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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

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Skyfall: Blu-ray
Having watched all of the James Bond movies and read all 14 of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels, I can say with no small degree of conviction that “Skyfall” is the smartest entry in the series to date. That it’s also the most entertaining chapter in the series—since the 1960s, at least—is doubly remarkable, considering that production was delayed for more than a year until MGM could exit bankruptcy proceedings and a distribution deal with Sony could be finalized. Newly-imposed budget constraints, such as they were, forced “Skyfall” producers to cancel location shoots in India and South Africa and stage them in Turkey. Bond movies have never been absolutely free of product placement (a.k.a., brand integration), but “Skyfall” raised the bar to a daunting new level. Of the $150-200-million budget allotted “Skyfall,” it’s estimated that a third was recouped from Heineken plugs, alone, and it was only one of a dozen companies on the list. By comparison, the inclusion of a trademark 007Aston-Martin DB5 practically feels organic. The 50-year-old movie franchise may never have needed to pander to the corporate world, but, by now, the total savings are inestimably huge. On its own merits, “Skyfall” would go on to become an instant international sensation, grossing nearly $1.1 billion before entering the ancillary markets.

Seemingly, though, no expense was spared on the creative team. It includes Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes; writers Robert Wade, John Logan and Neal Purvis; cinematographer Roger Deakins; title-sequence designer Daniel Kleinman; composer Thomas Newman; and singer Adele, one of the hottest properties on the market. In his third appearance as Her Majesty’s favorite secret agent, Daniel Craig seems as confident of his interpretation of the character as if he had personally been handed the baton from Sean Connery, with the instructions, “Don’t cock it up.” What’s great about “Skyfall,” especially in lieu of the anniversary, is that it pays as much attention to the character’s past and future, as it does the fictional present. As the movie opens, a mercenary employed by an unknown enemy of Britain manages not only to steal a flash drive containing the names and locations of MI6 personnel around the world, but also elude capture in a thrilling chase in cars and on motorbikes and a train. It ends when M (Judi Dench) orders Field Agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to take an ill-considered sniper shot at the two men as they wrestled on the top of a passenger train going 50 mph and about to enter a tunnel. Bond is hit by the bullet, which knocks him off the train and into a swiftly flowing river, at which point he disappears and is believed dead. The new chairman of Intelligence and Security Committee, Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), holds M directly responsible for the loss of the flash drive and, only incidentally, Bond. When the secret agent does re-surface at a bar in the company of beautiful woman, natch, Mallory uses the occasion to test his ability to still play in the big leagues.

Mallory favors computer-savvy agents over the old pros in the 00-series of spies. The techies may able to find a needle in a cyber-haystack, but they’re hardly a psychological match for such supervillains as the grudge-carrying Silva (Javier Bardem). Like most of Bond’s targets through the last half-century, Silva lives in the shadows and is several times more sinister and intelligent than anyone without field experience could possibly understand. Bond does, but the fitness tests ordered by Mallory tell us that the bullet wound has taken its toll on him and he’s playing the spook game at 80 percent of his potential strength. Giving a criminal mastermind a 20 percent advantage normally would be more than enough of an edge for Bond to succeed, but Silva’s really, really smart and his motivations have nothing to do with money or power. Ultimately, Bond levels the playing field by luring Silva to his boyhood home in Scotland, where even more exciting surprises await everyone.

What’s superlative about the Blu-ray edition of “Skyfall” is Deakins’ cinematography, which is never short of brilliant and adds yet another layer of excitement to the proceedings. Because he used digital equipment to shoot and edit the movie, the high-def transfer was accomplished without once resorting to film. The images are as pure as they could possibly be and it shows. The nighttime neon on display in the Shanghai exterior shots literally sparkles. Even though the interiors of the city’s hi-rises were re-created at Pinewood Studios, the strategically lit sets allowed even more magic. The lantern-lit entrance to Macau’s floating Golden Dragon Casino, its fiery gates and scarlet gaming floor practically constitute a work of art. By contrast, the gloomy cloud-covered skies over the moors surrounding Bond’s Skyfall estate have been manipulated to foreshadow the carnage to come there. I have a feeling that a deluxe edition of “Skyfall” will find its way into the marketplace soon enough, adding a ton more deleted scenes and featurettes. The nearly hourlong making-of featurette contained here is more of a promotional vehicle, but it adds some interesting making-of background, along with the fluff. There also are separate commentary tracks, one with Mendes and the other with producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson and production designer Dennis Gassner. – Gary Dretzka

Bully: Blu-ray
The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Blu-ray
Most people would agree that the inability and/or unwillingness of teachers, school boards and parents to come to grips with the epidemic of bullying, peer pressure and harassment in our nation’s schools and on computer networks is reprehensible. In many schools, such behavior makes learning and teaching next to impossible, and smart kids are forced to act dumb to avoid being separated from the pack and devoured. Most of the teachers we meet in Lee Hirsch’s truly heart-breaking documentary, “Bully,” keep their heads in the sand, hoping the plague simply will go away; administrators fear lawsuits and reprisals so much that they refuse to acknowledge problems even exist; parents of bullies dismiss their child’s behavior as a kids-will-be-kids rite of passage; and the worst of the kids are written off before they can find a true purpose in life. Too often, they’re simply miniature version of their parents. There are no hard-and-fast explanations for what motivates manly-men athletes to push around kids half their size, simply because they’re gay, smart or unfashionable. Teachers and administrators have historically given the “popular” crowd a break when it comes to elevating the status of one group of students over another when it comes to social events and status. It’s easier than fighting the ever-rising tide of conformity or encouraging lower caste kids to find other ways than violence to fight back. By now it’s a cliché to suggest that the so-called nerds and geeks will have the last laugh, by making piles more money than their antagonists and buying all the toys they want. Maybe so, but they still have to survive the hellish rituals of middle and high school first. Not even the Columbine massacre, during which heavily armed misfits targeted the jocks who abused them, provided sufficient cause for a national debate on the ramifications of bullying. It took the recent rash of suicides committed by kids harassed in Internet chat rooms and on Facebook to bring higher-than-usual attention to the issue.

The Weinstein Company is to be applauded for vigorously promoting “Bully,” even when the bean brains at the MPAA branded it with an “R” rating – based solely on strong, if not uncommon language — that would have prevented it from being shown in classrooms and to kids in their ’tweens and early teens. Its public campaign to reverse the decision raised awareness of the documentary, but only after a middle ground was reached on some of the language. The debate needn’t have gotten that far. The director, Hirsch, wasn’t attempting to shock anyone with anything except the cold reality of what happens every day in the hallways, classrooms, lunch rooms and buses of the schools he surveyed. He did this by spending an entire school year following five families that have been impacted by bullying and/or homophobia. The interwoven stories include those of two families that have lost children to suicide and a mother whose 14-year-old daughter was incarcerated after she felt it necessary to carry a gun on her school bus to dissuade further attacks. For the most part, the parents don’t have the wherewithal to find schools where the kids are more tolerant or there’s a zero-tolerance approach to discipline. That option wouldn’t be necessary at all if some of the adults we meet weren’t so obtuse and, yes, downright stupid. (One teacher chastised a long-tormented boy for not shaking hands with his nemesis, as if the blame for the abuse was shared 50/50 and the promise of a bully had true value.) In one town, administrators effectively admitted their culpability by boycotting a meeting called by parents to discuss a tormented student’s suicide. “Bully” is a documentary that demands of viewers that they never forget the faces of the children to whom they’re introduced. It freely elicits our anger, empathy and tears, while also providing avenues to address our concerns. The Blu-ray comes with several worthwhile bonus features, including a version edited especially for younger audiences; deleted scenes; a piece on how an entire school reacted to a screening; another in which Meryl Streep describes her reaction; a look at how one of the subjects has fared since the film was made; and other featurettes with teachable moments.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower” shares several things with “Bully,” including receiving a rating that would have prevented it from being seen by its target audience. Despite its sensitivity to the issues teenagers deal with on a daily basis, the MPAA gave it an “R” for “teen drug and alcohol use, and some sexual references.” Fortuitously, the board came to its senses after an appeal by the distributor. It received a PG-13, but with a proviso that cautioned of “mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight — all involving teens.” I’d be willing to bet that the original rating had more to do with the positive portrayal of a gay character than anything else in the movie. Writer/director Stephen Chbosky does a nice job adapting his 1999 coming-of-age novel, which found a cult following among teens. Set in the early 1990s, hence the hit-driven soundtrack, “Perks” tells the story of a high school freshman, Charlie (Logan Lerman), who feels desperately alienated from his classmates, both for his withdrawn personality and the negative reaction of his peers to his superior intelligence. The only way we know what’s turned Charlie into such an emotional basket case is the through letters he writes to possibly non-existent friends. It isn’t until Charlie endears himself to a clique of seniors, who also live outside the orbit of the popular crowd, that he feels comfortable with fellow students. Chbosky makes it easy for us to believe that facsimiles of these kids exist in real high schools and share the same experiences as Charlie and his friends. (I’m not sure how many high schools would approve of a student production of “Rocky Horror Show,” however) The stellar cast includes Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Nina Dobrey, Julia Garner, Mae Whitman and, as adult characters, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Paul Rudd, Melanie Lynskey and Joan Cusack. The Blu-ray adds a pair of featurettes and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Thieves: Blu-ray
When it comes to staging elaborate stunts and action sequences in hi-rises and other urban settings, Hollywood and Hong Kong traditionally have set the standard for others to follow. Not only are such scenes dangerous, but they’re also labor-intensive and frequently prohibitively expensive. Only God and a bean-counter at Paramount know exactly how much money it took for Tom Cruise to hang precipitously from the summit of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower in “Mission:Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” The cost of the insurance premium that allowed Cruise to forgo the stunt-double ruse would scare most filmmakers off. Jackie Chan has also proven that elaborate stunts can be performed on limited budgets and in tight spaces most filmmakers would avoid. Borrowing a page or two from the “Oceans’ 11”  and “M:I” playbooks, director Choi Dong-hoon and co-writer Lee Gi-cheol have crafted an elaborate heist thriller that western audiences should find almost as entertaining as those in Asia, where “The Thieves”  was a huge hit. It did so by assembling an all-star cast of actors from Korea and China and using locations in Seoul, Macau and Hong Kong. The scenario is relatively simple. Rival crews from China and Korea meet in Hong Kong at the invitation of criminal mastermind Macau Park (Kim Yun-seok), who lays out a scheme involving the “Tear of the Sun” diamond, previously owned by the mistress of a Chinese racketeer. The gem is stashed behind several layers of state-of-the-art security inside one of Macau’s plush new casinos. (It looks nothing at all like the helter-skelter gambling den in “The Man With the Golden Gun.”) We’ve already been shown how adept the thieves have proven to be in previous capers, so the one in Macau doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. Choi also lays the foundation for the many double-crosses and romantic subplots that will come into play during the movie’s 135-minute length. That’s about all one needs to know – in terms of plot, anyway — before deciding to rent “The Thieves.” The other positive thing here is that, in addition to being beautiful and sexy, the women characters exist on the same criminal and physical plane as the men. They aren’t merely deployed as decoys, diversions or femme fatales. Everyone has skills specifically suited to the caper and screen time is shared more or less equally. The ensemble approach is what allows “The Thieves” to be mentioned in the same breath as “Ocean’s 11.” The action and stunts are what distinguish it from those franchises. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and backgrounder. – Gary Dretzka

Dangerous Liaisons: Blu-ray
Once again, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” proves to be as elastic today as it’s been since first being published in 1782, even in non-epistolary form. The wicked machinations of the idle rich, when sufficiently bored, provide one-size-fits-all entertainment. It doesn’t matter much whether an adaptation is set in France, at any point during the last 230 years of the country’s history (“Valmont”); among jaded Manhattan teens in the 1990s (“Cruel Intentions”); in 18th Century Korea (“Untold Scandal”); or, here, the early 1930s in Shanghai. It’s also served artists who labor in print, on stage, radio, opera, ballet and television. It would take a pretty miserable writer or director to screw up “Dangerous Liaisons” and Hur Jin-ho certainly holds up his end of the bargain on film. While half a world and 150 years away from pre-revolution France, the Chinese setting couldn’t be more apropos. In 1931, Shanghai was as important a commercial center as there was in the world. The winds of war were carrying wealthy exiles from the north of China, visa-less Jews and formerly wealthy Russian aristocrats to “The Paris of the East,” where the Jazz Age had yet to come to an end and the good times continued to roll. The Japanese would put an end to the fun soon enough, but, in 1931, there was still time for the bored socialite, Mo (Cecilia Cheung), to conspire with her playboy friend, Xie (Jang Dong-kun), over the virginity of a chaste young woman already promised to a wealthy and powerful man, who Mo despises. Mo and Xie still harbor a jones for each other, but refuse to act on their secret desires. If Xie wins the bet by corrupting the precious flower, Beibei (Candy Wang), though, she’ll finally be his. Naturally, things don’t work out as planned. That “Dangerous Liaisons” ends in tragedy hardly qualifies as a spoiler. What’s wonderful about the movie is Hur’s lavish re-creation of the lifestyles of Shanghai’s upper-crust and their haunts. The attention to detail and period accuracy will resonate with admirers of Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution,” James Ivory’s “The White Countess,” Zhang Yimou’s “Shanghai Triad” and John Curran’s “The Painted Veil.”  Among the cast of popular Chinese and Korean actors are Zhang Ziyi, Lisa Lu and Shawn Dou. The movie looks excellent in Blu-ray and includes making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Mimesis: Night of the Living Dead: Blu-ray
Given that most zombie movies now are released straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray, it’s nice to see that “Warm Bodies” — a nifty revisionist take on the subgenre – has been able to make a pile of money in theatrical release. Knee-jerk comparisons to the “Twilight” saga probably didn’t hurt its ability to attract opening-weekend audiences. A look was all it took to spark word-of-mouth. Through no fault of its own, “Mimesis” wasn’t quite so fortunate. Any title that demands a perusal of a good dictionary – “imitation in the form of art” — already has one strike against it. The newly added subtitle, “Night of the Living Dead,” is a bit more inviting. Fact is, it’s a pretty entertaining movie, which pays homage to the George Romero classic without ripping it off in the process. After the zombie attack that opens “Mimesis,” director Douglas Schulze and writer Joshua Wagner take viewers to a horror convention in the Midwest. Naturally, many of the participants are dressed in zombie drag, while others are drawn to the seminars, including one conducted by a belligerent expert played by the great Sid Haig.  To cap the confab, several fans have been invited to a party at a lonely rural location. At some point during the proceedings, they’re slipped a drug that causes them to pass out. When they awaken, the fans are dressed in different clothing and situated in places that are unfamiliar to them. Unlike devotees of “NOTLD” in the audience, the partiers are slow to grasp the fact that they’ve been dressed to resemble characters in the movie. Moreover, when the flesh-eaters emerge from the shadows, they appear to be following Romero’s script, as well. Is it a case of deja-vu all over again or has some fiend transported them to the site that inspired the 1968 ground-breaker? I’ll never tell. Suffice it to say that a $500,000 budget couldn’t prevent Schulze from pulling out all of the the stops on his creation. Horror devotees looking for a change of pace could do a lot worse than investing a brisk 95 minutes on “Mimesis.” – Gary Dretzka

Same Time Every Year
Serena: An Adult Fairy Tale
When Ron Jeremy checked himself into a hospital last month, suffering from what turned out to be a potentially lethal heart aneurysm, the celebrity media treated the news as if the man known as Hedgehog were a star of “Downton Abbey” or a member of the Dodgers or Angels. The announcers didn’t go into much detail on what made Jeremy a star in the first place, but those in the know already were aware of his status as, perhaps, the world’s most prolific porn actor. I bring this up because he is one of a small handful of actors, most of them male, whose careers have spanned the Golden Age and the expanding universe of cybersex. A jovial fellow, as well as a living legend, Jeremy has also appeared in several mainstream movies and celebrity-based reality shows. He’s been the subject of at least one serious documentary and hawks penis-enhancing pills on late-night cable shows. A far younger and noticeably more handsome version of Ron Jeremy appears in “Same Time Every Year,” one of a pair of vintage XXX movies being re-released this week by Impulse Pictures. The other is “Serena: An Adult Fairy Tale,” sent out in 1980. The movies where made back-to-back by Fred J. Lincoln, whose career spanned even longer than Jeremy. Known as well for portraying “Weasel” in “The Last House on the Left,” Lincoln died last month at the age of 75. Lincoln’s trajectory resembled that of Burt Reynolds’ character in “Boogie Nights.”

In the early 1980s, adult films were shot on film, often followed recognizable storylines and the sex scenes typically were far less formulaic than those being released in the post-gonzo era. Today, distributers rely on parodies and fetish sex to sell product. There are fetish scenes in “Serena” and “Same Time Every Year,” but they’re tailored to attract couples and crossover audiences. The latter borrows the title and conceit of Bernard Slade’s Broadway play, “Same Time, Next Year,” which, in 1978, was adapted for a movie starring Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda. Instead heading off for an annual convention, a group of male friends are chauffeured by Jeremy to a sex resort, where they spend the weekend committing adultery and being nagged by their lovers. Meanwhile, at home, their wives play the old what’s-good-for-the-goose game, by having their way with partners of both genders and job descriptions. Their husbands, of course, are none the wiser. Then and now, that’s about as ironic as porn movies got.

Also shot on film, “Serena” is less a parody or spoof than a remake of “Cinderella,” with hard-core sex and seriously horny characters. Poor Cinderella, as portrayed by blond hall-of-famer Serena, was sold into sexual slavery by her stepfather. In the brothel, she not only is required to perform chores, but also help her three “sisters” service their clients. Her fairy godmother gives Cinderella an opportunity to attend a party at which Prince Charles will be looking for a concubine. At midnight, in mid-tryst, Serena is required to beat a swift retreat to her quarters, minus one glass slipper. The rest is fairy-tale history. Among the male performers in these movies are Paul Thomas and Herschel Savage, whose careers preceded Jeremy’s by a few years and are still active in the industry, seemingly no worse for the wear. Jamie Gillis began in the early 1970s, but pretty much left the business by the turn of the new century. The careers of female leads Serena, Loni Sanders, Dorothy LeMay, Tiffany Clark and China Leigh, as well as those of the other Golden Age women, were effectively over by the mid- to late-1980s, when video forever changed the game. While hardly fresh looking, the DVDs are a noticeable step up from VHS and crusty Internet lifts. There are no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Jedi Junkies
Now that it’s been officially announced there will, indeed, be a “Star Wars: Episode VII” and it will be piloted by “Star Trek” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” director J.J. Abrams, it’s fair to wonder when some of the fans we meet in “Jedi Junkies” will begin their ritual campout on Hollywood Boulevard. Unlike Trekkies, some of whom have proven to be both self-destructive and insufferably nerdy, the “Star Wars” devotees in Mark Edlitz’ documentary are no more creepy than people obsessed with counting “Hidden Mickeys” at Disneyland. At conventions, like the one seen in the doc, they dress in the costumes worn by their favorite characters, stage lightsaber competitions, ogle “slave Leia” belly dancers, check out the new model kits and incessantly rap about all things “Stars Wars.” More than anything else, though, these New Yorkers spend an enormous amount of money each year contributing to George Lucas’ retirement fund and coffers of dozens of his “Star Wars” partners. They include Hasbro, LEGO, eFX Collectibles, Hallmark Cards, Pottery Barn, ThinkGeek and, yes, even Williams-Sonoma (pancake molds, cookie cutters, cupcake decorating kits and a Stormtrooper flexible spatula). If there’s one thing pitiable about the collectors interviewed here it’s their inability to fight the urge to buy every new toy, game, model or DVD released into the marketplace, frequently in volume. Their devotion explains why toy and memorabilia companies send out products identical in every way, except for packaging or, perhaps, a single new weapon attached to a previously released action figure. The same rationale applies to desperate publishers of magazines – including Entertainment Weekly – who sell the same “collectible” edition with cover photos that vary by market, subscription status and demographic. They do this knowing that collectors will feel compelled to purchase multiple copies at inflated newsstand or mail-order prices. (Any time the word “collectible,” “limited edition” or “collector’s edition” is stamped on a package, it’s safe to assume what’s inside will never be worth anything more than it already costs.)

Some of the collectors to whom we’re introduced in “Jedi Junkies” freely admit to being beyond help and the toll they pay for their addiction can be estimated by the amount of memorabilia on their walls and shelves, often in duplicate and triplicate packaging. For some reason, Edlitz neglects to mention how much Lucas and his partners have exploited the franchise’s insatiable fans. Indeed, even as one prominent collector describes how much fans hated a licensed collection of grotesquely bulked-up action figures — the characters, including Princess Leia, look as if they’d been injecting themselves with steroids since “Episode I” – he holds up a package, proving that he also got sucked into the scheme. He simply can’t help himself. “Jedi Junkies” was completed before Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion, demonstrating just how valuable the overall “Star Wars” brand actually is. Other than that, the documentary is harmless enough, occasionally even enlightening. Among the people interviewed are Olivia Munn, who would be a popular choice among fanboys for the next iteration of Princess Leia; a choreographer of amateur lightsaber fights; a filmmaker who built the world’s only life-size Millennium Falcon; actors Ray Park (Darth Maul) and Peter Meyhew (Chewbacca); and “Blair Witch Project” director Ed Sanchez. The bonus material includes commentary and several extended interviews. – Gary Dretzka

The Coalition
Instead of allowing a bunch of clueless ex-jocks to speculate on what was causing the electrical blackout at the Super Bowl, CBS could have done us all a favor by pulling over Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs and giving him an opportunity to save the day. As one of the driving forces behind the production company Team Sizzle, Suggs could have gone to his locker, picked up a DVD copy of “The Coalition”and handed it to network boss Les Moonves. Problem solved. As a first feature for almost everyone involved in the production, “The Coalition” describes what happens when the girlfriends of a star athlete and his posse discover that they have been cheated on, duped, lied to and abandoned by them. Instead of continuing to cry their mascara off in nightclub bathrooms, the ladies join forces to humiliate the cads at work, play and in the eyes of their new girlfriends, fiancés and wives. It’s not the freshest concept on Earth, but it still works. The movie was born at party when the wife of a friend overheard the ribald stories exchanged by a group of Suggs’ fellow athletes. She didn’t believe them until another playa came in, telling the same sorts of tales. Suggs knew there was a dramedy buried in the braggadocio. Along with director/producer/writer Monica Mingo, Suggs carved out a script and collaborated on almost everything that needed to be accomplished on the project. (He even got a credit as costume designer.) Because much of “The Coalition” is set in a swank nightclub or swank restaurants, there’s plenty of sizzle to go around. The actors are attractive, the wardrobe is club-ready and everybody has spending cash. This compensates for dialogue that often is far less than sizzling and acting that isn’t quite ready for prime time. Nevertheless, I’m anxious to see if Suggs and Mingo can improve on their first feature. The DVD adds plenty of interviews and bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

BBC: Attenborough’s Life Stories: Blu-ray
PBS: John Portman: A Life of Building
Nova: What Are Animals Thinking?
For British Baby Boomers and their parenst, Sir David Attenborough served the same purpose as Marlin Perkins had for American TV viewers. Attenborough’s “Zoo Quest” followed Perkins’ “Zoo Parade” to the air by only a couple of years on opposite sides of the big pond. Both described how and where zoos found the animals and birds that filled their cages and displays (“habitats” would come later). From 1963-85, while Sir David was promoted to higher offices at the BBC, Perkins’ “Wild Kingdom” adopted a less acquisitive approach to zoology. After tiring of life in the executive suites, he returned to the natural world to produce such groundbreaking series as “Life on Earth,” “The Living Planet,” “The Trials of Life” and, more recently, such triumphs as “The Blue Planet,” “Planet Earth,” “The Natural World,” “Life” and “Frozen Planet.” For their American runs, some xenophobic executives thought it wise to substitute Attenborough’s authoritative voice for that of Oprah Winfrey, Sigourney Weaver and Alec Baldwin. He speaks proper English, not Cockney, but programmers somehow assumed that Americans give a crap who’s reading from a script. There’s nothing like the real thing on Blu-ray, though. “Attenborough’s Life Stories” is the equivalent of a greatest hits album, with black-and-white footage from memorable first journeys and discoveries, in addition to parallel material from the color and hi-def era. The stories, which span his 60 years with the BBC, are well-told and endlessly fascinating. His enthusiasm and dedication to preserving the Earth’s resources is infectious. The only bonus feature is “The Ark,” during which the 86-year-old Attenborough chooses 10 of the most important, and lesser known, animals he would most like to save from extinction.

Although most Americans wouldn’t be able to describe the achievements of John Calvin Portman Jr., there aren’t many who haven’t marveled at his architectural creations or strayed into a hotel he has designed, if only to check out the lobby. At a time when many Americans were abandoning the country’s great urban centers, the Georgia Tech-trained architect almost single-handedly re-vitalized Atlanta by developing the multi-block Peachtree Center, whose then-unique atriums attracted as many sight-seers as guests. His striking designs for Detroit’s Renaissance Center, the New York Marriott Marqui, Los Angeles’ Westin Bonaventure Hotel and San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center served a similar purpose. In “John Portman: A Life of Building,” his life and career are chronicled in great detail, as are the many innovations he brought to the fore. The tours of his homes, alone, are worth the investment in time. Portman’s journey hasn’t been a single smooth sail from start to finish. He and his firm were caught in one major economic downturn, at least, nearly losing all the fruits of their labors. Fortuitously, just as Portman’s prospects neared rock bottom, an invitation to design the multi-use Shanghai Center arrived from China. Its success opened doors for Portman that had been closed to western architects for decades. During the next 20 years, commissions would roll in from then-booming China and other Asian countries. Largely unknown here, he’s regarded as something of a hero there.

The new “Nova ScienceNow” presentation, “What Are Animals Thinking?,” addresses an issue nearly every pet owner has attempted to fathom since the first cow or dog was domesticated. Although it isn’t likely that anyone will figure out what really makes a cat tick, there are plenty of animals whose secrets lie closer to the surface. The package is broken into four segments: “Do Animals Know Right From Wrong?,”  in which scientists studying animal cognition are “revealing the machinery of animals’ moral compasses”; “Pigeon GPS,” which attempts explain how homing pigeons make it home on time for dinner, sometimes after traveling hundreds of miles over unfamiliar terrain; “Hive Genius,” an investigation into the intricate communication patterns within a giant bee colony; and “Profile: Laurie Santos,” which introduces us to Yale scientist Laurie Santos, who’s studying a community of more than 900 monkeys to possibly reveal the evolutionary roots of human foibles. – Gary Dretzka

Gossip Girl: The Complete Sixth and Final Season
In September, 2007, tens of thousands of middle-class Americans were awakening to the reality that many of their retirement plans, homes and careers might be gone by the time a new president would take office in January. Meanwhile, a new prime-time soap opera debuted on the CW network that basically spit in the eye of the financial crisis by introducing us to teenagers who spent more on clothes and cocktails (no ID was ever required of them) in one weekend than the average American taxpayer made in a year. Its primary conceit involved a gossip monger whose observations spread through the teens’ social network faster than shoes at a Manolo Blahnik trunk show. And, throughout the next six seasons, there never was a scarcity of dirt to dish. “Gossip Girl” ended its run last December with a Prado bag full of surprises and a finale that predicted what would happen five years down the road. It’s difficult enough to wrap up the intrigue contained in a single episode of “Gossip Girl,” let alone an entire season, but the show’s many surprises, unlikely coincidences and narrative contrivances made “The O.C.” and “90210” look simplistic by comparison. Season Six wraps up all of the loose ends, resuscitates abandoned characters and, most importantly, reveals the identity of Gossip Girl. Even those fair-weather fans who drifted off when things got weird should find something of interest in “Gossip Girl: The Complete Sixth and Final Season.” The set includes “A Big Farewell to Our Upper East Siders,” in which cast and crew members bid adieu to the show; a series retrospective; a gag reel; unaired scenes; and “Gossip Girl Prequel: It Had to Be You” audio download. – Gary Dretzka

Slugterra: Return of the Shane Gang
Babar: The Movie
The Red Hen … and Other Cooking Stories
Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Butterfly Ball
When I read the promo material on the cover of “Slugterra: Return of the Shane Gang,” I found it difficult to imagine anyone producing an animated series in which “powerful magical slugs” are used as weapons in an “epic sci-fi comedy adventure.” Now that I’ve watched it, I still don’t believe it. Have animators finally run out of cartoon animals to immortalize in kiddie show? Slugs, a.k.a. terrestrial gastropod mollusks, are the critters that slither along the surface of plants and sidewalks, usually after a rain, leaving trails of mucous behind them. As far as I know, they can’t talk, fly and fit inside most bullet casings, as is the case here. Nevertheless, any show that might discourage little boys from stomping or, worse, eating the slimy boogers is OK in my book. Apparently, 100 miles below the surface of the earth, there’s a land called Slugterra, which very much resembles the Wild West of yesteryear. Gunslingers armed with slug-shooting pistols compete for bragging rights and an evil Dr. Blakk runs the criminal underworld. After his father disappears from view in Slugterra, 15-year-old humanoid Eli Shane makes it his duty to cleanse Slugterra of this mastermind of mayhem. The Shane Gang includes the golden-bullet slug Burpy and fellow “slug-slingers” Trixie, Kord and Pronto. As ludicrous as this scenario might sound, the hyperkinetic “Slugterra” is well-drawn and imaginative. The same can’t be said of many other cartoon series aimed at kids today. The Canadian-American co-production was shown here on Disney XD. The DVD adds an interview with the series’ creator and story editor, along with bonus “slugisodes.”

Released into theaters in 1989, after its first year on HBO, “Babar: The Movie” recalls in musical form the Elephant King’s first great triumph over Lord Rataxes and his rhino army. It came despite the efforts of Elephantland bureaucrats to thwart the boy king. Unlike the series, the movie is informed less by comedy as it is an allegory for the crimes against poachers and other abusers of endangered animals. As such, younger viewers might need a bit of parental guidance, a task that adults shouldn’t find too painful. Or, they could be prepped ahead of time with readings from the delightful books by Jean de Brunhoff. The DVD includes the “Babar” episode, “Monkey Business.”

The latest compilation of episodes from Nickelodeon’s “Dora the Explorer” is typical of previous DVD releases from the network. It contains only three selections – “The Butterfly Ball,” “Vamos a Pintar!” and “Feliz Dia de los Padres!” – that, while charming, may be overly familiar to loyal fans. There aren’t any true bonus features, either. But, it’s also possible that “The Butterfly Ball” contains your child’s favorite episode, so there’s no such thing as “overly familiar.”

Because they haven’t been overexposed on television, Scholastic’s “Storybook Treasures” are the kinds of made-for-DVD collections that actually have some shelf life. The read-along feature also allows kids to get an early grip on connecting words with images. “The Red Hen … and Other Cooking Stories” helps young viewers understand how cooking and baking can sometimes be as much fun as eating. Besides “The Red Hen,” the selections are “Bread Comes to Life,” narrated by Lily Tomlin; the mischievous “How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?” provides funny examples of how not to eat; and “Arnie the Doughnut,” narrated by Michael McKean, about an overachieving treat. The set adds an easy-to-follow recipe for “Simply Splendid Cake.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

BBC: House of Cards: Trilogy: Blu-ray
Netflix: House of Cards

I’ve only had time to watch two episodes of Netflix’s first original mini-series, “House of Cards,” an Americanization of the novels by the Michael Dobbs and subsequent BBC mini-series. It’s newly available to subscribers via its website and other streaming systems. As such, the series is accessible to nearly everyone with a sophisticated DVR, laptop, tablet or telephone, and, unlike broadcast and premium-cable networks, the technology encourages binge viewing. The audio/video quality seems excellent and the price is right. If Netflix deems its costly “HofC” experiment successful, the streaming of original programming could be the next big thing in television. If not, it will remain an honorable misstep on the road to the inevitable future. That’s because its inaugural series is a class act all the way. Not only were the first two episodes directed by executive producer David Fincher — James Foley, Joel Schumacher, Charles McDougall and Carl Franklin pick up the baton from there – but the cast includes Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Corey Stoll, Michael Kelly, Sakina Jaffrey and Constance Zimmer. And, yes, changes have been made to reflect the differences in political culture between London and Washington, as well as 23 years of change in the world. From what I’ve seen, though, the story remains essentially the same.

Because segments of the BBC trilogy aired in 1990, 1993 and 1995, Dobbs and co-writer Andrew Davies were able to take advantage of the political doldrums between the prime ministries of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. These stories of cold-blooded political chicanery — compiled in Blu-ray as “House of Cards: Trilogy” – appear to have been inspired as much by Shakespeare as any headline writer at a Fleet Street tabloid. At the trilogy’s center is the intriguingly wicked Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), chief whip of the Conservative Party in Parliament and PM in waiting. (Spacey plays his American counterpart.) After being passed over for a promised position in the incumbent prime minister’s Cabinet, Urquhart immediately sets out to topple the pompous twit. We know exactly what he’s thinking because he confides in us via the camera following his every move. In doing so, viewers can see how the house of cards is going to fall before the kings, queens and aces hit the table. As usual, the media is shown to be incredibly easy to manipulate, even before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and blogosphere.

The second installment in the trilogy, “To Play the King,” finds Urquhart occupying the office of prime minister and doing quite well at it. The thorn in his side here is a new King of England (Michael Kitchen) – it’s not a documentary series, remember – who has ideas of his own about the country’s future. “The Final Cut” completes the series. In it, Urquhart is still in office, but the same storm clouds that drenched his predecessor have begun to appear on the horizon of his administration. How will he possibly worm himself out of this predicament? Stay tuned. “HofC” is a consistently compelling entertainment and full of surprises. Another nice thing about the trilogy is the prominent role played by women, some of whom could have given Lady Macbeth a run for her money. (The same appears to be the case in the Netflix series.) The Blu-ray adds commentaries, an interesting give-and-take between Davies and an audience angry about his portrayal of royalty and the informative doc, “Westminster: Behind Closed Doors.” – Gary Dretzka

Flight: Blu-ray
I don’t know what inspired John Gatin’s screenplay for “Flight.” It’s possible that it was the heroics of Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, who piloted the jetliner that made a successful landing on the Hudson River after it was disabled by a flock of Canada geese on takeoff. For this, Sullenberger not only was awarded the keys to every city in the country, but he also became a talk-show staple and instant expert on all things aeronautic. “Flight” takes Sully’s excellent adventure a step further by considering what might have happened if the media had learned that “Sully” was something of a party monster and had gotten bombed the night before the doomed flight. What if they also learned that he had quelled his hangover with a couple lines of cocaine and a wee bit of the hair of the dog? Basically, that’s the premise of “Flight.” In it, Denzel Washington does something every bit as amazing as landing a plane on a river and, if he had been driving a car, he would have been cited for DUI. In order to prevent his jetliner from crashing nose-first into the dirt outside Atlanta, Captain “Whip” Whitaker flips the plane on its back. The maneuver somehow allows him the time to find a meadow flat enough to attempt a non-catastrophic landing. Apart from a wing connecting with a church steeple upon landing, that’s pretty much what happened. A half-dozen people died, but the toll could easily have been a great deal higher.

Director Robert Zemeckis masterfully orchestrates the events leading to the crash landing. It leaves us on the edge of our seat, at the same time as it forces us to question the pilot’s decision not call in sick. Still, if the same thing had happened to another pilot, it’s likely there would have been no survivors that day. Whitaker’s unprecedented actions were heroic, even if he shouldn’t have been in the pilot’s seat in the first place. To his credit, Zemeckis allows viewers to serve as jurors, not advocates, throughout most of the film. As usual, Washington delivers an impeccable performance as the troubled pilot. He makes us believe that Whip is capable of landing the plane, straight or stoned, while also being an arrogant fool. The ending is satisfying, without also being predictable and overly melodramatic. Some viewers won’t relish the idea of watching another movie in which an AA meeting is staged. There’s nothing cliché about Whitaker’s efforts to take control of his own life, though. A supporting cast consisting of Nadine Velazquez, Tamara Tunie, John Goodman, Brian Geraghty, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle adds sizzle to “Flight,” but it’s definitely Washington’s show. The Blu-ray edition adds three making-of featurettes that cry out for more information and a Q&A with cast and crew members. – Gary Dretzka

Peter Pan: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray
As is often the case with Walt Disney’s animated features, the backstory for “Peter Pan” is almost as interesting as what happens on screen … for grown-ups, anyway. Ever since watching a roadshow production of J.M. Barrie’s play as a kid and playing a part in it for a school production, Disney’s reserved a special place in his heart for the story. He intended it to be the studio’s second animated feature, after “Bambi,” but those plans were delayed by rights issues, the war and having to wait for the technology to catch up with his vision. No doubt, the postponement enhanced the entertainment value of his “Peter Pan.” (Disney rarely had a problem acquiring rights, as most of the fairy tales already were in the public domain.) Even so, Disney decided that Barrie’s version might prove a tad dark for younger viewers and softened the narrative. It’s too bad he didn’t reconsider the lame-brained characterizations of the Indians on Neverland Island, as well. As it is, however, 60 years’ worth of children can attest to the chills they felt upon the arrival of the crocodile and sadistic presence of Captain Hook.

Disney fanatics already know that Disney deployed all nine of his Old Men, assigning a different character to each one. There’s plenty more trivia to ponder. Kids new to the Disney canon, though, might be interested to follow the evolution of Tinker Bell from just another delightful character to mascot of the Disney brand and, eventually, possessor of an animated franchise to call her own.

There are several new hi-def features included in the three-disc “Diamond Edition” package, as well as some previously seen. Diane Disney-Miller has recorded a new introduction to the package; Roy Disney’s commentary has been picked up, along with five behind-the-scenes featurettes; two new deleted scenes and songs, presented with original art; the interactive “Disney Intermission” option; a separate sing-along track; and DisneyView sidebar art to fill up the screen space left by the television-aspect presentation. Disney loyalists should enjoy “Growing Up With Nine Old Men,” a 41-minute documentary describing what it was like to be raised in a household headed by one of the true stars of the Disney universe. – Gary Dretzka

Cabaret: Blu-ray
There isn’t much, besides Nazis, that Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” shares in common with Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret.” Both found success on Broadway and on the big screen, but that’s about it. At one point, though, the backers of both projects must have heard, “A Nazi musical? I don’t think so.” Brooks, of course, found hilarity in the possibility that the only thing that could prevent an outrageously bad musical from bombing was the positive word-of-mouth of undiscerning audiences. “Cabaret” was inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories,” as well as the play and movie “I Am a Camera.” It’s 1931 and the singers, dancers and habitués of Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub are wallowing in the “divine decadence” that prevailed during the latter days of the Weimar Republic. Meanwhile, Adolph Hitler’s minions are slowly, but surely making inroads with Germans who have yet to prosper from the country’s economic rebound. They’re convinced that decadence – divine or otherwise – is something promulgated by communists and Jews, a notion Adolph Hitler exploited on his way to power. Other Germans were having far too much fun to notice the rising tide of fascism.

Forty years after “Cabaret” was released on film, the Blu-ray edition demonstrates just how timeless its message continues to be. Moreover, the bonus material offers a complete discussion about what made the movie different than the 1966 Broadway musical and where Fosse’s genius came into play. Those of us who haven’t seen the stage production or listened to the original Broadway cast album, for example, wouldn’t know that seven songs were replaced and entire characters eliminated. All of the songs, except one, now emerge organically from Kit Kat Klub environment. Fosse decided to move the group singing of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” by the Nazi Youth group, to the beer garden of a rural inn, so that Sally, Brian and Maximilian couldn’t deny what was happening outside Berlin. It’s also worth remembering that Hollywood wasn’t sold on Fosse taking the reins of the production. After all, his adaptation of “Sweet Charity” was so catastrophic it nearly took Universal Pictures down with it. The rest, including eight Academy Awards, is history. The Blu-ray arrives in a DigiBook package, adding a new half-hour background featurette and previously shown making-of material, interviews and commentary. – Gary Dretzka

Hello I Must Be Going
Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet began their careers in feature films starring in the same widely acclaimed drama, “Beautiful Creatures,” which, in 1994, described how the fantasies of two New Zealand teenagers led to murder. It would also mark Peter Jackson’s first giant step away from the horror genre and onto the radar screens of Hollywood studios. In the next three years, Winslet would play key roles in “Sense and Sensibility,” “Jude,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” and something called “Titanic.” Choosing not to strike while her iron was hot, 16-year-old Lynskey decided to take a three-year break from movies, in order to complete high school and pursue an arts education at university. In 1998, she scored a role in the likable Drew Barrymore romance, “Ever After: A Cinderella Story,” and continued to find work in supporting roles that weren’t designed to showcase her considerable talent. It would be Lynskey’s recurring portrayal of Rose, Charlie’s stalker in “Three and a Half Men,” that endeared her to American audiences. In Todd Louiso and Sarah Koskoff’s quirky romantic drama, “Hello I Must Be Going,” she was given another opportunity to show what she could do in a lead role. The verdict: very well, indeed.

In it, Lynskey plays a recently divorced woman in her mid-30s, who moves back into the home of her wealthy parents in Connecticut. No sooner does she get there, though, than she reverts to behaving like a recalcitrant 16-year-old. Depressed to the point of being comatose, Amy Minsky only comes alive when she meets the 17-year-old son of one of her dad’s business associates. For his part, Jeremy (Christopher Abbott) already is a moderately successful TV actor, who hates acting and pretends to be gay to keep his doting mother from bugging him about girls his age. Jeremy and Amy recognize something in each other that makes them kindred spirits. While seriously conflicted over the possibility of having sex with a boy half her age, Amy allows him to seduce her. If this scenario sounds familiar, then the folksy songs that accompany the narrative certainly will ring a bell with fans of “The Graduate,” maybe even “Harold and Maude.” Amy Minsky only resembles Mrs. Robinson circumstantially and Maude not at all. She’s no cougar and Jeremy is more self-assured than Benjamin Braddock. For Amy to come to grips with her demons, she’ll have to confront her ex-husband and find out why he ditched her for a young tootsie. It’s what is happening concurrently with her parents – well played by Blythe Danner and John Rubinstein – that differentiates “Hello I Must Be Going” from other indie rom-com-drams. Just as their retirement ship is about to pull into port, it’s sideswiped by unmapped shoals. Lynskey’s performance is sufficient reason to recommend “Hello I Must Be Going” – Amy uses Marx Brothers’ movies as therapy – but it has plenty else going for it. The DVD includes interviews and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

The Ballad of Narayama: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Shichiro Fukazawa’s novel “The Ballad of Narayama” has been adapted into film twice, both differently and to wonderful effect. Shohei Imamura’s 1983 remake was awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival and the 1958 version nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and submitted by Japan as its official entry for Best Foreign Language category at the Academy Awards. Imamura’s version opened up the story, which, in 1958, was shot entirely on a soundstage in the style of kabuki and other traditional Japanese theater. A single stringed instrument provides the only musical background. Set in a small northern village in in the 19th century, “Narayama” describes the rite of ubasute, which dictates that anyone who reaches the ripe old age of 70 is required to make the trek to the heights of Narayama and never look back to the village. If they don’t immediately die of hypothermia, they’ll soon starve to death. The ubasute ritual was imposed to relieve the shortage of food available for other family members, especially in the lean years when every seed of rice was measured. Orin is the next woman in the village to turn 70 and she’s accepted the fact that her son soon will be required to carry her to the place where the bones of friends and relatives lie bleaching in the sun. She has prepared by finding her widowed son a good wife and teaching her how to make do in her absence. Even if Orin accepts her fate, it does seem unfair that a woman of sound mind and body could be forced to die, when less deserving villagers – including her useless grandchildren – are free to commit crimes and drain precious resources. “Ballad of Narayama” reportedly was the first movie shot on Fuji color negative and it looks as if Kinoshita wanted to test its limits right out of the gate. The set design and painted backdrops are nothing short of haunting, as befits the kabuki conceit. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 4K digital master, struck from the 2011 restoration, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The only bonus feature is a booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Kemp. – Gary Dretzka

In Our Nature
Brian Savelson’s drama about the dysfunctional relationship between a middle-age father and his adult son looks terrific and features much excellent acting. The men are so immediately unlikable, however, that it sometimes appears as if the writer/director, in his feature debut, is daring us to stay with “In Our Nature” until the pre-ordained ending. If it weren’t for their girlfriends, we probably wouldn’t care about their estrangement. Brooklyn yuppies Seth and Andie (Zach Gilford, Jena Malone) decide they’ll take a long-postponed weekend off at his family’s cabin on a beautiful parcel of land in Upstate New York. No sooner have they stripped off their clothes than they’re interrupted by the tires-on-gravel sound of Daddy Dearest’s SUV. Surprise, surprise. Neither of the men is remotely happy to learn of the other’s presence in the cabin that has provided both of them with so many memories, pleasant and otherwise. As played by the wonderful character actor John Slattery (“Mad Men”), father Gil is an anal retentive who isn’t in the cabin two minutes before he’s kvetching about Seth’s careless habits. Seth doesn’t seem to need a reason for resenting his father’s presence and Savelson complies by not giving us one.

Before the two men are allowed to drown each other in toxic testosterone, Gil’s girlfriend, Vicky (Gabrielle Union), suggests they let bygones be bygones long enough to have dinner together and spend one night under the same roof. After Seth and Andie compliment Vicky on her cooking – veggie, as requested — she makes the mistake of mentioning in passing that lots of butter makes everything taste better. By the shocked reactions of the children, you’d think Vicky had consciously spiced their dishes with arsenic. Whatever good will had developed up until this point dissipates faster than a vegan can accuse a hamburger lover of first-degree murder. For every step forward, the men slide two more back, until their bad behavior spreads to their partners. Once all of the scabs are picked, of course, the healing can begin anew. Some viewers, at least, will find their patience rewarded. – Gary Dretzka

Paranormal Activity 4: Unrated Director’s Cut Edition: Blu-ray
Night of the Tentacles

To argue that “Paranormal Activity 4” is more of the same old, same old shouldn’t detract any of the series’ many fans from rushing out and picking up a copy, if only to survey the 28 minutes of material added to the director’s-cut edition. Followers already know what they’re going to get, even as they pray that every next sequel would be as rewarding as the original. The only thing “PA4” adds is a slam-bang ending, guaranteed to keep fans begging for more, even if it is the same old, same old. At the end of the third installment, Katie and her infant nephew Hunter disappeared from their Carlsbad home, leaving behind a scene of carnage and a whopping mystery. It’s now five years later and Katie has just moved into a suburban neighborhood outside Las Vegas with a creepy little boy, Robby. It doesn’t take long before strange things begin to happen to the next-door neighbors, who take in Robby when his mother is hospitalized for a few of days. He’s already become friendly with their 6-year-old son, Wyatt, and the kids pretty much keep to themselves.

Teenage Alex is the first one to notice peculiar noises and other disturbances around the house, and she convinces her boyfriend to mount surveillance cameras and activate video monitors on her computer. Among other things, the Skype connection captures Robby walking into Alex’s room while she’s asleep and climbing in bed with her. The parents are too pre-occupied to pay much attention to their daughter’s ravings or Wyatt’s growing dependency on Robby. After a while, that will change, as well. None of it is particularly scary, unless one is easily frightened by loud sounds. The visual effects have been jazzed up a bit, as well, to account for the passage of time. I wish that directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman had given us a bit more for our bucks, before they unloaded the cliffhanger ending. To paraphrase Shakespeare, it is what it is. Apart from the deleted scenes added to the director’s cut, there aren’t any bonus features.

Some viewers might be disappointed to learn that “Night of the Tentacles” has almost nothing to do with the 200-year-old tradition of artistically depicting the rape of humans by octopi, squid and other tentacled creatures. Although the fetish is of Japanese origin, the Internet has allowed pornographers to share the practice with the world. (Even when the display of sexual intercourse among consenting adults was censored, penetration by foreign objects remained legal.) Considering that Dustin Mills spent only about $1,500 to make “NOTT,” I suppose one could cut him some slack. He’s already proven his do-it-yourself chops with such off-putting material as “Zombie A-Hole” and “The Puppet Monster Massacre,” after all, and how bad could his third feature be? In a word: awful. Here, Mills’ protagonist is a desperately ill young artist who sells his soul to the devil for a new heart. The catch is that the organ, when in need of fresh blood, causes pointed tentacles to be launched in the direction of his visitors, including women there merely to take a pee. Is nothing sacred? – Gary Dretzka

Risen
Every so often, a featherweight boxer manages to capture the imaginations of fans, journalists and historians, alike. The most recent boxer to have achieved such recognition is Manny Pacquiao, a likable fighter who literally carries the hopes and dreams of Filipino people around the world on his shoulders whenever he enters the ring. Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs wrote songs condemning the people they believed responsible for the 1963 death of Davey Moore. Willie Pep, widely acknowledged as the greatest featherweight boxer of them all, has only appeared in other people’s movies about boxing. Welsh fighter Howard Winstone, a champion rarely listed among the top 25, is the subject of the biopic, “Risen.” In it, Neil Jones introduces us to a man whose story is as compelling as any in the sport. That’s because, as a young man, Winstone lost three of fingers on one hand in an industrial accidental. Known for his punching ability, Winstone immediately lost the use of 50 percent of his arsenal. Unable to make a fist, he had to find a way to compensate. With the help of his father and trainer, Winstone made the transition from slugger to boxer. After wearing out his British opponents, 29-year-old Winstone captured the featherweight crown in 1968. He wouldn’t hold it for long, but he’d achieved something very few boxers ever do. At nearly two hours in length, “Rison” feels long by at least 15 minutes. The material dedicated to Winstone’s family life borders on the cliché, as does some of the behind-the-scenes stuff. The boxing scenes aren’t bad, even if they owe too much to “Raging Bull.” The most inspirational moments come before the bouts, when fans of the boxers sing in unison the songs identified with their city’s sports team. It is a practice unique to British sporting events and never fails to move me. – Gary Dretzka

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel
If there’s one thing the world doesn’t need, it’s another documentary about the fashion industry. For one thing, they’re too easy to make: pick an editor/designer/model/photographer, any editor/designer/model/photographer to profile; round up all the usual suspects to provide anecdotes, if not criticism; cull the archives for visual input; insert some pop songs; and roll camera. They’re also littered with clichés, unfounded opinions and hyperbole. The opulent lifestyles of the editors/designers/models/photographers are indefensible by most moral standards. The casualties are rarely mentioned, except in cautionary tales (“Gia,” “Girl Model,” “Chasing Beauty”) and parodies (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Zoolander”). Since the release of “Unzipped,” in 1995, we’ve seen “The September Issue,” “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” “Bill Cunningham New York,” “Lagerfeld Confidential,” “Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton,” “Yohji Yamamoto: This Is My Dream,” “Ozwald Boateng: A Man’s Story,” “Ultrasuede,” “L’amour fou,” “In Vogue: The Editors Eye,” “Fashion Victim: The Killing of Gianni Versace,” “Girl Model,” several docs on such photographers as David Bailey, Helmut Newton, Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon and Francesco Scavullo; and least two biopics about Coco Chanel and one about the House of Chanel. I’ve forgotten some and not mentioned several titles in production.

So, is “Diane Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” sufficiently different to recommend watching it? Yes, primarily because Vreeland was a one-off, nonpareil and ever-fascinating columnist, editor and curator. For most of her 83 years on Earth, she was one of the world’s most theatrical, opinionated and influential women. Although Vreeland was raised as a member of European aristocracy, she was one of the first editors to recognize how a woman’s lifestyle could influence fashion as much as any designer or socialite. She was one of the first in her position to take seriously the Hollywood mystique, the eccentrics who populated Warhol’s Factory and the flighty whims of the Haight-Ashbury crowd. The photographs that accompanied the magazine’s fashion spreads one day would be hung on the walls of museums and galleries. The anecdotes told here also reveal a woman who could be dictatorial and pompous one moment and, the next, prescient and dead-on correct. After her time with Vogue, she turned around the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, making it one of the most must-see attractions and must-be-seen-at charity events in New York. Lisa Immordina Vreeland, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frederic Tcheng’s documentary is as informative as it entertaining and a worthwhile addition to the DVD library of any fashionista. Its bonus package includes even more fascinating interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Yelling to the Sky: Blu-ray
Frontline: Poor Kids

Seventeen-year-old Sweetness O’Hara goes through so many changes in “Yelling to the Sky” that you practically need a scorecard to keep track of her moods. As played by Zoe Kravitz, the Sweetness we meet first is a slightly preppy teenager whose place in her largely African-American neighborhood is defined by her mixed-race looks and a meek persona waiting to be victimized. This is exactly what happens when she’s confronted by a group of teenagers and forced to jump through hoops to prevent them from stealing her bike. Not content merely to humiliate Sweetness, they also brutalize her. It’s at this point, however, that her tough-as-nails sister jumps into the fray, kicking the living shit out of the boy who’s causing her most the trouble. Where did she come from? As we soon will come to learn, Sweetness is only as a preppy as her cardigan sweaters allow her to look. Her father is an alcoholic who bullies all of the women in the household and her mom is powerless to stop him. Her sister is old enough to disappear for long periods of time, but Sweetness is trapped.

Now that she’s made an enemy of the school’s bully (Gabourey Sidibe) and her gang, Sweetness also lives in constant fear of retribution at school. To make money to escape Brooklyn, she convinces the local drug dealer to let her peddle his goodies on and around campus, a decision that immediately endears her to the stoner crowd. One bad decision leads to another, however, and Sweetness finally is overwhelmed by the quicksand sucking her into the earth. Too suddenly and without warning, Dad begins to mellow out and Sweetness is forced to decide whether it’s an omen of blue skies ahead or an apparition. As compelling as Sweetness’ story is, “Yelling to the Sky” is sabotaged by several narrative decisions that I think were intended to be funny, but come off as non-sequiturs. Freshman writer/director Victoria Mahoney might have re-considered some of these inventions – masked tots wielding squirt guns, ambushes by rock-slinging teens, a vice principal who parties with his students – and focused on explaining Sweetness’ various transitions. Money and time were short, however, and teenage viewers might very well find “Yelling to the Sky” more meaningful or coherent than I did. The contributions of Jason Clarke, Tim Blake Nelson, Antonique Smith and Yolanda Ross in difficult parts are well appreciated. The DVD adds an interview with Mahoney.

The kids we meet in the “Frontline” presentation, “Poor Kids,” live 900 miles west of Brooklyn and are of the non-fiction persuasion. Most are white, some are black. All are the victims of trickle-down poverty. The Quad Cities along the border of Iowa and Illinois once had enough jobs to employ everyone who wanted to work. When the current crisis hit, the jobs that weren’t already lost to Mexico and China largely fell victim to crimes of Wall Street power brokers and bankers who will never spend a night in jail. We know that these families have seen better days, because their homes are filled with the kinds of appliances and toys people buy when they’re flush. Even if they were able to sell the stuff, it wouldn’t cover a week’s grocery bill. “Poor Kids” doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know or introduce us to people we haven’t already met. Their stories are as familiar as yesterday’s news and anguished conversations we’ve had with friends and relatives who’ve lost their jobs, run out of unemployment benefits and maxed out their credit cards. There’s no question, they want to work and provide for themselves. The kids still try their best at school, bragging when they get an “A” and praying for the money it will take to go to college or a good trade school. I don’t know how many “Frontline” documentaries it would take to melt the hearts of the porcine politicians who line up at the trough every day in Washington to collect their bribes, unearned salaries and free lunches. Preaching to the choir certainly isn’t going to do the trick. – Gary Dretzka

Little White Lies: Blu-ray
My Worst Nightmare

I was such a fan of Guillaume Canet’s “Tell No One” that I could hardly wait to see what he’d do as a follow-up. A prolific French actor, as well as a director, Canet would perform in several movies between that thrilling crime story and “Little White Lies,” a movie that’s best described as a haute bourgeois version of “The Big Chill.” Instead reuniting for a funeral, as was the case in Lawrence Kasdan’s hit film, the longtime friends represented in “Little White Lies” would have come together anyway. Each August, they gather at the lovely and spacious beach home of Paris restaurateur Max (Francois Cluzet). This year, things are different because one member of their group, Ludo (Jean Dujardin), has been critically injured in traffic back in Paris. If he wasn’t in a coma, one or two of them might have stayed behind and tended to him. Augusts are reserved for vacations, though, and it would take more than a coma to keep them from boating, sipping wine and listening to American pop tunes on the radio. It does, however, serve as a catalyst for the friends to address issues, secrets and lies that have been percolating just below the surface for several years. The most compelling reason to seek out “Little White Lies” is the ensemble cast, which includes Marion Cotillard, Gilles Lellouche, Benoit Magime, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Marivin, Pascale Arbillot and Valérie Boneton. The characters may not be entirely recognizable to American audiences, but they’re close enough to strike more than a single chord. At 154 minutes, though, most viewers wouldn’t sit still for the problems of their own family members, let alone those of rich Frenchies. The Cap Ferrat scenery looks lovely in Blu-ray, though, and it adds a making-of featurette.

My Worst Nightmare” may not be the best romantic comedy you’ll see all year, or even the best one from France. The big-shot critics in New York all seemed to agree on that much during its limited run last fall. What does make it recommendable, though, is that it can be enjoyed by a wide cross-section of Francophiles. The characters range in age from about 16 to 60 and they all have been given something substantial to do. The comedy is broad and the scenario unlikely, but, at least, it doesn’t insult the intelligence of most viewers, as do most Hollywood rom-coms. Isabelle Huppert plays the sophisticated, if uptight head of a foundation that promotes the work of contemporary artists. Agathe’s married to an easy-going gent, Francois (Andre Dussollier), who’s quite content to let her sweat the small stuff in their lives. The trouble starts when Francois hires the father of one of their son’s best friends to complete the renovation. As played by Benoit Poelvoorde, Patrick is a functioning alcoholic, whose buffoonery knows few limits. Essentially homeless, Patrick is about to lose custody of his son, unless he can find semi-permanent lodging soon. Agathe and Francois agree to allow the boy to crash in their son’s bedroom until such demands can be met. To his wife’s chagrin, however, Francois has encouraged the boorish handyman to stay in the maid’s quarters until the job is done.

When Patrick introduces Francois to his kooky blond caseworker, and they hit it off, the affair provides the older man with an opportunity to ditch the cranky Agathe. Naturally, it also opens a door for Patrick to walk through. After convincing her to get drunk with him at a gallery opening, they hook up for a night of sex neither can remember. One thing leads to several other things and everyone’s dilemmas require resolution simultaneously. There’s certainly no need to go into detail here, but it’s fair to say the ending will come as a surprise to most viewers. “My Worst Nightmare” was directed by Anne Fontaine whose previous titles include “Nathalie,” “The Girl From Monaco” and “Coco Before Chanel.” “My Worst Nightmare” won’t make anyone forget any of those three movies, but I’d be hard-pressed to ignore any picture in which Huppert stars. – Gary Dretzka

So Undercover: Blu-ray
I don’t know who’s currently handling Miley Cyrus’ career – I hope it’s not still her grandstanding father – but whoever it is ought to consider handing off the duties to someone who knows what they’re doing. As long as she was identified with the Disney empire, Cyrus could hardly do any wrong. Kids loved her, parents considered her to be a role model and she didn’t seem to mind playing her age. When she turned 18, however, she let her freak flag fly. Still, “Hannah Montana: The Movie” and “The Last Song” turned tidy profits for the company and you’d think she would be smart enough to transition into adulthood with her dignity and fan base intact. Instead, her behavior and hooker-chic clothes – normal for any other teen – turned paparazzi into salivating dogs. Then, upon turning 20, something weird happened. Someone hoping to make a quick buck convinced her to accept roles in two movies – “LOL” and “So Undercover” – that were too weak even to find theatrical release in the U.S. Instead, they went straight to VOD, DVD and Blu-ray. That doesn’t bode well for her future in Hollywood. As long as Cyrus continues to tease the press with glimpses of her boobs and underwear, while changing her hair style every few months, she’ll remain in the public eye. Otherwise, maybe someone at Disney could help her find an adult role that doesn’t suck. After all, before Lindsay Lohan’s train jumped the tracks, she was given an opportunity to be directed by Robert Altman, Garry Marshall and Richard Rodriguez. If memory serves, she wasn’t bad. The jury’s still out on Paul Schrader’s “The Canyons.”

In “So Undercover,” Cyrus plays a former cop’s crime-crazy kid, who’s enlisted by a FBI agent (Jeremy Piven) to infiltrate a college sorority. Molly accepts the top-secret mission — protect the daughter of a key witness in a mob case — to bail her father out of a large debt. Although she’s the same age as her “sisters,” Molly must become fluent in Valley-speak and lose the tomboy persona. If that makes “So Undercover” sound like a ripoff of Miss Congeniality, at least Cyrus is age-appropriate for the role, unlike Sandra Bullock. (At 28, Kelly Osbourne looks even more out of place here than Bullock did there.) Otherwise, everything about the movie is a shortcut bordering on cliché, especially the sorority and its airhead members. Can’t the women who choose to go Greek in college ever catch a break? I can’t think of a movie that’s been released in the wake of “Animal House” that reflects anything but the binge-drinking aspect of college life. I suspect that the people who write these things were too nerdy to be accepted and finally are getting their revenge. I’m no fan of the Greek system, but c’mon. Cliches are fine for television, where they’re expected, but feature films are a whole different ballgame. By now, Cyrus should be thinking seriously about playing against type or focusing on her musical career. There’s nothing to be gained by continuing to do make pictures destined to go straight-to-video. – Gary Dretzka

Side by Side: Blu-ray
I suspect that most moviegoers understand the basic differences between digital and analog technology, by now, even if they couldn’t tell you which theaters are projecting images using light-through-film techniques or are bouncing images off a chip. I’ve been watching side-by-side demonstrations of film vs. video, tape vs. DVD and DVD vs. Blu-ray for most of the last 15 years and I’m hard-pressed to see the difference. That’s not true when it comes to 3D, animation and most large-format movies, which conceived digitally and fare best when exhibited that way. Of course, the most important thing remains telling a compelling story in a format that is as close to state-of-the-art as possible. If the story told in “Avatar” had been boring, no amount of digital technology could have saved it. As many 3D films have disappointed at the box office as have succeeded, no matter how good they are. Christopher Kenneally’s “Side by Side,” as produced and reported by Keanu Reeves, is a documentary that breaks down the benefits, liabilities and potential of the different technologies, through the eyes of the people who make the movies. The overriding question, “Can film survive our digital future?,” is asked and answered by such directors, cinematographers, editors, studio executives and technicians as James Cameron, David Fincher, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Vittorio Storaro, Lars von Trier, the Wachowskis, Vilmos Zsigmond, George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh, Lena Dunham, Greta Gerwig, Anne V. Coates and Danny Boyle. I don’t that many casual moviegoers would get much of a kick out “Side by Side,” but anyone who’s ever dreamed about making a movie or is headed for film school should consider it essential viewing. – Gary Dretzka

Somewhere Between
All of the Chinese-born adoptees we meet in Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s heartwarming documentary are exceptional. Although born into poverty and a culture that values the birth of boys over girls, they have excelled here as students, citizens and role models. Their stories aren’t significantly different than the most of the other 80,000 girls who have been adopted from Chinese orphanages since 1989, 10 years after China implemented its One Child Policy. Many of the children we meet were abandoned on the streets of a city, in the hope that someone in authority would find them and place them in a safe facility. Others were placed there because of a perceived physical or mental deficiency and proper care at home would be impossible to guarantee. It sounds cruel and, for the most part, is indefensible. Still, none of the orphanages shown in “Somewhere Between” are nearly as horrifying as the ones we’ve seen in Romania or Russia, since the lifting of the Iron Curtain. That families around the world desire these girls and willingly wait a year or more to be united with them also says a lot about the process. Knowlton entered into the production of “Somewhere Between” as someone already in the process of legal adoption. She wanted to know beforehand, however, what both she and the child could expect in the next several years, anyway. To do so, she was put in touch with Haley, Jenna, Ann and Fang, all of whom have assimilated comfortably into American life and would be asked questions they hadn’t fully considered since moving here.

Knowlton found the four girls in communities that were predominantly white, Christian, middle class and distinctly American. They were nurtured and raised as if they were born that way. Even so, they couldn’t help but ask such questions as “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit?” Lurking beneath the surface are other unanswered questions, most involving abandonment issue, China’s institutionalized sexism, the lack of a discernible genetic history and being torn between two cultures. Nothing is revealed in “Somewhere Between” that would make potential adoptive parents re-consider their plans. The adoptees and their classmates might learn a great deal about each other, though. Fang and Haley’s journeys are the most remarkable of them all. One traveled to the orphanage from which she was plucked and, eyeing a cutie with early signs of cerebral palsy, organized an international campaign to fund her care and possible placement in the west. Using only the barest of clues, the other was able to find her birth parents that lived in an impoverished corner of China. Moreover, she met her siblings, all of which were accomplished in their own ways. It’s wonderful.

What Knowlton avoids is anything in depth about China’s human-rights record and the possibility that other facilities aren’t nearly as nurturing. Nor does she address the horrors that accompanied the adoption of some orphans in Eastern Europe, the financial aspects of adoption or the difficulties faced by disadvantaged orphans and foster children here. That’s OK, though, because Knowlton had a different agenda. Neither is her film necessarily an infomercial for Chinese adoption. She doesn’t mention any bureaucratic snags or censorship issues, but isn’t likely Chinese authorities gave her free rein, either. Its appeal probably is limited to parents and potential parents of Chinese orphans, and, when they’re older, the kids themselves. The two-disc set adds deleted scenes and interviews with adoption professionals. – Gary Dretzka

Paul Williams: Still Alive
Pink: Still on Fire
10cc
Them: Mystic Eyes/Live 1965

The diminutive singer/songwriter Paul Williams was such a ubiquitous presence in the 1970-80s, his absence over the past 20 years or so has caused many people to believe he’s dead and they simply missed his obituary in the newspapers. Most people under 35, even those who know “Rainbow Connection,” “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Evergreen” by heart, couldn’t tell Williams from Frodo Baggins. In addition to writing hit songs for artists as disparate as the Carpenters, Helen Reddy, Barbra Streisand, David Bowie, Three Dog Night and Kermit the Frog, the 72-year-old musician also has written stage musicals and movie soundtracks, appeared in dozens of movies and TV series, been a frequent guest on talk shows and winner of several Grammys and an Oscar. He’s a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Most telling, perhaps, Williams was funny enough to be invited back 50 times to perform and sit alongside Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” Then, about 20 years ago, he simply disappeared from view. It explains why diehard fan Stephen Kessler titled his bio-doc, “Paul Williams: Still Alive.” It took an Internet search for the writer/director (“Vegas Vacation”) to learn that the man was, indeed, very much alive and kicking. The truth is that Williams has been clean and sober for 20 years and has spent much of that period helping other people recover. For those of us who enjoy his music and wit, “Still Alive” will come as a welcome reminder of those qualities. It does take some patience to watch, however. Kessler and Williams never seem to have agreed completely on what the documentary would accomplish and their bickering is frequently off-putting. Williams is adamant that he doesn’t come off as a has-been or pathetic survivor of the show-biz wars. Kessler wants to know how it felt when the star’s phone stopped ringing and the invitations to appear on talk shows stopped coming. Neither is he able to get Williams to open up on pivotal moments in his private life. To my mind, the best stuff is the concert footage. No matter if his last hit came 30 years ago, we are introduced to people around the country and the world who still identify with his songs about confronting loneliness and the sadness that comes from feeling that the odds are stacked against them. His popularity in the Philippines seems to equal that of Elvis. So, even if Kessler’s film doesn’t answer all of our questions, or his, “Still Alive” reveals an artist who gave something tangible to the world and isn’t looking for our pity. The DVD adds a half-dozen outtakes from concert footage.

The double-DVD set, “Pink: Still on Fire,” tells us everything we’ve ever wanted to know about the pop phenom named after the color of her hair … perhaps, TMI. It does so by regurgitating interviews conducted by disc jockeys, TV hosts, entertainment reporters and assorted other hacks. Most are painfully inane, but that’s how records, concert tickets and T-shirts are sold these days. On the plus side, Pink is friendlier than most other celebrities would be in similar circumstances. The second disc adds more biographical material about Her Pinkness, only this time in documentary format with testimonials from friends and associates. There’s also some performance footage, although not enough.

The 1970s “art rock” ensemble 10cc had a nice run of radio-friendly hits with “Rubber Bullets,” “The Wall Street Shuffle,” “I’m Not in Love,” “Life Is a Minestrone,” “Art for Art’s Sake” and “Dreadlock Holiday.” Members have also written songs for such groups as the Yardbirds, the Hollies and Herman’s Hermits. Naturally, when it came time to savor the fruits of their labors, the band split in two, with pop-oriented Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart going in one direction under the 10cc banner and the more experimental Kevin Godley and Lol Crème taking off on their own. Separately, the two factions would continue to produce fine music, but nothing to compare to the still highly listenable “I’m Not in Love.” The material included in the new 10cc in-concert DVD, “10cc,” covers the gamut of their career, with Godley sitting in alongside Gouldman, Rick Fenn, Paul Burgess, Mike Stevens and Mick Wilson. In addition to 17 songs attributed to 10cc, they perform “For Your Love,” “Bus Stop” and “No Milk Today.” The sound and video quality is very good,

By contrast, “Them: Mystic Eyes/Live 1965” is little more than a repackaging of a half-dozen video clips taken from television and concert appearances by Van Morrison’s band in 1965. With such hits as “Gloria,” “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Mystic Eyes” and “Here Comes the Night,” the Northern Irish blues/rock group enjoyed success on both sides of the Atlantic before dissolving the same year. What’s truly amazing is the distance Morrison would travel in the next three years, during which time he would contribute “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Astral Weeks,” one the greatest albums in any genre in the last 50 years. The quality of the videos in “Them” is very sketchy. – Gary Dretzka

SouthLAnd: The Complete Second, Third and Fourth Seasons
Using logic to assess a television network’s decisions is a fool’s game. Too many deals are cut for reasons other than the promotion of quality programming to make much sense out of any of it. If there’s anything TV executives count on, it’s the short memory of its viewers. Take TNT’s terrific cops-and-crime series, “SouthLAnd,” for example. How many people recall how NBC decided to cancel the series, even before its pre-ordained second stanza was scheduled to begin … thus facilitating its move to TNT? For that matter, how many people remember NBC’s willingness to kowtow to the recently retired Jay Leno by giving him a prime-time talk show and, when that failed, handing him the reins to “The Tonight Show,” then held by Conan O’Brien? To make room for Jay’s prime-time experiment, it cleared the 10 p.m. timeslot, forcing adult-oriented series into timeslots generally reserved for comedies. For the network, it was catastrophic. As produced by John Wells, “SouthLAnd” was as raw and gritty a cop show as has ever existed in prime-time and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as “NYPD Blue,” “The Shield” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” The crimes are brutal and the uniformed police are shown to be as flawed as they are heroic. The intention of the series wasn’t to show how crimes are solved, but what happens before the detectives show up at a crime scene on their white steeds. Renewed for a fifth season, “SouthLAnd” can boast of one the best ensemble casts and writing staffs on television. It succeeds in the shadow of higher-profile networks, star-driven series and media hype. The new multidisc set contains all 26 episodes of Seasons Two, Three and Four. It also contains unaired scenes, commentaries and a “crime map” of locations used in the show. – Gary Dretzka

The Solomon Bunch
Cartoon Network: Ben 10 Omniverse: A New Beginning
Animaniacs, Volume 4
Sesame Street: Elmo’s World: All Day With Elmo
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: On the Job!

Once again, the story behind the movie is more interesting than the movie, itself … at least, for parents of kids in the target demographic. “The Solomon Bunch” is a tale of adventure and intrigue for ’tweeners who don’t mind being fed a moral lesson with the popcorn and pop. The movie was produced by the Creekside Christian Academy, in association with Pinecrest Baptist Church, both in Georgia’s Henry County. The name, Solomon, may ring a bell to viewers conversant with the bible. After overhearing the parents of one member discuss mistakes they’ve made, the kids form a club dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom. At about the same time, a mysterious stranger appears in the rural town causing consternation among club members. Learning not to jump to conclusions and spread gossip are lessons all kids could find valuable. The movie didn’t find a theatrical distributor, but the $100,000 invested in the project by church members could pay dividends in DVD. It includes outtakes and a family activity guide.

Launched in 2006, “Ben 10” has become the biggest franchise in Cartoon Network’s history. It chronicles the adventures of 10-year-old Ben Tennyson, who uses a watch-like Omnitrix device he finds in an alien pod to transform into various alien life forms. He’ll need all the help he can muster, vending off supervillains from outer space. “Ben 10: Omniverse: A New Beginning” is the fourth sequel series spun off from the original. The setup allows us to follow Ben at ages 11 and 16, when he loses old partners and gains a Plumber named Rook. Together, they discover an underground world populated by evil aliens. The DVD includes 10 episodes from 2012 and alien “reveals” and a database.

Watching these compilations of “Steven Spielberg Presents Animanics” cartoons is like taking a crash course in animation history. The episodes contain so many witty asides, references to kindred cartoons, parodies and insider gags that adding footnotes in the bonus features might have been a very valuable tool for simultaneous reference. For example, the cartoons pay direct homage to work of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, who labored on the same lot that serves as home for the Warner siblings, Yakko, Wakko and Dot. Apparently, the trio had been locked away in the lot’s landmark water tower from the 1930s, when they were stars, to the mid-1990s, when they escaped. Not only do the Animaniacs run roughshod over the lot, but they’re also able to travel through time and leap over genre boundaries. It’s likely that kids are attracted to the sheer anarchic pace of the stories, but adults are more drawn to the intelligence and wit on display. The series began its run in 1993 on the Fox Kids schedule, moving to the Kids’ WB block from 1995-99. “Volume 4” includes contains episodes from Season Three and all of Seasons Four and Five.

If any fantasy character could benefit from an image makeover, it’s Elmo. It’s not the fault of the “little red menace,” as he’s sometimes been known on the “Sesame Street” set, that puppeteer Kevin Clash found himself in a spot of bother last fall and had to leave the show. Still, controversy tends to stick like glue to everyone attached to such a widely reported scandal and puppets aren’t immune to bad press. “Elmo’s World: All Day with Elmo” should help convince doubting parents that he’s not part of a subversive plot and deserves to be cut some slack. The segments focus on such serious duties as waking up, learning about going to school and how healthy monsters and kids can get the best exercise. Then, too, before Elmo goes to bed, he must perform such bath-time obligations as brushing his teeth. These exercises are intended to promote counting skills, self-confidence and healthy habits. Long live Elmo!

I wonder if Bubbletucky is far from Bikini Bottom. The Bubble Guppies and SpongeBob SquarePants swim in the same salty water of Nickelodeon’s ocean, but their target audiences probably are one or two steps removed from each other. It isn’t likely stoners get off much on the Guppies, either. In their second DVD iteration, “Bubble Guppies: On the Job!,” the characters go on field trips to learn about different things open to them when they mature. Among other things, they learn about construction, explore different ball games and visit a restaurant, hospital, dentist’s office and fire station. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Seven Psychopaths: Blu-ray
Before turning to film in 2005, the then-35-year-old Irish/British writer Martin McDonagh had established a solid reputation as one of the most promising playwrights of his generation. He didn’t seem to have much problem making the transition, winning an Academy Award his first time out of the gate for Best Live Action Short Film (“Six Shooter”) and, a couple of years later, by being nominated for Best Original Screenplay for “In Bruges,” which he also directed. Although “Seven Psychopaths” didn’t make the cut in any of the Oscar category, it’s a finalist for a BAFTA in the Outstanding British Film category and Independent Spirit Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell). “In Bruges” is a darkly comic crime story set in the charming Flemish city, whose history goes back to its conquest by Julius Caesar. Although his writing can stand on its own merits, “In Bruges” naturally drew comparisons to the early films of Guy Ritchie, while “Seven Psychopaths” reminded critics of Quentin Tarantino’s hyper-violent hybrids. The two movies may share many qualities, but their settings could hardly be more different. “In Bruges” takes place principally in its historic city center, where tourists are drawn to scenic canals and medieval architecture. Half of “Seven Psychopaths” is set in and around the less-touristy neighborhoods of Los Angeles and the rest takes place deep in the Mojave Desert. To go into any depth about what happens in the multi-layered black comedy would require a spoiler alert ahead of every sentence. It’s that complex … or convoluted, depending one’s tastes.

The title derives from a screenplay being written, haltingly, by a borderline Irish alcoholic, Marty (Colin Farrell). After creating the first fictional psychopath, Marty develops a nearly insurmountable block. His dog-napper pals Billy (Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken) ride to his rescue with tales of outrageous crimes carried out by serial killers and avenging angels, all of whom easily qualify as psychopaths. The pair of hooligans recently made the potentially fatal mistake of grabbing a Shih Tzu belonging to a seriously unhinged gangster, Charlie (Woody Harrelson), from his dog-walker (Gabourey Sidibe). Once apprised of the pup’s pedigree, Billy and Hans could have avoided a lot of trouble simply by returning it and apologizing, but how much fun would that be? Instead, one crime leads to another and so many lies are told in the service of Marty’s novel that, by the time the guys reach the desert, the fabrications start to double back on each other. Such madness would have been difficult to sustain if it weren’t for the presence of Harry Dean Stanton, as a razor-toting Amish looney, stalking the killer of his daughter; a rabbit-fondling nutcase, played by Tom Waits; Hans’ terminally ill African-American wife; a female serial killer who preys on serial killers; a onetime Viet Cong monk, who lost his family at My Lai; a blond Vietnamese-speaking prostitute and Ivy League graduate; and other candidates for inclusion in Marty’s manuscript. As usual, Walken’s performance alone is worth the price of a rental and Farrell proves to be a master of dark comedy. The Blu-ray adds the usual array of making-of pieces and interviews, but the real treat is the short parody, “Seven Psychocats.” – Gary Dretzka

The Tin Drum: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In an interview included in the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition of “The Tin Drum, ” Volker Schlöndorff says that the Cannes- and Academy Award-winning film was never intended merely to be an adaptation of Gunter Grass’ literary masterpiece and a home-grown vehicle for selling tickets in the Rhineland. Rather, like the novel, it would be a provocation. “Germany, to this day, is the poisoned heart of Europe,” the director wrote in his journal. “It is a country unable to mourn.” Germans born during and after the WWII were required to carry the burden of their parents’ sins and weren’t at all pleased by having to wear the stain of genocide. Ironically, in its rush to stem the red tide, the United States was partially responsible for creating an atmosphere of non-repentance. The western powers were so anxious to pre-empt the Soviet Union’s ability to encourage the spread of communism in war-torn Europe and the colonies, they went to great lengths to convince impoverished survivors that turning to Russia for help would be a mistake. The Marshall Plan not only was used to provide food and other forms of economic relief to Europeans, but its provisions demanded a general American-ization of the culture. If western Germany could rise from the ashes, it was believed, the halo effect of prosperity would be felt throughout Europe and the “free world.” As unbelievable as it sounds today, provisions of the Marshall Plan also linked levels of aid directly to the recipients’ willingness to accept imports of U.S. motion pictures, among other products. Any promotion of middle-class American values and lifestyle conceivably could stimulate American exports at large and advance ideological agendas. Before long, Germans were too busy reconstructing to waste time examining their consciences, even if they were so inclined to do so … which most weren’t.

By the early 1960s, the German cinema was barely a shadow of its former self. The loss of its greatest pre-war artists, along with the lingering effects of Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine, left the next generation of filmmakers scratching for ways to address issues pertinent to themselves and the newly industrialized Germany. The young directors and writers who signed the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962 declared that “Papa’s movies are dead,” even as audiences continued to be drawn to Hollywood fare and resources remained scarce. Almost a decade later, the German New Wave would officially arrive in the form of Schlöndorff, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Alexander Kluge, Margarethe von Trotta and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg. The movement was influenced by the Italian and French new waves, which found success doing more with less. They also looked to such American mavericks as Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, who proved that personal films could be entertaining and commercially successful. Schlöndorff’s adaptation of “The Tin Drum” would demonstrate how far things had changed on all fronts. It would go on to be the first German film to won both the Palme d’Or (shared with “Apocalypse Now”) and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The story of three generations of the Matzerath family, of the Free City of Danzig, is told through the eyes and sometimes questionable memory of Oskar, a boy born with an adult’s capacity for thoughts and perception. At 3, after falling down a flight of stairs in pursuit of a toy drum, he willed himself not to mature physically. It was his way of protesting the conformity, complacency, hypocrisy and overall mediocrity he’d witnessed from birth. His cognitive skills would continue to grow, however, and they would serve him as a weapon against those who simply judged him by his stature. He carried the tin drum wherever he went, occasionally beating it to the accompaniment of a piercing, glass-shattering shriek when deeply disturbed by the behavior of his fellow human beings. In addition to chronicling Oskar’s life, “The Tin Drum” describes how the proprietorship of Danzig and its rural environs would be disputed from the late 19th Century to war’s end. (The book continues beyond that point.) His grandmother sold turnips and potatoes in Kushubian markets, where the local tongue blended into Polish and German. Danzig (later Gdansk) would be declared a “free city” by the terms of the Versailles Treaty. In Oskar’s lifetime, its status would be contested by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Poland. Oskar’s ability to cope was further tested by an early understanding of his mother’s promiscuity; the blind acceptance of Nazism by his relatives (who would soon live to regret it); the persecution of a close Jewish friend of his mother; his own sexual maturation; and the realization that his actions had serious repercussions. Still, he found ways to survive not available to 20-year-olds of normal size. The liberties taken with Grass’ novel were overseen by the author, director and writers Jean-Claude Carriere and Franz Seitz. There’s no question, though, that David Bennett’s amazing portrayal of the man-child, Oskar, made “The Tin Drum” the unforgettable experience it became.

