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The DVD Wrapup: Take Shelter, Tiny Furniture, More …

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Take Shelter
At 6-foot-3, Michael Shannon towers over most of the actors with whom he’s asked to share the screen. Even so, it wasn’t until his Oscar-nominated turn in “Revolutionary Road” – along with a recurring role as a backsliding federal agent in “Boardwalk Empire” — that audiences began putting a name to the face. That relative newcomer Jessica Chastain, who stands 5-foot-4, holds her own opposite Shannon in the psychological thriller, “Take Shelter,” speaks volumes about her promise, as well. Two years ago, she couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood. Today, the 30-year-old redhead is sitting on a Best Supporting Actress nomination of her own. It’s for her portrayal of the disrespected “white-trash blonde” in “The Help,” but several critics groups thought enough of her performances in “Tree of Life,” “The Debt,” “Coriolanus,” “Texas Killing Fields” and “Take Shelter” to honor her 2011 body of work collectively. (For my money, her film debut in the little-seen and much-delayed “Jolene” represents her best work to date.) In Jeff Nichols’ haunting “Take Shelter,” Shannon and Chastain play a working-class couple, Curtis and Samantha, who are barely making ends meet in a rural Ohio town hard hit by the recession. They have an adorable daughter, who’s deaf and learning to use American Sign Language, and a home filled with love, if not plush furniture and sparkling appliances. It doesn’t take long for Nichols to introduce a palpable sense of menace and dread to the proceedings.

Something is eating Curtis, besides the economy. At first, it takes the ominous form of storm clouds gathering on the horizon and the sight of thousands black birds swarming in the skies above the town. Nichols isn’t at all timid about alerting us to the history of mental illness in the hard-working man’s family, especially when it becomes clear that he’s the only one hearing the thunder and seeing the birds. He senses that a storm of biblical proportions is gathering in the distance and borrows tools from his employer to upgrade the tornado shelter already dug in his backyard. Although his wife and friends fear Curtis may be experiencing a breakdown similar to the one that’s kept his mother in bed for the last couple of decades, savvy viewers understand things are never that simple in the movies. Anyone who’s seen the End of Days drama, “The Rapture,” will recognize what could be informing Curtis’ visions and nightmares. In an effort to keep his family together, he volunteers to attend counseling sessions and therapy, if necessary. Things continue to get worse, however, when furniture begins to levitate at home and his daughter begins to observe the same paranormal phenomena. Even when his obsessive behavior boils over in public, Nichols keeps us guessing as to what’s happening inside and around Curtis. Shannon has a brooding demeanor during the best of times, so it’s easy to accept Curtis as a harbinger of disaster. Samantha’s behavior also is consistent with a woman who wants to believe her husband isn’t nuts, but is prepared protect her daughter and herself if he is. “Take Shelter” is a smart and scary movie, no matter how one interprets the signs of impending doom. How the academy couldn’t see fit to nominate Shannon for a Best Actor trophy is, well, par for the course. The Blu-ray package adds commentary with Nichols and Shannon; a Q&A with Shannon and co-star Shea Whigham; a behind-the-scenes featurette and “Better Safe Than Sorry.” – Gary Dretzka

Tiny Furniture: Blu-ray: Criterion Collection
Every year, it seems, one or two movies emerge from the festival circuit with the imprimatur of urbane critics and young people anxious to embrace the Next Cool Thing. The disarming rom-com, “500 Days of Summer,” could serve as prototype for the successful hipster sensation. Besides starring the impossibly cute Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, it took liberties with traditional narrative structure; was filled with songs by little-known rock groups; shamelessly dropped the names and titles of hipster icons; built buzz at nearly two dozen festivals; and was directed by a first-timer with a music-video background. Unlike most other flavor-of-Sundance favorites, Marc Webb’s debut feature wasn’t about a dysfunctional family, as was the similarly constructed and profitable, “Little Miss Sunshine,” and too many other indie sensations. It might even be the exception that proves the rule.

Perhaps, it’s wiser to compare Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” to Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know” and “The Future.” Unlike “500 Days of Sunshine” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” these decidedly offbeat films owe less to cinematic conventions than the conceits of performance and Internet art. They’re personal visions sold as-is … no apologies or refunds to those who don’t “get it.” In “Tiny Furniture,” it’s difficult to tell where writer/director/star Dunham ends and the character, Aura, begins. Like Aura, Dunham is a graduate of a progressive Midwestern college (Oberlin) and creator of humorous Internet series (“Tight Shots,” “Delusional Downtown Divas”). After her senior year, Aura returns to her mother’s loft apartment, where she finds herself overwhelmed by her domineering mother and pushed around by her younger sister. Mom Siri is a well-known photographer of miniatures, which sometimes require the body parts of her sister, Nadine, to provide perspective and irony. Would it surprise you to learn that Siri and Nadine are played by Dunham’s real-life mother and sister? No? Me, neither. Aura is a bit at loose ends, uncomfortable at home and unable to commit to a job. Her friends are extensions of the hipper-than-thou scenesters of her Internet series and as shallow as a teardrop. The closest she comes to having a boyfriend is a drifter, who’s in need of a place to crash. He takes full advantage of the pad, if not Aura’s sexual advances. Beyond that, nothing much happens.

Again, you’ll either buy into Aura and her world or you’ll find “Tiny Furniture” excruciatingly pretentious and boring. The Criterion Collection edition adds Dunham’s first film, “Creative Nonfiction,” and four short films. I recommend watching them before attempting “Tiny Furniture,” if only because they provide helpful context. There are new interviews with Dunham and writer-director Paul Schrader and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Phillip Lopate. – Gary Dretzka

Three Outlaw Samurai: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
As far as I know, the 1964 Japanese chambara, “Three Outlaw Samurai,” never was released in the United States. Some attention was paid here to the films of Akira Kurosawa, but only after “The Seven Samurai” was translated into English as “The Magnificent Seven.” In Hollywood, swords were for swashbuckling and no one wanted to acknowledge that the samurai code of honor pre-dated Hopalong Cassidy’s Creed for American Boys and Girls by several centuries. Watching the debut film of sword-fight specialist Hideo Gosha makes me wish that he had been asked to work his magic on a theatrical version of “Have Gun — Will Travel.” Although considerably more dapper and well-read than the swordsmen we meet in “Three Outlaw Samurai,” Paladin was similarly mercenary and principled. It wouldn’t unusual for Paladin to volunteer his services to the lowest bidder or turn against his sponsor in the name of justice. In “Three Outlaw Samurai,” a seen-it-all ronin finds himself in the company of peasants who abducted the daughter of a corrupt magistrate, unwilling to reduce taxes on starving farmers. At first, Sakon Shiba (Tetsuro Tamba) mocks the efforts of the kidnappers, knowing that the magistrate could obliterate a peasant militia without raising a sweat. Impressed by their grit, however, Shiba decides to even the score by joining their cause. He manages to convince two of the magistrate’s samurai to switch teams, while also educating the young woman on plight of the peasants. The second half of the movie is filled with exciting swordplay, as well as the occasional betrayal and act of revenge.

The black-and-white cinematography glistens in the restored Blu-ray edition, as does the musical soundtrack, which adds an ominous tone to the standoff. “Three Outlaw Samurai” served as the origin-story for a popular Japanese TV series and Gosha would go on to make the highly celebrated “Sword of the Beast” (also on Criterion), “Goyokin,”Hitokiri, “The Wolves” and “The Geisha.” When the sword and samurai genre lost steam in the 1970s, Gosha turned his attention to yakuza flicks. Besides the excellent hi-def restoration, “Three Outlaw Samurai” includes only a booklet, with an essay by film critic Bilge Ebir. – Gary Dretzka

Tales From the Golden Age
Summer Holiday

A decade after the Ceausescus were dragged, kicking and screaming, from power, the Romanian cinema became recognized as one of the most interesting and challenging in the world. Life under the country’s unique brand of communism was so profoundly strange and confounding that memories of it continue to inform the work of Romania’s finest filmmakers. Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days” – which described the harrowing ordeal of a woman seeking an abortion in 1980s Bucharest — became an international sensation after it won the Palme d’Or and two other major awards at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Mungiu returns to the same period in the seriocomic “Tales From the Golden Age,” comprised of a half-dozen urban myths and folk tales from the “dark years.” The title refers comes from to the term applied by Nicolae Ceausescu to Romania’s “golden age” of communism, in the 1980s, and the marketing of it to a captive population, who knew better. “Tales From the Golden Age” describes how shrewd peasants and desperate urbanites related to the disconnect between propaganda and reality. While apparatchiks delivered the company line to the people, the people found other ways than communist doctrine to feed themselves and make ends meet. “Tales From the Golden Age” isn’t as profound or moving as “4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days,” but viewers old enough to remember the Iron Curtain will find it entertaining and not a little bit nostalgic. I can’t help but wonder what kind of films will emerge from North Korea after that long nightmare ends.

Radu Muntean’s “Summer Holiday” (a.k.a., “Boogie”) describes a distinctly different Romania. The people we meet are free to travel and make money in professions other than coal mining and spying on their neighbors. They are, if fact, yuppies. Set in a decreasingly popular Black Sea resort, “Summer Holiday” focuses on Bogdan and Smaranda Ciocazanu, a married couple with a young son and another child on the way. They seem to be having fun, although Bogdan can’t escape business calls and the interruptions annoy Smaranda. Their son is a bundle of energy who demands almost constant attention … again provided primarily by mom. Also visiting the resort are two of Bogdan’s oldest running mates. Smaranda isn’t keen on them, but she isn’t about to interrupt the reunion. One night, when he comes back to their room smelling of cigarettes and booze, she can’t help herself from unloading on him. Even if her complaints aren’t unusual or unwarranted, they are sufficiently hurtful to cause Bogdan to rejoin his friends in serious boys-will-be-boys revelry. The same scenario probably could have played out in a hundred other countries, but what identifies Romania as the country of origin is an ironic early-morning visit to an estate that once belonged to the Ceausescu family. The only thing the men really know about it is that it once served as home to a flock of peacocks, which they attempt to summon with ear-piercing squawks. No response given, they go about their business as if the dictator never existed. – Gary Dretzka

Few Options
Given George Pappy Jr.’s low profile on the Internet, it’s difficult for me to understand how he was able to attract such talents as Michael Sheen, Laura San Giacomo, Brad Dourif and Rainn Wilson to a project that must have seemed pre-destined to go straight-to-DVD, if only in brief cameos. There’s very little wrong with his unpretentious crime thriller, “Few Options” — and it’s rarely a surprise anymore to find familiar actors in smallish movies – but the science of casting is endlessly fascinating. If nothing else the good that derives from stars lending their name to a deserving project balances the bad karma that comes from praising a movie that sucks during press junkets and talk-show interviews. The real star of “Few Options” is Kenny Johnson, a fine character actor known primarily for his work in the TV series “The Shield,” “Saving Grace,” “Sons of Anarchy” and “Prime Suspect.” In “Few Options,” Johnson demonstrates that he can carry a low-budget indie drama, at least, and convince us of a character’s pain and vulnerability. Here, he plays a middle-age guy, Frank Connor, released from prison after 22 years for a bungled drug transaction. Twenty-two years seems a bit excessive for a first-time offender, but such a draconian sentence is required if anything else here is to be believed. Upon his return home, he’s surprised to discover that the only people prepared to welcome him back are the dirtballs who got him into trouble originally, if only for nefarious purposes. He struggles to stay on the straight-and-normal path, but the man (Brad Dourif) who gives him a job parking cars at his strip joint is the same one who set up the original deal and now he wants his investment back, in cash or in kind.

As the title suggests, Connor is left with few or no options. Even so, Pappy’s script allows for an ending that will come as a surprise to most viewers. Erin Daniels (“The L Word”) does a nice job as a desperate stripper drawn to Connor, apparently because he doesn’t try to get in her pants five seconds before they’re introduced. (In an ironic spin on the old cliche, her Helen spends far more time putting on clothes then taking them off.) Sheen and San Giacomo are on screen for a blink of the eye, but Wilson (“The Office”) is memorable as a henpecked cousin forced to kick Connor out of his garage retreat because, basically, he’s an eyesore. If nothing else, it reminds us that he can play characters whose appeal doesn’t rely on his subversive comedy chops. “Few Options” has all the usual holes found in these sorts of movies, but none large enough for us to fall through them. – Gary Dretzka

The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that’s so vile and lacking in redeeming social value that it’s impossible to ignore. Most serious critics were so repelled by “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” that it began attracting fanboys like flies to a corpse in Central Park. Once that happened, it was a short ride to Internet fame and monologues on late-night talk shows. The premise was simple: a demented surgeon (Dieter Laser) kidnaps tourists stranded in a German forest and uses them to prove that it’s possible to reverse the procedure used to separate conjoined twins. His conceit was to assemble the tourists, ass-to-mouth, in a human chain that resembled a centipede. Given the history of German medical experimentation, it was possible to believe that the surgeon had escaped prosecution in the aftermath of World War II or had picked up a sketchbook left behind by a Nazi ancestor. “First Sequence” didn’t make a lot of money at the box office, primarily because few exhibitors would touch it. I’m guessing, it killed in DVD. Somehow, Dutch writer/director Tom Six anticipated the ancillary fame of “First Sequence,” by promising a “Full Sequence” and “Final Sequence.” That qualifies as chutzpah.

If anything, “Full Sequence” is more disgusting than the original … not scary, exactly, but truly repellant. This time, the gag involves an emotionally disturbed and physically deformed fan of the first movie who becomes obsessed with creating a human centipede to call his own. Martin (Laurence R. Harvey) works in an underground parking garage, where he collects specimens he spies over the security system. After they wake up from their concussions and comas, the victims find themselves duct-taped and helpless in a dank warehouse. Meanwhile, the fiend is at home tormenting and being tormented by his abominable parents. For an amateur, Martin does a serviceable job as a surgeon. That’s he’s also a pervert proves to be his undoing, however. Stiches and tape only last so long, after all. Six isn’t delusional enough to represent his franchise as anything more than an exercise in grossing out those genre obsessives who think they can stomach any possible cinematic atrocity. He promises even greater nightmares in “Final Sequence.” – Gary Dretzka

Nude Nuns With Big Guns: Blu-ray
Porn Star Zombies
Naked Nazi
Return to BloodFart Lake

In the world of micro-budget and do-it-yourself filmmaking, the difference between being seen and being ignored often boils down to choosing the right title. A few weeks ago, I was drawn to a movie that promised more gore and abhorrent behavior than I normally care to see in a month of reviewing DVDs. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that “Dead Hooker in a Trunk” lived up to the promise of its title.

While Joseph Guzman’s “Nude Nuns With Big Guns” comes close enough to earn a cigar, it falls well short of enshrinement in the Grindhouse Hall of Fame. This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of nude nuns or big guns in the story, because there are. Too often, though, they merely compensate for a decreasingly coherent narrative. Here, the bishop of a Spanish-speaking archdiocese is in cahoots with the motorcycle gang, Los Muertos, to distribute heroin. Nuns are required to package the powder, but only after shedding their habits. After a drug transaction with the bikers goes sour, the drug-czar bishop offers Sister Sarah (Asun Ortega) in exchange for the missing heroin. Naturally, the leader of the gang, Chavo (David Castro), enslaves the pretty young nun to heroin and turns her out in a shithole brothel in the desert. Just as she’s about to hit rock bottom, God appears to Sister Sarah, instructing her to exact revenge on the bikers and corrupt priests. This, she does. “NNWBG” is targeted at several generations of Catholic males, who, as lackadaisical students, idled away with their days imagining how their teachers would look naked. The bonus features include the short film that inspired Guzman to make “NNWBG.”

Made on a budget estimated to be in the neighborhood of $10,000, “Porn Star Zombies” is exactly the movie you’d imagine it to be. Yes, it revolves around a scene in which a ravenous porn star reveals her true nature by biting off her co-star’s penis. Almost everything else is incidental to the story. Keith Emerson’s debut film may be crudely made, thoroughly predictable and poorly acted, but every penny of the $10,000 can be found on the screen, in one way or another.

Naked Nazi” isn’t so much a horror movie as it is an excuse to show Michelle Young (a.k.a., Amber Lee) masturbating in Nazi fetish gear … minus the matching Hello Hitler bra-and-panties set. After being raped by a client, Young’s Naked Nazi decides to turn the tables on non-Aryan male pigs by dominating and killing them. Only another Nazi fetishist can stop her. Young and Jason Impey last collaborated on “Women Prisoners of SS Camp From Hell,” in which our fair maiden played “Hitler’s slut.”

Released in 2009, “Terror at Blood Fart Lake” was a micro-budget parody of such horror flicks as “Sleepaway Camp” and other slasher epics set on the shores of a lake, in a rustic cabin or among vacationers about to be slaughtered by a guy wearing a mask. It follows, then, that “Return to Blood Fart Lake” is parody of “Return to Sleepaway Camp” and other uninspired sequels. Even after watching the movie, I can’t explain what happens in it, except that the “Scarecrow Killer,” Jimmy Van Brunt, is back and still pissed off about something or other. “Return to Blood Fart Lake” is all title and no movie. – Gary Dretzka

The Devil’s Rock
By all rights, “The Devils Rock” and “Naked Nazi” belong in the same capsule review, if only because the jackets of both movies feature sexy, semi-dressed women wearing Gestapo gear. (The original poster art for “Devil’s Rock” was far less suggestive.) Far more artistically legitimate, Paul Campion’s debut film is a blend of WWII intrigue and satanic horror. It opens with a New Zealand commando team landing on the beach of a heavily fortified island in the English Channel. Their job is to sabotage artillery positions, causing the Germans to think the D-Day landing will occur somewhere other than Omaha and Normandy beaches. As the soldiers descend deeper into the tunnels of the bunker, screams emanating from below grow louder and more terrifying. Upon reaching the command center, they are greeted by a scene from an old-fashioned charnel house and a Nazi officer, who kills one of the Kiwis and interrogates the other on the inevitable assault.

Given the movie’s title, it’s safe to assume something other than German intelligence and defense is at work on the island. We know that Hitler had a keen interest in the occult and assigned agents to investigate the possibility of exploiting paranormal phenomena in the war against the Allies. The Gestapo agent here has conjured the devil and chained it to a wall. In the presence of the Kiwi officer, it assumes the identity of his recently deceased girlfriend and attempts to seduce him into revealing plans for the invasion of Europe. Apparently, it’s not the first time such shape-shifting has been employed. It accounts for the carcasses of soldiers who likely bought into its deceit. The making-of material, which specifies how the actual bunkers and tunnel systems informed the production, is quite interesting, as is the discussion of special makeup effects. – Gary Dretzka

Ocean Heaven: Blu-ray
My Kingdom

All great actors enjoy a change in scenery and wardrobe every so often, even those whose names have become synonymous with a particular genre. Martial-arts master Jet Li couldn’t be any further removed from hand-to-hand-to-foot combat than he is in “Ocean Heaven.” In it, Li’s aquarium technician is confronted with a sad reality faced by many parents of autistic and otherwise disabled children. Already a widower, Sam Wong has recently been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and he knows that his 22-year-old son, David (Lunmei Kwai), probably couldn’t survive without him. His first inclination is to conduct an act of filicide and suicide, while on a boat at sea. Because David is more at home in water than anywhere else, it fails. As long as Sam lives, David is allowed to swim and cavort among the fish and turtles in the aquarium’s largest pools. Once on dry land, however, David has trouble remembering his own name.

Compounding Sam’s fears is the reluctance of Chinese social-service agencies to accept an autistic adult into government-run residences and schools. His only recourse is to teach the young man how to perform the most rudimentary of daily tasks and finding someone to provide a roof under which he can sleep. The process is exhausting for everyone involved – the audience, too – but reaps benefits down the road, as David finds kindness in unexpected places. “Ocean Heaven” succeeds as a tear-jerker, albeit one with which western audiences will already be familiar. I’m pretty sure that Xiao Lu Yue intended for Chinese viewers to gain a greater understanding of the problems faced by families with kids who are autistic or have Down’s syndrome. The Blu-ray package arrives with deleted scenes and an interview with Li about autism.

The often exhilarating and spectacularly staged “My Kingdom” provides a perfect example of what can happen when a work of art loses its balance and symmetry. Gao Xiaosong’s story opens in stunning fashion, with the mass beheadings of an entire Chinese clan by the Prince Regent of the Qing dynasty. A defiant elder warns the Prince Regent that his descendants will avenge his death, if any are left after the slaughter. Before he steps to the butcher’s block, a boy bravely forces the executioner to wait until he sings a mournful song for the young girl ahead of him. In the crowd is a famous actor in the Beijing Opera and his adopted son. The boy begs Master Yu to step up and adopt the obviously talented child, which, remarkably, he’s allowed to do. Under their master’s tutelage, the boys grow into two of the opera’s most promising stars. When Yu loses a non-lethal, but spectacularly choreographed winner-take-all showdown to a younger actor from Shanghai, the boys vow to avenge his embarrassment, as well. They will get their opportunity in another 15 years or so, when they show up at the historic Shanghai Opera House and demand satisfaction. For those unaware of how the Beijing and other regional operas operated before Chairman and Mrs. Mao shut them down, it’s important to understand that performances combined dance, acting, pageantry, discordant music and song, and martial arts, with the actors dressed in elaborate costumes and amazing cosmetic masks. The face-offs, staged by Sammo Hung, are among the greatest fights — lethal or non-lethal – I’ve seen on film. The actor’s goal in these fights is to clearly destroy the opposing actor’s ego without actually killing or maiming him. This requires the razor-sharp dexterity, split-second timing and athletic abilities of a Bruce Lee and Baryshnikov clone. Unlike Yu, the defeated Master Yue elects to commit suicide, rather than suffer the indignity of losing his troupe and never being able to perform on stage again. Meanwhile, the boys have instantaneously become superstars. So far, “My Kingdom” is a heck of a movie. Unfortunately, it will take all the second half for the “opera warriors” to simultaneously avenge the executions, enjoy their newfound celebrity, romance the opera’s star actress and perform other narrative tasks. Sadly, none of them are as exciting as anything that happens previously on the opera stages. Neither do the young men look mature enough – sans makeup and costumes – to scare anyone who threatens them offstage. Apparently, the actors Wu Chun and Han Gen are big pop stars in China and Taiwan, as are Barbie Hsu and Louis Liu, and the producers hope to attract men and women of their generation to the venerable opera tradition. For all I now, young Chinese might dig the plotting and romance in the second half more than all of the scenes on the opera stage. “My Universe” is one DVD that really would have benefitted from a decent making-of featurette. –Gary Dretzka

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within: Blu-ray
No sooner had it been announced that Rio de Janeiro and Brazil would host the Summer Olympics and World Cup than fears were raised about the safety of tourists and fans. Crime was at epidemic levels in Rio and Sao Paolo, but the government pledged that it would be held in check by the time the games began. One way of accomplishing such a difficult task was for the police to declare war on the gangs that control the favelas and slums. This accomplished, however, the same communities apparently came under the control of corrupt and blood-thirsty police. “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” flows naturally from “Elite Squad,” which, in 2007, described the efforts of a select division of the police department to remove potential dangers and embarrassments before the pope’s visit to Rio in 1997. In “The Enemy Within,” Wagner Moura reprises the role of Capitao Nascimento, head of the crack BOPA task force. As the sequel opens, Nascimento is required to put down a rebellion by gang leaders in a nearby prison. Following his orders, instead of those of politicians, the cops mercilessly gun down the perpetrators. It causes a huge stink among the politicians still on the payroll of the gangs, but the massacre couldn’t have been more popular with the citizenry.

Seeing Nascimento as something of a loose cannon, the state’s governor decides to give him a position monitoring illegal wiretaps. Even here, it’s difficult to avoid the corruption of the police and government officials who benefit from the power vacuum. This time, however, the closer he gets to the truth, the farther out in the pasture he finds himself. So much money and power are at stake that the established powers are willing to take on a hero and threaten his family. In an interesting subplot, Nascimento’s former wife has married a high-profile reformer, who has convinced their son that daddy’s a fascist. It all comes together in an extremely exciting and unexpected climax. Fans of recent Brazilian cinema will recognize the name of writer/director José Padilha in the credits of both “Elite Squad” installments. He’s also responsible for the documentary “Bus 74,” which described a dramatic hijacking that captured the attention of the Brazilian media in 2000. Likewise, Braulio Mantovani, who wrote the screenplay to “City of God,” collaborated with Padilha on the story and screenplays for both “Elite Squad” entries. Anyone looking for movies that reverently borrow stylistic mannerisms from Martin Scorsese’s gangland dramas will find a good one here. – Gary Dretzka

Mozart’s Sister: Blu-ray
Watch “Mozart’s Sister” alongside “Amadeus” and you’ll gain a pretty good understanding of what show business was like in 1763, at least as practiced in the salons of the crowned heads of Europe. Written and directed by Rene Feret, “Mozart’s Sister” follows the musical family – father, Leopold; mother, Anna-Maria; sister, Nannerl; and, of course, boy-genius Wolfgang – as it crisscrosses the continent in a rickety carriage in search of paid gigs, commissions, free meals and accommodations, both posh and modest. In some ways, things haven’t changed all that much in 250 years. The focus here is on Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart, Wolfgang’s older sister by nearly five years and a brilliant musician in her own right. The children dote on each other and collaborate under the tutelage of Leopold, who serves as teacher, promoter, manager, banker and parent. As a girl, Nannerl is at a distinct disadvantage in the showdowns among child prodigies, all seeking the approval and patronage of royalty. She was discouraged from playing the violin and composing, even by her father, who requires she accompany her brother on the harpsichord, at least in public. This she also does very well.

Fresh-faced Marie Feret is delightful as Nennerl, equally at home pillow-fighting with Wolfie and conversing with dauphins and princesses. Her story is blessedly free of such dramatic staples as parental abuse, life-threatening illnesses and a broken heart. Certain things were taken for granted when dealing with the royals, including the impossibility of their marrying commoners. Instead, viewers are encouraged to gorge themselves on the period fashions, regal surroundings and beautiful music. It isn’t until the postscript that we learn the true fate of a woman, however brilliant, in a society where women mostly serve as ornaments. Even her friend and confidante, Princess Louise de France, couldn’t escape the borders enforced on women. Wolfgang Mozart’s story already has been wonderfully dramatized in “Amadeus,” which won the Best Picture Oscar and seven others in 1985. Nannerl’s is every bit as worthy of the attention that movie received. A CD featuring selections from the soundtrack is included in the Blu-ray package. – Gary Dretzka

Taylor Swift: American Beauty: Unauthorized
Yardbirds: Performances

Only 22, superstar singer/songwriter Taylor Swift already has an unauthorized biography based on her life and career. “American Beauty” isn’t at all salacious or embarrassing. It’s simply a recitation of quotes, by actors, attributed previously to Swift, family members, friends and music-industry weasels. In fact, it’s not even clear what the actors say can be attributed to real people, just as none of the songs have anything to do with the favorite daughter of Reading, Pa. The most interesting segment is a dramatization of Swift’s 30-second, over-the-phone breakup with one of the Jonas boys. After a crying jag, she goes on to write a withering song about it. That’a girl.

Yardbirds: Performances” is comprised of videos made by the heavily influential British band, during various stages in their career. The early ones, unfortunately, are basically unlistenable. The interest in this collection is the participation of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page as successive lead-guitar gods. Even then, the camera focuses on singer Keith Relf far more often than the soon-to-be superstars. The transition from garage blues band to psychedelic virtuosos is the most noteworthy thing about the DVD. I found the videos to be unusual, but it’s entirely possible that all of them already are in circulation. – Gary Dretzka

Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story
How to Die in Oregon

Like nearly everyone else in America, I grew up playing Monopoly. If nothing else, it taught me the true value of play money and that rich people always wear tuxedos and top hats. I’ve since participated in the Monopoly contest at McDonald’s and played 15 iterations of the slot-machine game in Las Vegas. Watching Kevin Tostado’s entertaining and informative documentary, “Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story,” I was surprised to learn how much the board game has changed since the last time I tossed the dice. For example, I had no idea that hard-core players now throw three cubes in competition … two white and one red. From what I can tell, the extra die serves as something of wild card, allowing for shorter, if considerably more intense contests. Neither was I aware of the fact that the laws of mathematical probability are as important in competitive Monopoly as they are in poker. Am I the only one who doesn’t know that the last time an American won the Monopoly World Championship was in 1974 and the current title-holder is frickin’ Norwegian? That’s the kind of otherwise useless information that makes “Under the Boardwalk” so fascinating. The filmmakers follow the now-familiar pattern of attempting to identify likely finalists beforehand and explain the nuances of the game through them. Although that strategy doesn’t quite work here, Tostado’s choices reflect the intensity and intricacies of Monopoly, as it’s played among professionals. He also provides fans with a very decent history lesson on the origins and evolution of it. The DVD package adds footage from a class taught by one of the masters of the “mind sport” and clips from memorable championships.

Basketball may not qualify as a “mind sport,” but it definitely takes brains to play it well. Like Monopoly, the sport no longer is dominated by American players. If it were, the U.S. Olympic squad would still be manned – and womanned – by amateurs, not multi-millionaires. Still, countries with no deep history of hoops occasionally step up their game to a level where they can beat our “dream teams.” Anne Buford’s ambitious doc, “Elevate,” opens at the SEEDS Academy in Dakar, Senegal, where the cream of West Africa’s basketball crop competes for scholarships to American high schools and colleges. They also learn what it takes to compete in the classrooms of some the America’s finest basketball factories, er, prep schools and universities, while occasionally daydreaming about a possible pro career. As one might imagine, West African teens are among the tallest and deceptively graceful athletes in the world. Outside of SEEDS, their schools and training facilities are primitive. Inside of it, however, there are few distractions to interfere with the business at hand; the courts are adequate to the task; the food is good; and everyone has closet full authorized NBA gear, shoes, team T-shirts and bags. The kids aren’t pampered, by any stretch of the imagination, but as future representatives of Senegal and Africa, they do enjoy some privileges. We follow two of the players from SEEDS to the Kent Academy, in Connecticut, and Lake Forest Academy, near Chicago. Another player is a couple of days away from boarding a plane to America when he’s told by the embassy that he’s not wanted here (no reason given by staff or the filmmakers, although we know that most of the boys practice Islam). It’s a truly heartbreaking moment in an otherwise uplifting documentary. Anyone with a lazy, underachieving kid at home might consider forcing them to watch “Elevate.”

Once exposed to “How to Die in Oregon,” it would be impossible for even an ardent opponent of physician-assisted suicides not to ponder whether it’s better for a terminally ill friend or relative to die painlessly of his or her own volition or to condemn them to an excruciating, undignified and prolonged death. That person may come away with their core belief unchanged, but, at least, they’ll have a better understanding of what’s at stake. In 1994, Oregon voters approved doctor-assisted suicides and, since then, several hundred men and women have taken advantage of the law. (I thought the count might be higher.) We’re introduced to several of these people in the weeks, days and moments before they die. Clearly all are in severe pain and none wants to be a burden on their families. They’re lucid and fully understand the consequences of their decision. They’re also told that the decision is reversible any time before they drink the fatal cocktail. (“It tastes woody,” one says, just before we watch him take his last breath.) While director Peter Richardson’s sympathies clearly lie with the terminally ill individuals, “How to Die in Oregon” falls well short of advocacy filmmaking or exploitation. Everything one needs to know about the seriousness and compassion with which he approached his project can be read in the eyes and final dignity of his subjects.

Gary Hustwit’s “Urbanized” is the final chapter in a documentary trilogy that considers how we relate to the designs of such everyday things as typography, manufactured objects and urban planning. As in “Helvetica” and “Objectified,” Hustwit consults with design experts to determine their opinions on historical miscalculations, successes, trends, fads and long- and short-term solutions. About urban development, the one thing upon which almost everyone in the film agrees is that nothing works anymore and that it’s not their fault. Complacent architects, planning commissions, politicians, short-sighted modernists and greedy developers all share the blame for the mess. Once these learned men and women get past their egos, however, many interesting things are discussed and ideas forwarded. Hustwit’s itinerary includes stops in New York, Paris, Santiago, Bogota, Capetown, Mumbai, Phoenix and Rio, where old and new elements often are required to co-exist in eternal discordance. He also visits Brasilia, which, when it was founded in 1960, was considered to be the most progressive and harmoniously designed capital in the world. Today, one of the architects describes Brasilia’s open spaces and widely separated buildings as a nightmare for people who can’t afford cars or chauffeurs. Indeed, the one common thread running through “Urbanized” is how often cars take precedence over humans in most modern cities and how easy it is to correct the imbalance. The discussions are thought-provoking and blessedly accessible to lay viewers. – Gary Dretzka

Dragon Age: Redemption
If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a noise? If you’re only famous on the Internet, does that make you a star in the real world? Felicia Day is the kind of frequently employed actor, whose face people recognize from a dozen different television appearances but can’t place. On the Internet, everyone seems to know the chronically cute Alabama-born redhead. That’s because she’s found a niche on the Web as someone who understands things that studio executives in the analog world can’t quite grasp. For one thing, she appears to be satisfied with a fan base limited primarily to “gamers” and “geeks.” She understands their world, is an avid player and is able to dramatize – add another dimension, if you will — the games they love. At 32, she probably could still pass for a perky college cheerleader, as she did in “Bring It On, Again”; a vampire slayer on the WB; or too-adorable-to-die patient on a hospital series, such as “House.” It’s on the Internet, however, that she’s a force with which to be reckoned. In 2007, Day launched the YouTube series, “The Guild,” which follows a clan of gamers addicted to a “massively multiplayer online role-playing game.” It’s since expanded its reach to include several other multimedia platforms. The success of “The Guild” prompted producer Joss Whedon to create the Internet musical, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” a show that also starred Neil Patrick Harris. Day is also responsible for the Web series “Dragon Age: Redemption,” a six-episode live-action adventure based on the fantasy role-playing game developed by BioWare. She’s played a fairy in at least two Internet series and provides a voice in “Fallout: New Vegas.” In addition to being an award-winning actor and writer, she also is a partner in a production company. In the geek universe, she might as well be Angelina Jolie.
Not being a gamer, I don’t know what to make of “Dragon Age: Redemption.” The webisodes require grownups to dress as pixies, elves, sorcerers and Templar knights, and then wander around a forest near L.A., killing each other with medieval and special-effects weaponry. It feels as if it only cost a few bucks to stage, but, on the Internet, looks usually are deceiving. In any case, it’s popular with the people who count: gamers. The DVD package includes all six episodes and more than 40 minutes of extra stuff. An extensive making-of featurette, interviews with Day and creative director Mike Laidlaw; commentary; bloopers; a script; and marketing material for new “Dragon Age” products. – Gary Dretzka

Mama I Want to Sing
Adapted from the long-running off-Broadway musical of the same title, “Mama I Want to Sing” was inspired by the careers of such church-nurtured singers as Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Donna Summer, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and playwright Vy Higginsen’s sister, Doris Troy (“Just One Look). Its release, only three days after the death of Whitney Houston, also reminds us of that great diva’s gospel roots and her rise through the ranks of pop and R&B artists. Here, the future superstar, Amara (Ciara), is tutored by her father, the Reverend Dr. Kenneth Winter (Marvin Winans), and mother, Lillian Winter (Lynn Whitfield), who is a diva in her own right. Before he died of a heart attack while preaching to his congregation, the dynamic Reverend Winter taught Amara and her younger brother, Luke (Kevin Phillips), that they not only are blessed as a gifted singer and photographer, but also as African-Americans with no borders on their horizon. His wife, though, would prefer for her children to limit their dreams to the church and within shouting distance of their nest.

Naturally, Amara is discovered by a producer of pop hits (Billy Zane) and, as part of her transition from gospel, is required to wear outfits and sing lyrics that Mrs. Winter ascribes to hoochie-mommas. (Troy reportedly was discovered by James Brown, while Houston was famously molded by Clive Davis.) It creates a rift between the two headstrong women that is as familiar as it is melodramatic. Ultimately, a tragedy brings them together in welcome compromise. As interpreted by Charles Randolph-Wright, “Mama, I Want to Sing” is an extremely broad musical and dramatic experience. Whitfield, especially, appears to be playing to the customers in the balconies. Even so, everyone involved knows what’s demanded by fans of such gospel musicals and delivers the goods in large strokes. The music, of course, is very good, and the inspirational messages are universal. If Amara manages to avoid the tragic path taken by Houston, we know it’s by the grace of God and gospel music. – Gary Dretzka

Beavis & Butthead: Volume 4: Blu-ray
Storage Wars: Volume 2
Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: I Heart Minnie
Dora’s Easter Adventure

For a certain caste of television viewers, the highlight of the current season hasn’t been the return of “Downton Abbey” or even the renewal of the “Hawaii Five-0” franchise. It was the welcome, by some, revival of MTV’s strangely wonderful “Beavis & Butthead” in new episodes. The show, created by Mike Judge, originally ran on the cable network from March 8, 1993, to November, 1997. Among other things, the dimwitted friends were blamed for the “dumbing-down” of America and encouraging teens to become serial arsonists. The show also is credited with putting MTV on the map as a purveyor of original programming, including “Jackass” and “Jersey Shore,” both of which make “B&B” look like “Masterpiece Theater.” In the new season, the animated pals don’t appear to have aged a day since 1997. They’re just as stupid as they were in the 1990s, wear the same clothes, listen to the same kind of music and remain virgins. None of the other characters have evolved, either. Thematically, though, the new episodes do reflect the passage of time, most obviously in the music and YouTube videos they critique. Snooki and “The Twilight Saga” also take some direct hits. The Blu-ray is comprised of 24 segments, including “Werewolves of Highland,” “Holy Cornholio,” “Drones,” “Supersize Me” and “Bathroom Break,” “Copy Machine,” “Massage” and “Whorehouse.” Blu-ray extras are “2011 San Diego Comic-Con Panel,” during which Judge and Johnny Knoxville discuss the show’s history; phone conversations between B&B the cast of “Jersey Shore”; and the PSA, “Silence Your Cell Phone.”

If Beavis and Butthead were ever allowed to grow into adults, they might find work as pilferers of abandoned storage units. As we learn in the offbeat A&E series, “Storage Wars,” practitioners require only cash and an ability to judge, sometimes incorrectly, what other people’s castoffs are worth. Just as one man’s trash is another’s treasure, a less authoritative metal-head might spot gems passed over by the more seasoned buyers … vintage Metallica and AC/DC T-shirts, for example. In the second season, which is only partially collected here, Dan and Laura Dotson of American Auctioneers return to orchestrate sales and coax top dollar for the opportunity to strike gold or overpay for useless junk. There are no guarantees.

Lest we forget the occasion of Valentine’s Day, Disney sends out “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: I (Heart) Minnie.” Coincidentally, it’s also her birthday. The collected episodes include the newly shown “Minnie & Daisy’s Flower Shower,” “Daisy’s Dance,” “Daisy’s Pet Project,” “Minnie’s Rainbow” and “Minnie’s Birthday,” in which the Clubhouse gang attempts to arrange and set up a surprise party.

In “Dora’s Easter Adventure,” Our Heroine and Boots are called upon to retrieve a basket filled with holiday confections. Two other episodes involve the Grumpy Old Troll and Troll Land. The DVD adds several interactive karaoke numbers, during which kids are encourage to follow the bouncing Easter egg. – Gary Dretzka

Doctor Who: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe: Blu-ray
Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani: The Peter Davison Years, 1982-84
Doctor Who: The Sensorites: The William Hardin Years, 1963-1966: Blu-ray

The floodgates have yet to shut on the flow of titles from the BBC’s “Doctor Who” catalogue. The newly available material runs the full gamut of the show’s life. Indeed, it’s only been two months since Christmas and the enduring series’ 2011 holiday special, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe,” is already available in Blu-ray. By contrast, it’s taken 46 years for “The Sensorites” to arrive in hi-def and 28 for “The Caves of Androzani,” in DVD.

The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” borrows freely from the C.S. Lewis classic, in ways suggested by the fractured title of the disc. The special episode opens in 1938, with the doctor stuck on a damaged alien spacecraft in Earth-orbit. Just in the nick of time, he dons his impact suit and plummets to the surface, where a kindly British woman helps the hapless spaceman get his bearings, so he can locate his TARDIS. Skip ahead three years to the Blitz. The woman’s pilot husband is missing in action over the English Channel and the she’s taken the kids to a relative’s house in Dorset to avoid the incessant bombing. We recognize the home’s caretaker as the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith), even if the woman doesn’t. His desire to give the family a happy Christmas inadvertently results in the opening of a gift that leads to a time portal, into which the son disappears. The daughter and doctor follow the light to an enchanted forest. Meanwhile, mom bumps into a group of miners from the ecologically threatened Androzani Major. There’s more, but I’m already confused.

And, speaking Androzani, it’s on Androzani Minor that the TARDIS drops the 5th Doctor (Davison) and Peri, during the show’s 21st season. As usual, the planet is wracked with turmoil, including the pursuit of a compound, excreted by bats, that is believed to extend life. Rebels are battling the dominant corporation for access to the substance. It probably wasn’t one of the doctor’s best ideas to intervene in the fracas, and by the end of the episode, a 6th Doctor has been regenerated to save the planet and solar system. Many aficionados consider “The Caves of Androzani” to be their favorite episode.

“The Sensorites” is No. 007 in the “Doctor Who” canon. Shown in six parts in the 1964 season, it stars William Hartnell as the 1st Doctor and companions played by Susan Foreman, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton. When the doctor arrives, the Sensorites are holding a capsule inhabited by Earthlings frozen in orbit. A previous survey team had discovered something valuable on the planet and caused much damage there. In an effort to get both problems solved, open-minded Sensorites allow the doctor and his team to join them in finding a cure for mass-poisoning and other disasters. Clearly, one of the reasons cultists love “Doctor Who” is that the complexity of the plots and story arcs discourages easy access to newbies, like me. – Gary Dretzka

For Veterans, The Point Of No ‘Return’ Often Can Be Found At Home

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

Kelli, the young Ohio woman portrayed by Linda Cardellini in “Return,” joined the National Guard right after completing high school in the mid-1990s, long after it provided a safe haven for draft-eligible men who weren’t anxious to go to Vietnam to save Southeast Asia for democracy and fast-food franchises.

Like many other Americans her age, Kelli was impressed by the role played by the National Guard during national disasters and other times of need. The money she made would help her family pay some bills and afford the pursuit of a college degree. She couldn’t have imagined the events of 9/11 ever happening, let alone that her unit would be called up to help President George W. Bush get even with Saddam Hussein for attempting to assassinate his daddy, during a visit to Kuwait in 1993.

Neither could the married mother of two young daughters have known that she’d someday be required to remain in Iraq for 16 months, at least, and return at a moment’s notice if the Pentagon so desired. Maybe, she should have read the fine print in her contract.

Even so, upon her return home, Kelli was far more inclined to hug her husband and kids than to complain or place blame. Yes, she had seen many disturbing things, but “a lot of people had it worse than I did.” It’s the same answer American soldiers have been giving to inquisitive civilians since the French and Indian War.

It doesn’t take long for Kelli to realize that something is wrong on the home front. Although her husband and kids were ecstatic to see her at the airport, she quickly senses that her idea of “getting back to normal” doesn’t square with that of her friends and neighbors.  On her first night out of uniform, she abandons the mattress she once shared with Mike (Michael Shannon) and lies down on the rug, alongside her daughters’ beds. Why, exactly, isn’t made clear.

“I left lots of things ambiguous in the story,” allows freshman writer-director Liza Johnson. “There’s a gap of experience between Mike and Kelli. They’d like to close the gap, but it doesn’t seem possible.”

Among the things Johnson leaves ambiguous is how Michael coped with the emptiness in his life during their forced separation. Local gossips lead her to believe that he might – emphasis, might – have had an affair with a flirty redhead, Cara (Bonnie Swencionis), who pops up early on to welcome her home. As interpreted by Oscar-nominee Shannon, Michael is a nice, if strangely withdrawn guy, who’s totally dedicated to his family and job as a plumbing contractor.

Photo by Marc Ohrem-Leclef.

“There’s a huge separation between military and civilian culture,” Johnson adds. “It’s tempting to judge Michael, but he’s in a difficult position, too. I wanted viewers think about what it’s like for a husband to be the one who stays home and takes care of the children.”

The longer she’s home, the more fences Kelli puts up between her family, friends and employers. In addition to pushing her husband away, she unexpectedly walks off the job that was left open until her return. Clearly, too, her definition of normal doesn’t include engaging in “girl talk” with her friends at weddings showers and bars.

At one point, a perplexed girlfriend asks, “What happened to you over there?” All we’re told is that Kelli’s assignment was behind the front lines, but near enough to the action that she couldn’t help put witness the carnage inflicted on her comrades and the enemy.

Finally, Kelli’s undisguised indifference over Mike’s needs causes him to move in with his parents, taking their daughters with him. Normally, this would tip the scales of sympathy in favor of the children’s mother. Here, though, it’s clear that her depression might cause her to neglect them, or worse.

Adding to Kellie’s problems, too, is a DUI conviction that causes her to lose her license and be required to join AA. She bails on the group when she decides that their problems don’t amount to a hill of beans, compared to her. It’s not their fault she’s unhappy, but she wants them to feel bad, anyway.

After going AWOL with the one man who does seems to understand what she’s going through, he reveals himself as a junkie merely going through the motions of cleaning up.

Most adults will recognize Cardellini from a completely different tour of duty, as the often-troubled nurse Samantha Taggart on “ER,” or, perhaps, as Cassie in “Brokeback Mountain.” Their children would recall her as Velma in the “Scooby Doo” movies, video games and animated TV series.

“I met Linda in casting,” says Johnson. “She was warm and very aware of her surroundings. On a friend’s advice, I even watched ‘Scoopy Doo 2.’”

“I felt that anyone who could perform so well in ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Scoopy Doo,’ could handle this character. In ‘Scoopy,’ she has this Carole Lombard quality about her … she got Kelli right away, though.”

Cardellini did all the homework required of an actor taking on such a complicated and, in some ways, disagreeable character. Like Johnson, she interviewed women who served in the National Guard and other branches of the military. Among the things she observed is the difference between how full- and part-time soldiers are treated upon their return from overseas.

“Even if women aren’t supposed to be on the front lines, they can come back just as messed up as a male soldier,” Cardellini argues. “In the National Guard, they’re expected to sink right back into old patterns. Her husband and boss weren’t being unreasonable in their expectations, but there was no one who understood what she was going through psychologically.

“The medical staffs in the regular branches of the military have far more experience dealing with post-traumatic shock and other issues. Except for the guy in AA, no one could relate to her depression.”

The 36-year-old San Francisco native says that she didn’t draw much on her experiences on “ER,” even though their characters could very well be sisters.

“I based Kelli on the people I met,” says Cardellini, who’s expecting her first child this month. “She and Samantha are similar only in that they’re working-class women … survivors … just trying to get by. Otherwise, their expectations are different.

“Kelli’s stuck. She wanted to be back in her own life, but was too deeply impacted by what she saw.”

Neither does it ease the veterans’ transition to normalcy to learn how little people in civilian life care about their sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from news about soldiers being killed by roadside bombs, Cardellini points out, “No one wants to know what’s going on over there. They’re insulated.”

Clearly, it’s an issue the candidates for president have attempted to avoid, as well.  The long-dead activist, Saul Alinsky, has been paid more attention in the debates than the stalemate in Afghanistan.

Indeed, the public’s indifference has resulted in underwhelming box-office results for movies based on the war.

“The response I got from producers was very cautionary,” Johnson stressed. “Our project was met with discouragement, mostly. I don’t think it was targeted specifically at ‘Return,’ however.”

Johnson hopes that mostly positive reviews the picture – included in last year’s Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes — was accorded on opening day, in Los Angeles and New York, will encourage wider distribution. For those living in arthouse-deprived cities, “Return” will become available on iTunes and video-on –demand outlets later this month.

Johnson could have ended “Return” in any number of clichéd ways, including suicide or mass murder. Instead, she devised a scenario that holds several satisfying surprises, all consistent with the respect she’s shown to her characters and women after which they were modeled. It’s possible that viewers will come away from “Return” wondering how many other Kellies have been permanently damaged for the sake of America’s honor and Halliburton’s bottom line. — Gary Dretzka

My DVD Wrapup: A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, Lady and the Tramp, Downton Abbey, more…

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas: Blu-ray
If I were younger and had been far more stoned than I’ve been in years, I probably would have enjoyed “A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas” quite a bit more than I did. Apparently, too, if I were rich enough to afford a Blu-ray 3D television, the experience would have been enhanced exponentially. Nothing freaks out stoners faster than images flying off a screen and landing in their laps. It begs the question as to how a Cheech & Chong comedy might have looked if the technology were as advanced as it is today. Many of the gags in the “H&K3” work fine in 2D, but almost all of the visual effects anticipate that viewers are wearing the necessary optical equipment. That said, Harold Lee (Cho) and Kumar Patel (Penn) have matured into adulthood more or less gracefully, if in widely separated households. When a package containing a gift intended for Harold is mistakenly delivered to Kumar’s home, it provides an excuse for a road trip and reunion. Naturally, the box contains the mother of all marijuana joints, which the boys agree to share. The fun begins when an errant match ignites the Christmas tree proudly mounted in Harold’s home by his menacing father-in-law (Danny Trejo). They have about eight hours to replace it, before the in-laws return from shopping.

Harold and Kumar recruit new friends Adrian (Amir Blumenthal), Todd (Tom Lennon) and Todd’s baby daughter to find a similar replacement. Lennon is a wonderfully deadpan comedian and, together, the lads devise several hysterically inappropriate ways to exploit the child’s innocence. And, yes, they involve second-hand smoke and a substance that resembles baby powder. The team searches New York City (Detroit) high and low for a tree to replace the original, finding possible matches at a mall, where Patton Oswald is working as a Santa; Rockefeller Center, where Neil Patrick Harris is performing; at a party hosted by the horny virgin daughter of a Russian gangster; and with Princeton alum Bobby Lee. Some of the best scenes involve Claymation versions of Harold and Kumar and Harris outting himself as a faux homosexual, while being groped by topless (female) hotties. (His real-life husband also appears.) They are quite funny and sparkle in Blu-ray. The bonus package includes a deleted scene that explains how Jews celebrate Christmas Eve; a making-of piece on the Claymation sequence; and a half-dozen short spots, with Lennon, that spoof junket-produced interviews. – Gary Dretzka

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1
The fact that I’ve missed the last two installments of “The Twilight Saga” pegs me as a novice when it comes to Stephenie Meyer’s brainchild series. Serious fans are welcome to ignore my opinions on the penultimate installment. Anyone interested in jumping on the bandwagon at this late date, however, is advised to begin at the beginning of the series, with Catherine Hardwicke’s table-setter, “Twilight,” which succeeded as a romantic fantasy, vampire thriller and hyperkinetic action picture. Starting at “Breaking Dawn” would be like beginning study of the New Testament at the Wedding at Cana or entering HBO’s “True Blood” as Sookie is being revealed as a descendent of fairies. The latest installment, “Breaking Dawn,” has been split into two parts, filmed back-to-back. While much of “Part 1” looks splendid and there’s an air of menace throughout, it left me wondering when something resembling a plot was going to emerge. The first third is taken up with plans for Bella and Edward’s wedding; the second, in anticipation of the couple’s furious coupling on their honeymoon; and the third, by Bella’s harrowing pregnancy and nearly calamitous delivery of something resembling a human child. The absence of stylized action and violence makes “Part 1” feel more like a Lifetime movie than any of its predecessors. The accent is on wedding fashions, honeymoon accommodations and the cruelty of childbirth. There’s a bit of a chase between the vampires and wolf pack, but it mostly involves growling and posing. Director Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”) apparently has saved the battle royal for the closing chapter. The supplemental material adds commentary by Condon; a video from Bella and Edward’s wedding; character features, “Jacob’s Destiny,” “Edward Fast Forward” and “Jacob Fast Forward”; and a six-part behind-the-scenes documentary.  If studios are going to bisect the final episode of a series – as happened, as well, with “Harry Potter” – they really offer ticket-buyers a half-price coupon for “Part 2.” – Gary Dretzka

Lady and the Tramp: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray
The love story is charming, but what distinguishes Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” — the latest classic film to undergo a “Diamond Edition” facelift — from the studio’s previous 14 animated features is the music. Written mostly by Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke, they are inseparable from the characters who interpret them, including the canine torch singer, Peg, performing Lee’s unforgettable “He’s a Tramp” (“What a dog …”). Watching it this time around, however, I flashed on a distinctly different tune. Could Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson have watched “Lady and the Tramp” before penning the lyrics, “… Ladies love outlaws like babies love stray dogs/Ladies touch babies like a banker touches gold/And outlaws touch the ladies/Somewhere deep down in their soul”? The country hit may not resonate with the masses in quite the same way as “Bella Notte,” “The Siamese Cat Song” and “He’s a Tramp,” but “Ladies Love Outlaws” captures the enduring essence of the story. The Blu-ray edition of the 57-year-old animated feature – Disney’s first in CinemaScope — looks and sounds as good as it ever did on the big screen and better than in any of its video incarnations. Parents will be as appreciative of the meticulous restoration as their kids, who probably have gotten spoiled on Blu-ray by now. The generous bonus package adds an introduction by Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, as well as her memories; a trio of deleted scenes and storyboards; the unrecorded song, “I’m Free as the Breeze”; more than two hours of previously available featurettes; and the Second Screen app that links to “Inside Walt’s Story Meetings.” – Gary Dretzka

Yakuza Weapon: Blu-ray
Anyone whose idea of a good time is watching and re-watching Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” duo, “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof,” shouldn’t hesitate tracking down the totally nuts, “Yakuza Weapon,” from Japan’s gore-happy Sushi Typhoon studio. Such extreme genre epics as “Alien vs. Ninja,” “Mutant Girls Squad,” “Deadball,” “Helldriver” and “Karate-Robo Zaborgar” overflow with the kind of overheated violence, mostly, that makes fanboys salivate and Boomers yearn for the days of drive-in triple-features. “Yakuza Weapon” was adapted from a manga by Ken Ishikawa by Tak Sakaguchi and Yudai Yamaguchi. As the picture opens, the notorious hipster warrior, Shozo, is dispatching bad guys of one stripe or another in South America. At the same time, Shozo’s yakuza father is murdered by a rival mobster in direct repudiation of the gangs’ code of honor.  Upon his return to Japan, Shozo must come to grips with the realization that the Iwaki Family has been decimated by the defection of his father’s former top aide, Kurawaki. Over-confident of his abilities, Shozo engages in an assault on Kurawaki headquarters, which levels the high-rise building, but leaves the upstart warrior with missing limbs. They’re replaced with a M61 Vulcan cannon and a rocket launcher. After a brief period of rehabilitation, Shozo is required to deal with a turncoat lieutenant of his own and his sister, who’s been transformed into a “naked weapon.” Anyway, you get the picture. Sushi Typhoon movies aren’t for everyone, but those who admire wild makeup effects – constructed by Yoshihiro Nishimura – and non-stop action will find a great deal of it in “Yakuza Weapon,” which arrives with 45-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes and a spinoff short, “Takuso Weapon.” – Gary Dretzka

Love Story: Blu-ray
Looking back at the hysteria surrounding the release of “Love Story,” in 1970, it comes as a surprise to learn how well Arthur Hiller’s Ivy League tear-jerker was received by mainstream critics. Maybe I missed something the first time around. Adapted from a best-selling Erich Segal novel, which, itself, was adapted from his original screenplay, “Love Story” became the movie that launched a thousand maudlin disease-of-the-week television movies. It may even have triggered an allergic reaction to “chick flicks” in an entire generation of Boomer males. Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw play undergraduates at Harvard and Radcliffe who meet cute at the beginning and never stop meeting cute throughout the course of the drama. She calls him, “Preppie,” while he refers to her as “Cavalleri,” after her last name. Oliver comes from the proper side of the tracks, while Jennifer is a daughter of working-class parents. She curses like a sailor and he’s pigheaded to a fault. And, yet, they come together in one of those picture-perfect marriages doomed to end in tragedy. “Love Story,” the book and movie, were huge successes. Many of the people who discover it today will find it unwatchable, if not for its cheesy dialogue, then its unrelievedly maudlin conclusion. O’Neal isn’t at all bad as Oliver, the unspoiled rich kid. McGraw has her fans, but her ticks and unnaturally coarse dialogue feel awfully bizarre after all these years. The Blu-ray visuals enhance the many interesting Boston and New York locations, as well as a freak snowstorm integrated into the story at the last minute. The extras include Hiller’s commentary and the informative featurette, “A Classic Remembered.” – Gary Dretzka

Fireflies in the Garden
Ever since the term “dysfunctional family” entered the vernacular – sometime after the release of “Ordinary People,” no doubt – it’s been used as an excuse for all sorts of cinematic meltdowns. Most boil down to perfectly normal, if disagreeable, behavior more accurately described as eccentric. Almost no families, however nutty, resemble those who populate the sorts of “quirky, offbeat” dramedies popular with the Sundance crowd. The family we meet in “Fireflies in the Garden” is so truly and thoroughly dysfunctional that it could have provided a case study for aspiring psychiatrists. The patriarch of the Taylor family, Charles (Willem Dafoe), is a thoroughly disagreeable English professor, who has made his son Michael (Ryan Reynolds) his personal punching bag for more than 20 years. They’re joined by the long-suffering, yet dutiful matriarch, Lisa (Julia Roberts); a daughter (Shannon Lucio) about to enter law school; an aunt, Jane (Emily Watson), who’s nearly Michael’s age and was a childhood confidante; Michael’s estranged wife (Carrie-Anne Moss), recovering from alcoholism; younger versions of Michael and Jane (Cayden Boyd, Hayden Panattiere); and various lovers. The trigger for everything that follows, as well as numerous flashbacks, is the accidental death of Lisa, in a car crash on the way to her much-delayed graduation from college. Reynolds is well cast as the son, whose success as a romance novelist causes Charles no small degree of professional jealousy and undisguised rage. Anticipating a graduation, not a funeral, Michael has brought with him the manuscript of his new book, which includes a bitter recounting of his own youth. No one is spared embarrassment. Apparently, much of what happens in “Fireflies” is based on events in writer/director Dennis Lee’s life. (Robert Frost is credited with the poem that inspired the title and the film’s ugliest scene.) As difficult as “Fireflies” is to watch, at times, Lee doesn’t embarrass himself in his debut. The actors probably didn’t need much coaching, but everything else appears to bear his fingerprints. The standard making-of, behind-the-scenes featurette isn’t bad, even if it sometimes seems as if the cast and crew are discussing a different, happier project. – Gary Dretzka

5 Star Day
The central conceit informing Danny Buday’s debut feature, “5 Star Day,” is so improbable that it’s a small miracle any kind of story could have been constructed on its foundation. Give the indie drama 20 minutes, though, and its inherent strangeness will weave a spell on adventurous viewers. Studly Cam Gigandet plays Jake, an unorganized college student who’s up against a strict deadline, but isn’t likely to get his project completed in time to assure an A-grade. In effect, he wants to prove that astrology is bunk and the people who faithfully read newspaper horoscopes are fools. He formulates his thesis after experiencing one of the worst 24 hours in his life on the day all of his stars and planets are aligned in the most positive way possible. It prompts him to track down the three people with whom he once shared the maternity ward in a Chicago hospital. Surely, if the experiences of any three human beings were alike in this world, it would be those who shared the same astrological code. All things being equal, which, of course, they never are, this experiment might have carried some weight. It isn’t difficult for Jake to track down the three people (Gena Malone, Brooklyn Sudano,  Max Hartman), two of whom, in fact, had a miserable birthday. What Jake couldn’t have anticipated, however, is how closely the stars actually had predicted what would happen on that day and how the lives of these maternity-ward graduates ultimately would affect the others. Instead of feeling manipulated and contrived, I was left satisfied by Buday’s solution to Jake’s problem. – Gary Dretzka

Metal Shifters: Blu-ray
It’s been a while since movies produced for airing on Lifetime could automatically be dismissed for their predictably sappy storylines, B- and C-list stars and pandering to undiscerning women. While the made-for-cable movies still target women, their overall quality and production values have improved markedly, raising the network’s demographic profile. The folks at Syfy ought to be taking notes. While its original programming is pretty good, most made-for-Syfy movies look as if they were written and directed by members of the A-V clubs at well-endowed high schools. Such Corman-inspired hybrids as “Piranhaconda” and “Dinocroc vs. Supergator” are so purposefully bad, they’re funny. More traditional sci-fi conceits are exploited to less satisfactory results. “Metal Shifters” (a.k.a., “Iron Invader”) is a prime example of the latter. Not being a premium channel, Syfy is required to hold the line on violence, language, sex and gore. There are thousands of movies available for audiences seeking gratuitous displays of one or more of these attributes, at least, so it would be logical to assume that kids in their early teens are the primary audience. No network executive would invest in something that doesn’t attract viewers without access to a credit card, however, so the “hits” keep right on coming. Writer/director Paul Ziller has become a leading supplier of genre fodder to cable networks. Besides “Metal Shifters,” his “Ice Quake,” “Snakehead Terror,” “Collision Earth,” “Yeti: Curse if the Snow Demon” and “Stonehenge Apocalypse” have debuted on Syfy, then found extra mileage in DVD and foreign distribution. “Metal Shifter” follows a familiar pattern in that the introduction of a powerful outside force – here, a meteorite collides with a satellite, causing alien bacterium to fall to Earth on the metallic debris – threatens the planet’s eco-system and mankind, itself. Here, the citizens of a tiny Idaho town are required to battle germs that cause metal objects to regenerate and infect residents. One stack of metal actually is transformed into a killer Erector Set robot. It’s unredeemedly corny, but what’s even sillier is the positioning of old flames as heroes. There’s a making-of featurette included, as well. I wonder if the change in titles, even at, isn’t an attempt to get consumers with short memories to purchase a movie they’ve already seen on TV for free. – Gary Dretzka

Downton Abbey: Season 2: Original U.K. Edition: Blu-ray
Song of Lunch
Steve Coogan Live
Geek Charming

Admirers of so-called “quality television” who haven’t already watched one season, at least, of “Downton Abbey,” are missing one of the great viewing experiences of the decade. The first installment of Julian Fellowes’ brilliant “Masterpiece Theater” mini-series either won or was nominated for every major television award the American and British industries bestow. Even if one hasn’t seen a single episode, however, a working knowledge of “Upstairs, Downstairs” would suffice as an introduction. “Downton Abbey” is “Upstairs, Downstairs,” but among the landed gentry. Set during approximately the same period in English history, the series chronicles the roller-coaster affairs of the Earl and “Countess” of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern) and the rest of the aristocratic Crawley family, as well as their servants, during the reign of King George V. The first season began with the sinking of the Titanic and ended in anticipation of World War I. The second covers the war years 1916 to 1919, both in pastoral Yorkshire and the Somme killing fields; the 1918 flu pandemic; and the first stirrings of the war for independence in Ireland. The 2011 “Christmas Special” wraps the decade up in a bright bow, leaving us in early 1920 and salivating for the start of Season 3, when Shirley MacLaine joins the cast as the Countess’ American mother. While everyone is very good in the cast, Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess steals every scene with her precise use of the English language, toxic sarcasm and ability to surprise viewers and characters with unexpected acts of kindness. Jim Carter, as butler Charles Carson, is similarly memorable. Both are front and center when it comes to dealing with the various intrigues, which include love, loss, blackmail and betrayal … just like in “Dallas.” In Blu-ray, the magnificent Highclere Castle and beautiful Hampshire countryside are wonderful to watch and savor. The set adds the featurettes, “Fashion and Uniforms,” “Romance in a Time of War” and “House to Hospital.”

Also from “Masterpiece Theatre” comes Niall MacCormick’s short but withering play, “The Song of Lunch,” in which ex-lovers reunite after 15 years to see if they still have anything in common. Alan Richman plays “He,” while Emma Thompson is “She.” Facebook junkies of a certain age will recognize the urge to re-connect with old flames after a long passage of time. MacCormick points out what some of the Facebook daters have already learned: most graves are best left undisturbed. In the ensuing 15 years, She has married a writer who He doesn’t respect. She lives in Paris with their two children. By all accounts, He is a poet of no standing and publisher of works he despises. If he isn’t an alcoholic, He turns in a masterful impression of one over lunch. He’s aggressively passive-aggressive, petty and distant to the woman he loved and happily made the jump over the channel to see him. Moreover, even before the main course is set before him in the restaurant they once frequented, He has consumed nearly two bottles of wine. How one man could be so boorish in the presence of such grace is a mystery that doesn’t require much of an investigation, really. Times change, places change and our perceptions of people we once loved can change, as well. Thompson is especially well suited for the role of She. I’d like to think Richman had to work overtime to come up with a character as pathetic as He, however.

For American audiences only aware of British comedian Steve Coogan from his appearances in such movies as “The Trip,” “Our Idiot Brother” and “24 Hour Party People,” the in-performance DVD “Steve Coogan Live” might come as a revelation. Like Sacha Baron Cohen, he has a tremendous gift for mimicry and creating characters that seem to have lives of their own. His most recognizable creation is the unctuous, self-absorbed British talk-show host, Alan Partridge. “Steve Coogan Live” contains the stage presentations, “The Man Who Thinks He’s It” and “Live & Lewd,” during which he becomes such bizarre characters as “lager lout” Paul Calf and his slutty sister, Pauline; Portuguese Eurovision-winner Tony Ferrino; the incompetent stand-up comedian, Duncan Thicket; and Partridge, who has no regard for his guests, audience or the limits of his own talent. They’re joined on stage and in backstage interludes by the “politically correct” comic Bernard Righton (John Thomson), Simon Pegg and Julia Davis. The rest of the two-disc set is comprised of highlights from Coogan’s Australian tour; the featurette, “Steve Coogan: An Inside Story”; and “Animations of Paul and Pauline Calf.” The often bawdy comedy is distinctly British and may go under the heads of American audiences, just as the coarse language may offend some tender American ears.

Sarah Hyland (“American Family”) is the main reason for anyone over 17 to watch the Disney Channel’s “Geek Charming.” In it, she assumes the role once mastered by Alicia Silverstone, in “Clueless.” Her Dylan Schoenfield is the spokewoman for all that’s cool, trendy and expensive at Woodlands Academy, in L.A. Since she already owns everything she covets, Dylan isn’t particularly interested in anything that doesn’t involve her A-list boyfriend or the school’s Fall Formal Blossom Queen competition. When offered an opportunity to be the star of a nerd’s entry into the school’s film festival, she senses that it could make her the idol of teenagers far beyond Woodland Academy and accepts his invitation. If you think the good guy will lose in a Disney Channel movie, you’d always be wrong. The set also arrives with 10 episodes of the “Glee”-ish “Shake It Up” series and a “Best Friend Charm Set.” – Gary Dretzka

What Happens Next

German filmmaker Tom Tykwer made such a splash with “Run Lola Run” that expectations for his success in America likely were raised to a point no director of arthouse fare could meet. His big-budget action thriller, “The International,” is memorable solely for its exquisitely staged shootout inside New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Constructed on a far more modest foundation, “3” may be his finest film since “Lola.” Set in Berlin, “3” observes a trio of aging yuppies, anxious to achieve sexual fulfillment before becoming middle-age crazy. There’s no question that Simon and Hanna are happy together, even after 20 years together. Hanna develops a crush on a teacher of one of her post-graduate classes, even fantasying about him as she daydreams her way through his dry lectures. After several coincidental meetings and a fun night on the town with his friends, Hanna decides to give the younger man a shot in the sack. Her timing is awful, in that it coincides with Simon’s unplanned operation to remove a cancerous testicle. Genuinely unhappy that she missed his surgery, but not exactly wracked with guilt, she repeats her declaration of love for Simon and we have no reason not to believe her. Weeks later, in another chance meeting, Simon hooks up with Adam at a cool Berlin swimming facility, which appears to double as a pickup spots for gay men. More time passes and Hannah discovers she’s pregnant with twins. This situation could have been handled, poorly, in several different ways. Tykwer settled on one that leaves several questions unanswered, but is satisfying in other significant ways. Because of the occupations of the three characters, it was possible for Tykwer to make “3” look as sleek and hip as possible, without losing any old-world flavor. All of the actors (Sophie Rois, Sebastian Schipper, Devid Striesow) are very good in untypical roles. And, while erotic, the sex in “3” is likely to offend only people willing to vote for the current slate of Republicans seeking the White House.

Americans still have a long way to go before they’ll accept gay dramas and rom-coms in mainstream movies, even ones as innocuous and unchallenging as “What Happens Next.” In writer/director Jay Arnold’s debut feature, it takes being fired from his job for a rich businessman, Paul (Jon Lindstrom), to accept his sexual reality. Meanwhile, his sister (Wendie Malick) is desperately attempting to come to grips with her son’s homosexuality. Paul finally is able to act on his deeply sublimated feelings after meeting a much-younger gay man, Andy (Chris Murrah), in the local dog park, where he walks the puppy he received as a going-away gift. Meanwhile, Paul’s sister continues to arrange hetero dates for him. “What Happens Next” feels quaint by comparison to more sophisticated gay-and-lesbian fare, including “3.” As the clichés mount – the mandatory fag hag and sissy boy, among them — it’s possible to wonder who the movie was intended to impress, gay daters or closet cases. – Gary Dretzka

The Dead: Blu-ray
As zombie movies go, “The Dead” isn’t particularly scary. It does, however, contain many scenes of undead dismemberment, gore and shooting. What separates “The Dead” from a zillion other such flicks are the bleak Burkina Faso and Ghana locations, which recall news footage of starvation in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, many of the zombies look healthier – from a distance, at least – than the victims of neglect, starvations and internecine war. In Howard and Jonathan Ford’s arid thriller, U.S. Air Force engineer Lt. Brian Murphy is the sole survivor of a plane crash off the coast of war-torn Africa. No sooner does he wash up on shore than he’s confronted with zombies drawn to him like a lighthouse. Because Murphy is a dead shot, he avoids being eaten fairly easily. On his trek to the interior, Murphy is joined by an African soldier (Daniel Dembele) also desperate to leave the area. When their vehicle expires, they proceed by foot through the badlands. The quest for survival is more interesting as a reverse-travelogue than as a creature feature, but that’s OK. There’s a deleted scene and making-of piece, showcasing the special makeup effects work. – Gary Dretzka

David E. Talbert’s What My Husband Doesn’t Know
If it weren’t for Tyler Perry, David E. Talbert might be the country’s best-known creator of plays and musicals, movies and TV shows, novels and DVDs targeted primarily at the African-American audience. Rather than restage the plays for the movies, Talbert shoots the stage production and sends it out on DVD. It captures the intimacy of the production, while saving lots of money. “What My Husband Doesn’t Know” is the first one I’ve seen that justifies taking the shortcuts. Here, Michelle Williams plays Lena, the beautiful wife of an older, wealthy developer (Clifton Davis) who neglects his wife’s sexual needs. In a moment of weakness, she succumbs to the physical attributes of a younger man (Brian White) hired to fix the house’s plumbing. When her husband smells a rat and pledges to pay closer attention to Lena, she decides to end the affair. Easier said than done, of course. The plumber becomes her stalker. It makes for a dramatic climax, but, what I didn’t expect was that “What My Husband Doesn’t Know” would be so legitimately risqué and funny. Even the pastor is a man with a sexual past. I especially enjoyed the innuendo and double entendre delivered by Lena’s horny BFF, played hilariously by sexy Tiffany Haddish. As is typical with these sorts of productions, there are plenty of belt-it-out singing and larger-than-life characters. “WMHDK” is well acted and stylishly directed by Talbert. It may not be Neil Simon, but it doesn’t need to be. The DVD adds interviews and a backstage tour. – Gary Dretzka

All Things Fall Apart
In this overburdened sports melodrama, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson not only is responsible for carrying the ball, but also recovering the occasional fumble in the narrative. Besides starring in “All Things Fall Apart,” as an NFL-bound football player cruelly stricken with cancer, Jackson is credited as writer (with Brian A. Miller) and producer. His character, Deon, is a natural born athlete. By the time he blossoms as a running back, Deon’s also amassed an impressive display of dreadlocks, which flow from under his helmet and partially hide his handsome face. He’s built like the proverbial brick shithouse and probably could run through a concrete wall, as well. Until a potentially deadly tumor is discovered near his heart, Deon’s biggest problems are caused by an overbearing brother (Mario Van Peebles, who also directs) and avoiding the temptations associated with being a soon-to-be millionaire. Chemotherapy causes Deon – and 50 Cent — to lose more than 40 pounds of bulk, braids and most of his energy. His older brother is devastated by the reality of never being able to share Deon’s fame and fortune; his mother (Lynn Whitfield) is working triple-time to make ends meet; and a younger brother has finally begun to assert himself as something other than a sidekick, forced to sacrifice his dreams for Deon’s career. After losing his scholarship, insurance and likelihood of supporting himself doing the only thing he’s qualified to do, Deon goes from bad to worse. It isn’t until the young man hits rock bottom is he able to beg his younger brother for a job at a used-car dealership. Turns out, he’s a natural salesman, as well. The surprises don’t stop there, either. “All Things Fall Apart” has so many things going on in it that it’s impossible to keep track of all of them. 50 Cent still has a way to go before he can carry a film on his acting skills, instead of his looks and personality. Van Peebles’ capable direction keeps the movie from drifting too far into territory previously mined by “Brian’s Song” and other sports tragedies, and it looks good. There’s also a pounding hip-hop soundtrack and Ray Liotta playing a surgeon. That’s a lot of heavyweight stuff for a direct-to-DVD picture to address, even in 110 minutes. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Transformers 3D, In Time, Dead Hooker In A Trunk…

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Transformers: Dark of the Moon: Blu-ray 3D
When the Blu-ray and DVD editions of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” were rushed into video release last September, sans bonus features and 3D, Paramount assured fans that both soon would be added to the package. Some Internet wags expressed concern that this was a typical bait-and-switch swindle, targeted at less savvy consumers and “firsties.” Maybe, but, this kind of release pattern is nothing new, really. It was fairly prevalent in the early days of VHS and DVD, even when the release windows were closer to a year, than today’s two or three months. “Director’s Cut” and gold/silver/platinum” editions took even longer to appear. Today, Disney’s the only company that seems committed to that sort of platform-release schedule. Seemingly, everyone else plays it by ear. In the case of blockbuster titles, anyway, consumers really should do their homework in advance of street date. The distributors of “Transformers” made no attempt to hide the lack of bonus material. Indeed, they probably were doing fans a favor by not throwing a crappy making-of featurette or warmed-over EPK (electronic press kit) into the mix. Those who waited an additional four months for the complete “T: DOTM3D” package should be feeling pretty good about themselves right now.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, the previous DVD and Blu-ray editions of “T:DOTM” didn’t require much tinkering in the visual and audio departments. Like them, the 3D version is as close to state-of-the-art as buffs could have anticipated. There’s no need to rehash my opinions of Michael Bay’s sci-fi extravaganza, except to say that the basic narrative still is no match for the fireworks that dominate the second half. That’s what made the 3D edition worth waiting for, at least for the few fortunate souls who own one a set capable of showing it. Moreover, the third disc is comprised of four hours’ worth of special features in hi-def. They include the five-part “Above and Beyond: Exploring ‘Dark of the Moon’”;  “Uncharted Territory: NASA’s Future Then and Now”; “Deconstructing Chicago: Multi-Angle Sequences,” from pre-visualizations to visual effects, with optional commentary; “The Art of Cybertron,” with still galleries depicting all manner of Autobots,  Decepticons, Environments, Weapons and Gear, and Ships; “The ‘Dark of the Moon’ Archive,” which includes a brief conversation between Bay and James Cameron on the value of 3D; “The Matrix of Marketing,” about the extensive campaign to attract customers to megaplexes around the world; and 2D, Blu-ray and UV copies. Was it worth the delay? I think so. – Gary Dretzka

Thunder Soul
Timed to arrive at the start of Black History Month, “Thunder Soul” is a movie that could have been released at Halloween and still be one of the most inspirational films of this or any year. It also is as hip as any documentary since “The Buena Vista Social Club” and “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” which it resembles. If ever a case were to be made for the importance of musical education in our public schools, it can be found in Mark Landsman’s film recounting the recent reunion of graduates of Houston’s Kashmere High School. It was in the early 1970s that Conrad “Prof” Johnson, a respected jazz musician, took the reins of the music department and transformed a typical high school ensemble into something very special. He accomplished this by convincing the students that they could make music on a par with the professional soul, R&B and funk bands of the time. And, they did it in a style that was organic to the African-American student body and neighborhoods surrounding the school. It was no easy trick persuading kids they could make music comparable to Sly Stone and James Brown’s units, but that’s exactly what Johnson did. They would go on to win every show-band contest in which they competed and be invited to tour Europe and Japan.

Thirty-five years later, with Johnson on his death bed, dozens of his former students gathered to perform the songs they learned as teenagers. Some of them hadn’t picked up an instrument since they graduated from Kashmere, let alone performed the coordinated movements that became a trademark of the band. (Imagine watching a marching band or drum line from an all-black college, limited to strutting their stuff on a stage.) The respect and love shown to Johnson here –in words, music and hugs — could coax tears from a rock. The DVD, narrated by Jamie Foxx, adds commentary, more music and excerpts from a documentary made on the band in 1975. – Gary Dretzka

The Big Year
Not having read the book upon which “The Big Year” is based, I have no way of knowing how well director David Frankel and writer Howard Franklin succeeded in capturing its flavor. If I were to guess, I would think that journalist Mark Obmascik’s work of non-fiction skewed strictly to adults who might not think the non-lethal pursuit of birds – if only for a split-second sighting – is the most ridiculous thing they’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of activity people do when they’ve outgrown other hobbies, but still feel young enough to go to extreme lengths for a cheap thrill. Done right, birding combines ecological voyeurism, adventure tourism and fresh air.  One needn’t learn Latin to participate, but a conversance with binominal nomenclature is essential. Neither will fashionable outdoors attire won’t impress anyone waiting for the appearance of a rara avis in a marsh, meadow or swamp. And, it is a dead certainty that your kids will dismiss your obsession as being a nerdy waste of time. That much, at least, “The Big Year” gets right. By attempting to appeal to a broader audience – it’s rated PG — than the one attracted to the book, however, Frankel was required to put too much weight on the trademark personalities, physical humor and sentimentality of the principle actors: Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black. In fact, their characters might not have been sufficiently peculiar to pass for actual birders, who are nothing if not eccentric. Certainly, their estimable presence wasn’t enough to attract more than a relative handful of ticket-buyers to a movie about birds and the humans who pursue them.

That said, however, “The Big Year” does seem to be a better fit for the small screen, especially in Blu-ray, which enhances the splendid locations in which the movie was shot. The producers spared little expense in replicating the geographical demands of birding, by transporting cast and crew throughout much of western Canada, the American Southwest, Southeast and Northeast. The scenery is often spectacular and not much diminished by the necessity of having the birders slog through rain and snow. If the gags fall flat, there’s usually something neat in the background on which to focus. Wilson, Martin and Black’s characters are modeled after actual birders, who participated in Big Year competitions in the late-1990s. They had 365 days to record sighting of different birds, from the mundane to the nearly extinct, based on tips from local birders. The aftermaths of huge meteorological events are especially conducive because strong winds bring birds from their natural habitats to places they’re rarely seen. It requires the most obsessive of birders to become avid viewers of the Weather Channel and be able to pick up and go at a moment’s notice. Not being able to book flights two weeks in advance also can be expensive. The movie’s trio of competitive birders is willing and able to do just that, but it takes a melodramatic toll on their families and viewers, alike. Adding a bit of flash to the proceedings are Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest, Anjelica Huston, Rosamund Pike, Kevin Pollack, Joel McHale, JoBeth Williams, Steven Weber, Rashida Jones, Jim Parsons, Tim Blake Nelson and the narration of John Cleese. Because of all the travel required, the making-of featurette is one of the more interesting I’ve seen lately. Simply getting the personnel to the Yukon was an operation worthy of some kind of award. Oh, yeah, the birds are pretty cool, too. – Gary Dretzka

The Double: Blu-ray
In “The Double,” first-time director Michael Brandt has constructed a Cold War thriller for post-Cold War audiences. In an interview included in the bonus package, Brandt – also writer of “2 Fast 2 Furious” and the remake of “3:10 to Yuma” – describes it as a “genre picture,” in that viewers shouldn’t expect historical precision and artistic conceits. Indeed, the less viewers are required to sweat the details in “The Double,” the more likely they will be able to enjoy it simply as an entertainment. And, I think, he’s right. It also takes a lot of weight off the shoulders of Richard Gere, who often is expected to be the same matinee idol who swept Deborah Winger off her feet in “An Officer and a Gentleman.” Instead, he plays a retired CIA operative, who specialized in eliminating the deadliest KGB agents. If the character demonstrated an uncanny ability to find and kill them in the field, it was because he had previously worked for the Soviets as a trainer. Here, he’s been asked to coordinate the search for the assassin who took out a U.S. senator for blocking deals lucrative to Kremlin interests. The killing bears the earmarks of a KGB agent, Cassius, who Gere’s Paul Shepherdson supposedly had killed a dozen years earlier. How could this be?

Shepherdson has been asked by the director (Martin Sheen) to collaborate with a junior agent (Topher Grace), who revers him but may be too young to understand what they’re up against. The stylized killings, which quickly begin to add up, are traced to a group of Russian agents who slipped across the Mexican border undetected, possibly with the help of Border Patrol agents told to look the other way. The search for Cassius leads not only to them, but also to all sorts of other bad guys living in the U.S. illegally. As confusing as things get, Brandt is able to deflect the viewer’s attention from the real threat to American security and stage chases through warehouses and through the streets of Washington (Detroit) that are fun to watch. The bonus package includes commentary with Brandt and writer-producer Derek Haas, who have plenty to say about the difficulties in getting “The Double” made, and set interviews with Gere, Grace, Stephen Moyer, Brandt and Haas. – Gary Dretzka

In Time: Blu-ray
I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to find Philip K. Dick’s name listed among those credited for the screenplay to “In Time.” Instead, the sci-fi thriller was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who’s already given us such speculative fictions as “Gattaca,” “The Truman Show” and “S1m0ne.” The gimmick in his latest picture is straight out of the Dick playbook, though, without being a rip-off or direct homage. In it, the population of parts of the United States has outstripped the country’s ability to provide for the welfare of all citizens. Instead of imposing such draconian population-control regulations as one child per family – as is done in China – a system has been instituted giving everyone an opportunity to live until they’re 25. After that, they must earn the right to accumulate more time on the planet. As a side benefit to contributing to the nation’s economy, by piling up time, physical aging also has been eliminated. Anyone with enough credits to live to 80 will look exactly as they did at 25. Not a bad deal, if you’re rich or crooked. Everyone else lives in constant fear that they’ll lose their job or inflation will diminish the value of their work. They get a free year’s indulgence implanted on a clock implanted in their arms, but time flies and nothing’s free. To purchase a cup of coffee or ride a bus, one is required the arm in a scanner, which deducts the cost in minutes. Time can be added to one’s life in the same way. Once the timer hits zero, the person collapses and dies.

Justin Timberlake’s Will Salas struggles to make do at a minimum-wage job, which he hates but can’t quit. To keep his mother alive, Will is required to purchase more time or barter for it. Before he can do so, however, she dies. Determined to make someone pay for what he determines is a corrupt system — weighted against the poor and middle class — Will begins an investigation that takes him from the lowest rungs of society to the highest. It helps that he’s made a friend out of a suicidal visitor from another “time zone,” who bestows 100 years of time on him. On the downside, Will becomes the target of “time police,” led by Cillian Murphy, who have reasons of their own for controlling such trades. It isn’t long before he runs into a pretty and truly young woman (Amanda Seyfried), whose overprotective 80-year-old father (Vincent Kartheiser, looking 25) controls millions of hours of time and doesn’t want to share it with poor people. Together, Will and the blond spend the second half of the movie evading time cops and thugs hired by her father to maintain the status quo. This may make “In Time” sound ridiculously confusing, but it isn’t. Action fans will be satisfied with the many car chases, most of which seem to take place in Los Angeles’ concrete river beds, and noisy shootouts. The conceit also allowed for Niccol to cast hottie Olivia Wilde as Will’s mother, even though they look as if they could be siblings. (Being PG-13, any suggestions of incest are purely in the dirty little minds of viewers.) The bonus package adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted and alternative scenes, and access to “In Time: The Game” app. – Gary Dretzka

Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection: Blu-ray
RaroVideo has re-released into Blu-ray its quartet of wildly plotted crime thrillers – after 40 years, some viewers might find them darkly comic, as well – by the influential Italian director Fernando Di Leo. The titles include “Caliber 9” (1972), “The Italian Connection” (1972), “The Boss” (1973) and “Rulers of the City” (1976), all of which, we’re told, influenced the movies of Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. Even if the shootouts look as if they were staged by people who never fired a gun or saw film of people being shot, they are too entertaining to hate. Moreover, the actors hired by Di Leo to play gangsters look as if they’ve been recruited from a prison in New Jersey, not through Central Casting. The hi-def transfers were struck from the original 35mm negatives and re-mastered in collaboration with the Venice Film Festival. The boxed set adds a booklet of essays. – Gary Dretzka

Texas Killing Fields: Blu-ray
Movies about serial killers are a dime a dozen these days. To stand out, a really good crime thriller has to have something going for it besides an insane killer and grotesque murders. Even with Michael Mann’s name on the list of credits, as producer, daughter Ami Canaan Mann’s “Texas Killing Fields” failed to inspire any more than an extremely limited release. Set largely at night in the swamps and marshes of eastern Texas (Louisiana), the movie oozes atmosphere and is populated with very good actors: Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sheryl Lee, Annabelle Gish and Jessica Chastain. It was inspired by actual events and looks as if it might have been set in a town where serial killers can escape justice by feeding the bodies and evidence to alligators. Worthington plays a cop with local ties, whose partner is a transplanted New York City police detective. Outsider Brian Heigh (Morgan) becomes obsessed with solving the crimes, even though it’s out of their jurisdiction and he’s been warned that nothing good can come looking too deep into the “killing fields.” Sure enough, the deeper Heigh sticks his nose into the affairs of the locals, the more his life is threatened by rednecks who don’t care what he does for a living. Chastain plays a hard-nose cop from a neighboring town and Lee plays the junkie mom of a sweet and highly independent teenager (Moretz), who always looks as if she’s being dangled as bait for the killer. That’s enough baggage for a TV mini-series, let alone a 105-minute thriller by a second-time director and freshman writer (Don Ferrarone). The Blu-ray comes with commentary by Mann and Ferrarone. – Gary Dretzka

Dead Hooker in a Trunk
Spider Hole

If the masters of exploitation cinema have taught us anything, it’s that a great title will trump negative reviews every time. Likewise, a great tabloid headline (“Headless Body in Topless Bar,” “Ford to City: Drop Dead”) will attract otherwise intelligent readers to a crappy newspaper. “Dead Hooker in a Trunk” is the title of a do-it-yourself horror flick by Jen and Sylvia Soska, who not only co-wrote, co-directed and co-starred, but also are credited as co-producers, set decorators and assistants to the editor and cinematographer. I wouldn’t be surprised if they made PB&J sandwiches for the cast and crew, as well. Unlike the great headlines and titles that point to lousy stories and movies, however, “Dead Hooker in a Trunk” is both a madly inventive parody of slasher flicks and a deliciously dark comedy. If it doesn’t quite reach the bar set by their cinematic hero, Richard Rodriguez, it isn’t for lack of passion and chutzpah. That it hasn’t been seen outside a couple of genre festivals qualifies as a sin.

The plot is simplicity itself. While on a mission to score drugs, three Vancouver riot-grrrls – Junkie, Geek, Badass – discover the body of a blond woman decomposing in the truck of their black Camaro. Having no idea as to how the corpse got there or if they had anything to do with her death, the teenagers enlist the help of a bible-banging relative, Goody Two Shoes, to dispose of it. If only clearing a guilty conscience were that simple. The girls barely can get out of their own ways as they’re confronted by a variety of cops, deviants and lunatics, at least one of whom wields a chainsaw. They’re also stalked by the likely killer of “Hooker,” an evil dude simply referred to as Cowboy Pimp. In the great Grindhouse tradition, too much ain’t enough for the Soskas, who immersed themselves in the books of Stephen King while other girls their age were obsessed with Judy Blume. The blood and gore in “Dead Hooker in a Trunk” may be excessive, but it’s generated with surgical skill and twisted humor. Their debt to Rodriguez is addressed in the casting of Carlos “El Mariachi” Gallardo in the role of God. It’s that kind of movie. The bonus making-of featurette is as free of form as the movie itself and worth a visit.

Until the capture of Saddam Hussein by American troops, I wasn’t aware of the term, “spider hole,” which apparently is military parlance for a hidey-hole used to conceal a single person. In the movie, “Spiderhole,” it refers more to the fact that a group of London squatters has taken up residence inside a boarded-up apartment building that also is home to a few harmless spiders and a sadist in surgeon’s garb. By extending the metaphor, one could argue that the killer lures his prey into his web and devours the trapped victims. Here, the web is the building and the cost-conscious art students are dinner. After a night in their new home, the students awaken to find the doors and windows locked and impenetrable. It’s clear that someone has it out for the squatter, but the fiend is in no hurry to reveal himself. Instead, he toys with the victims before killing them. I doubt that fans of torture porn will find anything revelatory or particularly frightening in “Spiderhole.” The blood is mostly shed off-screen. Even so, it isn’t the worst idea for a slasher film I’ve seen. – Gary Dretzka

Chalet Girl
This unassuming teen rom-com not only doesn’t break any new ground, but the formula already was old when Sally Field, Annette Funicello and Haley Mills were planning their sweet-16 parties. That it keeps popping up decades later only attests to the fact that tweens and teens still dream of beating the odds by impressing a prince, heir or rock star, and changing his mind about marrying the bitchy rich girl his parents have picked out for him. (The same scenario works for boys, but not nearly so often.) In “Chalet Girl,” a 19-year-old “tomboy” from a working-class background lands a job cooking for a family of wealthy skiers in their posh Austrian chalet. That Felicity Jones’ Kim isn’t a gold-digger — unlike her similarly employed friend (Tamin Egerton) — is evidenced by the fact that she’s something of a klutz and a pipsqueak, at least compared to the leggy bombshells who also frequent the chalet. Instead, she bumps into a European ski bum on the slopes and he convinces her that she’s a natural snowboarder. After all, how much more difficult could skiing be for an accomplished skateboarder, as is Kim? An Xtreme snowboard competition is scheduled for later in the season and the prize money could help her dad save his London greasy spoon. Within weeks, Kim has developed the skills necessary to compete at the highest level in her demanding new sport and on the most challenging slope. In the meantime, the heir to the family’s fortune (Ed Westwick, of “Gossip Girl”) has taken a shine to her naiveté and sense of humor, which are in direct contrast to the stick-up-her-butt attitude of his girlfriend (Sophia Bush) and mom (Brooke Shields). “Chalet Girl” rarely, if ever deviates from the well-trod path to a “Cinderella” ending. For girls entering their teens, though, the story won’t feel overly familiar. The crisp mountain air keeps the story from going stale and the actors seem to be enjoying the break from soundstages and smog. I suspect that Jones has more in common with the target audience for “Chalet Girl” than the vast majority of ingénues cast in movies solely for their blond hair and appearance in Victoria’s Secret ads. – Gary Dretzka

Bollywood Beats
It would be interesting to see how some of the top Bollywood dancers would fare in competition on “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing With the Stars.” The moves they display in Indian musicals and videos are fascinating to watch, even without subtitles to explain the lyrics and plot twists. The central character in Mehul Shah’s “Bollywood Beats” is a dance-obsessed teenager caught in the classic struggle between an immigrant son or daughter’s desire to follow their dreams in the New World and their parents’ more pragmatic strategy for success. St. Louis native Sachin Bhatt stars as Raj, a born-to-dance young man whose Indian parents have patiently waited for their son to make good, but now want him to get serious about himself by entering the family business. Raj bargains with his parents to get another six-month grace period, before agreeing to take the job. Although clearly talented, his fusion of hip-hop and Bollywood dance styles has yet to impress casting directors looking for dancers with more marketable skills. He decides to open a school, where amateurs can learn Bollywood steps and lose some weight at the same time. Just when things begin to come together at the school, the students begin experiencing a litany of soap-opera problems at home. They include hypocritical husbands, lack of self-respect, hide-bound traditions and fathers who think all male dancers are gay and, therefore, an insult to them. Before long, though, the students coalesce into an ensemble anxious to impress a panel of Indian judges. A bit more drama ensues, but that can’t be predicted or ruin the predestined ending. The fun comes in watching the dancers grow as individuals and perform as a unit. Fans of the network dance shows are the logical target for “Bollywood Beats.” – Gary Dretzka

Janie Jones
The Other F Word
Last Fast Ride: The Life, Love and Death of a Punk Goddess
What’s the greater disconnect, watching 68-year-old multimillionaire Mick Jagger prancing around a giant stage demanding satisfaction or watching a documentary about punk-rock stars attempting to avoid the mistakes made by their parents, while raising their own children?

Both images are pretty hair-raising, I suppose. “Janie Jones” and “The Other F Word” have a lot in common in the area of child-rearing and musicians’ accepting the realities of age. In the former, a temperamental singer-songwriter freaks out when he’s introduced to the 13-year-old daughter he never knew he had, by a groupie he can’t remember meeting, let alone having unprotected sex. It’s popular male nightmare, especially in the worlds of music and professional sports. Here, the mother of the girl, Janie (Elisabeth Shue and Abigail Breslin, respectively), insists that she couldn’t wait any longer, because she’s strung out, requires lengthy detox and has nowhere else to turn. Even though, the mother isn’t demanding any money from singer Ethan Brand (Alessandro Nivola), he chooses not to believe her. While performing on stage, however, she takes a powder, leaving Janie to her own devices. After the police pick up the girl for vagrancy – and being in a free-fire zone for pimps looking for fresh talent – Ethan reluctantly allows Janie to hop on the bus, heading for the next gig. It doesn’t take long before the singer’s drinking problem blossoms into a full-blown crisis and his band decides not to stick around for the explosion. The rest of “Janie Jones” chronicles how Ethan and Janie’s passion for music – she’s a natural singer-songwriter — ultimately creates a bridge between them. Writer-director David M. Rosenthal (“Falling Up”) has avoided most of the traps inherent in these scenarios, thanks to an unsentimental portrayal of a father and daughter at loose ends and in desperate need of a helping hand. Breslin and Nivola are terrific and Shue is extremely convincing as a junky who missed too many exit signs on the road to rock-’n’-roll hell. Peter Stormare also is good as the band’s seen-it-all manager. Nivola and Breslin sing original music by Gemma Hayes and Eef Barzelay.

The title, “The Other F Word,” refers both to fatherhood and the barrage of F-bombs lobbed during the course of the average punk-rock concert. Among the many ironic twists informing Andrea Blaugrund Nevins’ frequently heart-warming documentary is watching the musicians attempt to balance their anarchic stage personae with the realities of 21st Century parenting. It would have been all too easy for a filmmaker to locate the kids of musicians and ask them what it was like to be raised by rock stars – men and women, both – in a society obsessed with celebrity, wealth and pop culture. For every Jakob Dylan, Miley Cyrus, Stella McCartney and Sean Lennon, there probably are an equal number of train-wreck childhoods. Going blind into “F Word,” I wondered if Nevins anticipated finding a mix of success stories and disasters; tattooed toddlers in leather jackets; musicians too stoned or drunk to remember to pick up the kids at school; and retired-groupie moms in fishnets and industrial-strength mascara. Instead, the parents we meet here lead relatively normal lives with their seemingly normal children, who are encouraged to do their homework and play nice with the other kids at school. The common problems faced by those interviewed in “F Word” is the same one that’s haunted musicians, actors and athletes for more than 100 years. How much damage is done to kids, adults and marriages if a parent is required to spend months at a time on the road, performing and promoting projects? Would even greater problems arise if the parent stayed at home, vegged out and rested on his royalties? Can children be traumatized by a parent’s hairstyle, body ink or attire? Among the musicians interviewed are Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Rise Against the Machine’s Tim McIlrath and Pennywise’s Jim Lindberg, whose band’s anthem is “Fuck Authority.”

