Bridge of Spies: Blu-ray
There’s always a point in a Steven Spielberg movie where I want to pull out my cellphone–or hit the pause button on my remote–to check the validity of what’s just happened on the screen. Likewise, there are times in every performance by Tom Hanks when he appears to be channeling Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart, instead of remaining within the skin of his character. It doesn’t take me out of the picture for very long, just enough to remind me that the operative word in “based on a true story” is “based,” not “true.” Most fact-based movies made in Hollywood require a suspension of disbelief for the sake of telling a story. It comes with the price of a ticket. If any collaborative team is allowed more latitude than Spielberg and Hanks, however, I’d be hard-pressed to name it. Their work on the Cold War drama, Bridge of Spies, provides a perfect example of why purists avoid going to see movies about their primary areas of interest, while others applaud a good screenwriter’s ability to make a historical event more entertaining than it was in real life. The drama surrounds the exchange of American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for Soviet KGB Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (a.k.a., Colonel Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher) on February 10, 1962, at the Glienicke Bridge connecting West Berlin and Potsdam. At the same time, American student Frederic Pryor — accused of espionage by East German authorities –was quietly allowed to pass through Checkpoint Charlie, a free man. Both were arranged by New York insurance lawyer and former assistant to Justice Robert H. Jackson at the Nuremberg trials in Germany political negotiator James B. Donovan. In the movie, it appeared as if someone in Washington had pulled Donovan’s name from a hat, when, in fact, he was General Counsel at the Office of Strategic Services from 1943 to 1945. If Donovan’s name hadn’t been made public, Spielberg might have invented a composite character of him for Hanks to play.
Reporters dubbed the Glienicke span, Bridge of Spies, after the 1985 swap of 23 American agents held in Eastern Europe for Polish agent Marian Zacharski and another three Soviet agents arrested in the west. A year later, Soviet political prisoner Anatoly Shcharansky and three western agents were traded for five eastern agents. The bridge also played a role in screen adaptations of John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People and Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin. Even so, Bridge of Spies didn’t exactly write itself. Spielberg enlisted Ethan and Joel Cohn to polish Matt Charman’s original script, adding some spice to the negotiations between Donovan and the almost morbidly drab KGB and East German agents. Hanks took it from there, practically winking at the audience when Donovan pulled one over the dullards. He took a more serious tack when, against all odds and professional advice, Donovan nearly convinced the Supreme Court to free his much-loathed client from jail on a technicality. Spielberg’s signature touch can be recognized in the film’s icy depiction of life behind the still uncompleted wall separating East Berlin from West Berlin. The bombed-out cityscape stands in bold contrast to the brightness of life in the west. Alan Alda and Amy Ryan are the only two cast members whose faces would be recognized outside an SAG pep rally, but Hanks makes everyone look good in his company. Besides grossing $162.4 million worldwide and receiving near-unanimous critical acclaim, Bridge of Spies has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (for Mark Rylance), Best Original Screenplay and Best Production Design. The Blu-ray adds featurettes “Berlin 1961: Re-Creating the Divide,” “A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies,” “U-2 Spy Plane” and “Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act.”
When Robert Redford played Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, the Watergate crisis was fading from the memory of most American and journalism schools were churning out investigative journalists as if they’re so many sausages. Today, many of those same J-school graduates have been laid off from their jobs, with nary a parting handshake for their contributions to our great democracy. Investigative reporting took a big hit on the chin a few years later when CBS and ABC executives kowtowed to Big Tobacco for their own selfish reasons, denying the veracity of reports known to be accurate and making a mockery of the First Amendment. CBS’ betrayal was dramatized in The Insider, which, while making less money than All the President’s Men, did reasonably well at the box office. Al Pacino played reporter-producer Lowell Bergman and the picture attracted a flock of awards nominations. For its part, ABC cut a deal with a target of a “Day One” report to settle lawsuits ahead of its sale to Disney. In Up Close & Personal, Redford played a nearly washed up TV news director, who mentors, then falls for an ambitious blond reporter (Michelle Pfeiffer). The film had been intended to chronicle the rocket rise and tragic demise of Jessica Savitch, until studio buffoons decided that audiences really wanted to see another love story, featuring two blond leads.