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition is enhanced by a newly restored high-definition digital transfer of the complete 162-minute director’s-cut version, and a re-mastered 5.1 surround soundtrack presented in DTS-HD Master Audio. It also includes a new interview with Schlöndorff about the making of “The Tin Drum” and creation of the 2010 restored version; the musings of film scholar Timothy Corrigan; a recording of author Günter Grass reading an excerpt from his novel, with musical accompaniment and corresponding footage from the film; television interview excerpts featuring Schlöndorff, Grass, actors Bennent and Mario Adorf, and cowriter Carrière; a new English subtitle translation; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Atkinson and 1978 statements by Grass about the adaptation of his novel. Some viewers will recall the clamor over scenes in which Oskar has non-graphically rendered sex with female characters his age, if not his height. One Oklahoma judge, after being shown a single out-of-context scene, demanded the removal of VHS copies from rental stores and the tracking down of renters who had one in their possession. The decision would be overturned, but the damage to the movie’s reputation among non-discerning viewers had already been done. – Gary Dretzka

The Imposter
Nominated for a BAFTA as one of the top documentaries of 2012, “The Imposter” may also be one of the year’s most chillingly effective crime thrillers. Here’s what happens: 3½ years after a 13-year-old boy disappears from a basketball court near his San Antonio home, his family receives a call from southern Spain saying that he has been found and is living in a group home there. Naturally, the working-class family is ecstatic, insisting on immediately being given access to him. What viewers already know is that the boy in question doesn’t look a bit like Nicholas Barclay and speaks in a dialect bridging Spanish and French. How do we know that? The real-life imposter, Frederic Bourdin, tells us so, upfront, from prison. He also tells us that he feared being discovered from the moment he devised the ruse – using reports on missing children he purloined from the local police station – to the moment he sat down for coffee with an old-fashioned private investigator, who could have been modeled after Wilford Brimley. The P.I. kept searching for the truth long after the family and FBI closed the book on the case. Once the family bought into the young Frenchman’s story of being kidnaped, beaten and used as a sex slave, there wasn’t much the FBI could do. After five months, Bourdin had already studied family photo albums with Nicholas’ sister and learned family history from their mother. Unless he slipped up, Bourdin was in the clear.

By now, surely, you’re wondering how the entire family of a missing person could be so delusional and/or desperate for closure. In fact, though, it’s Bourdin who provides us with the most obvious clue, which somehow eluded police, if not the P.I. Even if it’s the truth, though, the sad fact remains that the only person who served time in prison is the imposter and his crime was passport fraud and forgery. He’s since been released, convicted in other ruses and freed again. Anyone who marveled at the story behind Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” should run out and find a copy of Bart Layton’s documentary. Apparently, Bourdin had been getting away with impersonating other people – perhaps, as many as 500 — for years. To his credit, only a handful of them were teenagers previously reported missing. The thing that will haunt viewers most, beyond Bourdin’s affectless testimony before Layton’s camera, is the enduring question of what happened to Nicholas. Apparently, the only person still looking for him is investigator Charlie Parker. – Gary Dretzka

All Superheroes Must Die: Blu-ray
Misfits: Season Two
Citadel: Blu-ray
There are essentially two kinds of superhero movies: the ones that are backed by the piles of money needed to create amazing special effects and action sequences and those whose only collateral is the imagination of the filmmakers. The same applies to horror movies, although the cost-per-scare ratio has dropped markedly since special-effects software became so affordable. Absent a decent budget, the trick is to get the audience to buy into the quirkiness of the conceit almost as soon as the opening credits stop rolling, and then pray that they invest their own imaginations into the narrative, filling the larger holes themselves. While it’s impossible to guarantee the success of any movie, let alone one not backed by a multimillion-dollar marketing budget, it’s nice to know that near-misses now can find a respectable home in the straight-to-DVD market. Jason Trost, co-writer/director of “All Superheroes Must Die” (a.k.a., “Vs”), went down this same road with his crazy post-apocalyptic action flick, “FP.” In it, rival gangs fight for control of the I-5 pit-stop town of Frazier Park, settling scores with the ancient arcade game, Dance, Dance, Revolution. It’s amazing how much the Frazier Park of today resembles his dystopian Frazier Park. The sets in “All Superheroes Must Die” look as if they were built from items discarded from “Storage Wars,” while the costumes were designed by Sarah Trost, immediately before she became a contestant on “Project Runway.” As the story goes, superheroes Charge, Cutthroat, Sledgesaw and Shadow awaken one day in an abandoned town, minus their superpowers and recollections about how they got there. Archrival supervillain Rickshaw (James Remar) has brought them together to engage them in a cruel game, in which they must choose between saving themselves, their buddies or civilians strapped with bombs. Rickshaw can monitor their every move via security cameras and taunt them with threats and insults. If the fiend isn’t stopped, he’ll destroy everyone he’s captured. The idea that superheroes, relieved of their superpowers, must rely on common sense, trust, ethical resolve and cunning is sound. If the movie occasionally seems rushed and lacking in logic, it’s probably because budget restraints – it cost an estimated $20,000 to make – forced Trost to take several shortcuts.

Likewise, the bargain-basement British television series “Misfits” examines the phenomenon from the viewpoint of cut-rate superheroes. In its first episode, five young juvenile delinquents are struck by lightning while performing menial tasks in a rundown section of London in the name of community service. Its title, at least, may have been inspired from the short-lived 1985 American fantasy show, “Misfits of Science,” to which it bears a resemblance. Naturally, it takes a while for the misfits to identify their powers and, by that time, the electrical storm has impacted the lives of several other Londoners, not all of whom are heroic. In Season Two, the gang finishes its obligation to the juvenile justice system, but that doesn’t mean they’re in the clear. Even when they attempt to sell their powers, it backfires on them. That “Misfits” is a bare-bones production, with no fancy sets or CGI magic, barely matters. Its appeal largely derives from the differences between how these punky characters handle their gift, as opposed to the way most other fictional heroes do. It’s nice to find a group that isn’t obsessed with their public image and cool costumes. It should be noted that the new Season Two package represents shows that aired in 2010.

It couldn’t have cost Irish newcomer Ciaran Foy much money to make “Citadel,” either, as almost all of the sets look abandoned and about to be demolished. By comparison, Chernobyl looks hospitable. Likewise, the idea for the movie came from Foy’s own personal experiences. In the time it takes a young father-to-be to take a couple of suitcases to a cab waiting outside their high-rise apartment building, his pregnant wife is attacked by hooded thugs and left for dead in a hallway, a hypodermic needle stuck in her belly. Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) witnesses the assault through a window in the elevator, but is powerless to exit before it descends mysteriously to the first floor. The comatose woman dies after the baby is delivered safely, but Tommy is left a basket case. Although he insists on taking care of his infant daughter, he’s crippled with chronic agoraphobia and lives in mortal fear of once again encountering the feral youths. A vigilante priest tells Tommy that he’ll never be free of the gang, which now is intent on kidnaping the baby, until he overcomes his fears and confronts the hoodlums on their own turf. Like Trost, Foy was able to make the most out of the dark, dank surroundings, which would be fearsome even without the criminal element. He also was successful in using his own agoraphobia — triggered by a severe beating – to inform Barnard’s behavior. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Perfect Ending
Out in the Open 
In the tear-jerking romance, “The Perfect Ending,” an attractive middle-age woman learns almost too late what it means to fall in love with someone who isn’t interested in her solely for how she looks on his arm at social events and as the woman who’s always there when it’s time for breakfast and dinner. After going through marriage and motherhood without experiencing an orgasm, Rebecca (Barbara Niven) finally admits her shame to lesbian girlfriends who suggest an alternative. Widely believed to have been born with a stick up her ass, Rebecca reluctantly agrees to try what she’s told is a sure-fire orgasm remedy, in the form of a therapeutic session with a compassionate female prostitute. After a frustrating number of deliberate misfires, Rebecca hooks up with the much younger and genuinely stunning Paris (Jessica Clark). Voila, instant ecstasy. Back home, her prick of a husband (John Heard) continues to make Rebecca’s life miserable in ways that would have a real-life woman consulting a divorce lawyer or reaching for a butcher knife. Not surprisingly, once Paris finally lights Rebecca’s rockets, the women fall for each other in a way highly discouraged by her boss (Morgan Fairchild) and atypical in the world of hookers and tricks. Nonetheless, once the audience warms to Rebecca, most such qualms don’t matter much, if only because the sex scenes are so hot. One month removed from 60, Niven delivers the performance of her career, opening herself up emotionally and physically, and convincing us of the integrity of her character. Clark may be a bit too perfect as the prostitute … but, what the hell. Writer/director Nicole Conn is a pioneer of the new Queer Cinema, but, even so, it’s rare to see as many mainstream actors in a decidedly lesbian romance. She’s also able here to maintain a hell-no secret throughout the course of the movie’s length. The DVD’s bonus material includes deleted scenes, a photo gallery, interviews and making-of featurettes.

Documentaries and movies about real people coming out as homosexual have been a dime a dozen for at least the last two decades. Onetime child star Matthew Smith (“Real Stream”) probably was aware of this glut of titles when he set out to make “Out in the Open,” a film that updates what it means to be a member of the LGBT community in 2013. The timing is pretty good. In his second inaugural address, President Obama made a strong, if belated statement on assuring equal rights for gays, lesbians and transsexuals (etc.), and the legalization of same-sex marriages has been approved by voters in several states. Smith interweaves the testimonies of actors, celebrities, politicians, clergy and average Americans with snippets of a mock PSA decrying homosexuality and telling viewers how to identify gay and lesbian traits in themselves. The film is targeted at teenagers, as well as their parents and teachers, who may be wrestling with the same identity issues as those people we meet in the film. It also addresses problems associated with bullying, name-calling and stereotyping. Among the people interviewed are Eric and Eliza Roberts, Eliza’s son Keaton Simons, Carson Kressley, Josh Strickland, Greg Louganis, Cassandra Church and poker pro Vanessa Selbst. If many of the coming-out stories are sad, the overall tone of “Out in the Open” is uplifting, revelatory and frequently humorous. – Gary Dretzka

Tales of the Night: Blu-ray
The best way to describe “Tales of the Night” to someone who isn’t remotely familiar with the work of French animator Michel Ocelot (“Kirikou and the Sorceress,” “Azur & Asmar”) is to compare Julie Taymor’s stage version of “The Lion King” to the original Disney feature. One of the amazing things about the Broadway musical is the deployment of puppets, masks and silhouettes against a brilliantly sunlit background, in addition to the actors and dancers. In the six fables that comprise Ocelot’s “Tales of the Night” silhouetted characters – human, animal and mythical – perform before brilliantly colored backgrounds with intriguing patterns. Ocelot used a computer to tell the stories here, but he prefers to work in paper and that’s the effect he got. He also employs a computer as a narrative device. An illustrator uses it to demonstrate to a pair of actors how they might inform the look of the characters they play in a separate project. The locales include a medieval European realm in which humans interact with werewolves and humans turn into deer; a Caribbean island; Africa; Tibet; and an Aztec capital. It’s marvelously entertaining and, in Blu-ray, a supreme test of your home-theater system. It also adds an interview with Ocelot and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

The Love Section
There aren’t many options open for people of color to see movies in which characters date and marry people who look like them, laugh at the same things they do, listen to the same music and hold meaningful jobs. Broadcast television networks aren’t built to accommodate such niche programming any longer, no matter how successful Tyler Perry may be, and diverse casting has become so formulaic as to be laughable. It isn’t as if such movies as “Why Did I Get Married Too?,” “Jump the Broom” and “Think Like a Man” don’t make money in theaters, because they do. Ronnie Warner and Lawrence B. Adisa’s romantic comedy “The Love Section” isn’t quite in the same league as those titles, let alone “Waiting to Exhale” or “Stella Got Her Groove Back,” but it has a lot of nice things going for it. Among other things, the cast is full of attractive men and women, who look good in business suits and lingerie, and they have good jobs that don’t require wearing Nikes and jockstraps to work. The old-school R&B soundtrack is a real pleasure to hear, as well. The stereotypes are kept to a minimum and, unlike the adaptations of stage plays adapted for TV, there’s no laugh track to tell us when to laugh or spiritual time outs. Lawrence Adisa plays Ali, a struggling real estate agent and ladies’ man who has resisted commitment of any kind. No sooner has this much been established than Ali falls for Sandrine (Davetta Sherwood), a hard-working single mother who wouldn’t mind a bit of commitment in her life. Typically, Ali begins to listen to friends, who cause him to doubt his own best instincts. It isn’t until a real-estate mogul (Mekhi Phifer) enters the picture that Ali begins to take over his own life that real decisions have to be made. Among the supporting cast are Brian Hooks, Kellita Smith, Omar Benson Miller, Teyana Taylor and Elijah Long. – Gary Dretzka

How Green Was My Valley: Blu-ray
Gentleman’s Agreement: Blu-ray
Wild River: Blu-ray
Although John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” is an inarguably great movie and was among the first 50 titles inducted into the National Film Registry, its place in history still stumps people foolish enough to bet on trivial Hollywood pursuits. Among other things, it is the answer to the question, “Which 1941 movie defeated ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ ‘Sergeant York,’ ‘The Little Foxes,’ ‘Here Comes Mr. Jordan,’ ‘Suspicion’ and three other films in the race for Best Picture?,” while Ford’s name answers the question, “Which director took home the Oscar that year, beating Orson Welles, William Wyler, Howard Hawks and Alexander Hall?” You can learn a lot more about Ford and fellow nominee Philip Dunne’s adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s novel by listening to the commentary track and “Hollywood Backstory” featurette on the new Blu-ray edition of “How Green Was My Valley.” Told from the perspective of 10-year-old Huw Morgan (“Master Roddy McDowall”), it’s the still-topical story of a family torn apart by the prospect of a potentially crippling strike at a Welsh coal mine. Huw’s father (Donald Crisp) refuses to join any such action, believing that the mine owner wouldn’t do anything to hurt the livelihoods of his employees. His older sons, however, have personally been affected by the influx of laborers, including children, willing to work at much lower wages. Huw also describes the failed romance between his sister (Maureen O’Hara) and the local preacher (Walter Pidgeon); the scattering of his older brothers into the Welsh diaspora; the trials he faced as a coal-miner’s son in a school populated by elitist bullies; unexpected deaths in the family; and his inner struggle over the benefits of continuing his education or following his elders into the mines. The Fox Blu-ray edition sounds great and looks spectacular, even in black and white. (Arthur C. Miller took Oscar honors over “Citizen Kane” cinematographer Gregg Toland.) There’s a fascinating story behind the decision to shoot B&W, as well as Daryl Zanuck’s efforts to keep “How Green Was My Valley” from being overtly pro-union.

Also new to Blu-ray from Fox are Elia Kazan’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) and “Wild River” (1960), both of which were highly topical at the time of their release, but feel like cultural artifacts today. I wonder how many potential viewers, drawn to Kazan’s name on the jacket, know that the deeply entrenched, almost institutional anti-Semitism described in “Gentleman’s Agreement” actually was a problem in America, especially considering what we knew about Hitler’s death camps. In it, a single magazine reporter, Philip Green (Gregory Peck), moves to New York from California, in the company of his young son (Dean Stockwell), and is asked to come up with a story angle on the subject.  Knowing that anti-Semitism is practiced among New York’s elite is different from proving it, however. Green’s idea is to impersonate a Jewish writer who is attempting to accomplish the same things as he is upon landing in the city. This includes pursuing permanent employment, finding a place to live, reserving a room in a hotel or planning a honeymoon. So-called gentleman’s agreements and exclusionary covenants accomplished in the North what decades of segregation had in the South, only in far less obvious way. Because it’s set among the moneyed and professional classes of New York, the anti-Semitism often is cloaked in codes and protocol. Indeed, the reporter’s wealthy fiancée (Dorothy McGuire) is an avowed liberal who doesn’t even know when she’s being offensive or accommodating the bigotry of relatives and neighbors. The more the reporter grills her and challenges her assumptions, the further a divide grows between them. The movie, which was adapted from a novel by Laura Z. Hobson by Moss Hart, became a big hit before being awarded Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. It arrives with commentary, an “AMC Backstory” and newsreel footage from the premiere.

Elia Kazan’s “Wild River” may not have been accorded the same accolades as previous titles in his canon, but it’s stood up to close critical scrutiny over the years and now is considered one of his classics. (It joined the National Film Registry in 2002.) The story, adapted from the writings of William Bradford Huie, describes a standoff between an elderly woman (Jo Van Fleet) and a TVA field administrator (Montgomery Clift) over the disposition of her island home, even as the dammed waters of the Tennessee River begin to rise. The New Deal initiative is designed to bring much-needed flood relief, electricity and jobs to the region, but the woman cares more about individual liberty and family tradition than bringing light bulbs to the blind. As long as her dead husband is resting there, she’s staying. The question of racial inequality in the rural South also rears its ugly head when the TVA interloper hires black workers at the same wages as those provided whites. In the early 1930s, this wasn’t something the local rednecks – some of whom appear in the movie — would accept. Lee Remick plays the obstinate landowner’s widowed daughter, with two children and an urge to leave the island. Naturally, Remick and Clift’s characters fall for each other, further complicating his mission. Kazan shot “Wild River” in color to take advantage of the natural Tennessee setting and it looks great in Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: More Than a Month
March On!: The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World
Stone Soup … and Other Stories From the Asian Tradition
In “More Than a Month,” Shukree Hassan Tilghman asks a couple of timely questions: if America actually has become a “post-racial” society, as some learned folks argue, has Black History Month outlived its usefulness, and, if so, should it be abolished? In soliciting the opinions of his fellow New Yorkers, he wore a sandwich board with “End Black History Month” printed on the front of the sign and “Black History Is American History” on the back. The responses he received were inconclusive, so he began asking African-American scholars, activists, historians and, even, a group of Civil War enactors how they felt about the relevancy of Black History Month. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the blacks with whom he spoke argued persuasively that ending it could backfire on those who swallowed the “post-racial” bait hook, line and sinker. Indeed, the weekend warriors he met in Virginia suggested replacing it with a Confederate History Month. Tilghman’s questions are legitimate, certainly. In the best of all possible Americas, the histories and contributions of all citizens already would be incorporated into the curriculum of all our schools and children would grow up knowing that no race, nationality or gender held a monopoly on intelligence, talent or courage. In the worst of all possible Americas, however, a February without purpose would pass in the same way as it always had before Black History Month was instituted, except that the text books would have been re-written to reflect the viewpoints of pinhead politicians and televangelists. This already happens in Texas, a state that demands rewrites of more textbooks than any other. Given the economy, once school boards stopped giving lip service to African-American history, at least, they could stop pretending they gave a crap about Native Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and women, too. By the time Tilghman returned home to the liberal bubble that is New York, it seems as if he had rethought his previous position and was left without a clear answer to his questions. The difference is that Tilghman was having more fun debating the issue when he thought he was right.

One good way to expose children to the benefits of diversity and contributions of people of different backgrounds is to provide them with entertainment and “edutainment” options that are inclusive when it comes to race, gender and ethnicity. From Scholastic Storybook Treasures comes a compilation of DVD read-alongs, including “March On!: The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World” In the title track,

Dr. Christine King Farris recalls the early influences that caused Martin Luther King Jr. to evolve into the great orator and activist he became. It also goes behind the scenes as her brother prepared for the March on Washington and one of the most important speeches in American history. It is illustrated by London Ladd and narrated by Lynn Whitfield. Also included in the package are “Martin’s Big Words,” which uses quotes from Dr. King to paint a picture of the man and his dreams (written by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier, narrated by Michael Clarke Duncan). “Rosa” describes how the uncommon bravery of a single Montgomery bus rider, Rosa Parks, led to one of most significant victories in the early days of the civil-rights movement (written and narrated by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by Bryan Collier). “Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story From the Underground Railroad” tells the story of a young slave who literally mails himself to freedom (written by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, narrated by Jerry Dixon). The DVD adds interviews with Christine King Farris and Ellen Levine.

Another timely offering from Scholastic Storybook Treasures is “Stone Soup … and Other Stories From the Asian Tradition,” which should be of interest to kids curious about Chinese culture, especially as we enter the Year of the Snake. The read-along stories include “Stone Soup,” “The Five Chinese Brothers,” “Lon Po Po” and “Stonecutter.” Also included is an interview with author/illustrator Jon J. Muth. – Gary Dretzka

Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey Season 3
Cinemax: Femme Fatales: The Complete First Season
PBS: The Mighty Mississippi
Thank goodness for Shirley MacLaine. Just when the Earl of Grantham, Dowager Countess of Grantham and crabby Mr. Carson were beginning to wear on me, even in early hours of Season Three of “Downton Abbey,” relief arrived in the form of MacLaine’s filthy-rich American intruder, Martha Levinson, to burst their balloons. Levinson is the mother of Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), the countess of Grantham and soon to be the mother of the bride at the stately marriage of Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) and distant cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). Before that can happen, however, the Earl (Hugh Bonneville) is required to tell his wife that he’s squandered her fortune on a risky business transaction and Downton Abbey may be lost to them. Worse, perhaps, runaway daughter Lady Sybil Crawley has unexpectedly arrived from Ireland with her commoner husband, Tom Branson, the family’s former chauffer, whose mere presence is treated as an affront to the Earl, his mother (Maggie Smith) and Mr. Carson (Jim Carter). Meanwhile, Bates is cooling his heels in jail, waiting for his bride, Anna, to solve the mystery of his former wife’s death. Wait, there’s more. By now, fans of the “Masterpiece Classic” soap opera relish the constant upheavals at Downton Abbey, which include the introduction of new characters and greater intrigues. The fate of the estate will consume most of the next seven hours of Season 3, as well as that of Bates and the family’s link to the Irish Revolution. Tragedy strikes and controversy ensues. The DVD and Blu-ray package adds the season-ending Christmas Special, “A Journey to the Highlands” and featurettes “Downton Abbey: Behind the Drama,” “Shirley MacLaine at Downton,” “The Men of Downton” and “Downton in 1920.”

Among the things that haven’t evolved in the sexy anthology shows that have followed in the wake of “Red Shoes Diaries” on premium cable networks: women characters still haven’t embraced pantyhose, preferring stockings and garter belts; most of the actresses’ breasts were surgically enhanced at puberty; like Barbie and Ken, pubic hair and genitalia are conspicuously missing; all strippers resemble moonlighting supermodels; and prostitutes who could command $1,000 an hour in Las Vegas pound the streets of Los Angeles, instead. The same absurd clichés apply to Cinemax’s “Femme Fatales,” in which top-shelf women outfox, outsmart, out-screw and generally out-everything every male in their nefarious orbits, and they do so in their britches. As created by Steven Kriozere and Mark Altman (“Necessary Roughness,” “Castle”), “Femme Fatales” differentiates itself from other soft-core anthology series by incorporating the sex into the plots of half-hour stories, which are inspired by pulp fiction, film noir and graphic novels. Each episode offers some humor, at least, to go with the obviously staged violence and ironic twists at the end of each week’s offering. The series may not be in the same league as “Twilight Zone” and other anthologies, but, for fans of such things, it’s rarely less than watchable and the sex tends to support the stories, instead of the other way around. It arrives with commentary tracks for every episode, deleted and alternate scenes, background and making-of material, an “anatomy of a sex scene,” isolated music tracks, a blooper reel and panel discussion from San Diego Comic-Con.

British news reader and wandering reporter Sir Trevor McDonald isn’t the first journalist to survey the Mississippi River in search of the ever-beating and occasionally dark heart of America and he certainly won’t be the last. Such ambitious treks have become a staple of travel-obsessed shows on cable television outlets, but the Mississippi seems to hold a special fascination for foreigners. Americans tend to take the Big Muddy for granted, at least until its waters rise to flood tide and the media race to cover the destruction. McDonald traverses the Mississippi’s 2,500-mile length from south to north, making the usual stops along the way. While in Memphis, for example, he spends time at Sun Studios, Beale Street, the Lorraine Hotel, the auditorium where Martin Luther King gave his last speech, a penthouse apartment overlooking the river and the B&B now run by one of Elvis’ earliest and most photographed girlfriends. McDonald is especially drawn to the river’s connection to popular culture and the aspirations of everyday Americans. If “The Mighty Mississippi” is a tad more eloquent than previous mini-series, the credit belongs to the Trinidadian-British journalist, who became the first black news reader in England and enjoyed a career that lasted from the early 1960s to 2008. My only quibble is that the splendid cinematography that graces the 140-minute mini-series hasn’t been translated into Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka

Madly Madagascar
Nickelodeon: Rootin’ Tootin’ Wild West
Young followers of DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” franchise should get a big Valentine’s Day kick out of the appetizer-portion cartoon, “Madly Madagascar.” Some of them might notice that it arrives out of sequence, before the penguins left for Monte Carlo. This doesn’t make the movie less charming, but it could be confusing to hardcore fans. Here, Alex (Ben Stiller) recalls how much he enjoyed the holiday back at the zoo, where kids showered him with cards and other heart-shaped goodies. The zebra, Marty (Chris Rock), discovers that the only way he can get the attention of a hot okapi lassie is to apply a love potion that miraculously fell from the sky one day. Melman, Gloria, Julien, Skipper and his bobble-head wife also find love in all the weird places. The 28-minute cartoon comes with two other animated shorts, featuring DreamWorks characters.

I don’t know if there’s a national holiday dedicated to cowboys, but, if there were, the latest compilation of cartoons from Nickelodeon would be the appropriate gift for pre-schoolers. “Nickelodeon Favorites: Rootin’ Tootin’ Wild West” is comprised of western-themed stories from the series “Bubble Guppies,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Dora the Explorer,” “The Fresh Beat Band,” “Go, Diego, Go!”  and “The Wonder Pets!” It’s a Walmart exclusive from Paramount. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrap

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Ivan’s Childhood: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Pina: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
One of the cinema’s greatest artists, poets and dreamers, Andrei Tarkovsky made “Ivan’s Childhood” in the early 1960s, during the 13-year “thaw” that followed the death of Stalin. During that fleeting period, Soviet filmmakers enjoyed considerably more freedom from censorship and ideological restrictions than had been allowed for several decades. It wouldn’t last, but from the window emerged several important works and filmmakers. Tarkovsky’s debut was unlike any war movie anyone outside the Eastern bloc nations was likely to make or could be made before the thaw. It focused on the youngest victims of the war. Instead of heralding individual heroism or the triumphs of great armies, “Ivan’s Childhood” told a far more personal story, one that didn’t conform to traditional form or rules passed down from one generation of filmmakers to the next. It did, however, reflect an awareness of the movies that were being made in western European states. It opens pre-war, in an idyllic pastoral setting, with a young towheaded boy and his mother drawing water from a well. That scene shifts abruptly to wintertime, during the war, as Red Army troops are preparing to advance on a German position across a wide river. The boy we met is preparing to cross the river from the German side, on his way to a Soviet bunker. Once there, the nearly delirious Ivan demands that the officer in charge contact one of his superiors. The headstrong boy has been acting as a spy from behind enemy lines, but, his direct supervisor believes it’s now time for him to come in from the cold and attend officer’s training school. That is something he won’t do, however. Having already lost his parents, Ivan won’t be deterred from continuing the task at hand, however dangerous. In the kind of the movie favored by proponents of the Socialist-realism school, Ivan’s story would have been told not with ellipses, flashbacks and memory shards, but as matter-of-factly as possible, with all of the boy’s courageous actions explained by dedication to the Soviet people and Communist Party. In fact, the movie ends in a way similar to how it began. The death of his mother and sister at the hands of an unseen gunman is all the motivation Ivan would need to hate the Germans and live or die depriving them of victory.

The Great Patriotic War on the eastern front was unique to anything else that was happening in World War II and its impact on civilians was unprecedented. Ask the Poles and they’ll tell you that both sides were guilty of horrendous crimes in the names of political ideology, military expediency, expansionist policies and ethnic divisions. In Tarkovsky’s story, the capitals of the opposing forces feel much further removed from the fronts than in similar movies. Until the very end of it, in fact, the Germans are largely invisible, while the Red Army soldiers and officers could have been drawn by Samuel Fuller. Although “Ivan’s Childhood” was adapted from a 1957 short story by Vladimir Bogomolov, Tarkovsky invested in Ivan many of his own personal qualities and memories from his own upbringing, including imagery inspired by his father’s poetry. “Ivan’s Childhood” would be awarded the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and become a commercial hit in the USSR. His next feature would be “Andrei Rublev.” Now considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time, it would be tortured by Soviet censors and the demands of distributors, near and far away, until the full 205-minute version was released by Criterion Collection in the mid-1990s. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of “Ivan’s Childhood” looks and sounds amazing. It adds, as well, the featurette “Life as a Dream,” with historian Vida T. Johnson; interviews with actor Nikolai Burlyaev and cinematographer Vadim Yusov; and an illustrated booklet with an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova and “Between Two Films,” Tarkovsky’s essay on “Ivan’s Childhood.” There, too, can be found “Ivan’s Willow,” the poem by his father, Arseny Tarkovsky.

Also from Criterion, the 3D documentary “Pina” began as a collaboration between German filmmaker Wim Wenders and choreographer Pina Bausch, in part to test how stereoscopic technology and modern dance could bring out the best in each other. Sadly, Bausch died of cancer only five days after diagnosis, and two days before shooting was to begin. When completed two years later, “Pina” stood as a loving homage to Bausch’s memory and a brilliantly realized review of her influential works. Wenders said he was inclined not to continue with preparations for the movie, but the dancers in her company asked him to go ahead with it. They had, after all, performed the pieces already and knew precisely what Bausch intended them to be. One needn’t be conversant with her work and the current state of modern dance to be deeply moved by the performances. Fortunately, one needn’t invest in a 3D television and Blu-ray 3D player in order to enjoy “Pina.” Even in hi-def 2D, it stands out as one of the most remarkably beautiful releases in the format and, thanks to Wenders’ command of the technology, as fine a dance movie as has ever been made. His strategically placed cameras nimbly capture Bausch’s trademark moves, gestures and contrasts. Dancers perform elegantly, against a background of buses, elevated trains and construction sites. A hippopotamus sidles up to a dancer on a rock in a river. Artistic tension derives from the convergence of such variables as gender archetypes, love and pain, beauty and beasts, blandness and sensuality. The colors in the stage backdrops often stand in stark contrast to costumes of the men and women in the foreground. Bausch was known, as well, for including such elemental influences as earth, water, stone and gravity in her “dance theater.” Indeed, “Vollmond” seems to combine elements of Cirque du Soleil’s “O” and Gene Kelly’s “Singing in the Rain.” The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes, Wenders’ commentary, an interview with the director, behind-the-scenes footage and a booklet with novelist Siri Hustvedt, reprinted pieces by Wenders and choreographer Pina Bausch, information on the dances featured in the film and portraits of the dancers. – Gary Dretzka

Searching for Sugar Man: Blu-ray
Once upon a time in Detroit, the early-1970s to be exact, a singer-songwriter recorded two Dylanesque albums, then disappeared from the face of the Earth. Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” tells us the rest of the story. Apparently, the only two places on the planet that Rodriguez – son of Mexican immigrant and Native American parents — was popular were South Africa and Australia, where his bootlegged music was received as if it were the voice of God. Legend had it that Rodriguez was so despondent over lack of recognition that he committed on stage, either by setting himself on fire, purposely overdosing or blowing his brains out. For the better part of three decades, that’s all anyone knew or thought they knew about the musician, who favored shoulder-length black hair and ever-present shades. Thirty years later, the ever-expanding Internet allowed fans and journalists to pursue the truth. Cape Town devotees Stephen Segerman and Craig Strydom began their search by attempting to trace royalties paid to Sussex Records, which, at the time, was owned by a former Motown executive. He also found producers who worked with Rodriguez, but had no idea where he was or that his music was popular, anywhere. Bendjelloul’s became interested in their quest while scouting stories for Swedish television in Africa. What, then, was the truth?

Don’t look for an answer in this capsule review, because the seeds of good mysteries only reveal themselves gradually. To me, anyway, the wonderful thing about “Searching for Sugar Man” is that, like “Hard Core Logo” and “”Last Days Here” – only one of which is factual – it works fine as non-fiction and faux documentary. It’s an amazing story either way and Bendjelloul maintains the mystery for a surprisingly long time. Blessedly, Rodriguez’ folk-inflected music is actually very good. “Searching for Sugar Man” also adds another chapter to the growing inventory of amazing stories about post-war Detroit, which also plays a supporting role in the documentary. I won’t go into too much detail about the Blu-ray extras, either, as they easily could be construed as spoilers. They include commentary, a making-of piece and festival Q&A with the principles. – Gary Dretzka

About Cherry: Blu-ray
Despite the fact that the pornography industry is experiencing a bit of a recession, it remains one of the few businesses today in which a young man or woman can find work and make money according to their ability to get the pwerform. More than any other enterprise, there are niches to be filled that run the gamut from “pixie” to obese, barely legal to very old, straight to transgender, lap dancing to prostitution. It’s the dirty little secret of the American economy and has been for nearly 40 years. That it also can be one of the cruelest and most personally degrading ways to make money has also been well documented. The way Hollywood has characterized the sex industry and its practitioners has changed, as well. Writer/director Paul Schrader’s esteemed body of work began, in part, with such moralistic dramas as “Hard Core,” “Taxi Driver” and “American Gigolo.” His latest picture, the erotic neo-noir thriller “Canyons,” written by Bret Easton Ellis, stars Lindsey Lohan and the hugely successful porn star, James Deen. The gossip emerging from the shoot, including a frequently quoted New York Times piece, is reminiscent of the reports that emerged about Marilyn Monroe in her final productions. In another example of the mainstreaming of adult industry, one of the Lifetime network’s biggest hits, “The Client List,” concerns a financially troubled Texas mom who provides for her two children by giving “happy endings” – in a decidedly PG-13 sort of way — for clients of a local spa.

About Cherry” is a movie about a pretty small-town blond, 18-year-old Angelica (Ashley Hinshaw), who gets introduced to the adult industry after her boyfriend convinces her to have naughty pictures taken for a premium website. The money’s better than what she makes at a laundry and she’s justifiably proud of her body, so the promise of a few hundred dollars a session is hard to reject. Neither does the opportunity to escape to San Francisco, far from her alcoholic mother and brutal stepfather, require much soul-searching. Once there, she works her way up from waitress at a “gentleman’s club” to a model for a streaming-video site. At first, she limits herself to masturbating for the pay-by-the-minute punters. Soon, though, she graduates to girl-girl, boy-girl and girl-girl-boy. While delivering cocktails, she began dating a handsome, if cocaine-addicted young lawyer, Francis (James Franco). He introduces her to the city’s high-end cultural scene, but freaks out when she goes for the big money that comes with hard-core porn. Soured by that relationship, Angelica (a.k.a., Cherry) allows herself to be seduced by a sweet, slightly older lesbian photographer (Heather Graham), who also has a taste for pretty young things. As written by fetish actor Lorelei Lee, the porn industry almost looks as safe as milk. It’s the predators and parasites who make it ugly. Angelica isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but she has a world-class body and a bright personality. We like her and accept that the photographer is a decent sort, as well.

“About Cherry” might have been easier to recommend if only novelist-turned-filmmaker Steven Elliott (“The Adderall Diaries”) had a knack for the things that make movies different than books. Given the need to include enough sex to maintain the interest of young viewers already conditioned to the 24/7 availability of soft- and hard-core porn, Elliott was required to cut back on the development of the supporting characters. Dev Patel plays Andrew, the sexually ambiguous friend who escorts Angelica to San Francisco. They agree to share a two-bedroom apartment with an out-gay man and, out of necessity, sleep in the same bed. While she’s out waitressing, Andrew begins to hit the nightclub scene with their roommate. Although we’re led to believe that he’s taken to being gay like a duck takes to water, he’s actually carrying a torch for Angelica. Like her, viewers fully comprehend the impossibility of any kind of sexual relationship between the two friends and resent the idea he would risk a perfectly good friendship for a few seconds of bliss. Francis also hates having to share his girlfriend with anonymous porn partners. As long as the sex was girl-girl, things were fine for the lawyer. Instead of wasting time in the courtroom, he lets the cocaine tell him what to do, which is treat Angelica as if she were a football at the Super Bowl. The men in “About Cherry” would make any women consider going girl-girl in real life. Other key characters are similarly inconsistent in their treatment of Angelica. Technically, “About Cherry” looks pretty good in Blu-ray and the sex scenes in the studio seem credible. As it is, though, the movie comes off more as a recruitment poster for the adult industry than a straight drama. If it weren’t for the occasional nudity and crude language, “About Cherry” could follow “The Client List” on the Lifetime schedule. – Gary Dretzka

Dead Sushi: Blu-ray
Not having seen “Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead,” “The Machine Girl” and “RoboGeisha,” I couldn’t say with any credibility where “Dead Sushi” fits in writer/director Noboru Iguchi’s oeuvre, or, even, if such word applies to the delightfully trashy horror/gore/action movies he’s made. Iguchi compares “Dead Sushi” to “Piranha 3D” and “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” in that it marries the when-animals-attack subgenre to the when-food-attack sub-subgenre. In several wonderfully insane ways, it even out-Tromas Troma. Black-belt actress Rina Takeda plays the daughter of a legendary sushi chef and karate master, who insults her by saying she’ll never make it as a chef. His admonishment causes her to run away from home and seek work as a waitress/maid at a rural inn. Although Keiko isn’t cut out for hustling trays of food from the kitchen to the private chambers of VIP patrons, either, she desperately wants to fit in with everyone there. One day, the pompous boss and ass-kissing employees of a major Japanese pharmaceutical firm gather at the inn for a retreat. A disgruntled former researcher has followed them with the intention of ruining their party. As part of an evening’s entertainment, the hosts have invited another well-known sushi chef to prepare dinner and explain preparation techniques. Chaos ensues after the boss and nearly all of his employees berate the chef for including an egg sushi creation with the seafood dishes. A single dissenting employee risks his livelihood by defending the chef, as does Keiko. For a servant, of course, disobedience is strictly forbidden. Her knowledge of sushi does raise eyebrows, though.

Unbeknownst to the diners, the fired researcher has applied a chemical toxin to the fish that’s been served. It reanimates the sashimi, causing the bite-sized morsels to grow teeth of their own and attack the guests when they bite into it. Apparently, the sushi is offended by such insults as being served on the bodies of two women wearing only bras and panties, and, yes, including the egg sushi on the menu. The attacks, especially one by a full-size squid, are as hilarious as they are ridiculous. Not only does the sashimi bite back, but it also is capable of regenerating itself, reproducing at warp speed and flying around the restaurant seeking new targets. It’s up to Keiko to combine her food-preparation training with her martial arts skills to rescue everyone worth saving at the inn. Her only ally among the killers is, of course, the maligned egg sushi. It’s pretty nuts. Yoshihiro Nishimura’s special makeup effects are consistently entertaining, even when the dialogue and acting begin to fade and the story stops making any sense at all. Cognizant of this, as well, Igochi throws in a completely gratuitous, if welcome nude shower scene and an extended karate catfight between Keiko and the boss’ arrogant secretary. The Blu-ray extras include interviews, a making-of featurette, an introduction at the Montreal Fantasia Festival and scenes from an “extreme” sushi-eating contest. – Gary Dretzka

Hard Romantiker
Jackie Chan: Crime Story/The Protector: Blu-ray
Admirers of gritty and often very violent Japanese genre films from the 1960-70s should find a lot to like in Gu Su-yeon’s autobiographical crime story, “Hard Romanticker.” It combines elements of both the “youth violence” and yakuza subgenres in a tightly wrapped package that doesn’t take shortcuts, simply because expectations aren’t necessarily that high for action films. Indeed, “Hard Romanticker” looks as different from the grainy Japanese genre flicks of yore as “Rebel Without a Cause” did from the micro-budget juvenile-delinquent and teens-ploitation movies being churned out by Roger Corman, AIP and Allied Artists. Here, the popular TV actor Shota Matsuda plays the bleach-blond Korean-Japanese hoodlum, Gu, who goes through life with a cool, detached demeanor that immediately recalls James Dean. He lives in the dead-end slums of the western port city of Shimonoseki, headquarters of the Goda-ikka yakuza syndicate. Gu inadvertently becomes the target of a rival Korean gang, after his associates accidently kill the grandmother of one of its leaders. A loner by nature, Gu further causes problems for himself when he comes between a gang member and the glue-sniffing girl he’s groping. He’s less interested in stopping the rape than beating the tar out of the punks for their arrogance. If the rival gangs weren’t enough trouble, Gu also is being harassed for information by a local police detective.

Just as Gu begins to feel the heat, he’s recruited to manage a yakuza-owned hostess nightclub in a different city. It offers him a steady income and the usual respect accorded gangsters in the high-crime areas. As if he’s acting on a death wish, however, Gu returns to Shimonoseki when he’s apprised of attacks on friends of his. His unexpected presence causes local thugs to go into a feeding frenzy. It also allows Su-yeon to stage a wild chase across the rooftops of a densely populated slum and a pair of wild fights between Gu and his enemies. The clashes aren’t of the martial-arts variety, in which viewers could expect the protagonist to escape unscathed after being surrounded by several dozen punks. The violence here is conducted the old-fashioned way, with knives, iron bars, fists and whatever else is lying around. As exciting as “Romanticker” frequently is, however, potential viewers should know that the violence against women is even worse than that between gang members. I’m not inclined to label it gratuitous, because such behavior might be common in Japanese thug culture, as Su-yeon experienced it. The brutality is extremely troubling, however. The DVD comes with a 12-page booklet that includes an essay on the movie, a study of Toei Studios’ yakuza films and a gallery of original Toei posters.

Shout! Factory’s double-feature package of “Crime Story” and “The Protector” shows off Jackie Chan’s skills at what some observers sensed was the beginning of the end of his acting career. He had only recently come to the attention of American audiences, but it wouldn’t take long from them to expect the same self-deprecating humor, amazing stunts and wild kung-fu action his Hong Kong fans admired. Chan was 38 when he made “Crime Story,” a thriller based on the real story of millionaire Teddy Wang, who was kidnapped twice, surviving only once. Chan campaigned for the assignment to establish that he could act in serious roles when his action career began to wane. Under the direction of Kirk Wong, the story was told in a straight-forward fashion with a dark edge and an indictment against police corruption. Very late in the production process, Chan became concerned that “Crime Story” might damage his image more than help it, especially in his character’s reliance on guns to solve crime instead of fists and feet. Against Wong’s wishes, Chan took control of the editing to lighten things up a tad. He added scenes showing off his ability to escape death, using trademark acrobatics and nimble footwork. Still, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Released eight years earlier, after Chan had been introduced to American audiences in the “Cannonball” comedies, “The Protector” also involves a kidnapping. This time, the victim is the daughter of a New York gangster who’s been kidnapped by a former associate, a Chinese druglord. Chan plays a NYPD cop who travels to Hong Kong with Danny Aiello to get to the bottom of things. This time, though, there’s plenty of action and mayhem in the style for which Chan was famous. It also features martial-arts stars Moon Lee and Roy Chiao. The optional Chan-approved cut adds even more action. The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes, original trailers, an interview writer/director James Glickenhaus and featurettes on the New York locations used in “The Protector,” and other making-of material. There’s also an interview with Wong on the changes made to “Crime Story.” – Gary Dretzka

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai: Blu-ray
If Japanese auteur Takashi Miike is known at all in the United States, it’s for his 1999 torture-porn epics “Audition” and “Ichi the Killer.” To describe his movies as merely being transgressive hardly does them justice. They are nightmares waiting to be dreamt. In addition to his revenge and torture flicks, his cinematic provocations also have included titles that are simply ultraviolent and sexually perverse. One of the most prolific filmmakers in the world, he doesn’t limit himself to horror, though. For example, after completing the more-or-less traditional samurai remakes, “13 Assassins” and “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai,” he immediately embarked on something called “Ninja Kids!!!” Nearly the entire last hour of “13 Assassins” is reserved for a savage battle between forces loyal to a feudal lord and samurai dedicated to taking him out. Apart from being made for viewing in 3D, “Hara-Kiri” takes a more formal approach to storytelling. Its primary set is elegant and the fighters, for the most part, are restrained. The disconnect that comes from watching this classically constructed motion picture, knowing it isn’t representative of Miike’s non-period work is palpable.

Miike’s remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 “Harakiri” looks very much like the original, except for the color cinematography and 3D format (not yet available on Blu-ray). Once again, a mysterious samurai arrives at the gates of the estate of a feudal lord, requesting he be allowed an honorable death in his courtyard. Because of the brutal economy and consolidation of power, in the absence of war, ronin have been left with nothing to do and no way to make money. Before the warrior is allowed to impale himself on his sword, however, he must listen to what happened to the last such visitor. That man asked the same favor of the lord, but probably would have settled for a job or handout. Instead, the resident samurai called his bluff, forcing him to take his life in an extremely cruel way. The new visitor asks the lord if he could tell him a story, as well, before dying. It turns out to be the backstory of the man who died such a miserable death in the same courtyard. In its telling, he calls into question the honor of the lord and the absurdity of honoring the Bushido code, over the life of a honorable man seeking help. Ebizo Ichikawa gives a remarkable performance as the second ronin, and his story could hardly be more tragic. There is some swordplay and fighting in Miike’s version, but nothing comparable to his previous works. It is an exceedingly satisfying experience, though. The Blu-ray adds a short discussion with Geoffrey Gilmore from Tribeca Film. – Gary Dretzka

Tai Chi Zero: Blu-ray
Every week’s mail seems to bring another marvelously conceived historical epic from China on Blu-ray. Most are as historically accurate as possible, given the distance between the events being portrayed and conditions in the post-Mao People’s Republic. Others are based on myths or legend, requiring some sort of special-effects magic to enhance the experience. A very few, such as “Kung Fu Hustle” and “The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman” tweak an historical period, trend or person to the point where the movie is a hybrid of fantasy, parody and fact. “Tai Chi Zero” is one of those movies. At its most basic level, it tells a martial-arts story from the early 20th Century, when foreign investors were competing to exploit the Qing Dynasty’s greed before the republic was formed. After a terrible battle, a gifted young man, the Freak – modeled after the real-life tai-chai innovator, Yang Lu Chan — is advised by his dying master to travel immediately to Chen, where he might be allowed to study a form of tai chi used to defend the village. The residents, though, are protective of their gift and turn Freak away. It’s at this point that the movie shifts into an even more fantastical gear, with contraptions right out Jules Verne and other conceits that refer to then-inconceivable video games, clever animation, American westerns and other off-the-wall stuff. Freak’s arrival roughly coincides with the appearance outside the village’s gates of a steam-powered, armadillo-shaped tank with explosive weaponry and claw-like appendages. It was driven here on rails by a former resident, who went to school in Europe and returned with the wardrobe of a dandy and a western girlfriend. (When he left, he was betrothed to the village’s leader.) Because the machine moves on rails, we know that it represents the inevitable approach of the railroad, operated by British interests and protected by the imperial army. The confrontation between the army and villagers, as well as the destruction of the machine, is lots of fun to watch. (Sammo Hung choreographed the action scenes.) By now, Freak has been adopted by the villagers and enjoys a testy relationship with the shunned bride-not-to-be, also a tai chi specialist. Director Stephen Fung sprinkles the narrative with cameos and quirky asides that break the fourth wall. The closing credits serve as a teaser to the sequel, “Tai Chi Hero,” as does the extensive Blu-ray featurette, which blends making-of material from both movies into one. “Tai Chi Zero” wasn’t well received by the critics who study martial-arts flicks for a living, but newcomers and fans of outrageous comedy shouldn’t hold it against Fung. One interesting tidbit to come from the bonus interviews is the news – to me, anyway – that tai chi not only is used as an exercise to relieve stress and release impediments to meditation, but also as a form of self-defense in combat. – Gary Dretzka

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning: Blu-ray
I don’t know if there’s any significance to data that shows the latest iteration of the “Universal Soldier” franchise opened last fall in 420 screens in Russia, 90 in Turkey, 48 in the Ukraine, 34 in the UAE, but only 3 in the United States. I mean, why bother? It’s difficult to imagine anyone in the full-bore action genre actually coveting reviews from the non-fanboy critics in the New York press. “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning,” after all, is targeted at action/revenge junkies who wish President Obama had named Jean-Claude Van Damme Secretary of Defense and Dolph Lundgren director of the CIA, instead of a couple of namby-bamby Washington bureaucrats. Not being conversant in the “Universal Soldier” mythos – six titles, including two made-for-TV efforts – I was completely lost for the first hour or so of the new movie. I can see the appeal, even if non-stop fantasy violence isn’t exactly my cup of tea. Within minutes, director John Hyams introduces us to the protagonist, John (Scott Adkins), who has to watch helplessly as someone resembling Van Damme brutally murders his wife and daughter. After spending two months in a coma, John awakens to the sight of a federal agent and nightmarish visions of the killings. After leaving the hospital, he’s constantly threatened by a UniSol (Andrei Arlovski) who was born to play a villain in an old-school James Bond flick. The UniSols, I would learn, are genetically designed mercenaries who once fought terrorists but now do the bidding of reanimated super-soldiers played by Van Damme and Lundgren. The really nutso stuff here is figuring out who and what John really is and why the monsters want to kill him.

There are too many surprises to be found on the way to answering those questions and potential spoilers abound. For all the artsy-fartsy visual effects Hyams employs to describe how wigged out John has become, the real fun comes in the vicious fight scenes, which are out of this world. OK, allow me one spoiler: towards the end of the movie, Van Damme is transformed into a bargain-basement version of Marlon Brando playing Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.” It’s a cool conceit even loyal fans of the series might find difficult to believe they’re seeing.  The Blu-ray adds a lengthy and informative making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Officer Down: Blu-ray
It’s nice to see that Stephen Dorff still has acting to fall back on if those e-cigarette commercials don’t work for him. “Officer Down” is the kind of diverting straight-to-DVD crime thriller that gets better the less one tries to make sense of it. Even as intentionally inside-out dramas go, Brian A. Miller’s follow-up to “House of the Rising Sun” – another DVD original – pushes its audience’s indulgence to the breaking point. Miller’s trump card, though, is a supporting cast that includes David Boreanaz, Stephen Lang, AnnaLynne McCord, Walter Goggins, James Woods, Soulja Boy, Elisabeth Rohm, Dominic Purcell and 2008 Mrs. World, Kamaliya. As usual, Dorff looks as if he were rode hard and put up wet as a police detective attempting to atone for years of bad behavior with strippers and Russian gangsters, fueled by too much booze and cocaine. One way of doing so, he thinks, is to capture and/or kill a serial sex offender terrorizing the women of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Early on, he’s somehow in the right place at the right time to disrupt a suspect in mid-attack. After a chase and a fist fight, he discovers that the guy is a cop who, for years, has been attacking brunettes who look like his ex-wife. The bust leads to a new assignment, this time involving the apparent suicide of a woman who danced at a club he used to frequent, before he was shot in the act of trying to extort cocaine from a pair of dealers. Fortunately for screenwriter John Chase’s scenario, Callahan remembers precious little of what happened that night and who was the Good Samaritan that prevented worse harm from coming to him. That confusion and a notebook left behind by the dead stripper are the keys to everything that transpires during the next hour or so in “Officer Down.” Most of it is far too convenient and coincidental to maintain credibility among viewers, but, even so, the actors are able to keep logic from getting in the way of some stylish filmmaking. The Blu-ray arrives devoid of extras. – Gary Dretzka

Deadly Blessing: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
True Nature
There are several good reasons to pick up Shout!Factory’s upgraded edition of Wes Craven’s 1981 quasi-religious thriller, “Deadly Blessing.” The movie, was released after Craven’s attention-getting “The Hills Have Eyes” and “The Last House on the Left,” and immediately before “Swamp Thing.” (In 1975, he made the X-rated ditty “The Fireworks Woman,” as Abe Snake.) By today’s standards, it might as well be “Psycho.” The most interesting thing about it, perhaps, is the cast. Ernest Borgnine plays the head of a Hittite clan – Hutterites, by another name — that makes the Amish look hi-tech, while the wonderful Michael Berryman (Pluto, in “Hills”) runs around the Pennsylvania countryside accusing women of being incubi, even though such creatures are traditionally male. “Deadly Blessing” also represents Sharon Stone and Lisa Hartman’s first meaningful film roles. Among the other beauties on display are Lois Nettleton (“Centennial”), Maren Jensen (“Battlestar Galactica”), Susan Buckner (“Grease”) and Colleen Riley (“Hills Have Eyes II”). In fact, most of the mayhem in “Deadly Blessing” involves women. The men are so twisted by their religious beliefs that they’re barely functional.

The Hittites are pissed off at Jensen’s character, Martha, because they believe she seduced one of their men, causing him to leave the church and begin to use the devil’s tools to work the land next to the hand-tilled property of his family. Strange things begin to happen when the Hittites learn that Martha is pregnant. Among them, her husband is killed by a tractor in his barn and Berryman’s giant simpleton is killed while looking for his lost shoe in the same structure. This causes Borgnine’s character to declare war on his daughter-in-law and her blond guests from Los Angeles. The question that begs to be asked is why the women remain in the line of fire, while the town’s useless police department twiddles its collective fingers. But, why bother asking it? If logic were to be applied to the horror genre – or, at least, most movies made in the wake of “Psycho” – there wouldn’t be a horror genre. Otherwise, “Deadly Blessing” offers enough skin, gore and scares to satisfy viewers, even 30 years past its original release. It looks pretty decent in Blu-ray, as well. The bonus material includes commentary with Craven and Horrorhound magazine’s Sean Clark; interviews with Berryman, Buckner and creature designer John Naulin; and a post-mortem on the script by writers Glenn Benest and Matthew Barr.

Patrick Steele’s extremely polished first feature, “True Nature,” demands that viewers maintain their attention to what’s happening on the screen, even with the usual distractions that come with DVD viewing. I let my attention waver for a few minutes and had to go back soon thereafter to make sense of what I was seeing. If it were a lesser production, I wouldn’t have bothered. Equal parts psycho-thriller, supernatural teaser and whodunit, “True Nature” fits in the horror category mostly for what isn’t shown than what is slowly revealed. Steele leaves hints as to his intentions, but it takes most of the movie’s running time see where they fit in the puzzle. Newcomer Marianne Porter plays a college student, who, during a break from school, disappears during a run around the neighborhood. One night, a year later, she awakens her father at their posh suburban home by suddenly reappearing covered in mud. Doctors can’t find anything wrong with her, physically, but her dreams and flashes of memories are frightening her nearly to death. They don’t make a lot of sense to us, either, but the more we learn about her father’s troubles at work and her mom’s insistence on maintaining face in her social circle, the closer we get to some answers. Any more information than that would spoil the surprises in this fragile narrative. Carolyn McCormick (“Law & Order”) and Reg Land are very good as the parents. – Gary Dretzka

Birders: The Central Park Effect
Beauty Is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story
At first glance, “Birders: The Central Park Effect” would appear to be yet another documentary about eccentrics drawn to the nation’s largest city, if only because the concrete canyons provide food and shelter not available in less tolerant habitats. For the most part, though, the transients seeking food and shelter in “Birders: The Central Park Effect” are birds drawn to the resources provided them in one of the world’s largest urban parks. And, just as Manhattan has become a mecca for a hugely diverse array of human beings, Central Park annually attracts a myriad temporary population of birds that might not be available to nature lovers anywhere else in the United States. If for only a few days at a time, birds that some might consider already extinct in the wild – or, at least, rarely seen – hunt here for the food to fuel the remainder of their migratory journeys. They’re bright, colorful, full of song and as different from one another as the passengers on a subway train leaving the 42nd Street/Grand Central Terminal at rush hour. For his debut documentary, Jeffrey Kimball spent a year watching a select group of New Yorkers as they were watching the birds living in and visiting Central Park. The “birders” among them kept exacting records as to the names and numbers of the birds – valuable to scientists and environmentalists – while “bird watchers” basically went along for the ride for their own reasons. Among them are authors Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Rosen; Starr Saphir, the grande dame of New York birding and a cancer patient; Anya Auerbach, who insists that a teenage girl can be a birder without also being a nerd, geek or un-cool; musician and sculptor Chuck McAlexander, who creates squirrel-proof feeders to attract hungry birds; and various academics.

Last year, on an autumn “Ramble” through the park, Saphir recorded such exotic finds as the hairy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, red-tailed hawk, peregrine falcon, ruby-throated hummingbird and several varieties of thrushes, warblers, wrens and sparrows. People not living in New York have learned to fear Central Park, as if it were flea market for felons. Maybe, maybe not.  During the day, however, it can serve, as it did for Rosen, as a “portal to the natural world.” “Birders” is an absolutely delightful film, beautiful to look at and a treat for the ears. Kimball saves the scholarly stuff for the bonus features, along with extended interviews and visual catalogue of the birds on display. This truly is a movie the whole family can enjoy.

Anyone who’s spent any amount of time watching “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” “Shining Time Station,” “The Weird Al Show” and “Beakman’s World,” or watched the videos for Peter Gabriel’s “Big  Time” and Smashing Pumpkins “Tonight, Tonight,” already has seen some of the art on display in “Beauty Is Embarrassing.” The name of the artist, Wayne White, may not be familiar, but that goes with the territory in show business. The designers, painters, sculptors, musicians and most puppeteers who work behind the scenes on TV shows and movies exist only in the credit rolls, if then. “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” was one of the first programs to attract large numbers of hipsters, stoners, slackers and ironists to what essentially was a kiddie show. The surrealistic touches in the background and incidental characters were as much fun to look at and study as any of Pee-wee’s nutty observations, asides and skits. White contributed his art design, voice-overs and puppets to that Emmy-winning series.

Before that, the Chattanooga native worked as a cartoonist and illustrator for several underground publications in New York, as well as the Times and Village Voice. He picks the banjo and creates “word paintings” on the bones of cheap landscape lithographs he buys already framed in thrift shops. The incongruity of seeing bold glossily rendered words and phrases – ranging from mysteriously random to aggressively profane — pop out from such a pastoral setting can produce laughs or gasps, depending on the viewer.  BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING is just such a phrase. In his one-man show of the same title, White explains how difficult it is to explain to people he meets that his job is to “create beauty,” and their discomfort with the description can be embarrassing to both parties. The documentary also follows White home to rural Tennessee, where other incongruities reveal themselves. He’s a supremely talented guy, who sometimes looks as if he’s only one freeway exit from a sanitarium. Apart from the sometimes raw language, “Beauty Is Embarrassing” could be used as incentive for kids who display artistic talent, but are too withdrawn, bullied or embarrassed to use it to their advantage. It comes with extended interviews and stage material. – Gary Dretzka

Keep the Lights On: Blu-ray
Sometimes, a filmmaker gets so close to his work that he can’t see how it might look to viewers who revolve in a different orbit than his. Although the jacket avoids the label “autobiographical,” deferring to the less precise, “fearlessly personal,” Ira Sach’s romantic drama “Keep the Lights On” chronicles his turbulent 10-year relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg, author of “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.” Only the details are tweaked to keep the film from being a documentary with dramatizations. Outsiders either buy into the relationship or they don’t. As exquisitely made as “Keep the Lights On” is – mainstream critics gave it high marks – the dramatic and romantic elements aren’t sufficiently compelling to distinguish it from several other “fearlessly personal” movies in which gay men, especially, deal with issues that don’t come up in heterosexual couplings. Here, a Danish documentarian living in New York hooks up with a lawyer in the publishing industry, who habitually abuses drugs. Erik (Thure Lindhardt) is gay and doesn’t care who knows it. Paul (Zachary Booth) is straight at work and gay at night, when he drops his sexual pretenses. Their decade-long relationship has most of the peaks and valleys encountered by other couples – straight, gay, neutral – but the drug thing finally wears down Erik. After a stretch in rehab doesn’t quite work, they separate and kinda, sorta reunite. That’s about it.

The movie works as well it does because of the fine acting by Lindhardt and Booth, who are both talented and attractive. Sachs’ honest approach to the material precludes any cheering from the peanut gallery for the characters to beat the odds by finding a way to stay together for ever and ever, amen. They had their time and it passed. Next.  Also very good is the supporting cast: David Anzuelo, Maria Dizzia, Julianne Nicholson, Souleymane Sy Savane, Miguel Del Toro and Paprika Steen. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, Sachs’ commentary, audition tapes and deleted scenes. If you dig “Keep the Lights On,” you should take a chance on Sachs’ equally challenging “The Delta,” “40 Shades of Blue” and “Married Life.”

For my money, the real gem hidden between the covers of the DVD is the supplementary documentary, “In Search of Avery Willard.” Willard is the subject of the film researched, completed and honored during the course of Erik and Paul’s relationship. In real life, Willard was a New York photographer active from the late 1940s through the 1960s. In addition to the movie stills, celebrity shots and commercial work he took early in his career, Willard specialized in “physique art,” male nudes, leather fetishists and drag history. In the period immediately after the Stonewall riots, he published and personally distributed the activist magazine, Gay Scene, under the pseudonym Bruce King. Much of what’s seen in Cary Kehayan’s film was discovered in his cluttered Bronx apartment after his death in 1999. It’s a genuinely fascinating portrait of a largely unsung artist, whose contributions have hardly been accorded a footnote in the history of the gay-rights movement. – Gary Dretzka

The Age of Czeslaw Milosz
The lives of some men and women are so fascinating that it’s possible to watch a 180-minute bio-doc, in Polish, about his or her life and not once nod off into oblivion. I know, because I did it. The Facets Video documentary, “The Age of Czeslaw Milosz,” commemorates the 100th birthday of the Nobel Prize-winning poet, who, in 2004, died at the age of 93. Recent films about writers Gregory Corso, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe are shorter by at least an hour. Americans tend to have less patience and shorter memories than Eastern Europeans, for whom the 20th Century could hardly be described as a walk in the park. In the case of Milosz, however, that’s pretty much the whole point. Born in a cross-border region of Lithuania, in 1911, he grew up fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English and French. He received a degree in law, but preferred to communicate via radio broadcasts and the written word. Immediately before and during World War II, he and his wife, Janina, would be caught in the vice applied to Poland and Lithuania by the Germans and Soviet Union. He was required to reserve his words for the resistance, via underground presses. After the war, Milosz served as a cultural attaché in Washington – where he was taunted as a Soviet dupe by exiles and treated like a spy by our government – and in Paris, far away from his wife. The Polish communists were as suspect of intellectuals as J. Edgar Hoover, so he finally defected to France, where he wrote his most famous prose work, the anti-Stalinist “The Captive Mind.” In the early 1960s, Milosz was invited to teach at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught Slavic languages and literature. He would return to Europe after the deaths of both of his wives and the fall of the Iron Curtain. While being received as a literary hero in Poland, where his writing had been banned for decades, he was criticized in his former Lithuanian home for dredging up memories of anti-Semitism there. He died at his Krakow home in 2004, at 93. Director Juozas Javaitis said that wasn’t intention to “show Milosz as icon. … Our main aim was to reflect the personality and biography of the poet. We wanted this film to raise public interest in the figure of Miłosz and encourage people to read some part of the work of this fascinating and talented man.” It’s ironic, then, that just before he died, this great intellectual — who was born nine years before the first radio news broadcast — anticipated a day when his poetry might be licensed for use in advertising and commercials, like any rock band or jingle writer, and no reading will be required. “Age of Czelaw Milosz” intertwines snatches of verse with interviews with such people as his secretary, Agnieszka Kosińska; journalist Mark Danner; translators Robert Hass, Natalia Gorbaniewska and Tomas Venclova; and his son, Antoni.  – Gary Dretzka

Nobody Walks: Blu-ray
Sometimes, it simply doesn’t pay to stick with a DVD long enough to sample the interviews with the directors, writers and stars. I’m not referring to the making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes in which everyone’s pretending that the movie they’re working on is the second coming of “The Godfather” or “Annie Hall.” Rather, it’s the in-depth, face-to-face conversations, during which the artists’ hopes, dreams and intentions are explored. In the interviews that accompany “Nobody Walks,” co-writer/director Ry Russo-Young and star Olivia Thirlby don’t seem to have watched the movie they’re describing. It’s more like they’re discussing the movie that was playing in the heads of Russo-Young and co-writer Lena Dunham as they were writing the screenplay. Dunham’s fingerprints can be seen throughout “Nobody Walks.” It’s as if one of the characters in “Girls” was given an opportunity to move to L.A.’s hipster-invested Silver Lake neighborhood to finish a project meaningful to them, if no one else. Here that woman has been invited to finish her experimental film with the assistance of an accomplished sound engineer, Peter (John Krasinski), and move into the family’s pool house for the duration. Thirlby plays the 23-year-old New Yorker, Martine, whose veneer of self-confidence masks a desperate need to be admired, coddled and fulfilled sexually. What Martine and Peter have yet to learn in all their years on Earth is something most animals are taught as soon as they’re able to walk or fly: don’t shit where you eat. Working at close proximity in Peter’s home studio, it’s only a matter of time before something sufficiently unnerving happens to Martine that he feels the need to comfort her. One thing leads to another and they’re in each other’s pants. It takes Peter’s psychiatrist wife, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), about 30 seconds to sense that something fishy is happening between her husband and their guest. Even so, she decides to cut them some slack.

For her part, Julie allows herself to be verbally seduced by a smarmy male patient (Justin Kirk), an actor who describes/invents a dream in which she comes onto him in an outfit right out of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. After confirming her fears about Peter and Martine, Julie allows her patient to paw her at a party. Their precocious teenage daughter, Yma (India Ennenga), is inspired by Martine after mistaking her unbridled libido for sexual liberation. Martine also comes to the girl’s rescue when her smarmy Italian tutor has a fit over a poem that she’s written. Peter also will blow a gasket, but for an entirely different reason. In the interviews, Russo-Young and Thirlby treat Martine’s ill-considered behavior as some kind of rite of passage experienced by young New Yorkers when blasted by the bright California sun for the first time. The men in the movie have all the sense given pieces on a checkerboard and Julie gets a pass, even though, 1) she naively allowed a pretty 23-year-old daughter of an old friend to move into their pool house, and 2) put her career on the line for the momentary thrill of being told she looks sexy in her britches. I don’t buy it. Even though “Nobody Walks” could boast of performances by three of America’s hottest actors, it played in only a small handful of theaters. Anyone wondering what all the fuss over Dunham is about probably should start with “Girls,” “Tiny Furniture” and the Web-based “Delusional Downtown Divas.” The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene, the completed short film on which Peter and Martine were working and a short making-of piece. The short film, “Scorpio,” shows off Russo-Young’s keen photographic eye, but, alas, is exceedingly pretentious. -– Gary Dretzka

Nature Calls: Blu-ray
Writer/director Todd Rohal really dodged a bullet when the Christian Slater vehicle, “Playback,” was accorded the dubious distinction of being the lowest-grossing feature film of 2012. All things being equal, however, the producers of that turkey could argue that it only played on one screen, for a week, while “Nature Calls” required two screens to collect $382. Based solely on the names of the actors on the cover of “Nature Calls” Blu-ray/DVD – Patton Oswald, Johnny Knoxville, Rob Riggle – I would be willing to bet that the boys-will-be-boys comedy will make more than $382 in its first hour in video stores. Not much more, but enough to stem the bleeding, at least. Oswald plays the scoutmaster of a troop of boys whose ability to survive in the woods overnight is highly questionable. Nevertheless, he’s determined to take his ancient, wheelchair-bound father on one more camping trip before he’s shipped off to a retirement home. The problem is, Scoutmaster Randy’s far more successful stick-in-the-mud brother has already scheduled a slumber party for his newly adopted 10-year-old son the same weekend.

Randy somehow convinces the boys to abandon the party and join him on the expedition, which, naturally, becomes disastrous almost before it starts. It’s gets even more complicated when his brother and his cronies come looking for them, along with park rangers and the moms of the boys. What starts as a disaster ends in a farce, and a waste of time for everyone involved. Parents of scouting-age kids attracted by the cover art should know that “Nature Calls” contains much rough language and a couple of boobies. It comes with outtakes and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

BBC America: Twenty Twelve: Complete Series
Starz: Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis
PBS: American Experience: The Abolitionists
Those fans of “Downton Abbey” who simply can’t get enough of Hugh Bonneville should consider picking up the BBC mini-series, “Twenty Twelve” on DVD. It isn’t a period soap opera, but it is unmistakably British. All 13 episodes from both seasons, leading up to 2012 Summer Olympics, are packaged alongside cast and crew interviews. Exec-produced by Jon Plowman (“Absolutely Fabulous,” “Little Britain”), “Twenty Twelve” uses the same comic approach as “The Office” to chronicle the efforts of a team of bureaucrats assigned to make sure London doesn’t grind to a complete stop as the Games are being staged. If these guys had actually been in charge of logistics, the Olympics might have experienced gridlock, or worse. Even in hindsight, it’s a lot of fun. Also prominent in the cast are Amelia Bullmore (“Suburban Shootout”), Jessica Hynes (“The Royale Family”), Karl Theobald (“Primeval”) and David Tennant (“Doctor Who”).

As he approaches the ripe old age of 87, Jerry Lewis continues to make headlines in the trade magazines. The type face may not be quite as large as the ones that chronicled his every move between 1946 and the early 1970s, but they draw our attention, anyway. He’s currently in production on a drama in which he plays the title character, Max Rose, and apparently in limbo on a picture “still in development,” “Big Finish.” It’s been about 20 years since he’s starred in a feature that wasn’t animated. That was considered to be a comeback picture, just like “Max Rose” and “Big Finish.” The fascinating bio-doc “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis” argues that “comeback” overstates the case. How far can a performer in his 80s come back, after all? In his interviews with director Gregg Barson, Lewis essentially argues that, contrary to rumor, he’s never gone away. Hollywood executives disappeared on him 40 years ago, or so, but audiences always seem to have found him in his performances on stage, on television and during the telethons. Barson, who previously directed the wonderful Phyllis Diller documentary, ”Goodnight, We Love You,” has gathered a wide variety of actors, directors and comedians to testify in Lewis’ defense, as well. Among them are Alec Baldwin, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Carl Reiner, Quentin Tarantino, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, Carol Burnett, Richard Lewis, Steven Spielberg, John Landis and Deana Martin (Dean’s daughter). As usual, though, Lewis gets all of the laughs. Proud of his accomplishments, he isn’t at all shy about pointing out his contributions to the cinematic art, standup comedy and improvisation. Again, the witnesses confirm his testimony. Even 115 minutes, “Method to the Madness” occasionally feels short. Even so, it’s better to admire Lewis’ genius – yes, genius – now, while he’s alive and kicking, than read the words of obituary writers and tweeted testimonials sometime in the future.

The timing for PBS’ “American Experience” documentary series, “The Abolitionists” could hardly be more appropriate. In Steven Spielberg’s much-honored film, “Lincoln,” it would be easy for short-sighted viewers to believe that abolitionism was synonymous with obstructionism, and the debate over the total abolishment of slavery had begun only recently. While it may be true that Lincoln’s ability to convince Republican abolitionists to compromise their principles assured passage of the 13th Amendment, it’s not accurate to paint him as the only politician who didn’t have to wrestle with his conscience on the issue of slavery. Plenty of Americans had committed to abolitionism without having to consult their conscience. “Abolitionists forced the issue of slavery on to the national agenda,” says Sharon Grimberg, executive producer for the three-part documentary. “They made it unavoidable.” By the time John Brown, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimke and Harriet Beecher Stowe – key figures in the documentary — brought the anti-slavery movement to the forefront of debate in the United States the cause had already been debated abroad and in churches here for many decades. Indeed, it had been abolished among several prominent slave-trading nations and reaffirmed after it was repealed in some countries. Lincoln was a gradualist throughout most of his political career and pragmatic about pushing too hard on the Southern bloc and its Northern supporters, until he picked up the banner with the Emancipation Proclamation.

What Lincoln did understand was that Congress was populated in large part by pompous, self-serving and openly corrupt career politicians, who, if they had consciences at all, never wrestled with them. That much hasn’t changed in 150 years, anyway. If the abolitionists weren’t so adamant about the immediacy of the issue and convincing in their arguments, Lincoln might have acted differently altogether. I don’t know how far into the future that the crystal balls belonging to Lincoln and the abolitionists were able to see. The reality, of course, is that, in some quarters, racist sentiments have never gone out of fashion. It would take the combined force of the 13th, 14th, 15th and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make a dent in legal segregation in the South and some western states. Even then, in the 2012 presidential campaign, Republicans pushed to deny some Americans their right to vote, freely and without encumbrance. So, in a very real sense, the Civil War is still being fought. The documentary focuses on the intertwined stories of the leading abolitionists, while also addressing important myths and realities weighing on the struggle. Director Rob Rapley’s cast includes Richard Brooks, Neal Huff, Jeanine Serralles, Wendy Carter, Ingrid Alli and T. Ryder Smith and Kate Lyn Sheil and narrator Oliver Platt. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

To Rome With Love: Blu-ray
Sleeper/Hannah and Her Sisters: Blu-ray
For various reasons, mostly financial, Manhattan’s ambassador to the world, Woody Allen, spent most of the last 10 years in Europe making movies that ranged from so-so to wonderful. Because Allen is incapable of turning out a truly inferior product, none was less than watchable. While “Match Point,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Midnight in Paris” won the admiration of fans and critics, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream” proved to be a better deal on DVD. Reviews were mixed on “To Rome With Love,” which neatly intertwined a quartet of unrelated stories involving tourists and residents in the Eternal City. I enjoyed “To Rome With Love” both of the times I’ve watched it and, it made a recognizable dent in domestic and worldwide box-off results. That certainly came as good news to its Roman investors, who literally paid for the privilege of having Allen shoot in their city. The ensemble cast includes Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Alison Pill, David Pasquesi and several actors who will be more familiar in Italy than anywhere else. Describing two of the stories would require a bit more space than is available here, but, not surprisingly, perhaps, involve relationships put to the test by mistaken identities and hubris.

In the third vignette, Robert Benigni plays a non-descript office drone, who, for no apparent reason, becomes an instant celebrity. His interplay with his family, newfound fans, paparazzi and entertainment reporters is fun, both as a showcase for Benigni’s elastic personality and as a putdown of today’s celebrity-obsessed culture. In the fourth thread, Allen and Davis travel to Rome to meet the parents of their future son-in-law. After hearing his Italian counterpart sing opera songs in the shower, the former talent scout and producer convinces him to consider a second career on stage. The problem is that the man, a funeral director, has no stage presence to match his golden voice. Allen arranges for an audition, during which a portable shower is brought into the studio and the amateur tenor becomes sufficiently relaxed to give a bravura performance. His voice is so remarkable that audiences forgive the singing mortician his bizarre conceit. His family is far less forgiving. Needless to say, Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji take full advantage of Rome’s grandeur, light and romantic aura. The Blu-ray contains a making-of featurette in which lots of people discuss the joys of working with Allen, but the maestro, as usual, is absent.

Also new to Blu-ray this week are films representing different creative periods in Allen’s long career. Released in 1973, between the anarchic “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask” and his heady roast of Russian literature, “Love and Death,” “Sleeper” was the last film in Allen’s populist period. For the next dozen years, he would shift gears several times, almost as if he was testing the loyalty of his fanbase. In addition to such easy-to-love pictures as “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Broadway Danny Rose,” Allen turned out such brain-teasers as “Interiors,” “Stardust Memories” and “Zelig.” Then, almost out of the blue, “Hannah and Her Sisters” would mark another dramatic turn.

I haven’t seen “Sleeper” in a very long time, but a fresh look at Roger Ebert’s review serves as a reminder of what made it so special. “(Allen) gives us moments in ‘Sleeper’ that are as good as anything since the silent films of Buster Keaton.” Cryogenically frozen after a botched medical procedure, a New York nobody named Miles Monroe wakes up 200 years later in an America that’s ruled by the disembodied nose of an evil dictator. All women are frigid and all men are impotent. Miles is viewed both as a potential enemy by the regime and potential savior by the rebels. After being captured by the government, he pretends to be a robot, but is reprogrammed to believe he’s a beauty-contest competitor. Diane Keaton, in her second cinema pairing with her former lover, plays the beautiful, if decidedly untalented poet, Luna, who comes to his rescue. “Sleeper” is informed as much by the slapstick humor of the silent comedies of the 1920s as the progressive science-fiction novels of the 1960s. The movie’s futuristic look benefitted from location shoots at space-age homes and buildings in California and Colorado and clever use of ordinary household items by costume designers. A sequence in which Allen attempts to elude capture by hiding in a garden of huge fruits and vegetables – as well as a slippery banana peel and giant chicken – was hilarious in 1973 and remains so today.

“Hannah and Her Sisters” became his bittersweet take on the protocols of love and marriage among Manhattan’s intellectual and professional elite. Woody’s character provided the humor, while everyone else supplied the pathos and tortured romance. If viewers outside the 212 area code found it difficult to identify with the problems of people they’d never meet, let alone socialize, the comic relief of Mighty Aphrodite” wouldn’t arrive for another 10 years. “Hannah and Her Sisters” resembles a game of musical chairs, played by close friends and relatives within the orbiting of sisters Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest. Their myriad husbands and suitors include Allen, Michael Caine, Max von Sydow and Sam Waterston. The sisters have been cursed and blessed with show-biz parents (Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan), whose deep-seated hostility towards each other tends to surface at family events, like the Thanksgiving dinners that bookend the movie. In fact, their daughters look as if they might have been adopted, for all the resemblance they have to each other. “Hannah” is widely considered to be one of Allen’s unquestioned masterpieces, in a career full of them. Neither of the re-issues come with anything more than a trailer. – Gary Dretzka

Taken 2: Blu-ray
If ever a movie wrote its own sequel, it’s “Taken.” Writer/producer Luc Besson’s 2008 thriller scored big by giving audiences exactly what they expected and desired from a hyperviolent action film, while also throwing in some dramatic car chases, a beautiful setting and a newly minted superhero in Liam Neeson. The story was simplicity itself. Neeson played a retired and divorced CIA black-ops agent who had been trained to kill in almost every conceivable way. No sooner had Neeson’s Bryon Mills waved goodbye to his college-age daughter, as she left for a semester abroad in Paris, than she is captured by the Albanian mafia, which specializes in white-slaving. Once in their possession, kidnapped girls are hooked on heroin, turned out in sleazy brothel or put up for auction. With the help of a former spook buddy, it took Mills about 10 minutes to figure out who had kidnaped Kim (Maggie Grace) and another 20 minutes to locate the crooks’ den. Her rescue fills the rest of the movie. After locating the apartment of the stereotypically thuggish Albanians, “Taken” becomes one long, exceedingly well-choreographed chase through Paris and its outskirts. The body count was extremely high, but few viewers here or abroad mourned the loss of several more shady immigrants from southern Europe.  Clearly, the kidnapers received the kind of justice they deserved and a wholesome American teenager was saved from a life of sexual abuse in a faraway desert oasis or some oligarch’s playpen.

If Albanians are famous for anything these days, besides surviving two generations of draconian communist rule, it’s the adherence by many of rural citizens to the ancient practice of vendetta justice. And that, in a nutshell, is what “Taken 2” is all about. This time, the setting is Istanbul and the villains are the revenge-crazed relatives of the men Mills dispensed with so cruelly in Paris. Rade Serbedzija plays the father of one of the corpses shipped back to Albania in a chrome box and head of what’s left of his clan. It has now become his mission in life to avenge his son’s death-by-electrocution. Along with three Land Rovers full of heavily armed relatives, he somehow learns that Mills is in Istanbul with his daughter and ex-wife (Famke Janssen), who conveniently has ditched her wealthy second husband. This time, it takes the bad guys about 10 minutes to find Mills in the sprawling Turkish metropolis, another 15 or so for Mills and his former wife to be captured and less than an hour for Mills to escape and team up with his daughter to exact their own vengeance on the stubborn Albanians. There’s a bit more exposition in “Taken 2” than “Taken,” but it doesn’t get in the way of even more high-octane chases, brutal hand-to-hand combat and wildly inaccurate marksmanship on the part of the villains. (It’s become axiomatic that villains can’t hit the broad side of a barn with automatic weapons, while the guys in white hats are sharpshooters.) As such, it’s a safe bet that anyone who enjoyed the original will find a lot to like in the sequel. It did very well at the domestic box-office and even better worldwide.

Through no fault of its own, Istanbul is in danger of becoming an overly familiar city for foreign intrigue. If nothing else, location scouts should consider discouraging filmmakers from using the rooftop of the Grand Bazaar for foot and motorcycle chases for a while, anyway. Among the other movies that have used the exact same site recently are “The International” and “Skyfall.”  “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Five Minarets Over New York” made full use of the city, as well. The Blu-ray includes both the unrated extended and theatrical cut; featurettes, “Black Ops Field Manual,” “Kill Counter” and “Tools of the Trade”; deleted and extended scenes; an alternative ending; a special-effects piece; digital copy; and UltraViolet. – Gary Dretzka

Won’t Back Down: Blu-ray
That our nation’s public schools are a mess is hardly a secret. Things are so bad, in fact, that, last November, California voters actually voted to raise taxes to help fix them. That, in itself, is a very big deal. It’s that kind of spirit that pervades “Won’t Back Down,” a movie that argues against the common perception that our democracy is hopelessly broken and common folks are too polarized to make a difference. In Daniel Barnz’ inspirational drama, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis demonstrate how two motivated women can change the way things have always been done at a dysfunctional Pittsburgh elementary school. (It was inspired by the enactment of parent-trigger laws, first passed in California three years ago, which allow parents and teachers to petition for underperforming programs to be turned into charter schools.) Teachers at Adams Elementary are dispirited, students are bored and parents can’t figure out how some kids can pass one from one grade to another, even without being able to read or write. Davis plays Nona, a teacher and mother of a young boy at the school where Gyllenhaal’s dyslexic daughter is being bullied by her fellow students and ignored by an impatient teacher. The women meet at a lottery drawing for the few spots open at an award-winning magnet school in the district. Although neither child’s name is announced. Nona and Jamie are inspired by the words of the principal of the magnet school to act. Until parents and faculty got involved there, it was just other institution in which students are warehoused until it is time to graduate. “Won’t Back Down” chronicles the women’s struggle to turn a non-starter into a winner for everyone involved. One guess as to how the movie ends.

Although Barnz’ heart is in the right place, “Won’t Back Down” suffers from some formidable stumbling blocks. More than anything else, Adams School doesn’t look as if it’s being neglected by the district or is a hellhole for students and faculty. The kids are well dressed, ethnically diverse and well behaved – for the most part, anyway – and none of the teachers appear to have been assaulted lately. The real bogeymen here are the teachers’ union, which protects lousy teachers, and school board members too set in their ways to expend energy on fixing broken schools. Union leaders have convinced the majority of Adams’ teachers that their job security will be jeopardized if they join the revolt, while the board has forced the principal to crack down on its organizers. In both cases, the script devices used to demonize the union and school board are far too broad to be convincing. Still, Davis and Gyllenhaal invest their performances with enthusiasm and sincerity, and Holly Hunter, Oscar Isaac, Rosie Perez, Lance Reddick and Marianne Jean-Baptiste add sparkle in supporting roles. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a couple of short pieces on the importance of teachers and supporting our schools. I’d be very surprised to learn, however, that anyone involved in the movie has enrolled their kids in a public school outside Beverly Hills. – Gary Dretzka

17 Girls
Pregnancy has become so politicized in this country that one hardly knows what to say when a friend or relative tells you she’s with child. At the risk of hearing, “But, I don’t know if I’m going to keep it,” the only safe response is something excruciatingly neutral like, “That’s interesting. How do you feel about it?” That’s the response I had to Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s “17 Girls,” which transfers the Gloucester, Massachusetts, “pregnancy pact” scandal to the Brittany coast of France. In Gloucester, the 18 pregnant girls denied such a pact existed and the baby boom was coincidental. In “17 Girls,” however, 16 of them definitely were on the same wavelength. After one of the school’s “popular” kids gets knocked up, by accident, the others followed, if not like lemmings, exactly, then cows heading to the barn to get milked. The driving force apparently was that it might be fun — diverting, at least — to go through the experience together and raise their kids in the same working-class environment. As was the case in Gloucester, the first girl to get pregnant and her boyfriend had simply neglected to use a condom properly. The girls in her clique acted in solidarity with her, while others followed suit because they wanted to hang with the popular girls. And, yes, it did help raise their esteem. Two girls fake their pregnancy. Strangely, we only witness one set of parents act out their anger and frustration. Very few of the boys involved are shown behaving one way or the other to the news that they were on the way to becoming fathers.

