The Heat: Blu-ray
When Sandra Bullock isn’t required to carry a dopey Hollywood rom-com or unnecessary sequel on her shoulders, she’s as dominant a force as any actress in Hollywood. Anyone who could squeeze $33 million and $48 million worth of business from the barely watchable “All About Steve” and “Miss Congeniality 2” will always be expected to do wonders with material that’s actually good. The buddy-cop comedy, “The Heat,” returned almost four times its original $43 million budget at the domestic box office, alone. This isn’t to say that Melissa McCarthy, who played Mutt to Bullock’s Jeff, didn’t bring a goodly number of her fans along for the ride, of course. Their characters may be complete opposites when it comes to size and attitude, but they perfectly complement each other as a by-the-book FBI agent – by now, a role Bullock could play in her sleep – and a throw-the-book-away Boston cop, forced to work together on a delicate drug investigation. Neither of them are known for playing well with other children, so the men on their teams can’t wait to watch the fireworks from a safe distance. That’s probably all the information any regular moviegoer would need to commit two hours to the movie, without also noting the presence of Marlon Wayans (“G.I.Joe”), Demian Bichir (“Weeds”), Michael Rapaport and Jane Curtin. McCarthy had worked previously with director Paul Feig on “Bridesmaids,” for which she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, and he seems to bring out the best/beast in her. The theatrical version of “The Heat” was rated “R” for its raunchy language and many sexual references. I can’t imagine what the included unrated cut of the film could add to make it any more entertaining. Maybe, it bleeps out the bad language for family viewing. Among the many other supplemental features are bloopers, alternate scenes, an acting master class, a making-of piece and backgrounders and commentary with Feig and McCarthy. – Gary Dretzka
Pacific Rim: Blu-ray
In explaining why the gargantuan robots in “Pacific Rim” are called Jaegers, we’re told that it means “hunter” in German. (The giant lizards, Kaiju, certainly resemble the “strange beasts” that have populated Japanese sci-fi movies, manga, anime and TV shows, ever since the birth of Godzilla and Rodan.) Judging by the many over-the-top gags and insider references in Guillermo del Toro’s oversized comic book, it’s just as possible that the monstrous machines were so-named as homage to the crew’s favorite elixir, Jägermeister, or “hunter master” in German. Consuming mass quantities of the powerful digestif would have put them precisely in the right mood to channel 60 years’ worth of war, cowboy and sci-fi tropes into the dialogue, at least, in “Pacific Rim.” I haven’t heard as many movie clichés in one place since binging on the John Wayne movies contained in Mill Creek’s 25-title “John Wayne: The Ultimate Collection.” I can’t recall any of the characters here addressing another as “Pilgrim,” but I could have missed it in all of the turmoil and thunderous sound effects. Del Toro borrowed from a multitude of non-cinematic sources though, including Francisco Goya’s frightening painting, “The Colossus,” and Hokusai’s breath-taking woodcut, “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” You can’t miss them. His primary source, of course, was the graphic novel, “Pacific Rim: Tales From Year Zero,” by Travis Beacham. Besides offering the inspiration for the Kaiju, Japanese anime also provided a blueprint for the Jaegers. In the tradition of mecha anime series, Jaegers are controlled from within by two human pilots – up from only one in the previous invasion — distinguishing them from other depictions of robots as being automated, sentient or externally controlled. And, in a nutshell, that’s all the background one needs when considering a rental or purchase.
A dozen or so years before the events of “Pacific Rim” play out, a great war was fought between predatory Kaiju, which emerged from a breeding portal deep in the ocean, and Jaegers built and controlled by endangered humans. Much damage was done to coastal cities located along the Pacific Rim before the battles ended. Now, the reptilian beasts have re-emerged larger and more pissed-off than before they were driven back into the sea. Now, humans are forced to build Jaegers capable of standing up to the new, improved Kaiju. The amazing fight scenes are supplemented by human interaction that’s drawn from hundreds of movies in which men and women are required to gather their courage and put their heads together to come up with a defense against a formidable enemy. Unless you’re 12- or 13-years-old, it’s best simply to put your mind on neutral and give in to Del Toro’s imagination. If fans go into it hoping to see something along the lines of “Cronos” or “The Devil’s Backbone,” they’ll be disappointed. The pilots are played by Charlie Hunnam, Max Martini, Rob Kazinsky and Rinko Kikuchi, with the obligatory nerdy scientists portrayed by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman. Ron Perelman arrives towards the middle of the two-hour-plus movie, giving the human interaction a necessary jolt as a bootlegger in Kaiju parts. Action/fantasy nerds will enjoy the many bonus features, which fill a separate disc, as well as Del Toro’s enthusiastic commentary. I can’t vouch for the 3D version, but imagine that it offers plenty of thrills of its own. The Blu-ray 2D is a sensory treat. – Gary Dretzka
Jumper: Blu-ray 3D
