Beetlejuice: The Complete Series
I’ve watched a lot of cartoons in my life and continue to do so as they are revisited on DVD and new ones are introduced. I wouldn’t, however, consider myself to be a historian or expert on the subject. I suspect, however, that the offbeat animated TV adaptation of Tim Burton’s surprise 1988 feature hit, “Beetlejuice,” had the same impact on aspiring cartoonists as the original had on a generation of filmmakers hoping to stretch the boundaries of horror, comedy and fantasy on the big screen. Of course, Burton had already accomplished a similar thing as director of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” a 1985 movie that crossed generational boundaries. Along with co-executive producer David Geffen, Burton took the same wacky premise behind the theatrical “Beetlejuice” – the title character guides the spirits of recently deceased humans through the vagaries of the netherworld – but dilutes the horror and hipster humor for day-part demographics. What didn’t change, though, were the wildly imaginative humanoid ghosts, monsters, werewolves, zombies and vampires, whose bodies were even more malleable when animated. Here, Goth-girl Lydia Deetz is best friends with Beetlejuice. They bounce back and forth from the living world to Beetlejuice’s afterlife, now referred to simply as Neitherland, so as not to freak out death-phobic television censors. It might as well be called Burtonland, as it parodies the living world in ways that would become one of his trademarks.
Soon after the launch of “Beetlejuice” on ABC’s Saturday-morning lineup, it was picked up by Fox for its weekday children’s lineup. In an unusual scheduling twist, both shows ran simultaneously. How coincidental was it, then, that “The Simpsons” would expand from an interstitial short on Fox’s “The Tracey Ullman Show” to a 30-minute series of its own? In short order, Nickelodeon put such quirky cartoons as “Rugrats,” “Ren & Stimpy” and “Doug” into production; Turner Broadcasting bought Hanna-Barbera studios and green-lit Cartoon Network; “Beevis & Butt-head” began to attract slackers of all ages and get free publicity from social critics; and, for the first time since “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons,” animation became a growth industry on broadcast television, cable and in theaters. Today, of course, original animated programming can be found in all sorts of places, including premium cable, with the more edgy stuff reserved for such late-night outlets as “Adult Swim.” The new Shout!Factory box is comprised of all four seasons of “Beetlejuice,” three of those stanzas for the first time. Several of the show’s first-season episodes were released on VHS in 1993, but, it took another 15 years, for three popular episodes (“A-ha”, “Skeletons in the Closet” and “Spooky Boo-Tique”) to arrive on DVD, in the “20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” of “Beetlejuice.” The colors have been spruced up here and the audio dialed up, a bit. Alas, there are no supplemental features. – Gary Dretzka
Cate Shortland’s devastating drama, “Lore,” demands that we consider the plight of the only Germans who had legitimate excuses for pleading ignorance of the atrocities committed in World War II to Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other clergy, homosexuals, communists and people born with physical or mental disabilities: children. If their parents and teachers were party members, they automatically became integral elements in Hitler’s propaganda machine and were taught to accept the supremacy of the so-called Aryan race and the degeneracy of most others. They grew up believing that Jews were enemies of the state and needed to be marginalized and moved to ghettos or work camps. Children whose families lived near enough away to the concentration camps to see the smoke from the ovens and endure the stench of death had no reason to doubt the explanations given them by people in positions of authority. Likewise, Japanese children were taught to accept their parents’ faith in the Emperor’s infallibility and not question the necessity for war. For many years after WWII ended, as well, the truth about what happened far removed from the fields of combat was hidden from students in Germany and Japan. The same sort of misinformation campaigns allowed segregation to become institutionalized in the American South for a century after the end of Civil War, just as children in Israel and Palestine are guided by 60-plus years of hatred, intolerance and outright lies. “Lore,” which is based on a novel by Rachel Siffert, examines one family’s struggle to survive the war intact as Germans and endure an occupation by people they’ve been conditioned to fear and mistrust.
