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The DVD Wrapup: Ride Along, Labor Day, Invisible Woman, Bastards, Everyday, Ripper Street, Bletchley Circle, Black Nativity … More

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Ride Along: Blu-ray
In 1965, “I Spy” broke television’s color line for buddy teams, by pairing Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in co-equal lead roles. Three years later, however, in “Salt and Pepper,” Richard Donner paired Rat Packers Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. in a London-based buddy film that did nothing to advance the conceit. Donner would hit pay dirt two decades later with the first of several “Lethal Weapon” movies, but not before “48 HRS.,” “Silver Streak” and “Miami Vice” successfully re-introduced the salt-and-pepper concept. Ironically, perhaps, Betty Thomas’ 2002 re-imagining of “I Spy” and Michael Mann’s updating of his hit TV series, “Miami Vice,” would very publicly underperform, as would “MIB III,” whose revenues have always depended on overseas revenues. This year’s hit buddy movie, “Ride Along,” originally was intended for the salt-and-pepper pairing of Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds, and the final pairing of Ice Cube and Kevin Hart only afforded director Tim Story a budget of $25 million. “Ride Along” would return $150 million, only 10.2 percent of which came from the foreign market. A pepper/pepper sequel is already in the works. (I wonder how Story’s 2004 pairing of Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon is doing in DVD/Blu-ray, considering their raised profiles on television.)

What’s changed in the last decade or so, I think, is the emergence of hip-hop as a crossover medium and a newfound willingness by young adults and teenagers to ignore casting decisions based strictly on demographics. When Ice Cube took the leap from rapping to acting, he was known primarily for his participation in one of the most hard-core hip-hop groups of all time. It was almost to be expected, then, that he would be pigeon-holed in the slot reserved for “gangsta” title. No matter the quality or message, these down-and-dirty pictures were targeted at urban-male audiences who’d been underserved since the Blaxploitation era. The media had a field day after gang-related violence broke out sporadically on opening weekends, causing theater owners to demand added security. A funny thing happened to Ice Cube’s career in 1997, however, when he accepted a key role in “Anaconda,” a silly creature-feature that also starred Jennifer Lopez, and it outperformed its expectations. His crossover bona fides were solidified with “Three Kings,” “Barbershop” and “Are We There Yet?” At about the same time, the public image of firebrand rapper, Ice-T – whose song, “Cop Killer,” became a cause célèbre among conservative politicians and talk-show hosts — evolved from provocateur to unlikely hero, playing NYPD detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Today, dozens of hip-hop artists work alongside classically trained actors in films and on television. If Johnson and Reynolds had remained with the project, “Ride Along” probably would have ended up being just another so-so salt-and-pepper flick.

The story doesn’t break any new ground and the action sequences are standard-issue. It’s the chemistry between the two actors – one established, the other red hot — that sells the movie. Without compromising his public image, Ice Cube’s presence in a cops-and-robbers picture no longer automatically narrows its crossover potential. The profile of journeyman comedian Hart benefitted mightily from being named host of the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards. Since then, Hart has appeared “Think Like a Man,” “Grudge Match,” “This Is the End” and “About Last Night,” as well as the performance film, “Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain.” His character in “Ride Along,” Ben, is a self-assured security guard at an Atlanta high school, waiting for an opportunity to impress his fiance (Tika Sumpter) and her skeptical brother, James (Ice Cube), an undercover cop. James is far less than thrilled when Ben wins the equivalent of the lottery, by being accepted into police academy. He considers his future brother-in-law to be little more than a brash motor-mouth and video-game junkie. He invites Ben on a potentially dangerous ride-along, designed to scare the bejeezus out of him. Instead, the action emboldens Ben by allowing him to use the skills he mastered as video-game nut. That mild spoiler may reveal the movie’s most appealing narrative conceit, but it wouldn’t surprise any viewer under 30, anyway. In fact, it adds a “48 HRS.” touch to the proceedings. As formulaic as it is, “Ride Along” should please fans of the cast members, who also include John Leguizamo, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Callen and Bruce McGill. The Blu-ray adds feature commentary with director Tim Story (“Barbershop,” “Taxi”), an alternate ending, deleted scenes, gag reel and several behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Blu-ray
Very casually adapted from the influential 1939 James Thurber short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has been made into a feature film twice and part of a Broadway musical inspired by the author’s work. So popular was Thurber’s story that its protagonist’s name became part of the vernacular, describing job-trapped white-collar workers who daydream about performing heroic acts. In a more symbolic sense, Mitty continues to represent that part of the American Dream imprisoned by dullard bureaucrats and dim-witted company men. The 1947 version of “Walter Mitty,” newly available in DVD, was overhauled to take advantage of Danny Kaye’s physical and facial dexterity. Director/star Ben Stiller has taken even more liberties with Thurber’s story, adding such contemporary elements as online dating sites and product placement. (Papa John’s pizza, which threatened to fire employees rather than accept provisions of the Affordable Care Act, being the most prominent.) Stiller’s film has many nice things going for it – Kristen Wiig and some spectacular wilderness photography – but seems to rely too much on the viewers’ perceived nostalgia for days gone-by, when plane travel, itself, was an adventure and Life magazine’s photographers frequently provided the stuff of which dreams are made. Here, Mitty doesn’t so much daydream at his desk, than space-out whenever he’s confronted with situations beyond his control. In his capacity as photo manager at the doomed magazine, Mitty is required to guard the safety of a photo negative sent to it by an eccentric photographer (Sean Penn) for the cover of its final edition. (Digital tracking, anyone?) When a search reveals that the negative is missing, Mitty takes it upon himself to find its creator. An extended daydream (or is it?) leads him from Greenland and Iceland, to the Himalayas, where the photographer is hunting the elusive “ghost leopard.” The addition of romantic storylines involving the dating site and Wiig’s little boy only add clutter to the adventure. At a time when so many middle-class people can rely on their wherewithal to realize their dreams, “Walter Mitty” feels more than a tad anachronistic. The Blu-ray adds several deleted/extended/alternate scenes; a dozen making-of vignettes; a photo gallery; and the music video, “Stay Alive,” by Jose Gonzales. – Gary Dretzka

Labor Day: Blu-ray
Joyce Maynard’s 2009 coming-of-age novel “Labor Day,” was described by reviewers as a story about a lonely 13-year-old boy whose world is changed forever over the course of a summer-ending holiday weekend. An escaped prisoner, desperate for freedom, insinuates himself into the lives of the young New Englander, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), and his divorced mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), a victim of agoraphobia, until the dust of his flight settles around them. Although Henry does, indeed, mature dramatically during those few days in the company of the almost freakishly handy fugitive, Frank (James Brolin), Jason Reitman’s adaptation emphasizes the curative powers of love and redemption. Reitman uses the memories of a grown-up Henry as a touchstone for the narrative, but doesn’t let them intrude on its momentum. In this way, “Labor Day” might have more in common with adult romances by Danielle Steel and Nicholas Sparks than any of Maynard’s books or newspaper work. Winslet, who can do frumpy as well as anyone, looks as if she hasn’t read a fashion magazine since she discovered her husband’s affair with his secretary. Henry’s bond with his father and his new family is tenuous, at best. For fun, Adele teaches her son to appreciate ballroom dance, an activity that concerns her ex-husband for all of the usual homophobic reasons.

It is during one of their rare shopping excursions that Frank approaches Henry and Adele, quietly demanding that he be given salve for his wound and a night’s refuge, at least. Once home, Frank asks Adele and Henry to ignore the negative reports they’ll soon hear on the local news outlets. “There are two sides to every story,” he argues, and his is the side not being told. Frank isn’t armed, but he’s a big boy and can take care of himself. While protective of her son’s well-being, Adele almost immediately feels comfortable in the intruder’s presence. Their sympatico vibes work to comfort Henry, too. Their positivity grows when Frank begins to perform household chores, unasked, and he plays catch with the boy in the backyard. As time passes and Henry’s first day of school approaches, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep friends and neighbors from learning the truth. The solution to the problem, while not entirely unpredictable, should satisfy most fans of the genre. Most importantly, we don’t doubt the chemistry between the characters or ascribe Adele and Henry’s feelings to Stockholm syndrome. The commentary is provided by Reitman, director of photography Eric Steelberg and first assistant director/co-producer Jason Blumenfeld, while Maynard appears in the featurette, “End of Summer: Making Labor Day,” and there are some deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Invisible Woman: Blu-ray
From a distance of 160 years, it’s possible to ignore the less charming aspects of a famous man’s life and reduce his sins to peccadillos. If Charles Dickens were alive today, however, he’d probably be deflecting the same slings and arrows currently being directed at Woody Allen. Their individual cases are different, but, until it can be proven that the filmmaker actually sexually abused his children, not by much. The title, “The Invisible Woman,” refers to Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, his much-younger mistress. For reasons of his own, Dickens was obsessed with keeping Ternan’s longtime role in his life secret. Even in the aftermath of a terrible train accident, Dickens would disavow any relationship with his 27-years-younger traveling companion, who he met when she was appearing in the play “The Frozen Deep” with her mother and sister. (According to legend, Ternan was the least blessed actor in the family.) Without diminishing Dickens’ literary and charitable legacy, “The Invisible Woman” paints an extremely ugly portrait of a man who let one marriage collapse, while not allowing the woman he does love to acknowledge their partnership publically. Rumors of the affair had already been published and denied, so, one wonders, how much his reputation would have been damaged by admitting the truth, anyway. Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn survived an avalanche of bad press, barely, but, if proven, the latest rumors probably would had proven too devastating to overcome.

The whole sordid tale is told through the sad flashbacks of the 44-year-old Ternan, who, still wearing widow’s weeds, is staging one of her ex-lover’s plays, “No Thoroughfare.” (Dickens had died 13 years earlier, in 1870, at 58.) In this way, the movie is framed by theatrical devices. Ralph Fiennes directs “The Invisible Woman,” as well as playing Dickens, and he does a terrific job on both counts. “Nelly,” as she was known, is played by the lovely and talented Felicity Jones. At 30, the Birmingham native is credible playing 18, 30 and 44. We’re allowed to reserve most of our pity, however, for Catherine Thomson Hogarth Dickens (Joanna Scanlan), a decidedly portly woman who was blamed by her husband for every wifely misdemeanor possible. She ended their 22-year marriage after intercepting a gift of jewelry intended for Nelly. So, what makes “The Invisible Woman” even remotely appetizing? Well, like Allen, Dickens is an important artist whose contradictions are as enlightening about the human condition as his work. More to the point, though, it’s real. Few liberties were taken with history and the craftsmanship on display is impeccable. Watch the bonus features and you’ll be impressed with just how much was accomplished with so little money. – Gary Dretzka

Bastards
French writer/director Claire Denis doesn’t make it easy for us to love her movies, which are challenging even by the standards usually reserved for arthouse titles. Viewers willing to go along with Denis’ conceits, however, are rewarded with stories influenced by her experiences in Africa and directing alongside such talents as Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Dušan Makavejev, Costa Gavras and Jacques Rivette. She’s never shied away from revealing the dark side of human relationships in her films or mapping the scarred intersection of wealth, power and decadence. “Bastards” is no different. Viewers are encouraged to pay attention to what’s said and done in the film’s early moments, because things do tend to get complicated later on. So much of what happens in “Bastards” takes place in the shadows that it easily qualifies as an exercise in film noir. The central mystery is posed by a pretty young woman – or girl in her late teens – who we meet wandering through the streets of Paris, naked except for high heels. We’ll learn soon enough that she’s been severely abused sexually and is seriously traumatized by the experience. Ruggedly handsome Vincent Lindon plays the girl’s uncle, Marco, a sea captain who abandoned his tanker to investigate his brother-in-law’s suicide and calm his disconsolate sister. He immediately senses that the suicide somehow involves his brother-in-law’s smarmy partner, Edouard (Michel Subor). By coincidence, Marco takes an apartment in a building where Edouard has stashed his lover, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), and their son. After Marco helps the boy fix his bicycle, it isn’t long before Raphaelle returns the favors by cuddling up to her friendly neighbor. Marco has other problems on his plate, besides bedding the wealthy man’s mistress, but nothing compares to the horrors that put his niece (Lola Creton) in the hospital. This is some sick shit we’re dealing with here, folks. Apparently, Denis and frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau were inspired by recent sex-ring scandals involving influential men and young prostitutes. Denis is known for her meticulous post-production routine, which might have rubbed a couple of the connections right off the finished product. Agnès Godard, another longtime associate, helps fill in the holes with cinematography that takes full advantage of the inky dark environment. (The City of Lights has never looked as dark and sinister.) Needless to say, perhaps, “Bastards” isn’t for the easily shocked. – Gary Dretzka

Everyday
Ask an adult how their day went and, more often than not, the reply will be something resembling a grunted, “Nothing.” Ask a child the same question, and you might get more than you bargained for … lots more. To a grown-up, the daily routine of life and work may have become so repetitive as to be meaningless. For some children, everything is new and every new thing carries with it the possibility of being scary, dangerous, fun or enlightening. The uncertainty is what gives kids an edge when it comes to savoring every opportunity given them. As long as someone older is watching over them, kids will occasionally test the limits of safety nets stretched around them. Michael Winterbottom’s exquisite family drama, “Everyday,” is all about feeling secure in life and coping with the anomalies of distance. In some ways, it resembles the documentaries in Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series, which has followed the development of the same children we met in 1963, in seven-year intervals. Besides being a work of fiction, “Everyday” is far less chronologically ambitious in scope. It loosely chronicles five years in the life of a working-class family, living in rural Norfolk on the eastern coast of England. Wee Shirley Henderson is terrific as the mother of four small children – apparently conceived within 9 months and 9 minutes of each other – and wife of an unassuming bloke (John Simm) in prison for drug trafficking. All of the child actors are members of the same family, which explains their nearly identical looks and easy rapport with each other. To maintain a naturalistic look, Winterbottom would revisit the Kirks intermittently during the five-year production schedule.

We have come to expect the unexpected from Winterbottom, whose films run the full gamut from comedies (“Tristram Shandy,” “The Trip”) and pop-cultural portraits (“24 Hour Party People”), to current events (“A Mighty Heart,” “The Road to Guantanamo”) and edgier stuff (“9 Songs,” “Code 46,” “The Killer Inside Me”). If his experiments rarely pay off at the box office, they’re widely admired for the courage and ability to keep other filmmakers honest. “Everyday” simply describes how a closely knit family manages its affairs when one of its key elements is removed and the rest of them are required to muddle through without him. It’s divided into loosely defined chapters, bracketed by visits to and away from the prison. At first, mom and the kids visit dad in jail. Then, dad is allowed to come home on a day pass. Later, dad comes home for a longer stretch and blows it by smuggling “just a tiny piece of hashish” into prison. The longer he’s away from home, the more independent must the family become. Seeing how well they meet the challenges is what “Everyday” is all about. For the mother, a year apart from her husband means having to provide for the family, keep the home from falling apart and providing the occasional escape for the children. She’s kept busy, but unfulfilled. For the kids, however, a year might as well be an eternity. Winterbottom neatly captures the family’s uncertainty and sense of relief from small victories, while also maintaining narrative consistency throughout the five-year production. As usual, Henderson can do no wrong here. Simm is good, as well, as a guy who squandered the freedom he enjoyed as a young man and, when he’s most needed at home, has no freedom left to waste. – Gary Dretzka

Black Nativity: Blu-ray
Most people would need a magnifying glass to find the name, Langston Hughes, on the jacket of the DVD/Blu-ray of Kasi Lemmons’ rousing adaptation of the playwright’s “Black Nativity.” First mounted off-Broadway in 1961, productions of Hughes’ “gospel-song-play” have become a traditional holiday treat, not unlike “A Christmas Carol.” Here, the Rev. Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett) are about to stage their Harlem church’s annual presentation, when the grandson they’ve never met literally shows up at their doorstep. The teenage boy’s mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), is estranged from her parents, but needs to find a temporary home for Langston (Jacob Latimore) while she deals with being evicted from their Baltimore row house. No sooner does Langston reach the Port Authority than he’s robbed of his backpack and left to his own devices. He’s arrested in a misunderstanding about a misplaced wallet, but is rescued after being recognized as the minister’s relative. Nonetheless, Langston not only is bitter over being sent away from home, but also because Naima appears to be getting a raw deal. Almost immediately, Langston takes advantage of his grandfather’s kindness by attempting to pawn a family heirloom. Before he can get into any real trouble, though, he’s seized by the power of the Lord and rescued by gospel music. On paper, the story behind “Black Nativity” sounds far too pat and borderline corny. Dropping the weight of the message on the shoulders of a 17-year-old actors seems, at first, to be a miscalculation of Lemmons’ part. On film, however, the blend of original and traditional music, the pastor’s redemptive words and the good intentions of everyone involved in the project is infectious. Raphael Saadiq, Taura Stinson and Laura Karpman are primarily responsible for arranging music, which complements the choreography of Otis Sallid. For me, though, watching the full cast and chorus performing Stevie Wonder’s “As” was the musical highlight. Also contributing to the fun are Mary J. Blige, Nas, Tyrese Gibson, Grace Gibson, Luke James, Blondelle and the Gospeldelic Choir. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and short making-of segments. – Gary Dretzka

Death Do Us Part
The fingerprints of Julia and Peter Benson are all over this problematic pairing of 1980s splatter and Canuxploitation. Besides playing the soon-to-be-married/dead couple at the core of the story, they co-wrote and co-produced “Death Do Us Part,” which was directed by Nicholas Humphries. Apparently, all of the actors had worked together previously in the Great White North and thought the project would be a blast. Personally, I think they had a bit too much fun stabbing each other and screaming at the top of their lungs into the B.C. night to see the holes in the clichés. Set in and around an oceanfront cabin, deep in the woods, “Death Do Us Part” opens promisingly with a woman – or is it? – wandering along a rural road, wearing a bloodied wedding dress. As the woman relates to a sheriff what brought her to this cruel juncture in life, the film’s clock is turned back about 24 hours. Instead of following the crowds to Las Vegas for a “Jack and Jill” bachelor/bachelorette party, a half-dozen friends and relatives of the lucky couple decided to rent the cabin for a weekend of games, booze and skull-bashing, intended to bring them all together before the blessed event. Even before the SUV reaches the rusting gate of the cabin’s driveway, however, it’s clear that the guys are jackasses and the women probably will spend the next 48 hours trying to avoid their groping fingers, including those of the swinish groom-to-be. And, yes, the property’s janitor could very well have escaped from the local loony bin that morning. By the time the killing starts, it’s difficult to figure out if “Death Do Us Part” is intended to be a parody or thriller. Worse news for anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of Julia Benson’s truly amazing body, everyone in the movie remains clothed. On the plus side, the cast members all look as if they actually were having fun. Too bad, it isn’t contagious. The DVD includes a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Confession of Murder
In South Korea, unlike the United States, murder carries with it a statute of limitations. It sounds crazy, but affords filmmakers an opportunity unavailable to their counterparts here. If Korean cops were allowed to investigate crimes involving murders, a smart and nasty thriller like “Confession of Murder” never could have been made. Fifteen years after 10 women were killed in series of attacks that shocked the nation, the perpetrator has decided to profit from his infamous acts by writing a book. Among those sickened by this affront, is Detective Choi (Jae-yeong Jeong), who lost his wife to the killer and had his face slashed by him as he was about to make an arrest. With no small amount of fanfare, Lee Du-seok (Park Si-hoo) appears on television, claiming that he was the killer and is seeking forgiveness, as well as attention. Naturally, Lee’s confession results in a media circus, even over the loud protestations of the victims’ relatives. As if to deflect the spotlight from Lee, another person confesses to the crimes. The media insist that Choi confront the two men in a public hearing, but, to what end, we won’t know until near the movie’s climax. Writer/director Jeong Byeong-gil deftly keeps the action flowing throughout
“Confession of Murder,” with chases and bursts of violence. We should be able to predict the twist he adds near the end, but are distracted by other things happening on-screen. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with cast and crew. – Gary Dretzka

Trap for Cinderella
By far the most compelling thing about Iain Softley’s erotic thriller, “Trap for Cinderella,” is the exotic cover photo, in which the British seductress Tuppence Middleton strikes an enticingly languid pose reminiscent of Louise Brooks at her most incendiary. It’s the kind of photograph that demands a browser’s attention, even if nothing else is known about the movie it begs us to consider. If only the movie, itself, lived up to the promise of Middleton’s gaze. Adapted from a novel by the French author Sébastien Japrisot (“A Very Long Engagement”), “Trap for Cinderella” opens with an explosion that sets the stage for everything else to come. We watch as Middleton’s party-girl heiress, Mickey, is slowly nursed back to health, her memory of what came before the fire still a work in progress. It isn’t long before Softley shifts into flashback mode, first taking viewers back to a traumatic event in Mickey’s childhood and, then, 10 years later, to the reunion with a near-lookalike friend, Do (Alexandra Roach). The reunion escalates very quickly into a relationship that could be bi-, straight or gay, depending on the drugs being consumed on any given night. It gets even more complicated when money from a generous inheritance is thrown into the equation, along with Mickey’s jealous boyfriend (Aneurin Barnard), her dead aunt’s overly protective assistant (Kerry Fox) and a sleazy bartender (Stanley Weber).

After some loud arguments, backstabbing and a fair amount of topless sunbathing, we’re back at the scene of the original crime. Softley’s screenplay makes better use of its primary settings — London and the south of France, where Mickey and Do spent their summers – than the intricacies of Japrisot’s novel. Miss a key detail and you’ll find yourself in the same quandary as Mickey, trying to piece back her memory on a hospital bed. – Gary Dretzka

Wrong Cops
These days, if a group of friends or classmates wants to get together to make a movie, there’s almost nothing stopping them from doing so. The same is true for actors who enjoy each other’s company so much that they get together in their spare time to take advantage of the Internet and other platforms. The better ones complete the circle by winding up on television or the big screen. It helps greatly, of course, if the actors and comedians work for fair less than scale and don’t demand star billing. Graduates of such improv troupes as the Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City are fixtures on network and cable television, where they can’t spread their improvisational wings. You can find them, as well, on YouTube, Adult Swim, HBO and Showtime. They populate such off-the-wall shows as “Reno 911!,” “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” “Children’s Hospital” and “Funny or Die Presents.” There are plenty of familiar faces in Quentin Dupieux’s thoroughly undisciplined “Wrong Cops,” a nutty-cops comedy that makes “Reno 911!” and “Police Squad!” look like “Homicide: Life on the Street.” The few legit critics who commented on it weren’t kind to “Wrong Cops,” but the further off the mainstream one got, the better it looked. Burly Mark Burnham plays Officer Duke, a cop so dirty he sees nothing wrong with selling bags of marijuana stuffed in rat carcasses to kids. Another one is obsessed with creating electronic music that borders on the unlistenable. Then, there’s the patrolman whose past comes back to haunt him when an incriminating photo shows up in an ancient gay-porn magazine. “Wrong Cops” plays out in a loosely strung series of vignettes, starring, among others, Eric Judor, Steve Little, Grace Zabriskie, Arden Myrin, Eric Roberts, Eric Wareheim, Ray Wise and, best of all, Marilyn Manson. This isn’t a movie one recommends to the easily offended, but those so inclined should find plenty here to enjoy. The higher one gets, the funnier it is. – Gary Dretzka

Being Ginger
Until I heard red-haired Austalian singer/comedian Tim Minchin perform “Taboo” on his Showtime special, I had no idea that being labeled “ginger” could be as traumatic for a young man as being born with a clubfoot, webbed toes or cleft palette. In some parts of northern Europe, especially, gingers frequently are taunted, bullied and ridiculed. Why, I don’t know. Like Minchin, who plays a debauched rock star on “Californication,” filmmaker Scott P. Harris decided that the best way to attack the prejudice was with humor. “Being Ginger” is an extension of a school project undertaken by the red-headed Texan while at the University of Edinburgh. Through interviews and anecdotes, Harris describes what it’s like to be treated as a freak, simply for the color of his hair, especially in delicate matters of the heart. Backed by a Kickstarter campaign, “Being Ginger” works best as a teaching tool. Any kid capable of putting himself in the shoes of a persecuted redhead, should be able to figure out what makes other forms of bigotry so terrible. – Gary Dretzka

Tentacle 8
If we’ve learned anything from the ongoing NSA scandal, it’s that paranoia not only is a reasonable response to the revelations, but it also may be the one that makes the most practical sense. How else to react to a system that’s paid to break the law with both impunity and immunity, and about which the truth likely will never be revealed. We’ve been asked to trust that government safeguards put into effect since the beans were spilled can protect us from rogue spies and professional eavesdroppers who presumably are being paid to prevent the next terrorist attack, but probably are too busy checking on their credit scores and monitoring their girlfriend’s Facebook account to make that call. When the producers of “Tentacle 8” attempted to find distributors for the film, it probably sounded far too far-fetched, even to Americans born in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. After striking out in their attempts to court film festivals, John Chi’s failed thriller now looks more prescient than paranoid. Does that make “Tentacle 8” worth the cost of a rental or download, though? For fans of “All the President’s Men,” “The Parallax View” and “The X-Files,” the answer is probably, yes.  In it, career character actor Brett Rickaby plays a NSA analyst who’s being framed for a massive computer virus that’s wiped out classified personnel files at the agency. He’s smart, though, and the things he knows about the computer system are of great value to the men and women on his trail. They’re all contained in codes indecipherable to everyone but him. Oh, yeah, one of the people he hopes to protect is his girlfriend (Amy Motta), who’s in cahoots with the CIA.

