The Forgiveness of Blood: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Say what you will about Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator of Albania who died in 1985, but he was able to do something about the country’s tradition of blood feuds that previous leaders hadn’t been able to accomplish in many centuries. After taking control of the country after its liberation from Germany in 1944, Hoxha declared an end to quasi-legal vendettas, especially in rural areas. Although widely accepted as a way to maintain order in lawless regions, Kanun had always been something of an inexact science when it comes to adjudicating everything from trespassing to murder. Basically, though, Kanun law can be boiled down to, “Whoever kills will be killed. Blood is avenged with blood.” Since Hoxha’s death and the installation of parliamentary democracy, six years later, at least 10,000 Albanians have been killed due to blood feuds. It’s also estimated that more than 5,500 families are currently engaged in blood feuds, with some 20,000 men and boys living under a de facto death sentence. The only alternatives for persons deemed responsible for a blood crime are permanent house arrest, the sacrifice of another male family member or the announcement of an agreement among the men in both families.
In “The Forgiveness of Blood,” American director Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”) introduces us to two Albanian families engaged in just such a feud. He steers our sympathy to a popular teenager and promising student, Nik, who’s kept under house arrest until his father is either arrested or killed for murdering a neighbor. That man had denied him access to a road he’s used for business ever since his grandfather opened it to all residents of the village. If Nik is seen outside the house and killed by a member of the grieving family, his death would satisfy the debt. Where’s Judge Judy when you need her? By casting mostly inexperienced actors from the specific area in northern Albanian where vendettas are most commonplace, Marston has informed “Forgiveness” with the truth that comes when actors know precisely what’s going on in the minds of their characters. In a group interview conducted by Marston for the bonus package in Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition, all of the key actors said they knew or were aware of people stuck in the same situation as Nik.
Watching the feature, I was struck immediately by the similarity between the two families engaged in the fictional feud and two actual Albanian families featured in Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary “Payback.” That film is based on Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s thoughts on the concept of paying back debts for all manner of transgressions, financial and otherwise. Baichwal interviewed a man who’s been placed under house arrest with his family after a disagreement over a moved fence led to murder. He, too, could lawfully be killed if he leaves his property. The similarities between the situations and people in the two films are uncanny. If Nik is the most empathetic character in “Forgiveness,” we also care about his doting teenage sister and selfless mother; homebound younger brother, who bridles at the likelihood of his never being able to go to school again; and the father, who allowed a cousin to talk him into confronting the neighbor. There’s no reason, though, to reserve any pity for the adult male relatives of the families who insist on honoring the antiquated practice. They’re so hidebound that they refuse to listen to Nik’s thoughts and ideas on the subject, based solely on his age. Underlying everything that’s happening on the surface of “Forgiveness” is the reality that the outside world – with its Internet networks, cellphones and paved highways – is quickly encroaching on the village and its sordid tradition. The Blu-ray also contains commentary by Marston and co-writer Andamion Murataj; audition and rehearsal footage; making-of material; and an essay by Oscar Moralde. – Gary Dretzka
Neil Young’s Journeys: Blu-ray
Leonard Cohen: The Complete Review
Yardbirds: 1966-1968: The Lost Tapes
I can’t think of another musician who’s revealed so much of his talent and humanity on film as Neil Young. In addition to his own quirky ode to small-town life, “Greendale,” Young has collaborated with Jonathan Demme on three films, once with Jim Jarmusch and was the subject of an “American Masters” episode, “Neil Young: Don’t Be Denied.” There are many others, including performance films that demonstrate his devotion to charitable organizations and disaster relief. Young is revered for performing whatever kind of music he wants to on any given day; dressing for comfort, instead of stage presence; saying what’s on his mind, even if the record labels don’t approve of his views and some of it comes out backwards. “Neil Young’s Journeys” is Demme’s hybrid follow-up to “Neil Young Trunk Show” and “Neil Young: Heart of Gold.” In “Journeys,” Young and Demme spend time in his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, before heading for Toronto’s Massey Hall, in his 1956 Crown Victoria. His memories of growing up in a small town on the Trans-Canada Highway could hardly be called remarkable, but they are fun to hear. Several of the songs performed in concert are from the 2010 album “Le Noise,” along with such classics as “Ohio,” “Hey Hey, My My,” “I Believe in You,” “Helpless” and “Hitchhiker.” The most remarkable thing about “Journeys” to me is the brightness and clarity of the Blu-ray audio/video presentation. It literally shines.
Leonard Cohen is another Canadian singer-songwriter of mythic proportions. For the most part, the Montreal native has avoided the glare of the media spotlight, letting his music and poetry speak for him. This hasn’t prevented his admirers from writing endless odes to his art and prodding him to contribute to bio-docs and concert films. The latest is MVD Visuals’ “Leonard Cohen: The Complete Review,” which appears to be a merger of two previous “Under Review” discs, which divide his career roughly in half. Now 78, Cohen’s journey began well before he was recognized for his musical talent in 1967, with “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” By then, he had already been recognized as a significant poet in Canada, written two novels, been the subject of a documentary, purchased a home on Hydra and was a fringe player in Andy Warhol’s Factory scene. Far from being a hippie or Dylan acolyte, his achingly romantic music was embraced by post-folkies, college students and such emerging hit-makers as Judy Collins. “Leonard Cohen: The Complete Review” is broken roughly in half, at the point of his ill-fated collaboration with Phil Spector, “Death of a Lady’s Man.” His phoenix-like resurgence in the 1980s is fully covered on the second disc. The set is informed by the opinions of learned critics and producers and includes snippets of performance clips and other archival material. If you’ve dug Cohen from the get-go or discovered him yesterday, this is a DVD to savor.