Knowing the Third Reich is circling the drain, a high-ranking Nazi SS officer returns to his Bavarian home to inform his like-minded wife of their nation’s inevitable defeat and prepare for the worst. She can hardly believe the news, which differs so much from the upbeat reports in the media, but quickly rounds up the kids for a hasty retreat to the nearby mountains. While the father burns incriminating photos and texts in the fireplace and kills the pet German shepherd, the mother gathers enough clothing to fit one or two suitcases and valuables that won’t hinder their escape. By now, American and Soviet troops have begun liberating concentration camps and are in no mood to forgive anyone attempting to avoid being accountable for their actions. Once the five children are settled into a farmhouse in the Black Forest, news of the German surrender is announced and the father is spirited away by other men in the same position. As the mother’s ability to ensure the safety of the kids – paying off the locals and trading for staples with jewelry and her body – she, too, decides to abandon them. (Possibly to avoid being captured and having the children punished for past Nazi indoctrination, not an uncommon fear by German survivors.) Her oldest daughter, Lore, is left with jewelry and silverware to trade for food and instructions on how to get to Hamburg, where her grandmother lives and they expect to be reunited with mom and dad. Relying on the kindness of strangers only works for the children as long as they have something to trade. Then, it’s survival of the fittest. Instead of staying in place, as ordered by the American soldiers, the children set out on an odyssey that will expose them to the ugliness of war and terrible truths about their parents’ role in the war. At 14, Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) suddenly is required to be the sole provider and guardian for a family that includes a baby not yet able to walk. The further they go, the more people they meet who are in exactly the same dire physical straits and no longer can fall back on Nazi lies.
Along the way, Lore becomes fixated with a mysterious young man, Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina), who seems to be trailing them. She alternately fears his motives and appreciates his pretending to be their older brother when it looks as if they might be detained by the Americans, British or Soviet border guards. At one barricade, Thomas uses the yellow star in his passport to convince a soldier to let them continue their trek northward. Suddenly, he becomes a different person to Lore. As she was taught, she despises the young man’s very being as a Jew and is even more disturbed by how her raging hormones are reacting to the close proximity of the handsome male of the species. The other children aren’t nearly as disturbed by his presence. He says he was incarcerated at Buchenwald and can attest to the atrocities he witnessed there. Still, even when Lore examines the grisly photos that have been posted everywhere in her path, she wills herself to believe that they were staged, using actors. Amazingly, every other adult German she meets on their journey seems to accept the same theory. One elderly woman looks at the portrait of her beloved Fuhrer in her kitchen and opines that he wouldn’t have allowed such a thing to happen. Other incredible things occur during the family’s trek, some of which reinforce Lore’s negative feelings toward the Allied troops.
Finally, just when the children are assured a reasonably stable future with their strict and still patriotic grandmother, something snaps inside Lore, causing her to reassess everything she’s learned in her 14 years on Earth and weigh them against what was revealed on the journey. It’s as powerful a coming-of-age moment as I’ve seen in a long time. “Lore” shares several qualities with Shortland’s 2004 breakthrough feature, “Somersault,” including the protagonist being a strong-willed teenage girl (Abbie Cornish) forced to make adult decisions at too early an age. The director also is ability to capture the natural beauty of the locations and use it to counterbalance what’s happening to the girls. We’ve seen the Black Forest in many other movies, of course, but rarely in a way that so closely connects the natural beauty to the people who live there. Apart from the horrors and byproducts of war, “Lore” forwards a vision of Germany that is straight from the travel brochures. A patriot would go to great lengths to defend this blessed corner of the Fatherland. That, however, is not the story of World War II, and Shortland doesn’t use her camera to alter what we know to be true about our onetime enemy. Neither does she shower any more pity on the children than their physical ordeal might normally warrant. Who knows, after all, what might become of these people? The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, an alternate ending, an interview with a refugee not unlike Lore and a panel discussion following a screening. – Gary Dretzka
Shoot First, Die Later: Blu-ray
When it comes to hyper-violent, highly stylized Italian crime thrillers from the 1970s, Fernando di Leo is one of the brands that still carries sway four decades later. If the name isn’t as well-known as, say, Sergio Leone or Dario Argento, it’s only because poliziotteschi never enjoyed the cross-over appeal that lifted giallo to Spaghetti Westerns to prominence here. Neither did it feature the same ratio of recognizable American actors to European stats as such movies as “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “A Fistful of Dollars” or “A Cat o’ Nine Tails.” Neither was there a shortage of excellent crime dramas being made in Hollywood at the time, as could be said of Westerns and horror flicks. By comparison, poliziotteschi looked corny to the point of being slapstick. Italian action flicks were as subtle as a Panzer tank, which is probably why Di Leo’s movies appealed so much to Quentin Tarantino. Partially based on William McGivern’s novel, “Rogue Cop,” “Shoot First, Die Later” never was accorded a worldwide theatrical release and compatible VHS cassettes were difficult to find. Lately, RaroVideo has come to the rescue of such long-ignored Italian genre fare, sending out DVD and Blu-ray editions that are free of the blemishes that made watching cassettes such a chore. Based strictly on their merits as vehicles for entertainment, Di Leo’s films look pretty good right now.
