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The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Black Pond
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

Supporting  Characters
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

Phantom: Blu-ray
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

Storming Juno
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

Saving Lincoln
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

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer: Blu-ray
Hansel & Gretel Get Baked
Much has already been made of the hugely disappointing box-office returns for “Jack the Giant Slayer” – not to be confused with the straight-to-video turkey, “Jack the Giant Killer” – and what they portend for other fairytale movies, already in production. I’ve reviewed so many of them in the last year that gingerbread houses and magic mirrors have begun to appear in my dreams. I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to sample any of them in theaters, but, since they’re delivered to my doorstep, anyway, why not? The one thing all of them have in common, besides a reliance on CGI effects, is a desire on the part of their investors to attract audiences in all four demographic quadrants. If memory serves, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” is the only one with the chutzpah to accept an “R” rating and cater to the quadrant that contains males who dig watching awful things happen to fantasy characters and don’t need a parent or guardian to hold their hands. “Jack the Giant Slayer” fits awkwardly within the PG-13 mold, with enough wild action to keep teens happy, but not enough gore to please hard-core buffs. Given the familiarity of the story, though, I’m not sure what the appeal would be to adults with or without children sufficiently mature to handle some scary images. That said, however, I will admit to enjoying most of the movie’s 114 minutes, including the scenes in which normal-sized human characters interacted other normal-sized human characters. The giants were entertaining, as well.

Bryan Singer’s version of the ancient story combines the British tales “Jack the Giant Killer” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” with northern European and Persian myths in which a “world tree,” garden stalk or vine connects Earth and heaven. Long before the arrival of mere mortals, the cord was cut to prevent demonic species from escaping their middle kingdom in the clouds and conquering the planet. Only a handful of seeds capable of re-growing such mighty beanstalks remain and they were entombed with the body of King Erik, the original giant slayer, along with his magic crown. Somehow, those are the very seeds that are traded for Jack the Farm Boy’s horse. At the same time as Jack’s getting his ass kicked by his dad for being hosed on the deal, flighty Princess Isabelle has an argument with the king and traipses out of Cloister Castle. Long story short, after being rescued from thugs by Jack (Nicholas Hoult), Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) is kidnapped and taken into the cloud kingdom. When the beanstalk blooms, Jack and the king’s guard, Elmont (Ewan McGregor), embark on a mission that SEAL Team 6 wouldn’t attempt without three months of training. Singer throws in enough variables to keep viewers already familiar with the tale guessing for the next 90 minutes, as well as some tremendously imaginative stuff in the giants’ kingdom.

Coincidental to my watching “Jack the Giant Slayer” on sparkling Blu-ray, TMC was showing Abbott & Costello’s 1952 comedy, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which, besides being funny, demonstrates that elasticity of the tale. The giant looked more like Andre the Giant than Bill Nighy and John Kassir’s double-headed General Fallon in “Giant Slayer.” I was also constantly reminded of the giants created by Ray Harryhausen for his many fantasies. From what I can tell, the CGI effects ought to please owners of HD3D sets. The Blu-ray package adds an interactive game, a deleted scene, gag reel, DVD and UltraViolet copy, and an extensive making-of featurette.

I didn’t receive a screener of “Hansel & Gretel Get Baked” in time to couple it with last week’s review of “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” but fairytale completests should be made aware of its existence. “Hansel & Gretel Get Baked,” as you might have already guessed, combines horror, gore and stoner humor in the service of a contemporary folk tale. Anyone who can remember the Grimm Brothers’ version should have no trouble imagining it updated to fit 21st Century standards. Here, Hansel and Gretel (Molly C. Quinn, Michael Welch) come across a little old lady in Pasadena (Lara Boyle) selling killer pot, which she grows in her basement. The witch uses her trademark Black Forest strain to lure young vipers to her Craftsman-style living room. After serving them herbal tea, it’s easy to enslave and eat them. The more human tissue the witch eats, the younger she looks. No need to reveal what happens next, except to say that, yes, a furnace is involved. You can find it on VOD or, next week, on DVD. For serious potheads, I recommend hosting an uproarious double feature with Abbott & Costello’s “Jack and the Beanstalk.” – Gary Dretzka

It’s a Disaster: Blu-ray
What begins as a “couples’ brunch” in “It’s a Disaster” slowly evolves into a pre-apocalypse Last Supper, as the toxins from a “dirty bomb” begin to spread through a quiet neighborhood in Los Angeles. Because no one listens to the radio, anymore, and no one’s getting wireless reception on their laptops and cellphone – their carrier is AT&T, of course — none of the yuppies gathered in a nicely restored bungalow has a single clue about what’s just happened, 15 miles away. (It must have had a silencer.) This allows the couples, singularly and in tandem, to take passive-aggressive cheap shots at each other, while waiting for the veggies to be served. When a neighbor arrives at the doorstep in a hazmat suit, however, the brunch turns into a last supper. The way writer/director Todd Berger has set things up, there’s no escaping the nerve gas and, if anyone attempts to escape, it’s curtains. Nonetheless, the diners have time to engage in conversations ranging from silly to almost profound. Some attempt to have one last crack at each other sexually, while others get drunk and dance. Apart from the lack of noticeable racial diversity – America Ferrera, notwithstanding – the characters seem reasonably representative of yuppies who have given up the dating game, preferring the convenience and security of coupledom, which, as we see, also has its drawbacks.

Anyone familiar with David Cross (“Arrested Development”) will know to expect the kind of sneaky-smart comedy he’s delivered on such TV shows as “Arrested Development,” “The Incredibly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret” and “Mr. Show” and with the Vacationeers and Second City improv troupes. Indeed, much of “It’s a Disaster” appears to have been improvised. The Blu-ray adds a funny commentary track; “Tour With Todd”; a discussion at ComicCon 2012; and three Vacationeers online shorts, “Google Maps,” “Julia Stiles Styles” and “Excuse Me.” – Gary Dretzka

The Brass Teapot: Blu-ray
If the WGA was truly interested in acknowledging “the art and craft of storytelling,” as its public-relations campaign argues, it would demand that all wordsmiths be given credit for their efforts, no matter how dead they may be. Too often, adaptations of works in the public domain credit screenwriters who already have been given a headstart. I appreciate the laws protecting copyrights and the rationale behind allowing important works to be given away like so much swag at an awards ceremony. I do. Walt Disney was pretty good about giving credit where credit was due, when lifting and reinventing something popularized a hundred years earlier by the Brothers Grimm. Of the five movies that carry “Hansel & Gretel” in their titles, only one acknowledges the source material. The bible and Koran have inspired even more movies than the Grimms, and with even less acknowledgement. With the sad shape America’s libraries are in these days, especially in large budget-strapped cities, it would be a nice touch if WGA members found a way to rescue one or two of them a year, at least. (To be fair, maybe they already are doing such a service to society.)

Ramaa Mosley and Tim Macy’s “The Brass Teapot” is sufficiently original to not require an “inspired by” credit for Scheherazade. It’s impossible, though, not to conjure visions of “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp.” The cautionary dramedy tells the story of a similarly magical kitchen vessel, which, instead of wishes, spits out currency whenever the person who possesses it feels pain. The teapot’s origins can be traced to the Old Testament and, since then, it has passed through the hands of common folk and monsters, alike. Michael Angarano and the ever-wonderful Juno Temple portray a down-on-their-luck couple, John and Alice, about to be buried in an avalanche of debt. Seventy years earlier it had belonged to Adolph Hitler. — Gary Dretzka

Movie 43: Blu-ray
21 & Over: Blu-ray
Even hard-core fans of gross-out flicks have their limits and, in the outrageous sketch comedy “Movie 43,” most of them will be severely tested. I’d be willing to wager that some buffs wouldn’t be able to get past the first chapter, in which Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet share what might go down as the worst blind date in the history of blind dates. Don’t take my word for it, though, check out Peter Farrelly’s “The Catch” and try to trump it. Amazingly, it’s not even the most tasteless short film in the bunch. This isn’t to suggest the films aren’t funny, though. It’s as if a studio executive challenged Farrelly, Bob Odenkirk, Elizabeth Banks, Steven Brill, Rusty Cundieff, Griffin Dunne, Brett Ratner and several other directors and writers to create the movie equivalent of “The Aristocrats.” As a device to link them together, Dennis Quaid was brought on board to impersonate a desperate screenwriter pitching ideas no one in their right might mind would green-light in a million years. Greg Kinnear and Common play the studio suits who are forced, at gunpoint, to listen to the pitches, which are then dramatized for us. And, of course, to describe them in words is to destroy the gags.  The most interesting thing here, however, is to discover how many A-listers agreed to participate in such an edgy project: Seth MacFarlane, Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Anna Faris, Richard Gere, Kate Bosworth, Jack McBrayer, Kristen Bell, Chloe Grace Moretz, Patrick Warburton, Gerard Butler, Halle Berry, Josh Duhamel and Tony Shalhoub and Julianne Moore in a sketch that was trimmed from the theatrical release but is included in the bonus package. One viewer’s thumb’s-up being another’s thumb’s-down, it’s impossible to recommend “Movie 43” to anyone whose boundaries were crossed by “There’s Something About Mary” or “American Pie.” If not, “Movie 43” might prove to be a godsend.

Incredibly, the nearly impossible to watch, “21 & Over,” was written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, also responsible for the screenplays for “The Hangover,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” and “Four Christmases.” It’s possible that they found the script for this completely derivative gross-out flick in a long-forgotten box, which also included their high-school yearbooks, blue-book essays and unused condom wrappers. In addition to borrowing nearly every lame cliché from the scores of frat-boy comedies made in the wake of “Animal House,” “21 & Over” features a cast of actors who may be familiar to sitcom trivia buffs, but no one else has ever seen. It also freely cannibalizes bits from “The Hangover.” As the title suggests, one of the characters is about to turn 21 and his good buddies can’t resist the temptation to ignore his protestations and take him out for a night of debauchery. Of course, the birthday boy (Justin Chon) has an important interview scheduled for the next morning and his father might actually kill him if he blows it. Let the games begin. The rest of the movie carries as many funny bits as the number of prizes found in a Cracker Jack box – one — and it doesn’t arrive in time to save anything that’s happened previously. “21 & Over” is strictly for viewers who’ve yet to reach that age and think beer pong should be an Olympics sport. The Blu-ray adds a few making-of pieces and a gag reel. – Gary Dretzka

Let My People Go!
Not being gay or Jewish, I didn’t know how much offense I should take, if any, at the archetypal characters in Mikael Buch’s silly French sex farce, “Let My People Go!” The portrayals of the straight gentiles didn’t bother me all that much, but, then, they weren’t given much to do except get out of the way when the doors begin to slam. The protagonist of the story (co-written by Christophe Honore), which opens in rural Finnish town, is French/Jewish/gay Ruben (Nicolas Maury), who serves the picturesque community by delivering the mail. He lives with his non-Jewish/Finn husband, Teemu (Jarkko Niemi), in a quaint lakeside cabin. One day, Ruben delivers a package full of money to a homeowner, who mysteriously refuses to accept it. When the man tries in vain to the give the package back to the mailman, he suffers a heart attack and collapses on the ground. Believing the man to be dead, Ruben scoops up the package and takes it home. Ever the drama queen, Ruben convinces Teemu that his actions led to the man’s death and is afraid he’ll be arrested for murder, although even a manslaughter charge would be a stretch. Ruben becomes so hysterical that Teemu orders him to call the cops or split. When he chooses the latter, “Let My People Go!” picks up its stakes and leaves for Paris, too.

With Passover right around the corner, things are no less mashugana in the posh apartment of Ruben’s bourgeois father and mother. In fact, his dilemma isn’t nearly as pressing as the problems of his parents, siblings and lawyer, who seduces Ruben when he seeks the counsel of the much older man. Before you can say, “Oy, vey,” the comedy of manners turns into a full-blown farce. Blessedly, the veteran cast – including the wonderful Aurore Clement and Carmen Maura – are able to keep up with the madness and save the story from getting any more out of control than it already is. While “Let My People Go!” didn’t win over many reviewers in its limited run here, it copped the Critics Prize at the delightfully named Mons International Festival of Love Films … so, take that, Metacritic. The DVD includes a featurette on the whimsical set design. – Gary Dretzka

Come Out and Play: Blu-ray
23:59: Blu-ray
The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse: Blu-ray
The Last Exorcism: Part II: Blu-ray
Mara
Everyone Must Die!
Imagine a rookie ballplayer stepping up to the plate for the first time and hitting a walk-off homerun. That’s pretty much what freshman filmmaker Makinov does in “Come Out and Play,” a remake of the little-seen Spanish thriller, “Who Can Kill a Child?” In it, an American couple that’s expecting their third child decides to have an adventure while on vacation in Quintana Roo, Mexico. To escape the noisy crowds in the resort town they’re visiting, they decide to rent a motorboat to get them to a remote island. Upon their arrival, they’re greeted by a couple of dozen children frolicking on the pier. After entering the tiny village, Francis (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and his heavily pregnant wife Beth (Vinessa Shaw) notice immediately that all of the adults appear to be gone or are lying in the dirt streets dead or dying. Meanwhile, the kids they met at the pier have begun to surround them. Others are beating a wounded man to death, without concern for witnesses. Something clearly has gone terribly wrong on this idyllic island. Moreover, apart from a static-filled short-wave radio, all communications with the mainland have been lost and their boat has been put out of commission. There’s a Jeep handy, but no escape routes. Multi-hyphenate Makinov is no hurry to explain what caused the kids to go feral. With Francis and Beth’s lives in jeopardy, however, it’s pretty much beside the point. “Come Out and Play” compares favorably with such spoiled-vacation and killer-kids movies as “Lord of the Flies,” “Village of the Damned,” “Open Water,” “Dead Calm” and “Dawn of the Dead.” Francis’ fear for his helpless wife and unborn child is palpable, as is the sociopathic menace on the faces of the children. At a screening at last year’s Austin Fantastic Festival, Makinov arrived wearing a red mask and pushing a manifesto not unlike Dogma 95. He needn’t have bothered, because “Come Out and Play” speaks for itself.

If the Singaporean soldiers we meet in the “23:59” don’t remind us much of those in “Full Metal Jacket” and “Platoon,” it might be because they’re probably more suited to serving the affluent city-state as bankers and corporate executives. Apparently, Singapore has an advanced, Israeli-trained Air Force, but there isn’t much room on the island for hand-to-hand combat. Nonetheless, all males and an increasing number of women must endure several weeks of training on a remote tropical island, with none of the amenities they soon come to expect. What concerns the recruits most in Gilbert Chan’s ghost story is the vindictive spirit of an elderly woman who haunts the tropical island upon which all National Service recruits train. As the folk tale goes, the woman had the misfortune of dying at precisely 11:59 p.m. (a.k.a., 23:59), which means that she will never be allowed to rest. Or, she could simply be a troubled old lady whose madness causes her to lay in wait for the occasional soldier to cross her path. “23:59” isn’t terribly well made or even very scary. There are a few spooky surprises along the way, however, including one or two good ones toward the end. The soldiers mostly speak Mandarin, but occasionally lapse into English for no apparent reason.

Anyone who hasn’t already gotten his or her fill of revisionist zombies – “Warm Bodies,” “World War Z” etc. — might want to check out the animated feature, “The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse.” Adapted from stories in Buz Hasson and Ken Haeser’s “The Living Corpse” comic books, it introduces non-readers to the title character (a.k.a., John R. Romero), who breaks nearly all of the rules of zombiedom. Guilt-ridden after killing and eating the brains of his wife and daughter, and nearly murdering his son, the Living Corpse invests all of the energy he has left from scooping protein out of craniums into protecting the innocent against less-benevolent undead and other criminals. If that sounds far-fetched, well, it is. The animation isn’t bad, though, especially in Blu-ray.

If it weren’t for the estimable presence of petite contortionist Ashley Bell, who’s reprising her role of the possessed Nell in “The Last Exorcism,” even fans of the original would have no reason to return for “The Last Exorcism: Part II.” Bell was nominated for Independent Spirit, Fangoria Chainsaw and MTV awards for her “scared as shit performance” in the surprise 2010 hit, which gave no indication that it was “Part I.” All title-parsing aside, that $2-million movie reportedly made $70 million at the international box office, so the only mystery here is why it’s taken three years to capitalize on that success. By comparison, the sequel only managed to scare up $15 million, although it should do fine in DVD. The problem here is that co-writer/director Ed Gass-Donnelly – whose terrific gothic thriller, “Small Town Murder Songs,” is well worth a rental – takes a restrained approach to the genre, offering only a handful of genuinely scary moments and far too many flashbacks. The plot can be summed up by pointing out that little Nell is back in New Orleans, desperately in need of a new exorcism. The package adds commentary by Gass-Donelly and brand-name producer Eli Roth; two short interview packages; and a hidden camera prank in which Bell, in full costume and makeup, appears to women in a hair salon from behind a mirror. It’s the best thing on the whole DVD.

The occasionally scary Swedish import, “Mara,” tells the story of a voluptuous blond, Jenny, who, as a girl, witnessed a terrible tragedy take place at home and has been scarred by its memory. Jenny is encouraged by her shrink to return to the residence, which is surrounded by forest, to confront her fears and anxiety. That might be good advice for guests on “Dr. Phil,” but not for characters in horror movies. If it were made in America, “Mara” wouldn’t be much different than a couple thousand other slow-build genre flicks released since “Psycho.” It stands out from the crowd in Scandinavia, however, because filmmakers there have yet to begin churning out slasher and other gorefests by the dozens. Made for a miniscule $10,000, “Mara” looks as if it cost much more money. Credit for this goes to Pidde Andersson, a native-born Swede whose resume includes technical work on six different “Bikini Something-or-Other” flicks. In fact, Andersson is the only person on the cast or crew who has more than one IMDB.com credit to his name. The film’s biggest draw, however, is the debut of model Angelica Jansson, who may be as well-known in Europe as Cindy Crawford was when she made “Fair Game.” She’s a bona-fide babe with a fresh Nordic looks, expressive eyes and a body that looks great even in blood drenched panties and soiled cotton tank top. The bonus features are Jansson-centric, as well.

Even by the low standards to which micro-budget DIY horror flicks are held, “Everybody Must Die!” smacks of “Amateur Night in Dixie.” Made for an estimated $3,500 by Pennsylvania gore auteur Paul Rudzinski (“Scream Park”), “EMD” documents the slaughter of young adults in several small towns, in which people lounge around, drinking beer, while a slasher or slashers are on the loose. The villain is a seemingly immortal swordsman, who dresses in a black ninja outfit and appears out of nowhere when potential victims find their way onto his radar screen. After his sister is killed by the indiscriminate villain, the handsome and brave Kyle (Nick Lamantia) joins hands with local law-enforcement officials to end the bloodshed. Although the best thing about “EMD” is the willingness of the Rubenesque actresses to go topless whenever the story begins to run out of steam, aspiring DIY filmmakers might pick up some tricks and cheap laughs from its attempts to satirize genre conventions. Making a film for peanuts and finding distribution, after all, is frequently more difficult than shooting one backed by millions of dollars of other people’s money. The bonus package adds interviews, a music video, bloopers and alternate takes. – Gary Dretzka

Lifeforce: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Howling: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Once again, Shout!Factory demonstrates its importance not only as a distributor of niche entertainment, but also as a force in the preservationist movement. This is especially true of movies only a genre buff might consider to be a classic worthy of restoration and fresh bonus material. Working from the Cannon Films catalog, Shout!Factory has shed new light on titles that ranged from pure exploitation to arthouse in the wild and wooly 1980s. In addition to being great fun to watch, “Lifeforce” and “The Howling” are significant both for the names found on the list of credits and the effectiveness of non-CGI effects. “Lifeforce” was adapted from Colin Wilson’s self-explanatory “The Space Vampires.” It opens during a mission to investigate Halley’s Comet, led by Steve Railsback (“The Stunt Man”), discovers a gigantic alien spacecraft that looks as if it has an umbrella on its tip. Inside, the vessel is essentially a vampire mausoleum, with three humanoids encased in Plexiglas coffins. One re-animated, the aliens have no intention of being poked and prodded in a scientific autopsy. The exceedingly vivacious Mathilda May plays the seductress alien, who’s able to suck the souls from humans distracted by her nude outer shell. At some point, and I’m not sure where it is, “Lifeforce” turns into a zombie flick with the undead taking over and destroying London. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? “Lifeforce” was directed by Tobe Hooper (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”), co-written by Dan O’Bannon (“Alien”), scored by Henry Mancini, effects coordinated by John Dykstra and it co-starred Colin Firth, Patrick Stewart and Frank Finlay. The film was cut and tinkered with savagely for the American release (both versions are available here) and has been relegated to footnotes since then.  The Blu-ray package adds look-back interviews with May, Railsback and Hopper; Hopper and his makeup-effects designer’s commentary; a vintage making-of featurette; and a stills gallery.

With the nearly simultaneous release of Joe Dante’s “The Howling” and John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London,” 1981 turned out to be huge year for lycanthropes. The common denominator was the effects wizardry of Rick Baker, who was required to hand over the reins “Howling” to protégé Rob Bottin when production of “American Werewolf” finally launched. The dramatic transformation of man to wolf — seemingly in real time – in both movies was deemed sufficiently amazing for the Motion Picture Association to inaugurate a new special-effects award category, which went to Baker for “American Werewolf.” The new visual opportunities allowed for a reinterpretation of werewolves in horror movies, from troubled canines to full-blown monsters. In “Howling,” Dee Wallace plays a TV reporter involved in a sting operation to capture the violent pervert who’s been harassing her. After being shot and killed by police, suspicions of something far more sinister arise when the fiend’s corpse disappears from the morgue. Traumatized by her part in the sting, the reporter takes her shrink up on his offer to recuperate at his seaside retreat in Mendocino. Not surprisingly, the type of therapy offered at the Colony isn’t quite what the doctor ordered. Dante and co-writers John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless – loosely interpreting Gary Brandner’s novel – have fun not only with the werewolf mythos, but also certain then-current trends in psychotherapy. “The Howling” turned out to be simultaneously dark, sexy, funny and violent, as well as widely imitated. The Blu-ray transfer looks and sounds excellent and the supplemental package is generous. The extras include two commentary tracks; interviews with Wallace, Winkless, stop-action animator David Allen, editor Mark Goldblatt and executive producer, Steven A. Lane, who used the success of “The Howling” to create a seven-title franchise; an amusing visit to locations; deleted scenes and outtakes; and a vintage making-of featurette. (Those already familiar with werewolf mythology and the Hidden Mickeys game at Disneyland might enjoy counting the film’s large number of obvious and subtle lupine references.) – Gary Dretzka

Gibsonburg
In the true heart of America’s heartland, the underdog movie against which all other such films are measured is “Hoosiers.” What happened to the Milan Indians in the 1954 Indiana State Basketball Championships is roughly what happened to the Gibsonburg Golden Bears in the 2005 Ohio baseball championships. The difference: Milan was less an underdog than Gibsonburg and baseball doesn’t offer the same religious experience in Ohio that basketball does in Indiana. While “Gibsonburg” contains certain melodramatic off-the-field conceits, the essential fact is the same. The town’s Division IV team was a lackluster 6-17 going into the playoffs, where they went 8-0. To say that the Bears didn’t believe in themselves would be an understatement. Until the playoffs, the highlight of the season was a trip to McDonald’s, compliments of the coach. Otherwise, most of the usual time-honored clichés apply, including the announcers’ role in driving the narrative during the crucial games. The sidebar story about how “Gibsonburg” got made is inspiring, as well. Writer/co-director/producer Bob Mahaffey had always dreamed of making a movie and, in Gibsonburg’s champs, he saw an opening. The movie wouldn’t cost much by Hollywood standards, but, even so, it took the help of 20 college interns to ultimately get the job done. For almost everyone in the cast and crew, “Gibsonburg” represented their first movie credit and the lack of experience shows on the screen. The exception is Cleveland native Lili Reinhart, whose Hollywood career has already begun. Among the first-timers is cinematographer Casey Smith. His images of rural Ohio in spring and several brilliant Midwest sunsets border on the breathtaking. – Gary Dretzka

Death by China
Peter Navarro’s intentionally alarmist documentary concerns this country’s startling imbalance of trade with the People’s Republic of China, a pseudo-communist country that mocks everything Marx and Engels put forward. While the country’s economy is booming and new millionaires are minted every day, factory workers labor under plantation conditions and peasants in the countryside starve. If anyone’s sharing the wealth, it isn’t the proletariat. “Death by China” describes how a free-trade agreement, approved in 2001 with bipartisan support in Congress, has allowed the PRC to siphon tens of millions of jobs from western countries by offering corporations a haven for cheap labor and tax avoidance. While this agreement has helped strengthen the bottom lines of countless American companies, it has also opened our doors to all manner of junk products, including drugs and toys made from toxic compounds. Not all of the products are inferior, of course, but most could have been produced here just as easily, if not nearly as cheaply. Navarro is more impassioned about the long-term damage being done to western economies, whose debts to a totalitarian government already are astronomical. His arguments are backed by the testimony of noted experts and other interested parties, while the other side’s points are noticeably absent. The biggest drawback to the documentary is the overall tone, which sometimes borders on the hysterical. The DVD includes a director’s statement and commentary, a music video of the theme song and the short, “Death by Chinese Junk.” Even if the film is short on solutions, viewers forced to learn how to speak Chinese in 10 years can’t say they weren’t warned. – Gary Dretzka

Dino King: Blu-ray 3D/2D
Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness: Good Croc, Bad Croc
While watching the 3D adventure from Korea, “Dino King” (a.k.a., “Tarbosaurus”), I was reminded of the hoopla that surrounded the 1998 release of “T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous” on IMAX 3D. At the time, the format was still in its infancy as a vehicle for commercial exploitation. Its use was pretty much limited to theaters attached to museums and other educational facilities. At 45 minutes, “T-Rex” fit what was then believed to be the limitations of viewers’ ability to comfortably endure 3D in theaters. For IMAX, too, it signaled an attempt to convince museum officials to book 3D movies that weren’t strictly about fish, rocket ships or roller-coasters. Even though “T-Rex” told a story that combined entertainment, high-tech thrills and education – it was set at a site for paleontological research — some facilities still deemed it insufficiently scholastic. Their loss became Hollywood’s gain, of course. Instead of having to put on ridiculously oversized glasses, on cue, “Dino King” can be enjoyed using normal-sized spectacles for its entire 88-minute length. It tells the Disney-esque story of a Tyrannosaur, from its emergence from an egg to adulthood, without skipping over the cold realities of life among a large and varied population of predators. What would have been considered mind-blowing in 1998 is routine in 2013, both in technical terms and story-telling. Nonetheless, even in Blu-ray 2D, there’s no reason to think dino-nut kids wouldn’t fully enjoy “Dino King.”

“Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness: Good Croc, Bad Croc” is a co-production of DreamWorks Animation and Nickelodeon, where these half-dozen episodes first appeared. Po and the Furious Five — Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Crane and Viper – continue to battle for peace, justice and the Chinese/American way. The titles from the 2011-12 season include the title short, “The Princess and the Po,” “Chain Reaction,” “Bad Po,” “Jailhouse Panda,” “Father Crime” and “Po Fans Out.” FYI: the third DreamWorks feature is scheduled for 2015. – Gary Dretzka

Sundance Channel: Rectify
HBO: Web Therapy: The Complete Second Season
FX: Wilfred: The Complete Season 2
Drop Dead Diva: The Complete Fourth Season

There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when every new television season was greeted with anxious anticipation. That was when the broadcast networks presented new shows worth the wait, of course. Today, cable subscribers look forward to each new series as possibly being something very special, especially when they’re associated with a producer or star of a big hit. “Rectify,” the first original series on Sundance, shares producers and writers with such quality shows as “Breaking Bad,” “Justified,” “CSI,” “Nurse Jackie” and “Luck.” Like other cable series, “Rectify” started slow, allowing viewers to find it and figure out what was happening and what characters to follow. The protagonist of “Rectify” is Daniel Holden, a young man who’s spent the last 19 years on Death Row in the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend. Whether he’s innocent or not, Holden’s conviction was vacated due to new DNA evidence. After all that time, Holden’s naturally a bit confused about life in 2013, even in a small Southern town where getting a new restaurant franchise is considered to be progress. Needless to say, in such places, being freed on a technicality is tantamount to being having an asterisk attached to your name on every public document you’ve signed. Holden’s most compelling characteristic is his intellectual curiosity, which he acquired in prison and isn’t ashamed to show off. His distant personality does take some getting used to, however. The series has been renewed for another go-round, this time for 10 episodes. The DVD includes several backgrounders and interviews with cast and crew.

Of all the former “Friends,” I think it can be safely argued that Lisa Kudrow has had the most interesting post-show career. After playing the stereotypically ditzy blond on “Friends,” she has tackled several movie and TV roles that not only have tested her acting chops, but also toyed with our memories of Phoebe Buffay. Her collaborations with Don Roos — “Happy Endings” and “The Opposite of Sex” –have demonstrated her range as an actor in quirky independents. “Web Therapy” offers her another opportunity to showcase her intelligence. The clever idea behind the series has her Dr. Fiona Wallice changing the way psychiatrists interface with their patients in the digital age. Instead of conducting 50-minute sessions cluttered with “psycho-babble,” she limits her Internet meetings to three minutes, with much of the time spent discussing her own problems. The Showtime series began its life on the Internet, as webisodes often featuring A-list stars in improvised conversations. In Season Two, Wallice was called upon to show her support for her inattentive husband’s political campaign, while also being made aware of his indiscretions. Kudrow co-created the series with Roos and Dan Bucatinsky (“Scandal”). Among the guest stars are Victor Garber, Rosie O’Donnell, Alan Cumming, Conan O’Brien, Minnie Driver, Meryl Streep, Courtney Cox and Lily Tomlin.

Of all the offbeat characters on television, Jason Gann’s thoroughly unlikable shaggy dog, Wilfred, may be the most delightfully obnoxious. Dressed in a moth-eaten costume, Wilfred fulfills everyone’s worst fear of a bad neighbor or the dog belonging to a bad neighbor. The FX show’s titular protagonist, Last season, Ryan (Elijah Wood), was asked by his pretty blond neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), to dogsit Wilfred whenever she’s away from home. Ryan’s a seriously depressed fellow, who not only treats the dog as if he were human, but also his therapist. In return, Wilfred enjoys manipulating Ryan and picking at his neuroses like they were scabs. The problem, of course, is that Ryan is the only person on Earth who sees Wilfred as a costumed dog. To everyone else, he’s merely a large and occasionally bothersome pet. That we also accept Wilfred as something other than a large pet requires surprisingly little suspension of disbelief. In the second season, Ryan makes a fresh start with a real job and a new girlfriend. It gives Wilfred more ammunition than he needs to torment Ryan. Look for Robin Williams, Steven Weber, Mary Steenburgen, Chris Klein and Dwight Yoakam in guest-starring roles.

Reports of the death of Lifetime’s legal dramedy, “Drop Dead Diva,” were rampant last January. Much to the chagrin of fans who tuned in for the cliffhanger season finale, the speculation turned out to be true. Their prayers were answered a few weeks later when the cable channel and Sony Pictures Television announced that they’d agreed on a cost-cutting strategy that would save the still-popular show for one more season, at least. Brooke Elliott stars as Jane, a plump lawyer who dies saving the life of her boss. She’s rewarded by having to accept the soul of a fashion model killed before her time in a car accident. During the course of the show’s four-year run, the model has gradually learned what it takes to be a solid citizen with a gracious heart, while still being able to take advantage of being pretty. Series creator Josh Berman rightly describes the show as a “cross between ‘Freaky Friday’ and ‘Heaven Can Wait.’” Guest stars include Joan Rivers, Kelly Osbourne, Serena Williams, Star Jones and Valerie Harper. The DVD adds outtakes and 14 deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Justin Bieber: Always Believing
Apart from becoming a world-class media brat and road menace, Justin Bieber continues to be one of the most valuable entertainment properties in the world. As a publicist remarks in “Justin Bieber: Always Believing,” he’s become a one-man brand. I don’t get the Canadian singer’s appeal, but, then, I don’t have to understand it. Millions of 12-year-old girls can’t all be wrong. “Always Believing” doesn’t contain any original music or direct interviews with the superstar. Instead, it’s comprised of material in the public domain gathered on red carpets, at press conferences and interviews with such kindred spirits as boy band Mindless Behavior and rapper Lil Twist. Testimony from Usher, Drake, Sean Kingston and Nicki Minaj is included, as is romantic gossip. If nothing else, “Always Believing” might help parents understand what’s going on in the minds of their Beliebers. – Gary Dretzka

British Royal Children of the 20th Century
Unlike every news anchor, talk-show host and gossip columnist on the planet, I don’t have the vaguest clue as to when the Edward and Kate’s royal bundle of joy is supposed to arrive. If it’s a baby of the male persuasion, it won’t take long before someone brings up the possibility of marriage between the newly minted prince and Kim Kardashian’s daughter. That would raise eyebrows, would it? “British Royal Children of the 20th Century” celebrates the arrivals of England’s new princes and princesses throughout the last century via newsreels and other archival material. The narrators suggest that, throughout the 20th Century, the arrival of a new royal child in Britain unified the nation and strengthened the affinity of the British people with the monarchy … not to mention, sell commemorative plates and other souvenirs. Among the royals surveyed are Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, Edward Duke Of Kent, Princess Alexandra of Kent, Prince Michael of Kent, Prince Richard: Duke of Gloucester, Prince William: Duke of Gloucester, Prince Charles, Viscount Linley, Lady Sarah, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, Prince Edward, Prince William, Prince Henry (Harry), Princess Beatrice, Princess Eugenie, Peter Phillips and Zara Phillips. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful: Blu-ray
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters: Unrated Cut: Blu-ray
In a Texas Death Match pitting witches and zombies, my money would be on Wiccan Nation every day of the week. With the exception of the amped-up undead in “World War Z,” it takes most zombies an eternity to get from one side of the ring to the other. And, forget about asking one to climb to the top of a turnbuckle or attempt a flying suplex. Witches, by comparison, are able to turn their opponents into a toad or fly circles around them on their broomsticks. Witches are everywhere in “Oz the Great and Powerful” and “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” … good ones, evil ones … pretty ones and grotesque ones. Unless one considers Lazarus to be the first zombie, witches have been casting spells and avoiding persecution from religious fanatics many centuries before novelist William Seabrook introduced zombies to American readers in 1929 and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston began reporting on vodoupractices in Haiti in the 1930s. Disney’s hugely expensive and often quite spectacular “Oz the Great and Powerful” serves both as a prequel to MGM’s beloved “The Wizard of Oz” and a pastiche of characters and themes from all 12 of the books in L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” series. Sam Raimi’s film takes place 20 years before the events in “The Wizard of Oz,” but the framework is essentially the same. James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a fast-talking magician, con artist and chronic womanizer in a circus that travels through the Midwest. After seducing the wife of the troupe’s strongman, Diggs hitches a ride on a hot-air balloon to make his escape. Being Kansas, there’s always a tornado looming on the horizon. This one spins the magician to the Land of Oz, which, coincidentally, has been awaiting the arrival of a powerful wizard, as prophesized, in order to vanquish the Wicked Witches of the East and West, Evanora (Rachael Weisz), and Theodora (Mila Kunis).

Here, Diggs is accompanied in his mission by Glinda, the Good Witch of the South (Michelle Williams); aide-de-camp Finley (Zach Braff), a winged monkey; and China Girl (Joey King), a living, if slightly damaged porcelain doll. Not only are all of the primary characters doppelgangers of people we met earlier in sepia-toned Kansas, but, in their Technicolor incarnation, they also are related to characters we fell in love with in “Wizard of Oz.” It’s a neat symmetry that continues through the walk down the Yellow Brick Road and final showdown in Emerald City. What’s really terrific about “Oz the Great and Powerful” is the set design, which hardly could be any more brilliantly colorful and imaginative. In Blu-ray, the oversized flowers, imaginative backgrounds and amazing color palette promise to give anyone’s brand new HD3D a run for their money. The mainstream critics’ biggest complaints about the movie involved the casting of Franco, who didn’t live up to their expectations, and the same abundance of “heart” Judy Garland invested in the original. They may be right, but younger viewers won’t complain about casting decisions once the Wizard begins working his magic. Despite the knocks, the prequel did very well at the domestic and international box-office.

There are several must-see bonus features, including the immersive “Magic of ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ Second Screen Experience” and an app; “The Enchanting Characters and Creatures of Oz,” which describes the creation of the fanciful characters, from Munchkins and Tinkers to the flying baboons; “The Sounds of Magical Oz,” about the many amazing special sound effects; “Sleight of Hand: Zach Braff Puppet Theater,” in which the actor and voice of Finley explains his transformation; a Mariah Carey music video; bloopers; “My Journey in Oz,” a personal story produced and directed by Franco; “Mr. Elfman’s Musical Concoctions,”  an interview with composer Danny Elfman; “China Girl and the Suspension of Disbelief,” chronicles the evolution from the initial artwork and character design, to the on-set puppetry and, finally, through each stage of the visual-effects process, and an interview with voice-over actress King; “Before Your Very Eyes: From Kansas to Oz,” with production designer Robert Stromberg; “Mila’s Metamorphosis,” with lead makeup artist Howard Berger; and “Walt Disney and the Road to Oz,” in which Uncle Walt describes his fascination with the Land of Oz. I would also recommend that fans of the original and the prequel also check out Disney and Walter Murch’s 1985 live-action sequel, “Return to Oz,” which was based on the second and third entries in Baum’s series. While credited with being more faithful to the author’s vision than the MGM classic, its special effects were deemed too frightening for younger viewers. In hindsight, “Return to Oz” is a film that any Tim Burton fan could appreciate.

“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” shouldn’t be confused with previous interpretations of the Grimm Brothers’ frightening cautionary tale for children. There’s an element of horror to all of the versions, of course, but the gingerbread flavor ultimately overwhelms the cold reality of death, however justified and welcome. Like most of the Grimms’ stories, “Hansel & Gretel” began as a moralistic folktale and, after publication, would be watered down to protect the vivid imaginations of each new generation of children. Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola, whose best-known credit is the Nazi-zombie epic, “Dead Snow,” decided to dial up the horror and accept an “R” rating to filter out inquisitive youngsters. In fact, “H&G:WH” is a continuation of the original story, with Hansel and Gretel (Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton) now 15 years older and self-employed as heavily armed mercenaries. After a quick reminder of how the original folk tale ends, Wirkola locates the siblings in the scenic Bavarian town of Augsburg, where the sheriff (Peter Stormare) is intent on executing a beautiful young redhead, Mina (Pihla Viitala), for witchcraft. Children are being abducted from their homes and, while the sheriff is correct about witches’ involvement in the crimes, he’s about to hang an innocent person. The town’s helpless mayor hires Hansel and Gretel to determine if Mina is a wicked witch and, if not, find the true culprits and bring the missing children back alive. It doesn’t take long before H&G come face to face with the grand witch, Muriel (Famke Janssen), and discover what her coven has in mind for the kids.

For the next hour or so, “H&G:WH” is nothing but action … non-stop, CGI -enhanced, wildly gratuitous violence, and lots of it. The extended version of the movie adds even more of it. Wisely, Wirkola leavens the death and destruction with some inky black comedy. Hansel may be brave and virtuous, but, without insulin, he is no match for the diabetes he developed after being forced to eat the first witch’s candy. (Gretel was supposed to be saddled with an eating disorder, but that gag didn’t make the final cut.) In addition to the witches, who are alternately beautiful and grotesque, the siblings must contend with a hulking troll, who resembles a giant green ogre on DreamWorks’ payroll. Critics weren’t particularly kind to “H&G:WH,” but they were treating it as something it isn’t. Wirkola was using the fairytale as a springboard for horror and violence, not attempting to go all Freudian on the audience. Catherine Hardwicke tried that in the PG-13 “Red Riding Hood,” to no great reward, while Rupert Sanders’ revisionist “Snow White and the Huntsman” barely made back its very large nut. Today’s audiences are sufficiently savvy about the machinations of studio economics to understand what’s lost when movies shot to be enjoyed by people 17 and over are cut for PG-13. The firm “R” accorded “H&G:WH” left little room for confusion on the part of genre buffs as to what to expect. The word, “unrated,” sounds even better to them. One thing not in doubt is the excellent quality of the Blu-ray presentation in 2D and 3D. The supplements add “Reinventing Hansel & Gretel,” a 16-minute backgrounder; “The Witching Hours,” on the expansion of the witches’ roles; and “Meet Edward the Troll.” – Gary Dretzka

The Taste of Money
Anyone who’s seen Im Sang-soo’s erotic psychodrama, “The Housemaid,” will want to pick up a copy of “The Taste of Money,” his kinky melodrama about a Korean family choking on its own wealth. (The movies are subtlely linked by a character who’s grown from traumatized little girl to damaged adult.) The story unfolds largely within the confines of an impeccably designed mansion outside Seoul, where no secret is safe from the prying cameras of the controlling matriarch, Baek Geum-ok. One night she catches her husband, Yoon, having sex with the demure Filipina maid, who’s benefitted greatly from the older woman’s generosity. Geum-ok knows that her husband has been cheating on her for years, but not at home with someone she trusts. She acts out her anger and frustration by forcing Yoon’s private secretary Joo Young-jak to have sex with her immediately and on the spot. The nearly 40-year difference in their ages makes the young man more than a little bit queasy, but he succumbs out of obligation and his desire to keep a well-paying job. Also playing key roles are her daughter Nami, recently divorced because her spouse didn’t want anything to do with her sexually, and her ethically deficient son Chul. The family has been hiding Chul from authorities hoping to prosecute him for an illegal slush fund, at least until his parents can bribe the official in charge of the investigation. Once cleared of the charge, Chul enters into an even more devious scheme with a slick American investor. We hope that Young-jak can escape this nest of vipers alive, but the odds grow longer with every new outrage. The implication, of course, is that Korea’s most prominent families have gotten so rich so fast that they consider themselves to be beyond the laws of God and man. Men and women invited to join the elite crowd through marriage frequently are required to relinquish all pretenses of integrity and dignity. In a very real sense, “Taste of Money” is a cross between Shakespearean tragedy and Cronenbergian kink. It’s not without humor, either, but it’s as black as coal. The DVD comes with a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Vivan Las Antipodas
If there’s one question shared by all of the world’s children, it’s, “If I keep digging, where will I end up?” The simple answer for parents in North America, at least, was China. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t true, because it sounded within the realm of possibility. If it actually were possible to burrow through the Earth’s core to a point diametrically opposed to, say, Los Angeles or New York, chances are that you’d hit water before finding land. In fact, only 4 percent of the planet’s land is directly opposite, or antipodal, to other patches of land. Sorry, kids, but nothing on our side of the Earth is antipodal to China or anywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere. You’d be better off looking for kangaroos, seals or penguins than pagodas or pandas. Documentarian Victor Kossakovsky has probably been pondering the same nutty concepts since he was a boy growing up in Leningrad. Unlike most other adults, he was able to do something about his curiosity. Beyond learning where he would end up if he actually did own a magical shovel, Kossakovsky wondered if the very few antipodal locations on Earth shared anything beyond the shared curiosity of their residents.

The short answer to his question is “practically nothing.” Knowing this, however, doesn’t make his wholly delightful and extremely beautiful documentary, “Vivan las Antipodas” any less poetic. Kossakovsky (“Russia From My Window”) carries us – occasionally upside-down and inside-out – to such antipodes as Patagonia, Chile, and Russia’s Lake Baikal; an active lava field on the Big Island of Hawaii and Botswana’s Nxai Pan National Park; Miraflores, Spain, and Castle Point, New Zealand, which share watery borders, at least; the remote Argentine village of Entre Rios and pollution-choked Shanghai. Imagine a less frenetic “Koyaanisqatsi” and you’ll have an idea of the hypnotic appeal of “Vivan las Antipodas.” If they showed it in high school geography classes, teachers wouldn’t have to spend so much of their time convincing students to stay awake. My only gripe is that it’s not yet available in Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka

The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg
Reviled and ridiculed for much of his public life by conservatives, gay bashers and intolerant social observers, Allen Ginsberg was a man whose entire existence was informed by a passion for peace, religious and personal freedoms, and outward manifestations of love for people of backgrounds. An inarguably great poet, Ginsberg allowed himself to be used as a lightning rod for controversy and a handy go-to guy for journalists, who, like Dylan’s Mister Jones, could see something was happening, but didn’t know what it was. Actually, it may have been his great bushy beard that scared his detractors as much as his anti-war activism and promotion of eastern religions. At a time when poetry was being de-emphasized and anti-intellectualized in schools and in the media, his works continued to sell and he abashedly recited long passages on talk shows as different in tone as “The Dick Cavett Show” and “Firing Line,” with William F. Buckley Jr. He became the Poet Laureate of Everyone Else and, as such, was responsible for holding the fort until rap music could reignite the flame of verse in the minds of young Americans.

Watch or re-watch Jerry Aronson’s sunny bio-doc, “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg,” and you’ll come away with an even greater appreciation of Ginsberg, not only for his writings, but also as a humanitarian, pop-cultural icon and holy clown. Accused of being a communist by his detractors, his magnetism was feared, as well, by totalitarianism of all stripes. Days after being crowned King of May, in Prague, 1965, he was secreted out of Czechoslovakia and sent to London for, among other things, his “sexual theories.” The new edition of Aronson’s documentary is timed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Howl,” an immensely influential poem that captured the fears and anxieties of a generation about to break out in rebellion. First released in 1993, the documentary includes six hours of still-relevant bonus features, including footage of his memorial and 35 interviews with artists inspired by him. The documentary is broken down by decades and contains candid observations about his tortured family life, acceptance of being gay, role in the Beat and hippie movements, and mellower years spent as an educator and representative of international peace and freedom. It’s a terrific film about a man many of us think we know everything about, but don’t. Besides interviews with such artists as Joan Baez, Beck, William Burroughs, Philip Glass, Abbie Hoffman, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Ed Sanders, Patti Smith, Hunter S. Thompson and Andy Warhol, there’s a making-of feature; scenes with Bob Dylan and Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac’s grave, Burroughs and Ginsberg at Naropa University and Neal Cassady and Ginsberg at City Lights Bookstore; the making of the music video, “A Ballad of the Skeletons”; a guided tour of an exhibition of his photographs; and excerpts from “Scenes from Allen’s Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit,”  by Jonas Mekas. – Gary Dretzka

Absolute Deception
Academy Award-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. didn’t need to travel all the way to Australia for his role in “Absolute Deception.” He could have phoned in his performance from Los Angeles and no one except the cinematographer would have noticed. But, then, given the material, a hologram could have done just as well as any in-the-flesh actor. Less exciting than most episodes of “Hawaii Five-0,” Brian Trenchard-Smith’s non-thriller follows a dogged FBI agent’s pursuit Down Under of a filthy-rich international criminal, who’s under house arrest, but largely untouchable in his Gold Coast digs. A pinkie finger left behind in a shootout provides the agent with the first big break in his pursuit. It presumably was blown off the hand of an American criminal, declared dead two years earlier, who was swimming with the bigger fish. The person with the missing finger was married to an Australian investigative reporter, who’s stunned to discover not only that he’s alive, but also quite openly married to another woman. The FBI agent (Gooding) gets almost no support from the Aussie cops, so he joins forces with the reporter (Emmanuelle Vaugier), who, of course, could be mistaken for a fashion model. Even though the good guys always seem to be one step behind the criminals — until there’s 10 minutes left in the movie, anyway – it isn’t difficult to figure out why they can’t make any headway in their investigation. Everything from the sound effects to the chase scenes are amateurishly executed, though, so why not the script? Gooding’s become a brand name in straight-to-DVD crime pictures, but a few more stinkers like this could threaten his status with viewers willing to lower their standards for some quick-and-dirty action. – Gary Dretzka

Fred Won’t Move Out
There are few more perplexing decisions for an adult son or daughter to make than determining when, or even if a parent would do better in a facility for assisted living than in their longtime home. It is especially taxing if the parent isn’t already completely helpless or in need of constant care. Richard Ledes’ heart-wrenching family drama, “Fred Won’t Move Out,” tackles a predicament just that difficult. Because the movie was shot in the house in which his own family resided for many years, it’s fair to assume that Ledes drew from memory on a similar decision. Even so, “Fred Won’t Move Out” fails to offer viewers any answers, solutions or insights into how they might benefit from watching the movie. Elliott Gould is fine as the title character, whose intentions are known going into the movie. Fred may not always be “present,” but he is in better shape than his wife, Susan (Judith Roberts), who’s clearly in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s. She, at least, would be better off in the kind of nursing home their middle-age children can easily afford. Carol and Bob (Fred Melamed, Stephanie Roth Haberle) are already footing the bill for a full-time guardian and frequent music therapy, but the son, especially, is anxious to put both parents in a facility nearer to him, in Manhattan, on separate floors. Accompanying them Upstate for a brass-tacks meeting with Mom and Dad is the woman’s sweetly precocious pre-teen daughter, cloyingly referred to “Captain” or “The Captain” throughout the movie. The nurse, Victoria (Mfoniso Udofia), seems to have a firm grasp on the situation, but has her hands full caring for two sick people. When Carol and Bob arrive, however, Victoria is treated like a go-fer or maid.

Ledes lays all of the details out in a manner that almost demands that we don’t take sides. It’s easy to appreciate the points being made by all of the characters, including Bob, whose dispassionate manner does nothing for his likability quotient. If he were bullying his sister simply to sell the house and use the proceeds to help his stagnant company, we’d have a villain. That doesn’t seem to be the case, however. The rural house is peaceful and beautiful, and Fred probably could remain there, waiting for “when Susan comes home,” until he, too, descends into dementia. Neither does the film’s climax demand that we take a firm stand. At best, “Fred Won’t Move Out” could serve as an introduction to the kind of dilemma too many of us will face in the near future. Apart from savoring the acting, though, don’t expect to be handed any helpful answers. A far superior movie on roughly the same subject is Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her,” with superb performances by Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie. – Gary Dretzka

Knife Fight
Rob Lowe has played political strategists and candidates so often in the dozen years since he left “West Wing” that it’s almost impossible not to know what’s going on in his character’s head throughout “Knife Fight.” His familiarity in the role does, however, make Bill Guttentag’s indictment of the system a lot easier to take than it might have in the hands of a different actor. Neither as dead-on satiric as any given 15 minutes on “Real Time With Bill Maher,” nor as sharply written as Starz’ “Boss” or George Clooney’s “The Ides of March,” “Knife Fight” has made-for-cable written all over it. That doesn’t make it unwatchable, merely undernourished. Here, Lowe plays an experienced strategist in demand for his ability to scrub the dirt off of candidates when they fall into the muck. Fortunately, for his Paul Turner, it’s difficult for opposition candidates to assume the moral high ground, while they’re wallowing in the mud alongside his flawed clients. In real life, a really good scandal typically leads to a resignation and another four years is required for the public to forget what all the fuss was about, especially if the successor is a less gifted public servant. Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford are on the comeback trail already. Gary Hart could have been president – and a good one — if he hadn’t dared the press to uncover an affair he was having, but disavowed. The Colorado senator so wanted to be seen as a Kennedy surrogate that he failed to recall how deeply buried were the secrets of JFK and RFK in their lifetimes. His crime was hubris, not a roving eye.

In “Knife Fight,” a different question is asked: all things being roughly equal, should a strategist allow a sinner to sink of his own weight or choose, instead, to spin those defects in a way that the lesser of two evils gets the most votes? That’s what Paul asks his young team of aspiring strategists when they begin to voice their doubts about their personal role in the political charade. The rewards for overcoming bad press and other adversity can be immense, after all. As we see here, the price the media pays for scaring off decent politicians, with the publication of minor indiscretions, is a pool of opportunists too stupid to come in from the rain. Among the well-known names adding their various assets to the project are Jamie Chung, Julie Bowen, Richard Schiff, Eric McCormack, Carrie-Anne Moss, Saffron Burrows and David Harbour. – Gary Dretzka

The Manson Family: Blu-ray
They are the crimes that prevent some Americans from sleeping easily, even four decades after they were committed. It’s been just that difficult to erase the memory of what the followers of Charles Manson did in his name in 1969. If you think coverage of the recent death of Richard Ramirez, responsible for the “Night Stalker” murders, was overblown, wait until the 78-year-old Manson meets his maker. Perhaps, if Charles Manson had died in the gas chamber in the 1970s, as intended, his face wouldn’t still appear on shirts, record jackets, walls and posters seen around the world. His only rival in this regard is Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary whose martyrdom was assured when the CIA helped the Bolivian army capture and murder him. If you don’t believe me, count the number of hitchhikers you see on your next long car trip. In 1968, you would have seen hundreds of young men and women looking for a free ride. Two years later, even on University Avenue in Berkeley, there were virtually none. In neighborhoods where doors had always been left unlocked and windows left unhinged, even at night, dead-bolts were installed by the dozens. Then, just when middle-class homeowners began to feel safe again, the Night Stalker convinced them otherwise.

Jim VanBebber’s hugely transgressive 2003 horror film, “The Manson Family,” has been released into Blu-ray as a reminder of just how ferociously expansive Manson’s anarchic vision actually was. In doing so, the filmmaker recalls him as a vicious state-raised punk who appeared at precisely right time and in exactly the right city to make a mark he wouldn’t otherwise have enjoyed. Without the drugs and large number of runaways attracted to California’s Promised Lands, he might not have found a ready audience for his quasi-religious ramblings and music. Manson may be the central character in the movie, but it’s his acolytes that drive the action. Even as there’s no doubt of his ability to serve as a father figure to the waifs – alternately compassionate and authoritarian — he displays little of the hypnotic charisma widely attributed to him. The family members are portrayed as hyperactive zombies who only come alive in the presence of their master. Add strong doses of LSD and crystal meth to the mix and they were putty in Manson’s hands. The actors playing the Manson women are so convincing, it’s possible they were cast from auditions held at a hospital for the criminally insane. Indeed, for most of the key players, “The Manson Family” would be their only credit.

It can be argued that 44 years later, some of Manson’s family members, at least, have done their time, been satisfactorily rehabilitated and no longer are threats to society. Frightened of repercussions in the media, however, the California parole board has routinely rejected their appeals. Even when Susan Atkins was so wracked with cancer that she couldn’t have harmed a mosquito, the board held course. Tex Watson and Bobby Beausoleil, depicted here as the out-of-control monsters they probably were, have repeatedly been refused parole, as well. Manson has stopped trying, preferring to stay at “home,” in prison, and relish the attention still lavish on him. The Blu-ray edition includes an interview with Manson, deleted scenes, commentary and a making-of featurette that relives the butchery we’ve just watched in the feature. The package also includes the exclusive first release of the director’s similarly transgressive short, “Gator Green”; an interview with Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo, who supplies the voice of Satan in “Manson Family”; and “In the Belly of the Beast,” a documentary on the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival, where the rough cut was first shown. – Gary Dretzka

Clip
Even after the U.S. stopped raining rockets on Belgrade and forced the turnover of Kosovo to Albanian nationalists, President Clinton made sure Serbia would be under our yoke by imposing crushing economic sanctions on the country. They would be lifted years later, in 2005, but, in many ways, Serbia has yet to recover. Teenagers raised in the city, especially, have despaired over the possibility of finding meaningful work and careers. Their parents are too busy dealing with their own issues to pay close attention their kids. As we see in Maja Milos’ disturbing debut feature, “Clip,” teens with too much time on their hands and too few prospects will always find ways to make it through the night. In movies from England that looked back on social turmoil caused, in large part, the imposition of Margaret Thatcher’s anti-labor policies, we saw how disaffected youths turned not only to drugs, alcohol and abrasive music, but also political extremism, racism and violent crime. In “Clip,” Milos introduces us to a 14-year-old girl who lives in a crowded apartment with her brother and mother, who’s too preoccupied with the declining health of her husband to notice that her daughter is headed for serious trouble. Besides succumbing to the pleasures of drugs and alcohol, Jasna (Isidora Simijonovic) is well on her way to becoming a sexual anarchist and she’s not alone. Instead of paying attention in school, she and her friends kill time texting notes on their romantic encounters and showing off porn-inspired poses on their cellphones. There is no shortage of boys willing to sneak off to the lavatory for a quickie, either. Mostly apolitical, the teens react to adverse news about Serbia’s standing in the world by throwing desks and books out of the windows and waving the Serbian flag. Why not?

“Clip” reminded me immediately of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s “Kids,” a frequently startling movie in which disaffected New York teens hang out in a park, act out their sexual exploits, recklessly ride skateboards and wait for the next party to begin. The AIDS epidemic is still a concern outside their circle, but these kids act as if they’re immune. One HIV-positive boy, whose stated mission is to deflower virgins, can’t be bothered with observing safe-sex practices. “Clip” is as scary and cautionary, as “Kids” was in 1995 and continues to be today. If anything, economic prospects for teens everywhere are less bright today than they were then. Milos said that she would like “Clip” to serve as a wakeup call for parents whose own despair has blinded them to the problems confronting their children. It’s grim, but not entirely lacking in humanity and humor. Tellingly, when Jasna introduces her mother and aunt to her predatory boyfriend, they surprise him with their knowledge of his family and, even, how he behaved as a little boy. It’s possible that everyone lived in the same village at one time or, at least, the same neighborhood. It must have been a time when the future didn’t look quite so bleak, despite the war in Bosnia, and parents could believe their children would enjoy a better future than their present has turned out to be. Milos never romanticizes Jasna’s nihilistic behavior, but there are times when it looks like she’s having too much fun for someone so young. Dues will have to be paid, however. “Clip” is a remarkable film – perhaps, even, an important one — but it’s clearly not for everyone. The DVD adds an interesting interview with the writer/director. – Gary Dretzka

A Labor of Love
Way back in 1976, before home-video recorders changed the way people watched pornography, a clever little documentary was shot, describing exactly the wrong way to introduce hard-core sex into a low-budget independently made movie. “Deep Throat” had already proven that mainstream audiences would sample, at least, a XXX movie if it contained a linear plot, an identifiable hook and male characters who didn’t wear their socks or a Lone Ranger mask to bed. The in-theater experience would soon lose its luster, but, a few years later, VHS would provide a delivery system for the masses. (Beta refused to license its technology for use by pornographers, thereby adding several nails to its coffin.) In chronicling the creation of “The Last Affair,” a movie artificially larded with gratuitous sex scenes, Robert Flaxman and Daniel Goldman’s “A Labor of Love” can be seen today as a missing link between “Deep Throat” and the events described in “Boogie Nights.” As written, “The Last Affair” was intended to be a saucy tale of a brothel that specializes in servicing the desires and fetishes of women, exclusively. Before things got rolling, however, investors demanded of writer/director Henri Charr that he include as many sex scenes in the movie as possible. The cast for “The Last Affair” was already in place when the order came down. (It included mostly theater- or Second City-trained Chicagoans, including Jack Wallace, Ron Dean, Del Close, Betty Thomas and William J. Norris.) With extraordinary access to the set and actors, the documentary makes it exceedingly clear how the insistence on hard-core sex threw the cast off its game, practically traumatizing the women for whom “The Last Affair” would be their first and last credit. (Thomas and Close were not among this group, alas.) Neither had Charr, an Assyrian who was born in Iran, any experience making porn. He professed a fascination with prostitutes and brothels, but was a novice when it came to committing sex acts to film.

So unaccustomed to performing in flagrante delicto, as it were, at least one of the male leads remained unable to perform sexually for hours and had to be replaced by a stunt-double. To save money, the son of the man in whose mansion the movie was being shot was recruited for the arduous task. One of the women actors had fallen in love shortly before the movie was about to begin shooting and begged off her sex scenes. Another woman couldn’t stomach making love – however fictional – with her acting partner that she pitched a fit on camera. (The actor wasn’t fond of her, either.) Meanwhile, Charr continued to perform his duties as if he was still making an arthouse attraction. It’s all pretty hilarious and, at 67 minutes, “A Labor of Love” never outstays its welcome. It contains much nudity and simulated sex, neither of which is particularly stimulating, and the filmmakers play it straight, as well. The documentary drew positive reviews before disappearing. The DVD adds a recent Q&A with Flaxman.

As for “The Last Affair,” it would receive a momentary release – sans the sex scenes and with a “R” rating — in a theater purchased by the producers for that purpose. In a review that would far outlive any memory of the movie itself, Roger Ebert called it “an appallingly bad movie – so completely bankrupt in ideas, in characterization, in simple common sense that it’s little wonder its makers bought a theater to get it shown. The movie is barely 90 minutes long, and yet so many of those minutes creep past with such excruciating stupidity that the film seems almost epic in length – an epic of boredom.” Too bad it wasn’t included in the DVD package. Anyone looking for a different take on porn history ought to pick up a DVD copy of John Byrum’s 1974 period dramedy, “Inserts.” In it, Richard Dreyfuss plays a washed-up director of silent films in desperate need of a paycheck in the ear of “talkies.” He finds an opportunity making cheap and dirty sex flicks. “Inserts” also stars Jessica Harper, Bob Hoskins and Veronica Cartwright. It was rated “X,” when the distinction meant something.  – Gary Dretzka

The Monk
Ever since the Internet turned movie criticism into a spectator sport, the value of blurbs on advertising material has decreased to the point where they’re meaningless. Imagine, though, if you were to pick up a DVD copy of “The Monk” and saw quotes from Lord Byron and the Marquis de Sade praising the movie’s source material? While doing some homework on Matthew Lewis’ notorious gothic novel of the same title, those names certainly caught my eye. Published in 1796, it created a stir in its depiction of a pious Capuchin friar’s losing battle with Satan and several of the Church’s top-10 mortal sins. The great French actor Vincent Cassell (“Black Swan”) plays Ambrosio, who, as an infant, was left at the doorstep of a Madrid monastery, to be raised under the strictest of conditions. As an adult, he became known far and wide for his stern and masterfully delivered sermons. One day, while hearing confessions, Ambrosio is confronted by a man whose terrible sins lead one to wonder if he’s possessed by the devil. In their discussion, the man is told that Satan can’t conquer anyone who refuses to listen to him. Apparently, the demon was eavesdropping, because he/she/it planted an orchard as ripe with forbidden fruit as the one in the Garden of Eden and dared the monk to take a bite … figuratively speaking, anyway. As in any good gothic novel, “The Monk” also includes ghosts and other cool supernatural stuff. Co-writer/director Dominik Moll (“With a Friend Like Harry …”) does a nice job re-creating the look of the religious institutions and atmosphere of dread found during the Spanish Inquisition. The novel contained far too many important characters and too much intrigue to contain in a 101-minute movie, so something had to give. “The Monk” probably could have been scarier if a few more spooky gothic touches were added to the story. As it is, though, it isn’t bad. The DVD adds an informative making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Dead Man’s Burden
It is 1870 in the arid high desert of the New Mexico Territory and wounds from the Civil War have yet to heal among the settlers, an inordinate number of whom served the Confederacy at the bloody Battle of Chickamauga. Copper has been discovered in the region and mining interests are attempting to chisel landowners on the value of their property. Into the tinderbox that is “Dead Man’s Burden,” rides a man who folks there believe was a deserter from the army of the South and, therefore, eminently killable. (“I served,” he replies, when asked.) Wade (Barlow Jacobs) has heard rumors of his father being killed under suspicious circumstances and wants to make sure his sister, Martha (Clare Bowen), is safe. Wade fits the stereotype of the slow talking cowboy hero, who sits straight in the saddle and only shoots when provoked. When he does, though, he rarely misses. After being provoked and threatened by a couple of low-life veterans of Chickamauga, Wade dispatches them with swift precision. He finds his sister married to a slimeball opportunist, who brags about killing his father-in-law and other people who got in his way. Martha doesn’t particularly trust Wade, but really is more interested in talking the copper money and running to San Francisco than retying the familial knot. In Jared Moshe’s first stab at writing and directing, he’s created a slightly non-traditional Western in the mold of “Meek’s Turnoff” and “The Ballad of Little Jo.” It’s long on dialogue, as these things go, and takes full advantage of New Mexico locations in the shadow of Georgia O’Keeffe’s beloved Cerro Pedernal. Far from being a Western in which a long, tall stranger rides in to save the damsel in distress, “Dead Man’s Burden” is full of secrets and Moshe is judicious in revealing what they are. The revelation here is the 24-year-old Aussie, Clare Bowen (“Nashville”), who looks a lot like Carmen Diaz and is nearly as self-assured. – Gary Dretzka

Enter the Dragon: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray 
PBS: The Black Kungfu Experience
Ninja III: The Domination: Blu-ray
Although it might be an exaggeration to call “Enter the Dragon” the “Citizen Kane” of martial-arts movies, its place on National Film Registry assures that it will be accorded no small degree of respect for generations to come. At a time when nearly every other such Hong Kong export was dismissed as “chop-socky,” mainstream critics hailed the Warners co-production as both a breakthrough for the action sub-genre and a sad reminder of the lost promise of Bruce Lee, who died before the movie was released. Even before the arrival of home video, “Enter the Dragon” earned a stunning $90 million at the international box-office. Its production budget was an estimated $850,000, a good chunk of which went to Lee and a diverse supporting cast that included John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Bob Wall and Ahna Capri. It was directed by American Robert Clouse and written by Michael Allin. If one knows where and when to look for them, there are fleeting glimpses of future martial-arts superstars Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, alongside Wah Yuen and Fat Chung. After his death, films containing archived images and homages would allow Lee’s legend to grow as large as those of any deceased rock stars. “Enter the Dragon: 40th Anniversary Edition” may be one of many editions of the kung-fu classic, but, to date, it’s technically the best, even better than the 2007 Blu-ray. The story, of course, remains the same. Lee plays a British agent sent to infiltrate the criminal empire of the evil lord Han (Shih Kien) through his annual international martial arts tournament. Like James Bond, Lee pretends to be doing one thing while accomplishing something else. In today’s parlance, the fight scenes are nothing short of “epic.” Lee takes on the best of the best, individually and by the dozens. In addition to previously released featurettes, the anniversary package contains a new documentary, “Bruce Lee in His Own Words”; an all-new introduction and interview with his wife, Linda Lee Cadwell; and featurettes “The Return to Han’s Island” and “Wing Chun: The Art that Introduced Kung Fu to Bruce Lee.”

“Enter the Dragon” represented Jim Kelly’s second appearance in a feature film. African-American martial-arts practitioners weren’t invisible in kung-fu movies and Blaxploitation flicks often featured fights scenes in which hands, elbows, knees and feet were the primary weapons against guns and knives. Although few in numbers, these actors didn’t emerge from a vacuum and weren’t apparitions within their own communities. “The Black Kungfu Experience” documents how important kung fu had become among urban audiences in the 1970s and how it’s maintained its appeal. The movie locates the junction of African-American and Asian cultures through the testimony of Ron Van Clief, Dennis Brown, Tayari Casel and Don Hamby, and serves as an interesting sidebar to Shout!Factory’s new “Enter the Dragon” package.

When exploitation junkies talk about movies that are so bad that they’re actually kind of fun, they’re referring to such absurdly inept productions as “Ninja III: The Domination.” So devoid of logic is this Golan/Globus production that the number in its title refers to a pair of movies it doesn’t resemble in the least: “Enter the Ninja” and “Revenge of the Ninja.” In it, a ninja warrior practiced in the art of ninjutsu (invisibility) for no apparent reason goes nuts on an American golf course, killing guards armed with 9-irons and a couple of business executives. When a pretty aerobics teacher, who moonlights as a telephone lineman, attempts to rescue him from an attack by trigger-happy police, she becomes possessed with his vengeful spirit. It manifests itself whenever Christie (Lucinda Dickey) comes into contact with one of the cops who pumped volumes of lead into his body. Apart from the scenes featuring Sho Kosugi, the fights are almost as credible as the aerobics scenes, which are mostly shot from behind a phalanx of women’s asses. (Dickey had starred in the “Flashdance” ripoff, “Breakin’.”) At best, it offers a fleeting sense of nostalgia for a time when headbands, tights and ankle warmers could stimulate the male population. Beyond that, “Ninja III” exists solely for its camp value. The Shout!Factory upgrade works pretty well, technically, and adds commentary with director Sam Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert. –Gary Dretzka

National Geographic: Killing Lincoln: Blu-ray
Picking up roughly where Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” ended, while also answering some lingering questions along the way, the National Geographic movie, “Killing Lincoln,” takes the “You Are There” approach to dramatizing history. Here, Tom Hanks assumes the role of narrator previously filled by Walter Cronkite. The research was supplied, in large part, by the best-selling 2011 book written by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Among the producers are Ridley Scott and his brother, Tony, who committed suicide last year while the movie was being developed. It doesn’t look anything like a typical Scott Free Production, however. According to Ridley Scott, what “Killing Lincoln” brings to the table is attention to historical detail, based on extensive research and cross-checking of theories presented as facts. Otherwise, most of what we see here is familiar from previous examinations of the great American tragedy. If not in the same league as Daniel Day-Lewis, Billy Campbell does a credible job as Lincoln. As the rakish fiend, John Wilkes Booth, Jesse Johnson naturally is allowed to monopolize the spotlight, though. Oddly, the only weak spot in his performance occurs while impersonating Booth in “Richard III,” one of the great roles in the theater. O’Reilly appears in one of the featurettes, explaining his rationale for writing the book. The Fox blabbermouth says that he wanted to showcase a time in American history when greatness could come to the fore and politicians came together in furtherance of an important cause. The irony, of course, is that O’Reilly’s angry, confrontational style is one of the primary reasons our political system has ceased to work. — Gary Dretzka

Syfy: The Philadelphia Experiment: Blu-ray
If the title of the latest Syfy epic of destruction sounds familiar, it’s because “The Philadelphia Experiment” was first used in 1979, for a book by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore, and a pair of films in 1984 and 1993. It refers to a secret government project, which, in 1943, attempted to create a cloaking device that would make warships invisible. The Navy denied the existence of any such experiment and, as yet, no one has found evidence to substantiate the rumors. Nonetheless, the Pentagon has a pretty poor record on the dissemination of the truth, even a half-century after the fact, and we now have a fleet of stealth aircraft at our disposal. All of the movies add a time-travel wrinkle that allows for a sailor to escape the USS Eldridge and disturb the time-space continuum by making contact with descendants. The question here is why the ship has reappeared, coincidental to independent of research being conducted by contemporary scientists, including the requisite spike-heeled hottie (Gina Holden). “Philadelphia Experiment” is every bit as credible as dozens of other Syfy originals, which is to say, not at all. Kids just becoming interested in sci-fi will notice the holes far less than adults, who might remember that Michael Pare starred in the 1984 version, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Netflix: House of Cards: Blu-ray
TBS: Wedding Band: The Complete First Season
USA: Burn Notice: Season Six
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Caveman Cold Case/Death on the Railroad
PBS: Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge: Blu-ray
Fox Kids: Digimon Tamers
With the announcement of Emmy nominations right around the corner, it will be interesting to see how many are awarded “House of Cards,” Netflix’s first original series. “House of Cards” is a logically Americanized adaptation of the sporadic British mini-series of the same title. That “House of Cards” served as commentary on the transfer of power from Margaret Thatcher’s conservatives to the Labor party. Here, Kevin Spacey is wonderfully wicked as Majority Whip Francis Underwood. In his position the congressman can be Santa Claus one day and Ebenezer Scrooge the next. He’s prideful, holds grudges and doesn’t mind breaking his rules. This doesn’t mean Underwood isn’t challenged from time to time, only that he possesses the wherewithal to make things difficult for those who stand up to him. He personifies the adage, “Payback is a bitch.” Also in line for nominations are Robin Wright, as the politician’s fed-up wife; Kate Mara, as the reporter Underwood plays like a fiddle; any one of eight top-notch writers; and such directors as David Fincher, Carl Franklin, James Foley and Joel Schumacher. As things unfold in Washington, it’s never clear how or if Underwood is going to survive and, if he fails, how many people he’ll take with him. If you’re going to binge-watch any show this summer, “House of Cards” is it. While you’re at, plan to watch the British original non-stop, as well. You can thank me, later.

TBS’s “Wedding Band” combines elements of “The Wedding Singer,” “Wedding Crashers,” IFC’s “Z Rock” and FX’s “The League” into a pleasing, if lightweight bromance musical. Where “Z Rock” was about a New York band that plays a steady diet of kids parties, while dreaming of heavy-metal stardom, the Seattle musicians in “Wedding Band” are content to play a variety events arranged by a gorgeous party planner (Melora Hardin). Because the parties are attended by drunk and horny adults, it’s a target-rich zone for ill-advised hookups, pissed-off spouses and vulnerable bride’s maids. The musical selections range from not-bad originals to horrifying covers. After an hour of two-fisted drinking, no one except viewers is paying attention, anyway. The musicians are played by Brian Austin Green, Harold Perrineau, Derek Miller and Peter Cambor, with Jenny Wade and Kathryn Fiore added for eye candy. The 10 episodes collected here are the only ones you’ll ever see, because the show didn’t make the cut for a Season Two. Part of the blame belongs to the knucklehead who came up with the band’s name, Mother of the Bride.

The latest season compilation of 18 “Burn Notice” episodes represents what is expected to be the show’s penultimate season. That’s too bad, because it’s one of better shows on or off cable. (It could easily have gotten past broadcast network censors, if the producers had given it a shot.) As Season Six opens, Fiona is in jail and Michael still can’t distinguish between his friends and enemies in the CIA. It kind of ends that way, too. As usual, hard drugs and advanced military weaponry are involved. If much of what happens in “Burn Notice” seems impossible, or simply preposterous, the chemistry between the well-sketched characters saves the day. Look for double-crosses around every corner. The new season on USA has already begun.

Another batch of cold-case mysteries arrived this week from PBS’ fascinating “Secrets of the Dead” series, which is like “CSI” with archeologists and paleontologists. One of the new selections, “Caveman Cold Case,” finds Spanish investigators scrubbing and scraping the mud off 49,000-year-old Neanderthal bones that have been discovered in a cave system in the mountains of El Sidron. Markings on the bones suggest that cannibalism could have led to them being left in a chamber in the cave. Typically, new questions pop up as soon as old ones are solved. Neanderthals found a haven in the Iberian Peninsula, from the Basque region to Gibraltar. The researchers want to know if Neanderthals typically engaged in cannibalism and if it might have led somehow to their extinction. “Death on the Railroad” takes on a far more recent mystery. It involves a mass grave site holding the remains of young Irish immigrants who worked on a railroad connecting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The deaths took place in 1832, so several explanations are possible: 1) an outbreak of cholera, 2) extreme working conditions, or 3) murder, resulting in an official cover-up. There was great prejudice against Irish Catholic newcomers, who were treated as harshly as the Chinese laborers in the west. The results of the investigation, which spans Pennsylvania and Ireland, could bring some solace, at least, to the men’s descendants.

Even as 20th Century doctors were able to eradicate or prevent the spread of such serious diseases as polio, malaria, rinderpest and smallpox, new ones were waiting in the shadows to claim their unfair share of victims. Today, just as one strain of influenza is controlled, another begins its spread from chickens, ducks and pigs to humans. “Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge” investigates how people in underdeveloped portions of the world can share the benefits of countless millions of dollars in research and medical discoveries. Brad Pitt narrates the six-part documentary series, which was filmed in more than 20 countries. The series titles are: “Disease Warriors,” “Rise of the Superbugs,” “Delivering the Goods,” “Deadly Messengers,” “Back to the Basics” and “How Safe Are We?”

Outside of Japan, “Digimon Tamers” was presented as the third season of Toei Animation’s popular, if exceedingly complex anime, “Digimon: Digital Monsters.” The large number of characters roughly corresponds to the amount of collectible cards it markets to viewers. The more, the better, for the bean-counters. The Fox Kids series takes a different tack than it had in the first two go-rounds. Takato, Henry and Rika are three normal kids whose obsession with the Digimon game is heightened when the drawings on their cards come to life. The new “tamers” volunteer to save a Digital World plagued by evil Digimon Gods. The eight-disc collectors’ set, which encompasses all 51 episodes, adds a 36-page Character Guide Booklet and a gallery featuring more than 40 Villain Digimon sketches. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

El Sicario, Room 164
If the headlines emanating from Mexico’s bloody drug wars weren’t so startling, it might be difficult to believe the story told by a cartel assassin in Gianfranco Rosi’s chilling documentary, “El Sicario, Room 164.” It arrives on DVD just as Ariel Vromen’s well-received “The Iceman” is about to extend its theatrical run beyond a limited arthouse opening. Both movies are based on the matter-of-fact recollections of men who, when they weren’t killing people, led seemingly normal lives in their communities. Unlike Michael Shannon, who plays serial murderer Richard “Iceman” Kuklinski with his usual degree of sociopathic detachment, the assassin in “El Sicario” tells his own story in such a way as to think he might have graduated from the Actor’s Studio. (Kuklinski did the same thing, starting 20 years ago, in a series of HBO specials.) Because there is still a $250,000 bounty on his head, the hitman wears a black shawl over his face. This only adds to the aura of religiosity that is sometimes attached to the narco-terrorists, through an association with the La Santa Muerte cult. Rosi doesn’t mention whether the Mexican or American governments have placed a bounty on his head, as well, but it isn’t as if he didn’t deserve such a distinction. El Sicario traces his cartel roots to high school, when he was recruited to drive loads of drugs across the Rio Grande to the United States. His graduation present came in the form of admission to the Chihuahua police academy, which required cartel leaders to pull strings with law-enforcement officials on their payroll. He wasn’t alone. There were several dozen other cartel employees and wannabes in his class. The police uniform would give El Sicario easy access to the men and women targeted for kidnapping, torture and assassination, all of which he goes on to describe in graphic detail in the same Room 164 he once performed his chores. There’s no need to go into much more of it here, really, except to say that “El Sicario” will leave you with the feeling that everything being reported from Mexico is, if anything, understated. That’s because, for every headless body found on the side of a road in Veracruz, Juarez or Monterey, there are dozens more buried where no one is likely to find them.-Neither has the extent to which the victims, including DEA agents and informants, are tortured been fully reported in the U.S. In fact, the only time it’s possible to sense any hesitation or hint of remorse on El Sicario’s part is when he describes what was done to the women who displeased his “patron.” The most disturbing thing, however, is being told how pervasive and deeply entrenched the cancer of corruption actually is in Mexico. Americans who pay attention to such things may suspect as much, but El Sicario makes the reality sound even worse than we could have imagined. Guys like El Sicario and Richard Kuklinski make Luca Brazi look like Wee Willie Winkie, and that reality only adds to the urgency and intensity of these films. If you are still intrigued by the subject, sample Gerardo Naranjo’s chilling, fact-based “Miss Bala,” in which a rigged beauty contest leads to a frightening showdown between cartel bosses and drug agents. – Gary Dretzka

Warm Bodies: Blu-ray
In two weeks, Brad Pitt and Marc Foster’s vision of the inevitable zombie apocalypse, “World War Z,” will open in theaters around the world. Having seen more than a couple minutes of the movie, it’s safe to say that it takes liberties with zombie mythology that Boris Karloff, Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur and George Romero couldn’t possibly have envisioned. For one thing, the modern belief that the undead are as slow and plodding as crippled tortoises is laid to rest by the sight of swarming herds of zombies traveling at speeds that would impress Jaco Pretorius. Summit Entertainment’s surprise hit, “Warm Bodies,” also revised the formula, this time by suggesting that love is so powerful a force it’s able to reignite the fire in an undead heart. I don’t know how much money was spent on marketing — viral or otherwise — but it was enough to spark a $20.4-million haul in its first weekend at the box office. It certainly took box-office observers by surprise. In it, Kristen Stewart look-alike Teresa Palmer is part of a youthful assault team sent into a dystopian “dead zone” by her dad (John Malkovich) to help turn the tide of the zombie apocalypse. It isn’t long before the teenagers are overwhelmed by the zombies, but Julie is rescued by a zombie named “R” (Nicholas Hoult), who resembles Robert Pattison on his worst bad-hair day.

Neither of them is quite sure what causes R to recognize the place inside of him that once was reserved for emotional attachment. Maybe, in his past life, he had a thing for blonds. Apparently, though, the place in R’s heart that demanded he rescue Julie is shared by other zombies, who live in the abandoned airport outside town. Before long, other stirrings of life begin to be felt among the plague victims, who, unlike the more militant “Boneys,” aren’t beyond salvation, after all. Although it takes some jabs at “Twilight” and borrows an idea or two from “Tromeo & Juliet” and “Shaun of the Dead,” Jonathan Levine’s twisted little rom-com leans far more toward romance than parody. In this regard, “Warm Bodies” works very well. The gore-factor is pretty low, as these things go, and, because there’s no skin, the PG-13 rating is fair. The Blu-ray package adds a dozen bonus features, including commentary with Levine, Hoult and Palmer; deleted scenes and a gag reel; background and making-of material; Palmer’s home movie; and interviews with cast and crew. Admirers of “Warm Bodies” are encouraged to check out Levine’s previous features, “The Wackness” and “50/50,” which, while not horror, deal with similar themes. – Gary Dretzka

Identity Thief: Unrated: Blu-ray
If the movie that “Identity Thief” most closely resembles is “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” then it’s fair to view its marquee attraction, Melissa McCarthy, as the new John Candy. Ever since breaking through to the A-list as co-protagonist on CBS’ “Mike & Molly,” the onetime Illinois farmer’s daughter has been enjoying the spotlight in roles that call for boisterous, bawdy and slightly out of control women of a certain size. She plays essentially the same character in “Bridesmaids” and the upcoming “The Heat,” in which she plays a rogue cop to Sandra Bullock’s by-the-book FBI agent. Like Candy in “PT&A,” McCarthy’s character in “Identity Thief” spends the first half of the road comedy acting as if he’s the world’s worst traveling companion and is without other redeeming qualities. Her Diana spends the rest of the movie worming herself into the hearts of co-star Jason Bateman and everyone in the audience. Diana is exactly the kind of person who would steal another person’s identity, destroy their credit rating and drain their life savings, without displaying a single hint of regret or remorse. She steals the identity of Denver business executive Sandy Patterson (Bateman) by pretending to be a bank representative attempting to protect his account from fraud. Foolishly, Patterson gives her all the information she needs to print up fake credit cards and other ID. Her actions in Florida cause police in Denver to pick Patterson up and ruin his standing with partners in the firm he’s just joined.

In a move that only makes in the movies, the cops give Patterson a week to clear his name, by locating and bringing Diana to the city for trial. After several tussles with the belligerent felon, he manages to make the slippery con-woman his prisoner, at least temporarily. A lot of time would have been saved if he had only been able to buy her a one-way ticket for a non-stop flight to Denver. As Diana is quick to note, however, TSA agents probably wouldn’t allow two people with exactly the same name, address and Social Security number to board the same plane, even it were possible to purchase a ticket on a maxed-out card. This requires Patterson to hit the road with someone he can’t trust and who is insistent on remaining out of jail. Making his task even more difficult are skip tracers intent on bringing Diana back to Florida to stand trial on unrelated charges. Their presence raises the ante on mayhem, of course, which, for the audience, is a very good thing. This hybrid of road/buddy films is hardly an original premise – “Midnight Run,” “Due Date,” “The Guilt Trip,” come immediately to mind – and “Identity Thief” isn’t nearly as funny as “PT&A” or “Midnight Run.” It does, however, provide enough funny moments to recommend it as a rental or, for McCarthy’s fans, a purchase. For the sin of unloading a couple of f-bombs and suggestive sexual talk, “Identity Thief” was punished with an undeserved and completely avoidable “R” rating. What the unrated version adds to that is beyond me. If there were such a thing as a PG-16 rating, it would have passed without incident. The Blu-ray extras include a few making-of featurettes, gag reel and alternate takes. – Gary Dretzka

A Good Day to Die Hard: Blu-ray
If nothing else, the fourth hell-bent-for-leather extension of Warners’ “Die Hard” franchise proves one thing conclusively: audiences outside the United States will put up with leftovers long after American viewers have tired of them. This is especially true when it comes to movies starring such once –prominent action stars as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Nicolas Cage, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, John Travolta and, of course, Bruce Willis. It isn’t as if these gentlemen aren’t capable of good work, because, given the right ingredients, they can still produce a tasty dish. Even though almost no one turned up to watch him in Jee-woon Kim’s kick-ass “The Last Stand,” Arnold demonstrated how well he can still play his prototypical self. Travolta did a nice job in Pierre Morel’s “From Paris With Love,” and 2008’s “JCVD” may have been Van Damme’s best movie to date. Too often, though, the right ingredients are replaced with generic staples. Willis doesn’t seem to have worked up much of a sweat in the action-only “A Good Day to Die Hard.” Last year, though, he did outstanding work in “Looper” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” an offbeat indie comedy that did far better in the United States than overseas. If the major studios still insist on turning out warmed-over sequels to sequels – “Die Hardest,” “Expendables 3” and “National Treasure 3” have been announced – take your complaints to the United Nations. In the meantime, enjoy newly minted action star Liam Nesson for as long as his 61-year-old body still can absorb the pain.

Even though the storyline to “A Good Day to Die Hard” borders on incomprehensible – even ex-cop John McClane’s son, Jack (Jai Courtney), can’t figure out why his dad’s in Moscow – the non-stop action renders the narrative irrelevant. Apparently, the old man is in Russia to help his son, who’s in prison for murdering a mobster … or something like that. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Jack actually is working deep-cover for the CIA and John’s unexpected presence is doing him no favors. In fact, Jack is about to snatch a fellow prisoner, with important information about something that isn’t revealed until much later in the movie. The CIA isn’t the only party anxious to get its hands on the mysterious Russian plutocrat, Komarov (Sebastian Koch), and an intricately choreographed chase through Moscow (a.k.a., Budapest) sets up all of the carnage and mayhem to come. Curiously, since we know that Chernobyl is still radioactive as hell, much of the action takes place within the bowls of the crippled nuclear plant. Any fan of the series knows going into the movie that the weaponry will be state-of-the-art, dozens of cars and military vehicles will be sacrificed, an airplane or helicopter will crash, and the dialogue will be peppered with wisecracks and catch phrases. In this regard, anyway, this one doesn’t disappoint. The good news for more critical viewers comes in knowing that, at 98 minutes, it’s the shortest entry in the five-part series. The scenes actually shot in Moscow are fun to watch, as well. The Blu-ray includes the theatrical edition of “AGDTDH” and an extended version; seven deleted scenes; an hourlong, 15-part making-of featurettes; a 26-minute “Anatomy of a Car Chase,” which is as interesting as the movie, itself; several backgrounders; and preliminary artwork. – Gary Dretzka

In Old Arizona: Blu-ray
Perfect Understanding: Blu-ray
Compared to other Hollywood Westerns, before and since, “In Old Arizona” is far more significant for its place in cinematic history than any entertainment value it might still possess. Nominated for five Oscars, in the event’s second observance, the 1928 “oater” not only was promoted as the first “100% all-talking Fox Movietone Feature,” but also as the first “talkie” to be shot and recorded outdoors, on locations that included Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, the Mojave  Desert and the San Fernando Mission. It didn’t mark the first appearance of O. Henry’s “Gay Caballero,” the Cisco Kid, but it was the first movie in which he could be heard talking. The cowpoke-chorus interludes may have launched the era of singing cowboy, as well. The popularity of “In Old Arizona” at the box-office would inspire several big-screen sequels and serials; series on radio and television; a comic book; and countless references in books and comedy routines. As appealing as the character has always been, the Kid was, at best, an antihero. In Warner Baxter’s Oscar-winning portrayal he did things that would be considered beyond the pale for future cowboy heroes. It was, however, true to the author’s conception of the character.