Of all of the projects available to him, it seems odd that Doug Liman (“Bourne Identity”) would choose to add a reprise of his 2008 action/fantasy, “Jumper” to his bucket list. Though based on a critically acclaimed science-fiction novel by Steven Gould, “Jumper” opened to lukewarm returns at the box office and mostly hostile reviews. Liman probably will be keeping an eye on returns for the picture’s re-release this week on Blu-ray 2D/3D/DVD to determine whether “Jumper 2” will move forward from its “announced” status. It stars Hayden Christensen as a young man, David, who discovers to his amazement he has the power to teleport anywhere he can visualize. Not blessed with the innate virtue of, say, Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne, David isn’t a candidate for superhero status just yet. After saving himself from drowning, while recovering from a bully’s prank, he spends several years in the jumper wilderness adapting to his talent. Once he establishes for himself that he can teleport into bank vaults and, more importantly, exit with the spoils, David sets out to make a comfortable living for himself. He’ll also attempt to reconnect with the teen queen, Millie (Rachel Bilson), who was the only “cool” person that was nice to him in high school. In his prolonged absence, Millie has regressed from top of the heap to the prettiest bartender at a pub frequented by locals. As such, she’s easy pickings for David and his ability to transport her from the dregs of Ann Arbor to Luxor, Rome and Paris at her heart’s content. Before long, David realizes that the world’s jumper population is being threatened by bounty-hunting paladins. They include white-haired Samuel L. Jackson, wielding a lightsaber right out of “Stars Wars.” Among David’s allies is a more experienced jumper, Griffin (Jamie Bell), who steals every scene in which he’s involved. Other characters are played by Diane Lane and Kristen Stewart. “Jumper” wasn’t shot in 3D, so purists shouldn’t expect the maximum experience here. It looks fine in Blu-ray 2D, though. Alas. this edition doesn’t offer previous bonus features. – Gary Dretzka
The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear
Native Georgian Tinatin Gurchiani’s emotionally charged documentary, “The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear,” describes life in the former Soviet state for men and women who were born after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Since gaining its independence in 1991, the mountainous Eurasian country has been involved in ethnic turmoil, political division, two devastating wars, economic crises and a migration of young adults from rural villages to larger cities. Gurchiani recruited participants by advertising for volunteers, 15 to 23, who would like to be in a movie. She didn’t specify what they would be expected to do, but, in auditions, it was made clear by her questions that she wanted to hear their stories told in their own voices and words. The interviews, which take place in front of a drably painted wall, would serve as entry points to segments shot in their homes, villages, workplaces or other points of interest. Some of the respondents are shy and their stories have to be dragged out of them, while others were only too anxious to open up for the camera. As reflects the nation’s diverse population, the accounts vary greatly in focus. The common denominator is an aura of melancholy that likely is the result of uncertainty about Georgia’s future and their roles in it. One of the young men we meet is the mayor of a remote village of less than 200 people, most of whom are three times his age. A teenage girl invites us to her wedding, taking place that afternoon. Several of them have seen their dreams blow up in their faces, because of unplanned pregnancies, criminal activity, the trauma of war and necessity of caring for elderly parents. The most heartbreaking vignette involves a girl who was abandoned by her mother as an infant, so she could run away from her husband with another man. Empowered by Gurchiani’s interest in her, the aspiring actress decides to find and confront the woman, but not before she begs the forbearance of the father, aunt and grandmother who raised her. Adding to the poignancy here is the knowledge that girls who have been abandoned by their mothers, especially, traditionally have a more difficult time finding husbands. Neither is acting a particularly valued profession by perspective suitors. The DVD includes a Q&A with the filmmaker. – Gary Dretzka
Drug War: Blu-ray
If A&E’s “Breaking Bad” had been set in China, the consequences of manufacturing, trafficking and selling crank would have to be ratcheted up to conform to the reality of the country’s no-nonsense drug laws. If arrested and found guilty, which is almost always the case, offenders face immediate execution. There are no appeals or opportunities to tell their stories to sympathetic journalists or screenwriters. If nothing else, the severity of the punishment adds an immediacy to movies in which the drug trade is featured. In Johnny To’s gripping procedural, “Drug War,” one lucky meth cooker is given the option of being put to death immediately or helping police bring down the cartel for whom he’s been working. Either way, the odds of Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) surviving long enough to celebrate his next birthday are pretty slim. To, who specializes in Hong Kong-style shoot-’em-ups, benefits from the new, more wide open scenery he finds on the mainland. Not many drug-related feature films are made in the PRC, but the problem must be sufficiently large that censors would acknowledge both the crime and punishment in a large-budget movie. It gave To the freedom to stage scenes in which drug mules – peasants desperate for money – are thwarted by a malfunctioning bus and are forced to make a run it, with police on their tale. The possibility that the balloons they swallowed might rupture adds much urgency to the chase and interrogation. To also is given an unusually large parcel of space to stage a final confrontation between the forces of good and evil. What isn’t unusual is the tension that To is able to build between the lead investigator, Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), and the surprisingly slick cartel leaders. As long as China keeps growing more western in its tastes and fashions, criminals will exploit poor people to deliver the commodities most desired by the new middle- and upper-classes. Whether the threat of summary execution is enough to keep its citizens from paying outrageous sums of money to gangsters with connections to greedy politicians, however steeped in Marxian theory they may be, is a question the increasingly more materialistic culture will face as it prospers. Another question: whatever happened to Mao jackets? – Gary Dretzka
