Imagine opening up your door and finding Zach Galifianakis, or his doppelganger, staring at you with a slightly demented smile and a professed desire to make your life more meaningful. That’s kind of what happens to Tom Thompson (Chris Langham), in “Black Pond,” when he meets a disheveled stranger on his nightly constitutional with his dog named Boy. If this were London, Tom might not have bothered to acknowledge the presence of the probably homeless man, Blake (Colin Hurley), as they crossed paths on a bridge. After a few pleasantries, the two very different men stroll into the nearby forest exchanging poetic observations on life and nature. They stop for a rest at a serene pond, where, as Tom matter-of-factly recalls, a woman either had drowned, committed suicide or was murdered. Blake responds to everything his thoroughly deadpan companion says with personal musings of his own. Tom invites Blake to his pleasant country home for tea, then dinner and lots of drinks, and finally a comfortable night’s sleep. Sophie Thompson (Amanda Hadingue) is a bit skeptical of her husband’s new friend, but she proves to be a gracious hostess, anyway.
What happens in the next several hours and days is best left undisclosed, except to point out that it involves Boy’s unexpected death and funeral, for which the Thompsons’ daughters and their shared boyfriend drive up from London. As you might already have guessed, Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley’s first feature is a very strange – if thoroughly compelling – black comedy, very much in the dust-dry British tradition. The story is partially told in flashback, with recollections about Blake’s portentous stay at the Thompsons related in a fashion inspired by Christopher Guest’s faux-documentaries. Merely labeling “Dark Pond” a dramedy does it no justice whatsoever. Like the Coen Brothers’ genre-bending stories about crime and killing, it’s something completely different and well deserving of our attention. As if to prove that “Dark Pond” isn’t a fluke, Sharpe’s hugely imaginative short film “Cockroach” is included in the bonus package with making-of material. – Gary Dretzka
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone: Blu-ray
After surveying the publicity material for “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” I fully expected it to be a parody of Siegfried & Roy and other over-the-top Las Vegas attractions. The presence of Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi and Jim Carey boded well for a comedy about a city that has no shame in its game, even if it probably would take a turn for the melodramatic towards the climax Instead, Don Cardino’s first venture outside the world of television (“30 Rock,” “Cosby”) is far less concerned with satirizing S&R’s spectacular career and Las Vegas’ place in it, than it is in creating yet another cautionary tale about the negative effects of hubris on friendships. Tired of being bullied in grade school, Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and his best friend Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) work tirelessly to perfect routines included in a magic kit endorsed by popular old-school magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). Their rehearsals and amateur performances not only provide the boys a safe haven from the bullies, but also a way to channel their ambitions into a show-biz career. In this regard, at least, “Burt Wonderstone” isn’t much different than “Showgirls,” “A Chorus Line,” “Strike Up the Band” and “A Jazz Singer.” Thirty years of hard work later, Burt and Anton are the toast of Las Vegas with their own hot-ticket showroom. Another decade goes by and Burt’s reluctance to upgrade the act gives upstart magicians Steve Gray (Carrey) and Rick the Implausible (Jay Mohr) an opportunity to fill seats with the butts of a younger generation of Vegas tourists. Indeed, Gray’s laughably daredevil gags are directly inspired by “street magician” Criss Angel, whose collaboration with Cirque du Soleil is doing very well on the Strip.
In a fit of pique, Wonderstone blames his partner for the act’s increasing irrelevancy. After an Angel-inspired stunt goes disastrously bad, Marvelton has no choice but to go his separate way. Without him, Burt’s career spirals down the drain, as well. This sort of thing is par for the course in show-biz movies and what happens next is no less predictable. Fortunately, a chance meeting with Arkin’s long-forgotten Rance Holloway provides a much-needed safety net for Cardino and screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. As usual, Arkin’s terrific in the key supporting role. Even so, “Burt Wonderstone” simply is too pre-fabricated to sustain its fitful momentum. There’s a story to be told about magic in Las Vegas and the risky pursuit of larger and more difficult illusions. Cardino’s hesitant direction isn’t up to the task. Olivia Wilde plays Jane, the klutzy magician’s assistant who has dreams of her own, while the late James Gandolfini is wasted as the resort owner forced to decide between the hot commodity and old pro, when he opens his own casino. The Blu-ray adds 26 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes; a gag reel; a too-short featurette, “Making Movie Magic With David Copperfield,” who consulted on the film; and “Steve Gray Uncut,” in which an in-character Jim Carrey performs for tourists as “The Brain Rapist.”
