El Sicario, Room 164
If the headlines emanating from Mexico’s bloody drug wars weren’t so startling, it might be difficult to believe the story told by a cartel assassin in Gianfranco Rosi’s chilling documentary, “El Sicario, Room 164.” It arrives on DVD just as Ariel Vromen’s well-received “The Iceman” is about to extend its theatrical run beyond a limited arthouse opening. Both movies are based on the matter-of-fact recollections of men who, when they weren’t killing people, led seemingly normal lives in their communities. Unlike Michael Shannon, who plays serial murderer Richard “Iceman” Kuklinski with his usual degree of sociopathic detachment, the assassin in “El Sicario” tells his own story in such a way as to think he might have graduated from the Actor’s Studio. (Kuklinski did the same thing, starting 20 years ago, in a series of HBO specials.) Because there is still a $250,000 bounty on his head, the hitman wears a black shawl over his face. This only adds to the aura of religiosity that is sometimes attached to the narco-terrorists, through an association with the La Santa Muerte cult. Rosi doesn’t mention whether the Mexican or American governments have placed a bounty on his head, as well, but it isn’t as if he didn’t deserve such a distinction. El Sicario traces his cartel roots to high school, when he was recruited to drive loads of drugs across the Rio Grande to the United States. His graduation present came in the form of admission to the Chihuahua police academy, which required cartel leaders to pull strings with law-enforcement officials on their payroll. He wasn’t alone. There were several dozen other cartel employees and wannabes in his class. The police uniform would give El Sicario easy access to the men and women targeted for kidnapping, torture and assassination, all of which he goes on to describe in graphic detail in the same Room 164 he once performed his chores. There’s no need to go into much more of it here, really, except to say that “El Sicario” will leave you with the feeling that everything being reported from Mexico is, if anything, understated. That’s because, for every headless body found on the side of a road in Veracruz, Juarez or Monterey, there are dozens more buried where no one is likely to find them.-Neither has the extent to which the victims, including DEA agents and informants, are tortured been fully reported in the U.S. In fact, the only time it’s possible to sense any hesitation or hint of remorse on El Sicario’s part is when he describes what was done to the women who displeased his “patron.” The most disturbing thing, however, is being told how pervasive and deeply entrenched the cancer of corruption actually is in Mexico. Americans who pay attention to such things may suspect as much, but El Sicario makes the reality sound even worse than we could have imagined. Guys like El Sicario and Richard Kuklinski make Luca Brazi look like Wee Willie Winkie, and that reality only adds to the urgency and intensity of these films. If you are still intrigued by the subject, sample Gerardo Naranjo’s chilling, fact-based “Miss Bala,” in which a rigged beauty contest leads to a frightening showdown between cartel bosses and drug agents. – Gary Dretzka
Warm Bodies: Blu-ray
In two weeks, Brad Pitt and Marc Foster’s vision of the inevitable zombie apocalypse, “World War Z,” will open in theaters around the world. Having seen more than a couple minutes of the movie, it’s safe to say that it takes liberties with zombie mythology that Boris Karloff, Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur and George Romero couldn’t possibly have envisioned. For one thing, the modern belief that the undead are as slow and plodding as crippled tortoises is laid to rest by the sight of swarming herds of zombies traveling at speeds that would impress Jaco Pretorius. Summit Entertainment’s surprise hit, “Warm Bodies,” also revised the formula, this time by suggesting that love is so powerful a force it’s able to reignite the fire in an undead heart. I don’t know how much money was spent on marketing — viral or otherwise — but it was enough to spark a $20.4-million haul in its first weekend at the box office. It certainly took box-office observers by surprise. In it, Kristen Stewart look-alike Teresa Palmer is part of a youthful assault team sent into a dystopian “dead zone” by her dad (John Malkovich) to help turn the tide of the zombie apocalypse. It isn’t long before the teenagers are overwhelmed by the zombies, but Julie is rescued by a zombie named “R” (Nicholas Hoult), who resembles Robert Pattison on his worst bad-hair day.
Neither of them is quite sure what causes R to recognize the place inside of him that once was reserved for emotional attachment. Maybe, in his past life, he had a thing for blonds. Apparently, though, the place in R’s heart that demanded he rescue Julie is shared by other zombies, who live in the abandoned airport outside town. Before long, other stirrings of life begin to be felt among the plague victims, who, unlike the more militant “Boneys,” aren’t beyond salvation, after all. Although it takes some jabs at “Twilight” and borrows an idea or two from “Tromeo & Juliet” and “Shaun of the Dead,” Jonathan Levine’s twisted little rom-com leans far more toward romance than parody. In this regard, “Warm Bodies” works very well. The gore-factor is pretty low, as these things go, and, because there’s no skin, the PG-13 rating is fair. The Blu-ray package adds a dozen bonus features, including commentary with Levine, Hoult and Palmer; deleted scenes and a gag reel; background and making-of material; Palmer’s home movie; and interviews with cast and crew. Admirers of “Warm Bodies” are encouraged to check out Levine’s previous features, “The Wackness” and “50/50,” which, while not horror, deal with similar themes. – Gary Dretzka
Identity Thief: Unrated: Blu-ray
If the movie that “Identity Thief” most closely resembles is “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” then it’s fair to view its marquee attraction, Melissa McCarthy, as the new John Candy. Ever since breaking through to the A-list as co-protagonist on CBS’ “Mike & Molly,” the onetime Illinois farmer’s daughter has been enjoying the spotlight in roles that call for boisterous, bawdy and slightly out of control women of a certain size. She plays essentially the same character in “Bridesmaids” and the upcoming “The Heat,” in which she plays a rogue cop to Sandra Bullock’s by-the-book FBI agent. Like Candy in “PT&A,” McCarthy’s character in “Identity Thief” spends the first half of the road comedy acting as if he’s the world’s worst traveling companion and is without other redeeming qualities. Her Diana spends the rest of the movie worming herself into the hearts of co-star Jason Bateman and everyone in the audience. Diana is exactly the kind of person who would steal another person’s identity, destroy their credit rating and drain their life savings, without displaying a single hint of regret or remorse. She steals the identity of Denver business executive Sandy Patterson (Bateman) by pretending to be a bank representative attempting to protect his account from fraud. Foolishly, Patterson gives her all the information she needs to print up fake credit cards and other ID. Her actions in Florida cause police in Denver to pick Patterson up and ruin his standing with partners in the firm he’s just joined.