In Truth, Redford plays another respected journalist and anchorman, Dan Rather, who could have benefited from having an editor like Ben Bradlee, instead of a bunch of Chicken Littles scurrying away at the first hint of controversy. Unlike All the President’s Men, James Vanderbilt’s debut feature serves as a reminder of how far the once-mighty industry has fallen in the eyes of the public. If Rather couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth – an argument made in the film not by viewers, but network suits – then, why not watch “Wheel of Fortune” or “Roseanne” reruns, instead? The trouble is, the Watergate scandal is probably fresher in the minds of today’s moviegoers than the 2004 fracas at CBS. If the impact of the events chronicled in Truth had made a dent on the American psyche, it didn’t register at the box office. In fact, it recovered less money in its domestic release than it cost to make ATPM in 1976. This, despite awards-caliber performances by Redford and Cate Blanchett, who, instead, was nominated for her work in Carol, and universally excellent reviews. Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, Redford’s producer and chief reporter on an investigation into George W. Bush’s alleged ability to avoid the draft by phoning in his obligation to the Texas Air National Guard. While there would be no shame in Bush or anyone else attempting to find a way out of going to Southeast Asia at that particular point in time, he did so by calling in favors from Bush family friends. Even more reprehensible, 30-plus years later in Bush’s re-election campaign, his advisers would tar his opponent, Vietnam vet John Kerry, by accusing him of being a liar about his service to the U.S. Neither would the president hesitate to put tens of thousands of American lives in harm’s way, when Bush ordered the unnecessary invasion of Iraq. It was an ill-conceived blunder for which we’re still paying.
All of that was in play when Rather went on “60 Minutes” to present Mapes’ findings to an audience of millions. Instead of putting Bush on the defensive, the report put them in the crosshairs of a smear campaign that prompted CBS brass to put extraordinary pressure on their news-division stars to recant and apologize for a story that, at its worst, could have used one more on-the-record source and a few more days to report. Too many of the people who had verified Mapes’ findings caved in to threats from Republican power-brokers. The network’s investigation stunk to high heaven and it looks even more politically motivated in Truth. Rather would resign in shame, while Mapes would be fired. Other than write the book upon which Vanderbilt based his story, the Peabody Award-winning news producer – who also broke the Abu Ghraib scandal — has remained unemployed. After losing Rather would be hired by the obscure AXS-TV channel to do high-profile interviews and location reporting. I don’t know who thought this particular scandal would sell tickets, no matter how well made it might be. It didn’t topple a president or indict a major industry for knowingly causing the deaths of millions of its customers. There’s more tension, suspense and empathy built into 10 minutes of James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News – Holly Hunter’s character was modeled after former Rather producer, Susan Zirinsky – than in the entirety of Truth. Special features include commentary with Vanderbilt and producers Brad Fischer and William Sherak; a Q&A with Blanchett, Vanderbilt and co-star Elisabeth Moss; deleted scenes; “The Reason for Being,” in which Rather, Mapes and cast members discuss the history behind the movie; and “The Team,” in which actors describe their characters.
Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs: Signature Collection: Blu-ray
When it comes to new Blu-ray editions of classic films, it’s always a good idea to read the fine print on the back cover before investing in something that may only be marginally different than what’s already on your shelf. While the differences between VHS, DVD and Blu-ray are obvious, those separating one Blu-ray iteration from another may be limited to qualities that have little or nothing to do with the audio-visual presentation. The addition or elimination of featurettes and other bonus material may not be sufficient reason for a replacement copy. It’s only been five years since Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – perhaps, the brightest jewel in the studio’s crown – in a brilliantly hi-def Diamond Edition. By all technical measures, the new Signature Collection is identical to the Diamond release … excellent. The bonus package here is highlighted by the Disney Digital Copy voucher found inside the case. It enables buyers of DVD and Blu‑ray discs to receive the digital version of the movie in their choice of iTunes or Windows Media formats. The fresh featurettes include, “In Walt’s Words: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” with archival audio footage from an interview with Walt Disney in 1956; “Iconography,” which begins with individuals reflecting on their history with the film and continues on to discuss the title character’s long-standing popularity; “DisneyAnimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess,” in which animator Mark Henn and art directors Michael Giaimo, Bill Schwab, and Lorelay Bové discuss the film’s character design history, inspirations and the artists who designed Disney’s first princess and supporting characters; “The Fairest Facts of Them All: 7 Things You May Not Know About Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”; “Snow White in Seventy Seconds,” a rapid-fire hip-hop retelling of the story; “Alternate Sequence: The Prince Meets Snow White,” a never-before-seen sequence featuring Snow White meeting the Prince for the first time; and “Disney’s First Feature: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” a lengthier version of the supplement, “The One That Started It All,” found on the Diamond Edition release. The only missing featurettes anyone is likely to miss are some interactive activities, a music video and familiar studio history.
