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The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

The LEGO Movie: Everything Is Awesome Edition: Blu-ray/DVD/3D
When, in February, “The LEGO Movie” opened huge and kept right on growing, there must have been a lot of folks at Warner Bros. willing to take credit for its shocking commercial success, if not the nearly unanimous positive reviews. They’d taken a risk by launching an original animated movie in February, typically a weak month for family films, and it paid off big. It out-performed the month’s next four releases combined. As if to prove the numbers were no fluke, foreign markets followed a similar trajectory and produced similar numbers. A boffo marketing campaign, big stars, favorable reviews and brand recognition may be able to pull a picture through its first weekend, but only ecstatic word-of-mouth can keep the turnstiles spinning. That’s what happened here. The buzz not only spread among children, all of whom probably were given LEGOs at some time in their young lives, but also among grown-ups and, not incidentally, older teens attracted to the smart dialogue and clever action sequences. I won’t go as far as to say that liberalized marijuana laws had anything to do with its success among young adults, except to suggest “TLM” might eventually stand as this generation’s “Yellow Submarine.” Anyone who thinks I might be exaggerating the movie’s appeal need only rent a copy and sample it, stoned or straight, and see if you disagree. Better yet, it does so without banging viewers over the head with LEGO plugs and other product placement. I hope that the brothers Warner are already preparing for an award campaign in the Best Picture category, not just Best Animated Feature, which is the category into which animated pictures are usually discarded. If there are 10 better movies released in the next six months, 2014 will go down as an extraordinary year for the American cinema.

Somehow, the CGI animation team assembled by writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“21 Jump Street,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”) was able to manipulate the basic LEGOs conceit – toys that are created using interlocking bricks of various geometric shapes, sizes and basic colors – to add fluidity, texture and non-robotic movement to the mix. Everything in the movie, including water, fire, laser bolts, explosions and smoke, was designed to look as if built out of LEGO pieces. Parents who’ve patiently helped their kids construct LEGO buildings and vehicles won’t believe how simple everything looks in 2D and 3D. In addition to the traditional LEGO characters, the cast is augmented by such guest stars as Johnny Thunder, Green Lantern, C-3PO, Han Solo, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dumbledore, Gandalf, Shaquille O’Neal, Abraham Lincoln, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Shakespeare and pieces from the Minifigures series. If it seems as if I’m avoiding the movie’s plot, well, I am. There are simply too many potential spoilers sprinkled liberally throughout the narrative and too few reasons to reveal them, except to suggest that Karl Marx’s estate could have petitioned the WGA for an “inspired by” credit. The class struggle has rarely been as concisely encapsulated as it is in “TLM,” although I’m guessing that the studio would prefer it to be seen as a struggle between good and evil or David and Goliath.

The bourgeois are represented here by the egomaniacal President Business (a.k.a., Lord Business) the despotic president of the conglomerate, Octan, which induces complacency in LEGO Land workers using generic pop-songs and rigid manuals for team-based LEGO construction. The proletariat is led by the completely unremarkable construction worker Emmet Brickowoski (they’re always Polish, aren’t they?), who discovers the fabled Pièce de résistance on a building site and is henceforth treated as the “Special one,” prophesized by Vitruvius. Emmet is brought before the Master Builders assemblage, which is comprised of toy superheroes and whose mission it is to prevent Lord Business from unleashing his grand weapon, the Kragle. Its strength resembles that of Batman nemesis Mr. Freeze. I was completely surprised and delighted by what happens in the climactic third act. I expect that other viewers will be as well. Besides Will Ferrell and Chris Pratt, the voicing cast includes such actors as Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman.

As wildly imaginative as “TLM” is, it wouldn’t be quite so spectacular if audio/visual presentation had under-performed. I wasn’t able to catch the 3D version, but, in Blu-ray 2D, it is nothing short of spectacular. The aptly titled “Everything Is Awesome Edition” combines 3D, 2D, DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD, adding a Vitruvius mini-figure and 3D photo of Emmet. The amusing and informative commentary is provided by Miller and Lord, as well as actors Pratt, Arnett, Day and Brie. Most of the featurettes are short and targeted primarily at those kids who may watch the movie surrounded by their own LEGO collection. – Gary Dretzka

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Blu-ray
While not exactly an example of shrewd cross-marketing strategizing and cooperation among major studios, it difficult not to think that Fox’s publicity team decided to piggyback on all of the attention being accorded “The LEGO Movie” with a stunt that could benefit everyone involved. As if to take full advantage of the same-day release into DVD/Blu-ray of “TLM” and Wes Anderson’s fanciful confection, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” by commissioning a replica of the movie’s centerpiece location, constructed entirely with LEGO pieces. A time-lapse video of the project was shot and offered to reporters, via YouTube video, as a link to incorporate in their reviews and stories. Normally, I have a low-tolerance for publicity stunts. This one, however, serves to honor the creative process, while harkening to a time when publicity wasn’t limited to press junkets and the oversaturation of stars on TV talk shows. (Check it out at http://youtu.be/oJ2ezbi3ZCc.) Although “Grand Budapest Hotel” reaped a very respectful $58 million at the domestic box-office and another $104 million overseas in its theatrical run, it could probably use a little extra help on DVD/Blu-ray. Anderson’s films are acquired taste, after all, and this one seemed to benefit from a gradual rollout designed to build word-of-mouth. In selling a DVD/Blu-ray, however, it’s important to play off of the publicity and buzz generated in the film’s theatrical run, without spending another small fortune in marketing to people who may not have had an opportunity (or interest) to see it on the big screen.

“Grand Budapest Hotel” practically defines what it means for a movie to be “quirky,” “offbeat” and “wildly inventive,” hackneyed terms used by critics to describe films – indies, in particular – that don’t fall into the usual Hollywood pigeonholes. All of Anderson’s movies are like that. “GBH” harkens back to a time between the wars, when aristocrats and potentates of all stripe expected to be pampered, primped and slobbered over by the peons whose livelihoods depend on tips. I don’t know how many times Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom,” “Royal Tenenbaums”) has seen Edmund Goulding’s star-studded 1932 classic, “Grand Hotel,” but my guess would be more than two or three. His greatest inspiration came from the life and works of the popular Viennese writer and journalist Stefan Zweig (“Beware of Pity,” “The Post-Office Girl”), upon whom the characters played by Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson are based. Although constructed like frosting-covered layer cake, the story’s darker elements can be directly linked to Zweig’s experiences in pre-World War II Europe, as the fascist tide began washing into neighboring countries from Germany. (Zweig escaped the Nazis, but couldn’t outrun his demons. Depressed over intolerance and the spread of fascism, he and his wife committed suicide in Petrópolis, Brazil, in 1942.)

Otherwise, “Grand Budapest Hotel” chronicles the life of concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), famous near and far for his unimpeachable civility and ability to accommodate his guests’ most-difficult requests, including those of sex-starved dowagers. After one of the elderly women (Tilda Swinton) dies, her family is stunned to learn that she bequeathed a priceless Renaissance painting to him. The greediest among them successfully frame him for her murder. In prison, he endears himself to fellow prisoners by his ability to smuggle in delicious pastry and generally upgrade the facility’s food service. He’s rewarded by being invited to join a motley crew of convicts planning to break out of the ancient facility. Even in prison, Gustave has managed to remain in contact with his devoted “lobby boy” and confidant, Zero Moustafa – played wonderfully as a young man by Tony Revolori — whose devotion to duty goes well beyond what anyone, except the concierge would expect from him. No need to reveal anything more, except to mention that the settings, backdrops and Alpine locations often look as if they were created by pastry chefs or Santa’s elves. It’s also fun to anticipate the appearances by Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jeff Goldblum, Mathieu Amalric, Léa Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric and Harvey Keitel. The excellent Blu-ray presentation is a bit weak on bonus features. The best wisely exploit Murray’s popularity, especially the amusing, if far too short, “Bill Murray Tours the Town.” The eclectic musical soundtrack was composed by frequent collaborator, Alexandre Desplat, with an assist by the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra.

Oh, yeah, if you suspect that your video monitor is playing tricks on you, the real culprit is Anderson. He deliberately changes aspect ratios for the years 1932, 1968 and 1985. – Gary Dretzka

Judex: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
L’eclisse: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Even film buffs who consider themselves to be experts in the post-nouvelle vague French cinema are unlikely to have seen Georges Franju’s “Judex.” As far as I can tell, it only was shown in New York, circa 1966, and its first video appearance here was in 2008. Known primarily as co-founder, with Henri Langlois, of the French Cinematheque and director of the 1960 plastic-surgery horror film, “Eyes Without a Face.” “Judex” is a remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 masked-avenger serial. That series of pulpy shorts was highly popular among pre-war audiences and a marked contrast to the spooky “I, Fantômas” and “Les Vampires,” which, while admired by the surrealists, were accused by French authorities of being anti-patriotic and demoralizing. By creating a charismatic vigilante hero, Feuillade bought some time with the censors. Franju admired Feuillade’s shadowy tone and incorporation of magic into the story. Unlike most of the movies making noise in France in the 1960s, “Judex” was a throwback to the days of cliffhangers and pushing cameras to see what they could do. His Judex would borrow from German expressionism, film noir and fantasies of Jean Cocteau. If the Zorro-like protagonist seemed out-of-place at time, “Judex” was a movie that required little more than the viewers’ attention.

In it, the fabulously wealthy and famously corrupt banker, Favraux (Michel Vitold), receives a letter demanding that he return money stolen from poor and working-class investors. After Favraux rejects the command, signed by the mysterious Judex (Channing Pollock), he suffers a heart attack while giving a toast at a masked ball. In fact, though, his champagne was spiked with a drug that merely approximated the effects of a heart attack. The banker’s body is hustled out of the party and taken to an underground bunker, where he can be monitored by a TV camera. (Remarkably, the 1916 version of “Judex” used the same device.) The only people truly disturbed by Favraux’s disappearance are his naïve adult daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob) and her cunning former governess, Diana (Francine Berge), to whom he recently proposed. Unaware that Jacqueline doesn’t intend to accept her father’s tarnished inheritance, Diana and her crew kidnap her. Impressed by Jacqueline’s ethical stand, Judex’s takes it upon himself to free Jacqueline and punish Diana. In addition to his team of black-draped ninjas, Judex requires the assistance of the owner of a traveling circus (Sylva Koscina) to do so. It adds yet another layer of magic to what already has been a delightfully enchanting tale. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 2K digital film restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, as well as a 2007 interview with co-writer and Feuillade’s grandson, Jacques Champreux; a 2012 interview with actor Francine Bergé; “Franju le visionnaire,” a 50-minute program from 1998 on Franju’s career and imagination; a new English subtitle translation; a DVD copy, with all content available in both formats; and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Geoffrey O’Brien, along with reprinted writings by and excerpted interviews with Franju.

Unlike “Judex,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’eclisse” is a film that no self-professed cineaste would admit to not having seen. Simply put, it’s an essential work by a singular director, whose movies have been shown in U.S. theaters since the 1960s and are widely available on DVD and Blu-ray. “Blow-Up” was nominated for a pair of Oscars and, in 1995, the academy honored Antonioni with an award for the body of his work. As the final part of the “Alienation Trilogy,” with L’Avventura (1960) and La Notte (1961), “L’eclisse” (“Eclipse”) was a work of art-for-art’s sake that tested its audience’s willingness to go along with Antonioni’s modernist ideas and narrative conceits. Anyone who’s ever bragged that they “got” any one of these three films on first viewing didn’t get anything, at all. It’s worth the effort, then, to listen to the scholarly commentary here on the second or third time through it. The Blu-ray release may not add any features that weren’t already available on the 2005 DVD, but the newly restored high-definition digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, may be enough to recommend it to connoisseurs, as well as newcomers. The same could be said about the mere presence of Monica Vitti as the alienated female lead. The supplemental material retains commentary with Richard Pena, former program director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and professor at Columbia University; Sandro Lai’s documentary, “The Eye That Changed Cinema”; “Elements of Landscape,” featuring Italian critic and film scholar Adriano Apra and longtime Antonioni friend, Carlo di Carlo; and an illustrated booklet featuring essays by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Gilberto Perez, as well as excerpts from Antonioni’s writing about his work. – Gary Dretzka

The Odd Way Home
As far as I can tell, former Miss Golden Globe Rumer Willis’ film career hasn’t profited all that much from being the daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, although she’s certainly enjoyed access to casting directors and record producers that other women would pay to have. Contrary to common belief, the only times when a Golden Child is guaranteed a gig is when their name on a poster directly impacts tickets sales or a parent is doing the hiring. Otherwise, a familiar last name can only get one to the front of the line. Although I felt pity for her when mom Demi decided to marry her teenage crush object, Ashton Kutcher, I really hadn’t paid much attention to her career. (She was closer in age to her stepfather than her was mother was … poor girl.) I doubt that her road/message movie “The Odd Way Home” will get her any closer to whatever it is her ultimate acting goal may be, it certainly won’t hurt her chances, either. In it, she plays a woman, who, after one too many beatings, hops in her truck and heads due east to Middle of Nowhere, N.M. (It’s right around the corner to co-writer/director Rajeev Nirmalakhandan’s home town of Las Cruces.) Experiencing car trouble in L.A. can be a real bitch, but having one break down in Middle of Nowhere can spell disaster. Fortunately, she arrives at the home of an elderly woman, who, only minutes earlier, died while watching television. Once bad-ass Maya determines that the woman isn’t sleeping, she goes through her purse and medicine cabinet, before stealing the delivery van in the back-40.

What Maya doesn’t realize until later is that the van doubles as a bedroom on wheels for a young man, Duncan, who is autistic in the same way as Raymond Babbitt is in “Rain Man.” Duncan (Chris Marquette) has a job behind the counter at a local mini-mart, but uses flash cards to read the faces of the patrons. His gift appears to be drawing maps on sections of paper toweling from the rest rooms. He has a couple of other useful talents, but an obsession with time, cleanliness and diet work against him. Even so, Maya reluctantly decides to help him find the father who selfishly gave him up when he became a burden. Along the way, of course, Duncan teaches Maya a few much-needed lessons in tolerance, patience and sobriety. When she left L.A., Maya had a massive chip on shoulder toward everyone, including her own, differently estranged, mother (Veronica Cartwright), who has the personality of a wounded rattlesnake. “The Odd Way Home” benefits mostly from the chemistry between the lead actors and nicely photographed New Mexico locations, which range from the dunes at White Sands, to the state’s mountains, forests, gorges and high desert. Nirmalakhandan’s directorial ambitions aren’t quite ready for prime time, as he tends to rely on clichés and improbable narrative leaps to cover for lapses in the script. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and short film, in which stars Willis and cleverly makes sound points about autism. I’m pretty sure that Willis is performing songs of her own creation in the barroom scenes, and she’s not bad. – Gary Dretzka

BB King: The Life of Riley: Blu-ray
Too many years ago than I care to count, I attended a BB King concert at the University of Wisconsin. I didn’t know it at the time, but, as is recalled in this fine bio-doc, King was only then beginning to play auditoriums and other venues not limited to the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit. Playing before predominantly white audiences not only meant wider exposure and greater financial opportunities, but also that King and other top blues musicians were finally being recognized by a broad cross-section of U.S. audiences for their contributions to American culture and rock ’n’ roll, itself. Ironically, British bands had been paying homage to the artists in their music for years and it was only through such acts as the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds that white audiences here finally figured out what they were missing. After soaking in our welcoming applause that night, BB struck a single note on Lucille and held it for what seemed like an eternity, before exploding into “Every Day I Have the Blues.” A couple of dozen white musicians are interviewed in Jon Brewer’s comprehensive “BB King: The Life of Riley” and most of them recall experiencing the very same sensation listening to master for the first time in concert. Besides these musicians, Brewer was able to gather friends, relatives, business associates and fellow bluesmen to add their stories to those told by BB — then 85, now nearly 90 – about how a Mississippi sharecroppers’ son became King of the Blues. Unlike so many other Delta blues guitarists, King’s migration north ended in Memphis. It was from there that the name Riley B. King was changed to Beale Street Blues Boy, Blues Boy and, finally, BB, and his style solidified into something distinctly different than what was being heard in Chicago, New Orleans, Texas and Detroit. BB’s sound was influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, Bukka White and Sonny Boy Williamson, from whose West Memphis radio program King’s early fame would emerge. He would get a radio show of his own, before hitting the Chitlin’ Circuit and playing as many as 350 gigs a year.

His fame would grow as his records began being played in the South, but, as was so often the case in the 1960s for black entertainers, King wouldn’t realize anything resembling a sustainable income from music, alone, until it was validated by British invaders John Mayall, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles, all of whom repay the favor by appearing here in one form or another. King’s influence on more contemporary artists is reflected in interviews with Bono, Carlos Santana, Susan Tedeschi, Slash, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt and several other blues-rockers. Even if the documentary overflows with adoration for King, it’s fairly candid about the hazards faced by wives of musicians who thrive on the road and the deal-making that too often ignores the people who helped an artist get to the point where it behooves him to turn to more powerful management. The challenges of trying to make a living – in the cotton fields or in nightclubs – under the dark clouds of segregation also are recounted. If it’s about 20 minutes too long, well, BB deserves our indulgence. Otherwise, the portrait painted of King in “Life of Riley,” narrated by Morgan Freeman, is that of a genuinely nice guy, who’s universally admired by his peers, many of whom have benefited from his generosity and wisdom. Moreover, he can still bring it. The strikingly presented Blu-ray disc adds extended interviews and selections from a command performance at the Royal Albert Hall. – Gary Dretzka

Jimmy P.
European filmmakers have always looked at the American West through different eyes than their Hollywood counterparts. As colonialists, themselves, they understood how American writers and directors helped mask what had really happened in the American Indian Wars in the name of Manifest Destiny, corporate imperialism, Jesus Christ and racial segregation. By appropriating the ancestral lands of native tribesmen and profiting from the slave trade in Africa, while also exploiting nature’s bounty in countless other countries, Europeans had shown their American offspring how it’s done and justify it to their God. After World War II, it was only a matter of time before European leaders would have deal with the chickens that came home to roost in such places as Algeria, the Congo and Vietnam. Perhaps, if they had John Wayne on their side in the wars for liberation, instead of the French Foreign Legion, the colonial powers would have been able to prolong the agony for a couple more years. As much as foreign filmmakers admired the cowboy heroes and such directors as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh, they deplored the horrifying conditions Native American were required to endure in times of peace. As long as genocide sold tickets, there wasn’t a heck of a lot they could do about it, though.

While Arnaud Desplechin’s highly compelling drama, “Jimmy P.” – released theatrically as “Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian” – isn’t intended to stand as an indictment of American colonialism, it could easily have been sentimentalized or played as tragedy. After all, Jimmy Picard’s story does bear a certain resemblance to that of U.S. Marine Corporal Ira Hayes, the Pima who helped raise the flag over Iwo Jima, only to die drunk and alone outside an abandoned adobe hut in Arizona. Jimmy Picard is a Blackfoot war veteran, who, after suffering severe headaches, hearing loss, dizzy spells and catatonia, is sent to a VA hospital in Kansas that specializes in psychiatric therapy. It wasn’t at all clear what caused Picard’s problems, but noted clinic director, Dr. Karl Menninger, sensed that they might be related to the patient’s cultural background, somehow, and exasperated by what once was called “shell shock.” He turns to the man, Georges Devereux, who would author the book on which this movie is based. The therapist is a Hungarian Jewish émigré to France, born Gyorgy Dobo, who converted there to Catholicism and spent two years among the Mojave tribe as ethno-psychiatrist. Combining the work of a therapist with that of an anthropologist wasn’t recognized by the analytical establishment, so he was between gigs at the time of the call. While not conversant in the languages of the Plains tribes, Devereux knew enough Mojave to understand the nuances and rhythms of Indian dialects, which, in the past, had sometimes been considered symptoms of mental retardation.

Deveraux’s first question to Picard — “In your dreams, do you speak English or Blackfoot” — immediately establishes a rapport between the two very different outsiders. They are played with great empathy by the always wonderful Mathieu Amalric and Benicio del Toro, an actor whose speech patterns have also been misconstrued. Not being the kind of Freudian disciple who requires a couch or one-sided discussions, Deveraux encourages an on-going dialogue between them. Eventually, Picard begins to remember things that happen in his dreams and flash back to incidents that shaped him as a youth. Deveraux asks him what the imagery might portend in the Native American tradition and how it might relate to the events that play out in the flashbacks. The question then becomes one of determining how much having a foot in two worlds, especially under wartime conditions, may have contributed to his current condition. In Devereux’s opinion, Pickard isn’t suffering from schizophrenia and such treatments as shock therapy and psychotropic drugs would do nothing but exasperate the symptoms. What’s wonderful, then, are interchanges between patient and therapist, most of which Desplechin captures in tight focus or two-shots. It’s a talky movie, then, but the excitement that comes with watching two first-rate actors working at the top of the game is palpable. Desplechin (“A Christmas Tale”) takes us out of the clinic often enough to understand how Picard’s roots were split between growing up poor and parentless on the reservation, the natural magnificence of the Montana landscape and perils of life in white America. The supporting cast includes Native American actors Misty Upham, Gary Farmer, Michelle Thrush, A Martinez and Michael Greyeyes, as well as Brit Lisa McKee and Larry Pine. – Gary Dretzka

No Clue
So many great Canadian comedians have taken their acts to Los Angeles, it’s a wonder that the country has any left to populate their own televisions and improv revues. There must something funny in the nation’s water, because, like last winter’s icy Alberta Clippers, the laughs just keep coming. Carl Bessai and Brent Butt’s sendup of film noir, “No Clue,” may rely on too thin a premise to be uproariously funny, but it should keep Canada-philes in the U.S. satisfied until “Trailer Park Boys: Don’t Legalize It” arrives, most likely in VOD and DVD. Some folks might recall Butt as the creator of the comedy series “Hiccups” and “Corner Gas,” as well as his standup routines. In “No Clue,” his character gives new meaning to the word, “nebbish.” As the picture opens, a beautiful blond dame (Amy Smart) mistakes a purveyor of key chains, matchbooks and other brand-ready trinkets for the PI down the hall. Butt’s Leo Falloon is well aware of the fact that he knows next to nothing about investigative work, but is intrigued by the per diem and possibility of scoring with the hot chick … a frequent reward in geek mythology. Smart’s femme fatale, Kyra, hires Falloon to find her brother, a software genius who appears to have vanished in advance of the launch of his new computer-gaming company. He turns to his best and seemingly only friend, Ernie (David Koechner), for help in finding the missing man. Being a gaming nerd, Ernie knows immediately what’s at stake, even if his advice is suspect. Hereafter, the laughs come from watching Falloon stumbling his way through the investigation and continuing to come out smelling like a rose. “No Clue” is set in Vancouver, although the locations are pretty generic. The DVD adds making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

The Attorney
From a distance, South Korea seems to be a country of uncommon financial stability and sanity, at least when compared to its neighbor to the north. It wasn’t until the late-1980s, however, that its repressive governments relaxed the iron fist it held over the populace and admitted to torturing students and human-rights advocates to the left of Attila the Hun. Yang Woo-seok’s “The Attorney” examines one of the most intense standoffs between activists and police officials, who, in the 1980s, did the dirty work for the authoritarian regime. Although only loosely based on actual events, it’s been a huge success at the South Korean box office. That’s because “The Attorney” appears to dramatize the rise to power of Roh Moo-Hyun, a reformist lawyer who would be elected president in 2002. Like Roh, Song Woo-seok becomes a lawyer without the benefit of a law degree. Unlike the reformer, Song uses loopholes in the tax and real-estate laws to cut through the bureaucracy and make lots of money from grateful clients. Jealous, his peers dismiss and ridicule for essentially for being an under-educated hack and ambulance chaser. Song doesn’t care, because his only loyalty is to his family. Fully aware of his limits, Song reluctantly agrees to defend the teenage son of the woman who runs his favorite restaurant. He’s been arrested for belonging to a book club accused of being a front for pro-communist activity, so the fix, as usual, is already in place. Song had once engaged in a debate with the young man, so it wouldn’t have surprised him if the club really was sympathetic to North Korean interests. After seeing for himself what the students looked like after being tortured, he began to rethink his position. He might have gone along with other defense attorneys, who were attempting to accept a plea deal, if the judge and prosecutors hadn’t denied his client basic rights guaranteed in the constitution. It was a document so poorly vetted by the militarist leaders that it provided Song the ammunition he needed to turn the courtroom into a battleground for human rights. Newly radicalized, Song, like Roh, would go on to become an advocate for Koreans who took to the streets to demand reforms and true democracy. Sang Kang-ho does a nice job portraying his character’s evolution from joke to hero. – Gary Dretzka

The Angela Mao Ying Collection
I don’t think that Hollywood has produced a female action star comparable to the Taiwan-born martial-arts “whirlwind” Angela Mao Ying, who rose to prominence in the 1970s and starred in several dozen martial-arts flicks made in Hong Kong. Michelle Rodriguez, Uma Thurman, Angelina Jolie, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Alba, Carrie-Anne Moss,  Lucy Lawless, Lucy Liu, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton and, of course, Pam Grier spring immediately to mind. With the possible exception of Grier, they’d probably slit their wrists if forced to make a career out of being manipulated by wires and pulleys. Muay Thai fighter Gina Carano, former Israeli soldier Gal Gadot and onetime stuntwoman Zoë Bell appear to be ready for genre stardom, along with new faces from China. As a teenager, Mao Ying trained in ballet and enjoyed a successful career as an actress in the Chinese Opera. Her flexibility gave her an edge when she began learning hapkido, the discipline then in favor with Hong Kong producers. She later would adopt several other forms. In 1969, she was spotted by director Huang Feng and signed to a contract at Golden Harvest, the studio responsible for all of the titles in “The Angela Yao Mao Ying Collection,” from Shout!Factory. Her greatest international exposure came when the rising star was paid $100 for a guest appearance as Bruce Lee’s sister in “Enter the Dragon.” She left Golden Harvest in the late 1970s, worked in a few more Taiwanese productions, married and retired to raise a family. The compilation contains “When Taekwondo Strikes” (1973), “The Tournament” (1974), “Stoner” (1974), “The Himalayan” (1976), “A Queen’s Ransom” (1976) and “Broken Oath” (1977). None found wide release in the U.S. and Mao Ying’s reputation may be greater now, because of recent DVD/Blu-ray releases from Shout!, than during her heyday. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the movies themselves vary in quality from pretty good to goofy. Unlike most other kung fu exports to the U.S., most of these include some nudity to complement the violence. The cast lists also include such popular stars as Bolo Yueng, Jimmy Wang Yu, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Yuen Biao, Betty Ting Pei and Carter Huang. The most curious choice of actors was George Lazenby, who, in 1969, had starred in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” as James Bond. In “A Queen’s Ransom” and “Stoner,” he bears an uncanny resemblance to porn star John Holmes. – Gary Dretzka

Once Upon a Time in Dublin
A Fighting Man
Even after watching this hyper-violent revenge picture, it isn’t clear to me why its name was changed to “Once Upon a Time in Dublin” from “3 Crosses,” which, itself, was adapted from a graphic novel, “The Altar Boys.” The story has only a peripheral relationship to the Irish capital and parts of it were shot in London and Vermont. I wonder what James Joyce might have said if his publisher had suggested changing “Finnegans Wake” to “Once Upon a Time in Dublin.” Seemingly, though, every director since Sergio Leone has considered a variation of “Once Upon a Time in the West” for the title of their movie. Writer/director Jason Figgis, perhaps best known for the fitfully chilling dystopian thriller, “Children of a Darker Dawn,” has created what one Irish critic described as “future noir.” That’s because almost everything takes place in corners, basements, shadows and a disorienting variety of scrims, scratches and artifacts. It is the story of Jay (Karl Hayden) and Jonnie Linski (Emmett Scanlan), two Polish-Irish brothers who use violence to gain clues in the brutal murder of their youngest sibling, Danny (Stephen Wilson). Both men look as if they could take on the world by themselves, but, right now, they’ll settle for channeling their anger into personally punishing the people responsible for the crime. Not surprisingly, no one in Danny’s circle is forthcoming as to the identity of the culprit, dirty businessman Neville Jessoppe (Bill Fellows). Being a bare-knuckles fighter of some distinction, Jonnie uses his fists to get answers, while Jay prefers sharper-edged objects. Besides beatings, Figgis throws in some hallucinatory fragments of similarly rough sexual encounters and flashbacks to brighter days. “Once Upon a Time in Dublin” isn’t easy to watch, even for those of us who know how the makeup effects are created. The inventively frenetic cinematography isn’t a picnic, either.

If “A Fighting Man” had been released in 1994, instead of straight-to-DVD in 2014, a cast that includes James Caan, Louis Gossett Jr., Famke Jannsen and Michael Ironside might have attracted a bit more attention from viewers than it has, 20 years hence. The boxing clichés wouldn’t have been any fresher or less visible, but the actors would have been closer to their prime. Dramas in which boxing serves as a metaphor for one thing or another haven’t delivered the same punch since the first “Rocky” gave us all something to cheer. Occasionally, a really good one, such as “Million Dollar Baby,” sneaks through, but the sport has lost its sparkle in these days of $50 pay-per-view fees. “A Fighting Man” is a bit of a throwback, in that its protagonist is an over-the-hill palooka whose only claim to fame is not ever having tasted the canvas. Like the former heavyweight punching bag, Chuck Wepner, Sailor O’Connor (Dominic Purcell) has the remarkable ability to remain on his feet as the rest of his body is being beaten into a bloody pulp. Against everyone’s better judgment, he decides to come out of retirement for one last time to finance a trip to Ireland for his mother, before she dies of cancer. His opponent is a cocky up-and-comer with something to prove of his own, although it’s difficult to see how beating the crap out of an old man could work to his favor. Apparently, the prize money accumulated by a blood-thirsty promoter, played by Adam Beach, was enough to tempt the soon-to-be father. The beating Sailor endures in the ring truly is excruciating to watch. Because of this, I think that the only viewers who will find something worthwhile in low-budget specialist Damian Lee’s picture are boxing completests. A mysterious parallel storyline, involving Sailor and Janssen’s ex-con character, is left unresolved until the very end of “A Fighting Man.” By then, however, it feels superfluous to the central drama and hardly worth the effort necessary to guess what’s causing all the pain.  – Gary Dretzka

That Awkward Moment: Blu-ray
When the makers of big-screen rom-coms begin to take their cues from overworked sitcom tropes, it’s a sure sign that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Tom Gormican’s first film, “That Awkward Moment,” does borrow from several very good shows – “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “New Girl” – but ultimately falls back on conventions and clichés. At times, the only thing missing is a laugh track. I won’t argue that every action in the movie is predictable from minute-one, although most of them are. Instead, I can easily say that once a plot twist or conceit is revealed – even the clever ones — everything that follows is familiar, including the bloopers in the credit roll.  Here, we’re asked to watch a mixed group of Big Apple yuppies meet-up, hook-up, goof-up, break-up, wise-up, ’fess-up to their hang-ups and realize it’s time to grow-up before hooking-up again for the inevitable happy ending. Gormican’s stated aim here was to make a rom-com in which most of men are dumb as dirt and the one who isn’t is being is cuckolded. On the other hand, the women are drop-dead gorgeous, smart, vulnerable and patiently willingly to wait for these dopes to grow up. The movie’s central conceit, however, appears to have been lifted from the “Seinfeld” episode in which the gang wagers that he or she will be able to go the longest without masturbating. Here, after experiencing one relationship trauma or another, three best friends pledge to stay single for as long as is humanly possible. One-night stands are OK in this three-way bromance, but commitments are forbidden. If you’ve seen “The Contest,” you already know how long it will take for them to cease being master of their domains. Zach Efron, Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan display a decent rapport, but aren’t asked to extend themselves much in the acting department. Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Lucas and Addison Timlin aren’t required to stretch much, either. Even so, they outclass the guys at every turn, which, I suppose, is one of the points Gormican is trying to make. The Gramercy Park locations are pretty easy on the eyes, though. The Blu-ray adds a second blooper reel, interviews and some idle chat. – Gary Dretzka

Joy Ride 3: Roadkill: Blu-ray
Blood Soaked
13 Sins: Blu-ray
The Monkey’s Paw: Blu-ray
You’d think that drivers of teeny-tiny automobiles would know by now how dangerous it can be to piss off an over-the-road trucker. Besides the possibility of startling a driver trying to take a cat nap between 48-hour shifts, they risk spoiling his view of a mini-skirt-wearing passenger in the next lane or, yes, tempt fate by cutting him off. Although we know that the vast majority of all truckers are law-abiding citizens, who everyday risk OD’ing on caffeine, country music and Preparation H, a few bad apples spoil the bunch. Like its predecessors, “Joy Ride 3” reminds us that there are sadistic bastards out there who enjoy nothing more than chaining bad boys and girls to various parts of their rig, just to see what happens when a link or two gets caught in the drive shaft or they can squeeze their bodies into the shape of a pancake to avoid being torn in half by low bridges. And, if you were hear the name “Rusty Nail” over the CB radio, don’t pass any trucks or stop … not even for gas or a flat tire. The original “Joy Ride,” directed by John Dahl (“Rounders”), received sensational reviews and did better in DVD than at the theatrical box office. “Joy Ride 2” went straight-to-DVD, while “Joy Ride 3” is nothing more than a splatter-fest. That would be OK, if there was a story to support the blood-letting. Instead, it’s almost impossible to tell whether the characters are driving east, west, south or north, and why their super-duper drag-racer can’t outrun an 18-wheeler. In any case, all the action takes place on a little-traveled highway, somewhere south of the Canadian border, where harvesting roadkill is a cottage industry. “Joy Ride 3” is very much what fans of the series might expect it to be, only less thrilling. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, interviews and special-effects explainer.

Blood Soaked” is a nasty piece of business about an incoming college freshman, who reluctantly allows herself to be seduced by a lesbian upper-classman at a campfire in the New Mexico desert. Still glowing from their encounter, they make the mistake of stopping their car in the vicinity of a pair of orphaned sisters, who kidnap strangers, torture them and turn them into zombies in their underground bunker. If that weren’t sufficiently sordid, the sisters foresee a time when they’ll have enough zombies to create a Fourth Reich. Can the young lovers escape before being fitted for a Gestapo uniform? Blessedly, perhaps, someone forgot to pay the electrical bill in the bunker, because most of the movie looks as if it were shot through a day-for-night filter and the color of blood is muted. The biggest selling point is the music by Eternal West Coast Killa Beez.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before … or the next one. In “13 Sins,” a pathetic salesman gets canned within days of being married. Elliot (Mark Webber) is desperate, so, when he receives a phone call offering a fortune if he passes 13 tests, he’s both suspicious and intrigued. Typically, they start out easy and get weirder as they go along, just like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Unlike the game show, though, no money is returned when the contestant decides to quit. The punchline arrives when Elliott discovers that he’s not the only participant and there’s only one winner. It’s pretty hard-core, but good old Ron Perlman plays a New Orleans cop, so maybe there’s hope for justice, after all. The Blu-ray adds making-of material, a deleted scene and short film of the writer going nuclear about it.

The Monkey’s Paw,” also set in New Orleans, offers a gory take on “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” Whoever is in possession of a dried-up monkey’s hand is given three wishes, if not a full explanation of how they’ll actually play out. After a stressed-out factory worker (C.J. Thomason) cashes in his first wish on a hot car, the even more messed-up guy sitting next to him on a test drive goes through the windshield when the vehicle dodges an alligator and hits a tree. Should he use the second wish to save his friend’s life? “Monkey’s Paw” may not be very original, but the bayous of southern Louisiana, as usual, make a terrific background for bizarro criminality. – Gary Dretzka

Invasion of the Scream Queens: 20th Anniversary Special Edition
In the 1980-90s, the standard-issue exploitation flick featured violence, nudity, black humor, a cool villain, a generic hero and a skeleton of a story that could accommodate all of these elements. The most popular of these movies – good or bad — featured one or more women who not only could supply the skin, but scream to high heaven. If these “scream queens” were good enough, the male heroes needed only to be handsome and slightly smarter than a box of rocks. Besides a variety of sharp cooking implements and a dark and remote kill zone, the story only required a beginning, middle and end. The breast moments were reserved for such women as Michelle Bauer, Brinke Stevens, Marya Gant, Katina Garner, Monique Gabrielle, Martine Beswick, Janus Blythe and Mary Woronov, all of whom were given an opportunity to speak in normal tones in “Invasion of the Scream Queens.” The 20-year-old documentary, which remains essential viewing for genre buffs and curious newcomers, combines interviews and film clips to very good effect. The DVD adds extended interviews and background from Donald Farmer, director of “Demon Queen” and “Savage Vengeance.” – Gary Dretzka

Can Dialectics Break Bricks?
I’ve never been able to understand dialectics well enough to take one side of a political or philosophical argument against the other. What I do know is that listening to Marxists debate anything is about as much fun as watching politicians use C-SPAN to speechify in front of an empty Congress. In the same way as Woody Allen turned a really bad Japanese pot-boiler into the hilariously dubbed, “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?,” French filmmaker Rene Vienet chopped and channeled a Hong Kong martial-arts movie, “The Crush,” into the Marxist action-melodrama “Can Dialectics Break Bricks?” In it, the combatants attack each other with fists of fury and political dogma. Only a small fraction of the people who loved Allen’s comedy could find 10 minutes of “Dialectics” entertaining or meaningful, though. Those who do understand the very smart exchange of political rhetoric, however, will find it to be a hoot. It looks even more comical after having being “aged” in film-to-video and color-to-black-and-white transfer. If movies like this had been shown in my political sciences courses, I might have been able to stay awake for the whole period. – Gary Dretzka

Seattle Seahawks’ Road to XLVIII: Blu-ray
The suspense should have been over for Seattle Seahawks’ fans at halftime, when the score of the Super Bowl was 22-0 against the favored Denver Broncos. Instead, while viewers outside the Pacific Northwest tuned to HBO to see what was on, it took Seahawk loyalists another quarter and the lone Broncos’ touchdown to pay more attention to the buffet counter than the TV. The two-point conversion made the score 36-8, but it hardly mattered to anyone who hadn’t placed a bet on the over/under. The newly released “Seattle Seahawks’ Road to XLVIII,” then, is primarily for Hawks fans who couldn’t believe their eyes and those who decided not to watch what might have been the dullest quarter in Super Bowl history. Like the Denver defense, the long-predicted frigid weather was a no-show for the game. SBXLVIII may have been the first NFL championship game to be held at an open-air stadium in a “cold-weather” city, but the temperature at kickoff was a boring 49 degrees. Can you spell A-N-T-I-C-L-I-M-A-C-T-I-C? Far more exciting were the playoff games versus the Saints and 49ers, which provided the stepping stones to the Super Bowl and are here, as well. And, while there’s plenty of room for nitpicking the fleeting moments NFL Films chose to excise, in addition to hours of ridiculously overproduced commercials, the high-definition video presentation is probably sharper than what was transmitted by Fox, and that’s not to suggest that the original broadcast was all that shabby. Now, however, people who invested in a Blu-ray player after the playoffs can watch the games with new eyes. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
BBC/PBS: Masterpiece Mystery: The Escape Artist: Blu-ray
PBS: Nova: Why Sharks Attack
Cartoon Network: Regular Show: The Complete Third Season
MTV: Teen Wolf: Season 3 Part 2
Usually, mini-series under the “Masterpiece Mystery” banner are distinctly British in their mannered tone and deliberate pacing. Even when one resembles an elongated episode of “Law & Order” or “CSI,” the multi-dimensional portrayals of key characters and attention to detail distinguish them from American shows, in which, typically, cases are opened and closed within 60 minutes, including 15 minutes of commercials. That’s not a knock on the best hour-long dramas on network television here, just reality. The BBC’s fine three-part mini-series “The Escape Artist” possesses all of the best qualities of a typical “Masterpiece Mystery” presentation, while also adding plot points familiar from such movies as “The Devil’s Advocate.” David Tennant is, as usual, excellent as junior barrister Will Burton, who, like Keanu Reeves in “Devil’s Advocate,” has become well known in British legal circles for having never lost a criminal defense case. Al Pacino doesn’t appear here as Satan, but the point being made by director Brian Welsh and writer David Wolstencroft doesn’t require his presence: even in Her Majesty’s halls of justice, what goes around comes around. No sooner does Burton successfully defend suspected rapist and murderer Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell) than the fiend inexplicably decides to torture his defender, by killing his wife and making it look as if the lawyer did it. Naturally, he denies it, pointing to his former client as the killer. By now, the prosecutor Burton had just humiliated on the previous case, Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo), has gone over to the dark side of the law and been assigned by her new firm to defend Foyle. The real kicker to the mini-series, which I won’t reveal, comes after the disgraced Burton attempts to find a job away from the city and spots Foyle coming out of a pub, ostensibly on a hunting trip. Although the story might have been compressed into two unabridged episodes and still worked, I don’t think many fans of Brit legal dramas will mind the padding.

The “Nova” presentation, “Why Sharks Attack,” attempts to answer a question most of us would dismiss with, “because they’re hungry,” or by recalling the parable of the scorpion and the frog (“It’s my nature …”). Scientists rarely accept such pat answers, even though one needs only to look elsewhere in the Animal Kingdom to understand that humans represent the only species that has mastered the art of having food delivered to one’s home or driving to a restaurant for takeout. It’s our never-ending fascination with sharks that compels us to go beyond the obvious, however, and wonder what it means when great whites begin attacking swimmers, surfers and waders in increasing numbers. To “separate fact from fear,” “Nova” has teamed with leading experts in Australia and the United States to trace the great white’s movements and match them with possible changes in their habitats. GPS, satellite and other high-end technology allows scientists to widen their horizons when it comes to establishing migratory patterns and re-adaptation to meteorological conditions, including global warming.

The third and longest season of “Regular Show” rolled out between September 19, 2011, and September 3, 2012. It opened with Benson disposing of Mordecai and Rigby’s stick-hockey table and culminated with the heartbreak of halitosis, which resulted in Mordecai’s recent kiss-fail. I don’t know why it’s taken so long for the compilation to go on sale and only in DVD, but, I suspect, it has something to do with the show’s ready availability on PPV and streaming outlets, including episodes from Season 7. Bonus material adds episode commentaries, “Four Things You Didn’t Know About J.G.,” “J.G. Answers Why” and a live episode read.

If it seems odd that the third-season packages of “Teen Wolf” would be broken into two parts, it can be explained by the simple fact that the third stanza was comprised of 24 episodes instead of 12, as were the first two go-rounds. It arrives just in time for the start of Season 4, with Scott attempting to deal with the loss of two close friends in the desperate showdown that closed Season 3. The show’s roots extend all the way back to the AIP classic, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” in which a letter-jacket-wearing Michael Landon transformed into a hairy rage-oholic. Along with several cheapo “I Was a Teenage …” sequels, it would inspire a “Teen Wolf” featuring Michael J. Fox and two “Teen Wolf” series. The success of “Buffy” and “Twilight Trilogy” also influenced the latest iteration. The DVD, which has been “musically edited,” adds a fan art collection and fan video. — Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit: Blu-ray
Although I didn’t think much of “The Sum of All Fears,” the fourth film adapted from a Tom Clancy novel, my feelings couldn’t prevent me from anticipating the new “reboot” of the franchise, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” Unlike the others, it was merely “inspired by characters” in a story created by the author before his untimely death last year. Clancy’s readers already were conditioned to expect occasional reboots in the series, just as movie audiences had to adjust to three, now four different actors in the lead role. What I couldn’t predict, however, was how viewers would react to a Jack Ryan who was born at approximately the same instant as the same Jack Ryan was saving the world in “The Hunt for Red October.” Neither prequel nor sequel, “Shadow Recruit” appears to exist outside of the Jack Ryan universe, altogether. It probably would have been easier to adapt the books in Clancy’s “Jack Ryan Jr.,” with Chris Pine at the helm, but that might have required paying steeper options fees or jumping through a different kind of hoop.  Instead, viewers were left jumping through hoops. The fourth Ryan, Pine, understood the dynamics of making such a midcourse correction. After all, he had already assumed the role of Kirk the Younger in the “Star Trek” movie franchise. He’s passed that test easy enough, but the jury remains out on Pine as Ryan. While Kenneth Branagh’s “Shadow Recruit” underperformed at the U.S. box office, it did OK overseas … and that’s where the action is for Hollywood studios, these days.

The story follows the basic Ryan blueprint previously laid out by Clancy. As in previous iterations, he is shot down and seriously injured in the crash of a marine helicopter. He uses the recuperation process to acquire the skills necessary to become a successful Wall Street trader and analyst. One of the things he discovers is a Kremlin-generated plot to crush the economies of the U.S. economies, triggered under the cover of a terrorist attack by a domestic sleeper cell. To prevent such a scenario from playing out, Ryan travels to Moscow as a representative for his brokerage firm and a covert CIA operative. What happens next could have been borrowed from the “Mission:Impossible” playbook. Inexplicably, Ryan is greeted at the airport by a very large thug posing as his security guard. He discovers the ruse after reaching his modern hotel suite, where the guy attempts to kill him. It results in an exciting, if messy fight to the finish. Sensing that the guy was on assignment for his company’s man in Moscow, Viktor Cherevin (Branagh), Ryan nonetheless goes through the motions of feigning ignorance. Curiously, too, the plotter invites Jack and his jealous girlfriend, Cathy Muller (Kiera Knightley) – thought to still be in New York — to dinner at Moscow’s trendiest restaurant. As predicted in his CIA dossier, Viktor becomes pre-occupied with romancing Cathy. It leaves time for Ryan to sneak out and perform a “M:I”-style miracle. Just in case the young analyst screws up, though, the lad’s CIA handler (Kevin Costner) is in Moscow, as well, riding around town in a van full of computers.

As unlikely as all of this nonsense may be, “Shadow Recruit” isn’t without its guilty pleasures. Branagh maintains a lively pace throughout and it is extremely well-shot by Haris Zambarloukos. The exterior shots of central Moscow, alongside some fab nighttime landmarks, make the movie look delicious in Blu-ray. Instead of seeming cold and foreboding, Zambarloukos makes it look like a little like Disneyland.  The feature package offers plenty to do for fans of the movie and series. Informative audio commentary is provided by director Branagh and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura; self-explanatory featurettes “Jack Ryan: The Smartest Guy in the Room,” “Sir Kenneth Branagh: The Tsar of Shadow Recruit,” “Jack Ryan: A Thinking Man of Action” and “Old Enemies Return,” a 20-minute-plus look at the use of Russians as enduring villains in the cinema; and deleted and extended scenes, with optional commentary. If there’s a sequel, it will be interesting to see which direction in time and place the producers choose to take. At the moment, at least, Clancy’s legacy still appears to be most formidable in sales of video games and books. – Gary Dretzka

Non-Stop: Blu-ray
I stopped attempting to guess the identity of the murderous blackmailers in “Non-Stop,” – Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra’s mid-air thriller — after being slapped in the face with numerous red herrings. It’s pretty difficult to remain involved in a movie’s story flow when nearly everyone we meet could be the antagonist and even suspects who have been cleared are allowed to re-emerge as possible culprits, only to be cleared once again. An ability to suspend disbelief and ignore narrative blunders shouldn’t be made part of the movie-going experience, but, here, it’s imperative. Anyone who hasn’t flown since 9/11 certainly will have an advantage over those of us who experienced the changes initiated by the TSA. So, sit back and watch as 63-year-old Liam Neeson turns impossible plot devices into action gold. Here, he’s been allowed to maintain a noticeable trace of his native Irish accent, in his portrayal of alcoholic U.S. Air Marshal Bill Marks. A litany of personal crises have turned the onetime New York cop into an emotional wreck and potential liability in the skies between New York and Europe. When sober, Marks probably is as good at his job as anyone else in law enforcement could be. Drunk, he’s only as competent as his tolerance to alcohol allows him to be. Fortunately, on this trip, Marks is only working on a good buzz. Still, Neeson does a good job convincing us that his flaws are exploitable by anyone who knows where they are.

No sooner does the flight to Paris take off than Marks begins to receive text messages warning that someone will be killed in 20 minutes if a ransom of $150 million isn’t delivered to an offshore account. Because the messages become increasingly taunting in nature, it’s safe to assume that the sender knows that Marks’ is an air marshal and vulnerable. When the pilot describes the threat to the authorities back home, the disembodied voice at the other end of the phone treats it as if the veteran lawman might be experiencing the first stages of the DTs, which, we know, he isn’t. Even so, writers John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach insist on planting a seed of doubt in captain, crew and passengers. Theoretically, all the pilot would need to do to confound the blackmailers would be to turn off the wireless-broadband service available to passengers and identify those who purchased it. Flights originating in the U.S. don’t offer the option of in-flight phone calls or text messages and, in any case, a passenger would be required to purchase access. The first red herring thrown at us comes in the form of a fellow air marshal and former friend of Marks, who appears to be monitoring his performance. Why, then, is he sweating profusely and carrying a bag full of cocaine? Thinking he’s solved the mystery. Marks is dismayed when he receives another test message and reports of his dismissal from the NYPD begin popping up on the TV monitors in the cabin. That’s pretty fast work for an eight-hour flight, even by CNN’s standards. As the implausibilities add up, the filmmakers attempt to divert our attention from them by spicing the script with dark humor. Very few actors could sell such nonsense to audiences – Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson come to mind — but audiences will forgive Neeson of almost anything today. Of the nearly $200 million that “Non-Stop” has collected worldwide (46.2 percent domestically) it’s likely that Neeson’s presence is responsible for 90 percent of it. There’s nothing wrong with the rest of the cast members, though. Adding to the movie’s credibility are co-stars Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”), Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) and several actors familiar primarily to TV audiences. If the Blu-ray looks and sounds fine, the extras are pretty generic. – Gary Dretzka

Capital: Blu-ray
Amen: Blu-ray
There was a time when the Greek-born filmmaker Costa-Gavras could do no wrong. Today, at 81, he’s easy pickings for critics who long for the days of “Z” and other films that took on the powers that be in countries where labor unions, intellectuals and students have been targeted for persecution. His first great success, “Z,” remains a tense political thriller about the rape of Greece’s democracy by a murderous military junta propped up by the U.S. government and outside corporate interests. Just as relevant, but less relatable to American audiences were “The Confession,” “State of Siege” and “Special Section.” His first Hollywood-backed movie was “Missing,” an indictment of this country’s role in the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected government and murder of Salvador Allende. Even after being condemned by White House official Alexander Haig, one of the architects of the coup, the presence of Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek helped “Missing” find an audience here. Among the actors who would appear in his next few movies were Jill Clayburgh (“Hannah K”), Debra Winger (“Betrayed”) and Jessica Lange (“Music Box”). Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta starred in “Mad City,” a critical and commercial disaster that combined elements “Ace in the Hole” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” without delivering anything close to a knockout punch. Money would get tight after that failure.

Five years went by before the release of his next, relatively low-profile film, “Amen.” Based on “The Deputy,” a controversial 1963 play by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, it tells the true story of chemist Kurt Gerstein, who, while employed at the Hygiene Institute of the Waffen SS, discovered to his dismay that the pesticide, Zyklon B, which he was testing as a potential cure for typhus, was being used, instead, for killing Jews and Poles. Until witnessing the deaths, himself, Gerstein and most other German citizens chose to believe the lie about where uprooted Jews were being taken in train cars and for what purpose. He attempted to use his position in the army to convince leaders of the Roman Catholic Church to take a public stand on the persecution of Jews, just as they had against the Nazis’ Euthanasia Program. A young Jesuit priest, Riccardo Fontana, whose father was influential within the highest circle of the Vatican hierarchy, was the only clergyman to agree to push the matter up the ladder. After finally reporting to Pope Pius XII, to no avail, Fontana boarded a freight car carrying dozens of Jews to the death camps. He was recognized at a transfer point and detained, but none of the other passengers was spared. The play caused a huge uproar in Germany, as well as public debate elsewhere about the Church’s role in the Holocaust. In the play, the pontiff appears content to support the Jews and German resistance in his own way, without a public denunciation of Hitler or openly providing sanctuary. Other clerics felt as if the Nazis provided a barrier against communism and atheism, and they shouldn’t be denounced publically. At the time, Pius’ role was defended by Catholic and Jewish authorities, alike, who claimed his actions saved hundreds of thousands of lives. I found “Amen” to be extremely well-produced, thought-provoking and often quite exciting. It’s no less provocative today than in 1963 and its arguments remain open to debate. Gurstein’s motives for cooperating with the Allies in the closing days of the war are still questioned, as well. Although, at 132 minutes, “Amen” overextends its welcome, there’s no question that Costa-Gavras hadn’t lost much of his ability to tell a story during his hiatus.

Also newly released into Blu-ray by Cohen Media Group is his most recent production, “Capital.” Ever since the international economic collapse, Costa-Gavras had wanted to say something about the absolute corruptibility of money and how our relationship to it has changed so hideously since the 1980s, at least. “Capital” straddles a very thin line separating drama and farce – he calls it a parable – although I doubt that comedy was what he had in mind. Popular French monologist Gad Elmaleh plays the brilliant assistant to the CEO of the large and profitable Phenix Bank. When the old man collapses on the golf course – from the pain of testicular cancer, of all things – he decides to hand over the reins to the Machiavellian Marc Tourneuil. The board of directors believe that this was done to ensure the boss’ ideas would be funneled through the younger executive. The most aggressive member of the cabal, hedge-fund manager Dittmar Rigule (Gabriel Byrne), has other plans for the company’s and expects Tourneuil to do the dirty work for him. Tourneuil agrees to fire hundreds of the bank’s employees, if not as many as Rigule demands. Along with other reforms, the layoffs serve to boost the stock price and keep the cabal’s wolves from his door. Even so, Rigule continue to demand initiatives that would make the bank ripe for a takeover. It makes no sense to Tourneuil, until a sharp and idealistic British analyst (Céline Sallette) explains it to him. It’s at this point in the story that Tourneuil, who’s already been tempted to stray by a sizzling hot, if poorly drawn supermodel, that he finds himself at the proverbial fork in the road and Costa-Gavras asks us to guess which path he’ll take. Unfortunately, the verdict is based on facts not in evidence. Like “Amen,” “Capital” is technically proficient and well-acted. Released in 2012, four years after most Earthlings determined that bankers serve no useful purpose, except to propagate the ruling class, it seems a very minor and obvious effort. Both movies arrive with interesting interviews with the director. – Gary Dretzka

Adult World
You wouldn’t know it from the tactically misleading jacket photo, but “Adult World” is a surprisingly sweet and genuinely entertaining coming-of-age story, which deserves a better reception in DVD than it received in its too-limited theatrical run. I don’t blame the distributors for trying to attract customers with a titillating title and lurid neon highlights that suggest something naughty might be contained therein. The presence of John Cusack, who’s played some decidedly wicked characters lately, only seems to add to the potential for menace. Instead, everyone keeps their clothes on and the sexuality is implied. Bubbly Emma Roberts plays a recent college graduate who’s convinced herself that she’s on the brink of becoming the first poet since Rod McKuen to make money from her poetry. She successfully avoids finding paying work, until she’s forced to leave home by her parents. Needless to say, a degree in poetry doesn’t cut much ice with potential employers in a Rust Belt city devastated by factory closings and chronic unemployment. Finally, she finds a job at a local porn emporium, which looks as ragged as any other business in the struggling Upstate New York town. Although thankful for the pay check, Amy spends most of her time brushing up on her poetry and explaining to customers why porn is insulting to women. Neither is she much good at preventing shoplifting. Fortunately, the store’s young manager (Chris Riggi) takes a shine to Amy, as does the town’s resident transvestite (Armando Riesco), who provides her with a place to crash.

When Amy discovers that her all-time favorite poet, Rat Billings (Cusack), is in residence at the college, she decides to honor him by becoming his personal stalker. Billings is far too burned out to find the adoration flattering or reciprocate with helpful advice. The closest Amy comes to connecting with him is volunteering to serve as his much needed cleaning woman, in exchange for him critiquing her writing. Instead of giving her false hope, Billings is brutally honest about her poetry, which he finds shrill and hyperbolic. His being cruel to be kind only endears him to Amy, at least until he takes the one step too far that causes her to come to grips with her situation. Director Scott Coffey acted in several David Lynch pictures before taking the helm of the interesting indie character study, “Ellie Parker,” with Naomi Watts. Here, he capably massaged the script by freshman screenwriter Andy Cochran and coaxed a terrifically obsessive performance from 22-year-old Emma Roberts – son of Eric and niece of Julia, with whom she is extremely close – an actor who appears to be standing on the brink of stardom for her ability to move from drama to comedy with seemingly little effort. As geeky as Amy is, Roberts also is able to find the raw sexuality hidden deep within the aspiring poet. I wouldn’t be too concerned about the R-rating, even if it seems to mirror the context suggested on the cover art. The camera never lingers on the material being sold and Amy’s yearnings are strictly PG. I don’t see any reason why viewers in their middle- to late-teens, along with young adults, shouldn’t take a shot at “Adult World,” instead of the latest boys-will-be-boys or comic-book flick. – Gary Dretzka

Bible Quiz
One of the teenagers we follow in Nicole Teeny’s low-key and frequently surprising “Bible Quiz,” asks the most obvious question even before we get an opportunity to do so ourselves. Why, asks 17-year-old Mikayla Irle, is she involved so deeply in an activity that all of her friends at school consider to be hopelessly geeky and boring? Mikayla may not get around to answering her own question, but anyone who’s watched one of the many documentaries about young people striving for excellence through games or artistic pursuits already knows what it is. She is a member of an award-winning team of Tacoma bible students on their way to the national championships in Green Bay, Wisconsin, commonly referred to as Title Town. Having grown up in a bible-quizzing family, Teeny understands what’s at stake for the competitors she’s chosen to follow. Teeny also knows a thing or two about being a teenage girl at the cusp of womanhood. By all outward appearances, Mikalya is one of, perhaps, millions of young people who’ve devoted their lives to God and spreading the Good News about Jesus Christ to anyone who will listen and some who won’t. While many of the nation’s generic Jesus freaks are robotic and single-minded, when they aren’t being thoroughly annoying, at least, others are in it for the same reasons that teenagers join athletic teams, glee clubs and student councils. Besides enjoying the companionship and buzz that comes with being really good at something – she knows Scripture inside-out — Mikalya has an innocent crush on the team’s star, J.P. O’Connor. It also relieves some of the pressure of having an alcoholic, largely absentee mother.

Teeny’s camera follows the team from qualifying rounds in Washington to Wisconsin, without condescending to the teens or making the quiz sound more important than it is. She also understands that memorizing and reciting Scripture – in competition with other sharp teens and a 30-second clock – is a significantly different thing than comprehending their meaning. Some will get to that point at a later date, others might find different ways to incorporate Christ into their lives or stray from the flock. Most of the kids we meet here have yet to come to grips with the stirrings inside their bodies they’ve been taught to fear, ignore or put on the back burner until their wedding night. Indeed, Mikalya is steal wrestling with the idea that Jesus might not approve of her submitting to a kiss or, at one significant point in “Bible Quiz,” initiating a congratulatory hug. The thought of putting on makeup and a shoulder-revealing dress for the awards ceremony almost makes her apoplectic. In a pre-coming-of-age documentary that very easily could have turned ugly with condescension and disapproval, these are moments for viewers to savor. Being a cheesehead, I found it amusing that anyone would see Green Bay in the same light as Sodom and Gomorrah. The parents and pastors we do meet are kept mostly in the background, unless they’re running the contest or there to support the team. One dad doesn’t pretend to understand what his kid is doing and why, but doesn’t want to spoil the fun. “Bible Quiz” grows on you to the point where it matters who wins the contest, even if the answers are delivered at 78 r.p.m.– Gary Dretzka

The Spike Lee Joint Collection, Volumes 1 & 2: Blu-ray
Far less than the career-encompassing collection Spike Lee deserves and his fans desire, the three “Spike Lee Joint” packages extant – one from Universal, two now from Touchstone – represent bargains for collectors and handy introductions to those new to his work. Perhaps, this week’s release of “Volume 1” and “Volume 2” will prompt Universal to re-release its five-title box on Blu-ray. Although Touchstone’s compilations basically amount to double-features, at least the films are now available in hi-def and with new commentary tracks. The first volume includes “25th Hour” and “He Got Game,” while the second adds “Summer of Sam” and “Miracle at St. Anna.” Edward Norton” gives a bravura performance in “25th Hour,” which chronicles the last 24 hours of freedom for convicted drug dealer Monty Brogan. The most significant thing one learns listening to the commentary is how much Lee wanted to pay homage to pre-9/11 New York and salute those who gave their lives attempting to rescue others trapped in the Twin Towers. One scene primarily dominated by dialogue is shot with cleanup operations at Ground Zero visible in the background.

The other masterpiece here is “Summer of Sam,” another portrait of New York, only this one sweats and shouts back at the viewer. At the same time as dweeb killer David Berkowitz is raising the temperature of the already sweltering melting pot, the Yankees’ are uniting the citizenry with another pennant run. Lee is a master at getting audience members to feel as if they’re as integral a part of the story as any of the characters and, here, there’s almost no line separating those hunting the killer and those whose appearance and idiosyncracies make them suspects. As such, “Summer of Sam” is one of the most visceral movies of all time.

Apart from being an indictment of the corruption in the college-recruiting game, “He Got Game” cuts to the heart of a father-son relationship poisoned by distance, bitterness and jealousy. Denzel Washington plays Jake, the father of a high coveted prep basketball star, Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen). Jake was convicted of murdering his wife and is serving time in Attica. The governor allows him to leave prison for a week, during which he’s expected to convince the teenager to commit to the state university. If he does, Jake could be released on parole. Trouble is, he hates his father and blames him for his mother’s death, however accidental it was. Jake also plays a key role in a subplot, involving a prostitute played by Milla Jovovich. The epic World War II drama, “Miracle at St. Anna,” describes how four members of the U.S. Army’s all-black 92nd Infantry Division — Buffalo Soldiers — are trapped behind enemy lines after one of them risks his life to save a traumatized Italian boy. Although it attempts to do too many big things at once, “Miracle” does most of them right.

The Blu-ray bonus package adds, on “25th Hour,” commentaries by Lee and Norton, Lee alone, and screenwriter David Benioff ; deleted scenes; “The Evolution of an American Filmmaker; and “Ground Zero: A Tribute.” “He Got Game” includes commentary by Lee and actor/NBA star Ray Allen; “Summer of Sam” has commentary by Lee and actor John Leguizamo; and “Miracle at St. Anna,” adds commentary by Lee and screenwriter James McBride, deleted scenes and featurettes “Deeds Not Words” and “The Buffalo Soldier Experience.” The commentaries may be a tad chatty and unfocused for some tastes. – Gary Dretzka

Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles: Blu-ray
Any resemblance between “Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles” and the Seven Labors of Hercules may be purely coincidental, but what better inspiration could there be for martial-arts movie? Instead of having to battle dangerous beasts and mythic creatures as penance for his sins, the martial-arts master Toramaru is required to prove himself to his sensei, Gensai, by traveling throughout Japan and Okinawa and defeating the masters of seven separate disciplines. After a year on the road, Toramaru returns to his dojo with seven scrolls containing secrets and techniques of kung-fu, stick fighting, sword fighting, nunchaku, yakuza, gun-slinging and samurai skills. When integrated with traditional Bushido values, the combined disciple is mugen-ga-ryu. Gensai’s advice to Toramaru is to pay attention to regional cuisines and duplicate his opponent’s diet as a way to get to inside his head. “Bushido Man,” then, is little more than a series of exciting fights and quiet discussions between sensei and student. There’s no reason to ruin the surprise ending, but hardly anyone is likely to go away disappointed by Takanori Tsujimoto’s follow-up to “Monster Killer.” For western viewers, “Bushido Man” can be enjoyed almost as much as a travelogue as an action picture, with no small amount of humor. The Blu-ray extras consist of Q&A’s conducted at festival screenings. – Gary Dretzka

Kill Zombie!: Blu-ray
Haunt
Almost Human
Fans of “Shaun of the Dead” and other zombie comedies should find a lot to like in the Dutch zombie-apocalypse farce, “Kill Zombie!” Martijn Smits and Erwin van den Eshof may not be emphatically satirical or as genre-bending as some recent efforts, but its cartoonish approach to the eradication of humans and zombies is surprisingly effective. “Kill Zombie!” also is informed by the diverse cultures of Amsterdam, which somehow has managed to balance a welcoming persona to outsiders with the country’s distinctly conservative core. Here, a motley crew of stoners, straights, immigrants from two or three different continents, femme fatales, a gun-toting blond cop and Russian mercenary all come together to battle zombies contaminated by an oozy green substance released when a space vehicle crash lands into a skyscraper in Amsterdam-West. The undead act in ways familiar to all of us, but the weaponry collected by our merry band of survivors ranges from the completely ineffectual to devastating. The less logic one applies to the story, the easier it is to maintain the suspension of disbelief necessary to follow who’s still among the living. It’s a lot of fun.

In only five years, IFC Midnight has established itself as a destination for browsers seeking innovative horror flicks, most of which are made on a limited budget and using unknown actors or cult favorites. Among its successes are Tom Six’s “The Human Centipede,” Johnnie To’s “Vengeance” and Brandon Cronenberg’s “Antiviral.” Even if mainstream critics don’t pay much attention to such movies – until they become cult sensations, anyway – the genre-centric websites tend to give them a fair shake. Its catalogue is also a good place to find young talents and trending ideas.

Working off of a script by fellow-freshman Andrew Barrer, Mac Carter deftly integrates a compelling teen romance into the haunted-house thriller, “Haunt,” saving it from being just another horror wannabe. When a spooky pediatrician, Dr. Janet Morello (two-time Oscar nominee, Jacki Weaver), finally decides to sell her rural home to the Ashers, she reluctantly leaves behind a family of distinctly grotesque ghosts. Teenage son, Evan (Harrison Gilbertson), may sense there’s something fishy about the place, but his parents are in no mood to buy into what they see as his fantasies. While walking through the woods one night, he meets Samantha (Liana Liberato), the sadly abused daughter of the Ashers’ alcoholic neighbor. They hit it off to the point where Mrs. Asher (Ione Skye) allows her to move into the house and tastefully enjoy the first fruits of young love with Evan. It’s convenient, because both share a fascination with the supernatural and can’t wait to test a transmitter box left behind by the doctor. Not surprisingly, they bite off more than they can chew with their investigation into the ghosts’ origins. Besides the romantic subplot, “Haunt” benefits from the enthusiastic performances of the young actors and some nifty special-makeup effects.

For his feature debut, “Almost Human,” writer/director Joe Begos borrows liberally from John Carpenter and other masters of sci-fi/horror genre, circa the 1980s. What begins as an alien-abduction mystery turns quickly into a grisly splatter film, when a Maine redneck returns after two years from a sojourn in space. Mark (Josh Ethier) makes loud screechy noises when he really wants to scare people or suck things from their bodies through the long Pocket Hose Penis protruding from his mouth. It appears as if Mark has returned to reclaim his girlfriend (Vanessa Leigh) from another suitor. Meanwhile, their best friend Seth (Graham Skipper) is inexplicably experiencing nosebleeds and other premonitions of doom. Depending on one’s ability to withstand numerous images of gore and an ear-splitting soundtrack, the reasonably novel ending either will make up for the incomprehensible middle third or be just another thing that life was too short to waste time waiting to see. “Almost Human” may be far too excruciating an experience for most viewers to watch, but it’s short and the best gags may be indicative of a bright future for Begos. Don’t forget to fast-forward through the eight-minute credits crawl to find a brief closing scene. The DVD adds a couple of featurettes, interviews and the short film, “Toxin.” – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Fox: Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey: Blu-ray
The Chisholms: Complete TV Series
The Adventures of Batman
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: The Lost Gardens of Babylon
PBS Kids/
The Wheels on the Bus: A Day at the Farm
Thirty-four years ago, when Carl Sagan’s landmark series, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” first aired on PBS, Pluto was still a planet, the Hubble Space Telescope had yet to wow us with remarkable images from deep space, high-definition television monitors weren’t close to being affordable and the colony of unreformed Nazis living on the dark side of the moon had yet to reveal itself. That last one wasn’t known until the Finnish film “Iron Sky” was released in 2012. If “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey” didn’t make quite the same splash when it was simulcast earlier this year across all 10 Fox broadcast and cable outlets, it’s only because Sagan had already become a genuine media celebrity. He had already made several appearances on the “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” where the host, an amateur astronomer, had made him feel as welcome as any movie star. The similarly ambitious “A SpaceTime Odyssey” follows the blueprint laid out in 1980. This time, though, digital technology, computer-generated animation and high-resolution video monitors have raised the ante on science programming. Among other things, the visual presentation is exponentially sharper, deeper and immersive. The 13-episode series is presented by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who learned more than a few lessons from his idol, Sagan. Among the executive producers are Seth MacFarlane and Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, a co-creator of the original series. Astronomer and writer Steven Soter returns to share scripting duties with Dryun. As family-oriented entertainment and explanatory science, “A SpaceTime Odyssey” isn’t likely to be topped, until home theaters become totally immersive and everyone can afford an IMAX screen in their living room. By then, too, we’ll probably be receiving YouTube videos from Mars. The 662-minute Blu-ray experience includes audio commentary; the Library of Congress dedication; deleted scenes; “‘Cosmos’: A Vision Reborn”; “‘Cosmos’ at Comic-Con”; and an interactive “cosmic calendar.”

The Chisholms” began its life on CBS as a 1979 mini-series, before being spun-off as a short-lived series the next year. That was pretty late in the game for TV Westerns, but “Little House on the Prairie” still had some a few years life in it and a cast that included Robert Preston, Brian Keith, Rosemarie Harris, Ben Murphy, Brian Kerwin and Donald Moffat, in addition to interesting guest stars, still should have been able to find an audience. Moreover, it was executive produced by David Dortort, who had written, produced and exec-produced dozens of episodes of “Bonanza,” which “The Chilsholms” kind of, sort of resembled. Swindled out of their Virginia property, the Chisholm family, led by proud patriarch Hadley (Preston) and his wife, Minerva (Harris), make the trek westward in order to build a new life for themselves in the Oregon Territory. Along the trail, the Chisholm clan encounters challenges that threaten not only their safety, but the very fabric of their familial bonds. It helped, as well, that the shooting locations looked as if they’re nowhere near SoCal or British Columbia. If nothing else, it’s great to see the lead stars in action, again.

Slugterra: Ghoul From Beyond” is a feature-length extension of the Nerd Corps’ sci-fi/fantasy series, “Slugterra,” which defies synopsis, easy or otherwise. The story takes place in a deep, underground realm in which magical garden slugs are treated like commodities to be collected, trained and shot from guns. Topsider Eli Shane is determined to be the greatest slug-slinger since his legendary father disappeared in one of the many caverns of the underworld. A villain known as Dr. Blakk is seeking to “ghoul” the slugs, transforming them into feral mindless weapons. As was the case with gunfighters in Old West, every time one goes down, someone bigger and badder comes along to take his place. The movie is only slightly less complicated than the series.

The Adventures of Batman” is the companion package to “The New Adventures of Superman, Seasons 2 & 3,” released last week. Produced by Filmation, the show aired on CBS in 1968. It featured the voices of Olan Soule, as the original voice of Batman; Casey Kasem, as Robin, Jane Webb as Batgirl and Catwoman; Ted Knight, as Commissioner Gordon, Penguin, Riddler and Mr. Freeze; and Larry Storch, as The Joker. The two-disc set contains all 34 episodes.

It’s the rare episode of PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” that doesn’t hold one’s interest for its entire 60-minute length. Some reveal secrets buried in the recent past, while other episodes take viewers back to antiquity. One of the most interesting things about “The Lost Gardens of Babylon” is learning how much evidence is still available today, 3,000 years since the gardens are believed to have been built. Satellite photography and advanced imaging technology reveal things that have been hidden in plain sight all along. Dr. Stephanie Dalley, of Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, has been searching for the exact location of the gardens for most of her career. Now that the imagery has pointed her in a direction different than she was looking, the war in Iraq has made it impossible to complete her research. When guards prevent her from getting too close to ground zero, she equips Iraqis known to them to film the area with handheld cameras. Even we miss the “Eureka” moment, what Dalley is able to describe is pretty fascinating.

The latest package from the “PBS Kids” block includes, “Dinosaur Train: Adventure Camp,” “Wild Kratts: Tiny Trouble” and “Word Girl: Monkey Business.” Lifelong Who fans who want their kids to follow in their footsteps can give them a headstart with the “The Wheels on the Bus: A Day at the Farm.” Roger Daltrey provides the voice of Argon the Dragon, one of several animal characters — Papaya, the fun-loving monkey, and his toucan friend, Mango – who are transported to adventures on a musical bus. The episodes included here are “Fill it Up!,” “A Trip to the Market,” “Guide Dogs” and “A Visit to the Circus.” – Gary Dretzka

Unacceptable Levels
It may come as a shock to anyone born after the nearly universal push for concise labelling of food products and easy availability of healthy meals that there was time when the names of chemicals weren’t listed on every package or can containing edibles. Generally speaking, it wasn’t until after World War II that giant agricultural interests began to use chemicals to rush seasons and create produce that lasts longer on shelves and doesn’t taste nearly as fresh as it did only a few years earlier. Americans took it for granted that those chemicals were safe, because, well, why would anyone want to poison us? Now, with genetically modified produce, the battle over labelling is being fought once again, with giant agri-business concerns once again arguing that the products are so safe that identification isn’t necessary, let alone warnings. Ed Brown’s “Unacceptable Levels” tells us that, on average, we all have more than 232 industrial chemicals floating around in our bodies, with more to come. The science behind the prevention of chemically spurred diseases has, until now, lagged behind the creation of new preservatives and growth hormones. Brown believes that there are ways to reverse the trend. The film is sponsored by the American Sustainable Business Council, whose stated mission it is to advance “public policies that foster a vibrant, just and sustainable economy.” – Gary Dretzka

Auf Wiedersehen: ’Til We Meet Again
The Hilltops
Established in 1988, SISU Home Entertainment Inc. markets and distributes Israeli and Jewish videos, audio, books and multimedia properties. The company’s wide variety of products is primarily made available through the SISU/Kol Ami websites or at Judaica shops, major retail stores and websites. In addition to films concerning current events, religion, the Holocaust and other Jewish history, SISU also distributes such titles as “Shalom Sesame,” “Operation Grandma” and “Schmelvis.” Among the titles released this month are “Auf Wiedersehen: ’Til We Meet Again” and “The Hilltops.” The former was inspired by the attacks of 9/11, when the family of Linda G. Mills was threatened by the debris falling from one of the planes that struck the WTC. The experience caused her to plan a trip to Vienna, from which her mother and her parents were forced to leave in 1939. It wasn’t a journey her mother was looking forward to, especially, but Mills felt it was important to revisit events of the past and give her 10-year-old son an opportunity to connect to his roots. While she accomplished those things in the usual way, Mills also learned a great deal about the Anschluss and the relationship between Jewish officials and the Nazi government, none of which was common knowledge. They also met with historians who located records clarifying family history and its ability to escape to the United States, before Hitler ended the extortionist pay-to-flee visa program. Not surprisingly, the 10-year-old got antsy after a couple of days, but even he admitted that he’ll likely see the trip through different eyes as an adult. The extremely well made DVD adds deleted scenes and a seminar held in New York.

I found “The Hilltops” to be a bit more problematic, but only because I’m one of those people who think that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict won’t end until concessions are made by the settlers who’ve illegally taken over hilltops on the West Bank and have no intentions on leaving. The only attempt to balance the discussion is the inclusion of sound bites from a liberal Israeli legislator, who opposes the spread. The cause of her frustration can be easily seen in the hardline tactics of the settlers and rhetoric that practically compares President Obama to Yasser Arafat. I suspect that director Igal Hecht knew better than to play devil’s advocate to the adamantly Zionist settlers, who insist they have God on their side and don’t need anyone else’s permission. So, he didn’t try. The best part of the documentary is the physical perspective we gain by seeing how rugged and otherwise useless the land may be without expensive irrigation systems and an almost constant police presence. It is in direct contrast to other settlements we’ve seen in other parts of Israel, which, by comparison, look downright suburban. I doubt that “The Hilltops” will change anyone’s point of view, one way or the other. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