Luc Merenda (“Hostel: Part II”) plays a police detective held in such high regard that it’s difficult to imagine he would be in cahoots with the syndicate. In return for providing information or quashing a case, the gangsters would tip him off to potential targets for arrest. Finally, one of the quid pro quos requires of the cop that he involve his upstanding father – also a police officer – to break the law or risk the possibility the mobsters would harm someone near and dear to him. Corruption is a subject that has served filmmakers well over 100 years and will continue to do so, as long as cops and politicians can be bought by crooks and corporations. Released in 1974, “Shoot First, Die Later” was a departure, in that Di Leo’s audience was asked to simultaneously sympathize with the detective and abhor his amoral stance, which would result in some terrible consequences. It’s the same theme that, 30 years later, would inform the popular FX drama, “The Shield.” The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of excellent background documentaries on Di Leo and genre filmmaking in Italy. They contain interviews with the late filmmaker, as well as those with associates. Also included is an illustrated 20-page booklet on the genesis of the film. Richard Conte, who just played Barzinni in “The Godfather,” is the closest thing to an international star here. If you dig “SF,DL,” it’s a dead certainty that you’ll love RaroVideo’s “Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection,” with “Caliber 9,” “The Italian Connection,” “The Boss,” and “Rulers of the City.” – Gary Dretzka
Dark Skies: Blu-ray
Whenever the blurbs on the cover of a DVD extoll the credits of its producer, over those of the director, writer or stars, there’s either something desperately wrong with the enclosed movie or everyone else involved is of no consequence. For the supernatural thriller “Dark Skies,” producer Jason Blum (“Insidious,” “Paranormal Activity”) is given precedence over Keri Russell (“The Americans”), Josh Hamilton (“The Letter”) and writer/director Scott Stewart (“Priest”). Russell may not be as hot a commodity as she was when “Felicity” was a hit series, but she’s a fine actress and makes 37 look as if it’s a good age to be. Hamilton has enough decent credits to think someone might be interested in seeing him in another movie and Stewart’s “Legion” appears to have made money for someone. In “Dark Skies,” Russell and Hamilton are the financially strapped suburban parents of two boys, who apparently have tuned into the wavelength of extraterrestrials in our midst. Hours of time go by unaccounted for by the family members and unrecorded by security cameras. Terrible things, including the mass suicide of birds, are happening in and around their home and no one knows why. Finally, they’re directed to a local conspiracy theorist (J.K. Simmons), who tells them things no mom and dad want to hear about their kids and their ability to control their actions. Even if the information does nothing to prevent the inevitable tug-of-war between the boys and the aliens, at least everyone knows what’s going on and who’s to blame. All the parents can do is sit back and watch the shit the fan. “Dark Skies” is a middling thriller that, I’m sure, plays better on the small screen than it did in theaters. Genre nuts won’t find anything new here, but casual fans shouldn’t be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds a bunch of deleted scenes, with optional commentary. – Gary Dretzka
Dorfman in Love
Fairytales still come true in the movies, especially rom-coms in which young women twist themselves into knots to experience the dramatic personal growth needed to snag the right guy to live with forever and ever, amen. If she’s lucky, he won’t turn out to be the heel everyone in the audience knows him to be from Minute One. The damsel in emotional distress in Brad Leong’s mostly weightless “Dorfman in Love” is convincingly played by the veteran TV actor, Sara Rue (“Rules of Engagement,” “Malibu Country”). Because it merges elements of “The Ugly Duckling” and “Cinderella” with overfamiliar rom-com conventions, her Deb Dorfman is required to jump through a few more hoops than are usually required of such inexplicably underappreciated female characters. Despite being the boss’ sister, Deb is relegated to go-fer status at an upscale Los Angeles business. She picks up coffee and dry-cleaning for everyone, while also making sure that her brother keeps his head in the ballgame long enough for the company to make a profit. Apparently, all of this hard work qualifies Deb to take care of the apartment and cat of the man over whom she’s been obsessing for several years. A reporter, he’s off to Kabul for a week or two to cover something of great urgency. The flat’s an unholy mess, of course, so Deb takes it upon herself to renovate the place, thereby demonstrating how great a partner she could make for the right guy. On his last night in town, the reporter introduces her to a pair of vapid fashion models with whom he’s been spending time. Instead of lording their beauty and trendy fashion sense over Deb, they volunteer to give the Valley Girl a downtown makeover. It transforms her into a truly babelicious commodity.