“Yardbirds: Paris 1966-1968: The Lost Tapes” finds one of the most influential rock groups of all time on the eve of its dissolution. Eric Clapton had left the group in 1965, leaving rave-up duties to Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, then only Page. The future Led Zep is pretty much the star of this collection, although Beck can be seen on a few tracks, as well. The music clips appear to have been found deep in the archives of a French television network, as if someone were embarrassed by the shoddy production values on display. The music sounds OK, though. This collection includes several of the Yardbirds’ biggest hits, as well a couple of unexpected treats. Here’s the play list: “Train Kept a Rollin’,” “Shapes of Things,” “Dazed and Confused,” “For Your Love,” “Goodnight Sweet Josephine,” “Over Under Sideways Down,” “Louise,” “I’m a Man,” “Hang on Sloopy,” “I Wish You Would,” “Heart Full of Soul,” and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” – Gary Dretzka
Legendary Amazons: Blu-ray
When I think of Amazons, legendary or otherwise, my mind drifts toward Lucy Lawless, Anita Ekberg, Lynda Carter, Sandahl Bergman, Brigitte Nielsen … heck, even 5-foot-1 Maria Ouspenskaya, who played a tribal queen in “Tarzan and the Amazons.” None of the women warriors to whom we’re introduced in Frankie Chan’s “Legendary Amazons” – or, for that matter, its 1972 precursor “The 14 Amazons” – are related to the women who fought at Troy or took on Hercules. Ferocious fighters all, the Chinese Amazons are closer in stature to Ouspenskaya than Xena. Still, in the world of Hong Kong cinema, a little poetic license goes a long way. “Legendary Amazons” is the latest in a series of folk tales, books, movies, plays, operas, TV shows and musicals extolling the virtues of the Yang Clan, who, for several generations, defended the borders of the Song Dynasty against invaders. “Legendary Amazons” describes how the widows, sisters and daughters of several slain Yangs rose up to repel the attackers and exact vengeance on those who betrayed the family and killed all but one young general. Not only are the women courageous, but they’re also well versed in the martial arts.
Chan’s first film in a decade resembles other historical epics in its scale, action sequences and wonderfully crafted design elements. Once the women get going, there are few moments when something wild isn’t happening on screen. If anything, “Legendary Amazons” is a bit more ragged around the edges than other recent imports from China and Hong Kong. The fighting scenes are terrific, of course, but they carry little historical weight. They’re fun to watch and that’s reason enough to watch the movie, which reminded me of the Saturday matinees of my youth. The Blu-ray arrives with a rambling making-of featurette, which offers some informative material on the creation of the fighting scenes, along with some typically vacuous interviews. The set also adds a dubbed track in English. – Gary Dretzka
Chernobyl Diaries: Blu-ray
Richard Bart Jr.’s profoundly unnerving debut as a writer/director drags viewers to places they probably never thought they’d see in a movie starring such interesting actors as AnnaLynne McCord, Traci Lords, John Waters, Malcolm McDowell, Ray Wise and Marlee Matlin. In “Excision,” McCord (“90210”) is almost unrecognizable as Pauline, a deeply disturbed high school student who is physically repulsive, delusional and pitiable. Her skin appears to be made of green canvas and it’s dappled with pimples and fever blisters. Her stringy brown hair looks as if Pauline is shampoo-phobic, while her posture can best be described as “defensive.” If that weren’t sufficiently disagreeable, Pauline’s willingness to speak her mind around the “popular” kids in school ensures that the only way she’d ever be elected prom queen is if that year’s theme was “Come back, Carrie, all is forgiven.” An exceedingly gruesome murder in the final scene isn’t the only thing “Excision” shares with Brian De Palma and Stephen King’s “Carrie.” Pauline’s mother, played admirably by Lords, is a bible-banging blond who’s lost all patience with her daughter’s appearance, wiseass remarks and unwillingness to get with the program. Nor does it help that Pauline’s sister, Grace (Ariel Winter), has cystic fibrosis and necessarily gets most of Mom’s concern and pity. Their parents are pleased that Pauline wants to be a surgeon someday, but remain doubtful due to her refusal to study or pay attention in class.
If Pauline is no different than tens of thousands of other teenage girls who live to torture their mothers mercilessly, the vividness of her blood-drenched nightmares would set her apart in any crowd. They take the form of sordid surgical procedures and bodily functions of a strictly female nature. Bart commits them to the screen with visual nods to David Cronenberg, Stanley Kubrick, Tarsem Singh and David Lynch, among other arthouse favorites who’ve approached horror in non-generic ways. If there are times during “Excision” when it seems as if Pauline is about to be revealed as Satan’s spawn on Earth, they’re countered by scenes in which she’s clearly trying to do the right things, but doesn’t know how. That’s especially true in the shocking climax, when the teenager combines her career aspirations with a mad desire to make her sister’s life more comfortable. Obviously, “Excision” isn’t for the squeamish or, even, genre buffs looking for a break from zombie and vampire fare. It will be interesting to see where Bart’s ambition takes him next.
I know that “Chernobyl Diaries” could have been a terrifically entertaining thriller, because at least one truly fascinating documentary – Nature’s “Radioactive Wolves” – has been produced about essentially the same subject. In the 25 years since the devastating meltdown at the then-Soviet nuclear power plant caused an entire city to be evacuated and abandoned, Mother Nature has reclaimed the wilderness in the 1,200-square-mile death zone, creating a haven for forest animals, homeless pets and the occasional endangered species. Any hunter would be out of his mind to think it could be safe to plunder the accidental refuge, let alone eat any animal or bird killed there. Extreme tourism enthusiasts, however, now risk life, limb and lung for the privilege of posting pictures from the summits of mountains, bungee jumping into a live volcano or swimming with sharks. In the surprisingly lackluster “Chernobyl Diaries” – written by Oren Peli, creator of the the “Paranormal Activity” franchise – a mixed group of six American tourists take a Ukrainian guide up on his offer to go on a photo safari behind the heavily guarded borders of Chernobyl. Naturally, it isn’t until the van is parked deep within the ruined facility that the guide realizes that the vehicle won’t be able to make it out before nightfall. By this time, the explorers have already witnessed mutant fish, feral dogs, decomposing corpses of stranded animals and a large bear that sought temporary shelter in an empty office building. Given what generally happens at night in horror movies, viewers should have been able to expect chills and thrills beyond comprehension … zombies, even.