RoboCop: Blu-ray I wondered if the folks who decided to return to Detroit for the re-staging of “RoboCop,” circa 2028, considered the possibility that Motown may not exist in any recognizable form by then. It barely exists, today. Unless it is declared a welfare state and put under the control of a conservatorship – not unlike our nation’s capital, which benefits from the self-sustaining windbag industry – there will be nothing left to steal or protect, nowhere left to live and nothing left to do. As if to give credence to just such a scenario, Jose Padilha’s futuristic remake of the 1987 sci-fi classic – even then, shot largely in Texas and Pennsylvania — was made entirely in Canada, which, perhaps, could benefit from annexing Detroit as a suburb of Windsor. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, though, that there’s enough left of the city for a cyborgian lawman to save. How, then, does Padilha’s “RoboCop” stand up to Paul Verhoeven’s far more nuanced original? Well, like most other things in life and the cinema, it depends on the beholder. If the storyline doesn’t deviate much from the framework built by writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, the script devised by Padilha (“Elite Squad”) and freshman writer Joshua Zetumer substitutes hard-core action and menace for the dark humor and old-fashioned humanity that distinguished Verhoeven’s picture. It doesn’t lack for violence, certainly, even if Padilha was required, against his will, to cut the film for a PG-13 release. Here, Samuel L. Jackson plays a rabble-rousing talk-show blowhard, who shills for OmniCorp, the company financing the RoboCop project. It has been supplying mechanical soldiers to the U.S. military, for its overseas wars, but CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) believes that the future lies in the domestic market. Sellars knows that the populace won’t feel secure, however, unless the computerized cops display human sensitivities. Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) finds just the right fit in a seriously damaged good-guy cop, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who’s none too thrilled to wake up to find himself under the control of the ruthless Sellars. Nonetheless, it’s a human face. The change allowed Padilha to reposition Murphy’s suburban family (Abbie Cornish, John Paul Ruttan) in the narrative, from background to forefront. It probably didn’t matter that critics were split down the middle on the 2014 release, which cost more than $100 million to make and market. (The 1987 model made do on a $13 million budget, returning four times that much to MGM.) What I found interesting, though, was how international audiences saved “RoboCop” from tanking, cornering 75 percent of total revenues of $243 million. Even without counting for inflation, domestic revenues for both the original and remake were practically the same, $53.4 million vs. $58.6 million, making a sequel an iffy proposition. I see no reason why it shouldn’t do just fine in the after-market, though. Jay Baruchel, Jackie Earle Haley and Marianne Jean-Baptiste also play key roles. The Blu-ray offers a superior audio/visual presentation, as well as several deleted scenes and extensive making-of and background material. – Gary Dretzka Lone Survivor: Blu-ray Ride for Lance Ask a firefighter, cop or soldier what prompted him or her to act heroically in a life-or-death situation and the answer almost always will be something like, “I was just doing my job” or “I just did what I was trained to do.” Perhaps, knowing that most Medal of Honor recipients have been killed in the line of duty, they’re content to leave the anointing of heroes to their superiors and politicians. Heroism, itself, is far easier to define and recognize. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about America’s Special Forces, in the last 15 years, at least, it is that the units don’t go into battle anticipating anything beyond what might happen in the next few minutes or hours. Having undergone such an extremely demanding training regimen, practically nothing is left to chance… even while under fire. Typically, too, while the successes of Special Forces teams go unreported, the failures often make headlines. The mission to kill Osama Bin Laden was weighted with such political significance that it became the exception that proved the rule. In 1980, the deaths of eight Americans in the failed attempt to rescue hostages held in the U.S. Embassy by Iranian radicals quickly was overshadowed by finger-pointing and political rhetoric. The first news reports on Operation Red Wings — the failed mission that inspired “Lone Survivor” — focused necessarily on the helicopter being shot down and the deaths of the rescue-team members. More than two years later, after sole survivor Marcus Luttrell’s best-selling account of the mission was published, President Bush posthumously awarded Lt. Michael Murphy the Medal of Honor and the author was given the Navy Cross. Peter Berg’s heart-wrenching film sticks pretty close to Luttrell’s recollection of the doomed mission to eliminate a pro-Taliban leader in the mountains of Afghanistan. I doubt that I’m giving away anything that isn’t already known about “Lone Survivor” by pointing out that Occupation Red Wings was compromised by one of the goatherds whose life was spared in a vote among the SEALs. No sooner was the youngest let go than he scampered down the mountain side to alert the insurgents. If they had killed him or tied him to a tree until the action was completed, it’s possible that the team could have called off the mission and been safely extracted from the landing zone. Even though it takes place less than half-way through the picture, the vote sets up the story’s central moral dilemma: are this country’s rules of engagement realistic in a war such as the one we’re fighting in the mountains of a largely hostile region. Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) has since said that his vote to release the boy was influenced by premonitions of how the “liberal media” would have played imposing on a death sentence on the goatherds. I would think that the prospect of a court-martial would be more frightening, but that’s what happens to your moral compass when you watch too much Fox News. Once the Taliban attack the four-man team, it becomes a moot point. Berg’s dramatization of the combat that quickly follows the identification of the Americans is as exciting as anything I’ve witnessed since “Saving Private Ryan.” It feels as if the confrontation is happening in real time and we can reach out and touch the SEALs, not that it would do anyone any good. After the smoke clears on the mountain, Berg introduces another profile in courage in the person of the Pashtun leader who stood his ground against the insurgents. Relying on centuries of tribal tradition, he risked his life by refusing to hand the American over to them. In such pictures as “The Kingdom” and “Battleship,” Berg has demonstrated that he can create and direct credibly violent and exciting war scenarios. His desire to remain faithful to the book gives us an opportunity to meet the SEAL team members before the action and understand what makes a Special Forces unit tick. By the time the operation begins, we’ve bought in to their devotion to duty and each other. Berg also makes sure we understand that the insurgent leader, Ahmad Shah, is a dangerously violent man, capable of killing innocent villagers to make a point. Unlike other post-Vietnam war movies, “Lone Survivor” doesn’t make a case for the futility of war or challenge the reasons we were in Afghanistan. It’s 2005, after all, and the characters here are doing what needed to be done when the rest of the world was still on our side in the war on terror. If this were a movie set in Iraq, instead, viewers might rightly question whether the life of even one American soldier was worth the entirety of the embattled country and the president’s personal crusade against Saddam Hussein. Politics aren’t discussed much in “Lone Survivor” and that’s a big point in its favor. In a profile included in the Blu-ray package, Luttrell doesn’t point to patriotism as being the key reason for wanting to be a Navy SEAL. He’s always considered himself to be a warrior and that’s what attracted him to Special Forces. Berg personally convinced him of his desire to honor Luddell’s brothers-in-arms. In “The Pashtun Code of Life,” we’re introduced to another real-life hero, Mohamad Gulab, who may have signed his own death warrant by obeying traditional Pashtun principles and saving Luttrell’s life. His ordeal is far from over. Last year, producer and Navy veteran Scott Mactavish released the practically DIY documentary, “Murph: The Protector” to honor Lieutenant Murphy. His act of valor came when he decided to climb back up to the ridge, unprotected, to find reception for the team’s satellite phone. He and Luttrell both knew it was a suicide mission, but kept on picking off as many enemy fighters as possible. The movie relied solely on interviews, re-creations and personal memorabilia to describe the Medal of Honor recipient and act of courage. Mactavish has followed up on that effort with the similarly low-budget, “Ride for Lance,” which describes a 31-day, 12,000-mile motorcycle excursion undertaken by friends and comrades of Chief Petty Officer Lance Vaccaro, a decorated SEAL, killed in a 2008 training exercise. Four riders and a support team made the trek from Virginia Beach to Alaska, all the way accepting donations for the Navy SEAL Foundation. The scenery may be the best thing about “Ride for Lance,” but easily the most heart-warming is the response accorded the riders along the way by vets, average citizens and police and fire officials. If any of them had to pay for a drink or lodging during the trip, I didn’t notice it. – Gary Dretzka Alexander: The Ultimate Cut: 10th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray Riddle me this, Batman: when is the “final cut” version of a DVD not, in fact, the final cut? When Oliver Stone says it isn’t. In addition to the theatrical-, director’s- and final-cut editions of his grand historical epic, we now have the “Ultimate” 10th-anniversary package of “Alexander.” It’s even been collected on Blu-ray alongside “300” and “Troy.” A few studios, notably Disney, routinely send out different editions of the same movie, adding a feature or two to entice fans. Depending on whose article one reads, “Alexander” has been released at lengths of 167, 175, 206, 213 and 220 minutes, although only three of those appear to be valid. It’s no secret that Stone felt rushed by studio demands for the picture and a firm deadline or that he couldn’t wait to add to re-edit it to his own specifications for DVD. Curiously, though, the original director’s-cut edition came in eight minutes shorter than the theatrical release. Likewise, the 2007 “Final Cut” is about six minutes longer than the new “Ultimate” set. But, who’s counting, right? Suffice it to say that Stone appears to be satisfied at its current length, which restores some philosophical discussion with Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) and additional homo-erotic references. Three-and-a-half hours spent in anyone’s company can prove taxing and Alexander the Great is no exception. What was good-to-great in the theatrical version remains the same today and the new stuff looks OK, too. Even so, the restored material is likely to be best appreciated by fresher eyes than mine. I kept looking for the changes and it made a long movie longer. There’s nothing wrong with the Blu-ray presentation and that should come as good news to people who need an excuse for revisiting “Alexander.” Also included are an introduction by Stone; 40-page booklet with concept drawings, storyboards and behind-the-scenes photos; collectible packaging; correspondence memos between Stone and the cast and crew; a new documentary, “The Real Alexander and the World He Made”; commentaries by Oliver Stone and historian Robin Lane Fox; the original theatrical version and commentary; Sean Stone’s feature-length making-of documentary, “Fight Against Time: Oliver Stone’s ‘Alexander’”; and “Vangelis Scores ‘Alexander’.” – Gary Dretzka Black Out: Blu-ray Anyone able to erase the memory of 15 years’ worth of Guy Ritchie miscues, along with dozens of anemic attempts to copy “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” by lesser directors, might find something fresh and exotic in “Black Out.” (Just try to forget he was married to Madonna and directed her in the “Swept Away” remake.) Everyone else, I’m afraid, will see it as just another apple that fell too close to the tree. Don’t get me wrong, though, the Rotterdam-set crime story has many redeeming qualities. In his first feature for mature audiences, Dutch director Arne Toonen used a novel by fellow countryman Gerben Hellinga as the foundation for “Black Out.” So it’s possible, I suppose, that the novelist owes more to Ritchie than does Toonen. How does one say, “moot point,” in Dutch? The basic story involves an amnesic crook, Jos, who can’t remember picking up 20 kilos of cocaine from a smuggler, let alone how he could have paid for it or delivering it to someone other than an octogenarian crime boss, who’s near death and confined to a wheelchair. There’s also the matter of a fortune in Eurodollars that’s missing and presumed forgotten by Jos, as well. To avoid being killed on the eve of his wedding, Jos and a burly buddy pay call on all of the unusual suspects in the port city to pick their brains and pockets. Besides Grandpa, they include a former star of the Bolshoi Ballet turned kick-boxer, a bowling center operator, a woman who’s adept at guessing the purity of cocaine by touch, a Surinamese dog groomer, his finance’s corrupt father, the operator of the Cowboy Disco and, best of all, sexy female ninjas Petra and Charity. As imagined by Katja ad Birgit Schuurman, the tattooed enforcers need wield only a fireman’s ax and cricket bat to make their points. Otherwise, “Black Out” overflows with Ritchie-esque ultra-violence, cleverly rendered profanity, loud music and enough backstabbing and double-crosses to fill a dozen homages to “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” The Blu-ray adds a blooper reel, photo gallery and comic short, “Oh, Deer,” also by Toonen. As ragged as “Black Out” is, I’d watch it again just to see Petra and Charity. – Gary Dretzka Clockwork Orange County Of all the places in America for a virulent strain of punk rock to take root in the late-1970s, SoCal’s Orange County was one of the least likely. Former President Richard Nixon still lived on its southern tip and the residents’ dedication to suburban values was unequaled in the U.S. If the Flower Power and antiwar movements failed to make a dent in Orange County complacency, a different kind of youth-quake was on the horizon in the mid-1970s. Kids who were bullied for their non-conformist ideas and unconventional appearance began to find each other in school, at the beach and other places that they could drink, smoke, show off their tattoos and get pierced in peace. The “skate punk” movement was already in full swing and the increasingly violent “surf Nazi” crowd was threatening to turn public beaches into war zones. Mostly, though, kids just wanted to have fun and there was only one place that allowed them to head-bang to songs that matched their outsider attitudes. Appropriately, it was a Costa Mesa nightclub, the Cuckoo’s Nest, that booked the Ramones, Iggy Pop, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, T.S.O.L and didn’t mind taking money from kids who preferred slam-dancing and stage-diving to whatever was being shown on “Soul Train.” The exposure that bands received at the Cuckoo’s Nest sometimes put them on a fast track to national attention, even if the money didn’t always match the energy exerted on the dance floor. The more popular the club got, however, the more it became infested with addicts, overly aggressive lunatics and tailgaters, hoping to save some money by getting drunk in the parking lot. This led to all sorts of problems, including fights between the punks and patrons of the “cowboy” bar, down the road. Not surprisingly, then, “Clockwork Orange County” will be of interest primarily to those who still enjoy the music or remember the nightclub. It features interviews, then and now, with many of the musicians and fans who put the place on the map. – Gary Dretzka Ravenous: Blu-ray Parts Per Billion: Blu-ray Death Bed: The Bed That Eats: Blu-ray How many times have you been warned about eating a big meal before watching a particularly gory movie? Typically, such talk only enhances our appetites for mayhem that rarely lives up to the hype. “Ravenous” is the only movie I can recall where the admonishment actually holds water. And, yes, we’re talking about cannibalism here. As unappetizing as it might be, Antonia Bird’s quasi-Western is set among some of the most beautiful scenery that Slovakia and Durango have to offer. It also features a cast that, in 1999, was built to sell tickets. It included Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, David Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, John Spencer and Neal McDonough. Pearce plays an army officer who experienced a spot of bother in our war with Mexico and developed a nasty habit. Somehow, though, he managed to capture a Mexican command post, for which he was given a promotion. His reward was being posted in a fort high in the Sierra Nevada range, which for several winter months is impassable. Pearce’s Captain John Boyd may look as if he’s just gone 10 rounds with a rabid bear, but he’s Robert Redford in “Jerimiah Johnson” compared with the rest of the soldiers stationed there. Carlyle plays a Scottish stranger, who after being treated for frostbite, tells a story about the leader of a group of settlers who lured members of his party into caves when the snows came. When the soldiers investigate the claim, they get a lesson in extreme dining. By now, though, “Ravenous” still has a long way to go. In addition to cannibalism, screenwriter Ted Griffin borrows from the Wendigo legend to give a spiritual twist to the proceedings. Despite the excellent cast, the movie didn’t make a lot of money at the box office. Perhaps, if the producers built an outdoor theater and showed it to tourists at the Donner Summit campground, they’d have made a fortune. The Blu-ray includes a new interview with actor Jeffrey Jones; commentaries with Bird and composer Damon Albarn, Griffin and Jones, and Carlyle; deleted scenes with Bird’s commentary; and two still galleries of the costume and production design. Brian Horiuchi’s freshman feature, “Parts Per Billion,” is another picture whose cast couldn’t save it from straight-to-PPV oblivion. The “On the Beach” approach to apocalyptical drama doesn’t quite work here, as airborne biological toxins slowly make their way from the Middle East to Michigan and a bunch of people who can only sit and wait for the curtain to drop on their lives. Among actors involved here are Josh Hartnett, Teresa Palmer, Alexis Bledel, Rosario Dawson, Penn Badgley, Hill Harper and the always welcome Gena Rowlands and Frank Langella. The deeper drama involves three couples desperate to keep love alive, even under such extreme conditions. I hate to say it, but this is one post-apocalypse movie that could use some zombies. Also set in Detroit, well before the economic collapse, is George Barry’s one and only gift to the cinematic gods. “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats” is so unbelievably strange and poorly made that it cries out to be seen by cultists, if no one else. And, yet, here “Death Bed” is, 37 years later and in Blu-ray, no less. Actually, it might be even older than that. Legend has it that Barry’s film was shot in 1972, but the answer print wasn’t struck until six years later. Barry had pretty much forgotten he’d made the movie until 2003, when he discovered that bootleg copies of “Death Bed” had been circulating and it had developed a fan base. He then decided to put it out officially on DVD, with a bonus package that rivals any assembled by Criterion Collection. The story is set in a stone outbuilding of a crumbling estate outside Detroit. The only piece of furniture is a large four-post bed with a crimson cover. There’s also an Aubrey Beardsley painting that carries a supernatural charge. As the title suggests, anyone who sits on the bed gets devoured by it, especially if they’re partially naked actresses. It’s nuts … truly nuts … but in a good way. Inexplicably, independent distributors Cult Epics and Olive Films have decided to invest even more money into “Death Bed,” in the form of a new HD transfer; introductions and commentaries by Stephen Thrower, author of “Nightmare USA,” and Barry; a conversation between Thrower and Barry on horror films of the 1970s and 1980s; a new behind-the-scenes featurette; and original “Death Bed” music track. – Gary Dretzka We Always Lie to Strangers: The Incredible True Story of Branson, Missouri When I saw the title to this documentary about a town that could only exist in America, I expected an expose of the family-values dodge or a snotty putdown of an entertainment mecca that caters to men and women who haven’t boogied since Lawrence Welk died. They used to say the same thing about Las Vegas, too, but, this time, it’s true. Instead, A.J. Schnack and David Boone Wilson’s “We Always Lie to Strangers” examines how a remote Ozark Mountain town prospers by providing stages for entertainers too old to draw flies in Las Vegas or, even, Nashville. More than 7.5 million tourists visit Branson a year, generating some $3 billion in annual tourism revenue. Unlike Las Vegas and Nashville, however, the year-round population is just north of 10,000 people, almost all of whom owe their living to the entertainment and tourism industries. Besides such well-known performers as Andy Williams, Tony Orlando and Yakov Smirnoff, who have permanent theaters in town, Branson is home to more than 100 song-and-dance stages. (There’s small cemetery’s worth of tribute shows dedicated to departed country legends.) It almost goes without saying that none of the productions dare allow naughty language, nudity, gambling or political jokes that might alternately offend Republicans and Democrats. It isn’t unusual for a show to end with a gospel medley or salute to our armed forces. Not everyone comes to Branson for the shows or even the family values. It’s located in a beautiful corner of the country, where outdoors sports, zip lines, mini-golf, fishing and other more-or-less healthy activities can be enjoyed. There are a lot worse places to be stuck than Branson, even if one isn’t yet eligible for Social Security. That’s the good news, though. The bad news is that family values, alone, can’t keep Branson safe from the economic realities of the rest of the world. Again, like Vegas, it has been hit hard by the cutback in tourism by financially endangered Americans. Unlike Vegas, though, I doubt it has much of an international audience to compensate for the losses. It’s the trickle-down effect of a crippled economy that impacts the people we meet here most. “We Always Lie to Strangers” introduces us to the Presley and Lennon families, whose must-see productions embody everything there is to like in Branson … if you like that kind of stuff. As popular as their shows have been, the entertainers can’t escape the slow economy and drop in state support for tourism. It isn’t unusual to find performers, in costume, hustling coupons to tourists. Still, like troupers everywhere, they go on with the shows. I wondered if the filmmakers were going to address the elephant in the room, which is the town’s disproportionately large gay population. As is pointed out by one of the male dancers in a popular show, Branson probably is the most gay-friendly place of its size and location in the country. Take away the gays and no one would be left to entertain the paying customers. As long as couples don’t flaunt their affection on Main Street, everything’s copacetic. Their everyday problems, however, are only slightly more pronounced than others interviewed. “We Always Lie to Strangers” has a pleasant home-spun quality to it and the people chosen to represent the town and cross-section of its residents have plenty of worthwhile things to say. One divorced dancer with an unreliable baby-sitter even allows herself to cuss when shit happens, but only off-stage. – Gary Dretzka Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton Breaking Through As an admirer of the Beat writers and many experimental filmmakers, I suppose that I should have heard about James Broughton before watching “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton,” the celebratory bio-doc produced by Stephen Silha, Eric Slade and Dawn Logsdon. A square peg almost from birth, the Modesto-born poet and filmmaker was a poet and filmmaker (a.k.a., “father of West Coast independent cinema”) whose ecstatic approach to life and the arts was as infectious as it was entertaining. His influence can be traced back to the post-WWII San Francisco renaissance, which, in turn, directly influenced the Beats and hippies, the gay-liberation movement and Radical Faeries (a group that rejects assimilation into mainstream society by gays and lesbians). He also was a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an activist and social-welfare organization comprised of “queer nuns.” Not one to limit his choices, Broughton once lived with Berkeley film critic and future New Yorker writer Pauline Kael and, in 1962, married artist and designer Suzanna Hart, with whom he brought two children onto this Earth. He considered himself to be married to one of his male partners, at least. Broughton’s poetry celebrated his expansive views on sexuality and life, in general. The poems we remember are playful and display a child-like quality in the manipulation of words and phrases. The film’s title defines his approach to life, which he synopsized as being, “follow your own weird.” “Big Joy” features interviews with colleagues, friends, relatives and lovers, plus images from his films. I don’t know if anyone’s dedicated a street in Broughton’s name, but it’s entirely possible that, without his presence, San Francisco might not have become the wildly diverse and hugely entertaining city that it is today. The DVD adds more interviews and background material. At 85 minutes, “Breaking Through” overplays its hand by a good half-hour. This isn’t to infer that its message wears thin over time or the un-closeted politicians Cindy Abel interviews here are dull, only that watching and listening to anyone discuss themselves in mostly static poses can grow tiresome. Even so, an hour spent in the company of openly LGBT elected officials – from the first openly gay U.S. senator, Tammy Baldwin, to local officials in unlikely districts – is an hour well-spent. These are men and women, who, after all, were required to convince voters and themselves that sexual preference should be an irrelevant consideration in politics and public service. In fact, self-doubt was the toughest barrier to be overcome by LGBT candidates. And, yes, in addition to “L” and “G” office-holders, we also meet those of the “B” and “T” persuasion. While dry, Abel’s first feature-length documentary is uplifting and encouraging as it pertains to acceptance at the polls. It was shot before things got really ugly in the wake of Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage, so we miss some perspective there. – Gary Dretzka Son of God: Blu-ray It’s always fun to watch mainstream critics tie themselves in knots when putting a beat-down on movies that deal with issues near and dear to the hearts of many readers or demand a politically correct approach to the subject matter. This certainly applies to movies that depict accepted religious beliefs and revered historical figures, ranging from Mother Teresa and Jesus Christ to the prophet Muhammad and Moses. In the first century of cinema, studios have been every bit as circumspect in their portrayals and interpretations of Hebrew and Christian bibles and the Koran. I mean, why bother? While historical and literary purists have been known to angrily criticize Hollywood revisionism, it’s the devotedly religious constituency that can kill a movie’s box-office potential. The Monty Python gang milked the controversy surrounding “Life of Brian” for all it was worth, while Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” took its message directly to the demographic group most likely to create buzz for a religious movie. In both cases, the strategy worked. Despite some heated discussions about what some critics saw as gratuitously torturous material and anti-Semitic propaganda, Gibson basically trumped the reviewers. On the flip side, Martin Scorsese’s critically lauded “The Last Temptation of Christ” became as controversial as the book upon it was based. Nikos Kazantzakis’ intensely thoughtful novel was loudly condemned as blasphemous by religious leaders and pundits, who, of course, hadn’t read the book or conferred with its defenders. Universal didn’t accede to demands that the movie be pulled from circulation, but threats of violence and government action in some countries gave the studio pause when it came to marketing the picture, which it tagged with a lame cautionary note. Potential audiences also were intimidated by the protests. It’s been reported that Universal agreed to finance the project as long Scorsese agreed to make “Cape Fear,” in return. In this case, the victory went to those who prefer the Jesus-on-black-velvet approach to the crucifixion. In February, Christopher Spencer’s “Son of God” made a substantial return on investment by sticking to the least controversial interpretation of the New Testament possible. The feature-length film, Spencer’s first, was cobbled together from material included in or deleted from the hit History Channel mini-series, “The Bible.” Even playing it safe proved risky for the producers, however. During mini-series’ run, some viewers took to the Internet to question why Satan bore a distinct resemblance to President Obama. Exec-producers Mark Burnett and Rona Downey, who presumably would have no reason to add such a contentious element to their highly anticipated project, emphatically denied the charge. By this time, however, right-wing radio nuts picked up on the rumors and decided there was mileage there to be gained. By the time “Son of God” was released into DVD/Blu-ray, however, Satan had been “cast out” of the movie. Downey said it was done to put the focus on Jesus. This, of course, prompted no-nothing pundits to suggest that Obama, himself, forced the excision. “Son of God” received reviews that largely argued that, despite the earnestness of everyone involved, the movie … well … sort of … sucked. I didn’t think it was as bad as all that, really. My primary objection derives from the casting of Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado as the leading man. In their effort to make Jesus more “human,” for contemporary audiences, the producers cast someone who could be a mid-fielder for a Lisbon soccer team or Brad Pitt’s body-double. His turning out of the tax collectors in the temple had all the gravity of a player disputing a yellow-card penalty. For those who prefer their Jesus Lite, however, “Son of God” seems perfectly agreeable. Still, I wondered how it managed to gross $60 million, against a production budget of $22 million, when most of the material was already available via History Channel sources. An answer may have been revealed in the making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes in the Blu-ray package. Powerful church leaders Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., among them, show up in set visits or singing the movie’s praises in interviews. They and other “megachurch” founders subsequently vowed to take over the nation’s megaplexes upon its opening on February 28, purchasing tickets and gobbling down popcorn. Beyond that, who knows? – Gary Dretzka Doctor Who: An Adventure in Space & Time: Blu-ray If anyone could make the genesis of a 50-year-old television show entertaining, it’s the BBC. Of course, “Doctor Who” isn’t just any BBC series. What began as an experiment rapidly evolved into a national phenomenon and, eventually, a worldwide cult sensation. It has survived several hiatuses and cast upheavals and may, today, be enjoying its highest level of popularity. 2013 was filled with programming related to the remarkable longevity of the show and hubbub surrounding the abdication of Matt Smith, as the 11th Doctor, and coronation of his successor, Peter Capaldi. Among the other goodies included in the celebration was the 90-minute “Doctor Who: An Adventure in Space & Time,” which aired near the end of November around the globe. It describes how, in 1963, the BBC’s then-head of drama, Sydney Newman (Brian Cox) was assigned the task of coming up with a show that would carry viewers from earlier day parts to the older-skewing portion of the schedule, without losing most of its younger audience. Newman decided to attempt a sci-fi series, but absent most of the clichés of the genre. He took another risk by asking Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) to be his producer. Both choices were greeted with disdain by BBC veterans, who resisted taking orders from a woman and wasting their precious brain cells on fantasy. Her biggest challenge, though, turned out to be the casting of the first Doctor, whose personality and cleverness would go a long way toward dictating the show’s success. In the cranky veteran thespian William Hartnell (David Bradley), they felt as if they had made the right choice. He had his doubts, of course, but raised them mostly to his wife, who was quite used to such anguished self-examination. On the set, his near-tyrannical behavior made him few friends. It wasn’t until after Opening Night, when the boffo ratings were revealed, that everyone could breathe easily. What’s remarkable about this production is how it reflects the complete change of attitude in everyone involved, when their worst fears weren’t realized. Overnight, cast and crew became a team. Hartnell, for one, can’t believe that children come up to him in public, asking for autographs. Three years later, he will have to come to grips with the serious disease that is ruining his memory and complicating his performance. Bradley is terrific in demonstrating Hartnell’s emotional roller-coaster ride. The Blu-ray package is worth the price of admission, alone, as it includes the first “Doctor Who” serial and pilot, “An Unearthly Child”; “The Making of an Adventure in Space and Time”; “William Hartnell: The Original”; “Regeneration: Doctors 1, 2 and 3,” re-cast; “Reconstruction: Four Sequences”; David Bradley’s “Farewell” and “Christmas Greeting”; a titles sequence; and deleted scene, “Delia Derbyshire.” – Gary Dretzka TV-to-DVD USA: Graceland: The Complete First Season TNT: Falling Skies: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray ABC Family: Pretty Little Liars: The Complete Fourth Season New Adventures of Superman/JLA Adventures PBS: Nova: Inside Animal Minds PBS: Nature: Snow Monkeys PBS: Nature: My Bionic Pet PBS: Frontline: TB Silent Killer If, like me, you were turned off by the idea of watching another TV series set in Memphis or involving a P.I. who wears a jump suit with a large thunderbird embroidered on it in sequins, you might have bailed on the latest USA Network series, “Graceland.” (I mourned the cancellation of “Memphis Beat,” but one was enough.) Instead, “Graceland” is set in an expensive beachfront house, within a short drive to LAX. It was confiscated from a drug kingpin and repurposed as a co-habitual residence for undercover agents of DEA, FBI and U.S. Customs Agency. Naturally, extremely attractive men and women share the plush crash pad, setting up myriad possible story arcs and potentially lethal relationships. And, yes, surfing is an integral part of the bonding process. Among the criminal activities to be eradicated are drug smuggling, parrot smuggling and Levis smuggling, street gangs, cartels, Russian gangsters, pot farmers and a possible turncoat in their midst. You know, the usual stuff. Heading into Season One, the best thing going for “Graceland” was the participation of Jeff Eastin, who wrote and exec-produced “White Collar.” In my opinion, “Graceland” doesn’t measure up to “White Collar,” which benefitted from its sly humor, compelling characters and interesting crime-solving. The cable-ready hotness of the actors, including Aaron Tveit, Daniel Sunjata, Manny Montana, Vanessa Ferlito and Serinda Swan, is an asset. Once one gets past the missing-Elvis thing, it’s much easier to enjoy “Graceland,” which benefits greatly from some L.A. locations we haven’t seen for a while. Season Two begins next week. In the weekly battle between apocalypse survivors and giant metallic space invaders on “Falling Skies,” the storylines have begun to crash into each other and it’s gotten far more difficult to take sides. If it weren’t for the presence of Noah Wylie – all “ER” vets get the benefit of the doubt in this column – I still wouldn’t be able to discern the protagonist from the antagonist. The same confusion now occurs when I watch shows and movies about zombies. They’re only doing what comes naturally, after all. In Season Three, the Second Mass of aliens has taken root in Charleston and the survivors’ newly elected president, Tom (Wylie), would like nothing more than to spoil the upcoming anniversary of aliens’ arrival. One way of doing it is to shut down the power source that allows the “skitters,” “mechs” and “Espheni” to counter the human resistance. Meanwhile, power struggles continue to threaten the coalition and some begin to mistrust the Volms’ motives. Paying attention to detail is definitely a pre-requisite for enjoying “Falling Skies.” A scorecard would be even more helpful. The thing I appreciate most about the new “Pretty Little Liars: The Complete Fourth Season” DVD is the featurette in which all of the storylines and mysteries are traced back to Day One. It allowed me to understand what all the fuss is about surrounding the red coat and snail-paced progress in the murder investigation, among other things. Although the show is adapted from Sara Shepard’s series of YA novels, it is better described as “Desperate Housewives” for teenage girls, as one critic put it. There’s a major twist in the murder storyline at midseason that puts everything that’s gone before it into question and adds several new suspects to the mix, including MILF moms and other adults. Blessedly, the girls still look good doing whatever they’re doing, instead of studying, and they never have to worry about wearing the same outfit twice. Another thing I don’t understand is how a kissy-face lesbian relationship got past the censors at ABC Family. Either someone is asleep at the switch or no one cares, which is OK with me. They can scrap the whole TV-ratings charade, for all I care. The extras include featurettes, “Unhooding Red Coat: Alison Is Alive!,” “Confessions of ‘A’ Liar” and “Pretty Little Scenes,” the bonus-recap episode and deleted scenes. In 2007, the first season of “The New Adventures of Superman” was released on DVD by Warner Home Video and, ever since, fans of the animated series from 1966-69 have anxiously awaited the release of the next two seasons of the Filmation series. The segments were excised from the Saturday-morning shows the Man of Steel shared with Aquaman, Batman and Superboy, Game-show veteran Bud Collyer supplied his voice, if not the likeness, while Ted Knight provided the narration. If the animation looks primitive, well, everything did in 1966. Compare it to “JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time,” which is “2001: A Space Odyssey” compared to “New Adventures of Superman.” It’s also a million times more complex. The 52-minute feature is as much about Lex Luthor as the Justice League, in that he plans to take over the world by expanding the polar ice caps (which should really confuse the deniers of global warming). Incredibly, Luther turns up a thousand years later in the Legion of Superheroes’ Museum, where he’s privy to all of the secrets of 21st Century superheroes. After being accidentally sprung, he time-travels back to the present, ready and able to destroy Our Hero. This week’s package from PBS is heavy on animal-related shows. “Inside Animal Minds” is a three-part, 180-minute documentary that explores how animals understand the world around them and learn to react to things that happen in certain patterns, shapes and speeds in common ways. It employs dogs, birds and dolphins to make some fascinating points. The “Nature” presentation “Snow Monkeys” takes us to Japan’s Shiga Highlands, where a troop of snow monkeys – yes, the ones that bask contentedly in the hot springs in frigid weather – is learning to adjust to the complex society of rank and privilege under a relatively new boss monkey. Also from “Nature,” “My Bionic Pet” describes how modern prosthetics, some developed to assist wounded soldiers, are being used to put injured animals back on their feet, fins, flippers, tails and beaks. Cures thought impossible only a few years ago soon could be commonplace. From “Frontline” comes “TB Silent Killer,” documents how tuberculosis has returned with a vengeance in countries already ravaged by disease. The virulent strains now emerging are drug-resistant and spread without warning. We meet some of the victims. – Gary Dretzka Kissing Jessica Stein: Blu-ray The Birdcage: Blu-ray The Ringer: Blu-ray These very different comedies arrive on Blu-ray alongside a wave of other Fox anniversary titles. Released in 2001, “Kissing Jessica Stein” became a surprise indie hit, opening the door to other movies that treated lesbians as something other than deviants and/or victims of abusive relatives. Light and up-to-date, it told the story of New York journalist Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt), who grows weary of trying to find “Mr. Right” through the usual channels and decides to answer an ad for a roommate-with-benefits from the far more worldly Helen (Heather Juergensen), who’s recently made it known that she’s strictly clitly. They become fast friends and almost lovers, but Jessica has a difficult time cutting the cord from her suburban Jewish family. “Kissing Jessica Stein” was very well received, even from those feminists and lesbians who would have preferred a less traditional ending. In my opinion, I think that the movie may inadvertently have unlocked the door for dozens of closeted actors, executives and writers in Hollywood, as well as characters languishing in unmade screenplays. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes; commentaries by director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld and Lawrence Sher, and Juergensen and Westfeldt; outtakes and original ending; and a behind-the-scenes featurette. I wonder if RuPaul would have become an international superstar if it weren’t for the success of “The Birdcage” and the French movie from which it was adapted, “La Cage aux Folles.” Drag queens now seem to be as hard to miss on cable TV as any of the Kardashians. Like “Kissing Jessica Stein,” after it, “The Birdcage” probably opened the door to a better understanding of divergent lifestyles for mainstream audiences. It’s pretty hard to hate on cross-dressers and same-sex marriages when you’re rolling on the floor laughing at Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. Mike Nichols’ version of the story played for the big laughs more than Édouard Molinaro’s original, but that certainly didn’t bother American audiences. There are no bonus features included on the Blu-ray. Although the fingerprints of Peter and Bobby Farrelly are all over “The Ringer,” their role is officially listed as producers only. Who else, after a seven-year search, could find financing for a movie about a plot to fix the Special Olympics? (It sounds funnier on paper than what appears on screen.) The gag here involves Johnnie Knoxville’s character, who, after some bizarre complications, agrees to help himself and his mobbed-up uncle (Brian Cox) raise money to pay off heavy debts. Instead of scamming the Special Olympics contestants into gold medals and glory, the athletes upstage him at every turn. I’m not sure how many of the characters were played by special-needs actors, but I recognized several that weren’t. Given the Farrellys’ well-earned reputation, “The Ringer” could have been a lot crueler toward the Special Olympics, but the movie’s mushy center rescues it. – Gary Dretzka Sugar Cookies: Blu-ray Baby Rosemary/Hot Lunch 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Volume 2 Female Gym Coach: Jump and Straddle/Office Love: Behind Closed Doors Written and produced by a pre-Troma Lloyd Kaufman and starring cult favorites Lynn Lowry and Mary Woronov, “Sugar Cookies” is one of the soft-core classics from the early-1970s. Lowry, who, a decade later, would be mauled and jizzed upon by a black panther in “Cat People,” plays the dual role of seriously endangered actresses, Alta and Lowry. No longer in the Andy Warhol repertory company, Woronov plays the corrupt manager who shills for a sleazy sex-film producer. Kaufman and director Theodore Gershuny (Woronov’s then-husband) were shooting for something that might remind grindhouse audiences of a Hitchcock thriller. On a budget that might have maxxed-out at $10,000, in 1973 dollars, it couldn’t have afforded Hitch’s monthly cigar allotment. Nonetheless for really cheap skin-tacular thrills, it’s hard to beat. Look for guest appearances by Ondine, Monique van Vooren and porn superstar Jennifer Welles. Vinegar Syndrome sends it out with a fresh 4K polish, interviews with Kaufman, Lowry and Woronov, and vintage trailers. Also from Vinegar Syndrome comes the “Peekarama” double-feature, “Baby Rosemary” (1976) and “Hot Lunch” (1978), vintage titles that are far more interesting for who’s in them than any story that director John Hayes was trying to tell. “Baby Rosemary,” a supernatural romp in which “no” never means “no,” future Hall of Fame porn star John Leslie is still going by John Leslie Dupré. He’s joined by Sharon Thorpe and newcomers Candida Royalle (then Royale) and Leslie Bovee. In “Hot Lunch,” the name game is even crazier. Male lead Jon Martin goes by Jerry Heath; Sharon Kane is Sheri Vaughan; Juliet “Aunt Peg” Anderson is Alice Rigby; and Desiree Cousteau is Desirée Costeau. For these future headliners, “Hot Lunch” was only their second porn credit. Both titles have been restored in 2k from the camera negative, original theatrical trailers, and alternate scenes from “Hot Lunch.” The second release in Impulse’s “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection” clocks in at an impressive 129 minutes of pure raunch, with a heavier emphasis on girl-girl action than in “Volume 1.”  Among the 8mm shorts, re-mastered from original film prints, are some featuring uncredited performances by Desiree Cousteau, Candida Royalle, Chris Cassidy and John Holmes. Liner notes from Cinema Sewer editor Robin Bougie are included in the package. The latest entries from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection feature women who use their wiles to get ahead in their chosen fields, yet pine for the men who ushered them into womanhood. Although there are nods to feminism here and there, none would have been strong enough to give the average Japanese perv in the early- to mid-1980s pause. In “Female Gym Coach: Jump and Straddle,” Junko Asahina plays Kei, the captain of the Kara Cosmetics Company’s rhythmic gymnastics team, which is about to compete in an important corporate tournament. When Aoki (Funasaku Sasairi) is brought in as their new coach and is required to work alongside his former lover, Kei, he turns into an impotent wreck. The last time Aoki slept with Kei before a competition, she lost, and that’s not an acceptable option at this level. When the corporate executives suspect he may be gay, they treat him with the same courtesy as they show to their female employees, which is to say, none. In “Office Love: Behind Closed Doors,” an old lover also returns to haunt up-and-coming travel executive Reiko (Akasaka Rei), who’s given the key to her Tokyo apartment to the three men she calls boss. Things get really weird when her now-married ex-boyfriend tries to insinuate himself back into her life and a subordinate takes a shine to her, as well. (Oh, yeah, Reiko also does a bit of escorting on the side, but with western businessmen.) When her bosses figure out that they’re being used by Reiko, she uses her humiliation to destroy two other men in her circle, while also getting her rocks off. The Impulse DVDs contain essays on the individual filmmakers and actors. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

The People vs Paul Crump
Back in 1962, when William Friedkin completed his searing indictment of the death penalty, “The People vs. Paul Crump,” few people believed that police routinely used brutality and torture to coerce confessions from possibly innocent men. When the issue was raised in Chicago, anyway, citizens and journalists, alike, chose to believe police spokesmen and the State’s Attorney Office as to the veracity of the claims. To do otherwise would have eroded the citizenry’s faith in the democratic systems, while making all public institutions suspect. In Chicago, where corrupt and power-made politicians have always enjoyed the benefit of a doubt, mainstream voters (a.k.a., white) only began to doubt the invincibility of the mayor and police after the Walker Report declared the violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention a “police riot.” Even if they’d witnessed it for itself on television, or knew young people bludgeoned in Lincoln and Grant Park, doubters could be swayed into believing that “outside agitators” were to blame for their city’s black eye. A year after the convention, Chicagoans allowed themselves to accept reports that Illinois Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark Less were killed by police acting in self-defense during an early-morning raid. That claim proved not to be true, as well. It was officially sanctioned murder, pure and simple. It took another 20-plus years for a case to come along that proved inconclusively what community activists, lawyers and victims had been arguing all along. In 1993, police detective Jon Graham Burge would be fired after the Police Department Review Board ruled that he had used torture to force confessions from as many as 200 criminal suspects, between 1972 and 1991. In the past, such charges were ignored by people who argued “they must have been guilty of something.” Here, though, the fallout eventually led to tens of millions of tax dollars in legal fees and settlements; dozens of new trials and reversed decisions; and, finally, concern over the very real possibility that innocent men were sitting on Death Row. By 2003, so many flaws in the system were discovered that outgoing Republican Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 prisoners … just in case. It wasn’t until January, 2011, however, that Burge – now a pensioner, living in Florida – was sentenced to 4½ years in federal prison on two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of perjury. The statute of limitations on the brutality charges had long expired.

In “The People vs. Paul Crump,” future Academy Award-winning director Friedkin (“French Connection”) and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bill Butler (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) made a strong case for the possibility that a man on who already had been sitting on Death Row for the last nine years was convicted based on a confession had come after being beaten and tortured for several days. We learn that Crump unsuccessfully contended that he had been sleeping with a woman not his wife at the same time as a security guard was killed in the armed robbery of a Chicago meatpacking plant. Four men known to have been involved in the crime were given prison sentences, perhaps for implicating Crump in the shooting. Fifteen dates with Old Sparky would come and go by the time Crump’s sentence was commuted to 199 years by Governor Otto Kerner. He would be paroled in 1993 and imprisoned once again in an unrelated case. He died of cancer in 2002. “People vs. Crump” was deemed too controversial to air on Chicago television and has been shown only a handful of times since 1962. It was credited, along with Crump’s autobiographical novel (“Burn, Killer, Burn”) and a Life magazine article, for convincing Kerner that there was at least a reasonable doubt as to his guilt and the confession might have been forcibly obtained. After watching the nicely upgraded DVD from Facets, I think that most viewers would come away with the same conclusion. In his interviews with Friedkin, Crump is most eloquent in his description of what life is like for a doomed prisoner, especially those who have come within minutes of having the switch to the electric charge pulled on them. The robbery, arrests and beatings were dramatized in ways that purists argue aren’t kosher, but no one can dispute the diversity of sources questioned by the Chicago Daily News-columnist John Justin Smith. Based on cinematic values, alone, it isn’t at all difficult to believe that Friedkin and Butler might someday create stylish thrillers and procedurals. It moves with same urgency and purpose of a good crime novel. The film is part of the Reel Chicago series of Chicago-based documentaries restored and released through Facets Video. A booklet expands on the principles’ lives after 1962. – Gary Dretzka

Claire Is Dead
Dan Ast’s first feature combines mystery and melodrama to demonstrate just how wrong things can go when teenagers play with fire before learning that it can burn their fingers and singe their heart. It’s something everyone figures out, at one time or another, usually too late. Being young only makes the lesson that much more painful or confusing, as the case may be. In “Claire Is Dead,” there’s no question that the titular protagonist is dead or, even, how it happened. Indeed, it occurred in the most despicable of all possible ways. Claire, a junior in high school, was killed by a drunk driver minutes before the flower of her womanhood was about to blossom. To make matters worse, the jerk attempts to crash the funeral and continues to drink and drive. But, that’s not what makes “Claire Is Dead” tick. Not long after her death, the school’s Golden Boy begins to sense that Claire’s trying to reach out to them from the grave. Although they had never really met and Jack couldn’t pick her picture out from a yearbook, he noticed that someone named Claire signed his cast after he was seriously injured in a football game. Her name also appears on a get-well card. The more curious Jack becomes about her identity, the more he comes to believe that she was, at the very least, stalking him. These clues lead to others that not only seem to confirm that theory, but also suggest that someone is covering up something that might explain how Claire came to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time. His investigation takes a hard right turn into the existential when Jack’s obsession begins to impact people in his and Claire’s social circle. Writer/director Ast keeps us guessing throughout “Claire Is Dead,” revealing only what we need to know to get sucked deeper into the mystery. Nor has he torn a page from Rian Johnson’s highly entertaining high-school noir, “Brick,” turning Jack into a mini-Sam Spade. The young cast is very good, even if the actors look as if they haven’t stepped into a high school since their 10-year reunion. It stars Aidan Bristow, Cory Driscoll, Avital Ash, Jennifer Baule, Landon Ashworth, Tybee Diskin, Carolina Castro and Corsica Wilson. They should be with us a long while. – Gary Dretzka

Broken Side of Time
24 Exposures
Among the things in porn that haven’t gone south in the last few years – financially, anyway – is fetish-specific modeling. That’s what I’m told, anyway. The more specific the kink, the less likely it is to be available for free and without a password on the many video-sharing sites. Fetish art probably can be traced back to Pompeii, if not Paleolithic cave drawings. The roots of model Jane/Dolce (Lynn Mancinelli), the protagonist in “Broken Side of Time,” need only be traced to Bettie Page, who specialized in soft-core posing and light bondage. Page began her career modeling for amateur photographers, who formed clubs and chipped in to pay the models. She barely profited from her work for professionals, some of whom still make money off of the images she provided. (Bunny Yeager, who first sold her photos to Playboy, passed last week at 85.) The publicity blurb on the DVD box refers to Jane as one of a million women who have modeling portfolios online. The difference is that she’s been able to make a career of it, albeit one without benefits and a pension, for more than a decade. Co-writer/director Gorman Bechard’s conceit here, then, is to turn up the volume on the footsteps Jane is hearing from younger models, some of whom studied her work before committing to the profession. Without slobbering all over the keyboard, I can attest to the fact that Jane doesn’t look old enough to consider retiring from any profession, let alone modeling. It’s the bullshit that comes with the territory — separating the phonies and pervs from the professionals – that’s causing her to feel older and more hopeless than she is. Her concession to growing older is picking up a camera and joining the game from the other side of the lens. On a long-delayed trip home, Jane attempts to shed the bad habits and other crutches used by models – runway and erotic – to get through the day. Like all bad habits, though, they refuse to go easy. Finally, “Broken Side of Time” is more a character study than a story that ends with a resolution. It could also be described as a tonal piece, in which Bechard (“Friends With Benefit”) uses sound, light and color to make us understand what Jane is experiencing. In an interview, he admits to being surprised by how readily his digital camera interpreted his intentions and accentuated his vision. As good a model as Jane/Dolce is, Bechard is every bit as solid a photographer of nudes. I imagine that he spent a good deal of prep time studying the work of Edward Steichen and Imogen Cunningham. The DVD features unedited photo shoots, extended scenes, a blooper reel and a featurette on how they achieved the look and feel on a budget of merely $15,000, raised on Kickstarter.

Joe Swanberg’s “24 Exposures” also focuses on a photographer, but, this time, one with a too cozy relationship with his models, all of whom look as if they’re sorority sisters slumming over summer break from a good school. Billy (Adam Wingard) doesn’t care as much about how the models look alive, as they do dead. That, and their willingness to shed their tops and play along with kinky stuff, whether or not they’re being photographed. The fetish he exploits is the simulation of death scenes, in which the models pose broken, bloody and partially nude. If the critic viewing the photograph is a cop, as two of them are here, it would be difficult for them to tell if it was art or murder. And, I suppose that’s the point. The first thing to know about the hyper-prolific Swanberg is that he’s one of the founding fathers of mumblecore, a movement that rewards naturalism and improvisation. The characters tend to have such an easy rapport with each other that viewers can be excused for confusing acting with living. And, I suppose that, too, is a point being made. Like Lars von Trier and fellow proponents of Dogma 95, Swanberg doesn’t seem wed to mumblecore techniques. They have, however, allowed him to shoot professional-looking films on a super-tight budget, using a repertoire company – Greta Gerwig among them – of actors so accustomed to his style that no time is wasted getting accustomed to it. In “24 Exposures,” a young model appears to have been murdered and left to rot in a pose that looks as if it could have been staged by the photographer or is really a crime scene. It’s only when the film crew breaks up laughing that we realize Swanberg has played his first trick on us, but it was close. We aren’t given much reason to sympathize with Billy, who frequently seems intent on using and abusing models for his own amusement, not just his art. One of the detectives (Michael Bamfeaux) investigating an actual look-alike death, nearby, becomes obsessed with Billy’s setup. He’s being tortured by his estranged wife and develops a nonprofessional curiosity with women who do such work. A couple of other characters are thrown in to the mix, as suspects, but none is as fleshed out as Billy. Where “24 Exposures” works best is as sexploitation … a rough blend of arthouse and grindhouse. It’s too loosey-goosey to qualify as a mystery and the acting is a bit chummy for drama. That said, it can easily stand alongside “Broken Side of Time” as a legitimately erotic time-killer for adults of both genders. The DVD adds commentary and a photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka

Run & Jump
Anyone who was pleasantly surprised by “SNL” veteran Will Forte’s performance in “Nebraska” ought to check out the smallish indie drama, “Run & Jump.” He plays Ted Fielding, an American psychologist in Ireland to document on film the complicated recovery of Conor Casey (Edward MacLiam) from a stroke and serious brain trauma. Before the stroke, Conor, Vanetia (Maxine Peake) and their two kids enjoyed a free-wheeling Bohemian lifestyle outside the lovely town of Dingle. When Conor returns home, however, he’s completely self-contained and withdrawn from the outside world. He isn’t completely non-communicative, but nowhere near the same person as before the stroke. Like tens of thousands of other women and men attempting to deal with a spouse’s personality upheaval, Vanetia is finding it difficult to adjust to Conor’s almost complete lack of interest in dancing and other things – excluding woodworking and watching Animal Planet – about which he once cared very much. If Ted weren’t a complete research nerd and his camera as intrusive as it is, we’d expect Venetia to react favorably to having someone in the house with something resembling a sense of humor and normal human emotions. Instead, it simply adds an additional layer of aggravation to her life. That changes when Vanetia discovers a lid of grass among Ted’s belongings and demands he share a joint with her that night. Naturally, it loosens both of them up to the point that most moviegoers would expect the housemates to do something they’ll regret later. Maybe, maybe not. Their newfound closeness does, however, cause Vanetia’s uptight in-laws and temperamental teen son to imagine that Ted might be attempting to insinuate himself into the family as a father figure. When things come to a head in the last reel, we still don’t know where our affections should lie. It would be different if we knew for sure that Conor could someday be capable of making Vanetia happy, again. If there’s a big payoff coming, we can’t see it from here. In her freshman debut as co-writer/director, Steph Green has pulled together a remarkable cast – also including Sharon Horgan, Edward MacLiam, Ciara Gallagher, Brendan Morris – and the result is a movie that deals with an issue only now coming to the fore. The Dingle Peninsula setting may inspire some viewers to purchase tickets to Ireland within minutes of viewing “Run & Jump.” The DVD adds a couple of making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

The Color of Lies: Blu-ray
This Blu-ray upgrade of Claude Chabrol’s little-seen 1999 psychodrama, “The Color of Lies,” follows on the heels of Cohen Media Group’s “The Inspector Lavardin Collection,” which brought us four of the master’s made-for-television films from the 1980s. After making the leap from criticism, in the 1950s, the man often cited as the father of France’s of “nouvelle vague” turned to writing, directing and acting in movies, primarily mysteries and thrillers. He continued doing so, right up to his death, at 80, almost four years ago. “The Color of Lies” is set in the kind of small Breton fishing village where everyone knows each other’s business and has an opinion on everything that happens. When something really big happens, the gossip mongers compete to ruin the lives – if inadvertently – of everyone who might be considered a target. That’s certainly the case here, when a 10-year-old girl is raped and murdered on her way home from the ocean-side home of her art teacher. René (Jacques Gamblin) has been laboring to overcome a painter’s block he’s had since he nearly lost a leg to a terrorist bomb in Paris. No sooner do the gossips learn that René is the leading suspect in the girl’s death – even if there’s no other evidence suggesting he might be the killer – than he begins to lose the students he needs to pay bills. His wife, Vivianne, a rural medical practitioner played by Sandrine Bonnaire, assertively rejects the theories of the lead detective, Frederique (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), who doesn’t seem to mind that she’s scarred the reputation of a possibly innocent man. Even so, Chabrol has planted the seed of doubt not only in Rene’s neighbors, but also Vivianne and his audience. Tired of dealing with her husband’s despondency, Vivianne falls very easily into an affair with the worldly, self-absorbed Parisian writer who keeps a home nearby and exploits both that doubt and her pain. Conveniently, Chabrol has added a messy subplot involving stolen jewels, pieces of art and the same gossips. When the writer is found dead outside the seawall of his home, it’s even easier for us to buy into the idea that Rene might be guilty of both murders. Chabrol didn’t often do pure “whodunits,” but “The Color of Lies” easily qualifies as one of the better ones in memory. The 1080p transfer adds to the pleasure of looking at the charming Ille-et-Vilaine settings. Commentary is provided by critics Wade Major and Andy Klein. Fans of crime flicks who’ve run out of things to watch in English are encouraged to begin binging on Chabrol. – Gary Dretzka

How to Train Your Dragon: Blu-ray
I find it interesting that the much-anticipated sequel to “How to Train Your Dragon” was shown at the just-completed Cannes Film Festival – who knew, right? — where it received raves from the assembled Academy Award prognosticators. That’s good for two reasons: 1) Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks Animation need hit, and 2) the fans who contributed $500 million to the international box-office, in 2010, deserve another good run for their money. It will be shown at film festivals in L.A., Sydney and Seattle before opening really, really wide in mid-June. In the meantime, DreamWorks has gotten the juices flowing with its Blu-ray re-release of the original. Even if there are only a couple of new features added from previous editions, as well as a more robust 7.1 soundtrack, kids who’ve lately developed a love for dragons should dig it. The hi-def animated short “Frozen” – no relation to Disney’s “Frozen” – is billed as an “exclusive episode” of the TV show “Dragons: Defenders of Berk” and “Book of Dragons,” which adds to what we know about the fire-breathing creatures, and “Ultimate Book of Dragons,” an interactive feature that allows the viewer to investigate the “book” for themselves. The disc retains “Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon,” deleted scenes and commentary. The Blu-ray presentation didn’t require much in the way of visual improvement, so the best reason to pick up the new package is for those few who are desperate to see the sequel, but don’t want to go into it blind. That, and the UltraViolet copy and free ticket to “2.” – Gary Dretzka

Eastern Bandits: Blu-ray
The second Sino-Japanese War has inspired several intriguing movies, told from such diverse perspectives as the martial-arts community (“The Grandmaster”), underground resistance groups (“Lust, Caution”) and a Japanese pacifist (“The Human Condition”) forced to fight. Lu Chuan’s “City Of Life and Death” (2009) and Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War” (2011) depict the horrors of the Nanking Massacre, joining several foreign-made pictures about that atrocity’s German-born hero John Rabe. “Eastern Bandits” (“An Inaccurate Memoir”) addresses the occupation in a way that mixes humor, revenge, action and drama. It’s unusual, but fans of contemporary mainland cinema should have no problem with it. Here, a Chinese soldier seeks to avenge his father’s death by kidnapping the Japanese emperor’s brother, who’s in the country to commemorate the raising of a Buddhist monument at a remote military base. To accomplish this, Gao must prove his courage and loyalty to the resistance to a gang of notorious bandits, known for wearing baby-face masks to bank jobs. He does this by helping the gang’s leader escape from jail and withstanding an extreme torture test. If he passes, Gao will get a crack at the Japanese prince, while the bandits will feast on the spoils. It mostly requires digging a network of tunnels and picking off the Japanese soldiers who fall into them. As unconventional as “Eastern Bandits” is, it rarely lacks for martial-arts action and adventure. Cao Yu’s cinematography nicely captures the wide open spaces of the Chinese frontier. There’s a bit of romance between bandit Lady Dagger and Gao, but it’s pretty tame. – Gary Dretzka

Buttwhistle
Naming a movie “Buttwhistle,” no matter how quirky it may be, is either a curious marketing ploy or a desperate cry for help … or both. Among the many screeners that pass my way every week, it certainly managed to catch my attention, anyway. The title refers to a nickname bestowed upon the male protagonist, Ogden Confer (Trevor Morgan), a Minneapolis community-college student who also answers to the blast of an air horn. There’s no good reason for this to happen, except to establish Ogden as an idiosyncratic character. Filmmakers have been creating such desperately confused young men ever since Benjamin Braddock descended, in full scuba gear, to the bottom of his parents’ swimming pool. Ogden was dealt a rough hand when his best friend, Rose (Analeigh Tipton), died on him. She does visit him occasionally, however, either to prolong his agony or lift his spirits, since she’s become something of a masturbatory fantasy. He’s conversing with Rose when he prevents a young woman, Beth (Elizabeth Rice), from committing suicide by gravity. Beth is neither happy about having her leap interrupted, nor is she pleased that the boy with the funny name won’t accept her offer of sex as a reward. Now, in hindsight, that appears to be an offer any straight male of college age couldn’t refuse. At the time, however, it’s easy to see how somehow sensitive enough to be named Buttwhistle might be intimidated by a cute girl who disrupts his conversation with a ghost by dropping from the sky. As if to punish him for having the temerity to foil her suicide and refuse the gift of her tight, white body, Beth uses her wiles to cause trouble for him around the neighborhood. Actually, almost all of the characters here are tragically hip and gifted with the ability to quip at the drop of a hat. For that reason, alone, writer/director Tenney Fairchild (“The Good Humor Man”) appears to have deliberately targeted his dark rom/com/dram directly at those hipsters and wannabes who prefer podcasts and webisodes over any form of mainstream entertainment. The entertaining parkout sequence that plays behind the opening credits offers more promise than the movie can deliver to anyone else. – Gary Dretzka

Rock & Rule: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
For various reasons, none of them good, this animated rock-’n’-roll fantasy made almost no dent at the box office after it was accorded a hyper-limited release in 1983. The loud and lively take on the Faust legend got caught in an executive shuffle at the producing studio and a crunch in the numbers that might have gone to a targeted marketing campaign. It arrived at a time when Don Bluth (“The Secret of NIMH”) and Ralph Bakshi (“Fritz the Cat”) were still active, after all, and the stoner demographic was still expanding. Instead, “Rock & Rule” was pulled from circulation before it could find traction, even in college towns. It enjoyed a semblance of cult popularity when it found its way to late nights on HBO and Showtime. For some reason, the Blu-ray “25th Anniversary Edition” is being re-released in time for its 31st birthday. Presumably, its reappearance will remind people of the unlikely participation in the project of the late Lou Reed, who’s in fine vocal form. The story is set in a post-apocalypse Nuke York, where punk-rocker Angel (Deborah Harry, singing voice), is kidnapped by an aging heavy-metal legend, Mok (Reed), obsessed with summoning a demon from another dimension. In addition to Harry and Reed, the film also features entries from Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick and Earth, Wind & Fire. As far as the rocku-fantasies usually go, the musical contributions are surprisingly appealing. The Blu-ray adds commentary by director Clive Smith; an alternate version, representing the original Canadian release, with Gregory Salata’s voice, instead of Paul Le Mat; a 25-minute making-of featurette and interviews with the singers; “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” the 22-minute animated short that inspired the feature-length film; a making-of featurette with, “The Devil and Daniel Mouse”; a work-print title sequence;    and work-print “Drats” ending sequence. – Gary Dretzka

American Made Movie
PBS: Craft in America: Industry: Season 5
One of the things that documentaries do is reinforce things we already believe to be true. If, for instance, we already sense that far too many manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas — to the benefit of far too few average Americans – then, the makers of “American Made Movie” have fulfilled at least part of their mission. Even Republicans would find it difficult to argue against that premise, not that they’ve offered any solutions to the problem. To make their case, the filmmakers don’t need to pull out a bunch of Commerce Department charts and numbers that, out of context, would be meaningless. Instead, we’re taken out to the old ball game to see for ourselves just how much baseball owes to products made overseas, sometimes by workers paid slave wages. If it weren’t for the bats, everything in the park would have arrived by boat in a cargo container. The point being made is that, at its peak, manufacturing employed over 19 million American workers. Between 1979 and 2009, 7 million jobs in the sector were lost, matching its lowest numbers since before World War II. Those lost jobs cost the economy far more than just the wages paid those workers, though. Recycled currency is what makes a nation’s economy grow and that’s no longer happening. “American Made Movie” attempts to tell a more positive story than that, however. It goes to places around the country where companies, including suppliers of baseball bats, are fighting the good fight to keep jobs and revenues in the U.S. If the uplifting reports don’t quite compensate for the scenes of Rust Belt decay, at least the movie leaves us with a morsel of optimism. At 82 minutes, it’s a tad long for general consumption, but civic organizations probably find it worth the effort.

In Season 5 of the PBS series “Craft in America,” the producers demonstrate how American craftsmen and small manufacturers have learned to play nice with technology, instead of fearing it. It hasn’t been an easy marriage, but we all need help sometime. The examples include dorry-making in Massachusetts, quilt-stitching in Alabama and weaving in North Carolina. – Gary Dretzka

House in the Alley
Death Spa: Blu-ray
Sleepaway Camp: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Dan Curtis’ Dracula: Blu-ray
Some very good films have emerged from Vietnam since the end of the war and stabilization of the economy. Typically, though, their natural home was the arthouse. “House in the Alley” is the first I’ve seen that fits easily within the parameters of the contemporary horror genre. Like similar movies we’ve seen from Thailand, South Korea and Japan, writer/director Le-Van Kiet’s picture is essentially a ghost story. It has nothing to do with the war of liberation and everything to do with how the spirit world informs the national psyche. In it, a young couple has moved to Ho Chi Minh City, where the husband, Thanh, has been assigned an important job at his mother’s firm. Sadly, his wife Thao suffers an extremely painful and messy miscarriage, essentially turning her into a basket case. Rarely has post-partum depression been portrayed with such raw emotion. It takes a few weeks before Thanh’s job performance draws the attention of his shrewish mother, who, contrary to everything Ho Chi Minh espoused, has an insane preoccupation with money. Thanh, on the other hand, is too busy keeping Thao from burning down the house and the ghosts from breaking every bone in his body to worry about the family business. There’s a very good reason why all hell is breaking loose in their home in the alley and genre audiences should be able to figure it out long before the tortured couple picks up on it. Even as a novelty, though, “House in the Alley” should keep horror fans interested for most of its 93-minute length.

Few of the many vintage horror titles being shipped out on Blu-ray these days represent the decade in which they were made quite so well as “Death Spa,” a guilty pleasure if there ever was one. Made in 1989, Michael Fischa’s gore-fest was informed by “Flashdance,” “Perfect,” Jane Fonda’s exercise videos, programmable workout machines, the Memphis design movement, legwarmers and Polyester. Like other memorable genre sensations, “Death Spa” exploited shower scenes and computer Nazis playing God. Here, the health club is possessed by the evil spirit of the owner’s dead wife, or so it seems. Every machine appears to have a mind of its own and the steam-room scenes not only ensure nudity, but the promise of death by locked door. It’s so goofy, it’s fun. Special features include commentary, an extensive making-of featurette and interviews with surviving actors.

I wondered two things about the “Sleepaway Camp: Collector’s Edition” release: 1) why anyone would collect any edition of the 1983 splatter flick, and 2) why the actors look as if they had recently graduated from middle school. Although it’s considered to be a classic in some corners, only the surprise ending seems to differentiate the plot from a dozen others. The answer to the second question can be attributed to Robert Hiltzik’s very sound decision to only cast actors that are the same age as the characters. I’m so used to watching actors approaching 30 play teenagers that it took me completely by surprise. Too much information here wouldn’t be helpful to viewers new to the franchise. Suffice it to say that “Sleepaway Camp” grows on you and, yes, the ending is still capable of shocking viewers. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 2K scan of the original camera negative and features that include new commentary with actors Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten; new commentary with Hiltzik, moderated by webmaster Jeff Hayes; the original commentary with Hiltzik and Rose; new interviews with Hiltzik, Rose, Tiersten, Paul DeAngelo, Karen Fields, Desiree Gould, Frank Saladino and make-up FX artist Ed French; “Judy,” a short film by Jeff Hayes, starring Fields; “Princess,” a music video by Jonathan Tiersten; and a Camp Arawak Scrapbook.

Among the many things the world probably can do without this week is yet another Blu-ray revival of a movie based on the “Dracula” legend. I say that as someone who last week praised the Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski remake of “Nosferatu” and reviewed several other “classic” vampire pictures in the past six months. Although there’s nothing at all wrong with “Dan Curtis’ Dracula” (a.k.a., “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”) especially in Blu-ray, I suspect it will get lost in the deluge of titles. (Curtis created television’s horror soap opera, “Dark Shadows.”) The interpretation, which runs pretty true to form plot-wise, benefits most from the presence of Jack Palance, who, in 1973, had yet to have his career revived by doing push-ups on the Oscar-cast with Billy Crystal. The movie is enhanced by being shot in English and Yugoslavian locations, befitting a Hammer Studio production. It was made for theatrical release overseas, but as a made-for-TV presentation in the U.S. Its first airing was pre-empted by a news conference announcing the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, so it was postponed until February, 1974. It holds up better than Agnew ever did. In fact, as TV movies go, “Dracula” is extremely well made and quite effective in scares department. It has been transferred and restored in 2K from the original 35mm camera negative. Other Blu-ray features add an interviews with Palance and Curtis; outtakes and alternative takes; and editorial cuts to comply with TV censors. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Cimarron Strip: Complete Series
PBS: The Kennedys: Triumph & Tragedy
PBS: Pioneers of Television: Season 4
PBS: Nature: Touching the Wild: Living With Mule Deer
Syfy: Independence Daysaster
The deeper one digs into the history of Westerns on television, the more interesting it is. In its heyday, the “oaters” could do no wrong, even when pitted against each other on the prime-time grid. Of course, when I say “do no wrong,” I’m not implying that Native Americans were slighted on a weekly basis and the feats of characters based on actual people weren’t embellished beyond recognition. They were. The writers and producers of some shows, however, did attempt to level the playing field by casting Indians to play Indians and accurately depicting their culture and tribal identity. Given only 30 minutes or an hour, including commercials, their ability do so was sorely limited. “Cimarron Strip,” “The Virginian” and “Wagon Train” all briefly toyed with the 90-minute format, which roughly boiled down to a solid 75 minutes of entertainment each week. “Cimarron Strip” was canceled after one year, while “Wagon Train” dropped the idea after the 1963-64 season. “The Virginian” lasted nine years at the extended length. Airing on CBS from September, 1967, to March, 1968, “Cimarron Strip,” starred Stuart Whitman as Marshal Jim Crown. It was produced by the creators of “Gunsmoke,” if not blessed by the brilliant supporting cast backing Marshall Matt Dillon. The title located the show in three counties of the Oklahoma Panhandle, which, in 1888, separated Indian Territory from Kansas Territory. It included the last free homestead land in America and served as a battle ground for ranchers and newly arrived farmers. (The mountains and badlands in the background betray the fact that the show was shot near Lone Pine and Bishop, California; Kanab, Utah; and Tucson, Arizona.) Crown probably could have used some help in policing the nearly lawless region, but he worked without the benefit of a sheriff or support from the Army. The series was well made and, each week, featured a raft of guest stars. Even so, diehard bingers might find a marathon viewing session too exhausting to contemplate.

PBS’ “The Kennedys: Triumph & Tragedy” is for those of us, who, like Rip Van Winkle, woke up after a long nap on January 1, 2014, with no memory of media overload that accompanied ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Since our modern-day Van Winkle probably remembers the 25th anniversary commemoration, as if it were yesterday, almost nothing new will be new to him here. The mystery surrounding the assassination has yet to be solved and JFK’s legacy as a philanderer was well known. He probably would be surprised to learn that Teddy Kennedy never was elected president and John-John was killed in an unfortunate, if possibly avoidable plane crash. At 310-minutes, “The Kennedys: Triumph & Tragedy” is comprised of two feature-length DVDs — the two-part “American Experience: The Kennedys” and “Oswald’s Ghost” — and a printed set of rare replica memorabilia, with accompanying booklet.

Currently wrapping up its fourth season, PBS’ informative and highly entertaining limited series, “Pioneers of Television,” probably could have been several hours longer and contained dozens more interviews and it would still be a quick trip down Memory Lane. It also would be every bit as nitpick-able. That’s the way it is with a medium that has influenced everything that’s happened in the last 60 years, everywhere. The emphasis this season is entertainment. Two of the episodes focus on comedy, one on race and the other on medical shows. The recollections of more than 200 influential stars complement footage from hit shows, old and new. The episodes: “Standup to Sitcom,” in which top comedians describe how they made the transition from stage to such shows as “Seinfeld,” “Home Improvement,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Roseanne”; “Acting Funny” feels like an extension of “Standup to Sitcom,” in its descriptions of the sitcom stars’ methodology; the self-explanatory “Doctors and Nurses,” featuring such vintage stars as Richard Chamberlain (“Dr. Kildare”) and Chad Everett (“Medical Center”), and actors in the breakthrough entertainments “St. Elsewhere” and “ER”; and “Breaking Barriers,” about race and the industry’s pitiful record on diversity, with Diahann Carroll (“Julia”), Bill Cosby (“I Spy”), Edward James Olmos (“Miami Vice”), George Takei (“Star Trek”) and Margaret Cho (“All American Girl”).

The “Nature” presentation, “Touching the Wild: Living With Mule Deer,” extends a well-worn theme of animal-centric series on PBS. It involves documenting the interaction between humans and the animals that, in effect, adopt them into their families. Naturalist Joe Hutto, who previously chronicled his life among wild turkeys, took his act to the mountains near his home in Wyoming, where the mule deer and antelope play. Hutto points to genetic studies that suggest that mule deer may have developed relatively recently through the interbreeding of white-tailed and black-tailed deer and, therefore, might be less skittish around humans. By loitering in areas that deer are known to frequent, Hutto wore down their resistance to newcomers. The seven-year study included spending time with the herd every day, for over two years. Frankly, I found Hutto’s mannerisms and techniques to be border-line creepy, in ways that differed from his approach in “My Life as a Turkey.” Still, there’s no denying how such ambition benefits us all.

As notoriously cheesy as most made-for-Syfy movies tend to be, their ability to survive the slings and arrows of outraged criticism is admirable. Fans continue to overlook the bargain-basement effects, anemic storylines and nearly amateur-level acting, if only for their value as freakish curiosities.  I doubt that younger teenagers aren’t nearly as picky as older kids and genre buffs. How’s this for a cheap shot?: “Independence Daysaster” was shot in 15 days … and looks like it. The cover image apes marketing material for “Independence Day,” without actually taking place anywhere near the White House. All of the elements of a Syfy sci-fi thriller – as opposed to the Syfy creature feature — are evident here. The opening credits have barely stopped rolling before things start falling from the sky and explode as they hit the ground. The aliens’ warships resemble Battlebots crossed with the drill bits employed by Roto Rooter repairmen. While adults are at a loss to explain the phenomenon, geeky teens and conspiracy theorists come to mankind’s defense, using computers found in bedrooms and barns. The Apocalypse is averted at the 88-minute mark of the movie’s 90-minute length. Here, the president’s helicopter is blasted out of the sky, while on his way to a hometown picnic, and his son is on some kind of rural expedition. Both miraculously manage to find each and other survive the attacks. You can guess the rest. Syfy obsessives should love it. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

The Monuments Men: Blu-ray
The amazing story of how an elite team of Allied soldiers won a race against time to prevent Nazis from destroying some of the world’s greatest art isn’t exactly new to moviegoers. Even 70 years after the fact, however, their heroics, as related in “The Monuments Men,” remain fascinating. John Frankenheimer’s 1964 thriller, “The Train,” tells essentially the same tale, but gathers speed like a runaway locomotive as the rescue effort plays out. Rene Clement’s “Is Paris Burning?” describes how the City of Light, itself, was saved at the last moment from Hitler’s wrath. In 2006, Lynn H. Nicholas’ book “The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War” was turned into a fascinating two-hour documentary. Nicholas’ research led directly to an acceleration in legal cases against people, galleries and museums in possession art confiscated by the Nazis in World War II. Although George Clooney’s film is a co-production between German and American interests, there’s no attempt made to sidestep the Third Reich’s culpability in any of the thefts or to suggest that Hitler and Herman Goering bullied every other Nazi official into buying into plans for the Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria. If anything, the Red Army takes it on the chin here for its part in confiscating art treasures, as reparation for the high cost the Soviets paid in defending their country and defeating Hitler on the Eastern Front. Our stated goal was to return the treasures to their rightful owners, even if so many of them failed to survive the death camps or sold the objects to afford passage to freedom. In those cases, the art was transferred to museums and other institutions, some of which sold individual items to dealers or private interests.

As for the movie, I think that too much of Clooney’s character’s time is spent away from the Western Front, in Washington, convincing politicians and military officials of the importance of the mission. The opposition argues that anything that impedes the race to Berlin is a potential threat to the fighting men. The question that weighs heavy over the entire movie – “Is a work of art worth the life of a single soldier”? – is most profoundly debated only two memorable scenes. In the first, one of the Monument Men begs advancing artillerymen not to destroy a historic church steeple. Clooney stacks the deck here by planting a machine-gun nest in its steeple. The other comes at the very end, when a old man we assume to be Clooney, circa 2014, shows his grandson one of the magnificent pieces that was saved during the operation, along with other rescued treasures. One answer seems to contradict the other, while also pointing out the futility and complexity of waging war, even one deemed inarguably just. The ending isn’t so much a cop-out as much as it is the ribbon that completes the package. A similar argument was posed in “Saving Private Ryan,” where the seeming absurdity of risking the lives of many soldiers, in order to save just one, was justified during a visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-mer. Because the cathartic ending played even better with overseas audiences, than ticket-buyers here, the combination of an all-star cast and Hollywood ending was guaranteed for “Monuments Men.” The A-list stars here included Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban and Clooney. (It would gross $77 million in both markets, on a production budget of about $70 million.) The downside of having too many stars in a movie, of course, is having to find enough time to satisfy the actors and accommodate their characters. There were times when “Monuments Men” felt so top-heavy that it was in danger of becoming “Ocean’s 14.” In “The Train,” at least, Burt Lancaster didn’t have to worry about finding the art, just how to keep it from reaching Germany. Still, not a bad way to spend two hours in front of the TV. The Blu-ray package contains deleted scenes, and several featurettes of the EPK variety, “In Their Own Words,” “The Real Monuments Men,” “George Clooney’s Mission,” “Marshalling the Troops” and “A Woman Amongst the Monuments Men.” They aren’t nearly as informative as they ought to have been. – Gary Dretzka

3 Days to Kill: Blu-ray
There are basically two kinds of tick-tock thrillers: one is a race against a frequently seen clock or digital timer, while the other is more biological in nature. Once the threat to the protagonist has been revealed, however, a desperate search for antivenin to heal a snake-bite victim pretty much equals the hunt for terrorists sitting on a dirty bomb hidden in a suitcase. More often than not, the difference between a threat and gimmick is the ability of a director to stack the deck against the audience. McG and Luc Besson set up “3 Days to Kill” in a way that worked pretty well in the first “Taken.” In both movies, a government-trained assassin is deemed expendable by his employer and required to re-introduce himself to his estranged wife and children. Because most of their heroics remain classified or are simply too repugnant for tender ears to hear, he’s forced to pussyfoot around the truth about what he’s been doing for the last 20 years, or so. Inevitably, though, he will be put in a position to use things he learned on the job to save their lives. It doesn’t always work, but, if we like the character, there’s a good chance the clock will take care of the rest. The presence of children and spouses in danger cuts both ways. James Bond wasn’t required to consider the feelings of his wife and kids before jumping off a cliff with a Union Jack parachute on his back. In FX’s fine spy-vs.-spy series, “The Americans,” the teenage children of the KGB agents are a constant weight on their minds. With Liam Neeson, in “Taken,” and Kevin Costner, here, the endangered families are their characters’ sole motivations.

In “3 Days to Kill,” Ethan (Costner) discovers early-on that brain cancer has already spread to his lungs and it’s impairing his ability to perform. On what should have been his final victory lap, Ethan’s steady cough and lack of breath contribute to a blown assignment. His partner, Viva (Amber Heard), a world-class beauty who looks as if she just graduated from high school, let both of their targets escape from a Belgrade hotel before their bombs explode. Knowing that he’s about to be forced into retirement, Viva makes Ethan an offer he can’t refuse. In return for shots of an as-yet-approved cancer drug and enough money to keep his family (Connie Nielsen, Hailee Steinfeld) afloat for years, he must agree to continue the men peddling a dirty bomb. When he arrives at his wife and daughter’s Paris suite for the first time in years, Ethan is about as welcome a pimple on prom night. Except for the details, Zoey knows that she has been lied to all her life and doesn’t dig it. She’s more than a little bit reluctant to accept daddy-dearest back into her life, especially if he’s going to deny her such pleasures as boogying the night away with decadent Parisians, anxious to take advantage of her blooming sexuality.

As generic bad guys, “The Albino” (Tomas Lemarquis) and “The Wolf” (Richard Sammel) aren’t sufficiently frightful to hold Oddjob’s chapeau. Even so, we’re given no reason to believe they wouldn’t sell a nuclear device to any nutter with enough cash to pay for one. They’re no less credible than comic subplots involving the Malian squatters in Ethan’s Paris apartment and the purple bicycle he bought Zoey as a peace offering. As hard as they try to stand out, Nielsen and Steinfeld can’t compete for our attention with Heard’s black-leather outfits and micro-minis. The good news is that, even as Ethan begins coughing out his lungs, Costner keeps the character something more than a liability to the mission. His unique blend of vulnerability and machismo saves the day, giving us hope there is a miracle cure for cancer, after all. McG and Besson must have begged on their knees and begged for their star to repeat the best known image from “The Bodyguard.” Knowing that Neeson is almost three years older than Costner, I suppose that fans could someday hope to see a combined sequel or prequel to “3 Days to Kill” and “Taken.” If it would end up looking anything like “RED 2,” however, I’d recommend forgetting the whole thing. The Blu-ray extras add a 10-minute making-of EPK, shot largely in Paris; a short profile of the McG; and “Concert Operation,” a piece featuring a former CIA agent. The difference between the theatrical and extended versions is five minutes, although nothing jumps out at me as to what it might be. – Gary Dretzka

Like Someone in Love: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
If Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami plays poker, he probably is the kind of guy who holds his cards close to the vest and whose “tells,” if any, are imperceptible. There are moments in “Like Someone in Love” when the film stands at the crossroads of comedy and drama, romance and terror. A step or gesture one way or the other would reveal his hand, allow us to settle back in our seats and let the movie wash over us, as it should. Eventually, we’re given hints as to what the characters can expect, even if we have no way of knowing how much faith we should put in them. “Patience, grasshopper,” he might as well be saying to us. Even so, observant viewers will find surprises around every corner. The opening sequence is set in a busy Tokyo bar, where several conversations are taking place at once, but only one is distinctly heard. An attractive young woman moves from one table to the next, as if to advance the dialogue. Instead, Kiarostami reveals how easy it is for a filmmaker to play sensory tricks on an audience, by introducing us to the person actually on the phone. Borderline funny, the gimmick opens the door to the character and affairs of co-protagonist Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a call girl who looks very much like the college student she is in daylight hours. She’s carrying on a conversation with her off-screen boyfriend, whose jealousy can be read in her responses. Her elderly pimp refuses to allow her a night off in order to prepare for a test and meet her grandmother at the train station. Instead, Akiko is ordered to hop in a cab and high-tail it to the suburbs to meet with a client who’s simply described as being distinguished. What could that possibly mean? The professor, Takashi Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno), looks as if he might have been sent over from Central Casting to audition for the part of Generic Japanese Grandfather. That is, if the average Japanese grandpa has a taste for girls a third his age and, probably, in possession of their first “Hello Kitty” book bag. Once again, as soon as we think we’ve got a peg on it, the story takes a quick left turn.

After a brief nap in the cab, Akiko meets the professor outside the local noodle shop. Once upstairs, she can’t stop inquiring about the books and art in his modest apartment, including a painting that hung in her grandmother’s home. For his part, Takashi turns out not to be a sweaty old perv with a thing for school girls, but an educator and writer partially retired from the same university at which Akiko is enrolled. It’s entirely possible that he really did hire her for her company and to share a late dinner from her home province. Without specifying sleeping arrangements, Takashi agrees to take the still-groggy student to the university. As he waits for her to reach the building, Akiko is accosted by her fiancé and berated for something we can’t hear. The next thing we know, Noriaki (Ryo Kase) is begging a light from Takashi and confiding in him as if he were Akiko’s grandfather. This is where Kiarostami decides to give us a chance to make an educated guess as to the direction “Like Someone in Love” might ultimately take. A comedy of errors, perhaps … a horrible tragedy? You won’t get the answer from me, even if it would be safe to assume that the professor’s view of life outside academia never will be the same. The writer/director, who’s only once before worked outside Iran – on “Certified Copy” — seems perfectly comfortable in the home of minimalist Yasujiro Ozu,  a place where infinite patience and attention to detail are valued and rewarded.

Kiarostami has said that he got the idea for this story after driving around Tokyo one night and glimpsing a young girl on the side of the road, dressed as a bride. In subsequent visits to Japan, he would look for her, even knowing that he couldn’t possibly recognize the girl without the gown. Even so, she’s as much a part of him as any acquaintance. “Like Someone in Love” is an excellent addition to the Kiarostami canon, which demands to be seen by everyone who considers themselves to be a buff. Outside of the arthouse crowd, however, it qualifies as a tough sell. The Criterion Blu-ray adds an informative 47-minute making-of featurette and an illustrated booklet, featuring an essay by film scholar and critic Nico Baumbach. – Gary Dretzka

House of Dust
In horror as in life, itself, it’s almost impossible to deny one’s natural curiosity and avoid temptation, however dangerous. If it’s out there to tickle our sensory impulses, the odds are good that we’re going to sample it. In A.D. Calvo’s uneven ghost story, “House of Dust,” a long-shut insane asylum on a college campus proves to be far too irresistible a temptation for a group of party-hardy freshman to avoid. Based on that much information, alone, it wouldn’t be too difficult to guess the rest of the story … but why spoil a good gimmick? Turns out, 60 years earlier, the doctors treating seriously ill mental patients there had come up with a cruel new way to lobotomize them. When one of the patients managed to break free from his restraints and kill a doctor, it put an end to any future experimentation. Administrators were left no choice but to burn the human evidence in their crematorium and shut the place down for good. Now, in any other universe than the one populated by straight-to-DVD screenwriters, the university would have torn down the property and buried the incriminating ashes. Here, though, the ashes of the criminally insane were swept into jars and left on a shelf for the next six decades. How they weren’t disturbed by other generations of nosey students is anyone’s guess, but they’re weren’t. The kids we meet are representative of most college classes, I suppose, except for one pretty girl (Inbar Lavi) who’s had mental issues in the past. The real fun begins when the kids decide that it might be a blast to break into the deserted and unlit facility. While exploring, they open the door to the oven, knock over a couple of ash-filled jars and snort up the equivalent of two lines of once-human dust. If you still can’t guess the rest, you probably should stick with Caspar the Ghost. Even so, for teens and beginners, many of whom will recognize the cast members from television, “House of Dust” should provide ample entertainment and more than a few jump scares, at least. It doesn’t surprise me that the movie’s based on experimentation that routinely went on in the United States – lobotomies, especially — before drugs were available to treat patients. – Gary Dretzka

McCanick: Blu-ray
Raze
With only two features under his belt, ex-marine Josh C, Waller has recorded an unusually high body count. “McCanick” and “Raze” are very different films, but they demonstrate a willingness on the filmmaker’s part to push the limits on violence and dissection of raw emotion. If neither title is particularly easy to watch — unless you’re a sadist — it’s Waller’s ability to keep us emotionally involved in the characters’ fates that makes it difficult to tune out. “McCanick” benefits greatly from the presence of David Morse, one of the great character actors of the last 40 years. No one plays severely damaged cops and innocent victims of life’s random miscues better than Morse. His portrayal of the chronically over-compassionate Dr. Jack “Boomer” Morrison, in the 1980s medical series “St. Elsewhere, remains unforgettable to this day. Here, he plays the title character, Eugene “Mack” McCanick, a Philadelphia narcotics detective, who becomes on unhinged when he learns that a low-life he’d put behind bars has been released from prison. The late “Glee” heartthrob Cory Monteith, in his last film role, plays a former junkie who believes that he’s paid his debt to society and wants to stay on the straight-and-narrow path. For reasons of his own, McCanick refuses to let him off the hook. The collateral damage from his pursuit borders on the staggering. Considering his own demise to heroin, Monteith probably was playing a bit too close to type as an addict, and is performance couldn’t possibly stand up alongside that of Morse. Philadelphia proves to be an excellent setting for the depravity unleashed by Waller, though. Unfortunately, he keeps viewers in the dark too long as to what’s been eating at the cop for so long. Ciaran Hinds adds a touch of class to the proceedings as McCanick’s overly tolerant boss. Bonus materials includes a making-of featurette, deleted and extended scenes.

Although virtually impossible to recommend to anyone with a weak stomach or a pronounced sensitivity to depictions of violence against women, “Raze” does offer viewers a bit more than gratuitous blood and gore. In it, several dozen physically fit young women are abducted and forced to live in an underground bunker, until it’s their turn to engage in mortal combat with another prisoner. In fact, in these mano a mano exchanges, “Raze” reminds me very much of the “Mortal Kombat” video-game franchise, as crossed with “Fight Club” and “Spartacus: War of the Damned.” What makes Waller’s story different than a dozen other “Mortal Kombat” adaptations is the fact that all of the combatants are women, who fight to prevent the organizers from killing their loved ones. It doesn’t take viewers long to discover that the matches are organized to entertain rich-looking men and women, who don’t seem to mind a little death with their dinners. Although none of the prisoners are unattractive, they’ve ostensibly been chosen for their fitness and athleticism. The one we learn to care the most about is played by Zoe Bell, a world-renowned stunt woman and martial-arts expert. The fights are staged well, if nothing else, and Doug Jones (“Hellboy”) and Sherilyn Fenn (“Twin Peaks”) are credible as the evil organizers. Fans of Rachel Nichols may be interested in knowing that she appears in both of these movies. – Gary Dretzka

Nosferatu: The Vampyre: Blu-ray
To describe the pairing of director Werner Herzog and fellow German actor Klaus Kinski as a match made in heaven would be to miss the entire point of “Nosferatu: The Vampyre.” Rarely have two obsessive personalities come together so naturally on a project that demanded a certain degree of madness to create. It was Herzog’s intention to use contemporary tools to remake F.W. Murnau’s 1922 “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror,” which he considered to be Germany’s greatest film. Kinski, who didn’t need makeup to be scary, modeled his Count Dracula after Max Schreck’s unforgettable Count Orlov. (Copyright laws forced Murnau to change the characters’ names from those in Bram Stoker’s novel.) Even on a tight budget, Herzog sought to make his “Nosferatu” as realistic to the period as possible. Much of the movie was shot on location in the Carpathian Mountains, Germany and Holland, where the architecture matched that of 1850 Wismar. In a decision that continues to defy logic, the writer/director also sought verisimilitude by importing thousands of white laboratory rats into Holland, from Hungary, and dying their fur black. The result was a PETA member’s worst nightmare, in that the ravenous rats began to cannibalize each other and the dye harmed the rodents when they tried to lick it off. Apart from that fiasco, Herzog’s version retains its ability to frighten the tar out of modern audiences, as can Murnau’s classic. The scenery is beautifully shot and attention to period detail is impressive. Knowing that American audiences no longer had the patience to read subtitles, the actors were required to shoot their scenes twice, once in English and, again, in German (both included here). “Nosferatu” also stars Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz and Roland Topor. The new Blu-ray version adds commentary tracks in English and German, an original making-of featurette, stills gallery and reversible wrap. – Gary Dretzka

Weekend of a Champion
I don’t know how someone forgets or ignores the fact that they made a film, years earlier, which deserved to seen by every new generation of buffs, since then. That, however, was the case in 1971, when Roman Polanski shared a few days with the great Formula I driver Jackie Stewart, who was preparing for the Grand Prix of Monaco and another possible driving championship. It spawned the documentary, “Weekend of a Champion,” which captures a moment in time specific to the period. Even if their fates and fortunes would diverge dramatically in a few short years, both men were at the top of their professions. Before the Manson Family murders put him in a deep freeze, in 1969, the Polish director stunned American audiences with “Rosemary’s Baby.” Six years later, Polanski would return to the screen with one of the greatest P.I. movies ever made, “Chinatown.” Steward would, indeed, go on that year to win his second of three Formula I titles. At the time, the Grand Prix circuit more closely resembled a war of attrition – practically a blood sport — than an orderly competition among privileged gearheads. It was simultaneously the most dangerous and glamorous sport in the world, commanding the same attention as World Cup soccer. Even in the wake of his wife’s murder, Polanski remained a high-profile celebrity and world-class party boy. It wasn’t until he was arrested in Los Angeles for the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl and jumped bail before sentencing that he became something of an international pariah. Those events must now seem as if they happened a million years ago, even if he’s still a wanted man.

As captured by co-director Frank Simon, the only things on both men’s minds on that weekend were the race, itself, and very distinct possibility that persistent rain would turn the most celebrated of all Grand Prix event into a death trap. If its grandeur and appeal to a vast cross-section of rabid European fans couldn’t help but dominate the hours not spent on the track, it merely served as a backdrop for the interviews, whose subjects ranged from mundane to the meditative. And, yet, “Weekend of a Champion” disappeared almost immediately after its debut at the 1972 Berlin Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Golden Bear and went away with a “special recognition” prize. Apparently, for the next 40 years, the negative gathered dust in the vaults of London’s Technicolor lab. When Polanski was contacted as to his desires for its disposition, he and producer Brett Ratner agreed to clean it up, re-edit it to some degree and add a new ending. In it, Polanski and Stewart returned to Monte Carlo to engage in lively conversation about changes made to the sport, racetrack, principality and themselves. (Most about hairstyles and their health.) There are two times in “Weekend of a Champion” when Stewart focuses so intensely that he almost transcends the medium. The first comes as the “Flying Scot” attempts to answer Polanski’s questions about things a driver does instinctually, almost subconsciously’ during the course of a race. The second comes when Stewart brags about the physical changes made to Formula I track after the drivers unionized and demanded changes in the infrastructure, on-track medical facilities and technical issues. In 1971, he points out, even the world’s best drivers faced a one-in-three chance of retiring intact from the sport. At the time of their most recent conversation, no deaths had been recorded in Formula I for nearly two decades. “Weekend of a Champion” nicely complements such excellent racing flicks as “Senna,” “Rush,” “1,” “Hunt vs Lauda,” “Grand Prix” and “Le Mans.” – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
LA Law: Season Two
CW: Nikita: Season 4: Blu-ray
BBC: Waking the Dead: Season 9
BBC: Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 9
BBC: Call the Midwife: Season 3
Like “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere” and “Miami Vice” before it and “ER,” “NYPD Blue,” “Boston Public” and “Ally McBeal” after it, “L.A. Law” was a prime-time series that broke the mold by freely borrowing story ideas from news headlines, addressing social issues and contemporizing the fashions and attitudes of the characters. Instead of treating doctors, lawyers, cops and other professionals as if they were infallible demi-gods, the updated characters ranged from highly professional to wildly eccentric. Old fogies and fuddy-duddies criticized the shows for exaggerating how business was done in our corridors of prestige and power, and it sometimes took months for the ratings to stabilize. Even so, younger viewers in the same professionals watched what the characters were wearing and how they behaved on the job. Indeed, “L.A. Law” became so much a part of America’s colorful pop-cultural fabric that the characters’ ethical behavior was discussed as part of law-school curricula. At McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak, the polar opposites were represented on one side by old-school attorneys Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart) and Douglas Brackman Jr. (Alan Rachins), while the other end was held up by the sexually insatiable Arnie Becker (Corbin Bernsen) and the frosty feminist Ann Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry). None of the lawyers who passed through the firm’s doors during its eight-season run were completely free of kinks and hang-ups, however, and each one would eventually inform one story arc or running gag, at least. Unlike previous legal dramas, the cases in “L.A. Law” weren’t solved over the course of a single episode and, unlike Perry Mason, the lawyers weren’t required to do the police department’s job for it. Every once and a while, the attorneys would cheat to get the desired outcome for their clients … just like almost every other professional in a show created by Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley. In Season 2, the team fills voids on the staff with a much-coveted African-American lawyer, Jonathan Rollins (Blair Underwood), and Benny Stulwicz (Larry Drake), as a developmentally disabled clerk. There also was a preoccupation with nuptials of Stuart Markowitz and Kelsey and how such a union would impact the other partners. It should be noted that a very good show could have been made about the back-stabbing, scandals and poor decision-making that went on behind-the-scenes on prime-time television, when the broadcast networks were kings of their fiefdoms and Fox was still considered to be an upstart.

Maggie Q, the almost impossibly hot Honolulu native and actress, hasn’t let much grass grow below her feet since “Nikita” ended its run on the CW Network. Besides portraying Tori Wu in the film adaption of Veronica Roth’s bestselling novel, “Divergent,” she’s set to star in Kevin Williamson’s “Stalker,” for CBS, this fall. The titular character of “Nikita” was created in 1990, when Luc Besson introduced her in the French action-thriller “Le Femme Nikita.” Bridget Fonda would take over for Anne Parillaud as the onetime Death Row resident, turned government assassin, in the English-language remake, “Point of No Return.” Peta Wilson starred in the USA Network’s television adaptation, “La Femme Nikita,” which ran from 1997-2001. Q’s tenure on the girls-with-guns thriller ran from 2010-2013 on the CW Network. As we enter the fourth and final season on Blu-ray/DVD, Nikita’s on the run from every law-enforcement official in the world – and amateur bounty hunter – as a suspect in the assassination of the President. Even when cornered by a pair of two-bit cops in the first episode, Nikita proves to be a very naughty girl, indeed. Everything in the six-episode season builds toward the wild finale, in which she tempts fate and escapes death. The show appears to have existed on a planet where none of the women characters were over 30 and less than an “8.” The men look a bit more seasoned, but are no match for Nikita or, for that matter, any of the other women. “Nikita” may only qualify as a guilty pleasure, but, as long as there are leggy actresses begging for jobs in Hollywood and automatic weapons to put in their hands, the possibility of a “Nikita” revival will exist.

The premise of the BBC’s advanced-forensics series, “Waking the Dead,” will be familiar to anyone hooked on cold-case and missing-person investigations, including CBS’ late, lamented “Without a Trace” and “Cold Case.” (It isn’t related to a feature film of the same title from the same year, directed by Keith Gordon.) “Waking the Dead” enjoyed a nine-year run on the BBC and BBC America, ending on April 11, 2011. It spun off an unsuccessful series, “The Body Farm,” which only lasted a season. Unlike such shows here, each new “Waking the Dead” episode is shown in two hour-long parts. The added time makes a big difference in the development of characters and pace of the investigations. The Cold Case Unit here is comprised of a pair of CID officers, a psychological profiler, a forensic scientist and former blond anti-terrorist fighter. Her stiff ethical stance and shortsighted behavior contribute as exciting a season finale as one could possibly hope. The cases handled, personnel and interdivisional intrigues reminds a lot of the excellent BBC series, “MI-5.”

Dalziel and Pascoe” is another long-running British crime drama, whose hook will be familiar to anyone who’s watched a movie or TV show in the last 50 years. Primarily set in Yorkshire, the title characters are polar opposites when it comes to their methodology in solving crimes. Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel (Warren Clarke) is a rough-hewn throwback to the days when cops were allowed to cross all sorts of lines and embrace political and social philosophies that would cost them their shields here. Detective Inspector Peter Pascoe (Colin Buchanan), then, would be his university-trained and well-mannered opposite. Both men look the part, but Dalziel’s leathery mug and English-bulldog demeanor are what sell the character. In the first two-part episode of Season 9, body parts and other medical waste have begun to wash up on the shores of a local lake and it appears as if they are related to plans to turn the region’s only public hospital into a private, for-profit facility. Pascoe is involved in a collision that puts him in the hospital with severe head trauma. The differences between them don’t look quite so imposing as Pascoe struggles for his life and Dalziel tries new tricks to arrest the killer. Eventually, though, when he’s nursed back to something resembling health by an adoring nurse, he finds ways to help his partner.

Currently in its third season on the BBC and PBS, “Call the Midwife” is a series whose popularity almost begs credulity. In Europe, at least, midwifery and in-home obstetrics has always been more common a medical practice than it’s been here for most of the last 100 years. Indeed, the American Medical Association has done everything in its power to end the role of the midwife, by exaggerating the risks of childbirth to healthy mothers-to-be and promoting techniques based on eliminating pain and unnaturally speeding the delivery process. This made sense at a time when Americans, especially, were led to believe that hospital administrators, medical associations and insurance providers had the best interests of patients in mind, all of the time. When the business of childbirth was exposed for the racket it had become by the 1960-70s, more and more women began challenging AMA propaganda and promoting midwifery as an option to spending three or four days in a hospital and forking over $20 for a box of Q-tips when only one or two might have been used. Recent history in England suggested the same thing was beginning to happen there. That’s a long way of saying that “Call the Midwife” was probably too obscure a title to attract an audience. What some of us didn’t take into account was the Brits’ insatiable appetite for stories about their parents’ and grandparents’ ability to survive both the war and the next 10-15 years of poverty and sacrifice. The series follows newly qualified midwife Jenny Lee, as well as the nurses and nuns of Nonnatus House. It is an Anglican nursing convent, dedicated to helping residents of the Poplar district of London’s desperately poor East End. After three seasons, the overworked women are given more to do than deliver the 80-100 babies born each month in Poplar. – Gary Dretzka

Sophia Grace & Rosie’s Royal Adventure: Blu-ray
Anyone who regularly watches “The Ellen Show” already knows that it’s the closest one can get to a little girl’s sleepover party and still be on national TV. Everybody from the host and guest stars, to audience members and viewers at home, kicks up their heels and dances when the spirit moves them. They scream whenever Ellen introduces a celebrity, no matter how obscure. Lately, Ellen appears to have adopted a pair of British tots with as much pep as a kitten that’s overdosed on caffeine. Welcome to the wonderful world of Sophia Grace & Rosie, who made a name for themselves by singing disco songs in high-pitched voices on YouTube. They favor pink tutus and tiaras and appear to have ants in their pants. If that sounds even a little bit insufferable, then, “Sophia Grace & Rosie’s Royal Adventure” probably isn’t for you. Don’t completely dismiss it, though, until you’ve consulted with any 10-year-olds in your home. In it, Sophia Grace and her younger, less speedy cousin, Rosie, travel to Switzelvania as correspondents for “The Ellen Show.” They’re there to report on the coronation of a new queen, but insinuate themselves into a competition between three feuding princesses. The Blu-ray adds “Pink! Pink! Pink! The Story of Pink”; “The Royal Music Jam: Laying Down the Beats With Sophia Grace & Rosie”; “Ellen’s Favorite Tea Times Moments”; outtakes; and bloopers. – Gary Dretzka

Martial Arts Movie Marathon
Out of the dozens of martial-arts movies produced and released in the mid-1970s by Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest Co., I wonder how Shout!Factory decides which ones will be included in its newly released double-feature and movie-marathon packages. Given the state of deterioration already noticeable on most films from the period, it’s likely that many titles simply are impossible or too difficult to rehab. Sending out scratched and sloppy-looking products is one of the things that killed VHS. “The Skyhawk” is interesting primarily because it features the late work of 70-year-old Kwan Tak-Hing and early appearances by actor/instructor Sammo Hung, Carter Wong and Nora Miao. Set in Thailand, it was a showcase for the boxing kung fu style popularized by Bruce Lee. The production values look prehistoric, especially when compared to the genre products of today, but, as entertainment, millions of people around the world swore by them.

Hung gets top billing in “The Manchu Boxer,” if not the lead male role, exactly. Made on the cheap in South Korea, it follows a roaming fighter who enters a boxing tournament to thwart an evil warlord. A similar theme plays out in “The Dragon Fighters,” which is noteworthy primarily as John Woo’s second film. Woo had yet to formulate his singular style, but he was able to churn out product with the best of them. It stars Carter Wong, James Tien and Ji Han Jae and contains a bit of toplessness for foreign consumption. There’s even more sexuality in “The Association,” although it’s of the grindhouse/drive-in variety. That’s represented in one scene by a juicy free-for-all in a shower. It stars Yu Byong, Tien Nei, Angela Mao Ying and Carter Wong. Too bad, there’s no bonus material. – Gary Dretzka

DIY-to-DVD
Bloodmarsh Krackoon
Kill the Scream Queen
Blackwater
God Thinks You’re a Loser
In the 20th Century, browsing joined loitering as a pastime available to Americans of all walks of life, no matter if they were rich or poor. Credit goes to the relaxation of vagrancy statutes, which prohibited bored cops from punishing transients – often defined as unemployed minorities, hippies and protestors – or simply transporting them to the nearest border and demanding they leave town, pronto. In the mid-1980s, the sudden proliferation of video stores provided new options for those of us who had hours of free time on our hands and virtually nothing constructive to do with it after exhausting the inventories of local libraries, magazine, book and record shops, shopping malls and supermarkets. Through “Clerks” and “Mallrats,” Kevin Smith gave this unsung minority a voice and presence in society. Less than two decades later, that voice would be largely silenced. Surfing the Internet replaced browsing as way to avoid work and amuse one’s self, while occasionally absorbing something worthwhile in the process. It’s easy enough to do, but, as is the case with Google and Costco, unless one knows where to look beforehand, it isn’t difficult to get lost. In the specific case of straight-to-DVD movies, the art of separating wheat from chaff was facilitated by simply being within arm’s length of a cool-looking cover, juicy blurbs and a MPAA ratings sticker that assured graphic nudity and violence therein. By contrast, even today, a perusal of Amazon is an exercise in frustration. The vast majority of all reviews are phony or written by semi-literates and, more often than not, there’s no mention of bonus features. In the case of movies in the do-it-yourself sub-genre, even less information is available to browsers.

Take the urban-horror tale, “Bloodmarsh Krackoon,” for example. While taking a virtual stroll through the MVD Visual catalogue – something I do once every six weeks, at least – I was stopped cold by the title of Jerry Landi’s offering. Not even the image of a rabid-looking varmint, with the New York skyline in the background, was as convincing as the title or brief description, “Urban legend claims a vicious crack-addicted raccoon, nicknamed ‘Red Eye,’ was behind a series of gruesome murders in the Bronx neighborhood Locust Point.” The word, “krackoon,” had already sold me on it. The only surprise, I suppose, came in learning that the cast of characters was predominantly Italian-American and they might best be described as Tony and Carmela Soprano’s retarded kinfolk. “Bloodmarsh Krackoon” is as goofy as it sounds, but not without its humorous depictions of Bronx trailer-trash.