Chi doesn’t hesitate to telegraph the aura of fear and mass confusion running throughout “Tentacle 8.” The musical soundtrack, which alternates between ominous rumble and funereal, tell us all we need to know about what’s happening on screen. I’m not at all sure that I was left with a firm grasp of what’s at stake in the movie. Part of what makes this sort of thriller paranoid is the protagonist’s inability to completely separate facts from fiction and identify friends from foes. Even so, the picture’s relevance has risen several notches in the last six months, without its creators moving a finger to help it. “Tentacle 8” may have micro-budget feel to it, but someone invested the money necessary to film a few scenes away from L.A., in Mumbai. The technical credits are pretty solid, as well, despite the limitations. The DVD offers no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Copperhead: Blu-ray
Although Ronald F. Maxwell’s career has spanned nearly 40 years, his list of credits is limited to about a dozen films, ranging from such teen favorites as “Little Darlings and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” to his Civil War trilogy of “Gettysburg,” “Gods and Generals” and, now, “Copperhead.” The first two historical epics were financed in large part by Ted Turner’s production company – he made cameo appearances in both – and featured A-list actors in elaborate battle scenes. While Turner is physically and financially missing from the far more modest “Copperhead,” his former brother-in-law, Peter Fonda, does play a supporting role. Based on an 1893 novel by Harold Frederic, the title refers to a slur aimed at northern Democrats opposed to the Civil War. Here, a community in rural Upstate New York is forced to consider the objections of a prominent citizen, dairy farmer Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), based on moral and political beliefs. The man’s family also is divided on the issue, which doesn’t sway on the question of slavery as much as how life-and-death decisions were made in the run-up to the war. (He believes, for example, that the Emancipation Proclamation, one of Lincoln’s bravest actions, should have been decided by Congress or voters.) It’s an interesting story, largely ignored in previous films on the subject. The beautiful New Brunswick location allows for an accurate replication of the close-knit community and its daily routines. Maxwell also does a nice job setting up the climatic confrontation between the mostly pro-war community, led by a holier-than-thou abolitionist (Angus Macfadyen), and the Copperhead in its midst. The story’s melodramatic through-line derives from the decision by Beech’s son (Casey Thomas Brown) to join the union army, seemingly influenced by his love for the abolitionist’s daughter. Although no battle scenes were shot for “Copperhead,” the ugliness of the conflagration is addressed in first-hand reports from the front. It doesn’t quite make up for the limitations posed by a limited budget, but Civil War buffs should applaud the attention paid to this little-known aspect of the war at home. – Gary Dretzka

Lifetime: The Gabby Douglas Story
Cowgirls ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer
One of the great stories to emerge from the Summer Olympics, in London, was that of gymnast Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas. It also produced one of the most memorable photographs of 2012, as it was taken of the future champion in mid-leap, legs parallel to the balance beam and her torso at a 90-degree angle, allowing her head to face the heavens. Much was made, of course, of Gabby being the first African-American to win an individual all-around event and being a member of our gold-medal gymnastics team. That she overcame an illness at an early age and a humble financial background to get to London would have provided enough grist for reporters. Being African-American in a sport dominated by tiny Americans, Eastern Europeans and Asians made her an instant star and role model. The Lifetime movie, “The Gabby Douglas Story,” follows her from her Virginia Beach home, where her cheerleader sister funneled the girl’s energy into perfecting cartwheels and flips, to coach Liang Chow’s training facility in Iowa. The movie adds homesickness and a serious training injury to the list obstacles laid in her path. How much of her story is exaggerated for dramatic impact, I couldn’t say. Gabby’s accomplishments, of course, are indisputable. So, too, is the appeal of “The Gabby Douglas Story” to young athletes and their parents.

Fox’s “Cowgirls ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer” targets almost exactly the same demographic as the made-for-Lifetime picture, but it takes place in a very different arena. It describes the transformation of an angry teenager from hellion to model daughter. Seventeen-year-old Dakota Rose lives in a part of the country where routinely girls participate in competitive trick riding and barrel racing, while their male counterparts accept the rougher challenges of the rodeo game. One day, when her parents admit to her that she was adopted, she comes apart at the seams. She condemns them for hiding the truth and preventing her from finding her true parents. Uncontrollable, Dakota agrees to spend the summer with her rodeo-legend grandfather (Keith Carradine), who, she quickly discovers, will only put up with so much of her crap before going all cowboy on her. It happens when the girl stumbles upon the identity of her birth mother and sneaks around to make her acquaintance. What happens next in “Dakota’s Summer” has already played out in dozens of other movies about adopted kids seeking out their birth parents, so no spoiler alerts are necessary. Even so, writer/director Timothy Armstrong keeps the pace lively and the moralizing to a minimum, when a couple of buff guys enter the picture. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
BBC: Ripper Street: Season 2: Blu-ray
PBS/BBC: The Bletchley Circle: Season 2
PBS: The Making of a Lady
PBS: Murder on the Home Front
PBS: Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin
PBS: The Hidden Art of Islam
ToonsTV: Angry Birds Toons: Season 01 Volume 02
PBS Kids: Between the Lions: Vowel Power
Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Crack-Up
When referring to depictions of the lives, crimes and accomplishments of larger-than-life human beings, two adages come immediately to mind: “Truth is stranger than fiction” and “If so-and-so didn’t exist, Hollywood would have had to invent him.” Of course, Hollywood has never been satisfied merely stating the facts about history’s larger-than-life figures. Embellishing fact with fiction has always been standard operating procedure, especially when a handsomer leading man, prettier leading lady and more exciting acts of heroism can be conjured. The only people who seem to mind are historians, a handful of critics and those who’ve lived long enough to know the truth. In the U.S., Hollywood will continue to churn out fantasies about Billy the Kid, Al Capone and Charles Manson, as long as there’s an audience for such entertainments. In England, the same holds true when considering King Arthur and his knights, Robin Hood and, of course, Jack the Ripper. One need look no further than BBC America for proof that the search for the identity of the man also known as the Whitechapel Murderer and Leather Apron still fascinates viewers. Richard Warlow’s mini-series for the BBC, “Ripper Street,” is set in the crime- and poverty-ridden district of Whitechapel in the wake of the Ripper’s last-known murder. The villain’s crimes previously informed “Whitechapel,” a contemporary BBC series in which a special police unit investigates look-alike murders; the Johnny Depp vehicle, “From Hell”; and a couple dozen true-crime documentaries made for cable television.  Throw in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, the BBC’s 2007 mini-series “Jekyll” and Syfy’s “Sanctuary,” and it’s clear Victorian-era depravity has been well-represented lately. In the second season of “Ripper Street,” the direct memory of the show’s namesake has faded, but other epidemics have kept Whitechapel H Division investigators busy. Among the issues covered are Chinese immigration and the importation of opium, the London match-girls strike of 1888, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse’s War of Currents, occultists’ Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Baring economic crisis. The period-perfect UK-version of the series oozes with atmosphere, especially the stench of corruption and exploitation of women and children.

Currently airing on American PBS outlets is the most unlikely of hit shows, “The Bletchley Circle,” whose heroines are former World War II code-breakers, now serving England as voluntary crime-fighters. A valuable cog in the Allies’ war machine, seven years later they’ve effectively been put out to pasture to make room for male veterans. Given the women’s innate ability to discover clues where none appear to exist, they are able to remain one step ahead of Scotland Yard and military police who no longer feel it necessary to pay any attention to the whims of their womenfolk. In the first season, our heroines patched together seemingly random clues left behind by a murderer. Series Two is comprised of a pair of two-episode stories, loosely connected by a new character and different circumstances. In the first, a top-secret military experiment causes great harm to British soldiers who were misled by their superiors. When a scientist involved in the experiment is murdered, one of the Bletchley ladies is framed for his death. A greater mystery involves her refusal to defend her innocence in court, even though she faces the gallows. In the second chapter, one of the women’s involvement in a Black Market scheme leads to another killing and the revelation of a ring of foreigners smuggling Eastern bloc refugees into England and forcing them into prostitution. “The Bletchley Circle” is an impeccably constructed mystery that captures the aura of Cold War intrigue and paranoia. The acting is excellent and there’s plenty of humor to keep the pace moving forwardly.

The Making of a Lady” is another wonderfully compelling Victorian thriller from Britain. Adapted from a 1901 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, it begins as a romantic drama, but grows gradually darker as time passes. Lydia Wilson plays Emily, a hard-working domestic who lives in a decrepit boarding house, but aspires to become the secretary for her boss, Lady Maria (Joanne Lumley). Smart, pretty and outgoing, Emily catches the eye of Lady Maria’s widowed nephew, Lord James Walderhurst (Linus Roache, of “Law & Order”), who, he’s told, is in desperate need of a wife and heir. So far, the women trotted out for his approval have disappointed him. Almost by accident, he recognizes Emily’s well-sublimated charms and admits his intentions to his aunt, who immediately fires the girl. Lord James retrieves her from the boarding house and marries her. She agrees, but primarily to suit his practical needs. Just as they begin to come together as partners and lovers, however, he’s called to India to join his regiment. It opens the door for Lord James’ cousin (James D’Arcy), his Anglo-Indian wife and sorcerer mother-in-law to conspire against Emily and claim the estate as his by birthright. The longer Emily is left alone, the easier it is for the cousin to plot her doom. Once we know how deep the conspiracy goes, the suspense comes from waiting for James to return home, on time or too late. “Making of a Lady” is really quite exciting. It helps that the action could just as well be happening down the road a bit, at Downton Abbey.

Murder on the Home Front” represents another ITV/PBS-exchange project. If this stylish wartime mystery seems slightly more confusing than most other British imports, it’s because it so willingly crosses lines separating sub-genres. Among other things, there’s the unreasonably vivacious cub reporter who desperately wants to be a crime writer. This not-unreasonable dream leads, however, to Molly Cooper (Tamzin Merchant) accepting a position as assistant to the handsome pathologist Lennox Collins (Patrick Kennedy) she meets at a crime scene. A dogged sort, Molly begins to help Lennox with a case involving a woman found strangled with a swastika carved on her tongue. Their search for more substantial clues is complicated by the devastation caused in the blitz and discovery of more bodies. Taken from the memoirs of Molly Lefebure, director Geoffrey Sax drops more red herrings here than there are silver ones in the Baltic Seas. Plus, no one in the government seems worried that the prime suspect may be convicted and hung before the crime is even solved.

Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin” is an intriguing investigation into the question of whether Russia’s great literary legacy of the 19th and 20th centuries is as dead as freedom in Crimea or the seeds for 21st Century masterpieces have yet to germinate. Comparing the translated works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Solzhenitsyn, and their counterparts in other countries or languages, seems to me to be an excuse merely to introduce to us to the cream of Russia’s contemporary writing crop. Given the interruption of intellectual curiosity caused by the failed Soviet experiment, gulags and three wars, at least, served to destroy the will of many potential authors. It’s also likely that two or three generations of aspiring novelists simply disappeared, with their songs unsung. How many of today’s American authors can be considered to be the equal of their forebears and how much of that is to blame for forays into rock ’n’ roll and screenplays? Still, hosts Stephen Fry and Juliet Stephenson do a commendable job introducing us to such formidable modern writers as Dmitry Bykov, Mariam Petrosyan, Zakhar Prilepin, Anna Starobinets, Vladimir Sorokin and Lyudmila Ultiskaya through their words and those of their characters. They are supplemented by animated sequences and interviews with critics, publishers and other tastemakers. Something tells me that Mr. Putin wouldn’t be unhappy if all of them were arrested and put in cells next to members of Pussy Riot.

For the occasion of an exhibition of Islamic art and calligraphy at the British Museum, the BBC produced “The Hidden Art of Islam.” It is an illuminating documentary on the fissures within the religion which have confused scholars and stifled the creativity of untold thousands of artists, since the first mullah prohibited depictions of humans, religious figures and images of religious rites. At the same time, other interpreters of the Koran have taken a more accommodating stand on the subject. We’re shown examples of both, along with competing interpretations of the Book. The discussion is entirely mindful of the sometimes violent divisions between Shiites, Sunnis and other sects. Instead of arguing one point over the other, the producers provide us examples of commonly accepted works of great value. The most common combine some of civilization’s most beautiful calligraphy with borders comprised of geometrically precise and painstakingly drawn patterns. They’re nothing short of spectacular. Host Rageh Omaar also attempts to determine what forms of art are acceptable for a Muslim and how this artistic tradition has thrived in the hidden art of the Muslim world.

In their brevity, anarchic spirit and debts owed to pioneers of the animation art, the “Angry Birds Toons” remind me of the Steven Spielberg-produced “Animaniacs” and Klasky-Csupo’s “Rugrats.” Although I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in them, the individual three-minute cartoons harken back to a time when no double-feature was complete with a cartoon featuring the Looney Tune gang, Mickey or Donald, or Tom Jerry. They’re fun, if completely meaningless. “Angry Birds Toons” was spun off of the Finnish animated TV series, which, itself, was spun off Rovio’s video-game sensation. This series provides explanations for the rivalry between the birds and the pigs.

Between the Lions: Vowel Power” is another fine example of the growing edu-tainment subgenre of children’s DVDs. From PBS Kids, “Vowel Power” targets children 3-7 who want to have a bit of fun while mastering their vowels. The puppet, animated and live-action show is curriculum based, “a lively, educational blend of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary and other teaching methods for preschool, kindergarten and first-grade students.

Much of the material contained in “The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Crack-Ups” and other recent compilations derives from the mega-collection. As most shrewd collectors know by now, though, the producers hold back certain treasures for later boxes, no matter how complete the marketing drones say it is. “Carol’s Crack-Ups” is so-titled because each of the episode contains a bit that made the participant break down in laughter. Instead of editing out the imperfections, Burnett made sure they stayed in the shows as something of a brand-identifier. Such was the case on Dean Martin’s shows, as well. Unlike most bloopers, these were treats shared with the audience. “Carol’s Crack-Ups” includes 17 uncut episodes on six discs; specially-produced featurettes, “Almost Live,” “Breaking Up Is Hard … Not to Do,” “We Love You, Harvey,” “Tim Conway: Chief Cracker-Upper” and “Tim on the Street”; bonus sketches, “As the Stomach Turns,” “Two-Man Sub,” “The Interrogator” and “The Oldest Man: Fireman”; and an exclusive interview with Tim Conway. Some of the guest stars are Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke, Gloria Swanson, Helen Reddy, John Byner, Petula Clark, Richard Crenna, Roddy McDowall, Ruth Buzzi, and Steve Lawrence.  – Gary Dretzka

Streaming:
Black Water Creek Sasquatch
Aleister Crowley: Legend of the Beast
Alien Encounter at Loch Ness
The Ghostkeepers
Anna: Scream Queen Killer
Sinister Visions
The next time you’re in desperate need of a low-budget movie that combines horror, gore, violence and tits into one scalding package of perversity, don’t look any further than the website for Chemical Entertainment. The same is true for the documentaries that erupt from the depths of the Reality Entertainment, where one can expect to find images of Jesus Christ sandwiched between the Loch Ness Monster and the monster from “13th China: Jersey Devil.” Because I’m on the mailing lists of such companies, finding grindhouse and other exploitation films is a breeze. Niche blogs, some with names too juvenile to mention, also provide clearinghouses for upcoming products. Impulse buying is one area where streaming has a decided edge on the old-fashioned methods of delivery. When one gets a craving for “Black Water Creek Sasquatch” or “Anna: Scream Queen Killer,” having to wait more than two minutes could mean the difference between satisfaction and starvation. These are only two of the companies’ top-shelf movies I found haunting my mail box this month. The others are “Aleister Crowley: Legend of the Beast,” “Alien Encounter at Loch Ness,” “The Ghostkeepers” and “Sinister Visions.” Instead of measuring the ethnic breakdown and median age of Americans, I’d like for the Census Department to ask questions about how many of us believe in the existence of Nessie and Bigfoot. Ditto, the number of verified ghost sightings it would take for the average American to flee his or her home in terror. Knowing ahead of time what gives us the heebie-jeebies could provide a great service for filmmakers and film schools that need to anticipate trends. Why waste good money on zombie flicks, if the public already is losing interest in them? – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Blu-ray
It says a lot about the Hollywood establishment that one of the most entertaining, commercially successful, technically advanced and critically lauded movies of at least the last 10 years failed to be accorded an Academy Award nomination for something other than sound mixing, visual effects and sound editing. I don’t know what else a movie needs to do to be recognized by such an august body of self-satisfied dweebs, but, perhaps, the members drew the line at the bushel bucket full of Oscars thrown at “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2004. Or, perhaps, members of the actors’ branch were attempting to encourage their peers to drop the fantasy routine and get back to performing serious roles. Like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, a little bit of Gandalf goes a long way. While I’ll admit to harboring some of the same sentiments, I still can’t understand why the Academy, in its collective wisdom, couldn’t make a case for “The Desolation of Smaug” being honored as the tenth nominee for Best Motion Picture, if not one of the nine that did make the cut. Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen equally deserving titles as “Philomena,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and, for that matter, Peter Jackson’s mega-epic, so no offense intended, I’m sure. Granted, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is the second entry in a trilogy, which, itself, is a prequel to the”LOTR” trilogy. It can stand on its own merits easily enough, however. If Best Character in an Animated or CGI Picture had been added to the list of categories – along with Best Voice Actor — the Smaug dragon and Benedict Cumberbatch might have won the Daily Double.

Just for the record, “The Desolation of Smaug” finds Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield and a dozen dwarves advancing on Lonely Mountain to retrieve their kingdom and the stolen treasure contained therein. That they meet resistance from all quarters – perhaps, even, an auroch or two from “Beasts of the Southern Wild” – is only to be expected. These are some bad-ass dwarves, however, and Smaug will prove the greatest obstacle of all. The battle royal that consumes most of the movie’s final scene is a real hum-dinger. Even at 161 minutes, the story’s pace never seems forced or the story padded. Not being a Tolkien scholar, it would be difficult for me to say if Jackson’s narrative tweaks detract from or complement the author’s vision. Likewise, I can only speculate as to how “H2” looks in Blu-ray 3D. Given the attention paid to all other details, though, I suspect that it looks terrific. The Blu-ray adds a salute to New Zealand and an entire second disc devoted to bonus material, which will impress buffs but feel redundant to more casual fans. – Gary Dretzka

I Am Divine
My Fair Lidy
Although Divine (a.k.a., Harris Glenn Milstead) was a full-fledged celebrity by the time of his death in 1988, his sole exposure on mainstream American talk shows consisted of single appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman” and “Thicke of the Night.” For those of you born after 1988, Letterman was still at NBC at the time and Alan Thicke’s pop-star son, Robin, was only 7 years old. Today, of course, Divine would have a talk show of his own. The wonderfully nostalgic “I Am Divine” was made by the prolific show-biz documentarian Jeffrey Schwarz, who understands exactly how much contemporary pop culture owes to the dangerously overweight drag superstar, with or without John Waters. (If nothing else, he was posthumously recognized as the inspiration for Ursula the Sea-Witch in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”) The frequently bullied Milstead and Waters, Baltimore’s future “queen and king of bad taste” met during high school and began making no-budget underground films soon thereafter. It wasn’t until the 1972 release of “Pink Flamingos” that they became known outside the Baltimore demi-monde. (Thanks primarily to the infamous poop-eating scene, which still is capable inducing projectile vomiting.) Sixteen years later, “Hairspray” would endear Divine to mainstream audiences. In it, he played the twin roles of the protagonist’s mom, Edna Turnblad, and the segregationist media mogul Arvin Hodgepile. In the Broadway and Hollywood musical adaptations of “Hairspray,” Turnblad would be played by Harvey Fierstein, Michael Kean, Bruce Vilanch, John Pinette, George Wendt and, most famously, John Travolta. Just as the 42-year-old Divine/Milstead had reached the pinnacle of his success, however, even establishing a burgeoning cabaret act, he died of sleep apnea, complicated by obesity. Among the many celebrities and friends paying tribute to the Man Who Would Be Elizabeth Taylor are Waters, Vilanch, Ricki Lake (“he taught me how to walk in high heels”), Tab Hunter, Mink Stole, Michael Musto and his mother, Frances. The DVD arrives with commentary by Schwarz, producer Lotti Phariss Knowles and Mink Stole, as well as 30 minutes of deleted scenes.

Anyone who doubts Divine’s lasting pop-cultural legacy need look no further than Ralph Clemente’s “My Fair Lidy,” in which a working-class Florida youth embraces his feminine side to the consternation of his wife and redneck buddies. Desperate to raise the $400 needed to afford a dental procedure to fix his wife’s “snaggletooth,” the handsome young mechanic, Lidy, exploits his resemblance to Marlene Dietrich to win a prize at a local drag bar. He even learns to approximate her distinctive voice. While the drag performers support his new career choice, Craig Liderman-Lidy’s grease-monkey pals and intolerant wife are far less accommodating. When he finally figures out that his only true friends and family members are his fellow performers at the club, a giant weight is lifted off of his back. If the story is entirely predictable, it’s also easy to enjoy the drag acts and judge them on their merits. Christopher Backus, a dead ringer for Guy Pearce, is appealing as the Lidy/Dietrich, while the real-life female-impersonator Leigh Shannon makes the most out of the supportive Miss Sal. – Gary Dretzka

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones: Blu-ray
Only 31, native Texan Katie Featherston has made a career playing Katie in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise. You could say that she owns the part. With the new-to-DVD “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” and set-for-October “Paranormal Activity 5,” Featherston will have appeared in all six “PA” titles. Only soap-opera actors enjoy such longevity. Enough about Katie/Katie, though, because any more info would require a massive spoiler alert and she isn’t the key figure here. “The Marked Ones” diverts from the usual haunted-house format by going all Mexican-American on us. Here, the primary villain is a “bruja” – Spanish for witch – who does awful things in the first-floor apartment of an Oxnard duplex. When upstairs neighbor and recent high school graduate, Jesse, begins to investigate the strange goings-on … well, let’s not spoil anyone’s fun. Apparently, “The Marked Ones” was specifically made to take advantage of the franchise’s loyal Hispanic following. It isn’t so Hispanic – Latino, take your pick – that subtitles are required for gringo audiences, however. Neither does it exploit the target audience by throwing in tired clichés every 10 minutes, or so. As someone who’s gotten weary of the found-footage format, I found “The Marked Ones” to be reasonably chilling and acceptably surprising in its hauntings. On a cost-per-customer basis, it did OK in its theatrical release. Whether it can sustain a parallel “Marked Ones” franchise depends on how it does in its video afterlife, however. The Blu-ray adds only a handful of deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Cavemen: Blu-ray
What happens when a first-time director and second-time writer combines the clichés of bromances and sitcoms into one vapid package? Herschel Faber’s “Cavemen.” The only things keeping it from drowning are the setting – L.A.’s increasingly lively Arts District – and the exotic Camille Belle, whose visual appeal is magnetic. As one might guess from the title, “Cavemen,” the story involves a loft inhabited by a small army of single guys and the occasional overnight visitor of the female persuasion. An eviction notice prompts the boys to think about giving up the singles game and settling down, but not without one last party. Among other things, it provides the terminally non-committal Dean (Skylar Astin) his final opportunity to seal the deal with his longtime “best friend” and confidant, Tess (Belle). She’s grown tired of playing second-fiddle to the aspiring screenwriter’s romantic writer’s block. If “Cavemen” hadn’t found a theatrical distributor, it could have been submitted to a network for consideration as a sitcom pilot. It’s that inconsequential. To be fair, however, the young and attractive cast tries very hard to keep the story from going belly up in the first half-hour. The nightlife and downtown scenes are well-rendered, as well. If better parts don’t start coming her way, my fear is that movie audiences could soon lose Belle (“The Ballad of Jack and Rose”) to a television series, not unlike “New Girl” and the eternally quirky Zooey Deschanel. There are no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Grudge Match
This completely unnecessary boxing movie stars Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, as a pair of over-the-hill fighters desperate to settle an old score. Essentially, Henry “Razor” Sharpe and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen are stand-ins for Rocky Balboa and Jake La Motta. The premise resembles the plot of 2006’s “Rocky Balboa,” in which the former champ comes out of retirement to fight a far younger Mason “The Line” Dixon. Rocky overheard some boxing experts argue about a video game, featuring the two men, and wanted to prove them wrong. In “Grudge Match,” the Kid remains pissed off that he wasn’t given a rematch in what was supposed to be a best-of-three series and still thinks he can beat Razor. He’s also upset that his foe stole his girlfriend (Kim Basinger). For his part, Razor sees the whole thing as an annoyance. Red-hot Kevin Hart plays the son of a Don King-like promoter, attempting to get Razor and the Kid to put on motion-capture gear for a video game pitting the two. One thing leads to another and they reluctantly agree to a main event. Adding to the appeal to younger audiences is the inclusion of the Kid’s estranged son B.J. (Jon Bernthal), whose mother jilted the boxer to go with Razor. If everything else rings hollow, the fighting scenes are convincingly staged by director Peter Segal. Also making her debut appearance is Basinger and Alec Baldwin’s daughter, Ireland Basinger Baldwin, as Young Sally. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a pretty good making-of featurette, backgrounders, one of which stars Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfeld, and alternate endings and beginning scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Bayou Blue
Anyone who was completely bowled over by HBO’s “True Detective” already understands the power of the environmental ambience of southern Louisiana’s bayou country. Like so many other wilderness areas, the natural beauty frequently masks the most heinous of man-made crimes. I don’t know if those responsible for the HBO mini-series had seen “Bayou Blue” before setting out on their not dissimilar journeys – the serial killer in each story is deranged in his own unique way – but it’s entirely possible that they had. Where “True Detective” is a work fiction informed both by a case of so-called Satanic possession, revealed in 2005, and an 1895 anthology of horror stories about a fictional play, “The King in Yellow,” “Bayou Blue” is a documentary based on a very real criminal investigation. From 1997 to 2006, self-admitted serial killer Ronald Dominique raped and killed between 8-23 men in poverty-stricken Southeastern Louisiana. The case was broken after an intended victim escaped Dominique’s control and his identity was confirmed through DNA evidence. He is serving eight consecutive life sentences, which, we’re reminded, means that Dominique will never be eligible for parole. That much, at least, is indisputable and little pity need be reserved for the killer. One of the most salient points made by Alix Lambert (“The Mark of Cain”) and David McMahon (“Skanks”) is the lack of interest in the case shown by the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets, even after being alerted to its immensity. According to a local reporter, the Times dismissed it as being of “regional interest.” Even so, much of the film’s power derives from Lambert and McMahon’s willingness to locate the scenes of the crimes and describe how such evil could impact a community whose primary kinship is poverty. Dominique refused requests for an interview, but his recorded voice from police interviews couldn’t be more haunting. The scenes filmed at night, retracing the steps of the killer and his victims, could have come from outtakes of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” – Gary Dretzka

Black Jack: 35th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Watching Ken Loach’s rollicking picaresque, “Black Jack,” I was reminded of the live-action yarns Disney has been churning out since 1950’s imagination-expanding adventure, “Treasure Island,” and continues to do so today with every new “Pirates of the Caribbean” installment. Adapted from the classic children’s novel by Leon Garfield, “Black Jack” looks far more formidable than it is. The thick Yorkshire accents, which frequently require subtitles, would challenge an adult, let alone a child, but the story compares to the adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. The most memorable involve children, forced by circumstances to navigate their way through a world complicated by scoundrels, villains, insurmountable physical obstacles, bigotry and elitism. More than anything else, however, these are stories that stir the imaginations of young people looking for ways to break the chains of conformity. A decade after the triumphs of “Kes” and “Poor Cow,” Loach’s career was stuck in the doldrums. Forced to confine himself to documentaries and TV series, he was given a too-small budget and too-short schedule to make “Black Jack.” Nevertheless, even after severe editing, it was awarded the first of many prizes the writer/director would carry home from Cannes. It also was nominated for top honors at the Chicago International Film Festival.