East End Babylon: The Story of the Cockney Rejects
Although the well-made and surprisingly engaging rock-doc “East End Babylon: The Story of the Cockney Rejects” focuses on the roots and output of the titular post-punk rock group, it also serves as a primer on the East End culture celebrated in the films of Guy Ritchie. While it references Cockney rhyming slang and the rough-hewn dialect that separates the extended working-class neighborhood from the rest of the English-speaking world, it doesn’t dwell on it. The young East Enders interviewed here by Richard England argue that no one uses it, anyway. It’s more important to know that the band members and their rough-and-ready fans are the descendants of poor Londoners forced to live in overcrowded tenements and work in industries free to take advantage of their poverty and/or immigrant status. We are reminded that the region experienced the brunt of the damage during the World War II bombings and rocket attacks. Boom periods in the shipping industry would, for a time, give dockworkers a decent income and a sense of pride in their blue-collar ethos. By the mid-1970s, though, the warehouses and docks were left to rot by companies who had deserted the port. Without steady incomes, East End lads were left with “football, boxing or rock ‘n’ roll” as escape routes. In the film, it’s also noted that unemployment caused an already lively hoodlum culture to embrace drugs and other pursuits favored by organized criminals. Just as punk music was a reaction to the glam and progressive rock favored in the mid-’70s, the Cockney Rejects’ “Oi!” movement was strictly working class. The band attracted disaffected punks, skinheads, football hooligans, laborers and others drawn to the mosh pit. The band members, some of whom had been competitive boxers, could give as well as they got when confronted by their own fans. Their lyrics emphasized unemployment, workers’ rights, harassment by police and other authorities, and government oppression. The media attempted to lump the Cockney Rejects in with white-supremacist groups, but those assertions are denied in interviews. “East End Babylon” deserves to be seen by any anyone who considers himself to be an expert in rock history and how the music reflects society at large. – Gary Dretzka
Crashing Through Danger
In the late 1930s, hyper-prolific director Sam Newfield made two pictures that will be remembered as camp classics for as long as people watch movies, as well as several dozen that have already been forgotten by everyone except collectors and purveyors of obscure videos and DVDs. Any true buff should be able to describe in lurid detail the joys of “The Terror of Tiny Town” and “Harlem on the Prairie.” How many, though, know that “Crashing Through Danger” even exists? Among the many titles sent out this month by Alpha Video and MVD is the low-budget 1938 melodrama about a trio of electrical linemen who share the joys (window peeping on blond transvestites) and hazards (storms, downed lines) of keeping the grid humming. Torchy, Slim and Eddie are best buddies and roommates, until they begin to compete for the hand of the daughter of their late boss, Pop, who was killed in an underground explosion. The lovely lassie (Loretta Young’s sister, Sally Blane) strings all of her suitors along, causing the one she prefers to drop out of the competition and take an inside job with the utility company. His expertise will come in handy, however, when a huge storm threatens the coast and one of his estranged friends is stuck atop a damaged pole. “Crashing Through Danger” also stars B-movie regulars Ray Walker, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and James Bush. If you believe, like I did, that a blue-collar romance about electrical linemen is a dubious pursuit, at best, consider that Warner Bros. released one of its own, “Slim,” a few months earlier, starring Henry Fonda, Pat O’Brien, Stu Erwin and Margaret Lindsay. – Gary Dretzka
This old-fashioned serial-killer thriller shares several attributes with “American Psycho” and Alfred Hitchcock’s
“Psycho,” while also remaining true to the only slightly less bloody original “Maniac,” released in 1980. Elijah Wood plays Frank, a mild-minded mannequin freak who takes out his long-held aggression towards his mother by stalking, scalping and killing beautiful women. Thanks to Franck Khalfoun’s straight-forward direction, little time is wasted on such formalities as motivation before diving right into the muck. By shooting the entire film from the point of view of the protagonist – or his mirrored image – there’s little emphasis on his physical mannerisms and facial expressions. Because we’re looking through his eyes at the faces of the women he’s about to torture and kill, however, it’s impossible to ignore their terror and pain. You’ve probably already guessed what he does with the scalps when he brings them back to his shop … dollhouse, if you will. “Maniac” would be more shocking if we hadn’t already memorized “Psycho” and more horrifying if we hadn’t been exposed to Christian Bale as the psychopathic investment banker in “American Psycho.” It surely isn’t in the same league as those two films. Wood’s slight physique notwithstanding, however, the sheer ruthlessness of the attacks, when combined with modern makeup-effects work, is way beyond disquieting. The only indication we get that Frank might possess one or more human attributes is when a photographer with a mannequin fetish of her own befriends him. Being with someone who shares his interests serves to dilute his manic need to kill women who resemble his mother. It doesn’t last forever, of course, but just long enough to make us wonder when little Elijah is going to get his comeuppance. “Maniac” is good at what it sets out to do, but, not nearly as significant as the filmmakers make it out to be in the unusually long and windy making-of featurette. Still, someone in Cannes thought enough of the movie to invite it to premiere at the festival. How many movies have that on their resume? – Gary Dretzka