After robbing a Wells Fargo stagecoach of its strongbox and returning a valuable trinket to a friendly barber, the Kid plays a game of cat-and-mouse with cavalry officer Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe), a Brooklyn native who’s infatuated with Cisco’s duplicitous Mexican girlfriend, Tonia Maria (Dorothy Burgess). “In Old Arizona” is being released simultaneously in Blu-ray and DVD, without features, and it looks and sounds better than it has in 85 years. The credits list Raoul Walsh as the director of record, but, because of a car accident that seriously damaged an eye, it is likely Irving Cummings (“Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl”) carried the bulk of the load.

After watching Cohen Media’s handsome digital upgrade of “Perfect Understanding,” a ruling-class melodrama starring Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier, I wondered how Depression-era Brits reacted to a movie that flew directly in the face of their economic woes. Sure, Hollywood produced plenty of movies in which the characters wore tuxedos and evening gowns as if they were uniforms and poverty could be overcome by breaking out in song and dance. It also made movies in which the sons of immigrants could work their way to the top of the ladder as gangsters, entertainers or athletes. It was also possible that their fresh-faced daughters could capture the fancy of a prince or mogul simply by appearing in a chorus line or selling cosmetics at a department store. In England, though, the likelihood of any child not of the manor born attending Cambridge or investing in a top hat and tails was close to zero. In “Perfect Understanding,” Swanson and Olivier play globe-trotting swells, so confident in their social position that they enter into something resembling an “open marriage.” They race boats and imbibe champagne in Cannes and Cote d’Azur, then pose for photographs in France and other world capitals as if to gloat that they can still afford such luxuries. Not surprisingly, Swanson’s pretty little heiress isn’t nearly as liberated as she pretends to be. Her reaction to the roving eyes of Sir Larry’s aristocratic sportsman causes him to fret over losing his one true love over a misunderstanding. With divorce and the birth of a baby looming on the horizon, they must come to grips with feelings that they would have resisted, otherwise. Even in a worst-case scenario, though, both knew they would land on their feet, anyway.

What recommends “Perfect Understanding” is the chance to watch Swanson and Olivier working at different stages of their careers and seemingly, at least, having fun doing it. For the devilishly handsome Olivier, Cyril Garner’s film would mark only his seventh appearance in a movie. Just 26, he had yet to become a box-office attraction in the United States. By contrast, the 34-year-old Swanson had long been a bona fide star and was close to curtailing her movie work entirely. (Her production company financed the film.) It also marked an early, if un-credited contribution by Michael Powell, who would go on to write and direct such celebrated films as “The Red Shoes,” “Black Narcissus” and “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” The Blu-ray includes two 20-minute shorts from the Mack Sennett catalog. – Gary Dretzka

Mosquita Y Mari
The love story at the core of Aurora Guerrero’s deeply affecting debut feature, “Mosquita Y Mari,” vividly describes how it feels to fall in love for the first time, at 15, and have one’s heart shattered before the euphoria has a chance to turn simply to happiness. Set in East Los Angeles, but absent all of the usual clichés of barrio life, the low-budget indie feature taps into the hopes, fears, aspirations and disappointments of teenagers, no matter their ethnic background. The young chicanas to whom we’re introduced in “MYM” are cognizant of the fact that their parents have struggled all of their lives to put them in a position where they can grab the golden ring and control their own destinies. When love comes to call, however, it shoves all other priorities aside, leaving little room for moderation or reason. Fenessa Pineda plays straight-A student Yolanda (a.k.a., Mosquita), who, if she stays on the straight and narrow path, could easily score a scholarship to a college of her choice. Far from being a nerd, Yolanda has plenty of friends and is able to balance her time in and out of school. Out of the blue, she’s asked by a teacher to help the new girl, Mari (Venecia Troncoso), adjust to the surroundings and get up to date with her classwork.

Mari acts tough and, at first, resists Yolanda’s attempts to help her with the lessons. Even if she clearly has experienced more of la vida loca in her first 15 years on Earth than most of their classmates, Mari’s shell isn’t as thick as she thinks it is. It doesn’t take long before the girls develop a sisterly relationship, with Mari also enjoying the role of mentor to her more naive friend. Inevitably, Yolanda develops a crush on Mari that is both thrilling and injurious to her GPA. Her parents fear that a boy is turning her head away from her studies and their only concern about Mari is that Yolanda is focusing too intently on improving someone else’s grades. Fate intercedes on their budding romance, causing a broken heart that, while painful, blessedly doesn’t last much longer than a few sad ballads on the radio. Guerrero stops just short of imposing a sexual agenda on the narrative, saving it from having to carry too heavy a load into the final scene or force an ugly confrontation with parents or peers. Guerrero and producer Chad Burris were rewarded for their efforts with a pair of nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards and another from the GLAAD Media Awards. The DVD adds a making-of featurette that focuses on their decision to add more than a dozen high school interns, from East L.A., to the crew and encouraging them to contribute their opinions to the project. – Gary Dretzka

A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951
So much has already been written, said and theorized about James Dean, it’s difficult to think of anything more to add to the legend of an actor “too fast to live, too young die.” For many years after his death, however, Dean’s sexuality was a subject broached only in non-mainstream publications and the underground gossip mill. Today, it’s widely accepted as fact that the onetime Indiana farmboy was bisexual, if not strictly gay, and may have used sex as a stepping stone to a career. While he wouldn’t have been the first actor to play the gay card, it wasn’t something that would be easily forgiven by readers of Photoplay and other fan magazines in the early 1950s. Matthew Mishory’s profile of the almost impossibly handsome 20-year-old – “A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951” – is informed by the recollections of close friends and associates, who, years later, would reveal their versions of the truth. While frank and forthcoming about this aspect of the Dean mythos, Mishory’s picture avoids anything that smacks of sensationalism or exploitation. Neither, does it ignore his liaisons with women.

Set in 1951, Dean (James Preston) is shown taking acting classes and partying with friends he made during his brief tenure at UCLA. Although he would be characterized later as a loner and a veritable spokesman for alienated youth, he didn’t mind hanging out in Sunset Strip watering holes or lying around the pool at homes in the Hollywood Hills and Palm Springs. He is portrayed as always having a serious work of literature in his hands and being able discuss the material therein without seeming pompous or misinformed. He loved the solitude provided by the desert and a beach on a cloudy day. By shooting color for black-and-white, cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah is able to contrast the storms inside Dean’s head with prevailing climatic conditions. The overall effect is heavy on noir, as filtered through an arthouse prism. It’s really quite beautiful. Dean was killed before he could leave us with a record of his most intimate thoughts and observations, but the liberties taken by Mishory as director and writer all seem within the realm of possibility. The DVD adds the short film, “Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman.” – Gary Dretzka

The Last Ride: Blu-ray
There’s no question of Hank Williams’ place in the pantheon of American singer-songwriters. No one did more to bridge the huge gap that separated “hillbilly” and top-40 radio stations in the post-war years and his songs continue to be recorded by artists with no other connection to Nashville than Williams’ legacy. He lived the life of an old-school country-music hero, but died miserably in the back seat of his Cadillac from heart failure brought on by abusing alcohol, pills and narcotics. And, as David Allen Coe once argued, “If that ain’t country, I’ll kiss your ass.” That, in itself, is the essence of “The Last Ride.” Having worked his way up from “a thousand different honky-tonks,” he could chew the fat with moonshiners and bluegrass pickers one minute and deliver country gold to hot-shot labels the next. (Tony Bennett’s cover of “Cold, Cold Heart” stayed on the pop charts for 27 weeks.) He became a star attraction at the Grand Ol’ Opry in 1949, but, three years later, was deemed persona non grata by the same august body.

Not much is really known about Williams’ final hours, except that he missed an important New Year’s Eve concert in Charleston, West Virginia, mostly due to poor logistics and worse weather. He expected to make a gig the next day in Ohio, but died on the road to Canton. On the ride from Alabama to those destinations, he was chauffeured by a teenager who had been enlisted at the last moment and was cautioned against missing the performances. Terrible weather conditions caused a chartered plane carrying Williams to Charleston return to Knoxville, where they checked into a hotel that catered to musicians. The singer was in terrible pain, caused by the spinal bifida that had been exasperated by being crunched up in the back seat of his car, and a doctor was called to treat the condition. The B-12 shots he was given contained morphine, but the official cause of death was a heart attack. Because so little is known about Williams’ last hours and what he might have said to people in Knoxville, the circumstances surrounding his death remain as intriguing as that of magician Harry Houdini.

The mystery and inaccuracies allowed director Harry Thomason and writers Howard Klausner and Dub Cornett to invent an admittedly fictional scenario, based on the known facts. There was no intent on the filmmakers’ part to create a biopic or for-the-record account based on new information. Henry Thomas does a nice job as Williams, whose pain is made palpable throughout the movie, as is his ability to charm women and children. Because Thomas isn’t required to sing, he can focus on his portrayal. Jesse James plays the teenage chauffeur, who’s recruited without his ever knowing how valuable his cargo actually was. The driver’s actions and background may be almost completely fictional, but the interaction between to the two men drives the narrative. The rural Arkansas locations and carefully chosen extras add much to credibility of “The Last Ride.” The musical soundtrack isn’t bad, even if budgetary considerations precluded getting the real thing. Without the songs, or prior knowledge of Williams’ accomplishments, the story told here could easily be dismissed as just another sad tale of wasted talent put to music. One can only hope that people attracted to great songwriting will continue to find his recordings – or check out the memorabilia on You Tube — and appreciate from whence it came.  The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

A Tribute to Ron Asheton
If the name, Ron Asheton, doesn’t ring a bell, it means that your knowledge of Iggy and the Stooges is either non-existent or limited to the snippet from “Lust for Life” in commercials for Royal Caribbean cruise lines. That’s OK … rock trivia may not be your game. Asheton, who died in 2009, at 60, was a founding member of the Stooges. He played guitar and bass, off and on, for the next 40 years, in groups of his own or at Stooges reunions. Not that lists matter for much in the rock ’n’ roll universe, but, for the record, Asheton was ranked 60th among the 100 greatest guitar players of all time. “A Tribute to Ron Asheton” was shot and recorded in April, 2011, at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater. It’s a terrific performance, typical of the Stooges’ contributions to the rock dodge, ever since they and the MC-5 practically invented Punk. Although he’s 106 years old now, Iggy doesn’t look, sound or act a day over 26 – split the difference for the correct number – as he prances and crawls around the stage, shirtless, or dives into the audience. Before the concert kicks off, Henry Rollins offers a long, rambling tribute to Asheton, which, while heartfelt, reminds us that talking about rock ’n’ roll robs the music of its soul. The band performs several of its biggest hits, as well as some lesser-known ditties. A string section, no less, even accompanies the Stooges for a few songs. All profits from the sale of the DVD go to the Ron Asheton Foundation, which supports animal welfare and music. – Gary Dretzka

The Mad Max Trilogy: Blu-ray
Almost 30 years before Mel Gibson began making headlines as a world-class jerk, instead of an A-list talent, he starred in a trilogy of action films that turned the exploitation industry upside-down and introduced Ozploitation to American audiences. Car-chase and hot-rod movies had been a staple of drive-in triple features for more than 20 years, already, but “Mad Max” dialed up the volume to a roar. Essentially a punk Western on wheels, George Miller’s first feature told the story of out-of-control bikers in a lawless section of Australia. Gibson plays a good cop, whose department is practically helpless against the mad-dog criminals. The countryside is practically barren and the two-lane roads are straight and long. The bikers make the Hell’s Angels look like solid citizens, outmanning and outgunning the police force. After they murder Max’s best friend, Goose, he is ordered to avoid another confrontation by taking a forced vacation. Instead of finding peace and relaxation, Max and his family find themselves in a hornet’s nest of trouble. When tragedy strikes, Max is forced to go rogue to avenge his loss. To level the playing field against the bikers, he borrows a supercharged Pursuit Special – the “last of the V-8 Interceptors” – from a gearhead in the motor pool. The stunt work and willingness to put women and children in danger made “Mad Max” stand out even against American action movies being churned out by Roger Corman and AIP. Made for $650,000, “Mad Max” would return $100 million at the international box office. It succeeded, despite the bonehead decision to dub the Aussie English into “proper” English. It died a quick death in its first go-round in American theaters. By the time anyone here was able to enjoy the unedited version of “Mad Max,” “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” already was released here. So as not to confuse potential viewers who hadn’t heard of “Mad Max,” it was simply titled “The Road Warrior.” If the post-apocalyptic setting was only hinted at in the first installment, there was no mistaking what had happened in the interim. Australia had nearly run out of oil and it was as valuable as gold to the outlaw marauders that ruled the Outback. It meant that the few refineries left were under constant siege and motorcycles had given way to souped-up dune buggies. When the good guys most needed a hero, Max practically appeared out of nowhere … not unlike the Lone Ranger. His interest was purely mercenary, however. Miller’s depiction of Max was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” and Joseph Campbell’s book, “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” It would be a huge international success, as well.

Released in 1985, “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” would benefit from Mel Gibson’s significantly raised profile and an influx of Hollywood money. It translated into grander sets, a significantly larger cast, an amped-up soundtrack and an unforgettable performance by Tina Turner. This time, Miller shared the directing duties with George Ogilvie, with Miller allowed to concentrate on the stunts and action scenes. Max is older and far less able to weather the ravages of the desert. He’s forced to prove himself once again, this time in the self-contained community of misfits ruled by Turner’s Aunt Entity. The machinery that keeps Bartertown alive is powered by methane produced by the feces of hundreds of pigs, but there are no replacement parts to maintain the infrastructure. For the amusement of the peasants, Max is forced to fight a giant gladiator inside the Thunderdome. When he refuses to kill the loser, he’s banished to the desert. Without supplies, he nearly dies. Instead, he’s rescued and nursed back to health by a community of feral children who live in a deep canyon, with a river running through it. Once again, Max rejects assuming the hero role, when the children decide to risk their lives against the forces of Aunt Entity. They want to travel to the big coastal cities to see what was lost to them in the apocalypse and decide for themselves if there’s hope for a renewal of civilization. It can be argued, I suppose, that the “Mad Max Trilogy” opened the floodgates for the dozens of dystopian epics that followed in its wake. (Miller said that his vision was inspired, in part, by L.Q. Jones’ cult favorite, “A Boy and His Dog.”) Choosing not to push their luck, Miller and Gibson turned their attention to projects outside Australia. I suspect that Miller has had to resist almost constant pressure from Warner Bros. and other potential investors for a third sequel. Finally, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is scheduled for release in 2014, with Miller at the helm and a cast of big-name stars that doesn’t include Gibson, although a guest or cameo appearance isn’t out of the realm of possibility. “The Mad Max Trilogy” compilation includes all three films in Blu-ray. It comes in a limited-edition tin box, with making-of features and commentary. On Blu-ray, it looks and sounds great. – Gary Dretzka

Lifetime: Liz & Dick 
If it isn’t on the drawing boards already, there will come a time when the disintegration of the marriage of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt will be dramatized, with Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift playing the reigning America’s Sweetheart and Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens or Demi Lovato cast as the evil temptress, Angelina Jolie. It wouldn’t matter much who portrayed Pitt, although the temptation of adding Justin Bieber or one of the Jonas Brothers to the mix could proof too great to avoid. Maybe, John Waters, Gregg Araki or Todd Haynes could be talked into directing it. The Pitt/Aniston/Jolie love triangle may never carry the same weight as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but, by now, it’s probably created as many sordid headlines and gossip. Lindsay Lohan wouldn’t have been most people’s choice to play Taylor – Olivia Wilde and Megan Fox also were considered – in Lifetime’s Thanksgiving special, “Liz & Dick.” Her trials, while difficult, simply don’t measure up to those of Ms. Taylor. Taylor’s love affair with her fans never really ended, while Lohan’s reputation took a nosedive when she became a petulant adult. It hasn’t gotten any better in the meantime, either. The decision to cast an actress so careless with the opportunities handed her on a silver plate never boded well for the made-for-cable movie. The ratings were decent, if not in line with its expensive market campaign.

While not a turkey, exactly, the rom-dram provided critics with enough fodder to draw analogies to the holiday’s entrée of choice. Playing alongside such accomplished actors as Grant Bowler, Theresa Russell, David Hunt and Tanya Franks, Lohan couldn’t help but come up short. Taylor remains far too majestic a presence for a mere pop star, however scandal prone, to embody. Lohan gives it her best shot, however, and there’s no denying her ability to throw a world-class tantrum. In any case, it wouldn’t have been possible to capture Taylor and Burton’s volcanic on/off relationship in an 88-minute flick and on a cable-TV budget. What it did allow, however, was a glimpse into a period in Hollywood history when studio chiefs first lost control of the star-maker machinery, with the tabloid press and paparazzi beginning to call the shots.

Both of the mega-stars clearly were addicted to fame and couldn’t bear playing second fiddle in the eyes of the public and press. They rarely did anything that wasn’t intended to draw attention to themselves, including the exchange of expensive gifts. Lohan and Bowler do a nice job dramatizing Taylor’s addiction to diamonds and Burton’s struggle with alcoholism. Given the time constraints, director Lloyd Kramer (“The Five People You Meet in Heaven”) and writer Christopher Monger (“Temple Grandin”) wisely chose to use the stars’ amazing 1970 “60 Minutes” interview to frame their necessarily limited story. Based simply on that wonderfully entertaining Q&A, a stenographer could write a passable screenplay without changing a word. (Available on You Tube, it is best viewed only after screening “Liz & Dick.” Then, rent “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) The DVD includes several on-set interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Charlie Zone: Blu-ray
Diablo
12 Rounds 2: Reloaded: Blu-ray
WWE Studios came up with a killer concept in 2009, when it demanded of a character played by wrestling “superstar” John Cena that he successfully complete a dozen “challenges,” as laid out by an escaped criminal, or his girlfriend would be killed. It was directed by the once-dependable Renny Harlin and set in New Orleans. The action was designed to appeal to the pro-wrestling crowd and audiences who enjoy a dollop of retribution in their gratuitous violence. It was easy to watch and presumably made enough money to justify a paint-by-numbers sequel. This time around, 6-foot-4 grappler Randy Orton plays paramedic Nick Malloy, who gets exactly the same sort of call from a vengeful psychopath (Brian Markinson). If Malloy fails to complete all 12 tasks, his wife will be killed and/or tortured. For a paramedic, Malloy is one tough SOB. And, although he’s only peripherally connected to the caller, he takes his mission seriously enough to keep us interested. “12 Rounds 2: Reloaded” is headed for its natural destination on the direct-to-DVD shelves, so it isn’t surprising that shortcuts were taken in its production. Apart from Orton, the cast is comprised of question marks and the background is supplied by Vancouver. Undemanding action junkies shouldn’t mind the compromises.

Shot on the eastern coast of Canada, “Charlie Zone” appears to have borrowed ideas from movies as disparate as “Fight Club” and “Chinatown,” but it never abuses the privilege enough to be accused of being derivative or a rip-off. Like other halfway decent movies that can only manage to find a home in today’s increasingly competitive straight-to-video marketplace, Michael Melski’s twisty thriller features good performances from mostly unknown actors, adequate production values, some satisfying surprises and an underused setting. “Charlie Zone” takes place in Halifax, which might sound like just another quaint port city in the Great White North, but combines enough criminal touchstones to be referred to there as the “New Orleans of the East.” The crimes in “Charlie Zone” include, in no particular order, illegal street brawling, assault, kidnapping, torture, theft, drug trafficking, murder, child abuse and incest. That might sound about average for a movie staged in Baltimore, San Pedro or even Seattle, but, in Halifax, it registers as an epidemic. After becoming an Internet sensation as a street fighter, Avery Paul (Glen Gould) is hired to “rescue” a young woman from the clutches of the owner of a shooting gallery, where all manner of hard drugs are sold and a bouncer collects a cover charge at the door. After faking a morphine habit, the former boxer and ex-con grabs Jan (Amanda Crew) and stashes her in the trunk of his car, while he negotiates a higher ransom for her return. From this point on, nothing seems to go right for Paul. While Jan recognizes her addiction and wants to get clean, she isn’t in any hurry to separate completely from her boyfriend and partner, who run the drug operation. Neither are the people who hired Paul playing straight with him. Throw in several ruthless bikers from Montreal, backstabbers disguised as friends and some severe beat-downs and you’ve got a pretty violent movie. In between the fights, however, several rays of humanitarian sunshine do manage to shine through the bloodshed. One thing that distinguishes “Charlie Zone” from a similar movie, had it been made in the U.S., is the amount of verbal abuse heaped on Paul, simply because he’s of native Mi’kmaq ancestry. In some parts of North and South America, hostility between the first-world population and non-native ethnic groups has never really ended. It’s balanced here with portrayals of Indians in normal, non-combative environments.

From Argentina arrives “Diablo,” another super-violent movie in which onetime boxer finds himself in a dilemma not of his own making. Half-Jewish and half-Andean, Marcos Wainsberg (Juan Palomino), is recovering emotionally from the trauma of having killed an opponent in the ring. The other fighter shouldn’t have been allowed to compete and a combination punch by Wainsberg merely triggered a reaction that would have killed the man, anyway. Still, it’s the kind of thing that stays with a boxer as long as his name is recognized. One morning, after reconnecting with an old girlfriend, he makes the mistake of opening the door to his cousin, Huguito (Sergio Boris), a shiftless ne’er-do-well who has trouble written all over his face. Not long after he asks Huguito to go to the store to purchase beer and cleaning supplies, two thugs arrive at the house, pretending to be friends of the cousin. Instead, they’re looking for something in his possession that Wainsberg has no idea exists and will take a terrible beating for his ignorance. Not unlike Paul in “Charlie Zone,” Wainsberg miraculously breaks out of bondage and destroys the intruders. When Huguito returns, all Marcos wants to do is clean up the blood soaked walls of the bathroom, so his girlfriend won’t turn tail and run. Naturally, another visitor arrives at the door soon thereafter. This one is a cop responding to a call from a neighbor. The cop, who’s Jewish, immediately recognizes the “Inca of the Sinai,” and it leads to some friendly, if strange chatter between them. By the time the cop inspects the bathroom, the bodies are gone and everything is spic-and-span. In fact, Huguito is holding something of great value to the person who’s hired several waves of gangsters to confront the cousins. I won’t spoil the surprise that comes with learning what’s so valuable to some rich old mobster, but it’s a doozy. Co-writer/director Nicanor Loreti, at the helm of his first feature, does a really nice job blending all of the disparate elements here into an exciting and often inky black comedy, not unlike “Layer Cake,” “Machete” and “Kung Fu Hustle.” While not beating the gag to death, Loreti makes good use of the “Inca of the Sinai” angle, as well. Dare I say it: fans of Quentin Tarantino, Richard Rodriguez and Guy Ritchie’s early films should love “Diablo.” – Gary Dretzka

Sadako 3D: Blu-ray
Producers of genre entertainment assume, sometimes correctly, that fans of a particularly successful horror or sci-fi feature naturally will line up to see the sequel. It’s a nice position in which to find one’s self, to be sure. The problem comes, of course, in the inevitability of genre fans to gossip endlessly in anticipation of a sequel or prequel and immediately review each new installment as if it were “Citizen Kane: Part II.” No one takes a more proprietary interest in such things as fans of J-horror and therein lies the rub. The latest chapter in Koji Sozuki’s “Ringu” cycle has arrived on these shores a full year after opening in several overseas markets. “Sadaku 3D” is being made available on DVD and Blu-ray 2D/3D pack, without the benefit of a theatrical release. My guess is that distributors here read all the negative reviews and assumed that the same fans that made “Ringu” and its American cousin, “The Ring,” such huge international hits are, by now, too sophisticated to ignore warning signs on Internet sites devoted to the genre. Viral campaigns cut both ways, these days. I’ve seen both of the source movies and can understand why they’d be disappointed in “Sadako 3D.” It simply doesn’t take the franchise anywhere it hasn’t already been. The 3D format adds a few quick and dirty jolts, but the foreboding tone of previous titles has been diluted by overexposure. Keeping all of the negatives in mind, however, it’s also possible to say that newcomers to the franchise and kids whose parents are wealthy enough to afford HD3D monitors shouldn’t have any trouble buying into its basic conceits. Among the concessions to the passing of time since the originals were released are the implements through which Sadako makes her presence known. Instead of relying on such primitive technologies as VHS cassettes and one-dimensional TV sets, the spirit is borne through the Internet and smartphones. Otherwise, it’s the same deal. Teenagers who can’t wait to see if rumors of cursed Internet video are true need only perform a simple search and the ghosts do the rest. – Gary Dretzka

Escape From Planet Earth: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” Season 2, Volume 2
To fully enjoy the animated sci-fi adventure, “Escape From Planet Earth,” it helps to be flying on a sugar high. Conveniently, one of the product-placement partners here is 7-Eleven, which, as every life form in the universe knows, is the home of the Slurpee. Brightly colorful and quickly paced, the Anchor Bay title seems geared to pre-teens who are familiar with genre tropes, but not too jaded to dismiss the corny dialogue out of hand. The story follows the daring astronaut Scorch Supernova (voiced by Brendan Fraser), a hero to blue-skinned residents of the planet Baab, as he attempts to answer a rescue call from Earth. Apparently, illegal aliens from outer space are every bit as irritating to conservatives in the future, as Mexicans crossing the border were to their great-great-great-grandparents. BASA’s no-nonsense chief Lena (Jessica Alba) is aware of the dangers inherent in such a mission, but assumes Scorch can handle Area 51 as well as he has every other place he’s been in the universe. His cautious flight-commander brother, Gary (Rob Corday), isn’t so positive. Sure enough, when a trap set by the evil General Shanker (William Shatner) imperils Scorch, Gary must come to his rescue. It leads to an exciting chase through the Grand Canyon when USAF jets are dispatched and Gary and Shanker engage in a midair fist fight. Among the other voicing talents are Sarah Jessica Parker, Sofia Vergara, Ricky Gervais and Jonathan Morgan Heit. The Blu-ray package comes with separate 3D/2D editions, DVD, a digital copy and UltraViolet, as well commentary with director Cal Brunker; a 21-minute making-of and 4-minute “building-of” featurettes; alternate and deleted scenes; and music videos by Delta Rae, Owl City and Cody Simpson.

I wonder how much crossover there is between the audiences for “Escape From Planet Earth” andShout!Factory’s releases of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” episodes in half-season increments. To my untrained eye, the live-action show looks as if it belongs in a museum or time capsule. Still, there probably are thousands of moms and dads who watch the 20-year-old episodes with their kids and get the same nostalgic rush old-timers get when someone mentions “Captain Video” or Froggy the Gremlin. As the storyline enters “Season 2, Volume 2,” Lord Zedd is getting impatient with Rita Repulsa and her failure to dominate the Earth, as planned. The Power Rangers are accorded new powers and Zords modeled after mythological creatures. Also look for White Ranger, a hero armed with a talking sword and mighty White Tigerzord. – Gary Dretzka

Brooklyn Castle
The Loving Story
Charge: Zero Emissions/Maximum Speed
No one cheers harder for the underdog than a documentary filmmaker who’s invested uncounted time and money into telling that competitor’s story. It doesn’t matter if the participants are ballroom dancers, Scrabble and Monopoly players, spellers, bowlers, cricketeers or the 1969 New York Mets. The David-vs.-Goliath angle also comes into play when a team from an economically disadvantaged district takes on a perennial favorite in the championship contest. As a wise man once observed of Major League baseball, cheering for the New York Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel. At the same time, sports dynasties can have their off-years, too. If it was the documentarian’s intention to chronicle yet another winning season, he or she then must be prepared to punt. In “Brooklyn Castles,” Katie Dellamaggiore’s subject is a chess team from a financially strapped junior high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., which routinely turns out an astonishing number of championship chess players. Its team has served as an inspiration for fellow students, 65 percent of whom come from homes subsisting on below-poverty-level incomes. Although it’s rarely a surprise when a student from Intermediate School 318 wins an important match, the odds of most other students making their way through high school and college, and finding a good-paying job, aren’t nearly as good. No matter the glory of winning, scholarships based on a proficiency in chess are as rare as World Series games in Wrigley Field. “Brooklyn Castle” puts a tight focus on a half-dozen kids and a pair of dedicated teacher/coaches as they struggle to maintain both the excellence of the program and cope with a budget that takes a hit whenever a politician in Albany sneezes. Everyone we meet here is likeable and dedicated to the task at hand. Because applicants for a place in I.S. 318 must demonstrate their willingness to adhere to its rigorous educational demands, behavioral problems aren’t much of a problem, either. The points working in the players favor don’t make their accomplishments any less astonishing, though, or “Brooklyn Castle” less entertaining. The DVD includes deleted scenes.

It’s entirely fitting that the documentary “The Loving Story” should arrive at a time when millions of people are sitting on pins and needles, awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision – or non-decision, if the justices decide to duck the issue – on the legality of California’s Proposition 8, which prohibits same-sex marriage in the state. Forty-sex years ago, the Supreme Court took on a similar hot-button case, only, this time,  it involved the forbidden marriage of a white American, Richard Loving, and his part-black, part-Cherokee fiancée, Mildred Jeter. They had been arrested nine years earlier by Virginia police after travelling from Caroline County to Washington, D.C., to be married. They would be found guilty of breaking laws against “miscegenation” and be sentenced to a year in prison. While their case was making its way through the courts, the Lovings had to hide the fact that they had moved back to Virginia from Washington and were living on family-owned farmland. Amazingly, more than a century had passed since the beginning of the Civil War and interracial marriage remained illegal in 21 states. It was something they shared with Nazi Germany and Apartheid-era South Africa. “The Loving Story” recalls both the personal angst and legal wrangling that preceded the unanimous decision.  Today, of course, many of the same pinhead religious beliefs that kept men and women of different races and colors from getting married, or even engaging in sexual intercourse, are being parroted in arguments against same-sex marriage. Nancy Buirski’s film benefits from recently recovered archival material, including home movies, photographs and interviews.

The last time actor and motorcycle nut Ewan McGregor teamed up with filmmaker Mark Neale was on the documentary “Fastest,” which followed the fortunes of riders on Europe’s MotoGP circuit. It was a non-fiction sequel to 2003’s “Faster,” which introduced the motorsport and champion rider Valentino Rossi to tens of thousands of new fans worldwide. Both movies featured balls-out riding, exciting wipeouts and tales of personal glory. McGregor is back to narrate Neale’s “Charge,” which, besides showcasing some terrific racing, demonstrates how bikers can join the vanguard of green-power advocates. The movie takes us back to 2009, when fans of MotoGP practically laughed the zero-emissions gearheads off the grand prix course on the Isle of Man. No one was much interested in watching motorcycles struggle to reach speeds of 100 mph, when gas-powered bikes were going twice that speed. Neale’s cameras returned the next three years to follow the progress, of which there was plenty. The most amusing aspect of green-powered racing is the lack of noise, which is what fans expect to hear a lot of when they come to the races. The supplements include extended racing action, deleted scenes and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

The Horde
Several very good historical epics about Mongolia and the reign of the Golden Horde have been exported from Russia in recent years. They’ve been distinguished by tremendous horsemanship, fiery action and landscapes that are glorious one moment and barren the next. Set in 1357, as the dynasty’s vast reach was beginning to shrink, “The Horde” tells a couple of stories simultaneously. One describes challenges to the reigning Khan, Jani Beg, from within and without the walls of his capital, while the other tells the story of Metropolitan Aleksei, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, who was summoned by Jani Beg to cure the blindness of his mother, as if the future saint was nothing more than a wizard or the conjurer of the last resort. If Aleksai failed, Mongol soldiers would be sent to Moscow to destroy the city. Before that could happen, Aleksai is banished to the boonies, where he’s treated like a slave. “The Horde” was filmed in Astrakhan, a city in in the Volga Delta that once served as capital for the Golden Hoard. It will be of more interest to students of Russian, Mongolian and Orthodox history than anyone else, although Andrei Proshkin’s drama is well-made and looks different than previous western efforts to document the period. (Genghis Khan has been played by Omar Sharif, Richard Tyson, Phil Hartman, Michael Palin and John Wayne.) The DVD can be listened to in Russian or dubbed English. – Gary Dretzka

Hannah Has a Ho-Phase: VOD
Watching this reversal-of-fortune rom-com, I couldn’t help but be struck by its similarity in tone to “Kissing Jessica Stein” and quirky indie romances by Ed Burns, Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers, especially those with early appearances by Greta Gerwig. Newcomers Jamie Jensen and Nadia Munla promise quite a bit more than they deliver in the video-on-demand “Hannah Has a Ho-Phase.” They do, however, get nice performances from Genevieve Hudson-Price and Meredith Forlenza, in roles that Jennifer Westfeldt might have considered before tackling lesbian wannabe Jessica Stein. They play Hannah and Leslie, flat-mates on opposite ends of the dating spectrum. When we meet her, Leslie is teaching pole-dancing at her New York dance studio and enjoying orgasms whose decibel levels rival those emanating from a subway portal. Hannah has a steady boyfriend, but is in no hurry to share her body with him. Nonetheless, her sexual frustration and reluctance to give into it have begun to irritate Leslie. In an effort to kick-start the young woman’s libido, Leslie challenges Hannah to accept a wager that only exists in such movies as “40 Days and 40 Nights” and “The Proposal,” neither of which could be confused with documentaries. Hannah agrees to sleep with 10 guys before Leslie is allowed to have sex with another disposable stud. I can’t remember what the stakes are, but, given Hannah’s high standards, Leslie doesn’t expect to remain a born-again virgin for long. Both of the women will face severe tests along the way to the finish line, of course. What struck me here is the reluctance of the filmmakers to put the characters’ naughty bits on display, especially considering what’s readily available on other cable channels. The same was true, however, in “Kissing Jessica Stein.” Indeed, Hannah wears lingerie that would be more fitting in the Sears catalogue than Victoria’s Secret. Needless to say, “Hannah Has a Ho-Phase” isn’t for everyone. Maybe, I’m the one who’s out of touch, however. – Gary Dretzka

Journey of the Universe: The Complete Collection
Secrets of the Dead: Bugging Hitler’s Soldier’s
Nature: The Private Life of Deer
Nature: Legendary White Stallions
Frontline: The Economic Meltdown
In 1999, on the last day of the millennium – give or take a year or two — Stephen Hawking observed: “The world has changed far more in the past 100 years than in any other century in history. The reason is not political or economic but technological … technologies that flowed directly from advances in basic science.” Things mankind absolutely knows to be true about its place in the universe – physically and theologically – have been proven false so frequently as to be almost laughable. Each new generation of school children is taught to accept as fact beliefs and theories that will be disproven, even during their lifetimes. The success of the Hubble Space Telescope mission, alone, proves that Hawking’s point about technology and science is well-taken. The PBS documentary project, “Journey of the Universe,” recaps what we currently know to be true about how the universe was formed and continues to evolve. It speculates, as well, as to what in God’s name we’re doing here, in the first place. Oops, did I say God? It’s what we don’t know and never did know that some of the scientists interviewed here expect to discover if the pursuit of scientific knowledge continues apace. I wouldn’t count on it. After all, for every question that’s been answered about the Big Bang theory and expansion of the universe, there’s others that beg such questions as “Who or what triggered the Big Bang?” and “How far can the universe expand before it disappears into the void?” By comparison, the guiding principles behind Creationism almost make sense.

“Journey of the Universe” and it’s longer companion documentary, “Journey of the Universe/Conversations,” begin with the “flame” that ignited the Big Bang and end by bringing us up to date on what we’re discovering in deep space, deep oceans and within the human genome. Noted cosmo-geneticist Brian Swimme hosts the program from the Greek island of Samos, birthplace, circa 570 B.C., of the mathematician/philosopher Pythagoras. Largely undeveloped, the picturesque island is a place that, at various times, has served as a crossroads for world trade and the knowledge travelers carried with them. Besides tourism, its economic base is agriculture. In fact, through all its centuries of peace, war and political upheaval, not much has changed on the island since Pythagoras’ time. Swimme found it to be the perfect place to present his theories about the interconnectedness of humans and everything that’s changed in the universe over the course of the last 14 billion years. He doesn’t avoid theology, finding stars to be a common element in religious art and the chemical makeup of man. He provides a lot of fascinating information in a relatively short time and “Conversations” extends the discussion with Yale professor Mary Evelyn Tucker interviewing other scientists in a more formal setting. The DVD comes with a booklet that could be used in classroom situations. Co-director David Kennard, with Patsy Northcutt, cut his documentary teeth on “Cosmos,” the 13-episode that made Carl Sagan a household name.

The PBS series “Secrets of the Dead” uses modern investigative techniques, forensic science and historical examination to amplify on events whose truth could only be verified by people who lived through them and carried their secrets to the grave … or until the statutes of limitations expired. One of the things the show reveals on a weekly basis is how much information is deemed inappropriate for dissemination by ordinary folks, like you and me. The episode “Bugging Hitler’s Soldiers” contains information that, until recently, remained classified by British intelligence agencies. From the earliest days of Britain’s involvement in the war, MI-19 transferred German officers to a posh estate and treated them as if their ranks accorded them special favors. What the Germans didn’t know was that their every conversation was captured, using sophisticated microphones and recording devices. Much of the information was extremely valuable, both in the war effort and as a way to monitor the prisoners’ psychological state. Among them were the location of rocket-testing sites, verification of Nazi atrocities and the culpability of German soldiers in crimes previously ascribed only to Gestapo and SS troops. What’s discomfiting about the material as presented is the fact that the information gleaned through the bugging wasn’t used in war-crimes trials and some of the guilty officers escaped punishment. The secrecy behind the program precluded disclosure of such damning first-hand testimony.

One of the recurring themes in PBS’ “Nature” series is the interaction between different animal species and human beings, as one group’s habitat expands and the other’s contracts. “The Private Life of Deer” joins previous episodes, “Cracking the Koala Code,” “A Murder of Crows,” “Kangaroo Mob” and “Raccoon Nation.” In each case, at least part of the documentary is reserved for a discussion of how dangerous it is for animals to become so adjusted to suburban and city life that their familiarity sometimes results in them becoming pests. Instead of hunters and four-legged predators, the greatest threat to unnaturally complacent visitors becomes drivers of cars, trucks and buses. The latest installment describes how the booming deer population has begun to forage land outside the boundaries of forests, swamps and fields, and graze on manicured lawns, gardens, shrubs and tiered roadsides. More harmless than not, the deer become their own worst enemies in these situations. The “Nature” crew uses modern technology to follow and record the movements of white-tail deer, while also on the lookout tiny key deer and rarely seen white deer. I’m not sure why the threat of chronic-wasting disease to the deer population went un-discussed here, or how such close proximity to suburbanized deer could spread tick-borne diseases to their human neighbors.

The “Nature” episode “Legendary White Stallions” celebrates the interesting history and marvelous talents of the Lipizzaner stallions at Vienna’s Spanish Riding School. Through hundreds of years of breeding, the horses were first taught how to overcome natural fears and become important as extensions of fighting men. After the Moors captured Spain, they were re-taught to perform as acrobats and artists. Today, they still define poetry in motion. The program also describes the breeding program and time spent high in the Austrian Alps, basically learning how to use their genetically transferred skills. As wonderful as it is, “Legendary White Stallions” would have benefited from a discussion of the rescue of these magnificent animals in the closing days of World War II and the Napoleonic wars.

Here it is, almost seven years after the nearly total collapse of the U.S. and world economies and more energy has been expended turning out documentaries on how it happened than by the government in punishing the scumbags who caused it. The rich get richer, the middle-class gets poorer and the poor stay poor. Sadly, it’s become the American way. The problem can’t be laid on the doorstep of PBS or the producers at “Frontline,” who’ve given prosecutors more than enough evidence to hang ’em high. In case you missed the coverage, though, five key episodes have been compiled in “The Economic Meltdown.” They include “Cliffhanger,” which investigates the inside history of how Washington has failed to solve the country’s problems of debt and deficit; “The Warning,” which profiles the lone regulator who warned about the dangers of derivatives and, instead of being rewarded, paid the price; “Breaking the Bank,” about Ken Lewis and Bank of America’s troubled Merrill deal; “Ten Trillion and Counting,” updates the politics behind America’s mountain of debt; and “Inside the Meltdown,” an investigation into how the economy went so bad, so fast, and what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson didn’t see, couldn’t stop and weren’t able to fix. – Gary Dretzka

Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season
Falling Skies: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray 
Pretty Little Liars: The Complete Third Season
Adventure Time: The Completer First/Second Season
It’s difficult to say, exactly, how television executives and DVD distributors define what constitutes a season and what differentiates a “volume” of episodes from a full-season load. Take “Breaking Bad,” for example. For its first four seasons, the highly celebrated and entirely unconventional AMC drama rolled out on a week-to-week schedule. There were seven test-the-water episodes in Season One and three subsequent 13-episode seasons after that. After the fifth and final season was given a green light, it was announced that it would be divided into two eight-episode seasons, beginning 13 months apart from each other. Why the half that begins on August 11, 2013, isn’t being referred to as Season Six is anyone’s guess, but economics must have played a role in the decision somewhere. This won’t make much of a difference to fans accustomed to binge watching “Breaking Bad” on DVD/Blu-ray. It might even give them something to look forward to in 2014. If the bad news comes in learning that the new half-season box includes only eight segments, the good news is that it also contains a larger-than-normal bonus package across two discs. All of the episodes include commentaries and making-of featurettes; deleted and extended scenes on both discs; backgrounders; material from the writers’ room; “Chris Hardwick’s All-Star Celebrity Bowling”; “Gallery 1988 Art Show”; an extended examination of the train scene; “The Cleaner: Jonathan Banks as Mike”; a rehearsal of the “prison stunt”; and audition tapes.  The real keeper is an uncensored scene exclusive to the Blu-ray/DVD, “Chicks ’n’ Guns,” which is every bit as sexy as it might sound to some folks. It very well could serve as a preview of a spinoff show, featuring Bob Odenkirk’s character, Saul Goodman.

With Season Three of the TNT series “Falling Skies” beginning next week, this is the right time for latecomers to catch up with the second stanza. It begins with Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) and everyone else in the 2d Massachusetts a year older and still battling the skittles. Mason has returned from his mission of discovery with the aliens and the company plans to travel to South Carolina to find more human survivors. Sons Ben and Hal will have to stop squabbling if the resistance is going to be successful, though. Like “Breaking Bad,” fans will find a generous bonus package in the new Blu-ray. It includes a 20-minute examination into the making of the second season; a look at the evolution of the skitters; fan features; a 31-minute Q&A with Wil Wheaton; a preview of Season Three; an animate trailer, created by Dark Horse Comics; four commentary tracks; and UltraViolet.

With the teen mystery series “Pretty Little Liars” moving into its fourth year next week, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Season Three package is newly available. It opens with the beginning of a new school year and plenty of time for the ladies to reflect on the revelations at the end of Season Two. No sooner does a new semester start, however, than a new nightmare begins. Needless to say, the pretty little liars are far too hot, popular and fashion-conscious to be so troubled, naughty and neurotic. One nice thing about the ABC Family series is that a season is comprised of 24 episodes, instead of the usual 13 for cable series. The DVD’s supplements add “Pretty Little Liars and the ‘A’ Network: Who Is ‘A’?”; an alternate ending for the “The Lady Killer” episode; bonus webisodes; unaired scenes; and a gag reel.

If fans of “Adventure Time” have complained about anything to do with the award-winning Cartoon Network series it’s that the DVD compilations have been broken into incomplete volumes and they haven’t been available in Blu-ray. Their prayers have been answered, at least partially, with the release of complete Season One and Season Two compilations in hi-def and DVD. Each package contains 26 episodes of 11 minutes each, or a total running time of 286 minutes. For the uninitiated, “AT” is set in the faraway kingdom of Ooo, where Finn the Human and his bespectacled talking dog Jake regularly trip up the mostly evil Ice King, who has the hots for Princess Bubblegum. They’re joined by the bass-playing Vampire Queen, petulant extraterrestrial Lumpy Space Princess and Beemo, a sentient but playable video game console. The two-disc sets include commentary tracks on four episodes, background featurettes, a 10-minute talk with the show’s music editors; a nearly hour-long collection of animatics and a two-minute episode called “The Wand.”  There are 22 commentaries and an interview with the crew on in the Season Two set. This is one crazy show. – Gary Dretzka

NFL: Baltimore Ravens: Road to XLVII: Blu-ray
After teasing fans of the NFL champion Baltimore Ravens with DVDs filled with season highlights and key games leading up to the Super Bowl, “Baltimore Ravens: Road to XLVII” puts the finishing touch on the season. Besides original network broadcasts of the Super Bowl, the two-disc package includes the Ravens’ AFC Wildcard victory over the Colts; the AFC Divisional Game, against the Broncos; the AFC Championship triumph over the Patriots; and showdown with the 49ers in the big show. One unforgettable playoff moment was Ray Lewis’ final home game versus the Indianapolis Colts, which, of course, was the team that deserted Baltimore in 1984, breaking millions of hearts in the process. Lest we forget, the Ravens are the team that gave up the Browns name when it left Cleveland in 1996, breaking hearts there. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Beetlejuice: The Complete Series
I’ve watched a lot of cartoons in my life and continue to do so as they are revisited on DVD and new ones are introduced. I wouldn’t, however, consider myself to be a historian or expert on the subject. I suspect, however, that the offbeat animated TV adaptation of Tim Burton’s surprise 1988 feature hit, “Beetlejuice,” had the same impact on aspiring cartoonists as the original had on a generation of filmmakers hoping to stretch the boundaries of horror, comedy and fantasy on the big screen. Of course, Burton had already accomplished a similar thing as director of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” a 1985 movie that crossed generational boundaries. Along with co-executive producer David Geffen, Burton took the same wacky premise behind the theatrical “Beetlejuice” – the title character guides the spirits of recently deceased humans through the vagaries of the netherworld – but dilutes the horror and hipster humor for day-part demographics. What didn’t change, though, were the wildly imaginative humanoid ghosts, monsters, werewolves, zombies and vampires, whose bodies were even more malleable when animated. Here, Goth-girl Lydia Deetz is best friends with Beetlejuice. They bounce back and forth from the living world to Beetlejuice’s afterlife, now referred to simply as Neitherland, so as not to freak out death-phobic television censors. It might as well be called Burtonland, as it parodies the living world in ways that would become one of his trademarks.

Soon after the launch of “Beetlejuice” on ABC’s Saturday-morning lineup, it was picked up by Fox for its weekday children’s lineup. In an unusual scheduling twist, both shows ran simultaneously. How coincidental was it, then, that “The Simpsons” would expand from an interstitial short on Fox’s “The Tracey Ullman Show” to a 30-minute series of its own? In short order, Nickelodeon put such quirky cartoons as “Rugrats,” “Ren & Stimpy” and “Doug” into production; Turner Broadcasting bought Hanna-Barbera studios and green-lit Cartoon Network; “Beevis & Butt-head” began to attract slackers of all ages and get free publicity from social critics; and, for the first time since “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons,” animation became a growth industry on broadcast television, cable and in theaters. Today, of course, original animated programming can be found in all sorts of places, including premium cable, with the more edgy stuff reserved for such late-night outlets as “Adult Swim.” The new Shout!Factory box is comprised of all four seasons of “Beetlejuice,” three of those stanzas for the first time. Several of the show’s first-season episodes were released on VHS in 1993, but, it took another 15 years, for three popular episodes (“A-ha”, “Skeletons in the Closet” and “Spooky Boo-Tique”) to arrive on DVD, in the “20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” of “Beetlejuice.” The colors have been spruced up here and the audio dialed up, a bit. Alas, there are no supplemental features. – Gary Dretzka

Lore: Blu-ray
Cate Shortland’s devastating drama, “Lore,” demands that we consider the plight of the only Germans who had legitimate excuses for pleading ignorance of the atrocities committed in World War II to Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other clergy, homosexuals, communists and people born with physical or mental disabilities: children. If their parents and teachers were party members, they automatically became integral elements in Hitler’s propaganda machine and were taught to accept the supremacy of the so-called Aryan race and the degeneracy of most others. They grew up believing that Jews were enemies of the state and needed to be marginalized and moved to ghettos or work camps. Children whose families lived near enough away to the concentration camps to see the smoke from the ovens and endure the stench of death had no reason to doubt the explanations given them by people in positions of authority. Likewise, Japanese children were taught to accept their parents’ faith in the Emperor’s infallibility and not question the necessity for war. For many years after WWII ended, as well, the truth about what happened far removed from the fields of combat was hidden from students in Germany and Japan. The same sort of misinformation campaigns allowed segregation to become institutionalized in the American South for a century after the end of Civil War, just as children in Israel and Palestine are guided by 60-plus years of hatred, intolerance and outright lies. “Lore,” which is based on a novel by Rachel Siffert, examines one family’s struggle to survive the war intact as Germans and endure an occupation by people they’ve been conditioned to fear and mistrust.

Knowing the Third Reich is circling the drain, a high-ranking Nazi SS officer returns to his Bavarian home to inform his like-minded wife of their nation’s inevitable defeat and prepare for the worst. She can hardly believe the news, which differs so much from the upbeat reports in the media, but quickly rounds up the kids for a hasty retreat to the nearby mountains. While the father burns incriminating photos and texts in the fireplace and kills the pet German shepherd, the mother gathers enough clothing to fit one or two suitcases and valuables that won’t hinder their escape. By now, American and Soviet troops have begun liberating concentration camps and are in no mood to forgive anyone attempting to avoid being accountable for their actions. Once the five children are settled into a farmhouse in the Black Forest, news of the German surrender is announced and the father is spirited away by other men in the same position. As the mother’s ability to ensure the safety of the kids – paying off the locals and trading for staples with jewelry and her body – she, too, decides to abandon them. (Possibly to avoid being captured and having the children punished for past Nazi indoctrination, not an uncommon fear by German survivors.) Her oldest daughter, Lore, is left with jewelry and silverware to trade for food and instructions on how to get to Hamburg, where her grandmother lives and they expect to be reunited with mom and dad. Relying on the kindness of strangers only works for the children as long as they have something to trade. Then, it’s survival of the fittest. Instead of staying in place, as ordered by the American soldiers, the children set out on an odyssey that will expose them to the ugliness of war and terrible truths about their parents’ role in the war. At 14, Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) suddenly is required to be the sole provider and guardian for a family that includes a baby not yet able to walk. The further they go, the more people they meet who are in exactly the same dire physical straits and no longer can fall back on Nazi lies.

Along the way, Lore becomes fixated with a mysterious young man, Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina), who seems to be trailing them. She alternately fears his motives and appreciates his pretending to be their older brother when it looks as if they might be detained by the Americans, British or Soviet border guards. At one barricade, Thomas uses the yellow star in his passport to convince a soldier to let them continue their trek northward. Suddenly, he becomes a different person to Lore. As she was taught, she despises the young man’s very being as a Jew and is even more disturbed by how her raging hormones are reacting to the close proximity of the handsome male of the species. The other children aren’t nearly as disturbed by his presence. He says he was incarcerated at Buchenwald and can attest to the atrocities he witnessed there. Still, even when Lore examines the grisly photos that have been posted everywhere in her path, she wills herself to believe that they were staged, using actors. Amazingly, every other adult German she meets on their journey seems to accept the same theory. One elderly woman looks at the portrait of her beloved Fuhrer in her kitchen and opines that he wouldn’t have allowed such a thing to happen. Other incredible things occur during the family’s trek, some of which reinforce Lore’s negative feelings toward the Allied troops.

Finally, just when the children are assured a reasonably stable future with their strict and still patriotic grandmother, something snaps inside Lore, causing her to reassess everything she’s learned in her 14 years on Earth and weigh them against what was revealed on the journey. It’s as powerful a coming-of-age moment as I’ve seen in a long time. “Lore” shares several qualities with Shortland’s 2004 breakthrough feature, “Somersault,” including the protagonist being a strong-willed teenage girl (Abbie Cornish) forced to make adult decisions at too early an age. The director also is ability to capture the natural beauty of the locations and use it to counterbalance what’s happening to the girls. We’ve seen the Black Forest in many other movies, of course, but rarely in a way that so closely connects the natural beauty to the people who live there. Apart from the horrors and byproducts of war, “Lore” forwards a vision of Germany that is straight from the travel brochures. A patriot would go to great lengths to defend this blessed corner of the Fatherland. That, however, is not the story of World War II, and Shortland doesn’t use her camera to alter what we know to be true about our onetime enemy. Neither does she shower any more pity on the children than their physical ordeal might normally warrant. Who knows, after all, what might become of these people? The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, an alternate ending, an interview with a refugee not unlike Lore and a panel discussion following a screening. – Gary Dretzka

Shoot First, Die Later: Blu-ray
When it comes to hyper-violent, highly stylized Italian crime thrillers from the 1970s, Fernando di Leo is one of the brands that still carries sway four decades later. If the name isn’t as well-known as, say, Sergio Leone or Dario Argento, it’s only because poliziotteschi never enjoyed the cross-over appeal that lifted giallo to Spaghetti Westerns to prominence here. Neither did it feature the same ratio of recognizable American actors to European stats as such movies as “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “A Fistful of Dollars” or “A Cat o’ Nine Tails.” Neither was there a shortage of excellent crime dramas being made in Hollywood at the time, as could be said of Westerns and horror flicks. By comparison, poliziotteschi looked corny to the point of being slapstick. Italian action flicks were as subtle as a Panzer tank, which is probably why Di Leo’s movies appealed so much to Quentin Tarantino. Partially based on William McGivern’s novel, “Rogue Cop,” “Shoot First, Die Later” never was accorded a worldwide theatrical release and compatible VHS cassettes were difficult to find. Lately, RaroVideo has come to the rescue of such long-ignored Italian genre fare, sending out DVD and Blu-ray editions that are free of the blemishes that made watching cassettes such a chore. Based strictly on their merits as vehicles for entertainment, Di Leo’s films look pretty good right now.

Luc Merenda (“Hostel: Part II”) plays a police detective held in such high regard that it’s difficult to imagine he would be in cahoots with the syndicate. In return for providing information or quashing a case, the gangsters would tip him off to potential targets for arrest. Finally, one of the quid pro quos requires of the cop that he involve his upstanding father – also a police officer – to break the law or risk the possibility the mobsters would harm someone near and dear to him. Corruption is a subject that has served filmmakers well over 100 years and will continue to do so, as long as cops and politicians can be bought by crooks and corporations. Released in 1974, “Shoot First, Die Later” was a departure, in that Di Leo’s audience was asked to simultaneously sympathize with the detective and abhor his amoral stance, which would result in some terrible consequences. It’s the same theme that, 30 years later, would inform the popular FX drama, “The Shield.” The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of excellent background documentaries on Di Leo and genre filmmaking in Italy. They contain interviews with the late filmmaker, as well as those with associates. Also included is an illustrated 20-page booklet on the genesis of the film. Richard Conte, who just played Barzinni in “The Godfather,” is the closest thing to an international star here. If you dig “SF,DL,” it’s a dead certainty that you’ll love RaroVideo’s “Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection,” with “Caliber 9,” “The Italian Connection,” “The Boss,” and “Rulers of the City.” – Gary Dretzka

Dark Skies: Blu-ray
Whenever the blurbs on the cover of a DVD extoll the credits of its producer, over those of the director, writer or stars, there’s either something desperately wrong with the enclosed movie or everyone else involved is of no consequence. For the supernatural thriller “Dark Skies,” producer Jason Blum (“Insidious,” “Paranormal Activity”) is given precedence over Keri Russell (“The Americans”), Josh Hamilton (“The Letter”) and writer/director Scott Stewart (“Priest”). Russell may not be as hot a commodity as she was when “Felicity” was a hit series, but she’s a fine actress and makes 37 look as if it’s a good age to be. Hamilton has enough decent credits to think someone might be interested in seeing him in another movie and Stewart’s “Legion” appears to have made money for someone. In “Dark Skies,” Russell and Hamilton are the financially strapped suburban parents of two boys, who apparently have tuned into the wavelength of extraterrestrials in our midst. Hours of time go by unaccounted for by the family members and unrecorded by security cameras. Terrible things, including the mass suicide of birds, are happening in and around their home and no one knows why. Finally, they’re directed to a local conspiracy theorist (J.K. Simmons), who tells them things no mom and dad want to hear about their kids and their ability to control their actions. Even if the information does nothing to prevent the inevitable tug-of-war between the boys and the aliens, at least everyone knows what’s going on and who’s to blame. All the parents can do is sit back and watch the shit the fan. “Dark Skies” is a middling thriller that, I’m sure, plays better on the small screen than it did in theaters. Genre nuts won’t find anything new here, but casual fans shouldn’t be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds a bunch of deleted scenes, with optional commentary. – Gary Dretzka

Dorfman in Love
Fairytales still come true in the movies, especially rom-coms in which young women twist themselves into knots to experience the dramatic personal growth needed to snag the right guy to live with forever and ever, amen. If she’s lucky, he won’t turn out to be the heel everyone in the audience knows him to be from Minute One. The damsel in emotional distress in Brad Leong’s mostly weightless “Dorfman in Love” is convincingly played by the veteran TV actor, Sara Rue (“Rules of Engagement,” “Malibu Country”). Because it merges elements of “The Ugly Duckling” and “Cinderella” with overfamiliar rom-com conventions, her Deb Dorfman is required to jump through a few more hoops than are usually required of such inexplicably underappreciated female characters. Despite being the boss’ sister, Deb is relegated to go-fer status at an upscale Los Angeles business. She picks up coffee and dry-cleaning for everyone, while also making sure that her brother keeps his head in the ballgame long enough for the company to make a profit. Apparently, all of this hard work qualifies Deb to take care of the apartment and cat of the man over whom she’s been obsessing for several years. A reporter, he’s off to Kabul for a week or two to cover something of great urgency. The flat’s an unholy mess, of course, so Deb takes it upon herself to renovate the place, thereby demonstrating how great a partner she could make for the right guy. On his last night in town, the reporter introduces her to a pair of vapid fashion models with whom he’s been spending time. Instead of lording their beauty and trendy fashion sense over Deb, they volunteer to give the Valley Girl a downtown makeover. It transforms her into a truly babelicious commodity.

Just when Deb thinks she’s in like Flynn, however, she is required to babysit her whining widower father (Elliott Gould); beard for her brother, who’s fallen for the models and abandoned his clingy, boring wife; and, for good measure, assume the role of best buddy with the handsome gay artist who lives in the loft upstairs. It’s fair to wonder, though, if any of these men are what they seem to be at first glance. Naturally, we see the solution to Deb’s quandary before she does. It doesn’t really matter, though. Rue’s natural likeability is sufficient reason to wish her well and forgive Leung the weaknesses in his story (written by Wendy Kout, creator of “Anything But Love” and nothing else in the last 20 years). At 75, Gould continues to find work in supporting roles that benefit from his hang-dog face and star quality, but don’t tax his professionalism all that much. Also along for the ride are familiar faces Catherine Hicks and Scott Wilson; Johann Urb and Haaz Sleiman, as the boyfriends; and Sophie Monk, Hayley Marie Norman, Keri Lynn Pratt and Kelen Coleman as the usual female suspects. Somehow, the MPAA found something sufficiently disturbing in “Dorfman in Love” to bestow on it a “R” rating. After an appeal, it was reduced to PG-13. There’s no nudity, pervasive bad language or violence, so it must have had something to do with mini-skirts or non-derogatory portrayals of gay characters. – Gary Dretzka

As Goes Janesville
As a boy growing up in a working-class Wisconsin community and, later, as a student at UW-Madison, I knew that politics in America’s Dairyland could hardly be more schizophrenic. It’s a state whose two most prominent politicians — progressive firebrand Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette and Republican bully Joseph McCarthy – were on such opposite sides of the spectrum that they might as well have been from different countries. Once dominated by agricultural interests, the influence of Wisconsin’s factory workers and unions made it a Democratic stronghold for most of the second half of the 20th Century. Many considered Madison to be the Moscow of the Midwest, even though it was completely surrounded by farms and Republican voters. And, yet, Wisconsin somehow managed to live up to its motto, “Forward.” Later, when industry began fleeing the state for more business-friendly climes, it became increasingly dependent on jobs in the service industry and tourism. As we learn in Kartemquin Films’ new documentary, “As Goes Janesville,” Wisconsin is now mired in the same dismal swamp waters as those that have drowned the forces of reason and compromise in Washington, D.C. At the same time as the film was being shot, Governor Scott Walker declared war on unions and the benefit plans accorded teachers and state workers. He survived a recall election, but the state voted in favor of the Obama-Biden ticket, 53-46 percent. It might have been more lopsided if Republican candidate Mitt Romney hadn’t chosen Janesville’s Paul Ryan as his running mate.

As Goes Janesville” describes a city in crisis. For almost all of the 20th Century, it was a showcase Midwestern community blessed with job-creating industry and commerce, as well as a rich agricultural base. When, in 2008, General Motors closed its assembly plant, the company left thousands of people unemployed or uprooted to a plant in Texas. This followed the closing of the Parker Pen factory and move to Milwaukee of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance. If there was a job to be had in Janesville, it probably paid no more than minimum wage. What Brad Lichtenstein and Leslie Simmer found in Janesville were politicians and community leaders struggling valiantly to bring new industry to the city and three families that fairly represented the plight of thousands of other GM workers. When a medical-equipment company shows interest in opening a facility in Janesville, the city is required to offer millions of dollars’ worth of tax breaks and other subsidies, with no promise that the firms’ employees would be hired from the existing job pool. Neither would the company be required to guarantee that salaries and benefits would meet the needs of its workers or that it could raise new money to fund the proposal. Kartemquin Films, which historically has focused on the workers’ side of most of the issues it covers, plays it as close to the middle here as I’ve ever seen it do. Naturally, “As Goes Janesville” gives full exposure to the trials of the unemployed and transplanted workers. But it also goes to the same length demonstrating the determination of Republican civic leaders to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. It also follows a Democratic state representative who returns to Madison after a 20-year absence and briefly considers a run for governor. In the heat of anti-Walker protests, he becomes disillusioned by both parties’ intransigence on key issues. A shorter version of the documentary was shown as part of PBS’ “Independent Lens” series. It adds deleted scenes, educational and background videos, and commentary. – Gary Dretzka

Robert Mitchum Is Dead
Charlie Casanova
Despite the inference in the title, “Robert Mitchum Is Dead” is neither a documentary, nor a dark homage to the noir classics in which he appeared. The hard-boiled leading man is present in Olivier Babinet and Fred Kihn’s beyond-quirky first feature only in spirit and the occasional visual or spoken reference. Chief among them is the famously self-deprecating line about his acting skills, “One of the greatest movie stars was Rin Tin Tin. It can’t be too much of a trick.” Beyond that, the festival-favorite has more in common with the early “road” pictures of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki’s “Leningrad Cowboys Go America,” in which Jarmusch has a cameo as a used-car salesman. If you were struck by anything in the previous sentence, there’s at least a fighting chance you’ll enjoy “Robert Mitchum Is Dead.” It chronicles a journey taken by a cheeseball talent agent, Arsene (Olivier Gourmet), and an insomniac actor with a gift for mimicry, Franky (Pablo Nicomedes), from a film shoot at a Polish university to a festival held in a tent somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, in Norway. It’s there that the American director, Mr. Sarrineff, who once directed Mitchum in a movie, is scheduled to appear as the guest of honor. Lacking in resources, the pair relies on stolen cars and the gullibility of easily impressed strangers to reach their destination. Also along for the ride is an African musician (Bakary Sangare) whose eerie synth music might be a better fit for a Martian noir than the rockabilly band in which he currently labors. The film’s episodic form may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but any longtime admirer of Jarmusch won’t have any problem with it. It arrives with making-of featurette.

Movies in which the protagonist and antagonist are one and the same character demand a great deal of patience and fortitude from an audience. If that character also happens to be an unrepentant sociopath, the filmmaker’s task is that much more difficult. Only the best actors can pull it off with any credibility. Anytime a vile character, real or imagined, is portrayed by an actor of substance — Billy the Kid, as played by Paul Newman and Kris Kristofferson, for example – the screenwriter and director are going the fudge the truth to preserve the actor’s public image. Charlize Theron won an Oscar as Best Lead Actress for her frightening portrayal of a murderous prostitute in “Monster,” as much for her courage as a professional as her excellent performance. (By contrast, the film’s writer/director, Patty Jenkins, has only found work and not much of it in television.) In Nicolas Winding Refn’s powerful portrait of a criminal beyond redemption, “Bronson,” Tom Hardy delivered a performance that was the equal of any of the fine lead actors nominated that year. Aside from the fact that “Bronson” made no money, it was exactly the kind of drama most academy members would turn off after the first 20 minutes. As terrific as Nicolas Cage’s portrayal of a suicidal, alcoholic screenwriter was in “Leaving Las Vegas,” it’s fair to wonder if he would have won the Best Actor prize if he weren’t of noble Hollywood blood. In the year in which “Braveheart” won Best Picture, “Leaving Las Vegas” wasn’t even nominated.

All of that is a long way of saying that Emmett Scalan’s tour-de-force portrayal of a total scumbag in “Charlie Casanova” is worth the effort to rent, but no one should expect to come away from the experience unscarred. The title character of Terry McMahon’s unforgiving Irish drama is a wealthy ego-maniac who feels the world owes him a living and if anything he’s done has harmed another human, well, it isn’t his fault. In Charlie’s mind, his detractors are merely envious of his privileged status and ability to avoid punishment. They’d do the same thing if they were in his shoes, he reckons. We know this because in the aftermath of an accident in which he kills a pedestrian, he determines how he will deal with it by drawing from a deck of cards while among friends. When brought in for interrogation by police, Charlie insults their working-class roots and educations he deems inferior to his own. If his friends fear his mood swings, they are too easily won over by his glib, rapid-fire braggadocio. As an “alpha male,” he refuses to be guided by the morals of lesser beings, which is to say, everyone else in his orbit.

And yet, Scalan’s portrayal of this unrepentant elitist could hardly be any more forceful or penetrating. The soliloquies he performs at a comedy club’s amateur night reveal a man who understands exactly the nature of his disease, where to find the root cause of his evil deeds and why he won’t change his ways. If no one outside a handful of festivals, including SXSW, was able to see Scalan’s bravura turn on the big screen, the blame can be traced to the fact that “Charlie Casanova” was deemed to be far too unappetizing for human consumption by distributors. It deeply divided critics and audiences without providing a safe middle ground for lively debate or compromise. McMahon was roasted and toasted in equal measure, with the toxicity of the negative reviews reaching levels previously reserved for “Showgirls,” “Heaven’s Gate” and “Battlefield Earth.” Finding positive traction in muck that deep is pretty difficult, though. The one thing “Charlie Casanova” shares with “Robert Mitchum Is Dead” is the niche distributor BrinkVision, a company that “strives for an audience that, while demanding innovative and original entertainment, knows the struggles associated with that endeavor, and is willing to support the cause.” Someone’s got to do it. – Gary Dretzka

My Neighbor Tortoro/Howl’s Moving Castle: Blu-ray
As a shorthand way of introducing the work of animator Hayao Miyazaki to American audiences in the mid-1990s, critics frequently referred to him as “the Walt Disney of Japan.” While not precise, the description was close enough to sell a few tickets, at least. A couple of Miyazaki’s earlier films had found their way to the U.S., but the dubbing and editing were so poorly handled the maestro refused to ever again give carte blanch to overseas companies. That was OK with Walt Disney Company, which formed an alliance with Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki’s Studio Ghibli, which produces a variety of anime, manga and feature-length films, including “Princess Mononoke” and “Castle in the Sky.” Miyazaki was especially impressed by the amount of time, money and talent Disney invested in the dubbing process. To find an audience beyond the arthouse and anime crowd, it was decided that the best strategy was to draw parallels between visionary showman Disney and Miyazaki, whose movies, while fanciful, often were informed by such hot-button issues as environmentalism, pacifism and feminism. Although they approached the subject matter from different directions, both men were interested in showing how their youngest characters made the transition from childhood to adulthood. Miyazaki, however, consciously avoided confrontations between traditionally conceived heroes and villains. Released in 2001, the Ghibli masterpiece “Spirited Away” grossed $275 million at the international box-office, shared the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival with “Bloody Sunday” and won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Two years ago, Disney began a slow rollout of Blu-ray editions of Ghibli titles, with “My Neighbor Tortoro” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” arguably the most significant releases to date. Made 17 years apart, the films reflect Miyazaki’s obsession with supernatural phenomena in nature, wizardry and flight. In “Totoro,” two young girls move to a home in the country to be near their mother, who’s been hospitalized with a serious ailment. In their yard is a large camphor tree that contains three gods of the forest (a.k.a., tortoros). When one of the girls goes missing while attempting to visit her mother, her sister enlists the tortoros to find her. It leads to an adventure, during which they must overcome obstacles and spirits found in the woods. It may take a bit of time for viewers to adjust to the Blu-ray presentation, as Miyazaki refused to permit Disney to update the watercolor drawings and other filmic contrasts. The adjustment comes easily, though.

Also undergoing a new HD digital transfer and audio upgrade is the fanciful “Howl’s Moving Castle,” based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones. In it, a self-conscious 19-year-old hat-maker is transformed by the Witch of the Waste into a 90-year-old version of herself. To reverse the curse, Sophie hops a ride on a ramshackle ambulatory castle owned by the good wizard, Howl. Together, they must tackle several difficult tasks on the way to a cure for Sophie and save innocent people from an absurd war. Among their allies are a scarecrow, a fire demon, an asthmatic dog and the king’s adviser, Madame Suliman. Both of the Blu-ray/DVD packages contain original Japanese storyboards, several informative making-of featurettes, interviews and marketing materials. Among them are “Miyazaki Visits Pixar,” with the director, Suzuki and studio chief John Lasseter, and “The Locations of Tosoro,” which fixes scenes in the movie to real-life places. – Gary Dretzka

Showtime: Sommer: Chandelier Status
The title of Sommore’s latest performance DVD, “Sommer: Chandelier Status,” refers to her desire to be known as a “constant fixture that keeps on shining,” instead of simply, the “Undisputed Queen of Comedy.” It’s been five years since her “Queen Stands Alone” tour and an even dozen since the “Queens of Comedy” documentary and tour. Apparently, in the meantime, Sommore hasn’t lost any of her chops. The performance, taped in Miami for a Showtime special, is definitely funny. What newcomers should know before diving too deeply into the DVD, however, is that Sommore’s as raunchy as Lisa Lampanelli and Amy Schumer and she throws the N-word around like Kat Williams. That doesn’t make her any less entertaining, but tender ears might be singed by most, if not all of the material. The DVD includes a Q&A session with the comedian. – Gary Dretzka

Longmire: The Complete First Season
Nova: Mind of a Rampage Killer
PBS: 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School
Animal Planet: Weird Creatures With Nick Baker: Series 1
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: Sunny Days!
The closest most folks get to a good TV Western these days are replays of classic movies and television series on TMC, AMC and Encore Westerns channel and occasional made-for- cable movie starring Tom Selleck (“Jesse Stone”) and Luke Perry (“Goodnight”). Since the finale of HBO’s “Deadwood,” the only original series has been the contemporary Western, “Justified.” Its protagonist, Raylan Givens, is a quick-on-the-trigger U.S. Marshall, whose style is closer to Wyatt Earp than Matt Dillon. Add to that meager number A&E’s “Longmire,” which enters its second season this week. The series is based on the mystery series by Craig Johnson, which is set in the fictional Wyoming county of Absaroka. The protagonist, Sheriff Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor), is more Matt Dillon than Wyatt Earp or Raylan Givens. He dresses like the Marlboro Man, looks like a cross between Harrison Ford and George W. Bush, has a desert-dry sense of humor and continues to mourn his wife’s death a year after her passing. Almost all of the critics who reviewed the show’s debut episode referred to Longmire as “laconic.” While accurate, it’s a word almost no one in the Old West could spell, let alone define. Simply put, the sheriff is depressed and occasionally needs a cattle prod to get going. The nice thing is that he’s allowed to evolve during the course of the series — just as personal questions are left unresolved from one week to the next — and maintain an unconventional spiritual side. Not being on premium cable, the good-guy characters on “Longmire” only occasionally cuss, never frequent whores or spit tobacco on the sidewalk. In fact, one of Longmire’s trademark quirks is that he picks up litter as he walks around town. That doesn’t mean the show’s writers ignore such modern distractions as strip clubs, meth labs, drug cartels, hippie cults, Indian casinos, conspiracy theories, RV brothels and “CSI”-style forensics, or the lingering hostilities between the native tribes and government agencies. Unlike “Gunsmoke,” which basically was a Western procedural, the key women characters aren’t relegated to playing barroom bimbos, schoolmarms or wearing calico bonnets to church. They can be as nurturing or cruel as anyone else on the show. Native Americans are fairly represented on both sides of the law and the gorgeous New Mexico locations keep the show from looking as if it were shot on the backlot at Warner Bros. or the Spahn Movie Ranch. The boxed set adds the featurettes, “The Camera’s Eye: Realizing the World of Longmire” and “Longmire Justice: Exploring the Cowboy Detective.”

It’s come to the point where such terms as “sociopath,” “psychopath,” “serial killer,” “spree killer” and “mass murderer” aren’t sufficiently precise to characterize the type of person who, in increasing numbers, is able to walk into a theater, church or classroom and open fire on everyone he sees. These fiends now are known as “rampage killers” and the “Nova” presentation “Mind of a Rampage Killer” uses the testimony of a wide variety of experts to get inside their heads. In 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the observation deck of the landmark tower at the University of Texas and began picking off students walking past it. He knew going into the massacre that there was something desperately wrong with his emotional state and ability to control his actions, but it didn’t deter him. Before Whitman finally was killed, he wrote a letter asking that an autopsy be conducted to see if something physical and ostensibly controllable could have been wrong with him. A tumor the size of a pecan was found in his brain and, for a while, at least, a convenient excuse for such abhorrent behavior was available to scientists, police and concerned citizens. If only prevention could be achieved with a well-timed brain scan, our problems with rampage killers might have ended there and then. Alas, even if the effects of the tumor were linked to Whitman’s crime, they were in evidence in other murderers. It’s now clear that other factors are at work, including depression, suicidal desires, revenge for bullying, negative reactions to drugs and other medications, and lingering effects of childhood trauma. Correspondent Miles O’Brien interviewed scientists, psychiatrists and other academic, of course. He also spoke with the father of a rampage killer, the perpetrator of such a crime and a mother who wrote an op-ed piece on her constant fear her son might be the next headline-making miscreant. We also visit a high-security facility in Wisconsin, where the most fearsome teens are incarcerated and treated.

The two-part PBS presentation, “180 Days: Year Inside an American High School,” provides an in-depth look inside Washington Metropolitan High School, in the nation’s capital. Among the many things that don’t work in Washington, D.C. – Congress, law-enforcement agencies, drug-prevention programs – the city’s public-school system may be the most troubling to observe. Despite a per-student allotment that might be considered satisfactory in other districts, it’s hardly made a dent in the drop-out and literacy rates. In 2007, Mayor Adrian Fenty committed his administration’s assets to reversing the negative trajectory of the school district. It mandated the closing of schools, replacing teachers, firing principals and using private education firms to aid curriculum development. Charter schools have also grown in popularity since the initiative was launched. The controversies and turmoil surrounding the city’s school-reform program have also affected day-to-day activities at DC Met, where the interaction between teachers and at-risk students must be balanced by preparation for mandated, standardized tests. “180 Days” is an impressive presentation, even if what it says about America’s priorities isn’t pretty.

Like Frank Buck, Jacques Cousteau, Marlin Perkins and Steve Irwin before him, British naturalist and adventurer Nick Baker travels to the most exotic locations on Earth in search of the world’s most bizarre critters. Baker has been fascinated with animals his entire life, preferring to spend his free time wandering the halls of British Natural History Museum than do almost anything else. Indeed, the show was produced in collaboration with that august facility. The first season of “Weird Creatures With Nick Baker” has been released on DVD by PBS, which currently is airing repeat episodes from 2007-08. The creatures may not actually be weird, by the usual zoological standards, but they rarely seen and endangered in one way of another. Among Baker’s season-one finds are a blood-squirting lizard, in the Arizona desert; the Amazonian vampire fish; saggy-skinned frogs of Lake Titicaca; a pink fairy armadillo, in South America; the world’s “most unusual crocodile,” in India; basking sharks; and the star-nosed mole, of Manitoba. The locations are as fascinating as the creatures.

Rather than send out season-long compilations of its top kiddie shows, Nickelodeon tends to parcel them out on a PPV basis or in themed packages. As far as I can tell, “Bubble Guppies: Sunny Days!” is the third six-pack of episodes, representing less than half of the two-season run. The latest installment is themed to coincide with the arrival of summer and family-vacation time. As such, the entries include “The Beach Ball!,” “The Legend of Pinkfoot,” “Bring on the Bugs,” “The Sizzling Scampinis!,” “Bubble Duckies!” and “Gup, Gup, and Away!” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Beautiful Creatures: Blu-ray
True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season: Blu-ray
Not having the vaguest clue as to what makes teenagers tick these days, I assumed incorrectly that “Beautiful Creatures” would give “Twilight” a run for its money at the multiplex. From my decidedly adult point of view, I thought that Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of the best-selling young-adult series was more handsomely mounted, better acted and more interesting than the “Twilight” entries. Teenage protagonists Lena and Ethan (Alice Englert, Alden Ehrenreich) were at a disadvantage from the get-go, of course, given the amazing acceptance of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart as lovers, but they look good together and aren’t lacking in chemistry. The relative lack of importance assigned other teenagers by LaGravenese – and noticeable absence of buff, shirtless wolf-boys – probably didn’t help build word-of-mouth. No matter how good Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Eileen Atkins and Jeremy Irons are in the adult roles, they aren’t on the radar of most teenagers. Or, perhaps, teens are as sick of romantic horror movies as everyone else and only there’s only room in their hearts for one such franchise … two, if TV’s “True Blood” is counted. If it weren’t for worldwide box-office returns, “Beautiful Creatures” would have missed it production nut by $40 million, instead of breaking even. It deserves to do better in its DVD/Blu-ray/VOD afterlife.

Lena (Englert), the new girl in town, lives with her Uncle Macon Ravenwood (Irons) and Gramma (Atkins) in a spooky Gothic estate that’s been vacant and presumed haunted for many years. The God-fearing Protestants in the small Southern town aren’t keen to learn that the Ravenwood clan is back in residence and, after Lena unleashes her “caster” powers on the “popular” bioches at school, they demand she be expelled. Like Barnabas Collins in “Dark Shadows,” though, Macon is quick to remind the bible-bangers that everything in town, including their church, exists at the behest of his ancestors’ generosity. Ethan digs Lena because she’s the only girl within miles that’s heard of Holden Caulfield and, like him, enjoys reading banned books. After he rescues her from a bad scene at school, Lena turns Ethan on to Charles Bukowski’s poetry. That would qualify as a stretch in most movies. The rest of the Ravenwood family is coming to town to participate in Lena’s coming-of-age ritual, at which time she will have to break Ethan’s heart forever or face the same terrible fate as her mother, who exists primarily as a dark specter and shape-shifter. The curse on all women sharing Lena’s bloodline was generated after a distant relative brought her human lover back to life during a Civil War battle. (For the record: casters are to witches, what the X-Men are to the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and those who live “in the dark” are the most evil of them all.) As luck would have it, Ethan’s African-American guardian (Davis) has a history with Uncle Macon and neither is interested in putting the kids in harm’s way. As Lena’s 16th birthday nears, “Beautiful Creatures” shifts into paranormal overdrive.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie, perhaps because I could listen to Irons and Thompson read the London phonebook and be entertained. Rossum, too, is allowed plenty of room to vamp up her demonic character. The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes and a 24-minute compilation of “Focus Point” featurettes, including interviews with the authors.

After five seasons of life on HBO, it’s easy to forget that “True Blood” faced a sobering amount of indifference upon its launch on the premium-cable network. The network spent a ton of money trying to find an audience for the sexy vampire drama, covering every base from viral marketing and giving stuff away at ComiCon, to creating a True Blood beverage and handing out tapes of the first episode to Blockbuster customers. Regardless, it would open to disappointing ratings – compared to “Big Love” and, even, “John From Cincinnati” – and generally lukewarm reviews. By mid-season, the tide had turned. Newcomers were able to catch up via frequent repeats and creator Alan Ball was able to focus on the evolution of the story, rather than having to explain the motivations of the characters ad nauseam as the season went on. The second-season premiere was greeted with numbers second only to the recent finale of “The Sopranos.” Fans will continue to argue the merits of one season over previous years’ storylines and characters. Some feel the show “jumped the shark” after Season 1, while others can’t wait for the oft-promised Vampire Apocalypse to begin. Technically, “True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season” is a treat to watch on Blu-ray. Among the goodies are five commentaries with cast and crew; Enhanced Viewing Mode options are available on each episode, as are “Inside the Episodes” breakouts; the sixth episode, “Hopeless,” is given an hourlong “Autopsy”; an updated family tree; character “confessionals”; and DVD and digital copies. – Gary Dretzka

Cloud Atlas: Blu-ray
The first time I can remember being totally fooled and manipulated by special makeup effects – delightfully so, I should add – was as a wee lad, at the tail end of John Huston’s tricky 1963 mystery, “The List of Adrian Messenger.” In fact, I was twice confused by the use of disguised faces in the unraveling of the story. Once, when the faces of several of the heavily made-up characters were revealed to be those of A-list stars; second, when I learned that the cameo appearances, themselves, were ruses. In fact, most of the characters were played by stand-in actors, with the stars only adding their glitter as a favor to Huston. It was a cool gimmick and the first that required me to maintain a no-spoiler policy with friends. I was carried back in time to “Adrian Messenger” by the primary conceit of “Cloud Atlas.” As far as I can tell, more than 90 characters in “Cloud Atlas” are portrayed by a couple dozen actors, some un-credited or hardly known, with each of the stars taking on as many as six different parts and alternating genders. You’ll recognize most, but certainly not all of them in the guises. As adapted and directed by Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) and Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”), “Cloud Atlas” does a good job capturing the magic, mayhem and mechanics of David Mitchell’s much-celebrated 2004 novel. In doing so, however, the creative team requires of viewers that they not only suspend disbelief for most of its 172-minute length, but also keep track of its six “nested” stories. They take place in wildly diverse settings, from 1849 in the South Pacific, to a post-apocalyptic Earth and beyond. Vastly different iterations of the same characters appear in each of the interwoven stories – some bearing similar markings or humming the same tune – giving us reason to believe that the Butterfly Effect isn’t limited to a single plane of being in the physical world. In effect, the trajectories of our lives and incarnations are determined by astronomical configurations so dense with stars and interstellar debris that an atlas is necessary to chart the echoes of time. Feelings of déjà vu hint at where we’ve been, if not where we’re going … or something like that.

If all that metaphysical mumbo-jumbo sounds intimidating, imagine how the principal actors — Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whislaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Susan Sarandon — felt when they were handed their scripts. Or, when they were told that the Wachowskis would direct the 1849, 2144 and 2321 segments, while Tykwer would handle 1936, 1973 and 2012. The theatrical version of “Cloud Atlas” inspired spirited debate among mainstream critics, dividing them roughly in half on its merits as an investment in time and effort. In Blu-ray, it’s a no-brainer. Movies this divisive – even the negative reviews offered degrees of praise – more often than not deserve to be seen, anyway, even if one sacrifices the big-screen environment. Here, the set designs, special effects and costumes are worth the price of a rental, alone, and, beyond that, the acting is flawless. And, yes, “Cloud Atlas” can be as maddening and bewildering as any synopsis might seem to people already averse to the traits admired by sci-fi and fantasy nerds. Certainly, it’s no more challenging than the Wachowskis’ “Matrix” trilogy. The Blu-ray package adds seven informative making-of featurettes, several of which even include the observations of the infrequently heard and rarely seen, Lana Wachowski. They tend to repeat themselves, but are better than no explanations at all. It’s likely that a more grandiose package will arrive eventually, possibly with commentary and deleted scenes. That’s pretty much the norm these days with high-profile projects. Among them are discussions of Mitchell’s novel and how one goes about translating an “un-filmable” book and how three writer/directors can co-exist on the same project. The audio-visual presentation is excellent, as well. Wal-mart shoppers will find a special edition that contains a VUDU digital copy. – Gary Dretzka

Nightfall: Blu-ray
In “Eastern Promises,” David Cronenberg staged a fight in a London bathhouse so savage that it raised the bar on all gangster punch-outs to come. For my money, the shower-room skirmish that opens Roy Chow Hin-Yeung’s thriller, “Nightfall,” runs a pretty close second. The setting is a Hong Kong prison, where a scrawny young convict — convicted in a rape/murder he claims he didn’t commit — is required to do battle with three gangsters who probably would kill people even if they didn’t get paid to do it. Using every corner, edge, drain plate and blunt object available to him, Wong (Nick Cheung) destroys the brutes at their own game. The fight is as painful to watch in some places as it is thrilling. After barely surviving the beat-down, Wong takes it upon himself to buff up for the test of survival he knows will come every time he leaves his cell over the next 15-20 years. By the time he’s released on parole, Wong is fully prepared to avenge the wrong that landed him in prison in the first place. He secures a job as a piano tuner, a skill he retained from civilian life, and it puts him suspiciously close to two people who soon will figure into his master plan. One is a celebrated classical musician, while the other is a talented young pianist who we soon learn is his daughter. Without revealing too much of the story to come, suffice it to say that Wong has a history with both of them. What we don’t know is if Wong will punish the father by attacking the daughter or whether his attention to the daughter is simply one of several red herrings Chow and writer To Chi-long are throwing at us.