Anyone who wants to see the post-“Sopranos” James Gandolfini in a better cinematic light ought to check out “Not Fade Away,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Down the Shore,” “In the Loop” and HBO’s “Cinema Verite.” In a couple of these titles, his characters aren’t much of a leap from Tony Soprano, but Gandolfini always found a way to make them interesting. – Gary Dretzka
As Luck Would Have It
This Spanish import immediately reminded me of two things: Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole,” which, in 1951, introduced the “media circus” concept to viewers; and CNN’s brand-establishing coverage of the so-called Baby Jessica rescue, in 1987. In both cases, it was difficult to distinguish between the concerned spectators and money-blinded hustlers who came to the incidents in anticipation of a dramatic rescue or great tragedy. In Alex de la Iglesia’s “As Luck Would Have It,” spectators are drawn to an event of similar magnitude, at least in the small world of Roberto (José Mota), a man facing imminent death and loss of his family in an unforeseeable accident. Conveniently, it occurs on what already was shaping up as one of the worst days of his life. Like countless other talented professionals who’ve lost their jobs in the economic downturn, he finally has come to the end of his ropes.
On his way home from an unproductive interview with an old friend, Roberto stops at a hotel in the ancient city of Cartagena, where he and his wife Luisa (Salma Hayek) enjoyed their honeymoon. Instead, he is diverted into a press event being held next-door, to celebrate the renovation of a Roman theater built 2,000 years ago. After wandering away from the dignitaries and journalists, he finds himself on the top of the construction site surrounded by sculptures and other large artifacts. As his bad luck would have it, a freak accident then causes Roberto to become the subject of a media circus, not unlike the one in “Ace in the Hole” and on CNN. Ironically, it also opens the door to a fortune in potential marketing deals and exclusive media opportunities. The arrival of Luisa causes a feeding frenzy that threatens the couple’s dignity and, possibly, his life. At some point, Roberto’s own marketing savvy kicks in and he attempts to control the situation from his own precarious vantage point. There’s nothing at all wrong with Hayek and Mota’s performances. The story is far too contrived, however, to make us forget Kirk Douglas or Baby Jessica. – Gary Dretzka
The Rambler: Blu-ray
I’m certainly not the first person to notice the similarities between “The Rambler” and the early works of David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Werner Herzog. Like DNA and fingerprints, they’re unimpeachable. That isn’t to imply, however, that “The Rambler” is so derivative as to be a total washout. It certainly holds one’s attention. Dermot Mulroney plays an ex-con newly released from a New Mexico prison. Upon his return home to his unfaithful wife and ramshackle trailer, the Rambler discovers that he wants nothing to do with his old crowd and decides to hitchhike to eastern Oregon to work on his brother’s ranch. On the way, he’ll discover the heart of darkness that beats within every shithole town from Roswell to Bend. Each one is crazier and fraught with more disaster than the one he just left. Or, are they? Among the things that keep viewers guessing in “The Rambler” are the hallucinations and dreams that merge with real life whenever the protagonist comes across something he doesn’t quite understand. The one constant is a cute and dangerous blond, the Girl (Lindsay Pulsipher), whose presence (or spirit) haunts him throughout his journey. If we never know what’s going on inside Rambler’s head, it’s because his face is constantly shaded by sunglasses and a cowboy hat. Neither does his deadpan expression change much during Calvin Lee Reeder’s mad psychodrama. Mulroney is one of the indie world’s most consistently interesting character actors and he’s fine in the lead role here. Considering the stark high-desert locations, “The Rambler” probably wasn’t much fun to shoot. Most people won’t find it all that much fun to watch, either. This one is only for viewers who don’t mind testing their capacity for pain every now and then, as well as those who are interested in seeing how a young writer/director interprets his elders’ conceits. – Gary Dretzka
Although it wouldn’t be fair to characterize “Supporting Characters” as a male-oriented companion piece to HBO’s hit series, “Girls,” the comparison would be apt. The central character is played by Alex Karpovsky, who fans of the show will remember as the coffee-shop owner dumped by Shoshanna. Lena Dunham, the series creator, makes a cameo appearance in “Supporting Characters,” as well, somehow resisting the temptation to disrobe every five minutes. As far as I can tell, co-writer/director Daniel Schechter and co-writer/co-star Tarik Lowe have no connection to “Girls,” but they do have the aesthetic down pat. Karpovsky and Lowe play Nick and Darryl, best friends and editing partners who are simultaneously experiencing problems at work and at home. In a sense, that single sentence sums up what happens in “Supporting Characters,” dramatically and otherwise. Nick’s living with his fiancée Amy (Sophia Takal), who, out of the blue, causes a rift by insisting on a pre-nuptial agreement, based on the recommendation of her father. Darryl has lady problems, as well, and thinks that the best solution is to propose to her during her dance class.