The news from Gloucester raised eyebrows around the world; inspired numerous magazine articles, talk-show chatter and an episode of “Law & Order”; and, of course, it was dramatized in a made-for-Lifetime movie. In the less-media-crazy French town, however, the girls don’t seem to have been given an opportunity to experience even 14 minutes of fame, let alone a bidding war for interviews. Most returned to school before settling into full- or part-time motherhood. The depiction is all so matter-of-fact, it’s practically maddening. Instead of judgment or an invitation to pass judgment, the Coulins have delivered an interesting and occasionally quite moving essay on friendship. Now, if the same thing had happened in an inner-city American high school or, perhaps, a Parisian school full of the children of immigrants from Africa, some loudmouth talk-show host might have demanded mass sterilization, or a pro-choice activist would have lobbied for more sex-education courses and greater access to birth control. The thing to remember here, though, is that 17 of the 18 American girls and 16 of 17 French girls knew exactly what could happen by having unprotected sex. At a time when tens of millions of young men and women prey that the urine test will register negative, that’s probably the most difficult thing to grasp in “17 Girls.” – Gary Dretzka

Farewell, My Queen
Although the events described in “Farewell, My Queen” and “Les Miserables” take place almost 25 years from each other, I think that fans of Victor Hugo’s novel and its many stage, television and movie adaptations will enjoy Benoit Jacqout’s story of life at Versailles as the Bastille was being ravaged. Unlike Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” which ends where “Farewell” begins, Jacqout’s story focuses on the servants who were closest to her and had concerns of their own about their fates. Based on the best-selling novel by Chantal Thomas, it stars Léa Seydoux as the queen’s reader and confidante. Her timing couldn’t be less fortuitous. Just as she is attaining a position of comfort among the ladies-in-waiting, the bottom falls out from under her. Diane Kruger portrays Marie Antoinette as being less flighty and full of herself than the same character played by Kirsten Dunst. The “Upstairs Dowstairs” aspect of “Farewell, My Queen” is more pronounced, especially as gossip about the rebellion spreads through Versailles. Like Coppola, Jacqout takes full advantage of the access he received to the royal chateau. The attention to period detail in the set and costume design is exquisite, especially in hi-def, and well worth the price of a rental. The Blu-ray adds interviews with the director and several stars. – Gary Dretzka

Compliance: Blu-ray
More than any other movie I’ve seen in a long time, “Compliance” demands that viewers put themselves in the place of the characters on screen and experience some of the same pain they do. You might remember the incidents that inspired Craig Zobel to make the intentionally controversial film, which divided critics and angered festival audiences. A prank caller, masquerading as a cop, convinced a manager at a fast-restaurant that one of her employees may have stolen some money from a customer and she must work with police to discover the truth. The last thing the caller is interested in is the facts, however. Of greater importance to him is seeing, even vicariously, how far an average person might go to comply with the patently illegal demands of someone who merely pretends to be in law-enforcement. Here, Ann Dowd turns in a terrific performance as Sandy, the manager of a suburban Ohio chicken joint too harried to give more than a moment’s pause over what she’s being asked to do. The caller, who almost certainly had visited the establishment earlier that day, perfectly describes the pretty blond server, Becky (Dreama Walker), as the culprit. Instead of agreeing to take Becky directly to the police station, where she could be read her rights and appraised of the accusation, Sandy agrees to take her employee into a storage room and conduct an agonizingly slow strip search. When she declares that this is taking too much time away from her duties, the caller suggests several options, including having a male employee stand guard over the half-naked teenager. The sexual thrill the caller is getting from this exercise in power is palpable through the line.

The first obvious question Zobel wants us to ask ourselves is how we’d act in the same situation. Sandy may not be an ogre, but she’s criminally unaware of the rights afforded American citizens under the Constitution and workers by the NLRB. Before you assume she’s too stupid to hold a management position, even in the fast-food business, you should know that the same ruse was attempted 70 times in 30 states and those managers who refused to participate were in the distinct minority. Indeed, before things got too nasty, Becky and the co-conspirators reluctantly agreed to participate in the investigation, for fear of losing their job. If stupidity were a legitimate defense, we’d all be guilty of something. Zobel, whose “Great World of Sound” chronicled the gullibility of aspiring musicians, elicits thrilling performances from his cast. (Dowd deserved a Supporting Actress nod as much as any of this year’s finalists.) He also holds his audiences in his grip throughout “Compliance,” asking questions that demand answers. Are the characters being unfairly manipulated by the director? Are we? Is the manager as gullible as she seems to be or are extenuating circumstances left out of the narrative? Can we, the viewers, be accused of voyeurism, simply for staying in our seats during Becky’s ordeal? The critics who gave the movie low grades felt tarnished and manipulated. I wouldn’t put too much stock in their concerns, though. Occasionally, movies should leave emotional scars. The Blu-ray contains a couple of backgrounders, as well as an interview with Zobel. – Gary Dretzka

Now Is Good
Movies in which attractive young people die before their time have been a cinema staple for as long as there have been movies. The first adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ “Camilla” was made in 1907, with another half-dozen to come in the next decade. The first adaptations of “Anna Karenina” were shown in 1910 and 1911, with the latest take on the Tolstoy classic arriving in time for 2013 awards consideration, last November. In 1969, author/screenwriter Erich Segal’s “Love Story” cut the template from which all modern tear-jerkers would be built. If it weren’t for “Love Story” the disease-of-the-week genre may never emerged and, with it, the Lifetime Movie sub-genre. Released last fall in the international market, there probably weren’t enough screens available for Ol Parker’s tear-jerking teen tragedy, “Now Is Good.” If not, someone here might have given it a shot. The always-wonderful Dakota Fanning plays Tessa Scott, a pretty blond teenager who knows that she’ll probably die before experiencing the same rites of passage as most of her friends. Moreover, she’s been battling leukemia long enough to demand that she no longer participate in chemotherapy. If she’s going to die, she’ll do it on her own terms. Paddy Considine plays the obsessively protective father who means well but often gets in the way of her enjoying what left of her life. Her mother (Olivia Williams) can’t take the pressure – or doesn’t want to be bothered, one – and stays in the background for half of the movie, at least.

Tessa is fiercely independent, even to the point of hurling sarcastic retorts at her father when he questions her choices. She has a bucket list of things to do that mostly fall under the heading of misdemeanors, but it’s topped by a desire to experience sex, if not make love, exactly. She comes close to it a couple times, but pulls back when the boy admits to knowing of her condition through her more randy girlfriend (Kaya Scodelario). She definitely isn’t into mercy sex. Almost on cue, a young man (Jeremy Irvine) who fits her needs precisely moves in next door. A gentleman through and through, his reserved responses to her sexual advances confound Tessa. Their courting ritual gets a bit tiresome after a while, but the urgency returns when her illness kicks into a higher gear. The movie’s final half-hour plays out with as much dignity and as little tear-coaxing as could possibly be hoped for in a teen tragedy. Fanning’s performance should please younger viewers also awaiting the first stirrings of genuine love, especially with a dreamboat like Irvine (“The War Horse”). Conversely, I can’t imagine any teenage boy staying with the movie for more than hour. “Now Is Good” is adapted from Jenny Downham’s best-seller, “Before I Die.” Parker previously wrote and directed “Imagine You & Me,” and penned the screenplay for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” The DVD adds deleted scenes and a bankgrounder. – Gary Dretzka

Jack and Diane: Blu-ray
John Mellencamp fans who go back to his “John Cougar” iteration shouldn’t confuse the new DVD, “Jack and Diane,” with his 1982 chart-topper, “Jack & Diane.” I only mention this because that song was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the movie’s title. Instead, it’s a gritty, punky, urban coming-of-age story about two teenage girls experimenting with their emerging sexuality. Oh, yeah, there’s also a Freudian werewolf involved. Set in a funky New York City neighborhood, “J&D” describes the intense, if frequently transgressive relationship between the skateboarding street urchin, Jack (Riley Keough), and an aspiring fashion designer, Diane (Juno Temple), who comes off as a 21st Century Stevie Nicks. Both are outcasts, with more baggage between them than the average bus station. The same could be said of Bradley Rust Gray’s overly ambitious movie. Jack is the take-charge character who dominates the ultra-femme Diane for most of the movie. When she learns that her sovereignty will disappear when Diane splits for fashion school in Paris, Gray dials up the intensity level by adding disturbing images of a werewolf’s transformation, from below the epidermis. The Quay Brothers really outdid themselves in the creation of these icky sequences. As you might have already guessed, “J&D” can be an unholy mess, as the girls wrestle with their personal identity issues and master-slave relationship (for lack of a better term).

Easily the best things about the movie, which should play far better among teens living on the fringes of their own claustrophobic worlds, are the lead performers. Only 23, Juno Temple has already proven herself to be one of the bravest and most convincing actors of her generation. She’s given amazing performances in the edgy indies “Killer Joe,” “Dirty Girl” and “Kaboom,” while holding her own among the big kids in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Atonement” and “The Three Musketeers.” She’ll probably be competing for roles with Elizabeth Olsen, Kristen Stewart, Alicia Vikander, Saoriise Ronan, Dakota Fanning and the various Gemmas and Emmas out there for years to come. Keogh, Elvis’ granddaughter, may have fewer credits, but she’s made her presence known in such films as “The Good Doctor,” “Magic Mike” and “The Runaways.” The Blu-ray adds new music by Mum and Kylie Minogue, who plays Diane’s cantankerous aunt. – Gary Dretzka

Lightning Bug: Blu-ray
Ghoul: Blu-ray
The artwork on the cover of “Lightning Bug” suggests that the movie contained therein is of the slasher persuasion. Although there are no knives or pools of blood in evidence, I’ve seen the same layout on the jackets of a dozen earlier horror movies. Throughout most of the first half of Robert Hall’s 2004 directorial debut, I wondered when the special-effects wizardry would wane and the real horror begin. Instead, “Lightning Bug” stayed true to Hall’s original vision – if not the marketing material – by slowly, but surely evolving into a highly compelling coming-of-age drama. The horror exists in the protagonist’s fertile imagination, which late will provide a ticket out of his backwater hometown and color the black hearts of his antagonists. Once that concept took hold in my mind, it was easy to sit back and enjoy the heartfelt semi-autobiographical story being told in “Lightning Bug.”

At 39, Hall is one of Hollywood’s most prolific creators of special makeup effects. Like the film’s central character, Green Graves (Bret Harrison), Hall spent his high school years in Alabama creating monsters and freaking out his friends, especially at Halloween. How much of the rest of the movie is autobiographical is irrelevant to any enjoyment of “Lightning Bug.” Green, his brother and mother have recently moved to the rural South after the death of his father in Detroit. Any teenage male who doesn’t participate in sports or covet his neighbor’s pickup truck is a freak of nature in Alabama. Having acquired only a couple of goofball buddies, Green is the proverbial square peg in a round hole. His mother’s new boyfriend is a brute cut from the same cloth as Dwight Yoakum’s character in “Slingblade.”  He demands that Green seek employment at the town’s chicken-processing plant, where most of locals are condemned to live out their lives. After hooking up with the pretty clerk at the video store (Lauren Prepon), he’s encouraged to scale the mountain standing between him and Hollywood. First, though, he must deal with his mother’s boyfriend and local holy rollers, who consider the boy to be a tool of Satan.

Hall does a nice job keeping the redneck stereotypes from distracting viewers from Green’s journey. His mom’s boyfriend is a gargoyle, but no more so than any of the fright masks and monsters he creates for the town’s annual haunted house. Again, unlike most slasher movies, most of the violence takes place off-screen and in the recesses of the viewers’ imagination. Sadly, “Lightning Bug” didn’t find distribution off of the festival circuit in 2004, with the subsequent DVD release attaining something resembling cult status. It richly deserves to be discovered anew in its Blu-ray incarnation. Besides Harrison and Prepon, the cast includes Kevin Gage, Ashley Laurence, Hal Sparks, Shannon Eubanks, Lucas Till and Josh Todd. It arrives with both the theatrical and director’s-cut versions; deleted scenes, most featuring a nutso character played by Donald Gibb; a couple of decent making-of featurettes; and a music video.

The cover art for “Ghoul” may be more forthcoming, but the message is pretty much the same: even in horror movies, it isn’t always easy to spot the real monsters. The movie was adapted from a novel by Brian Keene that became a best-seller among teens. It takes several liberties with the material, but is close enough for a made-for-cable movie. It’s the summer of 1984 and a trio of pre-teen boys plans to spend much of it in a clubhouse carved into a series of tunnels on the outskirts of Golgotha Cemetery. Local legend has it that a ghoul haunts the area around the cemetery, where, between the newly dead and canoodlers, it never has to order out for food. That’s news to the boys, who, upon closer inspection, find heirloom trinkets and jewelry scattered throughout the tunnels. Coincidentally, several other young people are found dead or feared kidnaped at about the same time. It’s at this point that “Ghoul” director Gregory Wilson slows things down a bit by focusing on family dynamics among the boys. By the end, everything makes perfect sense. “Ghoul” isn’t a terribly frightening experience, but fans of the book should find it entertaining. There’s also a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

China Heavyweight: Blu-ray
I Am Bruce Lee: Blu-ray
Westerners can learn a lot about China from the spate of new documentaries from the People’s Republic. Yung Chang’s “China Heavyweight” joins such fascinating studies as “High Tech, Low Life,” “Last Train Home,” “Beijing Punk,” “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and Chang’s earlier “Up the Yangtze.” This doesn’t take into account the many docs about the situation in Tibet and foreign-made documentaries about working conditions in Chinese factories, toxic products and the predatory economy. I’ve seen hundreds of movies and documentaries about boxing, many of which use the ancient sport as a metaphor for something or other. “China Heavyweight” is familiar in the sense that boxing has traditionally been used by poor people as an escape route to respectability and prosperity that otherwise would be denied them. The situation in China is different, if only because Chairman Mao banned the sport for being overly violent and too influenced by capitalism. Some 30 years later, boxing and other competitive activities were revived as was the pursuit of Olympics glory. To that end, former star boxers and coaches have been entrusted with the responsibility of discovering promising boys and girls, who will be moved from their farms and villages to state supported schools dedicated to sports. “China Heavyweight” follows Qi Moxiang around Sichuan province as he scouts the territory and visits the students. In his late-30s, he also harbors the hope of rekindling his own boxing career. Those amateurs who do make it to the top rung of the sport face a dilemma not unlike the one faced by the great Cuban Olympians of the 1960-70s. They can continue to fight for the collective good as amateurs or decide to go pro and risk the economic punishments that come with failure. American professionals have confronted many of the same roadblocks, without the security of state-supported facilities. In addition to the scenes shot at the school and competitive events, Chang emphasizes the natural beauty of the province, where the men, women and children not similarly gifted labor in the fields cutting tobacco. The DVD includes 30 minutes of deleted scenes.

I didn’t see any photos of Bruce Lee alongside those of the many champion boxers in Qi’s bedroom, but the fighters had one thing in common, at least, besides being Chinese. Although Lee remains one of the most admired practitioners of martial arts, he studied boxing techniques and combined them with his expertise at wing chun karate. That’s one of the things I learned while watching the new bio-doc, “I Am Bruce Lee.” In it, former lightweight boxing champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini testifies as to Lee’s influence on him and, when asked, how he might have gone about a face-to-face challenge. UFC president Dana White suggests that Lee was the “father of mixed martial arts.” There have been several documentaries and profiles of Lee in the nearly 40 years since his death, at 32, but none that’s as well made, wide ranging and disparately sourced. Besides White and Mancini, those interviewed are Kobe Bryant, boxer Manny Pacquiao, actors Mickey Rourke and Ed O’Neill, musician Taboo, veteran martial artists Dan Inosanto, Richard Bustillo, Bob Wall, Gina Carano and Gene LeBell; and Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, and honorary niece, Diana Lee Inosanto. Pete McCormack’s film also contains dozens of clips from martial arts action films and rare archival footage, and a discussion about the myths and circumstances surrounding his death. All bio-docs should be as solid as “I Am Bruce Lee.” The Blu-ray adds several more clips, including Lee’s Hollywood screen test. – Gary Dretzka

Detropia
Battle for Brooklyn
For most of the last 40 years, Detroit has been the civic personification of dystopia-American style. Instead of maintaining its status as a 143-square-mile symbol of this country’s industrial might, the grand city became the capital of the Rust Belt. Detroit might have disappeared altogether if the government didn’t bail out its automakers when the recent depression hit. I wonder if Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “Detropia” didn’t begin its life as a eulogy, but, as the bail-out worked its magic, change direction by offering a sliver of optimism to viewers. Unlike the congressmen and conservatives who argued against the rescue effort, the people we meet in “Detropia” have lived and worked in the city for decades. Some came here to escape racism in the Jim Crow South, while others moved to Detroit to build the tank, trucks and planes that would be needed to win World War II. The unions helped these people move into the middle class and give their children the choice of going to college, serving their country in uniform or making more cars and trucks. Their stories play out against a background of the urban decay, local watering holes and an opera representing traditional Motor City culture, which was largely backed by GM, Chrysler and Ford. Some of the witnesses are flat broke and hopeless, while others continue to fight the good fight. It’s an interesting document, if incomplete. Two questions remain: what would Detroit look like today if Mitt Romney and his cronies had convinced Congress not to bail out the automakers? The other, “What will Detroit look like in two or three years, given the current upswing in the auto industry.”

Likewise, Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley’s “Battle of Brooklyn” describes what can happen when politics and capitalism merge for only some of the right reasons. The documentary describes one small community’s lonely, Sisyphean battle to block a land grab by some of the wealthiest and powerful people in New York. As is so often the case, a developer went behind the backs of residents and their representatives to push through a project of dubious need and value to Brooklyn. In this case, it was Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards sports complex in a largely industrial, partially residential area of the borough. A similar thing happened to the working-class residents of Chavez Ravine, when the Dodgers moved to L.A., and when Chicago’s United Center chewed up more of the blighted West Side than the Stadium already had. The lure of bringing one of the NBA’s worst teams to the borough and, with it, food courts, mini-malls, discount stores and movie theaters was too great a temptation for city and state authorities to resist. Instead of low-rise housing, the company wanted to create the densest upscale real-estate development in U.S. history. In doing so, Ratner dangled the promise of jobs to the largely African-American Brooklynites – as if New York unions could be told who to hire — and the benefits of the so-called halo-effect before small businesses.

In this way, it split the community and painted the residents of the target neighborhood as the bad guys. Meanwhile, Ratner was paying off pro-development activists and clergy from outside the neighborhood. All along, though, the fix was in. Government agencies were already in bed with the company and no pissant neighborhood group was going to prevent them for getting access to luxury boxes, campaign contributions and outright bribes. The David in this confrontation is represented by Daniel Goldstein, a resident who, for seven years, refused to buckle to the misuse of “eminent domain” abuses. Goldstein and his supporters refused to take “no” for an answer and fought the case against eminent domain as far as it would go. Finally, the smugness that oozes from the faces of the developers tells everything that needs to be said about the results of the campaign. In the film’s postscript, it’s duly noted that almost none of the promises made by Forest City Ratner came to pass, except the sports arena, and New York taxpayers are paying for those shortfalls in company profits that didn’t include executive compensation. – Gary Dretzka

The Last Fall
Writer/director Matthew A. Cherry played wide receiver in the NFL before turning to the music-video game and, with “The Last Fall,” his first feature film. Its protagonist, not surprisingly, is a wide receiver who’s just been relieved of his duties on a team’s practice squad. Kyle Bishop is one of many players who aspire to making a solid living, if not to achieve stardom, as a professional player. When that dream appears to end, he returns to his boyhood home with a pile of IOU’s on his plate and a chip on his shoulder. I’m not sure I buy how quickly things turn sour for Kyle, but they surely do. Although he can’t find a job, he’s able to re-establish his ties to his first girlfriend, who’s now a single mother of a nice little boy. No sooner does he give up his dreams of returning to the big show and getting married, he gets a call from his agent with news about a tryout in Jacksonville, where Cherry once played. Things get even more complicated when his girlfriend appears to be getting together again with her baby’s daddy. It humbles Kyle, a self-centered man who could use some help in that department. “The Last Fall” may be quite a bit too melodramatic for its own good, but underserved “urban” audiences might enjoy watching such actors as Lance Gross, Nicole Beharie, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Obba Babatunde, Keith David and Darrin Dwight Hanson. – Gary Dretzka

30 Nights of Paranormal Activity With the Devil Inside the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Blu-ray
The Golden Age of Movie Parodies is long past, so fans of the genre are forced to take what they get these days. Sadly, most of these straight-to-video spoofs have been no funnier than the movies, TV shows and commercials they purport to lampoon. Somehow, Craig Moss’ “30 Nights of Paranormal Activity With the Devil Inside the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” has managed to elevate itself above the usual junk. This isn’t to imply it’s in the same league as “Blazing Saddles,” “Airplane!” or “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” just that it’s a step or two more entertaining than the stuff churned out by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, including “Meet the Spartans,” “Disaster Movie,” “Vampires Suck” and “Epic Movie.” In fact, it’s noticeably better than Moss’ own “Breaking Wind” and “41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall.” Perhaps, that’s because Kathryn Fiore, Flip Schultz, Olivia Alexandra, French Stewart and Danny Woodson are more polished comedians than the stars of his other movies, or it could simply mean the found-footage subgenre is so much richer. “30 Nights” begins with the opening of a storage locker by women who won a bidding war on “Storage Wars.” Besides Adele, who’s performing at a piano when she isn’t eating, the only treasure to be found inside the locker in a VHS cassette labeled “found footage.”

Fiore and Schultz move into a house that shows signs of being haunted, so they immediately hire a security firm to install cameras in every conceivable corner, as the families in the “Paranormal Activity” did. They also hire a cut-rate Ghostbusters operation, Ghost Brothers. In this way, too, they can monitor the activities of their year-old baby and a teenage daughter who takes her fashion cues from Lisbeth Salander. The teenager attracts the attention of their next-door neighbor, Abraham Lincoln, and a pair of lesbian vampires. Eventually, the parents get used to being haunted and are able to sleep through whatever tricks the ghosts play on them. This, of course, only serves to piss off the resident poltergeists. The riffs on “Paranormal Activity” are pretty effective, as is a parody of “Black Swan” performed by the couple’s gay nanny. If any of that sounds funny to you, a rental wouldn’t be the worst investment in time and money. If not, don’t bother. The Blu-ray adds a short making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Joan Rivers: Don’t Start With Me
Harland Williams: A Force of Nature
Don Rickles has spent most of the last 50 years hurling insults at fans and celebrities, alike. Legend has it that he made his bones in the 1950s by poking fun at Frank Sinatra, who was catching his act in a Miami Beach nightclub. Instead of telling his bodyguards to beat the crap out of him, Sinatra told all of his friends to catch his act. And, late at night in the lounge of Las Vegas’ Sahara Hotel, they did. Besides a few mild racial and ethnic jabs, the worst thing he called anyone was a “hockey puck.” I mention this after watching Joan Rivers’ latest in-performance DVD, “Don’t Start With Me.” Now, that’s some mean-ass shtick. While still plenty funny, her material tests the invisible borders drawn between insult comedy and character assassination. And her targets aren’t limited to such newsmakers as Chaz Bono, Oprah and Gayle, Angelina Jolie and the Kardashians. It’s when she wrings laughs out of the “gift shop” at Auschwitz, Anne Frank’s one-book career, Jacqueline Kennedy’s wild side and other personalities too dead to fire back bon mots. I think I can recall many of the same sexually oriented gags from 20 years ago, but, for those whose ears are younger than mine, it still brings the house down. In this case, the “house” is the grand old Chicago Theater, only a couple miles from the venerable Second City troupe’s Old Town headquarters, where Rivers got her start. “Don’t Start With Me” originally was shown on Showtime and, unfortunately, doesn’t include bonus features.

In “A Force of Nature,” Harland Williams attempts to answer the question, “If a comedian performs atop a hill in the desert and no one is there to hear him, does he get laughs?” The deafening silence that greets Williams after each of his frequently scatological observations suggests that the answer is emphatically “no.” Neither does he elicit much of a response when he turns his back to the camera and pisses off the edge of his “stage” deep in the Mojave. This isn’t to imply that the Toronto native isn’t funny or that, all things considered, the tortoise and crow he uses as second-bananas upstage him. Mostly, it proves that in-performance DVDs tend to fare better with a live audience there to validate the comic’s humor. Originally staged for Showtime, “Force of Nature” benefits most from the lively cinematography, which probably was accomplished with cameras positioned on tall cranes. Usually in televised comedy performances, the last thing viewers are supposed to notice is the camerawork. Here, the desert background often is more interesting than the material. You do have to give Williams some credit, though, for attempting such an experiment. Although “Force of Nature” falls short of being surreal, it’s never short of weird. – Gary Dretzka

BBC: The Hour 2: Blu-ray
BBC: The Adventures of Merlin: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
Doctor Who: Shada
BBC: Being Human: Season Four: Blu-ray
BBC: Waking the Dead: Complete Season Seven
BBC: Red Dwarf X: Blu-ray
BBC: Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 1997
SCI: An Idiot Abroad 2
TNT: Men of a Certain Age: The Complete Second Season
Comparing a yet-to-air television mini-series to bona-fide hit, such as “Mad Men,” can be a blessing and a curse for a show. Such marketing boasts, even when culled from positive reviews by influential critics, may guarantee a big opening for a seemingly derivative show like the BBC’s “The Hour,” but, after a couple of weeks, it either has to justify the hype or die a very public death. While NBC’s “Playboy Club” and ABC’s “Pan Am” failed to live to the publicity material, “The Hour” was able to overcome negative reviews in the British press and become a modest hit for BBC America. (Starz’ sexy period soap “Magic City” succeeded by playing down the “Mad Man” comparisons and focusing on the Rat Pack angle and frequent nudity.) “The Hour” is set during a particularly interesting period in recent British history. Sex scandals, political corruption and revelations about espionage at the top levels of government kept the tabloid press buzzing in the 1950s, even as the country’s post-war recovery inched slowly forward. The BBC’s “The Hour” was a general-interest newsmagazine, not unlike “60 Minutes,” which kept news executives, censors and spin-doctors busy in the Cold War period. In its first season, the show’s editors and reporters bristled when they were told to spin the Suez crisis in favor of the British intervention. Sources ended up dead and spies turned up in the unlikeliest of places. Season Two finds the country in better financial straits, but with “The Hour” having to start from Square One after being forcibly put on hiatus. This time, the target of the show’s investigative team is organized crime in London’s entertainment district, as well as its reach into the pockets of police, business and government circles. The fine cast includes several actors familiar from other BBC imports. They include Ben Whishaw, Dominic West, Romola Garai, Tim Pigott-Smith, Juliet Stevenson, Burn Gorman, Anton Lessa, Anna Chancellor, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Oona Chaplin. It’s as good an hour of television that can be found this side of “Mad Men.” It comes with a making-of featurette.

The Adventures of Merlin” is to British fantasy-adventure series what “Smallville” is to comic-book heroes on big and small screens in America. The wizard Merlin has yet to grow whiskers and Arthur is still a prince. That’s not a bad angle for a series, anywhere. In the fourth go-round, Merlin is still taking bullets for Arthur and keeping the various dragons and demons at bay. Morgana shows her gratitude by doing everything in her to power to get rid of her half-brother and use Merlin as a weapon in her court. By now, it’s getting difficult to tell all of the real and fantasy players without a scorecard. By the end of the season, we’re back in familiar territory with Merlin leading Arthur to his inevitable date with the sword in the stone and remounting his campaign to return to Camelot. The set adds commentaries, deleted scenes and outtakes. After a brief fling with NBC, “Merlin” continues on Syfy.

Most of what the late Douglas Adams contributed to “Doctor Who” was done under the pseudonym David Agnew or as a script editor. “Shada” was written in the late 1970s as the final serial of the 17th season. A writers strike prevented Adams from completing it, but two short clips from the unfinished episode were used in the 1983 special episode, “The Five Doctors.” The new DVD contains the “Fourth Doctor” story, newly restored from original film negatives and studio recordings. It linked material from the Tom Baker years, 1974-81, and the 1993 anniversary special, “More Than 30 Years in the Tardis.” As usual, the BBC release adds a bunch background material on the episode, the writers’ strike, interviews, PDF material and, from 2003, an audio book/Flash animation for BBC Interactive. The remade version starred Paul McGann, as the Doctor, with Lalla Ward reprising her role as Romana and John Leeson as K-9.

It’s getting tough to keep the new DVD compilations of “Being Human” straight. Two weeks ago, the second season of the American/Canadian remake, shown on Syfy, was shipped and this week’s release is from the BBC and BBC America version, which, later in 2013, will enter its fifth season. Things are getting tough in Honolulu Heights, where Annie gets two new supernatural roommates, Tom and Hal, and the late Nina’s human baby, dubbed the Chosen One.  Drastic measures need to be taken to avoid mutual-assured destruction of ghosts, vampires and werewolves. They come in the form of extreme sacrifices, emotionally and physically. It’s pretty exciting, really. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, interviews and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

The terrific BBC and BBC America police-procedural series, “Waking the Dead,” has already bit the dust in England, but three DVD compilations remain extant in the U.S. Season Seven is comprised of six two-part investigations for the Cold Case Squad to solve. They deal with international terrorism, private military contractors, the penal system, sex offenders, Navajo rituals, human trafficking and neo-Nazi politics to close more previously unsolved cases. Boyd’s son, who’s been missing for seven years, also makes a surprise reappearance this season.

The British sci-fi comedy franchise, “Red Dwarf,” has been making Brits laugh since 1988, with several hiatus periods between then and now. If Mel Brooks, the co-writer/director of “Space Balls,” had agreed to do produce one of the “Star Trek” spinoffs, it might have looked a lot like “Red Dwarf.” Although not a monster hit, the series spun off books, music, magazine, role-playing game and other merchandise. A pilot for an American version was shot, but never shown, and a feature film apparently has been in early stages of development since 1999. “Red Dwarf X,” the tenth iteration of the series, reunites the original cast of Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules and Robert Llewellyn as passengers on the Red Dwarf mining ship (Kryten). One is the last known human alive, while the crew members are a hologram of the captain’s long-dead bunkmate and humanoid versions of a computer and a cat. In one of the adventures included in the new six-hour compilation, they are transported back in time several million years, to Roman-held Palestine in 23 A.D. It’s here that they meet Jesus and Judas, in a storyline no American sitcom would touch in a million light years. The Blu-ray adds the feature-length documentary, “We’re Smegged,” outtakes and deleted scenes.

Love is in the air during the 18th season of the venerable Brit comedy, “Last of the Summer Wine,” in which geezers Compo, Clegg and Foggy attempt to squeeze as much mischief out of their twilight years as possible. In what turns out to be Foggy’s last year among us, the trio joins the cast of a horror movie being shot in town, become fodder for a new dating service and “help” a hiker writing a guidebook. In an effort to cop a kiss from Nora Batty, Compo buys a motorbike from Auntie Wainwright to impress her. The set includes the 1996 New Year’s Eve special, “Extra! Extra!”

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s hilariously masochistic travel show, “An Idiot Abroad,” is an unlikely hybrid of “Jackass,” “No Reservations” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” with their masochistic buddy Karl Pilkington serving as human guinea pig and village idiot. They previously collaborated on HBO’s animated talk show, “The Ricky Gervais Show,” in which Pilkington’s birdbrain theories also provided most of the laughs. In Season 2, the show’s co-creators asked Pilkington to come up with a Bucket List of things he’d like to do before he died. After the concept is explained to him in painfully obviously terms, the knucklehead is handed airline ticket to several exotic locations in the company of a sound and camera crew. Invariably, Gervais finds ways to turn these dream destinations into living nightmares. For instance, instead of being allowed to swim with dolphins, as requested, he’s required to jump into a shark cage off the Australian coast and act the fool to grab the attention of a Great Shark. Similarly, before he can get a glimpse of a whale in the seas off Alaska, he must spend a few days enduring some of the coldest weather on the planet, traipsing around on snowshoes and helping the driver of a “honey wagon” picking up near-frozen human excrement. Pilkington’s love of monkeys and primate lore provided lots of laughs on the talk show, but when confronted with hundreds of the thieving bastards in a reserve, he quickly changed his mind. Also in Thailand, he visited a cobra habitat and shared with the owner a lunch of ants, bugs and other unsavory treats. In addition to being very funny, “An Idiot Abroad” takes viewers to places that most tourists would never dream of going.

Of all the shows that didn’t get renewed for a third season last year, TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age” created the largest vacuum in my playlist of favorites. It told the story of three longtime friends, who, while on cusp of 50, were experiencing many of the same problems and a few of the joys of other guys in the same middle-class, suburban demographic. Sounds dreary, but the series pretty much told it like it is, without dramatic embellishments or convenient fixes for difficult situations. Even after filtering the realistically profane dialogue, I think “Men of a Certain Age” might have fared better on network television, if only because it would be easier for men to find without a GPS devise and the stars already had proven themselves in popular series. Co-creator Ray Romano plays Joe, the recently divorced owner of a party-supply store and father of two. He’s a recovering gambling addict and dreams of joining the senior golf tour. Owen (Andre Braugher) works at his father-in-law’s car dealership and, if he didn’t love his wife as much as he does, probably would have killed the old goat by now. Terry (Scott Bakula) is an actor whose age works against him when seeking parts and, in the meantime, manages an apartment complex. They get together on a regular basis for breakfast, hikes and fairly standard guy talk. It’s their interaction with women and co-workers that provides the most laughs. In the second and final season, the characters turn 50, an age that comes with more baggage than almost any other milestone. What’s nice is the easy rapport the men share and concern for each other’s well-being. That, and an insistence that live doesn’t have to end at 50. The DVD adds a gag reel, deleted scenes, audio commentary, a behind-the-scenes featurette, “The Bitter/Sweet 50” and music video. – Gary Dretzka

Cartoon Network: Amazing World of Gumball: The Mystery
Nickelodeon: SpongeBob SquarePants: Extreme Kah-Rah-Tay
Nick Jr.: Let’s Learn: ABCs/Let’s Learn: 1, 2, 3s
The new arrivals to the Peanut Gallery are noted duly: No one gets cheated the “Gumball” compilations, which both have logged in at 132 minutes … an eternity by the standards of too many DVDs targeted at kids. This time, the award-winning British/American co-production finds the 12-year-old cat still making trouble at a time when his peers have gotten fat and lazy. Here, he’s chased around school by a T-Rex; has a friend named Anton, who’s literally a piece of toast; develops a crush on Penny, a peanut with antlers. For the uninitiated, Gumball’s dad is a 6-foot-4 bunny; mom works at a Rainbow Factory; and his brother is a goldfish named Darwin.

In the new SpongeBob collection, “Extreme Kah-Rah-Tay,” the emphasis is on sports and competition. Of the eight episodes, only two focus on martial arts and Sandy’s sensei. The rest are funny, but in the extreme.

Your youngest viewers can get a head start on their A, B, C’s and 1, 2, 3’s with the help of their friends from various Nick Jr. shows. The “Let’s Learn” series provides lessons that are both useful and entertaining. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

Frankenweenie: Blu-ray
There are all sorts of good reasons to recommend Tim Burton’s animated re-launch of his 1984 live-action short, “Frankenweenie.” Besides looking and sounding terrific in Blu-ray 2D and 3D, it could provide an excellent introduction to the classic-horror genre for pre-teens. It’s a short step from Disney’s “Frankenweenie,” to the recently released into Blu-ray, “Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection,” which includes nicely rendered editions of “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein.” The story is essentially the same, except that it takes place in a typical American suburb and the re-animated creature is young Victor Frankenstein’s pit bull. Before being run over by an automobile while chasing a ball, Sparky played monsters in Victor’s homemade flicks. Inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel and his school’s new science teacher – Martin Landau’s voice, but Vincent Price’s face and body – he decides to dig up Sparky and get ready for the next life-generating lightning storm. The experiment is successful, of course, but the dog’s newfound friskiness freaks out the neighbors. Worse, Victor lets slip the specs to his science-fair partner Edgar “E” Gore, who promptly begins an even more ambitious reanimation project. Soon, the entire town is infested with undead pets. Unlike Sparky and Edgar’s goldfish, the newly arrived monsters are genuinely frightening mutations caused by inexact lightning strikes. The enduring lesson, “When men play God, no one wins,” proves as relevant today as when it was first introduced in Shelley’s novel. Even a 10-year-old can take that much away from “Frankenweenie.”

How much older viewers will appreciate the “Frankenweenie” revamp depends on several Burton-specific questions, all of which might have impacted the movie’s lackluster box-office performance. (I suspect that it will do just fine in DVD and Blu-ray.)  As has been his wont lately, Burton adds several layers of conceits on what began as an unpretentious and highly inventive 29-minute short. The list is topped by Burton’s risky decision to maintain the black-and-white presentation, which paid homage to the Universal originals in short-form, but gets old after the 45-minute mark here. Adding an hour’s worth of new material, however clever, also tests the patience of viewers. Although hipsters and Burton loyalists will dig the many references, nods and winks to his previous movies and vintage horror flicks, some viewers may be disappointed by the absence of footnotes in the DVD package or explanations in a commentary track. Burton’s a pioneer in stop-action animation and the characters are well rendered throughout the movie. It remains uncertain, however, if “Frankenweenie” suffered commercially from overfamiliarity with his previous efforts or it was too similar to “ParaNorman,” which it resembles thematically and was released near the end of summer. Who’s to say, though, how much of a bang Disney got for its cross-platform and ancillary-products bucks? Even with a budget nut of an estimated $39 million, stop-action movies built on the scale of “Frankenweenie” might still prove to be sound investments in the worldwide marketplace. Fortunately, that’s not a cross audiences are required to bear.

Apart from the lack of a commentary track, fans of the movie should enjoy a bonus package that includes the original live-action short, which starred Barret Oliver, Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern, Sofia Coppola and Paul Bartel; the new stop-action short, “Captain Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers,” with Victor and Sparky; the informative making-of featurette, “Miniatures in Motion”; a music video; and a piece on the “Frankenweenie” traveling exhibit. Did I forget to mention that the voicing cast for “Frankenweenie” includes Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Atticus Shaffer, Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, Conchata Ferrell, James Hiroyuki Liao and Frank Welker. As usual, the music is supplied by Danny Elfman. – Gary Dretzka

House at the End of the Street: Unrated: Blu-ray
Anyone who doubts the marquee value of 2012’s Female Flavor of the Year, Jennifer Lawrence, ought to consider her ability to wring a substantial profit from the otherwise undistinguished slasher thriller, “House at the End of the Street.” Her star-turn in “The Hunger Games” and well-earned kudos for “Silver Linings Playbook” might even prompt someone to take a chance on the unreleased “The Devil You Know” or spark some renewed interest in “The Beaver.” That one, though, would likely require the help of a miracle worker. While “House at the End of the Street” could hardly be considered a blockbuster, it returned some $31.6 million on an estimated investment of $7 million. Even taking marketing costs into account that represents a tidy chunk of change for a movie that had straight-to-DVD written all over it. Here, Lawrence plays an independent-minded teenager, Elissa, who, along with her recently divorced mom, Sarah (Elisabeth Shue), moves into a house within spitting distance of a horrifying crime scene. Years earlier, a young girl slaughtered her mother and father for no apparent reason and she’s either still on the lam or dead. Her older brother, Ryan (Max Thieriot), has since moved back into the house and is maintaining a low profile around town. Upon learning of the house’s sordid history, Elissa naturally is anxious to learn everything there is to know about Ryan. Clearly, she hasn’t watched enough horror movies to know that no good can come from nosing around the house at the end of the street or someone who would live in such a place. Ryan’s a nice guy, but one who doesn’t give up his secrets lightly. It wouldn’t take a genius-level IQ or graduate degree in horror studies to guess what happens during the rest of “House.” Once Ryan’s secret is revealed, the movie pretty much unspools with the same bolts out of the blue and jarring musical cues as nearly every post- “Psycho” thriller. Its modest budget does allow for some extremely effective sound effects, which are milked for every decibel they can muster. In this way and others, director Mark Tonderai adds some drama to a story that was predictable and thread-worn from the get-go. Lawrence’s younger fans should find something here to enjoy, even if hardened horror and slasher buffs won’t. The Blu-ray adds a run-of-the-mill making-of featurette and trailers. – Gary Dretzka

Dredd: Blu-ray
I don’t pretend to know what makes one comic-book character a bankable protagonist in a big-budget, action-filled thriller and another superhero a bust. In hindsight, Batman, Superman and Spider-Man may look as if they were no-brainers, but it’s likely that one or two studio executives, at least, sweated out their opening weekends. On paper, “Howard the Duck” probably looked like a no-brainer to its investors, too. Without doing the math, I’d guess that only about half of the comic-book epics make enough money in their initial run to warrant immediate plans for a sequel. Despite its British roots and longevity, the Judge Dredd seemed to be a perfectly reasonable candidate for success among the teen- and fan-boy crowd. The “2000 AD” comic book series from which “Dredd” emerged is smart, witty and full of creatively rendered fantasy violence. Perhaps, the lack of commercial appeal for the 1995 and 2012 screen adaptations can be laid on the moral ambiguity of the protagonist, which plays better on paper than on the screen. As cop, judge and executioner, it must have been difficult for popcorn-chomping viewers to discern whether Dredd is an honorable character in a chaotic world or merely a tool in the maintenance of that chaos. For example, the iconic symbols on Dredd’s uniform and motorcycle betray both fascist and pro-democracy sentiments. It was the clear intention of the authors to portray him as a good guy and a bad ass simultaneously. The fact that we can’t see Dredd’s eyes through his helmet and face guard suggests he has something to hide that the Lone Ranger didn’t. Of course, moral ambiguity hasn’t hurt the ratings of “Sons of Anarchy.”

The vibes emanating from the set of “Judge Dredd” – Sylvester Stallone clashed continually with the director – were so negative as to put a curse on its box-office potential. It’s a good thing that “Dredd” is far less star-driven than the original. Kiwi pretty boy Karl Urban may be a household name in Auckland, but, on screen here, as in the comic book, it’s the character that matters most. It can be argued that the set designer deserves equal billing with Urban. The high-rise Mega City One setting is full of eye-catching elements and contours drawn to take full advantage of the 3D option. Mega City One is a sprawling metropolis, spanning Boston and Washington, with residential towers sprouting up like corn in Iowa (which no longer is fertile or habitable). Each building exists as a self-contained neighborhood, with shops, utilities, manufacturers and apartments stacked on top of one another. Therein reside people who want to live in harmony with their neighbors and gang-bangers who treat Mega City One as a target-rich environment. Apparently, American lawmakers are still committed to fighting the great unwinnable drug war, as Dredd’s primary target here is a prostitute-turned-pusher, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who sells a powerful new substance called Slo-Mo. On this particular day in the life of Dredd, the enforcer is paired with a pretty, young and un-helmeted rookie with psychic powers. Since there’s no real way to stop the drug trade, they must settle for taking a stab at quelling a gang war in the self-contained slum. That’s about it, except for the fun of watching Ma-Ma’s enemies falling to their deaths from the roof of the 200-story-high building and landing in a splash of 3D gore. The 2D and 3D Blu-ray packages come with a half-dozen making-of featurettes explaining the character, his comic roots and the production challenges. – Gary Dretzka

Lapland Odyssey
What does it say about western culture that movies about slackers and underachievers have translated so easily from English into languages ranging from Spanish to Sami, the native tongue of Laplanders? The characters who populate director Dome Karukoski and writer Pekko Personen’s often very funny “Lapland Odyssey” may not be as fundamentally inert as those in such American entertainments as “My Name Is Earl,” “Get a Life,” “Slacker,” “Mallrats” and “The Big Lebowski,” but they’re cut from the same mold. Enduring the seemingly eternal darkness of winter north of the Arctic Circle is a difficult enough task for ambitious and motivated Finns. For those not similarly inclined, life is complicated by a scarcity of jobs and the tendency of marriage-age women, especially, to head for larger cities directly after graduating high school. Without a wife, who will subsidize the slackers’ addiction to alcohol and cigarettes? (“Lapland Odyssey” is decidedly not a stoner flick, although similarities abound.) Here, the movie’s central dilemma concerns Janne, who’s been on the dole since losing his job five years earlier. Janne’s married to Inari, a stunning blond in a country that apparently is flush with such beauties. One day, Inari stirs her husband from his midday sleep, in order for him to pick up a “digibox” cable converter before the local electronics store closes and “Titanic” begins. Naturally, he stops first at a tavern, where he imbibes a few eye-openers with two of his closest buddies. Although the store is next door to the bar, he arrives too late to convince the owner to cut him a break. Because Janne’s already blown most of the money on beer, the merchant isn’t motivated to unlock the door.

It is at this point that Janne’s excellent adventure begins and the film’s trio of slackers kicks into action in support of their buddy. Before locating a store that stays open into the wee hours, the lads must come up with the money to afford the device. When Janne informs Inari that he won’t be able to make the “Titanic” deadline, she gives him an ultimatum: either return home with the digibox by morning or forever lose the best thing he’s ever likely to have … her. There’s no reason to ruin the fun, except to say that “Lapland Odyssey” takes advantage of the region’s unique natural beauty and the wintertime customs of its residents. Indeed, the characters spend more time in hot tubs than John Cusack, Rob Corddry and Craig Robinson did in the entirety of “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Beyond the nearly 24 hours of darkness, the film is informed by the same aura of gloom and doom that marked Ingmar Bergman’s films. The specter of suicide looms large over “Lapland Odyssey,” but not in a particularly humorous way. Somehow, Karukoski makes this element work, without putting a damper on the proceedings. We’re told that “Lapland Odyssey” was a huge success in Finland, breaking all sorts of box-records. American viewers probably wouldn’t find the humor to be as uproarious as the average Finn or Lap, if only because we’re more familiar with the sub-genre. Fans of offbeat international fare should find a lot to enjoy, however. The DVD comes with an eight-page booklet with an introduction by and interview with the director, as well as an interesting short film, “Burungo,” shot in Africa. – Gary Dretzka

SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden: Blu-ray
Mitt Romney’s campaign advisers were none too pleased to learn that the Weinstein Company’s made-for-cable depiction of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s headquarters would air two days before Election Day. Knowing that ardent Obama supporter Harvey Weinstein was the driving force behind the project, Republican propagandists acted as if the President would be portrayed as being a member of the assault force, not simply an interested observer. By complaining far too vehemently, they gave all sorts of free publicity to a movie that, after all, was debuting on the National Geographic Channel and not in theaters. Of course, TV critics felt it necessary to mention the controversy in their reviews and some probably shaded their responses with the usual cynicism that accompanies such tempests in a tea pot. Fact is, though, anyone whose mind wasn’t already made up by the time “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden” was shown almost certainly wouldn’t be swayed by the President’s presence solely in news clips. It would have been ludicrous for a filmmaker to leave Obama out of the narrative. If anything, I think that Republicans caught something of a break when the screenwriter didn’t directly link the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team to the debacle at Tora-Bora. If Bin Laden and Mullah Omar had been killed or captured there, instead of being given the time and space to escape, the war might have ended in 2001. Quibbles over “SEAL Team Six” and “Zero Dark Thirty” would be moot.

Judged purely by the standards used to evaluate made-for-TV movies, “SEAL Team Six” stands up to criticism pretty well, I think. I’ve seen plenty of movies rushed into release after an important global event and most of them have looked forced and anemic, compared to the circumstances described. Director John Stockwell has directed several action features, including “Blue Crush,” “Into the Blue” and “Turistas,” and acted in a couple dozen others. He displays a good understanding of pace and tone and benefitted, as well, from Peter Holland’s above-average cinematography. Not surprisingly, very few risks are taken in the narrative, although it’s legitimate to wonder where first-time writer Kendall Lampkin got some of the stuff involving strained relations within the team. I have yet to see “Zero Dark Thirty,” but I would guess that the budget it was accorded was many times greater than the one allowed Stockwell. Much has been made of the torture sequence in “ZDT,” but, here, it’s the threat of torture that elicits the first solid lead. Cam Gigandet, Anson Mount, William Fichtner and Kathleen Robertson stand out in what essentially is an ensemble cast. The Blu-ray includes a making-of feature. – Gary Dretzka

Sleep Tight: Blu-ray
To the extent that Spanish filmmaker Jaume Balaguero is known in this country, it’s as the writer/director of the found-footage thrillers [Rec] and [Rec]2, which were remade here as “Quarantine” and “Quarantine 2: Terminal.” Fans of those movies should know that “Sleep Tight,” while supremely creepy, is a very different sort of horror film. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone in Hollywood decided to remake “Sleep Tight,” as well, but not limit the marketing to horror lovers. After all, Alberto Marini wrote the screenplay with the idea of staging the story in New York, using one or two Spanish actors in the lead roles. But, why wait? “Sleep Tight” is an exceedingly intelligent and genuinely surprising thriller, whose antagonist is as much a monster as Hannibal Lecter. The superb Spanish leading man, Luis Tosar, plays a concierge in a distinguished Barcelona apartment building. Although Cesar comes in contact with dozens of people every day, most of them couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. Those with whom he’s friendly have allowed him access to their apartments to fix various problems and he’s also been entrusted with the walking of their dogs. In return for their trust, this amiable sociopath resents everything about them, especially their happiness and complacency. In fact, Cesar has been unhappy and bitter since he was old enough to hold a grudge and his only satisfaction in life comes from making other people as miserable as he is. Tosar could hardly have been a better choice for the role. He reminds me very much of John Malkovich, whose characters frequently harbor dark and dangerous sentiments. The ability to conceal inner-most thoughts and secrets allows both actors to assume roles in genres not limited to horror and drama. Moreover, their mostly bald pates automatically distinguish them from 95 percent of leading men in the movies.

The first time we meet Cesar, he’s sleeping with a pretty resident, Clara (Marta Etura), who we’ll soon learn is his polar opposite in temperament and overall goodness. Within moments, Balaguero lets us in on the first deep secret in “Sleep Tight.” In fact, the reason Cesar is allowed on Clara’s mattress is that she’s had no choice in the matter. In his off hours, the concierge sneaks into her apartment and lays in wait for her underneath the bed. When he’s sure that Clara’s asleep, Cesar climbs out from his hidey-hole, doses her with chloroform and sets time-release traps that are designed to slowly, but surely drive her crazy. If there’s any time left over, Cesar will climb into her bed and spoon with his comatose victim. One early morning, a pre-teen neighbor girl catches the concierge sneaking out of Clara’s apartment and not for the first time. Apparently, she’s been blackmailing Cesar and tormenting him with strange demands. The odds against finding two sociopaths living under the same roof are pretty great, even in the horror genre, but it only adds to the, er, fun. If you think these revelations should have been prefaced with a spoiler alert, know that here are several more layers of intrigue protecting Balaguero’s narrative scheme from being ruined. In this way, “Sleep Tight” can legitimately be described as Hitchcockian. The Blu-ray arrives with a making-of featurette that’s almost as long as the feature, itself. – Gary Dretzka

Samsara: Blu-ray
About half-way through Rick Fricke’s New Age travelogue, “Samsara,” I was struck by the thought that this spectacularly beautiful movie could double as an advertisement targeted at intergalactic tourists thinking of visiting Earth for the very first time. Filmed over a four-year period in more than 25 countries, Fricke’s follow-up to his 1992 spiritual essay, “Baraka,” explores the birth, death and rebirth cycle experienced by people both in developed and undeveloped parts of the Earth. (“Samsara” is Sanskrit for “cyclic existence.”) That Fricke served as cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi” is something lovers of that amazing documentary might already have guessed. The scenes of great natural beauty flow by in much the same brilliant fashion, as do tightly focused images of death and ritualistic ceremonies. (In one scene, a prominent outlaw is laid to rest in a coffin built to resemble a sawed-off shotgun.) Instead of Philip Glass, the riveting soundtrack was created by Marcello De Francisci, Lisa Gerrard and Michael Stearns. The effect is the same, however.

According to the press material, “Samsara” is the first feature-length film since Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” (1996) to be shot entirely on 70mm film. The high-resolution camera work seems several steps ahead of that production, though. It precisely captures the breathtaking beauty and spiritual significance of such locations as Petra, Jordan; Giza, Egypt; the Himalayas of Nepal and Tibet; Epupa Falls, Angola; Yosemite and Zion national parks; Mecca and the Wailing Wall; Versailles; and Sossusvlei, Nambia. Shots of modern Dubai aren’t terribly beautiful, but they are breathtaking. The depictions of animals being led to the slaughter or too fat to do anything but eat and breed are nothing less than sobering. The images that likely will stay with viewers the longest, however, are the ones that bookend “Samara.” In them, we join a dozen young monks-in-training as they watch a Buddhist holy man painstakingly create an incredibly intricate sand mandala. When the students unexpectedly engage in the ritual destruction of the mandala, in advance of the closing credits, it hits us like a sucker punch. Needless to say, Blu-ray is the preferred format by which to savor “Samsara” from both a video and sonic perspective. It arrives with a 50-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Wise Kids
Stella Days
Stephen Cone’s warmly received coming-of-age drama, “The Wise Kids,” demands to be taken seriously by viewers who’ve almost written off the early fruits of the faith-based genre for being half-baked, off-target and completely dependent on easy answers to difficult questions. (“Let’s pray on it” and “It’s just part of God’s plan” are the all-purpose solutions to problems.) Unlike most other producers of so-called Christian entertainments, Cone assumes that the potential audience for his film is sufficiently mature to handle characters that are openly gay, losing their religion, unabashedly hypocritical, skeptical of fundamentalists and knowledgeable in subjects unrelated to scripture. Most of them desperately want to leave room for God in their daily activities and beliefs, even when they feel abandoned by him. Neither are they embarrassed to admit that they believe in the power of prayer and willingly participate in even the corniest of church activities. They’re probably just as appalled by the ravings of such right-wing tele-evangelists as Pat Robertson as any non-believer. Cone was raised in just such a community and his intention in making “The Wise Kids” was to remind viewers that Christianity and bigotry don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.

“The Wise Kids” is set in and around a South Carolina Baptist church, where several of the teenage parishioners are preparing for their next great adventure, college. The three key teen characters are preacher’s daughter, Brea who has begun to question why religious branding is passed from parents to children, as if it were coded in our DNA; the intensely devout Laura, who is afraid of losing her best friends — physically and spiritually — to the temptations of big-city life; and Tim, whose homosexuality is the worst-kept secret in town. Among the adults, Cone is fine as director of the church’s Easter and Christmas pageants and someone who’s grappling with his own sexuality. His wife, meanwhile, hopes to fill the growing gap between them with the affections of a married youth counselor. The pastor, too, seems open to ideas that don’t begin and end with an affirmation of Creationist principles. Everyone’s tolerant of the others’ beliefs and practices, even if they don’t particularly agree with them. The church and its members remind me of those embraced by Hollywood for decades as representative of democratic ideals and liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. That image has been shattered by scandals in the Catholic Church and the ravings of fundamentalists of all stripes who’ve declared war on same-sex marriage, reproductive rights and Darwinism, as taught in godless public schools. If “The Wise Kids” suffers from an anemic budget and production values, the young actors, especially, seem anxious to prove that they’re ready to take their careers to the next level, just like their characters. The bonus package includes a look at the bare-bones production, which took place in Charleston, and the featurette, “Religion and Sexuality in ‘The Wise Kids.’” It also demonstrates that a faith-based movie need not be branded “family friendly” to represent basic Christian values. There are issues discussed here about which younger children need not concern themselves.

Until the recent scandals involving pedophilia and coverage of the Church’s hardline stance against same-sex marriage, screenwriters found it much easier to sell stories in which Catholic priests are key players and evangelicals are fringe characters or antagonists. (Hollywood’s never been comfortable with atheism, Islam and Judaism, except in biblical epics.) I think that’s because the pageantry of the Mass and ornate vestments lends itself to interesting visuals, as do the many traditional rites, rituals and festivals. The confessional is a great place to stage dramatic readings and demonstrate how easy it is for even the most hardened criminals to cleanse themselves of sin, in return for a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers. If only it were that easy for non-Catholics. It can also be argued that most priests are hams and nuns are somewhat tragic figures. There are plenty of Jewish characters in the movies, but what happens in synagogues tends to stay in synagogues. Protestants aren’t interesting unless they’re killing Catholics in Ireland, snake-handling or stealing money from rubes. The liabilities that come with portraying Mohammad on screen aren’t worth the benefits.

Like Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, Martin Sheen was born to play the kind of priest no one would be afraid to invite to a wedding or First Holy Communion party. In life and on screen, he personifies what it means to be a Catholic who honors Christ in his words and deeds, not just for an hour on Sunday mornings. To find him playing a priest in the clumsily titled Irish import, “Stella Days,” then, isn’t surprising or off-putting. His character, Father Berry, has been assigned to guide parishioners in a wee Irish town in the mid-1950s, which he considers to be punishment for disputing a Vatican posting that went to another priest. (Much like Robert DeNiro at the end of “True Confessions.”) Even so, Berry tends his flock as lovingly and conscientiously as possible. Instead of receiving a one-way ticket back to Rome when his three-year tour-of-duty ends, the bishop demands he stay put to raise money for a new church. The parish isn’t wealthy enough to afford such a project, but when Berry suggests building a movie theater to support it, the idea is met with trepidation and scorn from his superiors and a local politician (Stephen Rea) who’s so conservative he could have made the short list of possible running mates for Mitt Romney. He despises the fact that Berry is an intellectual, worldly and prepared to lead parishioners out of the dark ages of de facto Catholic rule in Ireland. One way for this to happen would be to show movies that go beyond, if not that far, the Church-approved lives-of-the-saints catalog. A showdown ensues between the forces of lightness and darkness that wouldn’t be out of place in the period described, but seems overly quaint in 2012. Besides providing some harmless entertainment, the rural Irish scenery in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s “Stella Days” is pretty swell. – Gary Dretzka

Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best
Screenplays about the struggles facing aspiring musicians can be purchased on the open market for a dime a dozen these days. It’s far easier to sell a mockumentary about the clichés of life on the road and Sisyphean pursuit of a career doing what musicians love to do most. Occasionally, something very special slips through the cracks, giving everyone else hope for their own project. Writer/director/star Ryan O’Nan describes “Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best” as a cross between “Once” and “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” in that it chronicles the trials and tribulations of a pair of oddball musicians who hope to make a living on a jerry-rigged tour of dumpy taverns, frat houses and park benches. He could have just as well have described “Brooklyn Brothers” as a hipster version of “Blues Brothers.” O’Nan plays singer-songwriter, Alex, whose morose lyrics reflect his generally bleak outlook on life and love. To make ends meet, he tries to sell real estate and occasionally gets a job dressing up in a costume and singing at senior centers and schools for special-needs kids. After losing his partner and girlfriend in one fell swoop, Alex appears ready to hang up his guitar for good. Out of the blue, he’s confronted by a truly eccentric and quite possibly insane musician, Jim (Michael Weston), who’s seen his act and wants to hook up with him for a tour he’s already booked. Jim literally drags Alex kicking and screaming into his car, where he demonstrates what he has in mind. His idea is to accompany Alex on several different instruments originally intended for use by children. The happy sound of the battery-operated keyboards and horns complements Alex’s bummer-in-the-summer lyrics in a way that could hardly be anticipated. Audiences are receptive to Brooklyn Brothers’ unique sound, but, just when it appears as if they might find a niche, the young woman who’s travelling with them as a roadie screws everything up for them. O’Nan finds an interesting way to get everyone back on the right track and “Brooklyn Brothers” ends on an unexpectedly high note. It would have benefitted immensely from a budget larger than $50,000 and, maybe, another rewrite or two. The music isn’t as memorable as that in “Once,” but it begins to grow on you after a while. Also helpful are cameos delivered by Melissa Leo, Wilmer Valderrama and Jason Ritter, as well as a meatier performance by Andrew McCarthy. The package arrives with a making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, a festival Q&A and a pair of funny shorts. – Gary Dretzka

The Assassins: Blu-ray
For western audiences, the best reason to pick up a copy of “The Assassins” probably is the appearance of Chow Yun Fat, one of the greatest action stars of the Hong Kong cinema. Others might be drawn instead to his character, Cao Cao, a highly influential and greatly feared Han Dynasty warlord and power broker, who also dabbled in poetry and the martial arts. Freshman director Zhao Linshan catches up with Cao Cao in 198 BC, after he has defeated the primary military threat to the Han emperor and is anointed the vassal King of Wei. In 210 BC, he built the magnificent Bronze Sparrow Terrace in the ancient city of Ye as a show of power and his desire to steal the beauteous Qiao sisters from their husbands. At this point in his life, Cao has made so many enemies among the relatives of his victims, as well as rulers afraid of his ambition, that he’s become an almost constant target of assassins. Among them are war orphans and young lovers Mu Shun (Tamaki Hiroshi) and Ling Ju (Crystal Liu Yi Fei), who, as children, are recruited by one of Cao’s chief rivals to spend five arduous years training for a mission to kill a single unnamed man. Eventually, they find themselves in Cao’s well-guarded circle, one as a courtesan and the other a palace eunuch. (Ouch!) Compared to the elaborate depictions of Chinese political and military history we’ve seen lately, the events described in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” are child’s play. Viewers here would benefit mightily from a Playbill, explaining the background of what they’ll see in “The Assassins.” (A Google search would be just as helpful, though.) What doesn’t require much explanation are marvelous set designs, costumes and action scenes that are typical of the historical-epic genre, which plays so well in Blu-ray. Also included are a lengthy making-of featurette and an English dub track. – Gary Dretzka

Music From the Big House
Louisiana’s infamous Angola Prison is considered to be a unique place to do time for a lot of reasons, most of them pretty ugly. Occasionally something beautiful emerges from its walls, usually in the form of music. Huddy Ledbetter, known to the world simply as Lead Belly, was famously “discovered” at Angola by folklorists John and Alan Lomax. Other esteemed graduates included country crooner Freddy Fender and bluesmen Robert “Pete” Williams, Matthew “Hogman” Maxey and Robert “Guitar” Welch, who were discovered by musicologist Harry Oster. Many other inmates returned to their musical roots, especially gospel, so as to make their time on “the Farm” pass easier. (There have been several documentaries made about Angola’s prison rodeo and football program.) “Music From the Big House” follows Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli during her visit to Angola, where she accompanied inmate musicians in a concert for fellow prisoners and visitors. In addition to the music performed, which is excellent, Chiarelli introduces us to the prisoners, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. (“In Louisiana, life means life,” we’re reminded several times.) Almost all of them have adjusted to prison life as well as they possibly could, largely through an acceptance of their guilt and Jesus as their Lord and savior. Their victims aren’t forgotten by director Bruce McDonald and writers Erin Faith Young and Tony Burgess, but “Music From the Big House” is about just that, music, not redemption. The DVD adds additional interviews and music. – Gary Dretzka

Grand Hotel: Blu-ray
Mrs. Miniver: Blu-ray
Driving Miss Daisy: Blu-ray
The Jazz Singer: Blu-ray
Warner Bros. is rolling out a quartet of its classics on Blu-ray this week, including three Best Picture winners. This news may not thrill a generation of viewers that can’t wait for the next comic-book extravaganza or Miley Cyrus vehicle, but lovers of Hollywood history should applaud the releases. Apart from being wonderfully entertaining, even 80 years after its debut, “Grand Hotel” remains one of the most copied movies of all time. Back in the days when sound was new, it wasn’t deemed practical for a studio to cast more than a couple of its biggest stars in the same picture. It was difficult enough to maximize profits by holding down production costs, without also taking into account the headaches related to unleashing the egos of stars not used to sharing to sharing the spotlight with actors of the same age and gender. Nonetheless, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg thought it might be fun to team Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and Lionel Barrymore and see what happens. Predictably, some of these divas acted like children asked to share their favorite toys. Despite all of the off-set pouting and unruly behavior, however, the electricity sparked some memorable performances and at least two unforgettable lines: Garbo’s lament, “I want to be alone. I think I have never been so tired in my life,” and Lewis Stone’s twice-offered observation, “Grand Hotel … always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” Adapted from a German play by Vicki Baum, which also became a Broadway hit, “Grand Hotel” is set in a bustling Berlin hotel that is a home away from home for aristocrats, business executives, con artists, consorts and entertainers. Even if there were no scenes in which all of all of the five stars appeared together simultaneously – a decision that averted ego eruptions – director Edmund Goulding used their interlocking stories to make it seem as if they had. For younger viewers who’ve yet to watch Garbo, Crawford, Beery and the Barrymores in their prime, “Grand Hotel” might even prove revelatory.

Upon its release in 1942, it wasn’t known how far the impact of William Wyler’s “Mrs. Miniver” would be felt beyond the glass windows of box-office stalls in the U.S. and Britain. It describes what happens to a family of average “middle-class” Brits – by Beverly Hills standards, anyway – before and immediately after the Battle for Britain, in 1940. Overnight, the “care-free” nature of life in the country was turned into a living hell by the German Luftwaffe. The battle would be contested in the night skies over several key cities, ports and military and industrial facilities, but to go on to win the as-yet-undesignated world war, British citizens would be required to unite as a people and show their stiff-upper-lips to the world. Their reserve would be tested first at the evacuation of Dunkirk – for which Mr. Miniver (Walter Pigeon) volunteered — and every time the air-raid siren beckoned people to the shelters. As if this weren’t a sufficiently dramatic background for a movie, the screenwriters added a romance between the eldest Miniver boy (Richard Ney), an aspiring socialist, and the granddaughter (Teresa Wright) of the doyenne (Dame May Whitty) of the family after whom the town is named. Then, too, Lady Beldon’s title as the rose-growing queen is being threatened for the first time by the local station manager, who’s named his variety after Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson). Finally, German bombers emphasize the unstated point that the ravages of war don’t honor class bounaries. The sermon delivered by the local vicar in the wake of the deaths of several residents has gone down as one of the most inspirational speeches in cinema history.

Because of the constantly changing news from Europe, in 1940-41, Wyler and his writing team were required to update the narrative several times before the release of “Mrs. Miniver.” Having being appraised of the storyline, President Roosevelt asked MGM executives to put the movie on the fast track and Wyler was only too happy to see this done. That’s because most of the production was executed before the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor and many Americans were committed to avoiding another war between European nations. Wyler felt as if their resistance would diminish if they understood how much that British citizens had already sacrificed for their freedom. Indeed, FDR ordered the sermon be broadcast on Voice of America radio and copies dropped over occupied Europe. Winston Churchill said that the propaganda value of “Mrs. Miniver” was worth a flotilla of destroyers. Far from the front lines, the movie was honored with 6 Oscars out of 12 nominations – a record five cast members were finalists — and the distinction of being the year’s top box-office draw. For Garson and Pigeon, it represented the second of their eight collaborations. The Blu-ray contains background featurettes and an MGM cartoon in which Hitler is portrayed as a wolf.

In addition to being a huge box-office success, “Driving Miss Daisy” was nominated in nine Academy Award categories, winning four. Certainly, it came as no surprise when 81-year-old Jessica Tandy’s name was read. Curiously, though, the 1990 ceremony marked one of the very few times in Academy Award history that the director of the Best Picture prize wasn’t nominated as Best Director. (Oliver Stone would win for “Born on the Fourth of July” that year.) Winner Alfred Uhry adapted the movie from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which described the uncommon 25-year working relationship and eventual friendship between an elderly Atlanta widow (Tandy) and her African-American chauffeur (Morgan Freeman Jr.). The proudly self-sufficient Daisy doesn’t appreciate her son’s determination to keep her out of the driver’s seat of her car and hires a man whose loyalty is stronger than her irascibility. Race wasn’t the central issue in “Driving Miss Daisy,” but, like the 800-pound gorilla, it could hardly be ignored. Set roughly between 1948 and 1973, the story spanned the entirety of the civil-right movement and the emergence of Atlanta as the capital of the New South. Not everything changed in the transition, however. Longtime Southerners cherished certain traditions, protocols and etiquette – segregation and anti-Semitism (Daisy is Jewish), among them – and were in no hurry to see them disappear with the general homogenization of America. Mostly, it’s the performances of Tandy, Freeman and Dan Aykroyd, as Daisy’s supportive son, that sold “Driving Miss Daisy.” If Uhry’s writing isn’t precisely timeless, it’s the closest thing to it. The Blu-ray contains a new supplement on race relations, “Things Are Changing: The Worlds of Hoke & Miss Daisy”; three vintage featurettes; and commentary.

The Jazz Singer” didn’t make the cut in either of the two Best Picture categories in the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony, but the brothers Warner took home an honorary award for “producing the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry.” They also walked away with a boxcar full of money. Like “Grand Hotel,” the story has provided a template for countless other movies, this time about a son who chooses to leave home, rather than stagnate in the family business. Before the son can return home, he must succeed on his own merits and dreams. Based on Al Jolson’s personal story – the protagonist was played on stage by his buddy, George Jessel – “The Jazz Singer” profiles Jakie Rabinowitz (a.k.a., Jack Robin), a brilliant singer his devout father assumes will become the next in a long line of cantors in the family. If Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland) hadn’t been such a hard-liner on the subject, Jakie might have found a way to perform popular songs in beer halls, while also honoring “the voice God gave him.” Instead of joining his father at Yom Kippur services, he takes a promised beating and runs away from home. Years later, he’s become a star on the vaudeville circuit performing in blackface, a conceit that seems to free him from his past and alienation from it. Almost as bad in his mother’s eyes, his girlfriend is a “shiksa.” Circumstances will allow him to “atone” for the sin of becoming a jazz singer and reunite with his family.

The scenario gave Warners the perfect opportunity to extend its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system into feature-length productions, with singing and dialogue synchronized to images on the screen. It wasn’t an ideal alternative to silent movies, but the success of “Jazz Singer” literally got the ball rolling. The Blu-ray package contains most of the same material previously made available on the DVD edition, including commentary by film historians Vince Giordano and Ron Hutchinson, founder of the Vitaphone Project; a collection of vintage cartoons and shorts (Jolson’s “A Plantation Act,”” An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Bros. Silver Jubilee,” “I Love to Singa,” “Hollywood Handicap” and “A Day at Santa Anita.”); the 1947 “Lux Radio Theater” broadcast, starring Jolson; the feature-length documentary, “The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk”; and an entire disc of rarely seen Vitaphone shorts, which, alone, are worth the price of admission. – Gary Dretzka

TNT: Dallas: The Complete First Season
American Masters: Inventing David Geffen
FX: Archer: The Complete Season Three
PBS: Mystery of Easter Island
PBS: Arts & the Mind
PBS: Animal Odd Couples
It remains to be seen how the recent death of Larry Hagman will impact the second season of TNT’s reformulation of “Dallas,” one of the most popular and oft-imitated shows in television history. J.R. Ewing is such an iconic character that his legacy might or might not be able to sustain his absence. Either way, it’s likely that J.R.’s funeral will be touted as one of the highlights of the spring television season, on or off cable. I don’t know how risky a project that network executives considered the series’ resurrection to be, after a 20-year hiatus. By combining several key members of the previous cast with some new hotties, though, it had a fighting chance, at least, of capturing demographics on opposite ends of the spectrum. Besides Hagman, the returnees included Linda Gray, Patrick Duffy and, in guest spots, Charlene Tilton, Steve Kanaly and Ken Kercheval. They must have welcomed the work. The feuding among the various branches of the family tree continues apace with sons John Ross (Josh Henderson) and Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe). John Ross wants to drill, drill, drill, while Christopher is more interested in investing the future of Southfork in alternative fuels. Naturally, there’s intrigue of the between-the-sheets variety, as well. Unlike the original series, which was shot almost exclusively in and around Los Angeles, the new show’s producers spent most of their time in Texas, with some location shoots taking place at the actual Southfork Ranch, north of Dallas. The DVD adds more than two hours of bonus material, including deleted scenes, commentary on the pilot episode and several making-of and background featurettes.

Two of the prerequisites for success in the non-creative end of show business are a lust for power and an insatiable appetite for money. It explains why the cost of attending movies, concerts and Broadway musicals has skyrocketed, along with the prices for albums, DVDs and souvenir T-shirts, without a corresponding increase in the value of most entertainment products. I’m not old enough to say if this was always the case, but it wasn’t until such visionary capitalists as Jann Wenner, Bill Graham and David Geffen discovered the gold to be mined in the 1960s counterculture that it became possible for rock musicians to become millionaires practically overnight. They were a pretty scruffy lot before the first British Invasion and Woodstock, and old-school managers, agents and concert promoters found it difficult to apply traditional practices to New Generation entertainers. That’s when the aforementioned Wenner, Graham and Geffen came into the picture. By making it comfortable for artists and labels to succeed beyond their wildest dreams, they profited in ways their forebears couldn’t have imagined. Once baby-boomers got over the whole poverty-is-cool/capitalism-sucks thing, the gold turned into platinum for everyone involved. PBS’ “Inventing David Geffen” chronicles the mogul’s rise to absolute power in the music industry, Hollywood and Broadway from humble beginnings in the mail room of the William Morris Agency – how cliché is that? – through the California-based folk-rock scene, label management, film production and Broadway. It ends with his success as a partner in DreamWorks SKG and as a major player in political king-making and philanthropy. It would be easy to dismiss his rise to being at the right place at the right time, while still at the right age, but that wouldn’t take into account his ability to spot and nurture talent; cut deals, by bullying lesser negotiators; and never being out of reach of a telephone, especially in the days before iPhones and Androids. If not a universally loved business executive, he is universally admired for reasons other than cutting deals. Geffen’s willingness to put his money where his mouth is, when it comes to medical research and liberal politics, also allows him to stand out in industries that only reward generosity with plaques and envy. And, yes, Geffen still has plenty of time left over to buy important art works and yachts. Writer/director Susan Lacy also spends time tracing his decision to out himself as a gay man, at a time when most celebrities felt it necessary to remain closeted. I might have suggested including something on Geffen’s stubbornness in forbidding average citizens to take advantage of their legal right to tread the sands in front of his Malibu home, as if he were a king and the rest of us peasants. Even if he were found guilty of such a crime by his Hollywood peers – and there aren’t many who would qualify — it would be considered more of a blemish than a scar, if that. Otherwise, Lacy’s story is alive with detail, personality and more stars than there are in the heavens, as they say. It includes deleted background and interview material.

FX’s tongue-firmly-in-cheek espionage sitcom, “Archer,” enters its fourth season in a couple of days and, after an absence of nearly nine months, its fans couldn’t be happier. That’s how it goes in the cable world, where a full season could last anywhere from 6 to 13 episodes and there’s no such thing as premiere month or a clearly defined September-to-May cycle. “Archer” reminds me of what “Get Smart” might have looked like if there was such a thing as FX, Showtime or HBO in the 1960s. For one thing, we might have seen a bit more of Agent 99 than was allowed in 1965 and the dialogue between Don Adams and Barbara Feldon almost certainly would have been less dependent on double-entendres. Because “Archer” doesn’t leave any room for guesswork, the hero of the animated series has been compared to agents 007 and 0SS 117, Inspector Clouseau, Agent 86 and Matt Helm. Unlike those spooks, Sterling Archer’s sex-crazed mother is also his sex-crazed boss. Jessica Walter voices the sassy founder and head of ISIS, while H. Jon Benjamin does the same for the protagonist. The third-season package adds commentaries on “El Contador,” “Drift Problem,” and “Lo Scandalo “; an extended version of “Heart of Archness”; answering-machine messages; and “Cooking With Archer.” Among the guest voices are Burt Reynolds, Patrick Warburton, David Cross, Robb Wells, John Paul Tremblay, Mike Smith, Jack McBrayer and Michael Rooker.

The PBS series “Arts & the Mind” presents all sorts of good reasons for not eliminating arts programs in our schools, as the results of standardized tests have increasingly become the way schools, teachers and students are measured. It’s the currently favored shortcut used by professional educators, politicians and parent groups to evaluate how tax dollars are being spent, regardless of value to the students’ education. While these tests might provide clues as to our students’ ability to match up to kids in other countries in math and the sciences, there’s no way to measure how our kids would fare in the areas of imagination and creativity. Nor would the tess be able to spot a potential successor to Steven Spielberg, Miley Cyrus or Frank Gehry, all of whom produce much revenue, taxes and work for Americans. Narrated by Lisa Kudrow, but informed by the findings of many arts educators, “Arts & the Mind” argues that test scores, alone, can’t be used to determine how a child might succeed at life. Among other things, like sports, the arts encourage team work and a coordination of skills. Such processes stimulate the brain in ways other disciplines don’t, from cradle to the grave. Creative thinking inspires scientists, engineers and mathematicians to experiment, develop, exploit and, yes, monetize their research in surprising new ways. The two-part documentary focuses on how the “arts can improve children’s school performance, and keep our brains agile and sharp into old age; how teenagers find meaning and hope through poetry at a renowned Los Angeles program supported by actor Tim Robbins; how the arts help heal children in hospitals and older veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder; why one of America’s leading Alzheimer’s researchers advises that dance is the single most effective way to ward off dementia.” At a time when conservative politicians are re-writing text books to reflect the prejudices and religious beliefs of their benefactors, it’s encouraging to watch teachers in real-life situations stimulate children’s imaginations and encourage them to think for themselves.

Along with the creation of the Egyptian, Aztec and Mayan pyramids, Stonehenge and temples in the Andes, the mystery surrounding the placement of great stone statues on Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, has kept researchers busy since Europeans landed there in 1722. Let’s put aside for a moment the possibility that ancient aliens simply used their flying saucers to lift the statues from one part of the island and carry them to another, without leaving footprints or wagon treads. It’s an interesting theory, but impossible to prove. The “Nova” episode, “Mystery of Easter Island,” employs state-of-the-art tools – CGI, modeling, MRIs, drone aircraft – to test one of the more feasible possibilities. Polynesian settlers passed along to their descendants the memory of seeing the 86-ton statues “walk” to their resting place. Logs, ropes and levers weren’t mentioned in islander lore, even though it seems logical that Easter Island was deforested by people transporting the statues over rollers. “Mystery of Easter Island” attempts to show how the walking-upright theory could have worked. It also suggests that the island’s deforestation was caused, instead, by slash-and-burn farming, decimation of the sea-bird population and an infestation of palm eating rats. Anyone who’s attempted to move a wheel-locked refrigerator from one corner of the kitchen to the other might be able to grasp the “walking” theory easier than other people. The researchers created a 15-ton replica, but initially had trouble getting it to stand upright, let alone walk with the assistance of teams of volunteers pulling and wiggling it with ropes. In the end, however, it remains a plausible theory and nothing more.

One staple of television news shows is coverage of oddities in the animal kingdom. Especially valued by news directors are clips of unlikely cross-species relationships. In the “Nature” episode “Animal Odd Couples,” we are treated to such pairings as a chimp bottle-feeding a tiger cub; a giant tortoise snuggling a baby hippo; a black crow parenting a meerkat; and a dog nuzzling a leopard. Is there something more to these relationships than mere friendship or a desire to have their photos spread throughout the Internet on Facebook? Here, we scientists who think there might be some deeper scientific meaning to the odd couplings. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Cosmopolis: Blu-ray
What if our current financial crisis owed its genesis less to greed than the boredom that comes when millionaires and billionaires tire of all their cool toys? Chronic ennui certainly is one of things motivating asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) in “Cosmopolis.” Seemingly on a whim, the 28-year-old mogul bets his company’s assets on a swing, one way or the other, in the Chinese yuan. Writer/director David Cronenberg equates the potentially calamitous trade to the banality of Packer driving across town in a stretch limo, simply to get his hair cut by his dad’s barber. Along the way, Packer conducts business from a throne-like chair inside the vehicle, while a diverse array of business associates and hired hands pass through its doors. These include his proctologist, longtime systems geek (Jay Baruchel), art dealer/mistress (Juliette Binoche), theorist (Samantha Mathis) and other leaches. When he does exit the limo, it’s to dine with his newest blond accessory, Elise (Sarah Gadon), who he recently married and has made love to approximately once since the wedding. This hasn’t prevented him from seeking relief in other directions, however. Complicating his journey to the old-fashioned barbershop is a mob of anarchists, led by an almost unrecognizable Mathieu Amalric, protesting the arrival of the President for a financial summit. Packer takes their violent disruption in stride, not even blinking as they spray-paint his limousine and shake rats – the new symbol of currency – outside his window. Indeed, the only time he gets noticeably upset is when his appointment is disturbed, rushing out of the shop with only half of his scalp groomed. Finally, Packer confronts a grubby little creep (Paul Giamatti) who’s been stalking him since morning. They kill the wee hours of the morning exchanging poorly aimed bullets with each other and debating economics.

Cronenberg adapted “Cosmopolis” from a 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, who claims to have been inspired by both the collapse of the dot.com bubble in 2000 and a re-reading of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” As timely as the morning newspaper, the book might as well have been published yesterday. DeLillo’s novels have defied easy adaptation for decades and Cronenberg was up to the challenge. After making three comparatively accessible dramas — “A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises” and “A Dangerous Method” – he probably was itching to swim outside the mainstream. “Cosmopolis” is as abstract as the paintings Packer collects like so many baseball cards. Then, too, Pattison must have been anxious to take on something more substantial than the “Twilight” saga. He’s easily recognizable as the 28-year-old financial wunderkind who seemingly has the world on a string, but, this time, may have pushed his luck a bit too far. By once again pin-pointing and exploiting the horror in contemporary life, Cronenberg has painted an apocalyptic scenario devoid of nuclear weapons, toxic pollution and religious fanaticism, unless one considers the accumulation of capital to be blessed by the deity. Typically, he’s also populated Packer’s world with A-list actors willing to go the extra mile for him. As usual, Giamatti is splendid as the paranoid would-be assassin and Gadon defines the term, “icy blond,” for today’s generation of actors. Even so, it’s Binoche who stops time with her sizzling take on Packer’s mistress, as she slithers on the floor of his limo suggesting additions to his art collection. “Cosmopolis” isn’t for everyone, including those fans who’ve admired his previous work. Those able to make it through this very difficult movie will want to stick around for the making-of featurette and sample the commentary, at least. – Gary Dretzka

Looper
Time travel has been a staple of speculative-fiction for as long as the genre has existed in print and on the screen. Once Jules Verne and H.G. Welles proved there was a market for such scenarios and the Industrial Revolution introduced prototypes of the machinery to accomplish such feats, readers were encouraged to imagine themselves tripping through time and visiting faraway planets. Filmmakers were happy to oblige the conceit, as well. It wasn’t until Rod Serling created “The Twilight Zone” that viewers would be asked to ponder such ethical dilemmas as, “If you could travel back in time to kill Adolf Hitler at birth, would you?” — that things got really complicated. Maybe not, if there was a possibility that even worse monsters – someone with the wherewithal to destroy his enemies with nuclear bombs, perhaps — were waiting in the wings.