When the musician is found dead, floating in the ocean, the detective assigned to the case, Lam (Simon Yam), simply puts 2 and 2 together and comes up with Wong’s number. Absent evidence pinning him to the crime, however, the simple equation turns into a cat-and-mouse chase covering much of Hong Kong. The jaded cop, Lam, is carrying a heavy load of baggage of his own and it becomes an issue with his partner and squad. The investigation and pursuit reminded me of “Old Boy” and “Law & Order.” It also has contains a fight scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond movie. Some viewers will see the climax coming a mile away, but it’s more fun simply to sit back and let the action come to you. The Blu-ray arrives with a 47-minute making-of featurette that, while interesting, will please Hong Kong audiences and longtime fans of the actors more than newcomers. – Gary Dretzka

A Common Man: Blu-ray
If it weren’t for the presence of Ben Kingsley in the lead role, “A Common Man” would be just another under-realized movie that didn’t warrant a theatrical run or DVD distribution outside the market of origin, Sri Lanka. In fact, there are times when the topical, tropical terrorist thriller – a remake of the 2008 Indian film, “A Wednesday” – feels more like a vanity project than a movie that cried out to be made. That co-writer/director Chandran Rutnam was able to convince Kingsley to headline the project automatically makes “Common Man” of interest to international audiences, however. Sri Lanka has only recently begun to recover from a long and painful civil war, so, like everything else in the island nation, the evolution of a national cinema had to be put on hold for more than two decades. Because of the terribly brutal nature of that struggle, Kingsley’s portrayal of a terrorist bomb maker (a.k.a., the Man) didn’t require any suspension of disbelief among local viewers. As we know all too well, by now, a terrorist can look like an Academy Award-winning actor, the religious fanatic down the street or someone who could easily blend into a crowd at a major sporting event. Here, the movie opens with Kingsley methodically planting bombs in five different locations in the capital city of Colombo and then moving to a perch on a tall building overlooking the ocean. It allows him to monitor police radio transmissions and detonate the bombs without structural interference, if his demands aren’t met.

It only takes about 20 minutes to get to this point in the drama and Kingsley’s coldly efficient approach to his unstated mission is frightening to watch. The rest of the movie is consumed both with the unusual decision to meet his demands – the release of four convicted terrorists – and the police hunt for the Man’s whereabouts. We know that the wife of one of the cops involved in the investigation is sitting in a train car in which the Man has planted a bomb, but, otherwise, the emotional connection between the disparate key characters is pretty shaky. Neither is the depiction of the police work all that convincing. The resolution does come as something of a surprise, however. “A Wednesday” received solid reviews and was nominated for several awards, so it’s a bit of a mystery as to why Rutnam decided to re-boot the movie after only four years, moving the location from Mumbai to Colombo. Nevertheless, the setting could just as well have been Boston on Patriots’ Day and the story would still work. All the better if Kingsley agreed to reprise the role. – Gary Dretzka

Love Sick Love
Look up “crazy-girlfriend movies” on the Internet and you’ll find barely enough titles to constitute a sub-genre. Psycho-boyfriends of the Mr. Goodbar persuasion are far more prevalent, as are psycho-roommates and psycho-wives. “Fatal Attraction” gave pause to married men considering a tryst on the side, while “Misery” argued against taking all acts of charity for granted. Otherwise, the odds against a guy being done in by a woman he picks up at a bar or nightclub – in the movies, at least – are pretty much in the man’s favor. “Love Sick Love” is a smallish black comedy that merges elements of “Misery,” “Fatal Attraction” and, for good measure, a pinch of the Addams Family. What it doesn’t provide is a reason to care about what happens to the unsuspecting boyfriend. In fact, it’s just as easy to embrace the crazies. Katia Winter is very convincing as Dori, a pretty serial dater who is as sweet as cherry pie one day and bat-shit crazy the next morning. After hooking up with the handsome cad, Norman (Matthew Settle), Dori invites him to spend the weekend with her at the family’s summer house in Upstate New York. The first night is a slice of heaven, but, when he awakes the next morning, Norman is confronted with a pair of children he wasn’t aware existed and Dori’s exceedingly wacky grandparents (old pros M. Emmet Walsh and Charlotte Rae). The first sign of real trouble comes when Dori and the kids pretend to be celebrating a holiday that’s well past and they insist that Norman join in the “fun.” This inexplicably goes on all weekend, with the holiday changing every couple of hours. When the boyfriend refuses to play along any longer, Dori and the grandparents makes him a prisoner, using everything from duct tape to chains and a makeshift suit of armor to keep him from escaping. Being an amoral real-estate developer in Manhattan, it’s difficult to find much sympathy for Norman, even when the picture of a lady caller pops up on his cellphone and Dori treats it as a betrayal of their “love.” Director Christian Charles has worked on some of Jerry Seinfeld’s side projects, but doesn’t have the movie thing down yet. If “Love Sick Love” isn’t quite ready for the big leagues, it still has enough going for it to give male viewers a few shivers and their girlfriends a few laughs at their expense. – Gary Dretzka

This Girl Is Bad-Ass!!: Blu-ray
The latest comedic assault from popular Thai actor/director/writer Petchtai Wongkamlao originally was titled “Jukkalan,” after its lead female character, JeeJa Yanin. On DVD and Blu-ray, it’s being sent out as “This Girl Is Bad-Ass!!,” which should ring a bell in the heads of fans of Matthew Vaughn’s wildly entertaining, “Kick-Ass,” if not the Danny Trejo straight-to-DVD actioner, “Bad Ass.”  Both films feature a girl protagonist who can beat the crap out of her male enemies, while performing acrobatic stunts that remind us of Jackie Chan. If “This Girl Is Bad-Ass!!” were only half as coherent and competently made as “Kick-Ass,” it would stand a chance as an appealing oddity among martial-arts cultists. As it is, there are several scenes – one in which the girl uses a bicycle as a shield and weapon – that qualify it as a guilty pleasure. Jukkalan serves as a messenger for a rogues’ gallery of underworld types, who seemingly can’t find anyone older to deliver their money and drugs. When a shipment is hijacked, Jukkalan finds herself caught in the crossfire of threats and recriminations. Undaunted, the girl is every bit as bad-ass as the title suggests. Most nutty, though, are the gangsters and their henchmen she battles in the streets of Bangkok. They look funny, dress funny and say things that, in Thailand, probably are funny. There’s even a collection of bad-ass “little people” who train for and compete in Muy Thai competitions. As in Wongkamlao’s series of “Bodyguard” and “Ong-bak” flicks – along with Yanin’s breakthrough, “Chocolate” — the action is fast and furious. – Gary Dretzka

Last Kind Words
An Irish Vampire in Hollywood
The ABC’s of Death: Blu-ray
Mold
The Dark Dealer
The presence of veteran character actor Brad Dourif in a movie or television series is enough to recommend a second look, at least, to lovers of twisted genre entertainment. Although his best work came early in his career in such classy entertainments as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Wise Blood” and “Ragtime,” he was terrific in the HBO series “Deadwood” and remains a brand-name asset in any thriller or horror flick. In Kevin Barker’s very decent ghost story, “Last Kind Words,” he plays a Kentucky farmer whose property is also home to spirits that can be traced to the Civil War. The landowner has brought in a family to help him complete the tobacco harvest and is letting them live in a trailer there. Seventeen-year-old Eli (Spencer Daniels) avoids the drunken outbursts of his father by spending the night walking around the farm, occasionally spotting apparitions hanging from trees or finding himself being seduced by a mysterious redhead (Alexia Fast). Eventually, the farmer reveals secrets of his own to Eli and, of course, they’re linked inexplicably to the spook show in the cordoned-off back-40 acres. The biggest problem with “Last Kind Words” is Barker’s insistence on adding a separate romantic through-line to the story and an overly heavy-handed, if convenient threat to the farmer from local gangsters. Otherwise, it marks a nice start to Barker’s feature career.

An Irish Vampire in Hollywood” (a.k.a., “An Irish Vampire Goes West”) is a rough-around-the-edges indie that’s been sitting around on someone’s shelf for the last six years and is only now getting a release on DVD. Although the movie has DIY written all over it, “Irish Vampire” has one thing going for it that the vast majority of all such supernatural films don’t and that’s Ireland. Along with Mexico, the Emerald Isle is one of the most magically realistic countries on the planet. Even without the twin vampires and mad scientists we meet here, Ireland already is populated with leprechauns, faeries and enough religious mysticism to fill a hundred movies. Add to that the many ruined castles, weathered cemeteries and sacred pubs and you have backdrops for horror Hollywood set-dressers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-create. The movie opens not in Hollywood, but in Venice, where an actress is kidnapped by one of the twin vampires and taken back to Ireland to be laid in the Old Sod. The woman’s sister gets wind of the abduction and finds herself in the middle of a sticky situation that somehow also involves their father and his land. I lost track of the plot about a third of the way through “Irish Vampire,” but the atmosphere was intriguing enough to keep me watching. The standard-issue vampire lore is amplified by cinematography that seems influenced by “Nosferatu” and other ancient horror classics.

Too ambitious by at least half, “The ABCs of Death” is an anthology that is simultaneously too much of one thing and not enough of the other. The conceit demands that 26 directors create 26 films no longer than five minutes each, describing 26 ways people can die, according to the 26 letters in the alphabet. The titles range from “A Is for Apocalypse” and “B Is for Bigfoot,” to “Y Is for Youngbuck” and “Z Is for Zetsumetsu,” with stops in between for “F Is for Fart,” “K Is for Klutz” and “T Is for Toilet.” And, yes, quite a few of the shorts wallow in scatological humor. Some are fun, while others require a cast-iron stomach to sit through. Among the better-know directors are Adam Wingard (“V/H/S”), Ben Wheatley (“Kill List”), Srdjan Spasojevic (“A Serbian Film”), Yoshihiro Nishimura (“Tokyo Gore Police”) and Angela Bettis (“Roman”). Fans of extreme new-school horror will enjoy the entries more than longtime genre followers.

It a storyline that might have been inspired by the Nixon administration’s unsuccessful attempt to eradicate the  world’s marijuana crop with paraquat, “Mold” describes what happens scientists working at the behest of President Reagan’s DEA create a fungus to wipe out the coca fields of South America. Without leaving the confines of a laboratory that looks as if it were constructed of cardboard, the chemical reveals itself to be as lethal to humans as it is to the banned substances. The damage caused by the genetically engineered herbicide put the talent of the project’s makeup-effects to the fill test. “Mold” is wildly gory and the fungus resembles a steroid-enhanced corruption of the monster in “The Blob.” Not at all pretentious, however, Neil Meschino’s debut feature is the kind of movie aspiring effects wizards should watch to see what it takes to get their showcase reel noticed. The DVD adds plenty of making-of material.

Made in 1995 and just surfacing now, “The Dark Dealer” is a thorough mess in which Satan gives several miscreants an opportunity to save their souls by taking him on in a game of poker or blackjack. The cobbled-together feel derives from the decision to take two short films and wrap connecting tissue to them to create a feature-length picture. Unfortunately, the sum of its parts is of far less value than the original shorts. One of them expands on the myth of a bluesman whose devilishly good material is stolen 30 years after his uncelebrated death by a white lawyer and sold as if he’d written it. That sin tarnishes everyone records the songs. The other segments aren’t nearly as coherent as “Blues in the Night,” but, given the budget, it’s fortunate that “Dark Dealer” was completed, at all. – Gary Dretzka

The Town That Dreaded Sundown: Blu-ray
The Burning: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Captain America: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In 1976, slasher films had yet to be accorded even sub-genre status in the horror/exploitation arena. The outrage of mainstream critics toward “women in jeopardy” and “dead-teenager movies” had yet to be registered and trick-or-treaters had yet to don masks of their favorite serial killers to solicit goodies on Halloween. Set-designer Charles B. Pierce was one of the pioneers of the form, creating such low-budget actioners as “Bootleggers,” “Grayeagle,” “The Norsemen,” “The Evictors” and “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” mostly for consumption in Southern drive-ins. “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” represented a slight departure from the stereotype in that it was a docudrama that chronicled an actual series of brutal attacks that became known as the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders.” Although gory as all get-out, Pierce’s movie was built from a template used in decades’ worth of police procedurals, including the unseen narrator and small doses of comic relief. All that was known about the fiend, whose crimes began in 1946, was he covered his face with a flour sack and struck every 21 days in secluded places where young couples parked to neck and pet. The great mid-century Western star Ben Johnson stars as a celebrated Texas Ranger, J.D. Morales, who was called in to apprehend the killer. That Texas’ top investigator failed only added to the likelihood that he might still be on the loose and targeting teens elsewhere. The marketing campaign emphasized that possibility, of course. In fact, a sequel is being made, in which the killer strikes during one of the annual outdoor screenings of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” in Texarkana. Typically, the Shout! Factory Blu-ray release is full of updated featurettes and interviews and is distinguished by a superb digital facelift.

Made in 1981, “The Burning” is credited with several noteworthy inventions. It wasn’t the first slasher picture to be set at a summer camp for teenagers – “Friday the 13th” is accorded that honor – but one legend argues that “The Burning” was written before Sean S. Cunningham began filming his camp-counselor-in-danger thriller. What is most interesting about “The Burning,” however, is its pedigree. Among other things, it is considered to be the first feature produced by Miramax Films. It was created and produced by Harvey Weinstein, from an original story he wrote with future mogul Brad Grey and director Tony Maylam. The screenplay was co-written by Bob Weinstein, and various other Weinsteins and Greys lent their support to the project, as well. Rick Wakeman, the former keyboard wizard of Yes, produced the soundtrack. But, wait, there’s more. Among the campers who become the prey of revenge killer, Cropsy, are then-newcomers Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter, Leah Ayres, Ned Eisenberg and Brian Backer. It also was one of the first noteworthy credits for special effects and makeup wizard Tom Savini. Once again, the Shout! Factory upgrade looks better than it has any right to be and the fresh interviews add much to our enjoyment.

The much-maligned 1990 version of “Captain America” was reissued as part of MGM’s on-demand series almost simultaneously with the release of Paramount’s mega-budget “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Made at a small fraction of the re-boot’s $160-million budget, Albert Pyun’s version is remarkably similar to its successor. The primary differences derive from the exponentially more sophisticated CGI effects and enlistment of an all-star cast. And, while “Captain America” launched straight-to-video, “CA:TFA” is ramping up for a 2014 sequel. More than two decades later, the special effects remain as cheesy as ever and the women supervillains still looks sexy while hoisting automatic weapons. Matt Salinger plays the American soldier who’s been given the superpowers – and shield – necessary to defend democracy against a superhuman Nazi, Red Skull (Scott Paulin). The endangered President of the United States is played by Ronny Cox. The chases and fights in Pyun’s version of the story may harken back to those in the first generation of James Bond rip-offs, but the Croatian and Slovenian locations help make us forget how low-rent the production really was. The Shout! Factory Blu-ray is sharper than it has any right to look and it adds a looking-back featurette with reminiscences by Pyun and Salinger. – Gary Dretzka

Rolling Thunder: Blu-ray
In 1968, when “The Green Berets” was released, Hollywood was more than happy to jump on the Pentagon bandwagon. The antiwar movement was still finding its legs and the divisive Democratic Convention was still a month away from the July 4 premiere. Moreover, John Wayne’s Batjac Productions would be assuming most of the expenses. Despite some ultra-negative reviews, it ended making money. It would take Hollywood almost a decade to figure out a way to exploit the war and not look like a tool of the Republican Party. A year before the 1978 release of such well-considered pictures as “Go Tell the Spartans,” “Who Will Stop the Rain,” “The Boys in Company C,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home.” The crazy-vet subgenre didn’t disappear overnight and neither did such vet-as-vigilante movies as “Rolling Thunder.” Neither did the fall of Saigon to the NVA and Viet Cong help the studios figure out how to respond to a decade’s worth of carnage.

Co-written by Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver”) and Heywood Gould (“The Boys From Brazil”), “Rolling Thunder” was scheduled by Fox to be one of its highlighted titles of 1977. When the brass saw the finished product, however, executives were so put off by the violence and a horribly negative test screening that they handed it off to the exploitation mavens at AIP. According to Schrader, they also reshaped the movie from an indictment of our Vietnam misadventure and fascism to revenge picture with characters the drive-in crowd was more able to digest. As the movie opens, former longtime POW Major Charles Rane (William Devane) returns to a hero’s welcome in San Antonio. He’s accompanied by a fellow Texan and prisoner-of-war, Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones). Neither is much interested in sharing much information about their ordeal with the local press and family members. Mirrored sunglasses hide their emotions from the public and the pain that comes to Rane when his wife informs him of her intentions to marry an old friend. Not even the red Cadillac convertible and $2,500 in silver dollars he received from community leaders can cut through the disappointment of losing his wife and, possibly, the son who hardly knows him. He maintains his stoicism even after some bad hombres break into his home to steal his silver dollars, cut off a hand and murder his family.

When his arm and heart begin to heal, Rane decides to grab his new soldier-groupie girlfriend and head for the border, where he suspects the bad guys are laying low. It takes a while before he can exact his revenge, but, with Vohden’s ready assistance, he finds justice in Old Mexico. The original script had “allegory” written all over it, but the finished product was cut to resemble genre fare. As it is, “Rolling Thunder” isn’t a bad movie and it looks pretty good in Studio Canal’s Blu-ray edition. (It was released on DVD two years ago, but in a manufactured-on-demand basis.) The package includes the film’s original theatrical trailer and TV spot; an interview with actress Linda Haynes; and audio commentary with Gould. – Gary Dretzka

Irvine Welsh’s Ecstacy
When Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel, “Trainspotting,” was released in 1996, it was greeted by critics and arthouse habitués as something new and completely different from the usual portrayal of white punks on dope. It zigged and zagged along at a frantic pace, depicting the high highs and low lows of addiction in ways that mostly spared audiences the quivering and quaking clichés of euphoria and withdrawal. A few years later, Darren Aronofsky’s manic retelling of Hubert Selby’s “Requiem for a Dream” would trump its intensity and drama, while such gritty films as “Down to the Bone,” “Spun,” “The Salton Sea” and “Blow” followed suit. Had it been made a dozen years ago, “Irvine Welsh’s Ecstacy” would have fit alongside these titles and “24 Hour Party People” as a cautionary tale about irresistible temptations. Like “Trainspotting,” Rob Heydon borrows from the Irvine Welsh catalog of stories about life among Edinburgh’s youthful drug abusers. Ecstacy, whose scientific name is MDMA, taken in its purest form induces a sense of euphoria in its partakers, as well as an urge for intimacy and lessening of anxiety. Research into the effects of the drug has yet to reveal any long-term damage, but, like aspirin, it can be misused and cause adverse reactions.

The biggest drawback to Ecstacy in the movies, at least, is the illegality of procuring, transporting, selling and carrying it. In this way, Heydon’s first feature resembles “Layer Cake.” By banning it, governments have ensured that some awfully bad people will go to great lengths to fulfill the insatiable appetite of party animals and nightclub denizens. Here, a small-time trafficker falls prey to the same greed that upends most criminals. When he’s late in a payment to his underworld boss, the weight of the world begins to fall on his shoulders. In addition to having to scramble for cash, he loses the girlfriend who thinks his way with words comes naturally, instead of as a byproduct of MDMA and cocaine. It’s an ancient story, but Heydon’s retelling of it suffers from familiarity. The dancing and sex scenes could have been filmed any time within the last 20 years and the frenetic editing also borders on the cliché. Other than that, I have no real problems with “Ecstacy.” It’s well acted and entertaining, as far as it goes, but too often plays like a broken record. – Gary Dretzka

Struck by Lightning: Blu-ray
Chris Colfer, who turns 23 this week, probably will be asked to play high school seniors for another five years or until his high-pitched voice finally breaks. In “Struck by Lightning,” which he stars in and wrote, Colfer plays a character not very unlike the one he personifies in “Glee.” Here, though, his Carson Philips doesn’t have to battle homophobia or defend himself against bullies. Instead of spending his free time with the glee club, in “Struck by Lightning” is in charge of his school’s literary magazine. It isn’t a very popular extracurricular activity, so he has to come up with sneaky ways to fill its pages. And, no, he isn’t averse to resorting to blackmail. Carson has other problems, including being a longshot candidate for placement at Northwest University; a mother (Allison Janney), whose bitterness manifests itself in alcoholism and cruel personal attacks on her son; an estranged father (Dermot Mulroney), who’s more interested in building birdcages than sharing time with him; the baby soon to be delivered by his father’s much-younger girlfriend (Christina Hendricks); and teachers who openly side with the cool kids and jocks over the geeks and nerds. The kicker is revealed in the opening moments of Brian Dannelly’s movie, when Carson is struck by lightning in the school parking lot, so no spoiler alert is necessary. The boy narrates his own story, strictly from his semi-sarcastic point of view. The tried-and-true premise will resonate more with teenagers than adult fans of “Glee,” although Colfer’s charisma should be enough to draw some of them into it. He gets excellent support from Rebel Wilson, whose character enjoys editing the literary journal as much as Carson. The Blu-ray adds a “Story Behind the Scene” featurette; interviews with Colfer and Dannelly; bloopers; and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Saving Hope: The Complete First Season
Nature: The Mysteries of Eels
BBC: The Royal Collection
Made in Canada for a summer 2012 airing on NBC, “Saving Hope” is a hospital drama with a supernatural twist. While the body of Chief of Surgery Charlie Harris (Michael Shanks) lies in a coma in one corner of Toronto’s Hope Zion Hospital, his spirit wanders its hallways looking for ways to ease the transition from life to death for terminal patients. Conveniently, Harris is also able to monitor the comings and goings of his fiancée and fellow surgeon, Alex Reid (Erica Durance), and other former associates. The series was greeted by good ratings in its opening stanza, but the gimmick and resemblance to “Grey’s Anatomy” stymied its growth. The last two episodes in its run were pulled from the air and shown only on the network’s online service. They’re included here. “Saving Hope” has been picked up in Canada, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that it might return here someday. The DVD package includes interviews with Durance, Shanks and Daniel Gillies, as well as behind-the-scenes footage.

The “Nature” presentation, “The Mysteries of Eels,” doesn’t attempt to make a case for eels being as cute as clownfish or as majestic as a sperm whale. It accepts as given that most people are disgusted by its snakelike appearance, slimy flesh and fearsome teeth and that they breed in such numbers they might rival cockroaches in their ability to survive the apocalypse. If an increasing number of diners didn’t consider some fresh- and saltwater species so tasty, it’s possible they wouldn’t have any human allies. The eels considered by naturalist/artist/writer James Prosek are the most prosaic of a lot that also includes exotic morays, evil morays and the amazing electric species, although, technically, it’s a lethal variety of knifefish. The PBS show focuses on eels common to rivers in the American Northeast and in New Zealand, where the giant strains are treated as mystical creatures by the Maori. Prosek explores the long-unanswered question of where the breeding grounds are located and how they know when to move from rivers to the sea. Neither does he ignore the fact that while some upstart anglers in New England are getting rich trapping tiny eels for transport to China and Japan, the ones native to Japan and other places are in danger of extinction.

As if to test the ability of commoners to consume unending tidbits of information about the British royals, this summer will bring the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and the expected safe delivery of her heir apparent: Prince William and Catherine Middleton’s baby. To celebrate and/or exploit the occasions, BBC Home Entertainment is releasing a boxed set of its most interesting royal titles. “BBC: The Royal Collection” is comprised of “The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II,” which explores the backstory to the Queen’s 1953 coronation; “King George and Queen Mary: The Royals Who Rescued the Monarchy,” about the couple that saved the Royal Family from near obsolescence and created the House of Windsor; “Queen Victoria’s Children,” a look into the tumultuous relationship between Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children”; and “How to Be a Prince,” which shows what it was like for Prince William to grow up royal and how his upbringing by Princess Diana stood in stark contrast to his many predecessors. The BBC always is the right source for such historic overviews. – Gary Dretzka

LEGO Batman: The Movie: DC Super Heroes Unite: Blu-ray
Adventures of Bailey: Welcome to Cowtown
The idea of familiar superheroes being re-created in the likeness of LEGO blockheads remains more than a little bit curious to me. Such mergers of iconic entertainment brands always takes some getting used to, no matter how inevitable they’ve become. It’s nice to see that the companies have spared no expenses to ensure their products’ integrity. Despite the the unwieldy title, “LEGO Batman: The Movie: DC Super Heroes Unite,” the story should be familiar enough, even to newcomers to the comic legends. Based on a new video game, it describes what happens when a man-of-the-year ceremony forBruce Wayne is interrupted by the Joker, Riddler, Catwoman and Two-Face. Upset that Wayne is getting all the attention from the community, Lex Luthor recruits Joker to join him in his pursuit of the public office and deployment of the Black LEGO Destructor Ray on Gotham. The call for help goes out to Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Justice League. The feature-length movie adds several cinematic touches not available to the video-game developers. The special Blu-ray package includes the featurette, “Building Batman”; three bonus cartoons; a LEGO Batman stop-motion short; and winning shorts from the LEGO DC Universe Super Heroes video contest. The UltraViolet feature allows fans to stream and download the material to their computers, as well as compatible Android, iPhone, iPod and iPad devices. It also offers a Clark Kent/Superman LEGO mini-figure.

Just when Bailey the Labrador settles into one new home, his owners pick up their stakes and move to a completely different environment. In the new feature-length “Adventures of Bailey: Welcome to Cowtown,” The heroic canine and his brother, Duke, find themselves in reasonable facsimile of the Old West. Bailey flips for a Pomeranian sweetie, Trixie, whose brother has been kidnaped and is being held for ransom in historic Cowtown. It should prove to be great fun for the youngest viewers, who don’t mind that the dogs’ jaws don’t move when communicating with each other. How old-fashioned is that?  – Gary Dretzka

4 Movie Collection: Hollywood Hits
The latest batch of compilations from Mill Creek Entertainment offers a lot of entertainment for under $10 a set. This time around there’s a little bit of something for everyone. The selections include campy bombs, little seen treasures and genre oddities. Horror fans will enjoy “The Return of the Vampire,” with Bela Lugosi; Hammer Film’s “Revenge of Frankenstein”; William Castle’s “Mr. Sardonicus”; and “Brotherhood of Satan,” with Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones. All are from the Columbia catalog. For something lighter, there’s the caper flick “Cops and Robbersons”; Bill Cosby’s disastrous “Leonard Part 6”; Mike Nichols’ sci-fi turkey, “What Planet Are You From?,” with Garry Shandling, John Goodman, Greg Kinnear and Annette Bening; and “Vibes,” with Cyndi Lauper, Jeff Goldblum and Peter Falk. Erotic thrillers are represented by “In the Cut,” with Meg Ryan; “Shadow of a Doubt”; “The Quiet” and “Trapped.”

The other boxed sets include Stefan Ruzowitzky’ medical thrillers “Anatomy” and “Anatomy 2,” Chen Kuo-fu’s fungus-among-us mystery “Double Vision” and slasher tome “April Fool’s Day”; underexposed thrillers, “The Nines,” with Ryan Reynolds; Melissa McCarthy and Hope Davis; actor/director/writer Anthony Hopkins’ “Slipstream”; John Sayles’ Alaska-based “Limbo”; and “Already Dead,” with Christopher Plummer. There’s also teen and family comedies “Bingo,” “Race the Sun,” “My Stepmother Is an Alien” and “Little Secrets.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Escape: Blu-ray
Don’t let the familiarity of the illustration on the cover of “Escape” discourage you from taking a chance on this surprisingly exciting period adventure from Norway. If it consciously echoes the marketing material for “The Hunger Games,” you should know that almost nothing else resembles that blockbuster, except the courage and spunk of the lead character, Signe, and the occasional bow and arrow. “Escape” is set in the 14th Century, shortly after the Black Death raged through Norway, killing half its population, and superstition ruled the land. Signe has been captured by outlaws determined to avenge the death of their leader’s young daughter and slaughter anyone who gets in their way. There’s no prize awaiting Signe if she survives her ordeal and no Norwegian equivalent for such silly names as Katniss, Primrose, Seneca, Effie and Peeta. What it does share with “Hunger Games,” however, is wall-to-wall action, primitive weaponry and a couple of alpha females. Signe is captured by the renegades after watching her father, mother and brother are viciously slain on their way to a new life in the big city. She’s spared temporarily by the exceedingly Nordic-looking warlord, Dagmar, who either wants Signe to serve as a friend to her pre-teen “daughter,” Frigg, or be offered up as sacrifice for the daughter killed by villagers who suspect they’re responsible for spreading the plague. The men in the gang aren’t nearly as complicated. They simply want to rape and kill Signe, and, if she doesn’t behave, Dagmar might grant them the opportunity. Frigg feels an immediate kinship to the captive, leading us to believe that Dagmar may have kidnaped her, as well. Sensing danger, Frigg helps her new friend escape, then joins her when her own safety is threatened. Their flight plays out against a backdrop of some spectacular Norwegian high-country scenery and there’s no certainty either one of them will succeed.

Director Roar Uthaug and writer Thomas Moldestad previously collaborated on “Cold Prey,” a neat little horror/thriller that reminded me favorably of “The Shining,” minus the ghosts and an ax-wielding Jack Nicholson. It was followed by “Cold Prey 2,” also written by Moldestad, which is set immediately after the events of the first movie in a nearly snowbound rural hospital. Anyone looking for the Next Big Thing from Scandinavia – post-Nicolas Winding Refn, of “Drive” and “Pusher” – need look no further than Uthaug and Moldestad. Their pictures honor genre conventions, while avoiding clichés and easy exploitation. “Escape” is being released unrated, but, if I had a vote, it would be a tossup between PG-13 and R. There’s plenty of violence throughout the picture – of the medieval persuasion — but very little real gore or bloodshed. The Blu-ray looks good and includes some deleted scenes that easily could have extended the movie’s length past 79 minutes and not damaged its pace; bloopers; and a making-of featurette that focuses on the visual effects. – Gary Dretzka

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III: Blu-ray
If you can suspend your disbelief long enough to buy Charlie Sheen as a stand-in for Marcello Mastroianni in Roman Coppola’s re-imagining of “8½,” there’s a fighting chance you’ll enjoy “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III.” Agreed, that’s a big “if,” but the son of Francis Ford Coppola, brother of Sofia, grandson of Carmine, nephew of Talia Shire and cousin of Jonathan Schwartzman and Nicolas Cage has already proven himself capable of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. As the writer of “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Darjeeling Limited” and “CQ,” which he also directed, he’s revealed an imagination uniquely suited to offbeat storytelling. Even so, filtering Sheen through a prism borrowed from Federico Fellini is a conceit that would test the limits of his more famous relatives. Set in the commercial afterglow of the psychedelic ’60s, in a highly stylized Los Angeles, “Charles Swan” reminded me of the fantasy Las Vegas conjured by Francis Ford Coppola in “One From the Heart.” The protagonist is an accomplished graphic designer, inspired by airbrush artist Charles White III, who’s been blocked creatively since the departure of his girlfriend, Ivana (Katheryn Winnick). Her primary gripe is that Swan isn’t terribly interested in living in the present, refusing to surrender souvenirs from previous conquests and abandon habits likely to kill him.

Like Joe Gideon in “All That Jazz,” Swann is self-absorbed, self-destructive, extremely talented and incapable of moderation in his choice of toxins and women whose beauty flatters him. If we weren’t already overly familiar and thoroughly exhausted with this side of Sheen, Coppola might have been able to find a reason for us to empathize with Swan. Sheen gives it his all here, but it’s impossible to separate the actor and character from their press clippings. All that said, there are some wonderful things in “Charles Swan” and it’s always nice to see Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette and Aubrey Plaza in key supporting roles. The set and art design, cinematography, bright soundtrack, period art and tchotchkes all add tantalizing eye candy to the striking visual presentation and are vividly replicated in hi-def here. Coppola seems to have fallen in love with his ideas and couldn’t bear to part with any of them. If only he could have given us a better reason to care about Charles Swan III, other than that he’s an endangered artist worth protecting, the movie would be easier to endorse. The Blu-ray arrives with featurettes “A Glimpse Behind the Glimpse: Making the Mind of Charles Swan III” and “A Glimpse Into the Mind of Charles White III” and Coppola’s commentary. – Gary Dretzka

Back to 1942: Blu-ray
Throughout much of the 20th Century, and through no fault of its own, China’s Henan province was one of the worst places on Earth to live. In 1942, it was right up there with Stalingrad, which was being pounded without mercy by German troops commanded by Hitler to take the city. In that battle, at least, the defenders of Stalingrad knew precisely who they were fighting and why and felt confident that Mother Russia wasn’t going to abandon or betray them. As we learn in Feng Xiaogang’s epic “Back to 1942” — adapted by Liu Zhenyun from his 1990 novel — the 3 million people who died in great famine of 1942 were used as pawns by the Kuomintang government, even as the province was surrounded by Japanese troops. Refugees fleeing their barren homelands were bombed by Japanese planes targeting the soldiers among them and then machine-gunned by Chinese troops to keep them from advancing on other cities. Only the American journalist Theodore White and British photographer Harrison Forman cared enough about the peasants to alert the Allies of this terrible disaster through their dispatches. Chiang Kai-shek censored the reports in China and, until 1990, the events depicted in “Back to 1942,” including cannibalism, child and wife selling and murder, went largely forgotten or ignored. (Famine is nothing new in Chinese history and an even greater human tragedy would occur during Mao Zedong’s reign, less than two decades later.) As damning as the movie is, however, one of the root causes of the famine and subsequent locust invasion goes unmentioned: three years earlier, in an attempt to slow the Japanese advance, the nationalist government decided to breach a large dam and flood the region. A drought would ensure that the devastation continued through the war years, finally displacing 10 million people. The Japanese would take advantage of the situation by refusing to invade the ravaged province and pretending to show more humanitarian concern for the peasants than their own leaders.

“Back to 1942” is a tremendously sad and occasionally difficult movie to watch. It’s significant that the current Chinese government approved its production and studios made an estimated $34 million available to make it. The Communist government probably wouldn’t have been so willing to advance the project if the Japanese and Kuomintang weren’t so obviously to blame for the disaster. Certainly, it will be a long time before the Great Famine of Mao, which may have claimed as many as 30 million Chinese, is dramatized on film. Coincidentally, Feng’s last movie was “Aftershock,” a searing drama based on events that followed the devastating 1976 Tangshan earthquake. His ability to re-create the indescribable pain and epic scope of such disasters borders on the uncanny. He gets great support from an A-list cast of Chinese actors – including Zhang Guoli, Xu Fan, Zhang Hanyu, Le Xuejiang, Zhang Mo and Chen Daoming — in addition to fine work from Adrien Brody as White and Tim Robbins as an Irish priest modeled after Thomas Megan, bishop of the Loyang Catholic Mission. If “Back to 1942” had a hero of the stature of Oskar Schindler, it might have left a larger footprint in its limited theatrical run here, as well. Historically minded audiences should find much in the film to admire. (It’s worth noting that, back home, Time correspondent White would be rewarded for his principled stance by being blacklisted and partially blamed for the “loss of China” to the communists.) – Gary Dretzka

Frankie Go Boom: Blu-ray
Typically, in such anarchic ensemble comedies as “Frankie Go Boom,” a completely sane, if troubled character is surrounded by people whose quirks range from endearing to intolerable. The movies tend to play well before festival audiences, but sail above the heads of less adventuresome audiences in the real world. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Metacritic reviews for “Frankie Go Boom” ranged from a perfect-100 – awarded by the New York Times’ Jeannette Catsoulis — to three in the 30s, from the New York Post, NPR and Hollywood Reporter. (Some critics, I think, routinely give lower grades to any movie in which a pot-belly pig plays a prominent role.) Let’s see if I can synopsize what happens here. Frank (Charlie Hunnam) is the more-or-less normal brother of Bruce (Chris O’Dowd), a ne’er-do-well, who, when we meet him, is participating in a final AA meeting before being released from prison. For years, Bruce has gone out of his way to make his younger brother miserable. He is an aspiring filmmaker and not at all reluctant to share embarrassing home movies with strangers. No sooner is Bruce set free than he decides it might be fun to surreptitiously film Frankie making love to a woman, Lassie (Lizzy Caplan), who nearly ran him over on her bicycle and sent it out on the Internet. Lassie wears a bra made of candy, red bloomers, a garter belt and black stockings. In spite of Bruce’s inability to sustain an erection, the movie goes viral, humiliating both parties.

The rest of “Frankie Goes Boom” is consumed with Frankie’s efforts to remove the movie from the Internet and convince Lassie he isn’t a total jerk. Attempting to eliminate anything from circulation is a fool’s errand, though, as it already has been linked to and copied tens of thousands of times. It does provide writer/director Jordan Roberts an opportunity to introduce us to Phyllis, a transsexual computer hacker, played hilariously by Ron Perelman, and nudge the narrative from farce to romance. Conspiring against that urge are other kooky supporting characters, including Chris Noth, as Lassie’s dad and Bruce’s wildly paranoid, gun-toting prison buddy; Whitney Cumming, as Bruce’s horny girlfriend; Nora Dunn as the boys’ overly permissive mother; and Sam Anderson as their passive-aggressive father. After establishing their relationship, Frankie and Lassie barely get a word in edgewise. If any of that mishigas sounds appealing, “Frankie Go Boom” could prove to be the right ticket for you. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes piece and dissection of the pig’s big scene. – Gary Dretzka

Leonie
By sheer coincidence, I watched Hisako Matsui and David Wiener’s elegantly mounted biopic of educator, editor, journalist and supermom Leonie Gilmour on Mother’s Day. “Leonie” not only lays out the particulars of her own remarkable life story, but it also describes her singular influence on her highly talented children, Japanese-American artist and architect Isamu Noguchi and dancer Ailes Gilmour. The native New Yorker would be an ideal subject for a movie, even if her children had enjoyed only moderately successful careers. As depicted by Emily Mortimer, Gilmour’s story is nothing short of inspirational. After leaving Bryn Mawr College without a degree, in 1896, Gilmour supported herself by teaching and editing. Five years later, she would answer a newspaper ad for an editor, placed by Japanese writer Yone Noguchi. He had been living in the U.S. for several years, publishing two books of poetry, but still needed help with his English prose. With Gilmour’s help, Nogushi was able to finish “The American Diary of a Japanese Girl” and publish it to some acclaim. A year later, they would enter into a short-lived romantic relationship and faux marriage, whose end-product would be their son, Isamu. In 1907, Gilmour joined Nogushi in Japan, unaware that he had married a Japanese woman in the interim.

Complicating matters further, Nogushi reverted to cultural traditions that would have required Gilmour to play a subservient, even invisible role as his companion. She stayed on in Japan, even after their relationship ended and she gave birth to Ailes, whose father remained anonymous. Isamu traveled to the United States to attend school and re-discover the American half of his identity. Gilmour would return home in 1920, as well. She steered Isamu away from his pursuit of a degree in medicine, to a career in sculpture and architecture. She died in 1933, at 60. Co-writer/director Matsui focuses here on Gilmour’s experiences in Japan, where, apart from Noguchi, she initially knew no one and spoke very little Japanese. She would adapt to the foreign culture relatively quickly, however, and find work teaching in Yokohama. Mortimer does a wonderful job portraying Gilmour, especially as someone who became as one with the beauty of the cherry blossoms and lush gardens, and prospered as a modern woman in an ancient, hidebound culture. Matsui does a nice job re-creating the period setting and finding interesting places to stage the story. The DVD comes with making-of and background material, as well as an interview with the director. – Gary Dretzka

Crimewave: Blu-ray
In 1981, after unexpectedly hitting the bulls-eye with “The Evil Dead,” longtime friends Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert thought Hollywood executives would recognize their limitless potential and beat a path to their door in the wilds of suburban Detroit. Instead, they pushed their luck by making an extremely goofy and far-too-dark comedy that nearly ended their careers before they began. Campbell recalls the experience in a funny interview conducted for the Blu-ray and DVD release from Shout!Factory. If all three of the men hadn’t rebounded quickly with “Evil Dead II” and a long string of hits, his story wouldn’t be nearly amusing as it is, in hindsight. Long story short, after investors got their hands on the script and rushes for “Crimewave,” they flipped completely out and not in a good way. The film went virtually unseen in the U.S., until several years after its VHS release, when Raimi’s name also was associated with “Darkman” and “Army of Darkness.” Today, while not exactly a cult hit, “Crimewave” can be viewed without prejudice as the live-action cartoon it is. It gets points, as well, for being the second film co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Being a big fan of the Three Stooges, Raimi invested years’ worth of nyuk-nyuk-nyuk humor into the portrayals of a pair of moronic pest exterminators, who drive around Detroit in a van with a rat attached to its roof and moonlight as hitmen. They’ve taken it upon themselves to kill the head of a security-systems company who stiffed them, and, while they’re at it, take out his annoying wife (Louise Lasser). In doing so, they successfully frame a nebbishy security guard, Vic (Reed Birney), who fancies himself a super-hero in the Peter Parker tradition. Vic fools himself into believing that a gorgeous blond moll (Sheree J. Wilson) might be within his romantic grasp, simply because he saved her from being run over by a car. He endeavors to rescue her from her cad boyfriend (Campbell) and the exterminators, one of whom apparently took his acting cues from Bluto. (The other resembles Ron Jeremy on a bad-hair day.) The wild chase that ensues could be seen as a parody of every Hollywood car chase since the days of the Keystone Kops. That’s a lot of weight for a very slight comedy to carry, and it stumbles more often than succeeds. Still, the scenes in which Raimi is able to show off his wild imagination and cinematic instincts – a segment set inside a 1940s nightclub is extremely well done – easily qualify “Crimewave” as a guilty pleasure. – Gary Dretzka

Face 2 Face
Katherine Brooks has lived the kind of life – most of it, anyway — that could inspire filmmakers from places other than L.A. and New York to buck the odds and pursue their dream. As her story goes, the Louisiana native ran away from home at 16, with $150 in her pocket, and headed for Hollywood. Once there, Brooks was reduced to sleeping in her car, until she discovered the ladder to fulfillment and began to climb it rung by rung, in front of and behind the camera. Her greatest success has come in the reality-TV arena, with credits that include “Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica,” “The Real World,” “The Osbournes” and “The Spin Crowd.” Her short films led to features, “Surrender,” “Loving Annabelle” and “Waking Madison.” The documentary, “Face 2 Face,” describes a personal journey Brooks took at a time in her life when depression was leading her down a dead-end road. After undergoing surgery and becoming dependent on drugs, she came to the realization that having 5,000 Facebook “friends” didn’t make her feel any less lonely, isolated and un-hugged than if she had never purchased a PC. As a way of reaching for help and companionship, the filmmaker asked her Facebook pals if they might consider welcoming her into their homes, in person. It took her nine minutes to score 50 legitimate invitations and begin planning her 11,000-mile cross-country journey, which would be funded by 846 backers on Kickstarter. Several of the people Brooks met were in even worse straits than she was and it allowed her to open up to them. Others were able to inspire the filmmaker and force her to reassess her priorities. Among them is the former lover, now much older, who inspired the short film, “Dear Emily,” and caused no small amount of heartbreak in her after being jilted. “Face 2 Face” is a powerful document, made even more dramatic by the very real possibility that Brooks could relapse at any moment and finally succumb to the demons encouraging her to commit suicide. I got the feeling that the film might originally have been intended as a reality series, but her producers lost patience along the way. Had it gotten the green light, the title “Real People” would have been every bit as appropriate as “Face 2 Face.” The DVD includes a slideshow and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Last Stand: Blu-ray
Tomorrow You’re Gone
Directed by the estimable Jee-woon Kim, in his first foray outside of Korea, “The Land Stand” marks Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first starring role since “T3,” in 2003. Surprisingly, the years he spent in Sacramento, as the Governator, didn’t dull his edge as an action hero as much as some of us thought they would. Instead of giving him an opportunity to prove his continued value as a marquee talent, though, a large percentage of his former fan base simply decided to give his comeback picture a base. The disappointing box-office notwithstanding, “Last Stand” does a nice job reminding us of what made Arnold an A-list star in the first place. It helps, of course, that writer Arnold Knauer (“Ghost Team One”) knew all of the right action-genre buttons to push, while also throwing in enough off-the-cuff humor to keep things from getting too serious. Here, Arnold plays Ray Owens, a small-town sheriff who is content to do virtually nothing, as long as the natives are safe and quiet. He’s about to be tested by a gang of mercenary thugs attempting to smuggle a convicted Mexican drug kingpin back, across the border, on a bridge designed to transport military vehicles across canyons and rivers. The escapee (Eduardo Noriega) is driving a souped-up Corvette and he knows how to make it do tricks. FBI agents led by Forest Whitaker are trailing the guy, as well, but he’s burdened by the institutional arrogance of the agency and no natural feel for the ruthlessness of Mexican criminals. Having already made his reputation as a take-no-prisoners lawman in L.A., Owens relishes the opportunity to prove that frontier justice is still the best defense against tyranny and really bad hombres. His motley crew of deputies includes Luis Guzman, Johnny Knoxville, Harry Dean Stanton, Zach Gilford, Rodrigo Santoro and Jaime Alexander, and the bad guys are commanded by the comically sinister Peter Stormare. There’s lots of violence in “The Last Stand” and enough blood spray to satisfy Arnold’s old fans. Blessedly, his character isn’t given a love interest 40 years his junior, as well, which an American director might have been tempted to do. The Blu-ray adds several decent making-of featurettes, as well as extended and deleted scenes. Anyone who digs the movie really ought to check out Kim’s “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” “I Saw the Devil,” “A Bittersweet Life” and “A Tale of Two Sisters.” You won’t be disappointed.

David Jacobson’s existential crime thriller, “Tomorrow You’re Gone,” follows by eight years the director’s creepy urban-cowboy psycho-drama, “Down in the Valley,” and the surprisingly well-received docu-drama, “Dahmer.” He has a penchant for movies that don’t follow the usual blueprints for the genre and, here, even ventures into David Lynch territory. If it doesn’t always work, at least he’s trying different things. Stephen Dorff plays the emotionally damaged ex-con Charlie Rankin, whose life was saved in prison by an older jailbird (Willem Dafoe) known as Buddha. As soon as Charlie is released on parole he knows that he’ll have to repay the debt owed Buddha by taking out a rival. For his trouble, he’s given a pile of money and a barely functional handgun. Before Charlie can pull the trigger, however, he is introduced to the closest thing to an angel any crook is likely to meet in his lifetime. While riding on a city bus, he’s taken under the wing of a warm and generous beauty, Florence (Michelle Monaghan), who invites him home to watch a porno in which she plays a naughty nun. After his four-year bit, Charles seems more than a little gun-shy around such an aggressive woman and he greets her persistence with a mixture of fear and disdain. We’re left to wonder if she might either be a supernatural trickster or spy for Buddha. When the hit doesn’t go down as planned, Charlie is forced to rethink his concept of honor and obligation to Buddha. Dorf’s trademark angst gets tiresome after a while and it’s difficult to buy Monaghan as an X-rated sister of mercy – in gold sandals, no less – even with her crazy wigs. “Tomorrow You’re Gone” plays far better on DVD than in theaters, so fans of moody crime stories might find something here to like. – Gary Dretzka

 
History of the Eagles
Mumford & Sons: The Story
Any 40-year-old rock band that thinks it’s OK to sell tickets to its concerts at prices topping out at $895 a piece – covering front-row seating, a parking pass and a pre-concert party – is either the Rolling Stones or comprised of musicians who have sold their souls to Satan’s accountants. As the History of the Eagles tour approaches Chicago, scalpers are hoping to get $2,249 for front-row seats. You can still find seats for between $85 and $200, but most are singles and you’ll be sitting closer to the top of the Sears (a.k.a., Willis) Tower than the stage. Tickets for the Stones’ “50 and Counting” tour are roughly in the same range, but, in some cities, the promoters have had to lower prices to avoid empty seats. I only mention this because the nearly four-hour-long “History of the Eagles: The Story of an American Band” spends as much time chronicling the band’s contract disputes, bitter internecine feuds and battles with record-label executives, including David Geffen, as the music. No matter the compromises made in the 1970s, it can’t be said that the most financially prosperous artists didn’t also produce much unforgettable music. When the classic-rock format began to dominate FM radio stations in the early 1980s, programmers naturally turned to the Eagles, Stones and other bands that could still fill stadiums during reunion tours. The good news here is that, besides giving far too much exposure to the band’s longtime manager, Irving Azoff, Alison Ellwood’s warts-and-all documentary contains much terrific music, a solid recounting of the history of the songs, a sounding board for former members Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner and Don Felder and praise for the contributions of latecomers Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit.

Along with Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Brown, John David Souther, Dan Fogelberg, Rick Nelson and Poco, the Eagles were among the founders of the so-called California sound, which combined elements of country, folk and guitar-heavy rock, with introspective lyrics and a cosmic-cowboy point-of-view on life. The Eagles would emerge from the pack, joining Fleetwood Mac at the top of the pop charts with songs that told stories and captured the quirkiness of love in three- to four-minute bursts. The Eagles, in turn, would influence an entire generation of country-music artists, beginning with Travis Tritt, Clint Black, John Anderson, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, Diamond Rio and Suzy Bogguss, all of whom participated in the hugely popular 1993 tribute album, “Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles.” Ellwood also chronicles the solo careers of Don Henley and Glenn Frey and various reunion tours and never-ending squabbles and ego trips. It’s as complete a document as any fan of the group could hope to find, informed by many fresh interviews and archival footage. A separate third disc captures the 1977 Capital Center concert, when the original band members were still talking to each other and the group had yet to hit its creative peak. A special limited-edition package adds a 40-page case-bound book, 10 photographs of the band at various stages of its existence, a lithograph of the band’s desert-bleached-skull logo, a Native American blanket-inspired liner and leather tie fastened with a bone button. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it lists for $299, while the three-disc DVD/Blu-ray can be had for $40, full retail.

By marked contrast, “Mumford & Sons: The Story” is an unauthorized biography that runs all of 42 minutes, contains about 20 seconds of music and is comprised of interviews that are widely available on the Internet. Fans who aren’t already aware of the information dispensed in the material here really have no right to consider themselves to be fans. This being the year that the folky London quartet broke through, some folks may leap at anything with the lads’ names on it. I can’t imagine anyone being satisfied with “The Story.” – Gary Dretzka

Of Two Minds
Frontline: Raising Adam Lanza
PBS: 10 Buildings That Changed America
When, in the 1990s, “bipolar disorder” became the widely accepted alternative to “manic-depression,” I assumed that the change was a function of scientifically correct linguistics. If anything, the difference essentially was a matter of degree, the highs being higher and the lows lower. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the eccentricities of unruly students were blamed on “ants in their pants” and the frequent drifting off of other classmates was a function of daydreaming. Today, of course, those same inattentive kids have been diagnosed as having ADD – and, later, ADHD – and, for chronically spaced-out children, a form of dissociation. In some less-enlightened cultures, I suppose, extreme examples of these same maladies still are blamed on demonic possession and cures are sought in church-sanctioned exorcisms. Too often, though, people with bipolar disorder and other new-fangled psychiatric ailments see the ultimate cure in suicide. Indeed, social networks on the Internet now serve as early-warning systems for teenagers who have been bullied, tormented or marginalized to the point where they think going out in a blaze of infamy might give voice to their pain. “Of Two Minds” introduces us to a few of the estimated 5 million Americans living with bipolar disorder and the surviving relatives of those who decided that the condition was too great obstacle to overcome. Co-director Douglas Blush has edited many of the most decorated documentaries of the last decade, including “Wordplay,” “These Amazing Shadows,” “The Invisible War,” “Freakonomics” and “Outrage.” If, like ADHD, bipolarity seems to have evolved from little-known malady to epidemic, it’s because the media now pays greater attention to any illness that affects people in their key readership base or viewer demographic. And, of course, awareness breeds contagion. Moreover, people being treated for mental-health issues no longer accept second-class citizenry or stigmatization and have formed affinity groups to break down the walls of ignorance, indifference and silence. It’s only been within the lifetimes of most Baby Boomers that the idea of seeking psychiatric guidance — if only to attain such perceived curatives as Ritalin, Zoloft, Xanax, Prozac, Wellbutrin and lithium – has evolved from being a social stigma or sign of weakness, to something that’s as common as going to any other medical specialist. “Of Two Minds” takes a straight-forward approach to the subject, allowing the patients to speak for themselves about their own experiences and decisions concerning medication, and for therapists to offer their perspectives. The DVD adds the short film, “The Mad Parade”; more interviews with experts and advocates; and extended interviews with people we meet in the film.

In the wake of the mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I was prompted to consider how horrifying crimes and their perpetrators distinguish and sometimes define great cities for decades to come. Chicago is known far and wide as the site of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, while Dallas and Memphis will forever be stigmatized by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Until Hurricane Sandy, Tony Soprano was as representative of New Jersey as Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. Our urban centers have other worthwhile attractions and dignitaries, however. Recently, the names of certain American suburbs have become as notorious as the Texas School Book Depository, Los Angeles’ now-demolished Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy was killed, and Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Such previously anonymous locales as Littleton, Aurora, Newtown, Clackamas, Oak Creek, Brookfield, Binghampton, Virginia Tech, Lancaster and even Fort Hood have become synonymous with mass slayings that occurred there. In some cases, the names have become red-flag warnings for proponents of stronger gun-control statutes and, for others, proof that all teachers, students and janitors should be armed and considered deputized. While the “Frontline” documentary “Raising Adam Lanza” leaves more questions unanswered than most such films, it also offers a balanced portrait of a town whose citizens were forced to deal with issues no suburbanite anticipated confronting when escaping the clamor and crime of big cities. The give-and-take that followed the shootings at Sandy Hook wasn’t nearly as rancorous as some debates over gun control, but it revealed a chasm that isn’t likely to be bridged as long as politicians can be bought by lobbyists and the words, “well-regulated militia,” are twisted to fit opposing points of view. The documentary was produced in collaboration with the Hartford Courant newspaper, in whose circulation area the shootings occurred. That Adam Lanza was a walking time bomb is treated as a given. What made him so dangerous and how his gun-toting mother’s malfeasance may have contributed to the massacre remain questions that may remain unanswered forever.

That the entirety of America’s architectural history can be boiled down to 10 building seems laughable, at first glance, anyway. By eliminating the influence of gas stations, theme parks and fast-food restaurants, however, a case can be made that the evolution of office and government buildings, churches, factories and shopping centers all begin with certain seminal concepts. They can still be seen and experienced first-hand, although a couple of them have greatly outlived their usefulness, as intended. The PBS presentation,”10 Buildings That Changed America,” takes us on cross-country tour of America and introduces to such visionaries thinkers as Thomas Jefferson, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry and Robert Venturi. It also explains how the ideas developed from Old World traditions, shifting cultural currents and decisions based strictly on increasing profits. Among the places visited are the Virginia State Capitol, Boston’s Trinity Church, Chicago’s Loop and suburbs, Henry Ford’s first Model T assembly line and the Disney Concert Hall, in downtown Los Angeles. At an hour, such a program could only serve as a sampler, but it makes for a painless lesson on American architecture. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: The Bletchley Circle: Cracking a Killer’s Code: Blu-ray
TeenNick: Dance Academy: Season 1
Just as the key role played by Navajo code talkers in World War II remained classified until well into the Vietnam War, the details of the unlocking of Germany’s Enigma machines and their ciphers were kept secret by British authorities for several decades. It wasn’t until the 1979 release of the Polish film, “Sekret Enigmy,” that anyone was made aware of the Polish Cipher Bureau’s cracking of the Enigma code in 1933 and the transference of two machines to France and Britain before the country was invaded by the Nazis. The mansion at Bletchley Park became the nerve center of code-breaking activity during the war, providing intelligence that would prove useful in the North African campaign and other war zones. British filmmakers have since used Bletchley Park as a setting for intrigue, romance and melodrama. “The Bletchley Circle: Cracking a Killer’s Code” uses the wartime experiences of four women code breakers as a stepping-off point for their investigation, eight years later, into a series of murders involving young women in southern England. Like many other women who served their countries in WWII and gave up their jobs to returning soldiers, these four have found civilian life to be a tad dreary. By happenstance, information gleaned from newspaper reports on the killings makes one of the women believe that they could only have been perpetrated by someone from the intelligence community. She convinces her three friends to join her in an investigation that is dismissed by police and frowned upon by their spouses. Because amateur sleuths are nearly as common in the mystery genre as thick-skulled cops, there’s a distinct air of familiarity to the three-part mini-series. Even so, the clichés don’t interfere with the realistic period feel and patient unfolding of clues and evidence. The Blu-ray arrives with cast and crew interviews.

Imported to Nickelodeon from Australia, “Dance Academy” is an ensemble drama targeted at American teens who don’t necessary fit the mold of the glitzy socialites on “Gossip Girl” or football-crazy kids of “Friday Night Lights.” It’s been positioned alongside the network’s long-running “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” which is produced in Canada. The show is set at Sydney’s National Academy of Dance, where survival as an artist supersedes maintaining one’s social status. The diverse cast of characters frequently finds time for other teen pursuits, but the first-year students, especially, are required to condition themselves to being away from home for the first time and/or accepting the supervision of adults. Among the key players is Tara Webster (Xenia Goodwin), who was raised on a sheep farm and fears she may be hopelessly outclassed by the boys and girls from more pedigreed backgrounds. The first-season packages arrive in separate volumes, each representing 13 episodes. They also contain photo galleries. – Gary Dretzka

Bink & Gollie and More Stories About Friendship
The latest compilation of read-along stories from Scholastic Storybook Treasures is headlined by the Mutt & Jeff of kid-lit, “Bink and Gollie.” The precocious girls — one tiny, the other tall – find it difficult to agree on almost anything, but, unlike our elected representatives, understand the value of compromise. The Geisel-winning series is written by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile and narrated by Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome. Other stories included here are “A Sick Day for Amos McGee,” by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead and narrated by David de Vries; “The Other Side,” by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, narrated by Toshi Widoff-Woodson; and “Cat and Canary,” written and illustrated by Michael Foreman. The special features add interviews with illustrator Fucile, the Steads and Woodson. And, yes, the stories promote friendship, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Jack Reacher: Blu-ray
Not having read the novel upon which “Jack Reacher” was adapted, I couldn’t tell you with any certainty how the movie compares with the 2005 Lee Child thriller “One Shot.” I do know that Tom Cruise bears no physical resemblance to the literary creation and such discrepancies can alienate loyal fans of a popular series. On the other hand, Cruise’s ability to play action heroes can’t be questioned and his willingness to go the extra mile, by performing many of the stunts himself, only adds to more credibility to his performances. I suspect that newcomers to the Child canon might even be drawn to the source material, based solely on Cruise’s willingness to take part in the adaptation and, surely, that’s a good thing. If nothing else, his presence in “Jack Reacher” diverts attention to the fact that next to nothing in writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay could actually happen in real life and it’s neither a fantasy nor science-fiction. When it comes to suspending disbelief, after all, the action fantasies of the “Mission:Impossible” franchise wouldn’t be half as much fun without Cruise. “Jack Reacher” didn’t bring home as much bacon as “M:I,” but, without its star, the movie wouldn’t have come close to surpassing its estimated budget, which it did. So, props to him.

As written, the 6-foot-5, sandy-haired Reacher grew up in a combat-hardened family, graduated from West Point and served his country as an officer/investigator in the Army Military Police Corps. Well decorated, he attained the rank of a major, before being demoted and re-promoted. In the movie, we’re told that Reacher mustered out under circumstances that could come back to haunt him and, for the past dozen years, has been flying under the radar. Amazingly, like Paladin, Superman and the Lone Ranger, he tends to show up in the nick of time to rescue some poor soul, and then disappears after his mission is accomplished. Reacher is free to travel light because his brain is the equivalent of a portable CSI lab and his martial-arts skills allow him to forgo the kind of weaponry that he could pick up from any NRA member, gang-banger or sociopath, without first having to undergo an evaluation of his psychological fitness.

Here, he arrives in Pittsburgh in the immediate wake of a multiple murder that could only have been accomplished by a military-trained long-distance sniper. The suspect was easily captured and beaten to within an inch of his death in a van transporting him to jail. Once he awakens from a coma, the first thing he asks for is an audience with Reacher. When Reacher does arrive to investigate the crime, however, he’s confident that the Iraq War veteran simply snapped and, in his mind, was killing terrorists, instead of random Americans out for a stroll along one of the city’s three rivers. It doesn’t take long Reacher to reach a different conclusion, that the marksman couldn’t have shot those people, at least not in the way demonstrated in the opening scene. Now, determined to clear the obvious suspect, he finds an ally in the suspect’s lawyer (Rosamund Pike), who, besides being beautiful (of course), is the daughter of the city’s possibly corrupt DA (Richard Jenkins). This doesn’t sit well with the guys who set him up. Conveniently, again, they make themselves all too visible to the brilliant investigator and the rest of the movie becomes one long chase, frequently interrupted by fists of fury.

The chase scenes are extremely well choreographed and the final shootout, while totally ridiculous, is exciting, anyway. The movie also benefits from the presence of Werner Herzog and Robert Duvall in supporting roles that have to be seen to be believed. The Paramount Blu-ray shouldn’t disappoint fans of the stars and genre, either, as the audio-visual presentation is excellent. There are two commentary tracks, one with Cruise and McQuarrie; and the other with composer Joe Kramer, accompanied by an isolated score presentation. The set adds the featurettes “When the Man Comes Around,” “You Do Not Mess With Jack Reacher: Combat & Weapons” and “The Reacher Phenomenon,” as well as a UV digital copy.

Upstream Color: Blu-ray
If Terence Malick ever attempted a bio-horror thriller, it might look something like “Upstream Color,” a brain-teaser that took home a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance festival. Sonically and visually, Shane Carruth’s second feature delivers a hypnotic charge not unlike the vial substance consumed by the characters before they lose the ability to control their actions. As fascinating as it is, however, “Upstream Color” might as well have been dubbed into Sanskrit, for all the sense I could make of Carruth’s intentions. In this way, it resembles the writer/director’s previous non-linear head-scratcher, “Primer,” which involved time travel and mysterious machines manufactured in a garage. Nearly a decade later, the writer/director seems no more interested in making things easy for his audience. As the movie opens, we watch a couple of boys collect leaves for a young man who will scrape a powdery substance off them. The scrapings somehow lead to the creation of a maggot-borne hallucinogen that literally gets beneath the skin of its unsuspecting victims and causes them to engage in such irrational behavior as signing over the title to their homes and giving kidnapers access to ATM codes. Two of the people who have ingested the drug meet serendipitously on a bus, allowing them to compare notes and comfort each other after the trauma of having the maggots removed from their bodies. The creepy-crawly things are fed to the amateur surgeon’s pigs, which then form an emotional attachment to the donors. I’m not at all sure what the pigs have to do with anything, but we know that they aren’t reluctant to eat things, including humans, no other carnivore would touch. Once digested, the maggot and toxins would be passed along to anyone with a hankering for bacon or ribs. That possibility isn’t fully explained, either. The crazy, wonderful thing about “Upstream Color” is how the pulsating musical score, when combined with the inventive digital cinematography, serves to mesmerize viewers willing to turn their imaginations over to Carruth. Amy Seimetz (“The Killing”) is terrific as the woman who takes the brunt of the punishment here and, even without revealing much skin, seduces us into caring deeply about her fate.

Starlet: Blu-ray
The MPAA braintrust wants us to believe that movies that are rated NC-17 or go out unrated are playing on the same level playing field as movies branded R and PG-13. They also continue to insist, against much evidence to the contrary, that the ratings are intended specifically for use by parents as a tool for determining what movies they’ll allow their children to see. The board, we’re told, doesn’t censor films and it can’t force members to do things that would destroy their integrity or dilute the director’s vision. Maybe so, but that’s exactly what happens when a distributor is faced with the dilemma of requiring an artist to make cuts that would to fit the board’s notion of what a R or PG-13 ought to be, or face the economic consequences. (It explains those annoying CGI cock-blockers in the R-rated version in “Eyes Wide Shut.”) More often than not, making love in movies – however tastefully rendered – upsets the ratings board far more than making war or what passes for it in our urban jungles and trailer parks. Too often, NC-17 and unrated movies can’t find a welcoming screen outside of an arthouse and at festivals. What the MPAA refuses to acknowledge is that exhibitors can’t possibly weigh all films equally when clauses in their leases forbid the showing of NC-17 and unrated pictures and some newspaper won’t accept ads for them. As such, it’s the kiss of death for movies as brave and challenging as “Starlet,” which arrives in DVD and Blu-ray with a NR stamp. In fact, “Starlet” is an excellent movie, with more than the usual number of surprises and plenty of insight about life on the fringes of society. It’s graced by fine acting and sharp dialogue.

At its core, “Starlet” is an updating of the age-old story of a young woman, who, in the course of assuaging her conscience, forms a bond that seals a permanent, if unlikely friendship. Twenty-one-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway) purchases a thermos at a yard sale from a cranky old dame who is quick to warn her of her no-return, no-exchange policy. After discovering several thousand dollars’ worth of rolled-up bills in the bottle, Jane attempts to return it to Sadie (Besedka Johnson), but she’s given the cold shoulder and a slammed door for her efforts. Still feeling a tad guilty, Jane conspires to befriend the older woman and do favors for her in lieu of the money she isn’t being allowed to return. If Jane and Sadie don’t have much in common, both are lonely as hell and in need of a friendship that doesn’t come with conditions. Co-writer/director Sean Baker’s challenge, then, was devising a way for these two women to discover each other and open their hearts to the possibility that they have more in common than an interest in yard sales. If some dreams are answered along the way, well, that’s OK, too.

Here’s comes the rub, though, and it isn’t revealed until about a half-hour into the movie: like hundreds of other young adults living and working in the San Fernando Valley, Jane and her ditzoid roommate, Melissa (Stella Maeve), are employed in the sex industry and to establish the credibility of the characters, there’s a scene containing graphic sexuality. The other nudity barely merits a “R.” Moreover, Jane and Melissa aren’t embarrassed by their work or were driven to it by an abusive relative. Their boss isn’t particularly sleazy and they make more money than most people living in the San Fernando Valley, even if they tend to blow it on recreational drugs and hot cars. If there were better jobs available for young women without college degrees, Jane, at least, probably would grab one. Until then, she’ll grin and bear it. It represents the kind of moral ambiguity that has offended industry watchdogs for most of the last 100 years and is punished with more severe ratings. As a result of the NR, “Starlet” never made it past a handful of bookings in select theaters and festival appearances. Baker could have saved himself some agony by editing the graphic scene to fit the borders of a “R” and send out a director’s-cut edition in Blu-ray, but it wouldn’t carry the same weight or tell us all we need to know about Jane. Baker doesn’t solicit pity or disgust in the time allotted him in the bonus package.

In fact, he’s far more anxious to laud the wee canine actor that bore the name, Starlet, and introduce us to 87-year-old Johnson, who died after realizing her own lifelong dream of becoming an actor. “Starlet” would be her first and only movie credit. If anyone had been able to see her performance, academy voters might have tossed a few votes her way as Best Supporting Actress. As it is, “Starlet” won the Robert Altman Award for ensemble acting at the 2013 Independent Spirit Awards and was nominated for the prize named for John Cassavetes. Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel, won the prize for Breakthrough Performer at the Hamptons International Film Festival and Baker was nominated for top prizes at the Locarno and Mar del Plata festivals and won the Fipresci Award at Reykjavik. If that isn’t validation for a micro-budget indie, I don’t know what is. The Blu-ray arrives with a bunch of interviews and background pieces, as well as a lengthy making-of featurette.

Last Summer Won’t Happen/Time of the Locust
Doctors of the Dark Side
The Exorcist in the 21st Century

For those who have seen, heard and read enough about the “turbulent 1960s” to last two lifetimes, please forgive me for suggesting two more documentaries, both short and directly related to the antiwar movement. Peter Gessner’s rarely seen “Last Summer Won’t Happen” was shot at a particularly auspicious period in modern American history, in 1968, a year after San Francisco’s Summer of Love and a few months between the “levitation of the Pentagon” protest and student takeover at Columbia University and the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The people we meet in the film had either watched or participated in the events and were trying to come up with a way to radicalize hippies and create a unified popular front against the Vietnam War. To mobilize the flower children of the Haight-Ashbury – Berkeley, across the Bay, having already been radicalized – it would take something more than the urging of a group of would-be urban guerrillas from New York’s Lower East Side. The idea was to fuse the disparate countercultures in Chicago, before the convention, by staging events that combined music, street theater, chanting, speechifying and lots of dope. Once the crowd was merged, the newly born Youth International Party (Yippie!) would add the thick dollop of New Left politics to the recipe. What happened instead, of course, would be a series of violent confrontations with Chicago police and four years of mostly destructive chaos.

What makes “Last Summer Won’t Happen” noteworthy is its proximity to several of the key players in the Movement at this crucial juncture. It also demonstrates how clueless everyone who would play a key role in the events to come still was, from the insipient Yippies and student radicals, to the Chicago cops and Democratic politicians. Their clearly was no endgame on the left side of the equation and pols happily allowed the police to take the heat for their divisive policies. Here, the angry young men, predominantly, based in crowded Lower East Side apartments sit around and debate the efficacy of violence and confronting police; the relevance of the hippie culture, if any; the role of anarchists in the emerging counterculture; and how to get by each day without any visible means of support. If Mayor Daley and the DNC had been able to watch early rushes of “Last Summer Won’t Happen,” they might have decided to welcome the protesters to Grant Park, sanction their concerts, authorize a few marches and stand by while the kids numbed themselves with pot and LSD. After dismissing the McCarthy challenge, the Dems could have nominated Hubert Humphrey and avoided sharing tear gas with the protesters. Instead, the world watched as cops beat the crap out of defenseless kids and refused them their right to free assembly. Humphrey’s campaign ran out of gas before it started and a radical SDS splinter group would return to Chicago to battle police, destroy property and steer media attention in its direction. Gessner’s film ends before any of that plays out, but you don’t need a Weatherman to know which way the wind would blow from there. The primary players shown in the documentary are professional rabble-rouser Abbie Hoffman; editor of the Realist, Paul Krassner; folksinger and activist Phil Ochs; anarchist Osha Tom Neumann; a young drug dealer and squatter; and a runaway hippie chick who seems distinctly out of place in Lower Manhattan.

If, in 1966, Gessner’s riveting 13-minute documentary, “Time of the Locust,” had been widely seen outside a few film festivals, Americans might have reassessed their support of our early involvement in Vietnam and forced their congressmen to get out while the getting was good. Legend has it that JFK had soured on the war before he was assassinated and would have avoided the quagmire it quickly became. The same evidence available to JFK was denied voters and the rest is history. “Time of the Locust” and other films uncolored by the major media’s get-along, go-along attitude might have provided a tipping point for withdrawal. It is a brutal film, full of images deemed too horrifying for consumption by American TV audiences. Instead of relying on footage compiled by cameramen allowed to tag along with the American troops, Gessner assembled material taken from other points of view. It came from non-network news agencies, Japanese journalists and Vietnamese National Liberation Front combat footage. At this point in the war, the Pentagon had convinced lawmakers that the South Vietnamese army would soon be able to stand its ground against the Vietcong, freeing the U.S. to shut down the North Vietnamese Army and split town. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here, we see Vietcong prisoners being beaten nearly to death and shot full of holes before any useful intelligence was gleaned. The South Vietnamese soldiers’ arrogance alienated and frightened the peasants, who were even more petrified by the American tanks that rambled through their rice paddies and demolished anything they saw as a potential VC hideout. “Locust” was free of narration, so the images spoke for themselves. The same Americans who, in 1965, had been shocked by images of our soldiers torching peasant huts with flamethrowers and Zippo lighters might have recoiled even further after watching a blindfolded prisoner being machine-gunned in front of their eyes.

Doctors of the Dark Side” asks other disturbing questions about the way Americans wage war. Whether or not one agrees with the use of torture to interrogate prisoners, this documentary demands that we ask ourselves where we draw the line between lawful techniques and inhuman behavior. If we treat the Geneva Conventions as if they don’t apply to us, how can we expect our enemies to do so when Americans are captured? It is possible to hold the moral high ground while also mucking around in the mud? Producer/director Martha Davis asks these questions and more, knowing that Americans already are aware of the excesses reported from Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and CIA black sites, as described in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The tight focus here is on the role of doctors and psychologists in the implementation and supervision of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. After four years of research, Davis felt confident enough in her finding to make “Doctors of the Dark Side,” a film that makes a persuasive case for condemning ongoing practices. According to established guidelines, doctors must be present when EIT techniques are employed and psychologists must be immediately available to assess the ability of prisoners to mentally withstand torture. Instead, they are routinely required to participate in the interrogations and ignore evidence that guidelines have been surpassed. In essence, doctors sworn to honor the Hippocratic Oath (“to abstain from doing harm”), even above the Geneva Conventions, have willingly or forcibly engaged in practices that make mockery of it. In one worst-case scenario, doctors who couldn’t prevent the beating death of a prisoner were called upon to falsify certificates and make it look as if the man died in his cell, instead of a torture chamber. The evidence is verified by military, legal and medical experts, as well as witnesses and former detainees. At the same time as news of hunger strikers being force-fed in Guantanamo are being reported – minus descriptions of how it’s done – Davis recounts the same thing happening years earlier, using methods widely condemned when ducks and geese are fattened for tastier foie gras. However grotesque, “Doctors of the Dark Side” makes a persuasive argument without resorting to polemics or partisan politics. President Obama, after all, has as much to answer for on the subject as his predecessor.

The Exorcist in the 21st Century” straddles the thin lines that divide exploitation, entertainment and enlightenment, as they pertain to the most controversial and intriguing rite in the Roman Catholic Church. That it originated in Norway is only the first of several surprises. There aren’t all that many native-born Catholics in Scandinavia, so, when one recently underwent a church-authorized exorcism, it caught the attention of Norwegian filmmakers Fredrik Horn Akselsen and Christian Falch. They introduce us to Father José Antonio Fortea, whose job it is to visit parishes where possessions are reported and, if the facts justify such an extreme treatment, do battle with the devil. He patiently and articulately describes the process, which is deemed necessary more times than one would imagine. I found it interesting, as well, that Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s official exorcist, considers “The Exorcist” to be a fair representation of the practice and that he keeps a copy of the movie in his library. The filmmakers traveled to a remote corner of the Andes to meet a woman who was about to undergo an exorcism and interview people close to her. Her freak-outs aren’t nearly as extreme as those experienced by Linda Blair, but they’re hellishly noisy and more than a little bit disturbing. Fortea follows them to Colombia to conduct the rite, which is staged in a way that recalls a revival meeting in the American South. Fortuitously, because he’s conversant in the language of tongues, he’s on somewhat equal footing with the demon. The DVD adds more interview material and a longer version of the exorcism ritual.

The Oranges: Blu-ray
In less capable hands, the suburban family drama “The Oranges” might have become a prime candidate for a Golden Raspberry. Instead, Julian Farino (“Entourage”) finds the humanity in a so-so script by first-timers Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss and gets out of the way of actors capable of making an infomercial for flameless candles entertaining. “The Oranges” is a tale of two families that live across the street from each other in the tranquil New Jersey town of Orange. Carol, Terry and Nina Ostroff are played by Allison Janney, Oliver Platt and Leighton Meester, respectively, while Paige, David, Toby and Vanessa Walling are portrayed by Catherine Keener, Hugh Laurie, Adam Brody and Alia Shawkat. The men are best buddies; the women are borderline miserable; the daughters, once BFFs, are estranged; and Brody’s handsome, young economist undergoes torture by match-making. Because “The Oranges” is set during the holiday season, it’s fair to expect evidence of dysfunction to emerge any minute. Sure enough, a scandal involving both families is revealed early in the proceedings, catching everyone off-guard. Even as it tears apart the fabric of their friendship, the possibility always exists that a happy ending can be pulled out of Farino’s hat. He does just that, but not in a fashion one might expect. The story includes several humorous moments, but they’re mostly born of misery and, again, the cast works overtime to deliver the laughs. The resolution ties things up pretty smoothly, without resorting to melodrama or flakey logic. While “The Oranges” isn’t on the same block as “American Beauty,” fans of the actors probably won’t mind squeezing out some time to see it.

Safe Haven: Blu-ray
I know it isn’t fair to dismiss “Safe Haven” by concluding, “If you’ve seen one adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, you’ve seen them all,” but there are far too many similarities in the seven movies not to come to that conclusion. Almost all of them have been set and shot in quaint, seaside communities in the South, where time comes to a standstill at irregular intervals. The young protagonists are always good-looking, a bit troubled, harboring dark secrets and are soon to be tested. There’s romance, but no couplings so steamy they would threaten its PG or PG-13 rating. They are modestly budgeted and make lots of money, even if boyfriends would rather eat worms than sit through one with their best girl. If there’s any such thing as a critic-proof movie, it would be one adapted from a Sparks’ novel. “Safe Haven” is set in the lovely town of Southport, North Carolina, where, one day, a young woman (Julianne Hough) decides to get off the Greyhound and put down roots. We already know that Katie is escaping from a bad scene back home, although we don’t know exactly what happened. Once in Southport, she plays really, really hard-to-get with a handsome widower and single father, Alex (Josh Duhamel), with whom she’s destined to come to some kind of romantic resolution. That’s not a spoiler, it’s a given.

Whatever it is Katie did in her former life, she’s turned into a model citizen of Southport, single-handedly rehabbing a dilapidated cabin and waiting tables at the best and, perhaps, only restaurant in town. When Katie and Alex inevitably hook up, one of the kids warms to her immediately, while the other takes some work. Katie can’t help but feel snake-bit when her past finally comes back to haunt her. Hough and Duhamel make a cute couple, just as Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling, Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried, Richard Gere and Diane Lane, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, Shane West and Mandy Moore and Kevin Costner and Robin Wright did before them. In his second visit to Sparks’ territory, Lasse Hallstrom (“Dear John”) lets the story speak for itself, while also milking the natural beauty of the scenic location and chemistry between the possibly star-crossed pair. The Blu-ray takes full advantage of both qualities, adding deleted and extended scenes, an alternate ending, a set tour and featurettes “Igniting the Romance in Safe Haven” and “Josh Duhamel’s Lessons in Crabbing.”

The Rabbi’s Cat: Blu-ray
Writer and director Joann Sfar (“Gainsbourg”) has grappled with issues pertaining to Jewish identity for at least as long as he’s known that one of his parents is Ashkenazi and the other Sephardic. For him, it’s like having bloodstreams that run in opposite directions in the same veins. The same tug-of-war is waged in his graphic novel and animated feature, “The Rabbi’s Cat,” in which a cat raised by the rabbi, Sfar, and his voluptuous daughter, Zlabya, develops the ability to communicate with people after it swallows a parrot. Not too timid to engage in serious conversation, the cat asks the rabbi if having a Jewish master and mistress makes him Jewish. If so, then, the cat would like to have a bar mitzvah. (Circumcision is whole other kettle of fish.) Confounding the identity issue even further is the fact that the rabbi has a cousin who’s Muslim.

The film opens in Algiers, where, between the wars, people of different faiths and ethnicities live next-door to each other in relative harmony. It isn’t until the rabbi, his daughter, the cat and a Russian Jew – he snuck into Algeria in a crate containing religious texts – embark on a journey to Ethiopia, in search of “the Jerusalem of Africa.” Here, they encounter people who are far less tolerant. Because “The Rabbi’s Cat” is adapted from different volumes of Sfar’s popular series of comic books – graphic novels, if you prefer – the narrative doesn’t always flow in a straight direction. The movie is beautifully rendered to take advantage of the Arabesque setting and artfully conceived Saharan skies, gardens, palms and sand dunes. The movie was released into 3D in its theatrical run. It’s not yet available here in that format, but anyone interested in the source material can find it at Amazon and other outlets. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes, “The Making of ‘The Rabbi’s Cat’” and “Joann Sfar Draws From Memory.” There’s nothing in the movie that parents would find objectionable for ’tweens and teens, but younger children probably would need a translator – or rabbi – for the theological discussions.

The Great Gatsby: Midnight in Manhattan
Barrymore: Blu-ray

When a movie has been adapted from a popular novel, it’s sometimes difficult for a reviewer to recommend in what order a potential viewer should experience both works, if at all. Too often, fans of the book are disappointed to the point of depression by a film’s take on the material, while there are times when the movie actually makes the book look better than it is. In the case of “The Great Gatsby,” it would difficult to do any real damage to the source material because the story is only as long as it needs to be and reads as if it were written for film. Anyone who’s a fan of classic cinema could cast it in a half-hour. I have yet to experience F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in 3D — the format preferred by Baz Luhrman for his adaptation – but the trailers and teasers whet my appetite for the May 10 release. (It also will be shown in standard 2D.) The BBC documentary “The Great Gatsby: Midnight in Manhattan” makes me want to go back and read the novel, as well, for the third or fourth time. It was filmed in advance of the novel’s 75th anniversary, in 2000, but the only thing that’s really changed is the status of several of the people interviewed, including Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton, William Styron, Christopher Hitchens, Budd Schulberg and Norman Mailer, who are no longer with us. Among the other witnesses are granddaughter Eleanor Lanahan, Garrison Keiller, Jay McInerney, several notable scholars and critics, and the secretary who was with Fitzgerald when he died, Francis Kroll Ring. All of them agree on “The Great Gatsby” being the novel that most closely captures the elusive American Dream and qualifies as the Great American Novel. If Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald can be credited for defining the Jazz Age, they argue, it’s also true that they invented their roles in it. What’s truly remarkable, though, is how prophetic the assembled experts turned out to be. Seven years before the second Great Depression, they predicted how the then-booming U.S. economy would, of necessity, go bust in much the same way as it had in Fitzgerald’s era. It’s uncanny.

To add value to the 43-minute documentary, BBC Home Entertainment has paired “Midnight in Manhattan” with the 1975 made-for-TV drama, “A Dream of Living.” The “Omnibus” presentation describes a day and a night in the life of the Fitzgeralds, while they were living large in a Long Island mansion. In it, Ernest Hemingway drops by one afternoon to discuss his decision to turn from reporting to fiction and offer praise for “The Great Gatsby.” The men are still close friends and heavy drinkers. Zelda has yet to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is rehearsing for her debut as a ballerina. The evening portion of the teleplay is set during a party that is only slightly less grand and debauched than the ones described in the novel. David Hemmings and Annie Lambert are terrific as the star-crossed couple.

Fitzgerald and the great American thespian John Barrymore both were working at the top of the game during the Roaring ’20s, even as both men’s livers were taking a beating and the early symptoms of alcoholism were beginning to reveal themselves. “Barrymore” re-creates the 1997 production of William Luce’s two-person play, during which Christopher Plummer delivered a tour-de-force performance as the actor in his decline. It is set on a props-filled stage, in 1942, when Barrymore supposedly was making one last stab at a comeback as Richard III, a role he had performed triumphantly on Broadway in 1920. The two characters are a memory-challenged Barrymore and his increasingly frustrated “reader.” Although the actor needs to be prodded on lines he had long memorized, there also are stretches of lucidity when Barrymore is as brilliant as he ever was. In between, he recalls life in the celebrated theater family and anecdotes about the good old days, when he was the undisputed champion of Hollywood and Broadway. He even recites a few bawdy limericks. Clearly, though, the alcoholism has already taken its toll. Plummer, an actor of similar stature, is nothing short of mesmerizing in a Tony Award-winning performance that demands frequent shifts in demeanor and dramatic soliloquies. The Blu-ray adds a very good backgrounder on the play, Barrymore and Plummer’s career.

Mama: Blu-ray
It has become something of a Hollywood truism that movies released in January, even those with prominent stars, have been dumped there as placeholders between the holiday pictures with those with more commercial potential to come. Once Valentine’s Day rolls around, thoughts of summer already are consuming the minds of Hollywood distributors. It’s possible that the handlers of “Mama” knew that they had something marketable, at least, with Jessica Chastain’s career still in its ascendency. It also carried the imprimatur of executive producer and master of horror Guillermo del Toro. Word-of-mouth worked wonders for January’s child, as Andres and Barbara Musshietti’s film grossed several times more than its estimated budget. That should give fans of stories about ghosts and bogeymen an idea of its rent-ability in DVD and Blu-ray. The movie opens auspiciously, when a wildly distraught man murders his wife and drags his two very young daughters to a cabin deep in the woods, where he intends to kill them. Before he can pull the trigger, though, a hairy something-or-other leaps from a cabinet and, well, we don’t know exactly what it does. Five years later, a couple of hillbilly hunters discover a pair of feral children lurking suspiciously in the darkness of the same cabin, which looks uninhabitable. They’re taken to a children’s psychiatric center for rehabilitation, before being handed off to their punk-rock uncle and aunt, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Annabelle (Chastain). It isn’t long before the girls display symptoms of not being ready for polite society. That’s the setup and any more information would spoil the suspense … and fun. Suffice it to say that whatever kept them alive for those five years still has a hold on them and its agenda has yet to be fully revealed. As the kids, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse bounce smoothly and frequently between sweet and creepy. The twice-nominated Oscar candidate, Chastain, is barely recognizable here from her characters in “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Help,” but she’s credible as a woman who evolves from aspiring musician to doting stepmom. Del Toro encouraged the Musshiettis to expand a three-minute short they had made into a feature film, with the help of British writer Neil Cross (“MI-5,” “Luther”), and have the characters speak English, instead of Spanish. Far from perfect, it’s exactly the kind of movie that makes movie lovers think differently about January. It arrives with the short, “Mamá,” and an introduction; commentary; deleted scenes; and a pair of background featurettes.

ID:A
Danish director Christian E. Christiansen enjoyed 15 minutes in the Hollywood sun, when his 2007 short film, “At Night,” was nominated for an Oscar. His 2011 feature “ID:A” bypassed the U.S. entirely, but not because it wasn’t any good. My guess is that there simply wasn’t any place to put it. In the wake of the success of such book-to-film franchises as “The Girl With the Golden Tattoo” and “Wallander,” one of the places fans of character-based thrillers look first for entertainment is Scandinavia. “ID:A” may not compare to those titles in terms of originality or heart-pounding drama, but it is frequently quite exciting and, for those not allergic to subtitles, an easy way to kill a couple of hours. The sneaky-sexy Swede actress Tuva Novotny plays a woman who wakes up one morning with no idea who she is, how she found her way to the bottom of a rocky riverbed in France, why her head is bleeding and she has a long scar on her tummy, and where she picked up the 2 million euros in a backpack she’s clutching. The setup puts us in Jason Bourne territory and that’s exactly where Christiansen and the film’s producers want us to believe we’re heading. Not quite, because recollections of her back pages eventually come back to her. Still, her journey of discovery is quite compelling.

After finding refuge in a nearby country inn, the woman is told that her accent betrays her as being Danish. It doesn’t take long for a pair of thugs, more interested in the money than the woman who possesses it, to track her to the inn. We know from news coverage on the television that a Danish politician was recently assassinated and, perhaps, that’s where the loot might have derived. Nevertheless, the innkeeper’s son takes a shine to the stranger and he helps her find people who can help her buy time to discover her identity. Once she gets to Copenhagen, though, her new hair style and color can’t disguise the probability that she’s the wife of a famous Danish opera singer and he’s been distraught she disappeared, only a few weeks ago. From this point forward, each new clue leads to a conspiracy that not only threatens her life, but those of everyone in her orbit. So, you’ll have to watch the movie to unscramble the mystery, right alongside the protagonist.