Meanwhile, at the same time as a possibly demented director (Kevin Corrigan) is making bizarre demands on them at the editing and dubbing table, Darryl is concerned that Nick is about to abandon their partnership. He’s been asked to accept a job on a movie with a budget that can only sustain one editor and reluctantly says, “Yes.” Add to this scenario a beautiful blond actress (Arielle Kebbel), who tempts Nick at the most vulnerable point in his relationship with Amy. As is the case in “Girls,” the characters are trapped on the borderline separating hipsters and yuppies. Like so many young New Yorkers, they’re obsessed with their still largely unformed careers, but can’t stomach the idea of not getting laid every night. Even if they don’t make enough money to satisfy their appetite for material pleasures, these people know exactly what they’d buy when their ship comes in. Schechter’s directorial style combines Edward Burns’ loosey-goosey approach to family dynamics with the talky naturalism of the Mumblecore crowd. “Significant Others” won’t appeal to most audiences, but, for those holding their breaths for the next season of “Girls,” it ain’t bad. The DVD adds an interview with Karpovsky, Schechter and Lowe. – Gary Dretzka
Submarine-based thrillers have an inherent advantage over most other wartime movies in that the claustrophobic environment becomes a character in and of itself and the tight confines dictate the terms of how they can be shot. Anyone who’s ever toured a WWII-era sub can attest for the potential for intense drama in such a setting. Even though the subgenre has been a Hollywood staple for nearly 100 years, only a handful of screenwriters have managed to get past the clichés and given us something new. The tense German story, “Das Boot,” may be the best of the lot, but “Run Silent, Run Deep,” “U-571,” “Crimson Tide,” “The Hunt for Red October,” “The Enemy Below,” “K-19: The Widowmaker,” “Ice Station Zebra” and, of course, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” also come immediately to mind. All share a palpable sense of imminent danger; courageous, if trapped characters; and no small degree of tension between officers and crew. Todd Robinson’s “Phantom” is the latest entry into the category. Supposedly based on an actual Cold War event, it takes place almost entirely on board an old-school diesel-powered Soviet submarine, which guarantees that the sailors live on a shoulder-to-shoulder basis for long periods of time.
Ed Harris plays the veteran captain, who, before he can retire, is ordered to take the vessel out to sea one more time. An air of mystery of surrounds the assignment, which comes out of nowhere and requires him to take orders from temperamental KGB agents (David Duchovny, among them) also added to the crew at the last minute. When the mission begins to go sideways a bit, the KGB agents assert themselves as the true commanders of the sub. They refuse to explain what’s going on, but are willing to pull their pistols whenever the captain balks at their orders. The explanation is far too complicated and crucial to the plot’s resolution to reveal here. Suffice it to say that it’s a doozy.