As great a movie as “Snow White” is, it isn’t a bad idea to warn parents against taking its G-rating at face value. As is the case with all of Disney’s animated fairy tales – and several live-action pictures – there will be material capable of frightening sensitive kids or prompting them to ask questions only a grown-up is qualified to answer. Disney has always gotten breaks from the ratings board that other companies don’t. Sometimes all a child needs to get through a “Bambi,” “Old Yeller” or “Snow White” is a hand to hold and a parent should be there to offer it.
The least subtle moment in Mélanie Laurent’s taut teen drama, Breathe, comes in a high school science class, as the students absentmindedly watch a documentary about a noxious weed, cuscuta reflexa whose tentacles wind around the stems of a host plant, inserting sharp pincers into its vascular system. After the monster, as the teacher refers to it, is done sucking the sap and nutrients from a flowering plant, now smothered with “devil’s hair,” the predator will either attach itself to another plant in close proximity or, itself, die of starvation. Since we’ve already been introduced to the girls who will serve as the host and predator in this adaptation of Anne-Sophie Brasme’s popular YA novel, “Respire,” it isn’t difficult to imagine how things are going to play out in Breathe. It’s to Laurent’s credit that we never give up on Charlie (Joséphine Japy) and Sarah (Lou de Laâge), even as we begin to witness the “monster” attempting to crush the life out of the flower. At first, Charlie appears to be a perfectly normal high school senior, happiest around a close-knit group of classmates and anxious to take her final exams. At home, however, it’s a different story. The sometimes violent exchanges between her estranged parents have left her feeling insignificant in their lives and her own. Charlie also suffers from asthma, so we know exactly when the pressures of life are beginning to choke her.
Enter Sarah, the new girl in town who’s as funny, flirty and brash as Charlie is fragile and withdrawn. After their homeroom teacher seats the girls next to each other and asks Charlie to get Sarah up to speed, they become fast friends … too fast. Because Sarah is adept at hiding her own pain, what begins as a complementary friendship eventually succumbs to feigned intimacy and the usual tyrannies of being a teenager. That the ending telegraphs itself doesn’t make it any less powerful. Laurent, who’s starred in Inglourious Basterds, Aloft and Now You See Me, has elicited terrific performances from her two young and relatively inexperienced leads. They look and act the part of teenagers on the verge of womanhood, vulnerable but optimistic that things will get better once they’re on their own. This month’s Film Movement short film, “Bonne Esperance,” describes an unlikely alliance between a belligerent teenage girl and the social worker who falls under her elusive spell. The DVD also includes interviews with Mélanie Laurent, Josephine Japy and Lou de Laâge, and a Q&A with the filmmaker.
Take Me to the River: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s spent more than a day or two in Memphis already has felt the beating heart of American music. For most of the last 100 years, the city has provided a home – however temporary – for the men and women who shaped gospel, soul, rockabilly, rock ’n’ roll, R&B, jazz and the blues, on its journey from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago aboard the train they still call the City of New Orleans. The rhythm of the railroad, as it cut through the bayous, cotton fields, woodlands and farms, day and night, on its way to the promised land of the industrial north, served as the metronome for Memphis’ gift to the world. Personally, Martin Shore’s wonderfully entertaining documentary, Take Me to the River, warmly recalled the time I spent in the city with my son, visiting some of the same shrines and listening to the same music represented here. Shore uses multigenerational jam sessions, produced by descendants of the creators of the Memphis Sound at Hi, Royal and Stax studios, to link yesterday’s stars and session gods to such hip-hoppers as Snoop Dog, Yo Gotti, Al Kapone, Frayser Boy and Lil P-Nut. Among the old-timers represented, some for the last time on film, are Bobby Rush, William Bell, Mavis Staples, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Clay, Booker T. Jones and Hubert Sumlin.