On the other hand, not all punk rockers grow old gracefully or can escape the stereotypes of the genre. “Last Fast Ride: The Life, Love and Death of a Punk Goddess” chronicles the troubled personal life and chaotic career of Marion Anderson. Abused as a child by her father, Anderson attempted to escape her pain through drugs, street life and outrageous behavior. After a stint in juvenile detention, she committed herself to a type of music that was as angry and unforgiving as she was. And, for a while, Anderson was able to hold off the demons of bi-polarity. As lead singer of the Bay Area punk group the Insaints, she developed a reputation for acting out her hostility and sexual proclivities on stage. Law-enforcement agencies attempted to shut down her act, of course, but the ACLU took her side in the argument over the limits of artistic expression and won. After moving to Los Angeles, the very pretty Anderson began to moonlight as a fetish model and dominatrix, somewhere along the way acquiring a taste for heroin. Her death didn’t prompt the same media coverage as that of other doomed pop stars, so Lilly Scourtis’ “Last Fast Ride” provides a proper eulogy. Narrated by Henry Rollins, the movie is loaded with interviews, concert footage and the recollections of her family and girlfriend. It’s an interesting portrayal, but one that fits a pattern familiar to other pop idols. – Gary Dretzka

Manhattan/Annie Hall: Blu-ray
Woody Allen: A Documentary

Among the many things for which Woody Allen is widely known is his reluctance to add bonus material and commentaries to his movies as they’re released in video, DVD and Blu-ray. A few years ago, he told a reporter for Total Film, “I’m really not interested. I want my films to speak for themselves. And hopefully they do.” He’s granted many such interviews over the course of his long career, but not the kind of frame-by-frame analysis collectors of laserdiscs, DVDs and Blu-rays relish. The Blu-ray release of “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall” – arguably, his two most popular and enduring titles – once again raises the question as to how Allen managed to resist the temptation to flog his projects. It seems like such fun, after all. Certainly, enough already has been revealed about these two movies, so that commentaries might only serve as the icing on the cake or cherry on the sundae. In a very real sense, “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall” do speak for themselves. “2001: A Space Odyssey,” they’re not. The only real question to be answered, then, is how well the hi-def presentation compares to the theatrical and DVD experience. Very well, thank you. Cinematographer Gordon Willis’ magnificent black-and-white work in “Manhattan” remains transcendent and the studio has decided not to mess arbitrarily with the original audio presentations. That’s enough to recommend them.

Patient admirers of Allen’s films need only wait another two weeks for Robert Weide’s “Woody Allen: A Documentary,” a 191-minute exploration of the artist, his work and influences. Allen is interviewed at length, as are such actors as Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Penelope Cruz, John Cusack, Larry David, Mariel Hemingway, Scarlett Johansson, Julie Kavner, Diane Keaton, Martin Landau, Louise Lasser, Sean Penn, Tony Roberts, Chris Rock, Mira Sorvino, Naomi Watts, Dianne Wiest and Owen Wilson; collaborators Marshall Brickman, Mickey Rose and Doug McGrath; cinematographers Gordon Willis and Vilmos Zsigmond; Allen’s sister and aide, Letty Aronson; longtime manager Jack Rollins; casting director Juliet Taylor; and friends Dick Cavett and Martin Scorsese. Not all of what’s said about Allen is particularly new or revelatory, but all of the pieces add up to a recognizable whole. Allen also opens up a little on his personal life and the controversies that continue to dog him. The documentary takes viewers from Allen’s earliest writing jobs and Marxian comedies, through the highs and lows of his movie career, and to the surprising success of “Midnight in Paris.” It’s a fascinating portrait and not a minute too long. The bonus material on the DVD includes “12 Questions With Woody Allen,” deleted scenes and interview material, and an interview with Weide. – Gary Dretzka

Notorious/Spellbound/Rebecca: Blu-ray
The Apartment: Blu-ray

In the world of Blu-ray, some weeks are better than others. Sure, hardly a week goes by without the release of one or two current hits, sure to top the list of best-selling and best-renting titles. What makes buffs stand up and applaud, though, is the concurrent release of important catalogue classics, which took their own sweet time to arrive, but are in as good a shape as the latest technology allows. This is one of those weeks. It’s pretty tough to beat the near simultaneous releases of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” “Spellbound” and “Notorious”; Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”; and Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall.” The movies speak for themselves as necessary additions to anyone’s library. If not, the duly noted Academy Award nominations and Oscars make the case even clearer. Besides being examples of Hitchcock working at full speed, the movies are populated with such immortal acting talents as Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Claude Rains, Leo G. Carroll and Rhonda Fleming (in her second credited role), as well as the writing of Robert Sherwood and Ben Hecht.

“Rebecca” may be the most significant in that it represents Hitch’s first American-made feature, under notorious meddler/genius David O. Selznick, and the only one of his titles to win the Best Picture Oscar. Adapted from a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, “Rebecca” tells the story of a pretty, if oddly unfashionable young woman (Fontaine) who falls quickly and deeply in love with a filthy-rich older man (Olivier). Their days at the Manderley mansion would become increasingly dark as the clouds of controversy, conspiracy and fear continue to roll in and the specter of the owner’s recently dead wife haunts the narrative throughout.  It’s one of the rare movies in which the suspense continues to build, even as final credits are about to roll. The Blu-ray bonus package adds commentary by Richard Schickel; isolated music and effects tracks; the featurettes, “The Making of ‘Rebecca’” and “The Gothic World of Daphne DuMaurier”; screen tests, including those of Margaret Sullavan and Vivien Leigh; and radio plays; audio interviews with Hitchcock.

“Spellbound” is famous largely for the inclusion of a trippy dream sequence conceived by Salvador Dali. Otherwise, according to Hitchcock, the film is “just another manhunt wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis,” albeit a very enjoyable one. Bergman plays a dedicated psychiatrist, who falls in love with a doctor (Peck) whose true identity is masked by amnesia and abnormal behavior. The police believe him to be a murderer, but the psychiatrist isn’t convinced. “Calling Dr. Freud …” Here, the extras include commentary with film historians Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg; the excellent featurettes, “Running With Scissors: Hitchcock, Surrealism and Salvador Dali,” “Guilt By Association: Psychoanalyzing ‘Spellbound,’” and “A Cinderella Story: Rhonda Fleming”; a 1948 radio play, directed by Hitchcock; and interviews conducted by Peter Bogdanovich.

The spy thriller “Notorious” is many people’s favorite Hitchcock movie, if only because of the steamy post-war romance between an American intelligence officer and the playgirl daughter of a Nazi spy that he recruits to infiltrate a nest of Nazi spies in Brazil. Despite the fact that her father was convicted in court and elected to commit suicide instead of serving time, Alicia Huberman professes a love for America and accepts the challenge. She even agrees to marry a former friend (Rains) of her father and member of a gang of unrepentant Nazis. One of Hitchcock’s tricks here is to give us more information about Alicia than what’s available to her control agent, Devlin (Grant) – who still considers her to be a loose cannon — setting up the possibility of a Shakespearean tragedy. The romantic scenes pushed the borders of the Hollywood Production Code, as did the ambiguity surrounding Alicia’s sexual past. The closer Alicia gets to exposing her true colors to her husband and his fascist mother, the hotter the romance grows between her and Devlin. The broken-bottle scene in the wine cellar is a classic example of how Hitchcock builds tension, without resorting to thriller conventions or superfluous dialogue. The Blu-ray adds commentaries by film professors Rick Jewell and Drew Casper; isolated movie and effects tracks; making-of featurettes, including one on the development of the love scenes; a 1948 radio play with Bergman and Joseph Cotton; a short piece of an AFI honored bestowed on Hitch; and his discussions with Bogdanovich and Francois Truffaut. It amazing that some of the most romantic moments in cinema history have been orchestrated by someone who doesn’t look as if he could get laid in a whorehouse. Discussions about Hitchcock’s often testy relationship with Selznick also are fascinating.

The numbing sameness of factory work has been dramatized in movies for almost as long as there have been movies, with Charles Chaplin’s 1936 “Modern Times” scoring a direct hit on the dehumanizing effects of assembly lines, automation and unsafe conditions in the workplace. In Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” employees of the giant Consolidated Life Insurance Company aren’t much happier than Chaplin’s hapless nut-tightener. The only thing missing in Wilder’s depiction of Consolidated’s vast un-partitioned workspace is an open window, from which the miserable clerks and bean-counters could commit suicide. It’s a miracle that any single drone could be singled out for special duty by the office managers, but C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) benefits from his willingness to allow married senior executives to use his nearby apartment for their trysts with young female employees. To a man, the executives are first-rate cads and exploiters of women who believe their lies about divorcing their wives. Baxter is led to believe that his cooperation could enhance his chance for promotion and, indeed, it does. Even when his bosses begin to abuse the privilege, Baxter literally allows himself to be left out in the cold Manhattan winter, catching a world-beater cold. Shirley MacLaine is wonderful as Fran, the elevator operator who breaks Baxter’s heart when the big boss leaves her at the apartment, despondent and betrayed. He helps her survivea suicide attempt, but is dismayed when Fran leaves herself open to more heartache. C.C. and Fran may be perfectly suited to each other, but it takes more courage than they’re usually able to muster to declare their independence in this often very dark comedy.

Wilder won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay (co-written with longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond). Lemmon and MacLaine were nominated in the Best Actors categories. The Blu-ray package includes the informative commentary of film historian Bruce Block; the featurettes, “Inside ‘The Apartment’” and” Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon,” in which Chris Lemmon discusses the life and career of his father. – Gary Dretzka

Shakespeare in Love: Blu-ray
Radio Inside
Vice Squad
Getting It Right
Up the Creek

With the nomination process behind us for another year, there’s no better time to recall the great upsets in Oscar history. I’m not sure anything would qualify as an upset this time around, although “The Artist” is the current favorite. One of the biggest surprises was the awarding of the Best Picture trophy to “Shakespeare in Love,” and victories for Gwyneth Paltrow, Judi Dench, writers Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, composer Stephen Warbeck, costume designer Sandy Powell and art directors Martin Childs and Jill Quertier. Director John Madden lost out to Steven Spielberg, whose “Saving Private Ryan” was considered to be the prohibitive favorite for more than six months. Most, if not all of the credit for the upset was given to Harvey Weinstein, whose lobbying efforts forever changed the way Oscar campaigns would be organized. It certainly has impacted on the release patterns, which practically ensure that potential Best Picture candidates no longer will open before Thanksgiving. Even if the debate continues, there’s no questioning that “Shakespeare in Love” is a wonderful entertainment. The Blu-ray bonus package includes commentary with Madden alone; a separate track with the commentary of cast and crew members; the post-Oscar featurette, “‘Shakespeare in Love’ and on Film”; deleted scenes; a profile of costume designer Powell; and marketing material.

Radio Inside” is a curious romantic drama from 1994. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t accorded a theatrical release, debuting on VHS four years later. Considering that William McNamara, Elisabeth Shue and Dylan Walsh had yet to emerge as stars, and the subject matter was pretty dark, the studio must have decided not to throw good money after bad. Fact is, it’s pretty good. McNamara plays Matthew, a Midwestern youth who moves to Miami to live with his older brother, Michael (Walsh), after the accidental death of their father. Michael is a genuinely nice guy and devoted brother, whose relationship with his girlfriend, Natalie (Shue), suffers an inability to push himself away from his desk. Matthew’s arrival is convenient in that he and Natalie can keep each other company, while Michael is working overtime or generally running late. Naturally, something happens that brings Matthew and Natalie together in a way that feeds on both of their insecurities. What isn’t predictable, however, is Matthew’s fantastical relationship with Jesus Christ – who is available by phone — and withdrawal into memories of the time he spent with his father in the North Woods. It takes a while to understand the young man’s fear of and fixation with water, but it finally makes sense in a strange sort of way. What truly distinguishes “Radio Inside” from the thousands of other offbeat indies made in the last 20 years is the cinematography of Brian Capener, which shows Miami in a more flattering and meteorologically dramatic light than any other movie I’ve seen. The shots of storm clouds and sunsets, alone, are worth the cost of a rental. The MGM title is available on a manufactured-on-demand basis through Internet retailers. There are no extras.

Other new MOD titles include “Vice Squad,” a 1953 procedural in which Edward G. Robinson plays an LAPD captain “during the course of an ordinary day,” if you consider two police shootings, a bank heist and personal visits from a friendly madam normal. Shot largely on location, the inaccurately titled “Vice Squad” is fun to watch for its nostalgia value, if nothing else.

Released in 1989, “Getting It Right” reminds me of a British version of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” In the place of wild and wacky Steve Carell is Jesse Birdsall, a subdued London hairdresser whose sexual awakening is sparked by eccentrics played by Lynn Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter and Jane Horroks. John Gielgud and Peter Cook also have memorable turns in this very British comedy.

Up the Creek” is a wildly uneven comedy from the Golden Age of gross-out and slob movies. Six years after “Animal House,” Tim Matheson and Stephen Furst are still in no hurry to graduate college, if only because they’re having too much fun and don’t feel any obligation to study. The dean (John Hillerman) is so anxious to see them leave that he offers them the degree of their choice if they win an annual collegiate white-water rafting competition against teams of stereotypical jocks, ROTC geeks, fraternity thugs, sorority sluts and other undergraduate misfits from other schools. If “Up the Creek” isn’t nearly as funny as “Animal House,” it’s because the writers don’t appear to have had any association with the National Lampoon. “Porky’s” regular Dan Monahan also is part of the home team.

Christopher Reeve took on “Monsignor” in the hiatus between the second and third installments of “Superman.” Its status as one of Hollywood’s great turkeys – on a dollar-for-dollar, frame-by-frame basis, anyway – isn’t mentioned in the notes on the DVD cover, but its notoriety is the only possible reason the rascals at Shout! Factory would release it some 30 years later. Reeve is an American priest and war hero, whose rise in the Catholic Church is greased by his dealings with the Mafia and other shady businessmen. The most notorious moments occur when he breaks his vow of celibacy with a nun played by Geneviève Bujold, and who could blame him? There no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles
The Toynbee Tiles are the stuff that urban myths are made of … or would be if they weren’t so prevalent and well recorded by cultists and pop-culture historians. For the uninitiated, the tiles have been found embedded in roadways across much of the United States and several South American capitals. Each placard carries the words, “TOYNBEE IDEA/IN Kubrick’s 2001/RESURRECT DEAD/ON PLANET JUPITER,” or some variation of them. What they mean precisely can’t be known for sure because the perpetrator of the phenomenon has yet to be identified with any certainty, although the producers of “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles” have found a couple of likely candidates. The most common theory holds that the messages refer to theories by historian Arnold Toynbee about death and resurrection and their relation to the “Space Baby” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The mystery has attracted the kind of attention usually reserved for crop circles, the JFK assassination, Trilateral Commission and Elvis Sightings. Jon Foy’s documentary addresses the history of the tiles and the many theories surrounding them. There’s a photo gallery of the tiles, which are all slightly different, as well as other bonus material. – Gary Dretzka

Electric Daisy Carnival Experience
Imagine coming home from work one day and seeing a Big Top on one end of your street, one sidewalk filled with midway attractions and the other lined with food trucks. In between them, several thousand people are wandering around waiting for the circus to begin. That’s kind of how I felt while watching “Electric Daisy Carnival Experience,” a DVD chronicling an annual two-day dance-music party held at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 2010. Here were tens of thousands of young men and women, seemingly from around the world, gyrating to the pulsating sounds of house, dance and electronic music, delivered by the some of the genre’s most popular deejays. There was a Ferris wheel on one end of the field and a giant stage dominated by a single “spinner,” his mix kit and a bunch of sexy clowns on the other. How come I wasn’t invited? Probably because I would have passed out and died after the first six hours of jumping up and down while wearing some insane costume and candy-chain bracelets. These sorts of parties have been going on for years in Europe, where a large part of the underground economy is fueled by Ecstasy sales. Here, the parties have been smaller, more impromptu affairs. Apparently, though, the sheer magnitude of the 2010 “EDCE” surprised even seasoned deejays and promoters. A veritable horde of peaceful young freaks filled the football field and much of the grandstands; dozens of clowns and acrobats performed; and a couple dozens of deejays entertained the throng estimated at 100,000. Among those represented in the DVD are Steve Aoki, Moby,, Laidback Luke, MSTRKRFT, Skrillex, Travis Barker vs A-Trak and a bunch of acts my kids would recognize, but I don’t. The “EDCE” film is a first-class, no-expenses-spared effort. It looks great on 2D, too. – Gary Dretzka

Hunted by Night

Unless one is a bow-hunter, the thrills in “Hunted by Night” are pretty much limited to watching Cuban-American heartthrob and People magazine coverboy Jencarlos Canela almost single-handedly wipe out a small army of cocaine traffickers and their stooges. The action begins in the Florida Everglades, where three friends are spending a few days hunting deer with high-tech bows and arrows. When one of the men spies a low-flying plane dropping bales of blow on what appears to be a designated pickup spot, we almost are able to see dollar signs emerging from a cartoon balloon over his head. He manages to convince one of his buddies to go along with his plan to rip-off the cartel, but is less successful with the hunter played by Canela, who senses a disaster waiting to happen. Within hours, a posse of heavily armed Hispanics shows up in their swamp buggies and Escalades, anxious to pick up the packages and ruin the lives of school children and fashion models across the U.S. of A. Instead of cocaine, they find a misplaced arrow, which, of course, leads them to the hunters. The remaining 90 minutes of the movie are taken over by chases, ambushes, shootouts, martial-arts action and well-placed arrows with razor-sharp broadheads. Did I mention that the extremely buff Canela also is a world-class kick-boxer? Anyway, that kind of wraps up what happens in “Hunted by Night.” The action is very good, but I would have expected veteran stuntman and freshman director Juan C. Bofill to up the ante by adding some alligators, man-eating pythons and cougars to the cast.

When was the last time you saw a movie about illegal cigarette trafficking in the ’hood? Yeah, me neither. If the idea sounds appealing, check out “Podnah,” a do-it-yourself crime story directed by Darrell Smith and written by Kyron Hodges, a self-admitted graduate of the New York State Correctional Facility and budding multimedia magnate. “Podnah” appears to have been drawn from Hodges’ personal experiences in the cigarette trade, at least until, “the feds got jealous.” Hodges also stars in the micro-budget indie, which offers a thug’s-eye view of the life in the criminal underworld. It isn’t pretty, but “Podnah” does deliver some cheap thrills. – Gary Dretzka

Tabitha’s Salon Takeover: Complete Season 2
The Rachel Zoe Project: eason 4
The Real Housewives of Orange County: Season 5
Ancient Aliens: Season Three

For most of its first 20 years of existence, the Bravo network was known as a repository for shows highlighting the performing arts, drama, British television serials and independent film. For the past 10, it’s been a testing ground for reality-based shows no sane person could have imagined in the early days of cable television. The changeover began in 2003, with the unlikely success of the fashion-makeover series, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” It would spawn such kindred shows as “Project Runway” and “Real Housewives.” For those too poor (or snooty) to afford a cable subscription, Bravo Media makes available full-season collections of all of its original programming. Generally speaking, these compilations pop up a week or two before the launch of a show’s new season, adding the reunion specials, confrontations between the shows’ stars and added footage.

In the case of “Tabatha’s Salon Takeover,” there’s been a bit of a lag between the newly begun Season 4 and release of the Season 2 collection. Aussie salon owner and former “Shear Genius” contestant Tabatha Coffey has been assigned the task of rescuing businesses that are on the brink of disaster and consoling employees at loose ends. In Season 2, the blond-tressed, black-clad fashion dominatrix visited 10 salons in Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. In doing so, she takes over control of the facility and makes all the difficult decisions. If only she could do the same thing with Congress.

Also available in an exclusive deal with Target are “Real Housewives of Orange County: Season 6” and “The Rachel Zoe Project: Season 4.” When, in 2006, the SoCal housewives found a ready audience for their bad behavior and pathetic addiction to consumerism, it was inevitable that groups of similarly spoiled MILFs would be found in other major American cities, including New York, Washington, Beverly Hills, New Jersey, Miami and Atlanta. (There also are spinoffs in Athens, Israel, Brazil and Vancouver.) In Season 5 Alexis Bellino replaces original housewife Jeana Keough. Tamra and Simon are feuding and Lynne and her family facing eviction. The widow Gretchen has begun dating Slade, the slimeball once engaged to Jo De La Rosa.

Rachel Zoe began her television life as a much-in-demand stylist to the stars. What, you think celebrities could dress and accessorize that hideously on their own? The series now is more about the otherwise talentless Zoe, her staff, family and ancillary businesses than her celebrity clients. In the fourth stanza, Zoe and Roger appear to have settled their differences and she’s six months pregnant. If a baby can’t slow Zoe down, as her husband has requested, what hope is there for her wannabes? Former aide Brad Goreski now has a series of his own, “It’s a Brad, Brad World,” which, of course, is on Bravo.

Meanwhile, over on the History Channel, Season 3 opened with a nod to the newly released sci-fi Western, “Cowboys & Aliens,” in that the show explores Native American myths and visits a cemetery, where, in 1897, an “ancient astronaut” is rumored to have been buried. It also examines how genetics, religions, cults and our Founding Fathers might have been influenced by alien contacts. It’s worth mentioning, here, that shipwreck finders recently found what they believe to be one or two UFO’s 300 feet below the surface of the Baltic Sea. With news like that, “Ancient Aliens” could run forever. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Real Steel, Whistleblower, 8 more

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

Real Steel: Blu-ray
I was a little surprised at how much fun I had watching “Real Steel,” a very expensive movie about robotic boxers that basically combines the entire “Rocky” saga with the venerable children’s toy, “Rock’em, Sock’em, Robots.” The story’s large heart, though, can be attributed to fantasist Richard Matheson, who, in 1956, wrote the short story “Steel,” which would be adapted for “Twilight Zone” and nearly 50 years later as “Real Steel.” Not being aware of the screenplay’s provenance ahead of time, I actually found myself wondering if the entirety of Shawn Levy’s movie could have been compressed into a single half-hour episode of the landmark sci-fi series. Apparently, yes. Fact is, there are very few of the show’s gem-quality episodes that couldn’t have been expanded into feature films. By adding a hundred more minutes and a lot more dough to Matheson’s concept, Levy and writers John Gatins, Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven were able to take the “Rocky” conceit and embellish it with sub-plots involving father-son bonding, the evils of gambling and booze, and the redemptive power of love. Toss in the Spielbergian notion that kids are inherently smarter than adults and, voila, you have “Real Steel.”

When we meet sideshow hustler Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), two significant changes are about to occur in his life. First, he’ll lose a large bet on a fight pitting his robot against another boxer owned by his longtime nemesis. (It’s not the robots fault that Charlie took his eye off the prize at the wrong moment.) Second, he’ll learn that a woman and son he abandoned long ago have died and he’s being asked to sign away his rights of parenthood to her sister. Charlie has no emotional ties to the boy, so he happily agrees to accept a payment in return for his signature. With the money in hand, he’ll be able to buy another pugilist and get back on the circuit. What neither he nor Aunt Debra (Hope Davis) have taken into consideration, however, is that Max (Dakota Goyo) is a huge fan of robot boxing and, in fact, knows more about the sport than Kenton. An unlikely compromise is reached when Charlie agrees to let Max travel with him during the summer, while Debra and her husband are enjoying a romantic sojourn in Italy. Charlie is skeptical, but the kid almost immediately saves his dad’s ass by getting a Japanese-built replacement robot to understand English commands. Anyone familiar with “Rocky” probably could guess what transpires in the next 90 minutes, but why spoil the fun?

Everyone in the movie looks as if they belong there, except Jackman, whose Charlie Keaton is altogether too soft and unscarred to be a broken-down boxer and hard-drinking grease monkey. Kids who only know the Aussie actor through his “Wolverine” persona won’t mind the discrepancy, however. It allows Levy to give Charlie a beyond-gorgeous girlfriend (Evangeline Lilly) and a crowd-pleasing personality, when he suddenly manages to sober up. In any case, the real stars of the movie are the robots, none of whom is made to look as if it were manufactured inside by computer software. Their boxing talent was enhanced by Levy’s decision to hire Sugar Ray Leonard to supervise the actors involved in the motion-capture process. Thus, the fights in “Real Steel” pack a more realistic punch than those choreographed for the fighting games I’ve seen in arcades. Moreover, the gigantic robots are given personalities that shine through their metal face-plates. The Blu-ray featurettes include several instructive making-of mini-docs, including breakdowns of the highly complex robot-junkyard scene and Leonard’s contributions to the film. There’s a mockumentary in which actors remain in character to discuss Charlie, Max and the heroic robot, Atom; bloopers and deleted scenes; a DVD and digital copy; and Second Screen, which allows viewers to use their computers to interact with the movie. – Gary Dretzka

The Whistleblower: Blu-ray
The old adage about war and conquest, “To the victors go the spoils,” doesn’t necessarily apply to contemporary conflagrations. Today’s combatants don’t wait for a truce to be called before they begin to rape innocent women and children, and there’s rarely anything left of the countryside and coffers worth plundering. In many cases, it’s never really clear who, in fact, benefitted most from the wars or whether the ceasefires were merely a ruse. In “The Whistleblower,” a woman cop from Nebraska agrees to become a “peacekeeper” in just such a situation. At the time the movie was set, Bosnia was in shambles and combatants on all three sides of the fight continued to hate the others and sabotage efforts for a lasting peace. Indeed, peacekeeping forces still are based in the region to keep the sides separated. In return for a tidy sum of much-needed money, Nebraska cop Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) agreed to go to Bosnia, where her training could be used to track down war criminals, rapists and common crooks, alike. The black market was thriving, as it does in all wars, and old scores were still be settled. Bolkovac had seen terrible things as a police officer, but nothing could have prepared her for what she found in Bosnia. Like most outsiders, the single mother had assumed that anything done in the name of the United Nations would be aboveboard and humanitarian. It wasn’t until she began using her investigative skills to track down those responsible for the beatings of a pair of young prostitutes that Bolkovac understood that her concept of justice had little to do with peacekeeping. Within days of her arriving in Sarajevo, she was made aware of a club in the mountains that was equal parts brothel, tavern and torture chamber. The girls had been kidnapped from their homes in cities previously policed by Soviet-trained police and troops. With the collapse of the Iron Curtain, traffickers in everything from cigarettes to human beings had filled the vacuum left by no-nonsense law-enforcement techniques. (If anyone were going to profit from criminal enterprise, it would be the Politburo and local apparatchiks.) Moreover, there was a ready market for contraband in the west.

Even though Bolkovac had collected the evidence needed to arrest the people responsible for the girls’ beatings and enslavement, she was greeted with both indifference and outright resistance in nearly every office she entered. She was told that such matters weren’t covered by the UN mandate and, in Bosnia, evidence and witnesses tended to disappear into thin air. As soon as a brothel was closed, it somehow managed to reopen within a few days. It wasn’t until Bolkovac discovered that employees of companies contracted by the UN – and tangentially the U.S. State Department – had been profiting from the trafficking that she knew what she was up against. It’s a simple enough scenario, really. Corruption is an equal-opportunity disease and it feeds on poverty and despair. Trafficking has become so common that prostitutes from eastern European are as easy to find as foreign-exchange students in places like New York and Las Vegas, the capitals of Europe, Israel and morally lax Arab sheikdoms. It also has become a staple of TV crime dramas. Our inability to stop it borders on the mysterious. In her debut feature, Larysa Kondracki does a nice job replicating war-torn Bosnia and setting the table for a first-rate thriller. A Canadian of Ukrainian background, she was well aware of the epidemic of human trafficking in Eastern Europe.  She also spent time with Bolkovac, now living in Amsterdam, whose memoirs shone a spotlight on the widespread corruption among UN employees and private contractors (none of whom have faced trial). It is a little bit difficult to buy Weisz as an unarmed peacekeeper, willing and able to stand up to the most heinous of criminals, but that’s only because of her physical stature, not her acting. As dark and pessimistic a movie as it is, “The Whistleblower” works both as a thriller and indictment of serious criminality. The Blu-ray edition features interviews with key cast members – Vanessa Redgrave, Monica Bellucci, David Strathairn – and the people they represented in the film. – Gary Dretzka

Paranormal Activity 3: Blu-ray
First, a confession: when I watch scary movies at home, I leave the lights on. I do the same thing while screening most other DVDs, but in the case of horror movies, at least, a bright fluorescent light tends to dull some of the edge on the knives. Being, at heart, something of chicken, I probably would have avoided the “Paranormal Activity” films in the theater entirely. Even in the light of day, however, they still retain much of their ability to shock and disturb. “Paranormal Activity 3” opens in 2005, with Katie and Kristie Rey rediscovering a box of long-forgotten cassettes in a closet. Immediately, the movie flashes back to 1988, when the same women were wee lasses and have only just begun to realize they’re different than other kids. Among other things, they don’t seem to mind the presence of ghosts in their bedroom, toy bears that talk back to them or, just for kicks, frightening their parents half to death. As usual, we are made aware of what happens in their Carlsbad house through the eye of strategically placed camcorders. Here, one is even mounted on an oscillating fan, so it can repeatedly move from one room to another. All hell can be breaking out in the kitchen, for example, while the living room is even quieter than a mouse.

Fans of the series already know not to take their eyes off the grainy monitor or dismiss what’s visible along the edges of the frame. It’s especially true for “PA3,” because that’s where directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (“Catfish”) enjoy introducing their surprises. Not all of them are terribly subtle, either. As the alternately cute and creepy girls, Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler are always fun to watch. They make it easy to believe that something abnormal is going on their room and they’re willing to protect the spirit’s secrets. What keeps us guessing, though, is the degree of threat the ghost actually poses, if any. Maybe, it’s a friendly ghost, like Casper. The Blu-ray edition adds a short “Scare Montage,” a long and short version, a commercial for Dennis’ wedding-photography business, and digital, UV and DVD options. – Gary Dretzka

Hell and Back Again: Blu-ray
Essential Killing

There is moment in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Hell and Back Again” when almost everything that’s wrong and right about our presence in Afghanistan becomes crystal clear. It comes during the 2009 assault by U.S. Marines on Taliban strongholds in the country’s yet-to-be-pacified Helmand Province. Men and women with Company E, Second Battalion, of the Eighth Marines had been helicoptered into the region, with orders to clear the enemy from villages being used as shelters and for storing weapons and other supplies. In addition to eliminating the Taliban from the area, the marines were instructed to explain the mission to town elders and assure them of America’s desire to bring peace and democracy to the region. The officer in charge was stunned to hear that, to a man, they would prefer it if all outsiders simply left their towns and left them alone. (“If you really want to help us, why don’t you leave?,” appeared to be the consensus opinion.) They were pissed off that the Americans had instructed all of the residents to leave their homes, some of which would be ransacked in the search for weapons, and they couldn’t plant their crops. The elders weren’t belligerent and they demonstrated no sympathy with the Taliban, but they’d had enough of the war and didn’t care who knew it. Not trained in the arts of debate or negotiation, the marine could do little more than apologize for the trashed houses, explain why it happened and promise reimbursements for the damage. Apart from that, the marines had their duties to perform and weren’t anxious to stand around any longer waiting for the insurgents to zero in on their positions. Given their druthers, the Americans would have preferred to be home, too. Instead, they’re stuck fighting an enemy they can’t see, won’t surrender and aren’t able to obliterate with bombs because any accidental civilian casualties could produce another public-relations nightmare. Apparently, building a democracy in this tribal backwater wasn’t high on anyone else’s list of priorities.

Photographer and documentarian Danfung Dennis was embedded with Company E as it carved its way slowly through the countryside. Even though, like the marines, he constantly put himself in harm’s way during the mission, Dennis was able to capture remarkable images of the marines in combat and while preparing for it. Not only would “Hell and Back Again” demonstrate to viewers back home the courage and dedication of American forces in Afghanistan, but also some of the obstacles to peace and democracy. After returning home, he learned that his closest friend in the unit, Sgt. Nathan Harris, had been seriously wounded and would require at least a year’s worth of therapy to regain his ability to walk, again. Dennis cuts back and forth between scenes of the fighting in Afghanistan and Harris’ home life. The 26-year-old North Carolinian had been in his third tour of duty and desperately wants to return to action after he heals, which doesn’t seem likely. Harris is in great pain and the medication he takes often blurs his consciousness. If it weren’t for the devotion and loving care administered by his wife, he might have turned one of his ever-present handguns on himself. Watching local residents go about their daily business as if Americans weren’t fighting and dying halfway around the world greatly depressed him, as well. Politics aren’t discussed in either location and, unlike the conscripts in Vietnam, these professional warriors don’t appear to be alienated from brass in Afghanistan or at the Pentagon. “Hell and Back Again” is a remarkable documentary, impressively shot and deeply affecting. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Dennis and editor Fiona Otway; a demonstration of the technical equipment; a music video of Willie Nelson’s “Hell and Back”; featurettes in which family members are coached on what to expect when their relatives return from the front and what injured marines need to know about their rehabilitation; deleted scenes; and a PSA for the outreach group, Blue Star Families.

Although Vincent Gallo plays an escaped Taliban prisoner in Jerzy Skolimowski’s exciting survival drama, “Essential Killing,” no one appears to be making any obvious points about what’s happening in the war. Any Boy Scout already knows that survival in the wild often requires the adoption of skills better suited to animals. Neither is it a secret that, once cornered, a man or an animal will do take out the enemy. Still, no one in “Essential Killing” would be where they are if it weren’t for the war in Afghanistan. After killing three Americans in the rocky badlands of Israel-for-Afghanistan, Gallo’s Mohammed is nearly blown to smithereens by a missile shot from a helicopter. He survives the blast but has lost his hearing, which becomes a problem when he’s interrogated by a CIA type demanding answers to questions he can’t comprehend. Neither does waterboarding make communications with the mute prisoner any easier. While being transported from one secret detention center in Europe to another, the vehicle in which he’s seated swerves to avoid some wild pigs and tumbles down a rugged cliff. Before the truck bursts into flame, the handcuffed prisoner escapes into the woods, which are covered by a thick coat of snow. The rest of this brisk, 83-minute thriller follows Mohammed as he attempts to reach something approaching sanctuary. The mountains are rugged, the ground and rivers are frozen over and it isn’t long before helicopters and wolves are hot on his trail. His escape is further impeded by an inconveniently placed animal trap, into which he steps. (Blessedly he isn’t required to chew off his ankle to escape it.) There’s more, but the surprises are best left unspoiled.

For their efforts, Skolimowski and Gallo both won major awards at the Venice Film Festival. In an interview with the director included in the DVD, Skolimowski describes just how difficult it was to shoot “Essential Killing” in minus-30-degree temperatures and in the forbidding mountains of Norway and Poland. As far as I can tell, the movie was only shown in the U.S. at a Polish Film Festival. Fans of action and adventure shouldn’t miss it on DVD. – Gary Dretzka

The Moment of Truth: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Given most Americans’ revulsion toward the “sport” of bullfighting, it’s entirely likely that the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of “The Moment of Truth” will go largely unseen, as it was in 1965 when it made only a brief stop in New York. Even if one cared to market Francesco Rosi’s masterpiece as “The Greatest Movie About Bullfighting” ever made, which it probably is, they’d only be risking the consequences of pissing off the actresses who pose naked for PETA ads and Humane Society activists. Film buffs, however, could easily find other reasons to watch “The Moment of Truth,” even they’re opponents of blood sports and leather shoes. Rosi’s docu-drama uses bullfighting as an entry point in his search for the soul of a country, Spain, and the heart of a champion, Miguel Mateo (a.k.a., Miguelin). The splendidly photographed movie alternates between scenes constructed to advance the story of a young peasant’s rise from obscurity to superstardom and documentary footage of Spanish religious festivals and the rituals attendant to bullfighting. It does not avoid the violence and gore of the corrida, mostly inflicted on the bulls and horses ridden by picadors, but occasionally to humans, as well. Indeed, it practically rubs our noses in it, allowing us to make our own judgments about the pastime and people who watch and profit from it. As such, “Moment of Truth” could only have been attempted by someone not carrying baggage to the set each day. Strapped for time and money, the Neapolitan filmmaker Rosi — one of the lesser-known post-WWII neo-realists outside Europe — elected to shoot the events as they happened and absent such safety nets as stunt doubles and rehearsals. It helped mightily that cinematographer Pasqualino De Santi’s was able to locate a lens capable of delivering nearly crystal-clear images of the fans and fighting from long distances.

We’re introduced to Miguelin in Pamplona as he weaves his way through the crowd of knuckleheads attempting to outrun bulls and steers to the city’s Plaza de Toros. More interesting than the “running of the bulls,” however, is the pageantry associated with the carrying of the medieval statue of Saint Fermin through the narrow streets of the oldest part of Pamplona. The procession is accompanied by dancers, gigantes, cabezudos and other street performers. From there, Miguelin visits his parents in an impoverished farming community, telling them that he’ll be seeking his fortune in Barcelona. After drifting through various odd jobs, he discovers a school for aspiring bullfighters, not unlike the many martial-arts facilities found in otherwise empty storefronts and strip malls in the U.S. Naturally full of himself and itching for fame, Miguelin startles the great matador El Cordobes by jumping into the ring in street clothes and mocking the bull being fought. It makes him an instant star. From here, Rosi dramatizes the courting of Miguelin by agents, promoters, fans and jet setters. Typically, the late nights and adoration do very little to enhance the torero’s performance in the ring, which swiftly evolves from unconventional to foolhardy. If the movie ends in tragedy, at least it’s of the operatic variety. The Criterion Collection’s high-definition digital restoration makes “Moment of Truth” look as good as if it were new. The Blu-ray includes an informative interview with Rosi, conducted in 2004, and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Peter Matthews. Again, the bullfighting scenes are pretty tough to take. Anyone who made it through Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” however, probably will make it through “Moment of Truth” without fainting. It’s worth the effort. – Gary Dretzka

Wings: Blu-ray
William Wellman’s terrifically entertaining and still exciting “Wings” often is mischaracterized as the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. In fact, it was honored as the Best Picture, Production, with “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” taking home the trophy for Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production. Consolidated a year later for the purposes of bestowing a less specific Best Picture award, the categories would make even greater sense today, when fragile arthouse films continually butt heads with mega-budget projects intended to sell lots of popcorn. (And, even then, a superior entertainment such as “Harry Potter” can’t crack the Top 10.) No matter, in 1927, both “Wings” and “Sunrise” deserved their Best Picture nods and continue to entertain DVD and Blu-ray viewers, lo these 80-plus years later. The story of “Wings” can easily be boiled down to that of two men who have gone to war and the girl they both leave behind. It’s a formula that’s served Hollywood for decades, to varying degrees of artistic quality. Here, though, Wellman based much of what happens on his experiences in World War I, when he flew combat missions for the French Foreign Legion and, later, trained pilots for the Army Air Corps. Among other things, it added to the verisimilitude of scenes in which planes fought like dogs in the skies, while, simultaneously, ground troops skirmished on the ground. Given the presence of Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen and Gary Cooper, the romance pretty much took care of itself. The nicely restored Blu-ray version adds the hi-def featurettes, “Wings: Grandeur in the Sky,” “Restoring the Power and Beauty of ‘Wings’” and “Dogfight,” all of which are worth the time to explore. – Gary Dretzka

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Adventure
Elvis Found Alive

Roger Corman’s Cult Classic’s Lethal Ladies Collection, Vol. 2

Don’t you just hate it when you miss an entire fad or a decade-long trend goes by without you? That’s how I felt when I picked up “Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Adventure” and realized that I was completely ignorant of one of the great cultural sensations of the 1980s and ’90s. In effect, Matthew Bates’ highly enjoyable documentary allowed me to jump on a bandwagon that long ago passed me by. Just as the Maysles Brothers and D.A. Pennebaker revolutionized the way American documentaries were made in the 1960s with cinéma vérité, in 1987 “Shut Up Little Man” wrote the book on something called audio vérité. That was when a couple of guys from the Midwest moved into an apartment building in San Francisco and couldn’t help eavesdropping on the nightly rants of their boozehound neighbors, Peter and Raymond. Their tirades were so loud – and strangely entertaining — they kept Wisconsin ex-pats Mitch Deprey and Eddie Guerriero up all night. The first thing they did after having their neighbor’s door shut in their face was to rig up a microphone to record the arguments, during which Peter repeatedly demanded, “Shut up, little man,” of his roommate. The profanities were delivered with a cadence and forcefulness that recalled Charles Bukowski and several of R. Crumb’s nastier characters. After a while, Mitch and Eddie began inviting people over to listen to the arguments and sharing tapes with friends. They, in turn, passed the tapes along to friends who worked in radio, the theater and ’zines. It became such a phenomenon that, without the young men even knowing it, their tapes were being transcribed and turned into plays, comic books and cold readings. The new documentary begins by describing Peter and Raymond’s spiels and explaining Mitch and Eddie’s methodology. Bates goes on to chronicle the legal machinations involving copyright issues and royalties. It then describes his own attempts to find Peter and another occasionally heard friend and get them to sign releases, possibly paying them some money in return. Nearly 20 years later, Peter wasn’t aware that anyone had been listening to their fights, let alone the viral spread of the tapes. “Shut Up Little Man” goes on speculate on how much of an impact such examples of audio vérité would have on such upcoming social media as You Tube and Facebook. It’s fascinating stuff.

Elvis Found Alive” is a profoundly strange and surprising well-made mockumentary about one man’s search for truth in the death of Elvis Presley. Even though the title of Joel Gilbert’s film suggests that the DVD might merely be compendium of sightings at convenience stores and gas stations, it treats the possibility of Elvis’ life after apparent death straight as an arrow. As such, it reminds me of Neil Burger’s “Interview With the Assassin” and Niels Mueller’s “The Assassination of Richard Nixon.” As the story goes, Gilbert was so moved by a pilgrimage to Graceland, he decided to use the FOIA to request the King’s FBI files. Although they arrived heavily redacted, the ink was barely dry and easily removed. What convinced Gilbert that something fishy might be going on was the frequent mention of Elvis’ alias, Jon Burrows. From there, it was rather easy to locate a Jon Burrows residence in Simi Valley, California, and, as luck would have it, the owner was in a mood to reminisce, if only in shadow. Apparently, Elvis’ undercover work for the DEA targeted key individuals – Bill Ayers and Joey Gallo, among them — in the Weather Underground and Italian mob. Even with the protection of the Memphis Mafia, Elvis was told there was a contract on his life and it was to be taken seriously. His death and funeral were elaborately stage and he’s been underground ever since. The other big revelation is that Elvis’ obsession with law enforcement and the American way derived from nearly a lifetime of reading Captain Marvel Jr. and modeling his public persona on the character.

The Arena,” “Cover Girl Models” and “Fly Me” are three of Roger Corman’s sexiest and most outrageously entertaining releases. They also comprise the second volume of “Roger Corman’s Cult Classic’s Lethal Ladies Collection” from Shout! Factory. Released in 1974 and starring the great Pam Grier and and Margaret Markov (“Black Mama, White Mama”), “The Arena” (a.k.a., “Naked Warriors”) is a dead-ringer for the Showtime’s version of “Spartacus,” right down to the many large-breasted gladiators. It was directed by Steve Carver, who also shaped the skin-tastic Corman actioners “Big Bad Mama” and “Capone.” After a colossal food fight between slaves, the powers that be in Rome decide to give spectators something different: female gladiators. Naturally, once the ladies agree to join forces, an uprising is organized. The mix of sex and violence against women might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the context makes up for lots of sins.

In the extremely goofy and remarkably similar “Cover Girl Models” and “Fly Me,” sexy supermodels and flight attendants get caught up in dangerous games of spy-vs.-spy. This being the early 1970s, there’s plenty of kung fu action and horrifying fashions. Both were shot on location in Hong Kong, the Philippines and L.A., which explains the cheapo sets and subpar acting, even for a Corman flick. Look for the names of future big shots Joe Dante and Jonathan Demme in the credits roll. — Gary Dretzka

The Confession
Starring John Hurt and Keifer Sutherland, “The Confession” began its cinematic life on the Internet and Hulu as nine short weekly chapters in a 70-minute psychological thriller. Hurt plays a priest who is forced at gunpoint to hear the confession of a professional hitman. After admitting that he’s just killed a man and his last confession was, well, never, Sutherland’s assassin engages the priest in a debate about the existence of God and his relevance in a world filled with pain. He describes in detail other hits, during which he displayed a semblance of mercy toward some of the intended victims. As the hitman’s confession progresses, we sense something below the surface is struggling to get out. I won’t say what it is, but the foundation for the revelation is well laid. The webisode format isn’t a perfect fit for a feature film. Here the episode breaks are anything but seamless, for example. There’s no faulting the acting, though. Both Hurt and Sutherland approach the material as they might a two-man play off-Broadway. The bonus features add three more chapters, which take the story out of the confessional, and interviews about the webisode process. – Gary Dretzka

Ostensibly an exercise in torture porn and found-footage horror, “Undocumented” describes in vivid, often disgustingly graphic detail what could happen if the right-wing fundamentalists running for the presidency convinced voters that illegal immigrants and undocumented workers were subhuman and worthy of being hunted down like terrorists. Even a president’s tacit approval of allowing armed militias to patrol our borders — rounding up or killing anyone whose neck is darker than red — could promote Old West-style vigilantism and a return to lynching as a law-enforcement option.  In “Undocumented,” militia members have constructed their own temporary holding pens and inflict their own forms of punishment on border-crossers. If that doesn’t sound particularly horrific, I dare you to watch “Undocumented” and try keep your eyes from turning away from the screen even once. In it, a team of gringo documentary makers attempt to follow a group of poor Mexicans who have hired a “coyote” to help them cross the border. It would be a dangerous mission by any journalist’s standards, but the necessity to occasionally use lights to record their movements doubles the risk. Factor in a pack of blood-thirsty vigilantes and it becomes horror. I won’t spoil anyone’s, er, enjoyment of the movie by revealing any of the punishments exacted on the illegals caught within hours of entering the U.S., but, take my word for it, they border on the hyper-realistic. First-time director/co-writer Chris Peckover requires of the documentary makers that they film the tortures as they’re being applied and record the rants of the militia leaders. It’s their intention to ship the tapes to television stations across Mexico as an example of what awaits illegal immigrants in the Land of the Free. It’s a reasonable premise for a horror movie, no matter how difficult it is to watch. “Undocumented” also is competently produced, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find Peckover’s name on future credit rolls. – Gary Dretzka

As insidious a practice as it is, audiences have shown a willingness to buy into the notion that art forgery is a romantic pursuit and the saps who make the mistake of buying fakes are too wealthy to pity. If the direct-to-DVD “Fake” doesn’t break much new ground on the subject, it’s at least able to keep viewers guessing as to where, when and how master forger Daniel Jakor will be made to pay for his crimes. Insulted by the attention paid to a classmate whose work he considers to be inferior, Jakor (Gabriel Mann) decides to demonstrate how easy it is to emulate the same style. What begins as a stunt, however, becomes a profession when important gallery owners insist on paying him handsomely for the paintings he explains were given to him by the artist. His art-authenticator girlfriend, Kelly (Jill Flint), admonishes him and threatens to leave if he doesn’t quit. By now, though, he’s hooked. Jakor has learned to copy the work of far more famous painters and, anyway, the money’s good. After they split up, he disappears into the criminal underground, reinventing himself as he goes along. Eventually, he finds himself in the unenviable position of being indebted to an unethical gallery owner who thinks he can deceive a mobster with an appreciation for art. At the same time, Kelly has forged a relationship with a misplaced FBI agent (Fisher Stevens) who knows little about forgery but is desperate to sink his teeth into a gangster (Robert Loggia).

Jakor’s hubris complements the gangster’s greed and eventually they put themselves in a pickle even the FBI agent can spot. The only real question now involves Kelly and her willingness to rescue her old pal from a life of scribbling graffiti on the walls of his prison cell. I don’t think “Fake” would have a chance in hell of succeeding on the big screen. On DVD, though, it’s at least as entertaining as your above-average Lifetime movie. – Gary Dretzka

Beware the Gonzo
When revenge-of-the-nerds movies veer into teen-angst territory, the results aren’t always pretty. The less commercially ambitious they are, however, the better it seems the picture is. I don’t know if its backers anticipated “Beware the Gonzo” would strike a nerve with teenagers and return a profit. It’s far too derivative, I think, to impress anyone who can remember “Freaks and Geeks” or “Napoleon Dynamite.” Still, it’s never wise to underestimate the buying power of the Nerd Nation. Here, Eddie “Gonzo” Gilman (Ezra Miller) is less a nerd than a classic high school wiseass who isn’t shy when it comes to taking on the jock aristocracy. He constantly makes the mistake of thinking that muscle-heads Barbies can be intimidated by logic and the well-placed zinger. As such, he’s constantly getting beat up and threatened with expulsion for hurting the feelings of jock aristocracy. When the editor of the school paper – himself a star wrestler — nixes an article on steroid use, Eddie rallies the school’s outcasts for the purpose of producing an alternative publication. To this end, he’s surprised by the willingness of one of the school’s hotties (Zoe Kravitz) to set traps for the jocks and humiliate them in print and on the Internet. Right out of the box, the publication is a hit. The principle and editor of the official school paper decide to shut down the Gonzo Files after it prints an expose on the toxic lunches served in the cafeteria. One thing leads to another and the nerds are required to choose between standing up for their beliefs and or risk not getting into a “good” college. Freshman director Bryan Goluboff manages to avoid most of the clichés in constructing his story, although some can’t be avoided. I don’t think anyone older than 18 will find much in “Beware the Gonzo” to enjoy, but teens who’ve considered joining their school’s AV club might to check it out. Other cast members include Amy Sedaris, Campbell Scott and Judah Friedlander. – Gary Dretzka

Another Happy Day
Anyone who doesn’t consider “Rachel Getting Married” and “Margot at the Wedding” to have been sufficiently unforgiving on the subject of reunions staged around weddings ought to check out “Another Happy Day.” It’s populated with even fewer appealing characters than we’ve met in previous dramas about wildly dysfunctional families about to be united in Holy Matrimony. In the hands of fledgling writer/director Jack Levinson — son of filmmaker Barry Levinson — “Another Happy Day” makes the sacrament of marriage seem as blessed as a Planned Parenthood rally at the Vatican. What is heaven-sent here, however, is a terrific ensemble cast that includes Ellen Barkin, Kate Bosworth, Ezra Miller, Demi Moore, Ellen Burstyn, Siobhan Fallon, Diana Scarwid, George Kennedy and Thomas Hayden Church. If the actors had less steady hands, Levinson’s script probably would still be sitting on a shelf somewhere in Hollywood, no matter who his daddy is. It’s that dark. Barkin is at the center of the story as the mother of the groom. She didn’t see much of the young man as he was growing up, because he somewhat inexplicably was raised by his dimwitted father and sexpot stepmother (Church, Moore). Barkin’s Lynn was given custody of their daughter (Bosworth), a “cutter” and occasional patient at a local treatment center. Lynn has two sons by her current husband, an agreeable, if emotionally detached fellow who doesn’t seem to notice the storm clouds gathering above him. One of those sons is about to turn the wedding ceremony upside-down with his alcoholism and substance-abuse problems. The youngest boy spends every waking hour, it seems, filming the relatives in compromising positions. Grandma’s a bitter old WASP, grandpa is a heart attack waiting to happen and Lynn’s sisters are cackling hens. It’s remarkable that these characters are able to exist on the same planet. If that makes “Another Happy Day” sound like a comedy, know that the laughs come from a very dark corner of Levinson’s mind. Again, though, the actors here turns something that could have been painful to watch into a movie that argues: no matter how unpleasant you think your wedding was, it probably can’t compare to the ones that are staged by creators of independent films. – Gary Dretzka

Today’s Special
Any movie about food and foodies that doesn’t inspire you to pick up a Zagat Guide probably isn’t worth skipping a meal to see. “Today’s Special” barely made a dent at the box office when it went into limited release in 2010, but, in fact, it’s pretty mouth-watering. As such, David Kaplan’s low-budget family comedy fits nicely alongside such modest foodie pleasures as “Big Night,” “Dinner Rush,” “Soul Kitchen,” “Tortilla Soup,” “The Ramen Girl,” “Woman On Top” and “Soul Food.” As written by Aasif Mandvi and Jonathan Bines, “Today’s Special” describes how a young Queens sous chef (Aasif Mandvi) learns to love the cuisine of his ancestors and save his father’s rundown restaurant from total collapse. Duty calls at a most inopportune time for Samir, who’s just quit his job at a swank Manhattan restaurant to enroll in a culinary academy in Paris. It puts that grandiose dream on the back burner. His father suffers a stroke that allows him to be lazy for a few months, while Samir tidies up the restaurant. He has no faith in his son’s ability to master the tastes of India and, while recovering, quietly seeks buyers for the joint. Meanwhile, the American-born Samir has found inspiration in an Indian Renaissance man (Naseeruddin Shah) disguised as a cab driver. Akbar introduces Samir to a world of unfamiliar scents, tastes and cooking techniques. Together, they suffer all the usual indignities and trials associated with resurrecting a nearly dead ethnic restaurant. Samir is lifted by the reappearance of an old girlfriend (Jess Weixler), a single mom impressed by his personality transplant. If there’s nothing particularly surprising about how “Today’s Special” plays out, the actors’ upbeat approach to the material and writers’ refusal to belabor the necessary stereotyping is refreshing. The movie, which was adapted from Mandvi’s one-man off-Broadway play, “Sakina’s Restaurant,” put me in a mood for tandoori chicken and the best bread in the world. – Gary Dretzka

Ice: The Movie
Most of the feature-length anime I’ve watched in past year has defied easy description. Before the writers and animators begin throwing the proverbial kitchen sink into the works, something resembling a coherent storyline can be discerned. By the time the end credits roll, it’s clear that no throughline, supporting character or cool visual was left on the cutting-room floor. In “Ice,” Makoto Kobayashi and Yasushi Hirano (“6 Angels”) have conjured a vision of the near future in which an environmental disaster has decimated the world’s population, sparing 20,000 women and no men. If that weren’t a sad enough scenario, the women are themselves divided into warring factions, representing hedonists who couldn’t care less about the promulgation of humanity and the Guardians who do. Apparently, the world’s supply of frozen sperm has been exhausted or contaminated, as well, because the warring parties both are interested in a substance called Ice, which could substitute for man juice. It gets more complicated, of course, but that’s the nuts and bolts of it. Any anime that manages to find distribution outside Japan probably is better than hundreds of others that haven’t, so “Ice” should please fans of the genre here. By the way, the year in which the disaster is supposed to occur is 2012. – Gary Dretzka

David & Kamal
David is a 9-year-old American, in Jerusalem visiting the Israeli father he hasn’t seen in five years. Also 9, Kamal is required by his tyrannical Palestinian grandfather to help support his family by selling postcards to tourists in Old City of Jerusalem. Anywhere else but the Middle East the boys probably could have put their economic and religious differences aside and found enough common ground to develop a budding friendship. In Israel, though, it’s damn-near impossible. Their meeting hardly could be described as cute, at least by Hollywood standards. Kamal spots David as he’s standing outside a dealer in rare coins in the Old City with his dad’s girlfriend. As naïve as most other Americans his age, David makes the mistake of flashing a wad of money. Desperately poor, the street-smart Kamal snatches the pouch carrying David’s precious antique coins, instigating a chase through the narrow streets and alleys of the Old City. Along the way, a gang of Palestinian thugs spots Kamal, who owes them money, and gives chase to both of the boys. Inspired, perhaps, by the story of the Good Thief, Kamal invites David to share his hiding place, which he does. When David demands that Kamal return the pouch, they engage in negotiations that resemble all transactions between merchants and tourists in such places.

When the smoke clears, the boys agree to meet the next day and finalize their deal. His father, who’s been too busy at work to spend more than five minutes with his son, forbids David from leaving the house, but he cons the girlfriend into leaving the apartment long enough for him to escape. What transpires next need not be revealed. Suffice it to say, it involves the thugs; Israeli police, soldiers and political figures; a Bedouin black-marketeer; and a few bruised tourists. The bittersweet ending reflects the complexity of life in both sectors of Jerusalem. Written and directed by Kikuo Kawasaki, the 78-minute “David & Kamal” is set in parts of the holy city rarely seen in movies with much larger budgets. Adult viewers will find holes in the story through which you could drive a Humvee, but kids probably will be able to identify with the boys, if only because they’re bullied, estranged from a parent and aren’t afraid to act on their dreams. – Gary Dretzka

Beginning of the Great Revival
Considering all the hoopla surrounding the 90th anniversary of the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and China’s first wobbly steps toward a representative form of government, it’s fair to wonder how the country will celebrate the centennial. It would require a lot of time, money and effort to top the pageantry of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics, but the Chinese seem to enjoy such challenges, even as millions of peasants continue to live at a subsistence level. “Beginning of the Great Revival” follows hot on the heels of Jackie Chan’s “1911” and Benny Chan’s “Shaolin.” Blessedly, very little overlapping of storylines is visible. Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin’s “Beginning of the Great Revival” is similarly epic in scope and loaded with China and Hong Kong’s most popular actors. Here, though, the focus is on the creation of the Communist Party and resistance to those attempting to restore power to the monarchy and various warlords, and lease valuable parts of the country to Japanese imperialists. How much a viewer enjoys the movie will depend entirely on how much they know about Chinese history and respects what the Communist Party has been able to accomplish in the ensuing 90 years. Certainly, I wouldn’t rely on “Beginning of the Great Revival” as a primary source for a master’s thesis.  It can’t be much more misleading than movies we’ve seen about our own Revolutionary War or the ability of the Democrats and Republicans to work together in the common interest of all Americans. The cast includes John Woo, Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau, Fan Bingbing, Nick Cheung, Daniel Yu, Ye Liu (as Mao Zedong), Wen Zhang (Deng Xiaoping), Ma Shaohua (Sun Yat-Sen) and more than 140 veteran actors. I assume it was a huge hit in the People’s Republic. – Gary Dretzka

Revenge of the Electric Car
Queen Of The Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?

In “Who Killed the Electric Car?” and “Revenge of the Electric Car,” Chris Paine has built the foundation for a series of industrial-horror flicks not unlike the “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th” and “Saw” franchises. In the former, an entire species of automobiles is wiped out in a conspiracy involving money-crazed capitalists. The title of last year’s sequel suggests that a zombie strain has returned from the dead to demonstrate how difficult it is to kill a good idea. “Who Killed the Electric Car?” revealed that 5,000 electric cars were destroyed by the major car companies because, either, they didn’t work right or profit margins couldn’t sustain the business.  Much of the blame was placed at the doorstep of General Motors, a company not known for its humanitarian and environment qualities. It’s curious, then, that “Revenge of the Electric Car” opens with a positive view of GM’s efforts to correct that image with the new Volt. It also reports on the efforts of Nissan, Tessla and others to revive the program by convincing consumers that electric cars are a sound investment. The manufacturers gave Paine unprecedented access to their plants and development officials, demonstrating how cooperative embattled companies can be when they have a good product to sell. This time around Tim Robbins has replaced Martin Sheen as narrator. Lest anyone think that the “Electric Car” franchise might end with “Revenge,” it’s possible that a third film could made about the Volt’s battery packs, which apparently have shown a tendency to self-immolate, causing damage to property. Even though the Volt was given a thumb’s-up by a federal safety agency, longtime opponents of the GM bailout in Congress plan to put the feet of company executives over the fire in planned hearings.

Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us” joins at least two other fine documentaries – “Colony,” “Vanishing of the Bees” – alerting viewers to the looming environmental calamity referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder. Each is worthy of our attention and interesting to watch, if only because everyone loves honey and beekeepers tend to be eccentric. CCD has only been identified as a potential worldwide hazard within the last 10 years. It began when transporters of hives began having difficulties filling orders by farmers who need the pollen-spreaders to survive.  Today, they’ve been forced to import bees from other countries, a strategy that raises questions of its own. No one knows with any certainty what is causing the bee population to decline so dramatically, although it’s reasonable to think that the widespread use of powerful new pesticides is a factor. By extension, it’s safe to assume that lobbyists for the chemical industry are able to lavish more money on lawmakers than beekeepers, thus clogging the flow of money necessary to fund research. All three documentaries make emphatic cases for the protection of bee colonies, as they are an essential link in the food chain. “Queen of the Sun” differs from the others in that it puts the crisis in a more international context, introducing us to people from Europe and America, to New Zealand. There’s also a discussion of the history of beekeeping and possible organic options. The farmers in all three movies raise parallels between the canaries once used to alert miners about the diminishing supplies of oxygen and the bees now warning us of an impending ecological disaster.  – Gary Dretzka

WWII in 3D: Blu-Ray
Meet the Browns: Season 4

Just when you think you’ve seen everything worth watching about World War II, along comes another cache of archival material recovered from attics, safes and libraries in places no one has previously bothered to search. In the last couple of years, for instance, home-based historians have discovered remarkable, unfiltered combat footage, shot in color. The previously censored material was made to look even more dramatic when upgraded to high-definition. When I saw the title, “WWII in 3D,” I couldn’t help but think of a Michael Bay movie with Zeroes, B-25 bombers, torpedoes and V-1 rockets landing in the laps of PBS viewers. In fact, though, “WWII in 3D” is a truly fascinating examination of the use of stereoscopic photography by Adolph Hitler’s propaganda machine. The long-believed-lost photographs – most were destroyed in the bombing of Dresden – provide a crystal-clear depth of field in which background material is as recognizable as that in the forefront. Among the photos that impressed Hitler was one taken at political rally, when he truly was just another face in the crowd. The documentary also demonstrates how the Allies employed 3D photography in airborne reconnaissance missions, as it allowed intelligence officers to make accurate readings on the size of buildings and objects, as well as the topography of landscapes.

Season 4 of Tyler Perry’s “Meet the Browns” begins with the Colonel suffering a heart attack, a pair of aborted weddings, and several visits to the hospital. It ends with two possible scandals, one involving a possible athletic recruiting and the other a purloined essay. In between, guest stars included Kellita Smith, Christina Milian, Khalil Kain, Judge Greg Mathis, Finesse Mitchell, Beverly Johnson, Bill Bellamy, Reginald VelJohnson, Pat & Gina Neely and Kim Fields. Otherwise, the TBS series seniors living in Brown Meadows remained fully capable of raising a ruckus all by themselves. – Gary Dretzka

Al Di Meola: Morocco Fantasia
It would be difficult to name a musical style or genre that hasn’t been embraced by guitarist Al Di Meola or a marquee talent with whom he hasn’t jammed. Di Meola began his professional career in 1974 with Chick Corea’s fusion band, Return to Forever. A true student of the guitar, his technical skills are unsurpassed, as is his willingness to experiment and broaden his creative base. “Morocco Fantasia” recalls De Meola’s 2009 appearance at the Mawazine Festival, in Rabat, where shared the stage with a diverse ensemble of international musicians and Moroccans  Said Chraibi (oud), Abdellah Meri (violin) and Tari Ben Ali (percussion). The music demonstrates how meaningless borders are when it comes to music. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Moneyball, Dirty Girl, Bombay Beach, Division III, The Overcoat, Belle du Jour, Mysteries of Lisbon, Cold Sweat …

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Moneyball: Blu-ray
The term, “inside baseball,” often is used when a conversation about anything from politics to food preparation becomes so complex that only a professional could possibly understand its complexities. While it isn’t always used in a derogatory way, the term does suggest that one participant is attempting to dazzle the other with numbers, statistics and details not always germane to the discussion. Because baseball is a sport that can be played by 5-year-olds, yet debated endlessly by adults, hundreds of thousands of men and women now are conversant in the language of “inside baseball,” including 95 percent of the characters in “Moneyball.” Indeed, there are times in Bennett Miller’s surprisingly compelling sports drama that subtitles might have helped viewers less schooled in America’s pastime to understand what separates the good ol’ boys from the Young Turks in the Oakland A’s organization. Credit belongs to writers Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillion for making such clarification unnecessary. Indeed, as adapted from Michael Lewis’ book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” the movie could have put an even greater weight on the influence Bill James and other Sabermetricians – seekers of objective knowledge about baseball – have had on the game. “Moneyball,” the movie, only tackles the on-base percentage theory, blessedly leaving such concepts as on-base-plus-slugging percentage, runs created, defense-independent-pitching, range-factor and a dozen other measurements to the fantasy geeks.

Instead, upstart A’s executives Billy Beane and “Peter Brand” (actually, Paul DePodesta) are awarded underdog status, for employing science instead of intuition in the re-creation of a team decimated by personnel losses, due to free agency, and crushing budget constraints. Usually, in Hollywood, it’s the rebels who win our admiration by making decisions based on subjectivity and emotional instincts, while the elitists use objective measures to contradict the visionaries. Here, it’s the reverse. Brad Pitt could hardly be more appealing as the failed jock, Beane, who saw the writing on the wall and went into management. He maintains a firm grip on the wheel, even when the ship is headed directly for the shoals of disaster, and is anything but a nerd. That role is reserved for his numbers-obsessed assistant, Brand, played wonderfully by an all-grown-up Jonah Hill. They may look like Mutt and Jeff, but the executives share a singular vision and purpose. Their opponents include old-school talent scouts and manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose more intuitive philosophy represents everything the sabermatricians are battling to change. The much respected manager has condemned the filmmakers’ interpretation of his tenure as field general and with some justification. Besides the fact Hoffman looks and acts almost nothing like Howe, the depiction of him as a gargoyle makes it seem as if the role of a manager in producing a champion – not to mention, a 20-game winning streak — is completely overrated. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Moneyball” does acknowledge that baseball, while changed irrevocably by SABR theory, isn’t likely to lose any of its ability to surprise and enchant fans of all ages. Statistical analysis may level the playing field for salary-challenged teams, but, when such data renders all things equal, the ball once again will placed in the hands of that most fallible of all of God’s creations, human beings. Otherwise, the A’s would have made the playoffs more than twice in the last 10 seasons. Nevertheless, as with any good pennant race, there’s more than enough drama in the A’s story to satisfy audiences. The Blu-ray edition looks and sounds excellent – as does all baseball on HDTV – and the bonus package adds four worthwhile making-of featurettes, with lots of interviews and historical background; a blooper in which Pitt breaks up uncontrollably; several deleted scenes; BD-Live functionality; and a short preview of the PlayStation 3 and PlayStationVita game, “MLB 12.” – Gary Dretzka

Dirty Girl
Add Juno Temple’s name to the list of hot young starlets who have made a name for themselves by playing socially awkward and sexually precocious teenagers, misunderstood by everyone except the class geek, a gay friend or a sympathetic mentor. That list includes Ellen Page (“Juno”), Portia Doubleday and Rooney Mara (“Youth in Revolt”), Jessica Chastain (“Jolene”), Emma Stone (“Easy A”), Natasha Lyonne (“But I’m a Cheerleader”), Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson (“Ghost World”) and, of course, Ally Sheedy (“The Breakfast Club”). In “Dirty Girl,” Temple’s character is the self-described class slut, Danielle, whose misbehavior causes her to be banished to a room reserved for pregnant girls, boys with ADD, chronically slow learners and other misfits. It’s there that she’s assigned to participate in a parenting project with Clarke, a depressed boy who’s bullied at school and home for being fat and probably gay. The assignment requires them to carry around a medium-sized bag of flour, which they’ll treat as if it were their infant child and for whom they’ll create a faux diary. After not wanting to participate at all, Danielle and Clarke somehow manage to bond with the “child” and include it in their after-school activities. Ironically, both feel as if they’re being treated like a bag of flour by their parents. Danielle isn’t thrilled by her mother’s choice of a new husband (Milla Jovovich, William H. Macy) and conspires with Clarke – who’s threatened with military school by his homophobic father and mousy mom (Dwight Yoakam, Mary Steenburgen) – to drive to California to meet the father who doesn’t know she exists. As the teenagers and their bag-baby race west from Oklahoma, the grown-ups also attempt to short-circuit their search for freedom and identity. Along the way, all parties learn something that benefits them when everyone finally makes it back home and the kids once again are put to the test.

While observant and entertaining, “Dirty Girl” shares several of the faults and inconsistencies associated with debut features written and directed by the same person, here Abe Sylvia. 1987 may seem like the Bronze Age to a young filmmaker, but Norman, Oklahoma, wasn’t nearly as unenlightened a place to grow up as it’s presented here. The behavior of the parents feels especially strained and exaggerated. Nonetheless, “Dirty Girl” brings a lot of teen spirit to the proceedings and several delightfully unpredictable scenarios are given the time to blossom. Danielle and Clarke’s journey into near-adulthood is handled credibly and without compromise. Neither are the characters overwhelmed by the formidable acting chops of the seasoned actors. Teens and young adults should find plenty to enjoy here. – Gary Dretzka

Age of Heroes: Blu-ray
The Coast Guard: Blu-ray

Age of Heroes” is a routine World War II action picture, interesting primarily for its dramatization of the formation of Britain’s elite 30 Commando, which was organized by Ian Fleming. Formed early in the war, the unit was assigned highly dangerous missions behind German lines, during which the soldiers would create much mayhem, but only to distract the enemy from their real assignment. Specifically, they were instructed to steal – not destroy – crucial intelligence tools and technology identified by senior officers in London. In the mission described here, the men were called upon to seize radar components that gave the Germans an edge in the North Sea because they had a greater range than the Brits’ radar. The first third of the movie, however, is involved with the formation and training of the diverse collection of soldiers, mostly in the Scottish Highlands. Danny Dyer plays the hot-headed Rains, who disobeyed the orders of an inept superior in order to get his platoon to Dunkirk in time for the evacuation. He routinely butts heads with Sean Bean, who plays the unit’s hard-ass, but fair and extremely competent lead officer. Once in Norway, 30 Commando would be required to play hit-and-run with German Alpine troops as it crossed the mountains to the destination and evacuation point. Along the way, they are joined by the requisite beautiful female resistance fighter and significant moral dilemmas. If “Age of Heroes” doesn’t break any new ground, fans of war movies won’t be disappointed much by the action sequences, Norwegian scenery, historical context and background featurettes.

Kim Ki-Duk has made so many splendid movies in the last 10 years that it’s easy to forgive him one early clinker, at least. “The Coast Guard” describes a highly disturbing incident near an encampment of South Korean soldiers assigned to guard the shores against the encroachment of spies from the north. Never mind that no spies have recently breached the barbed-wire fences lining the country’s shorelines. By 2002, it would be easier for a spy to arrive in Seoul on a jetliner than to risk being shot on sight by a highly motivated and well trained guardsman. In the early stages of “The Coast Guard,” we watch as the troops are drilled to within an inch of their lives on the mud flats and the rocky coastline of South Korea. They even engage in boxing matches in a ring lined with coils of barbed wire, their feet in six inches of ocean water. By all appearances, this is a crack, highly disciplined unit. Private Kang (Jang Dong-kun) is a gung-ho draftee who would prefer to be training with Special Forces, instead of monitoring the waves for invisible intruders and local punks defying clearly stated ordered not to trespass. After Kang gets into a confrontation with some slackers in a seaside café, it’s inevitable that he’ll be tested by one or more of them in the near future on his own turf. Sure enough, a young woman dares her boyfriend to make love to her on the sand within viewing distance of Kang’s night-vision goggles. Although he isn’t quite sure who or what’s being humped in front of his post, Kang decides not to take any chances, killing the boyfriend, as instructed, and tossing a grenade at him for good measure. Naturally, it creates a ruckus among the locals, who show little patience with the occupation of their town by the soldiers. It’s at this point, as well, that “The Coast Guard” inexplicably turns into a something of a horror farce, with Kang and the young woman simultaneously going nuts and discipline collapsing completely in the unit.

In his introduction, Kim acknowledges that he intends for viewers to gain something from the movie than the enjoyment that comes from watching an exciting war movie. Indeed, the story hardly mentions what might happen if North Korean hordes were to cross the DMZ and threaten to eliminate the freedoms enjoyed by people in the south. What’s dimming the prospect of unification, instead, are North Korean and the American despots who stand to gain from the stalemate. Americans simply don’t understand what makes Koreans tick, Kim argues. While this sentiment probably is accurate, it’s tough to believe that the lunatics who’ve run North Korea for the last 60 years would be any more benevolent than Uncle Sam. His case for the insanity of spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually to maintain the status quo is far easier to swallow. The Blu-ray takes advantage of the scenic location and frequent nighttime sequences, while also offering interesting featurettes. Newcomers to Korean cinema would be better served, however, by sampling Kim’s infinitely superior “Bad Guy,” “3-Iron,” “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring,” “Breath” and “The Bow.” – Gary Dretzka

Bombay Beach
It’s almost impossible to create a work of fiction about the people who live on California’s Salton Sea more fascinating than the documentaries “Bombay Beach” and “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea.” Examples of the strange goings-on there were dramatized in “Into the Wild” and the meth-and-madness thriller, “Salton Sea,” but the history of the place and eccentricities of its year-round residents define the term, “Stranger than fiction.” In it 106-year history, the vast, accidentally formed lake has served both as a high-volume tourist attraction and text-book example of what can happen when environmental concerns are neglected. Once a haven for anglers and birders, alike, the Salton Sea now more closely resembles an open-air cemetery for fish and birds incapable of tolerating the water’s high salinity and toxic agricultural runoff. A human menagerie of societal misfits, desert rats, meth cookers, diehard hippies and otherwise homeless people now resides among the abandoned restaurants, cottages, boats and trailers found 200-feet-plus below sea level. The tourist trade now is limited to the morbidly curious and folks drawn to the mud pots, mud volcanoes and remaining flock of American white pelicans.

Alma Ha’rel’s alternately compelling and off-putting “Bombay Beach” introduces viewers to a half-dozen, or so, people living in the once thriving, now largely abandoned lakeside town. Children play on roads nearly absent of traffic and along the shore littered with the corpses of fish and waterfowl. Inside a cottage resides an ex-con couple who temporarily lost custody of their children, when they were convicted of storing weapons and explosives capable of arming a militia. In a trailer cluttered with memorabilia resides a sickly old-timer clinging to life as his circle of friends closes, seemingly on weekly basis. One young boy’s disruptive behavior in school leads to him being prescribed a regimen of drugs as powerful as that of any cancer patient; for lack of better male companions, a pretty teenage girl keeps returning to an abusive boyfriend; her friend, a black football star, escaped to Bombay Beach from L.A. after gang violence claimed his cousin. The atmospheric soundtrack includes the music of Bob Dylan and Beirut. Among the interesting features in the DVD package are music videos and an uplifting update on the subjects. – Gary Dretzka

Division III: Football’s Finest
Mention Andy Dick to 95 percent of all movie critics and you’re likely to illicit a response that combines rage, horror and dismay. The same pretty much holds true for Pauly Shore, Corey Feldman, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Rob Schneider, Ashton Kutcher and Adam Sandler. Even those critics who love to hate movies would gladly pay their editors not to be assigned another of these actors’ films. So, it was with great trepidation that I approached “Division III: Football’s Finest,” a self-declared comedy about a disgraced coach who takes over a program at a school where ignoring the team is its most enduring tradition. I fully expected to see a movie that had none of the redeeming qualities of the terrible 2005 remake of “The Longest Yard” and all the credibility of the annual “Lingerie Bowl.” Imagine my shock to learn that “Division III” not only isn’t the worst comedy about football I’ll ever see but that it also is funnier than it has any right to be. There, I’ve said it.

Dick plays Rick Vice, whose last job in football was coaching a Pee-Wee League team that succumbed to a mass poisoning of its Gatorade supply. Pulham University’s attention-seeking president (Mo Collins), who knows next to nothing about football, hopes that by bringing in Vice to coach the Blue Cocks she’ll be given an opportunity to appear in a reality show. In doing so, she antagonizes the school’s African-American athletic director, who’s worked his way up from maintenance supervisor. I don’t know what he did to himself here, but Dick actually could pass for a coach on some of college football’s less reputable teams … that, or a bartender at a biker bar. He has an extremely short fuse, isn’t afraid to offend minority players and uses his clipboard as a weapon. Perhaps because he played quarterback at Division III Occidental, freshman director/co-writer Marshall Cook somehow manages to rein in the actors’ natural tendency to overplay their parts and turn the movie into broad farce. Instead, he allows the material to speak for itself and the characters’ personalities to evolve more or less naturally. Neither does he demand that Vice go all mushy at the film’s inevitable conclusion. That’s left for the stuttering romance between the team’s No. 2 quarterback – and Vice’s personal punching bag – and the team’s pretty undergraduate manager. “Division III” is a far cry from perfect, but, as direct-to-video comedies go, it’s not bad. – Gary Dretzka

The Overcoat
Adapted and updated by Alberto Lattuada from a story by Nikolai Gogol, “The Overcoat” (“Il Cappotto”) tells the wonderfully tender story of an Italian city-hall clerk and lithographer, Carmine de Carmine (Renato Rascel), whose only possession of value is a threadbare overcoat. When it can no longer be repaired, Carmine is desperate to come up with the money to afford a new, more elegant defense against the cold. The city is dominated by a vainglorious mayor, whose toadies leap at his every request, no matter how silly. All of the lower-level employees live in fear that the mayor will unexpectedly drop in on them at the office and find something lacking in their work, causing him to rashly fire them. This is exactly what happens to Carmine, until the lowly bureaucrat discovers a bribery scheme involving the mayor’s team of architects and is given his job back in return for his silence. He’s also given the money necessary to purchase the new coat. It makes him look so fine that his co-workers gush over Carmine and his poor neighbors assume he now has the clout to get their problems fixed, which, he foolishly assures them, he can. During the movie’s funniest set piece, Carmine employs his newfound confidence to make a spectacle of himself at the mayor’s New Year’s Eve party, where he dares to make a pass at the man’s statuesque mistress but fails to deliver a petition by the poor folks waiting outside in the cold. Rascel’s performance recalls Chaplin’s humor and compassion. The movie doesn’t end here, of course. There’s one more tragedy and triumph left to go before the final curtain falls. “The Overcoat” has been given a nice digital facelift by the folks at RaroVideo, a company that specializes in underappreciated Italian treasures. The post-Neo-realist treat was originally released in 1952 and still holds up today. The generous bonus package adds audio commentary by Italian educators Flavio de Bernardinis and Gabrielle Lucantonio; 25 minutes of deleted and extended scenes; a 13-minute interview with filmmaker Angelo Pasquini; and a 20-page booklet. – Gary Dretzka

Belle du Jour: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Luis Buñuel’s highly erotic and deceptively surreal romance first arrived on these shores in April, 1968, a time when advocates for the fledgling women’s movement and blossoming sexual revolution had yet to accept that feminism and eroticism not only could co-exist, but they also could enjoy each other’s company. Because of this, leftist opinion-makers found themselves in a quandary. At the same time that feminists were sublimating their sexuality in the interest of raising their political, professional and intellectual profile, purveyors of soft- and hard-core eroticism debated whether it was possible to worship the female form without objectifying women. Four years later, the unabashedly left-wing filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci asked the same question in “Last Tango in Paris.” In a few years, the argument would be met with raised eyebrows by post-feminists, who had come to the conclusion that liberation meant they could look however they wanted to look and enjoy sex as much as they could stand. Moreover, many of today’s post-post-feminists don’t see any reason why women shouldn’t benefit financially from strip joints, escort services and brothels they don’t consider to be exploitative. It’s interesting here to consider the impact “Belle du Jour” had on audiences in the 1960s through the eyes of artists and scholars who’ve watched and referenced the movie repeatedly over the last 40 years. Certainly, it’s easier to see what motivated Catherine Deneuve’s Madonna/whore character, Séverine, a bourgeois Paris housewife who takes a day job in a bordello, and how her memories, dreams and desires all combine to make her who she is. We’re also able to see how Bunuel’s artistry wasn’t compromised by the movie’s inherent commercial appeal, notwithstanding the absence of frontal nudity, full or otherwise. Besides a swell high-definition digital restoration, the Blu-ray package adds commentary with historian Michael Wood; new interviews with sexual-politics activist Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams; a new interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière; excerpts from the French television program Cinéma, featuring vintage interviews with Carrière and actress Catherine Deneuve; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Melissa Anderson and a 1970s interview with Buñuel. – Gary Dretzka

Mysteries of Lisbon: Blu-ray
Anyone with both a taste for classic literature and 257 minutes to kill could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of “Mysteries of Lisbon,” Raul Ruiz’ epic melodrama adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco. Presented as a multipart television mini-series in Europe, “Mysteries of Lisbon” is equal parts telenovella, Masterpiece Theater and Merchant-Ivory. The story opens as a young orphan boy, living in a seminary, is forced to defend himself against bullies, because his single name, Joao, identifies him not only as an orphan but a bastard child. Waking up in the infirmary after being beaten senseless by a larger boy, Joao vaguely recalls being visited by a woman in a dark shawl. He demands of his guardian, Padre Dinis, to know if the woman was his mother. The circumstances surrounding his birth have haunted Joao since he was old enough to know that all kids have parents, somewhere, alive or dead. After pondering the question of revealing how the boy arrived at the seminary, Dinis decides to introduce him to the woman he correctly guessed was his mother. Clotilde Hesme plays the Countess Elisa de Montfort, whose brutish husband is incapable of forgiving his wife for bearing another man’s child. Humiliated by the count’s undisguised relationship with a maid and afraid to bring the child home, Elisa decides to take the first opportunity to accept the sanctuary of the Church. For the next several hours, the narrative flashes back to happier times for the countess and forward to Joao’s continuing search for a father whose identity is becoming clearer. The setting also shifts from one royal European abode to another, introducing to an increasingly complex network of crowned heads, aristocrats, monks and many formidable and beautiful women in great costumes and wigs. There’s also the odd pirate, soldier, gypsy, duelist and merchant to keep straight. At 70, the Chilean filmmaker remains one of the most formidable cinematic figures in the world, with 100 films to his credit. “Mysteries of Lisbon” is practically a master class in technique, staging, storytelling and movement. It’s beautiful to look at and a brain-teaser, to boot. The story is told on two separate discs, while a third one contains enough bonus features to choke a librarian. They include making-of and background material; literary analysis; criticism; interviews; and a visit to the museum in Portugal dedicated to the author. – Gary Dretzka

Cold Sweat
This chilling Argentinian export opens with newsreel footage from the period 30-some years ago when militarists in charge of the country declared war on anyone who was left of Jose Carioca, kidnapping, torturing and killing them and giving their orphaned babies to supporters to raise. The unstated message in “Cold Sweat” is how closely politically motivated acts of cruelty resemble what today’s purveyors of torture-porn cinema do to their characters. In Argentina, Chile and other dictatorships, however, the sadists who tortured political prisoners were trained by CIA operatives, not genre specialists. Included in the newsreel footage are snippets of information about explosives stolen from an armory that remain missing today. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess that somewhere during Spanish filmmaker Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s often very scary movie, the mystery of the missing nitroglycerine will be solved. Before it is, however, female Internet surfers will be lured to a torture chamber inside a building owned by the last remaining members of a right-wing hit squad. The geezers make Jigsaw, of the “Saw” horror franchise, look like a beginner, as they’ve been experimenting on pretty young women with various tools and substances for decades. One of the missing girl’s boyfriends follows a trail that leads from her computer to the apartment building, arriving within minutes of her planned execution. Because most of “Cold Sweat” is set in the building’s dark and moist basement, a palpable aura of claustrophobia prevails. There are plenty of macabre surprises left to come in a thriller that reminds us that the era of political horrors is only a coup or terrorist attack away from recurring. – Gary Dretzka

First Squad: The Moment of Truth: Blu-ray
Redline: Blu-ray
Color me old-fashioned, but an animated fantasy set during the very real invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II pushes the borders of my willingness to suspend disbelief to the breaking point. It was difficult enough for me to cheer along with the Nazi killers in “Inglourious Basterds,” knowing that it was based merely on wishful thinking and that millions of Jews, Gypsies and gays still would be killed in gas chambers, despite the wet dreams of Quentin Tarantino. I’m old and set in my ways, though … sue me. Influenced by anime and other Japanimation techniques, “First Squad: The Moment of Truth” conjures an even more decisive battle than the one waged in the actual siege of Stalingrad, which is re-created here. This time, Soviet teenagers with X-Men-like properties are enlisted to neutralize a SS scheme to raise a supernatural army of crusaders from the dead and sic them on the Allied forces. The forces of righteousness must also deal with gorgeous Aryan soldiers, who, after the war, might have moved to Chicago to inspire Hugh Hefner to launch Playboy. My qualms aside, “First Squad” offers fans of such things plenty of cartoon thrills, action and blood-letting. The background drawings make the Russian winter look just as foreboding as it does in live-action war movies. The set includes a short and long version of the movie.

Redline,” also made in 2009, is far more to my liking, in that it resembles a clearly fantastical adaptation of such pedal-to-the-metal entertainments as “Death Race,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “Cars,” “Speed Racer” and “Cannonball Run.” Overflowing with fast-paced action and crazy characters, “Redline” is as exciting as it is colorful. I’m told that most of the animation here is hand-drawn. It looks terrific on Blu-ray and the collisions sound good, too. As directed by Takeshi Koike, an enjoyment of “Redline” requires almost no wear and tear on brain cells, as it can be appreciated purely for its sensory pleasures. The Blu-ray arrives with an hour-long making-of featurette, covering all aspects of the animation and voicing process. – Gary Dretzka

Good Morning, Vietnam: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Dead Poets Society: Blu-ray

If there are two things we know to be true about Hollywood stardom, it’s that an actor is only as marketable as the success of his/her last couple of pictures allows them to be. (The revised maxim allows for some flexibility due to overlapping projects and fickle audiences.) The second requires of each new generation of studio executives that they shape new stars in the molds of previous ones. (Thus, the unending search for the new Cary Grant, new Marilyn Monroe, New Humphrey Bogart, new Elizabeth Taylor. …) In Robin Williams, I think Hollywood saw the model for a new Jerry Lewis, who, for a long time, could do no wrong with fans and, therefore, industry bean counters. No matter that Williams’ humor was inspired more by Jonathan Winters, whose improvisational skills and wild flights of fancy were more suited to television. As long as Williams continued to knock ’em dead on talk shows and other publicity opportunities, Robin was allowed to be Robin, and fans accorded him the benefit of a doubt. Problems related to substance abuse caused him to slow down for a while, though, and his recovery coincided with the release of several movies even his manic persona couldn’t save.

Good Morning, Vietnam” allowed Williams do exploit his amazing improvisational skills and fever-pitch delivery of dialogue, while remaining identifiable as the hip new kid on the block.  It also shaped his persona as the wise and passionate humanitarian hero in fool’s disguise. The story was based, rather loosely, on the morale-boosting role played by Armed Forces Radio deejay Adrian Cronauer in the early years of the Vietnam War. Cronauer reminded our troops more of the irreverent, wild-and-wacky Top 40 deejays back home than the stodgy drones favored by brass. Reportedly, Williams improvised all of his character’s bits adding his trademark sentimentality to scenes set by director Barry Levinson outside the studio. His Cronauer was the deejay everyone in America wished could still be heard on AM stations, but were being replaced by computerized playlists. With Vietnam in the nation’s rear-view mirror and innovative radio stations dying on the vine, the timing for “GM,V” was perfect. The movie was a huge commercial and critical success. Williams would be nominated for Best Actor Oscar for his performance. The set adds a multipart standard-definition “Production Diary,” with producer Larry Brezner, screenwriter Mitch Markowitz, Levinson and Cronauer; and an uncut, 13-minute take of Williams improvising a monologue.

Two years later, in the similarly successful “Dead Poets Society,” Williams’ John Keating became Mr. Chips for Eisenhower-era boarding-school students, minus the diverting love interests. While completely devoted to his students and literature, Keating also represented the anti-establishment attitudes and anarchic behavior that would reign a few years later but wane by the time the movie was released in 1989. The supercharged pedagogue encouraged a group of seven restless students to, “Carpe diem, seize the day,” and carve their own paths in life. Their Dead Poets Society met in a cave near Welton Academy, where they read verse to each other and plotted their intellectual liberation. This, of course, simply couldn’t be tolerated by the school’s administration, which reported not to Keating but to the boys’ elitist parents. Again, Williams’ inspirational performance would be honored with a Best Actor nomination. Look for such future stars as Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles among the students. The Blu-ray package adds commentary by director Peter Weir, cinematographer John Seale and writer Tom Schulman; the standard-definition featurettes “Dead Poets : A Look Back,” “Master of Sound: Alan Splet” and “Cinematography Master Class”; and raw takes from a deleted scene.

Williams would enjoy artistic and commercial success in the future, but not necessarily in the lead roles that demanded he carry a bad script with over-indulgent acting or tear-jerking pathos. He was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in “The Fischer King” and won the prize for “Good Will Hunting.” He’s also done fine work as a voice actor in hit animated features and in guest spots on television. Apparently, though, most mainstream critics have yet to forgive him for making them sit through “Patch Adams,” “Jack,” “Bicentennial Man,” “Being Human,” “Toys” and “Father’s Day.” – Gary Dretzka

America in Primetime: Blu-ray
The Tuskegee Airmen/The Josephine Baker Story/Thurgood: Blu-ray

Pacific Blue: The Complete Series

The Best of the Dean Martin Variety Show

BBC: Waking the Dead: The Complete Season Six

“America in Primetime,” which aired on PBS stations last fall, is the latest in a long line of documentary series to find some deeper meaning in the medium that dominates the free time of so many Americans. Television, especially of the broadcast variety, has shaped how we see ourselves and each other, even if the characters tend to be mere composites of various types. If all bigots were as lovable as Archie Bunker and George Jefferson, for example, the world would be a much better place. Likewise, if all gang-bangers were as harmless as the Fonz, our big cities would be as safe as Disneyland. Are the housewives of Wisteria Lane the natural descendants of June Cleaver, Donna Reed and Mary Tyler Moore or is their DNA shared with the “real housewives” of Beverly Hills and Orange County. “America in Primetime” examines 60 years of television programming with an eye toward the evolution of character types. It’s the kind of thing PhD’s study endlessly from the vantage point of their ivory towers and viewers take entirely for granted. For most of us, it’s enough to know we’re being entertained by characters who look, more or less, like people we recognize. If they more closely resembled our neighbors, co-workers and bosses, there would be no reason to watch them. It explains why “The Office” is such an anomaly. Its characters are exactly like people we’ve known since high school and went to college to avoid. And, yet, through some creative alchemy, we can’t wait to join them each week. It would be impossible to wrap up several generations’ worth of characterizations and archetypes in four hours and develop a cohesive understanding of the medium. What makes “America in Primetime” entertaining are the many clips from beloved shows and the comments of such folks as Jason Alexander, Judd Apatow, Alec Baldwin, Roseanne Barr, James L. Brooks, Diablo Cody, Larry David, Danny DeVito, Edie Falco, Dennis Franz, Michael C. Hall, Patricia Heaton, Ron Howard, Felicity Huffman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Lynch, Julianna Margulies, Jerry Mathers, Mary Tyler Moore, Elisabeth Moss, Mary-Louise Parker, Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke and Rainn Wilson. Don’t worry if the producers have missed your favorite show or character. Another documentary will be pulling into a PBS station near you in another few months, or so.

With the Martin Luther King holiday now behind us and Black History Month two week away, it’s fitting that HBO has released a trio of its original movies, describing the contributions of important African-Americans. The package includes “The Tuskegee Airmen,” “The Josephine Baker Story” and “Thurgood,” all of which have been accorded numerous Emmy nominations and awards and arrive here on Blu-ray for the first time. The newest entry is “Thurgood,” with Laurence Fishburne playing the first African-American appointed to Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. George Stevens Jr. wrote the one-man play, which, before debuting on HBO last February, was staged at Connecticut’s Westport County Playhouse, with James Earl Jones, and Broadway and the Kennedy Center, with Fishburne playing the justice. Throughout his career, Marshall defied the odds against a black man not only becoming a lawyer, but also arguing before the Supreme Court and then being appointed to the same body.

Fishburne also appears in 1995’s “The Tuskegee Airmen,” the true story of the black pilots, navigators, bombardiers and support staff who broke the color barrier in the U.S. Army Air Corps and distinguished themselves over the skies of Europe. It is essentially the same story told in the new feature film, “Red Tails.” (Cuba Gooding Jr. appears in both pictures.) Like Marshall, the airman took flack from racists of all stripes, but persevered to become largely unsung American heroes. Along with Fishburne, Andre Braugher was nominated for a Supporting Actor Emmy.

In 1991, Lynn Whitfield was awarded the Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy for her portrayal of Josephine Baker, one of the great entertainers of the 20th Century. Born in St. Louis, where she danced on street corners to make money, it wasn’t until Baker moved to Paris, in 1925, that she became a star. The HBO movie describes in glorious (and, perhaps, silicone-enhanced) detail how her erotic performances made her the toast of Europe. It also recalls her stormy romances and evolution of talents not limited to dancing around the stage in a skirt made of bananas. She didn’t find the same success in New York, when she agreed to star in a Ziegfeld Follies production. The critics portrayed in the movie appear to have resented both her race and success across the pond. During World War II, she agreed to spy for the Allies and support the Resistance by exploiting her popularity with enemy occupiers.  She would also become an outspoken supporter of the American civil rights movement. The Blu-ray adds new commentary from Whitfield, writer Ron Hutchinson, and associate producer Alisa Taylor.

As ridiculous as it sounds on paper, a show about an “elite unit of bicycle cops” managed to stay on the USA cable network from 1996-2000. Considering that it was set in Santa Monica, its longevity probably can be attributed as much to the scantily clad beach bunnies as the pursuit of purse snatchers on the bike paths and Promenade. “Pacific Blue” also benefitted from young and hot cops who could never be mistaken for police anywhere except southern California. It included Darlene Vogel, Shanna Moakler, Amy Hunter, Jim Davidson, Paula Trickey and current ass-kisser-to-the-stars, Mario Lopez. The set includes all 101 episodes of the show, described here as “‘Baywatch’ on bikes.”

Time-Life has released the second volume of “King of Cool: The Best of the Dean Martin Variety Show,” which originally had been sold on infomercials. I don’t know if anyone under 40 would enjoy revisiting the era of variety shows on television, but those who remember the extinct species will delight in the six-disc set, which comes with an episode guide. Among Dean’s guests are Red Buttons, Mickey Rooney, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Bill Cosby, Carroll O’Connor, Bob Newhart, Ella Fitzgerald, Eddie Fisher, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Mathis, Liberace, Herb Albert, the Supremes and a bunch of long-forgotten acts.

The latest collection of stories from BBC’s cold-case series, “Waking the Dead,” represents the sixth season, which ran in early 2007.  The titles include “The Fall,” “Deus Ex Machina,” “Wren Boys,” “Mask of Sanity,” “Double Blind” and “Yahrzeit,” all multi-parters. Tara Fitzgerald is now a regular cast member, as pathologist Dr. Eve Lockhart.  Any fan of American forensics and CSI series is a likely candidate to get hooked on “Waking the Dead.” – Gary Dretzka

Titanic: The Definitive Documentary Collection
The Race to Space: America’s Greatest Journey

Civil War: Commemorative Documentary Collection

Every time a floating hotel makes an unscheduled stop on a submerged shoal or rock formation, survivors compare the experience to being on the Titanic. It happened again a few days ago in Italy and, unlike the Titanic, most of the passenger survived. The ship will need some body work, but it likely will be made to float again. The same, of course, can’t be said of the Titanic, whose memorabilia are being offered for sale on eBay, as we speak. Mill Creek’s “Titanic: The Definitive Documentary Collection” includes five documentaries about the disaster, covering facts, myths, legends, mysteries, interviews and information collectors would specifically enjoy.

The Race to Space: America’s Greatest Journey” is interesting for its place in television history. Among other things, the 10-part documentary collection represents filmmaker David L. Wolper’s first forays into television. “The Race for Space” was shown in 1959, when Americans were still reeling over the fact that the commies had beaten us into space. Wolper would return to the subject several more times in his career. The docs include space footage and other material collected from NASA and Soviet space agencies. Much of the material, of course, will appear dated on modern television sets, but it recalls a time when anything seemed possible and we all stood in awe of the astronauts and the people who lit their candles.