Korean horror is second to none when it comes to scaring the hell out its target audience of teenagers. I’m generalizing, but only to make a larger point. International arthouse audiences, of course, have embraced the edgy films of such Korean filmmakers as Kim Ki-Duk (“3 Iron,” “The Bow”), Im Sang-Soo (“The Housemaid”), Bong Joon-ho (“Mother”) and Park Chan-wook (“The Vengeance Trilogy”), but youth must be served. Pop stars frequently cross over into mainstream movies and the most popular actresses look as if they stopped aging on their 17th birthday. Anthology films, such as “Horror Stories,” are staples of the modern Korean cinema, if for no other reason than they introduce up-and-coming directors and television actors looking for exposure beyond the small screen. Here, four short thrillers are sandwiched between a wraparound story in which a kidnaped girl is required to tell horror stories to a psychopath with a speech impediment. Among the tales weaved by the modern-day Scheherazade are “Don’t Answer the Door,” by Jung Bum-shik, in which young siblings are left alone at home one night and warned by their mother not to answer the door to anyone, except her; ”Endless Flight,” by Lim Dae-woong, about a doomed flight, during which a serial killer escapes his police escorts and terrorizes the crew and attendants; ”Secret Recipe,” by Hong Ji-young, about a good and evil stepsisters; and ”Ambulance on the Dead Zone” by Kim Gok and Kim Sun, set in an emergency vehicle fleeing a Zombie virus, possibly with infected patients in tow. Just as in most anthology packages, the perceived quality of the segments fluctuates with the tastes of individual viewers. All of the filmmakers show great promise, though. – Gary Dretzka
Paranormal Apparition: Revenge From Beyond the Grave
Blood Moon Rising
The hillbilly horror film “Jug Face” effectively retools a backwoods legend involving a haunted pit and clay jugs upon which the faces of doomed people are sculpted. The yokels we meet in Chad Crawford Kinkle’s freshman feature live so deep in the sticks that such bizarre fundamentalist rites as snake-handling and speaking in tongues have yet to reach them. Instead, they behead blasphemers and sinners over the pit, so as to appease the creature they fear will devastate their village if they don’t behave. Lauren Ashley Carter is quite engaging as a teenager who wants to break away from the crazy rules imposed on her by parents played by Sean Young (yes, that Sean Young) and Larry Fessenden. By faking a pregnancy to avoid an arranged marriage with a dunce, the teenager inadvertently signs her own death certificate … or does she? “Jug Face” isn’t particularly frightening, but Kinkle does capture the creepiness of living in an isolated community populated by inbred lunatics. Kinkle’s terrific horror short, “Organ Grinder,” is included in the DVD package, along with a making-of featurette.
For the second week in a row, a DVD featuring fiends wearing gas masks has come my way. In “Abducted,” a pair of young lovers — Dave (Trevor Morgan) and Jessica (Tessa Ferrer) – are snatched and sedated while necking on a hillside in Griffith Park. When they come to, David and Jessica find themselves in a dark, bunker-like cell somewhere in L.A. They have no idea why they’ve been kidnaped, unless their hooded and masked captors are Taliban terrorists and they’re aware of the military connections of Jessica’s father. Soon enough, though, the couple discovers that the compound holds other couples, who’ve been there so long they’ve lost track of time. To their horror, they realize that there’s something seriously physically wrong with their captors and they’re being held to supply body parts and fluids. The problem here is that there’s very little consistency in the treatment of the victims and the abductors’ ability to keep them from repeatedly sneaking out of their cells. If you don’t buy into the movie in the first 15 minutes, it isn’t likely to get any better for you in the next 75.
James Cullen Bressack’s new thriller, “To Jennif/Jennifer,” lays claim to being the feature film shot entirely on the iPhone 5. I don’t know if the qualification means movies actually were shot on previous iPhone models or that this is an iPhone first. Either way, “To Jennif/Jennifer” only proves that — given sufficient storage and unlimited data usage — it can be done for a mere pittance. But, thousands of amateur porn producers already are well of that unadvertised fact. In the film-within-a-film, an annoying young man suspects his girlfriend of two years, Jennifer, is cheating on him. He is so convinced of it that he enlists the help of his cousin, Steven, to create a video diary of his journey to catch her in the act, as well as to document his heartbreak. No, it doesn’t make sense to me, either, but the premise is exponentially more interesting than any of the male characters, who spend the entire film yelling at each other for no good reasons. The really point of this exercise in delayed horror isn’t delivered until its last 10 minutes and, by then it’s too late. Moral: just because you can do something doesn’t mean it will be worth investing time watching it.
If there’s one thing “Murder University” shares with the aforementioned “Maniac,” it’s a willingness to show people being scalped while still alive. Otherwise, Richard Griffin and Lenny Schwartz’ homage to 1980s slasher flicks is standard-issue horror, with a pair of insanely efficient ax-murderers terrorizing a small New England college. The slayings remind a local cop of several that occurred 20 years earlier and went unsolved. The cop enlists a student who survived an attack nearly unscathed to help him catch the killers, along with his daughter. The saving grace here is the sense of humor the filmmakers reveal, in addition to the carnage. Apparently, “Murder University” was made for $20,000. That sounds just about right.