I won’t reveal what happens after this promising premise is established, except to say that Peli and freshman director Bradley Parker run out of steam soon after the radioactive animals began to smell human blood. One of the reasons “Diaries” is such a disappointment is that we knew going into it how terrorizing an experience a night at Chernobyl could provide. Parker had already proven his horror chops in “Paranormal Activity,” practically inventing the “lost tape” subgenre. If it weren’t for special sound and lighting effects, which hit us like stun grenades, the movie would be even flatter. (Unlike the Chernobyl documentaries, Parker was required to find representative locations in Serbia and Hungary.) The Blu-ray does a pretty good job capturing the minimal-light environments and audio jolts, but the dialogue and narrative are weak. It adds an alternative ending, a short deleted scene, a Chernobyl conspiracy viral video and mock commercial for the tour company. – Gary Dretzka
Terror Train: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Funhouse: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
When it comes to high-concept cinema, it would be tough to beat “‘Halloween’ on a train.” It preceded the famous “Miami Vice” pitch, “MTV cops,” by several years. After watching “Silver Streak” and “Halloween” back-to-back one weekend, Daniel Grodnik dreamt about just such a conceptual merger. Seven hours after committing his idea to paper, he convinced Sandy Howard Productions to jump aboard the “Terror Train.” As directed by Roger Spottiswoode, “Terror Train” was practically a paint-by-number project. A cruel prank is played on a medical student, looking to get laid at a party, and the result is that he’s placed in a mental institution. Four years later, on New Year’s Eve, the traumatized young man learns of a masquerade party being staged on a train by the same group of college students. The temptation to wreak havoc and re-connect with his dream girl – Jamie Lee Curtis, of course — is too strong to resist. Even before the train leaves the station, the disguised killer begins picking off students one by one. “Halloween” on a train, indeed. Among the costumed suspects is a magician played by none other than David Copperfield. (It’s a good thing that he didn’t give up his day job to become an actor.) Look, as well, for Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner and D.D. Winters (a.k.a., Vanity). The Blu-ray adds new commentary and interviews with Grodnik, production executive Don Carmody, production designer Glenn Bydwell and composer John Mills-Cockell, a stills gallery and original marketing material.
By the same token, “Funhouse” could have been pitched as “‘Halloween’ in a carnival funhouse” and it would have been just as easy to sell. With Tobe Hooper at the helm, a good time was guaranteed for all. As the story goes, a teenager disobeys her parents by attending a carnival with a shady reputation that’s passing through town. After taking in the freak show and visiting a fortune teller, she and her three friends hop off the haunted-house ride and find a hiding place until the park closes. When they witness a murder taking place and are spotted by the killers, the teens are required to spend the rest of the night avoiding the death penalty themselves. Both of these Scream! Factory releases have been given a fresh hi-def polish and look great. The Blu-ray includes commentary with Hooper, four new interviews, deleted scenes and advertising spots. – Gary Dretzka
Rites of Passage: Blu-ray
Of all the hoary clichés employed by writers of horror movies, perhaps the hoariest of all allows for the convenient construction of a house or shopping mall on hallowed ground once reserved for the dead bodies of Indians … or upon the gates of hell, one. As resourceful a screenwriter as W. Peter Iliff has proven himself to be — “Point Break,” “Patriot Games,” “Varsity Blues” – you’d think that he’d be among the last to set his directorial debut anywhere near such a formulaic, if sacred site. For the purposes of “Rites of Passage,” however, the temptation must have been too great to resist. Iliff and co-writer Rick Halsey had been trying for years to collaborate on a project that could take advantage of the many empty greenhouses now standing empty on property once used in the Halsey family’s flower business, near Santa Barbara. As everyone who attended school on the Central Coast probably was taught, as many as 20,000 Chumash Indians once lived year-round in the area, with only a couple thousand of them surviving. Given the damage done to the population by diseases introduced by Spanish soldiers and priests, there probably are too many sacred burial grounds to count. It’s also likely that shamans used hallucinogenic jimson weed in their ceremonies, just as the anthropology majors do here while partying at a fellow student’s beachside home. Conveniently, it is nestled between a burial ground and the empty greenhouses.
What we know and the students won’t learn until later is that the student’s demented brother, Benny (Wes Bentley), and his meth-fueled buddy, Delgado (Christian Slater), have their own nefarious uses for the greenhouses. When the students, half of whom are wearing itsy-bitsy, teeny weeny bikinis, arrive on the scene, Benny is convinced by the jimson-weed tea he’s ingested that his future Native-American bride is among them. For his part, Delgado discovers that the drunken teenage girl who killed his wife and child in a terrible accident, and has escaped prosecution, is among the crowd, as well. An imaginary sock-monkey, perched on his rifle, directs his every move. Mayhem ensues when Benny and Delgado come in direct contact with the students, who, by this time, have imbibed their own cups of jimson tea. None of it is remotely credible, terrifying or particularly interesting. Adding to the confusion is the hot-and-horny anthropology teacher played by Stephen Dorff. He’s a swell guy and isn’t at all reluctant to break the rule forbidding professors from taking advantage of the mini-skirted sorority sisters sitting cross-legged in the first row of his classroom. Dorff must have owed Iliff a favor. The director would have been better served if Dorf had convinced him to set “Rites of Passage” at the Chumash casino, just up the 101 from Santa Barbara, instead of a deserted greenhouse. That way, when the ghost of the shaman appears, it would be possible for him to avenge the genocide of his ancestors at the green-felt tables and greenhouses.