This being the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, it’s a good time to get reacquainted with the events and issues – in addition to slavery — that led to the conflagration and controversies that contributed to the hatred and rivalries that continue until today. Mill Creek’s “Civil War: Commemorative Documentary Collection” set is comprised of nearly eight hours of interviews, archival material, battlefield tours, and re-enactments. The episodes are titled “The Life and Death of the Army of Northern Virginia,” “Mr. Lincoln’s Army: Fighting Brigades of the Army of the Potomac,”  “The Battles for Atlanta,” “Shadow in the Valley: The Battle of Chickamauga,” “Diary of a Confederate Soldier,” “Civil War” and “Abraham Lincoln: Father of Freedom.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: 1911, Higher Ground, There Be Dragons, Man From London, Night and Day, An Idiot Abroad, Australia After Dark …

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

1911: Collector’s Edition: Revolution: Blu-ray
This epic historical drama about the creation of the first Chinese republic marks Jackie Chan’s 100th film. Given the length and breadth of the nation’s history, it’s possible that no other actor in the world has represented so many different periods and worn the costumes associated with as many rulers. For most of that time, all American audiences knew about the Hong Kong-born actor was his work in the occasional martial-arts export and such Hollywood buddy pictures as “Rush Hour” and “Shanghai Noon.”  (In his American debut, in “The Cannonball Run,” he was miffed to learn his character was Japanese.) The easy availability of DVDs from China has put a new spin on Chan’s movie career, which began when he was 8. It’s unlikely that Western audiences will be overwhelmed with “1911” or his presence in it, however. By Hollywood standards, the story of the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty feels mechanical and overly dependent on explosions and machine-gun fire, although there is one brief exchange of kung-fu fury.

It’s easier to enjoy the movie, which Chan co-directed with cinematographer Zhang Li, if one thinks of it as an addendum to Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor,” as certain characters and events overlap. Even if most of the action is set outside the Forbidden City, though, some of the most interesting scenes take place as the Empress Dowager Longyu (Joan Chen) is counseled by politicians, generals and European bankers, while simultaneously being fitted for exquisite gowns. Meanwhile, her toddler son and heir to the dynasty, Henry Pu-yi, plays with his toys and enjoys the adoration of Longyu’s loyalists. Chan plays rebel commander Huang Xing (Jackie Chan), whose education in modern-warfare techniques serves him well in battles to come with troops aligned with the Empress Dowager. The other third of the drama is set in the United States and Europe, where nationalist leader Sun Yat-Sen (Winston Chao) attempts to raise funds and diplomatic support for the cause. Other actors who might be familiar to American audiences are Bing Bing Li and Jackie’s son, Jaycee. The Blu-ray adds an unstructured making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Higher Ground: Blu-ray
There Be Dragons: Blu-ray

When Vera Farmiga agreed to make her directorial debut with “Higher Ground,” she must have known how difficult it would be to make a movie that took its characters’ faith in Jesus Christ at face value, even as their fundamentalist beliefs make them seem as tolerant and worldly as Taliban. Ever since Ronald Reagan allowed televangelists from the Christian Right to hijack the Republican Party, there’s been no more polarizing a force in American politics than religion. It’s fitting, then, that “Higher Ground” – based on the memoirs of Carolyn S. Briggs – is set in the 1960s and ’70s, when hippie “Jesus freaks” and other disaffected Christians took separate paths to the same beatific destination. Farmiga and her 17-year-old sister, Taissa, play the young woman, Corrine, whose conversion to a fundamentalist lifestyle is described here. Corrine came to Christianity in the usual way for a girl living in a rural community: through her parents’ attendance at church, bible camp and other church activities. While in high school, however, she falls in love with an aspiring rock musician and becomes pregnant in the usual way for impetuous teens: unprotected sex. After their infant is rescued from near-certain death in a tour-bus accident, both Corrine and her husband dedicate themselves to Christ. The congregation to which Corrine and her husband belong isn’t overtly evangelistic and the members’ conservative dress is the only thing that separates them from other residents of the Upstate New York town. They take the bible literally and entertain themselves by singing songs so bland they might have lulled Satan to sleep. Corrine experiences a crisis in faith after her best friend survives surgery for cancer but is left in a vegetative state. When her husband demands that Corrine snap out of her doldrums and get right with Jesus, she decides to see what life is like outside the confines of their closed circle of friends and pastors. Here, too, Farmiga allows the characters to retain their dignity while addressing their doubts and defending their faith. As such, “Higher Ground” is as impressive for its restraint and humanity, as it is for the performances of a fine cast of highly credible actors, including Donna Murphy, Nina Arianda, John Hawkes, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bill Irwin and Joshua Leonard. The bonus material includes a making-of featurette that focuses on Farmiga’s turn in the director’s chair.

Faith also is the core issue in Roland Joffe’s “There Be Dragons.” Set largely during the Spanish Civil War, it deals with several weighty issues still relevant today, including the roots of the Roman Catholic organization, Opus Dei, which was demonized by the media in the controversies surrounding Mel Gibson and his father. If that alone weren’t a sufficiently dramatic subject, “There Be Dragons” also uses flash-forwards to describe a son’s coming to grips with the behavior of his estranged father and his role in the war. Dougray Scott plays a reporter investigating the background of Father Josemaria Escriva (Charlie Cox) in anticipation of his canonization in 2002. Conveniently, several of the trails lead back to his father (Wes Bentley), who was a childhood friend of the priest and, for a brief time, studied for the priesthood, himself. It’s here that Joffe’s attempt to make sense of the complexities of the civil war turns history into melodrama, with facts distorted to fit the dramatization. After leaving the seminary, the reporter’s father, Manolo, volunteers to join the Republican forces as a spy. Meanwhile, Escriva is in constant fear of death by anti-clericalists among the loyalists and is finally persuaded to flee to the safety of Andorra. For good measure, Joffe even conceives a twisted love story involving the spy. Even at 122 minutes, “There Be Dragons” sags under the weight of the storylines. Neither does it benefit from the decision to play down the controversies surrounding Opus Dei and horrors associated with the monarchists and fascists. (Republican atrocities are duly noted.) “There Be Dragons” isn’t difficult to watch as a war story, but viewers with a knowledge of the period will surely be disappointed by the short cuts taken to further the narrative. The bonus package includes making-of features and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

The Man From London
Night and Day

It’s far simpler to characterize the work of Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr as “arthouse” than to expand on what distinguishes it from other highbrow fare or compare it to a painting that hangs on the wall of museum and is easier to admire than enjoy. Even when Tarr’s pictures are exhibited here, they tend not to be shown at the local theater specializing in indie, documentary and foreign titles. Instead, they mostly end up in festivals, on campus or boutique theaters attached to institutions. Today, of course, it’s no longer difficult to locate the movies of an obscure artist on DVD, thanks to such purveyors as Netflix, Facets and Movies Unlimited. Even so, one has to be made aware of the existence of a particular title or director before the search can begin, and you don’t find profiles of people like Tarr in the local newspaper or on “Entertainment Tonight.” The same applies for the more ambitious directors and directors from emerging cinemas, such as those in Asia, South America and Africa. I guess that’s what columns like this are supposed to do.

By comparison to other Tarr efforts, “The Man From London” is simplicity itself. It was adapted in 2007 from a story by Georges Simenon and stars, among other lesser-known actors, the great Tilda Swinton. It concerns the existential dilemma faced by a railroad switchman on the graveyard shift who witnesses a murder and stands to benefit from the recovery of a suitcase loaded with stolen British pound notes. From his perch high above the port and tracks leading into the city – presumably in France – Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) is able to survey the entire area, without anyone knowing he’s there. It’s a lonely job and, judging from the spare furnishings in his apartment, Maloin probably doesn’t make a lot of money. A suitcase full of money would go a long way toward making his life and that of his family easier. It isn’t until a police inspector from London begins making inquiries about the crime in the working-class pub Maloin frequents that he begins to experience the one and only existential crisis he’s likely to face in his lifetime. It isn’t clear if the circumstances surrounding the crime trigger something buried in his conscience or if he’s, at heart, an honorable man buried under a mountain of shit. No matter, as Tarr and collaborators Agnes Hranitzky and Lazlo Krasznahorhai afford Maloin several opportunities to share the fruits of instant wealth with his family or reject the bounty as the devil’s handiwork.

What’s amazing in “The Man From London” is the vibrancy of the black-and-white cinematography – rivaling that of the noir masters – and the directors’ patience in describing so precisely the minute details of the ship carrying the thief, the pier on which the altercation takes place and grim working-class neighborhood a short walk from the harbor. So slowly does time seem to pass as Maloin surveys the port and switching yard that it’s fair to assume that it’s the blue-collar equivalent of the Chinese Water Torture. As they say in the critics’ dodge, “The Man From London” isn’t for everyone. Fans of splendid camera work and challenging subject matter should find plenty here to admire, though. (Swinton’s participation is limited to a key supporting role – Maloin’s beleaguered wife – but, once again, it demonstrates her range and willingness to support outré artists.)

The Paris people fall in love with in the movies isn’t the one we see in Hong Sang-soo’s low-key romantic dramedy, “Night and Day.” This Paris is a city at work and play, where students from around the world arrive each day to immerse themselves in art and culture, and occasionally create some of their own. The skies are rarely sunny; the corner stores can’t keep up with the demand for cigarettes; the streets are littered with dog poop; and four-star meals are few and far between, if at all. There’s plenty of romance to be found, but it can be as complicated and frustrated as it is anywhere on Earth. As such, “Night and Day” is about as removed from Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” as it can be and still be set in the City of Light. In his first venture outside Korea, it’s easy to see why Sang-soo is considered to be the Eric Rohmer of his country.

Sung-nam Kim is a 40ish painter of some renown in Korea. He panics after being busted for possession of marijuana and immediately seeks refuge in Paris. Not being wealthy, Sung-nam is unable to afford the trappings of fame and must settle for sharing space in a crowded hostel run by a Korean man. Despite the fact that he’s married and calls his wife every night, Sung-nam finds himself growing close to young art students and a former lover whose contributions to his life he, at first, can barely remember. One of the most interesting things about “Night and Day” is the easy rapport the Korean students and ex-pats have with each other. Their conversations are so disarmingly naturalistic, it’s easy for viewers to see themselves in the characters. Once a couple of the young women get over the age gap, Sung-nam’s hang-dog demeanor and his marital status, their companionship makes way for love. Before we can feel good about it, though, Sang-soo pulls a final prank on his audience. At 144 minutes, “Night and Day” overstays its welcome by 20 minutes, at least. Sung-nam isn’t nearly as much fun to spend time with as the younger Korean characters that still are brightly optimistic and inquisitive about life. Still, what’s most compelling here is Sang-soo’s light touch and ability to find something interesting to say about everyday people.  – Gary Dretzka

Sinners And Saints: Blu-ray
William Kaufman’s high-octane crime thriller is so far over the top, it could only be set in a city as dangerous as New Orleans and be credible. In his first role in nearly a decade, Johnny Strong plays a trigger-happy cop, Sean Riley, assigned to investigate the torture killings of several of the Crescent City’s least reputable citizens. Acutely attuned to what’s happening in the streets, Riley gradually is able to find a link between the murders and re-appearance of an old Special Forces buddy. In “Sinners and Saints,” Kaufman introduces us to members of the murderous gang early on in the picture, without specifically revealing why they’re targeting lower-echelon meth dealers and street-gang soldiers. It involves a recording of atrocities committed in Afghanistan and a reporter’s willingness to pursue the cover-up, but the logic is so flaky it’s clear that Kaufman’s using the recovery of the tape as an excuse to unleash violence of biblical proportions. Even though they’re outgunned and lack the support of city officials, Strong and his new African-American partner prove to be formidable foes for the platoon of mercenaries who descend on New Orleans, which never seems to be populated when the shooting and explosions start. It’s to Kaufman’s credit that the violence is choreographed in such a way that viewers never have to worry about “Saints and Sinners” making any logical sense. The cast also includes Sean Patrick Flanery, Kevin Phillips, Costas Mandylor, Clifford ”Method Man” Smith, Jolene Blalock, Jürgen Prochnow, MMA fighter Bas Rutten and Tom Berenger. – Gary Dretzka

Diary of a Single Mom
The first season of Robert Townsend’s 26-episode Internet series, “Diary of a Single Mom,” has been cobbled together to fit the none-too-rigid requirements of a DVD movie. Any resemblance between it and such previous Townsend credits as “Hollywood Shuffle,” “The Five Heartbeats” and “B*A*P*S” is merely coincidental. Indeed, it owes more to Tyler Perry’s domestic dramas than any of his previous work. It is, however, representative of his efforts to create television programming for the Black Family Channel and other Internet services. “Diary of a Single Mom” chronicles the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Ocean (Monica Calhoun), a 27-year old mother of two who’s agrees to manage a three-story apartment building. It may not be much to look at, but, for Ocean, the place might as well be the Ritz. No sooner does she move into the building than Ocean discovers that she’ll also be called upon to administer to the needs of the other tenants and their kids. The problems of the ethnically diverse characters include quarrelsome boyfriends, lack of money and medical calamities. It’s a bit off-putting to watch former leading men Richard Roundtree and Billy Dee Williams playing geezers suffering through the problems associated with old age, but a gig’s a gig. Diane Carroll makes several appearances in the second season. – Gary Dretzka

The Japanese teens-in-jeopardy thriller “Gurozuka” recalls horror films, such as “The Ring,” that scared audiences around the world and were re-made to serve the purposes of subtitle-averse foreigners. Apparently, there’s been a scarcity of such movies lately. Here, a group of teenage girls spends the weekend in an isolated cabin in the woods. Their plan is to rehearse for a production sponsored by their school’s movie club. Even before they’ve left home, however, a video tape is found, showing the murder of a student several years earlier by a woman wearing a Noh mask. This, of course, leads the girls to believe that a repeat performance could be imminent. It isn’t long before crazy things do begin to happen in and around the cabin. “Gurozuka” isn’t nearly as frightening as it could be, had we not been made aware of the bogeywoman in the forest ahead of time. Even so, it’s a competently made movie and the young actors are pretty game. Teenagers should enjoy it a lot more than seasoned horror buffs. It comes with a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Summer of Massacre

It’s almost impossible to adequately describe how incredibly disgusting is “The Summer of Massacre,” a horror anthology that wallows in the blood shed by its many now-deceased characters and revels in the grotesquery of its special makeup effects. Writer/director Joe Castro made his bones creating effects for some of the genre’s leading practitioners of gore and gratuitous everything, and “The Summer of Massacre” occasionally resembles a greatest-hits compilation. It dramatizes the exploits of eight different depraved killers in five separate tales. In the first episode, a jogger is viciously mugged by a trio if hoodlums. When a young woman attempts to revive the nearly lifeless man, whose head is split it two, he attacks and kills her. This sets off a rampage bloody rampage – completely without rhyme or reason – until he finally avenges the beating. That’s just for starters, though. Apparently, the 155 murders broke one world record or another. Buffs won’t mind the hideousness of the crimes, but everyone else might want to think twice before entering herein. The DVD arrives with commentary, a director’s diary, interviews, cast auditions and Castro’s “Childhood Massacre” short film.

In Brooks Hunter’s “Kenneyville,” pretty young women are easy targets for demented hicks who either are protecting the mad scientists on the outskirts of town or are too stupid to realize that evil is being perpetrated by the mad scientists on the outskirts of town. Either way, they’re definitely disappearing and presumably being experimented upon by someone attempting to turn highly sexualized robots into assassins. Private investigators Patrick and Megan pose as tourists in an effort to locate an Ontario lassie, Kim. It doesn’t take long before they’re lured into the den of perverted siblings in the employ of Dr. Adrian Black, a specialist in hallucinatory drugs and needles. “Kenneyville” could have stood to be a bit sexier, but who needs gratuitous sex when you have gratuitous violence? – Gary Dretzka

Australia After Dark
The ABCs of Love and Sex

According to Mark Hartley’s highly entertaining documentary, “Not Quite Hollywood,” there’s no exploitation like Ozploitation, whether it be action, violence, horror or sex. Here are a couple of good examples of that. Made in 1975, “Australia After Dark” is goofy travelogue clearly inspired by such Italian shockumentaries as “Mondo Cane,” “Africa Addio” and “La Donna Nel Mondo.” Those films introduced western audiences to the rituals, sexual proclivities, red-light districts and violent pastimes of cultures not yet overexposed by cable television networks. “Australia After Dark” is heavy on gratuitously naked men and women, the activities along Sydney’s infamous King’s Cross district and among fetishists, drunk aborigines, bikini designers and the crazy ways people in the Outback amuse themselves. None of it is terribly shocking today, but the narration and choice of curiosities is entertaining in a campy sort of way. In a side note, young people today might also be amazed to see what women looked like before they began shaving, waxing and sculpting their nether regions. It’s truly hairy down under.

The ABCs of Love and Sex (Australia Style)” was directed by John Lamond, the same man responsible for “Australia After Dark.” He was spending time in Sweden, doing post-production on that film, when he decided that the country’s liberal attitude approach to pornography could work to his favor back home. I didn’t see much Australia-specific material in the film, which essentially is a sex-education primer at 24 frames per second (“A is for anatomy, B is for babies, etc.”). The models and scenery all appear to be Nordic and Lamond also elected to include the testimony of a decidedly homely representative of the Swedish Institute for Sexual Research. Even by the standards of the day – 1978, well after the release of “Deep Throat” – the vignettes feel forced and primitive. But that isn’t at all the point of the DVD release from Intervision, which specializes in cultish fare. Otherwise, the bonus package might not have included the commentary of Lamond and Hartley. – Gary Dretzka

Sid & Nancy: 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact the Sex Pistols had on pop culture in England and the United States. Pop rock had existed prior to the release of “God Save the Queen” and “Never Mind the Bollocks” – Detroit’s MC5 and Stooges, the Ramones and New York Dolls all preceded the Sex Pistols – but it was easily ignored by the mainstream media. Among the non-musical contributions of the Pistols were such cultural atrocities as safety-pin accessorizing, puke-green hair, the pogo dance, indecipherable lyrics and interviews, undisguised contempt for the status quo and pop iconography, and a tendency to spit on their fans. Their first American tour – through the Deep South, of all places – more closely resembled Wrestlemania than the third wave of the British invasion. Sid Vicious’ heroin addiction only added to the contempt shown the band by the press and fascination of fans bored by the leftover attractions of the ’60s, progressive rock, glam rockers and the weasels that controlled the radio and record industries.  Alex Cox’s anti-romance, “Sid & Nancy,” describes not only the disintegration of the relationship between Vicious and the schizophrenic groupie, Nancy Spungen, but the prevailing hopelessness among independent and underground artists. Cox didn’t attempt to sugarcoat any of the unappetizing material in his loud, nasty and utterly brilliant 1986 chronicle of the couple’s downward spiral toward death. Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb portray Sid and Nancy as parasites feeding off each other’s strength and weaknesses. As such, it isn’t an easy movie to watch, even for those viewers aware of the context of the times and the methodology of the director whose previous credit had been “Repo Man.”  The anniversary Blu-ray includes a pair of featurettes, “For the Love of Punk” and “Junk Love.” I encourage anyone interested in pursuing the subject to pick up the 2010 documentary, “Who Killed Nancy?,” which is critical of the NYPD’s investigation of Spungen’s death and offers an alternative scenario of the events that led to it. – Gary Dretzka

An Idiot Abroad
Primeval: Volume Three

Anyone who’s enjoyed HBO’s animated comedy, “The Ricky Gervais Show,” knows who Karl Pilkington is and Gervais’ dismissal of him as a “bald-headed Manc twat.” (“Manc” refers to his Manchester background.) In the often hilarious show – itself, an extension of a radio and Internet series — Gervais and longtime collaborator Stephen Merchant discuss all sorts of crazy things, but are at their best whenever they invite Pilkington to add his deadpan commentary. As something of a trailer-park Everyman, Pilkington’s observations span the spectrum from ignorant to strangely logical. In “An Idiot Abroad,” Gervais and Merchant delight in shipping Pilkington off to places most travelers pay huge sums of money to experience first-hand – the Taj Mahal, Chichen Itza, Petra, the Dead Sea, Machu Picchu, Rio de Janeiro and the Great Pyramid of Egypt. Unlike most tourists, though, Pilkington’s itinerary is the handiwork of a true sadist. His lodgings are below sub-par, his meals can only charitably be described as exotic, his transportation is primitive and he’s surrounded by people who don’t speak or understand English. In some destinations, Pilkington’s primary goal is to locate modern plumbing facilities. Imagine “Without Reservations” crossed with “Fear Factor” and you’ll have a pretty good idea what “An Idiot Abroad” is like. It’s easy to empathize with Pilkington, who is game for almost anything here, except another eight-hour trek through the desert on a recalcitrant camel and dining on toads. The series can be found in the U.S. on the Science Channel.

The BBC American hit series, “Primeval,” is all about anomalies. Somehow, a wrinkle in the space/time continuum allows creatures from the long-ago past and unforeseeable future to exist in present-day England. It is up to a team of scientists led by Professor Nick Cutter to investigate the temporal anomalies (“earthquakes in time”) and deal with the invaders. They also hope to come up with a way to predict the arrivals. “Volume Three” is comprised of 13 episodes from the fourth and fifth seasons of the series, when new members of the team are introduced, alongside ever-more-evolved threats to humanity. It also includes several background and making-of bonus features.

History: King Arthur and Medieval Britain
History: Frozen World: The Story of the Ice Age

Nova: Iceman Murder Mystery

Nova: Finding Life Beyond Earth: Blu-ray

Nature: The Animal House

Nova: Deadliest Volcanoes

Frontline: Lost in Detention: The Hidden Legacy of 9/11

I don’t think it was the intention of the History Channel to completely deflate several centuries’ worth of legends and lore involving King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but someone had to do it, I suppose. Fortunately, the producers of “King Arthur and Medieval Britain” had the decency to fill the vacuum with lots more mystery, conjecture and provocative history. It dates back to the arrival of the Romans, building of Hadrian’s Wall and the invasions of various hordes. Allusions to Arthurian figures and events that may have contributed to the myth can be found almost everywhere in ancient texts and other passed-along material. Pinning down a particular 6th Century warlord, however, proves difficult. The story is told through dramatizations and archival images. The series also deals with the origins of Lancelot, Guinevere, Merlin and Excalibur; the history of arms and armor and the quest for the Holy Grail.

History’s similarly exhaustive “Frozen World” and Nova’s fascinating “Iceman Murder Mystery” take viewers back to a period in Earth’s history when global warming was something to be welcomed, not feared. The changes wrought by the thick blanket of ice continue to shape how we live today. The great thing is that evidence of the changes surrounds us and can be seen without the employment of either a telescope or microscope. That we can still be surprised by the evidence, though, is just part of the appeal of “Iceman Murder Mystery.” For the past 20 years, scientists of several different stripes have been investigating the cause of death for a Copper Age man who was buried under ice for more than 5,000 years in the Italian Alps. The autopsy reveals clues that could keep the characters on “CSI” guessing for an entire season, including the contents of his stomach and presence of a bow and arrow.

Finding Life Beyond Earth” revives the question that’s been perplexing mankind for as long as humans could ask questions: where can I find a trustworthy mechanic? No, it’s “Are we alone in the universe?” and some scientists believe we may be getting close to an answer. We meet some of them in this DVD and Blu-ray. Another persistent question is, “Where do animals go when it rains?” Why do some animals build structures and others don t? Most of know where beavers live and how their houses get made, but where do less busy critters go? As far as I know, most of the animals featured in “The Animal House” have yet to earn a degree in architecture.

Of all the horrific ways people can be killed in natural disasters, being devoured by a lava flow may be the coolest. Buried in ash, not so much. The “Nova” episode, “Deadliest Volcanoes” tackles the endlessly fascinating study of volcanology and how the eruptions have changed not only the landscape, but also the way people live in their shadow.

Republican candidates for president enjoy beating up President Obama for not being tougher on illegal immigrants than he already is. “Frontline: Lost in Detention: The Hidden Legacy of 9/11” argues that Democrats don’t have to take a backseat to anyone on deportations and crappy treatment of our unwanted guests. The show examines Obama’s enforcement strategies, who is being detained and what is happening to them. – Gary Dretzka

Astral City: A Spiritual Journey
This Brazilian export combines key aspects of “Heaven Can Wait” and “Defending Your Life,” in the interest of a story about reincarnation. It was adapted by Wagner de Assis from a novel said to have been written by the spirit, Andre Luiz, through the Brazilian medium, Francisco Candido Xavier. Or, something like that. Here, the self-centered Dr. Luiz dies and awakes in the limbo-like realm of “Umbral.” It resembles a swamp, teeming with zombies instead of alligators. At some point, the doctor is snatched from the mud flats and brought to the spiritual city of “Nosso Lar” (“Our Home”), which could have been inspired by the Albert Brooks comedy. It’s here that Luiz is introduced to people working to improve and perfect the reincarnation process, which apparently needs fixing. The doctor probably could have used a bit more time in purgatory, as he routinely gave in to temptations of the seven deadly sins. He has other things to offer the community, though, than his personal redemption. “Astral City” reportedly was the most expensive movie to make in Brazilian history. The visual effects probably won’t impress most American audiences, as the backgrounds look as if they were lifted from a storybook. It’s intended, I think, for the kind of viewers who would like to see crystals and talismans sold at concession stands, alongside the popcorn. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Contagion, Brighton Rock, The Guard, Tokyo Drifter, Don’t Know How She Does It, Santa Mesa, Glad My Mother Is Alive, X: The Unheard Music, Justified …

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Contagion: Blu-ray
If the cast and creative team behind “Contagion” were a baseball team, it would be the New York Yankees. It would be managed by Academy Award-winner Steven Soderbergh and feature a lineup that includes such Oscar- and BAFTA-level talent as Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, writer Scott Z. Burns and editor Stephen Mirrione. It would look classy on the field and capture the attention of the media off of it. And, yet, just as the Bronx Bombers no longer are a mortal lock to make the World Series each October, “Contagion” fell short of blockbuster status when it was released just after Labor Day. Enthusiastic reviews notwithstanding, “Contagion” will have to go into extra innings on DVD and Blu-ray to make the kind of profits expected of it by the box-office swamis. As compelling a thriller as it is, it basically did the same business as Wolfgang Petersen’s “Outbreak” had in 1995. In the meantime had come “Pandemic,” “[REC]” and “[REC]2,” “Quarantine” and “Quarantine 2,” two other movies entitled “Contagion,” “Resident Evil,” “Twelve Monkeys,” “Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America,” several PBS documentaries on virus-driven epidemics and a dozen other dystopian dramas. The subject was pretty well exhausted, methinks.

“Contagion” does an excellent tracking the spread of a previously unknown flu-like disease from a party in Hong Kong – attended by Paltrow’s soon-to-die character – to America and other destinations for flights arriving from China. It isn’t long before other seemingly unrelated people begin to sneeze, sweat profusely and die in the streets of cities, large and small, around the planet. When it becomes clear that the deaths are connected to something other than a terrorist attack or bad oysters, and Soderbergh encourages his audience to join the scientists in the guessing game. They’re working feverishly to connect the dots, even as the virus is outpacing their efforts to collect specimens, interview survivors and study surveillance videos. Meanwhile, in the streets, fear and frustration have evolved into panic, despair and rumor-mongering. When the scientists finally turn the corner on a treatment, the mass-immunization process raises new questions and fears.

Ironically, “Contagion” shares several things in common with the star-studded disaster movies popularized by Irwin Allen in the 1970s, including “The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Towering Inferno” and “The Swarm.” At some point, all of the characters’ disparate paths are made to cross. Damon, for example, is somehow immune to the disease that kills his wife (Paltrow) and son, and threatens their daughter. As human lab rats, they’re poked and prodded by virologists from the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies. Upon his release, he finds himself surrounded by looters and people desperate to acquire the vaccine. (He’s also required to play Bad Dad when the teenage daughter attempts to make contact with her unimmunized boyfriend.) The movie also demonstrates how potentially dangerous Internet-based speculation and rumor-mongering spreads at approximately the same pace as the killer virus. Law plays an investigative reporter whose blog is must reading for conspiracy freaks, but dismissed by scientists, politicians and public-health officials. Once it’s established that he might actually be onto something important, Soderbergh demands that we question the reporter’s ethics … and, by extension, those of all Internet activists. Critics have compared the interlacing of differently textured storylines in “Contagion” to what happens in Soderberg’s “Traffic,” but the conceit is at least as old as “Grand Hotel.” The Blu-ray edition includes the featurettes “Contagion: How a Virus Changes the World,” “The Reality of Contagion” and “The Contagion Detectives,” as well as instant streaming with UltraViolet Digital Copy. – Gary Dretzka

Brighton Rock
The Guard

Despite the estimable presence of Helen Mirren, John Hurt and Andy Serkis in key supporting roles, fine work by fresh faces Sam Riley and Andrea Riseborough in the lead parts, and a distinguished pedigree, “Brighton Rock” barely made a dent at the domestic box office in limited release. Rowan Joffe’s debut feature updates the setting of Graham Greene’s ultra-dark crime novel from pre-war Brighton Beach to 1964, when violent clashes between the Mods and Rockers terrorized several seaside communities. The sinister character of Pinkie Brown, the antagonist of the book and the 1947 film based on it, famously was captured by a 24-year-old Richard Attenborough. As the movie opens, Pinkie is a young thug on the verge of making the biggest mistake in his young life. In avenging the death of his criminal mentor, he ignores the usual gangland protocol and simply assumes he’s free to bludgeon the assailant’s head to a gooey pulp in a confrontation under the landmark pier. Even before the man’s blood has begun to soak into the sand, however, Pinkie foresees a possible date with the hangman and almost certain damnation in hell. Instead of seeking refuge in some less visible city, the hot-headed moron attempts to eliminate everyone who conceivably could steer police in his direction or threaten his physical well-being. Riseborough portrays the mousey waitress who was photographed alongside the soon-to-be-dead gangster and Pinkie’s boss, who knows better than to act rashly in such situations. He orders Pinkie to find and destroy the photograph, while also ensuring the waitress will remain silent. Instead of following his basic instincts and simply making the waifish teen disappear, Pinkie sadistically exploits her infatuation with him. Like Rose, we’re fooled into thinking he might be attracted to her, as well.

Knowing Rose is a religious girl, Pinkie comes to believe she’ll be overcome with guilt when she learns that her new boyfriend and his boss conspired to kill a man. Again, instead of finding a logical solution, he marries Rose and demands she obey his every command.  Like Holly, in “Badlands,” the girl sees in the outlaw an opportunity to break out of her shell and blossom as a woman not unlike her well-traveled boss and protector, Ida (Mirren). In her time, however, Ida has seen dozens of Pinkies crash and burn in their pursuit of fame and illicit wealth. She counsels Rose against buying into the ruse and steering clear of Pinkie. Failing that, Ida enlists the aid of former criminal associates to eliminate the threat to everyone posed by the increasingly paranoid and blood-thirsty Pinkie. The final confrontation between the forces of darkness and light (relatively speaking, of course) is absolutely chilling.

A convert to Catholicism, Greene often tested his characters beliefs. As in “Brighten Rock,” they wrestled with guilt, disillusionment, moral ambiguity and faith. While the film adaptations played down this aspect of Greene’s work, writer/director Joffe couldn’t the hanging the odd crucifix and painting of the Blessed Virgin or Jesus Christ to walls on his sets. By introducing the Mods and Rockers to the drama, Joffe not only is framing the movie’s cultural milieu, but he also is forecasting the corruption of values that would soon shake England out of its post-war sleep. The code adhered to by old-school gangsters would be rendered meaningless in the pursuit of greed and great power and no young woman would have an excuse for being as naïve and passive as Rose. “Brighton Rock” also reminded me of such terrific pre-Guy Ritchie entertainments as “The Krays,”  “The Italian Job,”  “Get Carter,” “The Long Good Friday” (also co-starring Mirren) and “Mona Lisa” (partially set in Brighton), all of which relied more on story and character development, than clever dialogue, hyper-violence and a bombastic soundtrack. If “Brighton Rock” didn’t get a fair shot in the U.S., it’s probably because distributors deemed it to be too dark and seemingly amoral to satisfy squishy American tastes. Fans of complex gangster movies and Brit fiction – straight razors, too – shouldn’t be disappointed, though. The DVD includes several interviews and making-of material.

From Ireland, “The Guard” is a crime thriller that’s as darkly funny as it is exciting. It stars Brendan Gleeson as a not terribly dedicated Connemara cop, Sergeant Gerry Boyle, who, without warning or provocation, finds himself waist-deep in a criminal enterprise involving big-time drug traffickers, corrupt Galway police officials, the FBI and Irish drug-enforcement agencies. Boyle may be lazy, crass and a frequenter of prostitutes, but he knows his constituency and what residents will and won’t accept as proper behavior for a policeman. Very soon after Boyle and his bright new deputy are made aware of a ritualistic murder in his bailiwick, he is surprised by the unexpected appearance of FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle). Finding an African-American anything in such an out-of-the-way burg would raise suspicions among the populace. That Everett is an impeccably dressed and highly motivated American, in an otherwise rough-and-tumble seaside community, makes no sense at all. In fact, Everett is in Connemara to intercept the delivery of a half-billion-dollar shipment of cocaine in an imprecisely drawn location. He expects the usual amount of resistance from local officials – even the natural curiosity and occasional gag that goes with being black in a lily-white environment — but is shocked by Boyle’s goofy behavior, racial digs, crude jokes and the complete indifference of the locals to drug trafficking on their shores. It would have been easy for freshman writer-director John Michael McDonagh to let “The Guard” play out as if it were a Gallic “48 HRS” or “Lethal Weapon.” Instead, both characters are wary of each other throughout most of the movie, and the inevitable friendship is allowed to develop without sacrificing plot, pace or credulity. It’s a first-rate entertainment that some critics have added to their top-10 lists for 2011. – Gary Dretzka

Tokyo Drifter: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Seijun Suzuki’s wildly stylistic and very goofy “Tokyo Drifter” is the second of the director’s mid-’60s gangster flicks to be released by Criterion in Blu-ray. Unlike the status-conscious hitman in “Branded to Kill,” Tetsuya Watari’s “Phoenix Tetsu” is desperately trying to cut his ties to a criminal underworld that’s comprised of guys who resemble the Blues Brothers and think nothing of killing anyone who gets in the way of their boss’ business. Tetsu is especially disturbed by the breakdown of ethics within the yakuza hierarchy. In their eyes, however, he remains a formidable enemy and good luck charm to the bosses in his debt. By remaining true to his own code of honor, Tetsu resembles the habitually cool gangsters that populated French noir in the 1950s-60s and pre-code American crooks. Even more than Criterion’s earlier DVD of “Tokyo Drifter,” the Blu-ray edition succinctly captures Suzuki’s radical visual conceits, especially in the nightclub scenes, where cheesy psychedelia, torchy cabaret atmospherics and a jazzy score compete for our attention. When the action moves to Japan’s northern provinces, Suzuki neatly exploits the wintery textures and colors. From a distance of more than 40 years, “Tokyo Drifter” is nothing if not campy. It’s easy to see how American admirers of foreign films — used to Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon and Jean Gabin – might have considered Suzuki’s films to be the cinematic equivalent to “Godzilla.” Indeed, Suzuki’s revolutionary production designs, splashy color palette and unique characterizations so infuriated his bosses that he was fired from his position at one of the country’s largest studios. Today, however, they simply look inspired. The Blu-ray package adds a new interview with Suzuki and his AD, Masami Kuzuu, and an interview with Suzuki from 1997, as well as a booklet with an essay by critic Howard Hampton. – Gary Dretzka

I Don’t Know How She Does It: Blu-ray
Serendipity: Blu-ray
She’s All That: Blu-ray

It hardly qualifies as news that women still sometimes find it difficult to balance careers and family life. In “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” it hardly qualifies as entertainment, either. In Douglas McGrath’s thinly drawn adaptation of Allison Pearson’s best-selling novel, Sarah Jessica Parker plays Kate Reddy, a business executive about to break the glass ceiling as a much-in-demand financial adviser. She lives in Boston with her less-successful architect husband (Greg Kinnear) and their two young children, all of whom will soon have to deal with a mostly absentee wife and mom. Kate is an obsessive list-maker, “juggler” and “multi-tasker.” Her new assignment takes her to New York, where she’ll devise strategies with a widely admired executive, played by Pierce Brosnan. The question isn’t so much whether Kate can compete with the big boys – we assume she can – but whether or not she’ll dump her increasingly frazzled husband and replace him with the charming Brit. While Brosnan’s Jack Abelhammer certainly wouldn’t mind combining business and pleasure, it never seems likely that Kate will take the bait. Although Jack and Kate are suited to each other, McGrath dials the sexual tension down to simmer and never brings it back to boil. Meanwhile, as could be expected, a medical calamity happens to one of the kids and it causes Kate to readjust her priorities. Both of the men in her life retain their dignity and she isn’t required to give up any of her previous career initiatives. And, yes, her post-feminist dilemma plays out in exactly that dull a manner.

That said, Parker’s fans likely will find something to enjoy in “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” She nimbly balances Kate’s energy and angst, while always looking pretty snazzy. Brosnan, Kinnear, Seth Meyers and Kelsey Grammer, as her boss, have no trouble walking through their parts; Olivia Munn, as Kate’s assistant, won’t make anyone forget Joan Cusack, in “Working Girl”; and Christina Hendricks, as Kate’s best friend, is allowed to look gorgeous without also displaying the rack that’s made her one of the leading lights of “Mad Men.” The best Blu-ray feature is an interview with the author, in which she doesn’t seem to mind having had some of her book’s teeth extracted.

Speaking of clichés, “Serendipity” is a weightless rom-com in which John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale meet cute – twice — no doubt causing countless teenagers to believe fairy tales can come true. Five years after their first romantic encounter — they met shopping for gloves intended for their partners — Sara and Jonathan feel the need to reconnect, at least to see if they’re making a mistake by getting married to other people.  Cusack and Beckinsale don’t spend all that much time on screen together, which was probably OK with them. “Serendipity” is only for diehard fans. The Blu-ray comes with plenty of making-of material and commentary with director Peter Chelsom, deleted scenes and storyboard comparisons.

She’s All That” is a teen-centric re-working of the old “Pygmalion”/
“My Fair Lady” formula with plenty of “The Ugly Duckling” thrown in for good measure. After losing his super-swell girlfriend to a MTV personality, hot-shot Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr.) accepts his friends’ bet that he can’t turn geeky Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook) into the school’s prom queen.  You wouldn’t care to make the same bet, would you? Love blossoms, of course, but the writers make it as difficult as they can for destiny’s duo to get there. The Blu-ray adds commentary with director Robert Iscove and a music video by Six Pence None the Richer. – Gary Dretzka

I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive
Santa Mesa

In Claude and Nathan Miller’s emotionally charged drama, “I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive,” a troubled young man re-connects with the woman who gave him up for adoption when he was 5 years old and is mostly ambivalent to his re-appearance at 20. Unlike his younger brother, Thomas has vague memories of being turned over to the man and woman who would raise them and suffer through the tirades that grew in intensity as his obsession with his birth mother intensified. Thomas isn’t a bad boy, but he has been traumatized by the experience. Likewise, his adoptive parents are nice people, but their lives have become a roller-coaster ride. The tranquility of life at home is based solely on Thomas’ conflicting moods and unjustified feelings of guilt. Shadowy memories of life with his irresponsible birth mother, Julie, have haunted him from an early age. Indeed, even after managing to discover Julie’s identity and whereabouts, he can’t bring himself to say more than a couple of words to her, before running away. For her part, Julie both welcomes and resents Thomas’ reappearance a couple of years later. Slowly, though, he insinuates himself into her life and that of his stepbrother, who is about the same age now as Thomas was when he was abandoned. The real trouble begins when he senses that his stepbrother might be facing the same fate. “Alive” benefits greatly from terrific performances by Vincent Rottiers, as Thomas, and Sophie Cattani and Christine Citti, as his mothers. It’s also worth knowing that the movie is based on actual events.

Ron Morales’ debut feature, “Santa Mesa,” is another powerful depiction of the emotional journey some adoptees face on the way to adulthood. Hector is an agreeable 12-year-old boy transplanted from the United States to a hard-scrabble neighborhood in the Philippines, after the death of his mother in an accident. He’s required to live with a grandmother he’s never met and whose language he can’t understand. Hector’s vulnerability causes him to connect with a group of kids who are already on their way to a life of crime. A bungled burglary results in Hector becoming indebted to a photographer, who will temporarily play the role of a father figure. The hobby allows Hector to believe he can survive in this strange new world and contribute to the well-being of others. If “Santa Mesa” relies a bit too much on coincidence to advance the narrative, they circumstances dictate a certain suspension of disbelief. The Manila setting is fresh and the acting is very good, especially that of newcomer Jacob Shalov. Melissa Leo lends her name to the production, but isn’t on the screen very long. – Gary Dretzka

Don’t Let Him In
Removal: Blu-ray

Although the title, “Don’t Let Him In,” suggests that the movie we’re about to see will be full of polite vampires and people conversant in undead etiquette, it is instead a rare British slasher flick. Writer/director Kelly Smith appears to have dedicated himself to creating an American-style gorefest, appropriately set in a remote cabin in the woods and populated with characters who think posted warnings about serial-killer activity don’t apply to them. What keeps “Don’t Let Him In” from drowning in genre clichés is the likelihood that at least two killers are on the loose and both have been given access to the same cabin. And, while it isn’t difficult to figure out who the bad guys are, it isn’t easy to predict when and how they will strike next. When they do, however, the blood flows as freely as beer at a tailgate party outside Lambeau Field. The killer known to the locals is famous for chopping off the limbs of humans and hanging them on the limbs of trees. The other murderer is less inventive. The odd thing is that the city slickers who elect to stay in the cabin overnight aren’t at all likable and, therefore, we don’t miss them much when they get snuffed out. Smith has a nice touch with atmospherics and the forest is plenty spooky. Even Saddam Hussein might have vetoed seeking refuge in the primary killer’s spider hole. The making-of featurette is interesting, even though it’s nearly as long as the movie, itself, and the director takes himself way too seriously.

“Removal” is a creepy little thriller, during which it’s never clear exactly if the lead character – an employee of a cleaning service – is hallucinating or actually neck deep in blood and gore. Cole’s never been the same since he witnessed the suicide of a friend who had just killed his family. After being released from the funny farm, Cole dedicates himself to earning the kind of money needed to impress his estranged wife. It means having to work interminably long shifts and accepting a job at a mansion owned by a cold-blooded psycho, who, by all indications, has just murdered his wife. Not having taken his medicine in a few days, the thoroughly exhausted carpet cleaner has begun experiencing horrific flashbacks and blurring the lines between reality and paranoia. Mark Kelly is very good as the freaked-out Cole, but it’s Oz Perkins who does an outstanding imitation of Anthony Perkins in “Psycho.” As low-budget thrillers go, both of these movies qualify as over-achievers. – Gary Dretzka

Final Destination 5: Blu-ray
Shark Night: Blu-ray
Ice Quake: Blu-ray

In the world of horror, it’s next to impossible to kill off a popular franchise, such as “Final Destination.” When all forward progress has been halted, the producers can always slip into reverse and pull a prequel out of their butt, thus advancing the series by going backwards. “FD 5” is set in the late 1990s, just before the release of the first “FD,” and a decade before the release of “FD4,” which we were led to believe was the final “Final Destination.” The enigmatic coroner, Bludworth, returns to the series to explain to the doomed characters that it’s impossible to cheat death simply by avoiding it once or twice. He’s introduced at the funeral of co-workers killed in a catastrophic bridge collapse, which serves as the movie’s first and best set piece. One of the passengers in a bus headed to a company retreat had envisioned the collapse right down to the impalements and crushed bodies. After awaking with a start, Sam realizes that the bus has only now reached the bridge and is in the same position it was when the road began to crumble in his dream. This time, he’s more successful at alerting his co-workers and getting more of them to safety than he was able to previously. Just when the survivors are feeling good about their chances of someday collecting Social Security, Bludworth’s warning begins to ring true. As usual, the deaths are designed to be as gory and disturbing as possible, especially when viewed in 3D. Besides the intricately choreographed bridge collapse, “FD5” features an exciting midair plane disaster and other stomach-churning “accidents.” Given the convenient placement of fans blades and other sharp objects, fans will be able to foretell scenes of unspeakable horror with the same accuracy as the most clairvoyant of characters. It spoils any notion of spontaneity but gives the punters their money’s worth. The Blu-ray edition adds alternate death scenes, a making-of featurette that explains how the green-screen set pieces were created and side-by-side comparisons of visual-effects sequences.

Rated PG-13, “Shark Night” (a.k.a., “Shark Night 3D”) is built from the same template as such killer-animal flicks as “Piranha,” “Alligator,” “Lake Placid,” “Barracuda,” “Humanoids From the Deep” and, of course, the many sequels to those creature features. A group of college students decide to enjoy a few days off from school at a vacation home owned by the family of one of the girls. It’s located on a large, secluded lake in southern Louisiana. Before hopping on the motorboat that will transport them to the remote location, the students are confronted by a pair of belligerent local yokels, who will keep reappearing throughout the movie. No sooner do the students reach the cabin and begin entertaining themselves with various aquatic activities than critters we know to be sharks begin picking them off one by one. What, you ask, are sharks doing in a fresh-water lake? That’s for the filmmakers to know and very patient viewers to find out. It’s easy to figure out where the 3D effects would have appeared in “Shark Night,” if the distributors had elected to release the stereoscopic version. Nothing, though, could have turned the movie into something in the same league as the Corman classics or even “Piranha 3D,” which, at least, had the whimsy to add porn divas to the fishes’ menu. Indeed, there’s precious little skin here and the gore is inexplicably tame and predictable. While not nearly as crazy as some of Corman’s work for Syfy, “Shark Night” could easily find a home there. The Blu-ray arrives with a “Shark Attack Kill Machine!,” which allows viewers to skip ahead to the bloody bits; a profile of director David R. Ellis (“Snakes on a Plane” and two “Final Destination” installments; and the featurettes, “Shark Night’s Survival Guide” and “Fake Sharks, Real Scares.”

Ice Quake” is a fairly typical Syfy channel product in that a decent world-in-peril conceit isn’t supported by a budget that can make it look plausible. Apparently, a massive ice shelf has collapsed in Russia, causing earthquake-like shock waves to ripple through the entire polar region. Among other dire ramifications, huge geysers, fissures and avalanches are being recorded and methane is leaking through the permafrost, threatening to blow up the planet. An attractive cast, which includes Brendan Fehr and Victor Garber, is called upon to marshal their resources to save the Earth from an obnoxiously smelly demise. The British Columbia setting helps make “Ice Quake” easy on the eyes, if not the brain, and, if nothing else, productions like these keep Canadian actors gainfully employed. The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Set exclusively in the garage of a Los Angeles limousine service, “Dispatch” feels as if it might have been written for the stage and expanded to fit the dimensions of a vanity project for the screen. Steven Sprung and Michael Bershad do the heavy lifting in this Hollywood morality play. Bershad plays a screenwriter who has enjoyed success in the past, but refuses to take on the kind of lucrative assignments he feels are beneath him. Instead, he’s taken on the role of dispatcher at the limo company. Trouble is, he’s in the middle of a painful divorce and needs a chuck of money to make things right. A degenerate gambler, as well, he senses an opportunity when an old acquaintance – a cocky chauffeur, named Killer – returns to work, dropping hints about a sure-fire restaurant investment. Instead, it’s anything but a guaranteed success and Killer ain’t what he appears to be. “Dispatch” probably would be more effective if viewed in a non-equity production at a small theater. As a DVD rental, it isn’t a bad investment, either. – Gary Dretzka

Cast Me If You Dare
This amusing Japanese confection involves an actor who specializes in supporting roles and commercials, but can’t seem to escape from the shadow of his highly respected playwright father. As such, Hiroshi is a droopy fellow who rarely smiles and often is mistaken for other people, including wanted criminals. In addition to the ensuing comedy of errors, Hiroshi becomes the object of desire for a sweet aspiring actress, who’s as impressed with his credits as those of his father. Instead of embracing Aya’s advances, Hiroshi pushes her away from him. Eventually, the physical opposites attract, but it takes a large dollop of slapstick comedy before they do. “Cast Me If You Dare” is the kind of movie that grows on you. – Gary Dretzka

The Fat Boy Chronicles
Inspired by a true story and adapted from a book by Diane Lang and Michael Buchanan, who also wrote the screenplay, “The Fat Boy Chronicles” is a surprisingly entertaining story about a kid who overcomes huge obstacles in his struggle to be accepted by his high school classmates. Although not morbidly obese, Jimmy (Christopher Rivera) is well on his way to an early heart attack. He’s bullied unmercifully by the jock elite at his school and played for a sucker by some of the “popular” girls. Nevertheless, he dedicates himself to losing weight and finding a niche that fits his friendly personality. It isn’t easy, of course, but he finds support in the company of an outcast boy with an alcoholic father and the school’s resident “emo/goth chick.”

Being a Dove-approved family film, “Fat Boy Chronicles” affords Jimmy the backing of understanding parents and the comfort of Sunday church services. The writers also put him in contact with adults who’ve either been victims of bullying, themselves, or have overcome some kind of social handicap. Watching Jimmy pick himself up by his own bootstraps is inspirational and heart-warming. Thirty years ago, a movie like this might have found a home on network TV as an “Afterschool Special.” Today, I don’t see any reason why a kids-oriented cable channel wouldn’t find a home for “Fat Boy Chronicles” on its schedule. The DVD adds interviews with the stars and some background on the national campaign to make adults aware of the bullying crisis in schools. – Gary Dretzka

X: The Unheard Music: The Silver Edition
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Live: Blu-ray
Chris Isaak: Live/Greatest Hits: Live: Blu-ray
Ringo Starr and the Roundheads: Live: Blu-ray

The title, “X: The Unheard Music,” refers not only to the band’s tough road to relative stardom, but also to the struggle of all L.A. underground and punk groups in the late 1970s simply to be heard. As crazy as it might seem in 2012, the club scene in Los Angeles was practically non-existent outside the mainstream venues; AM and FM radio both sucked; major labels and their handmaidens at MTV were completely risk-averse; and CDs, the Internet, iPods and satellite radio weren’t even at the pipedream stage. The Ramones and Sex Pistols had already established a beachhead in New York and London, and the media simply didn’t know what to make of them. Punk rock was being played in Los Angeles and Orange County, but only a few adventurous media outlets paid any attention to it. That would change in due course and the music industry would tie itself up in knots trying to recover. W.T. Morgan’s “X: The Unheard Music” was released about five years after Penelope Spheeris’ 1981″The Decline of Western Civilization” introduced the world to some of the L.A. punk bands mentioned in the X song, “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” (“We’re the last American band to be played on the radio …”). As much a visual essay on life in a steadily decaying Los Angeles, as it is a performance film, the documentary took five years to complete. In Blu-ray, it looks and sounds terrific, while the music and message aren’t at all dated. The same baloney spieled by the radio and music executives interviewed 25 years ago applies to the industry in 2012, except that today’s listeners have many more recording and playback options and availability to emerging artists via You Tube is unlimited. The execs’ attitudes also help explain why music lovers today aren’t at all sympathetic to the labels’ complaints about sagging profits and fierce competition from new-media outlets. The Silver Edition package includes lots of music, fresh interviews, a “dialogue” with John Doe and Exene Cervenka, a songbook and live outtake of “Some Other Time.”

I don’t think X ever performed on “Soundstage,” but plenty of other excellent groups were represented on the live-performance series. The concerts look especially vibrant on Blu-ray, if only because the PBS technicians have always been way ahead of the curve when it comes to hi-def. The latest group of releases showcases Tom Petty & the Hearbreakers, Chris Isaak and Ringo Starr, who pretty much stick to their big hits and a handful of surprise songs. Petty strays into unknown territory a bit more than Isaak and Starr, with some blues and country standards, but there’s plenty of familiar stuff, too. Isaak displays a warm and funny stage presence and includes several acoustic songs in the two concerts included in the Blu-ray package. Raul Malo also appears on the disc. Ringo and the Roundheads perform such Beatles and post-Beatles classics as “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Octopus’ Garden,” “Choose Love,” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “Don’t Pass Me By,” “Photograph,” “Back Off Boogaloo,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Act Naturally” and “With A Little Help From My Friends” The former Mr. Starkey still is enjoying a surprisingly fruitful musical career. – Gary Dretzka

In the Name of the King 2: Two Worlds: Blu-ray
Infamous director Uwe Boll returns to the wonderful world of swords and sorcery in this sequel to the 2006 dud, “In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale,” which was based on the role-playing video game, “Dungeon Siege.” Box-office results didn’t warrant a sequel, especially considering the $60-million budget and a cast that probably didn’t work for peanuts. The fact that the subsequent DVD and Blu-ray releases of the original out-performed the theatrical release probably inspired the producers to risk this straight-to-video sequel at approximately a tenth of the cost and with only one truly recognizable star, Dolph Lundgren.  He plays a Granger, a former Special Forces soldier who is transported back to a time when sorcerers and dragons competed with knights and kings for supremacy. No dummies, the royals seem perfectly content to let the time-traveler handle the Dark Ones for them. “Two Worlds” has been sent out with an “R” rating, for violence, which isn’t nearly the handicap in DVD as it is in a theatrical release. The Blu-ray arrives with commentary by Boll and writer Michael Nachoff (“Bloodrayne: The Third Reich”) and featurettes on the writing process and production. – Gary Dretzka

Justified: The Complete Second Season
Archer: The Complete Season Two
Spongebob Squarepants: Spongebob’s Frozen Face-Off
Dora Loves Boots

A survey of this year’s top-10 lists compiled by television critics would find the FX series “Justified” close to the top of the heap. With only two seasons under its belt, “Justified” has become one of the most anxiously awaited shows on the tube. It also has the distinction of being honored with a Peabody Award, several Emmy nominations and a much-deserved win for veteran character actor Margo Martindale. She played the sociopathic matriarch of the Crowder crime family, which initiated must of the mayhem in the show’s second season. You can see what all the fuss is about in “Justified: The Complete Second Season,” which is comprised of 547 minutes of creatively violent action, along with a set visit, outtakes and “Clans, Feuds and Apple Pie.” For the uninitiated, “Justified” is a spinoff of the Elmore Leonard short story, “Fire in the Hole,” and is as representative of the master’s prose as any movie adapted from a Leonard novel. Timothy Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a young U.S. Marshal whose reputation for being quick on the trigger has been fairly earned and deemed perfectly legal by authorities. Even so, he was shipped for his own protection from Miami to his childhood home of Harlan County, Kentucky, which is crawling with in-bred hillbilly hoodlums, many of whom went to school with or played sports opposite Givens. In Season 2, Givens also was required to deal directly with the many failings of his outlaw dad.

FX also is home base for the animated espionage comedy, “Archer,” soon to enter the second half of its third season. Deliberately irreverent, the characters resemble familiar genre archetypes from nearly 50 years’ worth of spy movies, from 007 to OSS 117. The best part, perhaps, is the many references to the characters’ sexual history, inner-office intrigue and dialogue laced with raunchy innuendo.  Dubbed the “world’s most dangerous spy,” Sterling Archer often is more of menace to himself than the villains he pursues. In the second stanza, he also battled daddy issues.  The Blu-ray comes with “Archersaurus: Self Extinction,” a mini-episode in which Archer is transmogrified into a velociraptor; “Ask Archer,” in which he answers viewers’ questions; “Semper Fi,” which acknowledges the soldiers of Able Company, serving in Afghanistan; “L’espion Mal Fait,” a kooky role-reversal short; and “ISIS Infiltrates Comic-Con.”

The latest collection of SpongeBob SquarePants episodes opens with a nod to winter in “Frozen Face-Off.” In it, the residents of Bikini Bottom participate in a worm-sled race to the South Pole. Other episodes take on more familiar issues, such as SpongeBob learning to drive and his hoarding fetish. The DVD also includes bonus episodes. In “Dora Loves Boots,” the show’s star helps the red-booted monkey learn how to ride a bike, plan for a visit to the Rainforest Campground, adjust to bouncy new boots and reverse a magic spell that turns him into a chicken. – Gary Dretzka

Greatest Super Bowl Moments
It would be easier to shut off the flow of water to Niagara Falls than to keep NFL Films from re-purposing its vast inventory of Super Bowl and playoffs footage in the run-up to the Big Game. What are we up to now, 45? It’s been a while since producers of the “Greatest Super Bowl Moments” series have been required to pad or use filler to come up with 156 minutes of exciting action and still-vivid memories. More often than not, the games have provided plenty of noteworthy moments, drama and inspired decision-making. What we’ve yet to see from NFL Films is “Greatest Moments in Pro Bowl History.” Given the patty-cake guidelines for the annual event – now inexplicably held the weekend before the Super Bowl – it isn’t likely we ever will. – Gary Dretzka

The Last Lions
Lions aren’t exactly underrepresented in the world of nature documentaries. Fortunately, though, the undeniable majesty and sheer presence of these and other big cats – as photographed in the wild – flies in the face of the dictum, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” National Geographic and Dereck Joubert’s latest examination of life in Africa uses one startling statistic, along with 88 minutes of often spectacular cinematography, to justify its inclusion in the genre. It’s estimated here that Africa’s lion population has decreased from almost a half-million 50 years ago, to around 20,000 today. That’s fewer than the number of protected elephants extant on the continent. As one of Africa’s greatest tourist attractions, the loss of more lions not only could spell an economic calamity in places like Botswana – seen here – it also could pose the kinds of problems caused when an animal at the top of the food chain disappears. Beyond that staggering statistic, though, “The Last Lions” represents several years’ worth of dedication by Joubert in the field. As we have learned in other documentaries, lions faces dangers of their own, not the least of which are crocodiles and animals that stand up to them in mortal combat. If Jeremy Irons’ narration sometimes comes off as a tad cloying at times, it’s easy enough to turn down the sound and overlay the “Born Free” soundtrack over the splendid hi-def visuals. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Margin Call, Dolphin Tale, Midnight in Paris, Glee, Warrior, Burke & Hare, Milestones, Old Fashioned Orgy, Bobby Fischer, Colin Quinn, Hunters, Todd-Margaret, Apollo 18 …

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Margin Call
Add “Margin Call” to the list of dramatizations and documentaries — “Too Big to Fail” and “Inside Job,” among them – that have attempted to make sense of the 2008 financial crisis and identify those executives who ignored the red flags waved in advance of the collapse. J.C. Chandor’s freshman project is distinguished by an ensemble cast of veteran actors in Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore and Simon Baker, and an energetic group of fresh faces that includes Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley and Ashley Williams. It is set during a 24-hour period immediately preceding the collapse, when a major investment-banking firm realizes that it’s sitting on so much bad paper that it will take a Herculean effort to unload it on unsuspecting saps in other Wall Street offices. Jeremy Irons is the firm’s boss, who orders the emergency sell-off fully understanding its potentially disastrous ramifications. Moore plays an analyst who raised the first red flag, a year earlier, but was ignored. Tucci is laid off just as he’s about to put the pieces of the puzzle together for himself and hands off the data to an assistant as he’s being escorted out the door. Spacey and Baker portray senior executives caught in the middle between loyalty and personal ruin. The younger employees, who’ve done most of the computer grunt work, also are the ones required to burn their bridges with other firms before getting laid off.

“Margin Call” has all the qualities associated with a tick-tock thriller, as well as a narrative that makes sense out of a complicated situation. The acting is superb and the high-rise setting is as compelling a backdrop for drama as any in New York. To Chandor’s credit, just when the story begins to feel stagebound, he takes the characters out of the boardroom and lets them stew in their own juices until the ringing of the opening bell and the blood begins to flow. Their pain and/or hypocrisy ar palpable. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two of the actors nominated for Oscars for their work here. The bonus material includes commentary with Chandor and producer Neal Dodson; the featurette, “Revolving Door: Making ‘Margin Call’”; deleted scenes and outtakes; and a photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka

Dolphin Tale: Blu-ray
Knowing that “Dolphin Tale” not only is based on a true story, but also stars the heroic dolphin upon which it’s based, elevates it above most other movies in the against-all-odds category. Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) is the boy called upon to help the beached dolphin, caught in a rope attached to a crab trap, and keep it from panicking before volunteers from the animal shelter arrive. Sadly, the rope has already done its damage by cutting off blood to Winter’s tail, requiring amputation. Sawyer is allowed to participate in the rehabilitation effort, which is complicated by Winter’s having re-learned to swim in a side-to-side manner hazardous to its spine. In order to get the dolphin to flap its tail vertically, Sawyer convinces a doctor (Morgan Freeman) at a military rehabilitation facility to experiment with prosthesis capable of sticking to the stump and withstanding the pressure. Conveniently, Sawyer’s cousin (Austin Stowell) is being treated at the same hospital for his wounds and the depression that comes with knowing he didn’t come back from Iraq in the same athletic form as when he left Florida. You can probably guess the rest, but it’s worth knowing that Sawyer is cured of his own malady — painful shyness – with the help of cute a volunteer (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) his age and her marine-biologist dad  (Harry Connick Jr.). Meanwhile, the research facility is facing foreclosure and sale to a developer. That’s a lot of bad mojo for one movie and it requires the support of actors Kris Kristofferson, Francis Sternhagen and Ashley Judd in supporting roles.

For all the problem-solving involved, “Dolphin Tale” is light on real drama (or anything that would warrant a PG rating, instead of a “G,” either). It’s most interesting when Freeman is on screen, developing the prosthesis and attempting to figure out why Winter keeps rejecting it. Decidedly family-friendly, in the best sense of the term, the movie likely will appeal to kids, younger tweens and their parents, instead of teenagers who likely consider themselves too hip for this sort of thing. It’s interesting to recall that director Charles Martin Smith (Toad, in “American Graffiti”) starred in and co-wrote Carroll Ballard’s marvelous adaptation of Farley Mowat’s 1983 survival thriller, “Never Cry Wolf.” It was hailed as one of the first nature movies to appeal to adults, attracted to the beautiful cinematography and Arctic locations, as much as kids. The Blu-ray package adds a making-of piece and scene breakdown, describing how the opening sequence was constructed with CGI dolphins and real underwater footage; a bio of the real Winter and her recovery; a deleted scene and gag reel; and a pair animated shorts. – Gary Dretzka

Midnight in Paris
It would be unfair to Woody Allen to call “Midnight in Paris” a return to form, simply because it’s sweet, funny and appeals to audiences in flyover country. If it made more money than several of Allen’s most recent titles, combined, it’s probably because the story was irresistibly buzz-worthy. “Midnight in Paris” succeeded for the same reason big-city art museums routinely schedule blockbuster shows featuring the works of leading Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. People simply can’t get enough of the art, the people who made it, the romantic lore and, of course, Paris. Allen’s surrogate here, Gil (Owen Wilson), is an extremely likeable writer for whom a night in the company of Ernest Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude and Alice, Picasso, Dali, Cole Porter, T.S. Eliot and a dozen other diners at the movable feast that was Paris in the 1920s would be the equivalent of dying and going immediately to heaven. I’m pretty sure that tens of thousands of other onetime English majors share Gil’s dream. Allen understands that allure almost as well as he knows what makes New York tick and the city couldn’t shine any brighter.

Gil is at the point in his creative life where he’s begun to hate doing the screenwriting that’s made him rich and famous. He would much prefer renting a garret apartment on the Left Bank and knocking out a couple of novels. He’s committed to marrying a pretty, if materialistic blond (Rachel McAdams) whose obnoxious parents are financing the trip to Paris. They aren’t thrilled with Gil and would love to find a way to head off their engagement. Just such an opportunity arises when Inez takes a shine to an old friend (Michael Sheen) they run into a social function. He’s a pompous ass who thinks he knows everything about art, wine and culture, but tends to get key facts wrong in his pontificating. One night, when Inez goes out on the town with her parents, Gil takes a stroll through the darkened streets of the City of Lights. At the stroke of midnight, a vintage limousine pulls up next to him and the people inside invite him to join them for a late night on the town. Before the limo turns back into a pumpkin, Gil is introduced to the bohemian demi-monde of Paris in the ’20s. They accept him into their company and welcome his opinions. The next night, Gil finds an excuse to return to the same place, where he’ll once again be asked to join the floating party. Any more information here would spoil too many delightful surprises for viewers.

As in any Allen movie the actors have been perfectly cast from a list that combines stars and newcomers. It includes Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy as Inez’ parents; France’s First Lady, Carla Bruni, in a funny turn as a guide at the Rodin Museum; Marion Cotillard, as Gil’s dream girl; and Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates, Tom Hiddleston, Corey Stoll and Alison Pill as the revelers. He also introduces viewers to a dozen more European actors who likely will surface here in the near future. In any case, “Midnight in Paris” is a perfectly charming, smart and entertaining movie. Sadly, Allen has always been reluctant to share his thoughts and memories in making-of featurettes and the only one here is material from the Cannes premiere. – Gary Dretzka

Glee: The 3D Concert Movie: Blu-ray
Looking for a last-second gift for the Gleeks on your shopping list? Twentieth Century Fox must have had you in mind when it decided to release “Glee: The Concert Movie” in Blu-ray and 3D on December 20. I don’t know anyone who owns a 3D-ready television, but there must be a few people out there who do. If not, the 2D Blu-ray shouldn’t disappoint fans looking for an extension of the TV experience. The elaborately staged concert took place earlier this year at the Continental Airlines Arena, in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It features all of the show’s regular talent, along with introductions by Sue Sylvester. The Blu-ray adds performances of “Dog Days Are Over” and “Friday,” which weren’t included in the theatrical film; extended versions of “Ain’t No Way” and “Happy Days Are Here Again”/“Get Happy”; the sketch, “Kurt’s Proposal”; and backstage material. I’m not sure how “Glee” plays out of context, but loyal fans will dig it. – Gary Dretzka

Warrior: Blu-ray
Not since David Mamet’s foray into the world of mixed martial arts, in “Redbelt,” has so much talent and money been invested in a genre film about guys beating the crap out of each other in the octagon ring. Considering the limited audience for even the most publicized events of MMA and UFC fighting, bringing in “Warrior” at an estimated $30 million must have seemed a risky proposition. For the most part, the movies have shared a niche in the straight-to-DVD market with the flood of martial-arts flicks from Asia, while also serving as a teaser for pay-per-view championships and other ancillary products. Despite its pedigree, “Redbelt” only managed to squeeze $2.5 million from audiences thought to be interested in Mamet’s current fixation, jiu-jitsu. That underachiever only cost $7 million to produce, however. “Warrior” returned only about half of its allotted budget in theaters, but should do better in DVD and Blu-ray. It benefits from a story by writer/director Gavin O’Connor that’s nearly biblical in its scope, yet offers fans plenty of action.

At the center of the drama is Nick Nolte, who, for most of the picture resembles the mug shots we’ve seen of him. His ornery character raised his two sons to become champions in the no-holds-barred world of mixed martial arts. Alcoholism ruined his life and marriage, while also driving a wedge between him and his sons. Fourteen years later, the prodigal son, Tommy (Tom Hardy), returns to Pittsburgh in the wake of his mother’s death and after being booted out of the marines. He reluctantly visits the old man, Paddy Condon, to request his help in training for a financially lucrative competition. After some rough patches early on, the process proves to be redemptive for both men. Younger brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is working as a science teacher and isn’t exactly thrilled to learn of his brother’s return. He’s drawn back to the ring, as well, but to make the money needed to save his house from foreclosure. When all is said and done, will Tommy and Brendan meet in the finals? How could they not? Before that can happen, though, O’Connor livens up the proceedings with exciting preliminary bouts and foes that border on superhuman. The Blu-ray supplements add commentary, a deleted scene, gag reel, feature-length Enhanced Viewing Mode, and several featurettes on the sport and Tapout history. – Gary Dretzka

A Good Old Fashioned Orgy
Ever since “The Big Chill” struck a chord with Boomers in 1983, all sorts of filmmakers have tried and failed to recapture the same lightning in bottle. “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy” is a variation on the theme, in that the characters have been friends since high school and regularly attending geeky theme parties together for the last several years. Faced with the likelihood that everyone will be going separate ways after Labor Day, Eric (Jason Sudeikis) suggests that the final party should be one no one will forget. An orgy would serve that purpose, at least for the guys, who are several times less attractive than the gals. The conceit tends to work best when the characters have secretly lusted for each other for years and it’s caused sexual tension that’s as fragile as spring ice over a gorged river. Unless one is a swinger and is familiar with the rules of the game, it’s impossible to schedule a group grope and expect everyone to show up ready to play. For viewers, though, the biggest problem comes in knowing that the only actors likely to put their naughty bits on display are extras. Up-and-coming actors generally won’t take the risk. While personable, there’s not a sharp edge in the entire cast, which includes Michelle Borth, Nick Kroll, Tyler Labine, Angela Sarafyan, Lindsay Sloane, Martin Starr and Lake Bell, who put more skin on display getting out of bed in “How to Make It in America” than anything seen here. They do appear to be having a good time, though, and it’s occasionally contagious. The DVD adds deleted scenes, bloopers, commentary and “How to Film an Orgy.” – Gary Dretzka

Catch .44: Blu-ray
Bruce Willis isn’t the only thing writer/director Aaron Harvey borrowed from “Pulp Fiction” in the creation of his Tarantino-esque “Catch .44.” The dialogue echoes the rhythm, tone and raw vulgarity of the characters in “Pulp Fiction”; the violence is of the hyper- variety; and the story flashes backwards and forward as many times as there are recognizable faces in the cast. Unlike “Pulp Fiction,” however, the narrative threads all look as if they were frayed from the same piece of cloth.  The device is intended to give viewers alternative perspectives on the same event, but the characters’ stories are practically indiscernible from each other. “Catch .44” opens with a botched ambush in a nearly empty diner in the middle of nowhere. At least three people are killed in the initial flurry. Every time we return to the same spot, more people die.

Malin Akerman, who looks pretty hot with a gun in her hand, is the leader of a trio of women sent to rural Louisiana on the orders of “Uncle Mel” (Willis) to retrieve a parcel of drugs or cash or something perceived to be equally valuable. Or, maybe it’s a setup. Everyone else has been lured there for the same reason as the stripper and her mates (Nikki Reed, Deborah Ann Woll). They will be joined for various stretches of time by Brad Dourif, Forest Whitaker and Shea Whigham. What’s inside the mysterious box is left as mysterious as the one suitcase in “Real Fiction.”  Tarantino completists may want to check out “Catch .44,” but others won’t be impressed. – Gary Dretzka

Burke & Hare
John Landis hasn’t had a certified hit movie for at least two decades. The director of “Animal House,” “Blues Brothers” and “Trading Places” has spent most of the last dozen or so years working on the small screen or making documentaries, the best of which has been “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.” “Burke & Hare” may not make anyone forget those successes, but the inky-black comedy inarguably is the best movie Landis has made in a long, long time. Set in Edinburgh, it is based on the same series of murders that inspired the Robert Louis Stevenson short story, “The Body Snatcher,” Robert Wise’s adaptation of the same title and Dylan Thomas’ 1953 screenplay, “The Doctor and the Devils,” which was turned into a film in 1985 by Freddie Francis.  Here, the ghoulish fiends William Burke and William Hare are played by Simon Pegg (“Shaun of the Dead”) and Andy Serkis (“Lord of the Rings”), respectively. Before committing the 17 murders attributed to them from November 1827 to October 31, 1828, the Irish transplants made their living robbing graves and selling cadavers to anatomy instructor Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) at the Edinburgh Medical College. After the public hanging of criminals had been drastically limited by Scottish law, it had become difficult for the colleges to attain cadavers for study. So, when the lads began showing up with fresh specimens, Knox stopped asking questions.

Landis’ movie accentuates the humor in the bickering between Burke and Hare, while also creating funny situations at home and in local brothels. He does a nice job re-creating the college classrooms, where students use the bodies to study musculature, organs and the impact of diseases and violence on humans.  It isn’t until the students recognize one of the corpses that the police begin zeroing in on the culprits. In addition to the leads, Isla Fisher (“Wedding Crashers”) does a nice job as the prostitute who gets one of the men to finance her stage debut, while avoiding his attempts to get time in the sack in return for his kindness. – Gary Dretzka

Guns and Weed: The Road to Freedom
Now that the Occupy movement has rekindled memories of the protests and activism of the 1960s, it’s probably a good time for a reality check. “Milestones” was finished in 1975 at approximately the same moment as North Vietnamese troops were marching into Saigon and being drafted no longer drove college-age men into the streets. As members of the unabashedly left-wing Newsreel collective, John Douglas and Robert Kramer had chronicled anti-war and civil-rights protests here and abroad, while also promoting liberation movements and condemning imperialism in former European colonies and emerging nations. Like so many other leftists of the period, these guys truly believed that “the revolution” was right around the corner. They might as well have been waiting for Godot or the Easter bunny. Even before the communist victory in Vietnam, fair-weather radicals had begun to get back to their studies or, as they do here, move to the country, where they could grow vegetables organically and shape pottery. The frequently mindless violence perpetrated by the Weather Underground and SLA – alongside news of communist atrocities in Cambodia and elsewhere — convinced almost everyone else to call a time out. “Milestones” is a docudrama about some of the people who hung unto their utopian ideals long after it was fashionable.

Among the 50 individual characters and stories are people ranging in age from pre-natal to nearly dead. Some are radical, others aren’t. They include former street-level activists, communards, unabashed hippies, radicals imprisoned for transporting explosives and crooks at even looser ends. For the most part, they’re all suffering from withdrawal caused by the lack of intensity in their lives and their failure in convincing Americans to smash the state. “Milestones” will appeal mostly to Boomers who went through the period and wax nostalgic over the possibility that the Occupy Wall Street participants might convince someone that things won’t be right with this country until the people guilty of causing the economic collapse are punished. The companion film, “Ice,” describes how fictional militants might go about attacking institutions here, in solidarity with a Mexican revolutionary organization. From what we’ve learned about the Weather Underground, the characters in “Ice” are every bit as delusional, argumentative and isolated as the radicals who, by going underground, separated themselves from reality.

By contrast, “Guns and Weed: The Road to Freedom” presents an amateurish argument for core libertarian ideals. Beyond pointing out the hypocrisy in this country’s restrictions on medicinal marijuana and other drugs, the documentary argues that gun-control advocates are victims of AmeriKKKa, too. This is the case, even though no significant gun-control legislation has advanced beyond the Supreme Court in memory. It suggests that open-carry advocates are as wrong-headed about marijuana-related reforms as the legal-pot boosters are about gun control. The Constitution, they believe, protects the individual liberties of all otherwise law-abiding citizens who choose to own and display weapons or ingest any herb that grows freely and naturally in nature. Like Prohibition, the restrictions on gun ownership and pot smoking have their roots in good-old-fashioned American racism, corporate greed and conservative fuddy-duddies. Their case may be inelegantly presented, but this is the face of American libertarianism in 2011, not what passes for it in the Iowa caucuses. – Gary Dretzka

If You Are the One: Love & Marriage
A Beautiful Life

The latest additions to the growing list of releases from China Lion are representative of the trend in Chinese movies to feature contemporary themes, fashions and settings, as well as western-style romance. Instead of bustling Shanghai, they take place in booming Beijing among middle-class professionals and party-hardy scenesters. Politics are avoided, at least in the movies exported west, and distinctly Chinese elements are limited to food, architecture and bicycles. The common denominator in “Love & Marriage” and “A Beautiful Life” is Shu Qi, an expressive young actress adept at playing both comedic and dramatic parts, even within the same movie. Indeed, her characters in both pictures start out as dedicated professional women by day and party animals by night. They learn hard lessons about love on the way to overly maudlin conclusions. In “A Beautiful Life,” Shu Qi becomes close friends with a cop after he rescues her from an embarrassing situation in a nightclub. For his trouble, she pukes on his back. In “Love & Marriage,” Shu Qi is a flight attendant who moves in with a wealthy retiree who dotes on her but is unable to win her unbridled enthusiasm and loyalty. In both cases, the young women ultimately discover that the greener pastures they’re seeking simply don’t exist. Too long by at least 15 minutes each, the melodramas remind me of very well made Lifetime movies. In addition to moving briskly between comedy, romance and tragedy, they avoid nudity and coarse language, while not holding back on the tear-jerking. Much of Feng Xiaogang’s “Love & Marriage” is set on the beautiful island of Hainan in the South China Sea. Andy Lau’s “A Beautiful Life” surveys the high-rise and nightclub districts, before moving to a decidedly working-class neighborhood. They are in Mandarin with English and Chinese subtitles. – Gary Dretzka

Bobby Fischer Against the World
Monica & David

HBO’s documentaries may not get paid the same attention as the premium-cable network’s other programming, but they’re often are as compelling as anything else on the schedule. Instead of a 93-minute documentary, Liz Garbus’ “Bobby Fischer Against the World” could easily have translated into a mini-series, with thinly fictionalized depictions of the key elements in the life of the screw-loose genius. Way back in 1972, Fischer was as compelling a character as anyone in professional sports or show business. His dedication to the game bordered on fanaticism and his antics, while self-destructive helped make chess as popular a pastime in the U.S. as it’s ever been. Just as the media glommed onto Dennis Connor’s yacht, Stars and Stripes, in the elite America’s Cup competition in the 1980s and ’90s, Fischer’s pursuit of the world chess crown was covered with more fervor than the World Series. Today, chess and yachting are routinely ignored by the media and people who once were glued to the TV for results. Fischer’s victory was the greater story, if only because it was staged as an extension of the Cold War and he was as complex a figure as anyone in the history of any sport. “Bobby Fischer Against the World” re-creates the exciting buildup to the 1972 matches against Russian Boris Spassky, as well as the move-by-move intrigue of each game. It then tries to make sense of Fischer’s post-championship behavior and descent into madness and paranoia. All of it is fascinating. The extras include “A History of Chess” and “The Fight for Fischer s Estate.”

Monica & David” describes the love story of two adults with Down syndrome, who have benefitted from a change in perception among the general public and more enlightened treatment. No longer are people with the syndrome routinely shoved into a corner and hidden from view. Among other things, life spans have more than doubled, from 25 in the early 1980s to around 55 today. The social stigma has largely disappeared, as well, thanks to such programs as the Special Olympics and the increased visibility of actors with Down syndrome. Still, for families who’ve spent 20 or more years sheltering and protecting their children, the thought of watching them leave the nest must be hugely traumatic. Their anxiety over the proposed marriage of two young people with Down syndrome is documented in “Monica & David,” a life-affirming film that follows the couple as they enthusiastically embark on a journey that’s difficult enough to undertake for men and women without disabilities. It’s a miracle no one has built a reality series around them … or, have they? The documentary was directed and produced by Monica’s cousin, first-time filmmaker Alexandra Codina. The DVD adds five deleted scenes and “Employment in the Community,” – Gary Dretzka

Colin Quinn: Long Story Short
The very funny observational comic Colin Quinn accomplishes by himself, on stage, what Mel Brooks’ “History of the World, Part 1” and Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life” did with dozens of characters and diverse locations. Quinn encapsulates the history of human life on Earth from the ancient civilizations to the cacophony of noises emanating from every capital of today’s world. Directed by Jerry Seinfeld, Quinn’s one-man show was taped before a live audience at the Helen Hayes Theatre in New York City. The premise of “Long Story Short” is that history isn’t nearly as complicated as college professors make it out to be, because all of the stereotypes essentially are true and they’re built into our genetic codes. Empires may rise and fall, but they ultimately are represented by store-front restaurants and canteen trucks in midtown Manhattan. (In Queens, alone, 150 different languages are spoken and cuisines represented.) The show is smart, funny and, apart from some naughty words, accessible to everyone who’s ever taken a history course. The Blu-ray adds material from rehearsals, with Seinfeld, and press conference Q&A. – Gary Dretzka

NFL: Two Minutes to Glory
The rap against the NBA is that the only part of the game worth watching is the fourth quarter and, then, only in the first and last month of the season. Similarly, professional hockey doesn’t get good until the Stanley Cup playoffs and the number of senseless fights is reduced by half, at least. And, of course, the opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings. Apart from the occasional punt and kick-off return, the most exciting moments in an NFL game almost always take place during its final two minutes.  Indeed, the two-minute drill is as precisely rehearsed as any single play or formation. Time outs are saved for use in the final two minutes and the sidelines themselves become as allies or foes, depending on who’s trying to hold a lead or break a tie. Denver’s Tim Tebow has become a sensation for being able to perform markedly better in the final two minutes than in the previous 58. “Two Minutes to Glory” recalls 50 years of the most memorable two-minute drills in NFL history. They include last-second Super Bowl victories and drives as methodical as surgery. Being from Wisconsin, my favorite is the drive that led to victory in the Ice Bowl, when Bart Starr snuck into the end zone and broke the frozen hearts of the Cowboys, who couldn’t imagine anything could be a cold as Green Bay in January. There’s also plenty of bonus footage in the overtime featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Into the Lion’s Den
I Want to Get Married

Hold Your Peace

One of the staples of contemporary horror is the unexpected brush with pure sadism in a seemingly normal environment. In “Into the Lion’s Den,” three gay buddies stop at a small-town honky-tonk for a quick drink, or three, while on a road trip from L.A. to New York. Of all the bars in the Midwest they could have entered, this probably was the worst choice possible. Michael, Johnny and Ted believe that one out of five men they meet is gay, whether they know it or not. And, sure enough, the Lion’s Den’s muscular bartender does admit to having the odd gay dalliance, with the permission of his wife. After two of the guys have gone back to the hotel to crash, the remaining friend is slipped a mickey and, after he wakes up, accidentally killed by a crossbow-wielding barmaid. Lured back to the bar to retrieve their friend, the other two guys are beaten up. One awakens in the back of truck heading toward a makeshift burial ground, while the other quickly realizes he’s being held in restraints by the couple and is being viciously raped. The horror that ensues would be considered generic if the three friends had been a mixed bag of heterosexual teens looking for a nightcap. Instead, director Dan Lantz dials up the horror by employing plot devices specific to the trio’s sexuality.  Stars Jesse Archer, Ronnie Kroel, Michael McFadden and Kristen-Alexzander Griffith aren’t world-beaters in the acting department, but, considering the budget, get the job done. The disc includes a behind-the-scenes featurette, blooper reel, deleted and extended scenes, and commentary.

All of the hope, glee, disappointment and confusion surrounding California’s Proposition 8 debate are reflected in “I Want to Get Married,” a romantic dramedy about a geeky young man who wants to find a husband before the vote takes place. After all, defeat could possibly wipe out all gay marriages in the state. Not only does writer/director William Clift find Paul an appropriate husband, albeit a couple of days too late for it to be legal, but he also throws in a kitchen sink’s worth of subplots and other distractions. None of them hurts much, but, at 118 minutes, “Married” does overstay its welcome a bit. What’s best is the material leading up to Election Day. When he isn’t husband hunting, Paul is a struggling advertising executive who accepts a last-minute gig with a group promoting the referendum’s passage. His ditzy mother also inadvertently contributes to the cause while lost somewhere in the desert with drag performer, Miss Piggy B. His father also gets lost in the desert after being mugged by a local goat-roper who claims to know his wife’s whereabouts. “I Want to Get Married” succeeds in being a movie that should appeal to gays, lesbians and straights. It adds commentary, deleted scenes and bloopers.

Also from Breaking Glass Pictures’ QC Cinema line is “Hold Your Peace,” another melodrama about love and marriage in a world in which both things are possible for gays and lesbians. Aiden has been asked to be the best man at his ex-boyfriend Max’s wedding. They were childhood friends before becoming lovers, so the request isn’t as ludicrous as it might sound. Fearing that he’ll look hopelessly single, Aiden has a month to find an appropriate date. This leads, of course, leads to a succession of lunch dates with men who don’t appeal to him. There’s also the matter of unresolved issues between Aiden and the soon-to-be groom. Before you can say, “Dermot Mulroney,” Aiden decides he’ll bring a ringer to the wedding as his date. His roommate, Janice, agrees to share her “twink” BFF, Lance, with Aiden. It isn’t exactly a match made in gay heaven. Freshman writer/director Wade McDonald has populated “Hold Your Peace” with likable characters and the rom-com conceit easily translates as gay cinema. The supplemental material adds commentary, outtakes, interviews and a making-of featurette. — Gary Dretzka

The Hunters
If viewers were required to drink a shot of booze every time “The Hunters” stopped making any logical sense or there was an error in continuity, they would be unconscious before the end of the second reel. Even the description on the box is inaccurate. Taking advantage of the presence of Diane Agron (“Glee), the blurb wants us to believe “Hunters” is about a group of recent high school graduates who decide to explore an off-limits fort on the outskirts of town and are stunned to discover it is the staging area for a serial killer. In fact, the teens don’t trespass on the forested property until the picture is nearly complete. By then, a cop played by director/star Chris Briant has stumbled upon the carnage and is engaged in a bloody game of hide-and-seek with the maniacal locals who consider the property to be their personal playground. The heads of people who dared trek across it or enter the fort are stashed at an altar deep inside its labyrinthine corridors. Briant’s character is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, but speaks with a heavy French accent. His fellow police officers all seem to be American or non-French Canadians, while Agron is the quintessential blond cheerleader. Even though the cop is outgunned by the hunters, all of whom are Special Forces types – he manages to escape their clutches with seeming ease and hold them off with a pistol.

All that said, however, “The Hunters” is far from being a total disaster. The forest and fort provide a wonderfully sinister background for homicidal action and Briant does a nice job exploiting the atmospherics. (The film was shot in France and Luxembourg in late fall or winter.) As the hunters, Tony Becker, Terence Knox, Jay Brown, Xavier Delambre and Steven Waddington are suitably frightening in their camo gear. Tolerant genre buffs should find something to like in “The Hunters.” The making-of featurette is pretty entertaining. – Gary Dretzka

The Pool Boys: Blu-ray
Relying on one of the hoariest of sexploitative conventions, “The Pool Boys” imagines a scenario in which a pair of recent high-school graduates attempts to finance their entrance into Harvard by running a high-end brothel. Raise your hands if this setup reminds you of “Risky Business.” Here, the setting is Beverly Hills, where swimming pools are as commonplace as ice-fishing shacks in Minnesota. Genre veteran Matthew Lillard, 41, plays the Harvard dropout, Roger, who’s killing time cleaning pools belonging to rich people. The more age-appropriate Brett Davern plays his younger cousin, Alex, whose job as a Capitol Hill intern ended abruptly – his boss was busted for being a pervert – and forced him to seek employment in L.A. while working on a scholarship. After moving in with Roger, Alex finds himself attracted to a pretty redheaded roommate, he learns is employed as an escort. After getting over his shock and disappointment, Alex decides to take Roger and Laura (Rachelle Lefevre) up on their offer to expand both of their businesses. Roger has been given access to an expensive mansion while the owners are on vacation and Laura rounds up a bevy of babes to fill the rooms.

Naturally, the brothel is an overnight success. It isn’t until the house’s owner returns unexpectedly and confiscates their money that Alex begins to panic. If they could round up paying guests for one last party, however … well, you know how that goes. Typically, the hookers are extremely beautiful, overflowing with charm and integrity, and sexually prolific. There’s not a crack whore, pick-pocket or extortionist among them. The poolside party is raunchy, without actually being particularly erotic or sexy. (Typically, too, the only escort most viewers will want to see to topless, Laura, is the one who keeps everything buttoned up.) As lame as the production is, I’m sure there are countless high school sophomores out there who might dig the ladies’ inflated breasts and ham-handed acting of Tom Arnold. Also along for the ride are George Takei and Playboy models Jennifer Walcott and Sheena Lee. The Blu-ray extras include cast and crew interviews and an alarmingly discrete “virtual lapdance.” – Gary Dretzka

Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret: Season 1
Jersey Shore: Season Four: Uncensored

David Cross may not be a household name, but his face and voice are instantly recognized by fans of “Arrested Development,” “Oliver Beene,” “The Colbert Report,” “Kung Fu Panda,” “Freak Show,” “Running Wilde,” “Archer,” “Mister Show With Bob and David” and a couple dozen other comedies. With IFC Originals’ “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret,” Cross finds himself in the rare position of being lead character and primary reason for anyone to tune into the show. In it, he plays a doofus from an American beverage company who moves to London to promote the new energy drink, Thunder Muscle. Totally inept and a liar to boot, Todd Margaret would be America’s answer to Mr. Bean, if that beloved character were venal and egotistical, in addition to being a clueless bumbler. Fortunately, Todd-Margaret is surrounded by Brits who are required to take him seriously, but keep him out of real trouble, anyway. Among the actors are Blake Harrison (“The Inbetweeners”), John Fortune (“Bremer, Bird and Fortune”) and Sharon Horgan (“Pulling”) and Yanks Will Arnett, Amber Tamblyn, Spike Jonze and Janeane Garofalo.  Amber’s dad, Russ Tamblyn (“West Side Story”) has also appeared in it. A new season begins soon on IFC. The DVD includes commentaries, interviews, bloopers, deleted scenes and an extended version of the first episode.

The cast of the MTV sensation, “Jersey Shore,” spent Season 4 in Florence, as a way of saying thank you to Italy for being the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Naturally, the best job MTV could find for the gang was working in a pizzeria. Other highlights include Mike being taken to a hospital after hitting his head on a wall (obviously, no brain damage); Snooki and Deena hook up; Snookie and Deena hit a police car and get hauled off to jail; and a visit to the Accademia Gallery to check out the junk and hair of Michelangelo’s David. The package also includes the reunion and “After Hours” specials; the featurettes, “Jersey Shore: From the First Fist Pump” and “Louie & Joey”; deleted scenes; and confessionals.  The uncensored material mostly involves cursing. – Gary Dretzka

Game Time
Although “Game Time” doesn’t break any new ground in the subgenre of films in which teenage boys come of age through sports, it is unquestionably entertaining and well made. First-timers Diego Hallivis and Alberto Veloso do almost everything right in crafting a story about basketball player from Wisconsin who moves to New York with his mom to get away from an abusive father. His dad taught him the game, but, in doing so, beat him black and blue when he made a mistake. Naturally, as almost the only white kid in a school comprised primarily of black and Hispanic kids, Vance gets pushed around a bit and trash-talked. That changes when he stands up to one of the toughest kids in school and demonstrates he can play ball with anyone. The girls seem to like him, too. Instead of joining the school’s team, which he normally would be expected to do, a classmate introduces him to dueling, which is an occasionally violent two-on-two competition staged on the city’s playgrounds. They do pretty well, but get shellacked by the same bully he confronted in school. This time, however, the guy is doubly pissed off at Vance because he’s dating a girl he considers to be his property. There are other traumatic incidents on the way to a final showdown. Some are predictable, others not. For a freshman director, Hallivis keeps the action flowing pretty well and the tension dialed up throughout. Although most of the actors are new to the business, too, no one embarrasses themselves. – Gary Dretzka

Apollo 18: Blu-ray
Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego’s paranoid sci-fi thriller, “Apollo 18,” didn’t get much love from critics when it opened theatrically. Expecting some hostility, its distributors decided not to screen it for them. Surprisingly, perhaps, the low-budget project managed to make back its allotted budget and then some. Marketed creatively on the Internet, “Apollo 18” is based on the premise that a top-secret lunar mission was undertaken by NASA and the Defense Department two years after the program officially ended. We only know this because of previously unseen footage that mysteriously appeared on an unsanctioned website several decades later and was cobbled together as “Apollo 18.” Not to spoil anyone’s surprise, let’s just say that the footage reveals the real reason why the Apollo program ended at No. 17. It involves dead cosmonauts and creepy crawlers. There’s more. The knock on “Apollo 18” is that it’s not particularly scary and astronauts aren’t inherently charismatic. Viewers more interested in sci-fi than terror will find more to like here than those who require narrative thrust. The Blu-ray adds quite a few deleted scenes, commentary and several alternate endings. – Gary Dretzka

The David Susskind Show: ‘Open End’ Interview With Jerry Lewis
Once upon a time on television, talk shows weren’t used exclusively to plug upcoming movies, TV shows, records and appearances on the cover of magazines. Interesting questions were asked of interesting personalities by interesting men (women had yet to break through that barrier). The guests were interviewed for more than five minutes and the questions weren’t screened ahead of time by their publicists. David Susskind was one of the most prominent of talk-show hosts and his forum was the “Open End” show, which could run as long as two hours with a single subject. This DVD includes a 90-minute interview with Jerry Lewis, who was a boyish-looking 39 at the time and one of the highest-paid entertainers on the planet. On any other show, Lewis might have felt obligated to entertain the audience with sight and voice gags. Here, Lewis is candid with his memories and opinions and absolutely straight-faced. Susskind asks questions that are deeply personal and no celebrity would be asked or answer today, even on a show hosted Barbara Walters. In any case, Lewis isn’t going to be with us forever and, when he goes, the newspapers will be full of articles containing information about him we already know. It would be nice to see more of Susskind’s interviews released in the future. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Fright Night, Kung Fu Panda 2, Rise of Planet of the Apes, Daddy Longlegs, Meet Me in St. Louis, Branded to Kill, Circumstance …

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Fright Night: Blu-ray
I must not have been paying attention when the first “Fright Night” was released, way back in 1985, causing a stir among horror buffs looking for something a bit different than the usual teenagers-in-jeopardy stuff. Starring Roddy McDowell, Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale and Amanda Bearse, Tom Holland’s thriller may have been produced on the cheap, but it hauled in a bunch of money by parodying genre conventions, while also scaring audiences. Then, as now, “Fright Night” imagines what might happen if a handsome vampire moves into a quiet neighborhood and the only person who smells a rat is the less-than-credible kid next-door. A quarter-century later, the only thing that’s really changed is the cast, which, of course, skews younger: Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, Toni Collette and Iomgen Poots in the lead roles and Sarandon, who still looks as if he actually were a vampire, in a cameo appearance. This time around, even with the critics’ approval and 3D, the movie underperformed at the box office. (The similarities to “Disturbia” couldn’t have helped.) Not having a 3D-equipped Blu-ray player, I can’t say with any certainty how well the splatters and shocks might look on your stereoscopic platforms. I’m guessing, OK. In 2D, director Craig Gillespie’s adaptation looks sharp in its new Albuquerque-for-Las Vegas digs and Yelchin and Farrell make formidable rivals. David Tennant has also been enlisted as a celebrity vampire scholar who moonlights as a big-ticket illusionist in a show very much like Criss Angel’s “Believe.” With everything we now know about killing such fiends, it seems as if movie vampires are getting even more difficult to destroy. By all rights, Farrell should have been vanquished by the end of the second reel. Instead, he sticks around for the duration. The Blu-ray package adds deleted and extended scenes; bloopers; a primer on “How to Make a Funny Vampire Movie”; an overview of Tennant’s Las Vegas magic show; “Squid Man,” an extended version of the homemade movie-within-a-movie; the music video, “No One Believes Me,” by Kid Cudi; and digital and DVD copies. – Gary Dretzka

Kung Fu Panda 2: Blu-ray
What’s most interesting about “Kung Fu Panda 2” is its long-awaited explanation as to how a goose could be the father – biological or otherwise – of a panda. The origin story doesn’t dominate the movie, but it adds an interesting dimension (4D?) to the character of Po Ping. Apparently, Po’s been too busy being the Dragon Warrior to fret over the fact that he doesn’t have webbed feet, a particularly long neck or an orange beak. It’s only during a confrontation with a powerful new supervillain that he’s prompted to seek answers to the same questions other orphans ask when they are made aware of the knots in their family tree. This isn’t to imply, however, that the sequel is overly contemplative or lacks the martial-arts fury that powered the original. It had to come up sometime and the sooner the better. It’s been three years since Po and the Furious Five vanquished the evil snow leopard, Tai Lung, so he’s had plenty of time on his paws to ponder what it means to achieve true inner peace. His potential enemies have enjoyed the same cushion of time to come up with strategies and weapons powerful enough to wrack havoc on the residents of the Valley of Peace. Not able to compete against the Po and the Furious Five using traditional martial-arts techniques, the predatory peacock Long Shen raises the ante by introducing a mechanical weapon. The thought of a Doomsday weapon sufficiently potent to neutralize the science and philosophy governing kung fu is too much for Po to bear and he seeks refuge in his long-sublimated past. In the time it takes Po to snap out of his daze, the Furious Five has picked up the slack and held the line against total defeat. With Po at full strength and focused on the task ahead, the decisive battles are as exciting as they are fun to watch. Among the actors new to the voicing cast are Gary Oldman, Dennis Haysbert, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Danny McBride and Victor Garber. Returning actors are Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogan, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Lucy Liu and Dustin Hoffman. Once again, I can’t vouch for the 3D presentation, but assume it is representative of the latest technology available to the smart folks at DreamWorks. The bonus material includes a sneak-peek episode of the upcoming Nickelodeon TV series “Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness” and the animated short “Secrets of the Masters”; filmmakers’ commentary; “Animation Inspiration,” in which director Jennifer Yuh Nelson presents an interactive map of the filmmakers’ 2008 trip to China and locales that inspired settings in the film; cast interviews; a pop-up trivia track; a primer on Mandarin; an interactive game; deleted scenes; the featurette,  “World of DreamWorks Animation”; and a piece on the real threats to China’s panda population. – Gary Dretzka

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Blu-ray
Employing every known digital-effects trick at their disposal and then some, the creators of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” have returned to the philosophical foundation of French novelist Pierre Boulle’s novel, imagining not a “planet of apes,” but a seriously pissed-off collection of laboratory specimens in desperate need of a leader. The balance between humans and other Earth-bound species has become dangerously skewed on the side of the planet’s most predatory animal – man – and a correction is long overdue. As the movie’s final credits roll past our eyes, viewers are allowed to speculate as to how the events they’ve just witnessed might inevitably lead to the discovery, in 2500, of the Bizarro world prophesized in 1963 by Boulle. In his novel, a French journalist and scientist travel to the nearest star system to Earth and the red sun, Betelgeuse, where a parallel civilization to ours is dominated by a master race of apes, who treat humans as slaves and prey. The 1968 movie, which starred Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall, takes liberties with the book, of course, but they both arrive at the same place, eventually. If newcomers to the saga are so inclined, they may want to pick up the 2011 “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” along with the 1968 edition — also available in Blu-ray – and play them back-to-back, starting with the James Franco vehicle. As origin myths go, “Rise” provides a plausible foundation, at least, for events that pick up again two millennia down the road.

