a couple of new featurettes to the original package, as well, including commentary with producer Albert Ruddy and the 25-minute “On the Ropes,” a retrospective documentary on the experience of making “Million Dollar Baby.” (Eastwood is said to have based his voice on Ruddy.)

Released in 2002, “Two Weeks Notice” is a lightweight romantic comedy that demonstrates just how far the personalities of two appealing actors can carry a story that’s as improbable as finding a check for a $1 million in a box of Crackerjack. Sandra Bullock plays a Harvard-trained lawyer who’s adamant about her principles, but is a bit short in confidence. Hugh Grant is a rich and charming real-estate tycoon who hires the lawyer to fight one of his battles. Because it impacts the Coney Island neighborhood, in which she was raised, she decides to take the risk of quitting the firm to protest the implications of her own case. Bullock and Grant could play such an unmatched couple in their sleep – and probably have – but, here, we care less about saving the neighborhood (a foregone conclusion) than whether they fall in love (another foregone conclusion). The Blu-ray adds commentary with writer/director Marc Lawrence, Grant and Bullock; a making-of featurette from HBO; additional scenes; and “Two Bleeps Notice,” which basically is a gag reel.

City of Angels” is a romantic comedy from 1998, based on Wim Wenders’ far more contemplative and elliptical “Wings of Desire.” I doubt that many audience members knew that the German film existed, even though it’s one of the great movies of our time. They expected and got a light dramedy starring the appealing Meg Ryan, Nicolas Cage, Andre Braugher and Dennis Franz. It was Wenders’ framework, however, that holds the whole thing together. Instead of a trapeze artist, Ryan plays a heart surgeon who catches the eye of a resident angel, played by Cage. He’s in Los Angeles to help recently passed souls make the transition to the afterlife. Although they work in the same hospital, Cage is required to pine for her from afar. Cage’s angel wishes desperately for that situation to change. Franz is a patient whose ability to see the angel is the result of being a fallen angel, himself. Braugher plays another L.A.-based angel, who discusses philosophy with Cage from a perch on top of building being constructed downtown. As entertaining as “City of Angels” is, it’s no match for the complexity and mystery of “Wings of Desire,” which starred Bruno Ganz, Solveig Donmartin and Peter Falk, as “Der Filmstar.” (The kids in Berlin call him Columbo, based on his physical similarity to the TV character and trademark coat.) I would like to believe that watching “City of Angels” might encourage American viewers to sample “Wings of Desire,” but that would be a stretch. – Gary Dretzka

Code Red
Witchboard: Blu-ray
Night of the Demons: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Several movies have been made about Adolph Hitler’s fascination with the occult and how Nazi leadership might have planned to deploy supernatural forces in the waning days of World War II. Long after Allied leaders ceased worrying about Joseph Goebbels’ stated desire to unleash a network of “Werwolfs” — irregular German partisans who would continue to harass and punish Allied troops occupying the Fatherland – the myth continues to haunt. The German partisan idea was inspired by Hermann Lons’ novel “Der Wehrwolf,” which was set in Lower Saxony during Thirty Years War. It involved a militia of peasants determined to avenge the deaths of the protagonist’s family at the hands of marauding soldiers. Although Goebbels hadn’t mentioned “werewolves,” the name Werwolf gave post-war novelists, screenwriters and paranoids a perfect opportunity to speculate on Hitler’s last gasp of madness. While several of the books (Ian Fleming’s “Moonraker”) and movies (Sam Fuller’s “Verboten!”) dealt specifically with the human Werwolf threat, others clung to the “werewolf” twist (“True Blood”). Lately, fans of straight-to-DVD horror have been offered such supernaturally based stories as “Outpost,” “Outpost: Black Sun” and “Outpost 3: Rise of the Spetsnaz“; “Frankenstein’s Army”; the sci-fi “Iron Sky” and similarly themed comic book, “Nazi Werewolves From Outer Space”; and the “Wolfenstein” video-game series. Valeri Milev’s “Code Red” offers a Stalinist twist to sub-sub-genre conventions, by providing evidence that a nerve-gas agent developed by Soviet scientists has turned up in Bulgaria 60 years after the war ended. US Special Forces Captain John McGahey (Paul Logan) is called to a NATO hospital, where a wickedly hot doctor (Manal El-Feitury) has witnessed a dead patient come back to life on a slab in the mortuary. As the gas filters through the base and nearby town, more and more people return from the dead in the same way. It becomes incumbent on McGahey to save the world from Zombie Apocalypse. And, as far as these things go, “Code Red” doesn’t disappoint.

I don’t understand why such an underwhelming horror flick as writer/director Kevin Tenney’s “Witchboard” is regarded with reverence in some corners. I suspect that it has something to do with the presence of former O.J. Simpson flame, music-video goddess and husband-beater Tawny Kitaen, in an early-career nude scene. (She crashes through the glass door of a shower, locked shut by a ghost.) Otherwise, the story about a beautiful woman caught between two estranged brothers rests on our willingness to believe Ouija boards really do provide windows to the afterlife. At first skeptical, Kitain becomes obsessed with one of two seemingly unholy spirits who make contact with her. There are several gruesome deaths caused by the revelation of the ax-wielding spirit, but none that we haven’t seen before or since 1986.

Also from Tenney, by way of Scream Factory, comes his far better follow-up to “Witchboard,” 1988’s “Night of the Demons.” Here, 10 teenagers decide it might be fun to hold a séance inside an abandoned funeral parlor on Halloween. Not surprisingly, the ceremony awakens the evil spirit living in the basement, where the furnace of the crematorium also can be found. Instead of picking up their belongings and splitting after hearing the first creak in the floorboards, naturally they stay put. The rest of the movie is spent watching the teens being punished for such foolishness. The kids represent all of the various archetypes that populate the genre and, yes, the occasional breast does get flashed, Linnea Quigley’s, among others. The makers of “Night of the Demons” created its scares the old-fashioned way, without the benefit of CGI, and most of them are still effective. Finally, though, it’s Joe Augustyn’s script that sells the laughs and the chills in equal measure. As has been the case with most other horror ditties recycled by the company, the generous bonus package adds fresh, entertaining interviews with the participants, as well as new and vintage making-of featurettes. The visual presentation is quite sharp, considering the age of the picture and undernourished budget. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Starz: The White Queen: Season One: Blu-ray
Encore: Hindenburg: The Last Flight
BBC: Burton and Taylor
BBC: The Lady Vanishes
Masterpiece: Classic English Literature Collection, Volume 2
PBS: Chasing Shackleton
The sheer number of excellent mini-series available today on cable television has made scheduling our DVRs a daunting task. They exist in an environment already brimming with offbeat, adult-oriented sitcoms and quality hourlong dramas on the broadcast networks and PBS. Keeping up with them all is impossible. That’s why TV-to-DVD packages like “The White Queen: Season One” are playing such an important role in the video marketplace. That “The White Queen” only was shown on the Starz network (“Boss,” Spartacus,” “Black Sails”) makes the package’s presence that much more crucial. It is set against the background of the Wars of the Roses, when sons turned against fathers, cousins against cousins and marriages within royal houses could result in peace or disaster. Above all of the powerful men, however, stood Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), Margaret of Anjou (Veerle Baetens) and both Anne Neville (Faye Marsay) and her mother, Lady Anne Beauchamp, could conspire and backstab with the best them. As played by Janet McTeer, Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, was a behind-the-scenes warrior who would use the family gift of witchcraft to push the odds to her daughter’s favor. When they weren’t strutting around court like horny peacocks, the men spend their time fighting the battles engineered by their mothers. (If presidents and prime ministers were required to fight in the wars they created, today, there probably would be any.) As soap operas go, “The White Queen” is one of the best I’ve seen. If the mini-series is awarded a second season, it would bring viewers to the cusp of Henry VIII’s reign, already dramatized on HBO. Besides the wonderful acting, it’s the spectacular Belgian locations – Bruges and Ghent, especially – that make the mini-series so rewarding. The special features add “The Making of ‘The White Queen,’” a series overview, “Book To Series,” “The History Behind ‘The White Queen,’” a set tour, profiles of the main characters, “A Woman in a Man’s World” and pieces on the witchcraft and fashions. Like other premium-cable mini-series, “The White Queen” adds plenty of sex and violence to spice up the history. (That, too, might keep today’s students engaged in their studies.)

They used to make movies and mini-series like “Hindenburg: The Last Flight” all the time in the 1960-’70s. Besides such disaster epics as “The Towering Inferno,” “The Poseidon Adventure” and “Airport,” there was “The Hindenburg,” which starred George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft. “Hindenburg,” the 2011 mini-series, resembles the 1975 movie in that they both end in tragedy and blimps seem not to be a good option for trans-Atlantic journeys. I don’t care what Shamu, Charlie Brown and a Goodyear have to say about it. They take the conspiracy theories as fact and include the dramatic eyewitness account of the disaster by WLS radio announcer Herbert Morrison. Even from Day One, conspiracy theorists have kicked around the idea that someone had it out for the zeppelin, either as an act of resistance to Nazism or a dangerous game played by rival superpowers. There are other, more scientific theories, of course, but what fun would it be to prove them correct. What makes the case for a bomb planted on the ship so delicious is the necessity for any plotter to have taken into account the possibility of a very late arrival. Because the Hindenburg was delayed by 12 hours, the possibility of the bomb detonating with the passengers still on board was almost a sure bet. Conversely, it also would reveal the perpetrator while he or she was still on the vessel, as it likely be the person sweating like a marathon runner in Miami. There are plenty of suspects in “Hindenburg,” and they aren’t limited to pro- and anti-Nazi sentiments. Here, Philipp Kadelbach borrows a page from Stanley Kramer’s star-studded drama “Ship of Fools,” in which there’s a storyline for each individual character and the long shadow of Nazism stretches from Berlin to Mexico. Some of the ones tossed into “Hindenburg” are pretty flimsy. There’s nothing here that would rule out viewing by anyone over 10, even considering the number of casualties at the movie’s end. Because “Hindenburg” is a largely German production, the only two actors Americans are likely to recognize are Stacy Keach and Greta Scacchi.

Burton and Taylor” is the second made-for-TV movie about the royal couple to air in the last year, or so. Nothing the first is quite so revealing as the sequence that opens the picture. Looking back at the first time he met Elizabeth Taylor, years earlier, Richard Burton wistfully recalls, “When she walked onto the ‘Cleopatra’ soundstage, she was just tits and makeup.” He says that it didn’t take long before he would be overwhelmed, not only by her presence, but also her ability to disappear within her character. “Watching the rushes, you could see that, while I was acting Antony, she was Cleopatra.” Flash forward to 1983, we watch, almost in horror, as Taylor breezes through the performers’ entrance of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre almost an hour late for the Opening Night performance of “Private Lives,” trailing an entourage that includes four noisy and puffed-up dogs and a parrot. If something is askew, you can’t read it on her face. In these few moments, we recognize what their two marriages must have been like … at once glamorous and volcanic. As played by Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West, the Richard and Elizabeth we meet in 1983 are in the autumn of their years and winters of their careers. Burton is still trying to wean himself from booze, if not the spotlight, while Taylor is only now coming to grips with her own addictions. Both, of course, are as addicted to each other as any manufactured inebriant. Not so coincidentally, perhaps, Noel Coward’s comedy mirrors the public perception of the couple. It was panned in the press, but audiences would pay a small fortune just to say they were there. If “Burton and Taylor” spends more time backstage than anywhere else, it’s because that was where the action was, now that they were married to other people. As much as enjoyed watching Lindsay Lohan play the diva in “Liz & Dick,” the BBC production is clearly the better show. Its biggest problem is absence of fact-checking in some parts. I doubt many casual viewers will even notice the goofs, though.

As is almost always the case when comparing a remake of a great movie or adaptation of a classic novel, the first question that needs to be asked is, “Why bother?” Among the better reasons are to contemporize a narrative, restore ideas eliminated in the previous adaptation, give a contemporary actor or director an opportunity to put their stamp on the material or to correct mistakes. The worst reasons are to exploit the economies that derive from working with material in the public domain and already familiar to audiences. PBS wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for such presentations, though. Upgrading a title to take advantage of advanced technology can be the sharpest of all double-edged sorts and daring to remake anything by Alfred Hitchcock borders on the foolhardy. The BBC decided to take a chance on adapting Ethel Lina White’s story, “The Wheel Spins,” which, as “The Lady Vanishes,” Hitchcock had already done so well in 1938 (and Hammer Film Production had done not so well in 1979, with Cybill Shepherd, Angela Lansbury and Elliot Gould). Here, I think the best answer to “Why bother?,” is that it hasn’t been done in a long while and adding color might make it more accessible to contemporary audiences. It also restores some of the harmless revisions Hitchcock made to the story. Iris Carr (Tuppence Middleton) is travelling across Europe by train, when she unwittingly becomes embroiled in a spot of pre-WWII bother. Veteran BBC director Diarmuid Lawrence’s production is entirely watchable, even if it can’t compete in the department of thrills and intrigue. For that, I encourage viewers to return to Hitch’s version.

Is it possible that the popularity of “Downton Abbey” might spark an interest in previous “Masterpiece” productions, most of them based on the works of great British writers. Volume 1 of PBS’ “Classic English Literature Collection,” released a year ago, was comprised of “Great Expectations,” “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights” and “Northanger Abbey.” The new edition offers adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” Jane Austen s “Mansfield Park,” Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and and E. M. Forster’s “A Room With a View,” all of which are up to the same standards applied to “Downton Abbey” and other originals. Each set contains rare memorabilia, reproduced from the National Archives and British Library in London. These include hand-written letters from all four authors, illustrations, portraits and photographs.

The odyssey of British adventurer Sir Ernest Shackleton is as exciting a tale as any in the history of exploration. A hundred years ago, Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition met with disaster when his ship, The Endurance, sank after being crushed by ice. The expedition had to be scratched, of course, but 28 crewmen were required to endure two years of agony awaiting rescue. Shackleton’s heroic leadership in the face of almost certain death would save their lives, but not before he was able to cross the treacherous Southern Ocean in a small boat and conquer an uncharted mountain range on South Georgia Island on the way to a whaling outpost. A century later, modern-day explorer and scientist Tim Jarvis, along with a team of five other brave men, would attempt to re-create the 800-nautical-mile sail from Elephant Island to the abandoned station. If they were to succeed, it would have to be in a vessel, equipment and clothes that exactly replicated those of Shackleton’s team. The only significant difference between the two would be the rescue and communications ship that followed Jarvis from a short distance and 100 years of hindsight that told them it could be done, if not easily. As a cameraman accompanying the team would document, the modern mission was extremely hard on the men. Weather conditions hadn’t changed and the sea and mountains are every bit as formidable now as then. “Chasing Shackleton” tells an amazing story of superhuman courage and perseverance. Need I also point out the inspirational value of such adventures? Oh, yeah, the entire trek tool place in temperatures as a low as any experienced in the current nation-wide cold wave. There’s no room for weather wimps in the Antarctic. – Gary Dretzka

My Dog the Champion
Finding Faith
Geronimo Stilton: Intrigue on the Rodent Express
Lalaloopsy: Friends Are Sew Special
Lego: Chima: The Lion, the Crocodile and the Power of Chi
Kevin and Robin Nation’s story about the reclamation of a dispirited cattle dog is the kind of movie that gives “family entertainment” a good name. Besides teaching an important life lesson to kids about never losing faith in a fallen friend, it features some enthusiastic performances by young Dora Madison Burge (“Friday Night Lights”) and Cody Linley (“Hannah Montana”). The cherry on the sundae, however, is watching creepy old Lance Henriksen play an extremely likeable, if set-in-his-ways Texas cowboy. Even if “My Dog the Champion” is as familiar as a sunny day in L.A., it’s executed with more gusto than most other movies that try to make the same points about coming-of-age in 2014. Madison would be considered a typical city girl, if it weren’t for the fact that her mother is a soldier normally stationed in Afghanistan and she’s been largely raised by her do-gooder grandmother. One summer, while both woman are out of the country, Madison is required to spend a couple of months with gramps. The running gag involves her being so far in the country that she can’t get a signal on her cellphone, a problem her grandfather can’t begin to fathom. It isn’t until she begins to bond with a similarly forlorn dog that something about rural life begins to make sense. Madison sees in Scout qualities that others have given up for lost. While jogging around the countryside with Scout, she encounters a boy around her age training his dog for the annual Youth Trainer Challenge. It isn’t long before they develop a friendship based primarily on their love of dogs. The same is the case with her strained relations with her grandfather, who took the dog in when someone else had given up on him. You can probably guess most of what happens by the time the final credits roll, but not all of them. What I like about this family-friendly product is that the characters aren’t expected to act in certain ungodly ways, simply as an excuse to introduce Jesus Christ into the dialogue. If Madison is caught off-guard by her grandpa’s saying grace before dinner, it’s likely that quite a few viewers would be, as well, by their grandfather leading a prayer before chowing down. I think younger teens will enjoy seeing an old story told in a fresh way.

In the more message-directed drama, “Finding Faith,” Erik Estrada plays Virginia sheriff Mike Brown, a cop who specializes in Internet-related crimes, especially those affecting teenagers. The title character – or title pun, if you will – is a 14-year-old girl who thought she had found a friend in a chat room, but opened herself up to danger, instead. Typically, Faith’s disappearance tests the faith and patience of everyone in her family, town and church. Brown leads the search, as he has in several other such cases. The movie gives him an opportunity to promote the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which teaches lessons all parents and teens need to heed. If that’s considered to be faith-based, I guess anything can. It adds “Introduction to Internet Safety 101,” a 12-page Family Activity Guide and a music video by Grammy Award-winning recording artist Jason Crabb.

And, while we’re on the topic of Dove-approved entertainment, there’s the release of the latest collection of “Geronimo Stilton” episodes, “Intrigue on the Rodent Express.” Popular around the world, Stilton is an editor and writer for the Italian publication, Rodent’s Gazette, As such, he assigns himself to cover events in exotic location, while also working hard to keep his large family from getting themselves into trouble. Being Italian in origin, the cartoons are propelled by a different rhythm and sensibility than American fare for children in the digital era. It only takes a few minutes to get used to Mr. Stilton, however.

Here’s another cartoon character that I didn’t know existed until last week. Although the Lalaloopsy craze appears to have reached its peak three Christmases ago, plenty of dolls, DVDs and accessories are still being sold. Indeed, Lalaloopsy is one of the rare toys that became famous before it produced hit movies and television shows. “Friends Are Sew Special!,” which offers an introduction to crafts, is primarily for the youngest of viewers. In other episodes, a trip to the moon is planned for Dot; preparations for the Princess Parade continue; and a mysterious illness spreads through Lalaloopsy Land. Likewise, the Lego-inspired characters in the “Legends of Chima” series are for kids who have yet to tire of their Lego creations, although these seem to be more streamlined than the blocky creations of yesteryear. “The Lion, the Crocodile and the Power of Chi!” is a two-disc set, containing 10 episodes from the first season. In them the Kingdom of Chima must defend itself from being overrun by any one of eight animal tribes seeking control of a natural resource called Chi. The powerful element is both a source of life and potential destruction, and only a few brave characters understand its true nature. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Long Day Closes, Downton 4, Cloudy 2, Bad Grandpa

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

The Long Day Closes: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Apart from the Beatles, no artist is as associated with Liverpool as director-writer Terence Davies, whose autobiographical dramas and documentaries go well beyond the impact of the Cavern Club on world culture. Even so, it would be difficult to confuse the Liverpool into which Davies was born and the one in which the Fab Four were raised. They’re simply opposite sides of the same street. The Beatles’ music and movies were informed by growing up among Liverpool’s gritty working-class poor and in an unstable post-war economy. The Lennon/McCartney repertoire, especially, would change significantly as the band members became citizens of the world and could afford to seek the meaning of life in London, New York, Hollywood, the British countryside and India. Davies’ work continues to be informed by the harsh conditions of his youth. His father was an abusive alcoholic, who did wife and 10 children a favor by dying before he could do them any more harm. Withdrawn and non-communicative, Davies was bullied daily by his fellow students for being a “sissy.” Another thing he shared with the Beatles was a passion for music. He found sanctuary in movie theaters, where his mother introduced him to musicals from Hollywood. (As he recalls, “Liverpool was gray … Hollywood musicals were bright and gay.”) Davies’ oeuvre also would benefit from a photographic memory of family gatherings and nights at the pubs, during which, as was the custom before television, holidays and special occasions were celebrated in song … ever louder as an evening went along. Released in 1992, after such early triumphs as “The Terence Davies Trilogy” (“Children,” “Madonna and Child,” “Death and Transfiguartion”) and “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” “The Long Day Closes” predated by 16 years his deeply evocative cinematic essay about Liverpool, “Of Time and the City.“ Amazingly, perhaps, his only other filmed work has been “The Neon Bible” (1995), “The House of Mirth” (2000) and “The Deep Blue Sea,” in which Rachel Weisz delivered what many critics considered to be the best performance or 2011. None of his titles have been accorded much of a budget, but Davies was able to wring extraordinary value from every tuppence spent. The Criterion Collection arrives with a high-definition digital restoration and uncompressed stereo soundtrack, with commentary by Davies and director of photography Michael Coulter; a 1992 episode of the British television series, “The South Bank Show,” with Davies, on-set footage, and interviews with cast and crew; new interviews with executive producer Colin MacCabe and production designer Christopher Hobbs; and an essay by critic Michael Koresky. – Gary Dretzka

Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey Season 4: Blu-ray (U.K. Edition)
The fourth season of “Downton Abbey” takes place roughly between the congressional investigation into the Teapot Dome scandal, in which the Countess of Grantham’s crooked American brother was involved, and the rise of Nazism in Germany. The wounds inflicted on her daughter, the recently widowed Lady Mary, have yet to heal and an increasingly delusional Sir Robert remains unwilling to relinquish his tight hold on the estate. But hardcore fans already know that much and more about the mini-series’ likely trajectory during its fourth stanza. With several episodes left to air here, the UK edition of the international sensation already has become available on Blu-ray and DVD. Even though I’ve been allowed to binge on all nine episodes, I promise not to spoil anyone’s fun by revealing the surprises to come. I can say, however, that the current season is more transitional than the previous three. There are fewer bombshells and more new characters than in the last two chapters. With new characters comes the opportunity to introduce new story arcs, including one involving a future monarch. The good news is that the storylines will require another two seasons, at least, us, to work themselves out. Another sign that the characters have finally acknowledged being in the 20th Century is the introduction of a character of color and the arrival of Jazz Age culture at Downton Abbey. The Blu-ray is technically sharp and brighter with the addition of a brighter color palette, as befits the period. Among the bonus feature are “Downton Diaries,” which follow Laura Carmichael (Edith) and Sophie McShera (Daisy) as they prepare for work, with all its costuming and make-up demands; a making-of featurette, costuming work from Caroline McCall, who shares her ideas on character mood conveyed by fashion and “directorial panic”; and “Meet the New Cast,” a brief run-through of the fresh faces for Season Four. – Gary Dretzka

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa: Unrated: Blu-ray
The Starving Games
Unlike previous iterations of the “Jackass” saga, “Bad Grandpa” is driven less by incidents of outrageous behavior and self-destruction, than a narrative that links them together in something resembling a coherent story. Moreover, its most appealing character is a young actor, Jackson Nicoll, who isn’t required to staple his eyelids together or shove a toy car up to win our hearts. “Bad Grandpa” attempts to do two difficult things simultaneously: 1) convince the targets of Johnny Knoxville’s pranks that he truly is an old man capable of doing great harm to himself and the child he’s escorting across the country; and 2) it’s OK to laugh at gags that would be considered child abuse in most states. That it works as well as it does can only be credited to the ability of Knoxville to withstand great pain, maintain his composure and appreciate the thin line between acting and suicide. That, or no one’s told him that the Three Stooges didn’t use real tools when beating the crap out of each other. Here, Bad Grandpa Irving Zisman has been entrusted with the safety of 9-year-old Billy, after the boy’s crack-addicted mother is sent to prison in Nebraska. His birth father is a low-life North Carolina slacker, whose primary reason for taking the boy in is the $600 monthly stipend that would keep him in pot and booze. The boy’s grandmother died recently, as well, so Grandpa figures he can avoid the cost of a funeral by dropping her body off somewhere along the way. Billy’s in no hurry to be handed over to Daddy Dearest, but he knows a good time when he sees one. While Grandpa’s out making up for lost time in the romance department – it’s as disturbing as it sounds — Billy is capable of getting into mischief of his own making. That, at least, is what passes for a plot in “Bad Grandpa.” And, yes, even after seeing half of the gags in trailers for the movie, very little is lost in the translation to the small screen. Even the most jaded of critics – myself included – found something outrageously funny here. On the flip side, it’s also easy to feel sorry for the innocent victims of a gag – wedding guests, funeral attendees, good Samaritans – some of whom could have had a heart attack before the “reveal” was revealed. The bonus material adds a featurette on the creation and rehearsal of some of the pranks, deleted scenes and alternate takes.

At a time when the vast majority of all teen comedies appear to have been created as parodies of themselves, it’s difficult to imagine a real good reason for the existence of such half-baked sendups as “The Starving Games,” “Meet the Spartans,” “Disaster Movie,” “Vampires Suck,” “Not Another Teen Movie” and “30 Nights of Paranormal Activity with the Devil Inside the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” (One clue: if they didn’t make money, even in the tainted straight-to-video market, they wouldn’t get made.) Such parodies don’t cost much to make; production values are intentionally laughable; the basic framework is already there and the gags aren’t required to amuse anyone over 16. The current trend began with Keenen Ivory Wayans’ “Scary Movie,” a spoof that was inspired by the same tropes and conventions that, to a lesser degree, Kevin Williamson toyed with in his stunningly successful “Scream.” Where Williamson employed a scalpel to make his point about genre cliches, however, Wayans picked up a machine-gun and shot holes in them. The new breed appear to have been influenced more by Mad magazine’s gag-a-frame approach to parody than anything by Mel Brooks, the Wayans, Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker or Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. The first twist in “The Starving Games” is the title, which tells potential viewers that a working knowledge of “The Hunger Games” might be necessary, if not essential to fully enjoy it. In my opinion, the best thing in Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer’s film was their decision to change the protagonist’s name from Katniss Everdeen to Kantmiss Evershot. Otherwise, the script bounces between jokes linked to “Hunger Games,” “The Avengers,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “Harry Potter” and “The Expendables.”  – Gary Dretzka

The Fifth Estate: Blu-ray
If ever a movie gave off the odor of disaster going into it, it was “The Fifth Estate.” The smell may not have been perceptible in Hollywood, where too many nostrils have been destroyed by too much cocaine, but there it was, anyway, waiting to be sniffed. While there’s nothing wrong with the film’s execution, the premise was dead on arrival. Even so, it appears as if every effort was made to create a thrilling behind-the-scenes look at a scandal that continues to haunt the country’s leaders and besmirch our reputation on the world stage. The combination of director Bill Condon and white-hot actor Benedict Cumberbatch promised good things; possibly a nomination or two. (Cumberbatch was awarded BAFTA’s Britannia prize as the British Actor of the Year.)  It wasn’t nearly enough to overcome the public’s ambivalence over the WikiLeaks scandal and the perceived arrogance of the site’s founder, Julian Assange. Before the release of the secret memos, WikiLeaks was treated in the media as if it were just another tool of left-wing paranoids. It won over the mainstream media when the information proved to be accurate and Assange took them under the Big Top with him. It accorded him the dubious distinction of being the world’s most-wanted man by law-enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world and a must-get interview subject for major newspapers, magazines and television newsmagazines. It took a lot of work for “60 Minutes” producers to land an interview with Assange, who came off as uptight and self-righteous, no matter his accomplishment. The secrets revealed by WikiLeaks were, at once, undeniably shocking and embarrassing to all concerned. They also posed a real threat to confidential sources working with the U.S. and its allies in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Because of this, the White House used all of it resources to smoke him out of shadows, just as it’s doing now with Edward Snowden.

So, the story lacks nothing in the drama department. Like many other dramatic stories, however, this one plays better on the printed page, in this case “WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website,” by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, and “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” by Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding. Even those of us who fear that the U.S. is on the verge of becoming the most hated country on the planet were made queasy by Assange’s cavalier attitude toward the disclosure of state secrets in the CBS interview. By comparison, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg was contrite to the point of being apologetic. It neutralized Cumberbatch’s excellent performance and Condon’s innovative approach to the subject matter. In an interview here, the director says he was most concerned about re-creating the natural drama of the situation from the point-of-view of the computer jockeys who did the scud work on the files sent to them. And while there aren’t many things as dull as watching people, no matter how committed, sitting in front of their screens and pounding keys, he found a way to pull it off. He animated the process by which information is shared and disseminated, Ultimately, though, when the essential question, “Hero or traitor?,” is asked of Assange, the most neutral of all possible answers has been, “Neither … antihero.” It didn’t help revenues that Assange has chosen to avoid extradition to Sweden, by accepting the protection of a foreign embassy in London, instead of standing up to his accusers on this matter and in relation to a suspicious sexual-assault investigation in Sweden. None of that should be held against the filmmakers, though. “The Fifth Estate” is well-made, well-acted and provocative, and WikiLeaks has proven itself to be a valuable asset in the pursuit of the truth in a lousy war. The Blu-ray adds “The Submission Platform: Visual Effects”; a dissection of the film’s “Rubberhose” set, with Condon and Production Designer Mark Tildesley; “In-Camera: Graphics,” a look at the computer text, WikiLeaks programs, virtual communication, projections and other elements realized via practical effects; and “Scoring Secrets,” in which composer Carter Burwell discusses his eclectic score. – Gary Dretzka

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2
The question going into “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” wasn’t if it would appeal to at least as many fans of the original animated feature, but how much the absence of the legendary Mr. T would impact box-office results. I’m kidding, of course. Who knows, though, what spells success and failure in the sequel game? Viewers probably won’t notice the difference between Mr. T’s voice in “CWACOM1” and Terry Crews’ in the same role of the gruff cop, Earl Devereaux, as much as how the original story deviates from the source material. “CWACOM1” was true to the short, but extremely popularbook found in every primary-school library. In the sequel, Judi and Ron Barrett are solely credited with inspiring the characters. Anyone expecting “CWACOM2” to resemble the Barrett’s sequel to the original book, “Pickles to Pittsburgh,” is going to be surprised, if not particularly disappointed. That’s because it’s a logical follow-up to the events that closed No. 1. It picks up immediately after the disastrous food storm that left Swallow Falls buried in meatballs. It’s a real mess and no one is unhappy to see Flint Lockwood and his pals pack up and leave town. It isn’t long before someone resuscitates the food-creating machine, which was believed to have been destroyed. Now, however, it’s spitting out “sentient food beasts” (a.k.a., foodimals), which are threatening the world’s food supply. Like the fantastical characters in a Dr. Seuss book, the hybrid creatures carry the names of their separate parts. A Fruit Cockatiel, for example, is a bird comprised of several fruits, while a Hippotatomus is potato with a hippo-like body; a Shrimpanzee is a crustacean in chimpanzee drag; a Cheespider is a cheeseburger in the form of a spider; Mosquitoasts are toasted bread in the form of the mosquitoes; Bananostrichs are bananas with the characteristics of ostriches; Flamangos are mangoes crossed with flamingos; and Watermelophants combine watermelons with elephants. You get the picture. If the story itself doesn’t require much brain strain, “CWACOM2” is truly a feast for the eyes, especially in Blu-ray and 3D. The generous bonus package adds informative commentary by directors Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn; a quartet of animated “mini-movies”; several deleted scenes; a featurette on production design that expands on the film’s narrative changes from the original; a discussion about the cast of characters with voice actors Bill Hader, Anna Faris, Neil Patrick Harris, Benjamin Bratt, Andy Samberg, Terry Crews, James Caan, Will Forte and Kristen Schaa; a piece on the digital composition of the foodimals; a close look at the entertaining final-credits sequence; a “La Da Dee” music video and backgrounder, with Cody Simpson; “Building the Foodimals,” with senior animation supervisor Peter Nash; “Delicious Production Design,” with production designer Justin Thompson; and “The Mysterious Sasquash,” in which VFX supervisor Peter Travers takes viewers on a tour of the background “Easter egg” character’s appearances and backstory. – Gary Dretzka

A Perfect Man
As every moviegoer not allergic to romantic dramas and comedies already knows, inside every “perfect couple” lurks a disaster waiting to happen. In “A Perfect Man,” the versatile Liev Schreiber plays the outwardly perfect husband of Jeanne Tripplehorn, who we’re given no reason to believe isn’t perfect in her own way. Without wasting much time, cinematographer-turned-director Kees Van Oostrum demonstrates just how imperfect James is by exposing his infidelity. Because Nina has already been treated to James’ horndog behavior, we’re left to wonder if she’ll finally woman-up and dump the cad or give him yet another chance. We’re surprised that she chooses to call him out at a party thrown for their anniversary and order him out of their swank Amsterdam apartment. At this point, “A Perfect Man” could go in a couple different Hollywood-approved directions, both of which lead to reconciliation. Instead, writers Larry Brand and Peter Elkoff contrived a couple of narrative conceits that avoid the obvious, even as they push the story to edge of credulity. One risks turning the movie into a gimmicky Nora Ephraim rom-com, while the other is almost too weird to hold water for more than a few minutes. Considering how dull most of these relationship dramas are, I kind of enjoyed the off-the-wall detour and unexpected ending. The best thing about “A Perfect Man,” by far, is the Amsterdam setting and Van Oostrum’s ability to incorporate several of the city’s more interesting facets, including the contrast between its old and new architecture. The mix of supporting characters, as befits an international city, is also pretty interesting. If the movie collapses around the edges, it’s probably because it was completed in 2000, under the horrifying working titles of “Dial 9 for Love” and “Men Are Dogs,” and shelved until 2012, when the money needed to complete it was raised. “A Perfect Man” isn’t close to being a perfect film, but, by providing a different take on an old story, it should please fans of the stars, at least. – Gary Dretzka

Dark Touch
Argento’s Dracula: Blu-ray 3D
Antisocial
It isn’t often that a French director of any prominence travels to Ireland to make what some critics could dismiss as a genre picture. As both an actor and writer, Marina de Van has previously collaborated with Francois Ozon on “Under the Sand,” “See the Sea,” “8 Women.” In her own features — “In My Skin,” “Don’t Look Book” – she’s shown a real talent for disturbing audiences. If I were to guess about the fate of “Dark Touch” in DVD, it would be that the movie likely will find home in the category indiscriminately reserved for horror. The cover art, alone, makes it a perfect fit. Then, too, natural comparisons to “Carrie” argue in favor of ghettoizing it among other horror titles, where, at least, it can be easily located. In both movies, the protagonist is a girl with telekinetic powers she doesn’t fully understand and can barely control. Here, 11-year-old Neve survives a mysterious and bloody massacre in her family’s isolated country house. Petrified, she’s given shelter in the home of family friends, who aren’t any more able to get through to her than her teachers and social workers. In her mind, it’s an evil force within the house that caused furniture, electrical system and kitchen utensils to act as if they had minds of their own. The same thing happens, though, when she witnesses the abuse of two other children at the hands of their parents. It doesn’t take long for Neve’s contemporaries to come under her weird spell, disfiguring dolls and freaking out their parents. A firmer understanding of her powers evolves as she transitions into puberty and, as was the case in “Carrie,” the results aren’t pretty. John Conroy’s cinematography keeps the story’s darkness from overwhelming what’s happening in the shadows on screen. If De Van continues to work the dark side of the street, there’s a very good chance that she’ll become one of the leading proponents of arthouse horror.

Dario Argento’s name still carries weight among purveyors of horror flicks, often spelling the difference between distribution and oblivion. That recognition can also spell disaster if the movie – in this case, a totally unnecessary adaptation of “Dracula” – gets crushed by critics in both genre websites and the mainstream press. Horror’s become a young filmmaker’s game and, at 73, Argento’s been making genre pictures longer than most of them have been alive. Each new title, then, demands comparisons to his best work — “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” and “Suspira” among them – made when he was in his prime. It isn’t fair, but what is? Critics love to take potshots at really large targets and Argento is one of the biggest. “Dracula 3D,” not to be confused with “Dracula 3000,” took a real beating, before it was pulled from theatrical release. In DVD, however, I think it is just good enough to painlessly kill a couple of hours. It’s created from the traditional “Dracula” template and spiced with giallo-inspired sex, violence and garish cinematography. What it lacks is an abundance of narrative logic and state-of-the-art effects. The international cast includes Thomas Kretschmann, as the count; Rutger Hauer, as Van Helsingl; and Spain’s Unax Ugalde, as the count’s librarian. More to the point, perhaps, are the extraordinarily beautiful Italian damsels, whose pulsing veins and bodacious ta-ta’s Argento’s monsters have always found to irresistible. Here, they include Marta Gastini, Maria Cristina Heller, Miriam Giovanelli and his daughter, Asia. The Blu-ray and HD3D extras include a behind-the-scenes piece and red-band trailer.

In the very decent Canadian export, “Antisocial,” writers Chad Archibald and Cody Calahan imagine a scenario in which killer viruses not only can sweep through the population at large, but also spread  through social-media sites on the Internet. In horror movies, this means that walls and boarded up windows no longer can protect people from the forces that linger outside. Here, guests at a New Year’s Eve party go about the revelry mostly oblivious to the zombie apocalypse. It isn’t until the diseased souls begin scratching at the door that the revelers sense something has gone terribly wrong. Safe for the moment, the guests do what comes naturally in 2014 by heading straight to their laptops and hand-held devises to share their feelings on social websites. Just as a virus spreads from one infected computer to another, so, too, does the deadly terror jump from screen to bloodstream. Considering that no one’s ventured outside the party, however, a new sort of guessing game begins among the guests. Things get gory, of course, but that only adds to the thrills. – Gary Dretzka

The Insomniac
Once again, Danny Trejo is being used as bait – this time, alongside old-pro John Heard – in a movie dominated by other actors, whose performances are far more essential to the story. That isn’t to say their presence isn’t welcome in “The Insomniac,” only that truth-in-advertising laws don’t seem to apply in the world of DVDs and Blu-ray. Co-writer and star Eddy Salazar plays one of those bright young men who appears to have everything going for him and, for the first 15 minutes of the movie, actually does. It isn’t until John Figg returns to his boyhood home to attend to the affairs of his recently deceased father that things begin to go sideways in his life. In separate incidents that are left almost completely unexplained throughout the movie, his father’s vintage convertible is stolen from in front of his home and, within hours, intruders ransack the house and kill his dog. When the police are unable to find the culprits in what Figg considers to be due time, he grows ever more paranoid and begins his own investigation. Unable to sleep, he begins to spy on his neighbors’ kids. His fatigue also causes him to act erratically at work, where he recently was anointed the new Golden Boy. Instead of paying attention to accounts, including one belonging to a reformed gangster played by Trejo, he simply ignores his duties. This causes his boss (Heard) to lose faith in him and Trejo to threaten his life. Figg even begins to doubt the loyalty of his faithful fiancé, who sticks with him as long as she possibly can, but no further. If director Marty Miranda’s study in abject paranoia isn’t nearly as clever as Christopher Nolan and Erik Skjoldbjærg’s twin versions of “Insomnia,” the effects of no sleep over a prolonged period of time are the same. – Gary Dretzka

Nicholas Sparks: Limited Edition Collection
This collection of movies based on Nicholas Sparks’ novels would be easy to recommend – especially considering the proximity of Valentine’s Day — if it didn’t lack Blu-ray options and “The Last Song” were also included. I assume that “The Last Song,” which starred the formerly betrothed Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth, wasn’t included due to its financial ties to Touchstone/Disney. It’s available elsewhere, though, so no great loss, I guess. Still … studios should get off their high horses and figure out a way to cooperate on these things. Instead, “Nicholas Sparks: Limited Edition Collection” is comprised of “Safe Haven,” “The Lucky One,” “Dear John,” “Nights in Rodanthe,” “The Notebook,” “A Walk to Remember” and “Message in a Bottle.” Romantics should know ahead of time to bring an extra box of tissues to their binge party. The boxed set adds such new bonus features as a personal letter from the author and photo cards with scenes from the movies. Vintage material includes closed captioning, alternate endings, deleted scenes; outtakes, commentaries, interviews, filmographies, music videos, screen tests and making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
PBS: African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross
PBS: Lincoln @ Gettysburg
PBS: The State of Arizona
A&E: Bonnie & Clyde: Blu-ray
While there is nothing positive to say about the slavery, there are many valuable things yet to learn from the institution, beyond the outrages on display in “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained.” In the PBS mini-series, “African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. follows the roots of slavery back to Africa, then chronicles the history of the descendants from bondage to the White House. Unlike the cursory overviews provided us in high school history classes and entry-level black-studies courses, “Many Rivers to Cross” introduces us to a surprising array of unsung men and women and achievements not limited to those of George Washington Carver and Jackie Robinson. Moreover, the archival material on display in the six-hour series offers images rarely seen outside museums and libraries. Many of the interviews are conducted on location – Underground Railroad sites, plantations, battlefields — with people who couldn’t be characterized as “the usual suspects.” As important as historical accuracy and diversity are the balanced profiles of activists, once vilified by politicians, editorial writers and conservatives of all stripe for being too “uppity” or radical. Successes in all fields of endeavor are recognized. They all are shown to be part of a vast unfinished tapestry 500 years in the making. (Noticeably missing, however, are Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and conservative opinion-makers.)

Among the many interesting things in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” are the scenes in which the President is personally monitoring telegraph communications in a large room in the War Department. They immediately recalled photos of President Obama in White House’s war room, monitoring the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s hideout, only half a world away. Just as high-tech communications have helped the U.S. in its overseas wars, the telegraph provided an edge to the forces of the Union not available to Southern generals. PBS’ “Lincoln@Gettysburg” expands on those scenes from “Lincoln” by demonstrating how the system worked at a critical juncture in the Civil War, until Southern forces discovered a link on their way to Gettysburg and temporarily took it out. It frustrated Lincoln to be out of the loop for such a long period of time, but, at least one important decision was made outside the chain of command that might have helped him claim victory at Gettysburg. Still, the excruciating wait for information from the battlefield must have been similar to that of NASA officials awaiting to hear the voices of our first astronauts after losing radio communications on re-entry. The episode goes on to chronicle Lincoln’s decision to visit Gettysburg, his speech there and its rapid dissemination.

And, now for something completely different, also on PBS: the “Independent Lens” presentation,
The State of Arizona,” explores the many ways legislators there have tried to suppress the influx of undocumented workers entering this country through the border separating the U.S. and Arizona. The producers’ stated intention was to present all sides of the issue from a variety of points of view, not simply that of liberals and activists. That they do. Sadly, the loudest voices are those of rabidly conservative Arizonans who try to disguise their prejudices with arguments that boil down to “the illegals are breaking the law and that can’t be tolerated here” and “we need really, really tough laws to protect our state from being overrun by criminals intent on clogging Arizona’s schools and hospitals.” To a man (and woman), the conservatives insist the U.S. stole the Southwest fair and square from the Native American population and Mexico, to which Arizona once belonged. A photo of John Wayne in a restaurant nearly elicits tears from one decidedly right-win state senator. Blessedly, their defense of racial profiling and harassment of minorities is balanced by the testimony of victims of the new laws and white Arizonans who understand that the issue is far more complicated than legislators make it out to be and their state is losing face and business to the fanatics. They also feel as if time is being wasted in the legislature arguing about creating ever-tougher laws, when other pressing matters are being ignored. The center of the debate here is Arizona’s SB1070, “papers please” law, which requires police to check the IDs of everyone who “could” be in the country illegally. This, of course, effectively opens searches to anyone darker than your average part-time resident from Illinois. We see cops pulling over drivers for the flimsiest of reasons and detaining people of color overnight for cracked taillights and other minor infractions. The cops are also free to confiscate the cars of a brown-skinned people whose crime is a lapsed license or unpaid ticket. The producers didn’t have to look too far for examples of over-exuberant policing and racial profiling. They’re everywhere. Community organizers have successfully rallied the community against the passage of more draconian laws, but the real test will come at the ballot box. And, yes, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Governor Jan Brewster are given far too much time to spew their venom.