Released in 2007 as “Cold Blood Canyon,” a title that alludes to Beverly Hills’ Coldwater Canyon, at least, “Paranormal Apparition: Revenge From Beyond the Grave” benefits not all from the subsequent change. (Isn’t “Paranormal Apparition” redundant, anyway?) When the Myers are searching for a house in the hills of Beverly, their agent shows them a dwelling whose price tag is, at once, too good to be true and too low to pass up. When pressed, the agent admits, as is required by California law, that a headline-making murder was committed there several years earlier. Perspective buyers haven’t exactly been lining up to survey the house, “even though the victim was a celebrity.” The ghosts don’t waste any time before making themselves known to teenage daughter, Danielle (Lulu Brud), who would prefer to live anywhere else in L.A. Because her parents can’t see or hear the ghosts, they’re in no hurry to reconsider their investment. Worse, yet, they decide to split for Palm Springs, leaving Danielle to fend for herself for the weekend. The ghost of a worm-faced woman does appear to her boyfriend, who, less than gallantly, splits before she can even take off her bra. Haunted-house movies have been produced using the same template for decades, even as audiences ask the same question, “Why don’t they just leave?” Alec Tuckman neatly dodges the issue by adding a reasonably credible backstory for the ghosts, while also giving Danielle the backbone to confront them on her own. Once that happens, “Paranormal Apparition” is able to stake new claims of its own.
“Blood Moon Rising” is intended to be a spoof of grindhouse movies, but it’s impossible to distinguish between what’s being lampooned and what simply has been botched up. It involves a Goth chick who’s killed in one century and comes back to life in 1969, in the middle of a production of a zombie Western. It’s possible that the producers wanted to set a record for most fake blood spilt in the interest of a DIY movie, but that doesn’t make it entertaining. Ron Jeremy makes a cameo appearance, during which he renders everything else that follows superfluous.
“Indie Director” is intended to be a spoof of the soft-core-porn industry, but the true horror comes in watching Master of the Micro Budget, Bill Zebub, attempt to wow us with his insider’s knowledge and hipper-than-thou impression of a generic porn director. The auteur, who resembles an over-the-hill heavy-metal roadie, makes the mistake of thinking he needs to be in every scene and everyone’s entitled to his homophobia and scatological sense of humor. None of it is as funny as the bloopers, deleted scenes and previews of such Zebub epics as “Jesus, the Total Douchbag” and “Antfarm Dickhole.” He’s not the worst filmmaker in the world — $5,000 stretches a long way here — even if he plays one in “Indie Director.” The soundtrack is a primer in contemporary death metal. – Gary Dretzka
Several years before anyone from outside Italy had heard the term, giallo, or listened to the music of the band named after Mario Bava’s “Black Sabbath,” the filmmaker was asked by the American distributor of his “Black Sunday” to re-create a similar experience in a horror anthology. In a case of repressed imagination, AIP changed the title of “Three Tales of Terror” to something it hoped would immediately remind U.S. audience of the 1960 hit. Unlike “Black Sunday” (a.k.a., “Mask of the Demon”), “Black Sabbath” allowed the celebrated cinematographer, Bava, to experiment with the color palette that would inform all future gialli. In its infinite wisdom, AIP also decided to rearrange the segments, add some introductions by Boris Karloff, expunge some lesbian-themed material and edit out some of the scary stuff. “Black Sabbath” still did OK, here. The new Cheezy DVD edition of the movie restores the picture to its original state and does what it can to restore some of its luster. It opens with “The Telephone,” in which a prostitute believes she’s being haunted by her dead husband, an escaped convict. In “The Wurdulak,”Karloff stars as a demonic Russian count who rides to the aid of a rural family attempting to eradicate a vicious strain of vampires. “The Drop of Water” is a chiller in which a 1900s nurse reaps the consequences of stealing the ring from the finger of a dead patient, a medium. An opening prelude and afterword from Karloff add light touches to the dark material. The latter two segments clearly illustrate Bava’s genius for enhancing mood with garishly colored sets. Even after 50 years, it’s a lot of fun.