With all due respect for John Waters and other indie pioneers, Montclair State University’s contribution to the cinematic art, “Bill Zebub,” could easily be considered the D.W. Griffith of the DIY-horror movement. With such immortal titles as “Antfarm Dickhole,” “Forgive Me for Raping You” and “Jesus, the Total Douchbag,” hardly anyone else is playing in the same league with him. Made in 2004, “Kill the Scream Queen” has been re-edited and re-released as the only “director-approved” version. It contains “never-before-seen footage in a much creepier edit.” In it, several legitimate actresses respond to an Internet ad seeking participants in a make-believe snuff filmsq. During their screen tests, the women ask the director why there’s no crew or why no script was made available to them. Desperate for work, they convince themselves of the director’s credibility and artistic mission. Instead, he punishes their gullibility by raping and murdering them. In an interview, Zebub suggests that such a scenario not only is valid, but also inevitable. Uncharacteristically, the film adds a behind-the-scenes chapter in which the actors break character, as well as the illusion of suffering. The interview, with the owner of something called Rough Pictures, also reveals some of secrets of the torture-porn subgenre. It’s a vile way to make a point about something Zebub’s loyal fans already take for granted, but that’s DIY. The DVD also adds “Ravage the Scream     Queen,” a harder take on the theme. Most of the actors are from Zebub’s repertoire company and the music is strictly death- and industrial-metal.

As far as high-concept ideas go, “Blackwater” takes this week’s top prize. Three words sum it up: “Deliverance”/Everglades/MILFs. I could have added rape/arrows/canoes/in-breds, but you knew that already. As derivative as it might be, a woman’s take on “Deliverance” really isn’t a bad idea for a movie. An entire industry has blossomed in the 42 years since Burt Reynolds led his ill-fated mission down the Cahulawassee River, providing women with opportunities to travel together to the world’s most scenic and potentially hazardous locations. No men are allowed, either … except, perhaps, for a buff young guide to cook the meals and take his shirt off when framed by the campfire. Problem is, here, that the acting is at the level required by community theater troupes and, while the swamp is easy on the eyes. I got the impression that everything was shot within a half-mile radius of the craft-services truck. Considering that none of the four writers and directors has worked previously on a feature film, it’s surprising that “Blackwater” turned out to be as watchable as it is.

Having begun his filmmaking career in 1970, with a small part in Robert Altman’s “Brewster McCloud,” Gary Chason also has a dozen directing titles on resume, most of them shorts. Knowing this, it would be a tad disingenuous to put “God Thinks You’re a Loser” alongside do-it-yourself pictures by less-experienced folks. The Austin resident is, however, is listed as writer/director/producer and that’s good enough for me to lump it together with the movies in this list. Described as a supernatural black comedy, “GTYAL” bounces between heaven and hell in telling its parable about oil-industry executives and strippers in boomtown Houston in the 1980s. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it’s the women who are more interesting than the men, who are, by profession and personality, jerks. In death, they revisit each other. The reason I was attracted to the movie in the first place is its cover, upon which a cartoonish drawing of a suicide victim concludes on her way to the pavement, “… I changed my mind!!” Like the doomed stripper, I fell for it. – Gary Dretzka

Viva Max!
Angered by his girlfriend saying he’s so ineffectual that his men wouldn’t follow him to a brothel, Brigadier General Maximilian Rodrigues de Santos (Peter Ustinov) of the Mexican army hops on his white horse and orders his men to join him in a mission to re-capture the Alamo. They do, but only being threatened at gunpoint by his loyal aide-de-camp (John Astin). After crossing into the United States at a sleepy border crossing, Max sneaks into downtown San Antonio in tourist garb to scope out the historic monument. He does this by joining a tour group and chatting with a guard old enough to have participated in the attack. Sure, enough, the plan works, without a shot being fired. The chief of police (Harry Morgan) needs to be convinced that anyone would have the temerity to actually pull off such stunts – usually a subject of prank calls – but draws his own line in the sand at raising the flag of a foreign nation over the shrine on his watch. Before he’ll release his hostages and surrender, however, Max demands to negotiate with someone of equal standing at the Pentagon. Instead, he gets General Billy Joe Hallson of the Texas National Guard (Jonathan Winters) and a staunch anti-communist crackpot (Keenan Wynn), who insists that Max is Chinese. Blessedly, the men on both sides carry unloaded weapons and an embarrassing bloodbath inside the Alamo is avoided. “Viva Max!” is typical of absurdist Cold War comedies of the late 1960s, including “The Russians Are Coming/The Russians Are Coming” and Mike Nichols’ “Catch-22.” Enough San Antonio residents complained about what they perceived to be a desecration of the Alamo that production was asked to leave town. It’s interesting that “Viva Max!” was based on a novel by journalist Jim Lehrer and directed by Jerry Paris, best known for his work on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Happy Days.” Alas, Cheezy Flicks didn’t waste much time or money cleaning up the movie for its first appearance in DVD. – Gary Dretzka

The King Family: Classic Television Specials Collection, Volume One
It’s easy to forget how weird things got in the mid-1960-70s, when the Republican Party and corporate interests attempted to counter the counterculture with music-based propaganda of their own. It began with Sing Out shows of the Moral Re-Armament organization and Up With People, a large song-and-dance ensemble of teens and young adults who never stopped smiling and looking wholesome. But, then, neither did the Osmond Family, Anita Bryant and the King Family Singers. The movement’s crowning moment came on March 23, 1969, when Bryant joined Jackie Gleason, the Lettermen and Kate Smith at Miami’s Rose Bowl, in a Rally for Decency to protest the sexually suggestive antics of Jim Morrison during a Doors concert there. More than 30,000 people might have attended the rally, if the organizers hadn’t forbidden admittance to “longhairs and weird dressers.” Pat Buchanan, then an aide to the president, encouraged Nixon to exploit “the pollution of young minds,” calling it “an extremely popular issue.” Up With People, marching bands and other acts deemed clean and patriotic would famously dominate half-time entertainment at the Orange Bowl and Super Bowl for years to come. I wonder how many corpses were spinning in their graves when the NFL began inviting such entertainers as Madonna, Prince, U2, Beyonce, the Rolling Stones and, lest we forget, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake to its party.

The King Family Show” featured The King Sisters and their extended musical family, which, at times, numbered as many 75 people. The first ABC show aired from January, 1965, to January, 1966. The series was revived in 1969, airing from March to September, 1969. Although, the Kings mostly eschewed hot-button issues and interpreted pop hits in their own harmonic way, their non-network specials didn’t hesitate to mix church and state or exploit a King in military uniform. MVD Visual is distributing the first two-disc volume of the Kings’ “Classic Television Specials Collection,” celebrating Easter, Mother’s Day, June and Back to School themes. The women, especially, take full advantage of the expanding popularity of color television by wearing matching pastel outfits – and white go-go boots for the whole family – and colors that match the touristy outdoors settings. The Kings continued to produce syndicated specials until things got a bit unwieldy, but still get together special occasions and King Cousins tours. The package, which, everything considered, looks and sounds pretty good, adds such bonus material as the “lost” Valentine’s special, on-set home movies, performances from the “Graduation Day” special and an eight-page booklet. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

Her: Blu-ray
Deux ex machine is the plot device that came to mind about halfway through Spike Jonze’s wildly inventive and quite possibly prescient romance, “Her.” Instead of “god from the machine,” however, deux ex machine translates here as “goddess from the machine.” In the not-so-distant future, Jonze speculates, some otherwise stable human beings will be so overwhelmed by feelings of alienation, despair and loneliness that they’ll turn to artificially intelligent operating systems to ease their misery. Here, voices attached to the highly efficient OS1s are soothing and, if anything, overly empathetic. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a professional letter-writer in the final stages of an extremely painful divorce. He’s not without friends, but they are overmatched when it comes to making him feel better. Like any good personal assistant, the deux ex machina – lovingly voiced by Scarlett Johansson – not only services his every need, but also anticipates them. Samantha appears to have been programmed by code jockeys proficient in psychology and advice to the lovelorn. It doesn’t take long for Theodore to fall head over heels with Samantha and vice-versa. She guides him through his masturbatory fantasies, seemingly getting herself off by making him happy.

If he grows into someone who’s astonishingly happy, Theodore still retains a distinctly human measure of shame over having to admit to friends that he’s in love with an operating system. His friends, however, aren’t particularly judgmental when it comes to Theodore’s newfound bliss. After all, his letters are only slightly any less synthetic than the words emanating from the OS1. They seem to understand his attraction to Samantha and prefer it to the blow-up sex dolls of yesteryear. Indeed, Theodore has changed his demeanor to the point where his soon-to-be ex-wife (Rooney Mara) almost doesn’t recognize him. It’s at this point in the story that Jonze demands of his protagonist that he question his good luck and put artificial obstacles between himself and Samantha. The atmosphere gets pretty thick with existential debate between the star-crossed lovers, but it’s of a piece with everything that’s transpired in the previous 110 minutes, or so. “Her” may take place in the foreseeable future, but, thematically, it could have been co-written by Shakespeare. If a guy can fall in love with a blow-up doll today, why not the voice of Johannson, tomorrow. The Blu-ray package adds a trio of typically vague Jonzean featurettes: “The Untitled Rick Howard Project,” “How Do You Share Your Life With Somebody” and “Her: Love in the Modern Age.” “Her” may be a tad far out to suit everyone’s tastes, but the pursuit of love often makes strange bedfellows. – Gary Dretzka

Overlord: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Big Red One: Blu-ray
Generation War
The First World War: Complete Series
Home of the Brave: Blu-ray
Flying Tigers: Blu-ray
Memphis Belle: Blu-ray
PBS: Coming Back With Wes Moore
With Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of D-Day coming up, several excellent films have been re-released into Blu-ray. Other, previously uncirculated pictures have been introduced for consideration by history buffs, as well. Made in Britain by American director Stuart Cooper, “Overlord” describes one 18-year-old conscript’s terrifying introduction to war on D-Day, but not before recalling the intense – if occasionally humorous – training he received at boot camp and jn preparation specifically for the invasion. When it isn’t dealing with the matter-of-factness of life for the private, Tom (Brian Stirner), “Overlord” offers dreamlike meditations on death and loss. Tom’s private thoughts probably aren’t strikingly different than those of any other soldier pondering the uncertainties of war, but Cooper renders them as dreamlike premonitions. And, on D-Day, the men on the landing crafts had to know that the odds of never coming home again were not in their favor. Knowing that “Overlord” was shot by Stanley Kubrick’s longtime cinematographer, John Alcott, I conjured textual parallels between it and “Full Metal Jacket.” Alcott didn’t work with Kubrick on “Full Metal Jacket,” but Tom’s journey through the training camps presaged some of Private Joker’s experiences 12 years later, when he prepared for Vietnam. What’s truly special about “Overload,” however, is the marriage of rarely scene archival footage – much of it truly amazing — and material newly shot with actors. Most Americans have been led to believe that U.S. troops shouldered most of the load on June 6, 1944, even though Brits and Canadians suffered huge losses and scored similar victories. I doubt that the American writer/director, Cooper, intended “Overlord” to be corrective in this regard. It’s likely that he saw a different way of telling a monumental, if familiar story, using background material that had previously been deemed classified or was buried in the Imperial War Museum. As far as I know, it wasn’t seen here until being screened at the 2004 Telluride Film Festival. It’s definitely worth the effort to find.

In Samuel Fuller’s now-epic war story, “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction,” the truly legendary writer/director recalls his own experiences in the celebrated fighting unit during World War II. It participated in D-Days in northern Africa and Italy, before joining the crowd in the invasion of France. Landing on beaches is only part of what the Red One was required to do in the war, though, even if Normandy proved the deadliest. This undoubtedly made “The Big Red One” the most personal of all of Fuller’s movies and, in it, he’s represented by the cigar-chomping Private Zab (Robert Carradine). The 1980 version of “TBRO” was butchered to fit a running time of less than two hours. It was watchable, but special only because it bore Fuller’s name, “The Reconstruction” weighs in at 163 minutes, and it’s terrific. Besides improving the continuity, the added length adds depth to the characters and their relationships on and off the battlefields. As “The Sergeant,” Lee Marvin is the thread that runs through “TBRO:TR.” It opens in France on the Armistice Day that brought World War I to a close. The battle-weary Sergeant wasn’t aware that the war had ended and it caused him to kill a mud-covered German soldier moving toward him in a way he judged to be menacing. Flash ahead some 25 years later and the professional soldier is preparing his wet-behind-the-ears underlings to land on an African beach held by French soldiers led by a Vichy loyalist. The movie will end 2½ hours later in Czechoslovakia, with the liberation of a concentration camp and a parallel encounter with a post-Armistice German “professional.” At the extended length, Fuller fully captures the plodding pace of war as experienced by infantrymen, along with the outbursts of terrifying action that come out of nowhere and without warning. The “Reconstruction” is enhanced by the commentary of restorer/critic Richard Schickel, even more deleted scenes and background featurettes. Anyone who purchased “TBRO:TR” in 2004 should be careful to examine the specifications listed on the box, to avoid purchasing something they already own.

Even 70 years after its defeat in World War II, Germany has yet to get a handle on how to deal with its role in the conflagration. Images of Adolph Hitler are banned, as are displays of Nazi iconography and collectibles. With few exceptions – “Das Boot” and, now, “Generation War,” among them – movies and television have avoided depicting German soldiers in a natural light. In its scope and ambition, “GW” compares favorably to the best mini-series made in the U.S. during the 1970-80s. By tightening the focus on a vow made by five 20-year-old friends on the eve of the invasion of the Soviet Union, it keeps the narrative from having to serve as a history lesson on the length and breadth of German domination. The characters include a young Wehrmacht officer and his younger brother, who serve in the same platoon on the Eastern Front; a woman who volunteers as a nurse and is sent east; another woman, an aspiring chanteuse, who sleeps with a Gestapo officer to advance her career; and the singer’s actual boyfriend, a Jew, who is denounced by his father for lecturing them about the country’s growing threat to even the most loyal of Jewish citizens. No one is opposed to the war, itself, just the possibility that extremists will take Hitler’s condemnations too literally. They were particularly confused about the ban on American swing music that was sweeping through Europe. They vow to reunite seven or eight months later, for a Christmas party. It was a promise that would never be kept, although their paths would briefly cross throughout the 4½-hour mini-series. Little effort was spared in replicating the settings in which the real action took place and the country’s role in atrocities, anti-Semitism and causing widespread pain throughout Europe isn’t ignored, either. Critics have pointed out that the story paints Poles in an unfairly ugly light, possibly in an attempt to distance average German citizens and soldiers from the horrors visited by Nazi Party members and the Gestapo. There were many anti-Semites in Poland, sure, but little mercy was spared on them by Germany or the Red Army. More importantly, “GW” accomplished its primary mission of getting Germans to confront their past, by encouraging younger viewers to openly discuss the period with their parents and grandparents. Such a dialogue is something that has been avoided since the war ended and the death camps were liberated. The series, which was well-received throughout Europe and Israel, should be easily relatable to American audiences, too.

Lest we forget, 2014 marks the centennial of the beginning of World War I, at least for the countries that didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. As far as most Americans know, it didn’t begin in earnest until 1917, when Congress declared war and we swooped in to save the day, like Mighty Mouse. I, for one, didn’t fully understand how WWI qualified as a worldwide conflagration until watching “The First World War,” and I’m no spring chicken. Based on the book by Hew Strachan and clocking in at 500 minutes, the BBC series is able to go beyond what most of us already know about the origins and disposition of the war, by adding a global dimension that carries us to China and Japan, colonial Africa and North America. I, for one, wasn’t aware of Germany’s plans to attack New York from the sea and its overtures to Mexico to shape an anti-U.S. offensive. Likewise, it traces the formation of formal and informal alliances around the world, pitting neighboring countries against each other for reasons that border on the inexplicable. Much time, of course, is devoted to the execution of the absurd war fought on both sides of No Man’s Land, which nearly chewed up an entire generation of young men. Neither was I aware of how fed up the soldiers would become over risking their lives in the name of imperialism, capitalism and monarchy, instead of national security, individual liberty and patriotism. Also discussed at length is how everything that happened in World War I would be revisited 20 years later in the Second World War, including genocide and the pursuit of ultimate weapons. The sheer volume of archival material and visual evidence used to amplify the points being made is staggering.

Based on a 1946 Broadway play by Arthur Laurents, “Home of the Brave” deals with racial prejudice among U.S. soldiers in World War II. While the protagonist of the play was Jewish, the movie presents a scenario in which an accomplished African-American topography specialist, Peter Moss (James Edwards), is ordered to accompany a group of white marines to a Japanese-held island in advance of an invasion. Somehow, studio executives felt as if the subject of anti-Semitism had already been exhausted on film and decided to make a “Negro problem picture,” instead. Prejudice in the ranks of the military was accepted as a necessary evil by many Americans – including those in the military and political establishment — so the message of the play remained intact. Once on the island, the reconnaissance team performs its duties as assigned, while also engaging in informal discussions about the black man’s experiences in life. Only one of them is overtly, almost cartoonishly racist, but everyone is aware of the potential for trouble. Nonetheless, when the Japanese finally discover the intruders, a cartographer played by Lloyd Bridges is seriously wounded. This causes Moss to choose between attempting to rescue his longtime friend – the pairing was coincidental – or simply assuming that he’s goner and ensuring the maps’ safety by immediately heading back to a rendezvous with a waiting PT boat. The total experience traumatizes Moss to the point where he can’t wait walk or respond to the questions of a military psychiatrist (Jeff Corey). After administering some kind of truth potion, the doctor engages Moss in a forced confrontation over the mission and race. Although “Home of the Brave” feels more than a little bit stage-bound, director Mark Robson makes us forget that the team landed on a beach in Malibu and the jungle was created on a soundstage, with a voice actor filling in for the annoying tropical birds. Apparently, the movie did well at the box office, including in the South. Even so, Hollywood executives were in no hurry to revisit the question of race in the military, government or corporate America.

Other worthwhile films being released in advance of the anniversary of D-Day are “Flying Tigers” and “Memphis Belle.” In the former, John Wayne plays the leader of a unit of ace mercenary fliers who are paid by the Chinese to bring down Japanese fighters patrolling the skies of their occupied nation. Plans for Pearl Harbor were already on the drawing boards, in Tokyo, but very few people in the U.S. concerned themselves with the terrible things happening in China. The movies format is similar to other war movies of the period, in which a diverse group of American fighters put aside their personal disagreements and prejudices to vanquish a common enemy. Of course, the men squabble over who’s the top gun and there’s a competition for the hand of a pretty blond nurse (Anna Lee) between Wayne’s no-nonsense pilot and a slick newcomer (John Carroll). Released only weeks after the U.S. declared war on Japan and Germany, “Flying Tigers” was used to promote the war effort and raise spirits of Americans still stunned by Pearl Harbor. Fifty years later, “Memphis Belle” not only demonstrated just how far movies about wartime aviation had come since “Flying Tigers,” technically, but also how certain clichés have endured. It describes how the various members of the Memphis Belle flight crew react to the arrival of public-relations specialist (John Lithgow), assigned to publicize the 25th successful mission flown by the bomber crew. Unlike the airmen we met in “Catch 22,” those on the Memphis Belle will be able to return home after the promised 25 missions. The rub, of course, is this could possibly be their last, given the fortifications of the target and the Germans’ determination to protect it. Sure enough, director Michael Caton-Jones is required to juice the action to raise the question as to the mission’s fate. He also creates an atmosphere of tension in the relationship between the writer and the base commander (David Straithairn). The Blu-ray includes “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress,” the William Wyler documentary that inspired the 1990 movie.

As prepared as this country is when it comes to waging war, that’s as unprepared it is to deal with problems that bedevil our veterans when they return and find it difficult to fit back into society. It’s nothing new, of course. What’s different today, perhaps, is the sheer number of troubled veterans who need help – VA hospitals are still treating WWII and Korean vets, after all — and the complexity of the diagnoses. Neither is the government holding up its end by continuing to trim budgets and veto programs designed to get patients healthy and put them back to work at a living wage. The PBS documentary, “Coming Back With Wes Moore,” follows several veterans and family members as they attempt to ease the transition from war zone to home, sometimes within a few hours of each other. It is broken into three parts: “Coming Back,” “Fitting In” and “Moving Forward.” Moore is an author, combat veteran and host of “Beyond Belief” on the Oprah Winfrey Network. – Gary Dretzka

Generation Iron
A few months before Arnold Schwarzenegger made a name for himself in the body-building documentary “Pumping Iron,” the future “Governator” made his dramatic debut in a terrifically entertaining hybrid from Bob Rafelson, “Stay Hungry.” Both pictures served to enhance the image of competitive body builders, who, up until then, were known mostly for amusing tourists drawn to the daily freak show that is Venice Beach. Both films portrayed the weight lifters as having more on their minds than chiseling their abs and preparing for pose-offs. Nearly 40 years later, Vlad Yudin decided to remake “Pumping Iron” for an audience that no longer considers body-building to be a freakish waste of time and cry for attention. Two of the key participants in “Pumping Iron” and “Generation Iron” are better known today as actors than body builders. No one has been able to pigeon-hole Lou Ferrigno as a single-character actor and Schwarzenegger was elected governor without once dismissing his pursuit of seven Mr. Olympia titles. Narrated by Mickey Rourke, “GI” follows the seven top competitors in the 2012 contest, which came down to a one-point decision between rivals Phil Heath and Kai Greene. While the film is short on details of the daily regimen of bodybuilders, it fully exploits the excitement of fans and drama of competition. As such, it’s a worthy successor to “Pumping Iron.” I also encourage people who haven’t seen “Stay Hungry,” which also stars Jeff Bridges and Sally Field, to make the effort to find copy of the DVD. – Gary Dretzka

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
Shelter Island
The idea is simple enough: put two very smart and inventive men in the same room and record what they have to say to each other. The concept worked so well in “My Dinner With Andre” that, even today, a goodly number of viewers still aren’t aware that it was scripted. “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” works on the same principle, minus the food and tableware. Director, animator, musician and video artiste Michel Gondry sits down here with the brilliant MIT professor emeritus, philosopher, linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky to discuss issues of interest to both men. Although the conversation could easily have been weighted on the side of Chomsky’s views on human rights, war or his support of the Occupy movement, Gondry was more interested in drawing out his subject on less controversial issues. The first question he asks of the so-called father of modern linguistics is about his earliest memory. This extends into an exploration of his theories on the emergence of language and how our perceptions of objects are formed. All the while, Gondry sketches his impressions of Chomsky’s points of view, which are later brilliantly colored and animated. They tell us as much about Gondry as Chomsky’s theories do about him. The professor doesn’t hesitate to bluntly reject the much younger filmmaker’s opinions on what’s being discussed, but the brush-offs are almost amusing in their absence of elitism. The marriage of art and thought makes “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” a treat for fans of the creator of such offbeat fare as “The Science of Sleep” and “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Those who aren’t the least bit curious about the title probably will want to take a pass on it.

The art that Gondry creates to illustrate points made by Chomsky in “ITMWITH?” could be described in many ways: explosive, cartoonish, child-like, psychedelic and impressionistic. It would never be considered “outsider,” if only because of his economic background and education. Nonetheless, if the same sketches could only be found leaning against a picket fence, outside a gas station in a rural community, “outsider” probably would be among the kinder things they were labeled. They would be sold, if at all, at a huge discount to what they could receive in a gallery in New York or Paris with Gondry’s name attached to them.

The same scenario plays out in Michael Canzoniero’s compelling documentary, “Shelter Island,” which focuses on abstract-expressionist Harald Olson, whose work was, in fact, sold from a roadside picket fence and tiny gas-station gallery, on an island off the eastern tip of Long Island. Olson only uses found materials, gathered from a local recycling yard or the side of a highway. “Shelter Island” describes how Olson and his friend and patron Jimmy Olinkiewicz — a onetime developer and single parent of a functionally autistic son — made the journey from his gas station to a prestigious Manhattan gallery. It occurred shortly after David Rankin, a sculptor who also resides on Shelter Island, noticed Olson’s art and helped to secure a showing for him. Potential buyers already were well versed in the nuances of “outsider” and abstract art, so no one needed much convincing as to its genuineness. At one point a collector describes to Olson how and why his work measures up to that of other better-known abstract expressionists, although I’m not sure it mattered much to the artist. With the paintings framed and hung on white walls, under direct lighting, they looked significantly more impressive than at the Shelter Island garage. Canzoniero divides the focus on the wonderfully open-hearted Olinkiewicz and his engaging son, who, in a short film included in the package, describes himself as being half-autistic, half-Asperger and 100 percent satisfied with his station in life. We’re never fully enlightened on the artist’s background, except that he isn’t comfortable around people other than the Olinkiewiczs and prefers to live alone and paint to the accompaniment of the Doors and other classic rockers. Olson has quirks, but nothing particularly strange or off-putting. In context or without any, his amazing work speaks for itself. – Gary Dretzka

 
American Jesus
At first glance, the image on the cover of “American Jesus” made me think that the movie was just another straight-to-DVD slasher picture. In fact, it’s the face of Christ from the Shroud of Turin juxtaposed on a black, red and blue American flag. It’s downright scary and not at all representative of the documentary contained therein. A more accurate title would have been “Christianity: American Style,” but who would pay to see that? Aram Garriga’s film is informed by the curious belief held by American fundamentalists that one isn’t truly a Christian, unless a cornpone reverend dips them in a vat of water behind a rural church. This misreading of scripture would be harmless, if it weren’t for the fact that the Evangelical movement wasn’t so intolerant of anyone who doesn’t practice the same brand of Christianity as they do. It became offensive when, during the Reagan administration, the born-again lobby openly bullied American politicians who didn’t toe their line and reward those who buckled to their demands. The holier-than-thou contingent doesn’t have a major presence in “American Jesus.” Garriga doesn’t seem to think that the many off-brand ministries he’s encountered in his travels in the U.S. present a threat to our democracy or might be planted on foreign soil. Instead, he gives the ordained snake handlers, cowboys, bikers, musicians, comedians, ex-cons, surfers and cage-fighters he meet the benefit of a very large doubt. They’re kooky, sure, but as dedicated to the Lord’s work as any other clergy. In fact, they’re downright American in their ability to work the system to their favor and score the same tax benefits accorded priests, rabbis and televangelists. If “American Jesus” doesn’t take on such powerful frauds as Pat Robertson, Rick Warren and James Dobson, it still makes for an interesting look at Christianity: American Style. – Gary Dretzka

Special ID
What Clarence Fok Yiu-leung’s hyper-active “Special ID” lacks in logic and comprehensibility, it more than makes up for in brilliantly choreographed fighting action. Donnie Yen plays police detective Chen Zilong, whose undercover alias in the criminal underground is Dragon Chen. Borrowing a cliché from a hundred other movies, Chen gets in so deep with the mob that he develops too close a friendship with his primary target, for whom he serves as chief negotiator and enforcer. After a series of failed negotiations, the boss begins to doubt his loyalty and effectiveness. When an old enemy arrives on the scene, threatening to blow his cover, things begin to get very dangerous for the cop. Instead of being pulled out, his police supervisor simply assigns him a new partner, played by the pretty and formidable Jing Tian. Together, they are required to deal with several different weapons and fighting styles, including MMA. One major plus is the integration of Chen’s precious mother (Hee Ching Paw) into the plot. In what some women would perceive to be torture, the woman is ordered by a mob boss to sit still for a haircut, while her son is being berated and threatened. The Blu-ray adds a typically extensive making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Evilspeak: Blu-ray
Final Exam: Blu-ray
Daddy’s Little Girl
Clint Howard’s been in more movies and television shows than anyone in Hollywood, besides Mickey Mouse and the MGM lion. Although he rarely plays the protagonist or antagonist, Howard’s appearance in a genre picture is always cause for appreciative murmuring and celebration in the audience, and not for his kinship to his older brother, Ron. If anyone deserves a star on the Walk of Fame or AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, it’s him. In Eric Weston’s 1981 gore-fest “Evilspeak,” Howard was given the rare opportunity to be the leading man. He plays a continually harassed cadet, Stanley Coppersmith, at a military school over-populated with bullies, and that includes teachers and administrators. He isn’t so pathetic that he doesn’t have friends, but everything he touches tends to turn to shit. It’s no secret that “Evilspeak” will have a pronounced Satanic element to it, but it doesn’t reveal itself until Coppersmith is assigned to clean out the basement of the school’s chapel. While snooping around, he discovers the crypt of a 16th Century Satanist priest and a book of potions and incantations. Although 1981 was still at the dawn of the computer age, Coppersmith manages to program a Black Mass that unleashes a series of very grim reprisals from the Satanist (Richard Moll). What makes “Evilspeak” stand out from the crowd is its status as one of the movies included in Britain’s list of “video nasties,” along with the heavy editing it endured to gain distribution and avoid an X-rating from the MPAA. Among the affected scenes was one in which a naked secretary in possession of the book (Lynn Hancock) is attacked by feral pigs while in the shower. It isn’t clear if the pigs are raping her or merely trying to feast on her innards, which happens anyway. That scene and others have been restored in the Blu-ray edition, which includes new commentary and interviews with cast and crew, including Howard. Did I mention that Luca Brasi (a.k.a., Lenny Montana) also plays a key supporting role?

Also from Shout!Factory and 1981 comes the far less interesting – and substantially less gory – slasher flick, “Final Exam.” Jimmy Huston’s college-set picture takes place during final exams, duh, when most students have other things on their mind than death. When one frat boy needs help cheating on his test, his brothers stage a terror attack to divert the proctor’s attention. It would be funny if it didn’t recall so many such attacks by armed morons since Columbine. What the fake terrorists can’t know is that a real serial killer is tracing the footsteps of the frat boys and doing the dirty deed for real. “Final Exam” is surprisingly bloodless as these things went in the 1980s. There’s a flurry of legitimate action in its last half-hour, but too little, too late, for most genre freaks. The restored Blu-ray adds commentary and interviews.

Daddy’s Little Girl” is what happens Ozploitation meets torture porn. If that makes your mouth water … find help, immediately. If you’re simply a sub-genre completest or curious, it’s probably a good idea to steel one’s self, anyway. Here, the precious blond daughter of divorced parents is kidnaped, tortured, raped and murdered on a beach in a tight-knit community on Australia’s Sunshine Coast. Blessedly, we’re spared this nasty piece of business by writer/director Chris Sun. It isn’t until five or six frustrating months later that the girl’s father locates a piece of evidence that the police overlooked and decides to takes justice into his own hands and, by justice, I mean torturing the guy to the point where he couldn’t confess if he wanted to do so. What Sun has done here is conjure the kind of punishment that arguably fits the crime and demands of us that we either sit still for it or hit the stop button early. The same thing could have been accomplished, I suppose, by re-creating the botched execution in Oklahoma and asking viewers if they thought that the Founding Fathers had this kind of justice in mind when they wrote the Bill of Rights. No matter what one thinks of the graphic depiction of torture and the mechanics of death, it’s possible that scales will be tipped when the murdered child appears and gives her father a sign of approval. If that constitutes a spoiler, it was intentional. – Gary Dretzka

Marvel Knights: Wolverine Weapon X: Tomorrow Dies Today
One of the cool things about superheroes and supervillains in comic books is that they can be revived in different forms and aliases whenever a story arc needs to be revived. Indeed, the recurring character can be a superhero in one iteration and a supervillain the next. Marvel keeps the cyborg Deathlok on the shelf for such occasions. Deathlok the Destroyer first appeared in 1974 and has been resurrected in different forms several times since then. The new Marvel Knights action comic, “Wolverine Weapon X: Tomorrow Dies Today,” debuts an “all-new, all-different” Deathlok on the occasion of killer cyborgs returning to Earth from the future to kill the heroes of today. Among them are Wolverine and Captain America, who are coming off a bender. Eventually, they will be joined by characters from Agents of SHIELD, Avengers and X-Men. I prefer the action-comic format to the blockbuster format, especially because each one costs 100 million fewer dollars to produce than a summer tent-pole movie. The comics tend to be grittier than the film adaptations and the characterizations ring truer. This one adds the featurette, “Looking Back at ‘Tomorrow Dies Today,’” with illustrator Ron Garney. – Gary Dretzka

7 Boxes
Very few movies make their way north from South American theaters, anymore. In the 1970-80s, there was a brief flurry of attention paid to sexy romantic comedies from Brazil and then came several intense dramas from Argentina, Brazil and Chile, concerning the “disappeared” students and leftists under the right-wing regimes. Twenty years later, a few good crime thrillers have arrived, but mostly at niche festivals. There’s simply no place to put them, except art houses, and art houses are overstocked with English-language indies. It took the general acceptance of DVDs, with multiple dialogue tracks, and such outlets as Facets, Netflix and Movies Unlimited, to service this niche audience. Movies from Paraguay were practically invisible, unless at least one of the characters was Joseph Mengele. Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori’s nifty thriller, “7 Boxes,” is devoid of ex-Nazis, but definitely worth a close look by fans of caper flicks with wild chases.

Victor (Celso Franco) is a 17-year-old street hustler, who delivers packages to customers of a teeming Asunción market. Given the lack of opportunities available to teenagers his age, Victor values the work and takes the responsibility seriously. One day, he’s entrusted with the delivery of seven wooden boxes only to a warehouse only eight blocks away. If he is successful, he’ll received the half of a $100 bill retained by his employer. The one condition is that he not open any of the boxes and look inside of them. This would be a simple enough task if the boy usually entrusted with such missions wasn’t so miffed over blowing the gig that he took his anger out on him. One thing leads to another and “7 Boxes” quickly evolves into one long chase through the marketplace, mostly with wheelbarrow-toting street urchins, sleazy criminals and overweight cops. When we find out what’s in the boxes, it’s easy to see why the criminals are so anxious to get their hands on them. The characters chasing each other around the marketplace with wheelbarrows are desperately trying to make ends meet by selling stolen cellphones, laboring thanklessly in the kitchens of Chinese restaurants and working cheap hustles. The filmmakers even give Victor’s worst nemesis a sound reason – medicine for his sick children – for being a jerk. More than anything else, though, “7 Boxes” is a great deal of fun to watch. It moves like a well-oiled machine and shortcuts aren’t used to advance. – Gary Dretzka

The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection: Blu-ray
Fox Cinema Archives
Notes on a Scandal: Blu-ray
Twentieth Century Fox’s lavish “The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection” was released in time for Mother’s Day, but could just as easily please dads and granddads of a certain age. Put the discs on the Blu-ray player usually reserved for kids’ stuff and you might be surprised to see who sits down to watch them with the old folks. At a time when a trip to New York was prohibitively expensive for most folks, fans of Broadway musicals had to wait impatiently for traveling productions to arrive, and that usually took years. Extravagant song-and-dance productions, displayed on wide screens in old-fashioned movies palaces, would begin to fill the gap almost as soon as talkies were introduced. What was lost in personal intimacy was replaced by appearances by the biggest stars of the day and cinematography that couldn’t be reproduced on stage. The lyrics, books and music of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein ruled the box offices in the period covered by this fine collection, which spans 1945-65. The festivities kick off with “State Fair” (1945), their only collaboration made specifically for a movie. It was adapted as a musical from 1933 movie, starring Will Rogers, of the same title. It’s a cornpone romance, to be sure, but studio executives figured that the country would enjoy something light as the war was coming to an end. The fantasies of the Fracke family, as they prepared for the annual Iowa State Fair, would fill the bill nicely. While Mom and Pop (Charles Winninger, Fay Bainter) put the finishing touches on their pies, pickles and pig in competition, daughter Margy (Jeanne Crain) and son Wayne (Dick Haymes) are trying to deal with the prospect of getting married and stuck in Iowa forever. They’ll get their first taste of what life might be like outside Iowa at the fair, when she meets a big-city reporter and he falls for a big-band singer. Even if there’s reason to doubt that R&H had ever attended a state fair before collaborating on the movie, or driven cross-country to get from New York to L.A., the songs speak of old-fashioned values and the optimism bred in the bone of hard-working Americans. Like the other movies in the package, “State Fair” contains commentary, sing-alongs, a video jukebox, making-of featurettes, original marketing material and stills galleries, all of which greatly enhance the experience. The other titles new to Blu-ray are “Carousel,” “The King and I” and “Oklahoma!” (in Todd-AO and Cinemascope versions). “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music” have already appeared in hi-def, with the former arriving in its theatrical and extended roadshow versions. Sticklers for Blu-ray perfection may have room to quibble about the video and audio transfers – the vibrancy and intensity of the colors, for example – but the average viewer is only likely to see the palpable improvement over previous platforms. At the moment, the eight-disc “Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection” is available only through Amazon. That should change soon enough, however.

Meanwhile, the latest selection of manufactured-on-demand DVDs from Fox Cinema Archives has arrived with 18 fresh titles. Not all, or even most of the movies would easily pass the sniff test as a true “classic,” but each has a good reason for being included here. Among them are “Esther and the King” (1960), “Dante’s Inferno” (1935), “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain” (1951), “The Gay Deception” (1935), “Bachelor Flat” (1961), “The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker” (1971), “Footlight Serenade” (1942), “Marry the Boss’s Daughter” (1941), “Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!” (1948), “That Other Woman” (1942) “Star Dust” (1940), “Good Morning, Miss Dove” (1955) and “Kentucky” (1938). The pictures I requested for a closer look are “Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher” (1968), a very British comedy based on Evelyn Waugh’s first published novel; “Forever Amber” (1947), a period drama deemed “objectionable” by the Legion of Decency; the elaborately staged period melodrama, “Cardinal Richelieu” (1935); the sword-and-sandal epic, “Sodom and Gomorrah” (1962); and “The Pleasure Seekers” (1964), in which Ann-Margret, Carol Lynley and Pamela Tiffin are overshadowed by the scenic wonders of Spain … even in bikinis.

Twenty years ago, Fox Searchlight Pictures was launched by the venerable studio to handle prestige indies and foreign-language titles that benefitted from the kind of TLC generally reserved for potential awards candidates. Miramax had just taken the arthouse world by storm and all of the studios scrambled to catch the same lightning in a bottle. In celebration of its success, the company is sending out some of its most popular releases in Blu-ray and planning events for those already in hi-def. Among those making their Blu-ray debut are “Johnson Family Vacation,” “Garden State,” “Once,” “The Deep End” and “Notes on a Scandal” already out and “The Ringer,” “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “The Full Monty” coming in the summer. “Notes on a Scandal” is an extremely well-cast psychodrama about an aging teacher, Barbara (Judi Dench), at a state-run high school, who becomes dangerously obsessed with a younger art instructor. Sheba (Cate Blanchett), it turns out, is simultaneously enjoying an affair with her most-gifted student. When Barbara witnesses Sheba and the boy in flagrante delicto, the delusional crone sees a way to insinuate herself into the younger woman’s personal life. The whole thing turns sordid very quickly, as the toxins written into Zoe Heller’s 2003 novel begin to spread through the body of the story, which is told through notations in Barbara’s diary. Those wacky boys and girls at the MPAA ratings board gave Richard Eyre’s movie an “R” for language and “some aberrant sexual content.” That’s right, “aberrant.” Actually, I’m surprised Dench and Blanchett’s ferocious performance hasn’t already inspired some clever playwright to adapt “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” using gays or lesbians as the feuding couples. Although both women were nominated for Oscars and other important awards, it’s Dench who created a monster for the ages. Also excellent in this Amazon exclusive are Bill Nighy, Juno Temple, Philip Davis and Andrew Simpson. The score was composed by Philip Glass.   – Gary Dretzka

Countess Dracula: Blu-ray
The Chambermaids
Honey Buns
As near as I can tell, it wasn’t until 1970 that the Elizabeth Bathory legend found a foothold in the movies. Count Dracula had been around, in one form or another, for decades before the countess made her debut. This, despite the fact that she’s arguably as compelling a character. Released in 1971, Hammer Films’ “Countess Dracula” was only the second movie in which she represents both the protagonist and antagonist. It is based on an actual Hungarian aristocrat, who preserved her youth by washing in the blood of murdered virgins … hundreds of them. Here Bathory goes by her maiden name, Elisabeth Nádasdy, which is only one of several aliases. She is played by Hammer favorite Ingrid Pitt, an impressive actor by anyone’s standards and a Holocaust survivor. A very good movie could still be made about her life. Peter Sasdy’s film gives a pretty account of the legend, adding a touch of horror when Nadasdy sheds her youthful visage and devolves into an old hag. After being washed in the blood of the lambs gathered by her younger suitors, Nadasdy easily passes for a daughter.  Otherwise, the movie is representative of its time and limitations posed by budget constraints and the modest expectations of its audience. The re-mastered Blu-ray arrives with commentary from Pitt, Sasdy, screenwriter Jeremy Paul and author Jonathan Sothcott; “Immortal Countess: The Cinematic Life of Ingrid Pitt” featurette; an audio interview with Pitt, a still gallery and reversible cover artwork.

Also from the early 1970s, the XXX-rated “The Chambermaids” and “Honey Buns” – both from the archivists at Impulse Pictures – are quite a bit worse for the wear. There are only so many things a company can do to eliminate 40 years’ worth of scratches, scars and artifacts. As such, they’re pretty much of interest only to collectors and nostalgia freaks. Both reveal an effort to tell stories, albeit mundane fantasies, and experiment with cinematography that a couple of stages evolved from what’s expected in loops. Basically, this mean tight close-ups on everything … everything. “The Chambermaids” is an exaggerated description for a couple of maids at a hotel, who are so bored with their jobs that provides guests with service above and beyond the call of duty. Other folks come and go before the maids head home.

The best reasons to pick up “Honey Buns” (a.k.a., “Heads or Tails”) are the semi-legendary Uschi Digard and Rene Bond. The Swedish-born Digard wasn’t exactly discovered by Russ Meyer, but he helped make her famous in the U.S. From there, she took off on her own in soft- and hard-corn porn. Bond was one of the early stars of the L.A. adult scene, when cast in this story about a schlub whose dreams come true, for a while, anyway. – Gary Dretzka

TV to DVD
Netflix: Orange Is the New Black: Season One: Blu-ray
BBC: Afterlife: Series One`
A&E: Longmire: The Complete Second Season
WE: Kendra on Top: Season 2
Nearly lost in all the hubbub surrounding Netflix’s emergence as a producer of such noteworthy original programming as “House of Cards” and the fourth season of “Arrested Development” were several other excellent series, including “Orange Is the New Black” and “Lilyhammer.” The latter imagined a mobster very much like Silvio Dante of “The Sopranos” being voluntarily sent to rural Norway, as part of the feds’ witness-protection program. It took the fish-out-of-water conceit to another level entirely. “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan used Piper Kerman’s memoir, “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” as the basis for the rough-and-ready series. It was immediately compared to a female version of the HBO series “Oz,” with a splash of Fox’s “Prison Break” added for additional color. Even so, it would be difficult not to recognize the genetic code of dozens of other women-in-prison exploitation flicks in “Orange Is the New Black.” Ten years after she was involved in an elaborate drug-smuggling scheme, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is living a relatively normal middle-class life, with a straight-arrow fiancé and fading memories of her lesbian relationship with her partner-in-crime, Alex (Laura Pepron). Despite the lapse in time, Piper is convicted and sent to prison for her crime. It’s a transition that she will find difficult to accommodate. Naturally, the hardened cons take advantage of her naiveté by bullying her and playing drop-the-soap in the showers. Before long, Piper’s life is further complicated by the arrival of Alex, who sees no reason why they can’t pick up where they left off. The other inmates have stories to tell, as well, and they play out in flashbacks. Meanwhile, the fiancé finds a way to turn Piper’s agony into his ticket to journalistic fame. As is usually the case with shows of this caliber, I heartily recommend beginning at the beginning, before jumping into the story in Season 2, which begins very soon. The Blu-ray adds making-of and background featurettes “New Kid on the Cell Block,”  “Mother Hen: Red Runs the Coup,” “It’s Tribal” and “Prison Rules,” as well as commentary on two episodes.

TV shows in which one of the key characters is a psychic, medium or clairvoyant have been a longtime staple of the industry. For them to work, the protagonists must be charismatic, persuasive and correct. Too often, though, episodes are interchangeable with countless other crime-fighter series, in which the lead characters are blessed simply with uncanny intelligence. The British shows that make their way to the U.S. tend to require a bit more than pat answers to satisfy viewers. In “Afterlife,” Lesley Sharp plays the character who sees dead people, while Andrew Lincoln was given the obligatory role of the learned skeptic. In addition to having to solve crimes, both remain haunted by ghosts of their own. Lincoln has been a mainstay of British mini-series for many years and does anguish as well as anyone. Sharp has starred in her share of mini-series, but also is familiar from “Vera Drake,” “From Hell,” “Naked” and “The Full Monty.” Anyone who enjoys “The Mentalist,” “Criminal Minds” and “Lie to Me” should love “Afterlife.”

Soon to enter its third stanza, “Longmire” is a crime-solving series in the Western tradition. Apart from the sports-utility-vehicles and cellphones, it could sit very easily alongside “Gunsmoke” and other genre series. That’s because the show takes full advantage of locations in northern New Mexico, where things haven’t changed much over the last 100 years and the scenery recalls the Wyoming setting favored by the author of “Walt Longmire” mysteries, Craig Johnson. In Season 2, the sheriff continues to fight a four-front war against unscrupulous developers, their puppet candidate to replace him, common riff-raff and the as-yet-unpunished killer of his wife. His grown daughter is also obsessed with discovering the truth about the circumstances of her mother’s death. The three-disc set includes an extended director’s-cut version of the seventh episode, “Sound and Fury,” and season finale, “Bad Medicine.” There will also be a bonus featurette, “Testing Courage: The Storm Defines the Man.”

As difficult as it is to understand the appeal of “The Girls Next Door,” it’s just that baffling to get a handle on Kendra Wilkinson’s follow-up series, “Kendra,” and the sequel to that mess, “Kendra on Top.” Although it continued to be one of those reality shows about nothing, Season 2, at least, captured enough unexpected moments to justify its existence on the obscure WE tv network (formerly Romance Classics and WE: Women’s Entertainment). Among the unscripted things that happen to Kendra and Hank are a nearly disastrous stint on the show “Splash,” a serious car accident, early warning about a stroke, a family trip to Big Bear, the removal of her IUD and hosting the World’s Largest Bachelorette Party. – Gary Dretzka

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron: Blu-ray
From DreamWorks Animation, “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” (2002) attempted to swim against the cartoon current with its emphasis on naturalism and western grandeur over talking horses and other anthropomorphic gimmicks. Spirit is a young Kiger mustang stallion slowly learning that the West his ancestors knew is being threatened by a parade of expansionist settlers, soldiers and unscrupulous invaders willing to destroy the land to make a buck. It’s fitting, then, that his best friend is a Lakota brave, whose people are threatened by the same forces. As all animated animals must in such features, Spirit is given something else for which to fight when he falls for a beautiful paint mare named Rain. To assure accuracy in the depictions of horses and territory, a Kiger stallion was purchased and brought to the studio to pose for the DreamWorks artists. The team also was invited to a tour of the national parks and natural landmarks of the West, which would be incorporated and merged into the scenic backgrounds. Instead of words, the horses communicated through gestures and whinnies. Prominent in the voicing cast are Matt Damon as the narrator and James Cromwell as the Colonel. The Blu-ray extras add commentary, a drawing tutorial and multiple behind-the-scenes featurettes. Arriving on the heels of “Shrek,” “Spirit” probably was considered to be something of an under-achiever, even though it nearly broke even at the box office. For what it attempted, it probably did OK for itself.

Among the other titles geared toward younger audiences, there are collections of episodes from “Poppy Cat: Birthday Treasure,” “Dinosaur Train: Big City/Dinosaurs A to Z,” “Arthur Makes a Movie,” “Dora the Explorer: Dora & Boots Best Friends” and “PAW Patrol.” Here, though, animals are encouraged to talk, tantalize and teach. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Veronica Mars: Blu-ray
When the folks behind “Veronica Mars” decided to finance the reunion project through Kickstarter, they basically put its fate on the shoulders of the fans who’ve been begging for closure since the show went off the air in 2007. It had ended in a cliffhanger, after all, and nothing disturbs a diehard fan as much as uncertainty. The producers must also have been encouraged by the broadening of Kristen Bell’s already broad popularity base, which not only includes “marshmallows” once obsessed with the show, but also fans of Showtime’s very adult sitcom, “House of Lies.” She also provided the voice for Anna in Disney’s animated blockbuster, “Frozen.” The crowd-sourcing campaign, itself, was a huge success, recording unprecedented numbers for a movie launch. Somewhere between idea and conception, however, something about “Veronica Mars” simply didn’t translate to the big screen. For one thing, the series about a teen crime-fighter was a hit only within the demographic served by the old UPN and CW networks, not a CBS or HBO. Critics also enjoyed it, but mostly because it took teenagers seriously and was different.  (Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, notwithstanding.) The larger reason, I think, is that creator/director/co-writer Rob Thomas is a creature of prime-time television and failed to take into account the differences between the two mediums. While “Veronica Mars” does a nice job of tying up loose ends left behind from the show’s three-year run, it feels very much like one of those “very special episodes” pitched with deep sincerity during sweeps periods. Even though the movie cost a modest $6 million to make, it struggled to make back $4 million of that total, including overseas revenues. This, despite reviews from mainstream critics that were overwhelmingly positive.

Almost all of the key characters from the original show have returned to Neptune for the reunion, along with the sex tape that caused Veronica a great deal of anguish in Season Three. There also are cameos by famous friends of the series and Easter eggs. Among the newcomers are Jerry O’Connell and Gaby Hoffman, an actor who plays nutzo as well as anyone these days. Now a law-school graduate living in New York, Mars decides to make the trek back to Neptune after receiving a call for help from her ex-boyfriend, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who is accused of murdering his pop-star girlfriend. There’s also some unfinished business with her father, the former sheriff of Neptune (a job now performed by O’Connell). I think that Turner and Diane Ruggiero’s script will play well with the one or two marshmallows who haven’t seen it, already. The tickets and computer codes handed out to Kickstarter contributors probably cut into box-office revenues, although it’s possible that they’ll want to own the movie on DVD/Blu-ray. Bell, not surprisingly, remains the star of the show here. She’s matured, but not to the point where she’s unrecognizable. Viewers who only know her from “House of Lies” or “The Lifeguard,” however, might not be able to square the Bell they know with the peppy PG-13 do-gooder in “VM.” One reviewer advised first-timers to watch a season’s worth of “VM” before taking on the movie, which, I guess, is just another way of encouraging audiences to the read the book before judging the film adaptation too harshly. Fans certainly will delight in learning about the proposed spinoff series of webisodes from CW Seed, which supposedly are on the drawing board. The Blu-ray adds “By the Fans: The Making of the ‘Veronica Mars’ Movie”; “More On-Set Fun,” with Bell, Chris Lowell, Max Greenfield and cast members; and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Art of the Steal: Blu-ray
Jonathan Sobol’s art-heist thriller, “The Art of the Steal,” may not break any new ground on the sub-genre, but it has so much fun tweaking the clichés and conventions that it easy qualifies as a guilty pleasure. The less one tries to figure out precisely what the thieves are doing – I lost track about halfway through – the more entertaining it will be for viewers attracted to the stars. If the movie’s twists and turns recall a bargain-basement “Ocean’s Eleven,” then, so much the better. “Art of the Steal” benefits most from an instantly recognizable cast of old pros – Kurt Russell, Matt Dillon, Kenneth Welsh, Terence Stamp – as well as an eager group of up-and-comers, including Jay Baruchel, Chris Diamantopoulos, Katheryn Winnick and Jason Jones. Russell and Dillon play feuding brothers, whose paths diverged after their last heist landed one of them in a Polish prison. The lure of a monster haul causes them to reunite with other members of the old gang. This time, however, everyone in international law-enforcement – specifically, Stamp and Jones — has their eyes squarely on the gang and seems cognizant of the treasures about to be moved from Europe to North America. None of the crooks is especially trustworthy, though, so we’re constantly aware of the possibility that a con game is being played on the crooks, cops and us. Sobol makes very good use of locations in Canada and Romania, while also adding a neat animated sequence illustrating how an Italian maintenance worker, in 1911, stole the “Mona Lisa” and keep it from view for two years. (Anyone who’s seen “The Freshman” is welcome to put two and two together at this point in the movie.) The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of interesting making-of featurettes and commentary. – Gary Dretzka

Mr. Jones: Blu-ray
Despite all of the found-footage conceits and limitations of a seemingly forced PG-13 rating, “Mr. Jones” has enough going for it to satisfy most fans of direct-to-DVD horror flicks. Here, a foray into the world of art scholars and anthropologists, adds an intellectual subtext to the proceedings, broadening the story’s scope and appeal beyond genre borders. Scott (Jon Foster) and Penny (Sarah Jones) are indie filmmakers who’ve decided to breathe fresh air into their personal and professional relationship by moving to the American Southwest, where supernatural vibes come with the territory. If their remote cabin is an unholy a mess, they quickly discover that they’re living in the shadow of a famously enigmatic sculptor, whose work suggests he’s possessed by the devil. While exploring their new neighborhood, Scott and Penny discover several “scarecrows” – made from materials found in nature – strewn along paths around the property. If anything, they resemble the fetishistic appendages and “birds’ nests” found during the investigation of a serial killer in “True Detective.” Stumbling upon one of them, while on a hunger-induced vision quest, would give anyone the creeps. They appear to have been constructed by a artist known simply as Mr. Jones, who, if agreeable, would make a terrific subject for a documentary. His Southwestern-style home is surrounded by sagebrush and offers a panoramic view of a vast arid valley. At night, the artist wanders around the property, wearing a hoodie made of burlap and hanging new scarecrows. Mr. Jones, it seems, doesn’t like having neighbors, nosy or otherwise. When Scott and Penny sense Mr. Jones’ absence from the house, they can’t help but go snooping through its nooks and crannies. Writer/director Karl Mueller uses found-footage to tell his story, but far more sparingly than other filmmakers. Despite the artsy-fartsy and anthropological stuff, the accent is on cheap thrills of the more generic sort. It’s here that I think Mueller was hand-cuffed by someone’s decision to go out PG-13. Why bother? An unrated director’s cut could easily have been stitched together for less timid distributors. That’s easy for me to say, though. (I wonder if I’m the only viewer who would freely associate the scarecrows in “Mr. Jones” with the Counting Crows’ song, “Mr. Jones”?) – Gary Dretzka

Desert Riders
Normally, when documentaries are made about child labor and parents willing to sell their children for ridiculously small amounts of money, the filmmakers describe crimes so hideous as to bring tears to a Death Row resident. And, yet, people around the world continue to buy clothes, toys and computers made in countries that turn a blind eye to such abusive practices, and “sexual tourists” continue to flock to Thailand to taste the forbidden fruit of enslaved boys and girls. “Desert Riders” tells a slightly less nauseating, if similarly heart-breaking story. The problem of importing children to provide entertainment for rich punters has yet to be eradicated, even after legislation was passed to prevent it. As clichéd as it might sound, one of the leading spectator sports in the Middle East is camel racing. In some quarters, it’s held in the same esteem as Thoroughbred and greyhound racing are here. While Dubai, too, has become a major center for horse racing, camel racing remains a popular draw. It also draws crowds in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Oman, Australia, and Mongolia, where races have traditionally been staged for weddings and other special ceremonies. Vic Sarin and Noemi Weis’ documentary describes a racing establishment that has benefitted financially from importing young boys from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mauritania and Sudan to train and race camels. Chosen for their small size and lack of options in life, the boys run the risk of grave injury every time they climb aboard such large and unwieldy beasts. With a seemingly unlimited supply of sellers and buyers, an injured boy is as expendable as a camel with a broken leg. The filmmakers not only spent time in the Emirates, but they also traveled to the places where parents have been told that their sons will never have a better opportunity to earn money, be educated and provided with the finest medical care. These proved to be false promises for most of the boys. When the situation became known outside the racing community in the UAE and Qatar, the practice of using jockeys under 15 was banned and compensation was ordered for former riders. In Qatar, owners have been required to use robotic jockeys. “Desert Riders” tells us that the practice has yet to be universally eradicated and injured jockeys are still waiting for restitution. The ugliness of abuse stands in stark contrast to the beautiful desert backdrops and excitement that comes with racing. – Gary Dretzka

Josh (Against the Grain)
In some countries, all an aspiring filmmaker needs to produce a first feature today is an idea, a digital camera, a friend with editing equipment and, lately, either a credit card or crowd-sourcing. A film-school education is optional. In a country as tightly wound as Pakistan, even an idea can get a filmmaker killed. Portraying women in ways that run counter to someone else’s interpretation of the Koran can also be dangerous to one’s health. The route Iram Parveen Bilal, writer/director of “Josh (Against the Grain),” took to the release of her first feature was different than most folks. Before serving as an assistant editor on the documentaries “West of Memphis” and “Bhutto,” Bilal paid her dues on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” an abomination that couldn’t be more different than her intense village-based drama. Aamina Sheikh, who could be Mariska Hargitay’s younger sister, plays a teacher enjoying a cosmopolitan existence in Karachi. Fatima returns to her non-descript village after learning of the disappearance and presumed death of her childhood nanny, Nusrat, a woman who dared challenge the way food is distributed to peasants by the preposterously greedy feudal chief. When it becomes clear that Nusrat was murdered for threatening to cut into the fiend’s revenues, Fatima vows to pick up where she left off, organizing a food coop. No fool, Fatima enlists the help of several of her highly placed Karachi friends, whose influence, she hopes, reaches beyond the potentate’s fiefdom. At first, the villagers aren’t at all keen to join Nusrat in the parched, rock-strewn cemetery. Another complicating factor arrives in the form of Islamic fundamentalists, just beginning to flex their muscles in the village. For the villagers to mobilize against tyranny and stand up for the most basic of their human rights would require no small measure of courage. Finally, though, Fatima’s conviction proves infectious. At a time in Pakistan when the Taliban and fanatical forces are dictating terms among peasants and government officials, alike, and local strongmen remain active, Bilal’s call for self-determination borders on the incendiary. The traditional narrative format saves “Josh” from teetering into agitprop, however. The cinematography is exceptional, as are the performances by the amateur and professional actors. – Gary Dretzka

A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert
Suzanne Vega: Solitude Standing
The Republican Party, at large, and the Bush administrations, in particular, could never be accused of being hip. It’s possible that “W” is a closet head-banger, based solely on what appears to have been a wasted youth, but his tastes as president reflected a preference for classic rock and traditional country. “A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert” is so uncharacteristically cool that it can only be considered a historical anomaly or aberration. The event being celebrated on January 21, 1989, was the inauguration of the first President Bush, who considered it a compliment to be called “square” … as in “far and square.” The campaign against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had been nastier than anything pundits had seen in their lifetimes and everyone, I think, was greatly relieved that it was over. How bad was it? RNC chairman Lee Atwater, architect of a dirty-tricks campaign unprecedented in its overtly racist tone, would be moved before his death four years later to apologize for its “naked cruelty.” It probably didn’t provide much solace to the unsuccessful Democrat. I had no idea that the footage shown in “A Celebration of Blues and Soul” existed. This leads me to believe that it was sealed inside a vault, probably to avoid being shown to the big-money bigots who deliver bushel baskets full of Franklins to party headquarters every day. Indeed, one of the scenes missing from this wonderful document is the arrival of the President and First Lady, accompanied by Booker T & MGs. The irony, of course, is that the affair was organized by Atwater, who might have been the only man in America capable of running such an overtly racist operation and, two months later, jam with some of greatest soul, blues and R&B artists of our time. He loved the music and was, himself, an accomplished guitarist. In his greeting to the large crowd of rabid Republican attendees, Atwater asked that politics not be made part of the evening’s festivities. As if …

The result is one of most entertaining concert films of the last 40 years. No expense was spared in the 24-track recording of the music and multi-camera visual presentation. That it would sit unnoticed in an office for 20 years, awaiting rediscovery and re-mastering, is both a mystery and a sin. The new DVD from Shout!Factory adds an hour’s worth of music to the abridged documentary shown recently on PBS outlets. It adds a booklet, with an essay by music historian Peter Guralnick, comprehensive liner notes by former Washington Post music writer Richard Harrington and an extensive photo gallery of never-before-published photos from the event. Dig this lineup of talent from Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans: Bo Diddley, Dr. John, Sam Moore, Billy Preston, Albert Collins, Percy Sledge, Chuck Jackson, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, Joe Louis Walker, Ronnie Wood, Jimmie Vaughan, Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Cash McCall and a whole lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. It’s a remarkable gathering of musicians. Frankly, I would have expected the Blues Brothers and Osmonds.

Shout!Factory and Wienerworld have a lot in common when it comes to producing concert DVDs. Represented here by MVD Visuals, the former is the UK’s leading independent music publisher and distributor. Its concert series features well-known groups, entertaining in some of Europe’s most prestigious venues. The crowds are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Suzanne Vega has always enjoyed great support on the continent — for her songs and poetry, both — so she was a natural candidate for inclusion in the Weinerworld series. “Suzanne Vega: Solitude Standing” bears the name of the artist’s second and most-popular album, from which derived “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner.” It was filmed at the Rome Auditorium in July, 2003, and features hits from the preceding 20 years of her career and more contemporary songs. She’s accompanied onstage by singer/songwriter Valerio Piccolo, who also translates her poetry for the audience and conducts an interview contained in the bonus package, along with a photo gallery. It is being released to coincide with Vega’s new studio album, “Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles.” – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
PBS: The Story of the Jews With Simon Schama
PBS: Your Inner Fish
Frontline: Secrets of the Vatican
Secrets of the Dead: Lost Diary of Dr. Livingstone/Carthage’s Lost Warriors
China Beach: Season 3
Rookie Blue: The Complete Fourth Season
Adventure Time: The Suitor
As if to prove how difficult it is to cram 3,000 years of Jewish history into five hours of television, historian Simon Schama will need about a thousand pages to complete his two-volume book of the same title and subject matter. The first volume was accorded ecstatic reviews upon its release earlier in 2014 and, when it arrives later this year or next, one hopes the second will elaborate on issues that didn’t fit the epic documentary. The BBC/PBS version of “The Story of the Jews” carries us away to places only our imaginations are able to take us in a book, which begins and ends within a relative stone’s throw of each other. No story of the Jewish people could be complete, however, without stops in dozens of world capitals, shtetls that once flourished in Eastern Europe, the catacombs of Rome, the parched sands of the Middle East and palm-stitched boulevards of Hollywood. Even if those journeys represent 2,000 of the 3,000-miles traveled in the documentary, one can imagine how much history might be lost along the way. It’s Schama’s contention that what’s unified Jews are the words on paper and parchment they’ve carried with them everywhere they’ve gone and, when need be, were memorized to be put down later. Even when Torahs have been destroyed by tyrants seeking to eradicate any furtherance of the faith, the words have continued to live and inform generations to come: one history, common to all Jews. The other key point he makes involves the common misapprehension about Jews’ unwillingness to assimilate or share their knowledge. Instead, he argues, history shows that Jews have, more often than not, worked toward common goals with their Gentile neighbors. Such attempts at integration – while maintaining a tight hold on their religion — have almost always have resulted in disaster. Entire populations of Jews were expelled from Spain and England, when their contributions were no longer deemed necessary; pogroms in Russia cleared the shtetls in the Pale of Settlement; Jews who fought for Germany in World War I were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Everywhere, cruel stereotypes and slander followed the survivors. It explains why all roads lead back to Israel in this exhaustive documentary. Shama isn’t reluctant to share his opinions, not all of which won’t be shared by his audience. His narrative style is accommodating and sometimes deceptively jovial. Not all of the questions we might have are addressed, let alone answered, especially those pertaining to the schisms dividing Jews in Israel and America. Still, Shamas makes it easy for Jews and non-Jews to make it through the entire mini-series, with intriguing anecdotes and stops in places that help make history come alive for people whose appreciation for the Old Testament may never include a visit to the Holy Lands.

Those of us unwilling to buy into the bible’s take on Genesis and claims that the universe is as old as the life span of the average Twinkie aren’t terribly disturbed by the likelihood that are forebears may have had tails and walked on all four limbs. You’ve got to start somewhere and it might as well be the Ethiopian Rift Valley. Even after watching the three-part PBS presentation “Your Inner Fish,” however, I might draw the line at the contention that humans evolved from fish that more closely resemble smashed Play-Doh creations than Nemo or Willy. Here, the time span covered is 3.5 billion years, give or take a million. Through extremely well made CGI re-enactments, we’re able to imagine, if not necessarily accept how such a transition might have occurred. The mini-series is narrated by the noted paleobiologist and anatomist, Neil Shubin, who, in 2006, introduced the world to the likely culprit, Tiktaalik roseae. The lobe-finned fish from the late Devonian period shared features of tetrapods (four-legged animals) and represented the evolutionary transition from fish to amphibians. The Tiktaalik’s natural habitat was in the shallow, oxygen-poor waters that lapped mud flats along the shores of ancient oceans. Once Shubin confirmed its existence through fossils discovered in the Canadian Arctic, he traveled around the world in his search for fossils that would provide links to other stops on the evolutionary train. Talk about looking for needles in haystacks. “Your Inner Fish” is followed by the more familiar creatures in “Your Inner Lizard” and “Your Inner Monkey,” which gets us caught up to the present. All along, he presents evidence that physically connects Tiktaaliks to homo sapiens.

The “Frontline” presentation, “Secrets of the Vatican,” revisits the Catholic Church’s ongoing child-abuse scandal, this time following the evidence to the inner sanctums of the Vatican. Knowing that Pope Francis has already begun the process of weeding out the really bad apples among the clergy, as well as the crooks in the Vatican-controlled bank, softens the blow of new accusations. These lead straight to the closest advisers of Francis’ predecessors, many of whom have avoided prosecution because of the Vatican’s sovereign status in Italy. Among the heroes here are Pope Benedict XVI’s butler, who stood trial for stealing documents and leaking them to the press, and victims of abuse who risked everything by coming forward to tell their stories. The priests’ most powerful weapon against exposure appears to have been threatening the victims with eternal damnation. How the Church has managed to survive this horrible scandal, more or less intact, is one of the great mysteries of our time. If God truly does exist, he must have run out of tears long ago.

PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” can’t help but fascinate us with revelations about mysteries that, until now, resisted easy solutions. In “Lost Diary of Dr. Livingstone,” we follow the British explorer’s footprints throughout Africa, as he searches for the source of the Nile. The path stops in a village, which, for Livingston, represented a crossroads where the past and future of slavery met. A firm abolitionist, he was so desperate to realize his lifelong dream that he entered into a devil’s bargain with guides who also worked in the slave trade. While recovering from a serious disease, he witnessed a terrible massacre of villagers by slave-traders who were from a different tribe. Desperate to record and report what he’s just witnessed, Livingston’s only option was to write his story over an article in an old newspaper. It was difficult to decipher the report, but a Scottish newspaper managed to piece enough of it together for publication, alongside an illustration. Many years later, a forensics historian was able to use advanced computer equipment to lift Livingston’s words from those on the newspaper, giving a different perspective on the explorer’s interpretation of what happened that day. “Carthage’s Lost Warriors” is interesting for providing evidence – however circumstantial — to support a new theory about which Europeans discovered the Americas first. Is it possible that defeated Carthaginian seamen found refuge on the Iberian Peninsula and, from there, sailed and rowed to Brazil with experienced Celtic sailors? Once there, they journeyed to the Andes, via the Amazon River, where they were allowed to join a tribe that lived a few mountaintops away from Machu Picchu. Architecture bearing symbols common to Iberia structures, a sling weapon and axe head support the theory, as well as native Peruvian children whose European traits are far more prevalent than anything Indian.

Last week, the folks at Starvista Entertainment/Time Life sent out releases crowing about winning a pair of prizes at the fourth annual Home Media Magazine Awards. As is the company’s practice, complete-series collections of “China Beach” and “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” – Best Vintage TV Series and Best Comedy Disc, respectively — had been introduced in 2013, months ahead of their release in annual collections. “China Beach: Season 3” arrives this week in a six-disc set, which features all 22 uncut episodes from 1989-90 and bonus programming. This season was marked by the unlikely relationship between nurse Colleen McMurphy (Dana Delany) and “entrepreneur” K.C. Kolowski (Marg Helgenberger). It began after the women were held hostage in one of the enemy’s notorious tunnel systems. Among the new arrivals is Holly Pelegrino (Ricki Lake).

None of the broadcast networks care much for launching new shows during the summer months … too expensive, too few viewers. That’s the excuse, anyway. “Rookie Blue,” approaching its fifth-season debut, has been the rare exception to the rule. Produced in Canada, where it’s known as “Coppers,” the show long ago ceased chronicling the trials and tribulations of mere rookies. The fourth season begins with Andy and Nick returning from an undercover mission and ends with a noisy shootout. Who knew Canada was so violent?

The latest compilation of “Adventure Time” episodes from Cartoon Network bears the title of one of its show’s most-discussed episodes, “The Suitor.” As is frequently the case when attempting to synopsize a single entry in the series, describing what happens on screen in 11 minutes requires twice that much time to explain. Here, Peppermint Butler thinks Princess Bubblegum is spending too much time in her lab and decides she needs a suitor. After an extensive search, he picks a PB devotee named Braco. Too busy to pay much attention to her suitor, PB satisfies his lust in a less personal way. The set adds 15 more episodes from the fifth and previous seasons. – Gary Dretzka

New to Blu
Blazing Saddles: 40th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Bachelor Party: Blu-ray
The Terminal: Blu-ray
Weekend at Bernie’s: Blu-ray
It seems like only yesterday that Mel Brooks broke the fart barrier in movies and risked the ire of animal-rights activists by ordering a future Hall of Fame football player to punch out a horse. I can’t say that “Blazing Saddles” feels as fresh as it did 40 years ago, although the new Blu-ray version is top-drawer — but it’s still hilarious and a must-see for every new generation of comedy lovers. Nothing like “Blazing Saddles” had been shown to American audiences. It satirized most Western clichés and conventions, while chipping away at such cowboy icons as Randolph Scott. More to the point, Brooks used the n-word and cocky black sheriff as a battering ram against racism, not just in Hollywood, but also across the country. Forty years later, however, the word still hasn’t lost any of its power to sting. The almost constant use of the word in “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained” was as off-putting as the whippings endured by the slaves. Brooks’ subversive streak didn’t end with racist epithets and parodies of Western clichés. Brooks recalls anticipating a negative response from studio executives by adding Richard Pryor – who had yet to swear off using the n-word in his act — to his writing team and getting his reaction to its use in various situations. Finally, even after a howlingly positive test screening, one of the suits demanded that Brooks edit out everything that might be considered offensive by any customer. (Imagine the airline-approved version of the movie.) With the power of final-cut approval behind him, he refused to cut anything and it has since gone on to be one Warner Bros.’ greatest hits and most influential comedies. It has proven so, as well, in every subsequent playback format. “Blazing Saddles: 40th Anniversary” retains most of the features and commentary from the 30th anniversary edition, adding only a new background featurette with Brooks and souvenir lobby cards. The most unusual among them is “Black Bart: 1975 Pilot Episode of the Proposed TV Series Spin-off,” complete with a wholly unnecessary laugh track.

“Blazing Saddles” and other of Brooks’ pictures would usher in a golden age of parody on the big screen. The much celebrated beans-and-farts scene certainly influenced the creators of “Animal House” and the many gross-out and frat-boy comedies that followed in its wake. Among the best was “Bachelor Party,” a raunchy comedy that may have been responsible for resuscitating the bachelor- and bachelorette-party industry in America. Except for the silly TV sitcom “Bosom Buddies” and a star turn in “Splash,” Tom Hanks was a relatively unknown player. Just as his wildly exuberant performance in “Animal House” caused John Belushi’s stock to rise in Hollywood, Tom Hanks’ take on a soon-to-be married rascal in “Bachelor Party” put him on the fast track. In it, he’s engaged to a woman (Tawny Kitaen) so far out of his league that he’s afraid she’ll wake up one morning and wonder what drug she had ingested before agreeing to marry him. Of course, the bride-to-be warns her fiancé about inviting prostitutes to the party … or else. The challenge gives her disapproving father and former boyfriend a reason to hope they can stop the wedding. The ensuing anarchy is tightly controlled by writer/director Neal Israel, who takes every opportunity to focus on the sparkle in Hanks’ eye. The other thing that drew young males to the movie were the many topless women, ranging from pros to nuns. After 30 years, the familiarity of the gags in “Bachelor Party” has caused it to lose some, but not all of its zip.

Twenty years later, a far more subdued and physically mature Tom Hanks starred in Steven Spielberg’s smallish comedy/drama, “The Terminal.” It tells the Capra-esque story of an Eastern European man, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), who gets stranded at JFK airport after his papers are deemed defective, due to situations out of his control. Given the rigid post-9/11 restrictions on travel, it isn’t surprising that airport officials might want to err on the side of caution, not generosity. He’s given an opportunity to return home, but prefers to wait at JFK until the bureaucrats sort things out for him. He takes up unofficial residence there, making friends and demonstrating something irresistible about the human spirit. The presence of Catherine Zeta-Jones likely had something to do with that. The Blu-ray recycles several informative featurettes from the previous standard-definition release, adding a photo gallery and trailers in HD.

Released in 1989, “Weekend at Bernie’s” wore its negative reviews like badges of honor. With movie-going demographics skewing younger and decidedly more male, a critic’s outrage at tasteless material meant next to nothing at the box office. This phenomenon began when viewers defied the critics by flocking to see slasher and splatter flicks. After the success of the much-reviled “Porky’s” franchise, they pundits might as well have been spitting into the wind. Ads for such movies suggested, “You’ll hate yourself for laughing so hard …” and “The funniest movie you’ll love to hate.” The presence of teen heartthrobs Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman helped convince teenagers and young women to spend date-nights in the company of their Neanderthal boyfriends. And, in truth, only a corpse as stiff as Bernie could sit through the movie without cracking a smile, at least. McCarthy and Silverman work at a life-insurance company in Manhattan, which is withering in one of its more miserable heat waves. Almost by accident, they discover some questionable bookkeeping. When they inform Bernie of their discovery, the notorious party animal rewards them with a weekend at his summer home in the Hamptons. What we know and the lads have yet to learn is that Bernie is in league with the mafia and, because he’s also sleeping with the boss’ girlfriend, they would far prefer seeing him dead than the innocent young men. When they arrive at Party Central, they can’t help but notice that Bernie is dead. Afraid they’ll be blamed for the death, they decide to pose Bernie in ways that won’t be detectable to the drunks who fill the house each weekend. Bernie’s apparent resurrection confuses the hitman, who dedicates himself to re-killing the corpse. While the slapstick does wear thin after a while, it’s Terry Kiser’s ability to look alive, while demonstrably dead, that makes us laugh. – Gary Dretzka

 
Amistad: Blu-ray
The Bridges of Madison County: Blu-ray
The Women: Blu-ray
The Blu-ray release of “Amistad” should benefit from marketing campaigns designed to help “12 Years a Slave” win Oscars in 3 of the 12 categories in which it was nominated. Steven Spielberg’s courtroom drama chronicles the trial that followed the 1839 slave uprising on the Spanish slave ship, La Amistad. When the ship was confiscated after reaching American waters, lawyers representing the ship owner, the Queen of Spain and other interested parties argued that the Africans were legally defined as “cargo” and should be returned to their clients or tried for murder. The opposing lawyers argued that Africans, represented by Cinque, revolted in self-defense and should be free to return to Africa. The debate is riveting and the re-creations of brutality are heart-wrenching. Historical accuracy was questioned, but not the ability of the all-star cast to move us. It includes Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anna Paquin, David Paymer, Pete Postlethwaite, Stellan Skarsgard and Matthew McConaughey, in a performance that signaled what might come later (after his career got mired in bad rom-coms). The Blu-ray contains the making-of piece added previously to the DVD.

Based on Robert James Waller’s weepie best-seller, “The Bridges of Madison County” tells the story of forbidden love in the wilds of Iowa. Well, not exactly. How else, though, to sell the movie to men of a certain age who wouldn’t be caught dead with a copy of the 1992 novel on their nightstand, even if it were the last book on Earth? It’s sold an estimated 50 million copies worldwide, all of them to women. Even if those 50 million women only manage to drag 10 percent of their husbands to the megaplex, you’ve sold a lot of tickets. As such, it became one of those literary properties that attract the attention of Hollywood’s top actors, writers and directors. Finally, Clint Eastwood was hired to star in and direct the unlikely romance between middle-age characters who’d given up on ever again falling intensely in love with someone, let alone a person they’ve just met and, given the circumstances, probably can’t have. Once the 65-year-old Eastwood agreed to join the project, to which Robert Redford originally was attached, he had a surprisingly large choice of excellent middle-age actresses from which to choose. It’s said that Clint’s mother convinced him to choose 45-year-old Meryl Streep, even when studio geeks were pushing for someone younger. In hindsight, the match seems perfect. Streep plays Italian “war bride” Francesca Johnson, who runs into photographer Robert Kincaid while he’s in rural Iowa photographing the endangered wooden bridges of Madison County. Cupid smacks both of them upside the head, leaving Francesca, especially, with the choice of ditching her husband and children for what could be the love of her life. We know this because, after her untimely death, her children discover letters and journals left behind for them to understand this unknown part of her. (They can even pinpoint in their minds the four-day span during which the affair took place.) Finally, their reactions are as important to us as the revelation, itself. The Blu-ray does a nice job picking up the summer colors, without attempting to make anyone look artificially younger in the process. The featurettes have been recycled from previous DVD editions.

In the opening credits to George Cukor’s screen adaptation of Claire Boothe Luce’s Broadway hit, “The Women,” he teases us with photos of the key actors underneath clips of the animals their characters’ behavior most closely resembles. If some of the depictions seem impertinent or cruel … well, watch the movie. In dialogue commonly referred to as “toxic,” Luce’s characters conspire to ruin each other’s marriages and position in society. When a salon worker overhears the wealthy, beautiful and blissfully idle friends of socialite Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) gossip about her husband’s affair with a sales clerk, she accidentally conveys that information to an unsuspecting Haines while getting her nails done. It takes Mary only a little while longer to discover who’s enjoying her husband’s sexual companionship, but the likely suspects include Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine and Phyllis Povah. We know that Mr. Haines isn’t a closet case, because there are no men in the movie and, after all, it’s 1939. The set design changes from Park Avenue chic to Reno rustic when Mary stops beating herself up and accepts the fact that her husband’s a dick and she needs to get divorced asap. Like so many other women in the same position, she books a short stay at a dude ranch for divorcees, run by the great butch character actor, Marjorie Main. I don’t think that Luce or Cukor could get away with the same code-approved “happy” ending today, but divorce wasn’t rewarded in those days. The Blu-ray comes with the documentaries “From the Ends of the Earth” and “Hollywood: Style Center of the World”; an alternate black-and-white fashion-show sequence; music cues; and trailers from the movie and its 1956 musical remake, “The Opposite Sex.” Feel free to ignore Diane English’s 2008 remake, which starred/wasted Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bette Midler and Candice Bergen. – Gary Dretzka

The Real Decameron
Jungle Blue
Deep Tango/Young Secretaries
Pretty Peaches 2/Pretty Peaches 3
This month’s selection of adult reissues takes us back to the dawn of the modern age of porn with titles collectors will appreciate far more than casual fans and viewers looking for a gonzo fun. Like nearly a dozen other copycat movies, “The Real Decameron” (“The Sexbury Tales”) followed hot on the heels of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ribald 1971 hit, “The Decameron.” That film was comprised of adaptations of nine stories from Bocaccio’s “Decameron.” Like most Italian sex comedies of the period, it featured busty innocents of almost indescribable beauty required to put up with suitors, priests and perverts who more closely resemble toads and tree stumps than the handsome young men who populated Pasolini’s movies. “The Real Decameron” doesn’t measure up to Pasolini’s work – what could? – but the sketches are amusing in the same way as the jokes and cartoons in Playbook are amusing to college freshmen. The stories are introduced by a group of prostitutes, gossiping as they wash their clothes at a village well. Among the stars are Rosalba Neri and Christa Linder.

Jungle Blue” (“Rey del Amazonas”) combines the myths of Tarzan and Bigfoot, in the service of a nearly incomprehensible story about lost treasures, missing explorers and loose hippies. The only thing that separates this silly wet dream from a million other such flicks are early appearances by Annette Haven and Candida Royalle, in spliced-in group gropes, and locations I have no reason to believe aren’t actually in the Peruvian rain forest, as advertised.

Annette Haven turns up, as well, in the 1973 “Deep Tango.” The quickie sex satire borrows elements of “Deep Throat” and “Last Tango in Paris,” although none was likely to have gotten anyone in trouble with the copyright office. The second half of the double-feature is “Young Secretaries,” a 1974 office comedy in which secretaries impress their bosses in ways other than taking shorthand, while their wives are serviced by guys in line for their husbands’ job.

A far better double-feature experience is provided by the second and third installments in Alex de Renzy’s “Pretty Peaches” series. Sitting in for Desiree Cousteau are Siobhan Hunter and Keisha. Both films are representative of the Golden Age of Porn. – Gary Dretzka

Hot Guys With Guns
Truth
Mystery fans have been following gay and lesbian private eyes for almost two decades, now. Some of the characters have even broken through the niche barrier, attracting crossover readers more interested in crime solving than sexual interludes. I don’t know if there are any equivalent series on the fringes of cable television, but the time is probably right to give one a shot. Given a more generous budget, “Hot Guys With Guns” would be a good place to start. Veteran actor Doug Spearman (“Noah’s Arc”) moved behind the camera as writer, director and executive producer of the interracial beefcake detective story, which is an appealing blend of comedy, action, drama, romance and sharp dialogue. Marc Anthony Samuel (“General Hospital”) and newcomer Brian McArdle play Danny and “Pip,” ex-boyfriends on a mission to solve a series of robberies whose common denominator is that they take place at wild sex parties and involve “roofies.” The victims aren’t keen on seeing their names appear on a Beverly Hills police blotter. Coincidentally, Danny is enrolled in a class designed for actors wanting to look legitimate when auditioning for roles in cops-and-robbers movies. He practices his skills by spying on Pip, an attractive ornament on the party scene. When Pip is robbed, Danny volunteers to help him recover his goods. Also important to the story are Danny’s gruff teacher (Alan Blumenfeld), and Pip’s sex-starved mother (Joan Ryan). Given the limitations imposed on it, “Hot Guys With Guns” is more entertaining than it has any right to be. As it is, the clever James Bond-inspired opening probably used up half the budget.

The jarring musical score, alone, tells us that writer/director/actor Rob Moretti is no stranger to the films of Alfred Hitchcock and the methods he deployed to build suspense and tension. It wouldn’t be fair to Hitch or Moretti to belabor the comparison any further, if only because “Truth” isn’t playing in the same league or arena as most Hollywood thrillers. It’s targeted at gay viewers and, as such, suffers from miniscule budgets and limited resources. The story is told through prison interviews and the flashbacks of Caleb (Sean Paul Lockhart), a young man whose hellish childhood put him on direct path to incarceration. When Caleb connects with the older Jeremy (Moretti) on the Internet, an escape route from pain opens up to him. Can it last? Well, we already know that the protagonist is in prison. The real question is how Caleb got there. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

The Best Offer
Movies about art and the intricacies of profiting from it frequently turn on some brainy crime, usually involving forgery or theft. The egos of the players are ripe to be picked in elaborate cons and schemes, which, as per “The Thomas Crown Affair,” always require the casting of actors who look fabulous in formal wear. “The Best Offer” is no different, really, except for the inclusion of a romance that’s as seductive as it is improbable. If Giuseppe Tornatore’s wickedly rendered mystery is more than a tad long and complicated for mainstream consumption, fans of the art-scam subgenre should find plenty here to admire. Geoffrey Rush fits perfectly as the well regarded, if selectively bent art appraiser and auctioneer Virgil Oldman. In league with a devious con artist, Billy Whistler, deliciously played by Donald Sutherland, they’ve been able to make a very nice living slipping high-quality fakes and undervalued gems past the bidders at some of Europe’s most prestigious auction houses. Oldman’s ability to find and appraise both is unquestioned. As the film opens, Whistler misreads a cue from the lectern and blows a scam, which causes Oldham to blow a gasket. It serves to demonstrate how the scheme works, as well as how quickly things can go sideways. One morning, Oldham receives a phoned inquiry from an heiress, Claire Ibettson (Sylvia Hoeks), whose vague responses to his questions and demands for anonymity pique his curiosity. Even though she’s the one who initiated contact, Claire makes it very difficult for Oldman to appraise the antiques she’s inherited and facilitate an auction. Just as he’s about to thrown in the towel, however, Claire explains that her reclusive nature is the result of illness and a traumatic experience in her teens. She communicates with him from behind the elegantly painted walls that have shielded her from the outside world for all of her adult life.

Having already completed a cursory evaluation of the items inside the mansion, Virgil can’t help but desire to learn more about Claire. After one of their conversations, he hides among the statues in the cavernous ballroom outside her living quarters, hoping to catch a glimpse of his elusive client. When she does appear, sniffing the air like a mouse daring to leave its hole, he’s hooked and so are we. It takes a bit more coaxing from Oldman – who tempts her with gourmet food and other provisions — for Claire to feel comfortable outside her room. Finally, their business relationship evolves into one that’s equal parts paternal and potentially romantic. As if this prelude to a con weren’t sufficiently intricate, another degree of difficulty is added by Oldman’s discovery of a discarded set of gears that could very well be part of a long-forgotten mechanical treasure. To this end, he employs a young tinkerer (Jim Sturgess), whose ability to restore objects brought into his store borders on the miraculous. Oldman’s continued search of the premises reveals even more pieces of something resembling a 19th Century automaton. At this point, I was reminded of the oft-covered theme from “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “The Windmills of Your Mind,” which begins, “Round, like a circle in a spiral/Like a wheel within a wheel/ …” Even at 131 minutes, “The Best Offer” fairly bursts at the seams with subplots and invisible threads. Impatient viewers may give up on it early, assuming that at least part of the ending might elude them and prove unsatisfying. And, in fact, it probably would. Those already familiar with Tornatore’s body of work, which includes “Cinema Paradiso,” “Malena,” “The Legend of 1900,” “Baaria,” “The Star Maker” and “The Unknown Woman,” know that their perseverance will be repaid in Hitchcockian suspense and Italianate eroticism. The art objects aren’t bad, either.  – Gary Dretzka

The Selfish Giant
No one puts a keener focus on the plight of men and women marginalized by the depressed worldwide economy than filmmakers from the U.K. The “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1950-60s stirred the conscience of audiences who may have assumed that citizens of post-war England were better off than those in the countries that were defeated. Thirty years later, after Ronald Reagan had canonized Margaret Thatcher, movies revealed the truth about the devastation her policies brought to the north. Even the laughs in “The Full Monty” were born of despair. Today’s social-realists need not look any further than the children and grandchildren of the people portrayed in the kitchen-sink and post-Thatcher dramas for inspiration. If anything, the victims of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, alcoholism, racism and drug abuse have grown even more pessimistic about their futures. If there’s a common denominator here, it’s the continued presence of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh as chroniclers of hard times in the U.K. Not surprisingly, perhaps, both men have had their new films selected for competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Although the decreasingly working-class north of England continues to provide much fodder for socially realistic stories, young filmmakers from Scotland and Ireland have nobly carried on the tradition, as well. (The Irish economic revival has gone bust in the last few years.) Among the most impressive is Clio Barnard, whose experimental documentary about the late British playwright Andrea Dunbar caused a sensation on the 2010 festival circuit. “The Arbor” describes the hellish conditions in which Dunbar was raised in the Brafferton Arbor estate, where drugs, alcoholism and single parenthood compete for the title of most-corruptive influence on young women. “The Selfish Giant” is set, as well, in the hardscrabble projects of Bradford, West Yorkshire. This time, however, writer/director’s protagonists are 13-year-old Swifty and Arbor, boys so disaffected that they can hardly express their appreciation for being expelled from school. Among other things, it provides them an opportunity to get an early start on a life of improvisational crime. Like many other boys in the northern communities, they endeavor to make a living as scrap gatherers, under the tutelage of a grown-up misfit, Kitten (Sean Gilder), raised in the same projects.