In a move that only makes in the movies, the cops give Patterson a week to clear his name, by locating and bringing Diana to the city for trial. After several tussles with the belligerent felon, he manages to make the slippery con-woman his prisoner, at least temporarily. A lot of time would have been saved if he had only been able to buy her a one-way ticket for a non-stop flight to Denver. As Diana is quick to note, however, TSA agents probably wouldn’t allow two people with exactly the same name, address and Social Security number to board the same plane, even it were possible to purchase a ticket on a maxed-out card. This requires Patterson to hit the road with someone he can’t trust and who is insistent on remaining out of jail. Making his task even more difficult are skip tracers intent on bringing Diana back to Florida to stand trial on unrelated charges. Their presence raises the ante on mayhem, of course, which, for the audience, is a very good thing. This hybrid of road/buddy films is hardly an original premise – “Midnight Run,” “Due Date,” “The Guilt Trip,” come immediately to mind – and “Identity Thief” isn’t nearly as funny as “PT&A” or “Midnight Run.” It does, however, provide enough funny moments to recommend it as a rental or, for McCarthy’s fans, a purchase. For the sin of unloading a couple of f-bombs and suggestive sexual talk, “Identity Thief” was punished with an undeserved and completely avoidable “R” rating. What the unrated version adds to that is beyond me. If there were such a thing as a PG-16 rating, it would have passed without incident. The Blu-ray extras include a few making-of featurettes, gag reel and alternate takes. – Gary Dretzka
A Good Day to Die Hard: Blu-ray
If nothing else, the fourth hell-bent-for-leather extension of Warners’ “Die Hard” franchise proves one thing conclusively: audiences outside the United States will put up with leftovers long after American viewers have tired of them. This is especially true when it comes to movies starring such once –prominent action stars as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Nicolas Cage, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, John Travolta and, of course, Bruce Willis. It isn’t as if these gentlemen aren’t capable of good work, because, given the right ingredients, they can still produce a tasty dish. Even though almost no one turned up to watch him in Jee-woon Kim’s kick-ass “The Last Stand,” Arnold demonstrated how well he can still play his prototypical self. Travolta did a nice job in Pierre Morel’s “From Paris With Love,” and 2008’s “JCVD” may have been Van Damme’s best movie to date. Too often, though, the right ingredients are replaced with generic staples. Willis doesn’t seem to have worked up much of a sweat in the action-only “A Good Day to Die Hard.” Last year, though, he did outstanding work in “Looper” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” an offbeat indie comedy that did far better in the United States than overseas. If the major studios still insist on turning out warmed-over sequels to sequels – “Die Hardest,” “Expendables 3” and “National Treasure 3” have been announced – take your complaints to the United Nations. In the meantime, enjoy newly minted action star Liam Nesson for as long as his 61-year-old body still can absorb the pain.
Even though the storyline to “A Good Day to Die Hard” borders on incomprehensible – even ex-cop John McClane’s son, Jack (Jai Courtney), can’t figure out why his dad’s in Moscow – the non-stop action renders the narrative irrelevant. Apparently, the old man is in Russia to help his son, who’s in prison for murdering a mobster … or something like that. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Jack actually is working deep-cover for the CIA and John’s unexpected presence is doing him no favors. In fact, Jack is about to snatch a fellow prisoner, with important information about something that isn’t revealed until much later in the movie. The CIA isn’t the only party anxious to get its hands on the mysterious Russian plutocrat, Komarov (Sebastian Koch), and an intricately choreographed chase through Moscow (a.k.a., Budapest) sets up all of the carnage and mayhem to come. Curiously, since we know that Chernobyl is still radioactive as hell, much of the action takes place within the bowls of the crippled nuclear plant. Any fan of the series knows going into the movie that the weaponry will be state-of-the-art, dozens of cars and military vehicles will be sacrificed, an airplane or helicopter will crash, and the dialogue will be peppered with wisecracks and catch phrases. In this regard, anyway, this one doesn’t disappoint. The good news for more critical viewers comes in knowing that, at 98 minutes, it’s the shortest entry in the five-part series. The scenes actually shot in Moscow are fun to watch, as well. The Blu-ray includes the theatrical edition of “AGDTDH” and an extended version; seven deleted scenes; an hourlong, 15-part making-of featurettes; a 26-minute “Anatomy of a Car Chase,” which is as interesting as the movie, itself; several backgrounders; and preliminary artwork. – Gary Dretzka
In Old Arizona: Blu-ray
Perfect Understanding: Blu-ray
Compared to other Hollywood Westerns, before and since, “In Old Arizona” is far more significant for its place in cinematic history than any entertainment value it might still possess. Nominated for five Oscars, in the event’s second observance, the 1928 “oater” not only was promoted as the first “100% all-talking Fox Movietone Feature,” but also as the first “talkie” to be shot and recorded outdoors, on locations that included Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, the Mojave Desert and the San Fernando Mission. It didn’t mark the first appearance of O. Henry’s “Gay Caballero,” the Cisco Kid, but it was the first movie in which he could be heard talking. The cowpoke-chorus interludes may have launched the era of singing cowboy, as well. The popularity of “In Old Arizona” at the box-office would inspire several big-screen sequels and serials; series on radio and television; a comic book; and countless references in books and comedy routines. As appealing as the character has always been, the Kid was, at best, an antihero. In Warner Baxter’s Oscar-winning portrayal he did things that would be considered beyond the pale for future cowboy heroes. It was, however, true to the author’s conception of the character.
After robbing a Wells Fargo stagecoach of its strongbox and returning a valuable trinket to a friendly barber, the Kid plays a game of cat-and-mouse with cavalry officer Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe), a Brooklyn native who’s infatuated with Cisco’s duplicitous Mexican girlfriend, Tonia Maria (Dorothy Burgess). “In Old Arizona” is being released simultaneously in Blu-ray and DVD, without features, and it looks and sounds better than it has in 85 years. The credits list Raoul Walsh as the director of record, but, because of a car accident that seriously damaged an eye, it is likely Irving Cummings (“Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl”) carried the bulk of the load.
After watching Cohen Media’s handsome digital upgrade of “Perfect Understanding,” a ruling-class melodrama starring Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier, I wondered how Depression-era Brits reacted to a movie that flew directly in the face of their economic woes. Sure, Hollywood produced plenty of movies in which the characters wore tuxedos and evening gowns as if they were uniforms and poverty could be overcome by breaking out in song and dance. It also made movies in which the sons of immigrants could work their way to the top of the ladder as gangsters, entertainers or athletes. It was also possible that their fresh-faced daughters could capture the fancy of a prince or mogul simply by appearing in a chorus line or selling cosmetics at a department store. In England, though, the likelihood of any child not of the manor born attending Cambridge or investing in a top hat and tails was close to zero. In “Perfect Understanding,” Swanson and Olivier play globe-trotting swells, so confident in their social position that they enter into something resembling an “open marriage.” They race boats and imbibe champagne in Cannes and Cote d’Azur, then pose for photographs in France and other world capitals as if to gloat that they can still afford such luxuries. Not surprisingly, Swanson’s pretty little heiress isn’t nearly as liberated as she pretends to be. Her reaction to the roving eyes of Sir Larry’s aristocratic sportsman causes him to fret over losing his one true love over a misunderstanding. With divorce and the birth of a baby looming on the horizon, they must come to grips with feelings that they would have resisted, otherwise. Even in a worst-case scenario, though, both knew they would land on their feet, anyway.