It’s tres cool to listen to guitarist Charlie “Skip” Pitts recall sessions for “Duke of Earl” and Wilson Pickett and how he introduced the famous “wah wah” guitar riff to Hayes for “Shaft.” You’ll never guess the origin story of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming.” Terrence Howard, who shot “Hustle & Flow” in Memphis, serves as host, plays the guitar and sings, while native sons Luther and Cody Dickinson demonstrate how black and white artists were able to cross boundaries in the studio that were closed outside. To that end, Bland pairs up with Gotti, on a mournful “Ain’t No Sunshine,” over a montage of images from the civil-rights struggle that led to the assassination of Martin Luther King, memorialized just a short drive from the studios. Although Take Me to the River doesn’t carry the same firepower as other recent documentary homages to creators of basically the same music, there are other joys to savor. I would have welcomed a bit more love shown to Sun Studios, but you can’t have everything. For those considering a trip to Memphis, I recommend stops at the Stax museum, Sun Studio, Beale Street, the Lorraine Motel memorial and civil-rights museum next-door, and, yes, Graceland. The DVD adds extended interviews and historic video footage.
The World of Kanako: Blu-ray
Japanese director Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls, Confessions) has never been known for his restraint in depicting the ripple effect of violence, not only on its victims, but also perpetrators and society. His no-holds-barred approach has occasionally cost him the financial backing of major studios and some pointed criticism. His films do very well at the domestic box office, however, so it isn’t likely Nakashima will dial down the action any time soon. Based on a novel by Akio Fukamachi, The World of Kanako (a.k.a., “Thirst”) certainly lives up to the director’s reputation … or down, depending on where one stands on the subject of gratuitous violence. It opens with disgraced former police detective Akikazu Fujishima (Koji Yakusho) berating his ex-wife after she calls to inform him of the disappearance of his daughter, who he probably couldn’t recognize in a lineup. Fujishima lost his job after beating the crap out of the man with whom she was cheating. He went on a six-month bender after being fired, resisting any outreach from his fellow cops, many of whom were crooked, corrupt or twisted. Before she went missing, both parents considered Kanako (Nana Komatsu) to be a model student and upholder of feminine virtues. It doesn’t take long for her father to uncover evidence of behavior that would shock a marine drill sergeant. After beating up and raping his ex-wife to temporarily silence his demons, Fujishima agrees there’s enough blame to go around for the girl’s inglorious slide.
In his effort to rescue Kanako from Tokyo’s forces of darkness, he bullies her friends into revealing what little they know about her and where she might be. The forced testimony makes it clear that his little flower is involved in illicit sex, hard drugs and other unladylike behavior. Even when Kanako’s shown kindness to bullied classmates, it came with a catch. Fujishima’s journey of discovery will remind some viewers Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, in which George C. Scott made the descent into the hell of Southern California’s porn industry to “rescue” his daughter and bring her back to Grand Rapids … and her senses. Unlike Scott’s strict Calvinist businessman, the boozy ex-cop in The World of Kanako becomes less and less inclined to bring his bad seed daughter home. Her disgrace is his cancerous tumor. Yakusho’s depiction of a Japanese Dirty Harry is so far over the top that viewers will be hard-pressed to find someone with whom to sympathize in The World of Kanako. Nakashima contrasts Fujishima’s dark, neo-noir mission with flashy J-pop images of his daughter partying hardy in nightclubs run by the yakuza. The operatically composed Blu-ray adds a lengthy making-of featurette and interviews with the cute-as-a-button Komatsu and the borderline creepy novelist, Fukamachi.
The Beauty Inside: Blu-ray
As gimmicks go, the one that informs Baek Jong-Yeol’s debut rom-dram The Beauty Within is pretty good. I doubt that the writer/director had Groundhog Day in mind when he embarked on a film in which the protagonist goes to bed one person, but wakes up the next 100-plus mornings looking radically different. Watching it during the first week of February, however, begged the question. On any given morning, Woo-jin could find himself in the body of someone of a different shape or size, gender or ethnicity. Inside, though, he’s the same lonely furniture maker he was before he fell asleep, only slightly more frustrated each time. Only his mother and nerdy best friend are privy to the situation. During one of his more manly morphs, Woo-jin is bowled over by the lovely Hong Yi-soo (Han Hyo-ju) and it causes him to do something drastic about the problem. One way is to stay up for three nights, milking his good looks, however temporary, for all they’re worth. God forbid, he should fall asleep and wake looking like Ted Cruz. Would Hong be attracted to his inner beauty, anyway? There’s more to the story, of course, but that’s the gist of it. Han is terrific as the imminently patient love interest for the many popular Korean actors and actresses playing Woo-jin. The Beauty Inside was adapted from the 2012 Web series directed by Drake Doremus and starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Topher Grace.