The thing that kills “Phantom” almost before it begins isn’t the massive hole at the heart of the mystery, however. It’s the decision to have all of the characters speak perfect English and look as if they’ve stepped out of the pages of Boy’s Life magazine. It’s especially bizarre when the sailors are describing the evil things Americans are capable of doing, while sounding and looking precisely like the enemy. In “Red October,” at least, the Soviet commander played by Sean Connery had a Scottish brogue to differentiate himself from his American counterpart. (Austrian Klaus Maria Brandauer was originally cast in the role, but broke his leg before filming.) Even so, there’s no faulting Harris’ performance in “Phantom.” Also appearing are William Fichtner, Lance Henrikson, Johnathon Schaech and Jason Beghe. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes, “Facing the Apocalypse,” “The Real Phantom,” “Jeff Rona: Scoring the Phantom,” the “An Ocean Away” music video and commentary. – Gary Dretzka
The Lesser Blessed
PBS: Kind Hearted Woman
I’d hate to think that distributers routinely discriminate against movies from by Canadian artists about Canadian issues, especially those involving First Nation characters, but there’s too much evidence in favor of that argument to dismiss out of hand. While Hollywood producers are happy to take advantage of the tax breaks offered by Telefilm Canada, the industry is loath to open the doors to competition from the Great White North. Based on a novel by Richard Van Camp and directed by the promising Ukrainian-born Anita Doron, “The Lesser Blessed” combines coming-of-age conventions with those associated with films about severely alienated youths. What distinguishes it from dozens of other such movies is its setting and the ethnic background of its characters. Larry (Joel Evans) is a withdrawn 16-year-old Ticho Indian living in sparsely populated Fort Simmer, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The severe scarring on his chest and back attest to some terrible event he endured as a child. He’s frequently bullied at school, but is able to befriend the new kid in school, a brash and extremely self-confident Métis Indian. Both boys share a crush on the sexually precocious Juliet (Chloe Rose), who’s seeing the bully, but enjoys playing one boy against the other. Although Fort Simmer is a world away from the big cities in the provinces, kids have no problem finding drugs, booze and rave parties. Along with alcoholism, parental and spousal abuse are major problems in the town and almost impossible to avoid. Larry’s problems come to a head after Juliet begins to show him some interest and he begins to feel his masculine oats. Fortunately, he has a stepfather (Benjamin Bratt) who takes the time to remind him of their spiritual roots and what it means to be a man. Many of the other kids in the mostly Indian school aren’t as fortunate. Doron handles all of the issues presented in “Lesser Blessed” with uncommon sensitivity and respect for the even harsher source material. The DVD includes interviews with the actors, writer/director and author.
The problems of Native American communities in the U.S. have provided much fodder for documentarians, especially those whose work finds its way to PBS stations. “Kind Hearted Woman” deals with issues pertaining to alcoholism, drug abuse and poverty, while also detailing the less-known scourge of childhood sexual abuse. The “Frontline” presentation does so with an extremely tight focus on an individual whose life has nearly been destroy by such problems. Robin Charboneau is a 32-year-old Oglala Sioux living on North Dakota’s Spirit Lake Reservation, where sexual abuse has reached epidemic proportions. In fact, the problem has been ignored and mishandled there for so long that the federal government recently took over the social-services bureaucracy. Sutherland followed Robin for more than three years, as she struggled to raise her two children, further her education and deal with the wounds of sexual abuse and alcoholism. “Kind Hearted Woman” is an agonizing documentary. Not only does it paint a penetrating portrait of a woman in a great deal of trouble, but it also opens our eyes to the vicious cycle of rural poverty. The entire second half of the five-hour doc resolves around Robin’s attempts to use her personal history to score a degree and build a career out of what she’s learned. It also describes her on-again/off-again relationship with a Canadian, whose jealousy threatens to reveal deeper problems. Finally, “Kind Hearted Woman” is an uplifting story about a woman who triumphs over adversity. There are times, however, when viewers will feel as if they’re sharing her ordeal far too intimately. Too often, these days, people believe that the Native American casino industry can afford to provide cures for the ills that plague residents of the reservations and take on the challenge alone. That simply isn’t the case, however. All casinos aren’t created equal and tribal boards can be as corrupt and ineffectual as any other group of politicians. The DVD adds an interview with Sutherland. – Gary Dretzka
If there’s anything the United States isn’t particularly known for, it’s full disclosure in victory … not that we’ve seen much of that lately. Besides being taught that God’s on our side in all military conflicts, kids growing up in the second half of the 20th Century were left with the distinct impression that we singlehandedly won both world wars. The Brits were important in Africa and for providing a staging point for D-Day, of course, but, otherwise, served as a thorn in Ike’s side. Any teacher or screenwriter who emphasized the Soviet Union’s crucial role in defeating the Nazis ran the risk of being branded unpatriotic, at best, or, worse, a fellow traveler. Canada may have been listed among our Allies, but its participation never was accorded the full praise it deserved. As “Storming Juno” documents, Canadian forces played as strategic a role — on D-Day, especially — as any other Allied nation. Specifically, their assignment on June 6, 1944, was taking heavily fortified Juno beach, as acknowledged in “The Longest Day.” By the end of the day, however, the Canadians had penetrated deeper into France than either the British or the American troops. If Tim Wolochatiuk and Christopher Gagosz’ stirring docudrama isn’t nearly as polished and technically advanced as, say, the first half-hour of “Saving Private Ryan,” it goes a long way toward setting the record straight and at a fraction of the budget. It’s possible that “Storming Juno” was released in the U.S. after being shown on Canadian television, in 2010, but IMDB.com has no record of it.