Because few good deeds go unpunished in the movies, one scientist’s genuine desire to help people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease is manipulated by a greedy pharmaceutical concern to reap ungodly profits off Medicare providers and consumers hoping to delay the ravages of old age. Franco plays Will Rodman, the scientist whose obsession is fueled by a desire to end his father’s decline into dementia. After a frightening and completely unexpected setback, largely unrelated to the drug test, Rodman is given an opportunity to start over again with the infant chimp being so fiercely protected by his mother. Rather than deal with the bureaucracy, Will decides to bring Caesar home, where he can monitor the animal’s progress, while simultaneously keeping track of his dad (John Lithgow), who’s also being given the medication. Miraculously, Caesar’s accelerated intellectual growth parallels the old man’s startling recovery. Chimps will be chimps, however, and Caesar manages to scare the crap out of the neighbors during a couple of romps through their backyards. When the old man is physically challenged by a neighbor – who’s legitimately concerned about his daughter’s safety — Caesar goes ape on him.

Local authorities decide that enough is enough and stash him away in what amounts to a prison for monkeys. To the public eye, the “yard” resembles a habitat in a progressive zoo. Behind the scenes, however, it’s nothing more than a concentration camp, with sadistic guards and inedible chow. Anyone who’s seen the commercials for “Rise” already knows that the abuse leads inevitably to a prison break and attempt to reach the forests of northern California. Anyone who decides not to stay with the movie through the credits will miss the link to the future and, ostensibly, the real point of “Rise.” What otherwise distinguishes “Rise” from previous editions of the series won’t be found in the narrative, as directed by Rupert Wyatt and written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. It’s in the special visual effects that accentuate Caesar’s humanity and animate his rage. Andy Serkis does a marvelous job as the CGI model for Caesar, infusing in the ape emotions that are indistinguishable from those of Rodman. (Fans are advised to stay tuned to making-of featurettes than explain how Serkis pulled off his Oscar-quality performance.) “POTA” buffs will enjoy the many subtle references to previous films in the series, as well as nods to other primate iconography, but the show really belongs to the chimps. Even if “Rise” is legitimately branded “PG-13,” the apes’ anger and revenge is frighteningly realistic. Parents shouldn’t automatically think that their 6-year-olds are mature enough to handle the threatening behavior of a psycho-primate without some sort of parental guidance. Compared to these guys, the Winged Monkeys in “Wizard of Oz” are pussycats. The Blu-ray package includes deleted scenes, some with Serkis in his CGI motion-capture suit; several interesting making-of and “POTA” background featurettes; two commentary tracks; a character-concept art gallery and scene breakdown; and piece on the great apes. – Gary Dretzka

Daddy Longlegs
As indie as indie movies get these days, “Daddy Longlegs” once again raises the rhetorical question, “If licenses are required to drive automobiles and own dogs, why aren’t they mandatory for parents hoping to raise children?” In Josh and Benny Safdie’s freshman feature, we watch in horror as an adult slacker, Lenny (Ronald Bronstein), interacts with his two young s doesn’t during a two-week visitation period. It is a privilege he neither deserves nor is suited to perform. Like many Boomer and post-Boomer moms and dads, Lenny doesn’t understand why it’s risky business for parents to aspire to be their kids’ BFF, especially in New York. As the prototypical man-child, Lenny doesn’t expect his sons to be guided by the same rules, guidelines and middle-class conventions he, himself, ignores. Indeed, he has enough trouble being on time for his job as a projectionist, without also having to worry about picking up the kids from school on time. Then, he has the gall to berate the principal for demanding he not leave the boys alone on the streets after school and suggesting he pay more attention to their behavioral problems.

He decides to sidestep the problem entirely by pulling them out of school for a couple of days, while he joins his latest one-night stand on an impromptu autumn vacation upstate. The boys dig it as much as Lenny, but their mom is furious … as is the woman’s boyfriend, who can’t imagine why they’ve been invited to tag along on the trip. Then, one night when he can’t find a babysitter, Lenny crushes up a sleeping pill and gives it to the boys, raising the ire of the last doctor in Manhattan who performs emergency house calls for ne’er-do-wells. There’s more, but you get the picture.

As appalled as we are by Lenny’s lackadaisical approach to parenting, we sympathize with his desire to remain a non-conformist in a society where oddballs and lovable losers are only tolerated in TV sitcoms and movies. In some ways, Lenny reminds me of Jason Robard’s iconoclastic character in “A Thousand Clowns.” In the nearly 50 years since Fred Coe’s adaptation of Herb Gardner’s play helped inspire a generation of non-conformists – temporary, for the most part — the stakes have risen dramatically for the children of unrepentant hippies and other anti-establishment types. The Safdies’ decision to record their story on a hand-held Super 16 camera recalls the films of John Cassavetes and early fly-on-the-wall documentarians. “Daddy Longlegs (a.k.a., “Go Get Some Rosemary”) isn’t for everyone, but it should reward viewers looking for something fresh and adventurous from a pair of filmmakers on the ascendency. The DVD set features a high-definition transfer to widescreen 35mm. projection; eight deleted scenes; the making-of piece, “The Second Stop from Jupiter”; rehearsal footage; a theatrical introduction; animations, promotional shorts and the Cannes trailer; and a 20-page booklet of art and writings, liner notes by Scott Foundas and Josh Safdie’s “While They’re Sleeping” ’zine, with childhood photos of the filmmakers by their father. – Gary Dretzka

Meet Me in St. Louis: Blu-ray
Stars & Stripes Forever: Blu-ray

There’s probably no more old-fashioned a way to enjoy a quiet evening at home with the family than by scheduling a double-feature of “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Stars & Stripes Forever” on the home-theater set-up. You might have to drag the kids kicking and screaming to your screening room, but, for once, Grandma and Grandpa will find something to their liking on the list of new Blu-ray releases. The musical soundtracks won’t blow them off their rockers and the only thing that’s gratuitous is the schmaltz. Released in 1944, Vincente Minnelli’s feel-good movie describes a prototypical turn-of-the-century Midwestern family – albeit, one wealthy enough to afford an extremely comfortable living – about to undergo the upheaval that comes with dramatic economic and social change. For the Smith family, St. Louis is the only city that matters. Neither as sophisticated nor as intimidating as larger cities east of the Mississippi River, St. Louis seemed the perfect place for a family whose ambitions didn’t include being seen at the opera on opening night or churning out debutantes. In 1904, no riverfront city in a former slave state could possibly have been free of serious crime or racism, but Alonzo Smith knew how to insulate the womenfolk from the horrors of urban life. When Alonzo is offered a better position, in New York, the Smiths are shaken to the core. The thought of giving up their comfortable home, possibly missing out on the impending World’s Fair and losing their individual identities has no appeal for them. In a very real sense, the Smiths represent Middle America’s fear of life in the multi-cultural, ethnically diverse and constantly-in-flux in capital of American culture and finance. What the Smiths couldn’t imagine is how much the fair would change St. Louis.

Judy Garland plays the ever-exuberant Esther Smith, who, when we meet her, is about to experience her first blush of romance, literally with the boy next door. Her older sister has been there, if not done it, and her precocious younger siblings still have a ways to go before they hit puberty. An older brother attends college back East, where he’s running with a relatively fast crowd; Gramps has the time to listen to the kids’ complaints and mediate differences; and Marjorie Main plays the quintessential maid, who frets over the children as if they were her own. The 22-year-old Garland, who would soon thereafter marry Minnelli, was reluctant to portray another teenager and she also worried that cute, little Margaret O’Brien would upstage her. Conscious of this, Minnelli framed his self-conscious star’s big moments in ways that made her look as beautiful as possible. There’s wasn’t much he could do about the impossibly precious O’Brien, who Garland finally identified with as an at-risk child star. The framing device is most effective when Garland is singing the songs that would be embraced by the public, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Boy Next Door” and “The Trolley Song.” It is O’Brien who gets the ball rolling, however, with a delightful rendition of “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis.”

The restorers at Warner Home Video were able to recover all the vivid colors and contrast associated with three-strip Technicolor. The Blu-ray also sounds terrific. Among the excellent bonus features are an introduction by Liza Minnelli; commentary and interviews with historians, actors, composers and vault material with Minnelli; an interesting piece on the creation of the songs and soundtrack; substantial making-of material, including the process of adaptation from Sally Benson’s New Yorker stories; many vintage Garland recollections; the WB Vitaphone short, “Bubble,” with the Gumm Sisters; radio and outtake performances; the 1966 “Meet Me in St. Louis” television pilot, which blessedly never aired; a CD music “sampler”; and Digibook packaging with photographs and text.

Released eight years after “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the snappy John Philip Sousa biopic, “Stars & Stripes Forever,” similarly represented an evolutionary step forward for the Hollywood musical. They did so by using songs to advance the story, rather than allowing them to stand on their own merits and please fans who might subsequently buy the sheet music or records. Likewise, the Twentieth Century Fox production was shot in Technicolor, which is nicely recaptured in the Blu-ray. Apart from patriotic holidays, Sousa’s marches aren’t heard much anymore. Halftime shows at college football games now tend to showcase the same classic-rock songs that have made FM stations so dull. At the time, however, they were the bee’s knees. Henry Koster’s film covers Sousa’s most productive period, from 1892-1900. He had resigned as conductor of the Marine Corps Band – then, as hot as any pop group today – to find fortune and even more fame as a private-sector composer and band leader. He would populate his band with the most accomplished musicians of the day, from whom Sousa demanded military-like loyalty, precision and discipline. As portrayed by Clifton Webb, Sousa may have been a fuddy-duddy and taskmaster, but he wasn’t lacking a sense of humor or romantic streak with his less stern wife, played by Ruth Hussey.

Hot young stars Robert Wagner and Deborah Paget were added to the story as a nod to viewers younger than, say, 50. Wagner plays an undisciplined marine private who introduces both the sousaphone and a frisky vaudeville singer (Paget) to Sousa’s civilian ensemble. As contrivances go, it isn’t all that bad, although I was never clear as to whether the marine invented the instrument or merely brought the tuba-like hunk of brass to Sousa’s attention. Their romance is appropriately chaste for the period and Hayes Office restrictions. If this sounds like a giant drag, you might want to hold out for the next Miley Cyrus or Jonas Brothers’ movie. The musical soundtrack can’t be faulted, except by haters of the genre, and the choreography of the marching formations and party dances is pretty entertaining, as well. The Blu-ray supplements add “From Our National March to the Silver Screen,” “John Philip Sousa’s Contribution to American Music,” a press book, original advertising and still galleries and standard DVD. – Gary Dretzka

Tanner Hall
Whenever I watch a coming-of-age movie set in a boarding school, here or in England, I wonder why some parents bother to have children at all. For all the time they spend together as a family, it’s amazing they still recognize each other. Historically, kids from privileged families are enrolled in elite schools to meet the right sort of friends, create alliances with them and learn how to compete against their peers. Typically, though, the preppy students we meet in the cinema spend most of their time participating in and being scarred by hazing rituals; wondering how mommy and daddy could be so cruel; exploring their sexuality and that of their roommates; crushing on their teachers; hooking up with and breaking the hearts of the local rustics; and finding that one teacher on the faculty who remembers what it’s like to feel lost, abandoned and occasionally delirious. There may be a million miles of cinematic distance between “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “David Copperfield” and “Dead Poets Society,” and “If …,” “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”  and “Lost and Delirious”– “Harry Potter,” too, for that matter – but they all tend to resemble each other from a distance. Just as boarding schools serve as feeder academies for Ivy League institutions, movies about such places have served as a proving ground for up-and-coming actors. To name just a few, the list includes Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawk and Josh Charles (“Dead Poets Society”); Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, John Cusack, Alan Ruck (“Class”); Piper Perabo, Jessica Pare and Mischa Barton (“L&D”); and Thandie Newton, Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts (“Flirting”).

Released briefly in 2009, “Tanner Hall” is as formulaic a movie about life at a girl’s boarding school as one could imagine. What makes it interesting, however, is a cast that includes Rooney Mara, Georgia King, Brie Larson and Amy Ferguson, all of whom are on their ways to substantial careers in film and TV. The girls of Tanner Hall are from wealthy backgrounds, but each is given an archetypal personality trait. Flavor-of-the-month Rooney made “Tanner Hall” before “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Social Network,” and landing the role of the young century as Lisbeth Salander in the English-language remake of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Here, she’s a much-envied senior, Fernanda, who enters into a dangerous love affair with an older family friend (Tom Everett Scott), who’s married and soon to become a parent. She makes the mistake of pissing off a classmate, Victoria (King), whose twisted relationship with her stepmother has lit a powder keg of hostility and menace within her. Ferguson’s Lucasta hasn’t fully accepted the fact that she’s infinitely happier in the company of girls than boys, while Larson’s Kate enjoys toying with the emotions of a teacher, played by Chris Kattan. He’s married to the school’s randy house mother, portrayed by Amy Sederis, and can only be aroused by thoughts of rescuing the phony seductress from distress.  Not much real teaching takes place in classes at the school, from which the girls take every opportunity to ditch, and there are no positive adult role models within a hundred miles.

In other celebrity sightings, co-writer/directors Tatiana von Furstenberg and Francesca Gregorini are descended from a similar line of corporate royalty as Mara, whose grandfathers founded the National Football League’s New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers. Gregorini is the daughter of actor Barbara Bach and stepdaughter of Ringo Starr, while Von Furstenberg is the daughter of fashion designer, Diane, and real-life German prince, Egon von Furstenberg. Apparently, the writer/directors based “Turner Hall” on their experiences at a boarding school. – Gary Dretzka

Come Have Coffee With Us
Body Puzzle
Murder Obsession
Branded to Kill: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

Christmas has come early for fans of niche horror, extreme cult and otherwise wacked out movies from Italy and Japan. The latest package from increasingly essential Raro Video collection contains a juicy sex farce from 1970, a gory giallo from 1992 and an even bloodier giallo from 1981. From Criterion Collection comes a completely off-the-wall yakuza thriller, from 1967, which is every bit as enigmatic as anything that came out of France and Italy during the same period.

Come Have Coffee With Us” stars Ugo Tognazzi (“La Cage aux Folles”) as an unscrupulous tax collector in a scenic town on the eastern shore of Lake Maggiore, near the Swiss border with Italy. Emerenziano’s records have led him there as he pursues love, marriage and wealth without actually having to raise a sweat. The targets of his gold-digging affections are three physically mismatched sisters, whose late father left them a huge inheritance. Not particularly young or conventionally attractive, the sisters might as well be nuns for all the sexual experience they display individually and collectively. Even as he convinces the oldest sister — painfully shy and with freakishly long black hair – to marry him, Emerenziano is plotting affairs with the other two. To his shock, the women not only go along with his whims, but begin to display insatiable desires for sex. Turns out, each of the sisters has one physical attribute that keeps the tax collector coming back for more, even when he’s become exhausted. Before long, Emerenziano is transformed from cad to boy-toy. For all the bed-hopping that takes place in “Come Have Coffee With Us,” there’s precious little nudity. The steam we see emanating from the screen is a byproduct of the sisters’ palpably volcanic passions. As far as I can tell, Alberto Lattuada’s comedy didn’t find distribution in the U.S. Maybe it didn’t contain enough nudity to satisfy audiences whose appetite for it was growing with each new title from Radley Metzger, Kenneth Russell and the newly liberated Swedes. In any case, Tognazzi makes “Coffee” come alive in a way that will make many middle-age viewers feel nostalgic.

Lamberto Bava’s “Body Puzzle” appears to have been targeted at English-speaking audiences looking for some garish Italian horror. It stars Joanna Pacula, as the widow of famous pianist who suddenly begins finding the amputated appendages and vital organs of murder victims in her home. Tomas Arana plays the police detective, who, while investigating the case, falls in love with the freaked-out blond. Unlike the cops, we know who’s behind the attacks almost as soon as the first one is perpetrated. What’s prompting them successfully remains a mystery throughout most of “Body Puzzle.” That’s a good thing. By 1992, the distinctive giallo texture and depictions of extreme violence weren’t selling here and there was no urgency to import the movie. On DVD, however, it could find a home among hard-core fans of offbeat slasher movies.

Murder Obsession” is even more garish a giallo than “Body Puzzle,” as it combines slashing and dismembering with the black arts, movie magic and lots of sex. The mayhem takes place in the spooky, decaying mansion once inhabited by the star of a horror movie. Something horrible had happened here, but the details aren’t precisely clear in the young man’s mind. His mother still lives there with a creepy valet at her beck and call. When the son arrives ahead of a production team for his next project, he mysteriously decides not reveal the true nature of his relationship with the woman he brought with him. Things get even stranger when cast members move into the spare bedrooms and become the targets of the unseen killer. As for the nudity, two words: Laura Gemser. The Javanese star of countless soft-core classics is one of several beautiful women – it would be giallo scream queen Anita Strindberg’s final movie — that disrobe here in the service of Italian genre cinema. And, for their loyalty, are cruelly dispatched. If the special makeup effects in “Murder Obsession” occasionally look prehistoric by current industry standards, the blood still looks pretty real. The movies arrive with interviews with key participants in the productions.

From Japan comes Seijun Suzuki’s nearly indescribable gangland action-thriller, “Branded to Kill,” in a splendidly restored edition from Criterion Collection. It is such a strange concoction that it actually caused Suzuki (“Tokyo Drifter,” “Tattooed Life”) to be fired from his studio position when he handed it in to his bosses. The chipmunk-cheeked actor, Joe Shisgido, plays a mob assassin, Hanada, who accepts an assignment that ultimately leads to some serious backstabbing and an impromptu competition between hitmen for the title of No. 1 killer. Not being an expert on mid-century Japanese cinema, the closest I can come to a simple description is that “Branded to Kill” blends several then-popular genres in the service of B-movie existentialism. When it isn’t being deadly serious, the movie is hilarious in the same twisted way that Quentin Tarantino’s flicks often are. Hanada is, at once, ruthless and vulnerable. An assassin performing at Hanada’s level may be capable of taking out his or her victim in ways that border on the mystical, but, as accomplished as they are, they can never be satisfied with No. 5 or No. 2. Moreover, to maintain their edge, they must forgo close relationships with other people and learn to live in the shadows.

Branded to Kill” has more sex and nudity than I can recall being in similar Japanese crime pictures of the period, although we’re now seeing more representatives of the so-called Toei Pink and Roman Porno genres. Suzuki pushes the borders of the conceit to the limit by requiring Hamada to breathe in the scent of boiling rice before he can become sexually aroused. He also plays tricks with music, cinematography and other atmospheric elements. The high-def digital restoration captures all of the nuances. The Blu-ray package adds several highly entertaining interviews with Suzuki, Shishido and second-unit director Masami Kuzuu, and a booklet featuring an essay by critic and historian Tony Rayns. – Gary Dretzka

Life in contemporary Tehran is put under the microscope in Maryam Keshavarz’ scathing drama about choices and borders, “Circumstance.” At its most obvious level, it is a story about a brother and sister who fall in love with the same girl. Scratch the surface, though, and “Circumstance” is a heart-breaking examination of how it feels to be young, full of life and already deprived of the freedom to make meaningful choices in a world full of them. Shireen and Atafeh are high school girls with rebellious streaks that can’t be hidden beneath a shawl and chador. Atafeh’s liberal, well-educated and wealthy parents returned to Tehran from the United States after the Islamic revolution. Thirty years later, they are faced with the reality that they’ve sentenced their children to a life sentence in the same posh prison in which they now life. Lately, Atafeh’s attempts to break out of that prison have been thwarted by the moral imperatives of corrupt mullahs and their ignorant thug militias. Whenever they can, Shireen and Atafeh frequent underground nightclubs, where they’re free to dance, sing, smoke cigarettes and enjoy the company of like-minded people. Anyone who’s seen “No One Knows About Persian Cats” will recognize the music and spirit of young Iranians, as well as the palpable fear of being busted by the morality police.

At the same time, Atafeh’s brother Mehran has given up his aspirations for becoming a classical pianist and traded a heroin habit for Islamic fundamentalism. Even as he sinks deeper into the culture of spying and squealing encouraged by his spiritual leaders, there’s a spark of something decent in the young man. He’s aware of the girls’ sexual attraction to each other, but takes every opportunity to protect Shireen and win her heart with his wealth, love and vulnerability. The American-born filmmaker knew it would be impossible to shoot “Circumstance” in Tehran and wisely chose Beirut as a reasonable facsimile. Her casting choices couldn’t be more spot-on, either. Sarah Kazemy and Nikohl Boosheri are alternately radiant and tragic as the star-crossed teens, and Reza Sixo Safai keeps us guessing as to what the brother’s true intentions really are.

“Circumstance” was completed before last year’s bloody protests in the streets of Tehran. Ironically, one of the young male characters – an Iranian educated at Harvard – is attempting to incite dissent by dubbing “Milk” into Farsi and showing young people how campaigns for human right are launched in America. Considering that the president of the Islamic Republic has asserted that homosexuality doesn’t exist in Iran, but, if it did, gays and lesbians likely would be put to death, it’s an odd choice for a rallying point. The DVD arrives with a making-of featurette and commentary. – Gary Dretzka

99 And 44/100% Dead/The Nickel Ride: Double Feature
1973 was a helluva year for Jason Miller, star of the newly re-released on DVD crime-thriller “The Nickel Ride.” First, he landed the key role of Father Karras in “The Exorcist” – his performance would qualify him for an Oscar nomination — and then he won the Pulitzer Prize for his play, “That Championship Season.” The next year, he was handed the lead role in Robert Mulligan’s L.A. noir, “Nickel Ride,” as an overwhelmed fixer for the mob. In a rare predicament, truck hijackers have been so successful in their quest for recyclable merchandise that their warehouses are overflowing with swag. It’s the responsibility of Miller’s character, Cooper, to find the vacant warehouse space needed to keep operations moving smoothly. For some reason, the market for warehouse space in downtown Los Angeles has turned sour and Cooper’s usual sources have been unable to fulfill their promises. Another associate has reneged on a pledge to throw a fight. There’s been a change in leadership in gangland circles and the new bosses have little patience for old-school guys, like Cooper, who now fears for his life. If this sounds a bit like the scenario for “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” well, stranger coincidences have happened.  George V. Higgins’1970 novel has far snappier dialogue and Robert Mitchum fit the mold of a soon-to-be-extinct mob dinosaur better than Miller in the screen adaptation, but Mulligan was similarly proficient in capturing the city’s underworld milieu. Throw in a pretty blond moll (Linda Haynes), a sadistic hitman (Bo Hopkins) and an icy boss (John Hillerman), and you have a nifty example of mid-century pulp fiction.

Also released in 1974, “99 and 44/100% Dead” takes a pulpy premise and builds a kooky, inky-black action-parody around it. Richard Harris plays highly proficient assassin, Harry Crown, hired by elderly Mafia boss Uncle Frank (Edmond O’Brien) to eliminate chief rival, Big Eddie (Bradford Dillman). Anticipating Harry’s arrival, Eddie brings in the one-armed enforcer, Marvin ’Claw’ Zuckerman (Chuck Connors), who has more tricks up his nearly empty sleeve than David Copperfield. The dames are pretty swell here, too. (Ann Turkel as a school-bus driver in heels, anyone?) John Frankenheimer has all sorts of fun, messing with genre conventions, character stereotypes and interesting camera angles. Among other things, he opens the movie with a visit to Davy Jones’ Locker, where the mob buries the people and things it no longer needs. There are wild chases and alligators sharing space in the sewers with homeless people. Anyone looking for a completely unconventional crime movie will find it here. – Gary Dretzka

Heavenly Creatures: The Uncut Version: Blu-ray
Velvet Goldmine: Blu-ray

City of God: Blu-ray

It behooves anyone whose viewing habits have been changed by the addition of a home-theater unit to keep track of new releases, otherwise they might miss the arrival of some long-awaited titles or cult gems (such as the aforementioned “Nickel Ride” and ““99 and 44/100% Dead”). The good folks at Lionsgate/Miramax have just released a trio of films that are interesting for all sorts of reasons. Based on a true story, “Heavenly Creatures” describes how a pair of teenage outcasts in the land of the Kiwi becomes such close friends that they commit murder to prevent being separated by a concerned mother. The girls, who spend much of their time together creating elaborate fantasies, are chillingly portrayed by Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey (Rose, in “Two and a Half Men).  The movie was directed by little-known Peter Jackson, who, eight years later, would begin rolling out a continuing string of Tolkien adaptations. As a modern horror story, “Heavenly Creatures” wasn’t that much of a stretch for Jackson, who had already dabbled in the genre with “Bad Taste” and “Dead Alive,” and would follow it with “The Frighteners.” Even as we are repelled by their crime, it’s difficult not to sympathize with the girls’ situation. The Blu-ray adds 20 minutes previously eliminated footage.

Likewise, “Velvet Goldmine” would provide a springboard for Todd Haynes to gain mainstream attention. Previously known as the creator of the kooky “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (told with Barbie dolls), would build on the success of the exquisitely staged “Velvet Goldmine” and become a Hollywood darling with “Far From Home” and, more recently, “Mildred Pierce.” Borrowing elements of “Citizen Kane,” “VG” is an investigation into the disappearance of a Bowie-like pop sensation who disappeared from view after staging his own mock execution on stage. On the 10-year anniversary of that headline-making occurrence, a journalist played by Christian Bale embarks on the trail of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Several years earlier Bale’s Arthur Stuart was just another teenage fan, struggling with sexual identity and acne. He would be inspired by the music and unisex personae of the post-Beatles, pre-glam rockers who began popping up in the early 1970s. They wore makeup, colored their immaculately cut hair and aspired to be fashion icons, as well as musicians. Neither were they reluctant to flaunt their bi-sexuality and divine decadence in front of the media, which ate it up and spit them out. Naturally, the desire to one-up their fellow musicians on and off stage would lead to mad adventures fueled by hard drugs, booze and promiscuity. Only the strong survived … but just barely.

Also very good here is Ewan McGregor, as an American rocker modeled after Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. His balls-to-the-wall approach to the music and no-holds-barred lifestyle impressed Slade immensely. That admiration would lead to a love triangle, which also included Slade’s wife (Toni Collette), and be exploited by their manager (Eddie Izzard). This was topped by the arrival of the even more outrageous musician and producer, Brian Eno, in London. Lurking in the background throughout this whole crazy period was fanboy, Arthur; the ghost of Oscar Wilde; and the rising specter of anarchy and anti-fashion, as represented by the Sex Pistols. Haynes captures all of it with an eye for detail that was uncanny. The wardrobe design was wonderfully period-specific and the visualizations of rock dreams nothing short of dazzling. The music is good, too. Added features include commentary with Haynes and producer Christine Vachon.

City of God” benefits, as well, from the Lionsgate/Miramax restoration and its arrival is especially timely because Rio de Janeiro is about to become the center of the sports world, hosting the World Cup and Summer Olympics in succession. Upon its release in 2002, “City of God” was one of the very few films allowed access to the city’s teeming favelas and gang culture. It remains a frighteningly intimate document. The story, such as it is, is told through the eyes of a young warrior whose life is validated when he is given a camera and told to shoot what he knows. The Blu-ray adds the documentary, “News from a Personal War,” which describes the impact of the drug trade on the favelas. – Gary Dretzka

The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975
I don’t expect this intriguing documentary will find much traction during Black History Month, even though it’s far more relevant than most of the material offered high school students. Using footage taken by Swedish documentary crews during the most turbulent period in modern American history, “The Black Power Mixtape” recalls how the non-violent activism at the heart of the civil-rights movement was challenged by young people who had become frustrated by the pace of change and charismatic leaders in the Nation of Islam. The assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy would serve to validate the anger and impatience of militants, including the Black Panther Party and Black Guerrilla Nation. Because the American media tended to treat such vocal Black Power advocates as Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale as commie freaks, their message remained undelivered by the media. Open displays of guns and a willingness to use them would interest the press, while corrupting the message that comes through loud and clear in the clips in “Mixtape.” Nor was the media willing to accept the widely held belief among radicals of all stripe that the FBI had dedicated itself specifically to destroying the Black Panthers, even if it meant infiltrating local chapters and instigating violence when none was planned. J. Edgar Hoover is quoted as saying that the Panthers’ free-breakfast program was the most dangerous tactic being employed by the movement and no one in the mainstream media rose to challenge him. The agency’s COINTELPRO program, along with the subsequent rise of drug addiction and the dramatic display of establishment power at Attica and San Quentin, effectively drained the Black Power cause of its leaders, leaving nothing in its place to buoy minority citizens.

To supplement the archival footage, the producers of “Mixtape” returned to the U.S. decades later to record the impressions of artists and intellectuals who were influenced by things that happened, sometimes before they were born. Among those selected by director Goran Hugo Olsson are Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Abiodun Oyewole, John Forte, and Robin Kelley. It’s also interesting to hear the editor of TV Guide, a magazine not known for its insightful political coverage, defend a cover story, which, at the time, branded Dutch and Swedish television the most anti-American in the world. That the magazine was owned by one of the most powerful and wealthy men in America – and someone intimate with Richard Nixon and other presidents — was a fact ignored in the piece. While the documentary does come down on the side of the progressives within the Black Power movement, its reporters don’t fall blindly into the trap of buying into the fiery rhetoric advocating armed revolt. Its depiction of life in the impoverished communities inhabited largely by African-Americans pretty much speaks for itself. A longer film might have dug deeper into the flameouts experienced by the most charismatic and vocal leaders of the time and the reluctance on the part of average African-Americans to pick up the torch and carve a movement more to their liking. The DVD comes with a contemporary musical soundtrack, additional documentary footage and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Intruder: Director’s Cut: Blu-rayAstron-6 Collection
Jessicka Rabid
Klown Kamp Massacre
Psycho Sleepover

In the arena of micro-budget and do-it-yourself movie making, it isn’t unusual to find a few chunks of gold among the dross and detritus formed by awful acting, cheeseball effects and pointless plots. Those moments often are reason enough to invest 90 minutes of one’s time on Earth watching them. The filmmakers would have made the movies anyway, so catching the eye of someone at Troma or Synapse and seeing their twisted little movies released into the straight-to-DVD market is hardly a disappointment. With luck, the DVD will capture the fancy of a niche blogger or discerning geeks and their endorsement will encourage buffs to rent a copy and recommend it to friends. Entire careers have been founded on less evidence of potential than that.

I picked up the Blu-ray screener of “Intruders” not knowing anything about the picture, except what it said on the cover about being produced by “the creators of ‘Evil Dead II.’” Beyond that, though, it was mystery? In fact, what I took to be a standard-issue, straight-to-DVD slasher flick had been made in 1989 and sent out long ago on VHS. It was directed by Scott Spiegel and co-written with Lawrence Bender, both of whom would graduate to bigger things. Among its stars were such now-recognizable faces as Renee Eztevez, Dan Hicks, Sam and Ted Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Eugene Robert Glazer. “Intruder” takes place on the overnight shift at an old-fashioned supermarket in Michigan. A madman is loose in the store and it isn’t the most likely suspect, a deranged former boyfriend of a pretty blond sales clerk. What distinguishes “Intruder” from a million other indie horror flicks, before and since 1989, are the special makeup effects associated with the murders. They’re grotesque, even by today’s standards and predictive of the kind of work these people would do later. For this reason alone, the entertaining and informative making-of featurette is must-viewing.  The Blu-ray edition of the uncensored “Director’s Cut” is distinguished, if you will, by a 2K digital restoration, commentary with Spiegel and Bender, extended murder sequences from the original work print, outtakes from the lost short, “Night Crew,” audition footage and a stills gallery.

Apart from being a holiday in Tolkien lore, Astron-6 is the name of a quintet of singularly deranged sketch artists based in Winnipeg. The team specializes in demented parodies of movies, trailers and sexual stereotypes. Not only are the sketches politically incorrect, but they’re incorrect in most every other way possible, as well. As such, the troupe’s best material bares a passing resemblance to that of Kids in the Hall, SCTV and the Whitest Kids U’ Know, only far less ready for prime time. It took me a while to figure out what exactly Astron 6 was doing, but, once I got in step with the gang’s rhythm and twisted takes, I quite enjoyed what I was seeing. In addition to being faux violent, the sketches are very raunchy. Sensitive types should probably avoid it.

From Troma comes “Jessicka Rabid,” a truly sick and uniquely pointless torture-porn in which a young woman is kept in dog cage, brutalized and raped whenever the mood strikes her demented keepers. They include one of the men’s girlfriend, who enjoys having Jessicka lick peanut butter off her nipples … presumably, just as she would if a real dog was doing it. The real fun begins when Jessicka escapes the clutches of her captors and turns the tables on them, and that’s not all that much fun, either. The movie comes with commentary and a making-of piece.

Klown Kamp Massacre” is another movie that looks as if its budget was limited to somewhere in the vicinity of $15,000 and most of that was squandered on crack. Given time, though, the movie begins to work a spell on you. It’s set at rural camp for aspiring clowns. The founder was humiliated on graduation night at just such a school and now teaches students the art of throwing toxic pies, squirting caustic liquids at the rubes and killing audiences with otherwise harmless props. Not even the instructors are immune from killer comedy. The DVD includes more than two hours of special features.

As if on cue, a clown becomes an early victim of slap-stick tragedy in “Psycho Sleepover,” and its head makes return appearances throughout the rest of the movie. As veterans of “The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency,” Adam Deyoe and Eric Gosselin know the face of terror when they see it. “Psycho Sleepover” is insane parody of the sub-subgenre of horror films set during sleepover parties hosted by really, really skanky teenage girls. Because this one coincides with a breakout at a local prison for the criminally insane, the results are especially twisted. The sudden appearance of sexually voracious loons makes it difficult to distinguish them from the usual array of male party crashers. “PS” is more silly than scary, but some viewers might find the violence in “Psycho Sleepover” less than appetizing. If they keep repeating, “It’s only Caro syrup, mixed with water, food coloring and corn flour,” they should get through it OK. – Gary Dretzka

Portlandia: Season One: Blu-ray
PBS: Steve Jobs: One Last Thing
Sledge Hammer! The Complete Series
Switched at Birth: Volume One
History: Swamp People Season Two
G.I. Joe: Series 2, Season 1
Sarah Jane Adventures: Complete Fourth Season

One needn’t have grown up in Oregon or even spent much time in the Pacific Northwest to enjoy the IFC sketch comedy “Portlandia.” It does help, however, to be conversant in many conceits and conventions associated with life in one of America’s most notorious hipster colonies. Once populated with lots of hard-working, lumberjack types, Portland has been overrun by politically correct, proto-hippies who speak in gentle tones and are intolerant of (almost) all points of view that don’t square with their own. Bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation, unless their cars run on waste products or the batteries are powered by the occasional glimpse of sunshine between rain clouds. Hipster clothing is made from natural fibers and the anniversary Jerry Garcia’s death is a civic holiday. If anything, as representative citizens of Portland, Fred Armisen (“Saturday Night Live”) and Carrie Brownstein (the Sleater-Kinney band) sometimes hit too close to the button and satire appears to merge with ridicule.  That’s perfectly OK with me, but explains how the humor might offend sensitive types. On the other hand, it’s difficult for me to imagine anyone without a working knowledge of hipster culture stumbling across the show accidentally and knowing what it’s about. Kyle MacLachlin plays the city’s impossibly upbeat mayor, who calls on Fred and Carrie for guidance on creating a city song and ways to land a Major League baseball team; Aimee Mann appears as herself, playing a maid; and Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”), Steve Buscemi, Heather Graham, Selma Blair, Jason Sudeikis, Gus Van Sant and Sarah McLachlan also make cameos. The Blu-ray set contains all six episodes (a new season arrives soon), deleted and alternate scenes, a blooper reel, “Thunderant” videos and commentary.

It took cancer to make Steve Jobs a larger-than-life character in the story of America. Since his death, the Apple founder has been accorded the respect and admiration generally reserved for the presidents whose likenesses are carved into a cliff on Mount Rushmore. His sins against consumer freedom-of-choice have been forgiven and his idiosyncrasies rendered folkloric. Jobs had detractors, to be sure, but his ability to turn ideas into gold for shareholders trumped most negative observations about his business practices, temperament, hygienic quirks and ability to ignore the complaints of his customers if they conflicted with his principles. “One Last Thing” largely takes the man at his word, expounding on his philosophies and focusing on the people who made him what he later became. The 60-minute bio-doc is built around a never-before-seen interview.

David Rasche, still one of our finest character actors, starred in the short-lived sitcom, “Sledge Hammer!,” which ran on ABC from 1986 to 1988. The sneaky-funny Second City graduate frequently plays characters that while completely full of themselves never quite understand how silly and transparent they look to everyone around them. As Dirty Harry-wannabe Sledge Hammer, Rasche solves crimes with all the subtlety of the tool after which he’s named. He’s been suspended from the force several times, primarily for using weapons and interrogation techniques usually reserved for sadists in the CIA. He even fires warning shots at jaywalkers. It isn’t likely that “Sledge Hammer!” could have existed without the ice-breaking done by “Naked Gun!,” but the show managed to outlive its offshoot, “Police Squad!,” by 35 episodes, all of which are collected here.

The possibility that a nurse or doctor may have confused the identities of babies born within minutes of each other and switched the names on their ID bracelets is a concern many parents have shared, especially if their kids don’t resemble them or display sociopathic tendencies. There have been enough recorded cases of such terrible mistakes to warrant some suspicion, at least, of it having happening again. Naturally, Hollywood has capitalized on these fears and built comedies and dramas around them. The latest is the ABC Family series, “Switched at Birth,” starring Katie Leclerc and Vanessa Marano. In it, girls from opposite backgrounds don’t discover that they’ve been switched until they’re well into their teens. One grows up in a household surrounded by all the trappings of wealth, as well as a brother, while the other lost her hearing at an early age due to meningitis. She lives in a single-parent household in a working-class neighborhood. The truth isn’t at all funny or comforting to the girls, but they struggle to deal with it on a weekly basis. The show also stars Lea Thompson, Marlee Matlin, Constance Marie and D.W. Moffett.

Fortunately for the fans and producers of History’s “Swamp People,” a few alligators were left alive after the debut stanza to allow at least one more go-round in the Atchafalaya Swamp of Louisiana. In Season 2, the newly arrived gator season means it’s time for Captain Troy Landry, Jacob Landry and the Edwards boys to get back in the boat and start hunting for “honey holes” and monster skins. The competition has intensified with new swampers attempting to steal their trophies out from under them. The DVD includes additional footage.

The latest collection of “G.I. Joe” adventures is comprised of material from the second animated TV series, which began in 1990. In it, America’s top-secret mobile strike force battles Cobra, Serpentor and Cobra Commander. The set includes the miniseries, “Operation Dragonfire.”

In the BBC’s “Dr. Who” spinoff, “The Sarah Jane Adventures,” investigative journalist, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), and her three teenage sidekicks combine their diverse talents to save the world from extraterrestrials. The fourth season is noteworthy as being the final one in which Sladen appears. She died of cancer, at 65, just as the new chapters were beginning to unfold, and, typical of the series, the loss was worked into narrative as a teaching opportunity for young fans. Making a guest appearance are the current Doctor (Matt Smith) and a former doctor’s companion, Jo Grant (Katy Manning). The stories include “The Nightmare Man,” “The Vault of Secrets,” “Death of the Doctor,” “The Empty Planet,” “Lost in Time” and “Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith.” – Gary Dretzka

Peter Cetera: Live: Blu-ray
The latest addition to Image Entertainment’s catalogue of “Soundstage” concerts features Peter Cetera, a founding member of Chicago and highly successful solo artist. The Windy City native doesn’t often appear in concert, so this should come as an especially welcome treat for four decades’ worth of fans. In the 2003 concert recorded here, Cetera was joined by Amy Grant. Together, they perform “Baby, Baby,” “Simple Things,” “Next Time I Fall,” and “El-Shadaii.” The singer, songwriter and bassist also offers songs from across the wide spectrum of his career, including his first hit, “25 or 6 to 4.” If “Soundstage” looks particularly good in Blu-ray, it’s because Chicago’s PBS station was an early adopter of hi-def technology and learned out to do things right. — Gary Dretzka

Beethoven’s Christmas Adventure
The sixth sequel in the series that began with 1992’s hit family comedy, “Beethoven,” puts the lumbering St, Bernard in a position to play the hero by saving Christmas for all good boys and girls. Crime must be rampant on the North Pole, because every other holiday DVD I see involves some kind of an attempt to derail Santa’s annual mission, starting with the re-release of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.”  This time, an elf named Henry (Kyle Massey) takes an unscheduled flight on Santa’s sleigh from the North Pole, with his constantly expanding bag of toys in tow. When he crash lands somewhere in Suburbia USA, the valuable cache goes missing. Beethoven and his teenage friend, Mason (Munro Chambers) volunteer to save the day. The good news here is that Beethoven finally speaks, as all CGI critters must ultimately do. The bad news is that he sounds very much like Tom Arnold. The DVD comes with deleted scenes, a gag reel, a making-of featurette and “Beethoven Goes Caroling.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Hangover II, The Help, Friends With Benefits, Cowboys & Aliens, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Medea, Underbelly …

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

The Hangover: Part II: Blu-ray
The pressure on producer/director/co-writer Todd Phillips to create an instant sequel to the 2009 blockbuster, “The Hangover,” must have so great that it blinded him to the fact that it generally takes more than a few minutes to write, re-write and re-write again a prized property. That movie was so fresh, vibrant and unpredictable that it left audiences gasping for air between bursts of unexpected laughter. Apparently, studio execs felt the same way because they invested in a sequel before the original even opened. “Hangover II” isn’t a bad or humorless movie, by any means. Like too many other sequels, though, it simply took too many shortcuts along the way to a surefire opening weekend. Bangkok, the setting for “II,” may never be confused for Las Vegas, but the opportunities for debauchery and disaster aren’t substantially different. Instead of Mike Tyson’s tiger, there’s a perverted, scene-stealing capuchin monkey in a Rolling Stones jacket. Mike Epps’ drug-confusing Black Doug has been replaced by a mute Buddhist monk, while groom-to-be Stu (Ed Helms) unwittingly gets it on with a blond transvestite, instead of a ditzy blond prostitute. (Stu’s fiancée, Lauren, played by Jamie Chung, can’t hold a candle to Heather Graham, even if her presence opens the door to much Asian-American archtyping.) Despite the fact that Alan (Zach Galifianakis) isn’t originally invited to the wedding, Stu is convinced by Phil, Doug and a cache of photos from his first “wedding” to add him to the guest list. Alan, in turn, brings Mr. Chow to Thailand as his plus-one. Tyson even makes a cameo.

Stu’s future father-in-law is an arrogant prick who believes that his Thai-American princess is marrying below her station because he’s a dentist, “not a real doctor.” Certainly, he doesn’t measure up to Lauren’s brother, Teddy, who, at 16, is pre-med at Stanford and a standout cellist. Alan’s immediate dislike for Teddy and his father is compounded by his fear that the teenager will become a more valued member of the “wolf pack” than he is. Even after swearing there would be no Vegas-style bachelor party, Stu and the boys inexplicably find themselves in a roach-infested Bangkok hotel, hundreds of miles from the beach resort where the wedding party is assembled. After they wake up from their stupor, the guys realize Teddy’s missing and a cigarette-smoking monkey has appeared in his place. The only evidence he even made the trip is a detached finger with a Stanford ring still on it. With Teddy (Ang Lee’s son, Mason) AWOL, Stu has no chance of marrying Lauren and endearing himself to the family. As was the case in “Hangover I,” the buddies are able to recall the events of the night before through flashbacks, matchbooks and visits to a police station, hospital and Buddhist temple. And, yes, before you ask, the first place they look is on the roof of the hotel. If it weren’t for the monkey and some interesting Bangkok locations, there wouldn’t be any surprises. The Blu-ray bonus package adds a gag reel, “action mash-up,” the featurettes “Comedy Rhythm of Todd Phillips,” “Not Your Everyday Monkey” and “Bangkok Tour With Mr. Chow,” and instant streaming with  UltraViolet Digital Copy. – Gary Dretzka

The Help: Blu-ray
Much of what happens in “The Help” will feel like ancient history to viewers who can’t remember – or imagine – a time when segregation was as strictly enforced in parts of the United States as was Apartheid  in South Africa and even as prominent a liberal as John F. Kennedy hesitated to push for civil-rights legislation, fearing a Southern political backlash. Mississippi native Kathryn Stockett, author of the best-seller upon which the movie is based, was born after the worst of the troubles were over but little of the pain was buried. Screenwriter/director Tate Taylor was raised in Jackson, as well, and has been friends with Stockett ever since they were tots. Even if the black women we see working as maids and nannies in “The Help” had won important rights by the time Stockett and Taylor were born, it didn’t mean career prospects were any better for them or many dared to whistle “Take This Job and Shove It” as they walked out the door each night. Most of the benefits would be realized by their children. It is true, though, that “The Help” is informed by deeply personal memories of knowing your nanny better than a parent and realizing that these women spent more time with you than their own children. That much hadn’t changed by 1970.

The movie takes place in one of the darkest periods of the post-war era. While the delicate flowers of the South depicted in “The Help” concerned themselves with playing bridge and planning parties to benefit impoverished children in Africa, their menfolk either rode with the Klan or sanctioned its activities with their silence. The maids were expected to bear the brunt of the women’s anger, petty jealousies and anxieties quietly and with head bowed. Here, they stand in the background as their owners, er, bosses, discuss such weighty matters as the need for separate-but-equal bathrooms in the home. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is an ambitious college graduate who hopes to make her bones by writing a book about how “the help” feel about sublimating their own ambitions for the benefit of the children they rarely see and husbands who also take out their frustrations on them. Upon Skeeter’s arrival home, she’s shocked to learn that her longtime and much beloved nanny has moved to Chicago under a cigarette cloud of secrecy blown by her status-obsessed mother (Allison Janney). It isn’t until maids played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer reluctantly agree to participate in the project that she succeeds in interesting her Yankee publisher, however. That spark is provided both by the brainless behavior of some of the white society women and the 1963 assassination of rights activist Medgar Evers, an event so auspicious it even moved the president to action.

The raw sentimentality and use of vernacular in “The Help” may rub some viewers the wrong way. Others, no doubt, might feel that the outpouring of white liberal guilt on the part of Skeeters, Stockett and Taylor overshadows the courage of the maids. There’s no denying, however, the power of the story to elicit memories of a time when the American Dream was denied many of its hardest-working and most-oppressed citizens. Too many of the white Southern women are portrayed here as gargoyles, instead of the garden-variety racists they were, as if to add comic relief and an unnecessarily obvious racial distinction to the characters. And the bigotry isn’t limited to black women, either. White women not up the others’ standards are made to suffer in cruel ways, as well. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy interview with Stockett and Taylor, deleted scenes, a video of Mary J. Blige singing “The Living Proof” and the moving featurette, “In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi.” (In advance of the awards season, look for the performances of Davis, Spencer, Janney and Sissy Spacek, as a ditizy old dame, to find traction in the nominations.) – Gary Dretzka

Friends With Benefits
Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis make such a winning couple here that it would be a shame if their pairing was limited only to this often witty, if generally lightweight romantic comedy from the writer/director of “Easy A.” Like dozens of other rom-coms released in the wake of “You’ve Got Mail” (1998), “Friends With Benefits” is informed by Gen Y’s obsession with social media and a willingness to trade privacy for immediate accessibility. Unlike most of those efforts, “Friends With Benefits” captures the rhythms, vernacular and immediacy of geek-speak and Internet protocol. Kunis plays a New York-based headhunter, Jamie, who uses it as a tool to pair corporations with job candidates, some of whom don’t realize they’re being hunted. Timberlake’s Dylan is a Los Angeles-based designer of blogs and websites who Jamie is recruiting for a similar job at GQ magazine. Dylan tells Jamie that he isn’t all that interested in moving to New York and working for an established business, but wasn’t about to turn down a free trip to the Big Apple. If Jamie is going to make her bonus quota, she needs to convince Dylan that New York is the center of the universe. After they meet extremely cute at the airport, she escorts Dylan to the GQ offices for his interview. Knowing he has the inside track, Jamie makes it her business to sell him on Manhattan. Her strategy includes drinks at a riverside café, dinner from a curbside vendor, a specially arranged Times Square flash mob and a visit to her favorite hiding place. Naturally, the plan works to perfection.

In another neat coincidence, Jamie and Dylan have recently been dumped unceremoniously by their needy yuppie lovers (Andy Samberg, Emma Stone) and they’ve sworn off dating for a while. Fast friends, they remain celibate for several weeks. One night, though, after admitting their overall horniness, they agree to become platonic friends, with benefits. Against all odds, Jamie and Dylan remain the best of friends, while also enjoying world-class sexual encounters. Naturally, such a sweet arrangement can’t last forever and things begin to unravel – as they must in every Hollywood rom-com – when Dylan invites Jamie to L.A. to visit his family over the 4th of July weekend. And, just as predictably, they return to normal a few months later. What makes “Friends With Benefits” easier to enjoy than most other rom-coms is Kunis and Timberlake’s enthusiastic approach to the material and offbeat supporting performances by

Woody Harrelson, as GQ’s gay sports editor; Jenna Elfman, as Dylan’s well-grounded sister; Richard Jenkins, as their bordering-on-delusional dad; Patricia Clarkson, as a hippy-dippy cougar; and Shaun White, as the obnoxious celebrity athlete he could very well be. The Blu-ray package includes commentary with Gluck, Timberlake and Kunis; deleted scenes; outtakes; a making-of featurette; a piece on choreographing a flash mob; and a pop-up trivia track. – Gary Dretzka

Cowboys & Aliens: Extended Version: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine so much time, effort and money being invested in the cinematic equivalent of a vivisectionist sewing a cat’s head on a dog’s body. Even if it were possible, of what use could it be? Jon Favreau’s mega-budget action-adventure “Cowboys & Aliens” merges Westerns and science-fiction in ways telegraphed all too explicitly in trailers and EPKs. The only real surprise is the form the aliens take when finally confronted by the cowboys, who look as if they might have stepped out of an episode of “Gunsmoke.” The special-effects extravaganza, which has more credited producers and writers than most movies have actors, begins simply enough as a Western in which a seriously befuddled bad-ass, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), is approached somewhere in the high desert by bounty hunters. All Jake knows is that he’s been left to die of exposure by parties unknown and there’s an impenetrable metal bracelet on his wrist. Wanted posters have alerted the gunmen to the fact that the desperado is the leader of a gang of outlaws responsible for all of the crimes committed west of the Mississippi in the last few months. By the time, the posse reaches the nearest town, Absolution, Jake will have turned the tables on them and freed himself. The shock of seeing supersonic jets stream over the parched landscape puts a jolt into everyone, especially local Apaches whose mythology isn’t sufficiently elastic to include airplanes, let alone extraterrestrials.

It doesn’t take long for Jake to make friends and enemies in Absolution, a town controlled by a ruthless rancher and his good-for-nothing son. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrision Ford). Dolarhyde is upset that the sheriff, with an assist from Lonergan, has thrown the boy into the slammer and demands retribution. Before the old man can rescue his son from the law, however, another squadron of jets flies over the town, this time roping citizens and pulling them into their cargo holds. The only person who might have a notion as to why the humans are being rounded up is an enigmatic beauty, Ella (Olivia Wilde), who’s playing her cards pretty close to her alluring chest. Jake and Ella, who seem to share a psychic connection, join a posse that ultimately includes the town’s menfolk, Dolarhyde, Apache braves and members of Jake’s old gang. Together, they’re required to defend themselves against further attacks by the jet fighters and prepare an assault on a spaceship full of aliens inspired by the creatures in “Predator” and “Alien.” If it doesn’t begin as a fair fight, the team of six screenwriters none-too-convincingly conjures ways for six-shooters to neutralize giant robotic insects with razor-sharp claws. The final confrontation is extremely loud, messy and confusing, but, as in Vietnam, the only thing that really matters is body count. Even if we’re conditioned to side with the cowboys, we have only Ella’s word to trust that the aliens are any worse in the long run than the Lonergan gang, Dolarhyde’s mercenaries and vengeful Apaches.

“Cowboys & Outlaws” was adapted from Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel, which is far more complex and full of ideas than the movie. Fact is, though, sci-fi Westerns and space Westerns are nothing new. “Star Trek” was famously pitched by Gene Roddenberry as “Wagon train to the stars” and “Star Wars” was replete with Western references, including the famous cantina scene. “Cowboy Bebop” was a Western anime, while the inventions in “Wild Wild West” pushed the boundaries of the genre. “Cowboys & Aliens” could have benefitted from looking more like a graphic novel than a cross-genre experiment. As such, buffs and purists will find Favreau’s concoction less appetizing than kids and teens. The Blu-ray includes a 119-minute theatrical cut and a 135-minute extended version. It also adds “Conversations With Jon Favreau,” commentary, the making-of “Igniting the Sky,” U-Control Picture-in-Picture, the interactive Second Screen, BD-Live connectivity and a digital copy. – Gary Dretzka

Mr. Popper’s Penguins: Blu-ray
Whenever I watch a movie that’s being market as family entertainment, I try to keep track of the fart and poop gags. Beyond being the most common of common denominators, scatological humor crosses all demographic borders and amuses viewers in all age groups. The MPAA appears to be neutral on the issue, as well. In the first 15 minutes of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” alone, I counted four gags involving the bad bathroom habits of undomesticated Gentoo penguins, several of which unexpectedly appear at the door step of a wealthy New York real-estate investor. They’re funny enough, I suppose, but beg the question as to why Mr. Popper’s apartment remains so free of guano throughout the rest of the comedy. Maybe, somehow, the Gentoo we know has been potty trained by Mr. Popper managed to teach the others how to use the facilities. Blessedly, director Mark Water isn’t a stickler for details.

In the 1938 story by Richard and Florence Atwater, Mr. Popper is a house painter in a small town. His family is struggling to survive during the Depression, so the surprise arrival of the penguin named Captain Cook is a burden. Even so, a female is adopted to cure Captain’s loneliness and, eventually, the penguins outnumber the Poppers. To make ends meet, they form a vaudeville act. For the movie, Jim Carrey was assigned the task of reimagining the character as a rich urbanite, too invested in his career to pay attention to his wife (Carla Gugino) and two children. The penguins’ arrival coincides with Popper’s pursuit of one of New York City’s crown jewels: Tavern on the Green, in Central Park. Needless to say, the mayhem that ensues inside Popper’s extravagant hi-rise condo conflicts with his ability to focus on the task ahead, which includes schmoozing the restaurant’s snooty owner (Angela Lansbury). Because Popper’s kids believe their father’s assertion that he bought them as gifts for the family, he is locked into keeping the birds around for their weekend visits. A zoologist specializing in penguins covets the Gentoos, as well, but only as trade bait for other species. Popper is left juggling the needs and desires of his company’s board of directors, the condo board, his kids and ex-wife, and the penguins themselves. It’s a lot of fun to watch Popper turn his split-level apartment into a winter wonderland for the penguins and become a surrogate mom to them. A mixed flock of real and animatronic birds, the winged characters also are delightful. How could they not be? As Popper, Carrey makes us believe that the businessman is capable of behavior that’s alternately ruthless, nurturing and redemptive.

The Blu-ray package is enhanced by commentary with Waters, editor Bruce Green and visual-effects supervisor Richard Hollander; deleted scenes, with commentary; a gag reel; the cartoon, “Nimrod and Stinky’s Antarctic Adventure”; a half-dozen entertaining and informative featurettes; and a sneak preview of “Tooth Fairy 2.” – Gary Dretzka

Medea: Blu-ray
There are several very good reasons to rush out and grab the Blu-ray edition of Par Paolo Pasolini’s rarely seen adaptation of Euripides’ “Medea.” The most obvious is the august presence of Maria Callas in her only theatrical film. Even though she doesn’t sing a note, Callas dominates the screen. The greatest diva of them all had rejected several overtures to make movies, but, in 1968, she was in the twilight of her career and stung publicly by Aristotle Onassis’ marriage into America’s royal family, the Kennedys. Jacqueline Kennedy possessed none of the qualities associated with Callas, but, after the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy, clearly was a damsel in distress. That Onassis turned his back on his longtime lover didn’t prevent him from appearing at Callas’ door at odd hours, demanding she give in to his demands. She had sung “Medea” countless times in the past, but stage acting is a substantially different art than that required for the screen. A born actor, Callas understood the differences immediately and allowed Pasolini to craft a character whose fire, passion and pain matched her own: “. . . a semi-goddess who puts all her beliefs in a man. At the same time, she is a woman with all the experiences of a woman, only bigger … bigger sacrifices, bigger hurts.” Pasolini’s interpretation of Medea and Jason’s tragic romance may differ greatly from the works of Euripides, Seneca, Ovid and the composer Cherubini, but the key elements remain intact. The biggest difference comes in opening with Jason being tutored by the Centaur, but abruptly skipping ahead to the theft of the Golden Fleece and Medea’s removal to Corinth.

Beyond the drama, “Medea” is wonderfully scenic. It was shot in such ancient locations as Turkey’s Cappodoccia Goreme, where the earliest Christians worshipped and hid from the Romans; historic Aleppo, in northern Syria; the marshes and lagoon at Grado, north of Venice; Piazza dei Miracoli at Pisa; Lido Marechiaro, in Anzio; and Viterbo, near Rome. The timelessness of the ruins and landscapes serve Pasolini’s desire to re-create a period when the mythic gods and idols held sway over the earliest blossoming of civilization. The costuming and production design are amazing and the musical score haunting. As such, Pasolini’s “Medea” isn’t for fans of sword-and-sandal epics based on “Jason and the Argonauts,” “The Odyssey” and the antics of the gods’ semi-mortal children. Medea may be the granddaughter of the sun god Helios, but her flaws are all too human. The Blu-ray includes Tony Palmer’s fascinating feature-length bio-doc, “Callas.” – Gary Dretzka

For Christ’s Sake

It isn’t often that the words, “porn” and “priest,” can be used in the same movie review and not induce nausea in readers. That’s exactly what happens, though, in “For Christ’s Sake,” a nifty indie comedy in which a priest is duped by his brother into financing the production of a XXX movie. Jed Rees plays a dedicated parish priest who borrows money from his church’s emergency fund to finance what he believes to be his sibling’s cancer treatment. Father Robert hails from a small town, where everyone is in everyone else’s business and the biggest event is the annual church fair. He fully expects to be paid back, despite his brother’s known tendency to tell lies and exploit other people’s kindness. He doesn’t discover the truth until he pays him a visit in his surprisingly lavish Hollywood Hills home, where, he’s shocked to learn, a porn movie is being shot. Desperate to recover the church money, Father Robert is coerced into performing behind-the-camera duties on the set. It’s not something he enjoys doing or intends to hide from his confessor. In fact, he nearly derails the production by innocently engaging in religious discussions with the film’s voluptuous female lead (Sara Rue). When she takes the message to heart, the priest faces a new dilemma. Either he finds a way to convince her to finish the shoot or he’ll lose the money. Another crisis erupts when a mobster repossesses the camera equipment and he accepts an offer from a fellow priest – and porn aficionado – to lend him the money his brother will need to finish the production.

There’s more, but it would spoil the pleasantly surprising ending. I credit freshman director Jackson Douglas with understanding the difference between irreverent and offensive, sexy and lurid. There’s nudity, but it isn’t particularly erotic or gratuitous, especially within the context of a comedy targeted at mature audiences. Moreover, the actors avoid caricature by being extremely likeable and secure in their work. The movie received almost no distribution beyond a festival appearance, but that shouldn’t discourage people looking for a ribald comedy from picking up “For Christ’s Sake.” If nothing else, it will look good on Rees and Rue’s clip reel.

Even if John Waters hadn’t made a cameo appearance as the deity, in “Mangus!,” his influence on writer/director Ash Christian would be unmistakable. His fingerprints are all over the indie comedy. Like the mustachioed maestro, Christian was able to convince recognizable actors to have fun in oddball roles. Without Jennifer Coolidge, Leslie Jordan, Heather Matarazzo, Deborah Theaker and Waters, “Mangus!” merely would qualify as do-it-yourself project too ragged for prime time, but too promising to be ignored. With them, however, the movie resembles a white-trash “Glee.” Ryan Boggus plays Mangus Spedgewick, a marginally talented high school senior who wants to follow in the family tradition of playing Jesus in the town’s annual amateur production of “Jesus Christ Spectacular.” The musical is less accomplished, even, than the one in “Waiting for Guffman,” but, as far as the locals are concerned, it might as well be “My Fair Lady.” Sure enough, Mangus is chosen to play Jesus, just as his father and grandfather had before him.

Just as rehearsals are about to begin, however, Mangus is left a paraplegic in an automobile accident. Although he’s still game to play Jesus in a wheelchair, some parents lobby against having their lord and savior portrayed as a cripple incapable of healing himself. Undaunted, Mangus decides to weasel his way into the production by sabotaging his replacement’s opportunity. This backfires when the boy is injured while prancing around his living room practicing his routine. Mangus incorrectly assumes he’s died and it’s his fault. He decides to hightail it to Hollywood Boulevard with his sister (Matarazzo), but ends up in Hollywood, Florida, instead. Meanwhile, back home, his dad has returned from Iraq in a wheelchair and dedicated himself to proving his love to his ex-wife (Coolidge).  Mangus’ stepmom stays busy hitting on greasers half her age. By the time Mangus is informed that no one has died and he’s needed on stage, things back home have gotten pretty wild. Because “Mangus!” is populated with gay icons and lovers of musical theater, its exposure was limited to festivals catering to that community. As it is, the movie is “queer,” without being particularly gay and surprisingly accessible. Anyone drawn to Waters’ movies – gay or straight — should get a similar kick from the low-budget “Mangus!” – Gary Dretzka

Dexter Romweber: Two Headed Cow
Michael Feinstein: The Sinatra Legacy: Blu-ray
Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore

“Two Headed Cow” is the latest in a series of rock bio-docs that describe the hardships associated with being dubbed a tortured genius. “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” “Derailroaded,” “Joy Division” and “Kurt Cobain: About a Son” come immediately to mind as films that document how the ravages of fame, near fame and failure impact rock musicians who’ve pushed the envelope and had it close back up on them. Although he’s not widely known outside guitar-hero circles, Romweber’s ferocious brand of rock ’n’ roll has influenced musicians with whom most people are familiar. Among those who testify here are Jack White, Cat Power, Neko Case, Exene Cervenka and Mojo Nixon. While on tour, in 1990, opening for the Cramps, he appeared on “Late Night With David Letterman” with Chris “Crow” Smith, the other half of the band Flat Duo Jets. Their sound combined traditional lo-fi rockabilly with roots rock, garage rock and something called surf-punk. They made a few albums and played a lot of bars, before splitting up acrimoniously. Romweber, who probably suspected he was a genius all along, was left to his demons. Writer/director Tony Gayton had already included Flat Duo Jets in his 1987 rockumentary, “Athens, Ga.: Inside/Out,” and incorporates concert footage from that period into the new film, which had its festival debut in 2006. It wasn’t until very recently that “Two Headed Cow” found distribution on DVD.

Michael Feinstein has long been known as one of the finest interpreters of standards popularized by Frank Sinatra. In this in-concert film, which aired on PBS stations last summer, Feinstein not only performs Sinatra hits, but also those of his contemporaries. He also shares memories of the period and artists. “The Sinatra Legacy” was recorded in May, as part of the inaugural season of the newly completed, state-of-the-art Palladium, in Carmel, Indiana. (Was Las Vegas closed that night?) Backed by a 32-piece orchestra and swinging new arrangements, Feinstein enchants the Hoosier audience with such chestnuts as “Once in a Lifetime,” “I Thought About You,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Put on a Happy Face/Lotta Livin’,” “So In Love,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “Begin the Beguine” and “New York New York.” The Blu-ray adds the bonus track, “Sway,” and the featurette, “Journey to the Palladium.”

Another recent PBS presentation captured on Blu-ray is the Guthrie Theater’s staging of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.” I’m no expert on the subject, but, from what I can gather from buffs and critics, the Joe Dowling’s irreverent approach to the material took liberties that fans and purists didn’t appreciate. Most galling, perhaps, were arrangements that borrowed from big-band swing and classic pop. Even controversial G&S is better than none at all for most of us, though, and I found plenty here to like. The DVD adds a piece on the Minnesota arts scene. – Gary Dretzka

Design for Living: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Released in 1933, before the Production Code forced studios to treat adults as if they were children, “Design for Living” remains a delightful sexual farce “about three people who love each other very much.” It was adapted from a popular Noel Coward play by director Ernest Lubitsch and screenwriter Ben Hecht. Coward conceived the play as a vehicle for himself, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt but it was revised to accommodate far-less-upper-crusty Americans, played by Gary Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. Her sassy blond commercial artist meets Cooper and March’s painter and playwright, while traveling through Europe on a train. They became fast friends on the train and, only later, lovers. In the early years of their unique relationship, the trio co-exists as gay (in the original sense of the word) and adventurous young adults. Things get complicated when they achieve success and butt heads with accepted notions of morality. Finally, though, all three realize – separately – that they miss the liberated lifestyle of the past too much to let conformity get in its way. These notions, of course, were considered risqué and somewhat dangerous in the early 1930s, and still are in some fundamentalist quarters. The stage version offers broader hints at the homosexuality/bisexuality of key characters and this, of course, was an even greater taboo than unconventional heterosexual relationships, especially in England. Criterion’s Blu-ray package allows viewers to compare both versions, with “Play of the Week: A Choice of Coward,” a 1964 British television production of the play, introduced by the playwright. The hi-def restoration isn’t perfect, but that can be blamed on neglect. “Design for Living” was released a year before enforcement of the Production Code forced Universal to put it on a shelf for the next few decades. The package also includes a Lubitsch short, “The Clerk,” in which Charles Laughton plays an office drone sent a million-dollar check by a mysterious benefactor; selected-scene commentary by film professor William Paul; a new interview with critic/writer/director Joseph McBride, on the Lubitsch, Hecht and Coward; and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Kim Morgan. – Gary Dretzka

Triple Tap: Blu-ray
Derek Yee’s latest thriller may be set in Hong Kong, but don’t look for wire-work and martial arts. His sequel to “Double Tap” (2000), which he wrote, instead is populated with competitive sharpshooters. Rivalries born in tournaments are settled in the city streets. Here, champion marksman Kwan Yau-bok (Louis Koo) is arrested by the cop he recently beat in a tournament, even after he had shot and killed four men who were robbing an armored van transporting bearer bonds. One of the crooks escapes, but a cop who challenged the gang is rescued. No sooner is Kwan cleared of any guilt in the incident than he’s targeted by the crook who survived. The cat-and-mouse game that ensues in “Triple Tap” adds a psychological element missing from most Hong Kong action-thrillers. No one can be trusted. The Blu-ray adds interviews with the director and stars, deleted scenes, a making-of featurettes, photo gallery and optional English dub track. – Gary Dretzka

Tora! Tora! Tora!: Blu-ray
History: Vietnam in HD: Blu-ray
PBS: Women War & Peace

It’s interesting, if not overly instructive, to note “Tora! Tora! Tora!” cost an estimated $25 million to stage, while, 31 years later, Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” was handed an estimated budget of $140 million with which to work. Both movies were expected to be blockbusters, but only “Pearl Harbor” made back its initial investment at the domestic box-office … not taking into account costs associated with prints and marketing, splits between theater owners and distributors, and the creativity of Hollywood accountants. Among other things, too, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” did better financially in Japan than in the U.S., if only because half of the movie was shot by directors Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushimall and it chronicled Japan’s greatest wartime victory. (Akiri Kurosawa took an early powder, reportedly after learning that his Hollywood counterpart would be Richard Fleischer, not David Lean, as promised.) Roger Ebert hated both movies, almost equally. Even more remarkably, the movie was and still is rated, “G.” The Blu-ray edition arrives on these shores with several new and formerly available features, including commentary by Fleischer and Japanese-film historian Stuart Galbraith IV; the documentaries, “Day of Infamy” and “History vs. Hollywood: A Giant Awakes”; the “AMC Backstory” presentation, “Tora! Tora! Tora!”; a behind-the-scenes gallery and production gallery; several vintage newsreels from Fox Movietone News; the original theatrical trailer; and a collectible hardcover book. Sadly, it doesn’t include the extra 15 minutes of film included in the Japanese edition.

Vietnam in HD” is built from the same template as was used to create “WWII in HD,” a compilation of largely unseen footage taken by personnel in the field, military historians, news organizations and other interested observers. The action and images are recorded in color, if by not hi-def digital cameras as the title implies, and, therefore, is slightly grainy but extremely clean and free of visual artifacts. The six-hour miniseries begins slightly before the initial troop build-up, in 1965, and ends with the fall of Saigon a decade later. The stories are told by the men and women who were there and put in harm’s way by our government in defense of the since-discredited domino theory. In some cases, actors read from the memoirs and letters of the same veterans. Because 8mm cameras were widely available at the time, it wasn’t unusual for soldiers to make “home movies” that are extremely intimate and ultimately heart-breaking. Early on, the letters home were full of gung-ho sentiments, parroting the official line about the war being over in a few months. Soon, those same letters reflect the reality of the situation on the ground and patriotic exuberance turns to near-despair. It’s a fascinating, if sobering series. Clearly, today’s leaders didn’t really pay attention to the lessons taught by the Viet Cong and NVA, and consequently put us in the quagmire we’re now experiencing in Afghanistan. The two-disc set represents 282 minutes of sometimes amazing footage, as well as 3D maps and graphics that amplify on the physical challenges facing U.S. troops.

Just as women have made their presence felt top-down in the U.S. military – performing tasks previously reserved for men and sometimes fighting alongside them – their counterparts in less developed nations have begun assuming leadership roles in promoting diplomacy and updating our notions of war. The five-part PBS mini-series, “Women, War & Peace,” demonstrates how women have taken significant roles in situations where gangs and warlords still rule and the proliferation of small arms and improvised weapons is a continual barrier to peace. Then, too, women not in uniform are increasingly being targeted by religious and political extremists. The series spotlights the stories of women in such troubled places as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Colombia and Liberia. The narration team includes Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Geena Davis and Alfre Woodard. – Gary Dretzka

2011 World Series Collector’s Edition
This year’s World Series didn’t figure to be a world beater ratings-wise. The St.Louis Cardinals may be one of the game’s most venerable franchises, but, beyond Albert Pujols, the 2011 iteration lacked charisma and spice. The Texas Rangers had been to the Big Dance the year before, losing to the San Francisco Giants. And, yet, it proved to be one of the most exciting championship series in history. The Cardinals had fought their way to the finals as a wildcard team, while the Rangers had to overcome flashier teams with larger payrolls. Together, they were about as evenly matched as could be imagined. As fans figured out that this World Series was one for the ages, the ratings went from lackluster to spectacular. The lowest number of viewers was for Game 3, during which Pujols stunned the sports world by hitting three home runs. By the time Game 7 rolled around, the ratings and share numbers more than doubled. “The 2011 World Series Collector’s Edition” is distinctly Cardinal-centric, so Rangers partisans aren’t likely to rush to their local purveyor of DVDs. The eight-disc DVD compilation includes all seven games, from the first to last pitch. Fans can enjoy them as described by Fox Sports announcers and broadcasters or with the local radio feed attached. The special features include “Walk-Off Winners and “Milestones”; victory celebrations; the trophy presentation and victory parade; and coverage in Spanish on ESPN Deportes Radio. Also available, in Blu-ray, is the four-hour “Official 2011World Series Film,” which is comprised of extended highlights, the entire NLDS Game 5, excerpts from “This Week in Baseball” and “Prime 9,” and coverage of post-series events. – Gary Dretzka

He’s Mine, Not Yours
Cheaper to Keep Her

Romantic melodramas targeted at African-American audiences remind me a lot of the romantic comedies of the 1960s, some of which starred Doris Day and Rock Hudson. “He’s Mine, Not Yours” and “Cheaper to Keep Her,” both of which have been given a boost on BET, are remarkably chaste and moralistic, even as they deal with such topics as infidelity, physical attributes and lust. Even partial nudity is non-existent and, apart from the requisite Jezebel, the women are the more honorable half of the romantic coin. It’s a formula, but, given the realities of niche distribution, one that’s safer to adhere to than dismiss. In “He’s Mine, Not Yours,” a professional seductress tests the faithfulness of men for her female clients. Far more often than not, the P.I. (Caryn Ward) is able to prove that their men are dogs and not worthy of their time, let alone their hand. That’s because she’s exceptionally beautiful and can easily spot a man’s most vulnerable spots. Considering that a woman like that wouldn’t normally look twice at the type of men she’s seducing, it simply isn’t fair. Before Brooke (Gabrielle Dennis) commits to Kent (Jason Weaver), she hires Mandy to test the former playboy’s fidelity. Even when he proves to be true blue, Brooke doubts his allegiance to her. Mandy decides that Kent’s too good to pass up and insists that Brooke put up or shut up about him. Their rivalry only serves to make Kent feel as if he’s the luckiest guy on Earth. Also in the cast are Carl Payne, Wendy Raquel Robinson, Nadine Ellis and Darius McCrary.

“Cheaper to Keep Her” is a bit more raunchy, but only in the number of sexual innuendos exchanged by the women whose men don’t behave as well as they would like. There also are more frequent allusions to church matters and God’s will. Vivica A. Fox is cheated upon by her husband, who has a hankering for white meat and red hair. She’s devastated, of course, but has to be talked into suing for what she’s rightfully due. Amazingly, she allows the cad to share their home after the divorce. Hoping to avoid costly alimony payments, he invites an old flame of his ex-wife to rekindle past feelings. She takes the bait, but has second thoughts about the value of her ex-husband. None of it makes a lot of sense, especially considering the acrimonious split. But, then, what kind of man would cheat on a woman as splendid as Fox? A stupid one, that’s who. “Cheaper to Keep Her” was staged in front of a live audience and rolling cameras. While it’s not a terribly fresh or effective approach to the material, it’s a format I’m seeing more often, lately, so it must sell DVDs. The play also contains some very decent soul tunes and choreographed banter. – Gary Dretzka

Underbelly: The Trilogy
The Simpsons: The Fourteenth Season
Tavis Smiley Reports: Too Important to Fail

“Underbelly” is a terrific crime series from Australia about vice, violence and corruption in places where most Americans assume kangaroos still roam. The stories are based on actual investigations and the headline-producing prosecution of underworld kingpins and police detectives with common financial interests. The characters represent all strata of life on the nation’s underbelly, from drug mules and pimps, to politicians and business executives. The talk is tough and the violence is scary. Just as it would on HBO and Showtime, “Underbelly” contains rough language and nudity, most of it not at all gratuitous. The “Trilogy” is comprised of individual13-part mini-series – “A Tale of Two Cities,” “The Golden Mile,” “War on the Streets” – spanning a lawless period between the 1970s and turn of the last century. The acting is uniformly excellent, the action is ferocious and the police work feels authentic. It can also be sexy. The DVD set also contains three making-of featurettes.

By the time Season 14 of “The Simpsons” rolled around, 292 episodes had aired and it was still pulling in awards by the bus load. It had become such a firmly entrenched institution that, instead of greeting each new chapter with enthusiasm, fans began to compare them to earlier triumphs and pick new episodes apart as if they were Buffalo chicken wings. Many considered Season 14 to be lacking in several key areas. And, yet, network television offered few alternatives. “The Simpsons” was and continues to be as fine an entertainment as TV offers. It had the nominations and trophies to prove it. Among other goodies, the season features guest appearances from Mick Jagger and Lenny Kravitz. The three-disc Blu-ray set presents all 22 episodes in their broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sound. The bonus material includes audio commentaries on every episode, “A Haunting Invite From Matt Groening,” four making-of featurettes, deleted scenes with commentary, a multi-angle animation showcase, original sketches and bonus “Treehouse of Horror” episodes.

Tavis Smiley reports and hosts “Too Important to Fail,” an investigative report on the challenges facing African-American boys as they reach high school. The drop- out rate is almost 50 percent and the choices for those who do matriculate are extremely limited. Smiley visits schools in Philadelphia, Oakland, Chicago and Los Angeles, where the teens have dedicated themselves to excelling and getting scholarships to college, so as to achieve meaningful careers. “Too Important to Fail” is an upbeat document, but not to the point where it’s unreasonably optimistic. School districts are strapped for cash and only a handful of boys are accepted to such charter programs and academies each year. Otherwise, it’s the same old, same old. We’ve seen stories like this on “60 Minutes” and in such documentaries as “The Providence Effect,” but another good one certainly can’t hurt. – Gary Dretzka

Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas Special: Blu-ray
Transformers Prime: Darkness Rising
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Complete 7th Season

If one cares to do the math, the last full-sized wooly mammoth walked the earth some 3,700 before the birth of Jesus Christ, while saber-toothed tigers and giant ground sloths were gone even before then. A cynic might wonder how Manny, Sid, Diego and the rest of the “Ice Age” gang came to celebrate an event that wouldn’t occur for another three millennium. Saint Nicholas of Myra, the model for Santa Claus, wouldn’t come along for another 400 years. At best, this would make Sid, Peach, Crash and Eddie’s trek to the North Pole problematic. But, what the heck, cartoons aren’t supposed to bear much resemblance to reality. Otherwise, roadrunners would be flourishing in the American west and coyotes would be nearing extinction. In “A Mammoth Christmas Special,” which aired last month on Fox, Sid breaks Manny’s precious Christmas rock and everyone fears Santa’s wrath. A trip to the North Pole doesn’t work out as planned, but, really, how much harm can be done in 26 minutes? Even Scrat gets into the act, when an errant acorn leads him to Santa’s sleigh. The Blu-ray also includes a preview of next summer’s “Ice Age: Continental Drift” and a three-minute “Swingin’ Jingle Bells” music video.

The first five episodes of the Hub network’s “Transformers Prime” formed a story arc under the “Darkness Rising” banner. Apparently, the latest “Transformers” spinoff performed well enough to earn a second season, which began last month. In “Darkness Rising,” the rascally Decepticons are getting dangerously close to the Earth’s Energon deposits and Autobot Cliffjumper is kidnapped. Peace is broken, but a trio of human teenagers joins forces with Bulkhead, Arcee and Bumblebee to put a stop to the madness.

Like Ol’ Man River and “The Simpsons,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” just keeps rolling along. The 30-episode seventh season ran from June 2009 to July 2010 and included such titles as “I Heart Dancing,” “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Sandy,” “Growth Spout,” “Tentacle-Vision,” “The Inside Job,” and “Stuck in the Wringer,” as well as the entire multi-chapter special, “Legends of Bikini Bottom.” The nine-hour, four-disc set also chronicles Spongebob’s entire modeling career, Squidward’s public television career and Mrs. Puff’s Krusty Krab career. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Our Idiot Brother, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Radioactive Wolves, Another Earth, The Future, The Art of Getting By, Horror Express, Rules of the Game, Smallville …

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

Our Idiot Brother: Blu-ray
It’s interesting how individual members of a family can be a close as peas in a pod or, in this case, as different from each other as snowflakes. For “Our Idiot Brother” to work, viewers must suspend their disbelief long enough to accept the possibility that a guileless flower child (Paul Rudd), 45 years removed from the Haight-Ashbury, shares the same genes as sisters played by Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer and Zooey Deschanel, all of whom represent one variety of urban neurotic or another. This being a Hollywood rom-com, his sisters and their mates are every bit as mismatched as their organic-farmer sibling, Ned, is to them. Far from being an idiot, as each of the women insist after he nearly ruins their lives, Ned merely is an innocent in a world where lies, hidden agendas and fraud are standard operating procedure. He’s incapable of lying and can’t imagine anyone would take advantage of him. In steadier hands than Jessie Peretz (“The Ex”), Ned might have been conceived as a country cousin to Chance the Gardener, from “Being There.” Only someone terribly naïve, after all, would take a uniformed small-town cop at his word that he needed marijuana for medicinal purposes and not expect to be arrested. In Rudd’s very capable hands, it’s not all far-fetched.

After being paroled from prison, Ned fully expects to pick up where he left off: in the garden with his beloved pooch, Willie Nelson, being bossed around by his nasty hippy-chick girlfriend, Janet (Kathryn Hahn). Instead, Janet’s found another blissed-out sap to till her fields and refuses to give back the dog, purely out of spite. To save the money he needs to find another place to crash, Ned takes his mom (Shirley Knight) and sisters up on their offer to let him stay with them. In each case, however, his inability to betray the truth causes mayhem in the women’s relationships with their partners: a pompous filmmaker (Steven Coogan), an unambitious writer (Adam Scott) and lesbian lawyer (Rashida Jones). Because the relationships aren’t nearly as secure as the sisters think they are, it doesn’t take much to push them over the edge. If only Ned could get Willie Nelson back into his life, things might return to normal. Contrary to the impression left in TV commercials, “Our Idiot Brother” lacks the anarchic appeal as such Rudd vehicles as “I Love You, Man,” “Dinner for Schmucks” and “Role Models.” The situations may have the potential for eliciting big laughs, but writers David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz seem more interested in commenting on the nature of interpersonal relationships in 2011. Even so, the fine ensemble cast effectively milks the script for the laughs it harbors between the bittersweet moments. And Rudd makes it easy for us to believe there might be a few people out there, like Ned, whose motives are pure. The Blu-ray comes with an extended making-of featurette, deleted and alternate scenes, and commentary. – Gary Dretzka

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray
Nature: Radioactive Wolves: Blu-ray

Leave it to Werner Herzog to once again take us to places we’ve never been and introduce us to things most of us will never witness for ourselves. In such documentaries as “Encounters at the End of the World,” “Grizzly Man,” “The White Diamond” and “Wheel of Time,” he has continually demonstrated a curiosity that matches that of his audience. As our surrogate, he elicits answers to questions we find interesting, but other filmmakers might consider too embarrassing or banal to ask. In “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” In addition to photographing the magnificent drawings of prehistoric animals discovered, in 1994, inside the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave of southern France, he also attempts to get into the minds of the men or women responsible for the world’s oldest known pictorial creations. Why, he wonders, did they create such magnificent representations of animals in the first place: for posterity, personal drive, to impress their friends or out of boredom? How is that so many of the sketches seemingly are rendered with an eye toward beauty, rather than representation? He would also look for connections between these visual artifacts, weaponry and primitive musical instruments.

Even if one were able to follow Herzog’s footprints on an excursion to Antarctica, the odds against a non-scientist entering the Chauvet caves are approximately the same as those of a camel attempting to pass through the eye of a needle. Because of the dangers posed by outside influences on the cave’s walls and floor, Herzog was required to work under strictly observed limitations. For example, he was allowed only three assistants and none was allowed to leave a thin metal walkway to frame a shot or set up lights. The equipment, including the normally cumbersome 3D camera, sometimes had to be assembled inside the cave and only cold, battery-operated lights were permitted. The team was allowed six shooting days of four hours duration each, partially to maintain the chemical and gaseous balance of the interior and also to protect the team from dangerous gases. Even so, when the images are paired with the avant-garde compositions of Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” transcends science and approaches opera of Wagnerian scale. (The Blu-ray 3D and 2D package includes a lengthy film capturing the creation of the soundtrack.)

I wonder how Herzog might have approached the extraordinary material presented in “Radioactive Wolves.” It’s difficult to imagine the “Nature” documentary being any more extraordinary than it already is, but who knows to what lengths he might have gone to demonstrate nature’s resilience against man’s arrogance. The forests, building and waterways in a 1,200-square-mile death zone around the crippled Chernobyl nuclear power plant have remained undisturbed for more than two decades. Contaminated earth and foliage were hurriedly removed, along with humans and those farm and domesticated animals not already dead from radiation poisoning. The scars left behind were deep and painful. For all anyone in the non-Soviet world knew and still imagines, today, the immediate area around Chernobyl replicates the destroyed cities in “I Am Legend” and “Wall-E,” and wasted countryside of “The Road.” It seemed as forbidding as Death Valley in August and Siberia in January.

Instead, left to their own devices, the rivers and woods around Chernobyl now could pass for Longfellow’s forest primeval. Eagles and falcons nest on the balconies of abandoned high-rises, fish grow to extraordinary lengths and the animal population has exploded. Wolves, once hunted to near extinction and displaced by Stalin’s agrarian reform movement, run playfully through the deserted buildings, dine regularly on moose, buffalo calves and beavers, and raise their pups without fear of other predators sneaking up on them. A sane person wouldn’t want to eat the meat of any of the beasts found in the no-man’s-land, or wear a coat made from their pelts, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at them.

Like Herzog’s team, the producers of “Radioactive Wolves” were limited in the amount of time they could spend in the affected zone. In some areas, they were required to wear protective clothing and masks. If a loose hair from a wolf is accidentally ingested, it could prove deadly for the researcher. Otherwise, the most surprising thing gleaned from the documentary is how little overt physical damage is visible in the animals and vegetation. The deformities and excruciating deaths recorded immediately after the disaster have apparently given way to natural genetic design. One hundred years from now, all of the animals of Chernobyl might be born with two heads and antlers, but, for now, they look like they could pass muster in anyone’s zoo. The PBS documentary is informed by interviews with scientists and wildlife experts from Belarus and the Ukraine. (Their borders bisect the impacted area, but the countries apparently have their own agendas and don’t share data as much as one might expect.) The footage captured of the animals in winter and spring, as the ice on the Pripyat River begins to break up, is in every possible way splendid. – Gary Dretzka

Another Earth
At its most dour and contemplative, “Another Earth” reminds me of another movie that dealt with great tragedy and an inability to cope with sudden, inexplicable loss, “The Sweet Hereafter.” Here, a 17-year-old girl celebrates her acceptance at MIT in the same way as too many other teenagers do when informed of good news, by drinking to excess. Driving home, the aspiring astrophysicist is distracted by a report on the radio of an incredible solar phenomenon. Gazing toward the heavens for a second too long, Rhoda plows head-on into a car sitting in the opposite lane. The accident leaves the wife and child of a celebrated composer dead, and him in a coma. A couple of years later, after she’s been released on parole, Rhoda (Brit Marling) returns home still guilt-ridden and at sea emotionally. After finding a menial job, she decides to take the next big step in her recovery by apologizing to the now-alcoholic composer (William Mapother), whose productive life ended at the exact moment his loved ones died. The man’s condition jars her to the point where she can’t make good on her intentions, instead convincing him that she’s a professional maid and he could benefit from her services on a weekly basis. I think we’ve all seen that movie before. All that’s left is the timing of the final redemptive moment.

By adding the separately reality of a planet hovering between the Earth and moon, everything else should become secondary to its presence and what it portends for humanity. That the planet resembles the Earth in every geophysical way further deepens the mystery. Having retained her love of astrophysics, Rhoda considers the appearance of a possibly alternative Earth a path to, yes, redemption. After all, the mere rumor of such a phenomenon distracted her to the point where she ignored the car right in front of her. Could fate have opened another door for her to pass through? Discovering the composer’s unused telescope in his attic provides an opportunity for her to connect with him on both an emotional and metaphysical level. Then, Rhoda is informed that she’s written the winning essay in a contest whose first prize is a seat on the first shuttle to Earth 2. Among the million or so other things she possibly could discover is the peace that comes with knowing you’ve been absolved of guilt for committing an unforgivable sin. There’s more to the story, of course, but nothing that begs to be spoiled here.

Marling, who also co-wrote the script with frosh director Mike Cahill, truly deserves consideration when awards nominations are announced in the next few weeks, as does Mapother. That “Another Earth” made next to no money in very limited release shouldn’t be held against the actors, although it probably will. The Blu-ray package is enhanced by interviews with Cahill, Marling and Mapother; deleted scenes; the featurettes, “Creating Another Earth” and “The Science Behind Another Earth”; and the music video “The First Time I Saw Jupiter,” by Fall on Your Sword. – Gary Dretzka

The Future
A performance and conceptual artist before turning to film, Miranda July understands how difficult it is to perform before an audience that might be left cold by what you’re trying to say on stage. The more confused audience members get, the more hostile they can become. July’s first feature, “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” told a story that was accessible and challenging. It defined what it means for an arthouse movie to be quirky, offbeat and eccentric, to borrow just a few overused adjectives from the critics. It introduced us to characters we hadn’t met before and situations that were, at once, poignant, funny and continually surprising. It was easy to assume that July’s idiosyncratic protagonist — a tentative and needy artist — might reflect character traits she possessed, herself. Based solely on physical assumptions, however, it hardly seemed possible that the perverse sexuality written into the script could have come from the same person. By comparison, her even more eccentric “The Future” makes “Me and You and Everyone We Know” look like an adaptation of a Harlequin Romance. In it, July plays a delicate Los Angeles (Silver Lake, to be exact) hipster, Sophie, who “teaches dance, but isn’t a dancer.” She lives with a tech-support adviser, Jason (Hamish Linklater), who spends most of his time indoors, answering questions from people having problems with their computer. It’s difficult to imagine either of them as being the life of anyone’s party.

One day, while lounging on the couch in their usual positions, Jason announces out of the blue that he’s ready to commit to having another living being in their home. As it turns out, he’s referring to a cat, not a baby … which probably is just as well. At the animal shelter, they’re offered a cat so sickly it will take a month before it can recuperate sufficiently to be claimed. The convalescence period provides an opportunity for Jason and Sophie to re-examine their lives and make the kind of decisions that will set the course for their future together. For Jason, this means donating his time to the cause of saving the Earth from global warming by soliciting funds for trees. Sophie decides to see how the other half lives — in squaresville, Tarzana – by shacking up with a man she met at the animal shelter. As long as she’s willing to comfort and have sex with the middle-age warehouse owner, and isn’t performing Pilobolus-like dance routines in the living room, their relationship thrives. Once he catches her act, which is actually pretty good, however, its curtains for them.

The true litmus test for lovers of arthouse entertainment arrives during the interludes when July narrates the intimate thoughts of the desperately ill cat, Paw-Paw, and Jason literally stops time to listen to the musings of the moon. Anyone able to get past those conceits probably will find “The Future” to be intriguing and artistically stimulating, as did most mainstream critics. Others … not so much. There’s no questioning July’s willingness to take chances very few filmmakers would even consider and treating her audience as intellectual equals. The Blu-ray includes July’s commentary, a deleted scene and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Art of Getting By
Just a teenager, George Zinavoy is already too cool for school and almost everyone with whom he comes in contact. Instead of making an effort to further his personal evolution, he allows himself to waste away at his New York apartment, berating his parents and putting the melancholic songs of Leonard Cohen on repeat mode. By accident, he connects with a similarly alienated, if far more pragmatic classmate. He clearly digs her, but backs off when she opens the door to a sexual relationship. As played with stifling arrogance by Freddie Highmore, George is famous at his private high school for having made it to his senior year without turning in homework, not preparing for tests and sketching when he should be listening. He’s an extremely talented kid, but it would take all the Zoloft in Manhattan to get his head back in the ballgame. By comparison, Holden Caulfield is a cheerleader. It’s a credit to Highmore’s acting chops that we give so much as a rat’s ass about George and his ability to squeeze eight months of blown-off schoolwork into a three-week forced march toward graduation. If successful, George also must convince Sally (Emma Roberts) that he’s matured to the point where he won’t consider committing suicide after she breaks his cherry.

Somehow, freshman writer/director Gavin Wiesen makes us care about a spoiled kid and his only slightly less obnoxious classmates, all of whom have benefitted from the generosity of the parents they pretend to despise and diligence of teachers they don’t respect. George’s great re-awakening may not come as much of a surprise, but, at least, we know that his redemption hasn’t come at the expense of a scapegoated teacher or convenient stepparent. If Wiesen hadn’t done such a fine job filming New York – where distractions exist around every corner — it’s possible that “The Art of Getting By” would have soured after 20 minutes of non-stop bad behavior by George. Obviously, Wiesen learned some lessons from Woody Allen about the importance of locations. The Blu-ray features commentary, a couple of making-of pieces and an interview with Highmore. – Gary Dretzka

5 Days of War
At a time when the producers of movies about war and rebellion are struggling to keep up with such harrowing documentaries as “Restrepo” and “Burma VJ” and satellite feeds from the front lines, it’s become increasingly difficult to invent stories that are more compelling than reportage. The events described in Renny Harlin’s “5 Days of War” are based on Russia’s 2008 invasion of the Georgian republic of South Ossetia, when most of the world’s media was preoccupied with the 2008 Summer Olympics in China. It is a traditional war movie, in that the sounds of explosions, acts of heroism and mistreatment of innocents overwhelm any discussion of the political realities and unsettled hostilities that led to the invasion. The only time Ossetia is mentioned is when a venal old man begs for mercy from the brutal militia fighters terrorizing ethnic Georgians living in the same breakaway republic. We know that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (Andy Garcia) is a friend of the west – and, therefore, a good guy — because of his willingness to provoke Russia by playing the NATO card and the constant presence of American media strategist (Dean Cain). Dismissed in passing are the legitimate complaints by Russian and Ossetian leaders that Saakashvili instigated the invasion by attacking Ossetian assets and Russian peacekeepers in anticipation of military support from NATO.

Harlin’s focus, then, is on the atrocities committed by Ossetian militias in the first wave of the invasion and the heroic efforts of American and European journalists to reveal them to the world. Rupert Friend plays a devil-may-care war correspondent, while Richard Coyle is on board as his videographer. They escaped death once, in Iraq, and are tempting fate by being the only western reporters in the disputed region when the first wave of tanks and militia arrive. They’re also on hand when Russian missiles strike a restaurant during a wedding reception and wounded survivors need to be transported to safety. Among them is Emmanuelle Chriqui, a beautiful Ossetian-American who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with her father on politics. When the journalists and their newfound friend disobey orders to return to the front lines, the same Georgian commando who saved the reporter’s life in Iraq – with an assist from a Saint George medallion – repeats the heroic act in a city about to be succumbed by the Russians. As unlikely as the many coincidences are, they serve the story better than the selective memory of screenwriter Mikko Alanne.

Even so, fans of old-school war movies should find something to like in “5 Days of War.” The action is fierce and the tension palpable throughout the movie. Harlin benefited from the beautiful Georgian settings and cooperation of the country’s military, which supplied the tanks, personnel, helicopters and weapons. The pro-Tbilisi slant is easily explained by the money generated from allies of Saakashvili and other Georgian interests. (The president even allowed his office to be used as a location.) What is most bothersome is the epilogue, during which Georgians who lost family members in the war are required to testify before the camera. Besides feeling tacked-on, the appeal feels as if it had been lifted from a telethon or infomercial. Since no one is disputing the brutality of the militias, it’s unnecessary. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and Harlin’s commentary. – Gary Dretzka

Horror Express: Blu-ray

Upon its English-language release, late in 1973, “Horror Express” was pretty much dismissed as just another micro-budget genre thriller destined to be shown at the tail end of a triple-feature at the drive-in. Even though American horror buffs had taken a shine to the Hammer horror pictures, especially those starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, it would take a bit longer for mainstream horror fans here to embrace knock-offs from southern Europe. Dubbing was a problem, as were the garish special effects. Moreover, distributers weren’t fond of the gratuitous sex and hyper-violence that characterized giallo and its imitators. Today, of course, the best titles are considered to be classics of the form and they look better than ever in DVD and Blu-ray. “Horror Express” is a Spanish hybrid of Hammer and giallo. Directed by the prolific Eugenio Martin and shot at Estudios Madrid, it starred Lee, Cushing and Alberto de Mendoza in the lead roles. Telly Savalas’ presence gave the marketing team an American name to promote, although the producers couldn’t have known how much his stock would rise between the completion of “Horror Express” and popularity of “Kojack.” It helps explains why the movie, in which Savalas plays only a small part, was released in the U.S. and other markets two years after it debuted at the Catalonian Film Festival.