In no other world would Kitten qualify as a role model, but anyone who makes money in such a dysfunctional environment is to be admired. The boys quickly learn that the most exploitable source for profitable material can be found at construction sites and anywhere copper wiring and cable for television reception are laid. This includes railroads and the nuclear facility that dominates the skyline. It’s theft, pure and simple, but their age precludes them from serving hard time. It also protects the yard owners, who can always claim ignorance if caught recycling stolen goods. Kitten may cut corners with the boys whenever possible, but he bonds with them over a mutual interest in work horses and buggy racing. A shady businessman can’t protect boys from taking risks an experienced thief wouldn’t attempt, however, and they’ve begun to tread in some very dangerous waters on their way to becoming career criminals. When tragedy strikes, it hits us especially hard. We know that Arbor and Swifty are sharing most of their ill-gotten gains with their mothers, who always seem to be on the brink of being evicted or abused by their brutal alcoholic mates. Barnard frames her story within the context of a “fable” by Oscar Wilde. She based Arbor and Swifty on two scrappers she met while filming “The Arbor.” Like so many other child actors cast in these sorts of movies, Shaun Thomas and Conner Chapman – only 12, when cast – fully embody the characters they play. The DVD includes interesting interviews and background material with Barnard and cast members. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series
Masterpiece: Mr. Selfridge Season 2: Blu-ray
PBS: Super Skyscrapers: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Spongebob, You’re Fired
Binge alert! Finally, every episode of the most influential police drama in the history of the medium is available for viewing, once a week or all at once. Either way, you’ll thank yourself for making the effort to catch up with the men and women of “Hill Street Blues,” a show that caused a paradigm shift in the way police work and other workplace-based shows are depicted. At a time when network television had run out of ideas as to how it should respond to rampant crime, gangs and drug abuse in the streets of our cities, MTM Enterprises assigned little-known writers Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll to create a show that would mirror that chaos, without ending each episode with an unlikely act of heroism or pat solutions. No one, including the people in charge, knew the answer to the questions raised by the victims of crime, gang violence and neglect. In fact, the presumptive protagonist of “Hill Street Blues,” Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), rarely left the station during work hours and served more as a ring master than a crime fighter. As someone who worked his way up through the ranks, Furillo was neither a reformer nor by-the-book hard-ass. He maintained an open-door policy with the troops and provided a buffer between the station house and police headquarters. Whenever it seemed as if the train was coming off its rails, he’d go home and share a bubble bath with public defender Joyce Davenport, with whom he frequently locked horns during the day. Together, they may have done more for bathtub sales than anyone since the inventor of the hot tub. If any group of fictional characters defined the term, “motley crew,” it was the cops who gathered each morning in Hill Street’s squad room. Women and minorities were fairly represented, perhaps for the first time in TV history, and the normally minor role of briefing sergeant was immortalized byveteran cop Phil Esterhaus, who famously ended the introductory roll call each week with, “Let’s be careful out there.” He won two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Supporting Actor, before succumbing to cancer in 1983.

After the unforgettable opening credits and Mike Post theme song, the cops would filter into the streets according to previously introduced story threads or through-lines previewed at the roll-call. Hand-held cameras were extensively deployed to capture the intimacy and drama of face-to-face police work, while portable units allowed viewers an opportunity to appreciate the series’ physical context. As is sometimes the case with ensemble shows, few of the actors would go on to became breakout stars in their own right. The rare exception was Dennis Franz, who played two different cops in the show’s six-year run. One of them would be spun off to create “Beverly Hills Buntz.” He worked again with Bochco on the failed “Bay City Blues” and monster hit, “NYPD Blue.” Betty Thomas would go on to become a major behind-the-camera force in Hollywood. Lest we forget, however, NBC chief Fred Silverman stayed with the low-rated, oft-moved series long after the bean-counters had given up on it. (The same would happen in the first season of “Seinfelf.”) Besides looking and sounding good, the complete-set DVD box adds interviews and discussions with cast members James B. Sikking, Dennis Franz, Bruce Weitz, Charles Haid, director Dennis Dugan, writers Bochco, Robert Craise, Jeffrey Lewis and Alan Rachins; commentaries with Bochco, Sikking, Weitz, Haid, Dugan, Lewis, Crais and Joe Spano; a gag reel; featurettes “The History of Hill Street” and “Roll Call”; and a commemorative 24-page book.

Mr. Selfridge,” as unlikely a hit on both sides of the pond as I could have imagined, opened its new season this month, five years having passed from the events of Season One. The store has established a prominent position in the firmament of London society, while also keeping its doors revolving for more moderately budgeted customers. The biggest difference between the 2013 and 2014 iterations is the lord and master’s attitude toward his personal life. Selfridge’s wife has returned from the United States in time for the store’s anniversary ceremony, but in no mood to let bygones be bygones. He’s turned over a completely new leaf when it comes to drinking, carousing and philandering, and by mid-season, at least, has proven to be a good boy. With rumors of war emanating daily from Europe, Selfridge has committed his American know-how and the store’s resources to the effort. He has promised the male employees that their jobs would be kept open until they return victorious and has asked the women to fill important positions throughout the store, including those on the delivery dock. Selfridge also is interested in using his resources to acquire uniforms and other provisions – forgoing commissions – but finds himself in competition with the unctuous Lord Loxley (Aiden McCardle). Loxley, who has a talent for finding the right palms to grease, has returned to England with his bride, Lady Mae, with whom Selfridge shares some baggage. Despite the show’s success, I still have a difficult time completely buying into Jeremy Piven as the lead character. He has a 21st Century sheen about him that’s difficult to square with an actor still best known as a smarmy Hollywood talent manager. Nonetheless, Piven appears to enjoy what he’s doing and his enthusiasm enhances his performance. Anyone who’s taken a peek ahead, at the actual history of Selfridge and his store, knows not expect the happy façade to last. Otherwise, all of the other characters who made Season One such a delight have returned, even from hiatuses abroad.

There’s something about living in a post-9/11 world that begs the question as to why really, really tall buildings – a.k.a., targets — need to be built, anymore. Is there a shortage of office space in the world or are the host countries in dire need of tourist attractions? It would be interesting to learn how many people have actually booked travel to Dubai, simply to ride the elevators of the Burg Khalifa tower or imagine themselves swinging at top the pinnacle, like Tom Cruise in “Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” I’d add a “LOL” here, if I thought there was anything funny about the money being spent on such edifices. The producers of the PBS mini-series “Super Skyscrapers” aren’t nearly as cynical about really, really tall buildings as those of us who may never have the opportunity to purchase a luxury condominium at the top of the world. I’m also afraid of heights and refuse to stand on a slab of Plexiglass, just to look past my shoes to the ground below me. What else is there to do up there, though? “Super Skyscrapers” opens at One World Trade Center, which absolutely had to be built at Ground Zero at the conveniently symbolic height of 1,776 feet. Now in its final year of exterior construction, OWTC has been engineered to be the safest and strongest skyscraper possible. If that sounds too much like a dare aimed directly at the heart of every wannabe terrorist on the planet, let’s hope that it’s never accepted. The next stops are London’s Leadenhall Building (a.k.a., “the cheese grater”), Shanghai’s multi-use “vertical city”; and, back to NYC, for the One57 “billionaire building,” which, we’re told, will redefine luxury living in the big city. There’s no denying the mini-series’ more awe-inspiring aspects and the undeniable fear-factor of looking down on the less fortunate among us. They also provide jobs for thousands of ironworkers, carpet weavers, quarrymen, janitors and the occasional architect. Anyone interested in modern architecture and construction technology should love it.

It’s the rare episode of an animated children’s program that gets the right-wing goons at the New York Post and Fox News salivating, as well as liberal do-gooders rushing to defend the food-stamp program against the pronouncements of a cartoon character. Such, though, is the power of Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob SquarePants” to dictate the issues of most importance to the American punditocracy. Amid the national debate on the Affordable Care Act, the show’s writers created the special episode, “Spongebob, You’re Fired,” in which Mr. Krabs boots SpongeBob from the Krusty Krab, where he was a fry cook. Krabs did this after learning he could save a nickel by eliminating the position. As topical as the episode might have been, commentators found ways to indict the kids’ show for comments made by Patrick the Starfish, extolling the virtues of unemployment. Al Sharpton couldn’t resist rising to the conservatives’ bait by “standing up for poor people” on his MSNBC forum. Not surprisingly, this tempest in a teapot helped the episode garner the show’s highest ratings in two years. So, everything’s groovy in Bikini Bottom, again. The special double-episode is accompanied by 14 other work-centric tales. – Gary Dretzka

Peter Simon’s Through the Lens
Photographer Peter Simon, who’s shot some of the most celebrated men, women and events of the Baby Boomer era, should have known better than to entrust his creative legacy to a format that makes infomercials look exciting. Sitting in his photo-filled Martha’s Vineyard gallery, covering his nearly bald pate with a knit Rasta cap, Simon narrates the story of his life in a monotone as flat as the table at which he’s hawking his coffeetable book, “I and Eye.” Yawn. Unless one already were aware of Simon’s fine body of work and fascinating backstory, the two-disc DVD, “Peter Simon’s Through the Lens: Celebrating 50 Years of Personalized Photojournalism,” might come off as world-class ego trip and excuse for name-dropping. The first thing to know about Simon is that his father — who died early, but not before he introduced his son to photography — co-founded the book publishing firm, Simon & Schuster. His position and connections ensured a life of privilege, culture and access for siblings Peter, Lucy, Joanna and, as is evidenced here, the highly photogenic Carly Simon. Portraits of Carly and then-husband James Taylor are sprinkled through the presentation. At the same time as Simon was attending East Coast prep schools and photographing antiwar activists at Boston University, he also was opening doors to people who would allow to shoot photos for fun and profit. These included editors at Rolling Stone magazine, who provided access to artists that had yet to reach their commercial zenith. There’s hardly a Boomer icon that Simon didn’t shoot in the mid-1960s, often while sharing the stage with them. While some of these early photographs are still in demand, Simon continues to make money by capturing some of the same performers in their dotage. Anyone who’s followed the popular-music scene over the last 50 years will recognize many of the 300 photographs included in “Through the Lens.”

Simon didn’t limit himself to photographing the leading lights of the ’60s. When he went through his changes, the pictures did, too. For years, he lived among other rich hippies on communes throughout New England, favoring those with a clothing-optional policy. From here, he would seek enlightenment in the company of spiritual leader Ram Dass, a former Harvard prof who famously dropped acid with Timothy Leary. In the 1970s, Simon used his art successfully to promote Jamaican reggae and its leading practitioners in the U.S. As anyone born after the nation’s bicentennial can attest, there’s nothing quite so tedious as listening to their parents and friends describe how they lived in the ’60s and how cool it was to starve on communes or panhandle for money to buy inebriants. “Through the Lens” suffers from Simon’s many anecdotes of the period and photos of naked hippies with goats. The first disc ends with more anecdotes about life on the Vineyard and rubbing shoulders with its celebrity community, from the Kennedys, Clintons and Walter Cronkite, to John Belushi, Larry David and Mia Farrow. The second disc is far less celebrity-centric and, by extension, more compelling. Instead, the photos and narration are more issue-oriented and journalistic, with stops in Jamaica, the Occupy protests, Shea Stadium and places where the disparity between wealth and poverty, blight and beauty, collide. Much of the scenic photography is nothing short of spectacular. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, “Through the Lens” suffers from name-dropping, celebrity worship and Simon’s own charisma deficiency. The photos, though, are well worth the effort it might take to peruse them. – Gary Dretzka

Devil’s Due: Blu-ray
Having watched dozens of found-footage and P.O.V. thrillers in the last few years, I’ve become immune to the charms and failures others see in them. I simply can’t tell the difference between the stories, anymore, and don’t particularly care. This isn’t to say that I don’t experience the occasional chill or continue to relish unexpected surprises. What reviewer doesn’t? It’s just that each new one looks – to my eyes, anyway – almost exactly the same as the previous one. If only the proprietor of a Voyeur Dorm site would collaborate with a found-footage specialist, adding ghosts and demons to the shower scenes, the genre might survive. The makers of “Devil’s Due” comprise a filmmaking collective known as Radio Silence — directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, cinematographer Justin Martinez and visual-effects supervisor Chad Villella – which previously contributed a segment to the low-budget horror anthology “V/H/S,” titled “10/31/98.” Judging from the group interview contained in the bonus package, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Radio Silence caught a little studio static before it was released. Apparently, the filmmakers thought they were making a “creepy thriller” or “unsettling love story,” instead of the studio’s desire for something more generically horrific. There is an outdoors scene that comes out of nowhere, towards the end of the picture, which suggests what the boys had in mind before compromising their vision with jump scares and gore. That’s simply my guess, however.

As it is, “Devil’s Due” opens on the eve of the wedding of the exceedingly cute Samantha (Allison Miller) and her betrothed, Zach (Zach Gilford), whose head appears to be attached to a video camera. Instead of being feted by friends at a bachelor party, Zach gets his kicks on the eve of his wedding by sneaking up to Samantha, while she’s exiting from a shower, covering herself with a non-revealing towel. The fake-out device is pretty effective for starters and it gives viewers reason for hope. Zach and Sam honeymoon in Santa Domingo, where everything goes well until she insists on visiting a local fortune-teller. The elderly woman correctly guesses that Sam survived a terrible event as an infant and should expect something similarly unpleasant to happen in the near future. Completely unsettled, she drags Zach out of the shop and into a conveniently placed taxi. The driver talks them into visiting a local disco for some fun. Sam has a bit too much fun, however, passing out on the dance floor and waking up the next morning with no memory of what happened. Shortly thereafter, she learns that she’s pregnant and has been for some time. If the words, “Rosemary’s Baby,” don’t immediately spring to mind, you may want to pause “Devil’s Due” and find a service streaming the Roman Polanski classic. Apart from the one outdoors scene, involving a ravenous vegetarian and Bambi, the rest of the movie is completely predictable … not awful, but predictable. Another thing that could make genre purists frown is the frequent shifts from hand-held or eyeglass cameras to security tapes and motion-triggered devices within their homes.  There are other times when a camera appears to have been inserted into Zach’s eye socket, which hardly qualifies as kosher. The filmmakers argue that the movie is “told through cameras that exist in the world of the characters,” so pretty much anything goes. Or, not. The Blu-ray features also include deleted scenes and shorts produced by the collective. – Gary Dretzka

Dead Shadows: Blu-ray
Imported from France by the adventurous folks at Shout!Factory, “Dead Shadows” is a movie that merges specific elements of John Carpenter and H.P. Lovecraft, with the nuttiness of such mid-’80s drive-in fare as “Night of the Comet” and “Lifeforce.” Weighing in at a mere 75 minutes, including crawls, the story by first-timers David Cholewa and Vincent Julé describes what happens when a comet passes over Paris and a citywide “apocalypse party” turns frighteningly real, with the arrival of tentacled creatures of varying sizes and temperaments. The one person not anxious to celebrate the Earth’s demise is Chris (Fabian Wolfrom), whose parents were killed 11 years earlier, while Halley’s Comet could be seen from Earth. The only thing he wants to do is get out of Dodge, but, as his friends and neighbors get contaminated with space dust, it becomes impossible to avoid the tentacles. And, believe me, there’s no hole too tight to keep a long tongue-like appendage from piercing it. If “Dead Shadows” doesn’t tell much of a story, it’s still fun to guess from which orifice the next tentacle will appear. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, an interview with director Cholewa and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Bucksville
With the subject of anti-government militias back in the news, “Bucksville” takes on a relevancy it may have lacked even three weeks before the standoff in Nevada. Set in the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest, Chel White and Laura McGie’s family drama describes what happens when the son of the recently deceased founder of a small-town militia decides that the group has become as evil as the system it professes to abhor. It takes a while for Presley (Thomas Stroppel) to get to that point, however. The vigilante group, the Lodge, was organized after the killer of a girl escaped justice, and local law-enforcement types banded together to avenge the murder. They found so much satisfaction in the act that Lodge members decided to remain on the path of self-righteousness. Presley stayed on after the old man tormented his wife to the point that she split town with the girls and was forbidden to maintain contact with the boy. He interpreted this as abandonment and refused to forgive her. When the father died, Presley was handed over to his uncle, the chief of police, who kept him on the straight-and-narrow path toward fascism. When the Lodge becomes affiliated with a larger, more extreme faction, its wealthy leader tests its loyalty by demanding it take on a personal vendetta. When Presley begins to show signs of backsliding, his reluctance to abide by the rules presents the Lodge with another test. As vigilante movies go, “Bucksville” is borderline existential. The rabble-rousing is held to a minimum and the beautiful outdoors setting provides a stark contrast to the insanity of the Lodge members. I’ve seen Stroppel in a couple of other low-budget indies and I wouldn’t be surprised if he landed some larger parts soon. – Gary Dretzka

Prince Killian and the Holy Grail
As coincidences (a.k.a., publicity stunts) go, last week’s revelation about the Holy Grail residing in the San Isidro basilica in the Spanish city of Leon is far better than the shark sightings that would coincide with any new “Jaws” sequel. Not surprisingly, then, comes the new DVD from Spain, “Prince Killian and the Holy Grail,” retitled from the less specific, “Captain Thunder.” Based on Victor Mora’s popular action-comic, “El Capitan Trueno,” Antonio Hernandez’ adaptation finds the heroic knight-errand in the Holy Land, during the Third Crusade. Killian has been assigned the task of recovering the cup, from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, and bringing it back to Spain to be protected for time eternal. The easy part is gaining custody of the cup, itself. All he has to do is liberate a prison full of Christians from Muslim hands and, then, be identified as a worthy bearer of the treasure. Getting the Holy Grail back to Spain is complicated by obstacles of both the military and supernatural variety. Fortunately, he’s accompanied by sidekicks Crispin, Goliath, and the beautiful Viking princess, Sigrid of Thule. As much as Captain Thunder wants to return the Holy Land to Christian hands, he much appreciates Saladin’s decision not to kill him in close combat after recognizing some God-given skin branding. Filmed in some of the same scenic locations that provided backdrops for the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, “Prince Killian” has enough action to satisfy older boys, I think. If it doesn’t match Ridley Scott’s $130-million “Kingdom of Heaven” for grandeur, the Spanish product never looks undernourished or cheesy. – Gary Dretzka

Lady Peacock
Fans of drag entertainment probably will enjoy this wildly uneven romantic dramedy from genre specialist Jana Mattioli (“The Coffee Shop”) more than other viewers in the ever-expanding niche. In “Lady Peacock,” the Calais Nightclub is a moonlight mecca for gay men and a tableful of lesbians, at least, attracted primarily to the Puerto Rican drag queen Adora, who does a very good Carmen Miranda. When Adora’s offstage, the preening young men spend their time playing musical boyfriends with anyone who will buy them a drink. This gets complicated when a “newbie” attracts the attention of Adora’s boyfriend and egos are bruised. Finally, the only solution to the problem is found — where else? — in a thrilling lip-synch duel. “Lady Peacock” is a million light years from “Cabaret,” but the original music is pretty good. You don’t often find movies with 18 producers, either. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Bettie Page Reveals All: Blu-ray
For the first time in memory, the post offices in our area refused to do taxpayers the kindness of extending drive-through service on the evening of April 15, the deadline for tax returns. Considering how commercially oriented the USPS has become, I wonder if anyone there has considered issuing a sure-fire commemorative stamp of history’s greatest pin-up model and born-again Christian, Bettie Page. If the USPS can justify printing stamps honoring the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and “Global Forever: Sea Surface Temperatures” – alongside such recent honorees Jimi Hendrix, Charlton Heston and Harvey Milk – why not try to suck a few bucks from fetishistic philatelists, as well? After all, among the many things the USPS counts on from its customers is that a goodly number of commemorative stamps will never be attached to envelopes. Page stamps would be treasured, not canceled. After watching Mark Mori s frequently fascinating “Bettie Page Reveals All,” I’m positive that such a stamp would sell like hot cakes, even if the photograph didn’t reveal anything more suggestive than her trademark smile and bangs. Even in her most risqué poses, of which there are several new ones in the documentary, Page exuded the kind of innocence that Doris Day was going for in her wink-wink/nod-nod “Pillow Talk” period. And because of this, perhaps, she continues to influence fashion and popular culture as much as when she first appeared in Playboy in January, 1955. Likewise, many of the same people who exploited Page’s popularity while she was alive continue to profit from her image six years after her death, in 2008, at 85.

Mori’s documentary doesn’t merely pick up where “The Notorious Bettie Page” left off in 2005. That movie, which starred a very game Gretchen Moll, was labeled “a lie” by Page during a screening. It ended at the peak of her career with the political witch hunt led by Tennessee’s publicity-hound senator, Estes Kefauver, and her moonlight conversion to born-again Christianity in Key West. “Bettie Page Reveals All” extends her story another 50 years, few of which were pleasant. Instead of using her notoriety to advance her career, as did stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Page largely disappeared into the cut-throat world of trailer-park evangelism and schizophrenia. While the sexual revolutionists of the 1960s battled first-generation feminists for philosophical dominance of the New Left, Page was fighting her own demons. Neither was she aware of the post- and post-post-feminists who considered her to be a pioneer for taking charge of her own sexuality, using her femininity to carve a career out of the male-dominated sex industry and being a role model for sexual-positivity. For most of the 1980s and early ’90s, however, her diminished mental condition required she live under state supervision. Once she became aware of her cult following, Page began to allow the occasional interview, but only if it was taped and didn’t reveal her face or figure. Although she had long ago relinquished her rights to profit from her photos, she finally found representation that would lead to a steady stream of income from people wishing to use her likeness for other commercial purposes. In 2012, she was ranked by Forbes as one of the top 10 posthumous celebrity earners.

In Mori’s recorded interviews, Page sounds strong and confident in her memory of the events that shaped her life, including an abusive father and gang-rape after moving to New York. Her words are accompanied here by many films and photographs, some long unseen and more intimate than previously made available. The film is also informed by recent interviews with such admirers as Dita Von Teese, Hugh M. Hefner, Rebecca Romijn, Tempest Storm, Bunny Yeager, Paula Klaw, Mamie Van Doren, Todd Oldham, Naomi Campbell and camera-club member Dick Heinlein. Among those seen in archival footage are photographers Irving Claw and Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, cinematographer James Wong Howe, Marge Simpson (Julie Kavner) and various pop icons who’ve affected her look, including Katy Perry, Madonna and Beyonce. While not perfect, Mori’s film is as definitive as any we’re likely to see. The Blu-ray package adds “Filth and Obscenity,” a “warning film” from the days when sex was dirty and the environment was clean; more from “The Early Years” audio interview, with leftover photographs; an unreleased phone conversation between Bettie and Paula Klaw; several restored versions of Irving Klaw’s “Wiggle Movies”; the “Bettie Page” music video, by Buzz Campbell; an expanded pin-up gallery; and footage from Bettie’s funeral, presided over by the Rev. Robert Schuller and attended by Hugh Hefner. – Gary Dretzka

The Inspector Lavardin Collection: Blu-ray
I think it’s fair to suggest that the Inspector Lavardin we meet in these four delightful mysteries by Claude Chabrol is the French answer to LAPD Lt. Columbo, if not quite so rumpled. The stories themselves, however, are right out of the Alfred Hitchcock playbook … no surprise, given Chabrol’s admiration for the master’s work. As shaped by novelist Dominique Roulet and portrayed by Jean Poiret, Lavardin is a somewhat acerbic provincial police detective who appears to arrive at crime scenes out of nowhere and immediately size up the key circumstances surrounding a murder. The rest of the movie, then, is spent confounding the suspects to the point where they reveal themselves, by mistake or simply to get the detective out of their hair. And, while Lavardin clearly isn’t stupid or incompetent, he frequently does things and asks the kinds of questions that make people think they’re smarter than he is. Unlike Columbo, however, there are times when his temper gets the best of him and he lashes out at a suspect. If his interrogation techniques wouldn’t pass muster before even the most conservative judge, it’s easy to forgive him his trespasses. It’s a neat balancing act, but Poiret pulls it off well. It’s what makes “The Inspector Lavardin Collection” so interesting to watch. We know that the detective is going get his man – or woman – but we don’t know how. Typically, too, Chabrol creates antagonists that, in someone else’s movie, would be considered to be pillars of society. Of the titles collected here, “Chicken With Vinegar” (1985) and “Inspector Lavardin” (“1986”) were made for theatrical distribution, while “The Black Snail” (1988) and “Danger in the Words” (1989) were taken from “The Secret Files of Inspector Lavardin” television series. In the U.S., I think, all four would have been positioned for television, as part of a thematic wheel. Cohen Media Group’s nicely restored theatrical features include commentary by critics Wade Major and Andy Klein – Gary Dretzka

Riot in Cell Block 11: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Master of the House: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Because America’s prison systems continue to operate in an atmosphere of mutual loathing, dictated decades ago by the terrible riots at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility and New Mexico State Penitentiary, almost no efforts are being made anymore to rehabilitate prisoners or prepare them for life on the streets. (A government report issued this week points to a dramatic increase in recidivism among former prisoners in 30 state facilities during the first year after their release.) Since the launch of the War on Drugs and imposition of mandatory-minimum sentences, the prison population not only has exploded, but the racial demographics have been turned on their heads. Moreover, the privatization and corporatization of state facilities have allowed politicians to promote an attitude resembling “out of sight, out of mind.” Even as strict sentencing guidelines are being re-evaluated, the owners of private, for-profit prisons have joined guards’ unions in demanding occupancy quotas and additional fees for empty prison cells. All those things ran through my mind while watching Don Siegel’s 1954 prison thriller, “Riot in Cell Block 11,” beneficiary of another sterling 2K restoration by the folks at Criterion Collection. Instead of depending solely on exterior shots of an ancient prison or abandoned facilities for atmosphere, the producers of “Riot in Cell Block 11” were allowed to shoot inside California’s Folsum State Prison, using actual prisoners and guides as extras and technical advisers. The neo-realistic approach looked extremely credible, saved a lot of money and played right into producer Walter Wanger’s desire to showcase the inadequacies of contemporary prisons. Wanger, who had been incarcerated for several months at a Los Angeles County honor farm in the shooting of his wife’s lover, was so disgusted by the conditions that he came up with $10,000 to make “Cell Block 11.”

Fed up with guard brutality, overcrowding, terrible food and the lack of protection from violent and mentally disturbed inmates, the hard-core prisoners in Cell Block 11 lure a guard into a trap and take over the unit. Coincidentally, the prisoner’s demands mirror the complaints made earlier by the warden to the state prison board. Typically, the administrators and politicians in charge are in no mood to make concessions to inmates holding hostages. They aren’t enthusiastic about making any concessions, period. One thing leads to another and other issues begin to cloud the negotiations, inside and outside the block. Can a more violent confrontation be avoided? Stay tuned. It’s worth knowing going into “Cell Block 11” that it was released at a time when such riots were becoming an epidemic around the country and the convicts, many of whom fought in World War II, were housed in prisons built in the 19th Century. The actors and extras in “Cell Block 11” are predominantly, but not exclusively white. I don’t know if segregation by color was enforced in the 1950s – outside the South, anyway – but that problem would be left as a ticking time bomb, set to explode two decades later. Another interesting thing about the movie is the casting of veteran characters actors whose faces were familiar primarily to fans of gangster movies and Westerns. They included such professional hard guys as Neville Brand, Don Gordon and Robert Osterloh. Criterion’s almost spooky black-and-white restoration really adds a sense of menace to the proceedings. The bonus package contains commentary with film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein; the NBC radio documentary series, “The Challenge of Our Prisons,” which originally aired in March, 1953; Kristoffer Tabori, Don Siegel’s son, reads excerpts from the chapter on “Riot in Cell Block 11,” from Stuart Kaminsky’s “Don Siegel: Director,” and a chapter from his dad’s autobiography, “A Siegel Film”; and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara, a 1954 article by co-producer Walter Wanger and a 1974 tribute to Don Siegel by Sam Peckinpah.

Criterion’s other black-and-white gem this month is “Master of the House,” by the great Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer and co-writer/playwright Svend Rindom. Made in 1925, the silent parable preceded Dreyer’s unforgettable “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and “Vampyr.” It tells the strangely contemporary story of a middle-class housewife, whose husband is taking out his frustrations over losing his job on her. Even though Ida already is overworked with domestic chores and child care, Victor complains about every missed detail of his daily routine. Apart from being completely unreasonable, Victor is too much of a coward to admit the gravity of his circumstances and his time away from home is idly spent. When things get too much for Ida to bear, the other women in Victor’s life – his onetime nanny and Ida’s mother – conspire to teach him a thing or two about compassion and hard work. This is one silent movie that doesn’t require title boards to express what’s happening on screen. It can be read in the eyes and facial expressions of the actors, especially leads Johannes Meyer and Astrid Holm. The restoration is impeccable, naturally, and the bonus materials include a recent score by Gillian Anderson, presented in uncompressed stereo; a new interview with Dreyer historian Casper Tybjerg; a new visual essay on Dreyer’s camera work and editing by David Bordwell; new English inter-title translations; and a booklet featuring an essay by Mark Le Fanu. – Gary Dretzka

Sorcerer: Blu-ray
The Pawnbroker: Blu-ray
Once: Blu-ray
Garden State: Blu-ray
Adding to April’s rich bounty of hi-def re-issues are William Friedkin’s suspenseful “Sorcerer,” an adaptation of the same Georges Arnaud novel that inspired Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” (1953), and Sidney Lumet’s riveting post-Holocaust drama, “The Pawnbroker.” In its initial 1977 release, “Sorcerer” was so poorly timed and marketed that audiences somehow failed to make the connection between it and Friedkin’s hugely successful “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.” Although it had everything a fan of action/adventures could want, “Sorcerer” couldn’t compete against the halo effect of “Star Wars” and “tent pole” marketing strategy introduced by “Jaws.” In hindsight, it can be argued that “Sorcerer” resembled an arthouse version of “Indiana Jones.” That might have made a nice blurb, but “Indiana Jones” was years away from being launched and “Jaws” had scared as many mainstream viewers away from art houses as it did beaches. In short order, “Sorcerer” was put on shelf and forgotten, even in the run-up to the VHS revolution. Rights would transferred, lost and only recently recovered. Perhaps, finally rescued from the “cult” curse, enough fans of explosive thrillers will discover how great “Sorcerer” looks in Blu-ray and how exciting even the simplest of stories can be. In it, Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, and Amidou play desperadoes on the run not only from the authorities back home, but also hitmen hired to track and kill them, no questions asked. The man have come to the end of their respective trails in a South American shithole town, surrounded by rain forest, corrupt cops, guerrilla fighters, government troops and oilmen with a problem on their hands. A blowout continues to rage at a drilling site deep in the jungle and the only hope for putting it out quickly can be found in a decaying pile of TNT in a warehouse in the town. The four desperadoes are given little choice but to attempt to drive the explosives to the site, over about 200 miles of extremely bad road, without blowing themselves into tiny pieces. Any survivors of such a mission have been promised $10,000 dollars apiece and legal citizenship papers. That’s it, really, but nothing more is needed. It’s a barely-there road leading from decaying bridges over troubled waters, to eroding hillsides and barren mountain passes where guerrillas collect the toll. The settings are spectacular and, because of the movie’s age, we know that Freidkin didn’t have CGI technology to fall back on for special effects.  This is one Blu-ray that cries out for a making-of featurette, but the only extra is DigiBook packaging and photos.

A backgrounder would have been welcome, as well, as part of a bonus package on “The Pawnbroker.” Alas, there’s none. Upon its release, in 1964, movies with explicit Holocaust imagery were few and far between. Only a shot of the tattooed number on the arm of a prominent character was used to explain why that person was constantly depressed, angry or reclusive. Here, we learn of the pawnbroker’s European roots in flashbacks of the last happy day he shared with his family and horrifying images of his experiences in a concentration camp. They go a long way to explain why Rod Steiger’s character, Sol Nazerman – the only member of his family to survive the death camp – is so consumed with survivor’s remorse. His face shows displays no sign of life or desire to have one. He supports the sister of his dead wife through the money he makes from a Harlem pawnshop, where, it seems, everyone’s selling and no one is buying. Knowing that the old man isn’t likely to pay them anywhere near what they want for an item, the customers always arrive with a sad tale to tell. Sol’s Puerto Rican assistant, Jesus, sees something good in the old man and desperately wants to learn the pawn business. Once in a while, Sol will begrudgingly agree to teach him something valuable. Fact is, though, the only reason the pawn shop isn’t shut down or robbed is because it launders money for the local rackets boss (Brock Peters). Lumet also courted controversy by including a scene in which Jesus’ prostitute girlfriend attempts to help him by tempting Sol with her bare breasts. Instead, they trigger a flashback in which Sol recalls Gestapo officers raping his wife and other Jewish women. Geraldine Fitzgerald plays a neighborhood do-gooder who tries, but fails to get close to Sol. The topless scene caused such a furor in Hollywood that its inclusion had to be negotiated between the film’s producers and the MPAA appeals board to secure a Production Code Seal. The precedent would lead eventually to the introduction of the ratings system. Even after 50 years, watching “The Pawbroker” can be a depressing experience. Steiger’s Oscar-nominated performance is every bit that powerful. Lumet’s dark representation of life in Harlem is enhanced by the stunning B&W cinematography of Boris Kaufman and Quincy Jones score.

Ever since it broke through the pack as the surprise hit of 2007, “Once” has served as one of the exceptions that proves the rule of what it takes to become a hit. Despite a cast of amateurs and unknowns, the deeply moving story of an unlikely romance between an Irish busker and an immigrant street vendor, came out of nowhere and didn’t stop until Oscar night. Although it deserved to be nominated in the Best Picture category, it settled for a trophy in the Best Original Song category. If stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová have only appeared together again as voice actors on “The Simpsons,” it isn’t because no one has tried to re-team them. They’ve simply decided to focus on their own music, instead. Good for them.

Another small movie that became a big hit is Zach Braff’s thoroughly offbeat romantic comedy, “Garden State.” It describes what happens when a New Jersey lad returns home for his mother’s funeral from Los Angeles, where he is a semi-recognizable actor. He has been away from his family for 10 years, primarily over the guilt trip laid on him by his father. Once home, he reconnects with similarly quirky characters played by Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard. – Gary Dretzka

A Farewell to Fools
Despite their appearances in several recent duds, any movie that stars Gerard Depardieu and Harvey Keitel in nearly co-equal lead roles is bound to be anticipated in some quarters with great relish. Set near the end of World War II in occupied Romania “A Farewell to Fools” offers both men plenty of opportunities to shine and neither of them phones in their performances. What’s problematic in Bogdan Dreyer’s debut film is a story that makes relevant points about humanity, but delivers a distinctly mixed message on how a besieged citizenry deals with pure evil, even in a fictional format. As the movie opens, a Romanian boy is playing in a large, open field, when a soldier approaches him on a motorcycle with a side car. Instead of bullying the boy, the friendly German gets off his machine and encourages the completely agreeable youngster to give it a go. Off-camera, an unseen assassin uses the motorcycle’s roar to sneak up to the soldier and slit his throat. Almost blissfully unaware of the consequences, the boy hops back on the bike and rides into his village. The adults, of course, know exactly what’s going happen next. Once the Nazis learn what happened, the leader of a nearby regiment would ride into town and demand the handover of the anonymous assailant. If not, 10 prominent citizens would be killed the next morning. Of all the possible solutions to the dilemma, the otherwise amiable Father Johanis (Keitel) joins other town leaders in a scheme to convince Ipu (Depardieu), the village idiot, to sacrifice himself for the common good. Ipu fancies himself to be a French loyalist, left behind after the previous war and adopted by the community. At what is intended to a lavish last supper, a doctor convinces the light-hearted simpleton that he’s suffering from a grave illness, while the priest promises a funeral service worthy of Napoleon Bonaparte. Ipu is game, but asks Johanis to deliver an early eulogy and demands that the town’s elite set aside prime real estate for his equally feeble, if nearly invisible beneficiaries. Depardieu steals the show from this point forward, turning a dark comedy into a conundrum for the villagers and audiences, alike. If Dreyer and Anusavan Salamanian have devised a clever ending to the parable, it’s more likely true that the Nazis would have mowed down a large fraction of the population, figuring that the assassin almost certainly was among the victims, anyway. There’s nothing wrong with the acting and the setting is wonderfully pastoral. “A Farewell to Fools” also makes its overall point quite clearly. Finally, though, I was left with the same feeling I had upon first seeing the famous National Lampoon cover, showing a frightened-looking mutt with a gun being held against its head, alongside the admonishment, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.” – Gary Dretzka

Tin Can Man
Gila!/The Lost Empire
Scream Park
Dark Satanic Magick
Empire of the Apes
Pete is having a helluva bad day. His girlfriend dumped him for another man and his boss is threatening to fire him from a job he hates and isn’t competent to perform. Finally, safe and secure in the sanctity of his apartment, Pete makes the mistake of opening his door to a man, Dave, professing to be his next-door neighbor. All at once, the day he thought couldn’t get any worse turns from bad to disastrous. After pretending to use the telephone to report an accident, the stranger gets right up into Pete’s face and begins to taunt, humiliate and intimidate him. Dave then insists that Pete accompany him on what a publicist might term, a terrifying journey into one of David Lynch’s darker nightmares. Only Dave knows where we’re going and he isn’t saying. Only a flashlight lights the way through pitch-black hallways, backyards and trailer parks. The flashlight also illuminates the faces of Dave and Pete, which appear to be no more than a foot away from the camera lens. The title, “Tin Can Man,” becomes relevant when Dave introduces Pete – after a fashion – to another man, this one held captive on a bed, his head covered with a burlap sack and his body festooned with tin cans. When Dave whistles a carnival melody, the captive dances to his tune. Their next stop is at a trailer in which Dave’s purported family – thinner versions of Dean Stockwell’s female cronies — taunt, humiliate and intimate Pete. “Tin Can Man” is one scary movie, largely because we’re completely lacking in context. Only rarely are we allowed to see anything beyond the black borders and, even then, we have no real idea what Pete did to deserve such treatment. In some ways, it’s resembles “Blair Witch” in a fish bowl. Kavanagh first shopped “Tin Can Man” in 2007. Two years ago, he sent out a re-edited and refurbished cut to festivals, including the Jameson Dublin, where it won a Special Jury Award.

Given Jim Wynorski’s reputation for being the leading vivisectionist in Hollywood, it’s a bit of a surprise that his period-faithful remake of Ray Kellogg’s 1959 creature-feature, “The Giant Gila Monster,” doesn’t feature a giant lizard crossed with a crocodile, shark, hippopotamus or dinosaur. In fact, although he lightens up the atmosphere at tad, Wynorski’s film could easily be mistaken by anyone with an old analog TV set as the real deal. Turns out, a seriously mutated Gila monster is terrorizing residents of a rural community, effectively erasing hot-rodders, drive-in sex and rock ’n’ roll as the greatest threat to the peace. You can guess the rest. What’s nice about “Gila!” is that it takes the genre seriously enough to make it look authentic, but not so seriously that contemporary viewers will be bored by it. There’s something here for the whole. Released in 1985, “The Lost Empire” represents Corman-graduate Wynorski’s debut as a director/writer/producer. It’s watchable today only for the camp value of watching buxom babes’ in skin-tight costumes and Farrah Fawcett hairdos battle masked ninjas from another planet under the control of the mysterious Dr. Sin Do and the undead wizard Lee Chuck. The action takes place in a fortress on a secret island, resembling the temple in “Enter the Dragon.” The chief redeeming factor here is the presence of co-star/co-producer Raven De La Croix as an enchanted Indian maiden in a white buckskin outfit. There are plenty of amusing bonus features in both packages.

Scream Park” may not be based on the freshest of ideas, but, at least, it shows what can be accomplished by a freshman filmmaker on a nearly non-existent budget. The result is a 1980s-vintage slasher movie, unencumbered by modern special-effects technology or anything else that brings it into the 21st Century. The Fright Land amusement park is on the brink of bankruptcy and needs a dramatic surge in attendance to prevent immediate closure. The park’s owner (Doug Bradley, from “Hellraiser,” in a cameo), decides that what Fright Land needs is something truly frightening. He decides to hire a couple of yokels to terrorize the staff’s after-hours party. Naturally, things don’t go quite the way the owner planned.

Dark Satanic Magick” promises a lot more than it delivers and what’s missing mostly is horror. A semi-attractive woman wakes up in a nearly empty cellar, not knowing how she got there or what’s in store for her. Apparently, her captor fancies himself to be a practitioner of dark arts, which, here, include rape and ritualized torture. Although some of it is highly tasteless, what the captive (Melanie Denholme) mostly does is the hootchie-koo in her skivvies and semi-nude. Somehow, her dancing reverses the flow of energy from the magician to the captive, allowing her to exercise her “free will.” The trailers included on the disc are more interesting.

Any similarity between “Empire of the Apes” and any of the titles in the “Planet of the Apes” is strictly simian, in nature. The story takes place on a planet populated by a dying race of apes. Three female convicts find themselves on the same planet after they escape from a spacecraft taking them to a prison planet. After the pod carrying the women crash lands, the apes see an opportunity to use them as breeding stock to replenish their numbers … in a PG sort of way. The ante is raised when the warden of the prison arrives on the planet and is required to deal with both the women and the gorillas. The special effects are laughable and the monkey suits are worse. – Gary Dretzka

Junction
Here’s a low-budget hostage drama from a first-time filmmaker that succeeds where most other freshman products fail. “Junction” does so, by stripping away the extraneous elements and relying on the lean screenplay to deliver the goods. Four lowlifes, desperate for crank, try to score some drugs from their favorite supplier. Sadly, the dealer doesn’t work on credit, so the tweakers are required to accept the challenge of stealing a flat-screen TV for his mother’s birthday. Unfortunately, the quartet is far less adept at robbery than getting high and screwing up their complexions. The house they pick has just such a television, alright, but it also contains a box full of kiddy-porn cassettes. This causes one of the thieves to freak out, slowing their getaway until the home’s owner arrives. The aggrieved meth-head uses the opportunity to kick the crap out of the guy, assuming the tapes belong to him. The delay gives the man’s wife and young daughter time to get home and the cops to be made aware of the break-in. Everything that transpires from this point on can be considered spoiler-bait and worth keeping secret. Suffice it to say, “Junction” offers lots of down-and-dirty entertainment – if not fun, exactly – and edgy exchanges between the perps, cops and victims. For low-budget thrills, Tony Glazer’s debut feature is hard to beat. The DVD adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Hooping Life
Like yo-yos, hula hoops have been going in and out of style ever since they were invented, in 1958. Blessedly, Amy Goldstein’s documentary, “The Hooping Life,” wastes very little on the history of the toy, itself, or even the craze it inspired. Instead, she makes a case for it being a combination crime-stopper, body-shaper, time-waster and art form. It stops just short of being an infomercial by including interviews with people who have taught inner-city youth to master the activity and used it themselves as therapy. Apparently, the current fascination with hula hoops was spurred by fans of String Cheese Incident, a rock band that encouraged expert hoopers to join it on stage. This was followed by a wave of onetime aerobics addicts picking up a hoop and turning the activity into something resembling a religion, not unlike skateboarding. Others added flare and color to hooping. Tournaments and concerts were staged, as well as mass migrations to Burning Man and other gatherings of post-hippie tribes. The people we meet here are very good at what they do, of course, and some of their stories are quite compelling. Guest appearances are made by Shaquille O’Neal and the long-dead Art Linkletter, an early shill for the product. “This Hooping Life” may be a niche entertainment, but it well serves the intended market. – Gary Dretzka

Lady Whirlwind/Hapkido
Seven Warriors: Blu-ray
Even before Angela Mao Ying appeared alongside Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon,” as a guest star, she was a hot property in the burgeoning Hong Kong martial-arts industry. Once a dancer and acrobat in the Peking Opera, the Taiwan-born actor was a quick study when it came to kung fu. Being attractive and seemingly vulnerable, Mao provided a surprise element to the mostly male genre. “Lady Whirlwind” and “Hapkido” also feature future industry heavyweight – literally and figuratively — Sammo Hung Kam-Bo as an actor and stunt coordinator. Both titles have been included in this “Martial Arts Double Feature” from Shout! They are of interest mostly as historical relics from the period before “wire fu” elevated the art to another level entirely. In “Lady Whirlwind” (1972), Mao plays a young woman seeking to avenge the death by suicide of her sister. In the meantime, she takes on the manager of a crooked casino (Sammo Hung) and his sister, the female crime boss Tiao Ta-Niang (Anna Liu), who runs the local syndicate. Her partner introduces a parallel storyline involving another fighter (Yi Chang). Eventually a Japanese Tai Chi enthusiast joins the circus, during Mao kicks the crap out of gangs of thugs. “Lady Whirlwind” was shown here as “Deep Thrust: The Hand of Death,” to exploit the then-current “Deep Throat” craze.

In “Hapkido,” Mao plays one of three Chinese students studying kung fu in Japanese-occupied Korea, circa 1934. At the time, rival schools fought openly in streets and marketplaces, even knowing that Japanese held all of the trump cards. After one particularly messy confrontation, the Chinese students are sent home for sticking up for the local shopkeepers. In China, they start their own school and set out on good-will visits to the other martial-arts schools. Eventually, they’ll have to stand up to the invaders, but not before Mao’s brother returns to take on the toughest of the tough.

Sammo Hung figures prominently the 1989 wuxia drama “Seven Warriors,” as co-star, co-director and co-producer. As the title suggests, it is a Chinese remake Akira Kurosawa’s classic, “The Seven Samurai,” this time set in Warlord Era of the 1920s. Once again, citizens of a beleaguered village, Guangxi, hire seven paladin expert in seven different disciplines to beat back the warlord’s armies and return peace and tranquility to the area. Besides action, “Seven Warriors” adds some humor and drama. Among the movie’s other stars are a 27-year-old Tony Leung, Chen Jing, Adam Cheng and Jacky Cheung. It isn’t likely that anyone will confuse “Seven Warriors” with “Seven Samurai” or “The Magnificent Seven.” – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
American Masters: Billie Jean King
Nova: Killer Typhoon
Ken Burns: The Address
Among the many things today’s young athletes take for granted is the appearance, at least, of gender equality in sports. Title IX assures a semblance of balance in high school and collegiate athletics, even if revenues in the professional arena for women’s sports is based on free-market forces. When Billy Jean King was breaking into high-end tennis competition, women players were paid under the table for their participation in tournaments and always played second-fiddle to the men. That wouldn’t begin to change until King and other competitors banded together to form their own organization and, soon thereafter, the Virginia Slims circuit. As freakish as the event was, the match game between former No. 1 men’s player Bobby Riggs and King, who was at the top of her game and leading advocate for equal rights among all Americans. At 55, Riggs was mostly known as a gambler and hustler, still capable of making a living on side bets. The feminist movement had made significant gains by 1973, when he challenged King to a Battle of the Sexes. When King refused, current top female player Margaret Court took up the challenge, losing miserably. When King did agree to it, if only to avenge Court’s loss, she breezed past Riggs, shutting him up for good on the subject of on-court equality. The positive media reaction went a long way toward pushing the agenda for greater equity in women’s professional sports. When King was blackmailed by her former lover into admitting their sexual relationship, its aftershocks would negatively impact her career, but help legitimize the incipient gay and lesbian rights movement. The “American Masters” special “Billy Jean King” is almost equal parts bio-doc and testimonial. Among those sharing their thoughts are Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Ilana Kloss, Maria Sharapova, Serena and Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, members of the Virginia Slims Circuit Original 9 and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had plenty of nice things to say about King’s influence on her.

PBS’ “Nova” offers a scientific post-mortem on Typhon Haiyan, which, last fall, slammed into densely populated parts of the Philippines with 200 mph winds and a two-story storm surge. It left an estimated 5,000 people dead and countless millions homeless. In addition to tracking the storm from inception and warning as many residents as possible, “Killer Typhoon” describes how meteorological, geological and societal forces combined to create the conditions that led to such devastation. Given that this corner of the world has never been a stranger to typhoons and tsunamis, easier access to data could help save lives in the future. This is especially the case in the era of climate change and global warming.

Ken Burns’ “The Address” takes a relatively common learning exercise – memorizing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – and adds significantly to its degree of difficulty by handing the assignment over to 50 boys with learning disabilities. Using only 272 words, the President was able to express everything he wanted to say about the Civil War as a struggle not just for the Union, but also for the principle of human equality. By coming in at about two minutes, Lincoln surprised reporters expecting the usual pre-speech posturing and bloviating. It’s well worth memorizing by any and all Americans. Burns’ team embedded cameras at the school, so that the process could be observed as unobtrusively as possible. On film, it’s an extremely inspirational experience. – Gary Dretzka

Lingerie Fighting Championships: Lace vs Leather
Organized women’s wrestling has been around since 1937, at least, crowning champions and promoting the most beautiful of the competitors as superstars. Like roller-derby, it attracts a certain kind of fan and promotes certain images over others. Today, the female wrestlers are required to wear costumes that wouldn’t be out of place on a Victoria’s Secret runway and be at least as photogenic as the average Playboy model, which many of them become. Already in excellent shape from daily workouts, weight lifting and cosmetic surgery, all the most athletic specimens have to learn is how to stomp their feet very loudly and take falls. Some of them have even been given their own phony-reality show, “Total Divas,” on E! Then, there’s the trailer-park answer to the “Divas” franchise, “Lingerie Fighting Championships: Lace vs. Leather,” which takes the lingerie-sports fad and turns it into “Amateur Night in Dixie.” I can’t fault the women for trying to better themselves and make a few bucks, but the attempts to mimic the conventions of such reality shows as “Real World” and “Bad Girls” – confessional interviews, faux feuds, hyperbolic drama – would be laughable if it weren’t so pathetic. The show aired as PPV special last fall. Anyone interested in a far more historically based and entertaining study of the subject, there’s “Lipstick and Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling.” – Gary Dretzka 

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Ride Along: Blu-ray
In 1965, “I Spy” broke television’s color line for buddy teams, by pairing Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in co-equal lead roles. Three years later, however, in “Salt and Pepper,” Richard Donner paired Rat Packers Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. in a London-based buddy film that did nothing to advance the conceit. Donner would hit pay dirt two decades later with the first of several “Lethal Weapon” movies, but not before “48 HRS.,” “Silver Streak” and “Miami Vice” successfully re-introduced the salt-and-pepper concept. Ironically, perhaps, Betty Thomas’ 2002 re-imagining of “I Spy” and Michael Mann’s updating of his hit TV series, “Miami Vice,” would very publicly underperform, as would “MIB III,” whose revenues have always depended on overseas revenues. This year’s hit buddy movie, “Ride Along,” originally was intended for the salt-and-pepper pairing of Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds, and the final pairing of Ice Cube and Kevin Hart only afforded director Tim Story a budget of $25 million. “Ride Along” would return $150 million, only 10.2 percent of which came from the foreign market. A pepper/pepper sequel is already in the works. (I wonder how Story’s 2004 pairing of Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon is doing in DVD/Blu-ray, considering their raised profiles on television.)

What’s changed in the last decade or so, I think, is the emergence of hip-hop as a crossover medium and a newfound willingness by young adults and teenagers to ignore casting decisions based strictly on demographics. When Ice Cube took the leap from rapping to acting, he was known primarily for his participation in one of the most hard-core hip-hop groups of all time. It was almost to be expected, then, that he would be pigeon-holed in the slot reserved for “gangsta” title. No matter the quality or message, these down-and-dirty pictures were targeted at urban-male audiences who’d been underserved since the Blaxploitation era. The media had a field day after gang-related violence broke out sporadically on opening weekends, causing theater owners to demand added security. A funny thing happened to Ice Cube’s career in 1997, however, when he accepted a key role in “Anaconda,” a silly creature-feature that also starred Jennifer Lopez, and it outperformed its expectations. His crossover bona fides were solidified with “Three Kings,” “Barbershop” and “Are We There Yet?” At about the same time, the public image of firebrand rapper, Ice-T – whose song, “Cop Killer,” became a cause célèbre among conservative politicians and talk-show hosts — evolved from provocateur to unlikely hero, playing NYPD detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Today, dozens of hip-hop artists work alongside classically trained actors in films and on television. If Johnson and Reynolds had remained with the project, “Ride Along” probably would have ended up being just another so-so salt-and-pepper flick.

The story doesn’t break any new ground and the action sequences are standard-issue. It’s the chemistry between the two actors – one established, the other red hot — that sells the movie. Without compromising his public image, Ice Cube’s presence in a cops-and-robbers picture no longer automatically narrows its crossover potential. The profile of journeyman comedian Hart benefitted mightily from being named host of the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards. Since then, Hart has appeared “Think Like a Man,” “Grudge Match,” “This Is the End” and “About Last Night,” as well as the performance film, “Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain.” His character in “Ride Along,” Ben, is a self-assured security guard at an Atlanta high school, waiting for an opportunity to impress his fiance (Tika Sumpter) and her skeptical brother, James (Ice Cube), an undercover cop. James is far less than thrilled when Ben wins the equivalent of the lottery, by being accepted into police academy. He considers his future brother-in-law to be little more than a brash motor-mouth and video-game junkie. He invites Ben on a potentially dangerous ride-along, designed to scare the bejeezus out of him. Instead, the action emboldens Ben by allowing him to use the skills he mastered as video-game nut. That mild spoiler may reveal the movie’s most appealing narrative conceit, but it wouldn’t surprise any viewer under 30, anyway. In fact, it adds a “48 HRS.” touch to the proceedings. As formulaic as it is, “Ride Along” should please fans of the cast members, who also include John Leguizamo, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Callen and Bruce McGill. The Blu-ray adds feature commentary with director Tim Story (“Barbershop,” “Taxi”), an alternate ending, deleted scenes, gag reel and several behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Blu-ray
Very casually adapted from the influential 1939 James Thurber short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has been made into a feature film twice and part of a Broadway musical inspired by the author’s work. So popular was Thurber’s story that its protagonist’s name became part of the vernacular, describing job-trapped white-collar workers who daydream about performing heroic acts. In a more symbolic sense, Mitty continues to represent that part of the American Dream imprisoned by dullard bureaucrats and dim-witted company men. The 1947 version of “Walter Mitty,” newly available in DVD, was overhauled to take advantage of Danny Kaye’s physical and facial dexterity. Director/star Ben Stiller has taken even more liberties with Thurber’s story, adding such contemporary elements as online dating sites and product placement. (Papa John’s pizza, which threatened to fire employees rather than accept provisions of the Affordable Care Act, being the most prominent.) Stiller’s film has many nice things going for it – Kristen Wiig and some spectacular wilderness photography – but seems to rely too much on the viewers’ perceived nostalgia for days gone-by, when plane travel, itself, was an adventure and Life magazine’s photographers frequently provided the stuff of which dreams are made. Here, Mitty doesn’t so much daydream at his desk, than space-out whenever he’s confronted with situations beyond his control. In his capacity as photo manager at the doomed magazine, Mitty is required to guard the safety of a photo negative sent to it by an eccentric photographer (Sean Penn) for the cover of its final edition. (Digital tracking, anyone?) When a search reveals that the negative is missing, Mitty takes it upon himself to find its creator. An extended daydream (or is it?) leads him from Greenland and Iceland, to the Himalayas, where the photographer is hunting the elusive “ghost leopard.” The addition of romantic storylines involving the dating site and Wiig’s little boy only add clutter to the adventure. At a time when so many middle-class people can rely on their wherewithal to realize their dreams, “Walter Mitty” feels more than a tad anachronistic. The Blu-ray adds several deleted/extended/alternate scenes; a dozen making-of vignettes; a photo gallery; and the music video, “Stay Alive,” by Jose Gonzales. – Gary Dretzka

Labor Day: Blu-ray
Joyce Maynard’s 2009 coming-of-age novel “Labor Day,” was described by reviewers as a story about a lonely 13-year-old boy whose world is changed forever over the course of a summer-ending holiday weekend. An escaped prisoner, desperate for freedom, insinuates himself into the lives of the young New Englander, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), and his divorced mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), a victim of agoraphobia, until the dust of his flight settles around them. Although Henry does, indeed, mature dramatically during those few days in the company of the almost freakishly handy fugitive, Frank (James Brolin), Jason Reitman’s adaptation emphasizes the curative powers of love and redemption. Reitman uses the memories of a grown-up Henry as a touchstone for the narrative, but doesn’t let them intrude on its momentum. In this way, “Labor Day” might have more in common with adult romances by Danielle Steel and Nicholas Sparks than any of Maynard’s books or newspaper work. Winslet, who can do frumpy as well as anyone, looks as if she hasn’t read a fashion magazine since she discovered her husband’s affair with his secretary. Henry’s bond with his father and his new family is tenuous, at best. For fun, Adele teaches her son to appreciate ballroom dance, an activity that concerns her ex-husband for all of the usual homophobic reasons.

It is during one of their rare shopping excursions that Frank approaches Henry and Adele, quietly demanding that he be given salve for his wound and a night’s refuge, at least. Once home, Frank asks Adele and Henry to ignore the negative reports they’ll soon hear on the local news outlets. “There are two sides to every story,” he argues, and his is the side not being told. Frank isn’t armed, but he’s a big boy and can take care of himself. While protective of her son’s well-being, Adele almost immediately feels comfortable in the intruder’s presence. Their sympatico vibes work to comfort Henry, too. Their positivity grows when Frank begins to perform household chores, unasked, and he plays catch with the boy in the backyard. As time passes and Henry’s first day of school approaches, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep friends and neighbors from learning the truth. The solution to the problem, while not entirely unpredictable, should satisfy most fans of the genre. Most importantly, we don’t doubt the chemistry between the characters or ascribe Adele and Henry’s feelings to Stockholm syndrome. The commentary is provided by Reitman, director of photography Eric Steelberg and first assistant director/co-producer Jason Blumenfeld, while Maynard appears in the featurette, “End of Summer: Making Labor Day,” and there are some deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Invisible Woman: Blu-ray
From a distance of 160 years, it’s possible to ignore the less charming aspects of a famous man’s life and reduce his sins to peccadillos. If Charles Dickens were alive today, however, he’d probably be deflecting the same slings and arrows currently being directed at Woody Allen. Their individual cases are different, but, until it can be proven that the filmmaker actually sexually abused his children, not by much. The title, “The Invisible Woman,” refers to Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, his much-younger mistress. For reasons of his own, Dickens was obsessed with keeping Ternan’s longtime role in his life secret. Even in the aftermath of a terrible train accident, Dickens would disavow any relationship with his 27-years-younger traveling companion, who he met when she was appearing in the play “The Frozen Deep” with her mother and sister. (According to legend, Ternan was the least blessed actor in the family.) Without diminishing Dickens’ literary and charitable legacy, “The Invisible Woman” paints an extremely ugly portrait of a man who let one marriage collapse, while not allowing the woman he does love to acknowledge their partnership publically. Rumors of the affair had already been published and denied, so, one wonders, how much his reputation would have been damaged by admitting the truth, anyway. Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn survived an avalanche of bad press, barely, but, if proven, the latest rumors probably would had proven too devastating to overcome.

The whole sordid tale is told through the sad flashbacks of the 44-year-old Ternan, who, still wearing widow’s weeds, is staging one of her ex-lover’s plays, “No Thoroughfare.” (Dickens had died 13 years earlier, in 1870, at 58.) In this way, the movie is framed by theatrical devices. Ralph Fiennes directs “The Invisible Woman,” as well as playing Dickens, and he does a terrific job on both counts. “Nelly,” as she was known, is played by the lovely and talented Felicity Jones. At 30, the Birmingham native is credible playing 18, 30 and 44. We’re allowed to reserve most of our pity, however, for Catherine Thomson Hogarth Dickens (Joanna Scanlan), a decidedly portly woman who was blamed by her husband for every wifely misdemeanor possible. She ended their 22-year marriage after intercepting a gift of jewelry intended for Nelly. So, what makes “The Invisible Woman” even remotely appetizing? Well, like Allen, Dickens is an important artist whose contradictions are as enlightening about the human condition as his work. More to the point, though, it’s real. Few liberties were taken with history and the craftsmanship on display is impeccable. Watch the bonus features and you’ll be impressed with just how much was accomplished with so little money. – Gary Dretzka

Bastards
French writer/director Claire Denis doesn’t make it easy for us to love her movies, which are challenging even by the standards usually reserved for arthouse titles. Viewers willing to go along with Denis’ conceits, however, are rewarded with stories influenced by her experiences in Africa and directing alongside such talents as Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Dušan Makavejev, Costa Gavras and Jacques Rivette. She’s never shied away from revealing the dark side of human relationships in her films or mapping the scarred intersection of wealth, power and decadence. “Bastards” is no different. Viewers are encouraged to pay attention to what’s said and done in the film’s early moments, because things do tend to get complicated later on. So much of what happens in “Bastards” takes place in the shadows that it easily qualifies as an exercise in film noir. The central mystery is posed by a pretty young woman – or girl in her late teens – who we meet wandering through the streets of Paris, naked except for high heels. We’ll learn soon enough that she’s been severely abused sexually and is seriously traumatized by the experience. Ruggedly handsome Vincent Lindon plays the girl’s uncle, Marco, a sea captain who abandoned his tanker to investigate his brother-in-law’s suicide and calm his disconsolate sister. He immediately senses that the suicide somehow involves his brother-in-law’s smarmy partner, Edouard (Michel Subor). By coincidence, Marco takes an apartment in a building where Edouard has stashed his lover, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), and their son. After Marco helps the boy fix his bicycle, it isn’t long before Raphaelle returns the favors by cuddling up to her friendly neighbor. Marco has other problems on his plate, besides bedding the wealthy man’s mistress, but nothing compares to the horrors that put his niece (Lola Creton) in the hospital. This is some sick shit we’re dealing with here, folks. Apparently, Denis and frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau were inspired by recent sex-ring scandals involving influential men and young prostitutes. Denis is known for her meticulous post-production routine, which might have rubbed a couple of the connections right off the finished product. Agnès Godard, another longtime associate, helps fill in the holes with cinematography that takes full advantage of the inky dark environment. (The City of Lights has never looked as dark and sinister.) Needless to say, perhaps, “Bastards” isn’t for the easily shocked. – Gary Dretzka

Everyday
Ask an adult how their day went and, more often than not, the reply will be something resembling a grunted, “Nothing.” Ask a child the same question, and you might get more than you bargained for … lots more. To a grown-up, the daily routine of life and work may have become so repetitive as to be meaningless. For some children, everything is new and every new thing carries with it the possibility of being scary, dangerous, fun or enlightening. The uncertainty is what gives kids an edge when it comes to savoring every opportunity given them. As long as someone older is watching over them, kids will occasionally test the limits of safety nets stretched around them. Michael Winterbottom’s exquisite family drama, “Everyday,” is all about feeling secure in life and coping with the anomalies of distance. In some ways, it resembles the documentaries in Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series, which has followed the development of the same children we met in 1963, in seven-year intervals. Besides being a work of fiction, “Everyday” is far less chronologically ambitious in scope. It loosely chronicles five years in the life of a working-class family, living in rural Norfolk on the eastern coast of England. Wee Shirley Henderson is terrific as the mother of four small children – apparently conceived within 9 months and 9 minutes of each other – and wife of an unassuming bloke (John Simm) in prison for drug trafficking. All of the child actors are members of the same family, which explains their nearly identical looks and easy rapport with each other. To maintain a naturalistic look, Winterbottom would revisit the Kirks intermittently during the five-year production schedule.

We have come to expect the unexpected from Winterbottom, whose films run the full gamut from comedies (“Tristram Shandy,” “The Trip”) and pop-cultural portraits (“24 Hour Party People”), to current events (“A Mighty Heart,” “The Road to Guantanamo”) and edgier stuff (“9 Songs,” “Code 46,” “The Killer Inside Me”). If his experiments rarely pay off at the box office, they’re widely admired for the courage and ability to keep other filmmakers honest. “Everyday” simply describes how a closely knit family manages its affairs when one of its key elements is removed and the rest of them are required to muddle through without him. It’s divided into loosely defined chapters, bracketed by visits to and away from the prison. At first, mom and the kids visit dad in jail. Then, dad is allowed to come home on a day pass. Later, dad comes home for a longer stretch and blows it by smuggling “just a tiny piece of hashish” into prison. The longer he’s away from home, the more independent must the family become. Seeing how well they meet the challenges is what “Everyday” is all about. For the mother, a year apart from her husband means having to provide for the family, keep the home from falling apart and providing the occasional escape for the children. She’s kept busy, but unfulfilled. For the kids, however, a year might as well be an eternity. Winterbottom neatly captures the family’s uncertainty and sense of relief from small victories, while also maintaining narrative consistency throughout the five-year production. As usual, Henderson can do no wrong here. Simm is good, as well, as a guy who squandered the freedom he enjoyed as a young man and, when he’s most needed at home, has no freedom left to waste. – Gary Dretzka

Black Nativity: Blu-ray
Most people would need a magnifying glass to find the name, Langston Hughes, on the jacket of the DVD/Blu-ray of Kasi Lemmons’ rousing adaptation of the playwright’s “Black Nativity.” First mounted off-Broadway in 1961, productions of Hughes’ “gospel-song-play” have become a traditional holiday treat, not unlike “A Christmas Carol.” Here, the Rev. Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett) are about to stage their Harlem church’s annual presentation, when the grandson they’ve never met literally shows up at their doorstep. The teenage boy’s mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), is estranged from her parents, but needs to find a temporary home for Langston (Jacob Latimore) while she deals with being evicted from their Baltimore row house. No sooner does Langston reach the Port Authority than he’s robbed of his backpack and left to his own devices. He’s arrested in a misunderstanding about a misplaced wallet, but is rescued after being recognized as the minister’s relative. Nonetheless, Langston not only is bitter over being sent away from home, but also because Naima appears to be getting a raw deal. Almost immediately, Langston takes advantage of his grandfather’s kindness by attempting to pawn a family heirloom. Before he can get into any real trouble, though, he’s seized by the power of the Lord and rescued by gospel music. On paper, the story behind “Black Nativity” sounds far too pat and borderline corny. Dropping the weight of the message on the shoulders of a 17-year-old actors seems, at first, to be a miscalculation of Lemmons’ part. On film, however, the blend of original and traditional music, the pastor’s redemptive words and the good intentions of everyone involved in the project is infectious. Raphael Saadiq, Taura Stinson and Laura Karpman are primarily responsible for arranging music, which complements the choreography of Otis Sallid. For me, though, watching the full cast and chorus performing Stevie Wonder’s “As” was the musical highlight. Also contributing to the fun are Mary J. Blige, Nas, Tyrese Gibson, Grace Gibson, Luke James, Blondelle and the Gospeldelic Choir. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and short making-of segments. – Gary Dretzka

Death Do Us Part
The fingerprints of Julia and Peter Benson are all over this problematic pairing of 1980s splatter and Canuxploitation. Besides playing the soon-to-be-married/dead couple at the core of the story, they co-wrote and co-produced “Death Do Us Part,” which was directed by Nicholas Humphries. Apparently, all of the actors had worked together previously in the Great White North and thought the project would be a blast. Personally, I think they had a bit too much fun stabbing each other and screaming at the top of their lungs into the B.C. night to see the holes in the clichés. Set in and around an oceanfront cabin, deep in the woods, “Death Do Us Part” opens promisingly with a woman – or is it? – wandering along a rural road, wearing a bloodied wedding dress. As the woman relates to a sheriff what brought her to this cruel juncture in life, the film’s clock is turned back about 24 hours. Instead of following the crowds to Las Vegas for a “Jack and Jill” bachelor/bachelorette party, a half-dozen friends and relatives of the lucky couple decided to rent the cabin for a weekend of games, booze and skull-bashing, intended to bring them all together before the blessed event. Even before the SUV reaches the rusting gate of the cabin’s driveway, however, it’s clear that the guys are jackasses and the women probably will spend the next 48 hours trying to avoid their groping fingers, including those of the swinish groom-to-be. And, yes, the property’s janitor could very well have escaped from the local loony bin that morning. By the time the killing starts, it’s difficult to figure out if “Death Do Us Part” is intended to be a parody or thriller. Worse news for anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of Julia Benson’s truly amazing body, everyone in the movie remains clothed. On the plus side, the cast members all look as if they actually were having fun. Too bad, it isn’t contagious. The DVD includes a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Confession of Murder
In South Korea, unlike the United States, murder carries with it a statute of limitations. It sounds crazy, but affords filmmakers an opportunity unavailable to their counterparts here. If Korean cops were allowed to investigate crimes involving murders, a smart and nasty thriller like “Confession of Murder” never could have been made. Fifteen years after 10 women were killed in series of attacks that shocked the nation, the perpetrator has decided to profit from his infamous acts by writing a book. Among those sickened by this affront, is Detective Choi (Jae-yeong Jeong), who lost his wife to the killer and had his face slashed by him as he was about to make an arrest. With no small amount of fanfare, Lee Du-seok (Park Si-hoo) appears on television, claiming that he was the killer and is seeking forgiveness, as well as attention. Naturally, Lee’s confession results in a media circus, even over the loud protestations of the victims’ relatives. As if to deflect the spotlight from Lee, another person confesses to the crimes. The media insist that Choi confront the two men in a public hearing, but, to what end, we won’t know until near the movie’s climax. Writer/director Jeong Byeong-gil deftly keeps the action flowing throughout
“Confession of Murder,” with chases and bursts of violence. We should be able to predict the twist he adds near the end, but are distracted by other things happening on-screen. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with cast and crew. – Gary Dretzka

Trap for Cinderella
By far the most compelling thing about Iain Softley’s erotic thriller, “Trap for Cinderella,” is the exotic cover photo, in which the British seductress Tuppence Middleton strikes an enticingly languid pose reminiscent of Louise Brooks at her most incendiary. It’s the kind of photograph that demands a browser’s attention, even if nothing else is known about the movie it begs us to consider. If only the movie, itself, lived up to the promise of Middleton’s gaze. Adapted from a novel by the French author Sébastien Japrisot (“A Very Long Engagement”), “Trap for Cinderella” opens with an explosion that sets the stage for everything else to come. We watch as Middleton’s party-girl heiress, Mickey, is slowly nursed back to health, her memory of what came before the fire still a work in progress. It isn’t long before Softley shifts into flashback mode, first taking viewers back to a traumatic event in Mickey’s childhood and, then, 10 years later, to the reunion with a near-lookalike friend, Do (Alexandra Roach). The reunion escalates very quickly into a relationship that could be bi-, straight or gay, depending on the drugs being consumed on any given night. It gets even more complicated when money from a generous inheritance is thrown into the equation, along with Mickey’s jealous boyfriend (Aneurin Barnard), her dead aunt’s overly protective assistant (Kerry Fox) and a sleazy bartender (Stanley Weber).

After some loud arguments, backstabbing and a fair amount of topless sunbathing, we’re back at the scene of the original crime. Softley’s screenplay makes better use of its primary settings — London and the south of France, where Mickey and Do spent their summers – than the intricacies of Japrisot’s novel. Miss a key detail and you’ll find yourself in the same quandary as Mickey, trying to piece back her memory on a hospital bed. – Gary Dretzka

Wrong Cops
These days, if a group of friends or classmates wants to get together to make a movie, there’s almost nothing stopping them from doing so. The same is true for actors who enjoy each other’s company so much that they get together in their spare time to take advantage of the Internet and other platforms. The better ones complete the circle by winding up on television or the big screen. It helps greatly, of course, if the actors and comedians work for fair less than scale and don’t demand star billing. Graduates of such improv troupes as the Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City are fixtures on network and cable television, where they can’t spread their improvisational wings. You can find them, as well, on YouTube, Adult Swim, HBO and Showtime. They populate such off-the-wall shows as “Reno 911!,” “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” “Children’s Hospital” and “Funny or Die Presents.” There are plenty of familiar faces in Quentin Dupieux’s thoroughly undisciplined “Wrong Cops,” a nutty-cops comedy that makes “Reno 911!” and “Police Squad!” look like “Homicide: Life on the Street.” The few legit critics who commented on it weren’t kind to “Wrong Cops,” but the further off the mainstream one got, the better it looked. Burly Mark Burnham plays Officer Duke, a cop so dirty he sees nothing wrong with selling bags of marijuana stuffed in rat carcasses to kids. Another one is obsessed with creating electronic music that borders on the unlistenable. Then, there’s the patrolman whose past comes back to haunt him when an incriminating photo shows up in an ancient gay-porn magazine. “Wrong Cops” plays out in a loosely strung series of vignettes, starring, among others, Eric Judor, Steve Little, Grace Zabriskie, Arden Myrin, Eric Roberts, Eric Wareheim, Ray Wise and, best of all, Marilyn Manson. This isn’t a movie one recommends to the easily offended, but those so inclined should find plenty here to enjoy. The higher one gets, the funnier it is. – Gary Dretzka

Being Ginger
Until I heard red-haired Austalian singer/comedian Tim Minchin perform “Taboo” on his Showtime special, I had no idea that being labeled “ginger” could be as traumatic for a young man as being born with a clubfoot, webbed toes or cleft palette. In some parts of northern Europe, especially, gingers frequently are taunted, bullied and ridiculed. Why, I don’t know. Like Minchin, who plays a debauched rock star on “Californication,” filmmaker Scott P. Harris decided that the best way to attack the prejudice was with humor. “Being Ginger” is an extension of a school project undertaken by the red-headed Texan while at the University of Edinburgh. Through interviews and anecdotes, Harris describes what it’s like to be treated as a freak, simply for the color of his hair, especially in delicate matters of the heart. Backed by a Kickstarter campaign, “Being Ginger” works best as a teaching tool. Any kid capable of putting himself in the shoes of a persecuted redhead, should be able to figure out what makes other forms of bigotry so terrible. – Gary Dretzka

Tentacle 8
If we’ve learned anything from the ongoing NSA scandal, it’s that paranoia not only is a reasonable response to the revelations, but it also may be the one that makes the most practical sense. How else to react to a system that’s paid to break the law with both impunity and immunity, and about which the truth likely will never be revealed. We’ve been asked to trust that government safeguards put into effect since the beans were spilled can protect us from rogue spies and professional eavesdroppers who presumably are being paid to prevent the next terrorist attack, but probably are too busy checking on their credit scores and monitoring their girlfriend’s Facebook account to make that call. When the producers of “Tentacle 8” attempted to find distributors for the film, it probably sounded far too far-fetched, even to Americans born in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. After striking out in their attempts to court film festivals, John Chi’s failed thriller now looks more prescient than paranoid. Does that make “Tentacle 8” worth the cost of a rental or download, though? For fans of “All the President’s Men,” “The Parallax View” and “The X-Files,” the answer is probably, yes.  In it, career character actor Brett Rickaby plays a NSA analyst who’s being framed for a massive computer virus that’s wiped out classified personnel files at the agency. He’s smart, though, and the things he knows about the computer system are of great value to the men and women on his trail. They’re all contained in codes indecipherable to everyone but him. Oh, yeah, one of the people he hopes to protect is his girlfriend (Amy Motta), who’s in cahoots with the CIA.

Chi doesn’t hesitate to telegraph the aura of fear and mass confusion running throughout “Tentacle 8.” The musical soundtrack, which alternates between ominous rumble and funereal, tell us all we need to know about what’s happening on screen. I’m not at all sure that I was left with a firm grasp of what’s at stake in the movie. Part of what makes this sort of thriller paranoid is the protagonist’s inability to completely separate facts from fiction and identify friends from foes. Even so, the picture’s relevance has risen several notches in the last six months, without its creators moving a finger to help it. “Tentacle 8” may have micro-budget feel to it, but someone invested the money necessary to film a few scenes away from L.A., in Mumbai. The technical credits are pretty solid, as well, despite the limitations. The DVD offers no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Copperhead: Blu-ray
Although Ronald F. Maxwell’s career has spanned nearly 40 years, his list of credits is limited to about a dozen films, ranging from such teen favorites as “Little Darlings and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” to his Civil War trilogy of “Gettysburg,” “Gods and Generals” and, now, “Copperhead.” The first two historical epics were financed in large part by Ted Turner’s production company – he made cameo appearances in both – and featured A-list actors in elaborate battle scenes. While Turner is physically and financially missing from the far more modest “Copperhead,” his former brother-in-law, Peter Fonda, does play a supporting role. Based on an 1893 novel by Harold Frederic, the title refers to a slur aimed at northern Democrats opposed to the Civil War. Here, a community in rural Upstate New York is forced to consider the objections of a prominent citizen, dairy farmer Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), based on moral and political beliefs. The man’s family also is divided on the issue, which doesn’t sway on the question of slavery as much as how life-and-death decisions were made in the run-up to the war. (He believes, for example, that the Emancipation Proclamation, one of Lincoln’s bravest actions, should have been decided by Congress or voters.) It’s an interesting story, largely ignored in previous films on the subject. The beautiful New Brunswick location allows for an accurate replication of the close-knit community and its daily routines. Maxwell also does a nice job setting up the climatic confrontation between the mostly pro-war community, led by a holier-than-thou abolitionist (Angus Macfadyen), and the Copperhead in its midst. The story’s melodramatic through-line derives from the decision by Beech’s son (Casey Thomas Brown) to join the union army, seemingly influenced by his love for the abolitionist’s daughter. Although no battle scenes were shot for “Copperhead,” the ugliness of the conflagration is addressed in first-hand reports from the front. It doesn’t quite make up for the limitations posed by a limited budget, but Civil War buffs should applaud the attention paid to this little-known aspect of the war at home. – Gary Dretzka

Lifetime: The Gabby Douglas Story
Cowgirls ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer
One of the great stories to emerge from the Summer Olympics, in London, was that of gymnast Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas. It also produced one of the most memorable photographs of 2012, as it was taken of the future champion in mid-leap, legs parallel to the balance beam and her torso at a 90-degree angle, allowing her head to face the heavens. Much was made, of course, of Gabby being the first African-American to win an individual all-around event and being a member of our gold-medal gymnastics team. That she overcame an illness at an early age and a humble financial background to get to London would have provided enough grist for reporters. Being African-American in a sport dominated by tiny Americans, Eastern Europeans and Asians made her an instant star and role model. The Lifetime movie, “The Gabby Douglas Story,” follows her from her Virginia Beach home, where her cheerleader sister funneled the girl’s energy into perfecting cartwheels and flips, to coach Liang Chow’s training facility in Iowa. The movie adds homesickness and a serious training injury to the list obstacles laid in her path. How much of her story is exaggerated for dramatic impact, I couldn’t say. Gabby’s accomplishments, of course, are indisputable. So, too, is the appeal of “The Gabby Douglas Story” to young athletes and their parents.

Fox’s “Cowgirls ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer” targets almost exactly the same demographic as the made-for-Lifetime picture, but it takes place in a very different arena. It describes the transformation of an angry teenager from hellion to model daughter. Seventeen-year-old Dakota Rose lives in a part of the country where routinely girls participate in competitive trick riding and barrel racing, while their male counterparts accept the rougher challenges of the rodeo game. One day, when her parents admit to her that she was adopted, she comes apart at the seams. She condemns them for hiding the truth and preventing her from finding her true parents. Uncontrollable, Dakota agrees to spend the summer with her rodeo-legend grandfather (Keith Carradine), who, she quickly discovers, will only put up with so much of her crap before going all cowboy on her. It happens when the girl stumbles upon the identity of her birth mother and sneaks around to make her acquaintance. What happens next in “Dakota’s Summer” has already played out in dozens of other movies about adopted kids seeking out their birth parents, so no spoiler alerts are necessary. Even so, writer/director Timothy Armstrong keeps the pace lively and the moralizing to a minimum, when a couple of buff guys enter the picture. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
BBC: Ripper Street: Season 2: Blu-ray
PBS/BBC: The Bletchley Circle: Season 2
PBS: The Making of a Lady
PBS: Murder on the Home Front
PBS: Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin
PBS: The Hidden Art of Islam
ToonsTV: Angry Birds Toons: Season 01 Volume 02
PBS Kids: Between the Lions: Vowel Power
Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Crack-Up
When referring to depictions of the lives, crimes and accomplishments of larger-than-life human beings, two adages come immediately to mind: “Truth is stranger than fiction” and “If so-and-so didn’t exist, Hollywood would have had to invent him.” Of course, Hollywood has never been satisfied merely stating the facts about history’s larger-than-life figures. Embellishing fact with fiction has always been standard operating procedure, especially when a handsomer leading man, prettier leading lady and more exciting acts of heroism can be conjured. The only people who seem to mind are historians, a handful of critics and those who’ve lived long enough to know the truth. In the U.S., Hollywood will continue to churn out fantasies about Billy the Kid, Al Capone and Charles Manson, as long as there’s an audience for such entertainments. In England, the same holds true when considering King Arthur and his knights, Robin Hood and, of course, Jack the Ripper. One need look no further than BBC America for proof that the search for the identity of the man also known as the Whitechapel Murderer and Leather Apron still fascinates viewers. Richard Warlow’s mini-series for the BBC, “Ripper Street,” is set in the crime- and poverty-ridden district of Whitechapel in the wake of the Ripper’s last-known murder. The villain’s crimes previously informed “Whitechapel,” a contemporary BBC series in which a special police unit investigates look-alike murders; the Johnny Depp vehicle, “From Hell”; and a couple dozen true-crime documentaries made for cable television.  Throw in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, the BBC’s 2007 mini-series “Jekyll” and Syfy’s “Sanctuary,” and it’s clear Victorian-era depravity has been well-represented lately. In the second season of “Ripper Street,” the direct memory of the show’s namesake has faded, but other epidemics have kept Whitechapel H Division investigators busy. Among the issues covered are Chinese immigration and the importation of opium, the London match-girls strike of 1888, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse’s War of Currents, occultists’ Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Baring economic crisis. The period-perfect UK-version of the series oozes with atmosphere, especially the stench of corruption and exploitation of women and children.

Currently airing on American PBS outlets is the most unlikely of hit shows, “The Bletchley Circle,” whose heroines are former World War II code-breakers, now serving England as voluntary crime-fighters. A valuable cog in the Allies’ war machine, seven years later they’ve effectively been put out to pasture to make room for male veterans. Given the women’s innate ability to discover clues where none appear to exist, they are able to remain one step ahead of Scotland Yard and military police who no longer feel it necessary to pay any attention to the whims of their womenfolk. In the first season, our heroines patched together seemingly random clues left behind by a murderer. Series Two is comprised of a pair of two-episode stories, loosely connected by a new character and different circumstances. In the first, a top-secret military experiment causes great harm to British soldiers who were misled by their superiors. When a scientist involved in the experiment is murdered, one of the Bletchley ladies is framed for his death. A greater mystery involves her refusal to defend her innocence in court, even though she faces the gallows. In the second chapter, one of the women’s involvement in a Black Market scheme leads to another killing and the revelation of a ring of foreigners smuggling Eastern bloc refugees into England and forcing them into prostitution. “The Bletchley Circle” is an impeccably constructed mystery that captures the aura of Cold War intrigue and paranoia. The acting is excellent and there’s plenty of humor to keep the pace moving forwardly.

The Making of a Lady” is another wonderfully compelling Victorian thriller from Britain. Adapted from a 1901 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, it begins as a romantic drama, but grows gradually darker as time passes. Lydia Wilson plays Emily, a hard-working domestic who lives in a decrepit boarding house, but aspires to become the secretary for her boss, Lady Maria (Joanne Lumley). Smart, pretty and outgoing, Emily catches the eye of Lady Maria’s widowed nephew, Lord James Walderhurst (Linus Roache, of “Law & Order”), who, he’s told, is in desperate need of a wife and heir. So far, the women trotted out for his approval have disappointed him. Almost by accident, he recognizes Emily’s well-sublimated charms and admits his intentions to his aunt, who immediately fires the girl. Lord James retrieves her from the boarding house and marries her. She agrees, but primarily to suit his practical needs. Just as they begin to come together as partners and lovers, however, he’s called to India to join his regiment. It opens the door for Lord James’ cousin (James D’Arcy), his Anglo-Indian wife and sorcerer mother-in-law to conspire against Emily and claim the estate as his by birthright. The longer Emily is left alone, the easier it is for the cousin to plot her doom. Once we know how deep the conspiracy goes, the suspense comes from waiting for James to return home, on time or too late. “Making of a Lady” is really quite exciting. It helps that the action could just as well be happening down the road a bit, at Downton Abbey.

Murder on the Home Front” represents another ITV/PBS-exchange project. If this stylish wartime mystery seems slightly more confusing than most other British imports, it’s because it so willingly crosses lines separating sub-genres. Among other things, there’s the unreasonably vivacious cub reporter who desperately wants to be a crime writer. This not-unreasonable dream leads, however, to Molly Cooper (Tamzin Merchant) accepting a position as assistant to the handsome pathologist Lennox Collins (Patrick Kennedy) she meets at a crime scene. A dogged sort, Molly begins to help Lennox with a case involving a woman found strangled with a swastika carved on her tongue. Their search for more substantial clues is complicated by the devastation caused in the blitz and discovery of more bodies. Taken from the memoirs of Molly Lefebure, director Geoffrey Sax drops more red herrings here than there are silver ones in the Baltic Seas. Plus, no one in the government seems worried that the prime suspect may be convicted and hung before the crime is even solved.

Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin” is an intriguing investigation into the question of whether Russia’s great literary legacy of the 19th and 20th centuries is as dead as freedom in Crimea or the seeds for 21st Century masterpieces have yet to germinate. Comparing the translated works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Solzhenitsyn, and their counterparts in other countries or languages, seems to me to be an excuse merely to introduce to us to the cream of Russia’s contemporary writing crop. Given the interruption of intellectual curiosity caused by the failed Soviet experiment, gulags and three wars, at least, served to destroy the will of many potential authors. It’s also likely that two or three generations of aspiring novelists simply disappeared, with their songs unsung. How many of today’s American authors can be considered to be the equal of their forebears and how much of that is to blame for forays into rock ’n’ roll and screenplays? Still, hosts Stephen Fry and Juliet Stephenson do a commendable job introducing us to such formidable modern writers as Dmitry Bykov, Mariam Petrosyan, Zakhar Prilepin, Anna Starobinets, Vladimir Sorokin and Lyudmila Ultiskaya through their words and those of their characters. They are supplemented by animated sequences and interviews with critics, publishers and other tastemakers. Something tells me that Mr. Putin wouldn’t be unhappy if all of them were arrested and put in cells next to members of Pussy Riot.

For the occasion of an exhibition of Islamic art and calligraphy at the British Museum, the BBC produced “The Hidden Art of Islam.” It is an illuminating documentary on the fissures within the religion which have confused scholars and stifled the creativity of untold thousands of artists, since the first mullah prohibited depictions of humans, religious figures and images of religious rites. At the same time, other interpreters of the Koran have taken a more accommodating stand on the subject. We’re shown examples of both, along with competing interpretations of the Book. The discussion is entirely mindful of the sometimes violent divisions between Shiites, Sunnis and other sects. Instead of arguing one point over the other, the producers provide us examples of commonly accepted works of great value. The most common combine some of civilization’s most beautiful calligraphy with borders comprised of geometrically precise and painstakingly drawn patterns. They’re nothing short of spectacular. Host Rageh Omaar also attempts to determine what forms of art are acceptable for a Muslim and how this artistic tradition has thrived in the hidden art of the Muslim world.

In their brevity, anarchic spirit and debts owed to pioneers of the animation art, the “Angry Birds Toons” remind me of the Steven Spielberg-produced “Animaniacs” and Klasky-Csupo’s “Rugrats.” Although I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in them, the individual three-minute cartoons harken back to a time when no double-feature was complete with a cartoon featuring the Looney Tune gang, Mickey or Donald, or Tom Jerry. They’re fun, if completely meaningless. “Angry Birds Toons” was spun off of the Finnish animated TV series, which, itself, was spun off Rovio’s video-game sensation. This series provides explanations for the rivalry between the birds and the pigs.

Between the Lions: Vowel Power” is another fine example of the growing edu-tainment subgenre of children’s DVDs. From PBS Kids, “Vowel Power” targets children 3-7 who want to have a bit of fun while mastering their vowels. The puppet, animated and live-action show is curriculum based, “a lively, educational blend of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary and other teaching methods for preschool, kindergarten and first-grade students.

Much of the material contained in “The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Crack-Ups” and other recent compilations derives from the mega-collection. As most shrewd collectors know by now, though, the producers hold back certain treasures for later boxes, no matter how complete the marketing drones say it is. “Carol’s Crack-Ups” is so-titled because each of the episode contains a bit that made the participant break down in laughter. Instead of editing out the imperfections, Burnett made sure they stayed in the shows as something of a brand-identifier. Such was the case on Dean Martin’s shows, as well. Unlike most bloopers, these were treats shared with the audience. “Carol’s Crack-Ups” includes 17 uncut episodes on six discs; specially-produced featurettes, “Almost Live,” “Breaking Up Is Hard … Not to Do,” “We Love You, Harvey,” “Tim Conway: Chief Cracker-Upper” and “Tim on the Street”; bonus sketches, “As the Stomach Turns,” “Two-Man Sub,” “The Interrogator” and “The Oldest Man: Fireman”; and an exclusive interview with Tim Conway. Some of the guest stars are Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke, Gloria Swanson, Helen Reddy, John Byner, Petula Clark, Richard Crenna, Roddy McDowall, Ruth Buzzi, and Steve Lawrence.  – Gary Dretzka

Streaming:
Black Water Creek Sasquatch
Aleister Crowley: Legend of the Beast
Alien Encounter at Loch Ness
The Ghostkeepers
Anna: Scream Queen Killer
Sinister Visions
The next time you’re in desperate need of a low-budget movie that combines horror, gore, violence and tits into one scalding package of perversity, don’t look any further than the website for Chemical Entertainment. The same is true for the documentaries that erupt from the depths of the Reality Entertainment, where one can expect to find images of Jesus Christ sandwiched between the Loch Ness Monster and the monster from “13th China: Jersey Devil.” Because I’m on the mailing lists of such companies, finding grindhouse and other exploitation films is a breeze. Niche blogs, some with names too juvenile to mention, also provide clearinghouses for upcoming products. Impulse buying is one area where streaming has a decided edge on the old-fashioned methods of delivery. When one gets a craving for “Black Water Creek Sasquatch” or “Anna: Scream Queen Killer,” having to wait more than two minutes could mean the difference between satisfaction and starvation. These are only two of the companies’ top-shelf movies I found haunting my mail box this month. The others are “Aleister Crowley: Legend of the Beast,” “Alien Encounter at Loch Ness,” “The Ghostkeepers” and “Sinister Visions.” Instead of measuring the ethnic breakdown and median age of Americans, I’d like for the Census Department to ask questions about how many of us believe in the existence of Nessie and Bigfoot. Ditto, the number of verified ghost sightings it would take for the average American to flee his or her home in terror. Knowing ahead of time what gives us the heebie-jeebies could provide a great service for filmmakers and film schools that need to anticipate trends. Why waste good money on zombie flicks, if the public already is losing interest in them? – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Blu-ray
It says a lot about the Hollywood establishment that one of the most entertaining, commercially successful, technically advanced and critically lauded movies of at least the last 10 years failed to be accorded an Academy Award nomination for something other than sound mixing, visual effects and sound editing. I don’t know what else a movie needs to do to be recognized by such an august body of self-satisfied dweebs, but, perhaps, the members drew the line at the bushel bucket full of Oscars thrown at “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2004. Or, perhaps, members of the actors’ branch were attempting to encourage their peers to drop the fantasy routine and get back to performing serious roles. Like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, a little bit of Gandalf goes a long way. While I’ll admit to harboring some of the same sentiments, I still can’t understand why the Academy, in its collective wisdom, couldn’t make a case for “The Desolation of Smaug” being honored as the tenth nominee for Best Motion Picture, if not one of the nine that did make the cut. Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen equally deserving titles as “Philomena,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and, for that matter, Peter Jackson’s mega-epic, so no offense intended, I’m sure. Granted, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is the second entry in a trilogy, which, itself, is a prequel to the”LOTR” trilogy. It can stand on its own merits easily enough, however. If Best Character in an Animated or CGI Picture had been added to the list of categories – along with Best Voice Actor — the Smaug dragon and Benedict Cumberbatch might have won the Daily Double.