How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)
In the short documentary, “Draft Day,” which accompanies the feature on this Wolfe Video release, writer/director Josh Kim follows two transgender Thais as they prepare to participate in their country’s mandatory military-conscription lottery. It requires of 18-year-old youths to draw cards from a container held above their heads. Those pulling red cards must prepare immediately for military service, those holding black cards are exempt. As is the case in most countries, the sons of wealthy parents rarely are called to serve in any position, as are those deemed medically or mentally unfit. Not all transgender women (a.k.a., ladyboys or kathoeys) desire to play the abnormal card and are absorbed into the branch to which they’ve been assigned. Such matters are handled differently in Thailand, where, one suspects, everyone has better things to concern themselves with than gender-identity issues. It explains Kim’s matter-of-fact approach to the subject in his first feature, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), in which key transgender characters are required to make the same choice. That’s only indirectly what the film is about, however.
The Korean-American filmmaker puts a tighter focus here on growing up on the economic fringes of Bangkok, where some of the “better things” to worry about include gangsters, corrupt politicians and a general lack of education and hope for boys growing up poor in contemporary Thailand. Based on two short stories by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) observes the maturation process from the point of view of 11-year-old Oat, an orphan living with his aunt and kathoey brother, Ek, who’s approaching his 18th birthday. Just as Ek protects his brother from the dangers of life in the high-crime neighborhood, Oat is determined to fix the draft in Ek’s favor. First, though, he must come up with the money necessary to bribe the local crimelord, whose son has nothing to fear from the coming lottery. In a captivating debut performance, Ingkarat Damrongsakkul comes of age before our eyes. The title refers to the game Oat and Ek (Thira Chutikul) play to fortify their bond. As good as it is, “Checkers” failed to make the short list of candidates for the 2016 Best Foreign Language Film. If nothing else, it’s nice to see a movie from Thailand – or anywhere else, for that matter – that doesn’t exploit the country’s infamous sex trade or its participants, not all of whom see themselves as victims or slaves.
Sticky: A (Self) Love Story
Historically, masturbation has not been a subject discussed with any degree of comfort in society … polite or otherwise. That reluctance has changed significantly since the media decided it was no longer a taboo subject. Seemingly, the children of the men and woman who fought in the Sexual Revolution no longer are taught they’ll be prohibited from entering the gates of heaven – go blind or grow hair on the palms of their hands, either – if they occasionally bring themselves to orgasm. Even so, most parents still feel it necessary to react unfavorably to the discovery of evidence that suggests Babs or Junior is partaking in the joys of spanking the monkey or polishing the pearl. Instead of punishing them or attempting to add shame to the embarrassment of being caught red-handed, as it were, might I recommend a screening of Sticky: A (Self) Love Story as an alternative form of therapy? While tracing the stigma back to a basic misreading of Chapter 38 of the Book of Genesis, we’re introduced to ethicists and religious scholars who question the long-held belief that God condemned Onan for refusing to honor the teachings on levirate marriage and getting his rocks off without asking permission of a burning bush. Nicholas Tana’s strangely compelling documentary attempts to explain why masturbation is something most everyone does, but, until recently, few people will admit to doing. And, yet, the stigmatization that can cause permanent psychological damage or bullying on the social media continues. If we no longer buy into the same sort of FBI propaganda that linked compulsive masturbation to serial killers, then why have comedians Pee-wee Herman and Fred Willard paid such a high price for jerking off in a porno theater where, one might assume, it’s why they exist in the first place. Indeed, the relaxed attitude is reflected more accurately on television (“The Contest” episode of “Seinfeld”), film (American Pie, There’s Something About Mary), music (“Sticky Fingers,” for one) and comedy clubs (too many to mention). Among those offering expert testimony are Janeane Garofalo, Nina Hartley, Larry Flynt, Film Threat founder Chris Gore and former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who was fired by Hypocrite in Chief Bill Clinton for advocating a more reasonable approach to drug legalization, contraception in schools, abortion and masturbation.