In something of an unfortunate coincidence, TMC aired Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” within a few hours of my screening of the two-part made-for-cable movie of the same title. The four-hour event, which was simultaneously shown across all A&E Networks channels, is a rather decent entertainment, well-made and occasionally exciting. In comparison to Penn’s classic, however, it’s what a Mercedes-Benz limousine is to a Volkswagen Bug. No offense to the far-better-than-adequate VW, but the Benz is a classic and always will be. Aussie director Bruce Beresford, who’s done some first-class work over a career that’s lasted more than 50 years, does what he can with a budget that is far less than what would be necessary to approximate the original “B&C.” In fact, the two stories very much resemble each other. Emile Hirsch (“Into the Wild”) and Holliday Grainger (“The Borgias”) may lack the same star quality as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the same roles, but they make an attractive, if toxic couple. Even so, Beresford’s budget was no match for the combined creative alerts of Penn, writers David Newman, Robert Benton and Robert Towne, and cinematographer Burnett Guffey. Modern technology did allow him to create action sequences that are, if anything, more excruciatingly violent than those in its predecessor. And, for some viewers, that will constitute a huge plus. The Blu-ray extras include, “Iconography: The Story of Bonnie & Clyde,” in which cast and crew analyze the story and myth of Bonnie and Clyde; “Becoming Bonnie” and “Becoming Clyde,” detailed looks at Hirsch and Grainger’s casting and performance; and “A Legendary Story Revisited,” about fleshing out the origins story of B&C, the writing process, taking liberties with the truth and playing on themes of predetermination and destiny. – Gary Dretzka

The Booker
Michael Perkins’ documentary “The Booker” describes a former pro wrestler’s attempt to launch a competitor to the WWE. As such, it’s a little like watching a garage mechanic attempt to build a better Model T. While it’s probably possible to do it, why waste the time, energy and money for so little return? But, what the heck, since it isn’t our time, energy and money being wasted, why not watch? Perkins followed Steve Scarborough around for four years as the native Hawaiian struggled to build a wrestling empire from scratch in the boonies of Georgia. In that time, Scarborough’s operation has evolved from being a four-student training school to a traveling wrestling show capable of attracting crowds in the low, er, thousands. It’s obvious that Scarborough is a man on a mission from God, because what he really wants to do is return a modicum of purity to a “sport” that’s become little more than vaudeville on steroids. God bless him, he really thinks that pro wrestling is losing fans to the MMA crowd over the absence of traditional values. As absurd as it sounds, Scarborough has a competitive spirit and can-do personality that easily overcome the obvious futility of his quest. It isn’t often, though, that the inner workings of a choreographed sport are shown in all of their naked glory. Perkins isn’t at all interested in exposing the secrets of the game. Instead, he focuses on the determination of everyone involved to succeed against all odds. “The Booker” isn’t the most polished of documentaries, but diehard wrestling aficionados should find it interesting. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Blue Jasmine: Blu-ray
Although Meryl Streep shows few signs of slowing down, her rival for top gun in this year’s Best Actress category, Cate Blanchett, has been made the prohibitive favorite in the contest. For her brilliant work in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” she’s already been rewarded every prize worth winning, but, if she loses, I wouldn’t be the first to call for an inquest. As is evidenced in Allen’s San Francisco-set dramedy, Blanchett shares with Streep the ability to disappear so far into her roles that she’s almost unrecognizable. Career-wise, her dance card is filled at least through 2015, with jobs in nine typically diverse pictures. (In “The Monuments Men,” due next month, she reteams with George Clooney in another WWII drama.) No matter what anyone thinks about the rest of “Blue Jasmine” – an unqualified critical and commercial success for Allen – Blanchett’s interpretation of a New York socialite driven to the edge of sanity by her husband’s financial missteps is worth the price of a ticket or rental, alone. Actually, we’re introduced to two Jasmines in the same body here. The one we meet in flashbacks is a snobby Material Girl, who prefers not to know how her financier husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), maintains his fortune. She sits on the boards of important Big Apple charities and institutions and is too blind to notice her husband’s philandering. The second Jasmine is a woman very much like the first, except zoned out on Xanax and an emotional wreck. She still flies first-class and carries Louis Vuitton bags, but there’s no guarantee she’ll ever be able to pay her credit-card debt. She’s on her way to San Francisco to impose herself on the adopted sister she barely acknowledges. In a flashback, we learn how Hal swindled the life savings of working-class Ginger and Augie (Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay) when they were visiting New York. Although Jasmin remains delusional as to her own role in causing her sister’s financial problems and divorce – more than one critic has compared her to Blanche DuBois — she expects Ginger to forgive and forget. The rest of the story involves both of the precisely-drawn sisters’ search for recovery. If there’s one character with whom Allen has consistently nailed in his movies, it’s the pampered socialite. He’s been less perceptive about men and women from the blue-collar sector. Here, Clay does what he can with a character very much like the one he impersonates on the comedy circuit. As soon as Augie and Ginger catch a break by winning $200,000 in the lottery, he allows himself to be talked into investing it in one of Hal’s get-rich-quick schemes.

Nevertheless, the newly broke sisters are reunited in Ginger’s tidy San Francisco flat, which would be considered a bargain at $2,000 a month. With Augie in her rear-view mirror and kids to feed, Ginger settles for another rough-hewn chap, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), who sees right through Jasmine, but is about as classy as the average Oakland Raiders fan. Allen isn’t cruel to either man, but the galoots clearly aren’t worthy of Ginger’s attention. Hawkins was deservedly awarded a nomination as Best Supporting Actress in “Blue Jasmine,” but is nowhere near the mortal lock that Blanchett appears to be. Like Cannavale, Baldwin and Clay, standup comic Louis C.K. does a nice job as Ginger’s friend and Allen’s surrogate. As usual, the Blu-ray package is devoid of any insight by Allen, but replete with EPK material. – Gary Dretzka

The Prey: Blu-ray Terraferma: Blu-ray Anyone who fell in love with Guillaume Canet’s French adaptation of Harlan Coben’s thriller, “Tell No One,” should find a copy of “The Prey.” While no carbon copy of Canet’s exciting story of devious deception and confused identity, “The Prey” shares the same paranoid tone and frantic energy. Here, veteran hard-guy actor Albert Dupontel plays a convicted bank robber, Franck Adrien, who breaks out of prison with eight months left on his sentence to protect his wife and daughter from his former cellmate Jean-Louis Maurel (Stéphane Debac). Although the alleged pedophile was anything but a monster in stir – even refusing to take breaks with other inmates — it’s easy to see there’s something fishy about him. Frank had believed his story about being set up and protected him against being beaten by prisoners offended by his crime. Because Franck had been beaten, himself, by prisoners hoping to find out where he’d hidden the money from his last bank job, he could appreciate how it felt to be targeted by three psychopaths and a sadistic guard. In feigned gratitude for protecting him, Maurel asks Franck to call him when he gets out. Before that could happen, however, Maurel commits an act so foul, it effectively nullifies any positive feelings we may have mustered towards him. When Franck loses contact with his wife and daughter, he knows that he must act fast to avoid another tragedy. Unfortunately, the police don’t put 2 and 2 together when the desperate felon escapes, leaving behind a trail of blood leading from the penitentiary to his empty home. Throughout the rest of movie, the former cellmates take turns being “the prey” in a chase that covers most of France and ends on a steep precipice in the Alps. Not all of the mainstream critics enjoyed “The Prey” as much as I did, but tough bananas. It’s good. Even with the subtitles, I think Americans could find a lot to like here. The characters are compelling and the narrative switchbacks enhance the tension in the narrative. (Any one of a dozen Hollywood leading men could make a reasonable facsimile of Franck in a remake.) The police aren’t made to look like buffoons, but it takes a kick-ass blond detective (Alice Taglione) to keep them from killing the wrong man. The Blu-ray arrives with an interview with director Eric Valette and informative making-of featurette, which explains some of the trickier stunts.

Also from the increasingly valuable distributor, Cohen Media Group, is the ambitious Italian rom/com/dram, “Terraferma,” which is set on the volcanic island, Linosa (equidistant from Sicily, Tunisia and Malta). Until recently, the male population of Linosa focused almost entirely on fishing for its livelihood, while the women minded the gardens and popped out kids. Boats were handed down from father to son, while grandsons learned by doing. As “Terraferma” opens, local fishermen are losing a battle against corporate overfishing and the litter polluting the beaches. The smart thing to do is convert the boats for use in the summer tourist trade, but some holdouts remain. The patriarch of the protagonist family resists the transition, but, after mourning the off-screen death of a son, allows his grandson, Filippo, to talk him into using the decrepit boat for tourist treks. They run afoul of local authorities when they rescue a few undocumented African immigrants from drowning. Apparently, Italy is dealing with the same immigration problems faced by communities in the American Southwest and people have lost patience with the problem. The grandfather is offended by a policeman who says that he should have allowed a pregnant Ethiopian refugee and her son to drown, rather than bringing them ashore or steering them toward an approaching government vessel. He argues that such a thing was forbidden by the law of the sea, which traditionally has superseded the laws of Italy. The old man also stands up to islanders who fear the immigrants will scare off the annual influx of young tourists, to whom the locals rent their homes and cook for each summer. There’s no greater buzz-kill, after all, than the sight of bloated bodies washing onto pristine beaches. With grandpa’s boat is in the hands of the cops, Filippo must find other means to carry tourists to more remote attractions. When on a romantic moonlight cruise with a pretty tourist from the north, he’s forced to take a personal stand of the immigration issue. No sooner does his guest get topless than Filippo spots a couple dozen desperate souls making a beeline to his boat. How he ultimately handles his moral dilemma tells us everything we need to know about Filippo and his family, on the subject. It also asks viewers to consider how they’re react if confronted with the surprise appearance of a couple dozen exhausted Mexicans in their backyard one morning.

Writer/director Emanuele Crialese has already dealt with similar issues in the deeply affecting “Golden Door,” which was presented on DVD by Martin Scorsese, and the island-set “Respiro.” He’s a master storyteller and a craftsman, intimately aware of what makes Sicily and the southern islands so special. It arrives with a featurette that explains how difficult it sometimes is to make a movie on an island, surrounded by old-timers who may never have seen one. – Gary Dretzka

Machete Kills: Blu-ray Among the many Latino performers who deserve to be represented on the Hollywood Walk of Fame more than, say, Shakira and Ricky Martin, is Danny Trejo (and Cheech Marin, for that matter). Since being released from San Quentin and cleaning up from a drug addiction, Trejo’s name has been attached to some 270 movies and television productions. Not all of them have been world-beaters, of course, but there’s no denying the commercial appeal – and that’s all that really counts on the HWoF – of the characters with whom he’s currently most identified. He’s played Machete in all four “Spy Kids” movies, as well as in “Grindhouse,” “Planet Terror” and the two “Machete” pictures. He was Razor Charlie in “From Dusk Until Dawn” and Navajas in “Desperado.” All have been directed Robert Rodriguez, a San Antonio native who also deserves a star on the boulevard. Rodriguez has said that he wrote the screenplay for “Machete” in 1993 when he cast Trejo in “Desperado.” Machete would be a Mexican federale who moonlights as a machete-for-hire for dangerous jobs in the U.S. It took 15 years for that movie to be made, but Machete had already made a name for himself in the PG “Spy Kids” series. Decidedly not a PG movie, the 2010 “Machete” was based on the fake trailer shown before Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s double feature “Grindhouse” and “Planet Terror.” The idea is the same for both “Machete” movies, however, in that the mercenary ex-federale is recruited by U.S. President Rathcock (Carlos Estevez/Charlie Sheen) to stop a terrorist (Mel Gibson) from starting a nuclear war. When a bounty is put on his head, it seems as if everyone wants a piece of Machete. Among the other members of the all-star cast of “Machete Kills” are Michelle Rodriguez, Sofia Vergara, Amber Heard, Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding Jr., Walter Coggins, Vanessa Hudgens and Lady Gaga. The Blu-ray adds a 20-minute making-of featurette and another 20 minutes worth of deleted and extended scenes. – Gary Dretzka

La Vie De Boheme: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray Henri Murger’s semi-autobiographical “Scenes de la vie de boheme,” a collection of stories published as a novel in 1851, has proven to be so elastic that it has been adapted for the stage several times and two dozen movies. Giacomo Puccini’s operatic adaptation would inspire such wildly different variations as “Rent” and “Moulin Rouge!” Based on people Murger met, before the French Revolution of 1848, the novel described a community of misfit writers, poets, painters, musicians, prostitutes and pimps who populated Montmarte and shared the idea that poverty was a virtue and the world owed them a living. Romantic attitudes about starving for one’s art would change once their ships came in, but, in the meantime, the freedom to create was worth the price of poverty. I don’t know if Charles Bukowski ever read Murger’s stories, but he very well could have. The irrepressible Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki (“Leningrad Cowboys Go America”) took on “La Vie De Boheme” in 1993, setting it within a time frame that allows for horse-drawn furniture delivery and a concert featuring a band that resembles the Leningrad Cowboys. As is his wont, Kaurismaki wanted to stage “La Vie De Boheme” in Helsinki, with his usual cast of characters, but it lacked a certain “je ne se qua.” Instead, he ordered Matti Pellonpaa, Andre Wilms and Kari Väänänen to learn French and head for the City of Lights. These actors would look at home in any Skid Row dive or hippie ghetto at any time during the last 150 years. As the picture opens, the Albanian painter, Rodolfo is about to be booted out of his tiny apartment. After finagling a meal from the homeless playwright Marcel, and enough wine to get three people drunk, he invites his new friend to crash at his place. When they arrive, Rodolfo and Marcel are surprised to find the post-modernist composer Schaunard already ensconced in the apartment. A little wine convinces the musician to share his new digs with the painter and writer. Not long thereafter, a woman from the provinces shows up on the doorstep of a neighbor, who’s currently in prison. Rodolfo invites Mimi (Evelyne Didi) to stay there overnight, as well. Things move forward haphazardly until the pre-ordained tragedy begins to unfold. Although Kaurismaki rarely shoots for big laughs, they’re plenty here to be found. For most of the last 30 years, the writer/director has been turning out movies that defy easy description, enriched with a sense of humor derived from some high-northern sense of the absurd. (Think Jim Jarmusch without the white hair.) If you haven’t already begun binging on such movies as “Leningrad Cowboys” (start there), “The Match Factory Girl,” “Le Havre,” “Lights in the Dusk,” “The Man Without a Past” and “Juha,” this is a good place to start. Sam Fuller, Louis Malle and Jean-Pierre Leaud also make cameos. Besides the high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, the Blu-ray adds “Where Is Musette?,” an hour-long documentary on the making of the film; a new interview with actor Andre Wilms; an improved English subtitle translation; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Luc Sante. – Gary Dretzka

Blue Caprice In their feature debuts, director Alexandre Moors and writer R.F.I. Porto have constructed a dispassionate chronicle of the events that led to the arrest of two of this country’s most feared killers. In doing so, “Blue Caprice” consciously avoids amateur psychoanalysis, editorializing about gun laws and affixing blame to anyone except the abandoned teenager Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond) and his surrogate father, John Allen Muhammad (Isaiah Washington). In the simplest terms, Muhammad was so pissed off by a restraining order placed upon him by his ex-wife, forbidding him to see his children, that he created a family of his own to avenge the perceived injustice. His ultimate goal was to “adopt,” indoctrinate and train a small army of boys in the wilds of Canada to embark on a jihadist crusade against those who stood in the way of his reckless agenda. Most telling, perhaps, was Muhammad’s decision to give Malvo a sniper’s handbook, which emphasized the blind devotion to mission all such assassins must possess. Not only did the book jibe with Muhammad’s us-against-them paranoia, but, absent any other pedagogical figures, it also taught how isolated and seemingly random acts of terror could eventually paralyze a nation. After 9/11, Malvo was able to see how effectively the jihadists had absorbed this lesson. Otherwise, Malvo is portrayed has being a normal, if withdrawn young man, who’s comfortable with much younger children and not at all aggressive. It’s easy to see how Muhammad’s preoccupation with the government’s role in enforcing his ex-wife’s sanctions causes him to seethe. Even so, he leaves the heavy lifting to the boy, for whom he’s built a sniper’s nest in the truck of the car. “Blue Caprice” doesn’t overstay its welcome by dramatizing all of the crimes finally attributed to the pair or pouring on the gore. Neither do the filmmakers ask us to understand the murders or make excuses for Malvo and Muhammad. Richmond and Washington’s performances may be understated, but they are never without a palpable sense of menace. If there’s nothing else to take away from “Blue Caprice,” it’s the actors’ faces that will continue to haunt us whenever another obsessed loner picks up a gun to instill terror in our hearts. The musical score, cinematography and locations, which range from sunny Antigua to soggy Tacoma, and co-starring performances by Joey Lauren Adams and Tim Blake Nelson all add something important to the mix. The extras include behind-the-scenes material, commentary and a press conference from the Deauville Film Festival. – Gary Dretzka

Kiss the Water Generally, when it applies to fly fishing, eccentrics need not apply. It’s an activity that requires an infinite amount of patience, a trained swing and a willingness to take nature at its own terms. The rule doesn’t preclude the occasional character from adding her signature to the pursuit of the elusive Atlantic salmon, however. Eric Steel’s lovely documentary “Kiss the Water” takes us to a cottage in northern Scotland, where to fish is to live. Before angler can be connected directly to fish, however, the fish must become intimately acquainted with the lure. Unlike worms, which hardly any fish can rejected, dry flies can be admired from afar, but easily resisted by a not-at-all-hungry salmon on the last leg of its final trip home. And, that’s where Megan Boyd figures into the equation. Megan Boyd spent almost all of her life using tiny bits of feathers, fur, silver and gold thread, colored tubing, beads and chenille to tie flies for the most demanding of sportsmen. She didn’t partake in fishing, herself, but instinctively knew how to persuade a salmon or trout to come to a fly. Moreover, Boyd knew everything there was to know about the rivers of Sutherland and what conditions suggested a certain lure. “Kiss the Water” is like a fly, in that its appeal can be appreciated equally by anglers and those who know a valuable piece of art when they see one. Sections are divided by images of swirling water, rising fish and casting, all of which are painted with digitally derived water colors. Boyd’s craft and devotion to it are recalled by friends and acquaintances in and around Brora, on the northern tip of the Highlands. Before she died in 2001, at 86, she was similarly devoted to her pet dog and folk dancing. They even came before receiving honors from the queen and Prince Charles. By the time electricity came to her workplace, in 1985, her eyesight had been taxed to the point of blindness. At one point, we’re told that no one knows why a salmon hits a fly, especially when they’ve tired of feeding. And, yet, they do. There’s no mystery attached to the attraction of anglers worldwide to Boyd’s artistry, whether or not the flies see water or end up inside a collector’s trophy case. – Gary Dretzka

Old Goats Hollywood stopped making movies with senior audiences in mind around the time Henry Fonda’s death ruled out a sequel to “On Golden Pond.” “Hope Springs” and “Last Vegas,” movies targeted at viewers awaiting their first Social Security check, may have eked out a profit, but only if marketing costs were heavily discounted. Still, based on star power, alone, they should do OK on DVD, cable and long-distance plane trips. “Old Goats,” which looks homemade by comparison, plays to even older demographic, if such a thing is possible. Acting as if 75 is the new 50, a half-dozen Seattle-area old-timers have created in “Old Goats” a light comedy that, dollar-for-dollar, is more entertaining than most of the stuff being churned out for teens and young adults. Clearly made as a labor of love from a budget that might have come from bake-sale proceeds, Taylor Guterson’s debut has the courage not to pad the script with the antics of grandchildren and pestering of children and in-laws. It’s simply the story of a bunch of geezers who live their lives as if the sun will come up tomorrow and they’ll have enough stuff to to keep them busy for another 24 hours, at least. They aren’t constantly reliving old championship games or weeping over deceased partners. One has just finished writing his memoirs and is paying a self-publishing outfit to distribute it. Another is a slob, who’s been living on his sailboat for 15 years and is learning the intricacies of computer dating. A tad younger gentleman has been promising his still-attractive wife that they’ll buy a condo in Palm Springs, but he’s too lazy to actually pull the trigger. They attend parties, play golf and meet regularly at a local diner to swap lies and drink free copy. If anything, the women are a shade more randy than the men. Because of the comparatively low production values, it takes time getting into “Old Goats,” but patience is rewarded with a completely unexpected pleasure. It comes with a making-of package and a short film. – Gary Dretzka

Cat People: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray Die, Monster, Die: Blu-ray There’s an interesting piece of trivia attached to the original 1942 version of “Cat People,” which was directed by Jacques Tournequr, written DeWitt Bodeen and produced by Val Lewton, for RKO. Apparently, the film was in theaters for so long that critics who had originally bashed the film made the time to re-review it and re-adjust their opinions. The response would also serve to delay the release of Lewton’s films “I Walked with a Zombie” and “The Leopard Man.” Upon its 1982 release, critics treated Paul Schrader’s “Cat People” as if he intended it to be a direct remake, instead of a contemporary adaptation of the myth, with several overt homages to Tourneur’s thriller. For those unfamiliar with either version, there couldn’t be a better time to discover them. Because Tourneur’s budget was so tight, he was required to substitute shadows for expository clarity. Not only did the panthers emerge from the darkness, but so, too, did the jump scares and fake-outs. The fear factor was palpable. Shout!Factory’s transfer of Schrader’s film employs an overripe color palette to achieve something approaching the same effect. Moreover, Schrader was able to move the sexuality from Bodeen’s subtext to the forefront, by having the already feline Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell engage in frightfully erotic activities … consciously on McDowell’s part, but largely as a rite of passage on the part of the virginal Kinski. At times, the combined scents of bestiality and incest are overwhelming. The more obvious point being made is that somewhere in our collective DNA lurks monsters and demons awaiting an opportune moment to manifest their evil. “Cat People” was wisely set in New Orleans and surrounding bayous, where an acceptance of voodoo and black magic comes with the territory. At the time, the New Orleans zoo was widely condemned for its medieval facilities. The thing that made Schrader’s interpretation so seductive, though, was the marriage of myth to music in Georgio Moroder and David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” theme, parts of which could be heard over the origin-story sequences. John Heard and Annette O’Toole are very good as representatives of all that’s good in humanity. The Blu-ray adds updated interviews with the principles and marketing material.

Also from the vaults at Shout!Factory’s Scream Factory division comes “Die, Monster, Die!,” (a.k.a., “Monster of Terror”) with Boris Karloff and Nick Adams. Based on the H.P. Lovecraft story, “The Colour Out of Space,” it represented the first feature foray for Daniel Haller, who remains better known for his work as art and production director at the Corman College of Cheap Thrills. It combines sci-fi with key elements from the haunted-house subgenre of horror. Nick Adams, another member of the “Rebel Without a Cause” cast that died too young, plays an American who travels to England to visit his fiancé, played by Suzan Farmer. No one at the train station will give him a ride to the Witley mansion, where’s he’s rudely greeted by the wheelchair-bound Karloff. Adding to the creepy atmosphere is his girlfriend’s bed-ridden mother, who keeps her face well hidden behind soiled lace. The only other thing one needs to know before considering “Die, Monster, Die!” is that the mad scientists is using radioactive material from a conveniently located meteor to grow a master race of vegetation. Yes, it’s every bit that goofy. Karloff’s presence, alone, makes it entertaining. – Gary Dretzka

Forgetting the Girl If Nate Taylor and Peter Moore Smith’s New York-set psycho-thriller, “Forgetting the Girl,” were a freshman term paper, it would earn bonus points for audacity and excellent production values. They’ve taken a relatively familiar conceit and rejuvenated it with fresh faces and a truly creepy protagonist. Christopher Denham plays Kevin, an unusually busy head-shot photographer whose mannerisms resemble those of Andrew McCarthy and Jeremy Davies at their most quirky. He seems to lack self-confidence, but isn’t reluctant to ask his attractive clients out on dates after the sittings. Most politely decline the request, but one or two of them take the bait. The ones who do don’t necessarily come to ruin, but the risk is always there. Only a couple of them disappear during our watch. Although we’re led to believe that the photographer could very well be a fiend, Tayler also allows for the possibility that Kevin’s pervy neighbor and chubby Goth assistant could be involved. After all, once a photograph of a pretty girl enters the public domain – in a head shot or Facebook page – there are a hundred different ways it can be used for devious purposes. Not all of the deaths can be attributed to the most likely subject, while the others are still open to conjecture. Still, not bad for first-timers. – Gary Dretzka

Life’s an Itch Unlike “Forgetting the Girl,” the yoga comedy “Life’s an Itch” is all too representative of a freshman debut destined to be ignored or sent out straight-to-DVD. While there’s nothing particularly offensive about it, the best that can be said is that the cameraman kept the picture in focus. In it, a musician is given a firm deadline to complete a film score, but is feeling too distracted to complete it. It probably has something to do with living in an ocean-side house, with a view he could lease to tourists and never have to work another day in his life. To help get Steve’s creative juices flowing, his good-natured wife and caustic mother-in-law take the kids go to Hawaii on a working vacation. Before they go, however, Steve’s told to expect a houseguest in the form of a pert and pretty yoga nut, played by Ali Cobrin, the woman who famously was carried upstairs naked in “American Reunion.” Although she keeps her clothes on here, Cobrin spends a great deal of time in “Itch” practicing her discipline in a bikini. Meanwhile, in Hawaii, Steve’s wife whiles away her time with an older gent who resembles any one of the Three Musketeers in a Speedo. The big question, really, is whether the yoga teacher can get Steve sufficiently relaxed to finish the score, before he succumbs to her charms … or the wife gets home, one. Poor old Lin Shaye appears as the neighborhood crackpot, who “walks” her bet goldfish, constantly hits on the musician and makes marijuana brownies. Someone probably went to college to acquire the skills necessary to make movies like “Life’s an Itch.” – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD IFC: Bullet in the Face: The Complete Series IFC: Comedy Bang! Bang!: The Complete First Season ABC: NYPD Blue: Season 5 PBS: Red Metal: Copper Country Strike of 1913 PBS Nova: Making Stuff 2: Blu-ray PBS: Raw to Ready
Ideas come and go at such a rapid pace these days, some TV shows are gone even before you know they’ve been on. Such is the case with IFC’s short-lived “Bullet in the Face,” a kind-of comedy by Alan Spencer (“Sledge Hammer!”) that parodied noir, graphic novels and action-movie conventions. Gunter Vogler (Max Williams) is a sociopath who hates everyone and everything. During a bloody jewelry store robbery he is shot in the grill by his accomplice and girlfriend, Martine (Kate Kelton). He wakes up in hospital having received a face transplant. It belongs to a police officer he had killed earlier and requires him to work for them to turn over a new leaf by fighting crime and former allies. In fact, the switcheroo discombobulates everyone. Before long, Gunter isn’t the only person on the show with a bullet in his head. It took a while for me to figure out what was happening, but it finally grabbed me. Eddie Izzard and Eric Roberts add to the comic relief.

Anyone who’s old enough to remember “Fernwood 2 Night,” a variety-show parody spun off “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” will recognize the premise behind IFC’s “Comedy Bang! Bang!” In place of Martin Mull, Fred Willard and band leader Frank De Vol, there’s Scott Aukerman and Reggie Watts. It began as a podcast and features wacky character cameos, filmic shorts, sketches and games, all done with tongues planted firmly in cheeks. Watts’ off-the-cuff musical interludes are practically characters of their own. The show features celebrity guests, including Zack Galifianakis and Amy Poehler, along with such stock characters as Don Dimelo (Andrew Daly), El Chupacabra (Nick Kroll), Bob Ducca (Seth Morris), Lil’ Gary (Thomas Lennon), Huell Howser (James Adomian) and Cake Boss (Paul F. Tompkins). Special features include commentaries featuring characters from the show, deleted scenes, full-length alternate celebrity interviews, an alternate title sequence, Reggie Watts’ commercial intros/outros and director Ben Berman’s test shoots for special effects.

By the time the fifth season of “NYPD Blue” rolled around, the 15th Precinct squad room was populated by Sipowitz (Dennis Franz) and Simone (Jimmy Smits), Medavoy (Gordon Clapp), Martinez (Nicholas Turturro), Fancy (James McDaniel), Russell (Kim Delaney) and the luscious anchorwoman-to-be, Kirkendall (Andrea Thompson). Although Sipowitz may have mellowed over time, he was still capable of getting a good mad on when faced with the scum of society. Lots of people get murdered, of course, and crimes are solved. Individual story arcs had to be served, as well. Russell and Simone have different views of impending parenthood, as well. Even now, the absence of “NYPD Blue” on network TV is duly noted and missed, if for no other reason than no character on the show solved crimes through ESP, clairvoyance, military auspices or the help of space aliens. Simple police work is all it took.

At some point during the early history of this country, it was decided that company goons could get away with things striking workers weren’t allowed to do, while the police and National Guard were always made available to protect greedy capitalists and corrupt politicians. Has anyone hired to disrupt a strike or a march ever been prosecuted for killing or maiming a striker or protester? I doubt it. Has anyone written a folk song to honor a righteous CEO or a cop who refused to use a club against a woman? Again, probably not. The PBS documentary “Red Metal: Copper Country Strike of 1913” chronicles one of the ugliest events in the history of the American labor movement. When striking copper miners nearly succeeded in shutting down Northern Michigan’s most prominent and dangerous industry, the bosses demanded that the Guard be called in to protect the scabs and get things moving, again. One night, at a party for the children of the striking miners, an unknown goon yelled “fire!” in the crowded second-floor ballroom of the Italian Hall, causing a stampede in which dozens of children were killed. Years later, Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the massacre that tugged at the nation’s heart strings, but never stopped the killing of workers. This heart-breaking documentary carries a punch, even a century after the fact.

In the “Nova” presentation, “Making Stuff,” popular host David Pogue describes how every new technology has served to make us faster, safer, colder and, yes, even more reckless. From quantum computers to maglev trains, and from increasing the speed of a stock transaction to decreasing the risk posed by an earthquake, emerging technologies are changing our world. Also from PBS, “Raw to Ready” helps us understand how human ingenuity, when combined with essential raw material, creates monumental marvels of modern technology. – Gary Dretzka

Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of ‘My Little Pony’
At first, second and even third glance, “Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of ‘My Little Pony’” looks as if it might be the kind of documentary only John Waters could pull off, without putting audiences off their feed for a month. The title, while accurate, could describe any number of horrors or none at all. Blessedly, it’s the latter. The first thing to know is that “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” is an extension of the 1980s TV show, which, itself, was an extension of a line of toys from Hasbro. The marketing was targeted directly at girls, 2 to 11, who were likely to invest in accessories and new action figures. The “Friendship Is Magic” (G4) incarnation surfaced in 2010 on the Hub channel. It, too, was created to milk revenues from kids interested in ancillary movies, toys, home-media releases, clothing licensed by Hasbro, comic books and video games. The good news comes in knowing that “Friendship Is Magic” was entrusted to Laurie Faust, an animator who fell in love with “My Little Pony” when she was a girl. Her intention was to broaden the appeal of the show, by making the storylines more intelligent and less clichéd. In addition to turning it into a hit with kids, Faust would quickly discover that older teens and adults were drawn to its upbeat message of tolerance and self-affirmation. The grown-up fans became known as “Bronies.” In addition to introducing us to several Bronies, director Laurent Malaquais takes us to a convention, not unlike the ones dedicated to all things “Star Trek” or Comic-Con. Each of the participants has his or her reason for attending and they’re all perfectly legitimate. The documentary’s financing was supplied through the Kickstarter crowd-funding website. The campaign exceeded its initial fund-raising goal of $60,000 in three days and ultimately earned $322,022 in pledges, not counting the concurrent contributions made through PayPal at the end of its run in June 10, 2012.

The “My Little Pony: Classic Movie Collection” arrives this week, as well, from Shout!Factory. Among the other children’s-oriented videos out this week are Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob & Friends: Patrick SquarePants”; PBS Kids’ “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks: Legends of Raloo,” “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks: Rock Around the Barn” and “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks: Wish Upon a Story”; and PBS Kids’ “Dinosaur Train: I Love Dinosaurs.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Enough Said: Blu-ray
When considering the possibilities of a rom/dram/com starring James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus – based solely on the warm-and-fuzzy cover of “Enough Said”– I wouldn’t blame anyone for wondering, “What could Tony Soprano possible have in common with Elaine Benes?” Almost nothing, it turns out. Still, the characters they play in Nicole Holofcener’s only slightly offbeat indie physically resemble like the ones we fell in love with on “The Sopranos” and “Seinfeld.” Both fitfully divorced, Albert and Eva hit it off at a party full of grownup yuppies they both feel are eminently worth mocking, avoiding and hoping they don’t resemble. In fact, give or take a few unwanted pounds and negative personality traits, they’re not all different from most of the partygoers. They’re relatively well off and share many of the same middle-age issues: children leaving the nest, job insecurity, hair loss, wrinkle gain and jealously over ex-spouses with new partners. In their brief conversation, Albert and Eva see just enough in each other to warrant an actual date. Despite their physical differences and divergent senses of humor, they’re sufficiently simpatico to be able to discuss something other than their failed marriages and the perils of parenthood. Instead of their dinner becoming unbearably awkward – for them and us – it goes off without a hitch. What we know and the characters don’t discover until much later in the story, however, is that Eva has simultaneously become close friends with Albert’s ex-wife, Marianne (Catherine Keener), a self-absorbed poet, who has nothing good to say about their marriage. As Marianne’s masseuse and confidant, Eva is appraised of Albert’s strange habits and trigger points.

It isn’t until Eva is introduced to Albert and Marianne’s teenage daughter – separately – that it suddenly occurs to her that she’s been happily dating the same man who’s been the subject of her client’s verbal aggression. Instead of immediately informing Albert and Marianne of the bizarre coincidence and letting the chips fall where they may, Eva chooses to coax more information from her client and goad her boyfriend with questions raised during the therapy sessions. Needless to say, no possible good comes from such an inquisition. Holofcener wisely avoids injecting farce into the already complicated situation. Instead, her characters wallow in the separation anxiety and tension that generally precede a child’s departure from home. In this regard, at least, Holofcencer allows both of the former husbands to serve as sympathetic mediators between their embattled ex-wives and daughters who can’t wait to become adults, however miserable. (Toby Huss, who plays Eva’s ex, once was cast as Elaine Benes’ date on “Seinfeld.”) All of the actors, including Toni Collette as Eva’s close friend, are good. As difficult as it is to imagine Marianne ever being happily married to Albert – or anyone else, for that matter — Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini are convincing as a couple with a future together. Anyone who believes that Gandolfini, who died unexpectedly last June, could never shake his identification with Tony Soprano ought to check out his terrific performances in such smallish films as “In the Loop.” “Welcome to the Rileys,” “Down the Shore,” “Violet and Daisy,” “Killing Them Softly” and “Not Fade Away.” They’re well worth the price of a rental. The Blu-ray adds the bloopery “Second Takes” and promotional featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

The Spectacular Now: Blu-ray
Adults who can’t bear the thought of watching another movie about teen romance, despite rave reviews from critics equally tired of post-pubescent angst, should consider giving “The Spectacular Now” a go. The movie may not have been written with grown-ups specifically in mind, but it speaks to parents, as well, to parents whose children are experiencing similar joys and problems. Director James Ponsoldt and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, probably didn’t set out to re-invent the genre or tweak all of its tropes in under 100 minutes. Working from Tim Tharp’s National Book Award finalist, their movie simply came out that way. Miles Teller plays high school senior, Sutter, the life of any party and someone whose idea of the future is tonight. His other claim to fame is being an alcoholic, just like his father. Sutter drinks because everyone loves him when he’s breaking boundaries they’re afraid even to push. His greatest fear is not being loved. One morning, after a typical night of hard drinking, Sutter is awakened from his stupor by fellow senior Aimee (Shailene Woodley), on whose lawn he had passed out. Aimee invites him to join her on her break-of-dawn paper route, which he turns into a comedy routine. He’s disturbed to hear that Aimee’s required to give all of her earnings to her widowed mother (Whitney Goin), who’s too preoccupied with her own problems to care about those of her daughter. Sutter’s mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) remains bitter over the departure of her husband, so the teens immediately have that much in common. He’s further mortified by Aimee’s admission that her mother has rejected her desire to leave home for college, let alone pay for it. Although he’s already involved with his class’ hottest blond, Cassidy (Brie Larson), Sutter sees in Aimee a challenge worth accepting. Through his boozy haze, he determines that Aimee is in dire need of a personality makeover and the first thing he does in this regard is hand her a flask full of whisky. The problem is that he still has eyes for the blond bombshell and it causes Aimee to thing she might turn out to be a passing fancy. The trouble really begins when Sutter talks Aimee into standing up to her mother and she challenges him to ask his mother about his father’s whereabouts. When he does learn the truth, it impacts everyone in his orbit.

We’ve all met people like the ones who populate “The Spectacular Now,” in life and in the movies. If Aimee, Sutter and Cassidy are familiar, however, it’s not because they’re stereotypical or clichéd. We like them because there’s always something new to learn about what makes them tick. The filmmakers give Aimee and Sutter as many opportunities to fail as succeed. That we care so much about them, finally, is mostly to the credit of Woodley and Teller. And, that’s because the actors are able to overcome the good-girl/bad-boy conceit, allowing us to accept their characters’ unlikely love and interdependency. At first glance, the casting of Leigh seems no more unusual than the casting of any other actor. In one of the featurettes, Ponsoldt admits that the decision was inspired by her performance in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which was as atypical to teen movies made in the 1980s as “The Spectacular Now” is to teen movies made today. The Blu-ray adds several deleted scenes that could easily have made the cut, as well as the director’s commentary and a four-part making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Short Term 12
On paper, there’s nothing about “Short Term 12” that would lead one to anticipate an experience that’s anything but painful. Set largely in a short-term foster-care facility that’s populated with kids whose chances of finding a new home range from slim to none, it’s the cinematic embodiment of the great Bill Withers’ song, “Lean on Me.” Most of the residents have been rescued from dysfunctional households and some bear wounds that may never heal. Once they reach 18, they’re kindly invited to fend for themselves in a world that’s done nothing but ignore previous pleas for help and comfort. Because group homes frequently are the last places to which government funding trickles, these kids are as shortchanged by society as the staff members whose own happiness and fulfillment depend on their well-being. In “Short Term 12,” Destin Cretton tells two harrowing tales simultaneously. The first involves the diverse community of children whose needs are served 24 hours a day, while the other focuses on a handful young idealists who serve as supervisors, teachers, therapists, traffic cops and punching bags. The staffers we meet here are at the mercy of the kids’ moods and whims, as well as thinly stretched budgets, by-the-book administrators and haphazard psychiatric supervision. At the center of both stories is Grace, who’s played by a very different Brie Larson than the one we met in “The Spectacular Now.” She’s a supervisor whose personal backstory affects her interaction with the deeply troubled new girl in the group, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever). The day’s challenges at school tend to follow her to the home she shares with a similarly devoted co-worker, Mason (John Gallagher Jr., of “Girls”), who, we learn, grew up in a foster home. The deeper Grace descends into her own emotional quagmire, the more difficult it becomes for him to maintain an even keel, especially when she tells him she’s pregnant. As depressing as this scenario might sound, Cretton rarely allows viewers the luxury of sitting back and catching their collective breathes. Like Jaydon and Mason, we never know what will trigger an outburst by a resident or if it is the one that causes the child permanent damage. What’s comforting is knowing that the kids have dedicated professionals around them who validate their lives with a hug or life-changing action. If we didn’t know that the supervisors are played by actors, it would be easy to assume “Short Term 12” might be an exercise in cinema verite. The DVD includes deleted scenes; behind-the-scenes and maklng-of featurettes; the original short film, “Short Term 12”; outreach partners; and material from a cast and crew screening. – Gary Dretzka

20 Feet from Stardom: Blu-ray
This delightfully tuneful documentary asks several questions, among: Where would pop music be if it weren’t for the largely unsung contributions of such background singers as Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, the Water Family, Stevvi Alexander, Patti Austen, Charlotte Crossley. Morgan Neville and Cissy Houston? Would the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” be placed among the greatest of all rock-’n’-roll songs if it wasn’t for Merry Clayton’s brilliant cameo? Is there still room in the Rock Hall of Fame — alongside Love and James Brown’s Famous Flames — for the various Raelettes, Ikettes, Harlettes, Blossums, Sweet Inspirations, Andantes and Crystals who’ve brightened so many of our lives? “20 Feet From Stardom” not only answers these questions, but it also puts backup singers directly in the spotlight, some of them for the very first time. If there’s a common denominator among the dozen or so singers featured in the documentary, it’s a lifetime love affair with music, usually beginning in church choirs or under the direction of a parent in the business. Here, they swap stories about their musical roots, session work, their personal lives and the exponentially more famous artists who take the bows for their work. On the downside, the singers bemoan the job’s inherent anonymity, rip-offs, road trips and fluctuations in pay. More than anything else, though, these great performers wish they could be taken seriously as lead singers by the same fans who rave about their contributions to other singers’ songs. Love’s story is particularly troubling. As one of the bricks in Phil Spector’s “wall of sound,” Love’s voice was as familiar as any in the country for most of the 1960s. Instead of honoring her stature as a lead singer, Spector would credit others for her work and con her out of royalties on major hits. At a time when she should have been basking in the glow of a midcareer resurgence, Love had to support herself as a maid. She would be rediscovered, of course, but by an entirely new generation of rockers and other people (including David Letterman) who grew up on the music she made with Spector. “20 Feet From Stardom” is as entertaining as it is enlightening, and the experience can be shared by anyone in the family who’s ever tapped their toes to a Top 40 hit. The bonus material includes extended interviews and more music. – Gary Dretzka

Lee Daniels’ The Butler: Blu-ray
The Contradictions of Fair Hope
In the Heat of the Night: Blu-ray
I doubt very much that the distributors of these movies intended to get an early start on Black History Month, but the effect is virtually the same. Although its release was marred somewhat by silly squabbling about its title, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (henceforth known as “The Butler”), it opened last fall to much critical approval and a solid month’s worth of boffo revenues. Forest Whitaker does a fine job playing the fictional Cecil Gaines, the son of a sharecropper murdered by the same plantation owner who raped his wife. In an act of mercy, the boss’ grandmother makes Cecil part of the house staff, where he learns skills that eventually would open the door to a job at the White House. The character is modeled on Eugene Allen, a Virginia native who worked in whites-only resorts and a prestigious Washington club before he was hired as a lowly “pantry” man in the Truman White House. When he retired, in 1986, he was butler to President Reagan. Then and now, jobs in the upstairs/downstairs world of the White House were divided by African-Americans in service positions and whites in supervisory and executive positions. Despite large discrepancies in pay and opportunities, working in the White House was considered to be a vast improvement over most of the other jobs available to blacks throughout the 20th Century. “The Butler” tells us that the house staff was treated with dignity and occasional displays of great kindness. The work was demanding, but regular and rarely demeaning. For many of the years Allen/Gaines worked in the White House, he wasn’t allowed to use the same facilities as whites living or traveling in the states that bordered the capital, which, itself, was widely considered to be more Southern than Northern. In “Butler,” servants occasionally are asked their opinions on current issues – including the Civil Rights Movement – but they were instructed to not initiate or elongate conversations with a president or his guests. When asked, they were advised to consider their responses carefully. The fictional Gaines is no firebrand, but it’s clear he’s especially concerned about the disparities in pay and stature between black and white employees in the White House. It’s only through Gaines’ rebellious son and archival news footage, however, that we get better understanding of the juxtaposition between what’s happening in the streets of America and the maintenance of the status quo in official Washington.

Even at 132 minutes, “The Butler” feels a bit rushed. As far as I can recall, Jimmy and Rosalynn aren’t mentioned, even if their Southern backgrounds must have led to some interesting discussions whenever Miz Lillian and Billy were in town. The convenience of having Gaines’ son be a Freedom Rider, Black Panther, anti-war activist and mainstream politician – the other brother volunteers to go to Vietnam – somehow rings false, as well. Gaines’ wife, played well by Oprah Winfrey, appears practically out of thin air. It’s difficult to tell what we’re supposed to think about her, except that she fluctuates between being proud of her husband’s ability to provide for their family and frustrated to the point of adultery by the amount of time he devotes to the job. That changes when she and her husband are finally invited to attend a state dinner by Nancy Reagan. Given the need to squeeze so much history into the time allotted him, Daniels (“Precious,” “The Paperboy”) uses caricature to describe the butler’s relationship with LBJ and Nixon. If one didn’t harbor a modicum of sympathy for those two men going into the movie, they will after watching Liev Schreiber and John Cusack’s cruel impersonations of them. Presidents Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Kennedy (James Marsden) and Reagan (Alan Rickman) fare much better. If the current network-television landscape was as enlightened as it appeared to be in the mid-1970s, “The Butler” might have made for a more casually paced and historically accurate mini-series, like, dare I say it, “Roots.” If nothing else, the producers could have expended a bit more effort on the bonus material, which includes deleted scenes; the featurette, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler: An American Story,” with information about the film’s origins as a Washington Post article; a pitifully short, “The Original Freedom Riders ,” with veterans of that phase of the civil-rights struggle; a music video, “You and I Ain’t No More,” by Gladys Knight and Lenny Kravitz; and a gag reel.