Some micro-budget indies, and “40 West” is one of them, look more like acting exercises than stories committed to film. Long stretches of dialogue substitute for action and the actors get equal time to hog the camera. Nothing feels natural, especially not the emotions on display. If the actors are given interesting things to say, most sins of omission can be forgiven. If not … what’s the point? Well, the imbalance can be partially explained here by the fact that the movie’s protagonist, Maeve, is played by the same woman, Jennifer Nicole Porter, who also wrote, produced, composed the score and help cast it. Maeve is the leader of an all-woman blues band popular in Texas. One night, after a gig, her car breaks down and she’s mugged for the money in her purse. A guy in the convenience store comes to her rescue, practically demanding that she accept his help in finding a place to stay and something to eat and drink. He’s so persistent, in fact, that he can only be a pervert or in cahoots with the thief. Maeve isn’t nearly as skeptical as viewers will be. Turns out, the guy’s been hired by Maeve’s abusive ex-husband – a recently paroled ex-con — to track her down and arrange a surprise meeting. The guy claims he’s still in love with Maeve, but it takes him all of about two minutes to begin beating her up again. After Maeve passes out, everybody gets an opportunity to explain themselves, including the ex-con’s prison groupie and, later, her husband – played by Wayne Newton, who may be the most natural actor of the bunch – who tracks them to the cheapo motel room. Then, he gets his turn to talk. That’s all. Besides the fact that nothing of substance really happens here, the abuse the women suffer is an extremely ugly thing to watch. A long making-of featurette is included, but it, too, is a vanity project. – Gary Dretzka
From Australia, “Last Ride” tells a highly compelling story about a violent ex-con who kills his former criminal cohort in a fit of justifiable, if excessive rage and takes his 10-year-old son along on his attempt to escape justice. Given the circumstances and his previous record, Kev (Hugo Weaving) knows that he might not have any time left to do anything remotely paternal with the boy, Chook (Tom Russell), who’s as sweet as his father is bitter. With the police hot on their trail, Kev and Chook embark on the kind of road trip every son wants to take with his dad, if only once their lives together (or forever regret not taking). Indeed, they act more like buddies than father and son, enjoying an easy rapport when the old man isn’t stealing cars or beating up clerks at a convenience store. Instead of heading for Sydney or another big city, where Kev might be able to blend in with blue-collar types, he revisits places his father took him as a boy. He also repeats stories told him by his father and other relatives, some of which seem pretty far-fetched. Chook eats them up like candy. As it becomes clear that Kev’s days of freedom are numbered, viewers naturally begin to wonder about the boy’s ultimate fate on Earth, especially what kind of impact watching his father in action might have on his subconscious mind.
What’s wonderful about “Last Ride” are the locations director Glendyn Ivin has chosen to shoot the scenes in which Kev and Chook come the closest to a normal father-son relationship. There’s a secluded campsite near a hidden pond, just outside the borders of a national park where Kev attempts to teach Chook how to swim, just as his father had done for him. There also are places in the Outback that are as spectacular as any in our desert Southwest. The shimmering surface of a vast salt flat is captured in a way I wish someone would shoot Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The skies are similarly magnificent. No matter how warmly he gets along with Chook during these interludes, Kev always finds a way for us to dislike him, intensely. He’s a career criminal with a hair-trigger temper, after all, and too much of a loose cannon to assure us that they could have a secure future together. I haven’t seen a father-son pairing like this on any size screen. The DVD comes with two intriguing shorts by Ivin; a short film in which Russell interviews people on the set; and a piece on the hidden beauty of Australia. – Gary Dretzka
Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted: Rainbow Wig Pack
TV Tunes to Go
Big Bad Beetleborgs: Season One, Volume One
Trooper and the Legend of the Golden Key
With a few noteworthy exceptions, most movie franchises built on the popularity of an animated feature are governed by the law of diminishing returns. As costs for production and marketing increase and previously established storylines are stretched to the breaking point, it becomes difficult to meet the margins expected by studio bean counters. Some find an afterlife as DVD originals, while others succeed theatrically by expanding their international audience and resisting the temptation to churn out new episodes simply because they can. By exploiting the straight-to-video revenue stream, which depends heavily on characters and storylines drafted under Jeffrey Katzenberg’s tenure, Disney has been able to extend franchises on the cheap. After Katzenberg’s acrimonious break from Disney, he took over responsibility for DreamWorks Animation. Starting from scratch, with the CGI-animated “Antz,” the company made movies the public and critics wanted to see, but still played in the shadow of the emerging Goliath, Disney/Pixar. While the story-driven “Prince of Egypt,” “Road to El Dorado,” “Sinbad” and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” made money, they would look like pikers alongside the funny-animal-driven “Shrek,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “Madagascar” juggernauts. Against a production budget of $145 million, “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” would return $681.6 million worldwide, in traditional 2D and 3D. It extends the storylines established in the first two installments, during with Alex (Ben Stiller), Marty (Chris Rock), Melman (David Schwimmer) and Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) left their habitats in a New York zoo, in search of greener veldts. Upon reaching Madagascar, it only took about 90 minutes of screen time for them to become homesick. Here, the quartet travels to Monaco, where they hope to hook up with their penguin pals, but end up buying a traveling circus that could provide them with a ticket home. In addition to the animal antics, the circus itself provides a showcase for some Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics. The finish even allows for a fourth installment. An optional Blu-ray gift-pack edition comes with a Halloween-ready rainbow wig, just like the one belonging to Marty; a “Get Them to the Train” game; “Animators’ Corner”; a trivia track; “Mad Music Mash-Up”; deleted scenes; circus acts; commentary; the featurette, “Making of ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ Live Spectacular” arena show; and digital and Ultraviolet copies of the film.