Fans of the original “ThanksKilling” have waited four years for a sequel to the outrageous horror comedy, which featured crudely constructed puppet characters and was made for $3,500. It fits the description of “one of those movies that are so bad they’re fun to watch.” The protagonist was a cursed, fowl-mouthed turkey that was killing off college students during spring break. Anyone who sees “ThanksKilling 3”and wonders how they could have missed the first sequel should know going into it that there wasn’t any. Although it’s being marketed as “”The First Movie to Skip Its Own Sequel,”" the puppets spend most of the movie on a hunt for the last copy of “ThanksKilling 2.” Not surprisingly, “TK3” is full of material created specifically to ruffle the feathers of timid viewers and enchant more open-minded fans. This time out, Kevin Stewart and Jordan Downey benefitted from a successful Kickstarter campaign, during which $100,000 was raised. The DVD adds “behind-the-beak” featurettes, commentaries, a “Sprinkle of Wrinkle” video, PluckMaster infomercial and stills galleries. – Gary Dretzka
Showtime: Untold History of the United States: Blu-ray
History: The Vikings: Season One: Blu-ray
CW: Hart of Dixie: The Complete Second Season
Long after growing up in the shadow of Wall Street, Oliver Stone developed a reputation for questioning the United States’ role as policeman of the world and protector of capitalism. He’s devoted the latter part of his film career to expanding on long-denied rumors and political conspiracies, while championing entrenched dictators unsympathetic to our so-called interests abroad. If Stone didn’t possess such an aggressively abrasive personality, he might have been able to endear himself to a cross-section of liberals, leftists and libertarians drawn, as well, to the oversized personality of Michael Moore. We all have a constitutional right to be controversial – even when we’re wrong – but there’s a not-so-thin line between being a thorn in the side of the establishment and a dick. That said, however, his “Untold History of the United States” is, at once, stimulating, informative and strangely entertaining. Given how reluctant the media has traditionally been to challenge the official version of events that shape our democracy, it’s important that someone not afraid of the powers-that-be take them on at their own game. Stone may by an insufferable egoist, but he’s no kook. Another Stone, I.F., likewise made a career out of challenging widely accepted notions about such government shell games as the Gulf of Tonkin “incident,” 40 years of Cold War politics and this country’s unyielding willingness to be Israel’s patsy. For his efforts, I.F. Stone was blacklisted and, even after his death, branded as a communist agent. Maybe if he’d had an Academy Award to fall back on, he would have been welcome to argue his points on late-night talk shows and in the features sections of mainstream publications. I’m pretty sure that Oliver Stone would have found it more difficult to create “Untold History of the United States,” if it weren’t for the journalistic scud work done by I.F. Stone. And, that’s a good thing. Among the points made early on in the 10-part Showtime series are several questioning the need to drop atom bombs on Japan and the conspiracy by Democratic Party bosses to promote populist Henry Wallace as FDR’s successor over machine politician Harry Truman. The frequently enlightening, occasional maddening series – even to liberals and progressives – has been released simultaneously with a 750-page book. (Almost 120 are devoted to footnotes and an index.) The Blu-ray contains a bonus documentary, “A Conversation with History: Tariq Ali And Oliver Stone,” in which the filmmaker and political philosopher Tariq Ali discuss a wide range of topics, accompanied by archival footage not found in the series.
Unlike almost every other movie and TV series about the Vikings, History’s first scripted series – as opposed to its first scripted mini-series, “Hatfields and McCoys” – attempts to explain what the scruffy fellows and their families might have done when they weren’t off looting, pillaging, ax-murdering and raping their enemies’ womenfolk. The first nine-episode season of “Vikings” doesn’t dwell on such peacetime activities, but they’re aren’t ignored, either. Although there was some of the usual nit-picking that occurs when such historical projects emerge, it wasn’t severe or meant to detract from anyone’s enjoyment of it … unless, of course, one is a Scandinavian academic. It chronicles the journeys of the rebellious farmer and seasonal Viking marauder Ragnar Lothbrok, who defies his imperious master (Gabriel Byrne) by sailing west, instead of east, where lay the unarmed Christian monks to be slaughtered and crucifixes to steal. (The writers don’t disguise the brutality, ignorance and lack of civility among the Vikings, even the ones with whom we’re supposed to sympathize.) Apart from some bargain-basement special effects, “Vikings” carries itself with a classy air and the mist-shrouded Irish locations are quite spectacular. The primary thing that differentiates this mini-series from “Rome” or “Spartacus” is the absence of soft-core sex, gratuitous nudity and extremely graphic violence. While such things aren’t avoided in “Vikings,” they are limited to PG-13-level renditions. The bonus package includes extended, alternate and deleted scenes; commentaries on select episodes; featurettes “Warrior Society: Viking Culture & Law,” “Birth of the Vikings” and “Forging the Viking Army: Warfare and Tactics”; and the interactive “The Armory of Vikings” and “Conquest and Discover: The Journey of the Vikings.”
The first season of the CW’s young-adult dramedy, “Hart of Dixie,” ended with Zoe (Rachel Bilson) caught in storms of both the meteorological variety and of the romantic persuasion. The former New York medical student put the Southern town of Bluebell on the map, when, after five years of residency, she split for the land of cotton. She remains haunted by her inability to receive the fellowship required to follow in the footsteps of her father, a cardio-thoracic surgeon. For the eligible bachelors who are required to prove themselves as if they were matadors in the ring, Bluebell might as well be named Blueballs. Or, maybe, romance on CW shows is always meant to be overly complicated and wrought with anguish. Season Two opens with Zoe attempting to sort out her feelings for bad boy Wade Kinsella (Wilson Bethel) and good guy George Tucker (Scott Porter). The stanza ends with Zoe finding herself in almost exactly in the same fix as last season’s closer. To make sense of her feelings, she takes some time off in New York. Will she return to Bluebell? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, Lemon (Jaime King), Mayor Hayes (Cress Williams) and Dr. Breeland (Tim Matheson) have to deal with their own affairs of the heart. – Gary Dretzka
Treasures of New York
Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle
Last Will & Testament
Brains on Trials With Alan Alda
Is School Enough?/Smarter Brains
Each week, a bounty of documentaries arrive in the mail from PBS. The subject matter ranges from investigative journalism to academic discussions of pop-cultural detritus. “Treasures of New York” isn’t much different from dozens of other non-fiction titles that can be found on a dozen different cable channels on any given night, in that it’s as much travelogue as civics lesson. If the institutions we visit in “Treasures of New York” weren’t so intrinsically interesting, the film’s palpable air of boosterism would spoil the fun of learning something new. The primary common denominator here is the likelihood that the buildings and facilities surveyed all would have been allowed to self-destruct if it weren’t for the persistence of preservationists, historians, curators, volunteers and heirs to great fortunes, whose names are attached to them. The series focuses on Roosevelt House, Park Avenue Armory, New York Historical Society, Pratt Institute, New York Botanical Garden and American Museum of Natural History. A few of the episodes probably could have been trimmed in half, with the extra 30 minutes devoted to another rescued treasures.