Just when Deb thinks she’s in like Flynn, however, she is required to babysit her whining widower father (Elliott Gould); beard for her brother, who’s fallen for the models and abandoned his clingy, boring wife; and, for good measure, assume the role of best buddy with the handsome gay artist who lives in the loft upstairs. It’s fair to wonder, though, if any of these men are what they seem to be at first glance. Naturally, we see the solution to Deb’s quandary before she does. It doesn’t really matter, though. Rue’s natural likeability is sufficient reason to wish her well and forgive Leung the weaknesses in his story (written by Wendy Kout, creator of “Anything But Love” and nothing else in the last 20 years). At 75, Gould continues to find work in supporting roles that benefit from his hang-dog face and star quality, but don’t tax his professionalism all that much. Also along for the ride are familiar faces Catherine Hicks and Scott Wilson; Johann Urb and Haaz Sleiman, as the boyfriends; and Sophie Monk, Hayley Marie Norman, Keri Lynn Pratt and Kelen Coleman as the usual female suspects. Somehow, the MPAA found something sufficiently disturbing in “Dorfman in Love” to bestow on it a “R” rating. After an appeal, it was reduced to PG-13. There’s no nudity, pervasive bad language or violence, so it must have had something to do with mini-skirts or non-derogatory portrayals of gay characters. – Gary Dretzka
As Goes Janesville
As a boy growing up in a working-class Wisconsin community and, later, as a student at UW-Madison, I knew that politics in America’s Dairyland could hardly be more schizophrenic. It’s a state whose two most prominent politicians — progressive firebrand Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette and Republican bully Joseph McCarthy – were on such opposite sides of the spectrum that they might as well have been from different countries. Once dominated by agricultural interests, the influence of Wisconsin’s factory workers and unions made it a Democratic stronghold for most of the second half of the 20th Century. Many considered Madison to be the Moscow of the Midwest, even though it was completely surrounded by farms and Republican voters. And, yet, Wisconsin somehow managed to live up to its motto, “Forward.” Later, when industry began fleeing the state for more business-friendly climes, it became increasingly dependent on jobs in the service industry and tourism. As we learn in Kartemquin Films’ new documentary, “As Goes Janesville,” Wisconsin is now mired in the same dismal swamp waters as those that have drowned the forces of reason and compromise in Washington, D.C. At the same time as the film was being shot, Governor Scott Walker declared war on unions and the benefit plans accorded teachers and state workers. He survived a recall election, but the state voted in favor of the Obama-Biden ticket, 53-46 percent. It might have been more lopsided if Republican candidate Mitt Romney hadn’t chosen Janesville’s Paul Ryan as his running mate.