In Rian Johnson’s futuristic action thriller, “Looper,” a somewhat less ghastly, if no less fascinating conundrum presents itself. Sometime in the entirely recognizable mid- to late-21st Century, time-travel not only will be possible, but it also will be deemed dangerous enough to be outlawed by the government, along with many less sophisticated criminal activities, such as the illegal disposal of bodies. To solve both problems gangsters use stolen time-travel technology to dispose of their enemies and their bodies simultaneously. This is accomplished by sending a “rat” or turncoat back in time – 30 years, to be exact – and arranging to have that person murdered within seconds of his arrival in a pre-determined location, where no one will be watching and the body can be easily buried. The ell-paid assassin assigned the task by a more permanent visitor from the future. A trusted lieutenant of the mob boss, or his doppelganger, one, would already be in place to make the arrangements for these hits and ensure they occur as planned. Otherwise, nothing could prevent a criminal with 30 years’ worth of mob history stored in his memory bank to wreak havoc with the organization, while also amassing a perfectly legal fortune on Wall Street. Such a scenario plays out twice in close succession in “Looper.” Instead of immediately killing the time-traveler when he appears on the edge of a corn field, the assassin Seth, gives the intended victim just enough time to divert his attention and escape. Panic ensues in the criminal underworld, until the runaway can be gunned down and the bounty strapped to his back can be recovered. (If all goes as planned, the looper would use the bounty to enjoy the next 30 years of his life, when the process either would repeat itself or the killer simply would vaporize.) This is what plays out in the first half-hour of “Looper,” when Young Seth (Paul Dano) fails to shoot Old Seth (Frank Brennan) and Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is subsequently assigned to murder both Seths and his own self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis), who also managed to piss off a mob boss. And, yes, Old Joe escapes, as well.

The rest of the movie plays out largely in a wild series of chases in cities and their rural surroundings. Not only does Young Joe commit his resources to killing Old Joe, but the emissary of the mob (Jeff Daniels) sends out teams of hitmen to wipe out both Joes, as well. Got that? It’s not as complicated as it sounds. The action is well-choreographed and lots of fun to watch. In a bizarro sit-down between the Joes, Old Joe explains how things played out during the past 30 years of his life, so Young Joe can prepare for these events if he manages not to get caught by the gang or offed by his elder self. In either case, Young Joe is trapped in an existential pickle not of his making. As if that weren’t enough excitement for one movie, one of Old Joe’s prophesies comes true right before Young Joe’s eyes. While hiding out in the rural home of a self-sufficient woman (Emily Blunt), he begins to notice certain peculiarities in her son’s behavior. The closer they become, the more Young Joe begins to suspect the kid and Old Joe have some unfinished business with which to deal. Their business, of course, becomes his business when he finds himself in one of those would-you-kill-Hitler predicaments. After closing two “loops,” Young Joe is faced with another one, and it’s a doozy. No amount of spoiler alerts would give away the good parts of “Looper.” To borrow an explanation from Daniels’ crime lord: “This time-travel crap just fries your brain like an egg.” So, just sit back and enjoy the mayhem. The Blu-ray adds Johnson, Levitt and co-star Emily Blunt’s commentary; more than a half-hour of deleted scenes; three making-of and background featurettes; and animated trailer. – Gary Dretzka

A Man Vanishes
Surely one of the world’s great filmmakers during the latter half of the last century, two-time Palme d’Or-winning director Shohei Imamura remains largely unknown outside academic and critical circles in the United States. Such widely acclaimed pictures as “The Eel,” “Vengeance Is Mine,” “The Ballad of Narayama” and “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge” received some exposure here, but not nearly as much as the contemporaneous work of fellow countryman Akira Kurosawa. Blessedly, the slack has been picked up in recent years by distributors of prestige DVDs. It took 45 years for “A Man Vanishes” to receive a very limited run in the U.S., followed shortly by the release of this multi-disc package from Icarus Films. At a time when the lines separating reality-based television and fiction have been completely and, perhaps, irrevocably blurred, this brilliant hybrid suggests that, like beauty, truth is in the eye of the beholder. Imamura begins here by examining an actual cold case of a married businessman’s mysterious disappearance – one of 91,000, we’re told – and giving viewers a cinéma vérité box seat on his investigation.

Everything else in the movie can best be described as “faction” or “truthiness.” Already known in Japan as a master documentarian, Imamura and his crew did what detectives do every day in real life and in TV series. They re-interviewed everyone mentioned in the two-years-cold police files, including his business associates, neighbors and wife, while also finding witnesses overlooked by police. The film’s framing and dark texture replicate actual documentary footage, so we’re naturally inclined to believe what we’re seeing and hearing. Moreover, we’re as interested in finding out what happened to the missing person as everyone else we meet. If Imamura leaves various “tells” as to the veracity of the investigation, they don’t add up to something tangible until he pulls the carpet from under our feet, completely, near the end. Even then, however, the actors remain in character. Today, fans of reality-based television tend to dismiss all available evidence that their favorite shows are, if not rigged, scripted to favor participants favored by network executives and advertisers. The passage of time hasn’t dulled the impact of “A Man Vanishes” one bit, however.

Also included in the box set are five factual documentaries Imamura made for Japanese television. Please don’t assume that I’m resorting to hyperbole when I suggest they are every bit as impressive as “A Man Vanishes” or any of Werner Herzog’s films, which they resemble. Three of them address the question of Japanese soldiers left behind in Thailand and Malaysia after World War II, either through negligence or by individual choice. Much of the material discussed in the interviews will come as a surprise to American viewers, whose only awareness of rank-and-file soldiers is that they willingly mistreated POWs and civilians when ordered and a few were so loyal to the Emperor that they failed to accept surrender for many years after the war’s end. Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” is closest most of us have come to understanding their motivations of Japanese troops, beyond blind obedience. “In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Malaysia” describes conditions for Japanese nationals before, during and after the takeover there, while “In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand” is far more disquieting. A conversation between three now-elderly and increasingly more intoxicated men includes graphic recollections of the systematic slaughter of innocent men, women and children under orders of their superiors. Even a quarter-century after the war, one of the men can’t bring himself to join the conversation, during which the horrid memories were disclosed spontaneously. The key figure in “Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home” is living a relatively normal life in rural Thailand when Imamura convinces him to return to his dramatically changed homeland. His bitterness over being left “unreturned” is palpable throughout, but what is truly heart-breaking is his learning what occurred in his absence. Based solely on the faulty memories of survivors in his platoon, Matsu had been officially declared dead, but for causes unrelated to the true circumstances of his wound. His brother used the declaration to steal property Matsu would have inherited and clear his conscience about ignoring his stated wishes that their sister would be supported financially if he died. Even after learning that Matsu was alive and living in Thailand, four years earlier, his brother failed to clear the record and make sure his pension was protected. Matsu also recounts how soldiers left behind on some islands actually believed that rescue ships would pick them up in 13 years and they should keep fighting.

Lest anyone think that human trafficking for the purposes of exploiting women sexually began with the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the flood of kidnappings that followed, Imamura presents “Karayuki-San, the Making of a Prostitute” as evidence that it didn’t. We’ve already learned that the Emperor of Japan approved the enslavement of Korean women living in Japan for work in “comfort stations.” Other women, from other occupied territories, were required to fill the same role. Decades before the war, however, peasants – including the elderly karayuki-sans we meet in “Making of the Prostitute” — were lured to larger Japanese cities by promises of good-paying jobs. Instead, they were shipped to locations throughout Southeast Asia, where Japanese laborers and businessmen were living, and forced to work as sex slaves. Worse, the women were required to work off a phony debts incurred from the cost of bringing the women to the foreign brothels. Even when the debts were paid off, though, local prejudice and poverty forced the women to return to the brothels or open their own homes to clients. By the time they were introduced to Imamura, in the early 1970s, these lovely ladies were able to look back on the experience with clear eyes and recall good things that occurred in the wake of their servitude. They, like Matsu, were denied pensions and tickets back home.

In “The Pirates of Buban,” Imamura visits a remote region of the Philippines, where rival gangs of pirates ruled the seas and the government tended to leave them alone. One of the gangs is led by a well-armed former soldier whose peasant navy is constantly on guard for attacks by other marauders. Substantially less frightening is the leader of the closest rival gang. They live with their families in huts built on stilts over a lagoon protected by reefs. They exist solely on the fish they catch and flour made from cassava roots. More valuable specimens are sold at the market on a larger island, several hours from home, for gasoline and other raw materials. Today, western tourists would pay up to $500 a night for the same accommodations, but only if someone else cooked the fish and beat the toughness out of the octopi. Anyone who’s run out of Herzog titles to watch should find a lot to like in the “A Man Vanishes” set. – Gary Dretzka

The Trouble With Bliss
As credible as he is in the role of a vigilante killer in “Dexter,” Michael C. Hall is just that unbelievable as 35-year-old slacker Morris Bliss in “The Trouble With Bliss.” Or, maybe, it’s the character who’s unbelievable and Hall squeezed as much from Morris as there is to him. Either way, it’s too cute by half and I didn’t buy it. Morris shares a Manhattan apartment with his “daddy,” Seymour Bliss (Peter Fonda), who spends most of the movie reclining in a comfy chair in the living room. If Seymour’s too lazy to get out of the chair to get keys made and buy groceries, the chronically broke Morris is so depressed by death of his mother that he’s unable to retain any memory of his dad’s daily requests. Moreover, as unlikely as it is for Fonda to play a character named “Seymour Bliss,” it’s just that unlikely that Morris – who sleeps in his clothes and has an unkempt beard — would have a sexually promiscuous 18-year-old girlfriend. Still in prep school, Stephanie Stephanie (Brie Larson) just happens to be the daughter of one of Morris’ least favorite former classmates, a big galoot named “Jetski” (Brad William Henke). Stephanie not only gets Morris to agree to meet the folks over dinner, but she also gets him to commit to escorting her to the prom. If that scenario weren’t sufficiently unlikely, co-writer/director Michael Knowles and author Douglas Light add parallel storylines involving a friend (Chris Messina) who imagines himself to be a secret agent; a downstairs neighbor (Lucy Liu) that gets him in trouble with her muscular boyfriend; and a wealthy upstairs neighbor and landlord (Sarah Shahi) who moonlights as a homeless squatter occupying a building managed by Jetski. When he isn’t forgetting to pick up the groceries, Morris dreams of traveling to faraway places with strange-sounding names. All that’s needed for that to happen is the introduction of another convenient coincidence and a map to escape from this rain forest of mishegas? Probably, but only Hall’s diehard fans are likely to stick around long enough to see what it is. The extras add deleted scenes and an interview with the star. – Gary Dretzka

War of the Dead: Blu-ray
The great idea behind this occasionally very interesting genre-bender is that very early in Hitler’s attempt to conquer Europe he directed a team of fiendish scientists to use re-animation techniques to create a platoon of zombie killers. They experimented on the corpses of Red Army soldiers after Finland asked Germany for its support in turning back Soviet invasion forces. Even though the experiments bore fruit in the form of zombies capable of climbing trees, firing weapons and running, instead of shuffling toward their target, the Nazis decided not to pursue it. Instead, they left behind a rogue undead unit hiding in the forest near the bunker laboratory. In “War of the Dead,” a combined American and Finnish special-forces team stumbles upon the commandoes on its way to the secret bunker and several soldiers are killed in the initial attack. It takes the survivors a while to figure out why they constantly feel outnumbered, considering how many of the enemy they’ve taken down. Turns out, they’re merely killing the same soldiers over and over, again. It isn’t until a not-yet-reanimated Red Army soldier joins the Allied squad that an effective offensive can be mounted against the zombies. Although far more ambulatory than run-of-the-mill undead, they’re susceptible to the same things as every other zombie.

Apart from the undead conceit, “War of the Dead” plays out like countless other war flicks, with traces of “Band of Brothers” and “Saving Private Ryan” thrown in for the bargain. People we don’t want to see die get killed before our eyes and our enemies are portrayed as faceless humanoids. Here, the special-forces unit is led by Captain Martin Stone (Andrew Tiernan), who’s cut from the same cloth as most other officers in war movies or, at least, those fighting for our team. For co-writer/director Marko Mäkilaakso, “War of the Dead” also is a “love letter” to such 1989s action franchises as “Rambo,” “American Ninja,” “Terminator” and “Indiana Jones.” His first feature film after spending most of his young career making documentaries, music videos and commercials, it demonstrates an ability to add fresh elements to tired genres, even on a miniscule budget. The project essentially ran out of money and steam in 2007, but Makilaakso was determined to see it completed. – Gary Dretzka

FX: Justified: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
Nicktoons: Monsuno: Destiny
Syfy: Being Human: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ra
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Anyone who claims to love action-packed crime series, but has yet to jump on board the “Justified” train, isn’t trying very hard to find out what all the fuss is about. As of January 1, all three seasons of the Harlan-set drama now are available on DVD and Blu-ray. The show can also be downloaded, streamed and seen on FX in rerun form, prior to its January 8 re-launch. If the fourth season is anything like the third, prepare to take notes. Not even Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) could keep up with the many shady characters who took up residence in the hollers of Harlan last season. Neither could archenemies Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies). The dastardly duo stood to lose the most if their various interests – marijuana, Oxycodone and prostitution, among them – are disrupted by mafia henchmen from Frankfort and Detroit and a mining company that wants to turn the mountains to dust. Add to this motley crew of outlaws Raylan’s career-criminal dad and an African-American butcher, who plans to skin Dickie of his inheritance, and you have all the gasoline anyone would need to set the hills ablaze. Neither are the women of Harlan without sin. After Raylan dumped Ava (Joelie Carter) for his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea), she took up with her no-count brother-in-law, Dickie. Meanwhile, a red-hot coal baroness (Rebecca Creskoff) demands Raylan’s personal attention as a bodyguard, after claiming that her life was in danger. With so many bad guys taking potshots at each other, Raylan isn’t required to justify his reputation as a lawman who shoots first and asks questions later. Guest villain Neal McDonough does that for him. Unlike too many other series adapted from popular books or movies, “Justified” continues to honor novelist and exec-producer Elmore Leonard’s original vision. The Blu-ray adds 9 separate commentary tracks on 13 episodes; outtakes and deleted scenes; a Noble’s Holler set tour; a conversation with Olyphant and Goggins; and featurettes “Go Back in There,” “Crossing the Line” and “Anatomy of a Stunt.”

I would love to learn the median IQ of audiences attracted to Nicktoon’s animated sci-fi series, “Monsuno.” After reading the press material on the American/Japanese co-production, I was completely lost on the subject of how “re-wakened monster DNA called Monsuno” could be captured and used to save the Earth, several millennia after “they burned through the planet’s atmosphere and crashed into four corners of the world, bringing chaos, destruction and the extinction of the dinosaurs.” Forget for a moment that while Earth has two poles, it is too rotund to have corners, where such magnificent fighting organisms could hide. Nonetheless, there they are. As is the norm for these animated series, it is incumbent on adventurous teenagers, Chase and his pals, to harness the power of the Monsuno and defeat the mysterious organization, S.T.O.R.M. Chase’s father discovered the DNA and the way to unleash the monsters, who seem loyal to whoever holds the “cylinder regeneration chamber capsules” in which they sleep … or something. The cast of cartoon monsters, teenagers and villains is only slightly smaller than that of list of depressed Southerners in “Gone With the Wind.” Fans of such fare won’t have any problem parsing the characters or enjoying the frequent battles in which the Monsuno participate. Naturally, “Monsuno” arrived earlier this year accompanied by a line of action toys and trading cards.

Also returning this month for another stanza, this time on Syfy, is the American version of the hit British supernatural series “Being Human,” which, oddly enough, can be seen here on BBC America. The premise remains the same on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Three undead twenty-somethings share a Boston brownstone, where they attempt to maintain a low profile and keep their true identities secret. Sam Witwer plays a vampire, who was turned during the Revolutionary War; Sam Huntington is a Jewish werewolf who works at the same hospital as his roommate; and Meaghan Rath, a ghost who was already residing in the brownstone. They have many human friends – some of whom are accidentally infected — as well as guests who share their backgrounds, but aren’t nearly as benign. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, behind-the-scenes interviews and material from a publicity event at San Diego Comic-Con 2012. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Climate of Doubt
Although far more numerous and politically focused than members of the Flat Earth Society, climate-change deniers occupy the same dubious intellectual space as those folks who contend that our planet’s round shape is an optical illusion. The greatest difference between these groups of like-minded thinkers, perhaps, is that Flat Earthers aren’t backed by dozens of mercenary scientists and lobbyists for companies that benefit from polluting the Earth. Neither have they waged an electronic war of terror on those scientists who do believe the Earth’s environment is being adversely affected by such variables as solar radiation, greenhouse gases, plate tectonics, changes in the Earth’s orbit and emissions from fossil-fuel combustion. As we learn in the PBS documentary “Climate of Doubt,” most of the people who sit in the audience at seminars and write letters to their representatives truly believe that almost everything the government spends their tax dollars on is part of a leftist plot against the American way of life. It’s their right and privilege to hold contrarian opinions on important subjects, of course. The right to be wrong is built into the Constitution. Sadly, though, their mistrust of government makes doubters especially susceptible to the bad intentions of leaders of the denial movement who are far more interested in maintaining the flow of dollars from corporate sponsors to their bank accounts. “Frontline” correspondent John Hockenberry allows deniers plenty of time to present their side of the issue, without also being combative or overtly cynical. What he’s more interested in documenting is how, over the course of four short years, previously unorganized groups of deniers and anti-government activists have been able to intimidate so many politicians and impede researchers at universities and government-backed laboratories.

Four years ago, conservatives Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich weren’t reluctant to acknowledge that something needed to be done to slow the pace of climate change. During the just-completed campaign, neither would take the same stand. It explains, as well, why global warming never came up in the presidential debates. President Obama didn’t feel as if the aggravation was worth the effort of bringing it up, either. By employing tactics used by the pro-tobacco lobby and tea-party activists, deniers not only have been able to influence politicians, but also convince the growing legions of disaffected American taxpayers to hop aboard the band wagon. Money from the Koch brothers, pro-industry groups and PACs allow deniers to score points in television ads, featuring so-called experts with little credence in the scientific community. Foremost, it’s become entirely too clear that a growing number of taxpayers now are unwilling to fund – or accept as necessary – programs that might improve the quality of life for their grandchildren better, whether it involves schools, the nation’s infrastructure or the environment. And, they’re perfectly willing to fight for their right to be wrong. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Gandu, Killer Joe, Wimpy Kid, Liberal Arts, Red Hook … More

Monday, December 24th, 2012

Gandu
If the distance between Mumbai and Calcutta can easily be measured in kilometers – 1,663, to be exact — the gap between Bollywood and the traditional Bengali cinema is every bit as wide. One is obsessed with romantic fantasy, while the other is more invested in real-life scenarios and everyday people. As wildly inventive as it is deliberately transgressive, “Gandu” (“Asshole”) widens that fissure with a study of urban youth so intense and disturbing that it could have emerged fully blown from the bowels of infamous Black Hole of Calcutta prison. If forced to compare it to a single American movie, I’d say “Requiem of a Dream, but minus the laughs. Not surprisingly, perhaps, “Gandu” (aka, “Asshole”) was banned in India and largely denied theatrical distribution here. (Fledgling Artsploitation Films is distributing the DVD.) As directed by Q (a.k.a, Qaushiq Mukherjee), “Gandu” describes the struggles of an impoverished Calcutta youth, who barely stays afloat by stealing money from the wallet of the cool-daddy client of his prostitute mother. He yearns to make a living as a rapper and beat-boxer, but has no idea where to begin. His angry industrial approach to the music more closely resembles that of the Beastie Boys and Eminem than, say, Snoop Dogg, and he adopted the stage name, “Asshole,” from the taunts of neighborhood punks.  One day, quite by accident, Gandu connects with a rickshaw driver with the unlikely name, Ricksha, who literally worships before a shrine dedicated to Bruce Lee. He, too, is a musician, of sorts, and happily turns his new friend onto the joys of hard drugs and day trips outside the slums. The old man who sells Gandu his lottery tickets promises him daily that his ship is about to come and, when it does, he’ll be free to pursue his dreams. Amazingly, it does, and he’s ready to boogie from minute one

Q tells his story in black, white and shades of gray. It’s only when Gandu discovers sex, thanks to a pink-haired punk princess, that “Gandu” shifts from b&w into color. Q’s editing technique, itself, borders on the transgressive. Subtitles bounce around the screen to the hip-hop beat, frequently contained in color blocks and sometimes using symbols in the place of words. This is one DVD you can’t watch while also reading a book or waiting for the popcorn to stop popping. Yawn and you might miss something. The only constant, I suppose, is the oppressive and unrelenting poverty of life in Calcutta, where, for the masses, the lottery provides the only ticket to the future. After visiting his friend’s mostly bare apartment, Ricksha praises the porcelain toilet for being the dump’s sturdiest piece of furniture. Just when things couldn’t get much worse for the boys, Q injects a large dollop of magical realism to the proceedings by interjecting himself into “Gandu.” He does this by offering Gandu a part in the movie in which he already is the protagonist. As prophesized, he’s also allowed to win the lottery. Apparently, Lord Shiva had been listening to his prayers all along. “Gandu” isn’t for everybody, certainly not the kiddies and people whose brains spin after watching 15 minutes of MTV-style hyper-editing. The sex is graphic and the language is raw. If you couldn’t get through the last half-hour of “Requiem for a Dream,” don’t even bother sampling “Gandu.” On the other hand, if you can still recall the tingle brought on by watching “Mean Streets,” “Blue Velvet,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Harder They Come,” “Old Boy” and “Audition” for the first time, you should be similarly impressed with “Gandu.” The DVD includes a lengthy making-of featurette, music videos, short films, festival appearances and a booklet. – Gary Dretzka

Killer Joe: Unrated Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
If the Academy Awards had a category honoring the year’s Best Performance by a Stand-In, the odds-on favorite would be the merkin allegedly worn by Gina Gershon in the shocking opening scene of William Friedkin and Tracy Lett’s inky black, beyond-noir comedy, “Killer Joe.” As it is, a very good case could be made for honoring Gershon, Matthew McConaughey, Thomas Haden Church and Juno Temple for their amazing performances in lead and supporting roles. The problem is that almost no one was able to see the movie in theaters and the nature of the material might not go over well with conservative voters. The combination of sex, violence, dark humor and an NC-17 rating made it a non-starter in most markets and the excellent reviews, alone, wouldn’t be enough to make it a cause celebre. (In Q&A sessions, McConaughey and Gershon admitted to their initial reluctance to star in such raw material.) Marketing costs, alone, would have been difficult for a distributor to overcome in general release. In DVD, it’s a much safer investment, especially considering the sterling cast.

After several years’ worth of dull performances in mediocre movies, McConaughey’s stock has risen to historic highs with key roles in “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Bernie,” “Eastbound & Down,” “The Paperboy” and “Magic Mike.” Here, he plays the title character: a Texas cop who moonlights as an assassin. Joe is as efficient as he is polite, but toxic when double-crossed. He’s hired by a white-trash family intent on collecting the universally disliked matriarch’s $50,000 life-insurance policy. The son (Emile Hirsch) owes a pile of money to local gangsters, but doesn’t have any to spare. Neither does his no-count father (Church), who married the slutty Sharla (Gershon) after divorcing the boy’s mother. His emotionally damaged 21-year-old sister, Dottie (Temple), spends most of her time in her room in the trailer, eavesdropping on conversations and floating around cloud cuckoo land. When Joe learns that the father and son haven’t raised the agreed-upon down payment, he demands Dottie’s companionship as a “retainer.” Instead of being frightened or indignant, Dottie is turned on by his manners and the gentle respect he shows to her. Joe may be twisted, but he knows how to treat a lady. When, however, he learns that the other woman in the trailer – in this case, Gershon – is attempting to swindle him, Joe drops the gentleman act and treats her with the contempt she deserves. What he does to Gershon in one climatic scene is almost too vile to believe … but in a funny way.

“Killer Joe” was written for the stage in 1991, when Letts was living in Chicago. It subsequently was performed in off-Loop and off-Broadway theaters. He and Friedkin adapted his 1996 play, “Bug,” for the screen in 2006, and decided it was a good fit. John Wells’ anxiously awaited adaptation of Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County” is expected to hit theaters in time for awards consideration next year. As screenwriter of “Killer Joe,” he was required to open up the story and allow for some outdoors action, as well as the now-mandatory visit to a strip club. Even so, “Killer Joe” retains a palpable air of claustrophobia bit from the stage presentation. What happens in the double-wide is plenty exciting. Friedkin, who’s only directed four films since 2000, did a nice job with “Bug” and had no trouble sinking his teeth into “Killer Joe.” It’s been a long time since he scored with “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist” and “Sorcerer,” but he clearly still knows how to tear up a set and punish his characters. The Blu-ray comes with a lively discussion with Friedkin and Letts, interviews and a Q&A with the actors at SXSW. – Gary Dretzka

The Words: Blu-ray
Although not a thriller in the traditional sense, “The Words” should keep undemanding viewers guessing until the very end of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s story-within-a-story. Bradley Cooper plays an aspiring novelist who invests too much of himself in his first book, which is praised by one editor but ultimately deemed too brainy to be of any commercial value. In a twist borrowed from Hemingway lore, Rory magically stumbles upon a yellowed, typewritten manuscript that apparently was never submitted to a publisher and may, in fact, have simply been misplaced and forgotten. In a moment of weakness, Rory retypes the words onto a word processor and prints them out to look brand new. Everyone who reads it falls in love with the tear-jerking story and it becomes a best-seller. After receiving an important literary award, Rory is confronted by an older gentleman (Jeremy Irons) who almost certainly is the true author and model for the novel’s protagonist. The revelation confounds and disturbs Rory, less for the damage it might do to his reputation than for the injustice that followed the old since losing the manuscript. Rory practically begs to be allowed to do the right thing by him, but, in return for laying a massive guilt trip on him, the old man lets him off the hook by informing him of his imminent demise due to a terminal illness. The publishing of the novel provides him a sense of closure and, in any case, no one would benefit from his posthumous fame. Layered on top of that scenario is another story, one that begins with a middle-aged author (Dennis Quaid) being honored for writing a story very much like the one we’ve been watching for the past half-hour. Clearly, he’s a man carrying the kind of burden that’s only lightened by the intake of much fine booze and comfort of literary groupies. Normally, a flirtatious character played by Olivia Wilde would be impossible for a jaded novelist to resist. Frankly, though, he’s too polluted to exploit the gorgeous young woman for any other purpose than as a priest-surrogate for a confession. Without knowing the writer’s background, we’re left to wonder why he’s so miserable and speculate how it fits into the parallel storyline.

For their first turn as co-writer/directors, Klugman and Sternthal were able to call in a few favors from actors who probably agreed to work for scale or a free meal from craft services. “The Words” reportedly was brought in somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million, which seems awfully low for the quality of the production. As the story goes, the first table-read of the screenplay was in 1999 and a then-unknown Cooper agreed to play one of the key characters as a favor for his close boyhood friends. It wasn’t until Cooper’s name meant something to producers that the movie finally was green-lit. Toss in co-stars Zoe Saldana, Nora Arnezeder and Ben Barnes, alongside supporting players Zeljko Ivanek, Ron Rivkin, Michael McKean, J.K. Simmons and John Hannah, and you’ve exhausted far more than $6 million in IOUs. Good for them. The Blu-ray adds several short making-of pieces. – Gary Dretzka

Total Recall: Extended Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
If ever a movie didn’t cry out to be extended into a director’s-cut edition, it’s Len Wiseman’s 2012 remake of “Total Recall.” That’s not a slam on its overall quality, rather a different way of saying that the 118-minute original doesn’t benefit from the additional 15 minutes of footage. By adding several more f-bombs, a previously trimmed cameo by Ethan Hawke and a few other things left on the cutting-room floor, “Total Recall” merely becomes that much more bloated. For those lacking total recall, the 1990 original was adapted from a story by the great Philip K. Dick. It starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone. By comparison to Wiseman’s take on the material, Paul Verhoeven’s was more of a Dick-sonian sci-fi thriller than the dystopian action flick it’s become.  The 2012 “Total Recall” also bears a more distinct physical resemblance to “Blade Runner,” which likewise was adapted from a Dick story. Advanced digital and CGI technology wasn’t available in the early 1990s, but, two decades later, allowed for a more spectacular visual presentation. Wiseman was able to rely less on the graphic violence that earned Verhoeven a X-rating in the first go-round with the MPAA and a jumpstart for the buzz-marketing campaign.  Despite, or more likely because of the negative publicity, it landed in the No. 1 spot in the first weekend’s box-office tally. The remake made considerably less money.

Here, Earth is divided into two highly reduced civilizations – both English-speaking, somehow – one of which is governed by the autocratic Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). Colin Farrell plays an everyday factory worker, Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), whose dreams cause him to believe that something tangible is missing in his life. He suspects that a visit to the memory-enhancing combine, Rekall, could help him feel better and make life with his beautiful and supportive wife (Kate Beckinsale) as satisfying as it should be. Just as Quaid’s about to go through the procedure, a team of robotic cops break into Rekall and start shooting everyone in the place. Quaid is able to escape after taking out a dozen of the cops using only his hands. Stunned, he immediately wonders two things: when did I learn hand-to-hand combat and why are robots chasing me? It doesn’t take long before Quaid begins displaying other long-submerged talents and the one person he believes to be in his corner turns her back on him. While on the lam, Quaid conveniently encounters a resistance fighter played by Jessica Biel, arguably the hottest-looking woman on any continent not named Beckinsale. She leads him to the head of the underground movement (Bill Nighy) that is dedicated to toppling Cohaagen. Bear in mind that Quaid still has no memory of whom or what he might have been before becoming something completely different, so he’s playing everything by ear. It is a dilemma shared by several of Dick’s fictional protagonists, not all of whom enjoyed the company of someone as tantalizing as Beckinsale and Biel.

The non-stop action and well-conceived CGI backdrops should dilute any confusion you’re sure to have over what’s really the point of “Total Recall.” They did for me, anyway. Maybe it makes more sense in 3D. The less one thinks about it, the more fun there is to have. The Blu-ray adds commentary; the picture-in-picture Insight Mode; a “God of War” game demo; gag reel; featurettes “Science Fiction vs. Science Fact” and “Designing the Fall”; pre-visualization sequences of the Apartment Waterfront Chase, Fall Flight and Tripping Den, Elevator Chase and Car Chase scenes; and making-of interviews with Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel. The Blu-ray visual and sonic presentation is excellent, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Trouble With the Curve: Blu-ray
The natural tendency for fans considering any movie in which Clint Eastwood appears is to assume he’s doing double-duty as director and that’s only going to make the experience that much more enjoyable. The kneejerk reaction on the part of critics is to give any picture Eastwood directs at least a half-star’s worth of a break in reviews, whether it deserves it or not. At the ripe old age of 82, there isn’t much not to admire about Eastwood, his daffy performance at the Republican Convention notwithstanding. “Trouble With the Curve” is the first film in which Eastwood has starred, without directing, since 1993′s “In the Line of Fire.” Therein, methinks, lies the rub here. If he had chosen to star in and direct it, instead of doing what appears to be a big favor for longtime associate Robert Lorenz, “Curve” probably would have packed a greater punch than it does. Here, Eastwood plays the kind of cigar-chumping old-school baseball scout who bases all of his decisions on instinct and experience. Gus has been performing that function for the Atlanta Braves for a long time, but is feeling the heat from the kind of computer-savvy baseball executive (Matthew Lillard) we met last year in “Moneyball.” Here, though, the executive is the antagonist, instead of the hero. (It would have been interesting to see Brad Pitt play the same role in both movies.) Gus has been assigned to assess the potential of a high school slugger, who seems to hit a homerun whenever the opponent’s coach is too stupid to give him an intentional walk. We’re asked to forget for a minute that the usually front-running Braves are in the unlikely position here of being able to choose a kid destined to be the first, second or third pick in the entire draft. That’s a remarkably big deal for any team and Gus takes the responsibility seriously enough not to make his decision based solely on the phenom’s press clips or slugging percentage. Trouble is, Gus’ sight is declining with every new game.

Knowing this, an ally in the Braves’ front office (John Goodman) asks Gus’ daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), to join her dad on the current trip through rural North Carolina and confirm his observations. Gus loves his daughter, but treats her as if she’s the black sheep in the family for being an unmarried professional, instead of a housewife with kids. Instead, she’s a high-powered lawyer gunning for a partnership in a prominent Atlanta firm. Mickey agrees to surprise her dad on the road, even knowing he’ll be the overly protective, male-chauvinist prick he’s always been. Mickey has inherited her father’s instinct for baseball, though, and she ends up agreeing with his assessment of the phenom. In this way, “Curve” becomes the story of two people against the baseball world. But, wait, there’s more. As if that weren’t sufficiently melodramatic, Lorenz and fellow rookie writer Randy Brown couldn’t resist the temptation to throw in the extremely likeable Justin Timberlake as Mickey’s potential love interest. Not so coincidentally, he plays a scout for the Red Sox, a team in nearly the same unlikely position as the Braves. Lorenz and Brown rally in the late innings of “Curve,” but, by then, too much damage has been done.

None of the blame for the movie’s shortcomings should fall on the shoulders of the actors, who are better than they have to be, or on DP Tom Stern, another veteran of the Eastwood wars. The Georgia-for-N.C. countryside is quite beautiful and it provides the perfect background for America’s pastime at the game’s most fundamental level. (The executive offices at Turner Field look impersonal and foreboding, by comparison.) Unmet expectations shouldn’t prevent diehard Eastwood loyalists from taking a shot at “Curve” on DVD or Blu-ray. If nothing else, the price is right. The Blu-ray adds a pair of short EPK-style featurettes on the director and stars. – Gary Dretzka

Red Hook Summer: Blu-ray
It’s been a long time since anyone’s gotten really excited about a new theatrical release from Spike Lee. Any momentum he had going for him from the wrenching memory play, “Summer of Sam,” dissipated completely with “Bamboozled,” a caustic satire that managed to alienate even his most reliable allies. He’s done much fine and important work in the last dozen years, mostly as a documentarian, but something was missing in Lee’s game. If “Red Hook Summer” doesn’t mark a return to form, exactly, at least it’s a welcome extension to his Chronicles of Brooklyn series, which includes “She’s Gotta Have It,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Crooklyn” and “He Got Game.” Even so, “Red Hook Summer” was virtually ignored by exhibitors. At its peak, “Bamboozled” could be found on 244 screens, compared to 41 for “Red Hook Summer.” Both numbers are way down from “Son of Sam,” which opened on more than 1,500 screens. Everything about the look, texture and characters in “Red Hook” screams, “Spike Lee made this movie,” right down to the spic-and-span streets, sidewalks and stoops and brightly painted buildings.

All of the action in “Red Hook” revolves around Flik Royale (Jules Brown, in his first role), a middle-class kid from the ATL whose father was killed in the current war and is being forced to spend the summer with his bible-banging grandfather in projects of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. Flik wears a Mohawk and sees the world through the display screen of his ever-present iPad. His first great shock comes when he’s directed to his bedroom, which is minute compared to the one in his Atlanta home and not air-conditioned. The second comes when the Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) requires Flik to earn his keep by handing out religious flyers and working at the church. For his part, the minister is appalled to learn that Flik is a vegan and conditioned by circumstances not to believe in a benevolent God. They get along well enough, though, considering that their only common denominator is their DNA. Much of the pressure building inside the boy is dissipated by the arrival in his life of the irrepressible Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith, also in her first role), with whom he enters into an uneasy alliance against the rest of the world. Somewhere past the halfway mark in “Red Hook,” I began to look for the conflict that would need to be resolved before the end credits could roll. Would it come in the form of a come-to-Jesus moment for Flik and his grandfather, or might he be tempted to join the block’s none-too-frightening gang? Flik and Chazz’s relationship works as long as they’re buddies, not lovers, so it would be cruel to inflict a sexual dilemma on them. Maybe the boy would decide not to return to Atlanta, choosing to remain with gramps in Red Hook. Nope.

What does happen in the closing scenes is so unexpected and jarring that any hint of what it is would set off a major spoiler alert. Suffice it to say that the surprise occurrence comes completely out of the blue and has the effect of making us rethink everything that’s come before it occurs. There’s an excellent chance you’ll hate it. What isn’t in dispute is Lee’s ability to elicit terrific performances from his cast members and have their characters inhabit a world that, in some ways, is as deceptively calm as sleepy Lumberton, in “Blue Velvet.” The Blu-ray edition adds plenty of sparkle to the proceedings, as well as a decent making-of documentary, commentary and a music video. – Gary Dretzka

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days: Blu-ray
By successfully creating a franchise series targeted at ’tweens and early teens, 20th Century Fox has accomplished something that currently borders on the remarkable. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days” is the third successful adaptation of Jeff Kinney’s Internet sensation, which, since going analog, has translated into 8 books and 58 million in total sales. “Dog Days” combines elements of 2009’s “Dog Days” and “Last Straw,” both of which take place during the summer break. At 14, Zachary Gordon still looks sufficiently age appropriate to play Kinney’s “wimpy” middle-schooler, Greg, for at least one more installment. The rest of the family (Steve Zahn, Rachel Harris, Devon Bostick) is back as well, along with his socially inept best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron). This time around, Dad wants Greg to take the initiative of finding a job, while all that the boy wants to do is play video games with Rowley. By way of compromise, Greg pretends to take a job in the same place that Rowley’s dad works, while actually spending his days at a country club where the girl of his dreams, Holly, teaches tennis.

Consumed mostly with thoughts of his own, Dad takes quite a while to figure out the truth. As punishment, he threatens Greg with a transfer to a school known for enforcing discipline in its delinquent students. To avoid such a dire turn in his life, Greg decides to impress Dad with his behavior on a Boy Scout camping trip. When things go embarrassingly wrong for Scoutmaster Dad, Greg conspires with the other boys to turn the tables on pop’s nemesis. At last, he’s found something he can do well and impress the folks, as well. Meanwhile, back home, his brother and his truly crappy punk band, Loded Diper, are preparing to perform at a Sweet Sixteen before the girl of his dreams. The predictably disastrous results help push the story down the final stretch. The Blu-ray adds commentary by director David Bowers; deleted scenes; Class Clown animated short; a gag reel; and a FX Movie Channel piece, “Wimpy Empire.” – Gary Dretzka

Liberal Arts: Blu-ray
The thirtysomething character Josh Radnor plays in “Liberal Arts” — his sophomore effort as writer/director/star — is at the point in his life where he feels queasy about having sex with a college student who digs him, but not at all freaked out by the thought of hooking up with his “second favorite” professor …  during the same night. The age difference between Jesse and both women is approximately the same, but one sexual encounter carries a negative connotation in his mind while the other is somehow OK. It’s an interesting predicament for a recently separated man to suddenly be required to handle. Because he’s merely an alumnus, Jesse isn’t breaking any established guidelines by encouraging the younger woman’s adoration, and neither is his former “second-favorite” professor for treating him like an after-dinner aperitif. That resolved, however, Radnor doesn’t hesitate to draw a line in the sand for viewers on the question of acceptable adult behavior and the point where a moral stance end and hypocrisy begins. By giving his protagonist an easy way out of his problem makes it easier for the audience to walk away with a smile, even if the women don’t.

Shortly after watching the last embers of his marriage burn out, Jesse is asked to return to his alma mater to speak at a retirement testimonial for his “favorite” English literature professor (Richard Jenkins). Within a few hours’ time, he is introduced to 19-year-old literature student, Zibby (Elizabeth Olson), and spots from a distance the still desirable Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney). Having a day or so to kill before returning to New York, where he’s an admissions counselor, Jesse is able to dazzle the Zibby with his knowledge of the classics and determine that they’re kindred spirits. An exchange of letters serves to intensify their budding relationship, even as it gives him time to fret about their age difference. There’s nothing terribly neurotic about Zibby’s attraction to Jesse, except for the fact that he’s probably the first guy to treat her as an adult and listen to her opinions on a subject about which she takes seriously. The boys and men she’s met in her young life have been less interested in her brain than her boobs and it’s a refreshing change for her. At precisely the same time as Jesse comes to grips with Zibby’s desire to take their romance to the next level, the news that she’s a “virgin” throws him into a panic. Is it the proper response or is he being hypocritical? After making his lame apologies, he heads for a bar, where he’s surprised to find Dr. Fairfield. The quintessential cougar, she practically drags him to her boudoir. After the tryst, Dr. Fairfield demands that he immediately take a powder, but not before she delivers a bitter diatribe about former students who romanticize literature and are disappointed to discover that a life of the mind is only possible on college campuses. Olson and Janney are absolutely terrific as women on opposite ends of Jesse’s learning curve. At the same time, Jesse befriends two male students: one a hippie out of time (Zac Efron), who encourages him to loosen up, and the other a very smart kid (John Magaro) obsessed with a book by an author who committed suicide.

As Jesse, Radnor wears the same hangdog expression as he does in most episodes of “How I Met Your Mother” and did in “Happythankyoumoreplease.” For all I know, it may be the face of a generation of men who are as afraid of commitment as they are reluctant to admit they’re too self-absorbed to entrust their egos to a woman who recognizes bullshit when she sees it. Clearly, Jesse’s wife had her fill of his hipper-than-thou attitude. By contrast, Zibby is attracted to everything that his wife had come to despise. The other woman in his life is an employee of a New York bookstore (Elizabeth Reaser), who only manages to get his attention in the final scenes. Her sporadic appearances throughout “Liberal Arts” far too easily signal the direction Jesse ought to be heading. The resolution may be on the predictable side, but it benefits from being logical and satisfying. The Blu-ray includes commentary, a brief interview session and deleted scenes that reveal a discarded story thread and a revealing scene with his ex-wife. – Gary Dretzka

Sleepwalk With Me: Blu-ray
Mike Birbiglia’s name should be recognizable to listeners of such radio programs as “This American Life” and “Fresh Air” and the syndicated “Bob & Tom Show,” as well as those who keep up with what’s happening on the comedy circuit. “Sleepwalk With Me” is the film adaptation of the monologist’s popular stage show and book. Autobiographical to the point of being a confessional, the movie describes his character’s struggle to become a standup comic, while maintaining a relationship with a longtime girlfriend he’s in no hurry to marry. Matt’s nearly perfect girlfriend, Abby, is played by the always wonderful Lauren Ambrose. She sticks with the terminally neurotic Matt (Birbiglia) for reasons that will escape 99 percent of all viewers. That’s because, as the movie begins to unfold, Matt has no noticeable talent beyond bussing tables and pouring drinks at a local Comedy Dungeon. When we meet his hugely unpleasant and completely unsupportive father, a physician, it’s easy to see why Matt is such an emotional car wreck. He lives for the moment when his boss will ask him to substitute for a missing comic, if only for a five-minute bit.

When he gets the call, Matt is forced to acknowledge that he only has about 20 seconds of usable material. Still, he’s able to convince an agent to find him bookings at colleges and at the bottom of bills on the circuit. Mostly, his performance serves to convince audience members that nothing that follows could be less funny. The money is lousy and the road trips are relentless. It isn’t until a club owner listens to his pathetic personal story and judges it funnier than any of his material that Matt begins to find his groove. Not so funny, at least to Mike, are his terrifying nightmares and his tendency to act them out during his sleep walks. Neither is Matt and Abby’s concurrent realization that getting married wouldn’t solve either of their problems, which include his desperate need for approval and her tendency to enable his bad behavior. This is the point, as well, that Matt becomes a character viewers can support. As proof, “Sleepwalk” won the 2012 Audience Award at Sundance. The Blu-ray adds outtakes, a making-of featurette, behind-the-scenes shorts and commentary and a Q&A with director Ira Glass and Birbiglia, moderated by Joss Whedon at the Writers Guild Foundation. – Gary Dretzka

10 Years: Blu-ray
I’m no semanticist and I don’t play one on TV. Still, I’m willing to go out on a limb by suggesting that the curiously precise, if silly-sounding term, “dramedy,” might have been added to the lexicon by critics looking for a single word to adequately describe movies about high school reunions. The nature of the beast requires that such films feature an ensemble cast of reasonably attractive characters – some more easy on the eyes than others – who look as if they might have attended the same school and were either traumatized or exhilarated by the experience. For the most part, none of them has changed significantly and they have unfinished business to which they must attend or forever hold their peace. Although “10 Years” naturally shares some things with “American Reunion,” “Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion” and “Gross Pointe Blank,” it isn’t nearly as raucous, satiric and anti-nostalgic. Only one doofus character reverts completely to form, as the class bully and all-around jerk, and no one suffers much from humiliation or startling revelations that have festered for a decade. Most, at least, have found and kept decent jobs — some more lucrative than others – and none looks much worse for the wear. There are plenty of laughs in “10 Years,” but they’re hardly uproarious. The drama comes in the characters’ gradual recognition of the fact that, while they aren’t getting any younger, the harmful effects of high school go away in time. Freshman director and third-time screenwriter Jamie Linden’s low-key approach to the reunion pleased several mainstream critics, as did the acting of such recognizable actors as Channing Tatum, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Justin Long, Oscar Isaac, Ari Graynor, Kate Mara, Rosario Dawson and Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza, who play an offbeat couple in “Parks and Recreation.” Based solely on the lack of much licensed period music, it’s like that Linden was working on an extremely tight budget. Its absence is noticeable in the party scenes, but is compensated for by the cast’s good work. The Blu-ray adds some deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Good Doctor: Blu-ray
I was surprised to learn that this creepy-doctor thriller was directed by Lance Daly, the same Irish filmmaker who previously gave us “Kisses,” the powerful story of two kids from dysfunctional suburban families who have a scary Christmas Eve adventure in downtown Dublin. Populated with compelling characters and a largely unfamiliar cast, it made us care desperately for the fate of the children as they tried to make sense of what it means to be an adult. Although Orlando Bloom delivers a credible portrayal of an unstable Brit doing his residency in an American hospital, “The Good Doctor” simply fails to deliver the thrills and chills promised on the DVD’s cover. Such creepy-doctor movies as “Malice,” “Dead Ringers,” “Coma” and “Pathology” should cause viewers to rethink the necessity of their next appointment, while, at its best, “The Good Doctor” offers one very good reason not to invite your internist to dinner. The basic premise of writer John Embry’s story isn’t bad and the execution doesn’t lack much. The script simply makes it far too easy for Bloom’s fiendish Dr. Martin Blake to evolve from mild-mannered resident to someone willing to put the life of a patient at risk, simply to win the respect of his peers by saving her at the last minute. Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, Riley Keough, plays the young woman, Diane, whose potentially lethal kidney infection is successfully treated by the doctor. During a very strange visit to her home for a thank-you dinner, Blake notices her life-saving medication and decides to switch out its contents on a return visit. After he does the deed, Diane returns to the hospital, where Blake once again has her under his control and can plot another miraculous recovery. This time, however, things don’t go as planned. Still, no one believes he’s bungled her treatment* and no autopsy is performed. Only one other person in the hospital, an orderly, knows the truth and his decision to blackmail the doctor seems fool-proof … until it isn’t. Viewers aren’t supposed to be allowed the time or inclination to ponder ways they would have constructed the crimes or profiled the protagonist differently, but the opportunity presents itself here far too easily. Besides the presence of Bloom, which his young admirers will enjoy, “The Good Doctor” benefits from supporting turns from by Taraji P. Henson, Michael Peña, Rob Morrow and J.K. Simmons. – Gary Dretzka

Forced to Fight: Blu-ray
Five months short of 50, onetime kick-boxing champion Gary Daniels remains in amazing physical shape and would probably be a top contender on the mixed-martial-arts seniors’ tour, if such a thing existed. He’s appeared in several dozen movies and TV series, but lacks the certain something – emotional range, perhaps — that has enhanced the acting careers of Randy Couture, Steve Austin, John Cena, Roddy Piper, Gina Carano, Dwayne Johnson and Jean Claude Van Damme.  He was cast in “The Expendables,” with a half-dozen other profession hard-asses, but in a subsidiary role. Daniels plays a retired MMA fighter, Shane, whose cocky younger brother breaks a promise to a promoter about throwing a match. Now, Danny G (Peter Weller) not only wants the fighter to reimburse him the money he lost betting on the bout, but also to exact his pound of flesh. To settle the debt, Shane reluctantly agrees to get back in shape and return to whatever passes for a ring in the illegal underground sport. Even though he’s up against some real monsters, Shane succeeds to the point where Danny G no longer is able to make any money betting on him, so he orders him to take a few dives. The insult to his integrity and his inability to refuse the demand pisses him off to the point where he’s uncharacteristically short and unreasonable with his wife, son and brother. The abrupt transition from cool dad to tyrant isn’t remotely believable, and neither is Shane’s ability to take on all comers in a single night.

“Forced to Fight” is set in a warehouse neighborhood of New York, but all of the interiors were staged in Romania. Curiously, all of the male extras and some of the fighters look and dress as they probably have since the fall of the Coucesceau regime. The card girls and other beautiful young women in the crowd – some of whom get fake blood splattered on their perfectly made-up faces – look as if they were cast on the dance floor of the hottest night club in Bucharest and wouldn’t be caught dead with their respective escorts. As capable as the 5-foot-10 Daniels was in the ring, battling fellow lightweights, he lacks the physical stature necessary to convince anyone that he could actually dominate the movie’s steroid-enhanced behemoths in a no-holds-barred fight. If he added a tattoo to his face, like Mike Tyson, perhaps he’d be taken seriously as an actor. On the other hand, Peter Weller has no excuses for accepting the role of the Danny G in Jonas Quastel’s thoroughly illogical and cliché-ridden “Forced to Fight.” The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of short behind-the-scenes pieces. – Gary Dretzka

Hermano
I usually don’t give much credence to blurbs on the covers of DVDs, primarily because a creative publicist needn’t be an alchemist to pull three or four positive words from an otherwise negative review and spin them into gold. One quote compares “Hermano” to “City of God” and “Goal! The Dream Begins,” which is accurate in that it’s set in a dangerous Caracas barrio and the protagonists’ escape route is through soccer. Although it would be extremely difficult for any filmmaker, especially one new to features, to match the level of expertise it took to make “City of God,” Marcel Rasquin’s freshman effort can lay claim to being a kindred spirit, at least. With “Goal!,” “Hermano” shares a faith in dreams coming true for young Hispanic athletes who might have only one shot at success. “Hermano” tells the story of two unrelated teenagers, who live together as brothers in a Caracas slum, the younger having been abandoned at birth and rescued from a trash heap by the older boy’s mother. They are the stars of a team funded by a local hoodlum, but have the talent to move into the pro ranks. In a tragic accident, the mother is killed while passing by the scene of a violent crime. The younger brother, Daniel (Fernando Moreno), witnesses the crime, but is afraid to tell Julio (Eliu Armas) the name of the boy responsible, because he’s his good friend, a teammate and trigger-happy. Not knowing the truth eats at Julio like a cancer, just as withholding the truth torments Daniel. Before this dilemma can be resolved, however, the brothers are given the rare opportunity to try out for Caracas’ professional team. Their fate rests on the outcome of a championship game with another formidable barrio team and Daniel’s unusual double-or-nothing bet with the pro coach. Even if the ending seems easy to predict, it’s what happens in advance of the final whistle that makes “Hermano” a superior entertainment. Rasquin captures the gritty texture of barrio life and desperation of many of its inhabitants, but what stands out is Daniel’s determination to save the hot-headed Julia, just as he was rescued by the woman they both recognized as their mother. The DVD adds an informative interview with Rasquin. – Gary Dretzka

Backwards
Every two years, depending on the season, NBC tries its best to involve us in sports about which, normally, we couldn’t possibly be less interested, whether it’s the modern pentathlon or competitive kayaking. This year, viewers were required to endure an inordinate number of rowing matches, mostly at the expense of boxing, weightlifting and other traditional events deemed to be of no special interest to Americans. I enjoy watching rowing more than the next guy – which isn’t saying much, really – but, this year, the coverage seemed excessive by half. The Brits love the sport and turned out in great numbers to support it. Consequently, we heard more than the usual number of up-close-and-personal stories about rowers. The inspirational sports dramedy, “Backwards,” is an 89-minutes extension of one of those segments. Besides acting, writer/producer/star Sarah Megan Thomas is a very capable amateur athlete and knows what it takes to get and stay in shape for competition. In “Backwards,” she plays a star rower, Abi, who’s proven herself sufficiently proficient to be an alternate on the U.S. team. For an athlete, this is the equivalent of attending Mass every Sunday of your life and going directly to purgatory, because heaven is fully booked. As much as we admire the 30-year-old’s tenacity, it’s easy to see in her a slightly past-her-prime athlete who never tires of reading her press clippings and dusting off the trophy case in her bedroom. She puts every other aspect of her life – including anything remotely romantic — on hold to make the Olympics and doesn’t seem to mind sharing a cramped dorm room with a rower who’s 10 years younger. The only person that thinks she’s being delusional is her mother (Margaret Colin), who has gotten tired of supporting her adult child in this endeavor. When Mom suggests she start supporting herself, Abi treats the request with the same disdain as a 30-year-old, unemployed stoner might when told to get a job. It isn’t as if we’re surprised by her addiction to training or obsession with the Olympics, because Americans have become conditioned to expect such sacrifices on the part of their amateur athletes. Still, we begin to suspect her sanity when she stands up an old flame, Geoff – played by the studly James Van Der Beek – in order to spend another half-hour on the rowing machine, because her coach insinuated she was a couple of pounds overweight.

When Abi’s named alternate for the second time, she freaks out and quits the team that’s come to depend on her. She returns to her former high school to beg Geoff’s forgiveness for the diss and, after accepting her apology, asks her to consider coaching the girls’ team in his place. Not only does she take the job, but she’s also able to convince two of the rowers to invest the same kind of energy as she did in becoming a champion. You might be able to guess what happens next, but, if not, it involves being given a choice between doing the right thing or choosing the selfish alternative.  By this time, though, “Backwards” has gone all melodramatic on us, creating unbelievable coincidences as solutions to make-believe problems and very nearly squandering any sympathy viewers had invested in Abi. That’s too bad, because the first half of the movie started nicely with director Ben Hickernell (“Lebanon, Pa.”) capturing beautiful shots of early-morning training sessions on a scenic Pennsylvania river and a credible narrative. The characters share a sharp edge and the protagonist aren’t nearly as picture-perfect as those we meet between matches on TV. The perceived need to squeeze in a romantic throughline only serves to diminish the drama. As it is, the picture wound up being a movie only a teenage girl might admire. The DVD includes an interview with Thomas. – Gary Dretzka

Big Tits Zombie 3D
Resident Evil: Retribution: Blu-ray
In the world of horror, it’s become axiomatic that the cheaper and more tawdry a straight-to-DVD is, the better the title. Good titles build word-of-mouth and sell product. “Big Tits Zombie,” in its original manga incarnation, was known as “The Big Tits Dragon: Hot Spring Zombies vs. Strippers 5,” a normally unbeatable title. By shortening it and adding “3D,” it becomes a candidate for cult-classic status. Japanese “pinku” specialist Takao Nakano is responsible for such Japorn and horror efforts as “ExorSister,” “Sexual Parasite: Killer Pussy,” “Playgirl 7: Most Extreme Bawdy Games,” “Queen Bee Honey,” “Aspiring Home Tutor: Soiled Pure Whiteness” and “Hop Step Jump!,” about a bullied school custodian who turns into a giant frog with superpowers. “Big Tits Zombie” is not a movie in which busty undead humanoids attack whatever it is such fiends normally would attack, but big-busted women in stripper outfits who are forced into working at a brothel, where they destroy zombies with chain saws and swords. There’s more, but why spoil the surprise for those attracted to the title. They should know, however, that while the strippers have larger than average busts for Asian women, they are not huge and they’re revealed only very briefly. Moreover, they don’t look any larger in 3D than in 2D. As these things go, “Big Tits Zombie” is as funny as it is cheesy, primarily because the English words put into the characters’ mouths are reminiscent of those given the actors in Woody Allen’s “What’s Up, Tiger Lily.” It comes with a making-of featurette and old-fashioned 3D glasses.

I hope that what I am about to say won’t sound like a cop out or holier-than-thou preaching, but so many people are slaughtered in automatic- weapons fire in the first 15 minutes of “Resident Evil Retribution” that I couldn’t help but flash on all the recent massacres at schools and shopping malls. Children are put in harm’s way, as well. That was enough death for me. Viewers already drawn to the “RE” franchise probably will find something to like in the latest sequel, even if I didn’t. To them, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the NRA. For what it is worth, the Blu-ray arrives with separate commentary tracks with writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson, Milla Jovovich and Boris Kodjoe, and Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt; outtakes; the featurettes “Drop (Un) Dead: The Creatures of Retribution” and “Resident Evil: Retribution: Face of the Fan”; the film’s soundtrack; and several other backgrounders. For those with a high threshold for pain, “RE” also is available in 3D. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Secrets of the Dead: The Man Who Saved the World
PBS: Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War 
Nature: An Original DUCKumentary: Blu-ray 
Lest we forget, 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. If you can’t recall passing this important milestone, it’s probably because the media was still obsessing over the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. That makes some sense only when one considers that, even before James Cameron’s excellent submersible adventure, more information was available to the public on that disaster than anything dealing with our near-apocalyptic confrontation with the Soviet Union. Exactly how close our nations came to exchanging nuclear missiles in October, 1962, has only come to light recently and, in some cases, begrudgingly. None of the three countries involved in the situation was completely innocent of pushing the world to the brink of disaster and all of the prominent players were guilty of putting their own self-interests ahead of those of their citizens. It wasn’t until the last few hours of the passion play that they finally came to their senses. (In fact, Fidel Castro never forgave his allies for cutting a deal with JFK behind his back.) Among the documentaries released this year on the subject are “Secrets of the Dead: The Man Who Saved the World” and “Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War,” both from PBS. “The Man Who Saved the World” chronicles the drama that unfolded inside a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine, when it appeared as if it was being attacked by a U.S. destroyer in what seemed to be the opening volley of a third world war. It merely was an attempt to scare off the sub, which was following American ships, but the crew didn’t know that at the time. It would have taken the approval of all three senior officers of the submarine to agree on the deployment of a nuclear-tipped torpedo on an American aircraft carrier, but Vasili Arkhipov vetoed it. The program is informed by eyewitness accounts and expert testimony about the critical event.

“Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War” profiles the three leaders responsible for the fates of millions of people, most of whom lived in Europe and would have been targeted in the first wave of missiles. Cuba would have been decimated, but, it’s safe to say, Kennedy and Khrushchev worried more about what might have occurred in the second and third waves. JFK’s role made him a hero, while Khrushchev was lambasted for blinking. In fact, in a move kept secret until much later, the Soviet leader was able to get Kennedy to agree to remove our nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy, an agreement conservatives would have used to roast Kennedy. Although he’s managed to outlive almost everyone involved, Castro considered Cuba to be the loser. The documentary contains interviews with such well-positioned observers as Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet premier; Ted Sorensen, formerly of the Executive Committee of the U.S. National Security Council; former KGB and CIA operatives; and Captain Jerry Coffee, the reconnaissance pilot who almost accidentally revealed a new type of nuclear weapon that could have annihilated invading American forces.

And, now for something completely different from PBS: “An Original DUCKumentary.” Apart from Donald and Daffy, ducks simply haven’t been accorded the respect due them. Even in Hollywood, heavily armed male characters are encouraged to bond during soggy mornings spent huddling in a “duck blind.” Wooden effigies are used to attract the potential victims, too naïve to suspect a trap. Here, we are invited to follow a male and female wood duck, as they create a bond, migrate together across thousands of miles, nurture and protect a brood of chicks, then come full circle. That is, if they can get past the heavily armed costumers of the ZZ Top look-alikes on “Duck Dynasty.” And, yes, the ducks’ colors sparkle in hi-def. – Gary Dretzka

Tosh.0: Deep V’s: Blu-ray
Gabriel Iglesias Presents: Stand-Up Revolution: Season Two
Backstage at Budz House
Daniel Tosh looks like too nice a guy to host one of television’s most wicked clip shows and, yet, he’s the primary reason “Tosh.0” is so nasty and fun to watch. Each week, Tosh and team pore through the craziest and most viral of videos on the Internet, pick out the most painful to watch and script funny comments for each one. Going way beyond what’s expected of other hosts of such clip shows, however, Tosh sometimes will invite the victims of the most spectacular fails to join him on the show and relive the experience in his “Web Redemption” segments. The titles of his new Blu-rays, “Tosh.0: Deep V’s” and “Cardigans Plus Casual Jackets” refer to his completely misleading Joe College look. (The latter is available only at Walmart.) The double set includes web redemptions with Tron Guy, the backyard wrestler, the N64 kid and David After the Dentist; Old Lee reads Miley Cyrus tweets; Daniel gets to the bottom of an epic Beard Man Fight; the grossest thing you’ve ever seen on television; and Tosh.0 enters the Winter Olympics. There also are plenty of extras.

In comedy, as in life, when you’re hot you’re hot. Few standup comedians are hotter right now than Gabriel Iglesias. In addition to touring and appearing in “Magic Mike” and Cartoon  Network’s “The High Fructose Adventures of Annoying Orange,” the man also known as Fluffy has spent the last year hosting and exec-producing the second season of Comedy Central’s hit show, “Stand-Up Revolution.” Both stanzas now are available on DVD, as are re-releases of his previous comedy specials. “Season Two” extends the mix of comedy sketches, funny guests, animated shorts, wild Hawaiian shirts and Ozomatli. The bonus package adds outtakes, a music-video backgrounder and more “Hey, It’s Fluffy” animated shorts.

As the number of states with legalized marijuana grows, I wonder if the number of comedians whose entire act is based in getting high will diminish. One of the leading purveyors of stoner humor is Faizon Love, whose 2011 “Budz House” I found to be reasonably amusing. An episode of “Backstage at Budz House” was included in that movie’s bonus feature and this is an extension. It stars comedians Kevin Hart, Luenell, Scruncho and Chris Spencer as they perform in front of a studio audience in a talk-show setting. Love is the host of the raucous affair. – Gary Dretzka

DVD Gift Guide Redux: The Story of Film, Qatsi, Ice Age, The Point … More

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

The Story of Film: An Odyssey
If there is such a thing as a no-brainer gift this holiday season, it’s “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.” I can say this here, without fear of being contradicted, because anyone already drawn to a website dedicated to movies would certainly relish spending all 916 minutes in the company of Mark Cousins as he chronicles the history of the international cinema. First shown on the British digital television channel More4, “The Story of Film” is divided into 15 chapters loosely arranged by periods, but also taking into account technical innovations, personalities, national cinemas, studios and influences. Decidedly non-linear, the series frequently shifts direction in mid-chapter, crossing borders of time, place and genre to advance a particular theory or keep a train of thought rolling. The effect can be dizzying, especially when Cousins jumps from an objective stance to one overtly subjective and not always backed up by the facts. In addition to expounding on all of the usual touchstones of the medium, the Irish director and film historian demonstrates convincingly how the American movie industry has never existed in a cultural vacuum, but as the sum of many disparate parts. Hollywood has always served as a crucible into which ideas and dreams are thrown, some turning into gold and others into dross. While there is no question that studio products continue to dominate the international box office, no matter how vibrant the local cinema may be, Cousins goes to great lengths to show how one culture influences another and great stories transcend all borders. Foreign filmmakers have come to Hollywood to escape tyranny, economic deprivation and to afford the luxury of seeing their dreams come true. In addition to suitcases, they’ve carried with them memories of every film they’ve watched and scenarios impossible for their American peers to conjure.

To this end, Cousins visits such far-flung sites as Thomas Edison’s New Jersey laboratory, Cinecitta Studios, the Beijing Film Academy and Shaw Brothers Studio, Bollywood and Calcutta, Teheran, Senegal and Buenos Aires, conducting interviews, gathering clips and finding the original locations of significant films. It’s a humbling experience to be reminded of how many wonderful titles we’ve yet to see. One might expect, then, that “The Story of Film” would push an anti-Hollywood agenda, favoring arthouse treasures over movies that are determinedly commercial. That isn’t the case, however. The changes in Hollywood economics and its technological imperatives are duly noted, but Cousins’ opinions aren’t of the one-size-fits-all variety. The series’ greatest limitations mostly involve the directors’ strangely bland narrative, which is capable of lulling of viewers into sleep one minute and jolting them with wild leaps of hyperbolic faith the next. Factual errors and barely founded exaggerations creep in occasionally, but not often. Indeed, some will inspire lively debate among home viewers. In addition to the many clips from the movies he’s discussing, the documentary is informed by interviews with such artists as Stanley Donen, Kyoko Kagawa, Gus van Sant, Lars Von Trier, Wim Wenders, Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Bernardo Bertolucci, Robert Towne, Jane Campion and Claudia Cardinale. Cousins doesn’t demand that we accept his points of view or methodology. Rather, he seems to be inviting us to use them as starting points of our own. It’s an amazing document, as informative as it is entertaining. A perfect companion gift to “The Story of Film” would be a subscription to Netflix or Facets. – Gary Dretzka

The Qatsi Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Decasia: The State of Decay: Blu-ray

The release of Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass’ truly amazing collaboration, “The Qatsi Trilogy,” would be an event worth celebrating even if its care and packaging weren’t entrusted to Criterion Collection. Knowing that it is, however, only makes the handsome box set that much more recommendable as a gift for your more culturally enlightened friends and relatives. The three thematically and musically linked films describe the evolution of man’s place on Earth from the period when nature wholly controlled our fate to its current devolution, brought on by technology, pollution, consumerism and greed. Yes, we’ve witnessed the negative effects of so-called progress in other documentaries, but rarely is the evidence presented in such an eloquent way. Absent all narration, we’re left to ourselves when it comes shaping opinions about what we’re being shown. Glass’ scores, while evocative, are free of editorializing, as well. Throughout the “Qatsi” series, Impressionistic images of everyday life – the good, bad, ugly and indifferent – come together as epic poems. The music seems to grow organically from what’s being shown, whether it’s an army of miners excavating a pit by hand or a fiesta with dancers in native dress. The expressions on the many anonymous faces we’re shown provide more information about their lives and times than a narrator could possibly supply. The first entry, “Koyaanisqatsi” (1983) is taken from the Hopi word meaning “life out of balance.” The basic translations of 1988’s “Powaqqatsi (“life in transformation”) and 2002’s “Naqoyqatsi” (“life as war”) pretty much sum up their essence, as well. People and things are born and, unless they are able to adjust to their environment and circumstances, they die and decay sooner than other people and things. In the end, what’s left behind for future generations is what matters most.

One of things that struck me while watching “Qatsi” is the immense difference that still exists between how work is done in first- and second-world countries and the almost ancient techniques still employed by those in undeveloped nations. Outside of the capitals, resorts and other populated areas, only the satellite dishes on adobe homes tell us that we’re in the 20th Century. The religious rituals and seasonal holidays look as if they’ve been celebrated the same way for centuries, but, then, who knows how many tourists were standing behind the cinematographer? No matter, it makes for a good show and the point remains the same. The “Qatsi” set contains, as well, a large bundle of special features, including “Essence of Life,” an interview program with Reggio and composer Philip Glass on “Koyaanisqatsi”; a new interview with cinematographer Ron Fricke about “Koyaanisqatsi”; an early 40-minute demo version of “Koyaanisqatsi,” with a scratch soundtrack by Allen Ginsberg; a new interview with Reggio about the first film’s original visual concept, with behind-the-scenes footage; “Inspiration and Ideas,” an interview with Reggio about his greatest influences and teachers; “Anima Mundi” (1992), Reggio’s 28-minute montage of images of over 70 animal species, scored by Glass; a video afterword by Reggio on the trilogy; “The Making of “Naqoyqatsi,” a brief documentary featuring interviews with the production crew; a panel discussion on “Naqoyqatsi” from 2003, with Reggio, Glass, editor Jon Kane and music critic John Rockwell; an interview with Glass and cellist Yo-Yo Ma; television spots and an interview with Reggio relating to his 1970s multimedia privacy campaign in New Mexico; and a booklet featuring essays on the trilogy by film scholar Scott MacDonald, Rockwell and author and environmentalist Bill McKibben.

The films of Bill Morrison are in the same vein as “Qatsi,” in that they blend images and music to make a point about modern life. “Decasia” arrives on the heels of Icarus’ release of “The Miners’ Hymn” and related short films, all of which reflect Morrison’s amazing ability to salvage extremely rare, nearly lost and thoroughly distressed film footage and turn it into a symphony. “Decasia” was created as a visual accompaniment to Michael Gordon’s powerfully discordant and relentlessly rhythmic orchestral piece of the same title. Here, Morrison uses found footage to address the tragedy of how much of our cinematic history has gone up in flames and deteriorated due to age, neglect and improper storage. Anyone who’s watched organic objects decay in time-lapse films knows how fascinating and strangely beautiful the process can be, when it isn’t flat-out horrifying, anyway. In “Decasia,” people who are passionate about the medium will find the effect to be profoundly depressing, as well as hypnotic. The 70-minute audio/visual “symphony” is accompanied by a short created, as well, by found footage. – Gary Dretzka

Ice Age: Continental Drift: Blu-ray
For my money, two of the most effective cautionary tales about global warming are as different from “An Inconvenient Truth” as “The Da Vinci Code” is to the Baltimore Catechism. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” both involve children being forced to deal with the effects of dramatic climate change as fact, not scientific theory. Images of the prehistoric aurochs emerging from the melting glaciers haunt Hushpuppy in ways that the melting glaciers in the Al Gore documentary frightened adults. In “A.I.,” the final shots of the robot boy, David – drowned beneath the waters that claimed Coney Island, but never to die — are even more harrowing. Although “Ice Age: Continental Drift” isn’t at all disturbing, it does share with “A.I.” and “Beasts” dramatic images of the effects of rapid climate and tectonic change on the landscape and its inhabitants, in this case prehistoric animals. It may not be pretty, but, as disaster movies go, it’s a hoot. Once again, Scrat’s obsession for acorns inadvertently wreaks havoc with Earth’s geophysical timeline. From an innocent everyday act by a hyperactive squirrel literally comes the separation and drifting of the continents. Everything else involves the struggle to keep the clan united and facing in the direction of the future. In this way, too, the story resembles a typical Hollywood disaster epic. The same motley crew of characters that populated previous “Ice Age” installments is divided here by just such an acorn-induced tectonic shift. The sea level had already been rising noticeably before a land bridge was destroyed by fissures, compounded by giant waves. Left on one side of the rapidly crumbling land mass are Sid (John Leguizamo), Diego (Denis Leary) and Manny (Ray Romano), while, on the other, stands Manny’s wife Ellie (Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer). All other escape routes have been destroyed, so the males are required to mount their rescue effort at sea. Before that can happen, they are confronted by Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), an ape who rules the waves from his pirate-ship iceberg. In the end, the good guys require the help of a friendly whale – shades of “Pinocchio” – to facilitate the mandatory happy ending. Parents may or may not want to inform young viewers of the many factual errors in the story’s timeline, as the license taken by the filmmakers is far less than poetic. “Continental Drift” is entertaining and, on Blu-ray, a pleasure to watch. It arrives in 3D and 2D, with an array of featurettes, interactive games and shorts. – Gary Dretzka

Hans Christian Andersen: Blu-ray
Babes in Toyland: Blu-ray

Somewhere, back in the dark recesses of my brain, resides a memory of watching, or, at least, hearing the songs featured in the 1952 film musical “Hans Christian Andersen.” I can’t remember if I saw the movie in a theater, on TV or merely had been given a recording of the soundtrack. Something wonderful was retained, however. New to Blu-ray, director Charles Vidor and screenwriter Moss Hart’s Technicolor “biography” of the beloved Danish storyteller is enhanced by a delightful performance by Danny Kaye and songs by Frank Loesser. It’s worth noting, as is done in a prelude to the movie, almost nothing about writer’s background and history is accurate here. The movie was produced by Samuel Goldwyn as an effort to capture Andersens’ spirit, something it does very well. As the movie opens, Andersen is a small-town cobbler whose gift for spinning fairytales is keeping kids from attending school. Because of this, the village’s starch-collared elders demand that he either cease and desist such harmless behavior or leave town. Along with one of the older boys, he sets out for “wonderful, wonderful” Copenhagen, where adventure, heartbreak and fame await. Children and young adults today know almost nothing about Kaye and what made him such a huge star in Hollywood and on Broadway. The same may said about Andersen, as well, even if his stories are as fresh as ever. The songs include “No Two People,” “The King’s New Clothes,” “Wonderful Copenhagen,” “Inchworm,” “The Ugly Duckling” and “Thumbelina.” The only bonus features are a theatrical trailer and 40-page digi-book with informative text and behind-the-scenes photos and art. The film has been restored to its original 112-minute length.

Walt Disney based his fanciful Technicolor holiday musical, “Babes in Toyland,” on a popular 1903 operetta by Victor Herbert. It had already been adapted for film, in 1934, with Laurel & Hardy as the marquee attraction. As was the case with “Hans Christian Andersen,” great liberties were taken with the original story and music, but Disney’s wonderful creations have never been known for their adherence to text and lyrics. Here, Tom the Piper’s Son is about to marry Mary Quite Contrary, but on the eve of their wedding, evil miser Barnaby hires two thugs to drown Tom and steal Mary’s sheep, cared for by Little Bo Peep. In this way, the penniless Mary would be forced to marry Barnaby. Instead, his hired thugs, Gonzorgo and Roderigo, double-cross him by selling Tom to a band of gypsies. (Would the studio freely slander the race in 2012? I doubt it.) It leaves the door open for a reunion with Mary, Bo-Peep, and other Mother Goose characters in Toyland. Although “Babes in Toyland” could boast of having such prominent stars as Ray Bolger and Ed Wynn, the most promotable cast members were “Mickey Mouse Club” regulars Annette Funicello, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran; “Zorro” co-stars, Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon; teen heartthrob, Tommy Sands; and an 11-year-old, Ann Jillian. As a feature film, “Babes in Toyland” was pretty much a bust, but its characters and sets would find a place in Disney theme parks for many years afterward. (The stop-action-animated toy soldiers also appear to have influenced certain key scenes in Blake Edwards’ “S.O.B.”) – Gary Dretzka

Dick Tracy: Blu-ray
As much as any comic-book superhero, ace crime fighter Dick Tracy has been a multimedia staple practically since its newspaper debut in 1931. Warren Beatty’s star-studded adaptation was released in 1990, a year after Tim Burton’s adaptation of “Batman” and more than a decade removed from Richard Donner’s “Superman.” It didn’t do the same kind of business as those blockbusters, but it made plenty of money for Disney. Beatty was prepared to produce a sequel, even if the studio wasn’t. Any immediate hopes that it would happen were dashed when the director/producer/star was blocked by Tribune Media Services, which owns the rights to the character. Amazingly, Beatty’s suit against the now-bankrupt company continues to this day. It’s a shame, because his version of “Dick Tracy” is nearly as much fun to watch as any of the other adaptations. And, unlike all of the great comic-book movies of the next 22 years, the only thing that was completely digital about it was the soundtrack. Besides its very decent story and nearly two dozen wonderfully re-created characters, what was so impressive about “Dick Tracy” was its brilliant color palette, which approximated the half-dozen hues, plus black and white, employed in the creation of the comic strip … that, and the makeup effects used to distinguish such immortal characters as Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino), Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman), Flattop (Wiliam Forsythe), Pruneface (R.G. Armstrong), Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino) and Spuds Spaldoni (James Caan). The story, itself, is a distillation of Chicago gangland history and the legends passed along by the strip’s creator, Chester Gould. Glenne Headley played Tracy’s eternally patient girlfriend Tess Trueheart, while Madonna was bewitching as salon-singer Breathless Mahoney. (This was when she still was dating men twice her age, instead of robbing the cradle.) The Blu-ray presentation is terrific, as are the Oscar-winning songs by Stephen Sondheim. – Gary Dretzka

The Point: Definitive Collector’s Edition
Although such hit recordings as “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “Without You,” “Coconut,” “One,” “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” and “Jump Into the Fire” are far more recognizable today than his name, Harry Nilsson’s musical legacy continues to grow. MVD Visual has re-released his perfectly gift-able animated feature, “The Point,” which, in 1971, reputedly became the first animated special to receive a prime-time broadcast in the U.S. It would go on to produce a popular soundtrack album and stage musical. The original ABC presentation featured the narration of Dustin Hoffman, as a father telling his son the story as a bedtime story, but a contract clause caused Nilsson’s buddy, Ringo Starr, to be hired to re-record the narrative. As the story goes, a little round-headed boy named Oblio, who is required a pointed hat to conform with the intolerant residents of his home town, where everyone else’s head comes to a point. As punishment for beating a count’s son in a game of Triangle Toss, Oblio and his dog Arrow are banished to the Pointless Forest. It is here that the boy discovers that everything has a point, including him, and he’s ready to return to the Land of Point to teach his former neighbors and friends the same thing. The story was accompanied by the animation of director Fred Wolf. Anyone aware of the singer-songwriter’s favorite recreational pastimes in the late-1960s and 1970s might assume that “The Point” is as psychedelic as “The Yellow Submarine” and as rebellious as “Hair.” Fact is, though, it’s perfectly acceptable as family entertainment. The biggest hit to derive from the musical was “Me and My Arrow,” but the rest of the soundtrack is fun, as well. The MVD release adds 25 minutes of bonus features, including “Who Is Harry Nilsson?,” “Pitching the Point,” “Making the Point” and “Legacy of the Point.” Curious parents may also want to check out the 2010 bio-doc, “Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?” – Gary Dretzka

Step Up Revolution: Dance Workout!
What would Christmas be without a new workout video to buy Mom or Sis when all else fails? The more they love you, the less they’ll consider bopping you over the head for insinuating they’re getting chubby. Indefensibly overweight movie critics haven’t exactly been forthcoming with praise for the four “Step Up” chapters in the movie franchise, but it’s tough to argue with total box-office grosses of $560-million-plus worldwide. The rock-your-socks-off approach to calisthenics is strictly for those who enjoy “So You Think You Can Dance” and other such shows. The 90-minute “Step Up Revolution: Dance Workout!” is hosted by Bryan Tanaka (“The XFactor”) and Micki Duran (“Burlesque”) and features hip-hop and Latin routines from the movie, “Step Up Revolution.” Be New Year’s Eve, your giftee should be ready to join a flash mob. – Gary Dretzka

History: Mankind: The Story of All of Us
History: Ancient Aliens: Collector’s Edition

In 2010, History Channel unleashed the 6-night, 12-hour miniseries, “America: The Story of Us” on those television viewers who prefer their history condensed, rather than spread out and authoritative. The hit-and-run approach and choice of commentators – Rudolph Giuliani, Donald Trump, Michael Strahan, Al Sharpton, among other celebrities – failed to impress critics, but it must have scored in the ratings. The result is the 13-part, 12-hour “Mankind: The Story of All of Us,” which attempts nothing less than to span the first stirrings of civilization in Mesopotamia and the discovery of America. By using the “big history” approach, the mini-series shows how mankind’s path is guided by events that stretch back hundreds, thousands, even millions of years. It also argues that our destinies weren’t shaped in neatly divided chapters, but in the almost inadvertent merging of such interconnected scientific disciplines as geology, astronomy, physics, biology, medicine and metallurgy. Plagues and other calamities led to important, life enhancing discoveries, just as some innovations eventually proved disastrous. With a whole lot of hard work and determination, we’ve managed to make it this far. We’ll see if the Mayan calendar allows us another Christmas.

The role played by outsiders not of this Earth has obsessed producers of “Ancient Aliens: Collector’s Edition” for, lo, the past four years. If you haven’t bought into the premise by now – or enjoyed pouring pails of water on the series’ theories — you probably never will. In effect, “Ancient Aliens” dares skeptics and scientists, alike, to come up for better explanations for the seemingly miraculous wonders discussed. I know that I can’t explain the creation of the pyramids, Stonehenge or Machu Picchu. I can barely understand how the Luxor resort in Las Vegas was constructed. The best thing about this collection and others sent out by History is that there’s no quiz at the end of each season. – Gary Dretzka

MLB All-Time Bloopers
The San Francisco Giants: 2012 World Series Collector’s Edition
Baseball fans are the easiest of all people for whom to find gifts. Each year, new books and DVDs arrive on every conceivable aspect of the game, from players and teams to stadiums and mascots. Material that would bore most people to tears is the bread and butter of diehard fans and participants in fantasy leagues. If you know their favorite team, the hard part already is over. Even the most casual of fans, though, love the blooper reels that are shown between innings on the Jumbotron scoreboards. “MLB All-Time Bloopers” is a can’t-miss DVD, as it features many more minutes of “classic and clever, historic and hysterical” individual feats and mishaps.