Just for the record, “The Desolation of Smaug” finds Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield and a dozen dwarves advancing on Lonely Mountain to retrieve their kingdom and the stolen treasure contained therein. That they meet resistance from all quarters – perhaps, even, an auroch or two from “Beasts of the Southern Wild” – is only to be expected. These are some bad-ass dwarves, however, and Smaug will prove the greatest obstacle of all. The battle royal that consumes most of the movie’s final scene is a real hum-dinger. Even at 161 minutes, the story’s pace never seems forced or the story padded. Not being a Tolkien scholar, it would be difficult for me to say if Jackson’s narrative tweaks detract from or complement the author’s vision. Likewise, I can only speculate as to how “H2” looks in Blu-ray 3D. Given the attention paid to all other details, though, I suspect that it looks terrific. The Blu-ray adds a salute to New Zealand and an entire second disc devoted to bonus material, which will impress buffs but feel redundant to more casual fans. – Gary Dretzka

I Am Divine
My Fair Lidy
Although Divine (a.k.a., Harris Glenn Milstead) was a full-fledged celebrity by the time of his death in 1988, his sole exposure on mainstream American talk shows consisted of single appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman” and “Thicke of the Night.” For those of you born after 1988, Letterman was still at NBC at the time and Alan Thicke’s pop-star son, Robin, was only 7 years old. Today, of course, Divine would have a talk show of his own. The wonderfully nostalgic “I Am Divine” was made by the prolific show-biz documentarian Jeffrey Schwarz, who understands exactly how much contemporary pop culture owes to the dangerously overweight drag superstar, with or without John Waters. (If nothing else, he was posthumously recognized as the inspiration for Ursula the Sea-Witch in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”) The frequently bullied Milstead and Waters, Baltimore’s future “queen and king of bad taste” met during high school and began making no-budget underground films soon thereafter. It wasn’t until the 1972 release of “Pink Flamingos” that they became known outside the Baltimore demi-monde. (Thanks primarily to the infamous poop-eating scene, which still is capable inducing projectile vomiting.) Sixteen years later, “Hairspray” would endear Divine to mainstream audiences. In it, he played the twin roles of the protagonist’s mom, Edna Turnblad, and the segregationist media mogul Arvin Hodgepile. In the Broadway and Hollywood musical adaptations of “Hairspray,” Turnblad would be played by Harvey Fierstein, Michael Kean, Bruce Vilanch, John Pinette, George Wendt and, most famously, John Travolta. Just as the 42-year-old Divine/Milstead had reached the pinnacle of his success, however, even establishing a burgeoning cabaret act, he died of sleep apnea, complicated by obesity. Among the many celebrities and friends paying tribute to the Man Who Would Be Elizabeth Taylor are Waters, Vilanch, Ricki Lake (“he taught me how to walk in high heels”), Tab Hunter, Mink Stole, Michael Musto and his mother, Frances. The DVD arrives with commentary by Schwarz, producer Lotti Phariss Knowles and Mink Stole, as well as 30 minutes of deleted scenes.

Anyone who doubts Divine’s lasting pop-cultural legacy need look no further than Ralph Clemente’s “My Fair Lidy,” in which a working-class Florida youth embraces his feminine side to the consternation of his wife and redneck buddies. Desperate to raise the $400 needed to afford a dental procedure to fix his wife’s “snaggletooth,” the handsome young mechanic, Lidy, exploits his resemblance to Marlene Dietrich to win a prize at a local drag bar. He even learns to approximate her distinctive voice. While the drag performers support his new career choice, Craig Liderman-Lidy’s grease-monkey pals and intolerant wife are far less accommodating. When he finally figures out that his only true friends and family members are his fellow performers at the club, a giant weight is lifted off of his back. If the story is entirely predictable, it’s also easy to enjoy the drag acts and judge them on their merits. Christopher Backus, a dead ringer for Guy Pearce, is appealing as the Lidy/Dietrich, while the real-life female-impersonator Leigh Shannon makes the most out of the supportive Miss Sal. – Gary Dretzka

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones: Blu-ray
Only 31, native Texan Katie Featherston has made a career playing Katie in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise. You could say that she owns the part. With the new-to-DVD “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” and set-for-October “Paranormal Activity 5,” Featherston will have appeared in all six “PA” titles. Only soap-opera actors enjoy such longevity. Enough about Katie/Katie, though, because any more info would require a massive spoiler alert and she isn’t the key figure here. “The Marked Ones” diverts from the usual haunted-house format by going all Mexican-American on us. Here, the primary villain is a “bruja” – Spanish for witch – who does awful things in the first-floor apartment of an Oxnard duplex. When upstairs neighbor and recent high school graduate, Jesse, begins to investigate the strange goings-on … well, let’s not spoil anyone’s fun. Apparently, “The Marked Ones” was specifically made to take advantage of the franchise’s loyal Hispanic following. It isn’t so Hispanic – Latino, take your pick – that subtitles are required for gringo audiences, however. Neither does it exploit the target audience by throwing in tired clichés every 10 minutes, or so. As someone who’s gotten weary of the found-footage format, I found “The Marked Ones” to be reasonably chilling and acceptably surprising in its hauntings. On a cost-per-customer basis, it did OK in its theatrical release. Whether it can sustain a parallel “Marked Ones” franchise depends on how it does in its video afterlife, however. The Blu-ray adds only a handful of deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Cavemen: Blu-ray
What happens when a first-time director and second-time writer combines the clichés of bromances and sitcoms into one vapid package? Herschel Faber’s “Cavemen.” The only things keeping it from drowning are the setting – L.A.’s increasingly lively Arts District – and the exotic Camille Belle, whose visual appeal is magnetic. As one might guess from the title, “Cavemen,” the story involves a loft inhabited by a small army of single guys and the occasional overnight visitor of the female persuasion. An eviction notice prompts the boys to think about giving up the singles game and settling down, but not without one last party. Among other things, it provides the terminally non-committal Dean (Skylar Astin) his final opportunity to seal the deal with his longtime “best friend” and confidant, Tess (Belle). She’s grown tired of playing second-fiddle to the aspiring screenwriter’s romantic writer’s block. If “Cavemen” hadn’t found a theatrical distributor, it could have been submitted to a network for consideration as a sitcom pilot. It’s that inconsequential. To be fair, however, the young and attractive cast tries very hard to keep the story from going belly up in the first half-hour. The nightlife and downtown scenes are well-rendered, as well. If better parts don’t start coming her way, my fear is that movie audiences could soon lose Belle (“The Ballad of Jack and Rose”) to a television series, not unlike “New Girl” and the eternally quirky Zooey Deschanel. There are no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Grudge Match
This completely unnecessary boxing movie stars Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, as a pair of over-the-hill fighters desperate to settle an old score. Essentially, Henry “Razor” Sharpe and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen are stand-ins for Rocky Balboa and Jake La Motta. The premise resembles the plot of 2006’s “Rocky Balboa,” in which the former champ comes out of retirement to fight a far younger Mason “The Line” Dixon. Rocky overheard some boxing experts argue about a video game, featuring the two men, and wanted to prove them wrong. In “Grudge Match,” the Kid remains pissed off that he wasn’t given a rematch in what was supposed to be a best-of-three series and still thinks he can beat Razor. He’s also upset that his foe stole his girlfriend (Kim Basinger). For his part, Razor sees the whole thing as an annoyance. Red-hot Kevin Hart plays the son of a Don King-like promoter, attempting to get Razor and the Kid to put on motion-capture gear for a video game pitting the two. One thing leads to another and they reluctantly agree to a main event. Adding to the appeal to younger audiences is the inclusion of the Kid’s estranged son B.J. (Jon Bernthal), whose mother jilted the boxer to go with Razor. If everything else rings hollow, the fighting scenes are convincingly staged by director Peter Segal. Also making her debut appearance is Basinger and Alec Baldwin’s daughter, Ireland Basinger Baldwin, as Young Sally. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a pretty good making-of featurette, backgrounders, one of which stars Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfeld, and alternate endings and beginning scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Bayou Blue
Anyone who was completely bowled over by HBO’s “True Detective” already understands the power of the environmental ambience of southern Louisiana’s bayou country. Like so many other wilderness areas, the natural beauty frequently masks the most heinous of man-made crimes. I don’t know if those responsible for the HBO mini-series had seen “Bayou Blue” before setting out on their not dissimilar journeys – the serial killer in each story is deranged in his own unique way – but it’s entirely possible that they had. Where “True Detective” is a work fiction informed both by a case of so-called Satanic possession, revealed in 2005, and an 1895 anthology of horror stories about a fictional play, “The King in Yellow,” “Bayou Blue” is a documentary based on a very real criminal investigation. From 1997 to 2006, self-admitted serial killer Ronald Dominique raped and killed between 8-23 men in poverty-stricken Southeastern Louisiana. The case was broken after an intended victim escaped Dominique’s control and his identity was confirmed through DNA evidence. He is serving eight consecutive life sentences, which, we’re reminded, means that Dominique will never be eligible for parole. That much, at least, is indisputable and little pity need be reserved for the killer. One of the most salient points made by Alix Lambert (“The Mark of Cain”) and David McMahon (“Skanks”) is the lack of interest in the case shown by the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets, even after being alerted to its immensity. According to a local reporter, the Times dismissed it as being of “regional interest.” Even so, much of the film’s power derives from Lambert and McMahon’s willingness to locate the scenes of the crimes and describe how such evil could impact a community whose primary kinship is poverty. Dominique refused requests for an interview, but his recorded voice from police interviews couldn’t be more haunting. The scenes filmed at night, retracing the steps of the killer and his victims, could have come from outtakes of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” – Gary Dretzka

Black Jack: 35th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Watching Ken Loach’s rollicking picaresque, “Black Jack,” I was reminded of the live-action yarns Disney has been churning out since 1950’s imagination-expanding adventure, “Treasure Island,” and continues to do so today with every new “Pirates of the Caribbean” installment. Adapted from the classic children’s novel by Leon Garfield, “Black Jack” looks far more formidable than it is. The thick Yorkshire accents, which frequently require subtitles, would challenge an adult, let alone a child, but the story compares to the adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. The most memorable involve children, forced by circumstances to navigate their way through a world complicated by scoundrels, villains, insurmountable physical obstacles, bigotry and elitism. More than anything else, however, these are stories that stir the imaginations of young people looking for ways to break the chains of conformity. A decade after the triumphs of “Kes” and “Poor Cow,” Loach’s career was stuck in the doldrums. Forced to confine himself to documentaries and TV series, he was given a too-small budget and too-short schedule to make “Black Jack.” Nevertheless, even after severe editing, it was awarded the first of many prizes the writer/director would carry home from Cannes. It also was nominated for top honors at the Chicago International Film Festival.

The story’s protagonist, Tolly, is a poor boy lacking the wherewithal to refuse the orders of his elders or to strike out on his own in a countryside still plagued by highwaymen, rebels and rogues. His first encounter with the notorious outlaw Black Jack comes when he ordered to keep watch on the coffin to which he’s recently by confined. Before being escorted to the gallows, the doomed man had inserted a spoon or pipe into his throat to prevent the rope from snapping his neck. He’s arranged for the undertaker to have his body placed in a coffin, from which he can escape when the timing is right. Of course, Tolly was as shocked by the man’s resurrection as anyone would be. Jack (Jean Franval) enlists the unwilling Tolly (Stephen Hirst) to act as his voice and errand boy, In turn, Tolly and Jack rescue a rambunctious girl from the privileged family that wants to commit her to Bedlam, so she won’t be around when her sister begins receiving suitors. Together, they survive the Dickensian streets of London and join a traveling circus, which takes them to other places where corruption, danger and highway robbery await them. Thanks to Loach’s obsessive attention to 18th Century detail, “Black Jack” is a lot of fun for pre-teens and parents, alike. The interesting thing about this Cohen Media Blu-ray is its status as a “director’s cut” version of the original. Financed in 2010 with a grant from the British Film Institute, actually shortened the movie by about 10 minutes. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Loach and scenes deleted in the re-mastering process. – Gary Dretzka

Don’t Ask Me Questions: The Unsung Life of Graham Parker and the Rumour
One of the more entertaining things about being a lifelong fan of rock ’n’ roll is reading the many lists of top albums and arguing about them afterward. Limiting such lists to 100 titles or even 500 is something of a fool’s errand. Although it isn’t difficult to find a consensus about the top 20 in any given decade or genre, there simply have been too many excellent-to-great releases over the last 60 years for such surveys to be meaningful. Then, too, far too many post-WWII African-American artists are routinely relegated to the R&B category, when, if fact, they had already invented rock ’n’ roll. I bring this up because the British rock ensemble and blue-eyed-soul specialists Graham Parker and the Rumour have done far better on polls than in sales. Their 1976 breakthrough album, “Howlin’ Wind,” and balls-out 1979 release “Squeezing Out Sparks” both made the cut in Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 100 Albums From 1967-1987. In 2003, “Squeezing Out Sparks” landed at No. 335 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Those are no small feats. Sadly, though, such recognition failed to make Parker a superstar at the only place they really matter. It also explains the title of the new video bio-disc, “Don’t Ask Me Questions: The Unsung Life of Graham Parker and the Rumour.” Parker’s biggest hurdle was debuting at a time when punk was about to explode, as were the better-marketed Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. The description, “uncompromising,” did him no favors, either. For the next 40 years, Parker (mostly minus the Rumour) kept on keepin’ on during concert tours and the occasional album, both supported by an enthusiastic Boomer following. Indeed, in the Judd Apatow film, “This Is 40,” Parker and Rumour played themselves as a touchstone memory for the characters. Michael Gramaglia’s affectionate rock-doc introduces newcomers to the songs that made Parker famous and fills in the gaps in time for his loyal following. It features interviews with Parker, various members of the Rumour, Apatow, Nick Lowe and Bruce Springsteen, among other recognizable names. – Gary Dretzka

Henry Jaglom Collection Volume 3: The Women’s Quartet
Some idiosyncratic movie buffs can measure their love affair with the cinema from their first encounter with a Henry Jaglom picture. They might have observed, “Well, that’s different … I’ll need some time to figure it out.” For almost all of his 40-plus years as an auteur, Jaglom has made a science of confounding, confusing and riling viewers. Critics, too, seemed to be divided on the value of such naturalistic portraits of the artist’s friends, collaborators and relatives. Having amassed a sizable “cult following,” Jaglom demanded their attention, whether or not they wanted to give it to him. No one put a gun to their head, forcing them to watch or comment on movies that, frankly, baffled them. If Jaglom seemed obsessed with Orson Welles, well, he was a better choice than most others he could have adopted as muse. Over time, however, the mountain would meet Mohammad half-way and the gap between viewers and the filmmaker would narrow dramatically. Because his movies are less concerned with plots and narrative, than, say, ideas and themes, it’s been easy for Rainbow Releasing and Breaking Glass Pictures to create individual packages based on them. “Henry Jaglom Collection Volume 3: The Women’s Quartet,” follows on the heels of “Volume 1: Love and Romance” and “Volume 2: The Comedies.” None of his films are completely devoid of love, romance, comedy or drama, but some fit more easily into certain categories. He doesn’t appear on screen in “Eating” (1990), “Babyfever” (1994), “Going Shopping” (2007), and “Irene in Time” (2009), but, because of his affection for the women cast in them, these titles are certainly among his most personal. They include a who’s who of actresses who’ve fallen off Hollywood’s radar screen, as well as some feisty newcomers. Tanna Frederick is Jaglom’s current muse, but also represented are Frances Fisher, Mary Crosby, Victoria Foyt, Mae Whitman, Frances Bergen, Victoria Tennant, Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Lee Grant and Toni Basil. All still have/had things to offer the industry and audiences, but, today, it’s the rare filmmaker who asks them to share it with us. – Gary Dretzka

Marilyn & the Senator
Jekyll & Hyde Portfolio/A Clockwork Blue: Blu-ray
Lust for Freedom
There are a couple of things to know about Carlos Tobalina’s 1975 porn epic, “Marilyn & the Senator,” before investing too much money and 121 minutes of time into it. One, anyone who thinks that the title refers to any of the brothers Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe will be disappointed. The movie’s original title was “Swinging Senators,” but unauthorized shots of the Watergate Hotel suggest later scandals, involving congressmen Wayne Hays and Wilbur Mills; Hays’ clerk/secretary/escort Elizabeth Ray, who bore a likeness to Monroe and leading lady Nina Fause; and Mills’ stripper/mistress, Fanne Foxe, who more resembled porn star Vanessa del Rio. The other important thing to know going into “Marilyn & the Senator” is that co-star William Margold’s hilariously candid commentary track is far more entertaining than anything in the movie. He holds nothing back on his opinions of the actors, directors and how he looks having sex. He even points out how Tobalina managed to get shots of the Watergate and an NFL game, which might have landed the production in a heap of trouble at the time. The plot, such as it is, involves a beautiful blond CIA agent, Marilyn, who wants to pay a married senator $10,000 to impregnate her … as if. Without the advantage of Viagra or Cialis, that’s no small trick. Arriving at the dawn of the Golden Age of Porn, filmmakers were still interested in giving their customers stories made within a traditional narrative framework. Fans would have to wait another couple of years, though, for actresses who actually knew how to act. “Marilyn & the Senator” arrives in home video for the first time in its full-length director’s cut, scanned from the 35mm camera negatives and restored in 2K.

Also from cult-film-preservationist Vinegar Syndrome comes “Jekyll & Hyde Portfolio” and “A Clockwork Blue,” both of which predate “Deep Throat” by a few minutes. They’re being presented as part of the company’s “Drive-In Double-Feature Collection,” as a salute to the less-than-prolific director, Eric Jeffrey Haims. While the former bears a passable resemblance to the source material, the latter should remind exactly no one of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” “Jekyll & Hyde Portfolio” looks vaguely like a Hammer gore-fest, with some T&A and sadism thrown in for kicks and giggles. The print is way below par, which means it must have been unwatchable when picked up by VS for re-mastering. Somehow, by contrast, “A Clockwork Blue” looks fresh as a daisy. In it, a hippie-dippy researcher, Homer, travels through history, discovering the erotic secrets of the past. The sex is predominantly of the soft-core variety.

A 1986 Troma Entertainment pickup, “Lust for Freedom” was written, produced and directed by Eric Louzil, who would go on to make two sequels to “Class of Nuke ‘Em High” and “Bikini Beach Race,” best-known for a cast that includes Dana Plato, Ron Jeremy and Edgar Allan Poe IV. In her sole acting credit, the gorgeous undercover cop Gillian Kaites is implicated in the slaying of her boyfriend during a sting operation and is sentenced to prison. While in stir, she discovers a system that’s completely corrupt and brutal to the inmates, who seem to take an inordinate number of showers. “Lust for Freedom,” which also features the music of Grim Reaper, will be of interest primarily to women-in-prison completests. It comes with an interview with producer Lloyd Kaufman, conducted by Louzil. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
BBC/Discovery: Earthflight: The Complete Series
Winged Planet: An Earthflight Film
Nature: Ireland’s Wild River: Blu-ray
So many outstanding nature documentaries have been made for television in the last 10 years, it’s difficult to imagine how a new mini-series could be any more spectacular than the one that preceded it. Shown here originally on the Discovery Channel, “Earthflight” is going to be a tough one to beat, in that viewers are literally invited to share the same airspace with the bids. Narrated by David Tennant (“Doctor Who”), it is so brilliantly photographed, there are times when the images of birds in flight look as if they might have been rendered by the CGI jockeys at Pixar. Instead, individual birds have been outfitted with mini-cameras both for extreme close-ups and spectacular long-distance images. Easier to control are the drones, light aircraft and life-like dummies that capture the birds as they interact with other species on their pit stops. One dramatic example demonstrates how birds benefit from observing the hunting and feeding patterns of sharks, dolphins and whales, and benefit from their leftovers. The same thing happens when African vultures spot herds of migrating wildebeest and wait for the laggards to be killed by predators or break their legs attempting to escape them. It’s absolutely spectacular. “Earthflight” is divided into six equal parts: North America, Africa, Europe, South America, Asia and Australia, and “Flying High,” about the creation of the series and training of some of the birds. Parents will be every bit as impressed by the material as their kids, who will forever look at birds from a different perspective. “Winged Planet: An Earthflight Film” is a 90-minute condensation of the 360 minute series.

Ireland’s Wild River” is a presentation of the PBS series, “Nature,” shot in hi-def and detailing only one small part of our eco-sphere. Host and cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson spent a year living on the Shannon River and tributaries, at eye-level with its particular flora and fauna. His explorations are undertaken in a traditional canoe, so as to make the fewest possible ripples and get as close to the shore as possible. Each new season brings different discoveries and the arrivals and departures of migratory wildlife. The photography, which isn’t limited to what can be seen above the surface of the water, is nothing short of awe-inspiring. It’s almost as if the animals got so used to sharing their habitat with Stafford-Johnson that they forgot he was there. – Gary Dretzka

Mayberry R.F.D: Complete First Season
I live in one of many communities across the country that are referred to by residents as Mayberry. Even though our Mayberry is 25 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, it has no streetlights, parking meters, drive-through restaurants or malls. We live in the shadow of a mountain, occasionally are visited by bears and cougars, and there’s a park where concerts and socials occur in the summer. Like the TV series that bears the name “Mayberry R.F.D.” – a.k.a., Mount Airy, N.C. – next to nothing happens here and that’s the way the residents like it. The last time there was a hullaballoo, a developer had convinced a number of council members to break their pledge to constituents by approving a multi-level parking lot and mixed-use building on a vacant corner of the town square. The voters simultaneously vetoed the proposal and voted the bums out of office. In the otherwise tumultuous 1960s, American viewers invited “The Andy Griffith Show” and spinoff series “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and “Mayberry R.F.D.” into their homes each week. The possibility that there was a place in this agitated nation, where nothing happened that couldn’t be fixed in 24 minutes, was tremendously appealing. “Mayberry,” which effectively replaced Opie and Andy, got a huge boost when it was announced that Sheriff Andy Taylor and Helen Crump would be married on the first episode. Griffith would make occasional return appearances, but none that directed attention away from star Ken Berry. His character, too, is raising an orphan son, and hires Aunt Bee to make life easier for them on the farm. Berry’s Sam Jones is so exceedingly nice and reasonable that Aunt Bee immediately becomes the show’s Eddie Haskell to Buddy Foster’s Beaver Cleaver. (He’s the older brother of Jodie Foster.) The 26 color episodes in the new “Complete First Season” collection have been given a fresh polish and, for a 45-year-old product, look very good. I think that “Mayberry R.F.D.,” even more so than “The Andy Griffith Show,” is what Republicans mean when they emphasize the “family values” idyll: no crime, no minorities, no rock ’n’ roll and nothing to do. – Gary Dretzka

Tracie Long’s Longevity: Staying Power
I find it remarkable that one of the things that’s survived the seismic transition from VHS to DVD is the “workout tape.” But, why not? If Jane Fonda’s still churning them out, some folks must still be exercising at home. Long associated with the exercise regimen, the Firm, whose sales reportedly have exceeded 100 million units worldwide, Tracie Long recently set out on her own. Her DVDs are targeted to women and moms, over 35, who share certain physical limitations and scheduling issues. In the almost immediate wake of Long’s “Focus Series” comes “The Tracie Long Longevity Series,” which is broken up into 50- minute workouts. “Defining Shape” is designed to increase lean-muscle mass, focusing on the lower body and shoulders. “Staying Power” is an “interval style” discipline that delivers a balanced total-body challenge, concentrating on overall cardiovascular performance. “Step Forward” targets women’s legs with a range of motions and tempos. The workouts are intended to “ignite” a participant’s calorie-burning power and define shape, using high-energy, total-body-strength workouts and training exercises that combine upper and lower body movement to increase strength, create lean muscles and burn more calories than isolated muscle training, alone. I’m exhausted just writing this. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: Blu-ray
I’m not sure the world was crying out for a sequel to 2004’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” – oops, almost wrote “Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy” – when the idea for “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” popped into the heads of Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Judd Apatow. In the original, Ferrell parodied an especially ridiculous example of a 1970 local-news anchor. San Diego’s Harold Greene provided the model, but it could have been based on any one of a dozen such pompous twits. (Ted Knight’s unctuous newsreader on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was modeled after the SoCal anchor, George Putnam.) It would have been difficult for Ferrell to top the on-screen antics of actual 1970s anchors, but, because most of the audience for “Anchorman” was born after the happy-talk craze cooled, viewers might have seen it as pure invention. Adding to the madness were bombastic sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), “ladies man” reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and the incredibly stupid weather guy, Brick Tamland (Steve Carell). “Anchorman” returned a lot of money for DreamWorks and Apatow Productions, even if many pundits considered it to be little more than a particularly funny “Saturday Night Live” sketch. In 2006, rights to DreamWorks’ catalog would transfer to Paramount, whose bean-counters initially doubted the potential for a sequel. After squeezing some payroll concessions from core cast members, “Anchorman 2” was put on the front-burner and it’s done similarly well at the box office. The credit for that belongs, at least in part, to a saturation-marketing campaign that included appearances by Burgandy on actual news outlets, ESPN and commercials for automobiles. Normally, such a campaign would have cost Paramount a fortune, but today’s news executives would rather save money exploiting fake news and car chases than shell out for coverage of actual events.

The plot of “Anchorman 2” recalls the shaky debut of CNN and the 24-hour news cycle. It may be ubiquitous now, but, 30 years ago, it depended on Ted Turner’s pride and purse for success. After a shaky beginning, CNN would capture the public’s attention by providing wall-to-wall coverage of the Challenger disaster and rescue of 18-month-old Baby Jessica, who fell down a well in Midland, Texas. (The same strategy is currently working for CNN with its saturation coverage of the Flight 370 mystery.) Six years after Burgandy and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) accepted a job co-anchoring a show for a prestigious news operation in New York, she’s promoted to a solo-anchor spot and he’s fired. So jealous it burns, Burgandy walks out on Corningstone and their 6-year-old son. After a humiliating return to San Diego, he somehow manages to catch the attention of executives of the fledgling all-news GNN. He agrees to come on board, but only if he can reunite the old news team. After all, how much damage could these clowns do on the graveyard shift? Plenty, as it turns out. It isn’t until Burgandy throws aside the scripts and begins to ad-lib the news report that his demented babbling finds a loyal fan base of insomniacs and tavern patrons.  Much to the consternation of his fellow professionals at GNN and ex-wife, Burgandy’s ratings begin to go through the roof and the team gets a shot at prime time. Think of “Anchorman 2” as a dumbed hybrid of “Network” and “Broadcast News” and you’ll get the picture. The rest of the story is too flat-out goofy to explain, so I won’t even try. As you can imagine, the humor ranges from inspired to juvenile, with most of the weight on the latter. In addition to the cast members already mentioned, there’s a couple dozen other familiar faces that pop in and out of the story. One edition of the Blu-ray arrives with the 118-minute theatrical version, 122-minute unrated version and “super-sized” R-rated version, which boasts 763 new jokes. There’s also commentary with director/co-writer Adam McKay, co-writer/producer Judd Apatow, Ferrell, Carell, Rudd and Koechner; five behind-the-scenes featurettes; more than 90 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes; a pair of “line-o-rama” outtakes and gag reels; audition tapes; table reads; and script read-throughs. – Gary Dretzka

Knights of Badassdom: Blu-ray
In comparison to the seriously undernourished “Knights of Badassdom,” “Anchorman 2” feels inspired. As easy targets go, “live action role players” rank right up there with Trekkies and Bronies. Joe Lynch’s erratic comedy describes what happens when a collection of make-believe knights, elves and other medieval characters gather to re-enact the “Battle of Evermore” and score points toward some kind of mythical crown. What makes this competition different than a dozen others is the acquisition, through E-bay, of an ancient book of magic. With it, Eric the Wizard (Steve Zahn) hopes to find spells and other recipes for disaster to gain an edge on his team’s opponents. Most of the writing is indecipherable, but, in Eric’s hands, the parts that are legible are also the most dangerous. So, while members of other teams, honing their weapons and devising Trojan horses and vehicles of fake destruction, Eric’s conjured an actual mini-Godzilla. The teams fly their geek flags as if they were bestowed on them by King Arthur or Princess Leia, personally. Their leaders affect a language that’s a cross between old English and Klingon. There are as many rules as there are competitors and everyone maintains a separate identity consistent with the team’s chosen mythology. There’s also room made for some nerdy romance, but, as welcome as she is, it’s impossible to believe that a woman as scintillating as ballerina/model/actress Summer Glau would fall for it. The movie’s backstory explains the disjointed look of the finished product. Completed in 2010, the footage was taken away by producers who felt that they could do a better job in post-production than the creators, themselves. Who knows, maybe “Knights” really was that terrible and this version is an improvement. Stranger things have happened in Hollywood, I guess. My guess is that the producers decided to complete the project when one of them realized how much the reputations of the cast members had grown in four years. Among those whose careers had blossomed in the meantime are a pre-“Game of Crowns” Peter Dinklage, who remains the best reason to watch “Knights.” There’s also Ryan Kwanten (“True Blood”), W. Earl Brown (“Deadwood”), Margarita Levieva (“Revenge”), Danny Pudi (“Community”), Brian Posehn (“The Sarah Silverman Show”) and Joshua Malina (“Scandal”). – Gary Dretzka

At Middleton: Blu-ray
Academy Award nominees Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga apply their considerable talents to an indie rom-dram that should resonate with parents of kids in their senior year at high school. “At Middleton” takes place during one of the modern age’s most familiar rites of passage: the annual tour of colleges by prospective freshman and their parents. Like so many baby birds prodded from the nest by their elders, students get their first real taste of freedom and a view of the world afforded by being so far away from the comfort and conformity of their hometowns. Some meet kids who will become lifelong friends and discover opportunities they never knew existed. For their part, parents get their first inkling of how it might feel to lose one of their own, if only until they move back home after college. The twist in Adam Rodgers and Glenn German’s debut feature comes when adult strangers, played well by Garcia and Farmiga, decide to split from the tour and check out the school on their own. Left to their own devices, these polar opposites — George is uptight, Edith a bit of a free spirit –experience a different kind of freedom.

Both have reached the point of diminishing returns in their marriages and must decide if they’ll stay the course of attempt to realize what’s left of their potential. They make the most of their time together by sharing their frustrations, secrets, dreams and hopes for their children. Finally, once they get past their defense mechanisms, they fall into something resembling puppy love. Meanwhile, Audrey and Conrad are playing adult for perhaps the first time in their young lives, attempting to make well-reasoned decisions based on variables they can’t even see. As played by Spencer Lofranco and Taissa Farmiga (Vera’s sister), the kids aren’t nearly as different from their parents as they think. At first, Audrey and Conrad are attracted to each other by their mutual good looks and a shared embarrassment over their parents’ idiosyncracies. As the day progresses, however, it’s possible to see how first impressions might give way to the realities of adulthood. If they choose Middleton, anything could happen.

Despite its considerable charms, “At Middleton” comes off like a well-meaning made-for-cable movie … too saccharine by half. George’s preference for bowties and nerdy eyeglasses tells us everything we need to know about him, almost at first glance. Edith is more likeable, but ultimately too needy for viewers to fully embrace. Their best scene together comes when they’re adopted by a pair of Middleton students, who offer them refuge in their dorm and a bong to loosen their buns. You can practically taste the scenery Garcia and Farmiga are chewing. The movie’s biggest negative, in my opinion, is any perspective on the value of diversity in a college program. Because a year at Middleton probably ranges between $40,000-50,000, the kids will be surrounded by the cream of the American education system and, more likely than not, encouraged to follow a pre-determined path to their futures. It isn’t likely that either candidate would experience the kind of diverse, broad-based experience a public institution might provide. Like it or not, though, schools like Middleton are exactly what people in the movie industry think of first when considering colleges for their offspring. Also along for the ride are old pros Peter Reigert and Tom Skerritt. – Gary Dretzka

Behind Enemy Lines: SEAL Team 8
That our military has boots on the ground in several African hot spots shouldn’t come as news to anyone who reads the New York Times or monitors the BBC. Our interests there are many and varied. That Tom Sizemore is in charge of one of our elite fighting units – as evidenced in the fictional “Behind Enemy Lines: SEAL Team 8” – might come as something of a surprise to people who prefer the gossip rags, however. Once one of the actors most in demand to play soldiers, cops or criminals in a movie, Sizemore instead became an odds-on favorite to win the Hollywood Dead Pool. He continually put his life and career on the line, preferring drugs and other illegal pursuits to maintaining his insurability. Neither did his image improve when became engaged to the equally hapless Heidi Fleiss. Since getting cleaned up, however, the Detroit native seems to have found plenty of work, albeit in movies that tend to go straight-to-DVD. As befits a man of 52, Sizemore is kept out of harm’s way here by playing the off-site leader of a SEAL team, whose activities can be monitored via cameras on drones and satellites. They’ve been assigned to locate a clandestine African mining operation, rescue hostages and prevent the sale of weapons-grade uranium to international terrorists. A subsequent unsanctioned search takes the SEALs much deeper into enemy territory, where they’re seriously outnumbered and possibly outgunned. Working in the team’s favor, however, are the pilotless planes armed with Hellfire missiles and communications devices that know no border. It should surprise anyone when a rescued hostage turns out to be working both sides of the street.  Even so, the Congolese irregulars are a formidable fighting force and their terrorist sponsors are ruthless. The “Behind Enemy Lines” franchise has done pretty well for itself on home video and it’s easy to see why. By combining video-game point-and-shoot action with over-the-top violence, “SEAL Team 8” is often quite exciting and reasonably credible. In addition to Sizemore, the movie offers this week’s winner of our Name of the Week contest: Lex Shrapnel. – Gary Dretzka

Loves Her Gun
The Contenders
In writer/director Geoff Marslett’s loosey-goosey drama, “Loves Her Gun,” a young woman is doomed to make the kind of foolish decisions that are bound to put her a path toward almost certain disaster. From the title, we already know that gun-lust will play a key role either in her demise or salvation. How it will impact those within Allie’s orbit is another story altogether. On one fairly typical night, she attends a concert performed by musicians wearing karate gis and doing something resembling the Wave with their arms. On her way home from a funky Brooklyn club, Allie (Trieste Kelly Dunn) is mugged by a pair of guys wearing suits, ties and animal masks. Her decision to walk through an empty warehouse district at night, alone, is only the first of several colossal mistakes she’ll make. Freaked out, nonetheless, Allie begs a ride with the band to Austin, a haven deep in the heart of Texas for hipsters, cosmic cowboys and musicians. It doesn’t take her long to locate safe places to crash, feel comfortable in the city’s laid-back bar scene and adapting to the “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” lifestyle. Obviously still unnerved from the attack, Allie is encouraged to buy a pistol by the women for whom she works in a landscaping business. Everyone in Texas has one, she’s told, and, once mastered, they can provide a suitable alternative to vibrators and dildos. And, indeed, she does fall in lust with her pet firearm. Because not everyone in Texas is as conscientious about gun ownership as, say, Ted Nugent, no one bothers to explain to her the difference between pointing a gun at a paper target and a human being. Already a fuse waiting to be lit, Allie reacts to any disturbance in the neighborhood by grabbing the weapon and demanding immediate results. If it’s easy for viewers to predict how things might progress from her first day on the target range to the movie’s abrupt climax, I’ve fudged the details enough to maintain an element of surprise. Clearly made on a tight budget, “Loves Her Gun” will remind some viewers of a Mumblecore production, minus the laughs. Marslett and DP Amy Bench nicely capture Austin vibe, apart from the hook-’em-horns yahoos, and Dunn portrays a woman crushed by violence extremely well.

Sometimes, multi-hyphenate performers are too self-absorbed to notice when they’ve added one hyphen too many to their credits. That’s certainly the case with Marta Mondelli’s stagnant relationship drama, “The Contenders.” Informed primarily by such brainy folks as August Strindberg, Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer, it’s mostly an exercise in yuppie angst. Five youngish adults are invited to a weekend-long birthday party at their swank beach house. Before the first candle is blown out, however, the birthday girl complains of a headache, then goes upstairs for a nap and dies. Bummer, for sure. What’s worse, however, are the endless and intellectually pointless conversations the death inspires. In addition to writing and directing, Mondelli plays a pipe-smoking hottie who claims to know the secret to happiness but refuses to spill the beans. (Hint: it’s not having the bread to afford a swell beach house.) On the plus side, her movie is only 75 minutes long. – Gary Dretzka

Low
At a mere 70 minutes, “Low” is as much a short film as a feature. More often than not, brevity and concise storytelling work in the favor of horror and psychodramas, in which too much information can be as destructive as too little. Ross Shepherd’s sophomore film opens with an unassuming young woman crossing into an open meadow, carrying a box of ominous size. Shortly after burying the box, Alice is confronted by a slightly older and far creepier man, with longish hair and round spectacles. Edward demands that Alice take him to the place in the field where she buried the box. How he knew that Alice was concealing a secret as dastardly as his own is anyone’s guess. Flashbacks will help explain how the two people came to be in the same place on this particular day, while the rest of “Low” mostly concerns Alice’s attempt to free herself from Edward and an abusive boyfriend back home. It’s really that simple. Once again, the British countryside makes an auspicious setting for horror. – Gary Dretzka

Norma Rae: 35th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Fargo: Remastered Edition: Blu-ray
Right-wing talk-show hosts love to rail against Hollywood liberality, real and imagined. The fact is that money has always trumped personal political beliefs and, no matter how much of it an individual donates to Democratic candidates, liberal filmmakers will turn out militaristic action flicks and zombie movies if they are what’s keeping the turnstiles churning. On the other hand, if biopics about Stalin, Chairman Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro and global warming sold tickets, Rupert Murdoch would instruct his minions at Fox to call in Oliver Stone, Warren Beatty, Michael Moore and Jane Fonda for story conferences. If Hollywood was indeed so liberal, why did Oscar favorites “Dallas Buyers Club,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” need to be rescued by their stars to get financed, made and distributed? The release of the 35th anniversary edition of “Norma Rae,” on Blu-ray, reminded me of the time when message movies did make money for the studios, however reluctant they were to produce them or mirror the ideals they espoused. Martin Ritt’s pro-union drama, starring Sally Field, made plenty of money for Fox, possibly prompting the studio to distribute “Silkwood.” At about the same time, such decidedly progressive films as “Reds,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Missing,” “The China Syndrome,” “Coming Home,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Born on the Fourth of July” found enthusiastic audiences, as well. That period of liberality is long gone, now. Of the tens of thousands of American films produced in the interim, I’d be willing to bet that far more of them espoused traditional, conservative or downright fascist values than those associated with the left.

No one at Fox was enthusiastic about making a pro-union movie or casting Field in the role of the reluctant labor organizer in “Norma Rae.” Still burdened by stereotypes formed during her days playing Gidget and the Flying Nun, she gave one of the most rip-roaring performances by an actor in a decade filled with them. Field played a Southern millworker and party girl, who, after seeing too many of her fellow workers suffer from brown-lung disease, joins forces with a professional organizer from New York (Ron Leibman) to form a union. “Norma Rae” was a grass-roots David-vs.-Goliath story, with easily relatable issues, a beating heart and the ring of truth about it. Before re-watching it last week, I had relegated “Norma Rae” to the sands of time. Even though Americans have since been brainwashed against organized labor, it still packs a powerful punch. There are many fewer clichés and stereotypes than I could remember and even the opposition within the plant demonstrates a dollop of humanity toward Rae, who, after all, is one of their own. It would bring Field her first Academy Award and put her on the A-list for a long time to come. “Norma Rae” was based on the bravery of Crystal Lee Sutton and a 1975 book about her by New York Times reporter Henry “Hank” Leiferman, “Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance.” She was fired from her job at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, for trying to unionize its employees. Beau Bridges, Grace Zabriskie, Pat Hingle, Bob Minor and Gail Strickland are among the recognizable co-stars. The Blu-ray/DVD add “Hollywood Backstory: Norma Rae.”

I don’t know if the release of the re-mastered Blu-ray edition of “Fargo” was timed to coincide with the debut of FX’s mini-series of the same title, on April 15, but it seems likely that it was. Even if the TV show stinks, which I doubt, we’re still getting something new and improved from the deal. It isn’t the first time a television adaptation of the Coen Brothers’ dark comedy has been attempted. The first one, written by Bruce Paltrow and Robert Palm, aired very briefly in 2003 as a made-for-TV movie. It starred a pre-“Sopranos” Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson. The new show will feature Joey King, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Keith Carradine, Bob Odenkirk and Oliver Platt. The great thing about the original movie is that fans can find something new in every viewing, by focusing on the backgrounds, office shelves and deceptively clever dialogue. The new edition retrieves commentary with director of photography Roger Deakins, the featurettes “Minnesota Nice” and “Trivia Nice,” an article from American Cinematographer and BD-Live. – Gary Dretzka

Campaign of Hate: Russia and Gay Propaganda
The more we hear from Russia about its official stance on homosexuality, the more Vladimir Putin sounds like Adolph Hitler. He may have had his bluff called on the subject before the Sochi Olympics, but, since then, nothing has stopped him from attacking people who had few enough allies in Russia. Would it surprise anyone if Putin’s allies in the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church demanded that these undesirables by forced to wear pink stars on their clothes. They use the same rhetoric once directed at the Jews of Europe by Hitler and have even called out party thugs to break up rallies and suppress public demonstrations of affection. By annexing the Crimean Peninsula, the historical parallels are now too close to ignore. Next will come measures to limit the movement of Muslims and other non-Russian minorities.  In Michael Lucas’ penetrating documentary, “Campaign of Hate: Russia and Gay Propaganda,” we meet and hear from a couple dozen people who are most directly affected by the new laws and physical attacks. Because several of them have already decided to get out of Russian while the getting is still good, the witnesses might as well be speaking for the gays and lesbians trapped in even worse situations in Africa and other parts of the world. We also meet representatives of the religious right, who, not surprisingly, make the same dopey arguments as their brethren in the United States, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya. Last year, the Russian parliament passed a ban on “gay propaganda” that effectively makes nearly any public discussion of the fight for equality a crime. Moscow has outlawed Gay Pride parades for the next 100 years. Adoption of Russian children is forbidden to citizens of any foreign country that permits gay marriage. Although Putin theoretically could step in to prevent the imposition of a pink-star mandate, if only to mollify western concerns, it’s clear from the witnesses gathered by Lucas that much of the foundation for more heinous actions has already been laid.  – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
ITV/BBC America: Broadchurch: Season 1
Power Rangers: Seasons 13-17
The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Fully Roasted
I don’t have to tell you that some shows are more binge-worthy than others and some probably ought to be savored on a weekly basis, as originally designed. A full week’s worth of anticipation for the next episode of “Mad Men,” “True Blood” and “The Sopranos” only adds to the total experience, while more literary adaptations can be savored in the same way that a book is enjoyed, at one’s convenience or all in one gulp. Both versions of “House of Cards” and “Shameless,” “Downton Abbey,” “True Detective” and “Orange Is the New Black” qualify in the latter category. Newly arrived on DVD is the ITV mini-series, “Broadchurch,” which aired here on BBC America. As straightforward as a good British mystery, “Broadchurch” takes full advantage of its nearly 400-minute length to solve a heinous crime that has impacted a scenic and normally placid tourist community on the English Channel. One morning in the off-season, the body of an 11-year-old boy is discovered on the beach, only a few feet distant from a nearly vertical cliff. There’s no reason to believe that Danny Latimer jumped or was pushed to his death. Neither was he sexually abused or washed up on the sand by waves. As these sorts of whodunits and procedurals go, it’s a dandy mystery. What distinguishes “Broadchurch” from other multi-part mysteries we’ve all seen are the many parallel dramas that unfold as the investigation continues. Chief among them is the steadily evolving professional relationship between the intense, by-the-book Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and the compassionate Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), who is disappointed that she didn’t get the DI position that went to Hardy. The other key relationship is the steadily disintegrating one between the victim’s parents, Beth and Mark Latimer. In time, more than a dozen other townsfolk are interrogated as “persons of interest.” They range from Danny’s friends and neighbors, to the local vicar and a spooky psychic. Once those characters are introduced, their lives, too, are peeled back like onion skin to reveal buried secrets. The temperament of a town in distress can be calculated in the roiling sea and the pale sky. When news of the murder breaks in the tabloid press, it threatens the town’s seasonal livelihood and shines light into places that probably should remain dark. I’m not sure this description does justice to the intensity of the mini-series, which keeps viewers guessing from minute one to the final scene and taking sides in the investigation. The DVD adds deleted scenes, a background piece and interviews.

Fans of the Power Rangers franchise will find “Power Rangers: Seasons 13-17” equally binge-worthy. The good folks at Shout!Factory have been sending out restored editions of the long-running series “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” in 1993. The current season, “Power Rangers Super Megaforce,” debuted here in February. The new five-season boxed set takes fans to that point. Really, really serious collectors may want to invest in Shout!Factory’s “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Legacy Collection,” which arrives in a red helmet and contains all 20 seasons in a 98-DVD set, with a 100-page book comprised of essays, episode descriptions, photos and illustrations. This set is individually numbered, up to 2,000 copies. If one were to purchase this package, at $799.99, my advice is to keep it in its original packaging and stick it in a closet, until you need some quick catch. The material in the new box, at $129.99, adds featurettes, “Mad Props!,” with prop master Mark Richardson and members of the cast looking back on working with the props of “Power Rangers”; “Rangers On Set!,” in which cast members reflect on their favorite—and least favorite—sets; “Ranger Tales,” with the reflections of  cast members; “Collect ‘Em All!,” in which fans show off their favorite Power Rangers toys and collectibles; and “The S.P.D. Rangers Want You,” “Mystic Force: Forces Of Nature!” and “Operation Overdrive Files.”

Once I put on the first disc from the holiday-ready box of shows from the “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts,” I could hardly take my eyes off of them. It wasn’t so much the jokes and insults being flung at celebrity guests as it was the mere presence of the roasters, who represent a who’s-who of comedy from several decades of American show business. The series ran from 1973-84, a period in time when the dais might hold a couple of entertainers who started in vaudeville, venerable movie stars, singers, contemporary TV actors and the odd astronaut or general. Some of the roasters had about as much business sitting alongside the legends as I would have had, which is to say, none. “Fully Roasted” mines 540 minutes of material from the larger collector’s box and makes it available to general consumer for the first time. Among the celebrities here are Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Benny, Jonathan Winters, Redd Foxx, Hugh Hefner, Don Rickles, Jimmie “Dyn-o-mite” Walker, Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Red Buttons Foster Brooks, Rick Little, Paul Anka, Carroll O Connor, Joey Bishop, Shelley Winters, George Kennedy, Earnest Borgnine, Orson Welles, Jimmy Stewart, Phyllis Diller, Rocky Graziano, Billy Crystal, Betty White, Ronald Reagan, Bette Davis, Angie Dickinson, Muhammad Ali, George Burns, Telly Savalas, Rowan and Martin, Barry Goldwater, Suzanne Somers, Dennis Weaver, Ralph Nader, Gabe Kalplan, Norm Crosby, Ruth Buzzi and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Newly filmed bonus material includes interviews with participants and contemporary performers influenced by Dean and a memory booklet with essays and photos. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
American Experience: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: the Last Outlaws
Nova: Zeppelin Terror Attack
Frontline: Secret State of North Korea
Nature: Honey Badgers: Masters of Mayhem
PBS: Israel: The Royal Tour
Nova: Ghosts of Murdered Kings
Paul Newman and Robert Redford may have immortalized Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in George Roy Hill’s rather fanciful Western, but for the rest of their story history buffs have had to turn to other sources. The “American Experience” presentation, “Butch Cassidy & Sundance Kid: The Last Outlaws,” fills in the holes rather nicely. Much of the fascination with the pair derives from the timing of their exploits, which coincided with the rise of the Pinkerton Detective Agency as a national militia that was at the beck and call of industrialists, banks and anti-labor forces. The agency not only put the outlaws and cops on equal footing, but the detectives were given free rein to murder and maim, intimidate workers and crush strikes. They also maintained a larger, more efficient arsenal. The documentary takes viewers to spots on the Outlaw Trail, where, today, you’d need a drone to discover the hideouts. Thus, the gang’s reputation for disappearing into thin air after a heist. “The Last Outlaws” provides a breezy lesson in American history and a post-mortem on the era just before outlaws were able to use machine guns and cars to evade arrest, until J. Edgar Hoover came along to put an end to their game, as well.

Most of what Americans know about the history of zeppelins derives from the Hindenburg disaster and their use as modern marketing tools. The “Nova” presentation, “Zeppelin Terror Attack,” recalls the horrific First Blitz, when German-made dirigibles dropped bombs on London from heights most planes couldn’t then reach. The documentary first takes on the technological research that went into the creation of such fighting machines, while the second part chronicles the development of bullets that could both pierce their skin and cause explosions within the infrastructure. It wasn’t nearly as simple as it now seems.

PBS’ “Secret State of North Korea” was completed before Kim Jong-un ordered all men in North Korea to adopt hairdos exactly like his. Otherwise, it’s quite up to date. The documentary uses hidden cameras to describe the extreme lengths to which the impoverished citizens of this ridiculous country go to possess the technology that allows them to remain informed and entertained. The risk is huge, considering that Kim would prefer the citizenry not have any contact with the outside world. The smuggling of fully loaded thumb and flash drives is tricky and dangerous, and he’s already proven himself willing and able to kill anyone, including his relatives, to maintain his grip on the country.

Honey badgers may resemble skunks with bad haircuts, but, as pests and predators go, they don’t come any tougher. “Honey Badgers: Masters of Mayhem” describes how the mustelid has managed to survive and prosper against larger foes. They can’t be contained by most man-made enclosures and possess an uncanny ability to invade homes in their African habitats. It’s quite astonishing how much damage these critters can do in a very short time.

PBS’s “Israel: The Royal Tour” follows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and travel journalist Peter Greenberg as they tour the country, with an eye toward revealing destinations and historic landmarks off the beaten path for most tourists. Because it pointedly avoids the tough questions about the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians – especially the ability of the latter to travel freely throughout Israel – “The Royal Tour” frequently feels as if it were an infomercial produced specifically for Pledge Month begathons. Even so, Israel is an amazing country, full of places that merge beauty and horror.

Ghosts of Murdered Kings” describes the search for clues in the ritual murders of Bronze Age royalty. It opens in the rolling hills of Ireland’s County Tipperary, where a laborer harvesting peat from a dried-up bog spotted remnants of a perfectly preserved, if headless torso. Archeologists recognize the corpse as one of Europe’s rare “bog bodies”: prehistoric corpses flung into marshes with forensic clues often suggesting execution or human sacrifice. Researchers use modern forensics techniques to determine the fates of the ancient clans. – Gary Dretzka

Gordon Family Tree
Richard Karn and Corbin Bernsen represent the marquee talent in the Dove-approved, Kickstarter-funded “Gordon Family Tree,” a family-oriented movie that probably will make more sense to parents than kids. Like so many successful professionals after reaching a personal landmark, the newly 30 Freemont Gordon decides that he can’t stand another day at his job as an architect and wants to do something more fulfilling. Unlike most of us, however, he’s in a financial position to accommodate this sudden whim. He decides to leave Los Angeles behind and go on a roadtrip to places not quite so obsessed with the trappings of wealth. Instead, Gordon repays the kindness of new friends by building tree houses for their families. In doing so, he rewards himself in kind. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Friday, March 28th, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street: Blu-ray
The King of Comedy: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
If any filmmaker is more adept at making us feel sympathy for the devil than Martin Scorsese, I don’t know who that person would be. Even when there isn’t an ounce of decency to be mined from the gangsters, moguls and monsters played by Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio in his pictures, we’re willing to hang on to the belief that they might be salvageable, if only out of respect for the actors. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” however, he might have met his match in a character who’s as despicable in real life as he is in real life. Not only is New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) an opportunistic leech, but he also lacks the cinematic heft to justify his presence in a Scorsese movie. After three hours of screen time, we’re given no concrete reason to whether he ODs on drugs, is given a disease by one of the many hookers he hires or is thrown in prison for the rest of his life. From beginning to end, Belfort’s fortune is built and maintained by individuals who forgot to read the small print when they were suckered into investing through Stratton Oakmont and one of its “pump and dump” schemes. Yes, even amid the greatest bull market in history, it was possible to lose money. Unlike the gangsters in Scorsese’s most famous films, Belfort targeted the innocent and spared the equally guilty. Scorsese’s incapable of making a movie that’s less than entertaining, as is DiCaprio, but the real selling point here is the protagonist’s ability to shovel mountains of cocaine and Quaaludes into his system without killing himself. The closest thing to a victim we see in “Wolf of Wall Street” are his ex-wives, one of whom is portrayed as a gold-digger and the other his high school sweetheart, who simply couldn’t compete in the big leagues of debauchery. In “Boiler Room,” based loosely on the same “pump and dump” scheme, we’re introduced to a client who lost everything in his dealings with one of Belfort’s firms and was about to inflict his own form of justice as the FBI raids the offices.

Despite these qualms, there’s a lot to like about “Wolf of Wall Street.” No one stages a party quite as deliciously as Scorsese or make criminal enterprises seem so worth the risk of prison. I have no way of knowing if Bernie Madoff celebrated his ill-gotten gains with hookers, midget-tossing and extreme substance abuse, but, from what I know about traders at Chicago’s Board of Trade, the celebrations in “Wolf of Wall Street” may only be slightly exaggerated. Ditto, the amounts of Quaaludes, cocaine and booze consumed. In “Casino” and “GoodFellas,” characters played by Joe Pesci paid a heavy price for letting their hubris get the best of them. Instead of spending a lifetime in prison for his crimes and fully repaying the people he swindled, Belfort served a mere 22 months in stir and has yet to pony up the full $110.4 million ordered by the court. Sounds like a fair trade to me. Danny Porush, who is the model for Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff, served 39 months in jail and has managed to repay some of his fine. He now runs a Florida medical-supply business, which has employed several other former workers from Stratton Oakmont firm, and is being investigated for questionable Medicare billings. Porush and his second wife, Lisa, live in a $4 million mansion and drive matching Rolls-Royce Corniche convertibles. And, yes, he did eat a live goldfish at a company party. The Blu-ray presentation nicely captures the technical attributes Scorsese always brings to his projects. If it only adds one 17-minute making-of featurette, a DVD copy and UV/iTunes digital copies, I suspect that it won’t be long before we’re invited to see the uncropped “director’s cut” version, with commentaries and other bonus features.

If only because the DVD/Blu-rays were released on the same day last week, “King of Comedy” begs comparison with “Wolf of Wall Street,” as well as debate about Scorsese Now and Scorsese Then. Without diminishing what’s excellent in the new title, I suspect that the truly challenging “King of Comedy” will stand the test of time better the saga of Jordan Belfort. Paul Zimmerman’s script was first shown to Scorsese in 1974, the same year as People magazine was launched and a few years before Mark David Chapman and John Hinkley Jr. introduced a dangerous new wrinkle to the celebrity game. Today, the media has turned stalking into something resembling a career. Watch “King of Comedy” alongside “The Bling Ring” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and you’ll understand what Zimmerman had seen in his crystal ball four decades ago. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe standup comic who’s convinced himself that he’s ready for prime-time. He sees in late-night talker Jerry Langford (Lewis) his ticket to stardom. Indeed, Pupkin’s deepest secret is that he not only wants to perform on the show, but usurp Langford’s crown, as well. Compounding Langford’s misery is Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a rabid fan who shows up at the same back doors and red carpets as Pupkin. Her dementia manifests itself in a desperate desire to have sex with him, preferably on the dining-room table of her parents’ posh Manhattan apartment. After Langford recognizes their latent hostility and blows them off, Masha and Rupert decide to kidnap him and hold him for ransom. All Rupert wants is a spot on the show, while Masha is determined to rape him. Lewis is terrific as the host, who fully understands how much of himself he’s sacrificed for wealth and fame, but is too addicted to stop. The fact is, Scorsese didn’t quite know what to do with the script when De Niro pushed it on him. It’s very much an actors’ vehicle and dark as coal mine. Given the talent involved, critics and audiences were as unnerved by the setup as Scorsese, at first. There’s plenty of comedy on display here, but it emerge from the scariest of situations. No matter how much the world has fallen in love with celebrity and the trappings of wealth, for example, how many of us haven’t considered taking Lindsay Lohan, Justin Beiber and any one of a dozen of Langford’s heirs to the woodshed for a good whuppin’? Finally, after forcing the network’s hand, Rupert ends his bit by looking at the camera and telling his nationwide audience, “Tomorrow, you’ll know I wasn’t kidding and you’ll all think I’m crazy. But I figure it this way: better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime.” And, if that doesn’t sum up the motivation for appearing such shows as “Duck Dynasty” and “Bad Girls,” what is? Clearly, something that bordered on the preposterous 30-plus years ago seems prescient, today. That’s what we expect from our top talents. The Blu-ray presentation suffers a bit from all of the garish fashions and blinding colors on display in “King of Comedy.” It’s a minor distraction, though. The deleted scenes are well worth watching, as are the hilarious post-screening Q&A with Scorsese, De Niro, Lewis and Bernhard, and making-of featurette filled with anecdotes about the shoot. – Gary Dretzka

Girl on a Bicycle
The audience most likely to enjoy “Girl on a Bicycle” is the same one that embraced the frothy rom-coms imported from France in the 1970-80s: “La Cage aux Folles,” “The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe,” “Les compères” and “Cousin, Cousine.” Because Americans had stopped reading subtitles by then, Hollywood tended to lard the remakes with gooey sentimentality and cutesy star turns. (The best translation, “The Birdcage,” benefitted from the combined talents of Michael Nichols, Elaine May, Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane, Dianne Wiest and composer Stephen Sondheim.) I can’t imagine anyone here remaking “Girl on a Bicycle,” if only because it’s already been internationalized by writer/director Jeremy Levin. The South Bend native put together an attractive pan-European cast, used several different tongues, several photogenic Parisian locations and mildly sexual interludes. These assets add balance to a story that’s both light as a feather and completely unrealistic. The likable Italian actor Vincenzo Amato plays Paolo, a multilingual driver of a tour bus with the worst timing in Paris. No sooner has Paolo proposed to German stewardess Greta (Nora Tschirner) than coincidence puts him in daily contact with the titular girl on a bicycle, Cécile (Louise Monot). After chasing Cecile to get her number, his erratic driving causes an accident that puts her in a cast. Feeling an obligation to his victim, Paolo carries the heavily doped Cecile home to the apartment she shares with her half-Australian kids. In a funny twist, the kids take an immediate liking to Paolo, even to where they immediately begin to refer to him as “Poppa.” Meanwhile, the newly engaged stewardess is allowing herself to be wooed by one of the pilots. “Girl on a Bicycle” can’t help but succumb to farce when Paolo and Greta become suspicious of each other and she’s led to believe that her fiancé is already married and a father of two. Yeah, it’s nonsense, but harmless and occasionally funny enough to recommend to Francophiles. Paddy Considine plays the best-friend role, adding even more sexual tension to the mix. The DVD adds some interviews. – Gary Dretzka

The Great Beauty: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Comparisons between Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” not only were inevitable, upon its debut at Cannes 2013, but they also were welcomed by everyone involved in the production. Just as Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece defied easy criticism by being so unlike any other movie of its time, “The Great Beauty” stands out from today’s crowd by introducing us to a man cloned from Marcello Mastroianni’s DNA and dedicated to the proposition that the sweet life is always worth savoring. Stage specialist Toni Servillo (“Il Divo”) plays a writer, Jeb Gambardella, who was famous long ago for writing a best-selling novel and influencing an entire generation of Italians. Now pressing 65, he’s accorded the same respect and privileges as when the novel was published. For reasons of his, not related to any possible writer’s block, he’s chosen to rest on his laurels. Today, he occasionally interviews celebrities and historical figures for a magazine edited by a feisty dwarf, Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), who’s as much a scenester as he is. Jeb’s one of those guys, like the Las Vegas-based Robin Leach, who’s extended his 15 minutes of fame by more than 30 years. He loves being surrounded by beautiful women and is loved, in turn, for not being openly critical of their vapidity. Jeb observes Rome from the perspective of a man who rarely goes to sleep until everyone else in the city is getting ready to go to work. He purposely walks home from the clubs and parties he attends, marveling at the amazing things one can find in the Eternal City if you keep your eyes open and take the time to embrace the curiosities. Jeb shows no sign of slowing down until he receives word of the death of his first lover. It makes him wonder why hasn’t done more with his life and is so easily satisfied as being the life of any party he’s in attendance. Because of the Botox and other elixirs to which his friends are addicted, it’s difficult to read the ages and desperation in the faces of his closest friends. An unexpected death notice can turn an energetic middle-aged man a contemplative senior citizen overnight. What’s so wonderful about “The Great Beauty” is the love, compassion and admiration shown both to Jeb and Rome by Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. He isn’t made the object of ridicule or pity and holds his own in the discos.

Lush and intensely colorful, this is a movie that demands to been seen on Blu-ray, if not a theater equipped with the latest technology. Not only does Bigazzi capture the city’s grandeur and respect for antiquity, but his camera also shines a celestial light on the Holy Roman Church’s many sacred and profane customs. One of the minor characters is a keeper of the keys to several of Rome’s most historical and elegant homes, so we’re granted access to them, as well. Like Fellini, Sorrentino’s cast of characters includes people many viewers would consider to be freakish, if essential pieces of the puzzle that is Jeb. Among the most curious is a fabled nun, not unlike Mother Teresa, known far and wide as “the Saint.” The 103-year-old Sister Maria eats nothing but boiled roots, sleeps on the floor and prepares to return to her African mission. She’s in Rome to renew her commitment to Christ by climbing by making her way to the top of a famous steeple, on her knees. The only journalist to whom she’ll give an interview is Jeb, whose book she read and admired before taking a vow of poverty. Maria’s escorted around the city by a Cardinal, reputed to be the Vatican’s most successful exorcist, but now is more interested in discussing his recipes for Italian food with anyone pretending to listen.

It’s possible to enjoy “The Great Beauty” in the same way as an informed tourist or student of art history might when in Rome. It makes few demands on the viewer, except those who, like Jeb, are nearing the goalposts of life and don’t know if they’ll go out in glory or a has-been. It’s also fun to attempt to identify the homages paid by Sorrentino to Fellini and other great filmmakers. Beyond those simple joys, however, is a movie that demands of viewers that they look at life as a continuum and not wait until they’re retired to find their place in the world … or, stop having fun. “The Great Beauty” is a very special movie and the Criterion Collection presentation, digitally transferred in 2K, is nothing short of spectacular. The supplemental features include fresh interviews with Servillo and co-screenwriter Umberto Contarello; a filmed conversation between Italian film scholar Antonio Monda and Sorrentino; deleted scenes and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Lopate. – Gary Dretzka

The Past: Blu-ray
In what, at first, appears to be a thematic sequel to his brilliant “A Separation,” Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi introduces us to Ahmad and Marie, a woman and man soon to be divorced in Paris. It’s thousands of miles away from Iran, but a place both once called home. No one’s disputing the facts of the case and, as far as I can tell, there’s no religious subtext to consider. The fewer assumptions viewers make about ethnic stereotypes and political imperatives, the easier it will be for them to stay on the same page as Farhadi. Neither are Marie and Ahmad wealthy exiles, killing time in the west until the next revolution rolls around. Marie has just picked up Ahmad from the airport and is driving him back to the modest house they once shared with their two kids. He had asked her to get him a hotel room, but she decided it would be too expensive and, anyway, he should spend time with the girls. And, there’s the rub. For Ahmad, coming back to Paris wasn’t a daunting task, even if he could have phoned in the divorce through a lawyer. He wants to see his kids, too. No sooner are both doors closed, however, than Marie (Berenice Bejo) begins beating him over the head with a litany of problems that await him. Their 16-year-old daughter, Lucie, has turned into a monster ever since Marie’s boyfriend, Samir, moved into the house with his young son. Samir’s wife is in a hospital, lying comatose, after a suicide attempt. The absence of his mother compounds the boy’s anxiety and serious rage issues. A bit later, we’ll learn that Marie is pregnant with Samir’s child. This is quite a bit more craziness than Ahmad expected and he gets the impression that Marie expects him to at least get Lucie back on track. “The Past” doesn’t dwell on the past four years in Marie’s life, however, and that’s a considerable blessing.

The first surprising thing Americans will notice is that Ahmad isn’t portrayed as being some kind of brooding fundamentalist prick, here today and back to Iran tomorrow with his daughters in tow. In fact, he attempts to blend right into the makeshift family, soothing and babysitting for Samir’s boy and his youngest daughter. He also tries to make sense of Lucie’s deeply rooted bitterness toward her mother and Samir. If you think that you know where “The Past” is heading from here, you don’t. That’s because Farhadi turns the tables on us by collecting the background material, standing it on its head, throwing in some outright lies and allowing “The Past” to slowly evolve into the mystery it was intended to be all along. Personalities change dramatically before our eyes, reversing any preconceptions we might have about the characters and what happened in Paris while Ahmad was back in Iran. The suspense that wasn’t in evidence during for the first 20-or-so minutes of the movie continues to build, until it becomes a character of its own, as is working-class Paris. The Blu-ray adds an interview with Farhadi, undisputedly one of the world’s elite filmmakers. – Gary Dretzka

Junk
Evil: In the Time of Heroes
The single best piece of advice most aspiring novelists will ever receive is, “Write what you know.” This applies as much to screenwriters as it does to anyone who’s limited their discourse to Twitter and Facebook. One may not require a thorough knowledge of the undead – or relish the taste of flesh – to make a good zombie picture, but an appreciation of the subgenre’s entire history is essential. Independent filmmakers are excruciatingly familiar with is the horror that derives from trying to sell a genre picture to distributers who’ve literally seen them all. In “Junk,” the protagonists’ ordeal requires that they find someone — anyone – willing to watch their movie, at least. And, where better to find the living dead than at a film festival dedicated to horror. In real reel life, collaborators Kevin Hamedani and Ramon Isao spent a lot of time on the festival circuit hawking their 2009 debut, “ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction,” which went straight-to-DVD as part of Lionsgate’s “After Dark Horrorfest” series. (No small reward in a period of genre overload. ) Here, they play a couple of horror geeks, Kaveh and Raul, who have been invited to their first festival to screen the terrorist-monster flick, “Islama-rama 2.” Their primary objective is pitching producer, Yukio Tai (James Hong), who’s hired bodyguards to ward off such wannabes. Meanwhile, they’re also required to deal with personal issues, cutthroat colleagues, inept agents, romantic entanglements, prima-donna actors, the effects of too much cocaine on affairs of the penis, Islamic protesters, dopey Q&A questions and, finally, each other. Fortunately, they’ve received a positive review from a legit critic to shield them from the riff-raff. “Junk” may leave a lot to be desired, but its slapstick approach to the subject should resonate with anyone who’s attended more than one festival or entered a film into competition. The DVD includes commentary with the filmmakers.

Greek yogurt, Greek salads and feta cheese have taken America by storm, so why not Hellenic zombie movies? What, indeed? As far as I can tell, “Evil: In the Time of Heroes” is only the second such film that’s made the journey to the U.S., the first being the 2005 prequel, “Evil.” Unless I’m reading it entirely wrong, “Time of Heroes” is far less Greek tragedy than a parody on the order of “Shaun of the Dead.” Set in Athens, with the Parthenon frequently in the background, it’s pretty much a continuation of what happened in the earlier picture, except for the presence of Greek-American Billy Zane. Here, he plays some kind of messenger of the gods with a violent streak. The same zombies unloosed in “Evil” are terrorizing the city and the same quartet of unaffected mercenaries is attempting to stay alive. “Time of Heroes” flashes back occasionally to ancient Athens, where shepherds were the targets. Given the economic issues plaguing modern Greece, zombies may only amount to a nuisance. It’s possible to kill them, after all. If the story, apart from the setting, could apply to a hundred other such movies, it’s to the credit of co-writer/director Yorgos Noussias and co-writers Claudio Bolivar, Christos Houliaras and Petros Nousias that the dialogue is as fresh and funny as it is. Even with its fractured subtitles – hire a Greek to translate the diluted profanities — it’s a continually entertaining spoof. The gore factor is high, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Boardwalk: Blu-ray
Far more a curiosity than a reason for cheer, Stephen Verona’s 1979 family drama,
Boardwalk,” stars Ruth Gordon and Lee Strasberg, two of the giants of the stage and screen in the 20th Century. Gordon, who began appearing in movies in 1915, finally took home an Oscar 56 years later for her unforgettable performance in “Harold & Maude.” Until his Oscar-nominated turn as gangster Hyman Roth in “The Godfather: Part II,” Strasberg was best known for mentoring such prominent actors as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn and dozens of others as director of Actors Studio. Alas, almost none of Gordon and Strasberg’s knowledge and experience was absorbed by Verona (“The Lords of Flatbush”) and co-writer Leigh Chapman (“Dirty Mary Crazy Larry”), whose portrait of a New York neighborhood in transition is so clunky and stereotypical that it resembles a “Death Wish” for senior citizens. David and Becky Rosen have lived in Coney Island for many decades. They raised a family there and ran a successful business. Like everything else in New York in the 1970s, Coney Island was going through serious demographic changes. Crime was rampant and people who could afford to move to the suburbs did so, leaving the elderly to deal with the new realities of urban life. In this case, it’s a gang of street punks, the Satans, that’s intent on terrorizing elderly Jews and convincing them to leave. The punks ransack a synagogue, throw a firebomb into the Rosens’ restaurant, beat up a frail old woman and make the famous Boardwalk off-limits to anyone they don’t like. The problem is that the gang members are cut from cardboard and are no more credible than the archetypal bikers, student radicals and hippies depicted in “The Mod Squad” or on the LSD episode of “Dragnet.” They appear out of nowhere and don’t seem to be motivated by anything except anti-Semitism and bad tempers. The cops are never there when they are needed and the Guardian Angels were still in their infancy. The Jewish characters, played by several then-prominent Broadway character actors, are given more depth and fewer onerous prejudices. Despite the movie’s problems, it was fun to watch Gordon and Strasberg as longtime lovers. Janet Leigh is wasted as the Rosens’ daughter, while songwriter Sammy Cahn and Altovise Davis appear in cameos. – Gary Dretzka

The Truth About Emanuel: Blu-ray
Machine Head
There’s a pretty decent psycho-thriller lurking just beneath the surface of “The Truth About Emanuel,” but sophomore writer/director/producer Francesca Gregorini undermines her story revealing the gag before viewers have even gotten comfortable in their seats. Only those new to the genre will be unable to see what’s coming from a mile away. That said, however, Gregorini’s all-pro cast keeps us wondering if she might be able to pull it off, anyway. Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is a troubled teen, who refuses to accept the woman (Frances O’Connor) her widower father (Alfred Molina) has chosen to be her stepmother. Even before we get to the gag, we’re made aware of the survivor’s guilt Emanuel still harbors over the drowning death of her mother, before she had an opportunity to learn much about her. When a new neighbor (Jessica Biel) moves in next-door, the girl can’t help but notice the resemblance to photographs of her mom hanging on the walls of her house. At first glance, Linda looks to be a perfectly normal mother of newborn daughter, who Emanuel immediately volunteers to babysit. At second glance, however, there’s no disguising the fact something is terribly unnatural about the baby. I’m not spoiling anything by pointing this out, because most of the movie concerns itself with figuring why Emanuel and Linda aren’t seeing the same crazy things that we are and why Linda’s husband has yet to join them in their new suburban digs. Blessedly, “The Truth About Emanuel” isn’t completely lacking in suspense – or some magical realism, either — so fans of the actors, at least, won’t be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, outtakes and an interview with the director.

Jim Valdez’ modest teen-slasher thriller began life three years ago as “Spring Break Killer,” but probably became “Machine Head” after someone noticed the upcoming “Spring Breakers” and “Spring Break ’83,” as well as such recent gems a “Spring Break Massacre,” “Spring Breakdown” and “Spring Break Shark Attack.” I doubt that anyone was terribly concerned with being mistaken for the 1963 romp, “Palm Springs Weekend,” which isn’t far from Rancho Mirage,” where “Machine Head” was shot and practically didn’t exist back then. Anyway, a group of pretty young women is given the keys to a dramatically positioned home overlooking the Coachella Valley, as long as a younger sister is allowed to tag along … bummer. Along the way, the driver of a black muscle car taunts them and provides Valdez with an alternate title. The good news for male viewers, anyway, comes when they’re ensconced in the remote desert digs and the sun is ripe for tanning. As night begins to fall, of course, it’s back to terror time with the mysterious owner of the car lurking. Anyone with a jealous younger sibling might be able predict the outcome. I don’t, so it came as a bit of surprise to me. “Machine Head” provides the requisite number of cheap thrills for a straight-to-DVD offering, but benefits from the beautiful scenery. – Gary Dretzka

The Punk Singer
I always thought that the “riot grrrl movement” was founded on a belief that women in rock ’n’ roll were simply fed up with their second- and third-class status in the music business: “chick singers,” backup units, groupies and novelty acts. The few women who managed to cut through the crap and emerge as stars have had to overcome great odds and a litany of insults to make it to the top. It’s even rarer to find a female musician among the boys in the bands. Finally, though, women with comparable talent and moms who taught them what it means to be a feminist in a post-feminist age, came to the fore. I wouldn’t dismiss the inspiration of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and her wild fashion sense in the creation of the riot grrrl movement, either. Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the punk band Bikini Kill and dance-punk trio Le Tigre served as the prototype for the riot grrrl. She took shit from no one and sang louder than anyone else. More to the point, she rocked. By the time Hanna was diagnosed with Lyme disease and sent to the sidelines, she had influenced an entire generation of young women, who would could never be confused with the chick singers of yore. Then, she kind of disappeared. Sini Anderson’s lively and inarguably vital rock-doc, “The Punk Singer,” answers the question many fans must have asked themselves over the last eight or nine years: what ever happened to her? Well, she’s still alive and kicking, doing the things her health allows her to do artistically. “The Punk Singer” isn’t the first rock-doc to explain the movement. While “Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour,” “Don’t Need You” and “She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column” did a nice job in that regard, “Punk Singer” focuses directly on its most visible and influential player. Anderson pored through 20 years of archival footage and interviews to form his portrait, adding observations by such luminaries as Beastie Boy/husband Adam Horowitz, Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon and Tavi Gevinson. The DVD adds extended interviews and background material. – Gary Dretzka

The Swimmer: Blu-ray
Best of Bogart Collection: Blu-ray
When people talk about important movies from the past that Hollywood wouldn’t dream of making today, Frank Perry and replacement director Sydney Pollack’s 1968 drama, “The Swimmer,” is almost always referenced. Based on a John Cheever short story, “The Swimmer” almost didn’t make it to the screen. It stars a 55-year-old Burt Lancaster as a resident of the kind of upper-class Connecticut community, where the men took the train to the train to work and the women worked on their alcoholism at the country club. This being “Mad Men” territory, some of the wealthier guys maintained a pied-à-terre. The only thing we know about Lancaster’s Neddy Merrill going into the story is that he has an extremely likable personality and looks buff in a swimsuit, which is all he wears throughout the movie’s 95-minute length. Inexplicably, he’s also been away for a while. We meet Neddy as he surveys the valley before him from the heights established by a friend’s house and pool. He’s invited to stay for drinks, but has something else on his mind. Noting the large number of turquoise pools visible before him – in-ground pools were still considered a status symbol – he determines that he could jog and swim his way home from there. He names the unlikely trek, “Lucinda’s River,” after his absent wife. Cheever’s vision works equally well as satire, tragedy or fool’s errand. By combining all three elements, though, it becomes a multi-layered quest for the truth about Neddy. At first, he’s welcomed back to the community by former friends and lushes. The closer he gets to his home, however, the more resistance and outright disdain he faces. That the negativity confuses him indicates that he doesn’t know himself as well as we do. Constructed in chapter form, each stop adds to what we know of the man and how he impacted the lives of other neighbors, including their children. Each chapter reveals a story arc its own, as well. As remarkable as “The Swimmer” continues to be, it left many critics and viewers befuddled in the 1960s, when many Americans felt as if their country could do no wrong and a swimming pool in a quiet home in the country was considered to be a brick in the American Dream. Now that such objects are widely accessible to anyone with a little bit of money, a different kind of allegory goes into play. Rich people have been knocked down a few pegs in the social hierarchy and a good plumber is held in the same esteem as a stock broker or advertising executive. In any case, it’s a wonderful example how literary concepts need not be destroyed to save them for adaptation to screen, stage or television. (Eleanor Perry is credited with the screenplay.) The splendid Grindhouse Releasing Blu-ray edition was given a digital restoration created from 4K scans. It includes a new, five-part documentary by Oscar-winner Chris Innis featuring in-depth interviews with stars Janet Landgard, Joan Rivers and Marge Champion, composer Marvin Hamlisch, film editor Sidney Katz, assistant directors Michael Hertzberg and Ted Zachary, UCLA Olympic swim coach Bob Horn and daughter Joanna Lancaster; the original New Yorker short story read by the author; a 12-page booklet with liner notes by director Stuart Gordon; production stills from the lost alternate scenes; and extensive stills galleries.

The Best of Bogart Collection” offers little in the way of surprises for longtime collectors and film buffs, except, perhaps, for collectible lobby cards and miniature posters. The movies, classics all, need no introduction or re-reviewing, either. “Casablanca,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen” all have been released on Blu-ray previously, so the set’s major selling point is as a gift for people new to the collection game or those with newly purchased hi-def units. The price is right and there are several hours’ worth of vintage bonus material included, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Let the Fire Burn
Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse
In the 1960s, when “police brutality” became a rallying cry for activists and radicals, very few mainstream Americans bought it. The argument that protestors should expect to be to be beaten when breaking the law, along with a belief in the infallibility of police, was fairly prevalent at the time. Whenever police did appear to overreact in certain situations – as happened at the Democratic Convention in Chicago – the kneejerk reaction was argue that they had been pushed beyond the boiling point. Finally, though, when too many middle-class American kids came home from college with the same fractured skulls and serious bruises as those caused by cops questioning ghetto youths, the tide began to turn for real. Neither did it boost relations between police and civilians when LAPD officers allowed an SLA hideout to burn to the ground, due to the use of incendiary devices, instead of trying to save a still conceivably innocent Patricia Hearst, who was believed to be inside the house. When brutality cases went public and an investigative panel was formed, it was the rare law-enforcement official who actually was charged with a crime or disciplined. “Let the Fire Burn” reminds us of a day in 1985, in Philadelphia, when police also set a home on fire and prevented the fire department from attempting to put out what would become a neighborhood-wide inferno. Shaggy members of MOVE were as despised by police as the SLA was in California and they give the city just cause for reigning in some of its anti-social behavior. Unlike the SLA victims, though, the MOVE contingent was comprised of African-Americans and black-power advocates. Claims of harassment were commonplace from MOVE, as were the complaints of neighbors who were unhappy about the behavior of their neighbors. Neither were capital crimes. Instead of resisting to take MOVE’s bait on May 13, 1985, the police decided to take control of the house and not sweat the harm done to property or people inside if things went sideways. When the smoke cleared, six adults and five children were killed and a stunning 61 houses were destroyed. Director Jason Osder uses archival footage, legal hearings and fresh interviews to reconstruct the events that led up to the disaster and follow up on the investigation. It’s a hugely sad documentary, especially considering the options open to everyone from the city mayor and police officials, to individuals on the ground. Neither is the aftermath terribly uplifting.

Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse” describes a problem that has challenged police and social agencies ever since budget constraints forced states to close mental hospitals and let the patients fend for themselves. Everyone who’d had contact with James “Jim Jim” Chasse on an individual basis understood that he was a schizophrenic and could be a public nuisance when off his meds. He could also be a regular guy. A former rock singer of some local repute, Chasse had gone off the rails years earlier and was deathly afraid of being confined or handled by police. He had a support system at home, but his family and friends couldn’t be everywhere all the time. On September 17, 2006, a policeman thought he noticed Chasse urinating in a public space – maybe he was, maybe it just looked that way – and ordered him to stand still and agree to being handcuffed. Instead, the 42-year-old man spooked and took flight, only to be tackled and have the burly cop fall on top of him, causing severe trauma to his chest and breaking several bones. Instead of letting the suspect recover, the cops who had gathered treated him aggressively, as well. Chasse was photographed lying on the concrete with his hands cuffed behind his back, recovering from being tazzed, while a small gang of cops and medical responders stood around and drank coffee. An investigation would reveal that paramedics weren’t told about the nature of the takedown, which was powerful and ill-advised, if not declaratively brutal. Neither were his screams of pain and requests for water in the jail taken seriously. He would die hours later. It wasn’t the first time that the officer would be charged with over-aggressive behavior and his lack of compassion for the victim was palpable in taped interviews. Could Chasse have been saved if the cop brought him down in a different manner or he wasn’t kicked and tazzed? Even then, could a quick trip to a hospital prevent death? Probably, the autopsy indicated. Initial studies found the police not culpable in the incident, but citizens and mental-health advocates continued to fight for a less-biased investigation. Three years later, the city announced settlements with family members and more training for officers.

A few years later, in Anaheim, officers were cleared in the beating death of another schizophrenic man, outside a gas station. In this case, video showed what clearly was a beating taking place on a man who’d lost his will and ability to resist. It was horrifying, but not sufficiently cruel to convince a SoCal jury. If law-enforcement agencies had learned anything from the Chasse case, it hadn’t made its way to southern California. – Gary Dretzka

Geography Club
After screenings at dozens of niche film festivals, Gary Entin’s “Geography Club” has been released on DVD, targeted especially at teenagers with questions about their sexual identity. Based on a young-adult novel by Brent Hartinger, “Geography Club” compares favorably to the best entries in the old “Afterschool Specials” series. When local affiliates demanded those timeslots back from the networks for their laughable early-news broadcasts, the stations basically were telling their youngest viewers to go out and buy a Nintendo to keep themselves amused while waiting for dinner. The specials were known for taking a stand on issues of importance to teens – bullying, intolerance, cheating, sexuality – and encouraging them to read more on the subject after watching the show. The, “Geography Club,” refers to the name given as a cover for a regular place for LGBT etc. students to gather and not draw too much attention to themselves. One of the kids drawn to the club is a quasi-hetero jock who doesn’t quite understand his attraction to a teammate who’s even more closeted. When some of the other players demand that Russell participate in the hazing of an effeminate classmate, it pushes him over the edge of conformity. In turn, Russell demands that his secret boyfriend join him in standing up for the LGBT kids in the club. Nothing comes easy, though. “Geography Club” managed to score a PG-13 from the conservative MPAA ratings board, so miracles do happen. – Gary Dretzka

Beneath: Blu-ray
Bordello Death Tales
America’s Alien Invasion: The Lost UFO Encounters
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXIX
If the Chiller cable network continues to turn out “thrillers” on the order of “Beneath,” the Syfy channel never will have to apologize for any of its original movies, again. Genre specialist Larry Fessenden has modeled his water-borne creature-feature after the killing machines in “Jaws” and “Piranha.” There’s even a smidgen of Hitchcock’s “Rowboat” tossed in to make it look smart for high school graduates. Unfortunately, the creature terrorizing a group of teens celebrating their graduation at a friend’s lake house is about as credible as the tired premise. Fessenden probably guessed that no one would buy the prehistoric fish, so he waited as long as possible for the “reveal.” Unfortunately, because Chiller is a basic-cable operation, no one is allowed to take their clothes off to make the wait easier on viewers. No one over 14 will buy a minute of it. Ironically, the Blu-ray is accompanied by a bonus package comparable to those created for Criterion Collection releases.

The title, “Bordello Death Tales,” and old-school cover art, tell you all need to know about what’s contained inside the package. Released in 2009, three stories are set in a whorehouse run by Madam Raven. They capture the spirit of Britain’s Amicus Productions, which specialized in “portmanteau” anthologies. The studio was closely aligned with Hammer Films, which more often specialized in period horror. Included here are Jim Eaves’ “The Ripper,” Pat Higgins’ “Vice Day” and Alan Ronald’s “Stitch Girl,” with the wonderfully creepy Eleanor James in the title role. Although all of the chapters are pretty raw, none overstays its welcome. Buffs are the more likely target for “BDT.”

The films lampooned in “Mystery Science Theater 3000” always have one or two things that make them more interesting than usual creature-feature revival. “XXIX” is no different. Made in 1957, before the heyday of women-in-prison pictures, “Untamed Youth” combines that timeless subgenre with themes prevalent in juvenile-delinquent pictures. It stars Mamie Van Doren and Lori Nelson as sisters who are traveling across country for jobs in the entertainment industry. They are arrested by a tinhorn sheriff for skinny-dipping in a local lake, but not before the gendarmes get an eyeful of their assets. Found guilty of something-or-other, they are sent to a work camp on a farmer, where they’re treated a slaves. Among the amusing distractions are the rock music and dancing that keep the prisoners active after a day in the fields. It was originally condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, a move guaranteed to attract the attention of exploitation fans. Van Doren is interviewed in a bonus feature. This set features two “MST3K” episodes hosted by Joel Hodgson, from the show’s Comedy Central years, and two hosted by Mike Nelson from the Sci-Fi Channel years. The other three pictures are “Thing That Couldn’t Die,” “Pumaman” and “Hercules and the Captive Women,” which will never be confused with those of Steve Reeves or the upcoming, “Hercules,” with Dwayne Johnson. – Gary Dretzka

Twogether
Whenever critics get together to discuss the ordeals of their chosen profession – or, increasingly, the chosen charity – the question of when to bang the gong on a particularly bad movie always comes up. For those critics who tend watch upcoming movies in big-city screening room, taking an early powder on a movie demands another question, this one concerning the ethics of not sticking around for the ending, regardless of how dreary it promises it do be. For those movies judged to be so bad they’re actually relatively painless to endure, the reward can take the form of review that’s fun to read and write. The more pretentious it is, the better. Released theatrically in 1994, Andrew Chiaramonte’s “Twogether,” played in a handful of theaters, at best, although the filmmaker insists in his introduction that its brilliance was better understood by European audiences and critics than those in America. After being released into VHS in 1995, the tormented rom-dram pretty much disappeared, not to be seen again until this week’s DVD launch. Here, Nick Cassavetes plays a devilishly artist who specializes in erotically charged canvases, and they’re not bad. One night in Venice, the struggling artist hooks up with an attractive blond environmentalist in a bar and, to paraphrase Johnny Cash and June Carter, they “got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout, and they’ve been talking about Vegas, ever since the fire went out.” As soon as is humanly possible, Wolfgang Amadeus ‘John’ Madler and Allison McKenzie (Peyton Place reference?) file for divorce. When it’s time to sign the papers, Madler and McKenzie hook up once again for a quick roll in the hay, this time resulting in … you guessed it. “Twogether” is the kind of movie in which all of the characters have issues, even the issues.  I say this because Chiaramonte wants us to believe that consenting adults can be simultaneously pro-sex, condom neutral and pro-life. He also argues that, with apologies to Newton’s third law, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite contradiction.” No one, including a greedy landlord played by a young Jeremy Piven, acts or reacts as human beings do in real life. Neither do the laws of physics and human chemistry. There are lessons to be learned from watching “Twogether, but, sadly, almost all of them are cautionary. On the plus side, though, Eugene D. Shlugleit’s camera nicely captures life in Los Angeles’ seaside playground, Venice.  – Gary Dretzka

Walking With Dinosaurs: The Movie: Blu-ray
Scooby-Doo: Wrestlemania Mystery
Not having a HD3D television or a dinosaur-obsessed child handy, I find it difficult to review “Walking With Dinosaurs” – the 2013 movie, not the 1999 mini-series – with any authority. Even in 2D, though, it has its pleasures. I found enough to enjoy in Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale’s movie to recommend it to families whose primary reason for visiting Chicago, New York, L.A., Atlanta and Thermopolis, Wyoming, is to take in the dioramas and skeletal remains of dinosaurs in their fine natural history museums. “WWD” combines CGI storytelling with backgrounds shot in Alaska and New Zealand. The film adds plenty of scientific stuff to please parents, but not enough to bore the kids who probably know about the beasts as the filmmakers. As up-to-date as it looks, the production was constantly pressed by announcements of new discoveries about dinosaurs, including one about feathers. New evidence showing that some raptors were feathered, not scaled, had to finessed, threatening budgets and schedules. Every effort appears to have been made to introduce the new species to viewers, without interrupting the story’s pace. In fact, though, “Walking With Dinosaurs” may be a better movie with the sound turned off entirely. Because the script is geared toward very young viewers, anyone over 7 or 8 probably will find it to be annoyingly juvenile. Everything that happens in the movie’s narrative makes sense with or without the sound. The “Deluxe Edition 3D Combo” includes the feature film in in high definition, standard definition and 3D; an “Ultimate Dino Guide”; interactive map; a “Match the Call” game; “Brainosaur” trivia track; “Cretaceous Cut” (the movie in its “natural” version); and Nickelodeon “Orange Carpet Dino Rap.”