What recommends “Perfect Understanding” is the chance to watch Swanson and Olivier working at different stages of their careers and seemingly, at least, having fun doing it. For the devilishly handsome Olivier, Cyril Garner’s film would mark only his seventh appearance in a movie. Just 26, he had yet to become a box-office attraction in the United States. By contrast, the 34-year-old Swanson had long been a bona fide star and was close to curtailing her movie work entirely. (Her production company financed the film.) It also marked an early, if un-credited contribution by Michael Powell, who would go on to write and direct such celebrated films as “The Red Shoes,” “Black Narcissus” and “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” The Blu-ray includes two 20-minute shorts from the Mack Sennett catalog. – Gary Dretzka
Mosquita Y Mari
The love story at the core of Aurora Guerrero’s deeply affecting debut feature, “Mosquita Y Mari,” vividly describes how it feels to fall in love for the first time, at 15, and have one’s heart shattered before the euphoria has a chance to turn simply to happiness. Set in East Los Angeles, but absent all of the usual clichés of barrio life, the low-budget indie feature taps into the hopes, fears, aspirations and disappointments of teenagers, no matter their ethnic background. The young chicanas to whom we’re introduced in “MYM” are cognizant of the fact that their parents have struggled all of their lives to put them in a position where they can grab the golden ring and control their own destinies. When love comes to call, however, it shoves all other priorities aside, leaving little room for moderation or reason. Fenessa Pineda plays straight-A student Yolanda (a.k.a., Mosquita), who, if she stays on the straight and narrow path, could easily score a scholarship to a college of her choice. Far from being a nerd, Yolanda has plenty of friends and is able to balance her time in and out of school. Out of the blue, she’s asked by a teacher to help the new girl, Mari (Venecia Troncoso), adjust to the surroundings and get up to date with her classwork.
Mari acts tough and, at first, resists Yolanda’s attempts to help her with the lessons. Even if she clearly has experienced more of la vida loca in her first 15 years on Earth than most of their classmates, Mari’s shell isn’t as thick as she thinks it is. It doesn’t take long before the girls develop a sisterly relationship, with Mari also enjoying the role of mentor to her more naive friend. Inevitably, Yolanda develops a crush on Mari that is both thrilling and injurious to her GPA. Her parents fear that a boy is turning her head away from her studies and their only concern about Mari is that Yolanda is focusing too intently on improving someone else’s grades. Fate intercedes on their budding romance, causing a broken heart that, while painful, blessedly doesn’t last much longer than a few sad ballads on the radio. Guerrero stops just short of imposing a sexual agenda on the narrative, saving it from having to carry too heavy a load into the final scene or force an ugly confrontation with parents or peers. Guerrero and producer Chad Burris were rewarded for their efforts with a pair of nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards and another from the GLAAD Media Awards. The DVD adds a making-of featurette that focuses on their decision to add more than a dozen high school interns, from East L.A., to the crew and encouraging them to contribute their opinions to the project. – Gary Dretzka
A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951
So much has already been written, said and theorized about James Dean, it’s difficult to think of anything more to add to the legend of an actor “too fast to live, too young die.” For many years after his death, however, Dean’s sexuality was a subject broached only in non-mainstream publications and the underground gossip mill. Today, it’s widely accepted as fact that the onetime Indiana farmboy was bisexual, if not strictly gay, and may have used sex as a stepping stone to a career. While he wouldn’t have been the first actor to play the gay card, it wasn’t something that would be easily forgiven by readers of Photoplay and other fan magazines in the early 1950s. Matthew Mishory’s profile of the almost impossibly handsome 20-year-old – “A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951” – is informed by the recollections of close friends and associates, who, years later, would reveal their versions of the truth. While frank and forthcoming about this aspect of the Dean mythos, Mishory’s picture avoids anything that smacks of sensationalism or exploitation. Neither, does it ignore his liaisons with women.
Set in 1951, Dean (James Preston) is shown taking acting classes and partying with friends he made during his brief tenure at UCLA. Although he would be characterized later as a loner and a veritable spokesman for alienated youth, he didn’t mind hanging out in Sunset Strip watering holes or lying around the pool at homes in the Hollywood Hills and Palm Springs. He is portrayed as always having a serious work of literature in his hands and being able discuss the material therein without seeming pompous or misinformed. He loved the solitude provided by the desert and a beach on a cloudy day. By shooting color for black-and-white, cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah is able to contrast the storms inside Dean’s head with prevailing climatic conditions. The overall effect is heavy on noir, as filtered through an arthouse prism. It’s really quite beautiful. Dean was killed before he could leave us with a record of his most intimate thoughts and observations, but the liberties taken by Mishory as director and writer all seem within the realm of possibility. The DVD adds the short film, “Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman.” – Gary Dretzka
The Last Ride: Blu-ray
There’s no question of Hank Williams’ place in the pantheon of American singer-songwriters. No one did more to bridge the huge gap that separated “hillbilly” and top-40 radio stations in the post-war years and his songs continue to be recorded by artists with no other connection to Nashville than Williams’ legacy. He lived the life of an old-school country-music hero, but died miserably in the back seat of his Cadillac from heart failure brought on by abusing alcohol, pills and narcotics. And, as David Allen Coe once argued, “If that ain’t country, I’ll kiss your ass.” That, in itself, is the essence of “The Last Ride.” Having worked his way up from “a thousand different honky-tonks,” he could chew the fat with moonshiners and bluegrass pickers one minute and deliver country gold to hot-shot labels the next. (Tony Bennett’s cover of “Cold, Cold Heart” stayed on the pop charts for 27 weeks.) He became a star attraction at the Grand Ol’ Opry in 1949, but, three years later, was deemed persona non grata by the same august body.
Not much is really known about Williams’ final hours, except that he missed an important New Year’s Eve concert in Charleston, West Virginia, mostly due to poor logistics and worse weather. He expected to make a gig the next day in Ohio, but died on the road to Canton. On the ride from Alabama to those destinations, he was chauffeured by a teenager who had been enlisted at the last moment and was cautioned against missing the performances. Terrible weather conditions caused a chartered plane carrying Williams to Charleston return to Knoxville, where they checked into a hotel that catered to musicians. The singer was in terrible pain, caused by the spinal bifida that had been exasperated by being crunched up in the back seat of his car, and a doctor was called to treat the condition. The B-12 shots he was given contained morphine, but the official cause of death was a heart attack. Because so little is known about Williams’ last hours and what he might have said to people in Knoxville, the circumstances surrounding his death remain as intriguing as that of magician Harry Houdini.