Thrillers involving home invasions and hostage situations are a dime-a-dozen on DVD. Once a director is able to establish a rapport between the victims and viewers, all that’s required is convincing us of the perpetrators’ willingness to do great mental and bodily harm to the captives. The news media have already laid that foundation in countless reports of crazed killers and rapists terrorizing suburbia. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, along with its English-language twin sibling of the same title, tapped into the fears of all middle-class citizens already frightened by the random encroachment of inner-city crime on their seemingly secure enclaves. Screenwriters, of course, have encountered no obstacles to preventing sadists, sociopaths and other desperate criminals from bypassing elaborate security codes, hidden cameras and thick gated walls in their pursuit of mayhem. David Tennant’s straight-to-DVD thriller, Home Invasion, probably doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Funny Games, but it works unexpectedly well as a scary time-killer. In it, a group of extremely well-coordinated and heavily armed bandits break into a home on an island linked to the mainland by a single-lane bridge. By disabling the bridge’s ability to open and close, the invaders buy themselves a couple of hours of time, even if the security system works correctly.
Natasha Henstridge’s Chloe is attempting to make peace with her belligerent stepson when the break-in occurs. Her husband has been out of town on business for a longer-than-normal time and completely out of touch with the family. The crooks’ knowledge of the home’s layout reveals a financial agreement gone bad between them and Chloe’s husband. She’s unaware of it, so can honestly plead ignorance when they demand to know the whereabouts of a safe filled with stolen money. Preoccupied with their mission, the crooks barely pay attention to the absence of Chloe and the boy when they escape into the large house’s many nooks and crannies. A storm is raging outside, so, even when she is able to contact the security company’s headquarters, its response team, led by Jason Patric, is unable to launch a land-and-sea rescue effort. Patric’s character is, however, partially able to monitor the movements of Chloe, the boy and the crooks, using cameras not blacked out in the early minutes of the invasion. They communicate via cellphone, but quietly and without any assurance it won’t be discovered by the gang’s sadistic leader (Scott Adkins). In some ways, I was reminded here, as well, of Wait Until Dark, another home-invasion thriller with a harrowing twist and a female protagonist who’s unable to say where a stolen doll, filled with heroin, is located. Home Invasion may not be essential viewing, even for genre buffs, but it makes good use of its limited resources.
The Land Before Time XIV: Journey of the Brave
Eight years have passed since the last entry in Universal’s “The Land Before Time” franchise, “The Wisdom of Friends,” found its way into the dinosaur-loving hearts of young DVD viewers. The 14th chapter in the saga, Journey of the Brave, follows the Apatosaurus Littlefoot, as he attempts to learn the whereabouts of his father, Bron, who returns to Green Valley once a year to lead his herd. Apparently, Bron became stranded in the wilderness when the “fire mountain” erupted and he needs some help. Littlefoot embarks on the journey with his friends Cera, Ducky, Petrie and Spike to find him. After a disagreement between Littlefoot and Cera on which path to take, Littlefoot (voiced by Scott McAfee) decides to go ahead, alone, where he meets a Pteranodon, Etta (Reba McEntire), who knows his father. As they travel across strange terrain, Littlefoot, Etta and Wild Arms (Damon Wayans Jr.) discover that by pulling together they can overcome any challenge. The series began in 1988 with The Land Before Time, directed and produced by Don Bluth and executive produced by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. It made enough money on a moderate budget to prompt a total of thirteen direct-to-video musical sequels and a TV series, even without the participation of its heavyweight trio.