No capsule review could do “Horror Express” justice, but, suffice it to say, it is equal parts “The Thing” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” Lee’s knighted professor, Alexander Saxon, is about to embark on a journey from Manchuria to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Express, which apparently was quite comfortable in czarist Russia. While awaiting their departure, Cushing’s friendly rival, Dr. Wells, becomes fascinated with a mysterious coffin-like crate belonging to Saxon. The box contains the partially thawed corpse of a humanoid Saxon believes could represent the fabled “missing link” between ape and man. What we know and the passengers on the train are about to learn is that the creature possesses the ability to fry the brain of anyone foolish enough to stare into its mystic eyes. Naturally, it gets loose on the train and mayhem ensues. Adding to the fun are Mendoza’s mad monk, who serves as an adviser to Countess Irina Petrovski, and Savalas’ scenery-chewing Cossack. (Savalas and Martin had collaborated previously on “Vendetta” – he played Pancho Villa — from which the train interiors were borrowed.)

Severin Films rescued “Horror Express” from public-domain hell and restored it as well as anyone could have, given the degraded quality of the print. There are scratches and other visual artifacts and the dialogue doesn’t always match lip movements. The outdoor scenes reveal the train’s miniature origins, as well. Other than that, it’s in good shape. (Most of the dialogue was recorded after the scenes were shot, probably because almost every supporting actor spoke Spanish exclusively.) On the plus side, the bright colors really pop on Blu-ray and it accentuates the contrasts between dark and light in the ominous moments before the beast is about to strike his prey. The impromptu autopsies, boiled corneas and infrared eyes look pretty cool in hi-def, as well. Buffs will savor the bonus package, which includes extended interviews with Cushing, Martin, blacklisted producer Bernard Gordon and composer John Cacavas; an introduction by Fangoria editor Chris Alexander; and trailers from the Severin line.

With all the attention being paid to grindhouse and other B-movie fare, it was only a matter of time before someone who isn’t named Tarantino or Rodriguez did a parody that both hits home and actually is funny. “Chillerama” reminds me of such riotous sketch comedies as “Amazon Women on the Moon,” “Hollywood Shuffle” and “Kentucky Fried Movie,” but with a twist. It is the closing night of the last drive-in theater in America and the owner plans to go out with a bang. He’s held back four movies that are considered to be so obscure and outrageous that they’ve never been exhibited in public. The titles pretty much explain why: “Wadzilla,” in which a giant spermatozoa attacks the Statue of Liberty, among other women; “I Was A Teenage Werebear,” about fat and hairy gay teens who prey on their straight classmates and turn them into werewolfs, er, werebears; “The Diary of Anne Frankenstein,” an impossibly outrageous combination of “Young Frankenstein” and “The Diary of Anne Frank”; the insanely scatological “Deathication” ; and the framing device, “Zom-B-Movie,” during which the suddenly undead audience turns on itself. A lot of spurting and splatting takes place during the four features and most of it involves blood and semen, if you get my drift. Not all of the gags come off as planned, but, considering the intended audience, the batting average is pretty good. The segments were written and directed by Adam Green, Joe Lynch, Adam Rifkin and Tim Sullivan. It comes with plenty of bonus features, including making-of pieces, interviews, commentaries and mock trailers.

Few words conjure images of extreme pain and suffering more immediately than “needle.” Anyone old enough to remember “SNL” head writer Michael O’Donoghue’s skit involving celebrities and the 6-inch-long steel needles he’d like to see jammed into their eyes probably has been scarred for life by it. Aussie writer/director John V. Soto’s supernatural thriller, “Needle,” has about as much in common with needles as a sewing machine has with a deejay’s turntable, however. A long time ago, they might have been related, but other things got in the way. Specifically, here, the needles are used in conjunction with the voodoo dolls created to inflict great harm on a group of college students. The dolls are created by the person who stole a magic voodoo box from the dorm room of a student whose father had just died and left it to him. I think a haunted sewing machine would have been scarier, but what do I know? “Needle” also is the story of estranged brothers forced to join forces to unravel the cruel mystery they inherited from their father. It isn’t a bad movie, just undernourished in the area of thrills and chills. The young cast is attractive, however, so fans of coeds-in-peril flicks might find something here to their liking. Aspiring do-it-yourselfers should enjoy the informative making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

In My Sleep: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Marcus is a masseuse, sex addict, parasomniac and possibly a murderer. Among the women with whom he’s recently slept is the wife of his best friend. He can’t remember if he enjoyed the experience or not because he hooked up with her while he was sleep walking, sleep driving and sleep screwing. One morning, ostensibly after a night of sleep revelry, Marcus wakes up in his own bed with blood stains all over the sheets and his hands, and a knife lying on the floor. Coincidentally, police officers arrive at his door just as he’s wiping the sleep – and disbelief – out of his eyes. He manages to distract them long enough to disguise most of the blood stains, but he’s baffled at the lack of other incriminating evidence and any indication of a woman’s presence. Given Marcus’s history of somnambulism, he can’t eliminate himself from the list of potential suspects. Instead, he attempts to get to the root cause of his problem, first by analyzing his own sordid dreams and, then, confronting his shrew of a mother about why his dead father keeps making guest appearances in them. In the meantime, Marcus enlists a pretty young neighbor to tuck him in at night and make sure he’s firmly handcuffed to the bedframe.

In his first feature film since his 1995 senior thesis, “Harlem Grace,” writer/director/producer Alan Wolfe has attempted to create a Freudian thriller with a Hitchcockian twist. It’s a difficult enough trick for an experienced filmmaker to pull off without also having to create board games, as he did, to finance the project. “In My Sleep” isn’t particularly suspenseful, but it’s well made and the actors are attractive. The “Special Edition” Blu-ray arrives with an abundance of bonus material, including lots of deleted and alternate scenes, interviews, sleepwalking stories, a gag reel and making-of featurettes. As straight-to-DVD titles go, I’ve seen a lot worse. – Gary Dretzka

The Rules of the Gamer: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
12 Angry Men: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

It should go without saying by now that anyone who professes to love cinema and hasn’t watched “The Rules of the Game” once, at least, probably ought to consider returning to film school. If that’s out of the question, however, they should pick up a copy of Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic (for lack of a better cliché) and study it as if it were the Holy Grail. Set between the great wars, “Rules of the Game” is a critique of French aristocracy and the bourgeois conventions that allowed it to blissfully ignore what was happening in Germany and Italy. Seventy years later, the movie retains its ability to surprise, inform and entertain. Criterion’s Blu-ray represents the latest attempt to repair the damage to “Rules of the Game,” first by French censors and outraged audiences, then the Allied bombers that destroyed a warehouse containing the original negative. It had already been trimmed by from 94 to 81 minutes to appease distributors, but enough original pieces were recovered to piece together a 106-minute version, which Renoir approved and has been used as the model for all future upgrades. And, yes, it looks and sounds terrific. Owners of previous DVD editions are advised to compare editions to see how much more supplemental material is available in the Blu-ray iteration. The new version has undergone a hi-def digital restoration, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. It is introduced by Renoir; features commentary by film scholar and Renoir’s friend, Alexander Sesonske, as read by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich; a comparative analysis of the movie’s two endings; a documentary comparing the 106-minute re-edit with Renoir’s original script; scene analysis by Renoir historian Chris Faulkner; excerpts from a 1966 French television program by filmmaker Jacques Rivette; Part One of a two-part 1993 BBC documentary by David Thompson; a video essay about the film’s production, release and 1959 reconstruction; a 1965 interview from a French television series, in which Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand discuss their reconstruction and rerelease of the film; interviews with set designer Max Douy, Renoir’s son, Alain and actress Mila Parély; and a booklet featuring writings by Renoir, François Truffaut, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bertrand Tavernier; an essay by Sesonske; and tributes to the film and Renoir by J. Hoberman, Kent Jones, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders, Robert Altman, and others

Now that the latest “trial of the century” has reached its conclusion and theoretically, at least, Michael Jackson can rest in peace, it may be the ideal time to revisit Sidney Lumet’s intense jury-room drama, “12 Angry Men.” Made in 1957, Lumet’s directorial debut followed both the television and Broadway productions of Reginald Rose’s teleplay. It takes place, of course, during the course of deliberations in a murder case. All we in the audience know about it, really, is what can be gleaned in the arguments between jurors seeking a unanimous decision. One by one, the men are asked to search their souls for any sign of reasonable doubt or absolute certainty. The cast in the 1957 theatrical film includes Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda and Ed Begley, of which only Fonda and Begley already were household names. It’s truly an actor’s showcase. The Criterion Blu-ray has been restored to hi-def digitally, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. It also comes with Frank Schaffner’s 1955 television version, with an introduction by Ron Simon, director of the Paley Center for Media Studies; the video essay,“‘12 Angry Men’: From Television to the Big Screen,” which compares both of these editions; archival interviews with Lumet; new interviews with writer Walter Bernstein, Reginald Rose, cinematographer John Bailey; “Tragedy in a Temporary Town ,” a 1956 teleplay directed by Lumet and written by Rose; the original theatrical trailer; and a booklet featuring an essay by writer and law professor Thane Rosenbaum. – Gary Dretzka

The Cycle
Released just before the Islamist revolution in Iran and fall of the shah, “The Cycle” paints a portrait of top-down corruption and engrained cynicism that’s almost unimaginable. Saeed Kangarani plays a handsome, if dirt-poor teenager who accompanies his desperately sick father to Tehran for medical care. The men huddle in the streets outside a hospital at night, without any real hope of being seen by a doctor. Almost miraculously, they connect with a crooked doctor who pays homeless men and women for their blood, no questions asked. He sells it back to the hospital at a huge profit. The doctor takes a shine to the young man, Ali, whose good looks and easy demeanor make him a perfect front for a black-market operation. Meanwhile, he also ingratiates himself with a nurse at the hospital, who has friends also in need of cheap labor and a shrewd mind. Before long, Ali has made a lucrative niche for himself in the illegal blood trade and has stopped worrying much if it’s safe. Everyone in the pecking order, right up to the shah, had a taste for quick and relatively easy money in the 1970s and, of course, that hunger demanded to be fed. By 1980, the party was over and a different breed of criminal took control of Iran. It’s a fascinating movie, made by one of the leading lights of the Iranian New Wave, Dariush Mehrjui. “The Cycle” was banned from view at the behest of Iranian medical officials for three years. Mehrjui’s was among the throngs of people demanding change in Tehran and an early supporter of the revolution. His faith in the new regime would be short-lived, however. – Gary Dretzka

Whitechapel: The Ripper Returns
In the original, British version of “Prime Suspect,” Jane Tennison spent two seasons, at least, proving to her male colleagues that she, first, was up to the task of being a DCI and, next, that she was capable of being detective superintendent. It was as much a part of the show as the murders being solved. Kyra Sedgwick’s Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson faced the same hostility in “The Closer.” It goes with the territory. In the recent ITV/BBC America mini-series “Whitechapel,” Rupert Penry-Jones (MI-5) is assigned the role of Joseph Chandler, an outsider clouted into the position of superintendent by colleagues at Scotland Yard. Called to the scene of his first murder, Chandler arrives wearing the tuxedo he was in while being toasted on his promotion at some posh London club. It made a bad first impression on the slovenly group of detectives who would report to him in the coming weeks on a sensational case. To say they put their new boss through the ringer is an understatement. The question at the heart of the three part mini-series is whether, given today’s technology and forensics science, modern London cops could do something their forebears on the force couldn’t accomplish in the 1880s: identify and catch Jack the Ripper. Although his detectives are too cynical to believe there’s a copycat killer loose in London, Chandler is willing to give a so-called Ripperologist the benefit of a doubt. Steve Pemberton is wonderful as the obsessive historian who’s written a book on the subject, has a website dedicated to Jack the Ripper and gives crime-scene tours to tourists. Although he qualifies as a person of interest, himself, Edward Buchan convinces Chandler not to depend entirely on modern forensics, CCTV and DNA. His belief is that a copycat killer would rely entirely on archival reports and photographs, period clothing and historic maps. Could the Ripper escape justice twice, 130 years removed from the last known murder? Tune in and stay for the making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Smallville: The Complete Series
Look: Season 1
Hot in Cleveland: Season Two
The Girls Next Door: The Complete Series

After some initial reluctance to enter the superhero arena, programming executives at Warner Bros. Television and The WB network realized that the bottle they were handed on October 17, 2001, contained the lightening captured the night before, upon the debut of “Smallville.” The series, which would go on to enjoy a 10-year run, had just become the network’s highest-rated debut, with 8.4 million viewers. Moreover, while finishing first in the 12–34 demographic, the premiere also broke The WB record in the even more lucrative bracket reserved for adults age 18–34. That’s the television equivalent of a rookie slugger, playing for an expansion team, hitting a grand-slam home run on his first at-bat. Clearly, even as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic-book creation, Superman, continued its reign as one of the most successful entertainment franchises in history – subsequently spawning a newspaper comic strip, radio and movie serials, cartoon shorts, a landmark live-action television show, a Broadway musical, five mega-budget feature films, several more animated and live-action TV series, novels and a not terribly impressive video game — there was still plenty of room left for origin story, “Smallville.” Alfred Gough and Miles Millar’s action-packed and sneaky-sexy adaptation arrived at a most opportune time. With Tom Welling playing a young, buff, chivalrous, capeless and flightless Clark Kent, “Smallville” could be positioned alongside The WB’s teen-skewing hits “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Felicity,” “Charmed” and “Dawson’s Creek.” Dynamic visual and audio effects had become affordable for television producers, as did the British Columbia locations. A rocking soundtrack put the cherry on top of the sundae.

Just in time for what would have been Christmas on Krypton, Warner Home Video has released “Smallville: The Complete Series” on DVD and “Smallville: The Complete Tenth Season” on DVD and Blu-ray. For newcomers, the series encompasses Superman’s earthly progression from the newly arrived baby Kal-El to Clark Kent’s emergence as a superhero finally capable of flight. Unlike George Reeves, who mostly saved Metropolis from crooks and gangsters, Welling would be called upon to battle myriad supervillains. The character and narrative structure would evolve through the 10-year stretch, but the origin myth continued to progress in a logical way. (I’m still not sure when Clark would make his first trip to the optometrist, however.) Fans should brace themselves before they attempt to lift the complete-series box, as its 62 discs contain all 218 episodes of the hourlong series (minus commercials); more than five hours of newly added special features, including a 90-minute series retrospective; new interviews; the unaired 1961 “Superboy” pilot; an episode guide, with production art and behind-the-scenes photos; coverage of the 2010 Comic Con panel; and an exclusive issue of the Daily Planet, created by DC Comics. If that weren’t sufficient cause for celebration, the package also includes more than 100 hours of featurettes from the a la carte editions. That’s a lot of stuff. The 10th-season Blu-ray adds commentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes on “A Smallville Homecoming” and “The Son Becomes the Father” episodes, and “How Do We Do” music video.

Adapted from Adam Rifkin’s movie of the same title, “Look” was a Showtime series based on the theory that something worth watching always is being recorded by and transmitted from the 40 million surveillance cameras installed in American stores, schools, dressing rooms, gas stations and neighborhoods. The digital image could be as mundane as a fat shopper picking his nose, as hideous as a cocaine-amped MILF getting her butt waxed, as disgusting as a bum barfing on the floor of a convenience store, as provocative as a study-hall beaver-shot, as goofy as maintenance workers skateboarding in the empty aisles of a mall after midnight and as shocking as watching a woman being attacked in a parking lot while the security guard is asleep. Some of the people we meet are aware of the presence of cameras, while others don’t realize they’re being surveilled until they see themselves doing something embarrassing on YouTube … repeatedly and from differently placed cameras. Throughout the course of the nearly six-hour presentation, the lives of the characters intersect and impact on each other.

What do “Hot in Cleveland” and “The Girls Next Door” have in common, beyond the fact both shows star women? If “Hot in Cleveland” lasts another 20 years, or is revived for a new generation of viewers, it’s entirely possible that Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick, Jane Leeves and Betty White could be replaced by Holly, Bridget, Kendra, Crystal, Karissa and Kristina as the cougars in residence. I can’t imagine the gags and sitcom setups needing much in the way of freshening and, maybe, in the meantime, Hef’s ladies might have learned how to act. TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland” probably would have been an easy fit on network television 20 years ago, but the only actors getting those roles these days are skinny, blond and look good in a mini-skirt. (Melissa McCarthy being the exception that proves the rule.) The second-season DVD package includes all 22episodes, an appearance by Susan Lucci, a cast visit to Cleveland and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, making-of material, interviews, the pilot and first episode of TVLand’s new “The Exes” and an extended Betty “Benderover” blooper.

Given Hugh Hefner’s recent detour on the way to the altar, it’s unlikely a seventh season “The Girls Next Door” will appear any time soon, and probably not on E! That’s unless, of course, the Kardashian bimbos move in to the mansion and agree to give him a tumble every now and again. Until then, fans of the show will have to settle for the 2,100 minutes of material collected in the “Complete Series” edition, which also includes one season with “the twins” and the ungrateful hussy who unceremoniously dumped her sugar daddy. Meanwhile, Kendra, Holly and to a lesser degree Bridget have found an afterlife in television series of their own. – Gary Dretzka

NFL: Green Bay Packers: Road to XLV
I grew up in Wisconsin and continue to live and die with the fortunes of the Green Bay Packers. I can easily recall the great teams of the 1960s, whose exploits led to the city being branded Titletown USA, even during the 30 lean years that followed. Back then, the players all wore black football shoes with long cleats – the exception being Billy “White Shoes” Johnson – and end-zone celebrations were limited to pats on the back and handshakes. Green Bay was a speck on the map then and it’s not any bigger today. And, yet, every seat in Lambeau Field has had a fanny on it for every game since Vince Lombardi made the city famous for something other than its proximity to scenic Door County and being home to Schneider National, the largest privately owned truck fleet in the country. Last season, when the Packers began their run for the Super Bowl championship, few people gave the team much of a chance to succeed. As the wildcard selection in its division, the Packers wouldn’t play even one game in front of friendly fans on Lambeau’s famously frozen tundra. The team also would be required to play one additional playoff game to those contested by the favorites. They won all of those games in convincing fashion and have kept on winning throughout the 2011 season. Credit for that belongs to the emergence of Aaron Rodgers as one of the premiere quarterbacks in the NFL and general manager Ted Thompson’s ability to find players capable of filling the many holes left by season-ending injuries to key players.

All of those memories are recalled, almost ad nauseam, in “Road to XLV,” from Vivendi and NFL Films. The many factoids about football in Green Bay and Wisconsin filled the gaps between plays and commercials during the NFC Wildcard Playoffs, NFL Division Playoffs, NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl. All of those games are included in the “Post-Season Collector’s Edition.” In two months, we’ll know which team will carry home the Lombardi Trophy. No matter who wins, however, a “Road to XLVI” is sure to follow. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Super 8, Spy Kids 4, Devil’s Double, Sarah’s Key, Family Tree, Trigger, Helldriver …

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Super 8: Blu-ray
Spy Kids 4: All Time in the World

As residents of the placid Ohio town of Lillian are being rounded up and bussed to an Air Force base – ostensibly to protect them from a mysterious virus – I remembered that I’d seen this movie before, dozens of times in the last 30-40 years. Contrary to expectations planted by a spectacular train-wreck set piece early on, “Super 8” adheres to the long-established cinematic conceit that government conspiracies can be thwarted by children. Here, a group of movie-mad mini-Spielbergians stands up to an unblinking USAF security team, attempting to contain and conceal the demons released in the train accident. The only weapon the kids on their side is the truth, which is contained in a Super 8 camera. Why the Air Force, of all branches of the military, is set up as the enemy here remains something of a mystery to me. Were all of the C130J Hercules transport planes out delivering groceries to the troops that day? No matter, it’s nice to know that someone in government still has faith in railroads.

As the train carrying the dangerous cargo speeds through Lillian in the dead of night, the teens are hoping it will provide an interesting background element for their zombie movie. In a coincidence inspired as much by producer Steven Spielberg as the imagination of writer/director J.J. Abrams, the most responsible of the boys spots an automobile jumping the tracks and heading directly towards the train’s engine. The collision causes all of the cars to derail. In their mad dash to escape disaster, the kids leave the still-running Super 8 camera behind on the platform of the abandoned railway station. Conveniently, the lens is pointed in the best possible position to capture the mayhem and release of mysterious metallic objects resembling Rubik’s Cubes. Within hours, the Air Force team quarantines the area and initiates a disinformation campaign designed to pacify local residents, including a recently widowed sheriff whose son is among the shutterbugs. No amount of spoiler alerts could prevent most viewers from guessing what transpires in Lillian over the next hour or so and whose concept of the truth prevails.

Considering that “Super 8” is set in 1979, it is to Abrams’ credit that it feels more analog than digital. The story harkens more to the “Hardy Boys” novels and “Spin & Marty” serials on “The Mickey Mouse Club” than, say, to “Spy Kids.” And, yes, a super-cute blond girl (Elle Fanning) has been added to the mix, as both leading lady and puppy-love interest for two of the boys. As predictable as “Super 8” may be, however, Abrams’ story proves sufficiently diverting to hold our interest until the wildly manic climax, which transports viewers back to the Digital Age. Even so, the primary selling point for the Blu-ray/DVD package likely will be the generous package of bonus features, including “Deconstructing the Train Crash” and eight other fine making-of featurettes; 14 deleted scenes; commentary; and a digital copy. Two of the pieces that stand out are “The 8mm Revolution,” which looks back at a time when film spooled through cameras and it took days for it to be developed, and an audition reel describing the search for fresh new faces.

The latest addition to Robert Rodriguez’ imaginative “Spy Kids” franchise is aimed at viewers even younger than those targeted by “Super 8.” Critics weren’t terribly impressed by it, but their opinions, shouldn’t dissuade pre-tweeners from enjoying the silly sight gags, pranks, gadgets and overriding precociousness of new spy-kids, Rebecca and Cecil (Rowan Blanchard, Mason Cook). They are the children of TV journalist and clandestine spy hunter, Wilbur (ever-snarky Joel McHale), and stepchildren of undercover spy-wife, Melissa (Jessica Alba). Parents may miss original spy-parents Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino, but, again, most young audiences won’t even notice they’re gone. Original spy-kid-actors Alexa Vega and Darryl Sabara have been included here in supporting roles, 10 years older and considerably more attractive. “All the Time in the World” introduces Melissa as a new mom of a baby girl and stepmom of a pre-teen boy and girl obsessed with driving adults nuts. Melissa has been called back to OSS duty to combat the evil Timekeeper (Jeremy Piven), who threatens to freeze time and destroy the world. Rebecca and Cecil discover her mission and decide to beat her to the punch. Unlike “Super 8,” which largely played out against a real-world background, “Spy Kids” is set in a green-screen universe, in which all things are possible.

In theaters, “Spy Kids 4” not only was shown in 3D and 2D formats, but also “4D Aroma-Scope.” Not having seen it on the big screen, I can’t say with any certainty if Aroma-Scope captured the unique scents associated with the many fart, dirty-diaper and vomit jokes. If so, that fact alone would cause a mainstream critic to recoil in disgust. That element isn’t available in the new four-disc Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray, DVD and digital-copy package, but feel free to supply your own smells, instead. And, what kids flick today would be complete without a talking dog? Here, that voice is supplied by Ricky Gervais. The bonus package adds deleted scenes, Rodriguez’ interview with a young reporter from a kids-news outlet, “Rowan & Mason’s Video Diary,” “How to Make a Robotic Dog,” “Spy Kids: Passing the Torch,” “Ricky Gervais as Argonaut” and a look at the movie’s gadgets. – Gary Dretzka

The Devil’s Double
If the story weren’t so horrifyingly real, you’d find “The Devil’s Double” on a short list of thug classics alongside Brian DePalma’s “Scarface.” In fact, I’m surprised that movie wasn’t playing in the background somewhere during this faux-biography of Uday Hussein, another coke-snorting, woman-abusing and gun-obsessed fiend. The similarities between Tony Montana and the sadistic son of Saddam Hussein are inescapable. In an interview included in the DVD bonus package, director Lee Tamahori (“Once Were Warriors”) explains that he purposefully embellished Oday’s bad behavior – as related in the memoirs of body-double Latif Yahia – to distinguish it from traditional bio-pics, which can be judged according to their accuracy. In doing so, Oday’s misdeeds are made mythic and “Devil’s Double” becomes more operatic in tone. Tamahori also wanted to create a new archetype for the associates of rich and powerful people who take advantage of their position to commit crimes against humanity. It’s possible, too, that Tamahori was influenced by reports that Yahia had made up the story and he didn’t want facts to get in the way of a good movie. And, from what we’ve learned about Uday, “Devil’s Double” would be a powerful yarn even if only half of it were true. The late Moammar Ghadafi’s sons appear to have been cast from the same mold.

Brit actor Dominic Cooper plays both men in “Devil’s Double” in an extremely convincing manner. Because their personalities were diametrically opposed to each other, Cooper must have felt as if he were rehearsing for two different movies. The common denominator here is Uday’s outlandish wardrobe, which both men would share and looked as if it were ordered from Another thing they share, although not with Uday’s express permission, is the beautiful and duplicitous seductress, Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier). Yahia isn’t shown indulging in Uday’s many other party favors, even though they were abundant and his for the taking. Mostly he tried to avoid eye contact with his former prep school and college classmate, as he murdered anyone who crossed him and viciously raped girls and women on mere whims. If anything, the parties depicted in “Devil’s Double” are sleazier than the decadent nightclub scenes in “Scarface.” At one point, the coked-out potentate demonstrates just how much fun he’s having by demanding that all of his guests remove their clothes. And, of course, they do. Other scenes that should resonate with American viewers are those set during the intense bombing of Baghdad, during the first Iraq war, and when Yahia visited front-line troops in the Iran-Iraq war disguised as Oday. The DVD arrives with interviews with Tamahori, Latif and Cooper, as well as deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Sarah’s Key: Blu-ray
Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s adaptation of Tatiana de Rosnay’s best-selling novel, “Sarah’s Key,” once again begs a question that’s perplexed novelists and screenwriters ever since the full extent of Nazi atrocities began to be reported: Is it possible to create a work of fiction about the Holocaust that neither minimizes the horror nor exploits the suffering of the victims and survivors? Just as in William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” De Rosnay’s focus is on a survivor whose life was permanently altered by terrible decisions made under the threat of death. Here, 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) locks her younger brother in a hidden closet of their Paris apartment just before collaborationist police take the family to the Vél d’Hiver velodrome. It was here that Jews were warehoused in advance of being transported to the death camps. The girl, Sarah, was led to believe that the French authorities were merely going to take information from the Jewish families and allow them to return home. Instead, after several miserable days inside the increasingly fetid velodrome, the families are trucked to a relocation camp outside the city and separated by gender and age. Still carrying the key, Sarah is desperate to escape and rescue her brother. In the next hour or so, we watch as the girl escapes from the camp, finds refuge in a nearby town, returns home to find the flat occupied by another family and attempts to live with her grief. It’s a harrowing story.

In a parallel narrative, American journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her French husband are in the process of renovating an apartment his family has owned and occupied for more than 50 years. Coincidentally, she’s also become absorbed in researching an article she’s been assigned on the Vél d’Hiver roundup by a prestigious magazine. During an interview with a historian who is computerizing information about Jews taken to the velodrome, Julia asks if there’s any data on the Marais flat being renovated. In mere seconds, Julia learns the names of its former occupants and the fate of the Sarah’s parents. Putting two and two together, Julia fears that her in-laws may have been awarded the apartment after the roundup in return for work done to benefit the Vichy government. Further obsessive research puts the reporter on the same trail taken by Sarah in the wake of her family’s transfer to the makeshift camps. It leads to the home of a generous and kindly rural couple, to the apartment, America and Italy. No need to spoil anything beyond that point in the movie. Suffice it to say, Sarah and Julia’s path eventually merge but not in any predictable way.

All of the actors in “Sarah’s Key” are excellent, as are the period re-creations. After decades of denial and deflection, France’s collaboration with the Nazis remains an extremely hot potato in the country and most people would prefer letting it cool. The velodrome has since been replaced by a school and you’d need a GPS device to find any memorials to the victims. Although everyone involved in the project clearly was up to the challenge of adapting the novel, the task of stuffing 300-plus pages of intense drama, myriad characters, interlocked narratives and a divorce into a 111-minute package has proven difficult. Too many important questions are left unanswered and the adult Sarah remains an enigma until the end. The bonus package adds a lot of good background material on the period, book and adaptation, with several worthwhile interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Carjacked: Blu-ray
I know better than to expect an entirely satisfying movie-going experience based simply on the names of the actors on the cover of a DVD. Still, even given the vagaries of the straight-to-video market, hope springs eternal. So, if I receive a movie in which Maria Bello and Stephen Dorff are the featured attractions, there’s a reasonable expectation on my part that something inside the box is worth my time. “Carjacked” isn’t a bad movie, per se, but it’s no match for the firepower Bello and Dorff bring to a project at this point in their careers. Ten years ago, such a claustrophobic thriller could have served as a stepping stone to bigger things. Today, neither actor needs the credits or aggravation of spending three or four weeks in Baton Rouge. It only makes sense if they were helping a relative or friend get a leg up in the business or the producers made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Given the finished product, I can’t imagine either of those cards was on the table. Bello plays a down-on-her luck divorced mom, who makes the mistake of leaving the door of her car unlocked while a desperate bank robber (Dorff) is on the loose in the vicinity. After paying for gas, she’s surprised by the presence of her young son’s new friend, who’s sitting in the back seat and he needs a ride to the hidden loot. Naturally, after a close call at a roadblock and some comforting repartee, Roy gives Lorraine hope that she and her 8-year-old son will escape the ordeal unscathed. Instead, whenever it looks as if they might be developing a cautious rapport, Lorraine does something unnecessary to piss him off. Sherry and Michael Compton’s script is so full of holes that you could drive a Winnebago through it. And, John Bonito’s direction isn’t much better. Lack of experience is a legitimate excuse on their parts, but it doesn’t explain what prompted Bello and Dorff to contribute their talent. To their credit, neither of them appears to have phoned in their performance. As for action and thrills, I’ve seen worse. That’s all. – Gary Dretzka

Originally conceived as a sequel to Bruce McDonald’s punk mockumentary “Hard Core Label,” “Trigger” was rewritten to accommodate a story about a hit riot grrrl duo that crashed and burned 10 years earlier and is reuniting for the first time since then. As portrayed Molly Parker and the late Tracy Wright, Vic and Kat have several unresolved issues to deal with before they can feel comfortable with each other again and none of them is petty. The occasion of their reunion is a benefit concert to honor women in rock, sponsored by a Toronto record label. Vic and Kat are accorded living-legend status with the predominantly lesbian audience and the reception buoys both women. The question that takes all night for them to resolve is whether they can bury their respective hatchets – neither has completely conquered the temptations of booze and drugs – before one of them succumbs to a killer disease. The dialogue here is sharp and witty, and the undercurrents of bitterness, resentment and longing are palpable, as well. Wright and Parker appear to have been born to play female rock stars of a certain age, struggling to make sense of their place in an industry still dominated by men and worshipful fans old enough to be their daughters. It certainly helps that the musical soundtrack reflects what’s happening in their lives and on the screen. Sadly, 50-year-old Wright died of the same pancreatic cancer as was diagnosed in her character during post-production of “Trigger.” Whether her illness was used to inform the story, or it was a tragic coincidence, isn’t made clear. In any case the movie stands as a fitting tribute to the popular Canadian actor. – Gary Dretzka

The Family Tree: Blu-ray
Dark family comedies are a common starting place for debuting indie filmmakers. Too often, though, they confuse bizarre behavior with dysfunction, which has become the umbrella term for any family whose members argue too much and have peculiar habits. In “The Family Tree,” the Burnetts of Suburban U.S.A., merely are tired of being in each other’s presence and their boredom is reflected in their respective drives for sexual satisfaction (mom, Hope Davis), social acceptance (twin daughter, Brittany Robertson), spiritual direction (twin son, Max Theriot) and career advancement (dad,  Dermot Mulroney). When mom is knocked unconscious in mid-tryst with an African-American neighbor (Chi McBride), most memories of her past life and recent sexual dalliances have been wiped from her memory. Slowly, she begins to recall deeply buried memories, including what attracted her to her husband in the first place. This doesn’t stop her lovers from attempting to rekindle the flame, though. Things come to a head when a pair of aspiring gangstas invades the house, demanding the horde of jewelry they’ve heard is stashed somewhere out of sight. Her lover knows where it is, but admitting it would blow his cover as someone interested only in being a good neighbor. Meanwhile, the son is taking shooting lessons from a gun-nut priest and hanging out with sociopathic Jesus freaks. The desperately horny daughter snaps a picture of a lesbian teacher cuddling with a crippled student in a stall in a high-school washroom and uses it to turn an “F” into a “B.” If the tail finally ends up wagging the dog here, it’s still fun to watch cameos by Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”), Gabrielle Anwar (“Burn Notice”), Madeline Zima (“Californication”), Rachel Leigh Cook (“Psych”), Selma Blair, Jane Seymour, Keith Carradine and Bow Wow. Typically, though, it’s Davis and Mulroney who make “Family Tree” worth the price of a rental. – Gary Dretzka

Streets/Angel in Red: Roger Corman Double Feature
Already co-starring in one of TV’s most successful sitcoms, “Married With Children,” Christina Applegate made her feature film debut in the hookers-in-peril drama. “Streets.” Exec-produced by Roger Corman and directed by exploitation specialist Katt Shea, the gritty low-budget thriller documents what can happen to a working girl when she refuses to meet the expectations of a psycho cop (Ed Lottimer) and leaves claw marks on his face during her escape. In fact, Dawn is that rarest of Venice street hookers – circa 1990, when the beach community was infested with gangs  — who limit her skills to hand-jobs and BJs, without making it clear in advance that’s all she’ll do. After the cop is thwarted in his demand for the real thing, he spends the rest of the movie chasing her and killing anyone who doesn’t provide him with information about her whereabouts. Dawn finds an ally in a runaway teen boy, who’s fearless, if overmatched against the brutal motorcycle jockey. Meanwhile, Dawn isn’t doing herself any favors by slipping back into a heroin habit. “Streets” exhibits a certain grindhouse appeal, but, as a rising mainstream star, Applegate wasn’t about to deliver the goods devotees expect from flicks about misguided hookers.

In “Angel in Red” (a.k.a., “Uncaged”), the prevailing menace is a vicious white pimp – as rare a creature as the albino buffalo — whose jealousy and paranoia puts him on a collision course with the most powerful black pimps in Hollywood. If it looks familiar to grindhouse buffs, it’s because “Angel in Red” is a west-coast reiteration of “Streetwalkin’,” an earlier Times Square-based, hooker-in-peril picture that starred Melissa Leo. Here, Mickie (Leslie Bega) and her brother run away to L.A. from Hooterville, or some such burg, where they almost immediately get swallowed up by a pimp named Sharkey. For a while, Mickie is devoted to Sharkey. When he starts beating up her johns, however, she starts looking for another “daddy.” Then, he really goes berserk. Bega’s really pretty, but she’s no match in the acting department for Leo. – Gary Dretzka

Gabriel Iglesias Presents: Stand-Up Revolution
Pablo Francisco: They Put It Out There

In his introduction to “Stand-Up Revolution,” Gabriel Iglesias describes how some comedy clubs ghettoize black and Hispanic comics by grouping them together and building weekly theme nights around them. He makes light of the booking strategy by speculating on how club owners might characterize a program intentionally comprised of niche white comics or those from different countries. “Fluffy” may be kidding, but he’s doing it on the square. Unlike television, where even a 1.1 rating for niche programming translates into big numbers, it probably isn’t a good idea for club owners to segregate their customers. You certainly don’t have to be Mexican-American to enjoy Iglesias’ monologues and the rowdy routines of his guests. Indeed, because the material speaks to experiences commonly shared by Spanish-speaking Americans, the comics are free to ratchet up the craziness and on-target satire before largely Hispanic audiences. When, for example, the show is staged in a Phoenix nightclub, everyone in the room “gets it” when Iglesias rips into the politicians and law-enforcement officials who are exploiting the current controversy over illegal immigration for their own benefit. In any case, “Stand-Up Revolution” is often hysterically funny, and the presence of house band Ozomatli is definitely a plus. The two-disc DVD includes all seven extended episodes and new material by Iglesias.

By now, Chilean-American comic Pablo Francisco needs no introduction to Comedy Central audiences. He’s been playing in the big leagues for quite a while now. In “They Put It Out There,” Francisco reminds me a lot of Dane Cook – for better or worse – but with a more formidable arsenal of characters, sound effects and wacky impressions. Every five minutes or so, he breaks into his trademark “Movie Voiceover Guy” persona, which gets old after a while. Still, anyone already in Francisco’s camp isn’t going to object to such overkill in “They Put It Out There.” The DVD adds “Infomercial,” outtakes, a photo shoot, makeup break and “Scandinavian Sunglasses.” – Gary Dretzka

Women’s Superstars Uncensored: Volume 1
In the world of women’s professional wrestling, Women’s Superstars Uncensored is to the WWE Divas what Formula 1 racing is to Monster Truck rallies. These grapplers couldn’t be any less glamorous if they tried. For one thing, their costumes look as if they were purchased at a post-Halloween sale at Walmart. For another, the women look as if they learned their trade in prison and the matches are held as part of a work-release program. To make matters worse, I didn’t count more than 30 people in any of the crowds shown in this generous five-hour package from Kick Ass Films. The DVD set features highlight matches from the organization’s five-year history, interviews and commentaries, all of which harken to an era before professional wrestling went MTV. – Gary Dretzka

Bill Zebub Productions: Antfarm Dickhole
Slaughter Claus
Haunted Changi
My Stepdad’s a Freakin’ Vampire!

Not being a connoisseur of Japanese exploitation films, I didn’t quite know what to expect from “Helldriver,” a balls-to-the-wall gorefest from Sushi Typhoon and writer/director Yoshihiro Nishimura. Apparently, Sushi Typhoon is Japan’s answer to Troma Entertainment, in spirit and in content. Among the directorial credits for special-effects wizard Nishimura are “Mutant Girls Squad,” “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl” and “Tokyo Gore Squad.” In any case, I’ve never seen anything quite like “Helldriver.” In it, an epidemic of ghouls has split Japan in half and a zombie-proof wall has been constructed to keep a mysterious alien-spawn mist from traveling south. (The movie was made before the tsunami and nuclear-plant disaster, but it easily can be viewed now as commentary on the still-hidden dangers.) The virus begins to spread after an evil older woman is struck by a meteorite while she’s arguing with her daughter, Kika. The rock goes through her chest, leaving a hole where her heart once pounded. She immediately thrusts her hand into her daughter’s chest stealing her heart. The girl is encased in an amber-like substance that emits the deadly mist. After the wall is built, the government implants an artificial heart into Kika’s chest, in effect creating a dynamo to which a power saw is attached. It becomes Kika’s mission to eliminate the zombie threat. What ensues is a bloodbath comparable to the one inflicted on the Turks by Vlad Tepes. Indeed, the rest of the movie is non-stop horror, with zombies adapting to their environment by using corpses in ways the good lord never intended. Can Kika end the plague or succumb to it? Don’t expect any clear cut answers from “Helldriver.” Oddly enough the Blu-ray enhances the red mist and gore to an even greater degree. The DVD arrives with several short films.

This month’s ration of insanity doesn’t end with “Helldriver.” Bill Zebub’s inappropriately titled “Antfarm Dickhole” is about as anti-social and twisted as movies get these days. And, yes, that’s saying a mouthful. It’s also hilarious, in a truly perverse sort of way. Made on a miniscule budget, “Antform Dickhole” conjures the distasteful image of a young slacker with the bad luck to have South American army ants crawl into his urethra and lay eggs inside of him. The critters don’t take kindly to folks messing with their makeshift home and they will attack and devour intruders. This includes the women who get intimate with their host. And, by women, I mean strippers likely to have been recruited from the nearest biker bar. The sight gags often are disgusting to watch, but only in a far-fetched sort of way. The dialogue sometimes is pretty funny, too. My advice is to approach “Antfarm Dickhole” with extreme caution and give Zebub credit for making a passable DIY comedy with a budget that must have approached $150.

Slaughter Claus” is another nutso horror/comedy that requires a strong stomach and perverse sense of humor. In it, a facially disfigured Kris Kringle and his bipolar elf get their jollies ruining other people’s holiday. This includes cute little kids, who are rarely shown being murdered in horror flicks. It’s done for laughs, of course, but a lot of viewers won’t find it all that amusing. There’s an anti-materialism message buried in the gore, so, I guess, it’s educational.

Haunted Changi” transports the student-film methodology employed in “Blair Witch” – and its countless imitators – to Singapore, where a group of filmmakers investigates reports of hauntings at a hospital once used by Japanese soldiers for cruel experiments and torture. The facility was abandoned after the war, but the ghosts apparently decided to stay … or did they? The spookiest material comes when the director becomes obsessed with a Chinese squatter, who may or may not exist and splits from the group to look for her in the tunnels and hidden chambers. Too much of the movie is a tease for what happens at night in the hospital, but there are a few truly hair-raising moments.

The title, “My Stepdad’s a Freakin’ Vampire!,” takes away most of the suspense in this low-budget indie thriller. A high school student discovers the truth about his mother’s new husband, but, of course, no one believes him. The truth doesn’t come out until the boy digs up his father’s grave and unearths a deep, dark secret. – Gary Dretzka

The Mugger
Kill a Dragon

This month’s batch of manufactured-on-demand titles from MGM/Fox is full of the usual surprises and curiosities. “The Mugger” is interesting mostly as an early adaptation of an Ed McBain crime novel. The black-and-white procedural from 1958 could hardly look more old-fashioned, even by the standards of TV series from that period. And, yet, there is something nostalgic about watching big-city cops mingle with crooked nightclub owners and participants in a floating crap game, as if they had just stepped out of touring company of “Guys and Dolls.” A police psychiatrist is assigned to be point man in an investigation of a mugger, who cuts his women victims on the face before running away with their purses. It isn’t long before the shrink has profiled the creep, whose identity pretty much comes out of left field. Meanwhile, a murder takes place that’s made to look as if it were committed by the mugger, but clearly wasn’t. Among the faces that would be become familiar in popular ’60s TV series are James Franciscus, George Maharis and Renee Taylor. McBain’s material would be better served a few years later in “87th Precinct.”

When “Kill a Dragon” was released in 1967, the martial-arts genre was still in its infancy – “The One-Armed Swordsman” broke the million-dollar barrier (HK) that year – and Bruce Lee was making TV shows in the U.S. While not technically a kung-fu movie, “Kill a Dragon” contains a lot of fight scenes and was shot entirely in Hong Kong, Kowloon and Macau. It involves an evil crime boss (Fernando Lamas) attempting to keep a group of islanders from reaping profits off a cargo of nitro-glycerin that washes up on shore. They hire an American mercenary (Jack Palance), who convinces buddies (Aldo Ray, Don Knight) to put together a team of fighters for a battle royal. A former Miss Israel and Miss Hong Kong also get plenty of screen time. Everyone else in the large cast was Chinese. – Gary Dretzka

Hallmark: Love Begins
Love Begins” is the prequel to Hallmark’s 10-part series of westerns adapted from Janette Oke’s “Love Comes Softly” novels. In an earnest and genuinely wholesome manner, the books describe the grit of women and girls who pioneered the American frontier, often in the absence of makes in traditional roles. In “Love Begins,” a young adult woman, Ellen Barlow (Julie Mond), and her teenage sister, Cassie (Abigail Mavity), struggle to maintain the family farm outside a dusty western town after the death of their father. While most of the men in Anderson’s Corner are off in California, panning for gold, the property is ravaged by the elements and age. After being arrested for joining a brawl started by his rambunctious partner, Clark Davis (Wes Brown) is allowed to work off the debt he owes a restaurant owner by fixing up the Barlow place. Predictably, after a rocky start, Ellen and Clark begin to hit it off as something more than boss and farmhand. Their relationship hits a pothole, not when Clark’s buddy escapes from a chain gang and returns to town to talk him into committing a crime, as would be the most likely scenario, but when Ellen’s boyfriend returns unexpectedly from the goldfields. After two years and no correspondence between them, he attempts to renew their romance. The newly wealthy and handsome miner isn’t portrayed as a heel, so Ellen’s must decide between wealth and obligation and love. All of the movies adapted from the Oke novels are lumped together in the family-friendly category, if only because the connections between love, hardship, loneliness and physical romance are dealt with in a way consciously designed not to offend anyone. When Clark and Ellen are about to exchange their first kiss, a missing cow makes its presence known by mooing loudly. It causes them to postpone the kiss, at least until the camera stops shooting. It’s a cute moment, but not plausible to anyone older than 10 or a card-carrying member of America’s Christian Taliban. Nevertheless, “Love Begins” is competently made and the actors seem to be enjoying themselves. It’s worth noting how many actresses have used starring roles in the episodes as a springboard for more high-profile work down the road: Katherine Heigl, January Jones, Erin Cottrell, Scout Taylor-Compton, Sarah Jones and Hayley Duff. – Gary Dretzka

Nature: My Life as a Turkey: Blu-ray
These Amazing Shadows: Movies That Make America: Blu-ray
Nova: Fabric of the Cosmos
Frontline: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero

Zalman King’s Body Language: Season One
Doctor Who: The Complete Sixth Series

With another Thanksgiving suddenly upon us, PBS has released a delightful documentary from “Nature” on the bird Benjamin Franklin considered to be “more respectable” than the bald eagle and worthy of being designated our national bird. “My Life as a Turkey” chronicles the year naturalist and wildlife artist Joe Hutto spent living among 16 newly hatched turkey poults in a forest in Florida. It is extremely rare for a human to come across a nest of fertilized eggs, which haven’t been ravaged by predators or abandoned by the mother. The production is a dramatization of Hutto’s book
, “Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey,” with the naturalist reading from the text. There’s nothing in the film that looks staged or phony, however. In fact, like “Bambi,” younger viewers might be horrified by the realities of life in the deep woods. (Anyone frightened of snakes might want to skip this documentary altogether.) Unlike fawns, turkeys stop being cute soon after leaving the nest, so it isn’t likely that watching the film will convince anyone to not join in Thanksgiving festivities. Neither is there anything predictable in the behavior of the birds once they come of age.

These Amazing Shadows: Movies That Make America” is a must-see for anyone whose love of movies extends beyond a subscription to Netflix and dreams of having their handprints enshrined at the Chinese Theater. The documentary describes the significance of the National Film Registry, the federal agency that designates 25 titles annually for preservation, protection and special consideration by all connoisseurs of the cinematic art. Not only do the lists contain the titles of Academy Award-winners and blockbusters, but also indies, oddities and movies of strictly historic importance. In the wake of Ted Turner’s purchase of a huge film library and proclamation that he’d colorize any movie he damn well pleased, Congress passed the National Film Preservation Act and National Film Preservation Board, under the auspices of the Librarian of Congress. Some 550 films have since been honored.  “These Amazing Shadows” balances the geek-speak and academic testimony with commentary by filmmakers, actors and journalists. They discuss the criteria for judging movies for such honor and provide personal memories of discovering the power of the cinema. We also visit the rare nitrate-film vaults at the Packard Campus of the Library of Congress, which opened six years ago in Culpepper, Virginia. The preservationists have discovered long-lost segments of movies removed in advance of censorship by the Hays Office, and they’re shown side-by-side with the released versions. The DVD and Blu-ray include a great deal of interesting bonus material.

Currently airing on some PBS affiliates, “The Fabric of the Cosmos” explores the borders separating physics and metaphysics. It is hosted by physicist Brian Greene, whose “The Elegant Universe” introduced “Nova” audiences to such mind-blowing concepts as string theory, wormholes, quantum mechanics, parallel realities and alternate universes. “Fabric of the Cosmos” is explained best in chapter titles, “What Is Space?,” “The Illusion of Time,” “Quantum Leap” and “Universe or Multiverse?” In other words, all the stuff acid heads contemplated while tripping their brains out now is being addressed by the scientific community. It’s about time.

When, on 9/11, four hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a patch of farm land in Pennsylvania, believers around the world asked themselves the same question: How could the terrorists possibly believe that God, Mohammad and a gaggle of virgins would welcome them to Paradise after committing such heinous acts? The terrorists studied the same Koran as tens of millions of other Muslims, yet derived from it completely opposite meanings. The “Frontline” documentary,“Faith & Doubt at Ground Zero,”revisits that perplexing debate and the greatest of question of them all, “If there is a God, why do such horrible things continue to happen, especially to innocent people?” Americans from disparate backgrounds and religious beliefs — and none at all – were interviewed for the documentary. Was God on the minds of the people who leaped hand-in-hand from the top floors of the WTC or did they act out of desperation? If desperation, would God consider their suicides to be a mortal sin, as is taught in some religions, or would the Almighty grant them a one-time waiver? If viewers don’t go into “Faith & Doubt” looking for definitive answers, there’s a good chance they’ll find value in the debate, at least.

Zalman King, who has introduced countless Americans to the pleasures of soft-core porn in “9½ Weeks” and “Red Shoe Diaries,” returned to Showtime with “Body Language.” Set in a so-called gentlemen’s club, the series asks us to believe that most of the troubles in the world could be resolved, if only people listened to the theories of lap dancers, bartenders and bouncers. Each episode, college student and mixologist Samantha (Jessica Rimmer) addresses the issues vexing a different stripper, who typically charges more for her time then a psychiatrist could justify. The DVD package adds material deemed too hot even for premium-cable subscribers, so anyone who liked the original series will love the extended cuts. King’s ability to produce couples-friendly erotica is on full display here.

There seems to be an infinite inventory of “Doctor Who” material, which isn’t surprising considering how long it’s been on the air. The sixth series opens with Rory (Arthur Darvill) and Amy (Karen Gillen) ensconced in the honeymoon suite of a giant space liner that wanders into the toxic atmosphere of an alien planet. A call from Amy summons the TARDIS, which carries the doctor (Matt Smith) to the planet and the person who literally owns the air. The doctor must convince atmosphere mogol Kazran Sardick to help him rescue the passengers or save the spacecraft from destruction, before he can proceed with the remainder of the season’s episodes and an unusual visit to Earth. The DVD and Blu-ray package combines the two halves of the sixth series, while adding the 2010 Christmas special, commentary and other bonus material. – Gary Dretzka

The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 1
Beauty and the Beast’s Enchanted Christmas: Blu-ray /Belle’s Magical World
Prep & Landing

In an unusual scheduling twist, American audiences will have to wait for Christmas to see what international fans of The Adventures of Tintinoverseas have already experienced. Steven Spielberg’s adaptation employs motion-capture animation and CGI to retain the visual flavor of Belgian artist Hergé’s beloved comic strip, which debuted in Europe in 1929. American audiences ought to consider doing some homework before attempting the movie and, apart from picking up the books, the easiest way to do so would be studying the animated television series, which ran from 1991-93 on HBO. Season One of “The Adventures of Tintin,” introduces newcomers to the young Belgian reporter, his canine companion Snowy, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus and detectives Thomson & Thompson.

Disney’s hugely successful Beauty and the Beastspun off a pair of holiday specials in 1997 and 1998, as DVD originals. “Enchanted Christmas” gets the full Blu-ray treatment, with plenty of bonus features and a DVD disc. In it, Belle continues her mission to make the Beast feel welcome among normal-looking folks. The story is told in the form of one of Mrs. Potts’ “tales as old as time.” Composer Forte is determined to keep the lovers apart from each other, but Christmas spirit is more powerful than spite. The attractive hi-def presentation adds a behind-the-scenes featurette on the animation; “Forte’s Challenge” memory game; an “Enchanted” environment feature with animated fireplace scenes; sing-along tracks that can be played separately or during the feature film; and music video, “As Long As There’s Christmas,” by Play. “Magical World” hasn’t been accorded a full-blown makeover. It tells three stories based on the themes of forgiveness, kindness and love.

Disney made the holiday featurette, “Prep & Landing,” to fit the needs of ABC television, which was looking for a Christmas special that wouldn’t grow old with repeated airings. Made under the supervision of exec-producer John Lasseter, “P&L” follows the elves as they prepare homes for Santa’s visit and makes sure the kids know the drill. It’s a cute addition to the Disney/Pixar family. “P&L” arrives with the shorts “Operation Secret Santa,” “Tiny’s Big Adventure” and four Kringle Academy training videos. – Gary Dretzka

New York Dolls: Lookin’ Fine on Television
One of the reasons crusty old rock-’n’-roll journalists take the Hall of Fame less than seriously is the nominating committee’s tendency to honor performers whose ability to sell records trumps innovation, sacrifice and influence. Some musicians and singers have been inducted several times, while others are only considered after the uproar gets too loud to ignore. The fact that such mainstream entertainers as Billy Joel are members and not hard-core acts like the New York Dolls demands loud debate. Watch “Lookin’ Fine on Television” and I think you’ll see the case to be made for the Dolls. Directly influenced by the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and the Faces, the Stooges and MC5, the Dolls may have been the first American band to embrace Britain’s emerging Glam Rock and Punk movements and convincing suburban teenagers that boys have the same right to wear makeup and tease their hair as their girlfriends. Among the bands the Dolls influenced were Alice Cooper, Kiss, Sex Pistols, Motley Crue, the Ramones, Guns N Roses, Poison, R.E.M., Aerosmith and Clash. David Johansen was able to survive by morphing into the persona of lounge lizard Buster Poindexter and making songs for hipper elements among the disco crowd. Filmmakers Bob Gruen and Nadya Beck have compiled clips from the band’s formative years in L.A. and N.Y.C., as well as vintage interviews. From MVD, it’s one of the best rock docs I’ve seen in a while.Gary Dretzka

The Big Country: Blu-ray
Quigley Down Under: Blu-ray
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three: Blu-ray

William Wyler’s epic western, The Big Country,” is set on a pair of ranches so large that everyone involved says, “It’s a big country …,” whenever they run out of other ways to comment on life’s mysteries. Gregory Peck stars as a sea captain, who, after making a fortune on the high seas, moves west to marry Carroll Baker and work the ranch owned by her father. It’s difficult to imagine anyone thinking cattle would thrive on such a barren location, but dumber notions have succeeded, I suppose. No sooner does the seaman reach town than he finds himself caught in a range war between a pair of old-goat patriarchs who bicker over everything, including the Big Muddy that doesn’t exactly flow between the two properties. He also crosses the ranch’s top hand (Charlton Heston), who covets Peck’s fiancé. The cowboys can’t understand why the easterner won’t fight when provoked. Baker, too, can’t understand why he’s such a coward, which, of course, he isn’t. At three hours, “Big Country” moves a tad slow for a western. It looks good in Blu-ray, though, and the acting is top-notch. Also swell are Burl Ives, Chuck Connors, Charles Bickford and Jean Simmons. A making-of featurette also is included.

Quigley Down Under was released in 1990, when westerns were an even rarer commodity than they are now. Unless the protagonist was played by Clint Eastwood, he might as well have been from another planet … or Australia. That’s where we find Tom Selleck, who plays a marksman from Montana hired by an Aussie landowner (Alan Rickman) to shoot Aborigines. Once informed of this end of the deal, Quigley decides not to participate, however. After taking a beating, he decides to settle the score, alongside Laura San Giacomo, who also was brutalized by the land baron. Australia is the real star of the show here, although Selleck and Rickman always earn their money. The Blu-ray adds a featurette, “The Rebirth of the Western.”

The recent remake ofThe Taking of Pelham One Two Three had its good points, to be sure, but the original was a doozy. Made in 1974, when New York was a bit more gritty than it is today, Joseph Sargent’s tick-tock thriller is loaded with atmosphere and tension. In addition to the intricately designed and precisely timed heist of a cash-carrying subway train, the movie featured excellent performances by Walter Matthau, Jerry Stiller, Hector Elizondo, Martin Balsam and Robert Shaw. Gary Dretzka

H.H. Dalai Lama: Essence of Mahayana Buddhism
H.H. Dalai Lama: Message of Peace and Compassion

The latest entries in MVD’s collection of lectures conducted by the Dalai Lama captures His Holiness as he consoles westerners interested in following Buddha’s path. In his 165-minute lectures, which are mostly in English, he summarizes the essence of Mahayana Buddhism as the unified practice of compassion and wisdom. He also adds practical advice to westerners practicing dharma and takes questions from the audience. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: West Side Story, Perfect Age of Rock, The Tree, Beginners, Rio Sex Comedy, Bellflower, Money Matters, It Takes a Thief …

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition Box Set: Blu-ray
When “West Side Story” opened on Broadway in 1957, audiences and critics understood immediately they were watching something new and possibly revolutionary in musical theater. The book was as topical as tabloid, with a message that was as old and familiar as “Romeo & Juliet.” The songs soon would find their way to the nation’s jukeboxes and the dancers looked as if they might have been choreographed by someone who’d watched “American Bandstand” once or twice. Parents could recognize their children on stage, while teenager saw themselves. Juvenile delinquency and gang violence still may have been uncommon diversions for young people living in the boonies, but radios carried the message that something good was coming. “West Side Story” reflected a new American reality, which spoke less to conventional values and courtly romance than to alienation, rebellion and a constitutionally guaranteed right to pursue happiness in any ways unimaginable before World War II. Although “West Side Story” performed extremely well on Broadway and in London’s West End, critically and commercially, it wasn’t wholly embraced by Tony voters. Consequently, when it came time for Hollywood to afford a lavish roadshow production, it’s likely the musical’s originators – composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Jerome Robbins, director Hal Prince, writer Arthur Laurents — saw it has an opportunity to even the score with the Broadway establishment. If that indeed was a motivating factor for the filmmakers, co-directors, Robbins and Robert Wise met the challenge and exceeded all expectations. That isn’t to say that the migration from stage to screen was a walk in Central Park, because egos were bruised along the way and concessions to the Hollywood conventions didn’t always sit easily with the Broadway brain trust.

If certain prominent casting changes caused an uproar in New York and Los Angeles, the people who lived in between showed their approval by voting with their wallets. “West Side Story” blew the doors off the nation’s box offices, before and after running away with Oscars in 10 of the 11 categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture. It is a milestone for movie musicals that still stands. The soundtrack album made from the score of the movie broke records, as well, even outselling the Broadway-cast recording. It also carries the distinction of being one of the only Broadway-originated musicals that could honesty be considered a date flick, as entertaining and romantic for teenage boys and young adult males as their dates. As a side benefit, the widespread popularity of “West Side Story” gave teachers a leg up when it came to introducing Shakespeare to high school knuckleheads. The phenomenon was repeated in 1996, when Baz Luhrmanns’ adaptation rocked Hollywood by becoming a huge hit with the same kids who made MTV a sensation.

MGM/Fox’s 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition not only looks and sounds great, but it also serves as a reminder of how much a stage musical can benefit from being shot on location – in key parts, anyway – in the same streets and playgrounds that inspired the production’s creative team. It’s amusing to see how much less fearsome the gang members look today than they seemed a half-century. The same could be said for the background hooligans in “Blackboard Jungle,” though. The most controversial casting decisions were the result of a desire on the filmmakers’ part to hire actors who actually could pass for teenagers in real life. In fact, most were younger at the time of the production than the actors who auditioned for roles in the “Glee” production of “West Side Story.” Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer both were 22 when it was being shot and they haven’t aged a minute in our collective imagination since then. Even if their voices weren’t actually used on the soundtrack, their rendition of “Somewhere” is still capable of breaking our hearts. The fight scenes, too, will have newcomers to the movie on the edge of their seats. Tech purists have noticed a few problems with the hi-def transfer, but none large enough to undermine the experience for most viewers. The color scheme and lighting are absolutely brilliant. For the most part, this “West Side Story” is a close as we’re likely to get to the original, which was shot in Super Panavision 70. It will give anyone’s home theater setup a run for its money. The Blu-ray has been re-mastered in1080p with 7.1 DTS-HD sound. The new featurettes include “Pow! The Dances of West Side Story,” which can be accessed as in-movie supplements or stand-alones; song-specific commentary by Stephen Sondheim; a Music Machine video jukebox; “A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy,” in celebrities and former cast members discuss the musical’s impact on popular culture; the previously released, hour-long “West Side Memories”; storyboard comparisons; a tribute album; reproductions of international posters on postcards; a book of photos; and DVD copy. A Blu-ray/DVD package also is available without all the bling. – Gary Dretzka

Perfect Age of Rock ’N’ Roll
Scott D. Rosenbaum’s debut feature is equal parts memory play, road movie and conjecture based on the notion that 27 is a cursed age for popular musicians. The theory is based on the coincidental deaths of Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (Grateful Dead), Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson (Canned Heat), Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and a couple dozen other musicians whose names would qualify for inclusion in a game of Trivial Pursuit. It’s at 27 that songwriter Eric (Jason Ritter), one of the lead characters in “Perfect Age of Rock N Roll,” passes into the Great Beyond, leaving behind a 20-year-old mystery for a contemporary journalist to solve. As the movie opens, the writer is preparing to approach Eric’s former partner, Spyder (Kevin Zegers), a goth-rock legend who now resembles Howard Hughes on his deathbed. After considerable prodding, Spyder relates the circumstances of the final cross-country trip he made with Eric, in 1991. They hadn’t spent any time together since Spyder had turned Eric’s purloined songs into a hit album for himself. Lacking even the vaguest clue at how to write a good song, the burnout asks his former friend to forgive his trespasses and join him in the recording studio in L.A., but only if brings along some new tunes. Based on looks alone, it doesn’t seem possible that Eric’s material would suit Spyder’s dark and twisted stage persona, but he finally agrees to join him on a road trip with other the backup band. Joining them at the wheel will be Peter Fonda’s August West, as a onetime rock promoter who believes his passengers would benefit from a crash course in classic-rock musicology. Not surprisingly, perhaps, August turns out to be the most compelling person in the movie. As passengers, Spyder is a psycho and Eric is a grump. Complicating things even further, both men sleep with Spyder’s pretty, if superfluous manager, Rose Atropos (Taryn Manning), whose mostly good intentions are compromised by a lust for cocaine. Just as tensions begin to boil over, Eric and Spyder get drunk and share the only genuine moment in the whole movie. The bar into which they stumble so happens to be a funky blues joint, where Spyder invites himself on stage with old-timers Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin. Eric is invited to join them on “Train Keeps A’Rolling” and it’s wonderful. Once the bus reaches L.A., things once again descend into chaos, Eric disappears and the movie ends. The DVD arrives with a behind-the-scenes featurette; “Turn Me On” music video; outtake performances; and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Tree
Julie Bertuccelli’s strange family drama, “The Tree,” harkens to period in the Australian cinema when the answers to life’s most persistent mysteries were found in the natural elements and the people who lived in harmony with them. Charlotte Gainsbourg is terrific as Dawn, the newly widowed mother of four young children living a hard-scrabble life in rural Queensland. Practically comatose for months after her husband’s untimely death, Dawn is resuscitated by the thought – advanced by her precocious 8-year-old daughter, Simone (Morgana Davies) – that his spirit inhabits the giant tree growing like crazy just off the family’s front porch. Its roots are spreading along the yard’s surface at an alarming speed, endangering the foundation of their house and a neighbor’s garden. To prevent Dawn’s extremely helpful and handsome new boyfriend from extinguishing the torch her mother still carries for her late husband, Simone takes up residence in the tree and refuses to come down. Her resistance, at first humorous, rapidly becomes frightening as it becomes obvious that the tree presents a danger to the family’s well-being and must be removed. Simone’s behavior and Dawn’s reluctance to discipline her eventually impact negatively on her relationship with the only man in town who doesn’t think she’s nuts. It takes a calamity for Simone to return to Earth.

“The Tree” requires a great deal of patience to enjoy on Bertuccelli’s terms. She demands that we become intimately familiar with the family before anything particularly dramatic or unusual happens to them. The children each have unique personalities and Dawn undergoes a metamorphosis that takes her from bleak to ecstatic as she grows to love another man. If “The Tree” were an American or British production, instead of French and Australian, I think we’d already be hearing Gainsbourg’s name in the same breath as other early Oscar favorites. She’s simply one of the world’s best actresses and has been for a long time. Bertuccelli’s previous film, “Since Otar Left,” is the more compelling of her two features, I think, but “The Tree” demands more intellectually of the audience. Different viewers will take far different things from the story, which was adapted from Judy Pascoe’s “Our Father Who Art in a Tree.” Anyone who has admired such Aussie entertainments as “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” “The Last Wave” and “Walkabout” really should give “The Tree” a shot. It comes with a pretty good making-of featurette and deleted scenes that answered a few of the questions I had about the story. – Gary Dretzka

Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls
Bite Marks
Lost Everything

If any proof were needed that someone in this country is capable of making a romantic dramedy that is intelligent, moving, funny and authentic, and doesn’t rely on pratfalls, cheap sentiment and star power to hold its audience, it can be found in “Beginners.” Mike Mills’ often very moving story isn’t for everyone, certainly. Viewers who still are uncomfortable watching gay men openly demonstrate their love for other in public settings – in distinctly non-pornographic ways — may lack the patience required to allow the movie to win them over, as it will less squeamish people. Neither is it fun to watch an extremely likable character cope with the inevitability of a painful death to cancer (not AIDS-related). Ewan McGregor plays a graphic artist, Oliver, whose father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), happily exited the closet after the death of his longtime wife. In doing so, Hal finally acknowledged something he knew to be true ever since he was 13. Growing up, Oliver had suspected an invisible force was coming between his parents, but he wasn’t sure what it was. The revelation of his father’s sexuality doesn’t appear to have wounded the son in any concrete way, however. If anything, the loss of the woman in both of their lives served to bring them closer. Learning that his father would die, just he was experiencing an emotional rebirth as a gay man, had a far harsher impact on Oliver. “Beginners” unfolds as a memory play, with much time shifting and space for reflection. It begins in the present, as Oliver is about to be rescued from his terrible loneliness by a quirky French actress, Anna (Melanie Laurent), who is pretty, funny and wise, but fearful of commitment. Again, unlike most Hollywood romances, “Beginners” never attempts to assure its viewers the kind of traditional, feel-good ending in which everyone lives happily ever after. Somehow, too, Mills (“Thumbsucker”) managed to add a Jack Russell terrier to most scenes and keep it from detracting from what’s happening around him. Oliver inherited the emotionally needy dog from Hal and eventually it becomes a loyal companion to him. The terrier does possess one remarkable talent, which, if taken out of context, would sound too preposterous for any director to execute. How Oliver responds to it speaks volumes about his depressed state of mind and Mills’ faith in indie audiences to go along with the conceit. Also doing a nice job here are Goran Visnjic, as Hal’s lover, and Mary Page Keller as his flakey wife.

The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls” is a charming bio-doc about what we’re told is “the world’s only yodeling, country-singing-and-comedy lesbian-sibling duo.” Individually, none of those qualities would make Jools and Lynda Topp worthy of an 84-minute film. When combined with the fact they were born on a New Zealand dairy farm and appeal as much to rodeo crowds as left-wing activists, Topp Twins suddenly become something larger than the sum of their individual parts and interesting to non-Kiwis. On stage, the impossibly energetic duo combines beautifully tight harmonies and politically charged songs, with sight gags, sing-alongs and novelty routines that wouldn’t be out of place on “Hee-Haw.” The characters they’ve invented are as much a part of New Zealand’s cultural identity as Peter Jackson and exported lamb chops. Watching the Topps perform before crowds that range from farmers to soon-to-be-arrested protesters tells us as much about the country as it does about the women. New Zealand is a country small enough to embrace such unconventional performers as neighbors and friends, yet large enough to send voter-sanctioned messages to world powers on nuclear proliferation, racism, sexism, homophobia and respect for the rights of its aboriginal people, although none came without some kind of fight. LeAnne Pooley’s camera follows Jools and Lynda to their rural homes, which they share with their lovers and various farm and domesticated animals, as well as on tour and at rallies. We meet their parents, watch home movies and follow their show-biz progression from mullet-wearing buskers to creators of a hit television show. The emotional centerpiece of “Untouchable Girls” comes when Jools is diagnosed with breast cancer and Lynda attaches herself to the rungs of her hospital, providing solace and support. Pooley uses Jools’ treatment and convalescence as an example of how close these women are to each other, although that question is never really in doubt. Not having heard of the Topps until two weeks ago, I sometimes felt as if I were intruding on a very private moment in their lives. The movie broke several box-office records for documentaries in New Zealand and very well could find a niche here, as well.

Bite Marks” is a fairly standard vampire movie, with an entertaining gay twist. Played more for laughs than terror, freshman writer/director Mark Bessenger had no trouble finding horror conventions to parody, while also opening up the script to include some flirtatious fun. While backpacking their way across country, Cary and Vogel decide to accept a lift from a trucker hauling coffins. The driver is filling in for his brother, who was killed early in the movie by one of the coffin’s inhabitants, and has the bad luck to be assigned a trailer full of ghouls. If that weren’t enough bother, recent problems in the sack with women have made him susceptible to the approaches of the hitch-hikers. Just as the trucker is about to succumb to their advances, he’s pulled out of the cab and forced to deal with monsters who are more interested in sucking his blood than sucking … well, you know. The final showdown occurs in an abandoned junkyard, where the truck was led by vampire GPS. None of the action is realistic and the vampires aren’t at all scary. Still, the dialogue is often funny and loaded with double entendre. The DVD comes with commentary, interviews and a gag reel.

Lost Everything” is quasi-thriller that feels as if it were made in the 1980s not 2011. That’s because of the lengths the closeted celebrity, Brian Brecht, is willing to go to maintain the ruse that he’s straight and a real lady’s man. While in Miami on a publicity tour, it takes him all of five minutes to hit on the handsome bartender he’ll use and abuse in the next few days. His manager hires a dreamy female hooker as a companion, just in case the tabloids are stalking Brian … which, of course, they are. Meanwhile, across town, the son of a prominent preacher rejects his father’s invitation to be deprogrammed at a Christian camp in Colorado. After he refuses, the old hypocrite hires a “fixer” to eliminate his son’s boyfriend. Another storyline involves an assassin who falls in love with a woman he rescues from her brute ex-husband. He knows better than to get involved with a civilian, but does anyway, putting his own life in jeopardy. That’s a lot of plot to hang on an undernourished screenplay. The interconnectedness of the story is wasted, but the boys and girls are cute. – Gary Dretzka

Life in a Day
When Strangers Click

Remember that large-format book of photographs, “A Day in the Life of America,” that could be found on everyone’s coffeetables in the late 1980s? It collected the work of 200 of the world’s finest photographers, all of whom were assigned by the book’s editors to be different places in the U.S. on May 2, 1986, and shoot something that moved them. “Life in a Day” is the Digital Age equivalent of that ambitious project. Instead of still photographs, the movie is comprised of footage captured and uploaded by YouTube users on July 24, 2010. It was edited down from 4,500 hours of material representing 80,000 entries and 192 nations. As anyone who spends much time on the social network probably already can guess, the 95-minute movie is more interesting and entertaining, than revelatory or provocative. It begins and ends in the dead of night and follows the sun from one corner of the Earth to all the rest of them, in no particular order other than time of day. No segment lasts more than about 30 seconds and some go by in the blink of an eye. I suppose that “Life in a Day” qualifies as a social experiment, but, ultimately, it came down to the judgment of director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) and seven co-directors; exec-producers Ridley and Tony Scott (“Alien”); music supervisor John Boughtwood; editor Joe Walker; and their teams to stitch together the final product. Social networks can only do so much.

So many horror stories have been told about Internet dating and the lies shared on social-network sites that it’s somehow comforting to learn not all such experiences have been unpleasant or creepy. That is what happens in “When Strangers Click,” a HBO documentary about people who’ve found success in the Internet dating pool or, if not success, exactly, something that didn’t end badly. It hardly qualifies as news that the people we meet probably had failed miserably in more conventional approaches to dating and romance. Lots of normal folks have perfectly acceptable reasons for trolling the Internet, not the least of which being too little opportunity to meet interesting people and chronic shyness. It’s what happens when the people we meet here finally do connect that makes “When Strangers Click” interesting. One reasonably attractive woman starts out looking for potential partners within a close radius to her New York home, but finds love in Hungary with a Siberian man who can barely speak English. Two other widely separated people introduce themselves to each other – then date and arrange to meet – through their greatly exaggerated “avatar” personae. A young gay man finds the support he needs to exit the closet on the web, but then is hustled by the mayor of the city to which he’s moved. Robert Kenner (“Food, Inc.”) has hopes of spinning a TV series off “When Strangers Click.” I wonder how easy it will be to find stories as compelling as the first five. – Gary Dretzka

Flypaper: Blu-ray
If Mack Sennett and Hal Roach were still around, making movies, they might have attempted to produce one like “Flypaper.” It has a slapsticky plot, perfectly suited for the zaniest and misshapen of silent-era comedians, and the dialogue is largely extraneous to anything that’s happening on the screen. In it, two teams of robbers arrive at a bank at the same time, hoping to relieve its safe of the money it contains. One uses high-tech tools, while the other just plans to wing it, as would befit a pair of bumpkins named Peter Butter and Jelly (roles well-suited to Pruitt Taylor Vince and Tim Blake Nelson). Neither team is able to prevent the bank from locking itself down, as usual, so they’re forced to hold their hostages overnight and wait for the systems to return to normal. Meanwhile, with nothing to do but scheme, the hostages find ways to amuse themselves and annoy the robbers, who continue to attempt to break into the safe and ATMs. The comedy turns inky black when characters start dying in a way Agatha Christie might have envisioned. Then there’s Patrick Dempsey, who finds himself in the middle of the heist with his eyes on a pretty teller (Ashley Judd) and a scheme of his own device. The movie’s biggest crime, though, is wasting the considerable talents of the rarely seen auto-racing fan, Judd, who could have phoned in her assignment here. – Gary Dretzka

What Women Want
The Warring States

Somewhere, Chairman Mao and Madam Mao are spinning in their graves. As the architects of China’s bloody Cultural Revolution, how could they have anticipated the exploitation of the masses by a new breed of gluttonous, western-style capitalists; that clothing made of green khaki material would be replaced by Armani and Brooks Brothers; and that one of the world’s great cinemas would be reduced to adapting decadent Hollywood rom-coms? It’s stunning to see how easily the Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt vehicle, “What Women Want,” fits within the context of contemporary Beijing yuppie-dom. The capital isn’t routinely used as a backdrop for contemporary films and, absent any references to the Forbidden City, Tiananman Square or billions of people commuting by bicycle, it looks pretty much like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei, if not the movie’s original setting, Chicago. Corporate offices, high-rise apartments and discos look pretty much the same everywhere. Otherwise, the story remains the same. Advertising executive Zigang Sun (pop star Andy Lau) is a chauvinistic playboy, whose work and dating don’t leave much time for the needs of his daughter and father. After a bizarre accident, he gains the ability to read the minds of women around him. The timing is convenient as the agency has just hired the attractive and professionally formidable Yilong Li (Gong Li, still ravishing at 45), to accept the promotion he assumed was his for the taking. She won the job because the agency was desperately in need of a creative executive who understands what fashionable women want to were at work, on dates and at play. Zigang uses his newly acquired talent to eavesdrop on the deepest thoughts of the women around him and steal the ideas of his new manager. By the time Yilong figures out what’s happening, Zigang has created campaigns that have impressed the big boss and convinced her that he might not be such a jerk, after all. She doesn’t feel the same way after she’s laid off and her nemesis cops to his hidden talent.

Anyone who’s seen Nancy Meyers and Josh Goldsmith’s original, or watch any Hollywood rom-com in the last 30 years, already knows what happens next. It’s entirely possible that the finale came as a surprise to Chinese audiences conditioned to political tracts, martial-arts action and historical epics, but I doubt it. Writer/director/co-star Chen Daming lived and worked in in America before moving back to Beijing, so nailing genre conventions probably didn’t present many problems for him. Li and Lau also look as if they were born for their parts. Chinese censors are even tougher on sex than the prudes at the MPAA, so “What Women Want” could easily pass for “PG” here. I have no way of knowing how critics and audiences greeted the movie overseas, so I will resist the temptation to critique it for Chinese-speaking audiences. I definitely could have done without the schmaltzy love songs, most rendered in English, though. The DVD arrives in Mandarin, with English and Chinese subtitles

Like “What Women Want,” Jin Chen’s far more familiar feudal-wars epic “The Warring States” is from China Lion Film Distribution. It is a story not only of powerful man and women willing to go to extreme lengths to maintain wealth and status, but also the military strategists they retain – or, here, kidnap – to keep the wolves from their doors. Sun Bin (Sun Hong-Lei), a descendant of “The Art of War” author Sun Tzu, is an especially brilliant strategist in China’s Warring States Period (5th to 3rd centuries, BC). His most formidable rival is his brother, Pang Juan (Francis Ng), a general who imprisoned and tortured Sun Bin, in order to convince opponents he was insane and of no use to them. Pang’s sister Fei (Kim Hee-seon), the princess of Wei, is both beautiful and a fearsome warrior. In the war for control of the states, there’s a separate blueprint for peace and compromise. Nothing comes easy, though. American viewers probably won’t be impressed by the CGI tricks, but there’s no denying the skill that went into the costumes, hair and other production values. It, too, is in Mandarin with English subtitles.—Gary Dretzka

Rio Sex Comedy
Welcome to L.A.

The characters in Jonathan Nossiter’s beyond-offbeat ensemble rom-com live in Rio de Janeiro, but the movie’s many conceits were mined from territory Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph once explored and Henry Jaglom continues to chart. I say this because to appreciate “Rio Sex Comedy” on its own terms, viewers must be willing to forgo content for character, and accept that some of the people we meet aren’t at all likeable. Nossiter provides only sketchy backgrounds for them, believing, I think, that we’ll judge them primarily by how they look in and out of clothing.  To some degree, he’s probably right. The fascinating settings can’t help but overwhelm some of the dialogue, at least, while the narrative only asks of viewers that they stick around to find out which of the characters ends up in bed with whom. What’s more interesting is the interaction between the actors and non-professionals who appear to have been plucked from the streets, beach, kitchens and favelas of Rio and invited Nossiter’s crew into their homes. It gives “Rio Sex Comedy” a texture that mimics documentaries and travelogues. The favelas are governed and policed by well-armed thugs, who are more representative of the residents than police and politicians would want us to believe. It’s amazing that Nossiter was given permission to shoot scenes in the same slums that are currently being raided by police in advance of the World Cup and Olympics.

Fischer Stevens plays a guide who escorts tourists through the favelas and surrounding forest, and arranges for them to witness an exotic mating ritual performed by Indians who could have stepped out of the pages of Vogue. Bill Pullman’s U.S. ambassador stages his own kidnapping, so he can get closer to poor residents and devise cock-eyed schemes to make their lives less miserable … in his eyes, anyway. French star Irene Jacob (“Red,” “The Double Life of Veronique”) is researching the working conditions of maids, who clean the apartments of wealthy Brazilians, raise their kids, put up with their employers’ groping and dodge bullets on their way home to the favelas. Charlotte Rampling (“Swimming Pool”) plays a prominent British plastic surgeon, who after ditching her longtime husband, moves to Rio. She spends more time urging potential patients to reconsider their decision to have work done than performing operations. (She convinces a young and beautiful woman that all she needs to look younger is a radical new hairdo.) Other attractive characters come and go, adding pretty faces here and there, as if to showcase the class disparity in the city. The same viewers who had trouble with Altman’s early ensemble pieces and continue to avoid Jaglom’s talky hybrids might find “Rio Sex Comedy” to be a similarly excruciating exercise in cinematic navel-gazing. Those who have enjoyed Nossiter’s previous work – “Sunday,” “Signs & Wonders” and the documentary “Mondovino” – should welcome the challenge. As usual, the seductive charms of Rio de Janeiro are on full display and work miracles with the cultural tourists. The DVD adds many deleted and alternative scenes.

MGM/Fox has just released Alan Rudolph’s “Welcome to L.A.,” which “Rio Sex Comedy” resembles architecturally. A longtime associate of Robert Altman, Rudolph frequently worked with ensemble casts of high-profile, if not always A-list actors and musicians, playing characters whose issues and moods mirror those of the cities in which they lived. The music also reflects the settings. The pecking order of the characters often is obscured by the constant intersection of events during which they meet, mate and share the prevailing gestalt, for lack of a better word. In “Welcome to L.A.,” the characters exist on the periphery of the music industry and, as such, most are pretentious, when they’re not outright phony; wealthy, if completely devoid of worthwhile qualities themselves; and lonely, even while surrounded by several million other residents. Being Christmastime, the highs are heightened and the lows deepened. This vision of L.A. may be less Disneyland, than Forest Lawn, but it is recognizable. The sterling cast includes Keith Carradine, Sally Kellerman, Geraldine Chaplin, Harvey Keitel, Lauren Hutton, Viveca Lindfors, Denver Pyle and John Considine. The most telling image is supplied by Sissy Spacek, playing a flower-child maid who vacuums topless. “Welcome to L.A.” is available on a manufactured-on-demand basis, through Amazon and other outlets.  – Gary Dretzka

Pound of Flesh: Blu-ray
Of all the fine movies in which Malcolm McDowell has appeared, none probably will be as insignificant as “Pound of Flesh.” It practically doesn’t exist. There are no reviews of it on Amazon – by publicists, relatives or friends – and only one critic’s notice, in Dutch, at IMDB. Someone at Odyssey Moving Images thought enough of “Pound of Flesh,” however, to accord it a modest marketing push and release it in Blu-ray, as well as DVD, which has to count for something.  Tamar Simon Hoffs’ erotic thriller opens with the shooting death of a naked woman who just scrambled out of the bed of her lover. After a brief stop at the local police station, we’re taken to a small private college where fall semester is about to begin. Naturally, several young women are tanning in their bikinis, discussing the relative merits of big cocks. McDowell’s voiceover informs us of his delight that school’s opening, although we won’t find out why exactly until he morphs into Humbert Humbert. His Shakespeare class is populated with way too many gorgeous young women, some of whom aren’t even enrolled in the course. They all defer to him in ways that don’t necessarily suggest he’s either trading grades for sex or that he’s even that inspirational a teacher. He’s definitely a smooth talker, though, and far better liked by male faculty members than women.

One thing that is made clear, however, is how incredibly inept are the local police, whose idea of a thorough investigation is attending a class and wondering how MacDowell gets away with whatever it is he’s trying to get away with. In any case, we figure it out before they do and don’t believe it, either. If you miss it at the local video store, I’m sure it will show up on Cinemax around midnight sometime soon. – Gary Dretzka

Money Matters
If it weren’t for festivals devoted to niche audiences — gay and lesbian, children, documentary, urban and other ethnic groups – hundreds of movies simply would be ignored and left to sit on a shelf somewhere. Each week, dozens of new DVD titles are released without the benefit of a theatrical run. Some are good, most aren’t. All represent the collaborative work of dozens of dedicated people and deserve some recognition outside the immediate families of the cast, crew and caterers. Ryan Richmond’s heartbreaking urban drama, “Money Matters,” is better than most movies that go directly from the festival circuit to the crowded straight-to-DVD marketplace. Although the characters are living in a different hell than the one inhabited by Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique in “Precious,” they would recognize each other immediately. Monique “Money” Matters (newcomer Terri Abney) is teetering on the brink of adolescence, trapped between two worlds. She lives with her mother, Pamela Matters (Aunjanue Ellis), in a crummy apartment nearly in the shadow of the Washington Monument and Capitol Building. The identity of her father is held from her as if it were a state secret. Money’s three-bus commute to the Catholic school she attends would be considered an ordeal, even if it didn’t take her from one world in which she feels uncomfortable to another, just as foreign. In class, she occasionally drifts off into space, writing poetry and sketching pictures. Tired of Money’s lack of focus, a teacher confiscates her notebook. Instead of embarrassing the teenager in front of her peers, however, the teacher discovers a talent for writing even Money didn’t consider valuable outside her own head. Certainly, her mother hasn’t encouraged her to pursue it.

As if an identity crisis weren’t sufficiently distracting, Money also is experiencing all the usual problems associated with coming of age sexually. Having observed Pamela’s catastrophic relationships at close range, Money doesn’t know if a couple of minutes of pleasure are worth the days of abuse that inevitably follow. Her mother would prefer for Money to find pleasure in the bible and avoid the same sort of neighborhood boys who grew up to be pimps, dealers and convicted felons in her day.  Any movie that treats the bible with something other than derision or condescension tends now to be lumped together in a category reserved for so-called faith-based entertainments. “Money Matters,” though, wouldn’t be welcome in most bible-study classes in that it contains raw language, partial nudity and real-world problems that can’t necessarily be cured solely by prayer. And when the girl discovers who her father is, it isn’t clear if Richmond is exploiting actual events or offering a meaningful solution for two women in a world of hurt. By the time this happens, though, we’ve bought into Money’s story and hope she’ll be smart enough to use every means at her disposal to grow into womanhood unscarred by childhood. — Gary Dretzka

In Evan Glodell’s nihilistic portrayal of American slacker culture, it’s amazing the characters have the energy and desire to get out of bed each day. They certainly lack the enthusiasm it would take to apply for the one or two jobs available to young people today or to join the armed forces, where they can kill people and blow stuff up without fear of getting arrested for having a good time. We’ve met such characters before, in “Alpha Dog” and “River’s Edge,” and pray that people like them never move into a house next to us. In “Bellflower,” two young men dream of living in a “Mad Max” world, where people will judge them solely for their cool cars, cool guns and flamethrowers, and cool willingness to beat the crap out of anyone who doesn’t think they’re cool. In this teenage wasteland, girlfriends exist primarily to make their men feel cooler than they are and pretend to crave sex as much as boys do. If a gal breaks up with a guy before he breaks up with her, the slight could result in a lingering state of depression and/or a desire to commit murder.

In the making-of featurette, we’re told that “Bellflower” is a movie about how some people deal with broken hearts. It helps explain why the guys here invest their true feelings in cars, guns and tools. The object of bro-mance in this case is a souped-up 1960s muscle car with flame-throwing exhaust pipes and a constant need for TLC. When the apocalypse happens, the Medusa will lead its owners (Glodell, Tyler Dawson) to some remote encampment where other surviving gearheads have gathered to hunt for fuel depots and tell each other how cool their cars are. Someone, they have convinced themselves that this variation on Charles Manson’s Helter-Skelter dream is a real possibility. If so, I suspect they’ll find the characters from “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “Gone in 60 Seconds” there racing for pink slips, as well. Lest my comments make it sound as if “Bellflower” is a loud waste of time, it isn’t. Made on a budget estimated to be less than the cost of building the Medusa – a car that does in real life what is shown on film — it is fully engrossing and entertaining in a down-and-dirty, do-it-yourself, indie grindhouse sort of way. The Impressionistic camerawork approximates what it must be like to go through life in a constant, beer-induced haze and the acting is as good as it has to be … especially that of Jessie Wiseman, the blond girlfriend who takes most of the abuse in “Bellflower.” The making-of featurettes are essential viewing for anyone who enjoys the movie. Considering how personal a project “Bellflower” was for everyone involved, I’m anxious to see what Glodell & Co. will do next. – Gary Dretzka

An Injury to One
Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie

Between dodging tear-gas canisters and keeping their tents habitable, I don’t know how the Occupy activists spend their idle hours. We’re told by the media that some of their time is spent smoking pot, making music and finding unoccupied bathrooms and Porta-Potties. It sounds like what happens outside the Chinese Theater whenever there’s a new episode of “Star Wars” and “Twilight.” In the last two months, alone, I’ve watched enough good documentaries to think an Occupy Film Festival could be organized and – thanks to the portability of DVDs and digital projection hardware – be passed from laptop to laptop, tent to tent and city to city, within hours. Although any such activity would qualify as preaching to the choir, it’s important for true believers to remain motivated, inspired and educated. That was the mission of the filmmakers who contributed to the “Why We Fight” series, during World War II. Apart from some government-dictated propaganda and ethnic stereotypes, the films made a convincing case against isolationism and for sending our soldiers to places most people didn’t know existed. Made in 2002, “An Injury to One” would remind protesters of a time when industrialists were free to hire thugs to break up strikes and eliminate union activists with deadly force. One telegram to a governor or senator could result in the deployment of soldiers to keep strikers at bay and get pro-industry legislation passed. The protesters’ rhetoric may have been heard in big cities, far away, but closer to home their arguments were stifled by editors employed by the mine and factory owners who also owned the local newspapers. Compared to what happened in Butte, Montana, less than 100 years ago, the recent skirmishes in the streets of Oakland, Portland, Denver and Manhattan were rehearsals for “Dancing With the Stars.” Travis Wilkerson’s Impressionistic documentary describes how mine owners conspired, first, to neutralize and dismantle the Industrial Workers of the World and, later, completely reverse gains made decades earlier in wages and benefits. The film also describes the brutal measures employed by mine owners and private security firms to permanently silence Frank Little, a half-white, half-Cherokee organizer for the IWW. Cast in the same mold as the late, lamented Joe Hill, Little stood up to Anaconda Mining, which literally was getting away with murder in its mines. One night, though, he was dragged out of bed and lynched. A note attached to his body bore the numbers 3, 7, 77 (the feet-and-inches dimensions of a Montana grave). No one was prosecuted, even after Pinkerton operative Dashiell Hammett – his novel, “Red Harvest,” recalled his time in Butte — admitted he was offered a small fortune to murder Little.

Former Butte resident Wilkerson makes his points in interesting ways. Instead of banging viewers over the head with dramatizations or emotionally charged narration, he lays words over landscapes and amplifies them with atmospheric music. He then divides interviews with voiceover narration and archival newspaper clippings, photographs and graphics. Moving on from 1917, which was the height of mining activity, to the 1950s, the documentary skips forward to the 1950s, when pit mining began. Wilkerson recounts how Anaconda continued to ignore evidence of pollution and other environmental damage so severe and obvious that Butte was designated a Superfund site. ARCO purchased Anaconda in 1977, but the drop in price for metals caused it to close the pits.  The mile-long, half-mile-wide and 1,780-feet-deep Berkeley Pit was abandoned in 1982 and, ever since, has been filling up with water contaminated by poisonous metals and chemicals. The lake’s toxicity made headlines when, in 1995, flocks of migrating geese became confused by a storm and landed in it. .Very soon thereafter, the carcasses of 342 geese were discovered. ARCO attempted to divert the blame, but necropsies showed the deadly presence of copper, arsenic and cadmium in their systems. Clearly, then, the battle against corporate greed and malfeasance didn’t begin last month with the occupation of a park on Wall Street and it won’t end with an uptick in the economy. A poisonous lake in Montana is proof of that.

There are many moments in “Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie” that will have flower children of a certain age wincing with recognition and it’s not just because of the tie-dye fashions, peace fingers and chanting. Some will mourn their lost youth and missed opportunities, while others will wonder how they possibly could have voted for George Bush … twice. Born Hugh Romney, Wavy Gravy was then and still is the clown prince of the counterculture, anti-war and pro-love movements. For more than a half-century, the poet/activist/clown has been supporting progressive causes, feeding hungry people, performing good deeds and making people smile, sometimes simultaneously. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Hog Farm residents had gassed up their psychedelic bus and driven to the nearest Occupy site in support of the protesters, just as they had at Woodstock and countless anti-war rallies. For his troubles, Wavy has been beaten by police so severely it required being put in a body cast. There’s nothing a cop hates as much as a non-violent clown. Today, he still dons colorful costumes to entertain kids at his circus and performing-arts camp in Laytonville, California, and benefit the international health foundation, Seva, which he founded with Dr. Larry Brilliant and Ram Dass. “Saint Misbehaving” is a mostly glowing chronicle of Wavy’s life and times, from his days spent reading poetry in Greenwich Village cafes and hanging out with such luminaries as Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan, through daily life at the Hog Farm with friends and wife, Jahanara.  At 75, he’s still spry and not at all embarrassed to be interviewed with a red bulb on his nose. The DVD adds lots more interview material deleted from the documentary. – Gary Dretzka

History: WWII in HD: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

It’s odd to recall just how much the success of cable television is owed to the people who documented our 20th Century wars. At a time when programming executives literally counted every penny at their disposal, footage held in the public domain and taxpayer-supported museums, libraries and archives was continually repurposed to suit the needs of dozens of documentaries. Some nights the shows on History and A&E – each dubbed at various times as the Hitler Channel — were the most compelling options available to viewers looking for relief from the mediocre shows available to them on the broadcast networks. The ratings weren’t huge, but they didn’t have to be. How, after more than 60 years, is it then possible that unseen war footage is still being discovered? Good question. The latest great cache of films to be discovered included original color footage taken on the battlefields, beachheads, encampments and skies above German- and Japanese-held territories. For Americans who came of ticket-buying age in the 1940-50s, color added a dimension of reality missing in earlier pictures. Documentary and newsreel producers waited until it became affordable to make the switch. Indeed, much of the color footage revealed in History’s “WWII in Color” series rivaled that of the gung-ho movies being churned out by Hollywood in the post-war era. It would take another 50-plus years for most viewers and war buffs, however, to see it. The material, we’re told, was discovered in a far-flung search that took two years to complete. Its historical significance was further enhanced by the decision made by cable-television and DVD programmers to include extremely graphic and previously censored combat images in their presentations. It included haunting footage of dead and dying soldiers, taken on both sides of the front lines; desperate attempts to mend the wounded in field hospitals; Japanese soldiers committing suicide on Saipan, rather than surrender; emaciated children, left abandoned or orphaned by their parents; leprous survivors of Japanese occupation in Okinawa, and refugees mistakenly attacked there by American troops; and the complete and utter destruction of once-thriving cities. Such films demand to be seen by the citizens of any nation willing to send men and women to war, especially for dubious political, religious and economic reasons. Instead, government and broadcast censors continue to filter images from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – flagged coffins, even – for tender American eyes.

High-definition adds an “immersive” sheen to the material already shown in color, but not always to the degree casual viewers might notice it. What is clear, however, is that the images are cleaner and less affected by visual artifacts. “WWII in HD” is further enhanced by the first-hand testimony of a dozen veterans – soldiers, nurses and combat reporters, alike – who wrote eloquently about their experiences in letters written home, books and other accounts. In some cases, the combat footage, recollections and narrated text dovetail each other, adding an even more dramatic edge to the films. The four-disc, 605-minute presentation includes the feature-length “WWII in HD” specials, “The Battle for Iwo Jima” and “The Air War”; profiles of the men and women interviewed; and behind-the-scenes featurettes, “Finding the Footage” and “Preserving the Footage.” If such documentary material were made available to Americans concerned about our involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places where our soldiers are committed, the wars might have ended wars ago. – Gary Dretzka

It Takes a Thief: The Complete Series
Farscape: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Being Human: The Complete First Season
History: American Restoration: Volume 1
Half Pint Brawlers: Season 1
Nature: Jungle Eagle: Blu-ray

By the time “It Takes a Thief” debuted on ABC, in 1968, TV audiences had tired of watching make-believe spies and other James Bond clones. It explains why the show’s writers kept reminding viewers that Robert Wagner’s suave Alexander Munday was a thief, not a spy, even though he reported to a secret American intelligence agency known as SIA. Munday’s was rescued from prison by SIA honcho Noah Bain (Malachi Throne), the man who had captured the masterful cat burglar and understood how such skills could be used to benefit the country. The ruse included putting Munday under house arrest in an estate guarded by several beautiful women who knew jiu-jitsu and whose rooms were monitored by video cameras. The women agents were no match for the thief’s charm, however, and the cameras could have been neutralized by a naughty child. No matter, Bain kept Munday’s get-out-of-jail-free card in his pocket and convinced his new agent that he was just nasty enough to revoke it, if necessary. There was no mistaking Munday’s roots, though, Like Sean Connery and Cary Grant, Wagner looked as formidable in a tuxedo as he did in the uniform of a cat burglar. Like the agents on “Mission:Impossible,” Munday had more disguises at his disposal than Macy’s at Halloween. The only real drawbacks to the series were the cheeseball sets and lame fight scenes required by tight television budgets.