I’m not sure when or how it was decided that young audiences would enjoy a pairing of the Scoobie-Doo gang and a characters based on and voiced by WWE wrestlers. I wouldn’t put anything past the marketing department that made WrestleMania the Super Bowl of professional wrestling, however. The idea behind “Scooby-Doo: Wrestlemania Mystery” is simple enough: Shaggy and Scooby win tickets to WrestleMania and the entire gang travels in the Mystery Machine to WWE City to attend. When a ghostly bear threatens to ruin the show, Scooby, Shaggy, Velma, Daphne and Fred work with WWE Superstars to solve the case. Among them are John Cena, Brodus Clay, AJ Lee, Triple H, The Miz, Kane, Santino Marella, Sin Cara and Mr. McMahon. I’m still not sure what to make of it.  – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

American Hustle: Blu-ray
So much of “American Hustle” resembles farce that post-Boomer audiences could be excused for not recognizing the source material, the unfunny Abscam caper of 1978-80. In hindsight, the actual scandal was so inherently strange that co-writer/director David O. Russell only was required to stretch the truth a wee bit for his story to be credible. It wasn’t until the faces behind the facts were revealed that it became obvious how buffoonish the operation truly was and how fortunate was the FBI that it didn’t completely blow the sting. The targets defined what it means to be a “sitting duck,” yet the agency even managed to offend the Arabs willing to sell us oil after the 1973 embargo.  In “American Hustle,” Russell asks a far more pertinent question, though: Is it right for law-enforcement agencies to lay traps for public officials – or Mafiosi, for that matter – who may not have taken the bait had it not been too luscious to resist? As represented by the opportunistic Bradley Cooper, the FBI would be nothing at all, if it weren’t for its ability to set such traps and deputize criminals, who, in some cases, should already have been locked away in prison. After an unmatched pair of con artists, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (Christian Bale, Amy Adams), have their covers blown in a failed attempt to move stolen art, they hand Cooper’s Richie DiMaso an offer he can’t refuse. Richie’s boss (Alessandro Nivola) can hardly contain himself when he’s told that, in return for Sydney’s freedom, Irving would be willing to cooperate with the feds in a sting operation. Among those Irving promises to deliver is the mayor of Camden, N.J., a so-called “man of the people,” who uses his connections with the unions, mob and politics to help keep his constituents employed. In Jeremy Renner’s nimble hands, Mayor Carmino Polito combines the political alacrity of the Daleys of Chicago with Bill Murray’s smarmy lounge singer on “SNL.” Polito is so anxious to begin the construction of newly legalized casinos in Atlantic that he’s completely open to a scheme that pairs Arab money with Mafia gaming interests, for the benefit of union workers who need the jobs. Apart from the illegality of it all, the plan has win, win, win written all over it.

If the characters don’t exactly resemble the true players in the Abscam scandal, they’re close enough for Hollywood to lampoon for the good of a picture. The retro disco-chic hairdos and fashions, alone, are worth the price of a rental. Jennifer Lawrence is a hoot as Irving’s Jersey-girl wife, whose sole ambition in life appears to be finding the perfect nail polish, a trait she shares with Polito’s even more exaggerated spouse. (Reportedly, the Oscar nominee’s portrayal was informed by TV’s “housewives of New Jersey.”) Although Adams looks strangely contemporary throughout “American Hustle” – and way more desirable than Irving – she and Lawrence make a terrific tag team. (She deserved some kind of a nomination, simply for being able to keep her nipples from flopping out of her deeply cleaved dresses.) In Russell’s master plan, Abscam mostly provides an excuse to bring these crazy characters together in one movie. As crimes go, it couldn’t hold a candle to Watergate or the Iran-Contra affair. Russell’s real challenge was getting us to cheer for dyed-in-the-wool crooks over the men and women assigned to protect taxpayers from such schemes. By now, however, we expect such behavior from them. “American Hustle” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning exactly none. If it’s any consolation – and it should be – the movie was widely praised by critics and recorded $250 million in worldwide box-office returns, 60 percent of them from U.S. audiences. The Blu-ray adds a 16-minute making-of featurette and several deleted scenes. The scary thing to remember is that Congress’ immediate response to Abscam was to write laws forbidding the FBI from conducting such stings against upstanding public servants, like themselves.  – Gary Dretzka

Frozen: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Doc Mcstuffins: Mobile Clinic
Jungle Book 2: Blu-ray
The idea of adapting Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Snow Queen,” into a feature-length fantasy had been kicking around Disney Studios, in one form or another, for exactly 70 years before it finally was committed to film last year as “Frozen.” It’s not that the story was considered to be unfilmable by the folks at the Mouse House, because it had already been adapted a couple dozen times under its original title. Instead, “The Snow Queen” simply wasn’t as light or malleable as other of Andersen’s fairy tales — or various public-domain stories by the Grimm Brothers — which have made a fortune for the studio over the last 70-80 years. In 1943, Walt Disney and Samuel Goldwyn had considered the possibility of collaborating on an Andersen biopic, for which Goldwyn’s studio would shoot the live-action sequences and Disney would create the animated sequences, based on the stories. (Nine years later, Goldwyn would hand the reins to Danny Kaye for the live-action, “Hans Christian Andersen.”) The “Snow Queen” idea would be revisited several times since the late-1990s, but, until “Frozen,” nothing stuck. If bad things happen to some of the key characters in “Frozen,” none is too dark for consumption by Disney’s family audience. And, in this case, that’s a very good thing. Besides being exceedingly enchanting, “Frozen” extended Walt Disney Animation Studios’ winning streak – apart from any strictly Pixar production — which began with “Tangled.” On a production budget estimated at $150 million, not counting marketing costs, the movie has returned just north of a billion dollars, 61 percent from foreign markets. Throw in the DVD/Blu-ray revenues, video games, toys and a possible Broadway musical and we’re talking real money.

In the Disney version, Princesses Anna and Elsa are sisters and each other’s closest friend. Elsa of Arendelle possesses the ability to create ice and snow, but doesn’t quite know how to control it. After she freaks herself out by accidentally injuring her younger sister, their parents request help from trolls. They heal Anna and remove her memory of Elsa’s power. Her fear of this “gift” turns Elsa into a recluse, which causes a rift between the girls as they grow up. After their parents die at sea during a storm, Elsa is required to come out of hiding to ascend to the throne. No sooner does a thaw melt the ice separating the sisters than Elsa pulls a power play on Anna that frightens everyone invited to the coronation. It’s so unexpectedly explosive that the kingdom is thrown into a state of permanent winter. So as not to do any more damage, Elsa escapes into the mountains of Arendelle, where everything before her turns to ice and her constituency considers her to be wicked. Knowing better, Anna goes on mission to find her Elsa and convince her to bring summer back to the kingdom. Along the way, she’s joined by a silly mountain man, anthropomorphic reindeer and a friendly snowman. Together, they face various obstacles and hardships, none of which are so frightening your kids will forever give up ice-skating and snowball fights. They will, however, be exposed to several moral lessons about dealing with one’s temper and the need for reconciliation. “Frozen” is distinguished by beautiful artwork; memorable songs; delightful characters; and much humor. The blue-tinged Nordic scenery and curly wisps of ice created by Elsa are especially effective on Blu-ray. The bonus material, although a bit skimpy by Disney standards, adds deleted scenes; short making-of and background pieces; music videos of “Let It Go,” in four different languages by three different singers; and, best of all, the animated short, “Get a Horse,” starring Mickey Mouse.

Also from Disney come “The Jungle Book 2,” for the first time on Blu-ray, and “Doc McStuffins: Mobile Clinic.” The latter enjoys the distinction of being the first show commissioned for Disney’s re-branded “Disney Junior” blocks on the Disney Channel. The series follows 6-year-old Dottie McStuffins who, one day, wants to become a doctor like her mother. Until then, she pretends to be a physician by fixing up toys and dolls. Thus, her nickname. In fact, when she puts on her stethoscope, the toys magically come to life. Each 11-minute episode includes original songs and tips for kids to stay healthy. The compilation clocks in at 90 minutes. It’s probably worth mentioning that Dottie is one of the few African-American characters with their own show … animated or live-action.

“The Jungle Book 2” looks quite a bit better on Blu-ray than it did in its original iteration, which wasn’t up to Disney standards. Originally planned to go out straight-to-video, exhibitors convinced the studio to give them an opportunity to squeeze some profits from the sequel. (Actually, two live-action sequels appeared in the 1990s.) It made a lot of money for everyone, in and out of video. Basically, the movie picks up a short time after the original ended. Mowgli’s happy living in the “man-village,” but misses the gang in the jungle. Unfortunately, for him, his nemesis Shere Khan still lingers in his former stomping grounds.  – Gary Dretzka

Saving Mr. Banks: Blu-ray
And, speaking of Disney … there’s “Saving Mr. Banks” to consider. Because there’s no mystery surrounding its eventual outcome, “Saving Mr. Banks” is one of the few Hollywood movies we can unreservedly cheer for the studio executive, instead of the embattled artist. P.L. Travers, author of the “Merry Poppins” books, is the portrayed by Emma Thompson as being the kind of Australian-British scold who sees everything through her own prism and feels threatened by anyone doesn’t stand in awe of her talent, including those entrusted with adapting her novels. When confronted with certain show-business realities, including the need to make money and embrace the collaborative process, she really gets her dander up. In the movie, as in real life, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) had been waiting 20 years to fulfill his daughter’s dream of seeing “Merry Poppins” work her magic on the big screen and he wasn’t going to pop her balloon because of an author’s aversion to animation and charming pop songs. Instead of steamrolling his guest, however, Disney actually believed that a spoonful of sugar would make the make Travers’ medicine go down. And, in this case, at least, he was proven right.

To the credit of writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, working alongside director John Lee Hancock, we’re shown how events in Travers’ childhood might not only have influenced her stories, but also caused her to grow up to be so protective of her property. Wisely, her life story is intertwined with the creative path followed by the creative team assigned by Disney to work magic of their own on “Merry Poppins.” In doing so, the writers also were able to soften the revisionist image of the long-dead mogul, whose anti-Semitism, racism, anti-labor stances, self-aggrandizement and unwillingness to share the spotlight steal cast a long shadow in the industry. (Indeed, some observers have suggested that Disney’s perceived sins may have been the reason “Saving Mr. Banks” was snubbed by Oscar voters.) Outside of Hollywood, however, Disney’s reputation as a visionary and purveyor of top-shelf family entertainment has never been in doubt.

What I found to be most appealing about the movie is how well the collaborative process is represented, especially for those of us who may not fully appreciate what it takes to keep a no-brainer from tanking. Travers was vehemently opposed to adding bright and clever ditties from the Sherman Brothers songbook – and, of course, Don DaGradi’s dancing penguins — to the soundtrack, but, eventually, they were able to make a dent in her armor. B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman and Bradley Whitford deserve a lot of credit for translating the songwriting experience so effectively. In Hanks’ hands, Disney’s dogged pursuit of Travers’ approval also is borderline inspirational. Their temporary marriage may not have been made in heaven – or Disneyland – but the child it spawned did very well for itself. Paul Giamatti and Colin Farrell hold their own in key supporting roles, while Hollywood, circa 1964, retains most vestiges of its glamorous past. The Blu-ray presentation could hardly be better, either. It includes “Walt Disney Studios: From Poppins to Present”; “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” in which cast and crew break out in a heartfelt tribute to composer Richard Sherman on the last day of filming; and three deleted scenes. Be sure not to miss the surprise revealed in the final credits.  – Gary Dretzka

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: Blu-ray
Punk in Africa
It’s difficult to make a biopic about a man who’s gone through as many dramatic changes as Nelson Mandella did in the 70 years covered in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and not make it feel like a ride on the milk train. Each of the three actors assigned to capture Mandela’s immense reserve of energy, courage, intelligence and compassion would be required to work as one, without dropping the baton as it was passed to them. Most of us only knew Mandella as he’s pictured on the cover of the DVD/Blu-ray: a broadly smiling survivor of a lifetime of struggle and pain … a gray-haired saint called by God at 86 to heal a nation long wracked with hate and fear. It’s a far cry from the image of the angry young man we saw in the one-sheet posters for the theatrical release. Working off a blueprint created by the man, himself, in his autobiography, director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) and writer William Nicholson (“Les Misérables”) winnowed 650 pages to 144 minutes’ worth of compelling history. Siza Pini and Atandwa Kani play Mandella from 7-9 and 16-23, while Idris Elba covers the period from adulthood to his inaugural address, in 1994. Many Oscar handicappers believe that Elba was robbed of a nomination for reasons that have more to do with executive producer Harvey Weinstein’s personality than anything in the movie, itself. (Its sole nomination was for the original song, “Ordinary Love,” by U2.) “Long Walk” covers a sliver of his boyhood adventures in the South African village of Mvezoto, before flashing ahead to the promise he showed as young lawyer in the big city and his first, unsuccessful marriage. Elba takes us through the radicalization process that changed Mandella so dramatically and led to the events that put him behind bars for so many years, dodging the gallows by a near miracle. And, yet, many important events in Mandella’s were skimmed over or edited out for the purposes of time and pace. This isn’t to infer that some of the warts were excised, because his tarnished halo is very much in evidence during less-disciplined periods in his life. His politically charged break from Winnie Mandela isn’t completely explained, nor are the tribal divisions that threatened the electoral process. A mini-series might have served Mandella better, but “Long Walk to Freedom” is worth the price of a rental for the many fine performances; its depiction of the toll taken by 27 years in prison; and a short course on the long fight to eliminate Apartheid. The Blu-ray adds “Mandela: The Leader You Know, The Man You Didn’t,” commentary with director Justin Chadwick, behind-the-scenes featurettes; and a tribute video gallery.

For many years, South African officials attempted to build a wall around itself, not only to keep the international media from focusing on Apartheid, but also to prevent its black, white and colored residents from learning about various social and cultural movements happening around them. Until the shocking news of the Sharpeville massacre leaked out from Transvaal, this was OK with most western news organizations that prided themselves in being open and free. Television wouldn’t open the door to the outside world until 1976. By this time, though, Mandela was in jail and an underground musical scene had emerged, not unlike those that took root in the U.S. and Europe in the mid-’60s. Government officials attempted to pull that thorn from its side, as well, but music crosses borders that marches and protesters can’t. Keith Jones and Deon Maas’ enlightening 2012 documentary, “Punk in Africa,” describes the role played by bands of multi-racial rockers in creating a new front on the war against Apartheid. If they called their music punk, it’s because nothing in the repressive system escaped their wrath. Unlike the protest songs of American folkies, though, you could dance to it. Naturally, the bands absorbed traditional rhythms, combining them with ska, punk, reggae, jazz and R&B. At the same time, artists living in Mozambique and Zimbabwe also challenged the status quo by merging music with politics. “Punk in Africa” contains new and archived interviews, as well as rare and unseen footage of such bands as Suck, Wild Youth, Safari Suits, Power Age, National Wake, KOOS, Kalahari Surfers, the Genuines, Hog Hoggidy Hog, Fuzigish, Sibling Rivalry, 340ml, Panzer, the Rudimentals, Evicted, Sticky Antlers, Freak, LYT, Jagwa Music, Fruits and Veggies and Swivel Foot. – Gary Dretzka

Swerve: Blu-ray
There’s something about a good Australian crime thriller that should remind American viewers of movies once churned out by Hollywood studios in the dozens. We know them as film noir, B-movies and potboilers, depending on their casts and budget. The best of the Aussie crime crop are too fresh and nuanced to be labeled Ozploitation, but they share certain tendencies. As the ancestors of exiled prisoners and hoodlums, they seem to display a genetic predisposition to settling scores outside the law and a lack of trust in anyone deemed incorruptible. And, that’s just the women. Kidding. Like other movies set in places beyond the coastal cities, “Swerve” recalls a Western as written by Jim Thompson. Set in the barren, semi-arid flatlands bordered by the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, “Swerve” opens with a double-cross that quickly becomes a triple-cross and grows exponentially from there. A suitcase full of drugs is exchanged for a suitcase full of cash. It only takes a minute for the recipient of the drug cache to discover that he’s been deceived. By this time, however, he’s driven several hundred yards across the flats leading to the highway. Even though he turns his vehicle around immediately, the drug courier can’t avoid being blown to smithereens by a bomb hidden among the bags of white powder in the suitcase. The man with the cash is fed his just desserts when, forced to swerve by an approaching convertible, he’s killed in the crash. Of course, it’s driven by an intoxicatingly beautiful blond, Jina (Emma Booth). The blond is shaken, but OK. The fellow with the suitcase full of cash, however, is indisputably dead.

Colin (David Lyons) is solid citizen, on his way to a job interview further south, when he witnesses the crash. Playing the Good Samaritan card, Colin picks up the suitcase and delivers it to the sheriff of the nearest town. The sheriff, Frank (Jason Clarke), gladly accepts the suitcase and its contents, then offers Colin a place to crash for the night. And, here’s where “Swerve” turns very pulpy. Frank is married to Jina, an evil seductress if there ever was one. In combination with the contents of the suitcase, she sees in Colin a way to escape life in a town more suited to sheep worship than maintaining the upkeep of a world-class beauty. After dinner, when Frank returns to the jail to secure the suitcase, Jina attempts to lure Colin into a moonlit skinny-dip, which he declines. The next day, other hoodlums arrive in town – along with several buses containing police marching bands – to retrieve the treasure. Suffice it to say, the suitcase is never where it’s supposed to be at any given time and viewers are left in the dark as to where to find it. The answers, which reveal themselves in time, are cleverly hidden among the red herrings and narrative chicanery. In this way, it recalls the work of Thompson, James L. Caine and Alfred Hitchcock. “Swerve” was written and directed by the late Craig Lahiff (“Heaven’s Burning,” “Black and White”), who used a similar suitcase device in his 1988 thriller, “Fever.” The Blu-ray adds a quartet of EPK interviews. – Gary Dretzka

The Hidden Fortress: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
By now, no fan of the American Western should be unfamiliar with the visually arresting and action-heavy Easterns created by the Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa. “The Hidden Fortress,” released in 1958, was the first film Kurosawa made in the wide-screen Toho Scope format and recorded in stereo. As such, it’s probably the movie most influenced by one of Kurosawa’s heroes, John Ford, whose shooting techniques and eye for visual grandeur were a perfect match for American Westerns, Spaghetti Westerns and Asian Easterns. Here, Toshiro Mifune (Yojimbo) plays the general of a disgraced army who’s charged with guarding his boss’ intrepid daughter (Misa Uehara) and a fortune in gold. (Kurosawa patterned the princess after a teenage Elizabeth Taylor.) Traveling together behind enemy lines, they run the common risk of being captured, robbed and killed. Instead, at a fortress hidden deep in the mountains, they hook up with a pair of reward-hungry peasants who can barely get out of each other’s way. Together, the travelers don’t look like much of a threat to the conquering army, so it’s easier for them to get past checkpoints and escape detection. Once the general and princess are identified, though, they’re required to use their wits, fighting skills and horsemanship to remain free. Even after a half-century, “Hidden Fortress” is extremely exciting and sometimes quite amusing. The black-and-white cinematography, too, is remarkable. In an interview included in the Criterion package, George Lucas describes how he became acquainted with Kurosawa’s work and patterned R2-D2 and C-3PO after the two peasants, through whose voices the story unspools. Kurosawa’s reflections on “Hidden Fortress” and memories of Ford are detailed in the 41-minute featurette, “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create.” Commentary is provided by film historian Stephen Prince, while a booklet adds an essay by film scholar Catherine Russell. – Gary Dretzka

Return to Nuke ‘Em High: Vol. 1 Blu-ray
The Slumber Party Massacre: Blu-ray
Contracted
Loathe, though I am, to describe “Class of  Nuke ’Em High” as a classic example of anything … well, it is. How else would one describe as a merger of “Blackboard Jungle,” “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” and “Toxic Avenger”? Troma Entertainment/Studios co-founders Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz have, for more than 40 years, consistently turned out pictures that have blurred the boundaries between horror, sci-fi, eco-terror and low camp. Kaufman, Troma’s public happy-face, is an impresario created from the same mold as Roger Corman, John Waters, John Carpenter, Russ Meyer and Ed Wood Jr. Not only have these singular filmmakers been willing and able to squeeze every last penny from already tight budgets, but they’ve also influenced dozens of younger artists. If their films truly “aren’t for everyone,” it’s only because they aren’t intended to fit all sizes. Kaufman has spent the better part of the last year promoting “Return to Nuke ‘Em High: Vol. 1,” at film festivals, film markets, campuses, museums and retrospectives, as if it were his magnum opus. Editors and critics have received dozens of e-mails, offering news releases and photos of Kaufman on the hustings. Although eight movies carry “Nuke ’Em High” in their titles, only five have anything to do with Troma (including the upcoming “RTNEH: Vol. 2”). The first three film comprised a series, while “RTNEH: Vol. 1” is a re-boot of the franchise. This time around, we’re back at Tromaville High School, which must be every substitute teacher’s idea of a living hell, and the nuclear plant has been turned into Tromorganic Foodstuffs Conglomerate. Needless to say, residual radioactivity taints the food the students are served at the cafeteria, turning some of them into mindless cretins … or, worse, lesbians. More than that, I dare not reveal. Asta Paredes and Catherine Corcoran appear to be having a blast as the forbidden lovers, as will genre buffs as they attempt to spot all of the homages and parodies. But, of course, repeat after me … it’s not for everyone. There are several entertaining featurettes and interviews, as well.

Made at the dawn of the slasher age, “Slumber Party Massacre” is the rare genre picture that’s managed to age as gracefully as the actresses interviewed in the bonus package. In 1982, when it received a limited release by New World, it was lambasted by critics who couldn’t see beyond their hatred for slasher flicks and were disappointed, as well, by the absence of an easily identifiable feminist subtext. It was, after all, written by gay-rights activist Rita Mae Brown (“Rubyfruit Jungle”) and directed by Amy Holden Jones, who had cut her teeth as an assistant to Martin Scorsese on “Taxi Driver.” Brown’s original script was written as parody, but shot as a genre picture according to the dictates of the producers at Corman’s company. The satire probably would have been lost on the slasher audience, anyway. It took a few years for other filmmakers and critics to understand what Brown and Jones had in mind – it’s there if one bothers to look hard enough — and, by that time, genre fans had caught up with the movie on VHS. The movie would generate direct sequels in 1986 and 1990, and a separate “Massacre Collection” franchise on top of those titles. The “Slumber Party” premise is as simple as inviting a sociopath with an electric drill – “Body Double,” anyone — to crash a slumber party of wannabe Playboy bunnies. The Blu-ray package contains lengthy interviews with Jones and some of the stars, as well as trailers for the sequels.

In “Contracted,” writer/director Eric England bends, folds and mutilates the hoary slasher-film trope, which stipulates that teenagers who have sex in cars will be slaughtered by a serial killer in the first reel. Here, a newly minted lesbian, Samantha (Najarra Townsend), cheats on her lover with a creep who takes advantage of her alcohol-exaggerated anxiety over some unreturned phone calls. Samantha immediately regrets the indiscretion, hoping against hope that her girlfriend won’t learn of it. The die already has been cast, however. As punishment for having unprotected sex, she begins to leak frighteningly high volumes of blood from her orifices … all of them. If Samantha had only waited for the guy to put on a condom, the scolds argue, she would have been spared the agony. Good advice, but delivered a tad too late. Based on just that much information, gore addicts might be tempted to sample “Contracted.” Samantha’s ordeal doesn’t end with spilled blood and distorted eyeballs, though. It gets much, much worse. Unfortunately, England doesn’t bother to enlighten us about the origin of the killer STD and the intentions, if any, of the stranger. The DVD adds commentary and a making-of piece, with auditions. – Gary Dretzka

The Wrath of Vajra: Blu-ray
Commitment: Blu-ray
Flu
As atypical as it is vastly entertaining, “The Wrath of Vajra” is the kind of martial-arts picture that demonstrates how much the venerable genre still is able to surprise us and evolve. It does so by combining wall-to-wall action and splendid cinematography with a wartime story that almost defies description. It also features one of the most diverse and unexpected casts of characters I’ve seen in a long time. “The Wrath of Vajra” describes an elaborate scheme by Japanese occupation forces to create a division of clandestine assassins, comprised of Chinese youths who have been kidnaped or purchased and brought to Japan to drink the Emperor’s Kool-Aid. The children are trained in the most lethal martial-arts techniques, with the intention of re-inserting them into China when required by the Imperial Army. The boys are known by the number tattooed on their arm, which signify their place in pecking order of the Temple of Hades. One of the boys, K-29, escapes after he seriously injures his brother while horsing around. He finds his way to a Shaolin temple in China, where he masters the monks’ preferred kung-fu discipline. Skip ahead several years, towards the end of WWII, and the Temple of Doom has moved its operation to mainland China, where it’s easier to kidnap children and Allied planes aren’t about to drop Bombs of Doom on their heads. They take over a traditional temple complex, where there’s plenty of room for training, fighting and holding prisoners, including American special-forces troops captured in Burma, where they fought alongside Chinese guerrillas and learned the language. They arrive at the temple at about the same time as the all-grown-up K-29, who’s taken a vow to free the kids and destroy the death cult. To accomplish this, K-29 must conquer and kill the cream of the cult’s assassins. These freaks of nature resemble characters in an arcade game, in that one could be Andre the Giant’s body double and the other, Crazy Monkey, fits his nickname like an old shoe.  Posing the greatest threat, however, is an officer famous for his skills in Japanese martial arts. The fights are nothing short of spectacular, mixing styles, techniques and passion for opposing causes. In another storyline, the daughter of the cult leader is a journalist who starts out as a true believer, but becomes increasingly more skeptical as K-29 battles his way through the cult’s most celebrated combatants. Considering how well K-29 is doing, the reports do nothing but confirm the army’s earlier decision to ban the Temple of Hades. As K-29 makes his final preparations for the ultimate fight, so, too, are the POWs solidifying their plot to break out of the temple, and taking the kids with them. The last half-hour is even more dramatically choreographed than the anything in the 85 minutes that preceded it. I found it interesting to learn that the movie’s star, Xing Yu, is a 32d generation Shaolin monk and a legitimate Zen warrior. The rest of the cast is comprised of actors from Japan, China, the U.S., Britain and Korea (pop stars, Yoo Sungjun and Nam Hyun-joon), many of whom bring their own preferred disciplines to the battle scenes. The beautiful mountain setting is nicely captured in Blu-ray, as well.

Unlike most other Korean action pictures that make the hop over the Pacific, the spy-vs.-spy thriller “Commitment” is targeted directly at the heart of teen audiences. Its protagonist, Myung-hoon, is played by boy-band favorite Choi Seung-hyun (a.k.a., T.O.P) and rising star Kim Yoo-jeong as his teenage “friend.” After his father fails to return to Pyongyang after completing a mission in South Korea, the spy’s son and daughter are jailed as “traitors” by extension. To escape torture or death, and ensure the safety of his younger sister, Myung-hoon agrees to infiltrate the South and perform tasks as assigned. Because he’s still in his teens, Myung-hoon is placed in the home of foster parents and required to attend high school, where he is required to pretend to be a transfer student too timid to protect himself against the bullies. It isn’t until they humiliate his shy seatmate, Hye-in (the same name as his sister) that he decides to reveal his killer instinct. Myong-hoon’s assignment is to assassinate those on a kill-list monitored by those holding his sister in the North. Tired of the bullying, as well, Hye-in, simply disappears from school. The next time they meet, she’s cut her hair and broken out of her shell. For performing all of his chores as ordered, Myung-hoon fully expects to be allowed to return North and what passes for a normal life with his sister. Instead, he’s betrayed by the same intelligence bureaucracy that took down his father. This time, the paranoia level has been heightened by the death of the nation’s demented leader and replaced by one even crazier. By now, Myong-hoon has no idea on which side of the DMZ his worst enemy resides. He only wants to do right by the two Hye-ins in his life and it takes all of his martial-arts expertise to do so. The Blu-ray adds a fan-oriented making-of featurette.

The title of the Korean epidemic thriller, “Flu,” pretty much sums up what to expect in the movie’s exhaustive 122-minute length. In this regard, at least, it isn’t much different than “Contagion,” “Outbreak,” “Quarantine” and “The Plague of the Zombies.” In Kim Sung-su’s take on the horror staple, a mutation of the Avian Flu is transported into a suburb of Seoul along with a shipping canister filled with mostly dead illegal immigrants from Indonesia. Once the virus is identified, public-health officials fear they won’t be able to prevent it from spreading beyond the borders of Bundang. If that happens, the epidemic could evolve into a pandemic, causing world powers to quarantine the entire nation or take even more drastic military measures to stop it. The primary difference between “Flu” and dozens of other such disaster films is the role played by a rescue worker, Ji-go, and the infectious disease specialist, In-hye, he saves from a pit into which her car has fallen. Together, they attempt to find the lone survivor of the doomed canister, whose blood could contain the antibodies needed to end the plague. This sort of personalization of the story is to be expected, I suppose. What isn’t predictable is the degree of annoyance generated by In-hye’s young daughter when the flu catches up with her. The incessant weeping and wailing, while understandable, become a plague onto themselves after about 10 minutes. What saves “Flu” from becoming a movie better suited to the Syfy channel than theaters are the well-rendered scenes of mass mayhem and panic. The Blu-ray adds making-of featurettes and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
BBC: Atlantis: Season One: Blu-ray
Chiller: Monsters: The Complete Series
Nova: Roman Catacomb Mystery
Frontline: To Catch a Trader
Nick Jr.: Peppa Pig: My Birthday Party
I’m not sure what I expected to see when I put “Atlantis” on my Blu-ray player … probably a combination of Donovan’s song of the same title and such syndicated action-fantasy shows as “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.” And, guess what, I was right. The show, which ran originally on BBC One, found its way to North America on Canada’s Space Channel and as part of BBC America’s “Supernatural Saturday” bloc. If any students of Greek mythology depend on the information proffered in “Atlantis,” they probably deserve the F they’re going to get. The same probably holds true for any series based on history or popular fiction, though. Here, the mash-up of mythological characters is especially bizarre, in that demi-gods, goddesses and monsters we know to have existed in Greece millennia earlier have taken up residence in Atlantis. It opens with an oceanographer/argonaut named Jason, whose submersible breaks through a hole in the time-space continuum, leaving him stranded on a beach in Atlantis. Apparently, it’s the same hole his father passed through years earlier, disappearing forever. While running away from a two-headed dragon, Jason finds shelter in the home of a bloated Hercules (Mark Addy) and “the triangle guy,” Pythagoras (Robert Emms). In due time, we’re introduced, as well, to King Minos, Ariadne, Medusa, Pasiphae, the Oracle, Circes, Atalanta, the Minotaur, Maenads and other demons. Adults will see right through “Atlantis,” but should find the fantasy elements to their liking.

TV producers have always had a soft spot in their hearts for anthology series, especially those targeted for syndication and cable. They also were radio staple, before it turned almost exclusively to music, news and talk. In the so-called Golden Age of television, anthologies typically were sponsored out-front by such companies as Kraft, Philco, General Electric, United States Steel and Alcoa, or hosted by familiar stars, like Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, Danny Thomas, Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney. The format has probably been adopted most often as a base for sci-fi, horror and suspense: “Twilight Zone,”  “The Outer Limits” and “Night Gallery,” among them. “Monsters” ran in syndication from 1988-91 and reruns still can be found on NBC/Universal’s niche cable network, Chiller. The series, which bears comparison to “Tales From the Dark Side,” deals less with the supernatural than manifestations of horror, including subgenres introduced in the 1970-80s, when censors relaxed their grip on violent imagery. Being syndicated, “Monsters” relied more on twisty stories and macabre humor than established guest stars for their appeal. Here, the list of writers, directors and stars is very heavy on names of B- and C-list stars of yore and up-and-comers far more recognizable today than in the early 1990s. Among them are Tempestt Bledsoe, David Spade, Meat Loaf, Laraine Newman, Tori Spelling, Chris Noth, Gina Gershon, Bette Gordon, Lizzie Borden, Julie Brown, Kevin Nealon, Matt LeBlanc, Wil Wheaton, Luis Guzman and Tony Shaloub. The complete-series box contains 1,560 minutes of nicely re-mastered dark comedy and horror.

Traveling through Europe with kids can be a real bummer in the summer. There are attractions, however, that bored teens can enjoy and not feel intimidated by fellow tourists with degrees in art history. While mom and dad visit the museums and cathedrals, the kids can tour the local malls and compare them to their favorite haunts back home or the same landmarks on the Las Vegas Strip. In England, the Tower of London and surrounding historical sites are lots of fun, while, in Scotland, a cruise on Loch Ness is obligatory. Paris offers such strange destinations as the Sewers Museum, which substitutes for the discontinued subterranean boat tours, and the celebrity-heavy Père Lachaise Cemetery. In winter, a side trip to Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, for a night’s stay in the Ice Hotel, defines what it means to be “cool.” Anyone easily unimpressed by the Vatican may want to check out the various catacombs of Rome, which stretch for miles and offer more than mere skeletons to admire. Some contain frescos and other ancient pieces of art, just like Pompei. If that’s more up your alley than, say, the Spanish Steps, be sure to check out the “Nova” presentation, “Roman Catacomb Mystery,” which investigates why one of the underground cemeteries contains thousands of skeletons, stacked like so much firewood, but precious little evidence as to what caused so many people to die in such a short time. It’s creepy, but fascinating stuff.

The “Frontline” episode “To Catch a Trader” opens with a reminder of the 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal that presented evidence of pervasive abuse of laws intended to eliminate insider trading. In it, a persuasive case was made again “King of Hedge Funds,” Steve Cohen, and the brokerage firm he founded, SAC Capital. On the surface, it seemed as if the feds’ case was airtight and the traders involved were dirty as sin, which, of course, they were. Producer Martin Smith’s follow-up to the report is at once enlightening and deeply troubling. No sooner had the American economy tanked, in 2008, causing millions of people from around the world to suffer from lax SEC controls, than guys like Cohen found a different way to rob investors. Agents for SAC Capital made it their business to beg, buy or steal information that might cause the indexes to fluctuate up or down. No matter if a tip was received minutes before news was about to break, a fortune could be made in the time it took to type an order into a computer. So much money was made in this manner that it bordered on the impossible, and Cohen spent it as quickly as he made it. And, yet, while his company agreed to pay a substantial fine, Cohen has avoided prosecution. The PBS documentary is informed, as well, by information requested through the Freedom of Information Act and a video from a deposition Cohen gave in 2011. Using excuses that wouldn’t keep a 5th Grader from avoiding detention – he only admitted to being ignorant of established regulations — he’s been able to avoid being indicted. It no longer qualifies as news that government officials are reluctant to prosecute offenders, unless there’s a near certainty they’ll win or they’re taunted by someone like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Here, at least, some lower-level executives cut deals and spent some time in jail.

The animal characters on the animated British export, “Peppa Pig,” are drawn in such a deceptively sloppy manner that it could easily fit on Adult Swim, which is where stoners turn each night to be intellectually stimulated. The kid-friendly messages might be lost on them, but who doesn’t enjoy getting blitzed and playing in mud puddles? Enormously popular in England, where there’s a theme devoted to the show, “Peppa Pig” is mostly available here through Nick Jr. and PPV. The “My Birthday Party” DVD welcomes preschoolers with 80 minutes of adventures, featuring 14 “Peppasodes” (12 regular, plus 2 bonus) and a pair of fresh educational extras, “Learn the Alphabet” and “Learn to Count.” Besides Peppa and her family, the cast includes Suzy Sheep, Pedro Pony and Danny Dog. – Gary Dretzka

A Saint … a Woman … a Devil
Peekarama: Sadie/The Seductress
Peekarama: The Altar of Lust/Angel on Fire
As weird and experimental as pornography got in the days after “Deep Throat” and “Behind the Green Door,” and before the dawn of the Golden Age, few could boast as interesting a backstory as “A Saint … a Woman … a Devil” (a.k.a., “Sylvia”).  The original title pins the movie’s inspiration to “Three Faces of Eve,” but “A Saint … a Woman … a Devil” probably sounded too European for the drive-in and grindhouse crowd. “Sylvia” In fact, it does reveal certain arthouse conceits, including a reportedly deranged actress (Joanna Bell) playing a woman with multiple personalities. Her character, Sylvia, transforms in a flash from religious nut, to nymphomaniac (in the classic sense of the term), to a drug-addled biker lesbian and a woman desperate for romantic live. A psychiatrist gets her to recollect the trauma of growing up in a house with a psycho mother, but it doesn’t prevent the sudden personality changes. Writer/director Armand Peters (a.k.a., Peter Savage) received a partial writing and acting credit for “Raging Bull” and appeared in “New York, New York” and “Taxi Driver.” Exploitation special William Lustig (“Manic”) served as an uncredited AD on the film and it was produced with the assistance of students from the NYU film school. (Future mainstream DP Michael Negrin went uncredited as the shooter.) That, at least, explains some of the more polished, artsy shots. Two years later, after a decade in the porn game, Sonny Landham (“Junkie #1”) would be discovered by action-director Walter Hill and cast in “The Warriors,” “Southern Comfort” and “48 Hrs.” Also appearing in bit parts are Joseph LaMotta, son of Jake and Vickie, and porn mainstay Bobby Astyr. The new Vinegar Syndrome DVD includes the 108-minute XXX and 89-minute R-rated versions. There’s a shorter XXX version floating around, as well. I wish that the VS edition had retained the commentary track, with Lustig, and an eight-page booklet. It benefits, though, from a 2K restoration from original 35mm elements.

Also from Vinegar Syndrome come a pair of double-features, showing the work of Hall of Fame director Bob Chinn – the model for Jack Horner, in “Boogey Nights” – and exploitation legend Roberta Findlay. Chinn is credited with expanding the porno marketplace to include films with recurring characters. John Holmes starred as the titular hero of the porn-noir series, “Johnny Wadd,” which became “Dirk Diggler” in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. “Sadie” is Chinn’s take on the Somerset Maugham novel, “Rain.” Set against the background of the Vietnam War, it is book that easily translates into porn. Chris Cassidy plays the prostitute, Sadie Thompson, who’s stuck in a low-end brothel on Borneo, popular with GIs on R&R. One day, a bible-banging politician arrives on the island with his strait-laced wife and soon-to-blossom daughter. He makes Sadie’s salvation his personal campaign. Although Chinn sticks pretty close to the text, it’s difficult not to think of “Gilligan’s Island,” especially in the sex scenes. Even as a curiosity, though, “Sadie” is different enough to be worth a look. “The Seductress” resembles a game of reverse musical-chairs blackmail, beginning with a cheating husband, a blond prostitute and an extortionist taking photos behind a mirror in a motel room. It’s pretty standard stuff, until the junkie whore begins to demand extra payments from her client (Lisa Deleeuw) to receive the incriminating photos. Her greed trips alarms all the way up the criminal food chain, until the blackmail schemes begin to overlap and the victims become the predators. Compared to today’s gonzo titles, “The Seductress,” is “Gone With the Wind.”

Even if it didn’t feature two of coolest names in porn history – Harry Reems and Erotica Lantern – “The Altar of Lust” would be of interest to collectors and buffs. It was made in 1971, a year ahead of “Deep Throat,” the movie that made Reems and Linda Lovelace household names. Not quite hard-core, but far too rough to be considered soft-core, “Altar of Lust” carries the personal stamp of Roberta Findlay, who, for many years, had been working the seamier edge of a genre pictures with her husband, Michael. Here, a young woman is so traumatized from being raped by her father-in-law that she becomes promiscuous. When Viveca catches her boyfriend (Reems) in the clutches of another woman, she agrees to join them in a threesome. To the stud’s chagrin, the threesome is reduced once again to a twosome, when the ladies decide they prefer women to men. Like all men of the time, her shrink believes he can treat her malady with his penis. Made three years later, “Angel on Fire” (a.k.a., “Angel Number 9”) reflects the acceptance of hard-core as something no longer limited to the raincoat crowd. The actors are more attractive and the stories are no longer written in crayon. In this twist on “Heaven Can Wait,” a despicable womanizer dumps his girlfriend when she announces that she’s pregnant. His punishment arrives in the form of a VW van, whose driver is distracted by the BJ he’s getting from his girlfriend. Instead of being sent immediately to hell, where he probably belongs, an angel puts him the body of woman and sends him back to Earth. At first, he digs being able to play with his own boobs and command the attention of handsome guys who know how to take care of a gal. It doesn’t take long for the tables to turn, however. Long-timers Jamie Gillis and Eric Edwards make early-career appearances here. All of these titles have been nicely re-mastered, as well.  – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis: Blu-ray
Despite being one of the best-reviewed movies of 2013, the Coen Brothers’ exquisite “Inside Llewyn Davis” suffered from a slow, tightly controlled rollout that lasted from the Cannes Film Festival to mid-January, 2014. By the time it reached its maximum exposure of 289 screens, awards nominations had come and gone, and too many of the people who would have wanted to see the movie in July or September already assumed that it already was in DVD. That’s one of major problems with distributors putting all of their marketing eggs in one basket, expecting the positive buzz from one or two early festivals to last until it’s rekindled by nominations and critics’ polls. When the buzzing stops, the movie is dropped like a hot potato. In my opinion, “Inside Llewyn Davis” wasn’t even given a fair shot on the arthouse circuit, where the nearly unanimous opinion of major critics would have done it some good. The film’s primary audience, after all, was always going to be Boomers who remember the second folk-music boom, of the early 1960s, and the artists who nearly disappeared in the wake of the Bob Dylan phenomenon. No matter how many boos rained down on Dylan at Newport and the Royal Albert Hall, the intransigence of traditionalists was duly noted by younger, more inclusive audiences and pretty much ignored. It lead to the rise of the singer-songwriter and a so-called third folk revolution. Dylan had yet to enter the picture when the Coens’ protagonist — played with great passion by Oscar Isaac – was struggling to make his presence known. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is far more informed by the early career of Dave Van Ronk and his memoir, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.” In real life, Van Ronk mentored Dylan and other soon to be popular folk artists. He would be overshadowed outside New York by the new generation of folk- and blues-rockers. Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles, Volume One,” confirms the movie’s depiction of a time when up-and-coming folkies slept on each other’s couches, worked the “basket joints” for tips and emulated Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers and recently re-discovered Delta blues musicians. Van Ronk’s music was more politically engaged than the songs Davis plays in the movies, but Isaac nicely captures his raspy voice, sometimes prickly nature and dedication to traditional acoustic tastes.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” describes a decidedly unpleasant week in Davis’ life and career, assuming he went on to have one. Not only has he tired of playing the same songs night after night at the same dimly lit clubs, but he’s also worn out his welcome at several of his favorite crash pads, lost a friend’s cat, learned that he might have a daughter living in Ohio — with another possibly in the over — and been punched out by a mysterious stranger. He travels all the way to Chicago, only to be told by a prospective manager (Albert Grossman, as channeled through F. Murray Abraham) that he’s lost the kid’s demo album and wasn’t the right fit for the new trio he is was forming: Peter, Paul & Mary. Frustrated to the point of resignation, Davis decides to hop a ship bound for the Far East, but not before visiting his seriously ill father in a home for retired seaman. By this time, most viewers either will have been completely alienated by Davis’ behavior or losing their patience with the Coens for messing with the trajectory of a career we wish more closely resembled that of Van Ronk. A clever twist near the end of the movie, though fictional, should make viewers in the latter category happy. As was the case with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” T Bone Burnett does wonders with the period soundtrack and overall musical tone of the movie. Bruno Delbonnel’s impeccable cinematography recalls winter in Lower Manhattan and the remarkable cover photograph for “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” Also good in supporting roles are Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Carrie Mulligan, Adam Driver and Stark Sands. The Blu-ray adds an excellent behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Book Thief: Blu-ray
Whenever a high-profile movie underperforms at the box office, you can bet that at least one member of the creative team will volunteer to stand up and point the finger at someone else. Put in that exact position during a post-mortem interview for “The Book Thief,” screenwriter Michael Petroni opined, “My major disappointment with the rewrites was that they took out most of the magic realism that’s featured in the book. Fox wanted a film that would appeal to families, not just adults, and (director Brian Percival) wanted to tell more of a straight, dramatic tale.” I don’t know about you, but, in my opinion, “magic realism” works far better in print than on the screen and almost never in places like Germany, where reality hardly ever make makes allowances for magic. As it is, Percival’s adaptation of Markus Zusak’s best-selling novel works just fine on its own terms, as both a compelling story about a German girl in World War II and as a lesson about how the unlikeliest heroes sometimes emerge from the pits of hell. There isn’t much I find family friendly about World War II – unless one uses puberty as the defining point for youth – but, just as the novel was targeted to young adults, so, too, is the movie a natural fit for teens and their older siblings. As narrated by the Angel of Death (that’s right), Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is an adolescent girl separated from her mother and brother in the lead-up to WWII, because the woman was a communist. (The boy dies on the journey by train.) Liesel winds up with foster parents in fictional Molching, Germany, which seems fairly typical of a mid-sized city prospering under the industrial boom between wars. Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) is a gentle house painter, who much prefers playing waltzes on his squeezebox to joining the Nazi riff-raff breaking the windows of Jewish shopkeepers and burning books in the town square. As played by Emily Watson, Rosa is a no-nonsense hausfrau, who takes in wash and tries very hard not to let her heart of gold shine through her bristly exterior. After Kristallnacht, a young Jewish man, Max, also finds refuge in the Hubermann household. By the time the war does begin in earnest, Percival, like Zusak, has committed the story to playing out in mostly peaceful Molching. Gestapo snoops are never far away, but we’re more interested in finding out how Liesel’s obsession with reading plays out in country where books are treated as the enemy. In this regard, “The Book Thief” is quite wonderful, as the precocious teenager is quite capable of finding enough reading material, besides “Mein Kampf,” to keep her mind occupied. The story allows room for subplots involving Liesel’s friends and Max’s plight, before the Allied bombers begin to target Molching, which doesn’t appear to be of any strategic importance to them. And, in case we forget, Death’s emissary makes his presence known every so often. Sophie Nélisse’s greatest challenge, perhaps, was avoiding her character being blown off the screen by old pros Rush and Watson, and she pulls it off quite smartly. All of the other production values are top-drawer, as well, especially the period-perfect set design, John Williams’ score and beautiful Saxon countryside. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a making-off featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Patience Stone
Try as I might, I can’t remember who walked home with the 2013 Best Actress Oscar or, for that matter, most of the other statuettes. Even without looking up the actress’ name, however, I can’t imagine a better performance than the one turned in the previous year by Golshifteh Farahani, who holds the distinction of being the first Iranian star to be banned from leaving Iran after performing in Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies.” In “The Patience Stone,” which resembles a contemporary “Sherezade,” Farahani plays a more or less typical Muslim wife and mother, caught between militias in an Afghan city. The Woman, as she’s identified in the credits, has resigned herself to the task of helping her war-hero husband (a.k.a., the Man) recover from a life-threatening wound received in a post-war incident, defending the honor of his family. Ever since, he’s laid comatose in the front room of their bullet-riddled home, located directly on the front line of the fighting. The Woman has been given no reason to believe her husband ever will emerge from his coma, but has been driven into poverty by continuing to provide the medicine for his IV drip. At this point, the audience is largely clueless as to the country in which the movie is set; the war in which the man fought; and the sides the militias represent. In fact, though, it could be any one of a half-dozen Middle Eastern or North African locales, where women dare not leave home wearing anything short of a full burka and the men (and their meddling mothers) demand their wives meet certain expectations, including bearing male heirs. Indoors, the Woman is free to leave the burka in the closet, a simple act that allows a free flow of dialogue when she’s with other women. This includes the house of her far worldlier aunt, who agrees to take in the children. One night, after a particularly rough afternoon fending off Koran-toting fighters and ministering to her lifeless husband, the Aunt recalls for her a lesson from Persian mythology. It describes a woman who would recite her troubles and history to a well-weathered rock she places before her. When the stone can absorb no more of her pain, it shatters, freeing the woman from her burdens.

In effect, the motionless Man becomes the stone for the Woman, who spends her lonely nights with him describing her trials and secrets, of which there are many. As one might suspect, the Woman comes to represent – especially for western viewers – the millions of Muslim women rendered anonymous by the burka and forced to endure the dictates of a male-dominated culture.  The intention of co-writer/director Atiq Rahimi here isn’t to condemn the teachings of the Koran or pit Sunni against Shia. Instead, he shows us how they can manipulated by men to forgive all sorts of crimes against women and justify practices no one’s God would endorse. Throughout their 10-year marriage, the Man ignored almost everything she had to say to him. Now, he’s a captive audience. Although the soliloquies are delivered in a straightforward manner, their emotional power is nothing short of volcanic. And, no, I haven’t spoiled anything revealed in the narrative. “The Patience Stone” was shot in Casablanca and Afghanistan, but more indoors than outside. Anyone who’s been impressed by “Wadjda,” “Mother of George” and “A Separation” will recognize several story threads they have in common. The acting, too, is revelatory. I recommend to anyone unfamiliar with Farahani that they check out her work in “Just Like a Woman,” “About Elle” and “Chicken With Plums,” as well as “Body of Lies.”  It arrives with a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Mademoiselle C: Blu-ray
So many of the very well-known fashion designers and magazine editors have been profiled in documentaries that we’ve started to see films about people only known to fashionistas and other obsessives. I think that Carmine Roitfeld, the subject of “Mademoiselle C,” was mentioned in “The September Issue,” which followed Vogue editor Anna Wintour as she oversaw the creation of what, at nearly five pounds, purportedly was the single largest issue of a magazine ever published. I seem to remember some discussion about Carine Roitfeld being the fashion industry equivalent of the wicked witch of the east or some such nonsense. A nod to their rivalry apparently also made the final cut of “The Devil Wears Prada.” For most of her 59 years on Earth, the daughter of Russian émigré and film producer Jacques Roitfeld has breathed the rarefied air of the industry as a model, writer, stylist, consultant, “muse” and editor. Like Wintour, Roitfeld is used to be courted by designers, photographers, celebrities and exceptionally rich, if otherwise useless rich people. Unlike the editor of American Vogue, she can frequently be seen – in the film, at least – manipulating her facial muscles into a smile. Her Rocky Raccoon eye makeup and lithe physique make her look as young as some of the models she employs. “Mademoiselle C” chronicles the period immediately after she left Vogue Paris and prepares to launch her new magazine, “CR Fashion Book,” whose primary distinction is that it has two cover photos and a central point where content collides. Like Vogue, it features high-end photography, advertising and models. If Roitfeld or Wintour has ever come in contact with anyone worth less than a million dollars or drives in anything not resembling a limo, it isn’t obvious from the documentaries made about them. Neither is it clear what differentiates Roitfeld’s editorial genius from that of other great editors. We have to take it on faith. That said, “Mademoiselle C” is well made, glamorous and full of celebrities in whose footsteps most of us will never walk. If she does have a blind side, however, it’s an unhealthy regard for pop-culture parasites. With all of the interesting, creative, beautiful, intelligent and influential people Roitfeld could have chosen for the cover of her third edition, it’s discouraging that she succumbed to cliché by picking Kim Kardashian. Score one for Anna Wintour. The Blu-ray adds footage from the premiere party in Paris, with even more celebrities and industry type. Anyone allergic to images of Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace and air-kisses may want to avoid this one. – Gary Dretzka

Homefront: Blu-ray
If James Franco isn’t the hardest working man in show business, I don’t know who is. His name has been attached to nearly three dozen projects in the period between 2012 and 2015. And, as far as I can tell, he hasn’t simply phoned in any of his performances. In “Homefront,” Franco plays a meth cooker, “Gator,” living in the bayous of Louisiana. For reasons known only to him, Gator decides to get involved in a petty feud started by his tweaker sister (Kate Bosworth) and a mysterious newcomer to town, Phil Broker (Jason Statham), whose daughter beat up her son at recess. Action junkies already know that any character played by Statham is going to be tougher that any five thugs put together and Gator is just a backwater bully. Turns out, in a previous career, Broker worked underground for the DEA. During the course of his last assignment, the son of the leader of the biker gang into which he had infiltrated was killed in a bust. Gator manages to blow Broker’s cover and sell the info to the gang leader in prison. The rest is carnage. The only thing that differentiates “Homefront” from a dozen other such movies is the script, which was written by Sylvester Stallone. To the extent that Stallone’s knowledge of action tropes is important to the success of any movie, the story is as exciting as it was ever likely to be. The swampy milieu adds greatly to the overall aura of menace and serves to hide most of the more glaring holes in the script. And, not surprisingly, perhaps, Franco easily pulls his weight in the caper. Moreover, the Blu-ray captures all of the nuances in Theo van de Sande’s atmospheric cinematography and Mark Isham’s bluesy score. It includes several deleted scenes and inconsequential VPK interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Ozploitation Trailer Explosion
Dead Kids: Blu-ray
Thirst: Blu-ray
Among the more entertaining staples of the video age are films comprised entirely of trailers. The more reliably outrageous the genre, the more hilarious are the previews of coming attractions. This applies primarily to exploitation and porno flicks, of course, with Italian giallo and Kung Fu movies also providing a good reason to get to the theater early. At one time, trailers for mainstream American movies used to be distinguished by all manner of bombastic hyperbole and ludicrous claims (“Most Expensive Movie Ever Made,” as if that were a good thing). Today, of course, the marketing departments of the major studios control nearly every aspect of the process, preferring to rely on surveys and test groups to sell movies as if they were toothpaste. Anyone who enjoyed the 2008 documentary “Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!” will find a lot to like in “Ozploitation Trailer Explosion,” which contains 156 minutes’ worth of raunchy, sexy, hyper-violent and downright ridiculous previews from the Golden Age, 1970 to 1986. While it’s important to remember that the first flowering of Aussie arthouse cinema was taking place at the same time, the titles represented here likely served the greater audience. I found it interesting that the first screen appearance by the future Dame Edna Everage (a.k.a., Barry Humphries) was in John B. Murray’s 1970 comedy, “The Naked Bunyip.” A year later, Humphries would collaborate with Bruce Beresford on “The Adventures of Barry McKenzie,” which also starred singer Barry Crocker, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Dennis Price, Dick Bentley, Willie Rushton, Julie Covington, Clive James and Joan Bakewell. It is an example of the “ocher” subgenre, featuring Australians who speak and act in an uncultured manner, using a broad Australian accent. The film is divided into three distinct sections, representing the sexploitation pictures, car crash/action flicks, and horror/sci-fi. Among the more recognizable stars are a very young Mel Gibson, Sam Neil, John Phillip Law, Henry Silva, George Lazenby, Dennis Hopper, Jack Thompson, David Hemmings, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jenny Agutter and Judy Davis. I wondered about the the inclusion of Peter Weir’s legitimately chilling “The Last Wave,” with Richard Chamberlain and Aboriginal actor David Gulplil, as it only seemed to exploit Aboriginal myths.

Severin Films is doing its part to honor the genre by releasing a pair of horror “classics,” “Thirst” and “Dead Kids” (a.k.a., “Strange Behavior”). To my mind, neither is specifically Australian or particularly Ozploitative. For example, “Dead Kids” purports to take place in Galesburg, Illinois, and is top-loaded with American stars Michael Murphy, Dan Shor, Dey Young, Louise Fletcher, Scott Brady, Marc McClure and the great character actor, Charles Lane. In it, a widower sheriff is assigned the task of investigating several unsolved slasher slayings, perhaps caused by the teenage sons of prominent citizens. If you’re guessing that a mad scientist, his evil nurse and long needles are involved, you win a kangaroo burger. “Dead Kids” could very well have emerged from the Roger Corman/New World catalog. The Blu-ray add commentaries by director Michael Laughlin, writer Bill Condon and actors Shor and Young; an interview with makeup effects artist Craig Reardon; and an isolated musical track by Tangerine Dream.

Likewise, “Thirst” could just as easily emerged from Hammer Studios, with its updated Gothic touches. Its shower scenes, featuring Chantal Contouri, pay homage to Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” The lovely Contouri plays a direct descendant of the bloodthirsty Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who introduced the cosmetic benefits of bathing in virgin blood to the horror genre. Conveniently, David Hemmings and Henry Silva represent an international blood-drinking cartel known as the Brotherhood. In Bathory’s heir, they see an opportunity to expand their herd of human “blood cows” into a business servicing a master race of vampires. Clearly, at some point during the past several hundred years, this representative of the clan has lost her taste for blood. Can it last? The upgraded Blu-ray edition adds commentary with director Rod Hardy and producer Anthony I. Ginnane, an isolated musical score and marketing material. – Gary Dretzka

In Fear: Blu-ray
One of the lessons that’s been pounded into our heads since the crimes of the Manson Family is not to pick up strangers on country roads, bereft of streetlamps and directional signs, especially at night. We’ve seen dozens of movies that exploit the same formula and most them come out the same. The British import, “In Fear,” is among the small handful of pictures in the subgenre capable of raising goosebumps among seasoned viewers. Tom and Lucy (Iain De Caesteckerm, Alice Englert) are driving to a festival in the remote Irish countryside, when they leave the main highway to look for their hotel. Even though they follow the signs to the letter, the couple can’t seem to locate their destination. Soon enough, the sun goes down and the only lights available to them come from their car. Out of nowhere pops a young man who may be able to point them in the right direction. Or, the stranger could be a sadist bent on torturing the couple before he kills them. The forest and inky dark sky serve the same purpose as the walls and ceiling in a haunted house, lit only by candles or a flickering flashlight. Jeremy Lovering’s first non-TV project works surprisingly well, pushing all the write genre buttons, while forsaking most of the noisy clichés. Allen Leech (“Downton Abbey”) is fine as the menacing force. It includes a behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Eric Clapton: The 1970s Review
Before he had even bent a single note in the United States, American fans of British rock were aware of Eric Clapton’s place in the Pantheon. In the autumn of 1967, the guitar virtuoso was prematurely deified in what may have been the most talked about graffito since Kilroy left town. By spray painting “Clapton is God” on a wall in the Islington Underground station, an admirer testified to the wisdom of Paul Simon’s observation, via “The Sounds of Silence,” that, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” Clapton, himself, was embarrassed by the sentiment, perhaps preferring the famous photograph of an elderly woman passing by another corrugated wall with the same observation. It is at this exact spot that her dog decided to relieve himself. By the time he recorded “Layla,” three years later, Clapton was on the shortlist of musicians accorded the title, “guitar god.” With the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman, artists Clapton greatly admired, his name would again rise to the top. At an epic length of 151 minutes, not counting bonus material, Sexy Intellectual’s “Eric Clapton: The 1970s Review” attempts to answer the obvious question raised by such hyperbole, “Blessing or curse?” The portrait painted of the man nicknamed “Slowhand” is one filled with ecstasy and agony, almost in equal measure. The title, “The 1970s Review,” is a tad misleading, in that no profile could be considered complete unless it followed the road that led to Cream and Blind Faith and extended to marrying Pattie Boyd and finally kicking alcohol, the habit that replaced heroin in his life. In between, Clapton had tried to blend into the background of the Delany & Bonnie traveling circus – much to the consternation of his label and managers – and shift his musical emphasis from power rock and blues to reggae, ballads and the so-called Tulsa sound. After he came out of his alcohol-induced hibernation, Clapton would perform in a continuing string of benefits and charity concerts and shift to a more hits-oriented approach. Thirty years later, as his early fans have modified their tastes, he may be as popular and commercially viable as he’s ever been. In my opinion, “The 1979s Review” is the best entry in the Sexy Intellectual series of critical retrospectives. It contains more live footage and recorded material than usual and the witnesses interviewed are, in most cases, only one degree of separation from the source. They include Bonnie Bramlett, Bobby Whitlock, the Albert Brothers, George Terry, Willie Perkins, Bill Halverson, Clapton biographer Marc Roberty and critics who’ve observed Clapton through most of his changes. – Gary Dretzka

Iron Sky: Director’s Cut: Blu-Ray
Less than two years ago, when a considerably shorter “Iron Sky” landed on my desk, it reminded me of a midnight movie in search of a cult audience. Although clearly made on a tight budget – largely crowd-sourced — the idea of an unrepentant Nazi force invading Earth from their refuge on the dark side of the moon was compelling. The only thing preventing the Germans from making an earlier blitzkrieg than 2018 was a computer capable of executing the mission. When a space capsule filled with astronaut/models crash-lands near their headquarters, the Nazis seize an iPhone belonging to one of them. It is, of course, a billion times more powerful than the ancient computer controlling operations at their lunar base. Fortunately, a Sarah Palin look-alike is the incumbent POTUS and she’s itching for a war with anyone – Australia was her first option – to ensure her place in history. She orders the crew of the USS George W. Bush to put aside its exploratory mission to Mars to lead the charge against the demented Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier, of course) and the giant Gotterdammerung war machine. Perhaps, to keep the geeks and fanboys happy, co-writer/director Timo Vuorensola cast sexy Julia Dietze, Peta Sergeant, Stephanie Paul and Kym Jackson as trigger-happy war mongers. The “Director’s Cut” edition, which arrives in a SteelBook package, is a full 20 minutes longer than the original and quite a bit more coherent.  For a Finn/Kraut/Aussie co-production, “Iron Sky” looks remarkably good on Blu-ray and the special effects are surprisingly effective. The score, by the Slovenian art-rock band, Laibach, combines elements of Wagner, our National Anthem and Pink Floyd to good effect, as well. Bonus material adds a 90-minute making-of documentary and a 32-page concept-art booklet. If the R-rating means anything to you, it’s only for coarse language and some violence. It could just as easily pass for PG. – Gary Dretzka

42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Volume 1
Schoolgirl Report Vol. 12: Carnal Campus
Before “Deep Throat” and “Behind the Green Door” helped pornographic movies make the leap from stag parties and “smokers” to Main Street America, mercenaries in the sexual revolution unashamedly put themselves on display in short 8mm films known as loops. They could be purchased through ads in the back of men’s magazines or peep-show emporiums in such liberated zones as New York’s Times Square. The latest installment in Impulse’s “42nd Street Forever” series, “The Peep Show Collection,” offers several “classic loops” with such titles as “Deeper Throat,” “One Hung Low,” “Nurse’s Aid,” “Wet and Wild” and “Spice of Life.” While most of the actors are unrecognizable, future stars John Holmes, Annie Sprinkle, Susan Nero and Lisa DeLeeuw can be easily identified. Unlike the feature-length pornos to come, the filmmakers and couples waste no time flirting, petting or acting out a narrative. The costumes worn by the actors are the only hints offered as to how one loop is different than the next. Given the nearly 45 years that have passed since they were made, the films are reasonably well preserved. There are plenty of scratches, edit marks and artifacts, but no more than could be seen after two weeks of continual rotation. The DVD adds liner notes from Cinema Sewer Publisher, Robin Bougie.

Fans of period erotica may or may not be distressed to learn that the German soft-core series, “Schoolgirl Reports,” will come to end with the next release from the Image catalog. The penultimate 12th entry, “Carnal Campus” (a.k.a., “If Mom Only Knew …”) is comprised of vignettes that dramatize letters solicited by the editors of a high school newspaper. They run the gamut from innocently silly (rolling in the hay, literally) to intentionally disturbing (incest, drug abuse). A typical gag involves the mistaken identity of a French foreign-exchange student assigned to the family of a horny German high school girl. Expecting a girl named Nicky, they instead are asked to welcome an athletic boy named Nicky. The girl’s high-strung father knows immediately where the danger lies, but is encouraged by the ladies in his life to accept their fate.  Even as the father is relieved to learn that the grunting and bumping he hears emanating from the top floor involves Nicky’s calisthenics, even a committed jock can’t resist the advances of a steam-room full of his sexually aggressive classmates. In a darker chapter a teenage girl falls in love with her much older brother, a pilot, who has been a surrogate father to her in the absence of their parents. Smart enough to recognize the danger of such a crush, the pilot resists … until fate intercedes. Even though “Schoolgirl Reports” is hopelessly outdated in 2014, the vignettes are more revealing and entertaining than most of the stuff one finds on Cinemax late at night. The context here is everything. – Gary Dretzka

Necronos: Tower of Doom
Dangerous Obsession
The blood-soaked German import, “Necronos: Tower of Doom,” is billed as the goriest example of European splatter-porn you’ll ever see, but, even if it weren’t, it definitely pushes the envelope as far as it will go. The only things keeping “Necronos” from being a classic of the subgenre are the too-obvious special-makeup-effects, which wouldn’t pass muster in most YouTube videos. Even so, it’s difficult to keep one’s eyes on the screen when heads are rolling on the floor and naked women are being mutilated in places usually reserved for fun. The story is simple enough, however. Necronos has come to Earth at the behest of his boss, Satan, to marshal an army of the undead under leadership of barbaric demons, called Berzerkers.  The human victims are drained of ingredients essential to a devilish cocktail. The Mighty Witch has been recruited, as well, to locate a virgin. The outdoor locations aren’t bad, but the Tower of Doom interior is pretty cheesy. The DVD add a behind-the-scenes slide show.

Also from Troma Team, “Dangerous Obsession” (a.k.a., “Mortal Sins”) is a 1989 comic-thriller that failed to pass “Go” before landing in straight-to-video hell. Brian Benben (“Dream On”) stars as Nathan Weinschenk, a private detective who keeps reminding us that he’s Jewish. He does this, I’m guessing, because he doesn’t want anyone to miss the forced irony of a Jew getting caught up in a comic murder mystery involving a pair of corrupt televangelists. That’s really all there is to the movie, which doesn’t take enough advantage of its New York locations or cast members Benben, Peter Onorati, Anthony LaPaglia, Debra Farentino, Sully Boyar and Maggie Wheeler (as Maggie Jakubson), who played Janice on “Friends.” Special features add “James Gunn: How to Sell Your Own Damn Movie Documentary” and some Troma-related extras. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Rogue: Complete First Season
BBC: Vikings: The Real Warriors
Syfy: End of the World
Owned by the DirecTV satellite service, Audience Network offers interesting programming from Canada, the UK and Australia, as well as off-network and off-cable reruns that tend to appeal to young men. I will be forever in its debt for showing the seriously weird Canadian comedy, “Trailer Park Boys,” and intense Aussie crime series “Underbelly.” I haven’t seen it in while, so I can’t say if it has maintained such high standards. The Oakland-based cops-and-crooks series, “Rogue,” represents the network’s first entry into the arena of original dramas. While it isn’t in the same league as “Underbelly,” “Rogue” has several good things going for it, including a fresh cast and plausibly scuzzy Oakland backdrop. The dialogue is mostly distinguished by the number of dropped F-bombs and cop-show clichés. Thandie Newton looks far too classy to play an undercover cop, Grace/Jackie Hays, working for a sleazy NoCal gangster, but it’s TV, after all. She’s motivated by the recent death of her son in a drive-by shooting. After a suspicious leave of absence, she rejoins Jimmy Lazlo’s operation. Her timing is good, because ballistics have matched the slug that killed her son to one that killed Lazlo’s accountant and one intended for Lazlo that ended up in her shoulder, instead.  Newton’s never been shy about showing off her tight body and, here, she’s given more than a few opportunities to do so. Others do, as well. For the ladies, there’s Ian Hart’s not so tight package. The 10-episode season gets better as it goes along, so I imagination that the second season will be worth the effort of finding. The collection adds a making-of featurette and webisodes.

If there’s any ethnic group that hasn’t been underrepresented on television lately, it’s the Vikings. Several theatrical films and mini-series have aired, all describing the ferocity of the wandering Scandinavian traders and settlers. Naturally, documentary series from the UK stress the brutality of the Viking attacks on Lindisfarne and attempts to conquer the entire kingdom. In the BBC’s extraordinary docu-series “Vikings,” host Neil Oliver doesn’t even get to Heathen Horde until the middle of the second episode. Before they get to England, the Vikings have already made their way – peacefully, mostly – through all of Scandinavia, the Baltics, Russia, Constantinople and, perhaps, all the way to Baghdad. Oliver had scoured the museums along the way, looking for treasures, artifacts, plunder, linguistic and genetic traces, and other clues to the extent of the Vikings’ empire … dung collected from cesspits, even.   After the warriors settle Britain, Iceland, and Greenland, transforming themselves from illiterate pagans into Christian farmers, statesmen and kings, they sailed for unknown waters in the west. Watching “Vikings” is the next best thing to auditing a class in ancient European history the local university.

For every hybrid megamonster featured in an original Syfy movie, it seems as if there are two others in which things fall from the sky for no apparent reason, predictive of one version of the apocalypse. It’s as if the network was being programmed by Chicken Little. These incidents appear to be limited to rural British Columbia, where, seemingly, there are more conspiracy theorists and crackpot scientists per square mile than anywhere else on Earth. In “End of the World,” the designated looney is played by –who else? – the always on-call, Brad Dourif. When electro-magnetic blasts begin to bombard Earth, the only people who suspect the truth are Dourif’s crazy sci-fi writer, Doc, and two goofballs who work at a video store in the local strip mall. If that sounds preposterous, it’s only because that’s how Syfy rolls: equal parts self-mocking humor, bargain-basement effects and apocalyptic dread. I’ve seen the same scenario played out with flying icicles. The target audience for “End of the World,” as usual, is boys in their early teens who enjoy watching people and things vaporize before their eyes. Here, the action only gets sillier the longer the movie goes on … but, in a good way. – Gary Dretzka

Under Capricon
Above Suspicion: Set 3
George Gently: Season 6
Vera: Set 3
The Science of Measurement
Talks About Nothing
At a time when BBC America has put its big hits, “Top Gear” and “Doctor Who,” into heavy rotation and recycled Hollywood movies have shoved too many fresh shows off the schedule, it’s no longer easy to find fresh Brit sitcoms and hour-long dramas. PBS offers several of the major programs, but, in Los Angeles, at least, almost none is on the primary outlet (KCET), except in distant reruns. One has to hunt-and-peck through five stations to find “Downton Abbey.” The other dirty secret about British imports is the editing and self-censorship that happens once those shows hit the air here. Too often, it’s better to wait for the Blu-ray/DVD release. Speaking of which, the relatively new DVD and streaming company, Acorn Media, is doing a nice job keeping us abreast of new collections from Britain, Canada and Australia, as well as vintage compilations of episodes from popular shows. This week, for example, American audiences can trip back to 1984, when the period Australian mini-series debuted in Sydney; to 2012, for “Under Suspicion, Set 3,” based on the Lynda La Plante thriller, “Silent Scream”; last year, to Northumberland for “Vera: Set 3,” starring Brenda Blethyn; and last month, when the sixth season of “George Gently,” debuted in London. They can be accessed through the Acorn website and Netflix.

Acorn’s non-fiction subsidiary, Athena, is well-represented with two fascinating mini-series. “The Science of Measurement,” a follow-up to “The Science of Math,” takes an exhaustive look at mankind’s historic need to understand and master their world by quantifying and measuring everything around them, whether it’s time, potables, speed or distance. It also questions our obsession with precision. If Big Ben loses a second a day or week, for example, is it less reliable than a clock that won’t lose a second in our lifetimes? How has the science of measurement shaped the course of history, science, civilization and the mundane chores of daily life? The series is hosted by Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, who makes this insanely intricate study accessible, more or less, to viewers who may never receive a PhD.

The title, “Talks About Nothing,” is as misleading as the material contained therein is riveting. And, yet, the metaphysical concept of nothingness has fascinated artists, intellectuals and clerics for as long as humans could put their heads around it. What “Talks About Nothing” isn’t is a panel discussion with a dais full of smart people, all attempting to get a word in edgewise. Neither is it a mini-series that aims to make the philosophizing tolerable by hopping from one picturesque college, museum or institution to another at breakneck speed. Curators at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art simply asked pairs of gifted conversationalists to sit in comfortable chairs and discuss things about which they’re knowledgeable. Remarkably, the discussions are rarely off-point and never inconsequential or boring, even if the guests are known primarily in their spheres of influence. Among the pairings are neurologist Oliver Sacks and blind photographer John Dugdale; Shakespearean actor Brian Cox and developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik; filmmaker Ken Burns and Tibetan Buddhist teacher Traleg Rinpoche; performance artist Laurie Anderson and Charles Seife, author of a book about zero; Laurie Anderson and Charles Seife; actor Fiona Shaw and philosopher Simon Critchley; and director/teacher Peter Sellars and economist/author Raj Patel. An essay, “Zero: A Brief History of Nothing,” accompanies the package. – Gary Dretzka

Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutagen Mayhem
Drawing With Mark: Something Fishy/A Day at the Aquarium
Drawing With Mark: Good to Grow/Life on the Farm
Bubble Guppies/Dora the Explorer/Wild Kratts/Caillou
As usual, Our Heroes are up to their shells in danger, this time as Shredder and Kraang team up with Karai, the Rat King and Foot Bots to enjoy the ninjutsu Turtles, newly joined by Casey Jones. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutagen Mayhem” is comprised of six episodes of the 2012 series. Among the additions to the 145-minute feature are the making-of “Mutation of a Scene” and “Channel 6 News Special Report: Creatures of the Night.”

New Englander Mark Marderosian is a prolific cartoonist, animator, children’s and comic book illustrator, and toy designer. He may be best known for his Walt Disney-licensed children’s books – “Mickey’s Wish: A Deluxe Super Shape Book,” “Disney Princess: Jewelry Box” – and “Angels From the Attic” line of stuffed toys. In 2010, Marderosian and designer/animator Robert Palmer Jr. created a television program called “Drawing With Mark” for Big City Publishing, which sells storybooks, coloring books, flash cards. After offering the show for free to public-access TV stations, it was picked up by more than 100 cable outlets across the country. Marderosian has said that, “The show’s overall theme is about helping kids unlock their creativity, especially in these days of brutal budget cuts on so many institutions.” Last year, he was nominated for an Emmy by the Boston/New England Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences nominated “Drawing with Mark” for a Regional Emmy award in the Children’s/Youth category, and he’s won a Parents’ Choice Award. Each DVD includes two 30-minute episodes. In “Something Fishy” and “A Day at the Aquarium,” Marderosian takes viewers to the Woods Hole aquarium, where they’re taught to draw marine animals. In “Life on the Farm” and “Good to Grow,” visits a working farm. Other newly available package include “Reaching for the Stars”/”A Day With the Dinosaurs” and “We All Scream for Ice Cream”/”Happy Tails.”

Other new titles for kids in comparable age brackets are “Bubble Guppies: Animals Everywhere,” in which the title characters take field trips around the world to learn about squirrels, ducks, rhinos, elephants and other critters; “Dora the Explorer: Dora in Wonderland” replicates Alice’s famous through-the-looking-glass adventure; “Wild Kratts: Bugging Out,” in which Martin and Chris use their Creature Power Suits to gain access to exotic wildlife; and “Caillou: Caillou’s Garden Adventures,” with such self-descriptive episodes as “Caillou Can Compost,” “Caillou’s Tree,” “Caillou Saves Water,” “Blueberry Point,” “Class Pet” and “In the Garden.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

12 Years a Slave: Blu-ray
Remember the brief controversy that arose in late December over an Italian distributor’s decision to market “12 Years a Slave” with one-sheet posters featuring the image of Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, instead of its black star, Chewitel Ejiofor? A fleeting image of his character appears in the foreground, but almost as an afterthought. The Italian distributors apologized for the faux pas and recalled the posters. How, though, could such a slight occur? For many years, common wisdom has held that European audiences, at least, don’t respond well to movies with casts that are predominantly African-American and distributors have found ways to sidestep the issue whenever possible. For instance, although Michael Mann’s “Ali” ended up doing well at the foreign box office, Sony gave it the slowest possible rollout, relying on any free publicity that derived from awards-season coverage. Because “12 Years a Slave” deals with the issue of slavery in the American South, it was almost predictable that a foreign distributor would attempt an end-run around a studio-based promotion strategy. Anecdotal evidence suggests they were only attempting to avoid a disaster and could point to the fact that “The Best Man Holiday,” which did very well at the domestic box office, pulled in just north of $1 million overseas. Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married Too?” did even worse, perhaps resulting in “A Madea Christmas” not being given a chance to prove itself. Outside of the art-house crowd, Americans don’t respond to foreign pictures, either.

Here’s the kicker, though, “12 Years a Slave” did far better in the foreign marketplace than it did domestically, as did “Django Unchained,” which also dealt with slavery. Of the $140.1 million “12 Years a Slave” has collected, as of March 2, only $50.3 million, or 38.9 percent, of it has come from U.S. sales. Virtually the same split was accorded “Django Unchained.” On total sales of $425.4 million, more than $262.5 million came from overseas theaters.  I suspect that those numbers came as a surprise to the bean-counters in Hollywood. It will be interesting to see if the Oscar for Best Picture gives “12 Years a Slave” a jolt at the box office this week, as well as a jumpstart on DVD/Blu-ray and VOD revenues. It would be a mistake to think that “12 Years a Slave” lost money, based on that deceivingly small $50.3 million return. With a production budget of $20 million, the journey to profitability was much shorter. If you wondered why Brad Pitt was so visible at the Oscar ceremony, it’s because his Plan B Entertainment came to the picture’s rescue by finding the money needed to shoot the picture. Likewise, this year’s winner of the Best Actor prize, Matthew McConaughey, was required to save “Dallas Buyers Club” when the studios balked. (“Gravity” had to be rescued from turnaround at WB, too.)

As brilliantly conceived and rendered as “12 Years a Slave” is, I suspect that mainstream American audiences took critics at their word on the how difficult it was for them to stomach the brutality on display. I know that I was in no hurry to watch defenseless slaves being whipped and beaten by sadistic rednecks and bible-thumping plantation owners. Nor was I anxious to hear the word, “nigger,” repeated as if it was just another bullet in a machine-gun. I’m not unhappy that I waited to watch Steve McQueen’s film, however “important,” on the small screen. It’s difficult to imagine many young adults planning a date night around watching Solomon Northrup — a free negro kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841 – having his skin shredded, among other atrocities. Even diehard liberals must have wondered if “Gravity” or “American Hustle” would be a safer choice for a Saturday night out. After watching such emotionally tortuous movies as “Schindler List,” “Django Unchained,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Amistad,” “Beloved,” “Glory,” the ugly debates in “Lincoln,” the beach landing in “Saving Private Ryan” and the hunger strikers in McQueen’s calling-card drama, “Hunger,”  it’s fair to wonder how much bigotry and racism we can absorb without becoming numb to it. Horror fans have a name for it, “torture porn,” and it sells like hotcakes on DVD.

In the hands of such substantial actors as Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti and Sarah Paulson, the hatred behind the lashings and beatings is exponentially more realistic than it would have been if McQueen had been required to hire the cast of, say, “Saw III,” in their place. Even if viewers aren’t able to put themselves directly in the shoes of the slaves, the acting skills possessed by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o demand we share some of their pain, at least. In his acceptance speech Sunday night, McQueen supplied the best reason I’ve heard for us to engage in debate over something that has been outlawed in this country for 150 years. The London-born filmmaker pointed out that there are 21 million men, women and children currently enslaved in various parts of the world and their only hope for freedom might lie with the people who see his movie. In more practical terms, the fact that “12 Years a Slave” has become an unqualified international sensation should reflect in the budgets he gets for his next projects. After all, the success of “Inglourious Basterds” afforded Tarantino the luxury of a $100 budget for “Django Unchained.” The Blu-ray presentation is first-class all the way, although I suspect that the next edition will arrive with a more complete bonus package. The featurette, “12 Years a Slave: A Historical Portrait,” includes Ejiofor reading from Northup’s book, as well as interviews with various cast and crew members. Making-of pieces, “The Team” and “The Score,” are nothing special and probably won’t make the cut next time around. – Gary Dretzka

The Grandmaster: Blu-ray
Although the great martial-arts teacher Ip Man is justly celebrated throughout China and among Kung Fu practitioners everywhere, he remains most famous for teaching Bruce Lee the Wing Chun discipline. There were others, of course, but Lee is the only student who would be widely known outside the PRC and Hong Kong. Imagine if gunslingers Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickcock had decided to hang up their holsters at some point and mentor a new generation of sharp-shooters and quick-draw artists. Instead of having to prove themselves in every railhead community from Wichita to Yuma, gangs of their disciples would meet occasionally to decide whose master was best teacher. That’s the closest I can come to describing what made Ip Man an object of reverence and a key character of at least eight exciting films in the last dozen years, including Wong Kar Wai’s widely acclaimed, “The Grandmaster.” Because Ip’s story is contained to the period of China’s history between the fall of its last dynasty and martyrdom of Bruce Lee, much is known about the man from Foshan. Conveniently, for screenwriters, anyway, the truth has been manipulated to the point where it’s become impossible to parse the difference between fact and fantasy. Hollywood has spent more than 100 years trying to sell Billy the Kid as, among other things, a misunderstood youth, vicious sociopath or a tragic figure of Shakespearian dimensions. “The Grandmaster” differs from recent biopics starring Donnie Yen, Dennis To and Anthony Wong in that less time is devoted to the technique, itself, than artistically conveying the balance of beauty and power, grace under pressure and technique.

Here, Ip is played by Tony Chiu Wai Leung, an extremely popular actor in China and frequent presence in the films of Wong Kar Wai. If neither Wong nor Leung is known primarily for action flicks, both benefitted from having Yuen Woo-ping on the set coordinating fights and stunts. His techniques have informed the films of Quentin Tarantino, the Wachowskis and countless Hong Kong action specialists. In addition to being exciting, the fight scenes in “The Grandmaster” are every bit as elegant as the dances in “The Turning Point,” which were performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leslie Browne. (A fight scene involving the radiant Zhang Ziyi, as the daughter of the northern grandmaster, defines the term, “poetry in motion.” Ip’s story is condensed into 108 minutes in the American (a.k.a., Weinstein) cut, with flashbacks employed to fill in most of the deep background material. Otherwise, “Grandmaster” opens in the post-dynastic period, just before the occupation of China by Japanese forces. As the northern masters migrate to safety in the south, it’s inevitable they would test the masters of the south, whose techniques and philosophies were different from their own. Ip is required to prove that Wing Chung is the more effective style. Under Japanese dominance, Ip loses his wife and daughter to starvation. The business of teaching Kung Fu goes belly up and stays that way through the civil war that follows the occupation. With nothing binding him to China, he moves Hong Kong. He’s given a second lease on life when former students help him build a school from scratch. With the infusion of Chinese refugees, Ip is able to teach Wing Chung to a new generation of students, including Bruce Lee. He also reunites with Gong Er, the daughter of the northern grandmaster, who’s matured both as a woman and fighter. Challenged to uphold the honor of the northern tradition, Gong engages in one of the most entertaining fights I’ve seen in a long time. Just how star-crossed the relationship between Ip and Gong turns out to be becomes apparent soon thereafter.

The generous Blu-ray bonus package is a must-watch for those who love Wong’s movie as much as Martin Scorsese, who agreed to “present” the movie to American audiences. It includes the informative featurettes, “The Grandmaster: From Ip Man to Bruce Lee,” in which a diverse group of observers commenting on the production and Lee’s impact on the fighting genre; “A Conversation With Shannon Lee,” with the late star’s daughter sharing her father’s history with Ip; “‘The Grandmaster’: Behind the Scenes,” a seven-part piece that spans the film’s agonizing 10-year gestation period; and  “‘The Grandmaster’ According to RZA,” in which the rapper/producer shares his thoughts on the film. That the movie was passed over for a Foreign Language nomination speaks volumes about the incompetence of AMPAS and the committee’s continuing resistance to anything that smacks of genre filmmaking. Feel free to ignore any perceived prejudice toward Wong, as well. – Gary Dretzka

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Blu-ray
True movie trilogies face challenges that other franchises don’t encounter on the way to the megaplex. The first, of course, is recognizing the literary properties that warrant such an optimistic approach; second, selling the first episode to a large enough audience to justify an investment in the second and third chapters; third, making the second installment sufficiently entertaining to maintain the momentum created by the first chapter; and fourth, avoiding the problems that come from changing directors in midstream and keeping actors from jumping ship or demanding exponentially more money for the sequels. It isn’t enough to simply hit a home run in the first inning. “The Godfather” wasn’t intended to be a trilogy, but, when Francis Ford Coppola finally acquiesced to popular demand and studio expectations, 16 years had passed and things in Hollywood weren’t quite as wild and woolly as they were in 1974. He lost consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in a contract dispute and actor Winona Ryder, to a change of heart just before production began.  (The attention paid to their replacements, George Hamilton and Sophia Coppola, proved unpopular with the media and viewers.) The second installment of “The Matrix” trilogy so turned off fans and critics that it not only could have killed interest in the third, but also made fans re-assess their opinion of the first. (Instead, the much better “Matrix Reloaded” did well at the worldwide box office and with the pundits.) Fortunately, the ever-changing roster of directors for the “Twilight” quartet – Bill Condin’s two-part “Breaking Dawn” counts as a single entry – proved only to be a distraction. Peter Jackson deserved the props he got for going the distance with the “Ring” and “Hobbit” franchises.

The worst case scenario was realized by the producers of “Atlas Shrugged,” one of the hottest literary properties of the 20th Century. No matter how popular Ayn Rand’s novel has proven to be over the last nearly 60 years, the first installment in the trilogy tanked so badly that no one expected a sequel would be attempted. It lacked major stars and the polish necessary to hold its own on the big screen. “Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike” misfired on all cylinders, disappearing altogether in five weeks. Undeterred, the backers launched a Kickstarter campaign – Rand would have been so proud – to finance “Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt?” The real question is, “Who cares?”

By contrast, the first adaptation of a title in Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy for young adults was practically assured blockbuster status a month ahead of its release, with advanced ticket sales setting a record. After opening huge, “Hunger Games” went on to amass total revenues of $691 million. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” followed the same trajectory, only, this times, foreign grosses topped domestic sales by 1.8 percent. Not that the opinions of critics matter much to young viewers, but both installments scored impressive numbers at the aggregator sites, Metacritic.com and Rotten Tomatoes. That certainly bodes well for the bifurcated triquel, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay,” whose first part opens in time for Thanksgiving. There are teasers to “Mockingjay” throughout “Catching Fire,” as well as a dandy cliffhanger ending, but Francis Lawrence’s sequel stands on its own pretty convincingly.

After winning the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have returned to District 12 for a much-needed rest and reunion with family and friends. Unfortunately, their presence is required by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who senses all may not be well in the kingdom and a celebrity-led victory tour might soothe the masses. Even though Katniss and Peeta are shielded from signs of rebellion, it’s impossible for them to avoid seeing signs of unhappiness over Snow’s repressive regime. When they begin to question why the citizens are so discontented, Snow and gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) prepare a new life-or-death contest, the Quarter Quell. It pits previous winners of the Hunger Games, including Finnick (Sam Claflin), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Johanna (Jena Malone), Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and Mags (Lynn Cohen), against each other. All bring different strengths and weaknesses to the competition, but Snow’s primary goals are to distract the public and eliminate its heroine. Other returnees include characters played by Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Willow Shields, Toby Jones and Paula Malcomson. Quarter Quell takes place in a tropical setting, with imaginative, if deadly booby-traps scattered throughout the Blu-ray friendly jungle. (A scene on the beach reminded me of “The Planet of the Apes.”) Other informative bonus material includes the nine-part featurette, “Surviving the Game: Making Catching Fire”; commentary with Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson; deleted scenes;and an extensive sneak peek of Neil Burger’s “Divergent,” an action fantasy with Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet and Theo James. – Gary Dretzka

New World (Shinsekai Story)
I may be the only one on the planet, who, while watching Lim Kah-wai’s “New World: Shinsekai Story,” was reminded of Susan Seidelman and Madonna’s “Desperately Seeking Susan,” but that doesn’t mean I’m overestimating its fresh indie flavor and brash take on disaffected young adults in China and Japan. Coco is a modern Beijing girl, born may years after the deaths of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and at about the same time as the protests in Tiananmen Square. She takes her fashion cues from MTV and Miley Cyrus, just like so many other girls her age around the world. One day, after being told that he was too busy to go out, she discovers her wealthy boyfriend hanging out in a nightclub with several hotties. Remembering something his limo driver mentioned earlier, Coco decides to go to Osaka to visit friends and see “the world’s largest Christmas tree.” (The kids we meet here celebrate the birthday of Christ in a social way and to promote business with Americans.) She’s picked up at the airport by her friend Ivy’s boyfriend, Masanobu, an innkeeper with a very different concept of luxury accommodations than what Coco is accustomed. Instead of agreeing to stay in what would qualify as a closet back home, she drifts into the Osaka night looking for the bar in which Ivy works as a B-girl. Coco ends up in the city’s rough-and-tumble Shinsekai district, where she is introduced to several unsavory hoodlums who hang out at the bad. Inadvertently, she also comes into contact with the so-called Chinese Mafia, which, among other things, protects Chinese people performing menial labor in the district. There’s quite a few surprises along the way to a Christmas Eve party, where gifts are exchanged. Besides being entertaining, “New World” offers a glimpse into the world of independent filmmaking in Asia. And, even with subtitles, it’s quite accessible to western viewers. The DVD adds deleted scenes and an interview with the director. – Gary Dretzka

Wicked Blood: Blu-ray
Although the cover of “Wicked Blood” has exploitation written all over it, the Southern drug thriller takes a fresh approach to such overfamiliar subjects as meth dealing, biker gangs, trailer trash and gun worship. It accomplishes this by allowing Abigail Breslin to work her considerable charms as a teenager attempting to break the cycle of violence in her family. The visual gag here is that Breslin’s smart and cocky Hannah Lee spends much of her free time playing chess with Uncle Donny (Lew Temple), a meth-cooker with an unhealthy appetite for his own product. Her other “uncle,” Frank, deals the meth that Donny makes and sells it to bikers. When Hannah Lee tells Frank that she needs a job that pays more than the minimum, he uses her as a bicycle-riding conduit for exchanges of cash and product. Meanwhile, Hannah Lee’s sister Amber (Alexa Vega) works for tips at a local diner by day, while spending her nights with Frank’s biker foe, “Wild Bill” (James Purefoy). When one of the players here decides to step on the meth with vitamins, everybody with a gun – including Wild Bill’s demented brother, Bobby (Jake Busey) – prepares to go to war, with Hannah Lee and Donny ending up as pawns in a deadly game of chess. Usually, these sorts of action pictures are defeated by gratuitous sex and violence, lack of finances and underwritten scripts. Here, though, writer/director Mark Young (“The Killing Jar”) has found a way to balance all of the ingredients, without diluting the tough-guy stuff with unlikely romance. Instead, he accentuates the idea that families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, even on the slimy underbelly of Plaquemine, La. The DVD adds short interviews with some of the cast members. – Gary Dretzka

Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme
Dragon City: Punk Rock in China!
Hairspray: Blu-ray
It’s been almost a half-century since the word, “rap,” became part of the vernacular, but the art of rhyming spontaneously can be traced all the way back to the griots of West Africa. Any gospel preacher working without script is a rapper in the same way that Muhammad Ali famously “rapped” his challenges to Sonny Liston and other opponents. The roots of hip-hop, however, extend to American blues, gospel, jazz and R&B – “Minnie the Moocher,” for a prime example – in that the lyrics are transcribed and repeated in performance. Being improvisational, no two “freestyle” raps are the same. The MC battles showcased in “Freestyle: the Art of Rhyme,” and like those showcased in Eminem’s “Eight Mile,” take place in front of a boisterous audience and are judged according to the verbal damage done to each of the participants. In this way, freestyle resembles the street game, “the dozens,” except minus the accompaniment of “scratchers” and the occasional break-dancer. Not only does Kevin Fitzgerald’s 2000 documentary fully explain the phenomenon to curious rubes, but it also introduces us to 30 years’ worth of rap’s leading practitioners on the street and on stage. Among them are Mos Def, Freestyle Fellowship, Ghostface Killah, KRS-One, Supernatural and the Last Poets. (Biggie, Tupac, Eminem, Kool Moe Dee and, even, John Coltrane are represented in archival footage.) For those so inclined “Freestyle: the Art of Rhyme” is quite a treat. It includes extended interviews and deleted scenes.