Mercy Street: Blu-ray
Masterpiece: Downton Abbey: Season 6: Blu-ray
The Hee Haw Collection: Kornfield Klassics
The Carol Burnett Show: Treasures From the Vault: The Lost Episodes
Nickelodeon: Shimmer & Shine
In the wake of the recent re-lease of Ken Burns’ epic PBS documentary, “The Civil War,” comes the six-part mini-series, “Mercy Street,” which dramatizes life, death, love and political intrigue in a Union Army Hospital, across the Potomac River from Washington, in Alexandria, Virginia. The thread of soap-opera melodrama that runs through the story is bolstered by the conceit of having the facility situated inside a previously grand hotel owned and managed by a family that believes strongly in the Confederate cause. The Greens aren’t entirely altruistic, of course, seeing as though James Green (Gary Cole) is a businessman first and patriot second. If viewers are supposed to think of Gone With the Wind’s O’Hara family when considering the machinations of the Greens, it works. Some also will recall the film’s single most powerful scene, panning the immensity of makeshift hospital grounds barely able to cope with the carnage of the battle for Atlanta. What happens inside the Mansion House is a microcosm of that and other scenes in “GWTW,” as well as the BBC’s fine WWI frontline-hospital mini-series, “The Crimson Field,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “ANZAC Girls” and James Kent’s Testament of Youth. (Even stately Downton Abbey was converted to a medical facility.) Likewise, “Mercy Street” puts a tight focus on several volunteer nurses, surgeons and patients, representing a myriad of opinions on what’s at stake in the American Civil War. Then, too, parallel storylines follow former slaves walking a tightrope between tenuous emancipation and the possibility they could be kidnapped and returned South, even as freed men and women; corrupt Union officials; and plots to murder President Lincoln. The series is created by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel and inspired by memoirs and letters of actual doctors and female nurse volunteers at Mansion House Hospital. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.
If the British writer Robert Graves had lived long enough to be a fan of “Downton Abbey,” he might borrow some thoughts from his autobiography, “Good-Bye to All That,” to describe his feelings about the show’s sixth and final season. The book was published in 1929, when the author was 34 and quite ready to leave behind the world described in the beloved “Masterpiece” series. As much as we’d all love to see “Downton” last forever – or, at least, until Mick Jagger or Jimmy Page bought the estate – the family’s lifestyle no longer could be sustained … or tolerated. Creator Julian Fellowes has done a nice job wrapping things up, without resorting to maudlin devices or atypical fireworks. He has allowed for the luxury of tying up loose ends, however, by inviting back some long-absent characters. “Season 6” remains what “Downton Abbey” always been: a class act. For those viewers who can’t wait until next month’s finale – or, are still catching up – the Blu-ray arrives with the featurettes, “Cars of Downton Abbey,” “Farewell to Highclere,” “Changing Times” and, of course, a “Visit Britain” interstitial. I suspect that a gala compilation will become available shortly before Christmas, so fans may want to start saving their pennies. The fate of “Mercy Street” has yet to be decided.
Time Life/WEA continues to dish out bite-size portions of much larger and more expensive compilations, the latest being “The Hee Haw Collection: Kornfield Klassics.” The latest package of episodes from the long-running syndicated series, which gave new meaning to the terms, “cornpone” and “hayseed,” contains Episodes 45 and 48. They include contributions from series regulars Buck Owens, Roy Clark, the Hagers, Nashville Edition, as well as guest stars Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller, Bill Anderson and Peggy Little.
Last Saturday, Carol Burnette accepted a lifetime-achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild for her six decades on the big and small screen, including her groundbreaking namesake variety show, which ran for 11 years. During the late-1960s, CBS was sometimes called “The Carol Burnett Show Network,” a joking reference to the program’s huge ratings and value to its advertisers. And, yet, the first five seasons hadn’t resurfaced — no reruns, streaming video, DVDs or other formats — until Time Life introduced “The Lost Episodes.” The new six-disc set, “The Carol Burnett Show: Treasures From the Vault: The Lost Episodes,” features 15 uncut episodes and such guest stars as Jonathan Winters, Joan Rivers and Mickey Rooney. There are more than four hours of bonus features.
Nickelodeon’s newest addition to its Nick Jr. block, “Shimmer & Shine,” features a young girl named Leah and two apprentice genies, Shimmer and Shine, who happen to be fraternal twins. They are allowed to grant three wishes every day, but, first, must travel to Earth from the magical land of Zahramay Falls, which is located inside their genie bottle. When not granting wishes, Shimmer and Shine live with their pets Nahal and Tala and travel around on a magic carpet. The trouble is, as genies-in-training, they sometimes misinterpret Leah’s wishes and often accidentally grant her wishes she didn’t mean to make.