“As Goes Janesville” describes a city in crisis. For almost all of the 20th Century, it was a showcase Midwestern community blessed with job-creating industry and commerce, as well as a rich agricultural base. When, in 2008, General Motors closed its assembly plant, the company left thousands of people unemployed or uprooted to a plant in Texas. This followed the closing of the Parker Pen factory and move to Milwaukee of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance. If there was a job to be had in Janesville, it probably paid no more than minimum wage. What Brad Lichtenstein and Leslie Simmer found in Janesville were politicians and community leaders struggling valiantly to bring new industry to the city and three families that fairly represented the plight of thousands of other GM workers. When a medical-equipment company shows interest in opening a facility in Janesville, the city is required to offer millions of dollars’ worth of tax breaks and other subsidies, with no promise that the firms’ employees would be hired from the existing job pool. Neither would the company be required to guarantee that salaries and benefits would meet the needs of its workers or that it could raise new money to fund the proposal. Kartemquin Films, which historically has focused on the workers’ side of most of the issues it covers, plays it as close to the middle here as I’ve ever seen it do. Naturally, “As Goes Janesville” gives full exposure to the trials of the unemployed and transplanted workers. But it also goes to the same length demonstrating the determination of Republican civic leaders to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. It also follows a Democratic state representative who returns to Madison after a 20-year absence and briefly considers a run for governor. In the heat of anti-Walker protests, he becomes disillusioned by both parties’ intransigence on key issues. A shorter version of the documentary was shown as part of PBS’ “Independent Lens” series. It adds deleted scenes, educational and background videos, and commentary. – Gary Dretzka
Robert Mitchum Is Dead
Despite the inference in the title, “Robert Mitchum Is Dead” is neither a documentary, nor a dark homage to the noir classics in which he appeared. The hard-boiled leading man is present in Olivier Babinet and Fred Kihn’s beyond-quirky first feature only in spirit and the occasional visual or spoken reference. Chief among them is the famously self-deprecating line about his acting skills, “One of the greatest movie stars was Rin Tin Tin. It can’t be too much of a trick.” Beyond that, the festival-favorite has more in common with the early “road” pictures of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki’s “Leningrad Cowboys Go America,” in which Jarmusch has a cameo as a used-car salesman. If you were struck by anything in the previous sentence, there’s at least a fighting chance you’ll enjoy “Robert Mitchum Is Dead.” It chronicles a journey taken by a cheeseball talent agent, Arsene (Olivier Gourmet), and an insomniac actor with a gift for mimicry, Franky (Pablo Nicomedes), from a film shoot at a Polish university to a festival held in a tent somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, in Norway. It’s there that the American director, Mr. Sarrineff, who once directed Mitchum in a movie, is scheduled to appear as the guest of honor. Lacking in resources, the pair relies on stolen cars and the gullibility of easily impressed strangers to reach their destination. Also along for the ride is an African musician (Bakary Sangare) whose eerie synth music might be a better fit for a Martian noir than the rockabilly band in which he currently labors. The film’s episodic form may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but any longtime admirer of Jarmusch won’t have any problem with it. It arrives with making-of featurette.
Movies in which the protagonist and antagonist are one and the same character demand a great deal of patience and fortitude from an audience. If that character also happens to be an unrepentant sociopath, the filmmaker’s task is that much more difficult. Only the best actors can pull it off with any credibility. Anytime a vile character, real or imagined, is portrayed by an actor of substance — Billy the Kid, as played by Paul Newman and Kris Kristofferson, for example – the screenwriter and director are going the fudge the truth to preserve the actor’s public image. Charlize Theron won an Oscar as Best Lead Actress for her frightening portrayal of a murderous prostitute in “Monster,” as much for her courage as a professional as her excellent performance. (By contrast, the film’s writer/director, Patty Jenkins, has only found work and not much of it in television.) In Nicolas Winding Refn’s powerful portrait of a criminal beyond redemption, “Bronson,” Tom Hardy delivered a performance that was the equal of any of the fine lead actors nominated that year. Aside from the fact that “Bronson” made no money, it was exactly the kind of drama most academy members would turn off after the first 20 minutes. As terrific as Nicolas Cage’s portrayal of a suicidal, alcoholic screenwriter was in “Leaving Las Vegas,” it’s fair to wonder if he would have won the Best Actor prize if he weren’t of noble Hollywood blood. In the year in which “Braveheart” won Best Picture, “Leaving Las Vegas” wasn’t even nominated.