Of all the DVD products available today not to buy a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers it would be “The San Francisco Giants: 2012 World Series Collector’s Edition.” Team loyalists really, really don’t like each other and it would be like pouring salt in a wound for dyed-in-blue Dodger fans to be handed a record of the triumphs of their bitter rivals. On the other hand, anyone who lives north of say, Carmel, south of Portland and west of Salt Lake City should enjoy finding it in their stocking. It includes all four complete games of the 2012 World Series; the fifth games of the National League divisional and championship series; and Matt Cain’s perfect game. A “bonus” disc adds scenes of walk-off wins; season highlights; postgame celebrations; and several more games from the divisional and championship series. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: 2 Days in New York, 360, Following, Black Like Me … More

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

Why Stop Now: Blu-ray
With an ensemble cast that includes Melissa Leo, Jesse Eisenberg and Tracy Morgan, you’d think that an eccentric screwball comedy would have a fighting chance of getting noticed. In the case of “Why Stop Now” (no question mark), however, you’d be wrong. After getting a look-see at Sundance, co-writer/directors’ Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner’s collaboration took a shot at the VOD market and a brief theatrical run, before launching in DVD and Blu-ray. In it, Eisenberg plays a piano prodigy, Eli, whose budding career has been put on hold so as to perform the kind of duties his mother would do, if she weren’t a drug addict. In an effort to get back on track and protect his younger sister from the same problems he faced growing up, Eli practically drags Penny to a rehab facility. Once there, however, Penny somehow passes her drug test. By definition, then, she’s not an addict and can’t be admitted. The guy who conducts the urine test knows she isn’t likely to stay clean for long and recommends she cop some weed or pills and come back later in the day. This unlikely contrivance sets the stage for all of the craziness to come. Penny directs Eli to her dealer, Sprinkles (Morgan), to whom she owes money. Sprinkles lives at home with his Chinese mother and is in the middle of negotiations with a Puerto Rican pusher when Eli arrives. Sprinkles and his partner can’t speak Spanish, so Eli volunteers to translate and assist him at the exchange, which inconveniently takes place during a quinceanera. He does this to hasten Penny’s return to the facility and allow him to make an audition on time. By now, though, Penny’s back in the picture and everything’s begun to spin out of control. The whole motley crew, which now includes Eli’s nutty sister, accompanies Eli to the audition, where, amazingly, a Revolutionary War re-enactment also is underway. Among the costumed participants is a pretty young woman (Sarah Ramos), who distracts Eli just when he needs to be focused on the task ahead of him.

I get tired just thinking about what happens in “Why Stop Now,” so it’s easy to imagine how freshman co-director (Dorling) might have gotten tangled up in his own devices. His partner, Nyswaner, may be a veteran screenwriter, but his last assignment behind the camera came a quarter-century ago with the long-forgotten “The Prince of Pennsylvania” (notable mostly for the presence of a pre-“Bill &Ted’s” Keanu Reeves). The good news is that Leo and Eisenberg are at the top of their game right now and couldn’t turn in a half-assed performance if they tried. Morgan, too, is coming into his own as a featured actor. Here, he’s both funny and a little bit scary. It’s easy to believe that Sprinkles would see a little bit of himself in Eli, who’s reached that fork in the road where one bad decision could spell disaster. If the directors had only been able to find the right balance between comedy and drama, the pace of “Why Stop Now” might have been less chaotic and viewers would be free to catch their breath every now and again. As Leo as demonstrated in her portrayals of several other troubled women, there’s nothing remotely funny about substance abuse and the toll it takes on everyone around them. Here, though, the script cuts Penny too much slack after she’s denied entry to the rehab facility. By allowing her to be portrayed as God’s own dope fiend and turning Sprinkles into a teddy bear, the filmmakers do no one any favors. Viewers who would consider renting “Why Stop Now,” based simply on the names of the actors on display, shouldn’t consider the mixed message to be a fatal flow. The Blu-ray contains an interview with Morgan and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

2 Days in New York: Blu-ray
It isn’t enough that Julie Delpy is as fine an actress in English as she is in French and, at 43, still one the world’s most beautiful women. In such films as “Before Sunset,” “The Countess” and “2 Days in Paris,” she’s also proven herself to be an exceptional writer, director and singer-songwriter. “2 Days in New York” is a direct sequel to “2 Days in Paris,” in which Adam Goldberg played Delpy’s American boyfriend and her real-life parents, Albert Delpy and Marie Pillet, essentially played themselves. (Pillet died in 2009, but her character’s spirit lingers throughout the sequel.) Chris Rock plays convincingly against type as Mingus, Marion’s new lover. They both have children from previous relationships and appear to live comfortably in a slightly rundown apartment. The surprise awaiting Mingus when Marion’s family arrives for an extended visit is of the kind that should only happen to snobs who prefer French over California wines. As Marion’s father, Albert Delpy remains totally incorrigible. Her sex-crazed sister, Rose (Alexia Landeau), writes about child psychology but doesn’t seem to know anything about flesh-and-blood kids, while her irresponsible husband and Marion’s former lover, Manu (Alexandre Nahon), spends most of his time in New York trying to score weed. Although Marion is accustomed to such madness and is eccentric in her own right, Mingus is a cool and cultivated public-radio host whose patience decreases with every new assault on his sense of decency and decorum. If that weren’t bad enough, Marion is in the final stages of preparing an exhibit of her photographs – she also plans to auction off her soul — and she begins to suspect that she may be pregnant with her second child.

Comparisons to Woody Allen naturally followed the release of the comedy and, for once, they’re valid. Her New York bears a closer resemblance to Allen’s than the one surveyed by Edward Burns and she seems to be as comfortable behind the camera as in front of it. As kooky as Marion is, it’s easy to believe that Delpy didn’t have to stretch too far to create her. New York and Paris share certain fascinating rhythms, after all, so it might be fun to see how Delpy’s keen eye for cultural quirks captured a return home with Mingus and the kids in tow. Being a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, he probably gets nervous whenever he’s required to travel beyond the outer boroughs and when the Knicks are on the road. Although Rock isn’t required here to carry the comedic load, it’s funny to watch Mingus conduct one-sided conversations with the cardboard cut-out of President Obama in his office. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Delpy and Rock. – Gary Dretzka

360: Blu-ray
Despite a terrific international cast, wonderful performances, interesting locations, the words of Peter Morgan (“The Last King of Scotland”) and direction of Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”), the sum of its parts couldn’t equal success for “360.” As an ensemble thriller with tangentially related characters and interlocking storylines, it demands of us that we buy into a universe in which the impact of chance meetings, missed opportunities, karmic consequences, coincidence, fate and divine intervention can be measured like ripples on the surface of a quiet pond. Morgan’s screenplay is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play “La Ronde,” which, in 1897, caused a scandal by linking a series of sexual encounters between disparate characters in a daisy chain. Meirelles opens up the play by introducing us first to an aspiring model (Lucia Siposova) who commutes between Bratislava and Vienna, accompanied by her sister, first to be photographed for a website, but, soon thereafter, to turn tricks for her photographer/pimp. Her first assignment is to meet with a British businessman (Jude Law) in Austria for a convention. Their rendezvous coincides with a sexual assignation his wife (Rachel Weisz) is having back home sex with a younger man, whose South American girlfriend, Laura (Maria Flor) has been spying on them. The circular dance continues with intertwined scenarios in Paris, a snowed-in airport in Denver, a Miami morgue and back, again, in Vienna.

Even at 110 minutes, we don’t have much time to get fully acquainted with the characters. On stage, this wouldn’t present a problem, but movie audiences need a more complete picture if they’re being asked to buy into such a demanding scenario. Just being a Muslim dentist, Soviet gangster, the father of a teenage runaway, unfaithful spouse, a convicted sex offender, parasitic pimp, German extortionist and aspiring prostitute doesn’t necessarily make a character compelling. The best moments in “360” come when the individual players are required to look into themselves and confront their demons. No one does this better than Anthony Hopkins, as the tortured father of a runaway who connects with Laura after she inquires about the pictures and newspaper articles he’s studying on the plane from London to Denver. After John describes his almost certainly fruitless mission, they bond in a way that nearly crosses the narrow border between paternal and romantic. Before they go their separate ways, Laura says something to him that hits him like a bolt of lightning. He shares the experience at an AA meeting in a soliloquy that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Laura also impacts the life of Ben Foster’s newly paroled sex offender, Tyler, another lost soul stuck at the Denver airport. It is a target-rich environment for a rapist and Tyler is desperately trying to avoid a relapse. Instead of meeting John for dinner, Laura demands that Tyler accompany her to her hotel room, where she can satiate her hunger for revenge sex. He attempts to reject the invitation, but the blissfully naïve Laura is adamant. Foster’s performance is scary good. The Blu-ray arrives with making-of featurettes and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Hard Core Logo/Hard Core Logo 2
Just as difficult as it is to imagine anyone attempting to make a mockumentary about Frank Sinatra, Maria Callas or Miles Davis in their artistic prime, it’s that easy to argue that several of the best movies about rock ’n’ roll are satires. There’s so little difference between truth and fiction that such very real documentaries as “Dig!,” “Hype!” and “Last Days Here” seem too preposterous to be true. Bruce McDonald and Noel Baker’s “Hard Core Logo” — an adaptation of Michael Turner’s novel about aging punk rockers — is considered to be one of the best examples of faux non-fiction, albeit one in which “mock” doesn’t necessarily equate to “funny.” At its lightest, the self-described mockumentary is the color of ink and often no more amusing. The fake Canadian punk ensemble Hard Core Logo made a reputation for itself by combining a take-no-prisoners attitude with a playlist of kick-ass songs. After the group disbands, a fan asks the members to reunite for an anti-gun benefit to support a music “legend,” who, we’re told, had his legs blown off in an assault. Self-absorbed lead singer Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon) convinces guitarist Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie) to return to the Great White North from California, where he’d gotten a gig with a more popular band. The benefit goes so well that the band members agree to embark on a tour of the hinterlands. The other members are content to get back on the road, where they can raise a little hell before admitting they’re too old to rock. Somewhere between Saskatoon and Vancouver, things begin to unravel. Truths are revealed and egos are bruised. Turner, Baker and McDonald all have enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the Canadian punk scene and “HLC” benefits from their collective memory.

Fourteen years later, McDonald revisited the tale in “Hard Core Logo 2,” but without the assistance of Turner and Baker. It is far less successful. The story focus on a Courtney Love clone (rocker Care Failure, playing herself) who believes she’s possessed by the twisted spirit of Joe Dick and is on a highway to hell. A demented character from the first film agrees to produce her next album in a snowbound lodge in Saskatchewan and it becomes an exercise is sadomasochism. McDonald’s greatest lapse in judgment comes in turning his own character, Bruce the Filmmaker, into a central player in the faux drama. Hitchcock appeared in his pictures for only a few seconds at a time and McDonald’s no Hitchcock. Even so, fans of the original might find something in this punk nightmare to their liking. They certainly will be pleased by the handsome new package and restoration, which makes both films look and sound great. The set adds interviews and featurettes.  – Gary Dretzka

Following: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Over the course of 12 years, Christopher Nolan has gone from making no-budget shorts that almost no one has seen (“Doodlebug”) to mega-budget features that fans wait in line overnight to savor (“The Dark Knight Trilogy”). Newly re-issued by Criterion Collection with a restored, hi-def digital transfer, “Following” is the movie Nolan made before his breakthrough feature, “Memento.” Like that critical and box-office success, “Following” is a gritty crime story that unfolds in a resolutely non-linear fashion. Instead of a mysterious stranger with a severe case of amnesia, the protagonist of “Following” is a blocked writer, Bill, who follows strangers in the street for reasons even he doesn’t seem to understand. He becomes fascinated with a slick operator named Cobb, who turns the tables by confronting his stalker in a restaurant. At first, Bill tries to deny that he’s following Cobb, but it’s fruitless. In fact, Cobb reveals to Bill that he’s something of a snoop himself. Instead of following people, he’s mastered the art of hands-on voyeurism by breaking into apartments and going through the owner’s property, if for no other reason than that he’s good at it. He talks Bill into joining him on a practice run, but has bigger things in mind for their partnership.

Things get complicated after they break into the apartment of a gangster’s moll and they take souvenirs – lingerie, a single pearl earring – that will figure prominently at various times in the narrative. It helps to pay close attention to the things that happen along the way to the movie’s unexpected conclusion, because the narrative frequently doubles back on itself. Among the things that make “Following” special is the grainy black-and-white cinematography, which heightens the noir feel and looks terrific in Blu-ray. The package adds a lengthy interview with Nolan; a fresh 5.1 surround sound mix; Nolan’s commentary; a chronological rendering of the story; a side-by-side comparison of three scenes in the film, with the shooting script; the three-minute short, “Doodlebug”; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic and programmer Scott Foundas.  – Gary Dretzka

Black Like Me
Now relegated mostly to the backwaters and footnotes of 20th Century history is “Black Like Me,” a book written by a white Texan, John Howard Griffin, for the purpose of enlightening fellow Caucasians about life in the Jim Crow South. It’s greatest success came in confirming the horror stories related by negroes – this was before “black” and “African-American” entered the vernacular – about such terrible realities as lynching; designated whites-only sections in restaurants and theaters; forbidden rest rooms and drinking fountains; “coon hunts”; and men being forbidden from looking into the eyes of a white woman. Agitators were routinely beaten for demanding their constitutional rights and voting was privilege limited to citizens who could pay a fee and/or pass a test. Northerners knew more about Apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia than the effects of segregation in Dixie. Griffin had witnessed things that shocked him and knew nothing would change if the truth continued to be swept under the rug by the media. To this end, he worked with doctors to tint his skin to a shade that would allow him to “pass” and spent hours under a sunlamp. It worked so well that he was able to experience things he previously believed were passed along for shock value.

Griffin and his editor both understood he would be putting his career and possibly his life in jeopardy, simply for reporting the truth. Moreover, Griffin put himself in a position where he could be accused by black activists of exploiting the situation strictly for personal gain and self-aggrandizement. This was especially true when the serialization of “Black Like Me” ended in Sepia magazine and the subsequent book became a must-read in many parts of the country. In fact, it became required reading in some high schools. Three years later, “Black Like Me” was adapted for the screen by Carl Lerner — editor of “The Fugitive Kind” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” among other ’50s classics — as his first and only feature.

Without researching the film’s history, it’s difficult for me to say why the movie was entrusted to as many first-time filmmakers as it was. It’s entirely possible that distribution would have been limited to only a very few Northern cities and college towns and it wasn’t worth the effort or financial risk for the studios. At the time, movies were edited so as not to offend racist audiences in the South with visions of blacks and whites consorting and carrying on. Lerner’s adaptation isn’t the most elegant or technically proficient movie ever made, but it’s true to the book and has a decidedly noir texture that still is effective. The scenes shot on the nighttime streets of New Orleans and in the nightclubs where black patrons danced wildly to post-war swing and R&B are especially effective. The movie’s biggest problem comes in the inconsistent skin tones on the face James Whitmore, which went from light brown to minstrel-show black. The script also demanded of Whitmore that he chew far too much scenery when he wasn’t gracefully interpreting Griffin’s message. Among the cast members are such now-familiar faces as Roscoe Lee Brown, Al Freeman Jr., Will Geer, Heywood Hale Broun, David Huddleston, Raymond St. Jacques, Denver Pyle, Matt Clark and Sorrell Brooke (a.k.a., “Boss Hogg”). “Black Like Me” isn’t easy to watch, even now, but its value as a historical document can’t be dismissed. It is being released for the first time in DVD, fully restored from the original negative, the package includes the bonus disc, “Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin,” an excerpt from “Reluctant Activist: The Authorized Biography of John Howard Griffin.” – Gary Dretzka

Osombie: Blu-ray
The Caretaker
The Mark of the Devil: Yack Pak
Stricken
Doomsday Book: Blu-ray
If it could be proven that Osama Bin Laden didn’t exactly die after being shot and killed in the raid on his compound in Pakistan, would film critics in New York and Boston feel compelled to give their best-picture award for “Zero Dark Thirty” to the runner-ups? That isn’t the burning question that comes to mind while watching “Osombie,” but it is right behind, “Who comes up with this stuff?” Apparently, when it pertains to zombie movies, the answer is, “Anyone with a typewriter.” If D.W. Griffith were alive today, it’s possible we’d be reviewing “Birth of a Zombie Nation” in this space. Contrary to what Americans have been told, Osama’s compound actually was built on a storage-locker facility in which he was assembling a zombie army. When attacked by Seal Team Six, the terrorist leader knew that the only way to escape being killed or kidnaped by emissaries of the Great Satan was to cheat death. He accomplished this by injecting himself with a chemical substance developed for use by NATO troops, but was re-formulated by a pharmacist at the Walgreen’s in Kabul … or something like that. Once deposited in Davy Jones’ Locker for the big sleep, Bin Laden woke up as a zombie capable of walking along the floor of the ocean (do zombies swim?) to an encampment of his fellow undead. By coincidence, a crack Special Forces team is in the same neighborhood and they’ve got their hands full slaughtering the Al Qaeda irregulars. They’re everywhere and nowhere, at once. Apart from the appearance of Osama, “Osombie” plays out in much the same way as a zillion other such genre specimens. The only differences are the head scarves worn by the zombies and the lovely desert scenery. As ludicrous as John Lyde and Kurt Hale’s movie may be, it exudes a goofy can-do charm capable of enchanting even the most sophisticated and critical slackers.

Decades before “torture porn” was given a name and sub-genre of its own, the German-made “The Mark of the Devil” tested the limits of how much simulated pain the typical drive-in and grindhouse customer could stand. Dubbed by its American distributors as being “positively the most horrifying film ever made” – they conveniently forgot “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” — Michael Armstrong and Adrian Hoven’s gorefest was screened with an airplane barf bag for every ticket sold. (And, so does the DVD.) Reportedly banned in Germany, where it was titled “Witches Are Tortured to Death,” “Mark of the Devil” is still capable of raising a shudder or two. The many scenes of torture derive from the bloodlust of 18th Century priests and inquisitors who believe that any beautiful, large busted woman who wouldn’t sleep with them must be a sorcerer or blasphemer and, for that, deserves to die under unspeakable circumstances. Genre buffs will enjoy seeing a 26-year-old Udo Kier playing the understudy of the Grand Inquisitor (Herbert Lom) and his chief henchman (Reggie Nalder). He discovers the truth after enjoying a night of bliss with one of the women (Katarina Olivera) accused of heresy. (In 1970, at least, Kier could easily have been mistaken for David Cassidy.)

From Australia arrives “The Caretaker,” a vampire movie that will sound more familiar to genre buffs than it actually is. Like any flu epidemic, vampirism has crossed the oceans and taken hold in the continent’s largest cities. The plague appears to have taken officials by surprise, however, and news of it has yet to make its way to the provinces. Once it does, a small group of survivors congregates at the rural home of a strangely twisted wine merchant. He’d previously called a doctor to see what’s wrong with his mom, who’s stashed away in the basement. It doesn’t take the doctor long to figure out her problem or the owner to grasp why the doctor isn’t interested in the potatoes that accompany his juicy steak dinner. The doctor is an old-school vampire willing to protect the survivors from attack by the infected vampires at night, if they promise to keep bounty hunters away from him in daylight. As you can imagine, that leaves plenty of time for heartfelt discussions between the hot blond survivor and the buff vampire, as well as sinister plotting and back-stabbing by the others. Thanks to some beautifully photographed sunrises, sunsets and cloud formation, “Caretaker” sometimes even borders on the contemplative.

Kim Ji-Woon and Yim Pil-Sung’s Doomsday Book” is a three-part anthology from Korea that neatly combines horror and science-fiction. In the first, “A Brave New World,” a pandemic is caused when the metabolisms of cattle no longer are capable of filtering out the toxins from their feed, which literally comes from the garbage thrown away by humans. The poison beef, when consumed, doesn’t merely kill people, it turns them into zombies. In the brilliant sci-fi sendup, “Happy Birthday,” a girl uses the Internet to purchase a replacement 8-ball for her father’s pool table. Because of a malfunction in the computer, the order is misdirected and the delivery arrives in the form of a giant black meteor from space. It’s the second chapter, “The Heavenly Creature,” that struck me as being the most provocative. It imagines a time in the not too distant future when robots not only can react instinctively to our needs, but also learn from us in ways that don’t require the input of programmers. At a Buddhist monastery, a robot leased by the monks to perform various duties has begun showing signs that it has absorbed religious teaching. While meditating, it asks the million-dollar question, “From where I do I come and to where will I go?” For their part, the monks ask themselves, “If humans were created by a greater force, is it possible for their creations to attain enlightenment, as well?” The owner of the company that manufactures such advanced robots demands that the monks allow him to destroy their unit and replace it with something less willful. He argues that by accepting the robot’s free will, it could open a Pandora’s Box that might fundamentally change our ways of life. Where’s the HAL 9000, when you need it?

Matthew Sconce’s possession-thriller “Stricken” did well on the festival circuit before being released into DVD, where it also deserves a fair shot at success. Newcomer Stephanie French plays a young woman, Sarah, who’s been haunted by terrible dreams and bizarre visions ever since the funerals of her mother and father. His suicide arguably was caused by a frightening Celtic curse that somehow found its way to America. It goes back to the Scottish river deity Agrona, who’s known as the “goddess of carnage” and manifests herself in mirrors and reflections. A police detective played by veteran tough guy David Fine had dated the mother in high school and believes that Sarah’s curse might explain a 10-year string of murders that he’s been investigating. He’s the rare good-guy cop, who is willing to give air to Sarah’s fears instead of dismissing them out of hand. His only problem is that he falls into a deep sleep when she needs him the most. – Gary Dretzka

My Heart Beats
Sex Hunter: Wet Target/I Love It From Behind
Richard Kern: Hardcore Collection: Director’s Cut
Naked in the 21st Century: Collector’s Edition
In her feature debut, the erotic ugly-duckling story, “My Heart Beats,” Huh Eun-hee adds another dimension to the evolving Korean film renaissance. Decidedly soft-core, the film’s protagonist, Yoo Jo-Ri, is a 37-year-old professor of English and literature, with a special emphasis this semester in Victorian erotica. It’s an unlikely topic for a woman who can barely raise her eyes when talking to a man and develops a rash when confronted with a possible real-life sexual encounter. It isn’t that Yoo is a prude, exactly, because she’s well-versed in Internet porn and seems desperate to experience a life-changing orgasm. Her reticence has far more to do with a certain embarrassment over having to admit she’s a virgin. She’s also self-conscious about her weight and drab persona. Fortuitously, one of her closest friends is a producer of adult films.  Given that there’s a niche DVD to match every niche taste, her friend provides her one she thinks might quench the professor’s desire to perform in a porno. It has the opposite effect, however, and the producer decides to give her a shot. Because Yoo braces at the idea of even removing her clothes, things don’t go well. Still, she perseveres.  To protect her position at the college, she wears a Mardi Gras mask and this eases her tension a bit. It isn’t until she begins to see the relationship between sex and sensuality — here, in the shape and scent of luscious fruits and the erotic pull of an aroused heart – that Yoo begins to blossom as a woman. If that summary could describe several dozen Cinemax movies, it’s worth knowing that the cinematography, direction and acting all are terrific and clichés are kept to a minimum.

As batshit crazy as most of vintage Roman Porno titles in the “Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection” are, it’s almost always possible to find at least a grain of social commentary contained in them. They’re unlike anything you’ve seen on cable TV or probably ever will. Roman Porno was grindhouse before grindhouse was cool. The biggest hurdle for American viewers to get past always has been the filmmakers’ liberal attitude toward portraying rape, not always as a violent crime, but sometimes as an act of foreplay. At the height of their popularity, Japanese censorship guidelines famously prohibited the display of pubic hair, requiring filmmakers to pixelate genitalia or avoid graphic nudity entirely. Everything else was fair game, including unleashed semen, “water sports,” women’s sanitary products and sex toys.

Yukihiro Sawada’s “Sex Hunter: Wet Target” combines elements of the “pink” and “rebel youth” formats in the service of a story that decries the reluctance of Japanese courts to punish American soldiers who commit sex crimes while on leave. Set during the Vietnam War, three drunk Yanks decide it might be fun to assault a couple of working girls outside the military base. When one woman protests the brutality of the attack, she is beaten and hung. After whiskey is poured on the other woman – the camera angle leads us to believe it’s something else — she is left behind in a nearly comatose state. A black man passing by on his bicycle stops to help her, but he, too, is beaten. Upon his release from prison, the dead prostitute’s brother – half black and half Japanese – pledges to avenge her death. He gets a bartending job in the nightclub in which his sister worked and the other victim is living and performing in a zombie-like state. When he isn’t performing live sex shows with her for VIP customers, he’s plotting revenge on the soldiers. Upon discovering that the Viet Cong have already taken care of that for him, he works out his frustration on customers taking advantage his sister’s friend. “Wet Target” ain’t pretty, but it did cause a bit of an uproar at the time.

Koyu Ohara’s “I Love It From Behind” is a mutation of the horny-housewife sub-genre, which speculated on what goes on at home when the wives of “salary men” are left to their own devices. In it, a young woman committed to an arranged marriage goes on a pre-nuptial sex spree, during which she hopes to sleep with 100 men and collect inked imprints of their penises. After exhausting the supply of eligible men in Sapporo, Mimei travels to Tokyo for the home stretch. Upon arriving at her closest friend’s apartment, she discovers Masumi in a sexual embrace with her mousy roommate, Rei. Being of the strictly-dickly persuasion, Mimei talks them into reacquainting themselves with the joys of hetero love. Although Rei seems more interested in her toy collection, Masumi takes on the challenge of seducing a handsome executive in her office. After enjoying several dinner dates with the prim fellow, they dial up the relationship by going home together. Finally, he reveals his pervy side, by tying her up, cutting off her clothes with a straight razor, shaving her pubes and sodomizing her with a dildo … in a soft-core sort of way, of course. Meanwhile, Mimei continues her pursuit of penises, failing only once in her quest. Severely damaged by her ordeal, Masumi decides to join her friend on one of her nightclub romps, during which she cuts a stray out of the herd and does unto him what was done unto her. Amazingly, her victims kind of dig being abused and buggered, hence the movie’s title. With only a couple of days left before her wedding, Mimei tracks down her elusive and thoroughly egomaniacal prey and challenges him to an orgasm contest, which actually is pretty sexy. What began with a rape evolves rather quickly into a bawdy comedy with a twist ending.

Richard Kern is best known today as a photographer of borderline-sleazy soft-core porn that can be found in magazines, coffeetable books, premium websites and album jackets. He seems fixated by young adult women who enjoy taking their clothes off for his camera, exchanging biographical chit-chat with the geezer and posing with everyday items in ways only fetishists would find provocative. (Others might consider the poses to be weird, boring or lame.) The short movies included in “Richard Kern: Hardcore Collection: Director’s Cut” represent work done in his salad days, 30 to 40 years ago, as a prominent East Village filmmaker, photographer and scenester. Rougher and far angrier in tone than Kern’s work today, the films were labeled Cinema of Trangression by fellow practitioner Nick Zedd. They were done in collaboration with such underground fixtures as Lydia Lunch, Henry Rollins, Lung Leg, David Wojnarowicz, Sonic Youth, Kembra Pfahler and various other strippers, drug addicts and starving artists. The generous Blu-ray collection of digitally restored, re-mastered and re-cut pieces isn’t at all easy to watch – the 1970-80s offered more opportunities for transgressive types – as they include scenes of extreme sexuality, violence and very loud punk music. Longtime admirers will consider the collection to be essential viewing. It adds outtakes, the unreleased “Destruction” and revealing interviews.

A couple of weeks ago, Doris Wishman’s nudie-cutie classic, “Hideout in the Sun,” was re-released into DVD through MVD Visual. Made in 1960, it involves a pair of bank robbers who find refuge in a Florida nudist resort. The setting allowed for plenty of nudity, while discussions extolling the naturalist lifestyle allowed it to pass for educational, under the restrictions imposed by the Production Code. In cinematic terms, at least, it was primitive. “Naked in the 21st Century: Collector’s Edition” tackles the same subject in a way that might have passed inspection in 1960, too. In fact, it’s a come-on for investors in T.L. Young’s theatrical project, “The Naked Place.” The most surprising thing about the documentary may be the news that nudist camps still exist, although suburban sprawl and skittish neighbors now threaten their existence in sunnier climes than tiny Roselawn, Indiana, where there are two. The film offers a look back at the history of the camps and the culture, as well as some contemporary scenes. It also goes behind the scenes of auditions for “The Naked Place” and adds interviews with members of the International Naturists Association conducted by Playboy model Christine Nguyen as a guest faux newscaster. – Gary Dretzka

Gayby
The Skinny: Director’s Cut
Jonathan Lisecki’s let’s-have-a-baby comedy, “Gayby,” takes a well-worn cultural cliché and twists it just enough to wring a reasonably funny and often very entertaining rom-com from its disparate parts. Adapted on an obviously meager budget from a similarly themed short, “Gayby” accomplishes something that Hollywood filmmakers have failed to do after numerous attempts: finding the fun in alternative birthing and keeping it real. While decidedly formulaic, it doesn’t attempt to turn gays into straights, and vice-versa, simply for the sake of a few laughs or ignore the way gays and lesbians make love. Matthew Wilkas plays Matt, the gay best friend of a straight woman, Jenn (Jenn Harris), whose bad luck with men has convinced her to have a baby before her biological clock stops ticking. Now in their mid-30s, Matt and Jenn have been friends since they were kids and agree that making a baby together would be the best remedy for her dilemma. At the same time as they’re trying to conceive, however, both are attempting to find new love interests. This is much easier for Matt to pull off than Jenn, because only a very few potential boyfriends welcome hearing that their date wants to become a parent in the immediate future.

Matt is hilariously uncomfortable with the prospect of making babies “the old-fashioned way.” Even the thought of seeing Jenn naked is the furthest thing to a turn-on in his mind. The big complication comes in the form of a handsome lug who approaches Jenn at the very moment when she can’t possibly say, “no,” to a quick roll in the hay. It isn’t until a few weeks later, when Jenn’s many attempts bear fruit, that she runs into the lug and he off-handedly mentions the five condoms that broke in the fury of their tryst. Apparently, condoms can dry out and crack when stored for five years in a bathroom drawer. Foolishly, perhaps, she alerts Matt to the possibility he isn’t the dad on the night of his birthday and he doesn’t take it well. There are several directions “Gayby” might have gone at this point, but, I think, Lisecki found the right path to a credible solution. The lead actors benefit from a strong supporting cast and a script that doesn’t play to the cheap seats.

Patrik-Ian Polk’s reunion dramedy, “The Skinny,” shares the usual touchstone points as every movie in which college friends get back together after a year apart from each other. The primary difference here comes in knowing that the good-looking characters attended the trendiest college on the planet, Brown University; are African-American; and are either gay or lesbian. No sooner do the friends reunite in a New York townhouse than the hook-ups and peripheral intrigue begin. As usual, the further they dig into a year’s worth of dirt, the more they find. The decision to hold the gathering in New York, instead of, say, Las Vegas, probably doomed the weekend from the get-go. It’s tough to get away from your demons when you don’t go very far from where they fester. Moreover, the specter of HIV/AIDS hangs over the proceedings like a blimp. “The Skinny” stars Jussie Smollett, Anthony Burrell, Blake Young-Fountain, Shanika Warren-Markland and Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman. It adds deleted scenes, director’s commentary, web extras and a photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka

Dreams of a Life
Even to her closest friends, Joyce Vincent personified Winston Churchill’s observation, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Judging from the testimony of friends and associates, the 38-year-old was vivacious, stunning, lovely and very well liked. A product of a conservative Afro-Caribbean family, living in a spare North London bed-sitting room, she loved music and found ways to mingle with celebrities, including Nelson Mandela and Stevie Wonder. And, yet, it took nearly three years for police to discover her decomposed body after presumably dying alone and forgotten in December 2003. Her skeleton was found surrounded by Christmas presents that she was in the process of wrapping and her television was still playing. According to the evidence presented in “Dreams of a Life,” it wasn’t a case of a troubled woman being abandoned by friends or committing suicide. By all indications, Vincent managed to fall off the face of the Earth all by herself, without leaving a forwarding address. She is portrayed here by the waifish British actress Zawe Ashton (“Blitz”), as someone whose presence was magnetic and always welcome. Director Carol Worley (“The Alcohol Years”) read an article about the discovery of Vincent’s body and decided to investigate the circumstances that led to the mystery. She took out ads in newspapers and placed signs on the sides of cabs. Slowly, but surely a biographical portrait emerged from the sensational headlines. Worley expands upon the mystery inside the enigma by employing ethereal music in the background during Ashton’s appearances. Because we’re left only with the official cause of death, natural causes, we leave the movie as perplexed as we are profoundly saddened by seemingly wasted life. The DVD comes with an interesting making-of discussion and further thoughts by the participants. – Gary Dretzka

Libby, Montana
After watching movies like “Erin Brockovich,” “Silkwood,” “A Civil Action” and “The Insider,” most viewers walk away from them believing that the heroic actions of a handful of Davids can topple the ambivalently murderous Goliaths of American industry. Many such documentaries end on a positive note, as well. It’s the movies and documentaries we don’t see that should scare us the most. “Libby, Montana” describes an environmental horror story that began decades ago, claimed hundreds of patriotic Americans and ended in 2009 with the monsters being cleared of all charges. In this case, the fiend is the huge and powerful conglomerate W.R. Grace, which knowingly put its workers in harm’s way and withheld its own warnings from them. It closed its Zonolite plant in the remote mountain town of Libby, Montana, in 1990, but, even today, residents of all ages and job background continue to die of asbestos-related ailments. Zonolite has been used as a source of insulation in millions of U.S. homes, so it’s impossible to fix a firm number on the harm it’s caused. Grace executives must have feared being found culpable, if not guilty of great crimes, because it began stashing billions of dollars of earnings in “daughter companies” before declaring bankruptcy in 2001. At the time, it was facing 270,000 asbestos-related lawsuits nationwide, of which 150,000 have been settled. This put the responsibility of footing the bill in Libby on the shoulders of taxpayers.

There is no happy ending to “Libby, Montana.” The only thing the red-state governor offered Libby residents was prayers. Health insurers could hardly wait to begin denying benefits and cutting co-pays for drugs. All that was left for the citizens was to pray, themselves, taxpayers would come to their rescue through Superfund designation. If the citizens felt less than hopeful during its decades-long ordeal, it might be traced to an announcement by then-President Reagan, naming the head of W.R. Grace to lead a panel dedicated to streamlining business affairs and eliminating the roadblocks in the way of conglomerates profiting from the misery of others. For his part, President George W. Bush worked mightily to diminish further to ability of the EPA to protect citizens by cutting jobs in the department. All of the politicians we meet in “Libby, Montana” are Republican. You do the math. The DVD adds interviews with director Dru Carr and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Out the Gate
Kill ’Em All: Blu-ray
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie from Jamaica that didn’t involve Bob Marley or bobsleds. “Out the Gate” is a micro-budget crime thriller whose roots extend back to “The Harder They Come,” “Rockers” and “Countryman,” right down to the subtitled English. In a story as old as time, a young man is sent to L.A. by his uncle to prevent him from attempting to avenge the murder of a friend. Instead of immediately setting the music industry on fire, as he expects, Everton ends up on the street selling CDs and DVDs shipped to him from the island. Ideally suited to his social skills, the gig helps Everton (E-Dee) connect with several influential people, including the musician Father Times, the record mogul Qmillion, ganglord Badz and several women normally out of a country boy’s league. When Qmillion hooks Everton up with a terrific Trinidadian singer (Ms Triniti), he begins to think that he’s on his way to Zion. Naturally, the good times can’t last. Bad news arrives in the form of Badz, who’s pissed over an unpaid IOU that Father Times neglected to mention to his friend. If the story is overly familiar and, technically, “Out the Gate” is an unholy mess, the rest of the movie is redeemed by an excellent dancehall and reggae soundtrack and the enthusiastic acting of a young, virtually unknown cast.

Although it does feature some top-flight martial arts, “Kill ’Em All” ultimately is no more exciting than watching someone else play a video fighting game. After being a given a demonstration of the combatants’ deadly skills in the real world, they’re drugged, kidnaped and consigned to a concrete bunker in which all exits are controlled by the unseen puppet-master, Snakehead (Cia Hui Liu). Although we know that all of the fighters are professional assassins, we’re largely left in the dark as to why they’ve been brought here. We find out gradually as the series of deadly challenges given them by Snakehead plays out. The higher the level, the greater the amount of force is employed against the survivors. That’s the story. Everything else is action. Raimu Death Valley: Blu-ray Death Valley: Blu-ray nd Huber and Ken Miller’s movie stars Johnny Messner, Joe Lewis, Ammara Siripong, Tim Man, Rashid Phoenix, Brahim Achabbakhe and Erik Markus Schuetz. – Gary Dretzka

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Trade of Innocents
Like every other business in the world, the sex industry operates on the principle of supply and demand. In the United States, it’s still possible to fly to Reno or Las Vegas, hop in a complimentary limousine and be taken to a legal brothel. The establishments are licensed and taxed, as are the women. Health standards are carefully observed and the customers are plentiful. The same can’t be said about the freelance prostitutes and pimps in Reno, Las Vegas or any other city in the United States. Poverty and drug addiction have driven thousands of American women and men, girls and boys, into the “game.” Because the demand is so great, however, the business of supplying prostitutes through trafficking human flesh has become a global epidemic. There isn’t a police drama series on television that hasn’t incorporated the illegal trade of women from Eastern Europe, China and South America into its story lines. Interpol tells us that many, possibly most of these women were kidnaped or are being held against their wills to pay off debts accrued by their parents or the passage to the U.S. Their customers probably think the women’s accents are cute, but their money finances a United Nations of organized crime.

The quasi-legal sex industry in Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations is different in several important ways. On the demand side, tourists from developed nations around the world flock there to partake in cheap and easy sex and some varieties that are strictly forbidden back home. Tragically, among their number are countless pedophiles who can feed their sick addiction with little or no resistance. On the supply side, impoverished parents often resort to selling or leasing their children to the traffickers who supply the brothels and pimps in the destination cities. The insidious practice has been well documented and reported, but police and government corruption – in addition to the premium prices paid by pedophiles – has thwarted the efforts of relief agencies and international law-enforcement groups.

Trade of Innocents” is the latest movie to take on the illegal trafficking of underage children in Southeast Asia. Although critics have lambasted its almost amateurish “infomercial”/PSA approach to the subject, it delivers an important message and probably is better suited to small-screen viewing than theatrical exhibition. Dermot Mulroney and Mira Sorvino play an American couple who lost their young daughter to a sexual predator and have traveled to Cambodia or, perhaps, Thailand to help put a dent in the criminal enterprise there, as well as encourage rescued women and girls to keep fighting. They’re welcomed with various degrees of cooperation, suspicion and resistance by police and citizens, alike. We hear all of the various sides of the argument, but, because we already know which team is worthy of our support, dismiss most of them out of hand. Not surprisingly, the good guys win this battle, while having to admit that the war is far from over. Clearly, as long as supply and demand remain relatively balanced, it will fall on government and police officials to forgo the rewards of sex tourism and bribes and focus on solutions to the problem. We already know how that’s worked here with the drug trade, but, unlike the legalization of marijuana, legalizing underage prostitution on the supply side simply isn’t an option. – Gary Dretzka

The Joy Luck Club: Blu-ray
Released in 1993, Wayne Wang’s adaptation of the Amy Tan best-seller was significant both as a compelling multi-generational drama and a reminder of how poorly served the Asian-American community was by Hollywood. It still is, but the presence of Pacific Rim characters has increased significantly as the number of first- and second-generation Asian-Americans in the key demographics has grown. Two decades ago, they mostly were relegated to restaurants, war movies, triads, IT jobs and cutthroat business negotiations. Set primarily in and around San Francisco, “The Joy Luck Club” is informed by the memories of four Chinese women, who, since arriving in America just after World War II, have met once a week to play mah-jongg. In a sense, they exist in three different worlds: the one they left, the one in which they currently exist and the one in which their children are entering. Ming-Na Wen serves as our entry point into all three worlds after she joins the circle as the replacement for her recently deceased mother. Their individual stories range from uplifting to heart-breaking. – Gary Dretzka

The Island: Blu-ray
Ashanti: Blu-ray
Wild Geese: Blu-ray
Death Valley: Blu-ray
Anyone who watches as many old movies as DVD reviewers do is never surprised to find Michael Caine’s name on a dust jacket. Not only has he appeared in some of classiest movies of the last 60 years, but he’s also lent his talent to more than a few pot-boilers, bombs and turkeys. He can be found in “The Dark Knight Returns” and two new releases this week: Scream!Factory’s big-budget adventure “The Island” and Severin’s slave-trade thriller “Ashanti.”

Writer Peter Benchley and producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck had just hit the jackpot with “Jaws” and “Jaws 2” and they tried for a trifecta with the adaptation of Benchley’s “The Island.” Director Michael Ritchie had a nice run going with “Smile,” “The Bad News Bears” and “Semi-Tough.” Universal threw a whole bunch of money at the project and could barely wait for box-office revenues to come flooding back in the return mail. It’s still waiting, probably. Someone there must have thought that the Bermuda Triangle provided a sure-fire theme and expanded upon it by adding old-school pirates, a gimmick that wouldn’t float until Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” took sail in 2003. Caine stars as a reporter fixated on reports of mysterious disappearances in the increasingly infamous triangle-shaped section of ocean. He sets out with his son to check out the area and, indeed, is disappeared in a trap set by an in-bred ancestor of the island’s original pirate cabal. David Warner, who leads the pack, sees in the son a way to get fresh DNA in the bloodstream. When modern marauders target the island, the volume of the violence is dialed up to full blast.

At about the same time, Michael Caine also starred in “Ashanti,” a movie far more interesting in Blu-ray as a travelogue than as an adventure. Everything about “Ashanti,” except the scenery can best be described as ludicrous. I don’t care if it is based on actual events, a declaration I’m not willing to buy. Nearly 60 years after “The Sheik,” it was still alright not only to portray Arabs as neck-deep in the slave trade, but also have them played by gringos. Here, Peter Ustinov has been assigned to lead luscious supermodel Beverly Johnson from the jungles of West Africa to the Mediterranean, where Omar Sharif awaits his delivery. She was abducted while skinny-dipping near a village where she and her husband (Caine) were part of a UN team vaccinating natives. Helping the doctor track down Anansa are Rex Harrison and William Holden. That’s amazing, right? Direct Richard Fleischer benefited from location shooting in Kenya, Israel and Sicily, and the fully restored “Ashanti” takes full advantage of the scenery. Johnson is interviewed about the experience in a bonus feature.

Caine may not appear in “The Wild Geese” alongside Richard Burton, Roger Moore and Richard Harris, but it’s not for lack of trying on the part of the producers. It was 1978 and the movie was being shot in South Africa, which was being boycotted for its apartheid policy. Caine wanted nothing to do with it. Good for him. The story resembles “Dogs of War,” in that it involves a mercenary assault on a central African country, where a despotic leader is in charge. The Brits are hired by a wealthy industrialist to recruit and train a squad of commandos. They will parachute into the African nation, snatch its deposed President from a maximum security prison and escape via the military-controlled airport. Not surprisingly, the mercenaries are double-crossed, causing even more mayhem. The film, which got little exposure in the U.S. and was protested in England, is said to have influenced Sylvester Stallone, director of “The Expendables.” The fully re-mastered Blu-ray adds new interviews with director Andrew V. McLaghlen and military advisor Mike Hoare; a documentary on producer Euan Lloyd, with Moore, Joan Armatrading and Ingrid Pitt; a vintage featurette; and newsreel footage of the Royal Charity Premiere.

Released in 1982, even before its child star, Peter Billingsley, broke through in “A Christmas Story,” “Death Valley” looks as if it could have been made far more recently. That’s because, just as the desert takes millennia to change, movies set in the desert can only be dated by the cars driven by the characters. Given that cars in California tend to last forever, however, a 30-year-old movie might as well have been made yesterday. Here, Catherine Hicks plays a recent divorcee whose city-slicker son (Billingsley) has reluctantly agreed to join her and her boyfriend (Paul Le Mat) on a tour of the Southwestern desert. At first, Billy isn’t ready to let a new man into his life. By the time they reach an Old West movie ranch, where Billy is given a star and a six-gun, the boy is has warmed up to him. His timing is good, because they’re about to run into an insane serial killer (Stephen McHattie) and Billy holds the key to his identity. The cat-and-mouse game that ensues is reasonably exciting, even by today’s standards, and the surprises aren’t easy to spot ahead of time. I wonder, though, how many people saw this movie in the 1980s and assumed that there’s a movie ranch within walking distance of the Furnace Creek Inn. Instead, it’s a few hundred miles south, in Wickenburg, Arizona. It’s still there, too. – Gary Dretzka

Chiller: The Complete Television Series
PBS: History Detectives: Season 10
Frontline: Dropout Nation
Nova Sciencenow: What Makes Us Human?
Nova Sciencenow: Can I Eat That?
Syfy: Collision Earth: Blu-ray
Fans of horror-anthology series should find something to enjoy in the long-delayed arrival of the British mini-series, “Chiller,” on DVD. Synapse Films, the same company responsible for importing “Hammer House of Horror,” has developed a reputation for finding and distributing obscure tales of the macabre and supernatural from around the world. Most have lurid covers and such titles as “Entrails of a Virgin,” “Horrors of Malformed Men” and “Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay.” When it comes to genre marketing, great titles and provocative covers beat a thorough synapsis every time. All five 52-minute episodes of the 1995 series are included here, as freshly polished as 16mm films can be these days. Among the things one can count on finding in series like “Chiller” are haunted basements and estates, the spirits of dead babies, people who are punished for performing good deeds, children with knives and Druids. Among the stars are Nigel Havers (“Chariots of Fire”), Martin Clunes (“Men Behaving Badly”), Sophie Ward (“Young Sherlock Holmes”) and Kevin McNally (“Pirates of the Caribbean”).

The only difference between the stars of such reality-based shows as “Pawn Stars,” “Antique Roadshow,” “Storage Wars” and “America’s Pickers” and the sleuths of PBS’ “History Detectives” are the academic degrees attached to the latters’ resumes. All of the investigators on these shows use similar methodologies to determine the value of found objects, family heirlooms and collectibles. In the first episode of the show’s 10th season, detectives Elyse Luray and Wes Cowan investigate the provenance of a Fender Stratocaster purported to have been played by Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; Tukufu Zuberi studies autographs allegedly signed by the Beatles during their 1964 tour of the U.S.; and Gwendolyn Wright checks out a $5 thrift-store discovery that could shine some light on Frank Zappa’s musical legacy. If the same items were carried into Las Vegas’ Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, the same procedures likely would be employed to establish a value.

The PBS “Frontline” documentary “Dropout Nation” attempts to stick a pin in the misguided notion that it’s become just as easy for a high school dropout to succeed or fail in the workplace as anyone else, given our current economic doldrums. And, at a time when some unemployed Americans are denied the right to hold minimum-wage jobs because they’re “too qualified,” it’s tough to dispute. In the long run, though, the costs both to the dropouts and society are staggering. This documentary investigates the reasons behind our inner-city schools’ high dropout rates and what can be done to convince teenagers to stay the course.

Given how many things technology writer David Pogue has on his plate at any given moment, it’s a wonder he has any time left to sleep, let alone spend time with his family. Strike while the iron’s hot appears to be his operating strategy. Anyway, Pogue’s a smart guy with personality to burn. He’ll have plenty of time to sleep when he’s dead, as Warren Zevon observed while still alive. As host of PBS’ occasional series, “NOVA ScienceNow,” Pogue gets to answer such big questions as “What Makes Us Human? and Can I Eat That?,” which go to the core of who we are and what we do. Although most of us could provide several answers for the former question, Pogue takes a more scientific approach to explaining how our DNA separates us from our simian ancestors and other species. The answers aren’t necessarily earthshaking or of any practical use to us, but they’re interesting, at least. “Can I Eat That?” examines something a bit more practical, but equally fascinating. Why do we love certain foods and can’t stomach others? What could we add to foods we detest to make them palatable? If we could answer that question, we might be able to find new sources of nutrition for food-deprived populations. Pogue doesn’t dumb down the answers, but he does find common denominators to facilitate understanding.

I’ve pretty much said all I care to say about the limitations of made-for-Syfy movies and there’s no need to belabor the point any further. At best, they serve as a starter kit for adolescent boys interested in science fiction and anyone who thinks there’s no longer a market for bargain-basement special effects. “Collision Earth” is no different. After a comet scores a direct hit on the sun, a reversal of some kind of magnetic field pushes Mercury out of its orbit and in a straight path toward Earth, along with all sorts of space debris. The only hope for mankind lies in a toasted space shuttle, whose lone surviving crewmember (Diane Farr) can’t reach mission control by radio but is able to communicate with her husband (Kirk Acevedo) in the middle of the desert. He’s a disgraced scientist and persona non grata at NASA. He’s developed a strategy to counteract “magnetars,” but no one wants to believe him. I do. – Gary Dretzka

The Adventures of Mark Twain: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
I Wish
There are several positive things to say about “The Adventures of Mark Twain,” which, when released in 1985, was reputed to be the first feature employing characters animated by the stop-motion Claymation process. Even so, it stumbled out of the gate. The format was still in its infancy and it took audiences a while to make the leap from the delightful California Raisons commercials to a film that clocked in at 86 minutes. Will Vinton, who created the Raisons, used as his entry point the beloved works of Mark Twain and his belief that, having been born in the year of a visit by Halley’s Comet, he would go out with it, as well. Twain is so excited by its arrival in 1910 that he designs an airship to take him closer to its orbit. Tagging along for the ride are Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher. Before reaching the comet, however, they encounter a variety of his storybook characters from “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Mysterious Stranger,” “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.” It may have laid an egg in 1985, but the new Blu-ray edition looks as if it were made last year, using modern technology. It easily qualifies as entertainment the entire family can enjoy. It adds backgrounders on Claymation and the music of Mark Twain, as well as commentary and interviews.

I don’t know how director Hirokazu Kore-eda and DP Yutaka Yamazaki are able to capture the everyday life of Japanese children as well as they do in their family-oriented movies. I’m guessing that one or both of them actually travel to the boonies to see how common folks live in multi-generational homes in average communities. These are not people whose lives are still informed by 1950s sitcoms and suburban entitlement. And, yet, the kids can rattle off the top-10 pop songs on the hit parade and play with the same electrical gadgets as their American peers. The air of un-romanticized normalcy is palpable. In “I Wish,” 12-year-old Koichi lives with his mother and retired grandparents in southern Japan, while his younger brother, Ryunosuke, lives with their father in the north. It is Koichi’s great wish that his family be reunited, but even he knows it would take a miracle. His only hope comes in the form of rumor about the new bullet-train route connecting the two cities. It leads Koichi to believe that a miracle will take place the moment these new trains first pass each other at top speed, somewhere in the middle of their journeys. For that to happen, Koichi must be there to witness the miracle and it requires the help of adults, most of whom are in no position to believe in miracles. Guess what happens, though. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Beasts of Southern Wild, ParaNorman, Butter … More

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Blu-ray
Normally, come the first week of December, true aficionados of quality cinema – those who actually care about the Academy Awards, anyway — have entered into the annual ritual of predicting which deserving Best Picture candidates will be snubbed in favor of movies released after Thanksgiving. Last year, the Academy finally acknowledged the build-in frailty of its nominating procedure and doubled the number of finalists. Even though this cleared the way for at least one ringer (“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), a difficult arthouse challenger (“The Tree of Life”) and a sentimental choice (“Midnight in Paris”), it would have been nice if a couple of spots had been reserved for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Foreign Language-winner “A Separation” or “Tinker Tinker Soldier Spy,” all superior entertainments. Several of the nominees wouldn’t be seen by anyone except critics, voters and a few people in New York and Los Angeles until February. Upon its limited July 1, Ben Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar’s near-miraculous debut feature, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” was accorded front-runner status by everyone who’d seen it. Today, it’s being dismissed by pundits as a dark-house, behind “Les Miserables,” “Lincoln,” “Argo” and a few titles the public won’t be able to see until January. They’ve left it for Independent Spirit voters to decide what trophy its producers will be handed that weekend.

I don’t foresee “Beasts of the Southern Wild” being completely ignored by the academy, however, if only because the formidable marketing team at Fox Searchlight won’t let that happen. It will be prominent in the year-end roundups, top-10 lists and for-your-consideration campaigns, as well. More importantly, any nominations it gets will go a long way toward boosting revenues for this very deserving movie. Now that “Beasts” has been released in DVD and Blu-ray, renters will be able to overlook the arthouse gloss and sample what, at its core, is a wonderfully original and completely accessible story. Set in the tiny southern Louisiana community of Bathtub – outside the levees separating the “dry world” from the “wet world” of the marshes — this prime example of “magical realism” combines the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina with elements of Greek mythology, disasters of biblical proportions and fears over global warming. Before he unleashes Katrina on the fiercely independent, if dirt-poor residents of Bathtub, Zeitlin allows us to marvel at their ability to survive in the primordial Louisiana ooze and dwellings straight out of a dystopian novel by Philip K. Dick. If New Orleans is “the city that care forgot,” Bathtub is its nearest suburb. Our guide is a remarkably resourceful 6-year-old girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), whose tortuous relationship with her emotionally unstable and seriously ill father, Wink (Dwight Henry), continually tests viewers’ hearts and tear ducts. They are as dependent on the Mississippi River and bayous for their well-being as any alligator, catfish or nutria.

As the waters around them slowly but surely continue to rise, Hushpuppy fears they’ll also be forced to deal with prehistoric aurochs loosed as the glaciers melt. Hushpuppy’s teacher has two of the great horned beasts tattooed on her arm and they’ve stampeded into her fertile imagination. Also motivating the girl is her desperate desire to reconnect with her mother, who “swam away” years earlier, abandoning them. The few clues that might lead Hushpuppy to her mother’s current location point to a mysterious off-shore light, possibly from an oil derrick. After escaping from the sterile storm shelter to which they were forced to evacuate, Hushpuppy and some other Bathtub girls are escorted to the light’s source by the captain of a freelance barge pusher. Turns out, it’s “floating catfish shack” named Elysian Fields (“Girls, Girls, Girls”) that caters to the derrick workers, shrimpers and river rats. The women there are kind to the girls and Hushpuppy even imagines that one of them could be her mother. The reference to Elysian Fields invites viewers to associate her journey with the one taken in Greek mythology by dead souls being escorted to the afterlife by Hades’ ferryman, Charon. Only the most heroic passengers are allowed a round-trip ticket. One needn’t be a student of the classics to enjoy “Beasts,” however. It can be savored by anyone with a desire to meet new people and visit a place they never knew existed. Oh, yeah, the music and set design are terrific, as well. The Blu-ray arrives with Zeitlin’s commentary, an interesting making-of featurette, deleted scenes, auditions and the director’s previous short, “Glory at Sea,” which also deals with the storm and Hades. – Gary Dretzka

Hope Springs: Blu-ray
Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones deliver marvelous performances in a “comedy from the director of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’” that, more often than not, is about as funny as a toothache. “Hope Springs” warms up significantly in the latter third of the proceedings, but, by then, many adults enduring endangered marriages will be watching it with their hands over their eyes. Jones plays an Omaha accountant, Arnold, so oblivious to his longtime wife’s needs that he might as well as be married to the pro on golf-instruction show he watches before bedtime each night. Almost unimaginatively passive, Kay would appear to be the ideal spouse for a guy who spends most of their time together with his head buried in a newspaper. No matter how grouchy Arnold is, Kay continues to feed him, wash his clothes and put up with his abrupt responses to her small talk and romantic advances. They sleep in separate bedrooms, mostly because he’s gotten used to it, and haven’t had sex in years. (Kay’s orgasms can be counted on one hand.)

Many older viewers will recognize something of themselves, at least, in Kay and Arnold, even as they deny their own shortcomings. Some younger viewers might even think the characters were based on their own parents. Working off a script by Vanessa Taylor (“Game of Thrones”), director David Frankel gives us plenty of reasons to sympathize with Kay, but almost none to think Arnold is worthy of anything but our contempt. No matter, because the Arnolds of the world would rather eat their 9-irons than watch a movie that, despite the presence of manly-man Jones, promises to be a “chick flick.”

After threatening to leave Arnold if he doesn’t agree to travel to Maine for a week of couple’s therapy with a prominent marital shrink (Steve Carell), the old goat begrudgingly accepts her pre-paid invitation. Dr. Feld’s office may be located in the kind of quaint town only a Grinch could hate, but Arnold is far too distracted by the high prices – by Omaha standards, anyway – to enjoy himself. Anyone expecting a laugh riot in Carell’s performance will be disappointed, because, while possessing a genial desk-side manner, he’s condition to remain neutral. Before focusing on Arnold’s hang-ups, he gets Kay to open up about her own sexual naiveté. Here’s one of the most telling exchanges: “What about oral sex?,” Feld asks; “I wasn’t … I wasn’t comfortable with that,” she responds; “Giving or receiving?,” he continues; her, “Huh?,” prompts the movie’s first genuine laugh. Streep’s fully animated performance tells us everything we need to know about Kay’s well-guarded opinions on intimacy. The mood lightens even more when Feld tells her to purchase “Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man” and she purchases a banana on which to practice her oral techniques.

Arnold is moved by Kay’s memories of the better times between them, but the positive inertia isn’t strong enough to reverse years of pigheaded negativity. There’s no need to expand what happens next, except to point out that the final half-hour of “Hope Springs” delivers on the promise of being a romantic comedy, instead of just another “very special episode” of “Dr. Phil.” And, unlike most other Hollywood hybrids of the last 10 years, it clearly was made for the consumption of grownups whose everyday lives more closely resemble those of Kay and Arnold than the characters played by former cast members of “Saturday Night Live.” That, in itself, is a blessed event. It’s to the great credit of Streep, Jones and Carell that their unforced performances are able to carry the story beyond its unpromising beginning. (Warning: the funniest stuff in the movie accompanies the end credits.) The Blu-ray adds commentary with Frankel; a gag reel; several making-of featurettes; interviews with the cast and crew; an admiring salute to Streep; “An Expert’s Guide to Everlasting Passion,” with the author of “Relationship Stalemate: From Roommates to Soulmates”; and some alternate takes. – Gary Dretzka

ParaNorman: Blu-ray
Finding Nemo: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

If I suggested to you that “ParaNorman” probably is going to go down as the best Halloween-themed movie to open in theaters in mid-August and be released in early December into DVD, Blu-ray 2D and Blu-ray 3D, would you assume I was paying it a left-handed compliment and didn’t much like it? I hope not. I’m more baffled by the timing of distributor’s strategy than anything else and am wondering out loud how it came to be. In fact, I think “ParaNorman” could someday become an evergreen Halloween attraction, if not to the same degree as “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown,” then “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which also confuses holiday shoppers. Enough people failed to catch “ParaNorman” in its initial theatrical release for me to think it could benefit from a powerful word-of-mouth campaign and strategic repositioning on store shelves. Even if there was nothing more to recommend it than the production company, Laika Entertainment, which also was responsible in part or in whole for Henry Sellick’s “Coraline” and Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride,” that would be good enough reason to check it out. Fact is, the stop-action animation company has been struggling financially, so you could think of a rental or purchase as an investment in the future of American entertainment.

Like Cole Sear in “The Sixth Sense,” the protagonist of “ParaNorman” sees dead people. He also converses with them. Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) watches horror movies with his late grandmother in his living room and chats with ghosts of all ages on the way to school, where he’s an easy target for ridicule. For 11-year-old targets of bullies, school is what purgatory must be like for spirits waiting to pass over to the other side. One day, Norman’s strange Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) informs Norman of a 300-year-old curse placed on Blithe Hollow by a woman persecuted as a witch. So far, certain gifted individuals have been able to repel the curse, but zombies have already been spotted exiting their graves, so time is of the essence. Apparently, this year, Norman is the only person in town capable of maintaining the peace. Because of the role the town played in the infamous witch trials, Blithe Hollow has long been a destination for tourists anxious for a spook-tastic Halloween experience. Norman’s only ally in this cause is a fellow outcast, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), but, when the deal goes down, even the bullies look to him for help. By now, too, any resemblance to “Sixth Sense” will have been long forgotten. It’s wickedly funny, full of heart and scary enough to satisfy a broad cross-section of viewers. That it works as well as it does visually can be traced to directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell ability to work on a larger-than-normal set, with puppets designed to take advantage of a far more flexible skeleton. The characters’ brightly colorful appearance takes full advantage of the 3D format, as well. Only a holiday purist might find it difficult to enjoy “ParaNormal” at Christmas. The Blu-ray adds commentary, an hour’s worth of making-of and background featurettes, U-Control and preliminary animatic sequences.

Of all the animated movies currently making the transition from DVD to Blu-ray, “Finding Nemo” may be the easiest to recommend to those seeking a sure-fire test of their new home-theater system. Nothing in Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich’s chronicle of a father’s adventure-filled search for his kidnaped son – both of whom happen to be clownfish — has changed from previous editions. Parallel stories play seamlessly, as Marlin is required to overcome sharks, jellies and trigger fish, while Nemo is stuck in an aquarium in a dentist’s office overlooking the sea. The difference here, in the Blu-ray “Collector’s Edition,” is its brilliant audio/visual upgrade. (One shot of the descending sun is so unexpectedly dazzling that it made me jump from my seat.) The Blu-ray 3D version might even be more spectacular, but, until prices drop on the hardware, I won’t be able to testify on the subject. I suspect that it is. For those with short memories, the voicing cast includes Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, Geoffrey Rush, Allison Janney, Brad Garrett and Alexander Gould. All sound particularly robust on Disney’s Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround track, as do the more subtle underwater sounds. The Blu-ray package includes a half-dozen new hi-def features, as well as an equal number of previously released bonus material. – Gary Dretzka

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry: Blu-ray
It isn’t enough for Ai Weiwei to be one of the most celebrated and prolific visual artists in the world. He’s also a political dissident whose voice resonates throughout China and beyond it. During the 2008 Olympics, more people marveled at the design of the Beijing National Stadium (a.k.a., the “Bird’s Nest”) — a collaboration with the Swiss firm, Herzog & De Meuron — than could possibly be counted and, yet, he had nothing good to say about the Games themselves. A few months later, Chinese rulers would condemn and harass him for his role in bringing attention to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of children in the devastating Sichuan earthquake. For such heinous crimes against the regime, Weiwei has been arrested, beaten, spied upon, had his studio demolished and hard-drives stolen by police; lost his travel privileges; and was stuck with a phony tax debt of $1.85 million. Last and perhaps least, Ai’s parody of the “Gangnam Style” Internet sensation recently was blocked by authorities. Alison Klayman’s fascinating documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” covers a lot of ground as it follows the artist around the world from one installation to another, and throughout China campaigning for various causes. He’s a larger-than-life character, who commands respect from everyone he meets and is influenced by his work.

Another thing that Klayman’s film explores, perhaps inadvertently, is how much Weiwei has become a prisoner of his own best intentions. He admits to spending as many as 18 hours a day blogging, studying and surfing the Internet. When he isn’t doing that, he’s on his cellphone talking to admirers, curators and fellow activists. If Weiwei feels trapped by the amount of time he spends away from the studio and on the Web, he doesn’t show it. He’s the center of attention wherever he goes and seems to enjoy the glare of the spotlight. The artist is constantly followed by videographers of his own choosing and those of various news outlets. Weiwei also enjoys photographing everything he sees and doesn’t seem to mind being photographed with his fans. As much as we’re left admiring the artist’s commitment to his many pursuits, it’s just as easy to feel sorry for him. In some ways, at least, he’s a bird in a gilded cage. Weiwei lives in luxury wherever he is – even at home, in “communist” China – but, perhaps because of the legacy left him by his reformist father, is driven to embrace challenges average citizens would be crazy to accept. After being released from jail, where he was held incommunicado until he admitted cheating on his taxes, Weiwei looked visibly shaken and reluctant to say anything that might give officials another chance to punish him. After all, his friend and fellow activist Liu Xiaobo — awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 — still has seven years left on an 11-year sentence for voicing reformist sentiments not unlike those advocated by Weiwei. No amount of international condemnation has prompted the regime to free him. The Blu-ray adds commentary, deleted scenes and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Unforgivable
Tell No One: Blu-ray

In Andre Techine’s new romantic drama, “Unforgivable,” the French enchantress Carole Bouquet is no less ravishing than she was in 1977, playing one of two obscure objects of desire named Conchita for Luis Bunuel’s, or as Melina Havelock in the 1980 Bond adventure “For Your Eyes Only.” She’s older, yes, but no worse for the wear of 35 years making movies, modeling for Chanel and inspiring much delicious gossip. Here, Bouquet seems right at home playing a real-estate agent in Venice, where she’s lived and loved bisexually after giving up a career as a model. One rainy day, a famous French novelist stops in her office, asking to be shown an apartment with the same kind of appointments and views afforded by hotels along the Grand Canal for absurdly steep rates. Instead, Judith convinces Francis (Andre Dussollier) to share a boat with her to an island where a neat little cottage is available for an affordable price. Unimpressed, Francis tells Judith that he’ll sign a year’s lease, but only if she agrees to move in with him. After seeking the advice of a former lover, Anna Maria (Adriana Asti), they agree that Judith “isn’t getting any younger” and she accedes to this seemingly preposterous request. Flash forward a year later and they appear to be enjoying each other’s company on the isolated island of Sant’Erasmo very much, indeed. It isn’t until Francis’ daughter and granddaughter arrive for a visit that things take a turn for the strange. A chronic malcontent, the daughter soon thereafter disappears into the world of decadent Venetian aristocracy

Francis hires Anna Maria to track her down and report back to him. She suspects correctly that the young woman has fallen for the debauched son of a local countess and is perfectly content to be left unfound. This doesn’t completely satisfy Francis, who takes out his frustration by fretting over the one woman in his life he thinks can control. After spotting Judith giving a local grape grower a ride to the island on her motor boat – the water taxi operators are on strike — Francis falls into the same trap as every man who suspects his younger lover of cheating. If he can’t even see her in his binoculars, he thinks, she must be doing something wrong. In a very ugly turn, he hires Anna Maria’s troubled son, Jeremie, to spy on Francis. Helen Keller could have figured out she was being followed by someone as clumsy as Jeremie, but Judith turns on her cougar charm to form an alliance with him. Francis isn’t a bad guy, really, although his fits of jealousy are extremely disturbing. His basic problem is that, whenever he’s in love, he develops writer’s block and that gives him extra time to worry. In “Unforgivable,” Techine has delivered another stimulating essay on the way relationships are complicated by unchecked emotions and outside influences. The acting, not surprisingly, is impeccable and the many wonderful Venetian settings provide sufficient cause to immediately reserve a flight to Italy.

After being out of circulation for some time, the Blu-ray edition of Guillaume Cadet’s intricate adaptation of the Harlan Coben thriller, “Tell No One,” is being re-issued by Music Box Films. Lovers of mysteries who somehow missed the movie its first time around should do themselves a favor by picking it up and trying to figure out why a pediatrician, whose wife (Marie-Josee Croze) was killed in a vicious attack eight years earlier, suddenly is getting emails and video links from her or someone pretending to be her. The doctor (Francoise Cluzet) is especially intrigued because he was knocked unconscious during the beating and still is considered to be a prime suspect in her death. Despite the new information, he is advised by his sister (Marina Hands) and her wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) to accept the fact of his wife’s death and get on with his life. Then, they too become involved in the messy proceedings. When the bodies of two men are discovered at a construction site near the location of the attacks, police naturally seek to re-interrogate the doctor, causing him to flee. Even though he looks guilty as hell, he launches his own search for clues. Ultimately, it leads him to the exact point where the story began eight years earlier. Although the dialogue is in French, the integrity of Coben’s fiction comes through loud and clear. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and outtakes, and a 56-minute making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Butter: Blu-ray
Growing up in Wisconsin, a.k.a., “America’s Dairyland,” we were taught from birth that butter is better. At the time, consumers looking for a less expensive alternative to butter were required to make a run for the Illinois border, where oleo margarine was freely available and fairly priced. By 1967, the dairy lobby no longer was able to prevent the spread of “colored” oleo and consumers were given the option of buying one or the other product. In some parts of the state, oleo may still be considered to be morally aberrant and down-right anti-farmer. I mention this because Jim Field Smith and Jason A. Micallef’s fanciful comedy, “Butter,” is about people obsessed with the ancient art of butter sculpting and margarine simply won’t cut it in competition. Unless one has attended a state fair in the last couple of decades and witnessed such a contest, the artistic discipline might as well not exist. It would be easy, then, for viewers unexposed to butter sculpting to completely dismiss the movie’s premise as preposterous. In fact, people have been doing it for several millennia and for very different reasons.

Although the story is as full of narrative holes as Swiss cheese from New Glarus, “Butter” has a good heart and often is quite funny. At its best, it reminds me of “Waiting for Guffman.” Jennifer Garner and Ty Burrell play the Sonny and Cher of butter sculpting in Iowa. Bob is so talented, if fact, that after 15 straight state championships, he’s been asked to retire the trophy and serve as an ambassador for the truly amazing activity. His status-conscious wife, Laura, fears that Bob’s retirement would diminish her position in Iowa society like a pat of butter left in the sun. Instead, she decides to enter the contest and use the skills she’s learned through osmosis to retain the crown. Instead of competing unopposed, as expected, Laura will face off against a wonderfully nutty friend (Kristen Schaal), Bob’s demanding stripper girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) and Destiny (Yara Shahidi), the delightful African-American foster child of characters played by Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone. It’s safe to assume from here that Laura will do everything in her power to win, including sabotaging the work of a little girl whose natural mother has just died … but in a funny way. The stripper, too, wants a pound of flesh from Laura, who’s forced Bob to the end the affair and stop giving money to her. The fine ensemble casts nimbly avoids the holes in the screenplay, turning “Butter” into an unexpected treat. – Gary Dretzka

The Odd Life of Timothy Green: Blu-ray
Ho-hum … another day, another terrific performance by a largely unknown child actor. This week, alone, we’ve been introduced to Quvenzhané Wallis, of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and Yara Shahidi, of “Butter.” Add to that number the young star of “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” JC Adams. In it, he plays a child who mysteriously turns up inside the house of Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton), a couple so desperate to have a baby they buried a box containing a wish list of attributes in their garden. There’d been a storm that night and Timothy is completely covered in mud. His legs have leaves growing from them … not many, but enough to make an impression. Timothy is a bright and courteous kid and the Greens quickly consider him to be a gift from God or Mother Nature, one. He may not be blessed with superpowers or unusual healing skills, but he’s a quick learner and appreciative of any help given him. Even so, he’s enough of a bumbler to become a natural target of bullies and intolerant coaches. The only person who treats him with kindness is a slightly older girl (Odeya Rush), who senses something extraordinary in Timothy and nurtures the talents he does possess. With her in his corner, the boy can’t help but influence the lives of adults in the Greens’ orbit with less admirable character traits. As “Odd Life” progresses, it also becomes abundantly clear that the leaves on Timothy’s legs have a special meaning all their own, just as the seasons impact people not born in a cabbage patch. Director Peter Hedges puts his audience on a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, but the Walt Disney brand tells parents the message delivered in this heartfelt movie is suitable for most children, and the leaves on Timothy’s legs are in no way freakish. A cast that also includes Dianne Wiest, David Morse, Joel Edgerton, Rosemarie DeWitt, M. Emmet Walsh and Lois Smith guarantees an ensemble performance the whole family will enjoy. Of special notice is the soundtrack, which includes the song “This Gift,” by Glen Hansard (“Once”) and the voices of Marketa Irglova and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. If the Greens’ house looks familiar, it might be because it also was used in Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II.” Frank’s son, Ahmed Zappa, is credited with the story for “Odd Life” and as a producer. The Blu-ray presentation makes the lovely Georgia setting look inviting and there are several decent bonus features, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Thunderstruck: Blu-ray
Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but I wasn’t nearly as disappointed by the basketball comedy “Thunderstruck” as the reviewers who managed to see it in its very limited release in August. The story’s premise is extremely familiar, in that it involves the transference of physical powers from an adult to a child and vice-versa. In this case, it’s from NBA superstar Kevin Durant to a teenage klutz, Brian, whose hoops skills are limited to not embarrassing himself while warming the bench. Brian (Taylor Gray) becomes the laughing stock of his school when videos of his inept practice sessions are leaked on video monitors in the cafeteria. Worse, he makes a complete ass of himself during a half-time contest at an Oklahoma Thunder game. It’s after this debacle that Brian is handed an autographed ball from Durant and inadvertently acquires the talents of the All-Star. In exchange, Durant’s skills become that of, well, a teenage klutz. Guess which player becomes the surprise star of his team and an instant chick magnet. There’s nothing particularly fresh or inventive in John Whitesell’s “Thunderstruck,” which also stars Jim Belushi; his son, Robert Belushi; Tristin Mays, of “Private”; Brandon T. Jackson, of “Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son”; and Larramie Doc Shaw, of “House of Payne.” It reminds me a bit of the Fred McMurray and Tommy Kirk vehicles, “The Shaggy Dog” and “The Absent-Minded Professor,” which probably wouldn’t hold up too well in 2012, but easily passed for family entertainment in 1959 and 1961. By the time things get straightened out in “Thunderstruck,” lessons will have been taught and bullies vanquished. ’Twas ever thus. A featurette in the bonus package describes how difficult it was to teach Durant how to look ridiculous on the court. – Gary Dretzka

Silent Night: Blu-ray
Silent Night, Deadly Night: Christmas Survivor Double Feature
V/H/S: Blu-ray
X-Game

One of the most enduring axioms of the film-distribution game is that even the most outrageously despicable genre flick not only can survive the venom spewed on it by mainstream critics, but it can flourish behind strategic marketing and anticipatory buzz from buffs and bored teenagers. This is especially true of the slasher, splatter and women-in-jeopardy films that followed in the wake of such quality genre fare as “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th,” which obviously were influenced by “Psycho” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” A perfect case in point is provided by the 1984 gore-fest “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” Taking a nod, perhaps, Bob Clark’s 1974 “Black Christmas,” the thriller generally considered to be the first modern slasher film, it used exploited the holiday as if it were a brand-name quantity. Shocked by marketing material showing a man in a Santa Claus costume preparing to butcher holiday revelers, outraged parents’ organizations picketed theaters scheduled to show “SN/DN.” For their part, mainstream critics worked overtime to come up with new ways to condemn it. According to an interview included in the bonus package, director Charles E. Sellier Jr. admits to being surprised by the protests, but he also points out that the movie made back its nut and pocketed plenty more money before it was pulled from theaters by its distributor after two weeks. No sooner did the furor settle down than “SN/DN” was sent out on video, where it did extremely well, as would the four sequels. None was sufficiently well made to be considered a classic, but genre buffs still reserve some warmth for the first installment, at least.

In it, a young boy witnesses the murder of his parents – his mother is raped, as well — by a Santa-costumed fiend who we’d already seen kill a convenience-store clerk. Deeply traumatized, Billy is shipped to an orphanage, where he’s brutalized by the Mother Superior and taught that all sex is dirty. Adding insult to injury, the nun forces Billy to sit on the lap of a department-store Santa, an act that causes him great distress. Later, as a teen, his boss at a different store insists he play Santa for all the kiddies who show up. Quickly thereafter, Billy snaps like a twig and goes on his infamous killing spree. It ends at the same orphanage in which he was raised and his younger brother is being warehoused. The finale opens the door for the sequels to come. The new DVD edition of “SN/DN” has been completely restored, with some fresh material spliced in, as well. The package also includes the sequel, “Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2,” which came and went without much hubbub from detractors. Using lots of recycled material from the original, the story picks up with the brother, Ricky, being interviewed by a psychiatrist in the mental hospital in which he currently resides. By the time he gets done regurgitating everything that happened in the first movie – including some things he couldn’t possibly have recalled – we’re more than ready to discover what caused him to be institutionalized. The highlight here is the scene in which Ricky and his date decide to take in a movie and it turns out to be “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” The mind boggles.

The spanking-new “Silent Night” is a semi-sequel, in that it re-employs the Santa Claus schematic and is chock-full of murders of the most grisly sort. As it opens, a serial killer has claimed two new victims and, when police led by Malcolm McDowell and Jaime King investigate, it becomes obvious that the villain favors the same Santa outfit as a dozen other department-store wish-takers. In other words, there are more suspects than there are crimes. A lot of people die, including at least two other white-bearded monsters. The one slaying everyone will remember is the one that replicates Linnea Quigley’s now-classic impalement on the antlers of a stuffed deer’s head from “SN/DN.” Otherwise, there’s not much to recommend it to anyone except the folks who substitute a Christmas Eve horror marathon for midnight mass.

V/H/S” is an intermittently successful horror anthology, in which a couple of hoodlums are hired by an anonymous third party to burgle a house in the country, then find and return a specific cassette to him. When they get into the dark and nearly empty house, they find a corpse reclining on couch placed in front of a bank of video monitors. Rather than collect all of the video cassettes and carry them back to their client, they punks decide to have a film festival. The short films run the gamut from creepy to disturbing, strangely erotic to sexually cautionary. A couple of them, however, are extremely difficult to watch because of the directors’ intention to showcase stylized filming and editing techniques from the VHS era. The writers and directors, some of whom are graduates of the Mumblecore school, include Adam Wingard (“A Horrible Way to Die”), Glenn McQuaid (“I Sell the Dead”), David Bruckner (“The Signal”), Joe Swanberg (“Alexander the Last”), Ti West (“The Innkeepers”) and the collaborative group, Radio Silence.

At 119 nerve-jangling minutes, Yohei Fukuda’s “X-Game” (a.k.a., “Death Tube”) combines several different sub-genre themes in the service of a modern, Internet-savvy horror flick. Young people are kidnapped and put on trial in kangaroo courts for sins committed much earlier, sometimes on playgrounds and in classrooms. Confessions are coerced using torture tactics similar to those shown in the “Saw” series. The tormentors take orders from unseen puppet masters, while victims are culled from the pack through seemingly random Internet contest and pieces of paper pulled from the X-box. Although the eccentric editing doesn’t lend for easy comprehension and interpretation by viewers, the suffering looks very real. Anyone who’s seen “Tokyo Gore Police,” “Mutant Girls Squad,” the banned-in-Britain “Grotesque” and other titles pushed by Sushi Typhoon will have a headstart on trying to figure out what to expect from “X-Game.” All others should prepare for a bumpy ride. – Gary Dretzka

Wu Dang: Blu-ray
The stream of enchanting period fantasies from China has grown from a trickle to a flood. Many combine action with history, while others emphasize romance and mythology. Martial arts, whether as an art or weapon, is what originally sold tickets in the American marketplace, but the success of such epic entertainments as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “House of Flying Daggers” and “Curse of the Golden Flower” has encouraged distributors to take a chance on more elaborate hybrids, especially in Blu-ray and DVD. Beyond the story and action, I’m most impressed by the amazing natural beauty of the films’ settings. Fifteen years ago, if a movie was made outside Beijing, Shanghai or the Great Wall, it almost never was shown here. “Wu Dang” isn’t the easiest movie to follow or most thrilling, certainly, but it’s tough to beat the setting. Much of Patrick Leung’s movie takes place at a Taoist monastery in the Wudang mountain range, where, hundreds of years ago, the tai chi school of “internal” Chinese martial arts originated.

It is here that a Chinese-American professor is drawn on his first trip back to China since the end of the Qing Dynasty. An experienced adventurer, Tang Yunlong (Vincent Zhao) is traveling with his teenage daughter, Tang Ning (Josie Xu), to the monastery for a martial arts competition he is sponsoring. She will compete against top Chinese practitioners, while daddy spends time looking for a 2,000-year-old sword rumored to have magical powers. All of this takes place against a spectacular background of scenic mountains, deep canyons and magnificent temples. The fighting is entertaining, but hardly the most interesting part of the experience. – Gary Dretzka

Catch Me If You Can: Blu-ray
To say that some men’s lives are more interesting than others begs several questions. Are they interesting in the Chinese sense of the word or simply noticeably different from the status quo. By any measure, Frank Abagnale Jr.’s life is about as interesting as they come. In fact, if it weren’t so well documented, it would be impossible to invent a credible biography of a man who spent four years impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor, lawyer and a qualified teaching assistant at BYU before he was 21. He forged checks and conned people out of thousands of dollars, simply by looking and sounding honest. Abagnale became a wanted man in several countries and even had his own FBI agent. Not everything he said he did could be independently corroborated, but, in the hands of director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson’s hands, it made for a good story, anyway. Leonardo DiCaprio had the just the right twinkle-in-the-eye attitude to make us believe he was a master con artist and enjoying every minute of it. Hanks’ FBI agent, Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), is equal parts fascinated and perplexed by the slippery criminal. In these actors’ hands, “Catch Me If You Can” is practically a buddy film. Throw in Christopher Walken and Nathalie Baye as Abagnale’s somewhat zany parents and you’ve got quite a yarn. The Blu-ray package includes several informative and entertaining background featurettes about Abagnale and the making of “Catch Me If You Can.” – Gary Dretzka

Reelz: Ken Follett’s World Without End: Blu-ray
Shaka Zulu

It’s amazing how well English history lends itself to mini-series and soap-opera intrigue. The same, I suppose, can be said about the Catholic Church and its historical disregard for Christian values when seeking political and military influence among the crowned heads of Europe. By combining both institutions in “The Tudors” and “The Borgias,” the Showtime network finally achieved parity with HBO in terms of audience reach and adventurous programming. Recently, the premium-cable services Starz and Reelz got into the act by picking up “Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth” and “Ken Follett’s World Without End” and “The Kennedys,” all of which blend cutthroat politics and religion. (The former two titles also added nudity to the formula.) Newly released into Blu-ray, Reelz’ “World Without End” is a sequel to “The Pillars of the Earth,” in which the melodramatic aspects are secondary to the completion of a magnificent Gothic cathedral in the fictional 12th Century town of Kingsbridge. “World Without End” is set in the same town, only a 150 years later, in advance of the Hundred Years’ War and Black Death. The architectural achievement here is the construction of a bridge important to commerce, but the real action comes inside the royal bedrooms, on the gallows and in priories. Once again, the priests are as venal and predatory as the corrupt royals and their lords and ladies. Scrub the dirt off the faces of the peasants and farmers and they’re as attractive as anyone at court alongside Edward III and his mother, Isabella, the “she-wolf of France.” It’s great fun to watch and the history isn’t bad, either.