The story’s protagonist, Tolly, is a poor boy lacking the wherewithal to refuse the orders of his elders or to strike out on his own in a countryside still plagued by highwaymen, rebels and rogues. His first encounter with the notorious outlaw Black Jack comes when he ordered to keep watch on the coffin to which he’s recently by confined. Before being escorted to the gallows, the doomed man had inserted a spoon or pipe into his throat to prevent the rope from snapping his neck. He’s arranged for the undertaker to have his body placed in a coffin, from which he can escape when the timing is right. Of course, Tolly was as shocked by the man’s resurrection as anyone would be. Jack (Jean Franval) enlists the unwilling Tolly (Stephen Hirst) to act as his voice and errand boy, In turn, Tolly and Jack rescue a rambunctious girl from the privileged family that wants to commit her to Bedlam, so she won’t be around when her sister begins receiving suitors. Together, they survive the Dickensian streets of London and join a traveling circus, which takes them to other places where corruption, danger and highway robbery await them. Thanks to Loach’s obsessive attention to 18th Century detail, “Black Jack” is a lot of fun for pre-teens and parents, alike. The interesting thing about this Cohen Media Blu-ray is its status as a “director’s cut” version of the original. Financed in 2010 with a grant from the British Film Institute, actually shortened the movie by about 10 minutes. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Loach and scenes deleted in the re-mastering process. – Gary Dretzka

Don’t Ask Me Questions: The Unsung Life of Graham Parker and the Rumour
One of the more entertaining things about being a lifelong fan of rock ’n’ roll is reading the many lists of top albums and arguing about them afterward. Limiting such lists to 100 titles or even 500 is something of a fool’s errand. Although it isn’t difficult to find a consensus about the top 20 in any given decade or genre, there simply have been too many excellent-to-great releases over the last 60 years for such surveys to be meaningful. Then, too, far too many post-WWII African-American artists are routinely relegated to the R&B category, when, if fact, they had already invented rock ’n’ roll. I bring this up because the British rock ensemble and blue-eyed-soul specialists Graham Parker and the Rumour have done far better on polls than in sales. Their 1976 breakthrough album, “Howlin’ Wind,” and balls-out 1979 release “Squeezing Out Sparks” both made the cut in Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 100 Albums From 1967-1987. In 2003, “Squeezing Out Sparks” landed at No. 335 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Those are no small feats. Sadly, though, such recognition failed to make Parker a superstar at the only place they really matter. It also explains the title of the new video bio-disc, “Don’t Ask Me Questions: The Unsung Life of Graham Parker and the Rumour.” Parker’s biggest hurdle was debuting at a time when punk was about to explode, as were the better-marketed Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. The description, “uncompromising,” did him no favors, either. For the next 40 years, Parker (mostly minus the Rumour) kept on keepin’ on during concert tours and the occasional album, both supported by an enthusiastic Boomer following. Indeed, in the Judd Apatow film, “This Is 40,” Parker and Rumour played themselves as a touchstone memory for the characters. Michael Gramaglia’s affectionate rock-doc introduces newcomers to the songs that made Parker famous and fills in the gaps in time for his loyal following. It features interviews with Parker, various members of the Rumour, Apatow, Nick Lowe and Bruce Springsteen, among other recognizable names. – Gary Dretzka

Henry Jaglom Collection Volume 3: The Women’s Quartet
Some idiosyncratic movie buffs can measure their love affair with the cinema from their first encounter with a Henry Jaglom picture. They might have observed, “Well, that’s different … I’ll need some time to figure it out.” For almost all of his 40-plus years as an auteur, Jaglom has made a science of confounding, confusing and riling viewers. Critics, too, seemed to be divided on the value of such naturalistic portraits of the artist’s friends, collaborators and relatives. Having amassed a sizable “cult following,” Jaglom demanded their attention, whether or not they wanted to give it to him. No one put a gun to their head, forcing them to watch or comment on movies that, frankly, baffled them. If Jaglom seemed obsessed with Orson Welles, well, he was a better choice than most others he could have adopted as muse. Over time, however, the mountain would meet Mohammad half-way and the gap between viewers and the filmmaker would narrow dramatically. Because his movies are less concerned with plots and narrative, than, say, ideas and themes, it’s been easy for Rainbow Releasing and Breaking Glass Pictures to create individual packages based on them. “Henry Jaglom Collection Volume 3: The Women’s Quartet,” follows on the heels of “Volume 1: Love and Romance” and “Volume 2: The Comedies.” None of his films are completely devoid of love, romance, comedy or drama, but some fit more easily into certain categories. He doesn’t appear on screen in “Eating” (1990), “Babyfever” (1994), “Going Shopping” (2007), and “Irene in Time” (2009), but, because of his affection for the women cast in them, these titles are certainly among his most personal. They include a who’s who of actresses who’ve fallen off Hollywood’s radar screen, as well as some feisty newcomers. Tanna Frederick is Jaglom’s current muse, but also represented are Frances Fisher, Mary Crosby, Victoria Foyt, Mae Whitman, Frances Bergen, Victoria Tennant, Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Lee Grant and Toni Basil. All still have/had things to offer the industry and audiences, but, today, it’s the rare filmmaker who asks them to share it with us. – Gary Dretzka

Marilyn & the Senator
Jekyll & Hyde Portfolio/A Clockwork Blue: Blu-ray
Lust for Freedom
There are a couple of things to know about Carlos Tobalina’s 1975 porn epic, “Marilyn & the Senator,” before investing too much money and 121 minutes of time into it. One, anyone who thinks that the title refers to any of the brothers Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe will be disappointed. The movie’s original title was “Swinging Senators,” but unauthorized shots of the Watergate Hotel suggest later scandals, involving congressmen Wayne Hays and Wilbur Mills; Hays’ clerk/secretary/escort Elizabeth Ray, who bore a likeness to Monroe and leading lady Nina Fause; and Mills’ stripper/mistress, Fanne Foxe, who more resembled porn star Vanessa del Rio. The other important thing to know going into “Marilyn & the Senator” is that co-star William Margold’s hilariously candid commentary track is far more entertaining than anything in the movie. He holds nothing back on his opinions of the actors, directors and how he looks having sex. He even points out how Tobalina managed to get shots of the Watergate and an NFL game, which might have landed the production in a heap of trouble at the time. The plot, such as it is, involves a beautiful blond CIA agent, Marilyn, who wants to pay a married senator $10,000 to impregnate her … as if. Without the advantage of Viagra or Cialis, that’s no small trick. Arriving at the dawn of the Golden Age of Porn, filmmakers were still interested in giving their customers stories made within a traditional narrative framework. Fans would have to wait another couple of years, though, for actresses who actually knew how to act. “Marilyn & the Senator” arrives in home video for the first time in its full-length director’s cut, scanned from the 35mm camera negatives and restored in 2K.

Also from cult-film-preservationist Vinegar Syndrome comes “Jekyll & Hyde Portfolio” and “A Clockwork Blue,” both of which predate “Deep Throat” by a few minutes. They’re being presented as part of the company’s “Drive-In Double-Feature Collection,” as a salute to the less-than-prolific director, Eric Jeffrey Haims. While the former bears a passable resemblance to the source material, the latter should remind exactly no one of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” “Jekyll & Hyde Portfolio” looks vaguely like a Hammer gore-fest, with some T&A and sadism thrown in for kicks and giggles. The print is way below par, which means it must have been unwatchable when picked up by VS for re-mastering. Somehow, by contrast, “A Clockwork Blue” looks fresh as a daisy. In it, a hippie-dippy researcher, Homer, travels through history, discovering the erotic secrets of the past. The sex is predominantly of the soft-core variety.

A 1986 Troma Entertainment pickup, “Lust for Freedom” was written, produced and directed by Eric Louzil, who would go on to make two sequels to “Class of Nuke ‘Em High” and “Bikini Beach Race,” best-known for a cast that includes Dana Plato, Ron Jeremy and Edgar Allan Poe IV. In her sole acting credit, the gorgeous undercover cop Gillian Kaites is implicated in the slaying of her boyfriend during a sting operation and is sentenced to prison. While in stir, she discovers a system that’s completely corrupt and brutal to the inmates, who seem to take an inordinate number of showers. “Lust for Freedom,” which also features the music of Grim Reaper, will be of interest primarily to women-in-prison completests. It comes with an interview with producer Lloyd Kaufman, conducted by Louzil. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
BBC/Discovery: Earthflight: The Complete Series
Winged Planet: An Earthflight Film
Nature: Ireland’s Wild River: Blu-ray
So many outstanding nature documentaries have been made for television in the last 10 years, it’s difficult to imagine how a new mini-series could be any more spectacular than the one that preceded it. Shown here originally on the Discovery Channel, “Earthflight” is going to be a tough one to beat, in that viewers are literally invited to share the same airspace with the bids. Narrated by David Tennant (“Doctor Who”), it is so brilliantly photographed, there are times when the images of birds in flight look as if they might have been rendered by the CGI jockeys at Pixar. Instead, individual birds have been outfitted with mini-cameras both for extreme close-ups and spectacular long-distance images. Easier to control are the drones, light aircraft and life-like dummies that capture the birds as they interact with other species on their pit stops. One dramatic example demonstrates how birds benefit from observing the hunting and feeding patterns of sharks, dolphins and whales, and benefit from their leftovers. The same thing happens when African vultures spot herds of migrating wildebeest and wait for the laggards to be killed by predators or break their legs attempting to escape them. It’s absolutely spectacular. “Earthflight” is divided into six equal parts: North America, Africa, Europe, South America, Asia and Australia, and “Flying High,” about the creation of the series and training of some of the birds. Parents will be every bit as impressed by the material as their kids, who will forever look at birds from a different perspective. “Winged Planet: An Earthflight Film” is a 90-minute condensation of the 360 minute series.

Ireland’s Wild River” is a presentation of the PBS series, “Nature,” shot in hi-def and detailing only one small part of our eco-sphere. Host and cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson spent a year living on the Shannon River and tributaries, at eye-level with its particular flora and fauna. His explorations are undertaken in a traditional canoe, so as to make the fewest possible ripples and get as close to the shore as possible. Each new season brings different discoveries and the arrivals and departures of migratory wildlife. The photography, which isn’t limited to what can be seen above the surface of the water, is nothing short of awe-inspiring. It’s almost as if the animals got so used to sharing their habitat with Stafford-Johnson that they forgot he was there. – Gary Dretzka

Mayberry R.F.D: Complete First Season
I live in one of many communities across the country that are referred to by residents as Mayberry. Even though our Mayberry is 25 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, it has no streetlights, parking meters, drive-through restaurants or malls. We live in the shadow of a mountain, occasionally are visited by bears and cougars, and there’s a park where concerts and socials occur in the summer. Like the TV series that bears the name “Mayberry R.F.D.” – a.k.a., Mount Airy, N.C. – next to nothing happens here and that’s the way the residents like it. The last time there was a hullaballoo, a developer had convinced a number of council members to break their pledge to constituents by approving a multi-level parking lot and mixed-use building on a vacant corner of the town square. The voters simultaneously vetoed the proposal and voted the bums out of office. In the otherwise tumultuous 1960s, American viewers invited “The Andy Griffith Show” and spinoff series “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and “Mayberry R.F.D.” into their homes each week. The possibility that there was a place in this agitated nation, where nothing happened that couldn’t be fixed in 24 minutes, was tremendously appealing. “Mayberry,” which effectively replaced Opie and Andy, got a huge boost when it was announced that Sheriff Andy Taylor and Helen Crump would be married on the first episode. Griffith would make occasional return appearances, but none that directed attention away from star Ken Berry. His character, too, is raising an orphan son, and hires Aunt Bee to make life easier for them on the farm. Berry’s Sam Jones is so exceedingly nice and reasonable that Aunt Bee immediately becomes the show’s Eddie Haskell to Buddy Foster’s Beaver Cleaver. (He’s the older brother of Jodie Foster.) The 26 color episodes in the new “Complete First Season” collection have been given a fresh polish and, for a 45-year-old product, look very good. I think that “Mayberry R.F.D.,” even more so than “The Andy Griffith Show,” is what Republicans mean when they emphasize the “family values” idyll: no crime, no minorities, no rock ’n’ roll and nothing to do. – Gary Dretzka

Tracie Long’s Longevity: Staying Power
I find it remarkable that one of the things that’s survived the seismic transition from VHS to DVD is the “workout tape.” But, why not? If Jane Fonda’s still churning them out, some folks must still be exercising at home. Long associated with the exercise regimen, the Firm, whose sales reportedly have exceeded 100 million units worldwide, Tracie Long recently set out on her own. Her DVDs are targeted to women and moms, over 35, who share certain physical limitations and scheduling issues. In the almost immediate wake of Long’s “Focus Series” comes “The Tracie Long Longevity Series,” which is broken up into 50- minute workouts. “Defining Shape” is designed to increase lean-muscle mass, focusing on the lower body and shoulders. “Staying Power” is an “interval style” discipline that delivers a balanced total-body challenge, concentrating on overall cardiovascular performance. “Step Forward” targets women’s legs with a range of motions and tempos. The workouts are intended to “ignite” a participant’s calorie-burning power and define shape, using high-energy, total-body-strength workouts and training exercises that combine upper and lower body movement to increase strength, create lean muscles and burn more calories than isolated muscle training, alone. I’m exhausted just writing this. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: Blu-ray
I’m not sure the world was crying out for a sequel to 2004’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” – oops, almost wrote “Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy” – when the idea for “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” popped into the heads of Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Judd Apatow. In the original, Ferrell parodied an especially ridiculous example of a 1970 local-news anchor. San Diego’s Harold Greene provided the model, but it could have been based on any one of a dozen such pompous twits. (Ted Knight’s unctuous newsreader on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was modeled after the SoCal anchor, George Putnam.) It would have been difficult for Ferrell to top the on-screen antics of actual 1970s anchors, but, because most of the audience for “Anchorman” was born after the happy-talk craze cooled, viewers might have seen it as pure invention. Adding to the madness were bombastic sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), “ladies man” reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and the incredibly stupid weather guy, Brick Tamland (Steve Carell). “Anchorman” returned a lot of money for DreamWorks and Apatow Productions, even if many pundits considered it to be little more than a particularly funny “Saturday Night Live” sketch. In 2006, rights to DreamWorks’ catalog would transfer to Paramount, whose bean-counters initially doubted the potential for a sequel. After squeezing some payroll concessions from core cast members, “Anchorman 2” was put on the front-burner and it’s done similarly well at the box office. The credit for that belongs, at least in part, to a saturation-marketing campaign that included appearances by Burgandy on actual news outlets, ESPN and commercials for automobiles. Normally, such a campaign would have cost Paramount a fortune, but today’s news executives would rather save money exploiting fake news and car chases than shell out for coverage of actual events.

The plot of “Anchorman 2” recalls the shaky debut of CNN and the 24-hour news cycle. It may be ubiquitous now, but, 30 years ago, it depended on Ted Turner’s pride and purse for success. After a shaky beginning, CNN would capture the public’s attention by providing wall-to-wall coverage of the Challenger disaster and rescue of 18-month-old Baby Jessica, who fell down a well in Midland, Texas. (The same strategy is currently working for CNN with its saturation coverage of the Flight 370 mystery.) Six years after Burgandy and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) accepted a job co-anchoring a show for a prestigious news operation in New York, she’s promoted to a solo-anchor spot and he’s fired. So jealous it burns, Burgandy walks out on Corningstone and their 6-year-old son. After a humiliating return to San Diego, he somehow manages to catch the attention of executives of the fledgling all-news GNN. He agrees to come on board, but only if he can reunite the old news team. After all, how much damage could these clowns do on the graveyard shift? Plenty, as it turns out. It isn’t until Burgandy throws aside the scripts and begins to ad-lib the news report that his demented babbling finds a loyal fan base of insomniacs and tavern patrons.  Much to the consternation of his fellow professionals at GNN and ex-wife, Burgandy’s ratings begin to go through the roof and the team gets a shot at prime time. Think of “Anchorman 2” as a dumbed hybrid of “Network” and “Broadcast News” and you’ll get the picture. The rest of the story is too flat-out goofy to explain, so I won’t even try. As you can imagine, the humor ranges from inspired to juvenile, with most of the weight on the latter. In addition to the cast members already mentioned, there’s a couple dozen other familiar faces that pop in and out of the story. One edition of the Blu-ray arrives with the 118-minute theatrical version, 122-minute unrated version and “super-sized” R-rated version, which boasts 763 new jokes. There’s also commentary with director/co-writer Adam McKay, co-writer/producer Judd Apatow, Ferrell, Carell, Rudd and Koechner; five behind-the-scenes featurettes; more than 90 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes; a pair of “line-o-rama” outtakes and gag reels; audition tapes; table reads; and script read-throughs. – Gary Dretzka

Knights of Badassdom: Blu-ray
In comparison to the seriously undernourished “Knights of Badassdom,” “Anchorman 2” feels inspired. As easy targets go, “live action role players” rank right up there with Trekkies and Bronies. Joe Lynch’s erratic comedy describes what happens when a collection of make-believe knights, elves and other medieval characters gather to re-enact the “Battle of Evermore” and score points toward some kind of mythical crown. What makes this competition different than a dozen others is the acquisition, through E-bay, of an ancient book of magic. With it, Eric the Wizard (Steve Zahn) hopes to find spells and other recipes for disaster to gain an edge on his team’s opponents. Most of the writing is indecipherable, but, in Eric’s hands, the parts that are legible are also the most dangerous. So, while members of other teams, honing their weapons and devising Trojan horses and vehicles of fake destruction, Eric’s conjured an actual mini-Godzilla. The teams fly their geek flags as if they were bestowed on them by King Arthur or Princess Leia, personally. Their leaders affect a language that’s a cross between old English and Klingon. There are as many rules as there are competitors and everyone maintains a separate identity consistent with the team’s chosen mythology. There’s also room made for some nerdy romance, but, as welcome as she is, it’s impossible to believe that a woman as scintillating as ballerina/model/actress Summer Glau would fall for it. The movie’s backstory explains the disjointed look of the finished product. Completed in 2010, the footage was taken away by producers who felt that they could do a better job in post-production than the creators, themselves. Who knows, maybe “Knights” really was that terrible and this version is an improvement. Stranger things have happened in Hollywood, I guess. My guess is that the producers decided to complete the project when one of them realized how much the reputations of the cast members had grown in four years. Among those whose careers had blossomed in the meantime are a pre-“Game of Crowns” Peter Dinklage, who remains the best reason to watch “Knights.” There’s also Ryan Kwanten (“True Blood”), W. Earl Brown (“Deadwood”), Margarita Levieva (“Revenge”), Danny Pudi (“Community”), Brian Posehn (“The Sarah Silverman Show”) and Joshua Malina (“Scandal”). – Gary Dretzka

At Middleton: Blu-ray
Academy Award nominees Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga apply their considerable talents to an indie rom-dram that should resonate with parents of kids in their senior year at high school. “At Middleton” takes place during one of the modern age’s most familiar rites of passage: the annual tour of colleges by prospective freshman and their parents. Like so many baby birds prodded from the nest by their elders, students get their first real taste of freedom and a view of the world afforded by being so far away from the comfort and conformity of their hometowns. Some meet kids who will become lifelong friends and discover opportunities they never knew existed. For their part, parents get their first inkling of how it might feel to lose one of their own, if only until they move back home after college. The twist in Adam Rodgers and Glenn German’s debut feature comes when adult strangers, played well by Garcia and Farmiga, decide to split from the tour and check out the school on their own. Left to their own devices, these polar opposites — George is uptight, Edith a bit of a free spirit –experience a different kind of freedom.

Both have reached the point of diminishing returns in their marriages and must decide if they’ll stay the course of attempt to realize what’s left of their potential. They make the most of their time together by sharing their frustrations, secrets, dreams and hopes for their children. Finally, once they get past their defense mechanisms, they fall into something resembling puppy love. Meanwhile, Audrey and Conrad are playing adult for perhaps the first time in their young lives, attempting to make well-reasoned decisions based on variables they can’t even see. As played by Spencer Lofranco and Taissa Farmiga (Vera’s sister), the kids aren’t nearly as different from their parents as they think. At first, Audrey and Conrad are attracted to each other by their mutual good looks and a shared embarrassment over their parents’ idiosyncracies. As the day progresses, however, it’s possible to see how first impressions might give way to the realities of adulthood. If they choose Middleton, anything could happen.

Despite its considerable charms, “At Middleton” comes off like a well-meaning made-for-cable movie … too saccharine by half. George’s preference for bowties and nerdy eyeglasses tells us everything we need to know about him, almost at first glance. Edith is more likeable, but ultimately too needy for viewers to fully embrace. Their best scene together comes when they’re adopted by a pair of Middleton students, who offer them refuge in their dorm and a bong to loosen their buns. You can practically taste the scenery Garcia and Farmiga are chewing. The movie’s biggest negative, in my opinion, is any perspective on the value of diversity in a college program. Because a year at Middleton probably ranges between $40,000-50,000, the kids will be surrounded by the cream of the American education system and, more likely than not, encouraged to follow a pre-determined path to their futures. It isn’t likely that either candidate would experience the kind of diverse, broad-based experience a public institution might provide. Like it or not, though, schools like Middleton are exactly what people in the movie industry think of first when considering colleges for their offspring. Also along for the ride are old pros Peter Reigert and Tom Skerritt. – Gary Dretzka

Behind Enemy Lines: SEAL Team 8
That our military has boots on the ground in several African hot spots shouldn’t come as news to anyone who reads the New York Times or monitors the BBC. Our interests there are many and varied. That Tom Sizemore is in charge of one of our elite fighting units – as evidenced in the fictional “Behind Enemy Lines: SEAL Team 8” – might come as something of a surprise to people who prefer the gossip rags, however. Once one of the actors most in demand to play soldiers, cops or criminals in a movie, Sizemore instead became an odds-on favorite to win the Hollywood Dead Pool. He continually put his life and career on the line, preferring drugs and other illegal pursuits to maintaining his insurability. Neither did his image improve when became engaged to the equally hapless Heidi Fleiss. Since getting cleaned up, however, the Detroit native seems to have found plenty of work, albeit in movies that tend to go straight-to-DVD. As befits a man of 52, Sizemore is kept out of harm’s way here by playing the off-site leader of a SEAL team, whose activities can be monitored via cameras on drones and satellites. They’ve been assigned to locate a clandestine African mining operation, rescue hostages and prevent the sale of weapons-grade uranium to international terrorists. A subsequent unsanctioned search takes the SEALs much deeper into enemy territory, where they’re seriously outnumbered and possibly outgunned. Working in the team’s favor, however, are the pilotless planes armed with Hellfire missiles and communications devices that know no border. It should surprise anyone when a rescued hostage turns out to be working both sides of the street.  Even so, the Congolese irregulars are a formidable fighting force and their terrorist sponsors are ruthless. The “Behind Enemy Lines” franchise has done pretty well for itself on home video and it’s easy to see why. By combining video-game point-and-shoot action with over-the-top violence, “SEAL Team 8” is often quite exciting and reasonably credible. In addition to Sizemore, the movie offers this week’s winner of our Name of the Week contest: Lex Shrapnel. – Gary Dretzka

Loves Her Gun
The Contenders
In writer/director Geoff Marslett’s loosey-goosey drama, “Loves Her Gun,” a young woman is doomed to make the kind of foolish decisions that are bound to put her a path toward almost certain disaster. From the title, we already know that gun-lust will play a key role either in her demise or salvation. How it will impact those within Allie’s orbit is another story altogether. On one fairly typical night, she attends a concert performed by musicians wearing karate gis and doing something resembling the Wave with their arms. On her way home from a funky Brooklyn club, Allie (Trieste Kelly Dunn) is mugged by a pair of guys wearing suits, ties and animal masks. Her decision to walk through an empty warehouse district at night, alone, is only the first of several colossal mistakes she’ll make. Freaked out, nonetheless, Allie begs a ride with the band to Austin, a haven deep in the heart of Texas for hipsters, cosmic cowboys and musicians. It doesn’t take her long to locate safe places to crash, feel comfortable in the city’s laid-back bar scene and adapting to the “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” lifestyle. Obviously still unnerved from the attack, Allie is encouraged to buy a pistol by the women for whom she works in a landscaping business. Everyone in Texas has one, she’s told, and, once mastered, they can provide a suitable alternative to vibrators and dildos. And, indeed, she does fall in lust with her pet firearm. Because not everyone in Texas is as conscientious about gun ownership as, say, Ted Nugent, no one bothers to explain to her the difference between pointing a gun at a paper target and a human being. Already a fuse waiting to be lit, Allie reacts to any disturbance in the neighborhood by grabbing the weapon and demanding immediate results. If it’s easy for viewers to predict how things might progress from her first day on the target range to the movie’s abrupt climax, I’ve fudged the details enough to maintain an element of surprise. Clearly made on a tight budget, “Loves Her Gun” will remind some viewers of a Mumblecore production, minus the laughs. Marslett and DP Amy Bench nicely capture Austin vibe, apart from the hook-’em-horns yahoos, and Dunn portrays a woman crushed by violence extremely well.