The 18-disc boxed set opens with “Magnificent Thief,” written by the show’s creator, Roland Kibbee, and directed by Leslie Stevens. It is the feature-length version of the pilot episode, “A Thief Is a Thief Is a Thief,” which was re-made for distribution overseas. In the next 2½ years, the show would lose much of the sharp edge built into it during Season One. Munday would be allowed to freelance his talents more often and not live under the cloud of a parole revocation. The biggest change came in 1969, when Fred Astaire joined the cast as Munday’s even more criminally skillful father. Although the two men sparked occasionally over unsettled personal issues, they made a formidable team. “It Takes a Thief” represented Wagner’s first foray into series television and most of his characters since then have shared Munday’s same easy-going charm and classy wardrobe. The DVD set also includes digitally re-mastered versions of all 66 episodes; “The King of Thieves: Interview with Robert Wagner” and “A Matter of Larceny: Interview with Glen A. Larson”; a limited-edition Senitype (reproduced 35mm film frame); a themed four-piece coaster set; and a collectible booklet with retrospective essay.

Anyone wondering what Jim Henson Productions was doing over the last decade, while its ownership was being tossed around like a hot potato, might want to check out “Farscape: The Complete Series.” (Rights to the Muppets now are owned by Walt Disney Co., which is releasing the new feature-length “The Muppets.”) The science-fiction series, which combined live-action with puppetry, prosthetic effects and CGI, was shot in Australia and could be seen on the BBC and the Sci-Fi Channel between 1999 and 2003. Its abrupt cancellation resulted in the three-hour mini-series “Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars,” a year later. At the time, the cable and broadcast networks were overflowing with sci-fi and fantasy programming, and the cult following for “Farscape” wasn’t sufficiently powerful to pay the bills for all the special effects. The series resembles “Dr. Who” and various “Star Trek” wannabes in that its lead character, John Crichton (Ben Browder), is an astronaut, who, after being sucked through a wormhole, becomes an intergalactic refugee abroad the spaceship Moya. The passengers remained on the run from the militaristic Peacekeepers for the whole time. All along, Crichton seemed as strange to his fellow aliens as they did to him. The Blu-ray presentation probably could look better, but fans won’t be disappointed by the impressive collection of bonus features. They include all 88 episodes of the series; more than a half-dozen making-of featurettes; 31 audio commentaries; deleted scenes, director’s-cut scenes and an alternate version of the Season 2 premiere; video profiles and behind-the-scenes interviews with the characters, cast and creative team; and original marketing material. “The Peacekeepers Wars” has yet to be given the hi-def makeover.

Last year, Syfy adapted the imaginative British series “Being Human” for American audiences that may or may not have caught the original on BBC America.  Generally, speaking I’m not a big fan of such transplants, but it fits pretty well on Syfy, whose shows aren’t blessed with the same budgets and marketing strength of the BBC.  The premise remains the same, however. Three young and attractive roommates share something besides doing dishes and vacuuming the floors. Theoretically, none of them exists. Aidan (Sam Witwer) is a vampire; Sally is a ghost (Meaghan Rath); and Josh (Sam Huntington) is a werewolf. Such pairings couldn’t work, even in the spiritual realm, of course. On TV, such rules don’t apply. If Dexter Morgan can be a cop and a serial killer simultaneously, and talk to his dead father and brother, what’s to prevent a ghost, werewolf and vampire from cohabitating? Together and individually, the trio not only is required to deal with naturally fearful humans, but also enemies from their own species. Bonus features include “The Making of Being Human,”  “What Would You Choose?” interview with cast members and material from San Diego Comic-Con. The show’s new season begins in January and the BBC’s third season package already in available in DVD and Blu-ray.

In History’s “American Restoration,” viewers follow Rick Dale and his crew of fixer-uppers – the less-classy word for “restoration artists” – as they scour the west for potentially valuable junk and antiques in need of a makeover. It’s not the most original concept for a reality show, but there’s always something fascinating in watching alchemists at work. The show began as a spinoff from “Pawn Stars,” also set in Las Vegas. The pawn shop’s owners frequently turn to Rick’s Restorations to see if a particular item is salvageable and therefore valuable beyond the cost of an expired pawn ticket. In turn, Rick’s gang endeavors to find original parts or blueprints to construct new ones. In Season One, they cleaned the rust off a ’40s-vintage gas pump and Hopalong Cassidy bicycle and golf cart from the 1950s. Being Las Vegas, plenty of slot machines have come through their doors, as well. “American Restoration,” like so many other such shows, accentuates the family-business theme.

How much one enjoys “Half Pint Brawlers,” which aired on Spike, depends mightily on how far across the grain of politically correct America one is willing to cut. The title and company of the same name, of course, refers to the time-honored non-sport of “midget wrestling.” Activists from Little People of America have routinely protested the frequent use of the word, “midget,” at Brawlers activities and, naturally, the bottom-feeders at TMZ have exploited the “controversy” for whatever ratings value it might have. The Brawlers will accept all the free media attention they can muster, thank you very much. The natural appeal of watching smallish people throwing each other around a ring is enhanced by adding the same degree of difficulty associated with “Jackass” movies. As such, the potential for real harm is heightened exponentially. It’s more fun to watch the wrestlers misbehave at venues and in hotel rooms. The troupe’s owner, Puppet “The Psycho Dwarf,” is required to keep the billable damage to a minimum and deflect the flack shot at them by do-gooders, some of whom have been able to get their fights banned and canceled.

Venezuela’s Orinoco River basin not only is one of the most remote and spectacularly beautiful regions on Earth, but it also is home to many rarely seen animal species. In “Jungle Eagle,” the cameras of PBS’ “Nature” tag along with wildlife filmmaker Fergus Beeley as he leads a team of cameramen to the high-canopy forest to learn everything they can about harpy eagles. Beeley considers the harpy eagle to be the most powerful bird of prey in the world, and one of the least observed. Imagine a bird that captures monkeys and sloths on the wing and returns with them to the nest for the nourishment and amusement of the chicks. As we can see, too, the eagles aren’t at all reluctant to attack humans climbing trees to camera positions aloft. It’s a fascinating documentary. If you’re repulsed by the thought of a bird dining on monkey meat, consider that the capuchin would happily return the favor if given an opportunity to devour a chick. Among other threats are vultures, army ants and lethal flies. – Gary Dretzka

The Littlest Angel
Dora the Explorer: Dora Celebrates Three-Pack
Spongebob Squarepants: Holidays With Spongebob

My pile of animated holiday-themed DVDs is topped by “The Littlest Angel,” which is adapted from the immensely popular children’s book, published in 1946, by Charles Tazewell. It is the story of a wee lad, born in Old Testament times, who dies too early in life and arrives at the pearly gates without anything to keep his mind and hands occupied. Even then, the median age in the kingdom is much higher than 5, so there aren’t many kid angels around with whom he can hang out. Lonely and more than a little bit antsy – this is paradise? – our little angel convinces a sympathetic elder to let him return home briefly to recover some of his treasured possessions. When he learns that Baby Jesus is about to be born, he humbly asks God if he can give his box to him as a present, which the deity magically transforms into the Star of Bethlehem. I’m not sure the theology is 100 percent correct, but it’s a story younger children have enjoyed hearing read to read them for more than 50 years. I find it interesting that “Sons of Anarchy” star Ron Perelman was chosen to be the voice of God. It is 83-minutes long, but the CGI animation makes it seem shorter.

Two new collections from Nickelodeon take advantage of the season with hours of babysitting-safe entertainment in gift-ready boxes. “Celebrate With Dora” includes “Dora’s Christmas,” “Dora’s Halloween” and “Dora’s Big Birthday Adventure,” which measure 295 minutes in total.

Holidays With SpongeBob” weighs in at the same length. It is comprised of the 2011 edition of “SpongeBob SquarePants Halloween,” the 2008 “SpongeBob SquarePants Halloween” and the Valentine’s Day compilation, “To Love a Patty.” As is the case with any Nickelodeon is worth checking out ahead of time if your child already has the episodes contained therein. – Gary Dretzka

Assassin’s Creed: Lineage: Blu-ray
Mortal Kombat: Legacy: Blu-ray
Red vs. Blue: Season 9

OK, now I get it. I’ve seen several movies lately in which everyday people who don’t simply impersonate superheroes – “Kick-Ass,” “Defendor,” “Super,” “Special” – they actually believe they can prevent crimes and vanquish villains. Why now, I wondered? Turns out there really are people out there who believe they are caped crusaders and masked marvels. Michael Barnett’s documentary, “Superheroes,” introduces us to several such wannabes, who routinely swap personae, crossing the line from mild-mannered civilians to amateur crimefighters in home-stitched costumes and with names like Mr. Xtreme, Dark Guardian, Vigilante-Spider and the four-person New York Initiative. Apparently, there are 300 such posers in the United States and they’re deadly serious about what they do. The DVD includes deleted scenes.

Here’s another new one on me. The 2009 film “Assassin’s Creed: Lineage,” newly released in Blu-ray, is the prequel to a series of three video games set in 15th Century Italy. The movie apparently was made to promote the games, which expand on a conspiracy that leads to the death of the Duke of Milan and spreads through the country’s ruling families and the Vatican. Assassin Giovanni Auditore is hired to investigate the crime, but soon finds himself in the position of being stalked. Not having attempted the video game, I’m unclear as to where the intrigue in the dark and mysterious prequel leads. The Blu-ray adds more than 90 minutes of bonus material, including “Assassin’s Creed: Ascendance” and developer diaries.

Mortal Kombat: Legacy” is the Blu-ray byproduct of a dream that became reality for Kevin Tancharoen, whose love for the video-game franchise spawned this collection of nine Internet shorts. They expand on characters and storylines familiar to diehard fans, while also providing plenty of ferocious action. They also could contribute to the effort to create a “Mortal Kombat” feature film. The Blu-ray also comes with five featurettes that delve deeper into the MK mythology: “Fight,” “Fan Made,” “Expanding the Netherrealm,” “Mysticism” and “Gear.”

Red vs. Blue” is another spinoff of a video game, this one Xbox’s “Halo.” The ninth season existed as a sequel to “Revelation” and precursor to “The Blood Gulch Chronicles,” a fact fans will understand, but continues to baffle me. Here, we’re alerted to the creation of Project Freelancer, an experimental military program designed to to create a new breed of warrior. Bonus features include director’s commentary; special videos and PSAs; outtakes and deleted scenes; cast interviews; and behind-the-scenes videos. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Harry Potter, Better Tomorrow, Atlas Shrugged, Identification of a Woman, In a Glass Cage, Blue Velvet, Sleeping Beauty …

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2: Blu-ray
Any attempt to provide a concise synopsis of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,” would require spoiling surprises that have been gestating for 14 years. Longtime fans of the amazing series of movies and books probably will have already seen the finale, however, and anyone foolish enough to have leaped into the franchise at this late date knows they picked the wrong place to start. “Part 2” begins at a secluded beach house, where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are licking their wounds and plotting their return to Hogwarts and the bespectacled wizard’s foretold destiny. It’s not a pretty picture. Having stolen the Elder Wand from Dumbledore’s grave, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) knows that the only thing standing between him and immortality is his soul brother, Harry. Before they’re able to settle that score, however, Harry and his pals are required to sneak back into Hogwarts – via Gringotts Bank – and liberate the trapped students from the terrifying reign of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). Even if such a thing is possible, Harry would still be faced with locating and destroying Voldemort’s sources of strength and power.

Needless to say, 90 percent of “Part 2” is dedicated to settling scores and intense skirmishes between human and mystical demons. It’s all tremendously exciting, especially in wall-to-wall Blu-ray. What surprised me most, however, is the degree to which “Part 2” reflects New Testament theology (mythology?) and prophesies. It’s almost too obvious. If the End Times angle had come earlier in the series – maybe I missed it – the focus of the series might necessarily have drifted into rougher water, diverting the attention of less tolerant viewers. This way, though, author J.K. Rowling, director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have provided themselves with an escape route that is in keeping with the scope and scale of the drama. Everything about this series of books and movies has been classy, as befits an enterprise valued at a cool $15 billion and counting. In hindsight, it’s bewildering how little respect the Motion Picture Academy has shown “Harry Potter.” With 10 slots open again this year, and no real frontrunners in view, it would be a crime if it weren’t finally nominated for Best Picture, at least. Then, too, there are the many superb British actors who’ve lent their support and return for a final bow in the finale. Besides the headliners, they’ve included Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, David Thewlis, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Gambon, Warwick Davis (Filius Flitwick), Ciaran Hinds, Kelly Macdonald, John Hurt, Miriam Margolyes, Julie Walters, Gemma Jones, Robbie Coltrane and Gary Oldman. That’s like having all of the great New York Yankee players show up for one final all-star game. If the epilogue opens itself up to debate and conjecture – as well as a possible extension of the franchise – that’s also a good thing. In addition to the DVD disc and digital copy, the Blu-ray adds a separate disc’s worth of hi-def bonus features, as well. Among them are deleted scenes; a 53-minute “conversation” between Rowling and Radcliffe; the featurettes, “The Women of ‘Harry Potter’” and “The Goblins of Gringotts”; a tour of Warner Bros.’ London studio; an introduction to “Pottermore,” by Rowling; and BD-Live Functionality. In addition to the movie, the first disc contains Maximum Movie Mode, with picture-in-picture background material; making-of “focus points”; and “final farewells” by cast and crew members. The 3D editions of “Part 1” and “Part 2” are only available here in packages “bundled” with Sony hardware. – Gary Dretzka


A Better Tomorrow: Bluray
In John Woo’s landmark 1986 gangster drama of the same title, estranged Hong Kong brothers exist on opposite sides of the law. The older one is a high-ranking mobster specializing in counterfeiting, while the other is a police officer largely unaware of his sibling’s past. After the mobster is set up and arrested, he vows to go straight. Circumstances, however, won’t allow him to sever his ties to friends still in the criminal world or reconnect with his younger brother, who’s been denied advancement because of the sins of his brother. He also blames him for the death of their father. A final confrontation tests the binds of family loyalty, as well as the limits of resentment for past sins. Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow” is considered the granddaddy of all modern Hong Kong crime dramas.

In the 2010 adaptation of the story, the older-brother character has escaped from North Korea two steps ahead of the military police. Not as fortunate, a younger sibling is tortured and their mother is killed. They meet again several years later in Busan, South Korea, after the younger brother – now an international gun runner – is arrested and the older one is brought in to identify him. Although their reunion is tense, they eventually enter into a tentative truce with each other. That, however, only lasts until the young brother is left behind at a shootout with rival hoodlums, albeit with a suitcase full of money in his hands. Trust has to be re-established before the brothers can reconcile and, inexplicably, and attempt to return to North Korea. Before they can accomplish that task, however, they are required to run a gauntlet between heavily armed cops and gangsters with scores to settle. What the second “A Better Tomorrow” lacks in narrative logic, it makes up for in bloodshed and hot lead. The critical consensus is that Hae-sung Song’s adaptation can’t hold a candle to the original, but it didn’t stop Woo from signing on as executive producer. If nothing else, the action is well choreographed and the cinematography is excellent. Purists may not be happy with the results, but those new to the story won’t carry the same critical baggage into it. After all, when is the last time you saw a movie in which anyone actually manages to escape into North Korea … let alone attempts to sneak back into it? It arrives in Blu-ray with cast interviews, a piece on the differences between both movies and an interview with Woo. – Gary Dretzka


Atlas Shrugged, Part 1
One of Hollywood’s popular legends holds that Ayn Rand’s perennial best-seller was such a hot commodity in the 1970s that Albert S. Ruddy, producer of “The Godfather,” spent years trying to turn it into a movie and had interested Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway in joining him. If only … The version of “Atlas Shrugged” that finally did find its way to the big screen this summer may as well have been adapted from a Classics Illustrated version of the novel. The script is greatly undernourished and it’s possible the actors were cast because they’d work for peanuts … real peanuts, not money. The timing of the movie’s release didn’t help much, either. Adherents of Rand’s philosophy of objectivism and survival-of-the-fittest theories have given us the greatest economic calamity in 80 years and a collection of Republican presidential candidates who collectively couldn’t beat a chimp on “Jeopardy!” The movie, which was supposed to have been delivered in three separate episodes, imagines how our nation might look if industrialists were forbidden from maximizing their ability to run their businesses the way they see fit. The year is 2016, but we already know how the cumulative effects of de-regulation have served to eliminate jobs in all sectors of the American economy and encourage already profitable companies from leaving for the greener pastures of Mexico, China, Vietnam and Malaysia, where child-labor laws aren’t enforced and the minimum wage borders on zero.

Somehow, too, the breaking point for the industrialists in “Atlas Shrugged, Part 1” arrives in the form of government regulation of the railroads and an unwillingness to rein in unions. Again, as if … If Americans ever needed a national mass-transit system that included bullet trains, it’s now, and no one would stand in the way of someone hoping to profit from it, either. Lest we forget, the only way the cross-country rail lines were completed in the 19th Century was by giving away vast swaths of land to the robber barons and allowing them to call the shots on it. When it came time to upgrade the system, however, the same men decided that inventing in the future was for chumps. Anyway, with the United States still on brink of collapse, railroad heir Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) and steel magnate Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler) want to join forces to forge and install rails – already in place in most nations – so efficient that liberals and unions want to block their implementation. What? If this is an accurate representation of Rand’s greatest fears, it’s a good thing she didn’t live to see how our country has fared under the inspired leadership of her clones. I wouldn’t bet on the likelihood of all three films in the series ever seeing the light of day, at least in theaters. John Galt wasn’t expected to arrive until Part 3 and he’s the real star of the show. The Blu-ray set adds “Road to Atlas Shrugged,” “I Am John Galt,” a Galt-themed slideshow and commentary with writers John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O’Toole, and producer Harmon Kaslow. – Gary Dretzka

Identification of a Woman: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Crime of Love

Of all the foreign directors who found audiences here in the 1960s, Michelangelo Antonioni may have been the most difficult for Americans to embrace. Then, as now, most Americans would prefer to stay home and watch paint dry than be asked to contemplate the alienation of man in the modern world or the effects of institutionalized ennui on contemporary society. “Blow Up” did well here, if only because we’d already been introduced to Swinging London through Beatle-mania; the musical soundtrack was an appealing blend of jazz and rock; and the sex scenes were far more revealing than anything we’d seen previously. The music and Death Valley scenery were terrific in “Zabriskie Point,” but it completely missed the point of American radical politics and the motivations of its adherents. Still, for buffs, Antonioni continually offered more intriguing challenges and sensory pleasures than a multiplex full of more commercially popular directors, here and abroad. Like most arthouse titles, “Identification of a Woman” lived and died with the approval of certain key critics. A pan by the New York Times’ Vincent Canby after a 1982 festival screening caused distributors to panic and drop the movie, so it didn’t get even a limited release here until 1996.

Tomas Milian plays Niccolo, an Italian movie director of some prominence who has just been dumped by his wife and suddenly finds himself at loose ends. He’s struggling to come up with an idea for his next movie, but gets sidetracked by the attentions of two extremely beautiful and sexually demanding women. Through them, he’s introduced to social milieus that are foreign to him, yet seem to whet his imagination. Instead of pursuing his first idea of a movie about relationships with women, he becomes infatuated with a bizarre sci-fi conceit. “Identification of a Woman” may be best known for a set piece in which Niccolo drives far too recklessly into a thick bank of fog. He had been arguing with his lover at the time and fears he’s being followed by someone who is stalking one or both of them. Gunshots are heard, trucks pass dangerously close to his car and no one seems to know how to escape this surreal environment. Later, Niccolo takes her to a similarly enigmatic place: a vast lagoon outside Venice’s Grand Canal. “Identification of a Woman” is beautifully shot and highly erotic. It’s challenging, of course, but not difficult to find a handle to grasp. The Blu-ray set includes a booklet featuring an essay by critic John Powers and a reprinted 1982 interview with Antonioni by critic Gideon Bachmann. I missed not having a commentary track, though.

Made in the early 1970s, “Crime of Love” (“Delitto d’Amore”) is only now being shown in this country, thanks to an attractive digital restoration and hi-def transfer by RaroVideo. Sexy Italian farces were popular here at the time, but Luigi Comencini’s mix of romantic comedy and politically charged drama would have been a hard sell. The male protagonist is a self-professed anarchist and union leader, while the female lead is an immigrant in her own country. They’re introduced to us and each other as they cross paths at the time clocks of a Milanese factory between shifts. Even though there’s an obvious spark between the co-workers, Carmela plays hard to get with Nullo, who she accuses of being a notorious womanizer. She does gives in to her desires finally, but there’s still something holding her back from commitment. What she knows and Nullo can’t grasp is that a young woman from “the south” could never feel entirely comfortable with a man of “the north.” Traditionally, the interests of her Sicilian family always would have to come first and prejudices against southern Italians in Milan would naturally lead to larger problems. At first, their cultural differences are shown in a comic light – the fiery, undisciplined Sicilian vs. the more regimented Lombardian – but, before long, the economic realities faced by immigrant workers take precedence. The Sicilian women are assigned the worst jobs in the factory, constantly breathing toxic fumes, and eventually it takes its toll.

Carmella is staunchly Roman Catholic in her beliefs and, as such, already is tempting fate by engaging in sex outside marriage. Once Nullo convinces her of his interest in being married, she insists on doing so before a priest. Nullo’s politics are his religion and he refuses to be married in a church. She tests his allegiance by pretending to leave Milan for Sicily, with potatoes in her suitcase instead of clothes. Unbeknownst to Nullo, Carmela has also developed a work-related illness that threatens her life. Before he can inform Carmella of his decision to allow a “Marxist priest” to perform the ceremony, she disappears again. This time, however, she’s hiding a much sadder reality. The company hadn’t supplied the workers with the necessary safety equipment and she developed a fatal illness. The house doctor had essentially put a Band-Aid on a problem that required surgery. Once Nullo finally tracks Carmella down, she’s too weak to say “no” to marriage.

Viewed from a distance of 35 years, “Crime of Love” doesn’t seem all that foreign. Workers have it rough all over and prejudice is as great a problem today as it was in the ’70s, maybe worse. Then, too, it would be easy to recommend the movie simply on the basis of the physical attributes of the lead actors. Still active today, Stefania Sandrelli is uncommonly gorgeous and entirely sympathetic as the doomed Carmela, while, as Nullo, Giuliano Gemma is both extremely handsome and a gentleman. The DVD is accompanied by an interview with film historian Adriano Apra and illustrated booklet. – Gary Dretzka


In a Glass Cage: Blu-ray
Blue Velvet: Blu-ray

If anyone needed any concrete evidence of the existence of monsters and unimaginable horrors in our midst, it was provided by Adolph Hitler and the men and women who prospered under his evil reign. And, while it’s easy to blame many of the atrocities on pea-brained bumpkins and bigots who claimed they were merely following orders, what excuse could the physicians and academics have had for carrying out the most heinous experiments ever perpetrated in the name of science. Curiosity? Sadism? Fear? Privilege? As “In a Glass Cage” opens, a man flogs the corpse of teenage boy in an exercise in sexual gratification. It’s so utterly grotesque, we feel no pity for the perpetrator in the next scene, as he lays face-up in an iron lung, incapable of wiping his own ass. After a teenage boy arrives at the villa, declaring himself to be the man’s nurse and care-provider, it isn’t long before we learn that the patient is a fugitive Nazi doctor who experimented on children in the death camps. When alone with the fiend, the boy reads to him from his journals, which describe procedures the old man can’t bear recalling. It’s now safe to assume that the boy had witnessed the earlier beatings and stolen the doctor’s diaries after he fell off the villa’s roof, leaving him a paraplegic. The sight must have fried the kid’s brain, because he’s grown into a full-blown sadist who gets off on re-creating the same sick experiments on other kids and forcing the doctor to watch them in the reflection of a mirror. Director Agusti Villaronga argues that repeated exposure to violence and perversity can numb the emotions of witnesses and victims to the point where they can’t help but follow suit. As the boy becomes friendly with the doctor’s pre-teen daughter, she, too, becomes a willing participant. Made in 1987, “In a Glass Cage” is still capable of provoking extreme responses in viewers. Alternately fascinating and disgusting, it is the work of a filmmaker who isn’t reluctant to ask viewers how they might react in similar circumstances or at the point of a gun. It comes with a festival Q&A with the director and three completely bizarre short films.

No stranger to arthouse horror himself, David Lynch has been playing with people’s minds ever since “Eraserhead” became a midnight-movie favorite in 1977. “Blue Velvet” may not fit the common definition of a genre film, but all of its ingredients say it is. In the 1986 psycho-drama, Lynch demanded of his fans that they look below the surface of their sodded suburban lawns – or behind the shiny, happy faces of their neighbors — to find the monstrous things hiding in plain sight. Here, of course, it was a severed ear that provided the catalyst for so much intrigue and insane behavior in Lumberton. Twenty-five years later, “Blue Velvet” hasn’t lost any of its power to disturb viewers. The excellent Blu-ray upgrade was supervised by Lynch and perfectly complements the bonus package, which includes a standard-definition retrospective, “Mysteries of Love”; a few outtakes; a 1986 review on “Siskel and Ebert: At the Movies”; a few short “vignettes,” with interviews; and 52 minutes of “newly discovered lost footage,” with even more cool Lynchian stuff. – Gary Dretzka


Not Another B Movie
Lust for Vengeance: 10th Anniversary Edition
The Teacher

We’ve seen plenty of movies about the process of making movies, some of which are instructive and entertaining. Most represent little more than a couple of hours of killed time.
John Wesley Norton’s “Not Another B Movie” may be of the latter variety, but it does contain a few redeeming qualities, at least. Basically, a writer, director, producer and star get together at a local watering hole to kick around ideas for a genre picture. The writer, who stands behind every word in his script, is required to listen to the philistines add and subtract characters, demand more gore and T&A, and edit the storyline beyond any recognition. Considering the nature of the horror game these days, however, their ideas are probably sounder than his. In addition to a cast of newcomers, “Not Another B Movie” boasts such familiar (barely) names as Ed Asner, Joe Estevez, Erin Moran, Robert Z’Dar, Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman, David Faustino and Al Capone’s grandnephew, Dominic. For my money, though, the movie’s marquee attraction is Larry Thomas, who will forever be known for playing the “Soup Nazi,” in “Seinfeld.” The making-of material is better than movie.

ThanksKilling” is another DIY effort that proves just how difficult it is to make a movie that’s so bad it’s good and, therefore, funny. There are several pretty decent gags in Jordan Downey’s twisted holiday comedy, but most viewers over the age of 15 will be embarrassed to admit they laughed at them. The killer turkey is Triumph the Insult Comic Dog with a waddle. As with most such genre parodies, “ThanksKilling” runs out of steam at the halfway mark, causing redundancies and much forced humor. As late-night treat for stoners on Thanksgiving, though, it certainly beats watching reruns of the Macy’s parade and mainlining tryptophan.

Horror auteur Sean Weathers claims “Lust for Vengeance” is the “first and only true giallo film ever made in the U.S. to date.” That boast won’t mean anything to 99 percent of all American moviegoers, but it’s nice that he thinks it’s true. Giallo, “yellow” in Italian, shares the same roots as American pulp. From about 1930 to the mid-’50s, the work of even our best mystery writers was limited to cheap paperbacks with lurid covers. In Italy, the pages of almost all such mysteries were bound within yellow covers, hence the name. Even more than American exploitation specialists, Italian giallo directors amped up the sex, violence and horror, by lingering on displays of nudity, gore and rape. That’s what distinguishes “Lust for Vengeance: 10th Anniversary Edition” from other DIY horror flicks. The story is divided into five separately hued segments, in which a different woman is slaughtered by a guy who felt dissed by them in high school. (The cast is unusually diverse for this sort of thing.) That’s it.

I’m not quite sure why “The Teacher” is being re-released by Cheezy Flicks. The classic exploitation flick from Crown International Pictures was recently included in a collection of cult favorites compiled by Mill Creek Entertainment and it doesn’t look a scratch less threadbare. Neither have the primary reasons for watching Howard Avedis’ film changed: Angel Tompkins as the cougar teacher, Diane; Jay North (a.k.a., Dennis the Menace) as Sean, the horny high school graduate she seduces; and bad-guy actor Anthony James, one of the American cinema’s creepiest fiends. James plays the recently released mental patient, Ralph, who blames Sean for the accidental death of his brother. The teenager fell from a ledge high above the shipping canal where Diane is sunbathing topless in her small boat. Ralph isn’t happy that his voyeur’s nest has been invaded and vows to thwart Sean’s blossoming relationship with Diane. Tragically, for Ralph, he’s too inept to make good on his threats. It’s a crime they don’t make sexploitation pictures like this anymore. – Gary Dretzka


Alleged: Blu-ray
Set against the backdrop of the landmark Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925, “Alleged” is a distinctly faith-based movie that’s more concerned about the personal ethics of its characters than the debate over evolution and creationism. Considering the film’s budget, attempting to re-imagine “Inherit the Wind” for a contemporary Christian audience probably would have been a fruitless exercise. That’s not because the acting talent wasn’t available, because Fred Thompson and Brian Dennehy are excellent in the more familiar roles of William Jennings Bryant and Clarence Darrow, and Colm Meaney makes a credible H.L. Menken. In Tom Hines’ mildly romantic drama, the emphasis is on the fissures that split the relationship of small-town reporter Charles Anderson (Nathan West) and office mate, Rose (Ashley Johnson), to whom he’s engaged. She becomes upset with him after he uses unethical tricks to juice up an already pretty good story. Charles sees the trial as a vehicle to put economically fragile Dayton, Tennessee, back on the map and, not incidentally, a leg up to a job in the big city. For Rose, her fiancé’s behavior raises a red flag. Filmed at Crossroads Village, near Flint, Michigan, “Alleged” looks very much like a 1925-vintage American town. All things considered, the drama and romance fit the small screen pretty well, too. The Blu-ray arrives with a discussion guide for church and home-group study. It attaches scripture to questions raised in the story. – Gary Dretzka


The Sleeping Beauty
It’s safe to say, you won’t find another version of Charles Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty” – or, here, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” – that’s quite so deliberately poetic and sensually provocative as Catherine Breillat’s small gem. Instead of merely describing how the curse that leaves Anastasia comatose affects those around her, the France provocateur imagines what a child of royalty might dream given 100 years of REM sleep. As we know, Anastasia was cursed by an evil fairy at birth to prick her finger at 16 and die. Fortunately, three fairy sisters just happen to be in the neighborhood. They override the curse by ordaining that Anastasia will avoid death by being pricked earlier in her life and slipping into a much longer dream state. She’s allowed to grow older in her dreams, but only in a fragmented sequence of fantastical encounters and under the tutelage of an odd assortment of parent figures. Along the way, she’s also able to fall in love … Breillat-style. At 82 minutes, “The Sleeping Beauty” invites repeated viewing, if only to savor the wonderfully imaginative backdrops. This is the second of three fairytales the director plans to adapt, the first being “Bluebeard.” There is some nudity, but nothing a very sharp teenager would find shocking over over-stimulating. – Gary Dretzka


1 in the Gun

Talk about a tightly focused story, “13” traces the evolution of an underground Russian roulette tournament from the recruitment of a contestant to the finals, after which the winner gets to go home with a bag of money in his hand and the loser is carried out in a bag. If that makes “13” sound as if it’s a rip-off of “The Deer Hunter,” I wouldn’t disagree. Actually, I’m surprised no one’s thought of it before now. The premise is surprisingly simple. Sam steals an envelope intended for a man who dies while he’s doing electrical work in the house. Mysterious instructions cause Sam to hop on a train and get off at a designated location. From there, he’s whisked away to a secluded mansion. There to greet him are several gentlemen of means – Jason Statham, Alexander Skarsgard, 50 Cent, Ben Gazzara — who are confused by his presence. They’re disappointed by the death of the intended guest, but are pleased to learn that the imposter is so desperate for cash that he’ll stand in his place … with a pistol in his hand, pointed at the back of another contestant’s head, and someone else’s gun aimed point-blank at his head. In the first round, more than a dozen men are given one bullet each and told to spin the cylinders. With the flash of a light, they’re instructed simply to shoot. The odds that all of the men could die in the first round are extremely slim, if only because “13” is 97 minutes long and none of the bettors would benefit. Neither would the punters be happy if all of the men survived the first round, after which another betting cycle begins. In the succeeding rounds, survivors are given one more bullet than they had before. Ultimately, two men stand opposite each other with five bullets in their six-shooters. Writer/director Gela Babluani allows us to get to know a few of the contestants – Ray Winstone, Sam Riley, Mickey Rourke – but not well enough to be terribly disappointed if they died. There’s a bit of extracurricular excitement after the final shot, but it feels as if it were tacked on for sentimental value. “13” won’t make anyone forget what happened in “Deer Hunter,” as Saigon braced for the NVA invasion. The raw intensity of referee Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road) makes up for any deficiencies in the script, though.

Rolfe Kanefsky’s psycho-thriller “1 in the Gun” also includes an extended game of Russian roulette, but it’s difficult to tell whether it’s taking place in real life or the Twilight Zone. While I found the movie to be different enough to be entertaining as a novelty, I can easily imagine viewers tuning out when the going gets weird. The movie starts normally enough, when a drifter is hired by a sexy MILF to paint the house she shares with her rich husband and enlists him in a plot to kill the brute. If the drifter had watched a few more noir classics, he’d know not to trust the seductress … and vice-versa. Things get strange when the drifter drives into the desert with a body in his trunk and a suitcase full of money on the bag seat. It isn’t long before he loses both at a crappy motor-court motel/restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The joint is populated with oddball characters who appear to have escaped from a David Lynch movie. Part of the job for viewers is separating fact from fantasy in the drifter’s mind and it ain’t easy. The women we meet in the desert are beyond description.

No one is playing Russian roulette in “Restitution,” but almost everyone involved points a gun at someone else during the course of the movie. It would be easy to dismiss Lance Kawas’ straight-to-DVD flick as a paint-by-numbers thriller, if any of the numbers added up to something credible. If anything, it resembles any number of police dramas that circulated on television during the “Magnum P.I.” era. While it’s always nice to see Mena Suvari in a bikini, co-writer/producer Mark Bierlein makes the rookie mistake of allowing himself to be seriously out-acted in the lead male role by Tom Arnold. For the record, “Restitution” describes a series of drug deals gone bad along the Detroit waterfront and a P.I. who gets caught in the middle of them. – Gary Dretzka


Dirty Pictures
Amazonia: Healing With Sacred Plants

Étienne Sauret’s intriguing documentary, “Dirty Pictures,” locates the exact point at which clinical pharmacology meets the rave community, beyond the ritual ingestion of Ecstasy and into the cluttered makeshift laboratory of its developer, Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin. A onetime corporate chemist employed by Dow, Shulgin was given free rein to explore how molecules interacted and formed useful new compounds. Such pure research on psycho-active substances could have resulted in drugs used to interrogate prisoners of war – Merry Prankster “acid tests” were a byproduct of LSD testing on behalf of the military – or to control mental illness and multiple neuroses. Shulgin, we’re told here, is the scientist behind more than 200 such compounds including MDMA (a.k.a., Esctasy). Historically, Dow Chemical and other major pharmaceutical interests have been far more interested in exploring products that can be exploited for large, continuous profits in medicine, agriculture and times of war than to explore the mysteries of the mind … and, let’s face it, for recreation. Once that happens, of course, politicians, drug-enforcement agents and lobbyists for the medical establishment stumble over themselves to ban anything that might result in enlightenment, culture and/or joy. Once that happens, the unregulated production of such substances is turned over to “cookers” and mad scientists in the employ of biker gangs and mob-connected smugglers.

Unlike Timothy Leary, who feasted on the attention paid to him by the media, Shulgin’s prominence remains within the chemist community and among “heads” who actually pay attention to the compounds they ingest. It’s fun to compare Shulgin’s facilities to those of the more clean-cut and less arbitrarily dressed scientists who testify in his defense in “Dirty Pictures.” Even so, they all speak the same scientific language and can read charts and substance diagrams (“dirty pictures”) the way most of us civilians scan newspaper headlines. By breaking down compounds found in cacti and other plants, they’re discovering how Serotonin, for example, is prevalent throughout nature and why it’s considered to be a “miracle drug” by some psychiatric patients. Some scientists believe, as well, that we’ve only scratched the surface in the hunt for new and more effective anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs. It’s only when such concepts as “empathy,” “love,” “consciousness” and “spirituality” enter the equation that the DEA starts paying attention. Shulgin admits to working “around the edge of the law” and, along with his wife, being his own best guinea pig. “Dirty Pictures” paints a fascinating portrait of a true American explorer, whose knowledge could be used to help people legally and without cultural prejudice.

Anyone old enough to recall the fuss made over Carlos Castenada, the Peruvian-born anthropologist who wrote a series of books describing his training in Yaqui shamanism, will recognize what’s happening in “Amazonia: Healing With Sacred Plants.” Alberto Villoldo is an anthropologist/psychologist/author who has spent more than 25 years studying shamanic healing practices of Amazonian tribes. That jungle tonics, plants and other vegetation have been woefully underutilized in the treatment of common psychological maladies is an inarguable fact of life in American medicine. That some of the plants to which we’re introduced here share things in common with drugs used to treat anxiety and depression – Serotonin, for example – also is indisputable. Villoldo makes a convincing case for broadening our horizons as pertains to traditional healing processes. The problem for me comes in the testimonials by non-natives, some of whom sound as if they dropped out of the Esalen Institute because it wasn’t sufficiently cosmic. The shamans, themselves, primarily are shown blowing smoke and waving pipes over their “patients,” if you will. That’s where “Amazonia” differs substantially from “Dirty Pictures,” in which the hippies and recreational partakers remain in the tie-dyed background of concerts and events like Burning Man. I would have liked to hear more from native people as to their interactivity with shamans. The True Mind documentary works best as an introduction to the concept of combining spiritual belief with the healing powers of native jungle plants, in the interest of treating the “whole” person. Practitioners from Peru’s Madre de Dios River in the Amazon watershed heal with a “brew” called Ayahuasca (“the vine of the souls”), which allows partakers to look inside themselves and investigate the root causes of their pain. As was the case in the treatments forwarded by Castenada, some puking is required to achieve the maximum benefit. – Gary Dretzka


Twelve Thirty
In such offbeat indies as “Childhood’s End,” “Flannel Pajamas” and “Once More With Feeling,” writer/director Jeff Lipsky demonstrated a willingness to let dialogue carry the weight of the story, sometimes at the expense of narrative flow. In “Twelve Thirty,” a sexually insecure 22-year-old manages to worm his way into the lives of three neurotic Iowa women – a divorced mother and her two very different daughters – causing more trouble in a week than most men do in a lifetime. Mom Vivien (Karen Young) is a freelance dealer in fur coats, who rarely leaves her home and still prefers having sex with her gay ex-husband to any of her boyfriends. Mel (Portia Reiners) is a pretty, sexually confident 19-year-old whose heart likewise belongs to her over-protective daddy. Maura (Mamie Gummer), also 22, is lost in the material world, emotionally and sexually.

As the movie opens, Jeff (Jonathan Groff) tells co-worker and longtime acquaintance Mel that he’s fond of her, but avoids intimacy because he’s embarrassed by the shape of his penis. Mel, who’s been waiting for him to make a move, first assures Jeff that his unit looks perfectly normal and, then, proves that it’s also completely functional. Even so, he seeks solace and fellowship at the small, stone “Church of the Open Door,” where everyone’s welcome … except when that door is locked, as it is here. Within the next few days, Jeff helps Maura lose her virginity, albeit in a closet, during a party. For her part, mom Vivien saw an opportunity and took it, using Jeff as a boy-toy for a few hours. None of them is reluctant to share the experience with Dad, who confronts Jeff in a mock inquisition designed mostly to freak him out. It works. If this description doesn’t make “Twelve Thirty” sound remotely entertaining, you should know that the movie is otherwise distinguished by some of the most brilliantly acted exchanges between related characters that I’ve seen in a long time. The dialogues almost tear your heart out with their intimacy. I’m not sure I buy the context, but the power of the words can’t be denied. It’s interesting to learn that two of the key actors are show-biz Thoroughbreds: Mamie is the daughter of Meryl Streep, while Haley Feiffer, who plays Maura’s quaintly Satanic friend, Irina, is the daughter of cartoonist/playwright Jules Fieffer and comedian Jenny Allen. – Gary Dretzka


The River Why: Blu-ray
It’s nice to think that there still are places on Earth where a boy can make the passage into adulthood, not with a gun or diploma in his hand, but with a fishing rod. Maybe, such spots exist solely in the mind of a novelist or screenwriter. Maybe, the setting isn’t a remote stream and the fishing rod is a golf club, or a sailboat, or a piece of sculpture, or a movie. Perhaps, the boy is a girl. Such thoughts flow through the mind unabated while watching a movie as visually and intellectually stimulating as “The River Why.” Inspired by a best-selling 1983 novel by David James Duncan – whose name is conspicuously missing from the credits – “The River Why” describes how 20-year-old Gus Orviston (Zach Gifford) decides that the nest has gotten too small for two self-absorbed adults and a son who’s grown tired of their opposites-attract act. All three are obsessed with fishing, but for different reasons. Dad (William Hurt) is a tweedy Brit who personifies the classic stereotype of an effete angler – he’s written extensively on the subject — while mom is the archetypal American worm-drowner. When Gus finally decides to leave the shadow of his parents, he moves into a shack alongside a scenic, trout-heavy Oregon river, where he’s determined to fish 15 hours every day. Given all that time in voluntarily solitude, albeit in God’s own backyard, Gus eventually comes to the inevitable conclusion that something is missing in his life and it isn’t his parents. His salvation arrives in the person of a pretty, if elusive blond (Amber Heard), who loves fishing as much as he does and, like his mother (Kathleen Quinlan), has a far more grounded self-image.

Apparently, Duncan wasn’t pleased with the script and tried to keep the movie from being produced. Whether this occurred after he was paid for the rights to his novel, or not, I don’t know. My guess is that the movie, as written, wasn’t sufficiently epic to contain all of the philosophical and environmental ideas he fleshed out in his book and this pissed him off. A settlement was worked out and the movie suffered from the delays and animosity. There’s no reason I can see for “The River Why” not being distributed theatrically, but it’s good to see it in Blu-ray, after all. The scenery is magnificent and the actors – Dallas Roberts and William Devane, among them — all look as if they belong there. The Blu-ray adds a series of in-depth interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Mutiny on the Bounty: Blu-ray
The Cannonball Run: Blu-ray

They don’t make historical epics like “Mutiny on the Bounty” anymore and, for that, at least two generations of studio executives are thankful. The one-two punch of “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Cleopatra” in 1962 and 1963 not only demonstrated the limits of stardom, but also the inability of high-power executives to say “no” to their meal tickets. For all the negative things that can said about the dominance of CGI-enhanced filmmaking, no computer has ever threatened to walk off a set or demand that Chasen’s chili be flown from Beverly Hills to Rome. A half-century later, stories about those near-disastrous productions seem quaint and attributable to human folly, not the development of expensive new software or the rights to pop music. More to the point, absent the bad press, both movies are downright fun to watch. Even Marlon Brando’s foppish portrayal of Fletcher Christian doesn’t seem nearly the catastrophe today as it must have in 1962. Maybe it’s because we know exactly how much time, effort and money were invested in the creation of the H.M.S. Bounty, alone, that we cut the picture so much slack. The scene in which British sailors help the locals drive hundreds of fish to the shore is worth the price of the rental, alone. The Blu-ray presentation is pretty good, especially in the reproduction of Bronislaw Kaper’s score. The bonus package is dominated by interesting featurettes on the history of the rebuilding of the H.M.S. Bounty and its subsequent travels. There’s also a prologue and epilogue originally intended to bookend the movie in flashback form.

I imagine that everyone involved in the production of “The Cannonball Run” – also new to Blu-ray — enjoyed the experience a whole lot more than those assigned to “Bounty” and “Cleopatra.” For one thing, the stakes weren’t nearly as high for the studio and all of the talent appears to have been in on the joke. Like the otherwise unrelated 1976 action movie “The Gumball Rally,” “Cannonball Run” is set during a coast-to-coast race contested by lovers of fast cars and eluding the Highway Patrol. Hal Needham, Brock Yates and Burt Reynold’s interpretation of the annual underground event owed far more to the success of “Smokey and the Bandit” than Charles Bail’s “Gumball Rally,” which starred Gary Busey, Michael Sarrazin and hardly anyone else viewers might recognize today. By contrast, “Cannonball Run” resembled “Ocean’s 11” in the number of familiar names it attracted (including Rat Packers Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.). Reynolds could do no wrong in those days and, here, he was surrounded by such flakey sorts as Dom DeLuise, Bert Convy, Jamie Farr, Adrienne Barbeau, Peter Fonda, Jackie Chan, Farrah Fawcett, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Elam, Mel Tillis, Bianca Jagger, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Valerie Perrine and non-flake Roger Moore. In truth, “Cannonball” often is no funnier than a flat tire at the Indy 500, but that was never really the point. Reynolds had a way of making viewers feel as if they were as important to the show as the actors themselves, and, of course, they are. The Blu-ray comes with commentary by director Needham and producer Albert S. Ruddy. – Gary Dretzka


Gia: Unrated: Blu-ray
Mr. Magoo on TV Collection
Masterpiece Contemporary: Page Eight
Rickey Smiley: “Open Casket Sharp”
How the States Got Their Shapes: Season 1

Gia” wasn’t the first movie in which Angelina Jolie’s acting talent came to the fore. She’d stolen part of the spotlight, at least, in “Hackers,” “Foxfire” and HBO’s “George Wallace,” for which she won a Golden Globe in a supporting category. As the troubled supermodel, Gia Carangi, Jolie would convince the remaining doubters she could carry a movie all by herself. Apart from her undeniable acting chops she has an ooo-la-la body and, back then, wasn’t reluctant to show it. She even resembled the model, who while still in her teens went from hash-slinging in her father’s Philadelphia diner to the covers of Vogue and other fashion magazines. The photographers who favored her look represented the top shooters in the business. Gia was a rising star in an industry that had yet to begin churning out models as famous as the designers whose clothes they wore. Sadly, Gia’s fame also brought with it addictions to cocaine, heroin and then-shocking sexual preferences. Soon, her habits would cause her to blow assignments and come to work looking less than spectacular. When she was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, it had not yet become identified with intravenous drug use and very few women had fallen victim to it. Her death in 1986 drew scant attention in the press and many of her co-workers didn’t learn of it until weeks later. “Gia” would draw attention to the model’s ordeal, but it was Jolie who would benefit the most from the movie. It brought her a second Golden Globe, an Emmy nomination and SAG award. “Gia” aired at approximately the same time as the first DVD players were being introduced and hi-def TV was still a long way from reality. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent, but it comes unencumbered by any special features. It is, though, five minutes longer than the original. As for being “Unrated,” remember that TV merely adds parental guidelines to its products, not ratings, per se,

When Mr. Magoo made his theatrical debut in 1949, it was considered highly unusual to feature a human as the sole cartoon protagonist: if Elmer Fudd was on screen, it was a safe bet that Bugs Bunny was somewhere in the vicinity, as well. Even so, Magoo would become one of the single most endearing characters in the cartoon menagerie. Short, squat and dangerously nearsighted, Magoo was always a step or two away from disaster. Somehow, though, he always managed to avoid it. As voiced by Jim Backus (Thurston Howell III, for fans of “Gilligan’s Island”), Magoo started out life as a parody of certain political figures in the era of the Hollywood Blacklist. By 1960, when the cartoon became a fixture on television, the wealthy Rutgers alumnus was completely de-politicized and he even became a spokes-character for GE products, an eyeglass concern, beer and preserves. Shout! Factory’s 11-disc “On TV Collection,” is comprised of three different series, more than 180 cartoons and specials. Anyone sensitive to racial stereotypes should know in advance of Charlie, Magoo’s Chinese houseboy during the 1960s. He’s as offensively drawn as one can imagine, but quite smart and dedicated to his boss’ well-being. (The tables were turned in 1997 when support groups for visually impaired people protested the release of Leslie Nielsen’s live-action “Mr. Magoo.” Although it was making money for Disney, the picture was pulled from release after two weeks.)

Page Eight” is another terrific thriller from the fine folks at BBC/PBS’ “Masterpiece Contemporary.” In it, Bill Nighy plays a long-serving, long-suffering MI5 officer who senses he’s being frozen out of the intelligence agency by a new breed of politically expedient political leaders. He loses his last for-sure ally when his boss (Michael Gambon) dies unexpectedly of a heart attack, taking with him a secret that could topple the current government. Trusting no one in MI5, he turns to a pretty next-flat neighbor (Rachel Weisz) who’s suddenly begun to insinuate herself into his life. Her brother recently was killed by Israeli police and it appears as if the government is covering up the true nature of his death. Finally, they turn to each other for help in solving their respective problems. Thanks to a no-frills script by writer/director David Hare, the 99-minute program zips along briskly, without skimping on the details of the story. “Page Eight” was shot in London and Cambridge.

Rickey Smiley shares a lot in common with Steve Harvey, a close friend who introduces him at this recorded concert, which was shown on BET. Both are comedians, as well as TV and radio personalities, whose sense of professional balance must be extremely acute. Here, the easy-to-like comic shares his observations on his family, friends, Southern marching bands and, yes, funerals. The DVD adds bonus sketches “First 48 With Little Darryl” and “The Church Lady.”

You might think a show called “How the States Got Their Shapes” could be found on cable’s Geography Channel, instead of the History Channel. (There is one, isn’t there?) Fact is, though, it’s impossible to separate the two disciplines in America. And, of course, therein lay 50 pretty interesting stories. Host Brian Unger travels the country, letting local experts fill us in on the details of how our borders evolved and why. Many of the explanations will surprise you. In Season 1, the episode titles include “A River Runs Through It,” “The Great Plains, Trains, & Automobiles,” “Force of Nature,” “State of Rebellion,” “Living on the Edge,” “Use It or Lose It,” “Church and States,” “A Boom With a View,” “Culture Clash” and “Mouthing Off.” Needless to say, adults will learn almost as much from the series as their kids. – Gary Dretzka


Babar and Father Christmas
Lifetime: Under the Mistletoe
Lifetime: A Very Merry Daughter of the Bride
Lifetime: A Christmas Wedding
Lifetime: Holiday Wishes

In another collection taken from the 1989 HBO and CBC series, Babar the elephant king is required to save Christmas for the boys and girls of Celesteville. They had written a letter to Father Christmas, inviting him to visit the kingdom for the holiday, but never was delivered. Unbeknownst to them, the invitation was intercepted by Rataxes the evil rhinoceros, who wants all of Santa’s toys for himself. Babar takes it upon himself to find Father Christmas and deliver the message personally. The DVD set adds a pair of bonus episodes — “A Child in the Snow” and “The Gift” – and an eight-page holiday coloring book.

Lifetime churns out Christmas-themed melodramas as if they were so many candy canes. All involve some sort of dilemma that needs to be addressed or miracle waiting to happen. In “Under the Mistletoe,” Susan (Jaime Ray Newman) is a reporter whose husband dies in a car accident. His ghost appears before their teenage son and, together, they conspire to find a new mate for mom. They arrange for her to enter a radio station’s dating game, hoping she’ll be attracted to the boy’s coach, who’s also lost his spouse. She’s leaning to another man, however.

A Very Merry Daughter of the Bride” pits an attractive middle-age woman (Helen Shaver) against her wedding-planner daughter (Joanna Garcia), who disapproves of mom’s hastily conceived plans for marriage. The daughter’s only recourse is to take arrange the details of the wedding and control things from there. Ultimately, they learn a lot about life from each other’s concerns. In “A Christmas Wedding,” a woman (Sarah Paulson) who’s always dreamt of having the perfect wedding must turn control of the final details over to her soon-to-be husband (Eric Mabius), who’s a classic procrastinator. Determined to get it right, Ben tries a bit too hard, getting mired in such things as bridal shows and seating charts. Finally, the biggest threat to the wedding is something beyond both of their control, the weather.

Holiday Wishes” imagines a scenario in which young women (Katie Keating, Britney McKilllip) from opposite sides of the economic divide wish upon a department-store Santa, only to wake up the next day in each other’s bodies. Their wishes are answered, but not in the way they wanted them to be. It’s left to a party planner (Amber Benson), with a dream of her own, to straighten things out and make sure everyone’s learned a lesson or two. – Gary Dretzka


A Child’s Garden of Poetry
If wonder if poetry is as much a part of the curriculum today as when I was a student and William Shakespeare was still wearing knickers. Probably not. Like trigonometry and physics, there simply isn’t much call for it at a time when lyrics to most pop songs aren’t required to rhyme. “A Children’s Garden of Poetry” makes a good case for hooking kids on poetry at an early age, when they’re open to new things and poetry can be made to seem like a game, with rules that are more challenging than restrictive. This 27-minute DVD collects 15 poems by such writers as Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Shakespeare. They are read and sung by a cast that includes Julianne Moore, Dave Matthews, Natalie Merchant and Liam Neeson. Some vintage poems are read by poets e.e. cummings, Carl Sandburg and Edna St. Vincent Millay. They are accompanied by animation sequences and short live-action films. Time is also set aside for children to discuss poetry and what it means to them. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Cars 2, Tabloid, Crazy Stupid Love, Water for Elephants, Snow Flower Trespass, Phantom of Opera …

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Cars 2: Blu-ray
If you loved the first “Cars,” which rolled off the Pixar production line in 2006, it’s better than even money that you’ll enjoy “Cars 2.” If not, the sequel probably won’t change your mind. You either dig anthropomorphic automobiles or you don’t. Neither am I’m sure kids will care to sit through another 106 minutes of wild races through the streets of faraway cities and a plot partially inspired by James Bond movie. Some will, some won’t. “Cars 2” likely will appeal far more to parents and grandparents with fond memories of a time when you they could look at a vehicle and know instinctually its make, model and year of birth, if not precisely was under its hood. As such, it’s the kind of movie that defines that vaguest of cinematic conceits, “family entertainment.”

With a cast of 145 motorized characters, “Cars 2” is equal parts junk yard, showroom and automotive museum. Throw in the 007 throughline and it’s a veritable nostalgia factory. This isn’t to say, however, that John Lasseter’s pet project isn’t also filled with lots of peddle-to-the-metal action and rib-tickling low-brow comedy, because it is. This time around, Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater have joined the World Grand Prix circuit, which favors road-course racing over the familiar NASCAR oval and is typically contested on the streets of major international cities. While McQueen is burning rubber on the tracks, Tater finds himself caught up in a game of Spy vs. Spy. Michael Caine voices the super-slick Aston Martin, Finn McMissile, while Emily Mortimer does an Emma Peel turn as Holly Shiftwell. Eddie Izzard plays a petroleum magnate who uses the races to promote an alternative fuel of his own invention. As the rusty ringer, Tater nearly steals the show from all of them. Anyone not smitten with Larry the Cable Guy’s brand of cornpone comedy, though, may want to mute the sound and enjoy the visual treats, instead.

I’m told that the Blu-ray 3D edition is pretty snappy, which is good because it contains most of the bonus material. My 2D screener offered only the entertaining cartoons, “Hawaiian Vacation,” in which the “Toy Story” gang attempts to stage a tropical sojourn for Barbie and Ken; and “Air Mater,” in which everyone’s favorite tow truck joins the Air Force Thunderbirds. The five-disc 3D package adds commentary by Lasseter and co-director Brad Lewis; an interactive globe with stops in Radiator Springs, the Pacific, London, Paris, Munich, Prague, Porta Costa, Tokyo and Emeryville, Ca., where a collection of making-of material, deleted scenes and other promotional material is located. There’s also a sneak peek of “The Nuts & Bolts of Cars Land,” Disney’s upcoming 12-acre attraction. – Gary Dretzka

Errol Morris’ latest documentary is a study in obsession and fanaticism. As the title implies, it’s also lurid, pulpy and ripped from vintage tabloid headlines. Some are more than 30 years old now, but age hasn’t diluted their power to titillate readers and viewers, alike. Morris’ subject, Joyce McKinney, still bubbly and attractive at 62, sold a lot of British tabloid newspapers in 1977-78. The onetime Miss Wyoming had been charged with stalking, kidnaping and raping her American boyfriend, who was in Surrey doing missionary work for the Mormon Church. As her story went, Kirk Anderson was whisked away to England after their budding love affair was reported to church officials by his mother. To find him, McKinney was required to hire a detective and pilot, who accompanied her to England. When McKinney confronted Anderson outside a meeting house, she says he voluntarily drove with her to a Devon cottage, where they enjoyed several days of blissfully kinky sex. Afraid he would be excommunicated if the truth came out, Anderson returned to Surrey, made up a story about being abducted, then shackled to a bed and forced to have sex. Given the difference in their sizes, it seemed unlikely that McKinney would be able to rape her much larger lover, but, even in England, stranger things have happened. Once the tabloids got wind of the case, it made the kind of headlines even the Kardashians would envy, and it kept getting stranger and exponentially more lurid from there. In 2008, long after “The Case of the Manacled Mormon” had lost its heat, McKinney returned to the headlines by having her dead pit bull cloned by South Korean scientists for $25,000. It resulted in the birth of five chocolate-brown puppies.

The subjects of Morris’ docs have ranged from former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and physicist Stephen Hawking, to death-row engineer Fred A. Leuchter Jr., whose career was ruined after being used as a tool for Holocaust deniers. Part of Morris’ methodology is to allow his subjects to spin versions of their own stories as they so choose, while an unblinking camera and dispassionate director record them. Introduced later are facts and other evidence that effectively contradict their memories. Such is the case with McKinney, whose recollection of the events leading up to the kidnaping, trial and flight from so-called justice are wildly out of touch with reality. It would have been interesting to hear Anderson’s side of the story, but it’s entirely possible McKinney’s analysis of his brainwashing by Mormon leaders is accurate and he refused to participate. If Morris could have linked Mitt Romney — presidential candidate and recent target of anti-Mormon propaganda, Mitt Romney — to the long-simmering controversy, “Tabloid” could have been a real game changer. – Gary Dretzka

Crazy, Stupid, Love: Blu-ray
Finally, a Hollywood rom-com that gets enough of its various parts right to be considered successful as both a romance and comedy. More significantly, perhaps, it also reveals truths about love and marriage that grown-ups will recognize in a broken heartbeat. For younger viewers, there’s an Ashton/Demi scenario that’s as entertaining as anything else in “Crazy, Stupid Love.” Indeed, it’s the movie’s universality that ultimately works against it. No European rom-com about love, marriage and midlife sexual crises would attempt to cater to audiences with so wide a demographic range. Just when things begin getting interesting here, the filmmakers pull back from the brink of anything really titillating. If any movie cries out for an unrated, director’s-cut edition, it’s “Crazy, Sexy Love.”

As anyone who witnessed the bombardment of ads on TV between Memorial Day and the end of July already knows, Steve Carell and Julianne Moore play a long-married couple, Cal and Emily, who separate after she expectedly announces she had sex with a co-worker and wants a divorce. Cal has been a perfectly decent husband and father, and Emily hasn’t shown any early warning signs of displeasure. Apparently, though, she’s unhappy that he’s surrendered to middle-age, middle-class complacency and seems content with his status in life. Emily has decided she won’t give in to the urge to grow old gracefully and takes a brief walk on the wild side. Suddenly single, Cal wants to dive head-first into the dating pool, but doesn’t know how. Even in a bar filled nightly with dozens of hot single women, he dresses as if he just got back from his son’s Little League game. He’s so pathetic, a slightly younger playboy, Jacob (Ryan Gosling), takes pity on him and volunteers to turn him into a babe magnet. While not an easy process, it is undeniably funny. The trajectory of Cal and Emily’s separation from here isn’t all that difficult to predict, but what keeps things rolling for viewers are the supporting characters, who are given ample opportunity to steal the spotlight. They include son Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who’s infatuated with the family’s slightly older babysitter (Analeigh Tipton), who has an inconvenient crush on Cal. As usual, Emma Stone is wonderful as the woman who finally tames Jacob; Marisa Tomei, is hilarious as the randy barfly who rocks Cal’s sexual world; and Kevin Bacon does a nice job as the inadvertent home wrecker.

I don’t know why it took two sophomore directors – Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“I Love You, Phillip Morris”) – to interpret John Fogelman’s solid, if not terribly complex screenplay. Fogelman’s last half-dozen credits are “Cars,” “Cars 2,” “Tangled,” “Bolt,” “Fred Claus” and something called “Lipshitz Saves the World,” none of which have anything to do with less-than-blissful marriages. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the actors were given free license to put their own grown-up spin to the characters as written. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a couple of standard-issue making-of featurettes to the mix, as well as instant streaming with UltraViolet Digital Copy. – Gary Dretzka

Water for Elephants
Not having read Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel, I couldn’t say with any certainty how it compares with Francis Lawrence and Richard LaGravenese’s movie. The nation’s top critics were polarized on the adaptation, with the ones who read and liked the book on the negative end. The others were impressed by its palpable period flavor and highly credible circus setting. I enjoyed “Water for Elephants” – my mind reads it, “Like Water for Elephants” – primarily because it reminded me of the wonderful black-and-white melodramas shown on TMC. There’s nothing at all fancy about it. The heroes and villains are easy to identify and the actors, especially Reese Witherspoon (think Fay Wray) even look vintage. Robert Pattinson (think Robert Mitchum) plays chiseled leading man Jacob Jankowski, who studies veterinary medicine at Cornell during the Depression. After he loses both parents to a car accident, Jacob is forced to drop out of college and ride the rails to a possible job in the big city. Fortuitously, the boxcar in which he lands is full of circus roustabouts, not all of whom are anxious to beat the tar out of him. The oldest one offers his fellow Pole, Jacob, an opportunity to stick with the circus, if only to shovel manure and steer the rubes (hey, it’s still show business). It doesn’t take long, however, before Jacob is able to impress his boss, August (Christoph Waltz, but think Adolphe Menjou), with his ability to heal animals and soothe their pre-performance jitters. He especially impresses August’s animal-trainer wife, Marlena (Witherspoon), whose life he may have saved by diagnosing a potentially dangerous hoof disease on her prized horse. Naturally, August becomes jealous of what he senses to be a burgeoning romance between Jacob and his flirtatious wife, and he takes out his rage on a newly acquired elephant that won’t take orders. It’s a pretty ugly scene and, of course, a precursor of worse things to come.

One of the things probably better explained in the novel is the weird hold August has on Marlena. It transcends love, certainly, and she does Jacob no favors by seeking him out whenever she gets drunk and they’re in each other’s vicinity. The final denouement comes in the oldest of circus-movie traditions, when the manure hits the fan and chaos overwhelms everyone and everything under the Big Top. Again, while it’s all rather predictable, I think most viewers will find the climax to be satisfying. Also good is Hal Halbroke as an elderly nursing-home resident who wants to run away and re-join the circus.The Blu-ray edition adds commentary with Lawrence and LaGravenese; interviews with Pattinson and Witherspoon; and good backgrounders on re-creating American circuses. – Gary Dretzka

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: Blu-ray
Wayne Wang’s latest cross-generational drama took a drubbing from critics, for reasons I don’t completely understand. Even so, I can’t imagination fans of his adaptation of “The Joy Luck Club” not liking it. Based on the Lisa See bestseller, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” relates the parallel story of two pairs of “sworn sisters” (both played by Gianna Jun and Li Bingbing) separated by 200 years, but united by a tradition that defies time. The movie opens in a bustling 21st Century Shanghai, where a woman on a bicycle is hit by a car as she attempts to contact an estranged friend by cell phone. To explain the intimacy of their relationship, Wang dials the movie back to the early 1800s and introduces us to two girls, who share birth dates and anniversaries of the day their feet were bound. Despite their disparate economic backgrounds, Lily and Snow Flower are paired as laotong (“old sames”) by the woman who takes them away from their homes and trains them to be brides for men who can afford her services. Because the woman deems Lily’s fetishized feet to be “perfect,” she stands a better chance of finding the better husband, based solely on his wealth and family. Even though she’s the more valuable commodity, Lily is required to put up with a dragon-lady mother-in-law, a cold-fish husband and being forced to live in isolation after her first child is a girl. Snow Flower has a brute for a husband, but, at least, he occasionally treats her with warmth and something resembling love.

Meanwhile, back and forth to the future, Nina postpones the start of a new job in New York to look after her comatose BFF. While going through Sophia’s papers, Lily discovers a manuscript describing Snow Flower and Lily’s life stories, as well as clues to the location of a 300-year-old fan in whose folds is a message written in a vernacular only used by women. Its discovery would complete a collection of antique fans already on exhibit in a Shanghai gallery. If the narrative as described doesn’t always flow evenly, the blame lies mostly in the fact that See’s novel was set entirely in the past and Wang’s movie bounces back and forth, from past to present. This requires some adjustments on the viewer’s part. There’s no faulting, however, the acting, costumes and set designs. Neither is the movie reluctant to tug at the heart strings and jerk tears whenever possible. (Critics hate to feel manipulated.) The Blu-ray edition looks quite good and includes only the featurette, “The Sworn Sisterhood of the Secret Fan.” – Gary Dretzka

Trespass: Blu-ray
Director Joel Schumacher and cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak did what they could here with a barely serviceable home-invasion screenplay by first-timer Karl Gajdusek, and the result is a thriller whose set design is more interesting than the story. “Trespass” mostly takes place within the boundaries of a posh lakeside community whose security patrol is populated with criminals. Nicolas Cage plays a freelance diamond dealer who’s looking down the barrel of some heavy debts and can’t bear the thought of denying his wife (Nicole Kidman) and daughter (Liana Liberato) the finer things in life. It won’t take viewers long to figure out who set up the home break-in, how he did it and what his alternative motives happen to be. This spoiler revealed early on, the movie becomes an exercise in torture and paranoia. Cage’s character adamantly refuses to surrender to the invaders’ demands, even as they threaten to harm his wife and daughter. Not only does his stand piss off the crooks, but it also surprises his loved ones. As such, Kidman’s primary challenge is to continue looking sexy as she’s being flung repeatedly into walls and onto the floor. (She’d even look sexy in a hurricane wearing boots, a slicker and whaler’s hat.) Jordana Spiro plays the spunky daughter gets caught up in the madness after she returns home early from a party she earlier had been denied permission to attend. Later, the daughter will pretend to bond with the gang’s moll, a strung-out stripper who spends most of her time rummaging through Kidman’s wardrobe. Eventually, as Cage continues to refuse the crooks’ demands, all of the screaming, gun-waving and recriminations among the crooks grow tiresome. There are several clever twists along the way, but none is particularly scary. Apparently, “Trespass” only opened on 10 screens before almost immediately being shipped straight-to-DVD. Considering the talent involved in the project, this lack of confidence borders on the shocking. It also speaks volumes about what’s wrong with an industry that bases most of its decisions on false perceptions of star power and can’t resist saying “no” to half-baked scripts. The Blu-ray arrives with a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

An Invisible Sign: Blu-ray

The similarities in this unrelated pair of offbeat indies are mostly limited to starring roles for highly familiar actresses and their marquee value in video stores. Beyond that, however, each is based on a fresh idea and thinly disguised inspirational themes. If neither movie is very good, it’s nice to see something other than zombies, kung fu and ’roided-out gangsters. Jessica Alba, a TV-born star who has yet to bust out on the big screen, gives it her all in “An Invisible Sign,” a dramedy in which everything rests on a willingness to suspend disbelief for its entire 96-minute length. Alba, who, at 30, still looks like a teenager, plays a 20-year-old woman-child who’s spent most of her life in a state of enforced solitude. After her father (John Shea), a runner and math wiz, suffers a nervous breakdown, Mona decides that she’ll abandon all attempts to socialize with her peers or excel at sports. She fills the vacuum with numbers, which, in her mind, come to life before her eyes in a strange combination of math and numerology. Inexplicably, Mona takes most of her frustrations out on a neighbor who has encouraged her love affair with numbers but left teaching to open a hardware store. Don’t ask. Her mother (Sonia Braga) has virtually given up hope of ever seeing her own life and family return to normalcy.

Now 20 years old and still chronically lonely, Mona is invited to fill a mathematics vacancy at the local middle school. Because the principal isn’t aware of the young woman’s neuroses and lack of college diploma, let alone a teaching certificate, we’re not surprised by Mona’s clumsy approach the profession. The only class we watch her teach is mostly comprised of attentive students, but a few stand out as head cases. Her favorite is an overly dependent girl whose mother is dying of eye cancer, of all possible ailments. The others include a chronic troublemaker, who enjoys being sent to “the corner”; a girl who wets her panties when nervous; and an insufferable brat who taunts Mona for being “incompetent” and a “loser.” A fellow teacher, played by Chris Messina, takes a fancy to the unusual new math instructor, but she continually brushes off his advances. This is way, way too much baggage for a movie as fragile as “An Invisible Sign” to carry on its back and a director, Marilyn Agrelo, to tackle as her first feature. Nonetheless, Argelo has enough duct tape at her disposal to hold things together for most the movie’s compact length and, more importantly, a star who makes us care for her largely unlikeable character.

Jennifer Love Hewitt no longer can get away with playing characters fresh out of their teens, as Alba does in “An Invisible Sign.” If it sometimes feels as if Hewitt’s older than 32, it’s only because she’s been performing on stage since she was old enough to tap and has been a television regular since the mid-1980s. She’s still gorgeous, though, and usually the most stable presence in any show or movie. In “Café,” she plays a barista at an Internet/coffee dungeon in a trendy Philadelphia neighborhood. Claire shares coffee-dispensing duties with an idealistic young musician, Todd (Daniel Eric Gold), who not only has a mad crush on her, but also wants to rescue her from an abusive boyfriend. The fact that neither one of them has met their employer — a detail only revealed midway through –will raise a red flag among viewers familiar with faith-based movies. Before long, though, evidence of a larger, quasi-religious agenda becomes too obvious to disguise with secular stereotypes. Each new customer carries with him/her a burden begging to be lifted. In his first turn as a director, Marc Erlbaum wisely keeps the religious stuff from dominating the interaction between recognizable characters. If I’m not mistaken, heaven here is located somewhere in the vicinity of the café’s wireless router and there’s an unlimited amount of bandwidth available to the “avatars” serving God on Earth. (Decaf, please, hold the cream.) Besides Hewitt and Gold, “Café” stars Jamie Kennedy, Alexa Vega and Madeline Carroll. – Gary Dretzka

The Phantom of the Opera (1925): Blu-ray
Another Halloween has come and gone, and tens of thousands of costumes inspired by Lon Chaney’s performance in “The Phantom of the Opera” have been put into mothballs for another 12 months. It’s interesting, then, that this terrific Blu-ray edition of the 1925 version of the famous thriller should be released on the day after All Hallows’ Eve. If all you know of “Phantom” is the stage musical or any one of a dozen subsequent movie adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s 1908 novel, then you have yet to experience the real deal. Critics continue to argue about the artistic merits of Rupert Julian’s film – especially when compared to the German horror masters – but there’s no denying Lon Chaney’s performance is one of the most memorable performances in the history of the American cinema. He made the disfigured habitué of the Paris Opera House’s netherworld his own, never to be topped.

The new Blu-ray package includes the original 1925 version of “Phantom,” struck from a 16mm print, in standard definition, as well as a pair of re-edited and re-mastered versions of the 1929 re-release in hi-def. One of these versions runs at 24 frames per second, sourced from a 35mm negative, while the other is at 20 frames per second. One of the re-edited versions features an early two-color Technicolor sequence and several other that have been hand-colored to re-create the original Handschiegl Color Process. There are three separate musical soundtracks, including an all-new orchestral score by the Alloy Orchestra; the Gaylord Carter organ score, which is offered as an alternate audio option on the 1929 24fps version; a previously released Gabriel Thibaudeau score, performed by I Musici de Montréal, conducted by Yuli Turovsky and featuring soprano Claudine Côté; and, on the 1925 version, a composite score by Frederick Hodges. There’s also an audio essay by Dr. Jon Mirsalis on the history of the movie and Chaney; an interview with composer Thibaudeau; a 13½-minute photo gallery; a copy of the script; a souvenir program. Or, it’s OK just to watch it again for fun, in as close to pristine condition as it’s likely to be. – Gary Dretzka

His Way: A Portrait of Hollywood Legend Jerry Weintraub
There are only a very few show-business impresarios who possess the clout and chutzpah it takes to put their names above those of their more-famous clients on a marquee. Look at photographs taken of Frank Sinatra and his fellow Rat Packers in front of the Sands marquee and above their heads and names you’ll see, “Jack Entratter Presents.” Sol Hurok, Bill Graham, Ed Sullivan, Colonel Tom Parker and Jerry Weintraub could pull it off, as well. Their names added not one iota to a fan’s enjoyment of a show – unless they were working on an impression of Sullivan – but, in a very real way, they were the ones who oiled the gears on the star-marker machinery. Seeing their names above the title ensured that, if nothing else, the show would go on as promised and it would be a class act. Douglas McGrath’s bio-doc of Weintraub goes a long way to explain what it is a producer/promoter does for his talented clients. One minute, the Brooklyn-born, Bronx-raised powerhouse is cutting million-dollar deals, while the next he’s fretting about Frank Sinatra blowing off a show because, well, just because. The film describes how he broke into the business and parleyed access to key show-business and political players into a huge fortune, which he ultimately would lose and recover.

Besides Sinatra, Weintraub worked for and with Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Karen Carpenter, Neil Diamond, the Moody Blues and John Denver. Among the movies he’s produced are “Nashville,” “Oh, God!,” “Diner,” “The Karate Kid” and the revived “Ocean’s …” franchise. There’s no need to mention the turkeys, of which there were several. Nor are all of the questions about discordant business relationships fully answered, even after being brought up in passing. “His Way” is neither as entertaining as “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” nor as reverential as “The Last Mogul.” The best material comes when McGrath points the camera at Weintraub and simply lets him tell stories about himself and the people he knows. They’re interesting without being particularly revelatory. Also fun are anecdotes shared by pranksters George Clooney and Matt Damon, stars of the “Ocean’s …” pictures. The least flattering moment comes when Weintraub describes how he managed to con his wife and kids into putting up with his 20-year-long relationship with girlfriend, Susan Ekins. (Hint: lots of money and forgiving hearts.) The DVD adds only another short anecdote. – Gary Dretzka

Go Go Crazy
There are aspects of such amateur-competition shows as “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance” that simply defy parody. Besides the ringer contestants, they include the judges, hosts, stacked voting and off-screen dynamics. As mockumentaries go, “Go Go Crazy” is as broad as Nebraska and as shallow as the Great Salt Lake, which isn’t to say it doesn’t have its moments. The “Go Go Crazy” contest is held on the stage of a gay nightclub, where five archetypal dancers will compete for the honor of being anointed top go-go boy and the possibility of winning a $1,000 cash prize. If, here, the film also resembles the grilling process in “A Chorus Line,” it’s probably intentional. If none of the dancers is particularly – or even remotely – talented, they do possess most of the necessary skills attendant to the job. The less-favorably- endowed dancers merely stuff their jockstraps with a fake cock. Far more entertaining are the dimwitted judges – is there any other kind? – and the show’s hostess with the mostest, a green-haired drag queen named Hedda Lettuce. There’s plenty of sex talk and raunchy innuendo throughout “Go Go Crazy,” but not much skin on display below the belt. It was directed by Fred M. Caruso (“The Big Gay Musical”). Bonus material includes cast auditions, deleted scenes and bloopers. – Gary Dretzka

Scrooged: Blu-ray
It’s a Wonderful Life Gift Set: Blu-ray
The Perfect Gift
Dear Santa
Hoax for the Holidays

In 1988, Bill Murray was as hot a commodity as any other actor in the business. Although the “SNL” alum had proven that he couldn’t pass for a romantic leading man — in the classic sense of the word, anyway — Murray had no problem making people laugh uproariously. That ability, in itself, is worth far more than the price of gold in Hollywood. Murray also possessed a snarky sense of humor and deadpan approach that appealed to the “hip” demographic. Who better, then, to play the world’s most famous miser and grump, Ebenezer Scrooge, a.k.a., TV executive Frank Cross. He’s a mean and venal S.O.B., if there ever was one, and the kind of fellow who would staple antlers on a mouse, insult carolers and make a movie about a fire fight between terrorists and Santa Claus. Of course, after being taken on an overnight ride by the three Christmas ghosts, he becomes an entirely different person, even without having to call Ghostbusters. If most critics were unenthusiastic about the conceit, everyday audiences showed their approval by making “Scrooged” a seasonal hit and perennial DVD and VHS favorite. The Blu-ray arrives without any bonus material.

Ever since legal battles over its ownership were settled, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has enjoyed a pretty wonderful afterlife of its own. As long as the Frank Capra classic was in public-domain status, it seemed as if anyone with a VCR could make a crappy copy and sell it at a local convenience store. Now that Paramount Home Entertainment owns its rights, it’s been made to look and sound better than ever. Neither is it allowed to be overexposed on television between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Already released once in Blu-ray, in 2009, the changes to the new “Gift Set” edition are limited to holiday packaging, a bell ornament and commemorative booklet. Otherwise, it’s the same fine movie.

In “The Perfect Gift,” Ruben Studdard looks as if he could either be a defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears or ate the backfield for breakfast. All I could do was feel pity for his character’s skinny-Minnie wife, played by Golden Brooks (“Girlfriends”). The “American Idol” winner is given the task of portraying a husband and father whose Christmas is turned upside-down when his wife’s parents make an unannounced visit. With the help of God and his family, the holiday is saved by the discovery of the perfect gift, which was staring back at him all along. The straight-to-DVD movie, which arrives with a bonus soundtrack CD, was shot during a performance of Alvin Moore Jr.’s stage play.

In the Jason Priestly-directed TV movie “Dear Santa,” a spoiled rich girl (Amy Acker) is led to true love and frugality by a 7-year-old girl’s letter to Santa. In it, she asks for a new wife for her widowed dad. To win the guy over, she volunteers at his struggling soup kitchen. (Soup kitchen?) What she doesn’t anticipate is the man’s coldly calculating girlfriend. It’s a holiday rom-com with lots of pretty, mostly Canadian people.

And speaking of Canadian exports, here’s something new and different. In “Hoax for the Holidays” (a.k.a., “Faith, Fraud & Minimum Wage”), a rebellious teenager overwhelmed by the death of a sister discovers an unusual way to make lots of money, fast. While at work at a donut shop, she throws a cup of coffee at the wall, and with a little help, is able to convince customers that it’s the image of Jesus Christ. This causes a stir in her small, god-fearing town, but no more so than with her father, who sees it as a sign from his daughter in heaven. Meanwhile, she tries to haul in enough money from the miracle to make ends meet at home. – Gary Dretzka

Cop Land: Blu-ray
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: Blu-ray

In 1997, no movie was more highly anticipated than “Cop Land” – OK, maybe “Titanic” – if only because of a cast that included Sylvester Stallone, Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta. Writer/director James Mangold had made his debut with the indie hit, “Heavy,” and the Miramax marketing team was pushing the angle of Stallone finally getting to show off his acting chops in a dramatic role. It also was reported that the key actors had agreed to work for scale, so “Cop Land” could fit within a $10-million budget, and Stallone had gained 40 pounds for the role. The reviews were mostly positive and it quadrupled its miniscule budget at the box office. The story concerns shady dealings in a New Jersey town populated with an inordinate number of New York City cops. Stallone plays a local sheriff who is asked by an NYPD internal-affairs officer (DeNiro) to help him make a case against renegade New York cops, living in the small town. As such, it’s pretty much a suicide mission. Stallone’s character is looking for redemption, though, so why not? It’s an excellent police drama. The Blu-ray package comes with an extended cut of the film, with 10 additional minutes of footage; deleted scenes; audio commentary; a making-of featurette; and storyboard comparison.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” was anticipated more as a bizarre novelty than anything else. Besides the fact it represented George Clooney’s directorial debut, Charlie Kaufman had adapted “Dangerous Mind” from Chuck Barris’ highly questionable autobiography. Barris was notorious for producing such outrageous game shows as “The Dating Game,” “The Newlywed Game” and “The Gong Show,” which predated “American Idol” by 30 years, but featured entertainers of the same dubious quality. In his book, Barris admitted to being a CIA assassin, whose assignments not coincidentally took him to the same places as the winning daters he chaperoned. It wasn’t an easy scenario to get one’s head around. Somehow, Clooney made it work with assistance of Sam Rockwell, Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, with an assist from participants in the ’60s-era shows. Even so, it made almost no money. The Blu-ray includes commentary, deleted scenes, “The Real Chuck Barris” documentary and Sam Rockwell’s original screen test. – Gary Dretzka

Pearl Jam Twenty
Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon
Stevie Winwood: Live in Concert: Blu-ray
Chicago: Live in Concert: Blu-ray
Michael McDonald: Live/A Tribute to Motown: Live: Blu-ray

I don’t know a lot about the rock bands that have broken through the crowd over the last 20 years. My MP3 and iTunes playlists pretty much are limited to bands and musicians that were popular before my son entered high school, at which point I decided to accept the fact I’d reached geezer-hood. Among the bands we could agree upon was Pearl Jam, a band born in the shadow of Nirvana and lumped among grunge acts simply because it was from Seattle. Frontman Eddie Vedder’s voice was a cut above most other rockers, before and since he was recruited to replace the recently OD’d lead singer of Mother Love Bone. He also had a riveting personality and willingness to showboat on stage. Rock journalist and Academy Award-winning director Cameron Crowe had moved to Seattle at the same time as Pearl Jam was breaking into the public eye. He culled the material included in “Twenty” from 1,200 hours of footage he’s shot for interviews, articles and just because he felt like it. It was merged with 24 hours of recently shot concert and interview footage. Not surprisingly, the movie looks and sounds great. Fans will enjoy getting up-close and personal with the musicians and newcomers will see what all the fuss is about. In addition to the feature-length documentary, there are 26 minutes of take-outs with individual band members.

Likewise, the Kings of Leon were a mystery to me until I watched “Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon,” a fascinating documentary about a band no Hollywood screenwriter could invent. It is comprised of three brothers and a cousin from the Followill family of Oklahoma and Tennessee. They named their band for their grandfather, Leon, a singer of some local repute, who hailed from Talahini, Oklahoma. The Followill brothers were raised by their father, a Pentecostal minister whose fire-and-brimstone preaching reverberates through the band’s music. The fevered dancing and incomprehensible tongue-talking that begins when the Holy Ghost invades the soul of a parishioner or tent-show attendee also inform their stage presence. What separates “Talihina Sky” from other rock bio-docs, however, is the focus on the extended Followill family at home and family gatherings. They make the Beverly Hillbillies look like the Ewings of Dallas … but, in a very good way. The old-timers love their boys and enjoy their music, but still fear for their souls. For their part, the boys love their family and respect their traditions and country ways. Stephen C. Mitchell’s film is fascinating both as a family history and performance experience. The DVD adds deleted scenes, home movies and commentary tracks.

The latest batch of “Sound Stage” Blu-rays from Image Entertainment includes concerts featuring classic-rock faves Steve Winwood, Chicago and Michael McDonald. I don’t know how many fans of Pearl Jam and Kings of Leon would enjoy the music contained in these sets, but their parents probably know the songs by memory. Winwood’s set list includes music from his days with Traffic, Cream, Blind Faith and his later solo albums. His distinctive voice is in tip-top shape and the Blu-ray presentation adds greatly to the experience.

Chicago began its life in 1967 as Chicago Transit Authority, or CTA, for short. Beyond the blues, the city had developed a reputation for turning out bands – the Ides of March, Cryan’ Shames, Buckinghams, Shadows of Knight – that produced radio-ready songs with brass, sass and lively harmonizing. Soon, though, bands from San Francisco, L.A. and London would dominate playlists. CTA didn’t surrender to flower power or recycled Chicago blues. Instead, it built on recent tradition by becoming one of the first of the new-era bands to embrace cross-genre fusion. It was influenced as much by the increasingly popular San Francisco jam bands, R&B, jazz and funk, as au courant psychedelic rock. Unlike many of their peer artists, Chicago willingly created songs that fit the three-minute-long demands of AM radio, in addition to longer workouts. And, the group sold a lot of albums and singles, without simultaneously touring itself to an early grave. Some of the band members, circa 2004, have gotten pretty long in the tooth, but they definitely can still kick their ancient hits on video.

Michael McDonald has taken more than his fair share of ribbing during a career that’s included stints with Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers and singing backup with too many top artists to count. His willingness to lend his melodious baritone voice to other people’s records has inspired caricatures on shows ranging from “SCTV” to “Family Guy.” As was the case with Chicago, though, there’s no arguing with success. In addition to a hi-def performance of personal standards – some with former Doobies and Ashford & Simpson — the Blu-ray package includes a separate concert in which 14 Motown classics are shared. In it, McDonald is joined by Indira.Arie, Toni Braxton, Take 6 and Billy Preston. – Gary Dretzka

Without a Home
The Last Mountain
Hot Coffee

How many documentaries about the plight of America’s homeless population will it take before someone in Washington acknowledges that a problem exists and it’s worth fixing? A lot more probably because homeless people simply can’t afford to hire lobbyists or simply purchase a politician to advance their complaints. Without one, no one in government is going to pay attention to a crisis their benefactors deny even exists. Conversely, now that the problem has blossomed into a full-blown crisis, legislators are free to throw up their hands and surrender to the difficulty of finding a cure. Filmmaker Rachel Fleischer spent four years attempting to put a recognizable face on the issue of homelessness and finding cures for the root causes of it, including addiction to drugs and alcoholism, chronic mental problems and lack of health-care solutions. Sometime after Fleischer began recording the problems of homelessness and poverty, she broke the cardinal rule of documentary making by inserting herself into the narrative. In addition to covering the experiences of six homeless or virtually homeless individuals in Los Angeles, she began lending her skills at finding temporary shelter, rehabilitation clinics and other resources to her subjects. Before long, however, she gets sucked into serving as their valet, chauffeur and counselor and, of course, they become as dependent on her as on their drugs, alcohol and medication. If she didn’t become involved, however, who would? The DVD adds interviews with sociologists, deleted scenes, anecdotal and making-of material, profiles and a recording of the song “Without a Home.”

Two weeks ago, I reviewed a documentary made in the 1960s about protests that led to reforms in Kentucky’s strip-mining industry. The activists in “You’ve Got to Move” used sit-ins and sing-ins to make their points and win a temporary victory, at least. This was before Richard Nixon signed sweeping environmental legislation — passed with bipartisan support in Congress — and Americans finally could breathe an unfiltered sigh of relief. Forty years later, Republicans in Congress are close to overturning the legislation signed by Nixon, while Democrats twiddle their thumbs. “The Last Mountain” describes the fight to keep West Virginia companies from blowing up and strip-mining every mountain containing coal and polluting the environment surrounding the mining operations. As the movie demonstrates, it’s an uphill battle for residents who have already lost most of their traditional way of life. Politicians refuse to listen, company representatives invent new lies every time they’re interviewed and workers are so desperate to keep their jobs they’ll parrot the company line when confronting their unemployed neighbors. It’s fair to wonder how far Bill Haney’s scrupulously researched “The Last Mountain” would have gotten without the continual presence in Appalachia of professional activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose name carries weight even in the camp of his opponents. Among the bonus features are outtakes and deleted scenes; a Q&A with Kennedy; and PSAs in support of “The Last Mountain” from Emmylou Harris, Naomi Judd, Kathy Mattea.

Just when you thought it was safe to feel sorry for large corporations faced with so-called “frivolous” lawsuits, a documentary comes along to disavow you of that notion. The title, “Hot Coffee,” refers to the elderly Albuquerque woman who was burned by scalding-hot coffee and successfully sued McDonald’s for a couple of million bucks. As ridiculous as the case sounded when recounted by TV news anchors, pinhead radio pundits, late-night talk-show hosts and “Seinfeld” writers, there was another side to the story and it’s the one that wasn’t passed along in the media. In fact, the water in which the coffee was brewed was “as hot as the water in a car’s radiator after being driven for a while.” According the McDonald’s guidelines, the water was far too hot to serve and the Albuquerque woman was one of 700 customers who had suffered similar burns. In fact, the $2.9 million penalty would be reduced to $480,000 dollars by the judge and settled out of court, probably for even less. Ironically, it also was a godsend for companies that wanted to limit the consumers’ right to take them to court. Lobbyists used the coffee case as a rallying cry, passing legislation that was vetoed by President Clinton. Failing in Washington, the so-called American Tort Reform Association took their case to the state legislators who could be bought and sold for Green Stamps. The media took the bait, as well, when President Reagan pushed the association’s agenda by exaggerating the facts of notorious lawsuits. Karl Rove, who worked for Philip-Morris and then-Gov. George Bush simultaneously, would conspire with insurance companies to limit judgments in Texas, both frivolous and legitimate. Bush had no problem raising campaign funds among those who benefitted from such legislation. All he had to do was convince people that their tax dollars were being used to bankroll such suits and the deal was done. Presumably, these people hadn’t been in a position to be damaged by an accident or mistake caused by a corporation or doctor. “Hot Coffee” is important because it questions common wisdom, media ineptitude and political rhetoric at a time when American voters are willing to blame the victims of malfeasance for their own unhappiness and despair.

Is this a great country or what? – Gary Dretzka

Frontline: The Man Who Knew
Frontline: Top Secret America
Victorious: Season 1, Volume 2

It amazing what journalists can learn and report if only their employers let them do their jobs. PBS’ investigative series, “Frontline,” provides visible proof of that notion every week of the year on television and, then, a few weeks later, on DVD. In each hour-long episode, “Frontline” reporters offer viewers a version of America unseen on other media outlets. It’s rarely a pretty picture. In “The Man Who Knew” and “Top Secret America,” we learn how American intelligence officials dropped the ball on Al Qaeda before 9/11 and, after the attacks, spread lies about weapons of mass destruction and the corporatization of the military. Moreover, the many embarrassing lapses prompted President Bush to authorize the creation of an intelligence bureaucracy that grew like Topsy but was little more efficient than the ones it oversaw … which is to say, not very. In “The Man Who Knew,” it is revealed how one FBI counterterrorism gadfly banged the Al Qaeda drum so loudly and so often that his Washington superiors stopped listening to it. Among the things John O’Neill was able to do on his own was identify Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden as specific threats to the United States, even to the point that its operatives had brazenly enrolled in flight schools here. He also anticipated the attack on the USS Cole. This isn’t to say, however, that anyone in Washington would suddenly begin to take him seriously. O’Neill was branded a maverick by the political appointees to whom he reported and, as such, a threat to FBI protocol. The managers who felt threatened by his expertise most made his life miserable, while also ignoring the facts he had given them. As in all “Frontline” reports, the information presented is backed up by interviews with key players and classified documents. Oh, yeah, in a final ironic note, we’re told that O’Neill died as he attempted to flee his new, civilian office in the World Trade Center on 9/11. He was killed, in effect, by the same people he had investigated before being forced to retire from the bureau for insisting too loudly on the threat they posed.

In the wake of 9/11, American citizens were apprised of the fact that the country they knew prior to the attacks was going to change dramatically as Bush administration officials pursued the perpetrators. According to “Top Secret America,” this would the last time people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld would share anything factually revelatory with the public. As journalists were to learn, America’s intelligence agencies competed with each other for teacher’s attention and refused to share vital information with each other. Indeed, much of the information proved to be contradictory. Because the CIA already had a plan for dealing with the Taliban, if not Al Qaeda, the president decided that it would be the agency to conduct the secret war, instead of Rumsfeld’s minions. To keep everyone in the loop, he also ordered the creation of an entirely new umbrella agency. What began as the brunt of jokes among intelligence insiders has grown into an uber-bureaucracy of its own, with an expensive new building and outposts in strip malls and industrial parks throughout the U.S. As was the case with the “Underwear Bomber,” it sometimes is no more effective than the spell-check function on its computers. The most publicized threats to our safety were thwarted by troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan and sharp-eyed cops and civilians who can see what spy satellites don’t. The material forwarded in “Top Secret America” was reported by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dana Priest.

Just as there’s no “I” in “team,” without T-O-R-I, there’s no “Victorious” on Nickelodeum. Breakout-star-in-waiting Victoria Justice portrays Tori Vega in the popular Nickelodeon sitcom, which is set at mythical Hollywood Arts high school. Justice is the most prominent member of an excellent ensemble cast of talented young performers who simply can’t wait to become famous and eventually rich. First, though, the kids have to pay some dues, and, in L.A., they aren’t cheap or easy … unless one is comparing the experience to that of normal teens in other performing-arts high schools. Still, give or take a puppet or two, they’re fun to watch. The episodes collected here are from summer and fall of 2010 and represent only half a season’s output, in no discernible order. The second half of the second season is already in progress. The DVD adds a music video of “Best Friend’s Brother,” the “iCarly” cross-over special and a making-of featurette of the mash-up version of that show. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup:Captain America, Jurassic Park Trilogy, Aftershock, Father of Invention, Winnie the Pooh, Rare Exports, Shaolin …

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger
The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Volumes 3, 4

A couple of months ago, in reviewing the 1990 adaptation of “Captain America,” I wondered how the no-frills version would measure up to the monster-budget “The First Avenger,” which I had yet to see. Not surprisingly, the special effects in the 2011 version are a million times better those in the original, which weren’t at all special or, for that matter, effective. Ironically, though, if I hadn’t seen the 1990 film – directed by exploitation specialist Albert Pyun – I would have had trouble understanding the story behind the summer blockbuster. The primary antagonist in both movies is Red Skull, a Nazi whose powers were developed at approximately the same the same time as scientist Abraham Erskine (a.k.a., Dr. Josef Reinstein ) introduced the Super-Soldier Serum into the puny human guinea pig, Steve Rogers. Although the comic-book Captain America would do battle with several Nazi villains, sympathizers and spies, only Red Skull was allowed to survive the war and reignite his rivalry with Captain America. After being awakened from a decades-long nap, Rogers and his alter ego would continue to confront international villainy under the auspices of Marvel’s Avengers. Indeed, there are several times in “Captain America: The First Avenger” when the superhero’s “origin story” feels more like a teaser for next year’s summer smash, “The Avengers” – featuring Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Iron Man, the Hulk, Loki and Pepper Potts – than a movie designed to stand on its own two feet.

Comic-book loyalists probably will favor the origin story over the spectacularly loud battles between the forces of good and evil in “The First Avenger.” Rogers’ transformation isn’t nearly as amazing as that ascribed to Bruce Banner and the Hulk, so kids nurtured CGI-enhanced action epics likely will merely tolerate the breaks for humorous exposition. While not at all credible as history, the movie stops well short of suggesting one superhero could change the tide of war single-handedly or even in the company of a special forces team of his choosing. It is fitting, then, that the most compelling moments are those in which Steve Rogers is attempting to make the grade as a soldier. Through the sheer force of his will, the runt of the Rogers’ family’s litter convinces his superiors – played by Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell and Stanley Tucci – that he’s got the right stuff. Unless viewers are familiar with Chris Evans from “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” – he played Johnny Storm/Human Torch – it will require a certain suspension of disbelief to accept him in the role of a more pumped-up superhero. It won’t take long, though. Beyond that, “Captain America” is standard issue. The Blu-ray bonus package includes commentary with director Joe Johnston, director of photography Shelly Johnson and editor Jeffrey Ford; an amusing short, “Marvel One-Shot: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer”; several background and making-of featurettes; a profile of Red Skull; deleted scenes; a preview of “The Avengers”; a digital and DVD copy. A Blu-ray 3D version also is available in combination with the other formats.

For those fans of the Avengers who simply can’t wait until next summer’s big show, there’s Marvel’s “The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” The second season of Disney XD’s animated series has just begun, so it’s the perfect time for latecomers to catch up. Volumes 3 and 4 wrap up Season One. In the first disc, the Avengers face off against Baron Zemo’s Masters of Evil. Defeat could open the door for a full-scale alien invasion, led by the time-traveling Kang the Conqueror. As if that threat weren’t sufficiently frightening, the season closes with a seven-episode arc in which Ultron, his army of robots and Loki put all of humanity in jeopardy. Among the extras are “Avengers Unmasked: Masters of Evil”/“Hail, Hydra!” an animated in-episode comic-book experience with trivia and backgrounders on the heroes and villains. – Gary Dretzka

Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy: Blu-ray
Dinosaurs have been very good to Steven Spielberg. Besides directing and/or producing the first three entries in the “Jurassic Park” franchise – newly repackaged in an all-inclusive Blu-ray boxed set – Spielberg has announced progress on a fourth edition, and his Fox TV series, “Terra Nova,” has been picking up steam in the prime-time ratings. If “Jurassic Park” represents something of a “Back to the Future” approach to paleontology, “Terra Nova” first requires viewers to leap forward to 2149, before being put into reverse 85 million years to dinosaur days. Without the ideas formulated in “Jurassic Park,” “Terra Nova” might have looked a lot like a live-action version of “The Flintstones.”