The mystery and inaccuracies allowed director Harry Thomason and writers Howard Klausner and Dub Cornett to invent an admittedly fictional scenario, based on the known facts. There was no intent on the filmmakers’ part to create a biopic or for-the-record account based on new information. Henry Thomas does a nice job as Williams, whose pain is made palpable throughout the movie, as is his ability to charm women and children. Because Thomas isn’t required to sing, he can focus on his portrayal. Jesse James plays the teenage chauffeur, who’s recruited without his ever knowing how valuable his cargo actually was. The driver’s actions and background may be almost completely fictional, but the interaction between to the two men drives the narrative. The rural Arkansas locations and carefully chosen extras add much to credibility of “The Last Ride.” The musical soundtrack isn’t bad, even if budgetary considerations precluded getting the real thing. Without the songs, or prior knowledge of Williams’ accomplishments, the story told here could easily be dismissed as just another sad tale of wasted talent put to music. One can only hope that people attracted to great songwriting will continue to find his recordings – or check out the memorabilia on You Tube — and appreciate from whence it came. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
A Tribute to Ron Asheton
If the name, Ron Asheton, doesn’t ring a bell, it means that your knowledge of Iggy and the Stooges is either non-existent or limited to the snippet from “Lust for Life” in commercials for Royal Caribbean cruise lines. That’s OK … rock trivia may not be your game. Asheton, who died in 2009, at 60, was a founding member of the Stooges. He played guitar and bass, off and on, for the next 40 years, in groups of his own or at Stooges reunions. Not that lists matter for much in the rock ’n’ roll universe, but, for the record, Asheton was ranked 60th among the 100 greatest guitar players of all time. “A Tribute to Ron Asheton” was shot and recorded in April, 2011, at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater. It’s a terrific performance, typical of the Stooges’ contributions to the rock dodge, ever since they and the MC-5 practically invented Punk. Although he’s 106 years old now, Iggy doesn’t look, sound or act a day over 26 – split the difference for the correct number – as he prances and crawls around the stage, shirtless, or dives into the audience. Before the concert kicks off, Henry Rollins offers a long, rambling tribute to Asheton, which, while heartfelt, reminds us that talking about rock ’n’ roll robs the music of its soul. The band performs several of its biggest hits, as well as some lesser-known ditties. A string section, no less, even accompanies the Stooges for a few songs. All profits from the sale of the DVD go to the Ron Asheton Foundation, which supports animal welfare and music. – Gary Dretzka
The Mad Max Trilogy: Blu-ray
Almost 30 years before Mel Gibson began making headlines as a world-class jerk, instead of an A-list talent, he starred in a trilogy of action films that turned the exploitation industry upside-down and introduced Ozploitation to American audiences. Car-chase and hot-rod movies had been a staple of drive-in triple features for more than 20 years, already, but “Mad Max” dialed up the volume to a roar. Essentially a punk Western on wheels, George Miller’s first feature told the story of out-of-control bikers in a lawless section of Australia. Gibson plays a good cop, whose department is practically helpless against the mad-dog criminals. The countryside is practically barren and the two-lane roads are straight and long. The bikers make the Hell’s Angels look like solid citizens, outmanning and outgunning the police force. After they murder Max’s best friend, Goose, he is ordered to avoid another confrontation by taking a forced vacation. Instead of finding peace and relaxation, Max and his family find themselves in a hornet’s nest of trouble. When tragedy strikes, Max is forced to go rogue to avenge his loss. To level the playing field against the bikers, he borrows a supercharged Pursuit Special – the “last of the V-8 Interceptors” – from a gearhead in the motor pool. The stunt work and willingness to put women and children in danger made “Mad Max” stand out even against American action movies being churned out by Roger Corman and AIP. Made for $650,000, “Mad Max” would return $100 million at the international box office. It succeeded, despite the bonehead decision to dub the Aussie English into “proper” English. It died a quick death in its first go-round in American theaters. By the time anyone here was able to enjoy the unedited version of “Mad Max,” “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” already was released here. So as not to confuse potential viewers who hadn’t heard of “Mad Max,” it was simply titled “The Road Warrior.” If the post-apocalyptic setting was only hinted at in the first installment, there was no mistaking what had happened in the interim. Australia had nearly run out of oil and it was as valuable as gold to the outlaw marauders that ruled the Outback. It meant that the few refineries left were under constant siege and motorcycles had given way to souped-up dune buggies. When the good guys most needed a hero, Max practically appeared out of nowhere … not unlike the Lone Ranger. His interest was purely mercenary, however. Miller’s depiction of Max was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” and Joseph Campbell’s book, “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” It would be a huge international success, as well.
Released in 1985, “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” would benefit from Mel Gibson’s significantly raised profile and an influx of Hollywood money. It translated into grander sets, a significantly larger cast, an amped-up soundtrack and an unforgettable performance by Tina Turner. This time, Miller shared the directing duties with George Ogilvie, with Miller allowed to concentrate on the stunts and action scenes. Max is older and far less able to weather the ravages of the desert. He’s forced to prove himself once again, this time in the self-contained community of misfits ruled by Turner’s Aunt Entity. The machinery that keeps Bartertown alive is powered by methane produced by the feces of hundreds of pigs, but there are no replacement parts to maintain the infrastructure. For the amusement of the peasants, Max is forced to fight a giant gladiator inside the Thunderdome. When he refuses to kill the loser, he’s banished to the desert. Without supplies, he nearly dies. Instead, he’s rescued and nursed back to health by a community of feral children who live in a deep canyon, with a river running through it. Once again, Max rejects assuming the hero role, when the children decide to risk their lives against the forces of Aunt Entity. They want to travel to the big coastal cities to see what was lost to them in the apocalypse and decide for themselves if there’s hope for a renewal of civilization. It can be argued, I suppose, that the “Mad Max Trilogy” opened the floodgates for the dozens of dystopian epics that followed in its wake. (Miller said that his vision was inspired, in part, by L.Q. Jones’ cult favorite, “A Boy and His Dog.”) Choosing not to push their luck, Miller and Gibson turned their attention to projects outside Australia. I suspect that Miller has had to resist almost constant pressure from Warner Bros. and other potential investors for a third sequel. Finally, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is scheduled for release in 2014, with Miller at the helm and a cast of big-name stars that doesn’t include Gibson, although a guest or cameo appearance isn’t out of the realm of possibility. “The Mad Max Trilogy” compilation includes all three films in Blu-ray. It comes in a limited-edition tin box, with making-of features and commentary. On Blu-ray, it looks and sounds great. – Gary Dretzka
Lifetime: Liz & Dick
If it isn’t on the drawing boards already, there will come a time when the disintegration of the marriage of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt will be dramatized, with Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift playing the reigning America’s Sweetheart and Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens or Demi Lovato cast as the evil temptress, Angelina Jolie. It wouldn’t matter much who portrayed Pitt, although the temptation of adding Justin Bieber or one of the Jonas Brothers to the mix could proof too great to avoid. Maybe, John Waters, Gregg Araki or Todd Haynes could be talked into directing it. The Pitt/Aniston/Jolie love triangle may never carry the same weight as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but, by now, it’s probably created as many sordid headlines and gossip. Lindsay Lohan wouldn’t have been most people’s choice to play Taylor – Olivia Wilde and Megan Fox also were considered – in Lifetime’s Thanksgiving special, “Liz & Dick.” Her trials, while difficult, simply don’t measure up to those of Ms. Taylor. Taylor’s love affair with her fans never really ended, while Lohan’s reputation took a nosedive when she became a petulant adult. It hasn’t gotten any better in the meantime, either. The decision to cast an actress so careless with the opportunities handed her on a silver plate never boded well for the made-for-cable movie. The ratings were decent, if not in line with its expensive market campaign.
While not a turkey, exactly, the rom-dram provided critics with enough fodder to draw analogies to the holiday’s entrée of choice. Playing alongside such accomplished actors as Grant Bowler, Theresa Russell, David Hunt and Tanya Franks, Lohan couldn’t help but come up short. Taylor remains far too majestic a presence for a mere pop star, however scandal prone, to embody. Lohan gives it her best shot, however, and there’s no denying her ability to throw a world-class tantrum. In any case, it wouldn’t have been possible to capture Taylor and Burton’s volcanic on/off relationship in an 88-minute flick and on a cable-TV budget. What it did allow, however, was a glimpse into a period in Hollywood history when studio chiefs first lost control of the star-maker machinery, with the tabloid press and paparazzi beginning to call the shots.