Co-directed and co-produced by S. Epatha Merkerson (“Law & Order”) and narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, “The Contradictions of Fair Hope” expends a good deal of positive energy on a subject that barely constitutes a footnote in African-American history. The documentary opens with an explanation of how poor and minority communities survived the lean years that followed the Civil War by forming benevolent societies and contributing a portion of their meager earnings to a common pot. In this way, members could afford burials, medical help and security against emergencies. Founded in 1888, the Fair Hope community in rural Alabama was centered on its church and meeting hall. Members elected their own president and queen, who were in charge of seeing that each resident’s well-being was monitored. The “contradictions” noted in the film’s title derive from an annual rite, “Foot Wash,” during which prayer and debauchery exist side-by-side. A festival of faith celebrates both the “heaven side” and “hell side” of the Fair Hope Benevolent Society, by opening its gates to sinners and leading them back to God. Today, descendants of the society’s founders return to Fair Hope each year to partake in the ritual. Any comparisons to the Burning Man pageant are strictly coincidental.

1967 was a transformative year for Sidney Poitier and the Hollywood film and television community, which never had been particularly comfortable dealing with civil-rights issues. The color line had already been crossed on Broadway, where playwrights were free to produce plays and musicals with racial themes. Being in the most diverse and accommodating city in U.S., they weren’t required to acquiesce or pander to the racism of Southern and Southwestern audiences. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that producers of television and movies even bothered to accurately depict interracial relationships, knowing they’d have to eliminate those scenes for conservative audiences. Twelve years after Poitier had played a punk in “Blackboard Jungle,” he would make a splash as a black teacher attempting to get through to a classroom full of white kids from the slums of London’s East End, in “To Sir, With Love.” Columbia didn’t quite know what to do with its British import, until it became a surprise hit in the boonies, at least, and the song, “To Sir, With Love,” became a huge hit. In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Stanley Kramer combined pathos, comedy and unabashed liberalism as a weapon against social policies that made it illegal in 14 states for African Americans and whites to intermarry. By contrast, “In the Heat of the Night” would deliver a slap to the face of the racists who refused to acknowledge that the times they were a’changing. Poitier plays a Philadelphia police detective, who, after visiting his mother in Brownsville, finds himself stuck after dark in a backwater Mississippi town waiting for a train that can’t arrive fast enough to suit him. The murder of an influential Yankee developer had occurred only a few hours earlier, so Mr. Tibbs – as he’ll soon famously be known – is immediately anointed prime suspect and hauled into the local jail. Rod Steiger plays the redneck sheriff who butts heads with him throughout the rest of the movie. A much-respected investigator, Tibbs quickly manages to clear his name in the crime, as well as those of the other scapegoats the sheriff hauls into the jail. His punishment for such good police work is being instructed by his boss to stay in Dogpatch, er, Sparta, and help catch the true murderer. This fails to please either Tibbs or the sheriff. For those who haven’t seen the movie or can’t recall the ending, I recommend another viewing of “In the Heat of the Night.” Strip the racial bark off of the tree and what’s left is an extremely suspenseful and satisfying police procedural, in which the crime-solving no longer is subservient to the racial intrigue. Poitier and Steiger couldn’t have been any more suited to their roles and you still can feel the heat, humidity and hatred that informed the conditions under which they were forced to work. It looks great in Blu-ray and the making-of featurettes are a must-see for fans of the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Our Nixon
Say what you will about Richard Nixon, he was never boring … or stupid. He’s certainly far better regarded in 2014 than he was when he was forced out of office. Today, Watergate must seem like an overfamiliar cartoon to young people constantly reminded of its evil implications by their parents and teachers. In fact, compared to recent revelations about government malfeasance, the Nixon years were a walk in the park. “Our Nixon” is comprised of original Super 8 home movies taken by Nixon’s closest associates, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin, during the first five years of his presidency. We’ve all heard Nixon on tapes recorded secretly in the Oval Office. They’ve revealed a man growing more paranoid by the day, turning on his closest advisers and blaming Jews and hippies for his problems. These home movies are quite different. They were shot at occasions in which Nixon was at his most comfortable and charming. Not only did he know that he was being filmed, but he also trusted these men not to betray him. And, they didn’t. He was betrayed by the listening devices he ordered to be secretly installed in his office by a different close associate, who was one of only three people who knew of their existence. Even though none of the movies are particularly incriminating, they were confiscated by the FBI during the Watergate investigation and subsequently filed and forgotten. Now that all of our presidents, since Nixon, have learned to conduct business as if someone were eavesdropping, nothing that comes out of the White House can be trusted or considered to be spontaneous. Press conferences and daily briefings have become a waste of time for everyone, as well. Wouldn’t it be interesting, though, to hear the conversations that have taken place during the course of the last 20 years in the Oval Office or watch movies made only to be shown in the privacy of the homes of presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama? Most would be terribly boring, but occasionally something worthwhile would pop out. These remain as fresh and surprising as they were made, in the dinosaur days of personal technology. Included in the DVD package are nearly an hour’s worth of movies without an audio track. The highlight, for me, was watching a much-young Tricia Nixon and Princess Charles being introduced to each on the White House lawn. While there’s no sound, it’s clear that all of the people in the crowd are dreaming of a royal wedding in their future. If it weren’t for Watergate, Princess Di wouldn’t have had a chance. There’s also much material here from Nixon’s landmark trip to China. – Gary Dretzka

Where I Am
Capital Games
In 1999, a promising American writer was beaten nearly to death in the small town of Sligo, Ireland. Handsome, outgoing and openly gay, Robert Drake made the mistake of inviting a pair of local boyo’s to his room to smoke cigars with him. That’s what was revealed at the trial of the two men, who were convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. Drake doesn’t remember much of anything about that night. After coming out of a coma, in Philadelphia, Drake could barely recall being in Ireland. Although his memory and sense of balance are shot, and his motor skills don’t allow him to write, anymore, Blake has recovered to the point where the thing he wants to do most in life is return to Sligo, so that he can pick up the pieces of his puzzle in the place they were broken. Pamela Drynan’s inspirational documentary, “Where I Am,” follows Blake and his occasionally overwhelmed assistant on his cathartic pilgrimage, first to Dublin and then to the seaside community. The trial is long over, of course, but Drake is driven to learn more about what happened those dozen years ago and, more importantly, why. Instead of answers, “Where I Am” mostly suggests how his life might have played out if he’d survived the attack intact. It isn’t the most uplifting film of 2013, but the overall message is positive and forward-looking.

Capital Games” is an old-fashioned romance in which two attractive men, who should have admitted to themselves long ago that they are gay, make each other miserable on the way to, very possibly, the altar. The first one we meet is Steve Miller (Eric Presnall), an ex-LAPD cop who has decided to pursue a career in marketing, instead. He’s a take-charge guy, well-liked at work and completely ignorant to the fact that he’s gay. One morning, he nearly runs into a guy who’s making a bee-line for his parking space at the office. Mark Richfield (Gregor Cosgrove) looks as if he just stepped out of a Jane Austen novel, instead of a sports car. Naturally, they will be pitted against each other for a key position at the agency. It causes them to momentarily ignore the hormones taking hold of their buff bodies and plot a course toward professional disaster. After Mark makes the first move by inadvertently (perhaps) grabbing Steve’s leg in a fit of professional excitement, we’re led to believe that romance will conquer rivalry. As Steve machos his way through a team-building workshop in Santa Fe, Mark almost runs out of saliva drooling over his abs. After doing the deed under the desert sky, it looks as if nothing can derail the love train. But, of course, that would leave director Ilo Orleans with another 70 minutes to fill. Instead of acknowledging what’s already happened, their supervisor opens the next business meeting by announcing the engagement of Mark to, horrors, a woman. Not only is Steve shocked by the news, but he also becomes more obsessed with un-straightening Mark than competing against him for the promotion. As for the rest of the story, I will only mention the title to one movie: “The Graduate.” You can take it from there. “Capital Games” is available on a made-to-order basis through the usual sources. – Gary Dretzka

Rewind This!
The story behind the dramatic rise and gradual decline of the VHS video-cassette format has been told time and again, mostly, though, as it pertains to its bloody victory over Beta. The verdict, then and now, tells us that superior technology doth not a successful product make. It also caused consumers to hold off on committing to a single brand of satellite radio, Tivo, computer, telephone, HDTV, HD3D, DVD or Blu-ray before competing manufacturers settled on a single format. Like vinyl records, though, it’s tough to eliminate something that once was a key part of everyone’s lives. Josh Johnson’s extremely entertaining debut documentary, “Rewind This!,” goes to great lengths to demonstrate why and how VHS still matters, if not very much to most consumers. While acknowledging the flaws and quirks that come with the product, Johnson was able to find all sorts of people who still respond to what it represents. Aside from promoting the growth of porn, inexpensive children’s titles, straight-to-video movies and down-and-dirty genre fare, its many imperfections made it seem almost human … compared, at least, to the over-demanding corporate automatons at Sony. Before DVDs and DVRs, it served the public in ways that made entertainment affordable, portable, rentable and, finally, essential. You could exercise to it and learn how to golf from Leslie Nielsen and Dorf (Tim Conway). By 2000, it was the eight-track of records. Among the witnesses testifying in favor of the VHS are Troma legend Lloyd Kaufman; indie director Atom Egoyan; Jason Eisener, director of “Hobo with a Shotgun”; gore specialist, Herschell Gordon Lewis. It’s also worth remembering that the number titles released in DVD far exceeds those available in Blu-ray. The many special features include commentary, original animations, a special music video and bonus interview footage on laserdiscs, remix culture and “video panic.” – Gary Dretzka

How to Make Money Selling Drugs
GasLand: Part II
Greedy Lying Bastards
PBS: Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars
By now, one would think that Americans have learned everything they need to know about the illicit drug trade, including how large pharmaceutical firms profit from the recreational use of their products. Matthew Cooke’s incisive documentary, “How to Make Money Selling Drugs,” is neither a primer – as the title might suggest – nor an indictment of those who have profited financially from growing, transporting, selling or ingesting illicit substances. It doesn’t gloss over the dangers of taking drugs or try to convince anyone that smoking pot or snorting cocaine in moderation can’t be fun. What the film does best is describe how every U.S. president from Richard Nixon to Barak Obama has profited politically from a “war against drugs” that continues to grow costlier and less effective with each new year. Even as individual states are legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana consumption, Obama’s attorney general has felt it necessary to harass pot growers and legitimate retailers. Meanwhile, local police forces have become addicted to the money they make from confiscating the property of accused dealers and the prison lobby has done everything in its power to keep jails full and guards steadily employed. None of this should come as news to people who read newspapers on a regular basis. What has changed, but only recently, are previously unflinching attitudes toward the mandatory-minimum sentences handed out to people whose crimes might be treated as misdemeanors in other jurisdictions. Indeed, when Nixon began the War on Drugs, his emphasis was on rehabilitation, not punishment. Last year. Andrew Jarecki’s alarming documentary, “The House I Live In,” shown on a light on that issue and it was sufficiently powerful to be seen in Washington. Cooke isn’t reluctant to make use of celebrities to sell his story, which also is told from the point-of-view of former drug dealers and addicts. Among the voices are Russell Simmons, Susan Sarandon, Woody Harrelson, Eminem, 50 Cent, former drug “kingpin” Freeway Rick Ross and reporter/producer David Simon (creator of “The Wire”). It also adds Cooke’s commentary, extended interviews and more from Simmons.

In 2010, Josh Fox’s “GasLand” was one of the first voices raised against fracking, then a relatively unknown method of extracting natural gas trapped under the earth. Unfortunately, along with the gas came alarming new problems. By simply filming homeowners in gas-rich states ignite the water that flowed out of their spigots – or water flowing in creeks outside their homes – he triggered a controversy that’s far from settled. The same people who stood to benefit financially from leasing a patch of land to an energy company now faced losing their homes in the name of progress. Neighbors whose faucets didn’t leak flames began to pressure those who demanded restitutions so they could continue pocketing the money. They didn’t care if the machinery in their back yards ruined the views and values of their neighbors’ homes, as long as the checks didn’t bounce. Thus, the fracking war pitted neighbor against neighbor, county against county, states against states, environmentalists against people who promote the “clean” fuel, and politicians against people who voted for them. Ministers of oil-rich states have begun to voice their concerns about losses in revenue how it could impact relations between allies. The only thing missing is J.R. Ewing threatening to turn the Southfork into a gas station. In the ensuing four years, energy interests have worked very hard to discredit “GasLand” and rally politicians to their cause. The word, “fracking,” has become part of the lexicon and bipartisan support for it has grown, regardless of the very real damage it’s caused in some parts of the country. “GasLand: Part II” extends the debate, by challenging assertions made by executives in the energy industry and echoed by bought-and-paid-for politicians, including the current president. Without an exceedingly clear crystal ball, it would be impossible to refute all of the industry’s arguments. Certainly American could benefit from a seemingly endless supply of a clean source of energy as much as the rural residents who lease their land to the conglomerates. What has yet to be debated in any real way, though, is the possibility that we’d be replacing one devil with another. Cooke’s films remind us that Americans have been fooled before by untrustworthy representatives of special-interest groups and the stakes have grown even larger since “GasLand.” It adds deleted scenes and interviews.

It’s difficult to make a case for global warming when more than half of all Americans are freezing their buns off with each new polar vortex. That’s just fine with the deniers of wholesale climate change, of course. For the companies that profit from the use of carbon-based fuels, it isn’t enough to measure the polar icecaps or shrinkage of glaciers. As long as ice cubes aren’t melting in the refrigerators of their stockholders and swimming pools aren’t turning into saunas, global warming doesn’t exist. Or, at least, that’s the baloney the spinmeisters are trying to sell the rubes. Craig Rosebraugh’s “Greedy Lying Bastards” investigates the reasons behind stalled efforts to tackle climate change, despite consensus in the scientific community. It follows the people and organizations casting doubt on climate science and claims that greenhouse gases are not affected by human behavior. It’s always good to remember that it’s the “greedy lying bastards” who cry the loudest when their oxen are gored and only listen to reason when there’s money in it for them. The film contains interviews with scientists, industry experts, international delegates, as well as leading deniers.

Whenever a suspected terrorist is killed by a rocket fired from a drone, the media eats it up as if the home team had just made the playoffs. They dutifully echo the Pentagon line about making “every effort to prevent harming non-combatants.” That, of course, is code for, “Yes, some innocent women and children were killed or maimed in the attack, but, heck, our drones can’t see through walls, can they?” Given that western reporters aren’t generally welcome in the regions controlled by al-Qaeda or Taliban, it’s been next to impossible to verify or refute every report of civilian casualties. Even so, Robert Greenwald’s “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars” makes a convincing argument for media’s culpability in the expansion of the drone program. For all sorts of reasons, the press has been more likely to believe reports from the military over unhappy tribal leaders, survivors and other eyewitnesses, holding up physical and photographic evidence. The filmmakers made the trek to Pakistan, where they covered a press conference held to address the problem and into the field, where, among other, they spoke with a teacher, pharmacist and surviving relatives. One of the teenage boys, Tariq Aziz, we meet at the press conference, was soon thereafter targeted by a drone attack. Apparently, his only crime was driving members of a soccer team to a match at the wrong time. A Pentagon spokesman insists that Aziz was on a list of suspected terrorists, but he doesn’t say how he got there or if his alleged crime warrated the death penalty. The boy’s name matches that of Saddam Hussein’s former adviser and government spokesman, so, maybe, someone simply forgot to cross it off of the most-wanted list. Most telling, though, is the testimony of former U.S.A.F. drone targeter Brandon Bryant, who lost confidence in the program when he was mistakenly ordered to kill a young man walking on a mountain path. He’d already blown off his leg, a fact that couldn’t be ignored on satellite-delivered images sent to a facility in central Nevada. The victim may have been guilty of something, even if it wasn’t terrorism, so another rocket was ordered. Later, a survivor of a “double-tap” attack on a regular meeting of tribal elders makes the point that villagers have become frightened to walk outside during the day, because they don’t know when it’s their turn to be sentenced to death by someone half a world away. If “Unmanned” feels one-sided, it’s only because the Pentagon is winning the propaganda war and feels no need to further justify its actions. Various psychiatrists add their own perspective on how people who live in the path of these drones have begun to suffer the psychological effects of a constant threat. – Gary Dretzka

Semi Colin
This oddly constructed, if ultimately compelling documentary introduces the world to the largely unheralded British illustrator and graphic novelist Colin Murray. It’s even difficult to find mention of him on the Internet. Far more elusive and withdrawn than R. Crumb was considered to be in his prime, the 71-year-old Murray’s illustrative pinup art and erotically charged graphic novels only began to surface with the publication of “The Lady and the Vampire,” in 2000. He lives and works in seclusion in the small flat in which he was born and it takes a veritable eternity for him to finish an illustration or novel. Although it seems unlikely that Damien Lay’s “Semi Colin” actually represents his first interview, it’s true that Murray may be the most underrepresented artist of his stature in his time. Even so, it wouldn’t be accurate to describe him as a late-bloomer. He began drawing female nudes while still in his teens, but kept them secret from his mother and the public for decades. The easiest way to visualize the typical Murray subject is as a hybrid of Alberto Vargas’ pinup girls, Harvey Kurtzman’s Little Annie Fanny, Al Capp’s Daisy Mae, Crumb and Russ Meyer’s Amazonian wet dreams and, of course, the inimitable Betty Page. Murray’s women are built from the same physical template, but exist in a universe all of their own. They’re painstakingly drawn and exquisitely colored. Sexually, the women in his illustrations take as well as they give, often engaging in acts and exchanging fluids in ways most people would call pornographic. Murray doesn’t like the word attached to his creations, but, by definition, some definitely fit the description. The graphic novels also blend horror, humor and action into their adventurously erotic narratives. “Semi Colin” may confuse viewers expecting a documentary experience that matches the hype on its cover. Instead, we spend the first 10 minutes watching the artist wake up from a deep sleep and go about his daily routine. Even at his most loquacious, he prefers to let his illustrations do the talking for him. To get any more out of Murray, Lay would have needed a double major in film and dentistry. Extras consist of a director’s commentary and three-minute montage of Murray’s work set to composer Chris Morgan’s energetic film score. If you’ve always wanted to watch Terry Zwigoff’s bio-doc, “Crumb,” but have yet to do so, there’s no better time than alongside “Semi Colin.” – Gary Dretzka

Sunrise: Blu-ray
Fans of “Jeopardy!” probably already know the question to this answer: it won the first Academy Award in the category, Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production. If you guessed, “What is ‘Sunrise’?,” instead of, “What is ‘Wings’?,” you win today’s Daily Double. It’s a trick answer, only in the sense that the 1929 ceremony was the only one at which two pictures were handed the trophy as Best Picture. Technically, “Wings” was named Best Picture, Production. “Sunrise” and “Wings” both were excellent choices for tops honors. Just how good can be seen in Blu-ray editions of both pictures now on sale. With the visually innovative “Nosferatu” and “The Last Laugh,” F.W. Murnau had already changed the way audiences around the world watched movies. When he was lured to America by William Fox, he was given the money to create the most lavish melodrama of the silent era. It afforded Murnau and cinematographer Charles Rosher the time and space to create lavish sets and experiment with intricate lighting techniques. “Sunrise” tells a simple story, really, equal parts fable and morality play. Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien play the Wife and the Man, country mice who are about to be devoured by Margaret Livingston’s Woman From the City. Lacking the backbone to resist her vampish charms, the farmer nearly succumbs to her requests that he cause her to drown, sell off pieces of his property and move to the city to make her happy. At the last minute, however, he makes a decision that will change the course of all of the characters’ lives. Instead of gambling on an uncharted future with the Woman From the City, the Man reignites his relationship with his wife. The fickle finger of fate, alone, will decide what will happens next.

The sterling Blu-ray edition of “Sunrise,” from 20th Century Fox, makes it abundantly clear why several decades’ worth of critics have lavished praise on the movie. The original Movietone negative was destroyed during a fire at Fox in 1937, and no one has been able to track down the second negative used for the different cuts of the film. Even so, the Blu-ray looks great. The set contains two versions of the film: the previously released Movietone version, and an alternate silent version of the film recently discovered in the Czech Republic, which is of a higher visual quality than any other known source. The Blu-ray edition includes restored high-definition transfers of two different versions: the American Movietone version, and the silent Czech version. The former adds the original English intertitles, while subtitles are available on the latter. It offers both the original Movietone score (mono) and alternate Olympic Chamber Orchestra score (stereo). The commentary by cinematographer John Bailey is well worth effort to find it, as are the outtakes, which derive from a 35mm nitrate workprint kept as a souvenir by its editor, Harold Shuster. “4 Devils: Traces of a Lost Film,” includes Janet Bergstrom’s updated 40 minute documentary about the lost Murnau films, an original theatrical trailer, original “photoplay” script by Carl Mayer, with Murnau’s handwritten annotations (150 pages in pdf format), and a 68-page illustrated booklet with numerous essays and a new reprint of a piece by Dudley Andrew. – Gary Dretzka

BBC/Sundance: Top of the Lake
Fresh Meat
When Emmy and Golden Globe nominations were read off during early-morning press conferences, I wonder how many people said, “What?,” after the title “Top of the Lake” was announced eight times in the case of the Emmys and twice during the Globes’ session. The six-hour mini-series was shown on the Sundance Channel, which is one of the pawns that gets shuffled around when the bigger cable networks squabble over carriage issues. That “Top of the Lake” got enough attention from voters to be nominated in eight overlapping categories should tell you just how terrific a production it is. Elisabeth Moss, who’s been nominated several more times for her work on “Mad Men,” surprised everyone, I think, when her name was called Sunday night at the Globes. Created and co-directed by Jane Campion and Garth Davis, “Top of the Lake” is ostensibly a crime drama, but only in the same way that “Twin Peaks” and “Blue Velvet” are crime dramas. Creepy and overflowing with a sense of imminent dread, the movie is set along the shores of a beautiful lake in the mountains of southern New Zealand. The nearby town is largely populated by men who probably wouldn’t re-locate to a big city if they were paid handsomely to do so. The most dominant character among them is a Charlie Manson wannabe, Matt (Peter Mullan), whose brood is comprised of more brothers and sisters than anyone can accurately count. He owns the undeveloped land around the lake and is willing to kill anyone who attempts to buy property that spoils the serenity. The only people he allows to live there is a group of abused and abandoned women, who stopped counting time when 1969 turned into 1970. They live in shipping containers and support themselves by helping bag drugs for Matt and sharing sexual favors in and around town. They appear to worship a female guru with long white hair and a litany of spacey pronouncements. GJ is played to a “T” by Holly Hunter, who last teamed with Jane Campion on “The Piano,” also shot in New Zealand. Moss plays a police detective, Robin, imported from Australia to her NZ hometown because of her skills as an investigator of sexual-abuse cases. Robin’s handed a doozy when a pregnant half-Maori girl, Tui, is brought to the police station after being found wading chest-deep in the freezing lake. All that we’re told about the 12-year-old is that Matt purports to be her father and she’s scared to death of him and her thuggish half-brothers. As soon as Tui’s released from the hospital, she hightails it into the mountains around the lake, where she plans to stay until the baby is born. The more obsessed Robin gets with her case, the more it becomes apparent that she’ll have to get through Matt to find the answers to this very deep and dark mystery.

On its surface, “Fresh Meat” is a completely nutty horror flick, likewise from Down Under, where the combination of gore, sex, crime and horror already has a name of its own: Ozploitation. Even though I’m perfectly aware of the fact that Australia and New Zealand are two separate countries, with unique topography, individual flags and people who speak with slightly different accents, their genre flicks share plenty of similarities. On the lower end of the muy macho cinematic scale, they include a need for speed, mindless violence and heads as thick as a brick. Before Peter Jackson became one of the leading fantasists on the planet, he made his bones in the horror dodge, including its cannibalism subgenre. If flesh-eating is a recurring theme in the land of the hemorrhaging kiwi, it probably has something to do with tales of ritual cannibalism among the native Maori population. A long and storied history of such incidents is exploited in Danny Mulheron’s off-the-wall “Fresh Meat.” When a gang of escaped criminals breaks into an upper-middle-class home that is owned by a Maori family, the miscreants are in for a big surprise. As lead actor Temuera Morrison demonstrated in Lee Tamahori’s ferocious 1994 drama, “Once Were Warriors,” the Maori take shit from no one. While the family’s college-age daughter is off at school, majoring in becoming a lesbian, her parents and brother decide to embrace their roots. “We’re not Maori cannibals, we’re just cannibals who happen to be Maori,” explains Mulheron’s character. As messed up as the crooks are, it doesn’t take much effort for the family to get them in a position where they could be put on the night’s menu. The daughter sees in the female gangster a meal of a different sort. “Fresh Meat” is every bit as crazy as it sounds. The DVD adds behind-the-scenes Interviews with cast and crew. – Gary Dretzka

Plus One: +1
Dennis Iliadis’ follow-up to “The Last House on the Left” starts out like a slightly more mature version of “Project X,” but evolves into something more closely resembling a cross between “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and Shane Carruth’s debut, “Primer.” In “Plus One,” three more-or-less normal college friends arrive at a wild party at a mansion, just as a meteor crashes to Earth in the background. It causes the lights to flicker violently, while, otherwise, barely making a sound. By the time the partygoers notice the absence of sound and light, the electricity starts right up, again. For a while, anyway, nothing stranger than the blackout occurs. About 15 minutes later, though, clean-cut David (Rhys Wakefield) is invited to an upstairs bedroom by a blazing-hot blond (Natalie Hall), who isn’t at all shy about getting both of their rocks off. A minute or two after coitus, the blond moves her act into the bathroom for a shower, conveniently forgetting to close the door. As he’s enjoying the show, a couple of unnerving things happen: 1) a dead-ringer for the blond climbs into the bed with him and she’s as naked as the one taking the shower only a few feet away, and 2) David’s similarly attractive girlfriend, Jill (Ashley Hinshaw), walks in on the couple, immediately causing her to break off their relationship. This WTF moment would begin to repeat itself soon thereafter, among other partygoers and the paid go-go dancers. The doppelgangers appear to be mimicking the actions of their human host, only 15 minutes removed from the present. Not all of the duplicates arrive simultaneously, so it takes a while for everyone to catch onto what’s happening. When they do … well, let’s just say, the real fun begins. Iliadis gets a lot of help maintaining a frantic pace from composer Nathan Larson, cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. and editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis. “Plus 1” is the rare sci-fi/thriller that’s smart, funny, inventive and very aware of its intended audience. Bonus material adds a featurette on the special-effects, commentary and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

A Chorus Line: Blu-ray
PBS: Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love
I doubt that the simultaneous release of “Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love” and the Blu-ray edition of “A Chorus Line” was a planned event. As coincidences go, though, this one isn’t bad. Among his many accomplishments, Hamlisch contributed the music for the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical and Broadway blockbuster. Richard Attenborough’s movie version laid an egg critically and at the box office. It has been argued, however, that, in an effort to be more filmic, screenwriter Arnold Schulman missed several of the essential points made in Michael Bennett’s story. The casting was less than perfect, as well. My guess is that some plays and musicals simply aren’t meant to be transferred to film. One of the things that happen to musicals when they’re re-located to a Hollywood sound stage is the creation of a new song or two for Oscar consideration. Here, “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” “Sing!,” and “The Music and the Mirror” were deleted, in favor of new songs “Surprise, Surprise” and “Let Me Dance For You,” both by Hamlisch and Ed Kleban. Instead of a salute to dancers, “What I Did for Love” was turned in a love song by Cassie about Zach. That’s a lot of messing around with perfection. Less picky viewers should find something to enjoy in the movie adaptation, but, as Tammi and Marvin once opined, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.”

“What He Did for Love” makes a convincing case for Hamlisch being one of the great over-achievers of our time. Besides winning the Sextuple Crown of the entertainment world (four Grammys, four Emmys, three Oscars, three Golden Globes, a Tony and a Pulitzer), Hamlisch could carry on wonderfully articulate conversations while looking a talk-show host straight in the eye and playing easily recognizable melodies on the piano. It is an instrument that sometimes seemed to be attached to his fingers. Although his ego could bowl over a Humvee, allowances must be made for genius. Moreover, by all accounts, Hamlisch was an extremely generous fellow, who didn’t feel the need to call a press conference whenever he did nice things for people. That’s far more important than winning a Golden Globe. Needless to say, “What He Did For Love” not only is full of great music, but also the testimony of such remarkable artists as Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Quincy Jones, Christopher Walken, Woody Allen, John Lithgow, Lucie Arnez, Carol Bayer Sager, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Robert Klein, Melissa Manchester and Donna McKechnie. Writer/director Dori Berinstein makes good use of material from Hamlisch’s personal archives in this 85-minute “American Masters” presentation and another hour’s worth of bonus footage. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey
Secrets of Ancient Egypt
Top Gear: The Complete Season 20
Bad Dog! Season 1
Have you ever wondered how much fun it might be to take a road trip with Edina and Patsy of “Absolutely Fabulous.” Forget it … it’s not going to happen. Short of combing through several days’ worth of “AbFab” reruns for the odd episode shot on location, watching “Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey” – or, her mini-series shot on the Nile and Mount Ararat – is the next best thing. And, you don’t have to worry about succumbing to secondhand smoke. In the three full hours allotted her, Lumley covers the length and breadth of the country, with stops along the way on several islands. The goal here appears to have been combining reports on Greece’s distant past, its troubled present and eternal appeal, to people whose only previous connection with Hellenic culture is the local gyros restaurant. It also includes Lumley’s fond memories of her first romantic visit, at 20, when she mistakenly went to the tiny island of Poros, instead of the more tourist-friendly Paros. Of course, Lumley visits such obvious haunts as the Parthenon, Delphi, Olympia and Mount Olympus, where she experiences things not generally available to tourists. She explores how generations of invading empires, cultures and religions have shaped Greece’s traditions and treasures. Everywhere she goes, from the Gates of Hades to the Albanian border, she introduces us to common folks and site-specific customs. Seasoned travelers will find as much to enjoy here as those who’ve yet to book their first trip to Greece. The DVD comes with a 12-page viewer’s guide, a map, an interview with Lumley, a timeline of Greek history and articles on Lord Byron in Greece and the Muses, as well as a biography of Lumley.

Also new from Athena/Acorn is “Secrets of Ancient Egypt,” a compilation of five separate documentaries about one of ancient world’s great civilizations and our continuing fascination with it. It is hosted by Egyptian archeologist Zahi Hawass and geologist Farouk el-Baz, who get us up to speed on recent discoveries in the fields of biology, archaeology, geology, zoology and Egyptology. Not only are we shown how undiluted DNA can be collected from newly discovered mummies, but also the genetic factors, including in-breeding, that led to the collapse of the empire. (The pharaohs were concerned about polluting their bloodlines, so they decided to ignore common wisdom.) We learn, as well, what was lost and gained during incursions by the Greeks and Romans. They were so impressed by Egyptian funerary rituals, in fact, that wealthier Greeks and Romans had themselves mummified and entombed. The chapters include, “Secrets of the Pharaohs: A Quest for Ancient DNA,” “Oasis of the Golden Mummies,” “Secrets of the Sands,” “The Sacred Animals of the Pharaohs” and “Realm of the Dead.” It adds a 12-page viewers’ guide with more historical background.

Top Gear: The Complete Season 20” is a compilation of the six shows shown on the BBC and BBCA this summer. Motorists who’ve made it the world’s most popular car show already know what to expect from hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, who are as funny as they are learned. Although “Top Gear” remains firmly rooted in British soil, its international popularity has prompted producers to extend the show’s reach. Here, the lads set out to race a car against an America’s Cup yacht up the coast of New Zealand; attempt to find the world’s fastest taxi; and blast across Spain in three “affordable” supercars. There are track and performance tests of the BAC Mono, Ford Fiesta ST, Peugeot 208 GTI, Renaultsport Clio 200, Jaguar F-type, Range Rover Sport, the new double-decker Bus For London and Mercedes SLS Black; investigations into the possibility of designing a car that can turn into a hovercraft; comfort tests for caravan enthusiasts; and new “reasonably priced cars,” in which celebrity guests will perform their fast laps. Among them are Warwick Davis, Charles Dance, Joss Stone, Ron Howard, Benedict Cumberbatch and Steven Tyler.

Animal Planet’s “Bad Dog!” could just as easily be called “Clueless Owners!” and its overall appeal would be very much the same. The show, which isn’t limited to canine hijinks, combines the off-the-cuff flavor of YouTube with the too-often-staged mayhem of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” The show documents just how far pets can push their owners and still get unconditional love, and some of them can be almost intolerably mischievous. None of them seem to mind being on television, either. Besides the many destructive and noisy dogs and cats, the pets include parrots, monkeys, a buffalo, an anteater and a freakishly orgasmic tortoise. Adults should have as much fun watching “Bad Dog!” as the kiddies, although it might be tough to explain what’s going on with the tortoise. – Gary Dretzka

Marvel Knights: Wolverine vs. Sabretooth
Today, there are so many different ways to enjoy watching our favorite superheroes and supervillains, it would be a shame to limit ourselves to just one. Lots of people around the world took time out of their surely busy schedules this fall to watch Fox’s live-action “The Wolverine.” Others, no doubt, followed their favorite character by reading the source comics or picking DVDs of the various fully animated TV series. Somewhere in between, fans could find – if they hadn’t already – perused the series of “motion comics” that are based on storylines in the comic-book series. In them, the “Marvel Knights” stories are told nearly seamlessly through comic panels, with a little something-something added for smooth transitions and voice- and soundtracks. All of the delivery systems are valid artistically and commercially. What differentiates the motion comics from the others are the brilliancy of the colors and tight focus on the faces and emotionally charged responses to off- and on-screen stimuli. In “Wolverine vs. Sabertooth,” we’re told, “the world’s oldest and deadliest grudge match comes to an end,” with writer Jeph Loeb and artist Simone Bianchi at the controls. Wolverine and Sabretooth have been locked in a grudge match that goes back longer than either can remember and it’s time to bring it to a dramatic conclusion. – Gary Dretzka

The Beast of Hollow Mountain/The Neanderthal Mac: Blu-ray
If the pair of titles in Shout!Factory’s matinee-ready double-feature were any cheesier they would have had their world premiere in New Glarus, Wisconsin. Being a blast to watch with the kids makes up for the horrific re-purposed gorilla costumes, toy monsters, pre-fab dialogue and sad acting in “The Beast of Hollow Mountain” and “The Neanderthal Man” … both of which look pretty good on Blu-ray, however. In the former, Guy Madison plays an American cowboy running cattle in Mexico. Besides having to deal with some nasty hombres, bent on diverting his cattle drive to their pens, the cowboy’s livelihood is threatened by a cattle-rustling dinosaur. Trouble is, the dinosaur doesn’t make an appearance until an hour into the movie. Apparently, in 1956, “Hollow Mountain” was the first feature film to combine stop-motion animation with anamorphic Cinemascope and color.

Made in 1953, “The Neanderthal Man” is about a mad scientist who not only has created a serum that transforms him into a prehistoric caveman, but also his cat into a saber-toothed tiger and his housekeeper into an ape-woman. The loon has been trying to convince the local Naturalists’ Society of his theory on the relationship between the size of the skull and brain, as it relates to intelligence. When it is rejected by the eggheads, his only recourse is to force his body to adjust to different geologic time zones. If his theory is correct and local yokels don’t kill him first, it would mean that Neanderthal man was equal, if not superior, to Homo sapiens. But, we knew that already, didn’t we? There are no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Murph: The Protector: Blu-ray
On Friday, Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” spreads to theaters around the country. It is an account of SEAL Team 10’s ill-fated mission to locate notorious anti-coalition fighter Ahmad Shahd and call in an air strike. Operation Red Wings was initiated after military intelligence discovered a band of some 200 insurgents in the Hindu Kush Mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Shahd and his Mountain Tigers were responsible for facilitating movement of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters along the mountainous border separating Afghanistan and Pakistan. The four-man team was compromised by local goatherds who stumbled upon the SEALs, but were spared in an act of commendable, if ill-advised mercy. As the Tigers advanced on their position, team leader Michael Murphy raced to a clearing to call in reinforcements and buy some time for the others. Only one SEAL survived the attack, which also claimed the lives of eight SEALs and eight U.S. Army Nightstalkers on a Chinook helicopter hit by an RPG. As the title implies, Berg’s movie focuses, as well, on the incredible escape of Marcus Lottrell. The documentary “Murph: The Protector” is a very different sort of film, precipitated by the same tragedy. It honors Medal of Honor winner Lt. Michael Patrick Murphy, the first member of the U.S. Navy to receive the award since the Vietnam War. Scott MacTavish tells his story almost exclusively through the recollections of family, friends and teammates, as well as home movies, photos and material supplied by the Navy. That he’s painted as a hero’s hero is no surprise. The Medal of Honor, Silver Star and Purple Heart awarded him posthumously should attest to his heroism. He’s also described as the ultimate team player and, even as a boy, a person willing to make sacrifices for his hometown, school and country. More than anything else, “Murph: the Protector” reminds me of an episode of “This Is Your Life.” I’m guessing that its low-budget look is the result of cost limitations and unavailability of classified material, but also by any deals possibly cut between the makers of “Lone Survivor” and Luttrell. Very little about the actual mission or escape is discussed or described here, except what could be gleaned from official sources and newspaper articles. Conversely, little time is spent relating the life stories of the two other men killed that day in 2005. “Murph” also breaks our hearts with visual material from the outpouring of praise and grief that greeted Murphy’s casket as it made its way from Dover Air Force Base to his Long Island home. – Gary Dretzka

Grand Ukulele: Live in Boulder
The ukulele is one of those instruments that comes into vogue every 30 or 40 years and disappears with the same regularity, minus 15 minutes.  The four-stringed instrument is said to have been invented in Hawaii in the 1880s, based on smaller guitar-like instruments introduced by Portuguese sailors. It was introduced to stateside audiences in 1915, during San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition. Small, inexpensive, easy to learn and tuneful, the ukulele would find a ready audience among early blues, country, jazz and vaudeville musicians. (At about the same time, Hawaiian players would introduce the lap- and pedal-string technique to the Nashville crowd.) After World War II, as tourists began to flock to Hawaii, tourists were reminded of the ukulele’s modest charms. In the U.S., plastics manufacturer Mario Maccaferri took advantage of the fad by turning out about 9 million inexpensive ukuleles, which could be used in school bands and other groups. The instrument would enjoy mainstream popularity when it was embraced by the popular radio and TV host, Arthur Godfrey. Beyond-eccentric singer-musician Tiny Tim played it on his 1968 novelty hit “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” as well as the many talk shows that clamored for an appearance. In the wake of the blockbuster success of “Titanic,” British musician/musicologist Ian Whitcomb brushed aside the instrument’s novelty-act gloss by producing an album of songs played by the orchestra aboard the RMS Titanic, as interpreted for the ukulele. Today’s rise of popularity can be laid directly at the feet of Japanese-American Jake Shimabukuro, whose lovely 2006 rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral on YouTube to the tune of more than 12 million views. “Jake Shimabukuro: Live in Boulder” demonstrates just how versatile and beautiful an instrument the ukulele can be when in the hands of a virtuoso. In it, his solos extend the “aloha spirit” into territory traditionally reserved for rock gods and guitar heroes. The music showcased in the concert includes songs from Shimabukuro’s “Grand Ukulele” CD – “Island Fever Blues,” “Gentlemandolin,”” Dragon,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – as well as interviews and behind-the-scenes material with producer Alan Parsons.  It’s really quite remarkable. – Gary Dretzka

Badges of Fury: Blu-ray
If the new Jet Li vehicle had been produced in the U.S. by, say, Mel Brooks or Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker, the genre-bending parody “Badges of Fury” might have generated some of the same heat as “Blazing Saddles” and “Police Squad!” Given that translating Chinese titles into English is anything but an inexact science, “Badges of Fury” could be any kind of movie. Like the English phrases stenciled on T-shirts favored by Japanese teenagers, some concepts simply defy literal translation. Wong Tsz-ming’s action/comedy opens with the first of several mysterious deaths involving people who’ve expired with a broad grin on their faces. We have an advantage over veteran cop Huang (Li), his reckless young partner Wang (Zhang Wen) and their bookish supervisor, Angela (Michelle Chen), because we already know how one of the victims of the Smile Killer came by grin. The trio is assigned the case after spectacularly muffing the arrests of a pair of long-sought criminals. The common denominator in all of the smile-killings is a previous relationship with popular actress Liu Jinshui (Shishi Liu). It results in Wang being ordered to pretend he’s her latest lover. When her jealous sister, Dai Yiyi (Yan Liu), arrives in town, his status as a living, breathing human being becomes even more precarious. At 50, Li is showing signs of slowing down a little in the action scenes, but Wen’s martial-arts and slapstick skills pick up the slack. Serious fans of Hong Kong genre flicks are likely to get the most out of “Badges of Fury,” as it contains several cameos and locations that will be most familiar to them. Special features include a four-part making-of documentary and behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Hail Mary: Blu-ray
For Ever Mozart: Blu-ray
Twenty years after the furor surrounding the release of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” finally subsided, John Cleese said about the Christian groups that considered it to be blasphemous, “We’ve brought them all together for the first time in 2000 years!” Jean-Luc Godard’s “Hail Mary” (1985), Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) and Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” (1999), in which Alanis Morissette played God, would prompt the same protests and cries for censorship from many of the same guardians of the faith. (In “Butcher Boy,” Neil Jordan tweaked the Church by having Sinead O’Connor playing “Our Lady” in Lourdes-like visitations.) The Pope, who must have had better things to do, even felt it necessary to weigh in on “Hail Mary.” Naturally, the vast majority of protesters took accusations of blasphemy on faith, rather than judge the movie themselves. Needless to say, these controversies mostly served to sell more tickets than would have been purchased if the angry few had simply kept their opinions to themselves. Today, of course, the same movies are available hassle-free on the Internet and at the corner video mart.

I was reminded of these controversies by the arrival this week of Cohen Media’s Blu-ray edition of “Hail Mary.” Re-watching it from a distance of 30 years reminded me of just how far off base the protesters actually were about the movie. In it, Godard contemporizes New Testament accounts of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, foremost to speculate about how “a young woman named Mary, who, at a certain moment in her life, finds herself part of an exceptional event that she would never have wished for herself.” I would venture to say that precious few Sunday-school students have ever been able to get their heads around either the concept of virgin birth or the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Today, as well, young Christian women must wonder how they would react if the angel Gabriel – here, Uncle Gabriel, arrives by plane to deliver the news – visited them one night. How many guys, too, have pondered how they would react to Gabriel’s defense of their girlfriend’s chastity? Godard’s crime, apparently, was asking the same questions on film, instead of taking everything taught to him by nuns and priests as the gospel truth.

Here, Mary is a typical Swiss teenager, about the same age as the biblical Mary when she became pregnant.  She enjoys playing basketball, helps out at her father’s garage and, while resolutely chaste, has an older boyfriend. Once notified by Gabriel that’s she’s won the celestial lottery, she becomes every bit as confused about God’s plan as Mary must have been, 2,000 years ago. Godard visualizes her shock, confusion and anger through elemental images of the sun, moon, clouds, flowers, and water. All of our meditations should be so thoughtfully portrayed. The thing that bothered the protesters most, I think, was the depiction of Mary as a woman who removed her clothes to perform such mundane tasks as bathing. Because this was 1985, and waxing was in its infancy, her nudity was punctuated with a full shock of unruly pubic hair. Even so, it’s difficult to imagine anyone being titillated to the point of masturbation by images of the naked Mother of God. (Mary Magdalene, maybe, but not Jesus’ mom.) Admittedly, “Hail, Mary” wouldn’t be my ideal choice as a starting point for any discussion of Roman Catholic dogma, but I’ve seen worse. I wouldn’t discourage my adult children from seeing it, though. For the record, it stars Myriem Roussel, Thierry Rode, Philippe Lacoste and Juliette Binoche, in only her second feature. The Blu-ray edition adds a short film, “The Book of Mary,” which was directed by long-time Godard collaborator Anne-Marie Miéville and tells the story of the break-up of a marriage as seen through the eyes of the couple’s young daughter; “Notes on ‘Hail Mary,’” Jean-Luc Godard s video notebook; commentary by director Hal Hartley and Museum of the Moving Image Chief Curator David Schwartz; and a booklet, with an essay by film critic David Sterritt and Boston University lecturer Charles Warren.