Made in 1986 for the South African Broadcasting Corporation and distribution around the world, “Shaka Zulu” has the reputation of being the most repeatedly screened syndicated mini-series in American television history. This despite the fact its production was condemned by the United Nation and the actors risked being boycotted by anti-apartheid states. That’s because it was filmed entirely on location in South Africa, which, at the time, had yet to free Nelson Mandela and its native population couldn’t even dream of free elections. Indeed, before Mandella ascended to power, there were frequent clashes between ANC members and Zulus demanding either statehood or autonomy. Zulus comprise the largest ethnic group and the reigning king is a direct descendant of Shaka, who, for lack of a better comparison, was the George Washington of the tribe. I have no way of knowing how accurate the 10-part mini-series may be – historians still debate Shaka’s feats and legacy – but it seems respectful of his memory and accomplishments, as well as tribal culture and rituals. For most of the 19th Century, Zulus fought to reverse of the effects of colonialism on the African continent and the brutal treatment of blacks. The restored mini-series is easy on the eyes, capturing the natural beauty of northeast Africa. Among the recognizable British actors representing George IV in the cast are Edward Fox, Trevor Howard, Christopher Lee, Robert Powell and Gordon Jackson. South African soccer player Henry Cele played the title character twice, once in his first movie appearance, and, 15 years later, in his last. The DVD adds an interview with director William C. Faure and several stars. – Gary Dretzka

Comedy Central: The Legend of Neil: The Complete Series
The Hub: Kaijudo: Rise Of The Duel Masters: Creatures Unleashed
Fox: Futurama: Volume 7
Fox: The Simpsons: The Fifteenth Season
GMC: Sugar Mommas

Nintendo’s fantasy adventure-action game the Legend of Zelda is one of the most beloved, easily accessible and widely referenced video time-wasters in history. Since its launch, in 1986, an estimated 68 million units have been sold, not counting 15 sequel games and several spinoffs. The franchise has also spawned comics, an animated TV series and manga adaptations. Considering Zelda’s special place in the industry, I find it a bit odd that it’s taken 20 years for someone to come up with a parallel Internet parody series, such as “The Legend of Neil,” which feels like an artifact from another lifetime. Or, maybe I simply missed them. The series, created by Sandeep Parikh (“The Guild,” “Community”), began its three-season run as a four-minute YouTube video posted in 2007. As so often happens these days, it caught the eye of a major media company after going viral. Comedy Central found a home for it on Atom.com, before sharing it with MTV2. “The Legend of Neil” The show chronicles the journey of an alcoholic slacker, Neil Grimsley, who passes out in front of his TV while masturbating to one of the game’s fairies. Upon his gaining consciousness, Grimsley (Tony Janning) finds himself trapped inside the world of Zelda, forced to overcome the same obstacles as the intrepid forest elf, Link, in the first version of the game. The various oddballs he encounters while trying to escape Hyrule assume he’s there to rescue Princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil Lord Gannon. He’s none too happy about this development, but finds inspiration in the form of a horny fairy and the lure of Zelda’s virginity. With much vulgarity, ribald humor and lascivious behavior, “The Legend of Neil” is definitely not intended for the enjoyment of the kiddies. The DVD adds fresh bonus footage and a featurette with tips on how to make your own web series.

Parents may be happy to learn that the kid-friendly “Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters: Creatures Unleashed” has far more in common with “Zelda” than “Neil.” On the other hand, if their children fall in love with the Hub series, it’s likely they’ll have to fork out money for such ancillary products as the Duel Masters card game, from the Hasbro subsidiary Wizards of the Coast, on which it’s based. God knows, there are more than enough individual characters to populate a full deck of playing cards. The action-fantasy involves a 14-year-old boy, Ray, who’s been recruited by the wise Duel Masters to battle mystical creatures. They see in Ray a natural talent as a creature tamer and duelist in the kaijudo tradition. Each confrontation leads Ray to new adventures, as well as allies and enemies in both worlds. The voicing cast includes Scott Wolf (“Party of Five”), Phil LaMarr (“Justice League Unlimited”) and Oded Fehr. The set contains a playing card as a starter-kit.

As Mel Brooks and Tom Petty have both observed at different times, “It’s good to be king.” It must be pretty good to be Matt Gruening, too, especially considering that TV viewers around the world are never far from a rerun of “The Simpsons,” and he was able to resurrect “Futurama” from the dead, as well. Why bother changing the channel, though, when so much stuff already is available on DVD and what isn’t can be purchased a la carte through VOD. The newest installment represents only the 15th of 25 seasons, a fact that truly pisses off those fans who would prefer to see more frequent additions to the canon. The four-disc set provides commentary on all 22 episodes, deleted scenes with commentary, “All Aboard With Matt” and other featurettes, commercials and sketches.

In DVD marketing lingo, any TV compilation that arrives in “volumes,” instead of “seasons,” generally represents a partial season or one that overlaps with another. Truth be told, “Futurama: Volume 7” represents the half of Season 7 that already aired in 2012, not the 13 episodes to come next June 13. It’s tricky, but fans should know that the DVD is completely up to date. The two-disc set includes commentary on all episodes, an alternate ending for “Zapp Dingbat,” “Futurama Karaoke,” screen loops, a “smorgasbord” of deleted scenes and a jam session with composer Christopher Tyng.

The latest parable from the Gospel Music Channel involves sisters Sheila (Terri J. Vaughn) and Lynn (Vanessa Williams), who, despite different lifestyles, have come together at a crucial stage in their lives to go into business with each other and their friend, Tommi (Rachel True). That it is a bakery explains the title, “Sugar Mommas.”
Naturally, most of the trouble the women are having involves men. One sister is a cougar, while the other feels as if life and motherhood have passed her by. Their friend is being stalked by her ex-, who, of course, is a dog. The men are experiencing personal problems, as well, but it’s always the women in these things who pay the heaviest price. Typically, the production values aren’t nearly up to snuff, but the actors know their audience and work hard to accommodate it. – Gary Dretzka

The Falls
Inspired: Voices Against Prop 8

The tissue connecting these too otherwise different queer films is the Mormon Church. In “The Falls,” we observe the transformation of two dedicated church missionaries from mere servants of God to servants of God who also happen to be gay and enjoy physical love. “Inspired: Voices Against Prop 8” describes what happens in the direct aftermath of the passage of California’s marriage-restricting ballot measure. The pro-Prop 8 campaign was heavily funded by contributions made by Mormons, as encouraged by church elders. The protagonists of “The Falls” – RJ and Chris – are roommates in a Portland, Oregon, residence hotel provided by the church. They take their jobs seriously and give almost no indication that they have sexual and romantic feelings for each other. Their first sexual experience takes place in a secluded place off a bike path on their way home from a day saving souls. It could hardly be more natural a setting or spontaneous a tryst. Immediately afterwards, they kneel to pray … not out of shame or guilt, but because it’s what they do. Neither is their much sturm und drang after they’re caught in bed by their supervisor. It is what it looks like and RJ, at least, is willing to defend his love to anyone who asks, including his father and church leadership. (Chris lives elsewhere and we don’t see how his family handles the possible excommunication.) There’s no grandstanding on anyone’s part, but also no questioning the courage shown by RJ. One thing that is clear is that church’s rigid position leaves almost no room for forgiveness or compassion, except when it applies to those who choose to accept deprogramming. Nick Ferrucci and Brian Allard are very good as the protagonists, as is Brian Allard in the role of an Iraq veteran who enjoys engaging the missionaries in debate as much as does smoking pot and drinking beer in front of them. Watch it alongside “Latter Days,” which deals with similar issues in a somewhat louder way.

Inspired” arrives at a propitious time. Later this week, the Supreme Week is expected to decide if it will consider the legality of the Prop 8 marriage ban or leave standing the Federal Court decision reversing it. Charles Gage’s documentary chronicles the spontaneous protests that followed the stunning defeat, which, most admit, was due in large part to a half-assed campaign strategy against the sophisticated and well-financed pro-Prop 8 drive. Taking absolutely nothing for granted, the gay community staged a series of protests in and around Los Angeles that would continue until the California Supreme Court’s “Day of Decision.” Quite a few movers and shakers behind the protests and marches are interviewed here and the responses are not at all uniform. – Gary Dretzka

The Whale
Money and Medicine

Thanks to marine documentarians Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit, the orphaned killer whale Luna is probably the most famous orca since Willy (a.k.a., Keiko) and Shamu (the stage name for several SeaWold aquatic performers). “The Whale” is their second feature-length documentary about Luna. A fact-based theatrical movie, starring Adam Beach, Graham Greene and Jason Priestley, also was made, but only shown here on the Trinity network. The movies can be watched for their pure entertainment and educational value or as a cautionary drama. (Spoiler alert) Luna is no longer with us, for reasons made tragically clear in “The Whale,” so parents may want to watch it with their kids. When Luna was a mere toddler, he somehow was separated from his pod, which was based in Puget Sound. After being declared an MIA by scientists, Luna popped up hundreds of miles north in Nootka Sound. At first, we’re told, the orca spent most of his time trying to figure out where he was and where his family went. Desperately lonely, Luna began following boats and allowing himself to be petted and treated like a buddy by locals and tourists, alike. Perhaps, you can already see where this is heading. Luna didn’t know he was becoming a pest or endangering the lives of gawkers, kayakers and boaters, but that’s what happened. Worse, he showed no fear around propellers, work boats and skittish tourists.

This drew the attention of government regulators, of course, who feared the socialization process would soon turn dangerous to humans and Luna. Anyone caught interacting with the killer whale was threatened with jail or a fine. A native tribe saw in Luna a kindred spirit and, perhaps, the reincarnation of a leader. The Indians thwarted one attempt to cage the orca and take him to Puget Sound. One local actually attempted to bring a charge of attempted murder against him when he got too close to his boat. The media descended on Nootka to capture the drama but only added to it. Chisholm and Parfit began treating Luna like a playmate. None of it could save the orca from its own worst instincts. Finally, the movie demands we question our relationship with nature and what’s the right thing to do when one threatens the other. “The Whale” was exec-produced by Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson, with Reynolds providing the narration. It’s a beautiful documentary that would have been even more impressive in Blu-ray.

What hath Michael Moore wrought? In the long wake of “Sicko” have followed more documentaries about America’s health-care dilemma than any reviewer should be required to watch or 99 percent of potential patients ever will see. Roger Weisberg’s otherwise instructive “Money & Medicine” demands we once again consider the question of whether, when it comes to health care, more may be less. The medical-industrial complex pushes doctors to order unnecessary tests and procedures – C-sections, for example – and charges absurdly inflated prices for everything from Q-tips to brain scans. Everybody agrees that the system is broken, but no one wants to face the threat of cancer without knowing every single thing will be done to stem it. Everybody knows that Congress is in the back pocket of AMA lobbyists and other special interests, but Americans keep voting for the thieves, anyway. The media understands that the system needs to be fixed, but it was responsible for spreading Republican/Tea Party propaganda about “socialized medicine” and “death panels.” Because medical corporations require of its hospitals that beds be filled and hospital administrators demand of their doctors that they supply the patients to be warehoused there. “Money & Medicine” offers sound alternatives to status-quo medicine and good advice to adults who foresee a potential plug-pulling dilemma of their own down the road. As long as greedy business executives are allowed a forum to publically threaten the jobs of employees when ObamaCare kicks in, everyone who doesn’t have the same free health-care options as our elected officials is screwed. It’s that simple. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Gift Guide

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

Now that we’ve put Black Friday and Cyber Monday in our rear-view mirrors, it’s time to consider the gift that keeps on giving: entertainment. The DVD/Blu-ray economy is such that the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas no longer is reserved for the release of special and collector’s editions, boxed sets and videos with toys attached to them. Neither did one need to wait until Black Friday for the best deals. Here are few titles that have arrived recently or didn’t arrive for the normal consideration. If the recipient of your generosity doesn’t yet own a Blu-ray player, however, I recommend starting there.

The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy
Steve Martin: The Television Stuff

Get a Life: The Complete Series
Today, when it comes to comedy, gifters need look any further than the Shout!Factory website for ideas. Just as radio introduced listeners to the top comedians of the first half of the 20th Century, comedy and other spoken-word albums served the same purpose in the latter half. An entire generation of Baby Boomer comics honed its collective sense of humor on albums by Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Redd Foxx, George Carlin, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Tom Leher, Lord Buckley, Shelly Berman, Nichols & May and Firesign Theater. This was especially true for those of us too young to enter nightclubs, travel to Las Vegas and the Catskills, or stay up long enough watch Johnny Carson. HBO and Showtime’s comedy showcases would fuel the 1980s’ comedy-club boom, just as YouTube, dedicated apps and genre-specific satellite-radio stations would hasten the evolution.

More than any other label, Shout!Factory is releasing the kind of DVDs and CDs that allow today’s generation of performers to examine their roots and gain an understanding of what’s made people laugh for the last 100 years. In its essential Ernie Kovacs collections and the revelatory “Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware,” alone, Shout!Factory as effectively bridged three generations of comedy aficionados.

The multitalented Mel Brooks has been making people laugh for more than 60 years. Unlike such Methuselan comics as George Burns, Milton Berle and Bob Hope, Brooks hasn’t had to rely on audiences nurtured on vaudeville for his fan base. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he made a modest living playing piano and drums at various Borscht Belt resorts. When one of the featured comedians called in sick the Brooklyn-born entertainer volunteered his services. His first offstage gig came writing for Sid Caesar, whose “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” would benefit as well from the contributions of Carl Reiner, Neil and Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin and Larry Gelbart. Before getting into the movie racket, he and Reiner originated their wonderful “2,000 Year Old Man” routine and Brooks would collaborate with Buck Henry on the 007 parody, “Get Smart.” Sending up Hollywood film genres came naturally to Brooks. “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” “High Anxiety,” “History of the World, Part 1” and Spaceballs” continue to be discovered and enjoyed by comedy lovers. Thirty-three years after “The Producers” was awarded an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, his theatrical adaptation of it won three Tonys. The honor made him one of the few performers to claim an Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy.

The six-disc, 660-minute DVD set, “The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy,” examines his career through interviews, talk-show appearances, short films, documentaries, tributes, songs and clips from his television, film and theater work. The discs also contain countless anecdotes recalled by friends, collaborators, actors and other admirers. It’s very funny stuff. The boxed set includes the featurettes, “Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again,” “I Thought I Was Taller: A Short History of Mel Brooks,” “In the Beginning: The Caesar Years,” “Excavating the 2,000-Year-Old Man” and “Mel and His Movies”; appearances on “The Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson” and “The Dick Cavett Show”; episodes of “Get Smart,” “When Things Were Rotten” and “Mad About You”; award-winning short films and commercial; a CD with long-lost comedy bits and songs from his movies; and a 60-page book with photos, program notes and essays by Leonard Maltin, Gene Wilder, Bruce Jay Friedman and Robert Brustein.

Steve Martin would follow a similar route to stardom. The three-disc, 390-minute “Steve Martin: The Television Stuff” sidesteps most discussion about Martin’s nearly 35-year film career in order to focus on his rise to fame as a standup comedian and his many memorable appearances on television variety shows. Like Brooks, Martin has excelled as a TV writer, actor, comedian, musician, essayist, novelist, playwright and producer. Lately, he’s even become something of a professional tweeter. The Borscht Belt may not have been available to the Garden Grove teenager, but Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm offered him stages to hone his skills as a magician, juggler and creator of balloon animals. These skills would serve him well when he turned from writing – for the Smother Brothers, John Denver, Sonny & Cher, among others — to performing before stadium-sized audiences. His comedy routines were described as “absurdist” and “ironic,” but, watching them now, it’s easy to see how they were zany extensions of what he did at Disneyland. Audience members related to the silliness of it all because they’d enjoyed, feared or ridiculed the same shtick at countless birthday parties, amusement parks and bar mitzvahs. Television proved to be the perfect medium for such self-effacing material. It played well on “Johnny Carson” and even better on “Saturday Night Live,” where he was surrounded by kindred spirits. Alongside Richard Pryor and George Carlin, Martin was responsible for reinvigorating the nearly lost art of standup comedy. The Shout!Factory compilation includes more than six hours of standup routines and shows, television specials, guest appearances and interviews. The most welcome additions here are his four NBC sketch-comedy specials, one of which was totally devoted to commercials. There’s also “On Location With Steve Martin (Live at the Troubadour, 1976)”; “Homage to Steve,” including “The Absent-Minded Waiter” short and “Steve Live at the Universal Amphitheatre, 1979”; interviews; introductions; and music videos.

Although the Fox sitcom “Get a Life” only lasted a total of two years and 35 episodes, its lineage can be traced backward, as far back as 1951, and forward to comedy shows on all of today’s cable networks today. In 1991, when the show launched, its star and co-creator, Chris Elliott, was best known as “the guy under the seats” or “the fugitive guy,” “the conspiracy guy” and “Marlon Brando,” among other recurring characters on “Late Night With David Letterman.” On “Get a Life,” Elliott played a 30-year-old paperboy who lives with his parents, interjects himself into the lives of friends and relatives, and refuses to accept any of the responsibilities of adulthood. He’s a slacker’s slacker and, as co-creator David Mirkin has said, was somewhat modeled after the comic-book character Dennis the Menace.

On the show, Chris Peterson’s father, Fred, is played by Elliott’s real-life father, Bob Elliott, one half of the brilliant comedy team, Bob & Ray. Their TV show, which co-starred Cloris Leachman and Audrey Meadows, aired concurrently with “Your Show of Shows.” In 1994-95, Elliott appeared in various roles on 20 episodes of “Saturday Night Live,” where his daughter, Abby, was a cast member from 2008 to May, 2012, and Bob appeared in 1978. Writers on “Get a Life” included the ubiquitous writer/actor Bob Odenkirk; Charlie Kaufman, writer of “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich; Jace Richdale, writer and co-executive producer of “Dexter”; and Mirkin, a producer of “The Simpsons.” The set adds a conversation with Mirkin, Richdale and writer/producers Steve Pepoon; a new featurette with James L. Brooks, Judd Apatow and Peter Chernin; a special commentary with psychologist Dr. Wendy Walsh, analyzing Chris Peterson’s mental issues; an alternate audio version without laugh track on select episodes; additional commentaries on every episode; and a discussion with cast and crew at Paleyfest 2000.

The Dark Knight Trilogy: Blu-ray
Only time will tell if the movie version of Batman (a.k.a., the Bat-Man, Caped Crusader, Dark Knight) returns to the megaplex. If it were up to Time Warner shareholders, there would be a new installment every three or four years, like “James Bond” and “Spider-Man.” The final scene in “The Dark Knight Rises” leaves room for conjecture – as does the introduction of a young crime-fighter played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – even if director Christopher Nolan has already said that his participation in the franchise in complete. Certainly, no one is anxious to return to the days when the media paid more attention to the casting of the Joker and the Riddler than to whom played Batman or what the addition of nipples and codpieces to the Bat-costumes was meant to imply. The question before us today, however, is what to buy the rabid Caped Crusader fan on your list: the new Blu-ray edition of “The Dark Knight Rises,” alone, or “The Black Knight Trilogy,” with all three of Nolan’s installments. I suspect that a super-duper edition lurks somewhere down the road with all of the theatrical releases and a collectible mask and model of the Batmobile. One thing at a time, though.

“The Dark Knight Rises” was greeted with critical raves and a $1-billion return at box offices worldwide. It is set eight years after the devastating climax of “The Dark Knight,” after the Joker sicced the dogs of hell on Batman and he was scapegoated in the death of duplicitous District Attorney Harvey Dent. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne has lost the ability to focus on his personal fortune and the leadership of Wayne Enterprises. He has withdrawn into a psychological Batcave of his own making and lost his super-strength. It is until Wayne becomes convinced that the only thing standing between the secure future of Gotham City and a takeover by the devious terrorist, Bane (Tom Hardy), is the return of Batman from self-imposed exile. It’s to Nolan’s credit that he’s created a Batman we could simultaneously trust with our lives and fear might succumb to his deepest, darkest demons, unable to distinguish between good, evil and shades of gray. On one side of him stand Commissioner Gordon, Lucius Fox and Alfred, who know what really happened to Two-Face (Dent), while the other side is populated with question marks disguised as business associates and potential lovers. Nothing complicates the life of a great man as much as the addition of a beautiful woman to his universe. Here, there are two such beings. Board member Miranda (Marion Cotillard) convinces Wayne to invest in a clean-energy device that may be more dangerous to society than beneficial and the cat burglar Selina (Anne Hathaway), who’s playing on both sides of Wayne’s fence. Beaten, bowed and sent to an infamous underground prison by Bane, Wayne must finally decide if he wants to put his life on the line once again for an ungrateful Gotham City or crawl back into the shadows.

When viewed as a unified whole, Nolan’s trilogy becomes the “War and Peace” of superhero movies. Almost nothing that happens in “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises” is insignificant to the collected opus. One either buys into Nolan’s grand design or looks for something in the movies that is less cosmic, such as Heath Ledger’s Joker, Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul, Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow or Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel. The “Trilogy” collection contains all three feature films, two discs of bonus material and a 64-page excerpt from “The Art and Making of the Dark Knight Trilogy.” The supplementary features on “Dark Knight Rise,” alone, include a documentary on the Batmobile; the multipart making-of doc, “Ending the Knight”; character studies; “The End of a Legend”; an art gallery; and UltraViolet.

Watchmen Collector’s Edition: Ultimate Cut + Graphic Novel: Blu-ray

Just as “The Godfather” trilogy has been sent out in radically different version’s – theatrical, chronological cut, director’s cut, director’s restoration – Zach Snyder’s adaptation of writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons’ near-mythic graphic novel continues has grown like Topsy. This isn’t to imply that “Watchmen” is comparable artistically or commercially to Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic, because they exist virtually on two different planets. It is accurate to say, however, that devotees of both books live and die with each new film adaptation and re-interpretation of the original. Fortunately for everyone involved in “The Godfather,” its appeal wasn’t limited to a cult following or genre loyalists. Not having read the graphic novel or watched any version of the movie, I can only base my opinion on the back-and-forth on blogs, movie-review sites and my own screening of the so-called “Ultimate Cut.” Between the 128-minute theatrical edition, 168-minute “special edition,” the 186-minute director’s cut (“The End Is Nigh Complete Experience” and “Night Owl Ship” packages), 215-minute “Ultimate Cut,” the 26-minute stand-alone “Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood” and 325-minute “The Complete Motion Comic,” there’s plenty of room for debate. “Watchmen Collector’s Edition: Ultimate Cut + Graphic Novel” weaves “Tales of the Black Freighter” through the “Ultimate Cut,” while also adding a handsome hardcover edition of the novel, a DVD version, a separate disc with special features, “The Complete Motion Graphic,” UltraViolet capability and a snazzy 3D cover photo. All in all, that’s a pretty good starter kit for anyone interested in getting into the superhero game on its darkest side.

Adults unfamiliar with either the novel or the movie might have a difficult time coming to grips with the “alternative history” offered by Moore. In it, superheroes who actively supported the United States in World War II and Vietnam — helping us win both conflicts – have been put out to pasture. By the time Richard Nixon was about to enter his fifth administration they’d practically become answers to trivia questions. Fearing their power and ethical stance, the government banned new ones from exercising their given talents. This, even as the nuclear Doomsday Clock clicked steadily toward midnight. Even so, the only thing standing between a war between the U.S. and Soviet Union has been the supercharged superhero, Doctor Manhattan, who could wipe both entities out before their red buttons could be triggered. It seems as if world leaders itching for another major conflagration, however, and the vacuum created by the lack of superheroes has opened the door to supervillains. It’s the new, clandestine generation of superheroes who are left to deal with the threat from within their own ranks. “Watchmen” was published in response to such world leaders as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who, in Moore’s estimation, represented the watchmen who needed watching more than anyone else. Snyder’s adaptation is considered to be true to Moore’s vision and there’s no questioning the Blu-ray’s visual and sonic force. The special features included in the boxed set are abundant, as well. I suppose that someone somewhere is already planning a 3D version of “Watchmen.” It should arrive at about the same time as “The Godfather 3D.”

Lawrence of Arabia: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
If I were put in charge of the home-theater department of a large electronics store, the first thing I’d do would be to show the new Blu-ray edition of “Lawrence of Arabia” on every HDTV unit that wasn’t already showing a Disney “Diamond Edition” title or “Titanic 3D.” If these movies can’t move products, nothing will. Obviously, “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Titanic” are best served on the largest available screen in a digitally equipped theater. Given that the odds against that happening again anytime soon are prohibitive, even a modestly priced home-theater unit provides a decent option. Everything about the “50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” is stunning; the deep blue of the sky against the bright gold of the sand; Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish emerging from the shimmering heat of the desert on his way to “his” well; the magnificent vistas; and, far from least, the brilliant whiteness of Lawrence’s tunic and kufiyya. I was reminded of the rumors that swirled in 1963 that subliminal plugs for Coca-Cola were strategically inserted into the desert scenes to encourage runs to the concessions stand. Sonically, the presentation is similarly impeccable: the charging hoofs of the horses and camels as they approach Aqaba; the echoes that accompany Lawrence’s singing; the motorcycles’ throaty roar; and even haunting silence of the desert night. At 227 minutes, the story is never less than compelling.

Here, buyers can choose between the two-disc Blu-ray package, with the same technical specs and enough bonus features to keep a buff busy for hours, and the super-duper four-disc “Limited Collector’s Edition.” In addition to a second disc of bonus features, it contains a soundtrack CD, commemorative 70mm film frame and a coffeetable book. The tendency is for American audiences to see in T.E. Lawrence a larger-than-life costumed superhero, whose accomplishments were limited to a specific time and place. One thing I was surprised to learn while watching a bio-doc of American spy boss William Colby is that Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” is still considered essential reading by members of our spook community.

Cinderella Trilogy Limited Edition Blu-ray and Collectible Jewelry Box
While I was duly impressed by Disney’s “Cinderella Diamond Edition,” upon its release early last month, I suspect that the little princesses on your list will be more impressed with the bounty of treasures to be found in the “Limited Edition Collectible Jewelry Box.” Technically, it would be difficult to find a more spectacular rendition of any classic fairy tale. In addition to the 1950 original feature, the package includes “Cinderella II: Dreams Come True” and “Cinderella III: Twist in Time” on Blu-ray and DVD, and a digital copy of “Cinderella.” The discs are contained in a storybook that fits inside a beautifully crafted jewelry box. Other bonus features include the “Tangled Ever After,” animated short; “Behind the Magic: A New Disney Princess Fantasyland”; an introduction by Diane Disney Miller; the “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-You” Disney Second Screen experience; “The Magic of the Glass Slipper: A Cinderella Story”; and DisneyView.

Desperate Housewives: The Complete Collection Deluxe Edition
Sassy, sexy and completely unexpected, ABC scored a direct hit when it added Marc Cherry’s “Desperate Housewives” to its Sunday night lineup in October, 2004. Equal parts dark comedy and soapy drama, the show immediately became the season’s water-cooler sensation, inspiring the reality series “The Real Housewives of Orange County” and a half-dozen other city-specific shows starring horrifying American gold-diggers. It’s worth recalling that the “Desperate Housewives” characters were decidedly middle class, if only in the way Hollywood producers see that sector of society. (Incredibly, many profess being middle class themselves.) Blessedly, too, stars Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, Eva Longoria, Nicollette Sheridan often provided fans with off-set gossip to savor. “Desperate Housewives: The Complete Collection Deluxe Edition” arrives in a sturdy travel case, containing all eight seasons’ worth of episodes, representing an astounding 7,700 minutes of entertainment on 45 discs (sorry, purists, they’re inserted into dreaded slip cases). Inside an apple-shaped sleeve is a bonus disc with the featurettes “The End of the Lane: Last Days on Set,” “Curtain Call: The Desperate Housewives Family,” “Cherry Cam(eo),” “Desperately Dead” and some new supplementary material from Seasons 3 and 5. Cherry adds a fancy-looking letter to fans.

Marvel Knights: Astonishing X-Men: Blu-ray Set
Here’s the perfect gift for anyone who gets antsy whenever there isn’t a superhero movie playing at the local megaplex and their favorite video store has nothing new to offer. Shout!Factory has packaged four motion-comic arcs from the “Marvel Knights: Astonishing X-Men” series and made them available in Blu-ray for the first time. A creation of the hugely prolific Joss Whedon (“The Avengers”) and Eisner Award-winning artist John Cassaday, the motion comics were released on Hulu, iTunes and the PlayStation Store before sent out on DVD. Blu-ray adds yet another level of fun. The two-disc Blu-ray collection contains 280 minutes of Mutant-specific entertainment, including interviews with producer Joe Quesada and veteran artist Neal Adams; a behind-the-scenes look at Marvel Knights Animation; and an original music video. The story arcs include: “Gifted,” in which Dr. Kavita Rao develops a controversial mutant “cure” and the X-Men once again find themselves battling science, prejudice and a new alien foe; “Dangerous,” which requires the Mutants to find a mole with access to secret records; “Torn,” in which Emma Frost’s erratic behavior has the X-Men spinning in a nonstop downward spiral; and “Unstoppable,” during which the X-Men are required to protect the Earth from its destruction at the hands of the Breakworld.

Harold & Kumar: Ultimate Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The ideal recipient for “Harold & Kumar: Ultimate Collector’s Edition” is someone who’s pulled himself away from his Xbox long enough to gather signatures for a petition to legalize marijuana. Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are the Cheech & Chong of the Millennial Generation, the only difference being that they’re college educated and the THC level of the pot smoked is exponentially higher. The new collection arrives in a tin container, which probably relates to something in one of the duo’s movies, but I have no idea what it might be. Contained therein are “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004), “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” (2008) and the 2D Blu-ray version of “A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas” (2011). They are accompanied by extended cuts of the “H&K” epic adventurers, as well as a sled load of supplementary materials. This ‘highly flammable” set also offers White Castle-scented car fresheners and White Castle-scented drink coasters.” I get hungry just thinking about it.

Oklahoma!: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s considering gifting a friend or relative with the excellent PBS documentary series, “Broadway: The American Musical,” may also think about tossing in “Oklahoma!,” which releases on December 4. The warhorse musical has been trotted out more times in its 70-year lifetime than there are trailer parks in danger of being blown away by tornadoes in the southern Plains. The new Blu-ray adapts the 1999 production of “Oklahoma!,” which was directed by Trevor Nunn for London’s Royal National Theater. Of more general interest is the appearance of the multitalented Aussie Hugh Jackman, as Curly, a year before he broke through to the masses as Wolverine, in “X-Men.” Nunn restored Oscar Hammerstein’s more dramatic full text, which isn’t always the case when performed in the hinterlands. Also crucial to the production’s success were choreographer Susan Stroman (“The Producers”) and cast members Maureen Lipman, Peter Polycarpou, Shuler Hensley, Josefina Gabrielle and Vicki Simon.

History: Ancient Egypt Anthology
History: Ancient Rome Anthology
History: UFO Archives
It’s said that youth is wasted on the young. The same can be said of a college education. I don’t know how history is currently taught to rooms full of bored, overindulged and hung over students, but I hope it’s every bit as interesting as the many non-fiction shows on cable TV that make learning fun. DVDs released under the History banner are especially easy on the eye and light on the brain, as they’re informed by CGI re-creations of important sites, re-enactments of landmark events and the testimony of professors and archeologists whose mere presence puts students to sleep. Even better, you’re not required to take notes.

Ancient Egypt Anthology” and “Ancient Rome Anthology” extend the various History franchises by culling material from episodes of several of the network’s series. The six discs in “Ancient Egypt” cover the period between the nation’s unification in approximately 3100 B.C. to its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. It explores the technology, religion, culture, wars, peace and significant individuals that contributed to the dynasties’ cultural, scientific and architectural greatness. And, yes, this does include virtual tours of the pyramids and other monuments. I’d be willing to bet that most of what we think we know about the Roman Empire comes from Shakespeare, high school Latin, Hollywood epics and, more recently, such sex-and-sandals mini-series as “Spartacus.” The 11-hour “Ancient Rome” adds much needed context and historical background to the roles played by Crassus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Caligula, Hannibal, Alexander the Great and the real Spartacus. Among other things, CGI graphics allow us to visit the catacombs and survey the 50,000 miles of stone-paved roads that crossed three continents.

I’d be very surprised to learn that UFO-logy is being taught in our universities, but, then, if a course on the films of Keanu Reeves can be justified, why not extraterrestrials? History has long been in the vanguard of quasi-educational entities dedicated to promoting the likelihood that we’re not alone in the universe. “UFO Archives” revisits Roswell, Area 51, alien abductions, Shag Harbour, numerous government conspiracy theories, the Majestic 12, SETI program and inter-galactic transport. The discussions may be channeled through the theories of believers, but the arguments of skeptics and non-believers also are given full weight. Ironically, perhaps, the six-disc set weighs in at 15-plus hours, four more than the time devoted to the separate histories of Rome and Egypt. Make of that what you may. The sets add bonus material, as well.

The DVD Wrapup: MiB3, Lawless, Beijing Punk… More

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012


Men in Black 3: Blu-ray

Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith may be the credited stars of the “Men in Black” movies, but there’s no question what keeps audiences around the world coming back for more fun: Rick Baker’s aliens. Without these fantastical creatures, Barry Sonnenfeld would be just another has-been hack and Jones and Smith would long ago have found other meal tickets. In “Men in Black 3,” the aliens keep the narrative afloat as it inches its way to an unexpectedly sentimental conclusion. This time around, Jones’ presence is required only at the beginning and end of the movie. That’s because Etan Cohen’s story takes place largely in the past — 1969, to be exact – at a crucial juncture in Agent K’s life and career. Agent J is required to travel back in time to prevent his partner’s premature death, which is clumsily foretold in the opening scene. He’s not the only character getting a free ride on the space/time continuum, though. Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), a predatory Boglodite that K arrested on the day of the first manned lunar mission, has escaped from the LunarMax prison on the Moon and intends to reverse history by killing the agent and scuttling the flight. Although certain events in the first two “MiB” installments would seem to preclude such a thing from happening, it nonetheless provides J with an opportunity to meet the young Agent K (Josh Brolin). First, of course, J must convince K-the-Younger that time travel is possible and the next alien he attempts to arrest could be his last. To this end, the agents are introduced to a less malevolent alien, Griffin, who exists in five dimensions and has the entirety of the ArcNet at his disposal.

The relocation to 1969 New York and Florida allows for the introduction of several historical touchstones, including Andy Warhol’s Factory, a then-new Shea Stadium, Coney Island and Cape Kennedy, as it was known then. The best fight scene takes place early on, in contemporary Chinatown, where J and K stumble into a nest of very strange creatures and an authentic blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus), which looks as freaky as any alien. I haven’t seen the 3D version of “MiB3,” but can attest to the fine audio-visual quality of the 2D Blu-ray. All editions arrive with a making-of featurette, gag reel and music video by Pitbull. The Blu-ray adds a spot-the-alien game; “The Evolution of Cool: ‘MiB’ 1960s vs. Today”; “Keeping It Surreal: The Visual FX of ‘MiB3’; scene investigations; progression reels; and UltraViolet. – Gary Dretzka

Lawless: Blu-ray
Seven years ago, director John Hillcoat collaborated with writer-composer Nick Cave and actor Guy Pearce on the excellent Outback Western, “The Proposition.” They combined their talents again on “Lawless,” a slick hillbilly gangster flick set during America’s Prohibition experiment. Like “The Proposition,” “Lawless” is a smart and exciting genre that isn’t afraid to ratchet up the violence when things get too contemplative and self-consciously hip. Even more so than Hillcoat’s revisionist Western, though, his moonshine drama probably would be a better fit at a drive-in theater than an arthouse. It is, in fact, a direct descendent of the 1958 Robert Mitchum cult classic, “Thunder Road,” which was to Southern drive-in denizens what “Rocky Horror Picture Show” has been to midnight-movie freaks since 1976. Handsomely shot in the hills of rural Georgia, “Lawless” is based on events chronicled in “The Wettest County in the World,” a book written by the grandson of moonshiner Jack Bondurant (played here by Shia LaBeouf). Along with Jack’s two older, more rough-hewn brothers, Forrest and Howard (Tom Hardy, Jason Clark), the Bondurants made a very decent living transporting moonshine through the hills and hollers of Virginia’s Blue Ridge country. They got around the law by contributing the occasional case of prime booze to the local police benevolent fund.

Things tended to balance out, until outsiders discovered the operation and demanded the local yokels split the take with them, too. Here, the ultimatum is delivered by a cruel and corrupt dandy, special agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce), who wears more grease in his hair than most cars have on their ball joints. A true sadist, Charlie provides the muscle for his boss in the state’s attorney office. Having to split the take with another greedy party not only would run counter to the Bondurant’s code of honor, but it also could screw up a deal Jack has entered into with fugitive Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). For the brothers, maintaining their independence in the moonshine trade is a sacred Southern trust, even if it comes at a stiff price. Hillcoat leavens the hard-core violence, backstabbing and corruption by adding two romantic through-lines. One involves a moll-in-exile from Chicago (Jessica Chastain) and the other a Mennonite preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska), who digs Jack’s fancy car and the bright-colored clothes he gives her. The filmmakers treat both of the characters with respect, only once giving in to the temptation to show off Chastain’s magnificent breasts. But, then, all of the actors perform their duties admirably, elevating the action scenes above what’s generally expected in genre fare. It also helps that special attention was paid to establishing a credible period feel. For the atmospheric soundtrack, Cave formed a country band of his own, while also enlisting the services of Willie Nelson, Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris. Before hearing it for myself, I wouldn’t have guessed that Stanley could turn the Velvet Underground’s electrifying “White Light/White Heat” into something resembling a bluegrass standard. As hipster conceits go, it succeeds pretty darn well. Featurettes included in the bonus package provide lots of interesting background on the actual activities of the Bondurants and what’s become of the family. – Gary Dretzka

Slaughter Tales
The Day: Blu-ray
The Apparition: Blu-ray
6 Degrees of Hell
Considering that “Slaughter Tales” is the creation of a 14-year-old first-time filmmaker, I wavered between reviewing it and sending him a report card. If I were the faculty adviser of his middle school’s A-V club, I would be inclined to give Johnnie Dickie an “A,” both for execution and chutzpah. How many teenagers, after all, would have the brass even to attempt a feature-length horror anthology as their debut production? Moreover, how many of his peers could pull it off on a budget of something north of $65? The only other person in the same category that I’m aware of is Austin native Emily Hagins, who, at 12, made the horror movie “Pathogen” and, seven years later, sent out the funny horror/comedy “My Sucky Teen Romance.” I’m sure that Hagins had a healthier budget than Dickie with which to play. As a critic, however, all I’m willing to say about “Slaughter Tales” is that I’ve seen a lot worse horror flicks from far more accomplished directors. Visually, it’s possible to see every penny of that $65 on the screen, which admittedly is something of a left-handed compliment. Even so, I think teenage viewers would get a bigger kick out of the movie than adults, many of whom would be distracted by the off-color language and over-the-top violence. Anyone wondering if Johnnie’s parents knew what was going on in their kitchen when they were away and he was supposed to be doing homework might be interested to know that his mom makes a cameo, in which she’s killed.

As the story goes, a teenager shoplifts a cheesy VHS cassette and, even before he can insert it into his machine, is cautioned about its contents by a ghostly apparition. Needless to say, the kid can’t resist the movie’s magnetic pull and potential for evil kicks. It inspires him to go on a killing spree, from which the five short films in this anthology derive. The tales, which reflect a geeky affection for 1980s-vintage horror and slasher pictures, benefit from Dickie’s complete disregard for mainstream taste and decorum. The props consisted of items found lying around the house, dollar stores or at garage sales, while lights seem to have been limited to flashlights. The special makeup effects were created from things found in a pantry. For a 14-year-old, Johnnie also seems to have assimilated 40 years’ worth of camera, lighting and acting techniques unique to the genre. For all I know, kids around the world are creating similar movie to “Slaughter Tales” using little more than a cellphone and Halloween makeup kits. If not, though, Dickie and Hagins have a big leg up on everyone else to come. (There’s a parody of “Slaughter Tales” called “Pizza Tales” already on YouTube.) And, yes, I’m pretty sure Steven Spielberg started exactly this way. It comes with behind-the-scenes featurettes and commentary.

The Day” is a movie made by adults and starring such established young actors as Shawn Ashmore, Ashley Bell, Michael Eklund, Dominic Monaghan and Shannyn Sossamon. It’s a post-apocalyptic drama in which five attractive survivors are required to stave off an assault by hungry cannibals (zombies with a pulse) while hiding in an abandoned house in the country. The cannibals see in the new arrivals a chance to sustain themselves for a few more days, even though no one seems to have considered foraging or gardening as an option. The healthy survivors are looking for food, as well, but are required to use their guns to kill the cannibals, instead of deer or rabbits. The way things are going, they have about 24 more hours to escape. The best thing about “The Day” is its washed-out look, which is consistent with the tone of the story. This will appeal mostly to the women-with-guns crowd.

The Apparition” is one of those haunted-house thrillers that beg the question early on as to the wisdom of anyone spending more than five minutes in a building populated with evil spirits. It doesn’t take very long before characters played by Ashley Greene and Sebastian Stan discover that they’re not alone in their new home, even if they can’t see what it is. First a neighbor’s dog dies while staring into the corner of their laundry room and, then, they find themselves unable to keep a door locked for more than five minutes. Turns out, the boyfriend neglected to mention to his sweetie pie that he had recently participated in a college parapsychology experiment, in which a spirit was conjured and released into the corporeal world. By the time this bit of news is revealed, their house is in danger of being engulfed in black mold and his girlfriend is extremely pissed. The scariest thing about the apparition is what’s going to happen to the house’s resale value after the mold turns up in an inspection report.

Although Corey Feldman gets top billing on the cover of “6 Degrees of Hell,” his paranormal-investigator role is limited to listening to a cop relate gruesome details in the murder of a teenage girl. My problem with Joe Raffa and Harrison Smith’s movie is that the many flashbacks ruin all sense of a narrative flow and it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish the dead from the dying. That said, however, the setting for this low-budget indie is damn near perfect. Much of it takes place in a very old building in rural Pennsylvania, where one of the characters stages annual haunted houses at Halloween. In the past, it served as a hotel, a hospital and mental institution, a fact that is known to the locals and adds to the fun. In real life, the same Lake House Hotel is believed to be haunted by the spirits of people who committed suicide there in the 1920-30s. It, too, is used at Halloween for haunted-house tours. The place is littered with leftover artifacts from previous incarnations. A woman is scared to death by an apparition early in the movie and this leads to the murder investigation that attracts Feldman. Her death is somehow related to an earlier killing, which yet another investigator hopes to share with his local-access TV audience. Ultimately, there are too many people doing the same thing and it’s likely that half of them, at least, are vampires or zombies. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and a behind-the-scenes piece with Feldman; a walk-through of the real Hotel of Horror with Raffa; and something shot at the world premiere. – Gary Dretzka

Beijing Punk
The more one learns about China – four decades after Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger stopped there for take-out — the more fascinating it becomes. It seems as if a documentary maker need only poke the lens of his camera into a shaded corner to find something new and, often, in direct contradiction to what we’ve assumed since Tiananmen Square. Should we be surprised that there’s a flourishing punk scene in a country that’s portrayed as being so rigidly controlled? Probably, no more so than what we discovered about the rock-music scene in Tehran in “No One Knows About Persian Cats.” What makes “Beijing Punk” so interesting is how the people we meet deal with everything from getting high on codeine to advocating personal freedom in their music, while avoiding overtly political lyrics. Shaun Jefford’s film was made coincidental to the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, which dominated all media and government activities. If there’s an overly familiar vibe running through “Beijing Punk,” it’s only because every emerging pop-cultural trend shares common scene. It’s likewise important to remember how isolated these musicians and their fans must feel in such a regimented environment, especially now that they have access to music and fashions from around the world. The music is pretty good, even by comparison to that produced in countries with a strong musical heritage. If the lyrics, often song in English, sound clichéd and dated, the sentiments behind them are universal and, in some ways, thrilling, — Gary Dretzka

Ike & Tina Turner: On the Road: 1971-72
Color Me Obsessed: A Film About the Replacements
Pato Banton: Live and Seen
Before the publication of her autobiography, “I Tina,” and the film adaptation, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” Ike & Tina Turner were as inseparable in the minds of R&B fans as Sam & Dave and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. While there was no question over which of them audiences came to see during the 15-year existence of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, Ike was a terrific musician and arranger in his own right and, without him, Anna Mae Bullock may never have struck gold as Tina Turner. By 1976, though, Ike’s drug habit and abusive behavior convinced his wife to take a powder from the Revue and attempt to put together a solo career. It would take another seven years before Tina found her way back to the top of the heap, but, when she did, no act in the world was a hotter ticket. To their credit, the distributors of Bob and Nadya Gruen’s bare-bones documentary “Ike & Tina Turner: On the Road: 1971-72” don’t pretend to have scratched the surface of the Turners’ tumultuous relationship. What makes it entertaining, though, is the coverage of the Revue at a time when it was cultivating crossover success. The off-stage moments reveal nothing of the domestic strife that finally would tear the band apart. Tina prepares food and minds the children, while Ike works on arrangements for group. Time also is allotted for limousine rides, airport waits and backstage preparations. Among the 19 songs performed are “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Shake a Tail Feather,” “Respect,” “Proud Mary,” “”I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “I Want to Take You Higher” and “Try a Little Tenderness.”

In the alchemy of rock-’n’-roll, there’s nothing more cherished than purity of purpose. Look at any year-end top-ten list by a respected critic and, more often than not, at least half of the selections will be completely unknown to the majority of readers. Listen to the albums and it’s just as likely that you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about, after all. The critical search for integrity and clarity, along with the need to explain it in words, often runs counter to what’s being expressed in the music. Why write, when you can dance? Why intellectualize, when you could be stage diving? “Color Me Obsessed: A Film About the Replacements” reminded me of this disconnect between head and gut when it comes to criticism. The Minneapolis punk band, a.k.a., Mats, disbanded in 1991, without a great deal of commercial success, but its legacy extends to this day. The rise and collapse of the Replacements are recalled in this 2011 documentary by Gorman Bechard. He found dozens of people, ranging from critics to hecklers, anxious to comment on the band and what it meant to them. Indeed, more than half of the quotes and anecdotes they provide would provide sufficient cause not to delve more deeply into the subject. Their favorite memories of the Replacements seem nightmarish by the usual industry standards, which demand semi-sobriety, at least, and a certain regard for themselves, their music and the audience.

What makes “Color Me Obsessed” stand out among the growing crowd of musical documentaries is the complete absence of music. Bechard has said that he fully intended his history of the band to be absorbed without the distraction of recordings or music videos. This decision doesn’t seem to have worked in his favor. (I recommend watching the doc alongside a computer with easy access to YouTube.) It could just as easily have been explained by a reluctance to pay licensing fees, however. Boiled to their essence, the recollections and war stories – attempting career suicide on “SNL,” for example — are what rock is all about, not the many complaints we hear about being underappreciated, unpublished and underpaid. Among the many witnesses here are members of Husker Du, Babes in Toyland, the Decemberists, Hold Steady, Archers of Loaf, Titus Andronicus and Goo Goo Dolls; celebrity admirers Tom Arnold, Dave Foley, George Wendt, David Carr; and critics Greg Kot, Jim Derogatis, Robert Christgau and Matt Pinfield. A second disc adds 19 deleted scenes, extended interviews, commentaries and trailers.

I pretty much lost track of the reggae scene when NFL players began wearing dreadlocks and it became impossible to distinguish one Marley offspring from another on the radio. The bio-doc and performance film, “Pato Banton: Live and Seen,” reminds me that the wonderfully infectious musical genre is alive, well and in very good hands. British singer and “toaster” Pato Banton (a.k.a., Patrick Murray) is profiled in the two-part ReggaeTV package, which aired on some PBS stations. It adds a nicely shot live performance, in San Diego, which includes such songs as “Legalize It,” “Gwarn,” “Now Generation,” “Light & Life” and “My Opinion.” The show reflects his outgoing personality, as well as his social, political and religious beliefs. – Gary Dretzka

Call the Midwife: Season One: Blu-ray
Hot in Cleveland: Season Three
If the ancient practice of midwifery isn’t as familiar in North America as it remains in other parts of the world, the lack of knowledge can be traced to a time in the early 20th Century when doctors and medical associations successfully lobbied for a virtual monopoly on obstetrical care. They convinced government officials and expectant parents that midwives were poorly trained practitioners of folk medicine and wouldn’t know what to do in case of an emergency. This argument, of course, was largely based on the physicians’ desires to keep fees and, later, insurance money flowing directly into their pockets. One of the successes of the women’s movement was to convince a growing number of women to trust their instincts, by assigning pre- and post-natal care, and deliveries, to trained and accredited midwives and nurses. The hit British TV series, “Call the Midwife,” describes the lives and cases of a group of young women attached to an order of nursing nuns at London’s Nonnatus House. They provide care to families in a working-class section of city in the early 1950s. Through them, we meet a wide variety of women, including a non-English-speaking woman on her 25th pregnancy, a 15-year-old pregnant prostitute and several with dangerous pre-conditions. As in any good soap, time is devoted to the personal lives of the midwives, as well. The imported series, based on the memoires of Jennifer Worth, is currently playing on PBS stations here and has already been renewed for a second season on the BBC.

TV Land made its bones as a cable network dedicated to once-popular sitcoms, dramas and variety shows. Now 16, it has expanded its coverage to include shows that don’t cater specifically to the Baby Boomer audience, adding more recent fare, movies and original programming. Not content merely to dine off the hand feeding it, TV Land now occasionally bites it, as well. Beginning with “Hot in Cleveland,” the network has launched a slate of original sitcoms. Now entering its fourth season, the show has courted and won a dependable audience of viewers who grew up on shows starring younger versions of Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick. Far fewer would acknowledge remembering the first sitcoms in which Betty White appeared, but her appeal defies demographic boundaries. For the uninitiated, the younger women ended up in the Midwest after their plane from L.A. to Paris required service in Cleveland. I can’t remember how they ended up at the rooming house run by the still-frisky White, but they were so impressed by the reception they received from local manly-men that they decided to stay. In some parts of Cleveland, even White is treated like a spring chicken. In Season 3, the ladies were joined by such guest stars as Sean Hayes, Kathie Lee Gifford, Sandra Bernhard, Don Rickles, John Mahoney, Laura San Giacomo, Joan Rivers, David Spade, Cybill Shepherd and Regis Philbin. Returning guests include Jennifer Love Hewitt, Susan Lucci, Huey Lewis, Joe Jonas and Jon Lovitz. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Nicholas Ray, Rolling Stones, Dust Bowl, Speechless… More

Monday, November 19th, 2012

Nicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again/Don’t Expect Too Much: Blu-ray
Whenever the roll of movie mavericks is read up yonder, no one has to wait very long before Nicholas Ray’s name is called. Like Sam Fuller, he stuck out like a sore thumb in Hollywood, if only because he’d already lived a hugely eventful life before committing to film and understood the power of the medium to separate the truth from fantasy. In what some of his peers probably considered a fatal flaw, Ray had very little interest in compromising his artistic vision for the sake of commercial and personal gain. Even so, he made movies for mass consumption, not strictly for the arthouse crowd familiar with his past connections to architect Frank Lloyd Wright, folk-music archivist Alan Lomax, Dust Bowl balladeer Woody Guthrie, producer John Houseman, director Elia Kazan and other key players in the progressive New York theater scene in the 1930s. If he somehow managed to avoid being rounded up in Red Scare dragnet, his sentiments remained clearly on the side of outcasts, the downtrodden and rebellious youth. Ray’s influence on the French New Wave has been duly noted, as have the many bad habits and artistic ticks that contributed to his inability to find much work in the 1960-70s. If Ray had been a teenager in 1955, some other director might have modeled James Dean’s character in “Rebel Without a Cause” after him. Thanks to the miracle of DVD and Blu-ray, we’re now able to reassess what might have been his most personal and sadly illuminating film, “We Can’t Go Home Again,” alongside Susan Ray’s documentary, “Don’t Expect Too Much,” which chronicled the often tortuous process of getting the radically experimental student project made †naand seen. The restoration of the former title borders on the miraculous.

One of the points made in the area reserved for interviews in Oscilloscope’s two-disc package is that Ray never treated his students at Harper College in the early 1970s with the kind of condescension that so often comes with age and experience. Nor did he cynically dismiss their post-hippie customs, naivete and pretenses, or remind them that none of them would ever be as cool as he is. With his wild shocks of white hair, eye patch, ever-present cigarette and addictions to drugs and booze, he could have written the book on the joys and pitfalls of being terminally hip. If he remained a pariah in Hollywood, his notebook full of A-list phone numbers told a more interesting story. He joined the staff of the Upstate New York school after spending much of the previous decade in Europe, where he was worshipped as an icon of the cinema. He had recently become reinvigorated by the emerging counterculture, many of whose participants might have been weaned on “Rebel Without a Cause” and the significantly more nihilistic “The Wild One.” He was in Paris during the tumultuous 1968 uprising and protests surrounding the firing of Cinematheque  Français founder Henri Langlois, and then returned to the U.S. to document the trial of the Chicago 8. For him, “it was like putting James Dean on trial,” observed his daughter, “Nicca, in a Vogue interview. Instead of coming out of the experience with a movie, he suffered an aneurism in his eye. Dennis Hopper, with whom he was crashing in Taos, was able to arrange for the teaching position. Ray demanded of the students that they rotate jobs on the set and accept his theories on acting, which had germinated in the mid-1930s, during his tenure with the Theater of Action and Group Theater. To their frequent dismay, he expected the same kind of commitment from the students as he did from Hollywood actors and crews, who, at least, were rewarded for the long hours with money. Ray also asked them to reveal parts of themselves they didn’t know they had.

“We Can’t Go Home Again” is interesting mostly for Ray’s anticipation of the kind of elliptical, non-linear, split-screen storytelling that would become a hundred times easier to pull off in the digital age. In addition to the performances by students, the film contained images from political and countercultural events on and off campus – manipulated by Nam Jun Paik’s video synthesizer — and close ups of the actors working out their personal angst in soliloquies and spontaneous freak-outs. If its plot didn’t really go anywhere specific and the actors’ lives weren’t terribly interesting, “We Can’t Go Home” aptly demonstrates the students’ growth as filmmakers and individuals. At the same time, it’s easy to see how Ray’s rebellious personality and willingness to swap everything from stories to bong hits with the students might have contributed to the ill-fated product. The companion documentary, “Don’t Expect Too Much,” uses much rarely seen footage to describe the directors’ life with the students and futile attempts to find a buyer for the movie in New York and in Cannes. The best part, though, is the addition of recently conducted interviews with the now-graying students and anecdotes told by filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, Victor Erice and Walter Murch. The Blu-ray package adds extended interviews and short films that demonstrate just how daring Ray could be. – Gary Dretzka

The Dead Inside
Watching Travis Betz’ ambitious musical comedy, “The Dead Inside,” I was reminded of how many things — story, music, characters, actors, timing — had to come together at exactly the right moment for “The Rocky Horror Show” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to become international pop sensations. Even after Richard O’Brien’s genre-straddling production became a hit in London, moving from a 73-seat venue to the 500-seat King’s Road Theater in six months, “Rocky Horror Show” was the furthest thing from a no-brainer. Lou Adler brought the musical to the Los Angeles’ Roxy nightclub, where it played to adoring crowds for 10 months, before shuffling off to the big leagues. Broadway audiences weren’t impressed and “Rocky Horror Show” closed after 45 performances. By this time, however, Fox already was committed to turning the stage musical to “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” It laid a huge egg in standard engagements, everywhere except Los Angeles, and even flopped in college towns. It wasn’t until Fox agreed to give the movie a shot on the burgeoning midnight-movie circuit that it exploded at the box office. Still in a few venues after 37 years, it’s become the longest-running theatrical release in movie history. It’s returned nearly $140 million – not counting soundtrack-album and licensing revenues – on budget estimated to be $1.2 million.

“The Dead Inside” may not be the second coming of “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but Betz deserves a “B” for effort, at least. People have been attempting to capture the same flash of lightning in a bottle ever since the first midnight showing on April 1, 1976. With the popularity of “The Walking Dead” and new zombie movies opening every weekend, you’d think audiences would be clamoring for a live undead experience. Made on the cheap, “The Dead Inside” has several positive things going for it: appealing actors, a decent score and book, and a malleable premise. The primary characters are Wes and Fi, a wedding photographer and author of zombie novellas who’ve become disenchanted with waiting for their ships to come into port. We don’t have to wait very long for the first zombies to make their appearance. In a funny twist, the husband and wife become frustrated by their inability to get past the locked bathroom door, either because the woman inside has outfoxed them or they’re in a hurry to use the facilities. (No, I haven’t seen a zombie take a dump, either.) Soon, however, it becomes clear to Fi that the creatures are manifestations of her tortured imagination. Wes is sympathetic with her bad case of writer’s block, but has his own problems. Compounding Fi’s dilemma is the growing likelihood that she’s become possessed with the spirit of a sexy ghost dying to come back to life. Original music by Michael Brake and Joel Van Vliet reflects the couple’s emotional roller-coaster ride and they’re nicely interpreted by Sarah Lassez and Dustin Fasching. I may be cutting “The Dead Inside” a bit too much slack here, but it isn’t often that something this original and eager to please comes my way. With a little time, effort and imagination, it could go on to something bigger. The DVD includes an extensive making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Bringing Up Bobby
Dutch-born actor-model Famke Janssen makes her debut as a writer-director in “Bringing Up Bobby, an unpretentious dramedy about a gorgeous short-con artist, Olive, and the 10-year-old boy who’s following in his mom’s crooked footsteps. If that description makes “Bringing Up Bobby” sound dangerously close to being a cross-gender version of “Paper Moon,” well, there are a lot worse movies to emulate. Standing in for Ryan and Tatum O’Neal here as itinerant grifters are Milla Jovovich (“Resident Evil”) and Spencer List (“Bereavement”). Like Jovovich, Olive left the Ukraine to pursue her dreams in America, where there’s a sucker born every few minutes. Instead, Olive became indentured to a scumbag crook, who retains an emotional hold on her, and the single mother of a son who’s devoted to her for all the wrong reasons. Bobby’s enthusiasm for the criminal life finally convinces Olive to put down stakes for a while in Oklahoma City. Bobby has already experienced more adventures than most of his classmates will ever have, so he has trouble adjusting to domesticity. Although he’s a straight-F student, he is a nice kid and far from ignorant. When Olive’s past catches up to her in Oklahoma, she leaves him in the care of a wealthy couple, Mary and Kent (Marcia Cross, Bill Pullman), who she had tried to scam after Bobby was involved in a minor accident.

By the time Olive gets out of jail, Mary’s managed to convince Bobby that the straight-and-narrow path isn’t so square, after all. Even so, mom’s return threatens to undo all the positive changes made to his attitude and behavior. Olive acknowledges the problem and allows Mary and Kent to remain as guardians. She tries hard to adjust to the straight life, but is limited to crappy minimum-wage jobs. Finally, Olive must decide if her love for her son is best served by taking him out of school and hitting the road again, or leaving him with Mary and Kent while she tries to get back on her feet. It’s a harrowing decision for a mother to make, but, in this case, mitigating circumstances allow Jannsen to craft an ending that’s both clever and credible. “Bringing Up Bobby” feels right at home on the small screen, where actors and models with an urge to work behind the camera can make a mistake and not be chastised for it. It’s as good as anything on the Lifetime Movie Network – no slight intended there, either way – and the audience would be exponentially larger than the ones attracted to its miniscule theatrical run and festival appearances. – Gary Dretzka

Zorro: Blu-ray
Contrary to what most baby boomers believed in the 1950s, Zorro was not a creation of Walt Disney and Guy Williams was just one of many actors to play the swashbuckling swordsman. The character was introduced 40 years earlier in Johnston McCulley’s story, “The Curse of Capistrano,” which was serialized in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly. It inspired Douglas Fairbanks to produce and star in “The Mark of Zorro,” which, in 1920, became the first feature distributed through United Artists. The hit Disney television series was the version most of us remembered, until, possibly, the 1998 Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins collaboration. Very few Americans have seen Duccio Tessari’s 1975 comedy-adventure, “Zorro,” starring Alain Delon. Considering the number of American-made adaptations, it’s not surprising that it didn’t find a home here. The only real change made to the Zorro legend by Tessari is relocating the setting to a Spanish colony in northern South America, possibly Venezuela. The effect is the same. Shot in Spain, “Zorro” has the look of a spaghetti western, right down to over-the-top action and a musical score that has one of the most ludicrous theme songs in the history of the cinema. (“Here’s to you and me/Here’s to being free/La la la laaa la la/Zorro’s back.”)

Delon’s is quite acceptable as Zorro and the swordplay is excellent, as well. His climatic fight with Colonel Huerta remains exciting throughout its 5-minute-plus length. Even as a novelty, “Zorro” is a lot of fun to watch. The DVD adds an original trailer, radio spots, Alain Delon and Dario Tessari biographies, a photo gallery and restoration clip comparisons. – Gary Dretzka

The Rolling Stones — Under Review: 1975-1983
As astonishing as it sounds, the Rolling Stones will begin celebrating their 50th anniversary next week with concerts in London and, two weeks later, in New York. The band has been together, in one form or another, longer than some countries have been in existence. The Stones are probably better off financially than half of the countries in the UN and their history is more interesting, to boot. Add to that the fact that they’ve basically had two leaders in all that time – Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – and you’ve got a story that is equal parts fairy tale, survival epic and corporate report. Chrome Dreams and MVD Visual’s “The Rolling Stones – Under Review: 1975-1983” is the third in an ongoing series of critical documentaries of the band and one of nearly three dozen “Under Review” titles in the distributor’s catalogue. Although limited by lack of access to the musicians and copyrighted material, I can’t think of a better way for a music buff to understand the musicians behind the hits and their motivations. The second volume ended with the death of guitarist Brian Jones, the catastrophic Altamont concert and the release of “Let It Bleed.” The new documentary picks up in 1975, with the band in disarray and fans moving on to other, more relevant artists.

While acknowledging the great albums and hit songs released during the so-called Mick Taylor years, “Under Review” also describes how hard drugs and jet-setting were causing serious creative problems and personality clashes. It’s at the point where Taylor announces that he’d prefer to play his guitar elsewhere that the film begins to take shape. With Taylor gone and a recording studio booked in Germany, the Stones surreptitiously used the sessions as an audition for candidates to join the band. Ronnie Wood, who’d already recorded with Richards not only had the inside track, but also had dreamed of ending up with the Stones. He wasn’t ready to leave the Faces and lead singer Rod Stewart at the time of Jones’ death, but knew in 1975 that another chance might not come his way. In fact, he was a natural for the gig. His style already matched that of the Stones, he could have passed for Richards’ twin brother and he definitely knew how to party. The whole show might have closed in 1977, however, if Richards had been convicted of bringing heroin into Canada, as charged.

Given his addiction, the arrest surprised hardly anyone familiar with the band’s offstage life. Instead of being found guilty of importing the smack into the country, though, Richards was given a suspended sentence when it was determined he’d purchased it getting through customs. In the year between arrest and the dropped charges, lots of people had lost interest in the Stones, switching their allegiances to David Bowie or the growing punk movement. From here on in, the group would make most of its money in lavish international tours – reprising old songs — not the occasional hit single or album. The DVD is informed with the usual array of critical opinion, clips and recollections of people close to the band. – Gary Dretzka

Speechless
Go Go Crazy
China is a country not known for its tolerance of gays and lesbians and flexibility on issues related to homosexuality. It’s this unforgiving attitude that makes “Speechless” such an intriguing production. Hong Kong-based writer/director Simon Chung (“End of Love,” “Innocent”) knew that Chinese authorities wouldn’t give him permission to shoot his picture there, let alone exhibit it in theaters, but he decided to do it anyway. By moving the production to the port city of Shantau, in Guangdong province of southeastern China, Chung was able to shoot in anonymity without a permit. He got permission from university and church officials to use their facilities, but neglected to mention its subject matter. As the movie opens, police arrest a young Western man who is found passed out and naked on a riverbank and, upon questioning, stays mute. Luke is taken to a hospital, where he remains unresponsive to the point where hospital officials decide it makes more financial sense to send him to a mental institution. The nurse’s aide who’s been assisting Luke knows what happens to people in such facilities and decides to risk everything by taking the patient to his uncle’s country home. It’s here that the cause of the man’s trauma reveals itself and Chung decides to describe it from different perspectives. In the flashback scenes, Luke is given his speech back.

We learn that Luke, a college student, had gotten between a fellow student and his girlfriend romantically and the two men’s relationship ended very badly. Chung based the story on an actual case of traumatic amnesia which involved an unidentified man who washed ashore in England. While in a mental institution, the man began playing the facility’s piano with uncanny talent, providing investigators a key to discovering his identity as a gay German musician who’d suffered a nervous breakdown. Chung said he transplanted the story to China “because I wanted to see what would happen to such a character there. The film goes both ways: it is about homosexuality in China from a Western perspective, and also about Chinese perception of Westerners.” “Speechless” is a very well made drama that should have made the jump from the gay-and-lesbian-festival circuit to art houses. It deserves a better afterlife on DVD.

From genre specialist Fred C. Caruso (“The Big Gay Musical”) comes the moderately entertaining send-up of TV talent shows, “Go Go Crazy.” The comedy’s biggest problems are its familiarity with other such spoofs and “Chorus Line” wannabes, and the inability of the characters to add anything new to the subgenre. The setting is a modest drag nightclub in Philadelphia, if I’m not mistaken, where five not-all-talented guys compete for go-go glory and a meager $1,000 prize. The judges’ panel is comprised of people who are only slightly more freakish than the ones on “American Idol,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and “America’s Got Talent.” The best thing in the movie, by far, is real-life drag star Hedda Lettuce, who plays the show’s ribald mistress of ceremonies. If the DVD makes a dime from the production, Hedda Lettuce deserves at least two cents of it. It adds several additional songs, deleted scenes, auditions and a “Celine Di-Off.” – Gary Dretzka

PBS: The Dust Bowl: Blu-ray
Transformers Prime: Season Two: Blu-ray
Ancient Aliens: Season Four: Blu-ray
In the 1930s, it was very easy for deeply religious people to feel as if the plagues described in the Book of Exodus were being visited on Americans living in the southern Plains states and elsewhere. Not only had the Great Depression devastated the economy, but a decade-long ecological calamity had begun to lay a carpet of dust on land once ripe with wheat. Those disasters were compounded by severe drought, intense winds, a massive die-off of livestock and crops, thousands of cases of “dust pneumonia” and hordes of rabbits, locusts and greedy bankers. Unlike the events detailed in the bible, God gave the American pharaohs little choice in the matter. The Depression was caused by greed and a lack of foresight. The Dust Bowl’s blame could be laid at the feet of farmers who failed to listen to sound scientific advice and turned native grasslands into fields tilled by machines to accommodate short-rooted wheat. This would have been OK if the declining price of wheat made the effort worthwhile in the first place – it wasn’t – and if the skies had produced anything close to a normal amount of rainfall, which, sadly, didn’t happen either. When the wheat failed, nothing kept the distressed soil from being lifted by the winds and carried from New Mexico to all points east, including New York and Washington. Ken Burns’ latest documentary series for PBS, “The Dust Bowl,” exists both as a highly compelling recollection of one of the world’s greatest manmade disasters and a cautionary tale, told to discourage thirsty corporations from depleting our precious water supply. Burns’ methodology hasn’t changed much since making “The Civil War.” Interviews with survivors, historians and scholars complement the archival photographs, period music, newsreel footage and the no-nonsense narration of Peter Coyote. Like any Disney cartoon or Hallmark holiday special, “The Dust Bowl” should be considered essential family viewing. The Blu-ray adds six deleted segments and making-of featurettes.

If, like me, you have no idea where to find the Hub channel on your cable grid, the existence of “Transformers Prime” in any configuration might come as a surprise. The release on DVD (this week) and Blu-ray (next week) of a second-season compilation might come as even greater news. The CG-animated series is far more character-driven than Michael Bay’s story- and effects-driven features. Many longtime fans prefer the TV series to the movies, which play to the largest possible audience and aren’t as extricably linked to the toys and comic books. Season Two picks up after Unicron has been defeated and the misery continues for the Autobots. Optimus Prime has lost all memory of his previous life and reverts back to when he was the data clerk Orion Pax. When Megatron tricks “Orion” into joining the Decepticons, the Autobots turn to the Vector Sigma computer to restore the Matrix of Leadership as well as Optimus’ memories. New characters introduced include the Autobot Smokescreen, Decepticons Shockwave, Dreadwing and a swarm of Insecticons. The Blu-ray adds “Optimus Prime: Up Close and Personal,” during which Larry King interviews Optimus Prime voice actor Peter Cullen in front of a Comic-Con panel; and a discussion about Season Two with the creative team.

Peruse the comments of fans of History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens” juggernaut and you’ll discover another great conspiracy theory. It’s based on the absence of Blu-ray editions of the second and third volumes of the four-season series. Why the first, fourth and a best-of collection, but not two and three? Could contemporary aliens have invaded the A&E Home Video warehouse and stolen the entire hi-def inventory? And if so, why were they trying to prevent viewers from discerning a secret code in the binary 0s and 1s? Probably, not. In Season Four, the weekly topics included the Mayan and other Doomsday conspiracies, Leonardo Da Vinci, Bigfoot, the pyramids, dinosaurs, Puma Punku, NASA and the Greys. There were times during the presidential race that I thought ancient aliens had kidnapped the candidates and replaced them with robots. – Gary Dretzka

Prep & Landing: Totally Tinsel Collection: Blu-ray
Unlike Christmas trees, holiday movies and TV specials are expected to enjoy a good, long life after December 25. Today, thanks to the evergreen complexion of digital recordings, even the scrawniest of the lot are hauled out in mid-November and crammed onto the shelves of video outlets everywhere. Baby Jesus gets one day each year, while Santa, Rudolph and the elves can count on at least a month on the charts. Somehow, it doesn’t seem fair. Nonetheless, some evergreens are greener than others. The folks at Disney Animation struck gold in 2009 with the CG-animated “Prep & Landing,” which tweaked the legend of Santa and his elves by hipping up the relationship. What began as an idea for a theatrical short would go on to win four Emmys and three Annies for ABC. Moreover, it would set the stage for the sequel, “Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice,” which arrived two years later and would win its own share of awards. They’re both delightful, no matter how often they’re shown and what time of the year. In addition to the release of the new Disney Blu-ray package, “Prep & Landing: Totally Tinsel Collection,” the original short will be sent out again on December 19 with “Monsters, Inc. 3D.” “Totally Tinsel” adds several entertaining bonus features, including the seven-minute “Operation: Secret Santa,” in which Wayne and Lanny are assigned a secret mission assigned by Mrs. Claus (voiced by Betty White); 10 animated North Pole commercials; a very short short, “Tiny’s Big Adventure,” in which the pint-sized elf tries to make coffee; “Behind the Jingle,” with voice actor and singer/songwriter Grace Potter; “Kringle Academy,” a series of training videos for aspiring elves in training; and newsreels from “North Pole News.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Brave, Dark Horse, Weekend, Pasolini … More

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Brave: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Watching the delightful Blu-ray edition of the latest Pixar/Disney animated feature, “Brave,” I couldn’t help but wonder if the fateful argument between Princess Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor, had been drawn from memory by someone who had the misfortune to observe what happens when a headstrong teenage daughter declares war on her well-meaning, if clueless mother. I have and it isn’t a pretty sight. Fortunately for everyone in the family, the storm tends to pass in advance of a girl leaving home for college, marriage, work or the military. In “Brave,” the brilliantly red-haired Merida (voiced by Kelly McDonald) takes umbrage at Elinor (Emma Thompson) for demanding that she put away her trusty bow and arrow to prepare for the day when the first-born sons of the leaders of Scottish Highland clans would gather to compete for the honor of her hand, which she isn’t ready to give. Her father, King Fergus of Dunbroch (Billy Connolly), needs this tradition to be maintained to ensure peace and the current line of succession. Instead, Merida disappears into the forest, where will-o’-the-wisps lead her to the cabin of a clever witch (Julie Walters), posing as a wood carver. The old woman agrees to help the girl convince the queen to cut her some slack, but not in a way anyone could have expected. In one of those careful-what-you-wish-for scenarios, the witch’s spell turns Elinor into a large bear. By the time Merida returns to the cabin, the witch has split the scene and, moreover, her triplet brothers have been turned into cubs. In the time remaining for Merida to reverse the spell and save the kingdom, she and Momma Bear must defeat a far more savage ursine changeling. Younger children might find the confrontations too darkly realistic for comfort, so it’s wise for parents to consider the PG rating before plopping them in front of the video babysitter.

It’s probably worth mentioning here that “Brave” is very much a hybrid of Disney and Pixar styles. The story-telling flows from the Disney tradition of demonstrating how humor, music, magic and friendship can be combined to confront adversity and inspire unlikely acts of heroism from human and anthropomorphic characters. Pixar’s mastery of CG animation is evident throughout, but no more so than in the person of Merida, whose blazing red hair and palpable riot-grrrl attitude dominate every scene in which the princess appears. It’s significant, as well, that Merida is Pixar’s first female protagonist and she’s the company’s first character to be included in the Disney Princess line of consumer products. Technically, “Brave” is every bit as spectacular as Merida’s hair. It reputedly is the first film to use the new Dolby Atmos sound system, which expands from the 5/7.1 channel sound mixes to 64 discrete speaker feeds and 128 simultaneous and lossless audio channels. (I’ll take their word for this.) The Ultimate Collector’s Edition includes separate Blu-ray 2D and 3D discs, a DVD and digital copy, as well as a disc dedicated to bonus material. Among the supplementary features are an informative commentary track; the short films, “La Luna” and “The Legend of Mor’Du,” which explains the legend of the witch’s evil-bear creation; eight behind-the-scenes vignettes; extended scenes; an alternate ending; and pieces on Scottish slang, Angus the horse, the family tapestry and the unkempt look of the Scottish warriors. – Gary Dretzka

The Watch: Blu-ray
Given the talent involved, “The Watch” should be about a dozen times funnier than it is. Akiva Schaffer’s extended bromance comedy should satisfy its core demographic target, but others likely will find the laughs to be too few and far between to save the movie when inevitably jumps the shark. The only thing I knew about “The Watch” before watching it on DVD was that four funny guys would be playing members of a Neighborhood Watch committee and that such a situation is ripe for screwball antics. To me, that was enough reason to expect “The Watch” to be an adequate time-killer. That it was rated “R” practically guaranteed that the humor would be rude, crude and obscene. For me, that’s a plus. Having grown up in a suburb, I know that four self-righteous adult knuckleheads who believe that they’re on a mission from God are no match for juvenile delinquents armed with paintball guns, not to mention the occasional free-range alcoholic and marauding meth head. Why, then, toss extraterrestrials into the mix? Logic argues against the likelihood that an invasion force of space creeps would choose a small town in Ohio to set up shop, let alone a Costco. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for them to find a big-box store in Miami, Washington, Kabul, Cleveland or Las Vegas? Certainly, it worked for Tim Burton in “Mars Attacks!”

Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade and Ben Stiller play the hapless make-believe cops, who, in addition to saving the planet from invaders and egg-throwing kids, are required to deal with such domestic issues as infertility, an oversexed daughter, post-divorce depression and short-guy syndrome. That’s a lot of stuff to pack into a single 102-minute movie, but, I’m sure, writers Jared Stern (“Mr. Popper’s Penguins”), Seth Rogan (“Pineapple Express,” “Superbad”) and Evan Goldberg (“Pineapple Express,” “Da Ali G Show”) felt themselves capable of creating something hilarious around several half-baked ideas. (What could be more mind blowing, after all, than green alien jizz?) Almost anything is funny when you’re stoned and, I’m even surer, that’s the condition they were in while writing “The Watch.” Sadly, too, director Schaffer appears to have been afflicted with the same virus as other “Saturday Night Live” veterans when they made the leap from sketch to feature-length comedy. His first feature, “Hot Rod,” felt like an extension of a bit by his frequent collaborator, Andy Samberg, than a fully realized idea, while the aliens in “The Watch” might have been related to the Coneheads. Not surprisingly, then, both movies were disappointments at the box office. In fairness to distributor 20th Century Fox, though, the timing couldn’t have been less fortuitous. Originally titled “Neighborhood Watch,” the final product was renamed to avoid any connection with the slaying of Trayvon Martin by a Florida man associated with his suburb’s program, and there was nothing funny in that sad footnote in American history. The Blu-ray package includes deleted scenes, a gag reel, a compilation of Jonah Hill’s alternate takes and the featurettes “Casting the Alien,” “Alien Invasions & You” and “Watchmakers.” – Gary Dretzka

Dark Horse
No one makes movies quite like Todd Solondz and that’s probably a good thing. It takes a special talent to find the humanity in characters most of us would consider to be despicable, while also exploring how they’ve managed to fit into mainstream society as long as they have. This ability has been amply demonstrated in “Happiness” and “Life During Wartime,” inky black dramedies that, among other things, demand we look beyond our revulsion for a pedophiliac (ostensibly the same character, played by different actors) and other acts many consider to be deviant. Most of the characters we meet in Solondz’ films lead lives of quiet desperation and fly below society’s radar until things begin to go sideways in their life. By then, it’s too late to prevent a disaster. “Dark Horse” follows a man and woman in their mid-30s, whose development was arrested at about the same time as they graduated from high school. A classic underachiever, Abe (Jordan Gelber) can’t think of a single good reason not to continue sponging off his parents (Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow) at home and at work. Things would be different if he was nice about it, but he’s both useless and petulant. Against all odds, he convinces the pretty, if extremely fragile Miranda (Selma Blair) to go out with him. She, too, lives with her mom and dad in their suburban home. Although they have little in common, she’s too overmedicated to do anything except agree to date, marry and move in with Abe when his parents take off for Florida. He assumes they will go along with this scenario.

Just when things start to go right for Abe – in his feeble mind, anyway — his father pulls the rug out from under him. He’s finally had his fill of Abe’s act at work and takes him up on his ill-timed threat to quit. Worse, he learns that his parents intend to sell the house, not bequeath it to him, leaving Abe without a paycheck or a roof over his head. Naturally, he blames his parents for everything that’s gone wrong in his life and for favoring his brother, a doctor, over him. It’s at this point that Solondz allows his creation’s paranoia to take hold and steer him in the direction of madness. If “Dark Horse” isn’t nearly as disturbing as some of his previous works, there are several images that will linger in the mind long after you return the DVD to the rental outlet. Foremost among them is the physical appearance of Walken and Farrow, who look as if they might have stepped off the cover of R. Crumb’s Despair Comix. Walken is required to wear one of the rattiest looking toupees in cinema history, while Farrow occasionally resembles an older version of her floozy character in “Broadway Danny Rose.” Solondz has already cautioned, “My movies aren’t for everyone, especially people who like them.” That shouldn’t scare any of his fans off “Dark Horse,” however, as it’s of a piece with everything else he’s done. – Gary Dretzka

Vamps: Blu-ray
As near as I can tell, “Vamps” opened in exactly one New York venue, where the video games in the lobby probably out-grossed the movie. The distribution company probably wanted to cut its losses, before sending the vampires-just-wanna-have-fun comedy into ancillary markets. The last-ditch strategy worked – sort of, at least – because about half of the small handful of critics who saw the movie liked it enough to contribute pull-able quotes for the DVD jacket. I kind of, sort of, liked “Vamps,” too. It’s exactly the kind of picture I’d imagine that Amy Heckerling and Alicia Silverston might make as a virtual follow-up to “Clueless.” If its potential audience is limited to teenage girls and adult women who were teenagers when they saw “Clueless,” well, so be it. The perpetually perky Silverstone plays a club-hopping vampire, Goody, alongside the leggy and exceedingly charming Krysten Ritter, who portrays Stacy. Their midtown Manhattan apartment, right down to the colorfully patterned coffins in which they sleep, looks as if it might have been designed by the same person responsible for the teenagers’ rooms in “Clueless.” Because the vamps only go out after dark, they favor barely-there fashions and sky-high pumps, appropriate mostly for nightclubs and brothels. I don’t know how old Stacy is supposed to be, but Goody’s old enough to be getting tired of the vampire game. She realizes this when she reconnects with an old boyfriend, Danny (Richard Lewis), who hasn’t aged nearly as gracefully as Goody since they first fell in love during the turbulent 1960s. Because she’s the spitting image of his old girlfriend, Danny assumes that the women are related and she’ll lead him to his lost love.

Stacy, meanwhile, has fallen for the hunky son of Dr. Van Helsing and Mrs. Van Helsing (Wallace Shawn, Kristen Johnson), who still are in the family vampire-hunting business. The son, Joey, has inherited none of his ancestor’s prejudices against the undead and hopes to find a way to spend a lifetime, if not eternity, with Stacy. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. In this case, though, it takes something of a miracle for their dreams to be realized. There’s always a flurry of activity accompanying the ladies on their nightly sojourns and for every interesting character they meet, there are couple more who just get in the way of the story. The craziest ones, by far, are a chronically horny cougar played by Sigourney Weaver and the Vampire Anonymous chairman (Malcolm McDowell). (While not vegans, the girls do draw the line at consuming the blood of their boyfriends.) “Vamps” has plenty of flaws, but not enough to discourage anyone in the target demographic from sampling it. – Gary Dretzka

Weekend: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Pier Paulo Passolini’s Trilogy of Life: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Among the things that distinguish the Occupy Wall Street movement from the political activism of the 1960s are the absence of leaders and the decided lack of easily identifiable political, social and economic philosophies. The Howard Beale approach to expressing outrage at the inequities of American capitalism worked as long as the media had nothing better on which to focus than the makeshift camps. Unlike the Tea Party movement, most ideological dialogue ended with the clearing of sites by over-armored cops. It was a non-factor in the presidential race, if only because division among the left would have assured a Republican victory. Perhaps, the decision not to place rhetorical power in the hands of only a few people was based on the failure of their parents’ inability to fundamentally change society in the waning days of the antiwar and civil-rights movements. The changes that were made came in such non-combative areas as promoting environmental issues, creating healthier food options, redefining fashion and reversing the demonization of marijuana. If anything, there were too many leaders for too many causes. What couldn’t be avoided, however, was a discussion, at least, of philosophies ranging from Communism and Maoism, to pacifism and flower power. By 1970, the groups identified by the media as leaders of the mass movement — the Black Panthers, Yippies and Weatherman – had managed to alienate intellectuals, the non-violent left and disenchanted Democrats with their clownish behavior, ego trips and turn to violence. The release on Blu-ray of “Weekend” reminds us, as well, that filmmakers, artists, musicians, writers, critics and educators all found ways to address the issues of the day.

Released a year before France would be rocked by protests, strikes, riots and police vengeance, Jean-Luc Godard’s darkly comic “Weekend” mirrored the anxiety and anger that was percolating just below the calm, bourgeois surface of Gaullist France. It anticipated the dissatisfaction of workers in essential industries to being taken for granted by bureaucrats and an upper-middle-class obsessed with expensive cars, exotic holiday destinations and designer fashions. When the unions took to the streets to demand satisfaction, leftist students joined the protests, adding issues of their own to the fray. By playing one group of protesters against the other, the government was able to avert something resembling revolution. Godard would go on to fight losing battles of his own, but, if anything, “Weekend” is more compelling today than it’s been since those heady days of the late-’60s. The signature image in “Weekend” remains a long parallel pan of a traffic jam on a country road. The film’s greedy upper-class protagonists are in a hurry to get to a relative’s home to beg for a larger share of their ailing mother’s inheritance and feel entitled to bypass the line of cars by driving in the lane reserved for traffic coming from the opposite direction. Not only do they not care who they piss off when they attempt to cut into the row of cars, but they’re completely oblivious to the burning cars and injured passengers lying on the side of the road. The characters are fully aware they’re in a film and occasionally remind themselves they’re being manipulated by a veritable puppet master. Godard never lets us get comfortable, either. That’s because the tonal palette continually changes and he adds chapter cards that update the couple’s progress, while also providing snarky commentary. Godard only offers hope in the form of terrorists – he later described them as Yippie precursors – who live in the forest, attack the cars of tourists and prepare for the revolution to come. They aren’t kind to the bourgeois couple when they dare trespass on their land.