Both of the mega-stars clearly were addicted to fame and couldn’t bear playing second fiddle in the eyes of the public and press. They rarely did anything that wasn’t intended to draw attention to themselves, including the exchange of expensive gifts. Lohan and Bowler do a nice job dramatizing Taylor’s addiction to diamonds and Burton’s struggle with alcoholism. Given the time constraints, director Lloyd Kramer (“The Five People You Meet in Heaven”) and writer Christopher Monger (“Temple Grandin”) wisely chose to use the stars’ amazing 1970 “60 Minutes” interview to frame their necessarily limited story. Based simply on that wonderfully entertaining Q&A, a stenographer could write a passable screenplay without changing a word. (Available on You Tube, it is best viewed only after screening “Liz & Dick.” Then, rent “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) The DVD includes several on-set interviews. – Gary Dretzka
Charlie Zone: Blu-ray
12 Rounds 2: Reloaded: Blu-ray
WWE Studios came up with a killer concept in 2009, when it demanded of a character played by wrestling “superstar” John Cena that he successfully complete a dozen “challenges,” as laid out by an escaped criminal, or his girlfriend would be killed. It was directed by the once-dependable Renny Harlin and set in New Orleans. The action was designed to appeal to the pro-wrestling crowd and audiences who enjoy a dollop of retribution in their gratuitous violence. It was easy to watch and presumably made enough money to justify a paint-by-numbers sequel. This time around, 6-foot-4 grappler Randy Orton plays paramedic Nick Malloy, who gets exactly the same sort of call from a vengeful psychopath (Brian Markinson). If Malloy fails to complete all 12 tasks, his wife will be killed and/or tortured. For a paramedic, Malloy is one tough SOB. And, although he’s only peripherally connected to the caller, he takes his mission seriously enough to keep us interested. “12 Rounds 2: Reloaded” is headed for its natural destination on the direct-to-DVD shelves, so it isn’t surprising that shortcuts were taken in its production. Apart from Orton, the cast is comprised of question marks and the background is supplied by Vancouver. Undemanding action junkies shouldn’t mind the compromises.
Shot on the eastern coast of Canada, “Charlie Zone” appears to have borrowed ideas from movies as disparate as “Fight Club” and “Chinatown,” but it never abuses the privilege enough to be accused of being derivative or a rip-off. Like other halfway decent movies that can only manage to find a home in today’s increasingly competitive straight-to-video marketplace, Michael Melski’s twisty thriller features good performances from mostly unknown actors, adequate production values, some satisfying surprises and an underused setting. “Charlie Zone” takes place in Halifax, which might sound like just another quaint port city in the Great White North, but combines enough criminal touchstones to be referred to there as the “New Orleans of the East.” The crimes in “Charlie Zone” include, in no particular order, illegal street brawling, assault, kidnapping, torture, theft, drug trafficking, murder, child abuse and incest. That might sound about average for a movie staged in Baltimore, San Pedro or even Seattle, but, in Halifax, it registers as an epidemic. After becoming an Internet sensation as a street fighter, Avery Paul (Glen Gould) is hired to “rescue” a young woman from the clutches of the owner of a shooting gallery, where all manner of hard drugs are sold and a bouncer collects a cover charge at the door. After faking a morphine habit, the former boxer and ex-con grabs Jan (Amanda Crew) and stashes her in the trunk of his car, while he negotiates a higher ransom for her return. From this point on, nothing seems to go right for Paul. While Jan recognizes her addiction and wants to get clean, she isn’t in any hurry to separate completely from her boyfriend and partner, who run the drug operation. Neither are the people who hired Paul playing straight with him. Throw in several ruthless bikers from Montreal, backstabbers disguised as friends and some severe beat-downs and you’ve got a pretty violent movie. In between the fights, however, several rays of humanitarian sunshine do manage to shine through the bloodshed. One thing that distinguishes “Charlie Zone” from a similar movie, had it been made in the U.S., is the amount of verbal abuse heaped on Paul, simply because he’s of native Mi’kmaq ancestry. In some parts of North and South America, hostility between the first-world population and non-native ethnic groups has never really ended. It’s balanced here with portrayals of Indians in normal, non-combative environments.
From Argentina arrives “Diablo,” another super-violent movie in which onetime boxer finds himself in a dilemma not of his own making. Half-Jewish and half-Andean, Marcos Wainsberg (Juan Palomino), is recovering emotionally from the trauma of having killed an opponent in the ring. The other fighter shouldn’t have been allowed to compete and a combination punch by Wainsberg merely triggered a reaction that would have killed the man, anyway. Still, it’s the kind of thing that stays with a boxer as long as his name is recognized. One morning, after reconnecting with an old girlfriend, he makes the mistake of opening the door to his cousin, Huguito (Sergio Boris), a shiftless ne’er-do-well who has trouble written all over his face. Not long after he asks Huguito to go to the store to purchase beer and cleaning supplies, two thugs arrive at the house, pretending to be friends of the cousin. Instead, they’re looking for something in his possession that Wainsberg has no idea exists and will take a terrible beating for his ignorance. Not unlike Paul in “Charlie Zone,” Wainsberg miraculously breaks out of bondage and destroys the intruders. When Huguito returns, all Marcos wants to do is clean up the blood soaked walls of the bathroom, so his girlfriend won’t turn tail and run. Naturally, another visitor arrives at the door soon thereafter. This one is a cop responding to a call from a neighbor. The cop, who’s Jewish, immediately recognizes the “Inca of the Sinai,” and it leads to some friendly, if strange chatter between them. By the time the cop inspects the bathroom, the bodies are gone and everything is spic-and-span. In fact, Huguito is holding something of great value to the person who’s hired several waves of gangsters to confront the cousins. I won’t spoil the surprise that comes with learning what’s so valuable to some rich old mobster, but it’s a doozy. Co-writer/director Nicanor Loreti, at the helm of his first feature, does a really nice job blending all of the disparate elements here into an exciting and often inky black comedy, not unlike “Layer Cake,” “Machete” and “Kung Fu Hustle.” While not beating the gag to death, Loreti makes good use of the “Inca of the Sinai” angle, as well. Dare I say it: fans of Quentin Tarantino, Richard Rodriguez and Guy Ritchie’s early films should love “Diablo.” – Gary Dretzka
Sadako 3D: Blu-ray