I wonder if movie theaters still host cartoon marathons over holiday weekends to keep kids and their parents from driving each other nuts. One way for youngsters to know that they’d reached puberty and were ready for more stimulating fare was when they could recite dialogue and act out gags from cartoons they’d already seen a half-dozen times. Today, of course, anyone with a Blockbuster card can program an afternoon’s worth of Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies, Silly Symphonies, Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker and Popeye cartoons. These are the classics, of course, and today’s kids might have distinctly different ideas of what’s funny than adults who weren’t conditioned to the aliens, mutants and gargoyles of the post-“Rugrats” era. The cartoons in “TV Tunes to Go” represent a period in animation when costs were being cut to the bone and storylines were far less than sophisticated. Still, there’s a niche audience for almost anything these days and a residual fondness may exist for “Heathcliff,” “Archie’s Weird Adventures,” “Horseland,” “Huckle Cat,” “Johnny Test,” “Lowly World,” “Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego,” “C.O.P.S.,” “Busytown Mysteries,” “Get Along Gang,” “Pole Position,” “The Legend of White Fang,” “Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors,” “Gadget Boy” and “The Busy World of Richard Scarry.” “TV Tunes to Go” represents more than 40 hours and 110 episodes of cartoons, all packaged in a circular tin travel case, with plenty of room left for other DVDs.
Like other Saban Entertainment productions of the 1990s, “Big Bad Beetleborgs” is an amalgam of live-action superhero adventures and programming imported from Japan, in this case the “Metal Hero” series “Juukou B-Fighter” and “B-Fighter Kabuto.” The story revolves around a trio of kids, who, on a dare, explore a mansion rumored to be haunted. Once inside, the gang frees a phantasm, Flabber, trapped in a pipe organ. In return, Flabber grants them their wish to be superheroes from their favorite comic book, Beetleborgs. As so often happens in these cases, the “phasm” also mistakenly releases the evil Magnavores. There are a zillion other characters, but most of the kids’ time is spent fighting monsters in the mansion. The Shout! Factory collection contains the first 27 of 88 episodes of the show, which ran for two years on Fox Kids. “Big Bad Beetleborgs” (a.k.a., “Beetleborgs Metallix”) died an unnatural death when Saban ran out of source material from Japan.
Of all breeds of slobbering dogs, my favorite is the bloodhound. In addition to having a face only another bloodhound could love, it can track escaped convicts through swamps. Let’s see a dachshund or Jack Russell terrier try that. Apparently, they can also find hidden treasures, as we see in the Dove-approved “Trooper and the Legend of the Golden Key.” After moving to a new town with his owner, Tommy, and his family, Trooper is enlisted in the search for a treasure rumored to be worth a million dollars. This is one treasure, though, that some folks in town want to keep for themselves, which leads to the kind of trouble dogs are better at handling than humans. Adding to the comedy factor is local puppy who adopts Trooper as his mate. – Gary Dretzka
PBS: Broadway: The American Musical: Blu-ray
Now playing on PBS stations around the country, “Broadway: The American Musical” is the rare television documentary series that could open with a placard guaranteeing audiences a wonderful time and not have to return a single penny to an unhappy viewer. Overflowing with music, dance and memories, the six-part series chronicles the history of American musical theater from Florenz Ziegfeld’s “Follies” to the present. Along the way, it examines the impact on legitimate theater from the post-WWI exuberance of the Roaring Twenties and ragtime; the catastrophic chill of the Depression; competition from radio, the movies and television; the decline and subsequent revival of Times Square; and a corporatization of Broadway, which has resulted in such megahits as “The Lion King,” “Wicked” and “Cats,” as well as budgets that have a chilling impact on producers of less ambitious entertainments. The series also demonstrates how the history of Broadway in the 20th Century has mirrored that of the country. Although most of the musicals launched over the last 100 years have been created from fluff and enforced optimism, “Broadway: The American Musical” demonstrates how some productions have addressed racism, poverty, immigrants, the emergence of youth culture, the anti-war and civil rights movements, AIDS and the farce that American politics have become. The series also showcases the individual stories of such influential individuals as Ziegfeld, George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Fanny Brice, Ethel Waters, Cole Porter, David Merrick, Hal Prince, Bob Fosse and Cameron Mackintosh, with the testimony of dozens more participants and observers. The Blu-ray supplements include extended interviews, archival performance footage and a featurette on “Wicked.” – Gary Dretzka
HBO: Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present
Kati With an I
There’s a telling moment in “The Artist Is Present,” when the acclaimed performance artist, Marina Abramovic, and marathon illusionist David Blaine discuss the possibility of combining their unique talents for a project. To anyone familiar with both performers, it’s easy to see how one’s talents might complement those of the other. Both can endure long periods of time without movement, after all, and attract large crowds of curious bystanders. When Abramovic broaches the possibility with an advisor, however, he pours cold water on it, cautioning that it’s one of the dumbest ideas he’s ever heard. His opinion is based on a belief that “performance art” and “illusion” are two very different things and to confuse one with the other is to cheapen the experience for their respective audiences. No matter how artistic a magician/illusionist may be, an artist’s talent shouldn’t be reduced to trickery. At least one piece staged by the self-dubbed “grandmother of performance art” begs the question, however. In 1974, Abramovic performed an act of extreme “purification” by starting a large five-pointed star on fire in a public space and, after trimming her nails and hair and throwing the bits into the flames, she leapt into the center of the star and lay on her back. As Blaine might have advised had he been there, the raging fire depleted the oxygen she had to breathe and left her unconscious. At first, spectators assumed her lack of response to the heat was part of the show, but others guessed correctly that she was dying before their eyes. The point of the piece had been to distance herself, if only symbolically, and other young adults who had grown up under Communist rule, from a society that was collapsing under the yoke of party politics and censorship. She learned, as well, possibly for the first time, that art can be dangerous. As a cultural provocateur, Abramovic has since drawn attention to herself through self-mutilation and bouncing into inert objects; appearing naked in public spaces and galleries; and hiking 2,500 km to the middle of the Great Wall of China, where she met up with her longtime lover, who started at the opposite end of the wall, and simply said “Goodbye” before parting for good.