Sometimes, multi-hyphenate performers are too self-absorbed to notice when they’ve added one hyphen too many to their credits. That’s certainly the case with Marta Mondelli’s stagnant relationship drama, “The Contenders.” Informed primarily by such brainy folks as August Strindberg, Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer, it’s mostly an exercise in yuppie angst. Five youngish adults are invited to a weekend-long birthday party at their swank beach house. Before the first candle is blown out, however, the birthday girl complains of a headache, then goes upstairs for a nap and dies. Bummer, for sure. What’s worse, however, are the endless and intellectually pointless conversations the death inspires. In addition to writing and directing, Mondelli plays a pipe-smoking hottie who claims to know the secret to happiness but refuses to spill the beans. (Hint: it’s not having the bread to afford a swell beach house.) On the plus side, her movie is only 75 minutes long. – Gary Dretzka

Low
At a mere 70 minutes, “Low” is as much a short film as a feature. More often than not, brevity and concise storytelling work in the favor of horror and psychodramas, in which too much information can be as destructive as too little. Ross Shepherd’s sophomore film opens with an unassuming young woman crossing into an open meadow, carrying a box of ominous size. Shortly after burying the box, Alice is confronted by a slightly older and far creepier man, with longish hair and round spectacles. Edward demands that Alice take him to the place in the field where she buried the box. How he knew that Alice was concealing a secret as dastardly as his own is anyone’s guess. Flashbacks will help explain how the two people came to be in the same place on this particular day, while the rest of “Low” mostly concerns Alice’s attempt to free herself from Edward and an abusive boyfriend back home. It’s really that simple. Once again, the British countryside makes an auspicious setting for horror. – Gary Dretzka

Norma Rae: 35th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Fargo: Remastered Edition: Blu-ray
Right-wing talk-show hosts love to rail against Hollywood liberality, real and imagined. The fact is that money has always trumped personal political beliefs and, no matter how much of it an individual donates to Democratic candidates, liberal filmmakers will turn out militaristic action flicks and zombie movies if they are what’s keeping the turnstiles churning. On the other hand, if biopics about Stalin, Chairman Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro and global warming sold tickets, Rupert Murdoch would instruct his minions at Fox to call in Oliver Stone, Warren Beatty, Michael Moore and Jane Fonda for story conferences. If Hollywood was indeed so liberal, why did Oscar favorites “Dallas Buyers Club,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” need to be rescued by their stars to get financed, made and distributed? The release of the 35th anniversary edition of “Norma Rae,” on Blu-ray, reminded me of the time when message movies did make money for the studios, however reluctant they were to produce them or mirror the ideals they espoused. Martin Ritt’s pro-union drama, starring Sally Field, made plenty of money for Fox, possibly prompting the studio to distribute “Silkwood.” At about the same time, such decidedly progressive films as “Reds,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Missing,” “The China Syndrome,” “Coming Home,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Born on the Fourth of July” found enthusiastic audiences, as well. That period of liberality is long gone, now. Of the tens of thousands of American films produced in the interim, I’d be willing to bet that far more of them espoused traditional, conservative or downright fascist values than those associated with the left.

No one at Fox was enthusiastic about making a pro-union movie or casting Field in the role of the reluctant labor organizer in “Norma Rae.” Still burdened by stereotypes formed during her days playing Gidget and the Flying Nun, she gave one of the most rip-roaring performances by an actor in a decade filled with them. Field played a Southern millworker and party girl, who, after seeing too many of her fellow workers suffer from brown-lung disease, joins forces with a professional organizer from New York (Ron Leibman) to form a union. “Norma Rae” was a grass-roots David-vs.-Goliath story, with easily relatable issues, a beating heart and the ring of truth about it. Before re-watching it last week, I had relegated “Norma Rae” to the sands of time. Even though Americans have since been brainwashed against organized labor, it still packs a powerful punch. There are many fewer clichés and stereotypes than I could remember and even the opposition within the plant demonstrates a dollop of humanity toward Rae, who, after all, is one of their own. It would bring Field her first Academy Award and put her on the A-list for a long time to come. “Norma Rae” was based on the bravery of Crystal Lee Sutton and a 1975 book about her by New York Times reporter Henry “Hank” Leiferman, “Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance.” She was fired from her job at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, for trying to unionize its employees. Beau Bridges, Grace Zabriskie, Pat Hingle, Bob Minor and Gail Strickland are among the recognizable co-stars. The Blu-ray/DVD add “Hollywood Backstory: Norma Rae.”

I don’t know if the release of the re-mastered Blu-ray edition of “Fargo” was timed to coincide with the debut of FX’s mini-series of the same title, on April 15, but it seems likely that it was. Even if the TV show stinks, which I doubt, we’re still getting something new and improved from the deal. It isn’t the first time a television adaptation of the Coen Brothers’ dark comedy has been attempted. The first one, written by Bruce Paltrow and Robert Palm, aired very briefly in 2003 as a made-for-TV movie. It starred a pre-“Sopranos” Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson. The new show will feature Joey King, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Keith Carradine, Bob Odenkirk and Oliver Platt. The great thing about the original movie is that fans can find something new in every viewing, by focusing on the backgrounds, office shelves and deceptively clever dialogue. The new edition retrieves commentary with director of photography Roger Deakins, the featurettes “Minnesota Nice” and “Trivia Nice,” an article from American Cinematographer and BD-Live. – Gary Dretzka

Campaign of Hate: Russia and Gay Propaganda
The more we hear from Russia about its official stance on homosexuality, the more Vladimir Putin sounds like Adolph Hitler. He may have had his bluff called on the subject before the Sochi Olympics, but, since then, nothing has stopped him from attacking people who had few enough allies in Russia. Would it surprise anyone if Putin’s allies in the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church demanded that these undesirables by forced to wear pink stars on their clothes. They use the same rhetoric once directed at the Jews of Europe by Hitler and have even called out party thugs to break up rallies and suppress public demonstrations of affection. By annexing the Crimean Peninsula, the historical parallels are now too close to ignore. Next will come measures to limit the movement of Muslims and other non-Russian minorities.  In Michael Lucas’ penetrating documentary, “Campaign of Hate: Russia and Gay Propaganda,” we meet and hear from a couple dozen people who are most directly affected by the new laws and physical attacks. Because several of them have already decided to get out of Russian while the getting is still good, the witnesses might as well be speaking for the gays and lesbians trapped in even worse situations in Africa and other parts of the world. We also meet representatives of the religious right, who, not surprisingly, make the same dopey arguments as their brethren in the United States, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya. Last year, the Russian parliament passed a ban on “gay propaganda” that effectively makes nearly any public discussion of the fight for equality a crime. Moscow has outlawed Gay Pride parades for the next 100 years. Adoption of Russian children is forbidden to citizens of any foreign country that permits gay marriage. Although Putin theoretically could step in to prevent the imposition of a pink-star mandate, if only to mollify western concerns, it’s clear from the witnesses gathered by Lucas that much of the foundation for more heinous actions has already been laid.  – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
ITV/BBC America: Broadchurch: Season 1
Power Rangers: Seasons 13-17
The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Fully Roasted
I don’t have to tell you that some shows are more binge-worthy than others and some probably ought to be savored on a weekly basis, as originally designed. A full week’s worth of anticipation for the next episode of “Mad Men,” “True Blood” and “The Sopranos” only adds to the total experience, while more literary adaptations can be savored in the same way that a book is enjoyed, at one’s convenience or all in one gulp. Both versions of “House of Cards” and “Shameless,” “Downton Abbey,” “True Detective” and “Orange Is the New Black” qualify in the latter category. Newly arrived on DVD is the ITV mini-series, “Broadchurch,” which aired here on BBC America. As straightforward as a good British mystery, “Broadchurch” takes full advantage of its nearly 400-minute length to solve a heinous crime that has impacted a scenic and normally placid tourist community on the English Channel. One morning in the off-season, the body of an 11-year-old boy is discovered on the beach, only a few feet distant from a nearly vertical cliff. There’s no reason to believe that Danny Latimer jumped or was pushed to his death. Neither was he sexually abused or washed up on the sand by waves. As these sorts of whodunits and procedurals go, it’s a dandy mystery. What distinguishes “Broadchurch” from other multi-part mysteries we’ve all seen are the many parallel dramas that unfold as the investigation continues. Chief among them is the steadily evolving professional relationship between the intense, by-the-book Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and the compassionate Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), who is disappointed that she didn’t get the DI position that went to Hardy. The other key relationship is the steadily disintegrating one between the victim’s parents, Beth and Mark Latimer. In time, more than a dozen other townsfolk are interrogated as “persons of interest.” They range from Danny’s friends and neighbors, to the local vicar and a spooky psychic. Once those characters are introduced, their lives, too, are peeled back like onion skin to reveal buried secrets. The temperament of a town in distress can be calculated in the roiling sea and the pale sky. When news of the murder breaks in the tabloid press, it threatens the town’s seasonal livelihood and shines light into places that probably should remain dark. I’m not sure this description does justice to the intensity of the mini-series, which keeps viewers guessing from minute one to the final scene and taking sides in the investigation. The DVD adds deleted scenes, a background piece and interviews.

Fans of the Power Rangers franchise will find “Power Rangers: Seasons 13-17” equally binge-worthy. The good folks at Shout!Factory have been sending out restored editions of the long-running series “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” in 1993. The current season, “Power Rangers Super Megaforce,” debuted here in February. The new five-season boxed set takes fans to that point. Really, really serious collectors may want to invest in Shout!Factory’s “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Legacy Collection,” which arrives in a red helmet and contains all 20 seasons in a 98-DVD set, with a 100-page book comprised of essays, episode descriptions, photos and illustrations. This set is individually numbered, up to 2,000 copies. If one were to purchase this package, at $799.99, my advice is to keep it in its original packaging and stick it in a closet, until you need some quick catch. The material in the new box, at $129.99, adds featurettes, “Mad Props!,” with prop master Mark Richardson and members of the cast looking back on working with the props of “Power Rangers”; “Rangers On Set!,” in which cast members reflect on their favorite—and least favorite—sets; “Ranger Tales,” with the reflections of  cast members; “Collect ‘Em All!,” in which fans show off their favorite Power Rangers toys and collectibles; and “The S.P.D. Rangers Want You,” “Mystic Force: Forces Of Nature!” and “Operation Overdrive Files.”

Once I put on the first disc from the holiday-ready box of shows from the “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts,” I could hardly take my eyes off of them. It wasn’t so much the jokes and insults being flung at celebrity guests as it was the mere presence of the roasters, who represent a who’s-who of comedy from several decades of American show business. The series ran from 1973-84, a period in time when the dais might hold a couple of entertainers who started in vaudeville, venerable movie stars, singers, contemporary TV actors and the odd astronaut or general. Some of the roasters had about as much business sitting alongside the legends as I would have had, which is to say, none. “Fully Roasted” mines 540 minutes of material from the larger collector’s box and makes it available to general consumer for the first time. Among the celebrities here are Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Benny, Jonathan Winters, Redd Foxx, Hugh Hefner, Don Rickles, Jimmie “Dyn-o-mite” Walker, Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Red Buttons Foster Brooks, Rick Little, Paul Anka, Carroll O Connor, Joey Bishop, Shelley Winters, George Kennedy, Earnest Borgnine, Orson Welles, Jimmy Stewart, Phyllis Diller, Rocky Graziano, Billy Crystal, Betty White, Ronald Reagan, Bette Davis, Angie Dickinson, Muhammad Ali, George Burns, Telly Savalas, Rowan and Martin, Barry Goldwater, Suzanne Somers, Dennis Weaver, Ralph Nader, Gabe Kalplan, Norm Crosby, Ruth Buzzi and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Newly filmed bonus material includes interviews with participants and contemporary performers influenced by Dean and a memory booklet with essays and photos. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
American Experience: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: the Last Outlaws
Nova: Zeppelin Terror Attack
Frontline: Secret State of North Korea
Nature: Honey Badgers: Masters of Mayhem
PBS: Israel: The Royal Tour
Nova: Ghosts of Murdered Kings
Paul Newman and Robert Redford may have immortalized Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in George Roy Hill’s rather fanciful Western, but for the rest of their story history buffs have had to turn to other sources. The “American Experience” presentation, “Butch Cassidy & Sundance Kid: The Last Outlaws,” fills in the holes rather nicely. Much of the fascination with the pair derives from the timing of their exploits, which coincided with the rise of the Pinkerton Detective Agency as a national militia that was at the beck and call of industrialists, banks and anti-labor forces. The agency not only put the outlaws and cops on equal footing, but the detectives were given free rein to murder and maim, intimidate workers and crush strikes. They also maintained a larger, more efficient arsenal. The documentary takes viewers to spots on the Outlaw Trail, where, today, you’d need a drone to discover the hideouts. Thus, the gang’s reputation for disappearing into thin air after a heist. “The Last Outlaws” provides a breezy lesson in American history and a post-mortem on the era just before outlaws were able to use machine guns and cars to evade arrest, until J. Edgar Hoover came along to put an end to their game, as well.

Most of what Americans know about the history of zeppelins derives from the Hindenburg disaster and their use as modern marketing tools. The “Nova” presentation, “Zeppelin Terror Attack,” recalls the horrific First Blitz, when German-made dirigibles dropped bombs on London from heights most planes couldn’t then reach. The documentary first takes on the technological research that went into the creation of such fighting machines, while the second part chronicles the development of bullets that could both pierce their skin and cause explosions within the infrastructure. It wasn’t nearly as simple as it now seems.

PBS’ “Secret State of North Korea” was completed before Kim Jong-un ordered all men in North Korea to adopt hairdos exactly like his. Otherwise, it’s quite up to date. The documentary uses hidden cameras to describe the extreme lengths to which the impoverished citizens of this ridiculous country go to possess the technology that allows them to remain informed and entertained. The risk is huge, considering that Kim would prefer the citizenry not have any contact with the outside world. The smuggling of fully loaded thumb and flash drives is tricky and dangerous, and he’s already proven himself willing and able to kill anyone, including his relatives, to maintain his grip on the country.

Honey badgers may resemble skunks with bad haircuts, but, as pests and predators go, they don’t come any tougher. “Honey Badgers: Masters of Mayhem” describes how the mustelid has managed to survive and prosper against larger foes. They can’t be contained by most man-made enclosures and possess an uncanny ability to invade homes in their African habitats. It’s quite astonishing how much damage these critters can do in a very short time.

PBS’s “Israel: The Royal Tour” follows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and travel journalist Peter Greenberg as they tour the country, with an eye toward revealing destinations and historic landmarks off the beaten path for most tourists. Because it pointedly avoids the tough questions about the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians – especially the ability of the latter to travel freely throughout Israel – “The Royal Tour” frequently feels as if it were an infomercial produced specifically for Pledge Month begathons. Even so, Israel is an amazing country, full of places that merge beauty and horror.

Ghosts of Murdered Kings” describes the search for clues in the ritual murders of Bronze Age royalty. It opens in the rolling hills of Ireland’s County Tipperary, where a laborer harvesting peat from a dried-up bog spotted remnants of a perfectly preserved, if headless torso. Archeologists recognize the corpse as one of Europe’s rare “bog bodies”: prehistoric corpses flung into marshes with forensic clues often suggesting execution or human sacrifice. Researchers use modern forensics techniques to determine the fates of the ancient clans. – Gary Dretzka

Gordon Family Tree
Richard Karn and Corbin Bernsen represent the marquee talent in the Dove-approved, Kickstarter-funded “Gordon Family Tree,” a family-oriented movie that probably will make more sense to parents than kids. Like so many successful professionals after reaching a personal landmark, the newly 30 Freemont Gordon decides that he can’t stand another day at his job as an architect and wants to do something more fulfilling. Unlike most of us, however, he’s in a financial position to accommodate this sudden whim. He decides to leave Los Angeles behind and go on a roadtrip to places not quite so obsessed with the trappings of wealth. Instead, Gordon repays the kindness of new friends by building tree houses for their families. In doing so, he rewards himself in kind. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Friday, March 28th, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street: Blu-ray
The King of Comedy: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
If any filmmaker is more adept at making us feel sympathy for the devil than Martin Scorsese, I don’t know who that person would be. Even when there isn’t an ounce of decency to be mined from the gangsters, moguls and monsters played by Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio in his pictures, we’re willing to hang on to the belief that they might be salvageable, if only out of respect for the actors. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” however, he might have met his match in a character who’s as despicable in real life as he is in real life. Not only is New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) an opportunistic leech, but he also lacks the cinematic heft to justify his presence in a Scorsese movie. After three hours of screen time, we’re given no concrete reason to whether he ODs on drugs, is given a disease by one of the many hookers he hires or is thrown in prison for the rest of his life. From beginning to end, Belfort’s fortune is built and maintained by individuals who forgot to read the small print when they were suckered into investing through Stratton Oakmont and one of its “pump and dump” schemes. Yes, even amid the greatest bull market in history, it was possible to lose money. Unlike the gangsters in Scorsese’s most famous films, Belfort targeted the innocent and spared the equally guilty. Scorsese’s incapable of making a movie that’s less than entertaining, as is DiCaprio, but the real selling point here is the protagonist’s ability to shovel mountains of cocaine and Quaaludes into his system without killing himself. The closest thing to a victim we see in “Wolf of Wall Street” are his ex-wives, one of whom is portrayed as a gold-digger and the other his high school sweetheart, who simply couldn’t compete in the big leagues of debauchery. In “Boiler Room,” based loosely on the same “pump and dump” scheme, we’re introduced to a client who lost everything in his dealings with one of Belfort’s firms and was about to inflict his own form of justice as the FBI raids the offices.

Despite these qualms, there’s a lot to like about “Wolf of Wall Street.” No one stages a party quite as deliciously as Scorsese or make criminal enterprises seem so worth the risk of prison. I have no way of knowing if Bernie Madoff celebrated his ill-gotten gains with hookers, midget-tossing and extreme substance abuse, but, from what I know about traders at Chicago’s Board of Trade, the celebrations in “Wolf of Wall Street” may only be slightly exaggerated. Ditto, the amounts of Quaaludes, cocaine and booze consumed. In “Casino” and “GoodFellas,” characters played by Joe Pesci paid a heavy price for letting their hubris get the best of them. Instead of spending a lifetime in prison for his crimes and fully repaying the people he swindled, Belfort served a mere 22 months in stir and has yet to pony up the full $110.4 million ordered by the court. Sounds like a fair trade to me. Danny Porush, who is the model for Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff, served 39 months in jail and has managed to repay some of his fine. He now runs a Florida medical-supply business, which has employed several other former workers from Stratton Oakmont firm, and is being investigated for questionable Medicare billings. Porush and his second wife, Lisa, live in a $4 million mansion and drive matching Rolls-Royce Corniche convertibles. And, yes, he did eat a live goldfish at a company party. The Blu-ray presentation nicely captures the technical attributes Scorsese always brings to his projects. If it only adds one 17-minute making-of featurette, a DVD copy and UV/iTunes digital copies, I suspect that it won’t be long before we’re invited to see the uncropped “director’s cut” version, with commentaries and other bonus features.

If only because the DVD/Blu-rays were released on the same day last week, “King of Comedy” begs comparison with “Wolf of Wall Street,” as well as debate about Scorsese Now and Scorsese Then. Without diminishing what’s excellent in the new title, I suspect that the truly challenging “King of Comedy” will stand the test of time better the saga of Jordan Belfort. Paul Zimmerman’s script was first shown to Scorsese in 1974, the same year as People magazine was launched and a few years before Mark David Chapman and John Hinkley Jr. introduced a dangerous new wrinkle to the celebrity game. Today, the media has turned stalking into something resembling a career. Watch “King of Comedy” alongside “The Bling Ring” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and you’ll understand what Zimmerman had seen in his crystal ball four decades ago. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe standup comic who’s convinced himself that he’s ready for prime-time. He sees in late-night talker Jerry Langford (Lewis) his ticket to stardom. Indeed, Pupkin’s deepest secret is that he not only wants to perform on the show, but usurp Langford’s crown, as well. Compounding Langford’s misery is Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a rabid fan who shows up at the same back doors and red carpets as Pupkin. Her dementia manifests itself in a desperate desire to have sex with him, preferably on the dining-room table of her parents’ posh Manhattan apartment. After Langford recognizes their latent hostility and blows them off, Masha and Rupert decide to kidnap him and hold him for ransom. All Rupert wants is a spot on the show, while Masha is determined to rape him. Lewis is terrific as the host, who fully understands how much of himself he’s sacrificed for wealth and fame, but is too addicted to stop. The fact is, Scorsese didn’t quite know what to do with the script when De Niro pushed it on him. It’s very much an actors’ vehicle and dark as coal mine. Given the talent involved, critics and audiences were as unnerved by the setup as Scorsese, at first. There’s plenty of comedy on display here, but it emerge from the scariest of situations. No matter how much the world has fallen in love with celebrity and the trappings of wealth, for example, how many of us haven’t considered taking Lindsay Lohan, Justin Beiber and any one of a dozen of Langford’s heirs to the woodshed for a good whuppin’? Finally, after forcing the network’s hand, Rupert ends his bit by looking at the camera and telling his nationwide audience, “Tomorrow, you’ll know I wasn’t kidding and you’ll all think I’m crazy. But I figure it this way: better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime.” And, if that doesn’t sum up the motivation for appearing such shows as “Duck Dynasty” and “Bad Girls,” what is? Clearly, something that bordered on the preposterous 30-plus years ago seems prescient, today. That’s what we expect from our top talents. The Blu-ray presentation suffers a bit from all of the garish fashions and blinding colors on display in “King of Comedy.” It’s a minor distraction, though. The deleted scenes are well worth watching, as are the hilarious post-screening Q&A with Scorsese, De Niro, Lewis and Bernhard, and making-of featurette filled with anecdotes about the shoot. – Gary Dretzka

Girl on a Bicycle
The audience most likely to enjoy “Girl on a Bicycle” is the same one that embraced the frothy rom-coms imported from France in the 1970-80s: “La Cage aux Folles,” “The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe,” “Les compères” and “Cousin, Cousine.” Because Americans had stopped reading subtitles by then, Hollywood tended to lard the remakes with gooey sentimentality and cutesy star turns. (The best translation, “The Birdcage,” benefitted from the combined talents of Michael Nichols, Elaine May, Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane, Dianne Wiest and composer Stephen Sondheim.) I can’t imagine anyone here remaking “Girl on a Bicycle,” if only because it’s already been internationalized by writer/director Jeremy Levin. The South Bend native put together an attractive pan-European cast, used several different tongues, several photogenic Parisian locations and mildly sexual interludes. These assets add balance to a story that’s both light as a feather and completely unrealistic. The likable Italian actor Vincenzo Amato plays Paolo, a multilingual driver of a tour bus with the worst timing in Paris. No sooner has Paolo proposed to German stewardess Greta (Nora Tschirner) than coincidence puts him in daily contact with the titular girl on a bicycle, Cécile (Louise Monot). After chasing Cecile to get her number, his erratic driving causes an accident that puts her in a cast. Feeling an obligation to his victim, Paolo carries the heavily doped Cecile home to the apartment she shares with her half-Australian kids. In a funny twist, the kids take an immediate liking to Paolo, even to where they immediately begin to refer to him as “Poppa.” Meanwhile, the newly engaged stewardess is allowing herself to be wooed by one of the pilots. “Girl on a Bicycle” can’t help but succumb to farce when Paolo and Greta become suspicious of each other and she’s led to believe that her fiancé is already married and a father of two. Yeah, it’s nonsense, but harmless and occasionally funny enough to recommend to Francophiles. Paddy Considine plays the best-friend role, adding even more sexual tension to the mix. The DVD adds some interviews. – Gary Dretzka

The Great Beauty: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Comparisons between Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” not only were inevitable, upon its debut at Cannes 2013, but they also were welcomed by everyone involved in the production. Just as Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece defied easy criticism by being so unlike any other movie of its time, “The Great Beauty” stands out from today’s crowd by introducing us to a man cloned from Marcello Mastroianni’s DNA and dedicated to the proposition that the sweet life is always worth savoring. Stage specialist Toni Servillo (“Il Divo”) plays a writer, Jeb Gambardella, who was famous long ago for writing a best-selling novel and influencing an entire generation of Italians. Now pressing 65, he’s accorded the same respect and privileges as when the novel was published. For reasons of his, not related to any possible writer’s block, he’s chosen to rest on his laurels. Today, he occasionally interviews celebrities and historical figures for a magazine edited by a feisty dwarf, Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), who’s as much a scenester as he is. Jeb’s one of those guys, like the Las Vegas-based Robin Leach, who’s extended his 15 minutes of fame by more than 30 years. He loves being surrounded by beautiful women and is loved, in turn, for not being openly critical of their vapidity. Jeb observes Rome from the perspective of a man who rarely goes to sleep until everyone else in the city is getting ready to go to work. He purposely walks home from the clubs and parties he attends, marveling at the amazing things one can find in the Eternal City if you keep your eyes open and take the time to embrace the curiosities. Jeb shows no sign of slowing down until he receives word of the death of his first lover. It makes him wonder why hasn’t done more with his life and is so easily satisfied as being the life of any party he’s in attendance. Because of the Botox and other elixirs to which his friends are addicted, it’s difficult to read the ages and desperation in the faces of his closest friends. An unexpected death notice can turn an energetic middle-aged man a contemplative senior citizen overnight. What’s so wonderful about “The Great Beauty” is the love, compassion and admiration shown both to Jeb and Rome by Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. He isn’t made the object of ridicule or pity and holds his own in the discos.