Producers of genre entertainment assume, sometimes correctly, that fans of a particularly successful horror or sci-fi feature naturally will line up to see the sequel. It’s a nice position in which to find one’s self, to be sure. The problem comes, of course, in the inevitability of genre fans to gossip endlessly in anticipation of a sequel or prequel and immediately review each new installment as if it were “Citizen Kane: Part II.” No one takes a more proprietary interest in such things as fans of J-horror and therein lies the rub. The latest chapter in Koji Sozuki’s “Ringu” cycle has arrived on these shores a full year after opening in several overseas markets. “Sadaku 3D” is being made available on DVD and Blu-ray 2D/3D pack, without the benefit of a theatrical release. My guess is that distributors here read all the negative reviews and assumed that the same fans that made “Ringu” and its American cousin, “The Ring,” such huge international hits are, by now, too sophisticated to ignore warning signs on Internet sites devoted to the genre. Viral campaigns cut both ways, these days. I’ve seen both of the source movies and can understand why they’d be disappointed in “Sadako 3D.” It simply doesn’t take the franchise anywhere it hasn’t already been. The 3D format adds a few quick and dirty jolts, but the foreboding tone of previous titles has been diluted by overexposure. Keeping all of the negatives in mind, however, it’s also possible to say that newcomers to the franchise and kids whose parents are wealthy enough to afford HD3D monitors shouldn’t have any trouble buying into its basic conceits. Among the concessions to the passing of time since the originals were released are the implements through which Sadako makes her presence known. Instead of relying on such primitive technologies as VHS cassettes and one-dimensional TV sets, the spirit is borne through the Internet and smartphones. Otherwise, it’s the same deal. Teenagers who can’t wait to see if rumors of cursed Internet video are true need only perform a simple search and the ghosts do the rest. – Gary Dretzka
Escape From Planet Earth: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” Season 2, Volume 2
To fully enjoy the animated sci-fi adventure, “Escape From Planet Earth,” it helps to be flying on a sugar high. Conveniently, one of the product-placement partners here is 7-Eleven, which, as every life form in the universe knows, is the home of the Slurpee. Brightly colorful and quickly paced, the Anchor Bay title seems geared to pre-teens who are familiar with genre tropes, but not too jaded to dismiss the corny dialogue out of hand. The story follows the daring astronaut Scorch Supernova (voiced by Brendan Fraser), a hero to blue-skinned residents of the planet Baab, as he attempts to answer a rescue call from Earth. Apparently, illegal aliens from outer space are every bit as irritating to conservatives in the future, as Mexicans crossing the border were to their great-great-great-grandparents. BASA’s no-nonsense chief Lena (Jessica Alba) is aware of the dangers inherent in such a mission, but assumes Scorch can handle Area 51 as well as he has every other place he’s been in the universe. His cautious flight-commander brother, Gary (Rob Corday), isn’t so positive. Sure enough, when a trap set by the evil General Shanker (William Shatner) imperils Scorch, Gary must come to his rescue. It leads to an exciting chase through the Grand Canyon when USAF jets are dispatched and Gary and Shanker engage in a midair fist fight. Among the other voicing talents are Sarah Jessica Parker, Sofia Vergara, Ricky Gervais and Jonathan Morgan Heit. The Blu-ray package comes with separate 3D/2D editions, DVD, a digital copy and UltraViolet, as well commentary with director Cal Brunker; a 21-minute making-of and 4-minute “building-of” featurettes; alternate and deleted scenes; and music videos by Delta Rae, Owl City and Cody Simpson.
I wonder how much crossover there is between the audiences for “Escape From Planet Earth” andShout!Factory’s releases of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” episodes in half-season increments. To my untrained eye, the live-action show looks as if it belongs in a museum or time capsule. Still, there probably are thousands of moms and dads who watch the 20-year-old episodes with their kids and get the same nostalgic rush old-timers get when someone mentions “Captain Video” or Froggy the Gremlin. As the storyline enters “Season 2, Volume 2,” Lord Zedd is getting impatient with Rita Repulsa and her failure to dominate the Earth, as planned. The Power Rangers are accorded new powers and Zords modeled after mythological creatures. Also look for White Ranger, a hero armed with a talking sword and mighty White Tigerzord. – Gary Dretzka
The Loving Story
Charge: Zero Emissions/Maximum Speed
No one cheers harder for the underdog than a documentary filmmaker who’s invested uncounted time and money into telling that competitor’s story. It doesn’t matter if the participants are ballroom dancers, Scrabble and Monopoly players, spellers, bowlers, cricketeers or the 1969 New York Mets. The David-vs.-Goliath angle also comes into play when a team from an economically disadvantaged district takes on a perennial favorite in the championship contest. As a wise man once observed of Major League baseball, cheering for the New York Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel. At the same time, sports dynasties can have their off-years, too. If it was the documentarian’s intention to chronicle yet another winning season, he or she then must be prepared to punt. In “Brooklyn Castles,” Katie Dellamaggiore’s subject is a chess team from a financially strapped junior high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., which routinely turns out an astonishing number of championship chess players. Its team has served as an inspiration for fellow students, 65 percent of whom come from homes subsisting on below-poverty-level incomes. Although it’s rarely a surprise when a student from Intermediate School 318 wins an important match, the odds of most other students making their way through high school and college, and finding a good-paying job, aren’t nearly as good. No matter the glory of winning, scholarships based on a proficiency in chess are as rare as World Series games in Wrigley Field. “Brooklyn Castle” puts a tight focus on a half-dozen kids and a pair of dedicated teacher/coaches as they struggle to maintain both the excellence of the program and cope with a budget that takes a hit whenever a politician in Albany sneezes. Everyone we meet here is likeable and dedicated to the task at hand. Because applicants for a place in I.S. 318 must demonstrate their willingness to adhere to its rigorous educational demands, behavioral problems aren’t much of a problem, either. The points working in the players favor don’t make their accomplishments any less astonishing, though, or “Brooklyn Castle” less entertaining. The DVD includes deleted scenes.
It’s entirely fitting that the documentary “The Loving Story” should arrive at a time when millions of people are sitting on pins and needles, awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision – or non-decision, if the justices decide to duck the issue – on the legality of California’s Proposition 8, which prohibits same-sex marriage in the state. Forty-sex years ago, the Supreme Court took on a similar hot-button case, only, this time, it involved the forbidden marriage of a white American, Richard Loving, and his part-black, part-Cherokee fiancée, Mildred Jeter. They had been arrested nine years earlier by Virginia police after travelling from Caroline County to Washington, D.C., to be married. They would be found guilty of breaking laws against “miscegenation” and be sentenced to a year in prison. While their case was making its way through the courts, the Lovings had to hide the fact that they had moved back to Virginia from Washington and were living on family-owned farmland. Amazingly, more than a century had passed since the beginning of the Civil War and interracial marriage remained illegal in 21 states. It was something they shared with Nazi Germany and Apartheid-era South Africa. “The Loving Story” recalls both the personal angst and legal wrangling that preceded the unanimous decision. Today, of course, many of the same pinhead religious beliefs that kept men and women of different races and colors from getting married, or even engaging in sexual intercourse, are being parroted in arguments against same-sex marriage. Nancy Buirski’s film benefits from recently recovered archival material, including home movies, photographs and interviews.