Also new to Blu-ray is Godard‘s far more difficult “For Ever Mozart,” a later work that demands of its audience that they consider the relationship between art, death, politics and war, in a society capable of creating works of great beauty and committing horrific atrocities in the name of their deity, nationality or cultural background. Made in 1996, it follows a young troupe of idealistic actors from western Europe who travel to war-torn Sarajevo to create order and beauty in a world ruled by chaos. Along the way, they’re arrested by irregular troops, imprisoned and forced to dig their own graves while reciting poetry. The movie also involves an elderly director’s efforts to complete his final film, which will have the unfortunate fate of being released in a multiplex opposite the latest “Terminator” episode. It isn’t a movie for casual moviegoers, seeking a few hours of diversionary entertainment. In fact, much of it is the cinematic equivalent of navel-gazing. For those willing to take a chance on a difficult artist, “For Ever Mozart” poses questions that deserve to be asked and discussed by citizens of the 21st Century. The bonus package adds four featurettes previously not available in the U.S.; commentary by James Quandt; and a booklet with an essay by critic/author Fergus Daly; and Hartley’s interview with Godard. – Gary Dretzka

Runner Runner: Blu-ray
There probably is or was a very good movie to be made about the perils of on-line gambling, but “Runner Runner” isn’t it. It’s also possible that on-line gambling isn’t an inherently interesting subject for exploration on film and the only way this one might have been saved is if Ben Affleck had elected to direct it, instead of agreeing to be the movie’s antagonist. It also could have taken the “American Hustle” route, by turning the primary characters into gargoyles. The money at stake is real, if invisible to almost every involved. Even so, Internet gaming, by definition, requires players and dealers to sit in virtual seats, miles apart from each other, using virtual chips that represent real money already deposited in a virtual bank. Unless one has a degree in mathematics or is a master of probability, an opponent’s “tells” are virtually undetectable. It’s easy to ignore the digitally scrolled remarks that pass for table chat. In the movies, high-stakes poker games are juiced up by injecting long, dramatic pauses and trash talking. As far as I’ve seen, no one with even a tenth of the charisma exuded by such legends of poker as Nick the Greek, Puggy Pearson, Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson, Amarillo Slim, Stu “The Kid” Ungar or Johnny “Great Wall of China” Chan has emerged from the ranks of the online poker crowd and now dominate the World Series of Poker. When all of those virtual dollars are added up, however, the numbers are nothing short of staggering.

All of the great gambling flicks, such as “Rounders,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” “Big Hand for a Little Lady,” “California Split,” “The Hustler,” “The Color of Money,” “Croupier” and “The Gambler,” have used face-to-face, hand-to-hand combat as a tilting point for suspense. In “Runner Runner,” all of the drama is generated by elements separate from the games themselves. The sheer volume of gaming revenues allows for the “casino” owners to collect pennies on a dollar and still make a huge fortune. Here, Justin Timberlake’s Richie Furst is enjoying his reputation as the rackets king of Princeton University when he decides to raise the ante on his career. He’s discovered what he believes to be a swindle being perpetrated on on-line poker players and he’s cocky enough to want his money back. The fresh-faced kids hops the next plane to Costa Rica, where he intends to confront Affleck’s suave “casino” boss, Ivan Block. Instead of getting his losses back, Block convinces Richie to join the firm as a systems analyst. Basically, the job involves ferreting out cheats within the company and outside of it, while also serving as a go-between Block and the stereotypically corrupt and thuggish Costa Ricans. The turning point for Richie comes when he finds himself caught in a power play between Block, a hard-ass FBI agent and government thugs. Geez, how’s Mr. Ivy League going to weasel his way out of this one and still win the heart of the boss’ prettiest moll? Brad Furman’s film isn’t unwatchable, by any means, but the less one knows – or cares – about gambling, the more entertaining it’s likely to be. The Blu-ray includes deleted scenes and an informative featurette about the rise of Internet gaming, some of which should have been integrated into “Runner Runner.” – Gary Dretzka

We Are What We Are: Blu-ray
Jim Mickle’s Americanization of Jorge Michel Grau’s Mexican horror film, “We Are What We Are” (“Somos lo que hay”), provides yet another example of how difficult it is for fresh and innovative genre fare to succeed in an industry dominated by guys only willing to back movies with pre-sold titles and Roman numerals attached to them. I suppose the same can be said about mainstream audiences, who would rather pay $10 to see the umpteenth edition of “Paranormal Activity” or, even, an unnecessary sequel to “Carrie.” Although it requires some homework on the part of genre buffs, the best place to be advised of interesting horror pictures these days is in publications that cater to the straight-to-DVD market place. Sure, that requires monitoring the websites devoted to horror and sci-fi, as well as taking chances on promising films that carry subtitles. The rewards are worth the effort, however. Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici (“Stake Land,” “Mulberry St.”) saw something they liked in Grau’s 2010 original and, instead of making wholesale changes, simply tinkered with the premise and setting. Instead of Mexico City, the protagonist family lives on a patch of land in New York’s Catskill Mountains. At first glance, the father is a religious nut who listens to televangelists while he kidnaps vulnerable young women. He locks them up in his basement or shed, where they’re kept alive until he’s ready for them to be sacrificed. By minding his business in the rural community, he becomes invisible. When his wife dies inexplicably on a trip into town, Mr. Parker demands of his seemingly normal teenage daughters that they take over the work load and protect family secrets. Among them is a curse handed down through several generations of Parkers, involving ritual cannibalism. As the date for the next ceremony approaches, clues into the deaths of other missing girls begin turning up in a nearby creek bed. The girls, who, if they aren’t twins, might as well be, are played by the angelic Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers. We hope against hope that, once freed from their father’s grip, they’ll be able to lead a normal life. Of course, one man’s “normal” is another man’s “crazy as a loon.” No matter how many spoilers you might think I’ve revealed here, I guarantee that the ending will surprise you. The Blu-ray adds “An Acquired Taste: The Making of ‘We Are What We Are’”; and interviews with Mickle, Gardner and the creepy male lead, Bill Sage. It probably should be noted, as well, that old hands Michael Parks (“Kill Bill”) and an unrecognizable Kelly McGillis (“Top Gun”) play key supporting roles. – Gary Dretzka

Dreamworld: Blu-ray
There is a point in the lives of most college graduates when they are required to face the fact that they probably won’t realize their dream of making the world a better place for all mankind to cohabit and they’ll accept the first job that comes along to soften the blow of drifting into the mainstream. Those fortunate few who are able to ward off the crippling effects of conformity likely will have to compromise eventually, if only to afford private-school tuitions and summer camp for their kids. The characters in Ryan Darst’s tres, tres quirky debut, “Dreamworld,” live in the kind of nerd’s paradise where aspiring artistes are free to play video games, read graphic novels and design the costumes they’ll wear to the next Comic-Con. Oliver (Whet Hertford) is a not-untalented animator whose self-esteem drops with every fruitless job interview and rejected romantic overture. It doesn’t help any that, at 5-foot-2, Oliver fears he will always be considered a freak of nature, at least until his peers are forced to look up at him as their boss at a “cool” company like Sony, Microsoft or Comedy Central. One night, at a party, he meets the captivating and impulsive Lily Blush (Mary Kate Wiles), who encourages him to drop everything and go with her to northern California, where she knows someone at Pixar. Lily is the kind of woman, sometimes characterized as a Magic Pixie Goddess, who’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys, sexually aggressive, eccentric in dress and manners, and quite possibly bipolar. Their trip north recalls the non-linear journey taken by Miles and Jack in “Sideways.” The more Oliver learns about Lily, however, the less magical she becomes. Once they reach San Francisco, even more surprises are revealed, causing Oliver’s emotional barometer to go completely haywire. I found “Dreamworld” to be sufficiently entertaining for a recommendation, although its appeal to those not in the characters’ hipster demographic might be limited. Most of the actors are members of the same L.A. improv troupes that populate popular sitcoms, cable comedies and webisodes, so there’s no lack of good acting here. The special features include commentary, artwork, animated blog entries and three very enjoyable short films. – Gary Dretzka

The Killing Fields: 30th Anniversary: Blu-ray
If, in 1984, anyone was still operating on the mistaken belief that the horrors of Nazi Germany wouldn’t be repeated in our lifetimes, the release of “The Killing Fields” quickly disabused them of that notion. In 1969, on the advice of Henry Kissinger, then-President Richard Nixon authorized a “secret” bombing campaign against North Vietnamese, Vietcong and Khmer Rouge strongholds inside Cambodia. A year later, American troops would cross the border on foot in an attempt to finish off the communist forces our warplanes couldn’t eliminate. Alas, military intelligence greatly overestimated the offensive’s ability to impact the flow of supplies, weapons and soldiers along the Ho Chi Min Trail. Instead, Cambodian civilians retreated from their rural villages en masse, seeking relief in Phnom Penh from the on-going civil war and bombings. Eventually, the capital would explode like an overripe melon, opening the door for a final assault by hordes of communist ants. Within days of the takeover of Saigon, insurgents proclaimed victory over Cambodia’s western-backed regime. Unlike Vietnam, whose new leaders were more interested in uniting the country through “re-education” than force-marching the country’s most industrious, educated and skilled citizens into concentration and work camps, the new Cambodian government was comprised of ideologues and sadists. By this time, however, the American people, media and government were so sick of war that they mostly ignored what little news was emerging from “the nation of peasants.” In another three years, Vietnamese leaders who once were allied with the Khmer Rouge would become so distressed by its continuing reign of terror, an offensive was launched to eliminate Pol Pot and restore the nation’s economy and infrastructure. It worked.

Based, in part, on New York Times’ reporter Sidney Schanberg’s coverage of the American incursion into Cambodia, the civil war and fall of Phnom Penh, “The Killing Fields” would serve as a wakeup call to a world full of people who still thought that World War II was the be-all, end-all of mass horror and genocide. Cambodian photographer and interpreter Dith Pran would form a close relationship with Schanberg as they traveled around the embattled countryside. When the tanks rolled into the capital, Schanberg attempted to secure an escape route for Pran, who, as an educated professional, would be among the first to be killed or evacuated to a “Year Zero” work camp. Pran failed to join the western journalists expelled, as would Schanberg’s efforts to locate Pran through humanitarian agencies. If Pran’s ordeal in captivity defies description, his attempts to escape internment define heroism and courage. That “The Killing Fields” ends on a positive note doesn’t nullify or dilute the hellish images we’ve already seen. It is estimated that 3 million Cambodians were killed before the regime was toppled. No one knows the actual total or whose names could be attached to the piles of bones and skulls found in the countryside. The purge drained the country of its educators, professionals, artists and doctors. Indeed, anyone who wore glasses was targeted as a potential foe. Pran threw his away and pretended to be a half-wit. Few movies have been as honored as “The Killing Fields.” Oscars went to Cambodian physician-turned-actor Haing S. Ngor, whose wife died in childbirth under the Khmer regime; Sam Waterson, who played Schanberg; cinematographer Chris Menges; editor Jim Clark; and David Puttnam, as producer of the Best Picture. Director Roland Joffe and writer Bruce Robinson also received nominations. Most of the bonus features in the 30th-anniversary edition first were seen in Warner’s 2001 DVD, including a BBC documentary on the making of the film and an interview with Puttnam. Joffe provides the learned commentary. Warner’s DigiBook presentation provides numerous stills from the film, along with short background essays and biographies of Puttnam, Joffé, Waterston and Ngor, trivia notes and a list of awards. “The Killing Fields” was largely shot on location in neighboring Thailand. Sadly, the Cambodian tragedy has been re-enacted in different parts of the world several times since the “Killing Fields” was released. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Fox: The Following: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
BBCA: Copper: Season Two: Blu-ray
PBS: Midsomer Murders: Series 6
Syfy: Being Human: The Complete Third Season
Syfy: 12 Disasters
Archer: The Complete Season Four: Blu-ray
China Beach: Season 2
The television landscape is so overcrowded with police and serial killers that it no longer is enough for a character to merely be good at what they do. They also have to stand out for reasons other than solving or committing hideous crimes. I wasn’t among the many followers of Fox’s “The Following” – there are only so many minutes in a day – but I remember being creeped-out by the sight of a killer wandering around with an Edgar Allen Poe mask on his face. “The Following: The Complete First Season” arrives just in time, then, for people like me to get caught up with the story before the second season opens later this month. Master show-runner Kevin Williamson (“The Vampire Diaries,” “Scream”) wanted to create a show that was in line tonally with “24” and as gory as network censors would allow. Taking a page, at least, from the Hannibal Lector playbook, “The Following,” is a cat-and-mouse thriller about psychologically damaged ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and the brilliant serial killer, Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), he put behind bars … temporarily, at least. Carroll had killed 14 women students at the Virginia college at which he once taught literature, including Poe’s works. In his twisted mind, the eviscerated bodies were confused with works of art. While in prison, Carroll was able to engineer a network of kindred spirits, who have either killed before or would follow his every sick order. Because Hardy is the world’s leading expert on Carroll – they’ve even shared the affections of the killer’s ex-wife (Natalie Zea) — the FBI director convinces Hardy to un-retire. As was the case with “24,” Bacon brings the same instant credibility to Hardy as Kiefer Sutherland did to Jack Bauer. My only problem with “The Following” is the same as the one I have with most TV dramas in which the characters are impossibly young and far too good-looking to be in the positions they hold. I assume that I’m in the minority on that count.

Anyone who’s familiar with Martin Scorsese’s bare-knuckle drama, “Gangs of New York,” will have a great headstart on understanding what’s happening in BBC America’s first original drama, “Copper.”  Created by three-time Emmy Award-winner Tom Fontana and Academy Award-nominee Will Rokos, and executive produced by Barry Levinson, the mini-series is similarly set in Manhattan’s gang-infested Five Points neighborhood, as the Civil War raged only a short distance to the south and west. The series’ protagonist is Kevin Corcoran (Tom Westen-Jones), an Irish immigrant police detective who has his hands full keeping his unsavory constituents from killing each other and drinking the blood of anyone who gets in their way. It’s an interesting time in New York, what with the growing influence of Tammany Hall, the draft riots of 1863, rising tensions between African-Americans and white immigrants and the social stratification among the city’s aristocracy and working poor.  A personal touch was added with the disappearance of Corcoran’s wife and child. Season Two stretches from the mean-streets atmosphere of Five Points to the blood-soaked battlefields of Virginia and Maryland. Sadly, “Copper” wasn’t renewed for a third season.

In one way, at least, the ITV mystery series, “Midsomer Murders,” shares one thing in common with “Law & Order.” Key characters rotate in and out of the police department, keeping viewers hanging as to the status and life expectancy of their favorites. All manner of bizarre crimes occur in the fictional English county of Midsomer, whose bucolic setting masks a murder rate twice that of London. That ironic touch, alone, is worth the price of admission. “Midsomer Murders” is based on the books by Caroline Graham, as originally adapted by Anthony Horowitz. Series Six’s protagonist is DCI Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), who lives and works in the county seat, Causton. Because of the unusually high number of murder cases, the city’s first-rate Criminal Investigation Department is continuously busy. The team’s efficiency seems to have allowed time for the detectives to hone their senses of humor and deal with several of silly squabbles that erupt between villages. Among the guest stars this time around are Amanda Root, Perdita Weeks, Honor Blackman, Leslie Phillips and Ronald Pickup. The episodes, in their original U.K. broadcast order, are “A Talent for Life,” “Death and Dreams,” “Painted in Blood,” “A Tale of Two Hamlets” and “Birds of Prey.” The set adds production notes and a Midsomer map.

There’s one crucial thing for newcomers to “Being Human” to know while considering a purchase or rental. One edition of the show is shot in England and another is made in Canada for airing on the Syfy and Space networks. While the characters and setup are virtually identical, the Canadian producers consciously avoid creating episodes that repeat what has already been shown in England and is available here, as well, on BBC America and DVD. The youthful roommates – a ghost, vampire and pair of werewolves – are challenged by the need to co-exist with humans and avoid pissing off their supernatural brethren. The English version has exhausted its five-season run, while the North American edition has been renewed for a fourth. The bonus material includes a behind-the-scenes featurette, the “Being Human Panel” from San Diego Comic-Con 2013 and the cast’s take on cliffhangers.

Generally speaking, made-for-Syfy series fare better artistically than made-for-Syfy movies, which range in quality from ridiculously bad to uproariously campy. The latest dopey dystopian drama is “12 Disasters,” which originally was titled “The 12 Disasters of Christmas.” The title’s shortening can be attributed to the fact that, while it debuted on Syfy and in most other markets just before Christmas, 2012, it arrived on DVD in January, 2014. The movie combines the beloved Christmas carol, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” with the plagues of Egypt described in the Book of Exodus. The prophecy here predicts the vastly overrated Mayan apocalypse, which, at the time of production, could only be avoided if 18-year-old Jacey (Magda Apanowicz) and her dad (Ed Quinn) were able to match five golden rings in a geometric formation described by the girl’s grandmother. In the meantime, the mountain village of Calvary, is visited by such tumultuous events as mass bird deaths, blood-red water running from faucets, humongous flying icicles. tornadoes, volcanoes and killer twinkle lights. “12 Disasters” is plenty goofy, alright, so younger teens and their stoned parents should find themselves amused for the first 45 minutes, anyway.

The creators of FX network’s animated spoof, “Archer,” have managed to stretch a single serviceable gag into four seasons of better-than average comedy. It is first-and-foremost a raunchy, pitch-perfect parody of the James Bond franchise and other spy thrillers that followed in its wake. Fact is, however, there’s never been a drought of movies and TV shows that accomplished the very same thing. They range from the 1967 adaptation of Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale,” which starred Peter Sellers, David Niven, Ursula Andress, Woody Allen and Orson Welles, to James Coburn’s “Our Man Flint,” TV’s “I Spy,”  “Modesty Blaise,“ the Matt Helm series, Stephen’s Chow’s “From Beijing With Love,” a Looney Tunes cartoon, Leslie Nielsen’s “Spy Hard,” Mike Myers’ “Austin Powers” and the delightful French farce, “OSS 117” titles. There have been dozens of others, including at least one porn version. “Archer” is marked by sharp writing, dead-on caricatures and the novelty of talking dirty on TV. This time around,
the agents of ISIS must root out evil in such disparate places as the Bermuda Triangle and the Vatican, while bickering amongst each other and putting their feet in all the available pitfalls.

The rollout of individual-season packages of “China Beach” continues apace. In Season Two, Episode One, we’re introduced to aspiring journalist and former Saigon weather babe, Wayloo Marie Holmes (Megan Gallagher), who wastes no time getting her butt dotted with shrapnel from a mortar round. She survives that indignity to make a documentary about the women of China Beach. The delicate balance of duty, drama, humor and romance is maintained until midseason, when the horror of the Tet Offensive and reverberations from the MLK assassination rock the hospital and R&R destination. Full- and part-time characters come-and-go with a fear-thee-well and, by the time the season is nearly over, McMurphy is stateside and a nervous wreck. One episode is reserved for actual Vietnam vets discussing their experiences in the war. – Gary Dretzka

Brutalization
Erotic Blackmail
The information conveyed on the cover of the box art for “Brutalization” suggests that the late, great Sylvia Kristel – the first and most unforgettable star of the “Emmanuelle” series — plays an important role in the 1973 Dutch crime drama. In fact, Kristel’s screen time would amount to little more than a cameo … if she had been famous, which, at the time, she wasn’t. Even Kristel completests would have had a difficult time finding “Brutalization,” which was released under the less sordid and far more logical title “Because of the Cats.” An early rape scene in Fons Rademakers’ steamy policier is brutally executed, but the rest of the movie is more concerned with a tenacious Amsterdam detective’s efforts to hunt down a gang of wealthy young hoodlums who get their kicks by vandalizing homes and, when caught in the act, torturing the owners. Except for what’s shown in the severe rape of a middle-age woman – not unlike a similar scene in “A Clockwork Orange” — the nudity seems to have been added as a sop to attract curious viewers. Adapted from Nicolas Freeling’s novel, “Because of the Cats,” “Brutalization” (a.k.a., “Rape”) comes most alive when the buttoned-down Van der Walk (Bryan Marshall) locates the gang in the posh beachside suburb of Bloemendaa, where local police are too buffaloed by the wealthy residents to act on their own. Ver der Walk is required to break through a thick wall of silence imposed by the Ravens on fellow gang members and their women’s auxiliary, the Cats. We’re surprised when he allows himself to be picked up by a helpful prostitute, who knows as much about what goes on in Bloemendaa as anyone. If the pieces in the puzzle of “Brutalization” don’t precisely fit, it’s probably because, in 1973, European filmmakers had yet to figure out how to blend equal measures of drama, sex and violence into a commercially viable picture. If it had been smoother, “Brutalization” might have reminded me more of such then-contemporary American hits as “Dirty Harry,” “Straw Dogs” and “Death Wish.” It’s also worth noting, perhaps, that Rademakers’ 1986 World War II drama, “The Assault,” would win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Depictions of violence against women weren’t nearly as frowned upon in the early-’70s as they are today. The barely soft-core French drama, “Erotic Blackmail,” made a year after “Brutalization,” also treats unconventional sex, rape and revenge as if they were foreplay to romance. In it, a posh swinger couple invites a pair of like-minded friends to their country villa for weekend of tag-team sex and relaxation. When the men are called away on some sort of business, the women decide to go into town for a night of drinking and dancing. They’ve already made the acquaintance of local yokels Etienne and Julien, whose idea of casual sex mirrors the violent throes of horses mating. When one of the mopes’ girlfriends suggests blackmailing the big-city women with naughty pictures, they conspire with their husbands to turn the tables on them. “Erotic Blackmail” originally was released as “Le corps a ses raisons” (“The Heart Has Its Reasons”), which doesn’t smack of porn at all. If it wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny even a few years later, it’s easy to see how European filmmakers were taking advantage of the relaxation of sexual taboos to create entertainments without boundaries. Meanwhile, in the United States, “Deep Throat,” “Behind the Green Door” and “The Devil in Miss Jones” had already raised the bar to the next level. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Una Noche
In her first feature, writer/director/co-producer Lucy Mulloy has captured a side of Cuba largely unseen in the movies. Filmed on location in Havana, “Una Noche” is set in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and populated with adults and children, who, for their entire lives, have only known struggle, shortages, police repression, poverty and a desire to taste something resembling freedom. Not everyone desires to move immediately to the United States, for all of those swell minimum-wage jobs or careers in the drug trade. Many want simply to be given an opportunity to find meaningful work and travel freely. Mulloy’s film doesn’t dwell on the trappings of poverty, but it’s an inescapable fact of the characters’ lives. Certainly, it hasn’t prevented them from making the best out of a bad situation. “Una Noche” focuses on two boys and a girl, about to risk their lives on a journey whose success depends on the ability of a raft made of inner tubes and rope to keep them afloat for 90 miles. Each has a different reason for embarking on such a risky mission and no idea what to except once they get to Miami … if they get to Miami. Elio and his kick-boxer sister, Lila, are unreasonably optimistic that their father will welcome them to Florida with open arms. Raul works with Elio in the grimy kitchen of a hotel catering to Canadians and Europeans. He is a natural-born hustler in a city intent on building walls between the native population and visitors looking for a taste of Old Havana. (In one scene, a hotel’s security guard reports back to his superiors, “There’s a citizen talking to a blond.”) Neither of the boys is confident of succeeding where so many others have failed, but, at least, the hotel kitchens in Miami should provide a healthier work environment than those at home. After attacking a tourist having sex with his older lover, Raul knows that the police have narrowed his options to one. The second half of “Una Noche” takes viewers from the teeming streets of the city to the solitude provided by empty seas and fickle currents. Once they make it past Cuba’s navy and shore patrol, they’re at the mercy of the elements and appetites of the occasional shark. Mulloy does a nice job making the transition from crowded and vibrant, to isolated and thrilling, seem as seamless as possible. It’s impossible not to see in the eyes of Elio, Lila and Raul the same hopes, fears and emotions that have fueled countless other treks, some of which ended in unrecorded tragedies or the realization that America is no more the promised land than was Castro’s Cuba. Although “Una Noche” isn’t at all preachy or polemical, it’s clear that a half-century’s worth of embargoes have punished the people we meet in the movie far more than the Castro brothers and their associates. – Gary Dretzka

Sweetwater: Blu-ray
In its determination to be a revisionist Western, Logan and Noah Miller’s “Sweetwater” owes too much to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s otherworldly “El Topo” and not enough to Peter Fonda’s contemplative “The Hired Hand,” both of which were shot in New Mexico in the early 1970s. It was a time when filmmakers took chances simply because it was time for a change and producers were desperate to capture the same audiences attracted to “Easy Rider.” The decidedly grotesque characters who populate “Sweetwater,” which was shot in some of the same New Mexico locations, and exist in a universe closer to that belonging to early Clint Eastwood than John Ford and John Wayne. Like most other fads, revisionist Westerns went out of fashion when they stopped selling tickets. Apparently, no one was in a hurry to showcase “Sweetwater” after it debuted at Sundance, so someone decided to whip up some pre-DVD publicity by leaking images of a topless January Jones (“Mad Men”) wading in a shallow river and wielding a very large six-gun. Far from attempting a fourth version of “Annie Get Your Gun,” the Millers simply reverse the traditional role played by women in frontier dramas, making her an avenging angel. Before that can happen, though, Sarah and her husband (Eduard Noriega) are introduced as being everyday homesteaders, anxious to till the land and raise a family. Unfortunately, their nearest neighbor is a bible-banging polygamist (Jason Isaacs), who believes that God speaks through him and He isn’t fond of interlopers. Naturally, everybody in the nearby town is too buffaloed by the fire-breathing charlatan to confront him on his gospel of violence. When Sarah’s husband and dog are slain, no one volunteers to bring the evil Prophet Josiah to justice.

Far from being a fading flower, Sarah proves to be a formidable foe. By the way she handles the pistol, it’s clear that the widow knows a thing or two about defending herself. That she’s not at all embarrassed about being half-naked in front of Josiah’s henchmen also leads us to believe that she’s accustomed to being naked in the company of strangers. Before getting married, Sarah worked at Madame Bovary’s Home for Tarnished Ladies of the Night – run by Amy Madigan – Sarah knows how to charm men like the snakes they are. When made aware of the rising death toll, the governor orders a broadly drawn lawman (Ed Harris) to look into the matter. Sheriff Jackson fits into the established cast of characters as if he were auditioning for a role in Todd Browning’s “Freaks.” Where “Sweetwater” disappoints is in its reluctance to delve below the surface of the crazy characters. Most of them are introduced for the sole reason of being killed. Minus the weight she was required to put on after Betty Draper became Betty Francis in Season Four of “Mad Men,” Jones is credible as both a frontier wife and veteran hooker. Without the formidable presence of Harris and Madigan, however, “Sweetwater” would be of interest for the splendid scenery and a flash of frontier boobs. For diehard genre buffs, that might be sufficient reason to recommend “Sweetwater” on DVD and PPV. – Gary Dretzka

The Berlin File
When he isn’t threatening the United States with nuclear destruction, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is keeping his name in the news by hanging with Dennis Rodman, kidnapping 85-year-old American tourists and killing off his relatives. If the “supreme leader” isn’t completely insane, his resemblance to Rufus T. Firefly could hardly be more disconcerting. Kim’s willingness to play poker with the lives of tens of millions of Koreans, at least, has created an opening for filmmakers to exploit the level of tension on both sides of the DMZ. “The Berlin File” is an espionage thriller set in the German capital, which continues to vibrate with Cold War intrigue. As the movie opens, an illegal arms deal is about turn sour. Although it’s difficult to determine exactly where the Koreans’ allegiances lie, we recognize the fingerprints of rogue dealers from Eastern Europe, Israel and possibly the United States. After a listening device is detected and the various players scatter into the bowels of the hotel, it becomes clear that someone’s been playing both sides against the middle. The botched operation has alerted military officials in Pyongyang to the likelihood of a double-agent on their team. Embassy officials are concerned, as well, about a rather sizable sum of money that’s gone missing. To rectify the situation, a greatly feared “ghost agent” is dispatched to Berlin. Action specialist Ryoo Seung-wan neatly combines elaborate set pieces with intense interpersonal drama to keep things from getting bogged down in frequently confusing Korean politics. “Berlin File” benefits from the distinctly foreign location and a budget large enough to sustain the action, which, for once, isn’t completely dependent on martial arts or gratuitous chases and shootouts. – Gary Dretzka

The Bellman Equation
As cameras have become smaller, cheaper and easier to disguise, and the Internet continues to open doors to the past, the number of hyper-personal documentaries has grown, as well. “The Bellman Equation” is a perfect example of a movie that opens a Pandora’s Box of long-held family secrets. Gabriel Lee Bellman spent 16 years of his life researching on his grandfather, Richard Bellman, a brilliant mathematician, medical researcher and computer scientist. Even after watching the documentary and reading up on the titular principle, I couldn’t possibly encapsulate Bellman’s significant contributions to geekdom. For the record: Bellman was a Brooklyn-born master of applied mathematics, renowned for his invention of “dynamic programming” and its role in solving difficult problems in control theory, economics and medicine. A fiercely independent and controversial figure, Bellman published more than 40 books and 600 papers before his 1984 death, at 63, after surgery to remove a brain tumor. The Bellman Equation has become an important tool in using math to solve difficult scientific problems in other disciplines, including game theory. As thanks for his work as a theoretical physicist on the Manhattan Project and, after the war, at the RAND Corporation think tank, Bellman was required to stand before the HUAC Inquisition and explain why he shouldn’t be lumped in the same pile as the Rosenbergs. He would be completely vindicated, but not before some of the tar attached itself to his reputation.

As is typical in such documentaries, “The Bellman Equation” would start in one place and take the subject’s grandson somewhere else entirely. Along the way, he would discover that any understanding of his grandfather’s beliefs and contributions to society would necessarily be based on discussions with his own father, psychotherapist Eric Bellman. Like other children of men consumed with their work, Eric paid a stiff price for his enigmatic father’s only occasional dabbling into family concerns, assertions of superior intellect and the effects of a midstream divorce. Even though he would become an established psychotherapist, with the “Bellmen Syndrome” added to his list of credits, Eric still appears to be dealing with significant issues of his own. He rarely looks comfortable in conversations with his son. Like his father, Gabriel spent several years pursuing interests in film and entertainment, before settling on the law. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he is a member of the Mensa Society. “Bellman Equation” spends a lot of time discussing theories and achievements beyond the kin of most unscientific minds. While it’s easy to admire the mathematician’s accomplishments — in the abstract, anyway – the mystery his grandson hoped to solve remains largely intact. If anything, “Bellman Equation” teaches us that being a genius only makes one smarter than other people, not a better human being. – Gary Dretzka

Love, Marilyn
Linda Lovelace’s Loose Lips: Her Last Interview
It isn’t likely that longtime admirers of Marilyn Monroe will learn anything new about her from the readings of newly found letters and journal entries in “Love, Marilyn.” So much is known about her already that anything more would likely come from un-redacted FBI files … unless, of course, J. Edgar Hoover took them with him to the grave. Liz Garbus’ oral biography is distinguished primarily by heartfelt interpretations of Monroe’s deepest thoughts by such actors as Ben Foster, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Elizabeth Banks, Uma Thurman, Jeremy Piven, Viola Davis, Adrien Brody, Lindsay Lohan, Ellen Burstyn, Glenn Close Hope Davis, Janet McNeer and Oliver Platt. The dear-diary memoirs stretch from her earliest days in Hollywood – when she was preyed upon sexually by agents, studio executives, photographers and other vermin – to her coming of age as an actress, with “How to Marry a Millionaire,” “The Seven Year Itch” and “Some Like It Hot.” Her growth professionally and personally can be measured in the depth of the thoughts she expressed and quality of the writing. “Love, Marilyn” is furthered enhanced by archival newsreel footage and photographs, as well as excerpts from the books and memoirs of Truman Capote, Elia Kazan, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Gloria Steinem and Billy Wilder. Sadly, the opinions we’d value hearing most are those on the Kennedy brothers, who, like nearly every other man in her life, abandoned her in one way or another. Neither is it revelatory that Monroe was her own worst enemy. It wasn’t as if she didn’t see the potholes ahead, either. It’s telling that “Love, Marilyn” hardly ever mentions her having many trustworthy friends, who might have steered her away from them.

Even without the benefit of Monroe’s good looks or any semblance of an ability to act, Linda Lovelace was anointed the 1970s’ top sex symbol. Her only qualification for stardom was an ability to perform fellatio unlike any “actress” before her. That she shared with Monroe a taste for cads with abusive personalities is well known. The men in Lovelace’s life had far less going for them than Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, however. Again, almost nothing shown in “Linda Lovelace’s Loose Lips: Her Last Interview” will come as news to people who’ve read Legs McNeil’s “The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry”; Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary “Inside Deep Throat”; or Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film, “Lovelace.” “Loose Lips” is comprised of material McNeil gathered – and wisely recorded – during interviews with Lovelace, former manager/husband/pimp Chuck Traynor, FBI agent Bill Kelly and one-time co-stars. What separates “Loose Lips” from “Lovelace” most, however, are first-person accounts of events leading to the release of “Deep Throat” and her anti-porn auto-biography, “Ordeal.” Not that any of it matters, anymore – “Lovelace” laid an egg at the box-office, after all – but it’s interesting to hear the late Marilyn Chambers discuss her subsequent relationship with Traynor and almost everyone else dispute her most alarming charges. – Gary Dretzka

Zombie Hamlet
Hell Baby: Blu-ray
The ghost of King Hamlet appears four times in Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy, so why not zombies? That is the question at the heart of John Murlowski and John McKinney’s mockumentary, “Zombie Hamlet,” which lampoons the current state of filmmaking in Hollywood and elsewhere. In it, first-time director Osric Taylor is about to realize his longtime dream of re-setting “Hamlet” against the backdrop of the American Civil War. The producer slams the brakes on the gravy train as it approaches a small Louisiana town, with a picture-perfect ante-bellum house owned by Southern matron, Hester Beauchamp, played wonderfully by June Lockhart (“Lassie”). In return for her promise to finance the picture, the trend-savvy Hester demands of Taylor that he write some zombies into the script. When Hester dies unexpectedly in the early stages of the production, the director knows that he will have to keep the news a secret from her protector, a typically Southern sheriff played by John Amos (“Good Times”) and the local gossip reporter (Shelley Long, of “Cheers”), lest her money disappears, as well. The casting decisions are more entertaining than anything else in the movie, although fans of slapstick should find something to enjoy here.

Anyone who followed Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!” already know what to expect from Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant’s genre spoof, “Hell Baby.” In it, Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb portray an expectant couple that moves into a haunted fixer-upper in New Orleans. Crazy stuff begins to happen as soon as they cross the threshold of their new home. Being haunted is one thing, but the continuous intrusions by a demented neighbor, F’resnel (Keegan-Michael Key), are too far out, even by New Orleans’ liberal standards. So, too, is the arrival of the mother-to-be’s horndog sister (Riki Lindhome). The Vatican takes reports from New Orleans seriously, sending a pair of exorcists (Garant, Lennon) to the scene. “Hell Baby” is as nuts as it sounds. Not all of the gags work, of course, but the ones that do make the film recommendable to fans of the improvisational humor in Second City, Groundlings, “Children’s Hospital,” “Human Giant” and the State. – Gary Dretzka

Angels of the Skies
For most of the first half of Christopher-Lee dos Santos’ WWII drama, “Angels of the Skies,” viewers are required to endure almost 70 years’ worth of clichés collected from British war movies. All of the Brits are “chaps”; the Germans are “jerries”; the crew chiefs are “skippers”; and officers carry batons to emphasize the points they’re attempting to make in briefings. If the producers of “Angels” had abruptly decided to change course in midflight, the same dialogue could just as easily fit a comedy. As the bombers embark on their missions, the airmen maintain a droll “stiff upper lip” tone in their communications. Once the flack starts popping over Nazi-held territory, however, the story becomes universally recognizable as one of survival against difficult, if not insurmountable odds. What makes “Angels of the Skies” different from dozens of other movies on the subject is the addition of a talented South African pilot, Earl Kirk (Nicholas van der Bijl), to the collegial mix of experienced Brits. Although the airman have been assured by their commander of Kirk’s ability, they take it as an affront to king and country. After learning that he’d volunteered to serve the Allies’ cause and, in doing so, had left behind a pregnant fiancé, wins him a measure of respect, but he’ll still have to prove himself in the sky. And, this, he does. Kirk also demonstrates the right stuff on the ground, as the surviving crew members are required to escape a platoon of jerries, under the command of a merciless SS officer. Unlike too many old-school war pictures, the fliers’ well-being can never be taken for granted by the audience or characters. “Angels” will mostly appeal to WWII buffs and completests. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart
Disney/BBC: Wolf Blood: Season One
PBS/Frontline: Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria
Michael Landon Jr. is to faith-based, Dove-approved rom-drams what Martin Scorsese is to gangster movies. Although his films espouse so-called Christian values, they’re frequently disguised to the point of being invisible, which is jake with me. “When Calls the Heart” is a historical drama based on a bestselling series of novels by Janette Oke (“Love’s Abiding Joy”) about life on the Canadian frontier. If you’re already thinking, “Little House in the Great White North,” you wouldn’t be too far away from what happens here. Polly Draper plays Elizabeth Thatcher, a young woman who grew up back east in an environment marked by wealth and privilege. Anxious to give something back to her Canadian brethren, Elizabeth volunteers to teach children at a one-room school, currently doing double-duty as a saloon. Fueled by all of the best intentions and escorted by a handsome Royal Canadian Mountie, Elizabeth gets her first taste of frontier life when their stagecoach is robbed by a gang of desperadoes. It delays their arrival in her new hometown, whose residents recently experienced a hugely traumatic event. In a parallel storyline, Elizabeth is inspired by the dramatized messages found in the diary belonging to her long-lost Aunt Elizabeth’s (Maggie Grace). That “When Calls the Heart” ends with several storylines unresolved clearly owes to Hallmark’s plans for a spinoff series that’s set to begin in January, with a different cast.

A hit on British television, “Wolfblood” is a teen supernatural series that, in various ways, resembles “Buffy,” “Twilight” and Michael Landon Sr.’s “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” For all intents and purposes, 14-year-old Maddy (Aimee Kelly) is a normal kid. In fact, though, in addition to all of the usual human traits, she possesses the more extraordinary qualities of wolves, including an obsession with marking her territory and dissuading fellow wolfbloods from crossing familial borders. The fun begins when her heightened senses alert her to the presence of another wolfblood, Rhydian (Bobby Lockwood), in school. If only because the series is produced in England, the Disney Channel import is more substantial than other such shows. The necessarily generic setting, however, could be Anytown USA.

Dozens of movies have been made about the impact of incurable diseases, unstoppable epidemics and undefined viruses. Typically, the source of the plague is discovered and eliminated within the 120-minute length of the average bio-thriller. The “Frontline” presentation, “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria,” lays out an all-too-real medical-horror scenario, without also providing viewers with a happy ending. Reporter David Hoffman investigates the rising number of cases involving the spread of untreatable infections and frustrating search for a cure. Fueled by decades of antibiotic overuse, the crisis has deepened as major drug companies have abandoned the development of new antibiotics as not being cost-effective endeavors. The next-most-horrifying thing about the PBS report is learning that researchers have, so far, been unable to nail down meaningful clues as to where knowing when, where and how the next outbreak will occur. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Gift Guide Wrapup

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

One or more of these DVD/Blu-ray packages should make an appropriate gift for last-minute shoppers.

Shrek: The Musical
For decades, the turning of musicals and plays into movies was about as unusual as a sunny day in Los Angeles. Although far less common today, the occasional “Rent,” “Chicago,” “Dreamgirls” and “A Chorus Line” still manages to squeak through, as if offering a certain segment of Academy voters something to embrace. When Broadway was going through some creative doldrums in the latter part of the last century, though, Hollywood came riding to its rescue, by allowing its dramas and dramedies with Top-40-influenced soundtracks to be adapted for the stage. “Sunset Boulevard,” which opened in London in 1993, became a perfect example of an unlikely marriage of drama and original music. When Disney decided to adapt “Beauty and the Beast” for the stage, a very different sort of hurdle presented itself. In the early 1990s, the ever-expansive company knew that the G-rated blockbuster would stick out in Times Square like Minnie Mouse at Scores gentlemen’s club. Instead, the company waited until it could fumigate “40 deuce” and welcome family audiences to the “new” Broadway.  The 1994 sensation would be followed by “The Lion King,” in 1997; “Mary Poppins,” in 2006; “Aladdin,” in 2011; and, last year, “Newsies,” a live-action movie musical that flopped big in 1992. (Disney wouldn’t invade Las Vegas, even in its family-friendly iteration, until “The Lion King” opened in 2009 at Mandalay Bay.) Ironically, the Disneyfication of Broadway opened the door for other family-friendly enterprises, including, in 2010, a musical version of DreamWork’s mighty “Shrek.” It opened in December, 2008, and closed in January, 2010, before embarking on a national tour and a longer stint at London’s Royal Drury Lane Theatre. It would garner one Tony, out of eight nominations; three Drama Desk Awards; a Laurence Olivier Award; and a Grammy nomination for its soundtrack. It was greeted with some very positive notices, from important critics, and the album climbed to No. 1 on some charts. Mounted at an estimated $24 million – a pittance in Hollywood and Las Vegas, but a fortune on Broadway – “Shrek: The Musical” proved too expensive to sustain its momentum in New York. DreamWork waited until the musical finished its tours of the U.S. and the U.K. before releasing it this year in DVD and Blu-ray.

Now … what can fans of “Shrek: The Movie” expect from the long-awaited “Shrek: The Musical”? Mostly, to be entertained beyond their expectations. Just as adults were surprised by how much they enjoyed the first movie in the series – especially for the many clever references to classic cartoon characters – everyone in the family should find something to their liking here. Who knew, for instance, that Shrek was such a talented singer? Not me. Veteran stage actor Brian d’Arcy James not only has the voice one would expect to hear from such a hefty ogre, but he’s also able take the character in a different direction from Mike Myers’ interpretation of the character, first drawn by children’s book writer and illustrator William Steig. As Princess Fiona, the multitalented Sutton Foster is every bit as fun to watch. Both leads were honored by the Outer Critics Circle with best-acting awards. (Sutton also starred in adaptations of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Young Frankenstein.”) Among the other credits are lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire; music by Jeanine Tesori; Daniel Breaker as Shrek’s donkey sidekick; and Christopher Sieber as Lord Farquaad. Tim Hatley’s set and costume design captured prestigious awards, as well. Among the bonus features are “Shrek the Musical Songbook With Sing-Alongs” divided into a jukebox assemblage of songs and a version for karaoke nuts; and “From Swamp to Stage: The Making of ‘Shrek the Musical’,” which features Cameron Diaz as host.

Big: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Like “Shrek,” the age-change comedy “Big” was given a go on Broadway, if only for a much shorter tenure … no surprise there. Tom Hanks’ presence may not have been the only reason “Big” scored so highly with audiences and critics upon release, but, after watching it for the first time in 25 years, it’s impossible to imagine the movie – or musical, for that matter – without him in it. Already 32 when the movie was released, in 1988, Hanks was required to play a precocious 12-year-old trapped in the body of a 25-year-old dweeb. Along the way, Sean allows his pubescent cherry to be broken by a sexually experienced senior executive at the toy store in which they both work. Imagine if the roles were reversed and Elizabeth Perkins was playing a 12-year-old girl in MILF clothing. In both of their accomplished hands, the scene isn’t nearly as off-putting as it sounds on the page … but, just barely. Even without it, though, “Big” would be memorable. As the story goes, young Josh is a pipsqueak not tall enough to get on the coolest rides at a carnival. He’s as impatient for his growth spurt to arrive as he is anxious to cop his first feel at the local passion pit. After being turned away from the ride, while in the company of his school’s shiksa goddess – he turns to a robotic soothsayer for guidance. Overnight, he learns the meaning of the admonition, “Be careful what you wish for, because it might come true.” Newly 25, Josh and his closest pre-teen buddy go on a spending spree, buying everything they’ve ever wanted to possess. After impressing a store executive (Robert Loggia) with his ability to predict what toys kids will force their parents to buy for them, Josh is hired as a consultant. If he acts like a kid in a toy store, well, that’s what he is.