The title of this intriguing HBO documentary refers to Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective show at New York’s MOMA, where younger artists re-created several of her more famous works and she performed her grueling “The Artist is Present.” It is a 736-hour static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium – sometimes at a table, sometimes not — while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her and communicate in other ways than talking or gesticulating. People queued up for hours outside the museum for the right to participate in the event. Many are visibly moved by the experience of mind-melding with Abramovic. One thing we learn inadvertently here is that Abramovic’s fans can be every bit as nerdy and unhinged as those who flock to Blaine’s outdoor extravaganzas. The museum crowd tends to outfit itself in more expensive eyeglasses, non-clingy clothes and practical shoes than those worn by magic enthusiasts.
When we first meet Kati Genthner in the intimate cinéma vérité documentary “Kati With an I,” she is preparing for her graduation from high school in a smallish Alabama town. More than simply passing the milestone and looking ahead at more interesting things to come, Kati has come to the point in her life where she has to decide if catering to the needs of a largely unmotivated 21-year-old boyfriend, James – he promises marriage, but not for five years – will provide a richer experience than pursuing a career or degree. James refuses to accommodate Kati’s plans by agreeing to move to a college town and she doesn’t want to spend a single day without him. Kati seems bright enough to see the bumps in the road ahead, but in every other way possible she’s a perfectly normal kid with normal ambitions and parents who make do as well as they can in a struggling economy. Considering the limited number of options available to teenage girls in Smalltown, America – most involving minimum-wage jobs — you could probably guess how the story of Kati and James plays out. The film was shot by her step-brother, Robert Greene, who probably intended simply to make a graduation gift for his sister. As the “fly on the wall” here, he couldn’t miss the larger drama playing out in front of him. Some people in Hollywood dismiss the possibility of making compelling entertainment about average folks, but Greene does just that in “Kati With an I.” There are brief follow-ups included on the DVD. – Gary Dretzka
Touch: The Complete First Season
The Firm: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Alcatraz: The Complete Series
BBC: The Ice House
Drinking Made Easy: Season 2
Military: Nazi Collaborators
The programming geniuses at the nation’s half-dozen broadcast networks love to keep their audiences guessing. Constantly tinkering with their shows’ timeslots, release dates and casts, they seem to believe viewers are so starved for entertainment that we’ll find our favorites wherever and whenever they appear on their schedules. That attitude, as well as a belief that commercials are somehow entertaining, is the reason so many of us have purchased TiVo recording devices and are willing to pay an extra monthly fee for the rental of video recorders from our cable and satellite providers. Fox thought so much of its new Keith Sutherland series, “Touch,” that they introduced it during the heart of the NFL-playoff season. It wouldn’t be seen again until March 22. The abbreviated season came to a successful close at the end of May with a two-part episode. Lo and behold, a 13th episode would air on September 14. The show’s second season, originally scheduled for October 26, was pushed until January, 2013. In its place is yet another reality cooking show … just what this country needs. My guess is that a goodly number of the series’ fans will program their VCRs to capture it when it finally returns and make full use of the machine’s ability to skip through the ads. Sutherland stars as a single dad, Martin – his wife was killed in the attacks of 9/11 – of an 11-year-old son so emotionally damaged that he doesn’t speak to anyone. Jake’s a real handful and his unwillingness to stay put tests his journalist-turned-baggage-handler father’s last nerve. The boy’s behavior is due less to a mischievous streak than an innate ability find patterns in random numbers and digital noise, all of which anticipates potential disasters and evil doing in distant places. “Touch” is one of many TV series whose characters are gifted or cursed with ESP, supernatural powers or other magical touches. Two years after the final episode of “24,” Sutherland’s return was welcomed by his fans and Fox’s corporate sponsors.
NBC didn’t do its high-profile legal series, “The Firm,” any favors, either. Based on the same John Grisham novel that inspired the Memphis-based movie of the same title, “The Firm” picked up where the film’s story left off, with Tom Cruise’s Mitch disappearing into the federal witness-protection program. Mitch had brought down the mob-associated law firm of Bendini Lambert & Locke, but, after 10 years, he and his wife (Josh Lucas, Molly Parker) had grown weary of living an underground existence and were willing to risk exposure. “The Firm” debuted in a special two-hour episode on a Sunday night last January, before moving to its intended regular spot on Thursday nights, after four quirky sitcoms. It would be shifted to Saturdays and a completely different network, AXN, before being canceled. What looked like a no-brainer six months earlier finally was being treated as if it were poison ivy. The good news for fans of the show is that the complete season has been stitched back together and is being sent out in a Blu-ray package. The bad news, of course, is that there won’t be a second season.
The same sort of fate awaited Fox’s “Alcatraz,” a far-fetched time-travel drama based on the theory that 256 inmates and 46 guards disappeared from the island prison in 1963, only to show up in San Francisco nearly 50 years later. The government covered up the incident by closing the prison and telling reporters it was for the good of the convicts. A secret agency anticipates their return and sets out to round up the criminals before they can be caught by police for returning to old habits or attempting to find old acquaintances or hidden treasure. Among the stars were Sam Neill, Sarah Jones and Jorge Garcia. The 13 episodes that comprised the show’s one and only season have been collected on DVD. It adds the featurette, “Alcatraz: Island of Intrigue,” deleted scenes and a gag reel.