The last time actor and motorcycle nut Ewan McGregor teamed up with filmmaker Mark Neale was on the documentary “Fastest,” which followed the fortunes of riders on Europe’s MotoGP circuit. It was a non-fiction sequel to 2003’s “Faster,” which introduced the motorsport and champion rider Valentino Rossi to tens of thousands of new fans worldwide. Both movies featured balls-out riding, exciting wipeouts and tales of personal glory. McGregor is back to narrate Neale’s “Charge,” which, besides showcasing some terrific racing, demonstrates how bikers can join the vanguard of green-power advocates. The movie takes us back to 2009, when fans of MotoGP practically laughed the zero-emissions gearheads off the grand prix course on the Isle of Man. No one was much interested in watching motorcycles struggle to reach speeds of 100 mph, when gas-powered bikes were going twice that speed. Neale’s cameras returned the next three years to follow the progress, of which there was plenty. The most amusing aspect of green-powered racing is the lack of noise, which is what fans expect to hear a lot of when they come to the races. The supplements include extended racing action, deleted scenes and interviews. – Gary Dretzka
Several very good historical epics about Mongolia and the reign of the Golden Horde have been exported from Russia in recent years. They’ve been distinguished by tremendous horsemanship, fiery action and landscapes that are glorious one moment and barren the next. Set in 1357, as the dynasty’s vast reach was beginning to shrink, “The Horde” tells a couple of stories simultaneously. One describes challenges to the reigning Khan, Jani Beg, from within and without the walls of his capital, while the other tells the story of Metropolitan Aleksei, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, who was summoned by Jani Beg to cure the blindness of his mother, as if the future saint was nothing more than a wizard or the conjurer of the last resort. If Aleksai failed, Mongol soldiers would be sent to Moscow to destroy the city. Before that could happen, Aleksai is banished to the boonies, where he’s treated like a slave. “The Horde” was filmed in Astrakhan, a city in in the Volga Delta that once served as capital for the Golden Hoard. It will be of more interest to students of Russian, Mongolian and Orthodox history than anyone else, although Andrei Proshkin’s drama is well-made and looks different than previous western efforts to document the period. (Genghis Khan has been played by Omar Sharif, Richard Tyson, Phil Hartman, Michael Palin and John Wayne.) The DVD can be listened to in Russian or dubbed English. – Gary Dretzka
Hannah Has a Ho-Phase: VOD
Watching this reversal-of-fortune rom-com, I couldn’t help but be struck by its similarity in tone to “Kissing Jessica Stein” and quirky indie romances by Ed Burns, Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers, especially those with early appearances by Greta Gerwig. Newcomers Jamie Jensen and Nadia Munla promise quite a bit more than they deliver in the video-on-demand “Hannah Has a Ho-Phase.” They do, however, get nice performances from Genevieve Hudson-Price and Meredith Forlenza, in roles that Jennifer Westfeldt might have considered before tackling lesbian wannabe Jessica Stein. They play Hannah and Leslie, flat-mates on opposite ends of the dating spectrum. When we meet her, Leslie is teaching pole-dancing at her New York dance studio and enjoying orgasms whose decibel levels rival those emanating from a subway portal. Hannah has a steady boyfriend, but is in no hurry to share her body with him. Nonetheless, her sexual frustration and reluctance to give into it have begun to irritate Leslie. In an effort to kick-start the young woman’s libido, Leslie challenges Hannah to accept a wager that only exists in such movies as “40 Days and 40 Nights” and “The Proposal,” neither of which could be confused with documentaries. Hannah agrees to sleep with 10 guys before Leslie is allowed to have sex with another disposable stud. I can’t remember what the stakes are, but, given Hannah’s high standards, Leslie doesn’t expect to remain a born-again virgin for long. Both of the women will face severe tests along the way to the finish line, of course. What struck me here is the reluctance of the filmmakers to put the characters’ naughty bits on display, especially considering what’s readily available on other cable channels. The same was true, however, in “Kissing Jessica Stein.” Indeed, Hannah wears lingerie that would be more fitting in the Sears catalogue than Victoria’s Secret. Needless to say, “Hannah Has a Ho-Phase” isn’t for everyone. Maybe, I’m the one who’s out of touch, however. – Gary Dretzka
Journey of the Universe: The Complete Collection
Secrets of the Dead: Bugging Hitler’s Soldier’s
Nature: The Private Life of Deer
Nature: Legendary White Stallions
Frontline: The Economic Meltdown
In 1999, on the last day of the millennium – give or take a year or two — Stephen Hawking observed: “The world has changed far more in the past 100 years than in any other century in history. The reason is not political or economic but technological … technologies that flowed directly from advances in basic science.” Things mankind absolutely knows to be true about its place in the universe – physically and theologically – have been proven false so frequently as to be almost laughable. Each new generation of school children is taught to accept as fact beliefs and theories that will be disproven, even during their lifetimes. The success of the Hubble Space Telescope mission, alone, proves that Hawking’s point about technology and science is well-taken. The PBS documentary project, “Journey of the Universe,” recaps what we currently know to be true about how the universe was formed and continues to evolve. It speculates, as well, as to what in God’s name we’re doing here, in the first place. Oops, did I say God? It’s what we don’t know and never did know that some of the scientists interviewed here expect to discover if the pursuit of scientific knowledge continues apace. I wouldn’t count on it. After all, for every question that’s been answered about the Big Bang theory and expansion of the universe, there’s others that beg such questions as “Who or what triggered the Big Bang?” and “How far can the universe expand before it disappears into the void?” By comparison, the guiding principles behind Creationism almost make sense.
“Journey of the Universe” and it’s longer companion documentary, “Journey of the Universe/Conversations,” begin with the “flame” that ignited the Big Bang and end by bringing us up to date on what we’re discovering in deep space, deep oceans and within the human genome. Noted cosmo-geneticist Brian Swimme hosts the program from the Greek island of Samos, birthplace, circa 570 B.C., of the mathematician/philosopher Pythagoras. Largely undeveloped, the picturesque island is a place that, at various times, has served as a crossroads for world trade and the knowledge travelers carried with them. Besides tourism, its economic base is agriculture. In fact, through all its centuries of peace, war and political upheaval, not much has changed on the island since Pythagoras’ time. Swimme found it to be the perfect place to present his theories about the interconnectedness of humans and everything that’s changed in the universe over the course of the last 14 billion years. He doesn’t avoid theology, finding stars to be a common element in religious art and the chemical makeup of man. He provides a lot of fascinating information in a relatively short time and “Conversations” extends the discussion with Yale professor Mary Evelyn Tucker interviewing other scientists in a more formal setting. The DVD comes with a booklet that could be used in classroom situations. Co-director David Kennard, with Patsy Northcutt, cut his documentary teeth on “Cosmos,” the 13-episode that made Carl Sagan a household name.
The PBS series “Secrets of the Dead” uses modern investigative techniques, forensic science and historical examination to amplify on events whose truth could only be verified by people who lived through them and carried their secrets to the grave … or until the statutes of limitations expired. One of the things the show reveals on a weekly basis is how much information is deemed inappropriate for dissemination by ordinary folks, like you and me. The episode “Bugging Hitler’s Soldiers” contains information that, until recently, remained classified by British intelligence agencies. From the earliest days of Britain’s involvement in the war, MI-19 transferred German officers to a posh estate and treated them as if their ranks accorded them special favors. What the Germans didn’t know was that their every conversation was captured, using sophisticated microphones and recording devices. Much of the information was extremely valuable, both in the war effort and as a way to monitor the prisoners’ psychological state. Among them were the location of rocket-testing sites, verification of Nazi atrocities and the culpability of German soldiers in crimes previously ascribed only to Gestapo and SS troops. What’s discomfiting about the material as presented is the fact that the information gleaned through the bugging wasn’t used in war-crimes trials and some of the guilty officers escaped punishment. The secrecy behind the program precluded disclosure of such damning first-hand testimony.