The endearing thing about punk rock is that it never really gets old. It began 20 years before the Sex Pistols began making headlines and continues today, not just in the U.S. and U.K., but also in places where young people feel the need to rebel against authoritarian regimes and mean parents. Neither does it go in and out of fashion. Black leather coats, nose rings and combat boots are eternal. Even so, a spikey hairdo, purple dye job and clothes held together by safety pins will draw stares from squares in every small town on the planet. When Miley Cyrus does the same thing, fashionistas around the world pay attention. A good place to look for movies about punk rock – in an out of concert – is MVD Visuals, from whence “Dragon City: Punk Rock in China!” and “Punk in Africa” emerge this month. The former is billed as a “post-apocalyptic punk-rock musical adventure” and the first punk-rock movie ever produced in the PRC. It features the mainland band No Name, as its members wander through the wastelands looking for meaning. It arrives in the form of a hippie dinosaur who closely resembles Dennis Hopper in “Easy Rider.” He’s in possession of an assemblage of instruments waiting to be played. Voila! Instant meaning. The DVD includes commentaries; music videos from No Name and other Chinese bands; live performances by No Name; short films by director Darryl Pestilence; and trailers from the Dragon City label. Arriving later this month is “Punk in Africa,” concerning multi-racial punk movements in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Among other non-MVD titles are “Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community,” No One Knows About Persian Cats” and “Afro-Punk,” which explores racial identity within the punk scene across America and abroad.

Something else that doesn’t get old is the original 1988 version of “Hairspray.” While I can easily do without the Broadway-musical version of “Hairspray” and the movie adapted from it – ditto, “The Producers” – the original remains a true gem. The musical soundtrack, comprised of actual ’50s-era songs, is more memorable than the Broadway version, the hairdos are nastier, the dancing is better and the socio-political context is more pronounced. It’s also much, much funnier. Somehow, Waters was able to pull it off in 92 minutes and with a “PG” attached to it. If all you know about “Hairspray” derives from the Broadway edition, prepare to be happily surprised by the real thing. The vintage bonus features, including reminiscences about Divine and making-of material, retain their interest. I would have loved to have seen a deleted scene mentioned by Ricki Lake in her interview. It was based on a popular urban legend about a girl whose brain is devoured by cockroaches living in her beehive hairdo. There are several references to roaches – even a dance – but, because the scene might have cost the picture its PG rating, it was pulled. – Gary Dretzka

Free Fall
Of all the movies I’ve seen compared to “Brokeback Mountain,” the German export “Free Fall” comes the closest to fulfilling any expectations that follow such praise. Co-writer/director Stephan Lacant’s debut feature introduces us to police cadets, played by Hanno Koffler and Max Riemelt, who engage in a short bromance, which includes rough-housing, jogging, sneaking joints in the woods and an awkward semi-sexual encounter. Marc, who goes home to his pregnant wife each night, is freaked out as much by his response to Kay’s brazen advance as the advance, itself. Shortly thereafter, Marc is dismayed to discover that Kay has been assigned to his permanent unit and is hell-bent to drag him out of the closet. By the time Marc graduates to having sex inside the stalls of gay nightclubs, his inability to hide his newfound joy is misinterpreted by his wife as resulting from the intercession of another woman. If only things were that simple. Marc doesn’t want to lose his family and Kay is unhappy that another obstacle – the baby – has come between him and true love. Things get even crazier when Kay is arrested at a drug bust in a gay bar and their fellow cops, including Marc’s father-in-law, follow the clues to the young men’s affair. A couple of cops ignore their supervisor’s warning about acting on their homophobia and provoke fights. With his life now officially in free fall, Marc can’t decide if he’s gay, bi or straight-with-benefits. The only person who knows where Marc will land is Lacant. – Gary Dretzka

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Blu-ray
Nova: Great Cathedral Mystery
Samson & Delilah: Blu-ray
Last week, I was bemoaning the elimination of Jesus Christ from the many DVDs I’ve gotten recently in anticipation of Easter. The cartoon packages are aimed almost exclusively toward pre-schoolers, who already assume that religious holidays mean the exchange of gifts and sugary treats. Bunnies and eggs have been around for quite a while now, of course, but rarely has the symbolism been so routinely ignored. In the Pleistocene era, when I got too old for Easter baskets, I remember being dropped off at the local Bijou to watch such biblical epics as “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur.” There usually was enough action to keep us interested. I’m nowhere near old enough to remember the first theatrical run of “Samson & Delilah,” but I do recall some of the hubbub surrounding “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” 16 years later. (Or, maybe, I’m actually recalling the Mad magazine parodies of Charleston Heston in biblical roles.) Michelangelo isn’t mentioned in the New Testament, although he might as well have been. Any human being capable of conceiving the grandeur that is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has to have been imbued with certain divine qualities. Given what we’ve come to know of the early pontiffs, most lay Christians were better qualified to be popes than the incumbent Roman clergy. Based on Irving Stone’s best-seller of the same title, “TA&TE” describes the tug-of-war between Pope Julius ll (Rex Harrison) and the great sculptor Michelangelo (Heston) over everything from costs to the depiction of God as either a merciless or merciful deity. From the perspective of the artist, the balance between agony and ecstasy was weighted far more in the favor of the former. As depicted here, both were formidable men. Julius II was as interested in waging war as dispensing the sacraments. While Michelangelo is agonizing over his creation, Julius II is attempting to hold back the tide of French and German forces determined to loot the Vatican. Philip Dunne ignores several of the pope’s more disagreeable traits, as have most screenwriters assigned such duties. The Legion of Decency made sure of that. In fact, such recent diversions as “The Borgias” and “Borgia” are probably closer to the truth. In director Carol Reed’s hands, however, there’s no diminishment of Michelangelo’s achievement, which, of course, is magnificent. At 138 minutes, however, some viewers will be tempted to hit the pause button more than once.

In 1949, Heston was too young and unknown to play Samson in Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic, so the task went to Victor Mature. An actor of similar stature, Mature would be featured in several other historical epics that required brawn and good looks, above other attributes. Those who resisted the temptation to pick up the DVD edition released this time last year will be rewarded with a Blu-ray scanned in 4K and restored to its original Technicolor glory. “Samson & Delilah” did far better at the box office than “The Agony and the Ecstacy,” even though it was the lesser cinematic achievement. I imagine, however, that the costumes worn by Hedy Lamarr, Angela Lansbury and Olive Deering, trumped those provided Diane Cilento in Reed’s film. Or, maybe it was Samson’s barehanded battle with a real, if timid lion.

The construction of the dome of the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower, in Florence, is as amazing an achievement in its way as was Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Even today, the architectural effort defies easy explanation. Filippo Brunelleschi engineered the structure based on observation of ancient Roman ruins and how the bricklayer’s art was applied there. From it, Brunelleschi would engineer the largest masonry dome in the world, using 4 million bricks and mortar weighting over 40,000 tons. Trained as a goldsmith, he would invent the compressive techniques that allowed the dome to be free-standing. There was no assurance it would resist storms or earthquakes, or even that the 16-year project wouldn’t claim the lives hundreds of workers.  It’s stood 600 years and, as “Great Cathedral Mystery” explains, practically the only thing we can agree on is that it inarguably a work of genius. The producers followed a group of architecture students as they built a smaller, to-scale model of the dome. Even if you haven’t been to Florence, prepare to be left dumbstruck by what’s revealed. – Gary Dretzka

Margin for Error
City of Bad Men
The Pride of St. Louis
The Glory Brigade
Danger: Love at Work
Wild on the Beach
Every so often, Fox opens the doors to its library wide enough to allow several of its largely forgotten “classics” to escape into the DVD marketplace. Although it might be stretching the truth to list all of the selections among the all-time greats, each of the titles offers something special to recommend them. They also demonstrate some of the pluses of working within the old studio system, whereby recognizable actors found themselves in kilts or cowboy boots one week and business suits and evening gowns the next. The projects assigned to great writers and directors were no less unpredictable. My choices from the Fox Cinema Archives arrived in tip-top shape, but absent any of the usual frills. They are available on demand through various Internet sites.

Danger: Love at Work” (1937), Otto Preminger’s second Hollywood feature, provides a wonderful example of screwball comedy from the 1930s. Jack Haley plays a lawyer assigned to purchase a large patch of property in South Carolina that’s owned by a family of delightfully eccentric characters. On his way south, he meets the pretty blond daughter (Ann Sothern) of one of the owners and her hilariously annoying younger brother. Sothern agrees to help the lawyer in his quest, but is too close to her relatives to understand just how crazy they are. Also in the cast are Edward Everett Horton, John Carradine, Bennie Bartlett and Elisha Cook Jr.

Margin for Error” (1943) was adapted from a pre-war play by Clair Booth Luce. While its anti-fascist, pro-intervention message was appropriate in 1939, the script was hopelessly dated by the time it hit the screen. Milton Berle (that’s right) plays a New York cop, Moe Finkelstein, assigned to guard the German consul (Preminger), who wears his anti-Semitism on his sleeves. (The consul purposefully mispronounces Finkelstein’s name, until he needs his help.) Another annoyance is a fat spokesman for Nazism in American bunds. Luce’s play added a murder mystery to intrigue involving consulate workers with Jewish relatives still in the Old Country. In the movie, the mystery is terribly mishandled. Throw in the misappropriation of Nazi funds, references to concentration camps and Moe’s attempts to seduce an Aryan maid and you’ve got a 74-minute picture that’s overstuffed with through-lines and can’t decide if it’s a comedy or drama. (It was marketed as both.)

The Glory Brigade” (1953) is one of the most unusual war stories I’ve ever seen. In it, a Greek-American lieutenant (Victor Mature) is ordered to keep a floating bridge intact until allied trucks can move supplies over it. The constant mortar attacks suggest that the North Koreans have something big to hide on the other side of the river. The lieutenant is assigned to assist a platoon of Greek soldiers, fighting under the UN flag, but not take charge of the operation. “The Glory Brigade” is informed by the fact that many Americans troops were reluctant to take orders from foreign officers and this lack of trust could work in the favor of the enemy. The portrayal of the Greek soldiers is only occasionally marred by ugly ethnic taunting, even as they perform traditional dances common to guerrilla fighters back home. In fact, “The Glory Brigade” gently questions the notion of American infallibility in war. It stars Victor Mature, Alexander Scourby, Richard Egan and a young Lee Marvin.

City of Bad Men” (1953) is a late-period western that describes what happens when outlaws converge separately on Carson City, intent on looting the strongbox holding the proceeds of a 1897 boxing match, featuring Gentleman Jim Corbett. Just as is the case when there’s a big fight in Las Vegas, this one attracts crooks, hookers, gamblers and gunslingers, in addition to fans. The best thing about Harmon Jones’ movie is a cast that includes Dale Robertson, Jeanne Crain, Lloyd Bridges, Richard Boone, Carl Betz (“The Donna Reed Show”) and several of the great “heavies” in the business, John Doucette, I. Stanford Jolley, James Best and Leo Gordon.

Pride of St. Louis” (1952) is a better-than-average sports biopic, distinguished by the writing of Herman J. Mankiewicz, Harmon Jones’ direction and a funny portrayal of Hall of Fame pitcher and unforgettable announcer “Dizzy” Dean. For you youngsters, Dean was the Bob Uecker of his day, widely known and briefly condemned for his cornpone vocabulary. Every cliché of the genre can be found here, including an unnecessary romance and narrative enhanced by a parade of newspaper headlines. Richard Crenna plays the brother, Paul “Daffy” Dean.

Of all the beach-party movies made in the 1960s, “Wild on the Beach,” is probably the least representative of the sub-genre. None of the primary characters actually is shown surfing – or pretending to do so, as did Frankie Avalon — and balding men in suits attempt to seduce the beach bunnies over martinis. The conflict here involves a Malibu crash pad that the local university wants to turn into a dorm. Another one of the balding lechers is an old-school record producer who learns to like surf music. Looking completely out of place here are Sonny & Cher, the Astronauts, Sandy Nelson, Frankie Randall, Sandy Nelson and Cindy Malone. “Wild on the Beach” may be best remembered, however, as an infomercial for Frederick’s of Hollywood’s line of torpedo bras. – Gary Dretzka

Boiler Room: Blu-ray
Looking back from a distance of 14 years, one major depression, a couple of recessions and billions of dollars that Americans will never recover, “Boiler Room” reeks of the odor from the decayed carcass of free-market economy and ignored prophesy. Everyone in control of the economy pretended not to notice the first signs of impending disaster, but it was there all along. In 2000, the stock market was booming and no one wanted to be the first person to rock the boat or miss out on the gold rush. To facilitate those who couldn’t detect the odor, “boiler rooms” were set up to reel in the suckers. Guys who couldn’t wait to pay their dues on Wall Street, or had yet to pass the required tests, joined firms that lacked even the ethical fiber of carnival barkers. The idea was to keep the rubes on the phone long enough to whet their interest in investing and refuse to let them off the hook until they said, “Yes.” Boiler-room operations, such as the one in freshman writer/director Ben Younger’s film, weren’t interested in selling blue-chip stocks to long-term investors. Rather, they worked the nether zone between legitimate and corrupt sales practices. They promised to return large profits on companies whose foundations were built of sand. By the time the economy collapsed, the better ones had churned and burned homeowners and developers to the point where no money was left for anyone. Some were fortunate enough to work for companies that received government bailouts, while others were lucky to jobs as greeters at Walmart.

“Boiler Room” tells the story of one such stud, Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi), a kid who dropped out of college to run an underground casino for bored students. One night, a sharply dressed guy dropped by the casino and offered him a job that might be compatible with his energy level. In the boss’ introduction address, which sounds as if it were an outtake from “Glengarry Glen Ross,” fortunes were promised to those who could stand the intense pressure. His trajectory resembles that Bud Fox in “Wall Street.” In fact, “Boiler Room” is “Wall Street,” writ small. That doesn’t make it a rip-off, only familiar. The thing I noticed first was the large number male actors – under 30, at the time – whose careers would explode in the next few years: Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck, Jamie Kennedy, Nicky Katt, Scott Caan, Taylor Nichols, Tom Everett Scott and Anson Mount, among others. Nia Long plays an assistant at the firm and she is the only woman – only African-American, for that matter — who gets much face time. The Blu-ray add commentaries, deleted scenes and a pretty good alternate ending. – Gary Dretzka

The Great Chicken Wing Hunt
In this big hungry country in which we live, there are gourmets, gourmands, foodies, food fascists and fat guys at the end of the bar who will eat anything, as long as they don’t have to waste a fork on it. Buffalo chicken wings easily qualify as high-end bar food and the people who swear by them, generally speaking, limit their consumption to places where they can be washed down by copious amounts of beer. Napkins are optional, but only if they’re wearing clean T-shirts.  In 1980, the esteemed essayist and food writer Calvin Trillin used three pages of valuable space in the New Yorker explaining to his effete readers the brief history of the spicy appetizer and why it’s treated with the same reverence in northwestern New York as pizza in Chicago and oysters in New Orleans. By now, there are as many variations to the hallowed Anchor Bar recipe as there are bars and roadhouses serving the darn things. “The Great Chicken Wing Hunt” follows a group of wing-nuts around the country in pursuit of the perfect Buffalo chicken wing, even if it’s found hundreds of miles from New York. At a time when so many Americans are out of work, I can’t think of a less healthy, if entirely delightful way to kill an unemployment check. Itinerant journalist Matt Reynolds was living in Eastern Europe, with his girlfriend, when he decided to embark on the mission and, from what I can tell, scored a grant or two or do it. He imported his Czech girlfriend and a Slovak film crew to accompany the wandering troupe of domestic wing chompers he’d found on the Internet … where else? Thanks to the amount of beer consumed along the way and folk songs by Al Caster, it’s a blast. The bad news is that it’s currently only available on VOD outlets, including Amazon. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
BBC: Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor: Blu-ray
PBS: Reportero
BBC: The Best of Men
Nature: The Funkiest Monkeys
Nova: Alien Planets RevealedCartoon Network: Teen Titans Go: Mission to Misbehave: Season 1, Part 1
Adult Swim: The Venture Bros: The Fantastic Fifth Season
2013 was an epochal year in the history of “Doctor Who” and for its international audience of rabid fans. In addition to marking the 50th anniversary of its birth, the show’s writers, directors and producers were required to create a special episode for the occasion, another one for the 800th individual episode and ease the transition from the 11th to the 12th Doctor. Oh, yeah, the issue of the annual Christmas special would have to be addressed, as well. The first hurdle to clear, of course, was the challenge of finding someone to replace Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor. The transition would be as closely watched as the transfer of power from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon, except for the fact that more people in more countries would actually give a crap about the decision. To my mind, at least, Peter Capaldi (“In the Loop”) was an inspired choice. “The Time of the Doctor” is the third installment in a loose trilogy of episodes, following “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Day of the Doctor.” It ties together storylines unresolved during Smith’s tenure, including the prophecy of the Silence and the Doctor’s fate on the planet Trenzalore. It also deals with the regeneration limit established in “The Deadly Assassin.” The episode also features Jenna Coleman as the Doctor’s companion, Clara Oswald, and such enemies as the Cybermen, Silence, Daleks and Weeping Angels. Makes you wonder how the BBC would have handled the final episode of “Dallas” or “M*A*S*H.” The Blu-ray package add the featurettes, “Behind the Lens: It’s Christmas!,” when the Doctor comes face to face with the enigmatic Tasha Lem; “Farewell to Matt Smith,” narrated by Alex Kingston; and the golden-anniversary retrospective, “Tales from the TARDIS,” Smith and past Doctors David Tennant, Sylvester McCoy, Colin Baker, Peter Davison and Tom Baker, and companions Jenna Coleman, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill.

Generally speaking, American journalists have little to fear from their pursuit of the news. I’ve only known one reporter who felt it necessary to carry a gun to work and that was in Gary, Indiana, where reporters often arrived at crime scenes ahead of the police. The same can’t be said for those assigned to war zones or places where armed men wouldn’t recognize the First Amendment if it was stapled to their ass. Perhaps, the most dangerous place in the world to practice journalism, though, is within a hundred miles south of the U.S. border with Mexico, where more than 50 journalists have been slain or have vanished since December 2006. That was when President Felipe Calderón came to power and launched a government offensive against the country’s powerful drug cartels and organized crime. Violent crime plagues the U.S., as well, but the situation in Mexico is different, if only because the stakes are so high for the criminals and everyone in the cartels’ food chain. That includes almost everyone in a position of power and influence, including the police, politicians, border guards and judiciary. If they aren’t being paid off, they’re targets. (It explains why the president has only trusted the Mexican Navy and U.S. DEA to make the busts.) Mainstream media outlets are controlled by publishers beholden to the government or a political party, so there’re invested in maintaining the status quo. The PBS documentary “Reportero” describes a Tijuana-based independent newsweekly, Zeta, which isn’t in the pockets of the power brokers or drug cartels. It’s been targeted so many times that much of the production is done on the U.S. side of the border. The filmmakers follow the magazine’s Jesús Blancornelas, who, in 1980, co-founded Zeta with the murdered Héctor Félix Miranda, as he covers scene in Tijuana and works with fellow staff members. In 1997, Blancornelas was ambushed by 10 gunmen working for a cartel that had moved from Sinaloa to Tijuana to traffic shipments of cocaine into the United States. Only a freak accident prevented him from being killed. “Reportero” is as fascinating as it is harrowing.

As far as I can tell, the BBC presentation, “The Best of Men,” didn’t make the make the leap across the pond in the warm afterglow of the Summer Games, held two years ago in London. It’s a pretty good story, with no small amount of relevance today. It describes the efforts of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann (Eddie Marsan), to rescue soldiers seriously injured in the war to escape medieval medical practices in British hospitals. On a second front, Guttmann was required to win over hospital staff and patients wary of his thick accent and German background. Once that was accomplished, he was able to convince the men that a terrible spinal injury wasn’t a reason to give up hope. Basically, instead of confining the soldiers to bed and feeding them pills, Guttmann encouraged them to exercise the neglected muscles in their bodies and intellect. He organized sports activities and field trips, including visits to the local pubs, and encouraged staff members to engage the men on a more personal basis. After the war, Ludwig organized athletic competitions for wheelchair-bound vets. They, in turn, would lead to the establishment of the Stokes Mandeville Games and, later, the Paralympics. In 1966, Guttmann was knighted by the Queen of England. “The Best of Men,” which benefits from some melodramatic touches, was shown on the BBC in conjunction with the 2012 Paralympics, which took place two weeks after the Summer Olympics.

For as much joy as PBS’ “Nature” brings to its viewers, all too often the fun is neutralized by reports of man’s cruelty to animals and the steady encroachment on natural habitats. While the title, “The Funkiest Monkeys,” suggests an hourlong romp through the pristine jungles of Indonesia, we know to expect the bad news, as well. Here, Colin Stafford-Johnson (“Broken Tail: A Tiger’s Last Journey”) returns to Sulawesi, where he first fell in love with crested black macaques. The title refers to their “funky” punk hairstyle and expressive faces. They only exist on this island and their numbers have diminished since Stafford-Johnson’s last visit. Among the usual things impacting habitat, he is made aware of the illegal trade in macaques at the local market. Local residents have developed a taste for the meat and poachers cater to it. The scenes shot at the outdoor market are tough to watch – the other delicacies are pretty nasty, as well – and far too rough for the kiddies. Stafford-Johnson has dedicated himself to showing his footage of macaques in the wild at local schools and community centers as a way to discourage more carnage.

For millennia, residents of Planet Earth have wondered if life as we know it exists somewhere else in the universe. Such curiosity has divided scientists and theologians for all of that time, with a lack of evidence giving religious leaders and skeptics the edge in the debate. Today, of course, technology has allowed us to peer deeper into space than ever before, revealing countless more solar systems than we could even imagine 50 years ago. The “Nova” episode “Alien Planets Revealed” introduces us to the research gathered by scientists working with NASA’s Kepler space observatory. If counting the number of stars in the heavens is considered to be an impossible task, imagine taking a closer look to determine if planets the size of Earth are orbiting them and, if any, the possibility they could be habitable. The remarkable images served to make me feel very small and insignificant. If there are living beings on other planets, let’s hope they’ve evolved beyond engaging in war to settle political and tribal disputes.

If Cartoon Network’s “Teen Titans Go!” sounds familiar to fans of DC Comics and DC Entertainment, it’s because its short roots go back to the cartoon series, “Teen Titans” and “New Teen Titans,” which found an enthusiastic audience about a dozen years back. The new spinoff has taken liberties with the basic premise, by adding more comedy and following the superhero team to places where they aren’t required to save the world. Unimpeded by adult supervision, the Teen Titans must deal with situations involving pranks, recreational activities and retaking a driver’s test after wrecking the Batmobile. Judging by the lively debate on Internet fan sites, not everyone is pleased with the new direction of the series. But, then, old fans are never satisfied with changes to their favorite shows.

If there’s a more recognizable voice on television than that of Patrick Warburton, I haven’t heard it. Ever since he busted out of obscurity as Puddy, in the “Fusilli Jerry” episode of “Seinfeld,” he’s been the go-to actor for animated characters with gruff voices and deadpan personalities. Naturally, the New Jersey native plays a key role in Adult Swim’s action-comedy “The Venture Bros.,” which resembles a fractured version of “Johnny Quest.” As is the case with most Post-Modern cartoon series, it isn’t easy to jump into the middle of a show and expect to understand what’s going on. It’s better to start at the beginning and become acclimated to the rhythm, rhymes and senses of humor of the creative team. As is the case with “Adventure Time,” the seasons have passed by rather slowly, making it easy to catch up with the 20-minute episodes and short seasons. The sharp Blu-ray package adds uncensored commentaries by creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer for all eight episodes and the “Very Venture Halloween” special; a collection of incomplete deleted scenes; and “Fax My Grandson,” also known as “The Further Audio Adventures of Diamond Backdraft!” – Gary Dretzka

Super Bowl XXLVIII Champions: Seattle Seahawks: Blu-ray
If the National Football League knows how to do anything extremely well, it’s how to milk every penny of potential revenues from the annual Super Bowl circus. By comparison, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a piker. Likewise, NFL Films doesn’t miss a step from Draft Day to the awarding of the Lombardi Trophy. Fortunately, it’s the best at what it does and their products don’t shortchange fans. Still, one caveat always applies to the first DVD/Blu-ray that arrives in the wake of the Super Bowl. “Super Bowl XXLVIII Champions: Seattle Seahawks” may sound as if it includes the championship game, but it doesn’t … not the whole one, anyway. That comes in June, with full coverage of the other playoff games. This title covers every aspect of the game, except the complete game and accompanying play-by-play. It also includes highlights, miked players and coaches, Super Bowl Media Day, post-game ceremonies and player profiles. At 180 minutes, however, it’s a pretty generous package. I’d be surprised, however, if more than a dozen copies are sold in the entire state of Colorado. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Gravity: Blu-ray
For those few who haven’t already seen “Gravity” in a theater – 3D, large-format or traditional – the primary thing to know about the DVD/Blu-ray experience is that, unless your screen is larger than the door of your garage, it won’t be nearly as immersive. Can’t be. You’d also have to invest in the whole Blu-ray 3D/HDTV package. 3DTwo, the extremely generous bonus features, alone, are worth the price of a purchase or rental. That’s why, one way or another, Alfonso Cuaron’s 91-minute masterpiece ought to be seen under optimal conditions Oscars are handed out. That said, however, the Blu-ray visual presentation is as good as it gets right now and even the sounds of silence are deeply profound. Ultimately, though, it’s the generous bonus package that sells the Blu-ray, and it can be appreciated as much by repeat viewers and first-timers. Because “Gravity” contains several crucial surprises, there’s no way to go into any depth on the storyline without ruining the fun for potential viewers. Suffice it to say that a pair of astronauts, extremely well played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, are working outside the shuttle when they’re suddenly forced to go into survival mode. After the Russians use a missile to destroy a spy satellite – presumably – the debris flies through space like shrapnel from a hand grenade. When the shards cross the orbital path of the shuttle, they not only destroy the spacecraft, but they also sever Stone and Kowalski’s lifelines to Houston. They’re afforded one thin chance for survival, but we’re given no reason to think they can pull it off. The passengers on James Cameron’s “Titanic” had a better chance of making it to New York than Stone or Kowalski have making it back to Earth. And, yet, there it is directly below them, with nothing in between to spoil their view of it. Large, luminous and inviting, the safety of home appears to be within arm’s length of the crippled shuttle.

As viewers have learned from a half-century of space exploration, passing through the planet’s atmospheric shield isn’t as easy as it looks from Earth or space. Hit it at the wrong angle and you’re toast. The astronauts in “Apollo 13” may have faced the same problem, but the ending was foretold decades earlier. Somehow, Ron Howard keep us on the edge of our seats, anyway. “Gravity” is the reason “spoiler alerts” were invented. Knowing too much about the story going into theater defeats the purpose of buying a ticket. On the other hand, there are all sorts of unwritten rules in Hollywood that suggest stars of the stature of Bullock and Clooney survive most such disasters and the excitement comes in watching them navigate the escape routes. They don’t look much like any astronauts we’re ever seen, but, then, neither did most of the actors in “The Right Stuff.” It will be interesting to see if, in 10-20 years, people hold “Gravity” in the same esteem as “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff,” whether or not it wins an Oscar. If nothing else, I think “Gravity” deserves a second or third viewing, if only to more clearly identify and contemplate Cuaron’s metaphorical through-line, which, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” involves physical and spiritual re-birth. The Blu-ray’s 107-minute making-of featurette, “Mission Control,” is absolutely fascinating, especially because the option of making the movie in space and zero-gravity wasn’t available to Cuaron. How did he make it look as if he had convinced NASA to build an orbiting soundstage? Among the other bonus features are breakdowns of five different scenes (37 minutes). To appreciate co-writer/son Jonas Cuaron’s land-based short, “Aningaaq,” one needs to have seen the entire movie, as it amplifies on a seemingly incidental sequence in space. In the informative documentary short, “Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space,” Ed Harris describes how the film’s centerpiece disaster isn’t as unrealistic as some might think, given the number of “retired” satellites in Earth’s orbit. (Harris, who was in “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13,” provides the disembodied voice of Mission Control, in “Gravity.”) – Gary Dretzka

Thor: The Dark World: Blu-ray 2D/3D
At a time when marketing costs for potential blockbusters are hovering around the $100 million mark, it’s become impossible to parse the difference between a hit and a near miss, based solely on box-office grosses. In 2011, “Thor” brought in a nifty total of $449.3 million, worldwide, with production costs of some $150 million. Two years later, “Thor: The Dark World” – for my money, a more entertaining picture – did almost the same amount of business, if one counts the inevitable rise in ticket prices that comes with building fancy new theaters in previously underserved markets. Whether any of the film’s investors or exhibitors made a dime is always open to conjecture and lawsuits. Based on the sequel’s explosive opening — $147 million over the first two weeks domestically – I’d say that Disney’s marketing team deserved to find some kind of bonus in their Christmas stockings. Actually, I thought “The Dark World” would get a better bounce than it did from the astounding success of “The Avengers,” in which Thor and his power-hungry brother, Loki, play prominent roles. That one collected total revenues of $1.5 billion worldwide, with American audiences contributing roughly $638 million. One is left to wonder why so many viewers skipped “The Dark World,” even though it picks up roughly where “Avengers” left off and early reviews were positive. The mind boggles …

My problem with the original “Thor” was that it felt overly Earth-bound and unnecessarily expository. The special effects were terrific, of course, but too much room was reserved for history lessons. In “The Dark World,” the balance is restored. With Loki in the hoosegow for crimes committed in Midgard (the Earthly realm) in “Avengers,” calm has been restored to the Nine Realms. In his time on Earth, Thor not only found his hammer but also became familiar with the concept of humility, which pleases Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Frigga (Rene Russo). Back in Midgard, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is possessed by a sinister energy weapon, just as the Dark Elf, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), decides that Asgard is ripe for picking. Determined to save Jane from harm and keep the lights burning in the heavens, Thor enlists Sif, the Warriors Three and Heimdall. Against his better judgment, he even solicits help from the imprisoned trickster, Loki.  Meanwhile, on Earth, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) is running around London in his skivvies, hoping to draw attention to the potential for disaster when the once-in-a-millennia alignment of the Nine Realms (a.k.a., the Convergence) occurs. Fans of the series will be happy to learn that most of the action in the sequel takes place on the fantasy battlegrounds of outer space, instead of Midgard.  Malekith, who’d previously had collaborated with Thor’s half-brother, unleashes other dark elves on Asgard without knowing exactly what Loki had up his sleeve.

Alan Taylor, who replaced Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair, made his bones helming such TV series as “Games of Thrones,” “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos.” If he ever felt uncomfortable working in the realm of comic-book heroes, it doesn’t show. Some of the credit for that probably belongs to writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who specialize in them.  Moreover, the Thor legend is voluminous enough to borrow material from one story and integrate it into something new. An “Avengers” sequel is on the boards – apparently without Loki — and a third installment of the Thor franchise already has been announced. I’d certainly consider giving Thor’s scheming half-brother more time the triquel. As for the Blu-ray, there’s certainly nothing wrong with the hi-def AV presentation. The Blu-ray extras add “Marvel One Shot: All Hail the King,” with Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery returning in a  short film from “Iron Man 3” co-writer Drew Pearce; commentary with Taylor, Hiddleston, cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, producer and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige; the 32-minute “Brother’s Journey: Thor & Loki,” which puts a tight focus of the Asgardian brothers; deleted and extended scenes; “Scoring Thor: The Dark World,” in which composer Brian Tyler briefly discusses the sequel’s score and creation of new musical themes for Thor, Odin, Loki, the Dark Elves and the Nine Realms; a peek at “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which launches on April 4; and a gag reel. Not all of them will be available in the VOD editions. “The Dark World” also arrives in a 3D version, which better minds than mine evaluate elsewhere on the web. – Gary Dretzka

You Will Be My Son
If there is any more fruitless way to kill two hours of precious than in the company of a pompous old fool, as he berates his son for not being enough like him, it’s allowing the jerk to get under your skin, as well. In “You Will Be My Son,” co-writer/director Gillles Legrand has created just such an odious character. Even worse, Paul de Marseul is unmistakably French and a renowned vintner who can’t go two minutes without bragging about his wine or minimizing someone else’s efforts. Afraid that the egomaniacal character’s toxic personality might limit their career options, few actors would agree to play such a monster. In the capable hands of Niels Arestrup (“A Prophet”), however, the old prick demands that we hate him every bit as much as he despises the presence of his son, Martin (Lorànt Deutsch), in his life. For most of the movie, we don’t even know why De Marseul feels that way about his sole heir. If Freud has a word for such a condition, I couldn’t find it on Google. Despite his father’s behavior. Martin very much wants to follow in his footsteps and those of his grandfather, before him. He pays attention to Daddy Dearest at home and studied the oenophilac arts at college, but, even so, De Marseul won’t cut him an inch of slack. By the time we meet him, Martin is completely intimidated by his father and appears to blame himself for being the runt of the De Marseul litter. The only one who dares stand up to De Marseul is Martin’s spunky wife.

For many years, the agricultural side of the business has been managed by Francois (François Amelot), whose nose and taste buds are impeccable. Francois is dying of cancer, though, and, therein, lies the rub. De Marseul is so committed to handing down the estate to someone other than Martin that he schemes to bring Francois’ son (Nicolas Bridet) back from Napa to comfort his father and talk him into becoming his partner. It takes a while for Martin and Francois to figure out why De Marseul is so interested keeping the young man from returning to California. By the time they do, however, the vintner has been so seduced by the promise of money and fame that he turns his back on his own parents.  There’s only a couple of directions “You Will Be My Son” can go without viewers wanting to kill both men and put a curse on both of their hearts. None of this would work if the actors weren’t so damned convincing, which they are, and we weren’t so anxious to watch Martin find justice, which he may or may not achieve. The Blu-ray takes full advantage of the lovely French scenery, which includes rolling hills, deep-green meadows and many acres of vines loaded with grapes. Be sure to watch the bonus features, which include interviews with Deutsch and Legrand and the rare selection of deleted scenes that amplify what we’ve already seen. – Gary Dretzka

Come Back, Africa: The Films of Lionel Rogosin: Volume II: Blu-ray
There likely will come a time in the not-so-distant future when the enforcement of apartheid in South Africa will seem as distant a memory as legally enforced segregation in the American South. Indeed, considering the recent rise in Republican-sanctioned actions designed to keep African-Americans from voting in some states, South Africans could teach us a thing or two about tolerance and the encouragement of diversity. When “Come Back, Africa” was shown at the 1959 Venice Film Festival, American-style segregation was finally being challenged by activists, students, the clergy and celebrities. Politicians joined Klansmen in being late to the party. In South Africa, the 11-year-old policy of Apartheid had already become entrenched, with no reforms in sight. To their great shame, American politicians remained just as silent about Apartheid as they did about lynching and Jim Crow laws in the South. Perhaps, they didn’t want to be accused of being hypocrites. The Carter administration imposed some sanctions that his successor, Ronald Reagan, ignored and refused to strengthen. Congress had to override his veto to get any such measures passed. He cited South Africa’s anti-communist stance in an unstable Africa as a key reason for not demanding more affirmative action. Despite winning a major prize at Venice and finding a receptive audience throughout Europe, director Lionel Rogosin was required to open the Bleecker Street Cinema, in New York, for “Come Back, Africa” to be shown here. It  debuted one week before the Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 black protestors were killed.

As was the case with Rogosin’s first film, “On the Bowery,” “Come Back, Africa” is a neo-realist documentary, directly influenced by the work of Robert Flaherty and Vittorio De Sica. The amateur cast follow a screenplay, but it represented the facts on the ground as the South African writers saw them. The guerrilla production would have been forbidden by government authorities, if Rogosin hadn’t lied to them about his intent. Because censors believed the movie would be about music and the happiness it brings to the people, he was allowed to shoot more or less freely. The time spend in pre-production brought him in contact with black and white actors, musicians and activists, including several from the banned ANC. It give him a feel for the pace and rhythms of everyday life in Johannesburg, as well as the clandestine meetings and fears of reprisal. The amateur actors participated in the belief that people around the world weren’t being told the truth about Apartheid. (Television wasn’t allowed in South Africa until 1976. Programming was dominated by American shows, because the Brits and Aussies refused to supply the country with entertainment.) The film’s point of view is provided by a poor Zulu farmer forced to move to the big city to find work in the gold mines. It isn’t a job Zacharia Mgabi is particularly suited to perform, but, then, neither are the alternatives. Mining is brutal work and the wages, of course, are lousy. When Zacharia is hired for other work, we’re introduced to the indignities attendant to working in close proximity to Afrikaners. Through him, we also are allowed to eavesdrop on debates among black political activists. At one, we meet a young Mariam Makeba, whose participation in the movie would make her persona non grata in South Africa for decades to come.

Rogosin stops well short of turning “Come Back, Africa” into a polemic or diatribe. Except for one extremely nasty housewife, the whites are accorded some dignity, as well. Neither are we led to believe that Zacharia is a saint or any more of a victim than any other black man in such a hostile environment. Much of the movie is set in Sophiatown, a black district within Johannesburg that in the 1940-50s was a center for politics, arts, entertainment and intellectuals. At the same time as Rogosin was shooting the picture, Sophiatown was being torn down for no good reason on the orders of the government, with the residents re-located to dumpy new accommodations away from the city. The new Milestone Blu-ray reflects the significant restoration work invested in the movie for its 2012 theatrical release. It’s the second installment in the company’s Rogosin retrospective and also includes several fresh interviews with actors and others who still recall the shoot; vintage interviews with the director; the documentary, “Have You Seen the Drum Recently?,” about the influential magazine, Drum; “An American in Sophiatown,” by son Michael Rogosin; and the remarkable musical documentary “Dark Root,” in which Reverend Gary Davis, Jim Collier, Wende Smith and Larry Johnson are joined by Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick and attorney Florynce Kennedy, in sharing reflections on oppression and struggle in America. – Gary Dretzka

Mother of George: Blu-ray
It isn’t often that one encounters an independent film as brilliantly shot as “Mother of George,” a film that continually contrasts the gritty urban environment of working-class Brooklyn, with the vibrantly colored attire favored by Nigerian immigrants. The African textiles, worn for ritual celebrations and at work, remind us of the culture gap that separates immigrants from the conformity that informs most American lives. Last year, director of photography Bradford Young took home the top cinematography prize at Sundance for his work in “Mother of George” and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” “Mother of George” looks especially dynamic on Blu-ray because all of the steps along the way were digitally rendered. Especially impressive is Young’s ability to capture the shades of brown and black in the faces of the African-American and native African actors, outdoors and indoors. This is no small trick when lighting conditions aren’t optimum.

Director Andrew Dosumnu’s intense drama describes the ordeal faced by Nigerian immigrants Adenike (Danai Gurira) and Ayodele (Isaach De Bankolé), when, after a joyous traditional wedding, hope turns to despair for everyone involved. No sooner have the vows been exchanged than the family begins to exert pressure on Adenike to bear children. One pushy grandmother insists that her not-yet-conceived grandchild – a boy, of course — will bear the name, George. It isn’t until 18 months later that it becomes obvious that something is wrong and, because males hold the high ground in old-country marriages, it must be his wife’s fault. Ayodele’s mother comes up with an idea that will sound odious to most Americans, but isn’t particularly unusual in non-western cultures (see, the recently reviewed “Wadjda”). Once that door is opened, however, the heart-wrenching story becomes one of trust, conscience and honor. Sadly, “Mother of George” never played on more than seven screens simultaneously here. I assume that distributors, even those of arthouse pictures, considered it to be too African to play to African-American audiences, yet too difficult to market to buffs outside New York, Los Angeles and a few college towns. It shouldn’t be missed in Blu-ray, where there the bonus material includes commentary with Dosunmu, editor Oriana Soddu and costume designer Mobolaji Dawodu; the making-of featurette, “A Human Story,” with Gurira and screenwriter/producer Darci Picoult; and several deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Twice Born
If the carnage that engulfed Sarajevo didn’t make any sense to you 20 years ago, it won’t seem any more logical after watching “Twice Born.” Adapted from a novel by Margaret Mazzantini, Sergio Castellitto’s epic melodrama wrings as many tears as it possibly can from parallel love stories that span pre-war Yugoslavia and present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina. Penelope Cruz is very good as an Italian professor whose bad sense of timing puts her in the Bosnian capital on the eve of war. At the time, Sarajevo was a city noted for tolerance and diversity. It was full of writers, musicians and artists who believed they couldn’t be touched by the conflagration already raging between Serbia and Croatia. They’d convinced themselves that art somehow would triumph over nationalism and the ancient religious differences that separated Yugoslavia’s Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims. Boy, were they mistaken. Before the shelling began, Cruz’ Gemma broke the heart of a Bosnian poet, Gojko (Adnan Haskovic) by falling in love with his friend, an exuberant American photographer, Diego (Emile Hirsch). By the time it was determined that Gemma couldn’t bear children, the war was at its most fierce and Diego had conceived of a plan that would keep a part of him, at least, alive within her.

In time, Gemma would return to Rome with an infant and Diego would become a psychological victim of the hatred that enveloped Sarajevo. Flash forward nearly 20 years and Gemma is lured back to Sarajevo with her son, on the pretext of a retrospective of Diego’s photographs from the period. In her mind, the possibility that she could be reunited with the long-believed-dead Diego is tantalizing. It’s less enticing for the teenager, who, despite his genetic ties to Diego, has no recollection of the period and isn’t thrilled to be missing summer vacation with his friends in Sardinia. Naturally, the story ends differently for both of them.  I might have enjoyed “Twice Born” more if it were 15-20 minutes shorter and Castellitto hadn’t interpreted Diego and Gojko as if they were characters in a Hemingway novel. In one post-coital scene, Diego even is posed to resemble Che Guevara on his death cot. To his credit, though, there’s nothing about the siege that is romanticized and there are few, if any heroes. It’s an emotionally draining love story, set against one of the most insane backdrops possible. If that sort of thing turns you on – or if you’re a fan of the novel — “Twice Born” will be worth the effort of finding it. The DVD includes several press-kit interviews with the stars and director. – Gary Dretzka

Lost in Thailand: Blu-ray
When I learned that the extremely broad road comedy “Lost in Thailand” is the highest-grossing film in Chinese history, I tried to envision billions of communists rolling in the aisles of thousands of multiplexes from Shanghai to the Mongolian border. Failing that, however, I was left pondering what made director/co-star Xu Zheng’s debut at the helm so popular. “Lost in Thailand” is quite different from other movies made in Mainland China and even Hong Kong, which is more tolerant of crime, action and romantic content. Technically, it’s as polished as any western import and actors Zheng, Huang Bo and Wang Baoqiang (with an assist from superstar Fan Bingbing) are known quantities in China. A loosely connected sequel to “Lost on Journey,” it also bears comparison to such old-school favorites as Martin & Lewis, Hope & Crosby and, if you will, DeNIro & Grodin in “Midnight Run.” With wealth comes tourism and Thailand has become a popular destination with newly affluent Chinese tourists, who must have missed the dreadful, “Hangover: Part II.” So, the climate was ripe for a blockbuster.

In “Lost in Thailand,” the scientist Xu Lang (Zheng) is working for a Chinese energy conglomerate hoping to secure a patent for a revolutionary fuel additive, but needs the boss to sign off on it. Inconveniently, the boss is chilling at a remote Buddhist temple in Thailand, whose name and location escape Lang. He’s followed to Thailand by a rival within the same company who’s put a tracer in his phone. The fun begins when a wildly flamboyant passenger latches onto the scientist and refuses to let go until they reach the temple or fulfill his wish list, whichever comes first. Meanwhile, the business rival is treated to the same kinds of punishment usually reserved for Wile E. Coyote in the “Roadrunner” cartoons. As the three men stumble their way through the Thai countryside, we’re introduced to many locations, ceremonies and activities with which we’re unfamiliar. “Lost in Thailand” isn’t a comedy that will drive all American viewers to fits of laughter, but there’s nothing in it that parents couldn’t watch with their pre-teen and early-teen kids – except, perhaps, the “lady-boy” gags — and share a few unexpected chuckles. The scenery looks pretty swell in Blu-ray, as well. It includes a silly making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Ice Soldiers: Blu-ray
If you dug the 1951 sci-fi/horror thriller, “The Thing From Another Planet,” and its 1982 sequel, “The Thing,” there’s a very good chance you’ll get a kick out of “Ice Soldiers.” The Canadian import borrows from all sorts of other sources to tell a story of (very) Cold War intrigue, reheated for modern audiences. Born in Iceland and raised in British Columbia, director Sturla Gunnarsson knows a thing or two about life in the Great White North. “Ice Soldiers” opens at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when all American eyes were directed 90 miles south of Key West. Apparently, Nikita Khrushchev decided that this would be the perfect time to test his theory that three genetically engineered Russians could destroy New York ahead of all-out war with the U.S. If they look like pin-up boys for Hitler’s Aryan wet dreams, the soldiers are good communists, unaware that communism is no longer cool in a U.S.S.R. that no longer exists.

Instead of putting them on a jetliner or submarine and dropping them off at Idlewild Airport or the coast of New Jersey, Khrushchev decided they should take the scenic route over the North Pole through Canada. Their crappy little prop plane crashed on the tundra, burying them in any icy grave, not unlike the one inhabited by Captain America and Gamera. When a research mission locates the plane and one shows a sign of life, a group of naïve scientists decides to bring the fighting freaks back to the station to poke and probe. Once thawed, of course, they wreak havoc. Th0eir stroll south to Toronto is interrupted by a ferocious cold snap, leaving them frozen, once again. Flash forward 50 years and another team of scientists – this one from an oil conglomerate – history repeats itself. This time, however, the Dolph Lundgren clones have the advantage of snowmobiles and ATVs to speed them towards 21st Century New York. They’re also able to get their juices flowing at a sub-Arctic strip club. Only two men stand between them and victory: a super-soldier played by Dominic Purcell and Saulteaux Indian Adam Beach, who plays a trapper. Though preposterous, the action is pretty satisfying. – Gary Dretzka

The 300 Spartans: Blu-ray
With only a week left to wait for the arrival of “300: Rise of an Empire” – Zach Snyder’s sequel to the surprise blockbuster “300” – it might be fun for fans to revisit the live-action sword-and-sandal epic that inspired comic artist Frank Miller to create the graphic novel from which “300” was adapted. He saw “The 300 Spartans” as a boy and was impressed by its depiction of what it means to be a hero. Unlike many historical epics upgraded years later through the use of modern technology, Rudolph Maté’s 1962 original holds up very well. The historical background remains credible, as do the fighting scenes. While it’s still difficult to believe that Leonidas’ force was able to hold off the far larger Persian army for as long as it did, both movies capably describe how it might have been accomplished. (Snyder and Miller admit to toying with many known facts about the Battle of Thermopylae, so as to amplify the excitement of their film.) “The 300 Spartans” benefits, as well, from being shot in Greece, a country that can’t be accurately replicated in Monument Valley, Durango or British Columbia. Fifty years later, the dialogue may sound a bit rusty, but not egregiously so. Among the still recognizable cast members are Richard Egan, as Leonidas; Ralph Richardson, as Themistocles of Athens; Diane Baker, as Ellas; and David Farrar, as Xerxes. Much off the rest of the cast is comprised of Greek actors. The Blu-ray upgrade retains much of the CinemaScope flavor and texture, while adding vintage marketing material. – Gary Dretzka

Bad Dreams/Visiting Hours: Double Feature: Blu-ray
Psychophony: An Experiment in Evil
The brutal murders of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Foster notwithstanding, Charles Manson represented something of a godsend for filmmakers. Jim Jones and the massacre at Jonestown gave genre specialists an opportunity to add ritual murder/suicides to their list of topics for exploitation. By the time the slasher subgenre came of age in the early 1980s, the messianic hippie and post-hippie sociopath had already become a familiar villain. Movies and made-for-cable documentaries continue to be made about Jones’ and Manson’s crimes, even four-plus decades later. Released in 1988, “Bad Dreams” combines elements of both atrocities in the service of a story that adds an evil shrink, tortuous hallucinations and garden-variety gore. First-time co-writer/director Andrew Fleming opens his picture in a crumbling house that might have been conceived of by the same people who designed Anthony Perkins’ home in “Psycho.” A charismatic cult leader (Richard Lynch) is pouring gasoline on the heads of his followers ahead of a mass suicide. Only one girl, Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin) survives the inferno and she’s left in a 13-year-long coma.  When she awakens, Cynthia is put in the care of a psychiatrist (Harris Yulin) who treats his patients with psycho-tropic drugs that return them to scene of their worst trauma. Not surprisingly, then, the hospital has an unusually high rate of suicides. If Cynthia is to avoid the same fate, she’ll need the help of the observant Dr. Alex Karman (Bruce Abbott). “Bad Dreams” benefits from an enthusiastic cast of veteran supporting actors and others on their way to roles in better movies and TV series: Rubin (“Screamers”), Abbott (“Re-Animator”), Dean Cameron (“Spencer,” “Fast Times”), Susan Ruttan (“LA Law”), voice actor Elizabeth Daily (“Duckman”) and nutty Charles Fleischer (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit”). What Fox and producer Gale Anne Hurd (“The Terminator”) were able to save on salaries and sets seemingly went into a soundtrack that includes psycho-delic music by the Chambers Brothers (“Time Has Come Today”), Electric Prunes (“Too Much to Dream Last Night”), Guns N’ Roses (“Sweet Child o’ Mine”) and something called Mamby Pamby & the Smooth Putters (“My Way”). The Blu-ray adds Fleming’s commentary, fresh interviews, making-of featurettes and an interesting alternate ending.

Seven years before appearing in the Canuxploitation “Visiting Hours,” Lee Grant had accepted the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her smashing performance as Warren Beatty’s MILF lover in “Shampoo.” You’ll have to listen to writer Brian Taggart’s interview in the bonus package to learn how such a classy lady ended up in a slasher film, but, in short, Grant liked the idea of playing the staunch feminist TV commentator, who defends her positions by not letting her foes get a word in edgewise. Ever since she was un-blacklisted in the early 1960s, Grant’s career has been something of a roller-coaster ride, bouncing between prestige pictures and made-for-TV movies. So, maybe she needed the bread. Here, the four-time Oscar nominee plays journalist Deborah Ballin, whose crusade against domestic violence enrages a twisted, switchblade-toting creep. Michael Ironside delivers a frightening performance as psycho-bully Colt Hawker, who, when he isn’t stalking women, drives a Zamboni at the local hockey rink. Even though Ballin survives the attack, she’s confined to swank suite in the hospital. The rest of the movie resembles a game of cat-and-mouse, in which Hawker is required to use costumes to get past security cops and locate his prey among the many closed brown doors in the hospital. While there’s no question he’s a big and dangerous fellow, Hawker isn’t impervious to pain… thank goodness. “Visiting Hours” is distinguished by an imaginative script by horror/sci-fi special Taggart and the no-frills direction of Jean-Claude Lord. Even stranger than Grant playing the victim in a genre flick is William Shatner’s appearance as her boss. His toupee has more charisma than anything Shatner is required to display in “Visiting Hours.” Apart from that, the movie is as good a slasher flick as any in the early 1980s. It even made the list of “video nasties” assembled by Britain’s Broadcasting Standards Council. Taggart and co-star Lenore Zann recall how the movie was condemned by then-prominent critics as being misogynistic. Back then, critics kicked that adjective around like a hacky-sack, especially in the context of exploitation films. In this case, anyway, they were wrong. The DVD also adds interviews with Zann and producer Pierre David.

From Spain, one of the leading exporters of horror, “Psychophony: An Experiment in Evil” is a found-footage flick that focuses on Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP).  The footage was recovered from unauthorized psychological experiments conducted by Dr. Helen Jara (Merce Montala), who hoped to prove that hallucinations experienced by schizophrenics could be traced to paranormal phenomenon. To do so, Jara gathered a small group of patients and boarded them in the vicinity of a terrible crime years earlier. Although Jara wouldn’t live to see her findings published, investigators recover videotapes and recordings containing EVPs not listed in the research documents. To re-enact the events leading to her death, investigators turned to original subjects of the tests, as well as re-creations of séances and other hocus-pocus. Xavier Berraondo’s film won’t come as a revelation to genre fans or re-spark much interest in the found-footage sector. It is, however, well-made and non-generic. If Berraondo’s name is familiar, it’s probably because his name was listed among the collaborators on “Beyond Re-Animator” (2003), which was filmed in Barcelona. – Gary Dretzka

The Wait
Among the things that mainstream audiences find most off-putting about arthouse films is a tendency to tell a story in a way so personal that the only people who can fairly interpret it are the director and his analyst. Viewers are encouraged to buy tickets to see it, but, really, the filmmakers don’t care if it makes any sense to anyone outside a small circle of friends and one or two critics. This isn’t to say there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the picture, just that very few people are likely to have the patience to decipher the hieroglyphics. You either get it or you don’t. Either way, the filmmaker already is on course for his or her next project. Or, so it seems. M. Blash’s thoroughly enigmatic “The Wait” sets his family drama against the backdrop of a forest fire within eyeshot of a posh Oregon hideaway for the nouveau riche. The blaze is as tangible as the characters are remote. As the movie opens, two sisters have begun the mourning process for their newly deceased mother. Out of the blue, Emma (Chloë Sevigny) receives a call from someone purporting to be a psychic, advising her to hold off on burying the deceased woman, which she does. She convinces Angela (Jena Malone) to go along with the summons from beyond, leaving grannie on the floor of her bedroom wrapped in a sheet, all the while denying that she’s kicked the bucket.

It isn’t nearly that easy to explain to Emma’s children why keeping such a thing secret is worth the cost of lying about it to close friends and other people in town. That’s only the start of the weirdness, however. Soon enough, Emma begins doing such crazy things as asking her pre-teen daughter to watch a tape of her – the mother’s — birth; her sexually ambiguous teenage son discovers a horrifying video on the Internet and can’t wait to share it repeatedly with other people; and Angela gets her freak on with a guy who may not be able to handle it. Meanwhile, the forest continues to burn and Forest Service planes continue to drop orange retardant on it. Blash seems to know a lot more about composing interesting shots than writing dialogue that invites viewers to buy into his story. Fans of Sevigny and Malone, who appeared together previously in Blash’s “Lying,” probably already know not to expect anything resembling conventional behavior from the characters they play, so I have no qualms about recommending a rental of “The Wait” to them. Others, though, might consider it to be a massive waste time. – Gary Dretzka

Down and Dangerous
If it’s true that “Down and Dangerous” was financed by the nearly $40,000 raised in a Kickstarter campaign, writer/director Zak Forsman and producer Kevin Shaw deserve kudos for making a movie that looks several times better than that meager amount usually allows. If “Down and Dangerous” had been made in 1980s, the synth score, muted cinematography and pistol-packing druggies might have struck a chord among the readers of “Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade.” In it, journalist Robert Sabbag told the story of Zachary Swan, a guy who made a lot money smuggling blow from Colombia to New York, before the cartels figured out that they could make a greater fortune handling all aspects of the business. Forsman admits to being Swan’s son and that he based “Down and Dangerous” on things he learned from him. The rights to his father’s story have been  locked up for a long time, so the good stuff was unavailable to him. It explains, as well, why the movie’s “Miami Vice” vibe fails to resonate in a thriller involving a Mexican cartel and smuggling schemes that haven’t worked in 30 years.

John T. Mora (“Misdirected”) stars as the smuggler with a heart of gold and a penchant for getting other people to do the hard lifting for him. When John Boxer finds himself caught in a squeeze play between the DEA, LAPD and a Mexican drug kingpin who’s sleeping with his former girlfriend, Olivia (Paulie Rojas, with a neck a swan would envy), he can’t decide who to betray first. Boxer’s ethical decision not to carry a gun is severely tested when people around him become the target of a mysterious gunman. It’s at this point in the story that Boxer is summoned by the kingpin and ordered to come up with a plan to smuggle a suitcase full of cocaine out of Mexico. If I were guessing, I’d say that this was the precise point that the Kickstarter money began to run out. Almost nothing that follows makes sense, logically or otherwise, and it’s impossible to tell which of the cops are dirty or clean. The dialogue turns almost comically clichéd and no amount of Giorgio Moroder-inspired score can disguise the holes in the plot. It’s perfectly fitting that former Brat Packer Judd Nelson be allotted a pair of cameos, not unlike Willy Nelson’s turns in Michael Mann’s “Thief.” The primary audience for “Down and Dangerous,” I suggest, ought to be young filmmakers hoping to use Kickstarter to launch their career. If they can’t match Forsman’s accomplishment, another $20,000 or so in contributions probably won’t get them over the creative hump, either. “D&D” currently is playing the VOD circuit. – Gary Dretzka

Lesson Before Love
The differences between rom/dram/coms made for and marketed to Yuppies and Buppies have begun to narrow to the point where they’re only separated by budgets and clichés. Both subgenres feature characters who are college educated, attractive, fashionable, on the brink of financial success and frustrated in the pursuit of meaningful relationships. African-American characters tend to be better dressed and one of them, at least, is an athlete, musician or both. These movies deliver the kinds of messages about faith, persistence and pride that fly over the heads of Yuppie audiences more interested in T&A. They’re surprisingly chaste, even if the actors dress as if they’re going dancing after work. In “Lesson Before Love,” the hottest female character doesn’t consent to lose her virginity until well after half of the movie has passed. There isn’t a Madea, gangsta’ or preacher in sight, as is the norm for films targeted at other “urban” demographics. It isn’t unusual for those movies to make money, just like the occasional “About Last Night” and “The Best Man Holiday,” with high-profile casts. Emerging directors hoping to climb the ladder after the launch of their first direct-to-video movies are at a distinct disadvantage, in that there are significantly fewer screens available to them and there’s no way to afford marquee talent. Here, Eric, Alexis, Cullen and Janae are on-line chat buddies, whose lives begin to intertwine romantically, socially and professionally. They’re frustrated by the lack of forward momentum in their lives, but confident they possess the right stuff. That’s about it. The DVD arrives with commentary by director Dui Jarrod and producer/DP Tyler Dixon and a “Meet Dui Jarrod” featurette. – Gary Dretzka

TV-on-DVD
FX: Legit: The Complete First Season
LA Law: Season One
Cartoon Network: Adventure Time: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
Mama’s Family: Complete Third Season
It isn’t often that a comic offends an audience member to the point where that person will climb on stage and plant a punch on his mug. It happened to “Legit” star Jim Jefferies during a gig in Manchester, England. Apparently, the guy was reacting to a jab Jefferies had aimed at a heckler, not in his own party. He stalked out of the showroom, paced the bar for a while, punched a wall or two, and then took off for the stage. You simply can’t buy publicity like that, especially if the club owner had the foresight to capture the incident for a YouTube audience. Something similar happened to the equally offensive Andrew “Dice” Clay, when a member of the “SNL” cast and guest Sinead O’Connor refused to participate in the show, if the Diceman was allowed to host. Today, Jefferies doesn’t mind ruffling the feathers of religious people, modern women, the handicapped and other folks with whom he disagrees. In fact, like Clay before him, he’s been given a sitcom, “Legit,” of his own. Unlike Clay, who last year played a blue-collar husband in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” Jefferies remains in character when he’s acting in “Legit.” Jefferies plays a struggling professional comedian who moves from Australia to Los Angeles, where he stays busy auditioning for roles in TV shows, commercials and movies. His best friends are goofball brothers, Steve and Billy Nugent, the latter being restricted to a wheelchair by muscular dystrophy. Mom and Pop Nugent (Mindy Sterling, John Ratzenberger) are plenty goofy themselves and figure into the plots of most episodes. Jim is nearly as uncouth off stage as he is in performance. Like Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” whenever Jim opens his heart and attempts to do the right thing, he only manages to screw things up worse. “Legit” is legitimately funny, but definitely not to everyone’s taste. In the first episode, when Jim arrives in L.A., Billy (D.J. Qualls) is seemingly on death’s doorstep in a rehabilitation hospital. When Billy mentions that his bucket list is topped by a desire to get laid, Jim and Steve whisk him off to a legal brothel in Nevada. Billy may have appeared to need constant supervision and care, but, left to his own devices, he charms the ladies and is reborn as a proud, physically challenged stud. Jim and Steve, of course, have none of their wishes answered. It goes on like that throughout Season One. Billy’s fellow patients at therapy sessions are allowed great personal dignity and traits not unlike those accorded characters in any other sitcom. (No other show has regularly hired as many disabled actors as “Legit.”) And, while it isn’t unusual for a blustery protagonist to be knocked down a few pegs by other sitcom characters, “Legit” has more than the usual number of characters who are given an opportunity to do so. The DVD extras include deleted scenes, the pilot and background material.

Throughout the history of television, one of the constants in the battle between good and evil has been the presence of lawyers capable of exonerating the innocent and convicting the rightly guilty, all within the framework of an hour-long drama, commercials included. Little screen time is wasted poring through law books or pleading for continuances. Neither is much time allocated for discerning shades of gray. For most of the last 60 years, Perry Mason has topped the list of great TV lawyers while Hamilton Burger has been relegated to the bottom rung. (In a MSN Entertainment poll, Mason’s arch-rival is mentioned in the same breath with Algonquin J. Calhoun, of “Amos ‘n Andy.”) Truth be told, though, Burger was only as good as the cases presented him by his boss and the police. Jack McCoy, of “Law & Order,” would be laughed out of court if he was required to prosecute the same cases as Burger. By 1986, when “LA Law” debuted, few viewers bought into the idea that TV lawyers could be any more infallible than the ones we knew existed in real life. Juries, who’ve grown up watching law shows, have been conditioned to look for things, other than the facts, to determine the fates of defendants. Besides trying cases, the lawyers on “LA Law” had complicated personal lives, worried as much about bonuses as the outcomes of their cases and occasionally accepted clients who were clearly guilty of terrible crimes. Moreover, trials weren’t necessarily decided over the course of a single episode. Funny one week, “LA Law” could lead viewers to despair the next. Just as “Hill Street Blues” forever changed cop shows, Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher’s creation altered the way Americans looked at lawyers. Shout Factory’s long-awaited first-season collection has finally arrived on these shores and shouldn’t disappoint fans and newcomers, alike. It includes new Interviews with Bochco, Corbin Bernsen, Jill Eikenberry, Jimmy Smits, Michael Tucker, Larry Drake, Harry Hamlin and Susan Ruttan.

As the fifth season of Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time” comes to a close, it’s time for the third-season compilation to appear on DVD/Blu-ray. This pace is far too slow for rabid fans, who’ve seen other series roll out within weeks of their season finale. Perhaps, the inclusion of commentaries and a Season Three featurette will make them feel better. The series follows the adventures of Finn, a human boy, and his best friend and adoptive brother, Jake, a dog with magical powers to change shape and grow and shrink at will. Series creator Pendleton Ward describes Finn as a “fiery little kid with strong morals,” while Jake is based on Bill Murray’s character Tripper Harrison, from “Meatballs.” Finn and Jake live in the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo, which is recovering from the explosion of a “mushroom bomb” a millennium early. Other prominent characters include Princess Bubblegum, the Ice King, Marceline the Vampire Queen. The new collection contains “What Was Missing,” which caused a furor over the appearance of lesbianism in the gender-swapped realm of “Adventure Time.”

For those fans of “Mama’s Family” who couldn’t afford or find the “Complete Series” package released last fall, it’s nice to know that individual seasons are now being made available from Time-Life. Season Three marks the leaps from NBC to syndication and introduction of several old and new characters, including grandson Bubba and neighbor Iola. Betty White also makes a guest appearance in “Best Medicine.” Other guest stars include Dorothy Van (Aunt Effie), Earl Boen (Reverend Meechum), Anne Haney (Alberta Meechum), Yeardley Smith, Lewis Arquette, Brent Spiner, Dr. Joyce Brothers and Kathleen Freeman. Among the extras are the “Family History,” episode from “The Carol Burnett Show,” featuring Maggie Smith; “Mama’s Family Tree: The Sprouts”; “Mama Knows Best: A Mama’s Family Cast Reunion”; and interview with Allan Kayser. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Nature: Meet the Coywolf
PBS: Nova: At the Edge of Space
PBS: Nova: Asteroid: Doomsday or Payday
As if the nation’s backyard pets don’t have enough to worry them, along comes a hybrid of wolf and coyote that combines the natural predatory tendencies of both animals with the unique survival skills with which they were born. Coywolves, a.k.a., eastern coyotes, hunt in packs, like wolves, but, like coyotes, are unafraid of foraging solo in cities and towns. On rare occasions, they’ve also been known to attack humans. “Meet the Coywolf” takes a more sober, scientific approach to the phenomenon than Syfy channel might have in introducing the hybrid species. Instead of creating a new super-monster, “Nature” describes how the coywolf came into being, roughly 90 years ago, and how we can expect it to evolve. “Meet the Coywolf” takes us to the vast forests of Ontario, where the hybrid appears to be prospering, while also tracking a few of the bolder critters to the suburban fringes. The show reminded me of the “Nature” presentation, “Raccoon Nation,” which describes how the animal’s habitat has spread from South and Central American to Everywhere U.S.A., easily adapting to every new environment along the way. Indeed, in some urban areas, they easily qualify as nuisances. It is possible, of course, that coywolves will discover what hunters throughout the South already know and make the furry scavengers a part of their steady diet. That’s when the real fun begins.

The “Nova” presentation “At the Edge of Space” reminds us of how little we know about the layer of space that separates Earth’s atmosphere and the void, where the shuttles and satellites play. For most of the last 60 years, the superpowers have been so anxious to stake their claims to the heavens that the exploration of space between Earth’s cloud cover and the Karman line – approximately 60 miles above sea level – was left to researchers whose work wasn’t likely to be honored with ticker-tape parades and visits to the White House. Like tornado trackers at ground level and hurricane hunters in the air, specially designed planes carry scientists dedicated to the study of the aurora borealis, encroaching meteors, thunder storms and other stratospheric events to where the action is. Among the more interesting discussions here concern the search for photographic evidence of “sprites, elves and jets,” which flash above thick storm clouds as lightning shoots towards Earth. “Transient luminous events” are caused by gaseous discharges in the thin-air layers, sometimes reaching up to 90 kilometers above the clouds. Unlike lightning, the brilliant optical flashes resemble jellyfish, carrots, streamers and halos and have been photographed as being red, white and blue. Most of what we know about sprites has been gathered in only the last 25 years.

The subjects of “Asteroid: Doomsday or Payday” are far more familiar, if only because we can track them and see them when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Before a 65-foot-wide asteroid detonated in the skies over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk last February, most people could only look to Hollywood for depictions of what happens when a space rock threatens the planet. It was brilliantly captured by hand-held cameras, as was the extent of the damage caused. The explosion prior to touchdown was what differentiated fact from fiction in Chelyabinsk. Otherwise, much of what’s been depicted in movies – using nuclear bombs to divert, destroy or capture the asteroids – is a surprisingly viable option. And, while we can follow the larger asteroids through space, it’s the smaller objects that seem to appear out of nowhere that pose the greater immediate threat. The “payday” alluded to in the title represents conjecture on how asteroids could be mined for minerals before they destroy themselves. I’ll defer to Hollywood on that stuff, though. – Gary Dretzka

Transformers Prime: Ultimate Bumblebee
The latest collection of episodes from “Transformers Prime” and “Transformers Prime: Beast Hunters” features Optimus Prime’s stout-hearted, if undersized scout and messenger Bumblebee. From the 2011 season, “Masters & Students” describes what happens when Skyquake is released from his tomb and makes a bee-line for O.P. and Bumblebee, instead of immediately joining Decepticon leader Starscream.  The two-part “Operation Bumblebee” serves both as an action adventure and a primer for a new generation of fans. In it, Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Arcee, Ratchet and Bulkhead marshal their forces against Megatron’s latest scheme to conquer Earth. Viewers also will learn why and how BumbleBee lost his ability to talk like the other robots do. “Deadlock,” from Season Three (2013) of “Transformers Prime Beast Hunters,” our yellow-and-black-striped hero plays it straight, for once, and is given the opportunity to tip the scales in the ultimate battle. “Ultimate Bumblebee” is enhanced by the returning voices of Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, alongside Ernie Hudson (“Ghostbusters”), Jeffrey Combs (“Re-Animator”) and Will Friedle (“Boy Meets World”). – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Nebraska: Blu-ray
There are so many solid reasons to rush out and pick up a copy of Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” – or pay a service to stream it directly into your living room – the imminent arrival of the Academy Award hypefest should be the least of them. Any excuse to catch up with this terrific, quintessentially American dramedy is a good one, however. Even though “Nebraska” only was able to make up its production nut of a meager $13 million at the box office, it deserves a second shot in its digital afterlife. For those who’ve lost track of the nominees in the various categories, Payne’s film is in the running for Oscars as Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Writing and Best Cinematography. The Independent Spirits adds Best Supporting Actor, while taking away Best Cinematography, for its six nominations. I suspect that the Best Picture nod will go to “American Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave” or “Gravity,” just as it has in most other contests. I’d be surprised, if not shocked if Bruce Dern and June Squibb didn’t go home with a trophy for their performances. They were that good. Dern plays Woody, a disheveled alcoholic who defines the term, “cantankerous old coot.” When we meet him, Woody is walking toward the Interstate that extends from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska. After a patrolman notices that he’s far too addled to be hitchhiking anywhere, his exasperated adult son, David (Will Forte), is summoned to take him home. Once there, he’s greeted with no small degree of disdain by his long-suffering wife, Kate (Squibb), who’s put up with his antics for no other reason than it would be unseemly for her to throw him out in the cold.

Woody may not be as demented as he is delusional. It would hard to find anyone who hasn’t been fooled by the promise of riches to be won in a sweepstakes, if only for a few seconds. Being of solid western stock, however, he believes what he reads on a printed page and can’t imagine why any company with an address and letterhead stationary would bother to pull a scam on him. Rather than wait for the sweepstakes organizers to call him, he decides to hitchhike to Lincoln to collect the check in person. David, whose job it is to sell home-theater systems to people who’ve lost their jobs, reluctantly agrees to drive his father to Lincoln, with a pit stop in the small town in which he was raised. Rather than spoil anyone’s enjoyment of “Nebraska,” let’s just say that the father-son roadtrip begins as the opposite of a buddy film, thanks to the old man’s drinking and inattention to his well-being. Things change, however, when they reach Hawthorne, where David is introduced to a menagerie of sleepy old men, lumpen cousins and old cronies of his dad. The men and some women, most of whom likely met in kindergarten, now spend their idle time in the local taverns recalling long-ago triumphs, digging up barely forgotten grudges and singing karaoke. The arrival of any potential millionaire would be big news in Hawthorne and Woody unwisely milks the attention for all it’s worth.

What struck me about Payne’s vision, as defined by Bob Nelson’s debut screenplay, is just how real everything and everybody seems, even in black-and-white. You can find these characters in every town between the coasts. At one time or another, they’ve bought into the American dream and decided to stay within shouting distance of their hometowns. Even if things didn’t work out as planned, they’ve retained some semblance of dignity and just enough hope to keep one or two dreams alive. They’ve only lately come to the conclusion that the government has no interest in making those dreams come true and neither does Mother Nature. They’ve also learned from experience or hearsay that kids don’t always grow up as expected. “Nebraska” encourages us not to give up on ourselves, no matter how small the reward might be or unattainable the goal. In this way, it’s as life-affirming as anything on the Hallmark Channel. Even so, I wouldn’t blame anyone if they simply rented the movie to witness a praiseworthy performances by an actor whose career is full of them. Another interesting thing about “Nebraska” is the hi-def presentation, which is so clear and precise that many viewers will forget it’s black-and-white. Also very good in prominent supporting roles are Bob Odenkirk as David’s older brother, a TV personality in a mid-sized Midwestern city; Stacy Keach, as Woody’s lifelong friend and frequent nemesis; and Rance Howard, as his brother. The only bonus feature is the 29-minute “The Making of ‘Nebraska,’” which is surprisingly complete, even if it’s fair to expect a more extensive package if it catches fire at the Oscars. – Gary Dretzka

 
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology
I’ll admit to never having heard of cultural-theorist “superstar” Slavoj Zizek before watching “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.” While the title of this follow-up to “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema” is predictive of coherent insight – the host reminds me most of Professor Irwin Corey, the self-styled “world’s foremost authority” — much of what he says is intriguing. Once again, in collaboration with director Sophie Fiennes, the Slovenian philosopher uses movies to comment on the insidious incursion of political, cultural and religious ideology into popular culture. Rather than place the disheveled Zizek in front of a camera and hope that his audience will wade through two hours of heavily accented English to find the gold among the gobbledygook, Fiennes re-creates scenes from the movies to be dissected and places her subject inside them. This might sound like a convenient gimmick, but, when select sequences from those movies are shown within the context of an intellectual discussion, it becomes more inclusive. From the vantage point of the movies themselves, Zizek psychoanalyzes the filmmakers’ intentions and their impact on the prevailing Zeitgeist. In “Ideology,” he expands on a notion presented in “Cinema”: “Our desires are artificial. We have to be taught to desire. Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire, it tells you how to desire.” Some movies also point us in the direction of the things we, then, desire. Naturally, Zizek demonstrates how 1930s propagandists not only manipulated images of Stalin and Hitler, but also set the stage. The movies helped humanize ideologies that, otherwise, were indefensible. Those are the easy ones, however.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone in Hollywood having an ideology worth pursuing, but there’s no denying the ability of screenwriters and directors to sneak ideologies of their own into pictures. It continues today, in the form of product placement and making crime and criminals look more sensually appealing than walking the straight-and-narrow path or, God forbid, expanding horizons in other directions. If the HUAC folks targeted leftists in the industry, it wasn’t because they didn’t enjoy their pictures. It was their belief that Americans could be manipulated subliminally by communist propaganda inserted into mainstream entertainment. A half-century later, no one in Congress appears to mind the same process being applied to everything from cigarettes to sugar-soaked breakfast cereals. Walt Disney and his studio descendants have been selling his vision of the American Dream in pictures for most of the last 70 years. It’s been accomplished by re-interpreting the themes of great literature and fairy tales, written by the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen. Neither did the studio have to pay for the source material, as the books were in the common domain. While showing seemingly innocuous scenes from “The Sound of Music,” Zizek demonstrates how they might have been shaped by Catholic doctrine. He goes out on a limb to connect such disparate titles as “Jaws,” “Taxi Driver,” “Zabriskie Point,” “The Searchers,” “The Dark Knight,” “They Live,” “Titanic,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “If” to fascism and anti-immigration fanatics. John Ford and John Wayne’s “The Searchers” has, for years, been a lightning rod for controversy. For true-blue Americans, it offers a justification for imperialism and fear of the outsider; to Native Americans and liberals, it provides evidence of this country’s willingness to fall back on racism and bloodshed when treaties need to be broken; and to cineastes, it’s a celluloid cathedral. While much of what Zizek believes feels forced, it’s probably because it is informed by growing up in an Eastern bloc country, in which everything is tainted by ideology, and disappointment in the capitalist system that’s mastered the art of disguising ideology. “Pervert’s Guide” won’t appeal to many mainstream viewers, primarily because Zizek is devoid of charisma and his message borders on irrelevance. Ideology aside, however, Zizek reminds me of a professor who’s loved by students for challenging them with eccentric ideas and exotic points of view. There were never enough them when I was going to school. The DVD adds a post-screening Q&A with Zizek and Fiennes. – Gary Dretzka

Darkman: Collectors’ Edition: Blu-ray
The Shadow: Collectors’ Edition: Blu-ray
Comic-book superheroes have provided fodder for Hollywood filmmakers since at least the 1940s, when they made the leap from the “funnies” to matinee and radio serials. The strongest among them would be revived for broadcast on television and mega-budget exploitation in theaters. The dam threatened to break in the 1980s, when more than a dozen lesser-known characters were given potential franchises of their own. Overexposure would put the goose that laid the golden egg into a coma, leaving studios the option of retiring from the game and leaving it to the indies, or dispensing budgets that reduced the risk to minimal. “Darkman” (1990) and “The Shadow” (1994) were released at a time when CGI filmmaking was in its infancy and, as yet, unaffordable by most genre specialists. That would change soon enough, of course, but, until then, it was left to such inventive directors as Sam Raimi and Russell Mulcahy to find ways to muddle through, somehow. Twenty-some years later, “Darkman” and “The Shadow” feel quaint beside the mega-mega-blockbusters of the new millennium, which benefit from the most advanced CGI technology and very need to shoot on location. Even with all of that working in the favor of the studios in 2014, only a few of the superhero movies can be considered a sure bet, even in 3D. Too often, the difference between red and black ink is determined by international audiences. After the success of his “Evil Dead” pictures, Raimi really, really wanted to adapt “The Shadow” and “Batman.” For better or worse, he was denied the rights to both properties.

Instead, Raimi simply created a superhero to call his own: “Darkman.” His inspirations included the Universal catalog of monsters and such seriously disfigured protagonists as Phantom of the Opera, Elephant Man and Hunchback of Notre Dame. Like them, his success depended entirely of overcoming handicaps not of his own making. Darkman began his life as Peyton Westlake, a scientist currently working on a new type of synthetic skin to help burn victims. His girlfriend, played by Raimi’s friend Frances McDormand, is an attorney who’s discovered a link between the ruthless crimelord (Larry Drake) and corrupt a corrupt developer (Colin Friels). In an effort to intimidate the lawyer, the gangster confronts Westlake in his warehouse lab. After denying any knowledge of what his girlfriend has up her sleeve, the gangster blows up the lab with Westlake still in it. Miraculously, he is blown clear of the inferno, but not before having most of the skin on his face melted off and hands destroyed. Assumed dead and prematurely buried, Westlake rebuilds his lab and begins experimenting on himself. He’s reborn as the vengeful Darkman – among other disguises — and his mission becomes taking out the people who did this to him. It’s fun and exciting. The re-mastered Blu-ray edition is enhanced by commentary with DP Bill Pope; fresh interviews with Neeson, Drake, McDormand, makeup designer Tony Gardner, production designer Randy Ser and several “henchmen”; vintage material, including an interview with Raimi; and a making-of featurette.

In Mulcahy’s version of “The Shadow,” Alec Baldwin plays the caped crime-fighter Lamont Cranston and, as usual, is well up to the task. Here, he’s required to engage his old nemesis, Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the last descendant of Genghis Khan, who’s desperately in need of the rarest of rare elements to complete preparations for a nuclear device. Both men are master illusionists, capable of changing their identities and using magic tricks and martial-arts weaponry to press their case. The story itself is a synthesis of “Room of Doom,” “The Masters of Death” and other ingredients from the radio show and pulp magazine versions. Like the Warren Beatty version of “Dick Tracy,” which it most resembles, Mulcahy makes brilliant use of primary colors and strategically arranged shadows. Its sense of humor combines comic-book dialogue with noir conceits, with Baldwin’s own bad-boy touches. The cast also includes such familiar actors as Penelope Ann Miller (Margo Lane); Peter Boyle; Ian McKellan; Tim Curry, Jonathan Winters, Andre Gregory and James Hong. If it didn’t do well enough in the marketplace for Universal to commit to a franchise, it might be because it bore too much comparison to “Dick Tracy” and the likelihood of ever-increasing expenses. “The Shadow” holds up pretty well today, if only because of the palpable chemistry between Baldwin and Miller and flexibility of the character. If someone ever decides to create a cable channel dedicated to comic-book superheroes, a “Shadow” series would be most welcome. The upgraded Blu-ray adds new interviews with Mulcahy, Baldwin, Miller, production designer Joseph Nemec III., director of photography Stephen H. Burum and writer David Koepp. – Gary Dretzka

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness: Blu-ray
Based on a true story, Fox’s sweeping historical epic from 1958, “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” reflects a period in Hollywood when taking liberties with the truth, including those found in biographies, not only was standard operating procedure but also extremely lucrative with audiences. In the 1950s, few women would have been upset by having Ingrid Bergman play them in a movie, even after the scandal caused by her extramarital affair with Robert Rossellini. Two years after Hollywood decided to test her appeal in “Indiscreet” and “Anastasia” – shot on location in Europe — she was cast as Gladys Aylward, whose heroic work with children in China during the Sino-Japanese War was chronicled in Alan Burgess’ “The Small Woman.” If there’s one thing the Swedish actress could never be accused of being, it was “short.” Aylward was a British evangelical missionary of modest means , who paid her own way to China from earnings derived from being a domestic worker. The least expensive route to her as-yet-undetermined destination was the trans-Siberian railroad, which, at the time, provided Spartan accommodations and the prospect of being caught between troops from three angry countries. Aylward felt that her courage on that journey was shortchanged in the movie, at the expense of a romantic subplot she felt was vastly overemphasized. Apparently, someone also decided to change the name of the mission from “8th Happiness” to “6th Happiness.” Aylward also would have preferred that Bergman speak with a Cockney accent and the key Chinese characters be played by Chinese actors. Picky, picky.

Fifty-five years later, almost none of this matters. If “Inn” isn’t historically accurate, it does reflect Aylward’s acts of selflessness and courage.  Warned by local officials that a westerner could never warm the hearts of Chinese people, Aylward refused to leave after the nun who ran the place died. Instead, in 1940, she had won the confidence of local official – Robert Donat plays the grumpy Mandarin, while Curt Jurgens is the Dutch/Chinese soldier who becomes her love interest – to sufficient degree that she was asked to travel the province to enunciate new laws banning foot binding. With the Japanese nearly on the doorstep of the inn, Aylward volunteered to gather 50 children from the village, with another 50 tagging along, and shepherd them over the mountains to safety. It’s one of several such heroic stories, the others being from Nanking, turned into films in the last few years. Mark Robson shot “6th Happiness” in extremely scenic parts of northern Wales, so that part rang true, anyway. After the revolution, Aylward founded a children’s home in Taiwan, where she was accorded the name, “Ai-weh-deh,”or “Virtuous One.” The Blu-ray edition does a nice job with the CinemaScope presentation, adding vintage marketing material and commentary with historians Nick Redman, Aubrey Solomon and Donald Spoto. – Gary Dretzka

419
Given the remarkable success of the documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man,” and fact-based “Mandela: Long March to Freedom,” I’m willing to believe almost any reasonably credible movie set in South Africa. Even though I knew going into “419” that it was a work of fiction, it didn’t require any great suspension of disbelief to buy into the possibility that it could be true. That’s because everyone with an e-mail address has received a notice from someone in Africa, asking to be sent money in return for an even greater fortune. A woman went on “Dr. Phil” last week, admitting to falling for a scheme in which she sent hundreds of thousands of dollars off to Nigeria, in the mistaken belief that an imaginary Brit she met on a dating site needed that kind of bread to join her in America. Even after Dr. Phil, the woman’s daughter and son-in-law, as well as the show’s private investigators, offered proof that the guy didn’t exist, the poor sap still was not convinced. That’s why I so easily surrendered 84 minutes of my time to Ned Thorne’s first theatrical feature. In it, a struggling New York actor loses everything in a South Africa-based scam, based solely on the endorsement of an acquaintance there. At the insistence of his two best friends in New York, the victim travels with them to Cape Town to locate the scammer and recover the money. As if such a thing were possible. Enlisted into the venture is a Cape Town local, who claims to know the perpetrator and can serve as his ticket into the all-black townships, from whence the e-mail emanated. Like so many other such thrillers, these days, “419” supposedly is based on video footage found after, well, the shit happened. We’ll leave it at that, except to mention that Cape Town is one of most interesting places to shoot a movie in the world. – Gary Dretzka

Devo: The Complete Truth About De-evolution
The Discovery of Eileen Twain
It always seemed to me that the alternative rock ensemble, Devo, was a one-trick pony and its fan base was comprised of geeks who worshiped their computers, affected the same eyeglasses and secretly wished they could wear flower-pot hats and yellow jumpsuits to work. Devo’s geometrically designed songs possessed a quirky charm, if only in the group’s willingness to tweak prevailing rock conventions and bite the hands of the same musical establishment that fed them. Indeed, it was a proponent of principles advanced the Church of the SubGenius – a religion that might have arrived on the same spaceship as Scientology — which was founded on a belief that everything corporate America holds true and holy is B.S., but not from an especially Marxian point of view. If any group could have been the house band of a talk show hosted by Pee-wee Herman, it was Devo. Their emergence from the wastelands of Ohio seemed perfectly timed to coincide with the launch of MTV and attention being paid not only to the Talking Heads and Cars, but also such quirky one-hit wonders as the Divinyls (“I Touch Myself”) and Vapors (“Turning Japanese”). Devo was so different from other groups of the period, it naturally drew the attention of more established musicians, who kept them busy after the gag wore thin. Group members would do well producing music videos, soundtracks, albums and occasionally working the reunion circuit. Made in 1993, “Devo: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution” includes 19 music videos, rare performance footage and other musical treats that can still hold their own artistically. I hadn’t seen most of the music videos included on the DVD, but found them to still be entertaining. Most of them were made before MTV became a force within the music industry and could refuse to add anything looking cheap or suspect to its playlists. If these look dated in 2014, it’s because the music-video game became a province of labels willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on established acts. Many less-endowed groups would form alliances with up-and-coming video artists, who weren’t reluctant to exercise their imagination on this emerging creative platform. With the sad news of the passing of Bob Casale, an original member of Devo with his brother, Gerald, and the Mothersbaugh brothers. He died on Monday, at 61.

At first, second and third glance, “The Discovery of Eileen Twain” resembles the CDs and DVDs sold in casino gift shops and tables set up outside the doors of concert venues. Buy one, the artist will allow you to stand in line for an autograph or photo grab. Here, it’s almost as if someone at the Deerhurst Resort, two hours north of Toronto in Ontario’s Muskoka region, put 2 and 2 together and came up with a with a way to exploit an obscure moment in its history. Some 25 years ago, a young but seasoned trouper named Eileen Twain joined the resort’s “Las Vegas” stage show. Blessed with an extraordinary voice, she quickly was pulled from the shadows and given some featured numbers. That was before Eilleen Twain changed her name to Shania Twain and began her collaboration with Jeff “Mutt” Lange, making both of them rich and famous. When she showed up at Deerhurst, Twain had already stamped a couple of demo discs for the perusal of Nashville executives. She needed the gig to support her younger siblings after her mother and stepfather were killed in a car accident. A quarter-century after being made part of the Las Vegas revue, in the woods of Ontario, the former Eileen Twain is in the midst of a two-year residency at Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the same big  room as Celine Dion, Elton John, Jerry Seinfeld and Rod Stewart. Alas, the DVD half of the package is little more than a rehash of homemade videos, shot from a distance in the Deerhurst showroom. She solos on the same medley — “Somewhere Out There”/ “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – three times and we’re given interviews with a bunch of promoters who inconveniently missed the boat on her later career. The better part of the package is an 18-song compilation – “The Limelight Sessions” – she sent out as a demo tape. Collectors and completests should find useful on both discs. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: American Experience: 1964
Honk, if you can remember the ’60s. Honk twice, if you’re sick of hearing about it. We’re not even half-way through that turbulent decade’s 50th anniversary commemoration and the children and grandchildren of Boomer parents must be wondering when it’s going to end. The joke’s on them, however, because the media has yet to exploit the golden anniversaries of the assassinations of Malcom X, Che Guevara, MLK and RFK; Woodstock and Altamont; the Tet offensive; Tate-LaBianca murders; and Bob Dylan’s motorcycle accident. Oy, vey. “American Experience: 1964” is largely based on the reporting of veteran reporter Jon Margolis for his book, “The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964.” If there was a toss-up for the title of the last innocent year in America, I’d say it was between 1964 and 1968. It can be argued that everything that happened in 1968 was set in motion in 1964, but who’s counting? Among the several epochal events that occurred that year were the arrival of the Beatles on these shores; the enactment of the Civil Rights Act and Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; Barry Goldwater’s campaign and emergence of the activist right; Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali; race riots; and aftershocks from the 1963 release of “The Feminine Mystique.” It was in 1964, Margolis argues, that ordinary Americans turned their frustrations, ambitions and anxieties into the first seismic waves of dissent. Or, as Ali responded when accused of being un-American for changing his name, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” The PBS show includes much archival material, as well as the observations of reporters, historians and other folks who are paid to have opinions on such things. Personally, I was struck by how little has fundamentally changed over the last 50 years. In some ways, the 1960s might as well not have happened. – Gary Dretzka

Nickelodeon: Essentially Spring Collection!
Guess How Much I Love You: Friendship Adventures
Chuggington: Brewster Leads the Way
I couldn’t tell you when Easter is scheduled to arrive this year, according to the Gregorian, Julian or lunar calendars. Who needs a calendar, though, when you have the media there to make consumers aware of the next big holiday? Easter-themed DVDs have begun rolling out like eggs from a water-soaked carton at the supermarket. The vast majority don’t even mention Jesus in passing, so as not to offend non-Christians and discourage them from buying candy. If children in 2050 have even a vague notion of what Jesus Christ has to do with Christmas and Easter, it won’t be because we’ll all be speaking Chinese or Arabic by then. In defense of the Easter-industrial complex, though, explaining Christmas to a child is a walk in the park compared with Easter and the Holy Week. What better than an egg-laying bunny rabbit to comfort kids traumatized by descriptions of the crucifixion and resurrection?