All of that is a long way of saying that Emmett Scalan’s tour-de-force portrayal of a total scumbag in “Charlie Casanova” is worth the effort to rent, but no one should expect to come away from the experience unscarred. The title character of Terry McMahon’s unforgiving Irish drama is a wealthy ego-maniac who feels the world owes him a living and if anything he’s done has harmed another human, well, it isn’t his fault. In Charlie’s mind, his detractors are merely envious of his privileged status and ability to avoid punishment. They’d do the same thing if they were in his shoes, he reckons. We know this because in the aftermath of an accident in which he kills a pedestrian, he determines how he will deal with it by drawing from a deck of cards while among friends. When brought in for interrogation by police, Charlie insults their working-class roots and educations he deems inferior to his own. If his friends fear his mood swings, they are too easily won over by his glib, rapid-fire braggadocio. As an “alpha male,” he refuses to be guided by the morals of lesser beings, which is to say, everyone else in his orbit.
And yet, Scalan’s portrayal of this unrepentant elitist could hardly be any more forceful or penetrating. The soliloquies he performs at a comedy club’s amateur night reveal a man who understands exactly the nature of his disease, where to find the root cause of his evil deeds and why he won’t change his ways. If no one outside a handful of festivals, including SXSW, was able to see Scalan’s bravura turn on the big screen, the blame can be traced to the fact that “Charlie Casanova” was deemed to be far too unappetizing for human consumption by distributors. It deeply divided critics and audiences without providing a safe middle ground for lively debate or compromise. McMahon was roasted and toasted in equal measure, with the toxicity of the negative reviews reaching levels previously reserved for “Showgirls,” “Heaven’s Gate” and “Battlefield Earth.” Finding positive traction in muck that deep is pretty difficult, though. The one thing “Charlie Casanova” shares with “Robert Mitchum Is Dead” is the niche distributor BrinkVision, a company that “strives for an audience that, while demanding innovative and original entertainment, knows the struggles associated with that endeavor, and is willing to support the cause.” Someone’s got to do it. – Gary Dretzka
My Neighbor Tortoro/Howl’s Moving Castle: Blu-ray
As a shorthand way of introducing the work of animator Hayao Miyazaki to American audiences in the mid-1990s, critics frequently referred to him as “the Walt Disney of Japan.” While not precise, the description was close enough to sell a few tickets, at least. A couple of Miyazaki’s earlier films had found their way to the U.S., but the dubbing and editing were so poorly handled the maestro refused to ever again give carte blanch to overseas companies. That was OK with Walt Disney Company, which formed an alliance with Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki’s Studio Ghibli, which produces a variety of anime, manga and feature-length films, including “Princess Mononoke” and “Castle in the Sky.” Miyazaki was especially impressed by the amount of time, money and talent Disney invested in the dubbing process. To find an audience beyond the arthouse and anime crowd, it was decided that the best strategy was to draw parallels between visionary showman Disney and Miyazaki, whose movies, while fanciful, often were informed by such hot-button issues as environmentalism, pacifism and feminism. Although they approached the subject matter from different directions, both men were interested in showing how their youngest characters made the transition from childhood to adulthood. Miyazaki, however, consciously avoided confrontations between traditionally conceived heroes and villains. Released in 2001, the Ghibli masterpiece “Spirited Away” grossed $275 million at the international box-office, shared the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival with “Bloody Sunday” and won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
Two years ago, Disney began a slow rollout of Blu-ray editions of Ghibli titles, with “My Neighbor Tortoro” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” arguably the most significant releases to date. Made 17 years apart, the films reflect Miyazaki’s obsession with supernatural phenomena in nature, wizardry and flight. In “Totoro,” two young girls move to a home in the country to be near their mother, who’s been hospitalized with a serious ailment. In their yard is a large camphor tree that contains three gods of the forest (a.k.a., tortoros). When one of the girls goes missing while attempting to visit her mother, her sister enlists the tortoros to find her. It leads to an adventure, during which they must overcome obstacles and spirits found in the woods. It may take a bit of time for viewers to adjust to the Blu-ray presentation, as Miyazaki refused to permit Disney to update the watercolor drawings and other filmic contrasts. The adjustment comes easily, though.