One of the recurring themes in PBS’ “Nature” series is the interaction between different animal species and human beings, as one group’s habitat expands and the other’s contracts. “The Private Life of Deer” joins previous episodes, “Cracking the Koala Code,” “A Murder of Crows,” “Kangaroo Mob” and “Raccoon Nation.” In each case, at least part of the documentary is reserved for a discussion of how dangerous it is for animals to become so adjusted to suburban and city life that their familiarity sometimes results in them becoming pests. Instead of hunters and four-legged predators, the greatest threat to unnaturally complacent visitors becomes drivers of cars, trucks and buses. The latest installment describes how the booming deer population has begun to forage land outside the boundaries of forests, swamps and fields, and graze on manicured lawns, gardens, shrubs and tiered roadsides. More harmless than not, the deer become their own worst enemies in these situations. The “Nature” crew uses modern technology to follow and record the movements of white-tail deer, while also on the lookout tiny key deer and rarely seen white deer. I’m not sure why the threat of chronic-wasting disease to the deer population went un-discussed here, or how such close proximity to suburbanized deer could spread tick-borne diseases to their human neighbors.
The “Nature” episode “Legendary White Stallions” celebrates the interesting history and marvelous talents of the Lipizzaner stallions at Vienna’s Spanish Riding School. Through hundreds of years of breeding, the horses were first taught how to overcome natural fears and become important as extensions of fighting men. After the Moors captured Spain, they were re-taught to perform as acrobats and artists. Today, they still define poetry in motion. The program also describes the breeding program and time spent high in the Austrian Alps, basically learning how to use their genetically transferred skills. As wonderful as it is, “Legendary White Stallions” would have benefited from a discussion of the rescue of these magnificent animals in the closing days of World War II and the Napoleonic wars.
Here it is, almost seven years after the nearly total collapse of the U.S. and world economies and more energy has been expended turning out documentaries on how it happened than by the government in punishing the scumbags who caused it. The rich get richer, the middle-class gets poorer and the poor stay poor. Sadly, it’s become the American way. The problem can’t be laid on the doorstep of PBS or the producers at “Frontline,” who’ve given prosecutors more than enough evidence to hang ’em high. In case you missed the coverage, though, five key episodes have been compiled in “The Economic Meltdown.” They include “Cliffhanger,” which investigates the inside history of how Washington has failed to solve the country’s problems of debt and deficit; “The Warning,” which profiles the lone regulator who warned about the dangers of derivatives and, instead of being rewarded, paid the price; “Breaking the Bank,” about Ken Lewis and Bank of America’s troubled Merrill deal; “Ten Trillion and Counting,” updates the politics behind America’s mountain of debt; and “Inside the Meltdown,” an investigation into how the economy went so bad, so fast, and what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson didn’t see, couldn’t stop and weren’t able to fix. – Gary Dretzka
Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season
Falling Skies: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Pretty Little Liars: The Complete Third Season
Adventure Time: The Completer First/Second Season
It’s difficult to say, exactly, how television executives and DVD distributors define what constitutes a season and what differentiates a “volume” of episodes from a full-season load. Take “Breaking Bad,” for example. For its first four seasons, the highly celebrated and entirely unconventional AMC drama rolled out on a week-to-week schedule. There were seven test-the-water episodes in Season One and three subsequent 13-episode seasons after that. After the fifth and final season was given a green light, it was announced that it would be divided into two eight-episode seasons, beginning 13 months apart from each other. Why the half that begins on August 11, 2013, isn’t being referred to as Season Six is anyone’s guess, but economics must have played a role in the decision somewhere. This won’t make much of a difference to fans accustomed to binge watching “Breaking Bad” on DVD/Blu-ray. It might even give them something to look forward to in 2014. If the bad news comes in learning that the new half-season box includes only eight segments, the good news is that it also contains a larger-than-normal bonus package across two discs. All of the episodes include commentaries and making-of featurettes; deleted and extended scenes on both discs; backgrounders; material from the writers’ room; “Chris Hardwick’s All-Star Celebrity Bowling”; “Gallery 1988 Art Show”; an extended examination of the train scene; “The Cleaner: Jonathan Banks as Mike”; a rehearsal of the “prison stunt”; and audition tapes. The real keeper is an uncensored scene exclusive to the Blu-ray/DVD, “Chicks ’n’ Guns,” which is every bit as sexy as it might sound to some folks. It very well could serve as a preview of a spinoff show, featuring Bob Odenkirk’s character, Saul Goodman.
With Season Three of the TNT series “Falling Skies” beginning next week, this is the right time for latecomers to catch up with the second stanza. It begins with Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) and everyone else in the 2d Massachusetts a year older and still battling the skittles. Mason has returned from his mission of discovery with the aliens and the company plans to travel to South Carolina to find more human survivors. Sons Ben and Hal will have to stop squabbling if the resistance is going to be successful, though. Like “Breaking Bad,” fans will find a generous bonus package in the new Blu-ray. It includes a 20-minute examination into the making of the second season; a look at the evolution of the skitters; fan features; a 31-minute Q&A with Wil Wheaton; a preview of Season Three; an animate trailer, created by Dark Horse Comics; four commentary tracks; and UltraViolet.
With the teen mystery series “Pretty Little Liars” moving into its fourth year next week, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Season Three package is newly available. It opens with the beginning of a new school year and plenty of time for the ladies to reflect on the revelations at the end of Season Two. No sooner does a new semester start, however, than a new nightmare begins. Needless to say, the pretty little liars are far too hot, popular and fashion-conscious to be so troubled, naughty and neurotic. One nice thing about the ABC Family series is that a season is comprised of 24 episodes, instead of the usual 13 for cable series. The DVD’s supplements add “Pretty Little Liars and the ‘A’ Network: Who Is ‘A’?”; an alternate ending for the “The Lady Killer” episode; bonus webisodes; unaired scenes; and a gag reel.
If fans of “Adventure Time” have complained about anything to do with the award-winning Cartoon Network series it’s that the DVD compilations have been broken into incomplete volumes and they haven’t been available in Blu-ray. Their prayers have been answered, at least partially, with the release of complete Season One and Season Two compilations in hi-def and DVD. Each package contains 26 episodes of 11 minutes each, or a total running time of 286 minutes. For the uninitiated, “AT” is set in the faraway kingdom of Ooo, where Finn the Human and his bespectacled talking dog Jake regularly trip up the mostly evil Ice King, who has the hots for Princess Bubblegum. They’re joined by the bass-playing Vampire Queen, petulant extraterrestrial Lumpy Space Princess and Beemo, a sentient but playable video game console. The two-disc sets include commentary tracks on four episodes, background featurettes, a 10-minute talk with the show’s music editors; a nearly hour-long collection of animatics and a two-minute episode called “The Wand.” There are 22 commentaries and an interview with the crew on in the Season Two set. This is one crazy show. – Gary Dretzka
NFL: Baltimore Ravens: Road to XLVII: Blu-ray
After teasing fans of the NFL champion Baltimore Ravens with DVDs filled with season highlights and key games leading up to the Super Bowl, “Baltimore Ravens: Road to XLVII” puts the finishing touch on the season. Besides original network broadcasts of the Super Bowl, the two-disc package includes the Ravens’ AFC Wildcard victory over the Colts; the AFC Divisional Game, against the Broncos; the AFC Championship triumph over the Patriots; and showdown with the 49ers in the big show. One unforgettable playoff moment was Ray Lewis’ final home game versus the Indianapolis Colts, which, of course, was the team that deserted Baltimore in 1984, breaking millions of hearts in the process. Lest we forget, the Ravens are the team that gave up the Browns name when it left Cleveland in 1996, breaking hearts there. – Gary Dretzka