Mistress of the Apes
She Cat/Female Teacher Hunting
The Exhibitionists

It isn’t often that a DVD arrives in the mail that can compete with “Troll 2,” “Kingdom of the Spiders,” “Birdemic” and “Plan 9 From Outer Space” for the honor of being one of best bad movies of all time. That’s exactly how I felt after watching “Mistress of the Apes,” a picture that kept my jaw locked in the dropped position throughout the entirety of its 84-minute length. Made in 1979, but apparently never distributed here, “Mistress of the Apes” was written and directed by self-proclaimed “schlockmeister” Larry Buchanan, who also gave us the original “Mars Needs Women,” “Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell” and “Free, White and 21,” among other quick-and-dirty gems. “Mistress of the Apes” opens in a hospital, where the wife of a world-famous anthropologist is about to deliver a baby. At the same time, a group of dope fiends invade the facility looking for the drugs locked in a cabinet in the same room. In the ensuing fracas, Susan literally slides off the operating table, causing the baby to be stillborn. As if that news weren’t sufficiently bad, and ultimately irrelevant, the blond bombshell (Jenny Neumann) is told that her husband has disappeared while on a dig in Africa and is believed to be dead. Knowing that he had discovered something that could change everything we know about the evolution of human beings, she immediately volunteers to make the grueling trek to the jungle with a gun-crazy hunter and his sexy wife and one of her husband’s associates. Apparently, the only reason she’s been summoned to Africa is to raise the spirits of her husband’s betrayers by flashing her world-class breasts every so often and giving them an opportunity to rape a white woman. It’s a distinction she shares with the hunter’s wife (Barbara Leigh).

It doesn’t take long before Susan discovers what made her husband so excited: missing-link humanoids, “near” men and women, who closely resemble body-builders with faces swollen by the stings of dozens of killer bees. Cutting to the chase, Susan invents a language by which she can communicate with the near-men, who seem more entranced by those magnificent breasts and blond hair than her linguistic skills. To get even closer to the near-people, Susan seduces at least one and, perhaps, all of them in a nearby cave. Meanwhile, she is being pursued by the hunter and others who want to cash in on the discovery. This description doesn’t come close to doing justice to the idiocy of the screenplay, cheesy production values and Buchanan’s conspicuously bad taste. “Mistress of the Apes” is also graced with a couple of the worst songs in the history of the cinema, suggesting that the whole thing is a joke on the audience. If that was Buchanan’s intention, it worked.

The soft-core porn on display in the movies that comprise the “Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection” are so sexually perverse and tortuously plotted that they straddle the line between “so bad they’re good” and “so bad they’re really bad.” The latest installments in the continuing series of “roman porno” titles from Impulse Pictures are “She Cat” and “Female Teacher Hunting,” both from the early 1980s. The former is a female-revenge epic, in which an attractive hit-woman, who spends far too much time taking showers, blows an assassination and becomes a target of other killers. “Female Teacher Hunting” is a cautionary tale about how leveling a false accusation about rape can lead to real violence and heartbreak. In the “Female Teacher” sub-genre, the rapes are shown and exploited for their titillation value among teenage boys, who fantasize about doing the same thing to their teachers. Because of Japan’s curious restrictions on showing pubic hair and penetration, the brutality of an act that otherwise would be too graphic to stomach is diluted. The DVDs come with booklets that put the individual movies, stars and director into the context of the time.

The Exhibitionists” is low-budget indie in which a group of friends and a dominatrix ringer attend a New Year’s Eve party, during which they’re expected to reveal their deepest secrets and relationship hang-ups to the host, a documentary filmmaker. Being New York yuppies, the guests all have problems in the love department and the dominatrix is employed as a provocateur. The host seems most determined to tape the confession of his brother-in-law, a soft-spoken fellow who seems haunted by a deep, dark secret that he wants to exploit cinematically. Director Michael Melamedoff adds an appropriately dark and moody texture to the party scenes, but freshman scripter Michael Edison Hayden’s dialogue lacks the venom and surprises one would expect from this group of people. The shocker scene is easily predictable and there isn’t enough bare skin to be sexy.

The Assassin’s Blade: Blu-ray
Shanghai Noon/Shanghai Knights: Blu-ray

If you can imagine “Romeo and Juliet” crossed with “Mulan,” you’ll have a pretty good idea of what happens in “The Assassin’s Blade,” a martial-arts romance that began life with the far more accurate title of “Butterfly Lovers.” Released in 2008, Jingle Ma’s film paired attractive pop stars Charlene Choi and Wu Chun in a story that had been filmed previously by Tsui Hark and is based on the classic tale of Leung Shan-Pak and Cheuk Ying-Toi. Ma’s re-interpretation isn’t nearly as successful as Hark’s, but the target audience of Asian teenyboppers probably got a kick out of it. Here, Zhu (Choi) is the daughter of a wealthy merchant sent into the mountains to study martial arts under a master teacher. At the time, women were forbidden from joining such elite schools, so she’s required to assume a male disguise. Something of a loose cannon from the get-go, Zhu is ordered to accept the tutelage of a handsome trainer, Liang (Wu). It takes Liang an inordinately long time to realize Zhu is a woman, but, once he does, his heart begins to flutter like a butterfly. It is at this juncture that a childhood friend, Ma, informs Zhu that her parents are in danger and she needs to return to the village. Because Ma expects to be granted permission to marry Zhu, her rejection of the arrangement makes him dangerous to the family. And, this is where east meets west in a scenario that recalls the tragic ending of “Romeo and Juliet.” I can see where teens and young adults might be drawn to “The Assassin’s Blade,” but viewers not enamored with the stars wouldn’t be able to get around the fact that only a blind person could mistake Zhu for a man. Neither is Wu strong enough an actor to convince us that he could be fooled so easily. That said, however, the scenery is quite beautiful and the fighting scenes aren’t bad, either.

The packaging on Blu-ray of “Shanghai Noon” and “Shanghai Knights” reminds us once again how much fun it is to watch perfectly mismatched characters cut loose in an action comedy. Jackie Chan plays martial-arts expert Chon Wang (John Wayne, get it?), the imperial guardsman sent to America to rescue kidnapped Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) from bad hombres. Owen Wilson not only is Wang’s polar opposite as a lawman, but his surfer-dude good looks also make seem as out of place in the Wild West as Wang. Most comedy lovers could easily predict what happens next, if not the many insider gags and easy rapport the actors share. “Shanghai Noon” did well enough to inspire a sequel, “Shanghai Knights,” which extends the conceit to England. Chon’s father has been assassinated and the investigation points to conspirators based in Europe. Hong Kong stars Donnie Yen and Fann Wong join the boys there, but on opposite sides of the mystery. Both movies received glowing reviews, while also exposing eastern and western audiences to unfamiliar actors. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, commentary and making-of featurettes from both movies.

Last Caress
Joint Body
Federal Agents vs. Underworld Inc.
Silver Case

Fans of classic Italian giallo probably will be the only constituency to embrace Francois Gaillard and Christophe Robin’s low-budget slasher flick, “Last Caress.” It involves an attractive group of friends who gather at a rural manor, where their first mistake is to pull out a Ouija board and summon the spirits that reside there. No good can come from playing that game in a movie. Besides having to deal with a family curse, however, the young men and women become the target of a psychopath looking for a painting that carries a curse of its own. Billed as an exercise in “glamour gore,” “Last Caress” jumps from one grisly, giallo-inspired murder to another, with brief interludes for sex. While the men are non-descript nobodies, the women are modern replicas of Italian bombshells from the 1960-70s. Timing in at 72 minutes, there isn’t much space left for a distinct storyline to make sense of the killings. Given the target audience, though, the bloody tableaux are the only things that matter. The DVD arrives with some making-of material and the similarly violent, but more coherent short, “Die Die My Darling.”

The most common complaint about crime dramas made by aspiring filmmakers is that violence too often is used to advance a story, instead of incorporating the violence into a balanced narrative. The opposite is true of Brian Jun’s “Joint Body,” in which the potential for violence percolates under the surface of the story, but is only allowed to cut loose once. Everything else is there, including an attractive cast, a decent foundation for explosive action and borderline sleazy locations. The missing ingredient is the one most crucial to the story. Veteran hard guy Mark Pellegrino is in prison, about to be released on parole, when his wife tells him she wants nothing to do with him. That stings, but what’s more hurtful is the condition of his release that requires him to refrain from contacting his teenage daughter. Nick’s parole officer sternly warns him against breaking the terms of his release, and he seems intent on staying free. He moves into a cut-rate apartment building, where the first people he meets are a red-headed stripper (Alicia Witt) and an elderly woman being wheeled out of the residence on a gurney. Upon making contact with his estranged brother, Nick is surprised to learn that he’s married and a newly minted cop. In a decision that begs credulity, the cop gives his brother an untraceable handgun “for protection” – a direct violation of his parole – and suggests they maintain some distance between each other. The gun will come into play soon thereafter, bringing Nick and the stripper together as desperadoes. If that scenario portends anything, it’s that the second half of “Joint Body” should be explosive. Instead, none of threads lead anywhere, except to a tepid resolution. Witt and Pellegrino are quite good, given the limitations of the script, so it would have been nice if they were given more to do.

The release of “Federal Agents vs. Underworld Inc.” and other movie serials from the Cheezy Flicks catalogue serves as a reminder of how much fun it was to go to the movies in the days before multiplexes and cost-cutting by studios, distributors and exhibitors. In addition to a double feature, audiences were treated to a cartoon, trailers, a newsreel and a multipart serial with cliffhanger endings. During the Depression, women were specifically targeted with special “Dish Night” giveaways and contests, while kids were lured to cartoon marathons. Today, we get commercials and placards from local merchants and a nearly endless stream of over-amped previews of coming attractions, most of which leave little to the imagination. As primitive as the serials look in hindsight, such studios as Republic did invest some money in them. The 12-part “Federal Agents” cost $155,000 to make and it was the least expensive serial of 1949. My estimate would have been much lower. Here, an international crime ring steals a gold hand from an ancient temple, thinking it has the power to control minds. It causes federal agents to search near and far for the tomb raiders and, of course, save mankind from totalitarian rule. The fistfights and rescues border on the ludicrous, but it’s unlikely that audiences were any more fooled by this setup than they were by the weekly trials of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Cheezy has cleaned up the images to the point where it’s actually pleasant to watch the episodes.

It’s all too easy to criticize a movie for borrowing freely from Quentin Tarantino. Usually, it can be seen in a stylized approach to criminality, creative use of profanity and inventive casting. In “Silver Case,” co-writer/director Christian Filippella borrows the mystery of the glowing briefcase from “Pulp Fiction” and builds an entire movie around it. The missing element, of course, is Tarantino’s wild imagination. Eric Roberts plays a Hollywood mogul named Senator, who, in an effort to curry favor with another big shot, hires a courier to deliver a silver suitcase to the Master. The courier is warned not to tamper with the lock or lose track of it, which is the first thing he does. From there, the suitcase is passed from crook to crook, until it finally is retrieved by the Master’s thugs. By the time we learn what’s inside it, we’ve lost interest.

The Henry Fonda Collection
Viva Zapata: Blu-ray
The Great Escape: Blu-ray
Brubaker: Blu-ray
The Verdict: Blu-ray
Henry Jaglom Collection, Volume 2: The Comedies
One Hour Photo: Blu-ray

There are plenty of good reasons this week to check out the classics section of your local purveyor of DVDs and Blu-ray titles. Several of the medium’s most significant and popular titles have been collected in box sets, while others have been sent out in hi-def editions for the first time. The award in the Best Bang for Your Buck category goes to Fox for the “The Henry Fonda Film Collection,” which is comprised of “Jesse James,” “The Return of Frank James,” “Immortal Sergeant,” “Drums Along the Mohawk,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Daisy Kenyon,” “The Boston Strangler” and “The Longest Day.” Priced at just south of $50, I can’t think of a better Father’s Day gift for film buffs who might have might caught one or more of the movies at the local Bijou during their initial go-round. It is by no means a definitive collection of Fonda’s greatest performances, as he also contributed fine work to the inventory of other major studios. It does, however, demonstrate Fonda’s depth, genre range and immeasurable contributions to Twentieth Century Fox, during the golden years. Three of the titles here were directed by John Ford, while also represented are Fritz Lang, William Wellman and Otto Preminger. (I’m surprised that Ford and Fonda’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” isn’t included, as it was in the “Ford at Fox” box.) Collectors might consider waiting for the inevitable Blu-ray assemblage, but those who haven’t already added these titles to their collection can pick them here at a bargain price.

Also from the Fox library, this one in Blu-ray, arrives Elia Kazan and John Steinbeck’s exhilarating, if historically dubious portrait of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Among other good reasons for picking it up, it’s fun to watch heavyweights Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn go toe-to-toe, alongside Jean Peters and Joseph Wiseman. Both men had received glowing reviews for their interpretation of Stanley Kowalski and vied for the lead role in “Viva Zapata!” Kazan used their rivalry to add sizzle to an already scrumptious steak. Although I would caution students against using it as reference material, “Viva Zapata!” ranks high on the list of Hollywood biopics with tremendous performances and wonderful location cinematography. Scholars have argued that the Kazan’s “power corrupts” take on Zapata was colored by his own negative attitudes toward totalitarianism and he used the trajectory of the Mexican Revolution to comment on the failures of the Soviet system. The maestro’s use of Zapata as a stand-in for Stalin – however obliquely — disturbed many Mexican historians and left-wing scholars.

Released in 1963, “The Great Escape” not only is one of the greatest war movies of all time, but it is an entertainment that can be enjoyed as much today as it was 40 years ago. Based on an actual escape from the maximum-security POW camp Stalag Luft III, it remains one of the period’s few big-budget, high-profile projects that allowed the collaborative process to play out as intended, both on and off screen. Behind the camera sat director John Sturges (“The Magnificent Seven”), screenwriters James Clavell (“Shogun”) and W.R. Burnett (“Little Caesar”), and composer Elmer Bernstein. In front of it was an all-star cast that gelled as an ensemble, but left room for Steve McQueen to emerge as the hero among heroes. Also contributing wonderful performances were James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum and James Donald. Among the recycled bonus features are commentary with cast and crew and eight worthwhile mini-docs.

In “Brubaker” (1980), Robert Redford plays a reform-minded prison warden who finds himself caught between a totally corrupt penal system and hundreds of potentially convicts who have no good reason to trust him. It, too, was based on the experiences of an actual person and a scandal that rocked the state of Arkansas. Providing solid work in supporting roles are Yaphet Kotto, Jane Alexander and Morgan Freeman, for whom “Brubaker” represented a stepping stone to a great career. (Earlier that year, he also played a prisoner in “Attica.”) Watch it back-to-back with “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Paul Newman gives a stirring performance as an over-the-hill Boston lawyer given one last opportunity to prove he can do something besides blowing cases and getting soused. The 1982 courtroom drama “The Verdict” was written by David Mamet and directed by Sidney Lumet, with James Mason, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, Milo O’Shea and Lindsay Crouse in strong supporting roles. The Blu-ray bonuses include “Paul Newman: The Craft of Acting,” “Milestones in Cinema History: The Verdict,” “Sidney Lumet: The Craft of Directing” and commentary with Lumet and Newman.

Even though he practically defines the term, “acquired taste,” Henry Jaglom ought to be given far more credit than he receives as a pioneer in independent filmmaking. He’s been making movies his way for more than 40 years, no matter how the public and critics react to them. Aspiring filmmakers could learn a great from watching his pictures and emulating his ability to stretch a dollar as far as it will go. If nothing else, watch them to see how his actors respond to the specificity of his hyper-personal conceits. In this way, he could very well be considered the godfather of the mumblecore movement. Jaglom’s disturbingly neurotic ensemble artists deliver largely unrehearsed dialogue – lots of it – that causes viewers to feel as if they’re eavesdropping on conversations they have no right to be hearing. He encourages a style of acting that’s so naturalistic it can be mistaken for complete improvisation, which it’s not. Actors have been encouraged to re-interpret his words, but the frameworks remain true to his vision.

The new “Henry Jaglom Collection, Volume 2: The Comedies” contains “Sitting Ducks” (1980), a kooky heist/caper movie that actually made money; “Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?” (1983), in which an abandoned wife (Karen Black) enters into an unlikely romance with a man (Michael Emil, Jaglom’s brother) she meets at a New York City café; and “New Year’s Day: Time to Move On,” in which Jaglom arrives at a New York apartment he’s leased, 24 hours before three young women are prepared to move out of it. (Look for Maggie Wheeler, David Duchovny and Milos Forman.) The only bonus features appear with “Sitting Ducks,” and one of them borders on legendary. In an interview with an Israeli reporter, Emil spends almost a half-hour discussing his personal sex life, from obsessive masturbation to becoming a self-described and, perhaps, self-inflated orgasm donor to his lovers. His perceived prowess and analytic approach to sexual intercourse was incorporated into his character in “Cherry Pie.”

After 20 years of making people laugh, Robin Williams hit the kind of wall that allowed critics and detractors to reconsider his entire body of work and call for a priest to deliver last rites to his movie career. While it’s accurate to say that Williams became too enamored of his shtick, or, perhaps, too willing to play to the wet-tissue crowd, it wasn’t true that he didn’t have the chops to resuscitate his career. After bottoming out critically with “Patch Adams,” “Jakob the Liar” and “Bicentennial Man,” Williams reversed direction with terrific dramatic turns in “One Hour Photo,” “Insomnia” and the inky black comedy, “Death to Smoochy.” In “One Hour Photo,” he plays the creepy clerk of a photo booth in a large discount store. Things go sideways when he insinuates himself into the personal life of one of his most frequent customers, a woman who isn’t aware that her husband is cheating on her. In fact, the longtime employee is probably the only person, apart from the participants, who can prove what’s been happening behind her back. After piecing the parts of the puzzle together, he takes it upon himself to right the wrong. Fox has re-released “One Hour Photo” in Blu-ray, with several making-of featurettes and a backgrounder hosted by director Mark Romanek.

Superman Unbound: Blu-ray
A month ahead of the long-anticipated release of Zach Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” Superman geeks are encouraged to whet their appetite with the all-new made-for-video movie, “Superman Unbound.” In the animated feature, Superman and Supergirl take on Brainiac, the evil android supervillain who collects the intellectual DNA and miniaturizes the significant landmarks of intergalactic civilizations he plans to destroy. Brainiac’s mad goal is to collect the wisdom and invest it in his own devastated homeland. When our superheroes learn that Brainiac has gleaned everything worth knowing from the miniature Kandor and is ready to wipe out all memory of Krypton, they commit themselves to preventing the tragedy. The movie has been adapted from Geoff Johns’ 2008 comic book story arc, “Superman: Brainiac.” Among the voicing-cast members are Matt Bomer, John Noble, Stana Katic, Molly Quinn and Francis Conroy. The Blu-ray includes a month’s worth of bonus material, including commentary, background featurettes, four bonus cartoons, previews and a digital-comic excerpt from the graphic novel on which it’s based. One thing that struck me as being a tad twisted is the amount time the camera spends lingering on Lois and Supergirl’s gams and cleavage. I’m sure the teenage boys appreciate the extra effort.

Lifetime: Steel Magnolias
Nature: What Plants Talk About
Rookie Blue: The Complete Third Season
Fringe: The Complete Fifth and Final Season
Sesame Street: Elmo the Musical

The restaging of popular shows and movies, using actors and characters markedly different in ethnic or racial background than those featured in the original, often can be fairly described as a gimmick. The recent Lifetime Network updating of “Steel Magnolias” looks and sounds like Robert Harling’s 1987 play and Herbert Ross’ 1989 movie, except for the obvious fact that the primary cast members are African-American. The remake not only is true to the spirit of the all-white versions, but in some ways improves on previous presentations. And, it does so without resorting to the addition of cultural clichés or stereotypes. Six Louisiana women gather regularly at Truvy’s Beauty Spot to gossip, swap lies, cry, commiserate with each other’s problems, herald their personal triumphs and occasionally get their hair done. When the daughter of one of the regulars decides to have a baby, despite a potentially dangerous kidney condition, the ladies worry as one and exhale simultaneously when she survives the delivery. Ditto, when she undergoes a transplant to save her life. Those kinds of emotions aren’t limited to one ethnic or demographic group, but the scope of the small screen appears to intensify the experience. Director Kenny Leon and exec-producer/star Queen Latifah were able to round up a stellar group of women actors that includes Phylicia Rashad, Adepero Oduye, Condola Rashad, Jill Scott and Alfre Woodard. Their male counterparts, including Lance Gross, Tory Kittles, Michael Beasley and Afermo Omilami, get a fair shake, if not equal screen time.

Plants may not converse with each other, per se, but, as we learn in the “Nature” presentation, “What Plants Talk About,” they are able to share valuable information in ways that scientists of only recently begun to assess. It helps them survive in conditions not normally conducive to growth, as well as in rainforests where the weak could easily get overwhelmed by taller and heartier vegetation. Apparently, they also are able to summon the enemies of their enemies to prevent being eaten. Plant ecologist J.C. Cahill takes us from the Great Basin Desert to the western coast of Canada, where there never seems to be a shortage of water and nutrition, but other dangers exist. To reinforce their theories, the scientists also go underground to demonstrate how root systems work and how information is passed through them.

ABC’s police drama “Rookie Blue” is one of the rarest of all television flowers, a summer series that remains where it took root and is about to enter its fourth season. Normally, summer is the dumping ground for the broadcast networks as the fresh material tends to be limited to reality, game shows and episodes of already canceled series that have yet to air. Every so often, a network will attempt to create an avenue for summer entertainment, but the interest shown by sponsors, especially, is minimal. The same doesn’t hold true for cable, which eats the networks’ picnic lunches each summer by adding fresh series and bringing back series that have already proven themselves. Just as the teenagers on “Glee” and “Gossip Girl” can’t be seniors forever – or, can they? – the rookies of 15 Division quickly became seasoned, occasionally jaded cops. Their assignments and interpersonal relationships intensified, accordingly. The DVD set adds seven making-of featurettes, plus behind-the-scenes and on-set interviews.

There was no guarantee that the Fox sci-fi series “Fringe” would be granted a fifth-season run, if only to tie up loose ends from Season 4 and create a scenario for closure. In this case, the 13-episode renewal was justified by bringing “Fringe” to the magic No. 100, at which point syndication becomes a near certainty. Why anyone would wait for reruns and sit through commercials when full-season and full-run DVD compilations are available remains a mystery to me, though. Season 5 picks up from events depicted in last season’s flash-forward episodes, when the seemingly peaceful Observers seized control of our universe in 2015. Now, in 2036, they have become ruthless rulers who stand unopposed. Can the Fringe Team save humanity and turn back time? Stay tuned. The series finale is a real fan-pleaser.

Generally, the axiom that cautions against fixing things that aren’t broken applies as much to television as any other pursuit. Only bad things can happen when tinkerers are allowed to mess with success. The “Elmo’s World” segment of “Sesame Street” was by no means broken, but it was felt that the whole show could stand a bit of tweaking to appeal to a slightly older demographic. “Elmo the Musical” finds the beloved character stepping out in white tails and high hat, in search of educational adventures and entertaining musical interludes. The show’s mission of promoting math, science, engineering and technology didn’t change, but Elmo does. Turns out, he has feet and knows what to do with them, as “full-body Elmo.” The new five-episode set adds the full-length video, “Let’s Make Music!”

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

China Beach: The Complete Series
The news divisions of three major television networks may have come of age covering the Vietnam War, civil-rights movement and campus turmoil of the 1960s, but it took nearly 20 years for broadcast executives to come to grips with what happened in dramatic form. Unlike the inky black movie comedy that inspired it, TV’s “M*A*S*H” allowed its audience the freedom to draw its own conclusion about which war the sitcom actually was satirizing and why it was worthy of such treatment. Its huge popularity suggests that most viewers considered show’s comically anti-establishment message to be more universal than specific and, in the early 1970s, “M*A*S*H” fit well alongside “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “Laugh-In.” That Vietnam had become an absurdist nightmare, practically defining the term, “SNAFU,” had been established as early as 1968, when, after the 1968 bombing of Ben Tre, AP correspondent Peter Arnett quoted a ranking officer’s observation, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Even “M*A*S*H” co-creator Larry Gelbart would have had a tough time topping that whopper. Otherwise, allusions to the Vietnam War on television were pretty much limited to the occasional wild-eyed veteran as a suspect in a violent crime on police dramas. In 1980, “Magnum, P.I.” offered an alternative in the form of three male characters, who served in Vietnam, but weren’t traumatized beyond all recognition. Magnum, T.C. and Rick occasionally employed skills they learned in the service – extreme helicopter maneuvers and weaponry, for example – and seemed as normal as anyone attempting to jump-start their lives in Hawaii.

Finally, seven years later, CBS used the success of “Platoon” as a springboard for the series “Tour of Duty,” which was set in 1967 Vietnam and dealt with issues especially pertinent to infantrymen fighting a highly motivated, mostly invisible enemy. ABC would launch “China Beach” a season later, shifting the primary focus to nurses and medics stationed at the evacuation hospital at My Khe beach and the wounded servicemen who found refuge and relief there. The restful setting, in addition to presence of women and civilians, increased the number of avenues open to the show’s writers to explore dramatic, comedic and romantic themes. It allowed “China Beach” to tap into a demographic not likely to be attracted to “Tour of Duty” and war movies of the time. For once, women characters weren’t limited to supporting roles or playing second fiddle to male authority figures. As in the war, itself, the non-combatant nurses, volunteers, officers, privates and angels of mercy were portrayed as being a crucial cog in military machine, as well as healers of the body, mind and spirit. They were no less impervious to pain, fatigue, heartbreak or errant bullets than the men at China Beach and their stories had yet to be told in the media. As portrayed by Dana Delaney, First Lieutenant Colleen McMurphy was a composite of nurses who actually served in Vietnam and shared their stories with series creators William Broyles Jr. and John Sacret Young. (“ER” creator John Wells would take the helm in the second season.) Marg Helgenberger, Nan Woods, Concetta Tomei, Chloe Webb, Megan Gallagher, Nancy Giles and Ricki Lake filled roles ranging from prostitutes and singers, to motor-pool mechanics and reporters. They did this alongside such male actors as Michael Boatman, Robert Picardo, Tim Ryan, Jeff Kober and Brian Wimmer. As “China Beach” evolved during its four-season run, it occasionally would introduce stateside storylines and experiment with plot devices.

It’s hard to believe that “China Beach” is only now making its debut in any home-entertainment format. Instead of releasing it in dribs and drabs, StarVista Entertainment and Time Life have chosen to do it right the first time, with “China Beach: The Complete Series” and “China Beach: 25th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition,” both containing a pile of bonus features. The packages don’t come cheap ($199 and $275, respectively), however, and they’re only available at chinabeachondvd.com. The same thing that precluded any previous release of “China Beach” is responsible for the eye-popping price tag, I suspect. “China Beach” is one of the few television shows that used contemporary music, performed by the original artists, to inform what was happening on screen. Because of this, anyone who wanted to send the series out in VHS or DVD had to consider substituting the original songs with generic music or the same songs performed by other artists, neither of which would have had the same effect. The package includes 268 familiar songs, as they were played in the original broadcasts, and this required StarVista to re-license all of them for DVD. (Rights don’t automatically extend from one medium to the next, anymore.) Included in the 10 hours of new bonus material are interviews with cast members and creators, five audio commentaries, footage and featurettes from the 2012 reunion, three roundtable discussions with cast and crew, a gag reel, deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes footage. The “25th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition” adds three signed scripts and photographs from the reunion.

Broken City: Blu-ray
At this point in the history of our republic, it’s become nearly impossible for writers of movies about political corruption to top the antics of the venal swine who misuse their offices for personal gain. Not only are mere citizens unable to compete for access to their elected representatives, constantly being pushed aside by campaign contributors and lobbyists, but constant exposure to corruption also appears to have soured voters on the process as dramatized in movies. Showtime’s “Boss” and Netflix’s “House of Cards” succeeded, in large part, because mini-series are allotted the time necessary to explore the root causes of corruption and amplify the drama with frequent outbursts of gratuitous violence and sex. “Broken City” benefits primarily from the familiarity of the lead characters – Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg, Catherine Zeta-Jones – and the portentous direction of Allen Hughes. As the movie opens, troubled New York cop Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) is fighting for his career and freedom against charges that he used excessive force against a street punk with whom he had something of a history. Taggart dodges the big bullet, but, as a concession to the rabble protesting the verdict, the mayor (Crowe) talks him into taking a smaller bullet for the sake of political stability. Seven years later, it’s clear that things have gone easier for the mayor than Taggart, whose private detective business isn’t doing at all well. Almost out of nowhere, Taggart’s presence is required at City Hall, where Mayor Hostetler offers him the face-saving assignment he’d been promised years earlier.

Ostensibly, the task involves investigating the mayor’s beautiful, strong-willed wife (Zeta-Jones) and an affair she may or may not be having with person- or persons-unknown. That, of course, would be far too easy. Soon, Taggart finds himself in the middle of a potential scandal that could bring down Hostetler and anyone else hoping to fill his seat. Meanwhile, in a diversion at least as old as Frank Sinatra in “The Detective,” Taggart must compete for his wife’s attention with a gaggle of her artsy-fartsy friends. “Broken City” was written by a first-timer, Brian Tucker, so it’s possible that he fell in love with the complexity of his screenplay and convinced Hughes – directing apart from his brother, Albert, for the first time – to keep the kitchen sink in the picture. The Blu-ray, which holds the camera’s noir texture pretty well, adds deleted scenes, a making-of documentary, alternative ending and UltraViolet capacity.

Not Fade Away: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing upon which people in 49 of our 50 mostly united states can agree, it’s that the deadline on New Jersey’s 15 minutes in the spotlight has been pushed way too far. Even if it leads the nation in reality-based television shows and locations for HBO series, New Jersey is Nebraska with an accent and a lot more Italians. David Chase can be forgiven almost anything, if only because he gave us “The Sopranos,” but his highly personal feature debut, “Not Fade Away,” pushes the envelope to the breaking point. It is a coming-of-age drama that wants us to believe that the same bolt of lightning that struck Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, in 1960, would, five years later, strike three Jersey boys about to embark on a rock-’n’-roll odyssey. It did so at approximately the same moment as the Rolling Stones were performing on “The Hollywood Palace” and enduring the cheap shots dished out by host Dean Martin.  Seemingly overnight, Chase’s alter-ego here, Douglas (John Magaro), began growing his hair, effecting Cuban-heeled boots and giving up the drums for being lead singer in his band, mostly because it’s the first place the cool girls look when the music begins.

Naturally, his blue-collar old man (James Gandolfini) strongly disapproves, assuming that his son has been subverted by communists and is in need of a good beating. Normally, one could expect Mom to come to her boy’s defense, if only in private, but Chase has decided to paint her in the most unflattering light possible. In Molly Price’s hands, she becomes a shrill suburban gargoyle, rarely seen without her hair in curlers and wearing something other than a thread-worn housecoat. She constantly guilt-trips Douglas by saying that his long, curly hair and anti-war views are an insult to his father’s hard work and all the sacrifices they’ve made for him. Despite all this weeping and wailing, the band manages to attract the attention of big-time producer Jerry Ragovoy (Brad Garrett) and Douglas hooks up with the hottest babe in the tri-state area (Bella Heathcote). So, where’s the rub?

Watching “Not Fade Away,” whose killer soundtrack balances the parent’s nasty treatment of Douglas, I could only think of how outdated and cliché the story seemed from a distance of nearly 50 years. The same arguments and threats that accompanied Douglas’ metamorphosis were taking place in hundreds of thousands of American homes and still are, perhaps, when kids show off their spanking-new tattoos and piercings. Thousands of garage bands still struggle to be heard and marijuana continues to bring the silly out in teenagers. The most shocking thing about “Not Fade Away,” perhaps, is realizing how little has changed since the period described in the movie. Each succeeding generation must endure some degree of torture from its elders, if only to prepare teenagers for the cold facts of adulthood.

To be fair, however, it should be mentioned that “Not Fade Away” received mostly positive reviews and it’s not at all difficult to watch, even if one has seen variations of it already in such movies as “That Things You Do!,” “The Commitments,” “Almost Famous,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “The Runaways” and “Backbeat.” The young actors are all quite good and Chase takes full advantage of their enthusiasm. Even if Gandolfini will only seem to be reprising Tony Soprano, some viewers will find that sufficient cause to recommend “Not Fade Away.” (In that case, also rent “Down the Shore.) Steven Van Zandt, Silvio in “The Sopranos,” does a great job as music supervisor, mixing vintage songs with more obscure tunes and making sure the actors look good on stage. For my money, though, the best scene in the movie comes at the very end, when Douglas’ sister, I think, appears out of nowhere to perform a dance to the future on a deserted Hollywood street. It punctuates everything that’s gone before and anticipates everything that lies ahead for her generation. The Blu-ray nicely captures the rich sound and unpolished mono texture of the music – classic and original – adds a lengthy backgrounder with Chase, deleted scenes and a look at how the musician/actors were chosen.

Wasted on the Young
Revenge dramas set in high schools are nothing new and thanks, in part, to amoral NRA lobbyists, the massacres that inspire them aren’t going to disappear any time soon. So far, the only meaningful thing to emerge from the killings at Columbine was Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” and pro-gun legislators are trying to convince us that taking automatic weapons out of the hands of a sociopath couldn’t have prevented Sandy Hook. Even if bullies usually aren’t given the last word in movies and television shows, they still seek spotlight of the Internet whenever they perpetrate their crimes. Psychologically battered teens will continue to commit suicide after leaving heart-breaking messages on Facebook and perpetrators will be given a pass by prosecutors, parents and school administrators. Internet vigilantes, including Anonymous, have begun to fight back by putting the heat on law-enforcement officials, but victims of bullying know the deck is stacked against them. It’s against the backdrop of the recent Steubenville and Nova Scotia rape scandals that the Aussie teen drama “Wasted on the Young” arrives here on DVD. The night after I screened the movie, an eerily similar case was dramatized on “Law & Order: SVU,” and not for the first time, either.

In something of a Cain and Able scenario, cool-dude Zack (Alex Russell) and his computer-obsessed stepbrother Darren (Oliver Ackland) attend the same tony Perth prep school, which is divided socially by the “popular” crowd and everyone else. With their parents away on one of their many vacations, Zack and Darren are allowed free reign of their expensive home. Darren is so preoccupied with his computer projects and surveillance system that he might not even notice his parents’ absence. Zack uses the occasion to host a party that threatens to evolve into an orgy as the drugs and booze begin to flow. At one point, the ruling clique decides it might be fun to dose the blond newcomer, Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens), gang-rape her and dump her on a sand dune to die of exposure. Turns out, Xandrie is the only girl in school who’s paid much attention to Darren and shown any interest in his off-campus pursuits. Days later, when Xandrie returns to school and the perpetrators have been cleared by the administrators, Darren decides that it’s time for his stepbrother to get his comeuppance. Freshman writer/director Ben C. Lucas lays out this incendiary scenario with great patience and an eye for avoiding the clichés of revenge dramas. If the ending doesn’t quite deliver a knockout punch, it doesn’t seek the easy path, either. Dan Freene’s frequently ominous cinematography fits the story like a glove. Not surprisingly, the star attached to the career of Adelaide Clemens already is on the rise in Hollywood. Look for her in “The Great Gatsby.”

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
After watching four hours of Dmitry Vasyukov’s multipart documentary about fur traders living and working in one of the most isolated outposts on the planet, Werner Herzog contacted the director via Skype and made him an offer he probably could have refused, but wisely didn’t. Herzog volunteered to trim approximately 2½ hours from the film, put a more commercially viable spin on the remaining 90 minutes and add his mellifluous narrative to it. He also requested creative control over the process. Herzog had been fascinated by what he saw in Vasyukov’s source material, so it wasn’t likely that he would approach the task as an exercise in fat-cutting or a mercy-edit for a kindred documentarian. Instead, he proposed cutting and re-editing “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” to fit the attention spans and interests of western audiences, something the re-interpreter of “Grizzly Man” and author of “Encounters at the End of the World,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” and “Into the Abyss” would know how to do better than anyone. Like “Grizzly Man,” “Happy People” would be comprised of another team’s footage, but informed by the humanistic sensibility of the veteran filmmaker. It works, wonderfully. Vasyukov chronicled a year’s worth of seasonal change in a region of the Siberian Taiga so distant from the so-called civilization that its nearest medical clinic and police department are 150 kilometers distant. There are no cell towers or high-tension wires to be seen in the village of Bakhtia — population 300, not counting work dogs, moose and the occasional bear – which straddles the Yenisei River. You can get there by helicopter or boat, but snowmobiles aren’t practical modes of transportation until the river freezes. Moreover, the Taiga is a place where spring and summer can be measured in minutes and hours, rather than days and months.

The men we meet in “Happy People” sustain themselves and their families by fur trapping, a profession that isn’t nearly as lucrative as it used to be. One of the most cogent points made by Herzog is that residents of Bakhtia are constantly working, from the minute they get up to the moment their heads hit a pillow, very nearly 365 days a year. (We celebrated celebrate Christmas with a family here.) That’s because there’s always something that requires attention and no one else to do it. As soon as the snow melts, for example, there’s wood that needs to be gathered and chopped in anticipation of the next winter and countless repairs to be made on property damaged by ice and cold. Soon, fathers and sons will venture into the woods once again to prepare traps, blaze trails, restock provisions in their huts and train the puppies in the art of survival. While it’s impossible not to be impressed with the grit and fortitude of the men and women who live in Bakhtia – and, perhaps, envy their happiness in life – Herzog doesn’t seem interested in romanticizing them or finding heroism in necessity. What’s more compelling to him is documenting the constant pursuit of balance between the needs of man and demands of nature. The luxuries of modernity, available to hunters almost everywhere else in the world, can’t be afforded by families that rely, instead, on centuries-old traditions and practices. Everything from dugout canoes to mosquito repellant are created by hand, using tools passed down through the generations. Convenience and distance demand that some motorized vehicles be deployed, but there are times when motors and belts are no match for the obstacles presented by a raging river or giant snow drift.

“Happy People” is a documentary everyone in a family truly can enjoy and profit from viewing. Out of necessity, not choice, the folks we meet here are required to live the life Chris McCandless sought so desperately in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild.” They value the freedom provided by nearly complete isolation from society and are constantly on the lookout for outsiders who attempt to redraw boundaries and threaten their well-being by over-aggressive hunting and fishing. I would have loved to see “Happy People” in Blu-ray, but the DVD looks pretty terrific as it is. The package contains footage trimmed from Vasyukov’s documentary, a beautiful film that shows how nature awakes from a long Taiga winter and an interview with Herzog.

In Danger and Deep Distress, the Middleway Spells Certain Death
To get the most out of the films of Alexander Kluge, non-German viewers should possess at least a rudimentary understanding of the country’s post-war, pre-unification history. The West Germany to which he exposes us eway Spells Certain Deathis vaguely familiar, even if the characters aren’t. It’s the glimpses into life in East Germany – mostly through characters who managed to get past the wall – that add something new to our understanding of the Cold War and how people got through it. West Germany may have turned the corner on prosperity, but it largely was a country without an identity. In the east, clocks had stopped in 1946 and that’s the way the Communist Party wanted it. For a generation of filmmakers and artists who grew up after the war and wanted to distance themselves from the horrors perpetrated in the name of the Third Reich, change couldn’t come too soon. Kluge was one of the key players in the New German Cinema movement, which, in the early 1960s, argued for an open discussion of the war and its legacy, as well as the expanding capitalist juggernaut and disappearing social safety net. It took a while, but, by the mid-’70s, German directors were making waves around the world.

For the last several years, Facets Video has done lovers of quality cinema the favor of releasing refurbished editions of Kluge’s films on DVD. “In Danger and Deep Distress, the Middleway Spells Certain Death (1974) is set in Frankfurt during a period of great physical and social upheaval. Buildings are being torn down as soon as police can evict the squatters who inhabited them. This resulted in pitched battles between cops and protestors in the streets, which, here, also were cluttered with Carnival revelers. Kluge used the occasion to tell the stories of two women from different backgrounds, who are attempting to understand and exploit the unsettled situation. One is a prostitute who can’t resist the temptation to steal from her clients, while the other is a newly minted East German spy. The latter is constantly criticized by her handler for writing long-winded reports he considers to be overly poetic and irrelevant to working-class people behind the wall. The same handler defends his viewing of pornographic films as a means to explain the decadence of the west to his superiors. It’s a miracle the wall stood as long as it did, before crumbling from embarrassment.

The Vampire Lovers: Blur-ray
Newly released into Blu-ray, “The Vampire Lovers” is typical of the horror films turned out by Hammer before the studio went south in the mid-1970s. Equal parts campy, schlocky and thrilling, the movies borrowed characters and themes popularized by Universal years earlier, and freshened genre conventions by adding garish color, over-the-top acting and Victorian settings to the mix. “The Vampire Lovers” was noteworthy for two things mostly: the presence of Ingrid Pitt, one of the leading cult goddesses of her time; and for being the first entry in Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy –“Vampire Lovers,” “Lust for a Vampire,” “Twins of Evil” – all adapted from J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella “Carmilla.” Published in 1872, 25 years before the Bram Stoker classic, the erotic Gothic novella traced the link between vampires and lesbians for the first time. Universal avoided that particular angle in its adaptations of the legend, but Hammer suspected the time was ripe for a sexy take on horror. Pitt plays three different characters: Marcilla, Carmilla and Mircalla Karnstein. The lesbian vampiress Marcilla is invited to stay at the castle of General Von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), whose pretty daughter (Pippa Steele) is far too tempting to ignore. There are other women on the menu, of course, and each is left with bite marks on a breast. After murdering a couple of people who suspect the truth, Marcilla (now Carmilla) takes refuge in the family’s ancestral mansion, where she’s pretty much a sleeping duck. The Blu-ray edition of “Vampire Lovers” looks pretty good, especially considering its age and low-budget origins, and the bonus is excellent. It includes “Feminine Fantastique: Resurrecting “The Vampire Lovers”; Ingrid Pitt’s reading of “Carmilla”; an interview with Madeline Smith; and commentary with director Roy Ward Baker, screenwriter Tudor Gates and Pitt. 

The Heroin King of Baltimore: The Rise & Fall of Melvin Williams
No matter how awful the crime and brutal the punishment, it’s impossible for filmmakers to de-glamourize the rewards associated with organized crime and big-money drug dealing. After watching “American Gangster,” for example, how many viewers would have traded the relatively brief amount of time Frank Lucas spent in prison for two weeks living the life of a drug kingpin? Ditto, Tony Montana. Much the same can be said about “The Heroin King of Baltimore: The Rise & Fall of Melvin Williams,” a rudimentary documentary in which a man who amassed a fortune selling poison on street corners to kids is allowed the luxury to shape his life story the way he wants it to look. And, yes, it’s pretty fascinating stuff. Williams began his life in crime as a gambler and pool hustler in the streets of Baltimore. His uncanny skills attracted the attention of adults only too willing to take the young wizard of odds under their wing and teach him the ways of the world. According to Williams, his career as a heroin dealer began in earnest when a cop planted narcotics on him during a bust and he figured he would reap the benefits of being a dealer if everyone assumed he was a criminal, anyway. Full of moxie, Williams arranged for a steady supply of junk and cocaine and he was off to the races. At one point, Williams was such a force in Baltimore’s African-American community that city officials solicited his help in quelling the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. It gave him a sense of power no amount of money could buy. When he finally was caught and convicted, Williams took his medicine like an OG and got out in time to be immortalized on HBO’s “The Wire.” Indeed, series creator David Simon appears several times here to offer his insight into the man and his legacy. In addition to Williams’ near-soliloquies and the recollections of reporters and cops, there are some cheesy dramatizations of street life in Baltimore. 

Any Day Now
It’s been 40 years since the events described in “Any Day Now” are supposed to have occurred. At the time, any possibility of legalizing same-sex marriage was so far out of the question it was tantamount to believing we’d have a gay or lesbian president by now. Perhaps the most divisive issue — and it hasn’t gone away — was the legality of LGBT adoptions. “Any Day Now” is based on an actual case, in which two gay men sought to adopt a boy with Down syndrome. The boy’s mother is an alcoholic who often leaves Marco alone in their rundown apartment or kicks him out of it when she brings home a boyfriend or trick. On one of these occasions, a drag entertainer, Rudy (Alan Cumming), rescues Marco (Isaac Leyva) from possible danger by allowing him to stay in his apartment while mom is AWOL. They develop a strong personal bond, even as Rudy is attempting to shove his gay lover, Paul (Garret Dillahunt), out of the closet in which he’s been hiding for years. It isn’t until Marco’s mother finally shows up and demands custody of the boy that Paul, a lawyer, decides to emerge and acknowledge his feelings for both of them. Although they’re something of an odd couple, Rudy and Paul make a formidable team in court. In the 1970s, though, the rights of a parent – however unsuited to the task – easily trumped a gay couple’s willingness to save a child from further harm. Watching the legal case proceed is as frustrating for viewers as it might have been for Rudy and Garret. The acting is good and the story remains relevant. The only problem I had with “Any Day Now” is that the period setting makes it seem too much like ancient history, instead of a something that could play out the same way even today.

Stuck to Your Pillow
In yet another twist on the “Heaven Can Wait” theme, Spanish export “Stuck to Your Pillow” imagines a romantic affair between the spirits of a comatose man and unhappily married woman, who can only experience love and happiness in her dreams. Lovely newcomer Paola Verdu plays the woman who’s torn between her cheap, if materialistic husband, Miguel (Jesus Marin), and the outgoing and athletic Miguel of her dreams (Susu Marin). One can’t tear himself away from his job long enough to make sure his wife is happy, while the other Miguel is free to wine and dine Patricia, if only when she’s asleep. When she isn’t, he tags along unseen and unheard, like any other ghost in the paranormal world. The first indication of where Mari Navarro’s rom-com is heading comes when Miguel shows up in Patricia’s dreams, clothed only in scuba gear and flippers. They were the last thing he was wearing before he died in a diving accident and their presence doesn’t seem to bother the dreaming damsel in emotional distress. Miguel, the husband, begins to suspect something is awry when Patricia no longer is anxious to awaken and get on with her day, meanwhile wearing the kind of smile that generally signals romantic bliss. This Miguel’s too busy to follow his wife around all day and, of course, refuses to buy her explanation of having a dream lover, so he hires a pair of inept security guards to do the job for him. Beyond that, “Stuck to Your Pillow” doesn’t offer many surprises. It is, though, harmlessly silly and relatively diverting. Audiences already attuned to frothy European rom-coms could find something here to like.

The Wicked
Urban myths and legends couldn’t maintain their hold on us if there weren’t some factually basis to them. Big cities would be far less interesting places to live if residents couldn’t imagine that albino alligators thrived in ancient sewer systems, devouring rats and half-dead goldfish flushed down toilets by evil little boys. Growing up, kids in our neighborhood were cautioned about sneaking into at least two different abandoned houses, believed to be haunted by the ghosts of people murdered inside them. Every city and generation has or had such places to fear. “The Wicked” takes the haunted-house scenario and adds a bit of a twist to one local legend. In the small Michigan town of Summerset, children are warned never to throw rocks at a deserted house in the forest. As the story goes, severe punishment is exacted on anyone who breaks a window, on purpose or otherwise. Not surprisingly, throwing rocks at the windows of the house has become a rite of passage for teenagers hoping to prove their courage to their cronies or dates. As “The Wicked” opens 7-year-old Amanda Drake is swept from her bedroom window by an evil wind. The girl had been petrified of just such an occurrence after returning from a rock-heaving competition with older kids in the neighborhood. Her mom assured her that the persistent rumors were bogus, but Amanda disappeared anyway. Undaunted, two groups of teens decide to test the legend further. They’re frightened by the appearance of movements inside the house, but, after finding Amanda’s teddy bear in the woods, they decide to investigate … bad idea. In his feature debut, Peter Winther effectively uses the thick woods, darkness and overall creepiness of the old house to conjure an aura of dread. The teenage girls appear to be trying out for the title of Miss Michigan Scream Queen, while the boys are required to wipe cobwebs and witch drool off of their shoulders. Even when one of the girls decides to call the local police into action, they’re too full of themselves to take the kids seriously. “The Wicked” probably wouldn’t be of much interest to older horror buffs. Teenagers, though, should recognize something of themselves in the actions of the alternately dumb/courageous/horny kids who dare to tackle the legend head-on.

Nova: Earth From Space: Blu-ray
PBS: Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene
Independent Lens: The Power Broker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Right
Frontline: Cliffhanger
PBS: Shelter Me
Now that NASA’s Buck Rogers era has come to an end and planet-roving robots have cornered the spotlight, it’s probably a good time for everyone to assess what’s been accomplished in more the a half-century of space exploration. The highlights of headline-grabbing missions, from Mercury to the Curiosity rover, are well known and fondly remembered. The tragedies continue to haunt us, as well. The money needed to fund the Space Shuttle has largely dried up and blown away. Before watching the “Nova” presentation, “Earth From Space,” I was ambivalent about spending more money on a program that seemed more interested in maintaining its public image than practicing pure science. Neither was I sure how I felt about financing gridlock in space and raising the odds in favor of someday getting hit by obsolete space debris.

This two-hour special not only reveals what Earth looks like from space – something that hardly qualifies as news – but it also demonstrates the validity of the “butterfly effect,” which posits that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world might ultimately cause a hurricane in another part of the world. Physicists may have a less poetic definition of the phenomenon, but the effect is the same. The “Nova” team collaborated with NASA scientists to produce an episode that condenses more than 50 years’ worth of satellite data into a package that can be appreciated by anyone who knows how to read the Farmer’s Almanac. Among other things, it explains how dust blown west from the Sahara fertilizes the Amazon region; how a vast underwater “waterfall” off Antarctica helps drive ocean currents around the world; and how the sun’s heating up of the southern Atlantic gives birth to a colossally powerful hurricane. Moreover, with every new Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, we learn more about early detection of killer storms and how to sidestep mass destruction. Without satellites, that would be impossible.

When British novelist William Golding observed of Graham Greene that he was “the ultimate chronicler of 20th Century man’s consciousness and anxiety,” he effectively summarized what, years later, would be revealed in the PBS presentation, “Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene.” Few men experienced the turmoil, chaos and triumphs of that period so intimately and could write about it with such compassion and foresight. His insight into the inner-workings of governments and the human condition, along with a keen awareness of his own demons, contributed greatly to the popularity of his novels and clarity of his non-fiction. For nearly 80 years, his novels and stories have also provided fodder for the movies. Among the titles and screenplays that were adapted more faithfully than others: “Ministry of Fear,” the second “Quiet American,” “Brighton Rock,” “Travels With My Aunt,” “The Power and the Glory,” “The Third Man,” “The End of the Affair,” “Our Man in Havana,” “The Comedians” and “The Human Factor.” Among those testifying on behalf of Greene are novelists John Mortimer, John Le Carré and David Lodge; writer Paul Theroux; former CIA operative and author Frederick Hitz; and his daughter, Caroline Bourget.

The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights” argues that the civil-rights movement wouldn’t have accomplished nearly as much as it did, in as relatively short a time, if it weren’t for the aggressive behind-the-scenes maneuvering of such quiet leaders as Whitney Young. At a time when Martin Luther King Jr. was the public face of the movement, rallying the foot soldiers and pushing a progressive agenda, the head of the National Urban League lobbied the movers, shakers and big-money boys of corporate America for the funds and jobs necessary to move forward before and after King’s death. He also was a confidante ofpresidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. “The Powerbroker” examines the pivotal events of the civil rights era – Brown v Board of Education, the March on Washington, the Vietnam War — through the eyes of a man whose accomplishments remain largely unacknowledged, even today. This is as fitting a eulogy as any.

Judging from the comments found on the PBS website forCliffhanger,” it is the rare “Frontline” episode that inspires the wrath of Democrats as much as Republicans … well, almost. “Cliffhanger” attempts to make sense out of the hideous debate in Washington over the nation’s deficit and debt crises. It was broadcast on the same night as President Obama’s State of the Union message and almost nothing has changed in the stalemate since then. The American public continues to feel the pinch of austerity budgets and sequestering, while politicians refuse to make any reasonable compromises, except when the trims inconvenience them. If Shakespeare had written the script for “Cliffhanger,” it could be found under “tragedy” and “comedy.” The episode was informed by interviews with House Speaker John Boehner, White House economic adviser Gene Sperling and Obama’s former Chief of Staff William Daley. It also details the dissension within the Republican Party over how deep the cuts should go and why they should act like adults.

Shelter Metakes the position that people who want to add a pet to their family should consider adopting one of the many cats and dogs relegated to shelters, before succumbing to the temptation of purchasing an animal whose pedigree can be traced back to Noah’s Ark. Besides acquiring a pet that will be eternally grateful for your kindness and generosity, you will reap Brownie points for saving it from imminent extinction. That was the fate of more than 3 million perfectly good cats and dogs last year. Hosted by actress Katherine Heigl, “Shelter Me” promotes the many positive stories of rescue and redemption for the animals. It describes how shelter pets are helping returning war veterans cope with PTSD; how women prison inmates are training shelter dogs to become service animals for people with disabilities; and the journeys of two stray dogs, from the day they are picked up on the streets and brought to the shelter, until the day they’re adopted.

Friends: The Complete First/Second Season: Blu-ray
GMC: If You Really Love Me
Nickelodeon Favorites: Once Upon a Rhyme
Last fall, when Warner Home Video released its complete-series package of “Friends” in Blu-ray, it was priced anywhere between $192 and $274. The producers went back to the original 35mm negatives for the hi-def upgrade, adding a 1.78:1 video presentation and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track, while they were at it. While the restoration and bonus material didn’t please techier critics, it was better than previous efforts. The 21-disc set was timed for holiday giving, so those who only received coal in their stocking, instead, will be happy that the seasons are being dealt out a la carte, with most extras included. As logic dictates, the first two seasons are the first to arrive separately, which will come as good news to anyone who missed the pilot episode or came to the program later in its run. Executive producers Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane provide the commentary on the pilot, offering insight into how the show was developed and tweaked by the creators and network, alike. There’s also a quick-reference guide to cameos and guest stars.Several of the episodes are presented uncut and extended, with previously unseen dialogue and scenes (not as many as the DVD package, though). The second-season discs add the “smelly cat” video.

I have no idea how such things work, but I find it odd that the women in Gospel Music Channel movies get away with wearing the tightest and most provocative clothing on basic cable. Considering the faith-based messages typically delivered in the final scenes, there must be some correlation between temptation, redemption and forgiveness. “If You Really Love Me” is based on an original stage play written by Cas Sigers (“A Cross To Bear”) and is directed by Roger Melvin (“She’s Still Not Our Sister”). It helps explain the laugh track attached to the film. The story revolves around three sisters, all of whom are required to overcome obstacles in their personal, family and religious lives. “If You Really Love Me” stars Eva Marcille, Keith Robinson, Reagan Gomez-Preston, Mel Jackson and Caryn Ward.

Nickelodeon Favorites: Once Upon a Rhymecontains more the two hours of material from some of your pre-school child’s favorite shows. The newest collection from Nickelodeon is comprised ofWho’s Gonna Play the Big Bad Wolf” (“Bubble Guppies”), “Umi City Treasure Hunt” (“Team Umizoomi”), “Royal Wedding” (“The Fresh Beat Band”), “Dora Saves the Three Little Piggies” (“Dora the Explorer”), “Save the Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon” and “Save the Unicorn” (“The Wonder Pets!”) and “Little Red Riding Blue” (“Blue’s Clues”). They’re not Mother Goose, but most kids won’t know the difference.

Manborg
Hub: Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters: Dragonstrike
Bruce Lee Double Feature: The Big Boss/Fist of Fury
Anyone who’s seen that nasty little piece of slasher business called “Father’s Day” might be interested in the follow-up from the Canadian film collective Astron-6. “Manborg” is yet another takedown of 1980s culture, such as it was under President Reagan’s watch, starring a warrior who’s half-man, half-machine and 100 percent cheeseball. Manborg is a soldier who was killed in the first war against the forces of hell, then resurrected as humanity’s last hope against the villainous Count Draculon. While Manborg resembles a cross between Robocop and Snake Plissken, his sidekicks take after demented Ninja Turtles. It’s the primitive special sci-fi effects that really take the cake, though. “Manborg” is the kind of movie that can be enjoyed by genre buffs and those who think they could have created better monsters in high school shop courses. It’s nice to have filmmakers like Astron-6 around to remind us that the difference between a DIY gem and $100-million turkey is the amount of imagination invested in the project.

Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters: Dragonstrike” extends the “Kaijudu” franchise further into the DVD marketplace, after debuting on the Hub network. It’s yet another animated action series in which Earth kids interact with monsters from outer space and other dimensions. Here, 14-year-old Raiden ”Ray” Pierce-Okamoto is battling racist bullies in own backyard, when he accidentally summons a creature from the dark side. After that happens, it’s a royal rumble to decide who’s in charge of the planet. The DVD adds a pair of commentaries, deleted and alternate scenes, bloopers, backgrounders, interviews and a Q&A from the premiere.

There’s never been a shortage of Bruce Lee movies in circulation in any video format and now Shout!Factory has begun to roll them out in double-feature packages. In DVD, they look as good as they ever have, perhaps better, considering how beat up they were on the screen. Some have even made the leap to Blu-ray. In “The Big Boss” (1971), Lee moves in with cousins to work at an ice factory, but only after promising not to be involved with fighting. When members of his family begin disappearing after meeting with the management, he breaks his vow and takes on the Big Boss. In “Fist of Fury” (1972), Lee is a martial arts student who returns to his former school to find that his teacher has been murdered. Set in Shanghai in the 1930s, the Japanese are in control and students of one of their Bushido schools are responsible.

The Way of the Dragon” (1972) finds Lee in Rome, where family members own a restaurant that mobsters are attempting to control. In the thrilling climax, set in Colosseum, Lee is required to fight Chuck Norris. “Game of Death” (1973) Lee plays a martial-arts movie star who takes on a syndicate of drug dealers. This is the movie in which Lee battles Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Gangster Squad: Blu-ray
More “Mulholland Falls” than “L.A. Confidential” or “Bugsy,” Ruben Fleischer’s machine-gun opera “Gangster Squad” is stylish enough to appeal to fans of the all-star cast members, but takes far too many liberties with the facts to satisfy genre purists. Adding to the familiarity of the story is the presence of Nick Nolte as the LAPD’s unorthodox Chief William H. Parker, who began his tenure as a reformist, but died, 16 years later, defending his department against institutionalized racism and brutality. In “Mulholland Falls,” Nolte played a member of the police department’s notorious Hat Squad, a select unit of hard-ass detectives not unlike Fleischer’s Gangster Squad. Although gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) doesn’t appear in “Mulholland Falls” by name, his greasy fingerprints are all over both movies. Chief Parker and Cohen became mortal enemies in the same post-war period, with the ruthless crime boss not taking kindly to the notion that cops could throw out the rule book in their dogged pursuit of his own illegal activities. That’s exactly how Parker went after Cohen’s rackets and allies in various Los Angeles County courthouses, newsrooms and cop shops, however.

In reality and the movies, the elite squads were populated by battle-tested World War II veterans, whose patriotism extended to the honesty and diligence required of the job. In Cohen, the cops saw an enemy only slightly less sinister than Hitler or Tojo, or so the story goes. The coppers here are likeably portrayed by Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi and Robert Patrick, while Emma Stone plays the dame who shares Cohen and Gosling’s attentions. For all of its noir touches, tough talk and witty banter, “Gangster Squad” frequently looks more like a series of outtakes from “The Untouchables” than a story about how the LAPD neutered Cohen and kept the East Coast and Midwest gangs from gaining a foothold in Southern California. To get a more factual take on Cohen, viewers will want to check out the various background featurettes included in the Blu-ray package. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the most recommendable qualities of “Gangster Squad” lie with the cinematography (Dion Beebe), production design (Maher Ahmad) and costume design (Mary Zophres), all of which contribute mightily to period authenticity. If “Gangster Squad” didn’t make quite the splash the combined talents of its cast might have warranted, it’s because the Aurora multiplex massacre occurred while a trailer for the film showed gangsters shooting tommy guns through a projection screen. It was immediately pulled and a scene had to be reshot, necessitating a new release date.

Django Unchained: Blu-ray
One needn’t have been familiar with the 1966 Spaghetti Western classic “Django” to have thoroughly enjoyed – or, at least, admired – Quentin Tarantino’s violent crowd-pleaser, “Django Unchained,” in its theatrical release. Franco Nero’s portrayal of a coffin-dragging gunman caught between rival gangs on the U.S.-Mexican border would be unforgettable, even if Sergio Corbucci’s film wasn’t also so terrifically entertaining. In Italy, the Django character was deemed so iconic – yes, that overused, if entirely appropriate adjective, again – that similarly named desperadoes appeared in a couple dozen other Westerns, with and without the coffin. It’s entirely appropriate, then, that one of the sub-genre’s most ardent proponents would borrow the character’s name when he got around to making his own Spaghetti Western. Given 165 minutes of screen time, a 130-day shooting schedule and $100 million of someone else’s money, Tarantino was able to create the movie he’s been dreaming of making for a quarter-century. It would have taken him almost the same amount of time to come up with the many references, homages, sight and audio gags that appear throughout the movie. By setting most of “Django” in the pre-war American South – he calls it a “Southern” – Tarantino was able to tackle two much-cherished sub-genres with one monumental leap of faith. In Jamie Foxx, he not only had a protagonist who wouldn’t have been out of place alongside Woody Strode in Spaghetti Land, but in any of the Blaxploitation revenge epics of the 1970s. (If Fred Williamson’s “Nigger Charley” trilogy bears the closest resemblance to “Django” in tone, it’s worth recalling that such prominent African-American actor/athletes as Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Rafer Johnson, Yaphet Kotto, D’Urville Martin, Don Pedro Colley, Max Julien, Robert DoQui, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Denise Nicholas and Lola Falana found paydays as black cowboys and cowgirls.)

Here, of course, escaped slave Django is joined in his mission to be reunited with his wife, Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington), by the cold-blooded German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Always a threat to run away from whoever owns her, Broomhilda has most recently been purchased by the diabolical plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz drives around the Wild West on a wagon with a giant bobbling tooth attached to its top. He isn’t a dentist, but the ruse tends to confuse the local yokels, who may or may not be aware that men with bounties on their heads live among them. Under the doctor’s tutelage, Django becomes a crack shot and impressive figure on a horse. It’s a sight that unsettles racist whites almost as much as the six-shooters on his belt. With the money they make shooting desperadoes – if they’re wanted “dead or alive, why sweat the travelling expenses? – Django and Schultz intend to make Candie a deal he can’t refuse on Broomhilda. They pretend to be interested primarily in buying “Mandingo fighters” for exhibition in Europe, a pursuit that appeals to Candie’s perverse world view. (He considers himself to be a Francophile, but is too lazy to learn French.) There’s no point in revealing much else beyond that setup, except to remind those who haven’t seen “Unchained” that it’s extremely violent and almost unbelievably profane, while also being wildly funny in the darkest sort of way possible.

Naturally, quite a fuss has been made over Tarantino’s frequent use of the n-word here – 120, at last count – and, after a while, it becomes more tiresome than shocking. For my money, though, I found it a bit more disturbing that Candie’s trusted black servant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), is as loathsome as any of the grotesquely drawn rednecks. If a poll were taken among viewers as to the characters they’d most like to see suffer a violent death, it would be a tossup between the Uncle Ben look-alike and Candie. “Django Unchained” is a superbly crafted movie that looks and sounds smashing in Blu-ray. The landscapes and sunsets are uniformly lovely, whether they were captured in Wyoming, Lone Pine or Louisiana. Among the extras are backgrounders on the late production designer, J. Michael Riva; the horses and stunts; and costume designer Sharen Davis. (I suspect a more expansive edition will arrive by Christmas.) Fans of “Unchained” are encouraged to seek out the recently released Blu-ray edition of “Django” and “Skin Game,” a 1971 comedy starring James Garner and Lou Gossett, in roles not dissimilar to Django and Dr. Schultz.

Pawn: Blu-ray
The story arc on “The Shield,” featuring Michael Chiklis and Forest Whitaker, provided some of the FX series’ most tempestuous moments. Both actors can be scary good when the right material is presented them and they went toe-to-toe throughout Season 5. While nothing in “Pawn” compares with what happened weekly in “The Shield,” their presence, alone, gives viewers a reason to pop for a rental of the ensemble thriller. The movie opens with a cop (Whitaker) strolling into an all-night diner in Hartford, Connecticut, for his nightly fix of coffee and a game of chess with the man behind the counter. It takes a few minutes for him to notice that no one in the joint is acting normally and it’s likely that he’s interrupted a robbery. One thing leads to another and a Cockney creep (Chiklis) steps out from the shadows brandishing a gun, precipitating another series of events, not all of which are recalled in the same way. The remaining 80-some minutes of “Pawn” are taken up with 1) explaining what the crooks are after in the diner’s secret safe and 2) understanding why one witness’ point-of-view is so different than another’s version of the story. So far, so “Rashomon.” Before turning completely Japanese, however, director David Armstrong (DP on the “Saw” franchise) and writer Jay Anthony White (“Project 313”) toss several more ingredients into the mix, advancing the narrative beyond mere remake status. In fact, once the camera finds its way outside the confines of the diner, all bets are off as to what’s really happening.

If “Pawn” lacks the narrative heft it would have taken to find theatrical distribution, it can stand on its own in the straight-to-video and VOD marketplaces. In addition to Chiklis and Whitaker, the cast includes Stephen Lang, Common, Nikki Reed, Jessica Szohr and Ray Liotta, all of whom are game for what certainly was a dubious commercial proposition. The generic urban diner provides a solid stage for the suspense that surrounds the whys and wherefores of the crime in progress and, at 88 minutes, “Pawn” doesn’t outstay its welcome. The Blu-ray arrives with a making-of featurette.

It’s in the Blood
Nearly 73, Lance Henriksen still commands the attention of fans of horror, sci-fi and supernatural thrillers. Too often, lately, all this one-off actor has been required to do is show up on the set and reprise one of his many characters. “It’s in the Blood” is a movie that plays to his strong points as a character actor, while also giving him an opportunity to show off a bit in a lead role. As bloggers on the horror circuit have pointed out, “It’s in the Blood” doesn’t easily fit most genre boundaries and that probably is OK with Henriksen. For lack of a better adjective, though, Scooter Downey’s debut easily qualifies as “creepy.” Henriksen plays Russell, a hard-scrabble outdoorsman whose relationship with his teenage son, October (co-writer Sean Elliot), has been strained ever since a traumatic event somewhere in the near past. Before Russell and October have an opportunity to work out their differences, though, they head out for the sticks on a hunting trip. The mere presence of guns and knives in such an already foreboding environment ratchets-up the psychological tension without adding any fat to the mix. As their trek continues, though, it becomes clear there’s something frightening lurking in the forest and ground fog enveloping them. October’s ultimate test of manhood comes when Russell seriously fractures his leg and he’s required not only to save his father’s life, but also protect him from the boogeymen in the mist. Fans of horror and suspense should enjoy “It’s in the Blood,” as much for its willingness to both blur genre boundaries as for its performances and scenery.

Cold Prey II
The Norwegian horror franchise, “Cold Prey,” combines slasher conceits of the “Halloween” variety with the frigid mountain setting of “The Shining.” In the original, snowboarders take shelter inside an abandoned mountain lodge, which is cold but protective. One of them is nursing a broken leg and without proper communications equipment, the young people become an easy target for the ax-wielding lunatic already in residence. “Cold Prey II” picks up where “Cold Prey” left off, with a dazed survivor wandering along an icy highway, toting a bloody pick in her grasp. Once the young woman is able to come to grips with her situation, she points police in the direction of the lodge and the board-stiff corpses she left behind her. They’re taken to the morgue in a rural hospital, which is operating with a skeleton crew before it is to be closed for lack of revenues. It takes a while for the bodies to defrost and, in that time, it becomes clear there’s an extra body on the slabs, in addition to the snowboarders. The surviving victim tries to inform her doctors and police of the blunder – she believes, after all, she had eliminated the undead fiend in the first movie – but they simply assume she’s insane. Surely, you can guess the rest of the story. If “Cold Prey II” sounds overly familiar, it benefits greatly from the taut, claustrophobic direction of Mats Stenberg, who took the helm from Roar Uthaug. Then, there’s the magnificent natural beauty of Jotunheimen National Park and frigid temperatures capable of making viewers shiver in absentia. “Cold Prey 3,” which follows the same formula, has already been released in Europe.

Electric Button: Moon & Cherry
When the brightest practitioners of emerging cinemas begin to rest on their laurels and resist courting controversy, you can count on upstart Japanese filmmakers to ratchet up the craziness and set new standards for gratuitous sex and violence. I say that with all due respect for artists whose only concession to good taste – and the peculiarities of Japanese censors — is avoiding pubic hair and genitalia. Released in 2004, but ignored in markets where sex is treated with the same sanctity as brain surgery and prayer vigils, Yuki Tanada’s debut feature “Electric Button: Moon & Cherry” is an extension of two time-honored Japanese sub-genres, pinku eiga and roman porno. That Tanada is a filmmaker of the female persuasion only added to the potential for a fresh take on conventions dictated by the male-dominated profession. In “Electric Button,” the protagonist and first-person narrator is a timid university freshman, Tadokoro, who’s been encouraged to join a literary club dedicated to erotic writing. With the exception of one brash and hyperactive young woman, the members of Electric Button are an odd lot of pervs and misfits, some of whom already are on to Mayama’s game. The fun begins when Mayama discovers the new kid in class and calls his bluff on some mild sexual braggadocio. Their sexual encounters, which are dictated on her terms, help her overcome a persistent writer’s block. Mayama is the rare woman in Japanese genre flicks allowed to have more fun in the sack than a man, and, at first, Takokoro doesn’t mind being manipulated and exploited by his classmate. It’s when she starts hiring hookers and S&M specialists for him, as research, that the poor sap begins to feel exploited. “Electric Button” is a lot of fun, but no one should confuse it for a Rock Hudson/Doris Day rom-com.

God’s Country
In contemporary faith-based movies, it’s safe to assume that a religious miracle will happen when all other means to a solution have been exhausted. Otherwise, why bother? Like the U.S. Cavalry and Lone Ranger, God arrives in the nick of time to save poor wretches like us with his amazing grace. If Satan doesn’t always make an appearance in such “family friendly” fare, it’s only because his very presence defines what it means to be a buzz kill. In less-observant fare, the devil is given his due for being a hail-and-hearty party animal, if nothing else. “God’s Country” is interesting because it equates predatory capitalism with being on the wrong side of the deity, a notion that flies in the face of everything we know about televangelists and mega-congregations with budgets that exceed the GNP of most developing nations. As portrayed by Jenn Gotzon, Meghan Doherty is an ambitious and hyper-aggressive young business executive at an amoral Los Angeles land-development firm. We know she’s in need of divine intervention because she drives a red Ferrari and favors revealing clothing. Meghan’s firm is trying to bulldoze a deal that would turn a Christian youth mission in the Mojave Desert, God’s Country, into a multi-use resort financed by Japanese interests. God’s Country doesn’t have the money to continue its mission and she drives her sports car over miles of rocks and potholes to make the pastor a deal he can’t refuse. Instead, pastor Eden Graham (Michael Toland) makes her a proposition: spend a week at God’s Country, absorbing the mission’s Gospel, and he’ll sign on the dotted line. What Eden understands and Meghan doesn’t is that God knows what’s best for her and it isn’t another Ferrari. It allows Eden the time to get her right with Jesus, without also resorting to the hard sell. “God’s Country” is well made, considering its budget, and the scenery is pretty swell. It comes with a teaching guide.

K-11: Blu-ray
It’s important to know going into Jules Stewart and Jared Kurt’s prison nightmare, “K-11,” that the title derives from an actual segregated unit at the Los Angeles County Jail, where gay, bisexual or transgender inmates can choose to live outside of the general population. Many of them already have been diagnosed with HIV, while others only became aware of their condition upon arrival and testing at the jail. It should not, however, be seen as an AIDS ghetto, as residence there is voluntary. If the K-11 facility at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility is anything like the one depicted in the movie, it would be as infamous as Attica, Alcatraz and the Black Hole of Calcutta in their heydays. Not only are the inmates in control of the institution, but also, when they’re not sodomizing the weaker prisoners or ignoring beatings and rapes, the guards are dealing and doing as much dope as those awaiting trial. Moreover, the prisoners run the gamut from cross-dressers, sissy boys and transsexuals, to violent child molesters and killers. I doubt that such a mélange of characters would be allowed the freedom to intermingle without guards assuring the safety of the meek and unprotected inmates.

Inexplicably, straight music producer Raymond Saxx Jr. (Goran Visnjic) is shipped directly to K-11 after being picked up in the murder of a rival. On the outside, he gets his kicks by mixing cocaine, heroin and vodka, then blacking out on street corners. Inside, he’s woefully overmatched by the vicious tranny that runs the unit (Kate Del Castillo, who’s every inch a woman). Saxx must find a way to survive in this jungle or become part of the prison food chain. “K-11” is ridiculous, of course, even if it’s doubtful Stewart (mother of Kristen) would see it that way. At best, there’s some cult value in the presence of Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Jason Mewes, Portia Doubleday and D.B. Sweeney, as the vile guard. Del Castillo is fine as the bossy tramp, Mousey, but, by all rights, the role probably should have gone to a male actor (think, William Hurt in “Kiss of the Spider Woman”). The Blu-ray package includes cast interviews, behind-the-scenes featurettes, commentary with Stewart and producer Tom Wright, and a music video.

The Central Park Five: Blu-ray
Who Killed Lindbergh’s Baby?: Blu-ray

What both of these fine documentaries share with last week’s coverage of the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers is undeniable evidence of how politicians and the media exploit tragedy for their own interests and profits, while also arguing that they’re serving the public. In the rush to be the first outlet to announce the names of the terrorists to the world and report their capture, much demonstrably untrue information was spread and later recanted. In their own rush to condemn the bombers, politicians made statements designed to enflame the public and push their own bigoted agendas. Although it appears likely that the Chechen brothers were the perpetrators of the horror, probably acting alone, it’s also likely that the rabble-rousing will continue until a verdict is reached and the maximum penalty is administered. “The Central Park Five” and “Who Killed Lindbergh’s Baby?” describe similarly hysteric reactions to crimes that outraged America and brought out the worst in the media and politicians.

When, in 1989, a white woman jogger was brutally raped and beaten in Central Park, there was so much pressure on the police to put someone behind bars that they felt it necessary to cut corners simply to save face, not that they needed any further incentive. Conveniently, on the same night as the attack, a large pack of black and Hispanic teens had swept through the northern section of the park, terrorizing pedestrians and vandalizing property. Among those arrested were five teenagers, who, as black and Latino, would have fit the description of any criminal in upper Manhattan. As the interviews included in “The Central Park Five” attest, the boys were denied basic rights and lied to about their status as suspects. Exhausted and frightened, they signed false confessions and immediately were trotted out before the media as the worst people on earth. They believed that the city’s case would be sunk by lack of evidence – of which there wasn’t any – and the ability of a jury to see through the sham. Those men and women, however, believed the confessions and ignored everything else, including unmatched DNA. The fact of their innocence wouldn’t be acknowledged until all five had served their full terms and the true perpetrator, who should have been on top of the NYPD’s list of suspects on Day One, admitted the atrocity. Even 10 years after the five men were fully exonerated, police and city officials continue to drag their heels on making reparations to the Central Park Five. They’ve even tried to subpoena every single piece of footage taken by documentarians Ken Burns, Susan Burns and David McMahon, hoping to find a loophole through which they can jump. The filmmakers recount the entire process, from the “wilding” that preceded the attack on the jogger, who’s successfully weathered her own storm, to the release of the men from prison. Interviews with those men and others with distinct memories of the prosecution inform the film, as do the police tapes taken of the shell-shocked youths. The Blu-ray adds several making-of and background featurettes.

Who Killed Lindbergh’s Baby?” chronicles the investigation into the 1932 kidnaping and death of Charles Lindbergh’s toddler son from his bedroom in the family estate in New Jersey. It was the Crime of the Century that led ineffably to the Trial of the Century, a title it held until the Manson Family and O.J. Simpson came along to make claims of their own to the titles. Negotiations with the kidnappers stretched out for weeks, but, when the baby’s dead body was found in the woods near the estate, the pressure to find the killer became even more intense. Solid circumstantial evidence would lead investigators to the German immigrant, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, but not explain other key elements of the crime, including how a single person would have dared pull off such a complicated piece of business. Four years later, without an apology or confession, Hauptmann would be executed for the crime. The problem was, of course, that Hauptmann almost certainly couldn’t have acted alone and, by killing him, the truth never was revealed. It did, however, spark a cottage industry in books and films about the case. The researchers interviewed here argue several possibilities, ranging from feasible to the unthinkable.

G-Dog
Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope

Given that most documentaries involving Catholic priests necessarily focus on abuses of their power and efforts by Church hierarchy to keep the lid on the scandals, it’s refreshing to find a film about one who understands what Jesus might have done in the same circumstances as his. Father Greg Boyle, a white Jesuit, has spent the last quarter-century providing hope and opening doors for former gang-bangers who truly want to straighten out their lives. Through Boyle’s tireless efforts, Homeboy Industries has become a visible thread in the fabric of Los Angeles, first providing baked goods, salsa and tortilla chips to stores and, then, opening stores and restaurants in high-volume locations. Behind the scenes, however, Homeboy Industries offers training in anger management, domestic violence, yoga, spiritual development, parenting, substance abuse, budgeting, art and other areas of self-development for vulnerable youths. Also offered are mental health counseling, tattoo removal, legal services, job development and case management. While the most attention grabbing of these resources, the tattoo-removal program may be the most practical, as well. It’s tough to make a positive first impression on employers who can’t get past highly visible prison and gang tattoos that mark a young man or woman as undesirable. “G-Dog” was directed by Freida Lee Mock, whose documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” took home an Oscar as the Best Documentary of 1993. Boyle is a wonderfully charismatic subject, but it’s the enthusiasm and dedication he instills in others that sells the picture. Anyone who believes that gang members are beyond rehabilitation really out to pick up a copy of “G-Dog” and see the difference one good man can make to the lives of people much of society has forsaken.

It’s been 27 years since the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated above the Atlantic Ocean, 73 seconds after lifting off from Cape Canaveral, leaving all seven of the crew members dead. Images of the explosion are as haunting today as they were on the day they were shown live on national TV. Seventeen years later, seven more astronauts perished after the Space Shuttle Columbia came apart over Texas on its final descent home. No similarly indelible images of the tragedy were broadcast because it happened over a sparsely populated part of the country, during the radio-silence period. An exhaustive search was conducted to collect pieces of the vehicle for re-assembly and find bodies of the astronauts for burial. While many Americans had already begun to question the efficacy of the space program, countries that were contributing to the joint missions remained enthusiastic about it. I’m sure that most Americans remain unaware that one of the victims in the Columbia disaster was Israeli fighter pilot Ilan Ramon, the son of Holocaust survivors and someone whose mission included reminding people of the resilience of the Jewish people. “Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope” tells his story. Ramon is portrayed as a well-liked ambassador of Israel and a believer in the ability of people to cross cultural borders in the pursuit of scientific discovery. His personal “mission within the mission” was to carry into space a miniature Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust and once belonged to Israel’s lead aerospace scientist, Joachim Joseph. Quite a bit of time in the film is devoted, as well, to chronicling the scroll’s path from the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen to the flight deck of Columbia.

Last Shop Standing: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Independent Record Shop
Brick and Mortar and Love

I wonder if the promoters of last Saturday’s Record Store Day were cognizant of the fact that April 20 also is the day designated by stoners worldwide to honor all things related to marijuana consumption. If any two things went together like a horse and carriage, it’s music and pot smoking. I’m sure that the distributers of “Last Shop Standing: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Independent Record Shop” and “Brick and Mortar and Love” consciously timed their video releases to Record Store Day. The national smoke-out, probably not so much. Both chronicle the history of indie stores, which, along with FM radio, brought unprogramed rock ’n’ roll to masses in the 1960-70s, only to overlooked and dismissed in the digital era. The so-called “vinyl revolution” has regenerated one segment of the music business, even as technology conspires to crush everything else. Indeed, that’s exactly what happened to the Louisville store profiled in “Brick and Mortar and Love,” which was an integral part of the city’s scene … until it’s wasn’t. “Last Shop Standing” takes a more anglophilic approach to the subject, adding testimony by Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Johnny Marr. Anyone who frequents indie stores, or is a fan of “High Fidelity,” already knows that the success of such businesses depends on knowledgeable personnel, vast selection, listening stations, in-store concerts and an invitation to linger for hours. The deserve our support and attention.

PBS: Mr. Selfridge
Maverick: The Complete Second Season
A Haunting: The 2012 Season

The current attraction on PBS’ “Masterpiece Classic” is a mini-series set roughly in the same time period as “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs/Downstairs,” but with a decidedly more middle-class inclination. It tells the story of American retailer Harry Selfridge’s dream of building a department store on the wrong end of London’s Oxford Street and modeling it after similar establishments in Chicago and Paris. Instead of hiding the merchandise in shelves and dictating what m’lord and m’lady should wear, it was Selfridge’s idea – not at all original, perhaps – to showcase the goods and let fashion dictate what will be worn. Around such a straightforward notion, Andrew Davies has imagined an extended mini-series that is less about business than shenanigans, which is OK with me. As such, “Mr. Selfridge” is the sherbet between the courses at “Masterpiece Classic.” Jeremy Piven wouldn’t have been most people’s first choice to play the cocky Yank, who sensed that women everywhere were chomping at the bit to be taken seriously as consumers. While there’s something a bit too contemporary about Piven’s approach to the role, it’s possible that British fans of “Entourage” consider him to be the quintessential American businessman. A second season has already be ordered. When Piven’s performance falters, the slack is picked up by such estimable actors as Frances O’Connor (“Madame Bovary”), Aisling Loftus (“Page Eight”), Zoe Tapper (“Zen”), Amanda Abbington (“Case Histories”) and Samuel West (“Any Human Heart”). As a background for melodrama, ambition and scandal, Selfridge’s provides as appropriate a setting as any Grand Hotel, ocean liner, resort or airport. It was based on the book “Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge,” by Lindy Woodhead. The Blu-ray contains the original British version of the mini-series.

It’s been 11 months since Warner Home Video made the first season of “Maverick” available on DVD, so, by now, even the most distracted of viewers should have gotten through the 1,350-minute package. Bingers surely would have inhaled the episodes over the long Memorial Day weekend. I can’t think of many better alternatives to going on a picnic or climbing a mountain than “Maverick.” Although the show does occasionally show its age, there aren’t many characters today who can match Bret and Bart for their roguish humor, natural charisma and ability to talk their way out of serious trouble. Neither did it matter much to the writers that the Mavericks could be found in a desert West saloon one episode and a Mississippi riverboat the next, always in the company of a great-looking woman. Being the sharpest-dressed guy within three states certainly didn’t hurt Bret’s chances with the ladies, either. The DVDs look pretty good, too.

The Discovery Channel’s supernatural anthology series, “A Haunting,” desperately wants us to believe that the stories being re-enacted each week have a basis in fact and eyewitness accounts aren’t simply the product of some loon’s twisted imagination. By now, fans of reality-based entertainment know when to go along with something that smells kind of funny and when nothing less than a complete suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy a show. What’s crazy about the people we meet in “A Haunting” is their willingness to remain in a basement or bedroom, when all evidence to the contrary is telling them to split immediately and set their house on fire behind them. In one episode, it becomes obvious to family members that they’ve moved into the wrong house when ghosts, demons and angels visit them at night, sometimes making a racket or breaking things. When they approach a priest to inquire about an exorcism, he advices them to go home and not listen to the noises, because, after a hundred years, the floorboards and foundation probably are still settling. It’s the religious equivalent of a doctor saying, “Take a couple aspirin and call me after you’ve turned blue.” The alternative, of course, would be to not have any more series about paranormal activity and how much fun would that be?

Marvel Knights: InHumans
It’s gotten to the point where you can’t tell the difference between the myriad Marvel mutants without a scorecard. There simply are too many to keep track of by simple memorization. Just when I had become familiar with the mutants in the “X-Men” franchise, “Marvel Knights: InHumans” arrives with a whole new collection of genetic freaks with powers that are even more earth-shattering and uncontrollable. The InHumans of the Terrigan Mists aren’t new to the Marvel universe, but they’re finally getting their time in the video sun. Here, they’re called upon to protect the kingdom of Attilan and its royal family from foreign invaders and turncoats within their own ranks. The motion comic has a dark and foreboding look that’s consistent with the BDSM tone of the stories.

A Car’s Life 3: The Royal Heist
I don’t know how the makers of the animated straight-to-video series, “A Car’s Life,” have avoided a full-scale assault by the notoriously litigious legal department at Disney/Pixar, but I’m guessing that no one at the Mouse House wants to call attention to a franchise that offers so little competition for their superior products. The four-tired characters bear more than a passing resemblance to those who star in the “Cars” franchise, but the similarities end there. As any viewer older than 5 could see without prompting or prodding, the “Car’s Life” cars are to the “Cars” cars what the Aflac duck is to Donald Duck. Still, Disney’s sicced its lawyers on copy cats far less threatening than these guys. Fact is, it’s almost impossible to find anyone on the Internet who’s paid much attention to the three “Car’s Life” installments, except to lambast them for being inferior to “Cars.” Clearly, too, it’s a safe bet that no kid is going to be so impressed by “A Car’s Life 3: The Royal Heist” that he or she would pass up the opportunity to see a third big-screen installment of “Cars,” purchase a branded toy or video game, or visit the new Cars Land attraction at Disney’s California Adventure. For the record, “The Royal Heist” describes what occurs when a limousine belonging to a queen arrives in Greasy Springs to attend a charity drag race. Sure enough, the protagonist of the series, the red sports car Sparky, manages to take his eyes off the limo long enough for the crown jewels to be stolen. The Dove-approved film doesn’t have a voicing cast that would be recognizable to anyone outside Spark Plug Entertainment.

In “Oconomowoc,” living in the shadow of the ‘Wizard’ isn’t such a bad place to be

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Seventy-four years ago, come this August 12, MGM executives beat a path to the Strand Theater in the tranquil lakeside town of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, to stage the first publicized showing of the final, edited version of “The Wizard of Oz.” Although no one is quite sure why it was chosen for the honor – perhaps, because composer Herbert Stothart and Munchkin coroner Meinhardt Raabe were local lads — it’s still recognized as one of the most exciting events in Oconomowoc history.

Next week, when the movie “Oconomowoc” debuts in Wisconsin, it will be at Milwaukee’s venerable Downer Theater. The Strand was torn down a while back and the city no longer has any commercial screens on which to exhibit Hollywood movies. To mark the 70th anniversary of its Oconomowoc debut, back in 1939, an outdoor presentation of “The Wizard of Oz,” had to be accommodated on giant inflatable screen. The closest “Oconomowoc” will come to Oconomowoc will be theaters in nearby Delafield and Brookfield, which, while nice towns, aren’t Oconomowoc.