After realizing his greatest fantasy, Josh begins to wonder if he might not be happier as a 12-year-old, again. Among other things, he misses his mom (Mercedes Ruehl) and playmates. His best friend locates the soothsaying machine and demands that Josh come to his senses. Like any adult cad, Josh is careful not to hurt Perkins’ feelings too much when he kicks her to the curb. That’s how “Big” looks from a distance of 25 years, anyway. Teens and young adults will find the movie to be as charming as most viewers did when it was first released.  Neither has the giant floor-piano sequence lost any of its charm. Hitting a grand-slam home-run in only her second feature proved to be something of a mixed blessing for Penny Marshall. It put her on the A-list, but raised unrealistically high expectations of a stellar directorial future. “A League of Her Own” was her only other really big hit, commercially and otherwise. After “The Preacher’s Wife,” however, Marshall’s career started to go in reverse. Then and now, women in Hollywood’s power positions have too score big every time out, not every now and then. “Big” is the real deal, however. The Blu-ray/DVD anniversary package arrives with a sound chip embedded in its slipcover; “Zoltar” fortune-teller cards; a significantly longer extended cut; commentary and interviews with writers/co-producers Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg; deleted scenes, including five with Marshall’s intros; the featurettes “Chemistry of a Classic,” “The Work of Play,” “Hollywood Backstories: ‘Big’’; four trailers and TV spots; and the original theatrical cut. (Some are from an earlier Blu-ray edition.) Whatever happened to Tom Hanks?

Omnibus: Gene Kelly: Dancing: A Man’s Game
“Omnibus” was one of the most enlightening, prestigious and fondly remembered series in the history of television. In a very real sense, the 1950s’ variety show was “The Ed Sullivan Show” for intellectuals and people who spell “culture” with a capital-C. The only thing like it today is “CBS News: Sunday Morning,” which is buried so deep on the television grid even Tivo can’t always find it. It was produced by the Ford Foundation, which actually believed such shows could “raise the level of American taste” with educational entertainment. As quixotic as that might sound in 2013, “Omnibus” lasted eight seasons – 164 episodes – on all three of the broadcast networks consecutively. “Gene Kelly: Dancing: A Man’s Game” is an example of the kind of show that wouldn’t last 10 minutes on the Big Three networks today, let alone an hour. Basically, host Alistair Cooke handed the entire episode to the hoofer extraordinaire and said, do something interesting with it … and he did. The first thing one notices as Kelly moves onto the main stage of the studio are men in sporting outfits of all stripes mimicking what athletes in the same uniforms might do for a living. At second glance, however, it becomes obvious that these aren’t actors impersonating athletes, but a veritable Hall of Fame of athletic talent. Among Kelly’s guests are Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas, Bob Cousy, Sugar Ray Robinson, Dick Button and dancers Edward Villella and Patrick Adiarte. In his introductions, Kelly demonstrates how their layups, pitches, punches, twirls and passes mimic common dance movements. As the show’s title suggests, this isn’t an empty exercise. Without spelling it out letter by letter, Kelly is making the point that modern dance, show choreography and ballet aren’t disciplines reserved for women or “sissies,” any more than professional sports are the exclusive domain of rock-headed jocks. Even inadvertently, athletes employ the same muscles, movements and timing in their jobs as dancers do on stage. The difference can be appreciated in how dancers extend the same motions for the purpose of artistic expression, not to knock out an opponent or hit a home run. Sometimes, it appears as if Kelly is creating dances on the spot, combining individual movements to create a unified whole. He also dances alongside Button, one on wood flooring and the other on ice. Kelly’s message isn’t lost on anyone who’s witnessed the homophobia that emerges when a son or friend announces that he wants to join the ballet or work his way up from a chorus line, or, for that matter, the feigned shock that accompanies news that a professional player has exited the closet. (Magic Johnson made it abundantly clear, up front, that he tested positive for HIV, after heterosexual congress.) Kelly, of course, was famous for adding the common man’s touch to movie choreography. Fred Astaire did the same thing, but more frequently in a tuxedo. In any case, it’s a wonderful show, as relevant today as at any time in the last 50 years. If more kids were exposed to shows like this in high school, tolerance would be something that doesn’t need to be taught or legislated. The DVD arrives with a collectible booklet, with analysis by biographer and film historian Patricia Ward Kelly.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark: Blu-ray
Last year, Paramount released the boxed-set “Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures” in time for holiday gifting. The collection marked the Blu-ray debut of the first three pictures: “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” (At the time, only “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was available on the format.) Now, the Blu-ray titles are ready to go individually. I can’t imagine many people who don’t own the series in one format or another, but there’s almost no argument about “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – the one in which Our Hero escapes the giant rolling rock — being the best of the lot and, in high-def, it only gets better.  Moreover, smart shoppers can find a decent price, whether they’re standing at the checkout line of a supermarket or on the Internet. All three of the blockbusters have been impeccably restored, visually and aurally. The new features on “Raiders” include the half-hour-long featurettes, “From Jungle to Desert” and “From Adventure to Legend,” as well as five making-of pieces and a dozen backgrounders, covering the entirety of the series.

Masterpiece: Downton Abbey: Deluxe Limited Edition: Blu-ray
On January 5, the fourth season of “Downton Abbey” arrives on most stations in the PBS universe (times and dates vary wildly in some markets). But, of course, you knew that already. For those people on your list who have given up ever catching up with the elegant British soap, there’s “Masterpiece: Downton Abbey: Deluxe Limited Edition.” The holiday break provides plenty of time for binging. For veteran fans, the Amazon-only boxed set adds a fresh collection of deleted scenes from the first three seasons, new cast interviews and 11 minutes of clips and interviews from Season Four. The non-exclusive sets contain “Making of ‘Downton Abbey’: A House in History,” “Great British Heritage Pass, a promotional spot for British tourism,” the “Downton Abbey Christmas Special,” “Fashion and Uniforms,” “Romance in a Time of War,” “House to Hospital,” “A Journey to the Highlands,” “‘Downton Abbey’ Behind the Drama,” “Shirley MacLaine at Downton,” “The Men of Downton,” “Downton in 1920″ and subtitles in English. I don’t think I’m the only person out there who knows macho men who are in love with the mini-series so, ladies, surprise the only nearest to you.

Impractical Jokers: Season One
I was surprised to learn that Allen Funt, the creator and host of “Candid Camera,” introduced the concept on ABC Radio in 1946 as “Candid Microphone” and extended it to film with “Candid Microphone,” before its television launch on August 10, 1948. Funt dominated the comedy sub-genre for decades, until the concept became so generic as to invite inventing new interpretations of the gag. In the 1970s, Funt took the show into R-rated territory with “What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?” and “Candid Candid Camera.” I think it can be argued the “Jackass” is the most radical extension of “Candid Camera,” but why bother? Those guys would tempt death on video tape, even if they weren’t getting paid for it. TruTV’s “Impractical Jokers” borrows from a “Late Show With David Letterman” staple by conducting crazy man-on-the-street interviews in which a non-professional (Larry “Bud” Melman, in Letterman’s case) is fed rude, crude and sometimes obscene questions from other cast members, with a hidden camera recording the responses. Watching the interviewer grimace as he repeats the question delivered to his earpiece is often more funny than the answers. Framed as a contest, the cast member who able to keep a straight face the longest is the winner. The cast is comprised of veterans of the improve troupe, The Tenderloins. “Impractical Jokers: The Complete First Season” is comprised of 17 episodes, plus bonus features. It has been renewed for a third season of 15 episodes and adapted by stations in the U.K., Holland, Belgium, Brazil and Lebanon. The only problem I have with the show is that the cast members feeding the gags to the guy with the microphone frequently crack themselves up to the point where you can’t hear the targets’ answers.

When all else fails …
… may I suggest giving the gift that keeps on giving and is always appreciated by movie buffs. Nothing could be more welcome than a subscription or gift certificate to Netflix, Amazon Instant, Facets, Movies Unlimited, Blockbuster or Hulu Plus, which allows access to the entire Criterion library. Netflix’s original programming – “Lilyhammer,” “House of Cards,” “Orange Is the New Black” – is especially impressive. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints: Blu-ray
Just because an independent movie garners glowing reviews and comparisons to Robert Altman and Terrence Malick, doesn’t mean that anyone will remember what was written and predicted months before awards season. Amnesia often strikes critics and voters for the various academies around this time each year, and, while the vast majority of all nominations are legit, it’s the sins of omission that hurt most. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” presents just such a case. There’s no question that writer/director David Lowery’s second feature recalls Altman’s “Thieves Like Us” and Malick’s “Badlands,” in a very favorable way. It can stand on its own two legs, though. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play star-crossed lovers and small-time crooks, Bob and Ruth, who, in the opening reel, are arrested after a shootout with police at an abandoned rural school house in the Hill Country of Texas. An accomplice is killed and a cop is wounded by Ruth’s unlucky shot. Bob voluntarily takes the fall for her and is promptly sentenced to 25 years in prison, while Ruth, who’s pregnant, gets a much shorter term. A few years later, with Bob out of the picture, Ruth is able to enjoy a semblance of a normal life, thanks to the financial backing of Bob’s somewhat shady father (Keith Carradine, in another brilliantly restrained performance). When Bob escapes, everyone knows where he’ll be heading after the smoke clears. He takes his time getting back to their dusty hometown, but the vagaries of tainted love demand it. For everyone else, to paraphrase Tom Petty, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

Bob is obsessed with reuniting with Ruth and their daughter, not considering for a moment that she might turn him away at the door. In his one-track mind, Bob can’t accept the possibility that Ruth might not want their daughter to be cursed by their sins. Bob’s dad rightfully fears she might be too weak to resist, as well, even if she’s become close to the deputy (Ben Wheeler, also excellent) she shot and has yet to acknowledge her role in the capture. Rather than turning “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” into one long chase, with multiple gunfights and a Shakesperian ending, Lowery interweaves Bob and Ruth’s parallel threads after news of the escape reaches the Hill Country. It’s during this weeks-long process that Carradine and Wheeler come to the fore in their efforts to keep Ruth from backsliding. There are other forces at work here, but they best be left unrevealed. Neither should viewers read anything into the title, which, according to Affleck, derives from Lowery misinterpreting a lyric from a song he hears. Like “Badlands” and “Thieves Like Us” before it, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is, at its core, a tone poem. Everything from the acting, dialogue and cinematography, to the locations, music and set design, come together as a harmonious whole. Lowery co-edited indie sensation “Upstream Color” with writer/director Shane Carruth, so fans of that movie might already know what to expect here. The Ross brothers’ making-of featurette nicely captures the film’s ominous mood. (Although I wouldn’t bet money on it, Lowery’s finale might have been influenced by Carradine’s first movie, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”) There’s also deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette, music video and Lowery’s predictive first feature, “St. Nick.” – Gary Dretzka

The Lone Ranger: Blu-ray
I wonder if Disney’s prognosticators were able to walk away from test screenings of “The Lone Ranger” – which, by the way, looks and sounds terrific in DVD and Blu-ray – brimming with confidence that Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp had captured the same lightning in a bottle as they had with “Pirates of the Caribbean.” I also wonder if any of them had bothered to check out the fate of “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” on IMDB.com. Corporate hubris, alone, might have blinded them to the terrible drubbing that William Fracker’s action-adventure received upon its release in 1981. To be fair, the producers of “Legend” shot themselves in the foot when they prohibited Clayton Moore – beloved star of the TV series – from wearing the character’s trademark mask when appearing in public. It didn’t go over very well with loyal fans, who might have welcomed some cross-promotion. If the casting of Depp, as Tonto, didn’t go over well in some quarters, Disney might have countered by pointing out that he wasn’t a pirate either and “POTC” tested well in Somalia. (Conceivably, anyway.) A lot of things had changed in the 32 years since “Legend” tanked, after all, and that film’s $18 million budget wouldn’t make a dent in Disney’s marketing campaign. Still, going into the long Fourth of July weekend, it remained an open question as to how moviegoers in the prime demographics would respond to a big-budget Western. The Coen Brothers’ talent-laden “True Grit” did extremely well domestically, but its budget was $175 million smaller. Adjusting for inflated ticket prices, worldwide revenues were virtually the same. That suggests that consumers will pay good money to see excellent Westerns.

So, what happened? While “True Grit” and the borderline iconic “Rooster Cogburn” both were adapted from the same best-selling novel, and “POTC” was inspired by the an incredibly popular theme-park ride, “The Lone Ranger” carried 80 years’ worth of very expensive baggage with it going into the summer blockbuster season. Early word on the Verbinski version was that it took many of the same liberties with Western lore as “POTC” did with far-less-sacred pirate tropes. The same creative team had much greater license to mess with pirate stereotypes than the Lone Ranger and Tonto, characters who represented certain distinctly American values. “Lone Ranger” is based on the same origin story as the television show and 1981 adaptation, but some of the comedy touches recall Mack Sennett, the Lenny Bruce cartoon, “Thank You, Mask Man,” and the old gag that ends, “What do you mean ‘we,’ kemo sabe?” And, for what it’s worth, Tonto has traditionally been played Native Americans, including Jay Silverheels, Michael Horse, Ivan Naranjo and Chief Thundercloud. There’s nothing wrong with Depp’s performance or the costume he wears, which signifies that he’s less a sidekick than a medicine man or a phantom warrior. What did it suggest to newcomers and loyal fans, alike, that the title character got second billing to Tonto on the marketing material and seemed infinitely less comfortable in the saddle than anyone else in the trailers? Again, that’s a lot of baggage for screenwriters Justin Haythe, Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott to overcome.

In response the negative reviews and writers’ obsession with the movie’s budget. Bruckheimer argued that time will have the same effect on the movie’s popularity as it has with “Flashdance,” which took a critical licking, but came back ticking. In any case, he clearly makes movies for audiences, not the guys and gals who tend to watch big movies on the small screens of studio screening rooms. I doubt that “Lone Ranger” will ever stand alongside “True Grit,” “”Rooster Cogburn” or even “Cat Ballou,” but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it does well in Blu-ray, if not in sell-through, then rental and PPV. That’s where Depp’s marquee value will count most. If Armie Hammer’s name sounds at familiar, it’s because he’s the great-grandson of oil tycoon Armand Hammer and is blessed with the patrician genes that make casting directors drool. Even with his mask on, the Lone Ranger was completely overwhelmed by Tonto, who steals nearly every scene in which they’re together. Even Depp plays second banana to the magnificent scenery of the Four Corners region. No expense was spared in the staging of the train chases, either. (The producers literally built a railroad in the middle of the desert to minimize the use of CGI and miniaturization.) So, there are some very good reasons to cough up a few bucks for a rental or download. Too much of the bonus material resembles an EPK than an in depth look at the movie’s origins and inspiration, but, in between the puffy moments, there’s some nice stuff. Hammer gets most of the coverage in “Armie’s Western Roadtrip,” a scenic tour of the Southwest with the star, Verbinski and Bruckheimer; “Riding the Rails of ‘The Lone Ranger’,” chronicles the construction of the five-mile, looping railway, complete with vintage built-from-scratch trains; “Becoming a Cowboy” follows the actors to Cowboy Boot Camp; and, along with a deleted scene, a blooper reel in which cast members deal with unruly horses, malfunctioning props and mutinous mustaches. – Gary Dretzka

Prisoners: Blu-ray
Anyone whose heart skips a beat whenever they pass an Amber Alert warning on the highway, or see a description of a suspect vehicle flash across the bottom of their TV screen, should be able to empathize with the parents of two missing girls in “Prisoners.” Their level of fear and anxiety may not match that of the characters played by Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, but, if it did, Denis Villeneuve’s first-thriller would be impossible to watch, instead of merely painful. It explains why Jackman’s name – as well as those of supporting actors Paul Dano, Melissa Leo and Jake Gyllenhaal — has come up recently for consideration in the academy’s Best Actor category. If “Prisoners” stirs memories of Ron Howard’s 1996 kidnap drama, “Ransom,” which starred Mel Gibson and Gary Sinise, it’s because fathers in both films decide not to wait for the police to do their job. French-Canadian director, Villeneuve (“Incendies”), and writer Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”), elected to make both sets of parents as average as possible and not further burdened by ransom demands. In the upper Midwest, Thanksgiving is rarely a warm and sunny occasion and the film’s overall tone is captured in the menacing skies. The girls’ absence isn’t noticed until well past dinner and the evidence trail has begun to disappear in the slush. The only noteworthy clue emerges when the couples’ older siblings recall having to chase the girls from a motorhome parked in front of the house where the meal would soon take place. The detective assigned to their case, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), is quietly efficient and, unlike his boss, isn’t in a rush to announce news of an arrest, if not a conviction. The first thing he does after getting a rough description of the vehicle is to see if it can be linked to any of the registered sex offenders in the immediate area.

When the prime suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), practically falls in his lap, Loki does everything he can do to get a statement from the suspect, short of beating one out of him. Because Alex has an IQ too low to register on the police equivalent of a Richter scale, the police are at a distinct disadvantage. When one of the fathers learn about the arrest, he assumes they have the right man in custody, but have botched the interrogation. We know this isn’t the case and aren’t at all surprised when Keller Dover (Jackman) attacks Alex upon his release for lack of evidence. He believes that his assumption is correct when Alex whispers something he deems to be incriminating into his ear. Of course, no one hears it except Keller. Frustrated to the point of rage, he decides to launch and independent investigation and focus it entirely on Alex. Loki casts a wider net, revealing several nasty sex offenders still practicing their perversions. Everything that happens from this point in the narrative qualifies as a potential spoiler, even if the title provides a hint at the likeliest scenario. Just as Gibson turned into a completely different person when forced to deal directly with the kidnappers in “Ransom” – or Harrison Ford, in “Frantic,” and Liam Neeson, in “Taken” – Jackman goes all Wolverine on Alex. Loki hasn’t entirely ruled him out, but the evidence has begun to point in another direction. The men aren’t that far off base, even if they’re looking in different direction. I can say, however, that audiences will solve the crime before the dads and the cops. It won’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment – if that’s right word – of “Prisoners,” however. Leo, as Alex’s protective aunt, once again is excellent, as is Roger Deakin’s atmospheric cinematography. The 153-minute Blu-ray edition adds only interviews and a short making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Family: Blu-ray
Robert De Niro’s name and screen persona are so identified with the Mafia that his presence, even in such parodies as “Analyze This,” immediately elevates them to a level they couldn’t possibly have attained without him. Would Andrew Bergman’s criminally underappreciated, “The Freshman,” gotten off the page if Marlon Brando hadn’t agreed to play Corleone clone Carmine Sabatini? Would Marisa Tomei have been in position to earn an Oscar if Joe Pesci hadn’t agreed to channel Tommy DeVito in “My Cousin Vinny”? Without such hooks, filmmakers satirize classic movies and beloved characters at their own risk. They’ve set the bar so high that anyone who attempts to copy their success is only courting disaster. Frankly, before the Blu-ray arrived in the mail this week, I didn’t even know that “The Family” existed. In it, DeNiro plays a character, Giovanni Manzoni, who, before “ratting out” his boss, was a major player in the New York mob. By his own admission, Manzoni served as the model for the kid wearing the yellow shirt in the opening sequence of “Good Fellas.” After testifying, Manzoni and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), their teenage son, Warren (John D’Leo), daughter, Belle (Dianna Agron), and German shepherd, Malavita, entered the federal Witness Protection Program and were sent to France. Old habits die hard, however, so, while they’re supposed to be lying low, they can’t help but act as if nothing had happened to earn a one-way ticket to Europe. Wife Maggie’s personal fixation on explosives and arson follows her to France. The kids take what the learned at the feet of their father and his pals to their new high school, where they make friends by dispensing of the bullies and organizing the school’s rackets. Frank would prefer to live in peace with his neighbors, but, being French, they can’t help rubbing him the wrong way. The ones who go so far as to attempt to fleece the newcomers are given several good reasons not to repeat the mistake. Meanwhile, too, a contract put out on Manzoni – now known as Fred Blake – has followed him across the ocean. Tommy Lee Jones plays the exasperated federal marshal assigned to make sure that the Manzoni/Blakes’ profile remains low and the assassin is eliminated before he can eliminate the family. That’s the essence of Luc Besson’s inky-dark treatise on clashing cultures – based on Tonino Benacquista’s novel – and I enjoyed the first two-thirds of it immensely. After the jailed don almost miraculously discovers where the family is currently residing, he orders a small army of goombahs to team up with the hitman.

When they descend on the quaint Normandy town in their black Escalades, “The Family,” takes an abrupt turn into Besson territory. People not named Manzoni or Blake get gunned down without rhyme or reason and the mercenaries demolish everything in their gun sights, not unlike the Nazis and the American liberators 70 years earlier. As also is typical in such shootouts, machine-gun-toting thugs suddenly lose their ability to hit the broad side of a teenager, opening themselves to the odd lucky shot. The action isn’t bad, but it comes out of left field so quickly one wonders if Besson suddenly realized he was approaching the two-hour mark and needed to call it quits. Believe me, the violence makes both versions of “The Untouchables” look like snack-time in kindergarten. De Niro seems to enjoy playing his character, who drives Jones crazy by insisting on writing his memoirs, inviting neighbors for barbecue and participating in film forums at the local theater. It’s Pfeiffer, though, who steals the show, playing a grown-up version of Angela de Marco, in “Married to the Mob.” “The Family,” which was executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, adds the Blu-ray featurettes “Making ‘The Family’” and “The Many Meanings of FU*%!,” a word that figures prominently in the narrative. – Gary Dretzka

Elysium
Children of a Darker Dawn
These days, films set in a post-apocalyptic environment literally are a dime-a-dozen. Some of them qualify as quality entertainment, others aren’t worth the makeup lathered on the actors playing zombies. The first example of dystopian fiction that I can recall is the 1959 “Twilight Zone” episode, “Time Enough at Last,” in which Burgess Meredith plays the lone survivor of a nuclear disaster. An avid reader, he was never afforded the time at work or at home to pursue his passion. Among the ruins, however, he has plenty of time to pore through the books he finds inside what’s left of a public library. Unfortunately, something horribly ironic happens to alter his plan. For many longtime fans of “The Twilight Zone,” “Time Enough at Last” has been the standard against which all subsequent dystopian entertainments are measured. Today, something more than irony is required of any movie or television show to reach audiences, whether it’s the aforementioned zombies, space aliens or roving gangs of desperate survivors. Four years ago, in his directorial debut, South African special-effects wizard Neill Blomkamp came up with a spin on the subgenre that made lots of money, received excellent reviews and garnered “District 9” a rare Best Picture nomination for a sci-fi thriller. Set in Johannesburg, it imagines a time, between the end of apartheid and today, when a huge alien spacecraft loses power over the city and continues to hover there for years thereafter. After a cordial welcome the aliens wore out their welcome with the South Africans and were forced to live in deteriorating shantytowns, just as native blacks once were sequestered the The alien Prawns, named for their pinchers and exoskeleton, spark the action scenes by resisting a forced march to another relocation camp. The fighting is captured live as part of the 24-news cycle and viewers’ insatiable desire for blood and guts. “Elysium,” Blomkamp’s futuristic follow-up to that international hit, was greeted with great anticipation by genre buffs and action fans, alike. It didn’t disappoint.

Handed a budget $75 million larger than the one he had on his first feature, Blomkamp came up with a scenario that advanced ideas seen first in “District 9.” In 2154, the gap between Earth’s haves and have-nots has grown so large that the world’s rich now reside in a giant space station hovering over the Earth. That the neighborhoods resemble those in Beverly Hills is no accident. The wealthy have in-home access to health-care appliances capable of curing ills not even discovered in the age of the Prawns. Meanwhile, on Earth, “favela” dwellers are simply left to their own devices. Resistance fighters decide that nothing as good as Elysium should last forever, as long as the poor are promised nothing, except hopelessness. Matt Damon plays an ex-con factory worker exposed to a deadly dose of radiation in an accident. Told he has, at most, a week to life and no access to quality health care, Max volunteers his services to the opposition. His tortured body is fitted with a robo-exoskeleton that makes him nearly as invincible as those accorded Elysium’s Special Forces’ troops, led by William Fichtner and Sharlto Copley. Once the rebels breach the gates of Elysium, the movie becomes one long chase-and-shoot scene, with everyone, including queen bee Jodie Foster, seeking to extract a computer file implanted in Max’s body.

Max won’t rest until he can find a machine to cure the leukemia eating at the daughter of a nurse who ministered his wounds. Even when she’s hooked up to the device, however, she is denied treatment accorded “citizens.” Both Max and the girl are united by a rapidly approaching deadlines for their deaths. After watching one high-profile character die unexpectedly, anything is possible. The Blu-ray is enhanced mightily by Sony’s 4K mastering and DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack. The bonus package adds “Visions of 2154,” which explores the conceptual art, 3D models and visual-effects progressions used to create Elysium; an extended scene, “Kruger Wakes Up”; “The Journey to Elysium,” an extensive three-part making-of documentary; “Collaboration: Crafting the Performances in Elysium,” looks at casting and the performances of Damon, Foster and Copley; “The Technology of 2154,” on the picture’s “metaphorical” technological designs with emphasis on robots, exoskeletons, and weapons; “In Support of Story: The Visual Effects of Elysium,” which focuses on the Raven and other flying vehicles, the robots, and a scene depicting the repair of damaged flesh; and “Engineering Utopia: A Society in the Sky,” with a look at futurist Syd Mead’s contributions to the film’s design and creating a believable and functional Elysium.”

The original title of “Children of a Darker Dawn” was “The Railway Children,” after a popular 1906 novel by Edith Nesbit. It figures prominently in this story of survival among kids orphaned by a virus that ravaged the adult population, but spared children. At its center are Irish sisters whose search for a home takes them from the slums of Dublin to a commune that isn’t dominated by flower children. Like the other abandoned kids, the girls (Catherine Wrigglesworth, Emily Forster) learn how to scavenge food other provisions, while avoiding roving gangs of predatory youth. They wander from town to town and sleep in abandoned buildings, but not before Evie reads to Fran from “The Railway Children.” It’s a book their mother read to them before catching the virus and going mad. After coming to the aid of another girl, Alice, attacked by a gang of boys, they wander through the mostly deserted countryside until they reach the commune. Even there, however, they’re challenged by residents cautious of newcomers. Naturally, things get worse before they get better. It bears thematic comparisons to “28 Days” and “Lord of the Flies.” – Gary Dretzka

Devil’s Pass
Inside every film genre lies a subgenre reserved for true stories that are stranger than fiction. As directed by Renny Harlin, “Devil’s Pass” is one of them. In the winter of 1959, when no sane person should be venturing into remote mountain passes, nine Russian students embarked on a ski trek across the northern Urals in Sverdlovsk Oblast. The degree of difficulty for such an excursion was put at Category III, the highest, and temperatures dropped to minus-30 Centigrade. Two weeks later, the five members of the party led by Igor Dyatlov were found dead. In another two months, the bodies of four others would be revealed. That much is known, at least. It would be determined that the wounds found on the bodies of the first group were of the non-fatal variety, while the others had injuries that could have come from blunt force trauma of one kind or another. Investigators came to believe that the early sounds associated with an avalanche might have caused the campers to quickly exit their tents and attempt to reach a nearby tree break. Most of the bodies didn’t have shoes and a couple of the tents were ripped open from the inside. The four who were found further away, were lying in a ravine, under four meters of snow. One of the women was missing her tongue and forensic radiation tests indicated there were high doses of radioactive contamination on the clothes of a few victims. After the official investigators filed their reports – “compelling natural force … absence of a guilty party” — local residents put their spins on the story. The files were relegated to a secret archive until the 1990s. When they were recovered, parts of the report were missing.

Imagine how much fun a classroom full of aspiring filmmakers might have if assigned to write a screenplay – let’s called it, “The Dyatlov Pass incident” — given only that much information and a free hand to embellish the facts. It probably would look a lot like “Devil’s Pass.” Without giving away the details, writer Vikram Weet decided to take the found-footage approach, so popular with fans of paranormal conjecture. Five American college students are issued a grant to return to the site of the original events and film their trek under the same conditions. Sure enough, an avalanche rips through their encampment. This time, however, the campers are forewarned by two loud noises that could have come from explosives or sonic booms. After assessing the damage, the survivors are approached by Russian soldiers wielding high-powered rifles. They retreat to a partially man-made cave whose secrets are protected by a thick door, which they somehow have no trouble accessing. Then, the real fun begins. Neither very good nor very bad, “Devil’s Pass” maintains a sharp edge throughout most of its 100-minute length. The setting couldn’t be more formidable, as it was filmed very near the incident at the pass. If the actors aren’t particularly noteworthy, neither would a quintet of student filmmakers in real life. – Gary Dretzka

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters: Blu-ray
Not being familiar with Rick Riordan’s best-selling series of “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” titles for children, I was at a distinct disadvantage watching “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.” Like any Boomer, I’ve seen my share of wonderful movies based on the Greek myths. This one started out with all the suspense of a stroll through a Boy Scout jamboree. What I didn’t notice at first glance were the signs that these half-normal kids carried the genes of ancient satyrs, centaurs and Cyclopes. For his part, the title character is the son of Poseidon and his girlfriend is the daughter of Athena. As camp counselor Dionysus, the always-game Stanley Tucci looks like Sam Rockwell after a hard day’s night. What I didn’t get was what a collection of demi-gods was doing in a forest paradise that reminded me of a Club Med for kids. The arcadian playground’s name, Camp Half-Breed, should have given me a clue, at least. “Sea of Monsters,” based on the second book in the series, opens at a point in mythic time when Camp Half-Blood’s ability to repel monsters – a robotic Minotaur –is nearing crisis levels. If the perimeter is compromised, the tree protecting Zeus’ daughter, Thalia, could die, resulting in worldwide catastrophe. Being the son of Poseidon, Percy is the perfect candidate for leading a mission to capture the Golden Fleece from Polyphemus, across the Sea of Monsters. Filmed for presentation in 3D, Thor Freudenthal’s action/fantasy is designed to please t’ween and teen viewers who enjoy a heaping helping of eye candy with their meal.

The interesting thing to me was learning that Riordan created novels out of the bedtime stories he would tell his son Haley, after he had been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. Haley had been studying Greek mythology in second grade and requested that his father come up with tales based on Greek myths. Conveniently, Riordan had taught mythology at the middle-school level and was able to come up with enough tales to satisfy his son. When he ran out of ideas, Riordan invented Percy Jackson, an outwardly normal kid whose role in the first episode was to recover Zeus’ thunderbolt, which he had been accused of stealing. That explanation allowed me to understand how an average American kid might end up in Club Med for demi-gods. The first two films in the series did OK business, especially when foreign sales are weighed, but finished well short of blockbuster status. With three more Percy Jackson books still awaiting adaptation, I wonder how committed Fox is to the three other books in the franchise. I hope they find a way to keep it going. The Blu-ray package adds the special features, “Tyson Motion Comic,” “Back to Camp Half-Blood,” “It’s All in the Eye” and “Deconstructing a Demigod.” – Gary Dretzka

Force of Execution
What would Christmas be without a made-for-DVD stocking stuffer starring Steven Seagal, Danny Trejo and Ving Rhames? Another holiday without sunshine, that’s what. In the incomprehensibly titled and routinely formulaic “Force of Execution,” three of the biggest names in the action game battle it out for supremacy of New Mexico’s underworld. (Tax breaks sometime make strange bedfellows.) Seagal plays Mr. Alexander, a mob Brahmin who’s feeling the pressure of up-and-coming warlords representing competing African-American and Mexican-American interests. The fun starts when an assassin hired by Mr. Alexander is duped into killing the wrong prison inmate. As punishment for falling for the ruse, the boss orders his goons to work over the hitman, Roman Hurst, well-played by rising martial-arts star, Bren Foster. In an uncharacteristic act of mercy, Mr. Alexander decides to spare his feet of fury, as they might come in handy someday for both men. Roman can accomplish more with his feet than most bad guys can with their pistols and brass knuckles. After licking his considerable wounds for a few months, he hooks up with Trejo’s ex-con restaurateur, Jimmy Peanuts. Mr. Peanuts claims that he can fix the young man’s busted-up hands, using the freshly extracted poison from a scorpion. A battle royal ensues after the Iceman (Rames) kidnaps Mr. Peanuts’ sparkling blond waitress and the three warring parties meet at Mr. Alexander’s fortress home. I found it unusually entertaining. Foster’s especially fun to watch, with his leg kicks and newly restored fists. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material, with director Keoni Waxman (“Maximum Conviction”). – Gary Dretzka

Havana 57
Considering how many decent-to-great movies and TV mini-series have been set in pre-revolution Cuba, it’s disheartening to find one as flat and poorly executed as “Havana 57.” Once again, the central struggle is between leftist students, Batista goons and the hoodlums who run the casinos and nightclubs. After the body of a naked dancer washes up on the seawall and a student is murdered by a cop, the city’s one honest police detective becomes concerned when both investigations are thwarted. Despite the interference, Officer Velez dedicates himself to solving the crimes, anyway. In doing so, he pisses off everyone involved, including the radical students who condemn him for not reporting his partner’s brutal interrogation techniques. The best thing to be said about “Havana 57” is that the actress who plays dancer/escort Juliana (Elisabetta Fantone) could hardly be any more intoxicating. It also benefits from being shot in Havana, instead of the D.R. The city doesn’t look much different today than it did in 1957, so the producers didn’t have to spend money on vintage automobiles and appropriate locations. Too bad, no one thought it necessary to hire a competent screenwriter. – Gary Dretzka

Ghost Team One: Blu-ray
If a freshman class of aspiring filmmakers were assigned to make a spoof of cable’s “Ghost Hunters International” and other reality-based shows about paranormal events, it couldn’t have turned out as lame as “Ghost Team One,” which was made by professionals. In fact, the movie could be used by instructors as an example of how not to make a movie of any genre. “GTO” is set in a typical college-town flophouse, where slackers throw parties for stoners and the most boastful of them pass out before they can make good on their predictions of getting laid. Brad and Sergio (Carlos Santos, J.R. Villarreal) accidentally arouse the spirit of a man who died in the house and decides it might be fun to freak out the lodgers. You know the spirit is on the premises because the p.o.v. camera starts to shake. A sultry amateur ghost hunter, Fernanda (Fernanda Romero), offers to expose the ghost. When she does, however, she spends the rest of the movie dodging the male characters’ attempts to expose her, instead. As far as I can tell, “Ghost Team One” exists only to attract Hispanic audiences familiar with the actors from television and other movies. It would be more entertaining if the characters spoke Spanish and the subtitles were in Chinese. For what it’s worth, the Blu-ray extras include deleted/extended scenes, “Chuck’s Video Diary,” bloopers and a behind-the-scenes featurette from a dog’s point of view. – Gary Dretzka

Crawlspace: Blu-ray
The Beast Within: Blu-ray
In 1986, before voyeurism went global on the Internet, perverts were mostly limited to window peeping, long-range telescopes and strategically placed mirrors. Private detectives made money snooping on their clients’ spouses and enemies, but it usually was a lonely job with little money to be made. Today, however, cameras are everywhere and they can be operated by computers. Women who rent apartments or homes from shady landlords are well-advised to have the rooms “swept” by a surveillance expert before they move into them. In “Crawlspace,” none of the women renting space in a rooming house managed by Klaus Kinski suspect that anyone would be able to shimmy his way through secret passageways to peek and play creepy tricks on them. David Schmoeller’s film was strictly intended for consumption by genre buffs and drive-in audiences, Kinski’s presence elevated it to another level of sleaze altogether. The German actor may have appeared in more than anyone’s fair share of crappy films, but he also starred in some truly great movies, including “Fitzcarraldo,” “Nosferatu,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and several memorable 1970s’ gialli. His presence, alone, demanded that critics pay attention to “Crawlspace.” Even if the movie is no great shakes, Kinski’s portrayal of the insane son of a twisted Nazi doctor remains frightening. What’s great about the new Blu-ray edition are Schmoeller’s recollections of working with Kinkski, which range from hilarious to downright bizarre. The anecdotes can be found in the short, “Please Kill Mr. Kinski,” as well as his entertaining commentary.

The other movie in the new Scream Factory package is “The Beast Within,” a truly gruesome affair in which an unseen swamp creature rapes a woman (Bibi Besch) on her honeymoon and, 17 years later, she returns to same area with her husband (Ronny Cox) to figure out what’s gotten into her emotionally damaged teenage son. One guess. No sooner do they arrive than attacks similar to the earlier rape begin to reoccur and law-enforcement official begin to whisper amongst each other. If you’ve already guessed the rest of the story, please keep it to yourself. In hindsight, what’s most interesting here are the special makeup effects that transformed a handsome teenage boy into a hideous beast within minutes. In 1982, the techniques were brand new. – Gary Dretzka

Nothing Special
I don’t know what happened to Angela Garcia Combs’ debut feature after it was shown at the Los Angeles Reel Film Festival, in 2009. Beyond one minor review on IMDB, it doesn’t seem to have existed at all. While more of a personal project for the writer/director/star than a fully polished ready-for-prime-time picture, “Nothing Special” features compelling performances by Karen Black and Barbara Bain, as Louise’s mother and maternal boss. Every time Louise’s professional and personal life appears to be straightening out, the bipolar May (Black) finds new ways to crush her hopes. She does this by manipulating situations, demanding more and more of her time and acting out her surplus of bitterness. Louise works in the insurance industry, primarily thinking of new ways for her company to make lots more money. When one of her ideas pans out, she attracts the attention of her boss, Catherine (Bain), who takes her under wing. On the surface, May and Catherine are very different women. A closer look reveals them to be two sides of the same coin. Besides sharing Louise’s attention, they both are undergoing treatment for cancer and, where May has a stranglehold on her daughter, Catherine’s nurturing may be in reaction to the estrangement she feels from her resentful daughter. “Nothing Special” also describes how the tension at home negatively impacts her relationships with men. It’s not a particularly easy film to watch, but it’s honest and deals with issues most filmmakers avoid, if only because they’re a hard sell to distributors and audiences. Black’s performance as a bipolar woman is almost too scary to watch. For what it’s worth, Combs and Black have both worked with Henry Jaglom and, sometimes, it shows. – Gary Dretzka

TV to DVD
Frontline: League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis
PBS: The Graduates/Los Graduados
Every week, the toll rises … right before our television eyes. If it isn’t the star quarterback who goes down with a concussion, it’s a wide receiver or defensive back. In years gone by, fans worried most about season-ending knee injuries and the occasional broken neck. For the last couple of years, though, the focus has been on concussions. The National Football League has been aware of the epidemic for a long time and has occasionally attempted to cut down on the rising number of head-trauma injuries by creating penalties for high hits and the use of helmets as lethal weapons. The league also recently mandated that doctors who specialize in such things be stationed at field level. What the NFL has refused to admit is an understanding of the debilitating effects of repeated concussions on retired players. In the face of a multibillion-dollar lawsuit filed in defense of players who give the word, “punch drunk,” new meaning, the accountants and tycoons who run the football industry simply clammed up about the issue. Earlier this season, controversy flared over the possibility that the NFL pressured ESPN to eliminate its name from the “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” partnership with “Frontline.” This, despite the fact that ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru wrote the book that inspired the “Frontline” presentation. It was subsequently shown on PBS. Coincidentally, perhaps, a settlement was reached just before the start of the 2013 season. The league cautioned against interpreting the deal as an admission of legal liability. A separate lawsuit, filed by five former NFL players specifically against the Kansas City Chiefs, is still pending. Many observed that the greatest threat posed to organized football – including Pop Warner, high school and universities – is the possibility that parents will read the book or watch the documentary and forbid their children from participating in the sport. With no feeder system, the goose that lays the golden eggs could die of starvation. As such, “League of Denial” should be considered must-reading for parents of teenage boys considering the sport and season-ticket holders.

PBS’ special two-part documentary, “The Graduates/Los Graduados,” extends the discussion that began with its six-hour mini-series, “Latino Americans,” by focusing specifically on a half-dozen high school students in as many different regions of the country. The boys and girls profiled by Bernardo Ruiz candidly discuss the personal, financial and societal difficulties that make them consider dropping out of school and weathering the many storms of adulthood, including raising children. One of three Hispanic students, we’re told, leave early. The numbers are as staggering as the hurdles facing students, teachers and administrators in dealing with such problem. Still, the documentary isn’t preoccupied solely with the negative. Ruiz also promotes the successes in the struggle. – Gary Dretzka

Justified: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
Burn Notice: Final Notice: Season Seven
Family Guy: Volume Twelve
With the recent passing of Elmore Leonard, what better way to honor the memory of one of America’s foremost writers of fiction – please don’t limit his efforts to the mystery genre – than to revisit one of his most popular multimedia characters. Even before Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens became the protagonist of the terrific FX series “Justified,” soon entering its fifth season, Leonard made him the centerpiece character of the novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Wave,” as well as the short story “Fire in the Hole,” which provided a blueprint for the series. Ever since moving back to his native Harlan County, Kentucky – once, better known as “Bloody Harlan” – he’s continually locked horns with the inbred Crowder, Bennett and Crowe clans. Timothy Olyphant is wonderful as the cocky lawman Givens, widely feared for his shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach. What keeps fans buzzing each new season, however, are the exquisitely drawn villains, some of whom have proven to be too cool to kill. In Season Four, Raylan is forced to deal with a crime that hits pretty close to home. Thirty years ago, a man wearing a defective parachute plummeted onto a residential street in Corbin, Kentucky, dying instantly. His body is surrounded by bags full of cocaine and an ID tag for a “Waldo Truth.” What happened to the bounty and the identity of “Waldo Truth” stayed a mystery until the bag and ID were discovered behind the drywall at a home once owned by Arlo Givens, minus the blow. Apparently, the statute of limitations for flying without wings has yet to expire, because a Detroit mob has been waiting to make the acquaintance of Waldo Truth for, lo, these many years. Meanwhile, Boyd Crowder must deal with a snake-handling preacher, whose sermons are cutting into his business. The Blu-ray package adds the featurettes, “Becoming Boyd,” “Script to Screen: The Finale,” “Deadly Serious: Constable Bob,” “Anatomy of an Episode” and “The Veteran’s Experience,” as well as 10 cast and crew commentaries, outtakes and deleted scenes.

Another one of television’s best series, USA Network’s “Burn Notice,” came to an end this fall, with a story arc almost exclusively devoted to discovering if Michael has sold his soul to the megalomaniacs at the CIA to keep his partners out of jail. The same question comes up when we are introduced to the international super-vigilante, James, who is the real target of Michael’s CIA mission. The CIA didn’t do their “burned” spy any favors by inserting him into a deep-cover investigation in the Dominican Republic. Fiona, Sam, Jessie and mama Maddie have yet to come to grips with Michael’s disappearance and Fi, at least, has found another boyfriend. As they put out smaller fires around Miami, Michael is assigned to free the former Russian agent, Sonya, who appears to be wanted by several different governments, including our own. Trouble is, she’s being held in Cuba by her former employees and needs to call on the gang help him out. Later, as Michael begins to fall for Sonya, he becomes conflicted over his lingering feelings for Fi and the CIA. The same applies for his cronies, who suspect Michael truly has gone over to the “dark side.” If anything else defines the season, apart from Maddie’s ongoing hysteria, it’s the deployment of explosives to solve most problems. It’s almost as if the producers had a ton of explosives left in the warehouse and needed to get rid of them before the series finale. Like “Justified,” “Burn Notice” is as binge-worthy as any show on television. The DVD adds plenty of deleted scenes.