Lush and intensely colorful, this is a movie that demands to been seen on Blu-ray, if not a theater equipped with the latest technology. Not only does Bigazzi capture the city’s grandeur and respect for antiquity, but his camera also shines a celestial light on the Holy Roman Church’s many sacred and profane customs. One of the minor characters is a keeper of the keys to several of Rome’s most historical and elegant homes, so we’re granted access to them, as well. Like Fellini, Sorrentino’s cast of characters includes people many viewers would consider to be freakish, if essential pieces of the puzzle that is Jeb. Among the most curious is a fabled nun, not unlike Mother Teresa, known far and wide as “the Saint.” The 103-year-old Sister Maria eats nothing but boiled roots, sleeps on the floor and prepares to return to her African mission. She’s in Rome to renew her commitment to Christ by climbing by making her way to the top of a famous steeple, on her knees. The only journalist to whom she’ll give an interview is Jeb, whose book she read and admired before taking a vow of poverty. Maria’s escorted around the city by a Cardinal, reputed to be the Vatican’s most successful exorcist, but now is more interested in discussing his recipes for Italian food with anyone pretending to listen.

It’s possible to enjoy “The Great Beauty” in the same way as an informed tourist or student of art history might when in Rome. It makes few demands on the viewer, except those who, like Jeb, are nearing the goalposts of life and don’t know if they’ll go out in glory or a has-been. It’s also fun to attempt to identify the homages paid by Sorrentino to Fellini and other great filmmakers. Beyond those simple joys, however, is a movie that demands of viewers that they look at life as a continuum and not wait until they’re retired to find their place in the world … or, stop having fun. “The Great Beauty” is a very special movie and the Criterion Collection presentation, digitally transferred in 2K, is nothing short of spectacular. The supplemental features include fresh interviews with Servillo and co-screenwriter Umberto Contarello; a filmed conversation between Italian film scholar Antonio Monda and Sorrentino; deleted scenes and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Lopate. – Gary Dretzka

The Past: Blu-ray
In what, at first, appears to be a thematic sequel to his brilliant “A Separation,” Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi introduces us to Ahmad and Marie, a woman and man soon to be divorced in Paris. It’s thousands of miles away from Iran, but a place both once called home. No one’s disputing the facts of the case and, as far as I can tell, there’s no religious subtext to consider. The fewer assumptions viewers make about ethnic stereotypes and political imperatives, the easier it will be for them to stay on the same page as Farhadi. Neither are Marie and Ahmad wealthy exiles, killing time in the west until the next revolution rolls around. Marie has just picked up Ahmad from the airport and is driving him back to the modest house they once shared with their two kids. He had asked her to get him a hotel room, but she decided it would be too expensive and, anyway, he should spend time with the girls. And, there’s the rub. For Ahmad, coming back to Paris wasn’t a daunting task, even if he could have phoned in the divorce through a lawyer. He wants to see his kids, too. No sooner are both doors closed, however, than Marie (Berenice Bejo) begins beating him over the head with a litany of problems that await him. Their 16-year-old daughter, Lucie, has turned into a monster ever since Marie’s boyfriend, Samir, moved into the house with his young son. Samir’s wife is in a hospital, lying comatose, after a suicide attempt. The absence of his mother compounds the boy’s anxiety and serious rage issues. A bit later, we’ll learn that Marie is pregnant with Samir’s child. This is quite a bit more craziness than Ahmad expected and he gets the impression that Marie expects him to at least get Lucie back on track. “The Past” doesn’t dwell on the past four years in Marie’s life, however, and that’s a considerable blessing.

The first surprising thing Americans will notice is that Ahmad isn’t portrayed as being some kind of brooding fundamentalist prick, here today and back to Iran tomorrow with his daughters in tow. In fact, he attempts to blend right into the makeshift family, soothing and babysitting for Samir’s boy and his youngest daughter. He also tries to make sense of Lucie’s deeply rooted bitterness toward her mother and Samir. If you think that you know where “The Past” is heading from here, you don’t. That’s because Farhadi turns the tables on us by collecting the background material, standing it on its head, throwing in some outright lies and allowing “The Past” to slowly evolve into the mystery it was intended to be all along. Personalities change dramatically before our eyes, reversing any preconceptions we might have about the characters and what happened in Paris while Ahmad was back in Iran. The suspense that wasn’t in evidence during for the first 20-or-so minutes of the movie continues to build, until it becomes a character of its own, as is working-class Paris. The Blu-ray adds an interview with Farhadi, undisputedly one of the world’s elite filmmakers. – Gary Dretzka

Junk
Evil: In the Time of Heroes
The single best piece of advice most aspiring novelists will ever receive is, “Write what you know.” This applies as much to screenwriters as it does to anyone who’s limited their discourse to Twitter and Facebook. One may not require a thorough knowledge of the undead – or relish the taste of flesh – to make a good zombie picture, but an appreciation of the subgenre’s entire history is essential. Independent filmmakers are excruciatingly familiar with is the horror that derives from trying to sell a genre picture to distributers who’ve literally seen them all. In “Junk,” the protagonists’ ordeal requires that they find someone — anyone – willing to watch their movie, at least. And, where better to find the living dead than at a film festival dedicated to horror. In real reel life, collaborators Kevin Hamedani and Ramon Isao spent a lot of time on the festival circuit hawking their 2009 debut, “ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction,” which went straight-to-DVD as part of Lionsgate’s “After Dark Horrorfest” series. (No small reward in a period of genre overload. ) Here, they play a couple of horror geeks, Kaveh and Raul, who have been invited to their first festival to screen the terrorist-monster flick, “Islama-rama 2.” Their primary objective is pitching producer, Yukio Tai (James Hong), who’s hired bodyguards to ward off such wannabes. Meanwhile, they’re also required to deal with personal issues, cutthroat colleagues, inept agents, romantic entanglements, prima-donna actors, the effects of too much cocaine on affairs of the penis, Islamic protesters, dopey Q&A questions and, finally, each other. Fortunately, they’ve received a positive review from a legit critic to shield them from the riff-raff. “Junk” may leave a lot to be desired, but its slapstick approach to the subject should resonate with anyone who’s attended more than one festival or entered a film into competition. The DVD includes commentary with the filmmakers.

Greek yogurt, Greek salads and feta cheese have taken America by storm, so why not Hellenic zombie movies? What, indeed? As far as I can tell, “Evil: In the Time of Heroes” is only the second such film that’s made the journey to the U.S., the first being the 2005 prequel, “Evil.” Unless I’m reading it entirely wrong, “Time of Heroes” is far less Greek tragedy than a parody on the order of “Shaun of the Dead.” Set in Athens, with the Parthenon frequently in the background, it’s pretty much a continuation of what happened in the earlier picture, except for the presence of Greek-American Billy Zane. Here, he plays some kind of messenger of the gods with a violent streak. The same zombies unloosed in “Evil” are terrorizing the city and the same quartet of unaffected mercenaries is attempting to stay alive. “Time of Heroes” flashes back occasionally to ancient Athens, where shepherds were the targets. Given the economic issues plaguing modern Greece, zombies may only amount to a nuisance. It’s possible to kill them, after all. If the story, apart from the setting, could apply to a hundred other such movies, it’s to the credit of co-writer/director Yorgos Noussias and co-writers Claudio Bolivar, Christos Houliaras and Petros Nousias that the dialogue is as fresh and funny as it is. Even with its fractured subtitles – hire a Greek to translate the diluted profanities — it’s a continually entertaining spoof. The gore factor is high, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Boardwalk: Blu-ray
Far more a curiosity than a reason for cheer, Stephen Verona’s 1979 family drama,
Boardwalk,” stars Ruth Gordon and Lee Strasberg, two of the giants of the stage and screen in the 20th Century. Gordon, who began appearing in movies in 1915, finally took home an Oscar 56 years later for her unforgettable performance in “Harold & Maude.” Until his Oscar-nominated turn as gangster Hyman Roth in “The Godfather: Part II,” Strasberg was best known for mentoring such prominent actors as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn and dozens of others as director of Actors Studio. Alas, almost none of Gordon and Strasberg’s knowledge and experience was absorbed by Verona (“The Lords of Flatbush”) and co-writer Leigh Chapman (“Dirty Mary Crazy Larry”), whose portrait of a New York neighborhood in transition is so clunky and stereotypical that it resembles a “Death Wish” for senior citizens. David and Becky Rosen have lived in Coney Island for many decades. They raised a family there and ran a successful business. Like everything else in New York in the 1970s, Coney Island was going through serious demographic changes. Crime was rampant and people who could afford to move to the suburbs did so, leaving the elderly to deal with the new realities of urban life. In this case, it’s a gang of street punks, the Satans, that’s intent on terrorizing elderly Jews and convincing them to leave. The punks ransack a synagogue, throw a firebomb into the Rosens’ restaurant, beat up a frail old woman and make the famous Boardwalk off-limits to anyone they don’t like. The problem is that the gang members are cut from cardboard and are no more credible than the archetypal bikers, student radicals and hippies depicted in “The Mod Squad” or on the LSD episode of “Dragnet.” They appear out of nowhere and don’t seem to be motivated by anything except anti-Semitism and bad tempers. The cops are never there when they are needed and the Guardian Angels were still in their infancy. The Jewish characters, played by several then-prominent Broadway character actors, are given more depth and fewer onerous prejudices. Despite the movie’s problems, it was fun to watch Gordon and Strasberg as longtime lovers. Janet Leigh is wasted as the Rosens’ daughter, while songwriter Sammy Cahn and Altovise Davis appear in cameos. – Gary Dretzka

The Truth About Emanuel: Blu-ray
Machine Head
There’s a pretty decent psycho-thriller lurking just beneath the surface of “The Truth About Emanuel,” but sophomore writer/director/producer Francesca Gregorini undermines her story revealing the gag before viewers have even gotten comfortable in their seats. Only those new to the genre will be unable to see what’s coming from a mile away. That said, however, Gregorini’s all-pro cast keeps us wondering if she might be able to pull it off, anyway. Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is a troubled teen, who refuses to accept the woman (Frances O’Connor) her widower father (Alfred Molina) has chosen to be her stepmother. Even before we get to the gag, we’re made aware of the survivor’s guilt Emanuel still harbors over the drowning death of her mother, before she had an opportunity to learn much about her. When a new neighbor (Jessica Biel) moves in next-door, the girl can’t help but notice the resemblance to photographs of her mom hanging on the walls of her house. At first glance, Linda looks to be a perfectly normal mother of newborn daughter, who Emanuel immediately volunteers to babysit. At second glance, however, there’s no disguising the fact something is terribly unnatural about the baby. I’m not spoiling anything by pointing this out, because most of the movie concerns itself with figuring why Emanuel and Linda aren’t seeing the same crazy things that we are and why Linda’s husband has yet to join them in their new suburban digs. Blessedly, “The Truth About Emanuel” isn’t completely lacking in suspense – or some magical realism, either — so fans of the actors, at least, won’t be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, outtakes and an interview with the director.

Jim Valdez’ modest teen-slasher thriller began life three years ago as “Spring Break Killer,” but probably became “Machine Head” after someone noticed the upcoming “Spring Breakers” and “Spring Break ’83,” as well as such recent gems a “Spring Break Massacre,” “Spring Breakdown” and “Spring Break Shark Attack.” I doubt that anyone was terribly concerned with being mistaken for the 1963 romp, “Palm Springs Weekend,” which isn’t far from Rancho Mirage,” where “Machine Head” was shot and practically didn’t exist back then. Anyway, a group of pretty young women is given the keys to a dramatically positioned home overlooking the Coachella Valley, as long as a younger sister is allowed to tag along … bummer. Along the way, the driver of a black muscle car taunts them and provides Valdez with an alternate title. The good news for male viewers, anyway, comes when they’re ensconced in the remote desert digs and the sun is ripe for tanning. As night begins to fall, of course, it’s back to terror time with the mysterious owner of the car lurking. Anyone with a jealous younger sibling might be able predict the outcome. I don’t, so it came as a bit of surprise to me. “Machine Head” provides the requisite number of cheap thrills for a straight-to-DVD offering, but benefits from the beautiful scenery. – Gary Dretzka

The Punk Singer
I always thought that the “riot grrrl movement” was founded on a belief that women in rock ’n’ roll were simply fed up with their second- and third-class status in the music business: “chick singers,” backup units, groupies and novelty acts. The few women who managed to cut through the crap and emerge as stars have had to overcome great odds and a litany of insults to make it to the top. It’s even rarer to find a female musician among the boys in the bands. Finally, though, women with comparable talent and moms who taught them what it means to be a feminist in a post-feminist age, came to the fore. I wouldn’t dismiss the inspiration of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and her wild fashion sense in the creation of the riot grrrl movement, either. Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the punk band Bikini Kill and dance-punk trio Le Tigre served as the prototype for the riot grrrl. She took shit from no one and sang louder than anyone else. More to the point, she rocked. By the time Hanna was diagnosed with Lyme disease and sent to the sidelines, she had influenced an entire generation of young women, who would could never be confused with the chick singers of yore. Then, she kind of disappeared. Sini Anderson’s lively and inarguably vital rock-doc, “The Punk Singer,” answers the question many fans must have asked themselves over the last eight or nine years: what ever happened to her? Well, she’s still alive and kicking, doing the things her health allows her to do artistically. “The Punk Singer” isn’t the first rock-doc to explain the movement. While “Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour,” “Don’t Need You” and “She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column” did a nice job in that regard, “Punk Singer” focuses directly on its most visible and influential player. Anderson pored through 20 years of archival footage and interviews to form his portrait, adding observations by such luminaries as Beastie Boy/husband Adam Horowitz, Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon and Tavi Gevinson. The DVD adds extended interviews and background material. – Gary Dretzka

The Swimmer: Blu-ray
Best of Bogart Collection: Blu-ray
When people talk about important movies from the past that Hollywood wouldn’t dream of making today, Frank Perry and replacement director Sydney Pollack’s 1968 drama, “The Swimmer,” is almost always referenced. Based on a John Cheever short story, “The Swimmer” almost didn’t make it to the screen. It stars a 55-year-old Burt Lancaster as a resident of the kind of upper-class Connecticut community, where the men took the train to the train to work and the women worked on their alcoholism at the country club. This being “Mad Men” territory, some of the wealthier guys maintained a pied-à-terre. The only thing we know about Lancaster’s Neddy Merrill going into the story is that he has an extremely likable personality and looks buff in a swimsuit, which is all he wears throughout the movie’s 95-minute length. Inexplicably, he’s also been away for a while. We meet Neddy as he surveys the valley before him from the heights established by a friend’s house and pool. He’s invited to stay for drinks, but has something else on his mind. Noting the large number of turquoise pools visible before him – in-ground pools were still considered a status symbol – he determines that he could jog and swim his way home from there. He names the unlikely trek, “Lucinda’s River,” after his absent wife. Cheever’s vision works equally well as satire, tragedy or fool’s errand. By combining all three elements, though, it becomes a multi-layered quest for the truth about Neddy. At first, he’s welcomed back to the community by former friends and lushes. The closer he gets to his home, however, the more resistance and outright disdain he faces. That the negativity confuses him indicates that he doesn’t know himself as well as we do. Constructed in chapter form, each stop adds to what we know of the man and how he impacted the lives of other neighbors, including their children. Each chapter reveals a story arc its own, as well. As remarkable as “The Swimmer” continues to be, it left many critics and viewers befuddled in the 1960s, when many Americans felt as if their country could do no wrong and a swimming pool in a quiet home in the country was considered to be a brick in the American Dream. Now that such objects are widely accessible to anyone with a little bit of money, a different kind of allegory goes into play. Rich people have been knocked down a few pegs in the social hierarchy and a good plumber is held in the same esteem as a stock broker or advertising executive. In any case, it’s a wonderful example how literary concepts need not be destroyed to save them for adaptation to screen, stage or television. (Eleanor Perry is credited with the screenplay.) The splendid Grindhouse Releasing Blu-ray edition was given a digital restoration created from 4K scans. It includes a new, five-part documentary by Oscar-winner Chris Innis featuring in-depth interviews with stars Janet Landgard, Joan Rivers and Marge Champion, composer Marvin Hamlisch, film editor Sidney Katz, assistant directors Michael Hertzberg and Ted Zachary, UCLA Olympic swim coach Bob Horn and daughter Joanna Lancaster; the original New Yorker short story read by the author; a 12-page booklet with liner notes by director Stuart Gordon; production stills from the lost alternate scenes; and extensive stills galleries.

The Best of Bogart Collection” offers little in the way of surprises for longtime collectors and film buffs, except, perhaps, for collectible lobby cards and miniature posters. The movies, classics all, need no introduction or re-reviewing, either. “Casablanca,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen” all have been released on Blu-ray previously, so the set’s major selling point is as a gift for people new to the collection game or those with newly purchased hi-def units. The price is right and there are several hours’ worth of vintage bonus material included, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Let the Fire Burn
Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse
In the 1960s, when “police brutality” became a rallying cry for activists and radicals, very few mainstream Americans bought it. The argument that protestors should expect to be to be beaten when breaking the law, along with a belief in the infallibility of police, was fairly prevalent at the time. Whenever police did appear to overreact in certain situations – as happened at the Democratic Convention in Chicago – the kneejerk reaction was argue that they had been pushed beyond the boiling point. Finally, though, when too many middle-class American kids came home from college with the same fractured skulls and serious bruises as those caused by cops questioning ghetto youths, the tide began to turn for real. Neither did it boost relations between police and civilians when LAPD officers allowed an SLA hideout to burn to the ground, due to the use of incendiary devices, instead of trying to save a still conceivably innocent Patricia Hearst, who was believed to be inside the house. When brutality cases went public and an investigative panel was formed, it was the rare law-enforcement official who actually was charged with a crime or disciplined. “Let the Fire Burn” reminds us of a day in 1985, in Philadelphia, when police also set a home on fire and prevented the fire department from attempting to put out what would become a neighborhood-wide inferno. Shaggy members of MOVE were as despised by police as the SLA was in California and they give the city just cause for reigning in some of its anti-social behavior. Unlike the SLA victims, though, the MOVE contingent was comprised of African-Americans and black-power advocates. Claims of harassment were commonplace from MOVE, as were the complaints of neighbors who were unhappy about the behavior of their neighbors. Neither were capital crimes. Instead of resisting to take MOVE’s bait on May 13, 1985, the police decided to take control of the house and not sweat the harm done to property or people inside if things went sideways. When the smoke cleared, six adults and five children were killed and a stunning 61 houses were destroyed. Director Jason Osder uses archival footage, legal hearings and fresh interviews to reconstruct the events that led up to the disaster and follow up on the investigation. It’s a hugely sad documentary, especially considering the options open to everyone from the city mayor and police officials, to individuals on the ground. Neither is the aftermath terribly uplifting.

Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse” describes a problem that has challenged police and social agencies ever since budget constraints forced states to close mental hospitals and let the patients fend for themselves. Everyone who’d had contact with James “Jim Jim” Chasse on an individual basis understood that he was a schizophrenic and could be a public nuisance when off his meds. He could also be a regular guy. A former rock singer of some local repute, Chasse had gone off the rails years earlier and was deathly afraid of being confined or handled by police. He had a support system at home, but his family and friends couldn’t be everywhere all the time. On September 17, 2006, a policeman thought he noticed Chasse urinating in a public space – maybe he was, maybe it just looked that way – and ordered him to stand still and agree to being handcuffed. Instead, the 42-year-old man spooked and took flight, only to be tackled and have the burly cop fall on top of him, causing severe trauma to his chest and breaking several bones. Instead of letting the suspect recover, the cops who had gathered treated him aggressively, as well. Chasse was photographed lying on the concrete with his hands cuffed behind his back, recovering from being tazzed, while a small gang of cops and medical responders stood around and drank coffee. An investigation would reveal that paramedics weren’t told about the nature of the takedown, which was powerful and ill-advised, if not declaratively brutal. Neither were his screams of pain and requests for water in the jail taken seriously. He would die hours later. It wasn’t the first time that the officer would be charged with over-aggressive behavior and his lack of compassion for the victim was palpable in taped interviews. Could Chasse have been saved if the cop brought him down in a different manner or he wasn’t kicked and tazzed? Even then, could a quick trip to a hospital prevent death? Probably, the autopsy indicated. Initial studies found the police not culpable in the incident, but citizens and mental-health advocates continued to fight for a less-biased investigation. Three years later, the city announced settlements with family members and more training for officers.

A few years later, in Anaheim, officers were cleared in the beating death of another schizophrenic man, outside a gas station. In this case, video showed what clearly was a beating taking place on a man who’d lost his will and ability to resist. It was horrifying, but not sufficiently cruel to convince a SoCal jury. If law-enforcement agencies had learned anything from the Chasse case, it hadn’t made its way to southern California. – Gary Dretzka

Geography Club
After screenings at dozens of niche film festivals, Gary Entin’s “Geography Club” has been released on DVD, targeted especially at teenagers with questions about their sexual identity. Based on a young-adult novel by Brent Hartinger, “Geography Club” compares favorably to the best entries in the old “Afterschool Specials” series. When local affiliates demanded those timeslots back from the networks for their laughable early-news broadcasts, the stations basically were telling their youngest viewers to go out and buy a Nintendo to keep themselves amused while waiting for dinner. The specials were known for taking a stand on issues of importance to teens – bullying, intolerance, cheating, sexuality – and encouraging them to read more on the subject after watching the show. The, “Geography Club,” refers to the name given as a cover for a regular place for LGBT etc. students to gather and not draw too much attention to themselves. One of the kids drawn to the club is a quasi-hetero jock who doesn’t quite understand his attraction to a teammate who’s even more closeted. When some of the other players demand that Russell participate in the hazing of an effeminate classmate, it pushes him over the edge of conformity. In turn, Russell demands that his secret boyfriend join him in standing up for the LGBT kids in the club. Nothing comes easy, though. “Geography Club” managed to score a PG-13 from the conservative MPAA ratings board, so miracles do happen. – Gary Dretzka

Beneath: Blu-ray
Bordello Death Tales
America’s Alien Invasion: The Lost UFO Encounters
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXIX
If the Chiller cable network continues to turn out “thrillers” on the order of “Beneath,” the Syfy channel never will have to apologize for any of its original movies, again. Genre specialist Larry Fessenden has modeled his water-borne creature-feature after the killing machines in “Jaws” and “Piranha.” There’s even a smidgen of Hitchcock’s “Rowboat” tossed in to make it look smart for high school graduates. Unfortunately, the creature terrorizing a group of teens celebrating their graduation at a friend’s lake house is about as credible as the tired premise. Fessenden probably guessed that no one would buy the prehistoric fish, so he waited as long as possible for the “reveal.” Unfortunately, because Chiller is a basic-cable operation, no one is allowed to take their clothes off to make the wait easier on viewers. No one over 14 will buy a minute of it. Ironically, the Blu-ray is accompanied by a bonus package comparable to those created for Criterion Collection releases.

The title, “Bordello Death Tales,” and old-school cover art, tell you all need to know about what’s contained inside the package. Released in 2009, three stories are set in a whorehouse run by Madam Raven. They capture the spirit of Britain’s Amicus Productions, which specialized in “portmanteau” anthologies. The studio was closely aligned with Hammer Films, which more often specialized in period horror. Included here are Jim Eaves’ “The Ripper,” Pat Higgins’ “Vice Day” and Alan Ronald’s “Stitch Girl,” with the wonderfully creepy Eleanor James in the title role. Although all of the chapters are pretty raw, none overstays its welcome. Buffs are the more likely target for “BDT.”