Still, why spoil the fun of pre-schoolers who might be left even more confused if they were the only kids on their block not to be invited to the Easter-egg hunt. If it’s good enough for the kids of White House employees and invited guests, the occasional foam-candy rabbit shouldn’t be discouraged. Nickelodeon/Paramount is a dependable source for DVDs that don’t dumb-down seasonal fare. This year’s spring-ahead showcase includes “Peter Rabbit: Spring Into Adventure!,” “Peter Rabbit,” “Max & Ruby: Every Bunny Loves Spring,” “Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Easter Adventure,” “Dora the Explorer: Egg Hunt” and “Max & Ruby: Easter with Max & Ruby.” The holiday-themed covers are awash in pastel colors and targeted at pre-schoolers. The gift sets cost about $14.99 each and run from 66 to 110 minutes.

Rabbits converse with each other and other denizens of the forest in the “Guess How Much I Love You: Friendship Adventures,” featuring the Little Nutbrown Hare and his dad, Big Nutbrown Hare. There are plenty of entertaining games for kids to play here, as well as lessons about playing and getting along with others. In another nice touch, Big and Little Nutbrown Hare discuss problems inherent in growing up in the woods. “Friendship Adventures” is inspired by the best-selling books of British origin. In these seven fun-filled episodes, Little Nutbrown Hare goes about exploring the meadow and playing with his friends, all the while learning valuable lessons of friendship such as the importance of being a good friend, sharing, embracing differences, keeping promises, taking responsibility and learning to forgive. Imagine that.

One of the great things about visiting Europe is the easy accessibility of train travel. Before the railroads here began to put freight ahead of passengers, the U.S. also had a pretty good rail system. The success of the Chuggington series of children’s cartoons is predicated on kids having a working appreciation of trains, even of the anthropomorphic variety. The CGI coaches and engines are inspired by actual trains in use in England. The Brewster in “Chuggington: Brewster Leads the Way” is a diesel-electric locomotive built for heavy loads. He is British Rail blue with a yellow face, and is well-known for being dependable, respectful and reliable under fire. The DVD contains six episodes from the television series; “Chugger Spotlights”; a bonus “Badge Quest” episode; and a new music video. The package also includes an actual miniature toy engine. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

The Returned: Season One: Blu-ray
The Americans: Season One: Blu-ray
You may already have read about the super-spooky 2012 French mini-series, “The Returned,” which will be adapted by ABC-TV in March as “The Resurrected.” The buzz surrounding the show has bordered on the ecstatic, with non-hyperbolic comparisons to “Twin Peaks,” any number of Stephen King mini-series, “The Walking Dead,” “American Horror Story,” “The 4400” and “The Sweet Hereafter.” It’s that good and that worthy of binging in its DVD/Blu-ray form … subtitles and all. Set in an idyllic French Alpine village, it opens with a bus careening for no obvious over a road barrier into a reservoir. A flash-forward to a support-group meeting tells us everything we need to know about the fate of the passengers and the impact of the tragedy on the community. Everyone appears to be living in a state of suspended animation. The goosebumps begin when a girl we recognize from the bus appears on the road leading into town, heading for her family’s home. Upon her return, she’s greeted with the wide-eyed disbelief and modulated horror that one would expect from such an unexpected event. The red-headed girl, probably in her early teens, looks exactly the same as when she died in the crash – no evidence of zombiefication – but she has no recollection of what occurred to her, let alone how the other passengers fared. At first, her divorced parents agree not to reveal the re-appearance. Soon enough, though, other long-dead youths begin to appear in various places around town, not always as benevolent spirits. The creepiest is a little boy, who’s in no hurry to talk about anything, but draws pictures that resonate with the horror he witnessed years earlier, when he was killed. An older teen returns to the home of his father, who killed and buried him years earlier; a bridegroom visits the woman he left standing at the altar, after committing suicide; and a serial killer re-haunts the pedestrian tunnels in which he attacked several women. You get the picture. Before long, the presence of such returnees can’t be hidden and they blend, more or less, into the scenery. At the same time, the town’s huge man-made lake has begun to leak, slowly revealing the ruins of a town destroyed by a flood. It’s at this point that story begins to stray into “Twin Peaks” territory and there are several more episodes yet to come. The feeling of imminent dread is maintained throughout, thanks to an eerie musical soundtrack, understated color palette and portentous flashbacks. As the lake continues to drain, with no apparent outlet, power blackouts put everyone in the dark, literally and figuratively. “The Returned” is based on the 2004 movie, “They Came Back” (“Les Revenants”). The forthcoming ABC series, which stars Omar Epps, Frances Fisher, Samaire Armstrong and Matt Craven, follows a similar pattern. The only bonus feature is a booklet with essays on the show.

I missed the entire first season of “The Americans” when it aired on the FX Network last year. After sampling two episodes from the Blu-ray package, however, I was hooked. I binged through the entire series and, now, can’t wait for the second-season debut at the end of February. As I recall, I previously had a difficult time getting past the premise of a matched pair of undercover Soviet spies living together, with their children, during the Reagan years in Washington. Although they were born, trained and paired in the U.S.S.R., Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) are by all appearances typical American suburbanites and small-business owners. Complicating their lives is the arrival, across the street, of a high-ranking FBI counterintelligence agent (Noah Emmerich) and his family. Is this coincidental or planned? In either case, the men soon will become friends and confidantes. The spy-vs.-spy setup would suspenseful enough to propel most mini-series, but “The Americans” adds overlapping relationship and workplace storylines. Actual news events from the period, including the assassination attempt on President Reagan and announcement of his “Star Wars” missile-defense strategy, also inform the drama. Unlike too many other Cold War-based movies and series, this one sustains the suspense throughout with cliffhangers, elaborate fake-outs and strategically deployed sexuality. Much of the verisimilitude can be traced to the arrests, a few years ago, of an actual cell of Russian “sleeper agents,” who had been “hiding in plain sight” in the U.S. for decades. Then, too, show creator Joseph Weisberg worked in the CIA’s directorate of operations from 1990 to 1994. As such, anything involving the agency had to have been cleared by the CIA Publications Review Board. The Blu-ray extras only add some deleted scenes of no real consequence. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

 
Ender’s Game: Blu-ray
Through no fault of his own, the resemblance of the protagonist to Frankie Muniz (“Malcolm in the Middle”) and the animated hero of Steven Spielberg’s “Tintin” frequently distracted me from a complete appreciation of “Ender’s Game.” Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) looks a couple of years short of his actual age of 16 and nothing like any notion I’ve ever had of an intergalactic war hero. Not being familiar with the mythology in Orson Scott Card’s series of “Ender” stories and novels, I found myself focusing on Butterfield, instead of Ender Wiggin. His youth being one of primary conceits of the story, however, I suspended my curiosity and accepted the character on its own terms. Born into a military family in the 2120s and desperate to follow in his dad’s footsteps, Ender already is familiar with the threat posed to Earth by hostile aliens, known as the Formics or Buggers. Once in advanced flight school, technical knowledge and shooting skills put him at the top of the class. When attacked by bullies, however, his ferocious response demonstrates a distinct lack of self-control. Nonetheless, it impresses his tough-as-nails superior, Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), who decides to test his leadership credentials in a series of “games.” It comes as no surprise that Ender masters those skills, while also organizing the younger students in a competition with upperclassmen. As the games get more sophisticated and closer to reality, something resembling a conscience begins to emerge from deep inside Ender’s psyche. At one time during his training, he even returns home to weigh his options in a war-torn universe. After Ender returns to the base, he is assigned to a remote outpost to train for an attack by the Formics. In what appears to be a simulation of the battles to come, Ender is required to make life or death decisions no 16-year-old should have to ponder, let alone execute.

Many recent sci-fi adventures have been compared to first-person-shooter video games, in which players are rewarded for their speed, accuracy and anticipatory skills in simulated attacks. Writer/director Gavin Hood probably could have saved tens of millions of dollars by sticking with proven technology, instead of blowing up the screen with newly invented software. Co-producer Digital Doman probably stood to benefit from sales of related video-game products. Considering the markup on software, it’s possible the strategy worked. Or, not. With a production budget estimated to be $110 million, Lionsgate/Summit anticipated total revenues of substantially more than $112 million. Lately, overseas box-office has served to make up for disappointing revenues in the U.S. Not this time, however. After opening in the No. 1 spot last November 3, on more than 3,400 screens, with a $27-million haul, box-office tallies plummeted to $10.3 million in Week 2. That must hurt and confused its backers. It should be noted, however, that the distributor was blindsided by calls for a boycott, based on homophobic remarks Card has made several times in the past 20 years. They were judged to be so off-putting as to eliminate Card from the movie’s marketing campaign and a gig as guest author for DC Comics’ new “Adventures of Superman” series. Although there’s no anti-gay subtext to the movie, the timing was miserable. The Supreme Court was about to act on the legality of gay marriages and the entertainment press held the author’s toes to the fire. The super Blu-ray visual presentation is complemented by commentary with Hood, in which he discusses changing the protagonist’s character; commentary with producers Gigi Pritzker and Roberto Orci; the eight-part featurette, “The Making of ‘Ender’s Game’”; deleted/extended scenes, with optional commentary by Hood; and “Inside the Mind Games,” which examines some of the motion-capture techniques utilizes to forge the games that Ender plays on his tablet. – Gary Dretzka

The Jungle Book: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray
Free Birds: Blu-ray
Best known for being the last movie personally supervised by Walt Disney, “The Jungle Book” can hold its own as a crowd-pleaser, even now, almost 50 years later. After perusing the interviews in the bonus package, it’s impossible to ignore Uncle Walt’s fingerprints on the studio’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “Mowgli” stories. All of the Disney magic is readily discernable and none of Kipling’s darker elements. That’s because Disney instructed his creative team to ignore the book’ moralistic tone and “lighten up” material already created by the musicians, writers and illustrators. Whatever hurt feelings this decision might have endangered were compensated for by the movie’s popularity, which effectively saved the animation department from possible extinction in the wake of Disney’s imminent death. The film follows a young boy, Mowgli, around the Indian jungle after he was rescued as a baby from a boat by the panther Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot). Until he turned 10, he was protected by a family of wolves that lived deep in the jungle. When Bagheera learns that the greatly feared tiger, Shere Khan (George Sanders), has been lurking nearby, he decides to get Mowgli to the “man village.”

Instead, he turns to a big bear, Baloo (Phil Harris), for security. Bagheera will join them on their adventure, which also includes confrontations with a hypnotic python, Kaa (Sterling Holloway); the king-of-the-apes orangutan, Louie (Louis Prima); a herd of elephants; and “rock-n-roll” Vultures. Mowgli also becomes enchanted with the native jungle girl he spies on while she performs her chores at the river. Everything holds up pretty well after 50 years, especially the great Sherman Brothers’ songs, “The Bare Necessities,” “I Wanna Be Like You” and Holloway’s “Trust in Me.” One interesting piece of trivia, of which I wasn’t aware, involves an unsuccessful overture to the Beatles to voice the Vultures. Fans of Ron Howard’s brother, Clint, might recognize his 7-year-old voice as belonging to one of the elephants. The “Diamond Edition” Blu-ray package adds introductions by Diane Disney Miller and Richard M. Sherman; an alternate ending, “Mowgli and the Hunter,”; “DisneyAnimation: Sparking Creativity”; “Music, Memories & Mowgli,” a conversation with Sherman, Miller and artist Floyd Norman; “Disney Intermission, Bear-E-Oke” sing-along, hosted by Baloo; “I Wanna Be Like You: Hangin’ Out at Disney’s Animal Kingdom”; and featurettes included in the original DVD release.

Watching the animated feature, “Free Birds,” I couldn’t help but wonder what the creators of such holiday perennials as “It’s a Charlie Brown Christmas,” “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” might have done with the same $55 million invested in the Thanksgiving-themed comedy. Considering the amount of money Bill Melendez and Charles Schultz actually did realize from the many “specials” they created, probably nothing noticeable. I doubt they would have considered investing it in a large-format 3D re-creation of those hits, either. That’s how much was spent on “Free Birds,” not counting P&A, which brought in slightly more than $55 million at the domestic box office, with another $38 million deriving from overseas revenue. Such numbers would suggest that Jimmy Hayward’s movie about time-traveling birds is a different breed of turkey … the kind that find their way into the headlines of Variety. It’s not, really, just a movie whose appeal should be limited to the kids who sit down in front of the TV on Thanksgiving morning to watch the Macy’s Parade. When more consumers own HD3D televisions, it might still enjoy an afterlife. I can’t imagine it ever becoming a perennial on the order of the Charlie Brown presentations, but a product that can be pushed on VOD and other streaming outlets near the holidays. In “Free Birds,” Owen Wilson is the voice of Reggie, a blue-faced bird who’s figured out the true meaning of Thanksgiving for critters like him.

When he attempts to warn the flock what’s awaiting them in the days before the holiday, he’s considered to be an alarmist. Reggie avoids the ax after being pardoned by the president, who also makes him the pet of his ADD daughter. His peace is disturbed by a rebel turkey (Woody Harrelson), who wants to go back in time with Reggie to the first Thanksgiving, in order to change the traditional menu. Once back in the 1600s, they meet an Indian princess voiced by Amy Poehler, who’s become the go-to voice for these sorts of things.  In short, “Free Birds” is clever without being terribly original and as good a holiday babysitter as anything else. In Blu-ray, it looks and sounds terrific. It adds several short featurettes, as well as a mouth-watering trailer for “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.” – Gary Dretzka

Diana: Blu-ray
Austenland: Blu-ray
Romeo & Juliet: Blu-ray
It seems incredible that a movie about a woman whose face has graced the cover of People magazine 54 times couldn’t produce more than a ripple of excitement at the box office, at least in the United States. Despite the formidable presence of two-time Oscar finalist, Naomi Watts, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Diana” failed to scare up more than $194,000 in business in its aborted run in a small number of U.S. theaters. It did significantly better overseas, but not nearly enough to pull “Diana” into the black. So, what went so wrong so fast? If early reviews were far from welcoming, most critics found one or two nice things to say about “Diana,” anyway. Certainly, no expense was spared on locations – London, Italy, India (for Pakistan), Mozambique, Croatia – all of which were nicely captured by cinematographer Rainer Klausmann. If you didn’t already know that Watts is several years older than Diana when she died, you might guess that she’s the same age or younger. Her interpretation of Diana makes the princess funny, flirty, generous, brave and likeable, even when she’s desperately lonely, needy, spoiled and duplicitous. If their roles were reversed and Charles had cheated on Camilla with Diana, there wouldn’t have been more than one or two magazine covers and she’d be labelled a gold-digger. “Diana” is not that movie, however. My guess is, potential viewers were turned off by what they considered to be a bait-and-switch marketing campaign. Instead of being a gossipy, glittery free-for-all, this “Diana” focuses on a two-year period in her life when she was exiled to Limbo, apart from her children and still guided by the dictates of Her Royal Majesty the Queen. Instead, Stephen Jeffrey’s screenplay focuses on an affair that, today, is little more than a short chapter in her life story.

After the royal couple split up, Diana effectively was turned into a bird in a gilded cage. She resided alone in their former apartment at Kensington Palace, left to communicate with her children by telephone. Diana was given a modicum of freedom, but not enough to enjoy it. Moreover, Diana’s version of Prince Charming II didn’t resemble the one conjured up by the readers of People and the British tabloid press. That one more closely resembled the subject of her first affair, Major James Hewitt. While on a visit to a nearby hospital, she was transfixed by the prominent, if resolutely private British Pakistani surgeon, Dr. Hasnat Khan (Naveen Khan). As drawn here, Khan was smart, funny, reasonably handsome, a jazz lover and, like Diana, a humanitarian. Their relationship resembles one of those forbidden romances between a poor boy and rich girl in high school. Guarded around the clock, the Princess of Wales is forced to tell fibs and wear wigs, so as not to attract the attention of the paparazzi and Queen’s inquisition. Her love for him is demonstrated when, after Khan cautions her about how his Muslim family might react to their relationship, she secretly travels to Lahore to win them over. Sadly, when the paparazzi discovers it and begins to swarm his every move, Khan breaks Diana’s heart by reluctantly calling it quits. (The official story alleges the opposite.) According to the movie, the reason she allowed herself to become so publically involved with Dodi Fayed was to make Khan jealous enough to return to her. (Dodi, of course, was fabulously wealthy, as well.) Diana used the paparazzi as much as they used her, by alerting one editor, at least, of her whereabouts with Fayed, including on the deck of his yacht. Unfortunately, “Diana” is only slightly less leisurely paced than the average Lifetime movie and Khan, while clearly a remarkable chap, lacks even the charisma of Prince Charles. The Blu-ray adds interviews with cast and crew, as well as a “Diana Fashion Photo Booklet.”

I have to believe that, before she became Princess Diana, the Honorable Diana Frances Spencer was as addicted to the romantic novels of Jane Austen as a million other girls her age. In her case, however, the line dividing fact and fiction was very thin, indeed. The future Princess of Wales may well have been distantly related to some of the young women who dreamed of being swept away by Mr. Darcy. “Austenland” describes a theme park of the same name where female obsessives can live out their fantasies at a period-perfect estate in Buckinghamshire. Once the carriages carrying the guests pass through the gates of Austenland, they’re immersed in all-things Austen. There are balls, teas, outdoors activities and dinners in which to participate – in costume – and, for those so inclined, period-perfect escorts for the ladies. It sounds like a blast. (It makes you wonder how a Downton Abbey Fantasy Camp might fare.) Anyway, the perpetually youthful Keri Russell plays Jane Hayes, the most level-headed of the week’s group, which also includes the perpetually ditzy Jennifer Coolidge. The perpetually regal Jane Seymour plays the organizer of this elaborate charade and personally writes the individual storylines for the guests. Naturally, things don’t happen as scripted, especially in the romance department, and co-writer/director Jerusha Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite”) has to scramble towards the end of “Austenland” to come up with a satisfying ending. As light entertainments go, the movie is reliably funny and not at all condescending to Austen fans. (Any guy who lasts more than a half-hour without falling asleep or running out of your house is a keeper, ladies.) The Blu-ray includes commentary with Hess and producer Stephenie Meyer (“Twilight”) and a Q&A with cast members Russell, Coolidge, Seymour, McKenzie, King, J.J. Feild, Ricky Whittle and James Callis.

The producers of Carlo Carlei and Julian Fellowes’ “Romeo and Juliet” want us to believe – and, why not – that every new generation of viewers is entitled to its own tragic love story. William Shakespeare’s immortal “R&J” has been bent, folded, mutilated, Tromatized and J-tooned in so many different ways – from Hollywood to Bollywood, Tromatized and animed — over the course of the last 400-plus years that it’s difficult to imagine a truly innovative adaptation. The latest edition won’t surprise anyone, either, except those who’ve read, studied and love the text as written. As great as the settings and costumes may be in the 2013 edition of “R&J,” Fellowes’ decision to rewrite and re-imagine as much of the play as he has here speaks to the same hubris that drives the characters in all of the Bard’s tragedies. Or, maybe the success of “Downton Abbey” — which he created — has gone to his head. Like I said, though, newcomers probably won’t notice anything has been altered. What’s truly enjoyable in “R&J” are the locations, which include some of the finest palazzos in Italy, as well as the streets of Verona. Our star-crossed lovers are played by Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld, who, while they look young enough for the role, aren’t likely to elicit many tears at the strategic moment. There’s a lot to like in the new adaptation, even if it is targeted at a more television-oriented audience. Among them are scene-stealer Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Stellan Skarsgard, Natascha McElhone, Laura Morante and Tomas Arana. The Blu-ray presentation looks and sounds excellent. The extras include four short making-of pieces. — Gary Dretzka

The Counselor: Blu-ray
There were times while watching director Ridley Scott and first-time screenwriter Cormac McCarthy’s “The Counselor” that I felt as if I had picked up a novel at the library and read it all the way through without noticing that every third or fourth chapter was missing. The words and language gave me sufficient reason to keep reading, even though I wondered how some the characters had gotten from Point A to Point B without me noticing it. The choppy narrative also made me to wonder if some unhappy studio executive had decided to re-edit the movie with a machete. Like “No Country for Old Men,” which was based on a McCarthy novel, “The Counselor” surveys the criminal landscape of the borderland that separates the drug cartels and illegal immigrants from the big piggy bank el norte. Michael Fassbender is a slick El Paso attorney, known to all as Counselor, who, for some unknown reason, decides that it might be amusing to dabble in drug trafficking along the border. He’s just paid a fortune for a diamond ring he’ll give to his world-class girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), and it’s possible he’s developed a serious case of the shorts. His conduit to the cartels is a bona-fide lunatic – he has the haircut to prove it – played with gusto by Javier Bardem. Reiner’s girlfriend is the female scorpion, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who gets her kicks watching their pet cheetahs run down rabbits in the desert. Brad Pitt also portrays another species of criminal, who flies around the world, doing something or other involving cocaine or money-laundering. No sooner is the million-dollar deal between Counselor and the cartel put into gear than it implodes, and subsequent loss of a septic truck carrying enough cocaine to freeze the gums of everyone in Chicago. He’s blamed for the death of a motorcyclist, whose function only is revealed after he’s decapitated. Because Counselor had unsuccessfully defended his mother in court and got her son off a speeding beef, she blames him for the boy’s death. Somehow, this makes him a target for every armed vaquero between Nuevo Laredo and Yuma. Even after repeated viewing of the extended version, these sequences don’t make much sense. They do, however, provide McCarthy with a stage for his muscular dialogue. Also worth the price of admission is a scene in which Malkina and Laura are lounging around the pool, naked except for towels, discussing the value of the ring she’s just accepted from Counselor. It’s as good a performance by Diaz as those in “Bad Teacher” and “Being John Malkovich,” maybe better. “The Counselor” may overflow with violence, but it’s of the graphic–comics variety. The Blu-ray visual presentation shimmers like a mirage in the Sonoran Desert. It contains an unrated extended cut at 138 minutes and the theatrical release at 117 minutes; virals; and a featurette, “Truth of the Situation.” – Gary Dretzka

Wadjda: Blu-ray
I have absolutely no idea what an Islamic cleric might have against a woman riding a bicycle, or the passage in the Koran that forbids such a thing, but anyone who can navigate a bike in an abaya deserves far more acclaim than condemnation. I suspect the prohibition has less to do with the possible glimpse of stocking than a belief that riding a bicycle could take her maidenhead. (This still wouldn’t explain the ban on driving, though.) “Wadjda” is far more that an indictment of a system that would forbid a little girl from enjoying herself on a day off from school. Not only is it Saudi Arabia’s first feature film, but it also was made by the kingdom’s first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour. If the movie exposes to the public what many viewers would consider to be unfair treatment of girls and women, it also demonstrates that someone in the Saudi bureaucracy was finally willing to take the risk of allowing Al Mansour to create a story that begs those questions. Wadjda is a free-spirited child whose mostly absentee father is being pushed by his mother to take a second wife. Her mom is a lovely woman, whose only crime is an inability to bear any more children, let alone a male heir. Wadjda drives her mother nuts with her desire for a brand-new bicycle, with which she can race a neighbor boy (also forbidden).

Her only hope, as unlikely as it might seem, is to win a Koran-memorization contest at her school. It’s not something for which the girl has previously demonstrated any proficiency, but it shows how badly she wants the bike. In effect, she’s using the Koran to acquire an object the mullahs insist is banned by the Koran. While Wadjda appears to be turning over a new leaf in pursuit of her goal, other girls her age are being claimed as second or third wives to geezers who can provide for them. Others are succumbing to western notions of womanhood. Certainly, too, not all of the women and girls we meet feel as if they’re imprisoned by the abaya and other restrictions. If they go along to get along, so be it. There’s no reason to spoil any more of the movie’s surprises, of which there are several. “Wadjda” reminded me of a segment in the Iranian movie, “The Day I Became a Woman.” In it, a group of women are shown racing their bicycles, in robes, on a road alongside the sea. Out of nowhere comes the lead cyclist’s husband, followed by other men on horses, all intent on preventing her from riding “the devil’s throne.” Another segment in the film takes place on the day a female character, 9, officially is considered to be a woman and is required not only to wear a chador, but also discontinue her friendship a male playmate. The Blu-ray package adds an interesting making-of featurette, which describes the difficulties of making a film in Saudi Arabia and the unique access she had to her subjects because men wouldn’t have been allowed to make the same connections. – Gary Dretzka

The Artist and the Model: Blu-ray
One of the excellent fringe benefits of being an artist or sculptor is being able to legitimately call on the services of models — female or male, professionals and amateurs – to provide inspiration or simply to brighten up their lives. Or, at least, so it seems in such movies as “La belle noiseuse,” “Van Gogh,” “Vincent & Theo,” “Goya’s Ghosts,” “Renoir,” “Pretty Baby,” “Artemisia,” “Surviving Picasso,” “Sirens,” “Caravaggio,” “Klimt,” “Art School Confidential” and, now, “The Artist and the Model.” All are highly erotic, yet non-exploitative, and created for arthouse audiences by serious directors and actors. Nudity goes with the territory. The locations in which such movies are shot frequently are as visually appealing as the work, itself. Sadly (and stupidly), the MPAA ratings board has continued to treat nudity, no matter how artistic, as being more dangerous than serial killers and more insidious than the zombie apocalypse. “The Artist and the Model” is a beautiful movie, with a heart-warming message that could hardly be more universal. The model’s nudity is handled with great sensitivity and all of it is relevant to the story. I don’t know if its “R” rating limited the film’s exposure to a mere nine screens, but, if it did, somebody should have been thrown in jail. “TA&TM” bears a striking resemblance to Gilles Bourdos’ “Renoir,” released last spring, in that they chronicle the final years of two great artists and the impact of much younger models/muses on them. “Renoir” made $2.3 million at the U.S. box office in limited release, so, clearly, someone wants to see movies like this.

Set in occupied France, circa 1943, sculptor Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort) is looking ahead to his imminent death with no small degree of relief. He splits his time between his studio in the Pyrenees and the nearby town, where his wife, Lea (Claudia Cardinale), lives with their elderly housekeeper. One day, Lea notices a teenage girl washing her feet in the fountain of the village. Something about her posture leads Lea to believe that the undernourished girl would make a perfect model for her husband. Turns out, Merce (Aida Folch) has recently escaped from a refugee camp on the Spanish border and is in desperate need of food, money and a place to hide. In another movie, such a scenario might lead viewers to think Lea is offering Merce up to her husband as a sexual favor for treating her so well for so long a time. Instead, being Marc’s former muse, she not only recognizes how Merce might reinvigorate his creativity, but also that she’s safe in his hands from lecherous neighbors and Nazis, not all of whom are philistines when it comes to art. As a portrait of an elderly artist, Fernando Trueba’s film borders on the exquisite. It takes its time getting to where Trueba wants it to go and doesn’t waste any adding extraneous drama or gratuitous sex. And, yes, it looks terrific in Blu-ray. The Cohen Media package adds an interview with Trueba (“Belle Epoque”) and a photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon: Blu-ray
BBC: Sherlock: Season Three
Apart from Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto, both of whom were played by western actors, and James Hong in “Black Widow,” American audiences have rarely been exposed to Asian private detectives. As the Chinese film industry continues to expand beyond Hong Kong, the drought of contemporary crime thrillers from the mainland already appears to be easing. Even so, most of the cops-and-robbers stuff continues to derive from HK. “Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame” and its “prequel,” “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon,” may take place in the early years of the Tang Dynasty, but they’re good enough to almost make us forget the racial stereotyping of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto. (To be fair, those series retain their storytelling spark in DVD, but only in the same way that “Amos & Andy” can still induce belly laughs.) Detective Dee employs many of the same abductive and deductive reasoning skills as Sherlock Holmes would, centuries later in London. Tsui Hark’s pictures merge Basil Rathbone’s take on Sherlock Holmes with the fair more action-oriented iteration popularized recently by Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. “Rise of the Sea Dragon” takes place some 20 years before the events recorded in “Mystery of the Phantom Flame.” Detective Dee’s methodology goes against the dictates of the empress’ Justice Department, which prefers the reading of tea leaves to logic and beating confessions out of suspects. The prequel opens with a wonderfully staged sea battle between the warships of the Imperial Navy and vessels from a nearby island. No sooner do the opposing forces begin to confront each other, than a giant sea monster overwhelms both fleets with body slams and tsunami-like waves. As a young cop assigned to the investigation, Dee almost immediately begins to ruffle feathers with his theories and predictions, which extend to a royal consort and conjurers, as well as a tea grown exclusively for pleasure of the Empress. There’s a lot going on in “Young Detective Dee” and it takes a while to fill in the blanks left in the story’s subtitles. Hark’s mastery of action sequences is on full display, along with the talents of fashion, production and set designers, whose work always sparkles brightest in Blu-ray. (The 3D version isn’t available yet.)

And, speaking of Holmes, is it possible that Moriarty didn’t die in the Season Two finale of “Sherlock”? What a waste that would be. As the three episodes in the BBC’s Season Three progressed, it became clear that one of the greatest villains in literary history either survived “The Reichenbach Fall” or a like-minded fiend is doing an excellent job impersonating him. What we do know is that Holmes is back in London after a two-year trip absence, and, in the meantime, Dr. John Watson has gotten engaged to the duplicitous Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington). The stories in Season Three were inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Empty House,” “The Sign of the Four” and “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” Naturally, the series’ writers take certain liberties with the texts, largely to enhance the visual presentation, which gets pretty freaky at times. To no one’s surprise, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are, once again, in fine form. Typically, the BBC/Warners’ releases are favored over PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery” airings, which tend to be edited for American consumption. Special features include the behind-the-scenes, “The Fall”; making-of “Shooting Sherlock”; and “Fans, Villains & Speculation: The Legacy of Sherlock Holmes.” – Gary Dretzka

2 Jacks
Danny Huston, who stars in “2 Jacks” with his nephew, Jack, has appeared in six movies directed by Bernard Rose. He has starred or co-starred in all four of the films Rose has adapted from the stories and novels of Leo Tolstoy. I mention this because of the ease with which Huston handles his over-the-top character in “2 Jacks,” which is based on Tolstoy’s “Two Hussars.” The comfort level between Huston and Rose is as palpable as that displayed in John Nicholson’s work with Bob Rafelson and Leo DeCaprio with Martin Scorsese, among other actor/director alliances. Here, he plays a notorious director, Jack Hussar, who’s run out of bridges to burn in Hollywood and is fishing for a sucker to finance his next film. Although Jack is broke, he hasn’t lost any of his bodacious charm and uncanny wiles. He’s the kind of oversized character who can walk into a room of any size and suck the air from all of the inflated egos in attendance … or, at least, the ones who have yet to figure out his game. In the first of two interrelated sections, Jack gloms onto a wannabe producer who’s been obsessed with his films since he was knee-high to a box office. From him, he manages to secure a place to sleep, park his destructive dog, get invited to a star-studded party in the hills, find a poker game and a woman (Sienna Miller) or two who haven’t previously fallen for his bluster. It doesn’t end well for him.

A half-generation later, a dissipated Jack Hussar Jr. (Jack Huston) blows into Hollywood for the same reason as his dad, before him. In a coincidence only available to novelists and screenwriters, young Jack finds himself in the company of a very nice gal, whose mother once gave his father a place to crash and temporary use of her sports car. Magically, Sienna Miller has grown into Jacqueline Bisset and Jack Jr. is given every opportunity to blow a sure thing. I think that we’re supposed to assume that Danny’s performance is informed by things he saw in the shadow of his similarly large-than-life father, director John Huston and heard about his grandfather, Walter Huston. Jack Huston’s performance owes more to the new Hollywood, whose stars are of a completely different social makeup than those of yesteryear. Thing is, though, the only things that change in Hollywood are hemlines and haircuts … the inebriants are the same as they were in Fatty Arbuckle’s day. Movie buffs and geeks should find plenty to enjoy in “2 Jacks.” If so, I suggest they sample Rose’s other Tolstoy adaptations, “Ivansxtc,” “The Kreutzer Sonata” and “Anna Kerenina.” – Gary Dretzka

Haunter
This dandy thriller from horror specialist Vincenzo Natali (“Splice,” “Cube”) takes the haunted-house sub-genre and turns it inside-out, all to very good effect. Unless viewers play close attention to what’s happening in “Haunter”  early on, however, they might miss the gag entirely. For instance, in a virtual homage to “Groundhog Day,” a suburban mom serves exactly the same meals to her family day after day, as she has since the day in 1986 when they were killed under mysterious circumstances. Abigail Breslin is plenty creepy in the role of the deceased teenager who’s is required to reach out from the Other Side to save her human counterpart and her kin from the same fate. In fact, though, there are other spirits inhabiting the premises and none is as benevolent as Lisa. They manifest themselves at various times during the movie and in different ways. The most chilling is the Pale Man, played by Stephen McHattie (“Pontypool”), an actor who could scare the bejeezus out of Lance Henricksen. Oh, yeah, an invisible dome prevents the residents from leaving the house and yard. The Blu-ray package contains commentaries with Natali and writer Brian King (“Night Train”); a teaser poster; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and streaming storyboards. – Gary Dretzka

Battle of the Damned: Blu-ray
Reel Zombies
Chastity Bites
As silly as it is, Christopher Hatton’s direct-to-DVD “Battle of the Damned” is one of the most entertaining zombie-apocalypse flicks I’ve seen in a while, regardless of budget. It combines all of the action expected from a Dolph Lundgren slaughter-porn epic with revisionist theories about how zombies act, borrowed from “World War Z.”  Sometime in the near future, the international bio-chemical industry will have moved from its base of operations to the under-regulated boonies of Southeast Asia. In one of these factory towns, the leak of a deadly pathogen has decimated much of the population, turned the survivors into monsters and caused the government to impose a tightly enforced military blockade on it. This singular event has global implications, of course, not the least of them being America’s role in backing the industry. In yet another example of how the military-industrial complex continues to maintain its grip on the world, a wealthy industrialist enlists commando-for-hire Max Gatling (Lundgren) to rescue his estranged daughter from the chaotic situation. Now, this is where things get really nutty. Once in place, Gatling is confronted by hundreds of hungry zombies, almost all whom he dispatches with reckless abandon. At some point, Gatling is joined by battle-bot killing machines. It takes a surprisingly short amount of time for him to find the young woman, whose dripping mascara makes her look like a raccoon and is part of a group of militant eco-guerrillas. (Only westerners appear to have been spared the virus.) After some uneasy moments, this unlikely alliance of commandos is forced to shoot its way out of Dodge. A short featurette, “Battling the Damned,” features several minutes of raw on-location footage.

In something of a fresh twist to the old game of creating fresh sequels out of stale matzo, indie filmmakers Mike Masters and David J. Francis have attempted to snatch shot-on-video victory from the jaws of DVD defeat. As the two men explain in the introduction to their self-aware mockumentary “Reel Zombies,” their new film was inspired by the failure of the first two chapters in their “Zombie Night” trilogy. This time, however, the shooting schedule coincides with an “actual” outbreak of the flu that causes zombie-mania. It allows them to film undead non-actors as they cavort through “actual” scenes of mass destruction. If the actors and destruction are real, however, there’s really no way to control them. The only option for Masters and Francis, apparently, was to give up on No. 3 and turn it into a mockumentary, lampooning the process in the loose form of a making-of featurette. While explaining the economic benefits of using non-actors in roles that don’t require acting, it becomes clear that Masters and Francis are also bemoaning the facts of life in the world of low-budget, indie filmmaking. It’s a fresh approach, to be sure, and it produces more than a few laughs. The DVD contains more than 40 minutes of deleted scenes and commentary.

Chastity Bites” is a high school comedy that borrows from “The Stepford Wives” and “Clueless” and combines the elements with more than 400 years of undead legend. Naturally, the girls in the local high school are divided into the geeks and popular kids, who are dead-ringers for their conservative parents. Two of the geeky girls smell a rat when the new hyper-sexy teacher, Liz Batho (Louise Griffiths), organizes a female-empowerment club, based on pussy power and the right of virgins to stay that way. If the teacher’s name rings a bell in the heads of vampire buffs, it’s because Liz Batho is recognizably short for Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed (a.k.a., “The Blood Countess”), who, born into a royal Hungarian family, is considered to be the most prolific female serial killer in history. To keep herself looking youthful, the countess killed and drained the blood of young virgins who had the misfortune of living near her castle. Bathing in their blood did the trick. She would be convicted of killing only 80 of the 650 victims believed to have been tortured before their deaths. She died while under house arrest, but, this would only be in the human sense of the word, death. In “Chastity Bites,” Batho barely has to work up a sweat. – Gary Dretzka

Reaching for the Moon
Pit Stop
Of all the unusual tastes one might acquire at the local library or arthouse, romantic dramas about Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, celebrated architects and expatriate Vassar graduates might be the most atypical of the genre. Toss in a lesbian love triangle, depression, alcoholism and jealousy and you have Bruno Barreto’s “Reaching for the Moon.” As un-commercial as it could possibly be, “Reaching for the Moon” chronicles the unlikely mid-century romance that blossomed like a hot-house flower between the deeply private American poet Elizabeth Bishop and assertive Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Based on Carmen L. Oliveira’s account of their relationship, “Rare and Commonplace Flowers,” the movie’s exotic Samambaia setting adds a fairytale aspect to the frequently intense drama. Stuck in creative doldrums, Bishop is advised by the poet Robert Lowell to put down her pen and see the world outside Manhattan. The suggestion takes her to Brazil, where she’s greeted by her collegiate friend, Mary Morse, and her lover, Soares. Although, at first, the poet and the architect could hardly be less compatible, Soares quickly pushes Morse aside to focus on Bishop. She builds a cliff-side house for Bishop to use as a workplace, then adopts a baby from a poor farming family to keep Morse happy and occupied. In Barreto’s depiction of social life at Samambaia, the conversation frequently drifts into politics, thanks to the anti-democratic friends Soares has courted. Eventually, bickering between the three women attracts storm clouds to their little slice of heaven. Bishops turns to the bottle, Soares disappears into a deeply depressive state and Morse tries to build a wall around her daughter. Miranda Otto and Glória Pires are terrific as the tempestuous duo, while Tracy Middendorf holds her own as the third leg of the love triangle. Mauro Pinheiro Jr.’s sumptuous cinematography keeps us interested when the arguing gets too loud. The making-of featurette is worthwhile, as well.

Without putting too fine a point on it, “Pit Stop” tells a story about being gay in small-town America. It will remind many viewers of “Brokeback Mountain,” minus the sheep and tears. Within the small, working-class Texas community are several men whose paths will cross, if they haven’t already, as lovers, friends and companions. Some are out, others will soon be required to draw their own line in the sand. Besides being nominated for the Independent Spirits Awards’ John Cassavetes prize, “Pit Stop” has done extremely well in competition at other gay and straight festivals. The naturalistic tone adopted by director Yen Tan and stars Bill Heck and Marcus DeAnda is a nice alternative to more overtly melodramatic fare. What happens happens, but without much in the way of sturm und drang. We simply like the characters and empathize with their situations. Here, that’s enough. The extras consist of two commentary tracks, one with director Yen Tan, Heck and DeAnda, and the other with Tan, producer Kelly Williams, cinematographer Hutch (one word) and editor Don Swaynos. – Gary Dretzka

On the Job: Blu-ray
I haven’t seen many movies from the Philippines, but the ones I have are humdingers. The movies that have crossed the Pacific – even after the Roger Corman era — tend to involve poverty-driven urban crime and ruthless violence. The police are as corrupt as government officials, and civilians seem to take it for granted. It starts at the top, then trickles down through the ranks. It isn’t as if Americans are unfamiliar with such conditions, because they exist in every shithole barrio, ghetto and backwater community on the planet. Filipinos appear to have made it a science, however. “On the Job” opens with the assassination of a political candidate in a crowded marketplace in Manila. All we know about the killers is that they’ve arrived by boat from points unknown and have something of a father-son relationship. The murder is pulled off without much muss or fuss, leaving them a few hours to visit family and go on a shopping spree. Once that’s done, the killers (Joel Torre and Gerald Anderson) are sent back to the kind of fetid, overcrowded prison from which the crazy YouTube videos (“Thriller” and “Gangnam Style,” performed by hundreds of inmates) emanate. Apparently, they’ve been assassinating people at the behest of the warden, who’s paid off by police officials, who take their instructions from incumbent politicians who are insecure in their jobs. Between each layer of corrupt officials are middlemen and middlewomen who are paid by the big shots who have the politicians in their pockets. Hey, it worked for Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, didn’t it? In a parallel story, an as-yet-untarnished federal investigator (Piolo Pascual), is making inroads on the first murder, which, he senses, is related to his uncle and future father-in-law. “On the Job” moves at a rapid, if fairly easy to follow pace, and the film’s two hours go past quickly. The subtitles may not be precise, but there’s no mistaking what’s happening on screen. – Gary Dretzka

Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection: Nurse Girl Dorm: Sticky Fingers/Sex Hunter: 1980
Typically, releases from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection are an odd lot of kinky soft-core porn, with most of the naughty bits blurred and storylines that could hardly be more illogical. Sadism and rape are two popular themes, even if they sometimes lead to a twisted form of romance. And, yes, the re-mastered DVDs as previously described in this space are every bit that crazy. “Nurse Girl Dorm: Sticky Fingers” (a.k.a., “Nurse Girl Dorm: Assy Fingers) and “Sex Hunter: 1980” show a variance from form, in that they have recognizable storylines, are reasonably humorous and don’t treat rape as an aphrodisiac. Indeed, “Nurse Girl Dorm” could be characterized as a sequel to the bawdy British comedy, “Carry On Nurse.” Pretty young trainees live in a dormitory close to their hospital. A mysterious newcomer, Yuki, is older than most of the residents and far wiser in the ways of the world and dormitory. When the girls are finding it difficult to sneak their boyfriends past the resident Nurse Ratchet, Yuki volunteers to teach them her tricks. Pretty soon, doctors, boyfriends and stalkers are scaling the walls as if the nurses lived in the Alamo. The headmistress harbors some kinky secrets of her own.

Sex Hunter: 1980,” the sequel to “Sex Hunter: Wet Target,” looks to have been very much influenced by the Dario Argento giallo thriller, “Suspira.” Maekawa Miki is a young and talented ballet dancer, fresh from a performance, when she’s picked up off the street by a onetime star dancer and her henchman. Out of the blue, they invite her to join their school, situated in a villa overlooking the sea. Instead of being treated like a prima ballerina, however, Miki becomes a sexual plaything for the academy’s demented master and mistress, who lurk behind a two-way mirror. The other students have already become accustomed to being managed and manipulated, but Miki still retains a remote hope of advancing in her discipline. She might, but, first, she’ll have to endure sessions involving bondage, lesbian group gropes and some S&M. A blurb on the jacket, “Draped in the smell of semen … a solitary house of pleasure,” pretty much sums up what happens here, minus the blurbed naughty bits. As usual, the DVDs come with informative essays by Jasapar Sharp. — Gary Dretzka

Lou Reed Tribute
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Fifty by Four
If you’re one of those people, who were born when there were still four ex-Beatles, the news of Lou Reed’s passing may not have been greeted with the same urgency as their parents or reporters who still recall the first time they listened to “Heroin.” Even in his heyday, the co-founder of the Velvet Underground was something of an acquired taste among mainstream radio programmers and listeners still in the grip of the British invaders. The Velvets represented the New York branch of the countercultural revolution and Reed was its Alan-a-Dale. They painted portraits in song of people who lived on the fringes of society, but acted as if they were superstars and immune to the deadly substances they were ingesting. Once the so-called “banana album” found an audience beyond those in the rock cognoscenti, however, the Velvets were already three or four steps beyond it, creating raw, unsparing and deliberately discordant music that presaged punk and death-metal. Producer Brian Eno summed up the Velvets’ importance by observing, while the band’s debut album was less than a financial juggernaut, “Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” Reed would take out on his own in the 1970s, writing songs that varied wildly in their degree of accessibility, and continue doing so until his replacement liver gave up the ghost last October 27. If most people still know less about Reed’s life and career than how Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber spent their last vacation, it’s because he never was keen on articulating his inclinations, motivations and inspirations to the press. His interviews were the journalistic equivalent of pulling teeth and he never pandered to the gods of fame. For those who are interested in Reed, the Velvets and life on the edge in the 1960-70s, I recommend MVD’s three-disc boxed-set, “Lou Reed Tribute.” It is comprised of the previously released, but still relevant, “The Velvet Underground: Under Review”; “Punk Revolution NYC: the Velvet Underground, the NY Dolls & the CBGB’s Set”; and “The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Lou: 1971-1973.” All are thoroughly researched and informed by copious interviews with critics, historians, musicians, producers and accomplices.

Debuting a couple years later, “super-group” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were the polar opposite of Reed and Velvet Underground. Comprised of star musicians from the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Hollies, CS&N and CSN&Y emerged from the Southern California folk-rock scene, which was then concentrated in and around Laurel Canyon. Their voices blended like honey and butter on a warm muffin and, at first, the darkest their music ever got was in heartfelt outcries against the war and the killings of students at Kent State. On the hand, there wasn’t an off-stage minute when the musicians, their managers and business reps weren’t as interested in making money as making music. “Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Fifty by Four,” also from MVD, looks back at a half-century’s worth of beautiful harmonizing, endearing lyrics, splendid musicianship, petty squabbles that turned into destructive battles, famous girlfriends, anonymous groupies, rancorous ego trips, copious alcohol and drug abuse, occasional reunions and spinoff projects, all supported by inflated ticket prices and unnecessary “live” and greatest-hits albums. Nothing in “50X4” would make anyone want to throw away their albums, but, even at 165 minutes, you get the feeling that not everything is on view here. It is possible, though, to feel incredibly sorry for Graham Nash, who comes off as the only reliably sane band member. The music-filled DVD features archival and exclusive interviews; seldom-seen footage; concert performances; and contributions from such key supporting players as Dallas Taylor, Greg Reeves, Danny Kortchmar, George Chocolate Perry, Joe Lala, Chad Cromwell, Calvin Fuzzy Samuels, Joe Vitale, the Albert Brothers, Bill Halverson and civilian observers. – Gary Dretzka

Rocky Heavyweight Collection: Blu-ray
A sports fan knows he’s getting old – ancient? – if he can remember watching the Muhammad Ali/Chuck Wepner fight that inspired Sylvester Stallone to write “Rocky.” It was that remarkably strange an event. Although Stallone didn’t acknowledge the financial debt he owed the “Bayonne Bleeder” until a lawsuit was settled in 2006, there’s no mistaking how much the movie mirrored the boxing match, right down to the audience (live and broadcast to theaters by cable) switching its allegiance from the aging Ali to the upset-minded bartender. If MGM had wanted to do the millions of fans of the movie franchise a real favor, it would have included a tape of the 15-rounder, in which Wepner managed to knock the former champ down once, before losing by TKO in the match’s final seconds. Or, it might have added the 2012 ESPN documentary, “The Real Rocky.” (Not only did Wepner inspire the first “Rocky,” but some people also believe that the wrestling match in “R3” aped Wepner’s ill-fated wrestling match against Andre the Giant, in 1976.) As it is, “Rocky Heavyweight Collection” differs from the 2009 “Ultimate Collection” only with a much-needed re-mastering of the first “Rocky” and a new featurette, “8mm Home Movies of Rocky,” narrated by director John Avildsen. In addition to Blu-ray editions of all six titles, “Heavyweight Collection” includes three hours of previously released bonus material. I hadn’t seen “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth entry, before receiving the collection and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. For my money, the best lines in the movie refer to the silly contretemps between the city of Philadelphia and art museum where the Rocky statue had served as a major photo op for tourists, until it was moved to the Spectrum (twice) and returned to a different site near the museum. After Rocky informs Paulie of his plans to come out of retirement for the exhibition match in Las Vegas, his pal asks, “You mad because they took down your statue?” – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
NeoGeo: Killing Kennedy: Blu-ray
Lifetime: Anna Nicole: The Price of Fame
TNT: Dallas: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
BBC: Doctor Who: The Moonbase: Story 33
CBS: Newhart: The Complete Second Season
Cartoon: Regular Show: Mordecai & Margaret Pack
Wouldn’t it have been nice if, on the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, someone stepped forward to offer solid evidence of a purported conspiracy or something conclusive about Lee Harvey Oswald’s ability to squeeze off three rounds from a crummy rifle in six seconds? Instead, the anniversary came and went without any more useful wisdom proffered than in the 49 years since the release of the much-disputed Warren Report. Not bound by the rules of non-fiction, novelists have been allowed to speculate wildly about what “really” happened on the days leading up to November 22, 1963, and are relatively credible. I’m currently reading Stephen Hunter’s “The Third Bullet,” a novel in which the protagonist is a sharpshooter who recognizes a pattern in a recently discovered “shred” of evidence. It’s pretty interesting, especially in the portrait it paints of history’s ultimate dupe, LHO. As opposed to the “single gunman theory,” Hunter advances one involving a “single conspirator.” The one thing “Third Bullet” shares with the National Geographic movie, “Killing Kennedy,” is its depiction of Lee Harvey Oswald being a pathetic loser with an inflated opinion of himself. Will Rothhaar’s portrayal of LHO is the best and potentially most revealing reason to watch Nelson McCormick’s film, which is based on the research of Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Otherwise, zilch. Among the cast members are Michelle Trachtenberg, as Marino O; Ginnifer Goodwin, as the future Jackie O; Casey Siemaszko, as Jack Ruby; and Rob Lowe, as, who else?, JFK. None of the actors embarrass themselves, but a 92-minute movie can’t possibly do justice to such a world-shattering event.

The same can’t said about the Lifetime biopic, “Anna Nicole: The Price of Fame,” which, we’re told, is based on an article in Now York magazine. The model’s untimely death may have sent shockwaves through the tawdry world of tabloid media, but, outside of it, Anna Nicole Smith was just another voluptuous blond gold-digger with fake tits. The only thing about her that qualified as newsworthy was the lawsuits filed, in the wake of her ancient husband’s death, to determine if she was eligible to claim the bulk of his estate. It turns outs, she wasn’t. On her side, however, was the reality of having to “make love” to the addled old turd (Martin Landau) and the repugnant personality of his son. The only person entitled to our sympathy in the entire mess is ANS’ son and primary witness to her trailer-trash behavior. That he would die for his bimbo mom’s sins is the real tragedy here. Agnes Bruckner plays ANS with all of the subtlety of a lap dance in a biker bar. Nonetheless, she’s the best thing in the biopic. It’s also worth reporting that, being a made-for-Lifetime product, there’s no nudity in its entire 85 minutes. The least the producers could have done was offer a director’s-cut edition, with the naughty bits re-edited back into the story. Far worse, though, is learning that “Anna Nicole” was directed by Mary Harron, whose credits include “The Notorious Bettie Page,” “American Psycho,” “I Shot Andy Warhol” and single episodes of some of the best TV dramas in the last 20 years. A gig’s a gig, though, right? Just for the record, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s two-act opera, “Anna Nicole,” received some very decent reviews in its short runs. A DVD is available through Opus Arte.

If TNT’s “Dallas” weren’t a continuation of the original landmark series, and already well into production on its second season when Larry Hagman died, the loss of J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) could have been fatal. Ewing was one of the most compelling characters ever drawn for broadcast television and the 2012 revival did justice to both to J.R. and Hagman. It even brought back several other key characters from the series’ glory years, including Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray. Others returned for J.R.’s midseason funeral. I won’t get into the cause of death here, but it opens yet another dramatic storyline. None of the “Who Shot J.R.?” hysteria from the original series was repeated in 2013, but its new cast was rewarded with a third-season commitment by TNT.

Doctor Who: The Moonbase” (a.k.a., “Story 33”), from BBC Home Entertainment, harkens all the way back to the Patrick Troughton era, of the mid- to late-1960s. The digitally re-mastered classic opens with the usual TARDIS misdirection play, leaving Jamie, Polly and the Second Doctor not on Mars, as desired, but on the Earth’s moon, circa 2070. (In 1966, before the lunar landing, 2070 must have seemed like an eternity away from current reality.) At the Moonbase, an international team controls the Earth’s weather with a gravity machine. TARDIS delivered the trio to Moonbase, instead of Mars, because there services were more needed there. Crew members have been stricken with serious illnesses, possibly caused by the return of Cybermen. The serial was first released on VHS, absent key video elements from episodes one and three. The new DVD release adds the lost material in the form of animated replacement sequences.

Four years after Bob Newhart signed off as Dr. Robert Hartley, in CBS’ hugely popular “The Bob Newhart Show,” he returned to prime-time as a New York author of do-it-yourself books, Dick Loudon, in “Newhart.” He and his wife, Joanna (Mary Frann), have decided to move to a scenic corner of Vermont, where they’ll manage the 200-year-old Stratford Inn. Obviously, this is a very different setting than the urban environment he shared with Suzanne Pleshette. For one thing, Chicago is conspicuously absent such quintessentially rural characters as Larry, Darryl and Darryl and Tom Poston’s George Utley. This was before Dick began hosting a talk-show on a local TV station. In Season Two, Julia Duffy replaced Jennifer Holmes as one of the wealthy Vanderkellen cousins. A yuppie TV producer, played by Peter Scolari, is brought in towards the end of the season to handle the show. In the early episodes of the second season, Dick must deal with the advances of a sexy celebrity (Stella Stevens), who wants him to ghost write her book, and Joanna challenges the town’s historical practice of the men and women eating separately during the town’s potluck dinners.

Cartoon Network`s latest compilation of “Regular Show” episodes focuses the relationship between lovebirds Mordecai and Margaret. It cherry-picked 16 select episodes from the series’ first four seasons and adds a never-before-seen special feature, “Steak me Amadeus.” At a running time of 176 minutes, “Mordecai & Margaret Pack” represents a darned good bargain. – Gary Dretzka

DCU Justice League: War: Blu-ray
Seven years and 17 films after DC and Warner Bros. began churning out direct-to-video animated features, they’ve reteamed for the origin story, “DCU Justice League: War.” It gives those fans of Superman, Batman, Cyborg, Wonder Woman, Shazam, the Flash, Green Lantern and, briefly, Aquaman a reason to live until 2017, when the live-action “Justice League” is scheduled to be released. Both follow the basic blueprint laid out in Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s 2011 “Justice League: Origin” storyline from DC’s “New 52.”  In it, individual superheroes recognize the fists-beat-fingers principle, electing to combine their various powers for the good of a tight-knit fighting unit. The villains, looking to reshape our society, include Darkseid and Parademons. This is the first DC animated feature to use material from DC Comic’s New 52 “continuity.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club: Blu-ray
There have been several very good movies and miniseries made about the AIDS crisis and people who’ve made a difference in the ongoing struggle for a cure. Among the storylines that have been consistent throughout the 30-year fight is the one that describes the U.S. government’s steadfast reluctance to acknowledge the immediacy of the problem. Because the FDA was hesitant to treat AIDS as an epidemic from the get-go, scientists and researchers weren’t able to devote the time, money and resources to understand how it spread, let alone test possible cures. When other countries began to make experimental drugs available to patient volunteers, the FDA left the research to the big pharmaceutical companies that stood to benefit financially from any successful treatment programs. Field trials were conducted as if there was no greater urgency than is usual in combating a virus. Instead, they followed traditional guidelines, including the issuance of placebos to people whose lives literally hung in the balance. This was very much the case in 1985, when AIDS/HIV was still considered to be a disease limited to gay men and a Texas electrician and part-time rodeo rider, Ron Woodroof, discovered that he was infected with the HIV/AIDS virus. Because Woodroof was a committed heterosexual and virulent homophobe, the diagnosis was as much a mystery as a shock. When he was given 30 days to live by his doctors, he was faced with the choice of accepting the diagnosis and getting his “affairs in order” or putting up a fight against the disease and the stigma that came with it. Instead of dying according to schedule, Woodroof would defy the odds by living another six years. Moreover, as a source for experimental drugs, he would provide a ray of hope for other Dallas AIDS patients and a pain in the ass of the FDA. It’s this six-year period that director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Café de Flore”) chose to chronicle in “Dallas Buyers Club,” a finalist in six Academy Award categories, including Best Picture, Best Lead Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto give the performances of their careers as Woodroof and the cross-dressing patient, Rayon, with whom he enters into a business arrangement. If Woodroof could provide the drugs, Rayon would lead him to desperate customers. The rough-tough rodeo rider was still homophobic, but business was business. His first trip was to Mexico, where an outlaw doctor (Griffin) was puttering around with various substances, some of which were as dangerous as the virus. In those days, the components weren’t yet banned from importation, as they soon would be. The search for more effective treatments would lead Woodroof to Japan and Europe, where researchers were in high gear. And, yes, he made a lot of money. It couldn’t make up for the loss of his hetero friends and government intransigence, but it served as a means to an end. How much of Woodroof’s race against time is depicted accurately in “Dallas Buyers Club” is open to conjecture. What else is new? What’s indisputable is the impact Woodroof’s mission had on the search for the cure and the ferocity of McConaughey and Leto’s performances. The actors lost 47 and 30 pounds, respectively, to add another layer of credibility to their performances. Given the subject matter, it’s a small miracle the “Dallas Buyers Club” was able to find financial backing, let alone distribution. Because Hollywood treated the concept as if it carried the virus, McConaughey was required to find financing and backers. By most standards, the movie wasn’t much of success at the box office, returning just north of $20 million. With an estimated budget of $5.5 million, however, it could very well end up in the black, which is something most of the Oscar favorites can’t say for themselves. Among the other actors who turn in nice performances are Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O’Hare, Dallas Roberts and Kevin Rankin. The only Blu-ray extra is “A Look Inside ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’” – Gary Dretzka

McConkey
The Armstrong Lie: Blu-ray
In a somewhat perverse twist, daredevil skiing, boarding and other “extreme” pursuits have joined figure skating as must-watch events in Winter Olympics coverage. Up until the mid-1990s, boarders were banned from commercial ski runs as being too wild and uncontrollable. It was characterized as a sport best suited for stoners and misfits. That image changed dramatically as soon as operators discovered the commercial potential of snowboarding and other freeform activities and purveyors of ski fashions saw an opportunity to exploit the outlaw look. With NBC in need of another showcase event – one not likely to be dominated by Swedes and Russians – extreme skiing was put on the fast track to legitimacy. Fans of such extreme activities ought to do themselves a favor by picking up a copy of the documentary, “McConkey.” Blessed with the kind of looks normally associated with pro surfers and downhill skiers, Shane McConkey was the perfect cover boy for extreme sports. Thanks in large part to DNA passed along by his sporting parents, Shane was a natural on his way to becoming a golden boy. On and off the slopes, he was a daredevil’s daredevil and a magnet for the growing number of extremists. Too cool to limit himself to the pursuit of Olympic gold, he was like the rare athlete who’s able to make the transition from high school to the NBA over the course of a summer. Even as a junior skier, he’d pushed the limits on everything from slalom and downhill to freestyle and moguls. When the snow melted, he got his kicks from bungee and BASE jumping, neither of which provided a safety net or a soft cushion of fresh powder. Helicopter delivery would provide extreme skiers access to the steepest, most remote and dangerous slopes, as well as a living from starring in documentaries. When those stopped floating his boat, McConkey and his pals introduced ski-BASE jumping –as seen in the opening of the James Bond movie, “The Spy Who Loved Me” – and wingsuit flying on skis, activities that border on the suicidal. In 2009, during the production of a movie for Red Bull Media House and Matchstick Productions, Shane failed to execute a BASE landing and died on impact, leaving behind his wife, toddler daughter and cult following. “McConkey” is equal parts bio-doc and demonstration of Shane’s many skills. By combining captivating home-movie footage with the spectacular on-location material and a tick-tock narrative, “McConkey” could be a next-generation sequel to “Downhill Racer.” It does beg the question – frequently asked, but never fully answered – of why any sane adult would risk losing a loving wife and beautiful child people to a “sport” that almost no one follows and has hubris written all over it. Putting one’s live on the line for no good reason can be every bit as addictive as heroin, alcohol and gambling, for which 12-step programs have been organized in every city in the nation. If only they had one for extreme athletes with families, too. The DVD adds more video footage and interviews. Needless to say, the scenery is uniformly spectacular.

Americans are as fond of bicycles as anyone in the world. Until the arrival of Lance Armstrong on the international racing scene, however, we got excited only when an American was a contender at the Olympics. That changed somewhat when the movie “Breaking Away” introduced European-style road racing to America in 1979. The popular dramedy captured the danger, excitement and beauty of the sport, while also proving that colorful, skin-tight outfits and an aerodynamic helmets could be sexy. It wasn’t off-road BMX racing — short for Bicycle Motocross – was embraced by kids in Southern California in the late-1970s that things really took off. BMX combines road, track, and mountain-biking events in a way that’s relatively safe and attractive to kids who find racing in circles to be a tad boring. In fewer than 40 years, BMX racing went from dirt tracks in southern California to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. It would take Lance Armstrong to create the same amount of excitement for long-distance road racing to be embraced by Americans. In addition to be a true champion and conqueror of European dominance in the sport, McConkey courageous battle against cancer made him a true hero and inspiration for people everywhere. Just below the surface of his media-enhanced profile, however, Armstrong was a rambunctious, frequently pugnacious warrior, totally unwilling to give an inch of leeway toward his peers or lose face in public. In other words, he could be a real prick. The same thing that drove McConkey to keep on jumping off cliffs, even after losing a step physically, pressured Armstrong to come back to racing four years after he’d conquered cancer. Throughout his recovery, his critics were willing to forgive and forget their claims against him of using banned substances. After all, the sport was widely considered to be a proving ground for the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs and he’d be in the minority if he didn’t follow suit. In the space of those four years, though, the spotlight had finally begun to shine on doping and, as tests became more accurate, several top racers faced bans. Suddenly, the target was on Armstrong’s back again and he resented the accusations. He was willing not only to tarnish his reputation, but also disappoint his many fans and put his fortune at risk. Hubris being what it is, however, Armstrong could resist the challenge. Hollywood didn’t want to believe the accusations, either, and documentarian Alex Gibney was hired to create a film about his nearly miraculous comeback. A year later, another victory in the Tour de France to his credit, Armstrong’s story was tainted by overwhelming scientific and circumstantial evidence of cheating. Even as he continued to deny what others, including former teammates, considered to be overwhelmingly obvious, Gibney’s financial backers decided to shut down the project. Finally, three years later, Armstrong unexpectedly surrendered. Like other celebrities, he bared his guilty soul on “Oprah” and, a few hours later, before the camera of a devastated Gibney. To his credit, he recognized a tragedy as it was happening, allowing him to re-selling the idea to Hollywood. He changed the title from “The Road Back” to “The Armstrong Lie” and changed the focus from the comeback to his ability to hide the facts about doping for more than a decade. The result is a fascinating, if overlong film that has a lot to say about the nature of sport in the 21st Century, when, it’s said, “If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t winning” … or rich. Sadly, even after admitting his shame, Armstrong’s admission fell short of anything resembling contriteness and humility. What we’re left with is his arrogance in the face of the facts, perhaps, because lawsuits are pending against his foundation and other interests. “The Armstrong Lie” combines the footage taken during his comeback period and Tour de France, with newly collected interviews concerning the cover-up and lies. The hi-def cinematography brilliantly captures the splendor, glory and danger of racing against a couple hundred world-class cyclists in the narrow roads through crowded towns and steep mountains. It certainly explains why Europeans are so absorbed with such events. The film adds commentary from Gibney; a festival Q&A with Gibney and cycling figures Frank Marshall, Bill Strickland, Jonathan Vaughters and whistle-blowers Betsy Andreu; and 40 minutes of deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

A Case of You: Blu-ray
There are certain touchstones found in rom-coms made for and by Millennials that differ from those made for consumption by Gen X, Gen Y, slacker, baby boomer and other pre- and post-war audiences. These movies are set in neighborhoods populated with the same people one meets in “Girls” and “New Girl.” The characters are obsessed with their instant-communication devices, boutique coffee, offbeat fashions and finding jobs that pay well and allow them to exercise their creative muscles. They smoke pot and take ecstasy, but are weaning themselves off cocaine. Millennials are perfectly willing to pay $15 dollar for cocktail, but not a dollar for a newspaper. That doesn’t mean they’re stupid or vapid – far from it – merely, that they can get almost everything worth knowing on their Avatar or iPad. Like members of all three or four generational groupings since World War II, Millennials ask themselves the age-old question when they turn 30: Is this all there is? Hollywood’s finally recognized the commercial value of seducing the post-slacker, post-hipster crowd, even if it has almost no clue as who or what they’re all about. Along with those filmmakers in the Sundance crowd, television’s done a far better job at that. In such films as “Life Happens,” “And While We Were Here” and “A Case of You,” director/actress/writer Kat Coiro has demonstrated that she has a pretty firm grasp on how Millennials think and act. One thing to understand, of course, is how short their memories are. Blame it on the temporal efficiency of YouTube, TiVo and satellite-delivered music, as well as the transportability of handheld devices. The competition for eyes and ears has become ferocious.

In “A Case of You,” a title borrowed from the Joni Mitchell song, a young writer meets a frequently tardy barista in a Brooklyn coffee shop. Evan Rachel Wood is the almost ridiculously adorable Birdie, who disappears from the shop within a few days of making a connection with customer Sam (Justin “The Mac Guy” Long). Her bitchy supervisor (Peter Dinklage) only knows enough about his former employee to provide him with her first name and the neighborhood she’s most likely to live. Forty years ago, solving this kind of dilemma would take up the entirety of a rom-com, with a half-dozen missed connections and blown opportunities providing the humor. Today, of course, it’s as easy as typing “Birdie” and “Brooklyn” into a search engine and waiting 40 seconds for the life history of the person being investigated to pop onto the screen, which is pretty much what happens here. In a device more appropriate to an early Woody Allen movie, the chronically pessimistic Sam picks the longest way to go from Point A to Point B. Instead of simply sending Robin a confidential e-mail, he studies her Facebook profile in hopes of setting up a meet-cute moment, which also happens. Before he can seal the deal, however, Sam is required to take guitar lessons from a hippie burnout (Sam Rockwell) and ballroom-dancing classes with a bunch of amorous geezers; learn how to fake an appreciation for Birdie’s favorite singers and authors; and take several other uncomfortable-looking shortcuts. Once they do meet, everything falls into place, anyway. Normally, this would be a good thing. Instead, Sam now is required to prove that he can play guitar (he can’t) and listen to Joni Mitchell albums without gagging. His happiness – relatively speaking, of course – effects his writing to the point where his generally downbeat literary persona turns upbeat, something his agent (Vince Vaughn) decides is unsaleable to publishers. Their bliss can’t last … or can it? The bigger question is: Can Coiro prevent her film from drowning in a sea of schmaltz before the end credits role? The Blu-ray adds brief interviews with Long, Wood and co-writer Kier O’Donnell, intercut with scenes from the trailer. – Gary Dretzka

Scorned: Blu-ray
Veteran genre writer/director Mark Jones (“Leprechaun”) and freshman writer/actor Sadie Katz (“Nipples & Palm Trees”) combine their skills on “Scorned,” a straight-to-DVD hybrid of revenge-porn and torture-porn. That brief description might constitute a distinction without a difference, but, within the realm of horror sub-genres, it might help potential viewers decide if their particular fetish is being served. Here, AnnaLynne McCord plays Sadie, the sexy girlfriend of an unctuous playboy, Kevin (Billy Zane), who, while rich, is too stupid to erase the salty text messages he exchanges with his lover’s best friend, Jennifer (Viva Blanca). When Sadie does discover their deceit, she awakens Kevin with a blow to the head. Realizing, now, that Kevin hoped to stage a three-way during their visit to his country home, Sadie ties him to a chair and plans her ambush of Jennifer. Instead of merely staging a burglary-gone-bad, she decides to have some fun torturing them, before bumping them off. It’s as if Sadie wanted to prove the adage, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” In fact, the word “scorned” is repeated several times during the movie. Fortunately, Jones/Katz decided to stretch the boundaries of the sub-genres, by taking “Scorned” out of the house for a while and adding a heavily tattooed prison escapee to the mix. Considering that Jones only had a budget of $1.7 million with which to work, “Scorned” is more interesting than it has any right to be. (I’m not sure, however, that it would benefit from another $10 of financing.) Zane plays smug and despicable as well as any actor, but it’s McCord and Bianca (a.k.a., Viva Skubiszewski) who make us forget that he’s even in the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Million Dollar Baby: 10th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Two Weeks Notice: Blu-ray
City of Angels: Blu-ray
I don’t know what effect the release of “Million Dollar Baby” had on women’s boxing, if any, on the sport, but it really cleaned up at the Oscars. My guess is that the popularity of women’s boxing, such as it was, peaked in the late 1990s, several years before the release of Clint Eastwood’s comparatively intimate drama. (His 25th directorial effort and 57th movie role.) Even if women’s boxing was included in the 2012 Olympics, in London, with 36 women competing in three weight classes, I doubt that many viewers want to watch women beat the crap out of each other, even in three-minute intervals. It can be argued, of course, that “Million Dollar Baby” isn’t about boxing in the same way that “Raging Bull” isn’t about boxing. The sport merely serves as a backdrop for something far more human and personal. Tens years later, “Million-Dollar Baby” hasn’t lost of any of its appeal. Boxing is, by no means, incidental to the drama, however. In describing one woman’s determination to beat the odds on her terms, Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-winner has things in common with most great movies in which an outsider is required to fight to attain a lifelong dream. Hilary Swank is terrific as Maggie, a young woman from the sticks, who sees in boxing a road out of poverty and irrelevance; Eastwood and Morgan Freeman are also terrific as the almost over-the-hill trainer and corner man who once fought for Eastwood, but now must push him to accept Maggie as he was, years earlier. “Million Dollar Baby” broke the mold of previous sports stories, not only because the ending isn’t a pre-ordained cliché, but also because it forces viewers think about things beyond winning and losing. Indeed, audiences and critics respected it to the point where they managed to keep the ending a secret for a very long time. I’m not sure that could happen at a time when everybody with a laptop and an opinion considers themselves to be a critic. Simply adding “spoiler alert” to a review doesn’t quite cut it. The tenth-anniversary edition of “Million Dollar Baby” contains a new “loseless” soundtrack, if not a re-mastering of original Blu-ray visual look. It adds a couple of new featurettes to the original package, as well, including commentary with producer Albert Ruddy and the 25-minute “On the Ropes,” a retrospective documentary on the experience of making “Million Dollar Baby.” (Eastwood is said to have based his voice on Ruddy.)

Released in 2002, “Two Weeks Notice” is a lightweight romantic comedy that demonstrates just how far the personalities of two appealing actors can carry a story that’s as improbable as finding a check for a $1 million in a box of Crackerjack. Sandra Bullock plays a Harvard-trained lawyer who’s adamant about her principles, but is a bit short in confidence. Hugh Grant is a rich and charming real-estate tycoon who hires the lawyer to fight one of his battles. Because it impacts the Coney Island neighborhood, in which she was raised, she decides to take the risk of quitting the firm to protest the implications of her own case. Bullock and Grant could play such an unmatched couple in their sleep – and probably have – but, here, we care less about saving the neighborhood (a foregone conclusion) than whether they fall in love (another foregone conclusion). The Blu-ray adds commentary with writer/director Marc Lawrence, Grant and Bullock; a making-of featurette from HBO; additional scenes; and “Two Bleeps Notice,” which basically is a gag reel.

City of Angels” is a romantic comedy from 1998, based on Wim Wenders’ far more contemplative and elliptical “Wings of Desire.” I doubt that many audience members knew that the German film existed, even though it’s one of the great movies of our time. They expected and got a light dramedy starring the appealing Meg Ryan, Nicolas Cage, Andre Braugher and Dennis Franz. It was Wenders’ framework, however, that holds the whole thing together. Instead of a trapeze artist, Ryan plays a heart surgeon who catches the eye of a resident angel, played by Cage. He’s in Los Angeles to help recently passed souls make the transition to the afterlife. Although they work in the same hospital, Cage is required to pine for her from afar. Cage’s angel wishes desperately for that situation to change. Franz is a patient whose ability to see the angel is the result of being a fallen angel, himself. Braugher plays another L.A.-based angel, who discusses philosophy with Cage from a perch on top of building being constructed downtown. As entertaining as “City of Angels” is, it’s no match for the complexity and mystery of “Wings of Desire,” which starred Bruno Ganz, Solveig Donmartin and Peter Falk, as “Der Filmstar.” (The kids in Berlin call him Columbo, based on his physical similarity to the TV character and trademark coat.) I would like to believe that watching “City of Angels” might encourage American viewers to sample “Wings of Desire,” but that would be a stretch. – Gary Dretzka

Code Red
Witchboard: Blu-ray
Night of the Demons: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Several movies have been made about Adolph Hitler’s fascination with the occult and how Nazi leadership might have planned to deploy supernatural forces in the waning days of World War II. Long after Allied leaders ceased worrying about Joseph Goebbels’ stated desire to unleash a network of “Werwolfs” — irregular German partisans who would continue to harass and punish Allied troops occupying the Fatherland – the myth continues to haunt. The German partisan idea was inspired by Hermann Lons’ novel “Der Wehrwolf,” which was set in Lower Saxony during Thirty Years War. It involved a militia of peasants determined to avenge the deaths of the protagonist’s family at the hands of marauding soldiers. Although Goebbels hadn’t mentioned “werewolves,” the name Werwolf gave post-war novelists, screenwriters and paranoids a perfect opportunity to speculate on Hitler’s last gasp of madness. While several of the books (Ian Fleming’s “Moonraker”) and movies (Sam Fuller’s “Verboten!”) dealt specifically with the human Werwolf threat, others clung to the “werewolf” twist (“True Blood”). Lately, fans of straight-to-DVD horror have been offered such supernaturally based stories as “Outpost,” “Outpost: Black Sun” and “Outpost 3: Rise of the Spetsnaz“; “Frankenstein’s Army”; the sci-fi “Iron Sky” and similarly themed comic book, “Nazi Werewolves From Outer Space”; and the “Wolfenstein” video-game series. Valeri Milev’s “Code Red” offers a Stalinist twist to sub-sub-genre conventions, by providing evidence that a nerve-gas agent developed by Soviet scientists has turned up in Bulgaria 60 years after the war ended. US Special Forces Captain John McGahey (Paul Logan) is called to a NATO hospital, where a wickedly hot doctor (Manal El-Feitury) has witnessed a dead patient come back to life on a slab in the mortuary. As the gas filters through the base and nearby town, more and more people return from the dead in the same way. It becomes incumbent on McGahey to save the world from Zombie Apocalypse. And, as far as these things go, “Code Red” doesn’t disappoint.

I don’t understand why such an underwhelming horror flick as writer/director Kevin Tenney’s “Witchboard” is regarded with reverence in some corners. I suspect that it has something to do with the presence of former O.J. Simpson flame, music-video goddess and husband-beater Tawny Kitaen, in an early-career nude scene. (She crashes through the glass door of a shower, locked shut by a ghost.) Otherwise, the story about a beautiful woman caught between two estranged brothers rests on our willingness to believe Ouija boards really do provide windows to the afterlife. At first skeptical, Kitain becomes obsessed with one of two seemingly unholy spirits who make contact with her. There are several gruesome deaths caused by the revelation of the ax-wielding spirit, but none that we haven’t seen before or since 1986.

Also from Tenney, by way of Scream Factory, comes his far better follow-up to “Witchboard,” 1988’s “Night of the Demons.” Here, 10 teenagers decide it might be fun to hold a séance inside an abandoned funeral parlor on Halloween. Not surprisingly, the ceremony awakens the evil spirit living in the basement, where the furnace of the crematorium also can be found. Instead of picking up their belongings and splitting after hearing the first creak in the floorboards, naturally they stay put. The rest of the movie is spent watching the teens being punished for such foolishness. The kids represent all of the various archetypes that populate the genre and, yes, the occasional breast does get flashed, Linnea Quigley’s, among others. The makers of “Night of the Demons” created its scares the old-fashioned way, without the benefit of CGI, and most of them are still effective. Finally, though, it’s Joe Augustyn’s script that sells the laughs and the chills in equal measure. As has been the case with most other horror ditties recycled by the company, the generous bonus package adds fresh, entertaining interviews with the participants, as well as new and vintage making-of featurettes. The visual presentation is quite sharp, considering the age of the picture and undernourished budget. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Starz: The White Queen: Season One: Blu-ray
Encore: Hindenburg: The Last Flight
BBC: Burton and Taylor
BBC: The Lady Vanishes
Masterpiece: Classic English Literature Collection, Volume 2
PBS: Chasing Shackleton
The sheer number of excellent mini-series available today on cable television has made scheduling our DVRs a daunting task. They exist in an environment already brimming with offbeat, adult-oriented sitcoms and quality hourlong dramas on the broadcast networks and PBS. Keeping up with them all is impossible. That’s why TV-to-DVD packages like “The White Queen: Season One” are playing such an important role in the video marketplace. That “The White Queen” only was shown on the Starz network (“Boss,” Spartacus,” “Black Sails”) makes the package’s presence that much more crucial. It is set against the background of the Wars of the Roses, when sons turned against fathers, cousins against cousins and marriages within royal houses could result in peace or disaster. Above all of the powerful men, however, stood Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), Margaret of Anjou (Veerle Baetens) and both Anne Neville (Faye Marsay) and her mother, Lady Anne Beauchamp, could conspire and backstab with the best them. As played by Janet McTeer, Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, was a behind-the-scenes warrior who would use the family gift of witchcraft to push the odds to her daughter’s favor. When they weren’t strutting around court like horny peacocks, the men spend their time fighting the battles engineered by their mothers. (If presidents and prime ministers were required to fight in the wars they created, today, there probably would be any.) As soap operas go, “The White Queen” is one of the best I’ve seen. If the mini-series is awarded a second season, it would bring viewers to the cusp of Henry VIII’s reign, already dramatized on HBO. Besides the wonderful acting, it’s the spectacular Belgian locations – Bruges and Ghent, especially – that make the mini-series so rewarding. The special features add “The Making of ‘The White Queen,’” a series overview, “Book To Series,” “The History Behind ‘The White Queen,’” a set tour, profiles of the main characters, “A Woman in a Man’s World” and pieces on the witchcraft and fashions. Like other premium-cable mini-series, “The White Queen” adds plenty of sex and violence to spice up the history. (That, too, might keep today’s students engaged in their studies.)

They used to make movies and mini-series like “Hindenburg: The Last Flight” all the time in the 1960-’70s. Besides such disaster epics as “The Towering Inferno,” “The Poseidon Adventure” and “Airport,” there was “The Hindenburg,” which starred George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft. “Hindenburg,” the 2011 mini-series, resembles the 1975 movie in that they both end in tragedy and blimps seem not to be a good option for trans-Atlantic journeys. I don’t care what Shamu, Charlie Brown and a Goodyear have to say about it. They take the conspiracy theories as fact and include the dramatic eyewitness account of the disaster by WLS radio announcer Herbert Morrison. Even from Day One, conspiracy theorists have kicked around the idea that someone had it out for the zeppelin, either as an act of resistance to Nazism or a dangerous game played by rival superpowers. There are other, more scientific theories, of course, but what fun would it be to prove them correct. What makes the case for a bomb planted on the ship so delicious is the necessity for any plotter to have taken into account the possibility of a very late arrival. Because the Hindenburg was delayed by 12 hours, the possibility of the bomb detonating with the passengers still on board was almost a sure bet. Conversely, it also would reveal the perpetrator while he or she was still on the vessel, as it likely be the person sweating like a marathon runner in Miami. There are plenty of suspects in “Hindenburg,” and they aren’t limited to pro- and anti-Nazi sentiments. Here, Philipp Kadelbach borrows a page from Stanley Kramer’s star-studded drama “Ship of Fools,” in which there’s a storyline for each individual character and the long shadow of Nazism stretches from Berlin to Mexico. Some of the ones tossed into “Hindenburg” are pretty flimsy. There’s nothing here that would rule out viewing by anyone over 10, even considering the number of casualties at the movie’s end. Because “Hindenburg” is a largely German production, the only two actors Americans are likely to recognize are Stacy Keach and Greta Scacchi.

Burton and Taylor” is the second made-for-TV movie about the royal couple to air in the last year, or so. Nothing the first is quite so revealing as the sequence that opens the picture. Looking back at the first time he met Elizabeth Taylor, years earlier, Richard Burton wistfully recalls, “When she walked onto the ‘Cleopatra’ soundstage, she was just tits and makeup.” He says that it didn’t take long before he would be overwhelmed, not only by her presence, but also her ability to disappear within her character. “Watching the rushes, you could see that, while I was acting Antony, she was Cleopatra.” Flash forward to 1983, we watch, almost in horror, as Taylor breezes through the performers’ entrance of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre almost an hour late for the Opening Night performance of “Private Lives,” trailing an entourage that includes four noisy and puffed-up dogs and a parrot. If something is askew, you can’t read it on her face. In these few moments, we recognize what their two marriages must have been like … at once glamorous and volcanic. As played by Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West, the Richard and Elizabeth we meet in 1983 are in the autumn of their years and winters of their careers. Burton is still trying to wean himself from booze, if not the spotlight, while Taylor is only now coming to grips with her own addictions. Both, of course, are as addicted to each other as any manufactured inebriant. Not so coincidentally, perhaps, Noel Coward’s comedy mirrors the public perception of the couple. It was panned in the press, but audiences would pay a small fortune just to say they were there. If “Burton and Taylor” spends more time backstage than anywhere else, it’s because that was where the action was, now that they were married to other people. As much as enjoyed watching Lindsay Lohan play the diva in “Liz & Dick,” the BBC production is clearly the better show. Its biggest problem is absence of fact-checking in some parts. I doubt many casual viewers will even notice the goofs, though.

As is almost always the case when comparing a remake of a great movie or adaptation of a classic novel, the first question that needs to be asked is, “Why bother?” Among the better reasons are to contemporize a narrative, restore ideas eliminated in the previous adaptation, give a contemporary actor or director an opportunity to put their stamp on the material or to correct mistakes. The worst reasons are to exploit the economies that derive from working with material in the public domain and already familiar to audiences. PBS wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for such presentations, though. Upgrading a title to take advantage of advanced technology can be the sharpest of all double-edged sorts and daring to remake anything by Alfred Hitchcock borders on the foolhardy. The BBC decided to take a chance on adapting Ethel Lina White’s story, “The Wheel Spins,” which, as “The Lady Vanishes,” Hitchcock had already done so well in 1938 (and Hammer Film Production had done not so well in 1979, with Cybill Shepherd, Angela Lansbury and Elliot Gould). Here, I think the best answer to “Why bother?,” is that it hasn’t been done in a long while and adding color might make it more accessible to contemporary audiences. It also restores some of the harmless revisions Hitchcock made to the story. Iris Carr (Tuppence Middleton) is travelling across Europe by train, when she unwittingly becomes embroiled in a spot of pre-WWII bother. Veteran BBC director Diarmuid Lawrence’s production is entirely watchable, even if it can’t compete in the department of thrills and intrigue. For that, I encourage viewers to return to Hitch’s version.

Is it possible that the popularity of “Downton Abbey” might spark an interest in previous “Masterpiece” productions, most of them based on the works of great British writers. Volume 1 of PBS’ “Classic English Literature Collection,” released a year ago, was comprised of “Great Expectations,” “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights” and “Northanger Abbey.” The new edition offers adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” Jane Austen s “Mansfield Park,” Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and and E. M. Forster’s “A Room With a View,” all of which are up to the same standards applied to “Downton Abbey” and other originals. Each set contains rare memorabilia, reproduced from the National Archives and British Library in London. These include hand-written letters from all four authors, illustrations, portraits and photographs.

The odyssey of British adventurer Sir Ernest Shackleton is as exciting a tale as any in the history of exploration. A hundred years ago, Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition met with disaster when his ship, The Endurance, sank after being crushed by ice. The expedition had to be scratched, of course, but 28 crewmen were required to endure two years of agony awaiting rescue. Shackleton’s heroic leadership in the face of almost certain death would save their lives, but not before he was able to cross the treacherous Southern Ocean in a small boat and conquer an uncharted mountain range on South Georgia Island on the way to a whaling outpost. A century later, modern-day explorer and scientist Tim Jarvis, along with a team of five other brave men, would attempt to re-create the 800-nautical-mile sail from Elephant Island to the abandoned station. If they were to succeed, it would have to be in a vessel, equipment and clothes that exactly replicated those of Shackleton’s team. The only significant difference between the two would be the rescue and communications ship that followed Jarvis from a short distance and 100 years of hindsight that told them it could be done, if not easily. As a cameraman accompanying the team would document, the modern mission was extremely hard on the men. Weather conditions hadn’t changed and the sea and mountains are every bit as formidable now as then. “Chasing Shackleton” tells an amazing story of superhuman courage and perseverance. Need I also point out the inspirational value of such adventures? Oh, yeah, the entire trek tool place in temperatures as a low as any experienced in the current nation-wide cold wave. There’s no room for weather wimps in the Antarctic. – Gary Dretzka

My Dog the Champion
Finding Faith
Geronimo Stilton: Intrigue on the Rodent Express
Lalaloopsy: Friends Are Sew Special
Lego: Chima: The Lion, the Crocodile and the Power of Chi
Kevin and Robin Nation’s story about the reclamation of a dispirited cattle dog is the kind of movie that gives “family entertainment” a good name. Besides teaching an important life lesson to kids about never losing faith in a fallen friend, it features some enthusiastic performances by young Dora Madison Burge (“Friday Night Lights”) and Cody Linley (“Hannah Montana”). The cherry on the sundae, however, is watching creepy old Lance Henriksen play an extremely likeable, if set-in-his-ways Texas cowboy. Even if “My Dog the Champion” is as familiar as a sunny day in L.A., it’s executed with more gusto than most other movies that try to make the same points about coming-of-age in 2014. Madison would be considered a typical city girl, if it weren’t for the fact that her mother is a soldier normally stationed in Afghanistan and she’s been largely raised by her do-gooder grandmother. One summer, while both woman are out of the country, Madison is required to spend a couple of months with gramps. The running gag involves her being so far in the country that she can’t get a signal on her cellphone, a problem her grandfather can’t begin to fathom. It isn’t until she begins to bond with a similarly forlorn dog that something about rural life begins to make sense. Madison sees in Scout qualities that others have given up for lost. While jogging around the countryside with Scout, she encounters a boy around her age training his dog for the annual Youth Trainer Challenge. It isn’t long before they develop a friendship based primarily on their love of dogs. The same is the case with her strained relations with her grandfather, who took the dog in when someone else had given up on him. You can probably guess most of what happens by the time the final credits roll, but not all of them. What I like about this family-friendly product is that the characters aren’t expected to act in certain ungodly ways, simply as an excuse to introduce Jesus Christ into the dialogue. If Madison is caught off-guard by her grandpa’s saying grace before dinner, it’s likely that quite a few viewers would be, as well, by their grandfather leading a prayer before chowing down. I think younger teens will enjoy seeing an old story told in a fresh way.

In the more message-directed drama, “Finding Faith,” Erik Estrada plays Virginia sheriff Mike Brown, a cop who specializes in Internet-related crimes, especially those affecting teenagers. The title character – or title pun, if you will – is a 14-year-old girl who thought she had found a friend in a chat room, but opened herself up to danger, instead. Typically, Faith’s disappearance tests the faith and patience of everyone in her family, town and church. Brown leads the search, as he has in several other such cases. The movie gives him an opportunity to promote the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which teaches lessons all parents and teens need to heed. If that’s considered to be faith-based, I guess anything can. It adds “Introduction to Internet Safety 101,” a 12-page Family Activity Guide and a music video by Grammy Award-winning recording artist Jason Crabb.

And, while we’re on the topic of Dove-approved entertainment, there’s the release of the latest collection of “Geronimo Stilton” episodes, “Intrigue on the Rodent Express.” Popular around the world, Stilton is an editor and writer for the Italian publication, Rodent’s Gazette, As such, he assigns himself to cover events in exotic location, while also working hard to keep his large family from getting themselves into trouble. Being Italian in origin, the cartoons are propelled by a different rhythm and sensibility than American fare for children in the digital era. It only takes a few minutes to get used to Mr. Stilton, however.

Here’s another cartoon character that I didn’t know existed until last week. Although the Lalaloopsy craze appears to have reached its peak three Christmases ago, plenty of dolls, DVDs and accessories are still being sold. Indeed, Lalaloopsy is one of the rare toys that became famous before it produced hit movies and television shows. “Friends Are Sew Special!,” which offers an introduction to crafts, is primarily for the youngest of viewers. In other episodes, a trip to the moon is planned for Dot; preparations for the Princess Parade continue; and a mysterious illness spreads through Lalaloopsy Land. Likewise, the Lego-inspired characters in the “Legends of Chima” series are for kids who have yet to tire of their Lego creations, although these seem to be more streamlined than the blocky creations of yesteryear. “The Lion, the Crocodile and the Power of Chi!” is a two-disc set, containing 10 episodes from the first season. In them the Kingdom of Chima must defend itself from being overrun by any one of eight animal tribes seeking control of a natural resource called Chi. The powerful element is both a source of life and potential destruction, and only a few brave characters understand its true nature. – Gary Dretzka