If you grew up in Wisconsin, as I did, repeating the word “Oconomowoc” several times in the same sentence inspires as much delight as reading the names Gitchee Gumee, Nokomis, Hiawatha and Minnehaha, in the epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Cool names for their cities are yet one more thing white settlers stole from native tribes.

Not knowing what to expect from a movie named “Oconomowoc,” I mistakenly guessed it might be an attempt to capture the same lightning in a bottle as the Coen Brothers had in “Fargo,” especially the characters’ wonderful accents.  Anyone who’s ever spent any time in the Upper Midwest could watch “Fargo” and enjoy it simply for Marge, Norm, Wade and Jerry’s “Minnesota nice” mannerisms and singsong dialect, a blend of Nordic, Swedish, Germanic and other northern European speech patterns.

Ironically, in “Oconomowoc,” the characters – the vast majority of whom are played by actors native Midwesterners — sound as if they just stepped off a train from southern California. Longtime residents of the state might find the proper use of English somewhat disconcerting.

“We didn’t ask anyone to lose their accents or add one,” reports Andy Gillies, whose name appears alongside that of co-producer/editor/cinematographer Joe Haas on nearly all of the film’s credit lists. “I grew up in Florida, but moved to Appleton to attend Lawrence University. Almost all of the people involved in the movie attended Lawrence or grew up in Wisconsin or Upper Peninsula.

“After college, I decided to stay in the state. The people are truly nice and so much more community-oriented than other places I’ve been. Everyone says hello to you or offers to buy you a beer.”

Gillies wrote the much-longer first draft of “Oconomowoc” in Oconomowoc and shot the film in and around the city, which once served as a summer destination for swells from Milwaukee, Chicago and St. Louis. In winter, of course, ice-fishing and cross-country skiing compete with the downing aber gut (a shot of brandy with schnapps, often set ablaze, on top) as the local pastime. There’s nothing more fun than sitting in a bar and betting tipsy visitors that they can’t spell “O-C-O-N-O-M-O-W-O-C,” even if they’re spotted three of the O’s.

For the record, the city’s name derives from the Potawatomi word, “coo-no-mo-wauk,” which means “waterfall” or “where the waters meet,” depending on whom one asks.

Anyone who goes to see “Oconomowoc,” expecting to hear jokes about guys who wear cheese-head hats to church, tip cows when bored or use deer-hunting season as an excuse to spend more time with their drinking buddies, is going to be disappointed. The movie barely registers on the Richter scale that measures such things as condescension and irony. Like the accents, it speaks to the universality of life in small-town America.

In his first feature role, Brendan Marshall-Rashid plays a young man who moves back to Wisconsin after rejecting every job that would require him to show up for it. The home in which Lonnie grew up is now populated by his voluntarily bed-ridden father, who’s “on sabbatical” from life; his bitter, alcoholic mom; and a friend his age, Todd, who is his mother’s “in-home boyfriend.”

Ostensibly, Todd designs lingerie for a living, but he mostly hangs out at home in his underwear and a polka-dotted robe, occasionally sporting green-felt antlers. Despite the similarity in their ages, Todd desperately wants Lonnie to accept him as a father figure who occasionally dispenses the kind of advice a dad normally would be expected to provide his son.

“He’s the elephant in the room wherever he goes,” Gillies quips.

Lonnie hopes to help his other buddy, Travis (Gillies), resuscitate his struggling t-shirt business. Travis’ primary competition comes from a middle-school student who steals his designs and undercuts him on prices. The possibility for love is on Lonnie’s horizon, as well, but it’s even money that he’ll blow that opportunity, too.

“These kinds of characters could and probably do exist in small towns around America, not exclusively in Oconomowoc,” Gillies suggests. “There always are some goofballs – goofballs with potential – who always manage to shoot themselves in the foot while pursuing their dreams. I thought that the unpronounceability of the title would convey the ambiguity of the characters’ absurd ideas. ”

The first draft was significantly longer than the finished product, Gillies says, but the usual impediments to creating an indie film whittled down the original vision to 78 minutes. As it is, the eight-day location shoot was financed using personal credit cards and the kindness of the residents of Oconomowoc. Its success, of course, will depend on positive reviews, social networking and word-of-mouth.

Fortuitously, too, Gillies was able to conduct staged readings in his acting class in Los Angeles. From there, he decided to cast promising newcomer Cindy Pinzon, the only non-Midwesterner on the team. In a movie largely populated by slackers and oddballs, her gainfully employed receptionist, Mallory, truly is a ray of sunshine.

The early consensus opinion, as recorded on the movie’s tongue-in-cheek website, is that “Oconomowoc” is “it’s pretty good.” By Wisconsin standards, “pretty good” is high praise, indeed.

Besides finding the money to make the movie, one of the largest roadblocks faced Gillies and Haas was getting the movie seen … anywhere. These days, too many indie pictures go straight from the festival circuit to DVD, where the demands of marketing are so much less harsh.

Gillies admits to being ecstatic when he heard that “Oconomowoc” was be picked up by more than 20 On Demand cable outlets, beginning on May 1. It opens in theaters New York and Los Angeles on Friday and will roll out throughout America’s Dairyland a week later and, possibly, from there, into bigger cities and college towns through the summer.

If it does really well, maybe someone will rent the inflatable screen and show “Oconomowoc” in the park as half of a double-feature with “Wizard of Oz.”

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

Future Weather
In Jenny Deller’s impressive debut feature, “Future Weather,” bright newcomer Perla Haney-Jardine plays a 13-year-old loner so obsessed with global warming, pesticides and pollution that everything else in her life is secondary. She’s as petrified of what the future may hold for her generation as her grandmother (Amy Madigan) must have been by the possibility of nuclear war, a half-century ago. As passionate an environmentalist as she is, however, Lauderee has personal problems that are far more immediate. For one thing, Lauderee’s white-trash mother – for lack of a more precise term – has taken a powder from the remote double-wide trailer they share, along with the occasional drunken boyfriend. All Mom left behind was $50 and a note promising she’d be back for the girl as soon as she strikes gold as a makeup artist to the stars, in Hollywood. Lauderee decides to tough it out on her own for a while, but her hard-boiled grandma puts an end to that experiment in self-sufficiency after she gets caught shoplifting. It’s just as well, because the girl is so pre-occupied with a science project, she might be starving and not even known it. Lauderee gets more bad news when her grandma agrees to move to Florida with her boyfriend, Ed (William Sadler), who offers her a dozen good reasons why an aspiring scientist might enjoy living in the Sunshine State. That only serves to complicate things further, because it would mean giving up on the project, her mom’s empty promise and the attention of her extremely concerned teacher (Lilly Taylor).

While Deller’s story and direction keep us guessing throughout the indie’s 100-minute length, it’s Haney-Jardine’s gritty performance that’s unforgettable in “Future Weather.” There are times when Lauduree’s treatment of her grandmother, her boyfriend and teacher is so single-minded and stubborn that she risks alienating viewers who sense she isn’t nearly as smart as she thinks she is. That’s what separates “Future Weather” from 95 percent of the other films with teenage protagonists. And, yes, I do think it’s fair to compare Haney-Jardine’s performance her to Jennifer Lawrence’s in the decidedly more ferocious “Winter’s Bone.” I’ve seen “Future Weather” described as a coming-of-age drama, but I don’t think Deller intended for Lauderee to skip puberty entirely on the way to adulthood. I’d be very surprised if teens and ’tweens couldn’t find a little bit of themselves in her. – Gary Dretzka

Save the Date
Not Suitable for Children: Blu-ray

If it’s politically incorrect to dismiss films targeted specifically at girls and women in the 16-to-34 demographic as “chick flicks,” why isn’t the decidedly anti-intellectual approach to selling “popcorn,” comic-book and gross-out movies to teenage boys not considered degrading, as well? Perhaps, it’s because you can’t slander the guilty. By finding common ground, however accidentally, some filmmakers have redefined what it means to be a “date movie.” Among the recent titles that qualify are “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover” — but not “Bachelorette” and “The Hangover Part II” — “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Crazy Stupid Love,” “The Hunger Games” and one or two of the “Twilight” episodes, at least. Any woman who wants to test the loyalty and patience of her male friend couldn’t find a better challenge than to ask him to sit through “Save the Date,” without dozing off or cracking wise every three or four minutes. This isn’t to say that many women won’t be similarly turned off by “Save the Date,” but the mere presence of Lizzy Caplan (“Party Down”) and Alison Brie (“Community”) might present sufficient cause for a rental on 2-for-1 day. They play sisters, one of whom is getting married and the other moving in with her musician boyfriend. Since there’s nothing noticeably wrong with either relationship, on or below the surface, director Michael Mohan and his two male co-writers (Jeffrey Brown, Egan Reich) were required to find stupid ways to test the strength of their bonds. Sarah’s a fiercely neurotic sketch artist, while Beth is driving her fiancé nuts with plans for the wedding. After Sarah scares away her seemingly perfect boyfriend, Mohan gives her another to torment. It takes Beth’s seemingly perfect guy a while to figure out how painful his nuptials are likely to be, but, when he does, Beth can’t find much sympathy for him. The filmmakers throw in a couple of surprises toward the end of “Save the Date,” but they’re very poorly choreographed and not at all funny.

How many movies have we seen in which a woman realizes that the time on her biological clock is ticking down and she hasn’t bothered to find the right man to father her child? Plenty, and now we’re seeing movies in which gay men and lesbians go to outlandish lengths to choose the right person to supply a womb or sperm to accommodate their desire for children. The male equivalent of this dilemma surfaces in the Aussie export, “Not Suitable for Children.” Its hook, alone, would be enough to make some men swear off going to the multiplex for years. When we meet Jonah (Ryan Kwanten), he’s in the business of throwing parties for Sydney’s yuppie crowd in a residence that wouldn’t be out of place in New Orleans’ Garden District. He’s making lots of money and enjoying not being attached to any one woman. That contentment changes dramatically when a young lady, in the course of pleasuring Jonah, discovers a lump on a testicle. Wisely, he rushes to see a specialist, who lays out for him a good-news/bad-news scenario that most men would seize on and act accordingly. While testicular cancer has a high survival rate, if detected early, the radiation treatment almost certainly would make him sterile. The doctor also advises that surgery be scheduled as soon as possible. After checking out a bank to deposit his sperm, Jonah’s led to believe that his swimmers aren’t good candidates for freezing. Unwisely, Jonah asks the doctor for a month’s reprise to impregnate any one of several old lovers, friends or strangers. It’s a risk he’s willing to take. The rest of “Not Suitable for Children” is comprised of a series of heightened expectations, dashed optimism and dopey melodrama. Fans of “True Blood” will recognize Kwanten as Jason Stackhouse and, while cute, he is too much of a cipher here to ensure he’d be any child’s idea of a good father. Sarah Snook and Ryan Corr do well in supporting roles. The Blu-ray adds interviews and a making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Among the many great things about living in the age of DVD/Blu-ray expansion is discovering artists from other countries whose work failed to make it to the U.S. upon its original release or was shown only at a niche festival or in New York. Before the Criterion Collection release of “The Human Condition,” in 2009, I was unaware of Masaki Kobayashi’s place in the Pantheon of Japanese cinema or how his personal history as a conscripted pacifist and P.O.W. in World War II informed his epic three-part adaptation of Junpei Gomikawa’s novel. He’s also recognized as a master of samurai (“Hara-Kiri”) and supernatural (“Kwaidan”) movies. Newly arrived in Blu-ray are four lesser-known titles, as part of Criterion’s essential “Eclipse Series” (“a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable multi-disc editions”). Where “Human Condition” was overtly anti-war and anti-totalitarian – without also being polemical – the movies included in “Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System” raged against the machines that controlled Japanese life in the post-war, pre-boom era. In several key ways, they echo the neo-realism of Italian movies made slightly earlier. At a time when the country’s ruling establishment would have preferred its filmmakers forget that World War II ever happened, Kobayashi’s movies reflected its many identity crises, moral corruption and the impact of the U.S. military occupation.

Made in 1953, “The Thick-Walled Room” picked the scab that had formed over the issue of Japanese soldiers executed, convicted or being held for trial for crimes against humanity in the war. It was one of the first Japanese films to deal directly with such wartime issues, but, more to the point, it asked why some of the prisoners were being punished for obeying the orders of officers whose social status allowed them to walk free. “Thick-Walled Room” was adapted from the diaries of actual prisoners and they only make the narrative that much more dramatic. Some even reference the start of the Korean War and the United States’ role in it. Rather than make cuts requested by Japanese censors to appease American interests, Kobayashi held the film from release for four years.

Baseball has been a longtime passion in Japan and even before American teams began scouting players there, the stakes in the recruitment game were extremely high. Made in 1956, “I Will Buy You” describes the corrupt practices of agents, scouts and team executives in the wooing of a star collegiate player. It tells a story about the sad state of amateur athletics that could have been made in the U.S. at any time in the past 50-60 years, but wasn’t. In addition to the obvious implications of such quasi-legal practices, “I Will Buy You” demonstrates how corruption spreads like cancer from the agents to the players and, beyond them, to family, friends and community boosters.

Black River” (1957) describes another virulent strain of cancer spreading through postwar Japan, especially in the slums and entertainment districts surrounding American bases. Poverty was so prevalent, especially among women whose fathers, husbands and sons were killed in the war, many turned to prostitution to provide for themselves, their children and aged relatives. Sensing an opportunity to exploit both American troops and impoverished women, men who came of age after the war turned to pimping and the black market. Without focusing directly on the Yanks’ role in this vicious cycle, Kobayashi describes how financial necessity damaged even the most innocent of Japanese flowers.

After finishing the “Human Condition” trilogy and “Hara-Kiri,” Kobayashi returned to a more contemporary setting, but one gripped in the same time-honored tradition of unfettered greed. Adapted from a Norio Nanjo novel, “The Inheritance” describes what happens when a wealthy business executive not only informs his immediate family and business associates that he has terminal cancer, but that he also wants them to find his three illegitimate children, so as to divide his fortune among them. In the blink of eye, the people he entrusts with the mission already are figuring out ways to take advantage of the situation for personal or corporate gain. Only one of the associates proceeds with integrity, but which one? “The Inheritance” feels very much like a movie Hitchcock might have made, with the exception that the executive’s entourage represents an entire stratum of middle-class scavengers growing up in the wake of the country’s startling economic recovery. – Gary Dretzka

At the Gate of the Ghost: Blu-ray
From 16th Century Thailand arrives this imaginative adaptation of the Japanese classic, “Rashomon,” in which the facts of serious crime are recounted from the differing points of view of several witnesses. Among the overriding themes of M.L. Pundhevanop Dhewakul’s “At the Gate of the Ghost” are certain precepts of Buddhist philosophy. Here, a young monk becomes deeply disturbed by conflicting testimony he hears at the trial of an infamous bandit accused of killing a prominent warlord. Clearly, the witnesses are afraid of saying anything that might get them in trouble, as well, so the truth must lie somewhere in between the recollections. Among those testifying are the bandit; the warlord’s concubine, who also may have been raped; a shaman, who attempts to visualize the crime; and an elderly man. The monk, who’s so shaken he begins to re-consider his vocation, decides to seek his father’s counsel. Along the way, he finds himself in the company of one of the witnesses and a rather strange fellow who minds a labyrinthine cave where people drop off dead bodies and unwanted children. It’s here that the stories of the crime are retold, again, from the different points of view, but more honestly. It’s a fascinating way to showcase the universality of “Rashomon,” beautifully staged in a distinctly Thai tradition and Buddhist sensibility. – Gary Dretzka

Dragon: Blu-ray
I don’t know what, if any western movies might have influenced Peter Chan and frequent collaborator Oi Wah Lam in the creation of their fascinating martial-arts mystery, “Dragon” (a.k.a., “Wu Xia”). One uncharacteristic presence here is police detective Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), whose methodology is taken straight from Sherlock Holmes’ playbook. The other surely would be David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” in which a heroic act by a mild-mannered citizen attracts attention from past compatriots in organized crime. In fact, that’s exactly what happens in “Dragon,” too. In 1917, Liu Jin-xi (Donnie Yen) is a village craftsman whose quiet life is undone after he single-handedly prevents two notorious gangsters from robbing the local general store. What draws attention to him from the detective is the martial-arts punch he used to kill the nearly indestructible villain. It is only taught by a single master, whose 72 Demons clan is feared throughout Yunnan province. Although Jin-xi is much admired for his courage and good works in the village, the detective hopes to link him to a grisly murder that occurred years earlier. If he can do that, the news would be welcomed by the vicious warlord of 72 Demons. His son has been missing since the murder and the warlord wants him to return to the clan. Married and a father, Jin-xi knows he will have to fight, once again, to maintain his freedom.

Chan combines all of the disparate elements into an entirely satisfying story, easily accessible to martial-arts enthusiasts and newcomers, alike. The re-creation of the village is expertly done, as are the costumes and fighting scenes. The detective, who believes he’s doing the right thing by dredging up an old crime, finally is given moral quandaries of his own with which to deal. Chan, a student of John Woo, is one of the top directors working in Hong Kong and China and he has the box-office receipts to prove it. Anyone who enjoys “Dragon” can find plenty of other Chan titles to peruse. – Gary Dretzka

Escapee
Fans of horror/slasher/teens-in-jeopardy flicks might find something to like in “Escapee,” an otherwise familiar story about a psycho-killer who escapes from a high-security prison for the criminally insane and picks up where he left off before being captured. In the case of Jose Canseco look-alike Jaxon (Dominick Purcell), this means stringing up pretty young women and skinning them like squirrels. Earlier in the day that he escapes from the hospital, Jaxon encountered a class of high school students as he was being led to his cell. One of the girls looks like his murdered wife and this causes him to briefly flip out. It also inspires him to escape, eliminating as many guards and innocent bystanders as necessary to find the girl, Abby (Christine Evangelista), whose parents are home and is killing time doing homework with friends sitting around in their underwear. Meanwhile, a storm is raging outside the Louisiana town and a manhunt is being conducted by Faith Ford, wife of writer/director Campion Murphy. The most effective things about “Escapee” are the special sound effects and the lighting that creates shadows that look like fiends peeking through windows. The DVD adds interviews and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

State of Emergency
Turner Clay’s minimalist approach to the much-dreaded zombie apocalypse benefits greatly by limiting the number of flesh-eating demons chasing the protagonists and focusing on the psychological emptiness of wide-open spaces. After an explosion unleashes the products of a military bio-weapons plant in a rural countryside, undead victims of the poison begin popping up like deer in a field of tall grass. A small handful of unaffected humans gather in a huge unused warehouse, from which they can pick off the odd zombie and plot their survival. They know that the entire area hasn’t been wiped out, because they can see military planes and helicopters, flying over the warehouse, occasionally dropping boxes of emergency supplies. It is during one of the sojourns to recover the supplies that a survivor exposes himself to attack and possible contamination. Things get nastier, but “State of Emergency” avoids the overkill and splatter that usually accompanies such movies. It’s a welcome change. – Gary Dretzka

Ringo at the Ryman
If memory serves, Ringo Starr was the first of the Beatles to embrace country-western music and invest his interest in Nashville in his songs, including a cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally.” It’s fitting, then, that he spends one of his birthdays, at least, on the hallowed stage of the Ryman Auditorium, making music and pleasing fans. Ringo has continued to work since the breakup of the band, not because he needs the money, but because he’s having a blast doing it. Lately, his tours have included the All-Star Band, with a slightly different makeup of musicians each time.
Ringo at the Ryman” was filmed on July 7, 2012, in Nashville. The ensemble was comprised of such fine players as Steve Lukather (Toto), Richard Page (Mr. Mister), Mark Rivera (Billy Joel), Gregg Rollie (Journey, Santana), Todd Rundgren and Gregg Bissonette. Making cameos were daughter Lucy, Joe Walsh, Brendan Benson, Kix Brooks, Gary Burr, Vince Gil, Brad Paisley, Felix Cavaliere and Richard Marx. The set list was comprised largely of Ringo’s hits, with and without the Beatles, and songs made popular by band members, such as “Roseanna,” “Black Magic Woman,” “Kyrie Elaison” and “Bang the Drum All Day.” It’s a lot of fun. – Gary Dretzka

One Day on Earth
Disneynature: Wings of Life
Pedal-Driven: A Bikeumentary

I don’t know if the 26-year-old coffee-table book, “A Day in the Life of America,” inspired “One Day on Earth” more than, say, Edward Steichen and Carl Sandburg’s 1955 best-seller, “The Family of Man,” or Kyle Ruddick came up with the idea independently. As the title suggests, Ruddick’s conceit involves charting the cycle of life over the 24 period of October 10, 2010, from the vantage point of people living in every single country on Earth and the Space Station. I will admit to not knowing that two of the countries mentioned, at least, even existed. Because the myriad things that happen every day on our planet are constantly changing and endlessly fascinating, “One Day on Earth” can’t help but be interesting. What it lacks, however, are many surprises. Compiled from over 3,000 hours of footage, it shows people doing chores, going to work, playing, singing, having babies, dying, collecting trash and attempting to find and afford potable water. For me, the most remarkable sequence involves a young bride, in Kosovo, who’s having her face decorated in advance of being married, in the rite of “beautifying brides on their wedding day.” The elaborate face decorations and frilly gown make kabuki makeup and dress seem primitive, by comparison. While including so many images from American locations is only to be expected. What I don’t get is why there are so many from a military parade in North Korea. Maybe Ruddick is on to something, there.

The latest addition to the “Disneynature” series is “Wings of Life,” a spectacularly photographed documentary about our fragile dependency on bees, butterflies, birds and bats, and their dependency on blossoming vegetation. Louis Schwartzberg’s film originally was called “Pollen,” which shifts the emphasis of the story a tad, from the magic dust to the carriers of the magic dust. Perhaps, that’s because of the ongoing mystery surrounding the disappearance of bees not only from their natural habitat, but also from the commercial hives that are trucked from orchard to orchard. It’s a cause of real concern for all of us. Most of the message delivered in “Wings of Life” has been disseminated already, but what’s terrific here is the cinematography which captures the gathering of pollen and flight at speeds unseen in previous documentaries. In Blu-ray, it’s practically miraculous.

Pedal-Driven: A Bikeumentary” may look like a documentary and sound like a documentary, but it quacks like propaganda. Without laying all of its cards out on the table up front, it argues that “mountain bikers” have an inalienable right to cut paths through federal land, so they can get their rocks off speeding around some the Pacific Northwest’s most pristine slopes and countryside. And, maybe they do. “Pedal-Driven” also stipulates that mountain bikers are natural-born environmentalists, whose interests square with those who prefer to maintain wilderness as wilderness. The kind of trails the “freeriders” say they advocate are largely unobtrusive and absent major threats to the mountain ecology. And, maybe, they are. Writer/documentary Jamie Howell lets the bikers do most of the talking here, while also adding commentary by Park Service rangers and non-profits that already have built trails in parks. I’m all for letting thrill-seekers enjoy their sports on federal land, under certain restrictions. What’s missing from the documentary, though, is any discussion of recovering money from permits and fees; insurance considerations in such a risky activity; limiting the trails to those at certain age or proficiency levels; proper supervision and maintenance; and the potential for an overpopulation of such public sites. While it’s easy to draw a line between bikers of the motorized and foot-driven variety, who’s to say if bikers or horse riders have more right to the public? True, a scenario is presented in which speeding bikers are on the same thin trail as a horse and rider. The likely solution is so unlikely as to be laughable: bikers would be so interested in meeting a fellow outdoors enthusiast that they would stop their ride and engage the rider in conversation. Sure, and skiers and boarders amicably share the same slopes in winter. All sarcasm aside, “Pedal-Driven” offers a sound foundation for further discussion and debate and the scenery is gorgeous. It’s no wonder that mountain bikers want to play there, instead of freeway underpasses. – Gary Dretzka

Ben 10: Destroy All Aliens
Cartoon Network is taking full advantage of the newest big gun in its arsenal, by extending the franchise into feature-length movies and creating toys to coincide with their launch. In Asia, the Middle East and South Africa fans were invited to compete for special voice-over parts in the series, VIP treatment at the premiere, branded clothing and toys. “Ben 10: Destroy All Aliens” debuted here in March 2012 and already has been released through iTunes and PlayStation stores. To make the release of the DVD sufficiently special to attract newcomers and repeat viewers, alike, the producers have added two hours of special features to the movie, with behind-the-scenes featurettes, original artwork and commentaries. In it, 10-year-old Ben Tennyson is back from summer vacation and chomping at the bit to join the Total Alien Immersion Training Program. In doing so, he risks never returning to human form and becoming a target for unseen evil. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

Down the Shore
The mysteries of movie distribution continue to baffle me. “Down the Shore,” a compelling and thoroughly unpretentious indie drama, apparently has been sitting on someone’s shelf since it began its life on the festival circuit in January 2011. In it, James Gandolfini plays a character not terribly unlike Tony Soprano, if he had been born something other than Italian in mob-run New Jersey. Bailey operates a kiddie amusement park that he inherited from his father. It sits on land leased from his longtime best friend, Wiley (Joseph Pope), who’s married to another close childhood friend, Mary (Famke Janssen). Together, they’ve struggled to raise a son, Martin (John Magaro), with serious learning disabilities. The park is open for business, but with summer still months away, Bailey and Wiley waste entirely too much time at the local gin mills, inventing conspiracy theories and reliving the distant past. Life for the three friends might have gone on like this for years, if it weren’t for the unexpected arrival of a stranger, Jacques (Edoardo Costa), who claims to have married Bailey’s sister, recently deceased, while she was touring Europe. Not only was Bailey unaware of his sister’s death and marriage, but that she left Jacques her share of the family abode in her will. Imagine how Tony Soprano might have reacted to such news and you’ll know exactly how Bailey greeted Jacques. If it weren’t for Mary’s kindness and the newcomer’s instant rapport with Martin, they’d still be finding pieces of him under the pier. Instead, director Harold Guskin and writer Sandra Jennings found more satisfying ways to advance the drama and unravel the trio’s deep, dark secrets. The actors all contribute compelling performances to the mix.

Normally, movies like “Down the Shore” are left to sink or swim on the festival circuit, before being accorded a limited arthouse run or a one-way ticket to the DVD and cable marketplace. It finally opened last Friday in a couple of theaters, receiving some good-to-decent reviews, but nothing strong enough to prompt adults to co-mingle with fans of “Evil Dead” and “G.I. Joe.” “Down the Shore” couldn’t have cost much to make – the actors probably cut the producers a break – so it’s possible that it might make some money down the road. So, what happened? New Jersey’s beach communities have become so identified with Snooki and Jwoww, by now, that all movies shot within view of a boardwalk have been tarred with the inconsequentiality of “Jersey Shore.” (No matter that Keansburg and Seaside Heights, New Jersey, are quite different places.) It’s also possible that Hurricane Sandy somehow impacted negatively on distribution and marketing plans. Have Gandolfini’s 15-minutes of fame expired? Such vagaries have become part and parcel of the indie distribution game. In any case, Gandolfini’s intense performance here should please fans of “The Sopranos,” as well as viewers simply looking for good drama. First-time director Guskin has distinguished himself as an acting and dialogue coach, and it appears as if he’s also picked up something about direction along the way. Even if “Down the Shore” was never destined to hit the megaplex circuit, it fits the small screen pretty well and warrants the attention of viewers looking for a good story well told. – Gary Dretzka

Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul
By now, movies that chronicle extraordinary feats of physical strength, endurance, perseverance and courage are practically a dime a dozen. Hollywood once feasted on them, but audiences have begun to show their weariness with superhuman accomplishments, unless they’re performed by comic-book characters. Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours,” a terrifically exciting movie about one adventuresome outdoorsman’s brush with death, barely made back its $18-million nut at the box office. This, despite it receiving six Academy Award nominations, including those for Best Actor, Best Picture and Best Writing. Anticipating this sort of collective ennui, perhaps, many explorers, daredevils and extreme athletes have begun to document their own accomplishments and writing books that might support them. The introduction of featherweight, hand- or helmet-held cameras and other digital recording equipment has begun a revolution in the world of action-oriented documentaries. Conveniently, general audiences have begun to warm to non-fiction films, especially in their DVD and Blu-ray iterations. (Heck, there’s even a small-screen market for docs originally made for IMAX.) In “Into the Cold,” we not only watch Sebastian Copeland and Keith Heger cross 400 miles of ice on their way to the magnetic North Pole, but also learn how difficult such a task might be if attempted on skis and snowshoes. For 35 frigid days, they dragged 200-lb. sleds laden with gear and provisions behind them, without the benefit of dogs or Skidoos. The problem is that so much time has already been spent watching the duo prepare and rehearse for the centennial of the first successful mission, reaching their destination borders on the anti-climactic.

The total experience might have been more satisfying if exhibitors had been able to lower temperatures in their theaters to anywhere from minus-30 to minus-50 degrees Faherenheit, in order to replicate the conditions that confronted Copeland and Heger. In this way, the 85-minute film would have been a test of endurance for the audience, too. As it is, the most compelling reason to pick up a copy of “Into the Cold” can be found on the periphery of the expedition. In addition to observing the centennial, writer/director Copeland argues that the effects of global warming could prohibit other any other such missions from being attempted, unless the trekkers bring along flippers and a kayak. That’s how quickly the ice pack is melting, he says. At places where we normally would expect to see solid ice, there instead were wide fissures between floes and unstable surfaces. We aren’t asked to take Copeland’s word for it, however, because we’re also introduced to Inuit hunters who’ve been required to expand their range and search harder for fewer polar bears, seals and walruses. In fact, “Into the Cold” would have benefitted from more threats to Copeland and Heger, including those from starving bears. They make it look too easy. When one of them falls into the water, we empathize with his ordeal but aren’t allowed to witness how he was able to avoid hyperthermia.

Considering that the promotional material for “Into the Cold” is quick to point out that Copeland used a HD camera to capture the adventure, it’s surprising that the documentary isn’t being released in Blu-ray. Vast empty icescapes look brilliant in hi-def, with or without bears. This isn’t said to dissuade anyone from watching “Into the Cold,” only to discourage heightened expectations. It says important things about the risks facing our environment and the grit of two determined young men who demand perfection from themselves and, in this case, achieve it. – Gary Dretzka

The Phantom Father
We’ve seen plenty of movies about first- and second-generation Americans going back to the Old Country – a term not frequently used these days – to uncover familial roots buried by war, poverty, forced relocation, tyranny and ambition. At one time, the Old Country was pretty much limited to Europe, from whose ports most immigrants departed before and immediately after the world wars. That generalization no longer applies, of course. “The Phantom Father” describes one Jewish-American man’s quest to learn more about his father and grandfather, who left a much-disputed corner of Romania long before it was taken over first by the Soviet Union, then Germany, the U.S.S.R., again, and finally split between the Ukraine and Romania. After arriving in Chicago’s West Side, Professor Robert Traum’s relatives became involved in organized crime, which was one way the city’s Jewish immigrants got by between the wars. Traum (Marcelle Iures) is nearing retirement age and only carries a few letters, photographs and a single name that might connect his family to anyone left in Bucovina. The name belongs to an elderly traveling projectionist, Sami, who once ran the local cinema but had his business taken away from him by the city’s corrupt mayor. In league with Ukrainian gangsters, he wants to turn the property into a multipurpose mall.

Traum is an affable fellow, who doesn’t speak Romanian and isn’t familiar with the locals’ susceptibility to rumors, ancient prejudices, superstitions and gossip, especially in the rural villages. On one of his stops, Sami’s name rings a bell with an expert in Jewish history in eastern Romania. She’s heard of the roving projectionist and volunteers to join the professor in his quest, if only to get away from her nagging boyfriend, Alex (Mimi Branescu). It takes her a while to connect with Traum on a personal level and, when she does, it’s because of a common affection for Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America.” Even before they reach Bucovina, Traum senses that he’s entered an entirely different world than the one he left in Bucharest. Tanya and, later, Sami convince him that it’s better to go with the flow, rather than wait for the locals to adjust to him. Viewers, too, are advised to adjust their expectations about recent Romanian cinema and simply take Lucian Georgescu’s disparate conceits as they come. “The Phantom Father” evolves from black dramedy to buddy film and, finally, romantic fantasy. Filmed largely in and around Sibiu and Braila, the mountainous terrain offers much to enjoy, besides the story. “Phantom Father” was adapted from a story by Barry Gifford, who makes a short appearance in the film, while Sami is based on an actual travelling projectionist and keeper to the keys of the local synagogue he met while travelling through Bucovina with Georgescu. – Gary Dretzka

Gate of Hell: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
No less an expert than Martin Scorsese has called Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1953 drama “Gate of Hell” one of the 10 most beautiful color films ever made. It won Grand Prize at Cannes; Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design; and several top critics’ awards. Although it features less action than most other feudal-period movies from Japan, “Gate of Hell” tells a story that could be traced back to the ancient Greek theater. After being released in VHS in 1999, it’s only now being given a proper re-launch in completely restored DVD and Blu-ray editions. And, yes, it’s an inarguably beautiful movie. “Gate of Hell” tells the story of a 12th Century samurai, who, with the help of a lady-in-waiting, caused a diversion that allowed the royal family time to escape from a rebellion. The coup fails and the lord grants the samurai a single request, which is to marry the woman who joined him in the ruse. Unfortunately, the woman already is married to one of the lord’s most-trusted guards, and neither of them is eager to end the marriage. When the samurai insists on her hand, as promised, the seeds of tragedy are sewn. It’s simple and well told. The most impressive thing about “Gate of Hell” on Blu-ray, though, is color cinematography, which is so brilliant that it looks as if the images might have just exited the vats of chemicals at Technicolor. The costumes, especially, benefit from the upgrade. They’re worth the price of a rental, alone. The Blu-ray adds only a booklet with an essay by film historian Stephen Prince. – Gary Dretzka

Hong Kong Confidential
Anyone expecting to find in “Hong Kong Confidential” the slam-bang action of a Jackie Chan or Jet Li martial-arts epic will be sorely disappointed. Neither is the movie populated with corrupt cops and gangsters. Instead, it is the kind of enigmatic, bi-cultural romance one might have expected from Jim Jarmusch, and not because the protagonist’s hair is bleached white. Paul is an Englishman with no set roots or apparent lack of money. He’s just arrived in Hong Kong to study massage therapy, something he’s done in several other Asian cities. He doesn’t, however, reveal everything to his instructors, who treat him as if he were just another gringo goofball. Neither are they aware that he understands enough Chinese to know what they’re saying about him. A curious young woman arrives at the school within days of Paul, but, unlike him, she is pushy and headstrong. Jasmin is from the mainland and has some tangential connection with the middle-age co-owner, Amaya (Kaori Momoi). “Hong Kong Confidential” originally went by the more apt title of “Amaya,” because it’s her character that affects the most change during the course of the movie and is most influenced by the new arrivals. Their outlooks on life, love and identity inspire her to look beyond her cramped middle-class world and passionless marriage. Three other primary characters cross paths in “Hong Kong Confidential,” and their stories also are compelling. Latvian writer/director Maris Martinson might be the busiest filmmaker in the Baltic States, as, since the split from the U.S.S.R., he has kept busy writing, directing and producing movies, television series, music videos and commercials. The DVD includes a video with a song from the movie. – Gary Dretzka

The Sorcerer and the White Snake: Blu-ray
Woochi the Demon Slayer
Deadball: Blu-ray
I’d love to see the reactions on the faces of American kids corralled into watching “The Sorcerer and the White Snake” in a cozy screening room. A vast departure from the Japanese anime that children here began to embrace in the 1980s, Tony Ching Siu-tung’s CGI-heavy fantasy tickles the imagination by combining an ancient Chinese folk tale, Buddhist teachings, supernatural creatures and over-the-top action. Jet Li stars as a sorcerer monk, Fahai, who, upon entering the gates of a magical new city, warns his enchanted-dog companion, “Don’t believe everything you see.” Fahai is an expert in seeing through the disguises of demons and engaging them in combat. Here, he has his work cut for him. Early on, we’re introduced to a sibling pair of 1,000-year-old snake demons — one white, one green, both quite long — who have quite different feelings about the humans in their midst. After the white snake, Susu (Eva Huang), rescues the gentle herbalist Xu Xian (Raymond Lam) from drowning, she takes human form and they fall in love. She even is able to use her mystical knowledge to help Xu Xian prepare potions. Unable to leave well enough alone, Fahai causes a revolt by identifying the demons and attempting to banish them. It provides the film’s primary action sequences, but they are less interesting than the backgrounds and CGI work. “Sorcerer and the White Snake” goes in some other bizarre directions, as well, introducing animal characters from the Disney catalogue and songs in unexpected places. Adults likely would find the wild mix of styles and characters too far-fetched, but kids, I think, will see something wondrous in the fantasy. For once, the English dubbing is pretty good, too. (I think I heard the ubiquitous voice of Patrick Warburton in there somewhere.)

Conversely, “Woochi the Demon Slayer” is a wildly inventive time-travel fantasy from Korea, also based on a folk tale, that should appeal most to those viewers who can’t get their fill of wuxia action. Woochi is a brash Tao wizard from the Chosun Dynasty whose lack of discipline seriously impinges on his master’s ability to protect a magical pipe from evil goblins. Without it, the goblins could take back their kingdom and spread mayhem. Woochi is blamed for the death of his master at the hands of a sinister magician and punished by three inept deities to being sealed in scrolls forever. The trio reappears 500 years later, at another time when demons threaten civilization. They recognize the scroll in an art gallery and conspire to conjure his spirit to reappear. Wham, bam, alakazam and Woochi is summoned to present-day Seoul, along with several other demons from the past. Besides battling the evil time-tourists, Woochi uses the occasion to track down the most current incarnation of his former lover. At 136 minutes, “Woochi” overstays its welcome by about a half-hour, but it definitely keeps moving right along with crazy plot twists and wild action. The humor translates pretty well, too.

Sushi Typhoon is to Japanese action and horror films what Troma is to blood-drenched American genre flicks. The latest hallowed institution to fall to the studio’s ax is baseball. “Deadball” takes the most violent elements of “Rollerball” and combines them with the sadism of “Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS,” the rabid loyalty of Japanese fans and various characters from “Major League.” If you can imagine baseball as a blood sport, it would look a lot like “Deadball.” Co-writer/director Yudai Yamaguchi tackled the same subject a decade ago in “Battlefield Baseball,” in which the game is played to the death, even if one of the teams is comprised of zombies. Here, Yamaguchi opens with a scene that could have been borrowed from “Field of Dreams.” A boy is playing catch with his father in an open field, but when the old man demands a little more pepper on the ball, the boy responds with a fastball that could punch a hole in a concrete wall. After this, young Jubeh would swear off baseball and focus on becoming the best juvenile delinquent he could be. He ends up in the Pterodactyl Juvenile Reformatory, which is supervised by Headmistress Ishihara, the granddaughter of a Nazi collaborator. She demands of Jubeh that he join the national tournament or be responsible for the death of his cellmate. The game pits the Pterodactyl Gauntlet against the Psycho Butcher Girls of St. Black Dahlia High School and it could hardly be more insane. Anyone whose idea of a good time is listening to the dulcet tones of Vin Scully announcing a double-header on a sunny afternoon in spring probably ought to avoid “Deadball.” The Blu-ray arrives with a spinoff short, making-of featurettes and cast interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Fold Crumple Crush: The Art of El Anatsui
Currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum, the work of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui demands to be viewed from several different angles and at distances ranging from across-the-room to inches-away. From afar, the monumental installations look as if they’re giant tapestries or rugs, informed by many of the same colors and patterns commonly found on the clothing worn by West Africans. In the mid-distance, the shimmering platelets of found material create a look that mimics the paintings of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. It’s when viewed up-close, however, that viewers can appreciate both the precision of Anatsui’s hand-made sculptures and the complexity of his vision. I’m not an expert on art, but it seems to me that his creations locate the crossroads where African folk art intersects with Modernism and other 20th Century movements. In layman’s terms, they are nothing short of a feast for the eyes. “Fold Crumble Crush: The Art of El Anatsui” describes the process of creation, from the discovery of bottle caps and other objects on the side of a road; through the weaving of intricately manufactured squares and rectangles; and on to the installation of pieces, some of which rival the size of a Jumbotron. This is what should appeal most to general audiences. Not only does Anatsui work with commonly found objects, but he does so in collaboration with young men and women whose only exposure to contemporary art may be the piece on which they’re presently working. The documentary doesn’t suggest that anyone with a trace of imagination could achieve what Anatsui’s been able to accomplish, because there’s no questioning the degree-of-difficulty involved. It does demonstrate, however, that great art can be made with materials other than paint, canvas and brushes, and in places other than Paris and New York. – Gary Dretzka

A Whisper to a Roar
We Are Egypt
Love Free or Die
At a time when only 57.5 percent of all eligible voters bothered to submit a ballot in one of the most contentious presidential races in American history, people around the world were putting their lives on the line for the privilege of standing in long lines to vote. Typically, when given the opportunity to participate in elections that aren’t rigged from the start, people recently freed from tyranny wouldn’t think of not exercising their right to make their preferences known. Even so, several prominent democracies have instituted compulsory voting as a way to trump apathy and lethargy. (In Chicago, it’s widely believed that dead people vote early and often in some precincts.) Ben Moses’ occasionally disturbing, if ultimately inspirational documentary, “A Whisper to a Roar,” doesn’t soft-peddle the dangers of challenging the status quo in countries where sham elections and corruption are standard operating procedure. In the Ukraine, we listen to former president Viktor Yushchenko describe the experience of being poisoned with dioxin for daring to challenge the entrenched incumbent. Oliver Stone and Sean Penn may have thought Hugo Chavez was the bee’s knees, but Moses was able to document the abuses that followed his evolution from reformer to despot. The documentary also takes us to Zimbabwe, Malaysia and pre-Arab Spring Egypt. The segments are interwoven to demonstrate how pro-democracy movements around the world are similar to each other, while taking into account the cultural and political peculiarities that make them unique. What the film doesn’t do is suggest that, once established, democracies will endure against the many threats to freedom.

We Are Egypt” tightens the focus specifically to the popular uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, a career military officer who embraced democracy once in office, but abused his leadership position to remain in charge. In a very real sense, the protestors knew that by going after Mubarak, they were forcing the U.S. to turn against a longtime ally and take a stand against totalitarianism. Pro-democracy crusaders also were acutely aware of the deep divisions in the April 6 Youth Movement that potentially could result in chaos or merely trading a secular dictatorship for one based on dubious religious tenets. Director Lillie Paquette was able to tap into the ferment among students and other young people in the year leading up to protests that toppled Mubarak. If the demonstrations appeared on television to have sprung up like mushrooms after a rain, “We Are Egypt” corrects us of this misconception. Leaders of the movement had been organizing below the radar since 2008. Three years later, Mubarak and his minions provided all the ammunition the reformers would need to incite popular support and avoid a national bloodbath.

Love Free or Die” chronicles a far different, if similarly contentious revolt, this time within a hidebound Anglican/Episcopalian hierarchy wary of change. More to the point, Gene Robinson’s battle against the entrenched establishment was based on theological belief and doctrine, not corruption and torture. In 2003, the New Hampshire cleric became the first openly gay bishop in the American church. It caused quite a disturbance among the 80 million people who belong to the denomination. The Anglican Church isn’t unique among the world’s religions to take a stand against the ordination of gays and lesbians and blessing same-sex marriages. Robinson came to international prominence after the Archbishop of Canterbury felt it necessary to condemn his ordination and when he replaced Pastor Rick Warren at Barack Obama’s inauguration. Macky Alston’s documentary chronicles Robinson’s mission from displays of domestic bliss at his New Hampshire church and residence; through battles fought among his fellow bishops in England and southern California; and, finally, to his own marriage to his longtime live-in partner. In 2008, even though he wasn’t allowed to participate in the Anglican Communion’s decennial conclave in Lambeth, England, he made the journey and lobbied for his causes to no avail. His voice was heard by plenty of folks who love their church, but reject some of its policies. At the subsequent American convention, Robinson was able to have his opinions aired before the entire conclave. Aware, perhaps, that the legalization of same-sex couplings is inevitable, on a state-by-state basis, American clerics were far more willing to listen to arguments for sanctifying them. Still, a close vote was expected. The fence-sitters knew that, worst case, what happened there might lead to civil war among the Anglican community. “Love Free or Die” shows what one man can do against huge odds and hundreds of years of rigid adherence to principles everyone swears were dictated by God. For now, though, the ball’s in the court of the Supremes. – Gary Dretzka

Crush: Blu-ray
When all signs point to a single oddball character being the perpetrator of mayhem in a genre thriller or a show as dependent on red herrings as “Law & Order,” it’s a safe bet that the truth lies elsewhere … or, maybe not, depending on the ingenuity of the creative team. Although the backers of “Crush” are pushing the “Fatal Attraction”-for-teens angle, I think it can stand on its own merits as a hottie whodunit. In Malik Bader’s second feature, a studly soccer star, Scott (Lucas Till), is having a heck of a time balancing school, sports and his suddenly active libido. When Scott starts getting mash notes from a secret admirer, there’s any number of suspects among his school’s female population and a few guys, too. He’s confused, as well, by sexual advances made by his longtime platonic girlfriend, Jules (Sarah Bolger), who seemingly can’t wait another minute to upgrade their relationship status. The new girl in school, Bess (Crystal Reed), is a mousy Goth who barely registers on the Richter scale. A semi-creepy teammate is always lurking in the background during workouts and his super-sexy English teacher, Mrs. Brown (Camille Guaty), appears to be giving Scott more attention than is usually accorded the jocks in her classes. In addition to those crushes, Scott’s father appears to have one on a young women working at his restaurant, where Bess also works and Jules and Mrs. Brown frequent. Cracks in Scott’s idyllic life begin to show when he breaks a leg and it threatens his scholarship. Anxious to get back in shape, he hits the weight room and the running paths, only to be caught in harm’s way when his invisible nemesis decides to strike again. Harmful “accidents” also begin to strike people in his orbit. Only one candidate stands out from the crowd as “Crush” draws closer to its end, and naturally it’s the obsessive, Bess. There’s no good reason to spoil the suspense, here, except to advise viewers to reserve judgment. There are holes in the narrative large enough to accommodate a parade of elephants, but teens are likely to forgive them, if only because of the attractiveness of the actors. – Gary Dretzka

The Kitchen
Sexy Evil Genius

Is there anything worse than listening to drunken yuppies whine about their problems at a birthday party? In real life, yes; in the movies, probably not. In the ensemble dramedy “The Kitchen,” Laura Prepon plays the birthday girl on her 30th go-round on Earth. Jennifer isn’t exactly in the right mood for a hoedown, however, as she’s just discovered that her live-in boyfriend is schtupping everyone in town, including several of her closest friends. She’s also embarking on a commercial enterprise that’s almost certain to fail. Her sister, Penny (Dreama Walker), has broadcast her plans to have an abortion in the next week, a fact that doesn’t seem to dampen the festivities one bit. Nearly a dozen other characters pop in and out of their home’s kitchen – the main stage, here – offering their opinions on one thing or another and generally making Jennifer’s party even more of a downer for the hostess. Now, it’s entirely possible that guests in other rooms of the house are having a blast, but director Ishai Setton has wisely decided to limit the dramedy to a single location. And, of course, the kitchen at any party tends to be at the crossroads of all activity. The more drunken the guests are, however, the less valuable are their contributions to the overlying drama. I suspect, though, that most people under 18 and over 30 won’t find much in “The Kitchen” to hold their attention for long. Some of the gags work OK, and the cast is full of attractive people, but being attractive doesn’t make them interesting.

Most of what happens in “Sexy Evil Genius” takes place in a single room, as well, and likewise is populated with yuppies who think they’re more fascinating than they actually are. In his first feature, director Shawn Piller borrows a trope that’s at least as old as Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Here, an ex-con named Nikki (Katee Sackhoff) invites several ex-lovers to a bar in downtown L.A. for a reason none of them can guess. Nikki had been convicted of murdering her last boyfriend, so it seems odd that these seemingly intelligent young people would agree to accept her invitation. (Michelle Trachtenberg, Seth Green, Anthony Michael Hall, Harold Perrineau, Nora Kirkpatrick and William Baldwin fill out the cast.) The first part of the movie is taken up with the invited guests discussing their relationship with Nikki and guessing why they’ve been called together. In the second half, Nikki arrives with her new, older boyfriend and she’s able to plant all sorts of wicked seeds in their minds. Finally, “Sexy Evil Genius” feels more like an exercise at acting school than a plot-driven movie. – Gary Dretzka

Craig Shoemaker: Daditude
I find it interesting that Craig Shoemaker’s comedy special, “Daditude,” would follow by 11 years the comic’s one-man show, “Who’s Your Daddy?,” which was about growing up without a father. Shoemaker’s a funny guy and has no problem finding things about parenthood that resonate with his audience, most of whom stopped sowing their wild oats when the first baby arrived. He clearly loves being a dad and participating in his kids activities, but they also have provided him with a wealth of material. In fact, it probably would fill a season’s worth of episodes on a network sitcom, if anyone gave him another opportunity. My sense of the evening’s performance tells me that most people in the audience weren’t nearly as interested in hearing about the comic’s kids as they were to learn what Shoemaker’s trademark character, the Lovemaster, has been up to since the last tour. And, he doesn’t disappoint. Stopping on a dime, he becomes the Lovemaster in all of his raunchy glory and ballsy braggadocio. The audience couldn’t be happier. – Gary Dretzka

Hallmark: Goodnight for Justice: Queen of Hearts
Despite all evidence to the contrary, new Westerns are still being made and shown, primarily on channels most people have yet to discover. Hallmark, a network with a large and loyal following, has built a franchise around Circuit Judge John Goodnight. In the hands of Luke Perry, Goodnight is the unlikeliest of legal arbiters. Usually, he’s more unkempt than the crooks who stand before him and the banging of his gavel often proves too overwhelming for his chronic hangover to bear. His personality combines the more rakish elements of Judge Roy Bean and Brett Maverick. In “Goodnight for Justice: Queen of Hearts,” he falls prey to the attentions of a beautiful con-woman, Lucy (Katherine Isabelle), who’s wanted in three states for cleaning out perspective lovers and other saps. Her skills at poker are second-to-none, as well. Goodnight comes across Lucy as her stagecoach is being attacked by a gang led by a jilted suitor (Rick Schroder) and his trusted Indian companion. The judge has no way of knowing that there’s a price on her head and chases away the desperadoes he doesn’t shoot. Lucy convinces him that she’s a good girl, just passing through the Wild West on her way to her daddy’s mine. It takes a while for the judge to figure out why Lucy is being pursued so vigorously, but, when he does, it’s too late because he’s already smitten. Unless one is expecting a signature Clint Eastwood or John Ford Western, “Queen of Hearts” is a perfectly acceptable alternative. The Canadian locations are gorgeous and Perry keeps things light. – Gary Dretzka

JJ Grey: Brighter Days
Before watching the concert DVD, “JJ Grey: Brighter Days,” I was unaware of the popularity of singer/songwriter JJ Grey or the existence of his band, Mofro. It’s not that I don’t get around much, anymore, just that the band probably has been hovering just below the level of stardom for a long time, waiting to become a household name. Grey is raspy-voiced singer, who once upon a time might have been labeled a blue-eyed soul singer. Like Joe Cocker, in his Mad Dogs & Englishmen phase, Grey positions his microphone several feet in front of Mofro, as if to say, “I’m the star of the show and, although I love these musicians dearly, it’s my songs you’ve come to hear.” As a unit, though, the ensemble delivers a powerful punch. When he isn’t delivering sultry love songs or stretched-to-the-breaking-point R&B jams, Grey sings a lot about his Southern roots and good-ol’-boy attitude toward life. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before from Lynyrd Skynyrd or Hank Jr., but the addition of a band that includes drums, saxophones, an organ, trumpet, bass and guitar adds another dimension to the swamp-rock foundation. Grey’s music also borrows from gospel, old-school R&B, Dave Matthews Band, Memphis funk and country-rock. The concert material on the DVD is supplemented with interviews and a tour of the north Florida swamps around which Grey was raised. – Gary Dretzka

Sexcula
Buried in a crypt for some 40 years, somewhere in the wilds of British Columbia, the rarely, if ever projected Canadian sexploitation flick, “Sexcula,” has been resurrected by the grave diggers at Impulse Pictures. Apparently, the movie was intended to be a sexy parody of the classic Universal horror titles, but “Deep Throat” had just opened the door to harder stuff. By comparison to “Sexcula,” though, Gerard Damiano’s landmark movie looks like “Romeo and Juliet.” In it, a modern couple moves into a rundown family estate, which, according to a diary found on the property, once served as a laboratory for Grandma Fallatingstein, a mad scientist interested in creating a sex-monster to service her needs … down there. Sadly, Frank the Monster can’t perform as intended, so Doctor Fallatingstein creates a female sex-monster to help him find the proper orifice to fill. When that fails, as well, the scientist enlists a local working girl, Countess Sexcula, to do everything in her power to wind Frank’s clock. There’s more, but why spoil the fun? While “Sexcula” bears a resemblance to Italian giallo and Hammer horror – far more than any Universal title – what it reminded me of most was the “SCTV” parody, “Monster Chiller Horror Theater,” starring Count Floyd (Joe Flaherty), Bruno (Eugene Levy) and Doctor Tongue (John Candy). One of the movies shown was “Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of Stewardesses,” which also holds up well next to “Sexcula.” In her only appearance on film, Marilyn Chambers look-alike Debbie Collins played both Countess Sexcula and the female half of the modern couple. It’s difficult to find talent like that, anymore. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Hello, Dolly!: Blu-ray
Yes, it’s nice to see Dolly back where she belongs … this time in Blu-ray. The transfer from Todd-AO’s original 65mm print looks great – the Fourteenth Street Associate Parade and Harmonia Gardens scenes really stand out – while the audio presentation is crisp and dynamic. But, of course, what you really want to know is how the 27-year-old Barbra Streisand looks in hi-def as matchmaker Dolly Levi. The answer: marvelous, especially with Irene Sharaff’s wonderfully colorful wardrobe at her disposal. As Dolly’s prime target for marriage, Walter Matthau, looks elegantly rumpled throughout, even in tails. Despite some controversy at the time, I don’t think Streisand’s performance made anyone forget that Carol Channing originated the role on Broadway. Her name will forever be synonymous with the title of Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “The Merchant of Yonkers.” Beyond that, Twentieth Century Fox’s 1969 re-imagining of “Hello, Dolly!” is anything but a carbon copy of the Broadway show. It didn’t set the world on fire at the box-office, as expected by the studio, but its afterlife on video has been pretty sound. The biggest problem it had, I think, is a cast that included too many actors/dancers/singers that movie audiences simply didn’t recognize – young Michael Crawford and Tommy Tune, among them – and the idyllic turn-of-the-century setting didn’t square with countercultural beliefs in the rebellious 1960s. That’s all in the past, however. The movie holds up as an entertaining way to spend a night at home, with microwave popcorn and surround speakers. The Blu-ray reprises the 1969 making-of featurette and adds a piece on director Gene Kelly. Along with Michael Kidd’s acrobatic choreography, Louis Armstrong’s presence in the title number remains a wonderful reminder of that great musician’s radiant smile and charisma.

Lincoln: Blu-ray
I wonder how many people walked away from the megaplex showing “Lincoln” last November, thinking less about our 16th president’s great achievement than the damage done to our democracy in the 150 years since then. If Abraham Lincoln could wring a compromise of the magnitude of the 13th Amendment out of a deeply divided Congress, why can’t today’s crop of congressional bozos agree to compromise on anything besides raising their salaries? Sadly, then and now, the answer probably lies in knowing the price it takes to buy or rent a vote from an elected official. Today, even the hint of compromise, will be used by talk-show hosts and Fox News producers to destroy a politician’s career. The script’s close attention to the shenanigans used by proponents of the 13th Amendment, as well as those employed by the opposition, provides quite a lesson in how democracy isn’t supposed to work.

Steven Spielberg’s decision to focus on the last four months of Lincoln’s presidency, instead of his amazing rise to prominence in Illinois and beyond, allowed him to pack a lot of drama into a surprisingly tight 150-minute package. Tony Kushner’s screenplay not only was informed by the rhetoric and strategizing surrounding the amendment, but it also found room to highlight the contributions of precisely drawn supporting players in the drama. Normally, such multi-dimensional depictions can only be achieved in the mini-series format. Daniel Day-Lewis’ stunning portrayal of Lincoln showed us a man who acted on principle, but wasn’t afraid to change his positions on important issues when they stopped making sense to him. The performance also captured Lincoln’s sense of humor, humanity and weariness of carrying such a heavy load. Day-Lewis was rewarded with a well-deserved Oscar, while Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones received nominations for their fine work. Those performances, alongside those by David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, John Hawkes, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson and others, exemplified what ensemble acting should be, given time and talent. The “Lincoln” team also competed in the categories designated for best picture, cinematography, costume design, directing, editing, music, sound mixing and writing based on material previously produced or published.

Spielberg and Kushner, working from a blueprint drawn by historian Doris Kearns Godwin, left plenty of room, as well, for spirited post-theater debate among those who just watched the movie. That almost never happens anymore, except in post-mortems limited to such adjectives as “awesome,” “cool” and “sucked.” Anyone looking to purchase “Lincoln” ought to be aware that the DVD/Blu-ray combo contains only the short making-of featurettes, “The Journey to ‘Lincoln’” and “A Historic Tapestry: Richmond, Virginia.” The four-disc BD/DVD/digital package adds 80 more minutes of making-of and background material. Depending on where one looks on the Internet, the difference in price ranges from $5 to $0. They vary even more when it comes to the DVD-only package.

The Bible: The Epic Miniseries: Blu-ray
It didn’t take long for the surprise hit mini-series, “The Bible: The Epic Mini-Series,” to make its way from the History Channel to DVD/Blu-ray: two days. That practically defines what it means to strike while the iron is hot. Having just received the Blu-ray edition, I’ve only managed to get through the first half of the 10-part mini-series. Based on what I’ve seen so far, another round of binge viewing is in order. And, yes, I’m surprised that it’s managed to captivate me as much as it has millions of other American viewers. I doubt if I was alone in assuming beforehand that “The Bible” would pander to the Republican wing of the born-again Christian demographic. I envisioned watered-down dramatizations of traditional bible stories and toothless portrayals of the men of the Old Testament who didn’t seem to mind slaughtering countless men, women and children for a chunk of arid land God willed to them, instead of parcels in, say, Boca Raton or Aspen. Credit goes to executive producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett for constructing a mini-series that captures the essence of the Book, adding plenty of action to satisfy those looking for some biblical bloodshed, a smattering of romance and characterizations that avoid most Hollywood and Sunday school clichés. Genesis also includes some decent special-effects work, considering that the budget must have been fairly tight. The Moroccan locations were well chosen and the designs of the costumes and armaments seem historically credible. I suggest that parents not attempt to use “The Bible” as a substitute for a babysitter, as the rougher material falls somewhere between PG and PG-13. Kids will have plenty of questions that will require parental guidance, including why the leaders of Egypt, Persia and Babylon wore so much makeup. The new DVD/Blu-ray package adds material that was edited out of the History Channel version, as well as a half-dozen backgrounders and making-of featurettes.

John Dies in the End: Blu-ray
Stitches: Blu-ray
Tormented: 2D/3D

If any horror movie aspired to cult status, it’s “John Dies in the End.” Far too freaky, even for most genre aficionados, Don Coscarelli’s psycho-thriller was adapted from a comic-book novel of the same title by David Wong (a.k.a., Jason Pargin). It was first published online in 2001 as a webserial, then a few years later as an edited manuscript and paperback book. Before the online version was pulled from circulation in 2008, more than 70,000 people had already read it. Coscarelli optioned the book after it was pointed out to it by an Amazon “robot,” based on his interest in zombie books. Coscarelli, of course, had already established his cult-horror credentials with the “Phantasm” series and “Bubba Ho-Tep.” “John Dies in the End” defies easy encapsulation, except to suggest that the authors have been inspired by William Burroughs and David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch,” Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Bram Stoker and Ken Russell’s “The Lair of the White Worm” and Frank Herbert and David Lynch’s “Dune.” The trigger for all the bad craziness that occurs here is the street drug Soy Sauce, which causes shape-shifting, hallucinations, delusional behavior and astral projection. The protagonists are slackers John and Don, who are infected with “the phenomenon” early in the picture and rarely have a solid fix on what’s happening to them, except that it involves ingested insects and inter-plane communications. As producer and co-star, Paul Giamatti’s mere presence legitimizes everything about “John Dies in the End.” It’s the special-effects team that really rules, though. It’s very trippy stuff, indeed. The Blu-ray package adds commentary with Coscarelli, co-stars Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes and producer Brad Baruh; deleted scenes; casting sessions; a pair of making-of featurettes; and a Fangoria interview with Giamatti.

You’ve got to hand it to any filmmaker who can add something new to a horror subgenre as familiar as the killer-clown flick. In “Stitches,” the kudos are reserved for director/co-writer Conor McMahon (“Dead Meat”) and British comedian Ross Nobel. Stitches is a self-loathing clown, who especially hates performing before children (the “little bastards”) so jaded about birthday-party entertainers that they know what trick he’s going to perform even before he does, After one of the kids sabotage a trick, Stitches accidentally stumbles headfirst into the knife compartment of an open dish washer, dying a horrible death. Ten years later, the same birthday boy is hosting the kind of party teenagers flock to when mom and dad are out of town for a long weekend. After an invitation magically lands on Stitches’ grave, he comes to life to avenge his death. In Nobel’s hands, Stitches is much funnier dead than he ever was when he was alive. Somehow, he remembers the faces of all the kids who taunted him at the birthday party and seeks them out for special, clown-specific punishment with imaginative disembowelments and creative torture. Despite the carnage, McMahon manages to keep “Stitches” from becoming morbid or dependent on sound effects. The Blu-ray comes with bloopers, a making-of featurette and commentary.

There are few things as scary as the nightmares of a child. Japanese horror specialists have been playing Freud since the 1990s, not only by interpreting the dreams of their young characters, but also inducing nightmares in audience members. Few directors are more convincing than Takashi Shimizu, who’s also given us the “Grudge” series and “Shock Labyrinth,” the first Japanese feature film to be made in 3D. Without admitting as much on its cover, “Tormented” is a sequel to “Shock Labyrinth.” Imagine if Salvador Dali had illustrated an edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Shimizu was going for in both pictures. “Tormented” opens at an elementary school that has a rabbit pen in its play area. Daigo, a mute little boy, spots a seriously injured bunny in the enclosure and kills it with a rock to put it out of its misery. His older step-sister, Kiriko, works at the school as a librarian and witnesses both the killing of the rabbit and the bullying Daigo endures afterwards. In an effort to lift her brother’s spirits, Kiriko takes him to a movie matinee. Unfortunately, the theater is showing “Shock Labyrinth 3D.” At the point in the movie where a stuffed rabbit appears to float off-screen, Daigo is able to grab the 3D image and stash it away. Before long, he has hallucinations of a giant white rabbit, which takes his hand and leads him to the same amusement park that inspired Shimizu to create “Shock Labyrinth” in the first place. When they return to the theater to return the blush doll to the 3D gods, Daigo literally disappears into the screen. Things get even creepier after their father, a fantasy artist, figures out what’s happening and stumbles down the rabbit hole, as well. Despite the giant rabbit, “Tormentor” definitely isn’t suited for the kiddies.

Knuckleball
The knuckleball is the court jester of baseball. When a knuckleball hurler is “on” and the wind is right, it can be the most effective of pitches and a delight to watch. When he’s off, it can result in disaster. Either way, the knuckleball can humble even the most dominant of hitters and make All-Star catchers look like Little Leaguers. Some players can’t even imagine being struck out by a ball that’s only traveling 55 or 60 mph and has no specific trajectory. As one player observes in this entertaining baseball documentary, a knuckleball specialist must possess “the fingernails of a safe-cracker and the mind of a Zen master.” Cy Young-winner R.A. Dickey suggests, “For a knuckleball pitcher to make the majors, it almost takes a miracle.” For “Knuckleball,” filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (“The Devil Came on Horseback,” “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”) followed 44-year-old Tim Wakefield’s pursuit of his 200th victory and the 37-year-old Dickey’s quest to prove that his successful 2010 campaign – the first in 18 years — wasn’t a fluke. At the time, the Mets’ Dickey and Boston’s Wakefield were the only knuckleballers in the majors. In 2013, he’s the only one and he’s been traded to Toronto. Baseball fanatics can probably rattle off the names and stats of the noteworthy knuckleballers who’ve played in the last 40 or 50 years. The mediocre ones never last and there’s only been a handful of good ones: Dickey, Wakefield, Charlie Hough, Wilbur Wood, Jim Bouton, Tom Candiotti and the brothers, Joe and Phil Niekro. It’s a pitch can that elongate a career or end it very quickly. The idea is to minimize the ball’s movement as it slowly dances its way to the plate and let physics do the rest. Sounds easy, but it isn’t. The documentary adds nearly two hours of featurettes and extended interviews.

The Sweeney: Blu-ray
I think that a strong case could be made for the theory that crooks are accorded most of the good lines, cool cars, sexy dames and swell clothes in crime movies, while the opposite is true on television. The cop protagonists of “Dirty Harry” and “French Connection” acted with disdain for the law, but reverence for getting bad guys off the street (or planet). On TV, cops aren’t allowed to ignore the law for very long, because the conceit tends to wear thin after a season or two. Andy Sipowicz, of “NYPD Blue,” is the prime example of a borderline cop whose career was lengthened by the producers’ decision to give him an unlikely girlfriend and a son who needed TLC. Otherwise, we expect our police officers to be white knights. The Brits have never minded tinkering with the balance, though. Launched in 1975, “The Sweeney” made heroes out of members of a special department at Scotland Yard responsible for dealing with armed criminals and major heists involving outlaw gangs. They were given broad leeway in their efforts to anticipate robberies and keep the worst scum off the streets. For reasons known mostly to experts in Cockney slang, the unit was known as the Flying Squad (Sweeney Todd = Flying Squad). Even after an absence of 35 years, “The Sweeney” was deemed sufficiently popular to warrant a one-off movie, with the estimable Ray Winstone playing lead detective Jack Regan and newcomer Ben Drew (a.k.a., rapper Plan B) as his loyal protégé, George Carter. Despite the squad’s impressive success rate, its methodology has become something of an embarrassment to the big shots in the London Police Department.

“The Sweeney” opens with an exciting raid with lots of shooting, but hardly any way to distinguish between the cops and robbers. A newly installed chief inspector reveals the chip on his shoulder early on, by grilling Regan on missing gold bars. If the DCI had been aware of the affair Regan was carrying on with his wife, also on the Flying Squad, he might have had a larger beef with the detective. Before that can happen, though, masked bandits blow a safe at a jewelry store, stealing a fortune in gems and killing a woman customer on their way out. Regan recognizes the m.o. of a long dormant criminal, but his alibi holds up even after much unorthodox interrogation. The torture didn’t go completely to waste, however, because, while it ruled out one bad guy, the investigators were able to find the needle in a haystack that leads to a gang of former Eastern European paramilitaries using their skills to rob banks. Once that is established, all that’s left is a long, exquisitely choreographed chase through the streets of London and, even, a shootout inside the library of the Royal College of Surgeons. It’s pretty entertaining, especially, I suspect, for those familiar with the original series. The Blu-ray supplements include commentary and several making-of featurettes, including one explaining how the shootout in Trafalgar Square was accomplished and another describing the contributions of the “Top Gear” gang to the car-chase scenes.

LUV
Any movie that stars Dennis Haysbert, Common, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Lonette McKee and Meagan Good demands attention and not just among “urban” viewers. Instead, “LUV” was shown at a handful of festivals, including Sundance, before being accorded a very limited release in January. Most indies don’t even get that much respect. “LUV” is the story of 11-year-old Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.), whose coming-of-age moment unexpectedly arrives during a tour of Baltimore with his OG uncle, Vincent (Common), fresh off an eight-year bit in stir. Woody reveres Vincent, if only because he represents the only father figure in his young life. Things start out on an optimistic note, with Vincent buying a grown-man’s suit for his nephew. Together, they visit a bank to apply for a loan to open a restaurant business in an abandoned warehouse. When his application is unceremoniously rejected, Vincent turns to a former associate for the loan, but it would come with strings attached. Thoroughly perplexed, he decides this would be a good time to introduce Woody to life in the streets. With the boy’s mother off smoking crack in North Carolina and his grandmother about to take a powder on him, Woody isn’t likely to be able to afford his parochial-school education or to grow up in a stable environment. Vincent understands this and takes it upon himself to give the boy an education in thug life. Things go downhill, of course, after one or more of his former buddies decide that Vincent got released too early to be trusted. The biggest shame, however, is that Woody’s a good student, in and out of school, and learns the game too quickly.

Despite a story that begs credulity towards its end, “LUV” has a lot of good things going for it. The acting is excellent and it moves at a steady pace to an always uncertain finish. It’s Baltimore, though, that radiates through all of the crime and despair here. As we saw in David Simon’s Baltimore trilogy, “Homicide: Life in the Street,” “The Corner” and “The Wire,” while the city is a Petrie dish for felonious acts, its unique flavor and traditions make it a terrific setting for serious drama. Co-writer/director Sheldon Candis is a talented filmmaker, who deserves another shot at the big time.

Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War
Nova: Rise of the Drones

So much has changed in the way we conduct war since 1975, when the North Vietnamese Army marched into Saigon, anyone born since that momentous occasion can be excused if they lump it together with World War I, World War II and Korea as ancient history. No one who lived through that tumultuous period, however, will ever forget what happened in Southwest Asia between 1963 and 1975 and how it changed our country. Made in 1980, “Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War” is an exhaustive documentary that reminds us that America’s involvement in the country began during WWII, when we worked together with the Viet Minh against Japan, but turned against them in their war for independence with France. Neither did we force South Vietnam to honor the 1954 Geneva Accord, which set a deadline for elections two years later for the unification of Vietnam. Leaders of South Vietnam assumed that Ho Chi Minh would have been elected premier and put the kibosh on the vote. Instead, Ike sent advisers to South Vietnam to work with its army. Twenty years and 58,220 American lives later, the inevitable reunification of the country was fait accompli. This past January, the first Starbucks opened in Ho Chi Minh City, with the first McDonald’s expected within two years. Because of the proliferation of western and Japanese interests in the cities, it’s possible that some Vietnamese children now assume the United States won the war. That’s why the latest update of “Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War,” on DVD, is a valuable document. The 13-episode documentary was written by veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett and narrated by actor Richard Basehart. It covers every aspect of the war imaginable, including the political front in Washington and escalation of antiwar sentiment in the U.S., among our troops and around the world. The polish put on the new edition was very effective.

While there’s no way to know what kind of impact unmanned aircraft might have had on the disposition of the Vietnam War, it’s clear that our much-vaunted heat- and motion-sensing technology was incapable of shutting down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Drones wouldn’t have been able to drop countless tons of bombs over a target, either. Drones give new meaning to “search and destroy,” a strategy devised specifically for the Vietnam conflict. Instead of using squads of men to identify Viet Cong and destroy their supply routes, our ability to track down Al Qaeda leaders was enhanced through the use of unmanned aircraft over Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. The fascinating “Nova” episode, “Rise of the Drones,” reveals many amazing things about our program, which historically has been pushed by the discoveries of hobbyists. U.S. Senator Rand Paul is on hand to warn about the proliferation of drones in the hands of private citizens and law-enforcement agencies whose definition of privacy rights don’t often jibe with that of the Constitution. “Rise of the Drones” looks backwards and forward in time, leaving several key questions unanswered, including those labeled “top secret.” As usual, though, human pilots on the ground tend to sound far too giddy when blowing targets sky high. What we don’t hear are actual voices of the pilots and intelligence officers when they realize that the caravan they just vaporized carried mostly women and children and no terrorists. That part remains classified.

Frontline: The Untouchables
American Masters: Phillip Roth: Unmasked
Route 66: The Complete Fourth Season
Nature: Cold Warriors: Wolves and Buffalo
Nova: Ancient Computer
If tens of thousands of American leftists, progressives and liberals – real liberals, not Republican boogeymen – held their noses before voting for Barack Obama last November, it’s because of his administration’s failure to bring charges against any Wall Street banker for his role in the market crash. While his attorney general focused on legal marijuana operations, hundreds of executives continued to skate. Fortunately for the President, Mitt Romney probably would have been even more lenient on capitalist criminals. In any case, journalists pretty much ignored the question in the debates. Reporters for “Frontline: The Untouchables” interviewed dozens of low- to mid-level “due-diligence investigators” and mortgage executives who described what they saw in advance of the collapse and what happened when they tried to warn their superiors. The answers: plenty and nothing, in that order. Four months after Obama took office, he pledged human and financial resources to a widespread investigation into fraud. Perhaps, he should have substituted “being naughty” for “fraud,” because that very specific crime was deemed too complicated to prosecute by law-enforcement officials. “These are hard cases to win,” argue several people interviewed here, explaining the reluctance on the part of administration officials to pull the trigger. No one wanted to risk losing a case. You can almost see the noses of bankers and government flunkies grow as they testify before congressional panels, though. “The Untouchables” is as depressing a document as we’re likely to see on the subject, but, hey, you knew that already.

Still best known for his unintentionally scandalous, if still hilarious “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Phillip Roth remains one of America’s most influential and challenging novelists. In the “American Masters” episode “Phillip Roth: Unmasked,” the author looks back candidly at his life and work, reads from his novels and describes what’s made him tick for the last 50-plus years. Loyal readers have already gleaned such things from his books, as they have reflected his thoughts, deeds, fears and hopes as he experienced throughout his time on Earth. And, yes, Roth is open to questions about the sexuality in his novels, thoughts of suicide and literary impotence, and being pigeon-holed as a Jewish writer. “Unmasked” is a quiet documentary, bordering on the contemplative, as befits the life he lives at his rural estate. It could be shown at workshops or college writing classes and everyone, including the instructor, would benefit.

During the fourth and final season of “Route 66,” George Maharis was long gone and Glenn Colbert was getting comfortable in the bucket seats of the Corvette he shared with Tod Stiles (Martin Milner). Lincoln Case is an army veteran with a much darker personality than his predecessor, Buz Murdock. The episodes in which he’s featured also have a sharper edge. The lads spend a bit more time than usual in Maine, where Joan Crawford plugs Poland Springs water and Linc lands a job with a cranky lobsterman and his bitter son (William Shatner). Among the other guest stars are Jack Warden, Diane Baker, Tammy Grimes, Stefanie Powers, Jessica Walter, James Coburn, Soapy Sales and Lois Smith. The series concluded in Tampa with the two-part episode “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way,” with Barbara Eden. In 1964, it was rare for a series to wrap itself up with a special two-part episode, writing by co-creator Stirling Silliphant.

There could hardly be a more scenic location than Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park for a story of survival that’s been going on since before there was a Canada or even a Native Canadian, for that matter. No two animal warriors have been more suitably matched than the gray wolves and American bison that have been fighting extinction as well as hunger in recent centuries. Here, we’re given a bird’s-eye view of the hoof-to-paw warfare that goes on whether there’s someone there to film it or not. There are times when the filmmakers approach the drama and intensity of a heavyweight title fight, in which the opponents bring far different strengths and reserves to the ring. “Cold Warriors: Wolves and Buffalo” is, at once, exciting, beautiful and horrifying.

The Mediterranean continues to yield the secrets of the men who once sailed its waters, but didn’t quite make it home to profit from their quests. Sculptures, coins, jugs that carried wine and oil, pottery and mysterious objects are still being found in places likely and unlikely. The “Nova” episode “Ancient Computer” tells the story of a 2,000-year-old metallic device, found by sponge divers among other treasures on what remains of the Antikythera after sinking in a storm. After much conjecture and investigation, mathematicians and astronomers discovered that the Antikythera mechanism’s many fused wheels and gears once predicted eclipses, movements of the planets and other heavenly events important to navigators … a mini-planetarium, if you will. Historians would trace the geared instrument to the workshop of Archimedes, in Syracuse, then, a few centuries later, the science behind it would move east, to the Byzantine and Arab empires. The Moors brought it back west, to Spain, but in the form of a clock. Some of the science explored here is tough going for non-academics, but the basic information and history come together pretty well.

Earth’s Final Hours: Blu-ray
The less one questions the science in a Syfy movie, the more likely it is that they’ll find something there to kill some time. “Earth’s Final Hours” may not be any more believable than previous efforts, but, at least, it alerted me to the presence of “white holes” in the universe. Apparently, they are the opposite of black holes, in that they can emit dense matter, instead of sucking it into the void. Or, something like that. Here, a mad scientist is killed when struck by space debris that is so dense and heavy it can impact Earth in the Pacific Northwest and exit somewhere in Australia. Cool-looking radiation storms signal the arrival of these outbursts from the white hole, which could alter the Earth’s rotation to something resembling that of the moon. Two disgraced researchers predicted that such a thing was possible 20 years earlier, but die premature deaths in “Earth’s Final Hours.” Government toadies can’t seem to decide whether or not to admit their mistake, by accepting the disputed theory, or simply killing everyone – a teenager, his dad, two hot babes, some Men in Black – who’s trying to prevent disaster. Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation for the planet. If the action and dialogue are about par for made-for-cable sci-fi movies, the special effects are above average. Thank God, for sexy astrophysicists.

Charlie: A Toy Story
Established in 2009, Engine 15 Media Group specializes in so-called family films that appeal to boys and girls in ’tween and pre-’tween demographic. Considering that every 10-year-old in the United States expects to be treated as if he or she is 16, it’s a market that resists easy exploitation by Hollywood. Engine 15’s films tend to feature kids and their pets – dogs, especially – who work in tandem to solve problems large and small. The latest, “Charlie: A Toy Story,” requires 10-year-old Caden and his best friend Charlie, a golden retriever, not only to save the family business from sabotage, but also to preserve his parents’ marriage. Mom has gotten tired of Dad’s flakey whims and irresponsible behavior and decides to give him some room to work out his issues. In the course of bullying Caden, a pair of neighborhood ne’er-do-wells gets wind of the latest invention by his father. The bullies hope to steal the blueprints and give them to the owner of a chain of big-box stores. Charlie and Caden make a pretty cute team and “Charlie: A Toy Story” – how did they get that title past Disney? – is competently produced on what must have been a limited budget.

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

Killing Them Softly
A decade before anyone besides crime-fiction aficionados embraced Elmore Leonard as the greatest writer of street-level dialogue within the genre, the crown belonged to George V. Higgins. Twenty years before Quentin Tarantino enchanted audiences with the explosive repartee soliloquies in “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction” and “True Romance,” there was “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” Peter Yates and Paul Monash’s remarkably faithful adaptation of Higgins’ masterpiece. Anyone who loves Leonard and Tarantino and hasn’t experienced either version of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” – it’s easily read in a day and available on a Criterion DVD – hasn’t really lived. “Killing Them Softly” won’t make fans forget “Eddie Coyle,” but in the assured hands of Kiwi writer/director Andrew Dominik, the new adaptation of “Cogan’s Trade” is a fitting testimonial to Higgins’ early work. The author died just a week short of his 60th birthday, in 1999. The advertising that preceded the delayed release of “Killing Them Softly” last November justly promoted the presence of Brad Pitt in the lead role of the wry mob assassin, Jackie Cogan, but suggested incorrectly that it was an action picture. While there’s enough bloodshed on display to satisfy any fan of, say, Bruce Willis, the real fun here comes in listening a crack cast of actors deliver lines that Higgins might have written with them in mind.

Ray Liotta plays a low-level Boston wiseguy, Markie Trattman, who runs a backroom poker game that’s frequented by guys who look as if they might have worked for Whitey Bulger, before he moved to Santa Monica. Foolishly, Markie decides that it might be fun to hire a couple of guys to break into the room and steal the goons’ money. Even more foolishly, Markie subsequently brags about the ripoff as if it were a prank on the hidden-camera show, “Punk’d.” Curiously, the top guns don’t take the heist seriously enough to condemn its planner to death. As so often happens, though, the robbery inspires a rival wiseguy, Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola), to have two of his guys to hit the game a second time. He assumes that Markie would be blamed, but no longer be unable to escape the gallows. It doesn’t quite play out that way, because, really, who could be that stupid? Instead, a mob accountant and fixer named Driver (Richard Jenkins) hires Cogan to kill the ones actually responsible for the robbery. The culprits practically leave a trail of crumbs leading back to them. Cogan is known to one of the low-lives, so Driver allows him to import another hitman, the nearly over-the-hill Mickey (James Gandolfini), for backup. The coldly efficient Cogan knows that Mickey is something of a loose cannon, but his presence allows for some terrific old-school/new-school dialogue between them.

Mickey and Driver both believe that they’re smarter and more experienced than Cogan, who doesn’t seem to mind that they’ve mistaken his low-key demeanor for a chink in his armor. (Although they don’t share a scene, Gandolfini and Curatola remind us of their characters’ bitter rivalry on “The Sopranos,” as mob bosses Tony Soprano and Johnny “Sack” Sacramoni.) Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, as the hapless hoodlums who pulled the second job, are given some juicy material, as well. Dominik’s the real deal. Besides his previous collaboration with Pitt, “The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford,” he played in the criminal muck in “Chopper,” a hard-core portrait of out-of-control Aussie thug Mark Brandon Read (Eric Bana). His only misstep in “Killing Them Softly,” perhaps, is setting the movie in 2008 and insisting on a subtext that puts the perpetrators of the Wall Street collapse on an equal footing with the Boston mobsters we meet. The difference being that while Mafiosi tend to kill each other, bankers don’t care who they harm. Of course, it’s only the guys that carry guns who end up in jail. I have no problem with that position, except to argue that the frequent interjection of news footage from the presidential campaign and reports from Wall Street distract from the business at hand. The DVD adds a decent making-of featurette.

A Royal Affair: Blu-ray
America’s love affair with the British royals extends far beyond watching the occasional wedding on television and following every new birth, divorce, scandal or golden jamboree in the tabloid media. There seems to be some residual jealousy over the fact that, with the exception of the occasional Kennedy or Bush, we don’t have blue bloods of our own to worship and condemn with equal fervor. I, for one, would have preferred to see Prince Charles in the White House than George W. Bush and Barak Obama. Democracy doesn’t lend itself to Shakespearian dramatics, certainly. Marie Antoinette has gotten her fair of attention here, as well, but how many of us could say with any certainty whether her Louis had a XIV, XV or XVI after his name. Until recently, though, Hollywood has played it pretty safe when it comes to portrayals of the crowned heads of Europe, treating the queens as if they were porcelain dolls and kings like paintings on a wall that have magically come to life. Things started changing with the release of Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennett’s “The Madness of King George,” a brilliant movie that mapped the mental deterioration of King George III, and continued to evolve with Showtime’s “The Tutors.” Critics and pundits were divided on Sofia Coppola’s portrayal of Marie Antoinette as a frivolous party girl and fashionista, instead of sinner or saint, but that lavish movie, too, has gone to influence others, including last year’s excellent “Farewell, My Queen.” With larger budgets available to fashion and set designers, as well as greater access to such historical locations as Versailles, filmmakers have been freed from the mock formality of palaces built on soundstages.

A Royal Affair” takes fans of historical dramas a bit further afield, to Denmark in the late 1700s. Danish writer/director Nikolaj Arcel appears to have been influenced as much by “The Madness of King George” and “Marie Antoinette,” as the history books he read growing up in Copenhagen. Like George III, King Christian VII of Denmark was, for long periods of time, as mad as a hatter and, the subject of much political maneuvering. Things were changing throughout Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. Christian’s British wife, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), like the Austrian Marie Antoinette, left everything she held dear in her youth to marry a stranger. She struggled with the languages of Court and the eccentricities of her husband (Mikkel Folsgaard), including those dealing with sex, and was looked upon with suspicion by Danish aristocrats. When CVII returned from a long tour of European capitals, he was carrying things he’d witnessed of the Enlightenment and, as his personal physician, the handsome and learned German doctor, Count Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen). In time, Caroline Mathilde found in Struensee a kindred spirit and intellectual peer. She approved of his attitudes toward reform, religion and the abolishment of policies dictated by the ruling class against peasants. Before losing his capacities altogether, CVII gave Struensee the power of his office and permission to implement reforms. He also would engage in an ill-advised affair with the Queen, who, perhaps, bore him a daughter he couldn’t claim as his own. The scandal would give the opponents of reform all of the ammunition they needed to eliminate him.

Although not shot in Denmark, the lush outdoor locations and splendid interiors add a great deal of authenticity and romance to “A Royal Affair.” The acting is exemplary throughout, with Mikkelsen and Vikander standing out from the rest of the cast. Arcel, who is better known in Europe for his writing (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “King’s Game”), adds a sharp political edge to the drama. It would be a while before reforms stuck for good, but Struensee represents something that couldn’t be silenced by a blade. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Arcel, Mikkelsen and Vikander, profiles of the primary characters and a royal timeline.

A Man Escaped: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Monsieur Verdoux: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Based on the memoir by Andre Devigny, a member of the French Resistance imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Gestapo, Robert Bresson’s austere thiller “A Man Escaped” proves the less-is-more axiom can apply to cinema as much as minimalist design. Basically, all we know about Fontaine is that he’s a possibly dangerous political prisoner and abhors spending time locked behind prison walls, and not just those belonging to the Nazis. Eventually, we will learn why he’s been condemned to death, but it’s just as likely that the frail-looking Fontaine (Francois Leterrier) would attempt to escape any confinement. Employing documentary-like precision, Bresson puts a tight focus on every detail of the escape strategy, from his initial survey of his cell to the creation of ropes, hooks and other tools. It really begins when the most senior convict secures for him a pencil and safety pin. The tension comes in knowing that any misstep could lead not to a few weeks in the hole, but immediate execution. There’s precious little dialogue and conversation among inmates or, for that matter, verbal abuse from the guards. Even if volleys of machine-gun fire can be heard in the near-distance, the Nazis stay mostly out of sight.

Until nearly the very end of the planning process, the escape is Fontaine’s show, alone, and not a jailbreak. It seems impossible that such a jerry-rigged operation would succeed, but we know going into the movie that the protagonist lived to tell his tale. (Bresson spent time in a Nazi prison, as well.) By then, though, we’re clinging to the edge of our collective seats. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that “A Man Escaped” was part of a trilogy of prison pictures that includes “Pickpocket” and “Joan of Arc,” and it was filmed in the same facility in which Devigny was held. The Criterion Collection edition benefits from a new high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; “Bresson: Without a Trace,” a 1965 episode of the television interview program “Cinéastes de notre temps,” in which the director gives his first on-camera interview; “The Essence of Forms,” a 2010 documentary featuring Bresson’s collaborators and admirers; a new visual essay with text by film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson; and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Tony Pipolo.

Monsieur Verdoux” was released nine years earlier than “A Man Escaped,” in 1947, the same year Charlie Chaplin was summoned to appear before the HUAC panel. The publicity surrounding Chaplin’s politics, along with the memory of past indiscretions, combined to make his first film in seven years a huge dud at the box office. At press conferences during the publicity tour, the last thing any reporter wanted to know about was the movie. They were being paid only to hound him about his opinions on communism. If they had only watched the movie, the reporters could have found plenty else to discuss with him about his opinions on morality, personal ethics and capitalism. “Monsieur Verdoux” has only gotten more respect with age.