Ironically, much of the magic on display in “Jurassic Park,” “The Lost World” and “Jurassic Park III” derived from pre-CGI special-effects techniques and the ink-on-paper genius of novelist Michael Crichton. Anyone who saw “Jurassic Park” in its debut run will never forget how truly thrilling it was to witness entirely credible depictions of life in prehistoric times. There had been nothing else quite like it then and very few movies since then have been able to top it for sheer audacity and as pure entertainment. Watching the predator sequence in Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” it’s impossible not to recall when Spielbergian reptiles roamed Hollywood production studios.

All three of the “JP” movies have been digitally re-mastered for enhanced picture and sound. The supplemental material also includes a digital copy of all three films; “Return to ‘Jurassic Park’”: a six-part documentary, featuring new interviews with Spielberg, “JPIII” director Joe Johnston cast and crew members; feature commentary; deleted scenes; animatics; visual effects, before and after; Foley artists; storyboards; visits to Stan Winston Studio and ILM; production stills, sketches, models, posters and toys; “‘Jurassic Park’: Making the Game”; and more new and archived featurettes than you can shake a stegosaurs’ tail at. Among them are “Hurricane in Kauai,” “A Discussion With Author Michael Crichton,” “The Compie Dance Number: Thank You Steven Spielberg From ILM,” “Montana: Finding New Dinosaurs,” “Spinosaurus Attacks the Plane,” “Raptors Attack Udesky” and “The Lake.” – Gary Dretzka

For most of the last seven or eight years, natural disasters have dominated the world’s headlines. Millions of people’s lives have been destroyed or seriously altered by events way beyond anyone’s control. Special-effects wizards have attempted to approximate the look and force of tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, fires, hurricanes and tornadoes, but images captured by civilians on hand-held digital cameras and cell-phones have trumped everything Hollywood’s thrown our way. What can’t be duplicated on film, however, is the raw human drama that unfolds when the cameras go away and survivors are left to their own devices. Because Hurricane Katrina happened in our own back yard and ignorant politicians compounded the tragedy with their indifference and racism, Spike Lee and other fine filmmakers were inspired to record our government’s shame for posterity. (It also helped that Sean Penn and Brad Pitt committed their resources to relief efforts.) Xiaogang Feng’s powerful drama, “Aftershock,” adapted from a novel by Ling Zhang, depicts events surrounding the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. With a magnitude estimated at between 7.8 and 8.2, the 23-second-long quake leveled a city of 1million inhabitants in northeastern China, leaving at least 240,000 of them dead. If you weren’t aware of the disaster until now, it’s only because the Communist government refused to accept international aid through the UN, preferring instead to rely on the combined forces of medical relief teams from Shanghai and the People’s Liberation Army. Immediately after the rescue missions were completed, the government committed itself to rebuilding the industrial city, which it did. Large sections of New Orleans still resemble a war zone.

The human story told in “Aftershock” is even more fascinating. It focuses on truck driver Da Qiang, his wife Yuan Ni and their twins, Fang Da and Fang Deng, an otherwise ordinary proletarian family. When the earthquake hits, mom and dad are downstairs from their modest apartment, sharing some private time inside his truck. The twins are upstairs, sleeping. So devastating is the initial shock that the street separating the parking lot from the apartment literally is shredded. The building collapses before anyone can mount a rescue effort. Da Qiang is killed in an aftershock. Fortuitously, the children survive the collapse, but are stuck in the rubble, badly wounded. After several hours pass, Yuan Ni is given the impossible choice of picking which child will survive the lifting of a child chunk of concrete. Within earshot of the girl, Yuan Ni reluctantly picks the son, Fang Da, whose hand has already been shattered. Fang Deng’s body is loaded onto a truck along with that of her father. In an amazing twist of fate, the girl awakens from her terrible sleep and departs the truck when she realizes that everyone is dead. Too traumatized to speak, she’s comforted by a married couple who serve together in the army. Childless, they are granted permission to adopt Fang Deng and raise her at their military compound, where she will be loved and educated. (There’s no indication any members of her family survived.) Meanwhile, Fang Da has adapted to life with his prosthetic hand. Yuan Ni remains overprotective of her son, who, she fears, will be scorned by society for his condition. Fang Da worships his mother, but is determined to prove her wrong.

There’s no need to spoil any surprises, except to acknowledge what most of you already suspect. The twins eventually will be reunited, but only after growing into adulthood with some of their wounds yet to be fully healed. If “Aftershock” tends to wallow in melodrama occasionally, it neatly fits the mold of most epic family dramas and depicts a sleeping giant about to emerge from its isolationist shell. The characters feel completely genuine and free of any propagandistic baggage. It’s simply a terrifically engaging story, well told. Upon its release, “Aftershock” became the most successful Chinese-produced movie in nation’s history, topping “The Founding of a Republic.” Oh, yeah, American viewers may not grasp the significance of the swarm of dragonflies that appears over the city as the movie opens. Traditionally, such events have served as an early-warning system by earthquake watchers in China and the dragonflies appeared, on cue, along with other natural phenomenon, prior to the disaster. – Gary Dretzka

Father of Invention
Kevin Spacey is the best and probably only good reason to stick with the badly undernourished dramedy, “Father of Invention.” In it, the two-time Academy Award-winner plays a highly successful infomercial huckster, Robert Axle, sent to prison for eight years after one of his “fabrications” (a.k.a., inventions) malfunctions, leaving gullible customers with missing fingers. Worse than having to spend time in prison, however, is coming to grips with the damage done to his family, especially his estranged daughter, Claire (Camilla Belle). Penniless, Robert is turned away from the Lake Ponchartrain mansion he once shared with Clair and his ditzoid mother (Virginia Madsen). Desperate, he begs his daughter to allow him to crash on the couch of the apartment she shares with two roommates, one of whom is a lesbian (Heather Graham) and the other an emotional basket case (Anna Anissamova). All of the women treat him as if he just dragged dog shit onto an heirloom rug. As a term of his probation, Robert takes a job at a discount store, where he’s constantly reminded of the products he once pitched. In almost record time, he’s fired by a sympathetic, if no-nonsense boss (Johnny Knoxville).

“Father of Invention” really goes off the deep end when Robert cooks up an invention that could get him back on track again. First, though, he must secure $5,000 to hire his former techie buddy. His status as a felon and ex-con precludes him from receiving even that insignificant amount through normal sources, so he does the most short-sighted and unethical thing he could possibly do to come up with the money, by stealing it from someone who has come to trust him. (He would have tried to borrow or steal it from his ex-wife, if she hadn’t squandered every cent of her $300-million-plus divorce settlement.) By tacking on an overly sentimental and completely improbable ending, writer/director Trent Cooper (“Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector”) only digs a deeper grave for his sophomore feature. Spacey fans, however, won’t be any more disappointed in killing time with “Father of Invention,” than they were watching him in the marginally better “Horrible Bosses.” Too bad no one beat Cooper to the punch by adapting Ron Popeil’s autobiography for the screen and casting Spacey as the master pitchman and legendary inventor of gizmos consumers didn’t know they needed, until they saw them on TV. – Gary Dretzka

Winnie the Pooh: Blu-ray
Anyone who thinks that America’s dwindling corps of movie critics is comprised entirely of jaded eggheads with an ax to grind against G-rated Hollywood entertainment would do well to consider the case of “Winnie the Pooh.” The crusty curmudgeons were overwhelming in their approval of this, the fifth feature-length adaptation of A.A. Milne’s beloved books from Disney. At 69 gently flowing minutes, “Winnie the Pooh” must have felt like the cinematic equivalent of a palate-cleansing sherbet, compared with most of loud and brainless junk to which they’re subjected on a daily basis. Moreover, “Winnie the Pooh” was simply drawn and not remotely beholding to CGI wizards or 3D for enjoyment. The critics didn’t even seem to mind that Disney might be able to parley the movie’s good vibes into another zillion dollars worth of toys and honey jars sold.

The film is comprised of three Milne stories: “In Which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One,” “In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump” and “In Which Rabbit Has a Busy Day and We Learn What Christopher Robin Does in the Mornings.” In addition to the most popular inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Woods in attendance here, there’s the possibly mythical monster, Backson. It is rumored to have abducted Christopher Robin, adding one more problem to the ones associated with Eeyor’s missing tail, Owl’s poor spelling skills and Pooh’s endless appetite for honey. What’s especially clever here is imaginative use of animated words, letters and typography to advance the narrative, without diminishing or disturbing E. H. Shepard’s water-color backgrounds.
Among the voice actors are narrator John Cleese, Craig Ferguson (Owl), Jim Cummings (Pooh, Tigger) and SoCal media curiosity Huell Howser (Backson). Zooey Dechanel and M. Ward (a.k.a., She & Him) supply songs. The Blu-ray presentation is excellent, not that your kids will know the difference. The bonus material includes the backgrounder, “Winnie the Pooh and His Story, Too,” which explains the origins and history of Milne’s books; 15 minutes worth of deleted and alternative scenes, some in sketch form; the bonus shorts, “The Ballad of Nessie” and “Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: Pooh’s Balloon”; sing-along versions of the movie’s songs; and, for parents-to-be “Creating the Perfect Winnie the Pooh Nursery.” – Gary Dretzka

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale: Blu-Ray
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
Mardi Gras Spring Break

Tired of sitting around, waiting for the millionth showings of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” every time December rolls around? Start your own holiday tradition by putting “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” on the old Blu-ray player and enjoying a truly twisted interpretation of the Father Christmas legend. According to European lore, Saint Nicholas once traveled in the company of a freakish little devil known as Black Peter. Together, they would judge the boys and girls to determine if they were deserving of gifts of sweets and nuts or lumps of coal … or worse. It wasn’t until commercialism subverted the true meaning of Christmas that Black Peter’s role was reduced and St. Nicholas took on the characteristics of the Santa Claus found in Coca-Cola commercials. “Rare Exports” subverts the legend even more by adding a palpable aura of horror.

“Rare Exports” is set in contemporary Lapland, where reindeer herdsmen are suffering from a mysterious shortage of migrating animals to hunt. At the same time, miners working for a foreign company have discovered within Korvatunturi Mountain the grotesque body of a long-buried creature, which bears a resemblance to paintings of Black Peter. And, where Black Peter lies, Father Christmas can’t be far away. Here, though, there are several as-yet-unformed Father Christmases in the nearby forests and they all look as if they spend their summers living in a cardboard box in an alley off Times Square. They’re scrawny, bearded, extremely dirty and not at all jolly. In the absence of reindeer, though, these nasty little men could prove to be a valuable commodity if trained to be bearers of good tidings in countries without Santas of they’re own. Already, they’ve been offered a considerable sum for the one specimen they’ve managed to trap. The trick will be rounding up other geezers and herding them into the pens once reserved for reindeer.

The idea for such an unlikely movie sprang from a pair of short films writer/director Jalmari Helander distributed as Christmas cards to friends and clients of his production company. They became an Internet sensation and are included in the Blu-ray package, along with interviews and making-of featurettes. For some bizarre reason, the good folks at Oscilloscope thought it would be a grand idea if they added an extra special treat, “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” a movie that benefits not at all from being shown in hi-def. The 1964 kiddies’ thriller is notorious for two things: 1) displaying no discernible production values, and 2) introducing unsuspecting audiences to 10-year-old Pia Zadora. Yes, it’s a terrible movie. Fact is, though, I’ve seen plenty worse, including this week’s entry “Mardi Gras Spring Break.” “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” remains a movie that is intended for the enjoyment of post-toddlers, not fans of “MST3K” … if such a show was even conceivable in 1964. For the one or two people out there unfamiliar with Nicholas Webster’s cinematic atrocity, the plot is simplicity itself.

An expeditionary force of green Martian commandoes endeavors to kidnap Santa Claus, who they blame for corrupting their children. That’s right, American television is available on Mars. Instead of landing at the North Pole, however, they head straight to the house belonging to Zadora and her movie brother. Sensing that the spacemen are up to no good, the kids stow away on their rocket ship. They hope to warn Santa of the dastardly plan, but first are required to evade the phoniest polar bear in the history of the movies. Even if the title ruins the suspense, there’s no need to spoil any more of the “fun.”

Any list of the worst movies of all time that includes “SCCTM” and not “Mardi Gras: Spring Break” has no credibility whatsoever. It’s so bad, it makes the raunch-fests “presented” by National Lampoon look like Neil Simon night on TMC. In it, three college seniors head for New Orleans for Mardi Gras, which this year corresponds somehow with spring break. The lure, of course, is the likelihood they’ll see the breasts of hundreds of women trolling for beads. If not on Bourbon Street, then the countless wet T-shirt contests that pass for entertainment during any spring break. When the boys aren’t soliciting tit-shots, they’re vomiting, passing out, playing with their feces, trying to sneak into nightclubs, jumping off balconies, trying not to act gay and vomiting some more. Carmen Electra makes an extended cameo, but, sadly, remains uncharacteristically chaste. That’s it. – Gary Dretzka

Shaolin: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Roger Corman’s Cult Classic’s Lethal Ladies Collection

I’m no expert on martial-arts movies, but, as they say, I know what I like, and I liked “Shaolin” a lot. Or, maybe it’s because I don’t know a great deal about martial-arts movies that I enjoyed “Shaolin” as much as I did. No matter, it only opened in a handful of theaters here and didn’t do enough business to warrant a wider release. So, what do I know? Set at a time when warlords fought for control of territory coveted as much by foreign business interests as the fledgling Republic of China, “Shaolin” describes an epic confrontation between the forces of good and evil. In one corner stand the fighting monks of the ancient Shaolin temple, while, in the other, reside the dueling warlords and British imperialists intent on razing the property for railroad right-of-way. The monks are pretty much limited to long sticks and fists of fury, which normally would provide sufficient defense. The militarists have at their disposal an arsenal full of guns, cannon, axes, swords and battle-ready horses. It’s nearly a draw.

The drama at the heart of the story involves a three-way feud between ambitious sibling warlords and their greedy mentor. In a classic triple-cross, the subordinate brother, Cao Man, avenges perceived insults by perverting a scheme hatched by his older sibling, Hou Jie (Andy Lau), to assassinate the boss and take control of the capital. Days earlier, Cao Man had chased a wounded enemy warlord into the temple, where he sought and was granted temporary sanctuary. Hou Jie pretended to honor the abbot’s wishes, but shot the man, anyway. His brutality and lack of honor are duly noted by the monks, who value mercy over revenge. His daughter couldn’t be saved, but Hou Jie correctly blames himself for the tragedy and seeks redemption in the monastic life. When, much later, the increasingly evil Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) learns that Hou Jie is alive and living in the temple, he lays siege to the monastery. Not only are the lives of the monks threatened, but also those of hundreds of refugees fleeing enforced servitude to the railroad builders and certain death when they’re too exhausted to work. This time through, the monks don’t stand idly by as the outsider attacks the temple, and the ensuing battle is fierce. A surprise ending and satisfying epilogue demonstrate how karma cuts both ways.

Needed comic relief is provided by the ubiquitous Jackie Chan, who uses kung-fu techniques to prepare meals for the monks. The youngest monks in training observe his methodology and employ it in their own martial-arts training. The sharp Blu-ray presentation accentuates the beautiful settings and costumes. A Blu-ray featurette blends deleted scenes with making-of footage, including that of the wire work.

And, now, let’s move from the sublime to the ridiculous, in the form of a trilogy of kung-fu exploitation flicks from Roger Corman. “Firecracker,” “TNT Jackson” and “Too Hot To Handle” are distinguished solely by the appearance of supremely hot female protagonists, played by Jullian Kesner, Jeannie Bell and Cheri Caffaro, respectively. “TNT Jackson” is a two-fer, in that it also qualifies as a blaxploitation classic. All of the movies were shot largely in the in the Philippines and Hong Kong and feature a supporting cast of smarmy locals. The plots resemble each other in that all three of the women arrive from the U.S. to avenge the death of a sibling, friend or fellow drug smuggler. Equally sexy women play deep-cover narcotics agents, pretending to be gangsters’ molls. The fighting scenes are pretty good, too, especially when clothes are ripped off. Besides some scratchy trailers, the only bonus feature is commentary with Caffaro, who plays an international hit woman involved in James Bond-ish escapades in Manila and sees herself as a pioneer in female-entitlement roles. She’s probably right. As goofy as they may be, all three of the movies are great fun to watch. – Gary Dretzka

A Little Help: Blu-ray
Sometimes, it’s really easy to figure out what went wrong with a feature film, even one with highly recognizable stars and a serviceable script. More often than not, material that’s fragile in the first place is allowed to stay in the hands of a writer who believes he’s the best person to direct his brainchild. The blame can also be laid at the feet of young directors who don’t know or refuse to acknowledge when they’re in over their heads. In the specific case of “A Little Help,” writer/director Michael J. Weithorn – a veteran of the television-sitcom wars — seemingly failed to take into account the differences between small-screen-comedy conventions and those governing big-screen dramas. There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with a script that finds similarities in the emotional aftereffects of 9/11 and the PTSS experienced by a suburban mother and son who’ve suddenly and unexpectedly lost the rock in their life to a heart attack. The movie is set on Long Island, circa 2002, after all, and everybody felt a bit unhinged. Jenna Fischer (“The Office”) portrays the mother of a 12-year-old boy and a dental hygienist, who’s recently returned to work and admittedly has stopped caring much about how she looks. On the same day Laura decides to confront her husband (Chris O’Donnell) about her fears about his cheating on her, he suffers two heart attacks, one of which was misdiagnosed and the other fatal.

Shell-shocked, Laura allows herself to be manipulated by her overbearing mother (Lesley Anne Warren) and sister (Brooke Smith), who convince her to enroll her son in a private school and sue her husband’s doctor, neither of which she wants to do. As the prototypical new kid in school, Dennis overcomes his inferiority complex by telling everyone his dad died in 9/11, thus engendering waves of sympathy. Seeing how desperate Dennis was for positive attention, Laura decides against admitting the truth to his classmates and teachers. The ruse has an obvious downside, but they get away with it for a while. In the meantime, though, Laura bandages her own pain with risky short-term solutions, including beer and a humiliating one-night stand. “A Little Help” is billed as a comedy/drama, but I found the laughs to be hidden behind a thick wall of darkness, allowing only occasional opportunities for Laura to brighten her dour expression. Indeed, most of the comedy derives from Ron Leibman’s crusty take on Laura’s father, who’s rapidly approaching senility.

The Blu-ray edition arrives with a slew of interview snippets, collected from promotional send-outs and a Jakob Dylan music video. Dylan’s songs, while perfectly fine, appear to have been included as substitutes for meaningful dialogue. – Gary Dretzka

Uncle Bob
The Cost of Love

Formed in 2009, Breaking Glass Pictures is one of the most interesting new distribution labels in the DVD marketplace. The selections in the company’s 70-title catalogue run the genre gamut, from horror, thriller and sci-fi, to BDSM, erotic drama and romance, and almost everything else in between. Almost none of them have enjoyed wide release, anywhere, but there are some very obvious reasons for such neglect. Just as its Vicious Circle sidebar covers extreme horror, QC Cinema specializes in gay & lesbian theatrical and documentary releases. A recent sampling is indicative of the selections available. “Uncle Bob” is a documentary that answers the musical question, “Whatever happened to the guy who streaked the 1974 Oscar ceremony?” Firstly, his name was Robert Opel and he was a performance artist who believed that societal hang-ups over nudity couldn’t be addressed, let alone cured, if mainstream Americans were afraid to look at naked people. Coming out of the ’60s, such an idea was hardly revolutionary. Neither, by this time in American history, was streaking considered to be particularly radical. He would routinely appear on TV talk shows as the date for new Academy Awards presentations approached. In 1979, he was murdered in his San Francisco in circumstances his nephew, filmmaker Robert Oppel – yes, two p’s — still considers to be mysterious. In “Uncle Bob,” Oppel paints a fascinating portrait of extremely personable gay activist, performance artist, photographer and gallery owner. It also extends the story told in Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” of a pre-AIDS San Francisco bursting at the seams with counter-cultural energy and a mad desire to be unshackled from society’s chains. Among the eyewitnesses and friends interviewed are filmmaker and producer Abel Ferrara; singer and companion Camille O’Grady; HRH Lee Mentley, the Princess of Castro Street; photographer and Milk associate Daniel Nicoletta; former Cockette Ruby Missabu; and educator Jack Fritscher. Also shown in archival interviews are John Waters, Divine and Mike Douglas. Oppel introduces his theories about his uncle in loosely staged dramatizations. The bonus features includes Robert Opel’s complete interview with Divine, at Fay Wey Studios; Robert Oppel’s short film “Trip Back Forward,” with the Cockettes; the “Red, White & Blue Me” music video; and a photo gallery.

The title character of “Gigola” comes exactly as advertised: a cross-dressing Parisian lesbian, who’s as much a companion to her older female clientele as she is a prostitute. When we meet her, sometime in the early 1960s, Georgia (Lou Doillon) has the long dark hair associated with most college students her age. Upon passing her exams, she demands of her older lover that she cut her hair in a style that approximates that of a Pigalle “dandy.” It’s not an unusual look for women who frequent the exclusive clubs and bars of the nightclub district, but, for someone her age, it’s pretty severe. She also favors a top hat, precisely cut tuxedo and cobra-tipped cane, which she carries both for protection and as an affectation. Her social circle is comprised of women of all ages and income brackets, all of whom dress alike. After her lover commits suicide, Georgia re-names herself Gigola. With the name comes a sharp new edge that causes her to be more comfortable as a pimp than a whore and an antagonistic presence in her mother’s (Marissa Berenson) life. Somewhere along the line, Gigola runs afoul of the local mob and voluntarily becomes pregnant, although not necessarily in that order. She may think she’ll know how to remain self-sufficient when the mob closes in and her baby pushes out, but she doesn’t. First-time filmmaker Laure Charpentier does better at capturing the period atmosphere than developing a story that ebbs and flows naturally. The sex, while plentiful, isn’t remotely pornographic.

Also from QC, “The Cost of Love” is about a male escort and confirmed cruiser based in Greenwich, England, who has everything working in his favor, except love. Unfortunately, the man Dale cares most about is a doctor, straight and about to be married. Naturally, Dale turns for advice to his friend, Sean, a drag artist with strong feelings for him. And, of course, at 28, an escort with Dale’s appetite isn’t getting any younger. Writer/director Carl Medland isn’t afraid to put his diverse cast of characters through the ringer. – Gary Dretzka

A Serbian Film: Blu-ray
Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings
Pre-Halloween cult horror

Consider the images we’ve just witnessed of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi being pummeled, shot and dragged lifeless down a highway by his captors, before being left in a meat locker to be gawked at and rot. Then, recall the photographs of naked Iraqi prisoners being humiliated and tortured by bored National Guard troops. Try to imagine, as well, what kind of sickness would prompt Sudanese soldiers to stand by and watch as millions of people are being allowed to starve to death in an endless war. Meanwhile, at the United Nations, the world’s richest and most powerful nations can’t even agree on the number of unarmed Syrian protesters have to die before a bounty is put on Bashar al-Assad’s head. That’s the kind of stuff a master of horror could use to his advantage. It’s real and it’s supremely frightening. If the characters didn’t drop more than one or two f-bombs, expose their nipples or rip each other’s heads off, such a movie theoretically could be rated PG-13.

And, yet, censorial bodies and distributors around the world routinely decide that obviously fictitious depictions of extreme sexual behavior and violence require censorship and, in the case of “A Serbian Movie,” outright banishment. Even Netflix, a seemingly open-minded operation, has decided that adults aren’t prepared to watch such a provocative movie in the comfort of their own homes. Such hypocrisy isn’t ignored in the bombardment of points that director Srdjan Spasojevic makes “A Serbian Film.” On its pock-marked surface, this much-reviled movie is an allegory in which a retired porn star is unable to resist the lure of easy money, even when he’s left completely in the dark as to what he’ll have to do to earn it. The porn star, Milos, accepts the offer believing that he’s already performed every conceivable sexual stunt – short of pedophilia, necrophilia or actual incest – throughout his long and profitable career and there’s precious little left to surprise him. That logic might apply in a lot of places, but not in the once vibrant, ethnically diverse region formerly known as Yugoslavia. Once the Iron Curtain was lifted, tinhorn potentates encouraged their loyalists to ignore every moral principle drilled into them at the feet of their teachers, clergy and parents, all in the name of nationalistic pride. Like the many soldiers forced to obey the unconscionable orders of madmen and sadists, Milos really should have questioned where the producer of such a movie would draw the line. This man, Milos, who believed he had seen and done everything a porn icon could be asked to do, quickly would discover veins of depravity even a coke whore would refuse to mine. When Milos decides it’s to pull the plug on his participation in the psycho-sexual horror show, he’s no longer in control of his own fate. Dead or alive, the movie within the movie in “A Serbian Film” will be finished. Instead of being an actor, Milos could just as well have been asked to portray an investment banker ordered to foreclose on homes owned by laid-off nurses, teachers and factory workers, or a political operative assigned to destroy the reputation of a kind and honorable opponent. These are the horrors of our time.

Even though “A Serbian Film” is Spasojevic’s first movie – screenwriter Aleksandar Radivojevic already had penned “Tears for Sale” – it is an extremely accomplished work. The lighting, music and set design all contribute to the movie’s we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore atmosphere, when Milos realizes he’s passed the been-there/done-it barrier. By then, however, he’s barely capable of distinguishing between his nightmares, drug-induced hallucinations and real life. So are we. At this juncture, Milos’ hysteria resembles that of the characters in “Requiem for a Dream,” the movie “A Serbian Film” most resembles. To be sure, “A Serbian Film” is strictly for adult eyes and discerning ones, at that. Like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo” – also newly released in Blu-ray — it will test even the most open-minded of viewers.

A horror movie that’s already being promoted at Netflix and the even more censorial Blockbuster is “Wrong Turn 4: Unrated.” Like the aforementioned “Mardi Gras: Spring Break,” Declan O’Brien’s bloodbath is gratuitous in every conceivable way: violence, nudity, stupidity. It doesn’t have a single new idea going for it and reveals nothing – new or old – about the human condition. Creatively, it exists simply as an excuse to showcase the makeup-effects chops of a bunch of Hollywood kids who majored in gore at film school. Commercially, it exists … well, as yet another hit-and-run sequel in a brand-name franchise. Normally, I wouldn’t waste a lot of time decrying gratuitous violence and sex in a genre film, especially one capable of inspiring three sequels. If I had to choose between pulling the proverbial plug on “A Serbian Film” or “Wrong Turn 4,” I’d come down on the side of the latter. Even horror has its limits, or should have. Anyone committed to exhibiting 94 minutes of non-stop dismemberment, cannibalism, deformed mental patients, voyeuristic sex, the constant misuse of cutlery and dimwitted college students deserves to be hung by his thumbs during a screening of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.”

The fourth chapter opens with the origin story of the inbred hillbilly brothers we met in the original 2003 “Wrong Turn.” This time around, it’s the dead of winter and a group of stranded college kids takes refuge in the now dark and presumably empty West Virginia sanitarium. It’s not uninhabited, of course.
The hillbilly-cannibal brothers and a few of their demented friends make their presence known only a few minutes after the second of two sex scenes. After that, it’s non-stop carnage … none of which is terribly scary.

Beware” is slightly less gory than “Wrong Turn,” but benefits from infinitely better character development and a semblance of a plot. It’s the story of a boy named “Shane,” who was tortured and chained to a tree after his dad went nuts and killed his mother and her boyfriend (possibly Shane’s real father). After escaping, he grew up in the woods and slaughtered anyone who came too close to his secretly demented sister. The latest victims are a group of Hispanic teens heading to a rock concert. When their car breaks down in a most inopportune place, who ya gonna call? Will anyone survive to star in a squeal? Stay tuned.

For those whose appetite for depravity and bloodlust knows no bounds, the gentle folks at MVD Visuals have released a slew of micro-budget, do-it-yourself thrillers: “Hellweek: Grindhouse Bootleg Edition,” “Demon Divas and the Lanes of Damnation,” “The Resurrection Game: 10th Anniversary Edition,” “Lust for Vengeance: 10th Anniversary Explicit Version” and “House of the Damned.”Among the many “highlights”: in addition to the fresh original cut of “Hellweek,” there’s a grind-house version “with all the dirt, filth and scratches from 42nd Street”; in “Demon Divas,” scream queens help a pair of nerdy college girls get even with their tormenters … at a bowling alley; “The Resurrection Game” imagines a society in which zombies are merely a nuisance and cogs in a much large conspiracy; “Lust for Vengeance” … sex, drugs and a serial killer; and in the “House of the Damned,” Mommie Dearest harvests the youth of her daughter. – Gary Dretzka

When Harry Tries to Marry

I can’t imagine why anyone would name a romantic comedy, “When Harry Tries to Marry.” Maybe it rolls off the tongue in Bengali,Punjabi, Hindi or Tamil, but, in English, it sounds unfinished. The title does, however, sum up what happens in writer/director Nayan Padrai’s sweet, if uneven debut. Harry is an Indian college student living in New York. After comparing the results of his grandparents’ arranged marriage with the results of the shotgun nuptials of his parents, Harry decides he’ll go the traditional route by asking an uncle to find a suitable wife for him. And, this he does. The two connect long-range, via Skype, forging a bond that normally would lead to marriage, as it almost does. Freed from the encumbrance of having to obsess over finding suitable marriage material, Harry is free to make female friends and enjoy his undergraduate years. The problem, of course, comes when this newly found freedom allows him to become too close to a classmate who is perfect in every possible way, except that she’s a tall, sexy redhead of the American persuasion. While Harry enjoys everything about having a platonic relationship with a really nice woman, Theresa has become enchanted with his openness, concern and kindness. Harry remains blind to her attentions until two nights before their gala Indian wedding, when she alerts him to her true feelings for him, and he reciprocates. No surprise there, either.

“When Harry Tries to Marry” is a well-meaning confection that gets stuck in too many ruts wheels during its 93-minute length. I could have done with a bit more Bollywood and a lot less New York, but the movie appears to be targeted at American audiences, especially14-year-old Bridezillas-in-waiting. The movie picks up some steam when everyone arrives in India for the wedding. Even without Blu-ray, the DVD sparkles with the brilliant colors associated with Indian social gatherings. It comes with making-of material and music videos. – Gary Dretzka

Maxwell Street Blues
Prince of Broadway
Fire in Babylon
Boys of Summer
Turkey Bowl
In the early 1900s, Chicago’s Maxell Street was a bustling commercial district largely populated by Jewish immigrants. It had already served as a gateway neighborhood for Irish, Bohemian, German, Russians, Italian and Greek newcomers, and would later provide temporary housing for southern blacks and Mexicans. If residents felt as if they were sitting at the crossroads of world commerce, they weren’t far from the truth. Although stores lined Maxwell Street, it was the open-air market that became known far and wide as a place to find treasures, junk sold as antiques, trinkets and novelties, food from the Old Country, work clothes, First Communion outfits and the shiny new tires stolen off your car. It was as synonymous with Chicago as gangsters and meat packing. (The Daleys would come later.) Eventually, the market would be forced to make way for freeways, colleges, urban renewal and other economic realities. The only constant over the final few decades of Maxwell Street’s life were the blues buskers who played for tips and occasionally were hired by bar owners looking for inexpensive talent. Made in 1981, “Maxwell Street Blues” documents the shuttering of that era. Linda Williams and Raul Zaritsky strolled among the ruins, filming the blues musicians who, by and large, no longer were ready for prime time (and the burgeoning North Side blues scene.) These man and women may have been ancient, but they could still hold a tune and spin a yarn. Maxwell Street doesn’t even exist as a graveyard anymore. A college-owned residential complex and other facilities have been built on its ruins and the market has been moved further south. This wonderful documentary provides a snapshot of a nearly forgotten moment in time. It’s been lovingly restored and comes with an update featurette.

While not a documentary, “Prince of Broadway” looks very much like one. It had me fooled for 15 minutes, anyway. Having just watched “Maxwell Street Blues,” Sean Baker’s micro-budget indie could be describing a contemporary Maxwell Street, New York-style. Manhattan’s wholesale-fashion district is an entirely reasonable facsimile of Maxwell Street in the early 1900s. It’s a magnet for immigrants, some of whom arrived on these shores legally, and the provenance of the merchandise is frequently questionable. Lucky (Prince Adu) is an illegal Ghanaian immigrant who makes a meager living roping pedestrians into a store where knock-off shoes and purses are sold inside of a hidden room. His boss, Levon (Karren Karagulian), is an Armenian-Lebanese immigrant, who sets the prices and keeps an eye out for the “5-O.” Like too many men in Lucky and Levon’s situation, the most direct route to the American Dream is patrolled by cops from a half-dozen different law-enforcement agencies. Lucky’s life suddenly gets even more complicated when an old hookup drops a toddler on him, claiming that he’s the father, and splits for a couple of weeks of serenity. For his part, Levon is having problems keeping his green-card wife happy. Then, just when Lucky is getting used to having the kid around, someone breaks into his van and steals a load of expensive sneakers. Baker shot “Prince of Broadway” with a palm-sized camera, which was affixed to his shoulder, so he could capture street scenes and crowds without drawing attention to himself or the fact he’s working without a permit. Alternately funny, sad and strangely sentimental, “Prince of Broadway” is as good a movie as any that’s been limited to a single-screen release. That, right there, qualifies as a crime greater than selling counterfeit accessories to rubes. The DVD arrives with a behind-the-scenes featurette and audio commentaries.

If anything could spark interest in cricket in America – and I’m pretty sure nothing can – it would be “Fire in Babylon,” a movie about a team of West Indian athletes that stunned the British and Commonwealth sporting establishment and forever changed the way the game would be played. Upon entering international competition in the early 1970s, the team was as hapless as its foes anticipated. Gradually, though, the upstarts would learn from their mistakes and field a team that wouldn’t embarrass anyone, at least. What elevated the team were memories of enslavement and repression – hence, Babylon – and racial epithets hurled by opposing cricketeers and racists in the cheap seats, alike. If this makes “Fire in Babylon” sound like a candidate for a double feature with “Invictus,” you’ve already gotten the picture. The story is told in the words of the men who made it happen, against a background of reggae and other Caribbean sounds.

If “Fire in Babylon” is a close match to “Invictus,” “Boys of Summer” is nearly a dead-ringer for “The Perfect Game.” Both describe an upset in the Little League World Series of epic proportions. The primary difference between the two teams came in the fact that one had to convince itself it was good enough to compete, while the other was routinely beating up teams around the Caribbean and South America. Even so, it would be like a team from a small town in Montana dominating all American comers. In the summer chronicled by director Keith Aumont, the boys from Curaçao faced more challenges than usual. Extras include “Frank Curiel: The Coach Above the Field,” “Vernon Car Crash,” “Strategy” and “Curaçao Tourney.”

Turkey Bowl” is another low-budget indie that looks as if it were an assignment in a film-school class on cinema-verite, and I mean that in a good way. Each year, a mixed group of eight friends – as well as the occasional ringer — gathers to play a game of touch football. The only thing at stake is a Butterball turkey and, maybe, some bruised egos and scrapped elbows, but over the course of 64 minutes, many recognizable truths and feelings are revealed. If “Turkey Bowl” had been five minutes longer, however, it probably would have begun unraveling … just like some relationships. – Gary Dretzka

The Music Lovers
The White Bus (Red, White and Zero)
Consuming Passions
The Quatermass Xperiment (The Creeping Unknown)

The current crop of DVDs released as part of MGM/Fox’s manufactured-on-demand program is heavy on British dramas and comedies from the 1960s and ’70s. Back then, no filmmaker was more outrageous, brave and controversial than Ken Russell. At the time, the British film industry was dominated by gritty, downbeat “kitchen sink” dramas about life among the country’s working poor. Russell brought bright colors, glorious classical music, lavish sets, ornate costumes and explicit sexuality to an industry whose basic color scheme was gray and shades of gray. Russell’s work often was compared to Fellini’s, but it took far more commercial risks. Not all of them were rewarded with positive reviews and box-office success, however. Depictions of perverse sexuality, full-frontal male and female nudity, and homosexuality stretched the limits on what censors and ratings boards would accept. Neither did academics and historians always buy into portrayals of well-known figures, who, more often than not, were composers, artists and writers. (With “Tommy,” he may have invented the modern music video.) What couldn’t be disputed, though, was Russell’s ability to wring awards-quality performances from such high-profile actors as Glenda Jackson, Alan Bates, Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Twiggy, William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Amanda Donohoe and Gabriel Byrne. Having to compete against Russell’s many narrative conceits is a challenge only the best actors can handle, and, in Jackson, Reed and Bates, you’re seeing greatness at work.

The Music Lovers” is Russell’s 1970 sexual hagiography of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, starring Richard Chamberlain as the composer and Jackson as his wife, Antonina. Russell’s interpretation of their ruinous marriage corresponds with the generally accepted belief that he married her, in large part, to conceal his homosexuality. He also was delighted by the worshipful letters she wrote to him. In “Music Lovers,” Tchaikovsky is extremely close to three women – including patron Madame Nadedja von Meck – and one man, Count Anton Chiluvsky. Their relationships play out almost silently, as dreams, nightmares and elaborately staged music videos, with Tchaikovsky’s greatest compositions being played over them. Some of the movements are quite enchanting, while others are purposefully disturbing. Again, while it wouldn’t be wise to base a term paper on Russell’s interpretation of the composer’s life, it’s a movie that dares you to take your eyes off of it. And, at a time in cinematic history when a biopic based on a composer is as rare as a $3 box of popcorn, it makes an enticing novelty. If it encourages any young viewers to sample other movies by Russell, well, so much the better.

Lindsay Anderson’s 1967 curiosity, “The White Bus,” was originally commissioned by producer Oscar Lewenstein to be part of a feature called “Red, White and Zero,” comprised of three short films based on stories by Shelagh Delaney (“A Taste of Honey”). They were to be directed by “Free Cinema” advocates Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Anderson. Peter Brook would fill in for Reisz when he committed to making “Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment,” but the segments were destined to be released separately. “The White Bus” refers to the vehicle that carries a bored office worker from London to her home in the north, alongside a motley crew of English archetypes. As befits the surrealistic tone, Miroslav Ondricek’s camera captures some scenes in black-and-white and others in color. Along the route, the bus passes an iron lung on a railway platform and the passengers witness a kidnapping in progress. They visit a steel mill, a science museum and a civil-defense display, and partake in several unusual activities while there. No one is struck by the craziness of it all, however. Film students and buffs will find “The White Bus” more interesting than most other viewers.

Consuming Passions” is a very broad and exceedingly silly British comedy about crisis management at a chocolate factory. Adapted from a play by Michael Palin and Terry Jones, it follows a clumsy intern who accidentally causes three workers to fall into a vat of chocolate, drown in the mixture, be packaged and distributed in that day’s deliveries. The intern is then assigned the task of informing next-of-kin and getting them to sign awcay their rights to sue. The final twist comes when a survey reports that consumers favor the new flavor and the comedy turns very dark, indeed. A wild turn by Vanessa Redgrave, as an Amazonian nymphomaniac, is worth the price of a rental.

Released in 1955, “The Quatermass Xperiment” was the “Contagion” of its day. At the dawn of the space race, a British mission returns with two of its three crewmen missing. The survivor has brought back with him an infection that is mutating into an alien organism. If it progresses any further, humanity will be “devoured.” There’s only one sure way to nip that problem in the bud and it isn’t pretty. Highly popular in England, “Quartermass” became the first Hammer title to make the jump over the pond, as “The Creeping Unknown.” – Gary Dretzka

Barney Miller: The Complete Series
Thundercats: Season 1 Book 1
Nazi Hunters
ABC’s character-driven workplace sitcom “Barney Miller,” which ran from 1974-82, was noteworthy for many reasons. Because it was set in a Manhattan cop shop and the ensemble cast was ethnically and philosophically diverse, the show’s writers were able to address sensitive issues in a timely and humorous manner. It was overtly politically incorrect before overt political correctness was cool. Quirky incidental characters — introduced each week after being arrested or barging into the squad room with oddball demands – were a mix of familiar Big Apple archetypes and the new generation of dope fiends, political activists and lost souls. In a very real sense, “Barney Miller” was the missing link between “Car 54, Where Are You?” and “Hill Street Blues.”

Using 20/20 hindsight, Danny Arnold and Theodore J. Flicker’s brainchild may seem to have been a no-brainer. In fact, it was anything but a sure bet. As the two failed pilot episodes indicate, “Barney Miller” opened conventionally with Barney making small talk with his wife and son before heading off to work, where something crazy invariably was unfolding. Ten or 12 hours later, he’d return home and be required to deal with completely different situations. No half-hour episode could contain so much mishigas and address anyone else’s problems. Ultimately, only 13 of 171 episodes were set outside the station. Neither was the cast nailed down in the first go-rounds. Abe Vigoda’s “Fish” was a natural, of course, but rest of the flavors in the cocktail had yet to gel. Besides Hal Linden and Vigoda, the core cast of detectives included Max Gail, Ron Glass, Steve Landesberg, Jack Soo and Ron Carey. Or to put it another way, you had the seasoned, compassionate and patient leader, Barney; seen-it-all, ready-to-retire veteran, Fish; by-the-book, decreasingly narrow-minded Vietnam vet, Wojo (Polish, natch); dapper, career-conscious African-American, Harris; the calm, knows-everything New York Jew, Dietrich; curmudgeonly, horse-playing Asian-American, Yemana; and occasionally annoying office functionary, Levitt. Barbara Barrie played Barney’s mostly invisible wife; James Gregory, played his old-school, often clueless supervisor; and Gregory Sierra played a dedicated, if weary Puerto Rican detective for the first two years, after which Spanish-speaking prisoners would be asked to translate. That’s a lot of voices to accommodate each week.

The new boxed set is complete in every possible way. Besides containing all of the episodes and pilots, there’s a 32-page commemorative booklet; new interviews with Linden, Gail and Vigoda; the first season of the spin-off show, “Fish”; the original unaired pilot, with Abby Dalton as Barney’s wife; and writers commentary on select episodes.

It’s amazing to see how many cartoon series that debuted in the 1980s – a period known more for schlocky animation than classic entertainment – have found new life in today’s crowded television marketplace. I’m not sure why that’s happening, exactly. These days, brand identification trumps memories of mediocrity. Of course, that observation comes from someone who grew up on hand-drawn cartoons originally shown between feature films and repackage for television. I’m not sure there’s a qualitative difference between “Huckleberry Hound” and “Thundercats” or “Transformers.” Neither can hold a candle to Looney-Tunes and “Merrie Melodies.” That rant vented, though, it’s also clear that a lot more care is being accorded cartoons made for general consumption today, than there was 25 years ago.

Cartoon Network re-booted the series this summer with an hourlong refresher episode. It is represented here in “Thundercats: Season 1 Book 1,” which is comprised of the new season’s first eight episodes. I’d like to say that I understand what’s happening, apart from the near-destruction of the cat civilization at the hands of the evil Mumm-Ra and his lizard army. To survive, the Thunderians must locate and study the missing Book of Omens.

Even though World War II ended more than 55 years ago, several perplexing mysteries remain unsolved. Most involve the flight, disappearance and capture of Nazi war criminals, some of whom have died as free men or are still at large. “Nazi Hunters,” a Cineflix mini-series that aired on the National Geographic Channel, examines the results of eight such missions through actual film footage, interviews photographs, records and dramatizations. The fugitives include Herbert Cukurs, “the hangman of Riga”; “Butcher of Lyons” and former CIA employee, Klaus Barbie; Adolf Eichmann; Erich Priebke; “Angel of Death,” Joseph Mengele, French Gestapo chief Kurt Lischka, who was protected under German law; Paul Touvier, who escaped justice several times; “Beast of Sobibor,” Gustav Wagner; and Franz Strangl. The presentation is crisp, to the point and largely unadorned with sentiment. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Pirates of Caribbean, Willy Wonka’s 40th, Robotech, Bad Teacher, Captains, Harakiri, Salo, Names of Love, Baaria, Shock Doctrine, Leningrad Cowboys, A Better Life …

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: Blu-ray
Call me old-fashioned, I was far more turned on by the swashbuckling action in the first half hour of “POC4,” than the entire search for the Fountain of Youth that followed it. Outside King George’s courtroom, a crowd of blood-thirsty Brits is salivating in anticipation of Captain Jack Sparrow’s date with the hangman, Meanwhile, inside, mischief is afoot. From a distance of 200 years and three previous “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, we know Captain Jack is going to find a way to humiliate the crown and rejoin his mates on the high seas. The only question is when and how. I won’t spoil the fun, only to say that Errol Flynn would have been proud of the young buccaneer. Jack leaves a trial of frustrated redcoats from the crazy king’s salon to the Thames, with a detour through a tavern and encounter with his female doppelganger. It’s only when he’s ready to declare victory does Jack realize that he’s been bamboozled by a more senior rapscallion. Much, maybe most of the credit for this tightly choreographed chase belongs to director Rob Marshall, who took over for Gore Verbinski at the helm of Disney’s unsinkable “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. If the rest of “On Stranger Tides” is less engaging, it’s possible that the veteran Broadway choreographer and Academy Award-nominated director of “Chicago” probably felt more comfortable working with real humans than digitally derived creatures, backgrounds, stunts and props. That “On Stranger Tides” probably contains the least number of big-bang thrills of all the “POTC” episodes doesn’t make it worse than its predecessors, though, just noticeably more earthbound.

Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom are nowhere to be found in “On Stranger Tides.” In their place are Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane, as the pirate Blackbeard and his formidable daughter, Angelica. Geoffrey Rush is back as Barbossa, as is Keith Richards, if only briefly, as Captain Teague. Guess who was given the best line. (Teague: “I heard where you’re headed. The Fountain.”/Sparrow: “Have you been there?”/Teague: “Does this face looks like it’s been to the Fountain of Youth?”/Sparrow: “…Depends on the light.”) Angelica has a romantic history with Sparrow and knows him well enough to pretend to be him, while collecting a crew to sail to the New World on Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge. Rather than risk another date with the hangman, Sparrow is reluctantly enlisted to join the hunt for Ponce de Leon’s ship in the company of Blackbeard’s zombie crew. The mission gets complicated when Spanish galleons are spotted heading in the same direction and Barbossa agrees to bring a vial of the magical potion back home to King George. Before anyone can bathe in the fountain, however, Blackbeard will risk everyone’s lives by attempting to capture the teardrops of a carnivorous mermaid.

The less one expects from “POTC4,” the more it will entertain undemanding fans of the series, especially kids. There are a few scenes they’ll find scary – maybe even mildly sexy – but adults could get the same rush by going to Disneyland and hopping on the ride for the hundredth time. None of the reviews I’ve read have been overly impressed with the 3D version, but, if you’ve already made the investment, you’ll want to pick up the all-inclusive package. Otherwise, the Blu-ray looks and sounds as good as one would expect from such a high-profile Disney product. The most supplemental material will be found of the Blu-ray and 3D editions. They include Disney Second Screen, which allows viewers to sync “On Stranger Tides” with your computer or iPad, via a downloadable app. It provides a gateway to exclusive behind-the-scenes content and other background material. There’s audio commentary; interviews with the filmmakers; a profile of Blackbeard; a look at the Fountain of Youth legend; bloopers, extended and deleted scenes; an dissection of the effects used to create the mermaids; and “Legos of the Caribbean” shorts. – Gary Dretzka

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Two weeks after the Blu-ray release of Tim Burton’s “author-approved” adaptation of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” comes Warner Bros.’ super-duper “40th Anniversary Ulimate Collector’s Edition” of the G-rated family comedy, “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” Although slightly different in narrative focus, both are wonderful movies, worthy of repeat viewings. Roald Dahl had his reasons for dissing Mel Stuart’s musical but, 40 years later, they’ve been rendered moot. More interesting is the long-forgotten fact that “Willy Wonka” was a critical success and commercial underachiever. It wasn’t mentioned in the same breath as the word “classic” until it found new life on television and in the upstart video-cassette marketplace. Neither is it well-remembered that the production was subsidized by Quaker Oats, which was about to introduce a new “Willy Wonka” candy bar. It was a flawed product, though. Like the movie, whose distribution moved from Paramount to WB, the candy-bar brand soon was sold to another company and re-formulated. That confection is alive and kicking, too. Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s Academy Award-nominated score has also stood the test of time.

In candy-maker Willy Wonka, Gene Wilder found an opportunity to create one of the most beloved characters in the history of Hollywood movies. (Ticket-winner Charlie Bucket’s role was elevated in Burton’s adaptation.) The 40th-anniversary gift package comes loaded with all sorts of tasty features, many of which have been included in previous DVD and Blu-ray editions. Production has been limited to 100,000 units, making it more collectible than most other so-called “collectible” boxed sets. The new features include a 144-page behind-the-scenes book; copies of 14 pieces of correspondence exchanged by producers, designers, the director and key actors; a themed pencil box with scented pencils and eraser; and a replica of the Golden Ticket, which doubles as a new instant-win game. – Gary Dretzka

Robotech: The Complete Original Series
As odd as it might seem to a generation of American kids brought up on cartoon series inspired by or purchased outright from animation companies based in Japan and Korea, anime didn’t begin to register on television’s Richter scale until the mid-1980s. The groundbreaking Harmony Gold series, “Robotech,” was one of the first animes to find a following here and it continues to maintain a hold on its original fanbase. A&E Television has partnered with Harmony Gold on “Robotech: The Complete Series,” a highly giftable boxed set containing re-mastered versions of all 85 episodes of the show’s three early storylines, “The Macross Saga,” “The Robotech Masters” and “The New Generation.” Also included are an additional 10 hours of bonus material.

For the uninitiated, the American version of “Robotech” combined elements of three Japanese series, in support of another Harmony Gold-licensed show, “Macross.” Because another American company already owned the rights to distribute “Macross” model kits, a co-licensing agreement was forged under the auspices of “Robotech.” After “Macross” was combined with the other three shows, there was just enough source material left to support a saga that spanned three generations of mankind’s fight for freedom against alien forces seeking the power source “protoculture.” The earthlings would have been defenseless if they hadn’t been able to unlock the robotic secrets of a spacecraft that crash-landed on our planet. From its ruined frame sprang the weaponry that would be built into giant mechanized fighting vehicles — “mecha” – not unlike Transformers. Producer and story editor Carl Macek was assigned to the task of merging the various themes and storylines. Sequels to the original series have appeared, as have a pair of anime features. Plans for a big-budget movie apparently have stalled.

Among the supplemental materials are new making-of documentaries, music videos, alternate sequences, deleted scenes, the “Macross” pilot, sequences from a 1986 hybrid movie, promotional and marketing material, stills and bios, and reference material. In other words, it’s a treasure trove for buffs and newcomers, alike. – Gary Dretzka

Bad Teacher: Unrated Edition: Blu-ray
Andy Warhol’s Bad
Shockorama: The William Beaudine Collection

Sometimes, only a very thin line separates intentionally bad movies from truly, irretrievably and unintentionally bad ones. Intentionally bad movies can’t be measured by the same criteria used to separate the wheat from the chaff at the local megaplex. Depending on their provenance and production values, good bad movies are limited mostly to the art- and grind-house circuits. Others have had to wait until they were championed by Quentin Tarantino, Roger Corman or such niche DVD distributors as Shout! Factory, Troma, Cheezy Flicks, Synapse Films, MVD and One 7 Movies. And, of course, simply adding the word, “bad,” to a film’s title doesn’t mean it will be taken seriously as good bad or nasty bad, or its antagonist is worthy of our scorn.

Bad Teacher,” for instance, is neither a bad movie nor is Cameron Diaz’ character an evil person, as was Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie, in “Bad Santa.” She’s merely rude, lewd, obscene, lazy and greedy, depending on her mood at any particular moment of her day. Students don’t fear the gold-digging pedagogue, as did the kids who sat on Thornton’s lap in “Bad Santa.” I think it’s also safe to say that too many of us have had our educations entrusted to worse teachers than Diaz’ Elizabeth Halsey. (At least, she lets the kids watch worthwhile movies when she’s too lazy to teach, which is almost always.) Only one of Elizabeth’s fellow teachers – Lucy Punch’s delightfully petty Amy Squirrel — is repulsed by her personally or professionally, and that’s mostly because the two women are in pursuit of the same substitute teacher: Justin Timberlake’s dorky Scott Delacorte. As we make her acquaintance, Elizabeth has just been dumped by her sugar-daddy fiancé. To prevent another such insult, she commits herself to raising $10,000 for a new set of boobs. (Again, she probably could have reached her goal simply by performing two weekends’ worth of lap dances in Las Vegas, but she picked the honorable alternative.) So, what we’re left with is a self-centered educator with a heart of something resembling gold, and, in Diaz’ capable hands, she’s, well, not that bad. I didn’t see the theatrical version of Jake Kasdan’s commercially successful comedy, so I can only imagine what’s been added to the unrated DVD and Blu-ray. Since there’s only a minute of semi-nudity and it already had been accorded an R-rating, it probably boils down to five more minutes of vulgar language and the verbal instructions in fellatio Elizabeth gives the teens. If any of that sounds entertaining to you, it’s also worth knowing that Diaz is up to the task assigned her, as is the fine cast of supporting actors: Jason Segel (“How I Met Your Mother), Phyllis Smith (“The Office”), John Michael Higgins (“Kath & Kim”), Thomas Lennon (“Reno 911!”) and Eric Stonestreet (“Modern Family”), with cameos by David Paymer and Molly Shannon. The Blu-ray extras include an interactive “yearbook”; gag reel, outtakes and deleted scenes; a discussion with then-lovers Diaz and Timberlake and a closer look at her sexy carwash scene; cast members’ recollections of their teachers; Movie IQ and BD-Love; and a DVD copy.

On the other hand, “Andy Warhol’s Bad” is bad in all the ways people expect a beyond-campy Warhol production to be bad. Released in 1977, after writer/director Paul Morrissey parted company with Warhol, “Bad” even lacks the “polish” of “Frankenstein” and “Trash.” And, yet, the almost amateurish production values and acting – Carroll Baker, Susan Tyrell and Perry King, being the sole exceptions – only serve to add to the movie’s pulpy charm. Baker plays Hazel, a woman who runs a combination beauty salon and boarding house for female felons. She’s also known locally for her electrolysis treatments. Tyrell portrays her pitiful daughter, while King’s almost-charming hit man needs a place to stay while awaiting an assignment. It comes in the form of a request from a selfish mother to murder her autistic son, a request so onerous even the least reputable of hit man might report to police. Meanwhile, the female boarders are game for almost any assignment. This being the 1970s version of New York, the crimes committed barely register with the local media, no matter how hideous.

Expect for the aforementioned actors, it looks as if director Jed Johnson recruited the cast during an open call at Max’s Kansas City. Some can barely recite their deli deliriously twisted lines. After a fire at a movie theater, the owner tells a TV reporter: “I just thank God we were showing a bad movie … one of ’dose arty things. Otherwise, a lot more people would have been killed in ’dere.” Later, after a baby is thrown out the window of a high-rise by its mother, a bystander on the street tells her snotty son, “That’s what I’m going to do to you if you don’t shut up.” It may not be pretty, but for sheer outrageousness, “Bad” is tough to top. The late, great blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield contributed original music to the score. An edited R-rated version of the movie previously was distributed by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, but what would be the point. Cheezy Flicks is making the unrated cut available on a manufactured-on-demand basis, through Amazon and other outlets.

The Cheezy folks also are responsible for unleashing a double-feature of “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula” and “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter” on an unsuspecting public. As is suggested by the titles, these exercises in unintentional cross-genre comedy define what it means to be so bad, they’re hilarious. What’s most interesting about the otherwise worthless western/horror hybrids is the man who made them. Don’t take my word for it, though. Check out any Internet biography of the exceedingly prolific director/actor/writer William “One Shot” Beaudine, who has been credited with as many as 500 movie titles in a career that spanned seven decades. Not all or even many of his titles stand out today as being memorable or hideously bad. While some have been mentioned in the same breath as pictures made by Ed Wood — “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla,” anyone – one, “Mom and Dad,” has been listed among the treasures on the U.S. National Film Registry. In the silent-era, he was among the most highly paid directors in Hollywood. Then, after being cleaned out in the Depression, he worked for peanuts at Poverty Row studios. Beaudine’s tour de force was the hygiene/sexploitation epic, “Mom and Dad” (1945), which flouted censors by accurately depicting how babies are made and delivered. It toured the country for decades, playing in theaters leased for the course of the film’s run. It is estimated that “Mom and Dad” grossed more than $100 million, most of it at a time when the Kinsey Report was still being researched and the sexual revolution was an impossible dream. Within the next 10 years, he would be commissioned to make films for the Protestant Film Commission and Walt Disney’s fledgling television operation.

The genre-moshing “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula” and “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter” represent Beaudine’s final features and the titles tell us everything. As the director’s nickname suggests, little time was wasted getting them into the can. Shot back-to-back on eight-day schedules, they were booked in drive-ins and grind-houses as if they were conjoined twins. The great thing about Billy the Kid (Chuck Courtney) is that he looks only slightly more threatening than, say, Pee-wee Herman. Not surprisingly, John Carradine makes a credible vampire, albeit one who doesn’t appear to have the slightest clue what he’s doing west of the Mississippi River. Technically speaking, Jesse James meets Dr. Frankenstein’s granddaughter, Maria, and grandson, Rudolph, not his daughter, as advertised. They’re laying low in a castle – that’s right, a castle – overlooking a Mexican village. They’re prepared to pick up where grandpa left off, but need a suitable specimen. He arrives in the muscular form of the outlaw’s traveling companion, Hank (a.k.a., Igor). The movies, of course, are ridiculous, but surprisingly watchable. – Gary Dretzka

The Captains: A Film by William Shatner
Betty White isn’t the only octogenarian enjoying the time of her life … and career. William Shatner isn’t letting any grass grow under his feet, either. Shatner currently is making the rounds of the talk shows, promoting a new book, music album, Price Line and the delightful documentary, “The Captains,” which he directed, wrote and co-executive produced. In it, he interviews and shares memories with all of his fellow Star Fleet captains, visits a major “Star Trek” convention and allows former co-workers to say nice things about him throughout. No matter how much fun Shatner appears to be having at this late stage in his career, you get the impression he remains most proud of his earliest work in the theater. It’s where he was learned his craft and was discovered. Indeed, it is something he shares with all of the other starship captains: Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula and Chris Pine. As an interviewer, Shatner never could be confused for Charlie Rose or James Lipton, and, for that, we can all be thankful. Taking a cue from his interview show on Biography, he’s extremely curious and well prepared for the task at hand. If he often comes off as self-aggrandizing, his guests don’t seem to mind.

Given their backgrounds in the theater, it should come as no surprise that all of the actors were reticent, a first, to commit to a costume series, such as “Star Trek, or any of its syndicated sequels (and a prequel). Stewart, a classically trained Shakespearian actor, probably was the most unlikely of captains. Somewhat imperious in demeanor, he recalls being welcomed on the set of “The Next Generation” by someone who encouraged him to “have fun,” which was the last thing on his mind. It was on the long-running series, however, that he discovered for the first time that work and fun weren’t incompatible, and he says it made him a better actor. Shatner’s successors also were reluctant to accept a role for which they’d forever be compared to the original captain. The way creator Gene Roddenberry devised the franchise, though, each of the captains was given latitude to shape his/her character’s personality. It’s also fun to watch Shatner stroll through the Las Vegas Hilton, where the convention was being staged and Trekkies were free to revel in their Trekkiness. It was as if Elvis Presley had returned from the grave for one last concert and wanted to re-connect with his fans. It wasn’t always so for Shatner. It took an executive at an aerospace firm to admit to him that “Star Trek” inspired him to pursue a career in engineering, before Shatner stopped being embarrassed about the iconic status accorded Capt. James T. Kirk. Of course, for an actor, there are far worse ways to make a living than being worshiped. The DVD includes “The Making of ‘The Captains.’” – Gary Dretzka

Harakiri: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

“Yojimbo” and “Seven Samurai” have provided templates for several American and European westerns. From a distance, the concept of the honorable warrior-knight presaged the cowboy hero, as defined in dime novels, movies and television. Anyone versed in contemporary Japanese cinema could easily see how the itinerant gunmen in “The Magnificent Seven” and “A Fistful of Dollars” could be facsimiles of the unattached ronin who populated Kurosawa’s movies. In Masaki Kobayashi’s stunning 1962 period drama, “Harakiri,” the samurai we meet represent both individual ronin and those in the employ of feudal lords. The latter adhere to the traditional Bushido code of conduct that demands loyalty, honor and frugality, as well as martial-arts expertise. As long as their master was alive and solvent, the samurai were bound by the Bushido code. American cowboy heroes lived and died by a code, as well, but drifted from town to town with no visible means of financial support, apart from collecting the occasional reward or stumbling upon the infrequent gold mine. Working for wages was anathema to the cowboy hero as was anything resembling the final rite of harakiri.

Kobayashi was disgusted by the Japanese tradition of blind obedience to more powerful masters, whether it harkened to the Bushido code or appeals to patriotism and fealty to the emperor, as was the case in World War II. It was a characteristic he examined at length in the films in his “Human Condition” trilogy. In those films, which immediately preceded “Harakiri,” Kobayashi describes the horrific emotional and physical journey endured by a Japanese pacifist, who deplored war but, as a conscientious objector, could serve his country in a humane way and protect the rights of workers at a Manchurian mine. As the war escalates, he’s required to pick up arms on the Russian front, where he’s eventually captured and imprisoned. It’s here the protagonist learns the difference between the Marxist principles he embraced as a youth and the realities of life under Stalin.

In “Harakiri,” an impoverished, unemployed samurai, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), arrives at the estate of a feudal lord to ask if he could commit ritual suicide on his property. It’s the second such request the nobleman’s heard recently and he is suspicious of the coincidence. He demands to know if the ronin is serious – more importantly, honorable – or if he is being duped. In relaying his tale of woe, the warrior discovers that the previous petitioner was his son-in-law, a younger samurai whose life had become intolerable because of his inability to keep disease from claiming his wife and son. The bad treatment accorded the fine young man – in times of peace, unattached ronin were left to their own devices – causes Tsugumo to plot revenge and suicide on his own terms. In doing so, he reveals the hypocrisy of samurai allowed to interpret the Bushido code to fit their own needs by a pre-occupied nobleman. “Harakiri” won the 1963 Cannes Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize and, in Blu-ray, looks as splendid today as it must have looked then. It includes a useful video introduction by Japanese-film historian Donald Richie; an excerpt from a rare Directors Guild of Japan interview with the director; and interviews with Nakadai and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto.

Whenever a movie is banned, censored or forced to conform to commercial dictates, it’s important to know who made the decision and what criteria were used. In some countries, all it takes for a movie to be banned is a point of view that challenges the political status quo. In others, even the least sexual or violent of scenes could keep a movie from being shown. In the United States, the MPAA ascribes a highly subjective grade to a movie and hands the ball off to exhibitors and their landlords to do the dirty work for it. First shown in 1977 and continually bent, folded and mutilated thereafter, Pier Paulo Pasolini’s final film, “Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” re-wrote the record books when it came to ways ratings and censorship boards could condemn a film. “Salo” proved to be an equal-opportunity offender, though. No less a filmmaker than Bernardo Bertolucci swore he wouldn’t watch it twice, before giving in to the temptation of revisiting the movie. In a recent interview included in the Criterion Collection bonus package, he calls it “atrocious and sublime.” Name an act generally considered to be depraved and you’ll probably find at least one example of it in “Salo.” Although there are copious amounts of nudity and perverse sexuality, director John Maybury (“Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon”) says the movie “undermines all notions of erotica or pornography.” Neither will it do much for the libidos of pederasts, urophiliacs, coprophiliacs, voyeurs or masochists, although fans of the Marquis de Sade should find plenty in it to admire.

“Salo” refers to the town in northern Italy that became the capital of Italy’s Fascist government, after the Allies landed in Sicily and the post-Mussolini government attempted to sign a separate peace agreement with them. Raised nearby, Pasolini was acutely aware of what the leaders of the doomed regime were doing in their abundant free time. (In the closing weeks of the war, his brother was killed in an ambush there.) The movie follows an outline established by chapters in Dante’s “Inferno”: the Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit and the Circle of Blood. Four libertines – a duke, bishop, magistrate and politician – round up 18 teenage boys and girls and take them to a villa near Marzabotto. Once there, they’re indoctrinated by experienced prostitutes and sadistically abused by the libertines. Much of what’s revealed will have first-time viewers gagging on their popcorn, which, of course, is exactly what Pasolini intended. Under such brutal conditions, only the strongest among us are able to resist being brainwashed into accepting any depravity as the norm. In less violent periods, conformity can be contagious. In the tumultuous mid-1970s, Pasolini felt that hippie and radically political counter-culturists had already begun an inexorable march toward conformity and re-absorption into mainstream European culture. He added the unbearable scat-eating scenes in “Salo” as an indictment of rampant consumerism and the universal acceptance of junk food as a nutritional imperative. Knowing this, however, doesn’t make those scenes any easier to stomach. The hi-def restoration is impeccable and the many interviews – on-screen and in the enclosed booklet — really help explain Pasolini’s intentions. – Gary Dretzka

Attack on Leningrad: Blu-ray
Filmed in Russia, in winter, “Attack on Leningrad” is a World War II thriller that feels as if it might have started out as a mini-series, but was abridged for foreign consumption. In addition to a fine cast of Russian actors, the producers were able to attract bankable foreign names Mira Sorvino, Gabriel Byrne and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Unlike other movies about the long Nazi siege of Leningrad, this one puts human interest before depictions of heroism in battle. At its center is a British reporter (Sorvino) left behind as dead when the last group of foreign journalists is evacuated from Leningrad. Instead, she’s been knocked unconscious by a German bomb and given shelter by a peppery young policewoman and her family. Turns out, she’s also the daughter of an exiled White Russian leader and, therefore, persona non grata in the eyes of Stalin’s functionaries. Given an opportunity to escape the horror, she decides to stay and fight in a woman’s militia. It’s interesting that the Russian producers decided to invest so much money and effort to tell this one story in a million from that 900-day ordeal. In a making-of featurette, director Alexander Buravsky explains how he re-created the hellish condit ions that characterized the siege on sound stages, in the streets of modern St Petersburg and on a frozen bay in minus-20-degree weather. You’ll shiver along with the filmmakers and actors. –Gary Dretzka

Craig Ferguson: Does This Need to Be Said?
As we age, the earlier we go to sleep. That’s OK, though, because there are increasingly fewer things to do that are worth the effort it takes to stay awake. If you’ve recently joined the many people who tend to doze off after David Letterman recites his nightly top-10 list, this means you’re missing Craig Ferguson’s hugely entertaining late-night talk show. If anyone needs to be cautioned about caffeine abuse, it’s Ferguson. Even in the wee hours, the twitchy Scotsman is operating at full speed, borrowing visual gags as old as Ernie Kovacs would be, if he were still alive, and props that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a kiddie’s show. More than anything else, though, Ferguson is extremely likable. That quality is on full display in “Does This Need to Be Said?,” a frenetic in-performance DVD shot in Nashville. In it, he opens with the promise of telling his favorite joke, but first feels obliged to caution the audience about all the bawdy language and R-rated material they’re going to hear and explain why he can’t say the same things on television. This leads to a bit about being fined by his young son whenever he lets slip a cuss word, which leads etc., etc., etc. The joke does get told, but not until the end of the show. Although everything in between resembles stream-of-consciousness venting, it’s probably been finely honed and polished. That it feels improvised is another of Ferguson’s gifts. The Comedy Central production adds a pair of short fan bits, but it’s what happens on stage that counts most and you won’t hear that on television. – Gary Dretzka

More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead
The Howling Reborn: Blu-ray

Few movies in Hollywood history have had as much written and said about them as “The Return of the Living Dead.” Besides dozens of reviews and essays that border on the scholarly, there have been several commentary tracks for DVD bonus packages, the recently published “Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead” and several other books documenting the zombie phenomenon in movies. Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 undead thriller holds a special place in the hearts of many genre buffs. At first, it was misconstrued as a sequel to George Romero’s epochal “The Night of the Living Dead,” released 17 years earlier. Others thought it might have been made to exploit the nearly concurrent release of Romero’s “Day of the Dead,” itself a sequel to “Dawn of the Dead.” After “Return” opened to surprisingly favorable reviews from mainstream critics, word spread to young viewers looking for something different than the usual parade of shuffling ghouls descending on a houseful of innocent citizens. O’Bannon took his job seriously enough to throw out the rule book on zombie clichés – along with the script he was handed by the producers – and re-imagine the monsters as punk rockers willing to bite for their right to party. Neither was he willing to skimp on the blood-letting and other special makeup effects. The horror was real enough, but so too was O’Bannon’s determination to add unexpected laughs to the screenplay. Buffs understood that he wasn’t attempting to parody or send up the genre, as Mel Brooks had done so marvelously in “Young Frankenstein.” He wanted, instead, to push its boundaries and expand the audience for such material to include those who preferred insider-access to the conceits. One way he did this was by spicing the cast with seasoned veterans, such as Clu Gulager and James Karen; sexy scream queens Linnea Quigley, Beverly Randolph and Jewel Shepard; and interesting unknowns, some of whom were practically homeless at the time. Moreover, O’Bannon was relentless when it came to the look of the special effects and credibility of the victims of a toxic catastrophe. His demands didn’t endear him with cast and crew. The title of this documentary, “More Brains,” refers to the exhortations of Tarman (Allan Trautman), a gooey zombie brought back to life after the chemical spill. He is believed to be the first movie zombie to crave brains as a dietary supplement. Not having the time or inclination to study all of the material available on “Return,” I can’t say how much of the information in “More Brains” is fresh. I found the movie to be entertaining and instructive, even though I’m tired to death of zombie flicks. Anyone who aspires to making a horror movie should be required to watch it. The DVD adds making-of featurettes for “Return of the Living Dead, Part 2” and “Part 3; “Dan O’Bannon’s Final Interview”; a piece on the filming locations; “Stacey Q Live!” music video of “Tonight”; “They Won’t Stay Dead: A Look at ‘Return of the Living Dead, Part 2’”; “Love Beyond the Grave: A Look at ‘Return of the Living Dead, Part 3’”; deleted interviews; a three-minute synopsis of the movie; and O-Sleeve packaging.

The Howling Reborn” bears as much relation to Joe Dante’s original 1981 werewolf thriller as “Twilight” and “The Vampire Diaries” do to the origina1 “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” The direct-to-DVD “Howling Reborn” introduces a soon-to-graduate teenager to his fate, in the form of a colony of werewolves inexplicably led by his long-dead mother. As the movie opens, high school senior Will Kidman (Landon Liboiron) is given his final shot at impressing the classmate, Eliana (Lindsey Shaw), he’s been crushing on for years. She appears to be under the spell of a typically arrogant jock jerk, but becomes interested in Will when he shows her a notebook filled with sketches he’s made of her. The jerk makes the mistake of confronting Will at approximately the same moment that Will is realizing his destiny as a werewolf. Eliana is turned on by Will’s transformation, but not what happens when his animal friends come calling. They don’t want to share Will with her and make no secret of their nasty intentions. It’s up to Will to protect his new girlfriend and a wild battle between hugely scruffy werewolves ensues. There isn’t much story to “Howling Returns,” but the actors – Ivana Milicevic, especially – are all pretty hot. I wouldn’t bet that “HR” would attract enough attention to convince producers to launch a new “Howling” franchise. The first series stopped being interesting after the second of six entries. – Gary Dretzka

Freerunner: Blu-ray
It isn’t often that an action picture’s making-of featurettes are more exciting and interesting than the movie itself. That, however, is case with “Freerunner,” an unremarkable straight-to-DVD flick, involving Xtreme athletes practiced in the recently invented sport of urban acrobatic freerunning (a.k.a.. competitive parkour). The first time I saw it on film, in the French thriller “District 13,” I had no idea how the actors were able to hop from impediment to impediment, scale walls with no visible outcroppings and rappel down the sides of buildings without ropes. I assumed the actors and stuntmen were relying on wires, as they do in Hong Kong, but that wasn’t the case. It was a completely fresh activity and lots of fun to watch, as was “District 13.” Parkour showed up again three years later in “The Bourne Ultimatum.” “Freerunner” is a long way removed from those movies.

The challenge faced by the characters here is to get from one side of Cleveland to the other without having their heads blown off by an unseen promoter, also responsible for taking bets from rich punters on the Internet. Occasionally, a pretty young woman will pop up on the screen and show her boobies. Apart from the bonus package, that’s probably the best part of the Blu-ray. The most recognizable stars are Sean Faris, Tamer Hassan, Danny Dyer, Seymour Cassel and champion freerunner Ryan Doyle. – Gary Dretzka

The Names of Love
I wonder what a gaggle of psychiatrists might conclude if asked to participate in a test screening of “The Names of Love.” Although it largely defies easy categorization, Michel Leclerc’s largely autobiographical film can best be described as a romantic dramedy. The romantic protagonists of “The Names of Love” could hardly be more mismatched. Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Foresier) is a free-spirited young woman — daughter of a fiery French Marxist and an undocumented Algerian immigrant – who, as a girl, was sexually abused by her piano teacher. Instead of bringing shame on her father by exposing the pervert, Baya comes to believe that sex can be used as a weapon against people she perceives to be racists and fascists. Once she gets one in the sack, a bigot’s prejudices wither and die. Even when on a first date with perfectly agreeable men, she wastes no time eliminating any possibility of sexual tension.

The object of her affection is a mousy, middle-aged French scientist, Arthur Martin, whose grandparents died at Auschwitz. His mother survived the war under an alias and became proficient in math. She never overcame her feelings of loss, however, first by the deportation of her Greek grandparents and, then, by the certainty of her parents’ death in the ovens. Arthur still lives in mortal fear that he’ll accidentally say something that could trigger thoughts of suicide in his mother. His father was inspired to name him Arthur Martin, out of respect for a manufacturer of popular appliances. (His mother preferred the name, Dean Martin.) It’s as non-Jewish a name as Arthur could imagine and because of it, perhaps, he’s gone through life in as generic a way as possible.

No matter how much these opposites are attracted to each other, however, it naturally takes Arthur a long time to accept Baya’s politically motivated promiscuity, ultra-ditzy behavior and absolute belief that all people should embrace their pasts, no matter how painful. More often than not, she’s as maddening as she is adorable. Throw in all of the political, cultural and racial tensions crippling contemporary France, and “The Names of Love” becomes a powder keg of good intentions gone awry. And, yet, Baya’s theory that a widespread fusion of races ultimately could neutralize prejudice in diverse societies is a belief now being promulgated in an increasingly diverse, if similarly divided America. What isn’t open to debate, however, is the performance by Forestier, an absolutely charming actor who was awarded a Best Actress Cesar for her combined work in five different films in 2010. – Gary Dretzka

Baaria: Blu-ray
Fans of Sicilian-born director Giuseppe Tornatore and such films as “Cinema Paradiso,” “The Legend of 1900” and “Malena” already know how proficient the writer/director is when called upon to recycle impressions from his youth. In doing so, his movies speek to a common memory of what life was like for Italians growing up in small, agriculturally based towns immediately before and after World War II. “Baaria” is a sprawling, 150-minute drama about Tornatore’s hometown of Bagheria, with a tight focus on three generations of the Torrenuova family. Peppino Torrenuova is the son of a peasant when we meet him. He parades the family’s cow down the town’s dusty main street, selling freshly squeezed milk at the curb, and works on the side for a goatherd. He’s not much of a student, but is observant and inquisitive. He witnesses first-hand the combined tyranny of the Fascist government and Mafia on the eve of war, and does what he can for the partisan resistance and Communist opposition during it. At the same time as Peppino begins his rise in the post-war party, he falls in love with a pretty teenager betrothed against her will to a landowner. They decide to elope – down the street, basically – even though their tradition-bound elders make life difficult for them.

Halfway through the movie, then, Tornatore’s hitherto fast-based and occasionally exciting story slows down to accommodate post-war economic growth in Bagheria and the rest of Italy; the semblance, at least, of political stability; and the Torrenuovas’ entry into the middle class. Finally, the story is partially handed off to a new generation of far more educated, affluent and socially conscious Italians. Even within the ever-expanding family of Peppino (Francesco Scianna) and Mannina (Margareth Made) Torrenuova, the split between the old and new left was becoming apparent. By this time, though, “Baaria” has drifted inexorably into melodrama.

Everything else about “Baaria” is first-rate, from the acting and set design, to the splendid scenery and musical score by Ennio Morricone. The Blu-ray presentation is excellent, as well. In addition to film’s sterling look and sound, there’s Tornatore’s commentary and a discussion with him about the music; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; poster and picture galleries; and vintage home movies from Tornatore’s youth. – Gary Dretzka

Some romantic dramas are so familiar, by now, it would be difficult not to discern their trajectory after 15 minutes of viewing. That doesn’t necessarily mean the movie isn’t worth a rental or is too clichéd to be interesting, however. “Strangers” is well made and romantic enough to suit most people’s tastes. The acting can’t be faulted and Paris and Berlin provide fine backgrounds for accidental love. That said, though, haven’t we already exceeded the quota on movies in which star-crossed Israeli and Palestinian lovers are forced to pay for the intolerance of others? Here, our lovers meet cute in Berlin, where they’ve come separately to absorb the atmosphere surrounding the World Cup finals. Eyal (Liron Levo) is an Israeli national, while Rana (Lubna Azabel) is a Ramallah native living, not by choice, in Paris. They accidentally exchange bags in the subway, but, through the miracle of cell phones, make arrangements to connect soon thereafter. Neither bothered to reserve a room in the packed city, but, given their easy rapport, agree to share one. At first, they dance around the subject of their ethnic backgrounds, for obvious reasons. Ditto, when news of the latest Israeli invasion of Lebanon breaks on the all-news stations.

Their blossoming romance is interrupted when Rana is called back to Paris to care for her asthmatic son, whose existence she’s kept from Eyal. She reluctantly asks him not to follow her to Paris or call her by phone. When he does both things, anyway, he’s able to rescue her from a difficult situation with her son’s health and immigration authorities. Knowing that Eyal had agreed to return to active duty during past invasions, should alert viewers to the severity of his predicament now. Both have relatives in harm’s way, but as an unwed, single mother, Rana can’t go home and Eyal doesn’t want to fight in the endless war. “Strangers” was screened at Sundance 2008 and more than a dozen Jewish film festivals without generating a whole lot of heat. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience out there for a topical romance, though. The DVD only adds a trailer. – Gary Dretzka

Monte Carlo: Bluray
I don’t have any idea how old the three young women at the heart of “Monte Carlo” are supposed to be and I’m not at all sure why it bothers me. The only person in this ’tween-skewing rom-com who’s playing her age is Selena Gomez, the 19-year-old Disney woman-child who portrays both a Texas teenager, Grace, and, in a fortuitous case of mistaken identity, a snobby British heiress. Her traveling companions while in France are her waitress friend, Emma (Katie Cassidy), and stepsister, Meg (Leighton Meester), both of whom look as if they could be Grace’s aunt. Expecting, of course, to find love while in Paris, only one of the young ladies gets a nibble. Not all is lost, however, as it’s here that Grace is mistaken for the heiress and whisked away to Monaco in a private jet. From the airport, the still-befuddled trio is chauffeured to a swank hotel suite. Now, the real fun can begin. Fortuitously, the socialite’s suitcases had already arrived and they contained a vast array of evening dresses and casual wear, a treasure trove of cosmetics and lots of swell jewelry. Neither does it take the ladies long to attract the attention of some drippingly handsome young men, all of whom are too polite to jump their bones or invent vows of eternal love. That, right there, is how you know “Monte Carlo” is a fairytale.

Amazingly, the only person who notices that the Texans are imposters is the heiress and she’s unable to see anything funny in the disappearance from her bags of an extremely valuable necklace. She’s even less happy to learn that it is already on the auction block at a charity event. Worse, Grace’s cute polo-playing boyfriend is pissed off, as well, over being duped. After starting off so promisingly, Grace is the only one left without a boy toy. Is it time to break out the hankies, yet? Stay tuned. The Blu-ray edition contains plenty of bonus features, including deleted scenes, an interactive quiz, a hi-def tour of Monaco, a guide to the boys and fashions of Monte Carlo, a gossip session with the “girls,” BD-Live and other downloadable material. – Gary Dretzka

The Shock Doctrine
You Got To Move: Stories of Change in the South

Anyone who looks at news reports from the Occupy Wall Street sites and only sees hippies playing bongos and smoking pot, or anarchists and commies piggy-backing on the media attention, ought to do three things very quickly: turn off all cable-news shows; think about going back to school; and pick up a DVD copy of this documentary. Or, if the store’s copy is rented out, substitute “Capitalism: A Love Story,” “Inside Job,” “The Yes Men Fix the World” or “Freakonomics.” These documentaries were released well before the OWS movement began making headlines and America’s major banks’ conspired to circumvent Obama-era reforms. “The Shock Doctrine” was directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, who previously collaborated on the similarly damning “The Road to Guantanamo.” The message it delivers derives largely from Naomi Klein’s best-selling book of the same name and material gleaned from her lectures. If “Shock Doctrine” feels a tad dry and academic – compared to Michael Moore’s films, anyway – the horrifying facts speak for themselves.

It is Klein’s studied opinion that for the last 40 years, at least, American economic policy has been dictated by the radical free-market theories of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School economists. In a nutshell, Friedman believes that growth can be accelerated by taking advantage of wars, coups and other chaotic political situations, as well as devastating hurricanes and tsunamis. If those situations don’t occur organically, it’s then fair to create opportunities to exploit burgeoning upheaval, unrest and fear. Klein traces her argument back to Chile in the early 1970s, when we helped instigate discord among the country’s middle class, and the military used it as an excuse to stage a coup against the duly elected socialist government. To prevent reprisals from the left and unions, the junta simply ordered the extermination of thousands of potential dissenters, and no one in the Nixon White House so much as blinked. The same thing happened in Argentina. Margaret Thatcher didn’t slaughter innocent workers in the name of free-market capitalism; she simply eliminated their jobs. On and on it went, until the plutocrats and gangsters bled Russia dry and we created an economic free-fire zone for contractors in Iraq. Obama may have inherited the Wall Street mess, but he allowed the foxes who snuck into the hen house under Reagan to stick around. They did nothing to prevent banks from feasting on the carcasses of poor and middle-class Americans. As “The Shock Doctrine” argues, nothing has changed.

Coincidental to the release of “Shock Doctrine” and OWS movement is the release of Lucy Massie Phenix’s “You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South,” which has been released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights-era Albany Movement and upcoming 80th Anniversary of the Highlander Folk School (now Highlander Research and Education Center). The activists we meet probably have never owned bongos or smoked pot at a sit-in, if at all. What they do share with the OWS protestors, though, is being vilified in the media, called communists by pinheads and rallying for a cause at the grassroots level. Highlander was at the crossroads for change at time when blacks were being denied their basic rights as Americans and companies involved in strip-mining started dumping toxins in the streams and backyards of poor, rural Kentuckians. In both instances, singing was used as a tool to rally the troops and fuel the movement, and, of course, the bigots and polluters had the law on their side … until they didn’t. It’s a very inspirational document. – Gary Dretzka

Aki Kaurismaki’s Leningrad Cowboys: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Iggy and the Stooges: Raw Power Live: In the Hands of the Fans: Blu-ray
Composing Outside the Beatles: Lennon & McCartney 1967-1972
When Aki Kaurismäki’s hysterical comedy about a terrible Siberian polka band’s ill-conceived tour of the United States was released here, in 1990, a lot of people thought it might be a Dada-ist parody of the Blues Brothers. Even if it were inspired by John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd’s musical mission from God, though, it sure was funny. On closer inspection, “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” was as much a humorous poke at the Finns’ historical rival, Russia — then, the USSR — as anything else it might or may not have been. The most obvious half of the gag was visual. With their omnipresent shades, dark suits and extreme pompadours, the Cowboys did resemble country-bumpkin cousins of Elwood and Jake Blues. It was the musicians’ other distinguishing features, however, that made us roar with laughter. Their pompadours were long and pointy — not high and rounded on top – and so were their shiny black shoes. From a distance, they could be parentheses. The other half of the dig was more subtle, at least to western eyes. As an aspiring capitalist, the band’s promoter couldn’t have been any more inept or corrupt. Like everyone else in the ensemble, the fur-coated Vladimir is addicted to vodka and beer. Upon the Cowboys’ arrival in New York – Coney Island, to be precise – the boss arranged for an audition. Instead of playing Madison Square Garden or somewhere equally majestic, the promoter booked the band a gig at the wedding of his cousin … in Mexico. To get there, they were required to buy a car – with practically no money – and embark on 2,000-mile road trip. Along the way, the promoter urged the band members to learn the difference between rock ’n’ roll and polka music.

You know their journey isn’t going to be a typical tourist adventure when the car salesman is played by indie icon, Jim Jarmusch. He attempts to convince Vladimir of the merits of a beat-up Checker cab, but the wanna-be millionaire will settle for nothing less than an equally suspect Cadillac sedan. If three of the musicians were put in its trunk, the instruments could make the journey with them. Oh, yeah, on top of the car’s roof is a wooden coffin, filled with ice, beer, small instruments and a dead Cowboy. As it turns out, the Cowboys are a quick study and quickly master the rockabilly idiom, by playing freelance gigs at dives in Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, San Antonio and other stops along the road. You get the picture.

After a thorough digital scrubbing, Criterion Collection has included “Go America” in Eclipse Series 29, alongside its sequel, “Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses,” and a third disc containing a live concert and music videos, also by Kaurismäki. (His “Proletariat Trilogy,” comprised of “Shadows in Paradise,” “Ariel” and “The Match Factory Girl,” filled an earlier Eclipse Series box.) “Meet Moses” picks up where “”Go America” left off, in the Mexican desert with their hapless manager still AWOL. Apparently, in his wanderings, Vladimir came to believe he’s Moses, and he’ll lead the depleted band back to the promised land of Siberia. Instead of making the trip by plane, the musicians are required to take the overland route, through the United States, by leaky boat to Europe and into Russia, unobstructed by Iron Curtains or concrete walls. The gags may not be as fresh this time through the ringer, but fans of the original won’t mind. Staged in Helsinki, before a crowd estimated to be 70,000-plus Finns, the “Total Balalaika Show” combines the classic-rock chops of the Cowboys with the magnificent voices and ringing balalaikas of the 150-member Russian Red Army Choir. As incongruous as such a match might sound – imagine “Bat Out of Hell,” as performed by Meat Loaf, Barbra Streisand and the New York Philharmonic – it truly is a slice of heaven. Even if the music videos that accompany the concert footage wouldn’t fit within the narrow confines of MTV, they can stand on their own merits as short films.

Being one of the most dynamic acts in all of show business, Iggy & the Stooges are well represented in videos and live-concert films. Even in his 60s, Iggy can kick it with the best of the young rockers. “Raw Power Live: In the Hands of the Fans” is a different breed of cat in that six fans were given cameras and given complete access to film the proceedings. Fortuitously, it was the September 3, 2010, concert, at the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival, where the band committed to performing all of the songs from its 1973”Raw Power” album. The bonus features are dominated by material submitted by the winning contestants.

Composing Outside the Beatles: Lennon & McCartney 1973-1980,” represents
MVD’s latest examination of Boomer-era rock ’n’ roll follows John Lennon and Paul McCartney as they ventured forth from the security of the Beatles and blazed career paths of their own. Neither was terribly successful at the start of their separate endeavors. Beatles fans reacted negatively to the post-breakup squabbling and hesitated before embracing the new sounds. Competition for radio airplay was fierce and Lennon’s political activism was deemed too provocative for AM programmers. This DVD approaches the material both historically and critically. – Gary Dretzka

A Better Life: Blu-ray
Movies that attempt to interpret the immigration experience have been a Hollywood staple for nearly all of the last 100 years. It’s only been since the early 1980s, with “El Norte” and “The Border,” that the ordeal of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America has been addressed in any significant way. That’s changed, of course, in the ensuing 30 years, whether it’s because the “wetback” stereotype has been deemed politically incorrect and smarter voices are being recognized – outside of Arizona and Alabama, anyway — or distributors have come to the conclusion that the Hispanic audience is now large enough to exploit in a profitable way. The fact remains, however, that the creation of such movies remains the province of independents, just as it’s always been.

Director Chris Weitz (“About a Boy,” “New Moon”) and writer Eric Eason (“Manito”) adapted “A Better Life” from a story by mystery novelist Roger L. Simon. Equal parts tear-jerker and inspirational drama, it stars Demián Bichir (“Che,” “Weeds”) as a Los Angeles gardener who’s spent many years looking over his shoulder for “la migra,” while also struggling to keep his son in school and away from the gangs that dominate their East Side neighborhood. So far, so good. At the exact point in his father’s life that he can see his dreams come to fruition, fate intercedes, putting them on hold. His new truck and tools are stolen by a day laborer he picks up outside a hardware store. After he locates and retrieves the vehicle from a chop-shop, in the company of his son (Jose Julian), he’s stopped and arrested for driving without a license. There doesn’t appear to be any chance the man will be able to avoid a deportation, so, after an emotionally charged farewell, it’s left to the teenager to steer his own course, at least temporarily. The DVD comes with commentary, deleted scenes and a music video by Ozomatli. – Gary Dretzka

Masterpiece Mystery: Complete Inspector Lewis
V: The Complete Second Season
Nova: Engineering Ground Zero
History: American Pickers: Volume Two
History: Top Shot: Reloaded: Season 2
History: Pawn Stars: Volume Three
Celtic Angels at Christmas
It isn’t often that the untimely death of an actor playing the protagonist in a popular television series presents the show’s producers with both a dilemma and an opportunity. Such was the case when two-time BAFTA-winner John Thaw (a.k.a., Chief Inspector Morse) died in 2002, creating a vacuum ultimately filled by his series’ fictional subordinate, Inspector Robert Lewis (a.k.a., Kevin Whately). Conveniently for Granada/WGBH, Lewis was available, having spent a couple of years on sabbatical in the British Virgin Isles, and so was Newcastle-native Whatley. He returned to Oxford, newly widowed and reluctantly in charge of a murder case involving the murder of a mathematics student shot while participating in a sleep-deprivation study. In England, that scenario was used to introduce “Lewis” to viewers hungry for more of the same good thing. The pilot is included in the new 10-disc PBS collection, “Masterpiece Mystery: Complete Inspector Lewis,” which is comprised of all 20 mysteries, through the fourth American season. (Don’t worry fans, the episodes are shown at their original lengths, not the abridged American versions.) Lewis is joined by Detective Sergeant James Hathaway (Laurence Fox), Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent (Rebecca Front) and Dr. Laura Hobson (Clare Holman). As always the splendid Oxfordshire countryside and colleges are as important to the enjoyment of the show as anything else.

ABC may have canceled its sci-fi soap, “V,” after a couple of its “bubble” shows burst, but the way things are going with some of the network’s replacement series, it might need a quick fix with a reliable fan base, however marginal.ABC execs probably thought “Charlie’s Angels” was a no-brainer, but it already has been canceled. “V” was a remake of the two-part 1983 mini-series, which aired on NBC and spawned a sequel, a weekly series and a novelization. In the updated series, the alien Visitors are led by the mysterious queen Anna, who advises from above, “Don’t be frightened. We mean you no harm,” which translates to, “Obey or die.” Motherships hover over 29 different cities. In the 10-episode Season 2, it’s revealed why such an odd number of vehicles are involved in the invasion. Meanwhile, an underground unit of resistance fighters — the Fifth Column – struggles to undermine the reptilian intruders. The Blu-ray set adds a pair of making-of featurettes, with cast interviews; unaired scenes; and a blooper reel.

As part of the national outpouring of grief that accompanied the 10th anniversary of 9/11, dozens of shows commemorating those who died aired on television. There were nearly as many programs that celebrated the recovery efforts by relatives and survivors. Not surprisingly, PBS’ “Nova: Engineering Ground Zero” took a different tack. Just as the terrorists’ living victims struggled to rebuild their lives on a foundation poured by slain loved ones, so, too, did an army of engineers, architects and construction workers labor to create a fitting memorial to the people who died there. Beyond that, they have endeavored to replace the commercial entity specifically and symbolically targeted by the hijackers on that awful day. Their story is more than one of iron and steel. The negotiations and debates that preceded construction of One World Trade Center created an aura of drama that, in some ways, continues today. Among those interviewed are architect David Childs; Chris Ward, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; Mayor Michael Bloomberg, chairman of the 9/11 Memorial Foundation; and Michael Arad, who conceptualized the 9/11 Memorial.

Once upon a time, I was employed as a garbage man. This was before the days when residents were required to roll their containers to the curb, so as to save time and reduce the challenge of carrying overloaded cans to the truck without dropping half the load on the driveway. Separating garbage into refuse, recyclables and garden waste was an idea too far-fetched for any of us to imagine. For our labors, some of the residents on our routes would leave six-packs of beer or pop, which we would consume at the dump, if we had some time to kill. Apparently, the guys who spent their free time sifting through the piles of garbage, looking for discarded treasures and recyclable metals where decades ahead of their time. Today, they would have a television show of their own, just like “American Pickers.” Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, we’re told, “are just two ordinary guys looking for extraordinary things. ‘American Pickers’ follows them as they scour the country’s junkyards, basements and barns for hidden gems.” In the show’s second season, the pickers were rewarded at “honey holes” filled with coin-operated games and pinball machines, civil war artifacts, circus leftovers, toys, signs and other goodies. Who knew?

History’s competition series, “Top Shot,” is “Survivor,” with weapons. Contestants are required to demonstrate mastery of weapons from all eras of human history, from primitive rocks to sophisticated firearms. They are required, as well, to endure grueling physical tests to stay in the game. High-speed, high-definition cameras capture the skillful execution of each test in extreme slow motion Like “Survivor,” the competitors can be every bit as petty and unreasonable as children playing cowboys and Indians. With $100,000 at stake, who can blame them? Among the stunts required of the contestants are shooting while hanging from a crane; riding on the back of a jeep; standing 1,000 yards from the target; and using Civil War rifles.

Ever notice how “Pawn Stars” and other reality-based shows involving previously owned junk and artifacts resemble PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow”? All feature professionals whose job it is to evaluate property ranging in value from priceless to worthless, and everything in between. Pawn-shop employees not are experts at assessing value, but also getting customers to accept low-ball offers. If the property is worth anything, they benefit from charging interest – usually less than your average bank-backed credit card – and/or the inability of the pawnee to meet certain deadlines. Some proprietors can be unscrupulous, but rarely the ones willing to risk their reputations in front tens of thousands of viewers each week. Fans should know that “Volume Three” is comprised of only 16 of the show’s 28 episodes.

First screened on Canadian television in 2006, “Celtic Angels at Christmas” is a lovely seasonal presentation that showcases the songs and steps of Celtic artists from Cape Breton and other strongholds of Scottish heritage in eastern Canada. The traditional Gaelic hymns and carols are as inspiring as they are unfamiliar to most American ears. Fiddler Kendra MacGillivray is an energetic interpreter of Scottish songs and fellow Angel Sabra MacGillivray dances, as well as sings. She is joined, as well, by some very young step dancers. Maggie MacInnes performs on the clarsach (Celtic harp), while Patricia Murray, Gillian Boucher and Stephanie Hardy round out the ensemble. Close your eyes and you won’t be distracted by the Spartan backgrounds. — Gary Dretzka

I clowns: Blu-ray
Specialty distributor RaroVideo made Federico Fellini’s delightful “docu-comedy” of the history of clowns and their continuing role they play in and out of circuses one of its first releases here. “I clowns” also recounts the maestro’s lifelong fascination with the circus, and its place in his movies. RaroVideo has now done movie lovers the very great favor of sending out the wildly colorful “I clowns” in Blu-ray. Among the guest stars are Anita Ekberg, Geraldine Chaplin and the director himself. The enchanting score was composed by Nino Rota. The Blu-ray bonus package is similar to that of the DVD: “The Matrimonial Agency,” Fellini’s 16-minute short, conceived for the 1953 anthology “Love in the City”; a video essay by Adriano Aprà on the creation of “I clowns”; and a 50-page booklet with Fellini’s notes and sketches for the film. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Tree of Life, Green Lantern, Zookeeper, Mr. Nice, Four Feathers, Horrible Bosses, The Trip, Beautiful Boy, Submarino, Red State, Maniac Cop …

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

The Tree of Life: Blu-ray
If all one knows about Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is that it was awarded the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, watching it at home could either be a tremendously exhilarating or hugely bewildering experience. A highly personal project, the movie has been gestating in his mind for more than 30 years, and only the barest outline of a plot is visible. Even those conversant with Makick’s exacting composition, studied pacing, ethereal cinematography and cerebral demands aren’t sure what to make of it. As such, “Tree of Life” is a “2001: A Space Odyssey” for our calamitous times. The movie opens with a quote from the bible, but it could have been prefaced with the enigmatic title sequence from the 1960s’ medical drama “Ben Casey.” As a hand draws five symbols on a chalkboard, a disembodied voice intones, “Man, woman, life, death, infinity.” They could stand as chapter headings in Malick’s near-religious interpretation of what it means to exist in a finite universe, either as God’s children or temporal constructs of ash and dust. Malick intersperses stunningly impressionistic images of the creation process with vignettes from the life of a family of middle-class Texans in the 1950s. As exemplars of the human condition, the O’Briens would appear to be a distinctly arbitrary choice. They are, however, drawn from Malick’s memories of his own family.