“Storming Juno” is divided into three interconnected sections. One focuses on the heroics of the 450 paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines, while the other two follow the 14,000 Canadian soldiers and Hussars who rushed the beach on foot or in tanks. Until now, I wasn’t aware of the existence of the DD Sherman Tank built with an inflatable canvas screen and rear propellers that, when activated, allowed it to “swim” to shore from as far away as two miles. Once the amphibious vehicle reached firm ground, its standard-transmission drive would kick in. The high waves played havoc with the DDs and only one of Canada’s six tanks made it to Juno. As we see in “Storming Juno,” the tank that did complete its swim played a key role in the victory. It then pushed on to meet the Canadian paratroopers and confront several of the Germans’ most potent tank units. The dramatizations are supported with archival newsreel footage and interviews with veterans. Several of the key characters are based on actual participants, including a 15-year-old volunteer affectionately known as “Apple.” The DVD also offers a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
A Place at the Table: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing we don’t need in the war against poverty, hunger, poor nutrition and obesity, it’s another all-encompassing euphemism for poverty, hunger, poor nutrition and obesity. In the frequently heart-breaking and statistics-choked documentary, “A Place at the Table,” we’re introduced to the term, “food insecurity,” which basically is a less-frightful way of saying that too many Americans don’t know if, where and when their next meal will be placed before them. Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush’s documentary also argues persuasively that Americans suffering from food insecurity are more likely to purchase exactly the wrong kinds of food for their family — causing obesity in people who literally are starving from poor nutrition – and that the government allocates funds to the same agri-business interests that profit from making food less nutritious. In other words, as long as poor people can’t afford to hire the kind of lobbyists who can buy our congressional representatives like so many potato chips, nothing is going to change.
We already know that much about hunger and poverty, however. In 1968, the CBS News special report, “Hunger in America,” startled viewers with reports on how desperate the situation had become in the richest country in the world. Presidents from LBJ to Obama, liberal and conservative, all have speechified about the need to eliminate hunger in the United States. At the same time, they all accepted money from agri-business interests and appointed Secretaries of Agriculture whose priorities didn’t include ending hunger. If it weren’t for volunteerism and charities, even more people would starve. Indeed, Tea Party Republicans are rallying support to kill the current farm bill and eliminate food stamps, and they’re not reluctant to inject their racism into the debate.
Among the arguments made in “A Place at the Table” is that a little education about nutrition goes a long way toward lowering the cost to taxpayers, whose dollars go to taking care of people with such food-related diseases as diabetes, asthma, heart disease and cancer. Jacobson and Silverbush have done a fine job gathering the evidence necessary to plead a persuasive case for upending the status quo. Actor/activist Jeff Bridges and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio appear alongside nutritionists, doctors, volunteers, food-bank workers, parents and children. In 1968 or the 1970s, such a documentary might have motivated politicians and citizens to address the issue and try to solve it. Now that we’re well into the Century of Greed and Stupidity, it will take more than evidence and logic to sell the notion that something must change. Maybe, organizers of the Arab Spring movement and recent protests in Brazil and Turkey could provide insight to Americans who are just as bad off as people there, but less likely to protest unfair conditions. An easy first step, though, would be voting against representatives who are more interested in protecting the sales of assault rifles than feeding children. Adding the term “food insecurity” to the debate doesn’t come close to solving the problem. The Blu-ray adds commentary, deleted scenes, expanded interviews and other featurettes promoting ideas put forward in this important documentary. – Gary Dretzka