The films lampooned in “Mystery Science Theater 3000” always have one or two things that make them more interesting than usual creature-feature revival. “XXIX” is no different. Made in 1957, before the heyday of women-in-prison pictures, “Untamed Youth” combines that timeless subgenre with themes prevalent in juvenile-delinquent pictures. It stars Mamie Van Doren and Lori Nelson as sisters who are traveling across country for jobs in the entertainment industry. They are arrested by a tinhorn sheriff for skinny-dipping in a local lake, but not before the gendarmes get an eyeful of their assets. Found guilty of something-or-other, they are sent to a work camp on a farmer, where they’re treated a slaves. Among the amusing distractions are the rock music and dancing that keep the prisoners active after a day in the fields. It was originally condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, a move guaranteed to attract the attention of exploitation fans. Van Doren is interviewed in a bonus feature. This set features two “MST3K” episodes hosted by Joel Hodgson, from the show’s Comedy Central years, and two hosted by Mike Nelson from the Sci-Fi Channel years. The other three pictures are “Thing That Couldn’t Die,” “Pumaman” and “Hercules and the Captive Women,” which will never be confused with those of Steve Reeves or the upcoming, “Hercules,” with Dwayne Johnson. – Gary Dretzka

Twogether
Whenever critics get together to discuss the ordeals of their chosen profession – or, increasingly, the chosen charity – the question of when to bang the gong on a particularly bad movie always comes up. For those critics who tend watch upcoming movies in big-city screening room, taking an early powder on a movie demands another question, this one concerning the ethics of not sticking around for the ending, regardless of how dreary it promises it do be. For those movies judged to be so bad they’re actually relatively painless to endure, the reward can take the form of review that’s fun to read and write. The more pretentious it is, the better. Released theatrically in 1994, Andrew Chiaramonte’s “Twogether,” played in a handful of theaters, at best, although the filmmaker insists in his introduction that its brilliance was better understood by European audiences and critics than those in America. After being released into VHS in 1995, the tormented rom-dram pretty much disappeared, not to be seen again until this week’s DVD launch. Here, Nick Cassavetes plays a devilishly artist who specializes in erotically charged canvases, and they’re not bad. One night in Venice, the struggling artist hooks up with an attractive blond environmentalist in a bar and, to paraphrase Johnny Cash and June Carter, they “got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout, and they’ve been talking about Vegas, ever since the fire went out.” As soon as is humanly possible, Wolfgang Amadeus ‘John’ Madler and Allison McKenzie (Peyton Place reference?) file for divorce. When it’s time to sign the papers, Madler and McKenzie hook up once again for a quick roll in the hay, this time resulting in … you guessed it. “Twogether” is the kind of movie in which all of the characters have issues, even the issues.  I say this because Chiaramonte wants us to believe that consenting adults can be simultaneously pro-sex, condom neutral and pro-life. He also argues that, with apologies to Newton’s third law, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite contradiction.” No one, including a greedy landlord played by a young Jeremy Piven, acts or reacts as human beings do in real life. Neither do the laws of physics and human chemistry. There are lessons to be learned from watching “Twogether, but, sadly, almost all of them are cautionary. On the plus side, though, Eugene D. Shlugleit’s camera nicely captures life in Los Angeles’ seaside playground, Venice.  – Gary Dretzka

Walking With Dinosaurs: The Movie: Blu-ray
Scooby-Doo: Wrestlemania Mystery
Not having a HD3D television or a dinosaur-obsessed child handy, I find it difficult to review “Walking With Dinosaurs” – the 2013 movie, not the 1999 mini-series – with any authority. Even in 2D, though, it has its pleasures. I found enough to enjoy in Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale’s movie to recommend it to families whose primary reason for visiting Chicago, New York, L.A., Atlanta and Thermopolis, Wyoming, is to take in the dioramas and skeletal remains of dinosaurs in their fine natural history museums. “WWD” combines CGI storytelling with backgrounds shot in Alaska and New Zealand. The film adds plenty of scientific stuff to please parents, but not enough to bore the kids who probably know about the beasts as the filmmakers. As up-to-date as it looks, the production was constantly pressed by announcements of new discoveries about dinosaurs, including one about feathers. New evidence showing that some raptors were feathered, not scaled, had to finessed, threatening budgets and schedules. Every effort appears to have been made to introduce the new species to viewers, without interrupting the story’s pace. In fact, though, “Walking With Dinosaurs” may be a better movie with the sound turned off entirely. Because the script is geared toward very young viewers, anyone over 7 or 8 probably will find it to be annoyingly juvenile. Everything that happens in the movie’s narrative makes sense with or without the sound. The “Deluxe Edition 3D Combo” includes the feature film in in high definition, standard definition and 3D; an “Ultimate Dino Guide”; interactive map; a “Match the Call” game; “Brainosaur” trivia track; “Cretaceous Cut” (the movie in its “natural” version); and Nickelodeon “Orange Carpet Dino Rap.”

I’m not sure when or how it was decided that young audiences would enjoy a pairing of the Scoobie-Doo gang and a characters based on and voiced by WWE wrestlers. I wouldn’t put anything past the marketing department that made WrestleMania the Super Bowl of professional wrestling, however. The idea behind “Scooby-Doo: Wrestlemania Mystery” is simple enough: Shaggy and Scooby win tickets to WrestleMania and the entire gang travels in the Mystery Machine to WWE City to attend. When a ghostly bear threatens to ruin the show, Scooby, Shaggy, Velma, Daphne and Fred work with WWE Superstars to solve the case. Among them are John Cena, Brodus Clay, AJ Lee, Triple H, The Miz, Kane, Santino Marella, Sin Cara and Mr. McMahon. I’m still not sure what to make of it.  – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

American Hustle: Blu-ray
So much of “American Hustle” resembles farce that post-Boomer audiences could be excused for not recognizing the source material, the unfunny Abscam caper of 1978-80. In hindsight, the actual scandal was so inherently strange that co-writer/director David O. Russell only was required to stretch the truth a wee bit for his story to be credible. It wasn’t until the faces behind the facts were revealed that it became obvious how buffoonish the operation truly was and how fortunate was the FBI that it didn’t completely blow the sting. The targets defined what it means to be a “sitting duck,” yet the agency even managed to offend the Arabs willing to sell us oil after the 1973 embargo.  In “American Hustle,” Russell asks a far more pertinent question, though: Is it right for law-enforcement agencies to lay traps for public officials – or Mafiosi, for that matter – who may not have taken the bait had it not been too luscious to resist? As represented by the opportunistic Bradley Cooper, the FBI would be nothing at all, if it weren’t for its ability to set such traps and deputize criminals, who, in some cases, should already have been locked away in prison. After an unmatched pair of con artists, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (Christian Bale, Amy Adams), have their covers blown in a failed attempt to move stolen art, they hand Cooper’s Richie DiMaso an offer he can’t refuse. Richie’s boss (Alessandro Nivola) can hardly contain himself when he’s told that, in return for Sydney’s freedom, Irving would be willing to cooperate with the feds in a sting operation. Among those Irving promises to deliver is the mayor of Camden, N.J., a so-called “man of the people,” who uses his connections with the unions, mob and politics to help keep his constituents employed. In Jeremy Renner’s nimble hands, Mayor Carmino Polito combines the political alacrity of the Daleys of Chicago with Bill Murray’s smarmy lounge singer on “SNL.” Polito is so anxious to begin the construction of newly legalized casinos in Atlantic that he’s completely open to a scheme that pairs Arab money with Mafia gaming interests, for the benefit of union workers who need the jobs. Apart from the illegality of it all, the plan has win, win, win written all over it.

If the characters don’t exactly resemble the true players in the Abscam scandal, they’re close enough for Hollywood to lampoon for the good of a picture. The retro disco-chic hairdos and fashions, alone, are worth the price of a rental. Jennifer Lawrence is a hoot as Irving’s Jersey-girl wife, whose sole ambition in life appears to be finding the perfect nail polish, a trait she shares with Polito’s even more exaggerated spouse. (Reportedly, the Oscar nominee’s portrayal was informed by TV’s “housewives of New Jersey.”) Although Adams looks strangely contemporary throughout “American Hustle” – and way more desirable than Irving – she and Lawrence make a terrific tag team. (She deserved some kind of a nomination, simply for being able to keep her nipples from flopping out of her deeply cleaved dresses.) In Russell’s master plan, Abscam mostly provides an excuse to bring these crazy characters together in one movie. As crimes go, it couldn’t hold a candle to Watergate or the Iran-Contra affair. Russell’s real challenge was getting us to cheer for dyed-in-the-wool crooks over the men and women assigned to protect taxpayers from such schemes. By now, however, we expect such behavior from them. “American Hustle” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning exactly none. If it’s any consolation – and it should be – the movie was widely praised by critics and recorded $250 million in worldwide box-office returns, 60 percent of them from U.S. audiences. The Blu-ray adds a 16-minute making-of featurette and several deleted scenes. The scary thing to remember is that Congress’ immediate response to Abscam was to write laws forbidding the FBI from conducting such stings against upstanding public servants, like themselves.  – Gary Dretzka

Frozen: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Doc Mcstuffins: Mobile Clinic
Jungle Book 2: Blu-ray
The idea of adapting Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Snow Queen,” into a feature-length fantasy had been kicking around Disney Studios, in one form or another, for exactly 70 years before it finally was committed to film last year as “Frozen.” It’s not that the story was considered to be unfilmable by the folks at the Mouse House, because it had already been adapted a couple dozen times under its original title. Instead, “The Snow Queen” simply wasn’t as light or malleable as other of Andersen’s fairy tales — or various public-domain stories by the Grimm Brothers — which have made a fortune for the studio over the last 70-80 years. In 1943, Walt Disney and Samuel Goldwyn had considered the possibility of collaborating on an Andersen biopic, for which Goldwyn’s studio would shoot the live-action sequences and Disney would create the animated sequences, based on the stories. (Nine years later, Goldwyn would hand the reins to Danny Kaye for the live-action, “Hans Christian Andersen.”) The “Snow Queen” idea would be revisited several times since the late-1990s, but, until “Frozen,” nothing stuck. If bad things happen to some of the key characters in “Frozen,” none is too dark for consumption by Disney’s family audience. And, in this case, that’s a very good thing. Besides being exceedingly enchanting, “Frozen” extended Walt Disney Animation Studios’ winning streak – apart from any strictly Pixar production — which began with “Tangled.” On a production budget estimated at $150 million, not counting marketing costs, the movie has returned just north of a billion dollars, 61 percent from foreign markets. Throw in the DVD/Blu-ray revenues, video games, toys and a possible Broadway musical and we’re talking real money.

In the Disney version, Princesses Anna and Elsa are sisters and each other’s closest friend. Elsa of Arendelle possesses the ability to create ice and snow, but doesn’t quite know how to control it. After she freaks herself out by accidentally injuring her younger sister, their parents request help from trolls. They heal Anna and remove her memory of Elsa’s power. Her fear of this “gift” turns Elsa into a recluse, which causes a rift between the girls as they grow up. After their parents die at sea during a storm, Elsa is required to come out of hiding to ascend to the throne. No sooner does a thaw melt the ice separating the sisters than Elsa pulls a power play on Anna that frightens everyone invited to the coronation. It’s so unexpectedly explosive that the kingdom is thrown into a state of permanent winter. So as not to do any more damage, Elsa escapes into the mountains of Arendelle, where everything before her turns to ice and her constituency considers her to be wicked. Knowing better, Anna goes on mission to find her Elsa and convince her to bring summer back to the kingdom. Along the way, she’s joined by a silly mountain man, anthropomorphic reindeer and a friendly snowman. Together, they face various obstacles and hardships, none of which are so frightening your kids will forever give up ice-skating and snowball fights. They will, however, be exposed to several moral lessons about dealing with one’s temper and the need for reconciliation. “Frozen” is distinguished by beautiful artwork; memorable songs; delightful characters; and much humor. The blue-tinged Nordic scenery and curly wisps of ice created by Elsa are especially effective on Blu-ray. The bonus material, although a bit skimpy by Disney standards, adds deleted scenes; short making-of and background pieces; music videos of “Let It Go,” in four different languages by three different singers; and, best of all, the animated short, “Get a Horse,” starring Mickey Mouse.

Also from Disney come “The Jungle Book 2,” for the first time on Blu-ray, and “Doc McStuffins: Mobile Clinic.” The latter enjoys the distinction of being the first show commissioned for Disney’s re-branded “Disney Junior” blocks on the Disney Channel. The series follows 6-year-old Dottie McStuffins who, one day, wants to become a doctor like her mother. Until then, she pretends to be a physician by fixing up toys and dolls. Thus, her nickname. In fact, when she puts on her stethoscope, the toys magically come to life. Each 11-minute episode includes original songs and tips for kids to stay healthy. The compilation clocks in at 90 minutes. It’s probably worth mentioning that Dottie is one of the few African-American characters with their own show … animated or live-action.

“The Jungle Book 2” looks quite a bit better on Blu-ray than it did in its original iteration, which wasn’t up to Disney standards. Originally planned to go out straight-to-video, exhibitors convinced the studio to give them an opportunity to squeeze some profits from the sequel. (Actually, two live-action sequels appeared in the 1990s.) It made a lot of money for everyone, in and out of video. Basically, the movie picks up a short time after the original ended. Mowgli’s happy living in the “man-village,” but misses the gang in the jungle. Unfortunately, for him, his nemesis Shere Khan still lingers in his former stomping grounds.  – Gary Dretzka

Saving Mr. Banks: Blu-ray
And, speaking of Disney … there’s “Saving Mr. Banks” to consider. Because there’s no mystery surrounding its eventual outcome, “Saving Mr. Banks” is one of the few Hollywood movies we can unreservedly cheer for the studio executive, instead of the embattled artist. P.L. Travers, author of the “Merry Poppins” books, is the portrayed by Emma Thompson as being the kind of Australian-British scold who sees everything through her own prism and feels threatened by anyone doesn’t stand in awe of her talent, including those entrusted with adapting her novels. When confronted with certain show-business realities, including the need to make money and embrace the collaborative process, she really gets her dander up. In the movie, as in real life, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) had been waiting 20 years to fulfill his daughter’s dream of seeing “Merry Poppins” work her magic on the big screen and he wasn’t going to pop her balloon because of an author’s aversion to animation and charming pop songs. Instead of steamrolling his guest, however, Disney actually believed that a spoonful of sugar would make the make Travers’ medicine go down. And, in this case, at least, he was proven right.

To the credit of writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, working alongside director John Lee Hancock, we’re shown how events in Travers’ childhood might not only have influenced her stories, but also caused her to grow up to be so protective of her property. Wisely, her life story is intertwined with the creative path followed by the creative team assigned by Disney to work magic of their own on “Merry Poppins.” In doing so, the writers also were able to soften the revisionist image of the long-dead mogul, whose anti-Semitism, racism, anti-labor stances, self-aggrandizement and unwillingness to share the spotlight steal cast a long shadow in the industry. (Indeed, some observers have suggested that Disney’s perceived sins may have been the reason “Saving Mr. Banks” was snubbed by Oscar voters.) Outside of Hollywood, however, Disney’s reputation as a visionary and purveyor of top-shelf family entertainment has never been in doubt.

What I found to be most appealing about the movie is how well the collaborative process is represented, especially for those of us who may not fully appreciate what it takes to keep a no-brainer from tanking. Travers was vehemently opposed to adding bright and clever ditties from the Sherman Brothers songbook – and, of course, Don DaGradi’s dancing penguins — to the soundtrack, but, eventually, they were able to make a dent in her armor. B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman and Bradley Whitford deserve a lot of credit for translating the songwriting experience so effectively. In Hanks’ hands, Disney’s dogged pursuit of Travers’ approval also is borderline inspirational. Their temporary marriage may not have been made in heaven – or Disneyland – but the child it spawned did very well for itself. Paul Giamatti and Colin Farrell hold their own in key supporting roles, while Hollywood, circa 1964, retains most vestiges of its glamorous past. The Blu-ray presentation could hardly be better, either. It includes “Walt Disney Studios: From Poppins to Present”; “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” in which cast and crew break out in a heartfelt tribute to composer Richard Sherman on the last day of filming; and three deleted scenes. Be sure not to miss the surprise revealed in the final credits.  – Gary Dretzka

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: Blu-ray
Punk in Africa
It’s difficult to make a biopic about a man who’s gone through as many dramatic changes as Nelson Mandella did in the 70 years covered in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and not make it feel like a ride on the milk train. Each of the three actors assigned to capture Mandela’s immense reserve of energy, courage, intelligence and compassion would be required to work as one, without dropping the baton as it was passed to them. Most of us only knew Mandella as he’s pictured on the cover of the DVD/Blu-ray: a broadly smiling survivor of a lifetime of struggle and pain … a gray-haired saint called by God at 86 to heal a nation long wracked with hate and fear. It’s a far cry from the image of the angry young man we saw in the one-sheet posters for the theatrical release. Working off a blueprint created by the man, himself, in his autobiography, director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) and writer William Nicholson (“Les Misérables”) winnowed 650 pages to 144 minutes’ worth of compelling history. Siza Pini and Atandwa Kani play Mandella from 7-9 and 16-23, while Idris Elba covers the period from adulthood to his inaugural address, in 1994. Many Oscar handicappers believe that Elba was robbed of a nomination for reasons that have more to do with executive producer Harvey Weinstein’s personality than anything in the movie, itself. (Its sole nomination was for the original song, “Ordinary Love,” by U2.) “Long Walk” covers a sliver of his boyhood adventures in the South African village of Mvezoto, before flashing ahead to the promise he showed as young lawyer in the big city and his first, unsuccessful marriage. Elba takes us through the radicalization process that changed Mandella so dramatically and led to the events that put him behind bars for so many years, dodging the gallows by a near miracle. And, yet, many important events in Mandella’s were skimmed over or edited out for the purposes of time and pace. This isn’t to infer that some of the warts were excised, because his tarnished halo is very much in evidence during less-disciplined periods in his life. His politically charged break from Winnie Mandela isn’t completely explained, nor are the tribal divisions that threatened the electoral process. A mini-series might have served Mandella better, but “Long Walk to Freedom” is worth the price of a rental for the many fine performances; its depiction of the toll taken by 27 years in prison; and a short course on the long fight to eliminate Apartheid. The Blu-ray adds “Mandela: The Leader You Know, The Man You Didn’t,” commentary with director Justin Chadwick, behind-the-scenes featurettes; and a tribute video gallery.

For many years, South African officials attempted to build a wall around itself, not only to keep the international media from focusing on Apartheid, but also to prevent its black, white and colored residents from learning about various social and cultural movements happening around them. Until the shocking news of the Sharpeville massacre leaked out from Transvaal, this was OK with most western news organizations that prided themselves in being open and free. Television wouldn’t open the door to the outside world until 1976. By this time, though, Mandela was in jail and an underground musical scene had emerged, not unlike those that took root in the U.S. and Europe in the mid-’60s. Government officials attempted to pull that thorn from its side, as well, but music crosses borders that marches and protesters can’t. Keith Jones and Deon Maas’ enlightening 2012 documentary, “Punk in Africa,” describes the role played by bands of multi-racial rockers in creating a new front on the war against Apartheid. If they called their music punk, it’s because nothing in the repressive system escaped their wrath. Unlike the protest songs of American folkies, though, you could dance to it. Naturally, the bands absorbed traditional rhythms, combining them with ska, punk, reggae, jazz and R&B. At the same time, artists living in Mozambique and Zimbabwe also challenged the status quo by merging music with politics. “Punk in Africa” contains new and archived interviews, as well as rare and unseen footage of such bands as Suck, Wild Youth, Safari Suits, Power Age, National Wake, KOOS, Kalahari Surfers, the Genuines, Hog Hoggidy Hog, Fuzigish, Sibling Rivalry, 340ml, Panzer, the Rudimentals, Evicted, Sticky Antlers, Freak, LYT, Jagwa Music, Fruits and Veggies and Swivel Foot. – Gary Dretzka

Swerve: Blu-ray
There’s something about a good Australian crime thriller that should remind American viewers of movies once churned out by Hollywood studios in the dozens. We know them as film noir, B-movies and potboilers, depending on their casts and budget. The best of the Aussie crime crop are too fresh and nuanced to be labeled Ozploitation, but they share certain tendencies. As the ancestors of exiled prisoners and hoodlums, they seem to display a genetic predisposition to settling scores outside the law and a lack of trust in anyone deemed incorruptible. And, that’s just the women. Kidding. Like other movies set in places beyond the coastal cities, “Swerve” recalls a Western as written by Jim Thompson. Set in the barren, semi-arid flatlands bordered by the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, “Swerve” opens with a double-cross that quickly becomes a triple-cross and grows exponentially from there. A suitcase full of drugs is exchanged for a suitcase full of cash. It only takes a minute for the recipient of the drug cache to discover that he’s been deceived. By this time, however, he’s driven several hundred yards across the flats leading to the highway. Even though he turns his vehicle around immediately, the drug courier can’t avoid being blown to smithereens by a bomb hidden among the bags of white powder in the suitcase. The man with the cash is fed his just desserts when, forced to swerve by an approaching convertible, he’s killed in the crash. Of course, it’s driven by an intoxicatingly beautiful blond, Jina (Emma Booth). The blond is shaken, but OK. The fellow with the suitcase full of cash, however, is indisputably dead.

Colin (David Lyons) is solid citizen, on his way to a job interview further south, when he witnesses the crash. Playing the Good Samaritan card, Colin picks up the suitcase and delivers it to the sheriff of the nearest town. The sheriff, Frank (Jason Clarke), gladly accepts the suitcase and its contents, then offers Colin a place to crash for the night. And, here’s where “Swerve” turns very pulpy. Frank is married to Jina, an evil seductress if there ever was one. In combination with the contents of the suitcase, she sees in Colin a way to escape life in a town more suited to sheep worship than maintaining the upkeep of a world-class beauty. After dinner, when Frank returns to the jail to secure the suitcase, Jina attempts to lure Colin into a moonlit skinny-dip, which he declines. The next day, other hoodlums arrive in town – along with several buses containing police marching bands – to retrieve the treasure. Suffice it to say, the suitcase is never where it’s supposed to be at any given time and viewers are left in the dark as to where to find it. The answers, which reveal themselves in time, are cleverly hidden among the red herrings and narrative chicanery. In this way, it recalls the work of Thompson, James L. Caine and Alfred Hitchcock. “Swerve” was written and directed by the late Craig Lahiff (“Heaven’s Burning,” “Black and White”), who used a similar suitcase device in his 1988 thriller, “Fever.” The Blu-ray adds a quartet of EPK interviews. – Gary Dretzka

The Hidden Fortress: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
By now, no fan of the American Western should be unfamiliar with the visually arresting and action-heavy Easterns created by the Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa. “The Hidden Fortress,” released in 1958, was the first film Kurosawa made in the wide-screen Toho Scope format and recorded in stereo. As such, it’s probably the movie most influenced by one of Kurosawa’s heroes, John Ford, whose shooting techniques and eye for visual grandeur were a perfect match for American Westerns, Spaghetti Westerns and Asian Easterns. Here, Toshiro Mifune (Yojimbo) plays the general of a disgraced army who’s charged with guarding his boss’ intrepid daughter (Misa Uehara) and a fortune in gold. (Kurosawa patterned the princess after a teenage Elizabeth Taylor.) Traveling together behind enemy lines, they run the common risk of being captured, robbed and killed. Instead, at a fortress hidden deep in the mountains, they hook up with a pair of reward-hungry peasants who can barely get out of each other’s way. Together, the travelers don’t look like much of a threat to the conquering army, so it’s easier for them to get past checkpoints and escape detection. Once the general and princess are identified, though, they’re required to use their wits, fighting skills and horsemanship to remain free. Even after a half-century, “Hidden Fortress” is extremely exciting and sometimes quite amusing. The black-and-white cinematography, too, is remarkable. In an interview included in the Criterion package, George Lucas describes how he became acquainted with Kurosawa’s work and patterned R2-D2 and C-3PO after the two peasants, through whose voices the story unspools. Kurosawa’s reflections on “Hidden Fortress” and memories of Ford are detailed in the 41-minute featurette, “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create.” Commentary is provided by film historian Stephen Prince, while a booklet adds an essay by film scholar Catherine Russell. – Gary Dretzka

Return to Nuke ‘Em High: Vol. 1 Blu-ray
The Slumber Party Massacre: Blu-ray
Contracted
Loathe, though I am, to describe “Class of  Nuke ’Em High” as a classic example of anything … well, it is. How else would one describe as a merger of “Blackboard Jungle,” “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” and “Toxic Avenger”? Troma Entertainment/Studios co-founders Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz have, for more than 40 years, consistently turned out pictures that have blurred the boundaries between horror, sci-fi, eco-terror and low camp. Kaufman, Troma’s public happy-face, is an impresario created from the same mold as Roger Corman, John Waters, John Carpenter, Russ Meyer and Ed Wood Jr. Not only have these singular filmmakers been willing and able to squeeze every last penny from already tight budgets, but they’ve also influenced dozens of younger artists. If their films truly “aren’t for everyone,” it’s only because they aren’t intended to fit all sizes. Kaufman has spent the better part of the last year promoting “Return to Nuke ‘Em High: Vol. 1,” at film festivals, film markets, campuses, museums and retrospectives, as if it were his magnum opus. Editors and critics have received dozens of e-mails, offering news releases and photos of Kaufman on the hustings. Although eight movies carry “Nuke ’Em High” in their titles, only five have anything to do with Troma (including the upcoming “RTNEH: Vol. 2”). The first three film comprised a series, while “RTNEH: Vol. 1” is a re-boot of the franchise. This time around, we’re back at Tromaville High School, which must be every substitute teacher’s idea of a living hell, and the nuclear plant has been turned into Tromorganic Foodstuffs Conglomerate. Needless to say, residual radioactivity taints the food the students are served at the cafeteria, turning some of them into mindless cretins … or, worse, lesbians. More than that, I dare not reveal. Asta Paredes and Catherine Corcoran appear to be having a blast as the forbidden lovers, as will genre buffs as they attempt to spot all of the homages and parodies. But, of course, repeat after me … it’s not for everyone. There are several entertaining featurettes and interviews, as well.

Made at the dawn of the slasher age, “Slumber Party Massacre” is the rare genre picture that’s managed to age as gracefully as the actresses interviewed in the bonus package. In 1982, when it received a limited release by New World, it was lambasted by critics who couldn’t see beyond their hatred for slasher flicks and were disappointed, as well, by the absence of an easily identifiable feminist subtext. It was, after all, written by gay-rights activist Rita Mae Brown (“Rubyfruit Jungle”) and directed by Amy Holden Jones, who had cut her teeth as an assistant to Martin Scorsese on “Taxi Driver.” Brown’s original script was written as parody, but shot as a genre picture according to the dictates of the producers at Corman’s company. The satire probably would have been lost on the slasher audience, anyway. It took a few years for other filmmakers and critics to understand what Brown and Jones had in mind – it’s there if one bothers to look hard enough — and, by that time, genre fans had caught up with the movie on VHS. The movie would generate direct sequels in 1986 and 1990, and a separate “Massacre Collection” franchise on top of those titles. The “Slumber Party” premise is as simple as inviting a sociopath with an electric drill – “Body Double,” anyone — to crash a slumber party of wannabe Playboy bunnies. The Blu-ray package contains lengthy interviews with Jones and some of the stars, as well as trailers for the sequels.