As suggested in a voiceover narration, the O’Briens represent the eternal struggle between the forces of nature and grace. Brad Pitt’s character is a man whose behavior is dictated by the laws of the various jungles in which he exists at any given moment. In the ’50s, this meant men acted according to guidelines established by countless generations of fathers before them, and they expected their sons to toe the same line. The men also demanded of their wives that they reflect their values and disciplinary standards. All of that would change within the lifetimes of the O’Brien children. As portrayed by the lovely Jessica Chastain, Mrs. O’Brien’s spirit is more ethereal and informed by grace. Her relationship with their three sons is founded on love, spontaneity and maternal instincts inherited from her ancestors. She stands by her man, but never allows the boys to drift very far from the nest. Malick’s alter ego here is Jack (Hunter McCracken), a boy approaching the turbulence of puberty with all of the contradictions inherent in his parents’ marriage already tearing him apart. As an adult, Jack (Sean Penn) is a successful big-city architect who couldn’t be more uncomfortable in his own skin. Out of the blue, Jack takes a powder from his glass-lined office and goes on a vision quest that anticipates his ultimate journey from Earth to the afterlife (in a suit and tie no less). Likewise, Malick imagines how the death of the universe might look, if witnessed from a box seat in the Milky Way. It’s visually spectacular, especially in Blu-ray, and only slightly less portentous than anything in “2001.”

It’s significant, then, that Malick turned to Douglas Trumbull when he came to a creative impasse. Alongside Stanley Kubrick, Turnball re-wrote the book on special visual and photographic effects in Hollywood. It’s Trumbull’s first visual-effects credit since 1982, when he was Oscar-nominated for his work in “Blade Runner.” The only supplemental feature in the Blu-ray presentation is a fairly routine behind-the-scenes piece, sans Malick. I’m only guessing here, but there’s probably a Criterion Collection or Director’s Cut edition somewhere in the offing. – Gary Dretzka

Green Lantern: Blu-ray 3D
In the early years of “Gossip Girl,” Blake Lively always looked about five years too old to play a high school student. Indeed, as far as I can recall, her character’s never been carded when in search of a cocktail or entrance to a trendy nightclub. In “Green Lantern,” the lovely Ms. Lively looks 10 years too young to be a seasoned test pilot for her father’s aeronautics company, let alone someone about to take over its reins. Stranger things have happened in the movies, though, I suppose. Lively’s Carol Ferris is the object of desire for fellow pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) and nerdy scientist Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard). In due course, Jordan and Hammond not only become rivals for Ferris’ attention, but also as Earthly agents for warring intergalactic forces: the peace-keeping Green Lantern Corps and fear-entity Parallax. Jordan’s powers derive from a power-generating ring given him by alien guardian Abin Sur, whose space vehicle crash-lands on Earth. Hammond begins mutating after conducting Abin Sur’s autopsy, during which a yellow meteor fragment comes in contact with his bare skin. For Jordan to fully realize the strength of a Green Lantern guardian and battle Parallax, it will, however, be necessary for him to squeeze all yellow-tinged fear from his body. Conversely, Hammond’s fear-generating mutation not only causes his head to balloon hideously – to accommodate his increased brain size — but it also attracts the massive dark storm that is Parallax to Earth. For Jordan to neutralize Hammond’s newly acquired telepathy and realize the full powers of a Green Lantern, he must overcome his rival and all residual fear from his being. Once that is accomplished, Green Lantern and Parallax can engage in their battle royal.

If that synopsis sounds hopelessly confusing, you already know what’s wrong with “Green Lantern.” To keep the characters and their powers straight, it may be necessary to keep a scorecard or notepad handy. For example, everything Jordan does is influenced by witnessing, at the tender age of 8, his test-pilot father being burned to a crisp in a fiery crash. Ferris’ dad is a ruthless industrialist and Hammond’s is a corrupt politician. Talk about karmic overload. Martin Campbell’s film can be divided roughly into two parts. The first and less interesting half involves the Earth-bound characters and their various schemes and romantic entanglements. The second half takes place in outer space, first on the emerald-green planet of Oa and, later, on a beeline to the sun. It’s on Oa that the Central Power Battery is located and the Guardians of the Universe keep track of the Green Lantern Corps’ activities. The Green Lantern’s final showdown with the evil Parallax takes place in the fiery shadow of the sun. The design of the stormy menace, Parallax, reportedly was inspired by the plumes of dust that swallowed Lower Manhattan immediately after the collapse of theTwin Towers on 9/11 and the “writhing mass of living beings” in Indian festival films. It’s pretty impressive. Not yet in possession of a Blu-ray 3D player, I can only imagine how these scenes might look in that format.

The supplemental package includes the 114-minute theatrical cut and 123-minute extended version; “Maximum Movie Mode: Green Lantern’s Light,” with 161minutes of making-of featurettes and picture-in-picture interviews, pop-up trivia, character bios and backgrounders; “The Universe According to Green Lantern,” which offers the DC Comics take on the characters and mythology; deleted scenes; “Ryan Reynolds Becomes Green Lantern”; a preview of “Green Lantern: The Animated Series”; “Justice League #1 Digital Comic; “Arkham City Character Skin Code,” with Sinestro Corps Batman in the PlayStation 3 version of the “Arkham City” games; and an UltraViolet Digital Copy. “Green Lantern” looks as if it were made to provide a foundation for a franchise, which probably won’t happen. Normally, a $116-million haul at the domestic box office would satisfy investors, but with a budget estimated to be $200 million, it fell well short of expectations. – Gary Dretzka

Zookeeper: Blu-ray
As talking-animal rom-coms go, “Zookeeper” is competently made, reasonably funny and unabashedly sentimental. It should please most kids and fans of such Happy Madison creations as “Bedtime Stories” and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” It’s loaded with scatological and slapstick humor and, naturally, the homely guy ends up with a hot gal. I can’t imagine anyone else over 14 enjoying it much, although the hint of a cross-species romance between a gorilla and drunken party girl might inspire fetishists to give it a look-see. The implications of such a hookup weren’t sufficiently kinky to prevent the MPAA from giving it a “PG,” but you never what floats that organization’s boat. “Zookeeper” stars Kevin James as an amiable lug, Griffin, who loves his job at the zoo, but is despondent over his girlfriend’s decision, years earlier, to dump him for a perceived lack of ambition. Instead of saying, “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” and recognizing the attention given him by some very nice women working alongside him at the zoo, Griffin senses Stephanie might be right. The animals under his care have quietly become aware of his unhappiness and conspire to get Griffin and Stephanie back together. He’s been such a pal to them, the animals come out of the special-effects closet by revealing their ability to speak and listen. To his surprise, they also are able to leave their cages at night and roam at will throughout the facility. The various animals teach him what is required of an alpha male, from growling ferociously at potential rivals to marking his territory. Their efforts may not be enough for Griffin to turn down a job at a relative’s car dealership, though, and, if he leaves, the animals fear he’ll be replaced by a particularly sadistic keeper. The same guy was especially brutal to the gorilla, causing it to turn its back on the zoo’s patrons and demonstrate other anti-social characteristics.

What really diminished my enjoyment of the movie was a product-placement strategy that gave the TGI Friday’s bar and restaurant chain an inordinate amount of exposure, even by Hollywood’s profit-based standards. Not only is the chain’s logo conspicuous throughout the movie, but, incredibly, it is the first place the gorilla wants to go when Griffin helps him break out of his funk and cage, if for only a few hours. Some critics found the product placement to be so distracting and offensive, they considered the possibility TGI Friday’s was a not-so-silent investor in the project. (Its logo also was prominent in television ads and Internet teasers.) Someone, after all, had to help pay for an all-star voicing cast that includes Sandler, Sylvester Stallone, Cher, Nick Nolte, Judd Apatow, Jon Favreau, Maya Rudolph and Don Rickles, and human actors Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb, Ken Jeong and Donnie Wahlberg. Their salaries could buy a lot of peanuts. The Blu-ray bonus package adds deleted scenes and a gag reel; a look at all the work that went into the creation of the animatronic gorilla character, voiced by Nolte; an introduction to the actors; backgrounders on the scenes in which the animals interacted with each other and Griffin; a piece on James’ training with bears; BD Live functionality; and a standard DVD copy. – Gary Dretzka

Mr. Nice
Before “Easy Rider,” purveyors of illegal substances were portrayed as being loathsome fiends, whose sales pitch could be reduced to, “Try it, the first one’s free,” whether the product was heroin, marijuana or cough syrup. After “Easy Rider,” filmmakers paid lip service, at least, to the popular perception that dealers of marijuana, hashish and LSD were somehow more virtuous than the pushers of heroin, crack and speed. Until the destructive properties of cocaine became widely known and Colombians turned Miami into their personal O.K. Corral, it, too, was given a pass.

Mr. Nice” tells the story of Welsh hashish and marijuana smuggler Howard Marks (Rhys Ifans), who, at the height of his career, was said to have controlled 10 percent of all hashish being trafficked in the world. He arranged for consignments of up to 30 tons of cannabis from Pakistan, Thailand and Colombia to be smuggled into Europe, America and Canada. At various times, Marks claims to have been in cahoots with such organizations as the IRA, MI-6, CIA and the Mafia. He made enough money selling marijuana and hashish that he never felt the urge to traffic in harder drugs. Marks was no dummy and he had alternatives to a career in drug dealing. After growing up in a working-class Welsh community, he was invited to attend Oxford University, where he was introduced to hashish and psychedelics by the sons and daughters of Britain’s ruling class. Despite these indulgences, Marks earned a degree in nuclear physics and studied philosophy as a post-graduate. He tried teaching, but was lured away from the profession by the promise and excitement of scoring easy money. His biggest challenge would come in organizing a smuggling network that allowed his shipments to bypass customs agents. In another marvelously twitchy performance, David Thewlis plays a key IRA operative who convinced sympathizers working at an Irish airport that he was importing guns and other weapons into the country and they should move the cargo along without inspection. Instead, the boxes contained hashish from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The sophistication of his operation blossomed from there.

In addition to the requisite scenes of “la dolce vita,” “Mr. Nice” chronicles Marks’ family life, close calls and arrests, including the one that finally landed him in a maximum-security American prison for a 25-year bit. Before sentencing him, the judge – in the movie, at least – admitted being ambivalent about the necessity for stiff penalties for marijuana smuggling, but was required by law to hand them down, anyway. Not being a belligerent or dangerous fellow, Marks was able to reduce the sentence to seven years. He has since written his memoirs, joined the lecture circuit, acted and become a proponent of the legalization of marijuana. It’s difficult to imagine a better actor to portray Marks than Ifans, who displays a loosey-goosey attitude throughout “Mr. Nice,” but also is convincing as a family man, hedonist and hippie capitalist. Chloe Sevigny and Crispin Glover also deliver fine performances. The Blu-ray comes with a garden-variety making-of featurette, with a guest appearance by Marks, who looks as if he’s still waiting for Woodstock to begin. – Gary Dretzka

The Four Feathers: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
At least a half-dozen movies have been made from A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel, chronicling the British Empire’s retaking of Sudan from the “dervishes” and “fuzzy-wuzzies” under the command of the Khalifa Abdullah. Zoltan Korda’s sprawling adaptation of “The Four Feathers,” shot largely on location in the Sudan in three-strip Technicolor, is widely acknowledged to be the best of the lot. Although he espoused leftist principles, the Hungarian-born filmmaker had an immense regard for his adopted country and was somehow able to ignore the blind capitalistic ambitions of its imperialistic foreign policies while completing his Empire trilogy: “Sanders of the River,” “The Drum” and “The Four Feathers.” Things were pretty cut and dry for the colonialist powers in the late 1800s, as were the books and movies that celebrated the wars fought to keep the native tribes and Islamic potentates under their thumbs. By time we meet the key players in “The Four Feathers” reclaiming the Sudan is more a point of honor than an economic necessity. The protagonist, Harry Faversham (John Clemens), has descended from a long line of military heroes and he’s grown up listening to the lies told by old men about their heroism, when “soldiers were soldiers and not soft.” He heard repeated toasts to the memory of family members slain in the line of duty and endless condemnations of those who failed to live up to the British ideal.

When it came time for Harry to serve, he was expected to command a unit of men in Northern Africa. After absorbing all the nonsense dished out by the old men, however, he realized that a soldier’s life wasn’t for him. Harry declared that he wouldn’t fight to protect the financial interests of rich Brits, but what he really feared was the yellow streak he felt inching up his spine. By relinquishing his commission, he opened himself up for accusations of cowardice and the loss of his fiancé, who also sprang from a military family. When he received an envelope from his army cronies containing four white feathers, signifying cowardice, it shook him to his core. In an unexpected surge of courage, Harry commits himself to going to Africa, where he will adopt the costume of a deaf and mute Arab serf and find redemption in acts designed to bestow glory on his family and country. After months of arduous preparation, Harry is given the opportunity to rescue his best friend – blinded by sunstroke – and two other friends taken prisoner by the dervishes. He performs the first miracle anonymously and the second while rallying the prisoners – and captured British officers – while incarcerated in a strategically located fortress along the Nile.

The scope of Korda’s “Four Feathers” is only slightly less grand than that of “Lawrence of Arabia,” which it resembles. Thousands of extras were recruited to portray the opposing fighters, riding into battle on camels and horses, or rushing to oblivion carrying spears, swords and bayonets. Americans will find the patriotic notions of the upper-class Brits to be borderline laughable, but it helps explain some of the attitudes that contributed to the devastating conflagrations of the 20th Century and the current mess in Iraq, Afghanistan and, yes, the Sudan. More than anything else, though, “Four Feathers” is a hugely entertaining reminder of a different era in cinema. The Blu-ray holds the colors of the Technicolor original extremely well and the other restorative measures make the 70-year-old movie practically look brand new. The Criterion Collection edition adds audio commentary by historian Charles Drazin; a new video interview with David Korda, son of director Zoltan Korda; “A Day at Denham,” a short film from 1939 featuring footage taken by Korda; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Sragow. – Gary Dretzka

Horrible Bosses: Totally Inappropriate Edition: Blu-ray
Even though “Horrible Bosses” freely acknowledges its debt to “Strangers on a Train” and “Throw Momma From the Train,” it can easily stand on its own as an extremely dark and potty-mouthed murder comedy. Three friends, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day), meet regularly at a cocktail lounge to commiserate about how badly they’re being treated by their bosses. They don’t hate their jobs. It’s the people they report to who have made their lives miserable. At a time when jobs are hard to find and there are hundreds of candidates for every open position, quitting is career suicide. The only sure-fire way to improve workplace conditions, they figure, is to eliminate their nemeses by any means necessary. Not having the guts to do the dirty deeds themselves, they, of course, go to the place most likely to harbor a potential murderer. That’s right, a bar frequented by African-Americans. It’s there that they meet an opportunistic conman (Jamie Foxx), who, after scamming them out of several thousands of dollars, admits that he’s never killed anyone or would know how to do so. He does, however, encourage them to play the Hitchcock card, by killing each other’s boss, thereby not leaving a trail that leads back to the employee. The comedy derives from watching these nebbishes attempt to pull off such a risky strategy.

The other half of the equation is represented by the bosses, played with gusto by the only vaguely recognizable Colin Farrell; Kevin Spacey, reprising his deliciously repugnant character in “Swimming With Sharks”; and Jennifer Aniston, who is funnier in any one scene here, than in the entirety of her last eight or nine movies. She plays a dentist who torments her hygienist, Dale, by demanding he submit to her sexual advances. If not, she’ll show incriminating pictures – taken while he was under sedation – to his fiancé. Her relentlessness is hysterical. Spacey’s character is a sadistic prick who reneges on his promise to promote Nick. Farrell’s character is a useless playboy and coke hound, who vows to suck every penny of profit out of his father’s company, even if he has to flout every environmental regulation to do it. After being introduced to these horrible bosses, viewers might agree that murder is too soft a punishment … not that they’ll be successful at it.

If “Horrible Bosses” isn’t nearly as a good a picture as it ought to be, I think the blame should fall on director Seth Gordon and his writing team, all of whom earned their bones on sitcoms and made-for-TV movies. The flow of the narrative is uneven, as if the writers were anticipating commercial breaks. Many viewers will find the language offensive, but it didn’t bother me as much as the underdeveloped strategies to murder the men’s bosses. Apart from that, the acting is good and the laughs are plentiful enough to recommend “Horrible Bosses,” despite its deficiencies. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and the featurettes, “My Least Favorite Career,” “Surviving A Horrible Boss,” “Being Mean Is So Much Fun” and “Making of the ‘Horrible Bosses’ Soundtrack.” The digital copy marks one of New Line and Warner’s first uses of the UltraViolet technology, a cloud-based streaming service. – Gary Dretzka

The Trip
For American viewers unfamiliar with the comedy of British actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, I recommend thinking of “The Trip” as “My Dinner With Andre … on Wheels.” In it, the two friends play fictionalized versions of themselves, as they tool around the scenic northern Lake District staying at some of the region’s most celebrated hotels and eating in the best restaurants, all on the dime of the Observer newspaper. Originally, as the story goes, Coogan was to have made the trip with his American girlfriend, but, at the last minute, she was offered a job interview and begged out of it. Brydon was happy to tag along in her place. They spend countless hours on the road, over dinner and at historical locations simply conversing about whatever’s on the minds, breaking into impressions of famous actors and reciting the words of the Lake Poets. They occasionally bicker, as very close friends often will, but far less than might be expected of two normal-sized men traveling for hours in British economy car. As befits the opposing personalities of the men, Coogan spends a great deal of his time wandering the countryside looking for a place to make cell-phone calls to his girlfriend, agents and editor, while Brydon is satisfied engaging with his wife in phone sex on the land line. Brydon’s loyal to his wife and family, while Coogan doesn’t hesitate to use his prominence to make late-night hookups.

“The Trip” was shown in England as a six-part BBC mini-series, directed by Michael Winterbottom. The exceedingly versatile filmmaker, who worked with both men on “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” and “24 Hour Party People,” edited the mini-series down to 107 minutes, so it could be shown in Europe and the United States. As much fun as it is to listen to Coogan and Brydon banter their way around the Lake District, “The Trip” serves equally well as a travelogue. I was unfamiliar with the profoundly beautiful and richly historic region, but now plan to add it to my bucket list. The DVD adds a generous selection of deleted scenes, an extended sequence on wine, a profane musical interlude, behind-the-scenes and making-of features. – Gary Dretzka

Beautiful Boy
Every awards season, there’s at least one movie so thematically bleak and unforgiving that its chances for success are based solely on the splendid acting or familiarity with the source material. Otherwise, it would almost be too difficult to watch. “Rabbit Hole” was such a movie, as were “The Lovely Bones,” “The Sweet Hereafter,” “The Door in the Floor” and “The Crossing Guard.” Any movie in which parents are required to grieve over the unexpected death of a child is going to be a tough sell, commercially. “Ordinary People” did well at the box office, but, in 1980, adults still took movies seriously enough to purchase tickets to see them. Any other year, the release of Shawn Ku’s “Beautiful Boy” might have been pushed back to November or early December, if only to give Michael Sheen and Maria Bello an opportunity to be nominated in one of the many awards contests. This year, however, there’s an even more star-studded movie in which parents must deal with their son’s bloody and inexplicable rampage at his school. Directed by Lynne Ramsay (“Rat Catcher”), “We Need to Talk About Kevin” stars previous Oscar finalists Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly. Mounting a competitive awards campaign for “Beautiful Boy” might simply have proven to be prohibitively expensive for Anchor Bay. Instead, it can send screeners to voters ahead of the holiday rush hour and hope the movie doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

Less than a day after Kate and Bill share a seemingly normal Skype conversation with their son, Sammy, the young man goes on a killing spree at his college. Apart from the fact he sounded as if he couldn’t wait for the weekly ordeal to be over, nothing hinted at impending disaster or the suicide that would end the carnage. After police fill them in on the details of the massacre, the parents dredge their memory banks to see if they could have treated him any better as a child or they missed any signs of depression. They had pretty much exhausted all of the good reasons to remain together as a couple and might have divorced eventually, but Sammy must have seen that coming. A copy editor, Kate sought perfection in everything that came to her attention, including Sammy’s homework, and Dad often put his job ahead his family. Still, those problems are small potatoes at a time when many adults act demand to be treated as if they’re the children in the family and are as deserving of attention as a newborn baby. As the movie progresses, Kate and Bill go from being supportive of each other to total basket cases. They’re assaulted by the media and shunned by almost everyone in the community. Again, even the strongest relationships buckle under such pressure. As viewers, we know too little about Sammy’s background to take sides against them. We sympathize with Kate and Bill, of course, but aren’t given enough information about them to empathize with them, even as they struggle with a pain so profound it defies description. It’s a credit to Bello and Sheen that we care as much about their characters as we do. The DVD arrives with a couple of deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Last Exit to Brooklyn: Blu-ray
Just as most of the best interpretations of Charles Bukowski’s work originated in countries other than the United States, it took a German director to turn Hubert Selby Jr.’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn” into a movie that matched the intensity, depravity and raw emotional tug of the once-controversial book. Only an outsider would think to probe the same grimy shadows of America as our own home-grown “outsider” artists. Selby, Bukowski and the Beats knew those dark corners as well as anyone.

Selby wrote the short stories that would be collected in “Last Exit to Brooklyn” while convalescing from the after-effects of surgery for advanced tuberculosis, which was diagnosed while he was at sea with the Merchant Marine. Doctors gave him little chance for survival, but, as therapy, the writing proved to be a highly effective. He hadn’t previously written anything worth sharing, but his memories of growing up in a strictly working-class section of Brooklyn provided all the source material he would need. The people he still knew by heart. Their shared experiences allowed for vivid descriptions of such unappetizing subjects as random violence, drug and alcohol abuse, corrupt unions, domestic violence, sexual promiscuity, prostitution and gang rape. Neither were unflinching portrayals of homosexuality and transvestism approved by the literary establishment. His style mimicked the “spontaneous prose” of the Beats and the dialogue was authentic. Naturally, in some quarters, the 1964 book was considered to be obscene and, therefore, censorable. In the U.S., the dismissal of obscenity charges against Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” opened the door for the Grove Press edition of “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” but it would take several more years for the book to be cleared for readers in England and Italy.

German director Uli Edel and Japanese-American writer Desmond Nakano merged the book’s six chapters, using a long strike at a Red Hook factory as the connective tissue. In the early 1950s, the rough-and-tumble neighborhood was bustling with dock and factory workers, soldiers waiting to be shipped out to Korea and the habitués of bars, brothels and street corners. Prominent among the characters here are a union shop steward (Stephen Lang), about to exit the sexual closet; a stern working-class father (Burt Young), attempting to cope with the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of his daughter (Ricki Lake); hoodlums who prey on the soldiers; soldiers who think they’re somehow superior to the hoodlums; several transvestites; and, of course, the prostitute Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who steals money from drunken sailors and soldiers, but makes the mistake of falling in love with the wrong one. Everything comes to a head at approximately the same time as the strike enters its final violent days. Edel (“Christiane F.,” “The Baader-Meinhoff Complex”) locates the tortured humanity in the characters and events, without asking his audience to judge them or feel compelled to share their pain. The Blu-ray effectively brightens the movie’s necessarily dark tones and allows the characters to be clearly seen in the nearly abandoned nighttime streets of Red Hook. The Blu-ray adds a terrific two-part making-of and backgrounder featurette, which includes interviews with Selby and cameos by some of the guys who inspired the hoodlum characters. – Gary Dretzka

The not-nearly-dark-enough black comedy, “Lucky,” is the story of a kooky, unlucky-in-love receptionist who falls for a childhood friend, but only after he wins $36 million in the Lottery. Although, at first glance, it appears as if Lucy (Ari Graynor) has realized every gold-digger’s dream, it comes with a catch. The affable dork, Ben (Colin Hanks), didn’t even know that he had won the prize, because the winning ticket was among the items he absent-mindedly stashed in his pocket after he murdered a young woman exiting a convenience store one blustery evening. His mother (Ann-Margret) would find the ticket in his coat and check the numbers against those flashed on the TV. There were other victims, but it would take a while before a dogged police detective (Jeffrey Tambor) could put the pieces of the puzzle together. In the meantime, Lucy’s learned to love her husband, and Ben has found a way to squander the first installment of his fortune.

That premise would work if the Lottery bureaucracy was as inept at screening winners as is presented here. Even if that almost trivial pothole were avoided, though, “Lucky” would still suffer from the erratic pacing and a narrative structure of your standard-issue made-for-cable movie. Hanks isn’t a bad actor, but there’s nothing in his eyes that suggests Ben’s a sociopath or could be a serial anything. Graynor is the standout here, bubbling with the energy it would take to hook and land a trophy husband and cute as could be. She reminds me of a considerably less amped-up Jenna Elfman, whose comic chops aren’t strong enough to fill the big screen. I’m surprised Graynor has yet to be accorded a sitcom of her own. The DVD adds a couple of deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

As movies go, there’s nothing quite so bleak as the stories told about the semi-functional alcoholics and addicts who populate northern Europe in increasing numbers. Not only are skies routinely slate gray and threatening to rain or snow, but no one seems to have heard of AA or NA. Here, the title of Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg’s latest movie, “Submarino,” says it all. It refers to the form of torture we know here as “water-boarding,” and Dick Cheney still denies is unnecessarily cruel. All of the primary characters, except for the young son of the heroin-addicted co-protagonist, feel tied down and submerged in one tub of dirty water or another. Vinterberg adapted “Submarino” from a popular novel by Jonas T. Bengstsson. It is the story of two men, Nick and his unnamed brother, so traumatized by the death of their infant sibling and inattention of an alcoholic mother, they’ve never been able to get beyond them. We meet the adult Nick after he’s been released from incarceration and is living like a sot in a halfway house. His junkie younger brother comes into the picture at the funeral of their mother, then disappears for a while. Later, after his equally messed up ex-wife is murdered, the brother takes over sole responsibility of their son, Martin. To provide for the boy, he takes to selling heroin, while also using it. The brothers drift in and out of each other’s lives throughout the rest of the movie, but, always, the person we care most about is Martin.

Vinterberg’s known here primarily as an early advocate of Dogma principles, and “The Celebration” remains his most prominent work. While not purely a Dogma film, “Submarino” is a very close approximation of the movement’s no-frills, in-your-face approach to the source material. As such, the movie feels as much like a product of social-realism as Dogma. “Submarino” isn’t an easy movie to watch and almost impossible to enjoy. It almost qualifies as anti-entertainment. Anyone familiar with Lar von Trier, Nicolas Winding Refn and early Scorsese will understand what they’re in for here, though, and want to share the experience. — Gary Dretzka

Master Harold … and the Boys: Blu-ray
Wouldn’t you just know it? Ving Rhames is allowed to tackle a lead role, in which he isn’t required to kill zombies or fend of killer fish, and the movie disappears into the void of the straight-to-video marketplace. Set in South Africa, not long after the official imposition of apartheid in 1948, “Master Harold … and the Boys” describes how the insidious policy slowly poisoned even those children who grew up in close proximity to black caretakers and servants, and, in this case, may have served as surrogate fathers to them. Rhames plays Sam, who, along with Willie (Patrick Mofokeng), works in a tea room owned by a white family with whom they’ve been associated for as long as the son, Hally (Freddie Highmore), has been alive. Hally’s mother is a stern taskmaster and his father is an alcoholic who lost a leg on a ship during World War II. The old man has long been an embarrassment to Hally, even to the point where the boy had to ask Sam to carry him home from a tavern after he pissed himself and passed out. There’s no reason why there should be tension between the white 17-year-old and the two black adults, but it’s the conceit of the play that the release of Hally’s father from a hospital convalescence will cause such distress in the boy that he chooses this day to assert his white privilege and take his anger out on “the boys.” He demands that his oldest friend and guardian, Sam, address him as “Master Harold,” instead of Hally, just as Willy does. It’s an extremely ugly scene, but integral to the dynamics of Athol Fugard’s play.

A parallel storyline in the 87-minute production involves Sam and Willie’s participation in an important ballroom dance competition. Willie seeks Sam’s guidance in dealing with his partner and the men even practice their steps between chores. The contest is portrayed, in flashbacks, as an elegant escape from the reality of life outside the ballroom. The judges and participants are black, well dressed and free from the humiliation of being required by law to sublimate their pride and emotions. Hally, who’s having trouble coming up with an idea for a theme paper, enjoys watching the men dance, and finds something liberating in their give-and-take. That is, until Hally’s mother calls the tea room, informing him that – against the boy’s wishes and advice – she’s bringing the old boozehound home. She even asks Hally to converse with his father and be supportive of him. No sooner does the boy hang up the phone than he begins lashing out at Sam and Willie. Sam understands that “Master Harold” has just crossed a line that will forever separate them and makes him aware of why it matters. It is a powerful moment and Rhames handles it well. No one should be surprised to learn that “Master Harold … and the Boys” was banned by South African censors and premiered, instead, at the Yale Repertory Theater, in 1982. It went to Broadway with Fugard regular Zakes Mokae, as Sam; Danny Glover, as Willie; and Lonny Price, as Hally. Twenty years later, Price directed this adaptation. – Gary Dretzka

Leap Year (Ano Bisiesto)
Just as Laura, a young woman living in a cramped Mexico City apartment, monitors the so-called lives of her neighbors from her window, “Leap Year” demands that we consider her barely-there existence through the unblinking lens of a virtually static camera. It’s difficult to know what to make of Laura, a journalist who freelances from her kitchen table. During the day, she occupies her time doing chores and making phone calls. We know she’s extremely lonely, possibly depressed, but she stays busy at night having sex – as opposed to making love – to men who literally come and go like delivery trucks. She’s also checking off the days on her calendar leading up to February 29, the date her father died four years earlier. As portrayed by Monica del Carmen, Laura could be any one of a million ambitious young women who migrate to the capital from much smaller cities and villages, looking for something different. Like most of them she’s short, a bit pudgy, has long black hair and is rather plain looking. The closer the checks on her calendar come to the circled 29th of February, however, the more she changes. An actor she meets introduces her to rough sex, finally allowing Laura to share in the orgasmic pleasure, and it’s off to the races. Within a matter of two weeks, her sex life evolves from routine to dangerous. We dread what might occur on the 29th, but anything’s possible for someone who allows herself only one day every four years to grieve for the most important man in her life. By the time the final credits roll, we know little more about Laura than what we did on February 1.

It’s difficult to know if the bare-bones approach taken by freshman filmmaker Michael Rowe was intentional or dictated by what appears to have been a lack of money. By never leaving the apartment, we feel as trapped as Laura and every bit the voyeur she is. It’s a daring approach and Del Carmen bravely reveals her character’s body and soul in ways only a fly on the wall could notice. – Gary Dretzka

Casper the Friendly Ghost: The Complete Collection
Ghost Hunters: Season Six, Part Two

With all the attention currently being paid to characters drawn by the artists at DC and Marvel Comics, it’s sometimes easy to forget that comic books weren’t limited to superheroes. Among the other companies producing popular characters for cartoons, newspapers and comic books were Disney, Archie, Fleischer and Harvey. Harvey’s Casper the Friendly Ghost has been a popular cartoon character ever since his first appearance in the Paramount shorts, “The Friendly Ghost,” “There’s Good Boos To-Night” and “A Haunting We Will Go,” in mid- to late-1940s. In 1950, the studio would begin creating “Casper” cartoons for the fledgling medium: television. Two years later, Harvey became the sole publisher of Casper comic books, eventually acquiring all rights to the character. In addition to publishing the comics for the next few decades, it licensed the character for use in the Steven Spielberg-produced feature, “Casper” (1995), which combines live-action, special effects and animation; a TV series for Fox Kids; a pair of made-for-video films; and a couple of made-for-TV movies. Casper the Friendly Ghost will live forever, as well, in toys and other licensed products.

Watching the earliest episodes makes clear what later, more sanitized iterations didn’t. Casper is the ghost of a boy who died prematurely. We know this because the Friendly One can be found reclining on the gravestone of “Casper” – he would be accorded the surname, McFadden, in the 1995 feature film – when he’s in a particularly blue mood. In the paranormal world, Casper is frequently admonished and shunned by his fellow apparitions, simply because he wants to make friends, not scare them away. In the physical world, the wee ghost is almost always greeted with, “A Ghooooooost …,” after which the human being beats a swift retreat. Once in every episode, however, Casper manages to befriend at least one new person, while also saving someone or something from disaster. That’s when the ghost becomes everyone’s friend.

The new DVD collection contains all of the theatrical shorts and the 1963 television series; audio commentaries with Mark Arnold (editor of “The Harveyville Fun Times”) and Edmee Reit (widow of co-creator, Seymour Reit); interviews with Reit, voice actor Bradley Bolke and Alison Argrim (daughter of Norma MacMillan, the original voice of Casper); and a gallery of comic book covers.

I wonder if Syfy’s intrepid team of “Ghost Hunters” will ever locate Casper and re-introduce to the world. Unlike the other apparitions the TAPS team has sought, he’d probably welcome their intrusion. In the second half of the show’s sixth season, buildings from Maine to Georgia were explored to varying degrees of success. Among them were the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York; the Colonial Inn, in Concord, Massachusetts; Canfield Casino, in Saratoga Springs; an antebellum plantation, in Stone Mountain, Georgia; Fort William Henry, at Lake George; Birmingham’s Sloss Furnaces, with Meat Loaf; and Rhodes Hall, with the Real Housewives of Atlanta. There are 13 episodes in the Blu-ray set. – Gary Dretzka

Red State
There was a time when a movie like “Red State,” which merges agitprop with torture porn and horror, could re-open the rift between Kevin Smith’s rabble-rouser audience and conservatives with an ax to grind against Hollywood liberals. The cover art itself – a young woman an assault rifle — would be enough to put some people off their feed. Once considered to be an indie bad boy, Smith hasn’t hit a ball out of the park for a long time now. The most noise he’s made lately was disputing the decision by Southwest Airlines to kick him off a flight for being too fat. It gave the writers of talk-show monologues sufficient material for a week’s worth of shows. If Smith had scared up that kind of attention for “Red State,” it might have played in theaters outside New York, before opening on video-on-demand outlets and DVD. After several festival screenings, I suspect that no one was quite sure what point exactly – if any – Smith was attempting to make with the movie. Anyone able to recall the flap that greeted “Dogma” already knows Smith isn’t afraid to take on bible-bangers.

“Red State” employs actual events and people as inspiration for the terrible things that occur in the movie’s first half. As the movie opens, group of religious fanatics from the Five Points Church is picketing the funeral of a gay student. The “God Hates Fags” signs and other hateful sentiments are similar to those waved outside the funerals of American soldiers by Westboro Baptist Church members, somehow equating our military’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan with their belief that homosexuality is the root of all evil in the world … oh, yeah, they blame Jews, too. The Five Pointers, though, make the Westboro bozos look like, well, Hollywood liberals. They use a sex-for-sale ad to lure three students to the home of a member (Melissa Leo) pretending to be a prostitute. Instead, she slips them a mickey. When they wake up, they’re shocked to find themselves locked in cages. Nearby, the pastor (Michael Parks) is delivering a sermon so venomous, it might shock Adolph Hitler. Writhing behind the preacher is a gay man wrapped head-to-toe in cellophane tape. Before long, members of the congregation are invited onstage to join in the ritual assassination of the man. The students are on tap to be the next to die. When a local cop shows up to make inquiries about the students’ disappearance, an escape attempt is made and shots are fired.

It’s at this precise moment that “Red State” switches gears, going from horror to Waco-style thriller. The church members are armed to the teeth and quick on the trigger. A standoff develops after federal hate-crime officers arrive, but not for long. A full-blown shooting war breaks out after the escaped student is mistaken for a church member and shot by a trigger-happy cop. In an attempt to cover their asses, the feds and sheriff’s department begin an all-out siege of the complex and the Christian army returns fire with remarkable accuracy. I won’t spoil the surprise by blowing what ends the confrontation, but it’s wonderfully inventive. Even if one hates everything that’s come before it, the climax would be worth hanging in there. So, too, would be the performances of Michael Parks, as the pastor; John Goodman, as the strike force leader; and Leo, as the true believer. Smith only had about $4 million to work with on “Red State,” of which only $5,000 was allotted for effects. It shows. The pace of the narrative is pretty ragged and questions are left unanswered.

Smith introduces all of the bonus features, including the making-of material and an entertaining interview with Parks, who Boomers will recall fondly for his 1969 TV series, “Along Came Bronson,” and, by action buffs, for his work in “Kill Bill.” – Gary Dretzka

The budget accorded “Arena” reportedly was in the neighborhood of $10 million, which isn’t bad for a direct-to-DVD blood-sport flick. I’d be surprised if most of the money didn’t end up in the pocket of Samuel L. Jackson, who probably hasn’t enjoyed an easier payday in his career. He gets to look cool in a black-on-black wardrobe, chill alongside some truly hot Asian chicks and waste none of his valuable time on acting. “Arena” is yet another one of those movies in which a good-guy fighter is required put all of his moral values on hold, in order to avoid being executed himself. Here, hunkie Kellan Lutz (“Twilight”) plays a tough Denver firefighter who turns to the bottle after his pregnant wife is killed in a traffic accident. After kicking the crap out of a huge Mexican attempting to steal his wallet in an Acapulco bar, he allows himself to be picked up by a gorgeous brunette. Turns out, she’s a recruiter for a promoter who stages death matches on his Internet pay site, for the amusement of yuppie subscribers. The fireman only agrees to participate in a 10-fight death match if the final combatant is an irksome henchman in a Darth Vader suit. No gladiator has ever won five in a row, let alone 10, so the armor-plated punk feels pretty secure. Things don’t quite work out the way Jackson expected, though, after the fighter discovers who’s really behind the operation. Apart from copious amounts of female nudity, “Arena” probably won’t impress many non-genre fans. – Gary Dretzka

Maniac Cop: Blu-ray
The Slit Mouthed Woman
Root of Evil
Blood Curse
The Hillside Stranglings
South of Heaven

If the the slasher era in horror has introduced a more naturally sinister-looking actor than Robert Z’Dar, I’ve yet wait to meet him. Even without the makeup he’s required to wear in “Maniac Cop,” his gigantic head and iron chin qualify him as the proverbial stranger you’d least like to meet in a dark alley. He seems like a decent enough chap in the interview included in the Blu-ray’s bonus features, but he remains one scary dude in the movie. The first time we meet Z’Dar’s title character, he’s the beacon of hope reaching out to a young woman being attacked by a pair of New York alley slugs. No sooner is she able to breathe a sigh of relief, though, when the hulking cop grabs her by her throat and shakes the life out of her. After a few more innocent Manhattanites are murdered in the same way, police detectives start believing the accounts of witnesses and put out a dragnet for a massive, deranged police officer. Even when they do manage to stumble upon him one night, using a decoy prostitute, Maniac Cop is able to escape several direct hits to his head and body. His greatest mistake comes in killing a cop’s wife, after she’s caught her husband cheating on her with a female officer. In the ensuing investigation of the spouse, certain clues lead to an overly vigorous hero cop who was thrown into prison and murdered by inmates … or was he? Undead or not, Maniac Cop has clearly gone over to the dark side, killing innocents who mistake his uniform for refuge. The movie, a collaboration of genre favorites William Lustig and Larry Cohen, falls completely apart under close scrutiny, but why bother? After 23 years in circulation, “Maniac Cop” still has plenty of admirers. If nothing else, it’s fun to watch veteran hard guys Z’Dar, William Smith, Bruce Campbell, Tom Adkins, Richard Roundtree and, yikes, even boxer Jake Lamotta chew the scenery. Cult faves Sheree North and Lauren Landon also have key roles. The restored and remastered Blu-ray presentation allows the nighttime scenes to come alive much better than in previous VHS editions. The set adds interviews, commentary and other hard-core goodies, some of which already have been made available.

The best reason to pick up “Vlog” is to check out Internet sensation Brook Marks, who stars as herself. Remarkably personable and articulate, Marks chats with her fans while clad in a bikini or lingerie against a constantly changing array of background images. It’s the conceit of director Joshua Butler that she’s murdered, live, on her “Brooks Marks the Spot” website, after vlogging details of recent dates and nights out on the town. These webcasts have pissed off the owner of the “How to Erase People From the Face of the Earth” site. Suddenly, boyfriends and other acquaintances begin disappearing and Marks can’t help but watch them being slaughtered and turned into human confetti. When she finally does contact the police, they can’t find the victims, either. Is it an Internet stunt or the real murderous deal? If the latter, who’s the culprit? Frankly, though, who cares? Like most Internet vlogs and serials, it’s what’s up front that counts and Marks makes the whole feature-length exercise worthwhile. She reminds me of Teri Garr, back when she was a regular on David Letterman’s show and they spent each segment flirting with each other. The DVD adds several mostly repetitious deleted scenes.

The legend of the Slit Mouth Woman goes back hundreds of years in Japanese history, with panics being reported as recently as the 1980s. If the Bogeyman had a face, it might look like very much like the antagonist in “The Slit Mouthed Woman” (a.k.a., “Carved”), from Palisades Tartan Asia Extreme. (There are several other movies with the same title, but this is the most recent.) As the story goes, the face of a beautiful long-haired woman once was disfigured by a jealous husband. When her spirit appears in modern times, she’s wearing a trench coat and surgical mask, which hides her butchered face, and is carrying a extra-long scissors. As she approaches children in the street, she removes the masks and demands to know, “Am I pretty?” No matter what they answer — most are too frightened to reply – they tend to be carted off to places unknown. Some will have their faces rearranged by the woman. Koji Shiraishi’s thriller combines elements of horror, ghost stories and urban legend in the service of a movie that won’t impress many adult genre buffs, but will scare the crap out of kids. As rumors about the Slit Mouth Woman’s reappearance spread, a pair of teachers attempt to work out their bad karma by trying to protect students from the villain, who also seems capable of shape shifting. The DVD comes with cast interviews and a making-of featurette.

Also new or newly re-released from the Palisades Tartan family are movies representing Korea, Portugal and the United States. If the descriptions sound familiar, it’s possibly because they’ve carried various other titles. From Korea, “Root of Evil” (a.k.a., “Akasia,” “Acacia”) is the story of a childless couple who decide to take the adoption route after other means of pregnancy fail. That, of course, means weird things will begin to happen shortly after the 6-year-old begins feeling comfortable in his new home. The boy, Jin-Sung, was chosen by the mother because he showed an affinity for art, especially eerie drawings of trees. Sure enough, once he’s settled in, Jin-Sung is drawn to a long-dormant acacia tree in the back yard. In short order, two miracles occur: the mother becomes pregnant and the tree begins to bloom. More sinister things begin to happen after the baby is born and Jin-Sung accurately perceives that he’s being shoved aside. And, as we all know, there’s no greater force in nature – or genre pictures — than an adopted child scorned.

Blood Curse” (a.k.a., “Coisa Ruim,” “Bad Blood”) describes what happens when a Portuguese family is dragged from its Lisbon home and forced to live in a house in the country that once belonged to a distant relative of the professor father. Being a man of science, the father attempts to explain away a series of bizarre events that occur after the family moves into the house. Unlike the professor, local residents have a more likely explanation for the disturbances: the house is cursed and the family inherited the curse with the house. In fact, everything in the village feels a bit off-kilter.

The Hillside Stranglings” (a.k.a., “The Hillside Strangler”) re-tells the story of a demented serial killer and his cousin, who held Los Angeles in the grip of terror in the late 1970s. Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono were convicted of kidnapping, raping and torturing at least 12 women, many of whom were prostitutes. Their bodies were dumped on hillsides or off freeway ramps. The new DVD edition of Chuck Parella’s gruesome account comes in an unrated version. C. Thomas Howell and Nicholas Turturro play the fiends. As with all the Palisades Tartan releases, it comes with several supplemental materials.

South of Heaven” is a nutty micro-budget anti-thriller that travels in several different directions to get to the same violent destination, and it’s a town called South of Heaven. After being released from the Navy, an aspiring writer named Roy (Adam Nee) travels to San Francisco to visit his brother, Dale. Once he gets to the apartment, Roy is mistaken for Dale by a couple of enforcers dressed like sideshow barkers. They’re waiting to punish him for ditching a debt and absconding with their boss’ girlfriend in the company of a goon named Mad Dog. Instead of waiting for an explanation, look-alike Roy is beaten and tortured within an inch of his life. (One of them wears a lobster bib while cutting of Roy’s fingers.) After several such beatings, Roy looks like a seriously deformed potato and is missing most of his fingers. He assumes the name, Nobody, and ultimately will exacts his revenge in several nasty ways. Newcomer J.L. Vara employs animation, noir, surrealism, deliberately phony sets and other Coen-esque touches in the service of a genuinely clever story. The set adds commentaries and three short films from writer/director Vara. – Gary Dretzka

The Heart Specialist: Blu-ray
Like “Jumping the Broom” and “N-Secure,” Dennis Cooper’s “The Heart Specialist” is a hybrid entertainment that combines romance, drama and comedy, in unequal measures. Targeted specifically at so-called urban audiences hungry for characters with whom they can identify, these low-budget pictures borrow the formula formulated by Tyler Perry, without relying quite as heavily on Christian faith for answers to life’s problems. If shortcuts are taken in the screenwriting process and with production values, there are plenty of recognizable stars to enjoy. In “The Heart Specialist,” Wood Harris and Brian White play doctors at a south Florida hospital that caters to HBO subscribers. Harris has committed his energy to helping White’s Harvard-educated intern mature. When White is on call, he invariably can be found in a storage room having sex with a nurse or receptionist. For his part, Harris moonlights as a standup comedian, using his workplace experiences as fodder for laughs. As if …

The Heart Specialist” first hit the festival circuit in 2006, but only was picked up for distribution in January. It’s likely that the deciding factor was being able to put Zoe Saldana’s name on the cover. Also familiar are Mya, Brittany Ishibashi, Ed Asner, Marla Gibbs, Fatso-Fasano, Jasmine Guy, Method Man and Irene Tsu. – Gary Dretzka

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer
Based on a series of books by Megan McDonald, “Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer” looks as if it were constructed out of leftover design elements from “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Everything is so darn bright, bubbly and self-consciously kooky that you’d think it was part of an experiment designed to figure out exactly what floats the boats of fickle ’tween audiences. The story is pretty simple, actually. The parents of a hyper-imaginative third-grade girl, Judy (Jordana Beatty), and a Bigfoot-obsessed boy, Stink, have been called to California for the summer to tend for an ailing relative. In their place, they’ve arranged for Aunt Opal (Heather Graham) to supervise the kiddies. Inviting Opal to babysit is kind of like hiring the Cat in the Hat to substitute teach a kindergarten class full of children with ADD. She’s hardly house-broken herself. Besides all the brilliant colors and nutty set designs, director John Schultz has seen fit to add several animated and CGI interludes and inset music videos. It’s a lot to absorb for an adult, but 10-year-olds probably are more adept at controlling sensory overload. It arrives with plenty of supplemental features, including “Join The Toad-Pee Club,” “Flippin’ Out With the Cast,” Camryn’s “Wait and See” music video, “10 Things You Need to Know About Judy Moody,” “Judy Moody’s Guide to Making a Movie” and deleted scenes. It’s also nice to see Jaleel White (a.k.a., Urkel) in the role of popular teacher. – Gary Dretzka

Snuff Box: The Complete Series
Masterpiece Classic: Wuthering Heights/Northangar Abbey/Wuthering Heights: Blu-ray
PBS: The War of 1812
Chuck 4: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
Bones: The Complete Sixth Season: Blu-ray
Hallmark: Call Me Mrs. Miracle

As any faithful viewer of BBC America and PBS could tell you, British comedy shows take several different forms and much getting used to, whether they’re warm and cozy (“As Time Goes By,” “Are You Being Served”) or silly and off-the-wall (“Monty Python,” “Absolutely Fabulous”). Lately, such rude and demented shows as “The Mighty Boosh,” “The IT Crowd,” “Little Britain,” “Peep Show” and “Ideal” have begun popping up on various cable outlets. The inky-dark sketch-comedy series “Snuff Box” may be the most outrageous of all of these titles. Indeed, even fans of the innovative BBC 3 network often found it to be beyond the pale. For people unafraid to laugh at capital punishment, misogyny, frequent F- and C-bombs, public humiliation, cruel insults and other degrading behavior, “Snuff Box” is the ticket. The series was written by and starred Brit Matt Berry (“The IT Crowd,” “The Mighty Boosh”) and American Rich Fulcher (“Funny or Die Presents,” “The Sarah Silverman Program”). Each show contains a wildly inappropriate gallows scene, during which a profane Vicker, bumbling hangman and cynical prison official exchange jokes and alternately ignore and provoke the doomed man. Another on-going sketch involves a polite young man (Berry) who offers to help damsels in distress, until they casually mention they have a boyfriend or fiancé. The guy then drops whatever burden he’s taken on and hurls an expletive at the woman. Even though we know what’s going to happen as soon as the faux-gallant fellow offers to carry something for a pretty young woman, the F-You moment is always funny. The DVD packages come with testimonials by a dozen or so American comics and comedy writers; a history and walking tour of the show; and look at the creation of the catchy song that is repeated throughout it.

And, now, for something completely different from the Britain: Fans of PBS’ “Masterpiece Classics” love a good British period drama, because they know the acting will be superb, the settings romantic and the costumes out of this world. The original U.K. versions of the productions are even better. For the first time in Blu-ray come Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” and “Northanger Abbey,” and Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights.” As one would expect, these are all first-class adaptations, loaded with literary nutrition and highly entertaining. Among the stars represented here are Billie Piper, Carey Mulligan, Tom Hardy, Felicity Jones, Andrew Lincoln and Blake Ritson. A making-of featurette is included in “Wuthering Heights”

I wonder how many of today’s students are required to spend more than a half-hour reading about and discussing the War of 1812, or, for that matter, know which conflagration inspired the “1812 Overture.” Unless one lives in New Orleans, Quebec or has taken a tour of the White House, which was set ablaze by British troops, it isn’t high on the list of must-know topics. After watching PBS’ “The War of 1812,” I realize how little I recall from my lessons, even as taught by tough, old-school teachers. Apart from being absolutely fascinating, the DVD explains a lot about how the fledgling democracy was viewed inside and outside the borders of our country. When Native Americans and Canadians, along with the French and British colonists, looked across the borders of their nations, the only United States they saw was one comprised of political and religious hypocrites, proponents of greed-driven expansionism and government-sanctioned genocide. In the name of unfettered freedom, Americans had shot down the idea of maintaining a standing army and government coffers weren’t yet reliant on taxes. Still smarting from the loss of its American colonies, the British war machine was only too happy to take advantage of our scrawny militias and exploit the unhappiness of our neighbors. Once again, it seriously underestimated American resolve and our ability to compete in battles at sea.

The release of the fourth season of “Chuck,” on Blu-ray, was pushed back a month to more closely coincide with the belated start of the new stanza, during which the accidental spy will take over a spy agency of his own. Much of the action contained in the box set involves Chuck’s efforts to track his mother (Linda Hamilton) and maintain his relationship with Sarah, as the date for their marriage approaches. Timothy Dalton, Robin Givens, Ray Wise and Stacy Keibler make guest appearances. NBC had signaled plans to cancel “Chuck,” but fans pressured the network and it was extended for 13 more episodes and, then, another 13. The Blu-ray package includes “Declassified Scenes,” a gag reel and the featurettes “Chuck Versus Directing,” “Chuck Versus the Leftovers,” “Spying on the Cast,” with Operation Gomez items, “Buy Hard: The Jeff and Lester Story Shorts” and “The Top Secret Chuckipedia Interactive Experience.”

Zooey Deschanel may be TV’s flavor of the month, but older sister, Emily, maintains a steady pace as forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan in “Bones.” The sixth-season Blu-ray package covers a lot of ground as the Jefferson Institute team faces a murderous Chupacabra, takes a trip to the Jersey Shore, confronts the Gravedigger and discovers a line to Booth’s past through a vigilante sniper. The Blu-ray set includes commentary on “The Doctor in the Photo” and “The Blackout in the Blizzard”; a pair of extended episodes; a gag reel; a piece on the show’s visual effects; and the pilot episode of “The Killing.”

Five-time Emmy Award-winner Doris Roberts returns to the Hallmark Channel as Mrs. “Miracle” Merkle. One of many beloved characters created by romance novelist Debbie Macomber, Mrs. Merkle last was seen wrangling a set of wild twin boys for a recent widower and making love matches. This time around, in “Call Me Mrs. Miracle,” she’s working at a department store owned by a Scrooge-like widower. His son is in charge of the toy department. It is his decision not to stock the season’s hottest toy, choosing instead to promote classics and items that require a bit more imagination. It’s not exactly a winning proposition. Once again, Mrs. Miracle is required spread seasonal cheer over people separated from loved ones, and match compatible friends. Like many other Hallmark productions, this one often feels like a holiday card that’s somehow come to life. – Gary Dretzka

The Lion King, African Cats, Submarine, Fast Five, Buck, Nostalgia, Dust, Gamera, Bette Midler, Pee-wee Herman …

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

The Lion King: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray/Digital Copy/DVD/3D
Disneynature: African Cats: Blu-ray/DVD Combo

After 17 years in circulation, one way or another, it would be reasonable to think that the only people who would be interested in shelling out even more hard-earned money to see “The Lion King,” would be those viewers who collect their favorites in every conceivable format or whose kids finally are old enough sit through a 90-minute. But, there’s no stopping this animated juggernaut. “Lion King” is that rare creature that attracts new and repeat audiences wherever it’s playing and whenever it’s re-released into theaters, on stage and in video, DVD, Blu-ray and now 3D. Its current theatrical re-release has found “Lion King” at or near the top of the box-office heap for the past three weekends, passing the $400-million milestone in domestic revenue alone on Sunday. If the animated treasure hasn’t reached No. 1 on the video charts by the time one reads this review, it soon will. I don’t own a Blu-ray 3D player, but everything I’ve been able to experience in the Diamond Edition tells me it’s damn near perfect.

This time around, repeat viewers might want to experiment with the picture-in-picture experience and focus on specific cinematic attributes, instead of merely sitting back and enjoying the story. That much hasn’t changed, after all. Concentrate on the wildebeest stampede, for example. It took three years to complete and sounds as if the techies were able to capture thunder in a bottle. Look for the hidden messages in the stars, smoke and dust clouds. Study the raw sexuality in the adult Nala’s eyes, when she recognizes the grown-up Simba. Check out the similarities to “Hamlet,” “Bambi,” Egyptian mythology and the Bible. Then, sample the bonus features, which include commentary with producer Don Hahn and co-directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff; the sing-along track; and Disney Second Screen, which syncs the movie with interactive and informational content, via a downloadable app. Other HD extras include a pair of making-of featurettes, deleted and alternate scenes, bloopers and outtakes, an interactive art gallery and “The Morning Report,” which brings a song written for the stage to animated life. The “Virtual Vault” holds much previously released supplemental content. A second disc adds the DVD copy, as well as background featurettes, animated games and two navigational platforms. It isn’t necessary for DVD owners to buy the all-inclusive Blu-ray, 3D and Digital version of the Diamond Edition. Anyone considering purchasing a 3D platform for the holidays probably would do well to pick up the combo now, instead of later, though.

While you’re at it, pick up a Blu-ray copy of “African Cats.” Know this, however, ahead of time. Like “Lion King,” Disney’s perfectly complementary documentary, “African Cats,” scored a “G” from the MPAA ratings board. I think some parents might find that rating to be a tad generous … a break cut for Disney that other distributers don’t necessarily get. It’s nothing new. When “Bambi” was re-released in theaters, in the 1970s, it received a G, as did all of the classic animated features with nasty old witches, wicked stepmothers, comatose princesses, prosthetic-wearing pirates and cursed donkey boys. If “Old Yeller” had been re-released, as well, it would likely have gotten a “G,” despite the title character’s untimely demise, due to rabies and bullets. (For some boys, that scene was more upsetting than anything in “Bambi.”) If any other studio, besides Disney, had made and released these movies, there’s a very good chance that three of them, at least, would have went out “PG.”

Don’t get me wrong, I consider the vast majority of all movies that wave the Walt Disney banner – as opposed to its Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures labels and, until last year, Miramax – to be genuinely family friendly. The fact is, though, just as the NC-17 rating has been misinterpreted by exhibitors, media outlets and pundits, so, too, is the hair’s-breadth difference between “G” and “PG.” If the MPAA doesn’t expect exhibitors and their landlords to ban NC-17 titles, strictly based on financial factors, then it should be honest about the commercial benefits of going out “G,” instead of the similarly harmless “PG.”

I only mention this because, while the words to “Circle of Life” may sound terrific on a soundtrack album, the facts of life as they play out in the wild aren’t always so pretty. Add dynamic sound effects to images of animals dying, being separated from a parent or threatened by menacing predators and a child’s learning experience can instantly turn into a waking nightmare. Some, if not all children need parental guidance to interpret what they’re seeing on the big or small screen, and, for that to happen, an adult or older sibling must be within spitting distance of the impressionable viewer. Such, I think, is the case with “Lion King” and “African Cats,” both of which contain images from the dark side of the circle of life.

That said, however, I have no trouble encouraging parents to plan a double-feature of “African Cats” and “Lion King,” with refreshments, trailers and a sing-along feature to complete the party. Today’s home-theater systems are perfectly capable of reproducing the megaplex experience – even 3D — and bathroom breaks merely require a pause button. As is typical in Disney’s long history of nature documentaries, the lions and cheetahs in “African Cats” are given names and implied personality traits. It’s an entry point discouraged by most other documentarians, as the conceit allows a palpable degree of subjectively to creep into the narrative. Certainly, it’s easier to take sides in a naturally occurring standoff between a lion and crocodile if one knows the name of the pride’s guardian, Fang, and his oldest concubine, Layla. If we feel little pity for the gazelle run down by a cheetah named Sila, it’s because we’ve already met her hungry, sightless and impossibly cute cubs and her prey is anonymous. Even narrator Samuel L. Jackson is pulling for Fang, Layla and Sila.

I’m not sure which of the two movies I would choose to open my fantasy double-feature. The stories parallel each other, right down to the wildebeest stampedes, threatening storms and majestic vistas. A confrontation between Sila and a potential young-buck rival to Fang is, at once, fascinating, exhilarating and exciting to witness. When Jackson tells us that hyenas have carried away two of Sila’s cubs, while she was fending off the upstart lion, I found it difficult to keep tears from welling in my eyes. The filmmakers dial up the drama, as well, when the seriously wounded and elderly Layla is shunned by the pride’s other lionesses, along with her still-needy “daughter,” Mara. Hey, it’s a jungle out there.

Documentary directors Alastair Fothergill (“Planet Earth”) and Keith Scholey (“Nova,” “Nature”), along with cinematographers Sophie Darlington and Simon Werry, do a masterful job capturing both the drama and banality of everyday life in Kenya’s Maasi Mara National Reserve. Their hi-def equipment keeps everything in extreme focus, whether it’s Fangs blood-soaked whiskers, a mid-range chase between rival cats or a distant mountain. The soundtrack neatly captures the regal power of the lions’ roars, without diminishing any of Fang’s post-meal grunts or Sila’s delicate chirps, as she futilely attempts to reconnect with her lost cubs. The poignancy of her despair is heart-breaking. Repeat viewers will want to experiment with “Filmmaker Annotations,” an interactive picture-in-picture experience in which the filmmakers share their memories of the shoot, and access is provided to deleted scenes, pop-up trivia, factoids and making-of material. Much shorter pieces describe conservation and fund-raising efforts, and there’s a Jordin Sparks music video. – Gary Dretzka

White Wash
Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story

For nearly 50 years, surfers have been portrayed as being universally white and almost always blond, with tattoos and wetsuits optional. If it weren’t Annette Funicello and the half-dozen or so actresses who played Gidget, the media might not have known that women surfed, too. Now, of course, they compete on an international circuit of their own and Hollywood has stopped portraying them as weak sisters and “surfer girls.” If women athletes no longer are strangers to the sports pages, nightly news wrap-ups and movies, the presence of blacks in niche sports – surfing including — continues to be underreported. Ted Woods’ enlightening documentary, “White Wash,” somewhat rectifies that situation.

Lest one forget, the surfers who greeted Captain James Cook, when he became the first European explorer to visit the Hawaiian Island, were Polynesians of color. Native Hawaiian George Freeth, several princes and a duke, Kahanamoku, would introduce the sport to California and Australia, and, a half-century later, the Beach Boys would sell a more Aryan myth to the world. In “White Wash,” we learn that African-Americans not only have enjoyed surfing our breaks for as long as “beach culture” has been recognized, but some have also excelled at the sport. Not many, to be sure, but enough to suggest that there might have been more, if social, cultural and racial factors hadn’t intervened. The most prominent barrier, not surprisingly, was segregation. Just as black historically were barred from swimming in pools designated whites-only, the best beaches also were made off-limits to them, and not only in the South. With few pools and beaches open to them, it was almost impossible for them to learn how to swim well enough to test the big surf and razor-sharp coral below them. It’s also true that beach culture was so closely identified with young whites that black surfers were ridiculed by members of their own race. In turn, companies that exploited the beach phenomenon saw no point in marketing to such a limit customer base.
Were these people racist, per se, or is green truly the only color that motivates Madison Avenue. Hardly anyone markets to white surfers, either. It’s telling, perhaps, that “White Wash” is hosted by musicians Ben Harper and Tariq5 “Black Thought” Trotter, both of whom have had to overcome being pigeon-holed by critics, labels and record-buyers. Raymond Gayle’s 2005 documentary, “Electric Purgatory: The Fate of the Black Rocker,” makes many of the same points as Woods does in “White Wash.”

Selling the accoutrements of beach culture to women has never been a problem for the Don Drapers of the world, but it took teenage Kathy “Gidget” Kohner to sell surfing to women. As “Accidental Icon” demonstrates, only a girl with an overabundance of chutzpah could have done it. The guys who surfed Malibu in 1956 — Kahuna, Moondoggie and Tubesteak, among them – adopted the brash kid, who literally demanded to be taught surfing. Her nickname came naturally: “girl” plus “midget” equaled “Gidget.” Kohner kept a diary, which, when it was discovered by her screenwriter father, was turned into a best-selling book. It would inspire a half-dozen movies and a pair of TV series. A half-century later, petite teenage girls who catch the surfing bug still wear the nickname with pride.
Brian Gillogly’s “Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story” is informed by the lively recollections of Kohner, survivors of the 1950s’ Malibu crowd, several pro surfers, actors Gregory Harrison (“North Shore”), Cliff Robertson (Big Kahuna, in “Gidget”), James Darren (Moondoggie in “Gidget,” “Gidget Goes Hawaiian,” “Gidget Goes to Rome”) and Caryn Richman (“Gidget’s Summer Reunion,” “The New Gidget”). Neither documentary would score well in a contest based solely on style points, but both shine a bright light on a niche pursuit that still says a lot about the way some of us were, 50 years ago. – Gary Dretzka

Submarine: Blu-ray
Knowing that writer/director Richard Ayoade acted in and wrote such offbeat British entertainments as “The IT Crowd,” “Benny and the Bull,” “The Mighty Boosh” and “Snuff Box” should give those unfamiliar with “Submarine” a reason to take a chance on it. Even the coming-of-sexual-age theme has nearly been beaten to death, “Submarine” still manages to feel completely fresh and non-generic. For one thing, it wastes little time dispensing with all the usual mystery, trauma and exhilaration associated with a teenager’s loss of virginity. Sure, the once-in-a-lifetime event floats like a puffy white cloud over the rest of the movie, but it doesn’t overshadow Ayoade’s broader target, which is the inability of adults to cope with the vagaries of their own sexuality. “Submarine” is set in Wales, a corner of the United Kingdom that time and fashion appear to have forgotten. Judging from the hairstyles and clothes favored by the grownups, the events depicted in the movie could have occurred 40 years ago or yesterday. The teen characters look a bit more au courant, but it’s tough to pin them down to a precise decade. In any case, it doesn’t much matter.

At 15, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) spends an inordinate amount of time daydreaming about love, death and other weighty subjects. He’s smart enough to do well at school, but too insecure to ignore the sexual braggadocio and stupid advice of his male friends. It causes him to rush into a sexual relationship with the first girl (Yasmin Paige) who makes him feels as if he’s not alone in the world. For her part, Jordana Bevan treats the relinquishment of her own virginity as a welcome diversion from the serious illnesses afflicting her mother and pet dog. Their romance is interrupted by Oliver’s obsession with saving his parents’ emotionally stunted marriage and Jordan’s desire to spend as much time with her mother as possible.

A teenager as fixated with sex as Oliver would have to be deaf and blind not to notice the fissure growing between his parents, Lloyd and Jill (Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins). By his calculations, they haven’t had sex for seven months and a new neighbor has captured her fancy. As played by Paddy Considine, the mullet-haired newcomer, Graham, is something of a New Age snake-oil salesman. By comparison to Lloyd – an extremely boring and socially inept marine biologist – Graham might as well be Bruce Springsteen. Apparently, Jill has some previous history with Graham and Oliver fears his father simply can’t compete with the flashy interloper. Although Oliver’s desperate attempt to save their marriage, by revealing Graham as a charlatan, backfires – he’s too young to understand how sexual ennui and depression can be mistaken for irreconcilable differences — things eventually work out fine for everyone involved. If that sounds to you like a spoiler, know that real fun here comes in watching some of Britain’s finest actors at work and marveling at Ayoade’s ability to keep pulling rabbits out of his hat. The scenery isn’t bad, either. The Blu-ray comes with a decent making-of featurette. “Submarine” was executive-produced by Ben Stiller, among several others, and features original songs by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys. – Gary Dretzka

Fast Five: Blu-ray
Watching the intricately choreographed race sequences in “Fast Five,” I wondered how all the expensive vehicles could maintain their high-gloss shine and avoid being trashed, even after being pushed off trains and careening through the streets and teeming favelas of Rio de Janeiro. I can’t drive two blocks without needing a car wash or hit a curb without flattening a tire. Even after watching the featurette that explains how the stunt coordinators pulled off the scene in which three expensive automobiles are stolen from a moving train, I couldn’t understand how it was accomplished. Leaving a theater bewitched, bothered and bewildered by what you’ve just witnessed is what Hollywood moviemaking is all about, though. No matter how much money is budgeted for stunts and special effects, few movies these days leave any impression at all. Upwards of $125 million reportedly were spent to make “Fast Five” and every penny of it can be found on the screen.

This isn’t to say the fourth sequel to the 2001 “The Fast and the Furious” – whose title, at least, came from a 1955 Roger Corman production – is anything more substantial than a very well made and hugely expensive genre picture. As heist pictures go, however, “Fast Five” is several times more entertaining than the most recent “Ocean’s …” pictures, which it resembles in several unmistakable ways. In it, Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto escapes police custody with the assistance of characters introduced in previous “TF&TF” installments. They include Paul Walker’s former federal agent Brian O’Conner and his girlfriend, Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster), who’s also Dom’s sister. To escape federal prosecution and extradition, they split for Rio de Janeiro. After robbing the train of three hot sports cars, they discover that they are in possession of something of great value to American agents, led by Dwayne Johnson, and a Brazilian crime kingpin. It’s a computer chip listing the locations of drug houses and bank accounts belonging to the well-connected mobster. The cache amounts to $100 million, which is a juicy enough sum to lure the old gang to Brazil and exploit their individual skills to crack an impenetrable safe at police headquarters, which is where the money now is being stashed. The rest of the movie is dominated by one long chase, interrupted by loud gun fights, brief strategizing sessions and chaotic fist fights. It’s all a lot of fun, with a high body count and a mountain of destroyed automobiles.

The bonus supplements are unusually plentiful, with interesting making-of featurettes and character studies; the theatrical release and slightly longer extended cut; second-screen interactive viewing; a U-Control picture-in-picture track and scene explorer; and several other backgrounders. – Gary Dretzka

The High Cost of Living
It isn’t unusual for someone who’s committed a crime or caused someone physical harm to think he can ease his conscience by approaching the victim and apologizing in person. If things work out, the victim will accept his apology and agree that the act was an aberration. If they don’t, such a confrontation could add to victim’s pain or a good ass-kicking from her dad or brothers. Some perpetrators delude themselves further, by thinking romance could make both parties whole, again. More or less, that’s what happens in Deborah Chow’s debut feature, “The High Cost of Living,” a drama in which none of the characters acts in ways normal people do. In it, Zach Braff plays a fashionably scruffy American deal dealer, Henry, who feels right at home among the French-speaking yuppies of Montreal. While responding to a call from a desperate customer, Henry turns the wrong way into a one-way street and hits a young woman hailing a cab. The woman, Nathalie (Isabelle Blais), is entering the third trimester of her pregnancy and is experiencing pains that resemble premature labor. Her inconsiderate, if dreamy-looking husband has been spending as little time as possible with her and isn’t available to drive her to the hospital. Henry’s first thought was to avoid being busted for the drugs in the car, so he merely heads for the nearest pay phone, calls paramedics and splits.

The next day, Nathalie learns that, while she’s only suffered a concussion, the baby will have to be delivered stillborn. She’s devastated by the news but her husband treats it as if it’s just another pothole in the road of life. It’s agreed that Nathalie will have to undergo an induced pregnancy, but she balks at the last minute. Indeed, she hadn’t even taken off the blouse she was wearing at the time of the accident. The thought of eliminating any evidence she was pregnant paralyzes her. It’s at this point that Henry re-enters the picture. To learn her name and condition, he pays a teenager to make inquiries. Once that’s accomplished, Henry puts himself in a position to observe her movements and, perhaps, cross paths. As Nathalie’s relationship with her husband collapses, Henry’s in the perfect place to make contact. Instead of immediately revealing the truth, he allows himself to become her unwitting friend and confidante. Meanwhile, the police have come to the conclusion that the teenage boy is the hit-and-run driver. The possibility that his young friend might end up taking the fall for him concerns Henry, but not to the point where he’ll admit his guilt either to the police or Nathalie.

Finally, of course, the truth can be hidden from the still-fragile young woman no longer and, once again, her heart is broken. Like any yuppie worth his sea salt, Henry fills as badly for himself as he does for Nathalie, the dead baby and a customer he’s just learned has OD’d and is fighting for her life. Chow is too inexperienced a director to keep “High Cost of Living” from becoming maudlin and emotionally unrealistic. I don’t know how drug dealers dress these days, but Braff is reasonably believable as someone who makes his living meeting requests for strictly regulated prescription pills. Blais is mostly asked to look blank, which she does pretty well. The only extra is a perfunctory interview with Zach Braff. – Gary Dretzka

Wild Horse Hank

At first glance, “Buck” looks as if it might be just another documentary about an aw-shucks cowpoke, who through the sheer force of cross-species charisma, is able to make horses do things they might not otherwise do voluntarily. A dozen years ago, Buck Brannaman served as the equine adviser on “The Horse Whisperer,” impressing Robert Redford with his ability to get his horses to perform stunts the specially trained Hollywood nags needed weeks to rehearse. Soft-spoken, but as tough as they come, Brannaman’s story was a movie waiting to be made. “Buck” is it. I can’t imagine any Hollywood portrait coming out any better.

First-time documentarian Cindy Meehl knocked around the country with Brannaman, from North Carolina to California, as he conducted seminars in front of serious horse enthusiasts, who, ostensibly, want to do something more than visit their oversized pets on the weekend. Here, Brannaman demonstrates such things as humanely breaking and training a colt, and teaching the owners how convince their horses that good behavior isn’t a virtue limited to humans. Not surprisingly, Buck is as patient with his students as he is with their animals. When need be, he can also be stern, laid back and humorous in equal measure.

New, I enjoy watching horses perform as much as the next guy, especially if the next guy is standing next to me at Santa Anita. I’m less keen on watching them being trained, even if they’re responding to whispers, instead of whips and spurs. What’s wonderful about “Buck” is witnessing the similarities between horses and humans, and how Brannaman’s wisdom applies equally to both. As a boy, Buck and his brother were raised by an alcoholic father who put together an act that included rope tricks. If they didn’t do well and, sometimes, even when they did, the boys would get whipped by their dad. Placed in a foster home after a gym coach reported the welts on his body to police, Buck found refuge in the home of a couple who understood that country ways didn’t preclude treating a stray with respect and love. His real break came when he reluctantly agreed to attend a clinic staged by Ray Hunt, a founder of the natural-horsemanship movement. In some ways, what Hunt was doing with horses, Buck’s foster parents were doing with him. He became a disciple of the natural method and continues to teach the discipline, today.

In “Buck,” Meehl also introduces us to Brannaman’s family and the rigors of living on the road for such a large portion of the year. Not surprisingly, perhaps, quite a bit of time is spent sitting around a cooler, swapping stories, showing off rope tricks and relaxing in the cool country air. The film’s most compelling scene is also its saddest. A young woman brings an unruly colt to the clinic, hoping Buck can find a way to mellow him out. Having survived a physically traumatic birth, the butter-hued colt has been a menace to himself and anyone who tries to tame him. Just when it looks as Buck may have gotten a handle on its misbehavior, the colt freaks out and nearly kills an experienced hand. Brannaman reluctantly agrees that the animal can’t be rescued and probably should be put down. Before giving up, however, Buck makes sure everyone at the clinic – including the owner – understands that the colt was being asked to do impossible things, given its condition. By not understanding its limits, the owner was effectively sealing the horse’s doom. After asking the owner a few more questions about her herd and stable, Buck revealed a psychological need in the woman that might have led to the core problem. Needless to say, Buck saw a whole lot of himself in that colt. The DVD adds a bunch of deleted scenes and commentary.

In 1979, the post-“Exorcist” Linda Blair starred alongside Richard Crenna in the contemporary family western, “Wild Horse Hank.” In it, Blair plays the title character, a college student who tries to save a herd of wild horses from being rounded up and sold for dog food by poachers. Hank devises a plan to round up the horses and escort them to federal land 150 rugged miles away from home. (That strategy might have worked 30-some years ago, but, today, the federal government would be in cahoots with the hoodlums attempting to exact blood money for the horses.) “Wild Horse Hank” was adapted from a novel by Mel Ellis. Shot in Alberta, Canada, it’s been difficult to find in video. Pair it with “Buck” and aspiring horsemen and horsewomen will find plenty to enjoy on a rainy weekend afternoon. – Gary Dretzka

Nostalgia for the Light
In Chile’s Atacama Desert, rain is more rumor than fact. At 10,000 feet above sea level, it is the driest place on Earth. Evidence of past aquatic and human life is everywhere, but it’s limited to fossils, shells and pictographs carved into the rocky cliffs. From the desert’s heights, an international team of astronomers studies the solar system, frequently capturing images of stars being born, dying and coming together in ways that seem to carry God’s own fingerprints. Nearby, in the desert, Satan’s handiwork lies inches below the Earth’s surface. The absence of humidity and harsh sunlight have conspired to limit the deterioration of bodies, be they the mummified remains of pre-Columbian inhabitants, the skeletons of explorers and miners, or the bodies of political prisoners who were murdered by police and soldiers in the wake of the U.S.-backed military coup, in 1973. The perforated and fractured skulls of anonymous students, activists and intellectuals reveal the cause of their deaths, if not the reasons why they were deemed too dangerous to be allowed to live. The affects of torture are evident on some decomposed bodies. While the astronomers go about their daily business, scanning the skies, the mothers, sisters and wives of “disappeared” activists sift the earth for evidence that their loved ones are buried there or if they existed at all. The discovery of mass graves keeps Chileans from forgetting what happened to their neighbors, associates and loved ones, who simply disappeared after right-wing militarists ousted Salvatore Allende, the first freely elected Marxist to become president of a Latin American nation.

Patricio Guzman has spent the better part of the last 40 years producing documentaries about Chile, before, during and after Allende presidency. In the face of political leaders who’ve asked citizens to put behind them the hellish events perpetrated during the Pinochet regime, Guzman has continually stood with mothers of the “disappeared” to ensure no one does. Even it’s impossible not to come to the same conclusions as those made in his previous docs, “Nostalgia for the Night” is far from being a rehash of old atrocities or a polemic. As poetic as it is informative, Guzman’s film tells several interesting stories simultaneously. First, we learn about the geological history of the remote Atacama Desert, where, last year, 33 miners were rescued after 69 days of being trapped 2,300 feet below ground. As we near the telescopes, we see the remains of concentration camps that housed political prisoners and labor leaders who were more fortunate than the already dead students, who were buried in the same desert or at sea. Inside the scientific encampments, we meet the men and women who are photographing the heavens, in search of evidence of its creation and clues to man’s origins. In Blu-ray, those images are spectacular. Finally, a visit to the mass graves forces us to address the persistence of memory and why it’s important not to forget the past.

The bountiful bonus package adds several featurettes that are more tightly focused on the individual political and scientific aspects of the documentary. The scientists get to expound on their discoveries and theories, while academics, politicians, relatives of the “disappeared” and survivors of torture discuss the importance of moving forward from the junta nightmare, without forgetting what happened. Among the more interesting speakers is a military official, old enough to remember taking orders from the leaders of the coup and police actions. His point of view is one not often registered in a country too ashamed of its past to try to learn from it. – Gary Dretzka

Stack enough tiny things on top of each other and eventually you’ll have a whole lot of something. That’s approximately half of the argument made in Harmtmut Bitomsky’s diverting documentary, “Dust.” The other half posits that dust, even at its least-visible manifestation, is so formidable a substance it can trigger devastating diseases and contribute to the creation of astonishingly beautiful things. Like the proverbial hot dog, though, the more closely one examines how dust is created, the less appetizing is the result. It can derive from something as simple as lint or flaking skin. Or it can be the detritus of things far less common and innocent. Without dwelling on the subject to the point of morbidity, Bitomsky reveals how dust still buried in nooks and crannies of buildings and subway tunnels of lower Manhattan — where the World Trade Center once stood — is composed, among other things, of construction debris, toxic garbage and human remains. Soldiers returning from our wars in Iraq have brought home with them minute particles of the depleted uranium used to make armor plating and armor-piercing projectiles. The photos of deformed fetuses, possibly the result of exposure to such poisonous dust, are not for the faint of heart.

“Dust,” however, doesn’t dwell on the dark side of dust. Indeed, the larger portion of it has fun with the impossible task of eliminating dust at home, work and play. Here, we watch fastidious German homemakers as they rid surfaces of a week’s worth of dust, but fail to conquer the particles trapped inside their televisions and other appliances. A janitor at a paint-making facility tries to sweep red particles onto a dustpan, always leaving a few visible on the floor. It also visits a plant where dust-cleansing machines are manufactured, thus perpetuating the myth that such a thing is even possible. The narrator delivers this news in a dry, matter-of-fact voice. The facts, after all, speak for themselves. Dust can devour entire cities, as happened in America’s Dust Bowl, and send its refugees packing for the green grass on the other side of the fence. It can clog essential water-delivery systems, from rivers to faucets. Without dust, the solar system as we know it couldn’t exist, let alone evolve. Hoagy Carmichael wrote “Stardust,” without knowing such a thing even existed.

The documentary doesn’t demand that we take action against the proliferation of dust, even though it’s probably a good idea to sweep the kitchen floor every so often. Neither does it promote a “green” agenda, per se. Anyone who doubts air pollution can be reduced, without devastating the local economy, need only compare photographs of Los Angeles from the 1950s to 2011 to see how regulations have worked to reduce smog. Informative and accessible, “Dust” is the kind of documentary that could be shown to high school science classes and not raise clouds of dissent from conservative parents or Tea Party activists. – Gary Dretzka

Although “Soapdish” isn’t often mentioned in the same breath as the genre parodies produced by Mel Brooks, the Wayans Brothers and the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker comedy factory, it should be. I’ve watched it several times and still find new things to enjoy. Not only do director Michael Hoffman and writers Robert Harling and Andrew Bergman send up the conventions, clichés and stereotypes of the networks’ afternoon soap operas – at a time, 1991, when there were several more such shows – but it also savages television executives, in general. Mostly, it has fun playing the actor against type, in roles that can only be described as outrageous. It would take a whole day to explain all of the plot twists, but it basically describes how far some actors, writers and executive-producers will go to sabotage the careers of their enemies and improve the odds for their own success. Sally Field stars as a soap-opera diva, Celeste Talbert, so unpopular with her co-workers that they conspire to get her killed off the show. When that proves difficult, they import a hated former boyfriend, Jeffrey Anderson (Kevin Kline), who’s spent the last 20 years playing dinner theaters in Florida. Arriving in New York at about the same time is pretty ingénue Lori Craven (Elizabeth Shue), who’s grown up believing she’s Fields’ niece. In fact, the relationship is a bit more complicated, as becomes clear when Fields thinks Kline is hitting on the girl and the “All About Eve” subplot kicks in. Meanwhile, Cathy Moriarty’s Montana Moorehead (a.k.a., Nurse Nan) exchanges sexual favors for better parts with the director, played by Robert Downey Jr. Also appearing in key roles are Whoopi Goldberg, Teri Hatcher, Garry Marshall, Kathy Najima, Leeza Gibbons, John Tesh, Carrie Fisher, Costas Mandylor and Ben Stein. I’m not sure what, if anything is different in this DVD edition from previous ones, except for new cover art and a sticker marking the movie’s 20th anniversary. There’s also a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Scream 4: Blu-ray
Elvira’s Haunted Hills

It isn’t often that a movie franchise is able to retain its director, writer, composer, DP and several of its stars over the course of four chapters and 15 years. The law of diminishing returns, alone, is sufficient cause for most of the original cast and crew to jump ship and find something else to do. If there’s a demand for another chapter, it makes more sense to hire younger, less expensive talent and release the sequel or prequel straight-to-video. Such is the respect accorded horror-meister Wes Craven that he was able to reunite writer Kevin Williamson, composer Marco Beltrami, cinematographer Peter Deming, voice actor Roger Jackson and stars Courteney Cox, David Arquette and Neve Campbell, for “Scream 4,” while also attracting a dozen or so of today’s brightest young actors. Anxious to be the next generation of pretty young things to be sliced and diced by Ghostface Killer were Lucy Hale, Shenae Grimes, Dane Farwell, Aimee Teegarden, Emma Roberts, Britt Robertson, Anna Paquin, Kristen Bell, Alison Brie, Hayden Panettiere, Marley Shelton, Rory Culkin, Adam Brody and Anthony Anderson.

Ten years after the last attacks, Ghostface has been elevated to cult status by students at Woodsboro High. The re-emergence of the hooded assassin coincides with the return of author Sidney Prescott (Campbell) to the town. Now married, Cox and Arquette’s characters also take the lead in investigating the bloody crimes. The students are more blasé, following the trail of mayhem on their cellphones and streaming video. For viewers, the horror owes more to the Foley artists and sound engineers than anyone else in the production. The vicious knife attacks would be much scarier, if we hadn’t entered the age of torture-porn in the period between No. 3 and No. 4. Now, the brutality is almost comical. Still, Craven and the returnees add a palpable touch of class to the proceedings. The Blu-ray edition adds a making-of featurette, commentary, an alternate opening and ending, 15 deleted scenes and a gag reel.

The double entendres in “Elvira’s Haunted Hills” begin with the title and end with … well … they never really end. While on her way to Paris, in 1851, the Mistress of the Dark is hijacked to a Carpathian castle, owned by an evil count who comes to believe she’s the incarnation of his late wife. While ensconced in the castle with her trusty maidservant, ZouZou, Elvira runs afoul of Lord Hellsubus’ current wife and mistress. Against them, Elvira’s feminine wiles prove to be pretty much worthless. If she isn’t rescued by the men she has under her spell, the Mistress of Darkness will be sliced in half, laterally, by a razor-edged pendulum. As the silver blade cleaves the canyon between her mountainous breasts, the title, “Elvira’s Haunted Hills,” is given added meaning. This scene and the few others that work owe everything to our memories of such Vincent Price/Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe collaborations as “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “House of Usher” and “Tomb of Ligeia.” These are titles Elvira’s alter ego, Cassandra Peterson, reveres and inform the entire project, which is less parody than homage. She gets solid support from veterans of the Groundlings comedy troupe and other sketch-comedy practitioners. Lord Hellsubus is played by Richard O’Brien, memorable as Riff-Raff in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

The DVD includes a making-of featurette, “Transylvania or Bust”; a Richard O’Brien interview; outtakes; a photo gallery; and audio commentary.The cast and crew’s stories about working under primitive conditions in Romania are funnier than most of the gags in the movie, itself. “Elvira’s Haunted Hills” feels more like an extended sketch on SCTV than a fully realized feature. Elvira’s fans should enjoy it, though. – Gary Dretzka

Legend of the Millennium Dragon: Blu-ray
Gamera: Trilogy: Blu-ray
Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris: Blu-ray

For the past 300 years, or so, American children of European descent have led a bland spiritual life, compared, at least, with kids whose heritage allowed for more than one god and other mystical lords of creation. The Old Testament is pretty entertaining, but, apart from the occasional serpent, polytheism is pretty much discouraged. Conquistadors made sure Aztecs and Incas bought into the New Testament, while the U.S. Cavalry made the American west safe for stodgy old monotheism. In return, the protectors of the faith were allowed to plunder any gold and land left behind. The recent spate of movies based on mythical and/or paranormal beings – “Thor,” “Clash of the Titans,” “Harry Potter,” “Twilight” – suggests that American kids are looking for heroes and quick fixes to this world’s problems. If someone dared make a movie about a caped and masked Jesus, who stopped terrorists and sexual predators in their tracks, a franchise could be built around his exploits.

Watching fantastical DVDs such as “Legend of the Millennium Dragon,” “Gamera” and too many others to count, I’m reminded that Asian, African, Native American and other aboriginal peoples have found answers to life’s most difficult questions in places biblical fundamentalists wouldn’t bother to look, including enchanted forests, great pyramids, the ruins of Atlantis or the ghosts of ancestors. I, for one, would be delighted to pick up a newspaper one morning and learn that a giant fire-breathing turtle, multi-headed dragon or Transformer had wiped out every military command post from North Africa to Kashmir. As it is, the End of Days scenario looks more plausible every day.

In the anime, “Legend of the Millennium Dragon,” a restive 15-year-old boy from present-day Japan is spirited 1,200 years back in time to prevent the future from becoming any more twisted than it already is. The boy, Jun, was born with a dragon-shaped birthmark on his chest, suggesting he is a descendent of tribe of warriors from the Heian period. Hairy demons are besieging the kingdom – upon which Kyoto now sits — and the rulers believe Jun can awake the resident sleeping dragon, Orochi, and save their regime. Not being quite what they appear to be, the demons kidnap Jun for the purposes of educating him about the true peaceful nature of his ancestors and the threat the current rulers pose to the health of the planet. A wimp in either millennium, Jun can’t imagine how he might be able to go against the demons or ride a dragon, let alone be anyone’s “savior.” His only experience with violence is destroying monster villains of the video-game variety. Even so, he listens to the arguments of both sets of combatants, before committing himself. “Millennium Dragon” benefits from some splendid animation. The natural backgrounds, temples and forests pop nicely in Blu-ray. As usual, though, the humans are drawn to resemble a generic ideal. By merging all nationalities into one, none stand out as being special … even Jun. The demons and dragons display more personality than the humans. The Blu-ray adds a concept-art gallery.

My exposure to Japan’s “Gamera” films is strictly through recent DVD compilations. The cult appeal of the cheeseball monster is obvious, but, having grown up on Godzilla and other mutant monsters, I wasn’t all that impressed with the giant, flying, fire-breathing turtle. The original series hit a wall in the early 1980s, when American special-effects wizards began turning out far more credible creatures. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised by the “Gamera” trilogy that arrived for my consideration this week. The difference is so telling, we might as well be talking about two different super-turtles. Launched in 1995, the films represent a quantum leap in Japanese special-effects work and story-telling. Instead, of looking like a poor relation to “Godzilla,” the adventures of the greatly misunderstood reptile is given a pedestal of his own on which to stand. The robotics and CGI effects look far more realistic against the green screen and miniature sets, and the human characters appear to be reacting to a real threat, instead of cardboard cutouts. Moreover, the trilogy really sparkles terrific in Blu-ray.

After about a 15-year absence, the Heisei Gamera trilogy relaunched with “Guardian of the Universe.” It was followed in short order by “Attack of Legion” and “Revenge of Iris.” The threats to Japan in this series include huge man-eating birds; meteor-borne insects; and a blood-sucking squid-like creature. Gamera comes to Japan’s rescue, but the military continues to doubt its intentions. Fans will want to check out the bonus features, which include making-of featurettes; extended scenes; camera tests; remixes; interviews; and trailers. – Gary Dretzka

Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On: Blu-ray
The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure: Blu-ray
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Blu-ray

It takes a very special entertainer to fill the 4,100-seat Colosseum at Caesars Palace night after night for months at a time. In their prime, Sinatra, Elvis, Liberace and Michael Jackson probably could have done it. Streisand could, but won’t. Celine Dion and Elton John will continue to alternate months-long stints there, at least through 2012. After a somewhat shaky start, in 2008, Bette Midler kept the turnstiles turning with her trashy-flashy revue, “The Showgirl Must Go On,” for two years. The Colosseum is unique among Vegas venues in that the extremely wide and deep stage tends to gobble up lesser entertainers and make them disappear, at least from the top-level seats. Midler’s been a larger-than-life performer, ever since the early 1970s, when she began performing at New York’s Continental Baths, accompanied by Barry Manilow. A year later, during her tour in “Tommy,” she would make the first of many appearances on “The Tonight Show.” At Caesars, she was joined on stage by a 13-piece band; her backup singers, the Harlettes; and 16 dancers, the Caesar Salad Girls. Her costume changes, alone, were worth at least a portion of the steep ticket price. Unlike most such Vegas extravaganzas, Midler’s flight of fancy is available now on Blu-ray. The brisk 70-minute show includes such songs “The Rose,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “From a Distance,” “Hello in There,” “Friends” and “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

Pee-wee Herman’s stage presence may not be quite as dynamic as Midler’s, but he’s every bit as unique a performer. The evidence can be seen in this recording of his Broadway show, which first aired in a 90-minute HBO special. Ever since Pee-wee’s alter ego, Paul Reubens was busted in a Florida movie theater for lewd behavior, he’s has been struggling to convince promoters and studio executives that he’s not a dangerous sex fiend and millions of fans still love him. Over-cautious casting directors, however, choose instead to ignore the fact that Pee-wee appealed as much to adults as kids, and kept him in professional limbo for most of the last 20 years. After appearing in several out-of-character roles in high profile movies and TV shows, Reubens reinvented “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” for the stage. It was an immediate success. The show revolves loosely around Pee-wee’s longtime desire to fly. It boasts 11 actors, 20 puppets, original songs and the same kooky attitude that enchanted a generation of now-middle-age adults. The vibrant colors of the set furniture, costumes and wigs are a natural fit for the Blu-ray format. It also includes commentary.

In 1985, Reubens and aspiring filmmaker Tim Burton collaborated on the delightful feature-length “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” In it, Our Hero sets off on a wild cross-country journey, in search of his stolen bicycle. As strange as it is to watch an adult obsess over something only a kid could take that seriously, it’s just as weird to observe the pre-pubescent character pretending to be a grown-up when the occasional rose. Many of the signature touches that would come to characterize Burton’s work are already on display in “Big Adventure,” although it isn’t easy to tell exactly if they originated with Reubens or Burton. Some of the fun here comes in recognizing Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, James Brolin, Tony Bill, Dee Snider, Milton Berle and Elizabeth Daly. The Blu-ray bonus package includes commentary by Reubens and Burton, additional scenes, sketches and storyboards, and a music-only track with Danny Elfman. Pee-wee’s character has been so consistent and recognizable – going on 30 years, now – that it isn’t hard to believe he would have fit well alongside such silent greats as Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Fatty Arbuckle, whose popularity demanded they never stray very far from the character that paid the bills.

Twenty years later, Burton and Elfman would re-team on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” The darkish fantasy was adapted, if quite differently from the same Roald Dahl novel as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Reportedly, Dahl was so unhappy with that production that he refused to listen to overtures for a sequel and put strict limits on who could remake it. That Burton would choose Johnny Depp to portray the chocolate magnate came as no surprise to anyone familiar with their collaborative history. Depp’s interpretation, however, drew unfavorable comparisons to Michael Jackson, who was at the height of his legal troubles at the time. It might have cut into revenues a bit, but the darker adaptation found an appreciative audience here and in international markets. The wildly imaginative and brilliantly colorful chocolate factory stands in sharp contrast to the Dickensian look of Charlie Bucket’s neighborhood, and demands a second screening just to absorb all of its cavity-inducing pleasures. Among the many visual effects is the digital multiplication of actor Deep Roy into dozens of Oompa-Loompas. The Blu-ray captures all of it marvelously, adding a dozen bonus features, including “Attack of the Squirrels,” “The Fantastic Mr. Dahl,” pre-visualizations, commentary and a separate music track. – Gary Dretzka

Up From Slavery
Slavery in the American South represented one of the greatest disconnects in the history of mankind. Even as our young democracy held itself up as an example for all nations to follow, millions of forcibly transplanted Africans were required to work in the fields of plantation owners who probably had the family bible on display in their libraries. The myth held that farmers couldn’t sustain themselves if it weren’t for unpaid laborers, and, by extension, the agricultural South would fall behind the industrial North as commercial force. The same excuses that weren’t true in the 1800s, however, are being used today when manufacturers close factories in the U.S. and move their operations to countries that condone near-slave-labor conditions. Even the greatest political, religious and military leaders of the nascent United States – South and North — couldn’t bring themselves to equate the tyranny of British monarchs to the inherent evil of slavery. As the country matured, the case for the abolition of slavery was adopted by many powerful voices in the North and, of course, the impasse led to a devastating Civil War. Among other concerns, working people feared that a Confederate victory could mean slavery would be adopted by northern industrialists. Today, 150 years after the first gun was fired, it’s difficult to understand how God-fearing men and women could defend slavery, even in the face of temporary economic doldrums.

The seven-part “Up From Slavery” chronicles the history of slavery in America, from the arrival of African slaves at Jamestown in 1619, to the Civil War and ratification of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote to all citizens. It would be replaced by Jim Crow racism, the Klan and poll taxes, of course, but it represented a fresh start. The mini-series is informed by historical re-enactments, archival photographs and documents, interviews with scholars and historians, and the reading of first-hand accounts. – Gary Dretzka

The Walking Dead: The Complete First Season: Special Edition
George: A Zombie Intervention

This being the Golden Age of zombie movies and all, I think it’s fair to wonder if undead audiences rent horror movies when they’re at home or watch “Seinfeld” re-runs, like everyone else. I can’t recall a week in which a new zombie-vampire screener hasn’t arrived in the mail. Most are tedious, while the rest are divided between surprisingly good and downright unwatchable. Only occasionally does something that elevates the horror genre make its presence known. This week’s special something is the deluxe first-season Blu-ray edition of “The Walking Dead.” Produced by Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”) and Gale Anne Hurd (“Aliens”) and based on the graphic novel by Robert Kirkman, the limited-run series successfully filled a gaping hole on the AMC schedule left by smash successes “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” and weak sisters – ratings-wise, anyway — “The Prisoner” and “Rubicon.” Zombies? Who knew?

Like several other post-apocalyptic dramas released lately, “Walking Dead” follows a sheriff’s deputy, who wakes from a coma to find his wife and son missing and the world in a state of collapse. After tracing his family to Atlanta, he joins a band of Atlanta-based survivors, willing to help him find his wife and son. What separates the wheat from the chaff here is the producers’ ability to spread the violence, gore and mayhem over six episodes, instead of two hours, thus allowing room for the drama and suspense to evolve naturally. The writing is excellent and performances inspired. A first-season DVD and Blu-ray were released last spring, but this special edition is targeted specifically to serious fans and horror geeks. In addition to all