Also undergoing a new HD digital transfer and audio upgrade is the fanciful “Howl’s Moving Castle,” based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones. In it, a self-conscious 19-year-old hat-maker is transformed by the Witch of the Waste into a 90-year-old version of herself. To reverse the curse, Sophie hops a ride on a ramshackle ambulatory castle owned by the good wizard, Howl. Together, they must tackle several difficult tasks on the way to a cure for Sophie and save innocent people from an absurd war. Among their allies are a scarecrow, a fire demon, an asthmatic dog and the king’s adviser, Madame Suliman. Both of the Blu-ray/DVD packages contain original Japanese storyboards, several informative making-of featurettes, interviews and marketing materials. Among them are “Miyazaki Visits Pixar,” with the director, Suzuki and studio chief John Lasseter, and “The Locations of Tosoro,” which fixes scenes in the movie to real-life places. – Gary Dretzka
Showtime: Sommer: Chandelier Status
The title of Sommore’s latest performance DVD, “Sommer: Chandelier Status,” refers to her desire to be known as a “constant fixture that keeps on shining,” instead of simply, the “Undisputed Queen of Comedy.” It’s been five years since her “Queen Stands Alone” tour and an even dozen since the “Queens of Comedy” documentary and tour. Apparently, in the meantime, Sommore hasn’t lost any of her chops. The performance, taped in Miami for a Showtime special, is definitely funny. What newcomers should know before diving too deeply into the DVD, however, is that Sommore’s as raunchy as Lisa Lampanelli and Amy Schumer and she throws the N-word around like Kat Williams. That doesn’t make her any less entertaining, but tender ears might be singed by most, if not all of the material. The DVD includes a Q&A session with the comedian. – Gary Dretzka
Longmire: The Complete First Season
Nova: Mind of a Rampage Killer
PBS: 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School
Animal Planet: Weird Creatures With Nick Baker: Series 1
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: Sunny Days!
The closest most folks get to a good TV Western these days are replays of classic movies and television series on TMC, AMC and Encore Westerns channel and occasional made-for- cable movie starring Tom Selleck (“Jesse Stone”) and Luke Perry (“Goodnight”). Since the finale of HBO’s “Deadwood,” the only original series has been the contemporary Western, “Justified.” Its protagonist, Raylan Givens, is a quick-on-the-trigger U.S. Marshall, whose style is closer to Wyatt Earp than Matt Dillon. Add to that meager number A&E’s “Longmire,” which enters its second season this week. The series is based on the mystery series by Craig Johnson, which is set in the fictional Wyoming county of Absaroka. The protagonist, Sheriff Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor), is more Matt Dillon than Wyatt Earp or Raylan Givens. He dresses like the Marlboro Man, looks like a cross between Harrison Ford and George W. Bush, has a desert-dry sense of humor and continues to mourn his wife’s death a year after her passing. Almost all of the critics who reviewed the show’s debut episode referred to Longmire as “laconic.” While accurate, it’s a word almost no one in the Old West could spell, let alone define. Simply put, the sheriff is depressed and occasionally needs a cattle prod to get going. The nice thing is that he’s allowed to evolve during the course of the series — just as personal questions are left unresolved from one week to the next — and maintain an unconventional spiritual side. Not being on premium cable, the good-guy characters on “Longmire” only occasionally cuss, never frequent whores or spit tobacco on the sidewalk. In fact, one of Longmire’s trademark quirks is that he picks up litter as he walks around town. That doesn’t mean the show’s writers ignore such modern distractions as strip clubs, meth labs, drug cartels, hippie cults, Indian casinos, conspiracy theories, RV brothels and “CSI”-style forensics, or the lingering hostilities between the native tribes and government agencies. Unlike “Gunsmoke,” which basically was a Western procedural, the key women characters aren’t relegated to playing barroom bimbos, schoolmarms or wearing calico bonnets to church. They can be as nurturing or cruel as anyone else on the show. Native Americans are fairly represented on both sides of the law and the gorgeous New Mexico locations keep the show from looking as if it were shot on the backlot at Warner Bros. or the Spahn Movie Ranch. The boxed set adds the featurettes, “The Camera’s Eye: Realizing the World of Longmire” and “Longmire Justice: Exploring the Cowboy Detective.”