Orson Welles tipped Charles Chaplin to the real-life activities of French “Bluebeard” murderer Henri Désiré Landru, who was guillotined in 1922. “Monsieur Verdoux” (a.k.a., “A Comedy of Murder”) is not without humor, but what there is of it is inky black or found in the balletic physical gags Chaplin perfected as the Little Tramp. The title character is a faux French dandy who only turned to murder-for-profit after he was laid off from his job at a bank and realized there was no social safety net to protect his wheelchair-bound wife and son. Verdoux would go on to marry several wealthy women and murder some of them to collect their fortunes. Only one of the “wives” broke the mold of the snooty society doyenne, and that cackling middle-age shrew was played by Martha Raye. The MPAA didn’t appreciate Verdoux’s attitudes toward religion, state-sponsored murder and capitalism’s indifference toward the poor and infirm. Chaplin was given to speechifying about injustice and Verdoux’s unabashed criminality made such proclamations sound as if he was using the witness box as a stage for an ironic commentary on American hypocrisy. Given the circumstances, though, Verdoux seems to be, at worst, an anti-hero.

The woman with whom we and Verdoux sympathize most in the movie – a lost soul who credits him with giving her self-confidence and luck – betrays Verdoux by doing much the same thing he does to stay afloat. In her case, however, all she has to do is outlast a munitions magnate and war-profiteer to maintain her lush lifestyle. He didn’t spare her life just so she could become part of the problem. There are a lot of different things going on in “Monsieur Verdoux” and, absent the hysteria of the blacklist period, they can be fully appreciated in the Criterion Collection upgrade. It has been given a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition; “Chaplin Today: ‘Monsieur Verdoux,’” a 2003 program on the film’s production and release, featuring filmmaker Claude Chabrol and actor Norman Lloyd; “Charlie Chaplin and the American Press,” a new documentary featuring Chaplin specialist Kate Guyonvarch and author Charles Maland; a new video essay featuring an audio interview with actress Marilyn Nash;  radio advertisements and trailers; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and reprinted pieces by Chaplin and critic André Bazin.

Day of the Falcon: Blu-ray
Set some 15-20 years after the events described in “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Day of the Falcon” naturally invites comparisons to David Lean’s epic investigation of war, identity and survival. Ninety-nine percent of all of the movies ever made, about any subject, couldn’t stand on an equal footing with “Lawrence of Arabia,” so it’s no disgrace that “Day of the Falcon” falls short. The most interesting things about it can’t be found on screen, anyway. For one thing, the movie was co-produced by Tarak Ben Ammar, chairman of Quinta Communications, and the Doha Film Institute of Qatar. In a bonus interview, Ben Ammar says that it was his intention to tell a story about the region’s history from an Arab’s point of view. Moreover, with a $50-million budget and French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, “Day of the Falcon” (a.k.a., “Black Gold”) looks just as classy as movies produced by western studios. Given the international cast, it clearly was intended for international distribution.

It’s the 1930s, somewhere on the vast Arabian Peninsula, and only two leaders of the many tribes understand what the discovery of oil portends. The one played by Antonio Banderas is enchanted by the idea that he not only could become personally wealthy, but it also would finally be possible to build schools and hospitals with money from Texas. The chieftain portrayed by Mark Strong is far more of a traditionalist. He understands that sudden wealth doesn’t necessarily bring happiness or positive change and its lasting effects could destroy an ancient lifestyle that’s governed by principles espoused in the Koran. The oil is found in a large swath of desert, the Yellow Belt, which was declared neutral territory in an earlier conflict. Because the children of the two kings have been raised together – and two recently married — the prospect of war carries added weight. When Prince Auda returns to his father’s village, he realizes that his interpretation of the holy book doesn’t square with either of the elders’ contradictory readings. If anyone fits the description of an infidel, it’s the Texas oilmen whose only god is the American dollar and would kill anyone who gets in their way. Ali knows that his father’s army can’t stand up to that of his father-in-law, but rides out, anyway, in the hope a compromise can be reached. When that doesn’t happen, the prince’s courage attracts other tribesmen to his cause, which gets less precise with every new battle.

In the same way that Chinese filmmakers are able to muster large numbers of extras and animals, the producers of “Day of the Falcon” were able to gather a veritable army of background actors, horses, camels and vehicles. A walled city was built in Tunisia, even as the revolution was taking place in the streets of Tunis, and there were more than enough magnificent sand dunes there to enhance the look of the battle scenes. Arnaud wanted to limit the use of CGI, so the cheap labor was welcome. Not surprisingly, the desert scenes look quite striking in Blu-ray. The bonus package includes a substantial making-of piece and a pair of shorts on visual effects and working off storyboards.

Dose of Reality
Set in a trendy bar after last call for alcohol, “Dose of Reality” got me thinking about how “Rashomon” might have played out if the witnesses to the murder of a samurai had been blackout drunks and Akira Kurosawa had handed off the project to a fan. Christopher Glatis’ third largely unseen film in 18 years is a classic he-said, she-said deal, with another he-said thrown in for good measure. Fairuza Balk plays Rose, a young woman found passed out on the floor of the bar’s bathroom after closing time. At first, bar manager Tony (Rick Ravanello) and bartender Matt (Ryan Merriman) fear the disheveled and bloody Rose is dead, but upon being revived, she spins several conflicting scenarios for how she got there. Tony and Matt believe their alibis to be air-tight, but they fall apart when their memories start failing. It’s quite a predicament. Finally, though, manipulation takes over for intrigue and only a surprise ending pulls “Dose of Reality” back from the brink. One consolation is that Jake is a dead ringer for Jon Bon Jovi.

Parental Guidance: Blu-ray
The Sandlot: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
The first thing to know about “Parental Guidance,” besides the fact that most critics hated it, is that it made three times more money at the box office than its estimated budget. That either means that fans of Billy Crystal and Bette Midler don’t read reviews or they’re so happy to see them that they’re willing to endure 105 minutes of comedy designed to appeal to the 10-year-old in all of us. Crystal and Midler play the parents of a new-age mom attempting to raise her kids in a way that prohibits grass stains, tooth decay or politically incorrect behavior. Desperately in need of babysitters, the kids’ parents (Marissa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott) reluctantly agree to ask the grandparents to watch them for a week. This sets up a culture clash of epic proportions and moralistic climax you can see coming from the local Blockbuster. Even so, the stars and child actors deliver the goods in terms of gratuitous slapstick, potty humor and schmaltzy resolutions. The Blu-ray supplements included deleted scenes, with optional commentary by director Andy Fickman; commentary with Fickman and Crystal; a gag reel; and “In Character With Billy Crystal, Bette Midler and Marisa Tomei.”

The connecting tissue between “Parental Guidance” and “The Sandlot” is baseball. In the former, Crystal plays a recently laid-off play-by-play announcer who’s as obsessed with the history of the game as he is about his own threadbare gags. “The 20th Anniversary Edition” reminds us that not all baseball movies are strictly about the sport, itself. Rather, they tend to serve as metaphors for life, itself, or a nostalgic link to a better time or place in our youths. “Sandlot” has a lot in common with the modern holiday classic, “A Christmas Story,” which recalls humorist Jean Shepherd’s memories of growing up in the shadows of the steel mills in Northwest Indiana. Here, 5th-grader Scotty Smalls moves to a new town with his parents, but is at a disadvantage because he doesn’t know how to play baseball. He’s determined to make the local team, however, and gets lessons from one of the neighborhood kids. It opens the door to one of those magical summers that linger in our memories forever. In effect, “Sandlot” is a pre-coming-of-age story, complete with a “monster” that lives beyond the left-field fence and devours errant baseballs. The movie co-stars Karen Allen, Denis Leary and James Earl Jones. The anniversary Blu-ray re-purposes previous bonus features, while adding trading cards.

13 Eerie
Bad Mea
The Frankenstein Theory
Sexquatch: The Legend of Blood Stool Creek
The idea that corpses lying around a “body farm” might someday come to life and attack men and women aspiring to be forensic scientists is reasonably innovative and potentially exciting. Unfortunately, the makers of “13 Eerie” took this promising idea and, instead of pursuing a Toxic Avengers-vs.-CSI angle, sought the easy path to horror by giving us yet another zombie story. The address in the title refers to 13 Eerie Strait, a desolate island that also is home to an abandoned penitentiary. It’s a fine setting for this sort of thing and the decomposing bodies – not all of which were transported there for study — are reasonably disgusting. There’s nothing terribly wrong with the execution of “13 Eerie,” but its originality ends when the zombies reveal themselves. These days, you have to have something more than a good idea to stand out from the horror pack. The DVD comes with several making-of featurettes and commentary.

In the found-footage thriller, “The Frankenstein Theory,” director Andrew Weiner and co-writer Vlady Pildysh appear to have merged the ending of Mary Shelley’s great novel to the beginning of Robert W. Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun/By the men who moil for gold/The Arctic trails have their secret tales/That would make your blood run cold …” So, then, what if Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s monster managed to survive in the wilds of northern Canada all these many years and, inspired by global warming, decides to travel south, and a savvy professor puts 2 and 2 together? That’s the movie’s premise and it’s not bad. The disgraced educator, needing to restore his reputation, puts together a film team to find evidence of the monster’s existence. They travel to the Yukon, where a very serious outdoorsman agrees to take them where they want to go. He knows that something out of the ordinary is going on in the wilderness, but doesn’t think it’s wise to disturb it. As is the case with these found-footage films, it takes a long time to get to a point where something is scary and sometimes it never arrives. Here, the payoff is pretty good.

In “Bad Meat,” the parents of a half-dozen juvenile delinquents decide that they can’t handle their children and send them off to a remote camp for some tough love. Trouble is, the administrators and guards are sadists on the job and perverts in their free time. One evening, though, the staff members are poisoned with meat that carries a virus that turns them, first, into projectile-vomiting invalids and, second, zombies. The kids take advantage of their incapacitation, mostly by goofing off and creating a ruckus. Instead of escaping, they give the zombies a chance to regroup. The result is a repulsively bloody mess and little else. The only real selling point for “Bad Meat” is the presence of James Franco’s younger brother, Dave, and Elisabeth Harnois, of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” who, at 33, can still play teenagers.

Except for its impossible-to-ignore title, “Sexquatch: The Legend of Blood Stool Creek” is an imbecilic do-it-yourself movie about a group of teenagers who hope to spend a wild weekend getting laid, but, instead, are sexually abused by Sexquatch. If the filmmakers had more than $10 between them, they should have invested it in something more persuasive than an orangutan suit. Indeed, Sexquatch isn’t even the least attractive actor in the movie, in or out of costume. If I recall, a similar concept was exploited for one of the late-night spots on Cinemax. This one is much worse.

From Beyond: Unrated Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
Phantasm II: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Futureworld: Blu-ray
It hardly seems possible that the same man responsible for such grotesque entertainments as “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond” could get a meeting on the Disney lot, let alone sell the story that launched the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” franchise. That, however, is what makes Hollywood such a wild and wacky place to work. The good folks at Shout Factory have just released “From Beyond: Unrated Director’s Cut” in an excellent Blu-ray collector’s edition. Collaborators Stuart Gordon, Brian Yunza and Dennis Paoli – Gordon and Yunza had the idea had the idea for “Honey …” – frequently turned to H.P. Lovecraft for source material, much in the same way as Roger Corman was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. “From Beyond” is based on a short story first published in 1934. In it, a scientist uses a Resonator to open the door to a translucent alien environment and once-human creatures who communicate sensually through the brain’s pineal gland, when they aren’t trying to eat people’s brains. Released in 1986, Gordon’s special-effects and animatronic teams outdid themselves in the creation of horrifying monsters and human transitions. He also added a twisted sexual element with his muse, Barbara Crampton, playing an uptight psychiatrist whose libido is awakened via the male’s extended pineal gland. All of this caused a scandal among easily disturbed MPAA panelists who repeatedly refused to award it even a “R” rating. By the time it did, several key moments were eliminated. They’re restored in the new Blu-ray edition, which has been nicely restored and adds several fascinating commentaries, interviews and making-of featurettes.

Fans of micro-budget horror movies know what they like and are loyal to people who give it to them. Ten years before the Internet would become a force in buzz campaigns surrounding indie flicks, word somehow got out that “Phantasm II” had been sliced and diced by the franchise’s new studio parent, Universal. In attempting to attract a broader audience, executives decided that a sequel needed a more visible star, a love interest for him, a more linear narrative and a less dreamy tone to the story. James Le Gros is fine as the newly released mental patient, but, because the fans saw no good reason to replace him, the decision caused them to smell a rat. Otherwise, writer/director Don Coscarelli’s meditation on what happens immediately after death retained the Tall Man as the yellow blooded antagonist and armed him with flying killer balls. “Phantasm II” has its moments, but I don’t recommend it for newcomers to the franchise. The Blu-ray adds commentary, several lengthy backgrounders and making-of material, and a short film in which Rory Guy plays Abraham Lincoln.

Because “Futureworld” is a sequel to the far more adventurous “Westworld,” I highly recommend seeing the original before sampling the follow-up, made three years later. Not only is “Westworld” a superior entertainment, but it also represents Michael Crichton’s first double-credit on a feature film. It introduced the very cool possibility that visitors to a futuristic theme park – the near future then being 1985 – would be allowed to engage in Old West activities with humanoid gunslingers and Miss Kitty wannabes. The party’s over, though, when a glitch in the circuitry causes of one of the outlaws (Yul Brynner) to stalk and kill guests with real bullets. It’s vintage Crichton, of course, and a precursor to his “Jurassic Park.” “Futureworld” extends the concept by replacing the glitch with a conscious effort on the part of the Delos Park scientists to replicate VIPs with programmable androids. The fiends have had plenty of time to execute their scheme, but they forgot not to invite investigative reporters to the opening. This time, influential journalists played by Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner (always a delight) are summoned to check out the reopened park and be targeted for replication. The idea remains sound, but the direction and writing are better suited for movie-of-the-week status. It’s worth noting, however, that much of “Futureworld” was shot on location at the Johnson Space Center.

Bangkok Revenge: Blu-ray

I’ve seen so many good martial-arts movies lately that I forgot how bad they can be when they’re put together with used duct tape. If it weren’t for the models of the cars on the streets of Bangkok, it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that “Bangkok Revenge” was made in 1975 and put on a shelf for the last 35 years. And, it doesn’t look any better on Blu-ray, either. Jon Foo plays a young man, who, at 10, witnessed the murder of his parents. He would have been dead, as well, if it weren’t for the quick thinking of a nurse at the hospital where he was being treated for a gunshot wound. After thwarting one attempt on the boy’s life, she takes him to a remote village, where he’s watched over by a relative. After a rocky start, Manit becomes an expert in Muy Thai boxing. He’ll need all the help he can get when he returns to Bangkok to avenge the death of his father, a crusading cop killed because he learned too much about his boss. It doesn’t take him long to come in contact with the killers, whose legion of martial-arts deputies are no match for his fighting skills. Foo has some mad skills, but the violence in “Bangkok Revenge” is made to look so phony that it could easily have passed as a Muy Thai primer for 12-year-olds. The problem there, however, would be a lovemaking scene and a couple of references to blow jobs that come out of left field.

To the Arctic: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Glacier National Park: Crown of the Continent: Blu-ray
Voyageurs National Park: Spirit of the Boundary Waters: Blu-ray
You’d think that snow and frigid water wouldn’t benefit much from being viewed in high-definition, but, as we see in such movies as “To the Arctic,” the opposite is true. In Blu-ray, snow drifts resemble large lumps of granulated sugar, with a few diamonds thrown in for their sparkle. The crystalline seas allow for spectacular underwater photography. “To the Arctic” is the kind of IMAX 3D title that puts fannies in the seats of museum theaters, where a certain percentage of every movie must be of educational value. It’s no longer enough simply to photograph polar bear, walruses and seals in their natural habitat. The message conveyed here involves the effect of global warming on these habitats, the native populations (including Inuit) and people living in oceanfront communities thousands of miles to the south. Viewers aren’t pounded over the head with green rants, but the message is clear: if we don’t clean up our acts, these precious polar bear cubs are going to die, and you wouldn’t want that on your conscience, would you? Director Greg MacGillivray, producer Shaun MacGillivray and writer-editor Stephen Judson have been doing this sort of thing for a long time and know how to balance beauty, action and education in 40-minute packages. Meryl Streep lends her pleasant and softly authoritative voice to the proceedings, while songs by Paul McCartney play in the background. The Blu-ray 3D package arrives with 2D and DVD copies and a few short making-of featurette.

There aren’t many tourist destinations in the continental United States that can be considered inaccessible, but a few require more of an effort to get to than others. Glacier and Voyageurs National Parks aren’t places one easily can visit while on the way to somewhere else, as is the case with the Grand Canyon. Both are tucked just south of our border with Canada, about 800 miles apart, not accounting for the lack of a direct route by car. That’s a good thing, considering the kind of commercial slums found outside the gates of most national playgrounds. While Glacier is famous for its towering snow-capped peaks, rampaging rivers, steep waterfalls, glacier-fed lakes, bears and mountain goats, Voyageurs is a water wonderland whose splendors are more horizontal than vertical. This makes it ideal for canoe and kayak enthusiasts, as well as hikers. A veritable highway of a thousand interconnected lakes, streams, bogs and ponds feed Lake Superior, while supporting boreal forests and an animal and bird population undistracted by motor boats and hunters. “Spirit of the Boundary Waters” follows the loosely drawn borderline from Voyageurs to Isle Royale, a wilderness area accessible only by boat and sea plane. If the bears and mountain goats are the primary prey of tourist cameras in Glacier, it’s the wolves and moose that captivate visitors to Isle Royale, Boundary Waters and Voyageurs. “Crown of the Continent” takes us along on a few of the 700 miles of trails in Glacier and perilous cloud-scraping roads that sometimes are overwhelmed by snow melts. Both films are wonderfully photographed and informative about the forces that shaped the landscapes.

The Comedy
The words “hipster” and “humor” aren’t mutually exclusive or contradictory, even if there’s an unwritten law that demands that hipsters act as if they’re too cool for any room into which they enter. Neither must deadpan humor border on deadly to be effective. Rick Alverson’s tres deadpan “The Comedy” is hip to the point of being exclusionary to anyone who doesn’t live in such communities as Williamsburg, Silver Lake or Wicker Park. How hip is it? LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy and comedian Gregg Turkington (a.k.a., “Neil Hamburger”) play key supporting roles in it. The title, itself, can be read as a challenge to audiences to find the funny in the largely improvised script or hand in their hipster credentials on their way out of the theater. Tim Heidecker, who’s half of the team responsible for “Tim & Eric Awesome Show,” is the tentative protagonist in a movie during which nothing really happens. He plays a 30-something slacker, Swanson, who soon will inherit a fortune from his brain-dead father, but, in the meantime, is content to wash dishes. For kicks, he and his pals enjoy getting drunk and high and provoking arguments with people they hardly know, including gang-bangers who aren’t in on the joke. If Swanson is inspired, he might even invite a girl to spend a night on his sailboat. For someone as bored and disconnected as Swanson, watching a date endure an epileptic seizure qualifies as a good time. If that makes “A Comedy” sounds perfectly awful, you should know that Alverson’s transgressive character sketch is crafted with razor-sharp accuracy and Swanson could serve as an archetype for an entire slacker sub-species. There are several deleted scenes, commentary and a short set of interviews.

One Last Game
Death comes in many forms and being hopelessly addicted to potentially lethal things qualifies as one of them. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross told us that people facing imminent death experience five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. A theory is a difficult thing upon which to hang a narrative, unless the filmmaker is attempting to simply dramatize the process or offer an exception that proves the rule. “All That Jazz” is a movie in which the protagonist is too busy to give anything but passing notice to the stages and not at all anxious to kick his addiction. Kubler-Ross is referenced during Bob Fosse’s cinematic suicide note. “One Last Game” goes so far as to credit her with the movie’s concept. Set during a game of Texas Hold’Em on a darkened stage, Ayassi’s claustrophobic psycho-drama centers around Gellert (Ken Duken), a handsome young gambler who appears to be addicted to losing, as much as anything else. Sitting at the poker table with him are three other top German actors and chanteuse Regina Lund, who looks as if she’s channeling Marilyn Monroe. Gellert thought he might win enough money to pay back his debts, but the other players know what he’s really there to do: lose and be berated for it. Near the end of the movie, a frustrated Gellert asks the sexy blond what the point of this particular game really is. “The objective of the game is to know when it is over,” she answers, “to know when to stop.” The same thing pertains life, itself.

GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling
It’s been said that the only creatures likely to survive a nuclear apocalypse will be cockroaches. I’ve heard the same thing said about lawyers and IRS auditors. Professional wrestling has been declared dead several times over the last 100 years, but continues to pack stadiums and get solid ratings on television. When Vince McMahon took over his father’s wrestling business in the early 1980s, he knew that it had to appeal to Baby Boomers and their children to survive until the new millennium. The first thing he did was admit that professional was less a sport than a vehicle for entertainment and, by implication, its practitioners were actors. To help audiences adjust to this “startling” confession, McMahon borrowed the superhero concept from comic books, while also adding a rock-’n’-roll soundtrack to the proceedings. The WWF was a huge hit. Not to be outdone, some savvy promoters thought women could handle a circuit of their own and called it Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW). These women weren’t there to add novelty to the show, but to be the show. GLOW was a prime-time wrestling series, complete with elaborate characters, costumes, skits, personalized raps and, of course, wrestling. It found wide exposure through syndicated television and attracted male viewers by adding attractive young women who weren’t trained to be anything but pretty and, maybe, act a bit. The more “masculine” of the women professionals were given makeovers, costumes and flamboyant personae. Within five years, GLOW mysteriously ceased production. Brett Whitcomb’s “GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” uses the anecdotes and recollections of many of the men and women who made GLOW a big hit, alongside archival video tapes of matches and promotional material. The documentary adds audio commentary with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins and a couple of the wrestlers; extended interviews; deleted scenes; a collection of GLOW skits; opening raps; and a festival Q&A.

Adventures in Zambezia: Blu-ray
Pull back the curtain of mist that rises from Victoria Falls and you’ll find the mythical city of Zambezia, where birds of a feather stick together to protect each other from giant lizards and foraging Marabou storks. In Blu-ray 2D/3D, it’s a wondrously colorful place that’s well worth protecting from raids. Although the brash young falcon, Kai, was born in Zambezia, he was raised by his overly protective father in a desolate outpost in the desert after his mother was killed defending the city. Kai desperately wants to join Zambezia’s crack airborne fighter unit, the Hurricanes, but lacks the ability to take orders and be a team player. Naturally, there comes a time when Kai’s skills are needed to save the more experienced fliers and his father from disaster. Sure, “Adventures in Zambezia” tells a familiar story. What else is new, though? The nice thing about this South African production is the quality of the animation, which rivals much of what’s created in Hollywood. The color palette is brilliant, as well. The bonus package adds the featurettes “Birds of a Feature,” “An African Story,” “The Tree City” and “Technical Challenges.” Be aware that “Adventures in Zambezia” is available for purchase exclusively at Walmart.

Alois Nebel
Tatsumi
The Official Digimon Adventure Set: The Complete Second Season
Digimon Adventure: Volume 2
Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot: The Complete Series
It’s fitting that the post-World War II history of Eastern Europe be drawn in noir shades of black, white and gray. We remember the movies of the Czech New Wave, particularly, in black-and-white. Newsreel footage of the cities, mines and factories could hardly be more bleak and dispiriting. Even after the collapse of the Iron Collapse, it took years before we could find the brighter colors and humor, however cynical. Using rotoscope animation, “Alois Nebel” spans the beginning and end of Soviet domination in Czechoslovakia, telling the haunting story of a train dispatcher – and son of a train dispatcher – stationed near the borders with Germany and Poland. Even as news from East Berlin began spreading through Eastern Europe, few believed that freedom could come so quickly and without a fight. Indeed, Nebel remembers when the area’s ethnic German population was forced to pick up stakes and move north. Out of the blue, a mute stranger arrives out of the fog from Poland, carrying information of particular interest to the dispatcher. “Alois Nebel” doesn’t require a vast knowledge of modern Czech history to enjoy the film, but it helps. The atmospheric animation is what really stands out here.

Japanese animation began to take hold here in the mid-1980s, with TV shows that catered to the youngest of viewers and consumers of toys. The flood of video games also helped introduce Americans to the distinctive look and sounds of anime. By the mid-1990s, such narrative anime as “Ghost in the Shell” and “Princess Monoke” gained a foothold among older American audiences and renters. The evolution of manga played out in similar stages throughout the 20th Century. Artist/storyteller Yoshihiro Tatsumi came of age in post-war Japan, well before the country became a well-oiled machine and corporate superpower. As chronicled in Eric Khoo’s “Tatsumi,” based on the artist’s illustrated autobiography “A Drifting Life,” the demand for illustrated serials, even in the rental market, was booming. Tatsumi lived in an apartment with three other artists churning out manga for newspapers and magazines. The comics were growing up, as well. When parent groups began lobbying for more G-rated material, Tatsumi literally created the adult-oriented gekiga style of alternative comics. It was targeted specifically at the adult reader, with storylines that included sexy material, violence and other themes some took to be subversive. A decade later, the American “comix” movement would mimic the birth of gekiga. Between the impact of American forces on the culture and rise of criminal organization, Tatsumi rarely lacked for material. “Tatsumi” is a simply wonderful movie, perfect for anyone who loves animation, comics and graphic novels.

Children remain the largest market for anime, if only because they have an insatiable appetite for the toys, dolls, accessories and trading cards that are spun off the cartoon characters. I tried to explain what happens in “Digimon,” but got too confused to nail it on the head. Suffice it to say that teenagers journey to the Digital World to fight the enemies of the Digital Monsters being held by the enemy. Season 2 introduced a new cast of teenagers and a new enemy, the Digimon Emperor. The eight-disc “Official Digimon Adventure Set: The Complete Second Season” includes all 50 episodes of the show; a 32-page “Character Guide Booklet”; and a gallery featuring more than 40 Villain Digimon sketches. A more compact three-disc “Digimon Adventure: Volume 2” holds 18 episodes of the original “Digimon Adventure” series and follows the group as they learn the identity of the eighth DigiDestined child.

Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot: The Complete Series” is so thoroughly cheesy that it should have come with a grater and nose plugs. Many of the characters are played by human beings, at least. Although Johnny Sokko has yet to shave his first whisker, he is the brains behind a large flying metal behemoth with fiery breath, laser eyes, finger-launched missiles and strength uncommon even among robots. If anything, the enemy creatures are more bogus than the flying robot. The fantasy series from Toei Studios ran from 1967 through 1968 in Japan, before crossing the Pacific a year later in slightly altered form. It found an audience here in syndication, which kept it alive reruns for the next 10 years. Collected for the first time on DVD are all 26 episodes of kaiju battles, alien takeover plots and the heroics of jet-packed Johnny.

Dead in France
Maybe it’s the sunny Cote d’Azur weather, but “Dead in France” reminds me a lot more of “Sexy Beast” than the Guy Ritchie films that critics continue to compare it to. Like Spain’s Costa del Sol, Cannes is wonderful place for a criminal to retire, especially if they’ve lived most of their life in the U.K. At 40, Charles (co-writer Brian Levine) is a successful hitman who wants to retire while he still can. He also wants to conquer a lifelong germ phobia by finally committing to a woman. Just when Charles thinks that he might succeed, everyone within his rapidly expanding orbit decides to go crazy at once. It begins when he entrusts his villa to a sexy young cleaning woman (Celia Muir), who has all the grace of a classic “Essex girl.” When her moronic punk boyfriend shows up, all hell begins to break loose at the villa and surrounding areas. There’s a lot of bloodshed in the movie, but, the longer it goes on, the more cartoonish it is.

Bob’s New Suit
First-time filmmaker Alan R. Howard touches so many different bases in “Bob’s New Suit,” you’d think he was playing croquet, instead of that other game. Besides covering all of the letters in LGBT at least once, Howard gives one of the characters the kind of a secret past that allows for a traditionally happy ending. Oh, yeah, the movie’s narrated by an article of clothing. Apart from that, “Bob’s New Suit” is a perfectly agreeable rom-com that tries too hard to be all things to all viewers. Bob is a landscape gardener and handyman, who proposes to his longtime girlfriend, Jenny, in the opening minutes of the movie. She’s estranged from her mother over alcohol abuse, while Bob’s dad is starting to lose track of reality and has heart problems. It’s for that reason that Bob’s mother, who sells antique dolls on the Internet, is afraid to tell her husband that their daughter has begun gender-reassignment procedures. Bob’s cousin is an aspiring felon and amateur homophobe and there’s an aunt who’s a Jesus freak. There’s more, but the characters are made far too level-headed for any real drama to overwhelm the melodrama.

PBS: Shakespeare Uncovered
TBS: Men at Work: The Complete First Season
The Carol Burnett Show: This Time Together
Showtime: Tom Green Live
One of the six episodes in the PBS mini-series “Shakespeare Uncovered” finds Joely Richardson discussing the comedies “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It.” These are plays that demonstrate the assurance with which Shakespeare dealt with women characters and she explores might have been the case. She also takes us backstage to meet contemporary actors preparing for a performance of one of the plays and interviews several veteran performers – Helen Mirren and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, among them – about their experiences on stage. Even better, Richardson takes us on a stroll through the theater where her grandfather, Sir Michael Redgrave, and Sir Laurence Olivier performed “Hamlet,” before an audience that included her grandmother-to-be. Derek Jacobi watches himself on film, as a young actor, in “Richard II” for the first time, alongside Sir John Gielgud. That’s what happens when you entrust a television series about Shakespeare to Brits, some of whom, like Redgrave, cut their teeth on his works. Among the other hosts in this informative and entertaining series are Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Irons, Trevor Nunn and David Tennant.

TBS’ “Men at Work,” is yet another sitcom about yuppies with the social skills of horny baboons. This time, they’re four guys who work at a lad magazine targeted at horny yuppies, just like them. Each one of them represents a different aspect of early manhood: Milo (Danny Masterson) has just been dumped by a woman who’s far too cute, tall and self-assured to live with such a nebbish; Tyler (Michael Cassidy) is the “charming pretty boy”; Gibbs (James Lesure) is the cast’s resident chick magnet; and Neal (Adam Busch), is the dork who’s living with the boss’ daughter. Created by Breckin Meyer (“Road Trip,” “Franklin & Bash”), “Men at Work” is only slightly more risqué than the average network sitcom, but light years away from the truly smart and sexy comedies on HBO and Showcase. Like every other TV bromance, its writers feel it necessary to remind us that the guys aren’t gay and the hideous laugh track rewards the jokes with fake guffaws. Among the first-season guest stars are Amy Smart, Stacy Keibler, Kathy Najimy, Laura Prepon, William Baldwin, Kevin Pollack and Wilmer Valderrama. The first-season DVD adds deleted scenes and outtakes. The second stanza begins next week.

Last summer, Time Life released “The Carol Burnett Show”: The Ultimate Collection” in a 22-disc collection that was sold exclusively on the Internet for just south of $200. In a nod to less affluent fans of the show, Time Life broke out six-disc and single-disc collections. They provided fair representations of what made the variety show so popular. “The Carol Burnett Show: This Time Together” is the second six-disc release and, not surprisingly, it’s just as much fun as “Carol’s Favorites.” It includes 17 non-linear episodes and two hours of bonus material. Among the guest stars are Steve Lawrence, Lily Tomlin, the Pointer Sisters, Dick Van Dyke, Roddy McDowall, Bernadette Peters, Sammy Davis Jr., Edward Villella, Lucette Aldous, Hal Linden, Madeline Kahan, Ken Berry, Dick Van Dyke, Eydie Gorme, Paul Sand, Petulia Clark, Peggy Lee and Stiller & Meara. Those names might not mean much to anyone under 35, but, back in the day, they were big shots.

Although cancer impacts entertainers with the same frequency as it does regular folks, not many make it part of their act … for the next 12 years. Mad-man comedian Tom Green addresses the surgery and treatment with a solemnity that’s counter to everything else in his performance. He’s still able to milk some laughs from it, but I think he does it to reassure fans who might be experiencing similar traumas in their lives. Green was among the first flight of comedians who did things – ranging from merely rude to seriously outrageous – just to see what kind of response they’d elicit. He refers to that period as “You Tube, without the Internet.” His new performance DVD, “Tom Green Live,” is comprised of material from a 2011 engagement in Boston and the bonus, “The History of ‘The Tom Green Show.’” Of the two, the latter is the more entertaining because it reminds us of just how far out there that Green was in the mid-1990s, on his MTV and Internet shows. Today, he’s still using some of the same trademark shtick, reminiscing about the perfectly awful “Freddy Got Fingered,” his stint on “Celebrity Apprentice,” performing at both “A Gathering of the Juggalos” and a USO tour and, of course, his cancer. Pranking has gone on to become a team sport in some quarters, but he needs to develop new stuff.

Ship of Fools/Lilith: Blu-ray
The Squid and the Whale/Running with Scissors: Blu-ray
Hollywood Homicide/Hudson Hawk: Blu-ray
Mill Creek Entertainment specializes in repackaging the classics made by other companies in numbers ranging from 2 to 100 per box. It recently entered into distribution deals with Sony and Disney for Blu-ray “double features.” The most interesting coupling is “Ship of Fools” (1965) and “Lilith” (1964), which have almost nothing in common besides all-star casts and a swell-looking black-and-white facelift in hi-def. “Ship of Fools” was billed as a floating “Grand Hotel,” with Lee Marvin, Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Jose Ferrer, Oskar Werner, Elizabeth Ashley, George Segal and Michael Dunn. Unbeknownst to the characters, there next port-of-call is it the Twilight Zone that became Nazi Germany. In “Lilith,” Warren Beatty plays an aspiring shrink to a manipulative patient played by Jean Seberg. Peter Fonda also is a resident of the same expensive rest home.

The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and “Running with Scissors” (2006) were released at the height of the dysfunctional-family craze among arthouse patrons. Both were based on actual families of overeducated and hyper-neurotic individuals with more problems than any 10 Americans will have in their collective lifetimes. “Hollywood Homicide” (1989) and “Hudson Hawk” (1991) are action films, starring Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis, respectively. Two decades later, both actors are still attempting to get away with playing the same characters.

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Blu-ray
So much hot air has been expended on “Zero Dark Thirty” since various marketing geniuses began ramping up their awards campaign that I’m reluctant to add any wasted breath to the conversation. Beyond the acrimonious controversy over depictions of inarguably brutal interrogation techniques, we’ve heard from two members of the Navy SEAL team that participated in the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden, been deluged with op-ed pieces and blogged diatribes, been exposed to dozens of for-your-consideration ads and talk-show interviews. Some of us thought it necessary, as well, to watch the made-for-cable movie, “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden,” and extensive reportage on “60 Minutes.” If director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal did one thing better than anyone else, however, it was to remind Americans just how messy the business of protecting democracy can be. This is especially true when everyone in Washington wants to claim responsibility for victory and avoid humiliation in case of failure. Then, too, way back on May 2, 2011, the biggest possible spoiler of all was revealed by no less a personage than President Obama.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is roughly divided into three parts, all driven by tick-tock pacing and journalistic editing decisions. The first is taken up by the interrogation of prisoners and sifting through the haystack of bogus information to find the single needle that pointed to Bin Laden. No matter how much evidence is presented on either side of the argument, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever learn what, if anything, was gleaned from torture or if a president’s decrees could keep illegal techniques from recurring. Americans can’t even agree on a single effective way to stop bullying in elementary schools, after all. I don’t think torture is glorified here or given any greater significance than it deserves. What happened in the interrogation chambers was ugly, of spurious legality and value, and quite possibly performed by sadists in and out of uniform. Jessica Chastain steals the second part of the film, simply by the force of her character’s will. In turning the agency’s single clue into something that could lead to success, her CIA operative, Maya, not only was required to avoid being killed by Al Qaeda, but also cut through all of the old-boys’-club bullshit government functionaries could muster. The final third is taken up by the raid, itself. I was surprised by the absence of any footage describing preparations for the raid, but it only would have added another 20 minutes to what already was an epic 157-minute length. The attack on Bin Laden’s compound is dramatized in what amounts to real time and in nearly complete darkness. In Blu-ray, very little is lost in the shadows and the audio delivery is downright scary.

Considering the brevity of the four bonus featurettes, I suspect that a much more elaborate edition of “Zero Dark Thirty” (“12:30 a.m.,” in military parlance) will arrive before year’s end, possibly with deleted scenes, non-EPK mini-docs, expert analysis, interviews with the people upon whom the characters are based and, perhaps, the “60 Minutes” interview with SEAL “Mark Owen.” If anything glorifies war and America’s love affair with things that go “boom,” it’s the short featurette on the weaponry and hi-tech equipment the actors had to master before going into faux battle. It’s guaranteed to make the 17-year-old sociopaths in our midst wet themselves with excitement. It would be a shame if the success of “Zero Dark Thirty” overshadows the hellish reality of “Black Hawk Down”; the failed 1980 American military mission to rescue the hostages in Iran; the entirety of the Vietnam War; mini-wars we conducted in Panama City and Grenada, simply because we could; and the “accidental” bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, under President Clinton’s watch. Just as Hollywood glorifies our successes in combat, it should never be allowed to forget the debacles. – Gary Dretzka
Les Misérables: Blu-ray
Among those of us who take the arts more seriously than, say, monster-truck racing or tractor pulls, it would be difficult to find anyone who hasn’t seen one of the many productions of “Les Misérables,” read the source novel by Victor Hugo or passed a literature class with the help of a Classic Illustrated or Cliff’s Notes abridgement of the book. The book was so popular, we’re told in the bonus interviews, many of the combatants in our own Civil War carried copies of it to read when they weren’t shooting at each other. Ever since the latest movie version opened wide on Christmas Day, fans of the stage musical have debated how well – or how poorly – Tom Hooper’s adaptation compares to the Cameron Mackintosh’s blockbuster production. Months before the movie opened, several pundits made it a mortal lock for a Best Picture Oscar. Eventually, it became just one of a half-dozen other titles picked to finish first. Anne Hathaway would walk home that night with the Best Supporting Actress prize – no surprise, there – but her acceptance speech was picked apart as if it were a sequel to the Gettysburg Address.

The thing that most differentiates the movie from the stage production is Hooper’s handling of the musical numbers. In order to “open up” the narrative, the decision was made to present the songs in as organic a style as possible. By forgoing the usual soundtrack-dubbing process, the performers were required to sing and act simultaneously, frequently beyond the normal confines of a soundstage. What occasionally was lost in the singing – according to some fans, anyway – was regained in the emotionally charged acting performances. It definitely takes some getting used to, though. The same can be said about the increased intimacy between the characters and viewers, which was achieved through the use of hand-held cameras. Even if there were times when the movement of the lens imitated the swaying of a boat on water, it was thrilling to be so close to the action. This “Les Misérables” may be the least stage-bound adaptation of a Broadway musical we’ll ever see. At a reported budget of only $61 million, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the sets, costumes, makeup effects and other creative aspects come as close to perfection as they do. The opening scene, in which prisoners are forced to drag a damaged ship into dry dock, tells us everything that needs to be said about the life led by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) during his 20 years in prison. As his nemesis, Javert, Russell Crowe doesn’t personify the character’s psychotic determination to destroy a man’s life quite as fiercely as other actors I’ve seen in the part, but neither is he a pussycat.

Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks are excellent fine in key supporting roles. As entertaining as Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are as the thieving Thenardiers, the characters are almost interchangeable with the ones they played in “Sweeny Todd.” It’s only a small distraction, though. Among the movie’s eight Oscar nominations is one for Valjean’s song “Suddenly,” written specifically for the movie by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. (It lost to Adele’s “Skyfall.”) In the transfer from stage to screen, only “I Saw Him Once” and “Dog Eats Dog” didn’t make the cut, but the composers also were asked to update some of the orchestral pieces, shorten a few songs and, in some cases, move them around. As for the Blu-ray, the overall effect of the audio/visual presentation is impressive, throughout, even though it’s sometimes easy to see where Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen put the technology to the test. The bonus package adds an hourlong making-of featurette, which covers a lot of territory; an 11-minute profile on Hugo and his best-seller; and BD Live Functionality, which wasn’t all that functional on my unit – Gary Dretzka

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Blu-ray
For fans of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Ring” trilogy and J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, “The Hobbit,” the only reviews that matter are the ones exchanged with people, who, like them, would trade a year in Hawaii for a weekend in Middle Earth. It’s probably relevant, then, to admit that being chased around the Misty Mountains by dwarves, wood-elves, goblins, trolls, wargs, dragons, man-bears, giant spiders and orcs isn’t exactly my idea of a good time. Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching “LOTR” on DVD and looked forward to seeing “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” on Blu-ray. (It was a big hit theatrically in 3D and IMAX, neither of which I can afford to add to my home theater.) Like “LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring,” a great deal of time in the 169-minute “Hobbit” is spent in the expository mode. On his 111th birthday, Bilbo Baggins writes a letter to his nephew, Frodo, explaining an adventure he had 60 years before the events described in the “LOTR” series. It serves to introduce Frodo and viewers to dwarf mythology, some of the characters we’ll meet in the next couple of hours and how Lonely Mountain’s golden treasure was lost to Smaug the Dragon. The adventure upon which Bilbo embarks in “An Unexpected Journey” involves joining forces with Gandolf and a motley crew of 13 dwarves, who are intent on confronting the dragon and regaining the lost cache of gold.

Jackson and writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and onetime directorial candidate Guillermo del Toro did a nice job incorporating the background material with the challenges the group will face on the trek to Lonely Mountain and a veritable travelogue of magnificent New Zealand and CGI scenery. It’s an eventful trip, mostly because the dwarves’ traditional nemeses have been driven from the Misty Mountains to lower elevations to survive a disease killing trees and vegetation. I won’t spoil anyone’s fun by revealing much else that happens in the “Hobbit,” but it would be difficult not to be impressed with a great battle between mountains during a thunder storm. It’s a pip. Naturally, the stage is also set for whatever’s to happen in the second and third parts of the trilogy, during which the presence of the flying, fire-breathing dragon will be far more prominent. It’s worth mentioning, I suppose, that the movie’s PG-13 rating is fairly earned and the cuteness of some of the characters notwithstanding, there are scenes of extreme violence that could disturb fragile pre-teens. An entire disc is dedicated to bonus featurettes, video blogs, game trailers and other marketing material. It also comes with an access code for an online sneak peek of “Desolation of Smaug,” hosted live by Peter Jackson on March 24. — Gary Dretzka

The Other Son: Blu-ray
Every so often, there will be a story on the evening news about siblings who were switched at birth and are reunited on “Oprah” or after an off-chance meeting on Facebook. The newscaster might compare such a mistake as a “parent’s worst nightmare” or the discovery a miraculous coincidence. Miracles happen all the time on “Oprah,” don’t they? Depending on circumstances, a nightmare scenario could play out in such situations, as well. Typically, though, worse things can happen than having the truth behind a non-tragic blunder revealed. The conceit behind Lorraine Levy’s “The Other Son” is quite a bit more complicated and fraught with potential anguish. In 1991, when Scud missiles from Iraq were raining down on Haifa, two male infants were born in a hospital temporarily being shared by Israelis and Palestinians. In the chaos of the attack, the boys were put into the same incubator, but somehow misdirected when passed back to the mothers. Stranger things have happened in less stressful situations. Eighteen years later, the parents of the Israeli boy are told that the results of a blood test taken during a military physical show conclusively he couldn’t be their child. A few hours later, the Palestinian parents were told the same thing. A blunder of this magnitude would constitute a shocking development anywhere in the world, but, in the Mideast, it borders on the unthinkable.

Levy could have taken this scenario and milked it for every last drop of pathos available to her. The reunion could have been staged while Israelis and Palestinians were exchanging rockets attacks in Gaza or the meeting could have been interrupted by the sound of a suicide bombing in the distance. Instead, Levy decided to level the playing field as much as possible by creating parallel worlds divided by a wall that looks as hideous on one side as it does on the other. The families in which the boys are raised are loving and conscientious, share a linguistic French connection and their lifestyle differences seem entirely realistic, given the conditions of occupation. The boys, of course, are stunned by the revelation, but they take a liking to each other right away and behave as if the mistake truly was God’s will. Their fathers take the news badly, while the mothers simply want to make the best of a bad situation. In their minds, the worst thing that could happen is for the young men – both on the brink of adulthood – to abandon the families that raised them. The real problems derive from the cold realities on the ground. As similar as the tribes may be genetically and biblically, living in a war zone for more than 60 years has convinced too many Israelis and Palestinians that the differences between them can only be reconciled through bloodshed. Joseph (Jules Sitruk) and Yacine (Medhi Dehbi) are able to stroll through Tel Aviv together without raising an eyebrow and pass for cousins on the beach, where Joseph’s friends gather on hot days. When it comes to religion, however, Joseph finds himself in a huge predicament. Because his birth mother is Arab, he’s told by the family’s rabbi that he can’t be a Jew, unless he resubmits his credentials and converts. Yacine, who’s been raised in the Islamic faith but was born to a Jewish mother, doesn’t have to do anything to be a Jew. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

Levy is in no hurry to reveal her hand as to how “The Other Son” will end. There are several more surprises to look for during its last half-hour and a few moments that less-tolerant viewers might consider to be too liberal, considering that Joseph’s father is a high-ranking military officer. Politics, though, are subordinate to the human story. An acrimonious legal battle, a la Elian Gonzales, is avoided, as well, by the fact that both boys are 18 and free to choose their own paths to the future. (Yacine has already been accepted to medical school in Paris, while Joseph was planning to pursue a career as a musician after serving his time in the military.) Emmanuelle Devos and Pascal Elbe are terrific as the Israeli parents, as are Areen Omari and Khalifa Natour, whose characters live on the opposite side of the wall. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, bloopers, interviews and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

Rust and Bone: Blu-ray
In any other awards season, “Rust and Bone” would have been the foreign-language film to beat in every contest and poll in which its cast and creators were considered for honors. The year would belong to Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” however, and everything else vied for second place. Jacques Audiard’s heart-churning drama is distinguished by superb performances by Marion Cotillard (“La vie en rose”) and Matthias Schoenaerts (“Bullhead”) and a story that drags viewers from one emotional or physical crisis to another, sometimes without allowing us time to catch our breaths. We meet Schoenaert’s Ali first, hitchhiking with his 5-year-old son from Belgium to Antibes. All we know is that Ali’s broke and his ex-wife was involved in drug dealing, perhaps using the boy as a mule or decoy. Ali hopes to start a new life in the seaside town, where his sister and her husband have agreed to give them a bed in the garage and all the stolen expired food they can eat. Cotillard’s Stephanie is an orca trainer by day and something of a party girl at night. Ali and Stephanie meet outside a nightclub that’s hired the onetime MMA fighter as a bouncer. She’s being pummeled for some reason and Ali comes to her rescue. Because she’s too fragile to drive, Ali agrees to escort her home, where he’s also required to stand up to her prick boyfriend. The next time we see Stephanie, she’s on a platform at the theme park leading the killer whales through their paces. In the time it takes a heart to beat, a terrible accident causes the platform to collapse and Stephanie’s legs to snap off at the knees.

After several months spent stewing in her own juices and exhausting all of her fair-weather friends, Stephanie locates the phone number given her by Ali and decides to cash in his offer to help with her boyfriend troubles. Instead, Ali finds her in sitting alone, in a wheelchair, in a mostly empty apartment that could seriously use a blast of fresh air. He finally convinces her to leave the apartment for a short trip to the beach, where he asks her permission to go for a swim. With a little bit of coaxing, Stephanie decides to join him. The joy that comes with returning to the water goes a long way toward convincing her that life might be worth living, after all. With Sam away at school, Ali has free time available to him in the middle of the day and seems to enjoy the company. Meanwhile, a guy Ali meets at the nightclub asks him if he wants to knock off some rust and train for competition at an impromptu “fight club” outside the projects. It’s a shady operation, but with lots of money exchanging hands between bouts in bets. As Ali’s stock rises among the fighters, Stephanie is improving through physical therapy. Her new lightweight prostheses are a godsend, as well. When she also lets slip that she might be in need of some sexual healing, Ali volunteers to accept booty texts from her. Even so, Ali’s relationship with Stephanie remains curiously casual. It takes a while for the trajectories of their separate recoveries to cross and, once they do, Ali inadvertently causes a crisis in his sister’s life that prompts him to take a powder, again.

In an interview included in the bonus package, Audiard describes how one of his assistants labeled some of the later developments, “melo-trash,” a term he’s comfortable using himself. The difference between melodrama, melo-trash and gut-wrenching drama may be open to interpretation, but Audiard never compromises the integrity of his characters to take the pressure off viewers. These are working-class people, living on the razor’s edge of economic and emotional stability. Schoenaerts is one tough son of a gun and Cotillard is as unglamorous here as you’ll ever see her. For them, the stakes are very real. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, an hour-long making-of featurette, commentary and a short piece of the special visual effects. The presentation is enhanced by Audiard’s decision to use an advanced Red Epic camera. “Rust and Bone” was adapted from stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson. – Gary Dretzka

The Sessions: Blu-ray
The Life of Pi: Blu-ray
I wasn’t able to watch these two high-profile pictures under optimum conditions – a tiny screen for “The Sessions,” in 2D for “Life of Pi” – but that’s no reason to pass them over without comment. So much attention has been paid to Helen Hunt’s performance in “The Sessions,” primarily for her willingness to appear nude for much of the movie, that it stole the media spotlight from John Hawkes’ amazing portrayal of the protagonist. Ben Affleck wasn’t the only person who got robbed at this year’s Oscar circus. Hawkes plays a character very much like Mathieu Amalric’s Jean-Do in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” except that quadriplegic Mark O’Brien was incapacitated by polio and is still able to experience sensory impulses and use writing implements. A poet and journalist, he has been assigned a piece by a Bay Area publisher on how people with serious physical limitations deal with sex. Thus inspired, 40-year-old Mark decides to erase “virgin” from his curriculum vitae. Through people he’s interviewed, Mark is introduced to a sexual surrogate, Cheryl (Hunt), who is surprised by his sensitivity, propensity to flirt and clinical approach to sexuality. She also finds it interesting that he’s gotten dispensation from his priest/confessor (William H. Macy) to attempt sex out of wedlock.

Nothing in Ben Lewin’s film feels forced or gratuitous, including Hunt’s nudity. Mark is as multifaceted, mobile and emotionally animated as he could possibly be, while also being lying on a gurney, bed or in a breathing chamber. As professional as Cheryl is while on the job, she is distracted by fissures of her own off the job. Unlike most Hollywood endings for this sort of thing, Lewin’s doesn’t require hankies. In fact, it kind of reminded me of Francoise Truffaut’s “The Man Who Loved Women.”

Ang Lee’s amazing adventure yarn, “Life of Pi,” definitely wasn’t intended to be seen on any screen smaller than a barn or in fewer than three dimensions, although standard projection 2D and Blu-ray 3D will do in a pinch. Everything about “Life of Pi” begs superlatives, from the crystalline cinematography to the story that recalls “Robinson Crusoe,” “Swiss Family Robinson,” “Cast Away,” “The Old Man and the Sea,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and, by reversing the setting, “Lawrence of Arabia.” One thing for sure is that, after seeing it, you’ll never again take a glass of water for granted or potential safe haven ignored. The deceptively simple story was adapted from Yann Martel’s 2001 novel of the same title, which, itself, was heavily influenced by Moacyr Sciliar’s “Max and the Cats.” In it, a 16-year old Indian boy is traveling to Canada, by ship, with his family and some of the animals from their zoo, when disaster strikes. The freighter is capsized in a ferocious storm, but not before Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma) is tossed into a lifeboat and dropped into the roiling waters of the Pacific. When he awakes, Pi discovers that the boat is being shared by a zebra, hyena, orangutan and Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Soon, only the boy and the tiger – who have something of a history together – are left to choose between dying separately, as enemies, or surviving against all odds as allies. During the several weeks Pi and Richard Parker spend drifting on the ocean, several miraculous things happen to and around them. All of them benefit from the skill and imagination of Lee’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda and similarly honored visual-effects team. For the first time since “Avatar,” 3D isn’t merely used as a special-effects tool. The filmmakers’ deploy it as an artist might a differently sized brush or thickness of paint. “Life of Pi” is informed by the boy’s curiosity about different religious philosophies, from Hindu to the Kabbalah, and his conclusion that “faith is a house with many rooms.” Repeat viewers might enjoy counting the “hidden Vishnus” that are scattered throughout the narrative, like “hidden Mickeys” at Disneyland. The Blu-ray comes with several featurettes and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Big Picture: Blu-ray
The path taken by “The Big Picture” from book to screen immediately recalls that of “Tell No One.” Both were adapted for French audiences from novels by American writers – Douglas Kennedy and Harlen Corben, respectively – and, in each, the protagonists are men on the run, one from an accident that resulted in murder and, the other, from police who mistakenly are convinced he murdered his wife. Even though “Tell No One” enjoyed some box-office success here after its delayed release, “The Big Picture” was only accorded a perfunctory arthouse push. Fans of Guillaume Canet’s thriller are encouraged to rush out and find Eric Lartigau’s “The Big Picture.” (In another coincidence, Canet and Lartigau split their time between acting, writing and directing.)

Paul Exben (Romain Duris) seemingly is living the fairytale life of a successful Parisian lawyer with a beautiful wife, two children, and only a short time to wait before his partner (Catherine Deneuve) hands him her share of the business. His wife, however, has begun to feel trapped by her inability to find work as a freelance writer, Paul’s busy schedule and her two screaming children. Sarah (Marina Fois) finds a friend, confidante and, more recently, a lover in the handsome freelance photographer who lives next door in a bourgeois neighborhood. Paul senses that Sarah is unhappy, but his contributions to family stability come too little, too late. After confirming their affair, Paul confronts his neighbor, who, instead of being contrite, taunts him with his supposed shortcomings, which likely were exaggerated by Sarah. In a brief, but deadly dustup, Paul causes the photographer’s head to hit a rock. (Can “manslaughter” be used as a verb?) When he decides to disguise the crime and obliterate any clues leading to him or his wife, Lartigau is able to shift gears by taking the story into territory previously reserved for Alfred Hitchcock, Patricia Highsmith and Claude Chabrol.

Paul decides that the accident might give him the perfect opportunity to rediscover his own life, which once included plans to pursue a photography career. With pinpoint planning and plenty of viable alibis Paul disappears into a beautiful corner of Eastern Europe, where, ironically, his dreams are inadvertently realized. There’s more, of course, but let’s not spoil the fun. There’s no harm in mentioning, though, that Paul’s quest takes him – and us –to several beautiful ports of call and intrigue you’ll never see coming. Some critics have complained about the film’s ambiguous ending, but, it would have been just as easy to find fault in an ending that tied everything up in a neat little bow. Life doesn’t come packaged like that and there’s no law that says movies can’t leave audiences without something to think about besides the price of popcorn. Other movies adapted from Kennedy’s books are “Welcome to Woop Woop” and “The Woman in the Fifth.” – Gary Dretzka

Straight A’s: Blu-ray
More an acting exercise or character study than a fully realized feature film, “Straight A’s” introduces us to several potentially compelling characters, but neglects, until the final 10-15 minutes, to tell us why we should care about them. At the center of “Straight A’s” is a square-peg drifter, Scott, who’s spent most of the last 10 years in and out of rehab or psych wards. We immediately know that he’s some kind of bad boy, because he arrives at the luxurious lake house owned by his estranged brother and sister-in-law on horseback. Traveling by horse prevents Scott (Ryan Phillippe) from getting tickets for DUI, we’re told, and has the added benefit of being a real ice-breaker around the couple’s two adorable, if precocious kids. We aren’t given much of a chance to fall in love with Scott, because he doesn’t seem conversant with any of the social graces most people learn by the time they’re 7. He curses like a sailor around his niece and nephew, ignores the house’s smoking ban, blows off all of the dinners prepared by his socialite sister-in-law, Katherine (Anna Paquin), and makes several unkept promises to the kids. We do sympathize with Scott, however, when he attempts to make contact with his possibly demented father but has a shotgun pulled on him, instead. Otherwise, he’s as nice to have around as any other non-functioning alcohol or junkie.

The one concrete thing we learn about Scott’s life before he drifted off the deep end is that he was in love with Katherine when she still liked to rock ’n’ roll and had yet to fall in love with his brother. As near as I can tell, William (Luke Wilson) is some kind of casino executive or supplier, who’s been out of town for a few days on business and is avoiding Katherine’s calls. William is planning on telling his wife that he wants a divorce, but, in the meantime, is acting as if he’s already single. When he does get home, William is about as happy to see Scott as their father was. Viewers are left to assume that William is pissed off about his brother’s bad behavior or lingering feelings Katherine, who has no idea about the divorce threat, might have for him. Neither are we told why or when Katherine evolved from free-spirit to stick-in-the-mud. Their son retains hope that Scott will honor a commitment to attend an event at his school, but odds are he won’t.

Things come to a head at a final family dinner, at which the old man is sufficiently lucid to read passages out loud from his late wife’s diaries. They trigger emotions that nearly paralyze everyone at the table. At 88 minutes, “Straight A’s” feels more like a short film than a feature and might have been greeted more warmly by distributors if 15 more minutes of background, dialogue or another surprise or two had been added. Phillippe and Paquin do the heavy lifting in James Cox’s drama, although the kids steal most of the scenes in which they’re in. Wilson is as dependable as ever, but isn’t required to stretch. The Blu-ray adds far more bonus material than a movie as incomplete as “Straight A’s” warrants. – Gary Dretzka

The Great Magician: Blu-ray
The overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and establishment of a republic was such an epochal event in China that it’s become a staple of the revitalized national cinema. The turnover of power and turmoil that follows such volcanic eruptions lends themselves to seemingly endless exploitation and interpretation. That the strength of the republic would be tested so soon by feuding warlords, European and Japanese imperialists and political opportunists has only added to the variety of films now available to international audiences. They range from patriotic historical dramas to fantasies, with stops along the way for romance, martial-arts action and comedy. The last time Hollywood threw big money at the subject of the American Revolution – Roland Emmerich and Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot,” in 2000 – it only barely covered its $110-million nut and probably dissuaded everyone else from trying again anytime soon. The Chinese film industry not only has benefitted from an influx of cash and homegrown talent, but also the growing number of American-style multiplexes.

At 128 minutes, “The Great Magician” overflows with entertaining visual effects, spectacular period costumes and elaborate sets. While Chinese audiences would recognize most of its stars and have some knowledge, at least, of post-Qing history, western audiences are at a distinct disadvantage. Neither does it help that director Yee Tung-Shing can’t seem to decide under which genre heading he wants his film to be listed. The playfulness on display is genuine, though. Tony Leong plays Hsien Chang, an illusionist who’s just returned from Europe and has several more great tricks up his sleeves. One of them involves helping dissidents topple a northern warlord (Ching Wan Lau) who’s also facing threats from rebels espousing republican ideals, Qing loyalists and businessmen who would favor Japanese intervention. Chang’s top priority is to free his former girlfriend and her father, the magician’s mentor, from the warlord’s harem and prison, respectively. There are a couple of WTF? changes of direction near the movie’s climax, but, I think, they help director Yee Tung-Shing tie all of the loose ends together in a neat bow. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette that’s almost as long as the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Shadow People: Blu-ray
Ghost Hunters: Season Eight, Part 1
In the last dozen years, there have been 10 movies whose titles approximate “Shadow People” or employ this unique form of bogeyman as an antagonist. Before 2002, according to IMDB.com, there weren’t any. Reports of unexpected deaths following sightings of human-like shadows began to multiply here with the arrival of refugees from Southeast Asia, displaced after the Vietnam War. In the Philippines, the syndrome is known as bangungot and is associated with a vengeful female demon, batibat, that sits on the chest of its victims. American medical researchers call the phenomenon Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome, but are more interested in finding physiological causes than those associated with the paranormal. Matthew Arnold’s “Shadow People” opens in Thailand, with an older man giving us the folkloric background and a child listening to the discussion dying in his sleep soon thereafter. Closer to home, a skeptical late-night radio host (Dallas Roberts) becomes a believer after being handed a video tape and sketches from a victim.

Soon, other listeners start to witness shadowy images on their walls and die mysteriously in their sleep. A CDC investigator (Alison Eastwood) arrives in the community hoping to recover the evidence from the radio host, so as to debunk it. Before long, she gets the heebie-jeebies, too. The reality is, of course, that it’s the rare human being who hasn’t been scared by the odd shadow or sound. If even half of those folks died, the world would be an empty place. “Shadow People” has several scary moments, but the impact is dulled somewhat by interwoven shots of medical researchers and field trials. Frankly, I don’t think Arnold knew if he wanted to make a thriller or documentary, and settled with something in between. It may be the only theatrical film I’ve seen that comes with a bibliography in the end credits. The Blu-ray adds a bit more background material on SUNDS.

There’s probably more evidence of the existence of ghosts in the first half-hour of “Shadow People” than in eight seasons of the Syfy series, “Ghost Hunters.” This hasn’t stopped the TAPS team from exposing viewers to possibly haunted houses and spooky amusement parks. In the latest volume, the hunters visit a “dead and breakfast,” where a family is being tormented by spirits of the previous owners; a 1700s mansion where the owner was murdered by his slaves, who were then hanged for their crime; and an old brewery where two sisters are “still running the business … from their graves.” Other titles include, “Roller Ghoster,” “Buyer Beware,” “Flooded Souls,” “Moonshine and Madness,” “City Hell,” “Frighternity,” “Ghost of a Marine,” “Family of Spirits,” “Haunted by Heroes,” “Princess and the EVP” and “Please Sign the Ghost Book.” The DVD adds bonus footage. – Gary Dretzka

24-Hour Love
If writer Don B. Welch and director Fred Thomas Jr.’s omnibus rom-dram-com, “24-Hour Love,” were a TV series, an apt title could have been “Love, African-American Style.” Segmented into chapters, it describes a brief period in the lives of seven people that the press material laughingly describes as being “everyday.” Instead, each of the characters is extremely attractive and well-dressed, aggressively middle class and on the brink of one kind of romantic crisis or another. The stories alternate between being funny, sad and melodramatic. If the settings feel a tad cramped, it’s probably because Welch originally intended “24-Hour Love” to be a theatrical piece, but decided, instead, to go the movie route. With a cast that includes Malinda Williams, Tatyana Ali, Keith Robinson, Lynn Whitfield, Flex Alexander, Eva Marcille, Angel Conwell, Chico Benymon and Darius McCrary, it probably wasn’t a difficult choice. Although it might easily have gotten lost on the movie circuit, “24-Hour Love” fits the small screen pretty well. It was the closing-night attraction at the Hollywood Black Film Festival. – Gary Dretzka

Your American Teen
Charles Tayor Gould’s documentary about the sexual exploitation of teenage girls would have been much more effective if it weren’t so determined to make points that aren’t in dispute. “Your American Teen” describes the lives of three girls who got into trouble early and were further enslaved by drugs, pimps and prostitution, pregnancy and having to deal, as well, with the problems of family members. Unfortunately, the girls’ stories are overwhelmed by statistics we’ve all read before and the testimony of sociologists, psychologists, activists, a politician and, briefly, actress Daryl Hannah, whose name adds marquee value to the DVD. While I agree that the entertainment and pop-culture media deserve a lot of the blame for promoting sexual activity in teens and pre-teens, other key factors are explored only anecdotally. Interviews appear to have been conducted separately, but in the same office or backyard, and the passage of time is noted only in the closing interviews, which merely update the girls’ situations. The information transmitted in “Your American Teen,” but Gould’s scope feels far too limited. – Gary Dretzka

Iron Doors
Typicially, individual conceptions of hell square with those passed along through the centuries by theologians, fabulists and artists. Nuns of the Roman Catholic persuasion may not have been as poetic as Dante Alighieri, but, for generations of parochial and Sunday school students, they’ve conjured visions of eternal damnation unmatched by any Hollywood screenwriter. No torture was too painful and no amount of heat of Earth could match that of the average sidewalk in Mister Beelzebub’s Neighborhood. Compared to what happens in “Iron Doors,” Dante’s Inferno is a walk in the park. In it, a yuppie wakes up after a night of boozing on the floor of a large concrete vault, whose only point of egress is a formidable iron door, locked from the outside. At first, the poor slob is belligerent to his captors, naturally assuming they are pranksters with visual and audio accessibility to the room. The vault is completely empty, except for a pair of lockers with a padlock protecting what’s inside them; a dead rat, about to become animated by the motion of maggots; and a fluorescent light fixture. Instead of revealing themselves, whoever imprisoned the man (Axel Wedekind) either were too drunk, themselves, to remember where they left him or had no interest in tormenting him or watching him die. It is in this way that “Iron Doors” differs from “Saw,” “Cube” or other exemplars of torture porn. One might wonder, here, how the prisoner was able to survive without food or water. Suffice it to say, director Stephen Manuel offers a solution to that dilemma, but it’s none too appetizing.

Facilitating Manuel’s conceit is his decision to give the unnamed man hope of escaping, even after denying him communication with outside forces. For example, in a fit of anger, the man punches the light fixture and it reveals the presence of a key that fits the padlock. Instead of having a clown jump out of the locker and slamming a pie in his face, Manuel and writer Peter Arneson provide him with an acetylene-torch kit and tanks of gas. Even if he knew how to use them properly, which he doesn’t, the iron door proves too thick to crack. After one door to hope is closed, however, another opens. There’s no reason to spoil anyone’s surprise as to what happens in the second half of the film, except to suggest that a little bit of hope can be worse than none at all. Working in an extremely tight space, Manuel does a pretty good creating a palpable aura of extreme claustrophobia. If psycho-thrillers are primarily measured by their ability to put viewers in the shoes of the protagonist, “Iron Doors” succeeds pretty well. The movie had been repurposed for 3D, but, given the setting, I can’t imagine that it added much. – Gary Dretzka

Strange Frame
How many animated fantasies can there be that are set in a dystopian universe, where it’s still possible for two beautiful women to meet, fall in love, fight for freedom and, in their spare time, make beautiful music in a jazz and funk band? The answer is, one. “Strange Frame” is a delightfully different sci-fi adventure set 700 years in the future, after survivors of the Great Earth Exodus have find new homes throughout the solar system, including Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede. By the 28th Century, human beings have been genetically re-engineered to survive in environments with once-toxic atmospheres. Naia is an enslaved miner, who, after rioting allows her to escape, finds a gig as a singer-songwriter. When she falls in love with a saxophonist, Parker, their talents merge and they perform as one. Trouble awaits in the form of space pirates and fame whores. Much of what happens in “Strange Frame” can be explained by the filmmakers’ belief that by the time the 28th Century rolls around, our descendants will be living in a completely multiracial society that also has reconciled prejudices based on sexuality and physical appearance. That story, though, is subordinate to the trippy animation, eroticism and music conceptualized by writer/director G.B. Hajim and co-writers Shelly Doty, Julia Ransom and Peter Watts. The hand-drawn and hand-cut animation is a throwback to the brightly colorful days of Peter Max and psychedelic light shows at the Fillmore. The bonus features include a deleted scene and a pair of making-of pieces. The voicing cast includes Claudia Black, Tara Strong, Ron Glass, Cree Summer, Juliet Landau, Michael Dorn and George Takei. – Gary Dretzka

Timerider: Blu-ray
Action Packed Movie Marathon
In show biz, there are concepts that are timeless, others that are timely and still more that require more time in the slow cooker. If movies were made of pasta, it might be possible to throw a few frames against a wall to see if they’ll stick. The trick wouldn’t work even if the movie was a spaghetti Western. Made in 1982, “Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann” was greeted in much the same way as dozens of other low-budget sci-fi flicks. It came, it went and few, if any people could imagine it would enjoy much of an afterlife outside the drive-ins or television. In hindsight, though, “Timerider” had a couple of things going for it, besides being an easy way to kill 94 minutes. For one thing, it was co-written by Michael Nesmith, the best musician among the Monkees and someone who’s been ahead of the video curb for most of the last 40 years. Inadvertently, too, Nesmith and co-writer/director William Dear came up with an idea that would approximate the central conceit of the “Back to the Future” franchise and, in an odd sort of way, “Cowboys & Aliens.

In it, Fred Ward plays a present-day motocross rider, who, while racing in Mexico, is zapped by a scientist experimenting on a time-travel machine. It transports him and his motorbike back to approximately the same location a century earlier. At first, the locals are completely freaked out by the orange-suited and helmeted alien in their midst, not to mention his machine. Once the shock dissipates, though, a band of outlaws sees an opportunity to steal the motorbike and use it for their nefarious ways. The next question that arises naturally is how this time-rider might get back to the present, with or without the vehicle. It’s pretty simple, really, and the humor holds up pretty well. The Blu-ray takes full advantage of the rugged Southwestern landscape, while adding Dear’s commentary, storyboards and an interview with Dear and Nesmith. The movie also stars Peter Coyote, Belinda Bauer, Ed Lauter, Richard Masur and L.Q. Jones.

It’s entirely possible that the movies included in “Action Packed Movie Marathon,” Shout Factory’s new package of B-movie non-classics, could have appeared together on the same night in the ’80s at a quadruple-feature at the local drive-in. Although one or two of them probably ended up making money for someone, they aren’t in the same league as Roger Corman’s genre fare. The best thing about them is watching familiar actors sleeping through their performances, dreaming about better movies they’ve made and fatter paychecks.

Like “Timerider,” a high-tech motorcycle is the focus of “Cyclone.” Here, though, everything takes place in the near future, when an inventive mechanic has created a souped-up bike capable of shooting missiles and lasers and deflecting enemy fire with a lightweight armor shield. When her boyfriend (Jeffrey Combs) is murdered, a busty blond biker (Heather Thomas) takes it upon herself to deliver the vehicle to the good guys. The problem is that there don’t appear to be any good guys. Among the cast members are the pre-Oscar Martin Landau, Troy Donahue, Huntz Hall, Bond Girl Martine Beswick and Ronald Reagan’s son, Michael.

Like “Cyclone,” “Alienator” was directed by the insanely prolific Fred Olen Ray. The movie begins in a remote corner of outer space, on a prison ship piloted by Jan-Michael Vincent and P.J. Soles. Somehow, a doomed prisoner escapes in a shuttle that takes him to Earth, where he’s almost immediately run over by a bunch of kids in a camper. John Phillip Law plays the backwoods sheriff who must hold off the intergalactic bounty hunter played by bodybuilder Teagan Clive. “Alienator” makes “Plan 9 From Outer Space” look like “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

In “Eye of the Tiger,” Gary Busey plays an ex-Vietnam vet and ex-con Buck Matthews, whose return home is ruined by the antics of a truly sadistic motorcycle gang. Sooner than you can say, “Rambo,” the bikers kill Busey’s wife and desecrate her grave. The gang is led by veteran bad guy William Smith and Yaphet Kotto plays an out-of-town sheriff who has his own Air Force.

Robert Ginty reprises his role as vigilante ex-vet John Eastland in “Exterminator 2.” In the similarly violent sequel, the torch-wielding avenger is stalking Mario Van Peebles, who’s playing a drug lord simply named X. Eastland uses a tricked-out garbage truck to take on X’s gang. A commentary track with the director and Van Peebles comes with the DVD. – Gary Dretzka

Red Skelton: The Farewell Specials
PBS: Soul Food Junkies
Nova: Decoding Neanderthals
Jersey Shore: Season Six: The Uncensored Final Season
The son of a circus clown who died two months before he was born, Red Skelton undoubtedly was one of the greatest comedians of the 20th Century. A star of the vaudeville stage, screen, television, radio and fancy showrooms, Skelton was the kind of ubiquitous entertainer who truly didn’t require an introduction. The fact that he’s one of the least known of all the show-business giants today – by people under 40, anyway – owes as much to financial decisions made near the height of his career than any lack of respect on the part of the last two generations of audiences. In the mid-1950s, the Indiana-born entertainer worked simultaneously in films, TV, radio and in Las Vegas. Opting out of his studio contract in the mid-1950s wouldn’t have been enough to make him any less visible than he was at the time. What kept him nearly invisible for the last 30 or 40 years was his decision to withhold any syndication rights to his variety series until after his death. (At one time, his will contained a provision that would have mandated the destruction of all tapes. After his team of writers threatened suit, Skelton eliminated the order.) The circus-inspired portraits that he started painting in 1943 could have easily made up for any lost income, if necessary.

Red Skelton: The Farewell Specials” is comprised of performances from the December of his career. In the mid-1980s, Skelton was seen on HBO in a command performance before Queen Elizabeth, a pair of “Funny Face” specials and a wonderful holiday special, “Freddie the Freeloader’s Christmas Dinner.” In each of the specials, Skelton demonstrates his brilliance as a mime and creator of unforgettable characters. Among the guest stars are Vincent Price, Imogene Coca and Marcel Marceau. You can see in such characters as Freddie the Freeloader, Clem Kaddidlehopper, San Fernando Red, the Mean Widdle Kid and Cauliflower McPugg how much is owed to Skelton by the next generation of comedians and actors. The DVD presentation is quite good and the humor holds up exceptionally well.

Before the Food Network, Cooking Channel, the Iron Chef, Emeril Lagasse, Gordon Ramsey, Anthony Bourdain, and, even, the Galloping and Frugal gourmets, there was Julia Child and she could only be found on public-broadcast stations. Although dwarfed by the budgets, marquee chefs and marketing tools, PBS continues to offer some tasty shows about cooking and eating. Rick and Lanie Bayless’ “Mexico: One Plate at a Time” is a perfect example of a show that combines travel, cooking and history and leaves viewers hungry for more. The “Independent Lens” presentation, “Soul Food Junkies,” is a recent PBS show that whetted viewers’ appetites for a hearty helping of foods that are prepared in the African-American tradition. Minutes after doing that, however, filmmaker Byron Hurt pulls the rug out from under them by demonstrating how a meal prepared the old-fashioned way could be killing them. First, though, Hurt traces the history of soul food to Africa and the plantations to which slaves were sold. We already know that slaves were forced to take whatever was left from a chicken or pig after the white family had its pick, and make something new and different from the leftovers. In interviews with scientists, educators and chefs, Hurt is able to show how slaves from one part of Africa created meals and introduced plants – ochre, for instance – that were different than what slaves in other regions were able to prepare. Their specific tastes translated into food that also served in the plantation homes, because “there was a black hand in every pot.” A hungry slave was of no value to anyone and, by working as hard as they did, calories were easy to lose. That isn’t the case for wage-slaves today, however, and the addition of processed ingredients has increased the potential for heart disease and cancer. Hurt also argues that stores in African-American communities should share the blame, by overstocking unhealthy products and produce inferior to that found in suburban neighborhood. “Soul Food Junkies” leaves viewers on a positive note, but, not surprisingly, kicking the habit requires work.

By employing cutting-edge DNA science, “Decoding Neanderthals” is able to speculate on the ramifications of cross-breeding between our Neanderthal and human ancestors and why one outlasted the other. Anyone who can recall the classroom charts that trace man’s evolution, step-by-step, from primates to human, will be surprised by the revelations in the “Nova” presentation. In fact, ongoing genome projects have already determined that mankind continues to benefit from immunities to certain serious diseases passed to humans by Neanderthals through cross-breeding. Although scientists interviewed for the program caution that genome reconstruction is in its infancy, their enthusiasm for the early results is palpable. Blessedly, they keep the science-speak to a minimum, allowing viewers without doctorates to understand what they’re doing.

If Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson weren’t struck by lightning for blaming 9/11 on gays, lesbians, pro-choice advocates, the ACLU and the secularization of America, I feel confident that I won’t be punished for suggesting that Hurricane Sandy was God’s revenge for six seasons of “Jersey Shore.” Actually, while most of Seaside Heights was destroyed in the storm, the “Jersey Shore” house was left mostly unscathed. Take that, “700 Club.” To their credit, cast members and MTV brass combined efforts for a telethon benefitting Architecture for Humanity. The final “uncensored” (not) DVD compilation contains episodes filmed months before Sandy, although I can’t imagine that we’ve seen the last of the Guidos/Guidettes on the yet-to-be rehabilitated boardwalk. Most of Season 6 was spent tying up loose ends and getting ready for spinoff shows and babies. The package adds deleted scenes, after-hour show; the reunion; a “Most Outrageous Moments” piece; and “Gym, Tan, Lookback” and “Breakdowns, Boobs & Bronzer” specials. – Gary Dretzka

DVD Wrapup

Monday, March 11th, 2013

This Must Be the Place: Blu-ray
Resembling a cross between Phil Specter, Ozzy Osbourne and everyone’s dizzy Aunt Lizzy, Sean Penn completely dominates Paolo Sorrentino’s decidedly offbeat drama, “This Must Be the Place.” After many years of self-imposed exile in Ireland, Penn’s over-the-hill Goth-rocker, Cheyenne, somehow manages to get himself sufficiently together either to reunite with his estranged father on his death bed or sit Shiva for him. After learning more about the man’s history from his friends, including a Nazi hunter played by Judd Hirsch, Cheyenne decides to avenge the torture suffered by his late father in one of Hitler’s death camps. A heroin addict even before he became a rock star, he doesn’t know much about the Holocaust beyond what customarily is taught in high school. In fact, his memory doesn’t extend much further back than when he learned that two young fans committed suicide to the theatrically dark music of his band. (David Byrne makes a guest appearance as a former mate.) As comatose as Cheyenne occasionally seems to be here, he has moments of lucidity during which he demonstrates empathy for the problems of people in the town nearest his estate. One day, he even surprises a young musician acquaintance by agreeing to produce his group’s first album. It would take a GPS to find his sense of humor, but it’s there.

Sorrentino demonstrates a keen sense of humor, himself, by putting Cheyenne on a journey through the United States on much the same two-lane highways that journalist Charles Kurwalt traveled for his “On the Road” segments. With his European eye for weird juxtapositions and abstract concepts, Sorrentino paints rural America in colors and textures few domestic travelers would ascribe to it, especially in the desert Southwest. The people who take refuge on the fringes of Red State America may barely register on the Richter scale of life, but, like everyone else here, they have stories to tell. One of them belongs to the Nazi fugitive, who Cheyenne finds living in a trailer on a snow-covered mountain top. Hannah Arendt could have had SS Officer Aloise Muller in mind in her writings about what makes ordinary men into tools of totalitarianism and the banality of evil. Finally, Cheyenne has to decide what’s more important, revenge or making himself whole. Despite winning a flock of awards in Europe, “This Must Be the Place” died a sadly premature death in America. If anyone in Hollywood had seen it, Penn might have been nominated for the sixth time as Best Actor, as would Byrne’s original music. Also appearing are Frances McDormand, Eve Hewson, Harry Dean Stanton, Kerry Condon and Olwen Fouere. – Gary Dretzka

Smashed: Blu-ray
No matter how well-intentioned, it’s tough to love movies in which the ravages of alcoholism are put on full display early on and repeated throughout most of the next 90 minutes. After a certain point, the testimonies at AA meetings all begin to sound alike and their emotional tug weakens with every new anecdote. Director James Ponsoldt, who co-wrote “Smashed” with Susan Burke, seems to be wedded to the subject. In his excellent first feature, “Off the Black,” Nick Nolte played a baseball umpire and notorious local drunk, who bonds with an athlete after the kid gets in trouble for vandalizing the older man’s home. In “The Spectacular Now,” which is currently on display at SXSW, a teenager with a serious drinking problem finds salvation with the help of a girl who’s his polar opposite. “Smashed” is about a married couple, likely in their late 20s, who have come to a crossroads because of the importance of inebriants in their lives. If he follows form, Ponsoldt’s fourth feature could focus on fetal-alcohol syndrome. The good news is that the 35-year-old filmmaker has yet to wear out his welcome with film critics who have seen no reason to dismiss him as a one-trick pony.

The best thing about “Smashed” is how seriously the actors take their assignments, even knowing that they’re exploring well-trod territory here. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate, an elementary-school teacher whose nightly binges – a.k.a., partying – have begun to cause problems on the job. After getting sick in front of her stunned students, Kate explains to them that she’s pregnant and vomiting comes with the territory. It’s a lie that will come back to haunt her. As is so often the case, Kate and her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), are never so in love as when they are bombed. Neither is willing to admit to having a problem, but Kate agrees to accompany a fellow teacher (Nick Offerman) to an AA meeting. Her testimony isn’t all that different from others we’ve heard during meetings staged for the camera. When we meet her mother (Mary Kay Place), though, it becomes clear that casual drinking was as much a part of their household as the photos on the fireplace mantel.

By the time the third act rolls in, of course, there will be a serious test of the characters’ dedication to sobriety and matrimony. That’s what third acts are for, right? This one plays out honestly, I think. Not surprisingly, “Smashed” didn’t set anyone’s turnstiles on fire in limited release. It would be a shame, however, if Winstead’s performance went unnoticed by the top casting directors in Hollywood. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Ponsoldt and Winstead; deleted scenes; a making-of featurette; and interviews and a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival. – Gary Dretzka

Hemel
If there’s anyone more insufferable than a non-smoker lecturing a smoker about the evils of tobacco, it’s a deeply unhappy libertine trying to convince a pair of committed virgins that abstaining from sex is neither healthy nor logical. Normally, virgins are the butt of derisive jokes in movies. In “Hemel,” though, the title character has been corroded by sex to the point that her point of view on the subject comes off as ludicrous, not sensible. Hemel (Hannah Hoekstra) is a 23-year-old Dutch woman who drifts through a series of anonymous one-night stands – none of which are completely satisfying to her – looking for something desperately missing in her life. She lost her mother early and quickly developed an unhealthy dependence on her father, who’s only slightly less promiscuous than Hemel (a.k.a., Heaven). When her father falls in love with a woman closer to his age, Hemel can’t contain her jealousy and cynicism.

This is Sacha Polak’s first feature film and she captures her protagonist’s pain so precisely that it can be felt pulsing through the screen. As much as we want to sympathize with this damaged young woman, though, it’s difficult to have positive feelings about an adult daughter who isn’t embarrassed about being in the same shower room as her father, naked as the day they both were born. It’s a moment that a mother and daughter might occasionally share, or a father and son, but never a father and his grown daughter. Even if we’ve already written off the old man as a pervert, the casual exchange on Hemel’s part, especially, is terribly discomforting. Such intimacy may have added another important piece to the puzzle, but it gave me the creeps.

Working off of an eight-chapter script by Helena van der Muelen, Polak offers few concessions, even to a decidedly arthouse audience. She portrays Hemel as written and expects us to believe that such women exist. The camera’s eye records what it sees without sympathy or prejudice. Polak doesn’t seem to care if we feel Hemel’s pain — if such a thing were possible – but she demands that we look into her eyes before passing judgment. More than anything else, we’re looking for a cure to the protagonist’s deep-seated unhappiness that doesn’t include surviving a fall from a tall building or a razor slash. I’ll leave it to you to discover if such an unsettling thing happens in “Hemel.” The DVD adds short, but informative interviews with Polak and Hoekstra. – Gary Dretzka

Tristana: Blu-ray
Ministry of Fear: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Made in 1970, when Luis Buñuel was entering his eighth decade on Earth, “Tristana” excited buffs, critics and scholars who already were feasting on the Spanish surrealist’s last great burst of creativity. Bunuel seemed equally happy to finally have budgets large enough to sustain his visions and reach. Sadly, “Tristana” also is the film from that period that has suffered the most from neglect. The Cohen Film Collection’s 2K restoration, for theatrical release and Blu-ray, goes a long way toward rectifying that situation. Because he lived several decades in self-imposed exile, mostly in Hollywood, New York and Mexico City, “Tristana” was only the second film Bunuel made in his native country in 34 years. He had been encouraged by Franco’s government to make “Viridiana” there 10 years earlier, but it would be banned by Spain and the Vatican immediately after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes. If “Tristana” seems to be less overtly political and blasphemous – or surrealistic, for that matter – it’s only because the filmmaker made it more difficult to discern the anti-establishment seams. Tristana’s dream sequence contains one of the most memorably surrealistic moments in cinema history.

Three years removed from her stunning performance in “Belle du Jour,” Catherine Deneuve plays the title character, whose evolution from innocent orphan to manipulative monster is masterfully executed. After Tristana’s mother dies, she is encouraged to stay in the Toledo home of the aristocratic Don Lupe (Fernando Rey), who employed them. Don Lupe may be a man of Republican beliefs in pre-Civil War Spain, but his treatment of attractive young women borders on prehistoric. As her guardian, he refuses to let her spend any time in the city streets, unless she’s accompanied by him or the maid. While he insists that this is for her protection, we know that he wants to make her dependent on his care and freely give up her virginity to him, which she does. It doesn’t take long for Tristana to bristle under Don Lupe’s yoke and a local artist, Horacio (Franco Nero), is ripe for the picking. They marry, but, several years later, after she loses a leg to cancer, Tristana convinces Horacio to deliver her back to Don Lupe’s abode. In doing so, she has consciously broken the painter’s heart and set up her older and noticeably weaker “guardian” for his comeuppance.

Although all of Bunuel’s grand obsessions and themes are on full display in “Tristana,” viewers new to his work may enjoy returning to Chapter 1 and watch it again, this time overlaid with commentary provided by Deneuve and critic Kent Jones. Also recommended is a 30-minute visual essay with Bunuel scholar Peter William Evans. The set is enhanced with a slightly different alternate ending, a chapter excerpt from scholar Raymond Durgnat’s out-of-print book on Bunuel; and English and Spanish dub tracks.

Bunuel openly credited such Fritz Lang films as “Destiny” and “M” for convincing him to pursue filmmaking as a career. It would be difficult, though, to find any serious director over the course of the last 90 years who hasn’t been influenced by the Austrian master of suspense. Adapted from a novel by Graham Greene, “Ministry of Fear” was informed by Lang’s experiences in the early days of the Third Reich, which he left immediately after Josef Goebbels offered him the job of head of the German Cinema Institute. Once in power, the Nazis maintained their hold on the country through fear and intimidation. Across the English Channel, Hitler’s nightly bombing runs and dogfights with crack British pilots – combined with blackouts and rumors of Nazi spy networks – kept the country on edge. Although the impact of intelligence gathered by German spies has since been discounted, cracking spy rings became a staple of wartime thrillers for years to come.