The first thing to know about Fox’s “Family Guy: Volume Twelve” is that it covers the episodes in Season Eleven – including the 200th episode, “Yug Ylimaf” – not the already-infamous 12th “season,” in which millions of fans were forced to prematurely mourn the death of Brian, the martini-guzzling dog. The new DVD collection includes 22 uncensored episodes, including fan-favorite “Into Fat Air” and “Roads to Vegas.” Among the celebrity guest voices are those belonging to Johnny Depp, Jon Hamm and Sofia Vergara. Those who cared so desperately about Brian’s fate should know by now that their prayers were answered. It’s entirely possible that creator Seth MacFarlane was simply attempting to see if anyone was still paying attention after all these years. It’s interesting to learn that “Family Guy” literally was saved by people whose numbers didn’t necessarily show up in the ratings, but purchased the season collections. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Mary Poppins: 50th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Although I can vividly recall the same scenes everyone remembers from their first or second viewings of “Mary Poppins,” experiencing them again – this time in Blu-ray – made me suspect I hadn’t actually watched the in its entirety. Besides the beloved song-and-dance numbers, it felt as if I was watching the Disney classic for the first time. That’s how much of a difference the hi-def presentation made in my eyes. Even after all of these years and miles traveled, “Mary Poppins” is best described with a single adjective: “delightful.” If you demand more of a description, how about, “absolutely delightful”? I’m pretty sure that the things I found delightful this time aren’t the same ones as I when I was younger and only looking at the surface pleasures. Pigeon-holing “Mary Poppins” in any category reserved, but limited to “family entertainment” – the most overused and least precise two words in the Hollywood lexicon – only reduces the potential audience for the Blu-ray iteration. The same would apply to any review that limited its praise to the performances of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, while ignoring the musical contributions of the Sherman Brothers, choreography by Marc Breaux and Dee Wood, Richard Stevenson’s direction, Cotton Warburton’s editing and Edward Colman cinematography. For film-school students and buffs of any age, “Mary Poppins” offers a virtual master class in movie musicals. (Are film students encouraged to study Disney’s live-action musicals with the same sense of wonder usually reserved for Busby Berkeley’s extravaganzas?) Among the many other joys that pop off the screen in repeated viewings are Ed Wynn’s partially ad-libbed turn as Uncle Albert.  Like too many fine comic actors who worked in more than a couple of  Disney films – as characters or voices – Wynn’s loopy performances were easy to take for granted. This one is a gem.

I don’t know if the Blu-ray release of “Mary Poppins” was timed specifically to take advantage of the marketing push for “Saving Mr. Banks.” I’m guessing that it was one way to cut down on the expenses that usually attend the release of both features and DVD/Blu-rays these days. Certainly, “Saving Mr. Banks” and its fascinating backstory aren’t ignored in the bonus-features package. That the featurettes are extremely well made and not treated simply as teases to the movie is a classy move on Disney’s part. In one of them, co-stars Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson describe the process of being enlisted to dramatize Walt Disney’s nearly 25-year courtship of author Pamela L. Travers, and their acrimonious divorce, when she became disenchanted with the changes made to the source material. The Blu-ray also benefits greatly from the superb digital transfer to 1080p and DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround. The other bonus features new to the 50th anniversary edition include “Becoming Mr. Sherman, in which Jason Schwartzman sits down for a “fun and musical-filled afternoon” with the lyricist he plays in “Saving Mr. Banks.” Then, there’s the “Mary-Oke” sing-along feature, which allows fans to practice their karaoke moves on “Spoon Full of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Step in Time” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” Among the “classic” bonus features are “Disney on Broadway”; “Backstage Disney”; the short, “The Cat That Looked at a King”; commentary with Julie Andrews, Karen Dotrice, Richard Sherman and Dick Van Dyke; a reunion featurette; the deleted scene, “Chimpanzoo”; and a couple of less-elaborately conceived sing-alongs. – Gary Dretzka

Despicable Me 2: Blu-ray
All kids will need to know about “Despicable Me 2,” before demanding a copy be put in their Christmas stocking, is that Gru (Steve Carell), his three adopted daughters and the mischievous Minions are back from hiatus, only this time around, serving the forces of light and goodness. Once one of the most unpleasant of all unpleasant characters, Gru has become a model dad for Margo, Edith and Agnes (Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher). When some top-secret mutation serum is stolen, the head of the Anti-Villain League (Steve Coogan) asks the Man Who Stole the Moon to go undercover to reveal the identities of the new fiends and recover the serum. To accomplish the task, the single father is partnered with agent Lucy Wilde — Kristen Wiig, wearing a different hat in the sequel – who, while adding a pinch of 007 sparkle to the proceedings, could eventually bring out the romantic side of Gru.

All parents need to know about “Despicable Me 2” is that they’ll find plenty to enjoy here, as well. The Minions might even remind them of their own children on a sugar rush. And, although box-office results shouldn’t matter to mere viewers, grown-ups might also be interested in learning that their kids are backing a winner. While the sequel only cost about $76 million to make – a pittance in the animation game – it’s already returned $367 million in American greenbacks and $551.3 in foreign currency. That compares with a $251.5/$291.6 split on the first installment of the series, which cost an even more modest $69 million. For those keeping score at home, the percentage of international revenues returned to Universal Pictures jumped in four years from 53.7 to 60 percent. That’s the trend across the board and roughly why movies are now being made like Japanese and Korean cars, whose brands mean nothing in any language, so as not to offend anyone in a focus group. Animated features as important to a studio as “Despicable Me 2” is to Universal play well in all languages, with recognizable actors hired to voice the character in each market. I never know why slightly offbeat receive a PG rating, instead of the G historically reserved for most Disney products. It’s possible that someone raised an objection to the nearly stereotypical representation of mall taco titans, El Macho (Benjamin Bratt) and his teenage son, Antonio (Moises Arias), who has eyes for Margo. Instead, the ratings board cited “rude humor and mild action” … absurd. Look for a spin-off prequel, “Minions,” set for release in July of 2015. The Blu-ray adds several brief featurettes, commentary with directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin, a deleted scene and, best of all, the mini-movies “Puppy,” “Panic in the Mailroom” and “Training Wheels,” along Carell’s introduction and a making-of short. I haven’t seen the 3D version of “DM2,” but I’ll bet it’s better than OK. – Gary Dretzka

Adore: Blu-ray
Even though it doesn’t contain any full-frontal nudity or graphic sex, Anne Fontaine’s “Adore” is the kind of high-minded trash that would clear out a theater if the protagonists weren’t played by Naomi Watts and Robin Wright. If the roles had required even a tad more nudity and gratuitous copulation – however simulated – the DVD could be filed under “MILFS,” “Cougars” and such mixed-doubles porn as “Mother/Daughter Exchange Club.” Because the stars’ intentions have shown to be beyond reproach, however, “Adore” was taken more seriously by critics and the celebrity press than it deserves. Ditto, last year’s sex-addiction drama, “Shame,” which was guided by Steve McQueen’s artistic “vision” and distinguished by the fine acting of Michael Fassbender and Corey Mulligan. Minus those names in the credits, it’s entirely possible that “Shame” would have been greeted with the same cold shoulder as Paul Schrader and Lindsay Lohan’s “The Canyons.” In “Adore,” Watts and Wright play lifelong friends and neighbors, Lil and Roz, whose surfer-dude sons, Ian and Tom, we watch growing up in neighboring homes overlooking a lovely Australian beach. At some point around their boys’ 18th birthdays, Lil and Roz notice how strapping they are in their trunks. Conversely, the lads have probably shared naughty thoughts about each other’s moms since hitting puberty. If that isn’t a scenario ripe for exploitation by a porn director, I don’t know what is. Lil, the sex-starved widow, strikes first by giving in to Ian after a night of drinking and small talk. As soon as Tom becomes aware of the tryst — meant only to be a one-off — he sprints to Ian’s house for some revenge sex with Roz, whose dramatist husband spends most of his time in the big city working on his works. After these one-offs, of course, the MILFs and their boy-toys continue their forbidden assignations, protected from the glare of peeping-tom neighbors by steep cliffs and lush foliage. Such relationships probably wouldn’t last sixth months in a more crowded environment, but, here, it’s a hothouse for sin. Indeed, even Roz’ husband, Harold (Ben Mendelsohn), and their closest friends think Lil and Roz are more interested in each other than anyone else.

That not only would make sense, but also, framed within the context of their inseparable friendship, be considered a perfectly acceptable alternative to the women’s years of desolation and loneliness, albeit in a beachside paradise. A lesbian/bisexual coupling would be far easier to take than the sight of moms and sons going at it, no matter how legal it may be. (If the genders were reversed, of course, “Adore” probably wouldn’t have made it past the script stage.) Fontaine, working from Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of a Doris Lessing novel, then fast-forwards a bit to the period after both of the boys have left the nest and find partners more their age. Lil and Roz seem to accept as fact that they’ll react like adults when their sons/lovers leave the nest for good and resist the natural temptation to feel a wee bit jealous of the new women in the family. The same mystery surrounds the question of how the sons will handle being corralled by women other than the mothers. Watts and Wright pull out all of the stops to make these scenes palatable. Audience members who’ve stayed with “Adore” this long should find the resolution to the story quite compelling.

As you can guess, the movie was an easier sell to festival planners than distributors. This is reflected in the change in titles, from Lessing’s “Grandmothers,” to “Two Mothers,” “Perfect Mothers,” “Day at the Beach,” “Adoration,” “Love Without Sin” and, finally, “Adore,” depending on which country it’s being shown. Once again, Fontaine is working in territory first staked out by Catherine Breillat territory.  Far more skin was on display in “Nathalie,” “Dry Cleaning” and “Chloe,” than in “Adore,” and the sex was borderline kinky. Other works by Fontaine, including “My Worst Nightmare,” ”Coco Before Chanel,” “The Girl From Monaco” and “How I Killed My Father,” demonstrated a willingness to present the woman’s point of view in such scenarios and take risks to fortify her vision. If nothing else, Christophe Beaucarne’s cinematography will have viewers checking out ticket prices to the beaches of New South Wales. I wouldn’t try to dissuade Watts and Wright’s many fans from giving “Adore” a shot, but it certainly isn’t for every taste. – Gary Dretzka

Vic
Typically, the only time most people get excited about short films – or, at least, interested – is when Academy Awards office pools are due and an educated guess in any one of the three categories devoted to them could mean the difference between winning the jackpot and wasting the entry fee … again. It’s far easier to predict the winners in editing and fashion categories, where clues can be found on the screen, in magazines and the Internet. Recently, alternatives to voting blind have been introduced in the form of combined preview screenings and Internet viewing sites, including iTunes. It’s always worth the effort of finding such outlets and streaming the content, even for non-prognosticators, because the films almost always are fun to watch. The only reason I bring this up is the arrival of a very good 2006 short film, “Vic,” which has been disguised to look like a feature. Normally, such a deception would prompt accusations of the distributor employing bait-and-switch tactics to sell an inferior product. In this specific case, however, I’ll give it a pass.  Among other things working in its favor, “Vic” has an intriguing pedigree. It was co-written/directed by Sage Stallone, who died last year of coronary artery disease, at 36. In addition to being a co-founder of Grindhouse Releasing, a company that restores and distributes noteworthy exploitation titles, Sage was the son of Sylvester Stallone and his first wife, Sasha Czack, who also appears in the film. Stallone was a good friend of cinematographer/editor John Culager, whose father, Clu, plays the title character as if it were a last will and testament to him.

Vic Reeves is an actor who’s seen his better days. He still gets the occasional assignment, in which he’s killed in some hideous way or plays the person doing the dirty deed. Forty years ago, Reeves worked in top-shelf Westerns and TV dramas. It’s almost as if someone in a talent agency invented slasher and splatter flicks for the sole purpose of keeping actors like Vic working. Today, his only friend is his dog, George. He has a bad heart and hasn’t been sent a decent script in years, perhaps decades. One night, out of the blue, he gets a call from a director, Tony LaSalle (Tom Gulager), of whom he knows nothing.  Tony says he’s always admired Vic’s work, but, at the risk of insulting the actor, asks him to come in the next day for a reading. After he feigns outrage, it’s easy to see that Vic is more than a little bit frightened of being judged by people half his age, who he doesn’t know and probably wouldn’t respect. When he gets to the casting office, Vic realizes that he knows most of the other elderly actors at the audition and they’re in exactly the same position as he is. The rest is best left unspoiled. A brief perusal of Gulager’s IMDB.com file would lead one to believe that his career was the model for the script. His was a familiar face on television in the 1960-70s. Handsome and virile, Gulager looked to be on the brink of stardom several times. After playing Larry the Mechanic in “Winning,” alongside Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, he was chosen to play the caddish Abilene In “The Last Picture Show.” After turning down an opportunity to read for “M*A*S*H” – reportedly, he hated the story — Gulager spent most of the next 35 years playing supporting characters on television series and becoming a cult favorite in horror pictures. He says that rejecting the “M*A*S*H” overture was one of his biggest career mistakes and you can almost read it in his face.

Although it’s only 30 minutes long, “Vic” tells the kind of compelling story that wouldn’t benefit from another 30 minutes or 30 seconds of footage. Reeves is an easily recognizable character in Los Angeles and Culager expertly captures both his thoroughly broken spirit and the brief jolt of excitement that comes with possibly being given a new lease on his career. In a bizarre interview added to the bonus material, along with a montage of scenes from his many roles, Culager says that an actor’s greatest fear is being forgotten. But, as long as films like “The Last Picture Show,” “Winning,” “The Killers” and even “Piranha 3DD” are being shown somewhere in the world, that shouldn’t be his fate. Also along for the ride here are old-timer Carole Lynley, John Philip Law, Gary Frank, Gregory Sierra and John Lazar. – Gary Dretzka

Russ Meyer’s Fanny Hill/The Phantom Gunslinger: Blu-ray
Wakefield Poole’s Bible!
The Snake God
Cult Movie Marathon, Vol. 2
Far more a delicious oddity than a cause for celebration is Vinegar Syndrome’s double-feature release of “Russ Meyer’s Fanny Hill” and Albert Zugsmith’s “The Phanton Gunslinger” in sparkling Blu-ray and DVD. When, you ask, did King Leer put his double-D stamp on the oft-banned and frequently adapted classic of 18th Century porn? It was in 1964, immediately prior to giving the world a trio of unequaled classics of his own, “Mudhoney,” “Faster, Pussycat! Kill Kill!” and “Motorpsycho” (none of which, as far as I know, have been adapted or remade). First, though, a caveat. Although Vinegar Syndrome’s version bears Meyer’s name, it isn’t clear how much of the credit/blame belongs to the Bard of Bosoms and how much is shared by Albert Zugman, who produced such disparate titles as “Touch of Evil,” “Dondi” and “Sex Kitten Goes to College.” As the interviews included in the bonus package suggest, Zugman probably was more responsible for the final cut than Meyer. Indeed, Meyer buffs could probably pinpoint which scenes bear his signature and those directed by Zugman. At some point during the production process, Meyer and Zugman came to loggerheads over the direction the movie should take. For once, Meyer chose to take the straight-and-narrow path, forsaking his trademark in-your-face T&A for a more comically erotic approach to the material. Zugman insisted on the movie being flat-out “funny,” with more pratfalls, slapstick, wacky visual effects and midgets. Taking a cue from the employees of Mrs. Brown’s brothel, Meyer decided to take a powder, rather than comply with his boss’ desires. The result is less sexploitation than simulated anarchy, not unlike a Richard Lester film. What’s most interesting about “Fanny Hill,” however, is the cast. I recognized Leticia Roman for her turns in “G.I. Blues,” Mario Bava’s “The Evil Eye” and guest spots on such TV series as “F-Troop,” “I Spy,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” almost always as the voluptuous Italian visitor. Other familiar actors include Miriam Hopkins, Chris Howland, Helmut Weiss and Walter Giller.

Zugman’s preferred style is fully on display in “The Phantom Gungslinger” (1970), an entirely forgettable Western comedy that reminded me of “The Monkees,” “The Terror of Tiny Town” and “Lust in the Dust.” Here, the cast includes Troy Donahue, Pedro Armandariz Jr. and Emilio Fernandez. If there’s a politically correct nerve upon which Zugman’s film doesn’t stomp, I couldn’t find it. Donohue plays a divinity school graduate deputized when a gang of wildly stereotypical bandits invade he frontier town of Yucca Flats. Being on very good terms with God, Donahue gets several opportunities to dodge death and deal with the madness below. Both films have been restored from their original negatives and are being offered fully uncut for the first time. The package contains an amusing interview with “Fanny Hill” co-star Ulli Lomell, a more scholarly chat with film historian Eric Schaefer and reversible cover art.

Just as Meyer’s brand of soft-core features would, in the wake of “Deep Throat,” become marginalized by the mainstreaming of hard-core porn, so, too, would the work of writers and directors who saw a future for gauzy erotica and tastefully raunchy adaptations of Harlequin Romance novels. Radley Metzger, who saw naked women in an entirely different light than Meyer, would be forced to make the transition from such elegantly produced erotica (“The Lickerish Quartet,” “Therese and Isabelle”) to artsy hard-core porn (“Opening of Misty Beethoven,” “Barbara Broadcast”) that attracted couples and turned off the raincoat crowd. Arthouse sensation “Emmanuelle” was required to ratchet up the girl-girl sex and peep-show nudity, as well. In “Boys in the Sand” and “Bijou,” Poole had effectively lifted gay-porn cinema from the underground to the surface, playing in legitimate theaters and occasionally getting reviewed in the mainstream press. For some reason, Poole decided to go boy-girl in “Bible!,” a retelling of the Old Testament stories of Adam and Eve, Bathsheba and David, and Samson and Delilah, from the woman’s perspective. The only actor anyone is likely to recognize is Georgina Spelvin, a true porn pioneer who worked in the New York theater (“Guys and Dolls”), straight pictures (“Police Academy”) and hard-core (“The Devil in Miss Jones”). Her experience is evident in the scene in which Bathsheba comes between David and her husband, Uriah. Conceptually, “Bible!” wasn’t a bad idea. The “Adam & Eve” sequence is eloquently conceived and photographed … respectful, but with a funny twist at the end. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it failed. Too soft for the hard-care audiences and too irreverent for general consumption, “Bible!” (a.k.a., “In the Beginning …”) disappeared until its resurrection here. The transfer from 16mm is as good as one could possibly hope and the DVD includes Poole’s commentary; vintage interviews with Poole and Spelvin; screen tests, costume tests and effects tests; a stills gallery; and original trailer.

The Snake God” represents a sub-set of Italian sexploitation films, in which ultra-beautiful, if sexually frustrated women find themselves in exotic locations, largely populated with people of color. At some point, early in the narrative, the woman ears the jungle drums and discards her resistance to inter-racial sex and goes native. The forbidden fruit was planted in American horror movies of 1930-40s, when the wives of scientists and doctors stuck in Haiti dug the same jungle rhythms and discovered zombie love.  Voodoo filled the air and another stereotype was born. In the 1970s, Italian filmmakers would revive the conceit in such movies as “The Snake God” (“Il dio serpente”). In the U.S., the same scenario frequently played out in Blaxploitation pictures, including the vile “Mandingo.” The nightly drum circles drove Antoinette Cosway (a.k.a., the first Mr. Rochester) batty in “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” while, as late as 2005, “Heading South” exposed viewers to a new spin in the sexual-tourism business, which made the fantasies of older white women come true on junkets to Haiti. In Pierro Vivarelli’s “exotic-erotic” saga, “The Snake God,” a young Italian woman travels to the Caribbean with her much-older husband on business, but finds plenty of time to unwind, as well. On a boat ride around a supposedly haunted island, Paola (Nadia Cassini) spots a handsome black couple making love on the beach. It stimulates her to the point where she returns to find the woman, Stella (Beryl Cunningham), who she quickly befriends. Stella explains one of the island’s secrets, involving the Caribbean love god, Jambaya, who appears in the form of a python-like snake. Soon, Paola is feeling the same heebie-jeebies that all of the island women share when the jungle drums summon Jambaya. When the snake does make its presence known, the women shed their clothes faster than they would at a 75-percent-off sale at Nordstrom’s. By the time Jambaya reaches Paola, he’s transformed into the man who was chasing Stella on the beach. Bestiality, anyone? When Paola’s lover arrives for a visit, he’s powerless against the spell cast on her by Jambaya, so he trades partners with Stella, making everyone happy. Vivarelli would go on to make a couple more black-sexploitation flick and write scripts in the “Emmanuelle” series.

Shout!Factory’s second installment in its “Cult Movie Marathon” is full of cheesy oddities that defy viewers to spend more than 10 minutes of their valuable time watching. “Savage Island” (1985) combines scenes from “Hotel Paradise” (1980) and “Escape from Hell” (1980), with 10 minutes of fresh material with a fully clothed Linda Blair in an extended cameo. In his first film appearance, Penn Jillette plays a freaked-out prison guard. “The Naked Cage” (1986) is the better of the two women-in-prison movies here, in that it wasn’t made in the Philippines out of spare parts and stars Shari Shattuck, Angel Tompkins and Cathy Lee Crosby’s sister, Lucinda. In it, a young woman is falsely convicted of a bank robbery and sent to a maximum-security prison run by a corrupt warden. In “Angels from Hell” (1968), producer Joe Solomon’s sequel to the infinity better “Hell’s Angels on Wheels,” an angry Vietnam vet takes his bitterness out on cops and small-town residents. Its only redeeming virtue is Arlene Martel, who played Spock’s Vulcan bride, T’Pring, in “Star Trek,” and dated James Dean. Martel also appears in “Chatterbox” (1977), a very broad comedy about a pretty blond (Candice Rialson) who wakes up one morning, after having boring sex with her boyfriend, to discover that her vagina can talk. “V” is disgusted with Penelope’s choices in men and doesn’t care who knows it. After V is taught how to sing, they become a popular novelty act. Despite the film’s naughty premise and Rialson’s world-class body, “Chatterbox” is pretty chaste by today’s standards. Nothing below Penelope’s belt is shown and the humor is limited to double-entendres. It’s fun to see the zany comics, Professor Irwin Corey and Rip Taylor, in action. The extras include an interesting interview with the director; profiles of the stars; an essay on the film; and some wonderfully nasty previews of other Mondo Macabro titles. – Gary Dretzka

Berberian Sound Studio
Toby Jones delivers a mesmerizing performance as a British sound engineer hired by an Italian production company to work on a giallo horror picture, “The Equestrian Vortex.” Almost from Minute One, the introverted Gilderoy feels as if he’s a stranger in a very strange land, even though he should be at home inside any recording studio in the world. In the 1970s, the worlds of Italian and British cinema were as different as James Bond was from Roberto Benigni. The hard work of creating sound effects and conducting a symphony of horrifying screams, moans, grunts and growls is entrusted to the normally orderly Gilderoy, but Berberian Sound Studio is as chaotic as a traffic circle in Rome at rush hour. Producers pass the buck on expenses to secretaries who pass the buck right back their bosses. Arrogant studio executives lecture Gilderoy on techniques that he probably mastered in his freshman year in film school. The female voice actors must put up with the producers groping them in the recording booth, while the Foley technicians turn groceries into garbage to find the right sound to accompany blunt-force trauma. At lunch, everyone wants to talk when Gilderoy only is interested in eating and reading. He may be disgusted by the picture, “The Equestrian Vortex,” but the challenge of creating a soundtrack to match what’s happening on the monitor is too great to pass up. Then, just when he nails the supernatural vibe, the ghosts in the machine begin to talk back to Gilderoy. And, that’s when we know we’re in territory previously mined by David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Alfred Hitchcock. Unlike giallo, where the color schemes are as exaggerated as the women are sexy, “Berberian Sound Studio” looks as if it were shot in a backroom card game in the 1940s. Indeed, because 95 percent of the scenes are shot inside at Berberian, the only horror to be witnessed here plays out on the soundman’s face. With only two features under his belt writer/director Peter Strickland has proven the he doesn’t shy away from challenges. His well-regarded debut, the revenge thriller “Katalin Varga,” is a Hungarian-language film set in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. Working on a miniscule budget, it reportedly was completed in four days. I can’t imagine “Berberian Studio” was any easier to film or that Strickland was given much more money to make it. I can’t wait to see what he does with his next picture, “The Duke of Burgundy.” The DVD adds deleted scenes, a photo gallery, a short documentary taken from the film and an interesting making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Jump
Sightseers
The Angels’ Share
Whenever something terrible happens to people wearing silly costumes in movies, it’s impossible to take anything they do seriously? “Jump” takes place on New Year’s Eve in Northern Ireland and it seems as if everyone in Derry is celebrating a belated Halloween.  The ones who aren’t appear to have stepped out of a Guy Ritchie movie, which, I suppose, is just another sort of costume. As “Jump” begins, we’re introduced to a pretty young woman, Greta (Nichola Burley), standing on a very high bridge contemplating suicide. She’s wearing angel wings. Apparently, she’s just ditched two of her close friends (Charlene McKenna, Valene Kane) and inexplicably headed for the bridge. They’re wearing wigs, hats, mini-skirts and the kind of exaggerated makeup that suggests they’re either channeling Dorothy from “The Wizard From Oz” or Katy Perry in performance. While staring out over the inky black water below, Greta is approached by a young man, Pearse (Martin McCann), with two crimson slashes across his face. This time, the blood is real. It’s impossible to explain what happens next, without blowing the surprises to come. Let’s just say that co-writer/director Kieron J. Walsh spends the next 80 minutes interweaving the lives of all four of these people through wild coincidences and shared concern for their futures and those of loved ones. I can say, however, that the actual starting point for the non-linear story came hours earlier. That’s when Pearse’s brother, Eddie, stole a bundle of money from the safe belonging to Greta’s gangster father. Greta’s costumed buddies get caught in the maelstrom at various stages in the story. “Jump” sounds more complicated than it is, but only because Walsh and co-writer Steve Brookes have conceived interesting ways to keep the storylines from crashing into each other and burning. Not having instant access to British and Irish television networks, I didn’t recognize any of the characters. They’re all very appealing, though.

If any movie speaks to the “banality of evil,” it’s Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers.” Rarely has the principle been as fairly demonstrated as in this inky-black comedy, which demands comparison to “The Honeymoon Killers” (1970). From decidedly lower-middle-class backgrounds, Tina and Chris are dysfunctional lovers. We sense this from Minute One by the choice of “Tainted Love” to play over the opening credits. Rather than listen to Tina’s overbearing mother whine about the accidental death of her beloved dog, they decide to go off on a roadtrip to England’s Lake Country. They seem perfectly suited to each other on the first leg of their journey, even if Tina seems a bit too fragile to leave the nest. That Chris has rage issues becomes apparent when he seethes over a fellow tourist’s refusal to pick up a candy wrapper he’s carelessly discarded. After an unfruitful discussion with the litterbug, Chris waits for the opportunity to penalize the mope for being discourteous. Tina is nowhere near as shocked as we are by the result. At every stop along the way through the pristine region, the lovers take turns being righteously indignant about some horrifying display of rudeness. As the death toll rises, their trigger points become frightfully more trivial. Those viewers who’ve ever had the urge to murder the guy sitting next to them on a plane for snoring – or slash the tires of a perfectly fit driver parked in a handicapped space – will recognize the anger the fuels Chris and Tina’s spree. That’s what “Sightseers” is about and, boy, is it effective. The juxtaposition of murder-most-foul and some of the most placid scenic attractions the U.K. has to offer is handled with just the right combination of editorial detachment and a perverse desire to make viewers squirm. Wheatley raises the degree-of-difficulty bar by staging the horrific violence in daylight hours. Wheatley has already proven himself a master of the unexpected moment in “Down Terrace” and “Kill List.” Stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram co-wrote the screenplay. The DVD adds interviews with the cast and filmmakers.

Winner of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize, “The Angels’ Share” recalls the comedies of Glaswegian filmmaker Bill Forsyth. His “Local Hero,” “Gregory’s Girl” and “Comfort and Joy,” aren’t uproariously funny, but they were full of heart and acutely aware of the wrinkles in the human condition. For nearly a half-century, Ken Loach has been mining much the same naturalistic territory. His directing style springs from a social-realist point of view, although he’s capable of surprising us with such narrative dramas as “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” “Angels Share” opens with a scene that suggests it will be anything but a comedy. Robbie is a typical ne’er-do-well, living in a city, Glasgow, over-populated with terminally unemployed punks and criminals in training. When under pressure, he can’t control his rage and, for that, he’s serving 300 hours of community service. Robbie’s already been given a couple of second chances, but, as long as he remains in Glasgow, he isn’t likely to find himself on the right track anytime soon. Time actually is of the essence, though, if only because his girlfriend is pregnant with their first child and he’s committed to providing for them. The people who share public-service duties with him may be every bit as hopeless as he seems to be, but they bond while on the job and the occasional field trip. It’s during a visit to a distillery that Robby discovers that he has a nose for guaranteed-age Scotch whisky. In Scotland, where some casks are worth their weight in gold, this is a valuable asset. Jobs in the whisky business are difficult to find in the best of times. In the worst, they’re impossible. When Robbie and his cronies are tipped to the auction of an extremely valuable cask, they devise a plan to profit from the sale without compromising the integrity of the distillery. Even if the movie’s outcome is clear from the get-go, everything in between is unpredictable. Loach’s frequent collaborator, Paul Laverty, deserves much of the credit for that. – Gary Dretzka

Saving General Yang: Blu-ray
Man of Tai Chi: Blu-ray
By now, fans of historical epics from China have come to expect elaborate battle scenes, brilliant costumes and set design, and spectacular locations. No country does it better, if only because Chinese filmmakers are able to ensure high-end production values that otherwise could only be afforded through the use of CGI technology. In this way, at least, “Saving General Yang” compares favorably to other super-sized adventures that depict important landmarks in the country’s tumultuous history. Director Ronny Yu takes us back to 10th Century Han and the battles that the Yangs of the Song Dynasty fought against the Khitans. Lessons learned from those conflagrations continue to resonate today. When the highly respected military strategist, General Yang, is called into battle against the approaching enemy, he expects the support of another general’s forces, as planned. When it doesn’t come, Yang is left to fend for himself against the powerful Khitans, who are intent on settling scores with his family. When the general’s seven sons, who are as different from each other as the Cartwrights from “Bonanza,” are apprised of the deception, they risk everything to bring their patriarch home to his wife, even if he’s barely alive. Each of the brothers present a different challenge to the Khitan leader. Not surprisingly, then, each of the battles has an individual personality, apart from being elaborately staged and undeniably exciting. The toll of war is powerfully depicted in scenes that don’t shy away from the horrific lengths that some men will go to intimidate their foes and desecrate the blond-drenched earth. Lingering scenes of battlefields strewn with thousands of corpses – some impaled on their spears –almost brought tears to my eyes. In another remarkable scene, bags filled with flammable material are hurled by advancing horsemen, torn open by a fuselage of arrows and set aflame by a another volley of fire-tipped arrows. The soldiers below are toast. It’s not something one would expect from the director of “Bride of Chucky” and “Freddy vs. Jason,” but the change in scenery must have worked wonders on Yu.

The older Keanu Reeves gets, the more he looks like Wayne Newton in “License to Kill.” There also times in the China-set wushu, “Man of Tai Chi,” when he resembles Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fighting Bruce Lee in “Game of Death.” Reeves directs and co-stars in “Man of Tai Chi,” playing a ruthless promoter of no-holds-barred and to-the-death kung-fu matches for the consumption of pay-per-view subscribers around the world. Tiger (Tiger Chen) is a student of one of the great tai-chi masters, who teaches that spirituality, discipline and balance are the keys for any class-A fighter. Reeves’ Donaka Mark recognizes in Tiger a superbly trained athlete of average size, whose master has instilled in him the attitude and skills necessary to bring down the mighty oaks of the sport. In fact, he’s nearly invincible. What he can’t do, however, is kill. That’s exactly what Marks expects his fighters to do, however. It presents a dilemma for Tiger, who desperately wants to win enough money to restore the master’s fighting school to its former grandeur. Ultimately, Tiger and Mark will be required to duke it out, and that’s when the difference in height of the two men becomes almost comical. Reeves doesn’t embarrass himself in the director’s chair, but some of the credit for his success belongs to fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping and Chen, both whom worked with Reeves on the “Matrix” trilogy. The Blu-ray adds interviews with the principals. – Gary Dretzka

Jayne Mansfield’s Car
In this frequently captivating story, set in Vietnam-era Alabama, co-writer/director/star Billy Bob Thornton introduces us to a dysfunctional family that could be related to the Snopes clan of Mississippi’s Yoknapatawpha County and the characters in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” While “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” doesn’t match up to the work of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams – what can?  — I’d be surprised to learn that Thornton crafted his story without their inspiration. In it, Robert Duvall delivers another fine performance as the cranky patriarch of the Caldwell family. Once the county’s medical examiner, Jim Caldwell spends his free time monitoring a police radio for car crashes and showing up at the scene minutes later to “assist” the local constabulary. An odd hobby, it serves the purpose of getting out of the house and giving him something to talk about at dinner. Early in the tale, co-written by Tom Epperson (“The Gift,” with Thornton), the old man learns of the death of his long-estranged wife, who moved to England when she got good and fed up with taking order from him. Among her last wishes was to be buried in the family plot, near the children she left behind. Her second husband, Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt), and members of his only slightly less eccentric family accompany the casket to Alabama, where a culture clash of epic proportions is about to explode. At first meeting, the families circle each other warily, trying to gauge how long it will take for the two widowers to get around to dealing with the 800-pound gorilla in the living room. The younger family members find it much easier to get along, if only because their dysfunctions complement each other. The Vietnam War comes into play when Carroll Caldwell (Kevin Bacon), a wounded veteran of that fracas, gets arrested for leading a peace rally in full hippy regalia. After that incident, much of the drama is informed by the flawed service records of the men in both the Caldwell and Bedford families.  Just as the war was a black cloud that followed every American around in the 1960s, so, too, do marijuana, LSD and whiskey create a haze around everything that happens when the families begin to find things in common, besides a dead wife and mother. Novelists tend to fare better with family material like this than filmmakers limited to two hours of screen time.  That’s certainly the case in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” which sometimes reaches for laughs and tears. Even so, there are enough wonderful things here to keep ship afloat. I especially enjoyed Katherine LaNasa’s interpretation of a prototypical Miss Alabama, 20 years past her glory days and horny as hell. You’d think that Bacon would be too old to play a recently returned Vietnam vet, but, turns out, he’s not. Robert Patrick, Ray Stevenson, Tippi Headron and Frances O’Connor also contribute to the story. – Gary Dretzka

The Big Gundown: Blu-ray
Scream Factory Presents TV Terrors
If I could take away only one thing from the interviews contained in the Blu-ray edition of Sergio Sollima’s “The Big Gundown,” it’s that Italian filmmakers really, really hate to hear their work labeled “spaghetti Westerns.” I get the feeling that the ones we meet here don’t understand the history of the term or why they shouldn’t take it personally. Before being recognized a legitimate subset of the genre, the imported titles were given very little respect by distributors, exhibitors, audiences and most critics. It took the combined contributions of Sergio Leone, Ennio Moricone and Clint Eastwood to awaken Western fans to the reverence paid to the genre by Italian filmmakers and the operatic grandeur of such films as “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and the “Dollars Trilogy.” (Italian-American directors Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese would do the same thing for the gangster movie.) Released in 1966, “The Big Gundown” got lost in the backlog of Italian movies waiting to be cleared for landing in America’s overcrowded B-movie marketplace. For lack of a more distinctive classification for “Italian-American Westerns made in Spain” – which Sollima and his pals might have preferred – critics and fans went with the snappier, “spaghetti Western.” It was, after all, pretty tough for Americans to admit that the best Westerns being produced in the 1960s were being made by Italians. Lee Van Cleef was pretty well known in Europe and America when he was teamed with the Cuban-born rising star Tomas Milian in the “The Big Gundown.” (Milian would make an even bigger splash in the stylized crime movies of the 1970s.) Here, Van Cleef plays the bounty hunter Jonathan “Colorado” Corbet, who’s tracking a cowboy, Manuel “Cuchillo” Sanchez (Milian), falsely accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. Even while sharing a jail cell in Mexico, the gunfighter refuses to accept Cuchillo’s version of the story. In Colorado’s mind, he was guilty until proven innocent or lynched to save the time and effort required for a trial.

The new four-disc package from Grindhouse represents the vastly under-seen movie’s first U.S. home-video release. The 2K digital restoration looks and sounds great, especially Moricone’s evocative score. One of three feature-length versions found in the special edition, “La Resi Del Conti,” contains 15 additional minutes of uncensored action never before seen in the U.S. There are expanded DVD and HD versions of the original American cut, with three deleted scenes. The fourth disc contains Moricone’s original soundtrack. Additional bonus features include extended interviews with Sollima, Milian and screenwriter Sergio Donati (“Once Upon a Time in the West”); commentary By Western film experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke; liner notes by Joyner and music expert Gergely Hubai;
stills galleries; and marketing material.

“Scream Factory Presents TV Terrors” is thusly titled because they represent the variety of horror-lite movies made for presentation on network television in the 1970s. The movie-of-the-week concept originated in the early 1960s, but, like the mini-series, didn’t blossom until the need for fresh material in lucrative prime-time spots surpassed the cost of licensing hit movies. They were distinguished by the attributes of today’s made-for-cable fare and limited by tight budgets and network censors. More often than not, such pictures copied ideas already forwarded in features. The most interesting thing about “The Initiation of Sarah” and “Are You in the House Alone?” is the mix of up-coming-actors and older, more familiar stars. The former borrows several basic themes from “Carrie,” while discarding the nudity and bloodshed. When two very different sisters enter college, the deeply withdrawn adoptee is rudely rejected by the sorority that is anxious for the prettier and more outgoing one to join. After other hurtful bullying takes place, Sarah (Kay Lenz) turns her telekinetic powers to high and begins to wipe out cool kids. Among the other fresh-faced youth are Morgan Brittany, Morgan Fairchild, Tony Bill, Robert Hays, Tisa Farrow, Talia Balsam and Michael Talbott. Shelley Winters plays a sorority house’s resident witch bitch, while Kathryn Crosby plays the mean mother of the sisters. I don’t know if the villain in “Are You in the House Alone?” inspired the mysterious caller in “Scream,” but they share the same modus operandi. Kathleen Beller plays a teenager being plagued by a series of increasingly ominous phone calls. Among the recognizable names and faces here are Dennis Quaid, Blythe Danner, Tony Bill (again), Robin Mattson and John Travolta’s sister, Ellen. – Gary Dretzka

Far From Vietnam
PBS: Held Hostage
Forty years after the end of one of the bloodiest wars in American history, a unified Vietnam has become a major trade partner with the United States, as well as a destination for tourists and soldiers seeking “closure.” Meanwhile, historical revisionists and diehard patriots have contrived ways to turn defeat into victory. “If only we’d been allowed to invade North Vietnam,” they argue. “Things would have ended differently.” They might as well suggest, “If we had drones, we could have won the war without putting American boots on Vietnamese land.” No matter, say business executives on both sides of the Pacific … let Saigons be bygones. “Far From Vietnam,” a collaborative anti-war documentary Initiated and edited by Chris Marker, was shown in the United States no more than a handful of times, months before the mind-changing impact of the Tet offensive. A showing at the 1967 New York Film Festival was greeted with enthusiasm by left-leaning viewers and outrage by audience members pre-disposed to believe the lies spread by American politicians over the opinions of a half-dozen French (a.k.a., commie) filmmakers. The lineup included Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch and Alain Resnais, all of whom worked, Marker insisted, “to affirm, by the exercise of their craft, their solidarity with the Vietnamese people in struggle against aggression.” With the exception of Ho Chi Minh, General Vo Nguyen and a bunch of captured soldiers, the faces of average North Vietnamese men, women and children were absent in media reports from the front. “Far From Vietnam” was made, in part, to introduce us to the people upon whom our bombs were falling and who were resisting the most powerful war machine in history in every conceivable way.

Besides visiting the country and filming non-combatants preparing for the next bombardment, the filmmakers recorded the opinions of French and American protesters on both side of the picket signs.  In other segments, Tom Paxton sings an antiwar song; the history of post-World War II Vietnam is enumerated; the story of an American man who set himself on fire and died as a statement against the war is recalled; Godard speaks to a camera; Fidel Castro sits in a field, explaining Cuba’s take on wars of liberation; students get the crap kicked out of them by police; and an intellectual decries the impotence of French liberals. Many of the arguments could apply to the war and liberation struggles going on, right now, around the world. The stark and disturbing photographs and newsreel footage – given a fresh 2K polish by CNC film archives – go a long way toward explaining why our government and military have conspired with the media not to show us the innocent victims of drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere. For years, photographers weren’t allowed to take pictures of flag-dragged caskets lined up in an airport hanger. The DVD includes Marker and Francois Reichenbach’s “The Sixth Side of the Pentagon,” which documents the October 21, 1967, Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam rally in Washington It was the largest gathering of anti-war protesters to date, coming two weeks after Che Guevara had been killed in Bolivia with the help of CIA operatives. Norman Mailer wrote about it in “Armies of the Night.” I wonder how the 50th anniversary of that event, which took place at some of the same landmarks as Martin Luther King’s “March on Washington,” only four years earlier, will be treated in the media.

The intense PBS documentary, “Held Hostage,” dissects the Al Qaeda attack on Algeria’s Amenas natural-gas plant, deep in the heart of the desert. The terrorists crossed into Algeria from either Mali or Libyan to take over the facility, which practically defined what it means to be a “sitting duck.” The four-day siege left more than 37 foreign hostages dead, most of the terrorists eliminated and much of the plant destroyed. When the sand settled, several other perplexing questions remained. In an attempt to answer them, the producers of “Held Hostage” replicated as many of the scenarios as they could, based on interviews with journalists, family members, intelligence officials and survivors of the ordeal. The testimony and dramatizations are backed up by images collected from spy planes and the officially sanctioned reports supplied by Algerian spin-doctors. The film has a tick-tock feel to it, as the longer the hostages were endangered, the less chance there was for rescue. Government officials declared the rescue mission a success because the gas facility wasn’t completely destroyed and several terrorists were killed. Even from the start of the siege, however, there seemed to be little concern for the well-being of the foreign workers, who merely got in the way of Algerian special-forces soldiers anxious to keep the gas pipeline flowing. At one point, two men who had survived rocket attacks on a convoy moving from one gas facility to another, five miles away, were strafed by an assault helicopter and turned back from a line in the sand drawn by the military. At a time when NSA employees can monitor the porn-viewing habits of terrorists and average citizens, alike, it seems incredible that a convoy of SUVs could go undetected as they sped across hundreds of miles of territory on a solidary desert road. Conversely, how could the mastermind of the attack escape, perhaps on the same road? Another unsolved mystery surrounds the inadequate security afforded the workers at the plant, where guards weren’t allowed to carry guns, so as not to trigger a massive explosion. It wasn’t a point that concerned the terrorists, who weren’t afraid to fire their weapons whenever the mood struck them. Then, too, if the intent of the fighters was to trade hostages for Al Qaeda prisoners in Algerian jails, why didn’t they even pretend to negotiate. Somehow, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” doesn’t quite cut it. “Held Hostage” doesn’t get many, if any, of the questions answered, but its coverage of the siege is as exciting as any movie. – Gary Dretzka

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special: The Day of the Doctor: Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray
Futurama: Volume 8: Blu-ray
Weird Creatures With Nick Baker, Series 2
Nature: Parrot Confidental
Nature: Love in the Animal Kingdom
Considering the dominance of British-made mini-series in recent Emmy competition, it’s remarkable that no one at the television academy has seen fit to honor one of the most popular BBC exports in broadcast history. Earlier this year, the prestigious Peabody Awards honored “Doctor Who” with an Institutional Peabody “for evolving with technology and the times like nothing else in the known television universe.” On the occasion of the show’s 50th anniversary – including the occasional hiatus – several things happened. Among them, fans were jolted by the news that Matt Smith would be relinquishing his title as the 11th Doctor and a two-month search for his successor would ensue. In August, it was announced that Peter Capaldi (“The Thick of It”) would be introduced in the upcoming Christmas special. The “rejuvenation” almost overshadowed the events leading up to the international simulcast of “Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special: The Day of the Doctor,” in HD and 3D (in theaters). As is the nature of such dramatic transitions and anniversary commemorations, the show would combine the past, present and future to simultaneously inform, reminisce and entertain. The special chronicles the dramatic last day of the Time War. It stars Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman, as his companion, Clara Oswald. Previous leads David Tennant and Billie Piper were recruited for the show, along with War Doctor John Hurt. The cast was rounded out with a cameo by 4th Doctor Tom Baker; Joanna Page, as Queen Elizabeth I, and Jemma Redgrave, as the daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The special also marked the return of the Daleks and Zygons, shape-shifting aliens from the 1975 serial “Terror of the Zygons.” The new Blu-ray 2D/3D package contains featurettes that will go a long way toward making sense of the story for newcomers: prequel “mini-sodes,”  “The Last Day” and “Night of the Doctor”; a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the production; “Doctor Who Explained,” in which 50 years of Doctor Who” are condensed to 47 minutes; and marketing material.