It would be nice if young people enchanted with superhero movies took the time to watch PBS’ wonderfully instructive “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle,” hosted by Liev Schreiber (a.k.a.., Sabertooth/Victor Creed). The bright and busy mini-series overflows with comic-book images and clips from movies and TV shows. What could the kids learn that they don’t already know? Among many other things, that the first superhero, Superman, was a creation of two Jewish immigrants, from Cleveland, who were bullied at school and saw in Clark Kent someone who would protect the underdog; how much of the racism and stereotyping that prevailed in comics and cartoons – especially during the war years — is regretted by surviving artists and writers; that blue-nosed censors, reacting to perceived homosexual and S&M themes, nearly killed the comic-book industry in the 1950s; why Stan Lee is lionized by legions of fans of old-school comics; what separated Marvel and DC comics; that Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein credited their love of comic books for the emergence of pop art; and how comic-book writers and illustrators have reflected the technology and political movements of their times. That’s a lot of stuff to absorb, but there’s hardly a dull moment here. One my favorite discussions involves Superman and his role in World War II and subsequent struggles. If this immigrant from Krypton was invincible and could even move planets, why didn’t he simply fly to Berlin and Tokyo to kick the crap out of the Axis leaders. The DVD includes interviews with pioneers such as Lee, Joe Simon and Jerry Robinson, as well as actors Adam West (Batman) and Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman). The bonus material adds extended interviews and performances of “Marvel Super Hero” themes by song writer Jack Urbond.
One of the things recalled in media coverage of the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington was the widespread fear of rioting, if not by average Americans, then by editorial writers and the political elite. After largely ignoring segregation, lynching and inequality in every major American institution, the white establishment felt it necessary to caution marchers and those African-Americans who didn’t make the trip against spoiling the moment with violence. Mind you, the only violence associated with the civil-rights movement at the time was perpetrated by police and other defenders of the status quo, and Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown had yet to push the notion of “black power.” Also lost in the excitement over Martin Luther King Jr.’s mesmerizing speech was almost everything that led up to the gathering of 250,000 people of all backgrounds at the Lincoln Memorial and how the address prompted J. Edgar Hoover to increase FBI efforts to pinpoint “agitators” and sabotage the movement. “The March” recounts all of the storylines that merged that day and how it impacted efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The hour-long doc, narrated by Denzel Washington, includes the recollections of Oprah Winfrey, Harry Belafonte, Roger Mudd, Joan Baez and Clarence B. Jones.
Among the many great mysteries that have gone unsolved in our lifetimes: who really killed the Lindbergh baby?; what caused Amelia Earhart’s plane to go down and where is it?; where is Judge Carter?; and who put the bomp/
in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp? In literary circles, some still question the authorship of plays and poetry historically ascribed to William Shakespeare. PBS’ “Last Will & Testament” doesn’t simply round up the usual suspects and beat old theories to death. It explores all available evidence, as well as clues in his works. Trouble is, there’s precious little information about Shakespeare’s accomplishments extant, on or off stage. That void is the primary reason the debate even continues. How could so little be known about a man who produced so many works of genius? English majors should find a lot of it to be fascinating, if not at all essential to an enjoyment of the plays and poems. Derek Jacobi leads an impressive cast of historians, academics and actors, including Vanessa Redgrave, Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi.
If all one knows about our judicial system is what can be gleaned from courtroom shows on daytime television, justice would seem to come down to a question of who’s a better liar. Because the cases are drawn from the files of small-claims courts and litigants are paid enough money to cover any losses, there’s very little keeping a defendant or appellant from shading their testimony to fit the framework of a 15-minute trial before a retired judge. Indeed, most of the fun derives from catching one or both of the combatants in a fabrication or stretching of the truth. You literally can see the judge kick into a higher gear whenever that happens. But, when felonies are in question, the stakes can be infinitely higher. Was O.J. Simpson lying when he said that he was not guilty of murdering his wife and her unfortunate companion? How about Amanda Knox, the American exchange student who was declared guilty in Italy of killing her former roommate, only to have that verdict reversed by a higher court and that reversal reversed, in kind? Alan Alda hosts “Brains on Trial,” a documentary that introduces us to the latest in truth-determining technology and asks us to consider the possibility of its use in actual trials. For that to happen, the readings of “practical” MRI machines would have to be proven and accepted by juries to be 100 percent accurate, something that has eluded proponents of lie detectors and even DNA analysis, as was the case in the Simpson trial. Still, as presented in “Brains on Trial,” the possibility of defendants being grilled while wired to a computer is so delicious as to make the documentary must-viewing by anyone interested in legal matters. (If not witnesses and defendants, it might be even more fun to wire lawyers.) The show follows a specific crime – a robbery/murder at a convenience store — from inception to judgment, using neuroscience as an instrument for a parallel trial. .