Within the last year, Abraham Lincoln’s already mighty legacy has grown to include a proficiency in hunting vampires and zombies. Steven Spielberg chronicled one of the president’s greatest legislative victories in “Lincoln,” while Tom Hanks narrated a made-for-TV movie, “Killing Lincoln,” about the conspiracy that took the great man’s life. “Saving Lincoln” is a curious brew in that it tells the president’s story through the eyes of his friend and protector, Ward Hill Lamon. I don’t know if it’s fair to refer to Lamon as a mere footnote in American history, because he remained close enough to Lincoln to deter several threats to his life and be a trusted adviser. Still, I’ve never before heard or read his name. As the president’s personal body guard, Lamon (Lea Coco) might have been able to save him from assassination, if he hadn’t been sent to Richmond that day as a Lincoln’s representative. In his recollections of his friend, Lamon said that he warned him about going out at night and, specifically, attending the theater in his absence. Tom Amandes (“Parenthood”), an Illinois native and inarguably handsome actor, portrays Lincoln in a way that makes him a far less brooding and introspective figure than we’ve become used to seeing. According to Lamon, he was a man who was known to laugh, sing, dance and smile more than once every four years, and not as a wry gesture, either. Likewise, as interpreted by Penelope Ann Miller, Mary Todd Lincoln is far more pretty, open and welcoming – until her tragedies became too much of a burden – than as previously pictured. Co-writer/director Salvador Litvak’s taken it on the chin from critics for the conceit of using historical photos, many from the Library of Congress, as the backdrops for almost all of the scenes. The “CineCollage” treatment is less often “interesting” than peculiar. I think school children would gain more from the process than adults, whose eyes are conditioned to another way of seeing movies. Lincoln completests should also find something in the Lamon angle to admire. The DVD adds commentary with Litvak and co-writer Nina Davidovich; an interactive Civil War photo gallery; a pair of making-of featurettes; and a piece on the traditional music used on the soundtrack. – Gary Dretzka
North Face: Blu-ray
The historic race to conquer Switzerland’s treacherous Eiger summit, in 1936, fuels the drama in this exciting movie about athletes whose primary motivation for doing such a crazy thing is “because it’s there.” The climber who made that point, George Mallory, would be killed in his 1924 pursuit of the then-unconquered Everest. His frozen body would be discovered 46 years later, 2,000 feet below the summit. Since 1935, the near-vertical north face (a.k.a., “death wall”) of the Eiger has claimed the lives of 64 climbs. It wasn’t recently that the sport improved on its dangerously high rate of attrition. The once-unconquerable Everest, especially, now suffers from gridlock during prime climbing season. In “North Face,” German director Philipp Stolzl (“Young Goethe in Love”) frequently pulls away from the intense competition on the mountain to focus on the safety of a posh lodge, where less-adventurous sorts monitor the climb by telescope or hop on the train that takes them inside the mountain to viewing windows. Among the spectators are the film’s fictional love interest, a climber groupie played by Johanna Wokalek, and the editor of a Nazi-controlled newspaper that sees the propaganda value in the German team beating the Austrians to the summit. Neither of these two subplots is as interesting as anything happening on the Eiger, but such embellishments can be expected in commercial endeavors. Even so, Stolzl knows what audiences want to see in “North Face” and delivers it in a taut and visually exciting manner. The Blu-ray easily captures the majesty of the mountain and difficulty of the assault. It adds deleted scenes, a short piece on the visual effects and a 17-minute featurette on the technical challenges faced by the filmmakers. – Gary Dretzka
Alien Crash at Roswell: The UFO Truth Lost in Time
All American Horror: Gateways to Hell
When it comes to the great conspiracy theories of our time – the JFK, RFK, MLK assassinations, Marilyn Monroe’s OD, Jimmy Hoffa’s gravesite, Pearl Harbor, the Roswell UFO crash — common wisdom insists that the maintenance of such secrets for so long a time would have required the complicity of far too many blabber-mouth government officials. Moreover, the truth about such headline-making incidents has become a commodity so valuable that, by now, someone would have spilled the beans, if only for cash reward. I tend to go along with that belief. On the other hand, so much effort has gone into the discrediting of whistle-blowers and conspiracy theorists that the possibility of massive cover-ups can’t be dismissed out of hand. One need only consider the full-blown assault on the credibility of former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden to understand how far the White House, Congress, Pentagon, mainstream media and Wall Street will go to protect their hold on information detrimental to their interests. So many officials, pundits and politicians have attempted to assure us of the sanctity of the intelligence-gathering operation that it’s become impossible not to believe something really fishy is going on in Washington. In “A Few Good Men,” Colonel Nathan R. Jessup might as well have been speaking for the entire government when he said, “You want answers? You can’t handle the truth.”
The mystery surrounding the so-called Roswell Incident is the granddaddy of all American conspiracy theories, possibly because of the military’s swift dismissal of seemingly legitimate reports of the UFO crash and retrieval of alien bodies. “Alien Crash at Roswell: The UFO Truth Lost in Time” is a DIY documentary, in which a guy with a thick foreign accent interviews the grandson of Major Jesse Marcel Sr., the man who allegedly was among the first people to survey of the wreckage and collect material from the debris field. Before returning to his base, Marcel stopped at home and showed pieces of the wreckage to his family. He also snatched a memento shaped like an I-beam and carrying symbols. That artifact, along with other family lore, provided Philip Coppens’ with the basis for his film. We already know that Marcel was the target of a disinformation campaign after he supposedly delivered debris to his superiors and it was officially determined that what witnesses of the crash saw was a giant weather balloon. Jesse Marcel Jr. wrote a book on his father’s recollections, so Jesse III is following family tradition here. Far from being quacks, Jesse Jr. and Jesse III’s disclosure efforts led this spring to panel discussions and a mock congressional hearing in which theorists and former U.S. senators demanded answers, which have been hidden in plain sight since 1947. If I were elected President in 2016, the first thing I’d want to do is visit the hangar at Area 51 where theorists believe the alien bodies and wreckage are hidden. As for the 70-minute documentary, it probably could have been boiled down to 15 minutes and delivered the same information.
If the existence of alien bodies were to be revealed, it probably wouldn’t be the public that panics, as predicted. The loudest roars would be heard in the hallways of the Vatican, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, where religious leaders would be forced to rethink everything they’d learned, taught and preached about God’s intentions. The same could be said, I suppose, about any confirmation of supernatural phenomenon and the existence of ghosts and demonic visitations. William Burke’s “All American Horror: Gateways to Hell,” also distributed by Reality Entertainment, plays like a longer, commercial-free episode of “Ghost Hunters International” or a pilot for a paranormal-based show on another cable network. Through on-site tours and dramatizations, Burke describes hauntings at an office complex built on Gallows Hill and at the Devil’s Stairs, both in North Carolina; Louisville’s famously chilling Waverly Hills Sanitarium; a railroad tunnel inhabited by a woman murdered on a passenger train; and at the home of a woman, who, after refurbishing the antique gates of a cemetery, discovers they are portals to hell. The bonus feature is Philip Gardiner’s 2010 feature, “The Stone: No Soul Unturned,” a hippy-dippy movie about modern-day “soul seekers” that was filmed on the grounds of Annesley Hall, believed to be haunted by Lord Byron’s ghost. The writer/director has churned out some 40 exploitation titles over the course of the last seven years. – Gary Dretzka
Chiller: Dead Souls: Blu-ray
Todd & the Book of Pure Evil: The Complete Second Season
Nova: Australia’s First 4 Billion Years
Nature: Australia: Animals Down Under
In the Chiller network movie, “Dead Souls,” an 18-year-old adoptee must decide if he’s going to sell the family farm, where a terrible massacre occurred just short of 18 years ago, or he’s going to do something else with his inheritance. Considering that he didn’t even know the property existed until a few days earlier, let alone his role in the tragedy, it’s a lot for him to digest. Not having seen enough haunted-house and ghost stories in his short lifetime, Johnny (Jesse James) decides that it might instructive for him to spend the night in the farmhouse. Making his decision easier is Emma, who says she’s been squatting in the house for a while, but could just as easily be a ghost. She’s played by Magda Apanowicz, who could be Jenna Fischer’s younger sister. Needless to say, the restless spirits of his parents and siblings also reside in the immediate vicinity of the farmhouse and have unsettled business with Johnny. As far as made-for-cable movies go, “Dead Souls” isn’t bad. Before going haywire toward the end of it, Colin Theys’ movie offers more than a few cheap thrills and surprises. The interaction between Johnny and Emma is as natural as it could be, given the possibility that she doesn’t exist. The Blu-ray offers bloopers, a set tour and commentary with Theys, screenwriter John Doolan and producer Andrew Gernhard.