It’s entirely possible that the good doctor, in at least one of his iterations, steered the TARDIS to 31st Century America, where former pizza-deliverer Phillip J. Fry is working for a new and different delivery service, run by distant relative-to-be, Professor Farnsworth. He’s also spent the last 14 years attempting to deal with his feelings for Leela, who figures prominently in the final season … or, should I say, what purports to be the final season. We’ll see. As is often the case with series that have experienced production delays or long hiatuses, the title, “Futureworld: Volume 8,” is far from precise. In fact, Volume 8 is comprised off the last 13 episodes of Season 7. The Blu-ray adds amusing audio commentaries on all of them; “Precious Trimming,” a compendium of deleted scenes; “Futurama University,” a set of featurettes detailing production information; and “Inside Futurama: The Writers’ Room of Tomorrow.”

British explorer and biologist Nick Baker returns from his travels to his natural habitat — the British Natural History Museum — for another season of “Weird Creatures With Nick Baker.” Ever since he was “dumped” at the august institution as a kid, Baker’s been fascinated with the least attractive of creatures. As an adult, he travels to exotic locations around the globe to commune with the critters in their natural habitats. Among the second season’s offerings are up-close-and-personal visits with Slovenia’s “human fish,” snapping turtles in the bayous of Louisiana, the “mimic octopus,” “Frankenstein fish” and an “invisible lizard” or two. Baker’s a terrific host, who takes his job – risking his life and limbs for our amusement – very seriously.

Like too many Dalmatians purchased whenever Walt Disney updates its “101 Dalmatians” franchise, parrots of all color and stripe fare poorly when purchased as a pet or household accessory. The fact is, parrots simply aren’t suited for domestication. They tend to outlive their owners, snap at people who get too nosey, sometimes repeat offensive language and are noisy beyond belief. The temptation to own such a magnificent creature is sometimes too great for humans to resist. It explains why the smuggling of infants had to be banned by Customs officials and people in such places as Brazil and Costa Rica will snatch those babies out of their nests and conspire to bypass the restrictions. “Nature: Parrot Confidental” documents the process and subsequent dangers posed to the population, no matter their origins and habitats. The focus is on education, protection and re-introduction into the wild. Along the way, we meet the kind folks who rescue and treat abandoned and abused birds, but often run out of space, money and patience for people who shouldn’t have purchased them in the first place.

Also from “Nature” comes “Love in the Animal Kingdom,” which examines the mating rituals of animals around the world. Sure, we’ve seen plenty of shows on the same subject, but this one sticks pretty much to the rituals themselves and leaves the rest to our twisted imaginations. If it stops well short of what some might consider to be animal pornography, the documentary also makes it clear that all of the weird dances, flushes of color and mano-a-mano combat isn’t simply for the entertainment of the herd, school or pack. The photography is splendid. – Gary Dretzka

 
Angels Sing: Blu-ray
Christmas Bounty
The Ultimate Life: Blu-ray
Have yourself a merry little alt-country Christmas with “Angels Sing,” a sugar-coated dramedy that adults – especially lovers of rootsy music – are likely to enjoy more than kiddies, although there’s enough going on here to keep most ’tweens, at least, interested for 90 minutes.  If the story is instantly recognizable – events conspire to turn a boy against the spirit of the season – the cast is full of surprises. Harry Connick Jr. and Connie Britton (“Nashville”) play David’s parents, Michael and Susan Walker, who, one day, are given an amazing deal on a first home by a mysterious bearded gentleman (Willie Nelson). His only stipulation is that they honor a neighborhood tradition. It involves decking the house with a something approaching a million lights in various configurations. No sooner does the couple move in than the neighbors (Lyle Lovett, among them) start bugging the newcomers about their obligation to the community. As the holiday approaches, Michael loses any interest in making his neighbors happy and, when David joins the chorus, he’s sent to his grandparents (Kris Kristofferson, Fionnula Flanagan) to get out of dad’s hair. On the way back, David is injured in a car crash that claims the life of his grandpa. Because he momentarily delayed their departure, the boy blames himself for the tragedy. Now, it’s David’s turn to say, “Bah, humbug,” to Christmas. Knowing that “Angels Sing” is a Dove-approved DVD, it’s a safe guess that something miraculous is going to happen to Michael and David to restore their faith in the power of Christmas lights to heal the world’s wounds. Despite the fact that Jesus doesn’t make a cameo at his own birthday celebration, “Angels Sing” is an enjoyable and meaningful way to kill a couple of hours in the lead-up to Christmas. Other musicians making an appearance are trucking troubadour Dale Watson, Texas swinger Ray Benson and blues-belter Marcia Ball.

From ABC Family and WWE Films – two names you never thought you’d see together – comes “Christmas Bounty,” a movie that’s far more about bounty(hunters) than Christmas.  Francia Raisa, the almost terminally cute star of ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” plays the daughter of the owners of a New Jersey skip-tracing business. She’s laying low in New York City for some reason, working as a teacher. When Tara gets a threatening phone call from a mobster she helped put away years earlier, she makes an excuse for leaving her wimpy boyfriend in the lurch and hightails it back to Jersey. Things get a tad on uncomfortable side, when she reunites with her former boyfriend – WWE superstar Mike “The Miz” Mizanin – who’s still jonesing for her. Things will get even weirder when the boyfriend shows up unexpectedly, almost simultaneous to the arrival of the mobster. By the time things get back to normal, it’s Christmas. Hence, the title.

The Ultimate Life” is a follow-up to the inspirational 2006 drama, “The Ultimate Gift,” based on a novel by Jim Stovall. Critics weren’t at all charitable Michael Landon Jr.’s faith- and family-based story. The first installment, which was made for $1.2 million, grossed nearly three times that number, even though it played in relatively few theaters. I don’t know how it did on DVD, but, I’m guessing, not bad. It was blessed with decent reviews, something that can’t be said for the sequel, which failed to cover its production nut of $3.1 million. “Life” basically covers the same ground as “Gift,” in that the story is based on advice given a spoiled trust-fund kid by his wealthy grandfather (James Garner). Once again, Jason has found himself stuck in a moral and ethical quagmire. More interested in making money than the needs of his family, he returns to his grandfather’s electronic will for guidance. Now, if only his own kids would get over themselves. Garner makes a video cameo here, while Peter Fonda adds some in-person advice. Frankly, I lost track of who’s who less than halfway through the movie. “Gift” is only for hard-core fans of faith-based entertainment. If anything, though, the message is more Ayn Rand than Jesus Christ. – Gary Dretzka

Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Stella Dallas
With the release of Fox’s reimagining of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” just around the corner, Warner Home Video thought it appropriate to dust off the 1947 original, which stars Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo and, yes, Boris Karloff. According to Hollywood legend, author James Thurber offered producer Samuel Goldwyn $10,000 to not make the film. (After seeing the early reviews of the Ben Stiller version, I can almost see his hands reaching out from the grave, offering $100,000 to buy back the rights.) As usual, Kaye is delightful as the mild-mannered proofreader who daydreams himself into numerous far-fetched situations in which he can be heroic. The restoration not only brings the story back to life, but it reminds us of a time Hollywood set designers worked their magic on giant sound stages, even knowing that audiences could see the seams that bound fantasy to reality. If audiences minded the conceit, they were too busy enjoying the singing, dancing and storytelling to complain.

Barbara Stanwyck delivers an Oscar-worthy performance in King Vidor’s adaptation of Olive Higgins Prouty’s novel and Henry King’s original 1925 silent version of “Stella Dallas.” Born into poverty, Stella is an aggressively persistent social-climber. Upon landing a wealthy gentleman and tasting the lush life, Stella sacrifices everything so that her daughter never is required to experience deprivation. When Stella becomes too meddlesome. In doing so, she relinquishes custody to her husband. Stanwyck’s performance is one for the ages. I recommend watching “Stella Dallas” before tuning in to the Oscar ceremony, where lesser performances are celebrated on an annual basis. Everybody remembers the heart-breaking ending, but the rest of “Stella Dallas” is excellent. The new DVD upgrade also includes the 1925 version, which is pretty good, too. (The movie was remade in 1990, as “Stella,” with Bette Midler and Trini Alvarado.) – Gary Dretzka

The Seasoning House: Blu-ray
7E
Set in some Balkan shithole, at the height of the recent troubles, “The Seasoning House” expands on rumors – some probably true – of the enslavement of young women orphaned by the murder of family members. Here, the kidnap victims are forced to live in horrid conditions, trapped inside a makeshift brothel, where soldiers are encouraged to work out their psychoses on the helpless women. The girls who balk at such treatment are shot up with drugs that keep them just this side of being comatose. If that scenario sounds too hideous to contemplate, it gets worse.  In his first feature, co-writer/director puts everything he’s learned about special-effects makeup and prosthetic design to use, ratcheting up the horror to near-unwatchable levels, even for those already exposed to torture porn. And, yet, there is a very thin silver lining to all the darkness. The very talented Brit actress, Rosie Day (“Homefront”), plays a deaf girl required to stand by while her parents and siblings are slaughtered by militia members, one of whom has a financial stake in the brothel. Instead of having to prostitute herself, “Angel” does most of the dirty work for the pimp (Kevin Howarth), Viktor, who claims to love her. When Angel isn’t shooting up the other girls or ministering to their wounds, she investigates ways to escape. With the doors locked and windows barred, her only exit is accessible by crawling and climbing through the old house’s infrastructure, behind walls, amid the ducts, pipes and chimneys. She’s sufficiently petite to slip through holes the size of a doggy door, allowing her to bypass hallways and locked doors. It’s a cool skill for a tortured protagonist to possess, even if it is wasted in such an offensive movie. It comes in especially handy when the militia men attempt to murder everyone from the pimp to the girls. So much for the silver lining. Once Angel does manage to escape, the chase continues in the woods and nearby homes, where the residents pretend not to know what’s going on in the house on the hill. Viewers who make it that far probably would value from the informative making-of featurette.

The silver lining on the cloud over “7E” is even thinner. After the mysterious death of his cousin’s roommate, Clyde (Brendan Sexton III) travels to her ramshackle New York apartment to care for her. The cousin, Kate (Antonella Lentini), is completely freaked out, so Clyde has trouble connecting with her. As he scours the neighborhood in search of clues to the murder, potential suspects (James Russo, Armando Riesco) start climbing out of the woodwork. In his first film, Teddy Schenck delivers a palpable sense of dread, throughout, but I’ll be damned if I could tell to what end. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Friday, December 6th, 2013

Fast & Furious 6: Extended Edition: Blu-ray
In a perfect world, Paul Walker would have walked away from last Sunday’s fatal accident with a broken bone and a few scrapes, but otherwise fully intact, just like the stunt drivers he worked beside in “Fast & Furious 6.” Cynics would have suggested that the crash was simply a publicity stunt staged to promote the release of the latest DVD/Blu-ray. Walker would deny the accusation, but, in Hollywood, there’s no such thing as coincidence. Sadly, though, Walker was killed in the crash, alongside his friend, business partner, financial adviser and fellow racing enthusiast, Roger Rodas. By all accounts, Rodas was an exemplary fellow and supporter of many charities, including Walker’s Reach Out Worldwide. A professional driver, he knew how to control a fast car and had survived crashes on racetracks. In their ads for the DVD/Blu-ray, Universal is introducing consumers to Reach Out Worldwide and asking them to consider contributing to it. The studio has announced that a portion of the proceeds from sales will go to the charity, as well. Plans for a seventh edition of “F&F” have been put on hold, if only temporarily. Both men will be missed.

“Fast & Furious” is one of those franchises that practically re-writes itself with each new sequel. I don’t say that in a negative way, because it’s pretty tough to fool audiences six times in a row. Most franchises go straight-to-DVD after the fourth installment. “F&F6” has already grossed $788.7 in the international marketplace. Anyone’s who’s seen more than one of the installments probably doesn’t need a refresher course in what it’s all about, so there’s no need to amplify here, except to say: same stars and creative team, different cars. This time, however, Agent Hobbs asks outlaw drivers Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) to put their team back together and meet him in London, where they can devise a plan to shut down another team of mercenary drivers. This one has eyes on a bigger prize, however, and Hobbs dangles the prospect of pardons to get the good guys to sign on with him. When they come in contact with their competitors, they’re shocked to discover the presence of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) on the other side. She was presumed dead on a previous job, but, in fact, only lost her memory. This, plus parenthood, have raised the stakes for Toretto and O’Conner. It’s fun in the same way that all of the movies in the series have been entertaining. The formula works.

Just for the record, the unrated “Extended Edition” adds a minute or two of action, but nothing obvious. The bonus material includes director Justin Lin’s point-by-point commentary; three deleted scenes; 20 minutes of interviews; a four-part production documentary; a four-part dissection of the major set pieces, “Planes, Tanks and Automobiles”; the ride-along “It’s All About the Cars”; a look at the fight scenes, “Hand to Hand Fury”; and a short preview of “F&F7.”

Wolverine: Blu-ray
By now, Hugh Jackman is as identified with the Logan/Wolverine character as he is with being Australian. By my count, he’s played the “X-Men” bad boy five times, with a cameo in one other live-action episode and another one already on the boards for 2014. He’s also voiced of a couple of video games. Although I’m not an expert on the subject, the 2013 “Wolverine” is a semi-continuation of the 2009 franchise prequel, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and, with its flashbacks to Jean Grey/Phoenix, a sequel to “X-Men: The Last Stand.” In 2014, there will be another sequel, entitled “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” (As far as I know, the Moody Blues haven’t been asked to perform on the soundtrack.) The character, itself, has also been the subject of countless comic books, graphic novels and cartoon series. When he isn’t slashing his enemies with those razor-sharp appendages, Jackman has been known to sing and dance a bit. I found it interesting that “Wolverine” inadvertently makes a sideways connection between Wolverine’s origins and those of Japanese monsters Rodan, Godzilla and Mothra.

As the movie opens, Logan is being held captive by Japanese troops in what appears to be a well. As he scans the skies through a metal grate, he spots American bombers on a mission over Japan. In what could be the single act of mercy shown a POW in World War II — in the movies, anyway — a Japanese guard begins to unlock the cells, allowing the prisoners to escape. Before Logan can get out of his pit, the guard is ordered by officers to join them in ritual suicide. Just as he’s about to do the same, a mushroom cloud appears in the distant background, causing a radioactive tsunami to barrel toward the prison camp. Logan grabs the soldier and sprints back to the well with him. Before the storm of flames can fill the well, Logan grabs a metal slab to cover the soldier from most harm. In doing so, he’s burned to a crisp. Within seconds, the soldier, Shingen Yashida, is privileged to watch Logan regenerate before his eyes. Most of a lifetime later, the now extremely wealthy Japanese industrialist sends a pretty young assistant, Yukio – herself, a mutant with the precognitive ability to foresee other people’s deaths – to the Yukon to find Logan and bring him back to Tokyo. Yashida is dying from cancer, possibly from exposure to radiation, and wants to ask Logan for a third lease on life. Because Logan has voiced his distaste with eternal life and a desire to lead a normal life, Yashida considers his request to be something of a win-win proposition for both men. He dies before any transference of powers can begin.

Yashida’s death sets off a chain of events that affects all of Yashida’s family members and heirs, forcing Logan to choose sides. A provision in his will effectively bypasses a generation of ambitious men, leaving his holdings in the hands of his shy and dedicated daughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Already in Japan, Logan is involuntarily put in a position where he must pick sides. As Mariko’s bodyguard, he is once again forced to unleash his Wolverine persona and protect her from all of the samurai, cops and yakuza saboteurs that money can buy. They’re nothing compared to the reptilian mutant Viper/Dr. Green (Svetlana Viktorovna), and a monstrous mecha killing machine. If there are points in the narrative where it becomes impossible to tell who’s trying to kill whom and why, the one constant is the action. It’s almost nonstop and extremely well-conceived. The Blu-ray package includes “The Path of a Ronin,” explores the samurai-ninja aspect of the story, including its roots in the Marvel comic books; interviews with the principal cast and crew; behind-the-scenes footage, with a tight focus on Yoshida’s way-beyond-Posturepedic bed; an alternate ending; a visit to the set of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”; and a second-screen app with additional bonus content, accessible through either IOS or Android mobile devices.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones: Blu-ray
Based, as it is, on the first installment in a popular series of young-adult novels by Cassandra Clara, great things were expected of Harald Zwart’s adaptation, “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.” Indeed, what wasn’t to like about an “urban fantasy” that promised tragic romance, hot young actors, splendid Gothic locations, wall-to-wall action and a mélange of avenging angels, vampires, werewolves and witches. That the film failed to spark domestic or overseas revenues – from my uneducated perspective, anyway — remains something of a mystery. If “City of Bones” had opened big and quickly sank like a rock, the blame could be laid on execution. A production budget estimated at $60 million, argues otherwise. Critics are non-factors when it comes to evaluating teen fantasies, so they’re not guilty, either. In the face of a marketing expenditure also in the $60-million range, grosses for the three-day opening weekend failed to top $9.3 million, even though it opened on more than 3,000 large and traditional-size screens. Total revenues amounted to an underwhelming $80.2 million, of which $49 million flew in from overseas. Not being an exact science, it’s almost impossible to tell why one marketing campaign works and another doesn’t. To be fair, none of the “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” wannabes, have done particularly well, either. Still, there should have been some red flags. For one, the presence of B-listers Lily Collins, Lena Heady, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan and Jonathan Rhys Meyers wasn’t likely to set many young-adult hearts racing. (The same thing could be said of the largely unknown casts of “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games,” however.) My guess is that the kitchen-sink approach to storytelling, along with a bewildering number of supernatural characters, was a far safer bet on paper than on the screen. I stopped keeping score after the first half-hour. (Both the Blu-ray package and full-page pop-up ads offer a “character lineage” to minimize confusion.) It’s also possible that girls and young women were turned off by teasers and trailers that promised too much action and not enough romance, even with all the dreamy men on display. Conversely, teenage boys may have anticipated more romance than bloodshed. Both groups would be right in their own way.

In Blu-ray, where the investment in time and money is far less, the risk factor to distributors is exponentially lower. Expectations still matter, of course, but not as much. “City of Bones” looks and sounds excellent in high-def. The set designs are imaginative and the actors are easy on the eyes. Newcomers to the franchise should know that, at first glance, Clary Fray (Collins) seems to be a perfectly normal 15-year-old Brooklynite, who still favors jeans and T-shirts over little black dresses and stiletto-heel shoes. One day, though, she begins scrawling a unique design on notepads and seeing it on signs. This greatly bothers her single mother, Joselyn (Headey), who has been hiding a great secret from her own past. Mom wants to explain her background to Clary, but she’s attacked by vicious shape-changing thugs and kidnaped before their talk could happen. It would have foreshadowed Clary’s evolution toward womanhood and the presence of Shadowhunters — half-angels who have been locked in a holy war with demons since the Crusades – in their ransacked apartment. In fact, Jocelyn holds the key to everything that’s about to take place in New York’s Downworld, as well as the ancient chalice that everyone’s seeking. Clary’s only hope is to pick the brain of the witch next-door (C.C.H. Pounder) and join forces with the Shadowhunters. It doesn’t take very long for Clary – and increasingly befuddled viewers – to realize that no one and nothing is what it appears to be in the Downworld. The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes, making-of featurettes, interviews, a music video of “Almost Is Never Enough” and an “interactive lineage tracker,” for those keeping score at home. Remarkably, perhaps, plans for a 2014 sequel, “City of Ashes,” are going forward.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane: Blu-ray
Despite the tantalizing title, “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” has had more false starts than a junior-high swimming meet. Introduced first at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival and released theatrically on a country-by-country basis ever since, the teen gore-fest finally is being given a fair shot on DVD and Blu-ray. Before writer/director Jonathan Levine’s kooky zombie romance, “Warm Bodies,” became a sleeper hit, last February, the primary reason for guys to see “Mandy Lane” – directed by Levine and written by Jacob Forman — was the likelihood Amber Heard or, in a pinch, Whitney Able might go topless. (One does, the other doesn’t.) Why any teenage girl would want to subject herself to the many gruesome killings is now a moot point, because hardly anyone went to see it in theaters, male or female. Like a million other thrillers aimed at the teen market, this one involves a mixed group of Texas high school pals who think it might be fun to spend a weekend at ranch house in redneck country. Although the kids seem to be paired off pretty neatly, virginal 16-year-old tease, Mandy, is the wild card all of the boys and, perhaps, one or two of the girls, want to hold. In fact, she’s a magnet for trouble. What the teens don’t take into account are the snakes that inhabit the swimming hole and the psychopath bent on slaughtering anyone who comes within 10 feet of Mandy. Fans of splatter flicks should find enough inventively rendered violence here to satisfy their appetite. Otherwise, I can easily recommend Levine’s other features, “Warm Bodies,” “50/50” and “The Wackness.”

Casting Me …
American Bomber
I don’t know if there are more dweebs per square inch in the movie business than in other pursuits, but judging simply by the films they make for and about each other, it sure seems like it. Apart from collecting ironic t-shirts and pretending they’re too busy to lose their virginity, the aspiring filmmakers we meet in such no-budget character studies as “Casting Me” constantly kvetch about having jobs most other folks would kill to do. Take Paul Johnson (Paul Snodgrass), a casting director who’s tired of photographing beautiful young models in their underwear posing for a lead role in toothpaste commercial … or something he considers to be similarly demeaning. Pretty girls flatter Paul by flirting with him, but he knows all too well that, outside the walls of his office, they’d have nothing to do with him. So, after a very long day’s work, Paul can’t wait to get home and smoke a joint or three, before diving into a pizza or share a double-double with his like-minded roommates. In what qualifies as a small miracle, he meets a truly nice young woman, Chloe Willow (Roxanne Prentice), who “likes” several of the same things he admits to liking on his Internet profile, and is willing to put up with the awkward lulls in their conversations. Even as Paul fears their romance can’t last, he wills it to happen by putting his job over their relationship. Once he realizes what he’s lost in Chloe, Paul commits himself to winning her back in the only way he knows how. He makes a film intended to explain to Chloe how difficult it is to balance his passion for the cinema with his love for her. It’s sufficiently smart and funny to convince her – and us – that he might not be as unredeemable as we were led to believe. Like Paul, Quentin Laverty’s “Casting Me,” grows on you. That’s not a bad endorsement for a first feature from South Africa.

Much the same can be said about another first feature from IndiePix, Eric Trenkamp’s “American Bomber.” Michael C. Freeland is terrific as John Hidell, a disgraced ex-soldier, whose brother was killed in the war, leaving him with very little reason to live and even less cause for loyalty to the flag. His mission, if not his motivations, has been tipped to the FBI, but, for now, agents are maintaining their surveillance from a distance. They not only need to keep a well-hidden bomb from exploding somewhere in New York, but also discover who’s calling the shots. The John Hidell we meet is the classic loner, with a chip on his shoulder. Although we aren’t encouraged to like or empathize with him, exactly, Trenkamp wants us to see him as a human capable of feeling something beyond hate and despair. He gives Hidell an option to carnage in the form of Amy (Rebekah Nelson), a divorced bartender at a dive bar. She’s fun to be with and pretty lonely, herself. Hidell’s connection senses his change in attitude and gives him an out. It would require him to disclose the location of the bomb, something he’s reluctant to do. Complicating the issue for us, however, is the lack of clear motivation, beyond simply being pissed off at the army and wanting to take out as many people when he presses the button. He doesn’t read the Koran in his spare time or tote a prayer rug with him. It isn’t until the very end of “American Bomber” that the target is revealed. It surprised me, at least. Credit goes to Trenkamp for fleshing out a character, Amy, we care about as much as the protagonist does. Simply by being herself, she could get sucked into someone else’s nightmare. It will be interesting to see what Freeland and Nelson could do in a more traditional movie.

Inch’Allah
Chloe (Evelyne Brochu) is a young Canadian doctor working in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank, where she treats pregnant women at a rundown, always packed clinic. Each day, she’s required to pass through the concrete “fence,” separating the citizens of Jerusalem from “the terrorists,” as Palestinians are generically referred to by Israeli politicians. Sometimes, Chloe is accompanied to the checkpoint by her only close Israeli friend, Ava (Sivan Levy), a member of the security forces who carries a machine-gun to work. Chloe’s closest friend on the Palestinian side is Rand (Sabrina Ouazani), a woman she’s met and treated at the clinic. The closer she gets to both women, the more she realizes how difficult it is to live in such different worlds. In Jerusalem, Chloe and Ava are free to boogy the night away in skimpy outfits and drink or smoke whatever she has a taste for, while Rand’s world is distinguished by modest clothing, chadors and blind subservience to the men in her life, all of whom appear to be linked to one militant group or another. A turning point for Chloe comes when a boy with whom she had just engaged in horseplay is killed by the driver of an armored personnel vehicle, simply for hanging on to the truck’s windshield grill and making faces at him. Although she’s been warned to stay neutral in dealings with people on both sides of the fence, witnessing the boy’s death first-hand causes her to go native. In the company of Rand’s older brother, Chloe even agrees to paste propaganda posters, containing the boy’s image and a radical statement, on walls of the camp. Quebecois director Anais Barbeau-Lavalette really does a nice job dramatizing the schism that slowly begins to divide Chloe’s world. “Inch’Allah” was largely shot in Jordan, but one never feels very far removed from the shadow of the concrete barrier. Indeed, even when Chloe’s personal ordeal eventually begins to defy credulity, we’re left with the heartbreaking image of little Palestinian boy in a Superman outfit, chipping away at the wall, just to get a glimpse of what’s on the other side. Bonus material adds deleted scenes and “Nous Sommes,” a short film by cinematographer Kevin Papatie.

Wings of a Warrior: The Jimmy Doolittle Story
In this rough-hewn bio-doc, Gardner Doolittle adds several new dimensions to the story of a true American hero and patriot, Jimmy Doolittle, aviation pioneer and Congressional Medal of Honor winner. Besides being his cousin’s greatest fan, Gardner produced, wrote, directed and served as on-camera narrator of “Wings of a Warrior: The Jimmy Doolittle Story.” Known primarily for commanding the April 18, 1942, raid on Japan, Doolittle spent his entire adult life flying prototypes and engineering safer, faster and more efficient airplanes. Many Pentagon officials believed that it would be suicidal to launch 16 B-25s from the deck of a USS Hornet on the edge of Japan’s security zone and not running out of gas before accomplishing the mission or getting shot down. If it weren’t for cooperative Chinese soldiers and citizens, it’s likely that far more than three crew members would have died and another eight captured by Japanese soldiers stationed in China. (Three of them executed as war criminals.) In the search for missing American airmen, including Doolittle, the Japanese killed some 250,000 Chinese, both as a reprisal for helping us out and a warning to others.

Initially, Doolittle saw the mission as a failure, because none of the 16 B-52s would ever make the trip back to the U.S. Unknown to him, shell-shocked American citizens and media hailed the heroic raid as payback for Pearl Harbor and the first good news to emerge from the Pacific Theater. Damage to Japanese military and industry targets may have been minimal, but it caused the country’s top brass to pull back ships from Southeast Asia to defend the country and prepare for the Battle of Midway, which resulted in a decisive early defeat for Admiral Yamamoto. The documentary covers the raid in some detail, while only touching lightly on the less-positive results. What it does best is fill in the blanks in the Doolittle story ignored in other movies. They go back to 1917, when he took a leave of absence from UC-Berkeley to enlist in the Signal Corps Reserve. Despite the many deaths of pilots in test flights, in anticipation of WWI. Doolittle garnered a reputation as being reckless to the point of being suicidal. Not only did he possess the “right stuff,” however, he practically invented it. What “Wings of a Warrior” lacks in polish, pizazz and freshly sourced material, it more than makes up for in facts, anecdotes and archival photos and newsreel footage. Doolittle retired from Air Force duty in 1959, but served the country in various ways for many years thereafter.

Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers
There was nothing elegant or sophisticated about the thieves dubbed “The Pink Panthers” by international police agencies after a series of heists that netted tens of millions of dollars in diamonds and jewelry. None of the men we meet in “Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers” resemble David Niven or Cary Grant, even if the women in the gang were expected to look and act like movie stars on scouting missions. Gang members were recruited from the ranks of soldiers who fought in the nationalistic wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. They operated with military-like precision, only staying long enough in a shop to smash a few display counters and open a safe they already knew could be cracked in a jiffy. They also knew that the safest place for them to retreat was back home in a region dominated by smugglers, black marketeers and corrupt officials. No job was too remote from their Montenegro base and finding someone to forge documents was child’s play. They made big hauls from jewelers in London, Cannes, Tokyo and other world capitals, then disappear. The security-camera footage that opens “Smash & Grab” was taken at a swank mall in Dubai, where the thieves rammed a nearly matched pair of BMWs through two sets of doors, including the one ostensibly protecting the store from break-ins. After a couple of minutes, the drivers blew the cars’ horn and the inside-men responded as coached, escaping through the same mangled doorways. The footage is as exciting to watch as most Hollywood movies in which such crimes are re-created and the characters shoot everything in sight. Director Havana Marking (“Afghan Star”) employs several different techniques here, including animation, media coverage, disguised criminals, actor voiceovers and security footage. Although several of the thieves were rounded up after the Dubai job and extradited to the cities hit previously, many more Panthers are believed to remain at large. There’s always time to face charges in the Emirates. Meanwhile, the stolen jewels can be found on the fingers, arms and necks of some of the world’s most pampered women. It’s really quite a yarn and as good as any Hollywood heist picture in a long time.

Red Obsession
This fascinating examination of a 2,000-year-old enterprise, suddenly gone mad, is as entertaining as it is informative. As the title suggests in more than one way, “Red Obsession” tells the story of Bordeaux wine and how, for centuries, it has played a role in determining a vintner’s place in the oenological universe. Ironically, possession of boxes of the best bottles, determine the status of Chinese billionaires no longer strapped to the yoke of communism. Apparently, Chairman Mao’s ideas for a workers’ state and status-free society no longer count for much. Among the big spenders we meet here are the world’s leading supplier of sex toys and a hugely successful manufacturer of toy dolls. The filmmakers didn’t ask if any of their sweatshop employees will ever be able to afford a case of MD 20/20, let alone a sip of Château Lafite Rothschild, but we know the answer to that one already. In the time it took David Roach and Warwick Ross to complete their film, the Bordeaux vintners experienced two seasons of unprecedented good fortune and the Chinese gobbled up the inventory as if it were on sale at Trader Joe’s. Two years later, almost like clockwork, the bubble in Chinese sales burst, leaving a lot of people in a quandary about what to do next. In between boom and bust, planting vineyards had become a cottage industry in China and high prices had driven Americans and Brit investors out of the Bordeaux game. Along the way, “Red Obsession” takes us behind the scenes at crucial grading events, to historic chateaux and the homes of several of the world’s wealthiest men, the cellars of the finest restaurants and along a search for the site of the next Napa Valley. The anecdotes told about what a desperate host or restaurateur might do to score a bottle of Lafite border on the hair-raising.

Saturn 3: Blu-ray
If it weren’t for such marquee attractions as Farrah Fawcett, Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel, writer Martin Amis, composer Elmer Bernstein and director Stanley Donen — who took over after co-writer/director John Barry either fell seriously ill, quit or was fired — “Saturn 3” might have found its way to “Mystery Science Theater 3000” by now, if not forever forgotten. Instead, more than three decades later, it’s been given a nice Blu-ray polish by Shout!Factory and spiced up with bonus featurettes. Although Barry had served as production designer on “Superman,” “A Clockwork Orange” and the first “Star Wars,” he was in over his head as a director of actors. Neither, though, was Donen conversant with sci-fi conventions. If “Saturn 3” had been a musical, the director of “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Damn Yankees!” and “The Pajama Game” might have had a fighting chance with the flimsy script. Even so, “Saturn 3” is far from unwatchable.

Keitel plays a deranged astronaut, who, upon failing a mental-fitness test, kills a more stable astronaut and steals his spacecraft. He flies it to the Saturn 3 moon base, where Douglas and Fawcett have been left alone to frolic like sex-starved rabbits among the gardens grown to feed an overpopulated Earth. It isn’t clear what the astronaut has in mind for the outpost on the ringed planet, but it has to be something diabolical. From the first moment he locks eyes with Fawcett, Keitel becomes obsessed with stealing her from Douglas. When the astronaut isn’t hitting on her, he’s working on an 8-foot-tall robot that resembles Crow T. Robot on “MST3K.” Let’s assume the robot is being built to make life easier for Keitel on Saturn 3, in whatever it is he’s doing, but there’s a problem. Keitel has programmed it to mimic everything going on in his mind and perform any task he can imagine. The more Keitel obsesses over Fawcett, the faster the robot’s metallic heart beats for her. Likewise, when Keitel’s thoughts turn to killing Douglas, so, too, does the robot’s computerized brain plot his demise. At the point where Keitel begins to fear the robot, and imagine how it could be neutralized, the robot follows suit. Once we understand what’s going on between Keitel and the robot, the easy to see how “Saturn 3” could possibly work as a closed-door thriller, with the colonizers attempting to outwit the astronaut and its maker through non-verbal communication. Amis’ script falls way short of being that profound.

At the time of production, Douglas was a still buff 64, while the 33-year-old Fawcett looked as insanely hot as she did when she rocked the red bathing suit in her career-making cheesecake poster. To witness them simulate sex, half-nude, in their comfortably appointed space bedroom, isn’t nearly as nausea-inducing as it was watching Woody Allen romance Mira Sorvino in “Mighty Aphrodite” and “Mariel Hemingway in “Manhattan.” When they decide to drop a fantasy-enhancement pill — not unlike Ecstasy and a staple of any astronaut’s survival it – “Saturn 3” begins to border on the surreal. (A more trippy version of the scene appears in the bonus package.) Given Barry’s resume, it’s no surprise that the Saturn setting is extremely well rendered and loaded with space tchotchkes, ducts and cables that go nowhere, computer banks and metal corridors. In 1989, Fawcett still had a way to go before mastering her craft, but, here, all that matters is her hair, which deserved an Academy Award as a supporting character. Keitel looks as uncomfortable as Douglas seems happy just to be on the same lunar outpost as Fawcett. I couldn’t recommend “Saturn 3” as anything more than an oddity for sci-fi cultists. Pretending that you’re stuck on the Satellite of Love, sitting alongside the “MST3K” critics, is probably the easiest way to weather the experience and having a good time doing it. Audio Commentary is provided by Greg Moss and moderator Dave Bradley, whose claim to fame is the “Something is Wrong on Saturn 3″ website.

PBS: Secrets of the Tower of London/Scotland Yard/Selfridge’s
PBS: The Mind of a Chef: Season 2: Sean Brock
No matter how much the sophisticated travelers among us disparage tourist traps, most offer something worth experiencing at least once in a lifetime. Unlike celebrities, who receive special access to attractions ranging from blockbuster art exhibits to Disneyland, the average tourist frequently is required to wait hours in line for the privilege of sharing an exhibit with several hundred other mere mortals. There’s no sense complaining about the injustice, because the Kardashians of the world are always going to be treated better than the Smiths and the Jones. Fortunately, the creators of institutional and educational Blu-rays and DVDs have begun to exploit their technological advantage over VHS cassettes, souvenir catalogs and picture postcards, with visuals as sharp as tacks and more space for precious information. PBS’ “Secrets of the Tower of London,” along with the upcoming “Secrets of Scotland Yard” and “Secrets of Selfridge’s,” can’t take the place of an in-person visit to London, but an advanced preview could save you some time and energy on vacation. Unlike most souvenir-shop guidebooks, DVDs offer the kind of backstage access usually reserved for employees and researchers. I’ve stood in line to survey the wonders of the 1,000-year-old Tower of London, but, until watching the comprehensive “Secrets” tour, I was missing crucial context. In addition to the usual stops – the royal quarters and mint, armory, torture chamber, chopping block and ravens — the producers take us to exhibits-in-progress, the Beefeaters’ haunts, gargoyles that guard the tower from intruders and places we wouldn’t notice without a guide. The DVD also updates viewers on the historical significance of the landmark at different historical junctures, including World War II, when gardens grown in the empty moats helped feed Londoners and the buildings withstood the Blitz. Fans of the mini-series, “Mr Selfridge,” should enjoy adding the visual evidence of his department store’s grandeur found in “Secrets of Selfridge’s.” Ditto, “Secrets of Scotland Yard,” which opens the files of famous cases, as well as investigative technique that pre-dated Sherlock Holmes.

In the second season of “The Mind of the Chef,” James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock took on a culinary tour of the South. Instead of focusing on the tried-and-true stops covered in the tourist guides and culinary magazines, Brock is interested here in promoting traditional Southern food preparation, especially untold varieties of rice, beans and grains. Like host Anthony Bourdain, Brock enjoys his visits with every-day cooks as much as the time he spends with celebrity chefs. To merely suggest that “The Mind of the Chef” is a mouth-watering treat is to sell it short.

The Perfect Wedding
Mr. Angel
Leather
One byproduct of the legalization of same-sex marriages is likely to be a tsunami of rom/com/dram movies that’s sure to follow in its wake. Inevitably, too large a number of them will resemble the vast majority of Hollywood movies about weddings and, more specifically, the craziness that is necessarily a part of the planning process. As well-meaning and competently made as Scott Gabriel’s “The Perfect Wedding” may be, it mostly serves as a reminder of how un-shaped the sub-genre still is. It was created as a personal project of romance novelist Suzanne Brockmann and mystery writer Ed Gaffney, along with their their son, Jason Gaffney. At first glance, everything about “The Perfect Wedding” – except, perhaps, its minute budget – smacks of Hollywood wannabe. Far more mainstream than anything found under the “queer cinema” banner, it’s a film that probably wouldn’t be considered controversial in the Cheney household. That’s intentional, though. Gay or straight, there’s always been a ready market for movies that wrings laughs and tears from viewers familiar with the kind of tumultuous situations that threaten to ruin everyone’s wedding. “The Perfect Wedding” is meant to be inclusive in its reach, not limited by niche or demographic. Here, all of the crazy stuff takes place in advance of the decidedly hetero wedding of an attractive interracial couple with many close gay friends in common. When some of those friends and family members are asked to gather at the bride-to-be’s lovely oceanfront home, they carry with them several unresolved entanglements and concerns about such clouds on the horizon as a parent’s impending battle with Alzheimer’s, an overreaching wedding planner, the ghosts of alcoholism and past romantic entanglements. When “The Perfect Wedding” teeters on the brink of falling into a morass of maudlin melodrama, it’s usually saved by script that successfully avoids stereotypes. It simply treats all of the characters as equals. The Alzheimer’s angle is essential to the story, but not in an exploitative way. The presence of such veteran actors as James Rebhorn and Kristine Sutherland, among a cast of largely unknown actors, may be the biggest plus of all. I only wish that the filmmakers hadn’t gone to the lengths they do to tug our heartstrings The DVD adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, interviews and brief shout-out to the state of Florida.

Even in the LGBT community, Buck Angel is something of an anomaly. Born a biological female in 1972, Angel grew up in the San Fernando Valley with all of the usual characteristics ascribed to tomboys. Although there was more than enough testosterone to go around the household growing up, Angel couldn’t help but envy the leather outfits sported by his motorcycle-riding father. Once she reached puberty, however, it became increasingly difficult to lead a double-life at home, church and at school. While Angel continued to live out her teenage years as a girl, it was tortuous to the point of considering suicide. Instead of taking the kinds of drugs, she might have been prescribed in hormone replacement therapy, Angel decided to self-medicate with cocaine, alcohol and lascivious behavior. Because she retained all of her original parts, Angel was able to find work as a niche porn actor and fem fashion model. Finally, after nearly losing hope, she decided that by becoming a full-time he, life might be worth living, after all. When Buck decided that he was at his most confident as a “man with a pussy,” he had a double-mastectomy and began taking the hormone treatments that would allow him to grow facial hair and an enviable male physique. He continued to make and win awards for his performances in porn movies, but, this time around, Angel espoused “a message of empowerment through self-acceptance and being sexually comfortable in your skin.” In 2005, he performed in “Allanah Starr’s Big Boob Adventures,” directed by transsexual Gia Darling. It included a scene in which a “trans” couple has on-screen sex. It served as a launch point for Angel’s career as a transgender advocate, educator, lecturer, writer and talk-show guest. Largely covered with tattoos himself, Angel married professional body piercer and body modification enthusiast Elayne (Steinberg) Angel. For “Mr. Angel,” Dan Hunt followed Buck around for six years. It is greatly enhanced by the subject’s engaging, no-bullshit personality and the inclusion of scenes in which Angel and his parents sit around the kitchen table critiquing his appearance on talk shows and discussing things none of them would have been comfortable sharing in Buck’s teens.

Bunnies and twinks and bears … oh, my. Set largely in and around a cabin in the Catskills, Patrick McGuinn’s “Leather” is the queer-cinema equivalent of a Lifetime movie that can’t decide if it’s a rom-com or rom-dram. The movie’s set-up is far too unwieldy to summarize here, but, it involves two childhood friends — city-boy Andrew and country-boy Birch – who reunite after the death of Andrew’s father, Walter. After Walt kicked Andrew out of the house for being “queer,” he, in effect, adopted Birch as his son and, perhaps, lover. Together, they enjoyed a successful carpentry business and Birch learned how to make leather sandals. A true Nature’s Child, Birch is an unrepentant hippie and all-around nice guy. Andrew and his stereotypically effeminate lover, Kyle – as attached to a brown bunny rabbit as Andrew – assume that their weekend getaway will involve some garbage-clearing to get the place ready to sell. Instead, the cabin is clean and tiny and Birch is in possession of Walt’s will, leaving the property to him. The more Andrew learns about Birch’s relationship with Walt, the more he resents the presence of his old buddy. Birch truly believes that the acrimony between them can be diluted by an injection of peace, love and good vibes supplied by a lesbian puppeteer and some good mountain marijuana. You can probably guess the rest. As silly as it sounds, “Leather” is a harmless exercise in personal wish-fulfillment on McGuinn’s part. Moreover, the scenery is easy on the eyes and there’s a happy ending for everyone involved, including the bunny. The most annoying thing about “Leather” is musical soundtrack full of preachy folk songs that would have been booed off the stage at any 1960s hootenanny.

Dick Figures: The Movie
Sometimes, while watching Internet-born cartoon series, I feel as if I’ve been transported back to the early days of alternative animation, when such shows as “Ren & Stimpy,” “Beavis and Butt-head,” “The Simpsons,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Rugrats” turned the cable-television industry on its collective ears. Some of us geezers can remember, too, the sense of discovery we had when introduced to “Gerald McBoing-Boing,” “Rocky and His Friends” and “Fritz the Cat.” YouTube and other such Internet delivery systems have provided a platform the producers of those shows could only dream of having. Budgets remain high in relation to what “Jackass” imitators can do with the toys in their digital toy boxes. Still, when doled out in four-minute episodes on a loosy-goosey schedule, even production expenditures can be favorably monetized on cost-per-hit basis. Censorship and other interference remains practically nil on some outlets. “Dick Figures: The Movie” began life in Internet webisodes, but has grown to the point where its multitude of fans financed a feature-length product in a record-setting Kickstarter campaign. According to an iTunes blurb, “‘Dick Figures: The Movie’ tells the story of Red and Blue, best friends turned enemies, who hunt for the Great Sword of Destiny in order to save the world … and their friendship.” Red and Blue exist in world in which backgrounds are static and its stick-figure inhabitants are in identified by colors. Otherwise, everything that happens borders on the anarchic, just as does its kindred web-toon series, “Happy Tree Friends.” Equally mysterious is the presence of Red Raccoon, a photo-realistic representative of “nature’s ninja.” Not all of “Dick Figures” works, but, the same probably could be said about any entertainment vehicle.

Stone Roses: Made Of Stone: Blu-ray
Black Lips: Kids Like You & Me
US Festival 1983: Days 1-3
Rock bands, even the best of them, come and go with great regularity. I couldn’t name more than one song (“I Want to Be Adored”) made famous by Manchester’s Stone Roses, but somewhere between the early 1980s and now, its reputation reached mythic proportions across the pond. Even rumors of a reunion would cause a great stir among fans, promoters and members the rock press, who seemed more keen on a tour than the lads, themselves. Shane Meadow’s unusually concise rock-umentary, “Stone Roses: Made of Stone,” examines the band’s Manchester roots, influences, squabbling, breakups, resurrections and lavish reunion concerts. Clearly, if they hadn’t gotten caught up in the absurd ego trips and contract disputes that come with the territory, Stone Roses could have been a formidable unit. Just as the Madchester scene was distinguished by “acid-house” music best savored with Ecstasy kickers, the group’s blend of influences includes garage/punk/pop rock, Northern soul, the Beatles, Stones, Jimi, the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, Sex Pistols and the Clash. Meadows, whose credits include “Dead Man’s Shoes” and “This Is England,” has a writer’s eye for details not limited to what happens during rehearsal and on stage. The laser-enhanced images of one of the Roses’ triumphant homecoming gigs, before 220,000 people in two specific demographic groups, is really quite wonderful.