With the next big James Bond movie looming on the horizon, it’s as good a time as any to look back to the point in Daniel Craig’s career when he was about to make the transition from BBC mini-series to feature films. “The Ice House” debuted on “Masterpiece Theater” in 1998, when Pierce Brosnan was still serving on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It was adapted from Minette Walters first mystery novel, which is set at an elegant Hampshire country house, where a badly decomposed body is discovered in an outbuilding once used to store ice. All of the village gossips assume that the victim is the missing husband of one of the three women who live in the house and are presumed to be lesbians, witches or both. The investigation goes off in all sorts of different directions before coming together in the closing minutes of the two-part mini-series. Craig plays the recently separated police detective who’s drinking too much and jumping to conclusions about what happened 10 years earlier, when the husband disappeared. The more he gets to know the women, however, the more willing he is to keep an open mind. Craig’s many female fans will get a kick out of watching the ruggedly handsome detective getting shot down every time – in Part One, at least — he tries to make out with a suspect who isn’t at all reluctant to admit she’s a lesbian and unavailable. “The Ice House” may be too complicated for people not obsessed with mysteries to follow, but, as a curiosity, it will do until “Skyfall” opens on November 9. The DVD comes with a documentary that follows Walters through the process of writing “The Shape of Snakes.”
Who says drinking can’t be fun? Men and women belly up to the bar for all sorts of reasons, including getting blind drunk and fall off their stools. Typically, though, a cocktail serves more as an accessory than a featured attraction. Everyone is expected to have a favorite drink or brand of beer, which distinguishes them from other boozehounds as much as any fingerprint. Even casual imbibers know they’ve arrived when a bartender sets them up without having to ask what they want. Zane Lamprey, host of “Drinking Made Easy,” knows that most people won’t experiment with other tastes unless they’re on vacation and it’s impossible to resist the local concoctions. This willingness to deviate from form is what help popularize Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber. If most folks couldn’t afford more than one trip to the tropics in their lifetimes, Vic’s and Don’s mixologists brought the tropics to them. In a very real sense, that’s exactly what happens in “Drinking Made Easy.” Each week on HDNet (newly retitled, AXS-TV), Lamprey and sidekicks Steve McKenna and Wes Dubois visit a new city where boutique distillers and brewers have joined forces with professional bartenders to change the way we drink. The trend probably began with the emergence of brewpubs in cities of any size and the popularization of flavored martinis, thanks to the gals on “Sex and the City.” The show is lively, informative and quite entertaining. In addition to the willingness of the host and McKenna to get bombed on a weekly basis, the show contains drinking contests and recipes for the more complicated cocktails. In Season Two, the lads visited 25 different cities, from Maui to Key West and Vancouver to Cape Cod. The DVD package includes commentary, an hour-long comedy special, deleted scenes, extended interviews and “Steve’s Best Dumb Moments.”
Despite the incendiary title, the 13-part documentary series “Nazi Collaborators” sometimes raises more questions than it answers. In some of the cases detailed in the Military Channel presentation, the lines separating collaborators and the people chosen to represent those Hitler and Mussolini despised were thin and often blurred by deception. Some of the cases are cut-and-dried, while others ask us to consider what we would do under similar conditions. Produced in England, “Nazi Collaborators” contains much archival footage I hadn’t seen already. – Gary Dretzka
Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule
D.L. Hughley: Reset
Anyone old enough to remember Norman Lear’s faux small-town soap opera, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” and the subsequent emergence of do-it-yourself TV shows on local cable-access stations, really ought to check out “Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule.” As mandated by the FCC at the dawn of the mass-media age, cable-television companies were required – as part of their deals with local governments – to provide channels and facilities where ordinary people could create content and see it air in their neighborhoods. The shows were decidedly eclectic, ranging from live coverage of public hearings and high school musicals to crackpot talk shows and, in Manhattan, live sex. The creators weren’t required to run their material past the same standards-and-practices poobahs as network producers. John C. Reilly, looking suspiciously like Jack Nance in “Eraserhead,” plays the hilariously awkward, if self-centered host of “Check It Out!,” which airs at 4:30 a.m. on a local-access channel and is followed by “Mass for Shut-Ins” and the “Married News.” Reilly created the show with the comedy team of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, who also gave us “Funny or Die Presents …,” “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and “Atom TV.” The long-awaited DVD package includes all 12 shows from the show’s two-season run. In them, Brule and local “experts” discuss such topics as “Boats,” “Pleasure,” “Money,” “Space” and “Animals,” between Brule’s snarky asides and lamebrain opinions. Lovers of experimental comedy should relish the return of “Check It Out!”
As a key player in the cast of Spike Lee’s “Original Kings of Comedy” – alongside Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac — D.L. Hughley demonstrated his ability to bridge the gap between fans of Redd Foxx’s ribald jokes and the in-your-face humor of newcomers often backed by hip-hop deejays. The common denominator is adult-oriented material that directly addresses topical issues and, of course, sex. In Hughley’s latest HBO special, the targets include Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, President Obama, Arnold Schwarzenegger, bullies, marriage and family, all stamped “explicit.” Even so, while being extremely funny and observant, “D.L. Hughley: Reset” doesn’t push any boundaries already drawn by other extreme comics. – Gary Dretzka
PBS: Olmsted and America’s Urban Parks
Nova: Forensics on Trial
In the Declaration of Independence, our forefathers guarantee all Americans the unalienable right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Every school child has been required to memorize that much of the document, at least, even if most people couldn’t agree as to what it means to be happy. If any one American had a solid grasp on the concept, however, it would be Frederick Law Olmsted, the Johnny Appleseed of urban parks. Born in 1822, in Connecticut, Olmsted was exposed to the joys and beauty of wilderness at an early age and forever after felt more comfortable outdoors than inside a classroom or office building. After traveling through the South, Olmsted would find work in New York as a city planner. At the time, New York’s teeming masses and growing immigrant population were living mostly in squalor, while the wealthy were able to pick and choose the prime locations to live in luxury. If New Yorkers wanted to partake in the city’s few open spaces, they tended to gather in well-tended cemeteries. Along with Calvert Vaux, Olmsted created a plan to turn a vast section of undeveloped city-owned land into what will still knew today as Central Park. It wasn’t simply a matter of clearing out the squatters, picking up the garbage and planting some trees. Intricately designed, it would take an army of workers 16 years – with little time off to accommodate the Civil War – to complete the project and put to full use. Even if it would eventually be bordered by high-rise buildings, housing the city’s wealthiest residents, the park would remain open to all New Yorkers, regardless of their station in life. The PBS documentary, “Olmsted and America’s Urban Parks,” not only describes that process, but it also chronicles Olmsted’s role in designing parks and open-space systems in dozens of American cities. In doing so, he also resolved issues concerning flood control and sanitation. After watching this fine documentary, those of us who sometimes take our parks for granted will never look at them in the same way.