The newly restored digital transfer for the Criterion Blu-ray perfectly captures the wild color scheme the director demanded of cinematographer Raoul Coutard. It includes a new video essay by critic Kent Jones; archival interviews with stars Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne and AD Claude Miller; an excerpt from a French television program on Godard and the location shoot; trailers; and a booklet with an essay by Gary Indiana. Some of the reminiscences of working with Godard are hilarious and delightfully insightful.

Godard’s Italian peer, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was every bit the activist, provocateur and artist. Their approach to storytelling could hardly be more different, however. At approximately the same time as “Weekend” was addressing rampant consumerism and the emptiness of life in bourgeois society, Pasolini was preparing his “Trilogy of Life” triptych, which traveled back in time to find common ground on the same contemporary issues, as well as regressive attitudes toward sexual freedom. To this end, he adapted three historic story cycles, Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” and “The Thousand and One Nights” (a.k.a., “Arabian Nights”), interpreting them in ways not often taught in college English courses. Loosely segmented by individual stories, as intended, the three features films remain raw, bawdy, sensational and confrontational. Some are, at once, shocking and hilarious. Students of Renaissance art will recognize many of the faces, poses and tableaux seen in “The Decameron,” including Bruegel’s “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent.” Pasolini, himself, plays a favored student of Giotto di Bondone in one of the arcs. He believed that the characters lived “uncompromised” lives, if only because the accumulation of possessions was less important than the threat of plagues, wars, thieves and capricious behavior by their patrons. As important as sexual activity is to the narrative, it’s introduced organically and very little distinction is made between homosexual and heterosexual love.

Pasolini went on to portray Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales,” a collection of eight lusty and often scatological stories originally told to entertain and stimulate people for whom being blind drunk wasn’t enough. The movie was shot in England, where the ghosts of history still haunt the ruined castles and uncorrupted countryside. The production returned to Sicily’s Mount Etna for a vision of hell you won’t soon forget. “Arabian Nights” took Pasolini to Africa, India and the Middle East, where the stories take on a more exotic and mystical texture. It follows one young man’s quest to reconnect with his beloved slave girl. Pasolini not only found poetry in the words of these stories, but also in the amazingly sensuous costumes, setting and landscapes. In the final installment of the trilogy, it’s possible to watch it once for the stories and, again, for the magnificent locations, costume and set design. There’s even a happy ending.

The movies have all been digitally restored, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks. The Blu-rays are accompanied by new visual essays by film scholars Patrick Rumble, Tony Rayns and Sam Rohdie; new interviews with art director Dante Ferretti and composer Ennio Morricone about their work with Pasolini; documentaries “The Lost Body of Alibech,” “The Secret Humiliation of Chaucer,” “Via Pasolini” and “Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Form of the City”; deleted scenes from “Arabian Nights”; an English-dubbed track for “Canterbury Tales”; and a booklet featuring essays by critic Colin MacCabe; Pasolini’s 1975 article “Trilogy of Life Rejected”; excerpts from Pasolini’s Berlin Film Festival press conference for “The Canterbury Tales”; and a report from the set of “Arabian Nights” by critic Gideon Bachmann. Pasolini definitely is not for everyone. The sexual material is often very raw and graphic, in addition to being highly entertaining. The blasphemous moments won’t sit well with some viewers, either. But, if you’ve come this far already, why not sample the work of one of the great artists of the 20th Century? – Gary Dretzka

Empire of the Sun: Blu-ray
In 1987, Steven Spielberg was riding pretty high in the wake of creating such hugely popular movies as “E.T,” “The Color Purple” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” and after directing a segment in “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” Several years removed from what might go down as his greatest critical embarrassment, as well as a financial dud – the raucous post-Pearl Harbor farce, “1941” — he decided to dip his toes back into the waters of one of his most frequent subjects, World War II. The source novel for “Empire of the Sun” was written by British author J.G. Ballard, who was a boy during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. In the book, if not in real life, Jim “Jamie” Graham (12-year-old Christian Bale) survived for a short time on his own after losing his mother and father in a crowd attempting to escape the city. He would be saved from starvation by a pair of American rogues, Basie and Frank (John Malkovich, Joe Pantoliano), before being sent to a civilian-assembly center and internment camp. Absent his well-to-do parents, Jamie relied on the kindness of strangers for the duration of the war and he would reward them by passing along is joie-de-vivre. (Ballard was more fortunate, in that he wasn’t separated from his parents in the camps.) The biggest break Jamie caught was being assigned to a camp near a Japanese airfield, where he could indulge his passion for planes, at least. As the war progressed and the likelihood of American airstrikes became higher, Jamie would once again be buoyed by his hobby.

“Empire of the Sun” is informed by several recurrent Spielbergian themes. Jamie’s fortitude in the face of great adversity and loss mirrored the strengths of other young characters in his movies (“A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “E.T.”). His exuberance, cunning and precocious personality, which put him on equal footing with adults twice his age, also is a trademark quality. Typically, too, Spielberg somehow manages to reserve a few ounces of humanity for the Japanese – notably, a boy Jamie’s age, who’s destined to become a kamikaze pilot – who typically have been characterized as war-mongers, brutes and fanatics. I’m not sure they deserve any breaks, but, maybe, that’s right out of Ballard’s book. Conversely, the American prisoners don’t look so gallant when they’re placing odds on Jamie’s ability to survive a dangerous trek beyond the barbed-wire fence or when their cowboy behavior kills a sympathetic character. I’m not sure if Spielberg or screenwriter Tom Stoppard is more responsible for the schmaltzy touches ladled on the story before and after American pilots bomb the airstrip. (Look for the “Bridge on the River Kwai” reference.) The Blu-ray presentation benefits from a new hi-def digital transfer and a strong audio component. It arrives with a making-of documentary and “Warner at War.” “Empire of the Sun” didn’t fare well at the American box office – it did better overseas – but some of the indifference can be blamed on our general apathy toward the war stories of other countries and the fact that Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic drama about pre-war Chinese history, “The Last Emperor,” was released at approximately the same time. – Gary Dretzka

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Blu-ray
Looking back more than two decades to the release of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” one thing stands out in my mind more than all others. The comedy, which frequently has been labeled a classic, was almost universally dismissed by critics as being goofy, at best, but, more often than not, moronic. While falling far short of being a classic, “B&T” has had an impact on pop culture that far outweighs its artistic merits, such as they are. If the government levied a fine on any writer who used the phrase “excellent adventure” to describe a road trip without any real destination, the national debt could be reduced by one zero, at least. Just as Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe’s surfer-dude creation, Jeff Spicoli, came to represent a specific male archetype, Bill and Ted would become the poster children for teen ADD. The trippy rhythm of their modifier-happy vernacular would be repeated endlessly, not only in the U.S., but by kids just like them around the globe. Even if Alex Winter’s career never came close to matching that of his co-star and friend Keanu Reeves – whose body of work and screen persona formed the basis of a class at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design – he probably hasn’t spent the last 23 years trying to convince people that Ted is creation of someone else’s imagination. Sean Penn hasn’t been required to carry Spicoli on his shoulders for the past 30 years, either. Fans still make the pilgrimage to the San Gabriel Valley city of San Dimas to see if Keanu and Alex are in residence at the world’s most famous Circle K store, though, only to learn that the movie was shot in Tempe, Arizona.

The Circle K is important because that’s where George Carlin’s time-traveling phone booth – shades of “Doctor Who” – nearly lands on Bill and Ted, who are in desperate need of a presentation for their history class. They’ve been so intent on organizing their garage band, Wyld Stallyns, they’ve entirely spaced the final project, which they need to pass the course. Rufus (Carlin) offers to help by introducing the boys to such famous historical figures as Napoleon, Socrates, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, Abraham Lincoln and Ludwig van Beethoven. That way, they can pick their brain and observe world-shaping events first-hand. If they’re very lucky, Bill and Ted might even be able to convince the VIPs to return with them to San Dimas. Among the supplements are “The Original Bill & Ted: In Conversation With Chris & Ed,” an air-guitar tutorial with Bjorn Turoque & the Rockness Monster and “One Sweet and Sour Chinese Adventure to Go” and original marketing material. – Gary Dretzka

Painted Skin: The Resurrection: Blu-ray
It’s a shame that American kids aren’t being encouraged to sample the adventures, romances and fantasies of countries where English isn’t the mother tongue. While it’s true that animated features from Hollywood studios are second to none, live-action pictures based on ancient legends must be tricked out with CGI gimmicks, action and cute actors to appeal to young adults. “Painted Skin” and “Painted Skin: The Resurrection” are perfect examples of epic entertainments that, given a fair chance, could cross several demographic lines, while also stoking the imaginations of younger viewers. Just as Disney’s “Mulan” is based on a legend that goes back to the Northern Wei Dynasty, “Painted Skin” and its 2012 sequel were inspired by Po Songling’s “Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio,” written during the early Qing Dynasty. Hundreds of his tales, handed down through generations in the oral tradition, were collected by his grandson and published in the mid-1740s. They’re populated with ghosts, demons, immortals and animistic spirits that interact with humans of all castes and economic strata. The fantastical elements often masked social commentary and outrage against the corruption that permeated Chinese society. The parables also glorified heroism, self-sacrifice and romance, in addition to promoting moral standards and Taoist principles.

In both “Painted Skin” episodes, Zhou Xon plays a beautiful fox spirit who sustains her powers and youth by stealing and devouring the beating hearts of mortals. If the demon can convince a human to freely sacrifice his or her heart to her, she, too, will become mortal and capable of experiencing passion, pain and other non-predatory feelings. The fox spirit has been encased in an ice floe for the last 1,000 years as punishment for one misdeed or another. After being freed from her prison by a bird spirit (Yang Mini) that’s determined to chip a hole in the ice, the fox spirit makes up for lost time by seducing random men and stealing their hearts. Before long, the replenished fox crosses paths with Princess Jing (Zhao Wei), who’s been forced into exile from her kingdom by mysterious threats. Despite the half-mask of gold she wears to cover a deformity, Jing is every bit as gorgeous as the wandering spirit. Together, they pursue the only man the princess has ever loved: a guard who long ago failed at his mission to protect her. He has carried the shame on his shoulders ever since then. Although alliances shift and enemies are vanquished along the way, it’s inevitable that someone’s heart eventually is going to end up in someone else’s body.

Like most Chinese historical epics, the fight scenes in “Painted Skin: The Resurrection” are wonderfully choreographed and genuinely exciting. The brilliant colors of the period costumes add even more visual flair. The movie was directed by Wuershan, a Mongolian-born filmmaker and an award-winning commercial director, animator, fine artist, avant-garde composer and musician. His sophomore effort, “The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman,” owes far more to kick-ass martial-arts action than “Painted Skin,” which is less graphically violent and designed to skew more to women and girls. It was a huge hit in China, even topping the foreign imports on its opening weekend. The Blu-ray adds a 23-minute making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Dust Up
The Night of the Devils
It takes more than a blurb on the cover of a DVD for a movie that aspires to “grindhouse” status to actually attain it. Neither does comparing a filmmaker to Quentin Tarantino make it so. The publicity material I read ahead of watching Ward Roberts’ “grindhouse Western,” “Dust Up,” set the bar for it just that high. As an example of contemporary grindhouse, “Dust Up” succeeds pretty well, I think, but comparing a filmmaker or his work to Tarantino is merely a fool’s errand. It’s like comparing Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse to his line chefs and there’s no mileage in that. There’s almost no point in parsing the plot of “Dust Up,” because it basically doesn’t have one. Instead, there’s lots of unbalanced characters and mindless violence in search of a plot. The protagonist is Jack (Aaron Gaffey), a war veteran who lost an eye on a recon mission – the ladies dig his eye patch — and now practices yoga in the Mojave. For money, Jack does odd jobs for the desert rats that live on the fringes of Joshua Tree and 29 Palms. One of them, Ella (Amber Benson), lives out in the boonies with her newborn child and an abusive husband who’s addicted to meth. Her water pipes have started spitting out mud and the last person she trusts with her pipes is him. He owes money to Buzz (Jeremiah Birkett), the leader of a mob of criminals, drug dealers and crank addicts, whose idea of a good time is getting stoned and eating human flesh. As collateral for what is owed him, the crazed mob leader kidnaps Ella’s baby and threatens to turn her into an appetizer. Jack and his beatnik Indian buddy, Mo (Devin Barry), take it upon themselves to rescue the baby, but are outmatched by the mob’s craziness. In the end, Ella’s maternal fury proves to be insurmountable and the resulting bloodbath is so far over the top that genre fans should find it inspiring. The DVD package includes a behind-the-scenes featurette; interviews and extra footage; a mock public service announcement; audio commentary with Amber Benson and Ward Roberts; and the sneak preview at San Diego ComicCon.

In Italy, the equivalent genre to grindhouse is “giallo.” Looking back at the genre from the distance of 40 years, it’s easy to see the common elements shared by American, Italian and British horror films, as well as the singular touches that distinguished one country’s cinema from the other. The same thing applies in other areas. In the 1960-70s, anyone who couldn’t immediately tell the difference between an Italian sports car and those produced in Germany, the UK and the U.S. simply wasn’t paying attention. From RaroVideo, “The Night of the Devils” (“La notte dei diavoli”) is an example of how bright colors, vulnerable female beauties, nudity, male psychosis, strange music and extreme violence combined to tell stories that didn’t have to make a lot of sense to be fun to watch. Directed by Giorgio Ferroni (“Mill of the Stone Women”), “The Night of the Devils” is the second of three movies that have been adapted from the 1839 Tolstoy novella “The Family of the Vourdalak.” The first came as part of Mario Bava’s horror trilogy, “Black Sabbath,” while the third was made in Russia as “The Vampire Family.” Here, Gianni Garko plays an anonymous man, who’s admitted to a psychiatric institution after experiencing something so traumatic that it rendered him mute, with fractured memories and wandering aimlessly through a forest. It isn’t until a mysterious woman passes through security and enters his room that he begins to speak and, then, only with the ravings of a lunatic. Everything traces to a backwoods family, whose patriarch had volunteered to participate in a manhunt, only to return 10 days later as a vampire. It isn’t the easiest movie to follow, but few giallos are … especially those whose dream sequences and flashbacks appear to have been created by someone who’s experienced a bad acid trip. The DVD comes with an interview with composer Giorgio Gaslini and introduction by Chris Alexander, of Fangoria magazine. – Gary Dretzka

Hideout in the Sun 2-DVD Collector’s Edition
Escape From Women’s Prison
Slice
Women Ordered to Love
Rudyard Kipling’s Mark of the Beast
Five Senses of Eros
And while we’re on the subject of exploitation and sexploitation, here’s a sampling of the monthly bounty of outrageous titles from MVD Visuals.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, some adventurous filmmakers got around the ban on nudity in movies by setting them in nudist and “naturist” communities and resorts. It allowed them to be promoted as educational material, under the same guidelines that permitted National Geographic to be displayed in high school libraries, regardless of the Third World breasts on display. Nudist camps were sufficiently mysterious and uncommon to be considered worthy of investigation. Of course, once the MPAA introduced the ratings system and allowed the studios and distributors to add nudity to their mix, the nudism and nudie-cutie subgenres were toast. Doris Wishman, whose career spanned 42 years, first made her mark with the 1959 camp classic, “Hideout in the Sun.” To stay within existing laws, it combined a documentary narrative with a goofy crime story. Two brothers rob a Florida bank and, while attempting to elude police, carjack the convertible of a pretty redhead. The goons demand she offer them shelter in the resort at which she’s employed. Turns out, it’s a nudist colony, a fact that delights one brother and repels the other. To avoid questions, the woman must make an appearance, at least, on the grounds. The younger brother agrees to strip down and accompany her, so she can’t spill the beans. It allows Wishman the opportunity to “document” the naturist experience and meet some of the participants, not all of whom are in it for the health benefits. Cooling his heels inside the woman’s room is the older brother, who, after blowing their escape by sea, decides to risk a police chase. It leads him to a serpentarium, where he breaks his ankle while hopping into an enclosure and is bitten by a cobra. Meanwhile, back at the resort, the sun lovers and their families – no kidding – are letting the sun’s rays make them healthy and the younger crook has fallen in love with his hostage and the naturist way of life. Among the many curiosities in “Hideout in the Sun” is the nimble way the actors and models are able to hide their pubis areas whenever the camera is pointed their way. The DVD benefits from a colorful, hi-definition transfer from its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and in a 16×9 anamorphic version. The bonus features include commentary by Wishman biographer Michael J. Bowen; vintage interviews with Wishman and exploitation filmmaker David Friedman; the newsreel, “The Year Was 1960”; the short, “Postcards From a Nudist Camp”; a full-color booklet with notes and an interview with Wishman; and some wonderfully raunchy trailers from the period.

Women-in-prison fetishists might be disappointed to learn that “Escape From Women’s Prison” (a.k.a., “Jailbirds”) doesn’t actually take place in a prison, but, as the title suggests, outside of one. Otherwise, all the elements of a classic sexploitation flick are in place. Released in 1978, and looking every minute of its age, Giovanni Brusadori’s film describes what happens when four convicted female errorists escape from prison and hijack a bus carrying a team of women tennis players. (Maybe you can see where this is going.) They direct the driver to the posh home of the judge who sentenced them. Once there, the escapees attempt to convince the hostages of the joy of lesbian sex, whether they want to learn or not. The male bus driver, too, will be made to perform. Their humiliation of the judge causes him to piss his paints, as well. Even as the police are surrounding the house, the escapees and tennis players continue the romp. There isn’t much more to the movie than that, but, for some viewers, the forcible seductions and ample displays of nudity will suffice.

There are times when the slasher-thriller “Slice” reminded me of what a grindhouse adaptation of a Thomas Harris novel, featuring Hannibal Lecter, might look like if it were made in Thailand. A killer who was emotionally and physically abused as a child avenges the crimes as an adult by butchering sex tourists who prey on underage boys in Bangkok. It’s very nasty stuff, but, in addition to being repellent, the victims are wealthy enough to avoid prosecution. Nevertheless, a corrupt cop who looks as if he’s channeling Jim Jarmusch is intent on catching the serial killer, whose ability to evade arrest offends his bosses. The only person he trusts to help in the search is a convicted assassin, who, while behind bars, does favors for him. Conveniently, the hitman has been haunted by blurred memories of a red-cloaked specter, which fits the m.o. of the serial killer. The investigation inevitably leads backs to the village where the two killers were raised and traumatized. “Slice” is a bit on the messy side, but fans of outrageous crime stories should quite a bit to like here.

The story behind the movie now known as “Women Ordered to Love” is more interesting than anything in the film itself, despite its undeserved reputation as being the godfather of the Nazisploitation sub-genre. Any similarities between “Women Ordered to Love” (previously titled “Lebensborn E.V.”) and “Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS” are coincidental, at best. Regardless of the cover art, which carries the tagline “Frauleins Forced Into Nazi Breeding” and shows a semi-naked blonde, partially covered by a Nazi flag, cowering before a soldier in high leather boots. The truth is quite a bit less scandalous. Yes, Heinrich Himmler instituted the program in 1935 to promote the growth of the Aryan population by providing women who met certain racial and genetic criteria — as well as the wives of SS members — with excellent health care and financial assistance. As an alternative to having abortions, women who agreed to turn their infant over to an SS-sanctioned orphanage were provided with anonymity and health care. It was alleged but not proven in post-war courts that Lebensborn also promoted the kidnapping of children in occupied countries and their adoption by SS families. The facilities were not fronts for brothels or forced couplings between proper Aryan soldiers and caged women. (This certainly occurred, but not under the auspices of Lebensborn.) The title “Woman Ordered to Love” was substituted for “Lebensborn” a dozen years after its debut, when it was re-released to piggyback off the success of “Ilsa” and other Naziploitation flicks. Its less-than-titillating approach to the subject must have come as a great disappointment to fetishists expecting whips, leather, jackboots and garter belts. Instead, they got a weird romantic drama set at a Lebensborn facility during the latter part of the war. As such, it’s far more interesting as a curiosity piece than an example of vintage sexploitation.

Rudyard Kipling may not be known as a writer of horror stories, but Jonathan Gorman and Thomas Edward Seymour’s adaptation of his short story, “The Mark of the Beast,” suggests he would have been very good at it. Even though the setting had to be changed from the jungles of colonial India to the forests of modern Connecticut, the filmmakers were able to remain reasonably faithful to the source material. Instead of desecrating a shrine where lepers pray to the Monkey God, an inconsiderate tourist violates a shrine guarded by a New England Yankee version of the Silver Leper Priest. The pathetic creature bites the doofus and curses him. It turns him into a monster that, then, preys on his fellow campers. To ward off his evil intentions, they turn to torture and religion. Even though it was made in a hurry and on a meager budget, “Mark of the Beast” works pretty well as a horror thriller. The special makeup effects are credible and the cast, led by the estimable Debbie Rochon, gives it their all. It arrives with a making-of featurette.

Sometimes, anthology movies signal a coming of age on the part of national cinemas, genre directors or themes. At their best, the individual episodes compare favorably to short stories or novellas by master novelists. Too frequently, though, the participants treat the assignment as if it were a group project in summer school, an opportunity to recycle half-baked ideas and kill time between features. Audiences have never particularly warmed to the concept, except, perhaps, in anthology series on cable TV that have specific guidelines – time, nudity, violence – and a week between each episode. “Five Senses of Eros” is interesting not so much for its eroticism, but because it’s of a part with the flowering of Korean cinema. Fifteen years ago, there wouldn’t have been sufficient reason for such an endeavor. Sense then, however, the Koran cinema has become one of the most exciting in the world, not only for its many fine horror pictures, but also dramas, rom-coms and police procedurals. The chapters the comprise “Five Senses of Eros” were directed by Hyuk Byun (“Scarlett Letter”), Yu Yong-sik (“The Anarchists”), Min Kyu-dong (“Memento Mori”), Oh Ki-hwan (“Voices”) and Hur Jin-ho (“Happiness”). Each of their stories has some kind of twist to it, naturally, but the idea here is to surround it with a distinct erotic aura. The thing for exploitation fans to know before going into the movie, however, is that the sexuality is relatively tame, and the little violence there is serves the story. Each is extremely well made and the feelings between the key characters are palpable. Not all of the stories work, but that’s par for the course in the anthology game. – Gary Dretzka

Asylum (AKA — I Want to be A Gangster)
The Definitive Document of the Dead
Schoolgirl Report, Volume 9: Mature Before Graduation
No slouch in the area of grindhouse and sexploitation is Synapse Films, which routinely finds and distributes DVDs of interest to the most curious of viewers.

For his debut as a writer/director, Olivier Chateau has taken on a segmented crime story that begins in Tarantino country and demonstrates the limits of hubris among thieves before evolving into solitary battle for survival in the woods. If that description makes “Asylum (AKA – I Want to Be a Gangster)” sound as if it’s too large a challenge for a newcomer, I’m here to assure you that Chateau found clever new ways to keep the story simple, swift and entertaining. Jack (Julien Courbey) is a small-time French crook who’s determined to be taken seriously by local Mafia leaders. As the movie opens, Jack and a buddy are running a scam involving a non-lethal game of Russian roulette, during which the participants risk only their kneecaps in return for a monetary reward. Unfortunately for the two conmen, the rube is a drug courier for the mob and the stake he put up wasn’t his to risk. They feel pretty good about themselves until the courier’s boss shows up, demanding they turn over the drugs he insists they now possess. In denying the accusation, Jack’s partner tells the thug a story whose outline clearly was borrowed from “True Romance,” Tony Scott’s underappreciated collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. It’s funny, but not to the guy holding the gun. Jack wisely points the mobsters in the direction of the drug cache and it buys him time to ingratiate himself with the supreme boss. His ability to escape death once again, in what amounts to a turkey shoot, convinces Le Grand Patron to give him another reprieve. Operating under the distinct misapprehension that he’s immortal, Jack attempts to play one boss off against another in botched hit. Still alive to tell the tale, he disobeys orders of his new patron by agreeing to teach the guy’s hapless nephew how to rob a bank.

This time, however, things don’t work out so well for Jack. Although he isn’t summarily executed, he’s taken deep into a forest and chained like a dog to a tree. Seemingly out of reach of anything that could make his ordeal any less terrifying and uncomfortable, Jack not only must contend with the elements, but also human and canine intruders. Chateau paces Jack’s ordeal patiently enough to make us believe that almost two weeks pass without any real chance of escape. In the meantime, he’s also managed to convince us that deep within the prisoner’s black heart lies something worth our sympathy. The final confrontations offer several narrative options, but why spoil the fun by revealing them? Julien Courbey is extremely convincing as the delusional wannabe, Jack. Chateau’s decision to shoot “Asylum” in standard definition, with a de-saturated sepia palette and intentionally degraded grainy picture quality, also adds to its austere tone and populist appeal. Reportedly made for $4,000, “Asylum” was released in France in 2008, before disappearing from radar screens. In DVD, however, it’s easily recommendable to fans of offbeat crime dramas and DIY genre fare. The feature is accompanied by a making-of featurette and the very different short film, “Homer,” which stars a pet rabbit and a hamster.

For better or worse, George A. Romero is the filmmaker who deserves most of the credit for resurrecting the zombie movie as a staple of the horror genre. Even though his 1968 masterpiece, “Night of the Living Dead,” flew in the face of everything mainstream distributors believed about audience habits, it became a drive-in and cult sensation. Among other things, it demonstrated that audiences could still be drawn to black-and-white movies and the undead could be awakened by means other than voodoo chants. It also gave aspiring filmmakers hope that their ideas could be shot on a miniscule budget and in off-the-beaten-path locations as Pittsburgh. Ten years later, Romero reprised the predatory-undead theme – the original didn’t mention zombies by name – in “Dawn of the Dead,” which, set in a shopping mall, added commentary about consumerism run amok. It, too, was a huge hit. Roy Frumkes, writer/director of the behind-the-scenes documentary “Document of the Dead,” perhaps is best known for playing the first zombie hit in the face with a pie in that movie. Released originally in 1985, “Document of the Dead” was both informative and entertaining. Twenty-five years later, the public’s undying love of zombie-themed entertainment prompted Frumkes to revisit and update Romero’s story in “The Definitive Document of the Dead,” adding much fresh material and on-set footage from subsequent Romero productions, “Two Evil Eyes,” “Land of the Dead,” “Diary of the Dead” and “Survival of the Dead,” as well as example of parodies and other movies that owe their existence to “Night of the Living Dead.” The 1985 documentary has been re-mixed and re-edited to accommodate the new material, which includes Frumkes’ commentary. It should be considered essential viewing for serious fans of the horror genre.

Just as mid-century producers of nudist and naturist films were given a bit of a pass by American censors, if they included material deemed “educational” or instructional, the first European imports that crossed the border into pornography played fast and loose with the facts. Sweden’s “I Am Curious: Yellow” made headlines upon its release here for some graphic sexuality, but, in fact, the inclusion of so much socio-political commentary turned off most of the audience members. By 1970, it wasn’t unusual to find nudity in Hollywood dramas and the artistically erotic films/travelogues of Radley Metzger. What the German series, “Schoolgirl Report,” brought to the table combined the faux documentary with simulated sex and full-frontal nudity … lots of it. Moreover, viewers were encouraged to suspend their disbelief long enough to accept the female characters as being 18, or so. Each new chapter in the series purported to inform parents of their daughters’ behavior at boarding schools – or that of their peers — according to a best-selling book by German psychologist Günther Hunold. If anything, though, “Schoolgirl Report” was to Hunold’s research what Woody Allen’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex ** But Were Afraid to Ask” was to David Reuben’s best-seller. In the ninth chapter, “Mature Before Graduation,” the students are discovering the pitfalls of committing themselves to marriage at an early age, even when encouraged by their parents to substitute it for living together. As is the case in most of the movies, the teenagers pay a price for their unbridled sexuality. – Gary Dretzka

Pixar Short Films Collection 2: Blu-ray
Among the Academy Award categories that have emerged from the shadows in the digital age are the ones representing the best short animated, live action and documentary films. The desire to see the nominated titles has grown to the point where fans of short titles have successfully lobbied for mini-festivals to be held before the night of the Oscar ceremony, in addition to those designed to be shown weeks later and made available on DVD. For proprietary reasons of their own, executives at Pixar/Disney have held their nominees back from the ancillary marketplace. They show up later in the bonus packages of DVD and Blu-ray releases and stand-alone compilations, such as “Pixar Short Films Collection 2.” The 12 shorts included in it were released, in one platform or another, between 2007 and 2012. “La Luna,” “Presto” and “Day & Night” were among the award nominees, while the others were inspired by such animated features as “WALL*E,” “Up,” “Ratatouille,” “Toy Story” and “Cars.” Also interesting are the seven films by directors John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter while they were students. Most of the shorts are accompanied by commentaries, as well. – Gary Dretzka

They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain
Last Call at the Oasis
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story
Objectified
The timing of President Obama’s trip to Myanmar — more commonly known as Burma – neatly coincides with the release of Robert H. Lieberman’s remarkable documentary, “They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain.” The clandestinely shot film describes conditions in a country that until very recently was almost as isolated as North Korea and has been ruled with an iron fist by a corrupt military dictatorship. Even a year ago, such a diplomatic mission would have been unthinkable. After activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and elected to the lower house of the parliament, leaders of the outside world cautiously began to make overtures to the leaders, who, only a few years ago, brutally quashed pro-democracy protests by monks and students, while also ignoring the needs of victims of a devastating hurricane. Lieberman, a respected American educator and filmmaker, was invited to Burma to upgrade media-studies programs in Burma, but took the opportunity to surreptitiously record the thoughts of citizens on a number of issues, many unrelated to politics. In addition to shooting street scenes, pagodas and gold-covered Buddhist statuary, Lieberman documented examples of government neglect and decaying infrastructure. What shines through most vividly, however, is the genuine warmth of the Burmese people and their understated desire to rejoin the world community. Before the military dictatorship took hold in 1962, the newly independent Burma was one of the most prosperous and highly educated in the region. That ended when the junta decided to enforce a ban on foreign influences and line their own pockets with the money made from the nation’s widely sought resources. “They Call It Myanmar” is alternately enchanting and horrifying. If he hasn’t already seen the documentary, I hope President Obama takes the opportunity of a long plane trip to watch it. If nothing else, it should serve as a reminder to count his fingers after shaking hands with the military leaders he meets.

As vital as such red-flag documentaries are, there’s no escaping the fact that most of them leave viewers with a palpable sense of hopelessness and depression. “Last Call at the Oasis” is just such a movie. No matter how gloomy its message about the coming crisis in access to potable water may be, however, it’s important that people see Jessica Yu’s film. It’s probably more crucial for politicians and world leaders to screen it, but, considering how little attention was paid to global warming in the presidential campaign, it isn’t likely they will. The same companies responsible for polluting, diverting and wasting the world’s supply pay lobbyists handsomely to convince lawmakers to give them a pass. When Dick Cheney was vice president, he took time away from promoting the war in oil-rich Iraq to find a way to exempt his former employer, Halliburton, from enforcement of clean-water laws. It’s far easier, too, to talk the talk about protecting the environment than to finance EPA efforts to do just that. “Last Call at the Oasis” casts a wide net in describing the state of clean water. In addition to the obvious industrial abuses, Yu points to the damage done by poor supervision of feed lots and the potential for droughts in areas now rich in precipitation. We visit Las Vegas, of course, where magnificent fountains thrill the tourists, while also depleting Lake Mead. People who think they’re buying their way to good health by drinking bottled water might be shocked to learn that they’re actually consuming another city’s tap water and the multi-billion-dollar industry is largely unregulated. It also drains the ground water of communities willing to sell out their own interests. It’s a deliberately alarming documentary and some of the research seems weighted to promote the cause being forwarded, but, even if a tenth of what’s prophesized comes true, we’re basically screwed. Among the familiar faces here are attorney Erin Brockovich, who’s still fighting the good fight, and Jack Black, who agreed to promote water bottled after being recycled. The DVD adds “Jack Black: Save the World from Thirst,” “Meet Mr. Toilet,” an extended interview with Brockovich; an animated video on the loss of ground water; and the featurette, “Arid Lands.”

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women” was inspired by the book written by New York Times reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It deals with such important issues as the epidemic of rape in Africa and the sale and abduction of young girls into prostitution in Southeast Asia. There are laws against such offensives, of course, but they’re enforced with far less intensity than in western nations. It’s easier for an offender to buy his way out of jail and subsequent prosecution than to be punished. Along the way, Kristof and WuDunn do come across agencies and social workers who’ve organized programs to educate the public, work with victims and change attitudes among offenders. The efforts are miniscule in comparison to public apathy, the poverty that drives a father to sell his daughter and a prejudice against raising girls in such countries as China and India. “Half the Sky” was the central element in an international transmedia project that also involved a Facebook-hosted social-action game, mobile activities, two websites, educational video modules with companion text, a social-media campaign, more than 30 partner organizations and an impact assessment plan. Prominently acknowledged on the DVD cover are the names of celebrity contributors America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union and Olivia Wilde. The marketing move is explained by George Clooney ahead of the film presentation. As is obvious to anyone who’s tried to raise awareness of a problem or sought donations to support research, unless a celebrity is attached it’s almost impossible to get media coverage. The three-hour-plus media experience adds extended and deleted scenes and interviews; public-service announcements; campaign videos; bonus content for Facebook game; and action-oriented activities.

Way back in the 1960s, when network news divisions occasionally broadcast documentaries and special reports, audiences in northern and western states were made aware of Apartheid American-style in prime-time hours. At the time, all of the broadcast networks competed for viewers drawn to social and political issues, here and around the world. Today, if a message can’t be delivered in three minutes, it’s left for the documentarians at PBS. In 1965, Frank De Felitta traveled through the Mississippi Delta updating the progress of the civil-rights movement and giving people on both sides of the racial divide an opportunity to tell their stories. Being an outsider, De Felitta was seen as an agitator and largely ignored by white residents. Blacks were only a bit more open with their thoughts, displaying their contempt mostly through facial gestures and telling posture. When a landowner escorted De Felitta through sharecropper homes on his property the inhabitants could barely contain their disdain for the man and his lies, mostly responding, “Yes, sir … that’s right sir,” whenever asked if he was a good provider. His attempts to meet with KKK members were met with implied threats. Of all the people interviewed, store owner and part-time waiter in a whites-only supper club Booker Wright was, by fair, that most charismatic and candid. He volunteered in a completely matter-of-fact way how he was treated by diners and how he smiled through the abuse simply for the opportunity to support his family. When the documentary ran, Wright not only was fired from his job but also beaten to within an inch of his life. In a seemingly unrelated incident, he was shot to death by a belligerent black costumer he’d thrown out of his place hours earlier. One theory suggests that the notorious bully was put up for the attack by whites who still were peeved at Wright and was guaranteed a not-guilty decision or brief prison stay, neither of which he got. Years later, De Felitta’s son, Raymond, embarked on a journey to find the descendants of the people interviewed in the show and see if things had changed markedly in the ensuing half-century. Well, yes and no. The reflections in “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” range from funny to revelatory to heart-breaking, especially on the part of Wright’s kinfolk and contemporaries. Frank De Felitta continues to indict himself for not editing out the material that offended Wright’s employer and his customers, and might have got him killed. As his son and Wright’s granddaughter reminds, however, he said those things knowing the consequences, but refusing to remain silent.

Although probably a bit too inside-baseball to suit general audiences, “Objectified” explores how designers of mostly everyday stuff relate to their creations and what it says about them, recognizing and exploiting trends and free-market capitalism. It also unravels some of the mystery behind the various shapes, colors and sizes of the things we buy and what it says about us. We’re introduced to people who design staplers and carrot scrapers, alongside those who create chairs and computer shells. Director Gary Hustwit (“Helvetica”) knows that most of us will buy something that simply looks nicer than the object next to it and gives us a reason to pay more attention to our choices in the future. His search took him to design studios around the world and artists who tackle assignments ranging from minute to very, very large. The gorilla in the room is there to remind viewers that the shelf life of any cleverly designed product could be five years or five minutes, depending on what magazine pictorials are pimping this week. When its time has come and gone, all of these wonderful products eventually end up in landfills or remainder bins. It’s a humbling experience. – Gary Dretzka

Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’: Blu-ray
Last month saw the release on DVD and Blu-ray of the PBS documentary series, “Broadway: The American Musical.” “Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’” was showcased as one of the very few musicals that dealt with adult themes and relationships, instead of, say, dancing cowboys and cute orphans. Sondheim has said that he intended for “Company” to reverse the usual pattern, by which upper-middle-class New Yorkers escaped their upper-middle-class problems through Broadway musicals: “Here we are, with ‘Company,’ talking about how we’re going to bring it right back in their faces.” What was daring in 1970, though, serves more as a vehicle for laughs and only slighted dated insight in 2012. The story focuses on Bobby, a 35-year-old bachelor whose inability to sustain a long-term relationship is of great concern to five different couples in his orbit. Their relationships are no great shakes, so Bobby (Neil Patrick Harris) takes much of their advice with a grain of sand. Individually, the characters have feelings for Bobby that are different from those voiced when coupled. The vignettes all come with songs attached to them, but, as was usually the case on Broadway, the music didn’t drive the narrative. The songs are used more as commentary. “Company” was nominated for an astonishing 14 Tony awards, winning six. Besides Harris, this highly entertaining and visually intimate revival stars Stephen Colbert, Craig Bierko, Jon Cryer, Katie Finneran, Christina Hendricks, Martha Plimpton, Patti Lapone, Aaron Lazar, Jill Paice, Anika Noni Rose, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Jim Walton, and Chryssie Whitehead. They are backed by a 35-piece orchestra. – Gary Dretzka

Syfy: Snowmageddon
A&E: Duck Dynasty: Season One
A&E: Shipping Wars: Season One
A&E: Storage Wars: Texas: Season One
Sometimes it’s fun to watch Syfy original movies simply to see how far some filmmakers stretch the money allotted for special visual effects. There can’t be very much left here after the cost of the earthquake simulator and lava machine –staples of the natural-disaster category — are factored into what must have been an extremely tight budget. Once “Snowmageddon” was chosen as the title, of course, most of the guess work was eliminated. Just for the record, though, Sheldon Wilson’s thriller is set on Christmas Eve in an Alaskan town called Normal. It’s so quaint that Heidi and her grandfather may have passed through it on their way to Switzerland. Soon after a snow globe arrives at the home of the local sheriff (David Cubitt) and his helicopter-jockey wife (Laura Harris), mysterious things beginning happening in the town square and mountains surrounding the village. First, an earthquake causes a giant fissure on Main Street. Then, a long-dormant clock, on a tower overlooking the shops, suddenly comes back to life. The only person who notices that these events are replicated in the miniature town encased in the snow globe is the sheriff’s young son, but no one takes kids seriously until the last reel of these movies. Instead, the men act as if Bigfoot is leading a flotilla of alien spacecraft to Sarah Palin’s house and Normal is the final line of defense. The best thing about “Snowmageddon” is the appearance of killer clouds, which lob cluster bombs containing razor-sharp particles at Normal. This plague is followed by volcanic explosions on the mountain and pointed logs jutting through the earth’s surface. None of it looks particularly convincing, but you have to give the effects wizards credit for thinking outside the box.

Of the three new compilations of A&E series – “Duck Dynasty,” “Shipping Wars,” “Storage Wars: Texas” – I am hard-pressed to determine which one is of the least social value. The least stupid show, if only because of its setting, is “Duck Dynasty.” It follows the day-to-day activities of the Robertson family, whose menfolk look as if they just won a ZZ Top look-alike contest, from the floor of their duck call and decoy warehouse, to the swamps and forests of Louisiana, where they hunt for their meals. They may be millionaires, but, really, who cares? Anyone who dons cammo gear and paints their face to sneak up on squirrels should see a psychiatrist. The women and kids look as if they’re just along for the ride. “Duck Dynasty” is only for those reality buffs who thought the Osbournes got a bad rap.

Not to be outdone in the area of lowbrow pursuits, “Shipping Wars” chronicles the professional lives of a group of men and women who make their livings hauling objects that other truckers consider to be too fragile, weird or unwieldy to be profitable. Before they can fire up their rigs, however, the motley crew of competitors must bid on each job. The process is comparable to playing poker, in that they identify “tells” in each other’s strategy and use bluffs to put an opponent in untenable position. The veterans especially enjoy tricking the rookies into low-balling a bid, just to watch them lose money. The drama of securing the loads and racing the clock to a destination is almost unbearable … not. After two episodes, I gave up on the show.

By comparison to the regular participants in “Storage Wars: Texas,” though, the “Shipping Wars” crew is a breath of fresh air. The mopes who bid on abandoned goods in storage have all the charisma of an aquarium full of plastic fish. The Lone Star spinoff from A&E’s hit reality show, “Storage Wars,” begs the question as to what part of Arts & Entertainment the channel’s shows represent. Picking through someone else’s discarded property can be fun, but only if you’re the one doing the picking. Otherwise, the novelty wears off pretty quickly. – Gary Dretzka

Lukewarm
Any filmmaker who lacks the imagination to come up with a better title than “Lukewarm” pretty much deserves what he’s going to get from the critics. Even though it refers to a point made by an Evangelical preacher during a sermon – which, itself, was pretty tepid, as these things go – titles generally are created with box-office in mind. A distributor, exhibitor or video-store owner shouldn’t have to rely on a patron’s knowledge of Revelation 3:16 to make money off a movie. As it turns out, however, I probably couldn’t think of a better word to describe my response to “Lukewarm” than lukewarm. I understand, of course, that the people who make such Christian-based, family-friendly fare aren’t particularly interested in what reviewers have to say about their products. They pander, er, cater to a certain audience demographic and, well, why bother? I would suggest, however, that movies intended to deliver a Christian message should try, at least, to preach to someone other than members of the choir. Early in “Lukewarm,” a happy and devout little boy, Luke (Jeremy Jones), is shaken to his core by the sudden disappearance of his father (John Schneider) in his life. Fast forward to adulthood and Luke is still confused about what hit him and why. He works as a bartender, where he’s surrounded by temptations and reasons not to get enough sleep to pay attention at Sunday services. Even so, his girlfriend Jessie (Nicole Gale Anderson) remains devoted to him and believes there’s still time for him to get right with Jesus. First, however, she must convince him to sanctify their relationship by agreeing to be married. Every time Luke gets close to a commitment, though, his boss at work talks him into backsliding. We’ll later learn that his boss still has the hots for Jessie and would love for her to wash Luke out of her hair. It isn’t that Luke blames God for his situation or rejects his pastor’s teaching, nor does he drown himself in self-pity. His lukewarm nature simply won’t allow him to keep from messing up by sinning.

Unwisely, I think, director Thomas Makowski and writers Christopher James Miller and Sean Stearley decided not to let this storyline reach its inevitable destination on its own steam. Instead, they invent a scenario in which the movie’s only black actor (Bill Cobbs) is driven to martyrdom by archetypal redneck thugs who don’t appreciate his character’s efforts to read the bible to them. Thomas is a harmless old coot whose only crime was knocking on the wrong door too many times and trying to save the debauched souls from damnation. It’s annoying, perhaps, but hardly a capital offense. Luke enjoyed discussing scripture with Thomas, but was helpless against the racist heathens. It is at this point that he turns to the pastor to give prayer a chance of saving his friends. There’s more, but it’s easy to guess how the story unfolds in the final scenes. There’s never a moment in “Lukewarm” when we’re in doubt about Luke’s destiny or not in the presence of characters constructed out of cardboard. The audience for movies like this deserves a bit more respect than is shown to them here. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Sister’s Sister, Even the Rain, Kerouac, [REC]3, Arthur Christmas … More

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

 
Your Sister’s Sister: Blu-ray
Just when it seemed as if Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister” was going to turn into a really long version of a dopey Gen Y sitcom, it switched into a higher gear and became something far more unexpected, sophisticated and interesting. Mark Duplass’ emotionally tortured slacker, Jack, dominates the first half-hour of the movie, even though he’s the least compelling character in the story. The rest of it belongs to the sisters, Iris and Hannah (Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt), in whose Puget Sound vacation home Jack takes refuge after an embarrassing night with friends. By acting out his frustrations over the death of his brother, who’s being memorialized a year after his death, he comes off as a total dick. When Iris, Tom’s ex-girlfriend, invites Jack to enjoy the scenery and savor the solitude of the “cabin,” it isn’t clear how close they are as friends or potential lovers. As survivors, neither of them is handling the loss very well. Moreover, both are too numbed by their pain to commit to anything beyond being best buddies … not yet, anyway.

Once Jack arrives at the cabin after a long bike ride, however, things lighten up quite a bit. Assuming that he would be left alone with his thoughts, he’s surprised to spy Iris’ sister Hannah through a window, standing in the kitchen in a T-shirt, panties and slippers. After a meet-cute encounter, Hannah explains that she’s just broken up with her longtime lover and was at loose ends, herself. Jack already knows that Hannah is a lesbian, so the inevitable sexual tension doesn’t kick in until hours later, when both are shit-faced on whisky. If the sitcom ended in Hannah’s bed – to be continued next week, as they say – “Your Sister’s Sister” could have been written off as a mere reflection of the stereotypical male fantasy of seducing a lesbian and rescuing her from a life without his penis. (Although five minutes would be triumph enough for most guys.) Iris makes an unexpected appearance the next morning, adding confusion and shame to the pain of Hannah and Jack’s hangover. There’s no way to delve any deeper into the story without revealing what makes the movie finally so special. It’s enough to say that Jack’s role is temporarily marginalized, in order to explore the new dynamic affecting the sisters. Duplass has played Gen Y and slacker characters so often that he could have phoned in his performance and it would still be more than satisfactory. Ditto, Blunt, who’s entirely credible and appealing. What’s truly terrific, though, is DeWitt’s remarkably nuanced performance in a role that easily could have become as clichéd as any, well, sitcom character. Even after the liaison with Jack, we know that Hannah isn’t going to suddenly go all hetero or bi on us. Shelton’s narrative will just have to proceed on its own steam, without that crutch supporting it. “Your Sister’s Sister” was shot in hi-def, so the Blu-ray – thanks to some especially scenic detours — is quite pleasant to watch. It adds commentary with Shelton and Duplass. – Gary Dretzka

Sunset Boulevard: Blu-ray
It’s interesting that Blu-ray editions of “Sunset Boulevard” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” have been released within weeks of each other. Both, of course, describe once-famous women who, long ago, bought into the Hollywood dream and have been sustained by its lingering glow ever since. Indeed, I wonder if the highly entertaining Bette Davis and Joan Crawford psycho-drama could have been made if it weren’t for Gloria Swanson’s heroic performance in the Billy Wilder classic, a dozen years earlier. If the two films had only been about the sad fates of three delusional actresses, they probably wouldn’t have made as big an impression on audiences upon their release and, again, 50 and 60 years later, on DVD. “Sunset Boulevard” is as much a noir romance and dissection of the Hollywood dream factory as it is about a sad old actress, Norma Desmond, still waiting for her final curtain call. There’s a murder at the heart of the story, but we’re made aware of that fact in its first scene. Desmond, who chronologically is only a couple of decades past her prime, lives elegantly in a Sunset Boulevard mansion with her onetime director/husband (Erich von Stroheim)  – now her devoted chauffeur and a butler– and a recently deceased monkey. Financially, she lacks for nothing except the spotlight. When down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) arrives at her doorstep, she mistakes him for the undertaker, who, by now, is used to catering to the bizarre whims of Hollywood’s elite. At first, Gillis wants nothing to do with this Titanic-sized iceberg, of which he’s only seen the tip. Desperate for money, though, he allows himself to be cast as a stand-in for Desmond’s monkey. Besides serving as her boytoy, Gillis agrees to look at a screenplay she’s written and offer advice on how movies have changed since the silent era, not that she’d listen.

There’s no reason to rehash the story here or offer commentary on a film long considered to be among the very best ever made. Anyone who professes to love movies and hasn’t already seen “Sunset Boulevard,” really must rush out to get the Blu-ray edition. Those who’ve only watched it once or twice owe it to themselves to take advantage of the digital platform, which allows for freeze-frame and slow-forward analysis, is complemented by learned commentary and offers copious background material. That the new hi-def disc arrives in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and the audio presentation is Dolby TrueHD Mono will greatly please buffs, who expect nothing less than a pristine presentation, and surprise those who last watched a corrupted version of “Sunset Boulevard” on an ancient analog television.

Most of the supplementary material has been borrowed from earlier “Centennial Collection” and “Collectors’ Edition” DVD iterations and, of necessity, sent out again in 480p. It hardly matters. Commentary is provided by Ed Sikov, author of “On ‘Sunset Boulevard’: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder,” who covers every aspect of the production. Sikov returns in the featurettes “Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning,” “‘Sunset Boulevard’ Becomes a Classic,” “Stories of ‘Sunset Boulevard’” and “Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back,” alongside critics and actors. The other featurettes include “The Noir Side of ‘Sunset Boulevard,” in which author and former LAPD Sergeant Joseph Wambaugh discusses the movie and his reactions to its noir-inspired elements; “Two Sides of Ms. Swanson,” with granddaughter Brooke Anderson and actress Linda Harrison”; “Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden,” which producer A.C. Lyles, actresses Stefanie Powers and Nancy Olson, and Wambaugh; “Recording ‘Sunset Boulevard,” in which critic Andrew Sarris and soundtrack album producer Robert Townson discuss Franz Waxman’s score and his re-recording of it in 2002 for a commercial album release; “Morgue Prologue Script Pages,” reproductions of the “original” and “revised” scripted pages for the cut opening sequence; a deleted scene, “The Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues”; a Hollywood location map; a profile of costume designer Edith Head; a peek behind the gates of Paramount Studios and a look at its classic films of the 1950s; production and publicity galleries; and the theatrical trailer. – Gary Dretzka

Guys and Dolls: Blu-ray
When audiences poured out of Broadway’s 46th Street Theater, where “Guys and Dolls” logged 1,200 performances from 1950 to 1953, they stepped directly into the criminal demi-monde they had just seen mimicked on stage . The number of people whose pockets were picked by someone approximating Harry the Horse or Benny Southstreet remains unrecorded, but ticketholders almost certainly kept a tighter grip on their wallets, purses and watches. In 1955, audiences leaving theaters showing the Hollywood version of “Guys and Dolls” were far less likely to mistake the Cinemascope representation of the milieu with the real thing, even if the closest thing to a criminal element in their towns was the occasional shoplifter and Bingo cheat. Joseph Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Frank Loesser’s Tony Award-winning musical — based on the stories of Damon Runyon — imagined a midtown Manhattan whose color palette more closely resembled a box of crayons than the one in which grime and smoke competed with brightly lit marquees and neon signs for tonal dominance. Samuel Goldwyn’s version of “Guys and Dolls” was further distanced from the Broadway musical by the presence in lead roles of genuine movie stars Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Jean Simmons. It’s been speculated that Marilyn Monroe would have stepped in for Vivian Blaine, as Adelaide, if Mankiewicz hadn’t already worked with the troublesome actress and vetoed the request. (Blaine and Stubby Kaye had both created their roles on Broadway and there was no good reason for them not to reprise them in the movie.) Michael Kidd’s exuberant choreography also made the transition. Loesser wrote three new songs for the movie — “Pet Me Poppa,” “A Woman in Love” and “Adelaide” – at the expense of “My Time of Day,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “More I Cannot Wish You,” “Marry the Man Today” and the wonderful “A Bushel and a Peck.” In addition to directing, Mankiewicz adapted Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ book with the intention of heightening the profiles of the characters, Sky Masterson (Brando) and Nathan Detroit (Sinatra).

When Brando was cast, questions naturally were raised about his ability to sing and act in way that supported Loesser’s music, not the studio’s bottom line. Simmons hadn’t sung on screen, either, but both of them did just fine. Brando’s rendition of “Luck Be a Lady,” a song that would become associated with Sinatra, is especially fun to watch today. Sinatra and Blaine are terrific, of course, but the real show-stopper is Kaye’s re-creation of Nicely Nicely’s big number, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.” It comes near the end, after Masterson and Detroit successfully managed to wrangle the craps players into Sergeant Sarah Brown’s rescue mission for a midnight revival meeting. Their grand scam depended on getting the gang of Runyon-esque characters to put down their Racing Forms long enough to help Sergeant Sarah convince the Salvation Army general not to close the mission. If successful, Masterson might be able to win her affections for real and Adelaide could finally get Detroit to commit to marriage. The Blu-ray edition captures all of the colors brilliantly and the soundtrack is enhanced by the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 upgrade. The Blu-ray edition arrives in digi-book format, with a 72-page scrapbook and photo gallery; a pair of making-of documentaries; a profile of independent producer Samuel Goldwyn; interviews with Kidd and members of the Goldwyn, Mankiewicz and Loesser families; and access to individual musical performances. – Gary Dretzka

Even the Rain
If all one read all day were the Hollywood trade papers and industry-obsessed bloggers, it would be easy to imagine that movie making is of greater importance to humanity than ready access to shelter, food and water. Even the debuts of demonstrably crappy movies, with B- and C-list stars, are greeted with klieg lights, red carpets, paparazzi and bleachers full of screaming fans. (Investors have to be given one reason, at least, to keep the river of money flowing.) Variations of the same ritual exist in most other countries, I suspect. “Even the Rain” describes a situation in which a team of Spanish filmmakers working in Bolivia is required to weigh the importance of completing a significant film project against the basic needs of indigenous peasants, some of whom have been cast as characters and extras in the movie. Gael Garcia Bernal and Luis Tosar play the idealistic director and pragmatic producer of a movie that casts Christopher Columbus’ accidental “discovery” of the Americas in a much different light than it has historically been accorded in textbooks. Instead of being a fortuitous accident, Columbus is shown to be a cog in a much larger machine, operated by imperialistic aristocrats, cold-blooded missionary priests and vicious soldiers. No matter the nobility of their intentions, though, the filmmakers still can’t resist the capitalistic imperative that demands they exploit the Native Americans on their payroll with absurdly low wages and dangerous working conditions. At the same time as the movie is being shot in Cochabamba and the forests around Villa Tunari, poor natives are rallying against a plan set forth by Spanish interests to require them to pay exponentially more for potable water than they’ve previously been able to afford. In Bolivia and most other countries in the Americas, Indians are treated with little more respect by those of European heritage than they were in the first waves of colonization. Finally, the reality of the explosive political situation demands that the filmmakers take stands that weren’t taught at film school.

Paul Laverty’s screenplay was inspired by the so-called Cochabamba Water War of 2000, during which the government’s decision to allow the privatization of the city’s water supply, including rain water, was reversed in the face of widespread riots. Director Iciar Bollain nimbly juxtaposes what’s happening in Bolivia’s third-largest city, with the production of the movie being shot in the forested highlands outside Cochabamba. The setting, which is extremely lush and beautiful, probably hasn’t changed much since Garci Ruiz de Orellana bought the land on which the city now sits from tribal chiefs for the 130 pesos. The indigenous actors are so adept at switching time periods that it’s sometime difficult to tell when exactly when the shooting stops and present-day reality kicks in. As the political situation intensifies, Bollain approximates how it actually might feel when unarmed peasants are surrounded by soldiers with itchy trigger fingers and no sympathy for their cause. It would have been interesting to learn more about “Even the Rain” but the DVD arrives without bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

What Happened to Kerouac?
In three years, Jack Kerouac will have been dead and gone as long as he was alive. And, yet, his books continue to sell and the myths surrounding his lifestyle and influence grow like weeds around an untended gravestone. After being shown at Cannes and opening in several other countries, Walter Salles and Jose Rivera’s long-awaited adaptation of “On the Road” finally will open in the United States on December 21, just in time for awards consideration, of course. In a very real sense, it’s been gestating ever since the book’s publication in 1957. So many writers, directors and producers have tried to synthesize Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” on film, but failed, that “On the Road” was deemed unfilmable. Also in the works is Michael Polish’s adaptation of Kerouac’s 1962 “Big Sur,” a roman a clef many critics and admirers consider to be his most revealing and honest book. Through alter ego Jack Duluoz, the now famous author chronicles his in ability to deal with unexpected fame and the breakdown he experienced while laying low and attempting to dry out in a Bixby Canyon cabin owned by Lorenzo Monsanto (Lawrence Ferlinghetti). Duluoz hoped to escape the media attention and fan adoration engendered by the publication of his best-seller, which came seven years after he had written it and in a far different America than existed under John F. Kennedy. With more readers attracted to Sal and Dean’s long-extinguished bromance than any of his later, more preferred works, Kerouac was free to drink himself to death in near anonymity. Directed by Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams and released 1985, “What Happened to Kerouac?” fills many of the gaps in what most people know about the writer’s life in the dozen years between “On the Road” and his death.

It does so through reflective interviews with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Carolyn Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Herbert Huncke, Fran Landesman, Edie Kerouac Parker, John Clellon Holmes, Diane Di Prima, Joyce Johnson, Father Armond “Spike” Morissette, biographer Ann Charters and his late daughter, Jan Kerouac. Such influential people as Neal Cassady, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie appear in archived material. Also valuable are excerpts from a panel discussion in which Kerouac participated on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” and a reading on Steve Allen’s variety show. Kerouac’s voice is heard throughout, reading from his own novels and poetry, usually over boppish jazz solos. The point most of these people make is that Kerouac was a great writer, a wonderful friend and someone who sold lots of books but was never accepted by the New York literary establishment. He was a keen observer of life, land and nature, but hardly a visionary or prophet. He disavowed any connection to the hippies and radicals, even though they clearly were influenced by the challenges to the status quo he presented in “On the Road” and “Dharma Bums.” He died a devout Catholic, but lived much of his adult life as a Buddhist. He predicted that he would drink himself into an early grave, but only because the Church forbade suicide. The new Shout! Factory edition of “What Happened to Kerouac” is enhanced by a full disc of extended interview material. (Ironically, it is biographer Charters, who, in the last entry on the bonus CD, pretty much answers the question proffered in the film’s title and in less than five minutes.) No matter how the upcoming movie adaptations turn out, a screening of this fine documentary is recommended to anyone who wants to know more about Kerouac or attempt to separate the man from the myth. – Gary Dretzka

Maximum Conviction: Blu-ray
Steven Seagal and Steve Austin have become such brand-name institutions in the world of straight-to-DVD action flicks that one hesitates even to describe their new “Maximum Conviction,” let alone judge it using the same criteria applied to review pictures intended for theatrical release. It is what it is … nothing more and nothing less. I’m pretty sure that this is the first time that the two warriors have appeared together in the same movie and on the same side of Uncle Sam. Their martial talents complement each other in combat and neither seems interested in one-upping the other. If you’ve liked them in previous movies, separately, it’s likely you’ll enjoy “Maximum Conviction,” even if it adds nothing new to the genre. Here, at least, one and one equal one. Both play former black ops types who get paid handsomely to sweep up the trash employees of the CIA and FBI prefer not to touch. They’ve been assigned to decommission a top-secret “dark” prison, holding the worst of the worst prisoners. Everything’s going along fine, until they’re asked to oversee the arrival of two mysterious women prisoners who don’t seem to be on anyone’s radar. No sooner are they bunked together – why? – than a team of mercenaries arrives to capture or kill them. Austen smells a rat when a large truck arrives at the prison and conveniently breaks down in the docks area. Seagal, who’s headed for dinner with his laddies, brings with him a piece of paper with a code he hopes one of them can translate. Whatever it says convinces Seagal to interrupt dinner and head back to the prison with his own bad boys. Because the mercenaries hadn’t built into their plan any room for error, they’re still chasing their targets around the prison when the posse arrives. This leaves about any hour of screen time for gunplay, karate chops and knife work. I’m still a bit confused as to what the women had done to deserve such treatment, but it does involve a foreign object strategically implanted near her boobs. So, there you have it. “Maximum Conviction” offers several passable action sequences and some imaginative kills, if not much else. The Blu-ray package includes interviews, making-of material and other hero worship. – Gary Dretzka

With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story
Watching this overly reverent profile of living comic-book legend Stan Lee – and, yes, I understand what differentiates merely great men from legends and myths – I was struck by how blessed we are that the 89-year-old writer, editor, actor, producer, publisher, television personality and co-creator of hundreds of wonderful characters is still alive and kicking. Although too many people are under the misconception that Marvel Comics sprang from Lee’s brow unassisted, Lee was an integral part of a team that included Jack Kirby, Bill Everett and Steve Ditko. The creation of great comic books is as collaborative an undertaking as making movies and Lee has always been among the first to acknowledge it. Lee’s most lasting contribution to the art has been inventing multidimensional characters and balancing their awesome powers with the same flaws, emotions, alienation and doubts as mere mortals. He challenged the idiocy of the Comics Code Authority, which, like the Hollywood Production Code, set ludicrous content guidelines designed mostly to keep conservative legislators from creating laws governing the industry. Lee also was instrumental in moving Marvel into the world of multimedia, high-tech publishing and officiating over the marriage between Hollywood and comic books. Lee is a wonderful storyteller and extremely influential spokesman for the medium. If some of his tales have grown shaggy over the years, they’re no less interesting to hear one more time, at least. “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story” effectively captures his effervescent personality and sense of humor, both of which are shared with his wife, Joan. Not all of the controversies are addressed, but, in hindsight, they haven’t tarnished his image or held him down. I could have done without most of the celebrity blurbs, but they do add a touch of Hollywood glitz to the proceedings and context for the emergence of superhero movies – Richard Donner’s “Superman” is widely credited as the icebreaker – from the Saturday matinee and television ghettos to the arena of movie franchises. Lee didn’t have anything to do with DC Comics success with Superman, but his association with “The Avengers,”  “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “X-Men,” “Fantastic Four” and a dozen other movies has long been duly noted.  – Gary Dretzka

[Rec]3: Genesis: Blu-ray
The Pact: Blu-ray
John Carpenter’s They Live: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
With the arrival of “[REC]3: Genesis” on DVD and Blu-ray, one would assume that a third “Quarantine” – the Spanish franchise’s English-speaking twin brother — is on the drawing boards, at least. Writer/director Paco Plaza and co-writer Luiso Berdejo must have sensed that the found-footage gag was getting stale, because barely half of the third installment is told through the eye of a camera lens. Much of story takes place, as well, in the light of day and inside a well-lit church and party facility, where the wedding of Koldo and Clara abruptly erupts into a reception of the living dead. One minute, the guests are toasting the newlyweds, and, the next, the guests themselves are toast. For all viewers know, the zombie virus was introduced in a bad batch of shrimp cocktails and it took all of about 10 minutes for it to infect most of the attendees. Among those not affected are the bride and groom, a priest, a guy in a taco costume and a couple of horny toads who slipped out of the reception to knock boots. In her determination to reunite with Koldo, the pregnant Clara turns herself into a stone-cold killer. Too much of the humor here is of the slapstick variety and the shocks aren’t all that shocking really. But, at 80 minutes, things go by rather swiftly. There’s even a surprise ending that explains how “Genesis” fits in the trilogy. By far the best thing in the movie is the twig-thin, doe-eyed bride, Clara (Leticia Dolera), who goes from demure to dangerous when she’s separated from Koldo. The Blu-ray adds a bunch of deleted scenes.

After a short version of “The Pact” received a positive reception at the 2011 Sundance festival, writer/director Nicholas McCarthy decided he didn’t need to look any further for inspiration for his first feature. Although the mixed-genre thriller didn’t impress many mainstream critics in its limited New York release, “The Pact” fared much better among bloggers and reviewers for niche websites, based on its return to Sundance and a run on VOD outlets. Essentially a ghost story, it gradually extends its reach across the genre borders separating restless spirits, murder mysteries and family psychodramas. The central character is Annie (Caity Lotz), a pretty young blond who reluctantly returns to her childhood home after her mother dies and her estranged sister disappears after a Skype conversation with her daughter, who sees things not visible to her mom. Perhaps because she rides a motorcycle, Annie considers herself strong enough to spend the night, alone, in the clearly haunted house. In the morning, she contacts a police detective (Casper Van Dien) and a clairvoyant to determine how to proceed. (I would have suggested spending the next few nights in a hotel, but that would have been too obvious.) Slowly the truth about what happened in the house during Annie’s absence begins to reveal itself, literally and figuratively. Working on a micro-budget, “The Pact” makes good use of the haunted setting, which has all sorts of hidden rooms, tunnels and trap doors.  The DVD comes with a decent making-of featurette.

When John Carpenter made the pre-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, “They Live,” Ronald Reagan had already kick-started the American economy by instituting policies that would come back to haunt us in the second George W. Bush administration and first four years of the Obama presidency. As long as everyone was making money and there was enough cocaine being imported to keep stock traders motivated, nobody seemed particularly concerned about the future. Adapted from a graphic novel by Ray Nelson, “They Live” theorizes that humanoid aliens have infiltrated the country and are responsible for delivering subliminal messages to Americans, encouraging them to embrace laissez-faire capitalism, conservative principles and authoritarian government. In other ways, the movie also resembles “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Roddy Piper plays an unemployed drifter, Nada, who finds works in Los Angeles on a construction site. He spends his nights at a park colonized by homeless people, who are among the first to suspect something weird is going wrong. After cops demolish the camp, Nada escapes to a church, where he finds a box containing cool-looking sunglasses. The glasses allow him to see the aliens for who they are and what they’re doing to the country. Not only can he identify the aliens among us, but he also can study the subliminal messages — OBEY, CONSUME, NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT — hidden in magazines, on billboards, street signs and currency (THIS IS YOUR GOD). Like Roger Corman, Carpenter is able to stretch a dollar until the eagle grins. On a $4 million budget, he produced a movie that entertained audiences in a grindhouse sort of way, while also delivering a message. It would take another 20 years for Americans to get that message, but better late than never. Naturally, there’s some pretty crazy stuff in “They Live,” including a nearly endless fistfight between Piper and Keith David, over his refusal to check out the glasses handed him by Nada. The Blu-ray revamp makes the movie a more pleasant visual and audio experience than it’s been since it was released in 1988. It adds fresh interviews, making-of featurettes and a profile of Meg Foster, whose piercing blue eyes are more powerful than any laser. – Gary Dretzka

The Miners’ Hymns
Imagine if, someday, the shores of Lake Michigan in northwest Indiana are cluttered with homes, resorts and casinos, instead of steel mills and toxic wetlands. That’s the way things were headed in the 1970s and 1980s, after all, when such companies as Wisconsin Steel, South Works, American Bridge, Republic Steel, the Falstaff Brewery were shuttered and low employment turned one once-thriving city, Gary, into an urban wasteland. The steel industry has been revived somewhat and EPA regulations helped turn the skies over Lake Michigan from black to blue. If the economy continues to tank, however, the land upon which the mills sit – especially U.S. Steel, which, among other things, was allowed to dredge marshes and bulldoze magnificent sand dunes – would be more valuable than anything produced by the plants. Lost, though, would be a way of life that provided hope for countless immigrant and working-class families that their children could afford college and make a living in places that didn’t resemble the fires of hell. That’s the easiest way for me to describe Bill Morrison’s multi-media documentary, “The Miners’ Hymns,” which lays out a similar scenario, except this one isn’t based on speculation. It describes how things have changed in northeast England since the area’s many coalmines were closed forever during the Margaret Thatcher regime, if for no other reason than to spite the labor unions. From above, you’d be hard pressed to believe that the same lovely countryside being surveyed once was dominated by giant chimneys, slag heaps, conveyor belts, railroad tracks and handling and preparation plants. Neither would you be able to discern from that distance the absence of hope on the faces of the residents now consigned to low-paying jobs in the service and tourism industries.

Instead of relying on descriptions and narratives to explain what he’s trying to accomplish in his films, Morrison lets the images from found and archival footage speak for themselves. They’re frequently accompanied, however, by the complementary music of important avant-garde composers, including Steve Reich, Bill Frisell, Gavin Bryars, Julia Wolfe and, in “The Miners’ Hymns,” the Icelandic minimalist Jóhann Jóhannsson. Here, Johannsson describes his score as a “kind of requiem for a disappearing industry, but also a celebration of the culture, life and struggle of coal miners,” as well as the strong regional tradition of colliery brass bands. The footage mostly focuses on the aboveground life of Durham residents, all of whom were dependent on the mines in one way or another. This included a century’s worth of material shot at union rallies, parades, picnics and riots and in the streets lined with identical row houses. Even more striking is the material shot underground, as the men labored in the longwall mines so shallow and narrow that most of the work is done while laying on one’s back. I was struck by the cinematography and lighting, which, at times, makes the archival British Film Institute and BBC footage look as if it were shot by a German Expressionist. “The Miners’ Hymns” is less than an hour long, but it packs a powerful punch. The faces in the crowds might have belonged to any of our grandparents and the scenes could have been staged in thousands of American towns that relied on the promises – almost all of which were broken – of bosses and politicians who cared more about a pothole on their street than their workers. The DVD adds three of Morrison’s short films: “Release,” for which Morrison re-purposed footage of a Philadelphia crowd anticipating the release of Al Capone from jail; another split-screen short, “Outborough,” this time from film shot in 1899 from the vantage point of a trolley crossing the Brooklyn Bridge; and “The Film of Her,” a far more linear piece about a Library of Congress clerk, who was able to save from destruction the institution’s amazing Paper Print Collection. – Gary Dretzka

Kiss Me
Hollywood to Dollywood
Although this extremely well made and almost achingly romantic Swedish export was introduced at gay and lesbian film festivals and is being released on DVD here on the niche Wolfe Video label, “Kiss Me” is drama that desperately wants to escape the queer-cinema ghetto and be judged completely on its own narrative merits. Plenty of other movies that deal with issues relating to homosexuality and closets of the characters’ own making demand to be taken just as seriously, but rarely do they allow their characters to exist in a world free of clichés and compromises. Even if the ending feels ripped from the Hollywood rom-com playbook, writer/director Alexandra-Therese Keining has put her protagonists through such an emotional wringer that we’re willing to forgive her a bit of schmaltz, if it means the characters will enjoy a chance at happiness, at least. What also told me that “Kiss Me” was a horse of a different color was the presence of such estimable Swedish actors as Lena Endre (“Wallander,” “Millennium”), Krister Hennriksson (“Wallander,” “Superintendent Winter”) and Joakim Natterqvist (“Arn: The Templar Knight”), whose casting as auxiliary characters in any other genre melodrama would make no sense. Their through-lines are every bit as compelling as those of the very nearly star-crossed lovers played by the less known Ruth Vega Fernandez and Liv Mjönes.

Mia and Frida, both in their thirties, meet for the first time at their parents’ engagement party. Mia’s somewhat estranged father, Lasse, is about to marry Frida’s mother, Elizabeth, which would make them stepsisters. At first, Mia suspects that Frida is flirting with her fiancé, Tim, but, in fact, the cute blonde’s googly eyes are directed strictly at her. We already suspect that Mia and Tim might not be so simpatico while watching her eyes glaze over during a love-making session earlier in the movie. He’s too full of himself to realize that the only person enjoying the grunt-and-grind session is him. Still, it takes us by surprise when, after a birthday party for Lasse, Mia initiates the first kiss between them. In the morning, though, Mia looks as if she had thrilled the guests by chugging the contents of her future mother-in-law’s aquarium, fish and all, and doing a jig on the piano. When Lasse and Tim make an unexpected exit from the villa on a beautiful island off Ystad, it gives Mia and Frida time to test their fragile bond and Elizabeth an opportunity to study the mysterious appearance of dark clouds on the horizon. Even so, Mia seems intent on marrying Tim, leaving Frida to return reluctantly to a one-time lover. What happens next isn’t totally unexpected, but the interaction between all of the characters is handled in a way that’s credible and ultimately satisfying. Everyone grows up in different ways, whether they want to or not. Ragna Jorming’s cinematography takes full advantage of the lovely outdoor settings and Marc Collins’ original music nicely captures the intensity of the romance and drama playing out on the screen. Anyone looking for a different sort of love story ought to consider “Kiss Me,” no matter who’s kissing whom at any particular moment. The DVD adds a music video.

The compelling personal documentary, “Hollywood to Dollywood,” seems to have played every gay-and-lesbian in the U.S., without striking a theatrical distribution deal. I wouldn’t read too much into that regrettable piece of business, though. I don’t what strikes more fear into the hearts of exhibitors: “gay” or “documentary.” My guess would be the latter. In DVD, “H2D” deserves to find a larger, if initially segmented audience. As the title suggests, there’s a bit of gimmick at the heart of the documentary. Twin brothers Larry and Gary Lane have written a screenplay they think would be a perfect vehicle for Dolly Parton. Instead of sending it to her agent or flying to the airport nearest to her theme park, the twins and a friend drive a RV named Jolene cross-country to east Tennessee. Because the young men are from the South, gay and huge fans, it probably made more sense to contact Dolly directly than play games with a Hollywood agent. One of the reasons the multitalented entertainer has attained iconic status in the gay community is her loudly professed non-judgmental stance on homosexuality, drag queens and transsexuals. Along the way to Nashville, the Lanes find and interview several people – gay, straight and in between — whose lives have been saved by Dolly and her songs. Complicating their journey is a once-in-a-lifetime flood that devastated parts of Tennessee ahead of the Dollywood 25th anniversary celebration. In a very real sense, as well, “H2D” could be described as a journey into America’s heart of evangelical darkness. Many of the people we meet in the film are native Southerners, whose relatives and boyhood friends are strict Baptists and openly disparaging of gays and lesbians, no matter whose kids they might be. Almost the same amount attention is paid to confronting inner demons and religious intolerance as delivering the screenplay to Dolly, which isn’t as easy as it might sound. The “H2D” DVD adds deleted scenes, new music by Parton (15 of her hits already are on the soundtrack), extended interviews and outtakes. – Gary Dretzka

House of Dark Shadows: Blu-ray  
Night of Dark Shadows: Blu-ray
Wolf Lake: The Complete Series
As we’ve had the distinct misfortune to observe over the past two decades, television shows don’t translate easily to the demands of big-screen entertainment. Sitcoms are written specifically to fill about 22 minutes of small-screen time, with breaks allotted for canned laughter, lead-ins and lead-outs to commercials and gag setups. Even in these days of TiVo and PPV, audiences are conditioned to the breaks and either go to the kitchen for a cookie or fast-forward through them. One of the worst things that can happen in the cinematic experience is to leave subliminal breaks in the narrative flow that take audiences out of the movie, even for a second or two. Soap operas are even more difficult to adapt than sitcoms and dramas because of the constant repetition of plot points and daily cliffhangers. Not only are the movie versions of “Dark Shadows” better than most other adaptations, but it’s one of the few, if not the only soap drama that’s made the transition. Now, this isn’t to say that the stand-alone “House of Dark Shadows” and “Night of Dark Shadows” – both were directed by Dan Curtis — are among the best vampire movies of all time, just that they’re true to their source material and conform to long-form rules. Moreover, these films aren’t parodies of the Gothic soaps or overt homages to the groundbreaking daytime series. (I think that Tim Burton’s recent adaptation owes as much to the Addams Family cartoons and TV show as it does to “Dark Shadows.”)  True fans of a popular show aren’t all that keen on outsiders toying with their favorites or telling them what makes it special, if only because they’re usually wrong.

By focusing on the characters Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), and Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), “House of Dark Shadows” (1970) more consciously recalls the TV series than its feature-length sequel, “Night of Dark Shadows.” Barnabas has just been released from his coffin prison by a local drunk and he immediately sets out to ingratiate himself with family members and Collinsport residents, some of whom resemble acquaintances from a long-ago life. He also takes it upon himself to restore Collinwood and make up for lost time in the blood-sucking department. By contrast, “Night” expands on the Quentin Collins story arc. The tone is younger, less overtly scary and genuinely romantic, with David Selby, Kate Kackson and Lara Parker re-emerging from the cast of the TV series. (This time, Grayson Hall plays Carlotta Drake.) Quentin married Jackson’s Tracy Collins before returning to Collinwood to paint, a decision for which the resident ghosts and spirits will make him – or, at least, her – pay. The Blu-ray re-mastering pays dividends by restoring the saturated colors of the originals and lightening some of the darker shadows, allowing once-cloudy details to emerge. The effect also makes “House” and “Night” look very much like horror flicks from the Hammer Studios. Don’t look for many extras, though, as they only include theatrical trailers.

In its initial five-year run on ABC, “Dark Shadows” logged 1,225-episodes. Ten years ago, another vampire series, CBS’ “Wolf Lake,” managed to air 5 of its 10 shot episodes before being canceled. Reruns would bounce around the dial for a while, but, really, how long can 10 episodes stay fresh? The show’s fans, as well as undead completists, should find it interesting that CBS DVD is releasing the whole thing in a set that includes the unaired pilot episode, with commentary, and a making-of featurette. The story centers on a Seattle sheriff’s search for his girlfriend who disappears after she accepts his proposal for marriage. His investigation leads to a town called Wolf Lake, where a pack of werewolves co-exist with the human population. (It’s probably near Forks, Washington, so the unemployed werewolves probably found work on the “Twilight” set.) If nothing else, the series didn’t lack for familiar faces and soon-to-be popular stars. The cast included Lou Diamond Phillips, Tim Matheson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Mia Kirshner, Graham Greene, Paul Wesley, Sharon Lawrence, Bruce McGill and Carmen Moore. – Gary Dretzka

Comes a Bright Day
This neat little Brit export combines traditional elements of a botched-heist-and-hostage drama with some very stylish dialogue, romance and fine acting, all in the service of a claustrophobic chamber piece. That’s probably a few too many adjectives, but it helps to know what you’re getting into when movies with such strong bloodlines fizzle after their festival debuts. Because writer/director Simon Aboud married into the McCartney clan – husband of Mary, brother-in-law of Stella and James, son-in-law of Paul and the late Linda McCartney – his first feature, “Comes a Bright Day,” was destined to capture the attention of the media in ways most freshman efforts can’t. Also of interest to the UK media, at least, was a sterling cast that includes Timothy Spall, Imogen Poots, Craig Roberts, Kevin McKidd, Josef Altin, Geoff Bell and Anthony Welsh. The exteriors were filmed in the heart of London’s posh Mayfair district, while the interiors replicated a classy jewelry store there that specializes in expensive antique jewelry. (“Some of the actual pieces we photographed were worth more than our entire budget,” quips Aboud, in one of the making-of featurettes.

In the short expository portion before the heist, we follow a bellboy (Roberts) as he heads for the jewelry store on an errand for an important guest, but is sidetracked to a restaurant where a friend makes the best risotto in town. They discuss imprecise plans for a restaurant of their own, but are distracted by the super-cute blond (Poots) waiting to be served. She works in the jewelry store and, of course, the bellboy follows her like a moth to flame. He neglected to disavow her notion that the suit he borrowed from another guest might indicate he is independently wealthy and tries to extend the charade with the job owner (Spall). It isn’t likely he could have fooled him for long, though, because he was headed to the jewelry store anyway and he’s pals with the young man’s boss. No sooner are the pleasantries exchanged than a pair of robbers stomp into the shop, shoot a customer to prove they’re bad and begin to fill their shopping list. By the time things get really nasty, the owner’s already triggered the silent alarm and the cops are on their way. When the robbers aren’t bullying them, the hostages pass the time by telling stories about the jewelry on display, their personal ambitions and the things that could get them killed. There’s no escape route for the robbers, so all communication with the outside world is conducted by phone. The movie progresses from there with a distinct aura of menace enveloping the store. The claustrophobic setting and dialogue probably would have lent itself better to the stage, but John Lynch is able to open things up a bit with his expressive cinematography. As far as I can see, Paul McCartney has nothing to do with the movie besides his DNA. – Gary Dretzka

Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Blu-ray
If all one knows about the John Hughes comedy “Planes, Trains & Automobile” is that critics used it as a point of reference for Todd Phillips’ “Due Date,” I highly recommend a rental of the Blu-ray edition of the 1987 classic for comparison and enjoyment. Both movies are built on the same foundation: two guys need to get from one city to another in a specific number of hours, but the buffoonish behavior of one of the men threatens the odds of this happening. In “Due Date,” the Everyman character (Robert Downey Jr.) needs to get from Atlanta to Los Angeles in five days to witness the birth of his first child. To accomplish this feat, the man must accept a ride and all of its silly consequences from a well-meaning doofus (Zach Galifianakis). In “PT&A,” a snobby traveler (Steve Martin) and affable goofball (John Candy) are attempting to get from New York City to Chicago in time for Christmas, but their plane is diverted to Kansas by a widespread snow storm. In both cases, requiring the polar-opposite characters to find common ground in support of a singular goal proves to be an exercise in hilarity. If most viewers were expected to empathize with Everyman’s dilemma, it’s impossible not to find something to love and respect in the clowns. The same is true with the characters themselves. The Blu-ray supplements include “John Hughes for Adults,” “A Tribute to John Candy,” “Getting There Is Half the Fun: The Story of ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles,’” “John Hughes: Life Moves Pretty Fast” and a deleted scene. – Gary Dretzka

Cartoon Network: Regular Show: Best DVD in the World (At This Moment in Time)
PBS: Sesame Street: Old School 3
CMT: Louie Anderson: Big Baby Boomer
PBS: Cook’s Country: Season Five
GMC: The Love You Save
Cartoon Network’s hit animated comedy series, “Regular Show,” started out as a student exercise – based on J.G. Quintel’s experiences performing minimum-wage jobs — and evolved into an Emmy-winning and Annie-nominated series. One of the assignments students at California Institute of the Arts are routinely asked to do involves picking scenarios and characters out of a hat and turning them into animated films within a 48-hour period. He pitched “Regular Show,” which is anything but regular, to Cartoon Network as part of its Cartoonstitute development project and it was picked up. Amazing how some dreams come true, right? “Regular Show: The Best DVD in the World” is comprised of 16 episodes from the show’s second and third seasons. Everything revolves around the misadventures of a pair of 23-year-old slackers – a blue jay, Mordecai, and a raccoon, Rigby – who escape the boredom at their groundskeeper jobs by engaging in surrealistic adventures and irresponsible actions. Their girlfriends, co-workers and boss are as strangely adorable as they are. As one might guess about a project initiated by CalArts graduates, “Regular Show” appeals more to adult hipsters than kids typically attracted to other Cartoon Network series (as opposed to Adult Swim titles).