Such is the case with “Ministry of Fear,” in which an innocent man (Ray Milland) literally stumbles upon on a spy network operating near a munitions factory in the countryside not far from London. Stephen Neale has just been released from a sanitarium and is enjoying a night out at a local carnival when something very strange occurs. He mistakenly is awarded a cake that was intended for a Nazi courier, played by Dan Duryea, because it contains top-secret microfilm with invasion plans. The blunder makes him a target both for the embedded spies seeking the data and by police, as a suspect in a murder during a séance. Before long, it becomes impossible for Neale to trust anyone in his pursuit of the truth. The atmosphere of fear and paranoia is enhanced by Lang’s strategic use of noir lighting techniques, which he practically invented 20 years earlier in Berlin. The Criterion Collection release is enhanced by a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition; a new interview with Lang scholar Joe McElhaney; and an essay by critic Glenn Kenny – Gary Dretzka

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away: Blu-ray
The title of the Montreal-based troupe’s latest feature film is a tad misleading.  “Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away” may be infinitely different from any circus or acrobatic movie you’ve ever seen, but the source material can be found in Las Vegas, where Cirque shows are as uncommon as neon signs. In fact, “Worlds Away” more closely resembles a hearty buffet than, say, the entrée course at Picasso or Joel Robuchon. For 90 minutes, viewers are invited to sample tasty, interwoven bits of the company’s seven shows on the Strip, circa 2011: “O,” “Mystère,” “Kà,” “Love,” “Zumanity,” “Viva Elvis” and “Criss Angel Believe.” With the exception of “Viva Elvis,” all are still up and running. (“Zarkana” has been added to the lineup, with the traveling Michael Jackson salute coming soon.) Anyone whose only familiarity with Cirque du Soleil has been through the big-top shows should know that all of the shows in Las Vegas take place on a permanent stage, under a hard roof. Most are staged in venues that are three or four times the size of the landmark blue-and-yellow tent.

Unlike what happens in the Strip venues, “Worlds Away” adds a throughline that connects the seven shows. It isn’t much, but it’s more narrative than fans usually get. Erica Linz plays a young woman who falls in loves with an aerialist she’s only seen perform in one of the tent shows. Obsessed, she travels to the World of Cirque to reconnect, only to become a flier herself. Although it can be argued that “Worlds Away” is merely a sampler from the Vegas menu, the Blu-ray 2D/3D presentation is truly spectacular and enjoyable on its own merits. The already-brilliant colors, costumes and sets really pop in hi-def and the cameras, under the guidance of producer James Cameron (yes, that James Cameron), take us to places inaccessible to everyday audience members. That means going under water with the performers in “O,” to the rafters with the trapeze acts and alongside the dancers, clowns and acrobats on the various stages. The Blu-ray arrives with a short Cirque du Soleil visual primer and a nice piece in which Linz describes the creation of an acrobatic dance routine. Oh, yeah, there’s a commercial for the Vegas productions. – Gary Dretzka

The Taint
One sure way of telling if you’re addicted to cigarettes is if you light one up while trying to escape from a scythe-wielding lunatic in an orange jump suit. Troma out-Tromas itself in “The Taint,” a movie that practically dares viewers to make it through the first 10 minutes without puking. Apparently, someone or something has tainted the drinking water of East Jeezus, Nowhere, and the poison has turned the male population into slobbering misogynistic killers. Not to put too fine a point on what happens next, but it involves crushed skulls and a toxic substance propelled from the diseased penises of the infected men. If society, such as it is, is to survive the plague it will be up to white-wigged Phil O’Ginny and his shotgun-toting companion, Misandra, to eliminate all of the serial castrators, gang-rapists and stone killers. Freud probably would have had a field day with the Virginia-based first-time filmmakers Drew Bolduc and Dan Nelson, whose every notion of bad taste involves the male organ in one perverse way or another. All of that said, “Taint” looks surprisingly good technically and the special-effects, while crude, do the trick in the gore department. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the acting and dialogue are amateurish, even by Troma’s normally low standards. The DVD adds commentaries by the directors and cast; deleted scenes; a behind-the-scenes slideshow; and an introduction by Lloyd Kaufman. Don’t say you weren’t warned. – Gary Dretzka

Storage 24: Blu-ray
In Their Skin
Grave Encounters 2
Wouldn’t it be great if, when the contents of a locker are revealed on “Storage Wars,” an extraterrestrial being jumped out of a crate like a jack-in-the-box? Only the withered corpse Jimmy Hoffa or Judge Crater could compare to such a shocking discovery. That essentially is what happens in “Storage 24,” a London-based sci-fi thriller that unspools after a military cargo plane crashes, leaving its highly classified contents strewn across the city. At the same time, several attractive young people, of course, are trapped within the maze of a very large storage facility. While they’re attempting to work out their respective interpersonal issues, a grotesque creature is stalking them. It makes lots of unpleasant noises that resonate throughout the multi-floor structure. Maybe, it’s just me, but I think I’d be more concerned with the monster than who was cheating on whom in the world above. If things weren’t complicated enough, an air-conditioning duct leads would-be heroes to a locker filled with lifelike mannequins, any one of which could be a creature in disguise, and one with weapons-grade dildos. Beyond that, “Storage 24” is pretty standard stuff. It adds a making-of featurette, interviews and deleted scenes.

As difficult as it is to paint a portrait of the typical American family, it’s just that hard to agree on what constitutes the quintessential American neighborhood. As we observed in “Desperate Housewives,” among other popular entertainments, neighborhoods can be every bit as dysfunctional and potentially dangerous as the families that populate them. Nonetheless, a Welcome Wagon visit remains as ritualistic as bringing a casserole to the home of a neighbor whose spouse has just died. “In Their Skin” demonstrates what can happen when someone moves into the wrong neighborhood and opens their home to the wrong family. After suffering the tragic loss of their daughter, the Hughes family decides to spend some time in their well-appointed vacation home. Early the first morning, Mark (Joshua Close) and Mary (Selma Blair) are awakened by the sound of someone piling firewood outside their home. The Sakowskis (James D’Arcy, Rachel Miner) are something of a parallel family to the Hughes, only a million times creepier. Even though Mark can barely contain his hostility toward the sleep-defeating Sakowskis, Mary invites them to dinner. It is, of course, not a very smart move. If such recent home-invasion movies as “The Strangers,” “The Perfect Host” and two “Funny Games” have doubt us anything, it’s to be wary of anyone who unexpectedly shows up at our doorstep and isn’t wearing a UPS or Fedex uniform. “In Their Skin” resembles all of them in one way or another. By adding sexual and psycho-dramatic elements to the usual motivational forces of envy and sadism, freshmen director Jeremy Power Regimbal and co-writer Close have kept their drama from being a copy-cat thriller tailored for the festival and DVD-original market. The actors are all quite good, especially Alex Ferris as the bad-seed Sakowski.

In 2011, the Vicious Brothers’ “Grave Encounters” had some fun with the found-footage subgenre, by having the cast of a “Ghost Hunters”-type reality show pay a visit to an abandoned mental hospital and discover to their dismay that it actually is haunted. Enough people liked it that the creators wrote a sequel and handed it off to a new director, John Poliquin. Although “Grave Encounters 2” sometimes borders on being too cute by half, it should satisfy fans of the original and other, lesser found-film efforts. Its primary conceit involves acknowledging the existence of the film, “Grave Encounters,” and having fanboys offer video reviews of it as the sequel opens. One of them decides that he’d like to find out what happened to original fictional team of paranormal investigators and return to the asylum with a film crew of his own. He even receives an e-mail with an irresistible clue to their fates. As you might already have guessed, many of the same demons who populated the first “GE” return in “GE2,” plus some new tormented souls. The nice thing about both movies is that they don’t waste a lot of time building tension or teasing viewers. The nasty stuff arrives early and keeps coming throughout the 95-minute flick, when another set of mysteries presents itself. There’s an interview with filmmakers included in the DVD. – Gary Dretzka

Death Penalty.com/Death Penalty.com: A New Beginning
Nikattsu: Fairy in a Cage
Nikattsu: Female Teacher: In Front of the Students
Absent an interview or making-of featurette, I have no way of knowing if Danger After Dark’s “Death Penalty.com” and “Death Penalty.com: A New Beginning” were directly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” If not, director Ryota Sakamaki probably snoozed through an airing of the classic thriller on TV and woke up thinking that the dream he just had about two guys conspiring on train was less Freudian than Hollywoodian. Instead of having two complete strangers with foolproof alibis agree to dispose of each other’s nemesis, a young brothel employee with a similar problem simply goes to the DeathPenalty.com website. Here, he’s introduced to a rogues’ gallery of desperate characters who’ve agreed to a quid-pro-quo arrangement like the one in the Hitchcock movie. All new petitioners are required to present their case before the panel. If they agree to accept the assignment, all will be involved in the murder to one degree or another. The person who ostensibly stands to gain from the arrangement then is required to participate in future hits. If that person reneges, he or she becomes the next victim. Although there are real consequences to every request, DeathPenalty.com could easily pass for an elaborate Internet prank. Fans of J-horror and bloody video games are more likely to dig the premise than those viewers who never miss a Hitchcock movie on TMC. The gore and punk sensibilities on display trend two generations younger.

World War II sexploitation movies reached their peak in the mid-1970s, with the release of such titles as “The Night Porter,” “Salo,” “Salon Kitty,” “Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS” and “Nazi Love Camp 27.” Blessedly, it wasn’t a genre that flourished at drive-ins or, in the case of “The Night Porter” and “Salo,” before arthouse audiences. Nazi fashions and other fascist iconography had been absorbed into the S&M and leather-fetishist subcultures by this time and swastikas were becoming a fixture in rape and torture fantasies. Mimicking the atrocities committed by Japanese forces during the war had much less resonance with moviegoers along the Pacific Rim. When it came to sexual enslavement, torture and random carnage, however, the Japanese were second to none. “Fairy in a Cage” is the rare movie that depicted the terrible activities of the much-feared kompeitsai, the military police force that had been in place for several decades before the war and served the same purpose as Hitler’s SS. (Koji Wakamatsu’s 1975 pinku film, “100 Years of Torture: The History,” took a longer view of kompeitsai atrocities.) As is generally the case with Porno Roman entries, “Fairy in a Cage” delivers far less commentary than sexual titillation. If such movies were restricted from showing genitalia and public hair, there were no limits to how crazy they could be. In “Fairy in a Cage,” a tyrannical judge uses his military power to imprison and torture people suspected of helping an anti-government movement. An unabashed pervert, war or no war, the judge hits the jackpot when the wife of a successful businessman is linked to a local kabuki actor, who might be supporting the protesters. It gave him a legal pretense for abusing a beautiful and sophisticated woman who’s closer to his age than the young actresses generally seen in torture porn. The victim was played by Naomi Tani, who was already well known as the Rope Queen for her dexterity at playing parts requiring bondage and S&M. When the kompeitsai officials in “Fairy in a Cage” are told they’re being shipped off to other occupied countries, their shock allows time for a sympathetic policeman to help the prisoners escape. The controversial and infrequently screened movie benefits from a high-definition transfer, taken from the original 35mm camera negative.

In American movies, rape is no longer a subject for easy exploitation or cheap thrills, as it was in the latter days of the drive-in era. The furor raised by graphically violent attacks on women in such disparate movies as “Jackson County Jail,” “Straw Dogs,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Death Wish” rightly forced studios and filmmakers to reconsider how and when to use rape as a story element. Rape subplots and fantasies even fell out of favor in porn movies that were intended for viewing on VCRs. Seemingly, the debate didn’t have much impact in Japan, where makers of “pink” and Roman Porno weren’t at all reluctant to use rape as a recurring theme in dramas and occasionally even humor. Such is the case with “Female Teacher: In Front of the Students” (1982), which is combines the “Female Teacher” series with the “roughie” subgenre. At a time when the home-video invasion was taking its toll on the production of studio movies and television, genre producers decided they needed to raise the ante on sex and violence to maintain their viewers’ interest. Here, shortly after a demure English teacher from another district takes a job in a crumbling high school, she is raped while taking a shower after tennis practice. It’s nasty business, even if not particularly graphic from a gynecological point of view. Reiko (Rushia Santo) suspects that her attacker is one of the cool kids in class, angry for her role in getting him booted off the tennis team for bullying another student.

The only clue left behind is a piece from a jigsaw puzzle. Rather than entrusting police with the investigation, Reiko decides she’ll track down the rapist herself and use humiliation as a form of punishment. (Remember that we’re in Japan and honor still counts for something.) Instead, no matter where she turns, she rewarded for her folly by being raped by someone new. It isn’t that difficult to guess the culprit, but the unmasking leads to a conclusion that would be comical, if it weren’t so wrong-headed. That said, though, “Female Teacher” is competently made and not without some wacky surprises. In another couple of years, protests by Japanese parents and school groups would be heard and the subgenre would pretty much disappear. Rape hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it’s primarily used now as a catalyst for revenge. The DVDs from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection come with a brief essay and trailers. – Gary Dretzka

The First Time
Dylan O’Brien and Britt Robertson make a very cute couple in the talky teen rom-com, “The First Time.” Dave and Aubrey meet outside a party and, for all intents and purposes, fall in love before even getting past the front door. Because nothing comes easy in teen rom-coms, they both admit to having significant others before talking the night away and realizing that they’re perfect for each other. A few obstacles pop up in between their first meeting and the first time they, well, you know.  The nice thing here is that no one is in any great hurry to do … you know. In their very early 20s, O’Brien and Robertson still look young enough to break out in zits at inappropriate times and listen, really listen to each other’s end of conversations. In his second feature, Jon Kasdan seems to have a grasp on the crazy rhythms and awkward moments that make a kid’s first true love so stupid, scary and wonderful. I haven’t been a teenager for a long time, but somehow what happens in “The First Time” feels real. – Gary Dretzka

Zulu Dawn: Blu-ray
Released during the centennial year of the Battle of Isandhlwana – the Zulu answer to the Sioux’s triumph at the Little Big Horn, three years earlier – Douglas Hickox’s 1979 war epic, “Zulu Dawn,” could just as easily have been intended as a critique of our disastrous adventure in Vietnam. The same arrogance shown by our military brass and political leaders in Southeast Asia is engrained in every frame of “Zulu Dawn.” For no good reason, besides vanity and imperialistic greed, British troops stationed in the colony of Nadal decided that 1879 would be a good year to invent a provocation with King Cetshwayo, nephew to the great Zulu warrior Shaka. The Zulu kingdom was preparing for the fall harvest when Cetshwayo was given the ultimatum to disband his army or face annihilation. The king admitted to no wrong doing, but reiterated his pledge not to cross the established Buffalo River border. Expecting a turkey shoot, the Brits assumed incorrectly that modern weaponry would prove superior to the Zulus’ cowhide shields, swords, spears, clubs and warrior mentality.

What the British failed to take into account was the Zulus’ ability to mass individual militias so quickly, finally outnumbering them 16-to-1. The Brits’ arrogance caused them to take risks that they wouldn’t have attempted if facing a European army using similar weapons. As the redcoats ran out of bullets, the Zulus kept coming. “Zulu Dawn” is as good a war picture as one is likely to find, if only because Hickox could call on 11,000 native extras and background artists to re-create the horror staring the Brits in the face. The battle sequences were staged, as well, in the shadow of the same mountain, Isandhlwana. Because it was made in the almost immediate aftermath of Vietnam, writer Cy Endfield wasn’t required to summon pity and sympathy for the aggressors, as early American westerns had for General George Armstrong Custer. In fact, “Zulu Dawn” served as a prequel to the events dramatized in Endfield’s “Zulu,” which described the ensuing Battle of Rorke’s Drift. That movie ended far differently than “Zulu Dawn,” in that a smaller group of British troops held off a larger formation of Zulus. The cast includes Peter O’Toole, Burt Lancaster, Bob Hoskins, John Mills, Simon Ward, Denholm Elliott and Nigel Davenport. The restored Blu-ray edition looks and sounds quite good and includes an excellent historical recounting of the entire Anglo-Zulu War. – Gary Dretzka

The Devil’s in the Details: Blu-ray
In his first feature film, former Splender frontman Waymon Boone has created a hostage thriller whose dependence on coincidences and last-second reprieves nearly proves fatal to the narrative. “The Devil’s in the Details” describes how one troubled veteran of the Middle East wars is set up by a Mexican cartel to facilitate a scheme so complicated that it appears as if they’re smuggling drugs across the border in the wrong direction. Thomas Conrad (Joel Mathews) is recovering from an addiction to prescription pills, but still has a way to go with PTSD. One afternoon, while driving around Nogales, Arizona, he’s involved in an accident with a dapper fellow, who, instead of exchanging insurance data, invites Thomas for a drink at his favorite watering hole. After passing out from too much tequila, he awakens from his stupor tied to a metal operating table. His drinking companion (Emilio Rivera) is also in the dark concrete banner, but stone sober and holding a pistol. After some preliminary torture, Thomas is told that his estranged wife and daughter are being held hostage, as well, and will be killed if he doesn’t cooperate. Here’s where the coincidences begin to pile up: Thomas must convince his father, a judge, to draw up a search warrant for a home in the border city; convince his sister, a much-admired cop, to serve the warrant and steal the stash hidden there; and convince his brother, a tough Border Patrol officer, to let a blue van pass loaded with the drugs and money through his checkpoint. Thomas is given only a few minutes to assure them that he hasn’t pulled this scam out of his ass to get money to buy more pills. When they hesitate, Thomas is given a jolt of electricity or knife prick to make his demeanor seem more authentic. Finally, after they agree to help, the whole operation begins to go sideways. Fortunately, his military psychiatrist (Ray Liotta) is a former Navy SEAL and someone who believes that his patient deserves the benefit of a doubt. Like I said, that’s a lot of coincidences. For a debut film, “The Devil’s in the Details” is reasonably exciting and the characters are well drawn. The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Rise of the Guardians: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
In a curious example of cross-market appeal, the timing of the theatrical and Blu-ray release of the seasonal adventure, “Rise of the Guardians,” dovetails nicely with both Christmas and Easter. That’s because two of the key characters in DreamWorks’ adaptation of William Joyce’s “The Guardians of Childhood” happen to be Santa Claus (a.k.a., North) and E. Aster Bunnymund. They are two of the four Guardians, who’ve been charged with protecting the children of the world from darkness and fear, in the form of the evil Pitch (a.k.a., Bogeyman). The Man in the Moon wants to make Jack Frost a Guardian, but, first, he’s required to stop Pitch from capturing the fairies who deliver missing baby teeth from under kids’ pillows and turning them into Easter eggs. Jack, who’s used to bringing the gift of ice to knuckleheaded hockey fanatics, has his work cut out for him. Children have begun to despair of ever again enjoying their holidays and are giving in to the scary things that lurk in closets and under beds. Suddenly it’s as if the Guardians have abandoned them. If only Jack can summon the courage to stand up to the Bogeyman, the forces of evil might be forced to retreat or surrender. Peter Ramsey’s only other directorial credit is the short TV movie, “Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space,” but he’s worked in the animation, special effects and art departments of a couple dozen larger projects. In any case, he seems to have had firm grip on the wheel in the quickly paced and alternately dark and colorful “Rise of the Guardians.” The Blu-ray bonus features include interactive games, commentary and behind-the-scenes pieces. The limited-edition set adds two full-size “hopping eggs.”  – Gary Dretzka

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness
If Sholem Aleichem is known at all outside the greater Jewish community, it’s as the writer of the stories from which the Broadway musical “A Fiddler on the Roof” was adapted. Joseph Dorman’s revelatory bio-doc, “Laughing in the Darkness,” is much more than a primer on the works of an important writer. It also describes how Aleichem’s stories grew organically from the folk traditions, Yiddish language and dramatic events that would change the way Russian Jews had lived for the past 1,000 years. If a hundred fans of “Fiddler on the Roof” were asked to sketch a portrait of the author, most of the drawings would resemble the actor, Topol, who played Teyve the Milkman on stage and in the movie. Some would bear traces of Mark Twain, the writer most frequently compared to the author and playwright formerly known as Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich. In fact, he was a strikingly handsome man, with a bushy mustache, soul patch, long hair and the kind of eyeglasses favored by leftist intellectuals in the 1960s. As a young man, he dressed with a dandyish flair that belied his shtetl roots.

Dorman is quick to point out that Aleichem’s stories were written at a time when, whether they knew it or not, international Jewry was about to undergo an epochal change. Pogroms and the Russia Revolution would combine to destroy the shtetl way of life and send millions of Jews packing to Palestine and urban centers in western Europe and the United States. Aleichem’s work not only was drawn from memories of the places in which Jews lived and would soon leave, but it also asked how they could adapt to modernity and yet not lose the continuity of their culture. For example, in the book “Teyve and His Daughters,” the milkman’s dilemma over Chava’s falling in love with a Gentile foreshadowed a century-long debate over the impact of assimilation, intermarriage and religious liberality. The documentary also follows Aleichem’s own search for a new home, in Kiev, Switzerland and New York, where his plays bombed and he found very little to like about American Jews. (Ironically, his funeral would attract 200,000 New Yorkers and be credited as the first event to demonstrate how powerful Jews could be as a unified political and cultural force.) Among the scholars, critics and historians interviewed here are granddaughter Bel Kaufman, who wrote the book “Up the Down Staircase,” which also was adapted into a Hollywood film. The DVDs adds a couple of interviews with the filmmaker. – Gary Dretzka

You’ve Been Trumped
Jay and Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O’ the Green
The maddening documentary “You’ve Been Trumped” provides yet another exquisite example of life imitating art, with completely different results. Twenty-four years after a filthy-rich oil tycoon played by Burt Lancaster reversed his decision to purchase a pristine chunk of Scottish coastline in “Local Hero,” that notorious American dickhead Donald Trump committed his resources to doing the same thing. In Bill Forsythe’s wonderfully quirky comedy, the tiny town of Aberdeenshire serves as a backdrop for a David-vs.-Goliath story, in which the Houston-based based industrialist faces a challenge by an old-school beachcomber who lives in a driftwood shack. Instead of bullying the locals, lying to the press, bribing Scottish politicians, corrupting the police force and insulting landowners, as was the case with Trump, Lancaster spent several quiet hours drinking whiskey, swapping stories and picking the brain of the last man standing between him and an expected oil bonanza. (The other locals are tired of their hard-working lives and would welcome being bought out.) What finally dissuades Lancaster’s amateur astronomer are the unspoiled nighttime skies, whose clarity allows him to study the heavens unabated. A compromise is reached and everyone lives happily ever after … amen.

Trump wasn’t interested in oil when he bought the windswept dunes and unspoiled wildlife habitat. He simply wanted to build the “world’s greatest golf course” and put up some multistory buildings on his property … that and tear up the fragile landscape so that rich duffers could pay exorbitant fees to hit tiny white balls into the sea. In an effort to crush dissent, Trump demonized local residents in the media and made every effort to crush a neighboring farmer because he considered the man’s property to be an eyesore. Trump knows that the media can’t resist quoting him and insisted to their cameras that the local residents were “pigs” and “living in squalor.” It’s as clear a case of corporate bullying as has risen in the last several decades. “You’ve Been Trumped” lays out the case of the locals and environmentalists succinctly and as balanced as it could be, considering that virtually everyone supporting his position declined to be interviewed. Two years later, Trump threatened the Scottish government with abandonment of the project if plans for an offshore wind farm weren’t approved. Meanwhile, NBC was doing its part for mankind by lionizing Trump on the insipid reality show, “The Apprentice.” The DVD package includes footage of the opening of course, Trump in Scottish Parliament, Occupy Wall Street projects and filmmaker Anthony Baxter on “Moyers & Company.”

Talk about triumphs of American diplomacy: Scotland gets Donald Trump and the Irish get Jay and Silent Bob. Somewhere, the Chinese are laughing their asses off. You really have to hand it to the stars of “Clerks” and “Mallrats.” No comedy team has gotten away with doing less with less than Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes. “Jay and Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O’ the Green” is the eighth title in a series of performance movies, during which two dudes sit behind a desk on stage and discuss things that must be interesting to someone, because they tend to sell out the venues they play. Mostly they discuss blow jobs, screwing in tiny cars, taking dumps, getting high and/or getting straight, pederast priests, chocolate milk and buying stuff in local stores. They punctuate each and every sentence with “fuck” or “shit” and occasionally perform skits with audience members, approximating fornication. “Jay and Silent Bob Get Irish” follows by only a few months “Jay and Silent Bob Get Old: Tea Bagging in the UK.” Many of the gags are the same or close enough for government work. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a bonus disc with material from a Las Vegas engagement. – Gary Dretzka

Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology
Shaman Healer Sage
Harley’s 5-Factor Workout
Typically, the biographies found on the IMDB.com website are written by publicists or semi-anonymous fans. The best ones are short and to the point, with plenty of room left over for trivia and quotations. Most are infrequently updated and littered with grammatical mistakes and misspellings. Perhaps the longest bio I’ve ever encountered there was written by Tiffany Shlain, the director and co-writer of “Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology,” about herself. It is almost twice as long as the one written about Charlie Chaplin and contains several more superlatives. On other sites, Shlain’s bio has been condensed to “Filmmaker, artist and Webby Award founder.” Her first feature-length documentary is a flashy rehashing of facts and theories almost everyone with a mouse pad already assumes to be true or has considered and discarded. It isn’t inaccurate, just redundant. An 11-year-old with a Facebook and Twitter account already has a pretty good idea about how cool and amazing it is that she can trade gossip about Justin Bieber with hundreds of other 11-year-olds around the world, as soon as it breaks on TMZ. There surely are better examples of the Internet’s importance, but, let’s face it, 90 percent of what’s communicated is garbage. As such, “Connected” is about as fascinating as a taped lecture from 1998 about the information superhighway by Al Gore.

Another obvious point she makes is the crucial role played by bees in the well-being of our planet’s ecosystem. Indeed, Einstein made the same point about bees and interconnectivity decades ago: if the bees disappear, so do we. The most poignant moments in the film come when Shlain pays homage to her late father, a prominent surgeon, and his many courageous battles with serious illnesses throughout his life. Her work has clearly been influenced by his theories on interconnectedness and the miracles that occur routinely in our brains. That part is fine, but Shlain also felt it necessary to include home movies that span her childhood and appearance at her dad’s funeral. The film arrives with two of her short films, “Yelp” and a “cloud”-created Independence Day salute.

In “Shaman Healer Sage,” we’re introduced once again to Alberto Villoldo Ph.D., a Cuban-born psychologist, medical scientist, anthropologist and author who believes that traditional folk medicine could do wonders for people who don’t live in Amazonian jungles and on Andean peaks. He calls it “ancient energy medicine.” For the last quarter-century, Villoldo has worked alongside shamans and South American medical practitioners to explore the mysteries of the natural and supernatural worlds. The documentary has been adapted from Villoldo’s book of the same title.

If “Harley’s 5-Factor Workout” is to be believed, others look to Hollywood stars for their physical well-being. Apparently, Harley Pasternak is a big deal among “Hollywood’s A-list.” It’s a boast, “plumber to the stars,” that always begs the question about what constitutes celebrity in Tinseltown. In any case, Pasternak’s regimen involves a “scientifically proven 5-Factor approach (which) balances fitness and diet in one easy-to-manage program.” The claim here is that it takes only 25 minutes of work for 5 weeks, or so, to show positive results. – Gary Dretzka

The Mob Doctor: The Complete Series
PBS: Saving the Ocean: Season 1
American Experience: Silicon Valley: Where the Future Was Born
PBS: Pioneers of Television: Season 3
Nova: Doomsday Volcanoes
PBS: The Mind of a Chef
In the annals of bad programming decisions, Fox’s “The Mob Doctor” takes the cake for unappetizing concepts. You can almost hear the high-concept pitch over lunch at Spago, “Two words … ‘mob doctor.’ You pay for the meal.” If any pitch cried out for reality-show status, it’s “The Mob Doctor.” Any writer who is able to squeeze a season’s worth of stories from that questionable concept should also be able to find a real doctor who specializes in treating gangsters or was convicted of same. I, for one, find it difficult to imagine a high-ranking member of the Chicago Outfit waiting more than 30 seconds for treatment, even for an ingrown toenail. Then, too, almost every gangster movie worth its salt has introduced a doctor, nurse or veterinarian who could be counted on to extract bullets and resist the temptation to inform the proper authorities of an accident involving gunplay, as is required in real life. Instead, “The Mob Doctor” borrows bits and pieces from every network medical series since “ER” and mixes in the gangland elements as if they were ingredients in a tossed salad.

Pretty blond Jordana Spiro plays Grace Devlin, a surgeon in a prominent Chicago hospital. To save her brother from a massive debt owed to a gangster Devlin agrees to do odd medical jobs off the books. In Chapter 1, she’s required to extract a screwdriver from some mook’s head and kill an informer who is wheeled into the hospital after eating too much pasta or something equally lethal. She’s constantly getting calls from the mob boss to race to the suburbs during her lunch break to treat one ailment or another. Then, she has to fight midday traffic on the Eisenhower Freeway to return in time for a crucial surgery on a non-Mafia patient. By television standards, “The Mob Doctor” features a top-shelf cast of recognizable actors. Besides Spiro, there’s William Forsythe, Michael Rapaport, David Pasquesi, Zeljko Ivanek, Kevin Corrigan, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Terry Kinney, Timothy Busfield and Michael Madsen. I hope they all got pay-or-play contracts for a full-season run, even though Fox pulled the show after 13 episodes.

In “Saving the Ocean With Carl Safina,” the founder of the Blue Ocean Institute identifies such well-known threats to aquatic habitats as overfishing, pollution and the destruction of reefs, then finds scientists, conservationists and local communities that are doing positive things to cure the ills. The subjects covered in the first season include swordfish, shark sanctuaries, sea turtles, endangered cod, Chinook salmon and lionfish, with stops in Baja, Trinidad, Washington state, Belize and Zanzibar.

The “American Experience” episode “Silicon Valley: Where the Future Was Born” goes all the way back to 1957, when 29-year-old physicist Robert Noyce co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor and put rural Santa Clara County on the scientific map. Among other things, advances in transistor and semiconductor technology opened the door for space exploration and the personal computer. Eleven years later, Noyce co-founded Intel, where he supervised the invention of the microprocessor. It’s through his eyes that “Silicon Valley” charts the growth of the region as the world’s foremost catalyst for the marriage of computer science and venture capitalism.

Now into its third season on PBS, “Pioneers of Television” offers an entertaining survey of the history of the medium through the testimony of creators, stars, historians and vintage clips from most important shows. It’s done so by focusing on specific genres and time-honored character types. This collection is broken up into the genres, “Funny Ladies,” “Primetime Soaps,” “Superheroes” and “Miniseries.” Each of the shows features new interviews with the great stars and rarely seen footage. Not surprisingly, perhaps, what’s on display here is often more entertaining than the competition on competing networks.

Nothing makes television news producers pee in their pants with delight as much as the eruption of a volcano. It doesn’t matter where the top of a mountain is exploding or spitting lava, it will be used to kill at least a minute’s worth of attention on the 11 p.m. newscast. The popularity of high-definition television has only increased the desire for all things volcanic. Nothing looks better on HDTV and Blu-ray than exposed magma and lava flows. Sadly, the only place volcano junkies will find “Nova: Doomsday Volcanoes” in HD is through PPV outlets. The episode uses the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which, in 2010, crippled trans-Atlantic travel for weeks, as an example of what could happen if something more catastrophic occurs. As CGI takes viewers inside these geological wonders, scientists offer opinions as to how a super-eruption could affect the global food supply and the Earth’s climate.

If you can get past the cheesy cover art for “The Mind of the Chef,” the names David Chang and Anthony Bourdain should draw your attention. Only 35, Chang is a much-celebrated New York chef, restaurateur and cookbook writer, whose reputation and skills force fickle diners to bow to his whims and demands. As executive producer and narrator, Bourdain basically is only along for the ride here. Still, the show reflects his occasionally iconoclastic attitudes and willingness to travel long distances for a great and often ridiculously inexpensive meal. The 16 episodes of “Mind of a Chef” included in the Season 1 DVD combine travel, cooking, history, science and humor into delicious entertainments. – Gary Dretzka

NFL Super Bowl XLVII Champions: 2012 Baltimore Ravens: Blu-ray
With another exciting Super Bowl in the books, it’s time for Ravens fans to relive the thrills and 49ers loyalists pretend it never happened. “NFL Super Bowl XLVII Champions” may not contain the game in its entirety, but it is built around a full season’s worth of highlights that include those in the championship game. Naturally, it’s divided roughly in half by the electrical blackout, during which the 49ers must have eaten a ton of Wheaties and remembered how they got to the Super Bowl in the first place. Instead of being a blowout, the game turned into an extremely competitive and wildly exciting affair, decided finally on a controversial non-call. No one dwells on that blunder here, so 49ers fans have almost no reason to get excited about this souvenir Blu-ray. As usual, NFL Films puts viewers on the sidelines, within eavesdropping distance of the players and coaches. The Blu-ray looks and sounds exceptionally good, as well. Not surprisingly, the bonus material is heavy on features about the brothers Harbaugh coaching on opposite sides of the field and how their parents split their allegiances. Other pieces include film from Super Bowl Media Day, post-game ceremonies, Courtney Upshaw’s “journey” and exclusive BD-Live Internet-connected features. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1: Extended Edition
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2
Looking down the road, it will be interesting to see if the number of little girls who are stuck with the name Renesmee is greater than the number of strippers who use it as a stage name. According to public records, a couple hundred babies around the world have already been named after Bella and Edwards’ bouncing baby daughter. Clearly, Bella isn’t thrilled with the nickname, “Nessie,” given Renesmee by her “imprinted” guardian/lover/friend, Jacob, while Mom was recovering from being dead. (“Nessie? You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?”) Most exotic dancers, on the other hand, don’t care if anyone, even a paying customer, remembers what she’s calling herself on any given day. The frightfully cute, half-immortal Renesmee is at the heart of everything that happens in series-capper, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2.” Apparently, the girl’s half-mortal status presents a grave threat to the well-being of the vampire race and the head of the powerful Rome-based coven, Volturi (Michael Sheen), wants to curtail any further dilution of the species. The battle royal that’s been brewing between the Volturi and Cullens for centuries finally takes place on a frozen lake in British Columbia. It’s a real hum-dinger and easily worth the expenditure in time it takes to slog through everything else that comes before it.

Apart from some dazzling special effects and Hong Kong-style acrobatics, however, “Part 2” is as half-baked as everything in the incredibly profitable franchise. By emphasizing the romantic aspects of Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling series, all that’s been required of the directors and writers is to coordinate the shirt-shrugging of the shape-shifters and ensure that the actresses could never be mistaken for Elsa Lanchester in “The Bride of Frankenstein.” If all vampires looked as eternally young as the Cullens and Volturi, half the residents of Beverly Hills would vacation in Transylvania, instead of Aspen and Maui. It seems as if more weight is put on the compilation of treacly pop songs for the soundtrack than anything in the scripts. But, then, the makers of “The Twilight Saga” never intended to convince critics of the franchise’s value. It’s been targeted at teenagers who think “Gossip Girl” and “Glee” are documentaries. Anyone who’s seen the iconic album, “50,000,000 Elvis Fan Can’t Be Wrong,” with 14 Elvi in identical gold-lamé suits on the cover, already knows not to bet against popular taste.

On the plus side, “Part 1” and “Part 2” demonstrate how good a physical actor Kristen Stewart has become. Her posture has gotten noticeably better and it’s made Bella’s transformations that much more credible. That may sound insignificant, but the Bella Swann of 2008 couldn’t stand up to a mouse, let alone a vampire or wolf. Robert Pattison’s evolution hasn’t been quite so noticeable, but, again, who cares? In fact, though, 12-year-old actor Mackenzie Foy and 44-year-old Michael Sheen steal the show here from both of the stars. (In “Part 2,” CGI wizardry allows Renesmee to age gracefully from infancy to near-adulthood, employing Foy’s facial features as their model.) The Blu-ray presentation also enhances our appreciation of the gorgeous locations, including British Columbia, Brazil, Virgin Islands and Louisiana.

Also new to Blu-ray is the extended version of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1,” which seamlessly adds about seven minutes of previously deleted material to the theatrical release. Casual fans of the saga probably won’t be impressed by the additions, but completists and Twihards almost certainly will want to see them. In what seems to be a purely financial decision, the inclusion of seven minutes of film pushed out the bonus features from the original Blu-ray. Director Bill Condon does provide peppy commentary over the new and old scenes. Condon’s commentary is available in Part 2,” as well. The Blu-ray adds an interesting making-of featurette that can be viewed PiP. The deluxe set adds a digital copy and UltraViolet compatibility. – Gary Dretzka

Wreck-It Ralph: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Normally, whenever a movie or DVD is described as being “family friendly,” the phrase merely is a code used by distributors to convince parents of the innocuous content contained therein. Apart from the fact that all families are different, it’s the rare G- and PG-rated title whose appeal truly spans post-toddlers, pre-teens, teens, young adults, parents and grandparents. There are exceptions, of course, but their success tends to prove the rule. In fact, G-rated movies outside the Disney universe are almost as poisonous at the box office as those rated R. The most recent exception, “Wreck-It Ralph,” shares something with “Cars,” “Toy Story” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” that’s allowed it to cross previously established borders separating age-neutral and family-friendly pictures. All four of these blockbuster titles offer pop-cultural points of reference that are almost guaranteed to please viewers of all ages. In the unlikely event that a parent or teen hates everything else in the movies, they can enjoy the homages paid to classic automobiles, toys and cartoon characters. Among other things, the references allow old-timers to bond with the child, relative or friend in the next seat. They can boast, “I had one of those when I was your age,” “Grandpa had a car like that when I was growing up” or offer historical trivia on the origins of the movie’s characters. “Wreck-It Ralph” recalls video- and arcade-game iconography from the infancy of the industry, its Golden Age and transitions from 8-bit, to 16-bit, to 64-bit and beyond. The Oscar-nominated Disney Animation product also tells the quintessentially human story of how it feels to be put out to pasture by every new concession to progress and the lengths a person will go to demonstrate their continued usefulness to society. In this regard, video games are no different than cars, toys, cartoons and human beings. That video games are so wonderfully colorful and hyperkinetic only serves to amplify the drama in Blu-ray 2D and 3D.

After 30 years of being vilified as a bully and bull-in-the-china-shop ogre, Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) desperately wants to become a valued member of the video-game community. He’s grown weary of playing the foil to Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer, of “30 Rock”), after whom their popular video game was named, and, like him, would like to be invited to birthday parties and other after-hours celebrations at Litwak’s Arcade. Compared to today’s multi-dimensional first-person-shooter games, though, “Fix-It Felix” is prehistoric. To prove he’s not such a chronically destructive bad guy, after all, Ralph decides to compete in a contest for survival against the cream of today’s crop in “Heroes Duty.” (After These include Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), General Hologram (Dennis Haysbert) and computer viruses and glitches unknown to the Sega and Nintendo loyalists of the 1980s. Between the rapidly advancing targets, IEDs and trigger-happy gamer controlling the speed of the contest, Ralph can barely keep up with the other characters. If he is going to collect the medals he needs to prove his worth back home, he’ll have to do it surreptitiously. Ralph’s greatest ally along the way is Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a pretty little glitch from the kart-racer game “Sugar Rush,” which shares space in the arcade with “Fix-It Felix.”

It’s obvious that writer/director Rich Moore and his team of writers have done their homework on the history of video gaming, as “Wreck-It Ralph” is informed by 40 years’ worth of iconography, audio-visual cues, character quirks and insider gags. Appearing in cameos, at least, are Sonic the Hedgehog and Dr. Eggman; Pac-Man and the orange ghost; Q*Bert; Bowser, from “Super Mario”; Neff from “Altered Beast”; a half-dozen characters from “Street Fighter”; and the bartender from “Tapper.” The co-mingle using electrical circuits that meet at the whimsical Grand Central Arcade. Most viewers will recognize the musical talent, including contributors Skrillex, Rihanna, Owl City, AKB48, Buckner & Garcia, Jamie Houston and Kool & the Gang, and composer Henry Jackman (“Puss in Boots”). The Blu-ray bonus package adds the 2013 Academy Award-winning short, “Paperman”; alternate and deleted scenes; the worthwhile making-of “Bit by Bit”; four video-game “commercials”; and “Disney Intermission,” which points out references and insider-jokes present in the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Schindler’s List 20th Anniversary Limited Edition: Blu-ray
If ever a movie needed no re-introduction to collectors of Blu-ray and DVD re-issues, it’s “Schindler’s List.” Besides being the only one of Steven Spielberg’s many excellent titles to win an Oscar as Best Picture, it forever changed the way Hollywood would make movies about war. Just as German citizens and Nazi sympathizers in France, Poland, Croatia and other Eastern European countries no longer could plead ignorance when it came to the existence of death camps in their midst, film makers would never again be able to paint portraits of our enemies using the same brush. It would be difficult to continue to ignore the fact that not all German soldiers and officers were Nazis and not all Nazi Party members wore the uniforms of the Gestapo or Waffen SS. Finding shades of gray in the darkness that was World War II required more work than previous writers and directors cared to do or thought was necessary. Documentaries revealed the horrors of the Holocaust to most Americans and that is the look Spielberg was seeking when he decided to shoot his film in black-and-white. After it would come such complex and nuanced dramas as “Black Book,” “Valkyrie,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “Life Is Beautiful,” “A Secret,” “In Darkness” and “The Counterfeiters,” as well as the genre-defying adventure, “Inglourious Basterds.”

In addition to demonstrating how one brave soul could stare Satan in the eye and prevent the otherwise inevitable deaths of 1,200 human beings, “Schindler’s List” also encouraged viewers to look beyond the horror and recognize non-Jews honored by Israel as “righteous among the nations.” As portrayed by Liam Neesen, Schindler was a Nazi Party member, who, at first, saw the Jewish workers at his factory as cheap labor, but would find in the 1943 raid on the Krakow Ghetto a line in the sand, separating humanity and evil. (In 2011, Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness” would relate a similarly heroic true story, this time in the then-Polish city of Lviv.)

For the 20th-anniversary edition, Spielberg personally supervised the transfer of “Schindler’s List” into hi-def from the original 35mm film negative. Janusz Kaminski’s superb black-and-white visual presentation remains as powerfully evocative in Blu-ray as it did on screen. Spielberg also supervised the restoration of the film’s audio elements and implementation of Universal’s subsequent DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. The Blu-ray improves dramatically on all previous iterations. Collectors should know, however, that Spielberg hasn’t felt it necessary to add new supplemental material, preferring to recycle standard-definition versions of “Voices From the List,” a 77-minute documentary featuring testimonials and recollections from men and women whose lives were saved by Schindler; Spielberg’s short introduction to the USC Shoah Foundation, which he founded to collect oral histories of survivors; and a promo for IWitness, an online application that gives educators and students access to more than 1,000 video testimonies. – Gary Dretzka

The Intouchables: Blu-ray
Odd-couple movies, like “The Intouchables,” walk a razor-thin line separating schmaltz from substance, with schmaltz nearly always prevailing. This crowd-pleaser from France succeeds by disposing with the frothy stuff early on and leaving plenty of room for an entirely convincing “bromance” to emerge. Omar Sy plays Driss, a Senegalese slacker living in a Paris slum, who applies for a job as caretaker simply to qualify for welfare benefits. Even though he makes himself seem as unqualified as possible, his bad attitude is exactly what appeals to wealthy quadriplegic Philippe (François Cluzet, a dead ringer for Dustin Hoffman). That’s because Philippe wants a caretaker who will look at him without pity and treat him as something other than a patient. At first, Driss isn’t at all anxious to perform the less-glamorous tasks associated with being a full-service caretaker. Philippe can afford to employ two other assistants, though, and their presence and advice take a load off Driss’ shoulders. In fact, it doesn’t take long before the two men begin to enjoy other’s company. Philippe laughs at Driss’ jokes, which usually come at the expense of his pompous associates or the silly operas his boss enjoys.

Coming from a large family, living in a small apartment, Driss can’t quite believe his good luck … or the waste and ostentatious lifestyle that comes with wealth. As a thoroughly committed womanizer, he doesn’t hesitate to hit on one of Philippe’s smoking-hot assistants or impress prostitutes with his fancy bedroom. He even convinces his boss to act on his impulses by answering mail from a mysterious female correspondent. Philippe may not have feeling from his neck down, but that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy a good earlobe massage while stoned on Driss’ killer weed. This may sound far-fetched, but Cluzet’s performance never threatens to go over the top and Driss’ willingness to test Philippe’s limit also is made to feel credible. Ironically, it isn’t until Philippe insists that Driss join him at the scene of the hang-gliding accident that left him immobile – and, at the same time, overcome his own fear of flying — that he begins to expand his horizons. “The Intouchables” may not appeal to diehard curmudgeons, but it left me with a smile and that isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Collaborator
There are very few better supporting actors working today than David Morse and, in “Collaborator,” he proves once again that no one can top him at playing damaged and tormented characters. He first proved it as a cast member of the ground-breaking TV series “St. Elsewhere” and has since shone in such dramas as “The Indian Runner,” “The Crossing Guard,” “The Green Mile,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Treme.” Martin Donovan’s career has nearly paralleled that of Morse. You might remember him from “The Opposite of Sex,” “Weeds,” “Stephen King’s Dead Zone,” “Boss” and any one of several Hal Hartley titles. “Collaborator” represents Donovan’s first shot at writing and directing, as well as co-starring. In a movie that could have fit the confines of the stage just as easily, the two friends play aging Baby Boomers who lived across the street from each other as children, but embarked on wildly divergent paths in their late teens. After Morse was denied entry into the Marine Corps for being mentally unstable – something I didn’t think was possible during the Vietnam War – he continued to live at home with his mom, drink beer, smoke pot and commit crimes. Donovan’s Robert Longfellow went east and became a playwright of some distinction, before falling on hard times and negative reviews. Robert and Gus meet again in L.A., when the married writer is in town to discuss a film project and, perhaps, rekindle an old flame.

One night, Gus confronts Robert at the door of his mother’s house and demands that he share some beers and, maybe, a doobie or two. Robert agrees, but only reluctantly. Things remain tentative until a cop knocks on the door and asks if police can use the house for a stakeout on Gus’ home. A hostage situation ensues when the fugitive makes his presence known by holding a gun to his neighbor’s head. While waiting out the police SWAT team, the two men begin to reminisce and share life stories. It isn’t until the subject of Robert’s late brother comes up that things begin to get tense, again. Gus and the brother were friends, before he was killed in the war, and, well, let’s just say that he’s been waiting all these years to confront Robert with his anger about the unfairness of it all. There’s a throughline involving Robert’s wife and old girlfriend, but it isn’t nearly as profound as what happens between the two men. “Collaborator” has a trick ending that may or may not please viewers, but clearly shows that Donovan was thinking beyond the obvious. The DVD adds interviews with the writer/director and co-star Olivia Williams, who is typically good in a smallish role. – Gary Dretzka

Interview With a Hitman: Blu-ray
It isn’t often that I’m able to give an unqualified rave to a thriller that goes straight-to-DVD, was made by a first-timer and whose cover promises little more than gunplay and death. “Interview With a Hitman,” written and directed by Perry Bhandal, chronicles the evolution of a professional assassin from his twisted boyhood to the pinnacle of his chosen career. Raised in the slums of Bucharest, Viktor appears to have been born with a chip on his shoulder. As soon as he’s able to hold a pistol in his wee hand, he volunteers to do errands for the local crime boss. They include killing a much larger man who owes money to the mob and wastes his last breath laughing at the boy’s effrontery. Assassins are taught not to leave witnesses, so he also kills the man’s wife. His first mistake in life is not to take out the kiddies, as well.

The life expectancy of even the most accomplished hitmen in Europe is relatively short, if only because trust is in short supply among the thuggish gangsters, all of whom seem to know each other. Viktor has lasted longer than most of his peers, thanks to his marksmanship and fists of fury. He keeps a low profile, but there are only so many mercenary killers listed in the Yellow Pages and his targets tend to be related by blood to a criminal who’s still alive. When he goes against his best instincts and develops feelings for a lethal lady, you sense that his time will come soon.

If none of that sounds remotely different from dozens of other crime thrillers you’ve seen in the last several years, “Interview With a Hitman” has other things going for it than action. In square-jawed Luke Goss (“Death Race 2,” “HellboyII,” “Blade II”), Bhandal has found an actor who has a firm handle on the character’s existential persona and feels comfortable within the film’s impressionistic landscape. Because Viktor isn’t required to waste words explaining his motives and chatting with his targets before killing them, Bhandal can play all the sonic, visual and narrative tricks on viewers that he feels necessary to convey his dark vision. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette with interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Lay the Favorite: Blu-ray
British director Stephen Frears has made so many terrific movies – “The Queen,” “The Grifters,” “High Fidelity,” “My Beautiful Launderette,” among them – that it’s easy to forgive him a late-career misstep or two. Not having read the memoirs from which “Lay the Favorite” was adapted, I have no way of knowing if the book was a barrel of laughs or an edgy look at one young woman’s adventures in the high-pressure world of professional sports gambling. I sense it was a little of both. With a cast that includes Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn, Corbin Bernsen, Laura Pepron and Rebecca Hall, however, “Lay the Favorite” could hardly have turned out to be anything but madcap or a romp … “Two for the Money” with laughs, if you will. Hall does a nice job as Beth Raymer, a woman who’s led the kind of life that defies belief. Like Diablo Cody, Raymer was a stripper before turning to writing. Her resume also bears similarities to that of Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of “Prozac Nation.” Before she used a Fulbright fellowship to study offshore gambling operations, Raymer was an outcall dancer, sex worker, adult-website model, cocktail waitress, failed social worker, gambler’s apprentice, amateur boxer.

“Lay the Favorite” follows Raymer’s blueprint pretty faithfully. After leaving Florida and her personal-dancer job, Beth moves to Las Vegas to pursue a high-paying job that involves as little actual work as possible. Beth is a lousy cocktail waitress, so that pretty much leaves employment in the sex trade. In a fortunate twist of fate, though, Beth is given an opportunity to study at the feet of a wizard of odds, Dink (Willis), who considers her to be a lucky charm. She quickly grasps the intricacies of legal sports wagering, so she’s ready to go pro when Dink’s blowsy wife, Tulip (Zeta-Jones), cuts shorts her internship. Cocky as hell, Beth moves to New York, where she finds clients for a bookie acquaintance, Rosie (Vaughn). When things get too hot in the Apple, he moves his operation to an island nation, where Internet gambling has become a cottage industry, and she’s quick to follow him there. When Beth runs afoul of Rosie over an uncollected gambling debt, she begs Dink and Tulip for help in setting up the gambler who’s threatened to blow her cover. Again, the actual scam probably wasn’t nearly as amusing is it’s portrayed in “Lay the Favorite.”

Frears is incapable of making a technically inferior movie, but these sorts of star-studded capers can test any director’s ability to keep his cast from devouring the scenery. Several crummy adaptations of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen novels attest to that. Hall is a serious actress and very likeable here, as is Laura Pepron (“That ’70s Show”) as Beth’s slutty, Vegas-savvy pal, Holly. In fact, if it weren’t for Pepron’s topless-sunbathing scene, which was leaked to adult Internet sites, “Lay the Favorite” might have gone straight to video, instead of opening quietly on 61 screens. Some of the deleted scenes included on the Blu-ray indicate that Frears might have had other ideas for the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Muay Thai Warrior: Blu-ray
This historically based martial-arts adventure began life as “Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya,” which far more accurately describes what kind of action viewers can expect here. Nopporn Watin’s freshman outing recounts the 17th Century story of Yamada, a Japanese fighter who is abandoned by an elite samurai expeditionary force operating in Siam. He finds sanctuary in Ayothaya, a rural Thai colony populated by mostly peaceful folks, who, when necessary, go all Muay Thai on their enemies. Yamada (Seigi Ozeki) takes to the new martial-arts discipline like a duck to water, combining what he learns from his master with the Japanese samurai skill set, which includes swordplay. Once he masters Thai boxing, his teacher recommends him for the honor of becoming a royal bodyguard. The Japanese are persistent, though, so there’s plenty of fighting action on display. “Muay Thai Warrior” is pretty easy on the eyes and the fight scenes are well choreographed. The combination of styles is what sells the movie, though. – Gary Dretzka

Gun Hill Road
Sometimes, when men come home from years spent at war or in prison, they expect things to be exactly the way they were before they left. If they aren’t, the guys can either roll with the changes and modify their expectations or take them as an affront to their manhood. That’s what happens in “Gun Hill Road,” a powerful family drama that compounds the agony for the returning male by forcing him to deal with a teenage son who has entered the initial stages of gender reappointment. At first, the muy macho Enrique (Esai Morales) can’t understand his son’s reluctance to join him at a Yankees game and participate in a pickup game in a Bronx park. His priorities simply have changed in the three years that Enrique has been gone. We already know that Michael (Harmony Santana) has come to grips with his sexuality and prefers to spend his non-school hours as a young woman. His mother, Angela (Judy Reyes), accepts her son’s decision – begrudgingly, perhaps – and has a secret of her own to withhold from Enrique. His first instinct is to blame his wife, her mother and sister for allowing Michael/Vanessa to take this path and, more to the point, emasculate him. Enrique’s anger pushes him to make decisions that could threaten the terms of his parole.

“Gun Hill Road” is the first feature by promising NYU graduate Rashaad Ernesto Green, who acknowledges that some of it, at least, is based on his own experiences. From Frame One, Enrique is a train wreck waiting to happen and we suspect that he would have been better served if his P.O. had done some research and considered how the changes at home would affect his behavior on parole. Placing him in a halfway house, until he could adjust to his new reality, probably would have been the better decision. If Green isn’t demonizing Enrique, exactly, he is indicting an engrained cultural prejudice that demands of men and boys that they never expose the less-than-masculine side of their personality. Indeed, Enrique even believes that he can “cure” his son by paying a visit to a prostitute – while sympathetic, she’s less attractive than most of the transgender men he knows – and introduce him to the joys of vaginal sex, such as they are. Writer/director Green isn’t saying that such an attitude is unique to urban Puerto Ricans, only that these are things he observed growing up in such a neighborhood. (On the Showtime series, “Shameless,” another act of forced heterosexuality occurs in a working-class family that’s white.) Green’s ending offers a glimpse of hope for the future, while also recognizing that change rarely occurs without hard lessons and pain. Morales and Reyes are terrific as Michael’s parents. The mother cuts the father as much slack as she possibly can, but won’t put his prejudices ahead of the rest of the family’s happiness. In fact, Michael is a good student and foresees a bright future as a writer. In his first feature role, Santana displays great self-confidence and an impressive emotional range. That Santana was cast before embarking on her own gender transition certainly informed the performance. “Gun Hill Road” takes its subject matter seriously and, even without graphic displays of sexuality, packs a strong punch. Based simply from the cover photograph, fans of Morales’ work could be in for a real shock if they go into the DVD blind. Parents of children undergoing the same treatments as Michael, though, could learn a lot from Green’s assured approach in the movie. It includes an informative interview with the filmmaker. – Gary Dretzka

The Marine 3: Homefront: Blu-ray
In the third installment of WWE/Fox’s “Marine” franchise, “The Marine 3: Homefront,” Mike “The Miz” Mizanin steps in for previous leads John Cena and Ted DiBiase Jr. They’re all graduates of the Vince McMahon Acting Academy. Cena has found some success beyond his “Marine” performance, but, as far as I know, none has given up his day job, yet. Here, Mizanin plays one-man assault team Sgt. Jake Carter, who’s home on leave in Washington state. No sooner does he arrive, however, than he starts to tell everyone what they’re doing wrong in their lives and beating up those who cross him. He’s especially rough on his sister (Ashley Bell), who is dating the wrong guy and had the temerity to quit a job that was arranged for her. Moments before we really are given an opportunity to hate the marine, Sis and her boyfriend are kidnaped by a bunch of guys pissed off by bankers and other corporate types sucking the life out of the American dream. Yeah, I know, join the club. The FBI has dibs on the investigation, but, of course, are no match for a One Man Marine Corps. The terrorists’ evil leader (Neal McDonough) is up to the challenge, however, and he isn’t about to allow one man to spoil his plan to blow up a symbol of all that’s evil in corporate America. If you’re still asking, “So, what’s the problem?,” understand that, like Timothy McVeigh, he doesn’t consider anyone who works in the building to be innocent. “The Marine: Homefront” is full of gung-ho action, most of which takes place in and around an abandoned commuter ship, and Mizanin certainly doesn’t embarrass himself in the lead role. The staged violence, though, is only a step or two above that demonstrated by kids playing Cowboys & Indians in the backyard … or training to be WWE Superstars. As such, it’s about par for the course for straight-to-video actioners. The extras include “Shipwrecked: Breaking Down the Boat”; “The Miz Rocks the Boat,” “The Miz Declassified,” “Casting Call: Ready to Enlist” and “Miz Journal.” – Gary Dretzka

Ghett’a Life
One of the nice things about movies shot on location in Jamaica is that, even 40 years after the release of “The Harder They Come,” we’ve yet to reach a critical mass of films exported from the island. As such, the urban locations and faces of the actors are still fresh. Only a really inept cinematographer could make the lush countryside look unappealing. “Ghett’a Life” tells a story that’s as old as the movies themselves, but the circumstances surrounding it provide a sense of urgency to what otherwise would be considered just another boxing drama. In the days before a hotly contested election, Kingston is divided by gang violence and party politics. Sadly, it coincides with the emergence of 16-year-old aspiring boxer, Derrick (Kevoy Burton), on the national boxing scene. The only training facility is on the other side of the wall dividing the warring communities and by attending classes there, Derrick is deemed a traitor. Just before he’s about to become another victim of mindless revenge, writer/director Chris Browne comes up with a twist that could save the boy’s life and career. “Ghett’a Life” benefits from the nicely captured look of life in the “garrison” communities, through which drive truckloads of soldiers and SUVs occupied by thugs, who look particularly evil. Anyone afraid of not being able to understand the patois should know ahead of time that the movie comes with easy to read subtitles. – Gary Dretzka

Satan’s Angel: Queen of Fire Tassels
Apparently, reports of the death of burlesque were premature. At a time when pornography has gone mainstream and nudity is harder to avoid than it is to find, it’s ironic that the “tease” in the art of striptease is enjoying a resurgence of popularity not only with performers who remember the golden age, but women young enough to be their granddaughters. In her late 60s, Angel Walker is a still-vibrant dancer, touring the world under her longtime stage name, Satan’s Angel. As the title of Josh Dragotta’s revealing and wonderfully entertaining documentary, “Satan’s Angel: Queen of Fire Tassels,” suggests, she’s still twirling her tassels and teaching her successors the same fiery trick. Documentaries about men and women in the skin trade are hardly uncommon these days. What makes this documentary special is Angel’s willingness to be completely candid about the roller-coaster ride she’s been on since she began running away from home, even as a 5th Grader in San Francisco. She’s dated many famous names – Clint Eastwood, Bobby Darin, members of the Rat Pack and the Doors – and doesn’t mind letting us know about them. The lows include a near fatal addiction to cocaine, death threats from the Hell’s Angels and being blackballed from mob nightclubs for being a lesbian. Adding to the film’s charm is that her mother’s still alive and by her side to corroborate her testimony. Nearly two dozen of her peers and younger admirers are here, as well, to discuss their art and what Angel has meant to them. To top it off, there’s lots of archival film footage, photos and publicity material. – Gary Dretzka

Repligator
Eaters
If the Syfy channel ever were to merge with Cinemax, movies like “Repligator” would be a staple of programming. The only thing keeping such a thing from happening today is the limitation on nudity – in this case, topless mutants — imposed on networks offered on basic-plus cable. Otherwise, “Repligator” follows the rules in Roger Corman’s playbook covering movies intended for exhibition on TV and in the international market. Like “Piranhaconda” and “Dinocroc vs. Supergator,” the title of Bret McCormick’s 1996 exploitation flick tells potential viewers everything they need to know about the movie ahead of time. “Babegators” probably would have been an even more useful title, but it might not have been specific enough for what essentially would qualify as an R-rated hybrid of sci-fi and horror. The nipples are simply the icing on the cake. Produced on a miniscule DIY budget, apart from the salaries, if any, of Gunnar Hansen (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) and scream queen Brinke Stevens, the effects are even cheesier than the screenplay. “Repligator” describes what happens when a top-secret military experiment backfires in the strangest possible way. A transporter gizmo designed to neutralize enemy troops turns male soldiers into horny women who can’t keep their shirts on. When they are aroused to the point of orgasm, the replicants morph into alligators. The same thing happens when the women scientists working in the lab are zapped. Like the x-ray glasses used by their male counterparts to sneak peeks at their boobs, the ray gun only serves to prove to the women that “men are such pigs.” “Repligator” easily qualifies as a guilty pleasure. The DVD adds an interview with the director and making-of featurette.

Any horror movie that opens with a TV anchorwoman reporting, “The Pope committed suicide this morning at 9 o’clock, shooting himself in the head. He left a note saying ‘I do not want to come back,’” can’t be all bad. And despite the glut of zombie movies in the marketplace, “Eaters” is sufficiently different to warrant a recommendation. Made in Italy and dubbed into English, benefits from a washed-out color palette and zombies who are able to do things that undead Americans have yet to master. For one thing, they can talk. Female zombies give birth to dead babies and some display early signs of cognitive powers. They also decompose at different speeds. This allows Dr. Gyno to dissect the less advanced cases and search their bodies for clues that could lead to a cure. Among the few humans unaffected by the plague are bounty hunters Alen (Guglielmo Favilla) and Igor (Alex Lucchesi). The zombies they don’t kill are brought to Gyno’s laboratory, so he can play God. Along the way, they encounter an insane artist, a group of neo-Nazi s led by a pint-sized Hitler, promoters of death matches between captured undead and a mysterious teenage girl, who could be the daughter of the feared Plague Spreader. Things get pretty gruesome sometimes, but genre buffs looking for something different should find something to like in “Easters.” A making-of featurette is included in the DVD package. – Gary Dretzka

The Nativity Story: Blu-ray
Samson and Delilah
Of the 17 Christmas-themed movies listed last December by the Huffington Post as being the best entertainments, none had anything to do with the birth of Jesus Christ. Even such lists on Christian-specific websites tend to be short on movies about the Nativity. It’s almost as if audiences and filmmakers, alike, are ashamed to have anything to do with the story of Christmas, except for an hour or two on the holiday, itself. Or, perhaps, Easter has been deemed the more theatrical of the two occasions and, anyway, how does one explain virgin birth to the kiddies? It would be easier to suggest that Santa Claus delivered the baby Jesus to Mary and Joseph and that’s what is being celebrated on December 25. That scenario might have inspired the distributors to release the Blu-ray ahead of the holiday, instead of in time for March Madness.

Written by Mike Rich and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, “The Nativity Story” stands as the movie that bears the closest relationship to the period and treats the biblical characters as if they’re flesh-and-blood human beings and not painted statues in a crèche in someone’s town square. A few critics found the 2006 film to be “inert,” “dull” and “plodding,” but you have to wonder what they might have been expecting, instead. A cameo by the Easter Bunny, perhaps? Hardwicke benefits from some fine cinematography by Elliot Davis, with whom she collaborated on “Twilight,” “Lords of Dogtown” and “Thirteen,” and nice performances by Ciarán Hinds, Stanley Townsend, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac, who, as Joseph, faced the movie’s biggest quandary. Now, if only someone can figure out what Jesus did during the ensuing 30 years, you’d really have something. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

So much money and effort has been put into the restoration of Cecil B. Demille’s 1949 biblical epic, “Samson and Delilah,” that it’s legitimate to wonder why a Blu-ray edition isn’t being released simultaneously with the DVD. Among other things, the original nitrate three-strip Technicolor negatives were scanned in 4K, and the three strip image was registered, cleaned and color corrected in 4K; the nitrate print was used, as well, to complete the original music overture and mono audio track; and special effect work was done to clean up original optical images. The presentation is bright and extremely lush, with Edith Head’s costumes benefitting the most from the Technicolor. The production may owe far more to Hollywood than the bible, but it’s wonderful to watch Victor Mature in all of his muscular glory. (Was that the MGM lion he slayed with his hands?) Angela Lansbury and Hedy Lamarr are also great fun to watch. “Samson and Delilah,” which ushered in a decade’s worth of similarly lavish biblical epics, was a huge hit for Paramount. If it sometimes feels soundstage-bound and terribly unfashionable, imagine what “Star Wars” will look like in 60 years. – Gary Dretzka

In Search of Memory
PBS: The Distracted Mind
PBS: Boundless Potential
Nova: Hurricane Sandy: Inside the Megastorm
PBS: The Mayo Clinic Diet
It isn’t often that we’re allowed to eavesdrop on a conversation with a Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist, even on DVD or audio tape. “In Search of Memory” explores the life and work of Eric Kandel, a scientist who’s spent most of the last 60 years looking for the keys to unlock the secrets of learning and memory. Petra Seeger’s documentary is divided into two parts, 1) Kandel’s research and discoveries, and 2) his own memories of growing up in Vienna, prior to and directly after the Anschluss. Although his parents had the foresight to send him to America as soon after the annexation as possible, Kandel’s memories of his early life seem as fresh as anything that happened 10 or 20 years ago. Discovering how such a thing is possible goes to the crux of his research. As a neurobiologist, Kandel used simple animal models – slugs, mollusks, mice among them – that would facilitate electrophysiological analysis of the synaptic changes involved in learning and memory storage. It would take me a million years to understand what’s discussed here, but Kandel makes it easy to follow his methodology, if nothing else. Also important to the discussion is Kandel’s relationship to Judaism. To this end, Kandel travels back to Vienna, where he attempts to locate landmarks from his youth, most of which no longer exist.

If that film doesn’t completely whet your appetite for neuro-stuff, you may want to check out the PBS documentary “The Distracted Mind,” with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley. It delves into attention, distraction and “the myth of multi-tasking.” It’s become fashionable in the corporate community to encourage multitasking and pushing one’s brain to its limits in the name of production and profits. A generation of young people for whom unions are anathema seems to have welcomed the opportunity not only to push themselves to exhaustion, but also be made redundant when they’ve become too expensive to keep on the payroll. Gazzaley’s research has shown that our brains aren’t as flexible as they might seem and there are limits to its functionality. Like any computer, it’s susceptible to overloading and decreased processing speed. The PBS documentary offers suggestions and solutions to questions relating to how we can improve our attention skills and maintain focus as we age and some of us confront the reality of Alzheimer’s disease.

In the same vein, journalist and educator Mark Walton addresses the very timely question of what happens when people in their 40s, 50s and 60s are forcibly put to pasture by their employers and economic upheaval. The effects of such pain and humiliation can be devastating, as can the boredom that comes with too little stimulation. In “Boundless Potential,” Walton differentiates between the men and women who once worked with their hands and those who, today, rely on their brains. Our grandparents looked at retirement differently than we do. While men and women exhausted by hard labor welcomed the opportunity to no longer wear themselves out for someone else’s benefit, too many people today seek identity and fulfillment in their work, alone, and can’t handle an idle mind. Walton has interviewed hundreds of people for his books and lectures. Some have “flunked retirement,” while others have found new ways to realize their potential.

The producers, reporters and videographers of “Nova” always seem to be stationed at the right place when terrible and wonderful things happen around the world. If not, they arrive shortly thereafter. Such was the case with the mega-storm named Sandy. Beyond the devastation and human suffering loomed questions relating to science and meteorology, some of which are explored in “Hurricane Sandy: Inside the Megastorm.” Given the political climate, many minds turned to the possibility that global warming might have contributed to the perfect storm’s genesis. Others argued that the same combination of weather systems might have come together naturally, regardless of melting icecaps and pollution. The question remains: are storms getting more powerful and, if so, why?

Also from PBS, “The Mayo Clinic Diet” describes the development and execution of the first and only dietary program developed by the Mayo Clinic, based on clinical experience at its facilities in Minnesota, Arizona and Florida. The DVD includes interviews with a multidisciplinary team of physicians, dietitians, clinical psychologists and other medical experts. It is designed to be an effective, practical and enjoyable way to help people lose weight and maintain weight loss. – Gary Dretzka

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You
The preppy protagonist of “Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You” is the latest in a long — and getting longer with every new film festival — line of male characters based consciously or unconsciously on Holden Caulfield. This time, newcomer Toby Regbo has been assigned the task of making his hopelessly messed up high school senior, James Sveck, sympathetic and likeable, even as he stands on a ledge contemplating suicide, probably for the hundredth time since turning 16. We’re led to believe that James can’t deal with the pressure of possibly being gay, even though sexual experimentation is as much a part of the prep-school experience as hazing and playing lacrosse. He’s unhappy for all the usual reasons that kids his age are miserable: existential angst, gender issues, being embarrassed by people in his peer group, his beloved nana’s being on her last legs, a mother who marries anyone with an underused penis, a sister dating her married Polish professor and a dad who just underwent a facelift, so he can attract women James’ age.

More than any unfounded concerns over being gay, James worries about how the adults in his life might take his ambivalence about attending Brown in the fall. His father (Peter Gallagher) expected him to attend Harvard, but James screwed that up by having an emotional breakdown on trip to Washington with other gifted students. (He wasn’t impressed by them and that, too, really depressed him.) For her part, James’ oft-married mother (Marcia Gay Harden) would rather foist her “life coach” (Lucy Liu) on James than sit down with him for a conversation. The biggest problem with the last 20 years’ worth of “Catcher in the Rye” movies is that the protagonists’ problems don’t amount to a hill of beans to most people in the audience. The biggest problem faced by most kids in the movies today is not being invited to a house party or having their Internet privileges revoked by their parents for more than 10 minutes. James’ life coach gets it, even if takes the boy a couple dozen billable hours to figure things out for himself. She knows that students at elite high schools, who can’t find 10 students more unbalanced than they are, probably ought to have the lenses of their glasses adjusted. “Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You,” which was adapted from the novel by Peter Cameron, benefits from fine supporting performances by Ellen Burstyn, Gilbert Owuor, Deborah Ann Woll, Stephen Lang and Aubrey Plaza. Gallagher and Harden play unlikeable characters in a very likeable way. – Gary Dretzka

Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie: Blu-ray
Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu Season Two
Back to the Sea
Everything in the post-apocalyptic world of “Ultramarines” is big, really big, and noisy, really noisy. Set in the 41st Millennium, when there’s no respite from war and carnage, the 2010 CGI-animated film can trace its roots to 1987, when it began life as a tabletop miniature war game played with collectible figures and dice. It has since been adapted into several different video games and “Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie.” The semper fi heroes are genetically enhanced super-soldiers known as Ultramarines and they’re all that stands between good and evil. Fanboys and other longtime game players will have a better handle on the intricacies of the plot than I ever would, but the sci-fi action is fun to watch for a while. Among the voicing cast are Terence Stamp, John Hurt and and Sean Pertwee. It arrives on Blu-ray with a 30-minute making-of documentary, a much shorter backgrounder, a piece on the creation of the Daemon and “Prequel,” a filmed based on the graphic novel by Dan Abnett and David A. Roach.

It’s been a while since Congress has been sufficiently bored to investigate whether television networks are complying with the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which mandates specific amounts of time reserved for educational and informational programming. The last time our legislators looked into the question, they were shocked – shocked! – to discover how little attention was being paid to the legislation. The act is so vague as to be unenforceable and the FCC has other things on its mind, like determining how much pandering to corporate interests is too much. Frankly, I don’t even know if the provisions apply to cable and subscription TV, where one way to get around complaints has been to create infomercials thinly disguised as entertainment. At one time, the biggest concern involved commercials for candy, sugar-larded cereal and toys. I was surprised to learn of the animated Comedy Central series co-produced with LEGO, “Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu,” in which all of the characters, monsters, buildings and backdrops look as if they were created by LEGO blocks. It was inspired by a toy series of the same name, of course, and a video game. The storyline is far too complicated to encapsulate here, but there’s nothing at all wrong with the animation or ration of dialogue to ninja action. Neither had I noticed previous collaborations between LEGO, Warners Bros. Interactive Entertainment, DC Comics and several popular movie franchises. The “Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu” collection is comprised of episodes from the second and possibly final season. It looks fine in Blu-ray and weighs in at a generous 286 minutes.

Back to the Sea” may be devoid of robots, ninjas and other powerful beings – unless one considers a sea creature’s ability to talk to be a superpower – but it’s impossible to miss its resemblance to the 2003 Pixar blockbuster, “Finding Nemo.” The primary narrative difference between the two pictures is the setting. “Finding Nemo” takes place in and around Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, while “Back to the Sea” plays out in the waters of the northern and western hemispheres. Instead of an aquarium in a dentist’s office, the unfortunate Kevin is destined for a relatively spacious tank in the window of a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. He dreams of reuniting with his father in crystal clear waters of Barbados, but finds himself entrapped in the intricacies of a pearl heist. The animation may not meet the standards established by Pixar, even those in place 10 years ago, but the youngest viewers aren’t likely to complain. The voice cast includes Tim Curry, Christian Slater, Tara Strong and Mark Hamill. – Gary Dretzka

My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding: Seasons 1&2 + Specials
H2O: Just Add Water: The Complete Season 1
Regular Show: Party Pack
If we can’t be appalled by the cultural and religious traditions of other human beings, what’s the point exactly of reality television? Whether the shows focus on the care and feeding of the Kardashians, the professions favored by Cajun swamp dwellers or purveyors of garbage disguised as treasure, what they’re really attempting to do is convince viewers of their own sanity in a world gone mad. “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” is so wrong, in so many different ways, that some people will find it easy to forget the estimated 250,000 Romani killed in Hitler’s death camps and continuing harassment throughout Eastern Europe. Keeping that in mind, it’s easy to forgive British Gypsies and Irish Travelers their more flamboyant customs. Still, that’s what makes the British documentary series, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” the voyeuristic spectacle that it is. No one, with the exception of wealthy Indians, goes further out for their daughters on the occasions of their First Holy Communion and marriage than Gypsy parents. The pre-teen girls we meet here treat the communion ritual as a dress rehearsal for their weddings, which invariably will come within the next 10 years. The girls dress in gowns that wouldn’t be out of place in a remake of “Gone With the Wind,” complete with frilly umbrellas, high heels and décolletage. Their older sisters take a more hoochie-momma approach to wedding fashions, some dresses even incorporating electric lights. From what I’ve seen, the American versions of the series try even harder to make Romani customs like ridiculous. The DVD includes all 12 episodes of Seasons 1 and 2, plus three one-hour specials, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding: The Original Film,” “My Bigger Fatter Gypsy Wedding” and “My Big Fat Gypsy Christmas.” Interspersed with the ceremonies are reports on evictions, harassment and their complex relationship with the non-Gypsy community, which would just as soon prevent them from travelling.

The Australian export, “H20: Just Add Water,” describes what happens when three teenage girls discover an enchanted cavern on an island off the Gold Coast. While there, they’re imbued with magical powers of their own. As if being a teenager weren’t difficult enough, the girls now must cope with the fact contact with water – ocean, bathtub, swimming pool – will cause them to grow the tail fins of a mermaid and a scaly bronze bra to match. The transformation tends to complicate things for the girls when in the company of their “normal” friends. On the plus side, the girls are now in a better position to protect endangered sea turtles and, if they so choose, really impress the boys in their circle. You could think of it as a live-action “SpongeBob SquarePants” for post-pubescent teens. The show aired on Nickelodeon here for three seasons. Besides all of the first-season episodes, the DVD contains a 90-minute movie and behind-the-scenes featurette.

Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show” may not air as part of sister-network Comedy Central’s hipster-magnet programming block, Adult Swim, but that hasn’t limited its appeal to kids of all ages. J.G. Quintel’s art-school sensibility informs every minute of the series, including slacker protagonists Mordecai the Blue Jay and Rigby the Raccoon. Other members of the pair’s inner circle are Benson, the living gumball machine; Skips, the Yeti groundskeeper; Pops, the lollipop-shaped park manager; Muscle Man, who’s anything but in shape; High Five Ghost, named for his peculiar shape. The primary villains are floating heads from outer space. None is even close to being “regular.” The “Regular Show: Party Pack” is comprised of 16 episodes from three seasons. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

The Master: Blu-ray
Nothing harms a movie more than advance speculation in the media – wired, print, Internet – about what was going on in the heads of the director or screenwriter when they were developing it. Typically, the scuttlebutt is much ado about very little, but any publicity is good publicity when the total product is fragile. The early buzz on Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” was that it would depict the founding of Scientology and Philip Seymour Hoffman was modeled directly after L. Ron Hubbard. Gossip about Scientology’s links to some of Hollywood’s brightest stars, while interesting as it pertains to Tom Cruise and his wives, primarily tickles the fancy of bloggers, investigative reporters and conspiracy theorists. I’d venture to say that more potential viewers of “The Master” were turned off by the thought of investing more than two hours of time in a small, if powerful cult religion than were willing to read early reviews arguing that it is, in fact, a very good movie. “The Master” didn’t quite bomb at the box office, but it didn’t immediately cover its nut, either. In fact, “The Master” doesn’t mention Scientology by name and the organization led by Hoffman’s charismatic Lancaster Dodd is far more of a composite of the many cults, pseudo-religions and self-help movements that bloomed in the wake of World War II and the Korean War. Dianetics had the most staying power. “The Master” was informed, as well, by leftover material from Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” Jason Robards’ stories about drinking in the Navy during wartime, the life of John Steinbeck and, more than anything else, John Huston’s post-war medical documentary, “Let There Be Light.” Huston was given free access to military hospitals dedicated to helping soldiers, sailors and marines with psycho-neurotic ailments that manifested themselves in the war. The government’s assembly-line approach to psychotherapy was required before the men could be released into a peacetime America largely oblivious to the rigors of combat. Indeed, some of the scenes in “The Master” were lifted directly from the documentary. “Let There Be Light” is included in its entirety in the Blu-ray package.

Joaquin Phoenix is remarkable as Freddie Quell, a sailor who killed non-combat hours drinking anything remotely intoxicating, including fuel from torpedoes. Although it’s never made clear if Quell’s rage issues and breakdown were caused by combat or merely exacerbated by the mind-numbing hooch, he’s required to pass through the treatment mill. Although he’s hardly a model patient, Quell is deemed sufficiently sane to take a job as a portrait photographer at a large department store. It doesn’t take long, however, for his hair-trigger temper and drinking problems – he’s graduated to paint thinner and darkroom developing fluids — cause him trouble among civilians. One drunken evening, Quell hops a yacht in a west-coast port and wakes up on the open ocean with no clue as to how he got there. “Cause” leader Dodd (Hoffman) has appropriated the vessel from one of his wealthy patrons for a group-therapy marathon and welcomes the severely hung-over drifter to join the seminars being conducted en route to Philadelphia. At first glance, the men seem to be an odd match and they are. Dodd claims that he remembers meeting Quell somewhere, perhaps in one of his many previous lives, and takes him on as a personal project. They bond over poisonous liquids and a common intolerance for dissent. Dodd intends to erase painful memories of traumatic episodes in Quell’s past lives, while the newcomer sees in the Master a friend worthy of his protection. He’s been adopted by Dodd’s family (Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers) and travels with them to Cause events around the country. Finally, though, he’s given an ultimatum by the pragmatic Mrs. Dodd to quit drinking or leave the safety of the nest.

There’s nothing to gain by revealing anything more of the narrative here, but, in his restless quest for truth, Quell reminded me of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, the Beat heroes of “On the Road.” Kerouac’s book was written during the same post-war period in which veterans not cut out for the suburbs and 9-to-5 jobs sought refuge in all sorts of movements, including off-brand religions, motorcycle gangs and thrill sports. What’s distinguishes “The Master” from almost every other movie released in 2012 is the intensity of the dramatic interplay between Phoenix and Hoffman. The success of “Argo” notwithstanding, you won’t find better performances in any of the Best Picture nominees, now arriving in DVD and Blu-ray. In addition to Huston’s hugely disturbing documentary, the bonus package includes “Back Beyond,” a 20-minute montage of deleted footage edited by Anderson and set to Jonny Greenwood’s original score, and a very unusual 8-minute making-of featurette. “The Master” is, as they say, not for everyone. It practically defines what it means to be an arthouse movie and, even then, requires tight focus. Those who approach it with an open mind and a surplus of patience will be greatly rewarded. – Gary Dretzka

Holy Motors: Blu-ray
I won’t pretend to understand most of what transpires during the course of Leos Carax’s widely admired “Holy Motors.” I take comfort in knowing, however, that the raves on the summation page at Metacritic.com fail to reflect a consensus of critical opinion, either. It would take an abacus to add up all of the multisyllabic adjectives used on just that one page to describe what pundits admire about the movie. Getting inside Carax’s head is another story, altogether. If I had to choose only one adjective to describe “Holy Motors,” it would be “phantasmagoric,” as in “a shifting medley of real or imagined figures, as in a dream” or “characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtapositions.” “Holy Motors” is all of that and a box of popcorn. Denis Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar, a master in the art of special-effects makeup whose role in life appears to be transforming into disparate characters while being chauffeured around Paris in a white stretch limousine. The various characters play roles defined by Oscar’s boss, Celine, a stiffly coiffed blond with a seemingly limitless imagination. In the nearly 24-hour period covered here, she assigns him to portray an ancient female beggar, hustling tourists with a tin cup; a ninja warrior in a costume typically used in motion-capture animation; a concerned father of a teenage girl; an assassin; a business executive; the leader of a marching band of accordionists; a grotesque sewer snoid; and a half-dozen other personae. Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes also participate in Celine’s sometimes lethal game.

I use the word, “phantasmagoria” because of Carax’s brilliantly inconsistent and thoroughly absorbing deployment of colors, textures and light. If you can imagine driving the entire length of the Las Vegas Strip in a clown car, wearing holographic sunglasses, you’ll get only half of the picture. Paris is portrayed as being both the City of Lights and an overgrown warehouse district through which no one drives after dark. We’re taken from the depths of Monsieur Merde’s subterranean hideout to the roof of the landmark Samaritaine department store, with a brief stop at a fashion shoot in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. Carax makes all sorts of cinematic references, so, maybe, all that he’s saying is that all life imitates the movies, and I wouldn’t argue that point. Anyone looking for explanations beyond that will have to trust their instincts or stay tuned for the extended making-of featurette and interviews. And, yes, “Holy Motors” does look splendid in Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka

The Loneliest Planet
Silent Souls
No one knows how strong a marriage or relationship is until it’s tested. More often than not, the test comes in the most obvious and traditional ways possible – cheating and being caught lying about it – while, in other cases, the trigger event is so imperceptible as to be invisible. In Julia Loktev’s completely unexpected drama “The Loneliest Planet,” Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg play a soon-to-be-married couple, Alex and Nica, who are backpacking through the rugged mountains of Georgia (the country). It would be difficult to imagination a more compatible man and woman. They thoroughly enjoy one another’s company and even play word games in foreign languages. To coin an otherwise useless cliché, they complete each other. The only things viewers are required to do during the entire first half of “The Loneliest Planet” is marvel at the magnificent Caucasus Mountains scenery. They’re accompanied by an experienced local guide, Dato, played by Bidzina Gujabidze, a seasoned rock climber in his debut role. He understands enough English to be useful and join in the linguistics games over the nightly campfire. If Dato doesn’t seem particularly happy, it’s because he’s recently been abandoned by his wife and now lives too far away to maintain contact with his son.

There’s no faking the majesty of the mountains and how much they dwarf the trio when the camera pulls back to the middle distance. About halfway through, they come across a group of locals returning to Dato’s village. He knows the men, but it isn’t made clear if they’re hunters, smugglers or guerrillas. Something completely unexpected happens that changes the complexion of the story and demands that we reconsider the strength of the ties that bind. There will be another telling incident later in “The Loneliest Planet,” but it’s more difficult to see how it fits into the picture. We expect terrific performances from Bernal, who plays happy as well as any other player in the game. Furstenberg is the discovery here. Wildly expressive and blessed with flaming red hair, the Israeli-American actor looks enough like Laura Ambrose to be her kid sister and could be mistaken for Jessica Chastain, as well. Gujabidze may have been typecast as a rough-hewn outdoorsman, but he delivers the goods by demonstrating how even the strongest of men can have their hearts broken. “The Loneliest Planet” was adapted from Thomas Bissell’s story “Expensive Trips Nowhere” Even in DVD, the Caucasus range couldn’t be more beautiful. It’s accompanied by a making-of featurette that suggests just how difficult the location shoot must have been.

Also from Eastern Europe comes another movie that explores the inner landscape of a soul and the borders of love. Aleksey Fedorchenko’s “Silent Souls” takes only 75 minutes to tell a story that carries the weight and directness of a novella. It is a road movie of sorts, with elements of the buddy film informing it, as well. Its flavor, though, is distinctly Russian. Immediately after the death of his wife, a burly middle-age man from the west-central Kostroma Oblast, on the banks of the Neya River, asks a writer friend to accompany him to the region in which they were born. It once was dominated by the Merya, an ancient culture that was assimilated by the East Slavs in the 11th Century and has all but disappeared. What keep it alive today are a language and certain unique traditions. One requires the widower, Miron, to prepare his wife’s corpse and transport it to a fondly remembered place, where her body will be cremated. Along the way, Miron describes intimate details of his marriage to Aist as part of a mourning process called “smoking.” Aist listens quietly to the reflections, while adding background asides for viewers. After the ceremony, which recalls the funeral pyres along the Ganges in India, the men take the tradition even further. The ending is a stunner, but no less poetic than anything that’s preceded it. – Gary Dretzka

The Kid With a Bike: Criterion Edition: Blu-ray
Chronicle of a Summer: Criterion Edition: Blu-ray
Belgium’s filmmaking brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, make movies about people who normally don’t register on the radar screen of life. They are decidedly working-class folks, struggling to hold on to what they already have or looking for angles to make their stays on Earth slightly more comfortable. To accomplish this, the more unscrupulous among them take advantage of orphans, illegal immigrants and vulnerable young women with plenty to lose. They get away with such abuses because their lives and crimes typically are too mundane to involve anyone besides members of their immediate family. This makes them perfect candidates for closer examination through the Dardennes’ exquisitely precise microscope. They’ve come to life in such naturalistic profiles as “La promesse,” “Rosetta,” “Le fils,” “L’Enfants” and “Le silence de Lorna.” Titles like these are what make festivals such alluring destinations for cineastes, critics and buffs afraid that films of such high quality won’t make it to the boonies. “The Kid With a Bike” differs from previous Dardennes efforts in the relatively bright color scheme used and inclusion of music. What begins as a tragedy waiting to happen evolves none too swiftly into something resembling a fairy tale about “a woman who helps a boy emerge from the violence that holds him prisoner.”

In “The Kid With a Bike,” the Dardennes cut almost immediately to the chase, leaving no room for an expository opening or convenient narrative device. They test the viewers’ ability to get a quick handle, but reward them as the details of the protagonist’s backstory emerge organically throughout the story. (Imagine picking up a novel and skipping the preface and first chapter before digging into it.) We’re introduced to 12-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) in mid-rant. He’s demanding that a caretaker at a foster home – or, perhaps, reform school — attempt, perhaps for the hundredth time, to call a number that only a month ago belonged to his father. Once again, of course, the boy is told that the phone has been disconnected and there’s no forwarding information. Cyril’s positive that the operator is lying to him, for perhaps the hundredth time, and his father simply isn’t picking up the phone at their apartment. More than anything else, the boy is interested in finding out what happened to the bicycle his father gave him before he was sent to what we now know is a placement center for orphans and abandoned children. After acting out his frustration on the supervisor, he takes advantage of a quiet moment to once again jump the facility’s fence and high-tail it to the apartment. Knowing he’s being trailed, Cyril attempts to find sanctuary in a doctor’s office, citing an obviously phony injury. The receptionist tips the caretakers of his presence, but, instead of immediately dragging the boy back to the foster home, they agree to take him to the apartment. What he finds is an empty dwelling, but no bicycle. Cyril still refuses to believe that his father would abandon him or sell his bike, which is exactly happened.