No matter on which side of the aisle one stood, the one inarguable thing that emerged from the O.J. Simpson murder trial was the necessity for a more consistent and scientifically demonstrable interpretation of blood, fingerprint and DNA evidence. Both sides were able to argue that blood and other key evidence supported their case, with the prosecution arguing the findings were irrefutable and the defense using police department bungling as a way to suggest that they were, in this instance, highly refutable. In the end, facts mattered less than personality and race, but the debate rages on. In the “Nova” investigation, “Forensics on Trial,” we’re also reminded of the case in which an Oregon man was linked to a terrorist attack in Spain by solid fingerprint evidence, but was cleared when a more likely suspect was found to have almost matching prints and a motive to commit mass murder. The film finds several of the chinks in the system, while also demonstrating how even more modern forensics technology—including 3D visualizations, laser imagery and MRIs – could do much of the work police detectives can’t. – Gary Dretzka
Essential Games of the Milwaukee Brewers
Carl Jackson: Through the Eyes of a Caddy
The baseball playoffs are in full gear, but fans of the Milwaukee Brewers – who came within two games of reaching the World Series in 2011 – don’t have a dog in either fight. They may consider picking up the DVD collection “Essential Games of the Milwaukee Brewers,” to relive past thrills and forget, for a moment, that the hated St. Louis Cardinals are still in the hunt. The Brewers have the rare distinction of having made the playoffs, if not the MLB championship as the representative of both the American and National leagues, having traded affiliations in 1998. It would be difficult for anyone to pick just four great games to represent an entire franchise, but, considering that the team is only 42 years old and a loser for most of that time, the task wasn’t as hard as it could have been. This DVD time-capsule includes the Brewers 1982 American League pennant clincher; the fourth game of the subsequent 1982 World Series, against the Cardinals; the 2008 wild-card playoff game, against the Chicago Cubs; and Game 5 of the 2011 divisional playoffs versus Arizona. Although it could be argued that these aren’t the best games played by the team, they, indeed, were “essential” victories. In addition to the games, the bonus package includes pieces on Robin Yount, “Harvey’s Wallbangers,” Juan Nieves’ no-hitter, Ben Sheets’ 18-strikeout game, Richie Sexton and Jeremy Burnitz’ six-homer game, a post-clincher celebration, a pair of “This Week in Baseball” episodes and Ryan Braun’s three home-run feat. And, yes, I am a thick-or-thin fan of the Brewers.
As interesting and challenging as golf can be, it would be difficult to find broadcasting teams more square than those who cover the major tournaments. An interesting commentator occasionally slips through the cracks, but they can easily be silenced when a sponsor complains about perceived irreverence shown to their hallowed game. Of all the golf professionals I’d like to hear share their opinions on a tournament, it wouldn’t be yet another clever Irish bloke or former champion. It would be a veteran caddy, who’s seen it all and conversed with more players than Jim Nance will in his lifetime. Just such a man is Carl Jackson, the subject of Cathy Irby Durant’s not very well made instructional video, “Carl Jackson: Through the Eyes of a Caddy.” Jackson certainly possesses all the credentials necessary to comment on the game and help amateurs with their swing. In addition to his 50 years of caddying at Augusta National Golf Club – home of the most pretentious and challenging of all tournaments, the Masters — Jackson has enjoyed a 36-year collaboration with Ben Crenshaw. Caddies don’t simply carry the bag and course layout card for the pro, they often reveal secrets and strategy when things get rough. – Gary Dretzka
The Heart of Christmas
PBS Kids: Arthur’s Perfect Christmas
Not to rush the Christmas season, but I can’t afford to fall behind in my reviews of holiday-related DVDs. The trickle soon will become a flood, after all. While most wouldn’t pass muster at any other time of the year, they all tend to feature recognizable, if not A-list stars and carry the kind of positive message some observers say is missing in Hollywood’s cold, cold heart. Dove-approved “The Heart of Christmas” debuted last year on cable’s Gospel Music Channel and some of the proceeds from its DVD release, we’re told, will go to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In it, Austin and Julie Locke (Eric Jay Beck, Jeanne Neilson) are devastated by news that their young son, Dax, has been diagnosed with cancer. To bring solace and comfort to the boy, they decide to give Dax a one last Christmas, two months early. When neighbors see the holiday decoration and learn the truth, they rally the community to show their support for Dax, as well. The DVD adds a music video of the Matthew West’s Emmy-nominated song, “The Heart of Christmas.”
Because the residents of Elwood City are committed to making this year’s holiday celebrations the best of all possible Christmases, Hanukkahs, Kwanzaas and “Baxter Days,” despite all the obstacles put in their way, it’s possible to see “Arthur’s Perfect Christmas” as a “Candide” for kids. OK, maybe not. Based on the children’s books by Marc Brown, “Arthur” has been a staple of PBS Kids programming for the last 16 years. The title character, Arthur Read, is an 8-year-old anthropomorphic aardvark through whom viewers are introduced to each show’s theme. Animated characters typically are shown working out the same issues as the live-action schoolchildren in film footage interspersed in the story. “Arthur’s Perfect Christmas” was first shown in 2000 and has since become an evergreen event. – Gary Dretzka