In “Contracted,” writer/director Eric England bends, folds and mutilates the hoary slasher-film trope, which stipulates that teenagers who have sex in cars will be slaughtered by a serial killer in the first reel. Here, a newly minted lesbian, Samantha (Najarra Townsend), cheats on her lover with a creep who takes advantage of her alcohol-exaggerated anxiety over some unreturned phone calls. Samantha immediately regrets the indiscretion, hoping against hope that her girlfriend won’t learn of it. The die already has been cast, however. As punishment for having unprotected sex, she begins to leak frighteningly high volumes of blood from her orifices … all of them. If Samantha had only waited for the guy to put on a condom, the scolds argue, she would have been spared the agony. Good advice, but delivered a tad too late. Based on just that much information, gore addicts might be tempted to sample “Contracted.” Samantha’s ordeal doesn’t end with spilled blood and distorted eyeballs, though. It gets much, much worse. Unfortunately, England doesn’t bother to enlighten us about the origin of the killer STD and the intentions, if any, of the stranger. The DVD adds commentary and a making-of piece, with auditions. – Gary Dretzka

The Wrath of Vajra: Blu-ray
Commitment: Blu-ray
Flu
As atypical as it is vastly entertaining, “The Wrath of Vajra” is the kind of martial-arts picture that demonstrates how much the venerable genre still is able to surprise us and evolve. It does so by combining wall-to-wall action and splendid cinematography with a wartime story that almost defies description. It also features one of the most diverse and unexpected casts of characters I’ve seen in a long time. “The Wrath of Vajra” describes an elaborate scheme by Japanese occupation forces to create a division of clandestine assassins, comprised of Chinese youths who have been kidnaped or purchased and brought to Japan to drink the Emperor’s Kool-Aid. The children are trained in the most lethal martial-arts techniques, with the intention of re-inserting them into China when required by the Imperial Army. The boys are known by the number tattooed on their arm, which signify their place in pecking order of the Temple of Hades. One of the boys, K-29, escapes after he seriously injures his brother while horsing around. He finds his way to a Shaolin temple in China, where he masters the monks’ preferred kung-fu discipline. Skip ahead several years, towards the end of WWII, and the Temple of Doom has moved its operation to mainland China, where it’s easier to kidnap children and Allied planes aren’t about to drop Bombs of Doom on their heads. They take over a traditional temple complex, where there’s plenty of room for training, fighting and holding prisoners, including American special-forces troops captured in Burma, where they fought alongside Chinese guerrillas and learned the language. They arrive at the temple at about the same time as the all-grown-up K-29, who’s taken a vow to free the kids and destroy the death cult. To accomplish this, K-29 must conquer and kill the cream of the cult’s assassins. These freaks of nature resemble characters in an arcade game, in that one could be Andre the Giant’s body double and the other, Crazy Monkey, fits his nickname like an old shoe.  Posing the greatest threat, however, is an officer famous for his skills in Japanese martial arts. The fights are nothing short of spectacular, mixing styles, techniques and passion for opposing causes. In another storyline, the daughter of the cult leader is a journalist who starts out as a true believer, but becomes increasingly more skeptical as K-29 battles his way through the cult’s most celebrated combatants. Considering how well K-29 is doing, the reports do nothing but confirm the army’s earlier decision to ban the Temple of Hades. As K-29 makes his final preparations for the ultimate fight, so, too, are the POWs solidifying their plot to break out of the temple, and taking the kids with them. The last half-hour is even more dramatically choreographed than the anything in the 85 minutes that preceded it. I found it interesting to learn that the movie’s star, Xing Yu, is a 32d generation Shaolin monk and a legitimate Zen warrior. The rest of the cast is comprised of actors from Japan, China, the U.S., Britain and Korea (pop stars, Yoo Sungjun and Nam Hyun-joon), many of whom bring their own preferred disciplines to the battle scenes. The beautiful mountain setting is nicely captured in Blu-ray, as well.

Unlike most other Korean action pictures that make the hop over the Pacific, the spy-vs.-spy thriller “Commitment” is targeted directly at the heart of teen audiences. Its protagonist, Myung-hoon, is played by boy-band favorite Choi Seung-hyun (a.k.a., T.O.P) and rising star Kim Yoo-jeong as his teenage “friend.” After his father fails to return to Pyongyang after completing a mission in South Korea, the spy’s son and daughter are jailed as “traitors” by extension. To escape torture or death, and ensure the safety of his younger sister, Myung-hoon agrees to infiltrate the South and perform tasks as assigned. Because he’s still in his teens, Myung-hoon is placed in the home of foster parents and required to attend high school, where he is required to pretend to be a transfer student too timid to protect himself against the bullies. It isn’t until they humiliate his shy seatmate, Hye-in (the same name as his sister) that he decides to reveal his killer instinct. Myong-hoon’s assignment is to assassinate those on a kill-list monitored by those holding his sister in the North. Tired of the bullying, as well, Hye-in, simply disappears from school. The next time they meet, she’s cut her hair and broken out of her shell. For performing all of his chores as ordered, Myung-hoon fully expects to be allowed to return North and what passes for a normal life with his sister. Instead, he’s betrayed by the same intelligence bureaucracy that took down his father. This time, the paranoia level has been heightened by the death of the nation’s demented leader and replaced by one even crazier. By now, Myong-hoon has no idea on which side of the DMZ his worst enemy resides. He only wants to do right by the two Hye-ins in his life and it takes all of his martial-arts expertise to do so. The Blu-ray adds a fan-oriented making-of featurette.

The title of the Korean epidemic thriller, “Flu,” pretty much sums up what to expect in the movie’s exhaustive 122-minute length. In this regard, at least, it isn’t much different than “Contagion,” “Outbreak,” “Quarantine” and “The Plague of the Zombies.” In Kim Sung-su’s take on the horror staple, a mutation of the Avian Flu is transported into a suburb of Seoul along with a shipping canister filled with mostly dead illegal immigrants from Indonesia. Once the virus is identified, public-health officials fear they won’t be able to prevent it from spreading beyond the borders of Bundang. If that happens, the epidemic could evolve into a pandemic, causing world powers to quarantine the entire nation or take even more drastic military measures to stop it. The primary difference between “Flu” and dozens of other such disaster films is the role played by a rescue worker, Ji-go, and the infectious disease specialist, In-hye, he saves from a pit into which her car has fallen. Together, they attempt to find the lone survivor of the doomed canister, whose blood could contain the antibodies needed to end the plague. This sort of personalization of the story is to be expected, I suppose. What isn’t predictable is the degree of annoyance generated by In-hye’s young daughter when the flu catches up with her. The incessant weeping and wailing, while understandable, become a plague onto themselves after about 10 minutes. What saves “Flu” from becoming a movie better suited to the Syfy channel than theaters are the well-rendered scenes of mass mayhem and panic. The Blu-ray adds making-of featurettes and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
BBC: Atlantis: Season One: Blu-ray
Chiller: Monsters: The Complete Series
Nova: Roman Catacomb Mystery
Frontline: To Catch a Trader
Nick Jr.: Peppa Pig: My Birthday Party
I’m not sure what I expected to see when I put “Atlantis” on my Blu-ray player … probably a combination of Donovan’s song of the same title and such syndicated action-fantasy shows as “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.” And, guess what, I was right. The show, which ran originally on BBC One, found its way to North America on Canada’s Space Channel and as part of BBC America’s “Supernatural Saturday” bloc. If any students of Greek mythology depend on the information proffered in “Atlantis,” they probably deserve the F they’re going to get. The same probably holds true for any series based on history or popular fiction, though. Here, the mash-up of mythological characters is especially bizarre, in that demi-gods, goddesses and monsters we know to have existed in Greece millennia earlier have taken up residence in Atlantis. It opens with an oceanographer/argonaut named Jason, whose submersible breaks through a hole in the time-space continuum, leaving him stranded on a beach in Atlantis. Apparently, it’s the same hole his father passed through years earlier, disappearing forever. While running away from a two-headed dragon, Jason finds shelter in the home of a bloated Hercules (Mark Addy) and “the triangle guy,” Pythagoras (Robert Emms). In due time, we’re introduced, as well, to King Minos, Ariadne, Medusa, Pasiphae, the Oracle, Circes, Atalanta, the Minotaur, Maenads and other demons. Adults will see right through “Atlantis,” but should find the fantasy elements to their liking.

TV producers have always had a soft spot in their hearts for anthology series, especially those targeted for syndication and cable. They also were radio staple, before it turned almost exclusively to music, news and talk. In the so-called Golden Age of television, anthologies typically were sponsored out-front by such companies as Kraft, Philco, General Electric, United States Steel and Alcoa, or hosted by familiar stars, like Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, Danny Thomas, Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney. The format has probably been adopted most often as a base for sci-fi, horror and suspense: “Twilight Zone,”  “The Outer Limits” and “Night Gallery,” among them. “Monsters” ran in syndication from 1988-91 and reruns still can be found on NBC/Universal’s niche cable network, Chiller. The series, which bears comparison to “Tales From the Dark Side,” deals less with the supernatural than manifestations of horror, including subgenres introduced in the 1970-80s, when censors relaxed their grip on violent imagery. Being syndicated, “Monsters” relied more on twisty stories and macabre humor than established guest stars for their appeal. Here, the list of writers, directors and stars is very heavy on names of B- and C-list stars of yore and up-and-comers far more recognizable today than in the early 1990s. Among them are Tempestt Bledsoe, David Spade, Meat Loaf, Laraine Newman, Tori Spelling, Chris Noth, Gina Gershon, Bette Gordon, Lizzie Borden, Julie Brown, Kevin Nealon, Matt LeBlanc, Wil Wheaton, Luis Guzman and Tony Shaloub. The complete-series box contains 1,560 minutes of nicely re-mastered dark comedy and horror.

Traveling through Europe with kids can be a real bummer in the summer. There are attractions, however, that bored teens can enjoy and not feel intimidated by fellow tourists with degrees in art history. While mom and dad visit the museums and cathedrals, the kids can tour the local malls and compare them to their favorite haunts back home or the same landmarks on the Las Vegas Strip. In England, the Tower of London and surrounding historical sites are lots of fun, while, in Scotland, a cruise on Loch Ness is obligatory. Paris offers such strange destinations as the Sewers Museum, which substitutes for the discontinued subterranean boat tours, and the celebrity-heavy Père Lachaise Cemetery. In winter, a side trip to Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, for a night’s stay in the Ice Hotel, defines what it means to be “cool.” Anyone easily unimpressed by the Vatican may want to check out the various catacombs of Rome, which stretch for miles and offer more than mere skeletons to admire. Some contain frescos and other ancient pieces of art, just like Pompei. If that’s more up your alley than, say, the Spanish Steps, be sure to check out the “Nova” presentation, “Roman Catacomb Mystery,” which investigates why one of the underground cemeteries contains thousands of skeletons, stacked like so much firewood, but precious little evidence as to what caused so many people to die in such a short time. It’s creepy, but fascinating stuff.

The “Frontline” episode “To Catch a Trader” opens with a reminder of the 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal that presented evidence of pervasive abuse of laws intended to eliminate insider trading. In it, a persuasive case was made again “King of Hedge Funds,” Steve Cohen, and the brokerage firm he founded, SAC Capital. On the surface, it seemed as if the feds’ case was airtight and the traders involved were dirty as sin, which, of course, they were. Producer Martin Smith’s follow-up to the report is at once enlightening and deeply troubling. No sooner had the American economy tanked, in 2008, causing millions of people from around the world to suffer from lax SEC controls, than guys like Cohen found a different way to rob investors. Agents for SAC Capital made it their business to beg, buy or steal information that might cause the indexes to fluctuate up or down. No matter if a tip was received minutes before news was about to break, a fortune could be made in the time it took to type an order into a computer. So much money was made in this manner that it bordered on the impossible, and Cohen spent it as quickly as he made it. And, yet, while his company agreed to pay a substantial fine, Cohen has avoided prosecution. The PBS documentary is informed, as well, by information requested through the Freedom of Information Act and a video from a deposition Cohen gave in 2011. Using excuses that wouldn’t keep a 5th Grader from avoiding detention – he only admitted to being ignorant of established regulations — he’s been able to avoid being indicted. It no longer qualifies as news that government officials are reluctant to prosecute offenders, unless there’s a near certainty they’ll win or they’re taunted by someone like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Here, at least, some lower-level executives cut deals and spent some time in jail.

The animal characters on the animated British export, “Peppa Pig,” are drawn in such a deceptively sloppy manner that it could easily fit on Adult Swim, which is where stoners turn each night to be intellectually stimulated. The kid-friendly messages might be lost on them, but who doesn’t enjoy getting blitzed and playing in mud puddles? Enormously popular in England, where there’s a theme devoted to the show, “Peppa Pig” is mostly available here through Nick Jr. and PPV. The “My Birthday Party” DVD welcomes preschoolers with 80 minutes of adventures, featuring 14 “Peppasodes” (12 regular, plus 2 bonus) and a pair of fresh educational extras, “Learn the Alphabet” and “Learn to Count.” Besides Peppa and her family, the cast includes Suzy Sheep, Pedro Pony and Danny Dog. – Gary Dretzka

A Saint … a Woman … a Devil
Peekarama: Sadie/The Seductress
Peekarama: The Altar of Lust/Angel on Fire
As weird and experimental as pornography got in the days after “Deep Throat” and “Behind the Green Door,” and before the dawn of the Golden Age, few could boast as interesting a backstory as “A Saint … a Woman … a Devil” (a.k.a., “Sylvia”).  The original title pins the movie’s inspiration to “Three Faces of Eve,” but “A Saint … a Woman … a Devil” probably sounded too European for the drive-in and grindhouse crowd. “Sylvia” In fact, it does reveal certain arthouse conceits, including a reportedly deranged actress (Joanna Bell) playing a woman with multiple personalities. Her character, Sylvia, transforms in a flash from religious nut, to nymphomaniac (in the classic sense of the term), to a drug-addled biker lesbian and a woman desperate for romantic live. A psychiatrist gets her to recollect the trauma of growing up in a house with a psycho mother, but it doesn’t prevent the sudden personality changes. Writer/director Armand Peters (a.k.a., Peter Savage) received a partial writing and acting credit for “Raging Bull” and appeared in “New York, New York” and “Taxi Driver.” Exploitation special William Lustig (“Manic”) served as an uncredited AD on the film and it was produced with the assistance of students from the NYU film school. (Future mainstream DP Michael Negrin went uncredited as the shooter.) That, at least, explains some of the more polished, artsy shots. Two years later, after a decade in the porn game, Sonny Landham (“Junkie #1”) would be discovered by action-director Walter Hill and cast in “The Warriors,” “Southern Comfort” and “48 Hrs.” Also appearing in bit parts are Joseph LaMotta, son of Jake and Vickie, and porn mainstay Bobby Astyr. The new Vinegar Syndrome DVD includes the 108-minute XXX and 89-minute R-rated versions. There’s a shorter XXX version floating around, as well. I wish that the VS edition had retained the commentary track, with Lustig, and an eight-page booklet. It benefits, though, from a 2K restoration from original 35mm elements.

Also from Vinegar Syndrome come a pair of double-features, showing the work of Hall of Fame director Bob Chinn – the model for Jack Horner, in “Boogey Nights” – and exploitation legend Roberta Findlay. Chinn is credited with expanding the porno marketplace to include films with recurring characters. John Holmes starred as the titular hero of the porn-noir series, “Johnny Wadd,” which became “Dirk Diggler” in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. “Sadie” is Chinn’s take on the Somerset Maugham novel, “Rain.” Set against the background of the Vietnam War, it is book that easily translates into porn. Chris Cassidy plays the prostitute, Sadie Thompson, who’s stuck in a low-end brothel on Borneo, popular with GIs on R&R. One day, a bible-banging politician arrives on the island with his strait-laced wife and soon-to-blossom daughter. He makes Sadie’s salvation his personal campaign. Although Chinn sticks pretty close to the text, it’s difficult not to think of “Gilligan’s Island,” especially in the sex scenes. Even as a curiosity, though, “Sadie” is different enough to be worth a look. “The Seductress” resembles a game of reverse musical-chairs blackmail, beginning with a cheating husband, a blond prostitute and an extortionist taking photos behind a mirror in a motel room. It’s pretty standard stuff, until the junkie whore begins to demand extra payments from her client (Lisa Deleeuw) to receive the incriminating photos. Her greed trips alarms all the way up the criminal food chain, until the blackmail schemes begin to overlap and the victims become the predators. Compared to today’s gonzo titles, “The Seductress,” is “Gone With the Wind.”

Even if it didn’t feature two of coolest names in porn history – Harry Reems and Erotica Lantern – “The Altar of Lust” would be of interest to collectors and buffs. It was made in 1971, a year ahead of “Deep Throat,” the movie that made Reems and Linda Lovelace household names. Not quite hard-core, but far too rough to be considered soft-core, “Altar of Lust” carries the personal stamp of Roberta Findlay, who, for many years, had been working the seamier edge of a genre pictures with her husband, Michael. Here, a young woman is so traumatized from being raped by her father-in-law that she becomes promiscuous. When Viveca catches her boyfriend (Reems) in the clutches of another woman, she agrees to join them in a threesome. To the stud’s chagrin, the threesome is reduced once again to a twosome, when the ladies decide they prefer women to men. Like all men of the time, her shrink believes he can treat her malady with his penis. Made three years later, “Angel on Fire” (a.k.a., “Angel Number 9”) reflects the acceptance of hard-core as something no longer limited to the raincoat crowd. The actors are more attractive and the stories are no longer written in crayon. In this twist on “Heaven Can Wait,” a despicable womanizer dumps his girlfriend when she announces that she’s pregnant. His punishment arrives in the form of a VW van, whose driver is distracted by the BJ he’s getting from his girlfriend. Instead of being sent immediately to hell, where he probably belongs, an angel puts him the body of woman and sends him back to Earth. At first, he digs being able to play with his own boobs and command the attention of handsome guys who know how to take care of a gal. It doesn’t take long for the tables to turn, however. Long-timers Jamie Gillis and Eric Edwards make early-career appearances here. All of these titles have been nicely re-mastered, as well.  – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis: Blu-ray
Despite being one of the best-reviewed movies of 2013, the Coen Brothers’ exquisite “Inside Llewyn Davis” suffered from a slow, tightly controlled rollout that lasted from the Cannes Film Festival to mid-January, 2014. By the time it reached its maximum exposure of 289 screens, awards nominations had come and gone, and too many of the people who would have wanted to see the movie in July or September already assumed that it already was in DVD. That’s one of major problems with distributors putting all of their marketing eggs in one basket, expecting the positive buzz from one or two early festivals to last until it’s rekindled by nominations and critics’ polls. When the buzzing stops, the movie is dropped like a hot potato. In my opinion, “Inside Llewyn Davis” wasn’t even given a fair shot on the arthouse circuit, where the nearly unanimous opinion of major critics would have done it some good. The film’s primary audience, after all, was always going to be Boomers who remember the second folk-music boom, of the early 1960s, and the artists who nearly disappeared in the wake of the Bob Dylan phenomenon. No matter how many boos rained down on Dylan at Newport and the Royal Albert Hall, the intransigence of traditionalists was duly noted by younger, more inclusive audiences and pretty much ignored. It lead to the rise of the singer-songwriter and a so-called third folk revolution. Dylan had yet to enter the picture when the Coens’ protagonist — played with great passion by Oscar Isaac – was struggling to make his presence known. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is far more informed by the early career of Dave Van Ronk and his memoir, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.” In real life, Van Ronk mentored Dylan and other soon to be popular folk artists. He would be overshadowed outside New York by the new generation of folk- and blues-rockers. Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles, Volume One,” confirms the movie’s depiction of a time when up-and-coming folkies slept on each other’s couches, worked the “basket joints” for tips and emulated Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers and recently re-discovered Delta blues musicians. Van Ronk’s music was more politically engaged than the songs Davis plays in the movies, but Isaac nicely captures his raspy voice, sometimes prickly nature and dedication to traditional acoustic tastes.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” describes a decidedly unpleasant week in Davis’ life and career, assuming he went on to have one. Not only has he tired of playing the same songs night after night at the same dimly lit clubs, but he’s also worn out his welcome at several of his favorite crash pads, lost a friend’s cat, learned that he might have a daughter living in Ohio — with another possibly in the over — and been punched out by a mysterious stranger. He travels all the way to Chicago, only to be told by a prospective manager (Albert Grossman, as channeled through F. Murray Abraham) that he’s lost the kid’s demo album and wasn’t the right fit for the new trio he is was forming: Peter, Paul & Mary. Frustrated to the point of resignation, Davis decides to hop a ship bound for the Far East, but not before visiting his seriously ill father in a home for retired seaman. By this time, most viewers either will have been completely alienated by Davis’ behavior or losing their patience with the Coens for messing with the trajectory of a career we wish more closely resembled that of Van Ronk. A clever twist near the end of the movie, though fictional, should make viewers in the latter category happy. As was the case with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” T Bone Burnett does wonders with the period soundtrack and overall musical tone of the movie. Bruno Delbonnel’s impeccable cinematography recalls winter in Lower Manhattan and the remarkable cover photograph for “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” Also good in supporting roles are Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Carrie Mulligan, Adam Driver and Stark Sands. The Blu-ray adds an excellent behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Book Thief: Blu-ray
Whenever a high-profile movie underperforms at the box office, you can bet that at least one member of the creative team will volunteer to stand up and point the finger at someone else. Put in that exact position during a post-mortem interview for “The Book Thief,” screenwriter Michael Petroni opined, “My major disappointment with the rewrites was that they took out most of the magic realism that’s featured in the book. Fox wanted a film that would appeal to families, not just adults, and (director Brian Percival) wanted to tell more of a straight, dramatic tale.” I don’t know about you, but, in my opinion, “magic realism” works far better in print than on the screen and almost never in places like Germany, where reality hardly ever make makes allowances for magic. As it is, Percival’s adaptation of Markus Zusak’s best-selling novel works just fine on its own terms, as both a compelling story about a German girl in World War II and as a lesson about how the unlikeliest heroes sometimes emerge from the pits of hell. There isn’t much I find family friendly about World War II – unless one uses puberty as the defining point for youth – but, just as the novel was targeted to young adults, so, too, is the movie a natural fit for teens and their older siblings. As narrated by the Angel of Death (that’s right), Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is an adolescent girl separated from her mother and brother in the lead-up to WWII, because the woman was a communist. (The boy dies on the journey by train.) Liesel winds up with foster parents in fictional Molching, Germany, which seems fairly typical of a mid-sized city prospering under the industrial boom between wars. Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) is a gentle house painter, who much prefers playing waltzes on his squeezebox to joining the Nazi riff-raff breaking the windows of Jewish shopkeepers and burning books in the town square. As played by Emily Watson, Rosa is a no-nonsense hausfrau, who takes in wash and tries very hard not to let her heart of gold shine through her bristly exterior. After Kristallnacht, a young Jewish man, Max, also finds refuge in the Hubermann household. By the time the war does begin in earnest, Percival, like Zusak, has committed the story to playing out in mostly peaceful Molching. Gestapo snoops are never far away, but we’re more interested in finding out how Liesel’s obsession with reading plays out in country where books are treated as the enemy. In this regard, “The Book Thief” is quite wonderful, as the precocious teenager is quite capable of finding enough reading material, besides “Mein Kampf,” to keep her mind occupied. The story allows room for subplots involving Liesel’s friends and Max’s plight, before the Allied bombers begin to target Molching, which doesn’t appear to be of any strategic importance to them. And, in case we forget, Death’s emissary makes his presence known every so often. Sophie Nélisse’s greatest challenge, perhaps, was avoiding her character being blown off the screen by old pros Rush and Watson, and she pulls it off quite smartly. All of the other production values are top-drawer, as well, especially the period-perfect set design, John Williams’ score and beautiful Saxon countryside. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a making-off featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Patience Stone
Try as I might, I can’t remember who walked home with the 2013 Best Actress Oscar or, for that matter, most of the other statuettes. Even without looking up the actress’ name, however, I can’t imagine a better performance than the one turned in the previous year by Golshifteh Farahani, who holds the distinction of being the first Iranian star to be banned from leaving Iran after performing in Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies.” In “The Patience Stone,” which resembles a contemporary “Sherezade,” Farahani plays a more or less typical Muslim wife and mother, caught between militias in an Afghan city. The Woman, as she’s identified in the credits, has resigned herself to the task of helping her war-hero husband (a.k.a., the Man) recover from a life-threatening wound received in a post-war incident, defending the honor of his family. Ever since, he’s laid comatose in the front room of their bullet-riddled home, located directly on the front line of the fighting. The Woman has been given no reason to believe her husband ever will emerge from his coma, but has been driven into poverty by continuing to provide the medicine for his IV drip. At this point, the audience is largely clueless as to the country in which the movie is set; the war in which the man fought; and the sides the militias represent. In fact, though, it could be any one of a half-dozen Middle Eastern or North African locales, where women dare not leave home wearing anything short of a full burka and the men (and their meddling mothers) demand their wives meet certain expectations, including bearing male heirs. Indoors, the Woman is free to leave the burka in the closet, a simple act that allows a free flow of dialogue when she’s with other women. This includes the house of her far worldlier aunt, who agrees to take in the children. One night, after a particularly rough afternoon fending off Koran-toting fighters and ministering to her lifeless husband, the Aunt recalls for her a lesson from Persian mythology. It describes a woman who would recite her troubles and history to a well-weathered rock she places before her. When the stone can absorb no more of her pain, it shatters, freeing the woman from her burdens.