Likewise, I know next to nothing about the Atlanta-based blues-punk group Black Lips, who may be solely responsible for introducing mosh pits to Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. In a region generally bypassed by rock’s top attractions, the band is the closest thing to western superstardom seen there since the Grateful Dead played the Pyramids. That’s because the fans we meet in “Black Lips: Kids Like You & Me,” have been deprived of performances by artists that have appeared in Israel. There’s also the constant threat of terrorism, censorship, fundamentalist reprisals, revolution and errant Scud missiles. I mean, why bother. It took three years, from conceptualization to actuality, for the Black Lips to make good on their plans for touring the region and, even then, they faced constant roadblocks. Neither did the musicians know what to expect when the doors of the nightclubs opened. Although much has been made about the inability of young people to express themselves, Black Lips fans turned out in bunches and ready to party. Outside of some anachronistic messaging on T-shirts, the crowds would have fit right in at every nightclub on the Sunset Strip. They also found a complementary opening act in Lebanese indie rockers, Lazzy Lung. Director Bill Cody does a nice job of contextualizing “Kids Like You & Me” by following the rockers to radio interviews, skate parks, restaurants and shops, and places where the events of the Arab spring were still reverberating.

Two of the major concert events of the early 1980s that I somehow managed to ignore – or simply forget – were the US Festivals, held outside San Bernardino, on Labor Day weekend 1982 and Memorial Day weekend 1983. They were sponsored by Steve Wozniak, who conceived of the festivals as both a big party and a showcase for new Apple products and other computer technology. Because of the lingering effects on pop culture from Altamont, non-charity festivals were few and far between. US demonstrated that large numbers of music lovers could come together in blistering hot conditions and not riot between acts or cannibalize each other for provisions. It looked like fun. Each day of the festivals, the bands were grouped by genre, from heavy metal to country. Three deaths were recorded in the six days of festivities, but, apparently, they weren’t associated with the music, itself. Very little recorded music or video footage from the festivals has been exploited commercially. The acts on the inelegantly titled “US Festival 1983: Days 1-3” include U2, the Clash, Judas Priest, Stevie Nicks, Scorpions, INXS, Men at Work, Stray Cats, Triumph, Missing Persons, Scorpians, Berlin and Quiet Riot, which is represented with more songs than any other group. The acts that didn’t make the cut could fill a wing of the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Former MTV veejay Mark Goodman looks back on US, but offers very little in the way of insight beyond calling it cool and awesome, a lot.

Transformers Prime: Beast Hunters: Season Three
Another chapter in the history of mankind closes with the completion of the final season of “Transformers Prime: Beast Hunters,” which aired here on the CW and Hub networks. If nothing else, it will keep fans busy until the hype leading to next spring’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction” begins. Here, the Autobots and their human comrades have been separated, following the destruction of their headquarters and neutralizing of Optimus Prime and his team. Making things difficult for the good guys is the arrival of Decepticon Shockwave and his newest weapon a clone of Cybertron’s Predaking. The voice cast includes Peter Cullen, Jeffrey Combs, Kevin Michael Richardson, Ernie Hudson, Clancy Brown, Frank Welker, Michael Ironside, George Takei, Gina Torres, Peter Mensah and Will Friedle.

Fox ‘Voice Your Choice’ winners
Last January, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Home Theater Forum gave Blu-ray owners and classic-movie buffs an opportunity to select the next wave of titles the studio would digitally restore and send out in hi-def. The response, Fox reps declare, was “overwhelming.” In what sounds like an election in Chicago, where dead people are allowed to vote twice, more than 42,000 participants cast 80,000 votes. Originally, the goal was to release the winning title from each of four decades, but Fox decided, instead, to release both the winning and runner-up film. All titles will be available for purchase on www.foxconnect.com, including “Cavalcade,” the film that received the most write-in votes and was sent out in August.

Jesse James” (1939) is a revisionist look back at the infamous James Gang, starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda. As entertaining as it is historically inaccurate, the blockbuster was shot in an old Technicolor process. “Call of the Wild” (1935) is a loose adaptation of Jack London’s classic adventure, this time with Buck, the sled dog, required to share Clark Gable’s affections with Loretta Young. (The stars were carrying on an affair at the time and it kind of shows.) Jake Oakie and Reginald Owen are wonderful in key supporting roles.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947): Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ fantasy romance pairs a lonely widow (Gene Tierney) with the ghost of a sea captain (Rex Harrison) she meets in the seaside home of her daughter (Natalie Wood). George Sanders is the living, breathing human who threatens to come between them. Swashbuckling Tyrone Power and tempestuous Maureen O’Hara provide the romantic spark in “The Black Swan” (1942), which otherwise is known for its elaborate sea battles and buccaneer backstabbing. The script was written by Ben Hecht and the color by Technicolor.

For her smoking-hot performance in “Carmen Jones” (1954), Dorothy Dandridge became the first African-American to be nominated for the Academy Award as Best Actress in a Leading Role. The all-black cast also included Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Harry Belafonte, Brock Peters and Marilyn Horne, as Ms. Jones’ singing voice. The credit for the wonderful music goes to Georges Bizet and Oscar Hammerstein. “Desk Set” (1957) finds Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy at odds, once again, this time at a major television network about to be computerized. The movie was adapted from William Merchant’s play by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, parents of Nora, Delia, Amy and Hallie Ephron.

In the rousing comedy-adventure, “North to Alaska” (1960), John Wayne and Stewart Granger bring us back to the Great White North, this time, in the form of the Alaskan gold rush. Also along for the ride are Fabian, Capucine and Ernie Kovacs. Some might recall Johnny Horton’s big hit of the same title. Wayne is back in “The Undefeated” (1969), a post-Civil War Western drama largely set in Mexico. His rival-turned-ally is played by Rock Hudson. Together they must attempt to avoid getting caught between Mexican revolutionaries and government forces. Among the supporting cast are L.A. Rams stars Roman Gabriel and Merlin Olsen.

The DVD Wrapup Gift Guide II

Saturday, November 30th, 2013

Breaking Bad: The Final Season: Blu-ray
The final season of “Breaking Bad” was greeted with almost impossibly expectations by critics, longtime fans and newcomers hoping to jump on the bandwagon before it left town. Considering how far the AMC phenomenon had already pushed the envelope on content deemed appropriate for basic-cable subscribers, it wasn’t likely the show’s five-season run would leave its audience hanging, as was the case with “The Sopranos.” Indeed, twice as many viewers followed the final episodes as those in the fourth stanza. For those recording the show for future binging, each week presented a new test of their ability to ignore water-cooler conversations, talk shows and Internet chatter. This was especially true as “Breaking Bad” grew increasingly dark and meth-kingpin Walter White’s debt to the devil was nearing its due date. The newest Blu-ray compilation contains the show’s final eight episodes – what constitutes a season in TV-to-DVD packages remains a mystery to me – as well as a generous supply of bonus features. They include a funny “Alternate Ending,” as well as a rare “making of the alternate ending”; extended and deleted scenes; several making-of and background featurettes; scene breakdowns; table reads; “evidence” and “confession” tapes; a gag reel; and commentaries with creator Vince Gilligan, actors Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Bob Odenkirk, Laura Fraser, R.J. Mitte; writers Peter Gould, Gennifer Hutchison, Moira Walley-Beckett and Peter Gould, and various other tech supervisors and producers. All that’s missing is a bindle full of “Heisenberg.”

Lilyhammer: Season One: Blu-Ray
Fish-out-of-water stories don’t get much crazier than Netflix’s first original mini-series “Lilyhammer.” After the beloved pet dog of a New York crime underboss is killed in an assassination attempt, Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano (Steven Van Zandt) takes his revenge by agreeing to testify against his chief rival. His choice for a new home under the witness-protection program is Lillehammer, Norway, which Tagliano remembers as being a nice setting for the 1994 Winter Olympics. In his mind, Lillehammer would be one of the last places anyone from back home would think to look for him. Once there, Tagliano makes friends and allies by fixing their problems and generally being a pleasant guy. One thing leads to another and, before long, the newly rechristened Giovanni “Johnny” Henriksen has carved out an organized-crime infrastructure in the placid Nordic community. Although he doesn’t set out to do any such thing, it’s tough to turn down the keys to the city when they’re handed to you. The show’s primary conceit is making Tagliano/Henriksen a dead ringer for Tony Soprano’s cold-blooded consigliore, Silvio Dante, right down to the bouffant hairdo and alligator shoes. It takes him a while to adjust to the Lillehammer winter, which normally would require him to put on boots before tromping through the snow or trade his overcoat for a parka. Like Dante, Tagliano/Henriksen’s face appears to be frozen in a permanent scowl. Once he finds a girlfriend and turns a local watering hole into a PG-13 version of the Bada Bing!, however, he begins to feel right at home. What he doesn’t anticipate is the investigation set in motion by local cop and Elvis impersonator, Geir, who, while inept, stumbles onto just enough clues about Tagliano/Henriksen’s identity to be dangerous. “Lilyhammer,” which confuses the city’s name with that of the character’s late dog, Lily, is a truly inventive and entertaining series. It’ second season begins in December.

Bruce Weber: The Film Collection: 1987-2008
Known primarily for his sexually charged fashion photography and advertising campaigns, Bruce Weber also has made several cutting-edge documentaries. The titles included in “Bruce Weber: The Film Collection: 1987-2008” are “Broken Noses,” “Chop Suey,” “A Letter to True” and Oscar-nominated “Let’s Get Lost,” a profile of musician/junkie Chet Baker. The documentaries are distinguished by a fascinating mix of melancholy jazz vocals and instrumentals, color-modulated footage and photographs, and revealing interviews with artists who live outside the mainstream. Made in the emotional maelstrom of a post-9/11 world, “A Letter to True” is framed by a letter written as if to a son or daughter, but, instead, to the youngest of his prized pet Labradors. “Broken Noses” is about former Olympic contender and prizefighter Andy Minsker, whose mission it’s become to use boxing as a tool to keep boys in his Oregon home town on the straight-and-narrow path. The juxtaposition of cool jazz and boxers, some of whom bear a striking resemblance to Baker or James Dean, is as tantalizing as it is unexpected. “Chop Suey” interweaves mini-profiles of Frances Faye, Diana Vreeland, Jan-Michael Vincent, Robert Mitchum (singing!) and wrestler-turned-model Peter Johnson (think a young Matt Dillon). The films are as “beat” as anything by Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsburg. “Let’s Gets Lost” is also available individually, from Docurama.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy: Unrated Rich Mahogany Edition: Blu-ray
In anticipation of the December 18 launch of “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” Paramount has sent out “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy: Unrated Rich Mahogany Edition.” It includes the 94-minute theatrical cut, a 97-minute extended cut and the feature-length “Wake Up, Ron Burgundy,” which is comprised entirely of deleted, alternate and leftover material. It’s described as “the chaff from the wheat, the skim from the milk, the pudding from the all-you-can-eat lobster buffet.” Anyone who’s seen more than one Will Ferrell comedy, or watched more than five minutes of a local newscast, pretty much knew what to expect going into “The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” For most of the second half of the 20th Century, television news outlets were bastions of male chauvinism, inconsequential journalism and plastic hairdos. The hiring of a pretty blond reporter, played to perfection by Christina Applegate, brings out the worst in the good-ol’-boys at San Diego’s dominant Channel 4 News. Before demonstrating her superior news-reading skills, none of them could imagine a woman in anchor seat. They think she’s there simply for their horny hijinks. Inexplicably, Veronica Corningstone falls for Burgundy after hearing him play “jazz flute” at a local Mexican restaurant. As it turns out, they have more in common with each other than anyone else in the newsroom. They fall in love, but only until her ambitions clash with his, and it sends Burgundy into a tailspin. If “Anchorman” hasn’t aged well, it’s only because a decade’s worth of look-alike satires — featuring such crowd-pleasers as Ferrell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Steve Carrell, John C. Reilly, Ben Stiller and Jack Black – have diluted the stream of dumb-and-dumber comedies. It will be interesting to see if “Anchorman 2” suffers sophomore slump, as have so many other anxiously anticipated sequels and prequels. Besides a coupon for a free movie ticket, the bonus package adds “anti-commentary” tracks, 36 deleted and extended scenes, a blooper reel, “Afternoon Delight” music video, Burgundy’s “ESPN Sports Center” audition tape, five PSA’s, cast auditions, read-throughs and trading cards.

Rutles: The Rutles Anthology: Blu-Ray
Six years before “This Is Spinal Tap” skewered the conventions of the heavy-metal scene, but a full decade after Frank Zappa’s “We’re Only in It for the Money” lampooned Beatlemania, Eric Idle decided the time was right for another such parody of rock ’n’ roll. Monty Python was between projects and Idle must have sensed a vacuum for the troupe’s special blend of satire and sketch comedy. The Beatles themselves had, years before, gone their separate ways and the void the Liverpudlians left behind was even greater. As would become typical of such mockumentaries, the idea for a stand-alone spoof was grown from a small seed. The Rutles originally began as a sketch on Idle’s UK show, “Rutland Weekend Television,” showing the band playing a slower version of “I Must Be in Love” in their movie “A Hard Day’s Rut.” In it, Idle played guitarist Dirk McQuickly to Neil Innes’ Ron Nasty. After the bit was shown on “Saturday Night Life,” Lorne Michaels decided it might make a good made-for-TV, with members of the original “SNL” cast sprinkled into the ensemble. And, thus, “The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash” was born. Twenty-three years later, “The Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch” revisited Rutlemania, but, this time, through more jaundiced eyes. Among the celebrities interviewed for the sequel were David Bowie, Billy Connolly, Carrie Fisher, Jewel, Steve Martin, Mick Nichols, Conan O’Brien, Salman Rushdie, Tom Hanks, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Garry Shandling and Robin Williams. (Cameos in the original were supplied by, among others, Bowie, Mick Jagger, Michael Palin, George Harrison, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Ron Wood.  “The Rutles Anthology” is comprised of both features, the original “Rutland Weekend” sketch and a new interview with Idle. The music isn’t bad, either.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: 25th Anniversary Edition 
If it’s true that “no one in Hollywood sets out to make a bad movie,” explain how “Mystery Science Theater 3000” lasted as long as it did, without running out of material to ridicule. It’s entirely possible that “Moon Zero Two,” “The Day the Earth Froze,” “The Leech Woman,” “Gorgo,” “Mitchell” and “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die!” would have been allowed to live out their natural lives in Saturday matinees and drive-ins, then be resurrected on the same late-night TV shows that  inspired SCTV’s “Monster Chiller Horror Theater.” Almost no one, especially the stars who had scratched the titles off of their resumes, would be sad to see them go. With the introduction cable television and VHS cassettes, such cheeseball movies were repurposed to fill the need for inexpensive titles available for further exploitation. The cost to show them – if rights could be determined with any exactitude – ran from cheap to non-existent. In 1988, Joel Hodgson and a few other Minneapolis movie geeks came up with a bright new way to replicate the urban moviegoing experience by adding a running commentary track, supplied by robot puppets and doomed astronaut Joel Robinson. Instead of merely being lost in space, the unfortunate dweebs were force-fed some of the worst sci-fi and horror flicks ever made. It wasn’t long before Twin Cities viewers discovered for themselves how funny the crew’s crude comments could be and would try to top them with jabs of their own. “MST3K” would go national on Comedy Channel/Comedy Central and, later, the Sci-Fi Channel. By the end of its 11-year run, “MST3K” logged 197 episodes and a feature-length movie. The series won a Peabody Award in 1993 and was nominated for two Emmys. DVD technology would extend the show’s expiration date another 14 years. The movies in the “25th Anniversary Edition” coincide roughly with the transfer of power from Hodgson to Mike Nelson, as well as a noticeable improvement in production values. The package also includes the three-part documentary “Return to Eden Prairie: 25 Years of ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000”; “Ninth Wonder of the World: The Making Of Gorgo”; “Last Flight of Joel Robinson”; “Life After MST3K: Mary Jo Pehl”; “MST Hour” wraps; the opinions of Leonard Maltin; an interview with Marilyn Neilson; original trailers; and four exclusive mini-posters by artist Steve Vance. It’s available in a limited-edition collector’s tin, as well.

Argo: Declassified Extended Edition: Blu-ray
With all of the attention being paid the newly announced deal on nuclear weapons between Iran and United States, the arrival of “Argo: Declassified Extended Edition” could hardly have been better timed. The first Blu-ray release of the 2013 Best Picture winner contained only glorified EPK’s as bonus featurettes. Fans who waited patiently for an “extended cut” edition have been rewarded with a package worthy of the film’s prestige. The Blu-ray “Declassified” edition includes the 120-minute theatrical version and a 130-minute extended cut supervised by director/star Ben Affleck. I can’t tell precisely what was added, but the extra 10 minutes neither help nor hinder any enjoyment of “Argo.” The set’s second disc adds insightful interviews with then-President Jimmy Carter, CIA agent Tony Mendez, former Director of the CIA George Tenet, the filmmakers and other key figures; “Ben Affleck’s Balancing Act,” in which the actor/director faced the challenges of balancing competing elements in the film; “A Discussion With the Cast,” with Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Clea Duvall and others; “Tony Mendez on Tony Mendez,” in which the career spy provides an overview of his career; “The Istanbul Journey,” about the Istanbul location shoot; “Argo F*** Yourself,” a clever look at the film’s catch phrase; “Picture- in-Picture: Eyewitness Account,” from the first Blu-ray release, with commentary by Carter, Mendez, hostages Mark and Cora Lijek, Bob Anders, Kathy Stafford, Lee Schatz and USMC hostage Al Golacinski; commentary with Affleck and writer Chris Terrio; “Rescued from Tehran: We Were There”; “Absolute Authenticity,” a short production featurette; “The CIA and Hollywood Connection”; and “Escape from Iran: The Hollywood Option,” a 2005 television documentary commemorates the 25th anniversary of the “Canadian Caper.”

The Jack Ryan Collection: Blu-ray
It’s been 11 years since we last saw Jack Ryan on film. With another entry in the series expected in a couple of months, Paramount picked an opportune time to release the long-awaited Blu-ray set, “The Jack Ryan Collection.” It arrives, as well, with the news of author Tom Clancy’s death fresh in our memories. Alec Baldwin played CIA analyst Ryan in the tense 1990 Cold War thriller, “Red October,” opposite Sean Connery’s Soviet submarine commander. Harrison Ford took over the role in “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” In the former, as punishment for interfering in an assassination attempt on Britain’s royal family, Ryan’s own family is targeted by IRA killers. In the latter,     Ryan is drawn into an illegal war fought by the U.S. government against a Colombian drug cartel. In “The Sum of All Fears,” Ben Affleck must save the world from a nuclear holocaust after a dirty bomb, allegedly planted by Russian terrorists, goes off in Baltimore. In the upcoming “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” which isn’t based on a Clancy novel, Chris Pine takes Ryan back to an earlier time in his career. I think it’s safe to say that “Hunt for the Red October” would qualify for the best and most popular entry in the series and it looks and sounds fine here. The bonus features have been culled from previous releases of the film.

The Gene Autry Show: Complete TV Series: Collector’s Edition
Although fans of Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger might disagree, the only cowboys who mattered in the early years of broadcast television were Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. If nothing else, the fact that they could sing and ride a horse simultaneously set them apart from dozens of other pretenders to the throne, including “Singin’ Sandy Saunders” (a.k.a., John Wayne). Autry’s diverse skills would earn him five stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, one each for radio, recordings, motion pictures, television and live performance. He made a name for himself initially by replacing Wayne as Republic Studio’s singing cowboy. After starring in dozens of B-movies, he made an easy transition into television in “The Gene Autry Show.” Unlike most other cowboys in the early 1950s, Autry and Rogers were allowed to keep their own names and exist in the mid-20th Century. They had comic sidekicks and horses that became as popular as any other character in television. Sponsored by Wrigley’s Doublemint Chewing Gum, the series followed Autry as traveled through the Southwest fighting crime and maintaining law and order. Shout!Factory’s “The Gene Autry Show: Complete TV Series: Collector’s Edition” is comprised of 14 DVDs and a bonus disc, with material created by the star’sFlying A Pictures, which produced five popular half-hour Westerns: “The Gene Autry Show,” “The Range Rider,” “Annie Oakley,” “Buffalo Bill Jr.” and “The Adventures of Champion.”

ZatchBell! Megaset: The Complete Seasons 1 & 2
It’s almost impossible to synopsize a Japanese anime series in less than a couple of thousand words. They’re so complicated, only teens and pre-teens are able to keep all of the characters and subplots straight. “Zatch Bell!” is based on a shōnen manga series written and illustrated by Makoto Raiku. The primary conceit involves a competition that takes place on Earth once every 1,000 years between mamados (demons) for dominance in their kingdom. In order for the many mamodos to use their powerful spell books, they need a human partner. Kiyo is a brilliant but aloof 14-year-old. Kiyo’s father, an archeologist, finds a mamodo child named Zatch unconscious in a forest. He sends the goodhearted Zatch to be his son’s mentor. It is then up to Kiyo and Zatch to translate the book together. The unsuspecting Zatch and Kiyo must defend themselves against the ambush of mamodo-king wannabees. The English adaptation of the “Zatch Bell!” anime premiered on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block on March 5, 2005, running 77 episodes.

 

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

The Canyons: Unrated Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
Few movies have caused as much of a sensation, even before a single frame was shown to critics and audiences, than director Paul Schrader and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis’ “The Canyons.” As typically happens with these media-stirred tempests in a tea pot, though, the movie’s bark proved worse than its hype. To summarize: eyebrows were raised when the writers of “Taxi Driver” and “Less Than Zero” – both of whom have seen their better days – agreed to join forces on a “micro-budget” erotic-thriller. Much hysterical publicity was assured when it was announced that disgraced starlet Lindsay Lohan was cast alongside porn superstar James Deen, as the leads in the cautionary tale about love, life and unchecked libidos in Hollywood’s fast lane. They more Lohan screwed up in public, the larger the potential for controversy. The idea of pairing her with Deen, instead of, say, Justin Timberlake, was undeniably tantalizing, if not particularly ground-breaking. Rocco Siffredi was as big a star when Catherine Breillat cast him in the far more explicit “Romance” and “Anatomy of Hell,” and Ovidie and Jean-Pierre Leaud worked together in Bertrand Bonello’s “The Pornographer.” Even so, the probability of gratuitous nudity and simulated sex involving a former Disney star was high from the get-go. That the Kickstarter-backed “The Canyons” was rejected by both the 2013 Sundance and SXSW Film Festival suggested to pundits that it was too hot, too odious or not sufficiently French – as was the girl-girl sensation, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” — to be included in their august events. Schrader would add fuel to the nearly extinguished fire by, first, cooperating with the New York Times on an article about making a movie with Lohan, and, then, responding negatively to it in the Huntington Post. “The Canyons” would eventually open quietly at a handful of theaters and on VOD, before being screened at the Venice and Rio de Janeiro festivals and released this week on DVD and Blu-ray.

“The Canyons” fits neither in the so-bad-it’s-good nor the avoid-at-all-costs categories. At best, it resembles an underfunded hybrid of Schrader’s “American Gigolo” and Ellis’ “American Psycho,” minus the humor and blood sport. At worst, it’s merely inconsequential. Deen’s Christian is a Beverly Hills rich kid who shares a swell pad with the vampy Tara (Lohan), a failed actress now actively engaged in the swinger scene. They’re collaborating on low-budget horror movie with fellow brat Gina (Amanda Brooks). Gina’s primary concern is that her boyfriend, Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), be cast in the lead. Hollywood being a “small community,” it comes as no surprise to us that Tara might have crossed paths with Ryan before plans for the movie were put into motion project. Neither are we as shocked as Christian and Gina that they’ve recently rekindled that relationship. What we don’t expect is the length to which Christian will go to punish Tara and Ryan for their deception. By this time, however, it doesn’t matter to us what happens to any of them, as long as we don’t have to watch one of them beheaded before our eyes. Even if Tara and Ryan show some remorse for their gold-digging and back-stabbing, it comes too late in the game and lacks credibility. It is fair, however, to give credit where it’s due and admit that Lohan is the only one who demonstrates an ability to act. Primarily, that’s because she doesn’t let the sex and nudity dilute or overwhelm her performance in a difficult role. The only other characters who matter are Christian’s shrink (Gus Van Sant) and former yoga teacher/lover (Tenille Houston). They’re there in order to remind viewers that “The Canyons” is set in Los Angeles, where such professions are on a par with the priesthood. As far as I can tell, the “unrated director’s cut” is only a minute or so longer than the theatrical version. It includes a pair of making-of featurettes that don’t shed a lot of light on the production. 

Le Joli Mai
Earlier this year, Criterion Collection released on DVD and Blu-ray Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s landmark 1961 documentary, “Chronicle of a Summer,” in which a diverse group of Parisians was asked “what makes you happy” and they responded in ways one might imagine Parisians to react to such a question. At the time, France was divided by such issues as the anti-colonial war in Algeria, the defeat in Vietnam, a fractured economy, loss of power on the world stage and the lingering effects of occupation in World War II. The documentary may look primitive in 2013, but the audio-visual technology that would allow cinéma verité to prosper was still in its infancy and tightly focused interviews weren’t at all common. This week, Icarus Films sent out Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s “Le Joli Mai,” which was shot several months after “Chronicle of a Summer” and featured a broader cross-section of Parisians. Because independence had been overwhelmingly approved by French and Algerian voters, May 1962 was considered by many Parisians to be “the first springtime of peace” since World War II began. Even if there were plenty of loose ends still left – the repatriation of pieds-noirs and harkis refugees, as well as the terror campaign perpetrated by the right-wing OAS – there seemingly was no rush to tie them together. The filmmakers took to the street to get a fresh reading on the mood of everyday Parisians and their perspective on the French state. If respondents weren’t limited to those who might fortify Markers’ leftist beliefs — however sublimated, here – his questions indicated where he stood on some issues.

The thought of sitting through 145 minutes of French men, women and children sharing 50-year-old opinions may not sound particularly appealing, but “Le Joli Mai” contains unexpected pleasures. For one thing, the exodus of Parisians from the city to the suburbs – as well as its embracement of modern architecture — had yet to reach the proportions satirized in Jacque Tati’s comedies. Because of this, much of the city’s traditional character was still intact. The eccentrics and working poor had yet to be relocated to housing projects in some faraway arrondissement and anti-Americanism wasn’t en vogue. Among the people we do meet are a poet, students, a man who keeps an owl as a pet, a housewife awaiting decent housing, a stockbroker, a competitive dancer, a pair of lovers, General de Gaulle, veterans of the Algerian conflict, an African student who discusses racism, a worker-priest forced to choose between the Church and his fellow laborers, and an Algerian worker describing his treatment by native Frenchmen. There also are several of Markers’ trademark cats. “Le Joli Mai” features a musical score by Academy Award-winning composer Michel Legrand; the narration, in French, of Yves Montand; the narration, in English, of Simone Signoret; short films, “Playtime in Paris,” “A Distant Gaze” and “Exercise in Direct Cinema”; deleted scenes; and a 24-page booklet. 

Animals
Coming-of-age tales are a dime a dozen, if only because they hit the bulls-eye of Hollywood’s target demographic more routinely than any other genre or subgenre. Audiences of all ages and backgrounds can relate to the best of them – “Dead Poets Society,” “Boyz n The Hood,” “Stand By Me,” “Dazed and Confused” – even the most mind-numbingly dumb titles will find support in the lowest-common-denominator segment. The genre-bending Spanish export, “Animals” is like no other coming-of-age movie I’ve ever seen, in that it features gay and straight teens dealing with such universal issues as school violence, untimely death, sexual experimentation and virginity, and disillusionment More than anything else, however, Marçal Forés’ film explores the ramifications of giving up the security of youth and accepting the sad realities of adulthood. Seventeen-year-old Pol is hanging on to his youth as tightly as he can, when a charismatic newcomer, Icari, enrolls in his school and captivates both the female and gay-male population. He doesn’t say much, but his choice in violent anime gives him away. If Pol’s passion for Icari pulls him toward adulthood, his obsession with a childhood toy drags him in the opposite direction. In an extremely unfortunate case of bad timing, “Animals” would open in Spain only a month before “Ted” was released throughout Europe.

Like the titular character of Seth MacFarlane’s offbeat comedy, Deerhof is a teddy bear that serves as Pol’s companion and confidante. Deerhof speaks English to Pol’s Spanish and backs up his guitar riffs on drums he can barely reach. Whenever Pol’s older brother tries to make the bear disappear, the teenager finds ways to bring it back home. Pol reaches out to Deerhof when a classmate drowns and Icari’s fantasies clash with his. As obvious as the symbolism might be, “Animals” never stops surprising us with Flores’ sensitivity for the characters and ability to layer mysteries upon mystery. “Animals” co-stars Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit”) is excellent as the teacher who reads Pol like a book, but can’t stop him from doing self-destructive things. (Again, though, he’s as out of place in Catalonia as Deerfof’s English.) The DVD adds commentary; the making-of featurette, “The Bear Truth”; the short film that inspired “Animals”; and a booklet. 

Getaway: Blu-ray
No matter how cool the chase scenes are in “Getaway” – and they are pretty ferocious – it’s difficult to get past the presence of Selena Gomez. Still adorable, in a Disney Channel sort of way, Gomez proved in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” that she could talk dirty and work a bikini with the best of ’em. Here, Gomez attempts to convince us that she can act while careening through Sofia, Bulgaria, at 60 miles per hour. All evidence suggests that she should hold on to the “Wizards of Waverly” gig as long as she can. The 21-year-old Gomez plays a hacker, known only as The Kid, who inadvertently comes to the rescue of a burned-out race-car driver, Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke), who’s been enlisted against his will to participate in a big-money heist. Magna’s wife is being held by someone, “The Voice,” who appears to have tapped into his personal GPS. He knows where the driver is at all times and directs his every move. The Voice’s first demand is for Magna to steal a rare Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake that the Kid had received from her banker father as a graduation present. When she attempts to steal the car back from him, he’s instructed to take her hostage. The mysterious Voice tells Magna where to turn, which public spaces to violate and when to engage with police cars. It’s uncanny … or would be, if this wasn’t a movie made by someone, Courtney Solomon, who’s only directed three movie’s in 13 years. I won’t pretend to understand how the heist is supposed to work and I don’t think freshman screenwriters Gregg Maxwell Parker and Sean Finegan did, either. Hawke looks reasonably credible behind the wheel, while Gomez appears to have just been told that there’s a spider in her hair and mice at her feet. At night, Sofia could be any large city, anywhere, so the chases and crashes are the only good reason to pick up “Getaway.” Fortunately, they’re genuinely exciting. The mystery behind the Voice’s identity also holds up pretty well, except for those who take a sneak peek of the credits’ list … so, don’t do it. The Blu-ray adds some worthwhile making-of featurettes. 

Las Zapatillas Coloradas
Lest one order the wrong movie from Amazon or Videos Unlimited, be aware that the newly released to DVD “Las Zapatillas Coloradas” is not the same thing as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece, “The Red Shoes.” Neither does the Argentine comedy have anything to do the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. As directed by Enrique Carreras and Juan Sires, the rarely seen farce describes what happens when a pair of red ballet slippers are stolen from the dressing room of Victor, who believes that he can’t perform without them. This comes at an inopportune time for the company, which can’t afford to lose the marquee attraction. It must have been a quiet week in Buenos Aires, because, when owner asks the police for help, the chief and his assistants volunteer to go undercover at the ballet. The chief disguises himself to the point where his assistants won’t be able to recognize him without his ring. Naturally, the assistants confuse with their boss’ ring for one belonging to someone else and spill some of the investigation’s beans to a seductress. Things get even crazier when the Chinese magicians get involved. I don’t know how “Las Zapatillas Coloradas” is regarded in the Spanish-speaking world, but I enjoyed it. That’s mostly because the “ballet” is as much a vaudeville troupe as it is a platform for classically trained dancers. Some of the acts are pretty wild and stand the test of time. 

Sanguivorous
Naoki Yoshimoto’s truly frightening “Sanguivorous” is like no vampire movie that I, and probably you, have ever seen. It combines the classic mythos with an acting style that draws heavily from the Japanese performance movement, butoh. Introduced after World War II, butoh embraces satire, the supernatural, grotesque imagery, bizarre settings and assaults against the status quo. It is performed in white body makeup and uses slow, deliberate movements in the telling of the story. Naoki Yoshimoto’s debut film is set in a Japan hundreds of years removed from the arrival of coffin in which a Romanian vampire lies comatose. After a young woman (Ayumi Kakizawa) begins suffering strange hallucinations and unexplainable physical ailments, it’s determined that she is the latest descendant in a long line of European vampires and the pains are manifestations of her sexual maturity. For the source vampire to be resurrected, his disciples must conduct a ritual involving virgin sacrifice. For this to happen, the young woman must be retrieved from the overground and delivered to the dwellers of the underground. It’s at this point that the ancient rite can begin and her pain alleviated. Most of what happens in “Sanguivorous” is related in multiple exposures and shadows and light, using in-camera effects. Like “Nosferatu,” which it resembles, there’s virtually no dialogue here but lots of ambient music. It’s as if Bram Stoker went to art school and only listened to Nine Inch Nails and Ministry in the studio. Yoshimoto’s film first took shape as a multimedia stage presentation, backed by percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani and guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, as well as film sequences and dance. The version released on DVD features a piano score by the director. It also stars the much-celebrated butoh artist, Yo Murobushi. The DVD arrives with an informative interview with the director. Adventurous horror lovers, bored by most of what’s now available to them, should consider “Sanguivorous” to be a must-see. 

Anton Corbijn: Inside Out
The name, Anton Corbjin, may not mean a lot to most rock ’n’ roll lovers, but it would be the rare fan who hasn’t seen and admired the Dutch photographer’s portraits of prominent artists, album covers, music videos and films. A short sampling of his subjects would include Joy Division, Depeche Mode, Tom Waits, David Bowie, Miles Davis, Björk, Captain Beefheart, Robert De Niro, Stephen Hawking, Elvis Costello, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Morrissey, Simple Minds, Clint Eastwood, the Cramps, Bryan Adams, Metallica, Janis Joplin and the Killers. His films include “Control,” “The American” and “A Most Wanted Man.” The artist we meet in “Anton Corbjin: Inside Out” would appear to be someone who has the world by the nuts, but doesn’t have to squeeze them to get what he wants. Instead, he comes off as a person in desperate need of a serotonin fix. If this doesn’t show in his work, as it might in a painting, it’s because his responsibility is to reflect the mood of his subjects, not his own. If Corbjin is as emotionally conflicted as he appears to be here, it’s because he’s still looking for the approval of his parents. Although they don’t appear to be mourning his choice in professions, one part of Corbjin thinks they might be. That’s because he was raised in an environment as far removed from the rock milieu as it could be. Most, if not all of the men in his family played important roles in the Dutch Reformed Church. He’s spent most of his career attending to the egos of rock and movie stars, as well as serving the interests of companies whose only allegiance is to their bank accounts. For all the glam and glitz on display, “Inside Out” provides a balanced portrait of the artist. Klaartje Quirijns was given great access to Corbjin and some of his subjects, and he knew what to do with it. 

Unhung Hero
As sometimes happens with novelty docs, such as “Unhung Hero,” once the giggling and uneasiness subside, viewers can learn a great deal about subjects not normally covered by mainstream media or classrooms. You might recall Patrick Moote as the poor sap whose girlfriend rejected his marriage proposal at a UCLA basketball game, while the audience watched his epic fail on the Jumbotron. After becoming an instant Internet sensation, Moote learned that his girlfriend opted out of their relationship because of his admittedly small penis. Once the initial shock wore off, Moote decided to exploit his bad luck by making a documentary not only about his reaction to her reaction, but also how different cultures view the male organ. As his curiosity grew, Moote literally traveled to the far corners of the Earth to ask medical professionals and civilians, alike, hard questions about small penises and enlargement strategies. Once I got beyond Moote’s occasionally tiresome kvetching about his condition, it was easy to enjoy the candid discussions concerning facts and myths attached to penises and phallic symbols.

There are moments in the film that men will find extremely cringe-worthy — enhancement operations in Korea, the partaking of disgusting medicinal remedies in Taipei, the injecting of fluids in New Guinea – but nothing more excruciating than the average performance of “Puppetry of the Penis.” Along the way, Moote also interviews former girlfriends, porn stars, family members, witch doctors, sexologists and therapists. It’s quite a journey and he shows great courage even considering some of the weirder treatments. Moote’s a natural performer, so “Unhung Hero” contains much self-deprecating humor, along with the medical and sociological stuff. And, in case you’re wondering, small penises aren’t treated with scorn in most places outside the U.S. (Just as men in different countries are turned on – or repulsed – by different parts of a woman’s anatomy.) The DVD includes deleted scenes, man-on-the-street outtakes, the “Doug Loves Movies” podcast, commentary, a Q&A and DVD commentary. If “Unhung Hero” still sounds to you like a dumb idea for a documentary, you might enjoy watching Moote and his cameraman get the shit kicked out them in a bathhouse, where he wanted to see if Korean men are as un-endowed as advertised. Anything involving a penis and the potential for pain is going to be a non-starter for most men – and. perhaps, a few empathetic women – but the nasty stuff is largely implied. Thank God, for small favors.

Undressing Israel: Gay Men in the Promised Land
The Falls: Testament of Love
While it’s noteworthy and admirable that Israel is one of the first countries to legalize homosexuality and protect the rights of gays and lesbians in the military and other institutions, Michael Lucas’ “Undressing Israel: Gay Men in the Promised Land” feels very much like an infomercial for gay-cations to Tel Aviv. The city is described as the gay-friendliest destination this side of San Francisco and Palm Springs. It even sponsors the annual gay-pride parade. Is that enough for a full-blown documentary, though? Lucas is a force in the adult-film industry and has a keen eye for handsome young men who only have grand things to say about Tel Aviv. An actor, as well as a writer/director/producer of sex films, Lucas can’t be accused of being a hack. A narcissist, maybe, as he makes room for himself in nearly every interview he conducts … just like on “60 Minutes.” Before “Undressing Israel” turns into a travelogue, however, Lucas is able to convey some of the reasons Israel has become as gay-friendly as it is. For one thing, by outlawing bigotry in the military, it has freed tens of thousands of men and women to be patriotic and un-closeted. He also demonstrates how important the “pink vote” has become for career politicians and pink money has become for commerce. What Lucas doesn’t do is spend much time on issues pertaining specifically to lesbians – however positive — and resistance posed by hardliners and fundamentalists in Jerusalem and other cities and settlements outside Tel Aviv. Neither does he address the question of whether lesbians and Palestinian gays are as welcome in Tel Aviv as tourists. (There is much anecdotal evidence to show that they are, especially if the Palestinians face death at home.) Such recent movies as “Out in the Dark” argue that the Security Forces sometimes use blackmail against Palestinian gays to secure information. As “Undressing Israel” argues, however, both Tel Aviv and Israel remain islands of hope surrounded by a sea of hatred and intolerance.

When we last saw RJ and Chris, in the prequel to “The Falls: Testament of Love,” the Mormon missionaries were being threatened with excommunication from the church for participating in a homosexual relationship. Five years later, the two men are living very different lives. R.J. now writes on LGBT issues for Seattle magazine and is in a loving relationship with another man. After undergoing what Chris believes to be successful church-approved de-programming, he’s gotten married to the level-headed mother of their first child and is selling pharmaceuticals for a living. When R.J. and Chris reunite at the funeral of close friend, it’s clear that they both have feelings for each other, even if they aren’t necessarily sexual. R.J. sees the reunion as reason for optimism, so, after ditching his boyfriend, assigns himself a story in Salt Lake City. Upon touching base with Chris, however, he senses that his former lover is fighting back any impulse to begin another romantic entanglement. After what seems like an eternity of melodramatic hemming and hawing, Chris finally gives in to temptation, spending a night reserved for his wife’s enshrinement in an Amway-like organization with R.J., instead. Emily (Hannah Barefoot), quickly picks up her husband’s trail and is devastated by his backsliding. “Falls II” is only half over by this point, which means that there’s another hour of weeping and wailing to come over R.J.’s declaration of his true sexuality identity. Emily and their families would welcome the opportunity to intercede with “our heavenly father” on his behalf, but, by now, the die is cast. Jon Garcia’s film could be tightened by at least and a half-hour and not suffer any pain. It might actually clarify what some of his intentions are toward the Mormon Church, which, of course, finds homosexuality to be abnormal and an affront to God. So do most other religions, but the threat of excommunication among Mormons is tantamount to spiritual death. The scenes of implied sexual activity and one gratuitous shot of male nudity seemingly would prevent “Falls II” from being used as a cautionary tale. So, what is it? “Falls II” may not deliver as strong a wallop as “Big Love” – imagine gay polygamists — there’s some good stuff here amidst the dross. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a “Falls III” already is in the works.

Please Kill Mr. Know It All
Here’s another promising Canadian comedy that could have benefitted from a slightly larger budget and probably one fewer director. Colin Carter and Sandra Feldman’s rom-com stars the very appealing Lara Jean Chorosteki as Sally, an advice columnist who goes by the name of Mr. Know It All. Upon taking over the column, her boss decided to go with the male pseudonym, never imagining that someone might seek out the writer for an interview. When that exact thing happens, they have to scramble to come up with a male face for public consumption. Unfortunately, the face she describes to the newspaper’s sketch artist already belongs to a notorious hitman, Albert (Jefferson Brown), who suddenly is recognized all over town as Mr. Know It All. This definitely isn’t good for business, so he attempts to meet with and kill the columnist. Sally manages to keep Albert guessing for a while, but someday their paths are bound to cross. When they do, Albert naturally falls for the kooky Sally. Now, they’re both a target for reprisal by his mafia contractors. “Please Kill Mr. Know It All” almost works as a farce, but, with a little more effort and money, could have done better as a feature on a cable channel. As it is, Chorosteki deserves a shot at a sitcom, not limited to Canadian audiences.

The Horror Show: Blu-ray
It’s never a good sign when Alan Smithee’s name appears on a credits list as director or writer. It is the name that’s used when a key player wants to disassociate himself from the picture. Typically, the Smithee ruse is deployed when a writer or director feels as if their work his work was mangled by a director or writer. Here, Smithee is a pseudonym for one Allyn Warner, known primarily for working on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and the less fondly recalled “Captain & Tennille Songbook” and “Presenting Susan Anton.” Of these, “The Horror Show” might have been his greatest achievement, if he hadn’t already disowned it. Released in 1989, the gore-fest stars horror superstars Lance Henriksen and Brion James as the courageous police detective Lucas McCarthy and the “Meat Cleaver Killer,” Max Jenke. Instead of being burned to a crisp on the electric car, as intended, enough of Max was left in the prison morgue to be jump-started by a curious scientist. Before Max had been laid to rest on a slab, he had promised Lucas retribution from beyond the grave. After much electrical hocus-pocus, Max’s corporeal spirit finds its way to Lucas’ furnace. It becomes incumbent on Lucas to keep his family from venturing into the basement, where Max’s cleaver awaits them. “The Horror Show” probably could have been scarier and more coherent if one of the directors hadn’t been fired and Warner hadn’t pulled a Smithee. Nevertheless, the battle royal between Henriksen and James makes up for most of the movie’s shortcomings. In another curious decision, “The Horror Show” was retitled “House III” for exhibition in non-U.S. markets. It explains how the “House” franchise went from “Part II” to “Part IV in America, without stopping for “Part III.” The Blu-ray adds an amusing interview with co-star Rita Taggart and stunt coordinator Kane Hodder.

Always Faithful

In the informative documentary “Always Faithful,” Harris Done examines the role played by Marine Corps dog teams on the front lines of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan by following five marines from training through deployment overseas. The German shepherds are trained to detect IAD bombs, run down insurgents and rescue their human buddies. Waiting patiently for the call to action, while the war goes on around them, isn’t the most natural response to machine-gun and mortar fire and loud explosives. Because we’ve watched the dogs as young trainees, it’s easy to appreciate the work done by the trainees and their ability to adapt to the chaos of war. Needless to say, the bond forged between the dogs and their trainers is strong, indeed. Done, who previously gave us “War Dogs of the Pacific,” has a strong hold on the subject and doesn’t go overboard when praising the collaboration between dog and man. He also explains what happens when team members are separated. “Always Faithful” was filmed with the cooperation of the U.S. Marine Corps, which explains the inclusion of some fascinating helmet- cam footage. 

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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