From Canada, “Todd & the Book of Pure Evil” tapped into the mania for shows about teenagers who battle supernatural forces and come in contact into daily contact with various undead elements. Todd, Curtis, Jenny, and Hannah are students at Crowley High, the only high school in a small town secretly founded by Satanists. Each week, they are required to deal with repercussions from access to the Book of Pure Evil, which bestows upon its temporary holders the fulfillment of their wishes, if only in its own bizarre ways. As you might imagine, an inordinate number of wishes granted to the post-pubescent students involve dreams of the “wet” variety. One of the show’s distinguishing characteristics is openness toward realistic approaches to profanity, sexuality and violence. The Gang of Four faces temptations of its own, as well, while fighting to keep the book out of the hands of the evil-minded Atticus. If this description makes the show seem very silly, know that it’s sharply written, well-acted and a lot of fun. That’s largely because the show doesn’t treat its viewers as if they just stepped out of the confessional and are free from sin and desire, as is demanded of most teens in American shows. The Canadian cable channel Space elected to cancel the “Todd” after its second season, but a chip-in campaign raised enough money to create an animated movie that will tie up the storylines. It is expected to be shown in 2014. The second-season DVD package adds a blooper reel, deleted and extended scenes, extended musical numbers, special FX bonus material, a behind-the-scenes featurette, commentaries and “In Memoriam,” a tribute to the fallen students of Crowley High.
I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s been to Australia and not come back gushing about how much fun they had and how nice the people are Down Under. Typically, tourists stay on the fringes of the continent, within eyesight of water, pristine beaches and the modernity of its big cities. More adventurous travelers might brave a trip to Uluru (Ayres Rock), which the Native Australians consider to be sacred and almost everyone else treats as if it’s their own personal playground. Media images of the Outback make it out to be as forbidding a land mass as there is on Earth, and its stark nature is rarely exaggerated. Watch enough Australian movies, though, and you’ll see how diverse the Aussie landscape can be, with mountain ranges, great canyons, forests, rivers and the occasional snow-covered peak. The four-part “Nova” presentation, “Australia’s First 4 Billion Years,” demonstrates just how diverse and spectacular the land is, from both a scientific and cultural point of view. With the help of CGI visualizations and animatronics, genial host Richard Smith takes us on a journey that began 4.4 billion years and whose geologic growth can begin to be charted at ground level. And, it’s still evolving.
The “Nature” collection “Australia: Animals Down Under” is a perfect companion piece to the four-episode miniseries, “Australia’s First 4,000 Years.” It is comprised of four previously released hour-long shows, “Cracking the Koala Code,” “Outback Pelicans,” “Survivors of the Firestorm” and “Kangaroo Mob.” They deal as much with the dangers facing the wildlife in their constantly shrinking habitat as the wonderful place in Australia life and legend. – Gary Dretzka
The Emperor’s New Groove/Kronk’s New Groove: Blu-ray
Lilo & Stitch/Lilo & Stitch: Stitch Has a Glitch: Blu-ray
I wonder if kids sit around comparing and criticizing new entries in Disney’s Blu-ray catalogue, as do their adult counterparts whenever new screeners arrive in the mail. Surely, they’ve seen their share of kiddie critics on various cable channels and mastering the relevant criteria isn’t an insurmountable problem. Disney’s animated features are scrutinized with the same attention to detail as a microbiologist examining a new virus species. The tenures of each new animation czar are studied as if they were geologic ages. Disney seems to play along with the game by favoring its classic movies with Diamond and Platinum designations, while others are merely “special.” The addition of so many made-for-DVD/Blu-ray sequels adds a fresh set of criteria. For sheer entertainment value, though, it’s tough to beat double-feature packages of lesser-blessed material. This month, Disney’s sent out Blu-ray packages containing “The Emperor’s New Groove” and its non-theatrical companion, “Kronk’s New Groove”; “Lilo & Stitch” and “Lilo & Stitch: Stitch Has a Glitch”; and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and “Atlantis: Milo’s Return.” Each of the theatrical releases has its champions and detractors, whose opinions have been duly recorded. From purely a consumer’s point-of-view, however, a couple of things should be mentioned. The three-disc “special editions” contain a Blu-ray disc containing both titles and two DVDs with one movie each. The commentary track can only be accessed on the DVD version, along with featurettes, deleted scenes, interactive activities and music videos, all in standard definition. Again, this shouldn’t be a deterrent for any viewer under, say, 10. – Gary Dretzka