I don’t care what Mitt Romney believes, I’d much prefer for my tax dollars to go for production of “Sesame Street” than for the development of natural-gas pipelines and any more wars in Middle East. It’s done more good for the children of the world than a million Mormon missionaries and Republican political initiatives. Anyone who doubts the lasting value of the PBS shows and its wonderful creations need look any further than the DVDs in the “Sesame Street: Old School” series. The third installment in the series covers 1979 through 1984, including the premieres from seasons 11 to 15. Among the events covered are the gangs’ excursion to Puerto Rico for Maria’s birthday and Snuffy and Gordon’s New York City marathon run? In addition, a bonus DVD adds never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage, clips from special episodes, an excerpt from “Goodbye, Mr. Hooper”; an interview with puppeteer Carroll Spinney; the on-screen storybook, “How to Be a Grouch”; a booklet; and commentary by Sonia Manzano.

One of the last places I’d expect to find a Louie Anderson comedy special would be CMT: Country Music Television, alongside such series as “Bayou Billionaires,” “My Big Redneck Vacation” and “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team.” The Food Network or Gourmet Channel, maybe; the Comedy Channel, sure; CMT, not very likely. Thank God, Louie doesn’t push the envelope by wearing cowboy boots, a Stetson hat and Nudie suit, as if he were the Grand Ol’ Opry’s comedian-in-residence. In “Louie Anderson: Big Baby Boomer,” the plus-size comic does what he does best: self-effacing jokes about eating, dieting and other bad habits; going to the doctor; traveling between shows; irritating family members; and growing older.

Among the many fine shows that combine the joys of eating and cooking is PBS’ venerable “Cook’s Country.” The hook here is the tight focus on regional “comfort food,” especially that associated with the American South and Southwest. The show is headquartered in a renovated 1806 farmhouse with a full working test kitchen, a live audience and the odd neighbor who stops by with cooking problems that need immediate attention. In Season Five, host Christopher Kimball and the chefs from “America’s Test Kitchen” tackle such topics as “Hearty Autumn Dinner,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Breakfast Breads,” “Italian Favorites Revisited,” “Great American Cookout” and “Dinner at the Diner.” The DVD adds tips and techniques, equipment tests and printable versions of all recipes.

I might have enjoyed “The Love You Save” more if it weren’t accompanied by the worst laugh and applause track I’ve ever heard … repeat, ever. I would bet money that the controller was on a three-second delay, because that’s how long it took for the gags to be acknowledged by the laughter. The track also made it sound as if the audience was in a theater next door to the one in which the play was being filmed, the responses are that distant. No matter, because of all the stage-to-screen urban dramedies I’ve seen lately, “The Love You Save” is easily the weakest and most predictable. It was shown on cable’s GMC, as part of its “World Premiere Gospel Play” series. Robin Givens plays a real-estate mogul and the single parent of three grown children. She’s spoiled, opinionated and unprincipled. Two of her children have taken after Mom, while the youngest son volunteers his time at a homeless shelter. While there one day, he meets an older guy who taunts him about his motivations for helping the poor. Before long, they take a shine to each other and believe that by working together they can save the building from development. Unbeknownst to the young man, Mom has just gotten into bed – figuratively – with the developers and plans to make a killing on it. When her scheme is revealed, it provokes a revelation that shakes the family to its core and inspires some old-fashioned gospel belting. Maybe, you can guess what the deep, dark secret turns out to be. The cast also includes Kareem J. Grimes, Denyce Lawton, Jill-Michele Melean and Sean Riggs. – Gary Dretzka

Arthur Christmas
It’s a Spongebob Christmas!
Adventures of Bailey: Christmas Hero
Aardman Animation’s delightful seasonal comedy, “Arthur Christmas,” successfully addresses two mysteries, at least, that have perplexed children ever since Saint Nicholas morphed into the consumer face of Christmas, Santa Claus: 1) it offers a semi-plausible explanation for how he might be able to deliver gifts to all children of the world in a 24-hour period, taking into account time zones and pit stops, 2) Santa’s ability to get down all sorts of chimneys and enter homes without fireplaces, 3) the U.S. Postal Service’s willingness to deliver mail to such a distant zipcode, and 4) the question of Santa’s mortality. Showing “Arthur Christmas” to the kiddies will save you countless hours trying to explain how such miracles can happen and, perhaps, postpone the day when they will call, “Bullshit!,” on the whole thing. In the meantime, I probably wouldn’t push the making-of demonstrations, included in the Blu-ray supplements, on them. Why test your luck? The story begins when a little girl in a quaint English town drops her letter to Santa in the mailbox. Its arrival at the North Pole triggers a multifaceted response that requires split-second timing and the expertise of a million highly trained and fully computerized elves. Once the solicitation is filed and the fulfillment center locates the parcel, it’s loaded onto Santa’s sleigh – which more closely resembles the USS Enterprise than a reindeer-drawn carriage – and delivered by teams of three commando elves, who have 18 seconds to enter the recipients home by any means necessary, avoid pets and other obstacles, place the gift alongside the tree and be collected by the mother ship, which is hovering over the city. The title of Santa Claus is passed from one generation of white-bearded, red-suited geezers to another, much in the same way as any royal family or dynasty. Grandsanta, the reigning Santa and First Lady, the heir apparent, Steve, and his klutzy brother, Arthur, all live under the same roof, occasionally debating the merits of old-school practices and digital technology.

For various reasons, Arthur has been assigned a low-level job in the North Pole’s mailroom. Instead of being a mere cog in the machine, however, the chronically optimistic Arthur considers himself to be an essential piece of the annual Christmas puzzle. After Steve pulls out of the warehouse on his high-tech S-1 sleigh – Santa monitors the entire operation, his 70th, from his easy chair – Arthur and the wrapper elf Bryony find a gift that’s been inadvertently left behind. Arthur recognizes the wrapped bike and the name of the girl who requested it. Committed to making every child happy, Arthur talks Grandsanta into pulling his ancient sleigh and reindeer out of mothballs and making the trip to Trelew, Cornwall. The problem is that Grandsanta’s navigation skills have rusted since his retirement, decades earlier, and he directs the sleigh everywhere but England. If it were up to Steve and Santa, the bicycle would be written off as a glitch in the system and it would be delivered after Christmas. Mrs. Santa sides with Steve and Bryony, however, and demands that every effort be made to race the dawn and make sure the girl isn’t disappointed. Three generations of Santas arrive almost simultaneously, causing a logjam of sleighs on the Trelew cul-de-sac, minutes before sunrise and the girl’s awakening. Their efforts could be thwarted, though, if Steve and Santa don’t quit bickering about the best way to get into the girl’s house at such a late hour. Aardman is known for its stop-action Claymation techniques, as popularized in “Wallace & Gromit,” but for its first collaboration with Sony Pictures Animation, the company turned to computer-graphics technology. Even if I haven’t seen the Blu-ray 3D edition, I can tell by the 2D disc that it probably looks excellent. Among the voice actors are James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Joan Cusack, Imelda Staunton, Eva Longoria, Michael Palin and Laura Linney. The lively soundtrack is highlighted by Justin Bieber’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” which channels the Jackson 5.

It took a few minutes to adjust to the sight of SpongeBob and the Bikini Bottom gang cavorting in stop-animation, but the novelty is worth the momentary visual disconnect. The Nickelodeon holiday special, “It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!,” pre-supposes that the GPS device on Santa’s sleigh also is equipped with sonar, so he can find Bikini Bottom and deliver the goods. John Goodman guest stars as the jolly fat man, who, it’s feared, will fall for a scheme arranged by Plankton to get gain possession of the Krabby Patty secret formula. To do so, he plans to dose everyone with his special jerktonium-laced fruitcake. The bonus package adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, an animatic, a SpongeBob Yule Log and two downloadable songs from the episode.

There’s always room for another mischievous dog at Christmas and the live-action anthropomorphic Bailey, from Hungry Bear Productions, will fill the bill for very audiences. “Adventures of Bailey: Christmas Hero” is the second of three films in the series (“Bailey’s Billion$,” from 2005, has different roots.) Like every other naughty kid at Christmas, Baily fears that Santa will overlook him on Christmas morning. The panic extends to his human family, as well. Taking matters into his own paws, Bailey a mysterious Native American shaman, who appears to have a direct line to Hollywood. To get Santa to reserve a tennis ball, stuffed animal and bone, Bailey enlists the help of his brother, Duke. Apparently, in doing so, Bailey discovers the “true” meaning of Christmas. – Gary Dretzka

Dinotasia: Blu-ray
There are things things about “Dinotasia” – think dinosaurs and “Fantasia” – that differentiate from most other series, mini-series, documentaries and movies about Jurassic history and paleontology. The first is the disembodied Bavarian voice of Werner Herzog, as narrator of this often interesting CG re-creation of prehistoric life. Second, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dinosaur – or anything else, for that matter – take a dump on screen, during the course of a normal day’s events. Three, I don’t recall ever watching a dinosaur or pterosaur freezing to death in the weeks after a giant meteorite hit Earth some 65 million years ago. I doubt that Herzog’s voice would sound much different it had been created in a synthesizer, but everything else in “Dinotasia” has been created by 2D CGI animation. Originally intended by co-directors/co-writers David Krentz and Erik Nelson has a 12-part series for History Channel, “Dinosaur Revolution,” the 83-minute final product spans millions of years and three geological periods, when these wonderful, terrifying creatures roamed the planet. Their stories are told in vignette form much in the same way as Walt Disney shaped his “True-Life Adventures” series. Most are violent and unforgiving in a strictly Darwinian way. Even so, because the series originally was intended to include comedy, some of the action reportedly was inspired by specific “Looney Tune” cartoons. Critics may not have been impressed by “Dinotasia” in its brief, limited release, but I dug the visualizations of the dinosaurs, which were informed by the latest fossil discoveries and research. About halfway through the movie, the fatal meteorite begins to loom ominously in views shared from deep space, giving us a reason to empathize with these otherwise disagreeable critters. Dino-crazy kids should get a big kick out of “Dinotasia” and their parents shouldn’t mind sharing time with them, attempting to answer questions and share the delight of watching dinosaurs poop. The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

RVBX: Ten Years of Red vs. Blue Box Set: Blu-ray
Red vs. Blue: Season 10: Blu-ray
Digimon Adventure: The Official First Season, Volume 1
It’s no coincidence that two new “Red vs. Blue” compilations are being released simultaneously with the release of the “Halo 4” first-person shooter video game for the Xbox 360 console and beginning of a new trilogy of Halo series games, “The Reclaimer Trilogy.” The game begins four years after the ending of “Halo 3” and marks the return of the Master Chief as the main protagonist, and the artificially intelligent Cortana. Early reviews of “Halo 4” have been extremely positive, so there’s no reason to believe it won’t be as explosively popular as the previous iterations had been. “RvB” is to the “Halo” franchise what remora fish are to sharks. A year or so after the first trilogy was introduced, “Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles” became a fixture on the Internet. The episodes would be collected on DVD and, later, Blu-ray, as well. The story centers on two opposing teams of soldiers fighting a civil war in the middle of a desolate box canyon. It was intended as a parody of FPS, military and sci-fi conventions. As “Halo” moved from one trilogy to another, so, too, did the “RvB” franchise. Full-length installments would be added, as well. All were created with a new form of animation called “machinima,” also popularized by “Halo.” Flatiron Films and Rooster Teeth have combined resources for the release of the 14-disc Blu-ray edition of “RVBX: Ten Years of Red vs. Blue Box Set,” which collects the first 10 seasons with newly re-mastered surround-sound audio. The extremely giftable set is further enhanced with eight hours’ worth of additional videos and miniseries, special features, interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.

Fans who’ve laughed their way through the series in seasonal DVD releases need not buy the entire box set to get the final season of “Project Freelancer.” “Red vs. Blue Season 10” chronicles the top-secret military operation from its inception to its conclusion, as well as the many detours along the way. Both sets include new videos based on “Halo 4,” featuring Elijah Wood, commentary and outtakes.  

Frankly, there are now so many different “Digimon” variations in the marketplace that I’ve lost track of what’s new and special and what’s a retread or spinoff. “Digimon Adventure: The Official First Season, Volume 1” is comprised of the first 21 episodes, which carry us through the first two natural story arcs of Saban Entertainment’s 1999 series. In the first arc, seven kids are transported to a strange digital world where they make friends with the digital monsters and defend the world from common enemies. In the second, the kids travel to continent Server and learn they have the ability to help their Digimon “digivolve” with the power of Crests, which are guarded by Etemon and his Dark Network. By my count, there are 33 more episodes left in the season. I seem to recall that a full first-season “Digimon Adventure” box was released last month. I’m confident that devoted fans will be able to figure out the best deal for their digi-dollar. – Gary Dretzka

Aim High: The Complete First Season
“Killing is easy … high school is hard”: this appears to be the working principle behind “Aim High,” an entertaining Internet action series in which teenagers moonlight as government assassins. Balancing the two is every bit as difficult as it sounds for the students, who also are preoccupied with sex and becoming a target for revenge killings. Unlike most webisodes, whose cheesy production values add to their charm, “Aim High” looks polished and professionally directed. This probably can be credited to executive producer McG (“Chuck,” “Nikita”) and professionals in every level of production. In addition to veteran guest stars, such as Greg Germann, Nick Swardson, Rebecca Mader and Clancy Brown, the high school students are played by actors with substantial resumes. Among them are Nick Green (“Twilight”), Aimee Teegarden (“Friday Night Lights”), Johnny Pemberton (“21 Jump Street”) and Natalie Lander (“The Middle”).  On the negative side, the DVD is comprised of a mere six bite-sized episodes, a pair of background featurettes and a music video by Teegarden. As much fun as “Aim High” is to watch, it feels more like a pilot for an MTV sitcom than an Internet series. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Campaign, Americano, This Waltz, Ruby Sparks, Upstairs Downstairs … More

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

The Campaign: Extended Cut: Blu-ray
Fans of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis don’t attend their movies to savor the subtle or ironic moments that come between the broadsides hurled by and at their buffoonish characters. They want to be doubled over in laughter by material some people would consider to be inappropriate, if not downright rude, and surprised by how far they’ll be allowed to take the gags. Because upbeat endings are required of the most movies made today, the closer they inch toward their final scenes, the less anarchic they become. Such is the case with “The Campaign,” a comedy that could have left viewers in a funk about the electoral process, but, instead, is content to provide comic relief for voters already beaten down by lies, distortions and the reality that nothing is likely to change, no matter who wins. Jay Roach has delivered the laughs in the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises, while also finding the hearts of gold buried inside his frequently unpleasant antagonists. In “The Campaign,” the dialogue is provided by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell, who previously collaborated on the nasty HBO mini-series, “Eastbound & Down.”

Here, Will Ferrell delivers a dead-on impression of good-ol’-boy congressman Cam Brady, a slick North Carolina politician who’s never met a lobbyist he hasn’t exploited or a cause he’s championed on its merits. Farrell invests in the incumbent some of the vacuous charm, at least, that made his hilarious take on George W. Bush so memorable. By comparison to Brady, however, Bush was Abraham Lincoln. For some inexplicable reason, a disreputable pair of billionaire brothers — not unlike the real-life Koch siblings, who finance right-wing PACs – has come to believe that the unopposed Brady isn’t doing enough for them in Congress and want to put up their own candidate. Incredibly, they settle on Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), an effeminate family man, whose father is a local wheeler-dealer and crypto-fascist. When it becomes obvious that Huggins is too soft to compete with Brady on his own, the brothers hire a political strategist with Dylan McDermott’s good looks and Karl Rove’s Satanic cunning. Once that happens, “The Camapaign” more closely resembles a “Road Runner” cartoon than a sendup of the American political process, which has reached a nadir where it’s beyond parody. For every dirty trick that Brady plays, Huggins is able to come up with one of his own. He even manages to lure the congressman into a situation where, by nimbly ducking a punch, he causes Brady to slug a baby. In retaliation, Brady seduces Huggins’ wife and tapes it for use in a commercial. Huh? Don’t ask. “The Campaign” is full of such illogical, if funny moments.

Despite the slapstick, it’s easy to enjoy the give-and-take between Farrell and Galifianakis as they skewer the pitiful state of politics today and the voters’ willingness to believe anything they’re told by pre-packaged candidates. When Brady senses that his campaign is losing steam, he merely picks a larger American flag from his jewelry box and pins it to his lapel. As we’ve seen, the absence of a flag trinket can spell disaster for a candidate among voters conditioned to despise liberals by talk-radio hosts. It’s only natural, then, for Brady to assume that a larger-than-average flag could tip the election in his favor. That’s about as subtle as things get in “The Campaign,” though. The lead actors get ample support from Jason Sudeikis and McDermott, as the political strategists; John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd as the Motch brothers, whose scam is too preposterous to explain; Brian Cox, as Huggins’ loathsome father; and Katherine LaNasa and Sarah Baker, as the candidates’ wives. The Blu-ray adds several entertaining deleted scenes; a funny gag reel; an improv montage; and 11 minutes of material not included in the theatrical release. – Gary Dretzka

The Lovers’ Guide: The Essential Set
Infidelity: Sex Stories 2
Question: What’s the difference between a remote control and a woman’s clitoris? Answer: A guy will keep looking for the remote control until he finds it. If a woman repeats that joke to her partner, what she’s really doing is delivering a message that defines what it means to “kid on the square.” Even if the gag elicits laughter, there’s nothing remotely funny about a heterosexual relationship in which the man is the sole beneficiary of an orgasm. Explained in the most basic terms possible and dramatized by the participation of live actors, “The Lover’s Guide: The Essential Set” provides viewers with all the tools necessary not only to experience heightened sexuality and orgasmic bliss, but also tighter and more meaningful relationships. While explicit, “The Lover’s Guide” is neither pornographic not clinical. The couples who demonstrate the techniques were chosen because they represent a demographic cross-section of adults, not the cast of a late-night movie on Cinemax (where orgasms occur with amazing regularity and the clitoris is never seen). The producers don’t assume anything about their audience, preferring to start at the beginning, with kissing, and slowly advance to sexual positions and acrobatics, some of which aren’t even mentioned in the Kama Sutra. Couples are encouraged to watch the instructional films in bed, where they can use their remote controls for their intended purpose … skipping ahead to the good parts.

After surviving a long legal struggle with censors, the first edition of “The Lovers’ Guide” was cleared for launch in England in 1991. Presented by sexologist Dr. Andrew Stanway, it became the only non-fiction film to top the UK video charts, by selling 1.3 million copies. It would go on to be released into 13 languages and 22 countries around the world. The empire has grown to include 10 subsequent DVDs, including one in 3D; a book, an encyclopedia, two CD-ROMs; and cassettes and CDs of the soundtracks. Only the North American market has been underserved by the publishers. New York-based True Mind is betting that we are in need of help as anyone else on the planet and is introducing “The Lovers’ Guide” here in three editions, on all digital platforms: “The Original Collection,” a 306-minute, 5-disc box set; “The Essential Collection,” a 351-minute, 5-disc box, with advanced coaching; and “Sexual Positions,” a 52-minute single DVD from the “Essential Collection.” That set is also comprised of “Secrets of Sensational Sex,” “What Women Really Want,” “Sex Play” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed.” At the chapters do tend to overlap, even using identical narration, but that’s why God added fast-forward buttons to remote controls.

Graduates of “The Lovers’ Guide” lessons seeking to spice up their love-making with some pornography playing in the background would do well to check out the “Sex Stories” series by the French adult-movie star, Ovidie. Nowhere near as graphic and unrelentingly gonzo as American hard-core movies, the two “Sex Stories” volumes are targeted at couples who need something more explicit than the make-believe intercourse and oral sex on cable TV. Men who simply want to cut to the chase aren’t likely to appreciate the conversations that precede the action, but women, I think, will welcome the chatty respites from the wall-to-wall sex as much as the absence of grotesquely sculpted blond bimbos. The characters all seem to be experiencing problems that are causing them anxiety and threatening their relationships. By sharing advice and techniques with each other, the characters provide logical solutions to solvable problems. The most obvious difference between the characters in “Sex Stories” and 90 percent of all other hard-core titles – including those in the phony MILF and “mature” genres – is that the characters range in age from the mid-20s to 50-something. The men are handsome in a conventional sort of way, while the women are naturally attractive. Neither does Ovidie require her women to wear platform shoes and other stripper regalia to bed. – Gary Dretzka

Americano: Blu-ray
Although too many of the interviews included in the bonus packages of DVDs are self-congratulatory and largely irrelevant to the movies to which they’re attached, occasionally something really interesting rises to the surface. Sometimes, even, a revelation will inspire a second look. “Americano” benefits from such candid discussions. The feature debut for Mathieu Demy as actor/writer/director follows a Parisian businessman, Martin, on his trip to Los Angeles to settle the affairs of his late mother, from whom he’s been forcibly estranged since he was a little boy. Martin claims not to remember much of his childhood after his father returned with him to France and his mother stayed on in Venice Beach to paint and lead an entirely different sort of life. Almost immediately it’s made clear to us that Martin has been suppressing memories that begin to return when he’s surrounded by his mother’s things. Among them are her longtime best friend (Geraldine Chaplin), who guilt-trips Martin into acknowledging her sacrifices in her dying days, and a neighbor who’s working on the same book he was when Martin was a boy. A photograph reminds Martin of Lola (Salma Hayek), a playmate with whom his mother maintained a relationship after he was shipped back to Paris.

As the memories come flooding back, Martin becomes perplexed by his lack of knowledge about his mother’s life and dreams. Although Lola’s been deported to Tijuana, Martin is determined to find her and pick her brain. If he so choses, he’ll also inform her of his mother’s generous bequest to her. In Tijuana, Martin learns that she’s been working in a seedy strip joint and she’s not at all excited to reconnect with him. His obsession with Lola borders on the pathetic, especially after the club owner (Carlos Bardem) beats the crap out of him and she refuses to indulge his fantasies. The ending ties most of the loose ends together, but, perhaps, not in a way that will satisfy impatient viewers.

What we learn in the interview is that “Americano” is far more personal a movie than is evident on first viewing. Demy is the son of the celebrated French filmmakers Agnes Varda and the late Jacques Demy, and the footage used in the flashback scenes are borrowed from his mother’s 1981 semi-autobiographical film, “Documenteur.” It is about a French woman — separated from her lover, as was Varda from Demy — attempting to find a home in L.A. for her and her son, who’s played by the 8-year-old Mathieu Demy. The name, Lola, was appropriated from his father’s first feature film, “Lola,” which was made in 1961 and starred Anouk Aimee as a cabaret dancer. Aimee also played a Los Angeles pin-up model in Demy’s first American-made picture, “Model Shop.” Demy points out, as well, that he cast Chaplin, for her connection to L.A and Europe, and Chiara Mastroianni, in part, because she’s the daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni, two of his father’s favorite actors. He liked Hayek for the role of Lola because she is of Mexican descent and married to a French man. (She bears a passing resemblance to Aimee, too). Bardem is Javier’s older brother. It’s easy, then, to think of Demy’s Martin in “Americano” as the grown-up reiteration of Mathieu in “Documenteur.” (He’s played four Martins in his career.) That doesn’t make his character’s flaws any more palatable, but it helps explain why he appears to be carrying the weight of someone else’s world on his shoulders through most of the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Ruby Sparks: Blu-ray
Trust me on this: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ modern-day fairy tale, “Ruby Sparks,” is the best movie almost no one has bothered to see in 2012 … so far, at least. Fixing blame, however, would require too lengthy a post-mortem than there’s space for here. The characters could hardly be any more appealing and the directors were able to prove that their first feature, “Little Miss Sunshine” wasn’t a fluke. Writer-star Zoe Kazan’s screenplay is smart, funny and frequently irresistible. That’s why it’s so difficult for me to see how young-adult viewers, especially those who embraced “(500) Days of Summer” and other similarly quirky rom-coms, missed “Ruby Sparks” in its limited release. Paul Dano plays a socially inept novelist, Calvin, who’s been blocked since his late teens, when he penned a best-seller. He’s encouraged by his brother (Chris Messina) and psychiatrist (Elliot Gould) to write about something he knows, which, in his case, isn’t easy because he’s withdrawn into a world in which his only friend is his brother. When this doesn’t work, his shrink suggests he adopt a dog, take it on long walks and simply write about what happens. Unfortunately, the scruffy terrier mix, Scottie – after F. Scott Fitzgerald – is as hapless as Calvin. At about the same time as Scottie arrives on the scene, however, Calvin begins to experience dreams in which a spectral figure gradually assumes the shape of a gorgeous young woman. She appears to take an instant liking to both man and dog. The dreams inspire Calvin to invent a fictional character, Ruby Sparks (Kazan), who one day appears fully blown in his living room, acting very much like his girlfriend.

Naturally, Calvin doesn’t believe his good luck. He waits to commit until her presence is confirmed by people who couldn’t possibly be in on such an elaborate practical joke. His brother can clearly see Ruby, but it takes a bit more to convince him that she’s a flesh-and-blood manifestation of Calvin’s imagination. As proof, he changes Ruby’s nationality in his manuscript to French, a language she suddenly begins speaking as if it were her native tongue. Once Calvin realizes the power of his pen and accepts it as real, he decides not to exploit it in nefarious ways. Ruby already digs him, so why mess with a good thing? When Calvin isn’t writing, however, Ruby isn’t evolving as an adult. This causes a dilemma for the novelist, who knows full well that he holds his lover’s fate in his hands and interesting books rarely are inspired by happy relationships. Kazan’s screenplay doesn’t rely on gimmicks or illogical behavior to maintain our interest in Ruby and Calvin’s dilemma. If, at first, her self-drawn character seems altogether too perfect, we know that it can’t last forever. Dano and Kazan, who are together in real life, display a natural chemistry on screen. There are times, however, when Ruby’s bright and upbeat personality makes Zooey Deschanel look like Oscar the Grouch. Also good are Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s hippy-dippy mother and step-father. The Blu-ray adds several interviews and making-of featurettes, including one on how the filmmakers were able to avoid the clichés of shooting in Los Angeles. – Gary Dretzka

Take This Waltz: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine any relationship drama in which Michelle Williams, Seth Rogan and Sarah Silverman could co-exist without it seeming as if they stepped out of the wrong screenplay. Throw in the annoyingly handsome Luke Kirby and a title borrowed from an achingly romantic song that Leonard Cohen adapted from a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, and you have a movie that’s easy to market but difficult to explain. Once primarily known for her ability to steal the spotlight from better known actors in such indie flicks as “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Last Night,” “Guinevere,” “eXistenZ” and “The Weight of Water,” Sarah Polley has since proven herself as a formidable writer/director in “Away From Her,” which was as good a movie as was released in 2006. Take This Waltz” is a story about a woman, Margot, in her 30s, who seemingly has outgrown her marriage to a genuinely nice, if single-minded cookbook author, Lou (Rogan), when fate steps in to deliver the man of her recent dreams, nearly to her Toronto doorstep. Margot had coincidentally encountered Daniel (Kirby) – personable, but almost the polar opposite of Lou — on a writing assignment in Nova Scotia and, again, on the plane ride home. It isn’t until they agree to share a cab home that they realize they live across the street from each other. If the gods aren’t in cahoots, she thinks, what else could possibly be going on here? Williams tries to make Margot as unglamorous as possible, but she can’t contain the appeal that’s buried just below the surface of her makeup.

Despite the fact that Lou and Margot seem perfectly suited to each other – borderline nerds, but happy – he can’t match Daniel in the wish-fulfillment category. That Lou’s become obsessed with chicken dinners reflects how boring he must seem in Margot’s eyes. For his part, Daniel could hardly care less if Lou’s heart is broken. Ostensibly an artist, he makes a modest living steering a rickshaw, of all things, through the streets of Toronto and this allows him opportunities to interrupt Lou and Margot on their dates. Lou digs the rickshaw and is blissfully unaware of his wife’s discomfort when the three of them are in such close proximity. Margot may be embarrassed by her feelings for Daniel, but she clearly doesn’t want to share him with Lou. Playing in heavy rotation somewhere in the back of Margot’s head is the song, “Take This Waltz,” which demands that listeners throw caution to the wind and accept love for the miracle it is. Polley stages a pair of steamy pas de deux – one in an empty ballroom and the other as an underwater ballet – to convince us of Daniel’s magnetism and her need to once again be overwhelmed by love. Rubbing spices onto the skin of a broiler is no match for Daniel’s ability to waltz. Lou discovers her affair at approximately the same time as his cookbook becomes a best-seller. Still, Margot wants it all.

Her sister-in-law and confidante, Geraldine (Silverman), is a recovering alcoholic who can recognize an addict when she sees one and Margot has willing succumbed to the intoxicating fragrance of romance. If viewers maintain a slim hope that things will work out without anyone getting hurt, Geraldine knows that de-toxing from love is as difficult as kicking heroin or whiskey. It’s nice to see Silverman play a serious character in a drama for once, instead of being assigned the role of the snarky friend. As with Rogan, though, it takes a while to separate the actor from the role. Despite the incongruities, Polley walks the tightrope with ease, following a recipe of her own making that provides for a nourishing blend of drama and comedy, heartbreak and arousal. We care about all of the characters and what will happen to them by the end of the movie and beyond. If “Take This Waltz” isn’t nearly as accomplished as “Away From Her,” it’s still easy to recommend in DVD. Sadly, the movie’s release pattern bordered on incomprehensible. A shower scene, in which Williams and Silverman’s bodies are on full display, was leaked to adult sites within days of the movie’s debut at last year’s Toronto Film Festival.  By the time it resurfaced at the Tribeca and Seattle events, and soon thereafter on VOD platforms, it had already played in festivals around the globe. It would have been easy for American audiences to assume that “Take This Waltz” had already come and gone, with its DVD run imminent. Instead, at the end of June, it aired on another premium-cable channel, before a limited run in New York. The most screens “Take This Waltz” has played on simultaneously since then were 69, in mid-July. I get the whole multi-platform strategy, but there has to be a more logical way to promote indie movies than this. The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Stealing Summers
If there is one great fantasy that has survived the passage of time, it’s the one in which American students believe it’s still possible to live like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald on foreign soil  for more than a summer after graduation and partake in the movable feast spread before their eyes. If it’s always been more of a pipedream than a realistic alternative to the sameness of American life, well, even in the 1920s, home has never been more than a phone call away. In “Stealing Summers,” the feature debut of director David Martin Porras and writer Matt Lester, three American ex-patriots living in Buenos Aires plot a no-brainer heist that, of course, proves disastrous in execution. They do this is instead of writing novels, painting, hosting literary salons or exploring the provinces. Trevor and Sam roomed together at Duke, where they probably majored in attending basketball games in silly costumes and wearing war paint. The beautiful Alexandra attended Brown, alongside the spoiled children of rock stars and other celebrities. She has an Argentine boyfriend, who keeps hundreds of thousands of dollars in an unlocked drawer of his home office – cash is king in South America, we’re told — and guns to protect it. For recreation, Alexandra toots lines of her boyfriend’s cocaine off coffeetables and dances her way around town in the company of friends spending their junior years abroad. Trevor and Sam drink … a lot. We aren’t made privy to how these three co-conspirators fell into each other’s arms, but it’s enough to know that they did and that she’s managed to seduce both of them. Not particularly beholding to her boyfriend for anything besides drugs and a place to hang her Victoria’s Secret lingerie, Alexandra matter-of-factly alerts her new friends to the hidden treasure.

And, yes, the heist should have gone off without a hitch, but nothing like this ever does in Buenos Aires. This is especially true on the weekend of the “Superclasico” soccer match between the city’s greatest rivals, when the air is filled with unharnessed team spirit and the possibility of sectarian violence. If “Stealing Summers” feels more like a short story or character study, I’m not sure it would have gained anything by being made longer and more complex. Clocking in at a brisk 75 minutes, it’s as complete as it ought to be. For my money, the best thing about “Stealing Summers” is its depiction of streets teeming with sports fanatics, political opportunists, tourists and restaurant barkers. Even at night, the city looks beautiful. Alexandra and her boyfriend live in a high-rise apartment that provides a view of Buenos Aires money actually can buy. Despite their Duke education, the young men share a crummy apartment whose only view is provided by the mirror in the bathroom, and it isn’t pretty. All four of the primary characters seem credible as types you might encounter in a bistro or café in one foreign destination or another. They are played by smoking-hot Sophie Auster, Wilson Bethel (son of writer Joyce Maynard and artist Steve Bethel), James Jagger (son of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall) and telenovela star Mariano Martinez. I can think of a lot worse ways to kill 75 minutes. – Gary Dretzka

Elvis & Madonna
After making the circuit of several dozen gay-and-lesbian film festivals – and a few mainstream events, as well – Breaking Glass Pictures has given this kooky 2010 Brazilian export an opportunity to find an audience of its own on DVD. “Elvis & Madonna” shares certain things with “La Cage Aux Folles” and “The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert,” but is a far more modest enterprise. Set in Rio’s Copacabana district, Marcello Laffitte and Jose Carvalho’s rom-com describes a love affair between a transvestite hairdresser, Madonna, who moonlights as a showgirl, and a lesbian photographer, Elvis, who delivers pizzas on her motorbike, but aspires to being recognized as a photojournalist. They meet after Madonna’s brutish boyfriend – a Brazilian cross between Wes Studi, Oddjob and Danny Trejo – steals the money she’s been saving to open a nightclub and bounces her head off a table for good measure. Madonna had already ordered a pizza and, after Elvis arrives, she comforts the well-known and well-liked starlet-to-be. She also volunteers to take better photographs of her new friend than the ones she sees hanging on her walls. It takes almost no time for this unlikely pair to fall in love and consummate their relationship. In the course of photographing Madonna, Elvis takes a picture of her former boyfriend, Tripod Joe, selling drugs from his car. When it ends up on the front page of a local newspaper, Joe is arrested and temporarily rinsed from Madonna’s hair. Elvis’ subsequent pregnancy only complicates things a little more than they already are. Laffitte treats his many diverse characters and E&M’s romance with the same respect others reserve for straight characters in a more mainstream movie. While he leaves plenty of room for humor, the only person who could complain about getting a bum rap is Tripod Joe. – Gary Dretzka

Love & Valor: The Intimate Civil War Letters
One of the ways Ken Burns draws us into his documentaries is by humanizing the stories with photographs and letters found in family albums and boxes of memorabilia. There’s nothing more hauntingly personal than hearing the words of a husband and wife, separated by war, read by from a distance of 150 years. The release into DVD of “Love & Valor: The Intimate Civil War Letters” follows the publication of Charles F. Larimer’s book of the same title, in 2000, by specialty label Sigourney Press. Through the letters exchanged by his great-great-grandparents, Jacob and Emeline Ritner, Larimer has fashioned a chapter in the history of the Civil War that had eluded most researchers. Although it took a great deal of patience and not a small amount of luck, Larimer was able to collect the letters of Jacob and Emeline from separate sources, find some of the descendants and graves of people mentioned in them and add context to what we’ve already learned about various Civil War battles and campaigns. Before enlisting in 1st Iowa Infantry and re-enlisting in the 25th Iowa Infantry, which saw heavy action from Vicksburg to Charleston, Jacob was a teacher, farmer and father of four children in Mount Pleasant. From abolitionist stock, Jacob and Emeline believed strongly in the Union cause, freedom for slaves and President Lincoln. From what we learn in his letters, he had little patience with officers who, themselves, were racist and smoked, drank heavily, cussed and played cards around the campfires. (Out of religious principles, I believe.) From Emeline’s writings, we are able to understand how it felt to be left behind to fend for herself and their family, and how people in the community coped with their own struggles and tragedies.

“Love & Valor” appears to have been a labor of love and something of a one-man show. Although it isn’t likely that Larimer made much money off of the book, he staged re-enactments, traveled to locations mentioned in the letters and even was able to convince Brian Dennehy to share narration duties. In addition to the soldiers with whom Jacob served, we’re introduced to a young runaway slave who led Union soldiers two miles into a swamp, where a plantation owner had chained his slaves to trees in anticipation of the departure of the soldiers from his land after the siege of Vicksburg, and a Savannah merchant known as the Ice Merchant of Savannah, who hosted Jacob and other enemy troops for Christmas dinner in 1864. (During his research, Larimer would meet the great-great-grandson of the same man mentioned in the letters.) In the bonus features, he also describes things he’s learned about his ancestors – including Jacob’s aunt, who provided shelter to John Brown in her rooming house – in the years since the publication of the book and completion of the documentary. – Gary Dretzka

Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview
In the rush to beatify Steve Jobs, the media focused on the empire he helped build and products introduced in the last 10 years. His hyper-aggressive management style was duly noted, but, generally speaking, the term most frequently attributed to him was “visionary.” Obituary writers were too polite to dwell on the many despotic decisions he made after he corrected the course of Apple in his second tenure at the company. They included restricting how consumers used the popular mini-computers and hand-held entertainment devices they bought and arbitrarily censoring some of the content that they could download or stream. Neither was the extent of Apple’s reliance on poorly paid and virtually captive laborers at Chinese sub-contractors. Hey, no one wants to speak ill of the dead, but the deference shown Jobs bordered on the shameful. A more human, if geeky side of Jobs is revealed in the lengthy 1995 interview recently discovered gathering dust on a shelf in a Silicon Valley cupboard. The interview was conducted by Robert Cringely for his 1996 documentary, “Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires,” which chronicled the creation and evolution of personal computers. Jobs had been fired from Apple 10 years earlier, but would be re-hired a year later. In the meantime, he was focusing on his NeXT Computer startup and Pixar, which, in 1995, was putting the finishing touches on “Toy Story.”

The entrepreneur we meet in “Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview” is friendly, relaxed, talkative, generous with his praise of former “teammates” and dismissive of the suits who ousted him and nearly ran Apple into the ground. It helped, of course, that Cringely was a techie with a working knowledge of the development of the company and Jobs’ role in it. If anything, Jobs seems humbled by the experience of being fired and working hard to re-gain the respect of movers and shakers in the computing community. Upon his return to Apple, one of Jobs’ greatest tasks would be to relieve the stranglehold Microsoft was able to impose on the industry through its association with IBM-based PCs. While acknowledging Windows’ commercial and technological success, he dissed the company and Bill Gates, personally, for lacking any sense of “taste.” There’s no hint of such innovative products as iPhone, iPad, iTunes and the iTunes Store, all of which would be introduced much later. The DVD also includes commentary and an interview with the filmmaker and an enlightening extended interview with Andy Hertzfeld, the original Macintosh programmer at Apple. I don’t know when it was conducted but it seems to pre-date the widespread acceptance of handheld computers and hand-held devices, as well. – Gary Dretzka

BBCA: Copper: Season One
PBS: Upstairs Downstairs: Season Two
A&E: Coma
Adult Swim: Metalocalypse: Season 4
PBS: Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodies: Season 2
Apparently, the programming executives at BBC America aren’t content with providing Yank audiences with top-notch series from England – maybe because that once-fertile stream has been polluted with too many cooking shows and retread movies – because the network has begun creating original programming of its own and setting it in the U.S. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the first mini-series arrives in the form of a period drama involving immigrants from the British Isles. Exec-produced by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson (“Oz,” “Borgia,” “Life on the Street”), among several other producers, “Copper” is a 10-part dramatic mini-series, which centers on Kevin Corcoran, an Irish-American cop whose beat includes New York’s Five Points neighborhood. It is the same god-forsaken place and time surveyed by Martin Scorsese in his hyper-violent “Gangs of New York,” which ended with the fierce Draft Riots 1863. In Tom Weston-Jones (“MI-5”), the hard-boiled cop has more on his mind than keeping the melting pot of malignant malcontents from self-destructing. He also is obsessed with the disappearance of his wife and the death of their daughter. To both ends, Corcoran welcomes the assistance of wartime compatriots, the son of a wealthy Fifth Avenue industrialist and an African-American physician from the emerging community of former slaves in rural northern Manhattan. The Blu-ray adds a making-of documentary, character profiles, deleted scenes and commentary.

Compared to what happened in Season One of the second edition of the posh British soap opera, “Upstairs Downstairs,” Season Two might as well be set in Peyton Place, U.S.A., instead of 165 Eaton Place, London, England. Indeed, it seems as if most of the first season was prelude to the steamy and hot-button material introduced almost immediately in the opening episode. Lady Agnes and Sir Hallam Holland (Keeley Hawes, Ed Stoppard) no longer can claim newlywed status and Hallam’s nosy mum, Maud, is history, as will be her pet monkey in due time. In her chair sits Aunt Blanche (Alex Kingston), whose secrets will soon be revealed, as well. Among the staff’s new duties are tending to a new baby Holland and trying to make sense of Agnes’ increasingly strange whims, which include forcing her charges to join her health and beauty regimen, adopting fashion trends and flirting with guests. Meanwhile, essential housekeeper Mrs. Rose Buck (Jean Marsh) is killing time in a rest home in the country and the Nazis have pulled the wool over Lord Chamberlain’s eyes. (Sir Hallam is far more skeptical of Hitler’s intentions and orders the staff to prepare for war.) Re-enter fascist groupie Lady Persphone (Claire Foy) and “Upstairs Downstairs” becomes a real hum-dinger of a domestic drama. The DVD set is comprised of six hourlong episodes and interviews with cast and crew.

When it comes to ideas for new mini-series to be shown on lower tier cable channels than HBO and Showtime, there are a few different ways to go: pay the freight necessary to purchase such quality entertainment as “Rescue Me,” “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead”; tap into the Roger Corman horror pipeline for such hybrid creatures as “Dinoshark,” “Piranhaconda” and “Sharktopus”; or re-adapting movies produced, written or directed by such brand-name talents as Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, Robert Wise or Stephen King. Before retrofitting “Coma” for A&E, brothers Ridley and the late Tony Scott did the same for Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain,” which was turned into a 175-minute mini-series with a more ethnically diverse cast and familiar, if not A-list actors. In the case of “Coma,” Crichton adapted the screenplay from Cook’s best-seller and directed it. Although it wasn’t a blockbuster, the 1978 medical thriller is remembered best for being Michael Douglas’ first major credit after leaving “The Streets of San Francisco.”  Once again, a young doctor becomes suspicious of the large number of healthy patients who fall into a coma after routine procedures. Lauren Ambrose replaces Genevieve Bujold as Susan Wheeler, the medical student who discovers that the patients are being warehoused in a facility away from the hospital and are hanging suspended in anticipation of some kind scientific breakthrough. Meanwhile, people in Wheeler’s orbit are being murdered or set up for crimes. How she manages to survive into Episode Two, during which the contents of the warehouse are revealed, remains a greater mystery than who’s behind the conspiracy. “Coma” picks up steam from there. In addition to Ambrose, the cast includes Richard Dreyfuss, Geena Davis, Ellen Burstyn, James Woods, Joe Morton and Steven Pasquale (“Rescue Me”).

One of the things that make heavy-metal musicians different than all others is that it’s almost impossible to discern when they’re playing a trick on their audiences and when they’re being deadly series. The same can be said of the animated Adult Swim series, “Metalocalypse.” It follows the exploits of Dethklok, which is said to be so commercially successful that it represents the seventh largest economy in the world. The band members are none too bright, even by rock-music standards, but they wreak havoc wherever they go and some detractors believe they could be harbingers of the Apocalypse. Among the guest stars in Season Four are Amber Tamblyn, Werner Herzog, Dweezil Zappa, John Hamm, Chris Elliot, Patton Oswalt and members of Corpsegrinder, 3 Inches Of Blood, Soundgarden and ZZ Top. The Blu-ray includes a Facebones DethGame, FanArt tribute, BlackKlok montage sequence, Nathan reads “A Comedy of Errors, band member stare-downs, “MurderThoughts,” a “Pickles Flyby” and featurette on the Tribunal.

Having been shoved out of the print marketplace by the Internet and dozens of niche dining and cooking shows, Gourmet magazine’s brand was used by Conde Nast to spearhead its efforts to exploit the Internet, books and television. Although it lasted only three seasons, “Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie” was a classy addition to the genre. It benefitted both from the Gourmet braintrust and distribution through the PBS network of stations. Typically, the episodes were divided among regional cuisines, the insight of celebrity chefs, specific tastes and ingredients, various foodie crusades and trends. Watching a recipe being tested in Gourmet’s test kitchen also was a popular segment. Among the places visited in Season Two were New Zealand, Southern India, North Carolina, Baja and Vietnam. Other topics included bread, aromas, drinks, the art of culinary deception, blogs and sweets. – Gary Dretzka

Hallmark: Love’s Christmas Journey
The latest in a series of made-for-Hallmark movies based on the books of Janette Oke, “Love’s Christmas Journey” opens with recently widowed Ellie King (Natalie Hall) visiting her brother, Aaron (Greg Vaughan), and his children for Christmas. Even with the loss of her husband and daughter in a tornado, she tries her best to enjoy the holidays in a western town anticipating the possible arrival of the railroad. Even without a formal announcement, the town’s residents, greedy business interests and con artists are positioning themselves to profit from it. Bad luck appears to have followed Ellie when Aaron, the town’s sheriff, goes missing on a trip to check out some contested land. The Dove-approved “Love” series carries a family-friendly Christian message and has been compared to “Little House on the Prairie.” Among the guest stars are JoBeth Williams, Sean Astin and Ernest Borgnine. The DVD includes a souvenir greeting card. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Magic Mike, Blade Runner, Invisible War, Abraham Lincoln, Sunday, Kovacs, Tinker Bell, Peter Gunn … More

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Magic Mike: Blu-ray
With the exception of the “Ocean’s” trilogy, Steven Soderbergh doesn’t seem to have made the same movie twice. He refuses to be confined by genre boundaries and never tires of surprising anyone who tries to pigeonhole his work. Neither does he limit his output to potential commercial successes. Box office returns for the entire theatrical runs of “Bubble,” “Che” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” together, didn’t come close to matching the opening weekend total of “Magic Mike,” which reportedly cost $7 million to make and returned nearly $114 million in North America, alone. Throw “Solaris” and “The Good German” into the mix and the numbers would still come up short. This isn’t to imply that the underperforming movies haven’t made back some of the money in ancillary markets or that the good will he’s earned as a producer doesn’t count for something in Hollywood, because it does. Moreover, the three “Ocean’s” romps have grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide. In addition to making plenty of money for its investors – always a good thing – “Magic Mike” received excellent reviews in the mainstream media. I wasn’t all that impressed with the story, which reminded me of a more circumspect “Coyote Ugly” and a less daring “Dancing at the Blue Iguana” than something fresh and original, but Soderbergh’s contributions as editor and cinematographer are enchanting. The Blu-ray images are nothing short of spectacular, while his choice of camera angles and locations is inspired. Clearly, the actors were having the time of their lives, as well.

As you probably already know, “Magic Mike” is set in and around the world of male strip clubs that cater to straight women, many of whom are celebrating a birthday or participating in a bachelorette party. Unlike some of the party footage you can find on the Internet, nothing remotely hard core goes on at the Tampa nightclub owned by Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas. The elaborately choreographed dances and expensively costumed hunks are naughty, at worst, and the women in the crowds seem relatively composed … by Las Vegas standards, anyway. Reid Carolin’s script is informed by Channing Tatum’s own experiences as a 19-year-old dancer. He plays the title character, Mike, who, of course, has higher ambitions than stripping, but needs the bread to pursue them. Until that happens, he’s enjoying the fast life that comes with being a freakishly handsome man in a sea of horny women. Mike befriends a guy, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), he meets at one of his other odd jobs and convinces Dallas to give him a shot on the Club Xquisite stage. Although Adam lacks most of the usual social graces, he, too, is abnormally handsome, exceedingly fit and a natural dancer. Adam has a rather stern, if pretty sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), who completely disapproves of her brother’s career track, but gradually comes around to seeing something worthwhile in Mike. The screenplay borrows a subplot from “Boogie Nights,” by having Adam succumb to the temptation of selling drugs and taking advantage of some of the young women he entertains outside the club. Although Mike is arrow-straight, Brooke and Dallas both blame him for not keeping Adam from nearly self-destructing. If the ending ties everything up in too neat a bow, anything more realistic would have spoiled the movie’s natural trajectory.

I found it interesting that the only character who exposes anything more than butt cheeks in “Magic Mike” is his occasional girlfriend, Joanna. She’s played by Olivia Munn, who seems to have a bit of a kinky streak running through her, but more closely resembles the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi than a super-freak. There’s no questioning her physical bona fides, though. Straight guys required to watch “Magic Mike” with their significant others will definitely appreciate her sacrifice. Aspiring filmmakers, too, will find much to enjoy in the movie. Soderbergh is nothing if not inventive and, strictly as eye and ear candy, “Magic Mike” rivals the movie adaptations of “Chicago” and “Chorus Line.” The Blu-ray extras include a sizzle reel of dance scenes, extended routines and an undernorished making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Blade Runner: 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
At some point, Ridley Scott is going to have to stop monkeying with “Blade Runner” and let it rest on its already impressive laurels. We’ll give a pass to the “30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition,” if for no other reason than it looks and sounds so fantastic. It’s as if Scott made “Blade Runner” in anticipation of every not-yet-practical technological advance from Laserdisc to Blu-ray and was confident that he’d eventually be able to get it right … in his mind, anyway. Despite a shabby reception by audiences upon its release in 1982, “Blade Runner” has since been recognized – thanks in large part to home-video enthusiasts – for what it’s been all along: a masterpiece. If nothing else, it added the word “dystopian” to the vernacular and a portrait of a dying metropolis (Los Angeles, but it could have been Tokyo, Manhattan or Peking just as easily), circa 2019, that with a bit more acid rain could end up being spot-on. The fact is, there was so much bad mojo associated with the project from Day One that it’s nearly a miracle Scott didn’t give up in the development stage. He reportedly told author Philip K. Dick that he wasn’t interested in making an “esoteric” movie, but it boggled minds from the opening credits. Even before shooting was completed, grousing could be heard from participants, ranging from cast and crew to producers and studio heads, if for altogether different reasons. Because test audiences didn’t dig the movie’s deliberate pacing, imprecisely defined characters and non-traditional ending, a voice-over track was added in post-production, along with a happier ending that satisfied no one. Neither did it impress at the box office.

Sci-fi buffs would find it in video, but that spark wouldn’t ignite a flame until seven years later when a 70mm print of Scott’s original cut was discovered and shown at a film festival in Hollywood. In 1992, Warner Bros. sent this version out in what was purported to be the “director’s cut” edition, one of the first titles to make such a distinction. In 2001, Scott and producer Charles de Lauzinka committed themselves to an actual director’s-cut version, employing state-of-the-art technology and adding various re-conceptualizations. For legal reasons, the planned 2002 DVD release wasn’t cleared for a theatrical run until 2007, as “Blade Runner: The Final Cut.” Anyone who already owns the “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” gift set should know that the equivalent “30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” adds an all-new concept Spinner Car; action Lenticular; a 72-page art-production book with Scott’s sketches, poster art and photos from the set; and an UltraViolet copy. The “Final Cut” Blu-ray remains the same version that was restored and re-mastered from original elements and scanned at 4K resolution, with a the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track. In addition to the “Final Cut,” with three separate commentary tracks, the sets contain the original 1982 theatrical and slightly more violent International versions; the 1992 “Director’s Cut”; and a “Workprint” version, with commentary and a making-of featurette. Anyone with the time and inclination will find something worthwhile in all of the versions. – Gary Dretzka

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
If advocates of the Birther movement have been allowed to spread their insane message by exploiting the willingness of the media to repeat partisan nonsense, even if they eventually knock it back down, I reserve the right to believe Abraham Lincoln could have been President by day and a slayer of undead Confederate plotters by night. Both theories are equally stupid, but only one qualifies as entertainment. In addition to Seth Grahame-Smith and Timur Bekmambetov’s highly entertaining “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” we recently saw the release into DVD of the Asylum “mockbuster” “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.” I’ve yet to see the latter, but assume that its basic premise is the same as the movie it mocks: armies of vampires and zombies used the Civil War as an opportunity to take control of the split republic, first by lending their support to rebel forces and, then, invading Washington, D.C. In Birther mythology, of course, if President Obama were to win a second term, hordes of Kenyans of the Muslim persuasion would descend on the capital on Inauguration Day, after which their leaders would be appointed to leadership positions in his Cabinet. I’m guessing that Obama’s detractors would prefer vampires and zombies to more liberals and illegal aliens.

Bekmambetov’s period thriller benefits mightily from his decision to refrain from snarky asides and wink-wink humor and play the material straight down the middle. By assuming that grown-up audiences would be willing to suspend their disbelief long enough to be entertained, he was allowed the luxury of not having to make his protagonist a caricature of his historic image. After a young Abe Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) witnesses the death of his mother to a vampire, he vows to exact justice on the fiends. A few years later, he encounters a mysterious young man, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), willing to teach him the ins and outs of vampire hunting. Because of his rail-splitting expertise, it’s only natural for Lincoln to choose a silver-bladed ax as his weapon of choice. Rufus Sewell and Erin Wasson play Lincoln’s most aggressive foes, going so far as to sneaking into the White House and attacking one of their sons. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the killer app that turns the tables at Gettysburg, except to say that it’s a logical alternative to crosses, garlic and wooden stakes. There’s also a terrific scene aboard a moving train, during which Lincoln and Sturgess battle vampires who are intent on capturing the secret weapon. Who knew Abe could move like that?

Bekmambetov’s team was able to take advantage of the period authenticity still provided by New Orleans’ French Quarter, the Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana, and outlying areas used to stage combat scenes. The look is further enhanced by the cinematography of Caleb Deschanel and the attention to detail paid by set and costume designers. It’s probably also worth mentioning that Tim Burton is listed among the producers and, as the First Lady, Mary Elizabeth Winstead couldn’t look less like the unflattering photographs we’ve seen of Mary Todd Lincoln. A 3D version of “Vampire Hunter” also was released and is available on Blu-ray. Among the supplementary features are commentary by the author; a graphic novel, “The Great Calamity”; an extensive making-of piece; and music video by Linkin Park. – Gary Dretzka

Sunday Bloody Sunday: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to exaggerate the controversy associated with the release of John Schlesinger’s brilliant 1971 relationship drama, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” both here and the director’s native England. The buzz leading up to its debut was generated by a single scene, early in the story, in which a gay doctor, Daniel (Peter Finch), and his much younger lover, Bob (Murray Head), exchange a brief kiss. In context, it was a perfectly natural and spontaneous gesture. Both men are clothed, vertical and not at all ashamed by the private display of affection. Contrary to the gossip generated in the media, the kiss was significant to the story only as a way to demonstrate the men’s fondness for each other and it wasn’t intended to deliver a message, one way or another. (In the days of the Production Code, one or both of the men would have been required to commit suicide, go insane or marry the girl next-door.) While critics embraced the movie for all the right reasons, reporters from other newspaper departments were assigned to survey audience members to get the impressions, not about the movie in its entirety, but the then-scandalous embrace. Almost all of them came back with a quote to the effect, “It almost made me vomit,” which, of course, was the response their editors desired. Even though “Sunday Bloody Sunday” wasn’t a box-office hit, it was nominated for an Academy Award in the top four categories. Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Writing. It’s certainly possible that some fans of Schlesinger’s previous triumph, “Midnight Cowboy,” had somehow missed that film’s homosexual subtext and were expecting something completely different from “Sunday.” Or, perhaps, lovers of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” “Darling” and “Billy Liar” anticipated a lecture on gay rights and took a pass on it. The Stonewall riots were fresh in the minds of most arthouse habitués, after all, and the movement was gathering steam. The upshot was that its box-office failure freed Hollywood from treating homosexuality or gay characters with any degree of honesty for years thereafter.

The kiss notwithstanding, Bob is every bit as romantically involved with a thirty-something woman — employment counselor, Alex, played by Glenda Jackson – who knows the physician and is aware of their relationship. She also knows that there isn’t anything – short of murder, and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” isn’t that kind of movie – that would keep Bob from Daniel. In fact, it’s difficult to gauge Bob’s appeal to either of his lovers, except to note that he’s an artist and remarkably handsome. Otherwise, he’s kind of a drip. The central issue here is how Alex and Daniel react to the news that Bob is about to travel to America, where he hopes to sell his kinetic sculptures, and probably stay there for a while, effectively breaking up with both of them. That neither of them freaks out, commits suicide or asks the other to get married is what differentiated “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from the usual portrayal of scorned lovers. Forty years later, it’s difficult to believe any controversy was attached to “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” especially considering its intended audience of sophisticated adults. Far more fascinating is the continuing debate, as described in the Blu-ray featurettes, over who’s more responsible for the screenplay, Schlesinger or the Oscar-nominated Penelope Gilliatt. The novelist and critic died in 1993, so no longer is around to defend herself against his assertions that he was more responsible for the screenplay, as shot, than she was. He sounds extremely bitter over the inability of critics to have intuited how his changes made “Sunday Bloody Sunday” a better picture than it would have been. He cites the fact that he experienced just such a relationship and it informed his interpretation of the story, even if she received single credit. Criterion Collection has added new interviews with biographer William J. Mann; photographer Michael Childers, the director’s longtime partner; actor Murray Head, cinematographer Billy William and set designer Luciana Arrighi; illustrated audio excerpts from a seminar given by Schlesinger at the American Film Institute in 1975; and a booklet with essays by critic Terrence Rafferty and cultural historian Ian Buruma, as well as Gilliatt’s 1971 introduction to the film’s screenplay. – Gary Dretzka

The Invisible War
Kirby Dick is a documentarian of uncommon perseverance and an uncanny ability to ferret his way through barriers put up by hypocritical organizations that most Americans trust implicitly and defend against perceived slander. These have included the Roman Catholic Church (“Twist of Faith”), U.S. Congress (“Outrage”) and the Motion Picture Association of America (“This Film Is Not Yet Rated”). Already making headlines and raising eyebrows is “The Invisible War,” which in its documentation of widespread rape, discrimination, bullying and cover-ups makes the U.S. military look like a barbarian horde. It is as shocking as any of the documentaries about sexual misconduct among priests and many viewers will take the accusations as personally as coverage of the My Lai massacre, which also was perpetrated by average soldiers and career officers. The Pentagon and politicians traditionally have been given a pass, as well, in cases of rape committed in combat zones and outside our bases around the world. Boys will boys, after all, and drunken rampages are as much a part of the military experience as the deprivations imposed during boot camp. This attitude prevailed as women began playing important roles in the armed services. It wasn’t until the revelation of sexual assaults on 83 women and 7 men, committed by more than 100 Navy and Marine Corps aviators at the 1991 Tailhook Association convention, however, that media coverage forced the Pentagon and Congress to act. Even though several officers were disciplined or lost their jobs, we’re told, the good ol’ boys and girls in command continue not only to overlook rape, but they also punish the victims by denying them benefits and prosecuting them for breaking ranks. The vast majority of American military personnel is innocent of any wrongdoing and, themselves, would be shocked by the information forwarded in this film. The “wall of silence,” however, remains a very real problem, just as it does among cops, crooks, corporate executives and honor-code-bound students caught in cheating scandals.

In “The Invisible War,” possibly for the first time, dozens of victims of sexual assaults come forward to describe their experiences. This includes both women and men, whose attackers likely would be insulted if they were referred to as gay. Indeed, they’re no more homosexual than the imprisoned sexual sadists who prey on weaker convicts. The statistics are horrifying: a female soldier in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire; 20 percent of all active-duty servicewomen have been sexually assaulted; in 2010, alone, the Department of Defense processed reports of 3,198 new assaults, but estimated the actual number of assaults to be closer to 19,000; and these reports resulted in convictions against only 244 perpetrators. The charges in many cases were reduced to facilitate judgments that prevented the guilty servicemen from being included on the national sexual-offenders list, where at least some of them belonged. After the Sundance debut of the film and a private screening, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ended the practice of commanders prosecuting sexual assault cases from within their own units. As is pointed out in the movie, working through the chain of command often meant that officers would refuse to punish buddies or, in some cases, reveal their own complicity. If the war in Afghanistan ever ends, perhaps, the military can take a year off from killing and fix itself. The special features include extended interviews, deleted scenes, a post-screening speak-out session and introductions to VetWOW and National Veterans Wellness & Healing Center, organizations and retreats for veterans of both genders experiencing PTSD. – Gary Dretzka

The Ambassador: Blu-ray
At first glance, you’d think that making a film documenting crime and corruption in central Africa, and exposing the underground trade in passports and other official documents, would be as difficult as fishing with hand grenades. It pretty much is, but no one told Mads Brügger that the hard part would be staying alive long enough to see it finished. In “The Ambassador,” Brugger tells one of those stranger-than-fiction stories that are alternately frightening and hilarious. A journalist, TV host and amateur comedian, Brugger’s original target was the easy availability of fraudulent diplomatic credentials, if one knows where to look and can afford them. Once obtained, the documents open the door to powerful and influential people willing to trade their nation’s most valuable commodities for foreign currency and sometimes allow for diplomatic immunity. The Dane’s last “ironic” documentary, “The Red Chapel,” took him to North Korea, so, by comparison, how much worse could things be in the Central Africa Republic? Pretty bad, it turns out.

Looking like a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Sascha Baron Cohen and the late comedian, Michael O’Donoghue, Brugger often affected the look of a mid-20th Century “colonial dandy.” Brugger’s triumph in “The Ambassador” is to show, using tiny surveillance cameras, what transpires in the inner chambers of corrupt states and recording the musings of fellow diplomats, local wiseguys and swindlers. To put it mildly, it’s appalling. When one confidante suggests that the diamonds can be smuggled out of the country by secreting them in various orifices of the body, it pushes Brugger’s co-conspirator – production manager Eva Jakobsen – almost over the brink of sanity. The commentary track allows him the opportunity to expand on his experiences in ways that wouldn’t have fit the context of the theatrical version. A booklet with photos and credits also is included. – Gary Dretzka

Secret of the Wings: Blu-ray 3D/2D
DreamWorks Spooky Stories: Blu-ray

If one were ignorant of the importance of Mickey Mouse to the birth and development of the Walt Disney Company and its global empire, it would be easy to mistake Jenny-come-lately Tinker Bell for the corporation’s flag bearer. Tink’s been around for as long as Peter Pan and Wendy, although in a subordinate role for most of those 108 years. Even in Disney’s 1953 animated feature, the pixie was rendered without a voice or wand. Those would come much later. In 1954, when Disney expanded its reach into television and other electronic media, Tinker Bell became the company’s unofficial hostess and a cross-platform star in her own right. Although the character has since been played by such actors as Julia Roberts, Jane Horrocks and Ludivine Sagnier, it wasn’t until Disney’s straight-to-DVD “Tinker Bell” was released in 2008 that the animated Tink was allowed a voice. It belonged to Mae Whitman (“Parenthood”) and has been heard on “Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure,” “Tinker Belle and the Great Fairy Rescue,” “Pixie Hollow Games” and, now, “Secret of the Wings,” all of which are set not in Neverland, but Pixie Hollow. She has a teeny-tiny waxwork sculpture in Madam Tussauds, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and her own Disney franchise, “Disney Fairies.” For all the money Tinker Bell’s earned for Disney, she might as well be Oprah Winfrey.

In “Secret of the Wings,” Tinker Bell can’t understand why summer fairies are prohibited from visiting the Winter Woods or why messages from the winter fairies must be delivered by magnificent snowy owls. Although she isn’t dressed for cold-weather conditions Tink decides to hitch a ride to the forbidden land. Once there, she meets her long-lost sister, Periwinkel (Lucy Hale), who introduces her to the joys of ice skating, tobogganing and throwing snowballs. Lord Milori of the Winter Woods (Timothy Dalton) and Queen Clarion of the Summer Woods (Anjelica Huston) have their reasons for maintaining a distance between their kingdoms, some of which involve topical environmental issues, but Tinker Bell’s a formidable opponent. Anyway, the computer-generated animation is wonderful – it also is available in Blu-ray 3D – and the story should be of interest to boy kiddies as well as girl kiddies. The supplementary material includes music videos by the McClain Sisters and Zendaya; a preview of “Fright Light”; and “Pixie Hollow Games,” an animated short in which the fairies stage their own Olympics-style competition.

If, however, your boy kiddies balk at feigning interest in fairies and pixies – however foxy – I’m certain they’ll find something in “Shrek’s Spooky Stories” to enjoy, especially in the lead-up to Halloween. Very little has been lost in the transition between the big and small screens. The characters retain their individual personalities and characteristics, while the animation is typically first-rate. Much of the humor derives from the homages paid to classic Hollywood horror movies, with familiar DreamWorks characters standing in the immortal monsters. (A reformed ogre playing a monster, indeed!) The titles include “Thriller,” “The Ghost of Lord Farquaad,” “Scarred Shrekless,” “The Pig Who Cried Werewolf,” “Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins From Outer Space” and “Night of the Living Carrots.” Besides Shrek and his family, the characters have been enlisted from “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Puss in Boots” and various fairytales represented in the kingdom. The extras include a pop-up trivia track for “Night of the Living Carrots,” music videos and previews. – Gary Dretzka

The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2
Ernie Kovacs Presents Percy Dovetonsils … Thpeaks

One of the most highly anticipated and glowingly reviewed DVD sets of 2011 was Shout!Factory’s “The Ernie Kovacs Collection.” The 6-disc, 780-minute package introduced countless viewers to the genius who pioneered the talk- and variety-show genre, while also creating illusions and special effects still copied by hosts of late-night chat shows and comedians. For those old enough to remember watching Kovacs live or via kinescope, the collections brought back indelible images of a medium in its infancy. Kovacs often worked without a net, testing limits and borders that had yet to be established. “The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2” extends the legacy of an entertainer who died too young, but left the bar set at an extremely high level. It weighs in at a slightly more compact 3 discs, 540 minutes, if only because it literally takes us to the point of his fatal car crash in January, 1962. The material here benefits from being less primitively recorded and surprisingly diverse. The compilation includes 8 more episodes From Kovacs’ national morning show; 18 bonus sketches, featuring many of his beloved characters; 3 complete episodes of “Take a Good Look,” his anarchic answer to “What’s My Line?”; the pilot for the sitcom, “A Pony for Chris,” co-starring Buster Keaton; the only existing filmed solo interview; and a 2011 post-screening panel at the American Cinematheque, with entertainers who worked alongside Kovacs or were heavily influenced by him. There would been plenty more material available if it weren’t for the fact that short-sighted executives at ABC and Dumont hadn’t taped over the stored shows or dumped them in the ocean. A similarly fate awaited kinescopes of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” while it was still shot in New York.

In June, Omnivore Recordings did all fans of Kovacs a great favor by releasing – for the first time – the album upon which the comedian was working at the time of his death, “Ernie Kovacs Presents Percy Dovetonsils … Thpeaks.” His shows’ outrageous “poet laureate” would register very low on the Meter of Political Correctness today, I’m afraid. He was to poetry what Liberace was to the piano, an unabashed and unapologetic caricature of his own outrageous persona. Sadly, Percy possessed none of Liberace’s estimable talent. Routinely introduced with a flourish of harp music, Dovetonsils was distinguished by heavily slicked hair, with two spit-curls plastered to his forehead; extraordinarily thick glasses, whose lenses are dominated by large eyeballs; a zebra-patterned smoking jacket; an ever-present martini glass and cigarette holder; and a decided lisp. He delivered his poems in a self-satisfied style that emphasized how goofy they were. Among the titles are “Thoughts While Falling Off the Empire State Building,” “Ode to a Housefly (Philosophical Ruminations on a Beastie in the Booze),” “Ode to Sam, the Taller of the Two Monkeys” and “The Night Before Christmas on New York’s Fashionable East Side.” You might want to hit pause on the DVD, so you can see Percy while listening to him read. It’s easily half the fun. – Gary Dretzka

Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines: Blu-ray
Dropping Evil
Bloody Christmas

Like most every other states in the union, West Virginia has a state motto, slogan, color, bird, animal, fish, flower, tree and song. For some reason, legislators also saw fit to choose an official state insect, reptile, rock, butterfly, fossil, gemstone, soil, fruit and tartan. What it doesn’t have is an official state movie franchise. May I suggest the five installments of the “Wrong Turn” series? What, besides a John Denver song, says West Virginia quite as well as mountains, forests, rivers, automatic weapons in the hands of crazed mass murderers and in-bred cannibal hillbillies, all of which figure prominently in all five episodes? “Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines” differs from the other four episodes very little. Once again, a group of clueless tourists (this time, college kids) encounters a family of grotesquely disfigured hillbillies while on their way to the annual Halloween Mountain Man Festival. The town is so small it has one only cellphone tower and no replacement generators, both of which are put out of commission by the killers. The twist here is that the hillbillies’ self-proclaimed father – a relatively normal looking fugitive serial killer – has been arrested and he’s thrown in the hoosegow with one of the students. His “sons” will do anything in their considerable powers to spring the old man from jail. In fact, it’s only matter of time. Before that can happen, though, the pinheads find it necessary to slaughter more than a dozen people who get in their way. The result is a bloodbath that, while gory, isn’t at all frightening. What’s scary are threats hurled at the town’s only surviving sheriff, a woman, by the “father,” who’s played with great menace by Doug Bradley, a.k.a., Pinhead in the “Hellraiser” series. The Blu-ray comes with the behind-the-scenes pieces, “A Day in the Death,” “Hillbilly Kills” and “Director’s Die-aries”; and commentary by director Declan O’Brien

By all appearances, the micro-budget “Dropping Evil” was intended as a franchise product. Three years and very little demand later, director Adam Protexter and writer Louis Doerge are fortunate to see “Dropping Evil” being released on video, with three mini-sequels included in the bonus package, along with deleted scenes and other material. This is one very strange movie, by anyone’s standards. It begins with an aborted camping trip, during which a religious fanatic is slipped a dose of LSD by his three companions, if only to shut him up. Instead, he demands to be let out of the moving vehicle, so that he can pick up a stick and beat the crap out of his “friends.” Meanwhile, somehow, the evil ValYouCorp is monitoring the incident via a camera embedded in one of the young people’s eye. The company believes that God’s “disappearance” can be solved by teenagers, but only if they’re involved in the procedure. It’s goofy, if not to the point where it could reach cult status. Any movie in which Tiffany Shepis is the brightest star and best actor – no offence, intended — is one with which no one needs to reckon.

Sometimes, it’s easy to give micro-budget indies of the DIY persuasion the benefit of a doubt. There’s usually a grain of something interesting lurking therein or worth staying awake for 90 minutes to find. Unless an aspiring filmmaker has robbed a convenience store to get the money to pay the actors, it’s better to encourage talent than condemn ineptitude. Michael Shershenovich’s “Bloody Christmas” uses horror to deliver a message about rampant consumerism and the people who have “taken Christ out of Christmas.” His avengers include a sad-sack Santa and killer priest, while the victims come in various shapes, sizes and colors. Unlike Chanukah, Kwanza and Ramadan, Christmas has provided a solid launching pad for slasher specialists ever since the 1974 release of “Silent Night, Evil Night” and “Black Christmas.” Shershenovich’s only previous experience in feature films was as production coordinator and set designer on “Bad Biology.” Here, he’s cited as director, writer, cinematographer, producer, editor and actor. That’s five too many responsibilities for any first-time filmmaker to take on and it shows. – Gary Dretzka

The Slut
Tokyo Playboy Club
Climb It, Tarzan!
Cherry.

Of all the loaded words in the English language, “slut” carries one of the most explosive charges. Sexual semantics allow for as many different interpretations as there are people who use such four-letter words – longer ones, too – as nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, expletives, slurs and terms of endearment. The elasticity of the English language can be a wonderful thing. In a review I read of the recent Israeli export, “The Slut,” the author argues that the title has been mistranslated or purposefully changed to something more provocative than “The Giver.” Not being adept at the Google translator app, I’ll take his word for it. Having watched “The Slut,” I would suggest that the latter title is the more accurate one. Freshman writer/director/star Hagar Ben-Asher plays the single mother of two young daughters, living in a cooperative agricultural settlement that seemingly is bereft of any women, let alone attractive ones in their mid-thirties. Some people might consider Tamar to be a woman who defines the term, slut, because she willingly has four men on her sexual string and demands nothing from them in turn. I think that Tamara more closely resembles a “giver,” for the simple reason that she doesn’t appear to derive any sensual pleasure from her encounters and appears merely to be servicing several of the men in the settlement. They come to her when they need to get off and she willingly complies. If anything, it’s charity. The movie’s drama, such as it is, derives from the position in which she finds herself when an old acquaintance returns to the area and they enter into a romantic relationship. This would be swell, except for the fact that Tamar eventually comes to the conclusion that she’s more interested in personal freedom than monogamy and she truly does enjoy making men happy. I wish I could report there was something more to “The Slut” than that, but I couldn’t find it. The only truly disturbing thing about it is watching her pre-teen daughters watching mom in flagrante delicto and aping some of her gestures. The rural setting was interesting, at least, if only because it’s so different from the usual views we get of Israel.

Anyone looking for Bunnies at the Tokyo Playboy Club will be sorely disappointed. The closest this movie comes to Playmate of the Year material are three giggly hookers who dress up in costumes and don’t seem to have many customers. Anyone looking for a terrific yakuza flick from out of left field, though, will find one in writer/director Yosuke Okuda’s “Tokyo Playboy Club.” Any resemblance between the cheesy brothel of the title and the nightclub atop the Palms resort in Las Vegas wouldn’t merely be coincidental, it would be impossible. Action star Nao Omori (“Ichi the Killer,” “The Vulture”) plays an out-of-work businessman, Katsutoshi, who kills a wiseass student with a monkey wrench, because he was making too much noise and the tool was handy. The assailant decides to make a quick trip to Tokyo, where his cousin, Sekichi (Ken Mitsuishi), runs the aforementioned nightclub for the yakuza. It doesn’t take long for Katsutoshi to take advantage of his cousin’s generosity by beating a mob associate to a pulp in the men’s room of a restaurant. The ante is raised when the two men find themselves in possession of the body of a yakuza boss who died of electro-shock while attempting to rape a young woman whose boyfriend betrayed him. When the boss’ evil brother comes around demanding answers, Katsutoshi freely admits his role in making the body disappear and he doesn’t care who knows it. With its extreme displays of violence and twisted sense of humor, “Tokyo Playboy Club” should remind genre buffs of the early work of Takashi Miike. That’s high praise for the newcomer, Okuda.

And, speaking of titles, it would be difficult to beat the one writer/director Jared Masters gave his most recent sleaze epic, “8 Reels of Sewage.” Talk about tempting fate, this one takes the cake. New to DVD is Masters’ 2011 homage to the pre-“Deep Throat” sexploitation era, “Climb It, Tarzan!,” and, even after watching it, no, I can’t recall seeing anyone who looks even remotely like the King of the Apes. Fact is, there aren’t any men in the cast of several dozen largely unknown actors. Neither is there a semblance of a plot. There is, however, a lesbian pinup photographer who holds one of the many aspiring actresses who come to her for work hostage and uses her as a sexual plaything. Otherwise, the women spend an inordinate amount of time gabbing on vintage dial telephones and walking around half-dressed. This one’s strictly for fanciers of do-it-yourself cinema and other oddities.

I don’t know why “Cherry.” has a period tacked to the end of it, except to distinguish it from the many other unpunctuated movies titled, in part or whole, “Cherry.” It refers specifically to Brian Cherry, an overly sensitive young man whose discomfort around women is palpable. Naturally, his best guy pal, Sam (Rey Valentin), is the complete opposite of Brian (co-writer David Crane). One night, at a Los Angeles tavern, Sam spots a brunette, Jules (Lili Bordan) who looks as if she had been hired by Satan to tempt men into selling their souls for a hand job. Sam talks Brian into buying a drink for Jules and following it up with a bit of conversation. He even goes so far as to approach Jules and offering her cash merely to be nice to his timid friend. Even though she pretends to be offended by the offer, Jules surprises everyone – viewers included – by entering into a relationship with Brian. Sam senses trouble in the offing and warns Brian about what happens when opposites stop attracting. As much as Sam tries to keep his prophecy from coming true, by resisting Jules’ unexpected advance, he succumbs to her wiles. It leads to a broken heart for Brian, but not because he knows what happened that night. She merely decides that the affair has run out of gas and splits. What doesn’t make any sense at all is Jules’ insistence on revealing the truth about his best friend’s betrayal when they run into each other six months later and she and Sam have entered into a relationship of their own. What happens next is so clumsily handled by director Quinn Saunders that it makes everything that happened earlier in the movie suspect. The only thing I retained from “Cherry.” is a lingering image of Bordan, who’s real deal, in a Linda Fiorentino sort of way. – Gary Dretzka

Circle Jerks: My Career as a Jerk
The production of films documenting the rise and fall of rock bands has grown into something of a cottage industry. It doesn’t matter if the subject is a group with the impact of the Rolling Stones and Beatles or, in the case of “SpokAnarchy,” a nearly forgotten punk scene in an isolated corner of the American Northwest. The value of each of these rock-docs is determined largely by the passion of the groups’ fans. “Circle Jerks: My Career as a Jerk” is interesting because it not only describes what made a popular band important, but also how it fit into musical milieu. Here, it’s the SoCal hard rock and punk scene, which, in the late-1970s, had blossomed into a viable force everywhere except mainstream radio. Formed in late 1979, the Circle Jerks was comprised of former members of Black Flag and Redd Kross, but would see a revolving door of personnel representing several other Los Angeles bands. It was a hyper-dynamic unit then and has continued that way through its many incarnations and reunions. Filmmaker David Markey (“1991: The Year Punk Broke”) has created a blend of in-depth interviews, live footage and historical perspective to illustrate the band’s story. It isn’t radically different from dozens of other rock-docs, but fans of hardcore punk should enjoy it. – Gary Dretzka

Peter Gunn: The Complete Series
Wallander3
Fantasy Island: The Complete Third Season
Ghost Hunters: Season 7: Part 2

The release on DVD of all 114 episodes of the classic TV series, “Peter Gunn,” is good news for all sorts of reasons, the least of which may be the shows themselves. From 1958-61, Craig Stevens played the hipster private detective, who dug cool jazz, “dated” a sultry cabaret singer (Lola Albright), got referrals from a friendly police detective (Herschel Bernardi) and used a wharf-side gin mill for his office. The show was created, written and occasionally directed by Blake Edwards, who had previously written for “Richard Diamond, Private Detective” and would go on to make such movies as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” the “Pink Panthers” series and “10,” among other comedies. Even more memorable is the show’s theme song and background music contributed by Henry Mancini. The “Peter Gunn Theme” and two soundtrack albums became huge hits and guitar wizards, ranging from Duane Eddy to Jeff Beck, have covered the trademark song. From a distance of 50 years, the crime-detecting aspect of the show’s borders on the ridiculous. Packaged to fit 30 minutes of interrupted air time, the teleplays gave Gunn just enough time to solve complex crimes, hang out with his girlfriend and share wisecracks over corpses with Lieutenant Jacoby. Edwards seems to have enjoyed taking Gunn out of his natural habitat – an unnamed coastal city – and sticking him into situations where he might be required to wear a Howdy Doody cowboy outfit and traipse around in fins and scuba gear. If it lacked all credibility, “Peter Gunn” succeeded at being undeniably entertaining. The Timeless Media Group set also includes a disc of Mancini’s soundtrack music.

By now, no introduction should be needed to Henning Mankell’s brooding Swedish police detective, Kurt Wallander, whether he’s being played by Krister Henriksson or, in the English-language “Wallander3,” by Kenneth Branagh. Both editions of the series are readily available on DVD, if not all PBS outlets, and both qualify as a must-see television. It does, however, still feel a bit odd to listen to Branagh’s unaccented English coming out of the mouth of the same crime-obsessed Swedish cop in the same location, Ystad, where the novels and series are set. Frankly, though, after a half-hour it barely matters and subtitle-phobic Americans can rest assured their brains won’t be overly taxed by the experience. The three 90-minute episodes included in this boxed set are “An Event in Autumn,” based on “The Grave,” a short story published only in the Netherlands; “The Dogs of Riga,” which takes Our Hero to the capital of Latvia to assist in a drug case; and “Before the Frost,” in which Wallander’s semi-estranged daughter plays a key role. Most mystery buffs already appreciate the quality of the works from which these stories have been adapted. These mini-series are just as compelling.

Not much has changed on “Fantasy Island” in Season Three. Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalban) and Tatoo (Herve Villechaize), are still greeting the planes and resolving problems – romantic and otherwise — that can’t be fixed anywhere else in the world. Among the guest stars this time around are Peter Graves, Abe Vigoda, Doris Roberts, Roddy McDowall, Don Adams, Sonny Bono, Dick Sargent, Fred Williamson, John Larroquette, David Cassidy, Leslie Nielsen, Bob Denver, Annette Funicello and Robert Goulet. I wonder what “Fantasy Island” would look like with an A-list cast.

You’d think all of the ghosts worth finding have already been cornered by the TAPS team, by now. Apparently, there are still a few of the boogers left. Hauntings are getting a bit harder to detect, though. The second half of Season Seven found “Ghost Hunters” in such places as the Carnegie Library, in Homestead, Pa.; Hawaii’s Plantation Village; the Friars’ Club, in New York; Missouri State Penitentiary; Buffalo Trace Distillery, in Frankfort, Kentucky; and Hartford’s Elk Lodge No. 19. Wouldn’t you love to see TAPS take on the ghosts of the White House and Disneyland? – Gary Dretzka

Kartemquin: The Last Pullman Car
History: Disasters Deconstructed: A History of Architectural Disasters
Nova: Secrets of the Viking Sword

Long before anyone had heard of Bain Capital, outsourcing, NAFTA and the auto-industry bailout, the closing of a century-old interest in Chicago and Indiana presaged the collapse of America’s Rust Belt economy. Kartemquin Films (“Hoop Dreams”), which then focused almost exclusively on labor and other progressive causes, committed its cameras to documenting the impending closure of the plants where Pullman Company’s railroad sleeping cars were built. In 1981, Pullman workers dedicated themselves to the effort to convince state and national legislators to stall the closure and/or enact laws protecting the 8,000 Pullman workers from the immediate loss of their jobs and benefits. As is demonstrated in “The Last Pullman Car,” the unions were greeted with false promises, outright disdain and legislative inaction. Today, such treatment is commonplace. That their union was duped by the company, as well, added insult to injury. The documentary also chronicles the history of labor unrest and occasional progress at Pullman and the boom-bust cycle of American industry. One of the things in “Last Pullman Car” that struck me was the solidarity of the union members and their awareness of the issues directly impacting their future. Everything foretold in the film, including the fate of Pullman Company, now is history. Sadly, blue-collar workers now are more likely to accept the lies told them on talk radio than entrust their futures to progressive political candidates. The new Facets release adds an update on the people we met in the film, a look at protests against anti-labor laws in Wis