Fortuitously, a woman who was in the doctor’s waiting room takes pity on Cyril and volunteers to track down the bike. After buying it back from the new owner, Samantha (Cécile de France) delivers it to the foster home, where it’s almost immediately stolen by older boys. They don’t get very far before Cyril runs them down, however. As Samantha’s about leave the facility, the boy catches up to her and pleads for her to let him spend weekends with her. She may ultimately become the story’s fairy princess, but, for now, the single, childless businesswoman doesn’t comprehend the task ahead of her. Cyril quickly convinces her to help him find his father, which she does, but the boy appears to blame her when the man refuses to embrace him. Worse, he uses his time away from the foster home to indenture himself to a local hoodlum. There’s no reason to spoil the ending, except to say that things get much worse for Cyril before they get a whole lot better for both of them. “The Kid With a Bike” is a terrifically heart-warming story with universal appeal and characters we must learn to love. The Criterion Collection version looks excellent in Blu-ray and features such enhancements as a conversation between film critic Kent Jones and both of the Dardennes; interviews with actors Doret and De France; a half-hour documentary, in which the Dardennes revisit five locations from the film; and booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoff Andrew.

Also new from Criterion Collection is “Chronicle of a Summer,” a documentary collaboration between anthropologist Jean Rouch, sociologist Edgar Morin and Michel Brault, the French-Canadian cinematographer who is credited with introducing to Europe. It begins with a discussion among the filmmakers about whether the presence of a camera during the production of a documentary necessarily turns non-actors into actors, thereby corrupting the information captured by the filmmakers. Volunteers then take to the streets of Paris, asking passersby if they’re happy and why. It is the summer of 1960, a time in French history when the wars for independence in African were being widely debated, the gap between the working class and bourgeoisie was widening, more women and immigrants were entering the work force and the French New Wave cinema was in full bloom. The discussions would continue in workshop settings, individually and even on a vacation outing. To cap off the documentary, the participants were assembled once again to watch the footage gathered and discuss its veracity.

Cinéma verité would soon become an important tool in the documentary-making process, but, in “Chronicle,” it’s in its infancy. The filmmakers didn’t even know yet what kinks they’d have to work out for their films to be taken seriously. Because of its focus on French issues and lifestyles – which still felt quite foreign to non-Francophiles — not all of the material will be relevant to American viewers. At the time, we were emerging from our Eisenhower-era hibernation, Vietnam wasn’t on anyone’s mind, agriculture was losing ground to industry, the suburban idyll was being realized and Communists and Socialists had no footing in politics, as they had in Europe. Later, fly-on-the-wall documentaries by Lionel Rogosin, Maysles brothers, Frederick Wiseman and D.A. Pennebaker would disabuse us of the notion that Americans were without sin, but, in 1960, “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave It to Beaver” were as close to reality as most people wanted to get. The most surprising and revelatory conversation in “Chronicle,” perhaps, comes when two Africans are asked if they know what the numbers tattooed onto the arm of one of the women in their group meant. In fact, they had no idea how the numbers related to the Nazi concentration camps, the existence which had been revealed 15 years earlier. The men appear stunned by the woman’s explanation of the Holocaust and her description of Auschwitz. With memories of Dien Bien Pho fresh in their minds, some of the participants also demonstrated frustrations with the ongoing Algerian crisis and collapse of the colonial way of life. Less than a decade later, average Americans would echo those same concerns.

The Blu-ray benefits from a new high-definition digital transfer of the Cineteca di Bologna restoration of the film; a separate 73-minute documentary, with outtakes and new interviews with Morin and some of the film’s subjects; archival interviews with Rouch and Marceline Loridan, the Holocaust survivor; a new interview with anthropology professor Faye Ginsburg, organizer of several Rouch retrospectives; and a booklet with an essay by Sam Di Iorio. – Gary Dretzka

A Simple Life: Blu-ray
One of the most enduring clichés about Asian families is the great reverence reserved for elders by younger generations. I don’t know if the tradition has changed as China, Japan, Korea and other countries have adapted western habits and wealthy families have begun to split their time between the Old Country and the United States. Ann Hui’s deeply affecting “A Simple Life” suggests that while some families maintain generational ties to their elders, the pace of life and business in urban centers has eroded the tradition, at least. “A Simple Life” describes life on the cusp of past and present. Roger (Andy Lau) is a successful movie producer, living in Hong Kong. Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) has worked for Roger’s family as a nanny and maid over the course of four generations and she’s treated like a respected aunt. With most of Roger’s immediate family living in San Francisco, Roger is the beneficiary of Ah Tao’s good cooking and close attention. One day, she suffers a stroke and needs someone to care for her. She insists that Roger place her in a western-style nursing home, where she’ll get therapy but be surrounded by residents far more miserable and alone than she is. Roger never stays away for long and her humor returns with her dexterity. Still, she’s far too modest to let any kindness pass without putting up some sort of a fuss.

“A Simple Life” is about a woman whose sacrifices to a family not her own are rewarded as if she shared their DNA. It couldn’t be described any more simply than that. At nearly two hours, the film may be a tad long for western audiences, especially those who may be queasy about making similar decisions about nursing homes for loved ones or themselves. As bleak as some of the scenes in the facility may be, Ann Hui’s film is, more often than not, uplifting. All of the attention being paid to Michael Haneke’s Oscar-winner, “Amour,” should help “A Simple Life” find its natural audience here on DVD and Blu-ray here. It was interesting to learn that Ip is Lau’s godmother in real life. Both are terrific in the lead roles. Look for cameos by Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark and other fixtures of the Hong Kong cinema. – Gary Dretzka

Madrid 1987
Anyone who was thoroughly creeped out by Woody Allen’s courting of Mariel Hemingway in “Manhattan,” or Juliette Lewis in “Husbands and Wives,” can stop reading now. “Madrid 1987” won’t be your cup of tea. In Spanish writer/director David Trueba’s claustrophobic anti-romance, a pretty young college student (Maria Valverde) spends most of a day and night in the company of a political columnist, who looks as if he might remember when Franco’s fascist legions took Madrid. Journalism student Angela needs to do a paper on an important Spaniard and gets a friend to pass along Miguel’s phone number. (“I don’t go into the office, because they won’t let me drink anymore.”) Finally, they connect in a restaurant, which, like everything else in the city, is mostly vacant over a holiday weekend. Miguel may have been a handsome man at one time, but now looks a bit like Charles Bukowski crossed with Ron Jeremy. He completely overwhelms Angela with self-serving blather designed to make her think she’d be a fool not to give him a roll in the hay. She follows the geezer back to his buddy’s apartment, where he slowly but surely wears down her resistance. Instead of a roll in the hay, however, they consummate their interview on the tub of a cramped bathroom, whose door automatically locked them in when it closed. Their session may not be pretty, but it’s blessedly short.

Unfortunately, mostly for Angela, their only means of communication with the outside world is a small vent window. No one in the neighborhood is around to hear them, anyway, so she has to listen to his jaded observations and ancient war stories until the neighbors get back from their vacations. Fortunately, primarily for Miguel, the only thing in the bathroom that could be confused with clothing is the towel she’s clinging to her chest. He had, you see, snuck into the bathroom while she was taking a shower and kicked their clothes outside the door. Naked and wet, Angela could easily pass for a 16-year-old, which doesn’t bother Miguel in the least. (He’s so distracted that he neglects to snuff out his cigarette before inviting himself into the shower.) Now, it’s entirely possible that Angela was fully aware of the possibility that they might end their interview with sex. Miguel doesn’t have to resort to coercion or violence to grease the skids and his seduction routine doesn’t seem to faze her. Trueba picked 1987 for his story because it was a period of political and social upheaval in post-Franco Spain. A younger generation, tired of listening to the old-timers rehash the Civil War, was coming to the fore and demanded change. It’s been suggested that viewers conversant in Spanish will find more humor in the dialogue than subtitles allow. There are no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Chicken With Plums
When it comes to Iran, most Americans find it difficult look beyond the day in 1979 when radical Islamist students stormed our embassy in Tehran and held 52 workers there hostage for 444 days. In a very real sense, the country’s leaders – some of whom participated in the takeover – have held us captive ever since then. The media feel compelled to address every ludicrous threat to Israel and update on the country’s nuclear program, even knowing they’re being played like a fiddle. It helps explain why “Argo” caught the nation’s fancy, finally winning an Oscar for Best Picture. No matter how compelling Tony Mendez’ actual story is, the writers felt it necessary to suggest that Iranian police were so incompetent they couldn’t prevent a jetliner from taking off a hundred yards away from them. In fact, while the security guards may have been fooled by the false Canadian passports and visas, there was no Keystone Kops-like attempt to get through closed doors and gates, let alone a car chase with a 747. Even if “Argo” served as the feel-good movie of the year for American viewers – and it is undeniably entertaining – but, fact is, we’re no closer to peace now than we were in 1979.

That mainstream audiences in the U.S. have ignored the many fine movies made by Iran filmmakers in and out of exile is no mystery. We avoid anything that arrives on our shores with subtitles and actors whose names and faces don’t ring a bell. Last February, Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” was denied a nomination for Best Picture, even though it was inarguably one of the three or four most honored films in the world in 2011. It was accorded Best Foreign Language Film honors, instead. No film in recent years has said as much about the human condition as “A Separation” and, even though it was made in Tehran, Farhadi was able to reveal several sad truths about life in the Islamic Republic. By contrast, the powerful French drama “Amour” was nominated for the 2013 Best Picture, while also winning in the foreign-language category.

In 2008, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud were nominated in the same race for their animated adaptation of the graphic novel “Persepolis.” It describes how a teenage girl who cheered the demise of the Shah’s regime found herself equally disappointed by the restrictions imposed by Islamic fundamentalists. After being sent to Austria to study and wait out the fanatics, the character effectively becomes a woman without a country. Their follow-up effort, “Chicken With Plums,” also is set in Tehran, but only five years after an American-led, British-backed coup toppled Mohammed Mossadegh’s democratically elected government. The Shah had been installed as dictator and Tehran was becoming a cosmopolitan and still multicultural metropolis. There’s an undercurrent of political change in “Chicken With Plums,” but it’s almost imperceptible. It’s very easy to identify the magical realism and human tragedy that informs a story that reminded me of both “Hugo” and “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights.”

As played with great elasticity and compassion by Mathieu Amalric, Nasser-Ali Khan is a violinist of considerable talent, but little luck in life. After his prized instrument is broken, he desperately searches for a violin at least as special as the last one. After being disappointed twice, Nasser-Ali decides that his life no longer is worth living. Nothing, including his family, holds meaning for him. In the week or so that follows this decision, Nasser-Ali can only reflect on what’s gone before in his life. He has no future, after all. (We’re told that he dies early in the narrative, so no need for a spoiler alert here.) Satrapi and Paronnaud take us back with him as he reminisces about a hurtful sibling rivalry he was forced to endure as a child and the refusal of a clockmaker to approve his marriage to the man’s daughter, simply because he believes that musicians will always be poor. Instead, her hand is given to a soldier.

The Angel of Death visits his bedroom, allowing him a peek into the surrealistic future of his children. Nasser-Ali’s wife (Maria de Medeiros) hopes to coax him out of his malaise with his favorite dish, chicken with plums, and by letting down her hair, but to no avail. Satrapi and Paronnaud intersperse live-action with animation, stylized sets and hand-drawn backdrops that wouldn’t have been out of place on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” Finally, if we aren’t encouraged to shed any tears for Nasser-Ali, we sympathize with him for the many missed opportunities and disappointments in his life. The Blu-ray presentation greatly enhances the experience, as it plays directly to the filmmakers’ visual strengths. It adds commentary and a festival Q&A. – Gary Dretzka

How to Survive a Plague
Today, it would be difficult to be more than one or two degrees of separation from someone who’s HIV-positive, but living an otherwise healthy, happy and productive life. It was a different story 30 years ago, when hemophiliacs comprised the primary at-risk group and concern over blood used in transfusions reached new heights. In 1987, gay and lesbian activists in New York formed ACT-UP to demand progress in the diagnosis, care and treatment of those with HIV/AIDS. The deaths of Rock Hudson and Liberace showed that wealth, celebrity and access to the best medical treatment couldn’t prevent AIDS-related deaths, but it wasn’t until 1991, when basketball superstar Ervin “Magic” Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive that the plague hit home to mainstream Americans. Not only did Johnson insist that the virus was transmitted through heterosexual contact, but he also vowed to fight the disease with the same intensity as any opponent on the court. Besides coming out of retirement twice to play basketball, he would live to found the Magic Johnson Foundation, become a full-fledged business tycoon and purchase a share of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fortuitously, the odds of Johnson and thousands of others in his condition surviving for more than a few more months and years would greatly improve from accelerated research into treatments. Finally, clinical trials would test combinations of multiple drugs and FDA approval of experimental drugs was accelerated. It is believed that use of “AIDS cocktails” resulted in a 60-80 percent decline in rates of AIDS, death, and hospitalization in the United States. Outside of North America and Western Europe, however, the pandemic continued claim lives at an alarming pace.

How to Survive a Plague” chronicles ACT-UP’s crucial role in the process. While the organization was born out of frustration, grief and anger, its surviving members, at least, could take comfort in knowing that their efforts gave millions of people real hope for survival. A cure may still elude scientists, but almost all of the roadblocks to finding one have been removed … except money, of course. The thing that concerned the activists most was the lack of speed and determination displayed by the FDA and other government-funded research agencies to push testing of antiretroviral treatments and combinations of drugs. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical firms were being allowed to gouge patients in the name of research and development, and insurance interests could refuse compensating hospitals for treatment. Underground networks created to supply drugs still not approved by the FDA flourished, even without guarantees the medicine would work. ACT-UP made sure no one forgot what was at stake, by staging rallies and disruptive office takeovers, challenging the official Roman Catholic stance on condoms, standing up to such conservative bullies as Jesse Helms and prodding the media with guerrilla actions. It also committed itself to learning everything there was to know about the disease, treatment options, promising drugs and finding money to fund research. The two-pronged strategy put ACT-UP in the unique position of knowing more about the disease than most researchers and public-health officials. David France’s documentary is comprised of much archival video footage from meetings and protests, home movies that recall people who succumbed to disease and interviews that span 1987 and today. It can be argued that “How to Survive a Plague” errs by virtually ignoring what was happening outside New York and focusing too little on the scientists who were as desperate to find solutions as anyone else. It is, however, a fine addition to the growing catalogue of documentary titles on the subject. – Gary Dretzka

Kiss the Abyss
Border Run: Blu-ray
Joshua Tree: Blu-ray
There’s no law that prohibits critics from cutting a break or two for movies that try really hard to be please horror fans, but end up in straight-to-DVD purgatory, anyway. Absent substantial budgets and recognizable stars, though, these overachievers are totally dependent on cover art and positive reviews in genre-specific websites. “Kiss the Abyss” has enough good things going for it to have attracted some positive attention there, but it could easily get lost in the crowd. Ken Winkler’s debut feature tweaks a theme that’s as old as “Frankenstein” – the book, that is – and, if he doesn’t actually breathe new life into it, at least there’s some gratuitous nudity and enough fake blood to deplete the supply of corn syrup and red dye in most small towns. Soft-core princess Nicole Moore (“Femme Fatales,” “The Babymakers”) plays Lesley, an artist whose husband (Scott Wilson) makes the mistake of getting between feuding meth-head neighbors, one of whom kills her with a baseball bat. Lesley’s wealthy father convinces the husband to take her lifeless body to a garbage-strewn outpost in the desert, where a guy (Douglas Bennett) who looks like Harvey Keitel’s younger brother has developed a re-animation serum. Maybe, you can guess what happens next. When Lesley gets back home, alive, she begins to display several ugly anti-social tendencies, one of which is a decided taste for other people’s blood. The real fun comes when the husband and his brother-in-law return to the desert to get their deposit back. Unfortunately for everyone involved, except viewers, the mad scientist has a strict no-refunds policy.

In “Border Run,” Sharon Stone plays a decidedly non-glamorous TV reporter, whose conservative views on immigration make her a hero among the “kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out” crowd in southern Arizona. Her Sofie Talbert lives to unmask politicians who pretend to be hard-liners on the subject, but vote otherwise in Congress. When she discovers that her relief-worker brother (Billy Zane) has disappeared while working in Mexico, she decides to cross the border herself to bring him or his corpse home. In doing so, Talbert discovers an upside-down world of desperate migrants, corrupt and trigger-happy cops, vicious coyotes, heroin smugglers, bad guys disguised as good guys and good guys disguised as bad guys. She also is unhappy to learn that all of the American-flag pins in her jewelry case can’t protect her against slimeballs working both sides of the border. It’s safe to predict that whatever right-wing beliefs that she was harboring before going south would begin to melt as soon as she met flesh-and-blood migrants and was fired upon by American vigilantes, toting high-powered rifles and an urge to kill Mexicans. Handed this much baggage to carry, director Gabriela Tagliavini did well by making “Border Run” as exciting and unpredictable as it is. The vast desert landscapes look impressively desolate on Blu-ray and an aura of unharnessed violence permeates the narrative. Given how divisive the immigration question is in the U.S., it’s not surprising that the distributors decided to release it first on DVD and Blu-ray.

I don’t mean to sound insensitive here, but the release on Blu-ray of “Joshua Tree” (a.k.a., “Army of One”) seems as if it were timed to exploit the tragic events surrounding the manhunt for cop-killer Christopher Dorner. Of course, Shout Factory scheduled it months before the news about the first deaths and release of Dorner’s manifesto began to unfold, so the company’s innocent of pandering.  Nevertheless, it’s impossible to watch the less preposterous parts of “Joshua Tree” without flashing on that terrible week in SoCal history. For one thing, the distance between Joshua Tree and Big Bear is about the same as that between Big Bear and Los Angeles. More to the point, however, Dolph Lundgren’s character can’t get anyone to believe his story about being framed by corrupt cops in the murder of a Highway Patrol officer. His escape from custody sparks a manhunt involving law-enforcement agencies throughout the region. In the course of evading the pursuit, Lundgren’s Wellman Santee also destroys a car that would lead police to his location. In fact, though, director Vic Armstrong and writer Steven Pressfield staged “Joshua Tree” as homage to Raoul Walsh’s “High Sierra,” which is referenced during the movie. All coincidences aside, “Joshua Tree” remains a competently made action flick, staged amid some of the desert Southwest’s most spectacular scenery – Lone Pine, Mount Whitney, Palm Springs, Death Valley — and with enough recognizable stars to distract viewers from the story’s shortcuts and lapses in logic. Armstrong’s vast experience as a stuntman didn’t hurt, either. Joining Lundgren here are George Segal, Kristian Alfonso, Geoffrey Lewis, Michelle Phillips, Michael Paul Chan and Khandi Alexander. The Blu-ray transfer looks pretty good and it adds fresh interviews and an alternate ending. – Gary Dretzka

Freaky Deaky
Writer/director Charles Matthau probably could have made a worse adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s sendup of 1960s radicals living in Reagan-era America, but I seriously doubt that he could have made a better version of “Freaky Deaky” than he already has. That’s not intended to be taken as a compliment. While he sticks pretty close to the 1988 book’s basic structure, Matthau’s decision to turn back the clock to the early 1970s essentially makes it a cross between a freak show and a sight gag. That’s because a cast that once reportedly included Brendan Fraser, Matt Dillon, William H. Macy, Craig Robinson and Sienna Miller ended up being headed by Christian Slater, Crispin Glover, Andy Dick, Michael Jai White, Billy Burke and two pretty young women, neither of whom are up to the task of impersonating a Leonard-drawn femme fatale. Burke plays Chris Mankowski, a member of the Detroit Police Department’s bomb squad mustered out for investigating the wrong people. Glover and Dick play millionaire brothers Woody and Mark Ricks as if they were channeling their own worst behavior, as reported in People magazine. Slater plays a Weather Underground wannabe, who, along with his ex-con girlfriend (Breanne Racano), are blackmailing the Ricks brothers for money and revenge. They use sticks of dynamite to get their point across. The way Mankowski fits into this mess is his expertise with explosives and interest in a rape charge against one of the Ricks, brought by an exotic dancer (Sabina Gadecki). Glover, Dick and Slater hold up their end of the bargain in “Freaky Deaky,” but everyone around them is decidedly subpar. The less one knows about Leonard’s books, the more likely they’ll be to find something here to enjoy. – Gary Dretzka

Noel Gallagher: International Magic Live at the O2: Blu-ray 
Not all high-definition productions are created equal. Sports look great on HDTV, while dramas and sitcoms benefit only marginally from the technical upgrade. Movies shot on film and transferred to Blu-ray look fine, but they don’t necessarily sparkle and pop like those shot, edited and transferred digitally. It explains why animation, concerts and nature films stand out from the crowd. I was reminded of this tendency while watching “Noel Gallagher: International Magic Live at the O2” in Blu-ray. I often find it difficult to distinguish more than two or three of Oasis’ hits from dozens of other songs the feuding Gallagher boys recorded. What held my attention throughout the Blu-ray, though, was the clarity of the cinematography, especially when intensified by the laser show and other lighting effects. The audio presentation, as well, delivers the muscle of the brass and choral elements backing Gallagher’s High Flying Birds unit. The two-disc set follows the guitarist and songwriter as he performs live in London and plays an acoustic set at Toronto’s Mod Club. It also includes a 20-minute film created using his “Ride the Tiger” music videos, plus footage of live performances from the 2012 NME Awards. As an added bonus, the Blu-ray edition comes with a bonus audio CD with thirteen exclusive demo tracks. – Gary Dretzka

Company of Heroes
Set during the Battle of the Bulge, the first half of Don Michael Paul’s World War II thriller, “Company of Heroes,” unspools like an episode of the old TV series, “Combat.” Every effort was made to produce an authentic look and enough action to satisfy video gamers in love with WWII strategy, simulator and shooter titles, as well as the dwindling number of veterans wondering why they don’t make actors like John Wayne, Audie Murphy and Vic Morrow anymore. It isn’t bad, considering that it probably was always designed to go straight-to-video. In the second half, a unit that manages to survive the Battle of the Bulge is assigned to make contact with an OSS officer, who will direct the soldiers to a target where a nuclear bomb could be in the developmental stages. When we were told that the movie was “inspired by true events,” I now assume the producers had Operation Alsos in mind. An Allied mission to deny German scientists the “heavy water” necessary for the production of nuclear energy had already taken place in Norway. Alsos was more focused on the scientists and progress of Germany’s program.

Although the Alsos teams determined that the Germans were lagging in their development of a nuclear bomb, intelligence officers on both fronts simultaneously were scrambling to beat each other to the targets. While the Americans and Brits were anxious to keep the most valuable information from a similarly composed Soviet unit, the Yanks weren’t particularly forthcoming with their partners, either. Knowing what the Soviets might have in store for them, if captured, Nazis involved in the rocketry and atomic programs chose to surrender to the Americans. Some of them would be forgiven their sins and assigned to luxury postings in NASA. If “Company of Heroes” provides something of a primer on Alsos, the primary focus is on action and melodrama. (There’s even a bit of skin thrown in for good measure.) The cast includes Tom Sizemore, Chad Michael Collins, Neal McDonough, Vinnie Jones, Jurgen Prochnow and Melia Kreiling, whose Grecian beauty could have inspired another installment in the “Why We Fight” series. The DVD adds some decent making-of featurettes. (Those interested in the Norwegian mission should check out “The Heroes of Telemark” and non-fiction “The Real Heroes of Telemark.”) – Gary Dretzka

Nobody Gets Out Alive
It’s difficult to find much of anything to say, one way or the other, about a slasher flick that pays homage to the classics of the genre, but forgets to add anything new to the mix. At a mere 78 minutes, “Nobody Gets Out Alive” contains enough bloody murders to fill a longer movie. If anyone had something fresh to contribute, there was plenty of time left for it. Either the producers ran out of money or the director ran out of ideas. I’d hate to think it simply was a matter of the local Halloween supply store running out of fake blood. Writer/director Jason Christopher opens his sophomore feature with the blessedly off-screen death of a little girl who’s hit by a car driven by out-of-control teenagers. Her father, Hunter Isth (Brian Gallagher), only took his eyes off her for a second before the sound of tiny bones being crushed fills the air. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it causes him to go mad. Instead of tracking down the driver and passengers in the speeding car and dishing out his revenge, Isth goes the Sasquatch route, by hiding out in the woods and killing everyone who attempts to enter his lair. Before long, a generic group of teenage campers makes the mistake of doing just that. Only the pretty blond teen, Jenn (Jen Dance), a recent graduate of a mental hospital, lives to tell the tale to the best known member of the cast, Clint Howard. The surprise ending isn’t all that surprising, but, at least, it ties things up. The making-of featurette shows more initiative than the screenplay. – Gary Dretzka

Fast Girls
Released in the U.K. ahead of the Summer Olympics, “Fast Girls” goes the inspirational route to promote teamwork, selflessness and sportsmanship among viewers in the teenage-girl demographic. Although we’re encouraged to anticipate a “Bend It Like Beckham”-like dramedy, precious little original thought went into the cliché-ridden story. British viewers would have been much better served if freshman director Regan Hall and his quartet of writers had watched and studied Robert Towne’s similarly themed “Personal Best.” As it is, though, I think “Fast Girls” was more interested in getting casual fans of track and field interested in the Games than showing the blood, sweat and tears that are an integral part of training. Neither did it hurt box-office prospects that the women runners we meet are uniformly gorgeous and disco-ready at all times.

As played by Lenora Crichlow (“Being Human”), Shania is a parentless child and brilliant runner from the wrong side of the tracks. Her problem is that she has an insecurity complex that’s equal parts self-destructive and unattractive. Of Jamaican heritage, Shania naturally is pitted against the privileged blond sprinter Lisa, played by Lily James (“Downton Abbey”), whose father is a total jerk. Can the girls get their personal acts together before the Olympics? If they do, will they be rewarded with cosmetics endorsements? “Fast Girls” is enhanced by a bouncy ska-influenced soundtrack and an atypically diverse cast. The bonus material includes pieces on cast training, the relay race, costume design, shooting at night, the “Fast Girls Championship” and “Fun With the Fast Girls.” – Gary Dretzka

Discovery: Africa: Blu-ray
The Client List: The Complete First Season
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Rise of the Turtles
Disney Channel: Phineas & Ferb: The Perry Files: Animal Agents

PBS: The Reagan Presidency
No matter how much we’ve come to expect excellence in the nature and wildlife series co-produced by the BBC and Discovery, there’s always plenty of room left for surprise. “Africa,” the latest installment in the BBC Earth franchise, is just such a production. It takes everything we know and have seen previously about the continent and adds stunning visual evidence for every new revelation. It took four years to record what we witness in the three-disc, six-part series, which takes us from South Africa’s Cape Agulhas and Cape Point, which are teeming with aquatic life, to the great Sahara Desert, where the animals are few and the sand dunes “sing.” As usual, Sir David Attenborough is there to explain how the natural phenomena came to exist, their relationship to mankind and what can be expected in the future. Naturally, we also visit the Congo rainforest, vast East African savannah, surprisingly well-populated deserts of the Kalahari and outposts where every effort is being made to preserve what’s left of endangered species. I’ve seen dozens of documentaries about gorillas and the fragility of their environment, but it’s never been documented so poignantly as in the footage showing an alpha male looking out from his cloud-swept habitat at the plantations and estates encroaching on all sides of the forest preserve. He’s trapped and probably knows it. Neither have I ever seen the gathering of rhinos that takes place nightly at a convenient watering hole on the savannah. It might as well be a disco in Nairobi. Other rituals are captured as they’ve been performed out of sight of man for centuries. The Blu-ray adds a bonus episode, “The Future”; outtakes and deleted scenes; and interviews with the host, producers and cinematographers.

The sexy prime-time soap, “The Client List,” easily qualifies as a guilty pleasure for women who fantasize about beating the recession by working in a high-end massage parlor or brothel. Hey, it’s Lifetime, the network where women rule. The many Victoria’s Secret moments have attracted an unusually large number of male viewers, as well. The show’s primary drawing card, of course, is lovely and voluptuous Jennifer Love Hewitt. The presence of the notoriously modest JLH probably wouldn’t nearly be as alluring if she had given in to the financial temptations of posing in the buff for Playboy or some less prestigious rag. The most revealing thing Mr. Skin could find on her resume was a momentary underwater “nip slip” from “The Tuxedo.” On “The Client List,” JLH plays a former Texas homecoming queen, who married her high school jock boyfriend but has fallen on hard economic times. To make ends meet, and then some, Samantha reluctantly accepts a job in a massage parlor. After being shocked by her customers’ advances, she learns to enjoy the work. The series also features appearances by Cybill Shepherd, as mom; Loretta Devine, as the owner of the massage parlor; and Colin Egglesfield, as the estranged husband. The DVD includes 10 episodes, deleted scenes and outtakes.

Of all the superhero franchises that bloomed in the 1980s, few have had the same impact or enjoyed the longevity of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” The new DVD from Nickelodeon, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Rise of the Turtles,” is comprised of episodes from the third animated series based on the adventures of brothers Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo who live in the sewers of New York but take care of business on the streets above their lair. The series benefits from a mutation of its own, this one to a snappy CGI-animated format that looks terrific. In doing battle with Kraang-droids, a mad scientist and a robot turtle, among other enemies, Donatello has been re-armed with naginata, as well as a bow, and Michelangelo gets to use a kusarigama, along with his nunchaku. Leonardo is also given an opportunity to prove his mettle with a katana. The voicing cast includes Jason Biggs, Rob Paulsen, Sean Astin, Greg Cipes, Hoon Lee and Meg Whitman. The DVD arrives with the double-length “Rise of the Turtles,” four other episodes, six making-of animatics, a karaoke music video and poster.

In “Phineas and Ferb: Animal Agents,” supporting-cast member Perry the Platypus (a.k.a., Agent P) and the animal agents of O.W.C.A (Organization Without a Cool Acronym) team up to thwart Dr. Doofenshmirtz and his dastardly “Inators.” In the two-part cliffhanger, “Where’s Perry,” the gang is transported to the savannahs of Africa, where they are monitored by O.W.C.A. surveillance devices. The series is extremely colorful, cleverly scripted and fast-paced. The villain is also a pretty decent singer. The DVD package contains 12 episodes dealing with Perry and the Animal Agents of O.W.C.A.; an activity-based spy kit, with a set of paper binoculars; trading cards; and O.W.C.A. I.D. badge.

It has often been said that Richard Nixon, if he were still alive, would be run out of the Republican Party for being a liberal. As the Tea Baggers strengthen their hold on the party, the same thing has begun to apply to Ronald Reagan. Despite his hard-line conservative views and electoral mandate, Reagan was known to make the occasional compromise with Democrats and moderate his views when they were successfully challenged by people he respected. The new Republican right doesn’t respect anyone, besides each other, and their refusal to compromise is threatening to sink the country they say they love. Presented by Iowa Public Television, “The Reagan Presidency” examines the late president’s legacy, with an eye toward the policies that led to the end of the Cold War, stalled inflation and fueled the economy. History has demonstrated how initiatives launched a quarter-century ago led to the 2007 Depression and destruction of the economy. It wouldn’t be fair to heap all of the blame on Reagan, but he certainly opened the door for the greed-is-good generation and Americans of all political persuasions could hardly wait to pass through it. The three-hour documentary is informed by interviews with Sandra Day O’Connor, Condoleezza Rice, Walter Mondale, Douglas Brinkley, Reza Aslan, Oscar Arias, Robert Reich and Paul Volcker. It also contains interviews with writer/director Chip Duncan and composer Peter Batchelder. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Bullet Collector
In his stunning directorial debut, “Bullet Collector,” Russian filmmaker Alexander Vartanov has done something quite remarkable. While openly conceding his debt to Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and Jean Vigo’s “Zero de conduit,” he has created a distinctly Russian drama about growing up alone and defenseless in a society that has other things on its mind than the well-being of distressed youth. “Bullet Collector” seems to have been influenced, as well, by Andrei Tarkovsky’s harrowing wartime drama, “Ivan’s Childhood.” Unlike “The 400 Blows” and “Zero du conduit,” however, Vartanov’s film is unrelieved by any mischievous behavior and humor. Neither is the protagonist particularly heroic. The central figure here is a 14-year-old towheaded boy (Ruslan Nazarenko), who isn’t given a name but, strangely enough, very much resembles Dennis the Menace. Before being sent away to reform school, the boy was bullied by his stepfather and ignored by his mother. As a defense mechanism, he often drifts into a dream state that allows him to experience what life might be like with a caring family, pals who looked up to him and a girlfriend. The dreams that come at night, though, often take the shape of brutal revenge fantasies, during which he’s able to stand up to the boys who are making his stay at the school a living nightmare. Sometimes, the only way to tell fantasy from reality is to pay attention to the changes in the lush black-and-white cinematography. The boy’s less-horrific dreams take on an ethereal quality with wisps of ground fog and soft lighting, his revenge fantasies are captured by the in-your-face lens of a handheld camera. Normal life at the reform school is treated in documentary style. There are other times when the cold, gray skies above the boy’s head, bleed into the cold, gray Russian earth. When that happens, “Bullet Collector” could easily be mistaken for a war movie from the post-Stalin cultural thaw, as was “Ivan’s Childhood.” Then and now, children have paid a stiff price for the mistakes made by their elders and the democracy promised by glasnost and perestroika has yet to pan out. Even so, Vartanov’s collabortation with playwright Yuri Klavdiev doesn’t appear to be making any overreaching points about the necessity for reform, parental accountability or easier access to Levi’s and MTV since the lifting of the Iron Curtain. If anything, there’s something far more personal going on here. As far as I can tell, the Artsploitation Films edition of “Bullet Collector” represents the first opportunity for American audiences to sample Vartanov’s work. The DVD contains a deleted scene, making-of footage and audition tapes. – Gary Dretzka

Argo: Blu-ray
With the Academy Awards ceremony only a few days away, only two of the nine Best Picture candidates – “Argo” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” – have been made available on DVD or Blu-ray. A couple have already disappeared from theaters and one or two have yet to open in smaller cities and towns. The bounce in revenues studios once enjoyed after the show now is felt, if anywhere, in the DVD, Blu-ray and POV markets. Within five years, I suspect, they will have figured out a way to stream or download all of the nominees to the public a week or two before the show, without fear of piracy. The only people not to benefit from such a setup would be exhibitors and, by now, they’re used to being screwed by Hollywood interests. Going into the weekend, “Argo” appears to be the movie with the most momentum. It’s gotten the bulk of the post-season awards, is being supported by an extensive marketing campaign, has already made a bunch of money, is a crowd-pleaser and most importantly of all, perhaps, has the sympathy vote wrapped up. That’s because, despite accruing seven nominations, Ben Affleck somehow failed to make the cut in the Best Director and Best Actor categories. It may be a mystery, but I can’t imagine academy members coordinating anything more sinister than the swapping of for-your-consideration DVDs.

“Argo” is, of course, based on real events surrounding the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran, in 1979, and virtual imprisonment of 52 Americans there. The six Americans who slipped away from the embassy that day found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Because of their vulnerability there, the CIA was asked to come up with a way to get them safely out of Iran without also putting the lives of the Canadian diplomats in jeopardy. The assignment fell to veteran agent and self-described “master of disguise” Tony Mendez. The full details of the escape weren’t revealed publicly until 2007, when records were declassified. Great liberties were taken by Affleck and writer Chris Terrio in the depiction of certain key events, including the thrilling climax, but the heroism of the protagonist, courage of the Canadian ambassador (and his wife) and ordeal of the embassy workers has yet to be challenged.

In his two previous directorial efforts, “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone,” Affleck has proven to be a generous director, who isn’t reluctant to share the spotlight or give credit where it’s due when he’s being lauded in the media. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are terrific together as the CIA’s Hollywood connection, and Affleck also gets wonderful support from Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Page Leong, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Kyle Chandler and the actors playing the captives. In addition to commentary by Affleck and Terrio, the Blu-ray package contains a follow-along picture-in-picture “Eyewitness Account,” with the reflections of Mendez, then-President Jimmy Carter and onetime hostages; four background featurettes; and the 2005 documentary “Escape From Iran: The Hollywood Option.” – Gary Dretzka

Deadfall: Blu-ray
Sushi Girl: Blu-ray
In 2008, “The Counterfeiters” became the first submission by Austria to win an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Stefan Rusowitsky’s taut World War II drama was set in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where a team of skilled Jewish engravers, calligraphers and one forger, at least, was being forced to produce enough counterfeit currency to cause an economic crisis in Allied countries. The story was inspired by the Nazis’ actual Operation Bernhard and, at its core, was a career criminal, who wasn’t looking for the personal glory or gain. He merely wanted to survive the war, without also advancing Adolph Hitler’s destabilization strategy. The snowbound crime thriller, “Deadfall,” written by first-timer Zach Dean, represents the first movie Rusowitsky has made on this side of the Atlantic Ocean … Quebec, to be precise. Besides the Oscar-winning director, the script attracted a stellar cast, led by Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, Charlie Hunnam, Sissy Spacek, Kate Mara, Treat Williams and Kris Kristofferson. With all that going for it, you’d think the distributors of “Deadfall” would prompt something more than a limited run in, at most, 17 theaters, after debuting on VOD. It’s entirely possible the movie would have forgone theaters entirely, if it weren’t for a couple of leaked or pirated clips showing Wilde making love in a darkly lit motel room and standing in a snow drift in a garter belt and torn stockings. Sexually, though, that’s as hot as things get in “Deadfall.” If it’s not a perfect movie, though, “Deadfall” is far from being the kind of picture that’s usually tossed into the straight-to-video mix.

Bana and Wilde play Addison and Liza, a brother-sister team of thieves, who, just as they begin counting their money, are nearly killed in an accident. The driver of the getaway car, since deceased, hits a deer and goes spinning off the highway. The siblings are left to fend for themselves in a dense forest during a blizzard. Addison survives by killing a deputy investigating the crash and stealing a snowmobile from a hunter. Nearly frozen in her skimpy dress, torn stockings and heels, Liza is picked up by a recently released jailbird on a lonely snow-covered road. The former boxer, Jay, is fleeing what he believes to be the accidental death of his corrupt former manager. Using cellphones, Addison and Liza agree to meet up at the remote family home of her rescuer. Even though Jay’s estranged from his parents (Spacek, Kristofferson), he decides to stop at the house for what may be his last Thanksgiving dinner as a free man. In between the time that Jay and Liza meet and reach the house, they enjoy a roll in the hay and seemingly fall in love. After another series of unlikely, if dramatically-licensed circumstances, everyone winds up at the house in time for dinner. Soon enough, the diners also will include a hard-charging female deputy (Rooney) and her crudely sexist boss and father (Williams). It’s here that the final showdown will take place and we’ll learn if blood is thicker than water. (The sheriff’s unsettling treatment of his daughter is the only thing that rings false in the movie.) Backers of the NRA-approved theory that heavily armed citizens can stand up to gun-wielding bad guys probably won’t be happy with some of the things that happen to the contrary in “Deadfall.” Even though everyone in this neck of the woods totes a rifle, side arm or shotgun, they finally are at the mercy of sociopaths with nothing to lose. And, yes, for a while there, I did somehow manage to confuse “Deadfall” with “Skyfall.” It wasn’t until half-way through the Bond movie that I stopped waiting for Wilde to show up in her non-thermal britches from Victoria’s Secret. Duh. The Blu-ray arrives with a making-of featurette, bonus footage and interviews.

Sushi Girl” followed exactly the same release pattern as “Deadfall,” opening on VOD, before a very limited theatrical run and Blu-ray release soon thereafter. Unlike “Deadfall,” though, the only widely recognizable names on the credit list are those of an unrecognizable Mark Hamill and martial-arts legend Sonny Chiba. (As is his wont lately, Danny Trejo only makes a cameo.) For co-writer/director Kern Saxton and co-writer Destin Pfaff, “Sushi Girl” represents their first feature film. Anyone who goes into the movie thinking it has something to do with a groupie obsessed with Japanese chefs will be in for a surprise. Chiba plays a master chef, alright, but “Sushi Girl” is to cuisine what Mr. Blonde’s dance of death in “Reservoir Dogs” is to shaving. Playing the title character is the truly spectacular looking Cortney Palm, who spends almost all of the movie’s 98 minutes on her back, naked, covered with a variety of sashimi. Also on the menu is the potentially dish, fugu. (If she’s able to escape the scream-queen ghetto, Palm could compete for the roles Emily Blunt is too busy to accept.) Sushi Girl has been ordered by her boss (Tony Todd) to lie lifeless on the table no matter what happens around her. The clamor eventually will include several gunfights, loud arguments and the torture of an ex-con the men sitting around the table believe is in possession of a sack of diamonds. The gems were stolen six years earlier, but they disappeared after the getaway van was struck by a car. We suspect early on that “Fish” (Noah Hathaway) isn’t holding out on his former cohorts, but the identity of the person actually in possession of the stash remains a mystery throughout 95 percent of the film. I think the ending will come as a surprise to most viewers. People easily disturbed by violence and torture are advised to avoid “Sushi Girl.” Those with stronger stomachs and a taste for Tarantino-style dialogue, however, should find a lot to like. – Gary Dretzka

28 Hotel Rooms
I can’t speak for women, but one of the more endearing sexual fantasies is the one that inspired the play and movie, “Same Time, Next Year.” In it, a man and a woman who are married, but not to each other, meet annually at the same inn where they had their first tryst. For lack of a better description, call it adultery-lite. In Matt Ross’ variation on the “STNY” conceit, “28 Hotel Rooms,” Chris Messina and Marin Ireland play a writer and accountant who meet in the bar of a boutique hotel and take an instant fancy to each other. It leads to a night of sexual revelry, but without the hangover of guilt that usually comes with it. Although Woman and Man, as they’re known here, don’t expect to ever see each other again, they do. Instead of once a year, they meet more often and for more than a night at a time. Her job, at least, requires frequent travel to the same city, so she as a built-in alibi. As a writer, Man is required to use his imagination to come up with excuses. Neither of them seems interested in leaving their room to eat, stroll or see a movie, so most of “28 Hotel Rooms” is staged within the cozy confines of a mini-suite. Besides enjoying making love, Man and Woman share a genuine fondness for each other. As the trysts continue, their dialogue evolves from grunts and groans to conversations about their lives away from the hotel. They sometimes bicker, but only out of frustration over not being able to have their cake and eat it, too. Woman is adamant that the affair remain secret, while Man appears ready to take a stand for a more substantial commitment. Besides that, almost nothing of substance happens. “28 Hotel Rooms” is more of a character study than a statement on marriage or monogamy, and Messina and Ireland are definitely up to the task. Writer/director Ross has one of the most familiar faces on television (“Big Love,” “American Horror Story”) and, presumably, he informed the story with elements he found missing in some of the roles he’s been assigned. “28 Hotel Rooms” doesn’t ask much of its audience, so it can be enjoyed or dismissed without much deep thought. It’s possible to suggest, however, that its appeal will be limited to adults whose pipedreams include similar rendezvous. For anyone who suspects that his or her spouse is stepping out during out-of-town business trips, “28 Hotel Rooms” could lead to a call to the private investigators on “Cheaters.” The DVD adds deleted scenes with commentary and an interview with Ross. – Gary Dretzka

Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike: Blu-ray
It’s legitimate to wonder who in their right mind thought that pouring more money into the “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy was a good idea. The first installment laid a large egg commercially and critically, and the market for such a diatribe appears to be limited to the English-speaking world. If a production budget of $30 million for two movies doesn’t sound too extreme, consider that the first two chapters have yet to return $10 million at the box office. As such, a planned third chapter could amount to financial suicide. Ayn Rand’s works have influenced untold millions of readers, some positively and others not so much. Based solely on the fact that “Atlas Shrugged” was published 55 years ago, I’d be surprised if many people in the primary movie-going demographic even know how to pronounce her name. Except for her Teabag following, the vast majority of potential viewers of the trilogy aren’t sufficiently engaged politically to even consider a movie that might attack them for caring about people less fortunate than themselves. No matter what one thinks of Rand’s writing and philosophy, though, the first two chapters have been almost comically non-involving and no more evolved technically than the Irwin Allen disaster epics of the ’70s. Even in jail, Gordon Gecko made a better case for greed.

In “Atlas Shrugged 2: The Strike,” artists, scientists and self-made industrials have begun to disappear into thin air, and the question, “Who is John Galt?,” is being repeated across the land. With energy prices through the roof and the working class in high dudgeon, rumors of the existence of a self-sufficient energy generator have tantalized investors, industrialists and consumers, alike. When Dagny Taggart and her powerful lover Henry Reardon stumble upon the motor, while on a cross-country trip, they have no clue how it might actually work. They hire someone to deconstruct it, but she suspects that the only person who can turn static electricity into energy is the mysterious and possibly non-existent John Galt. The closer Dagny comes to the truth, the more she becomes a target for those who don’t want it revealed. The larger question is why the producers decided not to spend the money necessary to make “Atlas Shrugged” a movie event of compelling interest to Rand loyalists and detractors, alike.

A solid script and one or two A-list actors, at least, might have given “Atlas Shrugged” a fighting chance in theaters. King Vidor’s 1949 adaptation of “The Fountainhead” didn’t make much money for Warner Brothers, but, at least, the studio had the conviction to hire Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey and Kent Smith. As it is, a more sensible strategy might have been to go the mini-series route and debut it on Fox News and Fox Business, networks dedicated to advancing Rand’s agenda, while ignoring her pro-choice, anti-religion, value-based views on sex and other libertarian positions. Everything about the trilogy — from the C- and D-list cast, to the bargain-basement special effects — screams cable TV or PPV. The grotesquely negative portrayals of opponents of laissez-faire capitalism seem to have been ripped from Mitt Romney’s discredited playbook and unions are always portrayed as being evil. (I wonder how many of the actors would have denounced the Screen Actors Guild if it were the only way to secure a job on the movie … probably none.) On the plus side, though, “Atlas Shrugged 2” contains one of the rarest of all show-business moments when magician and illusionist Teller, playing a security guard at Taggart Transcontinental, briefly breaks his silence. Some folks might find the shocking development, alone, worth the price of a rental. The Blu-ray offers a behind-the-scenes look at the production; deleted scenes; and an extended publicity segment with Sean Hannity. – Gary Dretzka

The Thief of Bagdad: Blu-ray
Although Georges Melies’ 13-minute-long “A Trip to the Moon” was first exhibited in 1902, the unforgettable image of a rocket ship stuck in the eye of a decidedly unhappy Man in the Moon still has the power to enchant cinema lovers around the world. Two decades later, Douglas Fairbanks and Raoul Walsh’s fantasy adventure “The Thief of Bagdad” would weigh in at 150 minutes and contain as many marvelous special visual effects as had been rendered in all of the years since Melies began pushing the envelope combined. The newly released Blu-ray edition of “The Thief of Bagdad” should put to rest the notion that effects-driven movies made in the silent era are naturally less entertaining than the CGI extravaganzas of today. If your child displays any interest at all in the history of cinema and evolution of special effects, put a copy of “Thief of Bagdad” under his or her pillow and say it was left there by the movie fairy. You might even suggest that it was the “Avatar” of its day and no less stunning to its audience than James Cameron’s sci-fi fantasy was to his. There’s no need to be concerned about all of the scratches, tears, blips and burps that make viewing early classics such a chore on television and VHS. The pristine Cohen Media/Entertainment One release has been digitally restored in 2k from two 35mm negatives, incorporating color tints and tones of the original release prints. The audio upgrade also enhances Carl Davis’ thrilling score, which incorporated the Orientalia of Rimsky-Korsakov.

The epic story derives from various elements in “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.” In the hands of Fairbanks, the lay-about thief and pickpocket, Ahmed, is energized by the surreptitious discovery – he uses the Indian rope trick to get over the walls of the palace — of the caliph’s sleeping daughter. She is about to be handed over for marriage to one of three princes from faraway lands who’ve come to the city in all their pompous glory. Not to be undone, Ahmed disguises himself as a man of princely bearing and wealth. By comparison to the princess’ other suitors, Ahmed is far and away the most attractive and amusing candidate. When the caliph is informed of his true character, he orders that Ahmed be whipped to within an inch of his life and torn apart by an ape. After the princess intercedes on his behalf, she buys time for Ahmed by staging a competition between the three princes to see who, after seven moons, can bring her the best gift. The plot thickens when the princess develops a serious illness and the princes conspire against the caliph. In his quest for the greatest gift, Ahmed benefits from a chest of magic powder that will be useful in defeating the demons in his path, making rugs fly and quashing the caliph’s enemies. Fairbanks was 40 when he made “Thief of Bagdad,” but he looks extremely buff and in full command of the stunts that require agility and athleticism. It’s a real tour de force, especially considering that he co-wrote, produced and practically co-directed the movie with Walsh.

Not having seen “Thief of Bagdad,” except in bits and pieces, I wondered how the movie would portray the Arabian, Persian, Indian and Mongol characters. The discovery of oil in the region had yet to be fully charted and exploited in 1924, so Hollywood had been able to play fast and loose with storybook legends and cultural stereotypes. The popularity of “The Sheik” and “Sheik of Araby” forever linked the white-slave trade to insatiable Bedouin princes. By comparison, “Thief of Bagdad” is respectful of Islamic teachings and demonstrates how an infidel like Ahmed can be redeemed by hard work and worshipping God. The writing in the nighttime sky, “Happiness must be earned,” is the movie’s core teaching. The Blu-ray package adds audio commentary by Douglas Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance and Vance’s introductions to 17 minutes worth of stills from the production. – Gary Dretzka

For Ellen
When it comes to parenting, rock stars and NBA players share a certain lack of empathy for the children they’ve fathered out of wedlock. For all they know, there could be one in every city with a stage or basketball court. It’s tough to be Peter Pan when you’ve got kids of your own to nurture. That’s a rather grand generalization, to be sure, but I’ve seen several movies in which musicians are required to come to grips with children they didn’t know existed or have ignored for years. Only 12 months separated So Yong Kim’s “For Ellen” and David M. Rosenthal’s “Janie Jones” on the festival circuit, before being accorded minimal theatrical exposure and quick trip to DVD. Both were distinguished by excellent acting, ethical dilemmas and scene-stealing by child actors. In “Janie Jones,” a strung-out former groupie (Elisabeth Shue) drops a charming girl in her early teens (Abigail Breslin) on a road-weary musician (Alessandro Nivola), with whom she had a brief fling. In “For Ellen,” Paul Dano plays a rock star who has spent most of his adult life in Los Angeles trying to make an impression on stoned head-bangers. When he’s informed that his ex-wife (Margarita Levieva) is divorcing him and wants full custody of their 6-year-old daughter, Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo) — who hasn’t a clue as to who he is — Joby drives to a snowy corner of Upstate New York to contest it. Apparently, the child represents the only thing that he’s created that’s worth more than two cents and he feels entitled to partial ownership.

The only reason we kinda, sorta sympathize with Joby is that his wife is something of an ogre and we’re pre-disposed to like Dano, despite his thoroughly unlikeable character. It isn’t until fairly late in “For Ellen” that we’re given any solid reason to like Joby and it comes from the easy rapport he exhibits with Ellen, during the two-hour visit allotted him. Although he’s completely lost when it comes to entertaining a 6-year-old, Ellen is wise beyond her years. Mandigo is as self-assured and charismatic as Quvenzhane Wallis and Breslin, at the same age, and the conversations literally kick the movie into another gear. She’s precocious, of course, but without being creepy or obnoxious about it. Now that they’ve met each other, though, the South Korean-born writer/director wisely leaves it up to our imagination as to how the rest of their lives will play out. At 28, Dano’s developed into one of Hollywood’s most interesting and dependently flexible actors, so they make an intriguing pair. In what may be his first appearance as someone other than a geek, Jon Heder does a nice job as Joby’s overmatched lawyer. Jenna Malone also makes a cameo. The DVD arrives with a too-short interview with Kim. – Gary Dretzka

Undefeated
Bestiaire
I didn’t hear NFL star Michael Oher’s name mentioned during the course of “Undefeated” — Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Oscar-winning documentary — but its resemblance to the “The Blind Side” extends beyond the gridiron. Oher was the athlete around which John Lee Hancock and Sandra Bullock’s hit drama was constructed. If Oher’s name rings a bell, it’s because he’s a key member of the Baltimore Ravens, the winning team in the Super Bowl. His real mom and screen mom both were in attendance at that game and CBS wasn’t reluctant about mentioning the connection. “Undefeated” is about a team comprised nearly entirely of players like Michael Oher, before he finally caught a break and was allowed to focus on football, instead of survival. Like some of the kids we meet in the documentary he was a homeless, parentless teenager in Memphis. Only one of the two dozen kids we meet in this undeniably inspirational film possesses the talent it would take to legitimately anticipate a pro career, let alone a starring role in the Super Bowl. All of his teammates, however, have experienced the ravages of poverty, rampant crime, urban blight, underfinanced schools and an epidemic of hopelessness. North Memphis has yet to recover from the 1983 closing of a giant Firestone plant, which, when active, provided thousands of jobs for local residents. Into the vacuum flowed hard drugs and despair. Early in the film, a visiting pro athlete asks the Manassas High School players for a show of hands if, first, one parent graduated from college and, secondly, if both had done so. Although a smattering of hands went up for the first question, none was raised for the second. Everyone’s hand went up when the speaker asked if they had any close relations who had served time in prison, were victims of violent crimes or junkies. For years, Manassas’ football program has been as devastated as the neighborhood. In a good year, the team might have won one or two or three games. Fortuitously, in 2009, the filmmakers caught up with the Tigers before they embarked on a season that can best be described as miraculous.

The documentary originally was going to focus on lineman O.C. Brown, the star player whose experiences bear an uncanny resemblance to Oher. Once in Memphis, though, Lindsay and Martin found something even more heart-warming. The Tigers were coached that year by a white businessman, who volunteered his time and money to teach the students how to play the game and understand the value of teamwork and positive thinking. For six years, Bill Courtney experienced frustrations and setbacks unknown to most coaches. Just when the 2009 season was shaping up as a carbon copy of the previous five, however, the team started winning. If it didn’t go undefeated, as the title suggests, several key plays managed to overcome the odds and succeed on and off the field. The climactic game is important, but more as a way to sum up what we’ve already seen. As such, “Undefeated” resembles previous documentaries, “Go Tigers!” and “Hoop Dreams.” The DVD includes commentary, a making-of piece and deleted scenes, including a discarded throughline.

At a mere 72 minutes, Denis Cote’s anti-documentary “Bestiaire” describes how an average day might pass at a giant safari park, without or without crowds and absent the seduction of dead fish, peanuts or applause to perform tricks or amuse customers. It asks us to train our eyes on things we might not necessarily notice when visiting with kids in tow or in peak seasons. The animals observe us, too, not anticipating danger or a handout, but because we’re there. If they had televisions, they’d probably watch them, instead, as would zoo personnel. Moreover, Cote refuses to tell us why he’s picked these animals and personnel to film. There’s no narrative in “Bestiaire” to tell us what to think about what we’re being shown and only a few words are spoken into a phone. By eliminating the narrative, we’re free just to look at things, as would an inquisitive wildebeest or emu. If some of the images of animals going about their business fail to raise your pulse, wait for the shots of hyenas being fed in the tight quarters of a holding pen, a lion attempting break through the chain on a cage and the horrible sound of zebras banging their heads and hooves against the walls of their steel pens — and each other — for no apparent reason. Immediately after these troubling images Cote takes us to the workshop of the park’s taxidermist, where the coats of dead animals are stretched over molds. They are subsequently utilized as unpaid models in a studio where art students will sketch them as if they were alive and staring at them. “Bestiaire” is every bit as difficult, challenging and, perhaps, to some viewers, pointless as it seems. An interview with the filmmaker doesn’t quite explain Cote’s intentions or shine light on his overriding philosophy, but, as in any trip to the zoo, we’re free to stretch our imaginations as far as they will go. – Gary Dretzka

The Cyclist
If I were a more cynical person, I’d suggest that “The Cyclist” was made in a rushed attempt to get the non-cycling world’s attention off Lance Armstrong and back on the sport, itself. There must be one or two competitors out there who aren’t juicing … right? Writer/director John Lawrence seems intent on convincing us that amateur cycling remains as pure as the driven snow in Moab, Utah, where most of the movie was filmed. Indeed, the best thing about ‘The Cyclist” is the scenery. Otherwise, it tells the overly familiar story of an athlete who loses his way on the path to glory and tries to bury his future in a bottle. K.C. Clyde, who resembles Mel Gibson from odd angles, plays the over-amped cyclist. In a sport that often requires intricate teamwork, Nash is a hard-charging individualist. This will change after his best friend is killed while riding to the finish of a race in the Wasatch Range. A year later, Nash is called upon to redeem himself and prove that his buddy didn’t die in vain. As lovely as the scenery is, “The Cyclist” is no threat to the supremacy of “Breaking Away” as the best movie about cycling, with “American Flyers” and the German “Phantom Pain” also worth a look. The DVD includes director commentary and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Laura: Blu-ray
Top Gun: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Best in Show: Blu-ray
The Insider: Blu-ray
Released in 1944, “Laura” has so many wonderful things going for it that it’s easy to overlook the all too obvious fact that the criminal investigation conducted by Dana Andrews’ police detective, Mark McPherson, makes the LAPD’s case against O.J. Simpson look flawless. Police got away with a lot of monkey business before the Supreme Court clamped down in the 1960s and Hollywood cops have also been given leeway when it comes to solving a case in less than two hours. No more so than in the investigation of rags-to-riches socialite Laura Hunt’s “murder.” Out of the blue, McPherson’s been assigned to re-interview all of the likely suspects who’ve already been grilled. They include a prominent columnist (Clifton Webb) and gold-digging playboy (Vincent Price), a rich dame in love with the playboy (Judith Anderson), a promiscuous model and Laura’s maid. Passive-aggressive to the point of permitting the columnist to sit in on his interviews and make wiseass remarks when it suits him, McPherson also allowed himself to fall in love with Laura, in absentia, solely from what he admired in the painting of her hanging over the fireplace in her apartment. All that said, director Otto Preminger seduces us into staying with the whodunit until the loose ends begin coming together. Tierney couldn’t have been more magnetic in the role of the title character and Webb’s dialogue is wonderfully bitchy. More than anything else, however, it was the hypnotic attraction of the signature melody that pulled the audience into the noir drama. The Fox Blu-ray edition enhances Preminger’s strategic mix of shadows, light and David Raksin’s score. The movie’s fascinating backstory and Tierney’s heart-breaking biography — as laid out in the bonus package, along with other previously released commentaries and featurettes — are essential viewing for lovers of Hollywood lore. The disc can be viewed in its original theatrical cut or slightly extended version that contains a montage of Laura’s rise through the social ranks, which was deemed by Fox to bet too “off-putting in its decadence” for wartime audiences. As romantic mysteries go, “Laura” can’t be beat.

A couple of years ago, a multi-reel “Top Gun” slot machine was introduced into casinos around the country. Anyone fortunate enough to reach the bonus round was put behind the stick of a fighter jet and given opportunities to score points by taking out targets and dodging rockets from enemy fliers. The machine was designed to match the look of a cockpit and a subwoofer underneath the seat caused it to vibrate whenever certain obstacles were overcome. The game was fun to play, while it lasted, but, like too many other licensed titles, it didn’t pay out as often as punters desired. At the time, the slot machine was the closest fans of the blockbuster could come to a 3D experience. Now, though, those with 3D TVs can save their quarters and take the cinematic experience to an exciting new level. Early reports on the quality of “Top Gun” in the Blu-ray 3D format have been extremely positive, even compared to the most recent 2D Blu-ray version, which is included in the double-dip from Paramount. (The set also offers a digital copy and UltraViolet capability.) The digital conversion of Tony Scott’s 27-year-old thriller, which combined exciting aerial acrobatics, with elements of romance, comedy and melodrama, represented a challenge to techies who hadn’t before worked on a movie quite that old. If it comes close to succeeding commercially – even lacking a critical mass of consumers with 3D-ready TVs — more action-adventures will be added to the 3D pipeline. Newcomers to “Top Gun,” if there are any, might be surprised by the movie’s Cold War context. The first Mideast war was still years away and our fliers were virtually untested in combat situations. Instead of engaging in dogfights with Soviet pilots, as in the movie, our top gunners were limited to dodging anti-aircraft fire from Iraqi positions on the ground and picking off sitting-duck tanks, trucks and Mercedes fleeing Kuwait. (In fact, the once-vaunted Iraqi Air Force decided to high-tail it out of the country and hand over the keys to their fighters to their Iranian enemies.) All of the bonus features from the previous Blu-ray iteration have been restored here. They include commentary with Scott, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, co-writer Jack Epps Jr., Captain Mike Galpin and technical advisor Pete Pettigrew and Vice Admiral Mike McCabe, a Tom Cruise interview and several featurettes.

Now that another Westminster Kennel Club competition is in the books, there’s no better time to revisit Christopher Guest’s hilarious sendup of show dogs and the people who obsess over them, “Best in Show.” Anyone who’s been closer than the first balcony to such an event knows how close to the mark Guest gets in the portrayals of owners, trainers, judges, groomers, walkers and announcers. As he had already demonstrated in “Spinal Tap” and “Waiting for Guffman,” Guest has a keen eye for the peculiarities of people whose involvement in singular pastimes tells only part of the story of their lives. The term “mockumentary” typically is attached to his work, but it’s difficult to detect much that qualifies as mocking or ridicule. Buried under the characters’ idiosyncrasies and wacky dreams is something resembling admiration. If we enjoy such things as dog shows and amateur theaters, it’s because people like the ones we meet in “Best in Show” make them happen. If anyone is getting ridiculed here it’s Fred Willard’s clueless color commentator, who knows nothing about dogs or their owners and proves it every time he opens his mouth. No one has ever done that sort of thing better than Willard. Otherwise, the impeccable ensemble cast includes Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Larry Miller, Ed Begley Jr. and Guest himself, playing the owner of a lovely bloodhound, with whom he practices ventriloquism. The Blu-ray contains commentary by Levy and Guest and deleted scenes.

Today, most people who pay attention to what’s happening in the world assume that while the titans of industry, government and media sleep in the same beds, it’s the consumers and taxpayers who are getting screwed. To some degree, this always has been the case. It wasn’t until the events described “The Insider” were revealed – along with other slimy deals involving the country’s most influential interests — that the average Joe learned how deep the corruption went. Michael Mann’s gripping corporate thriller told the story of one former tobacco researcher’s attempts to blow the whistle on his bosses, who knowingly lied to Congress about the addictive ingredients used in the production of cigarettes and the secret memos that showed industry executives’ culpability in the deaths of millions of smokers. Russell Crowe was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Jeffrey Wigand, a research-and-development executive who put his career, financial security and personal welfare on the line to expose reprehensible practices at Brown & Williamson. By overriding an agreement he signed with the company forbidding him from reporting on the manipulation of tobacco levels, Wigand left himself open to expensive lawsuits and physical threats from company goons. Once he committed to exposing the practices to “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), Wigand thought the hard part might be over for him. Instead, the nightmare was just beginning. What they couldn’t have predicted was how easy it was for tobacco interests to intimate CBS by threatening to sue over the network’s complicity in Wigand’s decision to break the non-disclosure agreement. The “60 Minutes” piece was heavily edited, causing Bergman to quit the show, and leaving Wigand hanging. Even veteran correspondent Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) blinked when his bosses aired their reservations about the report. It was widely believed that then-CEO Laurence A. Tisch had put the kibosh on the segment because of his financial involvement with the tobacco industry and fears a lawsuit would complicate takeover talks with Westinghouse. (Likewise, ABC sold its correspondents down the river after their report on the tobacco industry aired on “Dateline.” Shortly after news that a multibillion-dollar lawsuit had been settled out of court, the network was sold to Disney.) Mann was able to turn what essentially was a disgraceful episode in corporate and media history into an entertaining and enlightening thriller on the order of “All the President’s Men.” It still holds up in Blu-ray. It comes with commentary by Crowe and Pacino and a backgrounder. – Gary Dretzka

Our Paradise
The Factory
Kill For Me
Throughout his 15-year directorial career, French writer/director Gael Morel has successfully integrated gay themes and characters into movies that don’t fit the straitjacket that’s typically applied to them by distributors, exhibitors and critics. In “Apres lui,” for example, Catherine Deneuve delivers a powerful portrayal of a woman, who, while mourning the death of her 20-year-old son in an automobile accident, becomes obsessed with sharing her grief with the young man, his closest friend, who inadvertently caused it. Their intimate, if forced bond disturbs everyone in her orbit. The latest release from Breaking Glass’ Queer Cinema catalogue, Morel’s “Our Paradise,” demands that viewers consider the frequently conflicting forces of sex and violence, love and hate, youth and decay, perception and reality, narcissism and selflessness. Most, but not all of the people we meet in “Our Paradise” are gay. Some are victims of violence, while others are perpetrators. Here, a thirty-something Parisian thief and rentboy, Vassili (Stephane Rideau), graduates to attempted murder when confronted by an even older customer about his age. One night, while cruising through the Forest of Boulogne, he discovers a much younger hustler, lying unconscious after a beating. Perhaps recognizing a younger version of himself, Vassili takes him home to recover and make sure he sees a doctor. Not long thereafter, they form a relationship that switches from symbiotic to paternal, depending on the circumstances of a date or threesome. Inevitably, their customers begin choosing the younger Angelo (Dimitri Durdaine), who doesn’t mind providing cover for his lover’s more nefarious activities. After a near disastrous attack by bouncers alerted to Vassili and Angelo’s game, they decide to split the city. Their first stop is the home of a lover (Beatrice Dalle) from the older man’s bisexual days. While she’s working as a magician’s assistant at night, the men babysit her precocious young son. From there, the three males visit the luxurious mountain home of another former lover of Vassili. The age difference between them is approximately the same as that between Vassili and Angelo. The older man’s Moroccan lover, who’s older than Angelo but younger than Vassili, immediately recognizes in the visitors the potential for danger. After all, he had been in the same business as they were before settling down. The climax, while not unexpected, is made even more wrenching by the boy’s realization that everything he’s come to like about his new role models may be wrong. In a very real way, we’ve also been sucked into Vassili desperate search for the fountain of youth.

If there’s any genre that television handles better than the movies these days, it’s the police procedural. The proliferation of such intricately plotted and realistically cast shows as “CSI” and “Law & Order” have convinced viewers that there are very few crimes that can’t be solved in 60 minutes. Storylines that require more creative latitude — “Dexter,” “Justified,” “Southland” — can be found on premium and basic-plus cable services. Where the movies reign, however dubiously, is in the production of torture porn and women-in-extreme-jeopardy titles. Although not very good, “The Factory” combines both subgenres, while also taking a stab at the police procedural. In it, John Cusack plays a Buffalo cop who gets increasingly more agitated with every new disappearance of one of the city’s stable of working girls. He can barely maintain his temper as he bulldozes his way through town in search of clues. His partner, Jennifer Carpenter (“Dexter”), is far more in control of her emotions and, therefore, less a help than a hindrance to the cop. The depraved kidnaper, played by Dallas Roberts (“The Walking Dead”), is made out to be a criminal mastermind, but hardly a match for Cusack, whose daughter (Meg Whitman) ever so conveniently is also kidnaped by the fiend. Even so, almost nothing about the investigation rings true. What’s differentiates “The Factory” from other run-of-the-mill genre flicks, besides a relatively unique torture chamber, is an ending that comes from so far out in left field it might as well be from another movie entirely. It helps explain why a Cusack vehicle, reportedly made in 2008, is going straight-to-DVD in 2013.

Kill for Me” combines elements of the crazy-roommate and revenge-is-sweet subgenres into a reasonably entertaining, if familiar thriller targeted at young adults willing to take a chance on a direct-to-DVD flick. The only actor I recognized here is the antagonist, played by Donal Logue, a scruffy-looking actor who plays characters of dubious moral character exceedingly well. Youthful fans of such prime-time soaps as “Arrow,” “Gossip Girl” and “Melrose Place” should, however, be familiar with Katie Cassidy (David’s daughter) and Tracy Spiridakos, whose credits include stints on “Revolution” and “Being Human.” Cassidy plays Amanda, a college student whose boyfriend gets his kicks beating her up. Spiridakos is her new roommate, Hailey, who clearly has experienced her own fair share of abuse growing up in the boonies. One day, Hailey arrives at home in time to save Amanda from what could be a fatal attack. At the same time as the rescue cements their friendship, it effectively binds the two women together as accomplices in a major crime. (Has no one heard of justifiable homicide?) This gives Hailey an opportunity to avenge what she describes as a lifetime of abuse and the death of her mother at the hands of Logue’s backwoods Lothario. The closer Amanda aligns herself with Hailey, the more she fears that she isn’t telling her the whole story. It takes a while to get to the truth, but some viewers might not mind the wait. Even if no one trusted “Kill for Me” to perform in theaters, the stars’ performances shouldn’t impede their careers. – Gary Dretzka

The Package: Blu-ray
Special Forces: Blu-ray
Considering how many people die in “The Package,” there’s surprisingly little blood and gore shed during the movie’s 96-minute length. It’s just as well, though, because it would only make the floors too slippery to trade kicks, chops and punches. Nothing about “The Package” is terribly realistic, let along logical. I suspect that action junkies won’t complain, given the amount of hand-to-hand combat and automatic-weapons fire on display. Stuntman/director Jesse V. Johnson keeps his foot on the accelerator throughout “The Package,” rarely giving viewers enough time to wonder about such things as why the bad guys are so inaccurate and their guns never run out of bullets, or how the good guys became so impervious to pain. Here, Steve Austin uses everything from his feet to his forehead, and then some, to kill his enemies. They’re after a mysterious package he’s been assigned to deliver to a super-stud criminal, known simply as “The German” (Dolph Lundgren). He’s not to look at what’s inside it or tarry. If he lives to hand over the package, the boss will forgive a large debt owed by his brother, who’s cooling his heels in prison. How the assassins he confronts on the road from Seattle to Vancouver know about the package is another mystery. In the end, nothing matters except the action, of which there’s plenty.

Remember when Francophobe yokels in the United States attempted to ban all things French from sacred American soil, even going so far as to rename French fries and boycott the Paris resort in Las Vegas? The boneheaded movement was in response to France’s refusal to join American, British, Polish and Australian forces in the quagmire that became the 2003 invasion of Iraq. With 20/20 foresight and hindsight, it was the smart decision. Still, somewhere in the U.S., it’s likely that one or two restaurants still insist on selling 10-year-old Freedom fries to their customers. “Special Forces” serves as a reminder that French forces not only participated in the first war in the Mideast, but also fought bravely in Afghanistan for 11 years. They’re currently in Mali, battling Islamist militants who attempted to take over the country and presumably aren’t great fans of the U.S., either. “Special Forces” describes a mission to rescue a French journalist (Diane Kruger) from Taliban troops holed up in a desert stronghold. The mission is led by a special-forces commander played by Djimon Hounsou. The journalist was in Afghanistan working on story about the role of women in the country, especially now that the Taliban are experiencing a resurgence in influence. – Gary Dretzka

Bath Salt Zombies
Hollow
Prison: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Nest: Blu-ray
TerrorVision/The Video Dead: Bluray
I must be getting old. Last spring, when it was widely reported that a homeless man in Miami had his face chewed off by a bath-salt abuser, my first impression was that Epsom salts and other bathtub additives somehow could turn a mild-mannered dope fiend into a flesh-eating ghoul. It was a new one on me, but, having lived through the electric-banana craze of the 1960s, I reserved judgment. According to the coroner assigned to the case, the “cannibal” who was shot and killed by police that day had nothing resembling bath salts in his system … some residue marijuana, yes, but not the designer drug known on the street as “bath salts.” That substance, which contains synthetic cathinones, looks enough like Epsom salts to have been accorded the name by enterprising dope dealers. No one is precisely sure how it works, but, worse case, it has been known to induce behavior similar to that attributed to cocaine, speed and PCP. It’s just as possible that car-wash employee Rudy Eugene was having a really, really bad day at the office when he attacked 65-year-old Ronald Poppo. Possibly to deflect questions about whether or not the cop used his sidearm when other options might have been available, a Miami police spokesman presented the bath-salts story to the media, which couldn’t wait to run with it. They’d done the same thing in the 1930s, when marijuana and hemp were outlawed based primarily on the premise that Satan grows the stuff in the Back 40 of hell and sells it to kids.

Sometime very soon after the news of the Miami Cannibal broke, production began on a crazy DIY movie, “Bath Salt Zombies.” It could very well be the first such film to capitalize on both the “epidemic” and zombie-movie craze. Although made on budget that topped out at an estimated $5,000, it bears a resemblance to “Reefer Madness,” in that it combines what’s known about the drug with a wildly over-the-top cautionary tale. Although crude by most cinematic standards, “Bath Salt Zombies” is strangely entertaining and surprisingly coherent. I say, “surprisingly,” because do-it-yourself auteur Dustin Mills’ previous films – “Night of the Tentacles,” “Zombie A-Hole” and “The Puppet Monster Massacre” – went out of their way to defy good taste, logic and most other cinematic conventions. As conceived by co-writer Clint Weiler, a preppy-looking street dealer convinces a customer to try some bath-salt cigarettes and, of course, they have the least-desired effect on the young man. After being turned on by his voluptuous girlfriend, who reacts to the drug by climbing on a bed and doing a striptease, he chews off her face. In a concurrent throughline, a SWAT team is preparing to raid the underground pharmacist responsible for bringing bath salts to the USA. That things don’t turn out exactly as planned for anyone involved is a good thing here. Like the vast majority of DIY efforts, the lower your expectations, the more fun you’ll have watching “Bath Salt Zombies.” The DVD includes Mills’ commentary, which should be of interest to aspiring horror directors, who will never have enough money to afford film school.

Based on found-footage discovered after a terrible event in the English countryside, “Hollow” is sufficiently different from other titles in the subgenre, which now relies too much on hidden surveillance cameras, to recommend it to suspense junkies. Here, four young people drive to Sussex to spend the weekend in the lovely home of a vicar’s daughter. It’s been a year since the vicar died and the building has remained unoccupied and without electricity even since then. Once they arrive, all of their eyes are drawn to a large, leafy tree that’s been the source of rumors and speculation for centuries. Also located on the property are the ruins of an ancient cathedral, which supposedly harbors a dark spirit that wills couples to hang themselves from the branches of the tree. Naturally, the wiseass kids scoff at the legend and don’t hesitate to tour the ruins. Soon enough, though, their revelry is disturbed by mysterious noises and visions. They also find books left behind by the vicar that reference the tree and hangings, but go back hundreds of years. The difference between “Hollow” and most other found-footage movies is that it doesn’t limit activity to the interiors of homes or airplanes. The beautiful scenery provides a temporary respite from the tension that begins to build immediately after dusk. It’s the feeling of abject helplessness on the part of the characters when it’s their turn to die that will give you the willies. The DVD adds a short interview with director Michael Axelgaard.

Finnish filmmaker Renny Harlin made his American debut in 1988, with the low-budget genre flick, “Prison.” He has since enjoyed huge box-office success (“Die Hard 2,” “Cliffhanger,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street IV”), while also enduring the pain of having his name attached to some of the most notorious flops of our time (“Cutthroat Island,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” “Driven,” “Exorcist: The Beginning”). He’s spent the last couple of years directing some of cable-television’s best series, but a reputation for demanding costly additions to already-expensive productions haunts him. If “Prison” was produced strictly to milk money from the horror crowd, it nonetheless was greeted with solid reviews from the critics who take genre pictures seriously. In it, the vengeful spirit of an executed convict haunts the recently reopened prison in which he was put to death. Clearly, the convict’s ghost doesn’t want any company. Harlin benefited from being able to stage the picture in the former Wyoming State Prison, a facility that looks as if it might have been built during the Crusades. Except for Lane Smith, the cast was comprised mostly of actors whose faces and names – Viggo Mortensen, “Tiny” Lister, Chelsea Field, Tom Everett — would become familiar much later. The Shout! Factory Blu-ray, which looks very good, adds Harlin’s commentary and a decent making-of featurette.

I watched almost the entirety of “The Nest” without realizing that it originally was released in 1988 by one of Roger Corman’s offshoot companies. To my eyes, it looked very much like one of those made-for-Syfy flicks that employ half-assed special effects and homicidal creatures born of flawed scientific experiments. One of Corman’s companies also supplies these movies for the cable and DVD market. All one needs to know about “The Nest” is that the flawed experiment here involves cockroaches and the hybrids have now infested an entire island. If the few remaining residents, who haven’t been skinned alive by the meat-eating cockroaches, aren’t able to stop them they could spread to the mainland. Knowing its background, I’m far more disposed to approve of “The Nest,” whose nasty special-effects and disembowelments were done without the aid of CGI technology. The cockroaches speak for themselves. In Blu-ray, though some of the effects look sillier and more fake than they would in VHS. The set adds commentary by director Terence H. Winkless.

Also from Shock! Factory comes a double-feature of TV-inspired horror from the late 1980s. It was at about this time in cinema history when anyone able to afford a camcorder could realize his or her dream of making a movie or music video and having it seen by bleary-eyed viewers over emerging cable, cable-access, large-dish satellite and VHS platforms. The editing process wasn’t nearly as affordable as it would become in the digital era, but neither was it prohibitively expensive. Doors also opened for dabblers in special video and makeup effects. Horror and sci-fi fanatics benefitted the most from the convergence of production and delivery systems. No longer was cost an impediment to creativity. If any film epitomized what was happening in the video underground, it was David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome.” It was so unique for its time, 1983, that only a few mainstream critics bothered to look beyond the horror to see the prophesy at its core. Although “Videodrome” underperformed at the theatrical box office, it would become a cult hit in video. It’s even been deemed worthy of a Criterion Collection makeover.

Released in 1986, writer/director Ted Nicolaou extended Cronenberg’s monster-in-the-box premise into the realm of dark comedy with “TerrorVision.” Among the stars of the sci-fi parody was Mary Woronov, who also played a prominent role in Paul Bartel’s campy “Eating Raoul,” which it resembles. In “TerrorVision,” a C-band satellite disc installed in the backyard of a wealthy couple conjures images from cable stations near and far. Between the porn and genre flicks, the dish also captures transmissions from a distant planet inhabited by lizard-like beings. A representative of the alien culture interrupts the broadcast to inform viewers that the dish’s signals are having an adverse effect on communications there and a sinister force has transmigrated itself to Earth. The monster is an insatiable killing machine, with a taste for swingers. It’s as nutso as these things get. The second half of the double-feature is taken up by Robert Scott’s “The Video Dead,” in which a television delivered to a rural household provides a gateway through which killer zombies enter the world. The ghouls look and act the same as every zombie in the post-Romero era, but differ in their ability to move swiftly when motivated, survive severe mutilation, wield chain saws and, when their appetites are sated, socialize with their prey. “VideoDead” isn’t nearly as campy as “TerrorVision,” but gore freaks should enjoy it. The Shout! Factory releases are better than most straight-to-DVD movies released in their wake. Both movies contain interesting bonus material. – Gary Dretzka

Naked City: 20 Star-Filled Episodes
American Experience: Henry Ford
Nova: Ultimate Mars Challenge
Nova ScienceNow: What Will the Future Be Like?
Cartoon Network: Adventure Time: Fionna & Cake 4
Compilations of classic television series can present problems for collectors. For one thing, it’s difficult to know ahead of time the condition of the individual episodes, especially those recorded via Kinescope. In VHS, very little attention was paid to scratches, breaks, chronology and artifacts. This often applies to the first DVD iterations, as well, and the many releases arranged by season and “best-of” series. If fans are patient and fortunate, however, a distributor will go to the trouble of digitally polishing the episodes, making them look as close to brand new as possible. In the case of the unforgettable police-procedural “Naked City” – “There are 8 million stories in the naked city and this has been one of them” – “20 Star-Filled Episodes” represents a fourth- or fifth-generation release. The good news is that the show looks swell and the stories remain as entertaining as they’ve been all along. Much of the credit for this belongs to writers, actors and directors who lived and worked in New York in the so-called Golden Age and split their time between the theater, television and motion pictures. The stories reflected the city’s grit and its immigrant and artist community, although African-Americans were typically underrepresented. When the production of most network series moved to Los Angeles for good, it signaled the beginning of the dumbing-down of police and P.I. shows. It wasn’t until such adaptations of Joseph Wambaugh books as “Police Story” and “The Blue Knight” began airing in the mid-1970s that the door was opened for “Hill Street Blues” and other intelligent series. Among the classic New York-based series, “Naked City” was noteworthy for its emphasis on the extenuating circumstances of crime, especially mental illness and conflicting impressions of the same evidence. Several of the entries included in “20 Star-Filled Episodes” have appeared in previous collections, but quite a few of them are fresh. The emphasis here is on the young actors who soon would begin to make their mark in the movies. They include Dustin Hoffman, Robert Morse, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, William Shatner, Leslie Nielsen, Carroll O’Connor, Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen, Peter Fonda, Jean Stapleton, Ed Asner, Suzanne Pleshette, Jon Voight, James Caan, Doris Roberts and Diane Ladd. Dustin Hoffman, for example, made his debut in the 1961 episode, “Sweet Prince of Delancey Street,” alongside emerging Broadway stalwart Robert Morse. Then, less than an hour later, there’s the pairing of Martin Sheen and Peter Fonda in their second and first TV appearances.

That Henry Ford was an industrialist of Shakespearian proportions – a man who changed the way Americans would live and work in the 20th Century and beyond — is an inarguable fact. Like many of the great men introduced to us by the Bard, Ford also was a megalomaniac. A man of great contradictions, he bullied and belittled his heir, Edsel, but happily took credit for his successes; showed great generosity to his workers one minute and sicced thugs on them the next; believed he could create a better world for the masses, but bought a weekly newspaper to circulate anti-Semitic tracts; was a great innovator, but nearly lost his business for refusing to adapt to change. Ford infuriated his wealthy peers by raising the salaries of his workers, cheating them on stock dividends, and using the assembly line to maintain low prices for his automobiles. In other times and different countries, he might have been handed a crown to wear and throne upon which to sit. If elected to office in America, Ford would have been hard-pressed to compromise on anything that clashed with his personal beliefs. Democracy wasn’t his strong suit. All of the man’s pluses and minuses are weighed in the fascinating PBS bio-doc, “American Experience: Henry Ford.” It’s left to viewers as to whether the man’s genius outweighed his flaws.

Depending upon how one feels about the significance of possibly finding alternate life forms on a faraway planets, the successful landing of the roving scientific laboratory, Curiosity, could prove to be the most significant first step taken in the last 50 years or a huge disappoint. Imagine, for example, how unhappy all of us would be if Curiosity found evidence of ancient societies, but, instead of caves and pyramids, the inhabitants emerged fully blown from long-abandoned shopping malls and buried their dead in landfills. We’ve always assumed that any aliens that revealed themselves to us would be smarter and more evolved than we are. What if the people of Mars were no more intelligent than characters who inhabit the cartoon shows on Fox every Sunday night and, in fact, were too lazy to construct spacecraft of their own? Such a discovery might require us to spend the rest of eternity avoiding further contact with them. So far, however, the Curiosity’s mission continues to hold our interest, even providing the occasional hint of the presence of ice, once-flowing water and potentially interesting gases and minerals PBS’ “Nova” series has been chronicling the mission since its launch and asking the same question of scientists that we would. The result is “Ultimate Mars Challenge.”

In the latest installment of the “Nova” spinoff series, “ScienceNow: What Will the Future Be Like?,” David Pogue continues his exploration of technologies still in their infancy that someday might be as common as iPhones and Androids. Among the subjects are the development of a robotic exoskeleton that gives humans the strength of supervillains in such movies as “Ironman” and “Spider-Man.” He also shows how someday our cellphones might be able to read our minds and detect warning signs of illness much earlier than is possible today.

When did cartoons get so far out? A steady diet of Looney Tunes and “Rocky & His Friends” made it possible for me to accept a universe in which animals and humans could converse and co-exist, if primarily in an adversarial way. With every new DVD compilation of cartoon shows on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network that I receive in the mail these ways, I’m inclined to wonder what’s really going on inside the heads of their creators. Learning how popular the shows are on niche services also tells me that kids today not only are obsessed with fart jokes, but they also are able to accept concepts that teens and adults might automatically filter from their consciousness. The widely disputed theory that the children of hippies might inherit LSD-altered chromosomes from their parents might not be so far-fetched, after all. “Adventure Time” is one of several series I’ve watched lately that have convinced me such a thing might be possible. For one thing, I find it highly unlikely that kids under the age of 7 or 8 are able to get their tiny heads around the concept of a “post-apocalyptic” anything, let alone a dystopic land of Ooo, or one in which a size-shifting human boy with a funny hat, Finn, and a magic and mischievous dog, Cake,” encounter all manner of creatures, living and dead. Apparently, creator Pendleton Ward is an art-school graduate heavily influenced by the work of Hayao Miyazaki, Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. In my day, detractors would warn of hidden communist propaganda embedded in cartoons, but, knowing what we do now about the red menace, it’s inconceivable that a Marxist could invent the stuff that’s kept American kids laughing for the last 30 years or so. The new “Adventure Time: Fionna & Cake 4” compilation features 16 episodes from all four seasons of the show, which, by the way, is one of the most popular and most honored on Cartoon Network. Fans already know that these DVD packages shouldn’t be mistaken for full-season compilations. Sadly, consecutively available episodes are being dealt out on a PPV basis. – Gary Dretzka

Mick Vs. Keith: The Strange Case of Jagger and Richards
The Rolling Stones may have actively celebrated the 50th anniversary of their founding last year, but Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ friendship extends even further back than 1962. They were schoolmates while growing up in Dartford, Kent, and found each other again, years later, on a railway platform. The records that Jagger was carrying — Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters – demonstrated a kinship that transcended all other possible mutual interests. American blues and rock ’n’ roll would be the bond that soon would unite Jagger and Richards with Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watt. Once the Stones began performing their own songs, the Jagger/Richards brand would become as recognizable as that of Lennon/McCartney. Stop me, if you’ve heard this tune already. No matter how many times it’s been, there will always be another book, record, website or DVD devoted to the band’s music, biographies, iterations and influence. Logging in at 224 minutes, the two-disc “Mick Vs. Keith: The Strange Case of Jagger and Richards” may provide more ephemera about the band than anyone, except the most loyal fans, could absorb in one or two sittings. Still, it takes almost that long to make a “strange case” for or against any two people who have been together for more than a half-century. – Gary Dretzka