In effect, the motionless Man becomes the stone for the Woman, who spends her lonely nights with him describing her trials and secrets, of which there are many. As one might suspect, the Woman comes to represent – especially for western viewers – the millions of Muslim women rendered anonymous by the burka and forced to endure the dictates of a male-dominated culture.  The intention of co-writer/director Atiq Rahimi here isn’t to condemn the teachings of the Koran or pit Sunni against Shia. Instead, he shows us how they can manipulated by men to forgive all sorts of crimes against women and justify practices no one’s God would endorse. Throughout their 10-year marriage, the Man ignored almost everything she had to say to him. Now, he’s a captive audience. Although the soliloquies are delivered in a straightforward manner, their emotional power is nothing short of volcanic. And, no, I haven’t spoiled anything revealed in the narrative. “The Patience Stone” was shot in Casablanca and Afghanistan, but more indoors than outside. Anyone who’s been impressed by “Wadjda,” “Mother of George” and “A Separation” will recognize several story threads they have in common. The acting, too, is revelatory. I recommend to anyone unfamiliar with Farahani that they check out her work in “Just Like a Woman,” “About Elle” and “Chicken With Plums,” as well as “Body of Lies.”  It arrives with a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Mademoiselle C: Blu-ray
So many of the very well-known fashion designers and magazine editors have been profiled in documentaries that we’ve started to see films about people only known to fashionistas and other obsessives. I think that Carmine Roitfeld, the subject of “Mademoiselle C,” was mentioned in “The September Issue,” which followed Vogue editor Anna Wintour as she oversaw the creation of what, at nearly five pounds, purportedly was the single largest issue of a magazine ever published. I seem to remember some discussion about Carine Roitfeld being the fashion industry equivalent of the wicked witch of the east or some such nonsense. A nod to their rivalry apparently also made the final cut of “The Devil Wears Prada.” For most of her 59 years on Earth, the daughter of Russian émigré and film producer Jacques Roitfeld has breathed the rarefied air of the industry as a model, writer, stylist, consultant, “muse” and editor. Like Wintour, Roitfeld is used to be courted by designers, photographers, celebrities and exceptionally rich, if otherwise useless rich people. Unlike the editor of American Vogue, she can frequently be seen – in the film, at least – manipulating her facial muscles into a smile. Her Rocky Raccoon eye makeup and lithe physique make her look as young as some of the models she employs. “Mademoiselle C” chronicles the period immediately after she left Vogue Paris and prepares to launch her new magazine, “CR Fashion Book,” whose primary distinction is that it has two cover photos and a central point where content collides. Like Vogue, it features high-end photography, advertising and models. If Roitfeld or Wintour has ever come in contact with anyone worth less than a million dollars or drives in anything not resembling a limo, it isn’t obvious from the documentaries made about them. Neither is it clear what differentiates Roitfeld’s editorial genius from that of other great editors. We have to take it on faith. That said, “Mademoiselle C” is well made, glamorous and full of celebrities in whose footsteps most of us will never walk. If she does have a blind side, however, it’s an unhealthy regard for pop-culture parasites. With all of the interesting, creative, beautiful, intelligent and influential people Roitfeld could have chosen for the cover of her third edition, it’s discouraging that she succumbed to cliché by picking Kim Kardashian. Score one for Anna Wintour. The Blu-ray adds footage from the premiere party in Paris, with even more celebrities and industry type. Anyone allergic to images of Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace and air-kisses may want to avoid this one. – Gary Dretzka

Homefront: Blu-ray
If James Franco isn’t the hardest working man in show business, I don’t know who is. His name has been attached to nearly three dozen projects in the period between 2012 and 2015. And, as far as I can tell, he hasn’t simply phoned in any of his performances. In “Homefront,” Franco plays a meth cooker, “Gator,” living in the bayous of Louisiana. For reasons known only to him, Gator decides to get involved in a petty feud started by his tweaker sister (Kate Bosworth) and a mysterious newcomer to town, Phil Broker (Jason Statham), whose daughter beat up her son at recess. Action junkies already know that any character played by Statham is going to be tougher that any five thugs put together and Gator is just a backwater bully. Turns out, in a previous career, Broker worked underground for the DEA. During the course of his last assignment, the son of the leader of the biker gang into which he had infiltrated was killed in a bust. Gator manages to blow Broker’s cover and sell the info to the gang leader in prison. The rest is carnage. The only thing that differentiates “Homefront” from a dozen other such movies is the script, which was written by Sylvester Stallone. To the extent that Stallone’s knowledge of action tropes is important to the success of any movie, the story is as exciting as it was ever likely to be. The swampy milieu adds greatly to the overall aura of menace and serves to hide most of the more glaring holes in the script. And, not surprisingly, perhaps, Franco easily pulls his weight in the caper. Moreover, the Blu-ray captures all of the nuances in Theo van de Sande’s atmospheric cinematography and Mark Isham’s bluesy score. It includes several deleted scenes and inconsequential VPK interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Ozploitation Trailer Explosion
Dead Kids: Blu-ray
Thirst: Blu-ray
Among the more entertaining staples of the video age are films comprised entirely of trailers. The more reliably outrageous the genre, the more hilarious are the previews of coming attractions. This applies primarily to exploitation and porno flicks, of course, with Italian giallo and Kung Fu movies also providing a good reason to get to the theater early. At one time, trailers for mainstream American movies used to be distinguished by all manner of bombastic hyperbole and ludicrous claims (“Most Expensive Movie Ever Made,” as if that were a good thing). Today, of course, the marketing departments of the major studios control nearly every aspect of the process, preferring to rely on surveys and test groups to sell movies as if they were toothpaste. Anyone who enjoyed the 2008 documentary “Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!” will find a lot to like in “Ozploitation Trailer Explosion,” which contains 156 minutes’ worth of raunchy, sexy, hyper-violent and downright ridiculous previews from the Golden Age, 1970 to 1986. While it’s important to remember that the first flowering of Aussie arthouse cinema was taking place at the same time, the titles represented here likely served the greater audience. I found it interesting that the first screen appearance by the future Dame Edna Everage (a.k.a., Barry Humphries) was in John B. Murray’s 1970 comedy, “The Naked Bunyip.” A year later, Humphries would collaborate with Bruce Beresford on “The Adventures of Barry McKenzie,” which also starred singer Barry Crocker, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Dennis Price, Dick Bentley, Willie Rushton, Julie Covington, Clive James and Joan Bakewell. It is an example of the “ocher” subgenre, featuring Australians who speak and act in an uncultured manner, using a broad Australian accent. The film is divided into three distinct sections, representing the sexploitation pictures, car crash/action flicks, and horror/sci-fi. Among the more recognizable stars are a very young Mel Gibson, Sam Neil, John Phillip Law, Henry Silva, George Lazenby, Dennis Hopper, Jack Thompson, David Hemmings, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jenny Agutter and Judy Davis. I wondered about the the inclusion of Peter Weir’s legitimately chilling “The Last Wave,” with Richard Chamberlain and Aboriginal actor David Gulplil, as it only seemed to exploit Aboriginal myths.

Severin Films is doing its part to honor the genre by releasing a pair of horror “classics,” “Thirst” and “Dead Kids” (a.k.a., “Strange Behavior”). To my mind, neither is specifically Australian or particularly Ozploitative. For example, “Dead Kids” purports to take place in Galesburg, Illinois, and is top-loaded with American stars Michael Murphy, Dan Shor, Dey Young, Louise Fletcher, Scott Brady, Marc McClure and the great character actor, Charles Lane. In it, a widower sheriff is assigned the task of investigating several unsolved slasher slayings, perhaps caused by the teenage sons of prominent citizens. If you’re guessing that a mad scientist, his evil nurse and long needles are involved, you win a kangaroo burger. “Dead Kids” could very well have emerged from the Roger Corman/New World catalog. The Blu-ray add commentaries by director Michael Laughlin, writer Bill Condon and actors Shor and Young; an interview with makeup effects artist Craig Reardon; and an isolated musical track by Tangerine Dream.

Likewise, “Thirst” could just as easily emerged from Hammer Studios, with its updated Gothic touches. Its shower scenes, featuring Chantal Contouri, pay homage to Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” The lovely Contouri plays a direct descendant of the bloodthirsty Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who introduced the cosmetic benefits of bathing in virgin blood to the horror genre. Conveniently, David Hemmings and Henry Silva represent an international blood-drinking cartel known as the Brotherhood. In Bathory’s heir, they see an opportunity to expand their herd of human “blood cows” into a business servicing a master race of vampires. Clearly, at some point during the past several hundred years, this representative of the clan has lost her taste for blood. Can it last? The upgraded Blu-ray edition adds commentary with director Rod Hardy and producer Anthony I. Ginnane, an isolated musical score and marketing material. – Gary Dretzka

In Fear: Blu-ray
One of the lessons that’s been pounded into our heads since the crimes of the Manson Family is not to pick up strangers on country roads, bereft of streetlamps and directional signs, especially at night. We’ve seen dozens of movies that exploit the same formula and most them come out the same. The British import, “In Fear,” is among the small handful of pictures in the subgenre capable of raising goosebumps among seasoned viewers. Tom and Lucy (Iain De Caesteckerm, Alice Englert) are driving to a festival in the remote Irish countryside, when they leave the main highway to look for their hotel. Even though they follow the signs to the letter, the couple can’t seem to locate their destination. Soon enough, the sun goes down and the only lights available to them come from their car. Out of nowhere pops a young man who may be able to point them in the right direction. Or, the stranger could be a sadist bent on torturing the couple before he kills them. The forest and inky dark sky serve the same purpose as the walls and ceiling in a haunted house, lit only by candles or a flickering flashlight. Jeremy Lovering’s first non-TV project works surprisingly well, pushing all the write genre buttons, while forsaking most of the noisy clichés. Allen Leech (“Downton Abbey”) is fine as the menacing force. It includes a behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Eric Clapton: The 1970s Review
Before he had even bent a single note in the United States, American fans of British rock were aware of Eric Clapton’s place in the Pantheon. In the autumn of 1967, the guitar virtuoso was prematurely deified in what may have been the most talked about graffito since Kilroy left town. By spray painting “Clapton is God” on a wall in the Islington Underground station, an admirer testified to the wisdom of Paul Simon’s observation, via “The Sounds of Silence,” that, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” Clapton, himself, was embarrassed by the sentiment, perhaps preferring the famous photograph of an elderly woman passing by another corrugated wall with the same observation. It is at this exact spot that her dog decided to relieve himself. By the time he recorded “Layla,” three years later, Clapton was on the shortlist of musicians accorded the title, “guitar god.” With the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman, artists Clapton greatly admired, his name would again rise to the top. At an epic length of 151 minutes, not counting bonus material, Sexy Intellectual’s “Eric Clapton: The 1970s Review” attempts to answer the obvious question raised by such hyperbole, “Blessing or curse?” The portrait painted of the man nicknamed “Slowhand” is one filled with ecstasy and agony, almost in equal measure. The title, “The 1970s Review,” is a tad misleading, in that no profile could be considered complete unless it followed the road that led to Cream and Blind Faith and extended to marrying Pattie Boyd and finally kicking alcohol, the habit that replaced heroin in his life. In between, Clapton had tried to blend into the background of the Delany & Bonnie traveling circus – much to the consternation of his label and managers – and shift his musical emphasis from power rock and blues to reggae, ballads and the so-called Tulsa sound. After he came out of his alcohol-induced hibernation, Clapton would perform in a continuing string of benefits and charity concerts and shift to a more hits-oriented approach. Thirty years later, as his early fans have modified their tastes, he may be as popular and commercially viable as he’s ever been. In my opinion, “The 1979s Review” is the best entry in the Sexy Intellectual series of critical retrospectives. It contains more live footage and recorded material than usual and the witnesses interviewed are, in most cases, only one degree of separation from the source. They include Bonnie Bramlett, Bobby Whitlock, the Albert Brothers, George Terry, Willie Perkins, Bill Halverson, Clapton biographer Marc Roberty and critics who’ve observed Clapton through most of his changes. – Gary Dretzka

Iron Sky: Director’s Cut: Blu-Ray
Less than two years ago, when a considerably shorter “Iron Sky” landed on my desk, it reminded me of a midnight movie in search of a cult audience. Although clearly made on a tight budget – largely crowd-sourced — the idea of an unrepentant Nazi force invading Earth from their refuge on the dark side of the moon was compelling. The only thing preventing the Germans from making an earlier blitzkrieg than 2018 was a computer capable of executing the mission. When a space capsule filled with astronaut/models crash-lands near their headquarters, the Nazis seize an iPhone belonging to one of them. It is, of course, a billion times more powerful than the ancient computer controlling operations at their lunar base. Fortunately, a Sarah Palin look-alike is the incumbent POTUS and she’s itching for a war with anyone – Australia was her first option – to ensure her place in history. She orders the crew of the USS George W. Bush to put aside its exploratory mission to Mars to lead the charge against the demented Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier, of course) and the giant Gotterdammerung war machine. Perhaps, to keep the geeks and fanboys happy, co-writer/director Timo Vuorensola cast sexy Julia Dietze, Peta Sergeant, Stephanie Paul and Kym Jackson as trigger-happy war mongers. The “Director’s Cut” edition, which arrives in a SteelBook package, is a full 20 minutes longer than the original and quite a bit more coherent.  For a Finn/Kraut/Aussie co-production, “Iron Sky” looks remarkably good on Blu-ray and the special effects are surprisingly effective. The score, by the Slovenian art-rock band, Laibach, combines elements of Wagner, our National Anthem and Pink Floyd to good effect, as well. Bonus material adds a 90-minute making-of documentary and a 32-page concept-art booklet. If the R-rating means anything to you, it’s only for coarse language and some violence. It could just as easily pass for PG. – Gary Dretzka

42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Volume 1
Schoolgirl Report Vol. 12: Carnal Campus
Before “Deep Throat” and “Behind the Green Door” helped pornographic movies make the leap from stag parties and “smokers” to Main Street America, mercenaries in the sexual revolution unashamedly put themselves on display in short 8mm films known as loops. They could be purchased through ads in the back of men’s magazines or peep-show emporiums in such liberated zones as New York’s Times Square. The latest installment in Impulse’s “42nd Street Forever” series, “The Peep Show Collection,” offers several “classic loops” with such titles as “Deeper Throat,” “One Hung Low,” “Nurse’s Aid,” “Wet and Wild” and “Spice of Life.” While most of the actors are unrecognizable, future stars John Holmes, Annie Sprinkle, Susan Nero and Lisa DeLeeuw can be easily identified. Unlike the feature-length pornos to come, the filmmakers and couples waste no time flirting, petting or acting out a narrative. The costumes worn by the actors are the only hints offered as to how one loop is different than the next. Given the nearly 45 years that have passed since they were made, the films are reasonably well preserved. There are plenty of scratches, edit marks and artifacts, but no more than could be seen after two weeks of continual rotation. The DVD adds liner notes from Cinema Sewer Publisher, Robin Bougie.

Fans of period erotica may or may not be distressed to learn that the German soft-core series, “Schoolgirl Reports,” will come to end with the next release from the Image catalog. The penultimate 12th entry, “Carnal Campus” (a.k.a., “If Mom Only Knew …”) is comprised of vignettes that dramatize letters solicited by the editors of a high school newspaper. They run the gamut from innocently silly (rolling in the hay, literally) to intentionally disturbing (incest, drug abuse). A typical gag involves the mistaken identity of a French foreign-exchange student assigned to the family of a horny German high school girl. Expecting a girl named Nicky, they instead are asked to welcome an athletic boy named Nicky. The girl’s high-strung father knows immediately where the danger lies, but is encouraged by the ladies in his life to accept their fate.  Even as the father is relieved to learn that the grunting and bumping he hears emanating from the top floor involves Nicky’s calisthenics, even a committed jock can’t resist the advances of a steam-room full of his sexually aggressive classmates. In a darker chapter a teenage girl falls in love with her much older brother, a pilot, who has been a surrogate father to her in the absence of their parents. Smart enough to recognize the danger of such a crush, the pilot resists … until fate intercedes. Even though “Schoolgirl Reports” is hopelessly outdated in 2014, the vignettes are more revealing and entertaining than most of the stuff one finds on Cinemax late at night. The context here is everything. – Gary Dretzka

Necronos: Tower of Doom
Dangerous Obsession
The blood-soaked German import, “Necronos: Tower of Doom,” is billed as the goriest example of European splatter-porn you’ll ever see, but, even if it weren’t, it definitely pushes the envelope as far as it will go. The only things keeping “Necronos” from being a classic of the subgenre are the too-obvious special-makeup-effects, which wouldn’t pass muster in most YouTube videos. Even so, it’s difficult to keep one’s eyes on the screen when heads are rolling on the floor and naked women are being mutilated in places usually reserved for fun. The story is simple enough, however. Necronos has come to Earth at the behest of his boss, Satan, to marshal an army of the undead under leadership of barbaric demons, called Berzerkers.  The human victims are drained of ingredients essential to a devilish cocktail. The Mighty Witch has been recruited, as well, to locate a virgin. The outdoor locations aren’t bad, but the Tower of Doom interior is pretty cheesy. The DVD add a behind-the-scenes slide show.

Also from Troma Team, “Dangerous Obsession” (a.k.a., “Mortal Sins”) is a 1989 comic-thriller that failed to pass “Go” before landing in straight-to-video hell. Brian Benben (“Dream On”) stars as Nathan Weinschenk, a private detective who keeps reminding us that he’s Jewish. He does this, I’m guessing, because he doesn’t want anyone to miss the forced irony of a Jew getting caught up in a comic murder mystery involving a pair of corrupt televangelists. That’s really all there is to the movie, which doesn’t take enough advantage of its New York locations or cast members Benben, Peter Onorati, Anthony LaPaglia, Debra Farentino, Sully Boyar and Maggie Wheeler (as Maggie Jakubson), who played Janice on “Friends.” Special features add “James Gunn: How to Sell Your Own Damn Movie Documentary” and some Troma-related extras. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Rogue: Complete First Season
BBC: Vikings: The Real Warriors
Syfy: End of the World
Owned by the DirecTV satellite service, Audience Network offers interesting programming from Canada, the UK and Australia, as well as off-network and off-cable reruns that tend to appeal to young men. I will be forever in its debt for showing the seriously weird Canadian comedy, “Trailer Park Boys,” and intense Aussie crime series “Underbelly.” I haven’t seen it in while, so I can’t say if it has maintained such high standards. The Oakland-based cops-and-crooks series, “Rogue,” represents the network’s first entry into the arena of original dramas. While it isn’t in the same league as “Underbelly,” “Rogue” has several good things going for it, including a fresh cast and plausibly scuzzy Oakland backdrop. The dialogue is mostly distinguished by the number of dropped F-bombs and cop-show clichés. Thandie Newton looks far too classy to play an undercover cop, Grace/Jackie Hays, working for a sleazy NoCal gangster, but it’s TV, after all. She’s motivated by the recent death of her son in a drive-by shooting. After a suspicious leave of absence, she rejoins Jimmy Lazlo’s operation. Her timing is good, because ballistics have matched the slug that killed her son to one that killed Lazlo’s accountant and one intended for Lazlo that ended up in her shoulder, instead.  Newton’s never been shy about showing off her tight body and, here, she’s given more than a few opportunities to do so. Others do, as well. For the ladies, there’s Ian Hart’s not so tight package. The 10-episode season gets better as it goes along, so I imagination that the second season will be worth the effort of finding. The collection adds a making-of featurette and webisodes.

If there’s any ethnic group that hasn’t been underrepresented on television lately, it’s the Vikings. Several theatrical films and mini-series have aired, all describing the ferocity of the wandering Scandinavian traders and settlers. Naturally, documentary series from the UK stress the brutality of the Viking attacks on Lindisfarne and attempts to conquer the entire kingdom. In the BBC’s extraordinary docu-series “Vikings,” host Neil Oliver doesn’t even get to Heathen Horde until the middle of the second episode. Before they get to England, the Vikings have already made their way – peacefully, mostly – through all of Scandinavia, the Baltics, Russia, Constantinople and, perhaps, all the way to Baghdad. Oliver had scoured the museums along the way, looking for treasures, artifacts, plunder, linguistic and genetic traces, and other clues to the extent of the Vikings’ empire … dung collected from cesspits, even.   After the warriors settle Britain, Iceland, and Greenland, transforming themselves from illiterate pagans into Christian farmers, statesmen and kings, they sailed for unknown waters in the west. Watching “Vikings” is the next best thing to auditing a class in ancient European history the local university.

For every hybrid megamonster featured in an original Syfy movie, it seems as if there are two others in which things fall from the sky for no apparent reason, predictive of one version of the apocalypse. It’s as if the network was being programmed by Chicken Little. These incidents appear to be limited to rural British Columbia, where, seemingly, there are more conspiracy theorists and crackpot scientists per square mile than anywhere else on Earth. In “End of the World,” the designated looney is played by –who else? – the always on-call, Brad Dourif. When electro-magnetic blasts begin to bombard Earth, the only people who suspect the truth are Dourif’s crazy sci-fi writer, Doc, and two goofballs who work at a video store in the local strip mall. If that sounds preposterous, it’s only because that’s how Syfy rolls: equal parts self-mocking humor, bargain-basement effects and apocalyptic dread. I’ve seen the same scenario played out with flying icicles. The target audience for “End of the World,” as usual, is boys in their early teens who enjoy watching people and things vaporize before their eyes. Here, the action only gets sillier the longer the movie goes on … but, in a good way. – Gary Dretzka

Under Capricon
Above Suspicion: Set 3
George Gently: Season 6
Vera: Set 3
The Science of Measurement
Talks About Nothing
At a time when BBC America has put its big hits, “Top Gear” and “Doctor Who,” into heavy rotation and recycled Hollywood movies have shoved too many fresh shows off the schedule, it’s no longer easy to find fresh Brit sitcoms and hour-long dramas. PBS offers several of the major programs, but, in Los Angeles, at least, almost none is on the primary outlet (KCET), except in distant reruns. One has to hunt-and-peck through five stations to find “Downton Abbey.” The other dirty secret about British imports is the editing and self-censorship that happens once those shows hit the air here. Too often, it’s better to wait for the Blu-ray/DVD release. Speaking of which, the relatively new DVD and streaming company, Acorn Media, is doing a nice job keeping us abreast of new collections from Britain, Canada and Australia, as well as vintage compilations of episodes from popular shows. This week, for example, American audiences can trip back to 1984, when the period Australian mini-series debuted in Sydney; to 2012, for “Under Suspicion, Set 3,” based on the Lynda La Plante thriller, “Silent Scream”; last year, to Northumberland for “Vera: Set 3,” starring Brenda Blethyn; and last month, when the sixth season of “George Gently,” debuted in London. They can be accessed through the Acorn website and Netflix.

Acorn’s non-fiction subsidiary, Athena, is well-represented with two fascinating mini-series. “The Science of Measurement,” a follow-up to “The Science of Math,” takes an exhaustive look at mankind’s historic need to understand and master their world by quantifying and measuring everything around them, whether it’s time, potables, speed or distance. It also questions our obsession with precision. If Big Ben loses a second a day or week, for example, is it less reliable than a clock that won’t lose a second in our lifetimes? How has the science of measurement shaped the course of history, science, civilization and the mundane chores of daily life? The series is hosted by Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, who makes this insanely intricate study accessible, more or less, to viewers who may never receive a PhD.

The title, “Talks About Nothing,” is as misleading as the material contained therein is riveting. And, yet, the metaphysical concept of nothingness has fascinated artists, intellectuals and clerics for as long as humans could put their heads around it. What “Talks About Nothing” isn’t is a panel discussion with a dais full of smart people, all attempting to get a word in edgewise. Neither is it a mini-series that aims to make the philosophizing tolerable by hopping from one picturesque college, museum or institution to another at breakneck speed. Curators at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art simply asked pairs of gifted conversationalists to sit in comfortable chairs and discuss things about which they’re knowledgeable. Remarkably, the discussions are rarely off-point and never inconsequential or boring, even if the guests are known primarily in their spheres of influence. Among the pairings are neurologist Oliver Sacks and blind photographer John Dugdale; Shakespearean actor Brian Cox and developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik; filmmaker Ken Burns and Tibetan Buddhist teacher Traleg Rinpoche; performance artist Laurie Anderson and Charles Seife, author of a book about zero; Laurie Anderson and Charles Seife; actor Fiona Shaw and philosopher Simon Critchley; and director/teacher Peter Sellars and economist/author Raj Patel. An essay, “Zero: A Brief History of Nothing,” accompanies the package. – Gary Dretzka

Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutagen Mayhem
Drawing With Mark: Something Fishy/A Day at the Aquarium
Drawing With Mark: Good to Grow/Life on the Farm
Bubble Guppies/Dora the Explorer/Wild Kratts/Caillou
As usual, Our Heroes are up to their shells in danger, this time as Shredder and Kraang team up with Karai, the Rat King and Foot Bots to enjoy the ninjutsu Turtles, newly joined by Casey Jones. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutagen Mayhem” is comprised of six episodes of the 2012 series. Among the additions to the 145-minute feature are the making-of “Mutation of a Scene” and “Channel 6 News Special Report: Creatures of the Night.”

New Englander Mark Marderosian is a prolific cartoonist, animator, children’s and comic book illustrator, and toy designer. He may be best known for his Walt Disney-licensed children’s books – “Mickey’s Wish: A Deluxe Super Shape Book,” “Disney Princess: Jewelry Box” – and “Angels From the Attic” line of stuffed toys. In 2010, Marderosian and designer/animator Robert Palmer Jr. created a television program called “Drawing With Mark” for Big City Publishing, which sells storybooks, coloring books, flash cards. After offering the show for free to public-access TV stations, it was picked up by more than 100 cable outlets across the country. Marderosian has said that, “The show’s overall theme is about helping kids unlock their creativity, especially in these days of brutal budget cuts on so many institutions.” Last year, he was nominated for an Emmy by the Boston/New England Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences nominated “Drawing with Mark” for a Regional Emmy award in the Children’s/Youth category, and he’s won a Parents’ Choice Award. Each DVD includes two 30-minute episodes. In “Something Fishy” and “A Day at the Aquarium,” Marderosian takes viewers to the Woods Hole aquarium, where they’re taught to draw marine animals. In “Life on the Farm” and “Good to Grow,” visits a working farm. Other newly available package include “Reaching for the Stars”/”A Day With the Dinosaurs” and “We All Scream for Ice Cream”/”Happy Tails.”

Other new titles for kids in comparable age brackets are “Bubble Guppies: Animals Everywhere,” in which the title characters take field trips around the world to learn about squirrels, ducks, rhinos, elephants and other critters; “Dora the Explorer: Dora in Wonderland” replicates Alice’s famous through-the-looking-glass adventure; “Wild Kratts: Bugging Out,” in which Martin and Chris use their Creature Power Suits to gain access to exotic wildlife; and “Caillou: Caillou’s Garden Adventures,” with such self-descriptive episodes as “Caillou Can Compost,” “Caillou’s Tree,” “Caillou Saves Water,” “Blueberry Point,” “Class Pet” and “In the Garden.” – Gary Dretzka

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.