It’s come to the point where such terms as “sociopath,” “psychopath,” “serial killer,” “spree killer” and “mass murderer” aren’t sufficiently precise to characterize the type of person who, in increasing numbers, is able to walk into a theater, church or classroom and open fire on everyone he sees. These fiends now are known as “rampage killers” and the “Nova” presentation “Mind of a Rampage Killer” uses the testimony of a wide variety of experts to get inside their heads. In 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the observation deck of the landmark tower at the University of Texas and began picking off students walking past it. He knew going into the massacre that there was something desperately wrong with his emotional state and ability to control his actions, but it didn’t deter him. Before Whitman finally was killed, he wrote a letter asking that an autopsy be conducted to see if something physical and ostensibly controllable could have been wrong with him. A tumor the size of a pecan was found in his brain and, for a while, at least, a convenient excuse for such abhorrent behavior was available to scientists, police and concerned citizens. If only prevention could be achieved with a well-timed brain scan, our problems with rampage killers might have ended there and then. Alas, even if the effects of the tumor were linked to Whitman’s crime, they were in evidence in other murderers. It’s now clear that other factors are at work, including depression, suicidal desires, revenge for bullying, negative reactions to drugs and other medications, and lingering effects of childhood trauma. Correspondent Miles O’Brien interviewed scientists, psychiatrists and other academic, of course. He also spoke with the father of a rampage killer, the perpetrator of such a crime and a mother who wrote an op-ed piece on her constant fear her son might be the next headline-making miscreant. We also visit a high-security facility in Wisconsin, where the most fearsome teens are incarcerated and treated.
The two-part PBS presentation, “180 Days: Year Inside an American High School,” provides an in-depth look inside Washington Metropolitan High School, in the nation’s capital. Among the many things that don’t work in Washington, D.C. – Congress, law-enforcement agencies, drug-prevention programs – the city’s public-school system may be the most troubling to observe. Despite a per-student allotment that might be considered satisfactory in other districts, it’s hardly made a dent in the drop-out and literacy rates. In 2007, Mayor Adrian Fenty committed his administration’s assets to reversing the negative trajectory of the school district. It mandated the closing of schools, replacing teachers, firing principals and using private education firms to aid curriculum development. Charter schools have also grown in popularity since the initiative was launched. The controversies and turmoil surrounding the city’s school-reform program have also affected day-to-day activities at DC Met, where the interaction between teachers and at-risk students must be balanced by preparation for mandated, standardized tests. “180 Days” is an impressive presentation, even if what it says about America’s priorities isn’t pretty.
Like Frank Buck, Jacques Cousteau, Marlin Perkins and Steve Irwin before him, British naturalist and adventurer Nick Baker travels to the most exotic locations on Earth in search of the world’s most bizarre critters. Baker has been fascinated with animals his entire life, preferring to spend his free time wandering the halls of British Natural History Museum than do almost anything else. Indeed, the show was produced in collaboration with that august facility. The first season of “Weird Creatures With Nick Baker” has been released on DVD by PBS, which currently is airing repeat episodes from 2007-08. The creatures may not actually be weird, by the usual zoological standards, but they rarely seen and endangered in one way of another. Among Baker’s season-one finds are a blood-squirting lizard, in the Arizona desert; the Amazonian vampire fish; saggy-skinned frogs of Lake Titicaca; a pink fairy armadillo, in South America; the world’s “most unusual crocodile,” in India; basking sharks; and the star-nosed mole, of Manitoba. The locations are as fascinating as the creatures.
Rather than send out season-long compilations of its top kiddie shows, Nickelodeon tends to parcel them out on a PPV basis or in themed packages. As far as I can tell, “Bubble Guppies: Sunny Days!” is the third six-pack of episodes, representing less than half of the two-season run. The latest installment is themed to coincide with the arrival of summer and family-vacation time. As such, the entries include “The Beach Ball!,” “The Legend of Pinkfoot,” “Bring on the Bugs,” “The Sizzling Scampinis!,” “Bubble Duckies!” and “Gup, Gup, and Away!” – Gary Dretzka