PBS has devoted much of its resources to the study of the brain and how young people learn. “Is School Enough?” presents “vivid” examples of where new modes of self-directed education are taking hold and flourishing in the Digital Age. In a very real sense, the film asks us to consider the possibility that Internet-savvy kids – some of whom represent a new “bright and bored” strata — have outgrown the limits of classrooms. Although the jury is still out on the benefits of charter schools vs. traditional education, “Is School Enough?” suggests that self-directed and hands-on options could prove even more meaningful to students and society. In “Smarter Brains,” guided by Dr. Michael Merzenich, the whole notion of intelligence and how it’s attained. It demonstrates how the latest research reveals the “shocking truth” of how actions in our daily lives impact just how smart we really are and what we can do about it. – Gary Dretzka
Super Stars Super Series: Volume. 1
There was time, not so long ago, when professional wrestlers looked as if they just stepped out of a Bowery tavern or jail cell, instead of a frame from the pages of a Marvel or DC comic book. You can tell that mid-century grapplers didn’t take steroids by the torsos that more closely resemble cases of beer than six-packs. Apart from the costumes and hairdos, however, the game hasn’t changed all that much, really. The evidence is provided in “Super Stars Super Series,” the first in a line of DVDs focusing on the heyday of such regional conferences as the Southwest, South Atlantic, WWA, Hawaii, Big Time, IWA, ICW and TWF. Old-timers will remember such stars as Terry Funk, Andre the Giant, Bruiser Brody, Junkyard Dog, Jerry Lawler, Ric Rude, Lanny Poffo, Ivan Koloff, the Shiek, Gino Hernandez, the Kangeroos, the Mongols, David Von Erich and the Sheepherders. Compared to today’s mega-events, the matches here are prehistoric. That’s part of the nostalgic fun, however. – Gary Dretzka
Winx Club: Secret of the Lost Kingdom Movie
It’s a Spongebob Squarepants Christmas
Bubble Guppies/Team Umizoomi: Into the Snow We Go
Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Christmas Carol
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Ultimate Showdown
Lost and Found
Anyone with young children, especially those of the female variety, already knows more about the fabulously successful Winx Club franchise than an adult probably should. “Secret of the Lost Kingdom Movie” represents the club’s first feature-length movie, from Nickelodeon. Now that she’s graduated from Alfea College for Fairies, Bloom has plenty of time to search for her birth parents. (She could try the set of “True Blood.”) Bloom and the Winx Club girls journey to the devastated land of Domino, where they must battle evil witches and their own greatest fears. The two-disc set features seven bonus “Winx Club” episodes from Believix, adding up to four hours of entertainment.
Introduced in time for Christmas 2012, Nickelodeon/Paramount would love for “It’s a Spongebob Squarepants Christmas” to become an animated holiday perennial on the order of “Frosty the Snowman,” “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Created entirely in stop- motion animation, the special double-length episode finds all of Bikini Bottom in a festive mood as they prepare for Santa’s arrival. Expecting the traditional lump of coal, Plankton decides to give himself a gift: the Krabby Patty secret formula. The set includes a behind-the-scenes featurette, an animatic, a SpongeBob Yule Log and two downloadable songs from the episode.
This week’s holiday package from Nickelodeon also includes a joint effort by kid favorites Bubble Guppies and Team Umizoomi. In “Into the Snow We Go,” the Guppies work together to share the joy of the season with their neighbor, Mr. Grumpfish. And, as a holiday bonus, they team up with Team Umizoomi in two special episodes. The company also brings back the evergreen “Dora’s Christmas Carol.” When Swiper tries to steal the Christmas Star from Dora’s Nochebuena party, he lands on Santa’s naughty list. To get back on the nice list, Dora must help Swiper travel to the past, the present, and the future to discover the true spirit of Christmas.
In “Ultimate Showdown,” the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles face off against new enemies and old, including the Rat King, Cockroach, Baxter Stockman and, of course, Kraang and the Shredder. The latest package includes 12 episodes on two discs –13 if you count the extended finale, “Showdown” — from Season One of the upgraded Nickelodeon series.
Adapted from an award-winning children’s book by Oliver Jeffers, “Lost and Found” has become a Christmas Eve staple in some countries. It is the first of his books to have been animated for the purpose of a movie. It tells the story of a little boy who one day finds a penguin on his doorstep. Although unsure what to do, the boy becomes determined to help the penguin find his way back home, even if that means rowing all the way to the South Pole. Jim Broadbent narrates this appealing tale about the power of friendship. It adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka